ADVENTURES IN SINA -- ONE OF THE LAST PLACES WHERE, IF THERE'S A FIFTEEN MINUTE PAUSE IN THE CONVERSATION, NO ONE GETS UNCOMFORTABLE
THE INNER JOURNEY
Great adventure stories abound. Some are true; some are false. Sometimes even the "truths" behind the "truth" are open to question. The world loves a hero. The tendency to glamorize and "hollywoodize" descriptions of one's adventures is to some degree irresistable. What I am attempting to accomplish here is ultimately the opposite: to expose the fears and uncertainties which underlie our choices. That is, to me, the really interesting (and always embarrassing) subject matter.
This is the story of a trip to Peru. It is not a story of a trip into the Past. Peru is not the Past, it's a part af the Present, but a different kind of Present than the Present here in the USA which I decided I was bored with --sometimes, anyway.
I first discovered that South America existed in 1965 when I happened to go down there on a mountaineering expedition. Just landing in the airport in Lima had been a frightening experience. For the first time I was suddenly in someone else's land. It wasn't mine. ("This ain't yours, buddy," it said to me, "we belong here and we've got our own rules!" And later in the mountains, when I saw the Indians, I began to have to almost laugh at the ridiculous gap that existed between me and the Quechua Indians chattering and chittering away with what later I found out to be glottalized consonants. There they were, speaking a language which had evolved separately from my language for probably 100,000 years.
In 1966 I went back! I flew to Colombia with my savings from working in a Colorado mine. I went by myself still with an inadequate knowledge of Spanish, and lonliness descended on me in the streets of Colombia's capitol city. I was so lonely I felt dizzy! I had exactly enough money left to go either to La Paz, Bolivia or to Miami. Ashamed, I found myself on a plane to Miami.
Back in the USA, I fled back to familiar territory: school. Being of academic background, I was at home writing papers, reading books and taking tests. I studied anthropology where I began to learn of how other gringoes had fared in foreign countries in situations where I had been such a failure. Knowing all the while that I still had an uncompleted adventure to make, I began to study Quechua, the language of those strange Peruvian Indians. My department in Boulder knew nothing of Quechua, but I found that a linguist at Cornell had published his studies of the language, so I obtained those and worked them into a program for independent study, in linguistics. And the summer following my graduation in Boulder, I went to, Cornell on a national fellowship and studied Quechua in the intensive course which Dr. Sola had set up there. Having completed that, I added one more essential anti-lonliness ingredient, my girlfriend Lisa, and I was ready to go back to Peru.
So in September, 1969, we steered ourselves in a drive-away toward Miami, America's most unappetizing city. A black lady in a hotel there told Lisa that she certainly was "a wimmin among wimmins" if she was willing to follow me down to "where all them snakes and vampire bats is." Feeling that I really did have a "wimmin among wimmins" along with me, I soared off into the sky in the back of one of Copisa airline's cargo constellations with a load of jungle animals that had to ride all the way back to the Amazon for lack of having the proper papers.
We arrived in Iquitos, Peru's port on the Amazon, and began searching for a boat to take us 200 miles up the river to the nearest road. It took us a week to find the Bardales, a champion 20-foot diesel river runner, so we had time to paddle off into the jungle for an afternoon -- time enough to discover that no monkies or colorful birds inhabited thase parts. They have long been hunted out from along the major rivers, it seems. So, if you ever want to see the jungle, don't choose the Amazon, choose a smaller river.
