THE JEWEL OF THE NORTH

Wining, dining and La Paz had been realised to maximum potential. I again yearned to wander, to wake up in musty hotels with rickety undersized beds, to make new friends and breathe new air. Next day I announced my pending departure to Karin and Werner. They had been so openly generous to me that I would never forget them. It would be a great shock to me, just a year and a half after this day, to receive a letter from Werner telling me of their separation, the distress of Karin's nervous breakdown and the pressures that returning to Germany had placed on them. Jobs for teachers were in minimal supply, there were no more maids or served dinners, a cramped flat replaced their open Bolivian mansion. Their pace and quality of life had taken an about turn. Downturn.

My departure from La Paz was the closing of a distinct chapter in my travels. It had been a fairytale time. It was an intriguing country with a history and culture worth a lifetime of study.

The train departed on time. I waved goodbye to Karin and Marcello; Werner was at school teaching, and we'd spoken our parting words over breakfast that morning.

I was heading for Argentina. It would be a good time to be there too, as they had progressed across the pool of World Cup possibles, now placed in readiness for the finals race.

This would normally have been a twenty-six hour trip, but due to eternal and unexplained stoppages, a small mudslide and probably just a commonplace degree of inefficiency, we chugged into the station at Tarija at about eight o'clock next evening, some thirty four hours after our departure. The trip, as any other I had or would take in South America, had presented its own cast of characters and theatre. Time never seemed to drag. I would stop in Tarija for one day and leave the following morning, by truck, for the border crossing into Argentina.

Next morning I was up and at them in full touristo mode. I would be here one day, so why not make the best of it. Heading off en route to the local museum, I passed a basketball court where there was some action afoot. I entered through a low iron gate and took in the final couple of minutes of a ladies game.

Some conversation with a couple of guys nearby informed me that it was an all-day social tournament. Signs of my previous case of serious addiction to playing basketball rose quickly through me and, like most addicts, was soon supplying that need. The guys I had been talking to had only four players and were pleased to enlist my superior height on to their side. Amidst Bolivians I became giantlike in stature. The fact that I could dribble, shoot and lay-up really pleased them. The day passed quickly; five games including the final, which we lost by a smallish margin left me hobbling back to my hotel like an old man. Sore feet and stiff. I had used a lot of muscles that day that hadn't seen action for many weeks. Now that they were cooling down they were starting to remonstrate.

Another gringo was smoothing up the street towards me. I hadn't seen any other backpackers around, so I brought him to a halt with a smile and Spanish greeting. A man from the land of time, meeting a man who was interested in the meaning of time. And so it was arranged that we would meet to eat breakfast together next morning. Nine o'clock sharp.

It was closish to ninish, but I was sure that his posteria would have plunged right on nine. I could even imagine Swiss people chewing in time to a pendulum clock. I sat down, accompanied by two Swedish girls who I'd met in the courtyard of the hotel, just moments before. I had subsequently invited them to join us.

"So," announces the Swiss guy, "What will it be on our toast this morning, butter, butter, butter or .... butter?" The Swedish corps produced a somewhat depleted jar of honey from inside their carry bag and suggested that we should all share in its final testimonial eating. But before this motion was allowed to gain too much favour from me, the Swiss guy had again interrupted and was baiting me further about toppings. I engaged him in some silly banter of imaginary gourmet toppings and the excesses we might indulge in, when, as if a magician performing his move of perfection, he produced a family sized jar of vegemite from below the table and placed it in full view of the stunned audience.

So here we were in the middle of South America and some Swiss traveller produces a family sized jar of Australian made vegemite! He smiled, I laughed heartily and the Swedes were bemused by both our antics. He announced that, after a month of carrying this jar of refined asphalt, he had decided that he really didn't like the taste, and so it was with a complete sense of patriotic glee that I received his gift. And with those same pangs of patriotism I coached the Swedes through the consumption of their first ever vegemite toast. It almost seemed an instantaneous way of painting a tainted image of Australia .... of Australians. What strange race would consume such a ghastly compound without first suffering some form of coaxing. Of duress.

