There was also a social aspect to our time here. We were joined at our hostel by a typical group of young travellers. One of them approaches me by the fruit trees, a young Swede by the name of Frederick. He bears a look of cautious optimism, like a tender child hopeful of new companionship but with some underlying, as yet unexplained, terror. Pleasantries are exchanged, and he starts earnestly asking if we’d like to join them this evening. His eyes nervously flit back to the others who are establishing themselves on the far side of the hostel. I’m unsure about our evening plans and my momentary hesitation elicits a pleading, practically begging expression. One of his companions is watching with veiled intent and shouts over “Frederick!” With subtle desperation he wordlessly implores me. I consent and he scampers hastily back to the others. This was shaping up to be a most intriguing evening.
We agree to meet at the gringo bar, every town on the trail has at least one of ‘em. They offer bland Italian food at quintuple the local meal prices along with overpriced international beers and sycophantic service. So, a place where travellers can feel comfortable and at home rather than, I don’t know, immersed in the local culture or some shit. This is the place. There’s a dinosaur up front and wicker chairs with cushions to attract said gringos. Further, in keeping with Andean tradition, a bold sign saying “WIFI” is hung prominently out front, purely for aesthetic reasons of course.
Like many establishments in this country it has three walls and is open to the street, so on the edge of the otherwise empty bar we find them, part way through a round of ring of fire. For the uninitiated (i.e. my parents), ring of fire is my generation’s drinking game of choice. A full deck of cards is set face down in a circle around a pint glass. Each person has a turn taking a card and each card has a rule associated with it; for example, 2= drink 2 fingers, 8= pick a mate who drinks when you do etc. Amazingly it’s my first game on our travels, bearing in mind that I probably played it every other day of my two months in Australia’s East Coast.
Frederick continues to seek our protection like a wounded puppy, desperate for love. Also present are three Canadians and a Brit, we’ll call him Damien. Depressingly, I am the oldest person here. Damien demands immediate and sustained attention. He has Harry Potter glasses, a sandy traveller’s beard and the macabre, scathing wit of the English coupled with the brash, shameless confidence of an American. A fierce combination and clearly the source of Frederick’s anguish. Turns out our Brit Shanghaied Frederick at a bus station a week ago and by the Swede’s own admission he doesn’t know where the time went or how he can escape from the relentless brutalising. Such a tender young man. As we settle and order Damien doesn’t skip a beat and out pours a steady stream of sexual depravity, personalised insult and mock racism. His first engagement with me is to inform the rest, “He’s English, he gets it”. He’s not wrong. The humour I’ve shared at college and uni was the blackest of black, the foulest of foul. No topic of limits, no joke beyond the pale. On the one hand I feel like I’ve outgrown the need to rely on this goblin humour, but on the other I can still comfortably hold my own. The others in the group have a varying comprehension of black English comedy and this standard of banter is clearly an all round revelation that reveals shock, awe and disgust in equal measure. Frederick, bless him, is furthest off the pace and thus the easiest target. He’s just a little too sweet and innocent. Not that our Brit’s choice insults are particularly intellectual, mostly revolving around implied homosexual activity in Scandi saunas (apparently nudity is mandatory and it’s gender segregated so, go figure), excessive consumption of meatballs and… well that was about it. It’s quite hard thinking of insulting Swedish stereotypes; they’re kind of world beaters in everything, apart from winter daylight hours. Boom, take that Sweden! Nonetheless it was refreshing seeing someone try to unpick the Scandinavian miracle, however crassly.
With Damien, Ring of fire’s ‘make a rule’ card tends to focus on targeting one’s enemies. Frederick has to play with his chin on the table, I force the Brit to show Frederick some care for a change by saying I love you and kissing his cheek each go. He clearly resents this to my delight. In revenge he gets me to fellate my glass bottle before every drink. My skills draw adulation and question marks all round. A few rounds in I bring the bottle to my lips with a little too much enthusiasm and knock an incisor hard, chipping an edge off. This concerns me a fair amount despite unanimous insistence that it is both funny and not a problem. The rest of the evening is spent tonguing the rough edge and imagining how to restructure my limited future options after my transformation into Cletus. Surprisingly the game doesn’t reach the messy conclusions one would expect and we depart with some measure of togetherness. We retire, and all agree to join forces in getting a colectivo the following afternoon to blow this one horse town.
Against all odds we link up with the gang in the right place at the right time and by some miracle a suitably sized vehicle is waiting there, empty and available. There’s a little ticket office adjacent in another unusual measure of organisation. Damien nominates Fred to organise and I’m not one to rock the boat so we all vote him to be the go between. A price is agreed and we hop in expecting to go. After a few minutes we prod Fred to enquire on the delay and are informed they are waiting to fill the remaining four seats. Standard practice but these guys want to move so we pay a little extra to get going now. A few more minutes and we get Fred to ask again, apparently, they are now waiting for two people and will not leave for love nor money. Our friends aren’t patient. Within moments of being on the bus the complaints started and quickly built to a roar of outrage coupled with an aversion to do anything productive about it. Damien starts heckling people in the street to get on the bus so we can get out of here. He jokes about kidnapping some of the children playing near us to fill the seats. It probably takes an hour or so before two people get on. They’re now waiting for one more. We argue. One more gets on. Still waiting, more arguing. We want back the extra money we paid. More arguing. Money returns. We eventually start moving. For me, this was what I’d come to expect with buses and taxis in South America so the group’s anger and lack of comprehension for Latino timekeeping was a tad baffling. More filthy talk is had on the bus and then brief goodbyes back in Cochabamba. Frederick’s pleading look is turning into a thousand yard stare as we part. Good luck kid, you’re gonna need it. Another round of 48 hour friendships rises and falls.