My student stabbed her pen in my direction and said “The people in Egypt are crazy!”
This wasn’t a racist jibe, it was the preamble to a story. I had asked Francisca to describe the most terrifying travel experience she’d ever had, and I found her answer quite perplexing. We were on the sixth floor of her apartment. I could see the neighbouring building, where a woman was hanging out laundry on a balcony. Francisca folded one leg underneath her on her living room couch and gazed out through the sliding door, recalling the day.
“I was in Luxor, in Egypt” she said, “and I had signed up to take a hot air balloon ride.”
Francisca was well-travelled, and she mentioned Egypt a lot, almost never favorably. On this occasion, she had been obliged to wake up at 03.00 in the morning in order to take a van out into the plains of Luxor. The van ride had been three hours. Waiting for the aeronaut to appear had taken an additional two. She and the other tourists couldn’t even get out of the van to walk around because of the mosquitoes that swarmed the area.
“Oh wonderful!” I said, determined to keep positive. “So the tour guides let you take refuge indoors. Such luxury!”
But that was the least of her problems. For starters, the basket of the hot air balloon was flimsy and overburdened with tourists.
“In Luxor,” she said, “there are only five air balloons! Five!” She showed me the back of her splayed hand, indicating the number as if she were about to deliver a backhanded slap. “And they never receive maintenance!” Eyes bulging with remembered rage, my student pulled out her phone and looked up a photo on Google Images:
My student continued, “And do you know how the aeronaut kept track of where we were going?” Here, Francisca clasped her right wrist in her left hand, as if miming being handcuffed. “A digital watch! My cousin used to wear that exact same watch more than twenty years ago.”
I pounced on the moment. “You have such remarkable deductive skills, Francisca! Obviously, since the man’s navigational tool was so old, it was a clear sign that you were in the hands of a man who knew his work – who’d been doing this job for decades. You couldn’t have been safer!”
But Francisca was not to be dissuaded. “The trip was so expensive! Do you know that they charged one hundred dollars?”
“And how long was the trip?” I enquired.
“It was only an hour, but, believe me, it felt more like ten!”
“Fabulous!” I said, “Such value for money! Ten dollars for every perceived hour!”
Francisca shook her head incredulously. Speaking in conspiratorial tones, she leaned forward and said, “Have you ever been to Cappadocia?”
“Cappadocia. It’s in Turkey.”
“I have not,” I confessed, “been to Cappadocia in Turkey.”
My student’s faced cleared, as if she’d suddenly remembered an actor’s name. “Now that is a place that knows how to do hot air balloon rides. Mira…” She produced her phone once more and showed me this picture:
Francisca grew animated now. Or, more animated than she had been. Or, animated, but in a happier way.
“In Cappadocia,” she said, “you don’t have to wait two hours in a van.”
“It leaves you scorching in the sun?” I asked. “That sounds awful!”
“In Cappadocia, the aeronauts have state-of-the-art GPS equiment!”
I nodded knowingly, “Incompetent, are they? I should have known.”
“There you at least get value for money. It’s one hundred dollars and they also give you champagne. Everything is beautiful, and you can truly appreciate that hour in the sky.”
I let out a low whistle. “One hundred dollars for one perceived hour? That’s a bit expensive, don’t you think?”
Francisca pointed at the picture of her phone again. “But look how many there are? Hundreds! These balloons at least have time to be repaired. They don’t all have to be in the air at the same time. These balloons are far safer than the ones in Luxor.”
I thought about this. “I don’t think the balloons in Luxor are that dangerous. If any of them had ever caught fire and killed any tourists, I’m sure it would have made international news.”
Francisca, who was more knowledgeable about these things than I was, shook her head. “A few years ago, a balloon caught fire in Cappadocia, and six tourists died. Did you hear about that?”
I had to admit that I had not heard that story.
“But that was in Cappadocia?” I asked.
“Cappadocia,” said she, nodding sympathetically.
We sat for a few seconds in silence, Francisca thinking about the poor souls who had lost their lives, and me thinking about what she had just said. Eventually, she understood my point, and explained: “Well, with all those balloons, there’s a higher probability that there will be an accident.”
I allowed myself some time to process this. Outside, the woman across the way had finished hanging her laundry, and was retiring back inside.
“So, statistically speaking,” I said, “Luxor is safer than Cappadocia?”
Francisca wasn’t listening to me anymore. Her mind was back in Egypt, reliving a terrifyingly wonderful moment she would never forget.
“The people in Egypt are crazy,” she whispered.
About this time last year, while sitting in a pub that prized itself on being the highest Irish-owned pub in the world, I was contemplating how best to steal a beer mug. The crime itself was something I’d been planning ever since I’d arrived in Peru with my small band of friends, but now that the moment had come, a deep sense of paranoia had gripped me. The space we were in was small and cosy. The furnishings were all wooden, and the tiny windows provided a limited view of the cobbled plaza outside. Although the pub was crowded, I was always within the eye line of any waiter or waitress who might glance in my direction.
The reason that I’d decided to steal a beer mug in the first place was because, while I was in Peru, I was missing out on a friend’s birthday in Santiago. A few months previously, as a housewarming gift, Fran had given me a beer mug that she herself had stolen, and now I wanted to return the favour.
