Her name’s Siobhan – (21, Cape Breton, Canada) – and she’s been my travelling mate for about half an hour.
We both happened to need a chat at the same time, while struggling to make the ancient computer at the Margarita hostel send an e-mail before it went into another coma.
And we both gave up at the same time, one of us just going ‘fuck it – I’m going to grab something to eat. Hey – want to come?’
And next we both went out in to the dull streets of this near-border town, but didn’t feel hungry anyway and decided to stroll the harbor instead.
Isn’t that enough to be travel mates, even if it only last for a few precious hours one random evening in your life?
Siobhan is already filling me in on her personal manifesto about why everyone should travel round the world for at least a year in their lives, and how – by the way – her dull ex-boyfriend, whom she dumped before leaving Canada, was more interested in becoming a lawyer ASAP and spending the next 40 years on the job market, instead of 39.
Oh, and Siobhan is going to be a travelling journalist, once she gets around to that education – once she gets home, that is. In a few months. ‘Maybe a little more.’
She should annoy me.
She really should.
But God, it’s good to be with someone like her after traveling alone for so long.
It is a cold afternoon here at the harbor in Puno, Peru – on the shores of Lake Titicaca, that painfully blue jewel that somebody dropped from the sky right in the middle of the Andes and which I’ve been traveling just around 5000 miles to reach, without exactly knowing why.
It is always a cold afternoon by Lake Titicaca.
And here we sit with our legs dangling over the pier, my overcoat tucked good and well and Siobhan’s poncho wrapped around her. We sit and behave like a couple of girls on a summer swim at some tropical pool and chat and laugh. And when we shiver we chat and laugh a bit more, and tuck our clothes a bit more, and then we can keep it at bay a little while longer.
It will not get warmer, though.
If I continue directly from here, I’ll arrive in Bolivia – over there on the other side of the Lake – about 5 hours drive in one of those chicken-cramped minivans that seem to go for buses around here. Still about 12000-13000 feet up.
” – So what do you think we should do now?” Siobhan asks.
“I think we should go get something to eat soon,” I say. “I could eat one of those llamas over there, if we stay here much longer.”
I nod to the left of us, and Siobhan looks in that direction, beyond the paint-flaked tourist boats.
A brave young Peruvian is standing rigid near one of the tourist boats with not one, but two llamas. He is in full local colorful dress, which he will probably throw off as soon as he gets the chance, but which right now is his best opportunity to get some tourist to take a photo and leave a coin or two.
“Well, I don’t want to see you eat a llama here at the harbor,” Siobhan deadpans. “So I vote we go.”
She is on her feet, stretching out her hand. I grab it.
Siobhan’s got sparkling eyes, that’s the first thing I noticed about her, when we met up at the hostel; the kind of eyes that instantly inspires trust although it’s a complete stranger. Wondrous, isn’t it?
I wonder what she sees in mine.
“Maybe we should wait a bit.”
“Wait for what? It’s freezing out here.”
“We’re in the mountains, stupid.”
“As if I hadn’t noticed.”
She shakes her head, spits in the water – then proceeds, as if she concluded on an article about odd Scottish-American girls she met on her travels:
“Carrie, you really are a hard one to figure out – you know that?”
“What do you mean by that?”
“It’s just that you seem to change your mind every five minutes.”
“You have barely known me for more than five times five minutes; how do you know that’s not normal for me?”
She blinks teasingly, as if this all was some kind of big joke; as if we had been drinking too much already and were just talking nonsense because we had nothing better to do.
Then she begins to get up. She puts a hand on one of my shoulders for support.
Siobhan, I’ve already figured, is one of those girls who has a natural self-confidence; a gene that nullifies any fear or reservation that some well-meaning but ultimately destructive parent or authority figure might have planted in her. She just does things, whenever she wants to.
Yeah, I sure got her figured out.
“Look, if you want to sit here and look at the flaking paint on those cargo boats, be my guest… ” – She dusts of her already way-too dusty jeans – “I’m cold and I’m going to get myself some of that nice hot soup they advertised across the hostel – if that cardboard with the twisted letters hasn’t been blown away by the wind already.”
I don’t look up at her. The Lake is somehow holding me – even now, when we are here; in some joke town where tourists flee from as fast as possible because it doesn’t live up to their prejudiced dreams of exotic Titicaca.
“Okay, Siobhan – go. I’ll join you later. If you survive…”
“I’ve survived street food in Botswana, Bangalore and Beijing. I think you’re just afraid you can’t do the same, poor little American girl.”
She flashes me a smile that’s so carefree that I feel even more affirmed in my own conclusion – that we really don’t belong together. I want too badly to bathe in her sunlight but I can’t give her anything back.
