BACK OF BOURKE

My days back in La Paz were grand. The weather was perfect, my spirits were at a high ebb, and the catastrophic Bolivian exchange rate meant that I was living the "high life" of La Paz. I found that I could easily manoeuvre from an observer to participant. At one moment reflecting on the misery and plight of everyday Bolivians. Disregarding the official exchange rate, I calculated that, at the going black market rate of exchange, a university educated Bolivian teacher was presently earning around twenty-five dollars a month. To buy a plane ticket from La Paz to the border with Argentina cost me the equivalent of nine US dollars. It also took about four hours by the time I exchanged on the black market, had them count through a hugh pile of notes and then bought my ticket. Yet another extensive note counting episode. Some notes were now worth a quarter of a cent on the black market. Worthless.

At the other side was the exploratory live-it-up, once-in-a-lifetime attitude that I had encaptured. I would eat at the very best restaurants every night, visit my favourite peñas, for live Andean music and dance, and drink imported wines. I was living it up. One night I met a couple of Frenchmen who I would accompany the next day on a small side tourist trip to the "Valley of the Moon". A bizarre landscape caused by wind and rain erosion. We decided that it was only fitting that, on that very night, we would eat at the very best, the most expensive of all La Paz's restaurants. The French Restaurant. Normally only frequented by dubious Army generals and uncontrollably rich cocaine barons, it was to be the setting for the fine dining of three very ordinary class backpackers.

A taxi delivered us to the door. Suitable style. We were met by maitre de's and waitresses, head waiters. Service upon service. Wages worth zero. The ornate decor of the entranceway would normally have warned us that we were out of our price range, but we knew that, at this point in time, our dollar fire power could sustain our every whim. The setting was plush, lush and crass. Even my double washed jeans and maid ironed shirt looked out of place here. I was an obvious freeloader on the system, but who cared?

Prices weren't even mentioned on the menu, but we didn't even raise an eyebrow to that. It was to be the best or nothing. Entrés, red wines and succulently named main courses were mixed with much laughter and story telling. There was only one other table occupied that night, so we could whoop it up a little. Champagne .... why not?! Classical music on the in-house music system really tailored the fineness of our situation. So this is how it is for the upper classes? I suppositioned. And to think that, at one point of my travels, I had lived for nearly three weeks almost exclusively on tuna, noodles and packet soup for flavouring.

For only an occasional drinker, I had now well exceeded my average. Red wine upon champagne and I was a very happy chappie. Indeed, I playfully clicked my fingers for the bill, at the same time, waving to acknowledge the friendly glance of one of the men at the other table. At first sight the total of some thousands of pesos seemed normal, but soon after calculations we realised that even with our black market exchange rate, we had tallied up an excessive bill. We three fumbled joyfully through our money stashes and soon realised that we jointly couldn't meet the amount needed. The French were embarrassed, I was tipsy and couldn't care a hoot. And so it was that we drew straws to see who would go back to the hotel to get the outstanding amount. I was counted in and so it was that Françoise went on the journey to the private bank of his hotel room.

We sat in the plush lobby and waited. The other table had not long after finished their evening and were likewise sitting, waiting in the lobby. I guessed they were waiting for a taxi, so I struck up a conversation with the man whose eye I had caught earlier.

He was a priest, an Australian from Bourke and, like us, had been caught surprised by the final tally of the bill. Likewise, but previously unbeknown to us, they had had to send someone out to get the balance.

Father Tim Gardner from Bourke, it didn't exactly roll of the tongue, but it did allow me to feel adequate about saying I was "from Broken Hill". Without fear of the normal responses. Normally, if I'd met Australians during my travels, they had always responded with an "oh" when they found out where I was from. How could, or would a boy from Broken Hill even consider coming to the exotica of South America? But Bourke really was another kettle of fish worth pondering.

Tim was a lovely, down to earth man, a gentleman. He was having a short holiday, an initiation into the Latin American psyche. Soon he would fly into Chile to replace a Columbian priest, who had, just a month before, been ejected from that country. We agreed to meet for lunch the next day. Bourke, Bolivia, the back blocks! I wondered about his future life in Chile, the dangers, the pain and how he would need every insight that his beliefs could supply him with. I thought of history, contemplated religion and remembered my trip to Chile five years previously, as a naive nineteen year old.