24 November 2011

The Authentic World

In Arequipa I rent a little room at the Hostal Regis [1]; cheap, comfortable with plenty of character (French colonial, apparently), and like most hostels in this range, slightly run down. A little wooden writing table sits against one wall; two simple chairs, the bed and and night table make up the rest of the furniture. The only thing on the pale pink walls other than the usual grimy marks is a mirror, which I try to avoid. The white ceiling has cracks and water stains; the floor is old, polished wood. The room feels well-used — comfortable and cosy and with its little desk it feels like the kind of place I could settle down and work hard at writing.

But Arequipa offers little other than a place to relax for a day. For others, the churches, the monastery, the other architectural works, the ascent of Volcan Misti, the tours to Colca Canyon and other places must seem like enough for days of exploration and excitement; I, on the other hand, prefer to watch the actual life of the city, the present taking place among the remains of the past. Being crammed in a minibus with others to travel for two days to stand shoulder to shoulder in a crowd of strangers for a brief view of condors (which I might see in Patagonia in far more preferable circumstances) doesn't appeal, and while the mountains around Arequipa have a character of their own, after Huaraz they seem low and muted. Here I've enjoyed my room and the good cafés and the walks around town, but I want to keep moving; the restlessness drives me on; Patagonia calls. I decide to continue to Puno in the morning.

From where does this restlessness arise? Was Chatwin right when he speculated humans are essentially nomadic? Sometimes the restlessness feels like a compulsion, but I wonder whether I'm travelling towards something or running from it. But from what, or whom?

Earlier in the afternoon I'd visited La Canasta for a coffee and struck up a conversation with a Canadian in his seventies. Bob enjoyed referring to himself as "the old goat", emphasising the phrase with an impish grin. He wore a Captain Ahab beard and had been well tanned by the Peruvian sun. He'd first come to Peru almost thirty years ago as an irrigation engineer working on a massive project funded by the World Bank and ever since, he'd been spending half the year in Canada and half here. Converting the desert into productive agricultural land still continues, he said. I didn't say how I felt deserts needed protection from development just as much as many other land types, but did say how beautiful I'd found the deserts I'd passed through in Peru. He seemed to understand that.

But who benefits from these irrigation schemes, I asked, the local people or the big companies?
He leaned forward and tapped the table with a long, tanned finger. You've hit the nail right on the head, he said, and went on to explain how the locals worked so hard for so little for the companies reaping the profits.
If you complain they just tell you to go and find work somewhere else — if you can.
They walk such long distances, he added, and described the places they lived. I recognised some — the kind I'd seen from the bus, the kind that had filled me with horror.
Some of them don't even have roofs, Bob said. Although retired, he worked with local communities, trying to improve their lot. Mostly irrigation, I think. The changes he'd seen saddened him. When he'd arrived, Colca had been beautiful; now the changes were too much, too fast. He'd tried to tell some of them, no, you don't need electricity here, but it was no good, they all wanted electricity and TVs and other modern things.

Later I wondered how he reconciled his desire to help improve the lives of the people he clearly loved while not wanting their lives to change. Perhaps he wanted only certain changes — those that fulfilled his own desire to help but not those that allowed those people much greater control over their own destinies.
He'd admitted his preferences didn't matter, and when he said he wouldn't be around much longer he sounded almost as if he relished the idea of his own extinction — perhaps because he wouldn't see the changes that had already begun to sadden him. I liked him, liked his compassion and his love for the place and its people, and I hope his work remains valued, that he's remembered as someone who made a difference for the right reasons.

The bus crawls out of Arequipa with the air conditioning turned off; already the air has turned hot and stuffy. A man with uncoordinated limbs and a severe speech impediment stands at the front of the bus and with great effort manages to deliver a long speech, of which I understand a few words. He starts moving down the aisle, forcing lollies on the passengers. Later he'll return collecting payment or the uneaten lollies. This is a way of life on all but the high-end buses everywhere I've travelled so far in South America.

We stop to pick up two women with a huge load of boxes of produce and bales of grass and straw. Quarter of an hour later we stop again to load a pile of enormous blue bags of potatoes. People on the bus begin complaining angrily about the painfully slow progress; someone starts stamping his feet and others take it up, drumming on the floor, shaking the bus. The driver berates the potato loaders — ineffectively, of course. Patience and acceptance seem unusual here — at traffic lights, for example, the moment the lights turn green horns begin blaring. An instant response isn't good enough; it's as if the person in the car at the head of the queue is to blame for the person further back not being at the head of the queue.

