Up at 4.45 to catch a flight from Santiago to La Paz. Driving to the airport I notice a shop called a Ferreteria. I’m intrigued: do they have shops dedicated solely to selling ferrets? Happily not. A quick check of the phrasebook reveals that this means hardware store. When I check in I discover that my four-hour flight goes via Iquique and Arica, Chilean towns on the northern coast.
Inexplicably, this prompts me to write a list of all the airports I’ve ever visited. The guy in High Fidelity had it right: blokes love lists – best this, favourite that, top 10 such and such. Normally they are lists of women, football teams or rock bands. But in this case saddo Duncan is writing out a list of airports. My calculations at this stage suggest that on this trip I will visit an airport about twenty times, ten of them being new to me, mainly because of the constant need to go through Santiago as the hub of everything.
A rough tot makes me think I’ve probably taken about 150 flights in my life, but it could be more. I’ve never had a problem with flying. Nor do I mind trains. Cars are okay but I’m not a great passenger. Coaches I could do without. But boats I can’t stand. I have an awesome track record of throwing up on any form of marine transport – ocean liner, ferry, hovercraft – you name it. I can just about cope with a rowing boat but that’s about it. So that’s put paid to sailing as a hobby then. Give me terra firma anyday. Or an aeroplane obviously.
At the gate I reckoned there were only about 20 people on this flight, but when I’m in my seat the plane is invaded by Japanese – hundreds of them. I remember being in Florida once when a party of 16 arrived which turned out to be a communal honeymoon. They spent the whole time trailing each other around with video cameras. I’ll never understand it.
Ah Bolivia. Home of coffee, cocoa, marching powder and, apparently, the much cherished llama foetus which you bury under your new house to bring you luck. Stimulants and afterbirth – a sensational combination I’m sure you’ll agree. We are flying north up Chile to get there. Out of the left hand window is the Pacific coastline. On the right, the constant presence of the Andes drenched in sunlight – a fantastic pairing. Pacifico means peaceful and andar is to walk so neither are particularly well named since the ocean is a cruel mistress and the mountains look impenetrable to me.
At this point I am reminded of one of my favourite jokes – I’ve no idea why. It was told to me by an Italian in French when I was in Portugal, so it may have lost a bit in translation, but here goes. Three monks are sitting in the middle of the desert in the Buddha position having taken a lifelong vow of silence. After seven years, a small cloud of dust appears on the horizon. The first monk turns to the second, points to the horizon and says, “What’s that?” Seven years later the second monk replies “I think it’s a horse.” Seven years after that the third one says “It’s too bloody noisy here – I’m off.”
I love it. The passage of time totally disregarded out of dedication to a cause. Man wrestling with his conscience and coping with the presence of other people. As my father used to say “That’s the trouble with the world – other people.” And quite what happened to the horse, or whether it was one in the first place, we’ll never know.
Time then for another list.
Most Hated Things
§ Mosquitoes and flies
§ People who say “They say…”
Anything to do with parking drives me mad. I’m not very good at manoeuvring a car into a tight spot, which makes it sound stupid that I own a 1966 Ford Mustang with no power steering. Getting from A to B can be a necessity or a pleasure. Arriving or leaving can also be great fun. But parking is only ever a bore, particularly in London.
Mosquitoes and flies really piss me off. If there is a god, he was having a right old laugh when he dreamt these up. They serve no useful purpose whatsoever. Their raison d’etre, it seems to me, is to persecute any other living being on the planet, particularly humans. Frankly I wish they’d all disappear.
Which brings me to trainers. They’re for training. Doh! That’s their job so as a sports shoe I’m a fan. But as a fashion item forget it. They now come in every colour imaginable with rubber bits hanging off them. People pay a fortune for them. Then after a while they simply smell. No, put them in room 101, that’s what I say.
“They say it’s going to be sunny at the weekend.” This really gets my goat. Who exactly are they? Where do they come from? And what the fuck do they know about anything? I’d like to meet them, I really would. They say an awful lot of crap, including “You should take your coat off indoors or else you won’t feel the benefit when you go out” (You’ll be colder will you?), and “It’s going to be the hottest summer since records began” (didn’t they keep note before vinyl then?)
Iquique airport turns out to be little more than a short section of the M25 nailed onto a medium sized beach. In the space of a thousand-mile flight we have migrated from lush mountainous temperate terrain to pure desert – red rock, dust and blistering sun. Better get the sunnies and the lotion ready then. Meanwhile I’ve been reading up about Bolivia. Apparently it was named after Simon Bolivar, which tempts me to say that Chile was named after Dave Chile, but it wasn’t. In fact I resolve to find out why it is so named. My dictionary says that chillar is to shout, chicle is chewing gum, and chino is Chinese, none of which helps me in the slightest although I have a brief moment of fun thinking what it might be like to live in a country named after a sweet.
