Journey over all the universe in a map, without the expense and fatigue of
traveling, without suffering the inconveniences of heat, cold, hunger, and thirst.
Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote
Surely you will be asking yourself, if this jerk hates travel so much, why on earth does he keep at it? Nearly drowning in Arizona; literal cliff-hangers in California; maneuvering the insane freeways of Los Angeles County; road trips and car breakdowns clear across the United States; war in Vietnam; dysentery and volcanoes in Costa Rica; well-nigh ship disaster in the South Pacific Ocean; earthquakes and ski slopes in Chile; jungles, flash floods, hail and electrical storms, hepatitis, more dysentery, precipices and killer roads in the Andes in Bolivia. . .. What else is he looking forward to? Is he a masochist? Is he a moron? Is he suicidal? The answer is probably a little bit of all three. A case in point is the time, in 1974 in Bolivia, when my stepson Augusto and I accompanied Nelson, the aventurero among of my several Bolivian brothers-in-law, who invited us along on a fishing trip with him and Pablo, one of his compadres, enticing us with a visit to see some ancient Indian cave paintings.
This was a totally harebrained expedition, of course. It was not out of necessity. It did not even fulfill the very basic reason of why the chicken crossed the road. Aside from the fact that neither Augusto nor I were all that interested in fishing, we were hardly archaeological buffs either, so we could not rack it up to scientific curiosity, much less to research. In fact, we had not even been given a speck of information about which ancient Indians painted these figures, or when. On top of that, we both knew from past experience that Nelson, though perfectly charming and fun to be with, he was still an inveterate adventurer and not the most trustworthy companion to be traveling with anyplace outside of our back yard. And yet still we decided to go. See how pudding head some otherwise perfectly intelligent people can be?
So, together with Pablo, we rode the night through, from Cochabamba (the city where I lived for 20 years), into the high Andes Mountains in a light pickup truck, breathing, eating, and drinking dust all the way along the precarious dirt road. Fortunately (for me, at least), it was Augusto who did all the vomiting on this occasion. It’s just to show that I don’t get to have all the fun every time on trips.
I Think That I Shall Never See a Thing So Lovely as Adobe
Early in the morning, we arrived in a forlorn, frost-covered valley, somewhere between 11,000 and 12,000 feet above sea level. This was where Pablo lived precariously with his family, halfway up the side of a mountain. This was a place called Macha Q’ayma (in the Quechua language, meaning an insipid state of drunkenness) and located somewhere around the locality of Altamachi, several kilometers north of Cochabamba. His house, a simple, white-washed rectangle box and little else, was built of mud, stone, and adobe, with a thatch roof. If he had any neighbors, they must have lived miles away, for his was the only dwelling I could see anywhere. He invited us inside, where we were greeted by his wife and two small children, one of whom was Nelson’s godson. Inside was simple to the extreme, but cozy, and the adobe protected us from the outside cold.
Adobe: ah, I love the stuff. Not that it has anything specific to do with this trip. But since I’ve mentioned it, I think I should say a few words on behalf of this often maligned and misunderstood medium. Adobe has for millennia been the worldwide standard building material wherever clay is to be found. So important has it been throughout history that great civilizations were built upon it, and, admittedly, crumbled also. And it was not so much persecution as adobe bricks that finally triggered Hebrew rebellion in Egypt and eventually led to their exodus to the Promised Land. I’ve no doubt that adobe played a role in The Odyssey as well, for while Greece may be famous for its marble buildings, and no doubt Ulysses’ palace at Ithaca(?) was of that noble material, and although caves abound in the story, surely it was neither marble nor caves but adobe of which were made the pigsties of Circe in which she penned up Ulysses’ men.
So much for history and myth. On the practical side, some experts contend that adobe out-insulates brick and concrete, be it heat, cold, or sound; and it is cheap, strong, durable, and fire-resistant. But not to make it out as the Eighth Wonder, I must also qualify the stuff as also being heavy, thick, oppressive, and unsightly once erosion has set in. It needs to be clothed, to be covered, to be protected, and—oh, why not?—to be pampered. Uncared-for, it quickly falls prey to the elements, and if the elements are wind and rain, it soon returns to turbid gumbo. Put in that particular light, it does sound like ghastly stuff, and if you’re a wood-wall person, you might rather brave a termite any day over a bout of incipient hog wallow. Be that as it may, well-preserved and properly veneered, adobe is a joy.
