Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Across the Altiplano

The altiplano is green. I can’t quit looking at it as we roll across. I have a book I should be reading. But the colors, so many different greens. The draw me in and keep from from my book.

The green of potato leaves, like something that only barely wishes to come from the earth’s night before throwing up violet flowers. The green of barley, light and agile as it shimmers in a breeze. The green of eucalyptus, mounded ever upwards with shadows. The green of broad beans, almost silver in the sunlight.

In places where the land lies fallow, the thick bunch grass, still yellow from last year, throws up new tendrils that green its skeletal mass, while among the bunches tiny golden or white flowers mat the ground.

Still this high plateau is green. Most times I have come, it has been in winter, the dry season when it freezes most nights and almost never rains. In winter everything is brown, except the eucalyptus which somehow keeps its green.

In winter, the Royal Andes Range rises on the eastern side of the plateau like a row of big blue and white needles knitting the immensity of the sky. But today they are hidden among the big puffs of clouds that roll over them from the Amazon basin.

For a change it is not raining. But it will tonight, or late afternoon. You can see that the clouds just need to thicken and they will release all the water they have brought up from jungles and snaking rivers as wide as the Mississippi, though too minor to have names recognizable to outsiders. It will rain.

I am seated in the first row of the bus, right behind the driver and his assistant. I caught the bus this morning, around 8:30 am, by the toll booths right on the edge of the altiplano, where it crumbles into La Paz. Fog boiled up from the city, filled with grains of moisture. Sunlight crossed through it, making a land of shadows and bright light, where one could hardly distinguish buildings or trees, while I waited. I would look at the lines of vehicles waiting to pay their tolls, their bodies blurred in the thick air, for my bus.

Yesterday I bought my ticket. I could have just gone down into the city this morning, to the central cemetery where the dead occupy towers of tombs five, six, or seven high for fifteen or so years till the pressure of the newly dead means they must make room. Across from the cemetery, buses and vans line up to make the trek to Copacabana and it is easy to get on board. No pre-purchased ticket necessary.

But by the time they get to the toll booth, if they come that way instead of taking the old sinuous, narrow road, they are full. And I was lazy, figuring I would rather just have the bus expect to pick me up at the ceja, the eyebrow of the high plateau, instead of having to go all the way into the city and then back up to the cemetery. Besides, the cemetery area has a reputation for being a little dangerous and I did not really want to carry my stuff through there in the early morning fog to see if I really remember where the buses leave from.

So yesterday, while in town, I climbed three blocks up the Sagarnaga street, the narrow, steep road that opens behind the massive Basilica of St. Francis, and harbors shop after shop of handicrafts. Tarabuqueño Indians from Chuquisaca in southern Bolivia, in their heavy, woolen ponchos, striped red and black, with intermediate colors in between, sitt on the sidewalk by piles of weavings. Their cloth is expensive, but it is some of the finest weaving still done in the Andes.

I entered a travel agency, just off a hotel’s lobby and a large and sassy eqeqo, standing in a niche surrounded by packages of food, houses, trucks and cars, greeted me. “Did you bring your camera to take a picture of the eqeqo.” The woman at the desk knows me, since this is not the first time I have been too lazy to go to the cemetery. “Darn it. I forgot! I do want to take his picture. He is too charming. Next time.”

She gave me my ticket and now I am waiting. For a minute the fog lifted a bit and I was bathed in intense light. I wondered if I could quickly find my sunscreen in my bag. Was it on top? But, just as I was about to open the zipper, the fog won again and shrouded me in a light mist.

The line got larger. I looked at every bus, to see if its shape was right and if it had the right name on its side. I saw a large camper-like truck with Alemania-Germany written on its side in bold letters and a big European license plate on its back. And then another, and another. OK. That is surreal.

Normality returned with blustering, smoke belching trucks pulling by on their way to Chile, Peru, or southern Bolivia.

I thought I saw my bus, and grabbed my bag to run for it, but no. It wasn’t it. It had the wrong name “Vicuña Tours”. And anyway, it did not even slow for me.

Another, colorfully painted bus pulled through the toll booth and stopped right in front of me. But it wasn’t mine. “Maria, Carmelo, hurrry up and get on” shouted someone from inside as all the people around me, and not just a couple, ran for it. They boarded, leaving me alone in the fog.

Finally, my bus pulled through the line and stopped in front of me. The door opened and a man called my name before extending his hand to shake mine and welcome me on board.

Now I sat behind him and the driver. “How many more weeks of rain do you think we have?

