Finn Finger Hong Thong

Notes from Thailand and Cambodia
November 7 – December 7, 2019

Igor’s riot of tattoos looked like bruises under the dim lights of the restaurant where he and I and the other denizens of Sea You Place had gathered for dinner. Each of us at the table had just given an account of ourselves: where we were from, how long we’d been in Thailand, when we were going home, and that sort of thing. Igor was excited to hear that I’d come to Thailand after trekking in Nepal.

“Nepal!” he cried. “I love Nepal. It is my other home. I cannot go trek, though. I am alcoholic.” He admitted to alcoholism with the casual air I might use to say I had once gotten a parking ticket. “I was in India, but I was evicted, deported, because I wrecked my motorcycle, many broken bones, sticking out of my skin, you know, and I had no license for a motorcycle, so I went to Nepal. A family let me live with them. Such beautiful people. I had to withdrawal from heroin in their house, on the floor, and the daughter took very good care of me. She is my wife now, but I never, we never, you know. No no no. No no. It was only for the visa. I bought one square meter of their farm, so now I am Nepali citizen. Someday I will go back.”

Cece, the woman who ran Sea You Place, was sitting next to Igor during this story. She absorbed it without any obvious change in her demeanor. Her partner, Zod, a skinny Thai with one-inch gauges in his ears and a particularly impenetrable way with the English language, had not arrived at the dinner yet; he had been bitten by a centipede two nights earlier and, now that the incapacitating agony of the first night had been beaten back with morphine, and the swelling had gone down, he felt sure he could negotiate the 100 yards between See You Place and this restaurant – although he’d have to ride a scooter to do it.

Sea You Place is at the southern tip of Ko Chang island, which is at the northern end of the Gulf of Thailand, close to the border of Cambodia. I had chosen to go to Ko Chang because it had a reputation for having been relatively unsullied by the boom in tourism that has reduced many of Thailand’s islands to green, sun-drenched places where thousands of Westerners lurch from bars to the beach and back again, indulging their ugliest instincts.

“So why don’t you go back now?” I asked Igor.

“Oh, well. You know,” he said, smiling around the table and shrugging his shoulders. I didn’t know at all, but it was clear that he didn’t want to elaborate.

“Zod!” said the beautiful Parisian woman across the table from me. She and her boyfriend jumped to their feet and waved their bottles of Leo beer at the darkness beyond the patio. Zod came limping up the stairs, to loud cries of welcome. He smiled at everyone and said something that I couldn’t make out.

“We should drink to Zod’s arrival!” said Igor. Do we have something stronger than beer? Whiskey? Do they have Hong Thong whiskey here?” The German guy to my left said that you’d have to be desperate to drink Hong Thong.

“Maybe you should try Finn Finger Hong Thong,” said Cece.

“Absolutely I will try it,” said Igor. “What is it?”

“Did you hear about the Finnish guy who chopped his finger off?” asked Cece. “No? About a month ago there was a guy staying down there at the other end of Klong Kloi beach, at the YuYu. He was weird when he arrived, but after about a week it had gotten worse. So one night he went to dinner at the Lazy Loaf, ordered his food, and chopped his finger off! When the owner asked him why he’d picked his restaurant to do this to himself, he said, ‘Because you have the sharpest knives on the beach.’ So anyway, they put the finger into a bottle of Hong Thong, and Dave bought it from him.”

The man who had been standing behind the bar appeared at the table and slammed a bottle down in front of Cece. “One drink, one hundred baht!” Dave roared.

“Hooray!” everyone yelled. We passed the bottle around the table, so that everyone could get a good look. That was a finger at the bottom, all right. There was dirt under the nail.

Igor tossed off a shot without a moment’s hesitation. The German guy looked disgusted, the French couple and I gloated quietly at having unexpectedly found ourselves in a David Lynch movie, and Cece simply watched, with the psychic distance of someone who has seen absolutely everything and found most of it not to her taste.

I spent more than three weeks in bungalow #5 at Sea You Place. My routine was almost unvarying. I would go to breakfast at Mister A’s coffee shop, where my order was so predictable that Mister A would see me coming down the road and sing out, “Fruit PAN – Cake! Cap – PUC – Cino!” “Ha ha,” I would reply. “And yes. That sounds good.” After breakfast I’d go to the common room at Sea You – an open-air veranda with cushions and rattan mats, three big fans, a couple of low wooden tables, and one small sofa, padded with stray cushions – where I established myself with my laptop and a big bottle of cold water. Between the late morning and late afternoon I worked on my science-fiction novel. Then I would go for a swim or walk the local roads, and then I would find dinner at one of the half-dozen reasonably well-trafficked places between our dirt road and the beach. After dinner, I’d retire to my cabin to read and watch television on my laptop. I was usually asleep by 10:00.

I devoted one day to a snorkeling expedition, but otherwise I wasn’t a tourist in Thailand. I never explored Koh Chang island. I never rented a scooter, I never visited a town I couldn’t reach on foot, I never climbed into the green mountains at the island’s center. I watched the geckos streaking for the safety of the shadows and I helped Zod throw sticks at the monkeys that stopped by to raid our kitchen and I scratched the ears of the cats that sprawled in the dust. I put the biggest fan just a few feet away from the sofa and leaned forward so that the air might move behind me while I worked. By the time my Thai visa was about to expire, I had pushed my manuscript through the climax of the story and thought that I might have no more than a few thousand words of clarification and summary to write before I could raise a toast to myself, take a deep breath, and begin the second draft.

My long trip was coming to an end. I wanted to be back in Seattle a few weeks before Christmas, so I had only about a week and a half left to spend in Asia. I reluctantly abandoned my idea of visiting Vietnam and decided to concentrate on Cambodia, and particularly on the temples around Angkor Wat.

You can find a few photographs from Thailand here.

The city of Siem Reap is the base camp for everyone who visits Angkor Wat and the other ancient Khmer temples in northwestern Cambodia. I found a hotel down by the river, in a part of town where the streets were so narrow that even the tuk-tuk taxis couldn’t enter them. On my first morning, I walked out to one of the main boulevards, wondering how to proceed. “Taxi, sir?” asked a Cambodian man of perhaps 35 years, gesturing at his tuk-tuk.

“How much for the small circuit?” I asked. I had done my homework the night before; I knew that Angkor Wat and a few other essential temples could all be seen on a relatively short loop trip from Siem Reap, and that hiring a tuk-tuk to take me on this loop might cost up to 20 American dollars.

“Fifteen dollar,” he said.

“Let’s go,” I said.

On the second, third, and fourth of December I visited twelve different temples and ancient religious sites north of Siem Reap. Angkor Wat, my first stop on the first day, is the world’s largest religious monument. Its elaborate carvings and elegant walkways and the curves and stairways of its buildings are all open to the air; I walked slowly through the grounds, gaping and taking photographs, for hours, while Sam, my driver, waited for me back in the parking lot, among the touts and the thieving monkeys. And then we went to Bayon, the most notable temple at Angkor Thom, where enormous carved faces wear smiles like French tourists who have just watched someone take a shot of Finn Finger Hong Thong. And then Baphuon, and the Terrace of the Elephants, and the Terrace of the Leper King. And then, on the following days, many more. I will not list them here; I will give their names in the captions of the photos, in case you’re interested. After three days of this, I was dizzy with the beautiful ambition of this vanished civilization, and aghast at how little I know about it. I bought a book on the subject of the temples at and around Angkor Wat, but it didn’t answer any of the questions that I found so troubling. How could the economy of 10th-century Cambodia have supported a building program like this? What might the ecstatic religious experience of walking through these buildings have been like for the worshippers at the time? What was it like for visiting Hindus today? How did the people live in the wooden cities that have left no trace in the forest around these ruins? What was it like to be those people? What, besides La Sagrada Familia, has been built in the last century that can match any of these sites? How is it that the greatest economies in the history of humanity have produced aircraft and microchips and the Chunnel but nothing that approaches the monumentality and profound spiritual resonance of these temples? What did we abandon when we abandoned this goal?

I was already feeling some despair for the modern world when I arrived in Phnom Penh on December fifth. My flight to Seattle was scheduled for two days later. This gave me a single day in Cambodia’s capital city, which I spent touring the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum at the site of the Khmer Rouge torture prison, S-21, and the museum and Killing Field of Choeung Ek.

The Khmer Rouge controlled Cambodia between 1975 and 1979; their efforts to turn Cambodia into a socialist agrarian paradise led them to slaughter something like two million people – a quarter of Cambodia’s population at the time. I had noticed while touring Siem Reap that I wasn’t seeing many Cambodian men of my approximate age, but I hadn’t understood the implications of this idle observation until I saw the genocide museums of Phnom Penh. I think the important forces of human history are mostly matters of technology, microbes, weaponry, and luck – the Guns, Germs, and Steel paradigm – but my visit to Phnom Penh made me reconsider the Great Man theory of history. It’s hard to imagine that the disaster that befell Cambodia at the hands of the Khmer Rouge would ever have happened without Pol Pot.

In 1979, after the genocide, something like 5.5 million people remained in Cambodia. Forty years later, the population is 16.5 million. Cambodia’s economy has grown at 8% a year for the past 20 years – one of the fastest growth rates in the world. The global markets that have opened to Cambodian garment factories, reductions in child mortality, and the establishment of regional peace have converted the Cambodian genocide into a demographic footnote.

I don’t mean to imply that Cambodia’s recovery from the Khmer Rouge lessens the horror of the genocide. The tower of skulls at Choeung Ek is not a commentary on demographic change; it is a monument to individual loss. Each of those skulls belonged to a person whose life is available to anyone with an imagination. All of these people were ambitious for themselves and their children, concerned about their families, outraged by injustice, delighted by small bits of luck, beleaguered by illness and unfulfilled hopes, comforted by memories of laughter with friends and grappling with lovers in the dark, and terrified by the implacability and senselessness of their approaching deaths.

The world is vast and the past is deep. I spent most of 2019 trying to come to grips with the scale of both. Everywhere I went, thousands of people shared the cities with me, and every one of those people had an interior life that was very much like mine. In Oaxaca and Quito and Cuenca and Lima and Cuzco and Copacabana and Bruges and Paris and Venice and Split and Korčula and Dubrovnik and Athens and Thera and Kathmandu and Ko Chang and Siem Reap and Phnom Penh, I recognized in everyone I met a murky reflection of myself. And at the Zapotec ruins of Monte Albán, and at the Mixtec ruins of Mitla, and in the wonderful archaeological museums in Mexico and Ecuador and Peru, and at the Inca ruins at Saqsaywaman and Pisaq and Machu Picchu, and at the Moche pyramids at Huaca de la Luna, and among the unexpected columns of Diocletian’s Palace in Split, and at the Greek sites at Athens and Delphi and Akrotiri, and at the incomparable Khmer temples in and around Angkor Wat, I did everything I could to incorporate the ghosts that crowded around me, walking with me among the toppled stones and standing at my side as I tried to reproduce in myself the aesthetics and devotion that produced these marvels, and to feel as a personal loss the tragedy of each culture’s dissolution. I was never more than partially successful, but, on the other hand, I was always partially successful. My imagination is imperfect, but time and again it was good enough to make me ache.

I have been back in Seattle for almost two months. It hasn’t been easy to begin this last essay in my “Out” series of 2019; it has seemed to me that the exercise of writing it is necessarily futile, because of the amount of time it covers, because of the absurd necessity of summing up a year that could hardly have contained a greater diversity of experience, and because the effort of writing it is so wildly out of proportion to its readership. But writing it has been necessary. I am proud of many of the essays I’ve written here; I couldn’t abandon the series without dishonoring the work I have already done. Also, I needed to finish this last entry before turning my attention back to my novel, whose first draft, to my shame, is still several thousand words short of completion.

I will be going back to Mexico in 2020, to resume Spanish lessons and to take long walks through warm, colorful streets. I’m not sure when I’ll be leaving; in the spring, most likely. This will not be another globe-trotting expedition. I will go to ground in Oaxaca, or perhaps in the central highlands, or perhaps in the Yucatan, where I will establish myself and my laptop in a little apartment. The language lessons will go slowly. I will work less effectively than I’d hoped. I will spend too much time alone.

Mexico is full of surprises and difficulties – that’s why I’ll be going back. My imagination is good enough to make traveling feel essential, but it isn’t so good that it allows me to stay home. I can try to imagine the mind of a balloon seller on the Zocalo, or the hands of the person who made the exquisite pottery in Quito’s Casa del Alabado, or the mind of a pilgrim at Delphi as the fires were lit at sunset, 2500 years ago, but I can’t surprise myself. I couldn’t have invented Finn Finger Hong Thong, or the Nepalese kid who built a helicopter out of an apple and scraps of wood, or the papier-mâché turkey that a dancer in a Oaxacan wedding procession held over his head as he twirled in the street. And, even if my imagination were better, and I were capable of inventions as vivid as those, I wouldn’t be able to reproduce the visceral experience of being there. I need the heat that makes me lean toward the fan, and the smell of the grass at a temple complex, and the frigidity of the winds coming down off the glaciers, and the fatigue at the top of a long climb. I need the emotions that I can’t get otherwise, too, even when they are insecurity and fear and loneliness. Even despair is better than stupefaction.

I will keep traveling. If there is a better way to remain conscious, I don’t know what it is.

There are photographs from Cambodia here.

Lammergeiers

The Annapurna Circuit – 11/1986 through 10/2019

By the time I had gotten through Immigration Control at the Kathmandu airport, the taxi driver who had been sent by my hotel to retrieve me had abandoned me as a lost cause, and my pack, when I finally found it, was part of a pile that was being hauled away to the unclaimed-baggage room. I had queued up at a touch-screen station where I laboriously entered all of my visa information, and then I had queued up in the line to pay for my visa, and then I had queued up in the line where people who needed to use a credit card were told to wait, and then I queued up at Passport Control, by which point I was so irritated that I simply refused to believe that changing lines, to get away from the bland, slow-motion guy whose inexperience or lack of concern had paralyzed the line I was in, could possibly be a good idea. You think your incompetence is going to beat me? Just try it, buddy! I’ll stand here as long as it takes!

I was the very last person on my flight to officially arrive in Nepal.

I was in Nepal in the fall of 1986, with my ex-wife, Christina. We had quit our jobs, put our possessions into storage, and left for a trip around the world; we knew that any adventure like this had to happen before the arrival of the children and mortgages that it was easy to see waiting for us in the immediate future. After visits to Japan, Hong Kong, southern China, Thailand, and Burma, we arrived in Nepal with enough time to attempt the Annapurna Circuit before falling snow put an end to the trekking season. Now, 33 years later, I cannot remember how I first became aware of the Annapurna Circuit. I don’t know what our guide book looked like. I find that my memories of the experience are bound uncomfortably closely to the photographs I took on the trip; I’m not at all sure whether I recall the wild poinsettias and the big-eyed children and the dark, cold guesthouses, or whether I am actually recalling my photographs of them. I’m sure that we took a bus from Kathmandu to Pokhara, although I remember nothing at all of this trip, and that we set off on foot from there, up the Kali Gandaki river valley, on the west side of the circuit. We got as far as the village of Muktinath, at the foot of Thorung-La Pass, before deciding that was far enough and retracing our steps to the town of Jomsom, where we flew back to Pokhara.

On this trip, in 2019, I planned to walk up the east side of the Annapurna Circuit, starting near the village of Besi Sahar, to cross Thorung-La Pass after ascending the Marsyangdi river valley, and then to drop down into Muktinath again. I knew I would continue at least as far as Jomsom on this trip, but I wasn’t sure what I might do from there; I had read that roads had been punched into the hills on both sides of the circuit, and it wasn’t at all obvious to me that it would be worth my while to spend days walking along a dirt road that I had to share with buses and Mahindra jeeps.

I remembered Kathmandu fondly from 1986, but the city and I have both changed since then. The narrow streets of the Thamel district are clogged with motorcycles that slalom among the pedestrians, every telephone pole is a sagging tangle of wire, many of the temples in Durbar Square that survived 2015’s earthquake are being propped up by timbers, and I am less tolerant than I was then of chaos and filth and rapacious tourism. Exoticism was a more important virtue to me in 1986 than it is today.

I went on long walks through Kathmandu’s disordered streets, climbed the long steps to the Swayambhunath Stupa (the famous Monkey Temple), and sought out well-reviewed restaurants. After a few days, I learned how to cross the busy street south of my hotel; until then, my strategy had been to station myself on the curb, behind a wary local, and follow them with only inches between us whenever they ventured out into the terrifying traffic. Young men on the street tried to sell me trekking packages and hashish. I saw a dog get hit by a car. I could hardly wait to start hiking.

The streets of Thamel are lined with storefronts offering guided trekking experiences. I debated about whether to sign up for one of these. A guided experience would have been more expensive and less flexible than independent travel, but it would have come with an implicit guarantee that I would always have a place to spend the night, even in the smallest, most popular towns, and it would have given me the opportunity to become part of a small social scene, as I got to know the other people in my group. In a decision that will seem almost preordained to anyone who knows me, I ultimately chose to do the whole thing by myself. This decision may or may not have been wise, but it turned out to have been lucky; after walking for the better part of a week, I was obliged to spend five nights in one place, waiting for a debilitating cold virus to dissipate and for the weather to clear. If I had been part of a group, they wouldn’t have waited for me; I’d have ended up alone, and would have forfeited the money I’d spent for the trip.

I regretted having turned my back on the social aspect of an arranged trek, though. I knew I would be spending a lot of time alone.

The micro-bus from Kathmandu to the town of Besi Sahar was seven eminently forgettable hours of juddering over half-paved roads. When we arrived, I sat on a curb and opened my guidebook, trying to figure out what to do next; I was spotted immediately by a small, energetic, bright-eyed young man who ran a guesthouse in the town of Ngadi, just up the road – the town I had decided would be the best place to start walking. He would ensure I had a seat on the bus to Ngadi if I agreed to stay in his guesthouse. We shook on the deal, and I joined a small group of other Westerners at the roadside who had also been convinced by this man that his guesthouse in Ngadi was the answer to our problems. When the bus arrived, we all found seats – but then the bus filled beyond capacity with locals before it set off. I perspired dreadfully on a woman in a sari who was crushed up against me.

That night, at the outdoor table where we were awaiting our dinners, I asked my fellow trekkers, “So, did anybody else think that the bus from Besi Sahar was going to tip over at any moment?”

“Oh, God, yes!” said a German woman.

“I had an escape strategy all planned out!” said the guy who looked exactly like a tall, buff version of Scarlett Johansson.

“I thought we were all going to die,” said a Polish-American woman.

I was the éminence grise in this group, as usual. I was the only person at the table who was older than 30, and I was the only person who was traveling alone. The Scarlett Johansson guy and his thin, timorous wife were especially taken with me; they said that what I was doing was exactly what they hoped to be doing in thirty-five years. I nodded and smiled, thinking of the thousands of ways the actuality of my situation might disappoint them, but keeping these thoughts to myself.

On the following morning, I figured out how a person whose knees do not permit squatting can use a squat toilet, took photographs of the 15-foot-tall marijuana plant growing among the marigolds at the guesthouse, paid my bill, put on my pack, and set off north along the road, through the rice fields, toward a snow-covered mountain in the distance. It didn’t take too long for the trail to leave the road; when it did, I was suddenly on the narrow, flagstone-laid paths that I remembered from 1986. But even here the old trail was only intermittent; bulldozers had smoothed the trail in many places, and motorcycles and jeeps sometimes jounced inelegantly by.

For the first few days of hiking, I was sometimes on an old Nepali track – designed for pedestrians and animals – but often this track had disappeared and been replaced by rutted dirt. Electricity was everywhere, of course, as was wifi service. I paused at the top of one long climb, at a village that had parthenogeneticized at the ridgeline; the tree under which I put my pack was listed on my map, as “Tree – Place of Worship,” and the tottering building across from me, where a dour man sat and watched me without expression, had once advertised “International Telephone Service,” but the word “Telephone” had been mostly effaced from the sign, leaving current visitors to wonder what sort of International Service this shack might offer.

The climate changed from day to day; from rice and bananas, to apple orchards, to fir forests, to fallow fields of wheat and barley, and finally to hills covered with pine trees that looked to me just like the Okanagan. The mountains were always there, at the heads of valleys, but they were always at least partially obscured by clouds. I mentioned the persistent cloud cover to a young couple and was surprised by the vehemence of the woman’s reaction. “I know!” she said. “We might as well have stayed in Europe!” I told them that I was determined to wait for clear weather – that I hadn’t come this far to cross the pass under clouds. They responded that their schedules didn’t allow this kind of flexibility; the woman glared at the man in an accusatory way while he silently opened and closed his mouth.

There was another village every few miles. Every afternoon I arrived in a town, eyed the array of guesthouses, trying to guess which might be most appealing to Westerners, and walked into whichever of them seemed most promising. The proprietors were often surprised to learn that I was alone – no porter, no guide – but I was denied a room only once. Meals were always part of the package; in exchange for very cheap lodging, guests were expected to have dinner and breakfast in the guesthouse’s dining hall. I ate a lot of Dal Bhat.

The main town in the Upper Marsyangdi valley is Manang. The villages at this end of the valley are low buildings made by piling brown stones atop one another. Each building is decorated with prayer flags that snap in the persistent wind. Mani walls full of prayer wheels and chorten gateways are important parts of every village. It was all very exotic, but I was quickly finding myself incapable of appreciating my surroundings.

A few hours short of Manang, I crossed a steel suspension bridge and climbed 1500’ of switchbacks to a village named Ghyaru. I had read about this climb in my guidebook, and knew that it would be difficult – especially since it was at about 12,000’ – but it was much harder than it should have been. Broad-beamed middle-aged women were passing me on the trail and looking at me with expressions of concern. When I finally reached the top, I threw myself onto a bench at an overlook that, on a clear day, offered a view of Annapurna II that my book called “stunning, to say the least,” and drank most of a liter of water. Something was not right.

It was several hours of walking to the village of Bhraka, where I splurged on a sumptuous room with a private bath and gave myself over to my first bout with traveler’s diarrhea of 2019. After a day and a half, this problem had resolved itself, but the cough that had been my constant companion since Athens had gotten worse, and it was everything I could do to drag myself out of bed to explore the town. Manang was only a mile away; I walked up there, one afternoon, to visit the High-Altitude Health Clinic, where a weather-beaten French woman listened carefully to my history and my lungs and told me that my problem was not altitude-related. I was already starting to feel better at this point – I’d made it up to Manang, after all – and the weather had begun to clear. I decided to move from Bhraka to Manang and wait a few more days for my health to improve.

After two nights in Bhraka and three nights in Manang, the skies were a deep, deep blue overhead, and I felt ready to start hiking again. It was an easy walk to the town of Yak Kharka; the road had ended at Manang, and the broad trail led through yak pastures and tundra. After a night at Yak Kharka, it was another easy walk to Thorung Phedi, a small cluster of lodges at 14,500’, just under the pass. The dining room at my lodge was packed with down-clad trekkers, drinking their Gorkha beers and arguing about how early to get up the following morning. A Swiss woman told me that she and her guide were beginning their attempt on the pass at 4:00 in the morning; instead of saying, “In that case, you should have no trouble,” as I should have, I said, “But even the menu here at the guesthouse says it’s only four hours to the pass!” She looked slightly pained, and I realized that she should of course rely on her guide for decisions of this kind, so I stammered something about how sure I was that she would be fine, and that I would be fine, and that everything would be fine, and then skulked off to bed.

The next morning’s walk was one of the high points of my life – the literal high point, of course, but also an experience of joy that I had begun to think might have deserted me. While I was lying in bed in Bhraka and Manang, I had lost the ability to care about anything at all. My reading bored me, Tibetan Buddhism seemed childish and illogical, yaks were just hairy cows. People said “namaste” to me purely as a prelude to trying to sell me something. The snatches of conversation I overheard at nearby tables at dinner were almost unbearably vapid; conversation, especially among people of approximately my age, seemed to consist almost entirely of eager attempts to be dreadfully pleasant.

But the mountains never deserted me. Every glimpse of the glaciers justified my presence in the Himalaya, even when the virus had scrubbed me of practically every human feeling. As my health returned, other sources of pleasure returned with it: I had begun reading David Foster Wallace’s last, unfinished book, The Pale King, for instance, and was experiencing my usual incredulous thrill at his genius, and at the way he seemed to be talking directly to me, and at the ambition of what he had attempted with this book, even though I thought he had set himself an unachievable goal. And the exuberant health and adventurousness and beauty of Verena, the Swiss woman who planned to start hiking hours before dawn, filled me with admiration, and something more. The cinnamon rolls they made at the guesthouse were surprisingly good. I was returning to life.

I had breakfast at 5:30 in the morning and was hiking at dawn. My guidebook, imbecilic as always, had said that the old moraine that begins the hike was the steepest and most difficult part of the whole day’s climb – that the scree slope approached 50 degrees in places, and that I should be careful about turning around to admire the view behind me, because of the risk of tumbling down the cliff. None of this was remotely true. I walked as slowly as I could, and still had to stop to gasp in the remarkably thin air, but every time I stopped, it was another opportunity to watch the sun coming up on the peaks. During one of these wind-sucking breaks a teenaged boy from India who was slightly ahead of me called out, “You can do it!” and nodded his head at me. “Yes,” I called back, “I know I can do it!” I don’t know why I have always been bothered by this kind of thing – encouragement that has no basis in fact. Eager attempts to be dreadfully pleasant. This kid knew nothing about me, after all.

I had almost caught up to him when he and I both stepped off the trail to make way for a porter who was coming back down, at a shambling trot, carrying on his back a small, thin, gray man who I remembered from evening dinner at the lodge. I don’t know whether this man was semi-conscious or unconscious, but he was obviously not doing at all well. A little behind them followed an upright woman who was probably his spouse, her face a mask of concern and grief. As the Indian kid and I watched these people hurry down the trail, I made some comment about how peculiar it was that they weren’t using one of the nearby horses to get that man back down to the lodge. “That’s a good point,” he said. We watched them in silence for a more seconds, when he added, “It is commendable. That a man of his age could make it so far. Even if he has to turn back now. It is commendable.”

Well, yes. Perhaps. I don’t really know. What’s the difference between a noble failure, a foolish attempt, and simple bad luck? Is it more than the amount of preparation and the moral standing of the person making the attempt? The question is far from clear to me.

The Indian kid was fumbling with his water bottle, trying unsuccessfully to put it back into his pack without taking the pack off. I put it back for him and noticed that he was looking a little raggedy. “We’re almost there,” I said; my guess was that we were less than 1000 vertical feet from the pass. “Do you think so?” he asked. “Oh yes,” I said. “We will be there in an hour.” I walked on to the top of a little rise and, when I turned to look back, I saw that he had taken his pack off and was messing with the water bottle again.

The sky was ultramarine at this altitude. A few ground-hugging plants clung to exposed surfaces here and there, but these were rare; everything was bare rock, dirt, ice, the overwhelming sky, and dots of color in the clothing of the other little figures that were struggling up the mountainside. My pace was so slow that I didn’t feel fatigued at all by the exercise; I was limited by the lack of oxygen, not by my heart or legs. The steepness mitigated a bit and prayer flags began to appear on the hillocks in front of me.

