The Train to Huancayo
The Shining Path were terrorizing Peru. Known in Latin America as the Sendero Luminoso, the Maoist guerilla group seemed to thrive on chaos. Lima's policemen were on high alert.
Along the city's busy side-streets one could sense that something was about to happen. Would a policeman be killed at random? Maybe the government palace would be bombed. The police moved about in pairs, clutching their automatic weapons like metallic rosaries. In each small hotel around the Plaza De Armas one would see two armed guards sitting in the reception area, which was usually on the second floor. After midnight they would be fast asleep. As one tended to use the bathroom at some point during the evening, this created problems. As a traveler shuffled about, inevitably one of the two would start, grabbing his weapon reflexively. After a succession of such episodes, I would usually change hotels. The same scenario, however, would only be repeated elsewhere. I can still recall a lone soldier, heavily armed, sleeping in a wooden chair on a second story staircase. Every time I moved in the hallway, he would stir, like Lee Marvin, drunk on his horse in Cat Ballou.
Train rides have a way of bringing unfamiliar countries into sharper focus. Cambodia is a good example. “The first car on Cambodian trains is usually free,” a traveler once told me. “It's because the train tracks are often mined. “You would expect the first car to be pretty empty,” he continued. “But that's not the case... it's always packed.”
I decided to take the train to Huancayo. The Lima to Huancayo train was said to be one of the most spectacular in all of South America. Once the highest railway in the world, the eleven- hour voyage passed through stunning valleys, picturesque villages and the heart of the snow-capped Andes. Coursing its way across fifty-eight bridges, six switchbacks and sixty-nine tunnels, the trip was an adventure waiting to happen. Living up to its billing with ease, the Huancayo train ride was a scenic wonder.
Huancayo itself may have been a famous market town, but on my first night in town, I had nothing to do. I decided to go to a movie. Peru's movie theatres were an experience all to themselves. A potpourri of distracting commercials, cigar smoke and continuous chatter, they made you realize you were a long way from home. Only a few minutes into the film, the screen went dark. Patrons began shrieking. A trail of hushed voices led us to a passageway that wound its way into the street. Huancayo was pitch- black. Blackouts are a familiar part of life in the developing world. One never knows when they will occur next. A few hours earlier, I had taken a small hotel in Huancayo and was lucky to find it again. The hotel's owners had a few flickering candles going. There was just enough light for me to find my room.
Early the next morning I decided to leave town. Upon arrival at the train station, I was told “there's no train, you have to take a bus.” The bus station was close by and buses for Lima were leaving regularly. It didn't occur to me to ask why the train wasn't running. I had by this time become well acclimated to South America and its vagaries. Expecting the unexpected had become a useful survival technique. But about halfway to our destination, I started chatting with a fellow passenger. “Any idea why the train wasn't running?” I asked him. His only reply was “a bridge is out.”
The next day, while having coffee in downtown Lima I shared the story with a diner at the next table. “Really?” he replied. “I read somewhere that The Shining Path blew up a bridge.” He went fumbling through a large stack of newspapers. And there it was... a color photograph on the front page of the Lima Commercio. This was our train ride and our own blown- up bridge. The bridge could be seen hanging from a mountain pass at a forty-five degree angle. Had the explosion occurred earlier in the day our train could have plunged one hundred feet into a river.
As the years passed, I could never forget my South American train adventure. Usually, whenever I have encountered Peruvians, most would tell me that the Huancayo train never ran again. Five years after the event, I passed the story on to a Peruvian woman I met in London. “Did they ever get that train running?” I asked her. “Oh yes, it's surely running but they never fixed the bridge. They re-routed the train around the bridge.”
Recent trips to Peru have revealed that the Huancayo train sometimes runs and sometimes doesn't. Travel guides, however, insinuate that this train ride has been nothing but a delight for the last hundred years.
Abimael Guzman, the Shining Path leader was eventually captured and imprisoned. Without him the Shining Path ran out of steam. “We were lucky we saw Peru when we did,” a friend reminds me. It's not the same anymore, the excitement's gone.” Excitement, indeed... Peru at that time was a special place. And how can one ever forget those heavily armed policemen, fast asleep on beat- up hotel couches?
Palenque is the jewel in Mexico's crown. Even compared to such superb Mayan sites as Chichen Itza and Uxmal the site is special. A steady rain only heightened the charm of the place. Palenque, a former Mayan stronghold, was after all, situated in a rain forest.
