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Episode 8 - Wandering South America and the Spirit World
Welcome to the final instalment of Mark and Greg's World Trip.
As usual, here is a brief table of contents:
So here we are at the final episode. It's almost sad - I've enjoyed writing this stuff. I've certainly gotten a kick out of all of you reading it. I suppose it's like the feeling any author gets when someone takes the trouble to read what he's written. Anyway, this is the last one. This time the focus is on the month I spent in South America, with a little bit at the end about the two weeks I had in the woods of New Jersey learning Native American spirituality and philosophy.
The first thing that stands out about this episode is the sheer quantity of photographs. South America is a dangerously photographable country. There are nearly 200 photographs associated with this episode (collected here) - double the number from the next-largest episode (the Nepalese trek). And so, coming full circle, this episode serves mostly to describe the photographs. I know that in previous episodes I have waxed lyrical about my thoughts on life or the feelings that certain places invoked within me, but this instalment will read more like a travelogue. If you've enjoyed hearing about my little personal thoughts, then I'm sorry, but if you want to know what it's like to travel in South America, then you've come to the right place.
(Aside: If any of you were interested in the stuff I wrote in the last episode about my attempted Vision Quest (here) and would like more information about Vision Quests in general, you might like to check out the Tracker School's own page on the Vision Quest. You'll find it at http://www.trackerschool.com/vision-quest.html I'll be doing another one soon (in December), and I fully expect to survive the full four days this time. Greg plans to do one at the same time. End of aside.)
P.S. This is far and away the biggest episode so far. You will probably want to print it out and read it off-line, then come back and look at the photos afterwards (here).
South America. When Greg and I left Australia, this fabled continent was to be the prize, the goal, the pièce de résistance of the world trip. The idea was that we'd blow through the place like a couple of tropical cyclones, taking no prisoners and sparing no goats. Lock up your daughters, and all that. Then I suppose we would have filled our web site with tales of our shenanigans, making you all jealous whilst simultaneously bolstering our Reflected Senses of Self. Oh yes, grand plans.
When I came to the end of my time in the Caribbean (way back in early August), with Greg long since departed and firmly ensconced in his business empire in Sydney, the thought of disappearing down into Latin America not only seemed less compelling, it downright scared me. I didn't feel like being alone and trying to kick-start a Grand Old Time all by myself on the South American backpacker circuit. I recalled the backpacking scene from my younger travelling days and knew that nothing would have changed - same old hostels, same old conversations, same old backpackers. It seemed like I would be travelling for the sake of travelling, and I really wasn't in the mood. Furthermore, I had to make a choice. Tom Brown's Tracker School in New Jersey, or South America. It didn't seem that the dwindling miles on my round-the-world ticket would allow me to do both. So Tom Brown won, and - well, you can read all about that in Episode 7, if you haven't already (here). South America was just too big and too daunting to tackle by myself.
So there I was, tucked away in a small guesthouse in Maine after my Vision Quest attempt at the end of August, trying to figure out how the final two or three months of my - what? - odyssey? were going to look. A strong feeling developed within me that I should return to the Tracker School in New Jersey in October for two weeks of their Philosophy and Spirituality workshop, but that would still leave me with five weeks to kill before the course started, and I had no firm idea of where to kill them.
I revisited the South America idea. With a maximum of five weeks there I would clearly be restricted to only a couple of countries. Hmmmm. Five weeks ..... Two countries. Suddenly it didn't seem so daunting. I was under the impression that my round-the-world ticket didn't have enough miles left on it to get me to South America, and I didn't think United flew there anyway. The local travel agent wanted US$550 (A$850) to Lima and back, so I called United just to double-check. It took me five minutes to determine that yes, United did indeed fly there, and that I could modify my ticket to include a return trip to Lima totally free of charge, with 1,800 miles left over for emergencies. Needless to say, I booked it on the spot, allowing myself a week in Maine to finish the previous web site episode (they take a long time these days).
Diane, the proprietor of the guesthouse, and her partner Ginny (click here) couldn't figure out why all I did every day was sit inside writing on my little computer when the most beautiful state in the Union was waiting just outside the window. I imagine that they thought that I'd spent my whole world trip travelling to the beautiful countries of the world and then sitting indoors playing on my computer. Preposterous!
And so, on September the 7th, Diane and Ginny took me to the bus station and loaded me on a Greyhound to Boston where, after a US$50 night in a YMCA shoebox (all the hostels were full) and a couple of very average movies (Mickey Blue Eyes and The Sixth Sense), I caught a flight to Lima via Washington and Miami.
(Aside: For all the people concerned about the Y2K Bug, the Ninth of the Ninth, 1999 (9/9/99) was supposed to be a similarly dangerous day of computer crashes. Does anyone recall hearing about even one computer cock-up? For my part, when the clock ticked over to midnight on 9/9/99, I was flaunting death, sitting in a plane flying to South America, trusting in the integrity of United Airlines' computers. I survived, needless to say. End of aside)
Flying through the night I opened my recently purchased Lonely Planet guide to Peru, and it only took me a few minutes to realise that I had no interest in seeing Lima itself. I figured it was just another big city. I wanted to trek the Inca Trail, and I read that Cuzco, the old capital of the Inca Empire and epicentre of the South American backpacking circuit, was indisputably the place to be.
I managed to get only one hour's sleep that night on the plane, so by the time we landed in Lima at 4:10am all I wanted to do was fall into a bed and sleep. I wandered over to the AeroContinente counter and booked myself onto the first flight of the day to Cuzco. By 7:00am I was blissfully unconscious in a cheap Cuzco hostel bed.
Well, I'd made it. South America! For the first time on the trip so far, I was in the southern hemisphere. Up in the sky was my old friend, the Southern Cross. Back down on Terra Firma I found myself with a small problem. I had no Spanish. The extent of my knowledge of Spanish came from watching Speedy Gonzales cartoons on TV 25 years ago. Most backpackers, faced with the challenge of spending a few months south of the Rio Grande would sign up for one of the three-week, full-time Spanish classes for tourists in either Guatemala or Quito, Ecuador. But I was only there for a month, and I wasn't about to waste half of that sitting in a classroom learning something that would only be useful for another fortnight. I would just have to wing it. I heard about an Australian fellow who had travelled overland across the Amazon Basin and into Peru by canoe with literally five words of Spanish. I figured that if he could do it, then so could I.
And so I set off to look around my new environs.
Cuzco (click here) is a pretty city - "The Kathmandu of South America," they call it. I'm not sure about that. Kathmandu has a certain feel about it that I've never felt in any other part of the world. But Cuzco was nice enough.
I was struggling a bit, myself.
At the risk of offending all the people I love at home, I can safely say that up until South America there was not a single moment when I felt homesick. Oh sure, I'd miss my friends, and some of the things from my old lifestyle, but at no time did I ever want to go home. In the Caribbean, after breaking up with Elisa, I toyed momentarily with the notion of going home, just to see how the idea felt. I no desire whatsoever to go. It clearly wasn't time. Or, put another way, I wasn't finished. So I was mildly surprised upon arriving in Cuzco to be immediately attacked and overcome by a ferocious bout of homesickness.
Was it any coincidence, do you suppose, that I was feeling homesick at precisely the time when I was truly alone for the first time since leaving Israel in February?
But lonely I surely was. By the time 24 hours in Cuzco had gone by, the only words I'd said to an English-speaking person were telling an Aussie chick in the Internet cafe the correct spelling of the word "cappuccino." I'm not even exaggerating. I was feeling pretty low.
My plan to combat all this gloominess was to disappear off onto the Inca Trail on one of the many organised treks, and hopefully find some suitable person or persons amongst my fellow trekkers who had the same general idea about seeing South America as I did. Hopefully I'd get on a trek with a large group, there'd be some cool young travelling-types who were aiming in the general direction of Bolivia, and I'd team up with them. A fine plan, but would it work?
I found a reputable yet affordable trekking agency (there are literally dozens to choose from, all offering virtually exactly the same thing) called Andean Life (http://www.gratisweb.com/andeanlife), who sold me a place on a four-day Inca Trail trek. The fee, US$90, included all food, a mattress, tent, porters, an English-speaking guide, trail usage fee, Machu Picchu entrance fee, guided tour of Machu Picchu, bus to the trailhead and the return train trip. They threw in a rented sleeping bag for five nights and a one-day tour of the Sacred Valley nearby. The only thing that wasn't included was a porter for your personal baggage - you could rent one privately (for about US$10 per day), or simply carry your own gear. Considering how empty my pack would be after I took out everything that I wouldn't need on the trail, I had no hesitation in deciding to backpack it myself. The agency told me to expect about sixteen to eighteen people in the group.
I booked the trek for two days hence to allow myself time to acclimatise to the altitude. You see, Cuzco is high. It's situated at about (3,700 metres) 11,000 feet, and all travellers are recommended to take it easy for at least 48 hours after arriving. Sound advice. (Aside: If you ever find yourself flying in to a similar altitude, check out how much you piss during the following day or two as your blood thickens to compensate for the thinner air. Which means, of course, that when you descend again you need to drink plenty of water to reverse the process. I didn't know this descending out of Tibet in January, and suffered a severe dehydration headache. End of Aside.) I decided that I would do the Sacred Valley tour the next day, and leave on the trek the day after.
I'm casting my mind back, as I write this, to that Sacred Valley bus tour. Did I ever mention just how much I despise organised tours? Or maybe it's just organised bus tours. Or maybe it's just fucking boring organised bus tours. Whatever it is, the Sacred Valley tour the next day was everything I didn't like about organised tours. Admittedly I got to see some gorgeous parts of Peru (Pisac, Urubamba, Ollantaytambo and Chinchero), and I even learned some useful stuff about the Inca region, but spending the day being herded around like a sheep by a local female tour guide whose sense of humour could only be called "cute to the point of nausea" is not my idea of tourism (click here). Nor of fun. Your tour group is so conspicuous that the locals come out to look at you.
But it was beautiful (click here and here), and I would have almost been glad that I went, were it not for the vicious return of the food poisoning thing that evening. Eight visits to the hostel toilet during the night was not quite as bad as my trekking experience (nor even my Cairo one), and I had some Lomotil and Imodium on hand to stop it getting out of control, but it was still miserable enough to prevent me leaving for the Inca Trail the following morning. At one in the morning, bent over the bowl, praying to the porcelain god, I recalled Donnie Cook's immortal words: "No wonder you felt sick - your stomach was full of puke!"
