Neil Coppen

writings/ plays/ poetry/musings/travel journals and newspaper columns

Atlantic crossing Journals.

July13

PART 1

 

Greetings from a land where the sea water is the colour of an overpriced Caribbean cocktail, the locals all talk like Bob Marley and the humidity has the ability to test the resolve of the most tenacious of Durbanites.

As I write, a tropical squall is pelting the boat and at long last the heat has been momentarily quelled.  It’s during such tempests that one has to ensure that they have “battened down the hatches!”

You see I’m learning tons out here, most of all how to yell melodramatic sea-fearing phrases—which I thought only existed in Pirate movies–with a straight face!  I’m currently honing my ‘Land ahoy!” and “All hands on deck.”

 

I write from Nanny Cay, a port set amidst steamy Virgin Island jungles and rolling Caribbean hills. We’ve been here for the past two days polishing the boat and provisioning for the big trip ahead. This will be our last taste of land and civilization before heading off later today on the open sea.

 

It’s surreal to trace our journey on a map of the world, finger sliding across that vast tract of blue that exists between the Caribbean and the Mediterranean Sea. I can only describe the anticipation as part delight and part terror.

 

I must admit, that upon arrival I felt a bit like James Bond stepping off a chartered flight from Puerto Rico and following our captain a few meters from the airport exit to a rickety jetty where we bundled into a dinghy that whisked us over the waves and into salty night. A good twenty minutes later and we set our sights on new home….. Sailboat SLIM but i’ll get to her in a moment.

 

Our crew consists of Dyl, whom you are well acquainted with, his brother Travis, a born leader and athlete and the Captain of the boat.  Travis’s wife Ana, the first mate: a feisty, hilarious Argentinian who also happens to be an accomplished Vegan chef.  I should add that we are setting sail with enough vegetable matter on board to survive for months, in fact should we be shipwrecked, I might well be able cling for dear life to an over-sized plantain to stay alive.

 

Dave Denton is the other crew member and is in possession of the sort of matinee idol looks that would make your mom go weak at the knees.  Dave is a warm and seasoned sailor, his eyes constantly fixed on some distant horizon.

 

Lola is the boat dog, who looks remarkably similar to Snowy from Tin-Tin. The only difference is that Lola, over her short time on the planet, has more cross continental adventures stamped into her passport (she really does have a passport) then Snowy might dream of ever boasting.

 

Lola follows in the fated paw prints of Anna and Travis’s previous intrepid pooch named Pickles, who after many wondrous journeys’ upon the high seas, was tragically devoured by a Komodo dragon in Java. Honestly the Hardy Boys couldn’t have dreamt these sorts of things up!

 

So I’ve been trying to get acquire my sea legs. Having been anchored out at sea for the past week, I have grown accustomed to the horizon line resembling a spirit level that refuses to settle. It seems the constant swaying motion of the boat is quickly absorbed into one’s muscle memory.

 

The other day we visited Road Town, a stoner Caribbean village where shop owners still haven’t gotten round to taking down their Seasons Greetings Christmas decorations from earlier in the year.

 

It was the longest I’d been on land for some time. I wondered the town’s grocery stores woozy, embarrassing fellow crew members -and perturbing shoppers– by veering left and right into product displays, attempting to get my footing and generally looking like a first year Varsity bro at his inaugural drinking initiation.

 

Now to SLIM. She really is one of a kind. A gorgeous svelte 66 foot gunboat as sleek and pristine as the latest Apple Mac product. Hell, even the waves appear to be hurling themselves in lovesick- adoration at her indifferent sides. And when the attention gets too much—which it often does– she simply concertinas open her mighty sail, which rises like a Chinese fan to conceal her blush from randy sailors and red faced gentleman callers, whom cat call to her from passing decks. There are many mornings, when docked in a cay, that one crawls out of bed bleary eyed and into the kitchen area only to find a paparazzi of fans and camera’s surrounding the boat.

 

SLIM, it must be said, while sexy as sin, is minimal and modest in comparison to some of the other floating condo’s out here. Some have constantly changing LED lighting glowing across their decks causing them to resemble a Las Vegas strip club or what I’ve subsequently dubbed as UFO’s (Unidentified Floating Objects). 

 

The other evening, I watched the worst of the First-World play out aboard one of these luminous eye-sores. House music pumping as a young ‘Trustafarian’ popped a bottle of champagne and doused a kneeling and squealing bikini-clad beauty in its contents. The bottle then slipped out of grip, cracked the deck of the boat and tumbled into the sea amidst shrieks of laughter.