And then I was there. A mound of prayer flags surrounded a sign that said “Thorang-La Pass. 5416 meters. Congratulation for the Success! See you again!” We took turns posing with the sign. A woman offered to take my picture and, as she accepted my camera, said, “I’m all emotional, for some reason.” “I know!” I said. “Me too!”

An Indian woman who had just been helped off a horse approached me and asked whether I’d seen her son recently. “Yes,” I said. “I’m sure he’ll be here in a few minutes.” She set off down the trail to find him and, a few minutes later, reappeared at his side. He was walking slowly and with apparent concentration, but he was okay. He gave me a wave as he approached, but he didn’t have the energy to smile.

The west side of Thorung-La Pass is drier and less interesting than the side I’d just ascended. It was down, down, down, for hours, through scree and over rocks. The Muktinath temple complex didn’t come into view until I was almost on top of it, with the little village just beyond. I checked in at the Bob Marley guest house and lay down for an hour. “See you again,” the sign at the pass had said, but this was wrong. I’d never be on Thorung-La Pass again.

I gave myself two nights in Muktinath, because I wanted to take my time with the temples. The Muktinath temple complex is an important pilgrimage site; it draws the devout from thousands of miles away. The heart of the complex is a temple where a flaming jet of natural gas comes out of the ground immediately next to a natural spring; this juxtaposition of fire and water has been recognized as holy ground for longer than anyone can recall. This is not the main temple, though; the main temple is dedicated to Vishnu and features 108 water spouts around a courtyard, where people anoint themselves and then rush around to the front of a pagoda to plunge into two frigid pools. I sat on a bench and watched this for half an hour. An old Brahmin man wearing boxer shorts and a sacred thread raced under the spouts and then leaped bravely into the pools, to shouts of encouragement from his family. A man with a little girl under one arm reached out to fill his palm with water and poured it onto his head, ignoring the tearful pleas of the girl, whose chubby little arms were not long enough to allow her to reach the water, too. A klatch of old ladies submerged themselves in the pools and then changed into dry clothes in full view of everyone at the temple, secure in the knowledge that the social context removed any hint of impropriety from their actions.

On the way back from the temples, I matched strides briefly with two middle-aged men and an older woman – two brothers and their mother, I believe. They asked me where I was from and how many times I had visited Nepal, and how much longer I would be able to stay – and then the man to my left, smiling into my face, took my left hand in his right, laced our fingers together, and walked with me holding hands for a little while.

“Nepal!” exulted the other brother. “It is the country of heaven!”

I disentangled my fingers long enough to deliver a proper “Namaste” to the shy, smiling mother – hands held in a posture of prayer at your chin, the word accompanied by a little bow – and then left the group when they stopped to exclaim over the wares on display at one of the streetside stalls.

I remembered Muktinath as having been something like the smaller villages at the top of the Marsyangdi river valley – buildings made of piled stones, tethered goats, prayer flags straining in the wind – but that village is gone. In its place are concrete guesthouses, convenience stores, and a wide dirt road that stretches all the way down the Kali Gandaki valley to Pokhara. I told the man who ran the Bob Marley guesthouse that I remembered the town from 1986, and he replied that in 1986 he had not yet been born. Then he told me that I should really take the alternate route to Kagbeni, if I liked old, traditional towns; he took me out onto a rooftop terrace to point out the route.

I took his advice on the following morning, walking to Kagbeni through a series of lovely little villages. Poplars and cottonwoods are common up near Muktinath, but, as you descend further down into the gorge, the trees disappear, and soon you are walking through a landscape that looks like it could have been photographed by the Curiosity rover, except for the high snows of Dhaulagiri, hanging over the valley to the west. Overhead, large, soaring birds appeared. “Lammergeiers,” I thought.

These birds had been important to me ever since Peter Matthiessen published The Snow Leopard in 1978. This book was serialized in The New Yorker and was the first new book I ever bought in hard cover. In it, Matthiessen reflects on the recent death of his wife, on his ongoing commitment to Zen Buddhism, and on his current trip into the Himalaya with the naturalist George Schaller, where they hoped to catch a glimpse of a snow leopard. Here is the passage in which he mentions the lammergeier:

On Christmas Eve, I had gone home to patch together some sort of Christmas for the children, but I forgot to bring the bowl back to New York. Had I given it to her earlier, she would have understood just what it meant; but by January, D was in such pain and so heavily sedated that any sort of present seemed forlorn. She scarcely knew friends who came to visit: what could she make of a bowl she had seen just once, on another continent, a year before? I had missed a precious chance, and I remember that as I propped her up in bed, coaxing her to concentrate, then opened up the box and placed the bowl in her hands, my heart was pounding. I could scarcely bear to watch how D stared at the bowl, grimacing in the effort to fight off the pain, the drugs, the consuming cancer in her brain. But when I prepared to take it back, she pressed it to her heart, lay back like a child, eyes shining, and in a whisper got one word out: “Swit-zerland.”

Far overhead, the great lammergeier turns and turns.

This broke my heart in 1978 and, rereading it today, it breaks it again. Like all such injuries, for me, there is no recovering from it; after a while, the pain becomes less present, other parts of my psyche learn to carry the burden of the injured piece, and the ache becomes part of my personality, something I cannot remember every having lived without. Of course the sight of lammergeiers overhead brings tears to my eyes, forty years after reading The Snow Leopard. The part of me that Matthiessen broke is still broken. I adapt, but I do not recover.

It was only on arriving in Kagbeni that I opened my guidebook and read that the route I’d just walked was actually part of Upper Mustang, an area where I was not allowed to go without a separate, expensive permit. “Some trekkers visit (this region) on the sly, but if you are apprehended by police, it could mean trouble.” Once again, good luck had saved me.

The next town beyond Kagbeni was Jomsom. I had already decided to fly from Jomsom back to Pokhara; the road-walking that would be required by the next days of trekking did not appeal to me at all, and besides, my enthusiasm for living had never fully returned. I didn’t need to see another Nepali village. I’d had enough.

I fell in with a long-legged young woman from Poland on the morning’s walk to Jomsom. I saw the top of a book poking out of her backpack and asked if she was looking forward to the new HBO series, His Dark Materials. “What is that?” she asked.

“Isn’t that a copy of The Subtle Knife you’re carrying?” I asked.

“No,” she replied. “This book is The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck.” Then she described some of the finer points of this book’s arguments, and told me about having cured her hip and knee problems with long, strenuous fasting, and about taking up free-diving, and about any number of things that, taken together, might lead you to think that she was something of a kook, instead of the excellent, free-spirited, brave, independent person that she actually is, in addition to being a kook. The walk was entirely along a dirt road, but her mile-eating pace and the flow of easy chatter made short work of it. We parted ways at the edge of Jomsom, where she was stopping to arrange a bus ticket south on the next day. I walked into town until I found the airport terminal and walked in with the intention of buying a flight on the following day. The man behind the counter told me that there was one seat left in the Twin Otter that was scheduled to take off in half an hour, so I grabbed it. I had left Kagbeni a little after 8:00, and by 11:30 I was in the air.

When I landed in Pokhara I was even more confused than usual about what to do next. I had thought I would do some research about the town from my hotel in Jomsom, but everything had moved much more quickly than I’d expected. I didn’t have data on my phone, and the airport didn’t have wifi, so I pulled out my mapping app and took a hard look at it. The lake I remembered from 1986 was about a mile north of the airport; many hotels and guesthouses were clustered along its eastern shore. This was good enough for me, so I strapped on my pack and walked up there. The area I’d chosen, the Lakeside neighborhood, turned out to be the heart of Pokhara’s tourist district. The place was aswarm with restaurants and trekking shops. I was in no mood for this, so I spent most of my time for the next couple of days attending to chores and finishing The Pale King.

There appeared to be only one activity in Pokhara other than shopping and eating, and that was renting a little boat and taking it out onto Phewa Lake. I didn’t feel capable of doing that, though. I remembered almost nothing of Pokhara from my earlier visit, but I remembered paddling out on the lake with Christina, and visiting a small island where a battered, vermilion-daubed temple deteriorated in the sun. I took a photograph of her, sitting sideways in the boat in front of me; her red shirt was ablaze against the blue of the water, and the sky, and the mountains that hung on the horizon. This was another case in which I couldn’t tell the difference between my memory and my photographs. That image is heavy with all of the things that we couldn’t know – not only details about our unborn children and the upcoming trajectories of our personal and professional lives, but also with the features of our lives at that time that we couldn’t see because we were too close to them. We didn’t really understand how rare and wonderful that adventure was, or how young and beautiful we were, or how time might subvert our best intentions. We didn’t understand except in the most superficial way that we would never have a moment like this again, and that there was no recapturing it.

Neither David Foster Wallace nor Peter Matthiessen will ever write another word. I will soon be neither young nor fit enough to hike over Thorung-La Pass. The young people that Christina and I were in 1986 are gone forever and are remembered now only in flashes of color and recollections of heat and light. There is no recovering from injuries like this. I adapt, but I do not recover.

Photos from Kathmandu and the trek.

A Month in Europe with John

9/7/2019 through 10/5/2019

“John and I enjoyed Europe.”

There, in five words, is a description of the month that began on September 7 and concluded on October 5, when John flew back home from Athens. Here is another brief description – this time 58 words:

“I flew to Belgium on September 7, where I met my brothers Bob and John in Bruges. Bob was able to stay in Bruges for only a few days, but John and I continued our tour, visiting Paris, Venice, three Croatian cities (Split, Korčula, and Dubrovnik), Athens, and finally Santorini, before John flew back to the United States.”

And now for the long version.

What follows is almost 20,000 words describing what was fundamentally a typical trip to Europe by a couple of typical Americans. There is no hope that I might produce a comprehensive account of this last month; there is hardly any hope for a comprehensible one. To do the trip justice would require a book-length essay, and an ability to shape a series of unremarkable tourist activities into an engaging, thoughtful narrative. Instead of attempting such a thing, I’ll transcribe the notes that I made while traveling, on airplanes, trains, and ferries, correcting minor errors as I go, and then I’ll press the “publish” button in WordPress.

This record is mostly for the benefit of those of us who were there – Bob, and especially John and me. Anyone else is welcome to keep reading, but I will not be hurt or surprised to learn that most people waded ankle-deep into this mess, thought better of their decision, and returned quickly to shore.

Bruges – September 7 through 10, 2019

The bus from Huaraz to Lima left a half-hour late, which meant I was sitting in the Zbus waiting room for an hour and a half. The unsmiling young woman behind the counter dispensed information in inaudible, exasperated monosyllables. A man stripped to the waist and washed himself in the men’s room sink, in full view of the waiting room, because the bathroom had no door.

The bus took me over the Altiplano again – 14,000’ this time – and down a long series of switchbacks, to towns where agriculture was possible. As we entered the coastal plain, the visible fug that was so familiar to me from Lima could be seen, groping at the foothills like a parasite looking for a warm cleft into which it could burrow.

The bus stop in Lima was in a part of town I hadn’t known existed – big, flashy shopping malls, busy and bright in the gathering darkness. I had been nervously marking the bus’s progress in Maps.me, waiting for our arrival at a station that might allow easy access to the aeropuerto, but I needn’t have worried; this station was enormous, prosperous, and obvious. I caught a taxi to the airport and arrived too early to check my bag, so I established myself in the food court, typing, until they kicked me out at midnight. My flight was scheduled for 2:15 AM, so this was my opportunity to check my bag, go through security, and spend my last Peruvian soles (on a deck of cards and, incongruously, a chocolate bar that I planned to import to Belgium – the chocolate capital of the world).

A five-hour layover in Toronto was uneventful except for exchanging texts with Jim Nielson and for a conversation with an engineering professor of approximately my age – a slim woman named Holly who lives on 35 acres of land near the college where she teaches and where she goes for long walks, disturbing the resident coyotes and, according to her, the cougars, too. She had been to Oaxaca and asked me eagerly if I knew about the Oaxaca Lending Library – a resource that I spoke about with warm approval in my first blog post of 2019, http://jimbogar.com/wp/out/. Holly and I were delighted by each other. We exchanged contact information and then I hurried to my gate, where they were broadcasting stern warnings about the final call. I was the last passenger to board the plane.

The sun set over the Atlantic and rose again over northern France.

A shockingly friendly and helpful person at the Brussels airport directed me to the train and helped me buy a direct ticket to Bruges.

John met me at the train station in Bruges, looking happy and fit; he had arrived the day before, 9/6, and had already acquired the local expertise that enabled him to guide us into town and to our private room in St. Christopher’s Bauhaus hostel, where we had two small beds in a tiny room for $100/night. The toilet was in a closet whose roof sloped so abruptly that it was difficult to stand up while urinating, and the shower room was so small that it was almost impossible to dress and undress in there.

John was tempted to take a pedicab from the train station, because this service was being offered by an attractive young woman, but this would have meant asking her to drag our two enormous American selves and my luggage all the way across town – and besides, she was asking 18 Euro for it, whereas a taxi would have been 10 Euro. We said, “No, merci,” with some regret.

My brother Bob and his friend, Justin, had just arrived in Bruges, at the end of their “Beer and Bikes” tour. Their companions were Dave (a Dan-Acroyd sembable with a pleasant personality and a keen mind) and another Bob (their crapulous guide).

I’ve been writing on the bus, but just took a break to visit the gardens at Giverny, outside Paris. Mom would have adored this place.

Bob lay in wait for us around a corner near Bruges’s bell tower, springing out to take a picture of our surprised faces. It was good to see him again. He was half-bearded, in a familiar way, and his puff of grizzled hair was even more untamed than usual. He seemed a little tired to me – an impression that made sense, when the six of us convened in a good restaurant for an early dinner, and it became clear that the guide’s idea of sampling beer was to find a first-rate artisanal brew, preferably one produced in tiny batches by Trappist monks, and to pound pints of this down your throat until you can hardly walk. Bob had been biking 40 kilometers while half-drunk, every day for more than a week. No wonder he looked tired.

Our dinner was at an outdoor table behind a charming place. The courtyard had a setup for a game that is something like horseshoes, except that you roll a disk weighing perhaps ten pounds and the size of a wheel of gouda toward the stake. We divided into two teams and threw a bunch of remarkably random shots. I can’t remember which team won, if the word “won” applies here. When the game was over, Bob revealed that he had noticed that the disks were weighted unevenly, so that the side of each disk that still retained vestiges of paint was heavier; the disks reliably veered in that direction. Armed with this knowledge, I threw one last shot, after the game was over – and dropped it two inches from the pin. I was surprised that Bob had kept this information to himself, until I remembered that I am less competitive than practically anybody I know. You’d keep this information quiet if you wanted to win, of course. If you wanted to “win,” I mean.

Break for a simply incredible lunch at an old mill and home designed by one of Marie Antoinette’s architects. Wine, salad, main, dessert.

After dinner we followed Guide Bob through the dark streets of Bruges – no two of which meet at a right angle – to another restaurant where, to my amazement, I discovered that the plan was to drink more beer. I ordered a pint, against my better judgment, because everyone else was doing so. I finished it, but my energy was flagging. Before arriving in Bruges that morning, I’d been in transit for something like 41 hours; although I’m sure I got some sleep in that interval, while sitting upright in airplanes, I’m also sure it wasn’t much. At about 10:00, I excused myself, saying that I needed to get some sleep. John accompanied me back to the hostel. He said the next day that he’d never seen anyone fall asleep so fast.

Bob, Justin, John, and I each bought three-day museum passes, which let us into Bruges’s major attractions. We saw a church with lovely paintings, old frescoes that are being painstakingly exhumed out from under eleven coats of paint, and a Madonna and Child by Michelangelo – the only one of his works to have left Italy during his lifetime. The Gruuthusemuseum, with Hieronymous Bosch, Frans Hals, and lots of “Flemish Primitives.” John and I climbed the bell tower, where we were lucky enough to be standing when the carillon clanged into action. It played #1 from The Well Tempered Clavier, I believe, but so cacophonously that it was hard to be sure. John and I also visited the one working windmill on the city’s old walls, now destroyed, and a museum devoted to reproducing life 100 years ago – a schoolroom, cobbler’s shop, grocers, and so on. The Church of the Holy Blood. The Old City Hall.

Bob and Justin moved from their hotel room, which I never saw, to a wonderful place just ten minute’s walk from our hostel. We used their new place as a base of operations, drinking beer, eating cheese, bread, and sausages (bought, prepared, and served by Justin), and watching TV (Amazon’s series The Boys and In Bruges, the 2008 film that we had been told was “basically propaganda for Bruges.”) In the days following the film, we found ourselves in virtually every spot that the movie used as a location.

We also launched a day trip to Ypres, Passchendaele, and the Trappist monastery at Westvleteren, where Justin said they made “the best beer in the world.” This claim seems to me to be something like trying to identify the world’s most beautiful landscape, elegant painting, attractive woman, or cutest puppy, but there’s no doubt that Westvleteren 12 was a tasty beverage. From Wikipedia:

In 2014 (Westvleteren 12) was rated best beer in the world by Ratebeer.com.

Following these events, interest in Westvleteren’s output increased and stories appeared of the abbey’s stock being low, forcing the monks to reduce the amount of beer sold to each customer. In an interview, monk Mark Bode explained that the abbey had no intention of increasing its production, despite demand: “We make the beer to live but we do not live for beer.”

The monastery is a half-hour drive from the nearest town, but this hadn’t daunted the swarm of international beer nerds that packed the restaurant. It was an interesting outing.

I read about Ypres before we rented a car and drove there, but it was impossible to reconcile the horror stories of the First World War with the pastoral landscape that surrounded us on the motorway. I had read Wilfred Owens’s “Dulce et Decorum Est” aloud to John in our hostel room; despite having been familiar with this for many years now, it was everything I could do to get through it. Here it is again, in case you haven’t read it recently:

Dulce et Decorum Est

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.

Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime.—
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

The Flanders Field museum was a technical marvel but didn’t have anything like the information density that I was looking for. After spending way too much time there, we got back into the car and drove out to Passchendaele’s Tyn Cot cemetery, where 20,000 of the 500,000 men who died there in 1917 are interred. The fields between Passchendaele and Ypres were deep, deadly mud in 1917, but now they’re sleepy pasturage. Two German pillboxes flank the lower end of the cemetery; the one on the left had been dubbed by the British the “Irksome Pillbox.” The major, central pillbox has been used as the foundation of a memorial and cross. A high-schooler who was volunteering there took great pains to show us the graves of two Americans – both of whom had been fighting with the Canadians and neither of whom was identified as American on their headstones. He also had a notebook that showed, in schematic form, what this area had looked like in 1917, with the placement and orientation of the trenches at the time. This was exactly the information I’d been craving.

Break for a scant two hours in the Palace of Versailles – a monument to the consequences of combining a lack of education, poor taste, untrammeled narcissism, and all the money in the world.

On our last day in Bruges, John and I spent the morning visiting the windmill and other sights while Bob and Justin went for a run. Then we splurged on a good lunch at a sidewalk cafe – mussels and frites for John and Justin, Flemish beef stew for me, and spaghetti for Bob – while watching a constant stream of tourists take selfies next to the canal across the street. Bob sneaked off to pay for everything, because he is an excellent person. Then we got chocolates and coffee and beer, and then, since we had the whole afternoon ahead of us, we rented bicycles and rode them the five canal-side kilometers to the town of Damme, where John and I sat down for beers while Bob and Justin continued to roll through the countryside along the flat, open paths. A small clutch of drunken regulars sat propped up against the exterior wall of the pub. When, in a conversation about canalside bicycling, it came up that I have been to Amsterdam, a rheumy woman nodded knowingly and pantomimed smoking a joint. “No, no,” I said. “Not for me.”

“But that is all they have in Amsterdam,” she protested.

“Not at all,” I replied. “They also have prostitution.”

The next day, aboard an “Easy Jet” flight from Paris to Venice.

John and I had breakfast at the hostel’s restaurant, almost every morning; 5 Euro for a buffet with muesli, hard-boiled eggs, juice, bread, and instant coffee dispensed by a machine. Bob joined us on the last morning, because he is an excellent person. The three of us walked out onto the street after breakfast and were chatting comfortably while strolling toward the bus stop when the bus we were hoping to catch went by. John and I yelled “Bye, Bob!” and broke into lumbering trots under the weight of our bags, leaving Bob standing alone on the sidewalk. I feel bad about having run away from him. He and I won’t see each other again until December.

We bought tickets to Brussels for about 15 Euro each. I realized, perhaps 10 minutes later, that I had already bought these tickets, back in Bolivia; it is depressingly routine for me to have done something like that and then forgotten it. Wasting money occasionally is part of any trip like this, but still – incompetence stings.

We had a lot of time at Brussels Midi train station, which we used to drink coffee and eat stir-fried vegetables from the food court.

Photos from Bruges.

Paris – September 11 through 15, 2019

The trip to the Paris’s Gare du Nord was the usual stressful experience that was nevertheless easier and more convenient than it had any right to be. I was making this point to John yesterday, when I observed that only miracles of engineering and system design make it possible for a person like me, without any help, to make his way through Mexico and South America, fly from Peru to Belgium, and then arrange transportation and lodging across half of Europe. It’s amazing to think about how many complicated systems need to work flawlessly for this to have happened.

We took the Metro to the Républic stop, where we staggered down the Avenue de Républic under our loads, admiring the young men and their skateboards, to the Rue des Trois Bornes, where we couldn’t find our Airbnb. When our host, Julien, came to our rescue, he seemed slightly incredulous that, having found #1, we hadn’t been able to locate #2, which was a block up the street, on the other side.

Our Airbnb was absolutely perfect. Just past several sidewalk cafes and one of Paris’s charming Wallace water fountains, up two flights of creaking wooden stairs, in the 11th arrondissement. Julien, a trim, tanned, gay young man, showed us the ropes with genuine charm and friendliness. After a brief collapse, John and I set off for a long walk down a long capped canal, past guys playing palenque and flotillas of electric bikes and scooters, to an open harbor full of pleasure craft, to the Seine, where we walked west to the far end of the Île de la Cité, to a sidewalk cafe just past the Hôtel de Ville, where we sat down and had vin rouge (me) and champagne (John), toasting ourselves for being so indubitably and awesomely in Paris. And then took the Metro home.

On our first full day in Paris, John thought he might give his aching feet a break, so we split up. I walked down to the Centre Georges Pompidou, where a bought a 4-day Paris Museum Pass and then struggled to figure out that horrible building. You enter, buy your ticket, and then follow the “sortie” (exit) signs to the escalators that take you up the outside of the structure. The sixth floor was off limits to me and my pass – a special exhibit devoted to the undeniably accomplished but nightmarish and unpleasant works of Francis Bacon – so I started on the fifth floor, where most of the titans of 20th century art are represented by attractive but second-tier works. Miró, Picasso, Kandinsky, Rothko, Pollack, Jasper Johns, Duchamp, and so on. I wasn’t really in the mood for it. The fourth floor was “contemporary” art (as opposed to “modern”), which means art since 1965 or so, the best of which was mildly amusing, but most of which was dull, derivative, and often intentionally and actively offensive.

After Pompidou, I got as close as I could to Notre Dame, which wasn’t very close at all; in the aftermath of April’s fire, the entire complex is cordoned off. Scaffolding covers the missing roof, and cranes are busy on all sides. I saw in the news recently that many tons of lead roofing material were aerosolized by the flames and deposited in a toxic flume over Paris.

Then I visited St. Chappelle’s magnificent stained glass, and would have visited the Conciergerie prison, where Marie Antoinette awaited execution in 1793, but for a sign saying something like “Fermeture exceptionnelle. Merci de votre compréhension.” From there, I walked to Shakespeare and Co., where I sadly looked at all the books I couldn’t buy. Oh, yes – by this time I’d bought a gelato, two scoops, strawberry and passionfruit, and paid an eye-watering 8 Euro for it. I fed the last scraps of the cone to a pigeon with a maimed foot, who pecked the pieces out of my outstretched hand and then approached to within inches, looking up into my face with greedy expectancy.

From Shakespeare and Co. I walked through the Latin Quarter to the Pantheon, a place I’d seen only from a distance on my previous visits to Paris. It’s enormous and grand, but absurdly self-important and aesthetically ridiculous. It’s a kind of secular church, huge but more solid than it needs to be – the Shaquille O’Neal of 19th-century architecture, if I can put it so badly. I admired Foucault’s Pendulum for a little while, which dangles from the central dome and swings with remarkable calm imperturbability back and forth over an inlaid section of floor, dismissed the ridiculous statuary and interior decoration, and went down into the crypt, to photograph the graves of Voltaire, Victor Hugo, the Curies, and other notables.

By now, John and I had exchanged texts. He was at the Grand Canadian Bar, on the Left Bank – a 20 minute walk from the Pantheon. I told him to sit tight and set off to meet him. He was seated outdoors with two older men from Toronto, Don and Bill, who were visiting Paris for just a day or two before taking the train to Normandy and touring WWII battlefields. We enjoyed talking with them. They must have been well-to-do; Bill’s old house in Toronto was used as a set in the recent Stephen King film, It. They weren’t sure that their train trip on the following day was going to happen, they said, because of the upcoming one-day transit strike.

This was the first I’d heard of this. Our cute, dark, Slovakian waitress told us about how bad it was likely to be, and also expressed remorse at the fact that the French don’t tip – although she admitted that she does okay, because most of her customers are Canadian and American tourists, who leave tips even when no one else does.

I thought John and I might be able to use the electric bikes and scooters to get around on the following day – the day of the transit strike – but John and I had a hell of a time with the wifi in our Airbnb; I was able to download the Velib (bike) and Lime (scooter) apps to my phone, but John had no luck. This meant that a combination of inexperience and ineptitude gave me, with a working phone, a fun and romantic electric scooter ride through the heart of Paris, all the way to the Musée d’Orsay, while John tried and failed to pick up a taxi (all of whose drivers looked dourly out at him through their windshields and waggled an index finger in the universal “no” sign), and then gave up and walked the whole way there. Meanwhile, I entered the museum and looked at a few statues before realizing that I should wait for John and retiring to the superb cafe on the fourth floor, with the enormous transparent clock looking out toward Sacré-Cœur. By now I knew he was on foot – a text had said he was “still miles away” – so my Kindle and I made ourselves comfortable. Finally, I got a text saying that he’d arrived, but that he’d been given a hard time at the x-ray machine in the security line and so, tired and dispirited, had retired to the courtyard, where he intended to read his book and wait for me as I enjoyed the museum. “What the effing eff?” I responded, and joined him outside. I gave him my jump-the-line museum pass, hoping that having a different x-ray operator might make it easier for him to get in, while I joined the line for the regular plebs. Ten minutes later, we were both inside.