When I spoke about it to someone else later, they told me that the raw fish salad that I'd eaten at lunch on the tour was notorious for that sort of reaction. With regret, I had to call up the agency and postpone for 24 hours. I hoped it would be enough.
The minivan arrived at the hostel the following morning at seven. I got on and introduced myself to my fellow trekkers. Hmmm. Eight of them. Four couples. Only one couple spoke English as a native language. Not to worry. Surely the rest of the group would contain some single travellers or groups of friends. Clearly they'd all be travelling in a separate minivan and meeting us at the trailhead. Surely....
I think the Inca Trail is one of those legendary destinations that can never possibly hope to live up to its reputation. It's the epicentre of the South American backpacker circuit, where more people come to get off the beaten track than any other place in the southern hemisphere. Which is ironic, really, as it is clearly an incredibly well-beaten track in every sense of the word. I think I was disappointed from the moment that the bus stopped. No, come to think of it, I was actually disappointed as I got on to the bus. I'll describe what I mean here, and give you my opinion and impressions of the Inca Trail. And they're largely negative. I wouldn't recommend the Inca Trail to my friends. But remember, this is only my opinion, and my frame of mind was influenced by many factors, few of which had much to do with the trail itself.
So here's the scoop. For those that don't know, the Inca Trail (click here) is one of the many ancient paths used by the Incas to travel around their empire up until the mid-1600's, when the Spanish Conquistadors came and did nasty things to the entire South American continent. Why this one is known as the Inca Trail is a bit of a mystery, but it may have something to do with the fact that the trail leads to Machu Picchu, one of the principal Inca cities - certainly one of the best preserved. Machu Picchu has been referred to as the Lost City of the Incas, which is not only wrong (insomuch as it's not lost), it's ironic - there's another Incan city that noone's yet been able to locate.
Today, Machu Picchu is a world-class tourist attraction. As many as eighty busloads of tourists pass through it per day in the high season. For those that have an interest in seeing the ruins but don't want to feel like a lazy, mindless, gawping tourist, a smaller industry has arisen to support the idea of trekking along the Incan footpath that leads to Machu Picchu (namely the Inca Trail). Even though only about 10% of the visitors to Machu Picchu actually walk there, the Inca Trail itself is remarkably crowded, serviced by as many as forty different trekking companies. It's a bit like a sausage factory. They unload you off a bus at one end of the trail (click here) and you start walking, camping three times in designated places before you reach Machu Picchu early on the fourth day. If perchance you decide to abandon your tour group and sit down on the path for 24 hours, you'll be overtaken and swept along by the following day's groups.
But the scenery's nice.
There were, of course, no other people in our group arriving on another bus. The sixteen or eighteen trekkers promised by the agency had departed the day before. Our group was just the four couples and me. Ah well. We spent the first day walking easily along the trail, stopping for a broken-English description of the occasional ruin (click here) by our guide (click here). Our tents were set up for us in the backyard of a local village house by our porters, and a passable dinner was provided. I got talking to Melany and Tom, a lovely Scottish couple who were to remain my principal conversationalists for the remainder of the trek.
That night was interesting. Shortly after it started raining (the dry season ended that night, it seems), my stomach illness - which I thought had passed - returned with a passion. It became necessary to get out of my sleeping bag and venture out into the rain to find a suitable spot every thirty minutes or so, and it seemed that no sooner was I back in the tent, dried off and cleaned enough to get back into my sleeping bag but it was time to get up and head out into the rain again. And then I had a brilliant idea (which I'm sure you don't want to hear about but I'm going to share with you anyway): I found a plastic shopping bag in my pack that wasn't being used for anything, checked it very carefully for air-tightness, and - er - used it for my business. I don't think a simple plastic bag has ever caused one man greater happiness.
Damn this stomach - that's three times in ten months! I've come to the conclusion that I most certainly do not have a cast-iron stomach - I have a pathetic papier-mâché stomach.
Anyway, it wasn't over. When I woke up I was not only weak, but I couldn't eat anything, for obvious reasons. I'd certainly picked a fine day for it - this was the day we were to climb 1,200 metres (4,000 feet) to the highest pass on the trail. I figured that if I could stand, then surely I could haul a 25kg pack up to 13,800 feet. In the rain.
Back in Cuzco, I'd removed a great deal of stuff that I knew I wouldn't be needing on the trek. I'd put it all in a plastic bag, and lifted it. It was refreshingly heavy. It represented all the weight that I wouldn't have to carry on the trail. So I was a bit confused, arriving at the trailhead, to find that my pack was still the by far heaviest in the group (click here).
Within several minutes of walking, my fellow trekkers had vanished up the trail, and my pace had deteriorated to a trudge. An hour later I was sure we were nearly at the pass (the mountains didn't seem to have much more "up" in them), which was good, because I was starting to lose it. I asked a passing guide how far we'd come. "Oh, about a quarter of the way...."
About an hour later I did in fact lose it, and sat down on the path for half an hour for a little R'n'R. It helped, but only briefly. I needed energy, and I needed it fast. So what do you do 11,000 feet up in the Andes with approaching hypoglycaemia? You buy a Coca-Cola, of course. With most of a 1.25 litre bottle of Coke and a couple of chocolate bars inside me, I felt like a new man - a caffeine and glucose-enhanced man. My pace picked up, and I even started overtaking people. Wonderful stuff, Coke.
We may well have been walking through gorgeous alpine terrain that day, but it was well-shrouded behind the a constant cloud cover. We actually spent most of the four days walking along inside this cloud (click here). Visibility was about 300 metres. I trudged on up (endlessly up), wondering why exactly I was there.
The pass eventually appeared (click here), to my delight (and everyone else's, I suppose), and after a short sprint down the other side, we arrived at our second campground in the rain. This was the first place that I truly realised what a sausage factory the Inca Trail has become. We were in a shallow valley, populated entirely by trekking groups. It was a scramble for the porters every morning to leave early and secure the best campsite for their group for the next night.
It rained all that night, but luckily there were one or two areas within my tent that allowed me to sleep without being dripped on. Some of my tour-mates weren't so lucky. In fact, it rained for the remainder of the trek, and we didn't see another mountain peak, although I sensed that they were all around us as we walked.
Our third night was to be spent in a village quite near to Machu Picchu, with the idea that we would arise the next morning at four, then walk an hour along the trail to Machu Picchu in time to watch the sunrise over the ruins. I had my doubts about the likelihood of ever seeing the sun again, let alone tomorrow at dawn. When I arrived at the village, my disgust with the tourism on the Inca Trail sunk to a new low. Smack in the middle of all the campsites was a huge, modern hall that served as a dining room, restaurant and bar for the couple of hundred young backpackers that were finishing their treks the next day (click here). I'm not exactly sure what it was about the place that bothered me. After all, it was warm, dry, buzzing with young, interesting people, and clearly a clean, comfortable place to sit and have dinner and chat with some like-minded individuals. The alternative was sit in your tent in the rain or under a canopy erected by your porters. But I didn't want that kind of resort-style comfort. This was supposed to be trekking the ancient paths of the Incas - what did beers and french fries have to do with Incas?
Sure enough, the next morning was shrouded in mist, and we walked along the trail to the sunrise viewpoint. The view we saw was hardly spectacular (click here), especially in light of what we should have seen (click here - taken from a postcard). We walked down to the ruins, checked our backpacks in the cloakroom and got the guided tour. It wasn't the best day for it (click here and here), and noone showed too much enthusiasm for wandering around the ruins once the tour was over.
So. The Inca Trail was a disappointment. I want to stress here that it was a disappointment for me. Most everyone else I spoke to or walked with enjoyed it utterly. For me it was probably a combination of the weather (and the corresponding lack of scenery), my sickness and the sheer commercialism of the trekking that put me off. If the truth be told, I've been well and truly spoiled by trekking in the Himalayas. If you're thinking about a trek, and you haven't been to either the Andes or the Himalayas, my hearty recommendation is to go to Nepal first.
We were sitting in the coach that was taking us several thousand feet down the side of the mountain from Machu Picchu, through an infinite series of switchback turns, to Aguas Calientes (literally "Hot Water"), where we were to have lunch and join the train that would take us back to Cuzco. The noise came from outside, and was even more curious because we all vaguely recalled hearing the same noise sixty seconds earlier. We looked out to see a twelve-year-old boy on the side of the road bellowing at the bus. As soon as the bus had passed, he plunged into the bush at the side of the road and started running directly down the hill. After our bus had done another switchback turn and returned more or less to the same point (only a hundred feet further down the mountain), we spotted him again, and again he screamed something unintelligible at the bus and dove into the trees. We all laughed - what a strange country! This process must have repeated itself at least twenty times before we reached the bridge at the foot of the mountain, at which point the bus stopped, the kid got on, screamed at us one more time from close range for good measure, and then started walking down the aisle with his hat out asking for money.
I'd love to ask someone one day what they do for a living, and be told, "Well, there are these busses, see......"
It's a pity that my monster pack sitting in the aisle prevented him from reaching any of the seats beyond row 7.
During lunch we learned that the train that we were waiting for, due at one, had crashed head-on into another train coming the other way, killing the driver. A replacement train was due at five. Nobody seemed to mind too much (except the wife of the driver, I suspect), as it afforded us enough time to visit the hot springs after which the town was named.
And what a fine idea that was!
The springs flow out of the side of the mountain and are captured and fed into a complex of concrete pools of various sizes and temperatures (click here - that's Melany, and here). I went up to the pools with Melany and Tom (who didn't feel like swimming), and stayed for most of the afternoon. Sitting in the pools, I got talking to a couple of French girls, Delphine and Cecile, and found to my delight that they were not only travelling towards Bolivia on the train the next day (as was I), but were actually happy to have a travelling companion. Lovely, friendly ladies they were (click here), and meeting them quite made my day, it did.
We headed down to the train station at four-thirty to be ready for the five o'clock train, and found a bustling teeming marketplace pretending to be a train station (click here). By the time the train turned up (at quarter to seven), the place was a zoo, with two trains' worth of tourists clamouring to fit on one train. Somehow Melany, Tom and I managed to have reserved seats, and were able to ride in relative comfort back to Cuzco. Many others weren't so lucky, and spent the three-and-a-half-hour trip sitting or standing in the aisle.
An hour into the train trip three local buskers (wielding a 10-string ukulele, drums and a set of bamboo flutes) appeared out of nowhere and proceeded to perform for us all next to my seat. They were actually quite good, and certainly added an interesting ambience to an otherwise dull trip.