In Iquitos we met a young couple like ourselves. The only difference was that we were coming and they were going. Dean and Angela had already been there for several months climbing and travelling, so they did a good job of whetting our appetites with tales of successful adventures. It was good to have them around to help us get tuned up to jabbering in Spanish. Down along the river the little boats were jammed into the shore like a miniature city. With our two friends along, we wandered from one boat to another and eventually found one, the Bardales, which agreed to chug us on up the river "mañana." Dean had proceeded to fluently shoot the shit with the Captain. He said, "Man, this cat wants to go to Pucallpa," and the Captain said, "Groovy, we're off tomorrow." I didn't say much because I didn't understand much and my Spanish was just about as good as a can of spinach. So when the Captain found out that Dean wasn't coming, but just me and my illiterate chick, he was visibly crestfallen. But soon he adopted us if for no other reason than that our white skin has that god-awful prestige. He even went so far as to invite me for a coffee one night while we were still in port waiting for the engine to get fixed, and it took me until five o'clock the next afternoon sleeping on the deck to recover. That was when I was still young and green and fresh and hadn't really tried yukking it up with the "mestizos." I guess you could say that the "mestizos" are the emerging middle class guys who have claimed a Spanish last name, rejected the Indian percentage of their heritage and are out looking for wealth. They're nice guys, but they're money oriented like nobody I ever saw. "Hey, man, I got a certificate from the United States! I got it by taking an electronics course by mail. And now I own, yes, and repair, yes, hundreds of radios. Ahem." And so on and so on. These guys aren't attractive to young idealistic intellectual college students like myself who, thanks to the wealth of my own society, have managed to "transcend" (or at least temporarily ignore) the material problems of life. It's true that I don't want cars and iceboxes. The mestizos do. If I had never had a car or an icebox, I too would want them, but man, I take them for granted. So the upper-class intellectuals have to stick with the really poor folks if they want to get along, and the Mestizos had better stay away.
Mañana blended into mañana, so after two days of sleeping on the boat waiting for it to go, we decided we'd keep our eyes and ears open for another boat. We were down in Belen, which is the poor part of town, down by the river where the real riverfolk tie up their boats and they eat armoured catfish and the oldest and fattest pig in the world sleeps all day in the gutter. We were looking for information. We were hoping to find a different boat going up the river to Pucallpa. I was walking beside the river and I heard a little Indian hail me. He was fifty feet away, so needless to say, I didn't understand what he had said. He was so nice or so afraid -- and it's so hard to distinguish the two -- that he certainly didn't want to imply that "sir gringo" might not have understood even if sir gringo claimed blatantly that he hadn't understood. So he approved smilingly and said something I didn't understand. I asked him to repeat it and he agreed wholeheartedly and added some more useful information. I realized he was telling me how to get to Pucallpa. We set off and I assumed he was leading us somewhere. So I said, "Let's go then." He turned around and started walking in the opposite direction. 'Oh my god,' I thought, 'here I am ordering this guy around. He must not have really been leading us to the place he told us about after all. If only I had understood! I'm sure he must have told me exactly what I wanted to know.'
So in this agony of misunderstanding I tried to make some more conversation. But, alas, he was such a nice and shy little guy. He didn't even know much Spanish himself it seemed. He was no doubt thinking it his fault that I couldn't understand him! Oh what did he say! He said it so agreeably!
Finally we arrived at a building. Ah yes! An office. We knocked on the door. A girl told us to come back the next day because it was Sunday. Oh thank you thank you. An office about a boat about the place we want to go all laid out in front of us. Just the thing I've had been looking for. And then the fellow said something about getting a refreshment: a beer or a soda pop or a popsicle. After all, it was Sunday and everyone was sitting around chatting in the local stores and bars. But I said "Oh no! We have to go!" I hadn't been able to understand him, so I escaped. Should I have given him money for a beer? I vvondered. No, whew! That would have been an insult to any slave who tried to do someone a favor. Thank god I only thanked him as meaningfully as I could and didn't slip a penny into his hand.
We never had a chance to find out about that office, for the next day we finally chugged off up the river in the Bardales: putt putt putt putt. Up the great green greasy Amazon river. Lisa went swimrriing in it, -- for almost 30 seconds. I was braver and swam twice, each time for about a minute. I must admit the mud on the bottom of the Amazon feels creepy between the toes. But we figured that where the Indians swim., gringoes could swim, and that if we really are all equal and cheerful, the pirhanas wouldn't nibble aur little pink spots any more than they vvould on anyone else. Anyway, nothing bit my balls off.