There’s an awful fascination about the stuff, when you get right down to it. Almost an obsession, I’d say. Like kids playing in mud. It’s dirty, messy, and tastes awful, but golly, what a delight! Look what terrific castles you can build out of it. And if your dog doesn’t pee on it or the neighborhood bully doesn’t kick it down, why, it’ll last forever. And once you’re into it, you don’t want to come home, even for lunch.
But I digress.
Those Caves of Ice!
To return to our outing, Nelson and his compadre were going to fish and hunt, while Augusto and I intended to view the “ancient cave paintings”. Literally from out of nowhere, Pablo produced two horses, upon which my brother-in-law and he mounted, while Augusto and I were left to struggle along behind on foot, which didn’t bother me unduly, recalling my past regard for horses. After a breakfast of farmer’s cheese, unleavened bread, toasted corn, and syrupy tea, we set out from the adobe house, Pablo’s wife and children bidding us a fond “uj ratu kama” (actually, they were probably glad to be rid of us), and headed into the stark mountains.
Within minutes I was gasping for breath. The rarefied air hadn’t bothered me until we began to hike upwards, and now I regretted with every ounce of me that I hadn’t arm-wrestled my brother-in-law for that horse. After a bit, the trail leveled off, and I forgot those premonitions of my heart exploding like a rusty, over-pushed steam engine. Suddenly we saw in the distance a small herd of vicuña and a bit further on another, and just as suddenly the trip became completely worthwhile, or at least as worthwhile as a trip of this kind is going to get. The vicuña is on the endangered species list, and looks like a small, long-necked, very elegant version of the alpaca. It is a wild animal, related to the domesticated alpaca and llama (and more distantly to the camel), and whose fine hair is a lovely lustrous tan, soft as silk. You get all kinds of gooey Bambi feelings when you see one, and you wonder how in heaven’s name they could be hunted down so ruthlessly by poachers. Well, of course, their pelts bring hundreds, and today perhaps thousands, of dollars, so that might be a factor. I had never seen a vicuña in the wild before, and here was an entire drove of them, almost a totally unheard-of phenomenon at that particular time. As we hiked along, we watched them with great excitement, and I suddenly remembered my mother and how she ohhed and ahhed whenever she saw something lovely on our trips, and it was then that I really understood what she felt inside before the grandeur of nature. Mom! Where are you when I finally want to share a few “well-I-declares” with you?
The terrain was devoid of trees—tufts of long and short grass, very small yellow flowers, and colorful lichen being the only visible forms of vegetation. After a couple of hours of hiking, some peculiar rock formations emerged ahead of us. The horses sensed a new excitement in the air—what there was of it—and snorted. Pablo pointed his finger in that direction and said, “Chay orqosta pasaytawan qhespina kasqan.” Augusto and I looked at each other with what you might call a blank expression. Our command of Quechua was not among our stronger points. It’s true that I had studied Quechua, but despite the fact that it is considered a relatively easy language to learn, I could never seem to advance beyond the first lesson. However, I am very proficient in that first one, believe me. Anyhow, Augusto and I were looking at each other blankly before the incomprehensibility of “Chay orqosta pasaytawan qhespina kasqan.” Nelson glanced down at us from the highness of his horse and translated. “He said that the cave is on the other side of that mountain.” Augusto and I nodded in unison. As we neared the mountain, which countless millennia ago had sprouted out of the earth like a towering black mushroom, we saw ice and snow on the shadow side. “It never melts,” said my brother-in-law.
