“I was wondering … do you believe in God?”
“Do you believe in God?”
“Jacob—we’re about to eat.”
“Well, if that’s a problem … ”
“ … It’s not. What’ll you have?”
Jacob scans the menu for the umpteenth time as if it was a secret map.
The harried-looking restaurant owner is hovering close by, probably hoping that we will soon make a damn decision so he can go home. It’s getting really dark outside.
Okay, I’d better rewind, because this probably caught you off guard, like Jacob did with me just now. But I swear, it started as it always does: Like a totally innocuous tourist-thing. (Probably happened to you a dozen times, too.)
This morning, Jacob and I got to sit next to each other on the bus from Puno in Peru, and, well, we chatted: He was from a village in northern Israel, I was from the suburbs of Cleveland, ‘have you done Machu Picchu?’ etcetera, etcetera. You know the drill. By the time we were ready to stand in line like cows at the cramped border station to get our visas to Bolivia, we kind of drifted together once more.
It was actually preemptive insanity protection, now that I think of it. If I hadn’t had someone to talk to during those hours, I’d have gone loco, as they say here. Because Bolivians apparently seem to think that efficiency rhymes with multiplicity. So if you need three stamps in your passport you also need three persons for the job—one to give each stamp—and of course that means three long lines before this fascinating experience can be fulfilled.
Tonight we have reached Copacabana in Bolivia, right next to the azure mirror of the sky that we gawked at all day through dusty bus windows—Lake Titicaca. But I guess I still need some insanity protection because it’s very late, I’m very hungry and I honestly believed all we had left to do was to find some quick grub before finding a decent hostel. Apparently, Jacob has other plans.
I make an effort to concentrate on choosing a fish from the menu while deciphering its use of English grammar.
“They don’t have Diet Coke here?” Jacob looks amused.
“I don’t think they know what that means.”
“Diet or Coke?” He flashes a goofy smile.
I glare at him over my menu. “You aren’t diabetic or something?”
“Just never liked all that sugar. So what about it?”
“What about what?”
“If you believe in God?” he says, and quickly adds “—I didn’t offend you? By asking, I mean?”
“Of course, you didn’t.”
“I just read somewhere—” Jacob perseveres “—that despite what everyone thinks about the United States—with your Christian Right, Bible Belt and all—Americans are in fact quite secular-minded.”
“Meaning what exactly?”
He puts the menu away like he’s already forgotten about it. The owner frowns.
“Meaning,” he says, almost confidentially, “that you say that you believe in God—but most of you don’t.”
“I’d like to show that little research to my uncle from Louisiana.”
“Is he very religious?”
“He practically lives in church. I think he’s a Baptist or something, though, but I don’t know much about the different strands of … Have you decided?”
“Food, Jacob—” I no longer want to hide my irritation. “I’ve only had two Snickers and a bottle of that hideous Inca Kola since 6 AM. And if you don’t make up your mind soon, our amigo over there is going to have a fit and kick us out.”
“I hardly think so. We seem to be the only ones in his restaurant.”
“Okay, I’ll have the trucha. Am I saying it right?—And a normal Coke.”
I lean back heavily on my Inca Kola-sponsored plastic chair and nod in the direction of the owner. His smile widens. He practically jumps to our side, curled notepad at the ready. We order and wait, stealing a few last glimpses at the Lake Titicaca outside the restaurant windows before everything goes black.
I try again not to think too much about Siobhan back in Puno, that I could have been sitting here with her instead of just sneaking away in the morning before she even got up. Is she disappointed that I left without saying goodbye?
She seemed so carefree, so upbeat. She probably already forgot about me. I really think that she has.
Yes, I really think she has.
And now I’m sitting here with Jacob instead. Whoo-hoo.
He’s definitely not remotely like that cutie Siobhan and I drooled over in the “Rock’n’Roll” bar last night. More like your stereotypical student-type; a bit thin, big glasses, don’t-care-too-much-about-my-hairdo, and generally too introspective and silent to be much attracted to a dance floor.
It probably looks like a minefield to him.
Jacob and I eat our trucha—trout—and fries and drink our normal colas, mostly in silence, except for the usual small talk about travel plans from here and guestimates about bus and boat fares.
I’m relieved that the topic of God does not come up again, but I think Jacob is still thinking of it. Or perhaps about if I am now annoyed with him. Or both.
