I travel to discover lands and people, not so much to visit famous places, though I enjoy that too. This is what distinguishes travelers from tourists. I admit to a little snobbery here, considering myself a traveler and looking down my nose at tourists, even though being a tourist sure beats staying at home, and many times I’ve done the tourist thing myself, often mixing in an organized day trip or booking a small-group offbeat adventure of a week or two to fit in with my independent travels. The main thing is seeing a country at ground level, not being herded by deluxe coach from upscale hotel to museum to cathedral and so forth.
So, anyway, in 1985 I began my three and a half month, six country trip to South America by flying from New York to Quito, the capital of Ecuador, and after a few excursions to the colorful Indian markets in Otavalo and Saquisili, and a wonderful week-long trip sailing around the Galapagos Islands, it was time to move on. I celebrated my last night in Ecuador by eating a whole pineapple at one sitting for no good reason, and after the Peruvian border officials extorted $15 from me for an “outward ticket,” I endured a dusty 22-hour bus ride to Lima, probably the grottiest capital in South America, curled up in a miserable ball. Then I bought a ticket to Huancayo and rode the highest railroad in the world; hiked four days on the Inca Trail to the lost city of Machu Picchu, which the Spanish never found (it was only discovered in 1911); marvelled at the Inca stonework in lovely Cuzco; joined a small group of Americans on a nine-day canoe journey to the Manu wildlife reserve in the Amazon; hopped across the floating reed islands inhabited by the Uros Indians on Lake Titicaca. I did all this without having anything stolen, a minor miracle considering that I spoke to more travelers than not who had been victimized by thieves, meaning petty theft without violence (mostly pickpockets and slashed daypacks). Peru is the most thief-ridden country I’ve ever been to.
It was the excursion to the reed islands that got me to thinking. The tourists outnumbered the natives; it was tacky and I was part of the tackiness. So I set my sights on Bolivia and Paraguay, the only two landlocked republics in South America. These countries held a mystique which had prompted a good deal of reading before I left home, and I believed that tourists would be thin on the ground.
I’ve never crossed an easier frontier than from Yunguyo, Peru to Copocabana, Bolivia. There were no questions or bag searches, and formalities on both sides took all of one minute. Copocabana sits on the south shore of Lake Titacaca, and according to my guidebook, a major festival takes place there every August 5th-8th. It was the 7th, so I was worried about finding a room in such a small town, but that was an easy task: the previous day had been the big one and many were returning to LaPaz, the capital. Aside from cars and trucks decorated with colorful ribbons, a few impromptu parades and some half-hearted fireworks, it wasn’t much of a festival at all by Latin American standards and I came away disappointed.
Every seat to LaPaz – there were only two buses – was booked for the following day, so I showed up in the main plaza bright and early, hoping to find a truck. There were two, traveling together to the capital. I climbed aboard with the rest of the human freight and soon we were winding through red-roofed houses and eucalyptus trees in the bracing morning air, the views of Titacaca becoming more spectacular as we ascended. This is the advantage of going al fresco.
I have to relate a minor but very annoying incident which should be instructive to those who wonder why certain nations are always “developing” but never getting anywhere. It’s not my intention to disparage Bolivia, the most Indian nation in the Americas, as well as the poorest and most unstable. I liked the country and its people, whom on the whole I thought to be more pleasant than Peruvians. It’s just that they can be so damn stoopit at times, which drove me crazy. When we came to a military checkpoint on the way out of town, the driver shut off the engine and went inside with his documents. After finishing his business, he got back behind the wheel and tried to start the engine but discovered that the battery was dead, if in fact the truck had a battery. (Motor vehicles can run without batteries, though it’s not recommended.) We were parked on a slight incline, so he threw in the clutch and let the truck roll twenty feet, and the engine sputtered to life. All well and good.
A few kilometers further, we came to the statue of some saint overlooking the lake where our buddy truck had already parked; the driver and some of his passengers were praying at the shrine. Our driver pulled in behind him, and in one instant made two very dumb mistakes, demonstrating a typically Third World lack of foresight: he shut the engine off facing uphill. I gritted my teeth while he walked to the shrine accompanied by half the passengers. When the other truck sped off, our driver still kneeling in prayer, I sighed. Twenty minutes later, after backing slowly downhill in a futile attempt to restart it (any fool knows a vehicle is much easier to roll-start in forward than in reverse), and arriving at a level turnoff, and then straining it forward while all the male passengers including me pushed, we were on our way to LaPaz. Well, I suppose I had less to complain about than the German fellow I had met in Peru. On the long haul from Lima to Cuzco his bus ran out of fuel in the middle of nowhere – twice!
I had a long, last look at Titacaca, the highest navigable lake in the world, a lake as beautiful as its name is magical, while we crossed the Straits of Tiquina on a lopsided, primitive ferry. Then it was straight to LaPaz on the first and last paved road I was to travel in Bolivia, across the harsh, bleak Altiplano, the endless high plateau that covers a fair chunk of the country. The dry winter wind blew hard, and I huddled for warmth with the other riders. They were all Indians who had attended the festival. I befriended them and gave the children some American coins and postage stamps as gifts. That was a mistake because all the adults wanted a souvenir too! There’s a beauty about these people which you’re not likely to forget, a beauty that’s hard to describe. It’s not that they’re physically attractive. Rather it has something to do with the rugged existence they’ve quietly endured for ages – and the Spanish certainly didn’t make life easy for them. It’s been said of Bolivia that three-fourths of the population lives in the wrong place, the barren Altiplano, and not the potentially rich lowlands of the Oriente, which occupies 70% of the country. But the Indians refuse to move; fearing the unknown, they prefer to scratch a living from the Altiplano and preserve their identity – their language, their dress, and their exquisite music. When I think of them, I call to mind Nietzsche’s closing comment on the Greeks in The Birth of Tragedy: “How much these people must have suffered to have become so beautiful.”
LaPaz, the world’s highest capital, is unusual because the poorest inhabitants live at the highest level, around the rim of the Altiplano. This is where all the people on the truck lived, including the driver, so I had to find a taxi. The city sits in a huge natural basin and the first sight of it is astounding: sunk a half-mile below and to the south it looks like a precisely built scale-model. But once you start descending and buildings assume their proportions, you discover a city where steep cobblestone streets, old Spanish churches and modern office buildings merge agreeably. The snowy crown of Mt. Illimani, at 21, 151 feet, shines benevolently down the whole length of Avenida Mercado. It was exactly two months earlier that I had landed in Quito, and I couldn’t have imagined a nicer place to hang my hat for a while.
I treated myself well in LaPaz. Nine thousand percent inflation might sound terrifying (it had climbed to 14,000% when I left the country) but taxi rides were a dime. I had selected LaPaz as a mail pick-up point; there were letters waiting for me at the American Express office. I dashed off a lengthy one back home and decided to end all my annoying postcard obligations here. I booked a room at the Residencial Rosario, a pleasant pad on a quiet side street, and had them do my laundry, taking a break from the monotonous chore of scrubbing socks and underwear in the bathroom sink. I went to the Argentinian consulate on a Friday afternoon to apply for a visa, and when the man told me I’d have to return with my passport Monday morning, and wait until Wednesday to get it back, it provided the excuse I was looking for to stay here for nearly a week. Best of all, Time and Newsweek were on sale at the newsstands; I hadn’t read anything in English in over a month. AIDS was the cover story on both, and I got to thinking what the Establishment and their limp-wristed friends had unleashed on America, and whether or not the country would be engulfed by a plague by the time I returned home. It all seemed so far away, this AIDS epidemic, these photographs of placard-carrying queers on parade. Maybe I’d just spend the rest of my life in Bolivia; I’d probably come down with hepatitis sooner or later, but there’s little chance of dying from that.