I visited in mid-winter and noticed that the grounds seemed to be deserted. Suddenly a fellow traveler appeared out of nowhere and we began conversing. “Can you believe the access we have to all this stuff”? he asked. He was referring to the breathtaking Mayan stelae which at that time had not yet been carted off to any major museum. “No, I can't,” I replied. I'm surprised these things haven't been stolen.” “Are you going to Belize,” the young man queried. “Should I?” I replied, “I don't know much about it.” My new friend was a young marine biologist from Southern California. “Belize has the second largest coral reef in the world,” he continued. “I recently spent a month there with a local spear fisherman. On one side of the reef you could see all the beautifully colored fish. On the other, where the reef drops off, we were in the water daily with the hammerheads and tiger sharks.” “Sharks are dangerous, are they not,”? I asked. “We swam with them every day for a month,” he replied. “The fisherman has been doing this for more than twenty years. Sometimes for sport and relaxation he would dive underwater and pull sharks out of their caves. On Key Caulker, off of Belize City, just last week, tourists have been riding the sharks.”
I had no plans to visit Belize. Mexico and Guatemala had plenty to offer between them. But the marine biologist's stories piqued my interest. From our vantage point at the northern edge of Chiapas, the voyage would have been a straightforward one; a half day to Merida and then maybe one more day heading south. But I was going in the opposite direction. The next few weeks were to be spent exploring cities like Cuerna Vaca and Mexico City and coastal towns like Manzanillo and Barra de Navidad. Yet somehow, the shark stories just wouldn't quit. As Guatemala did figure into my plans, a trip to Belize was plausible.
Unfortunately, there was the small matter of the Sierra Madre Mountains. Mexico on a map can appear to be an easy country to travel in. Unfortunately, this isn't always the case. My surprise voyage to Belize began innocently enough; an all night bus ride from the coastal town of Puerto Escondido through the mountains to Oaxaca. As we bought our tickets in Puerto Escondido, we were asked to sign our names. This had never happened before. “Por que,”? I asked the ticket seller. She failed to respond. “En caso de muertos,”? I continued. Again, a blank face.
Less than an hour after leaving Puerto Escondido, I decided we were all going to die by going off the mountain. About a half an hour later, I decided that we were not going to die by going off the mountain. We were going to die but hitting another vehicle coming around the corner. At times, the bumps were so severe that I was literally being thrown a half foot in the air from my resting place on the back seat.
By daybreak, I began feeling more optimistic. As our driver pulled safely into Oaxaca's central bus terminal, I wasn't sure if I had ever come closer to embracing a total stranger in my life.
Oaxaca, however attractive, was merely a pit stop. There were only a few minutes to change money and visit a small restaurant just off the Zocalo. A one day bus ride led to a series of such rides. It was bone crunching travel, night and day for nearly a week, as we hurtled toward San Cristobel de las Casas and eventually, Guatemala City. The buses mostly moved at a crawl, lurching left, then right, dropping villagers off in the middle of nowhere, sometimes narrowly averting serious accidents. Much later, a friend in Boston who had lived in Mexico told me that she once had five friends die on Mexican highways in one year alone.
Livingston was different from other parts of Guatemala. Lacking the colonial churches and volcanoes of Antigua, the Indigenous markets of Chicicastenango, and the language schools of Quezaltenango, the city was hot, humid and unsettling. It could have been the launching pad for the African Queen. Belize too, was starting to invite second thoughts. Travelers reported that there was nothing much to eat in Belize outside of rice and beans. Border officials were said to be unpleasant. They had a particular dislike of long- haired males and rarely, if ever, granted a stay beyond one week. Transportation from Punta Gorda, my arrival point, to Belize City, was said to be spotty at best. Some believed it didn't exist at all.
After a quick haircut, I boarded a boat for Belize. A seven day visa was issued in Punta Gorda and I learned that there indeed would be no transportation to the capital city for nearly a week. I slipped into a small restaurant where Belize's reputation as “the Mecca of rice and beans” was on full display. This was decision time. The road to Belize City was unpaved and it spanned about two hundred miles. I had neither tent nor sleeping bag; just two heavy travel sacks. While a one week stay in Punta Gorda could have been pleasant, it would have left me only one day to explore the coral reef. And there were still those shark stories. I decided to push onward.
The journey began with a breezy stroll along the town's main street which abutted the ocean for the first few miles. Almost at once a car stopped. “Where are you going,”? a middle aged woman asked. “Belize City,” I replied. “You can't get there,” she explained. “No one will be going 'til the end of the week. I'm going just a short distance, myself,” she continued, “but I'll take you as far as I can.” After we had covered only about a half mile or so she spoke again. “Do you mind if I stop and read my mail,”? she asked. “No, that's fine,” I replied. We stopped at a small roadside shack, retrieved her mail then walked precariously out onto a rotting log where we both dipped our feet into the ocean. She then read her weekly correspondence. As we resumed our journey, the road was about to turn inward. She however, pulled over to the right. “You're welcome to stay the night,” she explained. I'll be happy to make breakfast and you can get an early start in the morning. The offer was an attractive one, a clear improvement all around. But time was a factor and I didn't feel that I could abandon my adventure. I thanked her and kept walking.
