Christmas Eve is spent on a roof top. This time the Northern Peruvian City of Harauz. These roof tops are pretty much, much of a muchness, littered with washing lines, water drums and crates of empty Inca- cola bottles.
Places where, amongst the flapping sheets, I may conference (in peace and secret) with my past in it’s current carnations .Safe from being overheard (or deemed insane) by the man on the street. Alas the worried eyes of the land dweller and his land locked imagination.
Dues- ex machina is not my Saints chosen mode of transport and I am yet to see them charioting celestial cloud. No clarion overhead announces their coming, rather raucous laughter and the sound of clumsy feet up an iron stair. So accustomed am I too this sound that I need no longer flinch or pinch myself when they appear before me in the flesh. Rather wait, arms akimbo, foot tapping with mock impatience,saying :What took you so long?
Ah Saint Ric- though he might be Nic (for his head is adorned with silly festive hat) and accomplice Rosalind (his complicit elf).
Ric who greets me with laconic tip of cap (need he say more) then sets about perching on roof top ledge, one leg up, sparking a cigarette, then tune on the trusty Accordion.
To begin, a few obligatory Carols (It is after all Christmas Eve and Rosalind the nostalgiac- insists). Santa Rosa who in her unmistakable tipsy thoothless rathp (The voice of bed time stories as distinctive and familiar as Attenborough is to Nature documentaries) sings what words she can remember.Finally with Bony M formalities out the way, and a version of Silent Night so sad that it might silence all others, Riccardo starts up with a ribald range of Gypsy Tunes. (Acquired, so Ros tells me from a recent jaunt/ haunt amongst the Danube dwellers in Eastern Europe)
That’s the spirit- she cries, hiking up her Mettizo skirt (She has come a traditional Peruvian guise the old sport) taking my arm and spinning me in circles .Rosalind- Saint of the vine and wobbly line (and only just adjusting to the continental confusion that comes with omniscience) complains that she cant find a Checkers in the area to purchase her festive poison: a box of white wine. After reminding her which southern side of the globe we reside, she scuttles off and in no time returns with an adeqaute local variation.
Robbed by the wine of all sense, my Saints of all solitude, our eve on the roof top runs wild. Till Riccardo stops his music and Rosalind slips her hand over my eyes .Warm soft hands, familiar lines of fortune guiding me to the ledge. Nearly twelve she says. Nearly time, whispers Ric.
Clackety clackety clack go the fire crackers on the streets below-like a pair of love sick tap shoes clacking in Morse. I watch a sky set on fire. Roaring rockets and whinging wheels . While both guardians lean forward and take turns to kiss my Saint Chris (look at me- then go astray-urges Ric). I mark their faces in the purple flare, the flecks of fire now sparking from their hair. Feliz Navidad, yells the city at once from their roof tops. So I crow back, with all my voice, Pan rousing Never land-Feliz Navidad!
When I next look they have vanished, but not completely. The exit, as with most things in life, more spectacular than the arrival. My eyes trail the scattered stars of their tails, watching them peter out over the tip of a distant cathedral. Then tumble to the Plaza, two smoking canisters (and just so I know where to follow them next) with Made in China printed on the side.
You might dread the endless scroll the meets your eyes when you open these entries. Why you might say, Get outside see the continent and stop trying to write about it. My reasons in this case are vaild (see below) also im downloading some travel pics (protection) and this takes most of a day with the donkey power of these archaic machines.
The trek I was hoping to take has been impossible to book due to festivities (annoyingly) halting the everyday clockwork of a functioning globe. My one day stop over in Hauraz has extended now to its fourth ,as I wait (in interminable limbo) for the gringos (im yet to see one) to recover from hangovers, crawl out the woodwork and book a spot to warrant the cost of porter and pack donkey.
Hauraz is not a pretty town, bar the imposing snow encrusted alps that encircles it. Strange then how I find myself with an intimate knowledge of its grim plan, uneventful alleys, ugly brown brick work. Only time can offer up an affinity for such a place. I trod its paths daily, mostly with little delight. This delay has furthermore meant I have succumbed (not all together reluctantly) to a spot of the old and all to familliar forms of daily routine.
In the mornings on my way to my preferred Desayundo (breakfast) haunt, to sip insipid coffee (still incentive enough to get me out of bed) and leaf through a novel or tinker on some half baked tale of my own, I greet the local street loon who now Ola Chico´s me like a long lost pal (and disturbingly resembles a Peruvian variation of Peter Machen). Then (in accordance with Santa Rosalind’s wishes) tip the toothless, down and out old duck, whose palm need no longer beg to recieve my morning tax. Time permitting (which there always is) I peruse the gaudy stained glass progress on a concrete cathedral (eye sore) being erected on the Plaza.
On to my acquaintance, the waitress, who no longer need squint blankly at my pronunciation of huevos de reveulots ( which comes out sounding more like and here I offer an English translation) the revolt of the eggs or revolting eggs- when they should be just plain scrambled).
A regular you see, whose nod and grin proves sufficient to send her on her way-. familiarity, allowing us to eschew further form of miscommunication and on my part - humiliation. The day drifts by in reading , then rummaging, sifting, excavating a head filed with tenacious but mostly loose fitting ideas. Ideas who always have the annoying little habit of turning out to be someone else’s. Reading Nobokov, is a depressing exercise and one that makes me want to give it all up-toss in the pen, towel or whatever object best signals the most brutal of defeats. What I might give (more then my front teeth) to come up with one, just one of that mans sentences. Would even be satisfied with the closing line -The End.