“Hi, this is Brad from Canada and my colleague Brian from Chewing Gum.”
I also wonder what the yuppies in the eighties would have thought if they’d known they were wearing a pair of Chinese.
It transpires that Bolivia used to have a Pacific coastline until a war in 1883 when Chile nicked it off them. So the bit I’m flying up used to be theirs. Man has always liked a good old scrap over land. The British, Spanish, French and Portuguese cornered the market in colonisation. Successive military leaders like Alexander the Great and the Romans tried to spread everywhere, and Hitler fancied a go too. Did they want the land? The resources? The power? Who knows. Religion was often a factor too, but don’t start me on that.*
If Iquique appeared modest, Arica airport has a landing strip that looks like a short line of pencil on a sandy wasteland. I’m also mildly anxious that there’s no sign of a town but I’m sure I’ll discover it on my way back. On take off I grab a window seat and am treated to a brilliant spectacle. In the space of five minutes yellow beach sand gives way to terra rosa with deep gullies and ravines, immediately followed by snowy mountains. It’s the Sahara and the Himalayas in one shot, all mixed in like giant ice creams poking out of creme caramel. I’ve never seen such contrast in one scene. You don’t expect to see snowy mountains in the desert but here they are.
La Paz is a quaint little airport where the immigration guy photocopies your passport on the way in. You walk past the oxygen assistance unit. That’s because you’re in the highest airport in the world at 3,600 metres above sea level and may well suffer from altitude sickness, or soroche as the locals call it. I’ve had a lot of advice about the condition, which afflicts the fit and healthy as readily as anyone else. About half of all visitors succumb. I have avoided all fried food for the last 24 hours, foregone butter, and drunk only still water on the flight. The strongest available paracetamol painkillers are at the ready should the need arise.
The cab into town is cheap ($6 US) and the drive consists of a continuous descent into the city for about ten minutes. After going downhill solidly for two or three miles I see a jogger on his way up – shurely shum mishtake? My hotel is very basic – a sort of tiled guesthouse – but at least it’s clean. I go out for a wander and stumble upon a couple of art galleries. The first is actually the Museo Nacional de Arqueologica which not surprisingly contains a lot of pottery-type artefacts excavated from a nearby place called Tiwanaku. When you’re asking for directions there, you have to be bloody careful how you pronounce it, I can tell you. Go on, try it.
I had been through most of the rooms when a little man in a uniform asked for the ticket and duly stamped it – a totally pointless exercise since I was on my way out. I was then told there was more upstairs. When I got there the lights were off but an old lady ushered me in, turned them on, and then tore my ticket in half. The most intriguing exhibits were of a mummified mother and child, and a teapot shaped as two people copulating.
I then investigated the Museo del Arte. Once again the lights were off in many of the rooms and little Indian men scurried in front of me turning them on as I walked round. The guy who sold me the ticket insisted on tearing it only when I had finished on the ground floor and was heading upstairs. These guys clearly have an obsession with saving electricity and tearing up tickets. In fact, if large numbers of the fastidious little bastards all stood in a row and ripped tickets in unison, they could probably generate enough power to light the whole city twenty four hours a day. I only liked one thing in there, which looked at first glance like a conventional scene of the Andes, but if you looked closely you could just see a UFO coming over the top of them.
The city itself was total chaos. When you come from a reasonably organised city you really don’t know where to begin in one like this. The place was heaving all day. Many of the pavements didn’t exist so the inexperienced traveller would have a bit of trouble with their drag along luggage on wheels. Not that I had any myself, you understand. Where there were bits of pavement, they were wholly occupied by people selling stuff so you could barely walk on them. The noise was amazing. The buses and taxis were a constant presence, and they tooted their horns all the time for no apparent reason – unless it was just a general protest against the traffic system which was totally SNAFU (Situation Normal All Fucked Up – an American expression from World War Two).
Back at the hotel the plumbing’s a joke. There’s no plug on the basin so my much-needed shave is a functional affair. And as for the shower. “Freezing cold or scalding hot, sir? Certainly. Most of the water on the floor, sir? Right away.” You get the picture. I then have a hoot with the literature in the room. Room service suggests: “Please fill laundry list and take it with your laundry to reception. No iron.” I have visions of someone striding into reception with a piece of sheet metal shouting “Wash this you bastards!” The notice on the wall says “In order to offer our clients a better service, we have elaborated the service statement.” Quite. And the menu offers meat with smashed potatoes.
