Friday, November 26, 2010


In Potosi, they're repaving a road near the central plaza, because earlier on today they had a street parade and, in Potosi, a street parade isn't a street parade without a few sticks of dynamite to blow the road to bits. Dynamite is popular here. You can walk into a shop and pick yourself up a stick of the stuff for a shade under three Australian dollars, plus a handful of detonators, and, for that extra bit of bang, a plastic bag full of what looks like calico pie, but is in fact ammonium nitrate. No permits or any of that silly stuff. And this is in fact what we do before our tour of Potosi's infamous mines. We buy three sticks of dynamite as presents for the miners, plus one which our guide promises to blow up for us in the mine just for fun. We'll also be taking in a few bottle of the miners' preferred beverage: 96% over-proof alcohol. And of course coca. Always coca. The miners need it because they don't eat lunch, so they chew coca leaves to ward of hunger and maintain their energy.

The guy in the explosives shop is a cowboy. He's already getting stuck into the rocket fuel. His teeth are black from coca, his eyes have a mischievous look. He demonstrates the non-flammability of dynamite by lighting a stick like a cuban cigar. Perhaps one made for Fidel by the CIA. You know it's OK, but still you shuffle on the spot a bit as the wrapper goes up in flames and the green plasticine underneath blackens. Now these, on the other hand, he tells us, picking up a harmless looking metal stick from a box of similar items. Throw this on the ground and you lose your legs and your penis. Suddenly that box is looking very close to the edge of the table. Nitroglycerine, you see. He grins, showing those blackened stumps. Now the tourist bit: getting your photograph taken with a bunch of dynamite sticks jammed in your mining belt. I refuse. Gauche.

Then it's off to the mines. The amazing thing is that the Cerro Rico still stays up. It's so riddled with holes by all rights it should collapse on itself like an amateur's souffle. But they're still burrowing, chipping, nibbling away inside it, extrapolating a crazy network of tunnels and shafts deeper and deeper into the mountain's bowels in search of that increasingly elusive vein of pure ore. The Spaniards managed to work to death somewhere in the vicinity of eight million indigenous slaves here. And the death toll continues, though today it's mainly the accumulated effects of toxic inhalations and accidents that acount for the deaths in the mining co-operatives that dig tin, silver, lead and zinc out of that perilous warren. Murder too, if the cowboy is to be believed. If you let on to the wrong person about a big find, you might just 'slip' down a hole one day.

At the entrance to the mine, bowed over to avoid the low beams and compressed air ducting, daylight shrinking behind me, I have just a moment of claustrophobia, a Gimli-enters-the-Paths-of-the-Dead moment in which I want to shout, stop! I can't do it. But it passes quickly and doesn't return. I ask the guide about the white and yellow mineral encrustations on the walls. Arsenic, he tells me. It's not this stuff that's a problem, he says, pointing to the crystalline formations, but this: he crumbles white arsenic dust from the wall with his fingers. It's breathing that stuff in every day that does for you in the end.

The first stop is the clay idol, or tio, to which the miners make offerings of alcohol, coca and llama's blood and pray for purer minerals, safety and fertility. To the indigenous miners of Spanish colonial times, the idol was the consort of Pachamama, Mother Earth. To Christian miners it was the devil - not that they didn't pray to it too. And it still combines these dual identities. The idol is bedecked with coca leaves, its crude clay phallus soggy and crumbling at the end from over-enthusiastic libations. The walls are black with llama blood. The devil in the mountain is hungry for blood - if it doesn't receive llama's, it will take men's.

We push on deeper into the winding, increasingly airless tunnels and come at last to a shaft. It's just a gaping dusty hole dropping an unknown distance into the dark. The tunnels are divided into levels separated by shafts like these. The miners work up to twelve levels down, but we are only going down two today. At first glance it looks unthinkably terrifying. There's a rope that leads over the brink and at first we think we're expected to abseil down without safety equipment. It's not quite that bad. Not far over the edge, a rickety wooden ladder begins. It's scary as hell, but you can hold onto the rope and, dangling over the void, find the top rung of the ladder with your feet. Grab the wrong place with your hand, and the earth crumbles and falls into the dark below. But once you're properly on the ladder, it's not so bad. It's too dark to see anything but the rung in front of you, so you go one step at a time and don't think about falling.

Some parts of the tunnels are so narrow we have to crawl through. I've lost my sense of direction entirely, I'm just plunging on following the light of the guide's helmet, panting and dizzy from the exertion and the altitude. We meet a miner, offer him gifts in exchange for a photo and a few minutes of his time. He cuts an archetypal figure somehow, standing there in that sweltering dead-end of rock, chiselling a vein of white tin. We find out he is forty-five, but he seems ageless, as if he were part of the mountain itself. All miners, every miner manifest in the one sweating, powerful figure. The bag of ore near his feet slowly grows heavier. He asks us for a 'hangover', so we offer him one of the bottles of alcohol we've brought. Long after we've left, I think of how he's still there, how he'll be there tomorrow, how he'll always be there, chipping out the metal that makes our machines, our tin cans, our playthings, one rock at a time.

Deep in the mine, as I'm panting at the bottom of another dodgy wooden ladder, another dangerous shaft close by my right hand side, waiting for one of my two companions to follow me down, I have a genuine sense of adventure and even some pride. I faced fears here. But when the guide lights the fuse on a half stick of dynamite and we stand in the complete darkness of a nearby cul-de-sac, waiting for the blast, I get that uncomfortable feeling that follows me throughout my travels: the awareness of the falsity of this, its built-for-tourists sensationalism. Even here, in the real mines of real Bolivia, in a (small) degree of real danger, I'm still inescapably a tourist, a gringo, a voyeur. It's an awareness that always leaves me slightly queasy and ill-at-ease. But don't talk about it to other tourists. Nobody wants the spell broken. Everybody wants to see the picture, not the carefully constructed frame.

