Bolivia

From La Paz, it was up and over La Cumbre Pass at four thousand six hundred metres, with its breathtaking views, llamas grazing the mountainside, and a road that would make any bush track look like a highway. We were constantly kept aware of the dangers of this road with the makeshift graves at the roadside. When that wasn't enough, a quick glance over the side of the road to near-vertical drops of three hundred metres, was a stark reminder. Added to this, were the continual blind corners as the road weaved its way up and down the sides of the mountains. Occasionally, we were met front on by an oncoming vehicle, a bus or truck, and then we would follow the intricate manoeuvre of one party backing along the one-laned road until space for two car widths could be found.

We stopped at the only major village along the way to buy fuel. After multiple misleading directions, we ended up at the "petrol station". No signs, just forty-four gallon drums out of which protruded a hand operated pump. A battered metal bucket and a funnel, twenty minutes and we were re-fueled. It wasn't that we really needed fuel at that point, but that there were threats of fuel strikes looming. Safety first.

Coroico was our final destination. Perched majestically on a hilltop surrounded by jungle vegetation, banana plantations and overlooking a turbulent river. A tributary to the Amazon. We found our way to the best hotel in town, which resembled something you'd have expected some rich Lord to have built. Complete with swimming pool, spectacular views, waiters garbed with black bow ties at breakfast, lunch and dinner, all for a dollar fifty a night. Dinner is served your Lordship Keelan. I was living an "unreal" lifestyle, a fantasy, but would enjoy it while it lasted.

Back in La Paz again, I spend lazy days writing letters and enjoying the use of a house. I've been here over a week, I'm rested and it's time to move on, so I decide to leave all my "things" here and travel for six weeks in Bolivia with just my small day-pack. A toothbrush, one change of clothing, camera and a book that I've borrowed from Werner's school are all I need. Funny to find myself reading "The Thorn Birds" here, of all places.

Armed with my day-pack, my ever increasing vocabulary and my trusty Spanish dictionary, I left La Paz by train for Cochabamba. I was travelling solo for the first time, but soon found that this was to have its distinct advantages.

And there was to be none of this .... get your seat, get rocked to sleep and wake up at your destination. For a start, my allocated seat 13B didn't even exist, I found myself at the centre of instant controversy, which was good because it brought with it a direct line to easy conversation making. Instantly there were people to chat to.

It had snowed up on the altiplano the previous night and, consequently, our elevation from the train station to the upper heights of La Paz was spectacular. Already the streets were awash with skid-brown mud. Children were having snow fights; a universal game, I thought, and better than plastic toy guns. I was rugged to the hilt, utilising the multi-layer system of warmth, starting with ski underwear and concluding with my mulit-coloured scarf and woollen "beanie".

We passed an old lady walking with four llamas laden with the produce of her fields. Probably walking to La Paz to be in time for the big weekend vegetable market. It was a threadbare, somewhat meagre existence, for such hardworking people. And llamas, those disgraceful spitting, yet dilligent animals, the workhorse of the Andes. They could carry loads of around twenty kilograms for up to twenty kilometres a day, and yield about three kilograms of wool when shorn every couple of years. The alpaca, on the other hand, was bred exclusively for its wool and could be seen in large herds of up to thirty animals along our way.

A duet between train and line presents a clitter, clatter, white noise, which combines with the rocking motion of the train, to send my wafting in and out of sleep; gazing out over the speeding altiplano, reading my book.

Some hours later (was it five or ten? ... I didn't have a clue!) the train came to a halt which, for the first half hour, meant that I slipped into a deep sleep.

One eye opened and focussed on the group of passengers just outside my window. I heaved my window up a few inches so as to revive my energies with the fresh air. Radar eavesdropping honed in on their conversation long enough to realise that they were speaking in Quechua, the indian language.

Further investigation informed me that we were to be delayed by a derailment further up the line. We were positioned at a station, semi-attached to a small town in the middle of nowhere.

Experience had told me to listen, but also to observe situations. For the first hour I stay close to the train but as more people strayed into the town nearby, I too followed to see what lifestyle existed in such a small altiplano village. I was just swallowing the last drops of the drink I had bought, when the train hooted some signal of intent. Everybody was boarding as I made like De Costella for the last hundred metres. The train hooted again and started to budge forward slowly. An older lady was shoved up into the train. The lack of platform made the first step quite a stride for older people. Knowing that I could probably out run the train's top speed, if I had to, I was happy to walk along beside the train as it gradually gained momentum, and older people were rushing to board. We were the last carriage and I was now walking faster. Then a young lady carrying a baby scampered down the embankment behind us. People were calling for her to run faster but it's clear that this is a job for some super hero. Almost as if the star of some Hollywood thriller, I jumped from the steps of the train and ran to the lady, grabbed the baby and ran with her till we caught the train, which was now starting to take on a more testing pace. We just made it. Another ten seconds and the train would have been moving too fast for her to catch. Of course, I was now being drowned with profuse praise, and felt that the keen edge of indifference between the locals and the "gringo" had been shelved to allow a more pleasant travelling situation.

Cochabamba was a very orderly city with a wonderful central plaza, a large and very interesting market, with a particularly interesting witchcraft section. Salsa music wreaked its message from the music stalls; piles of cabbages dwarfing heaped beans and chillies. Green and red, fat or short and thin. Chillies everywhere. Bananas hung out of large cane baskets, potatoes lined stalls in the hessian sacks, and tomatoes sat red ripe and ready. I had some sewing repairs done on my now ailing jeans. A new pocket replaced the somewhat battle worn old one and a new security pocket was sewn onto the inside. The necessary evil of security, of defence. I recalled walking with a Canadian friend in some markets one day. Same old story. Suddenly bustling gathering of people and the resultant slit in his newly acquired woven bag. Even more alarming was that the single slice had penetrated a soft cover novel, which he had inside, and even deeper into the first twenty pages. All in one slice. Legs beware. It also confirmed the risks involved in confronting such thieves.

