Jon Limani is a writer. He has most recently been interested in the encroachment of mass tourism in almost every corner of the world. Aware that he himself is part of the problem, he tries to write about his travel experiences while bearing this point in mind, as well as with sensitivity to each place he visits. Recent global developments may have have altered the context and reception of his texts in ways he never foresaw.
# unnumbered entry [Bolivia]
‘Hola amigo,’ the weather-beaten native said as he passed me, ‘pareces Ricky Martin.’ [You look like Ricky Martin.] I was wearing Ray-Bans and a Greek straw hat, smeared in factor 30 against the fierce insolation at 3800 metres. The comparison surprised me so much that at first my brain misheard it as Ziggy Martin. Ziggy Martin, I thought, who’s that? Did he mean Ziggy Stardust? I could look like Bowie in a Ziggy phase, thin and wan. This last aspect of my person had been commented on an hour or so earlier, while we were being ferried across to the peninsula on a strangely constructed, low-floating boat. ‘He’s so white, last time someone that white took this boat, he didn’t put any sun cream on and got all sunburnt,’ said an indigenous woman who, ironically, had surprisingly sunburnt cheeks.
The weatherbeaten native came back the other way with two unfeasibly large bottles of beer dangling between two fingers by the sharp edges of the caps. He paid me no further heed: I was just another tourist passing through.
Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit was blasting out of the beach-side bar. This unexpected exposure to that unmistakeable guitar, simultaneously thrashing and chiming, and the strangulated screaming out of the text, put me in mind of the urgency the song had expressed when I was a teenager. Now it was background atmosphere for some backpackers waiting for the boat to Isla del Sol. They paid as little attention to it as the native had to me. Poor old Kurt Cobain. And poor old Viracocha, who rose from the waters of Lake Titicaca in darkness to bring forth light, who created the universe, the sun, the moon, the stars and time itself by commanding the sun to move across the sky, who made mankind by breathing into stones, who wore the sun for a crown, carried thunderbolts in his hands, and whose tears descended as rain, who disappeared across the Pacific Ocean never to return, who wandered the Earth disguised as a beggar, who wept when he saw the plight of the creatures he had created, who had a son called Inti, the sun god, and two daughters, Pachamama the earth mother, and Mama Killa the moon goddess, who destroyed the people of Lake Titicaca in a great flood and saved but two, Manco Cápac the son of Inti, and Mama Uqilu…
The bringing together of these two deities from two very different Americas seemed almost blasphemous, though bearing in mind the veneration of Kurt, a bizarrely apposite expression of western hero worship and fetichism. Perhaps the weatherbeaten native was Viracocha himself, the beggar come to shed tears for the fate of his kind, who saw in me, Ricky Martin lookalike, an embodiment of the white man’s Vida Loca. But he had disappeared to drink himself stupendous or into a stupor, and the boat had arrived to ferry us across to the Isla del Sol, the first land to emerge when the great flood began to recede, where the Incas believed Inti was born, where the myth told that he hid under a crag during the flood.
‘You must go to see the sunrise, it really is something special,’ the Belgian academic had said to us in La Paz. ‘Well the island has magic powers, you know,’ he added when I complained of my flu which flourished in those freezing heights. On booking.com, in an Internet cafe, we blindly booked the Hostal del Sol, and our darkness turned out to be guided by light: after dragging our baggage up the steep steps to the top of Yumani village, stopping innumerable times to catch our heaving breath in the thin air, we found the hostel perched atop the rocks with splendid views, and the proprietress of the apparently empty hostel gave us a small bedroom with a window facing almost due east across the lake to the ridges of the Andes.
I have never been one to cultivate sunsets and sunrises, but this one was truly magnificent. We awoke early, in freezing cold and profound blackness of night. Had I not known that I was looking straight at the Cordillera, I might have been looking straight up into outer space. Gradually the faintest of halos began to fuzzily define the jagged edge of the mountains. It continued to grow slowly for half an hour or more; I was beginning to feel disappointed. Then a blossom of red light bloomed above the peaks, defining them more clearly, flooding the sky red and purple and pink while the land remained in pitch black shadow. This state also lasted for about half an hour (but I am guessing, for time was not yet measurable by my diurnal rhythm), and now I lay bathed in a rare experience. After a long period of gradually increasing illumination, the fall of the rays of light tipped over the edge of the crests and filtered onto the western slopes, bringing them into still blurry profile and relief. Colours materialised and the world as we know it began to appear before my eyes. The snowcaps began to shine silvery before turning white, the greens and browns of the slopes turned first wooly then velvety, the waters of the lake flowed through shades of blue until at last the silver of the snowcaps dropped to the crests of the waves and danced patterns across the currents.
Inti had risen in the east, or else he had emerged from his crag at Titi Qala, which the Incas turned into one of their most important pilgrimage sites after their conquest of the Aymara peoples. Or perhaps he had dropped down through the hole in the ozone layer above Buenos Aires to smite our pale skins, we the cheap airfare unbelievers.
