THE BIG SLIDE

After La Paz it was all downhill, the Andean slippery dip ride towards Lima. The classics prevailed ..... "Homeward Bound" .... "On the Road Again" .... etc. A fluid trickle across the border into Peru with just over three weeks to go. But, even in these three weeks, it seemed that the pace and action wasn't aware that I was in wind down mode. The grand controller "de fizz and crackle" kept serving it to me.

From Puno I took the side trip out onto Lake Titicaca to peruse the floating islands of the Uros Indians. Thickly bedded layers of the specific reeds that grew in proliferation in and around the islands, had formed a stable yet suspect surface. It was akin to walking on a bubbling mat of marshmallow, where ninety-nine per cent of the immediate surface had congealed but where occasional pockets would see you doused. Soaked. Central focus to laughing children.

Houses were made of the specific reed, floor mats of the same, their boats and the useless tourist knick-knacks spread across the finely woven mat. It seemed to be an insult, to put miniature reed boat replicas, reed bowls, reed baskets etc., and other useless tourist knick-knacks, on top of such a beautiful pieces of hand woven art. How often I'd come across a lady sitting amidst her flock of llamas, or resting from a morning in the fields of maize, with her crudely made loom weaving the most precisely fine weavings. Their "mantas" were all hand woven, as were hats, dresses and scarves.

The effects of tourism here were nothing but a farce. I could almost smell the disdain and disrespect these people had for tourists, especially of the "gringo" variety. Native indians, indigenous peoples living lives barely changed by centuries of upheaval and we produce a bacteria called tourist. Able to turn up in your backyard, to intrude through the lens' made by first world voyeurs, here today, paradise tomorrow.

As a photographer, I had come to understand that the most powerful of geographic forms lost all in the translation of a glossy photo. My main interest was people, both in and away from the viewfinder. But I continued to wrestle with the idea of walking up to someone and clicking at them. Bound in farce was the idea of snapping a heart wrenching shot of a legless beggar and then making an offering into their hands oftwenty cents. Payment for a miserable life; I took this photo, I suffered with them. I would resolve this predicament in future and simply not take my camera.

A train strike meant a need for traveller ingenuity. I walked around Puno stopping any gringos I met and asked if they wanted to join with me and hire a "collectivo" (usually a large American car and comparable, if not cheaper, to the average bus. Not as cheap as by truck). Greetings and the initial question were in Spanish, but nine times out of ten English took over as the "lingua franca!" I had one taker so far, a tall Swedish chap who, like me, was heading for Cuzco. Then an American guy joined ranks. He was "in a hurry" and wasn't really worried by how much extra he had to pay. A plane to catch in Cuzco in two days' time meant that we headed towards Juliaca in open comfort. Leg room all round. On the edge of town we vibrated to a halt to pick up a gringo hitchhiker. Well two, as it happened. One had been hidden, attending to daily bodily functions. A couple from Denmark.

The extra weight seemed to steady the vehicle, culling the vibrations and sway. Conversations volleyed back and forth across the front bench seat. Introductions served and a rally of quickly exchanged base information. The bottom line was we were all heading towards Juliaca.

I have no photos of Juliaca. Wise travellers kept very much to themselves once there, compact, no obvious displays of wealth. This was the town with the most formidable record for thievery in all South America. This was a place which people normally eluded, and had we been able to catch the train, we too would have bypassed it. A grey town of dusty windswept streets, the paint long faded on faceless, box-like. rendered façades. People did not smile in Juliaca. It was only seventy kilometers away, but that equalled two hours of vibrating, dust and the rocking back and forth of a plastic Jesus and friends, holding firm to the rear vision mirror in front on me.

Upon arrival in Juliaca, the Danish couple parted ways whilst we three made our way to the central plaza. Information about ongoing transport was always to be had in or around this central hub of any town.

Such a manicured central plaza for a town of such ogreish aura. Even the simple old man sweeping it clean would have to be watched closely. A decoy perhaps, a disguise! Once there, we placed our packs in a neat pile and held our day packs close at hand. I wore mine in front of me, pregnant with possessions and paranoia.

A truck ride to Cuzco was probably going to be our only possibility for onward progress, so we drew straws to see which two would reconnoitre and who would guard the packs. At that moment a trio of Swedes marched into the plaza. They had some possible travel leads and, like us, were en route to Cuzco. Two guards and four spies. This was all a little too dramatic for simple travelling, but we would take no risks or we would be fools.

