Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Guest Writer: Cath Barton

Heading for Lake Titicaca

My left shoulder felt like someone had punched me, a bright light was hurting my eyes and there were rustling noises all around. It was not meant to be like this. I had planned it all out in my mind the previous night and by this time I should have been on a bus heading south. Instead of which I was stumbling upright in a cornfield, barely out of a dream in which I was sitting at a restaurant table with Laura and all was as it should have been. Before it happened. I shook my head and bent forward, squinting in the effort of listening. Nothing. There were probably all kinds of small creatures living in the field. Just as well they had woken me because I needed to move on. Although only the sun’s rays could see through that ripening corn, there would be people out looking for me.
I pulled on my jacket and plunged my hands into its deep pockets. There was something hard and smooth in the left-hand one. My breath bubbled in my chest. Surely I hadn’t picked up that...? Trembling now, I pulled the object out. Chocolate. I started shaking with relief and stupid laughter, broke off two squares and forced myself to eat them slowly. Wrapped the rest of the bar carefully and pushed it to the bottom of my backpack, under my few clothes.
Two hours later I was on the bus, squashed between a woman with a basket of squawking chickens and an old man chewing coca. This was fine. They were not people who were going to ask questions of a dishevelled white man. They’d think me just another backpacker. I dozed as the bus bumped along the badly-made road. Next thing I knew I was being elbowed by the woman. “You deaf or stupid or what?” she was yelling. Then I realised that she was trying to stand up and that we had entered a built-up area. Small dusty houses with small dusty gardens in front of them. I grunted at the masticating man and we both edged into the crowded gangway for the woman to get off the bus, which was shuddering to a halt with an agonised squeal of brakes.
Pushed against the window now by the man’s spread legs, I peered through its grime at the crowd. They were gathered round a small group of women wearing tiered dresses of many colours with fringed shawls and bowler hats. My neighbour was pointing at them. “They’re wrestlers,” he said. “We have this tradition in Bolivia.” It seemed a weird costume to wear for wrestling, but then lots of things about this country were turning out to be weird.
Images flashed in front of my eyes. Of that man coming into the restaurant the night before. Of Laura standing up as he came towards us....
“How long you staying here? You want to see the wrestlers?” The man was dragging me up and before I could protest we were off the bus. “You’re looking pale, man,” he said. “You want some coca?” In my confused state I thought he was offering me drugs, and the last thing I wanted was something else the police could try and pin on me. “No, no,” I protested. But he persisted. “It’s too high up here for you white boys. You chew the coca and you’ll feel better.”
So there we were, me and this old guy, crouching on the ground in a small town on the Bolivian Altiplano, chewing coca leaves and watching women in fancy dress wrestling. “You want to see Lake Titicaca?” he asked me. “Sure,” I replied casually. But my heart was thumping. The lake was where Laura and I had been heading. Till that deranged man had come into the restaurant. But I couldn’t say anything about that to this guy. “I’m going up that way tomorrow,” he continued, “Got a reed boat at a place called Suriqui. I’d welcome some company. Travelling alone you must get lonely too, don’t you?”
I’d never heard of Suriqui, and I was sure it hadn’t been on our itinerary. So although the police might head for Lake Titicaca, it was one hell of a big expanse of water and they would not be expecting to find me in the company of a Bolivian fisherman. Now that the whole of life had become a gamble, this sounded as good a one to take as any. The guy told me his name was Fortunato and offered me a bed for the night in his little house.
I slept comfortably, and when I awoke next day I turned to tell Laura. But of course she wasn’t there. And then I remembered the man rushing up, shouting, and pulling out the knife, and dropping it before most people saw, and people surrounding me, and me running and running...
It took a full day to get to Suriqui. There was a group of English people there, come to see these reed boats. There was a buzz going on about something. I was curious, in an anxious way, so I hung around near the group. Sure enough, I heard the name Laura. “Excuse me,” I said, with foolhardy bravado, “Has there been some accident?”
“Not exactly,” one of them said, “Seems a guy thought his girlfriend was being attacked and ran off. Now they can’t find him and she thinks something’s happened to him.”
Not dead then. My Laura. So now I could go back. But the funny thing was, I suddenly wasn’t sure whether that was what I wanted to do. I flipped a coin in my head. Heads I stay. Heads it was.
So that’s how I came to be spending my life on the shores of Lake Titicaca, mending the reed boats , taking the tourists out for trips and chewing coca leaves with my friend Fortunato. I count myself very lucky to have met him.

© Cath Barton 2011

Cath Barton is English, of Scottish descent, and lives in Wales. She blogs on the 6S Social Network and is published here and there, including in 100 Stories for Queensland (forthcoming).


  1. Thoroughly enjoyed the descriptions in this unexpectedly-ending story; the bus ride especially so.

  2. Cath, this is my second time trying to comment on here. Blogger is fooling with me. I loved the spin on this very engaging story. I thought he would return to Laura.

  3. Diana E. BackhouseMay 3, 2011 at 1:32 PM

    Sorry it has taken me so long getting round to reading your story, Cath.Great descriptions and neat twist!

  4. I'm a sucker for a twist, and you had me wrapped around your little finger! I love the flashes between reality and well done.


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