“Snake,”! Two young boys deliriously bounded from their ramshackle front porch. “Is it a big one?” I enquired. “Sure is,” they replied. It was probably lucky that I didn't actually see it. “Where are you going,”? their mother enthusiastically called out. “Belize City,” I answered. “You can't get there until Saturday,” she replied. “Well, wait a minute... maybe Mr. Richardson's going,” she said. “No, I don't think he'll be going 'til Wednesday. Would you like a glass of water”? As my throat was parched, I told her I would. It gradually occurred to me that with two hundred miles to go, I had no supplies. After thanking her, I stepped back onto the dirt highway.
Within minutes, a young man on a Honda motor scooter approached. I couldn't imagine him stopping but he surely did. After about a mile and a half of bumpy travel my arms felt like they were breaking. “I can't go on like this,” I cried out. “That's O.K.” he answered. “This is where I get off anyway.” “My house is just beyond this hill.”
It could not have been more than fifteen minutes before the next vehicle appeared. It was an army truck being maneuvered by two young British soldiers. “I didn't know that you guys had business in Belize,” I commented. “There's a border dispute between Guatemala and Belize,” they explained. If we were to leave, Guatemala has promised to overrun Belize within one day.” The ride was a brief one and I pushed onward.
The next ride came from a fellow who looked to be a cross between John Cleese and Graham Chapman, a gap-toothed Terry Thomas type with shades of the late journalist Hunter S. Thompson thrown in for good measure. Also a British employee, the gentleman was out and about exploring for oil. “We're forced to look in more and more remote areas,” he explained. “Most of the world's oil has been tapped out. “Any wildlife out there,”? I enquired. “There is but you just don't see it,” he explained. “There's not much to see at all.” After a two mile lift he dropped me off a short distance away from what appeared to be a small general store. Upon arrival, I was approached by two young boys who were rollicking about. “Are there any tarantulas around here,”? I asked them. “What are them?” they replied. As a long term arachnophobe, I probably should have avoided the subject. “They're large spiders, about the size of your hand that crawl around like this,” I motioned with my right hand. “Oh yeah, we see them in the late afternoon. They come out of their holes and we kill them with rocks,” they told me. It was late afternoon and I was sorry I asked.
The general store was located on a slight incline overlooking the dirt road that had become my home. A second dirt road intersected at a right angle. Suddenly, a large truck carrying a group of migrant workers came hurtling by. I shouted loudly and the truck came to a halt. I tossed my bags into waiting arms and climbed high into the rear compartment. “Belize City?” I queried excitedly. “No, Guatemala,” they replied. I was crestfallen. Someone motioned for the driver to stop and I climbed down from the vehicle almost as quickly as I had gotten in. They all drove away laughing.
It had now become apparent that I had been traveling on the wrong road. The right one, however, was now visible. It stretched out ominously. I took a sip on the first of two bottles of Coca Cola. “Are there other stores like this one between here and Belize City,”? I nervously asked two employees. They conferred quietly. “There's one more about ten miles from here,” a young man replied. “After that, nothing.”
In truth, I had been enjoying my Belize adventure. I had been on the road for three or four hours and had covered only about eight miles. There were another hundred and ninety-two to go. I wondered if reality was about to intrude.
After crossing the intersection, it occurred to me that everyone who had stopped so far consisted of city folk running their daily errands. The real road to Belize City might be a different story. Clearly, there was a feeling of community in Belize. Locals seemed to understand pretty well that transportation options weren't the best.
It was about five o'clock in the afternoon and I couldn't imagine where I'd be spending the night. There were no hotels and I had no food. I thought that perhaps the rooftop of an abandoned building might at least offer protection from snakes and spiders, or worse. I waited patiently in the scorching sun. There wasn't even the hint of a ride for at least forty-five minutes. Finally, a car appeared. The approaching driver began by ignoring me. He passed at a snail's pace, his vehicle rocking from side to side due to large ruts in the middle of the road. Still, I managed to lock eyes with him in his rear view mirror. I froze him with a look of incredulity. Finally, he relented. Upon running up to his car, I asked where he was going. He told me he would be going to a city called Dangriga, one hundred miles away.“There's a gas station there,” he explained, “that attracts lots of traffic. It's likely someone will be going to Belize City tonight. If not, there'll be buses at daybreak.” It was all too much to believe. I would be in Belize City no later than tomorrow!