The American guy was the first to return over an hour later. He bought with him apples and oranges, but little information. He had also had a change of plans, although not being specific as to what they were, and soon departed from our company.

Not long after, the trio of Swedes returned together. They too had visited the markets and soon produced bread, cans of tuna, as well as information. A truck would leave at dusk from a designated corner in some back-block of Juliaca. At the changing of the guard I too went to gather food for the upcoming trip. A journey within a journey. Fifteen or so hours in the back of a truck.

Upon returning with my sustenances, it was decided to hire those three wheeled carriers that did such brisk business throughout most third world countries. Leg powered bicycle with tray-top cart at the front, supported by two bicycle wheels. Five carriers, five gringos, five packs, five day-packs heading in convoy style to the edge of town, the designated truck-stop. Joel had the directions so he led the way.

Dusk was dimming focus on us as we turned the corner at the bottom of a long narrow laneway. At the end of that street we could make out a truck and the scurryings of people loading. We arrived and disembarked on the opposite, and empty side of the street, from the truck. With almost military like manoeuvres, packs were placed against a long bare rendered wall, carriers were paid, jackets were being located from our packs in case they became buried in the packing. I had my arms buried to the elbows in my pack as I heard an anguished shout from my left. One of the small day-packs was missing. All confusion broke out. I closed my pack up quickly, laid it face down and ran to see what had happened.

To this day that single incident of theft has bewildered me. I considered how careful we'd been, edged to acute awareness, that this same incident was possible. But how it was possible we had no idea. In the momentary turn of a head, a magician's fleeting distraction, it was gone. Gone were pack, camera, jumper, sunglasses, walkman and, worst of all, passport and travellers cheques and a small amount of cash.

I was also aware that he'd made some grand mistakes. The first was not to keep his passport and money on his body at all times, especially here, and secondly, it was foolish to have even let go of such a portable unit. I had kept mine on the whole time. Looked slightly silly and was, undoubtedly, uncomfortable to have your large pack on your back and your small pack on your chest, but the outcome was surer. At least this was my reckoning. Maybe I'd just been lucky again! A year of luck .... maybe? Maybe not!

Resentment hung high. A quick search had been made of the immediate street. In hope. But it was gone. The truck was nearly packed with its cargo and decisions had to be made, prices negotiated, what to do. I talked with the solo travelling Swede whilst the trio talked about a contingency plan. They decided to stay, report to the police, and hope that the passport might show up. Some form of repentance or guilt might mean a lessening of the hassles that theft had already imposed. Replacing passports, travellers cheques and drafting insurance claims was a process in itself in our own countries, but from within the claws of Peru it was a definite downer.

The truck owner seemed genuinely angry at the knowledge that we'd been robbed and assured us there'd be no problems aboard his ship. We paid the equivalent of two dollars and hauled our packs up into the truck. Seven foot sides, twenty five foot long and a little wider than the driver's cabin and loaded in a terraced fashion towards the front. The seasoned travellers had long set out their space and prepared places to sleep. All the space towards the front was taken and only the normally dusty aft was remaining. Below us were two layers of hessian bags full of unknown produce, the chatterings of the passengers seemed focussed towards us, everyone aware as to what had just taken place. Maybe the "shark" was on board this very truck.

My new travelling companion found his lay at the side, atop a row of on-end bags of what felt and smelt like potatoes. As dusk had now turned its back, we had secured, and now worked, by torchlight. The temperature was falling and the wind seemed to penetrate every possible leak or hole. Luckily the dust seemed to be drafting up, but away from the back of the truck, so I re-stacked some bags and unearthed a space on the floor boards at the back of the truck. As I lifted the last bag there was a scowling shout from an Indian lady who told me, in stark and unpardoning terms, to be careful with her goods. I sneered, give me a break. The truck, rocketing over unpaved roads, chilling winds pounding, and the dark of night to make things more difficult, and I'm being reprimanded to take it gently!!

I soon have a neat area to lay out my sheet of plastic. Next I pull out my sleeping mat and lay that out as a psychological absorbent to the endless chatterings of the wooden boards that cage us in. My sleeping bag is a luxury, but why not?