In LaPaz you can watch an Indian wedding at the Iglezia de San Francisco on a Saturday morning, go to a pena any night and listen to Andean folk music performed by costumed Indians while drinking the finest beer in South America, browse through stalls of hand-woven sweaters, rugs, blankets, old coins, odd musical instruments, silver jewelry and utensils, walk past countless women in tassled bowler hats and voluminous skirts (the dress code imposed toward the end of the 18th century by the Spanish king, Carlos III), sitting beside their paltry concessions of candy and cigarettes, and sometimes those dreaded coca leaves, often suckling infants, and wonder how they manage to survive, or if they really do. And you can even stop by San Pedro Penitentiary where several gringos languish on drug-trafficking convictions and cherish visitors. That seemed like a peculiar entry in the “Things to do” section of my guidebook, so I decided to investigate. There was a Plaza de San Pedro on my tourist office map. I walked there, and after going through a little security booth, found myself literally looking through the bars! The prison faced the square and behind the bars was a large courtyard where the inmates stood around. Five or six women were there visiting their husbands.
“Hey, you’re from the States! Far out!” exclaimed a scruffy, blonde-haired and bearded young man named Roy who was from Buffalo, New York. He had two companions: Richie, from somewhere in Canada, and Frank, from Seattle. They were a frightening trio of tattooed, burnt-out freaks, although Roy seemed fairly alert and intelligent. Thank God for those iron bars between us, I thought. I tactlessly asked them what they done to end up here, but they brushed the question aside. Richie was due to be released in three months after serving eight years, while Roy had been here for six years with four to go. Poor Frank, I never learned his story; he stared at me blankly from under his long, dark hair and woolen cap and never said a word.
“So how do you guys keep occupied?”
“Oh, it’s cool,” Roy replied. “We work here. We run the place. Hey, you finished with that Newsweek?”
I had only read the AIDS article, but I gave it to him.
“You got some money for us too? We can sure use that.”
In my other hand I held three one-million peso notes, worth exactly one dollar each on the black market. (Apparently, the Bolivian government had run out of famous faces by the time they hit the one-million denomination; these notes resembled personal checks.) When I entered the prison, I was taken to a booth, frisked, and relieved of my belongings – camera, wallet, and Spanish-English dictionary. The guard had counted out my money, given me a receipt, then told me, I thought – my Spanish being extremely basic – that I would have to pay someone for the privilege of visiting. But when I stepped around to the bars, no one asked for the money and I was still holding it. I explained this to Roy.
“They can’t do that,” Richie piped up. “Don’t listen to that Spanish crap. We can use that money.”
“Well, I’ll see if they take it when I leave.”
“Hey listen, would you do us a favor?” Roy said. “There’s this Bolivian chick, Nora. She speaks good English. I’ll give you her phone number. Just tell her we were asking about her and we’d like for her to come down and visit. Would you do that?”
“Could you spare this pen, by the way?”
“Hey, if you’re gonna be in town a few days, come back and visit us, okay? And bring whatever you can. Warm clothes, soap for the shower, books, magazines, and stuff like cheese and fruit. They only give us one big bowl of slop a day here.”
“Okay, I’ll see what I can pick up for you.”
I returned to the booth to get my things. The guard said nothing about the money I was still holding so I stuck it in my pocket. I’d already given the poor bastards a few things and promised them more, and I saw no reason to make a financial donation to boot. I hurried away but Roy was hanging onto the bars and called out to me.
“Did he take the money?”
“Yeah, he took it,” I lied.
“Hey, that’s not right. He’s not supposed to do that. I’m gonna tell the lieutenant.”
Now I felt trapped. My petty lie could end up getting an innocent man into trouble. I thought this over for a moment, then pulled the three million pesos from my pocket and walked over to the bars.
“Here, I was only shittin’ ya. He didn’t take it.”
I walked away feeling like a gift-wrapped, 14-carat sucker. I had promised to return in a few days, but when I saw some Indian vendors sitting on the curb a block away, I changed my mind. I bought some apples, bananas, oranges, bread, two bars of soap and two rolls of toilet paper – all for less than two dollars – and returned to the prison. The guard made me dump everything out on a table for inspection. The boys were still clinging to the bars, like they were expecting me.
“Hey, you’re quick!”
When the local inmates saw the goodies they came over and started begging, but Roy shoved them aside and gave them menacing looks. It was like feeding animals at the zoo.
“We really appreciate you doing this for us, understand?” Richie said, and his sincerity made me feel better. He reached for my hand and I shook it, trying to avoid the gaping sore on the inside of his thumb. “Don’t forget, try and call Nora for us, okay?” Roy shouted after me as I left. I said I would, but I had no intention to: I’d done enough for them already. I walked back to my hotel chuckling most of the way and thinking, I could make a movie out of this!
* * *
Why are the nations of Latin America so unstable? An account of my bus ride from LaPaz to Potosi may provide some clues. The bus left the terminal in the early evening overflowing with humanity and about fifteen minutes late – exceptionally punctual by Bolivian standards. Apparently it was illegal to stack passengers like cordwood in the aisle, but the driver and his helper allowed it anyway, probably because there’s no record of payment for people without seats and they can pocket the fares. A man who was plastered against the half-open door shouted violently for space; the man next to him shoved him out as the bus rolled into the street. When we reached police control at the edge of town, the helper told the passengers in the aisle to duck so the police wouldn’t see them. This infuriated the woman sitting next to me who, as I understood her, launched into a tirade about breaking the law. This woman was a troublemaker. What she was saying was undoubtedly true, but the people in the aisle were not bothering her, so she should have kept her mouth shut, I thought. Others began grumbling at her, but she kept right on lecturing. Finally she stood up and demanded to be let off, saying something about a taxi. At this moment, a senorita of 15 or 16 saw her opportunity and began walking on the armrests, straddling the aisle, toward the now vacant seat. But a woman who had been nursing a baby who had also been seated on the floor, and who had boarded earlier, felt she was entitled to the seat. They arrived together, some words were exchanged, the passengers roared their disapproval and the teenager backed off. Meanwhile, the woman who announced she was leaving was having problems with her heavy bag stuffed between the luggage shelf and the ceiling. She tore violently at it and it finally came loose and tumbled down, but not before bouncing off my shoulder, somehow missing the baby’s head next to me.