Lisa nicknamed our captain "moustache." He was a little mestizo cat who ruled the heroic Indian crew that Lisa fell so passionately in love with. Night and day five fine young Indians slept in the grease of the engine and doused in and out of the river tying and untying the boat while the 6 or 7 passengers lazily sagged in their hammocks on the deck. The Indians knew they were gods. The only catch is that after their ten years of perflect young life there will be no important position, no comfy salary -- perhaps they can slip back to their homes in the jungle and there be full and rightful elders in some tribe. But I doubt it. But now is their day and they can swim in any engine or any river and disgusting is the sight of a dry white arm on a gringo hanging uselessly out af its shirtsleeve. That's the hell of travelling: it gives so little opportunity to work. It gives lots of people the opportunity to work for you and to take your money and it's even more humiliating when you can buy your way into the privacy of someone's river world, as we did when we spent two dollars for four and a half days on the Bardales.
The nights were cold on the river, and we wished we'd had more than one space blanket to cover us in our hammock. Especially the second night out, when it rained. Not being able to see to navigate, "moustache" slid the boat into the vegetation on the side of the river and zingzang hordes of mosquitoes clambered up out of the reeds and everyone was writhing and swatting. Lisa and I ran for our mosquito net and spent 20 minutes trying to arrange the contraption over our hammock which provided lots of laughs for the rest of the passengers who were only equipped for swatting. The mosquitoes bit us in the backs from underneath, probing their probocises right through the hammock, so we decided to put our plastic pancho under us in the hammock. Ha! That is just about impossible due to the inherent nature of hammocks. This is to say that the damn things bunch up when you're not in them, so there's no point in trying to get a pancho in it then. But when you're in it, you can't get it arranged properly underneath you! Finally we got something arranged, and the best part is that when you get tired enough you don't have any trouble sleeping anywhere. So I slept. Intermittently I awoke shivering, but a little while later my body would make some kind of inexplicable adjustment and I'd be warm and sleepy again. Back out on the river the wind blew the cold rain through the boat, but every here and there I would be able to conjure up a little warm pocket 'midst the space blanket and the pancho and I slept like a babe in the arms of these -- intermittently.
At 3:00 a.m. we came to the confluence of the Ucayali and the Marañon, where we had to get off. We wanted to go up the Ucayali, and the Bardales was going up the Marañon. So the Bardales putted on off up the river leaving us in Santa Cruz, a little village. A little fellow came down from his house in his shorts and stood swatting mosquitoes in the cold while I commented on the approaching dawn. He no doubt expected me to simply appropriate whatever accomodations I sought, but that I wasn't about to do, so he had to do some swatting until it became plain from the artificiality of my dumb comments that I was waiting for him to tell us what to do. I explained that we wanted to continue up the Ucayali that same day. We slept on the floor of his raised bamboo house until awakened by the sobbing of a woman. Being gringoes we went back to sleep. Two hours later we awoke and were told that the problem was dysentary. It was a very somber and weepey village indeed that morning. Apparently all the children were sick and our host pleaded for medicine. We gave them a handful of enteroviaforme, whose efficacy I later came to doubt, and purchased an hour's motorboat ride onto Yucuruchi, a larger town on the Ucayali where we waited three days for a larger passenger boat. We had come to realize that we would be a month on the river if we stuck to small boats.
It was in Yucuruchi that we first mentioned our birth control pills. This later became a common experience and we learned that Peruvians, Indians., Mestizos, men and women alike all sit up like jackrabbits when they are told of these incredible pills. In Yucuruchi we were put up by the local Guardias, or national police. Jorje, a middle-aged guardia with ten children, "only ten children," as he laughingly himself put it, asked us if we did not yet have children. I said, "no," and he quite naturally asked "Why not?" I replied, "Well, we have these pills." "What pills?" he asked. "Oh my god, don't you know about THE PILL?" I screamed, and soon all the four guardias in the post were anxiously jotting down all the information I could give them.