Now this is an interesting curiosity I have learned regarding high altitudes in Bolivia. When you are standing in the sun, it is so intense that you are sure it is burning a hole in the top of your head. Indeed, if you remain outside too long without a hat, it may likely do just that, though more often than not you will merely suffer from severe sunburn or a stroke. As a matter of fact, I have often attributed my ability for less than scintillating brilliance to overexposed noodle in the mid-day sun in Bolivia. Be that as it may, when you move from that piercing hot sun into the shade, you are suddenly stabbed by so intense a cold that you are certain that if you don’t get back in the sun pretty damned quick, you will probably turn into a not-so-jolly snowman. In these instances, I think of Lot’s wife, suddenly frozen solid into a pillar of salt, or one of Medusa’s victims, a finely chiseled specimen of stone, and I can’t figure why the shadowed Bolivian highlands aren’t littered with human anthraconites. So, on visiting these high places you find yourself in a continual ballet of pirouettes in and out of the sun, warming up, cooling down. You begin to feel like an unbasted chicken on a spit in an unevenly heated barbecue. The Indians, of course, are more stoic, and will calmly sit either in the sun or in the shade and observe your queer maneuvers with interest, and if there are a group of them together, they might make a joke of it and laugh and shake their heads.
It took us several minutes to pass around to the cave side of the mountain, and both Augusto and I began to peer eagerly for a first glimpse of the cave entrance. A bull and a few cows were grazing nearby. They looked up at our approach, and the bull snorted once, but returned to munching on the long grass. I thought of bull-fights and gored matadors and hoped that this particular specimen was of a Ferdinandish bent of mind. Opposite the mountain was a small, green lake with a couple of tiny islands in the middle. My brother-in-law mentioned that there existed a belief that they were man-made, and that treasure had been buried on one of them ages ago. Nelson, the inveterate Indiana Jones, had more personal adventures tucked under his belt than most people could shake a stick at. His mere mention of these islands, then, began to conjure up in our minds fantasies of hidden Inca gold, but we quickly turned our attention again to the main objective: cave paintings.
“Oh, no!” I suddenly exclaimed, and would have hit my head with my hand, but my hat brim was in the way.
“What?” asked Augusto.
“We forgot to bring flashlights!”
Augusto rolled his eyes. “Anybody got matches?”
Nelson reared back his horse. “You won’t need flashlights or matches,” he said. I was about to ask him how we were expected to see inside the cave when he pointed. “There it is. The Cave.” We looked.
In The Odyssey, caves play an important role in the story. There’s the cave where Ulysses is kept prisoner for seven years by the Calypso, who promises him immortality if he will only marry her. Then there’s the cave of Polyphemos, the terrible Cyclops, where Ulysses and his men are trapped for several days before they poke out his eye and manage to escape. We learn that in a high cave on a cliff overlooking the narrow Strait of Messina, which Ulysses and his men must pass through, lives the six-headed Scylla, who swoops down on Ulysses’ ship and snaps up a half dozen sailors and devours them in the most pitiable manner imaginable. And finally, the Cave of the Naiad nymphs on the island of Ithaca, where Ulysses, plotting the destruction of his wife’s suitors, hides the splendid treasures which the Phaeacians have given him. I had also visited a couple of caves during my travels as a youth, and I might have turned into a spelunker of note, were it not for once being accidentally trapped in a closet along with my sister when we were small children, which ever afterwards made me slightly nervous of tight places. It was therefore with both expectation and apprehension that I received my brother-in-law’s turgid announcement that we had finally reached “The Cave”.
The “cave” was one of the major disappointments of my entire world travel experience. According to Webster, a cave is a natural underground chamber open to the surface. This is how I had always understood it, but my brother-in-law evidently had taken it in the Latin sense, cavus, or hollow. And a hollow can be defined as having an indentation or inward curve, as in concave. The Cave was a slightly concave wall on the side of the mountain. When I say slightly concave, I mean that my spectacles have more concave. It would need another one hundred million years or so to get in the shape I call cave, but by that time, the entire mountain would have eroded away.
The wall/cave was large, I give it that. No telling what kind of stone it might have been, since none of us knew the least thing about geology, but it was light-colored, gray/white, starkly contrasting the surrounding black rocks and mountains, the brilliance of the sunshine on its surface nearly blinding us. It took me several seconds to adjust my eyes in order to see the “cave” paintings. (Ref. photo of petroglyphs at top of this piece.)