“Already missing your McDonalds, aren’t you?” she continues, seemingly oblivious to my badly-hidden brooding exercise.
“I take that as a compliment,” I say and pull my legs defiantly up under me.
The cold is coming in strong as that dark glow over the northern cordilleras over there grows and grows. Soon the shadow will be here and then it’ll be bye-bye to the last sunrays which could give us an illusion that there is still heat left in Puno.
Puno, a city that’s like something half-thawed you pulled out of the freezer and then forgot about for hours; and when you come back you are loathe to eat it.
“I’d really think it’d be cozy if you’d come along for some dinner. You don’t have to eat anything. I’ll buy you an Inca Kola or something.”
Something resembling a smile tries to live in my face…
“You know, Siobhan… you really do want to poison me, and we’ve only just met. What am I to make of that?”
She didn’t poison me. I did that just fine myself.
It’s some when beyond midnight, at a bar the name of which eludes me, like the name of this local sweet booze that tastes really good once you mix it with enough Seven Up.
We shouldn’t really be heading back to the hostel …
We really should.
“You know, Carrie, about that time in Melbourne… I… I… “
“Watch out, honey, if you giggle too long into that cocktail it’ll enter your bloodstream faster. And then you won’t be able to tell me anymore about that surfer-guy in Melbourne.”
“Yeah, the guy-“(Giggling-burst, rest incomprehensible.)
“Believe me, I’m an expert on this,” I continue, professorially. “The fumes are actually stronger than the alcohol itself.”
“There are no fumes. Idiot.”
“You made me an idiot. Without you I’d never have known this-whatsitsname- …”
“Behave yourself – that guy over there is looking at us.”
“Why are you suddenly so worried about that? I thought that was my job.“
“You’re so lame.”
“Yes, you are, – here’s something to make you more lame-“
She pours until it runs over. Good thing most of it is from that big bottle of Seven Up we had brought over to the table.
Most of it.
We should really go now. I get more intoxicated being with her than drinking that local firewater, and she doesn’t hold back.
The guy over there by the bar is actually a little cute. I wonder…
“Do you think the girl that went to the banjo a little while ago really is his girlfriend or that they just travel together?”
“What’s the difference?” Siobhan shrugs overly much.
“Dork. What do you think?”
“I think she’s his girlfriend. Sorry, Carrie. No hope for us.”
“Who said I wanted him? He’s English isn’t he? They are probably absolute boors in bed. Not like Italians or-”
Siobhan’s control fizzles again. She takes a huge gulp from the Seven bottle.
I snap it from her.
“What? Afraid I got virus?” she blurts, a bit miffed.
“No, but why don’t you pour more of it up our glasses instead of pouring it into your greedy little mouth?”
“Yeah, why don’t I?”
“Yeah, why don’t you.”
The attacking air outside is razor thin and icy invisible at the same time. The Andes don’t care about our little escapades; we weren’t even meant to be here they seem to say – ‘get back to your little cozy civilization down the lowland, silly human ants’.
Yeah, why not.
Oh, great. Siobhan is throwing up.
I actually thought I’d go down first, but… here we are. And I’m the one who’s still sober enough to feel bad about all my crap-talk back in there.
“Carrie – help me here…”
“Sure, sure thing.”
“Because… I think I may trip, if… “
“It’s ‘kay. We should be heading back.”
“Think you can find the hostel?”
“I’ve got photographic memory.”
“What does that help when every house looks the same in this dreary town? Can’t wait until I get out of here.”
We start walking down the street, slowly. My arm under hers, although I feel a lot less stable than I try to impress upon her.
“So do you want to come?” she asks.
“To Los Uros, of course – that’s where I’m going tomorrow. They are really something.”
“Those reed islands in the bay?”
“Yeah – don’t say you’re not going to see them.”
“Actually I had planned to go straight to Bolivia.”
She almost tears herself loose from my grip, as if I’d told her something vile.
“What?” I blurt, confused, a little scared.
“You are not going? Why? It’s the coolest thing around here – floating islands of reed, for God’s sake!”
“Yeah, well, it’s nice but – “
“No buts, you are going. Tomorrow. With me.”
“I- I can’t.”
Her eyes narrow. She now stands without my help.
“It’s hard to explain… “
“Try me. I’m drunk enough to understand anything.”
Franklin’s Church …
Her skin’s whiter than ever before…
as white as the snow
which covered everything on the night we first met.
“You faded on me for a moment.”
“So what’s the rush about Bolivia?”
“M-maybe I have to meet someone. In Bolivia.”
She looks at me incredulously.
“Meet …?! You didn’t say anything about a boyfriend waiting on the other side. Is he Bolivian?”
“It’s not like that. I already told you – the last time I was with a guy was over a year ago and it wasn’t a success.”
