Snapshot – An Argentine Pirate

I had stayed on an extra day in Sorata, Bolivia, with Ian and a scraggly Argentine traveller who looked like he’d been travelling for about 40 years. Given Tacu’s age, 22, this was quite an achievement. A pirate’s beard that scruffed its way down his cheeks surrounded a mouth that also had something of the pirate about it.

His teeth were yellowing, and some were missing, perhaps the result of a bar fight in a border town in Paraguay, forgotten by tourists but embraced by smugglers of pots and pans and coke and booze, the modern pirates, for whom honour trumps everything. And there our diminutive Argentine was challenged by the burly pirates, drunk and slurring and menacing:

“You. Boy. Do you dare say that Tereré be prepared with orange juice and not clearest water, sourced from this here tap?”

“I do,” he responded, looking up through the man’s bounteous cleavage, attempting and perhaps even achieving a look of defiance. “If you drink the yerba with nought but water it should be a hot bubbling broth, a mate and nothing else.”

“Damn you Argentina.” The pirate said before hefting a fist into Tacu’s head, causing first his displaced front tooth and then his face to hit the wooden planked floor. A moment later the pirate picked him up like a rag doll and sat him on the bench, ordered two pints of Caña, the fiery sugarcane liquor, then sat and sang with Tacu through the night as the liquor sealed the hole where the tooth had been and the mosquitoes struck the light again and again.

In the morning Tacu found himself nuzzled in the pillow of the pirate’s belly, his tooth at the bottom of the pint glass, all but dissolved by the liquor. He wiped the dribble from his beard and strode out across the town and into Bolivia.

Tacu was living in the garden of our hostel, “Mirador”, in a tent. I think the owner charged him about nothing, only requiring that Tacu do some cleaning now and again. Every morning he’d boil a couple of eggs and eat a banana, then spend a long while drinking mate while contemplating the view. Indeed, his main expenditure was yerba, the compressed forest that is the key ingredient of mate, and approximately half of his rucksack was taken up with packs of it. Apart from drinking mate he smoked weed and smiled a cheeky pirate’s smile.

Ian and I had arranged to trek up to a mysterious lagoon on the slopes of Illampu with Tacu, leaving early in the morning. We almost left without him – we’d organised to meet at 7am but at 10 minutes past the hour his tent was still sighing with sleep. The owner, a fat boisterous chap leant a sense of intellectual superiority by his glasses – an unusual sight in Bolivia, shouted towards the tent, and a moment later it burst into life, positively leaping towards us as Tacu scrambled on a pair of jeans and his trademark Paraguayan football shirt.

As he approached it became clear that this was not the first time he’d worn those jeans. Around the crotch were a series of extravagant rips, likely caused by an escape through the Bolivian jungle.

There he was, our little Argentine, traipsing through the jungles of central Bolivia, pursued by the local drug cartel after accidentally stumbling across an outpost hiding a mountain of cocaine, ready to be packed into kilogram bags and sent off in the backpacks of the couriers.

Through the night he trekked, thick sweat gluing his shirt to his front, mosquitoes attacking any skin left exposed, and the sound of the jungle pressing in on him from every side. Sometimes he’d hear a crack and fear the worst, a twig broken not by the jaguar, nor by the iguana, nor even the scuttling yellow squirrel, but by the thick-set boot of a guerrilla, grim-faced and determined in that dull unthinking way that those men marked by death have about them.

In the morning Tacu found himself curled up among the tentacled arms of a kapok tree, half-eaten by the jungle’s ants, and so wet that he had difficulty lifting himself up. Then he heard, faint at first but getting louder, the unmistakeable sound of human voices. He curled up smaller, so small he thought himself invisible, and dared not breathe. Crunching leaves, the gentle give of the moist forest floor, the voices now so intimately close they could be whipsering in his ear.

They stopped talking. They’d seen him, surely they’d seen him. He would be found, he must run.

