Across the Pacific with Mother Bear
01.05.2005 - 01.05.2005
2005 – Sydney, Australia
I was lucky. With a stroke of good fortune the bulky government agency where I worked had processed my redundancy in an incredible six weeks, a process that could easily have taken a year. My boss, the HR Department and the redundancy people had somehow coordinated efforts and added a significant slice to my travel budget. Colleagues resented and admired the outcome and I was shocked it happened so fast. It could be I was bad at my job, but from my side the truth was lack of inspiration, pursuing a career that wasn’t a passion, and in a year of mass redundancy, the department may simply have been pleased to have one less disenchanted redundancy-eligible employee on their books.
In anticipation I’d applied for a little job in Bolivia and the day I signed for my prize Sydney seemed more Autumn-bright than usual, even if it meant working right to take off.
Ten days later I made my way to the specialist, an appointment hanging over my head for the two months since booked, a doctor’s words all that stood between me and South America. Initial signs were good, the specialist like a distant aunt you meet at funerals and politely peck on the cheek. It hardly seemed possible she could emanate much doom. Besides, all I had was a troublesome hernia probably caused at birth.
‘Well,’ she said, prodding the lump where my belly button used to be, ‘I can’t push your hernia back into your stomach. We’ll need to operate as soon as possible.’ Her benign-looking mouth had unexpectedly turned malignant.
‘That would be nice,’ I heard myself say, ‘but I leave for Bolivia in three days.’
She screwed her face, looked over the rim of her glasses and added dramatic pause. What followed were the usual medical care warnings and general mistrust of the developing world I expect from Sydney practitioners – did they have reputable doctors in Bolivia, were hospitals sterile, needles and blood transfusions clean? About the only thing she didn’t mention was the threat of salmonella from the hospital tray-dinner.
‘Post operation, how long before I could fly?’ I asked.
‘Eight weeks,’ she said gravely.
I wished I was talking to my own travelling GP, a Sydney exception who would have understood about airfares and adventure. Last time I’d spoken to him, en-route to Bangladesh, he’d said with a smile, ‘now there’s really no point in me telling you not to drink the local water is there?’
‘Not really, no.’ Not that there was a choice in that. In Hatiya there is no other supply; and as it comes from deep tube wells, it is clean.
‘How long is the public waiting list?’ I asked, thinking of the operation. ‘Three and a half months,’ she replied with seriousness suggesting tragedy, but for me it was the solution. What would I do for three and half months in Sydney without a job? There’s no cure like travel.
‘Anything I can do to help? Anything I shouldn’t eat?’
‘The only thing is lose weight,’ she said sternly, advice seemingly often proffered but rarely followed. Losing weight is near impossible in Sydney but par for the course on the road, so in addition to inspiring my journey would be as therapeutic as an Estonian thermal mud bath – almost doctor’s orders if you looked at it the right way. I left the surgery with a ‘small but serious risk’, determined to focus on the ‘small’ and pack the packing and every other impossibility into the following forty-eight hours.
Suddenly I was biting plastic, unwrapping intensely packaged cheese, an airline cuisine standard. Incarcerated in my window seat I balanced food, attempting not to elbow the woman next to me as somewhere over the Pacific I dug into my chicken something lunch with a plastic knife. There had been little time for excitement, to start Spanish or be sure I had all essentials and the only decision left was what to have from the drinks trolley.
‘Coffee?’ I asked, smiling at the hostess.
‘You speak Spanish!’ exclaimed the Brazilian grandmother sitting next to me. She had carefully cropped hair, long ring-adorned fingers and a heavily made up face – she could have played mother bear in a Goldilocks performance. Apparently she also had a hearing problem, having heard the Spanish ‘café’ in place of my ‘coffee’, and I didn’t have the heart to shatter the illusion. ‘I only speak a little Spanish,’ I lied.
