'The last sip of water I drink as I get out of the
cab is like a tonic. I hold it in my mouth and savour it in my throat
so as to make it seem like I had plenty remaining, like it will never
moment I spend here in this place makes my heart creep with the
sense that perhaps I should have been born here. Or that I was many
lives ago. Lifes surprises never end. I am a rational human
being in a rational mans job living within my means, constantly
saving to be able to afford to go somewhere. In that somewhere I
have always been that rational man, sans tie, but seemingly whole.
I change. Places do that to you. Especially different ones. And
people do that to you too. But it is only on this particular voyage
that I may have felt not like the rational man who I am (was?) The
lonely traveler walking with measured paces, reading his travel
bible, enjoying a heavy quality paperback, counting change, studying
maps, catching ferries, lifting poetry, sleeping sideways, and dreaming
awake falls apart here in Peru. Inkaland.
And here I am. I
meet a man. At Miami airport. He doesnt look like a thief but
I think him so. He thinks the same of me. Arguments would have broken
out over who looked more smarmy. Me in my dark short jacket and blue
jeans or him in his rust-coloured full-length poncho. He stares at everyone
who approaches the United counter as though he is memorizing where everyone
is seated. Behind the glare on his glasses, I could just about make
out the suspiciousness in his beady-eyes. He looks at me and takes a
simple pace back. He says nothing but I feel he is wary of me. It reassures
me because I am vulnerable; exhausted, I still have my wallet dangling
from my back pocket and my boarding card loosely tucked in somewhere
accessible. I sit down. He just leans against a pole, continuing to
study the passengers checking in. I sit down on the plane. He is miles
away. I do a crossword and check the list of people I could contact
while there. Five hours pass. I dont think of him. Tired, really
tired, me and the rest of the plane arrives and the cattle hordes are
prodded into one of three immigration lines. I choose the middle. The
other two move quickly. Ours is stopped. A couple of people ahead of
me in my line is the man in the poncho. He looks at me, opens his mouth,
and says, "Slow line". I reply yeah and that was that.
I had read about altitude sickness. I was wary of it so I thought I'd
bring along some pills. But then I wondered if the customs authorities
would frown about the particular drug I was recommended. So I left it
"In the beginning the altitude sickness might affect you. Its
okay. It can happen to anyone. Let me just serve you some cocoa tea.
Itll be okay." "No really, I feel fine." My driver.
Or so I inferred since he had my name on a placard at the airport. Along
with four other weakened souls, I hop into a specialized cab with my
driver who incidentally does not drive but tells the actual driver where
to go as if he didnt already know. So lets call him my guide
from the airport to the hotel. Cocoa tea will make you feel better.
I promise. "Okay."
Cuzco is at an altitude of three thousand eight hundred metres. My brain
converts to feet, then to miles, is suitably impressed and psychosomatically
I reach for my throat gasping for air. It passes. So I arrive in the
hotel, supposedly to be shown to my room, right? Instead my guide sits
me down and proceeds to soft sell all the wonderful trips and adventures
that a discriminating traveler might enjoy. Despite my tiredness Im
quite impressed by his organization and wearily canter upstairs to the
bed and a hot shower. Just about to poke my toe in to test the temperature,
I get a call. "This is the hotel. Why did you not contact our driver
at the airport?" I protest.
"Anyone who drove you here has nothing to do with this hotel. Nothing."
Whatever. I hang up. I feel my jeans pocket and Im out $250 of
travellers checks. I tear the place apart and then I find them.
And my guides cheerful card.
It cant be Christmas. There are all these people hawking goods
in the market. There are fireworks going off every which way. The city
is alight with sparkles. The cathedrals are ringing out with mass. The
streets are grimy but hopeful. The Plaza del Armas is so filled with
hay its like a huge manger. The BBC World News is blaring from
my TV. Firecrackers everywhere, bells, good cheer, icons, candles, fruitcake,
and champagne. It must be a dream.