I walk the soggy alleys to water inspiration, pass the (by now) standard Peruvian street spectacles- shielded police bungling misfit kids into vans, copulating dogs and dilapidated rose gardens.I try to write in the evenings. Seeking out a local dive where meals are cheap and take ample time to arrive . A gringos solitude, no matter which restaurant, always drawing furtive and sympathetic glances from fellow diners.
Onto the lubricant of beer or wine, handy in liberating an reluctant wrist ( A wrist now hindered by what I might deem Nobokovian stage fright) .Always cigarettes. Ah cigarettes, nasty little comforts, companions,critters along the way, who which for the moment (and I assure you I have mediated, laboured long and hard over this) I cant seem to do without. What other beacon of a possible end might blaze through the night, reward me at the completion of those infernal bus trips-Trusty (pernicious) little soldiers tucked smug and patient in their silver foil.
In the evenings, when I cant seem to sleep and my spirit niggles with a mild ache(but never emptiness) I turn to the marching bands, for they play at all hours. Last night( bottle of wine in hand) rat to the rowdy pipers- I scuttled. Discovering them blithe to a persistent drizzle-clashing cymbals, pounding drums, honking horns .A music so discordant, unruly, rousing and repetitive- that it never fails to up lift. Sadly the turn out ammounted to a few funeral couples moping and shuffling over wet concrete. I joined them. A tall gangly white boy (who no matter where on this continent he travel-is his skull ever safe from connecting with low lying doorways) . As co- ordless and indifferent to his feet as the boy in the band with clumsy hands and out of synch cymbals .
Longing for these mountains, only they might rescue me now, salvage head from arse- a condition that has arisen with spending to much time with my self.
Buses I have seen many the last few days, climbing from Cusco ( Memories of Mrs Piccua -unreal- swathed in her ancient mists) toward Lima. Buses, a mutual tomb from where drivers may ply (at full volume) his sadistic froms of Bony M torture .Feliz Navidad it is no more. In Peru its either Carols, aching Spanish Ballads or worse- the traditional pan pipe music, which reminds one of being stuck (as we once were) in an eternal elevator.
I have plenty time to sit and ponder and mostly read. Sit through the stink of road side lunches lingering in collective 28 hour farts. Sweaty socks stewing in stagnant boots .Films, at full volume and all through the night. Rot of the B´st grade. Rippling 80´s Van Damme fok em ups and worse still (poorly dubbed) Lindsay Lonhan movies. Often trips without a break (and when the bus loo is broken the bladder too must wait). Blood, lung, patience screaming for a tobacco fix. Navigating my retarted knowledge of Spanish with fellow passengers over delays wrought by land slides. To Lima- oh Lima. The horror they warned. (Just a big stinky city in many ways like our own) The Lonely Planet recommends a gay friendly hostel. Having trodden the heteronormative road, my ear providing the sounding board to one to many yobo tales of pussy and Bangkok brothels (The couples generally sweet but mostly of the hen pecked husband, winging totalitarian wife variety - living their precious independence before stretch marks, cribs and car pools claim their days) I check in. Gay friendly I discover simply means a gratis bar of soap, towel and toilet paper (very welcome for someone who has been drying himself with a ripped sheet and reaching for the nearest strip of newspaper). A spacious renovated old mansion with an ample supply of excellent literature to peruse in the book exchange and a Vanity Fair in the bog. hahahahha. God bless the homos! Lima is in full festive swing. Black and White Bing Crosby movies on the telly. Spin doors swallowing late night shoppers and forget full lovers. Stations crammed with families heading home for the holidays. Families that gather beneath a single roof to do what it is that festive folk of the world do- drink, fight, love, forget, gossip, reminisce. Southern continents similar in their nostalgia for a white that will never fall. Celebrating a child that ( Tracy Chapmans words) might never come, if he came at all. I see it (Lima) in passing, another bus this time, nine hours to Hauraz. Here I sit at the front of the bus on the top story. Inches away from a panovision windscreen. Sweeping through the city, like a low flying pigeon, high enough to note the fire juggling, flik flakking street kids. The slums and villas. A desolate desert coast subsiding into a cormorant infested pacific.
Christmas I am ambivalent (though i wouldn't say cynical) toward. I light a candle, hang a dusty string of tinsel in my room. I remember the quantity of wondrous people at home whose company I shall not enjoy on this particular day. As for New year - I dread it more. A memorial, notch of my failings, rapid age, wasted hours. This I intend to resolve (or rather forget) by spending it out in the Cordelia Blanca Mountain range . A series of Andean glaciers-no doubt a wonder beneath this mighty moon of ours. Better I think then meeting a bastard headache in the morning.
Of course there are more appealing stories to tell then of Busses, but I lack imagination and strength beyond this ,my immediate.
Christmas I am ambivalent (though i wouldn’t say cynical) toward. I light a candle, hang a dusty string of tinsel in my room. I remember the quantity of wondrous people at home whose company I shall not enjoy on this particular day. As for New year - I dread it more. A memorial, notch of my failings, rapid age, wasted hours. This I intend to resolve (or rather forget) by spending it out in the Cordelia Blanca Mountain range . A series of Andean glaciers-no doubt a wonder beneath this mighty moon of ours. Better I think then meeting a bastard headache in the morning. Of course there are more appealing stories, observations to tell then of South American Busses, but for now I lack imagination and strength beyond the immediate.