                                                                               

But I digress, the purpose of our crossing is to deliver SLIM to The Spanish Island of Mallorca in the Mediterranean.

 

I consider myself extremely blessed to be on board. I’m aware that seeing the world in this way is an extraordinary privilege. That to cross entire oceans is an opportunity that does not visit one very often. I’m trying my best to pay full attention. To soak it all up like a veritable sea sponge.

It’s not that my novice status, and occasional delusions of grandeur, go unchallenged. Upon arrival in the B.V.I our bags were delayed in Puerto Rico for two days, so we lived on the boat dressed in the official SLIM crew uniform of baggies and T-shirt branded with the logo.

 

I felt pretty hardcore dressed in ‘slim’ fitting white T and steel grey swimming baggies.  The sailing fraternity in these parts shows an obvious reverence for SLIM when she anchors beside them and these uniforms’ instantly associate one with to the coolest gun-boat this side of the Caribbean. 

 

One evening we stepped into a fancy Cay side restaurant for a crew meal, wearing the gear and were treated like celebrities. Heads turned as we passed, people whispering behind menus. A young guy trying to impress a gaggle of blondes summoned me over to his table.

 

“You guys with Slim?”

 

“Ya….ya that’s us” 

 

I reply nonchalantly, hoping that’s where he’ll leave the conversation but he persists, launching into an epic appraisal of her beauty followed by an equally epic list of questions. I attempt to field them with casual shrugs, playing it cool till the questioning gets technical and I’m forced to contemplate inventing things about boat engines, sailing knots and the like.

 

Eventually I fall silent. My rock n’ roll status rubbished when I admit to just tagging along for the ride, cleaning toilets and not knowing how to correctly tie my own shoe lace let alone a sailing knot of any repute.

 

Dyl and I were lying on the trampoline net of the boat the other night. Stars scattered across the night sky above, Caribbean breeze cooling sunburnt skin, the gentle motion of the boat lulling us to sleep. We’d spent a majority of the day snorkeling, pursuing psychedelic parrot fish through a network of underwater canyons and caves and then later that afternoon, a trail run around a privately owned island that rises up from the sea to offer some picturesque views of the B.V.I archipelagos.

 

From this vantage point, one sets eyes on a series of mythical islands: Deadman’s Bay, named after a bunch of rum-soaked pirates who were marooned on a neighboring island and drowned whilst trying to swim across to the opposite shore.


Another of these islands is said to have been the inspiration for Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic Treasure Island.  It’s not often one gets to say they sailed past Treasure Island!

 

One of my greatest pleasures in traveling is when fiction and reality intersect in this fashion. When one is afforded the chance to make real, with one’s own eyes and senses, an island that has ostensibly been inhabited and populated by the minds and imaginations of millions of children around the world.

 

The weather man predicts smooth sailing. Better unbatten the hatches then. I have always been happiest when near the ocean and I suppose such a prolonged and intimate engagement, should see me at my most serene and contemplative……….. or green and seasick. whatever happens I’m looking forward to having all that room to think and hurl. 

 

PART 2

B.V.I to AZORES

 

Greetings from a windswept volcanic mass somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic, where the men look like potatoes with facial hair, antique church bells toll on the hour and the sloshing phonetic sounds of Portuguese fill the air.

 

We touched down in the Azores a few days ago, after 12 wondrous, awe-inspiring days at sea. It was a journey that saw us cross 2300 nautical miles from the torpid climes of the British Virgin Islands to the chillier ones of the Azores.

 

We set sail now on the second leg of the journey which will see us move though the Gibraltar Straits to the island of Mallorca in the Mediterranean. That’s four oceans in the space of month, if you include the farewell skinny-dip I took in the Durban Indian Ocean before I left.

 

At sea, time evaporates, one drifts in and out of days not quite knowing how the last one ended and when the next began. There are no landmarks to assist and the only form of routine revolves around meal and watch-times. Geographically, transitions are marked by the fluctuating states of the sea, subtle shifts in light and the slow choreography of cloud formations.

 

It’s as if one is ploughing steadily through a vast and mercurial desert. By the fourth day, you get a thrill from any new visual stimuli. These manifest in the form of flying fish suspended above the water like a silver hummingbird, a Portuguese man of war (monstrous jelly fish not a hairy hostile sailor in case you wondering) or an albatross fishing in the boats wake.