Our train stopped at one point in the middle of nowhere and I looked out the window. It was pouring down outside, but some of the distant mountains were still faintly visible. It was quiet outside and very peaceful. To my left the crazy Andean musicians were keeping us all amused, and in the next carriage were two lovely French girls who would soon be accompanying me into my second South American country. I felt, for what was quite definitely the first time since arriving in South America, happy.
I met Delphine and Cecile the following morning at the Cuzco train station for the trip to Puno, on Lake Titicaca. The train trip was reputed to be one of the most beautiful in the world, and also the highest (but don't they all claim that?). It was a surprisingly impressive and comfortable train (click here), and the scenery was indeed lovely (now that the weather had cleared) (click here).
Puno is a wholly unremarkable town, but as it sits on the gorgeous Lake Titicaca, "the highest navigable lake in the world" (as I heard many times while I was there), it continues to get a sizable influx of tourists. When we arrived that evening we wasted no time in booking a place on a tour of the lake and its islands. As I recall, a two-day boat tour, taking in the floating islands of Uros, a night staying with a local family on the island of Amantani and a lunch stopover on Tequile on the way home cost us the princely sum of US$10 each, including hotel transfers.
The following morning, as we sat on the boat while it motored off into the lake (click here), I met the "Crazy Danes," Peter, Ole, and Søren. These were three handsome and likeable Danish chappies that I was destined to run into every few days for the remainder of my South American sojourn. Their trip seemed uncannily similar to mine - they left last November for a twelve-month world trip and were due home in the next couple of months.... They were even keeping a web site of their travels (http://hjem.get2net.dk/WorldTrek).
The floating islands were just that - floating (click here). They were made of reeds and anchored to the bottom of the lake, but could be detached and moved around the lake at will. The people who lived on them (in reed huts, naturally) were traditional fisherman who had recently found that residence on a mobile island was a singular novelty in the tourist universe, and that there was far more money to be made selling trinkets to the hundreds of visitors they received every day.
As we docked (click here), I got out onto a spongy floor of reeds that made me a little uneasy. If you tried, you could push your shoe through the reeds down to the water underneath (click here). Apart from the unusual ground, the islands were fairly nondescript. We walked carefully around for fifteen minutes, bought the obligatory trinket, and got back onto the boat for the two-hour journey across to Amantani.
Upon arrival in Amantani's tiny harbour, the twenty or so tourists got off the boat and gathered on the shore for inspection by the locals who had come down to barter for our presence in their homes. The locals were being paid to take us (of course), and we felt like subjects at a slave auction. Delphine, Cecile and I were claimed by a warm, homely looking Andean with not a single word of English, and we dutifully followed her up the hill to her house.
The woman (whose name I never did find out) went off to prepare us an evening meal. After a while I followed her, curious to know what kind of lifestyle these people had. I only got as far as the kitchen, embarrassing the poor woman by watching her cook our dinner. Actually, "kitchen" is too strong a word to describe the room in which she was preparing the food. It was more a few pots and a fireplace on a bare dirt floor (click here). But the meal (potatoes, onions, soup and fish) was palatable enough, if not exactly gourmet.
After dinner we convened with the rest of the tour group in the town square, and followed our guide as he led us up the path (click here) to the highest point on the mountain to talk about the native Andean spirituality and watch the sun set. He instructed us not to take photographs of the local children, or we'd be forced to pay them some money, thus somehow spoiling either the children or the local economy - I never did figure out which. It didn't stop me, of course (click here). We got some gorgeous views of Lake Titicaca at the summit (click here and here).
The next day we bid farewell to our hosts (inasmuch as none of us spoke a common language), and returned to the boat for a visit to the island of Tequile. Tequile was much the same as Amantani, so I ripped of a couple more shots of Lake Titicaca (click here and here), and a few shots of the locals (click here and here). Tequile even had one of those signposts that tells you how far you are from all the major cities in the world (including Sydney, or "Sidney") (click here). I got out my palmtop and checked its estimates - they were uncannily accurate (13,027km (displayed) vs. 13,001km (true) to Sydney). I'm such a nerd......
Bolivia is high. Virtually the entire western half of the country (everything except for the unpopulated Amazon basin) is on the altiplano ("high plain") at around 3,650 metres (12,000 feet). It's been called the Tibet of South America, for good reason. It's the least commercialised of the South American countries (with the possible exception of Surinam), and more than half of the population speak native tongues. It's relatively safe and peaceful. And beautiful.
There was little remarkable about our border crossing into Bolivia, apart from a rather disconcerting boat trip across Lake Titicaca (click here) and the gorgeous view of La Paz as we approached (click here). La Paz is built on the flanks of a deep valley, and is presided over by the triple peaks of The Illimani (click here).
Cecile, Delphine and I worked out a plan by which we would stay in La Paz for a couple of days, and then visit the old Bolivian capital of Sucre, the silver mining city of Potosí, and the Salar de Uyuni (the Uyuni Salt Flats) in the south-west of Bolivia. The Salt Flats were the big drawcard - apparently the scenery down there is unparalleled.
In the hostel we checked into I discovered a flyer for a company with the marvellous title of Gravity Assisted Mountain Biking. A bicycle tour company, their speciality was driving customers up to a 4,900 metre (16,000 foot) pass, putting them on rented mountain bikes, and facilitating a six-hour dirt-road descent through some of the most gorgeous scenery in South America to the jungle lowlands at 500 metres (1,600 feet). Sounded eminently fun. So I fronted up to their offices and told them I wanted to do some biking. I was asked what sort of trip I was interested in. I thought about this for a bit and realised that what I really wanted to do was a multi-day cycle tour. I told him so and asked if they offered anything like that.
"How about a four-day tour of the Uyuni Salt Flats starting next Monday?" he asked.
Hmmm - would these be the same salt flats as the French ladies and I were going to explore next week? "Perfect. Sign me up." Simple as that. I paid my deposit and was about to leave when in walked an Australian girl who was signing up for the same thing. I don't suppose anyone would be too surprised to learn that she was from Coogee, a suburb of Sydney about 4 km from where I lived. This was Sally, and ten minutes later we were having a drink together to celebrate the perfectness of life.
As far as the cycle tour was concerned, it was to be four days of cycling across the Salar, accompanied by a 4WD support vehicle, with an English-speaking guide, a driver and a cook. The tour was rated as "Flat/Easy." Total elevation gain - 0 metres. The tour included a train trip from La Paz, but I declined that portion, deciding to make my own way there with my French companions. The four-day tour, the first one that this company had run - cost me US$200 (A$312).
Ever since we left Australia, Greg and I had been hearing about South America's reputation for street crime. Gringos are considered fair game anywhere south of Texas, and some of the things we heard made us think twice about even going down there. We heard about the muggings, the bag-snatches, and bags disappearing on buses and trains (or even when you turn around for thirty seconds to look at the street brawl - staged, of course - that has just broken out to your left). We heard about bags or pockets being slashed, and even about extortions from local police (don't give a policeman your passport - it'll cost you US$200 to get it back).
But after spending a couple of weeks in Peru, I realised that some places are worse than others. Peru is one of the safer countries in South America, and even in Cuzco, the most crime-ridden city in Peru, one can stay safe with only the tiniest measure of common sense. If you pass out drunk in the street at 2am with a Pentax around your neck, chances are that the next morning you'll have difficulty locating your blue jeans, let alone your camera, and you've really only got yourself to blame. But short of that, you're probably okay. And Bolivia is reputably even safer - apparently the safest of all Latin American countries. And yet Bolivia was where I got robbed. Don't let me dissuade you from visiting Bolivia - my theft was really in the most unusual of circumstances. I was in prison. I think I'd better back up a little here and explain.
I had been told several times since arriving in Cuzco that the San Pedro Prison in La Paz was one of the most remarkable places you could visit in South America. It was open to tourists in the know, and I had to see it for my own eyes. I decided to check it out, and asked for directions, expecting it to be at least ten kilometres out of town. I was surprised to learn that it was smack in the middle the city, taking up an entire city block, five minutes walk from Gravity Assisted Mountain Biking. I fronted up at the main gate alone, because I couldn't convince the French girls to join me (funny that). The entrance was bedlam. Inside an entrance hall there was a big steel-barred gate, with about fifteen prisoners hanging off it looking expectantly out into the free world and shouting various requests at the passers-by. Behind them, about a hundred inmates stood listlessly around a courtyard, smoking, talking and waiting for something interesting to happen. Periodically the gate would open to allow a visitor in (or back out). Prisoners' names were constantly being called to summon them to see their guests.
The moment I arrived several of the inmates started calling to me, "Thomas? Thomas?" I couldn't figure out what they could possibly want. Did I look like someone called Thomas? I managed to ask a guy inside the gate who spoke English how to get a tour. "You've got to see Thomas," came the reply. Ahhhhhh, now it made sense. So Thomas, another inmate, was summoned.
Thomas (click here) was black, Jamaican and friendly, and had been in the San Pedro Prison for three and a half years for trafficking 5kg of cocaine. He was due to be released by Christmas 1999. His entrepreneurial game was showing gringos (tourists) through the prison. The guards got a kickback for allowing the tourists inside. My tour was to cost me 30 Bolivianos (A$8).
We went up to Thomas's room (technically speaking it was his cell, but it only locked from the inside, so it was more like a very small apartment) where I met his totally drug-fucked roommate (also called Thomas - an absolute dead-ringer for the evil cop Gary Oldman played in The Professional, only without the evil) and two other gringos waiting for the tour to start. He sat us all down on his bed and gave us an outline of the San Pedro Correctional Facility.
And what an astonishing place it is. We learned, in essence, that the prisoners run the prison. There are no guards, except to stop the inmates leaving. All food, accommodation, schedules and regulations are determined by the prisoners. It struck me, and everyone else I talked to about it, as a mini-town, a community. And this particular community revolves, far more than most, around money. As an inmate, you need money to procure for yourself a decent room. The more you're prepared to pay, the better your room. Thomas paid about A$2000 for the rights to his "B Class" room, and pays about A$200 per month to retain it. When he is released he is entitled to sell it to the highest bidder and keep the proceeds. As an inmate, you either buy and cook your own food, or pay for meals in any of the restaurants run by other enterprising inmates. If you are a prisoner with no means, you do one of two things. You either sleep and eat in the "E Class" section - which essentially entails sleeping outside on the balcony and eating watery soup, or you offer your services to a more financially endowed prisoner - as a cook, cleaner, errand-runner or bodyguard. Thomas had three bodyguards - one built like André the Giant with a patchwork of knife-scars decorating his belly, and another with those sharp, weasel eyes that make you fondle your digital camera protectively.