Trust me, a girl develops an instinct for that.
“You know, I wrote this essay in high school … ” he muses.
“Oh … ”
“ … about why we keep thinking God must be good, even if there is so much proof to the contrary.”
I just nod. He probably figured my mood so why is this still so urgent for him? I really don’t feel like talking about anything to do with … it.
And, you know, a part of me regrets having to be such a bitch. Jacob was good to talk to while we bumped along the winding roads of the Andean highlands and marveled about the Lake, while the sun was blazing from a pristine mountain sky. I told him all my usual lies about college in Ohio and why I felt so damn free traveling here, taking a sabbatical from my studies, carving my own path, and yadayadayada.
“Look,” I slowly turn my last fry around on the plate. “I think it’s … an interesting topic … God and all. But I just went to a funeral some weeks ago. I don’t feel like talking about it much.” I give him my best smile. “I hope you understand.”
“I do,” he says without hesitation. “I don’t agree, though.”
My brows go into knit-mode instantly. “About what?”
He shakes his head. “Forget it. I understand. I would just have said that maybe it is the best time to talk about … God.” He looks at me, almost apologetically. “The best time when you … you know.”
He really wants to talk. About this and a million other things, I guess. Which I don’t care much about, yeah. But he doesn’t want to be a jerk.
I guess we have that much in common, then.
“Come on.” I motion towards the exit, a pale green door with the proud painting of a misplaced sombrero. “Let’s go find a place to stay.”
“I saw a nice-looking hostel just around the block,” Jacob says. “Aransaya, I think it was.”
“Yeah, that looked nice.”
It also looked cheap, but I don’t say anything about that. I have burnt my money much too fast fleeing down here, but that is also a topic I don’t feel like discussing.
So we pay and walk out and it feels like we are good.
All the God-sized elephants walk out after us, though.
n the patio, sitting about five feet from my window on another of the ubiquitous plastic chairs (this time with a bright Pepsi logo). I knock on the glass but he doesn’t respond. He keeps crouching over a small table, fiddling with what looks like a walk-man the size of a book.
He is only wearing shorts, and a blouse. No blankets or anything. And there is a big beer bottle on the table—Paceña, the local brew—and two smaller ones, and a bunch more down on the tiled floor by his feet.
With some effort I get the window open. “Jacob! Shouldn’t you be in bed? Inside?”
He glances over his shoulder, face half in shadow. “Can’t sleep … ”
“Well, I can’t sleep either. Did you put a riot police loudspeaker into that ancient walk-man?!”
He just stares at me, like a zombie.
For a few moments, I just sit in bed thinking of all sorts of angry things to yell at him. Then I get out and after another second’s hesitation I pull the squeaky handle and open the door to the patio.
I have one hand on my stomach and the other holding my sleeping bag half wrapped around me. I slept in most of my clothes as I usually do up here but I’m still freezing my ass off. (I said ‘most’, since tonight I have strategically replaced my jeans with a pair of shorts because … well, you can ask the alien.)
I waddle over to Jacob and pull out another plastic chair from the hostel’s collection. There are some next to all of the rooms.
Sandals are in my rucksack somewhere inside, so I rearrange the sleeping bag so I can sit without my bare feet touching the ground, which is not awkward at all. Jacob looks away.
U2 continues with their effort to wake up half of the town.
I glance at the doors to the other rooms. None of our fellow guests seem to have noticed this little private concert. Or perhaps they didn’t want to yell at someone they didn’t know? Hey, I totally get that. But with my stomach messed up like this, I have to get some quiet, between all the running back and forth to what goes for a toilet here.
So here we are, sitting next to each other on the freezer-like patio while his vintage Sony booms away with a melodramatic song about New Year’s Day. And, yes, it’s time for that staring contest … but Jacob is like a fucking statue. No reaction. Why doesn’t he turn the bloody thing down? Or use headphones? Is he so drunk he can’t take a hint?
I feel like throwing the little noisy box over the roof and out onto the street. I probably shouldn’t. But I have to do something. “Jacob, maybe we should talk about … this in the morning? I mean, shit, if you want to talk about religion … anything. Just … in the morning, okay?”