Conversation was difficult due to an unusually loud engine and an equally loud radio. Like almost everyone in Belize, the gentleman made periodic stops, delivering eggs to Mrs. Oliver, picking up an auto part from the Edwards family, checking on the well being of the Dunleavys. As we had spoken so little over the course of several hours, I didn't expect much of a parting. But in Dangriga, with the engine turned off, we both sat quietly for about twenty-five minutes or so. “I know Boston,” he offered. “I've been there a couple of times. It's a nice city. Your diet is funny though. All you eat is hamburgers and French fries.” “Well, I'm not so sure,” I replied. “How about the diet in Belize”? Don't you mainly eat rice and beans?” No, it's not true,” he continued. “We eat rice and beans with chicken, rice and beans with beef, rice and beans with pork.” He seemed to be entirely serious. I was very tired. Still, I couldn't keep from laughing.
At ten o'clock at night the gas station was a hive of activity. Any car that even hinted at going to Belize City was being besieged by potential passengers. A tall, stately black gentleman seemed to be holding court. The conversation that passed between us was agreeable though not very personal. This made it all the more surprising when after a few hours he spoke out, seemingly to no one in particular. “Well, we'll wait around for about twenty more minutes and if nothing comes along we'll go get some sleep and catch a bus out in the morning.” Was he talking to me? I couldn't get over the idea that I was being offered a place to stay.
His mosquito-infested apartment had no lights or bedding of any kind. It appeared to be a second home, a place he could hang his hat whenever in town. “We'll hear those buses honking before we know it,” he predicted. He took one room and I took another. We talked quietly before giving way to exhaustion. And he was right about the honking horns. They seemed to arrive within minutes.
Belize City provided access to Key Caulker, (spelled “Corker,” on some maps). The Key didn't have a single hotel but it was possible to rent an entire floor of a house for a few dollars per night. Lobster on the island was being fed to the cats and dinner was served one night at Mrs. Bainbridge's, the next night at Mrs. Wainwright's. Desert would follow, some nights at Mrs. Foley's, others at Mrs. Jones's. Travelers I had met earlier on the voyage somehow gravitated toward Key Caulker. A few said they never wanted to leave. While the snorkeling was spectacular, one never did see the hammerheads or tiger sharks. And the sharks that were being ridden by travelers... they were nurse sharks. It wasn't true that they had no teeth but it's believed that since the year fifteen- eighty they have not been responsible for a single human fatality.
The years have passed and Belize has no doubt changed. The country gradually began to view travelers as more “friend” than “foe.” Roads were paved and small hotels turned into larger ones. The experiences that I had all those years ago, today would be difficult to repeat. Yet for those who may have tried, I hope they have experienced at least a small fraction of the hospitality shown to me by Belize's kind and spirited people.
On the small island of Lamu, just off the Kenyan coast, there was only one automobile. There were, however, plenty of donkeys and cats. Donkey stories abounded. One traveler said that he left a drinking establishment one night about two A.M. and walked straight into a donkey.
A second reported that he was out walking at four in the morning when he came upon a donkey wearing a large pair of turquoise sunglasses.
Lamu did not have a beach that was close to the town center. To get to a beach, one needed to walk for about forty minutes along a winding path that zigzagged just inside the curving shoreline. The walk was an enjoyable one, the island's brush and small trees home to a plethora of birdlife, including the red and purple Carmine Bee Eater and the incomparable Malachite Kingfisher, a candidate for cover shots, if ever there was one. For those who didn't feel inclined to walk, there was also an Arabic dhow that taxied patrons between the town center and Shela Beach.
Many travelers felt passionate about Lamu. On one day in particular, I was reading a paperback on Shela Beach just a few feet away from the water. A fellow traveler passed. “”Have you been on the island long,”? I asked him. “Eleven years,” he replied. He continued walking. Our eyes never met and he didn't even bother to turn his head. “I think I'll stay another eleven,” he retorted.
There was no rule of thumb as to when one should take a dhow back to town or when one should walk. The dhow trips were beautiful in their own right. They allowed a visitor the feeling of connecting to an earlier, more elemental way of life.
It was late afternoon and I decided I would sail back to the town center. We took off in normal fashion. I don't know when I became aware that the trip was taking longer than usual. It's easy to lose track of time on a small boat that is shifting with the seas. Still, we didn't seem to be going anywhere. Normally a fifteen minute ferry ride, we were already at sea for thirty minutes. We were also not going in the right direction. The boat, pitching to and fro, was circling aimlessly. I kept calm but finally decided to question an African passenger.”What are we doing?” I asked him.” “We're looking for the moon,” he replied. “We're looking for the moon?” I repeated. “It's Ramadan,” he said. “It's also dinner time.” None of us can eat until someone sees the moon.” And I thought I had taken passage on a mere water taxi back to town. I could have never guessed that I would be off on a lunar exploration.
The next day I endured a rough eight hour bus ride from Lamu to Malindi, then on to Mombasa. Baboons were crossing the road almost endlessly. At one point we plunged headlong into a herd of about sixty topi.
