Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Picasso, Michelangelo, Kentridge

Today, having visited Sigmund Freud's former house and office, I was blundering aimlessly about Vienna when I stumbled upon a gallery which was exhibiting both Picasso and Michelangelo. That's the kind of thing that happens in cultural capitals such as this. You walk around a corner and, hey, Picasso and Michelangelo! Well, why not pop in? Nothing better to do! Both exhibitions were excellent and extensive, but the real surprise, the show-stealer, was an exhibition of works by South African artist William Kentridge.

Kentridge is a combination of artist, filmmaker, animator and illusionist. On display were numerous of his stop-motion animated films, as well as traditional paintings, drawings and various 'multimedia' installations. I can only describe his work as brilliant.

It was interesting to compare Kentridge's political engagement - his works reflect on war, oppression and apartheid - with Picasso's. Picasso painted doves and bunches of flowers to express pacificist sentiment, or a lobster fighting a cat to allegorize the Cuban Missile Crisis. Which I applaud. There should be more feline-crustacean battles in our art. But whilst no-one can deny the power of 'Guernica', I can't help feeling that his later work slips into sentimentality. And allegory is not the most subtle way of interrogating political realities. Kentridge's work on the other hand, has all the power and mystery of dreaming about it. One of my favourite pieces was an animation projected from the ceiling onto a circular table in the middle of which was a steel cylinder. The projected image on the table was radically distorted, but the reflection in the cylinder reconstituted the image back into its correct proportions. The effect was stunning and mesmerising, as Kentridge's disturbing, surreal renderings of war seemed to glow from within the metal cylinder, like terrible dreams captured in a glass.

Viewing this art filled me with creative longing, and as I wandered through the seemingly endless exhibition space, new ideas for stories started popping in my head. I also saw in a flash how to fix my most recent story, which has caused me no end of pain. This in turn made me reflect on the importance of cultural 'food' for creative life. We have no shortage of cultural activity in Melbourne, but there is a qualitative difference to have these rich, deep wellsprings so close at hand, as one does in Europe. It helps. Connection to these traditions is immensely nourishing. Picasso 'fed' on other artists such as Velazquez and Manet, repainting and reimagining their works. But we don't need to be Picasso, or even European, to draw on the great inheritance that is the sum of human cultural endeavour. As artists we often, perhaps necessarily, believe ourselves alone, like Gods in miniature pressing out our own Adams from our own separate lumps of clay, but we never truly are. It is not only helpful and revitalising to draw sustenance from this great collective placenta of human culture, I think it is a flat out necessity if we're to avoid exhaustion, burn-out and the crippling effect of work in isolation.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Der rote Faden

Whilst there have been times here in Europe when I have asked myself why I ever left South America, there have also been moments of sheer bliss. I was snowed in in Paris for three days, meaning that I ended up spending Christmas day there instead of in Vienna as I'd planned. But ironically, the bad weather turned out to be a blessing in disguise, because after days of bitter cold, I woke up on Christmas morning to a miraculously beautiful day. The air was crystal clear and the sky a perfect blue vault. There were bright patches of snow on the ground, the streets were glassy with ice, and everything shone in a pale topaz sunlight. The streets were nearly empty of traffic - it was almost like having Paris to myself, though there were a few other foreigners wandering about, everyone it seemed in the same quiet delirium of delight as me.

I wandered along the Seine, which ran high and swift, lapping over its banks. And then as I walked under the arches of one of the many picturesque bridges that cross the river, my breath was snatched by the sight of the two towers of what I assumed had to be the Notre Dame. Funny - a week later I saw the same scene, the same angle, in a Picasso painting. There's a little park at the back of the Notre Dame, and the rear view of the cathedral is just as beautiful in its own way as the spectacular front. The garden was covered in snow, and here for the first time I came across people in some numbers: wandering in the little fenced-in garden or drinking steaming cappuccinos in the crisp, bright air at a cafe on the corner.