After the blast, I'm clambering back up to the main tunnel when my light goes out. Unable to see, I can't climb any further. The last light from the others disappears around a corner and I'm alone in the dark. Wait guys, I call out, but nobody replies. There is not a photon of light, not a sound. Just for a moment the frame shatters and I really am lost and alone deep in the earth, buried alive. It is terrifying, but I realise later I'm grateful for this real moment. I was a tourist before, a tourist after - there is no escaping it - but I'm glad to have felt something down there that was not tainted by the suspicion of voyeurism and inauthenticity.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Cerro Rico

There’s something not quite right with the taxi driver. We are on the road from Sucre to Potosi, the silver mining town that clings to the slopes of the Cerro Rico, the Rich Mountain. Thousands of Bolivians have died in its poisonous, treacherous tunnels digging out the precious white metal. Thousands still do. For their sacrifice, the mountain appears on the Bolivian coat of arms, a lonely Smaug’s mountain in the centre of the one boliviano coin. Life is cheap here, and it seems the taxi driver who is taking me and three Bolivians to Potosi treats it as such. He is driving erratically on the tortuous mountain road, as much on the wrong side of the road as the right, but the Bolivians are stolidly silent and so I sit tight in my belt-less seat and watch carefully.

He’s in the wrong lane and there’s a car coming right at us. He doesn’t seem to notice. We drift towards the car, which doesn’t slow down but holds a steady collision course. I want to yell out ‘car!’ but the paralysis of cultural uncertainty, the ridiculous desire to not make a fuss, paralyses me. Plus, the only word I can think of is German. Spanish has abandoned me. At the last moment, before the driver suddenly wakes up and swerves back to the other side, I’m giving myself about 25% odds of death. Not a head thing, but that’s the calculation my instinct is making, summing together everything I know and everything I don’t. Or am I crazy? No, something is definitely wrong. I look at the driver’s eyes in the rear-view mirror. They are red, slitted. He rubs them, yawns, waves his arm outside the car to wake himself up, changes the radio repeatedly, leans forward for a bit, leans back again. He’s a surly, unpleasant man, the eyes that catch mine in the mirror are cold and veiled. He has the broken-nosed profile of a boxer, of a man to whom bad things happen.

A car overtakes us. This is not good. The driver’s manhood is challenged. All of a sudden he is driving like a bat out of hell. If you want a picture of this road, think the Great Ocean Road, minus the ocean. Just barren badland mountains, starkly beautiful and utterly uncompromising. The landscape for a war, for oppression and suffering unremarked. No country for old men, you might say. And there are few old men. The mines kill them within ten years.

Back in Sucre I talked to a beggar who came from a village in these punishing hills. I told him Bolivia was beautiful. No creo, he said. I don’t think so. His father died in the mines, and he himself had an accident. He shows me his hands, the raw, infected stumps of fingers. There is no free hospital he tells me, or at least no free medication. He can have the operation he needs, but he has to pay for the anaesthetic and the antibiotics himself. Forty bolivianos that he doesn’t have. You can see where this is going. Others are watching the exchange and I know they are thinking: Don’t do it. Don’t fall for it.

Where are you staying? he asks me, and I make the mistake of telling him: La Posada. It’s my one splurge so far on the accommodation front, an elegant, classy place with soft sheets and terracotta tiled roofs, a beautiful hacienda-style courtyard. How much are you paying? Of course. The contrast, you see. And the truth is, it would pay for his medication five times over. The guilt trip. And yet, the reality. All those complicated, unresolved emotions associated with these situations. The guilt of privilege, the unsureness of oneself, of what is truth and what is spiel. But does it matter? The hands are no trick, the poverty is not feigned.

I watch the driver’s eyes, taking it on myself now to be the one to shake him awake if his lids lose their fight with sleep for that fatal moment. Right now, I hate this bastard. I have a son, you reckless prick, I think. Don’t make him wait for my call in vain. No, I’m being a chicken, a wimp, a soft westerner, right? This is normal. Has to be. He tears around the bends trying to catch the car that so rudely overtook him, but this is a deadbeat rust-bucket from circa 1985. Its guts don’t match his testosterone. Then I see he’s using the fucking handbrake to try to slow down. I hear its useless ratcheting as he wrenches it up.

I’ve had it now. Por favor, no tan rapido! I burst out. Please, not so fast. He nods curtly. Tiene sueno, es muy peligroso. You’re sleepy. It’s very dangerous. The taxi fills with tension, but I feel the gratitude of the others. Funny how you know just from the quality of the air.

We’re coming down a hill and there’s a truck in front of us. We are coming at it too fast, but he doesn’t change course, doesn’t slow. Suddenly it’s on us. The Bolivians’ stoicism cracks. Hands fly up, people cry out, and in the last possible moment, he swerves, the truck’s filthy tailgate slides past my door. I see his sly smirk in the mirror. A savage joke, punishment for my humiliating him. I look at the others beside me. The cultural differences are dissolved now. The driver is a lunatic. I am actually shaking with fear.

When we reach Potosi, his driving is no better, but I don’t care if we crash. At this speed I’ll be alright. And in fact we do. We actually do crash into the back of another car. No biggie. No-one even bothers to stop to inspect the damage.

It’s a strange town, bleak, bereft of green, and cold. Mountain winds flap the bright shawls of the old, bowed women by the roadsides. The air is thin, and the streets climb precipitously between close-flanked buildings which combine dilapidation and a certain beauty. There’s a deep resonance of time and suffering here, a grave dignity. I get out at the terminal, refuse to thank the driver, but bite my tongue on the words I want to say. I stand on the cold street beside one of my fellow passengers who smiles at me with real warmth.

That was crazy, right? I say to him in Spanish. That wasn’t normal.

No, he says, joy for his life in his eyes. I was praying to Saint Mary.

My next taxi driver, from the station to the hotel, laughs grimly at the story. Oh no, he says. Don’t take a taxi. Many accidents. Never take a taxi from Sucre.