We spent all afternoon at the Musée d’Orsay, leaving when they ejected us at closing. What a great experience. It was overwhelming, in the best whelming way. Afterward, we were faced with the transportation problem again, and once again John got screwed. I was able to rent a standard bicycle, but John couldn’t – and I couldn’t give it to him, because, without my phone, he couldn’t check it back in at the end of the ride. I got home in happy comfort, while John spent 20 Euro on a taxi that took him only a few blocks through almost motionless traffic before he gave up and, once again, did the whole thing on foot. When he finally arrived, exhausted and dripping with sweat, we eased his aches and pains at an excellent restaurant just a few feet away, which Julien had recommended because of its excellent “terroir,” a word I knew only from Georges Simenon’s series of Maigret mysteries.

Back at the apartment, I plugged my laptop into the TV and we watched Amélie, an absolute delight which John rightly said was a French It’s a Wonderful Life.

We had been thinking about devoting the following day to the Louvre, but John understandably felt that he had had enough long walks and transcendent museum experiences on the day before, so we compromised; we scootered to the Orangerie (I having figured out how to use the app to check out more than one scooter at a time), where we took our time with the delightful water lilies, and then found a restaurant in the Tuileries, where we had a couple of large beers, bread and cheese, and a nice conversation with a couple from Amarillo. The Texan woman told us that her visit to Monet’s home at Giverny had eclipsed their visit to Versailles, as far as she was concerned. John and I had only been dimly aware that a day trip to Giverny was even possible. Interesting.

I’m writing this aboard our flight from Venice to Split via Barcelona (of all things).

After lunch, John and I split up. His plan was to head west, for the Eiffel Tower / Champs-Élysées / Sacré-Cœur, while I spent the remainder of the day in the Louvre.

My pass did not allow me to jump the line at the Louvre, so I joined the long queue next to the I. M. Pei pyramid. An Indian couple in front of me had a slim little boy in their arms, whose black hair and direct gaze made him appear to be a miniaturized version of the adolescent he’ll be in another ten years. This boy was perfectly happy to grasp my proffered index finger and to play the game of passing his sweater back and forth.

By the time I got into the museum, it was 3:30 in the afternoon – two and a half hours until closing. It isn’t possible to do justice to the Louvre in one visit, even in the best of circumstances, but with two and a half hours the best you can hope for is seeing a few highlights and having a few happy surprises. I set off with brisk determination to do what I could. The Venus de Milo! Check. Look – a couple of Leonardos! The Winged Victory of Samothrace – probably my favorite sculpture in the world! I was standing in front of “The Raft of the Medusa,” or maybe it was Delacroix’s “Liberty Leading the People,” when it occurred to me that I wasn’t taking any time to do any musing, and that musing is the whole point of a museum. This realization made me slow down. I stopped to admire one masterpiece after another, doing what I could to ignore my watch. When I couldn’t deny that time was getting short, I made my way to the exhibits of ancient art, strolling through the delicious Cycladic statues, ancient Egyptian art, and then, saving the best for my last moments, the ancient Near East. This was a great decision. After a few rooms whose small, battered contents, though abstractly interesting, began to make me wonder whether I’d chosen wisely, I went through a doorway that opened up into a reconstruction of the Palace of the Persian King, Darius I of Susa, where monumental architecture and decoration from 500 BC crowded the space. An enormous gateway whose columns were topped by the heads of bulls dominated one side of the hall. The walls were covered with blue tiles and grim, alert soldiers in bas relief. The only thing I’ve ever seen to rival it is the royal Lion Hunt of Ashurbanipal in the British Museum. It was spectacular way to end my visit to the Louvre.

John, meanwhile, had solved the scooter-rental problem, and had zipped over to Sacré-Cœur. The hills were too much for the dinky motor of his scooter, and the cobbles nearly jounced out his fillings, but he still had a nice trip. It was a pleasure for him to travel through the city without having to walk every step of the way, for a change.

John and I had been talking about spending the following day – our last full day in Paris – on a day trip to Versailles, but, when I looked into this online, I discovered to my disbelief that all of the morning trains were fully booked. After a moment of paralysis, and a little more poking around on the web, it became clear that this was a problem that could be solved by “an infusion of U.S. dollars,” as our father used to say. We could book a bus tour that left at 8:15 the following morning, down by the Tuileries, and which promised to visit Giverny, feed us lunch, and then visit Versailles, all for the painful but not unendurable price of approximately $150 a ticket. This is about what it would have cost us to book the transportation and entrance tickets and lunch ourselves, we reasoned, delusionally. But still.

Giverny was pretty beyond our expectations. It felt like a small miracle that we had been standing in the Orangerie just 24 hours earlier, surrounded by Monet’s water lilies, and now here we were, standing at the edge of his water-lily pond. We couldn’t have planned it better, and we hadn’t planned it at all. Late-season flowers were blooming all around us, happy tourists were taking each other’s pictures on the Japanese bridge, the gardens abutting Money’s home were ablaze with black-eyed Susans and nasturtiums, and Monet’s home itself was a calm, colorful treat, full of Japanese engravings and reproductions of his paintings. John, in a triumph of hope over experience, bought a book of Monet-inspired garden plans from the gift shop.

Our guide, Florence, was a slim woman of approximately my age, wearing a red dress, a pair of white open-backed shoes, blonde hair cut to her chin, and a genuine, friendly smile. It was clear that she had been a pleasure to look at for every moment of her life. We were going to lunch, she said, at a little place that…I don’t know. I could never understand anything anyone said over a bus intercom. Something about the site and an architect associated with Marie Antoinette. We rolled through small, absurdly charming villages in Normandy for an hour or so, stopping finally at a park where an old mill stood at the edge of a slow, green river. This was our lunch stop.

Both the setting and the food were superb beyond anything we had dared to imagine. There were three bottles of wine on the table. The meal came in three courses, giving us plenty of time to talk with other people at the table. Carol, a newlywed, was traveling with Carolyn, her mother, both from Washington D. C. Carol said, with some passion, that she would never, ever, never get married again. Carolyn put herself out to be social, happily asking the table, “Why is it that wine tastes so much better in France?” John had a conversation with a friendly Australian man to his left who made strenuous eye contact with me as they talked, even though I couldn’t make out more than an occasional word. He was remarkably well informed about American politics, poorly dressed, and willing to finish each course of this delightful meal by swabbing his plate with scraps of bread and then devouring each scrap, licking the crumbs from his fingertips. John told me later that this man was gay, and that the woman he was traveling with, who I’d taken for his wife, was in fact his sister; this explained the peculiar eye contact, but it deepened the mystery of his dress and table manners.

Versailles, as I’ve already intimated, was repellent. I don’t know how it might have seemed to me if the space hadn’t been jammed with other tourists. We shuffled from room to room, pressed up against each other in doorways, gaping moronically through our upraised cell phones at the ceiling decorations and hideous gold-encrusted furnishings, and at each other, posing with upraised peace signs amidst the decaying, offensive splendor. John and I paused by the occasional open windows to appreciate the hint of a breeze that sometimes wafted through.

Jacques-Louis David’s monumental canvases of Napoleon’s coronation were fun to look at, but the rest of the experience was a trial. The back of my hand to Louis XIV. John and I were glad to walk away from the Palace of Versailles.

On the following morning, we carried our bags the few blocks to the Oberkampf Metro station, caught a train to the Gare du Nord, another train to Charles de Gaulle airport, and flew to Venice.

Photos from Paris.

Venice – September 16 – 18, 2019

The Marco Polo airport in Venice offers two obvious ways to get into town: a bus that crosses a causeway and then drops you off at the extreme western edge of the network of islands, from which you must then walk, dragging your bags along with you, and a water bus, which costs more (15 Euro), but which takes you right down the Grand Canal, from which practically every house in town is a five-minute walk. We chose the latter, because obviously.

We were met at the Rezzonico dock by our host’s mother, Anna Lisa, a woman of advanced but indeterminate age, with hair a dark shade of purple, a thick impasto of makeup, and what would be called an aquiline nose by her friends. Anna Lisa’s somewhat bizarre appearance was more than offset by her friendliness, though. She led us down alleys and over bridges, chatting about the squares and mask shops and glass shops and restaurants and about the enormous cat that was napping behind one window, which, she said, “every night, he walks across Venice.” Our Airbnb contact, Martina, was waiting in a 2nd-floor window for us when we strolled up. She and her mother explained the apartment in great, not to say excruciating, detail, including a long story about a battle with an unlicensed restaurant nearby; I wasn’t clear on the details, as usual. They were rhapsodic about a different restaurant, right around the corner, and made us promise to visit.

John and I thanked them for their hospitality, ushered them out the door, heaved matching sighs, and left, heading back to the square under the 18th-century church we’d just walked through, where we sat at tables under an umbrella and drank a couple of grateful beers. Then we went for a walk along the canals, stopping every few seconds to take pictures of the bridges, architecture, boats, and people. We had each seen dozens – hundreds – of photographs of Venice in our lives, of course, but those photos had failed to convey the impression we had of being entirely surrounded by – engulfed by – the beauty and charm of the city. It’s pretty in every direction, all the time. Every street is a pedestrian street, except when it’s a canal. Every house is hundreds of years old, with wooden shutters and little window boxes. It’s overwhelming.

We had dinner that night in the place around the corner our hosts had mentioned, which was every bit as excellent as we’d been told. The chef and the head waitress were both charming people, who served us Primitivo wine and peanuts and olives and ham before a table opened up, where we had more wine, and platas from the menu, and a citrus/vodka dessert endrunkener to conclude the meal. It came to 88 Euro, as I recall, and it was worth it.

We began our first full day in Venice by making coffee in a little Italian stovetop espresso device and putting a load of laundry into the washing machine, which turned out to be the slowest method of washing clothes short of hanging them outside and waiting for a hard rain. I used the time to catch up on email. John had decided to take the morning off to rest his feet, but by the time the clothes had been hung up to dry he had changed his mind, so the two of use set off east for St. Mark’s.

The closer we got to St. Mark’s and the Doge’s Palace, the thicker the crowds became, and the denser and more tasteless the tourist shops – until we got very close indeed, when all the shops became Tiffany’s and Dior and Louis Vuitton. This was expensive tastelessness, on a grand scale, directed at us amorphous, ordinary mortals, shuffling by on the cobbles outside. St. Mark’s was pretty, but we were not tempted to linger there, still less to actually enter any of the tourist sites. Instead, we made our way northwest, through the unremitting crush of humanity, to the Rialto bridge. We had lunch in an unremarkable restaurant in the shadow of the bridge, and then made our way back to our apartment.

I hadn’t originally intended to spend the afternoon doing travel business, but it seemed to me that there was a lot to be done, and that there was no time like the present. So, while John put his up his aching feet, I booked a flight from Athens to Kathmandu, booked an Airbnb in Athens for the days after John returned to the U.S., booked flights from Athens to Santorini and back, and booked an Airbnb in Santorini’s main city, Fira. I was still working on this when John woke up, used some of my first aid supplies to bandage the Paris-induced blisters on his toes, and then got to work making dinner, using eggs, cheese, and wine we’d bought the previous evening at a grocery store near the apartment, and chanterelles, potatoes, and onions we’d bought at a floating produce barge down by the place where we’d had beers during our first hours in town. It was delicious.

After dinner, we walked to the Venice Jazz Club, where I’d made reservations after learning that it was Latin and Bossa Nova night. At 8:00 the doors were open but the place was deserted, so we walked the dark streets for half an hour, taking pictures, and returned when enough other patrons had gathered to keep us from feeling conspicuous.

I had brandy while John sampled a variety of different endrunkeners – a word I invented one page ago but which now seems an indispensable part of my vocabulary. The music was wonderfully accomplished and interesting: Caravan, Quiet Nights of Quiet Stars, La Muerte del Angel, and so on. Jobim, of course, but also talents of whom I’d never heard. The tall, friendly, humorous, intelligent man who seated us and took our drink orders, Federico, was also the colossally talented pianist. John and I were very self-congratulatory about being there. When the music was over, at about 11:00, neither of us was drunk, but John was a tad happier than usual, and was no longer capable of figuring out how to pay the bill; he invited the guitarist, who has a girlfriend in Portland, Oregon, to stay at the Burien house whenever he comes to town, and the guitarist seemed to be seriously entertaining the idea. I wonder what his name was.

Yesterday morning – thank God, I’m almost caught up (Ed. Note – this feeling didn’t last long) – we slept in for a while to let the fumes of the Venice Jazz Club dissipate, which effectively ended any aspirations we’d had of visiting St. Mark’s before the crowds gathered. We got out in the morning, though, taking back streets east-southeast to the Peggy Guggenheim museum, a charming space with a collection that is a stunning achievement for one person and which, if it were moved to Seattle, would instantly be the finest assembly of 20th century art on the West Coast. Picasso, Braque, Miró, Kandinsky, Brancusi, Giacometti, a Pollack that was out on tour, and, my personal darling, Duchamp. And others, of course. Paul Klee. Piet Mondrian. A stunning collection. Man Ray.

We followed Maps.me – our essential companion, especially in a place like Venice, where no two points are ever connected by a straight line – to a pizzeria at the south end of the main island, where we ordered too much food and watched the clouds gather over the charming houses and hotels on the other side of the broad canal. We waddled home afterward, aware that we’d ruined dinner for ourselves, but not caring very much.

After an hour or two of relaxation, we hit the streets again – this time north, to the old Jewish quarter. The name of this district, the Ghetto, is where we get the word in English. We crossed the Grand Canal on a bridge near the railway station and entered an unexpectedly touristy district as a few drops of rain began to fall. We bought cappuccinos and sipped them under a loggia, sharing the space with a young man in renaissance Italian garb who was frowning down at his smartphone. The rain didn’t abate, but it didn’t get any worse, either, and it had never been at all serious, so we shrugged our shoulders and set off for home.

As we were approaching the neighborhoods we recognized, we filed down the Calle del Tabacco, to a little square surrounded by apartments, where two kids clambered on the central capped well and a somnolent restaurant drowsed in one corner. The perfect place to smoke the cigars that John had had the presence of mind to buy that morning. We took shelter from the small breeze next to one of the buildings, where opera music leaked from an open window, and got our Cuban Romeo y Juliets fired up. Then we sat on the steps under the well and watched people walking by. A dad showing off his soccer skills to his young son. A group of friends meeting in one corner, exchanging smiles and hugs. A tubby male tourist and his tubby wife, pushing a stroller; the man had a tee-shirt whose graphic mimicked the power meter on a phone, with a single red bar in an otherwise empty battery icon, and the words “Daddy Meter” beneath. More achingly beautiful young women than we could count. Another group of friends exchanging warm greetings.

The cigars had generated that nicotine-fueled euphoria that I remembered so well. We were in bliss.

Eventually, bladders and a consciousness of the lengthening shadows forced us to our feet. We were nearly home when John observed we were out of wine, so I sent him ahead to use the plumbing while I backtracked to the grocery store and repaid his purchase of the cigars by picking up a bottle of Primitivo, some brie, focaccia, fruit, and a little chocolate. It wasn’t dinner, but it was something like dinner, and it was delicious, especially when paired with the penultimate episode of The Boys, which we watched with great satisfaction as the noise began outside our window, from that colorful, happy, deeply hated unlicensed restaurant in the square below.

I feared we might outsleep the coming morn
As much as we this night had overwatched.
This palpable-gross episode of The Boys had well beguiled
The heavy gait of night. Sweet friends, to bed.

We have done nothing today but make our way to Marco Polo airport, fly to Barcelona, hang around, and fly to Split. We’re somewhere over the Adriatic right now. In a few minutes, we’ll be in Croatia.

Photos from Venice.

Split, Korčula, and Dubrovnik – 9/19-25, 2019

We got up too early in Venice, packed our bags, and walked down to the Rezzonico water-bus stop. The sky brightened over the Grand Canal as we waited for our ride. We were on our way to Croatia, via Barcelona; a geographically nonsensical route that obliged us to fly 1500 miles to cross 240 miles of the Adriatic, but which was the cheapest and fastest way for us to get there.

The Marco Polo airport is noteworthy only for the long moving sidewalks that take you from the canal to the terminal, the Barcelona airport is notable for the attractive use of panels of olive-green glass they’ve chosen to use for the walls of every shop and restaurant in the facility, and the airport in Split is notable only for its absences – no shops or restaurants, no information desk where two Americans might learn the best way to get to town.

Our taxi took us to a spot where a narrow street dove into a hole in a taupe city wall. The driver said our destination was 50 or 60 meters down that way, so that’s the way we went – past a Game of Thrones souvenir shop, with a replica in plastic of the Iron Throne, past restaurants and gelato stands, to a square where walking tours followed guides carrying umbrellas and wands overhead like standards into battle, and where dozens of tourists took photos of an ancient palace in one corner – Palace Cipriani, which turned out to be our Airbnb. We met our doughy, Aspbergery host, Joseph, retrieved the keys, put down our loads, and went out to find dinner.

After eating, at a funky and good plant-based restaurant where we heard a lot of old rock and roll, including the second of three separate airings of “Sugar Sugar” by the Archies over our two-day visit, we strolled down to the harbor, admiring the colors of the setting sun, walked under the palms along the row of waterfront restaurants, and then chose to reenter the old city through an archway, low among the restaurants. This space appeared to have been built as the world’s biggest wine cellar, with columns and arched ceilings. I’m not sure what Diocletian used it for. It is full of souvenir shops now, and, as we subsequently learned, it is where Daenerys chained up her dragons. We followed the crowd up a long, steep flight of stone steps, which opened up into an airy plaza flanked by Roman columns, a hexagonal church, and a lovely old bell tower, all nicely lit against a cobalt sky. John and I gaped in amazement.

“Where the hell are we?” I asked.

A young woman in loose cotton clothing looked over her shoulder and smiled at me. “You’re in Diocletian’s palace!” she said.

I had come to Split aware of its reputation for age and beauty but having done no research whatsoever; the existence of this part of town was a complete surprise to me. Other people don’t travel this way; everyone else we meet has been thinking about their destinations for months or years. People are able to book their treks on the Inca Trail a year in advance, for example. Doug, the unexpectedly gay man at our post-Giverny lunch stop, had booked this bus tour months earlier, and was surprised and somewhat put out to learn that John and I had signed up the night before, and that we hadn’t even thought of visiting Giverny until running into the Texans at lunch on the previous day. This happenstantial approach to traveling means that I often miss important things, and usually have not read about the history and context of the places I visit – but I don’t know how I could do otherwise, given that I’m living on the road. If I devoted as much time to planning as everyone else seems to – Martin, poring over his plasticized tabulated planning documents in our high-altitude Peruvian tent comes to mind – I’d hardly have time for anything else. At the moment, for example, I am not sure where I’ll go after Nepal; northern Thailand has attracted a lot of expats, but I keep running into people who tell me that northern Vietnam is not to be missed. When am I going to make up my mind about this, and how? Maybe I’ll turn my attention to this question in the interval after John flies home from Athens.

After that wonderful nighttime walk in Split – an experience of surprise and delight I am unlikely to repeat – we were eager to devote the next day to exploring the old city in the daylight. We rambled slowly through the labyrinth of streets, climbed to the top of the palace’s vestibule, which is open to the air like Rome’s Pantheon, and paid for entrance to the Cathedral of Saint Domnius, which is the former mausoleum of Diocletian and, according to Wikipedia, a building that is noteworthy for being “the oldest Catholic cathedral in the world that remains in use in its original structure.” We visited the crypt beneath the church, and then the Baptistry, down a narrow lane whose sagging walls were propped up with reassuringly stout timbers; the Baptistry had been a Temple of Jupiter, under Diocletian, but had been converted to this much less interesting function a long time ago. All of the old statues are missing noses and often heads; early Christian imbeciles thought that these sculptures glorified paganism and so “defaced” them.

In the afternoon we took a taxi to the Archaeological Museum, a little north of town, where one young man concluded his visit and left the building as we bought tickets, leaving us to explore the museum and grounds by ourselves for the next hour. The excellent collection starts with flint shards from the late Paleolithic and works its way through every period of local history, right up through the early Christian sarcophagi, out in the courtyard. Lots of fibulae, for holding robes closed, lots of glass bottles for holding “unguents,” lots of coins, from hoards people buried, hoping to return to them if only they could avoid the tragedies that hovered in their futures. Statuary and Roman mosaics. The streets of Split were packed with slow-moving tourists, grimly licking their gelatos, and yet John and I were alone in this treasure house. It was baffling.

I am transcribing these notes into my laptop during my last hours in Athens. I’m sitting on a shady park bench under an olive tree, having just checked out of my little Airbnb, where I have spend most of my time since John flew home, playing on the computer and listening to the wailing of Middle-Eastern music on the apartment’s shortwave radio.

On the day after the trip to the museum, John and I spent the morning on a kayak expedition. We paddled away from a beach on the north side of the wooded peninsula west of Split – a peninsula entirely devoted to parkland – past eroded limestone at the waterline and a lovely pine forest, to a beach where we got to loll around for 45 minutes. Most of the group (maybe ten people, none of whom seemed interesting to me) followed the guide off on a cliff-jumping expedition, but I was happy to swim, instead. The water was warm and buoyant and the swimming felt effortless; I was probably off shore for 20 minutes. This was my longest swim for many years.

The kayak organizers had promised us snorkeling gear. I had told John the previous evening that I was really looking forward to this – that snorkeling is one of my favorite things to do – but, when we got to the beach, and I asked Viče, our guide, about it, he looked up and down the beach as though surprised I couldn’t see this for myself and said, “But there is no snorkeling equipment.” When I got back from my long swim, John said that someone had found an abandoned snorkeling mask, so I put that on and went back into the water. There were half a dozen species of small fish in waist-deep water, right along the shore. It was incredible that I had been swimming among them and been totally oblivious to their energetic, independent lives. Maybe I’ll be able to rent snorkeling gear in Korčula.

After getting back to Split, we changed clothes hurriedly, grabbed pizza to go from a stall under our apartment, and set off for the bus stop at the edge of town. The #22 to the ruined fortress of Klis was due in a few minutes. When we got to the bus stop, we met a young couple who said they’d been there, waiting for the #22, for more than an hour. The schedule that was posted at the bus stop said that the next one was due in ten minutes. After 15 minutes, I called an Uber, and all four of us piled in. The couple were Jake and Emma, from a little town an hour’s drive west of London. They were big Game of Thrones fans, and were eager to see Klis, which had been the set for the slave city of Meereen, where Daenerys had…well, you either already know all about this, or you couldn’t care less. Jake had a series of interesting photos on his phone that allowed us to compare stills from the series – with the costumed extras, and the platforms covered with flags and garlands, and the pyramids and castles that were added to the background during postproduction – against the ruins that rose out of the ridgetop in front of us. I don’t understand, except in the most superficial way, how it’s possible to use a computer to convert such a site into a place that appears to still be inhabited. The word “magic” is frequently used to describe the work of Hollywood, but it has never applied so well as at the fortress of Klis.

When we had seen everything that Klis had to offer, John and I walked past a wedding that was taking place under the ruined walls. An accordionist and guitarist sang harmonies while the bride and groom smiled and posed for pictures with the guests. This reminds me to mention Red Adventures, the tour group that organized the morning’s kayak expedition, because they appear to be able to organize self-guided bicycle/kayak tours of the Croatian coast and islands; it may be possible to plan a vacation to Croatia that is a wilderness experience, a bicycle trip, a kayaking adventure, and a visit to dozens of charming villages. This reminder about Red Adventures comes to mind because one of the wedding guests was an attractive young woman in a red dress, about whom I joked, “Now she looks like a Red Adventure.”

We had lost track of Jake and Emma by the time we left, at 4:30, but there they were, at the base of the hill, waiting for another hypothetical bus. John and I suggested that we share another Uber, and then we repaired to the terrace of a restaurant that looked up the hill at the fortress, where John and I had beers and the Londoners drank Coca-Cola. A waiter at the bar had tuned the television to a local soccer game – a game that John and I had seen getting underway when we looked down on the field from the Klis battlements. The team from Split was destroying the visitors, to our inexplicable satisfaction. And then we called the Uber, rode it back to town, shook our new friends’ hands, and will never see them again.

John and I walked through the northeast quadrant of Old Town – unknown ground, to us – and found an excellent restaurant which only regretfully seated us, every table being reserved one hour hence. John had risotto while I had pasta with mushrooms and truffles, and we split a bottle of Merlot.

The following morning, we took the ferry to Korčula. The harbor on the east side of Old Town has five or six enormous cruise-ship docks; it wasn’t at all obvious which one might house our ferry. A half hour of irritated confusion led us to the correct queue, though. We were in Korčula by 12:30.

From the plane to Athens, 9/26.

We were met at the doc by Roko, an unsmiling Croatian man with a substantial gut and a gimpy leg, who put our luggage into his small red car and then drove us very slowly the half-mile to the apartment he was renting us, showing us the boat he used to own, and a boat that looked just like his new boat, except for some of the paintwork, and the grocery store, and the pharmacy, and another grocery store, and a good restaurant, not too expensive. He pulled mostly off the road, with the right-front tire inches from falling off the sea wall, to show us the plastic chairs we could sit on later, if we wished, and to point out his own private dock. “I guess you probably aren’t going to drive off this wall,” said John. “Ha ha.” Then, when we got to the white, sun-drenched apartment, he showed us the light switches, the kitchen appliances, how the windows worked, the fuse box, and where to find extra soap, sponges, paper towels, toilet paper, linens, and so on. John was saying things like, “Okay! I think we’ve got it! Yep! Thanks so much!” We were both incredulous when Roko mentioned his wife; people who talk in such a torrent usually do so because they have no one else to talk to. I think Roko is friendly and open and social to a degree that Americans in general, and John and I in particular, find incomprehensible and off-putting. He offered to grill us any fish or meat we might buy, and invited us down to his house for a glass of wine later; we thanked him, said “maybe,” and then closed the door behind him, relieved to have rid ourselves of this clearly superior person.

John had been reacting badly to the mosquito bites we’d been collecting since Bruges, sprouting welts and scratching disconsolately, this morning he’d awakened with his left eye swollen shut in a slightly alarming, likely-to-frighten-small-children way. We’d gotten an early start, though, so there was no time to shop for an antihistamine until we got to Korčula. As soon as Roko left, John went off to find a Benadryl, while I explored the old town, on the little hill overlooking the harbor.

I had a lovely time, taking pictures of narrow streets festooned with laundry and decorated with potted plants and buttressed with stone archways, walking along the esplanade, and having lunch at a little place that served a passable Pad Thai. Meanwhile, John had discovered that the pharmacy was closed on Sundays but had heard that the clinic a little way outside town might be open, so he got a bicycle from a shop where the woman running the rental desk, when he explained his errand, gave it to him for free, tried and failed to figure out its gearing system as he labored up the hill past the supermarket, found the clinic – closed – and rode back to town, exhausperated. “Where would you go if you broke your leg on a Sunday?” he asked someone in Korčula. “I don’t know,” the person had replied. “Maybe I would take the boat to Ljnbrvnjk,” naming a nearby island whose actual name never struck my memory more than a glancing blow.

This reminds me to mention the preponderance of the letters “v,” “z,” and “j” in Croatian. When I said something about this to John, he said he’d seen a little boy coming up the street the other day, hanging onto his mother’s hand and amusing himself by hopping from foot to foot and chanting, “Vizj vizj vizj vizj vizj.”