Jacob looks at me like I’m the alien, someone he doesn’t really know anymore. Then, without any prelude, his lips part in a big drunken grin. “This—this is a fucking great song, Carrie.” He taps the big walk-man so Bono’s voice hiccups. “Really f-fucking great.”
I try to figure out something to reply but then Jacob suddenly waves at me as if to push away all advance critique of his choice of music. He accidentally hits the Paceña bottle which is knocked over the table’s edge. It falls right down into the group of empty bottles on the patio floor and everything splinters into a pool of glass shards and cheap Bolivian beer.
“S-sorry!” He tries to pull the two surviving bottles closer together on the table.
They are both open, I notice. Different brands, one stronger than the other. He must have been sipping them all by his lonesome until he cranked up the music. How long has he been out here?
“Yes. Yes,” he mutters. “I’d better go back.” He tries to get up from the Pepsi chair but he’s not doing too well. He drops back down and takes a gulp from one of the surviving bottles. Cusqueña from Peru, I notice.
“Are we doing a bit of cross-cultural exploration here, Jacob?” I nod at the bottles.
Jacob looks confused. “Wh—? No.”
I notice now how thin his blouse really is. He wore a parka-coat when we waited by the border, but he seems to have forgotten it somewhere.
“You’ll get pneumonia if you stay out here, Jacob.”
“ … So?”
“So just go to bed, okay?”
He tries to get up again; this time he succeeds. Barely. At the cost of another bottle that is smashed.
“Jacob—fuck! Stop this!” I get out of my chair, too, and try to keep my distance for good, but because I am stuck with my feet in my sleeping bag I have as much freedom of movement as the stuffing inside a burrito.
He looks down, as if he hadn’t heard me or as if it didn’t matter that the glass shards from one of the broken bottles could have gone clean through both the soles of his wafer-thin sandals—and into the soles of his feet.
A light has come on in one other room and one as well down in the bottom of the patio, at the entrance, where the diminutive reception is located. I wonder why Sleepy Guy hasn’t come out yet. Maybe he doesn’t want to lose customers? This place sure looks like it could need some more tourist feed.
Suddenly Jacob turns and shuffles into his room, not a word of good night or anything.
He is not in his own head. He forgot the walk-man.
Though I want to be with you
Be with you night and
I want to throw the damn thing away. Who the fuck does Jacob think he is? But after a little while, I pick up the walk-man. It is scratched and old, and quite big, and there are some Japanese letters or signs on it. I feel the weight of it in my hand for a moment or two, then sigh and caterpillar myself over to his room.
He opens the door ajar. “What?” His face is ghostly in the dim light. Like he is some shell of someone else.
“You, uh, forgot your ‘ghetto blaster’.” I hand him the walk-man. “This antique here is probably worth a lot,” I add. “Be a shame if someone stole it.”
“ … Thanks. Sorry, that—look, I did as you wanted. I just wanted to get to bed quickly, fine?”
“Fine, fine. Jacob, I’m not … I’m just a little ill. And if you remember to plug in the headphones next time … ”
Jacob nods, but in a way that doesn’t really make me confident that he understood me. Or cared.
“G’night, Jacob. Sleep well, okay?”
He closes the door, like somebody closing the lid to a coffin.
I want to be worried. I have seen something like this before.
But I don’t want to think about that. I never want to think about that again. And I really have to think about myself. This is so fucked up.
I make it back to my room, then I swallow some more Imodium to kill that alien in my stomach once and for all, and head off to bed.
I hope this strategy is enough to keep everything locked up.
My stomach finally rebooted a bit. The pain is only like somebody tattooing me now, without sedation. But with needles, not a pair of scissors. At least I have that.
When you travel to South America for the first time and you are on a shoestring, you learn these lessons the hard way. You learn to be hungry instead of eating something that you have even the slightest sense will upset your stomach. You learn to appreciate feeling well in your body, like normal—not like you want to flee it every second, because it hurts so damn much.
In fact, I have never hurt so much in my life—physically. As when I ate something down here I should not have. And it takes weeks for my stomach to reset itself. In the beginning, I had some faint, grudging idea that it would take away my focus at least, on why I am here. Why do I keep running? But at some point, you just realize that it hurts too much. And you want the pain to go away. You’d give anything.
I hear myself sighing deeply, as another shot of chemicals from my grand assortment of pain- and germ killers do their work and I feel myself slowly getting back into my skin.