The Cerro Rico, Smaug’s peak, scarred and shattered and eviscerated, looms in the light between the narrow lanes. The taxi driver holds up a coin to show me the mountain there too, imprinted in the silver. Lives minted in coin, in cheap Bolivianos. Forty of them, forty pieces of silver, to fix a man’s ruined hands.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

El condor pasa

In the courtyard of the hostel, an Italian is telling stories about his recent travels in Paraguay and Brazil. At the border of the two countries, he watched an unending stream of Brazilians pouring across into Paraguay. There was a border post there, but nobody seemed to be bothering to stop there. When he went to get his passport stamped, the officials were reading newspapers and seemed quite put out to have to actually lift their stamps. Outside, the Brazilian stampede continued. The basis of all this interest in Paraguay? It seems the Brazilians have just discovered credit cards. Their economy is booming, not just on the back of resources, but on a giant consumer credit binge. They are coming to Paraguay to buy cameras and laptops and mobile phones on the dirt cheap, uncontrolled Paraguayan market. The boom has driven local prices to crazy heights. Thirty real (fifteen euros) to catch a bus which in Argentina would cost a peso and a half. There's a madness about it. How can the poor, of which the country still possesses tens of millions, still afford to live there? And, as the Italian tells it, a certain easy-going joie de vivre has gone from the country. Now Rio and Sao Paulo resemble western cities, everyone working longer and longer hours to sustain their hunger for credit and the technological wonders it buys. Interestingly, when I took out cash in Paraguay, the ATM kept chanting phrases at me ending in 'en adelante': in advance. Seems the Paraguayans might be discovering credit cards too.

The Italian's English is excellent and he paints a vivid word picture of Paraguay that fits my own impressions. But whereas I found the place creepy, he was fascinated by it: its faded colonial buildings, its bizarre contradictions: a land-locked country with an (admittedly pitiful) navy, its homeless living under strips of plastic in the central plaza of Asuncion, with mobile phones hidden in their rags.

Also interesting is the story of the radiant beautiful American woman who works for a tiny tour agency near the hostel. She's a refugee from the madness of the American economy, which had seen her working as a paralegal for eight dollars an hour, with ten days leave a year. This is the norm now. Four weeks' leave is a 'perk' you can earn if you stay with a company long enough. Somehow she scraped together $3000 and now here she is. The Bolivian family she's staying with gives her board and food - admittedly it's bread for breakfast and dinner, only lunch is substantial - and she talks to the tourists in English. We go out for a beer and she's slightly embarrassed because her daily budget is one US dollar. Ice-cream and internet, she says. She has five hundred dollars left, and when it runs out, she has to leave. I shout her the beer, but she won't accept any food: she's adjusted to her Bolivian food schedule, doesn't get hungry any more. She tells me she tried chicken's feet, brains and eyes for the first time that day. The family just slaughtered a chicken and nothing goes to waste here. When in Bolivia, she says. But when I see her two days later she tells me she's been sick as a dog. She doesn't know what it was, but personally I think the eyes have it...

I link up with a German guy to do a two-day trek into Amboro National Park, to visit the 'cloud forest', with some of the world's oldest and largest ferns. It's a tough slog, up some Kokoda-like slopes at altitude, the guide hacking his way through places where the trail has grown over. The guide only speaks Spanish during the trek, so I'm at sea with his explanations a lot of the time, but fortunately my German companion understands a bit more, and can translate when my Spanish fails. At night we sit around the fire, and, since we're reduced to a primitive level of conversation, it turns into a naming game. I learn the Spanish for lots of basic things, like carrots, bears, shins and smoke. Funnily enough, the one language we can all speak at least a little bit of - English - is the one that hardly gets used.

In the night it pours. The tent is old and falling apart, and water seeps up into my sleeping bag. I stuff what clothes I can into my backpack to keep them dry, lie awake listening to the thunder and the rain thrumming on the fly. The next day we press on towards the summit of the mountain, in drizzle and fog, the ground now slipping and collapsing under our boots. I'm taught to chew coca leaves to ward off cold, hunger and fatigue. They are harmless and non-addictive, and don't give you a high, but I do notice the effect, a new lightness of step.

It's truly wild at the summit, no trees any more but a heath of lichens, algae, mosses and tiny wildflowers. We are standing in a sea of cloud that boils all around, blasts up the cliff face like ocean spray. The white abyss feels like the edge of the world. But then wind rends the cloud and another mountain looms in the tear, clambering jungle and rocky spurs and escarpments. Now I feel our vertiginous position. We watch the clouds broil and swirl and break, revealing and concealing the surrounding range, annihilating the forest then creating it again, a vast and fluid sleight of hand. Vultures and falcons reel about in the airy gulf.

Later in the day we stop for lunch at the edge of another cliff. The now intense sun has melted the clouds and the night's rain has rinsed the humidity from the air. We can see as far as the Andes. As we sit with our feet at the edge of the cliff, we receive our parting gift. From far left, a pair of silver wings rides the thermals that flow up the side of the mountain. Nearer and nearer it comes and then sweeps past: a rarely seen Amazonian condor, so close we can see its eyes, every feather in the black splay of its wingtips as it balances on the currents, lifting higher, higher, further away, at last cresting the ridge of the cordillera and plunging from view. It leaves a trace of chill beauty on the wind.

We sit a while eating in silence, watching the patchwork shadows move on the land. Then we heft our packs again. There's a lot of ground to cover to make Samaipata by evening.

Friday, November 19, 2010


And then... paradise! There was a point there, squashed up in the back of a people-mover in sweltering heat, carsick and dehydrated, where I was starting to forget the point of all this discomfort I was subjecting myself to. But as soon as I arrived here in Samaipata, a village in southeast Bolivia in the foothills of the Cordillera Oriental, I forgave South America everything. Dusty tiled streets with lounging dogs, women selling chilis and beaded necklaces, picturesesque hills in the background, a shady square and peace. My room is tiny and simple and delightful, a view over the terracotta rooftops to the hills, a tiny wooden desk that begs to be written at. Down some wooden steps to a pretty, shaded courtyard where a hammock swings, windchimes tinkle, some Andean music plays softly. And all this costs the princely sum of ten bucks a night, breakfast included. Oh, if I had six months and no obligations! I´d set up here, write my novel, learn Spanish... I could weep at the thought.

I loved Buenos Aires, and Iguazu was unforgettable, but now I´m here I know this is the experience I came for. My body´s aches and pains are miraculously eased, my heart breathes, and all of a sudden I can really play the guitar again. I can sit up on the landing outside my little sanctuary and the notes just flow off my fingers like they were born to fly. The only blemish on this Shangri-La? The squadrons of mozzies that rise out of nowhere in singing, whining clouds at six each night to devour the juicy and unprotected.

But it´s sunny and fairly cool at this height, and there are treks to be done: three day wades into the trackless jungle with a machete-wielding guide, or the Che Guevara trail - the famous revolutionary was killed not far from here. There are also pre-Incan archeological sites to explore. But not yet. First I have some industrial-strength chilling out to do...