A few days after my altitude dream, I stumble into a travel agency (for
there is no other name) to try and book an excursion to the Sacred Valley
or an abbreviated hike on the Inka Trail. The maps of the terrain, the
charts of the jungle birds, the posters of the Lake, the gear hanging
loosely on nails; all of it suggests a true outdoorsman gear shop. But
no one around. Finally, as I sit expectantly on a plastic chair, a woman
with long strawberry blonde hair and a slighty crooked and freckly nose
comes out with a charming Aussie "What can I do for you guys today?"
The crowd around me defers and I step forward and explain my lack of
resolve. She boosts my ego, tells a story, gives me a pat of encouragement
and signs me up for a two-day hike along the Trail. Matronly, familiar,
she oozes comfort. Reassured, I take the rest of the day off to drink
Cuzquena in the sun while reading my novel about backpackers on an illicit
I walk and walk around the square and the little sidestreets looking
for nothing in particular. A little museum I want to see looks shut.
I knock on the bright blue door. No answer. It's 5:50. The sign says
it closes at 6. I knock. Finally a guard comes out and shoos me away.
I walk back the next day and thoroughly enjoy myself in this sometimes
kitsch panorama of pre-Inka and Inka lifestyles through the ages. Fascinating
but scary. I read out on one of the signs: The Europeans hunted them.
Hunted. How civilized.
The Sacred Valley comes at the culmination of all the Inka sites there
are to be seen in the Cuzco area. Amazed more and more each time, I
revel in the diversity of ways in which the Inka built virtually the
same temple in different ways and places to honour different gods. All
academic until you touch it in person. No felt barriers, no 'no photography'
signs. Just the traveller with many other travellers of course, and
the Inka door, or fountain, or fortress. Throughout these sights, I
periodically bump into a hairless man from the North of England who
was some sort of low-tech engineer displaced by computers, but constantly
managing to scrounge up enough money to commit to spend the holidays
in the Southern Hemisphere every year. Elements are obviously familiar
except there is a naiveté and divinity to him that is totally
disarming. Plus the fact that hes bald, is impossible to date,
impossible to hate, and extremely likely to buy you a beer for no reason
made him a saint worthy of yet another Cuzco Cathedral. He lived a simple
life and ran a simple holiday. He planned for the full trail, but had
more free time than any of us. He fancied a pub on the Plaza run by
a Mancurian which felt like home. He told us all of his idolatry of
Manchester United, his mates in Australia with whom he planned an island
millennium party, his best mates two kids, his love of football,
his trip to Zanzibar, his favourite subject in school (woodwork), his
roadtrips to see Man United, and why Rupert Murdoch wasnt all
that bad. He was a fine man. (Dont worry, he didnt die or
A man in a shop in a tiny town was selling me some water. It cost only
two soles and the Lima bank machine left me with a one-hundred sole
note. I wonder if there was a total of one hundred soles cash in the
whole town put together. There must have been, since after fifteen minutes
of trying to make conversation with his daughter, the man returned with
96 soles. I wanted to say it was okay about the other two soles but
he insists that I buy another water. "Thank you," he says.
I'm the one that was thirsty.
On the most touristy of sidetrips that I would ever do, I sat across
from this interesting French couple who had no idea that I could understand
everything they were saying. Problem was, I didnt care to listen
because it was the type of intimate conversation between lovers that
passes undetected to the unsuspecting ear. I shut them off until a disorganizational
moment at which point she says in English, "Do you know whats
going here?" I nod no and act disinterested. Eventually, we start
up a long conversation during which time we slip a bit into French to
make her less fluent boyfriend more comfortable. We stop talking as
strangers often do but outside, waiting for the napping bus driver,
the guy starts going on about "the Niners and that play Steve
Young made against Indianapolis in Week Seven." Im amazed,
a little uncomfortable about being brought back to "there",
but cant help myself. I would have talked to her more about her
summers away from France alternating between Spain and USA, her love
of her mothers harsh ways, and her career at lOreal but
I just dont get makeup. I get football so I talk about slants
and naked bootlegs and flea-flickers. What a great name for a professional
sports franchise, I think, as we pass a spectacular ruin, the Inkas.
