Unpaved Cowpaths

A film I’ve thought about many times on this trip is Lost In Translation. Specifically the passing scenes in the film, the ones where Scarlet Johansson’s character is wandering by herself in Tokyo, observing a traditional wedding or Japanese kids playing rhythm games in the arcade. What they capture so well, these scenes, is a sense of foreignness, of distance, of having a cultural bubble between you and the place you are. Not merely alien but an awareness that you are the alien, the stranger in a strange land, observing norms that haven’t normalized in you. Yet.

I’ve been on the road for two months now, and can slowly start feeling myself untether from my previous life (and it does feel like a long-forgotten life) in New York. A sign perhaps: I’ve been scheming of ways to stay untethered when I do go back a month from now.

And that feeling of strangeness I’m talking about—I’m starting to feel it when I see the photos and updates my friends back home are posting. New norms are seeping in, making the old ones more apparent, like balsamic vinegar being dripped into olive oil. Maybe time will be the emulsifier here, but for the moment everything is still separate and distinct and sometimes silly.

One example: the shared cab and van rides I’ve been taking here, that I’ve written to you about in my past updates. No fixed schedule, leave only when there are enough people. Would never work if you’re in a rush to get somewhere, you might say. But without a formal alternative, I would imagine that it also begets a different attitude toward punctuality. Makes it less of a value. I’ll see you when you get here. It could be that this more casual way of doing things works only in a society where change happens slowly, and roles and jobs are constant. Some might say third-world, or “uncivilized,” but I would argue against a strict relationship between technological advancement and civilization. A more appropriate word would be informal. The systems that make things run in large parts of the third world are more informal.

On long bus and train rides, the drivers will stop and let onboard women who are selling fruit and sandwiches and rice puffs. Sometimes, the passengers themselves are the ones who, while they’re on the way from the middle of Bolivia to the Argentine border, will carry with them snacks and thermoses of coffee to hawk to the other passengers. On one of my buses in Peru, a woman came onboard with an entire barbecue beef neck and a meat cleaver, and was hacking away as the bus jostled left and right down the winding mountain road. It was some of the best barbecue I’ve ever had, and a hell of a lot better than airline food.

There’s a phrase in interface design: “paving the cowpaths”— taking the most frequently trod trails, the dirt in the grass, and formalizing them, turning them into roads. It’s done to ease movement where movement already exists, smooth the way through the system. But once you pave the cowpaths you have to maintain them. Problems are fixed but others are introduced. The interstate freeway system might have brought us improved commerce, safer transport, spiritual road trips, but it also brought us McDonalds and Walmart and urban sprawl, just as those super-size fries bring us both childhood bliss and type-II diabetes.

Informal systems rely more on trust in other people, whereas formal systems rely more on trust in the built infrastructure of the system itself. What was once a strong interdependence between humans, helped along by flexible tools, becomes a one-way dependence on the tools themselves. And the more time I spend from the distance of societies that have not yet “caught up” with the first world, the more I’m struck by how much fear and hesitation there was and is in my own life, and in the life of others back home. Large parts of that fear, I’m realizing, are regarding systems that have yet to be formalized, or it’s distress from when the formalized systems, which are supposed to be smooth and flawless, don’t work as advertised. What also results from this fear is a pave-happiness, an urge to Skymallify and fix every possible minor annoyance, which only creates further and sometimes greater problems, like building a house to keep out snakes only to attract grizzly bears.

Maybe this is the way the world is going. But while I’m still on the outside and seeing the strange excessiveness of some formal systems, I’m learning to appreciate the strange beauty of some informal ones, and trying to understand how in circumstances where we have a choice, when it’s more appropriate to act, and when it’s better to do nothing.

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I couldn’t write to you last night because the internet, it seems, everywhere I’ve been in Bolivia, has been so slow that I have become intimately familiar with previously unregistered details of my phone and computer habits. With the orange “Connecting…” bar in Facebook’s Messenger app, the way email notifications show up my locked phone’s home screen only if the email app was the last one I was using. I’ll get a skeleton list of Instagram photos and come away with only the sense that friends are taking pictures but not of who or what or where. I try to find restaurant recommendations, look up information about Andean herbs, file my taxes and sign up for health insurance. I become grateful for sites that don’t have images or ads or fancy javascript, embedded fonts. I’ve spent countless minutes waiting for that orange connecting bar to turn green, waiting for the light blue background of a speech bubble to turn dark blue, waiting for the first little green “sent” checkmark at the bottom of a Whatsapp to appear, waiting for the Gmail loading bar, watching a video Skype degrade until I’m just talking to a gray and brown blob. I have seen various spinners spin tens of thousands of revolutions. In a hostel in Copacabana, a sign on the wall apologized for all of this, and gave a detailed explanation of how they are paying a hundred US dollars a month for their service and they had tried to set up a fibre connection but the only company who provides it is at capacity, but hopefully things will be better when the new satellite goes up in January (the sign had clearly been up for a while). It follows an adage I’d heard earlier on this trip: no internet is better than slow internet.

Although: Slow isn’t quite the right word to describe the internet here. Temperamental is more like it. It seems to work the best at seven o’clock in the morning, and can drop on you on occasion midday but is otherwise manageable, then it progressively degrades later into the afternoon until it’s more or less unusable at dusk and thunderstorms. The internet here works like the sun. And for someone like me who depends on it for sustenance, it practically is the sun. My crops are different and my farmland is infinite, and my uniform unlike the cholita women here who wear shiny skirts and wool cardigans and shawls and bowler hats and their hair in pigtails, but my farm is subject to the same over and underexposure. And as this analogy would have it, procrastinating on the internet, for me, is like suffering a drought. It does me good when the sun is gone, cause then the rain can come. The difference back home is that I’m also the one controlling the weather.

And so I write to you, while I still can today, before I leave this afternoon on a flight for Santa Cruz, in Southeast of Bolivia. I’d like to say I’ve adapted to the new hours of daylight here but I know that, once I settle into the hotel, it will be the same process all over again: asking for the wifi password, connecting, waiting, waiting, waiting.

By the morning I check out of my hostel in Santa Teresa I have twenty-five soles and three US dollars left. I head to the main plaza and ask the men waiting on the bench for cars how I can get back to Cusco. One of them tells me that I have to take a collectivo to Santa Maria first, for ten soles, then get a fifteen-sole bus from there. I have just enough, and I can exchange the dollars if I need to.

The collectivos are parked outside the town market, three blocks away. I find a driver with a station wagon headed to Santa Maria and he says we’ll probably have to wait twenty minutes for the car to fill with passengers. I put my bag in the trunk and head into the market for breakfast, which ends up being a freshly-blended juice served in a glass the shape of a female torso. Finish my juice and wait in the shade outside the market, make small talk with the driver and his friend, fielding the softball questions people give you when they know you’re just visiting and your Spanish isn’t very good. Where are you from? How long are you traveling for? Did you go to Machu Picchu? Do you like Peru? I answer in short direct accented phrases. A Chilean man I met earlier this trip told me I talk like Tarzan.

Fifteen minutes later we have a full car. A man with crutches rides shotgun and I’m the third of four in the back seat. To my right is a Peruvian guy wearing knock-off athletic wear, to my left is a couple not much older than I am. The wife, who is sitting next to me, is carrying a bundle of colorful striped blankets and wrapped in that bundle is a baby newborn enough that I can’t tell if it’s a girl or a boy. Sitting in the trunk next to my bag are their two other young children, along with two old men. Off we go.

When we get to the crutched man’s stop along the way the driver gets out to help, halfheartedly shutting his own door in the process and leaving it slightly ajar. The husband to my left reaches out his window and holds the door to keep it from opening into traffic.

It would be nice, I’m thinking during the ride, to spend the last of my money on something in the San Pedro market once I get to Cusco. Something to eat, like some passionfruit or an avocado. I’ve been looking for an ending to my stint in the Sacred Valley and this, I think, would make for a decent one. I’ve noticed myself trying more and more to put my experiences into neat little packages, vignettes and scenes, chapters and acts and story arcs. I have forgotten my credit card at restaurants three times in the past year—three more times than I’d ever forgotten it at restaurants in any previous year—and it could be my memory’s getting worse or it could be I’m putting myself into more challenging situations without even realizing it, because it would make for a better story. I find myself sometimes holding multiple potential endings in my head at the same time, the way I might do while I’m writing, and I suppose this is the kind of openness that over time becomes closedness, interesting stories that become unnecessary drama, going the way of entropy, the heat death of all things. I’ve said this in forms before, that the only way I know how to deal with it is to realize I’m doing it, to realize when I have too many endings and just need to decide, or when I’m fixated on one and need to stop trying to force it. I may have even made a possibly impossible promise myself that, when I’m writing about “real life” like this, that I’ll never write a story while I’m still living it, that it has to have already ended before I can start documenting it.

So I have an ending in my head, and now I know I have an ending in my head. But this is what actually happens: We get to Santa Maria, a town whose central feature is a small parking strip. I pay my ten soles and while I’m paying my ten soles another collectivo driver is asking if I’m going to Cusco. I tell him I’m taking the bus. He says the next bus isn’t until 1:30, four hours from now. Or I could take another shared ride in his van, he says, which leaves as soon as we have enough passengers, for twenty-five soles. I tell him I don’t have the money on me, but if he doesn’t mind driving to an ATM when we get to Cusco … He says there’s a bunch of ATMs in Urubamba, along the way. We can stop there. I tell him okay, put my bag in his van, and again I wait.