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Saudade in Paraguay

One of my dreams about coming to South America was that I would play some of the guitar pieces I've been playing for years in the places they were composed. Especially Paraguay, where Agustin Barrios, one of my favourite guitarist-composers was born. A romance built on nothing much but some fantasy of otherness, a dream of exotic lands conjured by Barrios' lyrical music. The Parana River runs between Brazil, Paraguay and Argentina, and just a few kilometres from where it plunges so spectacularly over the abysses of Iguazu, there is a place where the corners of the three countries meet. At night its peaceful and pretty, the river moving slowly down towards the falls, the lights of small towns on the Brazilian and Paraguayan sides playing on the water. It was here I chose to indulge my romantic folly, bringing my guitar and sitting on a step near where the bank sloped down to the river, and playing music from all three countries: a tango for Argentina, a samba for Brazil, and Barrios' Choro da Saudade (choro of longing) for Paraguay. The heavens didn't open, Barrios' ghost didn't appear to guide my fingers or to stand nodding in the shadows of the rainforest in the feathers and indigenous garb he favoured when performing. But couples who'd come to hold hands and take in the balmy night listened quietly, a man offered me a sandwich and a drink. I doubt anyone saw the musical synchronicity of the performance.

The choro da saudade. So beautiful, and I suspect it's the piece Barrios would play himself if he saw Paraguay today. There's not much left of the jungles he called home. Today it's a land known for three things: environmental vandalism, corruption, and cheap electronic goods. And the world's second largest dam, the grave of waterfalls said to have been more marvellous than Iguazu. No industry to speak of, its ecotourism potential squandered, you cross the border from Argentina and straight away you're in the real third world. I'd forgotten. The streets filthy, littered with trash, dog shit, rubble. Mangy one-eyed cats. Women with grubby infants on their hips, kids selling cheap bananas or apples or chewing gum at the intersections, or cleaning windscreens in falling apart sneakers and rags.

I have to cross Paraguay to get to the capital Asuncion so that I can fly to Santa Cruz in Bolivia. I wonder, as I sit in the dilapidated bus terminal, how many people would recognise Barrios if I played him there. None, I suspect. When I saw the road from the border of Argentina to Asuncion on the map, I'd pictured rainforest, but as I gaze out the window in my haze of traveller's fatigue, it's a singularly prosaic landscape that the streetlights illuminate. This was rainforest once, but no more. It's clear-felled, hastily, shittily developed. Barrios, your choro would do the crying for you.

I'm hungry, had no time for dinner, and when a woman gets on the bus carrying on her head a load of what look like bagels wrapped in a big sheet, I haven't a single guarani to buy one. The smell is a torment. The bus was supposed to arrive at midnight but it doesn't get there till after one. I leave the bus terminal and the city is a ghost town. This is no Buenos Aires, which would be waking up right about now. My eyes are gritty with sleep, my back hurts from slinging that massive backpack too carelessly onto my shoulders, my knee aches from some other unidentified insult. Thank you, trusty old body, for putting up with this. I look at the neon signs of grotty, unappetising hotels across from the station. No. I'm still too fastidious for that. A taxi appears on the empty and I get in, ask for the Plaza Hotel mentioned in my Lonely Planet guide.

Asuncion at night. Spookily quiet. Streetlights and dust and broken pavements and locked up stalls, Spanish signs at drunken angles. I watch the driver's head. Decide how to handle getting out in order to avoid the possibility of him driving off with my worldly belongings. That cultural vulnerability again. On one corner, "ladies of the night", or are they ladies at all? They look muscular, tough, like soldiers in fishnets and leather miniskirts. Utterly impenetrable, not that you would ever, ever want to try. Brutal, sad, grotesque sexual parodies, the antithesis of eroticism.

The hotel is empty, hospital corridors in bare neon light, grimy stairs. A kind of Graham Greene dissolution about the place. Am I dreaming? It has the feeling of dreams with nobody in them. The bed is all springs and bumps, the pillow dirty. Mosquitoes whine and feed, sleep recedes from my advance like fog. I've crossed into the dead zone, when sleep buses no longer come to pick you up. Though in the end oblivion comes. Oh Paraguay.

Monday, November 15, 2010

The secret of the secret garden

Sketches, only sketches...

At the Argentinian-Brazilian border, an Australian woman is arguing with the bus driver. Apparently it's a matter of seven pesos for a ticket. The argument is heated enough that two khaki-clad border guards are getting on the bus. She thinks she's paid for the whole trip to Puerta Iguazu, and doesn't have to buy another ticket. The bus driver thinks otherwise. OK, fine, I'll pay, but I want your name, buddy. Where are your details? She snoops around looking for the non-existent name plate. He ignores her, takes my fare. I've been with this driver before, but suddenly the man is revealed beneath the uniform, the role. I like him; he has dignity and strength. The Aussie woman, having failed to establish the man's name, rank and serial number, goes for her backpack, says to her boyfriend, I'm taking his photo. He doesn't appear embarrassed by the hullaballoo, but stays uninvolved. The bus moves off and she sits down, red-faced, sweat running over her ample flesh. So. No photo after all? I watch her boyfriend lean back against the bus window, thumbs hooked in pants, sunnies and a three-day growth, chest pushed out, and two things are clear: what an absolutely first-rate dude he considers himself, and how deeply deluded he is in this conviction. As for me, I decide to be German.

According to the delightful John, who runs the Secret Garden B&B, a secret well and truly blown by an article in The Guardian, Umberto Eco said that Iguazu Falls was the one place in the world where he experienced a death wish. And this is funny - more funny for the rum cocktails we've all imbibed - because the English girl and I had been saying just the same thing: how we experienced an urge to jump. It might actually be worth it.

Awesome. How I hate that trampled and abused word. But here, it is justified. Picture a river twenty times larger than the Yarra plunging into an abyss. No, you can't. It's hopeless. The power of all that water lumbering over the lip of the chasm, the inestimable mass of it, passing with a deafening roar into a cloud of spume through which daring birds flick and and dart. It's not pretty like the photos. It's terrifying. But I experience no vertigo, even standing on the brink of the Devil's Throat. That's the strange part. It's not the perverted urge to jump of vertigo, which is nothing more than fear quantum-tunnelling to the Other Side. It's the Urge to Merge. It's holy terror, the longing for the divine, the desire for an end to separation from immensity. Umberto Eco's death wish.