Maria grew up on the shores of Lake Titicaca in the town of Copacabana.One couldn’t really call it a childhood, sitting there like that on corner of the Plazuela Tito Yupanqoi at the entrance of the chapel of candles alongside her sickly grandmother. The two of them huddled under what little shade their battered old brolly offered. And this is how each day went: waking before sunrise, lugging baskets of candles to meet the charity of post-work worshippers, pilgrims or tourists. Customer’s who for a mere twenty Bolivianos (and by lighting a candle at the sacrosanct toes of disproving Santa Marta) were able to atone for their weekly sins.
Of course Maria would have far preferred to be in school, but as her widowed grandmother (and only remaining guardian) was destitute, she had to seize what little opportunities life had granted her. Now the candle business was hardly a lucrative one. It was an industry that depended entirely on the collective guilt of villagers and idle curiosity of passing gringo’s. Self flagellation, fear of eternal damnation were metaphysical afflictions that enabled Maria and her grandmother to turn a daily profit. If it wasn’t for devout locals like Carmen Villajuerte Nuñyez, the village adulteress –who on Monday mornings wracked with remorse scooped up their entire stock in her trembling arms– there might have been no point in enduring the heat at all. But endure it they did and in the face of fierce new candle competition, little Maria was frequently left to watch her future prospects melt into an amorphous wax blob.
Then one August morning, after setting up their stall, securing the umbrella and laying out the candles, Maria’s grandmother plonked herself resolutely on her stool, clasped her hands over a heaving breast, shut her eyes and entered into cat nap from which she would never again rise from. Poor Maria, just twelve years old and too young to fend for herself was forced to relocate to the Andes metropolis of La -Paz. Here she was to live under the roof and guidance of her twice removed relative Uncle Gorge.
Now Gorge was a failed yet indefatigable entrepreneur who cared little for the child rather recognised her as the pretty new face to head up his latest enterprise: a cinnamon ice -ream business at the entrance to the La Paz bus terminal. Gorge assumed the girl, with her sympathetic simper, unblinking almond eyes would excel as a Helado sales girl. As an incentive let her to keep ten percent of her daily takings, takings she had resolved to save in aid of her future education.
So this was how Maria came to join the infamous stretch of Las Chicas Del Helado Canelo (The Girls of Cinnamon Ice Cream) lined along the intersection to the La Paz bus terminal with hapless Maria’s Helado stand nudging the fringes of the bus terminal Baños. This strip of pavement boasted six pretty chica’s all wilting in a row: Paula, Olivia, Gladys, Rosa, Lidia and now Maria–the only one whose feet, when perched on stool, refused to touch the ground.
Of course Maria had not an inkling of what a tiresome task it would be to try sell Cinnamon Ice-cream especially when armed with a helado’s cart so cost effective that it failed to come with any form of refrigeration. Naturally she was to receive a frosty reception from her rivals - each with their own a luminous little ice berg to pawn before profits were reduced to syrupy puddle.
Uncle Gorge’s convictions that he had perfected the greatest helado canela recipe known not just to the Andes, but to all mankind, did little to inspire hope. To the harried passer by, usually late for their bus, it all looked identical. It seemed then that the chica most likely to be crowned helado’s queen for the day was the one whose physical attributes first enticed the predominantly male clientele.
I arrived at this tragic Helado’s pageant, quite by chance. Lost and nearly late for my bus, the heat of noon insisting I stop to sample an icy treat. But from which chica? Paula, Olivia, Gladys, Rosa, Lidia and Maria— I knew this for their names were neatly announced at the base of their helado’s podiums.
“Sinyora, Sinyora, Sinyora” they called out sweetly, insistently, each coo more enticing then the last. Like Ulysses at the mercy of the helados sirens, I fumble, Ulysess the unfortunate wretch hurled into the chica’s den. Time is at stake, time is a missed bus, time is ice dripping through the hour glass. Which one? Which one?
I scan the competition, first setting eyes on Rosa whose garishly painted face and ample bosom ensures she stands out against her more modest competitors. Then Paula whose middle age, sour pout and slovenly slouch makes me think she might be better off selling lemon Sorbet. Beside her is frigid Olivia– cold as the cinnamon cream she towers over, then Glady’s: pretty enough, but such glaring insistence is off putting as ,might I add, is Lidia’s gum-chewing indifference.
Then at last, beside the baños, amidst the persistent trickling tinkle of the urinals, I sight little Maria: a cinnamon ice cream saint, her plight scrawled all over her anxious little face. Maria who does not haggle, bicker or bitch as the others did. Maria who sits patiently, her stoicism enough to implore me to sate myself to sickness on her horribly sweet heap of cinnamon ice-cream.
So I begin to spoon, shovel as if her salvation depends on it. My teeth ache, head pounds, growing woozy with the concoction of colourant and sugar. In under ten minutes and before the other competitors startled eyes, Maria’s Canela mountain is reduced to a mole hill and I race pink faced to meet my departing bus. From the window I see her eager fingers sifting through my coins. Glimpsing in these grubby copper tokens a future beyond all ephemeral matters of wax and ice.