The first stop on the tour was the penthouse suite. Apparently, a major drug lord (30,000kg of coke strikes me as fairly major) was captured and put away in San Pedro. Not wasting any time, he hired himself a team of outside contractors to add a level to one of the prison buildings. He installed a swimming pool and sauna (no jokes - I saw it), and had the latest in home comforts, including a colour TV, a fridge and a computer with full Internet access. He lived up there with a couple of servants and his girlfriend.
We were taken past the corner store (click here), some street markets (click here), the various classes of accommodation (click here), the Chinese restaurant, the chapel (click here), and finally the rapists' pool (click here), where men convicted of that most heinous crime are summarily beaten and drowned to death. No, I'm not exaggerating.
At no time in the jail did I feel unsafe. The other prisoners paid us no attention - we were tourists, the merest blip on their "Interesting Things" radar. There was no escape route in the unlikely event that one of them decided to initiate some violence towards an unsuspecting gringo. Most of them seem harmlessly preoccupied with doing their laundry (click here). I asked Thomas about this - why the cleanliness fetish? Was it laundry day?
"Ah, you reminded me!" he said. "You must come back tomorrow. September the 23rd is the biggest day on the calendar every year - it's the Open Day Fiesta. Everyone is preparing for it. There'll be dancing and partying all night, with bands coming from outside. Last year we had plenty of gringos here, most of them stayed the night."
I thought about this. It was certainly an opportunity that would not be coming around again in a hurry. Spending a night in a Bolivian prison.... Partying, no less. I decided that it had to be done, and told Thomas that I would see him the following afternoon.
As I was leaving, his space-cadet roommate (the other Thomas) asked me if I wanted to score some prime, uncut Bolivian cocaine - only A$7 per gram. Amused (but not particularly surprised) that you could buy drugs in prison, I told him no thanks, so he asked me if I was coming back tomorrow, and if so, could I bring him some apples and oranges. I was sure I had seen plenty of fruit in one of the jail's street stalls, but how could I refuse such a request?
That night I ran into the Danish guys again in an Israeli restaurant, and I told them about the prison. They said I could expect to see them there. My plans, however, to leave with the French girls for Sucre, Potosí and Uyuni the next morning obviously needed a rethink, seeing as the idea of spending a night in a Bolivian prison appealed to them about as much as a hysterectomy. A deal was struck. I would let them explore Sucre on their own, then jump on a dawn bus after the prison night (what was I thinking?) and meet them as they arrived in Potosí that evening.
So at 2pm the next day I fronted up to the prison trailing six backpackers I'd met who all thought the idea sounded pretty cool. Things got confused at the gate, and I ended up inside with the six of them still outside looking lost. So Thomas and I were standing inside the gate, surrounded by literally hundreds of festive prisoners, shouting at a guard outside the gate to go and find my six amigos. I couldn't go back out myself without Thomas being charged by the guards for another gringo. It was the previous day's bedlam to the power of four.
And then I felt it. Someone brushed against me and I felt my wallet pocket, a zippered pocket against my lower right thigh, jostled deliberately. But this was such an unusual sensation that it took me about five seconds to realise what had happened and turn to Thomas and say, "My wallet was just stolen." I quickly gave him the details and he sprang into action. He asked me who it was. I said I didn't know, so he pointed to a shifty looking guy nearby who was looking just a little too nonchalant, and told me not to let him out of my sight. Then he disappeared for a minute to get his bodyguards and my little quarry started ever-so-casually wandering away. I did my best to follow him, but he vanished into a doorway that I was not prepared to follow him into.
Occasionally, in the past, I'll reach down to the mobile phone on my hip to make a call and find it gone. Immediately, I get this sinking, sick feeling in the pit of my stomach, that sense of utter stupidity at having left it somewhere - that fear or certainty that I've lost several hundred dollars worth of equipment through my own moronic lack of care. I usually find the phone, or whatever it was, but that's not the point. Surprisingly, this feeling was totally absent that day. I felt strangely calm, yet excited about what was going to happen next. Looking back on it, it seems that I was certain that I would get the wallet back.
Thomas returned, with his bodyguards in tow, and asked me where the guy had gone. Much to his annoyance, I told him I didn't know. Thomas pointed at a couple of doors and told the bodyguards to go and find my wallet. If they failed, he told them, he'd be on the market for new bodyguards. We went back to Thomas's room to wait. Thomas disappeared and returned shortly afterwards with my six friends, who were distinctly nervous at learning my news. Fifteen minutes later the bodyguards reappeared towing a not-quite-so-nonchalant pickpocket, who looked fearfully around the room and at me.
"Was this the guy?" asked Thomas.
"Er, I don't know, I didn't see him," I replied. "It might have been."
"Was this the guy?!?" Thomas asked again, giving me a pointed, knowing look.
It took me a second, but then it clicked. "Oh yes. Yes. Certainly. That was the guy. Absolutely. Him." I pointed for extra emphasis. Our little captive didn't speak English, but he understood that he'd just been fingered for a crime (probably not the first time, given our surroundings), and he knew that it was now up to him to produce either the wallet or the real perpetrator.
So off they all went again. Ten minutes later they were back (without the suspect), brandishing my wallet. I immediately opened it and counted the money. All my credit cards were there, and it even contained 600 of the 1100 Bolivianos that I'd started with. Also missing was US$20 and 200 Peruvian Sols. So, altogether, the equivalent of A$257 was gone, but I didn't care too much. It was a miracle that I was holding my wallet in my hand after just being pickpocketed in a Bolivian jail. I gave Thomas and his crew 300 Bolivianos (A$80) as a reward and tucked my wallet into my underpants for safekeeping (even though it was now probably the safest and most unstealable item in the prison).
And so it was back to business as usual. Thomas started another tour for my friends, and I was invited along free of charge. It was a very different prison this time around. The lines of laundry had been replaced by coloured streamers, and musicians were warming up on several stages set up at strategic points around the jail. At one point, while we were waiting for a dance troupe to start their performance (click here), Thomas took me aside and asked me if I wanted to come back to his room for some coke - "to make you feel better." Why not, I thought, so we went back to his now empty room for a couple of lines of the real stuff. Now, I've never been big on coke, but this stuff worked, like nothing I'd tried before, and for the next half an hour the prison seemed unaccountably more colourful.
My Danish mates turned up a little later and also got the tour, followed shortly thereafter by Thomas's scrawny, Australian junkie girlfriend, just back from Peru, where she'd been robbed three times and had lost everything except the clothes on her back. She and Thomas wasted no time in launching into a tirade of recriminations and accusations, so I went for yet another wander around the prison, which by now almost felt like home. The dancing was in full swing (click here), but I couldn't seem to get excited by it. When I bumped into Peter and Ole near the gate and they told me they weren't going to be staying, I decided to leave with them. I said my goodbyes to the Thomas Twins and returned to the World of the Normal nursing a mild post-coke downer.
I wandered off to see The Matrix (again) and got an early night.
[Aside (14 March 2004): It seems this little episode has achieved some sort of greater notoriety: I'm in a book! It's true. Apparently another Australian, one Rusty Young, was so fascinated by this unique correctional facility that he checked in there for a few months so that he could write a book on the place. The book is called Marching Powder (a reference to the cocaine in the place). His chief source of information was (you guessed it) our very own Thomas, and Thomas just happened to relate to Rusty a story about an Australian and a stolen wallet. This formed a chapter in the book called The Australian's Wallet. For sensible reasons, my name was changed to Jerome. Check out the book at http://www.marchingpowder.com End of aside]
The next morning I caught the six o'clock bus to Potosí, the ancient silver capital of the world and eleven long hours away by bus. I read, but wasn't sure I fully believed, that during the Sixteenth Century Potosí was the most populous city in the world. It's amazing what several thousand tonnes of silver buried in a mountain nearby will do to a town. These days it's just a large Bolivian town, but the mines still run, pulling silver, zinc, tin and copper out of the ever-dwindling reserves of the mountain of Cerro Rico. In fact, tours down into the mines represent both Potosí's greatest tourist attraction and the main reason that my French compadres and I were going there.
When I arrived at 6pm that evening, I had no trouble locating either the agreed rendesvous point or the ladies themselves. They had graciously booked three places on a mine tour leaving the following morning. I wasn't particularly enthralled by the idea of wandering around for several hours staring at rocks, but my sister Lindy had done it a couple of years before, and recalled it as one of the highlights of her South American adventures. That was good enough for me.
We had been told not to wear our good clothes on the tour. Probably a fairly unnecessary warning, but you'd be surprised at the number of backpackers that save their tuxes and evening gowns for a day in a copper mine. The first place the tour bus stopped was at a building where we were all supplied with a helmet, a yellow rubber raincoat, and gumboots (just to protect the Italian leather brogues, of course). Then they filed us all across the street to the local shop and advised us that miners are much more amenable to visitors if they come bearing gifts. Coca-cola was an old favourite, as was the obligatory bag of coca leaves - the staple diet of Bolivian miners. Personally, I opted for the stick of dynamite and the length of fuse rope (and I must confess to a strong urge to buy a couple of extra sticks to bring home to Australia - you never know where they'll come in handy).
Off we went up the side of Cerro Rico. After 20 minutes' drive, at 4100 metres (13,500 feet), we stopped and unloaded next to a couple of unlikely looking shacks, and spent the next half an hour standing around in the sun in our rubber suits wondering what was going to happen next (click here). Delphine looked particularly fetching in her mining attire (click here). I wandered off and took the obligatory My City of Sydney shot (click here).
After a little while our guide, an ex-miner himself, appeared and led us into the bowels of the earth (click here). I lit the gas lantern I'd been given, thanked the Lord that it didn't explode in my face, and walked into the gloom.
It got instantly dark, and after about a hundred metres of walking along a horizontal tunnel, bumping my head on the five-foot ceiling every twenty seconds or so, it got noticeably warmer. We stopped after about five hundred metres and sat down with our guide in a largish cavern to learn about what it meant to work in a mine in Bolivia.