At two in the morning we got the obligatory flat tire; it seemed every other vehicle I rode in the Andean countries got one. We were rolling again after a half-hour, but at four o’clock the driver stopped in a small village where amazingly there was an open restaurant. After dining and giving everyone the opportunity to relieve themselves (there was no toilet on the bus), he locked the door and disappeared with his helper, presumably to get some sleep. This wasn’t scheduled, of course, but there was nothing anyone could do about it. They returned around seven and proceeded to shuttle some spare parts and perform some light maintenance on the engine. It took several angry cries of “Vamos! Vamos!” to remind them that there were people on board interested in arriving at their destination. Finally we were on the road again and pulled into Potosi just before noon, some four hours late: all in all, a fairly typical Third World traveling experience.
Potosi is a mining town with a population of 100,000. It’s the highest city of its size in the world and the gray bleak mountains that surround it belie the colonial charm of its buildings and streets. The hats worn by the residents are very unusual oversized gray or brown felt toppers which resemble those of the American pilgrims, except for the missing buckle. It’s fashionable to say the Spaniards herded millions of Indians to their deaths in the mines they built after silver was discovered here. I’m not qualified to comment on that, but there’s no question that Potosi’s silver was the greatest source of wealth in the New World. Even today in Spain the expression, “It’s a Potosi,” means something of the highest quality. But in modern times tin has been the mainstay of the mining industry in Bolivia and the mine in Potosi is one of the country’s most important. I’d read that most Bolivian miners die of silicosis within ten years of beginning their jobs, but didn’t believe it. I took a tour of the mine with other travelers. We were fortunate to be able to do this because mining conditions are a sensitive issue in Bolivia, and the mines are often closed to visitors. Halfway through the tour I wondered how anyone could survive ten months here; the foul odors, dust and sudden extreme changes of temperature made me queasy, even after gratefully emerging into the fresh air.
I wanted to take the train to Sucre, so I went to the station to inquire about a ticket. The train took eight hours to cover a mere 175 kilometers. The down train from LaPaz was supposed to arrive at 11 AM, but Bolivian railway timetables serve only as wall decorations. I asked around for information and got the usual string of contradictory answers, so I gave up and decided to go by road. I flagged down a minibus and arrived in Sucre after five dusty but fairly civilized hours.
Sucre is the country’s official capital, but that status is maintained only because the Supreme Court meets here: all the other functions of government are conducted in LaPaz. The local ordinance requires all buildings to be painted original colonial white, and thus it’s an attractive and gracious city. I found a room at the Residencial Bustillo, where a collie with black ribbons tied around his neck and front paws stood guard in the courtyard, barking at guests as they came and went. Dogs seem to have it good in South America, compared to their brethren in Asia and Africa, which are beaten and eaten much more often. You see them trotting everywhere, from the smallest villages to the big cities. I was never able to figure out if these dogs belonged to certain families; they seemed to be taken care of by the population at large, or else left to fend on their own. I rarely saw one given any affection, but then I never saw one being mistreated, so I’d have to say they have nothing to complain about.
It was while reading my guidebook in bed that I became obsessed with the idea of getting into Paraguay from Bolivia. Originally I had planned to make a two-week circuit of the Altiplano towns – LaPaz, Potosi, Sucre and Cochabamba – returning to LaPaz in time to catch the weekly Friday train to Calama, Chile, a rail journey written up as the most spectacular on the continent. I would then spend a month working my way down to Santiago, recrossing the Andes into Argentina, shooting over to Buenos Aires and then up to Paraguay, from where I intended to fly home. But now all I could think of was the Chaco: the word had become branded on my brain.
The Gran Chaco is a huge area of swamp and lowland forest covering southeast Bolivia, northeast Argentina and much of Paraguay. It’s a remote, inhospitable region where oil fields, cattle stations and Mennonite farming communities have been established, but little else in the way of human endeavor. Its primeval character is reflected in the 1975 discovery of a wild boar, formerly thought to be extinct since the Pleistocene era, now listed as Wagner’s peccary. The northern part of the Chaco is largely covered by an impenetrable tangle of thorny trees; it gets swampier as you go south, and here is one of the world’s most spectacular bird habitats, though seldom visited. The native Indians are the nomadic Guaranis, a friendly and peaceful tribe who work when they feel like it on the cattle stations.
Bolivia and Paraguay fought a war over this obscure real estate in the 1930s. Paraguay won and was given a large chunk of Bolivia in the final settlement. The frontier area is quiet now, but relations between the two countries still seem to be frosty. There’s one desolate, dry-season track, the Trans-Chaco Highway, that links Bolivia and Paraguay, and it was this thin red line on the map that seized my imagination. Practically the only vehicles that make the trip are tank trucks hauling black market fuel from Camiri to Filadelfia, and other smugglers of unspecified contraband. My guidebook published a letter from a dauntless traveler who had driven the track in his own vehicle; he warned of bogging down in the sand and mud, numerous forks without signposts and no one to ask directions, and advised taking a compass, winch and food and water for a week in case of breaking down or getting lost. The glory of reaching Paraguay this way set my soul on fire and it wasn’t until after the first rooster crowed that I managed to fall asleep.
* * *
I was happy to find myself in Sucre on the weekend, because I wanted to visit the Sunday market in Tarabuco, a village two hours away by road. Early Sunday morning I left my hotel and made my way up Calle Calvo, a long, tiring walk that took me to La Recoleta, a little square where cargo trucks stopped to add human beings to their loads. Two trucks sat idling, waiting for people; they wouldn’t wait long on market day in Tarabuco. There were four other travelers, three young men and a woman, buying coffee from a vendor. I couldn’t place their looks so I sidled up to listen to their conversation. So! I had finally caught up with some Israelis. I’d lost count of the number of times I’d seen that country spelled out under the Nacionalidad column in museum logbooks and hotel registers, but these were the first I encountered in person. This was, and still is, an unsolved mystery: why were so many Israelis traveling around South America, the continent furthest from their homeland? Moreover, why does nearly every South American country extend Israel preferential treatment, often requiring of its citizens only valid passports, while citizens of most other countries must apply for visas? Perhaps these four were bona fide travelers who were here for the same reason I was – simply for the joy of visiting strange, faraway lands. But I had my doubts.
South Americans must be the most religious people on earth – or rather, the most fetishistic. A huge statue of Jesus or Mary dominates nearly every city. Shrines and statues of various saints dot every highway, and it’s not uncommon to see an entire busload cross themselves as they ride past. Even at military checkpoints one often sees a small, glass-encased statue garlanded with flowers. Pope John Paul is deified, naturally enough; his profile is everywhere, on postage stamps, posters, taxi dashboards and even on the covers of phonebooks, his outstretched hands gently protecting the skylines of Quito and Lima. Nowhere else will you find so many devout Catholics, though most are selective about which of the Ten Commandments to follow. “Thou shall not steal” surely provokes much laughter around the continent.
It was cold, uncomfortably cold as we bounced along the dirt road to Tarabuco. Now and then I stood up for a sweeping view of this bleak yet inspiring landscape, but I couldn’t remain standing for long in that frigid, rushing air wearing only a sweater over my shirt. I hunkered down with the Indians, trying to steal some warmth from the edge of a blanket wrapped around two children. The Israelis sat across from me, chatting among themselves. One had a stumpy head and fat lips that reminded me of a parrotfish. There was another un-Bolivian-looking passenger seated near me, a French lady as it turned out. She was in her fifties, silver-haired, petite and talkative. Hers was a strange story. She had been traveling around South America for eight months, was nearly broke, but her wealthy divorced husband was sending her enough money to finance her travels. In a month she would be flying to Cuba, and by her expression, anticipated some kind of reaction from me, but I denied her the satisfaction. I sized her up as some sort of communist dreamer, and when she said, “I wish for the solidarity of all the countries in the world,” I was sure of it.