Outside Arequipa the conductor moves through the bus, closing the windows and at last turning on the air conditioning. We pick up speed and I gaze out at the stark mountains where high up a little snow still clings. There at least I can see no sign of humans. High mountains can be a last refuge because they offer nothing material, nothing that can be exploited. Yet even those mountains can sometimes be desecrated; not satisfied with revering them, we mark them with the signs of our veneration — crosses on summits, swastikas painted on rocks. Sometimes even the non-material gifts of mountains become a reason for leaving our marks — for example, while delighting in the ascent of a difficult climb, we leave a line of bolts on a buttress — and sometimes we desecrate simply in the attempt to immortalise ourselves — graffiti aren't confined to fences, buildings and railway sidings.

Yet this is how the world is. In Puno in the evening while talking with Stephen from DC I mention the idea I'd discussed with Bob — that in a sense everything is authentic. I point to the wood-fired pizza oven where we wait for our orders. That's not part of traditional Peruvian culture, I say. He grins. I explain how I think cultures can't be static, how I admire more than regret the way Peru and other places have capitalised on their history and culture while also providing what the tourists want — wood-fired pizza, for example (but not authentic pizza, as my Italian friends later point out — what's being offered is the abomination from the United States). Yes, the loss of traditional ways of life saddens me. Here in Peru it's still strong in places but it's inevitably weakening and will eventually survive only as scheduled shows for tourists. But despite the protestations of the romantics, traditional ways of life were and are hard and consequently short. Who can blame those forced to live those kinds of lives for seeking a more comfortable existence? Whether the modern lifestyle really lives up to the expectations of those who desire it is questionable — I suspect mostly it doesn't, but at least those seeking it can hope it might. Nevertheless, the gentle, wood-fired-pizza guy in jeans and T-shirt (and who looks disconcertingly like Willem Dafoe) is to me just as authentic as the women in their colourful, traditional dress and cowboy hats — this is the authenticity of the present.

I'm not sure Stephen's convinced. I doubt Bob was. I doubt many others would be, particularly those who prefer to call themselves travellers not tourists and claim to be searching for authenticity. Still, for the moment I'll stick to my assertion that what we think of as authentic is mostly the unpreservable past being left behind by the present, and what we think of as fake is often part of the authentic present.

At ten to midday the conductor starts the video to satisfy the demands of those like the man next to me who apparently see the journey as a necessary evil — those who have been reading newspapers, playing portable video games, sleeping, talking on phones, and ignoring the beautiful, sere, stony desert through which we're passing. Am I the only one who loves these tenacious, flowering cacti, the shrivelled plants, the high mountains under a sky streaked with mare's tails, this land like a gasp?

At 12:18 p.m. we pass a sign saying "Zona de Vicuñas", and there, a short way off in the desert, a vicuña lifts its head. Lithe, golden-brown, the pale under its belly extending a little way further up its body. Further on, four more, then more still. Does anyone else see them, even when we pass a family right next to the road?

The bus pauses at the Putahuasi pay station, then drives on. A dust devil, swirling; a small, simple shed with grey walls and a yellow thatched roof; many vicuñas; a few llamas; mountains on the encircling horizon. Soon after, we pass a 22-wheel lorry on its side, a similar lorry waiting while men transfer gas bottles from the overturned truck. This time, everyone on the bus gawks.

The sense of altitude increases. We stop briefly at Imata near a strange monument of a flamingo with outstretched wings. A caracara flies past and another perches on a rock as we leave the tiny town. I feel so high I never want to descend; coming down will be as figurative as literal. I love this landscape: bleak but not unrelentingly arid; small waterways, half stream, half tarn, in shallow valleys; the hills of the altiplano rolling gently towards the sky — the sky, through which we drive. Somewhere in all this emptiness we pass a small cemetery crowded with crosses tilted at various angles and enclosed by a low adobe wall. A sign says 4528 m. Can we go any higher?

Apparently not. We begin the gradual descent, past a lake among yellow-brown hills. A small flock of flamingoes feeds near the shore. More lakes  — Andean geese, coots, teal, more flamingoes. Another accident — a van rear-ended by a truck —  and again the bus passengers turn from the dreadful video.

A caracara sits like a sentinel on a rock above the road. We stop in a small, quiet town — the sort where I feel like getting off just because I know no one and am known by no one; the kind that offers the dream of vanishing forever. After the bus has set down and picked up passengers the conductor opens the vents in the roof and as the bus picks up speed the wind rushes and howls in a way utterly fitting this landscape.

But someone gets up and closes the vent.