Having eaten up the miles by plane, it’s now time for me to try some other forms of transport. I’ll be taking the three-hour bus journey from La Paz to Copacabana on the shore of Lake Titicaca. First we have to negotiate several miles of abject poverty. Sometimes the roads are just vague assemblies of dirt and stones, usually flanked by half-finished breeze block buildings daubed with the ubiquitous Pepsi and Coca Cola logos.
I am extremely angry with these two companies. If they can afford to paint meticulous logos on the sides of houses in Latin America, then they should do up the buildings as well, as part of the deal. We ford a river and then we’re out on the altiplano, miles and miles of fairly barren grassland. The road is peppered with hikers and cyclists. You’ve got to hand it to them. Just when you’ve been driving for hours and can reasonably assert that you’re in the middle of nowhere, you come across a person. Where do they come from? How the hell do they get there?
I then encounter my first llama in the wild. Llama means name in Spanish, which can’t have been a great help when it all started: “Excuse me mate, what’s that over there?” “A name.” “Thanks for your help.” It reminds me of someone once who had a couple of dogs called Pardon and Nothing. Don’t ask. When we reach the edge of the lake we descend rapidly to take a boat across a short divide to the peninsula. It was a Heath Robinson affair with the passengers going on a couple of small speedboats and the bus going on a dodgy looking raft which had a significant list to one side. It’s an odd feeling being safe on the shore and watching to see if your possessions are going to make it. It’s normally the other way round. Think about it. We then rose high and descended steeply into Copacabana.
The shimmering lake, Titicaca that is, had an appealing looking beach from my window, but when I got there it was basically grass up to the water’s edge, and it wasn’t as warm as it looked because of a bracing on shore breeze. Being British, that didn’t stop me stripping off immediately and exposing my white body to the elements, in stark contrast to the bronzed locals who in the main wore long trousers and jumpers. I was just dozing off when someone started licking my ear. It was a stray dog and he wanted to play. He was a nice enough little chap but looked flea-ridden so I asked him very politely to move along. He didn’t of course because he was Bolivian and he didn’t have a clue what I was saying.
I was delighted by my lack of reaction to the altitude. Extreme cases have caused migraine, vomiting and intensive visits to the toilet for several days. Mine was restricted to a slightly pissed style light-headedness on the day of arrival, and a mild hangover-style headache the following morning. I’m very pleased because it was one of my biggest fears, and for a day or two I can cope with feeling like I’ve played ninety minutes of football when I’ve only climbed a few stairs.
“Pretend you’re an old lady,” was one piece of advice I’d had and it’s about right. Talking of which, Bolivia is rammed full of them, almost all dressed in several dresses, a bowler hat, and heavily hunched with a bundle on their back wrapped in traditional brightly-coloured weave. (I later learned that they walk like this regardless of whether they are carrying anything.) At least they look old, but on reflection you rarely see anyone who appears to be between say 20 and 40. They either look like kids or OAPs.
Lake Titicaca is bigger than some seas and was the proving ground for the reed boats that the Amerindians used to cross the Pacific. It sounds like a bit of a wild notion, but a fanatical Norwegian called Thor Heyerdahl proved the point several times by building a few and crossing the oceans. We’ll revisit this theme further when I go to Easter Island (by plane of course). I saw my first reed boat in the raw as we approached the ferry at Tiquina this morning. It was probably 20 foot long. If you suggested to most people that they crossed the Atlantic in a vessel made entirely from glorified grass, then you could forgive them declaring you madder than a box of frogs sunbathing in the path of a steamroller. But it can be done.
Sunset over Titicaca lasts about ten minutes. A bit like the Caribbean, it’s gone in a flash so by 6.30 it’s pitch black, aided and abetted by the complete lack of electric light anywhere on the other coastlines I can see. It’s a rare thing these days. Wherever you go, “complete” darkness never is. In films they enhance it so you can see what’s going on. In cities you need thick lined curtains to block out the streetlights. And even in rural areas in Europe there’s normally a faint glow of something from somewhere. So you need a really decent bit of wilderness for total darkness – a bit like total silence – and if you’re an urbanite like me, both can be scary until you get the hang of it.
Whilst we’re on the subject of electricity, you don’t want to look too closely at the wiring in Latin America. Among the travesties I’ve seen are light switches near showers, naked wires poking out of the street, and great bundles of them hanging off walls in public places such as museums and entrance halls. The busy bodies in Brussels would have a field day prosecuting them all if they could, but doubtless they would be met with a traditional shrug of the shoulders and a broad smile. Hey, if your house has got breeze blocks poking out from every angle, who gives a monkeys about the odd stray wire?
Just so long as there’s a llama foetus in the cellar you’ll be just fine.
*This was written before September 11 2001
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