So, while John was off getting hot and sweaty and frustrated, I was having a relaxed stroll around this beautiful old Croatian town.

We had only one full day in Korčula. On Monday evening, John’s eye had opened enough to allow him to squint through it, improving his appearance from “hideous” to “disreputable.” I had hoped to book a snorkeling expedition, but the forecast was for rain and lightning, every few hours, so I abandoned this idea and accompanied John to the local pharmacy, where the unsmiling young woman behind the counter, when asked about antihistamines, said, “Oh, no. We do not have real medicine here. Only herbs and, you know,” followed by a dismissive gesture at the crowded shelves behind her. She directed us to the supermarket halfway up the hill, where we could find a pharmacy that sold pharmacologically active products.

John recounted his previous day’s experiences with the bike as we walked up this hill. I’d had a good conversation with my daughter Laura the night before, in which she’d recommended something more potent than Benadryl, so John got a box of Claritin from the unsmiling woman behind the counter.

“Look at that,” I said, pointing at a box of “Forté” on an unreachable shelf – a box decorated with the silhouette of a rhino whose horn had been suggestively circled. “They can’t possibly be selling rhino horn, right?”

John, to my consternation, immediately asked to see the box. The pharmacists chatted earnestly for a moment and then brought a woman from the back, whose English was evidently better than theirs. “You want buy?” she asked, handing over the box, whose ingredient list, being in Croatian, was completely opaque to us.

“No,” said John. “We want to know – is rhino, rhinoceros, horn, you know,” – pantomimes having a huge horn thrusting out of his face – “in here? Really?”

“No, no,” said the woman, with sudden comprehension. “The horn, the box, is just a, you know, indication. A symbol. For, you know.” It represents, you know.” She looked earnestly at our faces, back and forth, having no idea what the English word for “erection” might be, and hoping to God that we wouldn’t force the issue.

I was glad to get out of there.

John took two of the pills immediately and said he’d had more than enough of huffing over the island’s hills on the day before, so we split up for the morning. I hiked over a treed hill, past an abandoned donjon, and then returned to the old town and climbed the bell tower, up the narrowest flight of public steps I’ve ever seen. An actual stoplight had been installed at the base of the one-way stairs. The view of the town from the top was the usual Adriatic perfection. I met a woman up there who told me nervously that she wasn’t really good with heights.

“Then why did you come up here?” I asked.

“It’s a bell tower, isn’t it?” she replied. “You feel somewhat obliged.”

John and I met for lunch in the old town, exploring the narrow streets and ending up down by the water, where we looked out at the yachts and watched a terrified school of little fish leap clear of the water while they were pursued by another school of slightly larger fish. It was brutal and beautiful down there.

It had rained overnight, and that morning, but the weather was mostly sunny by now, so after lunch I changed into swimming gear and carried our newly acquired swim mask down to the water, where I spent an hour communing with a dozen species of little fish, some sponges, and a thousand sea urchins, one of which I swam down to harass without disturbing his equanimity at all. It turns out that snorkeling without a snorkel or fins restricts you mostly to the surface, but that was okay. As I swam, a dozen big boats arrived, which lined up cheek-by-jowl along the dock, and whose wakes threatened to overwhelm the shirt and towel I’d left on the pebble beach.

We had our usual excellent dinner that night, at a restaurant that had been set up in what was either a narrow street or a wide alleyway, and returned to our apartment before the lightning and thunder began.

We are approaching Athens. Every ridgetop is crowned with wind turbines.

The ferry from Korčula to Dubrovnik was uneventful except for the bout of motion sickness I had to endure, starting several pages ago, with the words “We were in Korčula by 12:30,” at which point I thought “uh-oh” and put down my pen. I may be the world’s worst sailor. Nobody else on that crowded ferry, from the most energetic boys, hopping up and down and laughing at their weightlessness when they timed their leaps perfectly to the swell, to the tiniest dessicated old ladies, seemed to be having any trouble.

Touchdown.

October 3rd – Flight from Santorini to Athens

I can hardly believe that this notebook has not yet mentioned Dubrovnik, Athens, or Santorini. The situation is teetering along the line that separates “desperate” from “impossible.”

John learned this morning, from a piece of email he’d been sent at 6:30 AM by the Internet company from which he’d bought his return flights, that XL Airlines, which runs the Paris-Newark leg of his return trip, had suspended operations on September 30. This would have been inconvenient news if he’d received it four days ago, but getting it this morning has left him with few options.

I bought tickets for the flight we’re now on to minimize the time John would have to spend at the Athens airport, and to maximize our time in Santorini; John will have time to get his bag and head for the security line, and no time to talk to anyone about his new problem with XL Airlines. He won’t have any time to look into this until he lands in Paris this afternoon! This is likely to be a long series of expensive and exhausting problems for him. He thought it might make sense to ditch the next leg of the return and try to figure out the logistics from Athens, crashing at my Airbnb tonight, if necessary; I think it’s probably better to get aboard every flight for which he has a ticket – I used the phrase “bird in the hand” when making this point to John – and hope for the best on his arrival at Charles de Gaulle. Maybe one of the “rescue fares” afforded by United or Air France might be able to help him tonight. If not, he’ll likely have to spring for a room in an airport hotel. At least he’d be close at hand for his next flight, though, and he wouldn’t have to pay for a last-minute flight from Athens – a ticket he already owns, after all.

This digression about John’s logistical woes is a tacit admission that there’s no reason for me to hurry up with the descriptions of the last week in Europe; I will not be able to remember more than fragments, and it’s impossible that I could make more than a tiny amount of progress before landing in Athens, so I’ll just scrawl whatever comes to mind, with no more than a nod toward the idea of catching up.

Our Airbnb in Dubrovnik was just outside the western gate in the old city wall. The unsmiling woman who showed us the place gave us each a set of keys, recommended a restaurant by the water, just down the street, and left us. John and I were sharing a bedroom with two twin beds, and the interior space had no charm at all, but that didn’t matter; we would only be there for two nights. We dropped our bags and set off for the restaurant our host had told us about.

A right on the narrow pedestrian path, where two young people behind a fence were sitting next to each other and sobbing into their hands, a left past the Dubrovnik Love Museum, a right past the burst-bellied remains of a fibreglass rowboat, and John and I said “Oh my God” in the same moment. We were standing at the pier at Blackwater Bay, where John Snow had sailed away at the end of Game of Thrones, and where Cersei had met Jaime, rowing ashore with her daughter’s body. The pier was covered with tourists, of course, and the little boats that were tied up there were distressingly ordinary, modern watercraft, and the bay itself was flecked with a dozen bright orange plastic kayaks that were being rented by an outfit on the cobbly beach, but still. Blackwater Bay. We were agog.

Dubrovnik had been high on my list of places to visit for a long time; I remember grieving during the bombardment of 1991, thinking that this famously beautiful city might be destroyed. I’d wanted to visit for at least 40 years, so I’d have enjoyed our brief stay in Dubrovnik even if Game of Thrones hadn’t used it as the set for King’s Landing – but the Game of Thrones tourism made exploring the city a kind of Easter-egg hunt. Here were the stairs where Cersei was stripped and led through the streets, while that Nurse Ratched woman walked behind her, ringing a bell and chanting “Shame!” And here was the House of the Undying, where Daenerys used her little dragons to roast that terrible, hairless wizard. And the fort over Blackwater Bay – that was the Red Keep, where the show had shot a sadistic tournament, presided over by Geoffrey, the boy psychopath, and where John entertained me by imitating Geoffrey saying “Oh, well struck, Dog!”

A map is displayed on a wall near Dubrovnik’s north gate that shows the density of the shelling the city was subjected to by the Yugoslav People’s Army in 1991. Seven ancient buildings were destroyed outright, and scores were hit by shells and shrapnel. Today, though, the only sign of this is in the view down into the city from the encircling wall, where many of the red-tile roofs seem oddly new.

We saw a poster for a concert that was being given that night in one of the old palaces – a solo piano doing Beethoven and Chopin, in a benefit for a local hospital. A little later, while we were augmenting the hideous throngs of hideous tourists with our hideous selves (the crush of humanity often felt oppressive), we noticed that someone was at the ticket booth outside the concert venue. Tickets were not due to go on sale for another hour – reason enough to dissuade poor timorous me from approaching the booth – but John walked up as though no one might think it importunate to ask for tickets at a ticket booth and was told that yes, we could buy them now, and that we probably should, because online sales were likely to consume every remaining seat very soon. We scored a couple of seats behind the pianist, with a good view of her hands, and went off to find dinner, very satisfied with ourselves.

The piano had been established in the palace courtyard, in a beautiful space full of columns and arches and taupe-colored stone. John and I recognized this courtyard at once – this was where that unctuous guy, the vizier of Qarth, a kind of mayor-of-Munchkinland figure, had come down the stairs to tell Daenerys that she couldn’t have the fleet she needed! John and I marveled at this absurd fact for a few minutes, until a woman in a floor-length, backless, white-lace gown came into the room, said a few words in Croatian, and sat down to perform.

I knew only one of the pieces she played – one of the Chopin etudes – but, even when the music was unfamiliar, it had been written by a genius, and even when the tempi and phrasing seemed to me to be bizarre choices, this pianist was doing things with her hands that bordered on the supernatural, and even when my attention flagged, from time to time, I could watch the play of muscles in her back, muscles whose complexity and vitality made her seem a Galatea as rendered by Rodin, come miraculously to life. The music ended too soon.

John and I devoted the following day – our only full day in Dubrovnik – to walking the circumference of the city walls, doing what we could to avoid the clots of selfie-mad Chinese tour groups, to visiting the Red Keep fort above Blackwater Bay, where technicians were setting up some kind of corporate event for Credit Suisse, and where teams of men had been put to work hauling chairs and lights and boxes of beverages up the hundreds of stairs, and where I saw one man sitting on several boxes of beer in the courtyard where Cersei had told Littlefinger that “power is power,” a man whose face and posture unmistakably conveyed exhaustion and defeat but whose tee shirt read “Unstoppable Energy!”, and, assuming that you haven’t lost track of the clauses by now, to a visit to a nearby park, where turtles swam gracelessly in a small fountain and where a stretch of packed dirt had been the setting for the feast-day celebration where Geoffrey had swallowed poisoned wine and died horribly but too quickly in his mother’s arms. It was all very satisfying. We had dinner at a little place in a narrow street under the north gate, high on the hill above Dubrovnik’s main churches and squares, and then went home to bed.

Shortly after dark, as John and I were settling in for the night, the air filled with loud explosions; it was the fireworks at the conclusion of the Credit Suisse event, at the fort above our Airbnb. It went on and on. “What must this sound like to the people who remember the shelling in 1991?” John wondered. We went outside to watch the flashes and met a woman in her pyjamas who had come outside for the same reason; it was a convivial moment between the three of us, all of us hardly dressed at all, craning our necks into the night sky.

At this point I reach the end of the notes that I made during the flight back to Athens; the rest of my notebook is nothing but unfulfilled potential. I will be getting my trip to Nepal underway in an hour, a process that begins with retrieving my bag at what amounts to a luggage day care, over by the Acropolis metro station, continues with a long trip on the Metro to the airport, and then, after a lengthy flight punctuated by a layover in Doha, my arrival in Kathmandu, tomorrow morning at 8:15. I am currently sitting at an outdoor table at Little Tree Coffee, a block from the Acropolis Museum. I just had an iced tea and a sandwich. I think I’ll stay here for another hour, burning through this laptop’s battery, before standing up and, with my walk to retrieve my bag, setting in motion the end of this trip to Europe.

The only thing that makes the sadness of leaving a place like Athens bearable is the excitement and joy of arriving in a place like Kathmandu.

Photos from Croatia.

Athens and Santorini – September 26 through October 3, 2019

John and I awoke early the following morning, packed, and walked out to the plaza which, at this time of day, was strangely empty of the crowds of cruise-ship passengers who had filled it every other time we’d walked through, queuing up obediently for the stream of buses that ferried them to and from their ships. We had decided to take a taxi up to the spot where we would pick up our airport shuttle, even though the pickup point wasn’t really very distant; we were sick of carrying our bags all over creation. We found a taxi almost immediately, who, as he drove us further and further in the wrong direction, explained that both this street and the street where our shuttle was going to pick us up were long, one-way boulevards, and that the only way to get from Point A to Point B, in this case, was via Point C, miles west of town. This sounds like a classic taxi-cab scam, but I think he was telling us the truth; having walked the route the day before, I knew that what he was saying about the one-way streets was accurate. It cost us ten dollars, 15 minutes, and five miles to go the half-mile to the shuttle pickup, but it was worth it.

I had arranged a taxi ride from the Athens airport to our Airbnb – a service that almost always seems a good idea, to me, since the rates are never more than what you’d have to pay to any other cab, the driver has been vetted by the Airbnb host, and there’s never any confusion about where the driver should be going, since he always knows the destination before he picks you up. I say “he” when I refer to the driver, because it is almost always a man; the one exception was the cab driver who took Jim and me to the airport in Lima, with whom we had a wonderful ride, singing along with the radio, and exchanging cheek kisses when we said goodbye on the curb. This morning’s ride took us through unremarkable light-industrial land, through environs whose unfinished nature and grime reminded me of Latin America, except a version of Latin America in which concern for appearances hadn’t quite been extinguished, and then into the city, which has a level of grafitti I haven’t seen since I first visited New York, in the 70s, and a remarkable number of utterly unremarkable buildings. John and I were craning our necks out the window.

“Look!” said John, pointing. It was the Acropolis.

Our driver took us up a narrow one-way street lined with restaurants, and then up an even narrower stretch that I’d have sworn had been reserved for pedestrians, and then past a Greek-styled church, and finally to the top of a street where he could go no further, because the other end of the street concluded with a flight of stairs. This was it.

Our “stone house under the Acropolis” would have been our best Airbnb experience – beating even the Palace Cipriani in Split – if the next place we stayed, in Santorini, hadn’t been so splendid. Still, it was excellent. John and I each had our own room, with big beds under graceful mosquito netting, and there was a big living room and a well-appointed kitchen. We kept the two air conditioners busy most of the time. The walls of the bedrooms were indeed large brown stones, whose age may have been impossible to determine but whose charm was undeniable.

After a little confusion about the keys – the guy who had shown us the place had forgotten to leave us a set – John and I walked the two short blocks to the restaurant district we’d just driven through, where we sat at a table on the sidewalk, looking up at the Acropolis and toasting our fabulous lives with the first of a long series of Alpha (ΑΛΦΑ) beers. I was feeling a little woozy; while our Airbnb host had been scrawling suggestions on a map, I’d had a juicy sneezing fit at whose conclusion I felt forced to finally acknowledge that the symptoms I’d been denying for the last 24 hours were in fact an oncoming cold. I was not feeling sorry for myself, though. This was paradise.

I must have slept that night, but I can’t imagine when it might have happened. My throat was sore and my nose was a spigot, but I’ve slept with such symptoms before; these discomforts were coupled with insomnia, however, as though my body was not only determined to subject my mucous membranes to a new and memorable experience, but also to ensure that I didn’t miss a moment of the fun. It was a relief when the sun rose and I felt I could get out of bed.

We had decided not to visit the Acropolis on our first day in Athens, although I cannot now remember our reasoning; it may have been nothing more complicated than the recognition that my cold would have made it hard for me to fully appreciate the experience. Instead, we walked along the pedestrian street on the northern border of the Ancient Agora, past the trinket and candy vendors, until we reached the entrance. We had decided to buy a four-day pass that would allow us to visit all of the major archaeological attractions of Athens, so we inquired about this at the ticket office, where the clerk explained that, since tomorrow was a free day at all the sites, we wouldn’t need the pass tomorrow, and thus might not get our money’s worth out of it. What she didn’t tell us was that all but one of the days of our stay in Athens were free days at the sites, so it would have been easy for us to have seen everything we wished without buying any tickets at all. I don’t regret having spent 30 Euro each for our passes, though – if the money is used to help keep these treasures available and protected, and to fund restoration efforts, I’m happy to have contributed.

The Ancient Agora (called “Ancient” to distinguish it from the nearby Roman Agora) is an enormous parklike expanse of ruins – or perhaps an enormous ruin-bedabbled expanse of park – at the foot of the Acropolis. It was the heart of Athens, as recently as 200 years ago, when the population was only 10,000 souls and everyone lived either here, in houses built atop and among the ruins, or on the Acropolis itself. Most of the ruins, therefore, are fragmentary, and were revealed only when the old houses were removed and the ground under them excavated; the incredible exception is the Temple of Hephaestos, on a small hill at the Agora’s north side. This temple survives in excellent condition because from the 7th century until 1834 it was used as a Greek Orthodox church, and so was not subject to being knocked down and used for building material. John and I stood outside the approach-no-further wire at the temple’s circumference, staring hungrily into its dark, cool, mysterious interior; we wished that we had Good Person™ passes, imaginary credentials that might allow respectful, intelligent, curious people to gain special access to such places, on the understanding that Good Person card holders would never litter, or touch the objects, or try to steal anything, or write graffiti, or even make any unnecessary noise. If only the people in charge knew how much they could trust us!

An episode of The Good Place was being shot in the Agora while we were there; we had to walk past signs warning us that by proceeding we were agreeing to our potential background presence in a TV show. A small, slim, blonde woman in a stylish outfit was talking animatedly with some support people; we didn’t see her face, but John said, “That’s Kristen Bell!” We contemplated the cosmic significance of this for a moment. “This would drive Guy crazy,” John continued. “If he were here, he’d want to go talk to her.” Even if John was only half right about this, it said things about my brother Guy’s self confidence and interest in celebrities that I could hardly imagine. Talk to Kristen Bell? I’d expect her to Tase me before I got a word out.

The three trillion cold viruses that were drinking tequilla, playing Barry White, and reproducing as fast as they could in my soft, drippy interior were making it hard for me to walk around with my usual verve. John kindly said he was happy to sit with me whenever I wished, so we spent five minutes on a bench next to a stand that had once displayed the statues of heroes, and another five minutes on a bench next to some truncated columns that delineated the ancient marketplace, and another five minutes on a bench outside an old church on the grounds, where ancient frescoes had been revealed beneath hundreds of years of heedless paint. I eventually felt capable of a visit to the on-site museum, where artifacts from the Agora are displayed. As we approached, we saw some activity in an open, shady area near the entrance – a passel of very young people in simple beige clothing, reading from scripts, gesturing dramatically, and making anguished facial expressions. “Oh, bless their hearts,” John said, with real empathy. “I know exactly what they’re going through.” These kids were terrible, but it took John’s experience to remind me that they knew they were terrible; we could walk quietly away from their awful production, but they had to stay there, suffering, until the last word was read. Bless their hearts.

The museum contained some beautiful objects, but the best thing about it was the building itself, a two-story structure, airy and open, that had been built to replicate the ancient structure that had stood on this exact spot. It was almost possible, while walking slowly through its arcades, to imagine what this might have looked like 2400 years ago.

After half an hour, John and I were ready for lunch. When we left, the actors were still shouting and gesticulating in the depths of their misery. We had lunch across the street, where I suggested that John might want to continue his exploration of Athens alone, while I went back to the apartment to take a nap. He agreed, of course, so, after eating, he set off for the Temple of Zeus, down by Syntagma Square, while I toddled back to our place.

I’ve never had any talent for naps, an insufficiency that is usually the opposite of a problem, since it means I am almost never tempted to doze away an hour in the middle of the day, but which did me no favors that afternoon; I was glad to put my feet up and do nothing at all for a while, but sleeping was impossible.

John, meanwhile, was having an interesting time exploring the ancient theaters at the foot of the Acropolis, and the Temple of Zeus, and the restaurant-packed Plaka neighborhood, and the Roman Agora, and the Monastiraki neighborhood. As evening approached, I heard him shouting in the street outside the apartment, asking to be let in; he’d bought a new SIM for his phone in Paris, but hadn’t yet used it successfully, so he wasn’t able to call me to let me know he’d arrived. We had been given only one set of keys to the apartment, and they were in my pocket. John and I didn’t address this problem until we were in Santorini, when our trip was almost over.

I had spent some time using the wifi at the apartment to research day trips to Delphi. When John got back and agreed to the tour I thought looked reasonable, we booked it for the following day.

That morning, on our way to the Agora, we had paused at a well-reviewed restaurant near the apartment and made a reservation for dinner on their rooftop terrace, where we could watch the sun set on the Acropolis and then watch the lights come up on the ruins.

Among the Qatar Airlines public-safety announcements on the seat-back screens: “Please remain seated when praying on-board.” That is not my hyphen in “on-board,” I need hardly mention. It’s 12:30 AM in Doha, Qatar, the same time zone as Athens, despite being, I don’t know, 2000 miles east. I’ll be in Kathmandu in four hours.

We had the best meal of the trip at this restaurant: attentive service, good food, a slow, luxuriant experience, a matchless setting, and, at the end, a visit from the owner, who brought three shot glasses of raki (a kind of anise-flavored rotgut brandy), which he told us we needed to down at one go. So we did. It cost a somewhat ridiculous amount of money, but I’ll never have another meal like that, with John, overlooking the birthplace of Western civilization, at sunset on a warm Grecian night – not that the uniqueness of an experience is a reasonable guide to its value. I’ll never again be fighting over the armrest with a guy in a maroon suit jacket in the middle of the night in Doha, Qatar, either.

 
 

I felt much better on the following morning, when we got up early, walked the 15 minutes to a hotel where the Delphi shuttle was going to pick us up, and then spent more than an hour in central Athens being transferred from one bus to another and picking up more tourists from different hotels. We started to wonder whether we were ever going to leave Athens, and whether any of these tour-operator people had any idea what they were doing. “The word for this in English,” John carefully explained to one of the organizers, “is clusterfuck.” But things like this have a way of working themselves out, and that’s what happened; we were soon rolling west into the hills, listening to our tour guide give us a beautifully condensed version of the history of ancient Greece and some background information about the oracle at Delphi. I was shocked to realize that he was doing a good job and that I could understand his voice over the bus’s speaker system. It was a pleasure to take this unexpected refresher course.

Delphi was packed with tourists, but despite the irritation of having to tolerate my fellow humans, there is something about that place that I find deeply stirring. It was so important, for so long, and now it is a realm of ghosts. John shared a few photos of Delphi with the siblings, and sister Barbara responded with the following, which seems to me to be so good, and so Barbara, that I’ll repeat her entire email below:

you guys … I think I would have to sit down with my head in my hands every day if I were to see all of… all of the wonders you are …with. I got goosebumps from this picture. Why, what is it? It isn’t more beautiful than other places, but there is a resonance. The placement in the mountains….? This place is …I had to go and look up everything I could speed read through and then read words by Pindar and imagine 565 BC and …overwhelm. intake of breath and hold it to try to fathom. and …after reading for half an hour …yup …just now I was holding the heels of my hands against the temples of my head. And I am just sitting on the sofa with my cat!   and grinning    and lookin at your faces    and shakin my head.    and my eyes slow blink and   a    “yeah”    escapes    exhale

Did you see wikipedia where it tells of when Christianity was gaining in power around 360 AD, and paganism was losing favor, a doctor, Oreibasius, to the then Emperor Julian went to Delphi to learn what might become the fate of paganism. Oreibasius was told by the priestess of Delphi (translation)

“Tell the king that the flute has fallen to the ground. Phoebus does not have a home anymore, nor an oracle laurel nor a speaking fountain, because the talking water has dried out.”
 
beautiful
but she felt loss

And yet one look at the place.
The magic hasn’t dried, it is irrefutable. It is Apollo’s Gaia. Earth. Earth is the magic.

What you opened for me with a picture. Boy o boy

“Tell the king that the flute has fallen to the ground.” A visit to Delphi is a struggle between our intellects, our sense of beauty, and grief. I think it’s one of the most important places in the world. Barbara could not have put it better.

We used our passes to get up onto the Acropolis on the following day – although we didn’t need the passes, since it was another free day. It was harder for me to imaginatively project myself backward in time on the Acropolis than it had been at Delphi, or in any decent museum, for that matter. Part of the problem is the familiarity of the architecture, which all of us have been seeing in photographs since grade school. And then there’s the matter of the crowds. And there’s the sterility of the place to be reckoned with, too – it’s a sun-baked rock, where John, at one point, bent over to cheer on a dandelion that had somehow made a home in one of the crevices, a rock whose withering sun and dessication which seems so antithetical to human life that it’s a wonder that the Greeks built their temples up there. It also seems to me that the depredations of fools, down through the centuries, are more obviously on display up there than in many places. When the Persians sacked Athens in 480 BC, the Greeks responded by rebuilding the temples on the Acropolis into the forms we’re familiar with – which, at the time, were a shocking leap beyond anything that had previously been created by the human race. The politician who made this happen was Pericles, but much of the credit for the genius of the work probably goes to the sculptor Phidias. But it’s been one damn thing after another up there ever since the Romans took over, including the willful destruction of the sculptures and decorations by early Christians, the ruination of much of the Parthenon in 1687 when it was being used as a powder magazine in a now-forgotten war and a cannonball made all the powder explode, and let us not forget the theft of the best of the remaining statuary by Lord Elgin in 1812, magnificent, heart-breaking pieces that still reside in the British Museum. John and I stood up there in the sun and squinted at the fragmentary remains of this wonderful achievement, and at the unmistakable evidence of the untrustworthiness and stupidity of humanity in the 2400 years since it was built. The Acropolis is a testament to the best and the worst of us.

After lunch at a sidewalk cafe, we set off for the Acropolis Museum, at the south side of the hill. We were shocked to see that the ticket line stretched back past the point at which any normal person would have been tempted to give up, past the “abandon hope all ye who loiter here” point, and then kept going, for dozens of hopeful, clueless people, concluding only when the line reached out of the shade and into the sun, where anyone waiting in line would have had their brains broil before they ever got inside. John and I decided to try again on the following morning, with the idea that we might get there before the crowds got too thick. John decided to head back home, while I set off to do the circuit that he had done two days earlier: the Temple of Zeus, the Roman Agora, and the busy neighborhoods nearby.

The Temple of Zeus is noteworthy mostly for the three massive Corinthian columns nearby, two of which are standing imperturbably in a greensward, and the third of which has collapsed between its fellows, into a series of rounds that looks like what you’d get if you pushed over a neat stack of checkers. I’m shamefully susceptible to this sort of thing – the romance of ruination – so I took lots of pictures. A woman from China or Japan or Korea – at least, I assume it was a woman – walked nearby, carrying a parasol to shade herself and wearing a skirt that grazed the ground, a blouse that covered her arms down to the knuckles, a floppy, big-brimmed hat, and a yellow mask that covered her entire face but for the eyes, which were obscured by sunglasses. It was a kind of secular burqa.