But I can’t help thinking of Jacob. And now, I think I hear something from his room. Is it moaning?
Is he … no, it’s not like that. It sounds like he is ill. Probably one hell of a hangover.
I heave myself out of bed once more and shuffle over to the wall, still with the sleeping bag wrapped around me.
I shouldn’t care. I shouldn’t really care.
But I just want to make sure, you know. I listen to the wall for almost a quarter of an hour before I can convince myself that it’s only a hangover. Then I go back to bed.
The sun is up again, sharp and fierce. Backpackers are gathering on the patio, ready for the next phase of adventure. Mostly young couples, but I see two men in their forties as well. There is a low buzz of chatting in many different languages and I realize it’s late. I forgot to set my alarm, and breakfast is probably over (although I’m not sure I’d be able to hold anything in me).
Has Jacob left? I pull on my jeans and a pair of shoes and go outside.
A few seconds of hesitation and then knock-knock. “Jacob?”
Some unintelligible sounds. But it is him, all right.
” … Is everything okay? Maybe we should get going? We’ll miss the boat to Isla del Sol … ”
Was that laughter?
“Jacob, can I come in?”
No answer. However, the door is not locked, I find out. I push it open, slowly.
And there he is, Jacob—right in the middle of his own … god-awful mess.
I wouldn’t have imagined that it was possible to make a mess in these rooms that look like something decorated by Spartans on a budget, but Jacob has practically torn open his rucksack and spilled its contents all over the room.
God, it stinks here. Has he thrown up?
I can’t see any puke but …
… Jacob’s lying there, on the bed, fetus-position, all curled up; still in his clothes from last night.
I want to run but then I get my shit together and carefully walk over and sit down next to him. The bed squeaks a little, like everything else around here. It is the only sound in the room. Except for my voice.
“Jacob … Can I get you some cola? It is good, you know, if you have … ”
He shakes his head.
“Jacob … what is it?”
“It doesn’t matter.”
“Yes, it does. How can you say it doesn’t matter?”
“Because it’s going to happen anyway—just like everything else.”
Something cold and hard knots in my stomach and it is not the alien anymore. “What is … going to happen anyway?”
No answer. I look around for something—to use to wedge myself back into this conversation that I don’t really want to be having.
“Uh, so what have we here?” I pick up the book from somewhere between two folds of Jacob’s Prussian blue sleeping bag. It’s part of the pile at the foot-end of Jacob’s bed; a pile that also includes a small case for his glasses (empty), an unopened beer bottle, and a pair of dirty underpants.
I look at the cover. Between the beer and coffee splotches, the title is clear enough.
“‘David Bohm: Wholeness and the Implicate Order’?—Nifty choice of travel reading, Jacob.”
Still no answer.
“Okay—okay. Not funny. Jacob, please … ”
I gently touch his shoulder and he just lies there, as if he is dead. For a moment I am afraid that he actually is dead if it wasn’t for the fact that I could see his chest heaving up and down like he had to make an effort each time.
But his eyes …
He is lying on his side, looking away from me, staring into the gray wall that separates his room from mine; looking into that strange world that only he can see.
“Jacob … ”
“Uhn … ”
“Can I get you anything? Can I—”
“I wasn’t trying to be smart, Carrie.”
“Asking you about God and everything … ”
“Oh, forget that. I just want to know if you’re ill or something or just drunk. I really don’t feel all that well myself, so if you’re just … drunk, I’ll go back, mind my own business. So is that it? Tell me you are just drunk.”
“I’m just drunk. You can mind your own business.”
I nod and … stay rooted to the bed.
“Look, Jacob—it’s going to be fine. Tomorrow we’ll go to Isla del Sol. Or this afternoon if there is another boat.”
“Hmn … ”
“That’ll be nice, right?”
“Hnn … ”
“So, uh, I never really got around to asking, but are you going to, uh, La Paz next? How about the rainforest? Madidi? I think I’d like to go there … ”
“Hmm … maybe.”
“But you still have time? You’re not going home next week, are you?”
“In a month.”
“Plenty of time then.”
“Yes, plenty of … time.”
“So what then? College? Some job waiting for you?”
He doesn’t turn around, just lies there; staring hard into the wall.
“Wh –” I start again but can’t seem to do any better than that.