Funny morning, stepped out of my hostel room only to be nearly trampled by two deranged llamas bolting down the cobbled streets, one frisky for a little Sunday loving I’m sure. They are peculiar, tragic looking creatures, cross breads between the oddest star wars creature and cutesy early morning toddlers TV show host.
It is pouring where I am, everytime I try to take a stroll to view some of the famed outlying ruins, down it comes. There is an advantage in that rain supposedly means less tourists, hence off season ( though there are still enough here in Cuzco to fill Disneyland ten times over). I understand why the rain might perturb the masses for it is hardly little drizzle but rather torrential walloping, balls to the wall bucketing, which makes me a little unprepared for the four day trek ahead to the heights of Machu Picchu. I am eschewing the trampled but legendary Inca trail, for its exorbitant costs and muchos populous of gringo, and taking a trail, cheaper and quieter (though apparently as beautiful.)
To be honest the whole Machu Picchu thing has given me a knot in my stomach and cramp in my wallet. Of course its majestic and of such fame for a reason but it also means the yobos and touts, the whinging poms, dope pests (mi amigo, mi amigo), hiked prices and petty thefts. The Gringo trail I have mostly treaded since Chile is often like this- all sights of importance, of wonder but a hustle and bustle nevertheless. Familiar faces as hard as one tries to escape seem to revisit along the way (Americans, their current state of nationalist insecurity -the worst) . Thus it can feel like travelling in a big unintentional pack. They are nice people but not the type I would relinquish my solitude for, forge friendships with a significant future in mind (that is excluding my French brother Marc- who I hitch hiked with for some time around the mountains of Northern Argentina.) On saying this I do not make an extended effort to meet people (there are of course gems out there)- I am here for an essence and theirs remains too similar to my own- spoilt first world fodder hungry for third world wonder.
After I finish with Cuzco and the ruins, I will be stepping off the trail, heading through the North of Peru, to where it all gets a little grittier, I am contemplating spending a few hallucagenic filled nights with the IncanBuenos Aries, reinvented my understanding and perception of the city. How exciting to think what Marquez might do in his home town. healers in some distant mountain range, figure it might be a fitting way to see, or distort? the new year in. You know take a peep into the extended yawn of my suburban sub conscious. Three months makes things tight, especially considering my hearts desire is with Columbia and thus far there has been a entire continent between us. I long for nothing more then to seek out some one horse town, with rocking chair, preferably wobbly fan stirring a thick stew of equatorial heat. To drink beer in the sun and read the ten Marquez novels (that I lug about in my Alexandria Library of a back pack). Literature of the region so much more valuable then paint by numbers, bray like sheep guide books- bibles we tend to abide all too slavishly by. The Argentine writer Borges, in the small amount I read in
I’m reading voraciously, Theroux´s -Mosquito Coast to which I have only come to now, is a cracking read, great for passing hours on arduous buses. Dante’s Inferno- delicious, timeless, torturous and pretty god damn terrifying. Dickens ´Hard Times´ universal to any city one might visit in the world. Jonathan Swifts ´Tale of the Tub´- affirming himself as the funniest, bleakest and most brilliant satirist there is- again the bulls eye to his barb-Religion (which seems to be the recurring thread to my education here). It is easy to feel lonely, but then I remember my purpose, the wisdom held in these novels, the people of importance, back home, the road ahead
I was really low the other night, lurking the shady streets of Puno, thinking those Gringos were right when they warned me of it being a non event of a town. Then a firework, a rocket exploded inches from my face, then another and another. Kerouac says pop and the world goes AWWWWWWW - and so it did, before a 60 piece marching bad struck up their triumphant tune. At the front came the Virgin Mary born on the shoulders of panting worshippers then the town mayor pursued by troupe of sycophants. A pack of blue Incan looking demons with protruding tongues, a gang of Boys in oversized Gorilla Suits, Behind them, girls and women in brightly coloured skirts, twisting from one side to the next, whirling like sequenced spinning tops. Then another marching band, more dancers, confetti and fireworks. So it went on and on, blazing up the night and I grew tearful at its sight, its sound,this pageant of the bizarre.
Nothing unites the world, elates the spirit quite like a parade. Pity the gutters, beggars and cripples submerged beneath that tide of euphoria. All reality, momentarily buoyed away and streets where minutes ago were hurried and harrowed are at once swept with jubilation.
I felt elated, levitating, I danced with the crowds, to that insistent beat. A delirious fool, desperate for it to never end, following the spectacle from one Plaza to the next until I could no more. Till I had to bid it farewell, let it pass, round its final corner and die as a distant summer storm might out over the Durban sea.
The rain has subsided, Outside the cobbled streets of Cusco have been washed clean . Ruins i should think fit for a little exploration
A visit to the Patosi Silver Mines in Bolivia, to get an alternative view of the state of things, proves both frightening and enlightening. A descent deep in the bowels of the hellish Cerro Rico mountain which looms over the the city as lugubrious monument and Colonial shit pile. I take a tour with an ex- miner, who on our way up, stops our vehicle outside the Miners Market, insisting that Gringos will only be welcome should they arrive baring gifts. I oblige, purchase a packet of coca leaves, some soft drinks and for good measure, a few sticks of dynamite (bound to endear me instantly I’m told). That’s right, perfectly legal, sitting there amongst the cigarettes, candy, toilet paper in the local Cafeteria´- a wad of explosives (extra mild). Can anyone pop in and buy a pack of Dynamite? I ask, a little perplexed to which my host merely shrugs- Porque no? (Why not). I hope it isn’t on sale to kids, you know to minors ( pun unintentional -honest) or revolutionaries for that matter. Its a question which before I have time to ask, before my very eyes, a boy not past ten ambles in and leaves with two sticks wedged firmly in belt.