The Roman Agora was interesting, but much smaller than the Ancient Agora; I remembered the Tower of the Winds there, from my previous visit to Athens, and the cats that played among the ruins. I scouted the nearby streets to see if I could find a restaurant that I remembered as having been near the Agora 32 years ago, where I’d had a bowl of fasolada – bean soup – that had seemed to me at the time the finest thing I’d ever eaten. Even if that restaurant had still existed, and had not been remodeled in the last three decades, I’d still have been relying on a scanty and fragmentary memory to find it – like trying to recognize an adult from a damaged daguerreotype of a child. All of the restaurants I found were new, and most were full of tourists. The streets were full of tourists, too. The Plaka and Monastiraki neighborhoods were packed with us, squinting into our smartphones and licking our gelatos. Thousands of shops competed to sell us food, trinkets, and tours. I love traveling, but I was sick of being a tourist.

John and I realized that evening that we had missed our chance to see the Acropolis Museum. We had only one full day left in Athens, and we hadn’t yet seen the National Archaeological Museum; there is really no argument about which of those collections most deserves the attention of people who are running out of time. We discussed this while walking back in the darkness from an exploration that took us down yet another restaurant-lined street; four people were seated at one of the tables, one of whom was playing a guitar while a young woman sang, filling the air with her power and conviction. John and I stopped to listen and applauded when she was finished.

I had attempted to extend our stay at the “stone house under the Acropolis,” back when we were still in Croatia and I’d realized that an extra day in Athens was better than an extra day on Santorini, but the host hadn’t been able to accommodate us, so I’d found a different place nearby for one night. John and I dropped off our bags at the new place at noon, chatting briefly with the heavy, friendly middle-aged woman who was busy cleaning the place, glowing in a sheen of sweat. She recommended a taverna nearby and, when we told her that we were about to take the subway to the museum, warned us against pickpockets.

“I am not worried about pickpockets,” I said, showing off the zippers that protect the pockets on my travel pants.

“Those no problem for them,” she said, frowning and shaking her head for emphasis. “No problem.”

Her son called – he was the host who was renting us the apartment, and he and his mother were apparently a team – and offered to take us to the airport on the following morning. I explained that this wouldn’t be necessary and, after a few closing pleasantries, he said, “Okay, I’ll see you tomorrow!”

“What?” I asked. “You will? Why will we see you tomorrow?”

“For to take you the airport!” he said. “At 6:00!”

“No, no,” I said. “We do not need a ride. We do not need to be at the airport until 8:30, so a ride at 6:00 would be too early for us.”

I thought that this had cleared up any residual confusion, but I was wrong.

The warning about pickpockets may have made me more vigilant than I might otherwise have been; if so, I owe that cleaning woman a debt of thanks. When John and I got onto the subway to go to the museum, I was immediately surrounded by three women, one of whom chatted amiably with John and me, asking us where we were from and saying “Trump,” another of whom waved her cell phone at me, asking me indecipherable questions about it, and the third of whom stood casually next to me, with a jacket draped over one of her arms. Was that a tiny tug on my wallet pocket, or was I imagining things? I checked it and, to my surprise, the wallet was still there but the zipper was open – a zipper I had closed and double-checked out on the platform, just a minute earlier. I moved away from the perpetrator, zipping the pocket back up, and stood next to John.

“Are you being vigilant about your wallet?” I asked.

“Oh, yeah,” he said, tapping his pocket confidently.

“No, I mean hyper-vigilant,” I said. “Especially for the next two minutes.”

John looked with surprised interest at the colorful crowd of thieves that was edging up next to us again. He told me later that he regretted not having asked them to pose for a photograph. For my part, I wondered afterward why I hadn’t been willing to call them out on their shenanigans; surely the best thing to do, when someone is trying to take your wallet, is to say, “Hey! Stop trying to take my wallet!” I’ll do anything to avoid a confrontation.

The National Archaeological Museum in Athens is one of humanity’s great treasure houses. The collection of Cycladic art, of artifacts from the Minoans and Mycenaeans, the fantastic trove of gold artifacts, including the “Mask of Agamemnon” and a spectacular ivory bull’s head with gilded horns, bronze statues of gods and a life-sized boy, bareback on a horse, special exhibits devoted to works in marble that have hardly been equaled in the years since their creation – it had been too much to comprehend for a long time before John and I regretfully left. But first, I insisted that we find the Antikythera mechanism, which I knew was somewhere in the building but which we had somehow missed.

If you don’t know about the Antikythera mechanism, you should read this Wikipedia article on the subject, or look it up on YouTube, or both. The object itself is just a badly corroded lump of brass, but careful investigation and x-ray tomography have revealed that when the ship carrying it sank in the Aegean, in about 65 BC, it was a geared clockwork mechanism used to predict eclipses and track the positions of planets in the night sky. The Antikythera mechanism represents a level of technical sophistication, in 100 BC, which the world did not see again until medieval European craftsmen started making astronomical clocks, almost 1,500 years later. If the Antikythera mechanism had not been found by sponge divers in 1901, its existence would have been deemed impossible. I can’t think of any other man-made object that is like this – impossible, but for the incredible fact of its existence.

We had dinner in the taverna across the street on our last night in Athens, talking about the museum and looking affectionately at the mob of cats that came mincing around our table, aloof, wary, often bearing ears that had been half-chewed off in fights, but more than willing to accept any offerings that might fall from our plates. John observed that it was a good thing Barbara wasn’t there with us, because she would have felt obliged to rescue them all. I repeated an observation that I had made before, that John could do worse than finding some kind of a grant that would allow him to become a swashbuckling cat castrator, ranging the hills of Croatia and Attica, the scourge of feline testicles everywhere. John has not warmed to this idea, for some reason.

The following morning, as John and I were sitting down to breakfast, the doorbell rang. It was the cleaning mother, who was surprised to see that we were still occupying the place. We tried and failed to tell her what was going on – that her son had not understood the phone conversation I’d had with him – until I typed “We will leave in 20 minutes” into Google Translate and showed her the Greek translation. The light dawned on her charming, homely face. She disappeared while we packed our bags and returned exactly as we were about to set out for the airport.

I don’t know whether I will ever see Athens again.

I was in Santorini in February of 1987. At that time of year, and at that time of the last millennium, Santorini was a lovely, peaceful place, with deserted restaurants, donkeys drowsing in their paddocks, and empty roads along which I remember having taken long, uninterrupted walks. But times have changed. Santorini is still beautiful, but the cruise ships that crowd the caldera have done almost as much damage to the place as the eruption of 3600 years ago that destroyed the island and may have brought the Minoan civilization to an end. But this wasn’t immediately apparent to John and me.

We were taken to the vicinity of our Airbnb by the airport taxi, and met at the perimeter road by a Brazilian woman who used her excellent, lightly accented English to tell us about the town of Thira as she led us up the narrow streets to the Villa Mercedes, which would be our home for the next few days. This charming place was easily the nicest spot we stayed in during our month in Europe – big, open, colorful, and tastefully decorated. Not only that, but we were invited to use another unit with its own bathroom, if we wished; John and I had effectively rented two houses. Our host left us, having told us that we might enjoy ourselves more if we rented a car; John and I immediately locked the door behind us and walked up the hill toward the crater’s rim, looking for lunch and a view.

The town of Thira straddles the rim of the crater; most of the houses and businesses are on the east side, on the relatively flat ground, but the edge of the cliff is crammed with souvenir stands, and any place with a view is given over to a restaurant. Wherever it was possible to attach a restaurant to the cliff face, someone has done so. John and I sat down at a place with a fine view of the caldera, and of the cruise ships, and of the cable car that ran continuously from the docks below us up to the crater rim, and of the narrow lanes that snaked past hundreds and hundreds of shops, and of the thousands and thousands of tourists that filled those narrow lanes. The food was not memorable.

John had, perhaps inevitably, come down with my cold by now, although he didn’t seem to be as incapacitated by the virus as I had been; he was lucky with his reaction to the germs, or he has natural reservoirs of health to draw on that I lacked, or he had the same rough time with it that I did, but, unlike me, didn’t coddle himself or complain. I suspect the latter. This may be a good place to mention that before he left Seattle John wasn’t at all sure how his back and sciatica and general well being might react to the sudden activity of traveling all over Europe, and that he had been worried that he might find himself too hurt and exhausted to continue; his actual ability to push himself over cobbles and up stairs and down long streets, often carrying heavy loads, surprised both of us. He raised blisters in Paris, walking probably twice as far there as I did, and afterward was sometimes tempted to forgo sightseeing in favor of taking it easy for a few hours – but, in the event, he almost always chose to go look at some world-famous once-in-a-lifetime attraction instead of staying home in a horizontal posture. His constitution was encouraging and surprising to both of us.

We looked into renting scooters, but learned that we needed driver’s licenses with motorcycle endorsements to do so – those pantywaists – and then looked into renting a convertible, but learned that you pay an absurd premium for the privilege of feeling the wind in your hair, so we ended up with an ordinary little red thing that served us well. On our first full day on Santorini, we took this little car south – stopping to walk through the little village of Megalochori – to the ruins of Akrotiri, a Minoan town that was abandoned in the runup to the Theran eruption in the 16th century BC, as earthquakes made it clear to the inhabitants that staying on the island was a terrible idea. The ashfall on the town (whose actual name no one knows) preserved a number of superb frescoes on the walls of the village, which are now displayed in museums; John and I wished we’d paid closer attention at the National Archaeological Museum in Athens, where some of them are displayed. Here is an article that includes illustrations of most of them.

After visiting Akrotiri, we drove to the southwest tip of the main island, to enjoy the view across the caldera, and then set off to visit the site of Ancient Thira, the ruined town on a hilltop at the southeast end of the island. We eventually got to the bottom of a road whose switchbacks to the ridgetop were so daunting that ascending it seemed impossible if we were to meet any car coming in the other direction; not only that, but there was a sign at the base of the hill that seemed to mean “do not enter,” although it included some numbers that may have meant it was closed only at certain times of day, or maybe only at certain times of the year. The whole thing was just too intimidating. John and I decided that the prudent and mature course of action was to retire to the beach at the nearby town of Kamari, where I could go for a little swim and John could sit in the shade of a palapa and drink a beer. It was a sacrifice, but we were men enough to make it. From the beach, we could see some cars on the switchbacks, all of which were going downhill – was this a time of day thing, was it a one-way road, or was it a coincidence? It seemed important to have another beer while we discussed the mystery.

We returned to the Villa Mercedes for a little while but then drove back to Kamari, with the idea of having dinner and then seeing Joker, the Joaquin Phoenix movie that had just opened and was being shown at Kamari’s Cinema Vilatzio. Our dinner was good, but, as we were toying with the last scraps on our plates, John admitted that his cold was leaving him with no energy at all, and that he wasn’t sure he would enjoy the movie in his current condition. This made nothing but sense to me, so we abandoned the movie idea and drove home.

I had walked from Thira to the town of Oia, on Santorini’s north end, in 1987, and thought it might be fun to do it again, so I set off at sunrise on the following morning, leaving John to sleep a little longer, with the agreement that we would meet in Oia shortly after 10:00. Clouds had moved in overnight, so visibility was nonexistent for the first half hour of the walk; I spent too much time on the main road, where cars loomed up out of the mist in front of me in a very alarming way, before I realized that there must be a pedestrian pathway to my left, along the cliff edge. The clouds dissipated and the views improved as I walked, until I got to Oia, where my memories of a peaceful little village were destroyed by the greatest crush of cruiseship passengers I have ever seen. The place was a zoo. I got in line to take a selfie at a vista over the iconic blue-domed houses. Read that again. I got in line to take a selfie. I’m so ashamed. Oia is undeniably beautiful, but now it’s like one of those beauty pageants for little girls, so steeped in fakery and bad taste that the charm that prompted the pageantry in the first place has all but vanished under the makeup.

After some trouble with our phones, John found me at a little bakery. This was our last full day on Santorini, our last full day in Greece, and our last full day in Europe together. We walked along the sun-baked passenger street at Oia’s crater rim, through the crowds of pasty, scowling, fearful retirees, of bizarre, incomprehensible Asians, and of young people, almost recovered from their last drinking bouts and looking forward eagerly to their next, and I felt that I understood no one in this mob except my brother. I didn’t know how I was going to get along without him.

We worked our way down a long flight of stone steps, halfway to the harbor, only to squint dubiously at a path that had seemed reasonable on our maps but which looked like private property in actuality, and then climbed back up the stairs again. We made our way further and further west through Oia until the restaurants and trinket shops were almost extinct, and then turned inland and made our way back to the lot where John had found space for our little red car.

John dropped me off in Thira’s business district, up the hill from our apartment, where we had seen an Adidas store; holes were appearing in the soles of my walkers, which I had never liked, in any case. Someone on the Internet had recommended an Adidas shoe – the “Infernal Kaboom,” or something like that – as the ideal travel shoe, so, when the woman in this store told me that they had a pair in approximately my size, I dropped almost $200 for them on the spot, without bothering to look at anything else. They’re ugly, and a little too tight, but, whenever a tiny band of pain shoots across my constricted instep, I think of how little time I spent shopping for my new pair of Infernal Kabooms and my heart warms a little. In and out of the store in 4 minutes and 20 seconds – that’s the way to shop.

Before returning to the Villa Mercedes, I stopped at the place where we’d rented the car, to ask the people there whether it is possible to drive up the switchbacks to Ancient Thira. It quickly became apparent that none of the people in this agency, all of whom live on this tiny island, had ever driven up there, or even been tempted to visit. They conferred with one another briefly in Greek and then told me that yes, it is possible, but that I should be very careful, because the road is very narrow and very steep and very turns, and that it might be better to walk.

I remembered my visit to Ancient Thira from 32 years ago as having been interesting; there were bits of pottery in the dirt underfoot, an ancient phallus scratched into a low wall (a tradition that continues to this day, in the changing rooms at Kamari beach), a guide who seemed glad to see us, as a relief from the tedium of having the site completely to himself, and splendid views over the Aegean. But I had been disappointed by Santorini in 2019. John and I could spend our last afternoon together in a horrifying drive up to the site, where we would join a throng of other tourists (who are getting there via teleportation, I suppose) to look at a series of wind-blasted foundation walls. And then drive back down again. Or we could relax at our little villa, or perhaps walk around Thira with out hands in our pockets. It was an easy decision.

John spent the afternoon shopping for trinkets for our brothers and sisters. He had already picked up two or three things earlier in our travels, but there were still a few names on his list, and this was his last shopping opportunity until the duty-free shop at the Athens airport. He returned to the apartment with some nice choices.

“I know that I don’t have to bring back presents for people,” he said. “Nobody’s expecting it. But…” He raised his palms and shrugged his shoulders, in a gesture that meant, “But I want to bring them gifts, because I love them.”

And then he showed me something he’d bought for me: a little metal horse, in the beautiful style of the Minoans, with long, slim legs, a tiny waist, and a thick, powerful neck. I had rhapsodized about these horses when we saw them on display at the National Archaeological Museum, and about the love and skill with which the ancients have always depicted horses – in the cave paintings at Lascaux, in the Assyrian lion-hunt reliefs, in the Elgin marbles, and in the Jockey of Artemision, a wonderful bronze there at the museum in Athens – and here, in the brilliant schematics of the bronze-age Aegeans. I mentioned the tiny hips on these Minoan horses, and John said “I think it may betray a want of bottom” – a reference to an obscure line in one of the Patrick O’Brian novels, and a joke that no one else in the world could have made to me.

And, on the next day, he flew home.

God, John. Thanks for everything.

Photos from Greece.

Rise and Fall

Trujillo, Huaraz, Santa Cruz Trek
8/27 – 9/5/2019

Rather than bowdlerize the jokey conversations I had with my companions on Peru’s famous Santa Cruz trek, I will report them honestly in what follows. Readers who are easily offended should brace themselves.

This post is much too long, but I decided to indulge myself by allowing it to remain this way. I have broken it into two pieces – a short section on the city of Trujillo, and a much longer section on the Santa Cruz trek.

Trujillo

My bus from Copacabana brought me to Cusco in plenty of time for my flight to Trujillo – a city north of Lima, on the coast, of which I’d never heard a few weeks ago. Trujillo was a natural spot from which to launch a trip to my actual destination, the town of Huaraz, Peru’s trekking capital. I planned to give Trujillo a couple of days before going to Huaraz and embarking on the Santa Cruz trek.

The city of Trujillo has nothing to recommend it except the nearby ruins of pre-Inca civilizations. A few kilometers south of town are the remains of a major city of the Moche civilization, dominated by two enormous adobe pyramids, the Huaca del Sol and the Huaca de la Luna. The Moche people controlled the northern coastline of present-day Peru between 100 and 700 AD. Climate change – or perhaps a climatological catastrophe, in 535-536AD – may have brought the Moche hegemony to an end, although this question is far from settled. And a few miles west of Trujillo stand the ruins of Chan Chan, the largest adobe city in the Americas, and the capital of the Chimor empire from 900 until 1470, when they were defeated by the Inca and incorporated into their empire.

I saw Chan Chan only from the windows of the taxi that took me from the airport into town; it looked to me like a large collection of heaps of dirt, in some of which could be seen rectangular hints of ancient adobe brickwork. Adobe is little more than dried mud, which slowly and inexorably dissolves in the rain; it is a terrible building material if the goal is to create structures that will last for thousands of years. I gazed hungrily at the brown heaps as the taxi jounced over speed bumps and whipped back and forth between the hypothetical lanes, honking its horn; I was looking forward to visiting the site in a day or two. At the time, I had no way of knowing that I’d never see Chan Chan again.

I spent the next day trying and failing to find anything interesting about the city of Trujillo. I had intended to spend the afternoon at Chan Chan, but first I visited the tourist information office just off the main square, where I learned that the site closed at 4:00; there wasn’t enough time left in the day to make the trip worthwhile. “It is okay,” said the young woman behind the desk. “You can visit Huaca de la Luna tomorrow in the morning and then visit Chan Chan in the afternoon.”

“¿Verdad?” I asked.

“¡Claro!” she said.

On the following morning I took a taxi to the south edge of town. The road skirted a mountainous brown hill which I soon realized was entirely man-made – it was the remains of the Huaca del Sol, one of the two Moche pyramids. I bought two tickets at the entrance: one for the museum, and one that allowed me into the site itself.

The museum was full to bursting with superb ceramics and swirling mobs of shouting children. I was surrounded by twenty children at one point, each of whom said to me, with frowning concentration, “Hello. My name is Rodrigo / Loretta / Paulo / etc. How are you?” And then, one by one, grinning triumphantly at each other, each of them shook my hand.

After the museum, I walked down a dusty road toward the pyramids, where I discovered that the ticket I’d purchased to get into the site was actually a ticket for a guided tour, that these tours were the only way to see the ruins, and that the next English-language tour didn’t leave for an hour. I sat down in the shade of a tree, opened a package of trigo integrale crackers, and thought about my options. If I skipped this tour, I could take a taxi to Chan Chan and still have enough time to see it. On the other hand, here I was, under these vast pyramids, with a ticket in my pocket and a callejero dog at my side, who was gratefully sharing my crackers. Local women in magnificent hats were sitting on a berm a few feet away, swapping stories and laughing. This was a very pleasant place to wait, and the pyramids were irresistible. I let go of Chan Chan with only a twinge of regret.

I could hardly understand a word of what the tour guide had to say, but that hardly mattered. Our group climbed a hill that flanked one side of the Huaca de la Luna, to the top of the pyramid. From the top, we could look across the flat plain where the city had once stood, 100 feet below, to the Huaca del Sol, the twin pyramid whose excavations have been difficult and which is off-limits to visitors. We were standing on the fifth and final level of the Huaca de la Luna, we were told. The Moche people had followed the same building procedure I’ve seen at Mayan sites; whenever they felt it was time to create a larger structure, they built the new one over the top of the old, filling in rooms and plazas in the original structure as they worked. This method had the effect of preserving the old structures under the fill material. In the case of the Huaca de la Luna, the preservation is incredible.

We walked past an adobe enclosure where we were told human sacrifices had been performed, and then under a protective roof. An entire wall of geometrical reliefs had been exposed, with much of their original coloring still intact. And then we were led to a still more perfectly preserved series of reliefs. And then to another wall, deeper in the excavation, where staring images of Ai apaec, the chief Moche god, bared his fangs at us. Finally, we were led out of the pyramid’s north side, where the wind and rain over 1,300 years had buried the entire exterior wall. Excavations that began in 1998 have gradually removed the debris cladding, exposing the reliefs and colors of the original structure, 70 feet high, a series of patterns and an expression of aesthetics that are both utterly foreign and profoundly persuasive. The ancient civilizations of the Americas hint at aspects of human nature, and at both the commonalities and varieties of the aesthetic sense, in ways that have shocked and surprised me over and over since I left the United States, five months ago.

Paul Kennedy, in The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, makes the case that the fortunes of major countries since the 16th century have turned on questions of economic and military strength. I think he is probably right, and of course it is reasonable for him to restrict his analysis to the last 500 years – but Kennedy’s choice necessarily excludes the Moche, and the Maya, and the people of Easter Island, whose civilizations fell for reasons that had nothing to do with their economies and militaries, and it excludes the greatest demographic disaster in human history – the death by plague of perhaps 70% of the population of the Americas. The last 500 years have been all about technology and productivity and population growth and resource exploitation and warfare, yes, but the last 500 years are a small fraction of the history of human civilization, and are hardly a blip in the 200,000-year-history of Homo sapiens. The forces that destroyed the Moche civilization have no precedent in recent history, but it would be a mistake to think we have become immune to them. On the contrary; we are very likely to be facing something similar ourselves, and soon.

Only one member of our tour group made any impression on my memory: a young woman who paid grave attention to the guide, her expression inscrutable behind opaque blue sunglasses, and who carried casually along with her, like the smoke from a burning pile of squandered delinquencies, a magnificent nimbus of tawny curls.

Here are a few photographs from my visits to Trujillo and the Huaca de la Luna.

The Santa Cruz Trek

The bus ride from Trujillo to Huaraz felt very long. I carried my gear through the dark streets of what appeared to be a typically ramshackle Peruvian town until I found my Airbnb, where I was shown my room by a woman who had no English at all but was able to use my infantile Spanish and energetic pantomime to show me which keys actuated which locks, how to use the shower, and how to connect to the wifi. Typical Peruvian dogs snarled and barked out in the typically Peruvian street as she bid me a good night.

On the following morning, I discovered that Huaraz is not quite as typical as it seemed. It was true that its embrace of ugliness had the fatigue and resignation you find in dockyard prostitutes and in every other Peruvian town except Arequipa, but it has more open spaces than usual, and its long association with fit young gringos has led to a proliferation of restaurants and cafes. The most unusual thing about Huaraz, however, is its setting; the Andes, giant and heavy with ice, loom in the sky north and east of the rooftop cisterns and half-finished building projects and tangles of overhead wire. Huaraz is like Zermatt, except that its mountains are bigger and it possesses no cuteness whatsoever.

I walked into a randomly chosen trekking agency and booked space on a trek that was leaving the next day.

A van picked me up outside my Airbnb at an absurdly early hour – the usual thing for expeditions like this. It filled quickly as we went from hostel to hostel, and then, when the van was completely full, and it was impossible to cram in one more person, we kept picking people up. We heaped the backpacks into tottering piles to clear a couple of seats, but then we stopped to pick up still more people. Finally, the backpacks were lashed on the roof, and every seat was taken. There were fourteen of us.

As the sun came up, we drove north out of Huaraz, past a Sunday market alive with Andean women whose local taste in hats set a new standard for flamboyance and fun, detoured around half a dozen washed-out bridges, rumbled through the town of Yungay, where 20,000 people had been killed in the Ancash earthquake of 1970, and then climbed up into the mountains, on dirt roads with loose, crumbling walls on one side and a sheer drop on the other, switchback after switchback, until finally we stopped at a wide spot near the summit and everyone piled out to take pictures of the stupendous scenery.

Here is what DangerousRoads.org has to say about this drive:

The Portachuelo Llanganuco Pass, at an elevation of 4.767m (15.639′) above the sea level, is perhaps the most significant gateway of the Huascaran National Park, Peru. The most challenging section of the road up to the pass is an 8.5km-long section. Over this distance, the road includes 28 hairpin turns and the elevation gain is 527 meters. It’s one of the famous hairpinned roads in the world.

 

The climb is simply terrible, with a notorious lack of oxygen that tests the organisms and a high degree of steepness. Most people feel altitude sickness at around 2,500-2,800 meters. Near the pass, oxygen is in short supply. In many places the road is bordered by a drop of hundreds of meters (many hundreds of feet) unprotected by guardrails. Avoid driving in this area if unpaved mountain roads aren’t your strong point. Stay away if you’re scared of heights. One mistake and it’s a free fall to your death.

The mountains around us topped 20,000 feet. They were a mass of vertical, unclimbable faces, with glaciers clinging to bowls and curling over the tops of cliffs.

We stuffed ourselves back into the van, which soon popped over the pass and descended switchbacks to the little village that was supposed to be our starting point. We all took turns in the bathroom and waited for something to happen. Avocado sandwiches and cookies were distributed. I found some kernels of corn on the ground and fed them to a caged chicken. Nothing seemed to be underway. I took pictures of drying ears of corn and watched a pig taking a nap. I applied sunscreen. Still nothing. Finally, our guide announced that we had developed donkey problems, and that the solution was for everybody to get back into the *!@# van so that we could drive down into the valley, meet the team of replacement donkeys, and start our trek a few miles closer to our first night’s campsite than we’d originally planned. Fine. We’d do anything if it meant we might start hiking soon.

I didn’t learn the names of everyone on the trek until it was nearly over, but I’ll list everyone here, at the beginning of the description, to make subsequent references easier to parse. I’m sure these brief descriptions will be full of errors and misconceptions, for which I can only apologize.

Margarita: Our guide was a compact Andean woman of indeterminate age, with a brown face, cheeks darkened in patches by years of exposure to the sun and the wind, weak but serviceable English, a long, thick, lustrous braid of obsidian-black hair, and only occasional flashes of recognition that we gringos were authentic human beings.

Isabel and Lisa: Friends and flatmates from Germany, mid-to-late twenties, not athletic in appearance but powerful while climbing switchbacks. Social workers specializing in immigrants from Afghanistan, Syria, and Ethiopia. Isabel and Lisa were a self-contained unit – friendly, but preferring to spend most off their time with each other.

Martin: A rail-thin 57-year-old expert in “procurement transformations,” track-and-field coach, lifelong runner, and, because of our similar ages, my natural partner and tent-mate on the trek. Martin is from Wales and speaks with a quiet lilt that compelled me to apologize for often being incapable of making out what he was saying. His Master’s degree in athletic biomechanics enabled him to give me extremely well-informed advice about my bad knee and what I might do to rid myself of the problem. Martin builds his holidays around opportunities to see glaciers; he has been to Nepal and Switzerland, and has visited New Zealand four times. He did not have much to say in the group conversations in the meal tent, but he was kind and friendly in one-on-one conversations, and he had a talent for making friends with the camp dogs. He used his fine camera to take many photos, including some interesting experiments with star photography, but admitted that he is too busy to attend to the job of editing and sorting the pictures he takes or publishing them online; “I usually make a calendar for family and friends every year,” he said. When I asked how he winnows his collection of photos down to twelve, he just shrugged.

