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To Coroico by Carl Cleves

Page 9

During his travels around Bolivia Herman had obtained a map. It was a dirty page torn out of an exercise book and contained some scribbles in pencil: lines, arrows and crosses, place names and enigmatic directions in Spanish. According to my friend the map showed an ancient but now disused Inca trail that ran down from the Altiplano into the jungles and valleys to a small town in the Yungas of northern Bolivia, called Coroico. Now and then Herman pulled out the map to study it and speculated about walking this trail to Coroico.. I didn't take it seriously at first. It reminded me of Treasure Island, the fantasy games and treasure hunts of my boy scout days. As a child of devout Catholics I had prayed at the open window of my bedroom that Peter Pan would come and whisk me away to a magical jungle in a snow-peaked mountain range. The Belgian comic strip hero Tintin, or Kuifje as he was called in my native Flemish, was my saint. Intrepid, courageous, optimistic, pure of heart, loyal, caring of his dog Milou, Tintin travelled the world. In many places I saw his footprints: in the streets of Kathmandu, in Balkan villages, in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro and the bazaars of Arabia. "The Temple of the Sun" was my favourite book. Set in the heart of South America, it told the story of an unswerving quest to rescue a friend, an amazing journey across snow-capped mountain peaks and raging streams, beneath towering rainforests, amongst the remnants of the Inca Empire and the downtrodden Indians who populate present-day Peru and Bolivia. My prayer was about to be answered.

The map, at first not much more than a joke, increased its hold on us and Coroico became a name loaded with mythical proportions and meaning until the idea of a quest, not unlike the search for the Holy Grail, was rooted in our minds. This was a slow process and much coming and going took place before we finally decided to undertake the journey. Coroico lies 96 kilometres from La Paz. The trail started in the snow on the high plateau, the Altiplano, and dropped into the tropical forests, which eventually lead into the Brazilian Amazon region. We would have to descend 4000 metres. There were no towns on the way, at most one or two tiny settlements of Indians. There was a good possibility that landslides and forest growth could have erased sections of the trail and that rope bridges over ravines and mountain streams might have collapsed with time. How would we deal with food and shelter for such a journey? What about Tashi, who still had not reached his fourth birthday? He was my main concern and it took me a while to be convinced to set out for Coroico. But once we had decided, we soon began to work out the practicalities.

At night when the curfew-hour struck, Herman and I sat on our hotel beds calculating food requirements, weight distribution, walking schedules. It was clear that Tashi might have to be carried part of the way and that our luggage would have to be kept to a minimum. Thus our original list of necessities shrank with each meeting. If one was to carry Tashi, the other had to be capable of carrying all the supplies. Taking a tent was out of the question. We decided to carry two sleeping bags and a sheet of plastic in which we could roll ourselves at night to protect us from the cold and possible rain. It was crucial that on our first day's march we would get past the snowline and find firewood for cooking and heating. Cooking what?

We explored the markets, shuffling between heaps of vegetables and fruit, coca-leaves and peanuts, clay pots and cast-iron frying pans, clothes and mountains of plastic shoes. Within days of our arrival Tashi and I had become used to eating at the markets. At breakfast we waited for the pastels (delicious sweetbreads) to fry in oil, while Senora Renalda, a burly woman from Cochabamba, served us a hot drink made from corn, called apis. During the day we drank carrot-juices, papaya milkshakes, munched on fruit and cheese bread, and at night we shared a bowl of the staple potato-soup or bean stew. We soaked up the smells of cooking and the chatter of a hive of women selling and preparing food. I have always been a sucker for mercados, bazaars, kasbahs & souks. Things of use, things of beauty and so many marvels were here. We wandered amongst the religious objects and such witchcraft aids as dried animal foetuses and stuffed eyeless mountain cats, amongst silver jewellery and toys, past rows of little white coffins -one out of two children dies before the age of one-, carpets, buckets, brooms and blaring record stalls. For our journey we bought oats and dried fruits, biscuits, nuts, rice, semolina, lentils and beans, garlic, salt, sugar and tea, matches. We searched for and found a suitable length of black plastic, a light aluminium cooking pot, a water container and a torch. By word of mouth we met up with a truck driver who was willing to take us at 6 am the next morning, when the curfew was lifted, out of the city into the mountains and leave us close to the place where according to the map we needed to find the beginning of the trail. We stored my guitar and the rest of our luggage at the hotel, managed to pack everything into the one backpack, studied the map and had a good night's sleep.



We sat on the back of the truck in the cold light of dawn, huddled together against the glacial Altiplano winds, and watched the city recede below us. On winding roads with hairpin switchbacks the heavily loaded truck climbed its way up to the plateau. The road like a giant snake was the only outstanding feature in the barren landscape. Tashi snuggled on my lap, the long earflaps of his red, blue and white Bolivian bonnet bouncing against his cheeks. He wore grey overalls and walking boots, an alpaca jumper and a brown woolen jacket knitted for him by Senora Olivia of the hotel Cecil in Valparaiso. His face was flushed, tufts of black hair tossed around his eyes by the wind, as he screamed out excitedly, pointing out mountains and deep ravines, the hair-raising road below us. Herman consulted his map, hunched between the bags of cement, less the wind would tear it up or rob it from his hands. On a high mountain pass he banged on the cabin door. The driver stopped and let us out. We watched the truck disappear and then we were alone in a landscape of snow, ice and rocks.

(To be continued)