My pack is used as a pillow in the knowledge that if my head is on top then it will need some extraordinary moves to relieve me of it. I tie my day pack to the top of it near my face and lay down with my face buried against the curves of my camera. At first I'm uncomfortable and aware that deep sleep will be hard to come by on this night. I review the day's play. The theft story is rewound time and time again. But how? And I wondered how the guy who'd been robbed felt, and how the celebrations must be flying in the mind of the thieves that night. I imagined their celebrations at such a huge haul; camera worth about eight hundred US, two hundred dollars worth of walkman and tapes, travellers cheques of nearly two thousand dollars, cash and passport. What a haul! Bravo to the best. That was certainly the most outstanding act of theft I'd either seen or heard of in my travels. I almost felt proud to have been a part of it, but glad to be on the outer. I reviewed what I would have lost if they'd got my day-pack and decided that the chocolate bars probably held the most prominence. Even though my camera was inside, I sometimes saw it as symbolic to our western patheticness towards possessions. Lose your camera, lose you life. Didn't really hold much strength after having a vision clarified and distilled by the experience of poverty and extremes as South America had served up to me. Upon further consideration, it seemed ludicrous to even joke with myself about the chocolate bars. I wrestled, debating the subject until the first droplets of rain made their marks on my face. I could hear the discussions on the bagged terracing above me as everyone prepared for the possible deluge. I quickly encased myself in a watertight cocoon, using the plastic and rainjacket, and returned to my thoughtful wanderings. The rain started to fall. I ran a motionless check around the perimeter of my mat to see if there were any leaks and, satisfied that all was high and dry, faded to listlessness. Dust, dreams and deluges of rain.

A nerve and sense twitched. An unfamiliar sound in the sea of clatterings. I listened again, carefully. Yes, someone close by. I slowly located my torch and sat upright. Just a metre away and standing shivering in the very back corner of the truck was the darkened shape of a little girl. My beam first located her shabby dress and then passed quickly by her face to show a look of fright, as if the sudden appearance of the light had startled her. She was squatting as if preparing to toilet. I asked, .... "Que pasa?" .... What's happening? She starts to cry and immediately I hear a lady shout in the Aymara language from the baggage above. The girl retorts, then tells me to "go". But I know where this yellow river will hit if it flows tonight. My black plastic sheet will not protect my backpack in this case, so I tell her to wait till we stop. She cries again, her mother shouts. An unseen male voice calls out something. The little girl straightens her legs and pulls up her panties, my torchlight capturing the essence of moves whilst shining politely to her left. She snarls at me and returns to the darkened mass above. The rain is starting again, so I dive for cover, not wanting my sleeping bag to get wet.

We make several stops throughout the night. At one stage I'm up and helping offload some sacks at an obscured and unknown place, torches flashing and the groans of bodies under the burden. A kerosine lantern hisses steam as small drops of rain start to fall. Sheets of plastic are produced and personal bags covered. They don't thank me for my help. It's expected. People help each other here, work is not so much a commodity as it is a tool of survival. And onward into the darkened Peruvian Andes.

The following day seems to drown into the heaving of an engine under load. Pulling with full power upward and charging through the gears to keep momentum and traction at bay during endless downhill runs. The hills, are engraved with endless slithers of terracing; topographical contour lines showing the relative abruptness of the slope. Long stone walls enclosing the grazing lands for llamas and sheep, the smaller enclosures for pigs. Lone houses pinched the land, quests for subsistence survival untold.

We make a lunch stop. Larsen and I make a comfortable perch on a mound of dirt to the left of the restaurant. The waft of beans and rice, flavoured with morsels of unknown meats and gravy, artificially flavour our pathetic tuna on buns. Two bottles of mineral water and an orange help lubricate the digestive tracts, chocolate creates an ambience of excellence, post meal. Our fellow travellers study us, we study them. The small girl whose bladder I had crossed the night before, passes us blankly.

Not long after, we're all back on board and enjoying a vibratory settling of the stomach. A man who I'd noted as "not totally from the land", approached us to talk. It's the usual medley of name, where I'm from and what profession before we eventually fall into an intense conversation involving brick making, the "Sendero Luminoso" (the "Shining Path" terrorist group), vicuña wool and Peruvian music. He's friendly and time passes easily.