The distinctive splatter sound of piss on a leaf. They hadn’t seen him. For some reason, perhaps because of the utterly familiar nature of the act, the man’s pissing calmed Tacu, and he exhaled the mouthful of air he’d held for the last 2 minutes in a long careless release. Immediately he knew his error, the shout went up and Tacu bounded out of the forest floor, a cornered jaguar, and hefted his shoulder into the first guerrilla’s back, who recoiled in pain and fell to the floor. The other, still pissing, tried to grab his rifle and swing round in the same movement; but, lacking the grace to do so, sent his hot stream bouncing off the rifle shaft and up into his own face. Tacu leaped towards him, growling and snarling, and raked his muddied claws into the guerrilla’s piss-hot eyes before disappearing into the jungle.

Bullets whizzed past, cutting down stalks and splintering trunks. He could hear their shouts, close but already muffled by the jungle, and he ran and ran and ran. Then a bullet whizzed between his legs, he felt the burn on his inner thigh and as he ran he reached down awkwardly to feel for damage. Just skin, there must be a hole down there, a perfect tear, and no blood. Could he be invincible? Was this the first sign? He ran faster, buoyed by the knowledge that he’d cheated death, cheated God, and let his legs burst through vines and ferns and felt his feet glide over the roots and the holes and the insects without touching a single one. Now the bursts of fire sounded far away, as if a memory, and he smiled and toungued the hole where the tooth had once been.

He ran for two days without stopping, on and on through the never-ending jungle, and when he stopped, at a river the colour of chocolate, he looked down and saw that his t-shirt was ripped all around the sides, and his jeans, in addition to  the perfect strip removed by the bullet, was roughly torn around the crotch. But he had not a scratch.

Tacu tramped towards us, smiling gleefully, a rucksack strapped on his back. Later, at the lake halfway up the mountain that represented the endpoint of our hike, we would find out that the bag was entirely taken up by bananas, 15 to be exact, which he laid out on the rock triumphantly, in the same way that a child might innocently hand over a soiled pair of pants to his parents and expect glowing praise. We nodded sincerely, somwehat perplexed, before taking out our intricately prepared sandwiches with a side of hard-boiled eggs, followed by mango and cashew nuts. We shared it all out – I ate 3 bananas, I couldn’t manage any more.

I’d wondered if he would race ahead of us, bounding up the grassy slopes and through the cornfields clinging to the mountain, but instead he stayed a little behind, chatting with Ian about Buenos Aires and Paraguay – Ian and Tacu make up 2 of the 3 foreigners who visit Paraguay each year for pleasure.

When we came across a river he scuttled amongst the boulders and filled up his plastic water bottle. The river was far downstream of pooing cows and sheep and goats but I didn’t say anything – I assumed that his immune system was different to mine, hardened by the strange berries and bugs he’d had to eat in his flight through the jungle, or the banana skins and the grass that he’d sometimes munch.

Tacu had lived on the same street as my girlfriend in Buenos Aires, and had left to travel indefinitely. I assumed that the manner of his existence in the Hostel Mirador is the same as his existence now: a frugal diet of eggs and bananas and mate; renting a grassy patch through cleaning services; joining himself to whichever group was passing through; and generally living free of all troubles, without valuable things – no computers nor cameras – and without responsibilities. When I last checked he was somewhere in Ecuador, trekking up a snow-covered peak in flip-flops.


Snapshot – A masochistic indifference to heat.


Dressing down on a hot summer’s day…

Peruvians and Bolivians seem to share a masochistic indifference to heat. Many times my gringo friends and I found ourselves squeezed into the back of a minibus stripped down to our t-shirts and shorts and dripping with sweat, wondering why on earth nobody was opening a window, or why the locals grimly refused to remove the outer of their 6 layers of woolly jumpers.

For a while I wondered if it was genetic – less hair or a strange body thermometer or something like that – but I find genetic explanations for behaviour are almost always complete tripe, so I put it down to some sort of cultural difference. Is removing a jumper in some way shameful? Is taking off your hat an insult to your neighbour?

