Authors: Yossi Ghinsberg
Although La Paz lies in a valley, it is still the highest capital city in the world, almost twelve thousand feet above sea level. Despite modernisation it has retained the character of a prosperous colonial city. We arrived on a bus crowded with locals. I wandered around the monumental sites: Plaza Murillo, where all the major government buildings have been located since colonial days, and San Francisco Square, where the Jesuit friars built their monastery in the seventeenth century. In the narrow alleyways that lead away from these plazas are shops selling the finest handicrafts of the continent.
Up Sagarnaga Street are the wooden booths of the bustling witchcraft market of Pachamama, the Andean goddess of the Earth. The women hawk good-luck charms, healing herbs, and spell-brewing grasses, never revealing the true nature of their wares.
Peddlers swarm the sidewalks selling pastries and fruit. Bolivian music blares from record shops: the sounds of the
, flute, and
, the words part Quechua, the Inca language, and part Spanish.
During the gleaming morning hours the peddler women, all wearing the same blue smock and hat, offer
, delicious beverages made of corn. The steaming drinks are served together with hot rolls or fresh donuts dipped in honey.
Along Sixteenth of July Street, which the locals call the
(promenade), the high school girls dressed in white smocks linger during recess. They tease every passing gringo, whistling and calling, ‘
[I love you].’
At noontime the old people, leaning against the church in their knitted hats, spit out wads of coca leaves, getting ready for lunch. After they’ve eaten their fill, the pouch comes out, and a pinch of fresh leaves goes into their mouths along with the extracting stones.
In the evenings the
is packed. Strolling youngsters and adults fill the theatres, cinemas, and restaurants.
Marcus, Dede, and Annick were staying at the Rosario Hotel. Jacques and Jacqueline went back to Peru together, and Michel went on to Brazil. Marcus and Annick were becoming very close; I could see they were falling in love. Dede and I spent a lot of time together, but our relationship was different. She was a nice girl, and I liked her a lot. But love? That was something else altogether.
I had taken a room in the Jewish old-folks’ home. A lot of Israelis were staying there, and I made new friends. I spent some nights with them, some in Dede’s room, ate my meals cheaply in the market, and was enjoying myself thoroughly.
One afternoon Marcus and I were sitting in a small teahouse that I had discovered in an alleyway beside the market of Pachamama. Marcus was telling me about the great time he had been having lately and tried to talk me into joining him on a trip to the countryside.
‘I like being in Bolivia,’ he said happily. ‘Even my clairvoyant would be surprised if he knew... ’
‘What do you mean, Marcus, by your ‘clairvoyant’? Don’t tell me you believe in that kind of nonsense.’
Marcus smiled. ‘I not only believe in them, I’m a bit of a clairvoyant myself.’
‘I don’t get you,’ I said, amazed.
‘It may sound funny to you, Yossi, but it’s the truth. I’m not an ordinary person. I have some kind of special power. I don’t know exactly how to put it, but sometimes I feel things in the air. Sometimes things happen to me... strange things. When I was younger, I used to tell all my friends’ futures. I told them who would get married and when, how many children each of them would have. Years went by, and what I had predicted came true. Pregnant women used to ask me whether they were carrying boys or girls. I would hold a needle suspended on a thread and concentrate. If the needle swayed to the right, it was a boy. If it moved to the left, it was a girl. I was almost never wrong.’
He paused, sipped his steaming tea, and then went on.
‘I have some kind of power. I’m some kind of medium. That was the way I decided to come to South America. When Monica suggested the trip, I tested the idea with the needle and thread. The answer was that I should go. I didn’t want to. I kept trying, hoping that the needle would go to the left, but it kept moving to the right, ordering me, ‘Go!’
‘I believe in that type of thing, though I am a good Christian. I do say my prayers.
‘Monica didn’t believe in such things, but she loved me nevertheless. I thought I would die when she wrote that she was leaving me and asked her to come see me. I knew she would not refuse, but when she arrived in Peru, it was horrible, just horrible. I felt myself losing her. Then I heard about a
[witch doctor] in Lima and went to see him. He told me that it was all over. There was no future for us. Before I left, he warned me that he felt danger hovering over me in South America. ‘You or someone close to you will die here. Be careful!’ I knew he was right, but I didn’t care. There was no other place for me to go. Not then. Not after I lost Monica.’
Later at the old-folks’ home I thought how lucky I was to have come on this trip. I had wanted so badly to avoid going along with the crowd, walking the well-worn path: from kindergarten to grade school, from high school to the army, and then on to university, work, marriage, a child... Stop! Yes, I was lucky to have escaped all that after my military service.
There were hordes of
like me in South America. The
(backpack) is what characterises them. These packs are all they have. In them you’ll usually find a pair of patched and faded jeans, a sweater, a raincoat, a Coleman burner,
The South American Handbook
, which the
call their bible, a sleeping bag, a few toilet articles, and a small first-aid kit. That’s it. They keep their money in a money belt inside their pants. Some, like Marcus, even more cautious, cut a slit across the inside hem of their pants leg and stick rolled bills inside.
The idea is to carry everything on your back, forget your troubles, and let tomorrow take care of itself. You learn from the natives to live for the moment, not to hurry. You travel to breathtaking places – the kinds of places tourists dream of seeing – but you’re not a tourist. You’re a
, a drifter, and there’s a big difference. You’re in one place today, someplace else tomorrow. You may stay for a day or a month. You make your own plans, every day full of surprises.
