The airport was a shack. People sitting on boxes and luggage for lack of space to stand in, and the room or rooms were filled with smoke, with whispering, while a man perhaps the pilot pushed back and forth, climbing over legs and cartons with a sheaf of pink papers in his hand. His cap was thrust back on his head and a cigarette, in spite of a long holder, dribbled ashes down his coat. They were dressed in black, the people waiting, bundled up against the cold which blew in through the cracks of a window covered with newspaper, and it was almost dark outside from the low black clouds.
We were in there for over an hour. I had to hold a child on my knee.
They rolled back a heavy door and the wind blew in and the people in black stood up and pressed back so the boxes and luggage could be cleared away, and we went out. Everyone was quiet; it was hard to talk in the cold wind. An icy blast. Across a long red heated carpet to the plane which, I learned later, they had spent all that time waxing. It did indeed sparkle despite the gloom, and the ten waxers stood at attention as we climbed aboard. There were not enough seats to go around: half the passengers sat on their luggage in the aisle, while the rest of us, who were not much better off, held ours in our laps. Next to me was a young lady with a fortunately barkless dog, and she told me right off (in response to a question) that she was going there just to take some pictures. That was the extent of our conversation; the plane was too crowded for more.
The hostess was blind.
From the window I could see them starting the engine on my side, now hear the other one follow. A rough noise, such as one expects. The waxers in white overalls pulled blocks from under the wheels and went to the nose of the plane, to which they attached a chain, and pulled, or so I assumed from fragments of gestures I saw, and it did seem reasonable. Now we were rolling, faster and faster, and finally we passed them. They waved.
Because of the war and subsequent neglect the runway was in bad condition—pocked, grass sprouting from cracks, wavy stretches, potholes, piles of paper, old lumber, rotting tires, stray chickens—but our pilot, by judiciously raising whichever landing gear was threatened by an obstacle, made the run in the standard time of seven hours, forty-five minutes without incident. I slept most of the time, there being little to see beyond the interminable concrete which sloped gently down to sea.
My young lady traveling partner, who reminded me of my wife, left the plane with a curt remark to the effect that she knew this thing would never get off the ground.
Later I was to see her taking a picture of the moon. She could have done that anywhere.
The car waiting at the airport took me all the way to the hotel, where I’m staying now. It is the most modern in this sizable city in the shadow of a purple range of mountains. The shower and toilet work fine, though one must enter the hall to reach them from my large and comfortable room, which is on the top floor with a view of everything there is to be seen. The desk or table, which appears to be of something like walnut, is suitable for writing, and did I carry valuables I would store them in its strong drawer, which has a lock and key. The bed, hard and narrow, is as my preference, and the four walls are patterned in a network of blue and violet flowers which form a nice bluish haze in the light of late afternoons, but in the bright of noon are quite maddening.
My only complaint is with the service. As I was lying in bed this morning, checking out the tape recorder I have brought along to record songs and what have you, the room-service girl walked in with a tray and said (the recorder was on):
‘Good morning. This is your breakfast.’
‘Your blouse—’ which is my voice just as I cut off the machine.
The material of her blouse was of a pattern identical to the wallpaper, clearly the commercial motif of the establishment, and as a result I had, for an instant, the distinctly piercing impression that she was emerging from the very wall, not the doorway. So I have inadvertently recorded that brief dialogue, the young woman’s thick accent, the rattle of dishes on a tray, the opening of the door, the three taps of her knock; and perhaps I should have left the machine on, but there would have been little else on the tape: she withdrew quickly, buttoning her blouse on the run.
My complaint is: not only was her blouse unfastened at the top, but for lack of a brassiere her breasts, shapely as they might have been, were almost completely exposed.
The desk clerk advised me that I should not miss the Famôus Lake, which I have never heard of and told him so. He insisted that it was known throughout the world and showed me a brochure to prove it. A small black-and-white photograph of a lake above the caption, The Famôus Lake, written in nineteen languages. Well, I will go see it. A car with a driver and interpreter is due here some time this morning. I will not be coming back here at any rate.
I must pack my suitcase in a moment.
It is hard to describe the desolation of the first part of our trip. Flat but rough countryside with the purple mountains in the eastern distance, and at their feet clumps of trees—either forests or orchards—although the portion of the plain traversed by the road was without vegetation beyond brush and dry grass upon which grazed herds of a long-horned sheep or goat or cow, the interpreter being none too clear on just what they were. The narrow dirt road went up and down, over crests and into gullies, across a terrain which seemed flat from a distance but close up proved to be eroded and rumpled.
The car was a new model and I sat in the back seat, occasionally attempted to engage the interpreter in conversation. He spent most of the time arguing with the driver. I assumed the subject was political. These are a race of sandy-haired (almost golden), green-eyed men who all have a slightly dissipated air about them which suggests a potentiality for instantaneous vice. They speak
with a slow twirling movement of the right hand, such as one
will use in setting the hands of a large clock. At one point the
interpreter stopped arguing long enough to turn around to ask me
if I was married, and if married where my wife was.