He finally turns around to face me, and I can see he has been crying. “Prison, Carrie. Because I’m not going to do military service for 3 fucking years. Three! I’m not going to do that!”
“And then you … you have to go to prison? Is that for certain?”
He does something with his shoulders that I think is a shrug, pulls his legs closer to himself; then stares hard at something past me. He doesn’t blink.
“I’m sure there must be some way of—” I start.
My thoughts are a mess. I should get up now, though. Say something innocuous and just get the hell out. But I stay.
He rattles on. “—I don’t want to go to prison. I just want to … ” He trails off.
My voice feels far away now. “I wish I knew what to say.”
“You don’t have to know what to say.”
“Jacob, maybe the military won’t be so … I mean, maybe it’ll be better than prison. At least. Maybe it’ll—”
“I hate the fucking military. I love our country, I mean … but the military is fascist. Look what they have done in Lebanon.”
“Yeah, uh, right … I can understand that.” But I really don’t. I was never big on Israeli politics. It was always some clip on TV and nothing more.
He looks at me searchingly. “Can you? Really?”
I think of my father. Of course, I think of him. Haven’t seen him in years but he is always there, isn’t he? “Yes,” I reply quietly, “I can understand what it’s like to just want peace. God, I understand that … ”
For a moment his eyes narrow and some kind of stillness creeps into the room; stillness full of ice.
“Strange … ” he then remarks. “You use God’s name now because it’s important to you, what you say. Yet, you don’t seem to believe in some god or other.”
“I never said I didn’t … believe. It’s just a manner of speaking.” I run a hand through my hair and can’t help noticing how filtered it is. “Look, are we … going to argue about God now?”
He shakes his head; like he just woke up from some dream. Then he shivers. And looks away again. “I—I don’t want you to be mad at me, Carrie.”
“I’m not mad at you.”
“I didn’t want to offend you. I didn’t want to impress you because … you shouldn’t think that I wanted to, you know … with you … or anything.”
I almost smile. “It’s okay. I didn’t think you were out to score me or … ‘anything’.”
“I just—” He shakes his head again.
I try to find something new to say. I have to. “Look, I can really understand why you don’t want to go into the army. My dad fought in the Falklands War, it didn’t go well.”
“I heard about that war,” Jacob says, his voice far away. “Was your father … ?”
“He survived but was wounded. His friend died, though. Look, I can understand if you are afraid to be—”
He looks up at me like I’m an alien again. “It’s not because I am afraid to be a soldier.”
“Not saying that! My dad wasn’t afraid, either, at least I think so. But he got hurt.”
“I’m not afraid to get hurt. I just don’t want to hurt others.”
He looks away again, like he is watching some invisible film that he can’t stop watching. “ … They shelled an entire village just across the border, Carrie. We were there, because my father imports oranges from a nearby farm. I know there had been fighting and rockets the other way, but the army just shelled it, and over a hundred people— ”
His voice breaks as if a stone got crushed in his throat.
My reply feels utterly useless. “I’m sure they didn’t shell a village?” But I know full well that if the Israeli army wants to shell something, they are quite capable of doing so.
“There was a war with Hezbollah—” Jacob continues, fighting with the stone “—yes, but it was a village. Children … We had just driven past the UN Compound where a lot of them had sought refuge. We were trying to get away. There was this boy on the road. Running. Screaming for his mother. He was burning … ”
I feel like the ghost now. It’s like I’m hearing it but a part of me is not there at all. And another part is right on that road in Lebanon.
“Do you know why … the army attacked that place?”
He shakes his head. “Some fighters from Hezbollah nearby had shot at them. It’s all so rational. I was very young but I thought of it ever since, and I always ended with ‘we can’t win this’. We can only …” The film draws him back again. “ … That boy wasn’t much younger than me, you know. Maybe a year or two … ”
I discover that my hand is still on his shoulder. I’m not sure if I should move it again. When is the right time to move it if you sit with someone like this?
I can also feel that the pills I swallowed are no longer working as well as they should and I really want to get to that island today. Or no later than tomorrow. But now—now I’m sitting here.
And Siobhan is probably off to have fun with that Olympic swimmer or whomever it was we spied at the bar—if they are both still in Puno. I could have been, too. And I loathe myself for thinking about that now.
I put the book down.