The occasion car arrives from the road and my driver goes up to the exiting passengers, like he did with me, and asks them if they’re going to Cusco or Urubamba. None of them are. Half an hour passes. Women sit outside the shop near the van with baskets of avocados in front of them. I spend three soles and buy a bottle of water. A car arrives carrying a family, and from afar I can tell they’re tourists and they’re going to Cusco, but they turn down the driver and buy tickets instead. A bus headed the opposite direction stops in town and the women board it with their baskets, offering avocados to the passengers. More time passes before another bus comes, this time on my side of the street. I ask the old man next to me if it’s going to Cusco and he says yes, it is. It’s not even eleven o’clock. I have seven soles and three dollars, which at a conservative 2.7-for-1 exchange rate is just enough to cover my fare. I tell the van driver I’m taking the bus, and his response is indifference. I grab my stuff and rush to the door and ask if they accept dollars. They wave me on board, we’ll figure it out later. The bus is already moving as I make my way to the last open seat.

A couple hours later a guy in his early twenties comes down the aisle to collect the fares. I hand him my seven soles and three dollars, and the men next to me confirm my math. Twenty minutes before we arrive in Cusco, the music lowers and a man stands up toward the front of the bus, switches on a portable speaker on his hip connected to a wire connected to a microphone connected to his ear and goes on a sales pitch about the benefits of maca, which is sort of like the Andean flax seed. He goes up and down the aisle, handing us palm-sized boxes of maca powder for us to examine, pouring small samples of it into our hands for us to taste, talking about omega-3s and bee pollen and breakfast. He’s selling the maca for five soles and when he comes back down the aisle to collect payment, I hand back the box.

By the morning I check out of my hostel in Santa Teresa I have twenty-five soles and three US dollars left. I head to the main plaza and ask the men waiting on the bench for cars how I can get back to Cusco. One of them tells me that I have to take a collectivo to Santa Maria first, for ten soles, then get a fifteen-sole bus from there. I have just enough, and I can exchange the dollars if I need to.

The collectivos are parked outside the town market, three blocks away. I find a driver with a station wagon headed to Santa Maria and he says we’ll probably have to wait twenty minutes for the car to fill with passengers. I put my bag in the trunk and head into the market for breakfast, which ends up being a freshly-blended juice served in a glass the shape of a female torso. Finish my juice and wait in the shade outside the market, make small talk with the driver and his friend, fielding the softball questions people give you when they know you’re just visiting and your Spanish isn’t very good. Where are you from? How long are you traveling for? Did you go to Machu Picchu? Do you like Peru? I answer in short direct accented phrases. A Chilean man I met earlier this trip told me I talk like Tarzan.

Fifteen minutes later we have a full car. A man with crutches rides shotgun and I’m the third of four in the back seat. To my right is a Peruvian guy wearing knock-off athletic wear, to my left is a couple not much older than I am. The wife, who is sitting next to me, is carrying a bundle of colorful striped blankets and wrapped in that bundle is a baby newborn enough that I can’t tell if it’s a girl or a boy. Sitting in the trunk next to my bag are their two other young children, along with two old men. Off we go.

When we get to the crutched man’s stop along the way the driver gets out to help, halfheartedly shutting his own door in the process and leaving it slightly ajar. The husband to my left reaches out his window and holds the door to keep it from opening into traffic.

It would be nice, I’m thinking during the ride, to spend the last of my money on something in the San Pedro market once I get to Cusco. Something to eat, like some passionfruit or an avocado. I’ve been looking for an ending to my stint in the Sacred Valley and this, I think, would make for a decent one. I’ve noticed myself trying more and more to put my experiences into neat little packages, vignettes and scenes, chapters and acts and story arcs. I have forgotten my credit card at restaurants three times in the past year—three more times than I’d ever forgotten it at restaurants in any previous year—and it could be my memory’s getting worse or it could be I’m putting myself into more challenging situations without even realizing it, because it would make for a better story. I find myself sometimes holding multiple potential endings in my head at the same time, the way I might do while I’m writing, and I suppose this is the kind of openness that over time becomes closedness, interesting stories that become unnecessary drama, going the way of entropy, the heat death of all things. I’ve said this in forms before, that the only way I know how to deal with it is to realize I’m doing it, to realize when I have too many endings and just need to decide, or when I’m fixated on one and need to stop trying to force it. I may have even made a possibly impossible promise myself that, when I’m writing about “real life” like this, that I’ll never write a story while I’m still living it, that it has to have already ended before I can start documenting it.

So I have an ending in my head, and now I know I have an ending in my head. But this is what actually happens: We get to Santa Maria, a town whose central feature is a small parking strip. I pay my ten soles and while I’m paying my ten soles another collectivo driver is asking if I’m going to Cusco. I tell him I’m taking the bus. He says the next bus isn’t until 1:30, four hours from now. Or I could take another shared ride in his van, he says, which leaves as soon as we have enough passengers, for twenty-five soles. I tell him I don’t have the money on me, but if he doesn’t mind driving to an ATM when we get to Cusco … He says there’s a bunch of ATMs in Urubamba, along the way. We can stop there. I tell him okay, put my bag in his van, and again I wait.

The occasion car arrives from the road and my driver goes up to the exiting passengers, like he did with me, and asks them if they’re going to Cusco or Urubamba. None of them are. Half an hour passes. Women sit outside the shop near the van with baskets of avocados in front of them. I spend three soles and buy a bottle of water. A car arrives carrying a family, and from afar I can tell they’re tourists and they’re going to Cusco, but they turn down the driver and buy tickets instead. A bus headed the opposite direction stops in town and the women board it with their baskets, offering avocados to the passengers. More time passes before another bus comes, this time on my side of the street. I ask the old man next to me if it’s going to Cusco and he says yes, it is. It’s not even eleven o’clock. I have seven soles and three dollars, which at a conservative 2.7-for-1 exchange rate is just enough to cover my fare. I tell the van driver I’m taking the bus, and his response is indifference. I grab my stuff and rush to the door and ask if they accept dollars. They wave me on board, we’ll figure it out later. The bus is already moving as I make my way to the last open seat.

A couple hours later a guy in his early twenties comes down the aisle to collect the fares. I hand him my seven soles and three dollars, and the men next to me confirm my math. Twenty minutes before we arrive in Cusco, the music lowers and a man stands up toward the front of the bus, switches on a portable speaker on his hip connected to a wire connected to a microphone connected to his ear and goes on a sales pitch about the benefits of maca, which is sort of like the Andean flax seed. He goes up and down the aisle, handing us palm-sized boxes of maca powder for us to examine, pouring small samples of it into our hands for us to taste, talking about omega-3s and bee pollen and breakfast. He’s selling the maca for five soles and when he comes back down the aisle to collect payment, I hand back the box.

We leave Machu Picchu, the Italians and I, and walk along the train tracks to Hidroelectrica, about three hours away. He’s a wearing purple hat and scarf, she a white top with a purple undershirt; they’re coordinated in the unconscious way of couples who’ve been together for a long time. When we’d first met I hadn’t realized they were a couple, then the week before when we were hiking outside Ollyanta I saw her walk up to him and give him a big hug, saw her move her hands up and down his back and I didn’t need to speak Spanish or Italian to understand their closeness.

As we’re walking she tells me about her phobia of wild dogs. When she was young she was out with her family and a couple wild dogs attacked her. There wasn’t much physical damage but it left an emotional scar, one that’s only deepened as she’s gotten older. Shortly after she says this, we come across a wild dog, a docile, curious one, who follows along as though he’s going the same place we’re going. She immediately gets nervous, moves quickly to the other side of her partner, putting him between herself and the mutt. A friend told me, weeks before, that if a wild dog gets in your way and starts barking at you, just bend down and pretend like you’re reaching for a rock and it’ll scare the dog away. This particular one darts on its own as soon as it sees the green-uniformed guard at the bridge.

We walk on the trail next to the tracks, by the river along the edge of the jungle. A couple trains pass, one in each direction. We walk on the tracks themselves to cross over streams of mountain runoff that feed into the river, which is the wide and fast and the color of Yoo-hoo. Black and red butterflies fly directly over the tracks, which have carved for them a perfect lane of windspace. A large purple butterfly appears out of nowhere, swirls around me so fast I can’t even see its body, then vanishes. A blonde Danish guy with tape on a hinge of his glasses passes us and later on we pass him.

The trails splits off toward the town. We see two guinea pigs cross at the same spot within a minute of each other. Later on we see a third, who is so startled to see us that it drops the avocado its mouth and disappears into the brush. We come across an avocado tree and I swing my walking stick like it’s a piñata, trying to knock it down, but the avocado clings stubbornly to its branch. The Italiana stops in her tracks and holds her finger to her lips. Through the leaves we see an Andean Cock-of-the-rock, bright orange, almost fluorescent, bulbous plumage, like a goldfish with wings.

At the town we get into one of the waiting collectivos or shared ride cabs. This one’s a wagon, which we share with a Peruvian woman and two Chilean kids. The Italian guy and I sit in the trunk, facing rear, watching the dirt road twist and turn away from us with the mountain, feeling the car slow as we go over a shallow moving puddle. More mountain runoff. Stop and go, stop and go. The Peruvian woman gets out. A butterfly tries to mate with a parked van with black and red decals. It slams itself repeatedly into the side of the vehicle to no avail.

Twenty minutes later I get out at Santa Teresa with the Chilean kids. My Italian friends would be continuing on to Santa Maria, where they’d catch another car back to Ollyanta. We say goodbye, I find a room in a hostel, a place to lunch, ask if there’s an bank or ATM in town and there isn’t. The last ATM was back near Machu Picchu. There’s another in Urubamba, 160 kilometers away. I have about fifty Peruvian soles left in my pocket, and three U.S. dollar bills. If I play it right I can make it back to Cusco.