It doesn't sound like an ideal life. It tends to be a family thing. If your father was a miner, then the chances are that you'll follow in his footsteps, starting maybe around age eleven. Then you've got thirty years of working twelve-hour days before retiring at forty-one with silicosis. Mining teams are self-organised, meaning that miners form partnerships with each other - teams ranging from five to seventy members - and work their own section of the mine with dynamite and shovels, nothing else (click here). They find their own veins of ore and are paid by the kilo and by the richness of the vein that they are mining. So, for example, a 35% tin vein will pay more per kilogram than a 25% tin vein. The profits are shared amongst the team members, and tends to work out to about 40 Bolivianos (A$11) per person per day.
So down we went. We descended through three levels (click here). The further in we went, the hotter and more stifling it became, particularly pleasant in a rubber suit - not! If you're a claustrophobe, don't even think about visiting a Bolivian mine. Often we were forced to crouch down on our haunches in the tiny corridors, occasionally having to run in that position to avoid a little ore train laden with tomorrow's tin cans, trophies and telephone wire coming up behind us (click here). Have you ever found yourself waddling down a three foot tunnel and being forced to break into a run? Especially difficult in the thin air of 13,000 feet.
Eventually it was over, and we emerged blinking into one of the most gorgeous skies I'd seen on my travels (click here). Like my sister, I wholeheartedly endorse a visit to the Potosí silver mines.
After the mines, the only thing that Potosí had to offer the backpacker was the warm springs outside town, especially enticing after sweating one's morning away in the pits of Hell. So we hailed the nearest cab and instructed him to carry us forthwith to the natural springs. Poor choice of taxi. It would often have been faster to get out and walk beside the cab, especially up the little hill to the springs. But it was all worth it. We got to soak away our grime in the lukewarm waters that had apparently been visited for centuries by Inca kings (click here). With no further business in this ancient silver city, we fronted up at the sunny bus station (click here) the next morning and caught the bus to Uyuni - the Salar was beckoning.
Without the spectacle of the nearby Salar, Uyuni would have to be one of the least visited cities in Bolivia. There's absolutely nothing there to recommend it. Well, there are youth hostels and pizza restaurants of course, but they only to cater to the Salar trade. Down the main street every second shop is a travel agent offering identical US$75 four-day 4WD trips across the salt flats. Having no means to ascertain the best of the bunch, my French lasses were forced to consult the bible - the Lonely Planet guide to Bolivia. They chose the biggest one, the only company with a fleet of forty 4WDs, enabling several tours to depart every day.
And so the next morning we bid each other our adieus. I never saw them again. Such fine travelling companions. Sniff.
I had the remainder of the day to kill before my mountain biking team arrived on the evening train. To this day I have no idea how I spent that day. Probably writing emails or some such. At the designated hour I fronted up at the train station, and watched the great Bicycle Unloading Ceremony. I was surprised that there were only four others besides myself - and two of them were guides! Sally, myself and a British guy called David were to be the only customers. I had been expecting to at least see Alistair, the owner, not to mention a German girl that he'd said would be one of the customers. I asked about the absences and was met with dark looks. Eventually the tragic story came out. Alistair and this German girl had a mutual friend (who was also a friend of the two guides that did come, Uli and Geert) who had been killed the day before in a freak mountain-climbing accident just outside La Paz. I was stunned, and surprised that the expedition was still going ahead. Geert was very close to the deceased, and was to be quiet and introspective the whole trip. I wished there was something I could do or say.
Yet the trip was still going ahead, and everyone seemed to be looking forward to it. This trip was to be the first of its type run by the company, so there was a positive feeling of anticipation throughout the party. It also explained why we had two guides rather than one.
Our trip was to be a fairly standard Salar tour, only with bicycles, so our guides went off and rented a 4WD support vehicle and staff from one of the many Uyuni travel companies. We loaded it up with more water, bananas and chocolate bars than five people could possibly consume in four days, and off we went.
The edge of the Salar is about 20km out of Uyuni. It looks literally like a great big lake, a couple of hundred kilometres across, only white - pure, blinding white. On spying it for the first time, I immediately regretted not having brought any sunscreen. We unloaded the bikes on the lake's edge, and I went off to inspect the salt. The edge of the Salar is where they mine the salt, using the term "mine" to mean cut up the surface salt into bricks and load it onto trucks. Ninety percent of the salt taken from the Salar is used for human consumption, the remainder is apparently used for livestock. I walked out onto the salt - it was hard, smooth (for the most part), and a little crunchy. I felt it - it was rough and granular (click here). It didn't look like it would be too difficult to cycle on. I even tasted it, and guess what? It was salty....
We asked our local guides, and apparently the salt is about twelve metres (forty feet) deep. You don't have to dig too far down to find water (but don't try drinking any, of course). The whole lake is situated atop the altiplano at 3760 metres (12,300 feet), bordered to the west by the mountains that separate Bolivia from the northern tip of Chile. Most of the 4WD tours would drive south across the lake for the first day or so, then spend the next couple of days examining some of the more exotic and gorgeous valleys beyond. We didn't have that kind of horsepower, so our trip would be restricted to the lake itself.
The five of us (click here) mounted up and rode off into the salt. After only fifteen minutes we arrived at our first tourist stop - the Hotel de Salar (literally, the "Salt Hotel"). This was a small hotel made entirely of salt bricks, inside and out (don't ask me what happens when it rains) (click here). For some reason, this was where we were to have lunch, so we sat down in a salt room on salt chairs at a salt table and had a meal of ..... sandwiches (click here).
When you drive (or ride) across the Salar, you're actually driving on roads. Well, all right - tracks. There are many tracks that criss-cross the lake, barely noticeable as slightly darker lines on the white salt surface. Everyone sticks to them, for a variety of reasons: (a) It's better for the Salar, environmentally speaking, (b) It's harder to get lost, and (c) they're a little smoother due to constant use (you can make out a typical track in this shot here). For no readily apparent reason, the roads are scored with potholes, some of them almost large enough to go swimming in (click here). You can leave the track anytime any cycle away, but there's no real point unless you want to take a photograph of your buddies riding past (click here). The main way that you don't get lost is by fixing your eyes on a reference point on the horizon (or staying inside the 4WD and trusting in the local driver). This is not a place in which you want to end up lost (click here).
What a place. There's only one word to describe it (all the guide books use it): Otherworldly. Travelling across it, you do not feel like you're anywhere on the planet Earth.
That day, after lunch, we essentially pedalled in a straight line towards a volcano, distant on the western shore of the lake. We asked our guides how far away it was. Having never been, they had to rely on the estimate given to them by a friend, who'd cycled the route to check it out several weeks earlier. Apparently it was to be an 85km day. Having cycle-toured many times before, I was well aware that this was quite a distance for a first day's ride, especially seeing as Sally and David were not really cyclists, and especially seeing as we didn't start riding until about eleven o'clock. Riding on rough roads on mountain bikes makes it just that much harder, and the constant headwind felt like it added another 25% to the distance. I won't even mention the fact that we were at 12,000 feet. I was fasting after yet another minor bout of South American Stomach, but it was just so good to be on a bicycle again and I pedalled on like a man possessed.
For a while.
At the time I was blissfully unaware that my legs were writing cheques my body couldn't cash.
We pushed on well into the late afternoon, and that bloody volcano just didn't seem to be getting any closer. It was, of course, but distances don't seem to make the same sort of sense in a world like that. I was guesstimating our average speed (roughly 20km/h), and figured we'd well and truly covered the promised 85km, but still the volcano lurked on the horizon and taunted us with its remoteness.
We reached the volcano at the western edge of the Salar (click here) just as the world was getting dark. We were to spend the night in a guesthouse in easily the least touristy village I'd seen in South America (click here). We had covered at least 110km, which felt more like 140km when you took into account the headwind. A fair distance for my first time on a bicycle in nine months. As the sun set, it became instantly freezing. Or maybe it was just me. Geert and Uli were getting around quite comfortably in their lycra bike shorts, but my body, feeling ignored and abused by my one-track cycling mind, decided it was going to fend for itself and shut down. I was forced to put on every layer I owned and go and sit in the kitchen of our guest house next to the fire. I didn't even have the energy to flirt with the three Swiss girls from another tour group, so I must have been pretty far gone. After three cups of hot tea I felt composed enough to join the inevitable card game that had already begun amongst my fellow bikers, and we spent the remainder of the evening playing endless games of Arsehole (or was it Shithead?).
What is it with my stomach? That night I was doing regular runs to the bathroom, while everyone else slept peacefully in their beds. Whatever I had picked up in Peru, it was clearly recurring.
The following day was almost a rest day. We assembled at the edge of the Salar (click here), rode a mere 10km over the salt around the volcano to the next village, then all piled into the 4WD for a ride a little ways up the slope (click here). The idea was that we'd have lunch there, perhaps go for a walk, then ride our bikes down the dirt road for a little exhilaration to end the day. Sounded fine to me, all except for the "walk" part. I decided to take it easy, and sat and read in the jeep until they all returned.
The ride down was as fun as it promised to be, and we frolicked for a while on the meadow at the foot of the hill, playing with the alpacas (click here and here) and the pink flamingos (click here), before saddling up and riding the 10km back to our guesthouse for another evening of Arsehole.
Day three I was still - or perhaps again - feeling shitty (so to speak), so with great reluctance I had a day off, sitting in the 4WD reading and taking photos (click here). We stopped for lunch, after 40km or so, at the Isla del Pescado (Island of Fish). It looked like a small brown rock from a distance (click here), but as we got closer (click here), we realised that it was actually a reasonably large place, complete with its own unique ecosystem (click here), one that you don't get too close to (click here).
It was weird arriving at an island by jeep.
Lunch was pleasant enough, and we saw some more interesting wildlife (click here and here). As the afternoon dragged on, and I started to wonder when we'd get riding again, our guides announced, much to our joint surprise, that this was actually our destination for the night (there was a sort of a house on the island). Relieved, we wasted no time in breaking out the cards for yet another marathon of - well, you know.
Just before dusk, a western woman walked past the window. This might have been strange enough, but Uli jumped up and shouted, "Vanessa!" He knew her! I've got to learn to stop being surprised at stuff like this. It turned out she was a producer for a Lonely Planet TV special on Bolivia, and was out on the Salar with her film crew revelling it its extraordinary photogenic-ness. Sure enough, not far behind was a cameraman, a director, a sound guy and the presenter of the program. I didn't see any dolly grips, gaffers or best boys, but wouldn't have been overly surprised if Spielberg had landed in a helicopter and started shooting an action sequence with a life-sized velociraptor. Life's like that.
