Saturday, March 19, 2005

Chile: I'm Not the Messiah

Last time I wrote I had just managed to sneak out of Bolivia on a 3am bus into Chile. I heard afterwards that the protests increased, the president of Bolivia unsuccessfully tried to resign, and that leaving La Paz got harder. It seems like I got out just in time. I suspect the llamas were behind the protests, deliberately trying to ruin my travel plans.

Once the bus crossed the Bolivian/Chilean border it was already daylight, and I got the chance to see what must be just about the most desolate landscape on the planet. Chile is on the western side of the Andes, and the rain clouds get trapped on the eastern side. That means it doesn't rain in northern Chile. I really mean that, it is not just exaggeration. They tell me they have some wispy clouds in the sky about 5 days in every year, and it rains about once every ten years. Somewhere nearby is officially the driest spot on the planet.

Imagine a nice landscape of green rolling hills. Now remove from your imagination the trees and the bushes. Get rid of the people, the animals, and the birds in the sky. Then remove the grass and anything else living, so that what remains is just barren, lifeless, brown hills, like mining slag heaps. That's northern Chile, and that was the scenery for hour after hour. I slept most of the time sleeping, waking about once an hour to look out the window and wonder if we had even moved. The landscape continued like this right to the coastal city of Arica, where I got mistaken for Jesus, a gay, drug-addicted Jesus.

Arica is a port town in the very northern tip of Chile. It has beautiful beaches on the Pacific Ocean, with surfing and white sand and lots of beach space for everybody. Pretty much like Australian beaches. However the town is part of the desolate landscape I described above, everything brown and barren, with those slag heap-style hills coming right up to the city's edge.

I sat in an outdoor cafe in Arica, chatting with an Australian guy and a German girl about the tedious scenery. A Chilean woman sitting on a bench nearby summoned the German girl over and told her in Spanish that she had been searching all her life for Jesus of Nazareth, and pointing to me, told her that she had found him, that she was certain I was him. The German girl politely informed her that I wasn't the messiah, that I was just a tourist. The German girl came back to our table and told us about this revelation, so we did the only thing we could - we started mocking the situation, and made jokes about ordering some water for me to turn into a fine Cabernet Sauvignon.

The Chilean woman could see this from her bench, realised that maybe I wasn't Jesus after all, and needed to inform me. She walked up to me, and started waving her handbag at me and with her finger pointed right in my face launched into a tirade, telling me how everything became bad in Chile when I arrived. She was highly agitated and seemed to be on the verge of violence. The Australian guy spoke better Spanish than me and tried to calm her down, but she quickly put him in his place and berated onwards.

Soon the waiter tried to move her out, but she wasn't having it. A policeman passing by joined the effort with a "Excuse me, can you leave the cafe?", but she answered quickly with a stern "I am talking, now go away", and the policeman skulked off to a safe distance. By now the whole cafe was watching this impromptu theatre, pedestrians were gathered around in a circle, and people were watching from upstairs balconies.

Nothing would stop her, and I was expecting her to hit me at any moment. Her accusations against me were getting wilder and wilder. She pointed to the Australian guy and called him my boyfriend, told me I was homosexual, and she mimed shooting up in her arm and told me that I was a junkie. By now this had been going on for 15 minutes and she had run out of words to throw at me. She suddenly stopped, turned around and walked off, leaving me - and everybody else in the cafe - stunned.

The next day I bought a delicious cream-filled donut - and got my first crook stomach for 2 years as a result. I don't know if it was somehow a curse related to my crazy Chilean friend, but it ruined the rest of my time to Chile. I was bedridden, unable to do anything much except watch American TV in my hotel room. Like magic my stomach got better the moment I got on the plane out of Chile to New Zealand. This was merciful because it was a 13 hour flight.

I've spent the last week in Christchurch, New Zealand visiting my family. I had the strange experience of being a foreigner in my own country. Christchurch is a very small city and is nice enough, but it really can't compete with the charms of Latin America and the culture and heritage of Europe.

I'm about to catch a plane to Melbourne, before heading to Tokyo on the way back to Germany.

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Danger in Bolivia

There are some things you shouldn't tell your mother you are going to do until you have done them, like joining the Taliban, getting a tattoo, or mountain-biking down The World's Most Dangerous Road. The Taliban rejected my application, and I am not brave enough to get a tattoo, so a few days ago I did the mountain-biking expedition in Bolivia.

Sixteen of us plus some guides started at the top of a barren mountain pass at 4700 metres, where an icy wind was coming over the snow and making our fingers go numb. A few hours later we had ridden 64 kilometres and descended down to 1700 metres (a total descent of 3 kilometres) into lush jungle in the mountains. Most of the time the supposedly two-way road was unpaved, barely wide enough for one vehicle, and with a drop of a few hundred metres over the side awaiting those who lost concentration. The biggest danger was from the scenery. We were warned at the beginning to ignore the scenery while riding, because there was a story of a guy who was admiring the views and rode straight over the edge.

To make The World's Most Dangerous Road even more dangerous, we were riding at the tail end of the rainy season, so we spent a good hour riding through torrents of rain, turning parts of the road into mud that flicked up and covered our bodies and our faces. There had been a mud slide that morning which bulldozers were already mending but which still gave us more challenge than we needed.

At the end of the road I loitered in Coroico, a small town located in the jungle and the mountains, for a couple of days.

Some days before the bike-ride I visited a town called Copacabana on Lake Titicaca. The town has nothing to do with the song, I think. Lake Titicaca is variously labelled "The World's Highest Lake" or "The World's Highest Navigable Lake", but neither of these titles are true, which makes its claim to fame as plain as La Paz's: "A Lake". However it is interesting to see an enormous lake at almost 4000 metres. The thin air does magical diffusing stuff to the light so that sunrise and sunset are particularly impressive. Well, I can vouch for the sunset but seeing the sunrise would involve doing what I consider to be one of the worst tortures known to the human race - getting up early.

On Lake Titicaca is an island, Isla del Sol, or Island of the Sun. This is where the gods of the Incas are supposed to have originated. I met up with a guy called Kashmir from Kanada, and we hiked from one end of the island to the other, a good 3 hours walk, always with great views towards either Bolivia or Peru. During the walk I found another reason to hate llamas. A Bolivian kid with snot all over his face blocked the path with his tethered-up llama, and wanted to charge us money so that we could take photos of his llama. I patted the llama's dirty, matted, thick wool and he reciprocated by trying to eat my shoe. It is not a shoe that I have any special sentimentality for, but nevertheless I didn't want it eaten. I pulled back, which started the llama-Steve war. He was determined not to let me cross the path, turning his back towards me and trying to kick me. Kashmir from Kanada and the enterprising Bolivian kid with snot all over his face both tried to distract the llama so I could cross but he wasn't having it. I had to clamber over the fields until I was well past him before I could get back on the path.

I spent more time than intended in Bolivia. I had a bus ticket booked to take me to Chile, but on the day before I was supposed to leave protesters blocked the roads in and out of the bus terminals with tires and rubbish. No-one was getting in and no-one was getting out. I could do nothing but pass the time, until I got word that a bus was daring to leave at 3am in the morning when the protesters were distracted with sleep or something. So I made it to Chile, where I am now.