I walk thirty minutes outside town toward the termales—the hot springs—and see a couple of condors gliding high above. Say buenas tardes to a trio of men with shovels digging out a pile of rocks along the river. One of them asks me if I want to help them and we all laugh. Right before I get to the hot springs I see something by the water near a motorcycle parked under a lone tree. There’s a braided steel cable that goes straight across the river into a set of stone steps surrounded by foliage. There’s a cart suspended from the cable, connected to a cord of white rope loosely hung from metal rings also hung from the cable. A man is pulling himself across from the other side.

I point and ask him, Hot springs? He says no. Says they’re some word in Spanish I don’t understand. I pull myself across regardless because I just have to, and the steps lead to a trail which leads past a small village with four or five visible huts and a pair of wild dogs. I keep going for a while and the trail seems to continue into a valley with no distinguishable landmarks. Turn around and on my way back one of the dogs stands in the middle of the trail and barks loudly at me. I reach down with my hand and immediately the dog yelps and runs away, as though I had already hit it with the imaginary rock I was pretending to pick up.

Back in the cable car, back across the river. The hot springs are two minutes away and there in one of the pristine bluewater pools I meet a blonde Danish guy—the same one from before—who’d recently graduated from university and had come down to Peru for an Ayahuasca retreat. While he was here he figured he should see Machu Picchu. We talk about books—he’s penned a series of stories about his experiences in Peru that he’s planning to collect and publish when he gets back. He’s the second of this ilk I’ve met, the other a film school grad from Newport Beach, who’d decided that the best way to write movies was to write novels, who did an Armenian Gypsy fortune card reading for T and myself late one night after returning from Pisac. Is one of these twenty-one-year-olds going to be my generation’s Tom Wolfe?

The Dane and I share a cab back to town and he gets into a collectivo to Santa Maria. I eat a late dinner, am down to my last twenty-five soles, and I’m wondering how it’s going to end.

We leave Machu Picchu, the Italians and I, and walk along the train tracks to Hidroelectrica, about three hours away. He’s a wearing purple hat and scarf, she a white top with a purple undershirt; they’re coordinated in the unconscious way of couples who’ve been together for a long time. When we’d first met I hadn’t realized they were a couple, then the week before when we were hiking outside Ollyanta I saw her walk up to him and give him a big hug, saw her move her hands up and down his back and I didn’t need to speak Spanish or Italian to understand their closeness.

As we’re walking she tells me about her phobia of wild dogs. When she was young she was out with her family and a couple wild dogs attacked her. There wasn’t much physical damage but it left an emotional scar, one that’s only deepened as she’s gotten older. Shortly after she says this, we come across a wild dog, a docile, curious one, who follows along as though he’s going the same place we’re going. She immediately gets nervous, moves quickly to the other side of her partner, putting him between herself and the mutt. A friend told me, weeks before, that if a wild dog gets in your way and starts barking at you, just bend down and pretend like you’re reaching for a rock and it’ll scare the dog away. This particular one darts on its own as soon as it sees the green-uniformed guard at the bridge.

We walk on the trail next to the tracks, by the river along the edge of the jungle. A couple trains pass, one in each direction. We walk on the tracks themselves to cross over streams of mountain runoff that feed into the river, which is the wide and fast and the color of Yoo-hoo. Black and red butterflies fly directly over the tracks, which have carved for them a perfect lane of windspace. A large purple butterfly appears out of nowhere, swirls around me so fast I can’t even see its body, then vanishes. A blonde Danish guy with tape on a hinge of his glasses passes us and later on we pass him.

The trails splits off toward the town. We see two guinea pigs cross at the same spot within a minute of each other. Later on we see a third, who is so startled to see us that it drops the avocado its mouth and disappears into the brush. We come across an avocado tree and I swing my walking stick like it’s a piñata, trying to knock it down, but the avocado clings stubbornly to its branch. The Italiana stops in her tracks and holds her finger to her lips. Through the leaves we see an Andean Cock-of-the-rock, bright orange, almost fluorescent, bulbous plumage, like a goldfish with wings.

At the town we get into one of the waiting collectivos or shared ride cabs. This one’s a wagon, which we share with a Peruvian woman and two Chilean kids. The Italian guy and I sit in the trunk, facing rear, watching the dirt road twist and turn away from us with the mountain, feeling the car slow as we go over a shallow moving puddle. More mountain runoff. Stop and go, stop and go. The Peruvian woman gets out. A butterfly tries to mate with a parked van with black and red decals. It slams itself repeatedly into the side of the vehicle to no avail.

Twenty minutes later I get out at Santa Teresa with the Chilean kids. My Italian friends would be continuing on to Santa Maria, where they’d catch another car back to Ollyanta. We say goodbye, I find a room in a hostel, a place to lunch, ask if there’s an bank or ATM in town and there isn’t. The last ATM was back near Machu Picchu. There’s another in Urubamba, 160 kilometers away. I have about fifty Peruvian soles left in my pocket, and three U.S. dollar bills. If I play it right I can make it back to Cusco.

I walk thirty minutes outside town toward the termales—the hot springs—and see a couple of condors gliding high above. Say buenas tardes to a trio of men with shovels digging out a pile of rocks along the river. One of them asks me if I want to help them and we all laugh. Right before I get to the hot springs I see something by the water near a motorcycle parked under a lone tree. There’s a braided steel cable that goes straight across the river into a set of stone steps surrounded by foliage. There’s a cart suspended from the cable, connected to a cord of white rope loosely hung from metal rings also hung from the cable. A man is pulling himself across from the other side.

I point and ask him, Hot springs? He says no. Says they’re some word in Spanish I don’t understand. I pull myself across regardless because I just have to, and the steps lead to a trail which leads past a small village with four or five visible huts and a pair of wild dogs. I keep going for a while and the trail seems to continue into a valley with no distinguishable landmarks. Turn around and on my way back one of the dogs stands in the middle of the trail and barks loudly at me. I reach down with my hand and immediately the dog yelps and runs away, as though I had already hit it with the imaginary rock I was pretending to pick up.

Back in the cable car, back across the river. The hot springs are two minutes away and there in one of the pristine bluewater pools I meet a blonde Danish guy—the same one from before—who’d recently graduated from university and had come down to Peru for an Ayahuasca retreat. While he was here he figured he should see Machu Picchu. We talk about books—he’s penned a series of stories about his experiences in Peru that he’s planning to collect and publish when he gets back. He’s the second of this ilk I’ve met, the other a film school grad from Newport Beach, who’d decided that the best way to write movies was to write novels, who did an Armenian Gypsy fortune card reading for T and myself late one night after returning from Pisac. Is one of these twenty-one-year-olds going to be my generation’s Tom Wolfe?

The Dane and I share a cab back to town and he gets into a collectivo to Santa Maria. I eat a late dinner, am down to my last twenty-five soles, and I’m wondering how it’s going to end.

I have walked more this past week than any other week of my life. On Wednesday we took a van into the mountains from Ollyantaytambo—myself, two friends from Cusco, the owner of the hostel where we were staying, an Italian couple and their friend who were volunteering at the same hostel, and the owner’s dog Maruru, who is named after an Amazonian water lily and doesn’t tire. The van drops us off at a small mountain village where the owner’s relatives live, where we have tea and boiled potatoes, then start a twenty-kilometer hike along a dirt road through the valley back to Ollyanta. Maruru rolls around in dung, almost falls into a rushing river we have to cross by foot, with the current, holding on to the adjacent rock wall, because the trail had washed out.

The next morning I wake early to climb up to the ruins on a mountain above town, trying to get to the peak where I can see a pair of stone pillars. I get two-thirds of the way up, to a different layer of ruins, passing another one of those Temple of Doom caves that goes straight into the mountain and narrows until I can’t crawl any further. Í wave my iPhone flashlight around, trying to peer into the darkness, wishing I had a camera-mounted RC rover like in those Discovery Channel documentaries. On my way down I somehow lose the trail, and have already committed enough that it’s easier to keep going than climb back up, and what follows is two hours of intense concentration, stepping from a clump of tall dry grass to another, using occasional boulders and my walking stick for leverage. By some aesthetic instinct I follow the small yellow wildflowers, and later discover that the instinct is correct—the flowers grow where the aloe-like cacti don’t, and I suffer only a few needles to the calves and feet. As soon as I reconnect with the main trail my legs almost give out under me. I have never been more grateful to stand on smooth flat ground. A hike of this kind make you aware of the amount of focus and strength you can summon when you’re trying not to die. It also stretches, I think, your capacity for attention when performing ordinary tasks. Maybe when writers talk about writing with a gun to their heads, they’re talking about recreating that survival instinct under conditions of an otherwise complete safety and comfort.

The same afternoon I give my legs a break and take a train to Aguas Calientes, the touristy and vaguely Japanese hot springs town near Machu Picchu that is populated, maybe not coincidentally, with a bunch of Japanese tourists. I walk around looking for a hostel and solicitors in front of restaurants say to me Konichiwa, and Menu, menu? and Hello amigo, massage? In the main plaza I run into the Italian couple from the day before and we find a cheap clean room that later in the night smells of garlic from the restaurant downstairs. She carries her saucy Italiana accent fully into her Spanish but not her English; he’s thin and mustached and slightly nasally, doesn’t speak much English but imitates the whir of the electric saw that wakes us up the next morning ahead of our alarm for Machu Picchu.