Soon we were on the Adolfo, the passenger boat, steaming day and night up the Ucayali toward Pucallpa. At some point two gringo girls with faces af death slid onto the boat, and right avvay we knew they were missionaries. Again I knew that the greatest cop-out ever pulled on the Western world was done by old JC himself when he refused to sleep with Mary Magdalene. In Cotomana, where the crew of the Adolfo stopped to play a game of soccer against the townsfolk, an effeminate old gringo minced up to us and started babbling about Christ. After a few unsuccessful attempts to change the bloody subject, we declared outselves not to be religious people. "Oh, well, we're not religious here either," he slimed. "I personally think religion is for the birds! We teach one to know Christ. Have you yet found Christ in your hearts?" he queased.
Back on the boat I got drunk with the crew of exhuberant little fat flaming assholes who pushed themselves through hangover after hangover in order to outdo each other. But the comeraderie lent a new feeling of freshness to myself.
Lisa and I spent seven days lying in our hammock and watching the trees go by. There was one kind of tree that I particularly liked. It's got a tremendously long white string of a trunk that protudes through the roof of the jungle and snakes still higher until it ends in a little green reward. How that tiny ball of green can nourish all those yards of clever trunk, I will never understand.
At last we arrived in Pucallpa where we visited another flock of missionaries. Being linguists and therefore forced to learn from the Indians instead of simply spreading the Word, these turned out to be a better bunch. It was only one of their two year old daughters that set me a-wondering just how we U.S. gringoes manage so successfully to fuck our children up. The Peruvian children are incredibly precocious, but it is rare to see one throw a tantrum or even cry. Six year old boys ride trucks for hundreds of miles to barter goods for their fathers. Six year old girls can perform all the domestic chores of the household should their mother be absent. One year old babies sleep soundly and silently on their mothers' backs through any joggling or din. And this two year old American girl stood in her mother's glistening white porcelain sink and screamed the most phony scream I've ever heard. And she went on screaming. No one could stop her.
I heard a Peruvian baby scream just as loud, but it wasn't phony. It would have brought tears boiling on out of my eyes had I not clenched my teeth to hold them back. We were on a bus going to Lima and I have never run into a machine as purely heartless as that bus was. The Indians had it easy until the White man invented the bus. Only an ant riding a sledge hammer as it drove a spike home could know what this bus felt like. I don't remember how long the baby and its young mother had been on the bus; not as long as we who rode it for twenty-eight hours. But the baby realized that all hell had finally broken loose and that we were being devoured in flames, and judging by the look on the young mother's face, I wasn't the only one who thought the baby was sounding as though it were about to die. Its mother really did look positively terrified. And terror can get pretty tiring when it is sustained for hours. But I think that we all knew that sometime, somewhere, this bus ride would end. And it did: in Lima.
We spent ten days in Lima. It was a time of intense Spanish learning for me. For the first time I had the companionship of a Peruvian who really took the time and patience necessary to talk with me and to teach me. He was 14 years old and the brother of a Peruvian student whom I had met in the United States. And my heart goes out to him, for he spent 4 days with us, showing us around the city,and believe me, he could not have had two more ignorant clods for guests than we. During those 4 days he put more direct effort into helping us than anyone else ever did during the entire trip.
But mostly it was a time of restaurants and wandering, especially restaurants. I also had my first attack of trots for the trip and had to break in my asshole for extensive use as a water pistol.
It was during these wanderings of the streets of Lima that I first realized just what an "artificial problem" is. We all want to avoid them, but we don't know how to recognize them sometimes.
An artificial problem is one which is created despite the fact that there is no need for its solution.
One of the highest aims that men have is to solve a knotty problem which is clearly a plague on mankind. Most of us have to settle for solving:problems which didn't particularly need to be solved but which "may be useful someday." Most of us would rather be solving something than searching for something to solve. Perhaps searching is harder than solving, and it certainly doesn't provide for high esteem in one 's community. Yet here I would like to enter a plea for those of us who are still searching for a real problem to solve. We have refused to turn our effort and attention toward the creation and solution of artificial problems.