 

By far the most exhilarating is that of a pod of Atlantic spotted dolphins. One can almost hear ‘The flight of the Valkyries” orchestrating their arrival. The person on watch cries “Dolphins” and the crew drop what they are doing and scramble to the deck, Lola the boat pooch yapping as up to thirty or so of these torpedo into view and like fighter-planes celebrating a recent victory, dart and weave through one another with breath-taking precision. After a few death defying leaps, they form a uniform V at the bow before vanishing from whence they came.  These aquatic acrobats understand that to make a lasting impression, one must leave their audience wanting. No matter how much applause is granted, they must retain an air of mystery by resisting an encore.

 

Sighting another boat or airplane is less thrilling. Such glimpses arouse conflicting emotions. The sign of other human beings can be encouraging in the sense that such sights have the ability to salvage one from vanishing entirely up their own existential arsehole or you can feel put-out at having come so far into the middle of nowhere only to bump into signs of fellow homo sapiens.

 

 “Come on” you yell, “It’s a big Godamn sea. Leave me to my own sweet blue oblivion.”

 

I suppose in some ways been on a boat is not unlike travelling by aeroplane, the only difference is that a flight seldom takes 12 days (unless you got to wrong end of a SAA off-season special to Uzbekistan), and a metallic capsule used in commercial flight tends to seal one off entirely from the element they are traversing. A plane is designed to make one forget that they are dangling several hundred kilometers in the air while a boat cannot help but remind you of the elements you are now at the mercy of and what a crazy ass thing you are doing.

 

The first night or two, I must admit to wondering what I had gotten myself into.  The seas were rough and the boat crashing through the surf caused the vessel to become an orchestra of ominous creeks and groans. Anyone who has flown with me in the past will know how the slightest fart of aeroplane turbulence sends me crawling back to a God I renounced eons ago.

 

Let’s be honest boats and floating objects built to transport humans don’t have the best of reputations in newspaper headlines or popular films. Think White SquallMoby DickTitanic, Hitchcock’s Life Boat, Poseidon, The Perfect Storm. The recent harrowing Robert Redford one, when you could see he was just wishing the whole time he had stayed put with Meryl on that farm in Aaaaaaafrica.

 

In the above mentioned narratives no one ever boards their vessel of choice and makes it to their tropical destination it time for a Pina Colada and the sunset. Boat movies generally degenerate into protagonists eating each other on a rapidly deflating lilo while fending off sharks with a frying pan. Admittedly I’ve watched way too many of these in my time and so have the worst possible frame of reference to accurately (as opposed to imaginatively) interpret sounds and motions as either life-affirming or threatening.

 

I considered popping a tranquilizer to take the edge of things for the first night or two but was terrified that should an emergency occur I would be too goofed and ‘Inshallah baby” to leave the vessel (Muster) with the required speed.

 

Over the first night or two the boat motion was so frenzied that it felt as if I was locked in a cabin haunted by some petulant poltergeist. Just as would fall asleep, I would be flung across the room like Linda Blair in The Exorcist.

 

 I’ve had much time to lie in bed and learn the different sleep states and sensations and so far these are the predominant three.

 

1.)The maternal calm seas: here one feel like a babe cradled in their mother’s arms….. in this state one is lulled into the most sublime of dreaming states.

 

2.) The belly of a whale: An experience akin to lying in the groaning stomach of a ginormous sea beast who happens to be experiencing severe digestive problems. A torpedo sized Rennies is in order.

 

3.) The Exorcist:   Hellish demon possession which I have already described above.

 

One prays for state 1 but quickly learns how to adjust to more common 2 and 3.

 

On the boat, every crew member has to participate in a 2 hour watch which runs and alternates for the full 24 hours. Over this period one is expected to scan the horizon and ensure the boat is not going to collide with another vessel or object. The maximum speed we are reaching is 21 knots which means unexpected obstacles can creep up within a short period.

 

At the moment, running into (and over) whales have been one of the biggest and most legitimate concerns as the passage to and from the Azores is teeming with breeding pods at his this time of year.  A head-on collision with a creature the size of a several school busses or a tanker for that matter is not ideal and so no matter how ADHD I am, I’ve had to learn how to rein my fluctuating attention span in and concentrate on the little bleeping radar (more submarine movie fantasies playing out here).