The pub in which I found myself was called Paddy’s, and it was located in the Peruvian town of Cuzco, which seemed to have more tourists than locals. The predominant language being spoken about the place was English, but in a variety of accents. I was seated in the corner, a choice I’d made even before entering the establishment. I wanted to limit the angles by which I could be seen. My best bet, I figured, was to steal the mug off of someone else’s table. That way, if the mug’s absence was noticed while I was still there, the blame would be placed on other patrons. I was not only planning to steal, but to frame innocent people as well.
After scanning the room for some time I finally had my mark. There was a group of about half a dozen folks from the United States sitting next to us. They had pushed two tables together to accommodate all of them, and their space was littered with empty beer mugs. One missing glass wouldn’t be noticed right away.
Eventually they gathered their things and left, and in the wake of their departure I leaned over, snatched up a mug, and buried it deep in my friend’s handbag. From that moment I felt a powerful desire to get as far away from Paddy’s as possible, but I had to play it cool.
Moments later, a waitress came over. “Every thing alright over here?” she said.
“WHY?!” I said, calmly.
The waitress hesitated and then said, “I mean, can I get you guys anything else to drink?”
“NO!” I replied, wiping sweat from my brow. “WE JUST WANT TO PAY NOW!” The temperature in the room had risen to Sahara-like levels.
The waitress regarded me for an extended time. I didn’t want to look guilty so I forced myself to meet her gaze, blinking one eye at a time so that I wouldn’t break eye contact.
“Sure,” she said after a moment. “I’ll be right back.”
The bill was delivered swiftly and without comment, and before I knew it I was out in the sunlight with my gang of accomplices.
The only hurdle left, at that point, was that I still had about three weeks of travelling before I would be back in Santiago.
Travelling with a beer mug in your backpack can be frustrating. You must always remember to but your bag down carefully, and to take care not to shove things haphazardly into it lest something heavy crushes the glass. But overall, travelling around South America with it didn’t cause me any problems at all. I took it with me around Cuzco, and later to Machu Picchu. After that, I brought the mug across the border into Bolivia. The mug was with me when I cycled down the Death Road in La Paz. I had it with me on the overnight bus ride to Cochabamba, and then onward to Santa Cruz. I brought it with me on an endless bus ride to a rural town called Pasorapa, and then back again – 12 hours each way. Then I loaded the glass in question onto an airplane, and flew it to Santiago, where I was finally able to bring it safely to my apartment.
The worst was over. All that remained to me was to deliver it into the hands of my friend Fran, and that wouldn’t happen for another week or two because her weekends were often full.
Eventually, a convenient day arrived when a group of us agreed to meet at one of Santiago’s oldest and most famous watering holes – La Piojera. This rustic and rowdy bar near the center of the city was famous for the terremotos that it served. Now, if you don’t know, a terremoto (which means earthquake), is a potent alcoholic drink made from snake venom, nail polish remover, and ice cream*. One glass of the stuff goes down easily and deliciously, and when you stand up afterwards you find that the ground is moving violently beneath you – hence the name. La Piojera sells terremotos at such a furious rate that at any given time there are always at least six plastic cups on the bar being filled up with the exotic substance.
Some friends and I got there early in the day, before the place had filled up completely. This meant that we were able to secure a rather large table for ourselves in one corner of the room. Puddles of terremoto and empty plastic cups littered the floor, even at this early hour, so I had to keep my satchel on my lap. My satchel contained a bottle of water, a sweater for later, and Fran’s stolen beer mug.
Fran was running late, and while the rest of us waited for her we decided to order some finger food. I scraped my chair forward to better hear my friends over the din. The satchel shifted in my lap, and the stolen glass rolled out and exploded with an almighty pop all over the alcohol-soaked floor of La Piojera.
In the universal language of bar-related mishaps, every single individual in the bar, about 50 people to a man, exclaimed in unison:
It was interesting for me to take note that not a single patron questioned the existence of a glass container in place that used exclusively plastic cups.
The second point that amused me was that, at some point in the evening, a member of the staff was going to have to clean up the mess, and I could only imagine their bewilderment at having to clean up glass. Who brings their own mug to a bar?, they might inquire.
The third and most pressing point that crossed my mind was the terrible loss I had just suffered. My travelling companion was gone, relegated to the trash in a place so far from its origin and so much closer to sea level.
While I processed everything that had just happened, a flash of movement caught my eye and I looked up from the mess on the floor.
“Oh, hi Fran,” I said glumly.
This is a question I get asked often. The most recent occurrence was when I made the acquaintance of an economist from Spain a few weeks ago. He had recently become my student, and he was interested to know more about me and my origins.
Upon hearing the question I leaned back in my chair and looked wistfully at the wall, which was sadly lacking a window, and pretended to conjure up happy childhood memories. Ideally I would have lit up a cigarette just then, but I don’t smoke and we were in a sealed, windowless room. After a pause I took a breath in preparation for the speech I always give on such occasions.
“South Africa is beautiful,” I said, oozing smugness. “If you get the opportunity you should absolutely go there.” For lack of a cigarette I tented my fingertips in front of my lips and continued. “South Africa has everything. Everything. My home country has some of the best beaches in the world. We have deserts, and forests, and farmland, and some mountains. We have cage diving, and horse racing, and safaris. We’ve got trekking, and cycling, and one of the biggest running cultures on earth.”
I paused, as scripted, and turned to lock eyes with my student. “Does it rain, in Spain?” I asked, pointing an accusing finger.
“Yes,” said he, almost cowering, “but mainly on the-”
“I’d wager you’ve never felt anything like a Highveld storm,” I interjected. “Those summer torments will roll through your core. The thunder cracks will shake you to your very bones!” If I had a mustache I would have twirled it.
