Puerto Ilo, Peru

Brazil but for Pebbles

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Ghostly white and wrinkled hands, cupped and looking up more than I looking down into them they, they were wet. Hate me, hate me hate me. Why can’t you just hate me? Hate me and I can break and crack and fall, then time’s boundaries guide and heal just knowing that they’re there. Nothing but tears gentle as they are but they fall like stones into my cupped hands. I shed them for fear and for wonderment of whatever it was I was about to do. I might shed them for fear of loss, but also for love of newness; for love of new unknown. The sun beat wicked against the back of my neck and I breathed in heavily, and again, and again. But my chest retained its hollow.

 


 

Buenos Aires glistened like a jewel, but already I’d left it behind. I also left half my gear at Julian’s; mostly cold-weather gear that Brazil wouldn’t have any climates for, and a number of plastic bags filled with ticket stubs and coins. The night before I left, Julian, his mom and Landro took me to the Quilmes brewery where we ate and drank well. In the morning I was gone with a promise to return in one month’s time.

From the Retiro station I boarded a train to Zarate, the city just beyond the limits of Buenos Aires province. It cost 3.5 pesos. Steel discs screamed and horns yelled as it chugged into movement, the red leather and slit seats sweaty from an afternoon sun beaming in through smudged windows.

The Retiro train station in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

The Retiro train station in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

 

In the evening I’d arrived with a ride to Gualeguaychu, about 2 hours north of Zarate.

“You ought to hang around here,” he said. “This is Argentina’s top carnival.”

I knew it was. I’d watched the procession on television back at Julian’s place. But my mission was one of greater grandeur. In my two years of travel I’ve made it my business to find the best and nearest carnival whenever February came along. First it was Veracruz, Mexico. Then it was Barranquilla, Colombia. Now, it was Brazil. Camilo had recommended Recife, on the far eastern shoulder of the massive country, and I had decided on it. This would entail possibly weeks of hitchhiking. But first, it would entail a visa.

Brazil has a reciprocity policy when it comes to visas. The U.S. requires everyone who is not part of our Visa Waiver Program (that is, anyone not from a “developed” country) to spend 150 dollars on a visa and appointment. So, I would need to do the same to enter Brazil. The Brazilian embassy in Buenos Aires issues visas, but all the online appointment spots were booked. However, the Brazilian consulate in Argentina’s Puerto Iguazu does not have a waiting list, and issues visas in a matter of days. The city is located on Argentina’s long and skinny northeastern arm, at the tri-border with Brazil and Paraguay. It is also home to the country’s most visited spot, the Iguazu Falls (ever seen The Mission?) I could kill two birds with one stone, I thought. I even knew how to sneak in thanks to other hitcher friends.

So, I found myself dropped on the highway just outside Gualeguaychu in the fast fading light. Once my ride had driven off I crossed the street to a gas station and large restaurant to ask for work. Instead, I walked out with water and a bag of bread.

The night had come, so I took my bread back to yet another gas station—for it seems to me that traveling in Argentina by thumb is only manageable from these places. There was already an armada of big rigs gathered on the pavement to sleep for the night. I walked towards them.

As I navigated between two trailers toward a patch of grass where I thought I might pitch my tent, I ran into a merry man rummaging through his truck’s underbelly compartments.

“Oi!” he cried in joy. “Quieres banana?” he said in thickly accented Spanish.

“Sure,” I replied, and began peeling the gift.

“Donde eres?” he said.

“Chicago.”

“Oooo, gringo! Hambre, tienes? Hungry?”

I showed him my bread “About to go eat.”

“Nooo,” he cried, slapping my back with a large paw. “You eat goooood tonight gringo.”

He was Brazilian. Although he was not the first Brazilian I’d met, it was the first time I got to practice a bit of the Portuguese I’d been studying from a small Portuguese grammar book my family had given me two Christmas’ previous.

“Falo portugués,” I said. “Estou aprendando falar, quero vialhar no Brasil.” I wasn’t speaking perfectly but hell if it mattered, what with his rough Spanish and my rough tries at Portuguese melding in the air. And the night progressed like that; as a sort of spectacle of linguistic confusion that, were colors applied, you’d see them all.

By the close of night, the trucker had cooked us up a meal of rice, meat, fried chorizo, cheese, onion and tomato.

“Thanks a lot,” I said.