Mombassa would have been a great place to spend the night but the night train to Nairobi seemed to be a better option. With little time to spare I tried frantically to catch it. I jumped into a taxicab only minutes before the train's departure. The cab driver and I basically said nothing to each other. It's a truism that at times, people simply don't know what to say to each other. Gradually, I surmised by the man's clothing that he was a Moslem. I then made a clumsy attempt at conversation. “So, did you see the moon last night?” I asked him. “No, I didn't see it,” was his reply. “None of us saw it. But we all did listen to the radio. Finally, we heard that someone in Nairobi saw it. After he did, we all had a feast.”
From Arequipa to Addis
Peru's southern colonial capital, Arequipa, was often a way station for travelers who were on their way to Cuzco and later, Machu Picchu, by train. My own visit to the city pretty much fit the pattern.
Having already secured a ticket, I found myself in a small café just off the Plaza de Armas, sipping café con leche. A small boy walked in off the street, pulled out a cigarette and asked if I wished to buy it. Peru's poverty was astonishing. Why would anyone want to buy a single cigarette? In any case, these boys are often thieves, working with partners. Many a sorry traveler has learned that in the time it takes to say “no, gracias,” his or her bags have disappeared. Peru at times was a veritable den of thieves. Puno was the worst. Nearly one of every two people I talked to had been robbed in Puno. I can recall two Australian men who arrived at my hotel one day around noon. By four P.M. they had lost everything; cash, passports, airline tickets as well as their bags, which included a ton of camera equipment. Their visit to Peru was over before it started. About five days later, Pope John Paul visited Cuzco. He gave a speech to a huge outdoor audience. In the middle of his sermon he asked the Peruvian people to stop stealing. A Peruvian man later told me that while listening to the Pope speak he was robbed twice.
With a couple of hours to go before departure I walked back to my second storey hotel room. I quickly grabbed my camera and walked up two flights to the roof. Arequipa was ringed by several volcanoes. The view was marvelous. At ground level, a football match was taking place on a macadam surface. I also noticed that two stories below me two men were standing on yet another rooftop. I began snapping away. Almost at once the two began wildly waving their arms, letting me know that photography was forbidden. Quickly, they climbed from their rooftop to mine. It then occurred to me that the football match was being played by a group of police officers. As both men finally reached my rooftop they demanded that I hand over my camera. I refused. “Why don't I give you the film?” I offered. “O.K., give us the film” they replied. As I pretended to be rewinding the roll of print film one of the two got on a walkie- talkie. He was summoning “El Capitan.” “Which room are you in?” they demanded. I had little choice but to show them. Coincidentally, “El Capitan” was ascending the hotel stairs at the same time that we were walking down. He was accompanied by about six additional soldiers. The proprietor of the hotel also joined in. He looked perplexed and wasn't especially pleased with the proceedings. In methodical fashion, the police rifled through my belongings, taking great interest in the smallest, most insignificant items. As I had come to Peru via Tahiti, I had guide books from Polynesia, novels by Gertrude Stein and plays by Tennessee Williams, along with a snorkel and diving mask. Eventually satisfied that I was only a tourist they finally left. While I felt overjoyed that I would later be able to show the photograph of two policemen perched in front of a volcano I was nonetheless shaken. The proprietor of the hotel was completely supportive. “Has this ever happened before?” I asked. “No, he replied. “You mean I'm the only tourist who ever stayed in this hotel, walked up to the roof, photographed a volcano and got into trouble with the police,” I asked. “Yes,” he replied.
Photography always carries its own baggage. Once, on a long bus ride through Tanzania, I was having a conversation with a fellow traveler. “I no longer take my camera out of my bag,” he told me. “I've had enough.” About an hour later, I did take my camera out of my bag. We had reached a mid-sized city on the western side of Lake Victoria. Suddenly, the late afternoon sky turned the strangest combination of pink and orange. I was standing in a large wide open city square and decided to capture the moment on film. Almost at once I was rushed by more than one hundred people. They stopped only a few feet away from my face. The episode was terrifying and I felt highly relieved when they restrained themselves. As the late afternoon light was rapidly vanishing, I quickly moved to another side of the square and tried repeating the process. Immediately, a second wall of humanity closed in upon me. I finally got the message. I was lucky to have not gotten hurt.
It's difficult to blame anyone who is uncomfortable around cameras. I don't feel comfortable around them myself. While the notion that people's souls are being stolen has wide appeal, other ideas have emerged. In parts of East Africa one can encounter what might be called a collective inferiority complex. “They're worried that they'll be made fun of,” an American missionary once told me in Tanzania. “They think that someone will take the photos home and laugh at them.”