I’d bought a ticket in advance for Huayna Picchu, the tall mountain you usually see in the background whenever you see shots of the ancient Incan city, and leave on the bus when the Italians go to get coffee. During the morning climb the mountains are blanketed with vague white clouds, and when I get to the top a couple dozen others are sitting on the rocks, cameras ready, waiting for the fog to clear. A Frenchman holds his arms out like a mock presenter displaying the view where the ruins are supposed to be, where instead is a giant round white cloud, and says, Machu Picchu! His buddies laugh, the Japanese groups laugh, the two Latvian girls laugh, I laugh, everyone laughs, the humor is universal. The clouds part and everyone snaps away. What did people do on mountain hikes before portable photography? What did they talk about when they were waiting for the clouds to part? Is one of the reasons we take pictures because we can’t stand not being busy, not doing something? Thoughts that pass through me when I’m negotiating slippery stones on the way down.

I somehow lose the trail again, only briefly this time. Some of the steps in front of me are crumbled or non-existent, and I have to vault myself down a couple of the smaller terraces. By late morning I’ve descended from Huayna Picchu, and by mid-afternoon on the bus back to Aguas, and by early evening I’m in bed, the Italians are in bed, we’re sleeping off our sore knees before the next morning’s three hour hike to the next town.

I have walked more this past week than any other week of my life. On Wednesday we took a van into the mountains from Ollyantaytambo—myself, two friends from Cusco, the owner of the hostel where we were staying, an Italian couple and their friend who were volunteering at the same hostel, and the owner’s dog Maruru, who is named after an Amazonian water lily and doesn’t tire. The van drops us off at a small mountain village where the owner’s relatives live, where we have tea and boiled potatoes, then start a twenty-kilometer hike along a dirt road through the valley back to Ollyanta. Maruru rolls around in dung, almost falls into a rushing river we have to cross by foot, with the current, holding on to the adjacent rock wall, because the trail had washed out.

The next morning I wake early to climb up to the ruins on a mountain above town, trying to get to the peak where I can see a pair of stone pillars. I get two-thirds of the way up, to a different layer of ruins, passing another one of those Temple of Doom caves that goes straight into the mountain and narrows until I can’t crawl any further. Í wave my iPhone flashlight around, trying to peer into the darkness, wishing I had a camera-mounted RC rover like in those Discovery Channel documentaries. On my way down I somehow lose the trail, and have already committed enough that it’s easier to keep going than climb back up, and what follows is two hours of intense concentration, stepping from a clump of tall dry grass to another, using occasional boulders and my walking stick for leverage. By some aesthetic instinct I follow the small yellow wildflowers, and later discover that the instinct is correct—the flowers grow where the aloe-like cacti don’t, and I suffer only a few needles to the calves and feet. As soon as I reconnect with the main trail my legs almost give out under me. I have never been more grateful to stand on smooth flat ground. A hike of this kind make you aware of the amount of focus and strength you can summon when you’re trying not to die. It also stretches, I think, your capacity for attention when performing ordinary tasks. Maybe when writers talk about writing with a gun to their heads, they’re talking about recreating that survival instinct under conditions of an otherwise complete safety and comfort.

The same afternoon I give my legs a break and take a train to Aguas Calientes, the touristy and vaguely Japanese hot springs town near Machu Picchu that is populated, maybe not coincidentally, with a bunch of Japanese tourists. I walk around looking for a hostel and solicitors in front of restaurants say to me Konichiwa, and Menu, menu? and Hello amigo, massage? In the main plaza I run into the Italian couple from the day before and we find a cheap clean room that later in the night smells of garlic from the restaurant downstairs. She carries her saucy Italiana accent fully into her Spanish but not her English; he’s thin and mustached and slightly nasally, doesn’t speak much English but imitates the whir of the electric saw that wakes us up the next morning ahead of our alarm for Machu Picchu.

I’d bought a ticket in advance for Huayna Picchu, the tall mountain you usually see in the background whenever you see shots of the ancient Incan city, and leave on the bus when the Italians go to get coffee. During the morning climb the mountains are blanketed with vague white clouds, and when I get to the top a couple dozen others are sitting on the rocks, cameras ready, waiting for the fog to clear. A Frenchman holds his arms out like a mock presenter displaying the view where the ruins are supposed to be, where instead is a giant round white cloud, and says, Machu Picchu! His buddies laugh, the Japanese groups laugh, the two Latvian girls laugh, I laugh, everyone laughs, the humor is universal. The clouds part and everyone snaps away. What did people do on mountain hikes before portable photography? What did they talk about when they were waiting for the clouds to part? Is one of the reasons we take pictures because we can’t stand not being busy, not doing something? Thoughts that pass through me when I’m negotiating slippery stones on the way down.

I somehow lose the trail again, only briefly this time. Some of the steps in front of me are crumbled or non-existent, and I have to vault myself down a couple of the smaller terraces. By late morning I’ve descended from Huayna Picchu, and by mid-afternoon on the bus back to Aguas, and by early evening I’m in bed, the Italians are in bed, we’re sleeping off our sore knees before the next morning’s three hour hike to the next town.

The first night I hung out with T we walked to the nearby plazoleta where they were holding a weeklong festival. There were red banners hung over the facade of the church, street carts with steamed corn and roasted guinea pig, live music, puddles of piss, drunk locals sitting on crates of liter-sized bottles of beer.

The thing you should know about T is that he’s perhaps the most intuitive person I have ever met. He’s a musician, also grew up in Michigan, and has been in Peru since November. Shortly after he got here T attended a two-week dieta—series of Ayahuasca ceremonies—in the Amazonian jungle. He’s has had several brushes with death, and the series of coincidences that led him from a tortuous path in a crumbling band to a first then second trip to Peru make it seem like larger forces are guiding him. Once when he was trekking in the forest, he got lost and asked the forest out loud to show him the way out. And as soon as he’d said it, an eagle tapped him on the back of the head then flew off, and he followed the bird to safety.

In his dieta T worked through a lifetime’s worth of issues, and had such a positive experience that the shaman gave him a bottle of Ayahuasca to take home. T found himself falling into the role of shaman, taking friends up to the caves in the mountains above Cusco to lead his own ceremonies. That night on the steps of the plaza he asked if I was interested. I said I was.

In the week leading up to the ceremony I was asked to eat mostly vegetarian and meditate on some of the areas of my life I wanted to explore. Yesterday, Sunday, we had light breakfasts and started out for the mountains at a little past noon. We first went hiking with a couple other friends, then scouted the cave where we would hold the ceremony. We could see storm clouds and occasional flashes of lightning miles away on both sides of us as we walked, though the skies directly above were moisture-free and often sunny. The other friends headed back toward the city three or four hours after we’d set out, leaving me and T with time to explore the caverns of Zona Equis, including one that T called the Temple of Doom, that narrowed as you went down a stone staircase, required you to crawl on your knees at one spot, and turned enough times that there was not even reflected light from outside. We dissolved in the darkness as T played his mouth harp.

Toward dusk we made our way back to the scouted cave. T set up on three flat stones between us the other things he’d brought for the ceremony: kalimba, portable didgeridoo, bundle of dried eucalyptus leaves, measuring cup, Palo Santo incense, crystals. He blessed the area with Mapacho smoke, and we sat and waited for the light to go.

Four hours and centuries later, we emerge from the cave. It’d been raining for a while by then, mud all over. Shoes, socks, pants, jackets, hair, everything: beyond soaked. I slip a few times on the wet grass, and my saving grace is a rust-colored eucalyptus walking stick I found earlier in the day. We stand on top of mountains draped in white fog and stop at the nearby Moon Temple on the way back to give thanks in the altar for safe passage. We walk toward the orange fog, the light pollution of the city, and down along the waist-high stone wall—sometimes on top of it, though we’re not supposed to—demarcating the Inca Road which which stretches from the Quito, Ecuador down into Argentina. Ages ago, I imagine, when the road was washed out from the rain, Incan journeymen must’ve walked on the same rough stone. And aeons before that, when the first barefoot primeval man picked up a branch and discovered he could use it to help him traverse the earth, he gave up a piece of
himself to that stick.

We get back around midnight. Make tea. Talk about the things I saw, that I struggle to describe. Shower. Fall into bed. Dream that I’m still awake, pondering the scenes from the darkness of the cave.

The first night I hung out with T we walked to the nearby plazoleta where they were holding a weeklong festival. There were red banners hung over the facade of the church, street carts with steamed corn and roasted guinea pig, live music, puddles of piss, drunk locals sitting on crates of liter-sized bottles of beer.

The thing you should know about T is that he’s perhaps the most intuitive person I have ever met. He’s a musician, also grew up in Michigan, and has been in Peru since November. Shortly after he got here T attended a two-week dieta—series of Ayahuasca ceremonies—in the Amazonian jungle. He’s has had several brushes with death, and the series of coincidences that led him from a tortuous path in a crumbling band to a first then second trip to Peru make it seem like larger forces are guiding him. Once when he was trekking in the forest, he got lost and asked the forest out loud to show him the way out. And as soon as he’d said it, an eagle tapped him on the back of the head then flew off, and he followed the bird to safety.

In his dieta T worked through a lifetime’s worth of issues, and had such a positive experience that the shaman gave him a bottle of Ayahuasca to take home. T found himself falling into the role of shaman, taking friends up to the caves in the mountains above Cusco to lead his own ceremonies. That night on the steps of the plaza he asked if I was interested. I said I was.