Ladies that watch soap operas on TV every afternoon are solvlng artificial problems. Soap operas, are so arti-fucking-ficial that they nauseate most of us.
College students slaving over exams are solving artificial problems. And when they get close to being professors themselves, they begin to realize that being a professor is no less artificial than being a student. The professor feeds the student problems in a self-contained world, and should the pair suddenly evaporate, the world at large would not feel any loss. Perhaps even bringing a child into this world and subsequently having to feed it is in the final analysis a creation of an artificial problem. Arter all, the world does not really need your child. Ah, but it might! Perhaps your child will be guess who: yes, a Thomas Edison. There is a man who, when confronted with Darkness, invented the lightbulb!
Plain old ordinary everyday Time effects us all the same way. It makes us want to Do Something! We all have to feel as though we were engaged in a deathlock with life. We demand problems to solve, and if we cannot find a real one, we will soon be forced to create artificial ones. Some people become hypochondriacs. Young couples who find themselves perfectly happy together may find this bliss intolerable and create problems for themselves to solve if they do not have external problems of sufficient size to demand their attention. How many of us are indispensible or even particularly in demand?
Who knows? Perhaps completely healthy nations are even forced to go to war for lack of having grand enough problems to keep everybody busy! We can all solve problems more or less equally well, although many of us demonstrate this only when faced with a sudden and unquestionable necessity (which many of us never are.) If you were suddenly informed that all usual forms of government had collapsed and that for some reason the world had chosen you to be its leader, you'd get off your ass and say, "Why my god, I'd better look into this right away!" and before long you'd begin turning out acceptable solutions. I have a great deal of faith in you. But what will you do if no one askes you to rule the world? What will you do if no one ever really demands that you do anything except a few artificial exercises? Pretty soon you'll start looking for a problem to solve. You can try to fix pipes or you can try to fix the hunger in the world. It's easy to fix pipes and you can even rest assured that there will always be some pipes that need to be fixed. It's not so easy to fix hunger, because you can't tell people what to do with the same nonchalance that you can tell pipes what to do. The only thing you can really bet your ass on is that eventually you'll have to fix something, even if it's only your own love life, or you'll soon be close to being what is commonly known as insane. Our insane asylums have people in them who were unable to find a problem. No matter how hard they looked, they couldn't find anything that needed them to do it.
When a man turns to drink and death, which men do, it's not because he "can't face it." It's because all his life long he's searched without finding anything to face -- except for death. So he faces death square in the face and begins his grim advance. He defies death by acting as though he cared little for life. He runs his body into the ground. Happily, he has at last found a problem worthy of his efforts.
So be thankful to those who suffer! They give us the meat to get our teeth into. A world with no suffering and hence no problems to solve would be no world at all.
We set off from Lima in a Boeing 727 and covered in 50 minutes the distance to Cuzco which I had once spent more than a week joggling over in trucks and buses. Once in Cuzco, we were at last in Qechua speaking territory. I went into a restaurant and, unable to hide my silly grin, asked for some sugar using the Quechua word for "sweet." I immediately felt like the cleverest person in all the world and it took me the rest of the day to learn to try speaking the language with a straight face. As soon as I opened my mouth to try a word or two, I would be overpowered by the same silly grin. I was absolutely unable to control it, and if ever anyone looked like the cat who swallowed the canary, it was surely I.
After spending a week or so visiting the Inca ruins near Cuzco and at Machu Picchu, we took the train south to Juliaca where a blood test showed Lisa to have caught a bit of typhoid. The Peruvian Doctor, to whom the disease was not strange at all, said that Lisa had two choices: to take chloromycetin orally and be over it in two or three weeks, or to take the antibiotic directly intraveinously and recover in three days. Lisa chose the latter course and lay for six hours a day for three days with a needle in her arm and a bottle over her head, and then got up and carried her pack out the door. The Doctor had not been mistaken. He asked Lisa if she had been vaccinated for typhoid, and when he learned that she had, replied that it was not unusual for "immuinized" people to catch the disease. But perhaps she would have contracted a harsher case had it not been for her "immunization.''