John is serving the most sublime cocktails, and the German woman asks him, like she's asking the Great Guru, "So, vot is the secret of the Secret Garden? Vot makes it so special? Vy this vay, so different from every other vay?" She gestures to the tropical garden thriving in the darkness behind us, the flickering candles, the tables polished cross-sections of ancient trees. John is Indian, has that particular gentle charm unique to certain Indian men. He roomed at university with Sunil Gavaskar on whom he was supposed to be a sobering, academic influence, somehow ended up in a photographer in Buenos Aires and now, here he is, proprietor of the world's worst-kept travel secret. Now he gives a diffident smile and says that the answer is... rum. It so happens the the said beverage is doing its job. I turn laughing to the German woman and ask her what the German is for rum. "Well," she says in German, "I think it's Rum, but how can that be the secret??" I lean over and confide to her earnest Germanic face than this was, in fact, a joke. We're all a bit drunk, truth be told. Now John shows us that the candles are actually fakes. They're little flickering diodes in frosted glasses. "This is all a facade!" declares the American-Englishman. "It's fake candles and cheap rum!" God that seems funny at the time.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Almost with you, so far away

I’m on the bus from Cordoba to Iguazu, reflecting on what it means to be a stranger in a strange land. Its linguistic and cultural insecurities, its disturbance of assumptions, its loneliness. One lacks assurance, sure-footedness, like someone walking on ground that might at any moment give way beneath his feet. But there are gifts in this alienation from ‘normality’ too, beyond an increased empathy for our immigrants. It’s a chance to stand outside of one’s world, to see its artificial boundaries, its totality, like astronauts seeing the world from a distance for the first time, its wholeness and its lack of borders.

Earlier I was bugged by the woman in the seat behind me listening to music on her headphones so loudly you could hear every distorted word throughout the whole bus. So I plugged in my own headphones and squeezed the switch for some music of my own. What came on was The Church, circa 1983, “I’m Almost With You”. Those famously “jangly” guitars (that was always the word used to describe it) and Steve Kilbey’s drawled Australian voice, a voice that out here, crossing the vast farmlands of northern Argentina, seemed steeped in its culture and its time, spoke of smoky pubs and nightclubs at 2am, of the time when guys wore paisley and eyeliner, a time in which a curiously affected effeminacy was the mode. You can hear it in Kilbey’s style: a lazy Aussie cowboy drawl mixed with a precious intellectual inflection. Sitting here it seems the affectation of a culture and time unsure of itself, straining for something, without knowing what it was. But the pretension of it doesn’t matter from this distance. It’s just the shape of the thing now, as beyond judgement as any expression of pattern in nature. And the song is still good. Goddamn, it’s a good song and it always will be. That’s another thing made clear by enough distance. Always is.

As the song goes on, I’m looking out the window over a stretch of river that is a mix of the picturesque and the ugly. Beside the river there are horses, and a man gallops bareback away from the water, graceful and thrilling. Another man holds a fishing line, bare to the waist in a wooden canoe. But the bank is littered with rubbish, power lines are draped over the river between pylons. As I look at this scene, The Church’s incongruous tones in my ears, I’m struck by two simultaneous feelings. The song is home. It’s those days back in the eighties when I was turning from boy to man. It’s the layers of a thousand memories that that song plays in. It’s assurance. It’s identity. And at the same time I feel I’m looking from a great distance of time and space into that strange place that was Australia, Melbourne, my homeland, back then when I was still forming. Heimat, the Germans call it. It’s in my heart and at the same time it’s distant from me, fading, already lost. I watch the cirrus clouds painted on a sky darkening from turquoise to lapis, and I feel a painful happiness. A sad joy.

Algedonic. I'm a one-man champion of this word. Look it up, or use your ancient Greek.

That’s what it is to be a stranger in a strange land. It’s the sharpening by relief, and the erosion of who you are. Or am I just saying I’m homesick right now? Not really, not exactly. My mouth waters when I think of some of the things I cook at home, and, sure, I miss the important people. But more than that I just feel the hugeness of the world, I’m aware that even at home, buffered by the familiar, we are spinning through this vastness and ephemeral.

Oh damn! I promised to spare you such melancholy bus-spawned philosophizings. Should I tell you that paragliding over the badlands near Cordoba was an absolute blast?

OK, I’ve arrived. What a night. I had just been patting myself on the back for my uncharacteristic foresight and organisation when it comes to travel decisions, and then… the fall that pride precedes. I failed to pack a jumper into my overnight bag, on the assumption that this bus line would provide a blanket like the other one I travelled with. First rule for the stranger-in-a-strange-land: make no assumptions. I could see the impending problem as the temperature dropped steadily with nightfall, so when we stopped for dinner (at half past midnight! What is it with Argentinian dinner times? Do they still eat at midnight after they have kids?) I spoke to the driver: esta bastante frio… It’s quite cold. I’d meant to go on with the rest of my prepared statement about please getting something from my baggage, but the driver came back at me with the yippity, from which I picked up the word calefaccione. Now isn’t it good that I bothered to learn so much obscure English vocab? I knew it’d come in handy one day. Calefacient means “heat producing” in English. Aha! So the heater’s coming on! No need for the struggle to extract understanding and my backpack then…

Well, yes, I was right. Some kind of tepid air did briefly raise the temperature above freezing, then seemed to lose interest in continuing its insipid efforts. So there’s me in my linen shirt with nothing under it, curled in as much of a foetal ball as a bus seat will allow (I have to admit, they were comfy seats, but still…), trying to collect as much warmth as possible in the spaces I manage to enclose between body and seat. There’s about a teacup of the delicious stuff. A leaky teacup. If I’m on right side, my left side is horribly envious. I flip over when I’ve had enough of its complaints (more like a hermit crab reorienting in its shell), and then my right side starts up its moaning. Tormenting image of someone who gives a damn throwing a blanket over me… I swallow three sleeping tablets. Take that, cold!

Oh I’m miserable.

Oh I’m miserable.

Oh I’m miser… what are those funny trees? And why can’t I quite fly over the top of them?