In the week leading up to the ceremony I was asked to eat mostly vegetarian and meditate on some of the areas of my life I wanted to explore. Yesterday, Sunday, we had light breakfasts and started out for the mountains at a little past noon. We first went hiking with a couple other friends, then scouted the cave where we would hold the ceremony. We could see storm clouds and occasional flashes of lightning miles away on both sides of us as we walked, though the skies directly above were moisture-free and often sunny. The other friends headed back toward the city three or four hours after we’d set out, leaving me and T with time to explore the caverns of Zona Equis, including one that T called the Temple of Doom, that narrowed as you went down a stone staircase, required you to crawl on your knees at one spot, and turned enough times that there was not even reflected light from outside. We dissolved in the darkness as T played his mouth harp.

Toward dusk we made our way back to the scouted cave. T set up on three flat stones between us the other things he’d brought for the ceremony: kalimba, portable didgeridoo, bundle of dried eucalyptus leaves, measuring cup, Palo Santo incense, crystals. He blessed the area with Mapacho smoke, and we sat and waited for the light to go.

Four hours and centuries later, we emerge from the cave. It’d been raining for a while by then, mud all over. Shoes, socks, pants, jackets, hair, everything: beyond soaked. I slip a few times on the wet grass, and my saving grace is a rust-colored eucalyptus walking stick I found earlier in the day. We stand on top of mountains draped in white fog and stop at the nearby Moon Temple on the way back to give thanks in the altar for safe passage. We walk toward the orange fog, the light pollution of the city, and down along the waist-high stone wall—sometimes on top of it, though we’re not supposed to—demarcating the Inca Road which which stretches from the Quito, Ecuador down into Argentina. Ages ago, I imagine, when the road was washed out from the rain, Incan journeymen must’ve walked on the same rough stone. And aeons before that, when the first barefoot primeval man picked up a branch and discovered he could use it to help him traverse the earth, he gave up a piece of himself to that stick.

We get back around midnight. Make tea. Talk about the things I saw, that I struggle to describe. Shower. Fall into bed. Dream that I’m still awake, pondering the scenes from the darkness of the cave.

Adventure Mode

In describing my trip to someone this week I said that I’m not quite in full “adventure mode” yet, meaning that nearly everything I’ve done so far has been more or less planned, talked about, researched, decided on, at least a few days in advance. I’ve known what’s coming. But the further along I get—as I discovered driving around in the American Southwest last summer—the shorter my foresight gets, and the less I’m reliant on it. Whimsy takes over, I learn to trust in the unknown, and that trust has yielded gifts which have effected significant change in me. I’m not in full adventure mode yet, but I’m close.

I feel I’m on a similar cusp with my novel. I’m at the most difficult part of rewriting the rough draft, because I already know where the story’s going but I have to act as if I don’t, so as not to lose the sense of spontaneity and wandering. I have to go into adventure mode and forget the plans my past self made, and it only hit me recently that I’ve been struggling to do this for months. The struggle seems all the more difficult as I haven’t been able to sustain a writing routine for as long as I’d like due to all my traveling.

Back in New York, the amount of work I did on the novel was for a long time dependent on how closely I stuck to my daily routine. If I woke up late one morning, or missed breakfast, or if a freelance deadline crept up on me, I’d try to reschedule my writing session to later in the day but end up skipping it instead because it wasn’t my habit to write in the evenings. A highly structured and productive routine is like an alternate reality with its own physics; sometimes I’ll slip through a rift in the habit-time continuum and end up in a place where the last thing I want to do was work on the book.

Another thing: being aware of that alternate reality had its own consequences. I see now that over time, my writing sessions had started to shorten, and I’d finish lightly revising even a minor scene and feel that I had put in my work for that session. I’d been using my writing routine as an excuse not to write.

I suppose that given enough time any piece of knowledge becomes a crutch, and once you start down the path of awareness the only way forward is even greater awareness; now that I see I’ve been using my routine as an excuse, I can catch myself doing it and, hopefully, be better at writing outside my usual routine. (Maybe this too will one day be a crutch.)

I’ve had another idea in my head, though. A dream, really. Of what it would be like to be completely habitless, and I don’t mean the wake-at-noon-and-lack-all-purpose kind of habitless, which is more a set of bad habits. The kind of habitless I’m referring to is full of purpose. It means that, regardless of medium or mood or time of day, I would write as if it were total, attentive play, and I would treat writing this same way in all possible realities. What I’m envisioning isn’t measured in output, necessarily, but in the ease at which its own conditions are met.

A metaphysical fool’s errand, maybe. But on the cusp of adventure mode, it feels not impossible.

Soroche

I’m in Cusco, 11,200 feet in the Andes, the historic capital of Peru and launching post for Machu Picchu, along with numerous other Inca sites.

And I’ve hardly seen any of it. I have probably spent more time inside staring at a canvas done like an Inca remix of Picasso’s Three Musicians, hung by my bed in a room with seven-foot ceilings and adobe walls, two of them painted brick red. I’m showing all the symptoms of soroche—altitude sickness. I’ve been here for thirty-six hours and have slept for twenty-six of them. I’ve had a throbbing headache and my lips and fingernails are turning blue. I feel wobbly from time to time and have very little appetite. I’m making coca tea, taking Diamox pills, drinking water, avoiding alcohol, consuming carbs and salt and trying to keep my food down, drinking more water, resting. I go out briefly during the day, within a five-block radius to avoid too much exertion on the narrow hilly streets, for an hour at a time when the clouds let the sun through between noon and sunset. It thunderstorms in the evenings, and when I wake at various times of night and early morning, I can still hear the pattering of rain, and the wild dogs barking, and people setting off loud fireworks. At dark it gets cold enough here for me wonder, wasn’t the idea to go somewhere warm for the winter?

It’s less the cold itself that bothers me. There’s a portable gas heater in my room, but I haven’t paid for the tank of gas yet as I’m in bed most of the time anyway, and in bed I have

three tiger-design
alpaca blankets to keep
me warm and fearless

I take comfort in the thought that I am sleeping more or less the same way that someone in Cuzco slept hundreds of years ago.

Comfort. That’s what I’m seeking most as I cope with the altitude. I stay in bed and watch movies on my laptop with its comfortably warm bottom and read books on my kindle with its comfortably lit screen. I plot crazed, comforting schemes: What if I went somewhere lower altitude for a while, even a few hundred meters lower, spend a night in a hotel with a heated room and bath. Maybe I can cancel my Bolivia plans (La Paz is another two thousand feet higher) and head straight for the Chilean coastline. I could go surfing again. Next time I come here I’m going to travel by bus, I tell myself, because altitude sickness is a technological affliction. Before we could move faster than our feet would take us, we would have enough time to rest and adjust as we ascended. We didn’t have giant metal birds to drop us on the tops of mountains. Does that make me yearn to live the way they did? Or does it make me marvel at the new sensations I am able to feel, that they were not? Either thought is comforting in its way.

I try to rationalize the discomfort away: I wonder if as I grow older I tend to seek more comfort and avoid more discomfort, because discomfort is built on the ruts of experience. When you know nothing, you can’t be afraid of the unknown because everything is unknown. Comfort and discomfort are more the memory-informed anticipations of pain and pleasure than the actual sensations. Maybe continued lifelong learning means facing increasingly uncomfortable situations as you age, so that you can learn the way you learned when you were young.

Thinking this changes little. I stare at the Three Musicians and have comforting memories, mild hallucinations, of lying next to a warm body in a cold room of a house on a hill near a river, and hearing the faint horn of a morning train whisking commuters into the city …

Last night I dreamt I was eating a Big Mac. But the buns were bigger and the meat tasted different. How could they change the meat! When I woke up, I checked for teeth marks on the alpaca blankets.

Monday. My first surfing lesson. The shock is immediate. The rock-covered shore, the unwieldy board, the ice cold water (we have wetsuits, thankfully). I tire quickly. Trying to paddle feels like wading through mud. Early on I manage to catch a wave and stand for five seconds. I’m stunned at the lightness of the sensation, like I still don’t believe that this ten-foot hunk of foam sheathed in fiberglass can remain so still while there’s a crushing (by my standards) wave at its tail. I still haven’t learned to trust surface tension. I’m unable to replicate my success the rest of the class, and the whole time I’m paddling and falling and swallowing salt water I just want it all to be over. It’s the most uncomfortable thing I’ve done in a long time, the tightness and fatigue punctuated by moments of panic, like when I get pummeled under a wave and the leash wraps around both my ankles. By the time the class is over my entire lower body is cramped, but when the cramps melt away on the walk back I feel incredible. I want to do it again.

In the evening I go to my friend’s baby shower at her in-laws’ home in San Isidro. I meet her friends, who all went to the same international high school in Lima and all speak English with a regionless American dialect. Her sister-in-law leads a ceremony in which we stand in a circle linked by a long thin golden cord wrapped once around our wrists. We go clockwise and each offer a few words, then cut our section of the cord and knot it into a bracelet. We’re to wear the bracelet until the husband lets everyone know the baby has arrived.

Tuesday. I’m sore in places I didn’t know I could be sore. Spend the day reading and writing. Go to an Italian place nearby for dinner and chat up the waiter, who lived in Houston, Texas for thirty-one years. I ask about the show playing on the TV, which I have already seen playing several times on different nights at different restaurants. It’s called “Esto es Guerra” (“This is War”), seems to run for at least two hours, and features fit, attractive, swimwear-wearing men and women on two teams competing against each other in a variety of tame watersports and games of trivia. It’s on every night, the waiter tells me. He says he thinks it’s really stupid, but he leaves it on anyway and goes back to folding cloth napkins.

I decide to go to Cusco on the 31st and book a two-week tour of Bolivia for the beginning of March.