“And what is the capital of South Africa?” asked my eager student.
“A fine question,” I replied, going off script. “See, unlike your country, South Africa has, in fact, three capitals.”
My student leaned forward, intrigued. “Three capitals…” he whispered.
“Yes. Pretoria, Cape Town, and… and a third one!”
“But why would a country need three? What is the purpose?”
I shook my head in mock pity, but it was mostly to buy time to think. “My dear fellow, each capital serves a very special purpose. You see you have Pretoria, which is the capital of… law, and then you have Cape Town, which is the… the political capital. And then you have the third one, which is the capital of… diamonds! We have diamonds, you know.”
I had hoped that the mention of diamonds would continue to mesmerize, but I suspected the spell was breaking.
“What is the population of South Africa?” queried the man.
“Millions,” I said. “Absolutely millions. Did you hear what I said about the storms, though?”
“And the GDP. What is the GDP of your country?”
“Oh, you know, the… usual.” I was losing ground fast. “But perhaps we could talk about South Africa another day. Right now I want to talk about gerunds and-”
“Sorry, one last question-”
“-but what percentage of the country is made up of white South Africans?”
“Yes I’d love to answer but I think we’re out of time. The first class is only eight minutes, after all…”
The truth is, Dear Reader, that there’s an awful lot I don’t know about my own country. I haven’t properly lived there for some time, and now it feels as if South Africa is in red shift, moving further and further away from me into the void of memory. I am more in touch with the news in Chile and the United States than I am with what’s going on in South Africa, and when it comes to geography, you can just forget about it. At times, I will meet another South African, and inevitably I will ask them where they’re from. If they say something like Ellisras I will draw an immediate blank and change the subject. I know nothing about South African geography.
On the other hand, if I meet someone from the United States I will inevitably ask them where they’re from and if they say something like Missouri I will say “Oh that’s the ‘Show me’ state, right?” I know more about North America than I do my own country.
General knowledge aside, there’s also my general outward behaviour. More recently I have noticed a certain inter-nationality in my personality. My accent has certainly changed. I say “Yeah” a lot, and I notice that I say words like “job” and “hot dog” with an American accent. I forget how South Africans spell things like tyre, cosy, and specialise (although as I write this, these words are underlined in red, so I’m pretty sure I’m on the right track). These days, when I say “braai” I am conscious that it is an affectation, because my first impulse is to say “barbecue” or “asado.” When I accidentally bump into someone, my first reflex is to say “Ay perdón!” I’m trying to hold onto “Shame,” though, mostly because no other word quite fills that gap. But I am aware of when I do say it, because non-native English speakers might become self-conscious if they think I’m literally shaming them.
So I fear that I may be slowly oozing out of the mould of a South African, and I might not be able to slot right back into place when I return. But if I’m changing away from South African, then what am I becoming?
I’m certainly not Chilean. Gosh no. I battle enough with just the language, let alone the popular culture and the politics. I am friends with expats who have lived here for years, and they still haven’t been able to craft a comfortable expat-shaped hole for themselves. Sure, they’ve got comfortable lives, but some of these friends have told me that they don’t quite feel as if they have been accepted by the culture. I have many friends from the United States, but I don’t believe the US is a place that I could call home. For one thing, my accent sticks out. They all think I’m British.
So I’m starting to think that I don’t fit in anywhere, and funnily enough, many of my friends feel the same way. Those of us who have chosen to live outside of their home countries tend to agree that going back home is not easy, and neither is forging a new life in their new environment. But where we do fit in perfectly is among each other. I tend to get along well with other expats. The jokes are similar, as are our perspectives. I also have a pretty good idea of our collective population and per capita income.
Culture can be a difficult thing to pin down. Not everyone can be classified according to their country of origin. Look closely at any society and you will find running through it a shadow culture. A culture that flows between the rocks of nationality and race. A group of people who find familiarity within each other, but who have trouble defining who they are. I don’t have a name for it, but I guess this is the group that I’m a part of. So I’ll never stop telling people that I’m a South African, but at least for the time being I’m happy being a part of the culture between cultures.
I very recently acquired a new laptop. Now I am only three objects away from attaining true happiness:
A doormat, so I won’t have to keep sweeping my living room floor.
A mirror, so that I can watch television while I am in the kitchen.
A table, so that I’ll have a comfortable place to write.
Once I get those things I will be truly happy.
Now, I know that possessions do not bring happiness. Believe me, I know. I’ve moved enough times over the past six months to learn to despise possessions. Every time I’ve had to recklessly shove teacups into a duffel bag, I’ve thought to myself, “Why do I own so much? I don’t need these things in my life.” If anything, possessions seem, at times, to be a source of woe. Especially when you need to cart them from one part of town to another. Take, for example, my backpack. It is something I need for work, and so during the week I find myself hustling all over town with my possessions on my back, like a well-dressed tortoise. I don’t have a bicycle, so I only use public transport or travel around on foot. And doing all this with a bag on my back really slows me down. When I need to run, screaming, across the road before the light changes, it takes so much more effort and makes me feel far from graceful. However, when the weekend descends I get to leave my apartment with nothing but the clothes I’m wearing and as many toys as I can shove into my pockets. I feel totally free. I feel light and liberated, like a naked tortoise. Then when I run, screaming, across the road before the light changes, I do so feeling like a champion ballet dancer, fully in control of my body.