That evening we were blessed with the most gorgeous sunset I've seen in the past ten years. I'm not exaggerating. With a freshly loaded disk in my digital camera, I went on a photographic orgy, ripping off thirty shots in fifteen minutes, and the sun .... no I can't describe it. You're going to have to look at the photos instead. I had to cull fifteen of the merely great photos, leaving me with the following (the photos are presented in the order they were taken. Click on any mini photo for a full-sized version):
The next day of cycling, our fourth, made the whole trip worthwhile. All we did was make a beeline for our starting point 75km away across the Salar, but I was finally feeling 100% again, and we had a tailwind, so I just tucked my head down and cycled until the endorphins ran out, about 35km away (just under an hour). When the others caught up I got the photo urge and ripped off a few fun and silly shots (click here, here and here). It's virtually impossible to take a bad photo in the Salar. We were back at the Hotel de Salar before we knew it (for lunch, again), and had just started feeling pretty proud of ourselves when we met three Japanese cycle-tourists coming the other way, riding 70kg bikes (click here). Ouch! They were cycling to Chile, don't you know.
Then it was all over, but I felt great. Uli and Geert had to rush back to La Paz on the train that evening, but Sally, David and I were in no particular hurry and decided to stay in Uyuni for another night.
The trains back to La Paz the following day were on strike, so we were forced to make our own unique transport arrangements (click here, here, here and here). Nah, honest! All right, you got me. I'm lying through my teeth. We were actually mucking around in the train cemetery just outside of Uyuni (click here), a truly superb spot for photos, as you can probably imagine (click here and here). We ended up catching a very nice night train to La Paz at midnight that evening, on which we failed abysmally to sneak into the first class cabin.
Back in La Paz, I was so happy with my tour of the Salar that I thought I'd go back to see Alistair at Gravity Assisted Mountain Biking (http://www.gravitybolivia.com) and see what else he had to offer. Their flagship tour was the aforementioned six-hour descent from the 16,000 feet mountain pass down to the jungle town of Coroico. I asked Alistair what he had available between then (Saturday) and the following Wednesday when I was to return to Peru to catch my flight to New York. He said that everything was a bit full, but he still had one place left on a special Coroico ride on Tuesday that was to be filmed by Vanessa and her Lonely Planet film crew. He warned that there'd be lots of stuffing around as the film crew repositioned cameras, asked to have us assume exciting poses as we descended, etc, etc. So it might be a bit of a hassle and not like a regular descent. And did I mind?
Hmmm. Tough decision.
Needless to say, I signed up again without a second thought.
We chatted on some more. I gave him a copy of all my Salar digital photographs, in case he wanted to use any on his web site, and we talked about all the riding we'd both done. He ended up offering me a job (at the same rate of pay that he offered all his guides - i.e. nothing). I told him maybe next season. And maybe I will....
First we had a soccer game to go to. You can't visit South America without attending a game of football. It would be like going to Tibet and never seeing a monastery, or visiting Ireland without trying a Guinness. Soccer is truly a religious experience down there. It transpired that the two top Bolivian teams, both of them based in La Paz, were to be playing each other on Sunday afternoon. Geert organised tickets, and he, Sally, David and I went along to the local stadium to watch the local derby and get baptised into the South American faith.
I'm not sure what the team's names were, but it didn't really matter. We just called them the Blue Maniacs and the Yellow Maniacs. The area behind each goal was reserved for the most fanatical of each team's supporters. These are the gangs - no, tribes - of people that wear nothing but the team's colours, paint their faces, dance, yell, chant the team songs ("All You Other Bastards Can Go and Get Fucked!", and other catchy tunes), throw coloured confetti, and pick fights with anyone who doesn't. We were slightly nervous when we discovered that our seats were situated exactly on the edge of the Blue Maniacs' territory. Sitting down (well, you only sat down if you wanted to watch the backs of the heads of the people in front of you), I discovered that within arm's reach to my right were several hundred slavering madmen painted blue (click here), while to my left were rows and rows of calm, seated respectable football enthusiasts ready for a splendid afternoon's viewing.
The blue team ran on to the field, and the space to my right erupted into a sort of blue battle zone. Within seconds it was impossible to see the field for all the blue smoke (click here). But that eventually blew away, and we settled in to watch a game strangely devoid of the talent one would come to expect from South American teams (click here). Ah well, I never did hear of Bolivia winning any World Cups.
Tuesday morning we rendezvoused with the Lonely Planet film crew in the freezing wind at the top of the 16,000-foot pass (click here). We did indeed stuff around for an hour or so while they filmed Alistair saying a few words about the ride (click here) and trying to get the GAMB logo in as prominent a position as possible. I put on every layer I had, knowing full well I would be down to a T-shirt before the ride's end (click here).
Our team of seven (click here) included three guides (Alistair, Uli and another chappie), me and two other female customers, and the Lonely Planet presenter - the bloke whose job it was to travel around the world being filmed doing a variety of adventurous activities. I couldn't figure it out - he was neither young, tall, handsome nor obviously sporty or outdoorsy. I will concede, though, that he was very good at what he did, quite the witty raconteur. He was an everyman - the sort of guy that if you saw him on an outdoors TV show, you'd think to yourself, Well, if he can do it, so can I.
So off we went, chased by a video camera mounted on Alistair's jeep (click here). And what a joy it was to simply sit on the bike as it swept down the smooth, windy roads through the spectacular Andean mountains. After about an hour the paved road ended, and we stopped for a while as Alistair explained to the folks in TV-land that we were about to descend down the most dangerous road in the world (my mother is only finding this out now, as she reads this). Apparently, up until March that year, an average of one person per week would die on this 20km stretch of road. This was due to the precipitous drop-off on one side, and the fact that the road was impossibly narrow (click here). Interestingly, most of the accidents happened at extremely low speeds. What would happen is this: A truck or bus would be travelling down the hill and would encounter another vehicle coming up the other way. One of them would be forced to reverse up to the nearest widening in the road in order that the two vehicles could safely pass one another. It would be necessary, of course, for the reversing vehicle to get as close to the edge as possible, in order to facilitate a speedier passing - and with obvious results. As we descended, Alistair pointed out the many clear places where vehicles had recently plunged to their doom (click here). He told us we would be quite safe, for two reasons:
1. We were on bicycles, a particularly narrow form of transport, and
2. In March, the government finally did something about the spectacular road toll, and declared the road to be one-way. From 5am to 5pm the road was downhill-only, and at 5pm each day it reversed direction. Needless to say, that gave us a deadline, and the film crew's incessant stopping and requesting the recreation of certain action sequences was going to run us very close to that deadline indeed.
The ride down the dirt road was pure exhilaration. You could go as fast as you dared, and the sharp corners and unpredictable road surface required a constant grip on the brakes. The only thing that would force you to rest was the burning sensation in the muscles in your poor forearms, which necessarily were required to act as a form of suspension.
The alpine tundra was eventually replaced by lush jungle, and it became progressively easier to breathe. I'd forgotten, during the previous three or four weeks, what rich, oxygenated air tasted like. After it seemed we couldn't possibly descend any further without reaching the Earth's core, we rounded a corner and there was the town of Coroico (click here). But amazingly, we weren't done yet. There was still another half an hour of riding to go, and only forty minutes remaining before the road reversed direction and we be forced to dodge the oncoming traffic. So we ploughed on, exhausted but unable to rest, over dirt that had given way to dust - that fine bulldust that gets into everything, including your lungs. We were forced to ride behind the descending trucks, unable to overtake them because we couldn't see anything, but unable to stop and wait for it to disappear due to time constraints and the inevitable fact that there'd be another one right behind it. The result of all this dust can only be appreciated with a photograph - here (sorry, no photographs of the inside of my lungs available).
Approaching the end of the descent - a large barricade across the road - we found the side of the road lined with trucks and busses and jeeps and minivans, like the start of some Andean Formula One, all waiting for some invisible signal to start their engines and be the first one up the hill and back to La Paz. I could well understand their anxiety - sitting behind another vehicle, literally eating their dust, would make me want to be first too.
They broke the gun about five minutes early, forcing us to ride on the treacherous and unpredictable shoulder of the road as single-minded maniacs red-lined ancient Toyota Hi-aces and beaten-up Toto trucks up the hill beside us.
But we didn't die.
We assembled in Coroico for a final photo op (click here), and a chance to swap email addresses with the film crew. Apparently, the sequence will be included in the Lonely Planet's Bolivian special on the Discovery Channel some time next year, probably in February or March. I don't get cable, so if anyone sees this program advertised, could they please email me (firstname.lastname@example.org) with the dates and times, or better still, could they tape it for me and I'll fix them up for postage, etc.
My month in South America had expired, and it was time for me to fly back to New Jersey for my Native American philosophy workshop at the Tracker School. I had to get to Lima to connect with my flight to New York, so I looked into flying there from La Paz. Bolivia is clearly not one of the world's most popular tourist destinations. I could have a one-way ticket to Lima for the mere sum of US$225 (A$350), or I could take a bus back to Puno (US$4) and fly to Lima from there (about US$70/A$100). I dreaded sitting on a bus for a day with nothing to do, but figured I really had nothing to do in La Paz either, so I booked the bus, said goodbye to Sally and David, and left for Peru on Thursday morning.
Sitting on the bus to Puno, I met an Australian couple just arrived in South America and bussing to Peru to begin their travels. They were full of questions - How was the Inca Trail? Was it safe to walk around at night? What's worth seeing on Lake Titicaca?, and is the Salar all it's cracked up to be? Suddenly I recalled my first few days in Cuzco, feeling useless, lost and lonely, and I realised all at once that I'd come a long way. I felt, for the first time in ages, like a seasoned traveller. I know that probably sounds ridiculous coming from a guy that's been travelling the world alone for the best part of a year, but you have to remember that South America was this huge, mysterious daunting continent that I'd heard was quite dangerous and where they didn't speak English. It scared me a little. But I'd made it, and I was even able to pass on some of my experiences to these ignorant wretches from Down Under.
By the way, the entire time that I was in South America, I was plagued by déjà-vu. It seemed like I'd get one nearly every day. Weird.
Anyway, Puno was a great big non-event (again), as was the flight to Lima. Curiously, none of the travel agents in Puno took credit cards, and insisted on US cash - something I was trying to hang on to. The ticket turned out to be US$59. I looked in my wallet - I had exactly US$60 remaining. I've given up trying to work out what coincidences like that might mean, so I simply paid the man and resigned myself to arriving in the States with exactly one dollar in cash.