From the market one ascends to the crest of the gloomy mount,-lightening and lashings of rain only adding to the Hellish apparition, my mounting apprehension. This is after all the most medieval of mines functioning in the world today- the kind of death toll where authorities have grown bored with counting. Workers must make do without illuminated shafts, lifts or machinery- a far cry from the comparatively cushy Gold Reef City tour (No Toto we are not in Egoli anymore) .Here locals employ ancient push carts, poorly supported tunnels and rickety wooden ladders which plummet into those forsaken depths. As we move deeper the walls begin to tremble with the dull thud of dynamite. Air filling with acrid smoke causing, what little light the feeble head lamp offers, to vanishes instantly.
As for the Silver, for which the very foundations of Patosi are built upon?-nada. The Spanish Conquistadors, back in the day made quick work of that, exploiting every indigenous bloke who happened to wonder into view. Expanding empires, decking crowns and no doubt toilet seats with the ample takings. Sadly the modern day Patosian is left to suffer and scrape by one the remaining (and hardly lucrative) zinc deposits, burying it seems to the very core of the earth to retrieve them. I meet a gang of miners in one of these pits, swerving, slurring and wreaking of booze. What concerns me more is that they happen to be chugging on cigarettes when I extend my dynamite stick offerings. They respond by tugging me by the sleeve to meet the master and cause of their subterranean revelry.
There in a damp cavern, he sits. TIO. A life size replica of the miners revered devil (of which there are over 800 similar idols all over the mine) Carved from rock and clay, decked in traditional regalia, his eyes open, mouth agape. More famed (amongst giggling tourists) for his more than prodigious photo op appendage. A cock one might say as hard and prominent as the rock he has been shaped from. Here the miners proceed to fill his mouth with lit cigarettes, burn coca leaves at his feet and drink themselves to further stupor.According to the legend, TIO is the roving bachelor and veritable party monster of the mount. At the end of each day the men must incite him with an assortment of cocoa, tobacco and booze. Only once they have left does TIO wake, stammer to his feet, stalk the midnight corridors (minus hard hat, but certainly not hard on.)It is said he goes in search of Apache Mama ( Mother Earth- here symbolised by the whole of Mine) where, if i am to understand correctly, he is to give her a rogering to remember. Their vigorous love making of course proliferating the mountains depleted mineral resources.
Back on the ground, tensions it seems are running high. Its not hard to note the Bolivian phenomenon known as the daily newspapers.Seldom have I seen a nation or people as obsessed with their daily news. A scene typical to the ubiquitous city Plazas features elderly women, teenagers, business men (smug in shoe shine boy thrones) scanning their morning print. And if they are too young to read them then you can be certain they’re selling them. A politic obviously worth keeping a beady eye on- as volatile and in many ways as farcical as our own. Small cabbies bustle through city streets with over sized speakers attached to roofs. Above pompous band stand static, a voice beckons the public to arms. The same can be said for fish markets, where impassioned citizens(usually fish still flapping in hand) vent frustrations from upturned crates. Their disdain over the increase in food prices. One wonders what might become of this spark, about to ignite candle or keg? only time will tell. The Police forces, despite their daily proliferation, seem unfazed. Rather they slouch against barricades, pruning appearances in the reflection of their glass shields.
One does however pity poor ol TIO then, the miners Devil, despite his nightly philandering, his perpetual readiness, the current state of the countries natural resources seem to render him impotent.The people are hungry, food prices escalating. And if TIO and Apache -the all providing mama, can no longer deliver the goods, one shudders to think how the less benign (though no less omniscient) Bolivian Government plans to?
If not for the festive folk music, phycadellic salt pans, flamingo infested lakes, pits of sulphurous belching earth, I´d say im fond of Bolivia for its voluminous skirted Metizo´ women. These I have developed a particular infinity for they are bawdy gogo´s the lot of them -Hunched and hobbling with their plaited pig tails slung over shoulder, off kilter bowler hats-part Dickens and part Dr Seus. Pantomime Fairy Godmothers who might at any minute throw off their tattered guises and grant one their hearts desire (that or reduce them to lowly toad). Then there are the Flower sellers with their obstinate push carts,shawls, tatty hats and rotting teeth. So close in their semblance to Eliza Doolilte, that I would not flinch should one ever feel the urge to break out in - Oh Wouldn’t It Be Lovely (in Español´: Mucho chocolate para mi te comer.)