It’s happiness that we all want, and I think that if you’re searching for it by accumulating things, then you’re probably looking in the wrong place. This is something that I have become acutely aware of over the past few years. I have had the unbelievable privilege of being able to travel to various parts of the world, meet the most curious people, see unique wonders, and taste exotic foods. I have developed an appreciation for life that I try very hard not to take for granted. I have discovered what true happiness is, and now I am certain that I am just a doormat, a mirror, and a table away from achieving it. And a bicycle, I suppose, since that would eliminate the hassle of walking.
The reason I’d like a doormat, as I have mentioned, is because I have to regularly sweep the dust out of my apartment. Or, rather, I tend to sweep it into a corner because I don’t have a dustpan so I just have to vacuum it up once a week. Without a doormat, the dust gathers so quickly that it is often uncomfortable to walk around in my living room. My feet get dirty after crossing the room just once. It makes me think that I should get a carpet to put across the floor to make it more pleasant to walk on.
The mirror, as I have mentioned, would be put to practical use: I would hang it on the wall so that when I am in the kitchen I can still watched the TV. I have the perfect place to put the mirror – there are still several nails jutting out from the walls from where the previous tenant had hung pictures. I’m really glad that those nails are there, because not only does it give me a perfect place to hang my mirror, but if I decide to hang pictures up I’ve already got the perfect places to put them.
Apart from the doormat, the mirror, the bicycle, the carpet, and the picture frames, I also just need a table to render my happiness complete. You see, all I really want is a comfortable place to be alone and to write. I have a laptop now, so I don’t need to be producing blogs from my phone anymore. It’s a wonderful piece of machinery, with a wide screen and a comprehensive keyboard. The speakers are a bit quiet, but I can always buy external speakers. I really just need a place to put my equipment because right now I’m literally using my lap top for my laptop.
But once I get my table, mirror, door mat, bicycle, carpet, picture frames, external speakers, and table, I’ll be content. I’ll also add dustpan to that list, because I like to keep things tidy. But once I have those things, then I am certain that I will have attained true happiness.
About two years ago I found myself in the company of a breathtakingly beautiful lady named Kylie. She was petite. Her frame was slight; her skin, porcelain. Her features were dainty and her hair was spiderweb-white. She was a fairy incarnate. Not surprisingly, she attracted the eye wherever she went, yet she was kind to everyone. When asked where she came from she would patiently tell them that she was from Austrailia, and that she was only in town for a few days. She was travelling around South America, you see.
She always smiled. She was patient with the slurring, uncoordinated men who were so obviously fawning over her. When asked if she was travelling alone, she’d airily tell you that she was travelling with her boyfriend, and then glance around to indicate that he was somewhere in the vicinity. It wasn’t a lie, or a defence. Kylie was not the type to mislead or to manipulate. She was simply stating a fact. When it came to Kylie, there were never any ill intentions.
As ethereal as Kylie was, her boyfriend was the opposite. Brian was a man carved directly from the living rock of reality. He was so very much present. He was broad-shouldered, bearded, and solid. He moved with well-coordinated strength, yet he did not intimidate. He was the type of man you’d feel compelled to ask to help you set up your camping tent. Not because you needed the help, but because there was an attractive energy about the man and because he looked like the type of person who would be able to do it in a trice. Brian oozed competence, and he was a fine match for Kylie. There was opposition in their physicality, but in their conduct they were twinned. He was a happy conversationalist. He moved among the crowd like a Superbowl-winning footballer meeting the press. When asked where his girlfriend was he’d glance around and say “Oh she’s somewhere about,” not because he didn’t care, but because he knew she could look after herself. It was clear that he loved her. When they were together he would lightly touch her – on the shoulder, on the back – not to say “You are mine,” but to say “I am here.”
I liked this couple very much, and by the grace of good fortune they seemed to like me too. But then again, they seemed to like everyone. They were like a good-natured celebrity couple. I could see myself getting to know the two quite well in the short time that they were in town. I felt that a strong bond was on the verge of being forged. I imagined us developing our own very special inside jokes. Although geography would separate us, I could see a future where we’d write to each other often. I’d be the first to know about proposals and pregnancies before the rest of the world did. It would be a special circle consisting of only us three.
It was a happy night, and I remember clearly the way Kylie extended her hand and put it on my arm. It was an offer of allegiance. A gesture crossing continents to bring us together. By touching my arm she was inviting me into the most intimate circle of her friendship. It was a symbol of welcome, a message that said, “You don’t have to be alone.”
She spoke just then, her voice the texture of candyfloss. A silken whisper that somehow carried over the hubbub around us, as if she was very carefully placing her words directly into my ear.
“Do you like cocaine?” she said.
In the second or two it took me to reply, many things happened. Billions of synapses burst through my body like light-speed Paul Reveres, galloping along my nervous system and crying, “Keep your cool! Keep your cool!”
The mist that had been clouding my skull vanished in an instant, and I became aware that I was in a rowdy bar at 02.00 in the morning, waiting in a line that wasn’t moving in order to buy an overpriced beer that I didn’t want. The music was awful too.
At the same time, I thought about my philosophy of saying “Yes” to everything, and in those immeasurably brief yoctoseconds before the mist cleared entirely, I had one last rather lucid thought:
This is it, isn’t it? This is the night I do cocaine.