Years after I first visited Peru I found myself in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. I had just bought a new video camera worth several thousand dollars. I had been climbing a hill just next to the Addis Hilton. A light rain began to fall. To my left an Ethiopian mop salesman was also walking up the hill. Several of the mops were on his head. I couldn't resist shooting video. Within seconds, my attention was jarred by a heavily armed policeman who began angrily waving his arms. He couldn't have been more than fifteen. I thought I would be both diplomatic and pragmatic. I grinned and waved. “No problem,” I said as I walked briskly away from him. My words had little effect. At the same time, a young Ethiopian student began talking to the soldier on my behalf. He explained in Amharic that I was just a tourist. Suddenly I was surrounded by an entourage of policemen. I was being accused of photographing the Prime minister's palace and it was demanded that I hand over my camera. Once again, I refused. I tried to placate them by offering the tape. Surprisingly, they went for it. The rain was now falling harder and the argument proceeded for at least a half hour. The young student then gave me a rough translation of what was being said. The policeman felt that the incident was not resolvable. We all needed to descend the hill, they said, go into a camera shop and review the confiscated tape. “That's not necessary,” I told them. “My camera has a LCD screen. We can look at the tape right here.” I actually had no idea what was going to be on the tape. I was surprised to see the re-emergence of the man I had given the cassette to in the first place. What happened next was like a scene out of the theatre of the absurd. About ten soldiers and I, along with the young student, huddled in the rain as I hit “rewind.” I knew that I had taken footage of a mop salesman. But how could I be sure that I didn't catch a small corner of the Prime Minister's palace in the process? The young soldiers were now enjoying themselves. As we viewed the footage together like a band of brothers, we could all see the mop salesman walking up the hill. Everyone laughed and pointed. It was a great show all around.
Eventually, everyone was satisfied that no offense had been committed. Nonetheless, our banter continued like that of a troop of Eagle Scouts huddled around the campfire. I finally grabbed my tape and video camera, thanked them and left. Happy to be taking leave of my new uniformed friends, I walked slowly back into town.
Travel writer Philip Brooks has called Ethiopia the greatest of all African countries. The nation's diversity and range of experience are astonishing. Many countries, Ethiopia included, rue the fact that they have difficulty attracting foreign tourists. Yet American dollars sent to Ethiopia via Western Union, are paid out in Ethiopian Birr, a currency that is worthless anywhere outside of Ethiopia. And the buildings that are off limits to photographers? They're almost everywhere. “Not that one. Put your camera down,” my Addis Ababa cab driver would say repeatedly. According to the Lonely Planet travel guide, transgressions like the one I did or did not commit can be accompanied by a two year jail term.
One must always balance the good with the bad. Photography raises many questions but offers few answers. While traveling in unfamiliar lands, erring on the side of caution is naturally of the highest importance. If only one could have a clearer idea of when such caution is actually required.
The problem in visiting Tibet was that one had so little time to see the country. The Chinese authorities issued visas that were good for only one month. Tibet's transportation systems were so poor, its mountain roads so imposing that a long trip in one direction did not necessarily guarantee enough time for a return.
Mount Kailash was perhaps the best example. Most travelers knew that a visit to the mountain would be a once in a lifetime experience. But there was no public transportation to Mount Kailash. Of course, a driver could be hired by a small group. But it would still take a week to get there and several more days to explore the local environs. The thought of the punishing trip back forced many to consider other options. I myself found these strategic concerns to be both intimidating and frustrating.
One morning at breakfast an Israeli man and his son invited me to visit several distant monasteries with them, a trip of several days. They told me they were leaving in twenty minutes. We spent the next few days together, enduring a fairly intense snow squall, chatting with villagers and drinking awful butter tea. At night we would stay in monasteries, our teeth chattering despite having eleven or twelve blankets apiece.
About two days later, I hired a driver to take me to Lake Nam Tso. The lake was a poor man's version of Mount Kailash, but extraordinary just the same. Lake Nam Tso was about forty miles long and twenty miles wide and was located at an elevation of fifteen thousand feet. At the lakeside village of Tashi Dor, a large group of pilgrims would circle a holy mountain in clockwise fashion. The journey took about two hours. Pilgrims carried prayer flags and tossed holy streamers toward the mountain top, while others ate holy dirt. I spent that evening in yet another frigid cabin encountering two fellow travelers who were much more ambitious than I. They were not only visiting Tibet. They would later be going to Siberia and Mongolia as well, the latter by horseback.
The next day, my chauffeur and I began our long arduous trip back to Lhasa. The road seemed to stretch on endlessly. At one point we noticed a convoy of Chinese military vehicles. I decided to count them. There were nearly one hundred.
Just before reaching the outskirts of Lhasa we were pulled over by the police. My driver got out and walked over to chat with several officers. The discussion lasted about twenty-five minutes. It was anything but pleasant and I hadn't a clue what was going on. Finally, three Chinese policemen in green fatigues came over to our car and got in. They didn't say a word. We returned to the highway and drove toward the capital. After just a few miles we entered what appeared to be a military installation. Were we going to jail? Two of the policemen, silent to the last, got out of the car, leaving the rest of us to proceed onward. After a rocky ride into Lhasa we finally pulled into the parking lot of my hotel. Still unsure about what was happening, I said goodbye to my two companions.