So we were able to move, finally, toward the area of Peru we had really come to see. We jumped in a truck about one o'clock one afternoon and rode around the town of Juliaca while the driver sought cargo and passengers for several hours. By this time I was beginning to get used to the people in the market places of southern Peru and was not so fearful as before. During our stay in Juliaca we had taken quite a few tries at seeing how far we could get with our communications abilities. An old lady who was spinning wool caught our attention. Lisa wanted to learn how to do it, so we learned the appropriate Quechua words from the little old lady. She told us what she was doing and the names of the spindles and the wools. A crowd gathered. Crowds always gather when a gringo is seen talking with an Indian. An amused and delighted wave passed through the crowd when they heard our infantile strugglings with their language. But we were definitely a success. After all, a gringo speaking Quechua is like a monarch scrubbing an outhouse. So we felt good. And as we rattled around in the back of our truck that last afternoon in Juliaca, I just grinned at the dozens of heads which were continually turning to stare.
Eventually we banged off down the road toward the northeast. After nightfall we began climbing up from the 13,000 foot altiplano toward a range of mountains in our truck full of Indians. We jostled through the night over a land of spooks and electrifying mystery. Our lot had been thrown in with the luck of the others for that night (may our unknown driver guide us safely 'round the rims of canyons as I in other times have done for other passengers) and I envy no man his lonely chariot. At about midnight we arrived at a fork in the road where we got off. That was the only time in my life I remember having had numb knees. I had been riding perched on the top of an oildrum. That had turned out to be my spot for the trip. Each of about 30 other people in the back of that truck had also had their spot. Perhaps some were more comfortable than others, but I doubt it. As the hours pass by a tolerant numbness steals over one's soul and a quiet but ever sterner determination grows as one's bones slowly transform themselves into icy steel rods. When the truck finally stopped, the silence was broken for the first time in three hours as we passed our packs out through the forest of Indians and baggage. The truck clunked off down the road, its two headlights exceptionally piercing in the huge flat and cold expanse of the 15,500 foot plain. We walked a few hundred yards away from the road, set up our tent, and slept. We had escaped the cities at last.
When morning came I jubilantly spied glacier ice through a hole in the clouds. Part of a line of 20,000 foot peaks stood just to the northeast of us. We walked down the road toward a gold mine about which we had been told some weeks before. We had met a Bolivian lady who had given us directions and the name of the mine explaining that she had a Canadian husband who worked at the mine. We therefore anticipated finding one more English-speaking contact before setting off toward a small Indian village. A yellow pickup truck came jouncing down the road and. a man with a British accent hailed us from the driver's seat. He turned out to be the chief operator of the mine. Later he told us that at the time he had met us he had had a gold brick worth $26,000 between his feet. He unhesitatingly gave us instructions to set ourselves up in style in the mine quarters for a few days. When we asked him about the Bolivian woman and her Canadian husband, he replied that the woman's husband had gone back to Canada two years earlier. At first I was amazed to think that this woman's husband had been gone already for two years without her realizing it! But after thinking it over more thoroughly I have decided that I must have misunderstood her. She gave us a letter which I had expected to deliver to her husband. Upon re-examining it however, I see that it is not addressed to her husband, but rather to an American couple who happened to be in San Francisco at the time we arrived.
Mr. Williams, the chief operator of the dredge, returned after a day and a half. In the meantime we had been enjoying breakfasts of bacon and eggs, jam, butter and salads, all of which, except for the eggs, are practically unheard of by the Indians. A couple of weeks later I tried to ask someone to pick me up a jar of jam while he was in Sandia, which is a fairly large town, but the man finally told me that he had never heard of the stuff, and no matter how much I put into explaining what it was, I could see that I was just talking about a realm of food with which this guy had had no experience.