Why is it that I’ve always met these leftist types traveling alone, but never anyone on the far right? I challenged her without hesitating: “But how can you have solidarity between the people of France and the people of Uganda?” She became suspicious of me and smiled wanly, saying it was important to find a way because all people are brothers.
Tarabuco finally came into view; we left the road and descended to the main plaza, where I slipped away from the unwanted company on that truck. It was still early, about nine, and the market was not yet crowded. Vendors were setting up their stalls, and there were Indians dressed in bright red striped shawls, along with amazing black hats with pom-poms lining the edges. I thought they resembled an outdated version of the American football helmet, but later learned they were modeled after the headgear worn by the Spanish conquistadors. Some of these Indians wandered around strumming the charango, a small stringed instrument with a body made from a whole armadillo shell. A short walk to the perimeter of the village brought me to a point where I could see more Indians streaming in from the surrounding hamlets on donkeys, on foot, and in dilapidated pick-up trucks. I stumbled into a large courtyard which was the main market area, and after taking some pictures, I put my camera away and sat on a stone wall to take it all in. I’ve visited many colorful markets in many countries, but this was something really special, and the melodies of the wandering charango-players added just the perfect touch. It seemed too authentic to be undiscovered, and it was; as more Indians filled the village, more tourist vans arrived from Sucre until I couldn’t look anywhere without seeing a gringo aiming his camera. I would never have believed that large tour groups, filled with the kind of people who put a premium on comfort and safety, would come to a place like Tarabuco.
By eleven, I shouldn’t have been surprised to see a large contingent of older Israeli tourists swarming around, rudely poking their cameras in the faces of startled natives. Was this what I had come to South America for? It made me wonder again what on earth so many of them were doing here. To top it all off, an Israeli camera crew was filming a particularly colorful procession of locals from atop a tourist bus, and a technician was telling visitors to stay away until they were finished filming. This incredible spectacle hardened my resolve to make a detour off the beaten path and head to Paraguay on a road guaranteed not to carry any other gringos or holocaust survivors. It would’ve been nice to begin right there – Tarabuco was in the right direction – but all my belongings were in the Residencial Bustillo so I had to return to Sucre.
There were none but Indians on the truck I boarded, and with the mid-day sun shining, it was much warmer than it had been in the early morning. In spite of the winter and the high altitude, every afternoon was like a crisp, sunny October day back home, since we weren’t too far south of the equator. Even at night the temperature never got below freezing, and snow fell only on the high peaks. It was great to be standing in the corner of the truck in the company of colorfully-dressed campesinos, breathing the fresh air and absorbing the brilliant blue sky and rugged Altiplano terrain. There was a mystique about this country, Bolivia, a mystique felt by another traveler who wrote of it as “the Tibet of the Americas.” I’ve never been to Tibet, but I like the comparison. Yes, it was great to be standing, and that was good because the truck often stopped in tiny villages to pick up more passengers and their belongings, and soon there was no choice but to stand. Only mothers with small children were allowed to sit. The strength of the men impressed me. These were little fellows averaging about five feet tall, who waited with family or friends by the side of the road with tremendous sacks of flour. As the truck came to a stop, they would hoist a sack on a shoulder and come hobbling to the side, where the male passengers would grab one end, and after much huffing and puffing, work it over the edge. I pitched in a few times; it was a good way to make friends with other riders.
We were really weighed down as we got near Sucre, but it was a happy and harmonious crowd, talking and joking in a tongue known as Aymara, wincing and laughing off the bad bumps in the road. There was a pick-up truck parked on the other side of the road, and as we approached, a policeman got out of the cab and raised his hand. The driver stopped. Four other cops leaped from the rear of the pick-up and climbed up the side of our truck, shouting. I didn’t know what was going on; I was scared. They demanded the baggage of some passengers whom they picked at random, and threw it over the side. There were some feeble protests; an old woman almost in tears pleaded with one of them who was standing next to me, but the bully ignored her. I studied his face. It was the same cold, unfeeling face of the Bangkok motorscooter cop who pocketed the keys of my taxi driver for some minor infraction, the same scowl of the state trooper who cursed and arrested me for the heinous crime of hitchhiking on the Ohio Turnpike, of the big brute who chased a bunch of poor old people off the sidewalk in Tbilisi, Georgia for vending without a license – the face of the bastard cop. Most cops whom I’ve known are decent guys, but you’ll always run into these bastard types in every country. The seized bags, about a dozen in all, were loaded by the police into the back of their pick-up truck. They numbered them with chalk and wrote out receipts, which they gave to the owners. The old woman begged for her sack but was simply told manana. Yeah sure, tomorrow – and where was she supposed to go to claim it? If they were looking for anything illegal, they could’ve dumped the contents of her bag on the ground and refilled it in a matter of seconds. Why else would they be interested in confiscating this stuff – because the truck was overloaded? However you looked at it, it was absurd and sickening. Heartless bastards.
The driver started up the engine and pulled back on the road to Sucre, as the police truck sped off in the opposite direction. All the passengers were angry, especially those whose possessions were taken away. What a sad ride it was, the last ten or fifteen miles. The old senora sniffled into her handkerchief, as a young girl who must’ve been her granddaughter comforted her; it was a touching scene. She was still wiping her eyes when we reached the edge of the city, the poor area where most of the passengers quietly got off.
* * *
It was the same old story: ask three different people, get three different answers. According to the hotel manager, there were mucho buses to Camiri. I went to the bus station and the girl at the information desk said there were none at all – my only chance was to find a truck. I left the station then, but out of curiosity went back to personally inquire the ticket sellers of the various companies. A woman at the Flota Cotillia window told me they ran two buses a week to Camiri; one was due to arrive from Cochabamba the next morning. What time? She wasn’t sure, but thought it best to be at the station by eight. It didn’t sound promising; I decided a truck would be my best bet.
That night, I wrote a letter to my parents informing them of my change of plans, and that if I disappeared it would most likely be in the depths of the Chaco. I gave it to a group of four English students, three boys and a girl, who were staying at the Bustillo and flying back to LaPaz the next day, from where I preferred that it be mailed. They were pleasant companions, and we went out to the Dona Maxima restaurant for a Last Supper of sorts. Considering that possibility, I broke my cardinal health rule and ordered a large green salad to accompany my chicken with orange sauce, and also risked corazons des palmas (palm hearts), a familiar menu entry I’d never got around to trying. They were delicious, as was the chicken. We drank 19 pisco sours between us, which made it a night to remember, and staggered back to our little hotel.