Or else it was Manco Cápac who emerged from the crag along with the myriad versions of the legend. Manco Cápac, man, myth, or both, whose name lives on in the mouths of tour guides and as a Bolivian bus company. Innumerable buses painted in the livery of Manco Kápac Tours roared and belched diesel in the early morning in La Paz’s Cementerio district, where we were looking for a minibus to Copacabana. ‘It’s best to get a minibus,’ the Belgian academic had said. ‘They drive like fools here. In a minibus it’s easier to get the driver to slow down.’ So we had hailed a taxi on the Avenida Arce that had climbed up and dodged down side streets among the tightly crowded buildings constructed of concrete frames and red brick breeze blocks, all the while scaling the steep terrain to finally emerge onto a plateau overgrown with human life and death: the grey, dusty cemetery and, already at seven in the morning, the milling and bustling of the poor. You can’t walk around here at night, the taxi driver informed us helpfully, you’ll get mugged, and they’ll beat you up too. He swung us round a corner to where a man with a minibus was shouting ‘Copacabana! Copacabana!’ The latter was dressed in dusty brown trousers and a synthetic jacket. We gave him the tiny amount of money he asked for, and he proceeded to climb onto the roof of his battered Toyota in order to hoist onto it the luggage we handed up to him. As he clambered back down to the pavement we crawled into the vehicle, which seemed to be made to other dimensions than my leggy northern European body, and became acquainted with its sticky plastic-covered seats and old rugs, which carried a faint whiff of sour sweat and animals.
We were still two passengers short by the time our driver had tired of shouting ‘Copacabana! Copacabana!’ and grown impatient to leave. The diminutive Toyota van chugged and roared into the heavy morning traffic and made its way up the snaking curve of Avenida Naciones Unidas to El Alto. Our driver steered it across the tumbledown, rubble strewn central reservation of a broad avenue (or else they were two avenues with a long empty lot between them) and zig-zagged to the bus station. There were no takers there either, in spite of the apparent interest of a bird-like lady in colourful indigenous dress carrying a huge basket. Our dejected driver turned onto a broad, potholed, muddy space running alongside a grey stream, a sort of terrain vague to the preconceptions of my European eyes. Here it quite naturally served as a roadway, backed up with motor vehicles which it disgorged at a right angle into a thickly trafficked three lane highway along which El Alto continued to sprawl. Somewhere along this thoroughfare of concrete, dust, and human bustle a man waved us over and left his pregnant wife with us. A little further along a middle aged woman in faded clothes got in, the crimson of her bowler hat and shawl turned a deep carmine.
The attire of these two so-called cholitas — the diminutive of the pejorative chola (‘mixed race’, ‘halfbreed’, or ‘civilised Indian’) appropriated as a badge of honour — displayed none of the proud reclamation of their traditional dress which has sometimes been celebrated in western media since the election of Evo Morales gave the indigenous population greater autonomy. Nor was there anyone on hand with a big digital camera to capture this colourful syncretism, pieced together from their Aymara heritage and misinterpretation of or happy disregard for European fashions. Just me with my small analogue camera, which I left nestling in my bag, not even producing it to photograph an impressive range of Andean peaks through the windows of the van. A lethargy prevented my arms from reaching into the rucksack between my feet to extract it, a leaden immobility of the mind as much as the body. A mute refusal from the instinctual depths of the brain.
The next day in Copacabana, in an indoor morning market which was closing at the end of lunch, Catelina raised her camera to take a picture of the scene: half-emptied and dismantled stalls populated by indigenous women. One of them called over that she should buy something in return for taking the picture. We left without the shutter having clicked, and thought no more of it. Wandering in the streets around the market we bought some mani, the local kind of peanut, from a little stall rich with a variety of nuts and herbs. Shortly after this purchase a man overtook us and apologised animatedly for the behaviour of the woman in the market, saying that since Morales had gained power they thought they could behave as they wanted, that they had the power. We went on in bemusement, unwittingly drawn into but unable to access the sources of these conflicts apparently stirring under the surface of indigenous empowerment.
The border between Bolivia and Peru is drawn in such a way that it not only divides what was the region of the Aymara-speaking peoples, but also requires the citizens of Bolivia to cross the Strait of Tiquina to reach Copacabana, since the peninsula on which the town is situated is accessible by land only from Peru. Individuals clamber down into the aforementioned low-floating boat, vehicles are manoeuvred onto a raft. While the indigenous woman was cracking jokes about my whiteness, the Toyota van, still with all the luggage strapped to its roof, chugged more slowly across the body of water. At the breakfast table in La Paz the Belgian academic and the German art historian had chuckled about the rafts capsizing from time to time, the top heavy vans going over luggage and all.
In Copacabana we saw, on the main square outside the splendidly white cathedral, a little collection of market stalls along the powder blue railings, gathered around the ritual of blessing cars. Drivers had lined up their vehicles, and the priest, still in his white robe, had made his way across the vast and blazing expanse of the church courtyard to the street. Some of the cars were decorated with strings of colourful paper flowers, rather like at a wedding, while one man doused each wheel with a miniature bottle of champagne. These small bottles were on sale at the stalls along with a large selection of toy cars and toy-like, plastic devotional virgins. The priest held a large pink plastic flower on a thick, stiff green stem, with which he first blessed the driver and the passengers. One driver opened the bonnet to reveal the engine, over which the priest likewise flicked the flower, before making an anticlockwise round of the vehicle, blessing each of the doors with a sprinkling of water.
Our luggage and the van made it across the strait without incident, nor was the driver at all as dangerous as the Belgian had intimated, steering the van around the hairpin bends up and over the mountain that formed the spine of the peninsula with a sure, practised hand. At the top, in the shadows and the microclimates between rock faces, snow nestled on boulders seeded with anaemic grasses in the chill air. Down in Copacabana the sharp sun warmed the air, and as we waited to be served lunch on an unfenced flat roof overlooking the shore, I had all but forgotten about the hybrid demigod Ziggy Martin.
© Jon Limani