Then there are the cities ( the two I shall pay particular attention to being Patosi and La Paz). Here lives are lived at impossible gradients ,not to mention altitudes.Cobble stoned streets tipple off Andean mountain edges. At night, from roof tops, I hover amosgst washing lines and water drums, above the mazes, a beer in hand. A fine way to watch the cascading of city lights. Cities where ,depending on which side of the canyon you sit, a cup of coffee placed at the center of a table may no sooner find its way to your lap. Where time ,as with its African counterpart, has a mind and humour of its own. The type of towns where for no other reason then to confound the wearied Gringo ,laundromats vanish overnight only to re appear on opposite ends of the street. Where the Mercado De Brajos (witches markets) might make even the hardiest- muti mad- sangoma blush. Pity then the uncomfortable icons of Christ, his saintly retinue rubbing shoulders with sewn up toads, virility tokens and dried Lama foetuses. Potteresque potions of every kind, colour and custom cluttering shelves. Alas, if only prosperity, tranquility, amour and vengeance could be this easily purchased over the supermarket shelf.
To my unborn nephew/niece- but an inkling in your apache mammas belly.
Whatever being you be- for at this point biology has not yet markated you a loin or groin (dangly irrelevant pieces of flesh they are)
Child of the Sun I grow impatient for your arrival,which is why I find myself writing you- a somewhat premature letter. A letter whose words you might only grasp many years from now. I write to you from the Island of the Sun in Bolivia (La Isla de Sol) for this morning I watched the sun wake over that vast expanse that is Lake Titicaca. Deep from slumber it yawned, setting world and imagination ablaze. More impressive was it for the fact that years ago your parents stood at this same place, beheld this same majesty. Your mother back then a dread locked lioness, your father-benign beanied gnome.
It is a sight ,that if ever love seemed tentative, uncertain (not that your parents ever did) after witnessing such a awakening- would prove no more. For those who have shared in the most ancient and basic of wonders, the birth of the sun, might never look back. Might then and there conspire to stike the flint, start a little fire of their own.
And so it was that watching this that I thought of you back home, growing so tenaciously in your mothers tum. I thought of you, who were yet to open your eyes, take gulp of this glorious air. Partake in a world both horrific and terrific. I thought of you child of North and South,of colliding continents. Gender less, nameless Gemini, constellation and confusion of my own. Com padre to my stars , I assure you- a cosmos worth thriving, striving, surviving beneath.
But I digress, for but a minute ago I was talking of the Island of the Sun which according to Incan Myth (after seeing such a sight, I would not hesitate in calling it pure unadulterated fact) is said to be the place where the sun -prince Hellios to some, was born. Here that the first rays of light were said to have swept over a gloomy globe, waking a world that had previously only ever known perpetual night. Let there be light, it is reported the almighty said, and so there was. Illumination beyond our comprehension. Now who in fact the Almighty was and is (or if he exists at all) I will leave to you and your abundant curiosities to grapple with, this may take some time. Be patient
Again being the bumbling spring of an Uncle I am, I have wondered from my source, the very point and purpose of this letter. So back we go to standing on that chilly 6 o ‘clock slope. With a myth in mind, miracle in eyes, I meditated on you. Orb still hidden from us, as the sun was when I first woke to meet it. I don’t doubt for a second that your entrance shall be as wondrous, moving and mythical as this. This that has occurred for centuries and shall continue to do so. I am more then fond of your conceivers, your gods or padres. They are in short two of an exemplary kind. Listen to them, love them for they know better (at least at first.) And when you are grown enough, take this journey, stand on this same hill, this place where those of mutual blood have gaped in simillar awe. Witness and be humbled by a birth that proceeded your own. Think of us, those who have shone before and those who shall shine long after.Write a letter to the next, as I have to you.
Until then burn, burn,burn. From me, here in the present, writing to you in the future, soon to be past (how fast it all flew). I long for the day, I get to shake your diminutive palm, behold your shining face and say- Welcome Child of the Sun- too long we have been expecting you.
PS… Happy birthday to your Father- for I post this letter on his Birthday- Him a Sun of a different kind- but beautiful one at that.
Sunday morning and I sit on a bench in La-Paz , watch a Plaza market rising. Ignoring the persistence of shoe shine boys ( and this takes some dedication) I set about enjoying a welcome splash of Andean sun. The traders are arriving, setting up their stores: strange looking local women in Pippi long stocking braids, bowler hats and bright Bolivian shawls. As they unpack their wares, a blind man tick, tick ticks his walking stick to the centre of the Plaza, puts down a tin and starts up on his Accordian. Fingers buckling, face feeling every inch of the lament. A sound of impossible loss. As he plays, an elderly Gentleman, decked in impeccable Sunday best, sits down beside me. The man is not perplexed when he notices my tears, rather sympathetically,even casually, extends his handkerchief. As if he understands all to well what wells of yearning such sounds are capable of inciting . Tears I shed for a sound so familiar. Makes one miss home, miss Rich most of all. Miss his midnight dirges, consoling a sea side city at odd and secret hours. There is an Accordion man for every town I visit. An omen if I may see them as such. Usually an elderly man, crumpled hat, a plastic flower protruding from top pocket. Each plays a song as tragic and beautiful as the last. They are of the same ilk, the same solitary brother hood. Watched over by Saint Ricardo- the omniscient melancholic. Contributing a few coins to their cause is an honour and sadly all I can do.
He did not flinch in bidding Paris his hometown adieu: far too petite, too pretentious to contain his irrepressibly itchy feet. At twenty –two he had just completed his degree at an architectural school (a school whose reputation resided more on the bevy of beautiful international students it attracted than the actual qualification it offered). It had been three frenetic years: waking up with pounding head, missed lectures and one very busy bed.