The first train. Up to Macchu Picchu. Crammed, knees interlocked with
a talmudic scholar and his new wife. What can you tell me about living
in California? Is it a good place to start a family? Are there many
jobs there? My wife is a speech therapist. How well does it pay? The
discourse on the relative pay scales and training for health care professionals
can be fascinating but my knee-volleyball partner seemed to be having
trouble making it through the trip. I smiled at his wife and talked
speech therapy but in the end, there was a lot of silence. He got up
and prayed a few times and then reanimated the conversation by describing
his studies as very complex all-encompassing tribal law school. "Thats
why one can spend fifteen years studying it." Dedication defined.
His other two travelling companions were also memorable. One was a young
Peruvian woman from Lima who had had bad experience with the shellfish.
"Dont eat the langoustines." The other was a natural
beauty with a fascination for the torah, dressed much like any other
pretty twenty-one year-old New Yorker would. Her slightly sunburned
cheeks and ruffled hair made for quite an altering vision, so the two
men facing her, of which I was one, properly did not stare longingly
into her Ryderesque eyes. In and of itself, this train carriage was
complete with history but the most interesting character I save for
last because he is intransigent in my memory. From LA, talking in a
LA volume and accent, travelling with his very quiet Peruvian fiancee,
he had a humility to him that I couldnt figure out until his story
unfolded. One half of identical twin brothers, he shared a bond with
his sibling as one would expect; that is until his twin died of a drug
overdose. In a death spiral, both brothers were fated to be statistics
but somehow the man in the train pulled himself from the wreck, got
sober, save for one slip, and joined his dads construction company
and grieved for his lost brother. He put his life back together
through hard work and dedication and now does something for an oil company
that brings to his life long hours, discipline and a salary to travel
on. He is happy and talks of his adventure sports, his hope to buy a
house that his father and he would build, and his niece, the darling
daughter of his other brother. He didn't exactly tell his life story,
or boast about his recovery, or dwell, or preach; rather he racounted
naturally through his anecdotes and soliloquys which had this undeniable
straightforward and humble quality that Californians often possess.
"Amazing, dude. Were almost at Macchu Picchu. How amazing
The top of a mountain is a strange place to build a temple. Or is it
the most natural? Sheer cliffs -- like nothing Ive ever seen.
Just cut and paste that phrase everywhere. Stone astronomical calendars.
Elaborate houses for the priest. Tiered farming. Forums and common areas,
mountains to gape at or to gape from. Hills suited for grazing llamas.
Condors in flight. Rope suspension bridges. A famous trail. Giant granite
steps. Haze, fog, searing heat and snow in the same moment. A patch
of weeds and the timer on my camera. A sardonic guide taking jibes at
Lonely Planet and the helicopter tours. A wild rabbit perched in a Inca
doorway. A pair of lovers hiding in a cove. A resonating "om"
chamber for deep meditation. Another cool calendar. A sacrifice block.
Another photo opportunity. A gate overlooking the most marvellous sight
Ive ever seen. An imagination that lets you enter into the Inkas
in their time, going about their ways, having an insight into life whose
shadow I can only see.
Tired, finally on the way down. Sitting in the window seat on the bus
going down the switchbacks. See a Quecha boy on the death-defying stairs
following us down on foot. "Uuuuupaaaaah!" he yells as we
pass. Sweet. We switchback. There he is again. "Uuuuupaaaaah!"
He runs like water down the mountain. "Uuupaaaah." A short
one. Not hard. Wait til the next one, its a real long run.
The bus is moving pretty fast, switches back and I sit back thinking
that the boy wont make it and he appears with his song. Again
and again, the boy beats the bus down until the final switchback where
the steepness is less severe and the bus is really motoring. And at
the end of such a long descent, I see the boy in full flight running
down just making it to the bus and yelling even louder, "uuuuupaaaaah."
We stop and he gets on the bus to a round of applause. I want to take
his picture and I do in exchange for one greenback which he thanks me
for. And he gives us all one more loud shout, this time an English "Goooodbyyyyye,"
and he climbs up again.
Last day in Cuzco, sitting at a table with a pair of Austrians. I ask
them how theyve liked Peru so far. They glow with happiness. They
warn me about the dullness of Copacabana in Bolivia and encourage me
to keep Puno as my base on Lake Titicaca. Something about the man made
me feel that maybe we didnt share the same interests, but listening
to the womans story, I couldnt not heed their advice so
I left this seemingly quick meal with my plans in complete disarray.