So we stuffed ourselves for four languid days there at 16,000 feet and at night we had an entire room with a big bed in it to ourselves. Slowly we began to get to know Mr. Williams. He was in his fifties. He had operated mines of various sorts in 34 different countries around the world. He was a colonial style Englishman, to say the least.
"A little alcohol in them and they revert right back to savagery, these Indians. You can dress 'em up in a suit of clothes, but they're never very far away from being animals. You gotta watch 'em all the time."
He had a Bolivian wife whom he had acquired only five years earlier, and he had a little daughter who spoke Spanish instead of English, much to her father's disgust. "We're going to Canada for the rest of our lives in another year," he told me. "I can't have my daughter growing up and marrying a South American man. These South Americans cannot be faithful husbands," he explained. "I don't even want my daughter growing up around the savages." The next night he and I sat up around the dinner table after Lisa had gone to bed. It was clear that he was starved for English conversation. He began telling me of his latest exploits. He told me about the 18 year old girl he'd fucked in San Francisco a few months back. He'd also managed to service a few of the wives on a cruise ship, getting cleverly away with this not only behind his own wife's back, but behind the backs of the other womens' husbands. "Pretty good for 52 years old," he said, "but just you wait, real sex life doesn't begin until you're in your forties."
"Oh is that so?" I said.
"Yes, when you're young all you can do is poke it in and shoot. You're always in a hurry. It wasn't until about ten years ago that I could really begin to give a woman what she wanted."
I listened to his tales of conquest for nearly two hours before we finally climbed away from the dinner table and waddled off to our respective mates.
There wasa Guardia Civil post in the little mining town below the dredge, and Lisa and I had walked right past it upon our arrival without stopping in it to explain ourselves. The next morning while I was out walking around, a pair of Guardias came to visit Lisa. Lisa's Spanish was insufficient to satisfy their questions so she promised them that I would pay them a visit after I returned. As I walked along, someone's dog adopted me along the way and I felt glad to have a friend along. I patted him heartily as I walked into the police post and took an offered seat.
"From where are you coming now?" asked their sargent, a brusque little man with a goodly amount of gringo blood in him and three days of beard darkening his face under his near-blue eyes.
"From Juliaca," I replied.
"And to where are you going?"
"To Sina where we hope to stay for a month or so." (Sina was the name of a little village I had picked off the map. We had been told that it was one or two days walk from the mine.) "I am a student of anthropology and I have also studied some Quechua."
"To Bolivia." This always worries them since the latest guerrilla activities have been in Bolivia. I explained that we had to pick up our mail in La Paz, Bolivia.
"In what university did you study?" he asked.
"Cornell and the University of Colorado."
"Are they Americans or Peruvians or Colombians who teach Quechua?"
"An American linguist and Gabriel Escobar, brother of Alberto Escobar." (The latter being big names in Peruvian education, I hoped for a good effect. He seemed to have heard of Alberto Escobar.)
"You can't learn Quechua in Sina," he said.
"Oh yes I can," I retorted.
"No, it's degenerated there," he said, "you have to go to Cuzco."
"I don't like big cities."
"That's still too big."
There followed a long haggle over the validity of our passports during which time he cleverly asked me my name while not letting me see my passport. I gave him my first and last names and he suspiciously asked for my middle. He said we had no visas for either Peru or Bolivia. I pointed them out to him again. Then pointing at my birth date on my passport, said that my passport was no good because it had clearly expired in 1944. I had to laugh. But a couple of times it made me right mad when he implied or stated that my passport was no good. This game could only go on for so long.
"What do you mean my passport is no good?!"
"But there is no visa far Bolivia," he lamely stated. I would point to it again. We went through that one three or four times. It became apparent that a document was going to turn out to be correct or incorrect depending on who had the most stamina.
He changed tactics and told me that it would take us seven or eight days to get to Sina, but here the younger Guardias who were in the room had to disagree. They agreed with me that it would only take one or two days.