I was up at 6:30 and took a taxi to La Recoleta. There wasn’t a truck in sight. I felt stupid and tired and slightly hungover. I waited there for almost an hour but nothing came, so I walked two blocks and hailed a taxi to the bus station. I wasn’t expecting any bus to arrive from Cochabamba, but you never knew. The woman I’d spoken to the previous day was there and immediately recognized me. She was sorry, but there’d be no bus to Camiri today. This came as no surprise. “What happened to the bus from Cochabamba?” I said. She didn’t have an answer, but she seemed concerned for me, and suggested I go to the petrol station nearby and ask around for a ride; I could leave my heavy pack with her so I wouldn’t have to walk uphill with it.
There was a long queue of trucks waiting to fuel up at what may have been Sucre’s only petrol station. “Vas a Camiri?” I asked over and over, and the reply was always no. A curious mood had come over me. I certainly didn’t want to revert to my original plan and backtrack to LaPaz, but there was the possibility of not finding transport towards Paraguay. Sucre was a nice place to be stuck but I really wanted to be moving. Yet there was no rush; I had five weeks ahead of me with no set plans, no deadlines, and a lot of options. This pulling from all directions left me in a state of limbo.
Incredibly, I finally hit upon a driver who said yes, he was going to Camiri. But this didn’t fill me with joy; his truck was falling apart, and I wondered if it could withstand 24 hours on a terrible road, which was what my guidebook warned. “How many hours to Camiri?” I asked. Twelve, he said. Twelve! I told him this wasn’t possible, to which he replied fourteen at most. I didn’t trust this guy, but I negotiated a price and ran to the bus station to pick up my gear. The lady at Flota Cotillia was very happy for me, and I thanked her for being so nice.
My spirits sank when I climbed aboard. There was a small, frightened-looking woman and three young children huddled in front under the shelter of crossbeams, their blankets and bedrolls spread out. In the rear, on the wooden plank floor, was a puddle of diarrhea. Not something to look forward to, a long ride with sick children. They looked at me like an unwelcome guest in their home. Well, I thought, it wouldn’t be the happiest of rides, but it was better than no ride. The fuel tank was filled and we swung out on the road to Camiri. But we had only gone a few blocks when the truck turned onto a side street and then into an oil-blackened yard which served as an outdoor garage for the local mechanics. I sighed and took out my “Spanish Verbs and Essentials of Grammar” and tried to study, but he clinking sounds of tools distracted me. I grew restless and stood up to peer over the side; the front seat was now sitting beside the truck! “When are we leaving?” I asked. “Ahorita,” the driver replied. At the same moment his friend said, “Dos horas.” Right away – in two hours. They looked at each other and laughed. I’m glad they thought it was funny. I was growing irritable, being stationary for so long, but resumed reading, occasionally looking at the clocktower in town. Then I saw them walking off with the gearbox. I said, “Fuck this,” dropped my pack over the side, and left.
Back at the petrol station I found myself peeling oranges and bananas instead of asking around for a lift. I’d had enough, and was reconsidering the return trip to LaPaz. But it was still early, and I admonished myself for not having more patience. After eating, I jumped in a taxi and asked to go to La Recoleta, for lack of anything better to do. “Adonde?” asked a fat woman who was seeing off a relative. The little bus was going to Monteagudo, a town which didn’t appear on my map, though I vaguely recalled reading something about it. I wanted to look it up in my book again, but the driver was about to pull away. “Camiri,” I said to the woman. “Ah, alli, alli!” she exclaimed, practically shoving me through the door. It would’ve been nice to think about it. This bus was an abortion on wheels. The gas tank, for God’s sake, sat on the floor next to the stickshift! This didn’t deter the driver from smoking. But I was on the road again and that’s all that mattered. If it broke down, I’d simply wait and flag down the next vehicle.
We were on the same road I’d traveled the day before, the road to Tarabuco. It wasn’t looking good. The engine was running poorly, and to no one’s surprise it stalled several times. The passengers looked like regular folks except for the male occupants of the rear seat, who appeared to be three generations of retards. The youngest one sat in the corner staring ahead, saliva trickling down his chin, shirt open, his fat, caramel-colored belly sagging onto his lap. The driver seemed like a cruel man. Once, while passing through a village, he had to stop for a fat sow taking her sweet time to cross the road. This enraged him. In the next village a piglet stood squarely in the middle of the road, but this time he accelerated to the accompaniment of rising alarm through the bus. I didn’t hear a thump, but when I looked out the back window I saw the poor beast on its side kicking violently, then actually springing up from the road like a Mexican jumping bean before disappearing in the dust. Some passengers were amused, but most weren’t and made no attempt to conceal their anger at the driver.
Tarabuco is a boring town at noon on Monday; far fewer Indians in the main square, no charango players, little animation. Just the place for our driver to stop for a while to tinker with the engine. Goddamn this never-ending bullshit! The coca leaves vendor was filling a bag for a customer, and I was tempted to buy some just to keep occupied, but there was no way I’d touch the stuff again, not after what happened in Cuzco. I bought some peanuts and sat on a crumbling abutment munching on them and watching the driver and his helper standing in the front end of the truck, dismembering the carburetor. Had I done the right thing? Would I ever get to the border on hopeless Bolivian transport? The best adventures of my life, I reflected, always involved delays, waiting, wasting time, and much irascibility on my part. It didn’t seem fair. Other trucks had pulled into the main square, and while none of them looked particularly roadworthy, I was tempted to ask around to see if any were going to Camiri. For all I knew our truck would be marooned here for a week. But it wasn’t: the repairs were quickly accomplished. Not only that, but the engine performance improved dramatically, and we had no more mechanical difficulties at all.
For the first time I was on a road I didn’t have to share with other tourists or travelers, for there were no famous sights, no colorful markets, no recommendations at all in the direction I was going, and I was totally happy about this. There could be no turning back now, no revising of plans now that we had left Tarabuco on an obscure back road. We bowled along on this dusty back road until I realized it was the main road. It wound through the Altiplano at its most magnificent, nothing anywhere, nothing but sun, clouds and parched mountains in the distance, which were sometimes darkened by great cloud shadows gliding across them. With the truck running so well, everyone seemed happier. Even the driver was smiling, and turned around now and then to joke with the passengers. There was much joking and laughing and storytelling, and even though they were speaking too fast for me to understand much, the atmosphere put me totally at ease. The man who had been sitting next to me had gotten off in Tarabuco, and I had the two-man bench seat to myself. Everyone was coated with dust, but this discomfort only added to the merriment. The road became terrifying; there were unguarded stretches with sheer dropoffs of hundreds of feet. We passed clusters of white crosses where vehicle had plunged over; sometimes a license plate was nailed on as a macabre touch. You can only silently convey to the driver, “My life is in your hands, amigo,” and wonder if those bald tires spinning beneath you, three feet from certain death, are inflated properly. You’ve survived hairy adventures before, and you know you’ll probably live to tell about this one too, but the more you survive, the more you think about the odds catching up with you, or alternatively, whether there just might be a guardian angel looking out for you.
I remember that afternoon so well; it was the happiest day of the 106 I spent in South America. When I reflect on the pure joy of wandering, of traveling alone among people and through lands I’ll never see again, not having a care in the world, I fondly recall that day. We passed through small towns whose names I never learned, neat towns with simple houses, spacious plazas, and small, lovely churches where nothing ever happens and no outsiders go out of their way to see, towns and villages whose only contact with the world was this road, and for that reason I’ll never forget them.