But I was okay with it.
On a longer train journey to Puno, I sit opposite a girl whose perfect
fluency between English and Spanish is an unignorable asset. She translates
wonderfully a couple of times and we embark on an eight hour conversation.
It turns out that she was in her gap year, a year off that many British
students take between "A" levels and university. Set up in
a market research job by her fathers company in Buenos Aires,
she has the added benefit of being 8000 km away from him as well. That
is, until this trip with him and his girlfriend sitting in seats 47
& 48. I had wondered what the connection was between the threesome
before we started speaking because the woman with her father was just
too young to have borne a eighteen year-old. But the details were self-explanatory,
as were the awkward exchanges when her father would stroll over to make
conversation and to make sure I wasnt a scoundrel, thief or worse.
Satisfied by my innocuousness, he slipped back into his conversation
with his girlfriend and left us youngens to talk about how she was at
the best time of her life. My advice must have sounded preachy and ambitious
but she didnt seem to ignore me. But I do think she sees me for
the rational man I am. Wanting to let loose a little, she had made some
minor mistakes while in boarding school which somewhat eroded her fathers
trust and more dangerously gave her a taste for a swinging life. She
had transformed herself from an innocent high schooler into a worldly
and mature woman, one who was probably actively looking.
I had no illusions but I wondered if I would have stood a chance ten
years younger. Not in my dreams, I thought; so I sufficed to be her
friend, a respite from her family grief, a window into the San Francisco
bar scene, someone to pass the time with.
In Puno, on New Years Eve, I venture off to Isle Taquile to explore
the ways of the Aymara people. Rather than walk, I find myself on a
bicycle rickshaw down to the port because I had overslept. I decide
to take the earlier tourist boat over the local and enjoy a brilliant
time with those on board. The English husband and Australian wife were
like flaked tuna and melted cheese. Married, divorced, and remarried,
they seemed to have found happiness by trial and error. It worked for
them. They still bickered but they supported each other and shared the
fascination to take photographs of just about everything. It was on
the boat back that the Englishman came into his own. His philosophy
about life sometimes verged into management guru territory but his sayings
worked: to do what you do best, keep expanding what it is that youre
capable of, and never lose sight of whats important to your homelife.
Eloquently shown rather than told, often through colourful vignettes
about his wife, her past Olympic swimming glory, or her days as a first-class
bitch, he spun his tale. One episode talked about how, when they were
divorced, he met her new husband. Rather than begrudge or belittle him,
our hero hit it off quite well and even actually helped the new guy
through a rough patch of his life when he fell upon unemployment. His
generosity was not forgotten. It all got me thinking about how my moments
of rational existence I strung together to call a life were the emotional
equivalent of bread and water. I yearn for a gourmet feast and while
he didnt help me find it, he helped me understand what it would
look like if I ever saw it. I have never been married, or remarried,
or made it anywhere close. The only commitment I make is to my travel
itineraries. I cant help but imagine myself as the fortysomething
professional, constantly denying that he is gay, seeking to find a woman
but being too regulated and scared to do anything about it. When will
I ever have the chance to give?
A perfect nuclear Venezuelan family kept me fascinated for hours even
though I exchanged but five words with them, and then only with the
bespectacled ten year-old boy who reminded me so much of me. The mother
had a natural aura that kept her youth visible belying the sixteen year-old
son that rested on her shoulder, himself a pretty boy with perfect curly
Latin hair and braces holding back a smile. The thing about the family,
though, that charmed and frightened me was the portly father. His overt
love for his boys was uncommon and uncommonly expressed in such a public
place. Reassuring and reaffirming, it made me feel eager to experience
paternity myself. And therein was my fear. Only in his mid-forties,
I presume, his stature suggested a meat-filled diet. Perhaps it was
my imagination again but I had a vision of the youthful widow trying
to look after her two kids, always trying to give a little of her savings
to heart research. I get so caught up in my horrible daytime nightmare
that I shed a tear which I quickly hide because it would have been so
out of place on such a happy trip.