It was a wonderful way to start a day, I thought. Awakening to a crisp sunny day, having hearty conversation and large portions of silly banter with people for breakfast and, then, after the passing of over an hour, saying goodbye and heading for Argentina. It had a certain ring to it. "I'll just have breakfast and then I'll be off .... for Argentina." What a feeling it was to be so completely carefree, in control of my destination and healthy to compliment.

A hundred and eighty kilometers and four dusty hours in the back of a truck and we arrived at the border. It had been standing room only in the truck and the tailing dust from trucks in front had not let up for the entire trip. I had improvised with sunglasses, scarf and beanie to cover my face. This was living!

Villazon was a typically frenetic boarder town. Makeshift stalls selling every available piece of junk were set up in disorderly splashings across the rock strewn expanse either side of the main road. People scurried every which way, carrying strands of chickens, sacks of rice or unknown goods embodied in their mantas. They all seemed equally determined to get there! Trucks were continually pulling up, offloading passengers and goods then reloading at some other set location, ready for their onwards journey. The aromas of regional delicacies sizzled and mixed with the dust and exhaust fumes. Punctuations of horns and the hawking of wares gave the whole arena a carnival atmosphere.

The line of people, almost a football oval long, led me to the immigration office. And there, perched on his creaking swivel chair was "Fat Pancho", direct out of the School of Mischievous-Looking Immigration Officials. He had surely topped his class. A's in Bribery II, Laziness, and the recommended "failure" in Punctuality. In one continued scan I watched the pace at which people were passing through the office, the alleged closing time and the infinity of the line. I would wait the night and return in the morning.

Restless sleep in a noisy hotel was a direct contrast on my previous morning's entry into the day. Pack on my back, I made my way back in the direction of the immigration control.

Had the line actually grown in length since the previous evening, or was this a mirage? Infinity had seemingly become eternity as the multi-coloured succession of bodies now dotted from Fat Panchos up and over the small rise nearby. Ah, time Peter. It was time. I entered into what was to be my line "community" for the whole of that day. We had time to exchange in conversation, take moments of siesta and even go wandering while the "community" looked after your belongings. Seemed ludicrous to spend five hours in a line just to leave a country such as Bolivia, but that was that. No choice. Time to change tempo, reflect on ideas such as infinity and eternity. I waded through a local paper.

The gradual shuffle towards the office door gave me the feeling that I was going before some high officialdom to collect my award. My award for excellence in the field of "pondering" and "patience". To my surprise "Pancho" was not even there to greet me when my turn arrived. I even felt let down, that after such a long wait, I didn't even get my pack searched. I had been gleaming at the thought of their hands pawing through my initial layers of soiled jockettes, and smelly shirts.

Yet another stamp in my aging passport, and entry into Argentina. Freedom again, pack on back .... "I'm on the road again" feeling. A short truck ride to the town nearby, a sixteen hour overnight bus trip with a short walk from the bus station and I plonked myself down on a park bench in the central square of Tucuman. A balmy Sunday evening was fading into one of those God-like, bloodied, sky paintings.

After over three days of transitory movements to get to Tucuman, I was certainly feeling a little the worse for wear. Looks to match. For the last few hours my innards had been telling me that there was some displeasure at the party table. But my attention was being controlled by more immediate statements. The pristine plaza, with all its highly manicured shrubs and finely tiled fountain was been encircled by endless couples. Couples of women mainly.

Beautiful women, hand in hand, innocently parading past a traveller who was pertaining to culpable thinking. Was I hallucinating, or were all these women so stunningly agreeable to look at? The softening pink light was giving them an almost angelic quality. I studied their faces and noticed definite European characteristics, of finer lines, and occasional sandy-coloured hair. They wore simple but all-defining dresses. My mind wandered over and introduced myself. "Hello, I'm a mysterious adventure seeker, would you mind exposing your body to me?" A twist of pain shot from belly to my chest and all evil thoughts rushed back to base. I had been all-encaptured for some time now, but the resting body was now presenting a further case to find a bed to rest in. I was starting to deteriorate even as I sat there, my stomach starting to cramp badly.