 

There are horror stories of people, during their night watch, falling off overboard while taking a pee off the back of the vessel.  It’s a terrifying thought, vanishing into that expanse long before fellow crew member’s cotton on to the fact that you’re missing in action. This plays on my mind plenty and I’ve never dared to attempt it ….as much as I love a pee under the open skies, drifting like Sandra B in Gravity off into a turbulent vaccum made has made me settle somewhat religiously for the sterile safety of the boat cubicle.

 

The immensity of the ocean, hit home again when we slowed the boat down and jumped off the back for a swim.  Here we took an empty beer bottle, filled it with water, slipped on a pair of goggles and watched it sink. The feeling could only be described as… awe. The bottle steadily sinking for what felt like a good ten minutes before vanishing from view. Travis, the captain, reckons it would have only touched the ground a few hours after us having let it go.

 

As serious as these ‘Watches’ are, they are also a beautiful opportunity to grapple with what it means to be utterly alone, lost and drifting out across this pale dot of ours.  Like that beer bottle one learns to simply surrender and sink deeper into the mysteries of the big blue beyond.

 

At night when everyone is sleeping and the ocean roars all around, when the constellations are splashed across the night sky, and the boats churns up phosphorescence as it sails onwards. In these moments it really feels like we are satelliting in a little space ship, ploughing through the cosmos, and leaving a trail of luminous stars in our wake.  

 

 

PART 3

AZORES TO MALLORCA

 

It’s been nearly a month since Dyl and I left SLIM in Mallorca, which will be her new home over the next season.

 

In the end we spent 21 days at sea and crossed 4200 nautical miles. To say one’s life is profoundly enriched by such a journey would be an understatement. The final part of our crossing was colored by extraordinary sights such as SLIM’S Spinnaker sail unfurling like a giant butterfly wing from out of its chrysalis sheath. I will never forget the moment we set eyes on the Gibraltar straites — that mythical point where two continents brush shoulders– and growing teary at the sight of the Africa…. my home yet so very far from the southern tip of it.

 

And on our final afternoon at sea, chasing a transcendent sunset, our Dolphin cheerleaders appearing to pay their final playful respects.

 

Spending time out at sea, one’s senses, particularly smell, are sharpened and I’ll never forget the pungent whiff of cigarette smoke and designer fragrances that accosted my nostrils as we set sights on the ancient port city of Palma in Mallorca.

 

Dylan and I re-watched Japanese animator Miyazaki’s animated masterpiece Howls Moving Castle while aboard the boat and the whimsical concept employed in the film has I many ways come to characterize our own journey aboard SLIM.

 

In the film, a group of characters’ travel in a mobile castle through a variety of alternate realities. In the entrance hall of the eponymous castle, there is a magical dial. Howl simply turns the dial and is able to step out the front-door of his home into a magical universe of his choosing.

 

In many ways SLIM felt like this itinerant (in our case ‘buoyant’) castle. Our bedroom and the interior of the boat was the only constant.  Every time we stepped onto land, it was to find ourselves somewhere new and breathtaking: a continent or island utterly transformed and unrecognizable from the last.

 

Such magic is only possible through the devotion of Captain Travis and Ana who run a tight and immaculate ship. To watch these sailors’ manage this glorious gun-boat with the love, professionalism and devotion they do, is a humbling thing.

 

SLIM, as with all man-made modes of transportation, has her demands, her temperaments and occasional malfunctions and there really is nothing that Trav and Ana can’t fix or tend to in an instant….even while out at sea, several hundred kilometers away from the nearest sign of civilization not to mention spare parts.

 

It’s been a month back on land and I find SLIM’S rhythms and rituals still linger within me.  At night I often wake to think I can still feel the rocking motion of the boat or hear the rippling her sail, the persistent swooshing sound of the sea outside.

 

I miss the SLIM family, the many routines one establishes on a boat over a month together at sea, the sight of Lola poking her fluffy head through our cabin window each morning to call us to breakfast.

 

I’ll forever yearn for those deep and vivid sea dreams infused, as they were, with stars and phosphorescence.

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You’ll find me in the Summer when the snow melts.

January28

Dear Goose

You’ll find me in the summer when the snow melts. I took a tumble in the winter, tripped on an oversized ski- boot, clapped head and teeth on a mountain root, concussed, descended, confused into the snow. While down there I started to piece together the bones of Mozart’s thirty-five year old fingers in-between searching for my misplaced memory.

