Published: June 1st 2011June 1st 2011
On the deck of a boat, waiting for our departure to Isla del Sol, I look out to the morning horizon of Lake Titicaca to see that a plane has crashed noiselessly into the sea. A giant grey plume of smoke extends down from the clouds and into the point of impact, where all that can now be seen is a churning black hole of water, ringed by a ballooning quantity of foam. I hold my breath for the first appearance of tortured alimimium, and for the start of a very different day to that previously planned, when it becomes apparent that my eyes have deceived me: there is no plane, and there never was. What we are now witnessing is the birth of a cyclone. The plume of smoke, now revealed to be a tower of water vapour, begins to widen itself as a snake will in the midst of a meal until its supersonic rotations can be discerned with the naked eye. Back on deck I experience, simultaneously, a fear for our safety along with a desire for the creature to continue growing until its surroundings have been swallowed. In short, a wish for a ticket to cinematic destruction, a wish which is inseparable from any such extraordinary occurrence. Even the worst disaster films hold their own at the box office.
The reared snake, however, vanishes as fast and as silently as it appeared, to the degree that those pointing their cameras at the sky are left looking faintly ridiculous. Ten hours of untouched sunshine serve to turn the morning's event into a swiftly departing dream, until that night on the island when I wake to see lightning covering the mountains and sky, paying no attention to the Peru-Bolivia border in its choice of target. Cyclone: Sunshine: Storm. Fitting weather patterns for the island of Inca creation myths. Aside from this spiritual importance, the Isla del Sol is the most beautiful island I have ever visited.
Facts for revision: one area of the Salar de Uyuni is known as the Salvador Dali desert; another sees flamingos swimming on a red lagoon 4000 feet above sea level; in yet another part, a volcano exists to which NASA will soon send astronauts as preparation for the surface of Mars; this volcano sits above a lagoon comprised of arsenic, magnesium, lead and sulphuric acid - the lagoon's colour is perhaps closest to the florescent green chutney that accompanies poppadoms, though having a considerably less pleasurable effect on the body when ingested than chutney will, no matter how poorly prepared. This is as much description as I can muster for the most surreal landscape that I have ever walked on. Looking back, it almost seems as though we undertook certain measures in order to reassure ourselves that we were still on Earth: constantly listening to 'Parklife' as we trundled across a vast sea of salt for example, or endless games of shithead from the inside of a barracks-like refuge, where if you were to step outside you'd find only a trail of flamingo corpses amidst a sea of nothingness. The coming winter, we are told, will be so cold that all of these absurd birds will be dead in a few months. With this knowledge, the flock of pink now resting calmly on the silvery water is all the more unsettling.
In the light of these things, returning to a country like Argentina, where the art of indulging has been explored more mercilessly than anywhere else, feels even sweeter. Sweeter, perhaps, is a badly chosen adjective; glands, intestines, kidney and blood sausage do not taste sweet, but as I said, this art is totalitarian one, never more so than when placed in the context of a parilla. In Cafayate Adri and I exchange the exploration of meat for that of wine. Maintaining a steady and dependable level of drunk for a week, we are often to be found talking to stray dogs, a development that I can only attribute to too many tastings in one day. Two of our friends follow us six kilometres to a bodega built beautifully underneath the mountains, where they proceed to chase horses and urinate on decorative wine barrels. These friends, I should add, are of course dogs. Forced to enact a swift exit, we make a snap decision to hitchhike back to town, and within a minute we're in the back of a pick up having completely forgotten about our recently acquired pets. Their love is nowhere near as fickle, and as the Tom Cruise lookalike driver starts his engine the dogs are hanging on to the back of the truck. We realise too late, speeding away as the pair dumbly and cheerfully sprint behind with all their strength. One of these dogs is seriously old, and I'm trying not to think about a passage that I've literally just read in 'Midnight's Children' in which an alsatian collapses dead after blindly chasing the car of its fleeing family. The smiles of the little girls giggling at us from inside the car are slightly demonic, and when the pickup drops us off Adri and I walk back half a mile to sit miserably by the side of the road. Our wild celebrations when the dogs casually appear out of a hedge only confirm our status within the town as a pair of drunk canine enthusiasts.
A word on border towns: I love them. More often than not these places are devoid of tourist interest, dusty and gritty settlements that eek out their existences from the human movement they allow. And yet sitting in a dark, non-descript cafe away from the lunchtime heat, watching men with perpetual toothpicks talk lowly over their fernet, I feel weirdly enchanted. Places like this, in a no man's land all of their own, facilitate beginningsendingsintroductionspartingsfreshchancesescape. All at once, as the structure of that sentence suggests.