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The Spanish verb and other hijos de putas

A cat sounds like its dying outside my window. Several cats, in fact, are being murdered horribly. Dinner was a local specialty: beans, bones and bits of fat in a gelatinous stew. Yuuuum. Then humiliated myself by not having enough money to pay (!) and had to temporarily surrender my iPhone (quelle horreur!) while I went searching for a cajero automatico. But Cordoba itself is pleasant: a university city that unbelievably is as big as Melbourne, population-wise. Everyone you look at is under twenty-five. But that’s a noticeable feature of Argentina anyway: people are just younger than in Australia. No ageing population problem here. Like BA, it’s a hub of creativity and culture: the so-called ‘cultural mile’ in the city centre is a strip of one art gallery, theatre, museum after another – well, nearly. But to tell the truth it’s a little lost on me right now. For some reason all the hostels are close to empty – everyone is commenting on it – and I sorely miss some English-speaking company. I’m the ancient mariner in a sea of Latinos: people, people everywhere and not a one to talk to…

Though the Spanish bug is in my system now. Bug, I said, not fly! Such assistance would be entirely superfluous, trust me, in this the land of the fierce-eyed beauty – and I haven’t even seen Rio yet! I had a conversation in Spanish with the receptionist this morning – talking of the fierce-eyed beauty – and she couldn’t believe I only started learning a month ago and never took a class. Hehe. I do enjoy being a smart arse sometimes. I kind of hate it though that I have the bug. In fact it’s the reason I didn’t learn any Spanish earlier. I know what I’m like. Once it takes hold it won’t let go. I’m condemned to countless hours, days, months of work. I’ll be translating every thought in my head into Spanish in the shower. Goddammit. Just when I kind of finished with German.

May I also say: fuck the Spanish verb. The Spanish verb is a bastardo that should be run through pronto with a conquistador’s rapier. German grammar is a torturous turd of a thing too, until you get used to it – worse than Spanish on the whole – but the verbs have nothing on Spanish verbs. That’s because German is rather impoverished in its expression of tense. Whereas the Spanish managed to squeeze in a whole new tense between the present and the imperfect, probably just to torture victims of the inquisition:

“Conjugation or the Algerian hook?”

“Tough one, but … I’ll take the hook...”

Enough though on Spanish and languages. Tomorrow paragliding. The next day trekking. That should keep you all spared of any melancholy reflections about strangers on buses.

Oh and one more thing: the Argentinian beer of choice, Quilmes, is vile poison. They were probably extracting it with a catheter from those cats I heard before.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Sketches of the journey, and beginner's mind

I'm hoping to capture something more on this trip than just some happy snaps and a few travelogue entries. That's by way of explanation for the rather drastically different tone of my last entry. Travel - especially travel alone - throws up so many unique moments where the strangeness of one's external circumstances intersects with a particular coloration of subjectivity, and I want to try to capture some of this, this inner journey. On my couch surfing profile (I'm couch surfing at least part of the time in Germany), I put down my 'mission' as 'chasing my tale'. I'm after stories to tell. Not traveller's war stories, though that's always nice, but stories that illuminate the inner world as much as the outer. Stories for the writer. In that sense I hope to make this blog a sort of sketch pad from which I can later work up more complete portraits. I'm not aiming for perfect, polished pieces. I could of course keep them to myself and work them up into something a little more professional and publish them properly. That would be less risky and less potentially exposing, but I rather like the idea of doing it this way, going out on a limb a bit. It's a fun creative challenge and part of the pleasure of blogging not to be too concerned with perfection.

I had a very enjoyable conversation in the main square of Cordoba with a guy from Peru who had come to study in Cordoba - a city with no less than seven universities. It turned out he spoke reasonably decent German as well as English and Spanish, and in the end we had a conversation that moved spontaneously between the three languages. My German is good enough that I can forget I'm speaking it, so half the time I was in a strangely pleasant meta-linguistic plane, the conversation bouncing like a skipping stone over the surface of language, in flight in those moments when the form was forgotten, touching down when we had to reflect on the underlying language. Of course I can't forget I'm speaking or listening to Spanish, but part of the enjoyment was our incompetencies and failures as much as our fluency, getting the stone skipping again with a bit of help when it splashed in the water, and learning something in the process.

At one point he clarified for me the correct form of 'to be' in the sentence 'I'm just a beginner'. Spanish has a verb for intrinsic being ('ser') and another for temporary or 'state' being ('estar'). I wasn't sure if my beginner status was intrinsic or temporary. It's intrinsic, at least in Spanish grammar: 'Solo soy (ser) un principiante'. It made me reflect on being a beginner, and on the value of it. As I've said before, I initially hated the feeling of incompetency which my rudimentary Spanish gave me in my first few days. I'd be in a shop trying to buy a SIM card - everything about the situation was familiar, in all visual respects almost identical to a situation I might encounter in Australia, but here I'm linguistically disabled, I'm reliant on the kindness and patience of multiple people to guide me here and there, to make gestures of explanation, to speak to me like I was a child or an idiot. I stumble about from one counter to another, making a fool of myself at every point of interaction.

Appalling. But appalling to whom? To the adult who is ensconced in his armour of competence and assurance and mastery, who wants to ride along safely inside the shell of his habits and perfected skills, like a man in a Mercedes on cruise control. But think of a child, whose life is learning, who is constantly confronted by a world which is beyond him or her. Children cannot afford to despise the experience of being a beginner, because it is their very intrinsic condition. Ser not estar.

Neither should we, as adults, because we too are intrinsic beginners. Will always be. It's just that we end up staying as much as possible within the sphere of our established competencies. We hate nothing more than looking a fool. But consider the gifts of embracing our beginner-ness, our beginning-ness. When we begin we are being born, and we all know what Bob Dylan said about those no longer busy being born. There's an immense liberation in being comfortable with being bad at stuff, with failing, falling on one's face, with screwing up, with being utterly crap. And yesterday's beginner is today's journeyman, tomorrow's master. The breadth of what we will be in the end all comes down to what we are prepared to be bad at today.

And finally, it's the precondition of creativity. Because as soon as you're a master of your art, as soon as you've 'got it down', you're finished. When nothing is being born any more, all that remains is the dying.


Somewhere between Buenos Aires and Cordoba I wake. Early morning fog hides the fields of Argentina. The girl next to me has turned to face me in her sleep and I hold my breath and watch her. The bones in her pale shoulder where the blanket has fallen from it.