Days before in a cabin, all scented with cow-pat and cigarette smoke, we watched a moth-eaten moon hitch a ride on a ski-lift while drinking beer and playing a children’s card game .Turning and overturning picture cards (daisy, sea shell, pine- cone) in an attempt to uncover the matching pair.

 I fared dismally.

 Daisy…………..daisy?……fuck pine cone!

The three Austrians beside us played with a terrible intensity while a cassette tape they had exhumed from a kitchen draw provided the soundtrack. A warped radio broadcast they had recorded in their teens. Something eerie about news relayed ten years after the fact.

 My imagination satelllited skyward. I saw the cottage in long-shot, saw it drifting backwards in time. Watched the men grow younger: bellies flattening, shoulders rising, fighter pilot fantasies reborn. Memories glorious (building a trout dam in the summer of 2001) then devastating (watching it washed away by the first heavy rains.)

You asked me to tell you my life-story.  Start at the beginning you urged. What amounted was sketchy anecdote. I couldn’t assemble them just like I couldn’t remember where the matching sea shell, pine-cone or infernal daisy card lay. Recollections brittle and disintegrating like the autumn-leaf page of a poem I discovered yesterday in central park.

Later that evening, wedged between mattress and ceiling-rafter (while you plotted and re-plotted emergency fire- escape routes in your head) I clenched my fists against the cold and sifted through the pantry of my skull searching for a jar of something pickled, something preserved. Something as elusive as the bones of Mozart’s 35 year-old fingers or as simple as the twin image of a playing card.

Nothing

I stepped outside hoping the cold might resuscitate something. Villages twinkled in the valley basin below. War time Austria? The mnemonic trace of a reincarnated self or something recycled from a movie musical (Von Trapp’s escape from nefarious Nazis).

Memories: reels of images spliced together from a myriad of fictions. I’ll write again I decide. Not to record or articulate but to remember. To disentangle my dreams from the over wrought dreams of celluloid others.

Sing: You’ll find me in the summer when the snow melts, thawing in a luminous pasture, fat cow grazing on my unkempt hair. A daisy sprouting from my left nostril.

Thank you for the memory, for remembering

Maverick

Austria, January 2 2013

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Durban’s Endangered Art Deco Empires

December7

To this day the Art Deco style remains a contentious and oft disputed entry into the Architectural journals and history books. With its penchant for excessive ornamentation, non functional frills and outlandish colour schemes, the style is all too often dismissed by contemporary Architects as a brief and embarrassing rush of blood to depression era architects’ heads.  Certainly the conservative colonial population of Durban thought so, when in 1931 the veritable anti- Christ of architecture reared it unsightly head in the form of Art Deco apartment block known as the Enterprise Building in Aliwal Street. Unhappily for its detractors, the style would flourish like an overly flamboyant fungus in city and suburb across the country before petering out during the outbreak of the second -world war.

Read the rest of this entry »

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In Search of Macondo- Travels with Gabriel Garcia Marquez (part 2)

May13

Its not easy finding the road that leads into the fabled Colombian town of Aracataca–that is despite its reputation as s Nobel Prize winning author Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s birth-place as well as the same settlement that was to inspire and shape his literary plantation town of Macondo.

I was on the verge of giving up, of supposing that the town –if it had in fact existed at all –had suffered the same fate as its literary counterpart ; those familiar with Garcia Marquez’s masterpiece ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’ will recall that Macondo is obliterated in the novel’s catastrophic and concluding windstorm. Read the rest of this entry »

In Search Of San Pedros Keys (The Wiz of Hauncabamba ) Part 2

January11

The maestro ushers me into the basement of his homestead. A cramped room with cattle hides carpeting the floor and a raised altar (messa) at its centre .The air is damp and overbearing with a mismatched array of fragrances. The Altar cluttered with a variety of swords and objects: icons of saints, sculptures, earthenware bowls, dice, sea shells , bottles containing herbs and variety of colourful concoctions. The wall papered with dog eared ID and family photos (left by past customers), spectate our negotiation.The Maestros stolid gaze gives me the Jitters, I have not the tongue or confidence to barter. I agree obsequiously to the 200 Soles fee and that settles it. The ceremony is to commence at nine and in the mean time I’m shown to the cavernous upstairs kitchen for a last supper.