Ironically it was Cecile, a fellow Parisian: aloof, detached and perhaps the most beautiful of them all who remained consistent in her disinterest. God knows, how from the day of their introduction he persisted. A tenacity, that in the weeks leading up to graduation, with the ensuing parties, (the simultaneous dropping of one’s guard and underwear) naming him the conqueror and Cecile the seemingly insuperable –the conquered.
Not surprisingly her frigid demeanour proved to be a facade, a fortress erected to fend off the advances of such opportunists. In their few months spent together he found her to be dangerously affecting. The cause for a foreign and almost terrifying feeling to creep up on him. However in this instance love, where it should have invigorated felt more like a slow setting concrete poured into this adventurers eager boots. So it was, that not even Cecile (the celestial—he had called her) with her diaphanous skin and near perfect breasts, no not even she could convince him to stay. “Au revoir Mamma, Pappa, goodbye sweet Cecile.” he cried, leaving them- all three- inconsolable at the departure gate. Vanishing out into the big wide world and never once looking back.
A life eater he titled himself. A globe-not trotter –for that is far too tame a stride– rather leaper, blundering intrepidly into the unknown. His quest not just for the continents but for their tribes of women. His noble and over-riding goal: to unite the nations under a single sleeping bag. True to his motto, his French Ce la vie, the one that simply stated: life is for living, the loins for giving.
And so if gobbling life meant a little over indulgence, a spot of indigestion here and there- so be it. Consummate in exploiting his many attributes: rugged charm, handsomeness, and when courtship might require it- trademark French indifference. Almost fluent in several languages, he had devoted himself to mastering one in particular, that spoken with the eyes. Furtive glances: expectant, hungry, hopeful and playful. Looks, which despite their degrees of suggestion offered invitations of an unequivocal kind. With these he lured each fluttering heart to his net, his hammock, bunk or bed and if they happened to linger too long, talk in a collective future tense, he would flee, promptly resume his life as itinerant rouge. It was not that he prided himself in leaving a universal trail of dejected hearts, just that he had grown accustomed to a self-absorbed ethos of the solo traveller: a constitution that never included notions of compromise and commitment. He recognized this as weakness, preferred not to dwell on it, and for most of his twenty years abroad, filling his eyes with impossible wonder, never really had to.
To finance his travels he took odd jobs in translation, everything from Spanish bibles to Swedish porn films. His athleticism and bilingualism allowing him to eventually find employment out in the world´s wildernesses as an adventure guide. Here he received qualifications in deep sea diving, mountain biking, high altitude mountain climbing and river rafting. His job generally involving lugging disinterested (and often decrepit) Europeans about on rather tame adventure excursions.
However after viewing his client’s family photos (which most of them carried in wallets) he’d invite them to send their ´just out of high school´ daughters to take a private tour. So endearing and trustworthy had he proven that they mostly agreed and from such generosity, one might say, he profited in more ways than one.
The girls were generally rich, naive and ravishingly beautiful. More crucially they arrived with a return air ticket. As for the ones that lacked the necessary aesthetics (those whose photographs proved to have been deceptive indications). Well, provided the evening camp fires were burning at a low smoulder (and he was drunk enough) he’d slip into their sleeping bags, warmth, not to mention the end of trip tip, the over-riding necessity at such frigid Andean altitudes.
Of course interspersed amongst his many sexual conquests were the untouched utopias of the world: the ample ruins, lost civilizations, the breathtaking vistas, underwater wonderlands. The luckiest man alive (he would be forgiven for thinking) A life eater, one who has well and truly chewed it up and spat it out. Never sated, still hungry for more.
By the time he had reached forty he had taken a six month contract with a Chilean adventure company, guiding the three- day jeep tour from San Pedro De Attacama across the Bolivian Salt Plateaus. It was while making a return trip to Chile (the first time he had undertaken such a trip alone) that his jeep had unexpectedly spluttered to a halt. With no radio or cell phone reception he was forced to sit it out and flag down the next passing vehicle.
Surely time like this a blessing, time away from the incessant gabble of tourists. A moment of solitude amidst such a wonder should be savoured not willed away. The first rains of summer had fallen and now the pans 12,000 km circumference held a thin veil of water. At once a featureless salt desert transformed into vast reflective mirror. Earth merging with sky and rendering the horizon non-existent.
Now that he thinks of it, the arrival of forty has come as something of a shock, as has the sight of his reflection in the water. The first indication of grey hairs, fuzz on his ears similar to his fathers. Years of beer soaked abandon accumulated in a well cultivated paunch. On the seventh hour, the perspective (or lack of) begins to confound him. The heat beating down from above and burning up from below. He feels the niggle of emptiness, an increase of thirst. Left with only memory, topsy- turvy reflection to turn to, he tries to recall the past twenty years, searching for an internal island, a raft or refuge of some sort to cling to.