Whoever the ancient artists were who had painted upon this wall, they hadn’t taken colorfast pigments and the elements of wind, sun, and rain into much consideration insofar as the preservation of their work. Remember the once-popular madras shirts of the early sixties? We all thought they were the greatest thing since the Taj Mahal. Everybody had to get out their encyclopedias to find out what madras was in the first place, and lo and behold, it turned out that it was an important Indian textile center on the Bay of Bengal. Whether or not madras shirts actually came from Madras is immaterial. What was important was that they were “in”, and no self-respecting teenager stalked the streets without one. The shirts were brightly colored plaids when you took them home and put them on for the first time. But when Mom put them in the wash, the colors would bleed worse than a stuck pig, and they seemed most intent on adhering to any other cloth in the washing machine but the shirt they were originally attached to. After a few washes, your madras looked like they had been bleached for three days straight in full-strength Clorox, while the rest of your clothes had assumed a peculiar nondescript dingy blue/gray, dingy pink/gray, dingy brown/gray, or dingy gray/gray, depending upon the original predominant hues of your madras. Of course, in those days we thought good shirts were supposed to bleed and fade and look like they had once belonged to Claude Raines, or had accompanied the Twenty-Mule Team borax caravan across the Mojave Desert a century ago.
Again, I digress.
Anyhow, our cave paintings immediately reminded me of thrice-washed madras shirts. The pictures and designs were almost undetectable. We squinted and stared and strained, and only after considerable effort, and not a little imagination, were we finally able to discern the patterns of human intention. I looked up at Nelson and Pablo, and they looked back. I turned to the wall again and thought of Pink Floyd. I took pictures for the record, but had no confidence whatever that the figures would come out on film.
The horses snorted and champed, and Nelson told Augusto and me that he and Pablo were going to do a little hunting further on. Viscacha was their principal target, a large rodent that looks like a rabbit with a long tail, what we call a chinchilla. And if they had no luck at that, they would fish for trout in one of the many small lakes in the area. Since we were on foot, it would be difficult for us to follow them, and it was suggested that we go back to Pablo’s house and await their return. There were two ways to do it: one, to retrace our steps, which would take a few hours, but was less strenuous than alternative two, which was to hike up the side of a nearby mountain and down the other. This second choice would probably knock off a couple of hours of travel time. Nelson and Pablo reared up their neighing horses and, with a “heigh-oh, Silver away!”, rode off, leaving the two of us alone in the middle of the Bolivian Andes.
“Not bad, a four-hour hike to see six and a half minutes of poorly executed stick figures from the past,” I said to nobody in particular. As you may have noted, I did not have the proper appreciation for petroglyphs at the time.
“Let’s get out of here,” said Augusto.
“Not impressed enough to stay for another couple of minutes to contemplate pre-Columbian art?”
“It’s not that. Just that right this second there’s a cow with sharp horns charging us.”
I whipped around to see a very large chunk of prime beef thundering down in a direct collision course toward us. I think my next words were “Aaarrgh!”, or something to that effect, and both Augusto and I made fast tracks for a protective boulder. As soon as we were behind it, the cow—for indeed it was one of the cows—seemed to lose interest in spearing us, and returned to grazing, although she might have been dissimulating.
“I didn’t realize that cows were so territorial,” I said, breathing hard from the chase.
“Perhaps they’re too far away from civilization to know the social amenities,” Augusto suggested.
“In any case, I thought bulls, not cows, were given to pursuing humans.”
“We live in a feminist age.”
“So true. Hmm, Amazon cows. Will wonders never cease? Well, what’s it going to be? Back where we came from, or across the mountain?”
Up the Airy Mountain
We flipped for it, and the mountain won. I’ve since checked a map, and the range we were about to scale tipped 13,000 feet. Had I known that then, I never would have attempted it. But at the time, it looked like a snap. The slope was covered with green grass and multi-colored lichen and little yellow and white flowers belying any sign of treachery. I kind of felt like Heidi might be skipping down any moment to greet us with a friendly yodel. As soon as we had begun our ascent, however, I realized that my oxygen intake was dangerously below the green mark. My heart began to pound ominously, like the knock of Death in Beethoven’s Fifth—dah-dah-dah-DAH—and my breathing took on the tempo of a rip saw in full, rusty swing. Suddenly I discovered that I was alone. I turned and saw Augusto several yards behind me doing what looked like one of those fancy Michael Jackson moon dance steps where he is sliding backwards, although the feet seem to be moving in a forward pace. What do you call that? A progressive backslide? A trailing foreglide? A recidivist forward backstep? Anyhow, Augusto was doing it. I stopped and watched a moment in fascination.
