Monday, March 24, 2008


I’m reading The Naked Tourist, by Lawrence Osborne, in which he muses about the traveler’s dream of finding the end of the earth and his obsession with “the idea of leaving the world.” I’ve chased that dream for years, from my journey to a Dayak longhouse up the Mahakam River to hanging with pygmies in Irian Jaya and Oroki reindeer herders in Siberia. But those places are fading; they’re mirages of a quaint and distant past – they’re not really real anymore.

As we lurched into Lima after 28 hours of travel on a single bus from Guayaquil, it hit me that this trip is all about the opposite. It’s not about losing contact with the modern world, it’s about embracing it, reveling in it, losing myself in its massive vascular system as its multitudes lurch and pedal along its thousands of miles of veins and arteries and capillaries.

I mean, we watched eight movies, classics all, including Resident Evil III and Armageddon (there are no chic flicks on South American buses), while inching through the crowded market and border town of Huaquillas (six foot tall plastic flowers; quail eggs, four for a dollar; stilettos and skinny jeans and an upside down pig on a hook) and rain in Chiclayo so driving it flooded the streets up to the curbs and then paused in the hot morning sun to wash our hair in a concrete trough by the side of the road. “Only seven more hours to Lima!” said one of the drivers, shaking the water out of his hair like a dog after a bath, before lathering up his armpits. We ate quivering red Jell-O and watched the Bee Gees in between flicks, as Mariana, a 24-year-old “food engineer” whose favorite food was spaghetti, chatted on her cell phone and her 21-year-old sister read the Latin American edition of Cosmo, all while passing broken, dusty towns of tiny, garage-sized brick houses and sun and wind and burros and internet cafes.

All driven along the miles by two “conductores” – such a better word than driver – with gold teeth and faded, mystical home-made tattoos on their shoulders, who switched the wheel every five hours and slipped the bus through its seven forward gears like it was all they ever did. Which was true: they drove from Lima to Guayaquil (28 hours) back to Lima and then another 20 hours on to Puno, before turning around and doing it all over again.

“Lots of accidents,” they said, laughing. “You want to drive?”

And then, a few hours later, I was drinking a pisco sour with the world’s most famous volleyball player.

I’m smack in the very middle of the world and it’s a very weird place.