Places, faces (never names) fly through his cluttered head. Ears lobes, hairlines, ankles, belly rings, breasts and Brazilian waxes. Pieces sewn haphazardly together, merging now into an obscure and monstrous whole. A Spanish girl, name unknown (underage),buckets of sangria, cupids catalyst. Su or Lu or Wu the elastic band from Japan (or was it Malaysia?). That doe eyed Israeli girl, The Moroccan switch board operator, Russian dive instructor, Swiss anthropologist, retired Venezuelan beauty queen, spoilt trust fund Californian, Dutch. Italian, Romanian Air Hostesses. The Polish Ambassadors wife, a just engaged Argentinean and recently widowed South African. So it went on and on and on. Useless and empty the lot of them. Then at last, Cecile amidst the crowd, Cecile the celestial, the diaphanous. A burning mirage. At last a memory (albeit distant) to outlast the tug of testicles, the ephemeral ecstasies common to the multitude of others. He wonders where she might be in the world, wonders whose side she sleeps beside, the names of her children.
Repent, the life eater must and does, wishing now he could vomit it all out- all those hastily torn, badly chewed chunks. Out here, where reflection stirs reflection, where salt meets salt. Doubled over the beat out bonnet of a Toyota Jeep- the luckiest man alive, wailing like a new born baby, confesses to being the saddest fucker to have ever crawled the face of the salty earth.
Neil Coppen lives between the cities of Durban and Johannesburg where he works as a writer, director and designer. His collaborations include works with film-makers, visual-artists, writers, community-groups, sound-designers, authors, animators, choreographers and musicians.
Coppen has won several awards for his writing, acting, design and direction work. In 2011 he was named the Standard Bank Young Artist Award for Drama, which was followed by the ISPA fellowship award to New York in 2012. He was included in The Mail & Guardian’s 2011 200 most influential Young South Africans list and is one of the six South African playwright’s to have been granted a staged reading at The Royal Court Theatre in London earlier this year. A chapter covering his career and inspirations was recently featured in the University text book: Theatre Directing in South Africa: Skills and Inspirations which was launched this year.
Coppen has had his columns, articles and travel writing published in various South African publications including the Sunday Times Lifestyle, Mail & Guardian, Sunday Independent and City Press, while his short storyThe Accordion Man was published by Penguin in 2008. In 2009 he was nominated for the Vodacom Journalist of the year for his articles covering the history of Indian cinema in the Grey Street Area.
Coppen (alongside film-maker Karen Logan) ran the Kwa-Cinema 2006-2008 which was created to stimulate KZN film-making talent. The venue orchestrated and curated a series of film-festivals while also launching a variety of competitions such as the annual Fixed Frame Film competition. Coppen initiated the Grey Street Indian Cinema Documentary Project as researcher and director. He is currently sitting on the DIFF 2014 Jury for South African Feature Film.
Coppen currently serves as Artistic Director for the company Think Theatre Productions having written, directed and designed several award- winning productions under the companies banner.
As a playwright and designer Coppen’s works include Suicidal Pigeons (2005) Two …The Beginning of the End (co -written with Clare Mortimer) as well as the theatre classic Tin Bucket Drum (2005-2013) which has toured extensively throughout the country and returned from an acclaimed season at the Kraine Theatre in New York 2012.
More recent works include Tree Boy (directed by Libby Allen)which saw him launch a three-year creative process alongside a team of actors, animators, editors and musicians, in an attempt to distort the boundaries between cinema and theatre while Abnormal Loads (which he wrote, designed and co- directed) was invited to open the 2011 Main stage of The Grahamstown National Art’s Festival and went on to enjoy a sold-out national tour.
The play text of Abnormal Loads is currently included in schools and university syllabuses across South Africa and as far afield as America and Canada and is in the process of being adapted for the screen. Abnormal Loads (published by Junkets) is now its fourth print-addition and was awarded the 2012 Naledi Award for Best New South African Script.
and created the sets, costumes and audio-visuals (alongside Vaughn Sadie) for the productions Tin Bucket Drum, Tree Boy, Abnormal Loads (Think Theatre) Little Foot (Market Theatre), Nothing But the Truth and Animal Farm (Nobulali productions)
In 2010 and 2013 he teamed up with visual-artist Vaughn Sadie for the VANSA TWO THOUSAND AND TEN REASONS TO LIVE IN A SMALL TOWN (REIMAGINING SPACE-PLACE-PROCESS) residency where he spent three months in the historic KZN battle field town of Dundee working alongside a range of community-groups, film-makers, historians, tour-guides and performing artists.
Coppen annually collaborates with the Twist-theatre Development project as a writing/ director mentor to various community-theatre groups in and around KZN. He has co-written the plays: Like this Rock (Umlazi), A Bull Called Bhalangane (Kwa-Mashu), Fikile (Gamalakhe), Battle of the Ages (Mpopomeni) andSecrets from The Drawer (Umlazi) which premiered at the 2013 Grahamstown festival on the Arena stage.
For The Playhouse Company, Coppen was commissioned to research and write an educational theatre program on Sugar Daddies (Directed by Edmund Mhlongo) which is currently in its second year of touring schools and communities, as well as mentoring and developing the writing-syllabus of their Community-Theatre Camp programme. The 2014 project saw him collaborate with thirty-three participants in creating four new isiZulu plays which premiered in May this year.
Coppen’s recently completed work on adapting, designing and directing a localized version of George Orwell’s Animal Farm (for Nobulali productions) which is currently touring the country. He is also in the process of working with City officials to launch an ambitious new educational community-theatre project in KZN to combat the Whoonga drug crises currently plaguing the province.
The following blog is collection of his daily thoughts, newspaper columns, articles, short stories and musings.