I once wrote a line in a song about waking up to a cold, sunny morning in childhood: I dreamed then I awoke, with your name on my tongue/And the dew shone in the garden, a million tiny suns/Oh, it was so new... I remember that feeling so vividly, I suppose the same one Cat Stevens is talking about in 'Morning has Broken'. The feeling of absolute newness, as if the world had just been made. At 43, one doesn't have that feeling so often any more, sadly. There is always some burden, some distraction, some clouding of one's inner view. But on Christmas morning in Paris, I had that feeling again.

I went inside the Notre Dame and sat and listened to mass in French, and though I'm not religious in any conventional sense, though I couldn't understand a word, I also couldn't have felt more a part of that ritual. Unlike some of the gloriously flamboyant cathedrals I saw in South America and Germany, the Notre Dame inside is magnificent but subdued. Not melancholy - immensely dignified and joyous at the same time. It is just sublime. And I was happy to sit inside on that incomparable day for an hour or so just to be part of of that moment of thanksgiving. I couldn't get over the idea I was at the Notre Dame on Christmas Day! Just too wonderful...

And alone. I've spent more time alone during this journey than I really expected. The company I've had I've enjoyed and appreciated all the more for it. But there's been a lesson in this aloneness. There have been times when I've been on Facebook at every chance to check for messages, comments, even 'likes' - anything to remind me of my connections to people. But then slowly something else has happened, a feeling that I best expressed in that poem 'When there is no harbour' that I posted back in La Paz. 'This is being a man/Knowing you are alone/Not fearing it/Standing, not leaning.' Slowly I've found a centre that lets me do that, stand without leaning, unafraid and never more purely myself. I think it was that part of me that broke open on the altiplano, when I suddenly found myself in inexplicable tears, sad and joyous at the same time, as we crossed that beautiful, lonely desolation. 'I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got' playing in my ears.

Jon Bauer wrote in a comment to this blog that he thinks we travel because we can't change, but changing our context gives us a different experience of ourselves. On the other hand, Alain de Botton argues for travel as transformation, almost as therapy, arguing we travel in order to be changed, and we should choose our destinations accordingly. I think I'm with de Botton (sorry Jon!). I'm more sanguine about the possibility of change, otherwise I could never have been a psychotherapist. That despite the recognition that change is slow, hard, subtle. Drastic and rapid psychological or spiritual transformation is extremely rare. Some of us have might have one such change in us in our entire lifetime. Many of us none at all. On the other hand, slow change, far from being impossible, is inevitable. It's up to us what that change will amount to, growth or decline, opening or closing.

There's an expression in German - 'der rote Faden' or 'the red thread' - which is used to describe the subtle thread of connection or meaning that runs through something. Now that my travels are almost complete, I look back and see the red thread that runs through this journey. The red thread is solitude, solitude as ally and gift. I've always had a nature that drives me towards solitude, that seems to veer away from the collective. And fought against it, hated it, because I also need acceptance and belonging as much as the next person. But now I see the possibility of complete acceptance of my own solitary nature, not in order to turn away from others or be any less connected, but to be grounded in an unshakeable sense of my own solitary completeness. And I suspect that makes it all the more possible to connect wholly with others, because then there is no longer that edge of anxiety, that subtle but ever-present distortion of self for the sake of the other.

I'm in Prague now, another stunningly beautiful city, though the cold is harsh - it's -12 degrees outside, which is taxing the limits of my clothes. Same again tomorrow for New Year's Eve. Hard to imagine the forty degree heat in Melbourne. I'm not sure where I'd rather be...