Jacob glances at it. “I have a favorite quote by David Bohm, actually … ”
“Yes, ‘The notion that all these fragments are separately existent is evidently an illusion, and this illusion cannot do other than lead to endless conflict and confusion.’”
“Everything in the world: particles, thoughts, trees … ”
“Even Jews and Muslims?”
“I’m thinking … that if I can understand what Bohm means when he talks about this wholeness that pervades everything, then perhaps I understand for sure—with my mind—how God could exist. Okay, maybe not the God of the Torah or of your Bible but some kind of divine dimension to life—something that links us together.”
He finally sits himself up in bed, but he looks like he has already been in a war. He takes the book, weighs it in his hands, looking intently at it, as if he is trying to remember another quote from it.
“Jacob … ? Maybe you should try to get some more sleep. Like I said, we can find a boat to Isla del Sol later.”
“You know,” he goes on, “I have read a dozen books about interpretations of quantum physics: Capra, Bohm, even that one by Greene about string theory. To me they all point to some greater wholeness that binds everything together; something we can’t explain with our theories about combinations of dead, soulless atoms racing about in empty space.”
“But what do you want to explain? Why that boy died?”
He bites his lip, seems to grip the book harder. Then tears come to his eyes. And I can see that he is ashamed of them.
“I just want to choose my own way in life—without being punished for it.”
He lets his head sink down on his chest, lets the book slip from his hands. “Even if I can somehow avoid prison—there are some ways—it’ll be difficult. Getting a job, benefits. Most of my family will hate me.”
“Is that why you are here? To get away? You said you were going home again.”
He nods. “My aunt was a high-ranking officer in the IDF, but resigned from it. She married a Peruvian businessman who exported electrical machinery from Tel Aviv. She invited me to come to Lima. Officially I’m attending a business education there, in her husband’s company. So I delayed my draft a year, until I am 20.”
I can hear the backpackers outside now, getting ready to leave. They must all be going with the same boat—to the island.
“How do you feel,” I ask tentatively, “about your aunt helping you?”
He shrugs. “That’s the point, isn’t it? I feel torn in two, like with everything else. She is pretty unapologetic about some of the things the army does. ‘We have to defend ourselves—there will always be casualties not meant to be.’” He laughs but without heart. “Whatever that means!” He looks at me. “Do you have any idea what that means?”
“I guess it means that if you are a soldier there are no guarantees, even if you don’t want to kill innocents.” My father is close again, I can feel it.
But I don’t need him now. I wanted to escape. Perhaps more than Jacob. This isn’t it.
Jacob looks up, staring wildly at me like I had some of the answers he is looking for. “I love her, Carrie. She is so good to me. And some of the things she says—aunt Eliana—are … true. I mean, her father—my grandfather—died in the Yom Kippur war. We would have been eradicated if we had lost that war.”
I slowly get back on my feet. The bed acknowledges my decision with some very loud creaking. “Let’s go, Jacob. Pack your stuff. We can still make the boat before noon.”
“I should just stay here,” Jacob mutters, looking down at the floor. “I should never go back to Israel. But I can’t stay here. Eventually, I will have to go back. But I don’t want to. So I’m also a coward.”
I reach. For him.
And he flinches … draws away.
The moment dies.
“You … should go now,” he says. “The boat, remember?”
Then he picks up his stuff, with no real plan for it. He just piles it on the other end of the bed.
“Please, just go now.”
“Jacob … ”
“I would like to be alone.”
” … Okay.”
I decided to go to Isla del Sol alone. What else could I do? I mean, I went over after a very late breakfast to knock again at Jacob’s door, but he didn’t reply, even though I could see through the half-drawn curtains that his stuff was still on the floor.
There are usually, but not always two boats leaving for Isla del Sol. It depends on a lot, including the whims of the owners, and whatever personal business they have in Copa, I guess. There is also a boat mostly for the locals, but in reality the passengers usually get mixed up. But tourists have to pay a hefty extra fee to get on the ‘locals only’ boat. Still, it’s not much more than a cup of coffee for us in a posh bar in L.A. So I didnt’ care what boat I got on, just that I was … just me.