Well, no. What I think it comes down to is logistics. To remove a heavy woolly jumper is just difficult, especially so if the space you’re working with is a minibus originally designed to ship kids to school, not to mention the various sacks of potatoes and yams and the limbs and babies that are taking up every conceivable and inconceivable space.

Still, they could at least open the window.


The obligatory 6 layers of woolly jumpers.

November 2012

Snapshot – Messy chola on the bus

Many of the passengers left the bus to buy food. We were still an hour or so from Coroico. One chola wearing a long blue skirt with shining flowers and a woolly cardigan, turquoise, picks through fried fish with her worn fat fingers.

I can see the exposed spine of the fish flop sadly; it’s pinched between her thumb and finger. Her right hand dives back into the plastic bag and pulls out a round brown something which she flicks into her mouth with two efficient pushes.

A small piece drops onto her shirt. She leaves it and continues picking around the fish spine. Now her thumb and finger are wet with grease. The fat under her chin continues flopping up and down. She drops the spine, cleaned to reveal skinny grey barbs, but seems not to notice. It lies there on the floor, stuck by its own wet remains.

Out comes a green fleshy banana and after a potato which she peels with a sharp scarred black-rimmed fingernail. Another spine bounces from her left pinch. She tilts her head slightly to see if anything more hides amongst the folds of the plastic bag while licking her fingers. Finding some sticky balls of rice, she shovels them in, not caring for the clumps that fall into her lap.

She ties the bag up with her little fingers then wipes the other fingers on a tissue. Still greasy, she opens the bag enough to slip in the tissue, then rubs her fingers on her skirt and the plastic arm rest.


November 2012

Snapshot – Afro-Bolivians


The other boy working on the bus is black with short fuzzy hair that seems to grow out in small clumps. He’s shaped it so that it is longer in the central column like a flat Mohican. He leans against the glass that shields the passengers from the door and, left arm resting on his up-bent leg, watches the film.

It is unusual to see black people in Bolivia; the majority of the population come from golden-skinned indigenous stock, although it wasn’t until Evo Morales became President that an indigenous person held the highest office in the land.

When the Spanish discovered a gleaming mountain of silver at Potosí in 1544 it was the indigenous population, the Aymara and Quechua, who were sent down the hopeless tunnels for 12-hour stints of back-breaking labour amid the mercury vapours and darkness. Millions died, 90% of the indigenous population lost forever to the ‘Cerro Rico’, the ‘rich hill’ towering above the city that by the end of the century had the same population as London.

The Spanish rulers patched up their thinning workforce with African slaves. From the plains and jungles of Africa, from the Congo, Angola, Benguela and Biafra, they found themselves high in the Andes (the Cerro Rico rises to 15,827 feet) chewing coca leaves to numb themselves from the cold and the altitude, working for months at a time without seeing the sun. When they were finally taken out they’d be blindfolded to prevent their going blind. Some 30,000 Africans were shipped to Potosí, where they would typically last for no more than four months.

They escaped to the Yungas after emancipation. They streamed away from the forbidding heights down to where the mountains begin to melt away into the tropical lowlands. The next day we hike from Coroico down into the valley then up the other side to the Afro-Bolivian community of Tocaña.

It is in the Yungas where the coca leaves that kept the slaves working in the black corridors of Potosí are grown. During the week the men of Tocaña go out into the hills to find work in the coca fields. I wonder if they realise that just as their livelihood depends on the coca leaf, so their ancestors’ lives depended on it, for down in the mines those who could not fight the cold and the altitude and the hunger perished immediately. Only the coca-chewers had even a chance of survival.

Even after the exodus to the Yungas the afro-bolivians continued to be subjugated. It wasn’t until 1945 that ‘pongueaje’ y ‘mitanaje’ were abolished. The latter obliged the women, usually the daughters, of a family to work at the landowner’s house for free, whether it be the one in the country – the ‘hacienda’ – or the one in the city. They were not technically owned by the landowner (or ‘patrón’), but the fact that their labour was unpaid and unchosen made it tantamount to slavery, or one of those long unpaid internships that you’re required to do nowadays to get a job… ‘Pongueaje’ was a similar system, but only involving the male side of the family. They would have to do the gardening, or carry firewood, or build the shed at the end of the garden. All this would be done in addition to the – paid – labour in the fields.

