When I think the word “England” I hear Polly Jean Harvey quiver “The West’s asleep… let England shake;” when I think “Cuba” I hear the slow, two-chord opening strum of Buena Vista Social Club’s Chan Chan; and when I think “La Paz,” I hear my friend Shiona Blackie’s normally softly-spoken Scottish accent biting “La Paz is an atrocity.” A few hours in and around a bus station is hardly enough time to come to any judgement of a city, but I didn’t come across anything to make me think she was wrong. Perhaps arriving on a Sunday meant the number of derelict buildings were more noticeable for the lack of people, but it can’t have made any difference to the dirt, litter and sickly smell of urine. I had half a day to kill which doubtless didn’t help, but I was uncommonly happy to finally set off on another twenty-four-hour-plus bus trip.
I sat next to a Bolivian lady who conducted the following conversation on her mobile every four hours or so:
“Hello my love? Hello darling. Hello sweetheart.” Listens. “We’re in [place along the way] my love, we’re on time, love.” Listens.”You too darling, you too my love. I’m fine my love, yes darling.” Listens. “Yes my sweetheart, yes darling. Yes my love. Thank you for calling, my darling. Thank you my love. OK. Kisses. Bye love. Bye darling. Bye sweetheart, my love. Bye.”
She was, apart from that sideshow, a lovely bus companion, and offered me sandwiches, fruit juice, sweets, chicken legs and indigestion pills from her bag, and apologised humbly for being kicked by me as I lurched towards the toilet at quarter to five in the morning. We complained cheerfully to each other as the stewardess failed to understand the DVD remote and made us watch Journey 2: The Mysterious Island, plus deleted scenes and bloopers reel, for six hours.
After a restorative night in a hostel in Lima, I figured out the two buses and taxi ride to Eco-Truly Park, a Vedic ashram around ninety minutes outside the city. My daily routine started at 6am with yoga and meditation, followed by breakfast at 8.30ish. I worked with the other volunteers until 1pm, for the first week helping the workmen with construction: hauling bricks or mortar, shifting earth, even trying a bit of bricklaying once. The second week I spent in the garden, which was harder work than it looked – my back would start complaining quickly as I shuffled along rows and rows of turned earth placing seeds. After lunch was time for non-work practicalities – clothes washing, going into the village to buy supplies – or talking to the devotees about Vaishnavism (which, in my ignorance, I incorrectly umbrellad under “Hinduism” in my previous blog). My thoughts on Vaishnavism are the material for another entry, so here I will just say that I was fascinated but far from convinced. I did not particularly appreciate being told that my not believing in karma or reincarnation was irrelevant because they exist regardless, nor being unable to extract any reason for those beliefs more detailed than “because it’s true.” Dinner followed at around 6pm, and as the sun goes down and the scant electric lights flicked on there was the option of going to the temple for a short ceremonio to Krishna, or just free time until bed at 9 or 10.
I lived in a hut with a few other volunteers – three at first, and then just one. Volunteers came and went, even in the short time I was there, and I suppose it must have become normal for the residents to see a steady flow of people move through.
The shower was a pipe in the wall, and I didn’t even bother to ask if there was hot water. Toilets were buckets, with sawdust nearby to muffle the worst of the smell. Food was included, three times a day, and varied from exotic and delicious – much of it I could not begin to recognise, but had as much flavour and texture as you could wish for – to barely edible (one breakfast time, being presented with two plain, chewy boiled potatoes was a low). It was all strictly vegetarian and very often vegan, so variety was perhaps a little lacking, but my body is unaccustomed to hours of yoga and manual labour, which made me invariably starving by the time each meal rolled around. I had never done yoga before, and was not capable of keeping up with most of it. My muscles were simply not able to lift, stretch or balance themselves in the way the instructor demonstrated, but it was still fun, often funny and a good way to meet people.
The people were worth meeting, as well: they varied from backpackers completely unaware there was a religious angle to the village at all, to shamans, monks and even an Australian gentleman who told me he channeled healing energy from extraterrestrials in the fifth dimension. It was a very interesting experience but not the easiest environment to live in, and I have now escaped to Lima before flying home. I wanted to squeeze in a couple more breakfasts in hostels, a semi-magical process of being virtually guaranteed to meet some great people. Listening to a friendly, funny and informed man from Ireland and girl from the US enthuse about their extensive travels in Peru and other South American countries, my assertion that my travel bug has gone began to feel like a joke. They began listing the first foods they were going eat when they got home after a year on the road: “Don’t!” I said. They looked at me strangely: “You’re going home,” they smiled, “you’re gonna get all of this long before us!” And I am… I had, briefly, almost forgotten. Not really, though: the glow of friends and family is just around the corner.
Thanks for reading.