One dog in particular stands out in my neighborhood. Longish white fur mottled with hazy black spots, she looks like an out-of-focus Dalmatian. Her bright blue eyes are visible from half a block away like twin pinpoints of television static. I see her on the sidewalk one night, standing perfectly still and facing my direction. A woman holds her in a way that suggests restraint—one arm around the torso, palm against her chest—but the blurry, blue-eyed dog shows no want of anything but to stand perfectly still. I glance down as I pass. A patch of fur and skin about the size of my open palm is missing from her neck. I see raw tissue, blood crusted on the torn edges of fur but no active bleeding. I’m guessing she was on the losing end of a fight over a burger scrap, though I suppose it could be a gash from a twist of fender.
I’ve been meaning to append one of these travelogues with some tricks of the trade I’ve picked up over my years of travel, but the practicality of it came off as a real buzzkill after my other musings. So, this time around I’ll lay out my tips for hitting the road and resume my normal pontificating in a couple of weeks. Aside from a few U.S. road trips, I’ve seen most of Europe plus some time in Israel and a few countries south of the Equator. I’ve roughed it hostel-style when I motorcycled through the U.K. and Ireland, traveled business class on the company dime (back when I was a respected professional, before I decided to piss away my fortune on this whole writing thing) and settled down for a time in different places—Dublin, London, and my current ex-pat home, Bolivia. Traveling in style or on a budget have plenty of their own unique pitfalls, plus a few in common.
The sky is backwards, the constellations upside down. I’ve been to the Southern Hemisphere before, spent several weeks in South Africa around ‘98-‘99, but I never looked at the stars. Standing outside alone at night in Johannesburg and staring up the sky is a bad idea. But when I look above Cochabamba after sunset, the stars are somehow… off. It’s strange, kind of cool and disorienting all at once.
Dogs are everywhere, more than I’ve ever seen. They’re not feral; they roam the streets during the day, fend for themselves, and their owners let them back in at night. They’re neither hostile nor friendly, but as oblivious to everyone as any other morning commuter. They cross the streets carefully and flow with the foot traffic. I’ve yet to see a carcass or even an injured animal, and these dogs respect the sidewalk far more than their San Francisco counterparts.
I step off the plane in La Paz fifteen hours after leaving SFO. My carry-on feels ten times heavier than when I brought it on board and I’m having a tough time breathing. Inside the airport there’s an oxygen station and I know the thin air isn’t my imagination. I’ve lived at sea-level my entire life. A few hours later I’m on my third flight and at last, almost a full day since I left San Francisco, I reach my new home: Cochabamba, Bolivia. Spanish Colonial architecture in varying states of disrepair and ruin. Bursts of color from shop signs and the native garb of the street vendors; the multi-colored busses and sometimes whole buildings painted luminescent pink or green. It’s barely noon but it feels like midnight. My adopted home city is at 8,500 feet, it’s streets crammed with vehicles and there’s no smog control. Combine the thin air, carbon monoxide and hallucinatory colors with my thirty-six sleepless hours and I feel like I’m breathing on Mars.
I shook a man’s hand Thursday night and that man was dead Friday morning. I’ll call him “T.” That I hardly knew T is an understatement. I met him for the first time at a hospital on Wednesday night and the second on Thursday. We never spoke but for my own “hello.” He was lucid but weak, and while his lack of strength was no doubt appropriate to his condition, the frailty that possessed him was not. T had not lived as a frail or fragile man, this much was abundantly clear. His beard was very long and very grey, and a fair amount of his tattoos were done back when tattoos made one unwelcome in most places. I don’t know how old he was but in normal, civilian years I’d guess he was probably around 300.
Try it again, slower.
Okay, now you’re dropping out.
Take your time.
Ignore the punctuation.
Pay attention to the punctuation.
Relax. Make it more natural.
Pick it up. A little more force.
You’re dropping out again.
You’re off mic.
Slurring a bit. Take it from the second line.
From the top of the paragraph.
You’re off mic again.
Dropped a plural. Try it again.
You lost the “and.” Make it clearer.
Lost the “the.”
Break the narrator’s voice from the dialogue.
Let’s do that curtain line again.
A little faster.
Don’t rush it.
A little sharper on your enunciation.
One more time.
It always starts with a voice. Sometimes there’s an idea for a person or a plot, but the pen doesn’t hit the paper until I hear a voice. Without the voice, I’m lost. Eight hours of writing means three hours of scribbling and five hours of pacing, listening and waiting. It helps to assume the role of the voice, which is one of the reasons I’m comfortable working in the first person. Dermaphoria has been written in chunks as a pseudo diary, and many chapters were refined in blog format in certain nethercorners of the web, as I found it easier to be the narrator posting a personal account of his life, anonymously on line, than to be Craig at his desk writing a novel. Sometimes, I feel the best way to inhabit the voice, or vice versa, is not to write a story, but instead write a letter.