She wasn’t dissuaded, spoke more Spanish and I replied with a ‘si’. It worked, she laughed and I laughed politely in return, quickly adjusting my headset to kill conversation. I flipped open the book on Eva Peron I’d bought at Sydney Airport, together with the small Spanish phrasebook and vague memories from a Latin American politics course at uni, my sole preparation for Buenos Aires.
Some hours later when she spoke again thankfully she chose English. She was on her way from Ulladulla to Florianopolis to visit relatives. ‘It’s my first time in South America,’ I told her, ‘first stop Buenos Aires.’
‘Argentina is wonderful,’ she said, ‘world’s best beef.’
The beef could wait. My wallet was a more immediate concern, as the advantage of changing money into a useful currency like US dollars had slipped my mind, it would be Sunday on arrival and I had no place to stay. As it was my wallet featured a helpful sprinkling of Australian dollars, Brunei dollars and Malaysian ringgits from the last trip. Surely taxi drivers would jump at the chance to have their fares paid in various Western Pacific currencies and how could a Buenos Aires bus conductor turn me down?
‘How long since you’ve been back to Brazil?’ I asked, distraction from the international monetary crisis brewing in my pocket.
‘Ten years,’ she sighed, pausing in the midst of stowing her tray after another round of drinks.
‘You must be excited.’
‘Brazil is nice,’ she said soberly, ‘but there are so many problems – unemployment, crime, poverty. You should go if you can. You’ll like it. The women are beautiful, but I prefer Ulladulla.’
‘And somebody stole my porridge,’ I imagined her adding.
My mind wandered back to the wallet and I took solace remembering one Sunday evening years ago when I’d flown into Beirut with a total of five Australian dollars in cash. Things had worked out then. True, I’d spent a good thirty minutes bargaining the taxi driver down from US $50 to US $5 and true, the bargain had abruptly collapsed when I confessed my five dollars was actually Australian. I got on a city bus with no money but someone had sent Mohammed, the guy sitting next to me, to take pity, pay my fare and tell me where to get out to find a hotel that accepted credit card.
This time I had a Brazilian grandmother at my side and on my side. I had discovered I could speak a little Spanish as long as the person was essentially Portuguese-speaking and slightly hearing impaired. And there were still many hours to decide things, the Pacific pond larger than I imagined – ‘I’m just over the pond,’ I’d told friends – nineteen hours to the big BA.
I prefer to have minimal impressions of a destination pre-arrival, better to let a place do its thing unaided and unfiltered. I wouldn’t have bought the Evita book if it hadn’t all but jumped off the shelf of the bookstore by the departure gate. As for Bolivia, I’d seen internet pictures, the San Francisco steep streets of my new city La Paz, rows of unfinished brick hovels, steps, cobblestones, churches and dirt tumbling in delightful disarray through history and up hillsides. The city had the self-respect of a witches’ market, the country Inca heritage intrigue. At 3,600 metres above sea level, La Paz was on the edge of the world’s second largest high altitude plateau (after Tibet), the Altiplano that stretched from northern Argentina, through Bolivia and well into Peru.
The only image in which I featured was a stone room above a square, its window with paint-peeling green shutters – a small imaginary Andean space that had somehow nestled into my mind as make belief home. Bolivia had to be good and I tried to leave it at that, not that it was easy thanks to people around me. Bolivia is never news in Australia but, in the midst of political crisis, blockades and closed borders, it then was. Some of my friends, girlfriend in particular, were news-broadcast fearful, while I tried to limit my interest to deaths – just one reported and in the midst of a particularly severe protest, which I could avoid no? Blockades alone, piles of stone across a highway, might frustrate but just couldn’t scare and nothing seemed worse than what you read in a Bangladeshi newspaper on an average day, where murders command four lines of print: though in reality Bangladesh is a safe country.
Bolivia was still three weeks distant, the date for starting Bolivia job was flexible so I’d factored in a between-lives gap, discover Argentina, recover from Sydney and reconcile myself to being de facto South American. There was also a matter of flights to La Paz being $1000 dearer than to Buenos Aires.