“You didn’t tell me. That.”
“Just- let’s just go back.”
She seems surprisingly alert now and I suddenly want her to be dead drunk, to the point of unconsciousness – even if I have to carry her.
“Who are you going to meet?”
“Whatever…” she says and shrugs, a little defiantly.” – But you should come see the Uros.”
“It’s a tourist attraction, Siobhan. I bet they do it all for the tourists.“
She pats me on the shoulder, lightly.
“Does it matter? They are floating islands, Carrie. – Floating! And did you know – it’s possible to stay overnight! Wow, I’ve never slept on a floating island before.”
“Neither have I.”
“Well, maybe it’s time then?”
“But why, Siobhan – what’s so hopelessly speeh-cial about them aside from the fact that they are, well, floating?”
“So sue me.”
“Really, Carrie – you seem to be allergic to fun. And we could bring some of that Anus Janus-whatever and have a ball. If I could get you just as riled up as back there in the bar, it might just be worth it. Then we could fix the whole damned world situation, while sitting gawking at the sunset, legs dangling in the water – from a floating island!”
If she says ‘floating’ one more time I’m going smack her. Good thing, we are almost at the hostel. (I think.)
But Siobhan isn’t finished:
“We could even ask that cutie from the bar if he wants to come?”
She blinks seductively.
“A year, Carrie. Really? You are soo ready for a little- “
“Shut up. – Just shut up. Hostel’s over there, and I’m not going to carry you up the stairs, as well.”
“You might have to.”
“You are getting awfully sober, since we left that bar.”
“Funny, I was about to say the same thing about you.”
“Yeah… well, say all you want. I need to see some pillows.“
We work open the bulky doors, apparently waking the receptionist who only reluctantly begins scrounging for our keys. Big fat Bolivian lady who has specialized in the most disapproving looks for decadent gringas who just come down to her country to get drunk, spending more on liquor than she earns in a month.
Maybe she has a right to. Maybe I don’t care right now.
I end up following Siobhan to her room anyway, by the way. Just to make sure, I guess.
She fumbles with the keys, and finally the door gives.
“Can you find your bed?” I ask, tired, close to annoyed.
“If not, I’ll holler for h-*hick*-help.”
I begin closing her door. She stops it with a hand.
“Carrie… I didn’t mean what I said about you and that guy.”
“It’s okay. He wasn’t that hot anyway… But English guys definitely can be.”
“Guys in general,” I affirm and try to sound sober: “If it is the right guy.”
“Look – ” she says, “if you still want to go with me tomorrow, the boat is leaving at 11 AM.”
“I think I should just go on… “
She shrugs, looks down.
I look down, too.
“Okay, maybe I’m not meeting with anyone, yeah. But maybe I don’t feel like going to those floating islands.”
Siobhan steps a bit closer:
“I didn’t mean that about partying out brains out, either. It would be so rude. To those families who arrange the accommodation. Hell, they probably have their kids running around outside our rooms, because, you know, the islands aren’t really that big and- “
“I know you didn’t mean it. I – Ouch.“
A guy brushes past me in the hallway. I think he was one of those guys from Austria. There were two guys from Austria – or Switzerland – checking in, same time as me this afternoon.
“Uh, where’s the toilet?” he asks, eyes all over me and Siobhan.
“Banjo’s down at the end.” I point.
“Uh, thank you.”
He scuffles on, casting a few looks back at us.
“Ignore him,” Siobhan says firmly. “We should go –just us. I really it’ll be… beautiful.”
“Yes! Don’t you think they are… beautiful, the islands – the Lake… the people?”
I shrug. “In a way… “
“I think those people up here are really beautiful. Because I’m not prejudiced like – you know, in the bus I heard this couple, also from Canada, talk about how the Indian girls looked like crows who- “
“You should go to bed, Siobhan.”
I make as if I’m about to go, too. Then her hand is on my arm.
“It’s okay to have fun, Carrie. Even if a lot of shit has happened. – Especially if a lot of shit has happened.”
“I’ll think about it, okay, but I really should be going to Bolivia.”
“Just think about it, okay?”
“I will. G’night.”
She closes the door. I go back to my room. The guy from before still hasn’t come out from the toilet.
Wonder if he’s disappointed …
Later, when I sit alone on my creaking bed, it’s my turn to wonder about something:
If your best friend died, suddenly, horribly, is it then okay to still party like an idiot?
Before I wrap myself up in a million blankets to keep the cold out, I set my watch for 6 AM sharp.
Early enough to check out long before Siobhan wakes up.
I know I’m going to miss her, though. Meeting someone like her is what makes travel beautiful, not the places you go.
That’s how it really is and I wish I live long enough to get another chance to stay in a place with someone like Siobhan.