An answer was expected, but I didn’t know what to do. It was as if my brain had accidentally clicked “Print All” and had, in a panic, decided to yank the computer out from the wall. To buy more time while things rebooted, I said, “Well, you know, I’ve never really tried it, to be honest.”
“Oh, you’ll love it,” said Kylie. Her hand had not left its perch on my bicep. Beside her, Brian smiled his encouragement. There was no need for him to speak. It was clear that Kylie was voicing the words that he himself was eager to say.
My brain, meanwhile, overwhelmed by the colossally dramatic shift in direction that this night had taken, had decided to step out for a cigarette.
“Ah…” I offered.
And then I turned and walked away, and I never saw that lovely couple again.
That was my first passing encounter with cocaine. Up until that point, I’d only ever seen it in movies or heard it spoken about, but I’d never had it enter my personal space. So I suppose it was the thought of the thing, rather than the thing itself, that surprised me, and that’s not a bad thing. Things that challenge your perception have a tendency to shock. I had always thought that cocaine was something that other people did. I had been raised to fear it. Educational media told me that it would ruin my life. Getting too close to that white powder would put me in jail. Touching it would get me killed.
Since that night in the bar I’ve seen the stuff several more times over the years. For me, it’s definitely more prevalent here that it was in South Africa. Like someone who grew up fearing spiders, and who later learns that they are mostly harmless, I still have an aversion to cocaine, but I tolerate its existence.
Now, I realise that I’m in dangerous territory. I don’t mean to condone the use of cocaine. I don’t. I’ve never touched the stuff, and I don’t think I ever will. But you know what? Sometimes people take cocaine and it doesn’t hurt anyone. If the most beautiful couple in the world think it’s okay, then I’m okay with that.
I own about four t-shirts, but this didn’t always use to be the case. There was a time when I had enough t-shirts to wear a different one every day for two weeks. So that´s fourteen t-shirts and I don’t know why I had to beat around the bush like that.
Here’s what happened: At the end of 2015 I took a trip back to South Africa for Christmas and New Year, and my return trip to Chile involved two layovers and a missed flight. I had to travel north from South Africa to Ethiopia, then south and west to Brazil, and from there to Chile. It was over 24 hours of travelling, and by the time I reached my destination I was too tired to care that my lucky violet suitcase hadn’t popped out onto the conveyor belt at Santiago´s international airport. My efforts were instead spent on me trying to remain upright. I can’t remember how long I stood there, just watching the plastic matting of the conveyor snake it’s way around the concourse, becoming progressively devoid of any bag, pram, or surfboard. But eventually I was able to process the fact that no further luggage was forthcoming. It must have been early morning by that time, but I remember that it was at that special moment when everything is dark and no one is about – the perfect conditions to remind you that you are alone in the world and miserable.
Feeling as if I was watching the world through someone else’s eyes, I shuffled over to a help desk, filled out a claim form, and then caught a taxi back to my apartment.
Now, the t-shirts weren’t the only things that were lost along with my luggage. There was underwear, socks, toiletries, a few souvenirs, a pair of sneakers, a backpack, a tent, and jeans.
Those jeans. How I loved those jeans.
I don´t buy clothes often, and I buy jeans even less so, but a few months before my trip to South Africa I had found the ideal pair. I’d found them in a thrift store, among a jungle of other denim products. It was a glorious find. The brand was Levi, and they were the most comfortable things I´d ever pulled across my thighs. The material possessed an elasticity I’d never felt before. It’s shape conformed to my body well, highlighting all the best bits, except for at the ankle, where the magical material flared out ever so slightly in what I considered to be the most fashionable thing a man could ever wear.
I was definitely in love. And, like all perfect love stories, this one was fraught with conflict.
“Michael” said a friend to me the first time I wore my jeans out, “why are you wearing women’s jeans?” I’d agreed to meet my friend at a nearby Korean restaurant that we were both keen to try. I wanted to surprise her with my new purchase.
I did a few more leg lunges before replying. “They’re not women’s jeans. I got them in the men’s section.” There was no ambient music in the restaurant. I knew my words would carry to the waitering staff.
“No, those are women’s jeans,” said my friend, calmly and dexterously snatching up some squid with her chopsticks. “See how there’s more room around the hips?”
I hesitated for the briefest moment before replying, “I found them near other men’s jeans.” A waiter stepped around me as I lunged again. I knew I looked fantastic.
“But Michael,” said my friend, “see how shallow the pockets are. Your phone´s about to fall out.”
I was having none of it. I strode up to our table and placed one foot onto the chair opposite her. “How can you say that? Why would I buy women’s jeans?” I leaned on the elevated leg to get the most out of the stretch. My phone popped out of my pocket and clattered to the floor.
“No, those are clearly women’s jeans. Looked at the sparkly stitching and-” my friend leaned closer, “Oh my God, Michael, are those flares?”
“Flares are in fashion” I said, casting an eye to the waitering staff. I caught whispers of “…obviamente para mujeres….”
My friend put down her chopsticks, looked me in the eyes, and said to me, “Michael, I don’t care what you wear. You’re free to express yourself. But I’m telling you that you’re wearing women’s jeans.”
I´d had enough. I retrieved my phone, payed my portion of the bill, and ran from the restaurant. The running wasn’t necessary, but the elasticity in the material made my legs feel remarkably free.
I refused to believe what my friend had told me. Despite the evidence, I chose to continue wearing my jeans. They were comfortable, and freeing, and I loved them. My opinion would not be swayed.
