"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Monday, June 20, 2011

Doing Good and Living Well–DC to La Paz by Land

The one lasting memory I have of the trip I took in 1974 was my knees jammed against my chest for hours in converted Bluebird school busses banging over the Peruvian altiplano or grinding up and down mountain roads in Ecuador and Colombia.  By comparison the Tica Bus, a Greyhound-style long-haul affair that went between Guatemala and Panama was a dream – legroom and a paved portion of the Panamerican Highway. 

La Panamericana” was a road which wound down the Central American isthmus, stopped at the Panama-Colombian border because of the impassable Darien jungle, then picked up again in the highlands on the other side.  From there to La Paz, the road was often no more than a dirt track, far from the improved, modern asphalt that I had imagined, and the Bluebirds were no match for its ruts, rocks, and potholes.  The busses were always crowded, so there was no room to stretch my legs out, and even if I got an aisle seat, my feet would stick out into the barnyard of chickens, pigs, and ducks.  The windows were coated with dust over dried streaks of dirty rainwater, so the only Andean panorama I saw was poor Indians and animals. 

The windows were better than those on third class Indian trains that I took between Bombay, Thana, Poona, and Nagpur during my field visitation days.  On those trips, usually not far out of the station when the train picked up speed, women would pick up their babies, hold them over their heads, stick them out the window and let them shit.  Holding the baby up was a signal for all downwind window seat passengers to close their windows.  When all hatches had been battened down, the mother would stick the baby out the window, and a yellowish stream of diarrhea would streak down the car across the closed windows.  Once the liquid jet had stopped, up went the windows.  Those windows were never cleaned – why should they be? They would just get all smeared and caked up again on the next trip; so they were opaque.  Actually, I never knew which was worse – imagining the scenery through yellow stains or getting blackened by the coal smoke (these were the days before universal diesel) which poured in.

When my knees had taken all the beating they could, I switched to colectivo taxis – beat-up old cars which for about double the bus fare would take passengers along the same route.  Travel was marginally better.  I had a bit more leg room, but there were always four people, sometimes even five in the back seat, the roof was loaded with luggage and chickens, there were no springs to speak of, and we swayed and rocked over the uneven terrain.  I rented a car like this once in the Dominican Republic on my way from the airport to a secluded beach on the Samana Peninsula.  It rode fine until we hit the unpaved portions at the top of the mountain, below which, over a road far more rutted, steep, and precipitous than anything in the Andes.  “You shouldn’t go down that road”, said a villager when I asked directions.  “Very dangerous”. 

We ignored her advice and picked our way down.  The car which didn’t need springs or shocks on the flat asphalt road, needed them but didn’t have them on the way down the mountain.  Every 100 feet, I had to stop the car, unload the luggage and my wife, pull out of cratered pothole, reload and go another 100 feet.  Halfway down it got dark, pitch dark, so it was hard to see the ruts and holes or the rocks which clanged and banged the undercarriage.  When we finally arrived at the beach hotel it was well after midnight. 

The days spent on this idyllic tropical, Caribbean beach were ruined because I kept thinking of the trip back up the mountain.  Actually the trip up was far easier than coming down because the car did have front wheel drive and there was little braking.  I knew that the brakes were more than a bit splashy and that going down the steep asphalt road to the airport might be a problem. It was.  Even in the lowest gear, I had to stand up on the brake pedal.  There was so little brake lining that they didn’t even smoke, the only complaint was an unsettling lathe-sound of metal on metal.

The answer to the transportation issues on the altiplano was to stop and stay at least overnight on the way; but this was not possible since there were very few settlements between Huancayo and Ayacucho and Ayacucho and Cuzco.  A few mud houses, a tethered mule, a few llamas, and not much else.  The landscape, however, was spectacular.  The altiplano is an almost uniform 14,000 ft., the air is crystalline, and at that altitude you are very close to the snowline.  The Andes towered over the high plain, which was vast but never dull, changing colors and shapes.   On another trip to the Andes a few years later, I drove up to Chacaltaya, a ski slope at 19,000 ft. The view down to the altiplano was magnificent – the plains were all muted colors – mauve, wheat, and grey.  The mountain peaks were just above us, and sitting in the sun in the snow was unforgettable.