‘Traveling,’ I said. I took advantage of this break to ask him
about the Famôus Lake. Neither he nor the driver, he said, had
ever been there but knew people who had. Probably very few, for
when the car broke down three hours out of the city we had not
met or passed a single other vehicle on the dirt road.
It was on a level stretch just beyond a narrow-gauge railway
crossing. We got out and the driver lifted the hood, now addressed
a long, earnest speech at me, which the interpreter simplified by
telling me the driver was explaining that he would have to take
it apart. I said he could do what he wanted, it was his car. The
interpreter pulled me aside and told me how much the driver
wanted for fixing it, and I slipped him the amount, which he
stuffed into the driver’s pocket.
With that, I wandered off to inspect the immediate countryside.
Boulders, cacti, lizards, small moth-like creatures, and growing in
the north shadows of rocks a little blue flower whose fragrance I
cannot describe. The railway lines seemed all but abandoned. The
rails were rusty, with one even missing, and many of the ties had
been reduced to a yellowish powder by hordes of termites. Some
distance from where the road crossed the tracks, there was a small
structure, a sort of hut or shed open on one side and containing
a bench beneath a timetable which, if I understood correctly,
indicated that there were trains going to the Famôus Lake every
seven minutes. Or would be. Or something was happening every
seven minutes. The timetable was engraved on the finest of paper,
and under the lower margin, rich in flowery motifs, was the
inscription: The American Bank Note Company.
After seven minutes, nothing happened. I went back to the car.
I had probably given the driver too much money. The proper
technique, I have been told but always forget, is to give them half
of what they ask for. He and the interpreter had their coats off and
shirtsleeves rolled up, the front of the car was scattered around in
pieces and they were now hoisting the motor out with a block and tackle. I sat down on a rock and watched from a distance. Every
now and then the interpreter would stand aside and read a page
from the repair manual and translate it to the driver, and then they
would go back to work. Soon they had the motor out of the car
and positioned on a newspaper spread out in the middle of the
road. As far as I was concerned, it was time for lunch. Yet they
went on, unbolted the engine, laid the nuts and bolts and various
parts in neat rows across the road until the motor was entirely
disassembled. Now seemed a better time to interrupt them.
I told the interpreter I was getting hungry. At my words
the driver stared at the interpreter anxiously, but upon hearing
a translation resumed his normal bland but slightly menacing
Then I heard the sound of an express train hurtling by, close by,
fifty feet away, but I saw nothing, nothing at all. It may have been
a gust of wind.
It was decided that we should go forage for food. The driver
took a .22 revolver from the glove compartment and we set off
down a narrow ravine a few hundred yards long and which opened
into a small grassy meadow where grazed a herd of longhorn hairy
cows (it might have been your yak, come to think of it, but with
udders?) and we walked among them. The driver inspected the
smaller, younger ones and reached some sort of agreement with
the interpreter and shot one dead. At the sound of the gun, the
other beasts retired to a corner of the meadow and lowed in unison
at the perfectly blue sky.
Now we had to carry the carcass back to the road. The long
horns and hair were suited to this purpose, but the ravine, being
narrow and rocky, was no fit path of return, so instead we dragged
the beast up a long but gentle slope to one side of the meadow,
at the top of which we found a splendid panoramic view to rest
at. From here you could see the railroad tracks looping down to
another part of the plain, and not far below us (we had actually
been closer in the meadow, but the view was blocked) sat a puffing
steam engine and a dozen brightly painted passenger cars. It was a
fine day, and many people were leaning out of windows or sitting
on steps or in chairs placed here and there on the well-kept lawns
and truck gardens which bordered the tracks, and children played around the women who were washing clothes in tubs next to the
engine from whence issued, I imagine, a liberal supply of hot water.
I asked the interpreter what the name of this village was, and
he replied that it was untranslatable, that it would come out only
in numbers. Noticing my interest, the driver made a gesture of
disgust, and we continued on our way.
By the time we dragged the animal back to the car I was starving
and dead-tired and wanting to know why we had not brought
the cow—they seemed quite docile—back under its own power.
But there are questions you do not ask: if you start, everything
becomes an argument. The bottom falls out. I am traveling to see,
not to dispute. That is why I carry no camera. Suffice to say that
my great hunger was satisfied when the driver piled brush in the
road beyond the disassembled motor and roasted the hindquarters.
I never tasted meat so tender. It was like chicken, or soft fish. I
ate at least a pound of it, garnished with a salad made of those
indescribably fragrant blue flowers I saw earlier, tossed in a hubcap
by the interpreter.
We were no more than finished, and I in the mood for a nap,
when a bus arriving from the opposite direction drew to a dusty
halt at our bonfire. I expected we would have to clear everything
out of the road—the motor parts, the rest of the car, the embers—
but that wasn’t the case. It is never the case. Nonetheless I withdrew
to the side of the road and sat down on the ground with a boulder
as a backrest. The bus driver and some twenty passengers, mostly
soldiers, got out and conferred with my driver and interpreter, and
after a while they threw the rest of the cow on the fire and settled
down to a good hearty lunch.