A quick consultation with my travel bible and a few directions and I walked off through that haze of beauties to find my resting place.

It was an inauspicious entry to a hotel. At the exact point that I had dumped my pack at the side of the reception desk and rung the bell for attention, I had realised that I was going to vomit within the next sixty seconds. I greeted the elderly lady who appeared from behind the draped door to the side with an excited enquiry as to where I'd find a toilet. She pointed left and before she could ask anything further I was off. Timing was everything with stomach upsets. You would first do well to decipher as to which orifice was going to be in action, and then make quick decisions. Cases of embarrassment were due to the slow thinker.

I was sure that this lady had read the picture wrongly. A drunken or drugged hippie traveller, who was now feeling the pinch, and that she would do all she could to reject my request for a room. Sporting my mop of longish hair and unshaven for a few days, together with soiled attire, certainly didn't present my best side.

Back at reception, I was now greeted by the elderly lady sided by a younger man. I smiled. I always believed that perceptive people could tell a lot about a person via their smile. I explained that I had just travelled from Bolivia and was not feeling well. It was the perfect line. They immediately took on that grace of "saving a soul from that horrid, uncivilised country up North." It was no wonder that I was as unsightly as I was. I must be taken to my room for rest immediately. I must give them my clothes to be washed and eat some soup. The prodigal son had returned.

They were wonderfully warm people who delighted in looking after me. After my body had rejected the soup and bun they had given me for dinner, I drank glass upon glass of water and lay down to let Dr Sleep administer its cure. After a massive fourteen hour mini-death I sat up, turned on my bedside light and mused through the previous four days. I dwelled on the scene in the plaza that previous night and couldn't wait to appease my senses, by wandering back there. Travelling alone and not feeling well sometimes led to feeling a bit isolated, sometimes quite lonely. Ah ....... just to walk once around that plaza holding the hand of one of those ladies would satisfy me on that day. A pathetic romantic.

Wandering the streets of Tucuman presented some form of culture shock. Gone were the indians, with their colourful hats and woven mantas on their backs. Gone were the familiar odours and sounds. There was an unnerving order here which I wasn't used to. Months had created a new "order" which was now being confronted. It was similar, but not the same, as the old way. Shops sold all number of tasty westernised delights, and taxis purred by. Western clothing. Window dressing. And, yes, they were beautiful. The women and men were exceedingly handsome by inordinate numbers. I ate bananas and drank fizzy drinks. My body needed sugar and simplicity to regain normality.

A mid-afternoon siesta and a long indulgence in bodily refurbishments like shower and shaving and I was already regaining my normally insatiable energies. I bought my onward ticket to Cordoba, and went again to the central plaza by sunset. To satisfy my Latin urge.

It was not until some months later that I would solve my sense of Tucuman. After travelling through Chile and then back into Southern Argentina, and back to Buenos Aires, I would end up in a cafe one night, chatting with an Argentinean man. Upon mentioning the mystery of Tucuman he expounded the story of the "Jewel of the North". This was the affectionate alias for Tucuman to most Argentinians. With a unique blend of English, Italian and French settlers, Tucuman had produced a genetic fusion of handsomely featured people. Most of them, in fact, were "above average" in the sense of your average throw-away magazine poll.

At last there had been appeasement to agonised eyes and sensory thinking of some months previously. I hadn't been delirious, nor had my mind been the subject to the slavery of yet another attack of that chemical activity which so encaptures the human spirit. I had been unsuspectingly placed in centre stage amidst the cast for Argentina's presentation, Tucuman's production of "The Jewel of the North".