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Fleabitten in Paris

My last day in Paris. I've fulfilled my obligations: been up the Eiffel Tower, visited the Louvre and the Musee d'Orsay, consumed coffee and croissants in pretty little street-corner cafes, sampled expensive French cuisine, and bought two bottles of red wine to open among friends at home. It is an incredibly beautiful city, and yet - I can't decide if it's me or something I am picking up in the air - there's a bad mood about the place. Admittedly I'm uncomfortable, tired and ill-at-ease. I'm staying in an awful hostel for the absurd sum of 50 Euros a night. I can't help compare it to the gorgeous villa I stayed at in Sucre, Bolivia, where I paid half as much for a huge room with marble floors, a view over a picturesque terracotta-tiled courtyard, and wooden shutters on the windows so you could siesta on the huge bed in cool darkness. Lights twinkled in the open air restaurant, where you'd be hard pressed to rid yourself of ten dollars, and the staff were exquisitely polite and helpful. Here, the room is cramped and overheated, the toilet is outside, and filthy, and - wait for it - the bed is full of FLEAS. I have huge red welts all over my body, don't know whether to go outside into the bitter cold, where the itching stops, or sit inside in the stifling heat and try not to tear myself apart with my fingernails.

The Louvre? Death by old masters. Art just shouldn't be presented on such a vast and unmanageable scale. Again, I did my duty. I saw the Mona Lisa. More than anything else I was conscious of gazing at what must surely be the most gazed-at 0.3m2 in history. As I approached the hall where the masterpiece is housed, I heard an American father saying to his young adult son, "Hold on to your hat! Get ready!" Oh puh-lease! Then in the admiring crowd someone cried out "The eyes follow you around!" Yuh. Did you ever notice that every painting does that, if the subject is looking at the painter? And then so many crucified Jesuses with eyes turned heavenwards, so many static, artificial arrangements of figures, symbolically gesturing. So many imposing marble men with ten-year-old's penises... Is it the fleas that are making me like this? I'm a bad tempered philistine.

Or maybe not. At the Musee d'Orsay I was overwhelmed by the loveliness. I went round a corner and theVan Goghs made me gasp, their colours, their intensity leaping off the wall, less paintings than light-filled windows. Beauty raised to the nth power, to the edge of tolerance if you could allow yourself to be completely open to them. I'd have cried if that wouldn't have been embarrassing. Other paintings too moved me like this, not always the ones I expected. Some of Sicely's for instance, who I've never really paid much attention to before. It was a feast, sheer aesthetic gluttony, and I didn't leave until I had seen everything.

I've done a lot of walking, despite the cold. Two days ago it was a mild four or so degrees and after Berlin that seemed quite humane. I even left my thermals in the hostel. But yesterday I did the same thing, and froze. I have to say I was taken aback to have to queue for half an hour in the shivering wind to go up the Eiffel Tower, though I shouldn't have been. After all, it's probably the biggest tourist destination in the world. I wandered into a square in the city where there was a huge column with someone or other atop it looking triumphal and composed. The awnings of the shops around the square were all Chanel, Rolex, Dior etc. The place had a stink of unimaginable wealth. I then noticed it was the Ritz. The Euro cent dropped and I realised that this whole high-glam black-and-gold look that you see in Vogue advertisements, or the upmarket shops at Crown Casino, is a Paris creation. Well, duh! I suppose that should be obvious, but I had to visit Paris to realise it. It's not a look that I like - it's high artifice is oppressive to me - but here I can see its original context: these exquisite streets saturated with history, elegance, centuries of style and fashion.

Oh gay Paree! Truth is, I won't cry to leave you. I can only imagine how it must be to walk these streets on a fine spring day, in love, as one is supposed to be. But I'm not in love, and the snow is turning to slush, and my fleabites are tormenting me, and right now I'd give up Paris and everything in it to be playing cricket in the backyard with my son... Or even just wandering down to humble CERES, under its fine electric pylons, and eating their Indonesian eggs in the sun. Foie gras makes my gorge rise.