You meet a lot of drifters like yourself. You usually find them in the cheapest hotels in town or in restaurants that could pass for soup kitchens. You get to know the local people, who are usually friendly to strangers.
South America is overrun with
of many nationalities, but Israelis are particularly numerous among them. I don’t know why that is. Perhaps the long, mandatory military service in Israel has created among its young people a need to break out of moulds, and there is no better way to do that than packing a
Anyway, we Israelis are privileged characters: in almost every large city in South America, the Jewish community has provided some kind of hostel for backpackers. These free hostels are a welcome refuge. Friendships are formed there.
Each hostel has its ‘travel journal,’ a book to which the guests contribute notes on a recommended side trip, a place of interest, the cheapest place to stay, to eat, what play is worth taking in, the easiest way to get around. Over time these journals have grown encyclopaedic, full of reliable information.
The old-folks’ home where I was staying had been the Jewish community centre; but a more modern centre had been built, and the former one was turned into a home for the community’s senior citizens. Its owner, Señor Levinstein, let the
stay free and gave them use of a refrigerator, a gas burner, and mattresses. His Sabbath meals of roast chicken had become a Friday-night tradition.
There were only a few old people living in the home. Some of them weren’t quite all there, but they were harmless. The one I liked best used to knock on our doors and shyly ask to enter. Once inside, his sweet expression was abruptly transformed, and from his mouth came a stream of the foulest curses you can imagine – that is, if you speak Yiddish. Then he would take his leave politely and go on his way. When he lacked the time for a proper visit, he tapped on our windows and hurled an obscene gesture or two. Another old guy was obsessed with Bolivian soccer and was always looking to regale someone about his favourite team. He once came out of his room at one in the morning, asked us to help him put on his best suit, tie his tie, and lace his shoes. Once dressed, he kindly thanked us and went back to bed.
Grandma was the boss of the house. She must have been about eighty years old, with frizzy white hair. She had an apartment on the ground floor and was in charge of seeing that the rules were kept. She was the one who checked your passport and papers from the Israeli embassy in La Paz and gave you permission to stay. She showed you where you’d sleep and where the bathroom was. She made sure you didn’t make a lot of noise and didn’t waste water or electricity. God help anyone who crossed her. She knew how to yell loud enough that no one could ignore her, but underneath her tough demeanour was a fabulous woman, adored by everyone. She spoke broken Spanish and called everyone
(my son). Flowers for Grandma were another Friday night tradition.
The travel journal in the old-folks’ home was filled with detailed information about Bolivia and its neighbours – Chile, Peru, and Brazil – and about La Paz. Several residents recommended a visit to ‘Canadian Pete’, who was serving time in San Pedro Prison. An entire section was devoted to San Pedro cactus, the plant that contains mescal, one the strongest hallucinogens existing in natural form. Many Israelis, it seemed, had tried the drug.
I decided to try San Pedro cactus for myself. It wasn’t difficult to talk Dede into joining me, so we found ourselves on our way one morning to the Valley of the Moon, where it grows.
We each carried our backpacks. We had brought along a tent, a Coleman burner, a pot, two sleeping bags, two bottles of Coca-Cola, a large jar of jam to help disguise the taste of the plant, and a loaf of bread. Dede also had a large, red waterproof poncho.
The Valley of the Moon itself was frightening, remote and desolate. The entire area was rocky, with grey-white crags jutting out of the ground forming weird, jagged shapes. Some said Neil Armstrong had named the valley. Flying overhead had reminded him of the moon. It really did look like something not of this earth. Nothing grew there except for a scattering of cacti of many species. Following the descriptions in the travel journal, it was not difficult to recognise the San Pedro cactus. Some of the stumps were carved with names and dates. I looked around for a nice, clean specimen and found one to my liking. I checked out the seven ribs and the spacing of the thorns. Everything was exactly right. I cut off about a foot and a half of the trunk with my pocket knife. Dede put it carefully in my pack, and off we marched.
We climbed a hillside covered with eucalyptus and were alone up there among the trees, the eerily beautiful valley stretched out at our feet.
‘I’ll get the cactus ready,’ I told Dede, ‘while you put up the tent.’
I sat down to concoct the drug. I pulled the thorns out with my knife. Then I peeled the rind. There were two layers: one, very thin and green; the other, white and containing strychnine. After carefully separating them, I finally had two big cups full of green pulp. I lit the burner and put a small amount of cactus in the pot to cook. About fifteen minutes later I emptied the pot into a cloth and squeezed out all the liquid. My efforts were rewarded with hardly more than an ounce. Would it be enough? Perhaps I had misunderstood the instructions.
It was already dusk, and I decided that we had no choice: we would eat the cactus raw. We found a comfortable place to sit on the edge of the hill. The view was fantastic, other-worldly. We sat with the Coke, the jar of jam, and a large spoon. I put a small piece of cactus in my mouth. Did it taste awful! Really disgusting. I shoved a spoonful of jam into my mouth, but it couldn’t disguise the horrible taste.
I was dying to spit it out but forced myself not to. I couldn’t swallow the doughy wad and had to chew it some more. My whole body convulsed. I choked back the nausea and took a long drink of Coke. Poor Dede. Now it was her turn. It seemed to me that she had an easier time swallowing the bitter plant.