At one of these towns, and there weren’t many, the men I had mistakenly assumed were the retard’s father and grandfather got off the bus. Then Hector, our driver, walked to the rear and asked the boy where he was going, but he was unable to speak intelligibly. After a long but futile attempt to learn his story and figure out where he was trying to go, Hector coaxed him off the bus, carrying his bag behind him. That done, he and his helper maneuvered the gas tank, a spare gas tank I then realized, out the door and poured the contents into the actual tank – this a necessity on a long journey where we never saw a single petrol station.
We came upon a truck stalled on the road and Hector displayed his mechanical skill once again by bringing it to life. But this truck had a major problem – a damaged driveshaft- and it could not keep up with us. The ethics of the long, lonely road required that we ride together with the crippled vehicle. We’d been barreling along merrily for hours, and this sudden restraint irritated the hell out of me, ethics or not. I longed to be zooming again, stretching my legs across the wide seat, shucking peanuts and seeing as much land as I could before it got dark. When we reached a stream that crossed the road, vehicles and passengers got out for a drink, and I stood in line to dunk my head under the little cataract where the water spilled from the road into a gully. A clean face and a full radiator seemed to transform Hector, because he gave up on the other truck and took off like he was flying a plane. He had my total support!
With the appearance of more and more trees, I sensed that we had left the domain of the Andes Indian and were now entering a different world, though one with a mystique no less alluring than that of the Altiplano. In fact, we were on the edge of the Gran Chaco, and the loss of the lofty peaks and luminous sky, of the Indians and their flocks of alpaca and llama, meant the gain of a vast, primeval refuse of swamp and scrub forest as little explored as Antarctica, where man’s spotty endeavors of cattle ranching and oil drilling meant nothing to the resident jaguars and tapirs, which I hoped to see but never did. The trees assumed grotesque shapes in the headlights, like some gnarled, prehistoric form of life. As darkness descended it became impossible to see what the side of the road looked like, and that was just as well. Hector sped along, but never recklessly. He was a safe driver and I never doubted his ability to get us to Monteagudo in one piece.
We reached a nameless town in the early evening, the last town before Monteagudo, and stopped for supper. Hector parked on a side street in front of a building where meals were served – you couldn’t call it a restaurant – but having eaten a few dubious meals in remote roadhouses in Peru and gotten away with it, I didn’t feel like risking hepatitis one more time, so I stayed on the bus and polished off my last apple and orange. Then we were off and never stopped again, reaching Monteagudo at two in the morning. The bus then became a free hotel as the passengers who were continuing to Camiri curled up for the night on their seats. Unable to get comfortable, I unrolled my thin sleeping bag and slept in the aisle. Hector, who thought I was strange for eating fruit on the bus and going to Paraguay, and who had taken a liking to me, and I to him, woke me up at dawn to tell me there was a truck next to us leaving for Camiri soon. I jumped up and got my things together. He suggested I stay in Monteagudo for the day because there was a festival going on, but I never even considered it. As I left the bus, he shook my hand and wished me luck getting to Paraguay.
The Camiri truck was a snazzy late-model pick-up, but impossibly crowded and very uncomfortable. The driver was a fat man who enjoyed flaunting his cab space and free time, the kind of man most people despise. He stopped at every farmhouse along the road, buying eggs, then live chickens, then vegetables, and finally a huge slab of beef, and getting into long conversations with the farmers and their field hands, who he obviously knew well. The countryside was pleasant, like the sometimes fertile, sometimes wooded rolling hills of Wisconsin, and the road was hard-earth and smooth, but there was one long stretch of deep mud being worked by bulldozers, and I couldn’t imagine any large, heavy vehicle getting through.
The sight of Camiri, a heap of flat houses and little else, filled me with despair. Had I been unaware that there was an airport, a presumably cheap ticket out if all else failed – and this looked like a town where everything would fail you – I might’ve given up on life. For some reason I’d led myself to believe that this was an important oil town, and expected to see refineries, saloons, sports cars and all the usual trappings of wealth, but it looked so insignificant that it seemed absurd to even ask if there were oil trucks headed to Paraguay, so I didn’t. I’d take the first vehicle going to Boyuibe, the last town in Bolivia, 64 kilometers away, and worry about Paraguay when I got there.
Not only was I despondent, I was also hungry. Fresh fruits and vegetables are great, and Americans especially should eat a lot more of them, but it had been two days since I’d eaten meat and a carnivorous instinct in me was crying for it. After walking five blocks, I found a small restaurant, but when I opened the door and saw a lone man sobbing face-down on a table I hurried off. I asked another man the direction to Boyuibe and he gave me a lift up a hill to a police shack, where he said I should wait. I walked inside and asked the policeman if I was in the right place. He demanded to see my passport, and after finding the Bolivian entry stamp, gave it back to me. I could tell he had no desire to help me. Christ, what a town!
I sat on a rock, fifty yards from that shack, and waited. I was edgy, impatient, restless, pissed off at the world. I was sick of this waiting business. I wanted to be moving. Motion made me a happy man; the uncertainty of waiting made me an ogre. What made it unbearable was the number of trucks that actually came by – but none were going to Boyuibe! For an hour at least ten of them stopped by the shack and each time they did I went and asked, then turned back, watching that mean cop checking their papers, then kicking away the rock on the cable that held down the red and white striped barrier. I tried to imagine what it was like to be such a useless creature. More than anything I wanted to get out of this wretched town and get to Boyuibe before dark.
A big truck rumbled up the hill, I went up to the driver, and he was Boyuibe-bound; barring an accident or breakdown I’d be getting my wish, and once the cop released the barrier and we were rolling, life was wonderful again. Now I was excited. My guidebook said that no “regular transport” went beyond Camiri, so the best part had just begun, but I quickly discovered why Camiri was the end of the line for nearly all transport: we hit a stretch of road so rough I could feel my tonsils flying around. Among other cargo my truck was transporting a motorcycle, and I made the mistake of leaning against it, blackening my right front pant leg with grease. Someone’s pet parrot splatted on my bag. But worst of all, as I rummaged for a stowaway apple, I discovered that I had left my two-ounce trial size tube of Fabrege organic shampoo (with wheat germ oil and honey) in the shower stall of the Residencial Bustillo. I’d made a bet with myself that I could make two ounces of shampoo last for six weeks – my first tube lasted five – but now there was no hope of collecting on it.