I've been reading a lovely book by Tiziano Terzani, "Das Ende ist mein Anfang" ("The End is My Beginning" - I suppose there is an English translation, since my book is itself a German translation from the Italian). I read this quote this morning and it spoke to me (my translation):

This world is a miracle! ... And if you manage to feel a part of this miracle - not the 'you' with two eyes and two feet, but the You, your innermost being - what more can you want? Hm? What more can you possibly want? A new car?

And I'd add, Paris? The Eiffel Tower? The Louvre? It is a great privilege to be able to see the world like this, to stand in these famous places, see these famous sights. But if you're alive to this miracle, you know it can't be captured anywhere, can't be crystallised in this monument or city or painting. A tired heart can be left indifferent by all the old masters in the world. And then the strangest, smallest thing can break you open, be more marvellous in that moment than all the masterpieces of the Louvre.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

German history - that old chestnut!

Berlin has always fascinated me for its history, its place at the fulcrum of the cold war.This is the city where the two superpowers of the twentieth century collided in the ruins of the world's most despicable dictatorship. It's a pity that almost all visible traces of that history have been eradicated in the haste to leave it behind. Today Berlin is a city of Neubauten - there are almost no old buildings left. Bombs cleansed it of its Nazi and pre-Nazi history, and the enthusiasm of reunification wiped away almost all traces of the Stasi era. Hitler's bunker is a carpark. Checkpoint Charlie is a tacky tourist attraction. The past is objectified and captured in numerous memorials and museums, all of which serve to delineate now from then, to sharpen the distinction between the enlightened Germany of today and the dark Germany of the past.

Yet among Germans there remains a deep-seated unease about the past. For years after the war, the past was buried because it was still too close. Then, as a new generation arose and demanded a reckoning, a period of Auseinandersetzung began. From denial, Germany moved to self-confrontation, sought to deal with the past by raking over the killing fields for every last bone, every rusty locket. And now the wheel has turned again. Now the past is too far away. With the 2006 World Cup came the feeling that Germans can be proud to be Germans again, the past be damned.

There is even, according to one of my hosts here, a concealed arrogance, the surreptitious return of that repressed thread of national superiority. She told me about getting into an argument with a businessman on the train one day. He accused her of being a 'radical' (she's anything but), and spoke of the German people as a 'huge social experiment', from the Nazis to the enlightened current day, as if it all formed a rational continuum, as if it were all part of a whole that made sense, even bestowed a certain special status. When in fact, if nothing else is clear, the dark period of Germany's history is a great, ghastly and senseless wound, which can never really heal, perhaps which never really should. According to more than one German I spoke to, many Berliners have a sense of pride in their huge holocaust memorial, claiming that it is the envy of other states. Wahnsinn! Of course Germany should have such a memorial, but pride is surely not the appropriate emotion.

But on the other hand, how does a people live with such a wound in its psyche? At least for the Jewish people the healing journey is somewhat signposted, has somewhat clear-cut parameters. Museums and memorials are symbolically and educationally important, but 'museumification' is hardly a sufficient response in itself. Yes, the past must be allowed to rest to some extent, and forcing younger generations of Germans to bear the cross of guilt for their great-grandfathers' sins is likely to backfire. And yet the desire of modern-day Germany to at last wash its hands of history is a disturbing trend. Not because of fears of a peculiarly German evil that only eternal vigilance can keep bound - in my opinion the next appalling regime is about as likely to come out of New Zealand as it is out of Germany. But because no people are better placed to build and maintain a lighthouse on these evil rocks than the Germans. A searching light must always be maintained here, and if there is to be any redemption of this history for Germany, it is Germany which must keep that light burning.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Short the real

Why do we travel? My friend and fellow writer Ruby Murray told me she began a short story once with the question, 'Do we travel to lose ourselves or to find ourselves?' Good question. Or perhaps the two aren't mutually exclusive. Perhaps we try to lose familiar parts of ourselves in order to find unfamiliar parts. That which we call self can never be observed independent of environment, but we can perhaps infer it from that which remains constant when the environment is altered, like the centre of the kalleidoscope. Or, if you want to be looser, more inclusive about what constitutes self, you could call it the sum of everything revealed in the changing light of this kalleidoscope. Either way, travel reveals more of who you are.

