"What are you writing?"
It’s Rick, back at the bar again, playing with his computer. He’s owner of the Cafe Sol y Luna in Copacabana, Bolivia. His cafe is attached to the Gloria, a rambling 3-star hotel, always in the process of being renovated. A bright yellow, four storeys high, it dominates the beach frontage, with a great view out over Lake Titicaca to the Island of the Sun, a resort destination for the Incas and now popular with European and North American tourists on the Inca circuit.
I’m here partly because Rick has the only espresso machine in town. Viv and I interrogated him and his Argentinean wife Margareña two days ago, for the Adventure Guide to Bolivia, and discovered Rick’s machine. I turn up now every day at 6 p.m., when Rick opens up, and will continue to do so until we leave for La Paz in a couple of days.
Coffee. Not the stuff normally available from those who grow it. They offer tourists Nescafe — genuinely believing that gringos prefer it. If you ask for the coffee of the house, you get cafe estallado. It’s a coffee syrup, to be served hot with hot water, though usually the syrup sits on the cafe table all day. Some think it’s prepared by holy men at high altitudes, following a process handed down for generations. Really it seems to be espresso made in a simple espresso pot and left to go stale. It doesn’t have much of a kick.
Rick has rescued me from it.
"I’m writing stories for a friend who operates an e-magazine," I tell Rick.
"What kind of stories?"
"You write stories and Viv writes travel books? You write stories about writing travel books?"
Rick’s a Belgian. He’s medium height, burly, with a short, black beard which he’s forever stroking as he talks, drinks coffee, or plays with the computer mouse. It makes him seem deeply meditative, which maybe he is. He told us a few nights ago that he started his travels when he was in his twenties. The trip was supposed to last a month, but went on for 10 years. He doesn’t know why. To pay his way, he worked in tourism, mostly in hotels. His ability to speak 6 languages was his only qualification, but it was a decisive one. He managed a few hotels. In Argentina he met Margariña. They married and she travelled with him. Finally they saw Copacabana and stopped.
They own the cafe and an Internet service along the town’s main strip.
"We figure this place can only get bigger," Rick explained. "It’s got everything tourists are looking for. Except at this altitude you need to swim on the top three inches of the lake or you freeze to death."
Rick knows what tourists want. Espresso. Dry red wine. A place to sit where you don’t have to tie your bag to your leg. No Andean pan-flute music — there’s enough of that on the buses. Instead, soft jazz. Toilet paper and towels in the can.
Rick’s in the mirror game too. That’s probably why he went traveling and why he got into tourism. He’s like an Afghan who managed to keep his stash of Time magazines and Michael Jackson dance videos out of the hands of the Taliban. By day he worked in the poppy fields and by night watched Oprah, his satellite dish secreted into the roof decorations of a nearby mosque, his wiring tapped into the diesel generator that lit up Osama’s headquarters. He’s the kind of person you want to locate when you’re adding a new chunk of turf to your empire. He’s a spy. He can translate between nightmares. He has fun at it.
That’s the other reason I’m here. Viv’s orders. "Write down everything he says," she told me.
Remembering this, I stop writing and ask, "What are you doing on the computer?"
"Looking at the website of Viv’s company."
Good, good, I think. As Viv moves, frisking hotels, cafes, and tour agencies, she drops the card given her by the company. In the company’s familiar, bright colors, it announces the company’s name and website. Beneath that is Viv’s name and e-mail and alongside, in bold print, WRITER ON ASSIGNMENT. Au verso, in fine print, a list of the many countries that have been blessed by the company’s attention.
If you go on the website, as Rick has just done, you get a map of the world. Click on any country, and you see the covers of the available guidebooks, Viv’s one on Belize among them.
"God almighty," says Rick. "She’s been to Sudan. Across the Chang Tang."
"She’s got the bug."
"I lost it. Want to settle down now, make some money, maybe even have a kid or two."
"She’s already done that."
"Where’s your friend’s e-mag?"
I write "www.dooneyscafe.com" on a napkin and hand it to Rick. "Mostly I’ve been sending him book reviews. I’m starting the travel stories as an experiment, to see if I can write a serialized book. Like Dickens."
"Here it is."
But I notice that Rick doesn’t read the story. He’s instantly off the computer and washing beer glasses.
At about 7 p.m., the tourists start to come in, many just back from the boat trip to Isla del Sol. It’s the big tour — hundreds go on it every day, even in the off season, like now. Most of Rick’s customers are burnt red, because the tour involves a 4-hour hike from a harbour at the north end of the island, up an Inca road to some ruins (probably a fishing town) on the island’s west side, then down the island’s spine to the "one thousand stairs", an Inca stairway down to a harbour at the island’s south end.
Rick turns on the music.
Viv and I did the Isla del Sol two days ago. My scalp is still flaking under my hair, and I have a bright purple spot on the right side of my forehead, where my visor let the sun in. It was the altitude that tricked me into not covering my head, and the cool air. On Lake Titicaca there isn’t much atmosphere between you and the sun.
Viv comes in, her notebook jutting out of the top of her daypack, which she carries backwards, on her stomach. She’s been out frisking hotels.
"How’d it go?" I ask her.
"Good. There’s a nice place up by the Cupula now."
"Did you go there?" I’m interested because we stayed at the Cupula three years ago, and in the communal kitchen there I started a novel about the Nahanni River.
"Michel will see us tomorrow."
"Oh yeah. The guy from Switzerland. Rick’s predecessor."
Rick comes over. "Some Concepcion?" he asks Viv.
"Make it a bottle, and bring a glass for yourself. I’ve got some questions about that hike out the peninsula to Yampupata."
"Sure," says Rick. "But first I want to know. Where I stand. How many stars do I get?"
Viv pulls her notebook out of her pack and flops it on the table. She flips through the pages, then rotates the notebook. "Read it for yourself."
Rick bends over, reads, then straightens up and heads for the bar.
"Wine’s on me," he says.
December 1, 2002 1223 w.