Nika: An open, happy Slovenian woman in her early twenties, who carried casually along with her, like the smoke from a burning pile of squandered delinquencies, a magnificent nimbus of tawny curls. She was the person from the tour of Huaca de la Luna! Nika and I had an immediate natural chemistry; I was always glad to talk with her, and I don’t think I’m imagining things when I say that the same was true for her. Nika spoke about her country with such affection that it made me want to plan a visit to Slovenia.

Benoit and Eliz: Benoit is a runner and engineer from Marseilles; Eliz is a French medical student. Both are in their early twenties. Benoit was friendly and open, taking no offense at all when I admitted that my brief visit to Marseilles, several years ago, had left me unimpressed. Eliz is simply lovely, with a direct gaze and an eagerness to think the best of everyone. In my first conversation with her, I praised Paris unreservedly, telling her how much I was looking forward to seeing it with my brother, and only then learned that Paris is her home town; she was transparently pleased to hear me talking so enthusiastically about the city she loves. I was never clear about the precise nature of Benoit and Eliz’s relationship; they were traveling together, and looked out for one another, but it seemed to me that they were being careful to maintain each other’s independence.

Kenneth and Gabby: Kenneth is a tall, indefatigable, 28-year-old man from the Netherlands, who has been growing out his long dreadlocks for the past eight years. Gabby is slightly younger, a high-school teacher who, after three years of experience, is able to take an extended period off to travel in South America with a guarantee that her job will be waiting for her when she returns. Kenneth and Gabby are easy and affectionate with each other, but their relationship is fundamentally casual; Kenneth told me that they were traveling together because they “were going the same direction.” If this was a casual partnership, based on mutual attraction and convenience, it makes casual partnerships look very good.

Harry and Charlotte: Although this couple was ostensibly using our trekking company only for transportation, carrying their own tents and preparing their own food, they were immediately an essential part of the group. A more attractive couple is hard to imagine. Harry is thin, fit, and wears a tangle of red curls pulled back away from his face. Charlotte is blonde, with delicate features and with eyes as blue as morning glories. She is an ecologist, responsible for all of the details that maintain the health of a small English forest. Harry is a drummer, guitarist, and juggler, who makes a living teaching kids the “circus arts.”

Rob and Amy: This couple is from London. Rob, at 30 years old, was the most senior of the young people on the trip; Amy hasn’t yet turned 25. Rob is a natural clown and a great hugger and scratcher of the dogs and burros with which we shared our campsites. Amy is quick-witted and uncomplaining, despite having a little trouble with the altitude. These two displayed an unmistakable commitment to each other, seeking each other out to share observations and inquiring earnestly into each other’s welfare. They have been a couple long enough to start sharing behaviors. One night, they agreed they might get up early the next morning to watch the sunrise on the mountains. When someone asked at the next day’s breakfast whether they’d followed through with this idea, they said, with great vehemence and in perfect unison, “Christ no!”

Motti: Recently retired from the Israeli military, and traveling because he can, Motti is a compact, humorous, intelligent man whose previous position of authority in some aerospace-related job has left him overeager to explain how things work and to take the lead in solving problems. I can hardly guess at his age, although I am sure he is older than most of the trekkers, but younger than Martin and I. He preferred to take his time while hiking, stopping to take photos and admire the scenery, so he was often the last person to arrive in camp in the afternoons; our different paces meant that I didn’t really get to know him.

Jim: This 63-year-old American was able to keep up surprisingly well, considering his age and the size of his pack. His Jimmy Stewart demeanor masked an unexpected willingness to tell lewd stories around the table after dinner.

On our first afternoon, we walked through a few small villages, past a guinea-pig farm where a dark, solemn girl held out a struggling chestnut-colored example for us to pet as we went by, and then up to a broad meadow where the cooks and donkey wranglers were setting up our tents. Most of the trekkers rushed to help, where they displayed an ineptitude so complete and pitiable that it made me admire the silent determination of our porters to work around them. I saw this over and over during the next few days; I’m sure that the universal incompetence was a matter of inexperience with backpacking. The German women broke one of the tent poles and gestured at each other with the pieces. God.

The organizers had forgotten to pack the folding chairs, so we all sat in a circle in the meal tent, atop the pads the donkeys wore on their backs as they hauled our gear. The table was at chin height. Dinner was the usual mess of unseasoned meat and vegetables with a side of rice. The sun had set by the time we had finished eating, and the stars had begun to appear. Jupiter was straight overhead, and Sirius was bright over the ridge to the south. A cow arrived in camp and glowered at us in the light of our headlamps. Martin had decided to take pictures of stars, so he pulled out a tripod that he had disassembled for easier packing; his attempts to put it back together were ugly to watch. Motti, off in the darkness, attempted to find someone who might be interested in his explanations of night photography. “It’s the sensitivity of the sensor,” he said, with a tinge of desperation. “It’s all the sensitivity of the sensor!” Most of the party was taking pictures with their phones, and gave up on the idea that they might be able to do anything complicated, but Kenneth, who understood how to open the advanced settings on his Chinese phone, immediately took a beautiful shot of the Milky Way arching through the sky with a glowing tent in the valley beneath it.

My sleeping bag smelled suspiciously like other gringos, and my mat was like something you might put on the floor of a garage to sop up oil leaks, but I slept well anyway.

There was frost on the ground in the morning. Most of us were drinking cups of tea and chatting as Motti took a photo of the cow, who had apparently been circling the tents all night. He came back and announced that the cold had destroyed his battery; he had put the camera on the charger overnight, he said, but the battery had died after only one photo! Then there was a lot of talk about battery technology and low temperatures. At no point did anyone say, “You must not have connected the cable correctly, you dope.” Kenneth put his mug down on a frozen cow flop and lit a cigarette.

Our second day’s hike took us up past the tree line, switchbacking through tundra, to Punta Union pass – at 4,750 meters (more than 15,000 feet), the highest point on the Santa Cruz trek. Margarita had told us that we should take our time on the way up and that we should not linger at the pass. We would have lunch on the far side, a few hundred meters lower, she said. But we ignored this advice. From Punta Union, jagged peaks surrounded us on every side, with glaciers covering every ridge and a lake full of rock flour hundreds of feet below. We couldn’t hurry away from this spot. Some of the young men clambered from the trail up onto the ridge and then started working their way across to the closest glacier, while the rest of us took turns posing with the sign that marked the high point of the trail. Margarita told us at dinner that night that it was very unusual to have a group in which no one was forced to turn around because of altitude sickness. A few of us had had headaches, but no one had been ill; we were all very pleased with ourselves. That night’s camp was at 13,500’; I took a couple of Advil before going to bed.

A dog had joined us before we crossed the pass, coming out from behind a hummock and reacting to our presence with such extravagant joy that I was slightly suspicious of his intentions; I actually suspected this dog of duplicity. He followed us over the pass and down the other side, camped with us that night, and followed us for the whole next day, too. Other dogs joined the parade, all of them friendly, all of them fully aware that they were not allowed inside the tents, all of them polite, still, and focused whenever there was a chance that they might be handed a snack. Margarita explained that these dogs lived on the trail, following groups over the pass until they got close to civilization, when they would pick up a group going the other way and follow these new people back over the pass again. These dogs were lavished with attention, treated to lots of snacks, and maintained a fantastic level of fitness. Kenneth had one of these dogs sprawled across his lap on our second evening when he observed, “If after I die I come back as a dog, I want to be one of these Santa Cruz dogs.”

I enjoyed the efforts that everyone was making to get to know each other, even when I could hardly believe the way they were going about it. One evening before dinner, while everyone was sitting in a circle in a manure-strewn clearing, there was a lull in the conversation and one of the young men asked, “Would you rather have a nose where your penis is or a penis where your nose is?” This launched an immediate debate about whether you’d have two of each or whether the organs would swap locations. None of the young women were contributing to this nonsense, of course, but they all seemed interested in the conversation. “Are you hearing this?” I asked of Nika, who was sitting nearby and didn’t seem to be attending; she gave me a bemused look that I interpreted as “Of course I am, but it hadn’t occurred to me until just now that this is the sort of talk that has probably left your generation behind, old man.” Then somebody else asked the group, “Would you rather sleep with a woman who had your mother’s body but your partner’s mind, or somebody who had your partner’s body but your mother’s mind?”

Something happened on the last night of the trek that could have been due to a generational difference between me and the young men, or perhaps it was the natural result of traveling with budget-conscious youngsters who make a sport of thriftiness in third-world countries. It could have been nothing more than an expression of the personalities of these particular people, too, with no implications for travelers or young people in general. And it could also be the case that my negative reaction was an expression of my own shortcomings, and that they were in the right. Whatever the source of the event, I thought it was ugly. Here’s what happened.

On the night after we’d hiked over Punta Union pass, one of the young men asked Margarita, “Say, Margarita, can you tell me – will tomorrow’s campsite be like this?” He gestured at the tents and the bushes and the camp dogs.

“Like what?” asked Margarita.

“Like, no beer!” he said.

It turned out that there might be beer at the next night’s camp – a prospect that galvanized a few people. A man who lived at Llamacorral (the name of the next camp) used mules to haul beer up for thirsty gringos, selling the bottles at 15 soles each – less that $4.50, but a price that caused a few raised eyebrows. He would probably be working away from camp when we arrived, Margarita explained, but he would probably be back by 5:00 or so, and at that point he could sell the beer to us.

After a lovely day and a visit to a lake at 14,500’ where the glacier tumbled down to the water’s edge, most of us were in Llamacorral by 3:00, luxuriating on our donkey mats in the sun. There was some wistful talk about the beer. Far above us on the steep mountain wall, someone had hacked a clearing in the bushes, hauled off the biggest rocks, and planted some sort of drought-tolerant, cold-tolerant, altitude-tolerant crop; the beer seller was up there, Margarita said, working in this field. “Ah,” said our thirsty crew, squinting at the puny, struggling forms in the distance. “And in two hours, he will be back.”

But at 5:00, we could still see the tiny forms of human beings laboring on the mountainside. “What is this shit?” someone asked. “He was supposed to be back by now.” A half-hour went by, then another. Finally, shortly after 6:00, a very short, very tired, very dirty man appeared in camp. People tried to mask their impatience with his tardiness and eagerly handed him their beer money.

After dinner, when a number of people in our group were more than ready for their second beers, one member of the crew was dragooned into going back to the beer seller and negotiating a lower price for the next round. He returned, ten minutes later, carrying an armload of beer bottles and wearing a triumphant grin. He’d gotten them for 10 soles each! Dude!

People drank their beers and the conversation turned to swearing. At least half-a-dozen languages were represented in the tent, but everyone agreed that there is no substitute for the word “fuck” – the Dutch, the Israelis, the Germans, the Slovenian, and the French all agreed that it is the king of four-letter words. Then people tried to teach each other colorful insults in their home languages. When this gambit started to flag, I mentioned that I used to know a woman who had decided to collect one particular off-color phrase in as many languages as she could. “She could use more than 50 different languages to say, ‘Your mother sucks dead donkey dicks,’” I said.

“What was that?” asked Benoit.

“Your mother sucks dead donkey dicks,” I said.

“Sorry, what?” asked Nika.

“How many times…okay,” I said. “Your. Mother. Sucks. Dead Donkey. Dicks.”

This phrase electrified the tent. Everyone taught everyone else how to say it in their home languages, and then we tried to figure out how it might go in Spanish. Nika looked up the Spanish word for “penis” on her phone. Benoit was the only one of us whose Spanish allowed him to come up with the word “suck.”

“Let’s see,” he said. “Tu madre, uhm, apesta, maybe, los…”

“Pene,” said Nika, reading from her screen.

“Tu madre apesta los penes de burros muertas!” shouted Benoit, accompanied by cheers.

It was at about this point that Margarita stuck her head into the tent, with the news that the beer seller wanted to know when he was going to get the extra money he was owed for the beers. The beers cost 15 soles each, so he was owed 5 soles for each of the beers that the designated negotiator had just brought back. After a moment of shocked silence, the beer drinkers exploded in outrage. No way. A deal’s a deal. You can’t agree to sell at one price and then, after the purchase, decide you want more money! Forget it!

“Maybe it’s just a misunderstanding,” I said. “There was a language barrier, after all.”

“No way! He understood fine. He’s just after more money.”

I thought about pointing out that nobody concludes a deal and then goes back later for more money – that their theory about this Peruvian farmer assumed he was behaving in a way that is practically unheard of. I thought of pointing out that the price he was asking for the beer was reasonable, especially considering how hard he had to work to get it up to this spot. I thought of pointing out that this guy was working harder every day for less money than any of us ever would, and that the least we could do was help him out a little. I thought of pointing out that our positions of wealth and education and opportunity were so cosmically unfair in this Peruvian valley that pretending to be standing on principle – pretending that “a deal’s a deal” is a principled position – is a disgusting casuistry, and is going to be seen as further proof by these people that we gringos are a bunch of spoiled, selfish babies. But I didn’t say anything. I looked around at the faces in the tent – at the outraged young men and the mostly quiet, thoughtful young women – and thought that these were my people, for better or worse. My peer group, right or wrong.

“How am I going to talk to him about this?” asked the beer negotiator. “I don’t know enough Spanish to explain anything.”

“I know,” said Motti. “Write that donkey-dick phase on your hand, and then just hold it up and read it when you talk to him!” Motti held up his hand, stared at his palm, and intoned, “Tu madre…”

On the following morning, the little beer man came to the camp to ask for the 20 soles he was owed, and the rich people who had drunk his beer sent him away empty-handed.

The last day’s hike followed the Santa Cruz river out from under the glaciers and down to the little town of Cashapampa, where a van waited to take us back to Huaraz. It was hard to say goodbye to my new friends. The story I just told about the beer money should not be interpreted to mean that I had decided not to love these people; on the contrary, feeling the obligation to forgive them made me love them more. You can admire without reservation only people you don’t know well; for everyone else, you can only hope that they treat you with the same forbearance you extend to them.

Margarita introduced herself to a group of young gringos who had just gotten off the van, made sure that everybody had enough water and that the extra gear had been loaded onto the donkeys, and set off up the trail with them – climbing back up into the mountains on the same trail she had just descended that morning. The camp dogs who had been following us since the far side of the pass turned around and followed the new group back up the trail. They knew better than I did how irrelevant we were to their lives.

There wasn’t a lot of chatter on the van during the trip back to Huaraz. We didn’t have the energy to indulge in idle conversation. We were too busy becoming irrelevant to each other.

Photographs from the Santa Cruz Trek.

Araby

August 18-26, 2019

This post covers two parts of my recent travels: a trek in Colca Canyon, Peru, and a visit to Copacabana, Bolivia.

Colca Canyon

My walk in Colca Canyon happened a little more than a week ago, but it has already receded into a past so foreign and unlikely that I am puzzled by what I might say about it that could bring it back to life. It was a small, unique adventure, unrelated to what preceded and followed it, and, in retrospect, noteworthy mostly for what it wasn’t. It wasn’t wilderness, or canyoneering, or comfortable, or social, in any meaningful way, and it wasn’t really something that I would recommend to anyone – yet it also wasn’t ordinary or predictable or sedentary. And it was often beautiful.

The bus that picked me up in Arequipa at 3:00 in the morning led through darkness in which glimpses of small houses and farms flashed by in the penumbra of the headlights. At sunup we were driving through an unearthly landscape at 16,000 feet – the Altiplano, the second-most extensive area of high plateau on Earth, behind only the high plains of Tibet. Nothing larger than a tuft of grass grew anywhere in the open miles around us, slabs of ice stuck out of the earth by the roadside, and, out the windows, past the sleeping heads of the women across the aisle, a plume of ash hung over the fumarole of an erupting volcano.

We stopped for breakfast at a little place and had what our guide gamely called a “bread buffet”: margarine and strawberry jam on Peru’s ubiquitous and deplorable cow-pat bread. With chamomile tea. This was a sign of things to come; the trekking outfit saved money by feeding us small portions of bad, cheap food, and encouraged us to make up the deficit by buying snacks from the little tiendas along the trail.

Another hour of driving took us to an overlook above Colca Canyon. Ice-topped mountains plunged down to a river, far below. Some of the marketing for Colca Canyon calls it the world’s deepest canyon, a claim which may be true, depending on what the words “canyon” and “deepest” mean. It is easy to believe that this canyon may have no rivals, if measured from the mountaintops to the river, but this doesn’t seem fair to me; from my perspective, the canyon was the gorge at my feet, and the mountains above me were an entirely different feature of the landscape. That night, when it came out over dinner that I have been to the Grand Canyon, everybody wanted to know how this experience compared. “Colca Canyon is very pretty,” I said. “But it isn’t shocking. The Grand Canyon is shocking.”

There were about 14 trekkers in my group; Spaniards, Germans (of course), Canadians, a Peruvian, a woman from India, an Irish woman, and one American – me. Our guide was an energetic young Peruvian who went by “Paul.” I was the oldest member of the group, of course, but there was a woman who was within perhaps ten years of my age; this was a Canadian mother who was traveling with her three sons, who ranged in age from 15 to perhaps 24. This woman, Kristin, was very fit by any standard, and shockingly fit for a woman of more than 50. She was twice the age of most of the other women in the group, and probably twice as strong.

I would tell you more about Kristin here, except that, despite having had several conversations with her, I hardly know anything about her. Kristin is one of those people who speaks very quietly and, when you lean in close to try to catch an occasional fricative, speaks quieter still. She told me something about a death in the family that prevented her husband from being there. The death may have involved a drug overdose, or maybe that was a story about someone else. Bone tumors may have been involved, or we may have already moved on to another person with that anecdote. To be fair, at one point I was shocked when she said something inaudible while seated next to me at the table and someone halfway across the room responded with a laugh and a comment that proved they’d heard her. I’d probably have done better if I’d been wearing my hearing aids, but I can’t wear them all day every day, on the off-chance that I might encounter someone like Kristin. My hearing is always poor but it is only rarely crippling – but it was crippling when I was trying to talk to this interesting person.

Her sons were excellent young men. Their mother had banned them from using the occasional wifi signals we encountered, so they resorted to playing cards with each other. They had converted the kid’s game, Crazy Eights, into something that an adult might enjoy, by adding an element of bluffing to it. In their version, if you have, say, three tens, you can play them all at once. You play one of the tens face up and the other two face down, and then look blithely into the faces of your brothers and say, “Well? Do you believe me?” If you call their bluff, and they didn’t have three tens, they lose their turn, but if they did have the tens, then you have to take as many cards from the draw pile as they just played. (Sorry about this dull recitation of rules, but the game seemed worth preserving.)

I grew up with four brothers, so the adversarial affection and apparently limitless vitality displayed by the Canadian brothers was as familiar to me as an old pair of jeans. Of course they communicated in a series of insults and disparaging observations about the food, their comfort, and the world at large. Of course they competed to see how quickly they could climb the switchbacks. Of course their relationship with their mother was respectful, irritated, affectionate, amused, and vaguely condescending; it could hardly have been otherwise. When a lovely German girl sat down to peel an orange, her shirt gaping open negligently, of course two of the boys stood nearby, as still and rigid as tomb effigies, their faces masks behind their sunglasses, breathing slowly and deeply and filling the air with musk. Of course they did. I was charmed by the power and purity of their youth.

The hike from the rim of the canyon to the Colca River at its base took three or four hours. We hadn’t been on the trail long when an Andean condor floated slowly by, at head height, 30 feet off the trail, watching us warily from tiny black eyes set in a scarlet head. “He is looking for dead animals,” said Paul. “He likes to eat the eyes, and then the testicles.” Paul turned to address the Irish woman. “I am sorry to say it, but it is true.”

The trail descended to and then under cliffs of columnar basalt. At one point I slipped and fell hard on a rock whose shape and position were perfectly calibrated to bludgeon the sciatic nerve in my right-side glute. I bounced to my feet with a merry “Ha ha!,” to demonstrate that the Canadians weren’t the only ones with apparently limitless vitality, but in fact the impact and pain had left me feeling slightly sick, and now, as I write these words, ten days later, I am reminded of the fall whenever I shift in my chair.

A couple from Mallorca was traveling in South America while they rented out their Mallorcan house as an Airbnb. These were Michel (Michelangelo) and Alicia. They were so happy to be together in Peru that their joy was infectious; when I saw how Alicia looked at Michel, it made me like him more; when Michel gave Alicia a little kiss, I wanted to do the same. It was a pleasure to be around them.

We spent two nights in the canyon. On the first night, we stayed with a family that had built a series of simple rooms and installed a solar-powered shower. A turkey in the yard spent his time asserting dominance over the chickens, and a shed next to the bathrooms contained several dozen fat, oblivious guinea pigs. After a relatively easy walk on the second day, which took us through two small villages where the people farmed terraces that led down to the river, we ended at little hamlet that was an oasis of palm trees and startling green at the river’s edge. I was still hungry after dinner that night, so I made friends with an enormous Peruvian dog while waiting in line at the snack shop; by the time I was able to tell the muchacho what I wanted, the dog was so excited to have a new friend that he had almost taken my arm off. I was in no hurry to return to my room – overbooking by the trekking agency had compelled me to share a room with a couple of newlyweds – so I ate my potato chips while standing away from the lights and noise, looking up at the Milky Way and the unfamiliar constellations.

At 4:30 on the following morning, we set off to climb the switchbacks up to the canyon rim – a climb of 3,700 vertical feet that ends at almost 11,000 feet. Kristin and her kids surged ahead of the pack almost immediately. I picked a pace that I thought I could maintain for hours, put my head down, and did the work without any particular trauma. A few of the members of our party, who really should not have attempted this hike in the first place, needed to be hauled out of the canyon on the backs of mules; no one seemed alarmed or put out by this, as it is something that must happen every morning, and we were all at the top by 8:30.

The bus took us back over the Altiplano during the daylight hours. There was nothing but rock and ice at 16,000 feet, but, when we dropped down to 15,000′, herds of alpaca began to show up. I was glad to see vicuña, a species of the South American camelids that was hunted nearly to extinction but which has staged a comeback after conservation measures were put into place. Instead of going back to Arequipa, I had booked a bus that would take me from Colca Canyon to Lake Titicaca, at the Bolivian border. After spending one night in Puno, Peru, I planned to cross the border and spend a few days in the town of Copacabana, on the shores of the lake.

Photos from my trip into Colca Canyon can be seen here.

Copacabana

The town of Copacabana, Bolivia, is home to about 6,000 people, all of whom seem to be at peace with the idea of living and working at an altitude that forced me to ask myself an unusual question while climbing the hill to my hotel: how slowly am I willing to walk? The town spills down a slope into Lake Titicaca, which, at 12,500 feet, is often called the “highest navigable body of water in the world,” whatever that might mean. Patrolling the lake is the Bolivian navy, which exists even though Bolivia has been landlocked since 1904; the Bolivians are not reconciled to the idea of having lost their coastline to Chile, and hope to use their Navy to reclaim their rightful territory, should the opportunity ever present itself. I’m not sure how they intend to get their navy into the Pacific Ocean, but questions like that are above my pay grade.

I discovered, after having been there for a few hours, that I was not really in the mood to be in Copacabana. My hotel was cute, but the town itself is another one of those decrepit brick-and-concrete accretions that speckle the beautiful landscape in this part of the world like carbuncles on Aphrodite Kallipygos. Luckily, the chimney from the downstairs wood stove went through a corner of my room, leaking so much smoke into the air that staying indoors wasn’t really possible; I turned necessity into a virtue and escaped the fumes while exploring the town and climbing the nearby hills. Mostly, though, the wood stove wasn’t running, so I stayed in my room, working on reservations for my upcoming visit to Europe and finishing The Life of Johnson.

Four alpacas lived at my hotel. When I saw that one had tangled his tether around some bushes, I untied the lead and led him around the shrubbery until he was untangled again. When I bent to retie the lead, he bit me on the ass.

I was looking forward to visiting the Isla del Sol, a purportedly charming place just a short ferry ride from Copacabana. This island is the setting for an important Inca creation myth. During a great flood, the sun hid under a crag on the north side of the island; Isla del Sol was the first land that appeared after the flood waters began to recede, and the sun emerged from the crag to illuminate the world once again. The island has no paved roads or motorized vehicles; donkeys are used to haul anything that the inhabitants would rather not carry on their backs. I booked a splurgy hotel for the upcoming Sunday night.

The ferry ride was cold, breezy, and so slow that I began to wonder whether I should have simply swum. After two hours, I was deposited on the beach at Yumani, where a dour man charged me a 10 Boliviano fee for setting foot on his island, and I began to climb the long flight of stone stairs that led from the harbor to the houses on the clifftops above.

At the top of the stairs I met a trim woman of approximately my age who had put down her pack to catch her breath. She had a charming English accent and was clearly an intrepid traveler; she said she had come to the island without a reservation, and intended simply to carry her gear from one hostal to another until she found one she liked. I wished her well and continued along the track, up and up, until I found my hotel, which was indeed sumptuous, by my standards. I had put my pack down and sat myself on the bed before it occurred to me that I could have invited that woman to share this lovely room with me.

This would have been absurd, of course. But still. She and I were both alone, neither of us has any time to waste, we have in common an eagerness to see the world and a willingness to be uncomfortable doing so, if necessary. She and I would have eventually learned each other’s names. She would probably have said “no” to my proposition, of course – but what if she hadn’t? Why hadn’t I thought to make the offer? Was the explanation really nothing more complicated than simple cowardice?

I went on a long walk over the south part of the island, taking pictures, making friends with a puppy, admiring the donkeys, and trying to imagine what life must have been like here among the Inca and pre-Inca people. I had read that I didn’t need to worry about food and water, because I could depend on finding them for sale in many little shops, but this information hadn’t taken Sundays into account; everything was closed, so my walk was a thirstier experience than I’d expected. The whole time I was walking, my lost opportunity with that traveler preyed on my mind. How could I have been so dull-witted and timorous? I returned to my empty room eventually, with its enormous bed and view out over the lake, and cursed myself.

That night, well after dark, I went out to find something to eat. I had to step to one side of the track to let a train of donkeys pass me, and then make my way using my phone’s flashlight. I remembered there having been a restaurant at the bend up ahead that advertised pizza on its chalkboard.

And there she was, sitting at a table in the otherwise empty restaurant, frowning down at the pizza she was sawing at with a knife. The moment I saw her, the entire absurd fantasy that I had constructed around her collapsed into the donkey-scented darkness. She was simply an old lady, no more likely to be a friend to me than anyone else, no more likely to indulge in a meaningless assignation than I have ever been, no more likely to find me an interesting person than I might be to think the same of her. What had I been thinking? What price do I imagine I am willing to pay for a few hours of human company? How desperate am I?

As I stood there in the cool darkness, aghast at my frantic, childish naivete, the last line of James Joyce’s story, Araby, came to mind. I know this claim may seem absurd, but this story affected me profoundly when I first read it, decades ago, and its concluding words are always close at hand:

Gazing up into the darkness I saw myself as a creature driven and derided by vanity; and my eyes burned with anguish and anger.