Wednesday. Second surf lesson. Still having trouble riding the wave. It’s not the standing that’s the problem. I get on the board and every time it stalls, gets behind the wave. One of the instructors watches me then yells at me. I’m grabbing on the sides of board when I push to get up, he says. I have to push up from the middle of the board, hands close to my body. I do and the next wave I stand and ride for fifteen, twenty seconds. I swim back, excited, catch another and the same thing happens. I’m amazed at how such a minor adjustment can have such a huge impact. I want to throw my hands up in the air and yell: FRICTION!!!

Thursday. I do a lot of morning writing, freelance work. I come back to my friend’s office after lunch and her sister-in-law is there with her own four-month-old son, and together we go to her friend M’s place, which is just around the corner. M’s renovating the old Barranco-style house into a set of artist studios. My friend is thinking about moving her startup. The front door opens to a courtyard, and a group of workers are sanding and drilling in a room with a exterior wall of thin wooden slats. The rest of the space is in a old seaside colonial style; the inside of the house has carved wooden columns and a kitchen covered in large triangular tiles, alternating white and sky blue. Chopped San Pedro cactus is gently simmering in a wide stock pot on the stove. San Pedro is in a category of Andean plants and infusions, along with Ayahuasca, long used for their medicinal and psychedelic properties. M did her art school thesis on Ayahuasca, and she regularly works with and hosts various Amazonian shaman, some of whom are psychologists by day and are experimenting with such plants to accelerate the recovery process in their patients. I get her card, which has a drawing of a coiled-up rattlesnake on the front next to her contact information.

Friday. Third surf lesson. I go to a different spot this time, a different set of instructors, and immediately I’m up and gliding on the board. We move to where the waves are stronger and I get too ambitious, try to turn and control the board and fall off a number of times. I’m building my endurance, learning to spot breaks in the water, but I still tire often and need to sit up on the board and rest. The lesson is a half hour longer than the previous ones, and in my fatigue I forget everything I’ve learned and start pushing up from the edge of the board again. Back to basics, I tell myself. The last wave is a success, I nearly fall but regain my balance, then ride almost all the way to shore. My left leg cramps when I get out of the water. I get a smoothie from a jugueria I’ve been going to and it is the best smoothie in the world.

Saturday. Took a microbus for the first time to Museo Larco. I love the microbuses. They’re exactly the size their name suggests, and they’re operated by a number of different companies. Here’s how you start a microbus company in Lima: 1) Find a junker with at least 500,000 kilometers on it, 2) paint the names of the neighborhoods of your route along the sides, 3) find a driver and, 4) a ticket collector who is adept at jumping off and on moving vehicles. Congratulations, you are now in the microbus business in Lima, Peru!

Museo Larco has a collection of artifacts, mostly ceremonial vases used by the pre-Incan peoples of Ancient Peru. It also has a long-term exhibit dedicated to the erotic subcategory of these artifacts, kind of an Ancient Peruvian Museum of Sex. The peoples of those times believed in a dualism similar to some Eastern cultures, in which each thing contained within in it also its opposite: night and day, sun and moon, light and dark, two sides of the same coin. Instead of a yin-yang, one representation of this dualistic outlook was a thin-lined spiral connected to a stepped ladder, which invoked movement between the three pacha, or cosmic planes. Life was not the beginning of death, but rather, just another phase in a cyclical process, like the changing of the seasons. And the sex artifacts symbolized the cross-fertilization of the godly, worldly, and deathly planes.

I took another microbus back from the museum. The radio was blaring Motown classics, including a Spanish songstress’ rendition of “Stand by Me,” in English, with all the R’s trilled.

Sunday. Went with my friend for a late ceviche lunch, at 4pm, which isn’t even terribly late by Peruvian standards. Came back on a microbus as the sun set and saw the last shades of purple in the sky fade to black from the same spot where I sit and meditate every morning. Tomorrow is a new day, a new week.

Monday. My first surfing lesson. The shock is immediate. The rock-covered shore, the unwieldy board, the ice cold water (we have wetsuits, thankfully). I tire quickly. Trying to paddle feels like wading through mud. Early on I manage to catch a wave and stand for five seconds. I’m stunned at the lightness of the sensation, like I still don’t believe that this ten-foot hunk of foam sheathed in fiberglass can remain so still while there’s a crushing (by my standards) wave at its tail. I still haven’t learned to trust surface tension. I’m unable to replicate my success the rest of the class, and the whole time I’m paddling and falling and swallowing salt water I just want it all to be over. It’s the most uncomfortable thing I’ve done in a long time, the tightness and fatigue punctuated by moments of panic, like when I get pummeled under a wave and the leash wraps around both my ankles. By the time the class is over my entire lower body is cramped, but when the cramps melt away on the walk back I feel incredible. I want to do it again.

In the evening I go to my friend’s baby shower at her in-laws’ home in San Isidro. I meet her friends, who all went to the same international high school in Lima and all speak English with a regionless American dialect. Her sister-in-law leads a ceremony in which we stand in a circle linked by a long thin golden cord wrapped once around our wrists. We go clockwise and each offer a few words, then cut our section of the cord and knot it into a bracelet. We’re to wear the bracelet until the husband lets everyone know the baby has arrived.


Tuesday. I’m sore in places I didn’t know I could be sore. Spend the day reading and writing. Go to an Italian place nearby for dinner and chat up the waiter, who lived in Houston, Texas for thirty-one years. I ask about the show playing on the TV, which I have already seen playing several times on different nights at different restaurants. It’s called “Esto es Guerra” (“This is War”), seems to run for at least two hours, and features fit, attractive, swimwear-wearing men and women on two teams competing against each other in a variety of tame watersports and games of trivia. It’s on every night, the waiter tells me. He says he thinks it’s really stupid, but he leaves it on anyway and goes back to folding cloth napkins.

I decide to go to Cusco on the 31st and book a two-week tour of Bolivia for the beginning of March.


Wednesday. Second surf lesson. Still having trouble riding the wave. It’s not the standing that’s the problem. I get on the board and every time it stalls, gets behind the wave. One of the instructors watches me then yells at me. I’m grabbing on the sides of board when I push to get up, he says. I have to push up from the middle of the board, hands close to my body. I do and the next wave I stand and ride for fifteen, twenty seconds. I swim back, excited, catch another and the same thing happens. I’m amazed at how such a minor adjustment can have such a huge impact. I want to throw my hands up in the air and yell: FRICTION!!!


Thursday. I do a lot of morning writing, freelance work. I come back to my friend’s office after lunch and her sister-in-law is there with her own four-month-old son, and together we go to her friend M’s place, which is just around the corner. M’s renovating the old Barranco-style house into a set of artist studios. My friend is thinking about moving her startup. The front door opens to a courtyard, and a group of workers are sanding and drilling in a room with a exterior wall of thin wooden slats. The rest of the space is in a old seaside colonial style; the inside of the house has carved wooden columns and a kitchen covered in large triangular tiles, alternating white and sky blue. Chopped San Pedro cactus is gently simmering in a wide stock pot on the stove. San Pedro is in a category of Andean plants and infusions, along with Ayahuasca, long used for their medicinal and psychedelic properties. M did her art school thesis on Ayahuasca, and she regularly works with and hosts various Amazonian shaman, some of whom are psychologists by day and are experimenting with such plants to accelerate the recovery process in their patients. I get her card, which has a drawing of a coiled-up rattlesnake on the front next to her contact information.


Friday. Third surf lesson. I go to a different spot this time, a different set of instructors, and immediately I’m up and gliding on the board. We move to where the waves are stronger and I get too ambitious, try to turn and control the board and fall off a number of times. I’m building my endurance, learning to spot breaks in the water, but I still tire often and need to sit up on the board and rest. The lesson is a half hour longer than the previous ones, and in my fatigue I forget everything I’ve learned and start pushing up from the edge of the board again. Back to basics, I tell myself. The last wave is a success, I nearly fall but regain my balance, then ride almost all the way to shore. My left leg cramps when I get out of the water. I get a smoothie from a jugueria I’ve been going to and it is the best smoothie in the world.


Saturday. Took a microbus for the first time to Museo Larco. I love the microbuses. They’re exactly the size their name suggests, and they’re operated by a number of different companies. Here’s how you start a microbus company in Lima: 1) Find a junker with at least 500,000 kilometers on it, 2) paint the names of the neighborhoods of your route along the sides, 3) find a driver and, 4) a ticket collector who is adept at jumping off and on moving vehicles. Congratulations, you are now in the microbus business in Lima, Peru!

Museo Larco has a collection of artifacts, mostly ceremonial vases used by the pre-Incan peoples of Ancient Peru. It also has a long-term exhibit dedicated to the erotic subcategory of these artifacts, kind of an Ancient Peruvian Museum of Sex. The peoples of those times believed in a dualism similar to some Eastern cultures, in which each thing contained within in it also its opposite: night and day, sun and moon, light and dark, two sides of the same coin. Instead of a yin-yang, one representation of this dualistic outlook was a thin-lined spiral connected to a stepped ladder, which invoked movement between the three pacha, or cosmic planes. Life was not the beginning of death, but rather, just another phase in a cyclical process, like the changing of the seasons. And the sex artifacts symbolized the cross-fertilization of the godly, worldly, and deathly planes.

I took another microbus back from the museum. The radio was blaring Motown classics, including a Spanish songstress’ rendition of “Stand by Me,” in English, with all the R’s trilled.


Sunday. Went with my friend for a late ceviche lunch, at 4pm, which isn’t even terribly late by Peruvian standards. Came back on a microbus as the sun set and saw the last shades of purple in the sky fade to black from the same spot where I sit and meditate every morning. Tomorrow is a new day, a new week.