The younger Guardias who are serving their two year stint I generally got along with very well. They were usually only 19 or 20 and had none of the usual professional police syndromes which made some of their sargents such assholes to talk with. I have heard that most of the professional police and army officers have been trained for a few weeks by the United States. At any rate, some of these guys share the US Army's phobia about people who might be harboring communist tendencies, whatever the hell they are. I was raising a few meager communist tendencies on my chin. Probably they helped to freak this sargent out. But the younger guys didn't participate in their superior's clever antics, and even seemed anxious to give me correct and helpful information. I could tell by the look in their eyes as well as by their occasional explanatory or sympathetic comments: "That's his birth date," or "I too am 24." The sargent, on the other hand, had those big saucer eyes that people develop when they quit using them to communicate.
Eventually he asked me in Quechua what time I had arrived the day before. The inquisition up to that point had been conducted in Spanish. After my usual pause for deliberation -- as my reactions were still anything but spontaneous in Quechua -- I came up with a reply in Quechua:
"Nawww..." he said, meaning that I had not replied correctly. The younger Guardias were eagerly nodding their heads at me. In fact the sargent had been right. I looked it up later and found I had indeed made a mistake -- a very small one though.
"He still needs practice," one of the younger men said sympathetically. I agreed. I translated the question he had asked me into Spanish to leave no doubt that I had understood the Quechua.
One of them asked if my Señora knew Quechua and I replied that she knew one thing: how to ask for bread. And they all seemed to get a big kick out of that and I felt the tables turning a little bit.
Then suddenly my inquisitor relaxed and smiled and said in Quechua, "Your passports are ok." I agreed in Quechua which they all enjoyed tremendously.
"So, now we'll orient you," the Sargent said all of a hurry. "Come on outside." And then he pointed southeast toward the Nevado Ananea and declared, "That's north!"
At first I thought, "Oh no, now he's gonna try and send me off in the wrong direction. He pointed away from Bolivia and said, "Over there is Bolivia!" It soon became apparent, however, that he just wasn't very well up on his directions. Eventually, he drew me a map which was surprisingly correct once he got east east and west west. And he even warmed to the idea of my going to Sina once he was convinced that I would not pass into Bolivia until I had returned to an established border checkpoint.
As I thanked him for the map and left, I said, "Well, maybe I'll see you again sometime, for I expect to be back." He suddenly looked worried again right in the middle of our third goodbye handshake. "I'd like to climb some of these mountains sometime," I elaborated, "and return to carry on with my Quechua studies." He began to look doubly worried all over again, but I skipped on off up the road before he collld think of what to say or do. After all, I knew his job was to worry, so I wanted to be sure to let him know that I was still a free man and capable of giving him something to worry about.
The 16,000 foot sun rose straight into our window every morning at 5:15. Breakfast lasted from 6:30 'till 8:30, so when we woke up and saw that the sun was already high in the sky we thought, "Oh oh, I bet we've missed breakfast." and we hurried down to the dining room. Early. Still only 6:00. Could have stayed in bed.
For four days we ate and rested and listened to the tales of Mr. Williams. We spent an entire day climbing around through the dredge itself, seeing just how the monster managed to digest gold out of the earth it ate. It literally ate its way along through the earth floating in its own little pond which it constantly filled in behind itself, looking just like a huge misplaced organ supported greasily in its own insidious bodily fluid, a parasite on its earthen host. Every 10 days Mr. Williams drove his pickup down to Juliaca with a gold brick worth .$26,000 between his feet. But it cost, he said, damn near $26,000 to run the whole contraption for 10 days, so it just about broke even, and the Prado family, one of the 30 families in Lima who, until 25 years ago, owned the entire country of Peru and who still own most of it, was not getting much fatter as a result of this dredge. And Mr. Williams seemed to find it drudgery: "I'm getting up to Canada as soon as I can." A handful of Indians made a dollar a day doing the dirty work. Otherwise the entire organ was kept alive by only eight men. These were the eight whose dining hall we had invaded. Their rugged and lonely jokes were keeping the place warm, and in their better moments they laughed laughs worth more than all the bloody gold in the ground.