In 1952, while the US were running around looking for Reds under the bed and London was drowning under a sea of smog and Gene Kelly was singing in the rain, Bolivia ended feudalism. For the first time Afro-bolivians could own land. Now there are 30,000, the same number that were brought to Potosí in the beginning. Most, like our bus boy, now live in the cities, in La Paz and Santa Cruz, while others maintain the life of the campesino in the afro-bolivian strongholds of Tocaña, Chijchipa, Santa Ana, Chicaloma or Chulumani.

To get to Tocaña we had to head down into the valley from Coroico, down through the slippery jungle, fighting off tiny malicious red midges and aggressive guard dogs, before crossing a bridge and heading up the other side. Before Tocaña there were two other communities, small clumps of bricks sprouting out from the hillside. We walked on and on for hours wondering where on earth this fabled village was, before stumbling upon it quite suddenly and finding no-one.


Trying to find Tocaña.


An empty house in Tocaña.

A motorbike passed us as we made our way down. On it were two black boys returning early from the fields. We looked at each other as if to say ‘yay, we saw someone from Tocaña!’. Then the guilt, for we were doing exactly as many Bolivians do: viewing afro-bolivians as rare oddities, as lucky charms instead of people.

This is part of the tragedy of the afro-bolivan story – that, at least in the Yungas, they live a marginalised life, a life hidden in the hills beneath the palm leaves and the murmuring clouds, dislocated from the rest of the world.

On our last day in Coroico, as I head up above our hostel to climb the hill on which Coroico sits, I meet a child of Tocaña who spends the week at school on this side of valley. He tells me that there are 42 families in the community, all afro-bolivian. They have precious little contact with the rest of the world. At school, sometimes. At the kiosk that caters for the builders directing the river. Buying and selling at the market. But nothing else. And so when other Bolivians look at them there is the same mix of fear and wonder as when they look at us, the pale gringos from a far-away land.

If you can read Spanish then this is informative: Pueblo Afroboliviano … cultura llena de tradiciones


King Don Julio. (Not the only Afro-Bolivian king.) (Photo: mundoweb)

November 2012

Snapshot – Bolivian Chola

The women almost exclusively wear an apron-like shirt of any colourful design, under which grows a thick mass of skirts, called a ‘pollera’ which swells at the bum and is constituted, apparently, from at least 6 metres of material. A thick plait or two falls from below a bowler hat. This hat, or ‘bombin’ or ‘borsalino’, is a  symbol of wisdom. It was brought to Bolivia at the end of the 19th century by the British engineers directing the work on the train that would take the valuable minerals from the high plains of the Andes to the coast, from where they would be shipped off to the Old World.

Everyone is old, unnaturally so, with thickly crevassed faces and worn dark skin that bends and erupts with any turn of the head or change in expression. I look at the children and wonder how they will grow so old so soon.

back without plaits back with plaits full

Snapshot – Spending the early hours with Patricia Sosa

One of the women from the bus also wants to go to Arequipa, so we sit together, protect each other’s things, and wait for the offices to open. She’s not overly keen on conversation, in that she responds to all my questions with a single word that has been solemnly drained of all enthusiasm. Her daughter, 22, married and with a son, lives in Buenos Aires, near Once, a barrio of Buenos Aires famous as a place to buy cheap clothes material and to see shells of humans dying slowly through addiction to Paco. I don’t mention this last fact.

She strikes up a conversation with the kindly old man sitting opposite which is conducted in the most matter-of-fact way, as if they were policemen cross-examining each other. What’s your name? What’s your surname? So you’re from the north? When did you move down to Tacna? Is it cheaper here? The woman tells me that you can tell where someone is from by their surname. Hers is Sosa. I tentatively suggest that Sosa is in fact an extremely common surname, but stop pursuing the matter when she tells me that it’s not. I nod agreement and ask about her sons, tour guides in Arequipa.