Out to Sea But Not

I’ve quickly settled into my temporary home for the next couple weeks here in Lima. I wake up early in the mornings and walk to a hill overlooking the ocean to sit and meditate, and watch the sky brighten and the fog pull away from shore. I come back, make tea, journal, read a little and then get breakfast: a freshly blended juice and a pastry with an inner lining of manjar blanco. Total cost: ~7 soles ($2.50). I come back, work on the novel—the most consistent writing I’ve done in a month—then lunch, then either freelance work or exploring the city. More or less the same things I was doing in New York but in a warmer climate. Even some of the cultural, societal shocks, like the occasional absence of running water (the water companies will shut off the water for a few hours in certain neighborhoods from time to time) are quickly adapted to. Language is a factor too, but my understanding of Spanish is enough to get by, and a lot of people speak basic English here, and there are always hand gestures to fall back on. After a week here, the magnitude of the change is not much larger, it seems, than changing apartments in New York.

One of the main reasons for this, I think, is that I have reliable internet. A relevant quote, from Travels With Charley:

There was a time not too long ago when a man put out to sea and ceased to exist for two or three years or forever … Three times a week from some bar, supermarket, or tired-and-tool-cluttered service station, I put calls through to New York and reestablished my identity in time and space.

Steinbeck was writing about the telephone and a road trip around the United States in 1960, but in my case, in the case of the internet and an extended stay in Peru in 2014, it feels no longer like a periodic reestablishment of identity, but rather, an infrequent interruption of pre-established identity. Peru is in the same time zone as New York, so I still see the same tweets and such from the same friends. It’s not like being in Asia, when the time difference exposes you to whole swaths of your social networks that are usually asleep. I don’t watch much TV, here or at home, and I still have access to the same books via my Kindle and am not limited to the selection in a hostel or lone english language shelf in a bookstore. The media and online relationships in my life, both of which perpetuate a large part of my self-identity are generally persistent. And I’m still writing these updates to you, dear reader!

Which is why Steinbeck’s words are so interesting to me. It seems that in the past, there were large parts of your identity you were forced to leave behind when you traveled, and in the absence of those things, not only did other people forget you, but you forgot yourself. And rather than being a entirely negative thing, maybe this had the effect of softening that identity, of making you define yourself less from the books you’d read or the connections you’d had with others. Maybe one of the side effects of travel, and for some the main objective, was and still is to peel back some of those layers of identity, so that you can see that the whole notion isn’t built on anything solid or fixed to begin with. And maybe if you see your identity as less fixed, then you’re more open to change, to reinvention, more open to the world as it crashes down on the shore at your feet.

Travels With Myself and a Cold

How did I catch it? Could be a lot of things. Could be the thirty-some hours spent on planes in the last two weeks. Could be jetlag, lack of sleep, changes in climate, cold to hot to cold to colder to Lima, where it’s summer, where I am now, staying in the Barranco district southeast of the city center along the coast of El Mar Pacifico. Could be I caught it from my dad, from my brother, both who showed similar symptoms when we were in Australia and Shanghai. Could be allergies, could be side effects of the typhoid vaccine, the hep A and hep B boosters I got before left. The worst part of this cold is the coughing, the kind that keeps me from going to sleep and wakes me up when I do. In the past week and a half I’ve tried hot vegetable soup, ginger tea, garlic lemon tea, cough drops, neti pots, eucalpytus oil, steam therapy, anti-inflammatories, decongestants, suppressants, expectorants, hot showers, sleeping on my chest, sleeping on my side, sleeping on my back, taking a prescription gelcap that the sixty-year-old retired Peruvian man from Fort Lauderdale who was sitting next to me on the flight to Lima and who has four daughters all grown and living in New York or California and working as software engineers or web designers or doctors and who says of Brazil las mujeres son terribles slipped me to see if it would help. These attempts to remedy the cough have been met with limited success, hardly repeatable, and now I’m waiting it out for a couple more days to see if it improves on its own because la medicina para tos I bought from una farmacia using broken Spanish and hand gestures and was instructed to drink “ten milliliters, eight o’clock” in equally broken English isn’t working either. All this means that I’m supposed to be taking it easy, getting some rest, which makes me both uneasy and restless. I’m eating food but not too much, walking around but not too much, postponing plans for sightseeing and going into the city, sitting on a couch in a bed and breakfast reading the Kindle book of Travels With Charley (my first Steinbeck) that I’ve borrowed online from the Brooklyn Public Library. I’m trying and failing to take naps or, like today, sitting and listening to the hoots and chirps and honks of the owls and other birds and street traffic from the grapevine-canopied garden patio of a friend’s landlord’s incredible colonial house where I’m spending the night in a guest room.

Not a bad way to be sick, you might say. But when I’m sick like this the last thing I want is novelty. What I want is the most un-novel, most familiar thing of all: eight hours of uninterrupted can’t-remember-my-dreams sleep in a bed I’ve had for more than a week. Estoy cansado.

Waiting for Delivery

Got back to my Brooklyn apartment at two in the morning. My flight from Shanghai was delayed getting to Detroit, and I missed my connection but nabbed the lone available seat on a later flight to Newark. My luggage had to take an even later plane, and is now playing delivery roulette at La Guardia airport. “They’ll call you tomorrow morning,” the attendant at the baggage desk said last night. When they didn’t call in the morning, I called them and was greeted with an automated message that said, essentially, We don’t know anything right now and we can connect you with an agent, but chances are they don’t know anything either.

It’s tough being an airline. I worked on more than one when I was in advertising. As an airline you already have two big things working against you: gas prices (getting higher) and the weather (getting more severe). Everything is dependent on everything else and the system is rife with edge cases and problems that compound with time and load, because hurling four-hundred-ton metal tubes thousands of miles through the clouds, as it turns out, comes with a lot of unpredictability. There are a lot of contingency plans.

When I missed my connection at Detroit, for instance, I was directed to a special area in the middle of the terminal for help. There were only three agents and a long line, but kiosks where you could scan your boarding pass to see what flight you were rescheduled on, and if that failed—in my case, had me going to Baltimore, nearby was a bank of phones that you could pick up to speak to an agent if the ones at the desk were busy. I was connected to a human immediately, put on the Newark flight, with instructions to go to any gate agent to print a new boarding pass. The miracle, i realized, is how many flights I’ve flown that have gotten me to my destination on time and without incident.

Granted, not everyone has worked on an airline and not everyone thinks about the design of airport wait lines, nor should they be expected to. We go out of our way to hide complexity, and a tradeoff is when something goes wrong, we blame the most convenient shell of that complexity. And the nature of the airline business is that the interruptions of service happen when your customers least want them to happen. They’re interruptions that stand in the way of someone and seeing the other half of a rocky long distance relationship they’re hoping to mend, someone and their trip to the Dominican Republic to scuba dive with baby humpback whales at a conservancy that only lets in a limited number of people every year, someone and the first big sales meeting with a buyer at New York department store for their small Midwestern company that makes bird feeders modeled after Frank Lloyd Wright houses. One only need imagine themself on the other side of a search for @delta or @united on Twitter to sense the patience required to work customer service at an airline. And when you’ve had two dozen people yell at you about the same exact thing that’s beyond your control and a dozen more come at you exasperated because they don’t care about the clothes and other junk in their bag but they do care about the gift they bought for that person, you have to have a thick skin, or a diamond patience, and the times when that patience cracks, that skin wears thin, someone somewhere is going to tweet about it.

What this has to do with what I wrote last week, about the Apple holiday ad, and the notion of “clever advertiser manipulating people into buying things they don’t need” is that if you try to trace the source of that manipulation, or the source of how the luggage you just bought got cracked on its way to the carousel or how you were on hold for three hours only to talk to a brusque customer service rep, what you’ll find, usually isn’t an evil corporation trying to mistreat or manipulate someone but a collection of human beings each trying to deal the situation the best way they know how. You’ll find an account manager who’s been having trouble sleeping because her brother’s in and out of the hospital so she stays up emailing everyone and creating unnecessary fires for herself at three in the morning. You’ll find the strategic planner with a Wharton MBA who feels threatened by and finds himself acting passive-aggressive toward the precocious younger planner with a psych degree from Illinois who wrote a stronger brief for the last pitch. You’ll find the copywriter whose dream is writing for the show Girls who seems to live paycheck to paycheck no matter how much she makes and the day before posted Instagram photos of the death metal karaoke thing she goes to with her coworkers every Tuesday night. You’ll find the VP of marketing and the new CEO who, looking to prove that their company still has a soul after the passing of their previous CEO, call up the chief creative officer at their long-time ad agency and tell him, We need to do something that’s us.

If subliminal advertising is subliminal even to the people who made the ads, then who’s to blame?

If after a five hour wait you’re talking to an irritable customer service agent who’s been called in for an extra shift because on top of all the weather-related cancellations a CRJ2 skidded off the icy runway at JFK and shut down the airport, then who’s to blame?

Blame is a response to when things go differently than we had planned. And maybe the reason we blame airlines, companies, people, ideas, is that we have trouble accepting that there will always be things that are beyond our control, and we can’t blame circumstance, because it is simply the way the world is at a given moment. Maybe to see past the opacity and into a complex system we begin to realize that our expectations are built on rocky foundations to begin with, and this can be incredibly frightening. Some of us are more comfortable not knowing.

It’s not to say things can’t be improved with airlines, or with anything. But blame is also counterproductive to that improvement. Engaging in it puts the person blamed on the defensive, closes off the blamer to new possibilities. We don’t see how maybe yelling at the agent isn’t the best way to get our bag, or how we don’t have to wait for delivery and can borrow a car from a friend and pick up the bag ourself, or how the contents of the bag are easily replaced. My point is: Blame is easy (and understandable) but solves little, and understanding is tough but worth the effort.


