CREATIVE John Harrison

NWR Issue 112

Extract: The Rains of Titikaka

Soon I would see Bolivian land for the first time and my eyes were greedy to make sense of it, to start feeling and recording what it was. Irregularly shaped fields appeared, without crops, studded by stone mounds like shield bosses. Further on there was more moisture, nur- turing stripes of thin green like old paint being stripped. Since taking off at Arica we had climbed without pause, but the land rose so steeply we scarcely seemed to reach cruising height before our descent began, our cruciform shadow passing over ulcerous pools ringed by salt, across braided rivers whose bends were overlapping crescents of shining sand. La Ciudad de Nuestra Señora de la Paz is laid out across the valley where it was founded and rises up the slopes around, unpainted tin roofs glistening like smashed glass. The plateau of El Alto where we landed with only a short descent was only 800 metres lower than the peak of Mont Blanc. The plane ran on and on down the runway through the thin air. Outside, the first shock was seeing women working on road construction gangs, some wearing the traditional borsalinos, the black bowler hats, others opting for modern yellow safety helmets. As we descended to the city, the box-like houses packed closely together made a chequer- board pattern so regular I found my eyes trying to read the hill as if it were a geometrically patterned weaving subtle with meanings.

The Hostal Republica was a two-storey Colonial building enclosing a courtyard. The rooms were unheated but I had a sleeping bag. A bus ride and a short walk up a steep street brought me to my knees in front of the largest pre-Columbian stone carving in the Americas. I wasn’t having a religious moment, I was simply unable to breathe. You can’t prepare for altitude in a ship. I could look down into the National Stadium and see footballers playing a training match. The Bolivian national team, currently ranked number seventy-two in the world, regularly beat Brazil here.

The Bennett Monolith, which I had come to see, was in a ghastly sunken square, on a traffic roundabout, surrounded by railings over which people threw garbage. From one view, the McDonald’s logo out- side the adjacent restaurant appeared to be sitting on its head. Some dignity still clung to it; suddenly I flashed back to being five years old, at Dudley Zoo, watching a black panther pace up and down in a concrete cell fronted by iron bars. Caging power does not destroy power, it concentrates it. The monolith has now been moved back to Tiwanaku. With a single bound it was free.

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John Harrison is a traveller and writer. His books have won the 2011 Wales Book of the Year, the 2013 nonfiction prize at the same awards, and the Alexander Cordell Travel Writing Prize (twice), while Where the Earth Ends was a Sunday Times book of the week. For his most recent book, 1519: A Journey to the End of Time, John spent four months following the route of Hernán Cortés across Mexico. A resident of Cardiff for most of his life, John currently lives with his partner at a place equidistant from the British Library and the Royal Geographical Society, of which he is a fellow. ‘The Rains of Titikaka’, the book which is excerpted here, was placed runner up this summer in the New Welsh Writing Awards 2016: University of South Wales Prize for Travel Writing, run by ourselves. Our ten-minute shortlist showcase video, featuring 'The Rains of Titikaka', with author presentation and reading, can be viewed at Multimedia.


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