A great folklore music show was balanced with a Bolivian rock music concert. Drugs seemed to abound and the stink of marijuana heavied the atmosphere even further.

The height of the concert was when the band did their version of "Cocaine". We were in the chief cocaine producing country in the world, and it was obvious to sing such a song here. I wondered how many grams of the "white snow" or "nose candy" had been consumed by that crowd .... probably far less than a similar crowd in the USA?

It was after this concert that I got to thinking about a drug such as cocaine. The impact, for instance, that it had on the Bolivian economy, its impact on those people that produced, bought and sold it, the billions of dollars that were involved in what could be seen as a self-supportive downward spiral.

I met a funny Canadian guy at my hotel and we made up imaginary stories and laughed at the possibilities that surrounded the drug. We finally decided that it was an economically feasible idea to run an operation called "Cocaine Tours" from the US to Bolivia. You could buy five dollars worth of "coke" here and yet the same amount, which would have been watered down with all sorts of baddies like baby powder, or bicarbonate of soda, could be bought ... would be bought in the US for over two hundred dollars. It seemed logical that we could bring people to Bolivia and have them snort themselves silly, then fly them home again and they would still save money. They would probably also return in a better condition too, as I was sure that your nostrils weren't the best place to be caking bicarbonate of soda.

There was also a serious and sinister side to cocaine. Farmers who broke their backs on the land growing crops like potatoes and corn could see that they would double their income by planting crops of coca. Coca plantations were springing up everywhere. Supplies of vegetables were decreasing and, consequently, their prices were increasing. The old supply and demand theory again! What a strange situation. Bolivians undernourished, starving, broken bodies and spirits. All to supply the "big leader", the US, with confidence enhancing drugs. Too much disposable money versus very little to none.

Then there were the cocaine barons with their extraordinary wealth, their zillions. Extensive and out of place mansions, the Mercedes and the high powered ocean going boats moored in the muddy waters of some Amazonian tributary. There were the stories of machine gun wielding standover men in hidden corners of the jungle, presiding over trapped farmers who were forced to work their system for them. Forced to trudge for hours in large plastic lined pits full of coca leaves and kerosine. The link in the production chain which produced the coca paste. Ready for the makeshift laboratories where it would be converted to the "white gold".

There were stories of families of such profound wealth and power that they could afford to dump aeroplanes, big ones like DC-7s or even a jumbo (as per Time magazine report) in the US after their cargos had been offloaded. One baron had even offered to pay off the Bolivian National Debt. There was the story of how the US cut off aid to Bolivia on the proviso that it would be reinstated as soon as some steps were taken towards negating cocaine production. Consequently, the Bolivian Government sent the army into an area renowned as a centre for production. The newspaper reports denounced the trouncing the army received at the hands of the alternate "army". Hoodlums equipped with the latest Russian automatic machine guns, hand grenades etc., devastated any efforts which were made against them.

It did, however, seem to me that this was only a superfluous gesture, to allow the continuing of US aid. It was a well known piece of gossip that officials from local districts, right through to every level and department of the Government, were part of the profit distribution system that resulted from cocaine production. A system so corrupt that corruption seemed more normal than any alternative. "Just like Queensland," I thought. A human race steeped in greed, of excesses. There was a rarely seen residue. The vent for the pressure valve of life's eternal search for some form of balance. I remembered Tracie.

In the next week, two other stories would unfold and make obvious the power and corruption that surrounded cocaine. It was also around this point of my travels that a new reckoning with time commenced.

I had many self discussions as to the relevance and importance of time, both in my life before, and now as a traveller. I had absorbed South American time and felt comfortable with it. I stopped making entries into my diary some weeks before and it seemed that, around this point onward, days washed into weeks, distance became colours, shapes and sensory snippets. Time itself became stories. The question of "What time is it? .... What date is it?" became as unimportant as "What month is it?" I had moved into some new reality. From these days on I moved my self discussions towards that subject, "reality", and would use it as the basis for observing and becoming involved with this changing self.

In Cochabamba I found what was to be the cheapest hotel in town. On the second floor, of what I could best describe as "some run down mansion" I settled into a smallish room. It was one of six small single rooms that looked out over a central courtyard. A courtyard that would everyday attract old men who would sit, drink and chat.

    
Tracie

The beauty of her innocence
Skin deep as the needle plunged
A direct line to heart and soul
Childhood of tossed salad
Garnished with a richness
Sour with a poverty to come
What price must the human soul pay
Crimes against it unknown
Bound by wants reaching further than greed
Following her needs for any price
Days passed living in a peaceful utopia
A warmth inside and serenity
Strength within her four walls and yet
A world splashed and splayed in abstract colours
Screaming clowns and the seaming crowd
A solitary human juggling
The desire to create and bloom
Yet a mind bound in barbed wire
Black, demoralised and charred
Like the solitary fence post
Cutting into her self
Obscenities that no human should bare
Creativity a frail attempt to escape
A link with reason
How helpless you must have been
Our sorrows now we show our love and pain
What of yours, why weren't we told
Didn't we hear your screams
Now the pounding devastation of fire passed
Disturbed peace in the unconscious
True peace now
The rarest of beauty.