It must be Germany doing this to me: turning me into an impenetrable philosopher. Verzeih! To backtrack: I had some hellish trouble leaving South America. I have the type of brain that is suited for looking down tele- or micro-scopes, not for managing anything as bewildering as everyday affairs. Travel just overtaxes my capacity for multitasking - I live in the continual anxiety that I've left some crucial bit of me - passport, money, iPhone - somewhere behind. I'm constantly frisking myself like a New York airport security guard. And then I'm amazed that somehow I've kept it all together despite my, er, limitations .

Until... I'm in Rio, ready to fly to Germany the next day, and look on my itinerary and notice I'm in fact supposed to fly from Sao Paulo. Now I definitely asked the travel agent to book me to fly from Rio, but I do have a faint hint of a memory that this might have been changed to Sao Paulo for logistical reasons. I have a brief moment of heart-lurching panic, before I realise that I can probably book a flight to Sao Paolo the next day at no great expense.

There's a sign at the hostel reception that says they can help with flight bookings, so I ask the receptionist, who is completely unsuited to the hospitality industry, if she'd kindly help me. She does that thing where she doesn't quite roll her eyes (though you can see the effort it costs her not to), then tells me to come back in fifteen minutes when she's had a chance to look on the website. I do this, and, upon my return she gives me that heavy-lidded lizard look and asks me what it is that I want now. Er... the flight? Oh, she says, why don't you do that yourself, and hands me the web address on a scrap of paper. And I'm paying European prices for this 'service', and a toilet where you still can't flush the toilet paper? If I was in arbitrage, I'd been calling someone and shouting 'Short the Brasilian real!' down my cellphone.

Instead I creep off to my overpriced quarters and try to book my own flight over the dialup-speed, constantly interrupted internet connection. Eventually I manage to find a flight that lands in Sao Paolo three and a half hours before my flight to Germany departs, which I figure should be plenty of time.

Curse the lizard-receptionist! There are two airports in Sao Paulo, and one isn't even strictly speaking in Sao Paulo at all. It's quite a bloody long way from Sao Paulo in fact. One does not necessarily realise this when one is browsing a Brazilian travel website with zero Portuguese at one's disposal. When I arrive in said airport, it is immediately clear something is wrong, because this sleepy, mouldering little place bears no resemblance to the mega-airport I remember passing through on my way to Rio. Still, I'm not panicking yet, because lots of cities have a couple of airports, and you can always drive from one to the other in fifteen minutes max. Right? Wrong. Once the person at information and I have established Spanish as our language of common incompetence, I learn that I can catch a bus, but it will take two hours and doesn't leave for another hour - way too late. Taxi then? Sure. She produces a card showing the price of a taxi to various destinations. Garulhos International: 330 Real. I do a double-take. Three hundred and thirty real? That's about $200, the same as my flight cost to this god-forsaken excuse for an airport. Short the real!

But I have no choice. My own stupidity has gotten me into this fix. I'm going to have to dig my way out with my own pockets. The taxi driver reckons he can get me to Garulhos in the hour I have before I'm supposed to check in, but the very lovely English-speaking lady who comes to my aid is less convinced. The traffic at this time is really bad in Sao Paulo, she says. Still, I can't miss that flight to Germany, so I have to give it my best shot.