At some point I realise that we’re 2 hours behind Argentina, which means that our wait for the bus will be even longer. A driver offers to take us to Arequipa for 50 soles as part of a shared car. I’m suspicious so I check out the car, a muscle car with a tail wing, so far so good. The man shows me his office at the bottom of the terminal and it looks mildly professional, with a name that matches a sticker on the car, and sheets of hand-written names with official-looking numbers next to them. I suggest it to my companion, but she says that it’s too expensive, and since I now feel almost like her bodyguard I politely decline and return to my uncomfortable plastic bum-number and wait in vain for sleep. Of course, the truth is that by sitting next to me, a gringo, she’s increasing her chances of being robbed by about a thousand percent. Aware of this I put my hood up to hide my white face, shining like a beacon through the darkness, and I pretend that my legs are not the length of most people here by concealing them behind my rucksack.

Sleep is next to impossible. My friend of few words is completely bent over her legs, which are straddled sideways over two seats. It looks intensely uncomfortable, and may well be a yoga position. Sure enough she soon flops back and sighs dejectedly. Down below, in the gloom near the end of the terminal, is a cluster of multi-coloured forts, as old as the terminal itself, built by the homeless. I find myself envying their relative comfort. And as I imagine peeling back an entrance to reveal a grand Bedouin tent, sleep mercifully comes.

At 4am (Peruvian time) the Flores ticket office opens and I’m told that a bus is leaving inside 10 minutes for 20 Soles. They won’t accept my dollars so I ask my friend to exchange some dollars for soles but she looks at me blankly and a little offended, as if I were trying to rob her. Behind us someone starts shouting ‘Aaaaarequipa, Arequipa, Arequipa” and my friend drifts towards the sound, hypnotised, and spends 20 soles on a ticket for a bus that leaves 40 minutes later than the Flores one. I consider asking her why she did that, and then decide that it’s not worth the bother. At least I can pay in dollars at this one.

The bus eventually leaves at 5:30am, and my friend is sitting on the top floor at the front; I’m a few seats further back. She doesn’t even say goodbye.

May 2013

Snapshot – The buxom Peruvian

The later it gets the more I begin to worry. Before I was hoping that every delay would stretch itself out, calculating that if we were delayed just the right amount then we would arrive in Tacna at around 5am, thereby enabling me to hop straight onto a bus to Arequipa. Unfortunately we’ve now been delayed for just the wrong amount of time, and I calculate that we’ll arrive in Tacna at around 1am: too early to take a bus and too late to book into a hotel. And apparently Tacna is cold. Bugger.

Dinner wastes more time. I order lomo saltado without knowing why: it’s midnight, I’m not really hungry and it’s overpriced. At first I’m by myself, the gringo apart, feeling a bit like the school kid who isn’t allowed to sit at any of the other tables because he can’t whistle, or because he’s got ginger hair, or combed hair, or some other arbitrary reason for exclusion.

Eventually the buxom girl with blonde highlights came and sat with me. Holding conversation wasn’t easy – by that stage I’d worked out that Peruvian small talk deals almost exclusively with the relative cost of things and, knowing nothing about typical prices for lomo saltado in Peru, I had little to offer in this department. At one point I relinquished the tantalising fact of how much shepherd’s pie costs in a typical English pub; but no-one seemed to care.

After much prodding and encouraging I managed to get out of my only friend that she’d lived in La Plata for 6 years working as a nurse and would come back for 3 months every year to see her two boys: four and seven years old. She sends money back to them in Lima, although what she sends back is worth less and less. But even though the Argentine peso is devaluing faster and faster it is still worth her while to stay in Argentina: there they pay 4 times what she would earn in Peru. She dreams of one day leaving Peru without having to leave her boys behind. As we leave the bus terminal she buys a smartphone from a street-seller for $200 US. “I can sell it to a cousin in Lima for twice as much.” I don’t doubt her; border towns are always the best places to buy cheap stuff.