Two men kept pestering me with questions, the usual interrogation: where was I going, what was my country, my job, was I rich, was I married? I wanted them to shut up and leave me alone. Their dialect was atrocious, a Bronxified Spanish. We drove across a wide river. I’d never crossed a river so wide in a motor vehicle, but it was the dry season and the water was only a foot deep. I couldn’t even pick out where the road continued on the other side, but the driver did and we plowed on. And then, without warning, we were in Boyuibe. I couldn’t believe we had arrived so soon, and I couldn’t believe how tiny this place was, this town on the western frontier of no-man’s-land. And as dramatically as Camiri had sunk my spirits, Boyuibe elevated them. I still can’t understand this, how an ordinary little town with a dirt Main Street, horses, hitching posts, church, pool hall and decrepit railroad station could uplift me so suddenly. I think the railroad tracks had something to do with it. To the east of town there was nothing but an awful road through the Chaco, but north and south the railroad ran in an unbroken line from LaPaz to Buenos Aires, and it was sweet knowing that if ten years passed before the next truck went to Paraguay, every day a local train ran to Yacuiba, on the border of Argentina. What is it about the sight of railroad tracks vanishing in the horizon that makes us feel so good? It’s the secure feeling that the trains will always run. Unlike roads, railroad tracks are not affected by the rainy season, nor do they become dangerous when there’s snow or ice. They don’t get flat tires and they don’t run out of gas, and I’ve never been on a train anywhere in the world that’s broken down (except once in Connecticut on Amtrak). Had the railroad run through Camiri, I’m sure I would’ve found the place tolerable.
My first priority was to get information about transport to Paraguay, so I walked to the customs house. There was a man slouched in a seat outside the small building, talking and joking with four younger men. I introduced myself as an American traveler who wanted to go to Paraguay via the Trans-Chaco Highway. Startled at first, they loosened up and said yes, there were many trucks going to Paraguay every day, but I could tell they weren’t serious. Naturally, they wanted to know what had brought me to Boyuibe and I enjoyed talking about myself. I was in a much better mood than I’d been with the two Spanish-language butchers on the truck. When I said that I drove an oil truck back in the States, one guy said he was a truck driver too and he would be leaving Boyuibe for Paraguay at two o’clock the following morning, going all the way to Asuncion, the capital. I didn’t fancy leaving at that hour and missing the scenery, but it sounded like a rare and great stroke of luck, so I agreed to meet him here.
There were two hotels in Boyuibe, the Chaqueno and the Guadalquivir. I liked the name Guadalquivir so I went there. Costs in this part of the world are very low, but this was the first time I’d paid less than a dollar for a night’s accommodation. I loved this hotel as much as I loved the town. All the rooms faced a huge courtyard cluttered with plants and construction materials. There was a sink in the middle where I shaved in the open air, and incredibly a shower and flush toilet in working condition. The hotel was run by a young woman with three children and a fourth on the way. There were no restaurants in town so I asked her if the hotel served meals. Did it ever! I sat down to a huge dish of lomo saltado (stir-fried steak strips, potatos and onions) and that tall, familiar brown bottle of Pilsener, South America’s finest beer, with the red and blue label showing a laughing king straddling a barrel, mug in one hand and scepter in the other. To discover this town, then to find this hotel, and then to be eating such a great meal – it was overwhelming, and a cause for celebration. I ordered another beer, then a third. These were big bottles and I was getting a serious buzz, but I asked for a fourth to take with me, promising to return with the empty bottle. It was dark now; I could see a large crowd and candles burning at the railway station so I went there. There was a mood of happy expectation that always accompanies an arriving train. Not believing the posted schedule, I asked the stationmaster about it and was told that there were indeed five trains a week in either direction. The vendors, their faces lit by candles, were doing a brisk business selling apples and empanadas. The crowded down train from Santa Cruz rolled in, bringing chaos to the platform. I was glad I wasn’t boarding, but also glad to know that if all else failed, I could easily leave by train. I was so happy and content here. I was also tipsy. In my tipsiness, I clearly saw that I should spend the rest of my life here. I could become fluent in Spanish and live to be a hundred on a diet of meat, potatoes, beer and fresh fruit. The railroad station was all I needed for a social life, and when solitude called, I could take a five minute walk and disappear.
Morning arrived, and with it the same thoughts. After a breakfast of steak, eggs and coffee at the Guadalquivir, I headed to the customs house to see if there was any news, hoping to confirm my ride that night. The door and windows were open, but nobody was around. I pulled out a chair and found my place in Shakespeare’s Othello. When I travel I bring along some paperback Classics I’ve never read, and a volume or two of Nietzsche to brush up on. I finished Othello and turned to section 302 of The Gay Science for inspiration: “….to enjoy a strong, bold, audacious soul; to go through life….festively, impelled by the longing for undiscovered worlds and seas, people and gods….” It would be disappointing to leave Boyuibe so soon. It was the perfect place to read, or even write, a book, and there was plenty of reading to do before returning home. It was that old conflict rising again: my need for free time and leisure versus my restlessness and desire to be moving. Yes, I wanted to spend the rest of my life in Boyuibe, but I didn’t want to spend another night there.
A woman and the man I recognized from the previous day showed up at the customs house. Evidently, they were both officials of some kind although neither wore a uniform. I exchanged greetings with the man, and he told the woman my story. “There are trucks going to Paraguay today?” I asked her, trying to be friendly.
“Paraguay! No! Nothing! The road is very bad.”
“But there was a man here yesterday who said he is driving to Paraguay tonight. It’s not true?”
“There is no one who goes to Paraguay. You must go to Argentina first, to Formosa, then to Asuncion. It is more safe.”
How gullible I’d been to believe the man who drove a truck and would be leaving town at two in the morning, going all the way to Asuncion no less – and I had believed him. Why are people like that? Why would anyone rob me of a night’s sleep just for a laugh? I took out my pocket dictionary to look up the Spanish word for joke – broma. “He is coming at two o’clock tonight?” I demanded of the man. He hadn’t made up the story, but had gone along with it. I pretended to be angry with him.
“Two o’clock,” he said, but he wouldn’t look at me.
“You make a joke, don’t you?”
“Two o’clock,” he repeated, staring at the ground.
The woman had brought up a point I hadn’t considered. How safe was the road to Paraguay? I couldn’t imagine a more convenient place to be murdered and have your body dumped than the Chaco. What kind of man would I be sitting next to anyway, smuggling oil or maybe drugs into another country? The risk factor was part of the adventure, of course, but even if I made the trip safely, it wouldn’t be much fun riding all that time with a man I loathed. I began thinking that it might be best just to give up on this whole thing after all.
I walked back to the Guadalquivir, paid my bill (85 cents), and returned with my pack; I wanted to be ready if something great and unexpected happened. There was a surprising number of trucks for a road which supposedly carried no “regular transport.” (I didn’t realize at the time that three roads intersected in Boyuibe, one of which paralleled the rail line.) They would stop at the gate, I would ask the passengers if they were headed to Paraguay, and each time they said no and laughed. If not Paraguay, then it would have to be Yacuiba, right near the Argentine border, and when a big truck with plenty of space rolled to a stop at the little customs house in the early afternoon, and the driver said “Yacuiba,” I reluctantly climbed in, feeling like a quitter and a failure. Only a half-mile down the dirt road was a military barracks I hadn’t known about, where he stopped and got out again with his papers. The soldier entered the details into a logbook. So this was where I should’ve come, damn it! These were the guys who could tell me if it was possible to get to Paraguay! My mind raced like a flywheel. Should I get off and ask, and risk losing this ride? Should I do it? Yes, do it! Hurry up! No, maybe I shouldn’t. Hurry up, you idiot! If you wait any longer….