Well the lady was wrong. The traffic is fine, just fine! We're making brilliant time. In the silence of our mutual linguistic incomprehension, my cares slowly lift from my shoulders. We have twenty minutes to travel fifteen kilometres. Easy! And then... the traffic. Absolute turn-off-the-engine-and-play-a-round-of-poker, Michael-Douglas-in-Falling-Down gridlock. It's a curious kind of tension that grows in a taxi in this sort of situation when neither of you can speak a word of the other's language. I'm sure the poor guy wanted to murder me for my tongue-clicking, seat-shuffling, fidgety behaviour. By the time we got to the airport I was so late I'd given up, but god bless South American inefficiency! Nobody even remarked on my lateness as I checked in, and then I found myself standing in the passport control queue for so long I could just about have walked from Rio. Two more disinterested, lackadaisical employees as these passport officers I haven't seen since... well, lizard-eyes the day before.

This being a Lufthansa flight, there are lots of Germans in the queue, who of course despise such inefficiency, and I hear one of them remarking, "This is supposed to be a developed country, but this is the worst I've seen!" But that's the thing. It may be trying very hard to look like one, but in no way is Brazil a developed country. You just pay developed-world prices. Like I said, short the real, because there's only one direction that currency can go.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Island of the Sun

I’m walking the Island of the Sun on Lake Titicaca, where the Incan sun god was born. The air is so thin here at close to 4000 metres, it rasps in my lungs at every step, but looking out over the azure expanse to the horizon, I can’t believe I’m not at sea-level. It’s a long, arduous walk at this altitude over the island’s spine to make it to the boat pick-up point by the agreed rendezvous time. The sun is fierce, the island barren. Like the Greek Islands, only blasted bare. Incan memories in the stone. The last days of South America, so I’m feeling everything acutely.

On the boat, I have a puff of someone’s joint, close my eyes, and the sun god beams straight into me across Lake Titicaca, an x-ray of pleasure, lighting up forgotten centres.

And there are places here where you can see the Andes, snowy peaks standing unperturbed in the churn of cumulus clouds. You can watch the collision of these terrestrial and atmospheric mountains, the peaks that remain when the ephemeral ones evaporate.

I spent three days on the altiplano, a stark landscape separated from the Atacama desert, the world’s driest, by a narrow volcanic range. This side almost nothing grows either, and who knows what the vicuna browse on - a few sparse and hardy nubs that push up stubbornly through the stones. There are marbled and variegated volcanic lagoons, smelling of sulphur, in which flamingoes stand, root about in the salt and borax for whatever edible life thrives here. The laguna colorada is vivid in red, cobalt, lime green and I don't so much breathe the air as swallow wind by the gallon, though it’s thin on oxygen, barely feeds the blood. Walking against it, I feel my planetary contingency, my peripheral existence in the lonely cycles of nature. The sun burns, the wind lacerates my lips. We eat and play cards and drink beer in bare shelter against the elements, keeping close to the wood oven as the sky darkens, a vista of stars appears, serene above the battering wind. I leave the others to stand outside and gaze upwards, for as long as I can hold out against the cold. Feel my aloneness.

It interests me, the intersection between place and soul, between inner and outer landscapes. The chemistry between psyche and place. I cannot articulate the altiplano's effect on me. I’m rendered wordless, though I can feel it tear a hole in the thin fabric of my arbitrary cares, that scrap of knots and twists I call my 'self'. All those miles of salt. Twenty thousand square miles of blinding, snowy salt, sucking every drop of water from the air. There's a saline slush a few feet below the crust, which is tessellated with cracks like a leadlight window. In the sandy desert plains further on, strange twisted forms of rock stand out, like a sort of natural Stonehenge. They are erosion’s negative space, the refractory rock left after the scouring. Imagination naturally swirls and collects in the spaces in between these forms, is held and shaped here, as it was in childhood’s playspaces, as it is in Japanese gardens, in sculpture.

I am made silent by this place, blown through by it. But then, having left my travelling companions at the Chilean border, as we drive back through valleys where springs run down, where llama gather to drink the clear water and feed on the rich green algae that clings to and streams from the stone, I find something breaking open inside, something full of a hot, sweet sorrow. I couldn’t even say for what. Synchronicity: Sinead O’Connor comes on, singing: I am walking through the desert/ and I’m not frightened though it’s hot/ I have all that I requested/ and I do not want what I haven’t got. I lean back in my seat and watch the desert judder past and let that thing break, let the tears run onto my cheek and evaporate in the wind.