My appetite was gone, so I returned to my room. The next day, I caught a bus back to Peru.

Photos from Bolivia are here.

Commodification

Cusco, Manu Park, Montaña de Siete Colores, Lima, Cusco, Lima, Arequipa
July 16 through August 17, 2019

I wrote most of this blog entry two weeks ago and return to it now with a feeling of hopelessness; how can I possibly convey even a hint of how life has been for me since my old friend Jim Nielson came to keep me company in Peru? Jim has flown back to Toronto now – I write these words on Saturday, August 17 – and I feel obliged to make some attempt to catch up, because events are about to overwhelm me, once again.

I will produce a few inadequate paragraphs about the last few weeks and tack them onto the end of this post, upload a few photos, and promise myself to return to the subject in a week or so, when I’m established at Lake Titicaca, in Copacabana, Bolivia. I’m giving myself two hours for this. The clock starts . . . now.

Manu National Park – July 25-28

I have wanted to see a genuine tropical jungle since I was a kid. Monkeys, Tarzan vines, army ants, weird hooting noises from out in the darkness – everybody I knew at William Penn Elementary thought these things, plus molten lava, were among the world’s most fascinating topics. Who among us couldn’t perform a series of monkey calls, right now, that we first perfected in primary school?

The fantasy hasn’t aged very well, however. I care more than I used to about heat, filth, and biting insects. I also have gained some experience with hiking on trails where the vegetation crowds around you; when you can’t see more than ten or fifteen feet to your right or left, the scenery soon becomes a wash of more or less undifferentiated green. And I used to interpret the word “impenetrable” – always used to describe tropical jungles – as meaning, “penetrable, if you have a machete, big, bronze muscles, and manly determination,” but now I interpret it as “not penetrable.”

The real reason I hesitated before booking a trip into the jungle from Cusco, though, was that I had just come back from doing the Salkantay trek. Much as I enjoyed that experience, I was sick of feeling like an exploitable resource. I don’t like having somebody else making all the decisions, preparing all the food, and setting the schedule. Even worse was the suspicion that the friendliness and concern of the guides and porters were entirely purchased commodities; there is no way to know what a person thinks of you when you have paid them to laugh at your jokes.

My daughter, Laura, visited the Ecuadorian jungle ten years ago, so I asked her opinion about whether I should go. She answered in all caps: DEFINITELY. Laura doesn’t often answer questions that way. I booked a four-day trip to Peru’s Manu National Park.

The first day was mostly devoted to driving over the Andes. We stopped at a series of pre-Incan ridgetop tombs, where bodies had been interred in the cold wind to effect a sort of freeze-drying, and at a nice little colonial village, but most of our time was spent in the van. The last of the four days was also spent in transit. We had only two full days in the jungle.

My fellow gringos were three young German guys, an Australian couple, two young German women, and a Dutch family of four. These groups were largely self-sufficient; I didn’t so much as learn their names until the last day of the trip. It wasn’t really a problem for me that trip into the jungle was not a social experience, because encountering so much unfamiliar nature was so incredible that the simple fact of where I was and what I was seeing took up most of my attention. Laura had been absolutely right. I’ll quote here from a piece of email I sent her, shortly after the trip had ended:

As an outdoor adventure (the trip) was totally outside my experience, and as an education in what the word “biodiversity” means it was absolutely peerless. I’d had no idea how much life it’s possible to cram into a few acres of land. The tropical rain forest may not be a friendly place for humanity, but as a place for trees and plants and bugs and birds and frogs and monkeys and anteaters, and a bunch of things we saw only from their tracks, like tapirs and jaguars and armadillos, it’s simply incredible. One of the best things about the tour was that our guide was a genuinely committed and enthusiastic naturalist. This may have been my first experience with a tour guide that didn’t leave me shaking my head at all the misinformation. I was able to contribute occasional dribs and drabs – where Capuchin monkeys get their name, for instance, and something about the weird nervous systems of millipedes – but, for the most part, I shut up and took advantage of the opportunity to learn something new whenever our guide opened his mouth.

I am tempted to list the many new things I saw – the birds, trees, monkeys, ants, flowers, moths, butterflies, and so on – and to break up the monotony of the list by supplying little vignettes about the other people on the trip – but I’m afraid this effort would be interesting only to me, and maybe not even that. Instead, I’ll give you a glimpse of the trip, in a short movie I’ve hacked together.

A jerky seven-minute video of my experience in Manu National Park.

Montaña de Siete Colores (Rainbow Mountain) – July 31, 2019

In 2015, the snow and ice that cloaked a ridgeline southeast of Cusco melted away, exposing striped mineral deposits that soon attracted a few social-media adepts. Now, four years later, Instagram tourism has made Rainbow Mountain Peru’s second-most-visited spot, behind only Machu Picchu. I felt sure that the mountain scenery would justify a visit, despite the crowds.

A van picked me up very early from the street outside my Cusco hotel. The sun didn’t rise until we were far out into the countryside. Sprinklers were running in some of the fields, where they had spread a thick layer of ice over the plants. The speakers in the van played some Latin tunes, then the Beatles, then The Village People. We were given blankets to keep our laps warm as we climbed into the mountains.

The Rainbow Mountain parking lot is at more that 15,000 feet. The pass, and the knob above it from which visitors get a view of the colors, is visible from the parking lot, two miles away. About half of the people in my van immediately got into the line to rent horses; this surprised me, since trying to cope with the altitude was one of the features of the trip that I was most curious about. This was likely to be a very interesting form of suffering, and these horsey people might miss it!

A glaciated mountain hung in the sky on my left as I climbed. I’d forgotten my coca leaves, but I felt fine without them. The sky was clear, the views were stupendous in every direction, and I was part of a happy throng. A line of horses kept pace next to the hiker’s trail, each horse led by a local person in colorful traditional clothes, and each horse bearing a gringo, swaying wildly in the saddle. One of the horses produced a seemingly endless fart that I reacted to with humor, at first, but then, as it went on and on, my reaction changed to incredulity, then alarm, then amazement, and finally to a thoughtful appreciation of what may be an equine art form. The white-haired gringo on its back didn’t react in any visible way. Or maybe he was the one doing the farting, I don’t know.

We had been told that we should be ready to leave the pass and return to the van at 11:00, but I had reached the high point well before 10:00 and taken all of the photos I needed of the colorful stripes in the ground, so I turned my attention to the valley on the other side of the pass, where I could see a herd of alpaca grazing in the sere landscape. They were irresistible. My little expedition down into the alpaca valley felt like a bonus jaunt – an hour away from the humans, roaming happily among the mountains and the adorable camelids. I was back at the pass by 11:00, as scheduled. The crowd up there was simply absurd; it put me in mind of the base of the cables on Half Dome. Many of the people coming up the trail were bent over and gasping, but my weeks in Cusco had thickened my blood; I was feeling great. Watching other people suffer filled me with benevolent smugness.

The striped colors at the pass are not a good reason to visit Rainbow Mountain, but I thought the surrounding scenery, and the opportunity to find out how I felt at more than 17,000 feet, fully justified the trip. The transportation, a buffet breakfast, and a good lunch, only cost 70 soles – about $23. If you find yourself in Cusco, and you’re well acclimated – go.

Here are some pretty pictures from Rainbow Mountain.

My Final Thoughts about Cusco

On the way back from Rainbow Mountain, I struck up a conversation with a German doctor whose happiness and intelligence and accomplishments made me feel bad about myself. Gertrud was visiting Peru to spend time with a woman who she first got to know when this woman was just a girl, and living in her house as an exchange student, 30 years earlier. Gertrud was brave enough to ask the driver for Latin music during the drive back, and bopped happily to the beat whenever conversation waned. Rather than allow her hair to gray as she aged, she has chosen to dye it an unlikely shade of orange. She speaks German, Spanish, and English, to my certain knowledge, and probably a smattering of other European languages as well. She has three biological children and a fourth she adopted, who is from Cameroon. She and some friends have founded a charity that provides prosthetic limbs for injured Ecuadorian children. This was intimidating.

Most of the Ecuadorian child amputees lost their limbs to electrical accidents, according to Gertrud. Sometimes they are playing on rooftops and come into contact with low-hanging wires. Or sometimes a live wire is loose and simply lying on the ground. I must have noticed that the construction standards are very low in this part of the world. “Yes,” I said. “The carelessness is shocking. Surprising, I mean.” I explained that I have done a lot of amateur home repair, and that, even when you factor in my ignorance and ineptitude, I am a master carpenter/electrician/plumber/tile-setter/drywall artist/painter when you compare my work to the horrors of most projects in Latin America. “It isn’t too difficult to paint a bathroom without leaving drips running down the tiles,” I said. “Or to put wires in conduit, or in a wall, instead of draping them across the floor. Or to patch a hole with something that matches the original construction, and repaint afterwards. It isn’t that people here are in a hurry, or that doing a job well is too expensive. It’s a cultural difference. People just don’t care.”

As we rolled through the outskirts of Cusco, every building displayed this lack of concern. There was the exposed rebar that I’m always complaining about, of course. And the chunky mortar squeezing out between the unsymmetrical bricks and concrete blocks. And the wires hanging in loose coils on the outsides of the walls. And the stairs with no railings. And the scarred or half-finished paint jobs. And the decayed advertisements for politicians whose elections passed years ago. And the way windows and stairways and the top couple of floors of many buildings appeared to be afterthoughts, built using materials that are nothing like the rest of the building, and offset in strange ways to the outside walls. Scraps of corrugated iron, dented and rusting, used as roofing, and walls, and fencing. And the layer of dirt over every surface. The buildings got bigger and the traffic became more urgent and tangled as we approached Cusco’s center; and then a mile or so from the Plaza de Armas, slab-sided government buildings and the first colonial architecture began to appear. Within a block or two, the Cusco’s lovely central district had surrounded us.

Gertrud gave me her contact information and told me to stop by to see her whenever I found myself in Karlsbad, and then the van dropped her off in front of her hotel. She was looking eagerly up and down on the sidewalk, enjoying the vendors and the bustle, as the van turned a corner and a flash of her bright hair vanished from sight.

I had given myself one full day in Cusco after my visit to Rainbow Mountain, intending to use it to see some of the attractions that I hadn’t indulged myself in; I had hardly visited any of the churches and museums, which isn’t at all how I usually conduct myself in a new city.

My initial euphoria about Cusco had worn off, just as I knew it would.

Photos from what I’d thought would be my last days in Cusco.

Maybe Not My Final Thoughts about Cusco

I hadn’t finished writing the section that just ended with the words “just as I knew it would.” I had planned to spend some time grousing about being the target of the tourism industry, tying my complaints together under the theme of “commodification,” and saying an ambivalent goodbye to Cusco. It was going to be clever and crabby and generally unhelpful.

But then, on August 2, I flew to Lima and checked into a lovely Airbnb in the Barranco district, where Jim Nielson joined me. We had read that Lima had little to recommend it, but we weren’t prepared for the implacable truth of this observation. Our district – Barranco – was cute and old, but everyplace else, including the old heart of the city, was ordinary high-rise buildings, long stretches of brick walls topped by broken glass and barbed wire, or dangerous squalor – and always dirty and broken and neglected. We agreed that it was as though no one cared at all about how anything looks.

One morning we set off to visit the area around the University of Peru. First we stopped at the office of a travel agency where we intended to buy tickets for a day trip on the following day to visit a nearby preIncan ruin (“more than five million adobe bricks,” said the website), but there was nothing at the street address to which we’d been directed. This happened to us repeatedly, especially in long, futile attempts to find bookstores. After a little fumbling with our phones, we gave up and grabbed a taxi to the university.

The campus looked fine – such of it as we could see through the security fence, anyway – but the neighborhood was more like Federal Way than a university district; a Federal Way devoid of trees or parks or prosperity. We set off on what turned into a long walk along a busy street, heading for a bookstore Jim had found online. Bricks, dirt, trash, traffic, and noise, for miles. The hills around us were so dry and barren that they seemed to be the aftermath of an industrial accident or a bitter and prolonged war. We approached some retail establishments at an intersection, where a young man was standing on a friend’s back and juggling gold streamers. Then, unexpectedly, a series of five or six shacks selling antiques. A BMW dealership. A huge mound of dirt, at the base of which a dead dog turned out to be only napping. A McDonald’s. And, finally, a tony shopping mall, where we had lunch and found Jim’s bookstore. The first paragraph of a Spanish version of Lolita was nicely explicable to us, as was a random paragraph from the middle of the book – salacious and fun. We didn’t buy it, though.

After lunch, Jim bravely raised the possibility of freeing ourselves from the disappointments of Lima. We could fly to Cusco for a couple of nights, he suggested, and return to Lima only to leave it for Arequipa. Despite having just been in Cusco, this seemed like a great idea to me. We took a taxi back to Barranco and spent a few productive hours buying airline tickets and booking an Airbnb.

Cusco was bright and open and cute and nothing at all like Lima. We ate and drank well, visited Inca ruins, explored markets and churches, exulted over our lovely old apartment – it was the best escape from Lima that one could hope for. Incredibly, our original plan had been to spend two solid weeks there, with no Cusco or Arequipa; God only knows what we’d have done with ourselves.

Jim and I returned to our empty Airbnb in Lima for a day and then, on August 12, flew to Arequipa, Peru’s second-largest city. I had seen Arequipa on a list of good places for Americans to retire in Peru, but I knew hardly anything about the place; Jim had read more about it than I had. Our Airbnb had a nice view of Misti, the local volcano, and was a few feet from a park where llamas were tethered every day. It was a short walk to the city center, where all of the buildings are made of a white volcanic stone that glows in the unvarying, perfect sun. Arequipa is superb.

This would be a good place to talk about Peru in general. Having visited Lima, Cusco, the Andes, Manu Park, and Arequipa (and Tumbes, if you’re generous about what the word “visited” means), I have some opinions about the diversity of the country. But I can’t indulge this impulse and post these remarks today.

The subject that I am most embarrassed to have neglected in this post is my affection for Jim Nielson and my gratitude for his visit. I’ll have to let the photos speak for me, for the time being. There wouldn’t be an easy way to talk about Jim – anything honest would be terribly sentimental – but his visit is the only important thing that has happened to me for quite a while.

Photos from Jim’s visit to Peru.

Jim left on the evening of Thursday, August 15. On the following day – yesterday – I moved to a smaller, cheaper, worse Airbnb here in Arequipa, and then went out for lunch. The ordinary restaurant I found had a quotation on the wall: “La sinceridad del carazón humano en este mundo hace que incluso una deidad iracunda llore.” Next to this was posted the English translation: “The sincerity of the human heart in this world makes even a wrathful deity cry.”

Now I have to appreciate this kind of thing by myself again.

Glimpses

Salkantay Trek out of Cusco 7/16-21/2019

The van that carried us NW out of Cusco at the beginning of our trek climbed back and forth to a pass, where views opened up into green valleys that stretched off forever. Then the switchbacks got steeper and more frequent. Then we left the main road and began to ascend a narrow lane, with blind corners at the switchbacks and cliffs whose cactus and scrub would not have slowed our plunge had anything gone wrong. Then we stopped in a village for a bathroom break, worked our way back and forth through the village’s narrow streets, pausing to drag a dead dog out of the road, and then the pavement disappeared. As the sun set, we followed a rocky, serpentine track into the Andes.

When we arrived in the darkness at the clean, modern camp where we would spend the night, we gave the driver a round of applause for having gotten us there alive.

Dinner that night was by headlamp; the camp’s generator had flickered on when we arrived, run long enough to make us complacent, then coughed, sighed, and expired. This didn’t bother the cooks, who prepared soup and bread and rice and chicken and vegetables and hot drinks on a propane stove by the light of hanging lanterns. Every meal on the trek was an array of plates heaped with food, served all at once – plentiful and nutritious.

I ate at a table set for four: me, Rodrigo, our guide (“Rolo”), and two Australian women, Sarah and Emily. We introduced ourselves as we ate. Rolo is in his mid-twenties and was born in a small village near Cusco – Quechua is his first language. Sarah is in her mid-twenties and is a paramedic. Emily, late twenties, is an architect. The women are traveling together through South America, having just attended a wedding in Quito. They have been friends ever since being on the same surf-boat racing team, back in Melbourne; this sport features lining up a handful of five-man boats at the surf line and, at a starting gun, plunging desperately into the waves, trying to be the first boat around a buoy and back to the beach.

“The surf can be really rough,” said Sarah. “We wear bikinis and helmets.”

“And float vests,” said Emily. “That way, if we’re unconscious, they might find us before we drown.”

“Good Lord,” I thought. “How tough are these women?”

Here is a YouTube video that Emily recommended, “Surf Boat Carnage.”

There were more than three tourists on this trek, but our expedition had been divided into two groups: Rolo and his three charges were the English-speaking group, and the larger portion, of perhaps eight hikers, was composed of Spanish-speakers from Mexico, Chile, and Peru, with a Spanish-speaking guide. This division made sense, as a practical matter, but I regretted having such a scant acquaintance with the other part of our expedition; they appeared to be kind, friendly people.

As the porters cleared the dishes, Rolo told us that we would be awakened the following morning at 5:30. Breakfast would be served shortly after 6:00, and we’d be hiking by 7:00. We wished each other well and went off to our separate cabins. An enormous glaciated peak, Humantay mountain, shone in the moonlight at the head of a valley to the north. A lake at the foot of this mountain would be our first destination on the following morning. I didn’t know, as I closed the door to my room, that I would never see Humantay mountain again.

Our camp was at almost 13,000’, and I wasn’t sure whether I was feeling the altitude. I was a little queasy, and I slept poorly; I was staring up into the darkness when a knock came at my door at 5:30 in the morning. The porter who had come to rouse me had brought me a hot cup of coca-leaf tea. I drank this while packing, decided that anything worth doing was worth overdoing, and broke out the stash of coca leaves I’d bought at a mini-mart in Cusco. I put six or eight of them into my mouth and chewed energetically. They were bitter and undistinguished. Leafy. After a few minutes, I’d reduced them to a gritty, unpleasant mulch. “This cannot be how this is done,” I thought, opening the door and spitting the bolus into the darkness. But, you know, I felt a little better.

There was more coca tea for breakfast, along with eggs and bread and fruit. We stacked up the green duffle bags that contained our personal possessions, each of them embroidered with “Alpaca Expeditions: The Journey is the Destination”; the porters were going to carry these over the pass for us. It was raining a little and the light had come up as we followed Rolo out onto the road and our trek began. Humantay Mountain had vanished behind the clouds. Ahead of us were brown, sharp-edged hills, rising into the mist. We passed horses and cows and the camps of other trekking agencies, then left the road and started to climb through the tundra. The rain had slackened by this point.

I was feeling great. The coca had produced nothing like a high; what I was feeling was more like the clarity of several strong cups of coffee, with none of the jitters or anxiety. Coffee doesn’t leave you feeling indomitable, either. My queasiness and doubts were gone.

Sarah and Emily talked companionably as they climbed, stopping to take pictures and gesturing as they told each other jokes. They may have been telling each other jokes, anyway – it was hard to tell, because they were small figures in the distance, and they were a little smaller every time I looked up from my feet. That’s how it went for the entire trek; Sarah and Emily, without apparent effort, were always way out in front of me.

It bothered me a little to be the slowest member of the group, but only a little. There were only four of us, after all, one of whom was a professional mountain guide, and I was the only one in the group who was older than 30. It seemed to me that I was doing pretty well, except by comparison to those two freakishly fit young women, cresting the ridgeline far in front of me.

Two marmot-sized animals scampered out of the rocks as we approached an old glacial moraine. Chinchillas! I was about to chase them with my camera, but, as they disappeared among the boulders, Rolo assured me that we would see more of them, in a place where they loved to “chillax” on the far side of Salkantay Pass. That plan didn’t work out, though. Those were the only chinchillas we saw.

Laguna Humantay was pretty, but the mountain behind it remained stubbornly obscured. Rolo distributed high-fives, told us a dubious story about how the ancient Inca people used to come up here and build cairns, like those all around us that had been left by previous hikers, and then gave us some patently false information about the color of the water, which was clearly the result of rock flour from the glacier but which Rolo attributed to the altitude and something about reflectivity. Then he used our cameras to take pictures of us in front of the lake.

“Say ‘Oh my gato!’” he yelled. “Say ‘Hola-hola Coca-Cola!’ Say ‘Llama-mia!’”

“Oh my God,” said Emily, posing next to me with a rictus grin. “We’re going to be hearing that for five days.”

Rolo said we had made exceptionally good time getting up to the lake. I found this easy to believe, given Sarah and Emily’s mile-eating stride. He dubbed us “Super-hikers” and called us that for the rest of the trip.

We could see clouds blowing up Salkantay Valley as we descended back the way we’d come. When we reached the valley bottom, we turned and headed east, toward the pass and the clouds.

Lunch had been set up in several large green tents that sheltered us from most of the wind. At 14,435 feet, this lunch spot was slightly higher than the summit of Mt. Rainier. As we ate, Sarah asked Rolo whether the local people believed in anything like the Sasquatch or Abominable Snowman. Rolo replied that he didn’t like to be in the mountains alone at night, because something lives there that is almost but not quite human – a creature that attacks people, cuts them open, removes their fat, and then sews up the incision. This had happened to a friend of his grandfather. This grisly story did nothing to impede our appetites; we ate enough to make us ready for naps and then got to our feet, shook off the torpor, put on our day packs, and headed for the pass. The wind had picked up, and the air was now carrying a ballast of sleet that stung our faces as we climbed. My legs felt fine, and there was no trace of the symptoms that had worried me on the previous night, but the air was so thin that the only way to climb was to stop every few minutes to gasp for breath. Some of these breaks happened automatically when a mule train passed us, forcing us off onto the rocks to watch them go by.

The sleet had stopped and the wind had abated when we arrived at Salkantay Pass, at 15,157 feet. This is the highest my feet have ever carried me. The four of us went for a walk to the edge of a moraine, where people had set up a small forest of cairns, and walked through the fog among them, waiting for rents in the clouds through which we could sometimes catch glimpses of the glaciers that surrounded us. I have seen photographs of the views from Salkantay Pass on clear days, but I am trying to put those photographs out of my mind.

We had a lovely time up there, despite the clouds. Rolo led us in a little ceremony, in which we each held up coca leaves and offered them to the mountains before leaving them as an offering under a rock. Then he showed us how you’re really supposed to chew coca. You start with a small handful of leaves, into which you sprinkle an acidic sweetener; then you fold and roll them into a quid and put it between your cheek and gum, where you leave it as you work. We had just done the hardest work of the entire trek, so I wasn’t sure I needed any more coca – but I didn’t hesitate to slip those leaves into my mouth. The coca produced no psychoactive effect as we strode down from the pass, beyond an agreeable absence of fatigue; we paused to admire the spot where there were no chinchillas and watched the vegetation slowly recovering as we lost altitude.

Our camp was at about 12,500’. We were established in tents over which thatched lean-tos had been built. The fog reduced the diameter of our world to a few dozen yards. After another sumptuous meal, we crawled into our sleeping bags.

That night I got up to pee and saw that the weather had cleared. The mountains under which we’d been walking hung above our camp in the moonlight, white ice and black rock. I stood and looked at them until the cold drove me back into my tent. But in the morning, the clouds had returned. The mountains were still visible, now and then, but they pulled the clouds over themselves and peeped out at us from behind them like girls in an old-fashioned burlesque show.

The second day was a long walk, downhill all the way, to the spot where our gorge opened up onto a wider valley and suddenly villages and electric transmission towers were part of the scenery. And then still more downhill, to a village at 7200’, where the owner of Alpaca Expeditions had built a trekker’s hotel in the style of hobbit houses. These were cute and comfortable, but they had been designed by a Tolkien enthusiast, not an architect. Emily and I compared notes about the absence of any place to hang anything up or put anything down – no shelves or hooks in the bathrooms, not even a toilet-paper holder. Also, there were only four showers, in a facility that could accommodate 50 hikers, and these showers had no place to put your clothes or towel or soap; it was hard to see how you might clean yourself without stripping off and getting dressed on the walkway outside.

We were down among banana plants and orchids and bamboo and coffee trees by now. On the following morning, we followed the river for a little longer and then crossed it, at a construction site where a crew was hard at work replacing a bridge that had been destroyed in the last rainy season. We climbed up past several dozen cars that had been stranded on the wrong side of the river when the bridge disappeared. After a little while, we took a break at a honey farm, where a local woman wearing two filthy sweaters gave us tastes of four or five different varieties of honey, while a surprising number of small dogs twined around our ankles. I’d have loved to have been able to help her by buying something, but a pint of honey would have done Jim Bogar no good at all. And then, a little while later, we arrived at the base of an old Incan trail that we would be following up and over a pass, to that night’s camp. We had a long break at a restaurant and coffee farm there. While lunch was being prepared, Sarah, Emily, and I gathered, skinned, roasted, and ground coffee beans, and then drank the hot, strong brew that the local woman made from the results of our “work.”

As we put on our packs after lunch, Sarah and Emily started talking about snakes. They weren’t afraid of snakes, they agreed.

Emily: If a snake bites me, I’ll bite him back.
Sarah: I’ll grab him by the tail and use him like a whip.
Emily: It’ll go “crack” and his jaw will snap closed and bite his tongue off.
Sarah: I’ll tie him in knots.
Emily: And then I’ll wear him as a hat.

The trail followed the contours of the ridgeline, rising all afternoon with nary a switchback to a pass where suddenly the trees were drooping with moss because of all the water they scraped from clouds. Signs welcomed us to the high point: “FANTASTIC VIEW OF MACHU PICCHU! DEFINITELY WORTH STOPPING FOR A PLACE TO RELAX, HAVE A COFFE/SNACK, SET UP CAMP AND TO JUST ENJOY TROPICAL ENERGY.” Sarah and Emily dropped their packs, laughed happily at the prospect of seeing Machu Picchu in the distance, and ran off in the direction indicated by the sign. Literally ran off. They had been hiking all day, but they needed to burn off some excess energy. One of the Spanish-speaking trekkers and I watched them go.

“Es fantástico,” I said.

“Si,” he agreed, with real feeling.

We dropped down past a restored Incan building to our campsite, where the entire world was spread out beneath us. On a ridge across a valley to the east, we could see the ruins of Machu Picchu, barely distinguishable as an unnaturally clear spot in the otherwise unabating green. The ice of Salkantay Mountain appeared and disappeared among clouds to our north.

We shared our campsite with some independent trekkers, who were doing this trip without the benefits of guides or porters or support of any kind. They were a fit, independent, young, self-reliant, enviable bunch. One young woman offered to share her mate tea with us, but I demurred, mostly because she was so lovely that I could hardly stand to look at her. Her trekking partner was a gaunt, hairy young man who looked like one of the survivors of the Shackleton expedition.

That night, one of these independent trekkers turned on some music, somehow. Sarah and Emily, in the tent next to mine, sang along with Kenny Rogers’ “The Gambler” – Emily seemed to know all of the words. The two of them laughed and chatted until it was fully dark.