I heard her earlier, half-whispering down her phone in Spanish with a smile in her voice. My foolish envy when I heard the deep voice speaking back. Her phone glowed in the dark of the bus. The phone her light to him, the light his voice. Happy, she folded it into her hand, shut the light with a click. She let her seat back. The bus rocked us in time.

And I thought:

Of the miles behind me
Of the child who misses me
Of the love you don’t get back
Of the greatness of the world,
Buenos Aires’ fourteen million lights
spread on the dark behind us
Of my childhood, deep and wide as a river, already half forgotten
Of her family, somewhere, waiting
Of our ignorance, the darkness so much vaster than the light of our intersection
Of us all
Of us all
Of us all.

I wake and her face is a foot from mine, young and beautiful, and I steal for just one moment into the room we call intimacy. I steal into the place of her quiet, sleeping breaths. A thief, tender and ashamed, lingering there in that carelessly open doorway. I stay just long enough to steal this from her, this beauty she will never know was taken. Then I quietly close her door. I roll over to the window and watch dawn fill the pane with light.

Monday, November 8, 2010

The Russian is trying to keep his eyes open because he paid good money for the show but has been sampling the nightlife rather heavily. The Israeli is knocking back wine by the gallon and trying to pick up the Brasilian. The Englishman is complaining that he ordered his steak well done but it's just about mooing still. I haven't done this before - the full tourist deal: tango show with 'free' tango lesson included, dinner, the works. It's all ultra-slick, the busload of tourist cattle herded from point to point with efficiency and charm by young, handsome, smiling Buenos Aireans in black fedoras. The tango lesson is a mixed experience. Whether the move I can only term the 'legover' at the end of the twenty-second routine we get taught is hot or just plain wrong depends on whether your partner is a lithe, black-eyed Brasilian or a sixty-five-year-old housewife from Kansas City with arthritis. My conclusions from the lesson and the show? Firstly, that the learning of tango presents a major testicular hazard. Secondly, that tango is hotter than swing (the style of dance I've been learning in Oz). Yes, even hotter than belboa.

The dancers descend with intent into the aisles. Uh-oh. I am, however, comfortable in the knowledge that, despite my astonishing record for being singled out for public humiliation at every show I attend, the Russian is between me and danger. The Russian was between me and danger. The dancer is coming our way and I never saw a sleepy Russian move so fast. In a flash he's on the other side of the table and the dancer is raising her spangly finger... Nooooooo!! Yep, there's no escaping it. I join the damned in the aisle. I do my brave best to hold my own with the professional tango dancer. Then suddenly - baddaboom baddabang! - the other victims are returned to their seats while I'm abducted by three black-clad Argentinians, 'disappeared', then returned with fedora on head to be swept back down the aisle in the arms of the hottest of the tango dancers. Lights. Applause. Then the sweet anonymity of my seat. What was all that about? The biggest question though is: Why me? Why always me?

Ah well, that was my little touristy indulgence. Not exactly my thing, but kinda fun nevertheless, and the tango was spectacular. I think the Israeli got the girl too.

So I'm leaving Buenos Aires tonight for Cordoba, and I wish I could linger. My impressions of this city have changed a lot from my first post. Yes, it's dirty and grandiose and noisy. But it's not nearly as third world as I first thought. There are some very salubrious districts, you can get pretty much anything (except, it seems, a SIM card that works properly in my iPhone 4), and the lifestyle is modern and with-it. It's seductive and exciting and bursting with artists and musicians. I love this place, and I can fully understand the westerners I've met who've decided to live here, or 'commute' between their life in Australia or wherever and their life here. If only I had six months and I was twenty-five and fancy-free again. I'd hit the Spanish lessons hard and... (sigh).

I spent the day in the Recoleta district yesterday, wandering the famous cemetery where Eva Perron, among other Argentinian luminaries, is buried. It's spooky and atmospheric and a piece of walk-in art. Photos don't show it of course, but here's one anyway:

On the Spanish front, I'm improving. I woke up the other morning and stuff had sunk in somehow. I could say things. I can now read about 80% of what I see. Perhaps 'read' is the wrong word. 'Decipher' maybe. I can make sentences that amazingly have the desired effect upon their recipients. Ooh look! I say magic words, he does things! I just can't understand anyone. I swear these Argentinians can't speak proper Spanish! The consonants sometimes change for mysterious reasons, and my ability to interpret the word as I learned it is tenuous enough. It's hopeless...

OK, time to go find some lunch.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Day two

I'm warming to this city. I sat today in the Plaza de Majo in the microcentro, the centre of town, and made a video postcard for my son Jude. There were marchers there - I was able to make out that they were protesting about and memorialising the killing of activist students by the previous government. I was shocked - and ashamed of my ignorance - that Argentina's history of repression was so recent. I could translate with a few guesses the headline of their leaflet: "When we asked for work they murdered us. When we demanded a life of dignity they imprisoned us."

The city looks much less third world here: impressive old European buildings, edifices on a grandiose scale, but decaying, graffiti-ridden, their pretensions to national slendour belied by the dirt and the squalor of the sprawling city all around. I wandered down the long avenue towards the city's famous obelisk, another vast monument to vaulting ambitions unrealised. Echoes of Albert Speer's Berlin, almost... Lots of shops for the wealthy here, ritzy opulence cheek-by-jowl with your typical third-world vendor: some guy in a three by three metre alcove flogging cheap soap, cigarettes, Pepsi.

I manage a conversation in part Spanish, part English with a hawker from Chile who is in Argetina studying architecture at university - so he tells me - but he looks like a near beggar. Education is free here, he explains. He's almost as new to Buenos Aires as me - it's his first week. He smiles wistfully about the differences between his little village and this mega-metropolis. The Spanish is different, he complains. Not "vos" for "you", but "tu". And the food. He looks sad. I take pity and buy one of his pendants, probably for way too much. I don't even haggle. That westerner-in-a-developing-country conflict:I'm a mug. No, it's the least I can do. I'm being generous. No, I'm a mug, but I don't care. Of course if any Argentinian heard me call it a developing country they'd probably flip. But this kid... it's India again. And the two beggars on the subway, a boy maybe ten chanting his cry for alms, a hoarse, cawing sound, and his sister or brother - hard to tell - probably three or four and filthy from head to foot. The boy holds her and talks to her because she's crying. I can make out the word word "baño". Bathroom. He's ten and he's the adult.