“I hope it is only three or four. I think it would be good for the rains to end by March, don’t you?” The driver muttered something non-committal and the assistant got up, walked to the middle of the bus and began explaining something to an Argentine family for whom, I guess, he was the tour guide.

A middle aged-Italian couple sat across from me. It seemed they had been fighting. their body language was tense and distant from each other, though still connected. The other people on the only partially full bus, were about six Argentine late teen, early twenty girls and a tall boy, pants sagging. Where we had stopped to load the bus with gas, right after the edge of El Alto, but where infrastructure is already being laid out for when it grows there, the Argentine youths danced on the pavement to music in their heads, providing unmeant entertainment for the rest of us while we stood and waited.

It was mostly silent in the bus as we traveled. ”Wow” exclaimed the assistant, in his slow and smiley voice. “Did you see that cow? It as a blanket on it.” Sure enough, there was a black and white cow, standing solidly, staked in a field not too far from the road, with a blanket draped over its back. The blanket looked wet as if it had been there all night while it rained. It was steaming slightly, from the heat of the cow combined with the sunshine, no doubt.

“How much is it costing you to send your boy to school?” the assistant queried the driver. He responded “No, the school doesn’t cost that much. You just have to give the staff money if you want your child admitted, and money to make sure he gets his grades and so on. Everything is money. But what else are you going to do, if you want your son to become a professional. He needs his education and everything is money in this country.”

“I wonder where the Vicuña Tours bus is. Have you seen it?”

“No! I haven’t. I will bet, though, that they are ahead of us. They are probably at the Scenic Overlook already.”

The lake had already appeared before us, blue and immense. We had rounded a good part of its shoreline, through village after village, with rows of houses, fields, and eucalyptus in between.

Soon we passed the Overlook and then dropped to Tiquina, where the road ended in the lake.

“Can I have your attention” the assistant demanded when he stood by my side. “We are arriving at Tiquina. You can leave your things on the bus. But you must get off and cross the lake in little boats. The passage costs 1.50 bolivianos. We will meet on the other side. Do not get lost. From there it is only 45 minutes more to Copacabana. Ah. Don’t forget to take your passports. Sometimes they check them on the other side. They will not stamp them but just want to look at them, since we are near the border.”

We pulled into a line of vehicles and they opened the door for us to get off. The Vicuña Tours bus was ahead of us in line, almost ready to get on the flat bottomed ferry that would transport it to the other side, the Copacabana, Peninsula. Though part of Bolivia, it is as if it were an Island. It has no land connection to the rest of the country since it juts out from the Peruvian shore.

I went and joined the small line at the stand on the shore, where they sold tickets. A group of blond Europeans were in front of me. They were speaking English, but it was a second language for all of them judging by language and syntax. One guy, at least two meters tall, with a mop of blondness, was in front of me, a guitar strapped to his back and a small backpack to his front, with a plastic bag of chocolate bars and muesli tied to it. They did not know where to go, when they got their tickets, so they stood at the side talking and waiting. I went around them and onto the wooden pier, where a tense young man was collecting tickets.

“No. You will have to wait. This boat is now full. You have to go in the next boat. You cannot get on that boat. it is full!.”

About seven or eight people turned and walked down a side pier to another boat with a small outboard motor and maybe five or six lifejackets on board. I got on and took my seat, somewhat frustrated that the first on tried to occupy the seats right where people were boarding instead of moving further into the boat. The Europeans were the last to board and then, with a puff of smoke the motor started and we sliced our way across the kilometer wide piece of lake.

On the other side, I stood in the shade of the small plaza’s kiosk, and waited for the bus. I did not see anyone else from my bus, at first, they had not made the same boat as me. They were probably on the lake still. Vendors marked the plaza’s edges where they fried up fresh papa rellena (stuffed potatoes) and empanadas tucumanas (Tucuman style meat pies). Others sold cookies, chips, candy and soft drinks. Inside the building right on the lake shore, women offered full meals of set dishes: plato paceño, trout, sajta, falso conejo, and so on.

But I stood in the shade and watched. A bus would come from the Copacabana side and everyone would get off. Some would cluster to buy things, while others hurried to buy their tickets for the small ferry boats. Sometimes a bus or car would come from the La Paz side, pull off the ferry and onto the plaza. Not infrequently it would honk its horn and people, who had been meandering in small knots eating and talking, would run for it, board and leave.

The hills above the town were steep and green. One could see the outlines of ancient terraces on them, as the hills rose upwards to the sky, blue and patched with cumulous clouds.