Chunks of raw flesh dangle from low hanging beams. An elederly woman with plaited hair sqauts beside a cauldron spinning thread. The reel invisible on its line seems to waft magically in and out of her hand. Potatoes, a sour chunk of cheese are placed before us and it is here that I meet my fellow pilgrims and patients: a leather faced and laconic Texan and his dolled up Peruvian bookie as well as another young Peruvian couple who have travelled from Piura to seek blessings for their family and sick child. When the Texan does mumble the semblance of a sentence, its to inform me that the Maestro healed his brother from a terminal illness a few years back and is a man of extraordinary powers.

After dinner we retire to a shared dorm. Anxiety alongside the Texans guttural snores, a lumpy mattress and blanket (so full of starch it feels as it were made of concrete) forbid me a moments rest.  I lie awake , tossing and turning, my imagination ticking into torturous over drive. The a rap on the door.

It is time.

The five of us shuffle into the ceremonial room to find the blanketed Maestro nestled into his throne adjacent to the Altar. I notice the Peruvian couples unloading packet fulls of items at his feet: Wallets, hand bags, kids school text books and array of family photographs. We take our place on the cow hide rugs and are handed our keys to the ancestors in the form of a cup of San Pedro. It is a bitter tasting substance that blazes through the body like a jug of tequila might. The lamps are blown out and Don Augustin is reduced to a voice sonorous and monotonous in the dark. His shaker, like the restless tail of a dessert snake underscoring his chanting. Every once and a while, and quite unexpectedly his voice rears up with- Abajo! (down) Abajo! (down) Abajo! (down) .Cautioning our wayward demons, as a owner might -a pack of over zealous and muddy pawed puppies.

A good two hours pass and despite feeling a deep and meditative drowsiness, I am yet to unlock the gate, see a hint of celestial light or converse with long lost grandfolks.

Then the thunk, thunk, thunk of muddy gum boots announce the arrival of the maestros three henchmen. From the light seeping through the cracks in above kitchen floor boards I can just make out their burly blanketed figures, apprentices is my guess. They step forward and beckon the five of us to rise. A sea shell full of tobacco liquid is placed in our hands and on the Maestros command we are made to inhale it through the nostrils. Its an acrid tasting tar like substance and similar (I would imagine-though I am yet to try) to taking an espresso shot up ones snozz.

This activity spins the room into brief hysteria. The lot of us reduced to a hacking, spluttering, coughing mess.  Abajo! (down) Abajo! (down) Abajo! (down) commands the Maestro. Abajo! Abajo! Abajo! respond his henchmen as the next sea shell arrives, then the next.

Shortly after this, one of the apprentices takes a hearty sip from a bottle of cheap perfume and then proceeds to spit the contents into each of our faces. A chaotic confusion, repugnant profusion of fragrances engulf us. This continues for some time until finally each of our outstretched hands are doused in the scents and we are made to run it over our faces and through our hair in an act of divine benediction and prayer

Still I feel nothing, no body drifting, atom splitting, cosmos cracking awe. Nothing except the steady increase of exhaustion and persistent fire in my sinus.

The Maestro now sets about consulting each of us individually. Spanish tones ping and pong in question and response. My limited grasp of the language does not permit me to grapple with the intricacies of their conversations, but from their post enthusing of Muchas Gracias´s Maestro, Muchas Gracias! I gather his divining was more then spot on. When my turn comes, the Texan reluctantly helps to translate. I’m told I am an escritor (writer) and there shall be prosperity and perhaps more travel ahead. Perfecto! Short, sweet and without any awful future anticipations.

It is at this point that I begin to imagine, rather pray we are crawling toward the finish line. Hopes no sooner dashed when one of the Maestros trusty Henchman decides he still has some unfinished business with me the my ol demons . He lugs me outside to undergo further perfume showers and then a final cleansing that involves an ominous looking baton-about the size of a baseball bat. It is an experience not dissimilar to being harassed at an air port security check though minus the ping.The baton running, back and forth, up and down my body, between my legs, over my head while he rants and raves, grunts and snorts. Abajo! Abajo! Abajo!

Back on the cow hide mat, and still the diligent Maestro holds vigil. In my state of exhaustion he sounds like Van Morrison grumbling the lyrics to ´Rave On John Donne´´. This I find strangely comforting. Rave on , Rave On, Rave on, Rave On through thy holy ghost etc……. It must be four in the morning and I can no longer withstand the drowsy velvet of his voice. I pass out, wake an hour later with face in the dirt and mouth full of mud.