But sadly, like all of the greatest love stories, this one came to an end. I’d left my beloved jeans in my lucky violet suitcase when I made my trip back to Chile from South Africa. It was my jeans that I was thinking about when my taxi dropped me off in front of my apartment just as the sun was starting to come up.
Over the next few weeks I had to fill out a lot of paperwork in order to claim some kind of compensation for my luggage. Of course, nothing would be paid out until a proper search for my things had been conducted. In order to aid this process, I had to fill out a tedious form detailing every item that had been in my lucky violet suitcase. This was a difficult task. Who remembers everything they pack when travelling? But I did the best I could. I remembered the important things. My t-shirt collection, the backpack, the tent, my beloved jeans. I began to fill out that information when I was stopped short by the requirements.
The form I was filling in required that I write down the item, colour, estimated value, purchase date, and, in the case of clothing, gender.
It had come down to this. For months I´d been able to lie to my friends and family, and even to myself. But when the fate of all of my worldly possession was at stake, could I lie to the international airline service?
I was in a corner. Stand by my convictions and risk losing everything? Or tell the truth and possibly lose everything anyway? I sat for a long time in front of my computer screen before I admitted to myself that every man has his price. The price of my dignity, I reflected as I began typing “fe-” into the appropriate field, was the cost of about ten t-shirts.
Why do we travel? Well, according to this picture I found on the Internet, “We travel not to escape life, but for life not to escape us.”
I guess that’s poetic and all, but I mostly travel in order to impress other people. In fact, if I could sum up my life’s motto in one pithy slogan it would be: “We travel in order to win every time we play Never Have I Ever.” It’s not as lyrical as the previous slogan, but write it out in curly pink script and slap it over a sepia photograph of a girl walking along some train tracks and I’m sure it’ll be a hit.
Speaking of doing cool things and then bragging about them, I recently returned from a trip to Bolivia (“Never have I ever been to Bolivia!”), and while I was there I went to a cocaine club (“Never have I ever been to a cocaine club!”), rode along the Death Road (“Never have I ever ridden along the Death Road!”), and took a 12-hour bus trip in a direction I didn’t want to go in (“Never have I ever done that thing I just said!”).
Now as interesting as cocaine clubs and Death Roads sound, I think it’s more important to investigate just how I managed to fail so spectacularly at taking a bus. Let’s start by looking at the facts:
I had a few days left in Bolivia, and my friend suggested I use the time to check out the quaint nearby town of Samaipata, which was a short bus ride away from Santa Cruz, where I was staying.
My ticket was purchased in a hurry, and the bus was boarded moments before it left the station.
I assumed the bus was going to go straight to Samaipata and stop there. I did not think to check the accuracy of this information.
My allocated seat was right at the back, against the window, in exactly the spot where a toilet is usually found. I was acutely aware of this because over the previous three weeks I’d taken several overnight buses, and my notoriously small bladder meant I was well-acquainted with relieving myself while in motion. The fact that this bus did not have a toilet didn’t faze me. I’d been told that the trip was only about three and a half hours long, so a toilet was hardly necessary. Besides, I’d been careful to keep my liquid intake to a minimum that morning.
I shuffled to the back of the bus, pummeled my backpack into the overhead rack, and made myself comfortable. Fortunately, I had the back row to myself, so even though I couldn’t recline my seat, I could still stretch my legs out to the side. That was probably the only thing that worked in my favour that day. That, and the fact that having celebrated a birthday party and a wedding over the previous two days with alcohol of questionable quality meant that I was feeling quite thoroughly poisoned and miserable. Perversely, this was a blessing because an appetite is exactly what you don’t want to have when you get unexpectedly trapped on a bus for 12 hours.
A few hours into my journey I noticed that my phone had ceased to function. I wasn’t too worried at first; the hostel I’d booked in Samaipata had promised wifi. I’d be connected with the world again in a matter of hours. But my lack of connectivity meant that I couldn’t check my location. The little dot showing me my location remained gray, and indicated that I was still in the heart of Santa Cruz. I had no idea where I was or how much time remained of my journey.
Four hours in, I was still calm. I’d learned that travel times in Bolivia were given as more of a guideline, and shouldn’t be taken literally. It was around that time that the tarmac ended and the bus began bouncing along a dirt road.
Six hours in, and the bus stopped for lunch. It was at this point that I began to worry. Stopping for lunch meant that there was still a great deal of travelling to do. No bus would stop for lunch twenty minutes outside of its destination. We were at a small restaurant in the middle of nowhere, with the name of the place written in white lettering on a Coca-Cola background. Inside there were maybe three tables, a fridge with soft drinks, and a small counter at which customers could place their orders. Around back there was, thankfully, a bathroom.
It was at this point that the first cricket ball of doubt began to smash through the window of my confidence. I made another attempt at using my GPS to find my location. Miraculously, the dead grey dot had sprung to life, and was now glowing a healthy blue. It indicated to me that I was some distance beyond Samaipata. I concluded that the map was wrong. Surely my malfunctioning phone, as well as my inhospitable location in the mountains, meant that the satellites were struggling to get a lock on my location.
I pulled the curtains of denial across the broken window in my mind.
So strong was my resolve that we’d reach a destination soon that I didn’t bother buying anything to eat at the little restaurant in the middle of nowhere. Besides, my stomach still wasn’t very open to the idea of food. At least I had the presence of mind to buy a bottle of water. Of course, I’d learned that water should be taken sparingly when travelling on buses that didn’t have toilets*.