This is what we travel for, to be changed like this.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Wolf-whistles and dynamite in Ouyuni

The town of Ouyuni lies at the edge of Bolivia’s great salar, 12,000 square kilometers of blinding white salt. Like the surrounding plains, it is a flat, beaten-down place, harsh, dusty, and windswept. Coming in on one of the daily bus services from Postosi, your first glimpse of the town is a field of rubbish, tattered plastic bags half sunk in the dust like some hardy desert shrub. Bolivia has yet to come to terms with the problems of sustainable waste disposal.

Tourism has breathed some life into what was once just a one-trick salt town, but the smattering of cheap hostels and eateries doesn't change its pioneer-town feeling. There's one automatic teller, a couple of internet cafes with agonizingly slow access, a military base, and the usual colourfully clad, bent old women selling miscellaneous wares from cramped stalls. A motley farrago of dogs stretched out asleep on the pavements or turning nipping circles with one another in the street.

I know I've reached the end of the world when a gaggle of Bolivian girls at the entrance to my hotel are sent into a state of tittering excitement by my arrival. I'm even wolf-whistled. After I leave the reception desk I hear a jabber of excited, hilarious Spanish break out, the only word of which I can pick up is 'atractivo'. Yep, it’s a desperate town.

I am woken in the early hours by a tremendous blast that shakes the windows of my grubby but functional room. I nearly die of fright. There's a moment's silence then a series of smaller explosions begin to crack and sputter. It sounds terribly close and my sleep-addled brain leaps to the direst explanations: outbreak of war, accident at the military base, terrorism. Then, rumpty-tump, a marching band strikes up. Bassoons and timpanies and inaptly-named euphoniums. I incredulously check my watch. Five a.m. I swear out loud at the bloody Bolivians and their explosion-crazy ways as another fearsome blast rocks the room. In the morning I ask the tittering girl on reception what the hell it was all in aid of. Anniversary of some victory or other, apparently. But at five a.m.? I protest. Es un poco loco, I say, twirling a forefinger at my temple. Such a nice phrase in Spanish.

There’s not much to keep me in Ouyuni, unless it’s the dubious novelty of being wolf-whistled by Bolivian peasant girls, so I sign up for a three-day tour of the salar and altiplano region the next day. I haven’t met many Australians so far, but my group consists of five Australians, myself included, and one unfortunate Hawaiian, who has a stomach bug and spends the tour either crashed out asleep, or shuffling about with exquisite caution as if his shoelaces were tied together.

Two of the Australians are gangling blonde girls taking a break after finishing medical school. Having doctors on board is handy – especially when they tell me that the ibuprofen tablets I’ve bought at the local pharmacy are four times the normal Australian dose, and taking two is likely to punch a jagged hole in my stomach lining. Thanks for pointing that out, Mr. Bolivian Pharmacy Guy. But didn’t I already…? I pull out the blister pack, and sure enough, two are missing from last night’s bus headache. Shit. Just don’t do it again, the girls tell me.

This was going to be my altiplano blog entry, but I’m telling peripheral tales instead. That’s because it’s a job for a Whitman or a Neruda. My courage is failing me. Mañana. I shall try to find a language for it mañana.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

When there is no harbour

This is being a man
Knowing you are alone
Not fearing it
Standing, not leaning.

Everything you love
Is sand, and blows away
Do not be afraid
The world has no end.

This is being a man
Losing your roots
Not fearing it
You are not your mother's son
You are not your brother's brother
You are not your lover's lover
You are the wind
And cannot be divided
Cannot be broken
Cannot be lost.

Fear no storm
You are the wind
And cannot die.

This is wisdom
For when there is no harbour:
You are the wind
And cannot die.