Chapter 11: the Krew Travelling (a) Isla del Sol
After the bacchanalian roustabout in the Alto, Sandy took the decision to set the krew off touring for their own safety, not wanting to draw attention . She’d attended a reception at the British ambassador’s residence (invited as a distinguished Australian academic, no less, although the label of visiting anthropologist now embarrassed her) and as she sipped her Pym’s gin on the calm tree-decked lawn, she overheard whispered talk that a certain fellow countryman was being sought by the Bolivian authorities for offences not unconnected with espionage. It didn’t take much imagination to guess that the subject of this rumour was Jim or that the band of confederates he had mustered could well be construed as Sandy and Co...
With the original objective of finding and perhaps assisting Jim now thwarted by our hero’s obstreperous behaviour, Sandy realized it was clearly time to camouflage their identities under the guise of commonplace tourism.
And surely they would find the tourist trail more comfortable, eliminating the harder questions of ‘why are we here?’, leaving just the simpler issue of ‘where next?’ and with Sarah back in Mayola Road still funding their travel from tha’ book’s steady sales, so what the heck. Though whether she had always been in contact with Jim or was indeed in league posed yet another imponderable to add to the matter of Jim’s present whereabouts and the question of which part of his current conduct was so disturbing to local police surveillance.
The recommendation in Jim’s email of ‘the quite extraordinary pull of the Lake’ proved unnecessary. Yes, Lake Titicaca was indeed special, so vast it felt like the sea rolling in, so high it literally took your breath away, so unearthly when the sky blended with the waters. On the motor launch heading for the fabled Island of the Sun, the krew managed to relax.
But the flight of Incan steps hewn into the cliff up from the landing spot to the tourist town of Yumani proved challenging on the chest and heart at this altitude even though the krew thought they were acclimatized; obviously not, when strenuous exercise was on. There were clearly gradations to the effort demanded.
Sandy and Koff eagerly took up the challenge, forcing even Geordie, dry-retching and heaving spasmodically to resolutely decide on shedding a few kilos from his debauched, bloated body. After the meal of freshly fried trout from the Japanese-funded hatcheries and tourist-inspired potato chips they rested for the night in one of the basic hotels, ready to start on the trails that all led to the Sacred Rock where Mama and Tata (first man and woman) were, according to Andean legend, supposedly conceived and born.
April was now beginning and throughout the Island, the harvest was being collected. Beans and quinua, barley and the inevitable potatoes plus some strange strange tubers that Sandy managed to discover went by the name of oka, were spread out to air on old strips of sacking before being strapped on the backs of mules; no vehicles, trucks, not even horses on this island, “what a relief,” sighed Sandy. The abundance of produce, all accounted for, none of it for sale, though Geordie would like Sandy to insist. What he would do with those dubious tubers, which he would surely find inedible is his own affair. Sandy just shrugs him off.
They discover a tumbledown shack en route that sells stale soda at a price, shelter from the cool wind and the surprisingly strong sun under a torn tarpaulin (“Got any of that sunscreen lotion left,” bleats a reddening, blistering Koff), before the track leads them up a steep hill which enters an isolated village nestled in a lonely, haunting hollow where a meeting of sorts is in progress outside an old church. The Aymara communards ignore the outsiders trekking past. At that moment a stinging hail storm blows in suddenly from the lake and the gathering moves indoors. There being no other shelter, our krew hunker under an overhanging outcrop of rock for a while, but eventually overcome their timidity and move inside. The church was dark and stuffy. They later learned that Christian religion was not a strong belief among these independent islanders. A priest visited here once a year on the patron saint’s anniversary to formalize marriages and baptise the resultant offspring. Apart from this the people relied on traditional practices to face the demands of their fortune.
All this was later explained to Sandy, by the mysterious Huascar who had marched into the unlit building holding a bare light bulb attached to a long flex and then proceeded to take the travellers under his wing. The svelte youth obviously had prior experience of foreigners and their ailments. He recognized that Geordie, for one, had reached the limits of his endurance and immediately shepherded them down to the shore where he commandeered a small boat and personally rowed them toward their destination. Huascar offered them the opportunity to land first on the sister strip, the Island of the Moon, which had been dedicated to the training of the virgins who attended the Sacred Rock, but the strand seemed bare and uninviting, so Sandy insisted on declining the invitation and Huascar pressed on through the choppy waves. Koff later discovered that Moon Island had been used as a concentration camp to lose inconvenient political prisoners in the 1950s, another example of the value of his research and the accuracy of Sandy’s instincts.
The sun had broken through the cloud cover as Huascar again moored the boat and they clambered up the final ascent to the Rock. Huascar was impressively buoyant after his exertions, pointing out the sights of the site. They halted on the approach to the Sacred Rock, which from this angle had assumed the appearance of a gigantic human face. They were straining to inspect the image, when Huascar bent down and indicated a crude outline painted in green on an adjacent boulder. Geordie gasped as he recognised what he was being invited to view. It was Jim’s personal emblem of a herbstalk - grass,dope, weed , mary jane– whatever the codename you might use for it. Here was undoubtedly a sign. They all knew it; Jim had employed this as an exclusive signature. Koff blushed, Sandy laughed.
“ One visitor asked me to show you this especially.”
“ Which visitor?” Sandy asked, though she knew who.
“ An English friend,” Huascar casually replied, “who knew you were coming and described you well. Asked me introduce myself and help you in any way you required. So here I am!”