At Juliaca the light comes from another time, another world. On the outskirts the busy streets also appear curiously deserted, the contradiction disorienting. This is how one might imagine the streets of a city after some catastrophe — an epidemic, perhaps — with a few survivors mingling with the ghosts of those who no longer live there. Further in, the town looks like a scene from Blade Runner, with people everywhere, jostling, dodging tricycle and motorcycle taxis, squeezing past innumerable stalls, somehow functioning amid the chaos. Everyone seems to be welding, fixing things, making things in small dim workshops or outside on the dusty, potholed streets. We drive past an open shed, dark, full of big carcases hanging on hooks; past a man in a green and yellow dragon suit striding along the street, clutching the dragon's head while his own head hangs between hunched shoulders as if depressed. For all the horror of the place — almost everything the opposite of where I feel most at home — I like Juliaca, or at least find it fascinating. Here I could be lost and anonymous; for the first time, a plane flying overhead seems like a link to a world I'm not ready to rejoin.

I still don't know whether I'm running away or travelling forward, and even less idea who or what drives me.

A flock of Andean gulls with their beautiful black faces. Straw stooked as it was in New Zealand before I was born. Three ostriches (not rheas) in a small paddock as we leave Juliaca, one of the strangest places through which I've passed.

Finally we reach Puno, where I take a taxi to the Hostal Los Piños. On the way, a rat scampers in a street, but it turns out to be only a brown plastic bag swirled by the wind. Rats, I suspect, will outlive us, but perhaps these ubiquitous scraps of plastic, the symbol of our dependence on oil and our wilful rejection of caring for our only home, have become the new rats of the modern world.

I think I prefer the old rats — the authentic rats.

1. “Hostal” is the usual spelling in South America. 

Photos (I have no photographs from the bus journey from Arequipa to Puno. These words, with photographs from elsewhere, will have to suffice):
1. A small village in Bolivia, from the train between Oruro and Uyuni.
2. The road to Chimbote from Trujillo, in northern Peru.

3. The Isla del Sol on Lake Titicaca, Bolivia.
4. Salt pan just outside Oruro, from the train to Uyuni
5. Flute player in the Valley of the Moon, La Paz. Clearly not a vertigo sufferer.
6. Caracara on one of the summits of the Muela del Diablo near La Paz
7. Coastal desert on the road from Trujillo to Chimbote.

Photos and original text © 2011 Pete McGregor

04 November 2011

Leaving Huaraz

The dueño at La Familia Meza shakes my hand and mumbles something sincere and incomprehensible in Spanish. I manage to make out something about recommending the hostel to people I meet in Lima, and I'm more than happy to do so. The hostel's been a wonderful base: the people welcoming, kind and helpful; the rooms simple but comfortable; the showers as good as I've had in South America; the kitchen functional; the tables with plenty of room for friends; the views from the rooftop patio inspirational. Another hotel that's developed from a place to sleep into a place with the feel of home, and not entirely because of the wonderful people with whom I've shared it. Even the young French couple, notably the young, wild-haired man with what seemed a fierce and perpetual frown, came to feel like friends. The evening before they left for the Santa Cruz trek we chatted briefly and his smile transformed him.

We step out onto the street and the dueño locks the doors behind us. That awkward moment of not knowing how to say goodbye. She laughs and says something about yet another goodbye; we hug; I say something inadequate about how I've enjoyed spending time with her, thanks for the help with trying to change or refund Marijn's bus ticket, safe travels, if you ever come to New Zealand, etc. All unsatisfactory, but sometimes understatement says more than eloquence. At least, I hope so.

I walk off towards the Cruz del Sur station and turn the corner without looking back.

By the time the massive double-decker Volvo inches out into the street, Huaraz has transformed into a blaze of sodium light and headlamps, fluorescent glows in small dim shops and the silhouettes of people crossing streets, leaning in doorways, holding conversations on broken footpaths. The bus reverses, moves forward, stops, then finally manages to turn into the street, heading away from the hostel, away from Cafe Andino where my friends will be deciding whether to go out for drinks, away from Cafe California with its home-made bread and jam and Lapsang Souchong tea and delicious food. It stops a short distance down the road while the safety announcements play.

Then the long drive through the night to Lima. The steward distributes salty sandwiches with some kind of sticky, chocolatey dessert, and offers a drink; I opt for tea, which is awful. I drink it anyway, for the liquid, and sleep for most of the eight hours, waking often but returning quickly to dreams of which I remember nothing. Consequently, I also see nothing of the land between Huaraz and Lima until we reach the dreary, repellent streets of the huge city in the early dawn. At the Cruz del Sur station I check the Litehaul in for the afternoon bus and buy a small café con leche that doesn't taste like coffee but at least lets me write at one of the tables. Later I buy apple pie  — this at least tastes like apple — and when I'm confident the South American Explorers' clubhouse will be open, take a taxi there to collect my books.