“Augusto, I don’t think this is the moment for peripatetic footslogging,” I said.
Augusto adjusted his thick glasses. “I’m not footslogging. I can’t get any traction. It’s my shoes,” he panted. “The soles slip on the grass.”
I went back to inspect the situation. In my state, I should have waited for him to work his way up to me. It could have been done in much the same way skiers walk uphill. And there was no telling whether I could get back to where I had been. I wheezed to a stop and gaped. He was wearing street shoes! Their soles of smooth leather had no tread whatsoever. I scratched my head.
“What should we do?” I asked. Aside from this particular lapse of planning, Augusto was a pretty smart kid. I figured that for someone his age who’d discovered a new scientific formula while still in high school, he ought to be able to provide a solution to this relatively simple dilemma in a snap.
“We can either go back down the mountain and take the long way back,” he reasoned, “or we have to figure out a way of improving the forward thrust.”
“Right,” I agreed, glancing down the mountain where that wild, vicious cow, now placidly munching grass, still awaited with hopes for our return.
He thought for a moment, and then reached into his jacket pocket, extracting a pair of long, thick wool socks. His mom had slipped in a couple of extras for the cold. Augusto sat down on a rock and began to pull the socks over his shoes.
“Uh, Augus, are you sure you aren’t suffering from oxygen starvation?” I began.
“You mean by putting my socks on over my shoes instead of over my feet?”
“No, no. I understand perfectly why you’re putting them on over your shoes. What I’m wondering about is whether you’ve fully considered what your mother will do to you when she sees those socks afterwards.”
He thought about it. “I’ll take my chances.”
“It’s your skin,” I said.
We started up again, and this time we walked side by side. But soon my lungs were bursting, and I signaled Augusto to keep going, while I rested for a moment. He trudged several yards up ahead and finally stopped, waiting for me to catch up. Then I proceeded, passing him by until I could go no further, and waited to catch my breath. We continued this see-saw trek for about half an hour until I collapsed on the ground, unable to go on. And believe it or not, I burst into tears. Which was an amazing thing, considering that my throat and lungs didn’t have one drop left of moisture. Augusto waited patiently until I collected myself. In the meanwhile, he changed his by-now worn-out socks for a new pair of treads.
“Augus, I have never been so utterly exhausted in my whole life,” I blubbered. “I don’t think I can get to the top.”
“Well, it’s not too far now,” he said, looking up the slope. We had probably traversed three-quarters of the ascent.
“It’s so far.”
“It could have been Everest.”
“In a pig’s eye.”
“Where’s the native hue of resolution?”
“’Tis sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought. Don’t forget, that’s Hamlet contemplating suicide. Okay, Augus. Let’s do it.”
I got up, but my legs nearly buckled under me. We started up again. My entire body, even my brain, felt like demulcent(?) rubber, or maybe sun-softened margarine, squishy pudding, flaccid blubber. Zero temper. Zilch force. What is that special rush that athletes talk about getting when they have pushed themselves to the limit of their endurance? Well, they lie. I know I had reached the absolute outer limits of my endurance, and the only rush I was getting was the pukes. I began thinking about the hereafter and how wonderful it would be to just lay down and die. If I could only force myself a foot or so beyond my endurance, then my suffering would be over and I would be laid to rest in green pastures, or wherever. I think somewhere along the line there my prayers for survival transformed into prayers for release. I wondered idly how my stepson, who was such a bookworm, had so much more stamina than I, and then I seemed to recall that he did play soccer and tennis from time to time, he was younger than I, and of course he had an iron will. My will was more on the light metals side of the Periodic Table: like potassium or magnesium. I had no strength to raise my head, and so I stared at my boots and willed them to stride forward. When that didn’t work, I willed them to simply tread forward. Or drag. Even stagger a little. Whatever, just so they would move up! It was no good. The grass I tread upon no longer shifted to the rear. It remained in the same position beneath my feet and only stirred to the sharp gusts of cold wind which now whipped across the slope. I stared and stared, and my boots stayed firm. They would not budge. I was a goner.