The next day I learned that a typical dispute had occurred regarding my driver's papers. It's not unusual for Tibetans to be shaken down by Chinese authorities. I felt sorry for the driver. He had worked hard and ultimately received nothing for his troubles beyond a fine.
While Lhasa had great charm, I was still no closer in figuring how to get out of Tibet. A trip to Shigatse, Tibet's second largest city would be a good way of getting things started. The local bus to Shigatse was rumored to be unavailable for travelers. Most long trips in Tibet needed to be arranged by small tour companies. Precise paperwork was required. An official driver needed to be hired and the authorities kept a close eye on things. Still, I thought I would set my sights on the Everest Base Camp and Zhangmu, a border town at the edge of Nepal. Taking the local bus to Shigatse would be risky but it was worth a try.
As we ascended and plummeted across breathtaking passes, a feeling of lightheadedness ensued. Crosses and stone shrines could be seen at regular intervals, reminiscent of similar roads in South America. While sometimes signifying the death of a villager or a highway fatality, all too often they marked the site where a bus or truck went off the mountain.
Shigatse was home to yet another exceptional monastery. It had a growing Chinese sector and a Tibetan sector which although vibrant, was feeling the effects of development. I gradually befriended several tourists who were also on their way to the base camp. We decided to join forces. The paper work for our journey came off without a hitch.
We left Shigatse two days later, paying our Chinese driver fifty per cent up front. He began at a brisk pace, seemingly self- assured on roads with which he was familiar. Several times a day we stopped to take photos. The Himalayas were so grand that Everest itself was almost an afterthought. Still, the prospect of highway danger was ever present. “This road's not such a bad one,” a German tourist had told me earlier about the difficult road to Ganden Monastery. “There are roads in Tibet where with one slip of the wheel you've got a drop of three-thousand feet.” “No one knows what happens to vehicles that disappear in those mountains” a Nepali restaurateur later explained. “The drop is so huge. Most of the vehicles are never found.”
Mount Everest is known to Tibetans as Mount Chomolungma. Tibetans culturally were never attracted to mountain climbing. Many believed that European climbers were treading on sacred ground and disturbing the mountain God as well. Maybe they were right. “There are hundreds of ways to die on Mount Everest,” explained climber Peter Athans. To this day one climber is killed for every four that reach the top.
We reached the Base Camp late that afternoon. The small teahouse adjacent to the campsite was closed and this being early November, most climbers had cleared out for the season. It was windy and very cold and I left our vehicle only briefly. Mount Everest seemed to be so close that you could touch it. But the peak of the mountain was still twelve miles away.
We settled in for the evening at the Rongbuk Monastery, a site where British climber George Mallory stayed before his fateful attempt on Everest in nineteen twenty four. With only the most basic equipment, Mallory was last seen reading Shakespeare at twenty-seven thousand feet. Some to this day believe that he may have scaled the mountain. Seventy-five years later, in nineteen ninety nine, George Mallory's body was found, along with that of his companion Sandy Irvine. His skin was intact and was said to have been “as white as porcelain.” Missing from his personal belongings was a small pocket camera and with it any evidence that Mallory may have climbed Mount Everest, twenty-nine years before Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzin Norgay.
The evening we spent at the Rongbuk Monastery was uniformly unpleasant. Underfed and freezing, I could hardly wait to leave.
With a driver and three passengers, we left the Mount Everest Base Camp early the next morning. All appeared to be going well. Only about two miles outside of the camp, however, the unthinkable happened. Within a matter of seconds, our driver had drifted onto a soft shoulder and at fifty miles per hour was unable to control our land cruiser. The vehicle plunged off the road, rolled down about thirty feet and landed on its roof. None of us was wearing a seatbelt. I was somehow able to free myself from the rear of the vehicle and my three companions did the same. Improbably, outside of myself, no one seemed to be injured. I had landed hard and could sense that there was something wrong with my left shoulder. We all gathered our belongings and climbed back up to the highway. Two of my fellow passengers were Tibetan monks and both were laughing. The humor in the situation somehow eluded me. I can remember feeling a sense of disgust with our driver but for the most part no one spoke. We were all lucky to be alive. Plainly, our vehicle had been destroyed and it wasn't clear how we were going to get out of there. In some parts of Tibet, one can be stranded on highways for days, if not longer. Being so close to the Base Camp put us in a better position.
In less than an hour a vehicle appeared. It was another group of travelers in a car similar to our own. They all got out and asked if we were O.K. No one, myself included, could resist the opportunity of shooting footage of the wreck. Still, I couldn't help but wonder, “are they actually going to take us out of here?” The answer at this point was far from clear. After some discussion, they said they would. We left our driver at the scene of the accident. The two monks and I piled into the second vehicle and continued onward.
