Cocaine in Bolivia costs three US dollars a gram. This statement does not need to be read as having or as not having any relation to our travel activities. It is simply an interesting piece of information with which I wished to furnish you. Keep it in mind next time some suited wanker in Sydney or Melbourne starts flashing around a little bag of 30% cut-to-shit baking coke that they bought for $350 and thinking that they’re Pablo Escobar. It’s a pretty dull drug anyway, especially on its own. I doubt it would even crack my top ten. Basically it’s the condiment of the drug world – it may be kind of tasty along with something else, but you’re never going to buy ten packets of mustard and tell yourself that it’s a meal. And mustard as a condiment is nice, but not three hundred bucks of nice. Just have the steak, it’s plenty tasty on its own. Unless you’re in Bolivia, where condiments are appropriately valued. In that case, have some mustard.
Mr Fox and I meet up with The Doctor in Cuzco and make our way to La Paz. All three of us have a persistent and heavy stomach bug. Living in such close quarters with such a complete infection rate, you get to know each other very well indeed. Detailed reports of every movement are shared, dissected, and analysed for significance, like three shamen reading highly infectious tea leaves. Or perhaps reading entrails might be a more direct analogy. Putting the anal back in analysis. The preponderance of coke dealers outside our hotel combined with the aforementioned digestive chaos have led to this stage of the trip being named The Charlie Brown Bolivian Experience. We tell ourselves we’re on tour. Mr Fox, especially, is looking very like Liam Gallagher with his straightened hair and his aviator shades. “I’m the lead singer in a band,” he says in a dodgy Manc accent. “I’ve gotta look good.” He’s also practicing his Spanish, with a similar rate of success. An attempt to ask a man for coca leaves comes out as “Señora caliente cocaina!” (“Mrs Hot Cocaine!”).
La Paz may well eat your children. Truck fumes for the lungs, coca leaves for altitude. The city is nearly four kilometres above sea level, and everything seems to be built of the same cracked rubble. The cars and buses spit black smoke down every street. Despite the lack of oxygen, the air’s so thick you have to chew each mouthful and spit it out. You could cut it with the dull side of a rusty spoon. Bolivia has the strangest national dress I’ve ever seen. Every woman over 40, apparently, wears a billowy floral polyester dress in loud colours, a frilly apron over the top, and a far-too-small bowler hat balanced carefully on top of their hair. This is true. They are uniformly heavily overweight. The only things we can find for sale are fried chicked and soft drink. We wonder if these two things are related.
Roy and H.G. used to open shows with “Hello, Bolivia!” I kind of wish I’d left it as one of their jokes. There’s a persistent air of grime and desperation, and we’re too prissy to handle it. It takes a three hour bus, an eighteen hour train, and another eight hour bus to reach civilisation in Argentina. As soon as you cross the border the dead dry desert gives way to well-tended farmland. The train guard hates us because we change seats to avoid 18 hours going backwards. It shatters his whole sense of stability and order. After the DVD intro has been playing the same 30-second clip for half an hour, I ask if we can turn it off. He glowers. “Todos gentes miran!” (“Everyone is watching.”) At 6 a.m. precisely he starts blasting Spanish pop music. The entire carriage is sleeping. People groan and roll around. “Why the music?” I ask. “People like music,” he says, looking like I’d just Vitamised his puppy and fed it to a disabled kid. “Look,” I say, pointing. “They’re all sleeping.” He says nothing for a good ten seconds, then gestures out the window at the barely-risen sun. “Es el dia!” (“It’s daytime!”) he barks in righteous triumph, then stomps away.
So long, Bolivia.
- A fine example of the world-famous teeth-clenching Bolivian Grin, or ‘El Gurno’, as the locals call it. No idea of the cause. On Mr Fox, it’s also known as Hodgeyface. The resemblance is uncanny.