The one piece German campers pulled up, one at a time, from off different ferries. They parked on the plaza and sixty-something year old couples, generally lanky and post-blond would get out, talk to each other and walk around the plaza.

I left my perch in the shade and went into the sun. I wanted to see what the campers had written on them. They had a map with a tour route stretching from Patagonia to Alaska and saying “180” days. In addition, one of them also had a map of Asia and words in German that said “The Silk Road Tour.”

I wondered how much it cost to ship their entire caravan of caravans, as the British call the campers. It seemed strange to me that they would want to be so isolated from local people, even though they got to drive the length of America. Was just seeing the landscape, and only talking with people when you bought gas, had a mechanical breakdown, or had to cross a border, compensation for not riding a bus filled with people?

There are so many different ways to travel and so many different measures of what constitutes good travel. I mean, Che, long before he became a revolutionary, did a motorcycle tour up South America, but ti was filled with engagement with the people and already was laying a foundation for his radical commitment. Burroughs went deep into the Columbian jungle looking for yagé and sex. Kerouac hit Mexico and filled a book of poems. Tschopik, a famous old-school anthropologist, stole from local people and wrote about them chasing him in hordes, while he galloped off. He caused the Aymara to have to face a very negative stereotype of angry and vindictive.

Vicuña tours pulled onto the plaza and honked. The Europeans--I mean the younger Europeans-- went running and got on. The mop-headed guitar guy sat by a window and stared out at the plaza and its people as the bus pulled off to climb up over the Peninsula.

People from my bus, the Italian couple specifically, were now on the plaza standing at some distance from each other. I had returned to my perch in the shade and watched a green-clad local police officer go up to a German couple and ask for their vehicles’ documents. Side doors were opened, and clipboards of documents offered, as the police man slowly looked over each piece of paper.

My bus suddenly pulled on the plaza and honked. I saw the Argentine kids come running. I had not known where they had gone and so it was as if they suddenly appeared from no where and boarded right in front of me. The bus started pulling off, before the door was even shut. The assistant shouted “No one is missing. Right?”

We pulled out of town and began the zigzag up to the peninsula’s top where forty-five minutes of driving awaited us while we crossed over the peninsula.

“Six months, they are on the road. How would it be to be able to travel for six months with your family.

“Yeah I know we do it every day. But it is different to not work and leave your home with your family to be gone for six months. It must cost a lot of money to be able to do that.

“Thank about it. Just to drive to Sao Paulo, Brazil would cost 500$US, all by itself. How much would it cost to take off and drive America for six months.

“You know, somehow it seems something’s wrong. It is unfair. How come they can do that and we can’t? Why is our money not worth enough for us to be able to do that?

“Maybe its not our money. Maybe we just do not charge enough.”

Our bus rounded the ridge and began dropping down into Copacabana. It is always amazing to see the town, white and pastels against the immensity of the blue lake, that like an ocean seems to stretch into an endless horizon.

As we pulled into the town, the assistant got off early, with the Argentine family to go see the Basilica of the Virgin. The rest of us went on until the bus stopped, about half a kilometer from the Parque Sucre.

“If you are going on to Puno, you can leave your stuff here. It will be safe. The bus departs at one thirty so be back at one o’clock so you don’t miss your bus.” chanted the driver.

As they stood up, the Italians said “Is this the stop? It can’t be. When we were here before the bus took us into town. Why are you stopping here?”

I knew that the stop was there, away from things, so people would have to take taxis and more people could make money from tourists. It was a decision of local government that sometimes they enforce and sometimes they do not. I edged by the sputtering Italians and began walking towards the hostal where I had a reservation.

As I arrived, I could hear someone playing a small fippled flute, called a pinquillo, in a haunting and yet monotonous melody. “Cool”, I thought. “The pinquillo vendors are back.” They were here last year selling their flutes, though the tourists do not hardly seem them, standing in dark coats off to the side with their bundles of recently made flutes.

I went up to the hotel’s desk and was met with a smile. The clerk nodded at me. But before me in line were two, tall Japanese young men. They were buying tickets to the Island of the Sun, or some such, from the clerk.

“Chota Kikuchi? Is that your name? Chota?”

The Japanese guy nodded and repeated “Chota Kikuchi”.

As he handed them their change, the clerk-whose name is Freddy, smiled and said “Hum. Chota. Well I guess we will just have to call you señorita, because that is what chota means here. It means señorita.”

The other Japanese guy repeated “señorita” several times over while looking at his travel companion with a wicked smile and the clerk handed me a room key.

I am now back in Copacabana. The day after tomorrow is the feast of the Virgin of Candelaria.

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