The Aymaras get it. The one who took us around his island didnt
say a whole lot at first but he did introduce us to Ylang Ylang, a herb
that actually improves the retention of oxygen when you take a breath.
At this altitude, a quick sniff of a leaf made the climb infinitely
more bearable. Homeopathy aside, my Aymaran friend exuded intelligence
and a quiet pride. On arriving at the top of Isle Taquile, which could
easily have been in the Aegean, he tells me about the culture. Three
tenets: "Dont be lazy. Dont lie. Dont steal."
Infinitely reasonable, I think. On courting, "Make a commitment
to marry your spouse only after youve spent a significant amount
of time together and after she has woven a scarf for you out of her
own hair." Okay, the scarf bit wont be so practical in a
South of Market bar but the commitment bit is. On morality, "Life
is about personal energy. When you do something wrong, have a bad thought,
act greedily in your own self-interest at the expense of others, the
island, or Nature, you lose a little bit of energy and youll never
get it back. Once you lose it all, you die. Even if youre not
biologically dead, youre disowned from the community and are left
to perish. So next time misfortune befalls you, dont dwell on
what youll miss, especially if its just something material.
Instead, shrug it off." The whole thing reminded me of karma theory.
It made it universal but it is so different. I know because the words
and ideas are lasting within me today. Like a line from Macbeth. Not
like a passage from the Bible/Quran/Torah.
Same day, back in port, in the town awaiting midnight. Having a quiet
drink at eleven-thirty with fellow would-be revellers in a pub called
"Positive Vibrations". (Couldnt stay away from a name
like that.) In walks the gap year girl. Her father is not far behind.
Theyre both in a little more cheery mood now and the girlfriend
is nowhere in sight. We invite her over with a wave. Papa lingers at
the bar for a bit. She explains that the girlfriend got tired of the
two of them fighting and stormed off. "Dad and me ended up roaming
the streets together looking for a fun place to go but no one seems
to be inside. We spotted this place and ducked in. Its so good
to see you here. Always great to meet people you know in a place where
youre bound to know no one." We chat about this and that
and drinks arrive with her dad who incidentally is the spitting image
of Clinton. We lose track of time, hear a bunch of fireworks, get poured
cheap champagne and are summoned to the bar by the proprietor and her
son. Toasts exchanged all around with half the pub. "Positif".
A toast to the bar. Forty people mingle and meet, exchange their stories
and best wishes. The night settles in as Bill goes to patch things up.
My fellow revellers are my soulmates. A therapist-like ex-hippie from
the east-end of Montreal who misses his copine transfixes me with his
wisdom, overwhelmed is he by the feeling of joy and sharing in the pub.
A Peruvian Charo from Lima who keeps refilling my glass as soon as I
put it down and dragging me through unbelievably fluid dance steps,
all the while complaining that she's just an ad executive whose zest
for life demands more. The proprietors son, a twenty-three year-old
Dawson Leary who charmed the pants (well not literally) off our gap
girl. A couple of German women who couldnt stop smiling. A Welsh
teacher who got fed up of cold rain. The proprietor herself after whom
the pub must be named. And of course the gap girl who salsa'ed, made
friends, smoked, drank, and just basically partied like everyone else
did, until her father came back at four something in the morning.
My trip changes. I lose track of the chronology. I get swept away by
In Lima, after some arbitrary number of more days seeing the wonderful
country, I am in a cab back to the airport. Ive survived the harrowing
plane ride over the Nazca lines, the desert heat of the Southern coast,
the hustle and bustle of Lima streets, the charming European cafes in
the town centre, the cute shops, the weird fast food, the music stores,
the chess pick-up area, the casino, the romantic seafood restaurant
by the water, the affluent suburbs lovers lane, and the
inside of a Spanish inquisition hall. "Love your country,"
I say to the cabbie, or something to that effect. I get out of the cab.
The last sip of water I drink as I get out of the cab is like a tonic.
I hold it in my mouth and savour it in my throat so as to make it seem
like I had plenty remaining, like it will never finish. I know its
irrational. Its just water.
© Zia Zaman
Zia Zaman's collection of travel stories is now available
LOSING ONESELF IN REMOTE ASIA
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