Some of you may recall my adventures in Tom Brown's Tracker School in Episode 7 (click here). I mentioned in my musings there that what I enjoyed most about that course was the (small) glimpse we were afforded into Native American philosophy. It turns out that the school offers (currently) six one-week workshops on this philosophy. Having been through two of these six courses now, I would characterise them more as "spirituality" workshops rather than "philosophy." There was certainly a look at the belief system and world view of the Native Americans, but the focus seemed to be on an investigation and exploration of the spirit world, using meditation as a vehicle.
Fine by me.
I'll probably have trouble writing this section. The stuff we learned doesn't translate well onto paper (er, screen), being largely experiential. I suppose you'll have to simply take my word for a lot of it. There'll be many of you, I know, that have no belief at all in the spiritual aspects of the universe, a position I've often tried to maintain myself. I gave up several years ago - there were too many unexplainable phenomena in the universe, some of which had actually happened to me. I felt I needed to learn more about it, and it's not the sort of topic that you can just dive into unguided (well, you can, I suppose, if you're an unusually intuitive person, but I figured that approach would take me the better part of 200 years).
So Mr Brown and his school came into my life at just the right time, it would seem. Funny that.
Anyway, maybe I'll just describe what happened, and you can form your own judgements.
After a night in a hostel in New York (and a couple more movies - of course), I caught the bus out to New Jersey and waited for the Tracker School's pickup service. Only we weren't going back to the Tracker School farm like last time. Both of the next two weeks were to be spent in the "Primitive Camp" in the New Jersey Pine Barrens, a vast expanse of natural scrub pine forest half an hour from the Atlantic Ocean. A bit of history: When Tom first met Grandfather (Stalking Wolf - the eighty-year-old Apache that was to be his mentor for the next eleven years), Tom was living (in a house with his parents) at the edge of the Pine Barrens. Every event of his spiritually formative years occurred within the Pine Barrens, mostly on the site of the current Primitive Camp. A special place for Tom and his devotees. The camp is now part makeshift-school, part home to several amazing people who are voluntary caretakers of this part of the wilderness. There is no electricity, and all the caretakers live in houses that were made totally by hand using natural techniques. And I'm not talking about those wooden condoms called debris huts. Some of these "shelters" are more comfortable than many apartments I've lived in (click here and here for an external and internal look at one such shelter). During weeks when a Tracker School workshop is being run, the place turns into some sort of travelling circus. Each of our one-week courses had 120 students, not to mention eight instructors and about twelve support staff. All these people had to be fed, housed and taught. Quite a logistical challenge in such an environment, but we were certainly well catered for.
As usual, I was the only Australian.
All students slept in tents. If you didn't have a tent, one was provided by the school. Unlike the farm, the tents were scattered over quite a large area. It seemed that wherever you walked, no matter now remote you felt from the central encampment, you'd always stumble across someone else's tent tucked away in some gorgeous little clearing (here is mine). After breakfast (usually at eight), we would assemble in the teaching tent (click here) for the day's lessons.
I took a few photos of the camp itself, in case you might be interested in what a primitive camp looks like (well, the part used by the school, anyway):
After the introduction on Sunday night, Monday contained no philosophy at all. We were each given a piece of soapstone and shown how to carve it. We were also given a long piece of wood and shown how to work it into a smooth cylinder with a thin hole down the centre. We were making a pipe. A ceremonial pipe that we would ultimately fill with a tobacco mix and smoke. The wood would form the pipe stem and the soapstone would form an intricately carved pipe bowl. Both the stem and the bowl could be carved in virtually any manner we wanted - we were limited only by our imagination (and in my case, by talent). The pipe was to take us the rest of the week to complete, using any spare time we might find between classes and meals. There were some extraordinary and exquisite pipes made that week. While I was a bit annoyed that we had to wait until Tuesday before we even sat down to learn philosophy, I realised why it was being done that way. Our minds needed to be stilled. Carving is a marvellously meditative and reflective art. It's also very quiet. And quietening. They were, without us consciously knowing it, preparing our minds for what was to come.
Tuesday: Meditation 101.
This was a truly excellent place to start for me. I'd tried meditation before and never considered that I'd had much success at it. I'd always assumed that what was supposed to happen was you sat there for a bit, and then entered some magical, mystical transcendental state. The benefits were supposed to be instant, obvious and broad-reaching. Typical expectations of a person who is a product of the Nineties, I suppose. I want it all, and I want it now! In actual fact, the simple act of trying to have such experiences makes them totally impossible (I now know).
If you can imagine a massive tent out in the middle of the forest, with 120 people inside lying on mats under blankets, being led through a meditation by the one man's calm voice and gentle music from the sacred Sony, then you will start to get a picture of how it worked. The idea was to get us used to the techniques of meditation, before we could actually start to use that meditation for meaningful purposes.
The meditation guide that I mentioned was not Tom Brown Jr. His name was Malcolm (click here - Malcolm is on the left) - one of Tom's original students - a warm, gentle, friendly and funny guy, a practicing psychotherapist from the Pacific Northwest and one of the most spiritual people I've ever met. But I'm wondering, where's Tom? Actually I was a little peeved. He was doing it again. During the Standard Course in August he had promised us that he would be taking us for 60% of the classes, but we barely saw him. He had apologised at one stage back then for being called away for a couple of days on an "unforseen emergency." Fine, no problem. Unforseen emergencies are like that. But now we had another one. To be fair, though, this was indeed unforseen, certainly an emergency, and indisputably far more important than walking a bunch of freshmen through basic meditation techniques. But I'm still allowed to be disappointed.
A small boy (three years old, I think) had wandered away from his parents in a National Park in Colorado and was still lost, several days later. The story had apparently been in the national headlines for the last few days, but who reads headlines? A couple of days earlier, Tom had sent two of his instructors out to Colorado to assist in the tracking of this kid ("Tracker" School, remember?). They were met with cold shoulders and unco-operation by the local law enforcement officers at the scene. The boy was still not found (in fact, not a trace of him), and the temperatures in the region were approaching freezing. It was keeping Tom up nights, and his inner voice was screaming at him to get out there and try to find the boy.
So he did.
He made his apologies to the class early on Monday, and told us he'd be back on Wednesday afternoon.
I know it's a digression, but it's a fascinating story, so I'm going to tell you what happened.
Out in Colorado, the boy's been missing for ten days. During that time it's rained twice, obscuring the tracks, as rain does. The place is crawling with police and rescue teams, but nobody's found diddly. An Army tracking team was even practicing in the area, and (I'm not sure here) were either not called in (amazing) or were, but didn't find anything (not particularly amazing). Tom arrives on the scene, steps out of the car, and literally within sixty seconds has located a positive track (between the several thousand footprints of the Search and Rescue units of the entire western United States). Tom and his team then follow the (very faint) track for an hour or so until it ends on a river bank. Here the track ends. All the local "experts" have been telling anyone that would listen that there was no way that the boy could have crossed the river. And on the face of it, that would seem to be the case. But something was telling Tom not to be so hasty. And then a strange thing: Standing on the river bank, he hears Native American chanting coming from somewhere on the other shore. There are no Native Americans in the area - no people at all, for that matter. He's hearing things. Or is he? He asks his companions if they hear it too - they do. Tom moves up the river until he's directly opposite where the music is coming from, then plunges into the river and swims across. Sure enough, on the other side of the river, at that exact spot, is a perfect set of three-year-old's footprints (but no Native Americans, naturally). So the hunt is on again. They race along the trail, clearly able to read the fear and desperation in the boy from the nature of the tracks (yes, that's possible), until they find the point where the boy's tracks are intersected by those of a mountain lion. Tom read from the tracks in front of him that a mountain lion had picked up the trail of the boy and had stalked him for over an hour.
And then they found a kill site.
They had lost the trail again by this stage, but they found a site where a mountain lion had quite definitely killed something and dragged it off. There was blood on the scene, but no evidence to suggest what it was that might have been killed. Tom was 90% certain that it was the boy. He returned to New Jersey that evening.
As far as the parents are concerned, I guess it's better to know than to not know.
Tom considers this to be his failure. Personally, I think it's one of the most remarkable stories I've heard, but in Tom's eyes, if you haven't found the person or their body, then it's a failure. He went back through his tracking notes that night, and discovered that this was his 822nd tracking case in his life. Four of those had been failures(!), although he pleads that two of those failures were due to the incompetencies of the law enforcement officials he was with. So that leaves two. This Colorado one, and one more. Interestingly, the other one was the 821st case. Tom considers that he has now failed on his last two tracking cases in a row, and is doing some soul-searching, wondering what's wrong with his tracking faculties.
A positive upshot of the whole tragedy is that Tom has finally bitten the bullet and decided to go ahead with an old plan of his to form a National Tracker Task Force (or some name like that) - sort of an emergency team that can be flown on-site to any tracking situation in the country. Tom will hand-pick and train the individuals himself, obtain official recognition (shouldn't be too hard), and prevent this sort of thing happening again.
So anyway, Tom (click here) resurfaced on Thursday morning - the day after my birthday. Yep, that's right, I had my birthday in Tracker School, thousands of miles from anyone who knew about it. So imagine my surprise when a lecture was interrupted and we all watched as a couple of instructors came into the tent, bearing a cake with candles, singing, "Happy Birthday to you! Happy Birthday dear Maa-a-ark! ...." Turned out to be the other Mark with the birthday on October the 13th - one of the instructors (click here - he's the one on the right). Mark was everyone's favourite instructor because he never actually instructed us in anything but instead cooked all our wonderful meals. He and I got together after the singing was over and compared notes. After taking time-zone differences into account, it turned out that we were born about five minutes apart (oh, and he's three years younger then me).
Just thought you'd like to know.
But back to the meditations.
Once we had all learned the basic techniques of this particular meditation, Malcolm (and later Tom) would use it to take us on spiritual journeys. I works like this (and you can take this any way you wish): In the spirit world you have your own personal "space" (forgive me if the words I choose are inappropriate). This place is called (by the Native Americans, and now by me too) your "Medicine Area," a small realm of the spiritual geography that is yours and yours alone. By journeying to this place (in your mind), you are learning to exist as a spiritual entity as well as a material one, to "walk the duality," as they say in these parts. In this realm you apparently can often meet other spiritual entities, or spiritual manifestations of actual people.