Once the bus had set off again, I waited perhaps another half an hour before consulting my map again. The blue dot had moved noticeably further away from Samaipata, and I was forced to face the truth: I’d missed my stop, and I was being driven further and further into the middle of nowhere. But I kept my head. Another glance at the map showed me that I was heading in a westerly direction, closer to Cochabamba. Cochabamba was a town I’d stopped in on my way to Santa Cruz, so if I could just get there I knew I’d be able to carry on to La Paz, where I could catch my flight home.
So I carried on into the west, bouncing along down a dirt road that seemed to go on forever. The sun slowly went down, with the sky going from, you know, something pretty to nothing but gloomy darkness. I threw on my large coat, stretched out along the back row of seats, and tried to get some sleep.
At about thirty minutes past midnight – twelve hours after getting on the bus for the first time – I was awakened by the bus driver announcing that we had arrived at our final destination. I looked out my window to see where I had ended up. I had expected a terminal of sorts, a few other buses, a kiosk maybe. Even a toilet would have been nice.
All I got was half a wall. It was made of stone, and the top part of it had crumbled down years before. Beyond that I saw only darkness and stars. Somehow, this minor landmark, which rose no more than five feet off the ground and was perhaps three meters long, was the target that my bus driver had been aiming for since noon.
I stepped off the bus, my sneakered foot puffing up a thin cloud of coffee coloured dust as I did so. The remaining passengers were getting their larger bags from the storage compartment of the bus, and thereafter they quickly disappeared into the night, like figures in a dream. Opposite the Wall was an uninteresting building, locked up tight for the night. Further along the road I saw other buildings, all of them similarly boring and quiet, made of grey stone and only one story high. I asked the bus driver if there was a bus that went to Cochabamba. The driver (young, not unfriendly, yet lacking in compassion), gestured vaguely over the Wall and told me there was a plaza there, where I could catch a bus to Cochabama in the evening.
That was some good news, I guess. But it meant that I had to bide my time in a town where no one seemed to exist.
A funny thing had happened to me as I got off the bus. In the time it took me to walk up the aisle and descend the stairs, I made up my mind to sleep on the street. Based on the data immediately at my disposal – quiet town, late night – I concluded that no hostels or hotels would be in existence. Even if there was some kind of bed and breakfast, they surely wouldn’t open up for anyone at 01.00 in the morning. Besides, the day had already worked so fiercely against me, it only made sense that it would end with me sleeping on the street. And, to be perfectly honest, Dear Reader, there was a tiny voice in the back of my head whispering, “Never have I ever spent the night on the street…”
I had to look for someplace to settle down for the night, but before I did that I thought it would be prudent to scout out the plaza that the bus driver had mentioned. I wove through the streets, remaining carefully aware of the location of the bus in relation to me. If I got lost, I’d at least want to make it back towards the bus. It was the last vestige of civilization in this part of the world.
As I trudged, my footfalls softened by the dusty streets, I took careful note of the state of the non-existent sidewalk, looking for a potential doorway to sleep in. What I saw depressed me. The dusty roads spilled all the way up to the buildings, the doors of which closed smoothly into their frames, without so much as a step to allow me purchase. There was no shelter, and no clean surface for me to lie on. Even though I wasn’t shivering yet, the night was cold, and I was thankful for my coat.
Cresting a minor rise in the road, I spotted a church a few blocks over, its windows blazing with electric light. My spirits instantly lifted. It appeared that this place was better developed than I’d given it credit for. I headed in the church’s direction, and quickly discovered the plaza that the bus driver had referred to. Not surprisingly, nothing was open. Even the church, with its welcoming lights still burning, was locked up tight. But not all was lost. The plaza was well-kept and in its center, beneath a few trees, were long green benches wide enough for me to lie on. As far as places to spend the night went, I could have found worse. Not much worse, but as least I wasn’t going to have to lie down in the dust.
Being a dog person, I decided to follow in their habit and sniff around a bit before settling down for the night. Now that I knew where the plaza was, and that it existed, I felt a little bit better about the place I was in. A few blocks away, I discovered a sign jutting out of the side of a nondescript building. It said, “Pensión Tourista.” I knew what “tourista” meant, and a quick glace at my offline dictionary told me that “Pensión” meant “boardinghouse.”
I couldn’t believe my luck. There was actually a place for tourists to stay. There was no bell, so I knocked loudly on the door. After a few minutes, a voice greeted me from within. I asked it if there were beds available, and the voice said that, no, there were no beds available at this time. This news didn’t crush me. There was a certain sense of inevitability about it. In the back of my mind, sleeping on a bench was always going to happen. So I did not protest, or ask the voice if it knew of any alternatives. I just nodded my head, thanked the voice, and returned to the plaza. I went back to one of the long benches, lay down with my head on my backpack, and tried to fall asleep. The night was cold, but it was bearable.
Two hours later, at 03.00 in the morning, I woke up shivering. My legs, which were normally the last part of my body that ever felt the cold, were freezing. I knew I’d have to start walking in order to warm myself up. I remembered a scarf that I’d bought as a gift in Peru, and I scrambled to extract it for the extra warmth it might provide. No easy task since I was shaking so violently.
