Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction 7.2 (2005) 9-19
My husband, Scott, and I have this single month in South America, which means we have to make choices, cut out ruins, islands, entire countries. We've met the long haulers: packs of Israelis just out of military service with nine months to travel; the German couple who quit their jobs, sold their houses, and hit the road; the Oregon hippy ... [Show full abstract] with his camera and Kerouac. Happy hour at the Irish bar in Cuzco, he crows, "You only have a month?" then grows solemn with purpose. "I'll be in China in a month. You've got to do the Yangtze before it is too late, before everything is ruined."
Everything. Ruined. I used to be one of them. I'm not sure what I am now.
We're heading to the Salar de Uyuni, the salt flat remains of a prehistoric lake along the Bolivian border with Chile. We've seen pictures of Daliesque landforms, purple mineral-rich mountains, blood red lakes. First stop is La Paz, the highest capital city in the world at nearly 12,000 feet above sea level. The city named for peace is a lung-busting maze of cobbled streets. If something exists, it's for sale in Bolivia. You can buy cell phone minutes from a phone chained to a person who then looks discretely in the other direction. Llama fetuses and little stone fertility statues with huge penises pack the Mercado de Brujas. A fried Spam stand sizzles next to a cart of bootlegged Freddy Mercury CDs next to an open suitcase full of pantyhose. Cries of "You want? You want?" Every square inch along the main promenade of El Prado is packed. One guy followed us for blocks hissing, smokesnortInternet? smokesnortInternet?
We have tickets out. We have film. We have peanut butter. We have Chifa the night before leaving at a place called Discoteca Jackie Chan. Chinese food, Jackie Chan movies, disco dancing, and Bolivia all in one bite? I know but who could resist? I got up early and headed out to find coffee. When I return, Scott is curled into a ball on the bed. He has already thrown up three times. His lips are gray, dry. He is breathing slowly through his mouth.
But we have plans.
"Do you want some Sprite?"
"I'll go buy some crackers."
"We have to check out in a half hour."
Why do I say stuff like that? Do we really have to check out in a half hour?
Did I mention that I had stir-fried vegetables and rice at the Discoteca? Scott had stir-fried vegetables with the fermented black bean sauce. I know.
I sit on the lumpy bed in the Hotel Happy Days and watch a badly dubbed and very fuzzy Pulp Fiction on the television in the corner. Eventually, Scott sits up, presses his hands hard into his thighs, and rises to his feet. He leans against the wall carefully and mumbles, "Let's go, I'll be alright." We shuffle downstairs and I hail a cab to get us to the bus station in time for our overnight bus to Uyuni. The gold shag dashboard of the little Rabbit has a bobbling-head pink plastic alien glued to it. The driver grunts and slams the car into gear. Scott presses his cheek against the glass and grips my thigh. The grayness has spread to his hands. We make it about ten blocks of start-screech-stop-honk-grunt. As one prone to motion sickness when he feels fine, Scott's glassy eyes grow panic-stricken, wild.
"Tell him to stop now, right now!"
"Señor, por favor, mi esposo es enfermo. Aquí es bueno."
"No Señora, aquí es peligroso. Esta cerca."
"He says it's dangerous here. We're almost there."
Scott is clutching his gut, nearly convulsing. I shout at the driver, "Aquí, aquí por favor!"
"Esta aquí, aquí." he shouts back. We are there, and to prove it he wildly...