They asked of us sceptics a couple of things. First, that we should keep an open mind and see if the tangible results would prove convincing. And second, that if our logical minds prove too noisy and dominating and prevent us from seeing our medicine areas at all, then we should imagine that we could see them anyway, for the purposes of instruction. Which was, in fact, how it worked for me. I'd go so far as to say that I finally learned to tell the difference between things that I imagine and things that - well - come from somewhere else. Because the difference is (for me, at least) painfully subtle. As for the tangible results, well, in spite of the "imagining" that I was doing, they were overwhelming. We would do exercises or experiments involving things like:
I had (and so did everybody else) some clear, definite spiritual "hits," phenomena that defy rational scientific explanation (and this is coming from me - a trained mathematician and scientist with thirteen years in the ruthlessly logical world of programming computers). I was happily convinced that there was stuff going on that was far beyond my ability to explain away scientifically.
My favourite was the story about a couple of guys from the previous Philosophy class. Apparently, one Philosophy I student was sitting in his medicine area, minding his own business and enjoying the scenery, when he noticed another guy walk out from behind a rock and take a piss against a tree. Before he had a chance to respond, the other guy was gone. He didn't know the guy.
A couple of days later, the Philosophy II students arrived, and as they walked in, this first guy jumps up, points at one of the newcomers, and says, "If you EVER do that again .....!" The other guy knew exactly what he was talking about and apologised profusely. He hadn't realised that he had been "trespassing." The situation was that these fellows had adjoining medicine areas. From then on they were inseparable. They would go into meditations together and then meet at the rock between their medicine areas and .... hang out together and talk. For a while they would compare notes afterwards, but after having a 100% success rate, they soon stopped bothering. They continued this practice even after they'd both returned to their (separate) homes. They saved a bundle on long-distance phone charges.
True story, and only mildly more interesting than some of the stories that came out of our week.
I won't go into the philosophy that we learned about any more than that. Frankly, if I did, I could fill another six web pages (or a week's training course). I will, however, say this:
I believe most of what I was told. I witnessed some amazing things (I hesitate to use the word "miracles," firstly because the word is so loaded, and secondly because, truly, they weren't miraculous - they were natural everyday events, simply events that most of us are never aware of). I came to understand the true nature of my physical, logical mind, and learned to differentiate between a message from my brain (what I think) and from - well, let's just say "somewhere else" (feelings, dreams, visions, signs and symbols). I learned to meditate, and I discovered a path that I believe will, if I choose to follow it, lead me to my "true purpose" on this earth.
At the end of Week One we all had a little over a day to kill before Philosophy II started at 6pm on Sunday. I had planned to catch a ride to the nearest town, check into a cheap motel and catch up on some errands - email, phone calls, laundry, etc. A lovely woman called Lynne offered to drive me there, but then had a better idea when I told her why I was going there. "No, you must come and stay with me and my husband Mike - I only live half-an-hour from here." This was as offer too good to confuse, and I started into about 25 minutes of profuse thank yous. Imagine, a hot shower and a couch to sit on!
Lynne lived on Long Beach Island, New Jersey, commonly known as "The Jersey Shore." This is an island about 30km long but only a couple of hundred metres wide, separated from the mainland by a short bridge. It's one of those places where everyone has a gorgeous waterfront outlook, and is thus home to several hundred summer cottages (read mansions), innumerable seaside, seasonal motels, and the holiday-making elite of the East Coast. It looked like it should have been in Florida or California - not the sort of image you usually associate with New Jersey. It was wealthy, gorgeous, and .... soulless. I guess if you wanted to live in New Jersey (or at least close to New York), it would have to be one of your first choices. Needless to say, it was a bit of a shock to the system after a week in a tent.
So imagine my surprise as we were driving down the main boulevard when Lynne points and says, "There's Tom Brown's house!"
I thought she was joking, but she slowed down, and I got a fine view of a two-million dollar seaside home, not to mention Tom's two Hummers in the driveway and Tom himself getting into one about to go for a drive. There was no disputing it - this was where Tom lived.
I was flabbergasted. What was one of the most spiritually aware men on the planet doing living amongst all this glamour? I don't know the answer to that, of course, but I suppose I shouldn't jump to conclusions - he may well be so in tune with his surroundings that he has no problem walking the duality wherever he may be. But I was surprised nevertheless.
So after a very lovely intermission on the Atlantic coast, I was whisked back to the Primitive Camp for the start of Week Two.
Thank you again for that, Lynne, by the way.
One of the things that disappointed me about Week One was the sheer size of the group. One hundred and twenty students is too many to allow any sense of camaraderie to develop within the course. I would doubt that I learned even the names of more than a dozen people. So I was delighted when, on the first evening of Week Two, the instructors announced that they would be splitting us up into groups of twelve, with whom we would virtually live with for the remainder of the week. There were special group exercises that we would all be doing together. Further exercises required us to pair up with a single person, so they asked us to select a partner from within the group of twelve.
I went straight up to one of my favourite people from the Philosophy I Course (and the Standard Course, incidentally), a woman from New Mexico called Lety. I suggested that we form ourselves a group of twelve. She thought this was a good idea, and asked if I had a personal partner yet. She had already paired up, and I hadn't, so she declared that we had to find me a partner. Right at that exact moment, a woman walked up and asked us both if we knew of anyone who needed a partner. Well, this has to be a good sign, I thought. I agreed to be her partner immediately. This was Vicki, and she just so happened to be from Australia, just near Sydney, about an hour from where I lived. We were the only two Australians in the entire camp (and no, she didn't know that before she walked up to us). Coincidence? Well, if you adopt the Native American philosophy, you stop believing in the existence of coincidences. Whatever it was, I was delighted and considered myself very lucky. Vicki is as lovely a woman as you're ever likely to meet.
Our group of twelve was formed shortly afterwards (click here - clockwise from left: Scott, Vicki, Roger, Jenn, Adam, Marco, Matt, Lety, Joey, Chris, and Aaron), and we were all dispatched off into the woods to find and prepare our "group sit-area," a spiritual place for the group to use for certain exercises and ceremonies during the remainder of the week (click here).
Week Two was all about learning to navigate the vast spiritual realm. We learned about the spectrum of untapped powers of the subconscious mind, and how to access them using meditative techniques. We were essentially given a roadmap to the spirit world and shown what the various areas were for (I feel clumsy trying to describe what we learned that week - it's really one of those things where you had to be there). We learned how to communicate with spiritual entities, and what it feels like when they communicate with us. We learned to meditate without the constraint of sitting or lying down. In other words, we could meditate whilst walking around, a "dynamic" meditation, as they called it. When one perfects this technique, and is meditating (existing consciously in the spirit world) virtually their entire waking life - eating, talking, working, etc - then they may truly be said to be "walking the duality."
I can't say that I'm good at this stuff. I'm not, not at the moment. I learned how to do everything that they said, but I'm plagued by an extremely noisy mind. Noisier than most? I have no way of knowing. But I do know that the times where I can get it to shut the fuck up and allow me to focus on the single point of the mediation are few and far between, lasting only a second or two. In spite of this, I had positive results during both weeks - enough to convince me that what was being described to me was indeed real, but I know that I have a long way to go. I'm going to use a metaphor here. It feels like I've been locked up in a prison my whole life, and it's only been for the last few years that I've even been aware of it. Prior to that I thought that what I could see was all there was. One way out is simply to walk through the stone walls, but I don't have the faith for that. Another way is to chip away at them with an old rusty spoon, which is kind of what I've been doing for the last couple of years of my life. The Tracker School took me outside for the first time in my waking life and showed me what was beyond. But I'm still inside. I'll keep chipping away at those walls, and eventually I'll break through and form a small hole. As soon as I do, the whole process will speed up, and the tiny hole will turn into a doorway in no time. The irony of the whole thing is that from the outside looking back towards the prison, there are no walls. The analogy will probably break down if I push it further, but you get the general idea.
Back to the course.
I had a little problem that week. The following Saturday, a couple of hours after the course ended, I was booked on a plane to fly from New York back home to Sydney via Los Angeles. This was only a problem because I was able to focus on little else during the week. When we were sitting in the lecture tent learning about the spirit world, in my head I was already sitting on that empty plane waiting for it to take off. All of the people in my group knew what was going on - I wouldn't shut up about it. Perhaps that was why I had less successes in my mediations the second week compared to the first.
A highlight of the week was one evening when we were sitting in the lecture tent around making leather pouches, and one of the instructors walked in. "Ladies and Gentlemen!" We were instantly silent. "Mr Tom Brown Junior." Slight puzzlement - Tom was at home, and everyone knew it. In walked Shaun, one of the students (the guitar player from the photo of us all around the campfire), and before he'd even opened his mouth, we were laughing. He looks nothing like Tom, but he had all of Tom's mannerisms, voice and words down perfectly. You have to understand, Tom is an obvious target for a parody. He's rude, abrupt, curt, arrogant and impatient. But you'd never dream of actually making fun of him, firstly because he's a spiritual guru, and secondly, because he'd have your balls if he ever found out. Which just made it all the funnier. A couple of the instructors had to leave the tent they were laughing so hard. It was the sort of comedy routine where you're laughing before they even open their mouth.
I've heard that Shaun repeated his efforts during the Philosophy III course, and the videotape of the performance was given to Tom as a fiftieth birthday present. I'd love to see it.
But the best part of the whole week was the camaraderie, the friendship, the sense of oneness that developed within our group of twelve. It's rare to find so many people with whom you can relate on so many levels. I hope we all stay in touch.
Now the week is over, but our spiritual development is by no means complete. Apparently, six to eight months of daily meditation should bring us to the point where we are ready for the Philosophy III course. And there are a total of six Philosophy courses currently on offer at the school. They may have recently added a seventh, I'm not sure. Tom tells us that he has enough experience to fill at least fifteen courses, and I'm sure he's right. On the spiritual development path, I feel like an infant. I may go back and do the next one, and I may not. I'm going to see what pans out.
P.S. In case you're interested, I took some photos of all the instructors, some of whom I haven't mentioned:
P.P.S. Courses at the Tracker School cost US$700 per week. Check them out, if you're interested, at http://www.trackerschool.com.
I was so impatient on the flight back home that I couldn't sleep. Well, okay, I slept for an hour, but that's not much from 24 hours of travelling. Finally I looked out the window to see my home town (click here), and within minutes we were down. My parents and a couple of friends were to be meeting me at the airport, but due to me forgetting about daylight savings, I'd told them all the wrong time. So I waited around for an hour, and suddenly I was swamped. Surrounded by all my friends and family, I was home.
December 16th, 1999.
P.S. If you still have the energy, you might want to check out the epilogue, where I've written a summary of the trip and how it feels to be back.
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