Fortunately, I wasn't in any pain, but my shoulder was swollen. It had been knocked into a different place. “I'm not a doctor,” a young man sitting next to me explained. “But I think you've got a broken shoulder.”
After traveling only about five miles, our driver made a strange decision. After much consultation, he left the main road and began cutting across the mountain itself. I wasn't sure that this was possible. The roads in the Himalayas were bad enough... but to cut diagonally across a mountain? The issue seemed to be less a question of feasibility and more a question of whether this route would get us where we were going.
A few hours later we returned to the main road and arrived in the small town of Tingri. After a hearty communal lunch, we continued our thirteen-thousand foot descent toward Zhangmu. At several steep mountain passes, both monks bowed their heads and murmured a low sounding chant. The road had narrowed considerably and a flimsy bridge carried us over a mountain pass, the depth of which was nothing short of unbelievable, The Monks knew their own country and the timing of their chanting was not accidental. It created an unsettling feeling all around.
By late afternoon we stopped to rest and had a rendezvous with another group of travelers. Happily, there was a feeling that our entourage had weathered a storm. With warmer air and noticeable greenery, we heaved a collective sigh of relief.
Zhangmu was a cross-cultural honky-tonk with an “anything goes” reputation. It was a place where Nepali businessmen traded directly with the Chinese, avoiding Hong Kong in the process. The city had three and possibly even four different names. There was only one main street, which was about a seven hundred foot climb from bottom to top. I stayed at the Sherpa Hotel which had a wonderful rooftop restaurant. Payment was by the honor system. Both the waiters and the Nepali cook were unable to read the English menu. It was therefore up to tourists to tell them how much each meal actually cost. Every morning I would look at my shoulder in the mirror. It was mostly unusable. It looked misshapen.
Leaving China was probably not going to be easy. I worried that my film would be confiscated. Luckily, the long, slow descent from Zhangmu to the Nepalese border was relaxing and beautiful. One never tires of making the mysterious transformations that takes you from one country to the next. Both cultural and topographical change occur right before one's eyes. The anticipation of new possibilities and experiences can be intoxicating.
The narrow road leading toward Katmandu was especially memorable. Waterfalls appeared to pour out of the clouds. Having not yet purchased a bus ticket, I began the journey by walking. “Be careful,” a young Nepalese boy cautioned, “a woman fell.” I paid little attention. I believed he was talking about something that had happened years ago. Several times, he repeated the same warning. Finally, I gazed over the precipice. I was able to spot a small group of colorfully dressed Nepali women huddled together about seventy feet down. I gradually realized what had happened. The woman hadn't fallen a few years earlier, she had fallen only a few minutes before. Despite falling seventy feet, the woman was still alive. She was expected to recover.
I left for Kathmandu with a gang of drunk Nepalis who were hell-bent on killing themselves. Every hairpin turn brought on more terror. The last thing in the world I wanted was to be getting out of that vehicle. But they left me with little choice. Once again, I found myself stranded in the Himalayas.
Within a short time, I was able to flag down another bus to the capital. “Did you know we have a guerilla war going on here?” a young man sitting next to me asked. No, I didn't” I replied. It seemed to be the least of my troubles.
In Kathmandu, I settled in Bodnath, the home base for an exiled Tibetan community numbering in the thousands. It was largely centered around a large stupa or chorten, at least sixty feet high. On one night in particular, I was witness to a spectacular ceremony. Fifty thousand candles were lit by hand in only one hour.
I didn't get to a doctor for one month. X-rays revealed that the shoulder had not been broken. “There are five degrees of shoulder separation,” a doctor explained to me. “Yours was a third- degree separation. He told me that young women in particular feel self conscious about such injuries. “They're reluctant to go back to the beach wearing a bikini,” he explained. He predicted that my shoulder would largely be healed within about ten weeks.
Tibet sometimes seemed like one of the few places on earth where people didn't actually want anything from you. The country's remoteness has surely played a role in the formation of the nation's character. Curiously, some believe that as late as nineteen seventy-nine only twelve hundred and fifty westerners had ever made it to Lhasa.
“You could die there,” a woman in Boston told me long before I had even considered going to Tibet. If only she could have known how prescient her words ended up being.
A new railroad now links Golmud, China to Lhasa. Tens of thousands of tourists and Han Chinese are now flooding into Tibet. The country is changing in a thousand unforeseen ways. One can only hope that Tibet and its exceptionally rich culture will survive. It will be a delight if one of the most original places on earth can hold onto that originality for as long as is humanly possible.
Elmer Hawkes is a filmmaker living in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He is the creator of the eleven–part Worlds Together series.