I honestly don’t feel like going right now. But out there, across the shimmering expanse of Lake Titicaca beckons the hazy shape of Isla del Sol. It’s like something out of a National Geographic documentary with its rugged cliffs and 360 degree views to the neverending blue of the Lake. It is also a rapidly expanding tourist attraction. Local hopefuls are building restaurants and hotels in big clusters around the ‘traditional’ village of Yumani where the boat lands. At least I was told that much—and with no small measure of drama—by Siobhan back in Puno. But I will go there now. I will. And you know, there are plenty of other ruins and hiking trails on the island. Plenty of ways to get … away.
I know the voice before I see him. And my shoulders slump at least a couple of inches.
There is Jacob scrambling down the small path from the Copa main street to the waterfront. His big green rucksack is bumping on his back and he is sweating like he just ran a marathon. With the thin air here, I bet he feels like he did. But he looks like someone else. Alive …
I almost want to give him a hug, but I stop myself. “So you wanted to go after all?”
“If you still want to be in the boat with me,” he grins.
“ … Yes.” I get a hold of myself. “Yes, I want to.”
Then he gets serious. “I’m sorry about last night, I really am.”
“I apologized to the owner, too. Paid him something extra for the cleaning.”
“I’m sure it’s no problem.”
He makes a wave with his hand, like that’s not up for debate. Fortunately, there’s no one around to hit this time.
We get our tickets and get our asses into the boat, along with a throng of other tourists and a group of locals who look utterly indifferent to our presence.
And after searching for a few inches of space on the boat’s bench, we can finally relax. We are going. Somewhere.
But first we sit—for a long time. We don’t talk about anything.
After half an hour my mind wanders. “Uh,—there aren’t enough life-jackets on this pram with a roof, are there?”
“Hm—aren’t there?” Jacob looks distracted like he is still thinking about the night. And so many other things.
“No, there aren’t.” I feel queasy. “And have you seen how many passengers we have? If something happens—”
“I don’t think anything will happen.” His voice is still flat.
My brain keeps trying to calculate the number of life-jackets vs. passengers. “ … I hate the idea of falling into the Lake. It’s probably freezing.”
“Are you afraid you can’t swim to the shore?” He looks at me. I can see how tired he is.
And it freaks me out that we can’t talk about it. And that there is no space in this boat. And no life-jackets. And about 20 tourists talking happily about all their happy experiences and ten or so Bolivians traveling back to the island with everything from tin cans to bags full of fruit.
I try to stand up and hit my head against the wooden roof of the boat. “Ouch! Jacob, we can’t get out of this sardine can if everybody panics.”
“You’re the one who is panicking.” He grins, no longer afraid of me it seems. Or whatever all that show was about yesterday. I look at the other tourists as if they should listen to reason. They seem totally oblivious. Damn it.
I turn to Jacob again. “But maybe we should go outside, get up and sit on the roof?”
“What about our backpacks?”
“Who’s going to run away with them—on a boat?”
“I prefer staying down here.”
He turns away from me, his face very close to the nearest grimy plastic window. “You go up if you want to.”
I lean over and make him look at me again. “Are you afraid of the sun?”
He looks baffled. “The sun? Er … no.”
“Ah—!” I throw my hands up in mock surprise. “But I think that you don’t have faith in my super-suuuunscreen?”
I rummage through my handbag, and the first catch is what I am looking for. I wave the bottle of sunscreen in front of his nose.
He hesitates for a moment. Then something in his visage changes. Like he is reminded of something. Something that is both stupid and yet real and good.
And he laughs. But for the first time since I met him, it sounds genuine.
“You know,” he quips, “I really don’t know what the hell I’m going to do when my ‘education’ in Lima is over. I can’t remain. I can’t go home, but … ” He laughs again.
It’s a special kind of laughter, the one that comes at a moment when you feel who you are, who you want to be, all the good in life, and know you are barred from it. Yet you still hope. It’s where joy meets pain.
“You just have to have faith,” I quip in return. That makes him laugh even more.
And I feel … grateful? After a few seconds, it’s over, but something seems to be more alight in him now than just before.
“Maybe faith is something you have when you have to have it,” Jacob adds in a low voice, but now he looks directly up at me. “So why do I want to have it and why don’t you seem to want to have it?”
I take a deep breath. “I … want to have it.”
Jacob keeps looking at me. “So what David Bohm—one of the most esteemed physicists of the 20th century? Is everything he writes about just ‘New Agey-wish thinking’?”
“ … I don’t know.” As I try to figure out what the hell to say, I notice our ‘captain’.