On this trip we stayed in Bogota and Quito without knowing that there was a modern sector.  The bus left us in the old downtowns, and we stayed there.  Old Quito was the worst - poor, rundown, disgustingly dirty, and uninteresting.  There were colonial buildings of interest – the Cathedral of San Francisco in Quito, for example – but in general these parts of town were dismal.  The hotels were fleabags, we ate at Pollo Campero where patrons tossed chicken bones on the floor, they were swept up just before closing, the wet bones got caught in your sandals, and the dry ones cracked and popped as you walked.

Old Bogota was much better, and we found this delightful hotel called the Fleur de Lys, all teak and mahogany, large suites of rooms, tasteful décor, quiet, and pleasant, but no guests.  We later found out that it was located in one of the worst crime-ridden areas of the city; but it was one of the nicest places we stayed in on the whole trip.

The old colonial part of La Paz was just what we were looking for, had hoped for, and despaired ever finding.  It was civilized.  Clean, orderly, flowers planted along the Prado, a long median strip garden lined with palm trees the whole length of the main boulevard.  There were plazas of all sizes some in the center of the city, others higher up the sides of the bowl.  From whatever vantage point you could see Illimani towering over the city, snowcapped and always with a wisp of cloud at the summit.

Our original plan was to do Washington-La Paz round trip by land; but after almost two months of interesting but grueling travel, we decided to fly back to Guatemala where we picked up our car for the drive back to DC. 

I never really liked South America, certainly not as much as Africa or Asia.  We lived in Ecuador and Bolivia for over two years and yet I never felt at home.  I was bored with the expatriate Latin life – listless Argentines and Chileans; long, eventless, characterless, aimless Sunday barbecues; strutting macho locals.  There was none of the dimension, color, and challenge of India where every day was new; nor the intimacy and immediacy of Africa. 

What I did like was the land itself – the altiplano, the Andes, and the Amazon – especially the Amazon.  The jungles of Bolivia and Ecuador are different – the former low, tropical, and dense; the latter high jungle, cooler, and more open – and both were fascinating.  I took trips down the Napo River in Ecuador, a major tributary of the Amazon, to find a local curandero who brewed ayahuasca a potent hallucinogen which produced, so legend went, visions of the Goddess of Death.  Nothing doing in the watered down hippy version brewed up by the medicine man, but who wanted that kind of a bad trip anyway?  The curandero lived in a thatched hut by the Napo and by good luck there was a full moon and no mosquitos.  We lay there while he scraped away on his one string violin, a few notes barely heard above the jungle insects.

The Bolivian jungle was ‘real’ jungle – parrots, monkeys, crocodiles – high canopy, and tropical heat. We rode in the back of a pickup from Trinidad to a small town about 50 miles in the interior on another major tributary of the Amazon.  It was very isolated, a few motorcycles, only one radio-telephone at the local prefecture office, but with a grace and simplicity that I loved.

I resisted working in Central America for many years because of the negative experience I had had in South America, but my time there was special.  I used every excuse I could find to get back to El Salvador a country with energy and spirit, lively capital, uncrowded black sand Pacific beaches.   I stayed in one of my favorite hotels of all time high up beneath the volcano, marble floors, floral displays, spectacular view, and great service.

The main reason for my interest in the country, however, was the local Salvadorans working for private, voluntary organizations committed to improving community health.  There was no USAID bullshit, no international agency hype and inefficiency, just commitment to improving the lives of prostitutes, prisoners, gay men, and the poor (most of my work was in HIV/AIDS prevention).  As I have written before, I am no fan of international “development”, but I admire the work of these small agencies.  They are corrupted by larger international NGOs which want them to expand beyond their natural constituencies, but before that happens, they deserve credit.  I spent a lot of personal time with people from these agencies.  Gone was the airless, insular, and listlessness of the pseudo-elites of South America.  I was delighted. I had the same experience in Nicaragua, Guatemala, and Honduras.

I have never been to either Argentina or Chile, for I retain my very negative image of those countries from my experience in Ecuador.  I know I am being very stupid and insular in my own right, but often it is very hard to expunge bad memories.  I have recently gone back to Nicaragua for a wedding of a very good young Nicaraguan friend, and I would like very much to return to visit her family who were warm, generous, and interesting.   I used to be very linked to the Salvadoran community in DC – our maid/nanny who lived with us for ten years was Salvadoran, and through her I got to meet nieces, nephews, sisters, cousins and their friends. 

As I have concluded these travel posts before, “It has been a great ride!”

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