As dawn arrived the Andes parted clouds, a theatrical opening to my new world. Behind us a feast of cloud flakes covered Chile and stretched into the western Pacific. To the east, in front, the sky was clear and Argentine.
The Brazilian grandmother befriended the couple from Fairfield in Sydney’s west who had tried to steal our seats back in Sydney on the grounds they had a baby. I never knew views were important to babies. I am not a parent. Not only had she befriended them, she’d told everything – my first time in South America, basic Spanish etc. They probably already knew my middle name.
Mrs Fairfield, of Argentine extraction, was getting nervous on my behalf – how would I deal with unscrupulous taxi drivers and find a decent hotel without Spanish? As she fretted the Andes gave way to those vast plains they call the Pampas, chocolate brown, endless and empty. I pictured cowboys, cattle and slow night guitar songs by firelight. Mrs Fairfield said she would call her friend, a reputable taxi driver, to pick me up, and I would stay at the Gran Something Hotel. I didn’t know then every second hotel in Buenos Aires is called the Gran Something, or I would have paid more attention to the ‘something’.
The Brazilian grandmother was excited with the arrangements she’d facilitated and made me swap seats so I could chat about Argentina with Mr Fairfield. There must have been a world problem solving kindness to her she felt at liberty to express in international airspace. ‘What can you tell me about BA?’ I asked Mr Fairfield.
‘Not much. It’s my first trip there,’ he said. We talked instead about the extension to their house, a baby bedroom.
When we landed everyone applauded and I found myself clapping along with Brazil and the Fairfields – surely my first bona fide South American cultural experience. It’s not regular to applaud uneventful landings in Sydney. I was happy but nervous thanks to the Brazil-Fairfield society – BA could hardly be more daunting than New Delhi or Beirut, but who knew? Nerves and politeness resolved to follow the Brazil-Fairfield plan, until the sudden baby-bootie-change exercise that had to happen between the gate and immigration. Stuff it. I’d work it out.
The rest was easy. There was a Sunday-open exchange booth that accepted my antiquated traveller’s cheques and suddenly I had pesos to work with. I confidently told the bus driver, ‘the Gran Hotel please’. He rattled off a few Gran Hotel names and I used my ‘si’ as any would do. Confused, he ushered me onto the bus anyway.
As we zoomed towards the centre of BA I contemplated the central problem of modern air-travel – your first foreign destination inevitably has to be an unwieldy, time-gobbling, money-wasting big city. If I had my way intercontinental flights would link Sydney directly to rustic farming communities around the globe, to unpronounceable Saharan oases, tundra campsites and Pampas villages with cows and guitar songs. In the dunes, the tundra, the chocolate, people are friendlier, the culture raw and specific; in those places quickly establishing your foreign language skills is necessity and working your way up to a twelve and a half million strong metropolis like Buenos Aires would be simple. The problem is your average igloo community doesn’t have international aircraft landing facilities.
There were all manner of interesting neighbourhoods. I saw high-tower Tehran type places with rusty swing sets between the blocks, Florida condo complexes, neat as a pin, for the aspirationals, and crumbling poorer-Dhaka areas with dirt roads, rubbish heaps and impromptu soccer matches taking place on roadside strips (in Dhaka it might be cricket). Old men in black cowboy hats sat in suburban doorways, weathered signs announced small grocery stores and rusty utes piled with anything from vegetables to metal rods plied uneven streets. As we closed on the centre, Dhaka gave way to Paris – clean, leafy boulevards, six, seven, ten-storey art deco buildings and a poodle on a pink leash.
I got out somewhere central, no Gran Something in sight – it would have been expensive in any case. Utterly exhausted I stumbled into the nearest hotel, the Alcazar – too magical on the whole but anywhere with a bed at that point. Within minutes I was on my way to sleep in a small musty room on the other side of an ocean, overlooking a building site.
(This piece was originally written in 2005 at a time when I used to change details about people to promote their privacy).