He is a middle-aged Bolivian man, but with skin as brown and weathered as hundred-year-old leather. He is perched on a small bench, which is part of the railing, leaning cozily back towards the wood like it was a plush sofa. He has one hand on a tiller that controls both the outboard engine motors. It looks as if he knows the path over all the blueness in his sleep for he doesn’t really look anywhere in particular. He just … sits there and lets the boat move.
I sigh and sit down, too. “Look, Jacob, rational arguments for faith based on some quantum-something-something that I don’t know much about and which you read about—they don’t work for me. One thing I do know about quantum physics is that you can interpret it in a million different ways. Just because two particles seem to be connected beyond the speed of light or whatever, why should that mean that something like ‘God’ exists? That’s a really big leap. And so it just doesn’t work for me. It just makes everything more doubtful.”
Jacob looks as if he’s about to say something, but then he stops himself.
“And—” I continue, some feeling of finality sweeping over me “—I don’t feel that I can believe either, just with faith, like so many of these people seem to be able to.”
I nod towards the locals who seem to have decided to clump together in one end of the boat, putting up some invisible wall between themselves and the Babylonian buzz of the tourists. They discuss something in their own language, not Spanish—some indigenous language. Probably something about crops. Or fish. Something sufficiently concrete, no doubt.
And when they need to be helped by that which is not concrete, they’ll go to the cathedral and get their car blessed. How difficult can life be? What do you need David Bohm or quantum physics for?
“You lost someone.” Jacob states it like a fact.
I nod in silence.
He glances down. “I’m sorry. Family?”
“I’m really sorry.”
“Don’t say that—” My voice goes up a notch, but I don’t care about the other tourists any longer. “Don’t say that,” I repeat. “We shouldn’t be talking about me. I’m just selfish.”
“Why?” he asks sincerely. “Wasn’t it a good friend?”
“My dearest friend … ”
“I’m sorry, but if that is the case, you are very much not selfish.”
“Then why do I feel that way?”
“You are a nice person, Carrie. I wish you’d come to Israel once. I could show you my country. It is a beautiful country.”
“I’d like to go. I don’t think the time is right, though. And I’ve blown the money I got my hands on, all for this trip.”
“Why? The trip, I mean?”
“Because … I have to see this lake—Titicaca. It meant something to her.”
“To your friend?”
“Yes. But … I’m sorry, Jacob. I’m really not ready to talk about this now.”
“Do you think you will be when you come back home?”
“I’m … honestly not sure, I will … go back.” I smile but feel cold again now. “It’s crazy to think like that, isn’t it? I have to go back, don’t I?
He nods, slowly. “I guess we both have. But not now.”
I touch his hand lightly. This time he doesn’t shy away.
For a long time we just sit and listen to the drone of the engines and the chatter of our fellow travelers; all excited, eager, looking forward to seeing the island where the sun was born.
“Have you noticed—” Jacob points “—how the water looks as if it’s sprinkled with diamonds?”
I turn around, peek out the dusty plastic window of the cabin. Then I see a hasp and manage to pry the window open. Immediately we can see everything clearly.
Including the diamonds.
“Oh, my—it is beautiful … ”
“The Incas saw this place and knew that this was where the Sun was born,” Jacob says in the background, “—or at least that’s what I read in the guidebook. I didn’t know much about Incas before I bought my Lonely Planet.”
I squint my eyes against the sun. “Neither did I.”
All around us, the profound azure blue of the Lake but now dotted with thousands and thousands of small, star-like diamonds.
And I had been so busy thinking about … everything. I hadn’t even noticed it, and we’ve sailed what? An hour? At least.
“It’s the high noon sun that makes it look like that,” Jacob starts to explain.
Then he stops and lets out a breath as if he also lets go of something heavy. At least for now.
“And we’re way up in the mountains—not a cloud in the sky,” he continues after a few moments. “So in a way the lake is almost close enough to touch the sun. It looks that way, doesn’t it?”
“It’s … beautiful,” I just repeat, at a loss for words again. “I wish I could take a photo, but with my old camera it’ll probably end up like shit.”
“I know … ” Jacob glances at his own camera then at the Lake again. “Maybe it’s always better to try to experience the most beautiful things in life directly.”
And so we try.
Last edited: 15 July 2023