None of this is or should be shocking to me. But there's still the sadness. Maybe the difference from India is that I didn't have a child myself back then. It shocked me then because it was new and I was privileged and naive. It saddens me now because I look at that filthy, bare-footed kid and think, "that's Jude." Might as well be but for the accidents of fate.

May I say once again how it pains me to be so linguistically incompetent? I should perhaps add that I have some natural prowess with languages, and my Chilean friend was most impressed when I said I only started learning Spanish a month ago. (On the other hand, he asked me where I learned Spanish - "It's very funny". I laughed and said, "In Australia". I wasn't going into the iPhone thing again!) But quick learner or not, a month is a month. It's atrocious.

The daily minor humiliations kill me. Example:

Waiter comes to take my order. I want to say "I'm still deciding", but the grammatical complexities of that are beyond me in the moment. I can barely conjugate the two forms of "to be" on the spot. I come up with "I decide..." The waiter looks at me blankly, and finallyI get out the word "still". "Decido .... todavia." My expression (of pain? fear? insanity?) causes him to back away with raised palms as if I had produced a pistol instead of a dodgy Spanish utterance. "No problem, take your time," he says in perfect English. After he's gone I drag up some kind of grammatical insight. "Estoy decidiendo todavia". That would have worked quite well. The problem is when you put it all together properly, people talk actual Spanish to you, which is naturally hopeless.

Example two: I catch taxi, explain I want to go to "Estacion plaza Italia". He nods and off we go. Great. I relax. Then he starts up. Yippity blabbity blabbity blab. I trot out the usual line - my Spanish is very bad. I'm a beginner. He tries again. Yippity yoppity yappity yop. "Perdon, no entiendo". Sorry, I don't understand. No problemo: plaza Italia! Si, plaza Italia! (Phew). I get to said train station, hop out, run across to the subway entrance and ... it's locked up. Ah. So that's what yippity yappity blabbity blab means. Thank God he's left so I don't have to crawl back into the same taxi for the rest of the journey home. In the new taxi I make polite conversation about the size of Buenos Aires, the difficulties of learning Spanish etc. More yippity. Understand? he asks in English. "Si, entiendo" I say. I just can't bear to say no again, even though I in fact haven't a clue. I try to fool myself into believing I got away with it. I didn't.

The food tastes of Buenos Aires. I don't know how they do it. It looks just like an Australian vege lasagne, but it tastes like Buenos Aires. Not bad exactly. Just somehow Argentinian.

Slept like a flea-ridden dog last night. Body doesn't believe the relative position of earth and sun. Day of the zombie awaits...

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Hola, Buenos Aires

A city is like a lover - smell is everything. I remember on my first trip to India, when Mumbai was still Bombay, how I was struck by the city's pervasive perfume. A sweetish smell, like a spice, but freighted with complexity. A smell of rosewater and shit and betelnut and grimy human living. Even the fruit juice I drank tasted of it, as if it were some kind of obligatory local condiment. It scared me, as a twenty-one year old venturing for the first time into the third world, because of its complete alien-ness, its suggestion of layers upon layers of ingrained life. Coming from my sanitised Australian suburb, the floral-fecal smell of Bombay challenged my white, middle-class squeamishness, my unconscious rejection of the physicality of existence.

Buenos Aires has a particular smell too. A very different one from Bombay circa 1989, but a particular aroma that, once you register it consciously, makes you think, what is that? It also makes you wonder, as a lover's smell can, are you and I going to get along? Or are we too chemically different, will we react to one another like incompatible transplants? Because smell is a city's chemistry, and I'm convinced it works on and with our chemistry too, that there's a reaction. Perhaps that reaction somehow becomes the fate we experience in that city - whether it breaks or steals our heart, makes us king or robs us blind...

I am holed up now in a guest house somewhat further from the city centre than the internet ad promised, and I have actually lost track of how long I haven't slept for. I think it's about 28-odd hours now, so if my prose is lacking, I trust you'll cut me some slack. In fact, I'm just now starting to become delirious, and my eyelids keep spontaneously closing, so I'll keep it short. ish.

First impressions of BA: it looks like a third world city, it smells like a third world city, it functions like a third world city, but it costs like a first world city. Strange. What's more everyone speaks in Spanish all the time. Curiouser and curiouser. Now I never flattered myself that my Spanish was anything but dreadful, but, well it's even dreadfuller than that. I did have something resembling a Spanish conversation with the taxi driver who ripped me off from the airport. A conversation in which it took me about thirty seconds to remember the word for 'twelve'. Absurd. I had to actually count up to it in my head to get it. In fact -I'll admit it - I never did get it. I remembered the word for 'fourteen' and used that instead because it was close enough for the purpose (how many hours was the flight?). It was pure stage fright of course - my first actual conversation in actual Spanish in actual Argentina.

I was relieved that the receptionist at the guesthouse spoke English very well. He asked if I spoke any Spanish and I replied (in nice Espanol) that I was learning, but had only been doing so for a month. Any class in particular, he asked. I continued to explain in Spanish that I'd learnt it from an iPhone app. That seemed to amuse him for some reason. Later he wrote the word 'hoy' on a map and then, after explaining it meant 'today', said, with just a touch of irony, 'But you probably know that from your iPhone program.'

I said, 'It's a good program.'

And he said, 'Sure. You made a whole, properly formed Spanish sentence before and everything.'

Could it be there are limits to the iPhone's power?? My world, my world is crumbling!

Moving right along... I wandered down to San Telmo, the old, cobble-paved district where they sell lots of pricey antiques. After browsing for a while I thought I'd buy a certain young someone a present of a big old Argentinian coin, only it turned out to cost 750 pesos (divide by three-ish). But they do have the most fabulous old junk, including swords and daggers that were obviously real antique weapons, still sharp. Try buying one of those in the nanny state! (OK, I believe in our weapons laws, but still... there's something so charming and liberating about unregulated countries.)

Another thing I failed to fully appreciate about Buenos Aires ... it's eff'n big. Fourteen million people according to the taxi driver (unless my Spanish betrayed me again). It's eff'n big and it's eff'n noisy and Buenos Aires? Good airs? No. No, these are not good airs at all. Time to follow in Mumbai's footsteps and get a new name. Malos Olors, I suggest. Catchy.