The cocks are crowing throughout the valleys. Thick mists make for a diluted and eerie sun rise. That’s when I hear them, Oh God- The sound of skittish mules traipsing through the mud outside the room. Mules waiting to courier us to the remote and sacred lakes for the second half of the ceremony.

Will this interminable exorcism, tripless purging never end? I wish to cry out, but bite my tongue and prepare to mount my equally unenthusiastic ass.

All this time the inncesant tribunal of my inner monologue mocking : Ya,Ya pesky westerner, serves you right, you and your pseudo anthropological/ spiritualistic/ journalistic curiosities. Pah!

Okay, okay I repent: I just came along to have a good time and now I’m left wondering what in gods name I have gone and gotten himself into!

And so it is that our caravan of wonky donkeys and one somewhat (okay very reluctant) pilgrim begin their slippery and fated ascent for the Las Haringas or sacred lakes.

(TBC)

Feliz Año 2008- Haunchaco and the Hurricane Protection Pitch

January2

Strange but refreshing company I had to see in the New Year. The morning of arriving in Haunchaco, a sea side village ten minutes from Trujillo (not unlike Durbs in its grubby beach and collection of baggied and burnt surfers) I stumble upon a ramshackle bamboo surfer retreat to meet Juan, the pro Peruvian. Jaun who has that universal beach boy type down to well waxed T. Cheeky Hawaiian grin and a disconcerting gaze that seems to be constantly peering out over some very very very distant horizon. He welcomed me to his abode, pulled up a chair and offered a free breakie. Hey what choo doing ta night? On answering I had just arrived and had no plans he invited me to celebrate the neuvo año with his family.

Now Juan has a vast family, the type (and im talking immediate siblings here) that take up two very large dining room tables and require up turned beer crates for the shortage of chairs their numbers warrant.Two of its players I shall take a minute to recall. Firstly Mrs Peru on my left, the national female fitness champ ( I’m sure she said body building but so baggy was her sweater that I couldn’t be sure if those were biceps bulging beneath) and her hubby (too my right) a native stoner from Fort Lauderdale, who informs me he is an entrepreneur in the Hurricane Housing Protection business . As the evening progresses and feast commences, Mrs Peru begins to tell her rags to riches tale. How she got her ticket into the States through some body building championship she hd entered. How she subseqeuntly stayed on, working illegally as restaurant toilet cleaner. He met her one night in the restaurant( The bog? ,I didn’t think to ask) and as she put it (squeling excitedly while smothering his bald patch with kisses): Gee ,my bebeee, Gee take me to the paradise, ge marree mi and geeve me the greeeeen card. Gee make a me gees secretaree!Then Miss Peru kicks in with a demonstration (with Eliza Doolittle type elocution). A hard sell Americana infomercial, her newly acquired English now faulty with wine and enthusiasm . With trademark Miami Mamma sass she launches into -Choo better listen op coz you no wanna miz dis deal, no on your life!

The whole thing becomes even more surreal (not helped by a puff of her husbands joint) when she sees my interest as an oppurtunity to practise her pitch. She rushes off , returning with arm fulls of test samples, samples of the hurricane debris catching netting and a deluge of business cards and brochures.

En for joost so and so many dollares choo can protect your house and leeeetle dog from dose beeg bad weeends!

Ain’t she a moon beam, grins hubby while I applaud the demonstration and say were Durban drafts a threat to homesteads I would have purchased the whole bunch.

After the feast, we make out way down to the Pacific edge, the pack of brothers reduced to naughty kids, bearing a man made of straw and stuffed with fireworks (similar to the long suffering dummy we crucify back home on Guy Fawkes). So the tradition goes that each family on the eve of an old Year must burn a life size replica- standing to represent the bad energy of the past twelve months. Considering this is a family of ardent surfers (and a sister who could beat the lot of them at an arm wrestle) the dummy comes attached with old surf board. This will ensure the New Year comes full of good waves, smirks Juan as on the hour he gleefully sets the dummy ablaze.

I glance up the beach then towards the town to see hundreds of similar figures burning and imploding. A disturbing sight too one who might stumble unawares on an towns entire population, insensate to the fire that consumes them.

Peru (part 1) Pageant of the Bizaare

December16

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

Bolivia (part 2) Above and Below

December16

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?

Bolivia (part 1) Part Dickens, Part Dr Seus

December16

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.

Of Impossible Yearning

December9

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.

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