“With one hand you wash both!” he cried in Portuguese. “We in Brazil help one another.”

I thanked him again, and felt a twinge of excitement for the upcoming adventures in his country. Indeed, what better introduction to a new country could there be than a border town trucker barbeque? We had written many Portuguese words on his dusty trailer, and it looked funny in the topaz hue of the gas station lamps. I thanked him and went off to sleep.

In the morning the trucker was gone. I began to ask others, but like him, they were headed to Uruguay, since this was the main land border between Argentina and that country. I decided I needed to walk down the highway to where a police checkpoint slowed the cars down. And so it went.

Just beyond the checkpoint I stood, my arm and thumb outstretched whenever a batch of cars would pass through, as these local cops—not Gendarmia—did not let me ask stopped rides.

The sun was brutal. My sunblock seemed weak, but I’d damaged my umbrella and it wouldn’t open. An hour waiting turned to two, which turned to three. From time to time I’d look down the highway in the direction I was trying to go. 1,000 kilometers to Puerto Iguazu. 1,000 kilometers. On the map it didn’t look like so many. Concordia was the next stop. There were plenty of cars, and plenty of empty spaces, but no one was stopping.

I looked back at the bridge under which the cops harassed drivers. Cars and cars and trucks and trucks. They passed with such frequency that it surprised me how long I was waiting. But then I’d look down the road again and I felt like I could see 1,000 kilometers laughing back at me. The road disappeared into flatness, flanked by fields of patchy green wheat or corn that hugged it tightly and strained it, causing pressure, which perhaps caused the cars to drive faster and speed by me like squeezing through a funnel.

I sat on my pack and lamented the sun. Then I stared at my map with no real thought entering my head. I could see Iguazu there, and I could see Recife many thousands of kilometers away. But I felt nothing. There was nothing but the idea of it. I just stared and stared, and threw my thumb at cars without feeling, without will.

Finally, when 7 full hours had passed of me burning in the day and not one car had stopped, I did something different. I hauled my pack to my shoulders and walked in a daze out into one of the grassy fields. There, I sat down and stared blankly into my hands. They were ghostly white, and the wrinkles looked older than me. My mind was empty. There was nothing.

But the hollowness in my chest rang then suddenly, and gave me hiccups. I was bent over in an agonizing depression of sorts that seemed to consume my ability to rationalize. I thought of nothing—complete emptiness. And then they began to stream down my checks and fall into my cupped ghostly white hands. My hands were wet and I blinked drops like stones into them. Why, or what, or what the hell… I wept for a desired future that no longer seemed mine… and then thoughts began to enter.

I didn’t care for Iguazu. Brazil feels forced. Everything feels forced. I’m not ready. I haven’t felt ready for months. There is an unmistakable love of the road that expresses itself as a rush of life that pounds through your chest every time you begin again. When was the last time I felt it? Patagonia? Was it in Chile? Have I written convincingly of that feeling?

Godammit, I thought. I’m in love…

 

 

10 days, 20 rides, 4,357 kilometers and 1 dollar later…

It had been four months to the day that I’d been gone. Her building looked nostalgic, its off-white and peach columns glowing against the streetlamps. I walked up those wide marble stairs that had been so familiar to me, each step seemingly accompanying a beat in my chest, its soundless sound haunting my ears all the way to her door.

Would she have already changed out of her professional garb that I liked so much? Would she be wearing those pink crocs? How long would her hair be, and would it still be jet black? Would I see the same chocolate eyes I’ve seen everywhere since I met her? Would they look into mine as they did? Or have I been gone too long?

I ran my hand through my wet, dripping hair, and then reached forward and knocked a few times on the door. I heard the lock. The door creaked open.

 


 

 

Perhaps I’m lying to myself, but if ever I’ve claimed to understand the dynamics of hitching, I claim now to understand them all the better. Your destination has to be true if you want to get a ride. When you know where you want to go, you get there all the faster. And that doesn’t mean that you have to have a physical destination. It just means that you have to want to be on the road you’re hitching.

I’d waited 8 hours in Gualeguaychu for a ride in the direction of Iguazu, but the minute I resolved myself to return to Lima, I crossed the highway and was picked up by a family in all of 5 minutes.