So much record keeping. This, I suppose, is an aid for memory, but does it have any other useful function? Can the small details of anyone's journey, repeated so often in slightly different forms, be of interest to anyone — even to the person to whom they happened? Sometimes they can add a flavour to the journey; perhaps also the sum of these insignificant details amounts to more than a simple sum of parts. Conversely, the big events that apparently give a journey structure can fail to give it life: the travelogue that simply documents which sights were seen can read as if they were seen by something other than a human being. This then is the difficulty — how to record and yet bring the record alive, how to allow the reader to enter the journey.

In the afternoon the bus leaves Lima with many seats still empty, but the one next to mine is occupied by a phlegmatic Canadian, probably in his late thirties. He'd flown to Lima in the morning, missed the early bus and had waited at the station most of the day. He must be exhausted. His voice sounds slow and tired. We talk a little and he tells me he's travelling to Bolivia to do some research for six months. We discuss modes of travel — how we both like the process of moving through a place yet also like staying somewhere and coming to know it, gradually, perhaps through the small details that eventually accumulate into affection and then love. He has reservations, though. You can spend too long in a place, he says; the people you meet can keep you there longer than you should. He trails off, hesitates, then says, "Women ...", almost inaudibly, and lets it go, and the empty space in his voice seems large enough to contain all the loss and memory in the world.

I don't push him hard to talk, and he sleeps most of the way, apart from eating his meal with astonishing speed (he's gobbling dessert before I've even finished opening my meal). I sleep a little too, but not for long. For the first several hours we drive along the coast, through a similar kind of desert to the one my friends and I had driven through from Trujillo to Chimbote. I find these deserts intensely beautiful and moving — something about their simplicity, about their purity: stone, sand, sky, nothing else; and about their timelessness,affects me deeply, and it does so in a different way from that of mountains. At Laguna 69, and when we were ice-climbing, and again when I saw the mountains from Huaraz, particularly on that spectacular last evening just before I left, I felt uplifted, exhilarated, but the feeling in these deserts is different  — just as emotionally moving, but with a kind of melancholy as well; perhaps akin to the Japanese concept of wabi-sabi.

We drive through the evening, through coastal desert. Grey sky, the horizon out at sea indistinct, surf breaking on small sandy beaches with cliffs and headlands at each end; stony hills, flat reddish-brown plains studded with perfect crescent-shaped dunes of pale grey sand as if some god had swept all the grey into those perfect, geometric shapes. This contrast between the reddish-brown and the pale grey astonishes me; it's very beautiful but so distinct a demarcation it seems impossible — how does this pale sand remain so separate from the other colour?

Perhaps the god is the wind.

But other aspects of the desert are appalling. Litter lines the roadsides; the desert near the roads has been used as a dumping area for truckloads of broken bricks and excavated stones and soil, and the small settlements strike me as inhuman — the kinds of places that breed hopelessness and despair or worse. A man runs across a waste land tracked with a thousand footprints and the tyre marks of trail bikes and cars; I see widely spaced shacks in small settlements and realise with horror that these are the homes of people. Just on dark, we pass a place walled off by two high fences, one barbed wire, the other concrete block, and within the confined area, sodium lamps on high poles shine on blank, box-like buildings. The place looks like a prison. Maybe it is. But who, or what was imprisoned there?
To me, the most likely answer is, "Hope".
I look again at the desert away from the areas we've ruined, and think, what compels us to screw up beautiful things? Is this really part of human nature?

Sometimes, pessimism about the future of the world threatens to overwhelm me. But then I think of my friends — all over the world, of all ages — and I realise, even if collectively and sometimes individually, we screw up beautiful things, the world is still full of beautiful people. In his biography of Bertrand Russell the philosopher Ray Monk accused Russell of claiming to love humanity but hating most individuals [1]; in contrast, I'm the opposite — I love most people as individuals, but despair over what we're doing collectively to the planet, and too often, to each other. How I reconcile my attitudes remains a challenge, but if someone of Russell's intellect couldn't find a solution to a similar problem, what hope is there for me?


Photos :
1.From the lower part of the trail to Laguna 69 in the Cordillera Blanca, Peru.
2. The stream near the start of the Laguna 69 trail.
3. One of the mountains overlooking Laguna 69.
4. Coastal desert between Trujillo and Chimbote, Peru. (The streaks in the sky are artefacts from the car window.)
5. Dune in the desert between Trujillo and Chimbote. Elsewhere, dunes like these are used for sandboarding.
6. Rimarima at dusk from the rooftop patio of La Familia Meza hostel in Huaraz.
[Check The Ruins of the Moment, particularly October 2011, for other, larger photos of aspects of the Cordillera Blanca]

Photos and original text © 2011 Pete McGregor