After walking around for a few minutes, I started to feel better. I began to wonder if I’d be able to keep walking until the sun came up, but the prospect depressed me. I kept thinking about how much I was learning about being homeless. The plaza had seemed nice, but I realized now how exposed it was to the wind. What I needed was someplace secluded, that could trap some of my body’s warmth and block the wind from getting to me. There were a few vehicles parked outside dormant buildings, and it quickly occurred to me that the back of a pickup truck would be the perfect solution. It would offer me protection from the wind, and it would be a relatively dust-free surface.
Despite my dire situation – I was tired, freezing, I hadn’t eaten in about 16 hours, and in the previous 12 hours I’d only had about half a bottle of water – I still felt pretty level headed. But the ease with which I was able to pull myself into the back of a stranger’s pickup truck without fear of trespassing made me think that perhaps desperation was making me lose my mind a very little bit.
The back of the pickup truck was slightly smaller than I imagined it would be, and I had to curl my legs a little in order to properly fit. I wasn’t much warmer than the plaza bench had been, and after a while I knew that I wasn’t going to be able to fall asleep again. I remember turning onto my back, my bent knees pointing up to the sky, and looking at the stars. Being this far away from any kind of factory meant that the night was awash with shining stars. At least that was beautiful. But after a few minutes of lying uncomfortably in the back of the world’s tiniest pickup truck, I realized that I was not going to be able to stay there for very long. I got out of the truck and walked a few meters up the road. There, on the corner, I spotted a sign stuck to the door of one of the dust-covered buildings. The sign was a simple A4 printout explaining that the building was a hostel of sorts, offering beds 24 hours a day.
Numbly, I rang the bell, and a few moments later a woman opened the door. I apologized for disturbing her so late, and asked her if there were beds available. She told me there were, as if it was the most obvious thing in the world, and she led me onto the property, to a room that had three unoccupied beds. Even from the distance of a few feet, I could feel the warmth radiating from the room.
At this point I felt like I should have collapsed from relief, or begun crying in gratitude at this woman who’d saved my life, but instead I just nodded my head at the universe. It seemed so obvious, in that moment, that I had always been destined to find a bed. I realized then my own foolishness at being so determined to sleep on the street. I should have made more of an effort to find accommodation as soon as I got off the bus, rather than stubbornly trying to sleep out in the cold. I’d wasted about three hours before finding this place. Three hours that could have been spent under lovely warm sheets.
I paid for the night (afterwards the woman went back inside, and no joke, I never saw her again), brushed my teeth, and crawled underneath the covers of what was then the most comfortable bed in the world.
The next morning I was awoken by explosions popping off a few streets away.
“Great,” I thought, “I’ve wound up in one of those Purge towns, where everyone is busy killing everyone. This is definitely in line with how my trip has been going.”
I showered (naked), gathered my things, and went out to explore the town (clothed).
In the daylight, the town was marginally less uninteresting that it had been at night. For one, a few people were actually walking about, albeit glacially. Also, The Purge was still going on next door. Every few minutes a loud series of gun shots would crack open the silence. I quickly found out that the explosions were caused by some of the townsfolk who were setting off firecrackers as part of some kind of celebration. So I dialed my fear of getting murdered down to Orange Alert.
After some investigation, I learned several things.
There was no bus that went to Cochabamba.
The locals spoke mostly Castellano and Quechua.
The only bus out of there was one that went all the way back to Santa Cruz, the city I’d come from, and it left at 15.00.
The name of the town I was in was called Pasorapa.
The town of Pasorapa has a Wikipedia page so small that I read the whole thing by accident when I was looking to see if it did indeed have a Wikipedia page. Also, utterly coincidentally, the last five letters of Pasorapa form the name of a small town in Botswana in which I used to live – Orapa.
Now, the fact that people were celebrating with fireworks, as well as the observation that most shops and places of commerce were closed, suggests to me that perhaps I’d arrived in Pasorapa during a public holiday. But I’m from the big city, where small town backwardness is hilarious, so I’m going to ignore this fact.
The only meal I could find to eat was a meaty broth for five Bolivianas (which is dirt cheap). It was the first meal I’d had in about 24 hours, yet my state of health meant that I still wasn’t hungry. But to be fair, it was a good meal, and probably exactly what my body needed at that point. I also found a place that sold SIM cards, and I was able to get my phone working again, and alert people to where I’d wound up.
I was in the eye of the storm of my adventure. The town was quiet and the day was pleasant and warm. Perhaps the only exciting thing that happened to me that day was my encounter with one of the town’s 1 114 inhabitants (thanks Wikipedia, I guess). He was an old man who shook my hand and spoke to me in a language I didn’t much understand. He was drunk, and the stetson he was wearing suited him well. I was able to understand a few words that he said, and I gleaned that he was asking me about where I was from, and if I spoke Castellano or Quechua.
“¿Me entiendes?” was his repeated refrain.
Late in the afternoon, before catching my bus, I returned to my “hostel” to charge my phone before starting my trip back to Santa Cruz. My bed was still unmade, and the property seemed deserted. I had a strong feeling that I could have stayed there another night and my presence would not have been noticed. I bought liquids and snacks, and went back to the very same bus I’d been on the day before. What followed was an excruciatingly uncomfortable, yet wholly unremarkable, 12-hour trip all the way back to Santa Cruz. As the bus rattled on along miles and miles of dirt road, I reflected that I hadn’t taken any photos of the buildings because there was absolutely nothing in that town that attracted the eye. Sadly, I realised too late that the dull buildings would have made a worthwhile photograph in itself.
*I’m not going to note every time I went to the toilet in this blog, but just keep in mind that every time I had the chance, I took it.