Zarate returned swiftly. It looked just like it had the day before, only happier. I spent a few hours at a gas station only to find out that there was a better one down the road. On the on-ramp a dark man with an arrow skull and aquiline nose drove me on. Later, I quickly met a couple who drove me 2 hours toward Cordoba who spoke enthusiastically about pet food conventions in Chicago once I’d told them where I was from.

They dropped me at a town called San Nicolas. Hunger made me think of food, but the fact that I was heading back to Lima quickly made me want to do it on the uber-cheap. And so, I found a restaurant and hit gold with them. They gave me a pail and swipe and I went to work washing the building’s windows. When I’d finished they served me up a big sandwich stuffed with hot meat and cheese, lettuce, avocado, tomato, hell all the fixings. They even gave me a coke and a desert of cold flan. I left full.

In the parking lot I shot the shit with the unofficial parker (the guy who waves a red cloth and helps people park) and a smiling Brazilian guy. Hello Brazilian guy, I can’t go to your country right now, I have to go back to Lima. Why? Man, I don’t know, ask a chemist!

It was dark by the time I decided to walk to the on-ramp to throw my thumb. The drivers could only see me in the rays of their headlights, but wouldn’t you know it—someone stopped! The small delivery truck pulled quickly to the shoulder and I hopped in.

Down the road we went and I explained what I was up to and he, Adrian, smiled from cheek to cheek and roared interesting conversation the whole hour or so I was with him to some other YPF gas station down the way. We spoke of inner badness, love and loss, and doubt.

“Friend, we don’t know each other very well, but listen,” he said. “Doubt is like pebbles in your shoes. You can’t keep walking if you don’t take them out.”

He drove off, leaving me under the glaring lights of the YPF. His last words rang in my head. Like pebbles, he’d said. Makes sense, I thought. That door that isn’t open but isn’t closed, but nothing can pass through it anyway. Someone’s gotta shut it, or open it all the way.

By now it was late, but rigs abounded, so I decided to keep pestering truckers for rides. I found a trucker-only area, and as I stared at the gates, I asked a passing man about it. He affirmed my fear that I couldn’t enter.

“Where you headed?” he asked looking at me rather amused.

“Um, Cordoba,” I replied, which was the next city onward.

“I’m heading there, just let me take a quick shower.”

When he’d showered we were off. I slept in his bunk, then woke and conversed. A few more hours into the early morning and sleep had overcome us, so we pulled to the side of the highway, him to sleep in his bunk and me in the seat. The next day we drove on a few hours more. Hugo was his name. When I left the cab he gave me a pack of crackers and 20 pesos, which I declined and he insisted.

“Come to my house when you come back to Buenos Aires, and I’ll show you what a good asado is all about,” he said.

“Will do.”

He dropped me at a gas station on the east side of Cordoba, so that I might avoid the hassle of navigating Argentina’s third largest city by finding a trucker heading further north. In the minimarket I found a table of three rough-looking patrons. Truckers. I asked. They were. One agreed.

I forget his name, but I remember his face. It was rubbery. It looked aged as though it was hiding experiences between the ripples of skin.

“Hop in,” he said.

There was no passenger seat, just a mattress. So I sat on it and we were off. The typical questions, normal conversation accompaniment of beginning a ride, but we rarely spoke later either.

When circumnavigated Cordoba, my eyes pulled to the city where my Colombian friends Nicolai and Zulay from The House of No Ends, and El Negro from Quito, all lived. Hopefully I’ll come back here, I thought, and they can get to know her.

On the north side of town the trucker passed our exit, and then the truck broke down on the side of the road. Buggar.

“Doesn’t want to start?” I asked.

He made a Scrooge sound and messed around with the engine for 30 minutes. On the fifth try the motor turned and the engine roared back into life, or death, or whatever thousands of little explosions and greasy turning metal components represent for you.

We went on for hours. The trucker was headed down a road other than the main Ruta 9 which would take me north to Tucuman, Jujuy, and eventually to a crossroads that would lead back into Chile at San Pedro de Atacama. I considered carefully the situation and decided to head on with him, figuring that the smaller roads would be better for hitching once I’d seen that where I’d be dropped on the busy 9 was devoid of gas stations. Plus his road was still headed north.

So it was, more hours. The land was desolate pampa, and there were few cars.