The driver walked back to the cab. I didn’t do anything. We began to move. My mind had thrashed madly for thirty seconds, but my body hadn’t budged an inch. There was nothing to do but resign myself to the fact that I was headed to the border with Argentina, not Paraguay, and enjoy the ride. And I did enjoy it. The road became narrow and tortuous and there were some very nasty thorn-studded branches that threatened to rip my face off if I didn’t pay attention and duck. Once we passed a small oilfield, the sight of a burn-off flame licking the fading sky strangely pleasant in an expanse of land so largely uninhabited. There were a few small settlements – a dairy farm, a logging camp – but nothing else aside from the heavy growth which could not be classified as jungle, though I wouldn’t know what else to call it.
It was dark and much warmer when we reach Villamontes. I wondered if there was malaria here, my old bugaboo. This was our meal stop and I got off to buy biscuits from a vendor, which I shared with the other passengers who were all women, most with small children. We got a flat tire shortly after leaving, but we made it to Yacuiba around one o’clock that night, which was about six hours later than what I had anticipated. There was no need to look for a room at that hour; the driver pulled into what appeared to be a small warehouse adjacent to his house, and let us few remaining passengers sleep in the truck. In the morning I walked five blocks to the Argentina border and that’s where my story ends.
AND THEN CAME PARAGUAY
Well, I made it to Paraguay, entering and later exiting by way of Argentina, and it’s worth a few lines, but before I get to that I want to make some comments. I wrote my Bolivia travelogue, I believe, in 1986, the year after my trip. It was never published. I’d forgotten about it long ago, but I came across it in a manila envelope while moving all my stuff from Long Island to upstate New York. I slightly edited what you just read, which was taken directly from the diary I kept, which I also just came across and re-read for the first time in 35 years. I notice that I faithfully wrote in my diary most days while traveling through Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia, but I got lazy after that, writing just a little about Paraguay, and nothing at all in Argentina and Chile, from where I flew home, snagging a cheap flight on Lan Chile from Arica to Miami, sleeping on the airport floor, then flying standby to New York. I said it elsewhere and I’ll say it again: Christ man, it was so hassle-free traveling at home and all around the world back in the 1980s. I neglected my diary, but I did take notes on the hotels and restaurants I patronized, with the intention of sending them for publication in the South American Handbook, the guidebook I used. This book, which was first published in 1921 and revised every year (though I don’t know what’s going on in the age of Covid), has been called the greatest travel guide ever written in the English language, and I heartily agree. But what I really want to say here is that, for someone who prides himself on his memory, I can’t believe how clearly I remember half the things I wrote about Bolivia, while having no recollection at all of the other half. I guess it’s just hard for me to accept that my brain, like everyone else’s, diminishes with age; hence, the importance of keeping a diary if you want to relive your adventures later in life – something I usually did, but not always.
While doodling on the internet in 2021, I learned that the Trans-Chaco Highway – 771 kilometers (479 miles) from the border to Asuncion, with only two towns of any size, Filadelfia and Pozo Colorado, along the way – was paved in 2007, but never properly maintained, and according to an intrepid traveler who drove it in 2018 (see mowgli-adventures.com) is a nightmare of deep potholes and washed out sections during the rainy season, though apparently an improvement on what it used to be, namely the worst road in South America. Now here’s what’s really crazy. Filadelfia is in the middle of nowhere, a bit north of the halfway point. This is what I wrote, verbatim, in my diary: “[I] visited Filadelfia, a German Mennonite colony in the northwest of that country, which would have been the first town of any importance reached had I made it on the Trans-Chaco Highway. There, while waiting for the bus back to Asuncion, I met an American missionary who said that no oil trucks had come through from Bolivia for several months owing, he thought, to the shattered Bolivian economy. He also said he had not known anyone who had traveled that road. This made me feel better about giving up, but also made me dream more longingly about that border, about what it looks like, if there are any signs there, what the soldier who must do six-month stints at that remote, hot, insect-infested post would think about a lone traveler showing up and politely asking for his passport to be stamped.” I don’t remember any of this, which also means that the portion of the road between Filadelfia and Asuncion, 288 miles, couldn’t have been that bad if I traveled it both ways by bus, but again, I don’t remember a single detail about it, and I don’t even remember being in Filadelfia! Somebody help me! Perhaps the road was incomparably worse north of Filadelfia, but I’m still confused.
I distinctly remember three things about Paraguay, which appears to have been a long-running benevolent dictatorship when I was there under a strongman named Alfredo Stroessner, the native son of a German father and a Spanish mother. I was walking around Asuncion when a motorcade, apparently carrying the big man himself behind tinted windows, came down the street. In the procession was an army truck with seven or eight soldiers on both sides training their rifles at everyone on the sidewalk as they drove by, which for a few seconds meant me. I got the impression that anyone making a suspicious move would’ve been filled with holes. I took a relaxing 24-hour river cruise on a boat carrying passengers and freight down the Paraguay River, from Asuncion to Concepcion, sleeping on the deck. And I met one traveler, only one, a young German guy, during the nine or ten days I was in the country. And there lies the appeal of Paraguay. It’s such an unclassifiable place, famous for nothing, that no one ever goes there. At least I’ve never met anyone who’s been there, nor have I ever met a citizen of Paraguay anywhere in the world. Nothing ever happens there and nobody expects anything to happen. It has never been in the news in my lifetime; no wars, no violent revolutions, no assassinations, no natural disasters, no horrific accidents. And it totally lacks the natural or manmade features that draw foreign visitors, which is why I’ve never seen or heard anything about tours to Paraguay, and I’ll bet you haven’t either. Can you name one fact about this country? Did you ever hear of Asuncion, the utterly non-descript capital, before reading this?
Ah, but hidden delights await you in Paraguay. More peculiar than delightful are the demographics. As in much of South and Central America, mestizos are the majority, but there are Guarani Indians too, and a cross-section of Europeans, the largest and most important element being Germans, whose industriousness, especially in the agricultural sector, seems to keep the country well-fed and happy despite the relative poverty. In fact, if you can believe Wikipedia, according to something called the World Happiness Index, which actually is a United Nations project, Paraguay is the happiest country in the world, nosing out Finland. Handicrafts include nanduti lace, unique to Paraguay and woven in beautiful colors, and like everything else in 1985, absurdly cheap. I bought a bunch for use as doilies under my framed family photographs. I’m not sure, but this lace may be a Spanish legacy, as the Paraguayan harp also might be. All harp music is lovely and ethereal, which is why when you die and go to Heaven, angels will serenade you for eternity. Paraguayan harp music is no exception. So iconic is the harp there, that the world’s largest ensemble, featuring 420 harpists, performed in Asuncion on October 26, 2013, making the Guinness World Records book. You can see this on YouTube. Just as wonderful are the bottle dancers. Like the harp music, I didn’t know anything about this before I got to Paraguay, and I didn’t attend any performances, though I did see them on postcards. Women in folk dress move to and fro with bottles, stacked one on top of the other and balanced on their heads. The most I saw, also on YouTube, was twelve. Watch it if you can use a little diversion from this upside-down world: it’s simply amazing.
But my lasting, wistful memory of Paraguay is what I never experienced: taking the Trans-Chaco Highway down from Bolivia. It all goes back to the quote of Herman Melville: “I am tormented with an everlasting itch for things remote.” Either you feel it or you don’t. If you do, you’ll understand.