“The summit!” I heard a voice.
“What?” I mumbled, trying to lift my head.
“We made it!”
It was Augusto. He was perhaps a yard ahead of me. I looked, and saw him throw himself down on the ground, and I looked, and we were on top, and all the world was beneath us. I smiled and let my body fall flat alongside his. And we both closed our eyes in heavenly bliss. It was all downhill from here on out.
Gertrude and Heathcliff
I don’t know how many minutes passed where we were stretched out like two stiffs in a morgue, but after a bit through my benumbed brain I began to perceive strange signals from the outside world. Something like “sshhhwss…sshhhwss”.
“I think we better be going.”
“Another wild cow?”
“I wouldn’t say that exactly, no. Open your eyes.”
I clicked open my eyes and looked straight up into the dark blue sky. So beautiful. So serene. So… Suddenly the “sshhhwss… sshhhwss” signals made crystal clear sense. It was the soft whisper of zephyrs on extended feathers. The gentle rustle of the breeze on flaring pinions. The terrible shriek of the wind whistling against the mighty, outstretched wings of savage B-52 CONDORS!
There suddenly emerged from me a sound I didn’t think humans could make. It was something like “Hhhaaayyakkk!”.
Two huge, rapacious condors, the largest living birds on the face of the earth, and surely descendants of the Harpies, had just buzzed us within inches, their sharp, lethal claws nearly grazing our prostrate bodies, and I shuddered as their prop wash and foul breaths fluttered over us like an evil gust of doom. They circled round slowly and came in for another bombing run at two o’clock high.
Members of the vulture family, condors are voracious eaters, and although they prefer their meat dead, will attack living animals, and there have been reports of children being seized and carried off. Although the California condor is all but extinct, a fair number of Andean condors still survive in the wild. It is Bolivia’s national bird. They grow to great size, with wingspans surpassing nine and ten feet. I have heard accounts of even up to fifteen-foot wingspans, but these may be the avian version of fish stories. Whatever, condors are not to be kitchy-kooed to. Need I say that Augusto and I were not in an enviable situation?
By some heaven-sent miracle, the exhaustion in my body instantly melted, and I was alive and scared and feeling all too carrionish for my own good. Both Augusto and I suddenly found untapped strength in hitherto forgotten wells of adrenaline, and we simultaneously leapt to our feet and began flapping our arms around hysterically and squawking what we supposed might be fair imitations of a couple of Pterodactyls not to be messed with. And just in case, we were also ready to flee for our very lives. As the two condors zoomed in, they blinked their red eyes and seemed genuinely surprised that their mid-afternoon dinner had suddenly resuscitated. They looked at each other densely—very much like comedian Red Skelton’s Gertrude and Heathcliff, I would say—shook their heads, shrugged, and then aborted their dive, swerving away from us and swooping off in opposite directions, hopefully in search of smaller prey. Soon they were specks in the sky, and we allowed ourselves to breathe normally again.
“Where to?” Augusto asked.
I looked back from where we had just come, saw our little lake and its two perhaps-man-made islands and little cow dots far below. Then I turned around and gazed on the other side of the mountain. It slid sharply downward for maybe two or three thousand feet, ended in a creek, and started up another slope. About half-way up that incline, there was a tiny white dot, and a little off to the right a tinier red dot. The first dot was Pablo’s house. The second was our pickup truck. I pointed.
The second half of our return was only fraught with downhill muscle cramps, along with the potential danger of rolling down the mountain and breaking our necks. Anticlimaxes are such a drag. Nobody was maimed or killed. Nelson and Pablo returned empty-handed. No viscachas were hunted down. No trout were fished. The pickup didn’t even break down on the way home, like we expected it to. Oh, we did stop at a couple of chinchilla burrows, but they were apparently out for the day.
Note: This piece is a revised version of a chapter from a manuscript I wrote in 1995 of travel experiences in the United States, Vietnam, Costa Rica, Bolivia, and Chile.