I ordered Indian for dinner tonight. The guy who delivered my food had the biggest smile on his face. A lot of people, I’m guessing, ordered Indian food on account of the weather. The tips must be good tonight. But this is just a guess, from someone with a father who, the day he got his driver’s license, put his wife and son in a car and drove from Detroit to Washington DC to work his semesters off delivering Chinese food because he had heard from a friend that the tips were better in DC. It’s cold outside but I’m warm in my apartment, and I just got an email from the airline’s delivery company. They have my bag. The website says: Awaiting Assignment to Driver.

A few nights ago my family and I were having dinner at a bar in Cairns, and in between coverage of the England v. Australia cricket series, on came Apple’s “Misunderstood” holiday ad, which I first saw friends tweeting about before I left for my trip. Just this morning, after I signed into our hotel’s wifi here in Sydney, I was redirected to Apple’s homepage and I watched the ad again. I’ve seen “Misunderstood” in its entirety maybe six or seven times, and if I were to cut together a video of my own family’s holiday, it’d have: A tour boat shot of my brother staring out at the water with a beach towel over his head and back for protection from the sun, an underwater shot of my mom waving a hand over fauna in the reef, Dad pretending to take a bite out of a live mud crab, a selfie with a koala, quick cuts of my brother sleeping in various places, lots and lots of seafood.

It’s a testament to the power of the ad, a message about a medium that produces messages but which is itself the message, delivered through a medium which has its own message and the rest of this is going to be about smartphones and television and advertising and I have to warn you: it’s going to be long and very messy. I’m trying to work through the tangles by writing this to you, so think of it as a first draft of an essay.


"Misunderstood" is in the tradition of Volkswagen’s "Think Small" ads—emblematic of advertising’s “Creative Revolution” in the sixties—in that it takes a perceived weakness in the product and turns it into a strength.

"Misunderstood" leads with screen-absorption and partial attention, which trigger a judgment—How sad that he’s missing out on the holidays!—then achieves an emotional judo that validates Apple’s existence. We learn there is a reason Loner Kid is glued to his phone, and that reason is he’s been working on a gift for his family. We have mistaken tragic distraction for creative heroism. We’re judgmental assholes. Our hearts melt.

One difference, though, between VW in 1959 and Apple in 2013, is that VW was an underdog making a statement in a market of goliaths—the showy, boat-like Cadillacs that Don Draper drives—whereas Apple is the market leader. Its competition is itself, is the very form of distraction that is a largely unforeseen consequence of the products that Apple pioneered. All planned marketing is self-conscious, but “Misunderstood” might be Apple—or any large corporation—at its most self-aware.

The beginning of “Misunderstood” strikes us as sad not because it is universally sad, but because we have been conditioned by our cultural narratives—which come from sources like Advertising and Hollywood—to view it as sad. Our films tell us “live in the moment” and “journey not destination,” and we’ve heard variations of this so many times that even acknowledging the cliche has become cliche. But the irony of these statements is they’re typically delivered as the film’s denouement, ie. the payoff, the destination. We taste the message but we eat the structure and we grow temporally obese.

"Misunderstood’s" power comes not from it telling us to put away our phones and live in the moment—to do so would strike us as disingenuous—but from showing (though not necessarily acknowledging) the bittersweet complexity of the issue. For all the moments we are buried in our screens generally fucking around, from time to time we use these screens to create things that are expressions of love. And love, in this case, is Loner Kid taking himself out of the present moment so that he can give an awareness of the now-past moments to the rest of this family, in the form of a movie shot and edited on his phone and played on an Apple TV and set to Cat Power’s Charlie Brown-like rendition of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”

It’s worth reiterating: Loner Kid made a Christmas video of the same Christmas. He experiences the holiday through a screen, presents his experience of it through another screen, all of which we watch through our screens, and the ad’s resulting message is that it’s okay to be glued to your phone’s screen when you should be spending time with family, as long as there is a payoff at the end. Note the “should”. The ad doesn’t refute the idea that we should be living in the moment; it says, If we can’t live in the moment, then we might as well make the most of it. The loss is worth the gain, and it has a better soundtrack, too.

I don’t think this is necessarily right or wrong or good or bad, but more the way things are. And I’m trying to understand both why they are and how they are. You might think I’m reading too much into it, that it’s just Apple trying to do something generous and different from your usual end of the year sale buy!buy!buy! ads. Or you might say that it’s another example of a clever advertiser manipulating people into buying things they don’t need, and I’d like to write to you about these viewpoints, about intents and outcomes, but it’s almost midnight here in Sydney. I can hear my dad snoring, my mom and brother are trying to sleep, and it’s taken me so long to finish this Sunday update that it’s turned into a Monday one. So I’ll leave it at this, for now.

I’m in Melbourne today, on vacation with family, and being on vacation with family means that I’ve been spending more time than usual looking at the world from the touchscreen-side of a camera sensor. Most of the photos I see are of our day trip yesterday along Great Ocean Road, taken on a guided bus tour we booked from our hotel.

My parents particularly enjoy these kinds of tours. We’ve been on several in our family travels, and on sightseeing bus tours, too, in places like Boston, Barcelona. The understandable appeal of the efficiency of hitting up main points of interest in a limited amount of time. (“They only travel,” my brother says of my parents. “They never go on vacation.”)

But I always enjoy these tours too, even though they are not my natural tendency when landing in a new city. (Shortly after we left the hotel I saw my reflection in a store window and my reflection was the bus.) Moving sights from the other side of a pane of tinted glass, occasional pull overs and photo ops—like watching a Broadway adaptation of a movie adaptation of a travel novel, where at each intermission you get to go on stage and take pictures with the sets. Its own art form, really, one I’ve come to learn to appreciate.

A good tour bus driver is like a good actor, or maybe a good stand-up (sit-down?) comedian. He or she can deliver the same lines time after time and still sound fresh. Our driver, Pete, fit the description. He works these tours one day a week, and spends the rest of his time helping a friend out with an online travel magazine. Pete was relaxed, natural, can deftly maneuver a twenty-five-seater bus with a broken latch on one of the windows for a U-turn on a two-lane highway, and had an affinity for early 2000s indie rock, which he played from his iPod during lengthier periods of quiet on the drive. He was amusingly bossy, too: “One of you who went on the helicopter ride, come up and show me your pictures!” “Hey Wilson, tell me if we have everyone back there!” “I’ll give you your twenty dollars change later, but it’s your job to remind me.”

"That’s what all Australians are like,” my brother joked.

Some time ago I had an idea to open a novel with a chapter narrated by a tour bus driver. The driver would talk directly to you, the reader, as though you were just getting on the bus on a rainy day. He’d map out the town geographically and historically through its legends, and as he brought you along, the rain would pick up. It could start clattering on the metal roof. The bus would come to a stop at a police barricade in the middle of the road and the driver would get out to see what the deal was and boom. The story would start there.

It’s almost dinnertime now. We’re flying to Cairns on a red-eye later tonight, and once we get there there will be more traveling to do, more day trips to take, more tour buses to ride and tour bus drivers to watch perform.

I’m in Melbourne today, on vacation with family, and being on vacation with family means that I’ve been spending more time than usual looking at the world from the touchscreen-side of a camera sensor. Most of the photos I see are of our day trip yesterday along Great Ocean Road, taken on a guided bus tour we booked from our hotel.

My parents particularly enjoy these kinds of tours. We’ve been on several in our family travels, and on sightseeing bus tours, too, in places like Boston, Barcelona. The understandable appeal of the efficiency of hitting up main points of interest in a limited amount of time. (“They only travel,” my brother says of my parents. “They never go on vacation.”)

But I always enjoy these tours too, even though they are not my natural tendency when landing in a new city. (Shortly after we left the hotel I saw my reflection in a store window and my reflection was the bus.) Moving sights from the other side of a pane of tinted glass, occasional pull overs and photo ops—like watching a Broadway adaptation of a movie adaptation of a travel novel, where at each intermission you get to go on stage and take pictures with the sets. Its own art form, really, one I’ve come to learn to appreciate.

A good tour bus driver is like a good actor, or maybe a good stand-up (sit-down?) comedian. He or she can deliver the same lines time after time and still sound fresh. Our driver, Pete, fit the description. He works these tours one day a week, and spends the rest of his time helping a friend out with an online travel magazine. Pete was relaxed, natural, can deftly maneuver a twenty-five-seater bus with a broken latch on one of the windows for a U-turn on a two-lane highway, and had an affinity for early 2000s indie rock, which he played from his iPod during lengthier periods of quiet on the drive. He was amusingly bossy, too: “One of you who went on the helicopter ride, come up and show me your pictures!” “Hey Wilson, tell me if we have everyone back there!” “I’ll give you your twenty dollars change later, but it’s your job to remind me.”

"That’s what all Australians are like,” my brother joked.

Some time ago I had an idea to open a novel with a chapter narrated by a tour bus driver. The driver would talk directly to you, the reader, as though you were just getting on the bus on a rainy day. He’d map out the town geographically and historically through its legends, and as he brought you along, the rain would pick up. It could start clattering on the metal roof. The bus would come to a stop at a police barricade in the middle of the road and the driver would get out to see what the deal was and boom. The story would start there.

It’s almost dinnertime now. We’re flying to Cairns on a red-eye later tonight, and once we get there there will be more traveling to do, more day trips to take, more tour buses to ride and tour bus drivers to watch perform.