If I haven’t made it clear already, I’ll make it explicit now: Sarah and Emily have one of the most beautiful friendships I’ve ever seen. It was a pleasure to watch them being together. Their relationship is a glimpse of a depth of commitment and affection that I hadn’t been fully aware was possible between people. I realize that this paragraph must overstate the case – that Sarah and Emily are normal people, and that they must have doubts and disagreements – but from the outside, from my perspective, their relationship is an example of something I should somehow try to duplicate in my own life.

On the following morning, while watching the sun come up behind the mountains, I had a nice conversation with Felipe, a software engineer from Santiago with whom I had already had a few brief interactions. He had noticed that I was alone on the bus from Cusco, and had used his excellent English to make me feel included; since then, his kindness and our similar minds had created a connection. As the sun rose, we talked about the differences between the software-development cultures of Chile and the United States, and about the sad rise of right-wing populism around the world. When I said that I was ashamed of the history of the United States in Chile, Felipe thanked me warmly for my sentiments; maybe he is used to meeting Americans who aren’t aware of our complicity in the long, bloody dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, I don’t know. If so, that’s something else I should have apologized for.

After breakfast, we dropped through the jungle to the river and then hiked along a road to the beginning of a set of railroad tracks and a congeries of snack stalls; this is where buses dropped off tourists who were on their way to visit Machu Picchu. We were treated to an early lunch – the last such meal that was made for us by our cook and porters – and then we followed the railroad tracks to the little town of Aguas Calientes, which is tucked into the folds of the ridges at the base of Machu Picchu and, at first glance, seems to be a repellent tourist town, full of bad restaurants, touts, and tchotchke stalls, whose only virtue is its setting. This seemed true at second glance, too. It’s a horrible place. Rolo, Sarah and Emily, and I were established in different hotels; Rolo said he’d come get us the following morning at 5:30 for our trip up the mountain to Machu Picchu.

Everyone has seen many photographs of Machu Picchu, almost all of them from the same angle – there is hardly anything to be said about it that hasn’t already been said many times. One impression that I haven’t seen expressed elsewhere is the stature of the ruins in the surrounding landscape; the ridges on every side erupt out of the ground with the same vertiginous unlikelihood as the one on which the Inca decided to build this city. It isn’t just Machu Picchu that seems impossible – it’s the entire landscape.

I ran into Felipe at one of the overlooks up there. “It’s unfamthumible,” he said.

I tried to help him, but I couldn’t say it, either. “Yes,” I replied. “Unfafimagle.”

I spent the morning taking pictures and trying, unsuccessfully, to put myself into the minds of the people who had built this city, and then returned to Aguas Calientes for lunch. I would not see Sarah or Emily or Rolo or Felipe again. The tourist attractions of the town were unbearable, and I didn’t need to catch my train back to Cusco for several hours, so I crossed the river and sat in the bleachers of the local soccer field, where high-schoolers were practicing folk dances under the stern eye of a coach or teacher who was keeping time on a snare drum. Bits of costume and fragmentary props were taken up, used, and then discarded in heaps on the sidelines. Whenever the girls weren’t dancing, they were laughing with each other and playing with their phones; whenever the boys weren’t dancing, they were whipping each other with short pieces of rope and getting into shoving matches. But when they were dancing, they were serious about it. The dances were about working with animals, and sowing crops, and about an institutionalized representation of flirtation. They were casual and adroit and foreign and beautiful.

The ruins up on the hill are unfathomable. The people who made those buildings, and their motivations for doing so, are lost forever. But the descendants of those people are still here. The Quechua kids on the soccer field were performing dances whose themes and aesthetics descend in an unbroken line from the culture that built Machu Picchu. There is something there, in those steps and rhythms and colors, that reveals the Incan mind. It’s just a hint, but it’s real.

The train took me to a little town where I had been told to disembark; there, on the platform, was somebody holding a sign reading “James Frederick.” He gave me a ride in a van the rest of the way back to Cusco, under sky full of stars.

I haven’t seen Humantay mountain, or Salkantay, or chinchillas, or Peruvian village life, except in glimpses. I don’t know anything meaningful about Sarah and Emily, either, or about Felipe, and still less about Rolo, whose intelligence, ambition, kindness, and professionalism I have entirely neglected in this account. And I know nothing at all about the culture that was here in these mountains when the Spanish arrived. I have seen the ruins, but I have not understood them. The only hints of what the Inca people might have been like as individuals are in the perfection of their stoneworking, and in their having chosen to disregard practicalities when siting their cities in such beautiful, improbable places, and in the colors of the swirling skirts on the soccer field at Aguas Calientes.

All of these impressions are informed by a sense of loss. I’ll never see these people or these mountains again. But even when the experience was only fragmentary – a rent in the clouds, a story about demons, a song from the next tent – it was beautiful. Maybe it’s better that the Salkantay trek was short and that it cannot be repeated. Maybe a glimpse is all I should ever hope for.

Too many photos from this trek can be found here.

Ascensions

Cusco, Peru 7/15/2019

I bought the bus ticket I would need to ride from Cuenca to Tumbes, Peru, weeks in advance of my trip. The woman who sold me the ticket sat in a booth where she was protected from her customers by a thick sheet of glass. The small circular grill in the glass, through which we were supposed to be able to speak, may have been closed, or it may have been equipped with a mic and speaker which weren’t working, or the cashier may have been one of those people for whom speaking up is a psychological impossibility; whatever the reason, I simply could not make out what she said to me. When I asked at what time the bus was going to arrive in Tumbes, she said 7:30 in the morning. I’m pretty sure. I would hang around in Tumbes for a few hours, maybe dawdling over breakfast, and then catch a taxi to the airport.

The bus left Cuenca at 21:00. I had thought that I might listen to podcasts on the bus, but the video screens that dropped down from the ceiling showed movies at deafening volume, so they became the soundtrack of my trip into Peru. First, Paddington 2, and then a nightmarish teen fantasy called House Party. It was raining as we approached the border. Through the windows of the bus, I could see groves of banana trees, dogs sitting disconsolately in the shelter of eaves, and an unending series of low, white, concrete buildings, each of them painted with the names of local politicians, and each of them sprouting rebar along their unfinished rooflines.

The young man sitting across the aisle was Dutch – well-traveled, and the possessor of commendable English, like all Dutch people. We swapped travel stories at the border at midnight, while waiting in line at passport control. He once awoke on a porch in Laos to find a big turd on the floor next to his sleeping bag. When he asked his host what had left it there, his host said, “You don’t want to know.” Apparently Laotian snakes grow to enormous size. The rain had stopped by the time we got back on the bus.

Tumbes is only a few minutes south of the Ecuadorian border. As we entered the town – which, at this time of night, appeared to be small, dirty, poor, and ugly – the bus attendant asked where I’d like to be dropped off. “Estación?” I asked. No, Tumbes had no bus station. They could leave me near some taxis.

It was 2:30 in the morning when the bus left me at the side of the road in Tumbes, Peru. The cars lined up across the street may have been taxis, but none of them had any identifying marks, and, although the drivers were eyeing me curiously, none of them seemed to be in the mood to address me, or to make a gesture in my direction, or to adopt a facial expression. I was debating my next move when a tuk-tuk (motorcycle-chariot-taxi) pulled up next to me. It was driven by a fat black guy with a forehead tattoo and a billed cap embroidered with the word HOMIE. Yes, he could take me to the aeropuerto. No problema.

It was a dark, bumpy ride to the airport, where we awoke the guard who controlled access to the airport road. No, we could not go onto the airport grounds. Why would we want to? There was no one there. The building did not open until 8:00 in the morning. No, I could not wait in a restaurant or cafe in Tumbes. There were no cafes or restaurants open at this hour. “Necesito un lugar seguro,” I managed to say. Finally, my driver said he would take me back into town, to a hotel, where I could spend what remained of the night. He would come get me in eight hours, to take me back to the airport for my 1:30 flight.

The cheapest room they had at the hotel was $30, but all the money I had was a $20 bill, so that’s what I paid. The hotel did not accept credit cards. My tuk-tuk driver, whose name was something like “Hero,” made sure I understood that he would be back for me, and then departed with an enthusiastic thumbs-up.

My room was small and bare. There was no good place to put my pack. There was a naked bulb in the ceiling. Heaven.

Hero arrived at 11:00, just as he’d promised, and drove me through the streets of Tumbes, which had been transformed by the daylight into a small, dirty, poor, ugly town with a splash of color here and there. We stopped at a bank near the main square so that I could get some Peruvian soles.

Hero quoted me an absurd price for the ride, which I paid with real gratitude. He had saved me that morning; the least I could do was allow him to overcharge me. The airport was small, but clean and modern, and it had a little cafe where I got coffee and a sandwich. My flight left in half an hour.

A few photographs from my last days in Cuenca and my first hours in Cusco.

The sun was getting low in the sky as we flew into Cusco. The ridges outside the plane’s windows were sharp and brown and dry. I had arranged with my Airbnb to be met at the airport – and there, just outside baggage claim, was a young person holding a sign that said “Jim Bogar.” The lights of the town had come on as my taxi entered the old part of town.

I’ll quote here from a note I made on my phone:

First words from Cusco

Checked in at Golden House hotel, walked out into the busy, cool street, across the Plaza de Armas, to the Divina Rosa restaurant, where I just ordered the special: alpaca saltado, whatever that is, and local beer, for 26 soles. I wonder what a sol is worth. I’m in a state of real bliss.

This mood has not abandoned me since I arrived in Cusco. On my first morning, I booked the Salkantay trek with a highly rated outfitter here in town, and then set off to explore the Inca ruins that crown the hill NW of the main square. These are the Saqsaywaman ruins – one of a host of Incan names that I am capable of remembering only for 15 seconds at a time. Cusco sits at 11,150’, and the ruins are 1000’ higher still, but living in Cuenca for so long has made me feel invulnerable to the altitude. The ruins were wonderful. I had expected that Cusco would be a good place from which to launch interesting trips, but I hadn’t understood that Cusco itself is an excellent destination.

Photos from my visit to the Saqsaywaman ruins.

And then, on my second day in Cusco – yesterday – I took a colectivo van out to the head of the Sacred Valley, to the little town of Pisaq. The Sunday market there is famous, but the real attraction of the site is the string of Incan ruins along a ridgetop above the town. The climb begins at the edge of Pisaq, at the foot of the ancient terraces that the Inca carved into the hillside, and ends 1800 vertical feet later, surrounded by mountains, the remains of a military settlement that was destroyed by Pizarro, and by incredible views of the terraces and of the valley below.

Photos from my visit to the Pisaq ruins.

I leave tomorrow for the Salkantay trek – a five-day walk in the Andes that ends at Machu Picchu. I don’t know who I’ll be walking with, or how my fitness level might compare to theirs, or whether I’ll be sharing a tent with anyone – and, honestly, I hardly care. I cannot imagine that the trip will be less than superb.

On my second night in Cusco, I had dinner in a splendid restaurant that I would not normally have indulged myself in, but my mood was so good that I decided to splurge while I had the capacity to enjoy it. The things about Cusco that might bother me if I weren’t so happy all the time – the insistent touts, the swarms of tourists, the Starbucks on the main square – instead fill me with pleasure. No, my dear, no masaje for me tonight, muchas gracias. Is my taxi driver going to cross himself whenever he sweeps around a blind corner like that? I seem to have accidentally ordered a dish of honey to accompany my coffee! This state of exhilaration cannot last – it never does – but while it is alive in my mind, I am alive in the world.

Thirteen thousand nine hundred ninety nine feet, four inches

Cuenca, 6/30/2019

This post has no theme. It is a potpourri of notes I’ve taken on my phone, details of daily life, budget accounting, and other snapshots.

Unmemorable
After spending two hours every day for a month with him, in a small room at the Becari Language School in Oaxaca, my teacher, Manuel, had still never learned my name.

 
 
– note from my phone

Gilded Lilies in Quito
Jesuit church – where am I, anyway? Gold leaf everywhere. This is Donald Trump’s idea of a classy church. A guy I met on the street told me that churches would sometimes hide solid chunks of gold behind the gold leaf, for safekeeping – unlikely. All of the paintings and statuary and the mannequins in clothing stores show European faces and skin. Even the Virgen de Quito, which some people say is modeled after a mestizo woman, is clearly not.

In the Iglesia de San Francisco now, only slightly less gaudy than the Jesuit monstrosity. This is the Baroque crossed with a display window at Macy’s.

 
 
– note from my phone

On Seeing a Pomeranian in Baños
It just occurred to me that the remarkably different morphologies of dogs and their amusing unwillingness and perhaps inability to judge each other by their size and appearance may be connected. If a dog noticed the differences between dogs, it would prefer to mate with the best dogs – those that looked like themselves. They would speciate. But, since they make no such distinctions, a pomeranian may dream of the charms of a greyhound, and dogs remain dogs.

 
 
– note from my phone

Music in Baños
A street guitarist just entered the Casa Hood restaurant and did “Stand By Me” – I didn’t recognize the lyrics, but the tune is unmistakable. His guitar is better than his larynx. He leaves and the sound system plays “Clair de Lune,” which turns out to be exactly what I wanted to hear.

It’s the following morning. I’m at a breakfast restaurant, waiting for the bus that will take me to Cuenca. An Andean band comes in and plays – the final number, “I’d Rather Be a Hammer that a Nail,” works surprisingly well as a panpipe tune. After a few minutes, the “Stand By Me” guitarist appears. I can’t get away from this guy.

 
 
– note from my phone

Swath
Three strutting transvestites cross the Parque Calderón, cutting a swath with their six preposterous boobs, and leaving in their wake dozens of wide-eyed, grinning groups of bench sitters.

 
 
– note from my phone

Expats
Met a group of expats at a Thai restaurant the other night. There was some talk of my joining them on an expedition to a nearby hot spring on the following day, but they didn’t reach out to me afterward. I’m sure my peculiarities were off-putting; my mistake may have been telling the table that this small event was the longest sustained conversation I’d had for a month.

 
 
– note from my phone

A Few Quotidian Details

  • Barring museums and airports, I have not been in a room with artificial heating or cooling since I left the United States.
  • People don’t flush toilet paper in Latin America. After a few days of stressful TP origami, it becomes routine.
  • One of the best things about having my own kitchenette is that it enables me to cook and eat the vegetables that are absent in most restaurant meals.
  • The SuperMaxi supermarket sells many imported goods, but the Ecuadorian store brands are typically half the price of the imported products, or less. I was surprised to see Bonne Marie jam on the shelves, but I brought home “Snob” brand orange marmalade, instead.
  • When you’re living as I am, the convenience of instant coffee dwarfs the disadvantage of its subwonderful flavor.
  • Nobody in Oaxaca drinks the tap water – including the Oaxacans – but even gringos can drink the water in Cuenca.
  • It is not at all unusual for the electric showerhead to be the only source of hot water in an Airbnb.

Becoming Bill
I met a frighteningly gregarious American man at the Yanapuma Language School and ran into him a few days later at the Inti Raymi parade. “Bill!” he said, clapping me on the shoulder. “I want you to meet my buddy, Kevin. Kevin, Bill.”

“Pleased to meet you, Bill,” said Kevin.

“Actually,” I said.

“Oh,” said my acquaintance, “You also need to meet Luis, my teacher at Yanapuma! He’s right here. Luis! Do you know Bill? Bill, you should get to know Luis. He’s the best.”

“Mucho gusto, Bill,” said Luis.

It was too late.

A video I made of the Inti Raymi parade.

Parque Nacional El Cajas

One morning last week I took a taxi to the Termini Terrestre bus station, found the office of the bus company I needed (among dozens of different companies), bought a ticket using my pidgin, found the bus I needed, watched it drive away empty, because it was leaking some sort of dark aceite onto the, I don’t know, piso, waited an hour for a new bus, and then rode up to Parque Nacional El Cajas for some rambling.

El Cajas is high tundra, almost treeless, speckled with lakes and carpeted by plants I’d never seen before. I spent five hours up there before going back to the road and flagging down a bus that brought me back to Cuenca. That was the best five hours I’ve spent since I don’t know when.

The visitor center at El Cajas is at about 12,500’, and the walking route I’d decided to attempt took me higher still, so I was on guard against altitude sickness – looking for symptoms like headache, nausea, and the sad realization that there is no point whatsoever to anything at all – but I didn’t have any trouble beyond gasping like a dowager at a gay-pride parade. Ruta Dos took me up to the top of a knob with magnificent views on all sides and then down to Laguna Toreadora, where I took another trail through a little wooded area of what appeared to be dwarf madronas, past innumerable little lakes, over a lot of extremely boggy ground, past a flock of Andean gulls, which decided that I should be hovered over and screeched loudly at for a few hundred yards, and then back to the visitor center for a late lunch.

One of the trail markers told me that the high point of Ruta Dos was 4267 meters. When I got back to Cuenca, I used the Internet to convert this to feet, just to put a number I could understand to the altitude. The top of that knob, according to my conversion, is 13,999’4” above sea level. My first reaction to this number was disgust – this could have been my first hike above 14,000’ since climbing Mt. Whitney, if I had only known that I needed to hop into the air when I got to the summit. But then I realized that I don’t really care about the altitude reached by my boots. My boots may not have crested 14,000’, but my eyeballs, which, at 5” under the top of my head are about 5’8” off the ground, soaked up the view from 14,005’ exactly.

What a relief.

You can see photos from El Cajas here.

Going to Peru
On July 11 I’m taking an overnight bus south across the border into Peru (a border crossing that Lonely Planet says is the worst on the continent, measured by inconvenience and thievery), and then flying from the town of Tumbes, in NW Peru, to Cusco. There are no direct flights from Cuenca into Peru, and the indirect flights would require an overnight stay in Guayaquil, a big, dangerous city on the Ecuadorian coast, and then spending $350 on the ticket to Cusco. Taking a bus into Peru and then flying from Tumbes will be faster and will cost me a total of $160. The downsides are the misery of an overnight bus trip and the potential for robbery, kidnapping, and murder. No problem.

Budget Update
As of June 30, I have been in Ecuador for 47 days. Including the airfare from Oaxaca to Quito, and my tuition at the Yanapuma Language School, it has cost me $77.26/day to be here.

When I did this same calculation for the 34 days I spent in Oaxaca, the figure I arrived at was $77.69/day. That’s a 45-cent difference – which is to say no difference at all. I’m incredulous at the similarity of these numbers.

The Peruvian part of this adventure is going to be more expensive; I’ll be signing up for guided trips into the Andes and the Amazon, and being more nomadic than usual always entails extra costs. After Peru – sometime in August – I will probably be flying to Europe, where my budget will simply explode. It doesn’t bear thinking about.

Here is a pie chart that shows my expenses in various categories. It’s much like the chart I published in Oaxaca and the Equator.

Sundries are groceries and other odds & ends – consumables.

Lodging was my single biggest expense.

Fees and Misc. include the Spanish classes I was taking, plus museum-entrance fees and occasional taxis.

Daily Insurance is what I’m spending for health insurance. This category also includes the pittance I’m spending to keep my car insured, under a tarp in Seattle.

Transportation is the airfare to get from Oaxaca to Quito and then buses from Quito to Baños and from Baños to Cuenca.

Restaurant Meals, at $13/day, are a little higher than my Oaxacan costs – probably because I spent the first half of my stay in Cuenca in a hotel, where cooking was effectively impossible.

Recent photos from Cuenca can be found here.

The Sorrows of Young Rocky

Cuenca, June 15, 2019

I was working on my next blog entry at Café del Parque early last week, and had made my way through two Cafe Americanos and perhaps 1500 words, when I drew a line across the page in my revoltingly darling teddy-bear notebook and wrote these words:

    What am I doing? Why would anyone be interested in this? This is terrible.

So I started over. The second effort, which I built around a theme that could be summed up as “no pain, no gain,” ran to 2000 words. It started by quoting the theme song of Super Chicken, the Saturday-morning cartoon from 1967, and then moved on to my musings about how hard it has been to skip lunch lately, and it told the exciting story about how I climbed the stairs to the Mirador de Turi without stopping to rest, and it recounted my brief meeting with a bunch of friendly expats, who almost but not quite invited me along on their next day’s activities, and then it concluded with an overworked account of an encounter with sublimity one night not long ago. It was an uncomfortable melange that combined the self obsession of The Sorrows of Young Werther with the brainless optimism of Rocky, but I had decided that it would have to be good enough, because it is absurd for me to spend so much time on these blog posts.

But the damn thing is just wrong. I can’t inflict it on you.

I realized I would have to make a third effort this morning, while I was sitting in The Sunrise Cafe. This diner would not be out of place in Ballard – they offer enormous American-style breakfasts, unlimited refills of weak coffee, friendly waiters who speak perfect, idiomatic English, and it is packed with gringos. I had my Kindle open in front of me, as usual, where I was reading Sean Carroll’s The Big Picture while waiting for my omelet to arrive.

The Big Picture is a pop-science book (cosmology, quantum field theory, and so on) that also grapples with philosophy. I finished David Hume’s An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding not long ago, which I filled with notes about the many ways in which his ideas about cause and effect were obviously incorrect – but here was Sean Carroll advancing much the same argument, and bringing along with him such heavyweights as Bertrand Russell, who he quotes as follows:

The law of causality, I believe, like much that passes muster among philosophers, is a relic of a bygone age, surviving, like the monarchy, only because it is erroneously supposed to do no harm.

I was enjoying the hell out of this intelligent attempt to change my mind when it occurred to me that the books I’ve been reading lately have given me an enormous amount of pleasure: An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature, The Best Travel Writing 2000, Alain de Botton’s The Art of Travel, Jared Diamond’s latest book, Upheaval, and now The Big Picture. And it isn’t just books that have been giving me jolts of happiness. A recent visit to El Museo de las Culturas Aborigenes was terrific, for example. I’ve been revisiting my collections of Beethoven and Rick and Morty and loving them both. Talking about climbing the stairs at the Mirador de Turi may be self-congratulatory, but the exercise has made me happy, however indelicate it may be to discuss it. Last week I watched the video feed of my daughter’s defense of her doctoral dissertation, which left me almost incoherent with pride and affection.

And there are hundreds of smaller sources of pleasure, too. The conclusion of my second attempt at this blog entry included this: “It is pouring rain outside the windows of the Café Austria, where I am typing these words. A young man, almost a boy, who pushes a cart laden with individual bags of nuts, has taken shelter under the eaves. The nuts look delicious, but I can’t eat for another three hours. A cop in a bright yellow rain slicker is directing traffic in the intersection; the color is so intense that it tickles at the possibility that I could see it with real clarity, in a moment that might relieve me of my selfhood for just a moment….” You see the problem. While I was writing those words, I was conscientiously ignoring the fact that I was enjoying myself. I was so intent on keeping that cringe-inducing “relieve me of my selfhood” fiction aloft that I had become blind to my actual, present happiness.

Strong coffee, walking through Cuenca’s old, dark streets at night, the ridiculous, friendly high-fives that Teresa, my new Spanish teacher, insists on giving me when I conjugate something correctly – there are too many such moments to list. Despite the impression I was laboring to convey in my second abortive attempt at this post, it is not the case that I am trudging along in the darkness, waiting for an occasional supernova to brighten the sky and remind me of why I am alive. I do love those flashes of unalloyed joy – they are better than high-fives and strong coffee – but my life is full of smaller glimmers of happiness, too.

Here is the supernova climax of the post you will never see:

One of the many fine restaurants within a short walk of my hotel room is A Pedir de Boca – “A Request of the Mouth,” I guess – where the Dutch owner and chef creates remarkable conflations of pasta and vegetables and sauces and then checks to make sure that you’re enjoying them; his pride is just what you’d expect of someone who is so good at what he does. After an excellent dinner there, a few days ago, I thanked the young man who had been waiting on me and then walked home in the dark through Cuenca’s ancient streets. It was cool, as usual, and late enough that traffic was no longer an issue. Some of the street-corner vendors still had their carts set up, with candy bars and fruit and cigarettes and tchotchkes and so on, but most of them had gone home for the night. The blue domes of the cathedral hung over the darkness as I walked up to the main public square, where I turned right on Calle Mariscal Sucre. I was only three or four blocks away from home at this point. The trees of the Parque de Calderón were on my left, and ahead of me were the white walls of the old cathedral, when suddenly, for no obvious reason, I fully understood where I was and what I was doing. I am alive in Ecuador, for God’s sake. Look how lovely it all is.

Ten years ago, or maybe more, I embarked on a solo hike up to Tuck and Robin Lakes, above Cle Elum. After a steep climb up from the river bottom, I arrived at Tuck Lake, where the trail came to an end. Robin Lakes were above me and to the right somewhere; since the cliffs on the left side of the ridge were clearly impassable, and the cliffs on the right side of the ridge were even worse, I took the only remaining option and went straight up the ridgeline. At one point I accidentally tore the toe off one of my boots, because the only way to make progress was by jamming my feet into a crack in the granite. After a couple of hours of this – and confirmation from occasional cairns that I was not lost – I crossed an enormous gentle shoulder and entered the Robin Lakes basin.

This remains one of the prettiest places I have ever visited. I made camp on a little promontory jutting out into Lower Robin Lake and then strolled happily along the streams and lakeshores, admiring the granite and water and cliffs, until dinnertime. When it got dark, I sat by the water near my tent and watched as the brightest display of the Milky Way I had ever seen appeared over the lake. The crescent of stars arced over my head and touched the water, and then its reflection continued, curving across the lake to my feet. My attempts to take a photograph of this were a failure; it exists only in my memory now.

I mention this here because there were things about that hike that are analogous to the solitary traveling I’m doing now. I was alone on that hike to Robin Lakes, as I am here, and I remember it today as one of the supreme outdoor experiences of my life. It was a difficult trip but it was absolutely worth the effort. Also, the supernova metaphor is dismantled by my experience of the Milky Way at Robin Lakes. The Milky Way is something like 100 billion stars, most of them far too distant to be resolved by the naked eye – it’s a wash of light, a glow speckled with stars. It would not be improved by supernovae.

I’ll never see the Milky Way like that again. Even if I were to someday find myself in the backcountry on another night as dark as that, and even if I were at the shore of another small, still lake, where the galaxy was reflected back at me in an enormous circle, I am not as capable now as I was then. It is harder for me to get to places like that now, and my eyes don’t gather light the way they used to. (I talk about this, and provide shocking visual examples, in a blog post I wrote while I was in Guatemala, here.)

I treasure those bright individual moments of clarity, like when I was walking home past the Parque de Calderón, but the wash of light is more important. It’s the accumulation of small joys – of high-fives, and watching the vendors taking shelter from the rain, and the pain in my chest while I watch my daughter explaining ectomycorrhizal fungi, and a big breakfast at The Sunrise Cafe – that matters. As my vision fades, and my muscles fail, and my stumbling faculties allow me to consider such false and tasteless posturing as I only narrowly avoided publishing on this blog – and even as my disintegrating memory no longer allows me to recall moments that I used to think were defining features of my life – that beautiful, dim, almost unbelievable glow will remain.

I’m traveling because I’m looking for supernovae, yes, but mostly I’m accumulating a billion unresolvable stars.

Photos from early June can be found here.