As feared, we arrive at the terminal in Tacna at 00:30. It’s long and dark and quiet. The only place that’s open is a brightly-lit restaurant catering for lost men. The bus to Arequipa doesn’t leave until 4:15am.


May 2013

Snapshot – Snorer in Arequipa

At some point I fall asleep. I know this because I vividly remember the shock of waking. In the bed beside me I make out the pale patch that must be a man’s oval bald head. He’s lying on his back.

Silence. Then an almighty snort crackling with snot and stodgy phlegm that punctures the quiet of the dormitory like a pneumatic drill to the head. Silence again. Perhaps it was a one-off, perhaps it was a… SNORT. Long and foul and caustic catarrh breaking through. Clearly the five seconds of silence were merely the building of pressure, the lull before the bombardment, the gradual inhalation of a mass of air in the pockets of the nostrils searching for a way through and finally, gloriously, breaking through in a celebration of mucus and snotty detritus. That he didn’t wake himself up after the first snort is proof that he is either deeply deaf or dreaming of standing by the speakers in a drum’n’bass club.

An hour later, an hour spent wondering about the mechanics of my neighbour’s snoring, I drift off again only to be awoken at 3am by the party-goers returning to bed with all the subtlety of a freight train. I lug my bag on my back and head down to reception, making sure the door doesn’t creak on the way out.

The my bed is the closest on the bottom. The snorer was in the one beyond.

My bed is the closest on the bottom by the bags. The snorer was in the one beyond.

May 2013

Snapshot – Patricia the tour guide

arequipa, colca, patricia

Our lovely tour guide Patricia.

The mini-bus forgot me for the Colca Canyon tour, leaving me stranded in the reception at 3:30am in the morning with just the receptionist to talk to. I still hadn’t really practiced talking since leaving Buenos Aires so we mostly exchanged looks that said ‘this is an awkward silence so I hope the bus turns up about now’. Fortunately it did, and I was deposited in the front seat of the minibus, with ample space for my legs and more than enough room to turn back and make out the shapes of other gringos slumped over in various positions, eyes closed or lids half-drooping like zombies, squeezed in between the lines of chairs.

Feeling rather self-satisfied, I decide to chat with the tour guide, lodged into the space between me and the gear stick, in the hope that if we can become best friends she’ll be loathe to give up my seat to anyone else in subsequent journeys. And to see if I can still talk.

She’s called Patricia and is about half my size. We talk in Spanish and I’m not sure she understands everything I say, but gives the impression of doing so by smiling widely and warmly, especially in the moments when the conversation threatens to break down. She’s only been a tourist guide since March, which explains why she still bubbles with energy and happily opens up about her family and her fears and her dreams; not at all like the somewhat jaded, always guarded guides who I will later encounter.

It’s a 3-year course to become a tourist guide, obviously a serious undertaking, although I can’t help wondering what exactly they teach on the course. Do they teach practical skills like first aid? Rope skills? Must you be able to tell the difference between a male and a female Blue-footed Booby? And of course you must know the very detailed history of Machu Picchu, the funny stories, the Inca culture, the controversies, the name of Hiram Bingham’s dog. After a short while I realise that the Tourism degree must be about the broadest and most detailed course one could possibly do.

Patricia’s whole family is from Arequipa and she has no immediate plans to move; although she does confess that one day she could see herself in another part of Peru, maybe even in another country, maybe even… but she cut herself off before she could get too far away: “probablemente en Peru, no más”. I teach her some Argentine expressions and she teaches me some Peruvian expression involving avocado that I’ve subsequently forgotten. No other Peruvians seemed to know anything about it, so it may be something that only exists in Arequipa, or in Patricia’s head.

Eventually she advises me to sleep and talks to the driver, who it turns out lived and worked for a decade in Italy and speaks the language fluently. I wonder if all my drivers up till now have secretly been multilingual long-term travellers, and if it’s a common step to go from long-term traveller to bus driver. My future flashes before my eyes – the big steering wheel, the beer belly, the harassing of waitresses in the soulless stop-off restaurants, the bright lights passing through the night…

May 2013