Friday, 23 January 2015

Desaguadero: The Question. 15 January

Desaguadero: with one known exception, most will not have encountered the town. Yet the general images will be familiar to any aficionado of travel television. The White gringo wading his way through a sea of locals, scanning his immediate horizon, searching for the immigration office. Dodging around the ancient, bent-double grandmother, crushed down by her trading sack and miniature stool. Being buffeted by an engorged poly-prop sack that dwarfs the pedalled cargo trike. Finding a grime-encrusted window of a paint-peeling shack that lead on to the 'migrations ' office, there to be unceremoniously stamped out of the country.

That him, was us two years ago. I was so enthralled by the sheer exuberance of the place, that we were keen to visit it again, to find a place to stay, to wander and explore, only this time unencumbered by the tethers of cycles.

Only to find that situation, we need to actually cycle into town. It begins easily. Slalom around the loaded lorries standing outside yet another closed petrol station. One hundred kilo bags of onions are being manhandled, four sacks to a cargo-trike, then propelled furiously through the thickening throngs, over the muddy ditch that is the border, and then loaded back onto another truck. Avoiding the tangle of steel bars that cascade from another lorry. Bouncing around a compacted gravel heap that is moated by a puddle of greasy diesel water, the island topped by a castle of Jerrycans all filled with fuel. We tuck in behind a loaded trike, the cyclist lost behind a cargo of salted crisps and we use him as if he were a snowplough, only to be overtaken by an impatient pedalled taxi trike hauling a family from the collectivo rank into the maelstrom that is the centre of town.

We need to find a room. There's a sea of names hanging out from four storied walls, there's no shortages of possibilities. One would be perfect, offering grandstand balcony views on the mayhem across the road. The massed humanity surging forwards and backwards up a short street. Somewhere within that short distance is the official international border between Peru and Bolivia. It's barrierless. Only between us and a bed, is a human barrier of traders, their wares spewing out from shopfronts. This is the point that a loaded cyclist is at their most vulnerable. It's that old conundrum, "crossing the river with a fox, a chook and a bag of grain", how do you negotiate a room when reception is up on the first floor?

I spot a possibility, it's only two stories high, a significant consideration, as hauling a cycle up four floors at this altitude is heart busting. Cycling an Andean paso is relatively easy, yet three flights of stairs is a killer. The Forager sets off in pursuit and finds an old colonial building with a central atrium populated by man-high geraniums and a vast aura of tranquility. Now we have somewhere safe to unload and transport our cargo to a room that has a front row seat in the 'upper circle'. Climb the unprotected steps to the flat roof, and I'm up in the 'gods', in a roofscape of traditional Peruvian incompletion. Amongst a forest of protruding re-bar and tangled wire and a mouldering stack of clay bricks and solidified cement bags.

Now I have my stage, I can watch the unfolding life of a frontier town, the small vignettes that compose its working day. To observe the gender segregations. Women trade the fruit stalls, men work the treadle sewing machines. Women teller the cambios, the money changing booths, men drive the collectivos. Women sell from the pharmacies whilst men do the dried herbal remedies. The only place where there is an integration is within the police force. Even here there appears to be a requirement for 'height', 'good looks' and the ability to skilfully apply make-up.

The smells of the street drift up in the casual breeze. The dried grass of newly spliced ropes, the exotica of powdered chilies, the acridity of diesel fumes. A complement to the vibrancy of colours. The towered stacks of plastic stools, the rainbows of sweeping brushes, the bundled bales of broom staves. The swaying Cholita with her carrying shawl, her toddler who requires attention, holds her over the gutter to squat a pee. The noise of a soft whistling taxi-trike trying to push past, to add to the congested street, the raucous horn of a moto-trike trying to pass the yellow digger that has put down legs and wants to investigate a wet hole. Washing through this air, are the general low mumbles of vendor and buyer. Only this being Peru, there has to be the grumble of a cement mixer and the thonk of hammer on brick.

The automatic teller machines are a curse as they only dispense large denomination papers, when on the street the requirment is for small coinage. We're going to be heading back up onto the high ground, where 'cambio', small change, 'solitas' are vital. Go for the 'messages', a shopping that will entail at least five visits to stalls, all of whom will claim to have no change. We've been caught out before, the hostel owner who forgets to return with your change, who is mysteriously absent when you leave in the morning. Just another form of 'tourist tax', only one of draconian proportions. So with this scenario in mind, and armed with two 'big ones', we enter the rarified world of finance. A bank. We enter another existence. Stepping from the slurries of the street onto the polished terrazzo tiles, escorted past the waiting chairs to stand in a funereal silence. From the faces of the high Andes to the pink mascara of a Latina teller. This sanitised bubble serves as a contrasting, accentuating foil to the world outside. The separation, an open glass door and two armed guards.

Leaving town the next morning, we're in the same street but in a different place. Not a single piece of yesterday's trading evidence exists. It's an echoing canyon of dropped steel shutters and drawer doors, the detritus of trading tidied away. The black straps that constrained the bloated bags of China clothes, the shed polythene that bulked the bundles of plastic shoes. The skins of peeled tuna fruits, the scatter of unsellable grapes. Now I can see the way in to all those possible accommodations, see the narrow, near vertiginous stairs and be grateful for our luck/skill in ending where we did. Past an establishment that you never realised needed to exist, the: 'Palace of mannequin' - 100% Perueno, and a succession of shuttered gas stations. The former is obvious, as every clothes shop will have a collection of clones modelling a collection of wares, the latter is a conundrum. All those collectivos, those mototaxis that refuel from the ladies sitting in their moated forts, behind a defence of Jerry cans, where do they get their supplies?