Then he pulled over harshly and I woke from my daze. He spent enough time out of the cab that I decided to see what the matter was. I walked to the back of the trailer where he was and stared at the problem. A large metal mud flap had somehow caught one of the tires, getting sucked into it, exploding it and completely shredding it, and finally getting lodged there.

We were alone in the nothing pampa, except for a few men on horses, and one with a motorbike. They came over and we all stood around the problem like men solving a problem. Men. And they spoke with their heavy accents and I didn’t understand their jokes, but laughed all the same. Men. One left and returned later with a hammer and chisel. With this they hammered out the welding of the mud flap, and yanked the whole thing off. Men.

I continued with the trucker onward. He bought soda for us but we were nowhere near food. I ate all my crackers, but he didn’t want any. Damn it when does this guy ever eat? I decided distance was better than a full belly, so I just stayed on with him. Down the road the rig broke down again.

I spent an hour hollowing out small plastic components for the gear change air bag that had blown out. When the trucker felt confident that it had been fixed we got underway again.

It was late, and stars littered the sky. Now it was a small mountain range and a small mountain range road. And it was a curve when once more the hiss of pressurized air indicated another blow-out of the gear bag. I took his cell phone and guided what few cars and trucks came. Three rigs stopped and all the men worked on the broken truck. Men. And I and another man at the end of our line of trucks signaled each other with our flashlights to safely guide traffic along the dangerous mountain nighttime curve.

An hour and a half later the trucks were gone and we were once more underway. I fell asleep, and dreamed. I couldn’t tell, then, if my eyes were open or closed. I saw the headlights of the rig lighting the road. Things passed swiftly. I thought it was a dream of that very ride, and it was until I woke to a start.

“We’re going! That’s it we’re going!” the trucker said. “No hay frenos!”

“Que?” I asked.

“No hay frenos/there are no breaks!”

I looked at the windshield and the lights illuminating fast ground. What? No frenos? No breaks. No breaks! Then I realized that the trucker was pumping the break over and over again, and the engine break roared but didn’t do anything since we were on a descent! Shit! We saw nothing but earth and road moving too quickly. I could feel the trucker’s apprehension. I was tired and neutral. I felt no fear, but just a sense of acceptance of the present. The cab shook as though warning, you’re going too damn fast!

“No hay frenos no hay frenos, carajo!”

I watched the windshield show us as the road continued to curve right, and our rig poured over the edge. I expected blackness and zero gravity. Instead, the giant rig crashed over mounds of dirt and fell into a shallow bank, coming to a violent crash against a hill and tree.

I had only bounced around on the bed. The trucker was fine too. We got out of the vehicle, which was hissing, steaming and moaning. It was buried in a pile of earth, the front smashed to hell, and the trailer bent awkwardly behind.

The trucker didn’t say much. Neither did I. I was hungry. It was 4 am. I was tired. I set up my tent nearby and fell to sleep. All night, passing vehicles stopped to see if we were alright.

Probably the only danger I found in Argentina were in these mountain roads.

Probably the only danger I found in Argentina were in these mountain roads. Source.

 

In the morning it took a walk to discover that I’d gone 50 kilometers out of my way. A few hours later I finally hitched a ride back to Chumbiche with a driver who had stopped to see if the trucker was alright. I shook the trucker’s hand in thanks, or whatever, and was off.

The day was bright. The man I was with was difficult to understand. He seemed impatient as well. I was glad when he dropped me off just outside the city of Catamarca 2 hours later.

A man on a scooter stopped without my signaling him, and offered a ride to the other side.

“You know the Canadian mining companies have killed thousands of people here. They’re all buried hidden somewhere in the hills. But we’re still fighting. We’re still fighting.”

He drove me clear across the city, saving me a good 3 hours of walking. The YPF where he left me was at the edge of town. I asked the attendants for water and they filled my bottles ice cold. I took their advice and walked 10 blocks down the road to look for work. There, the lady stared at me blankly, so I left without luck.

I instead bought a bag of cookies, bread and ham for 30 pesos, 20 of which I paid for with Hugo’s gift. Down the road I intended to buy two tomatoes and an apple, but the man said, “llevalos nada mas/take them no more.”

Back at the YPF I found a quick ride with Argentinian folk singers to a crossroads an hour on. They had to wake me up when we arrived. I thanked them, and found a nice shady spot just beyond an unfriendly police checkpoint. I fixed a sandwich of ham, tomatoes and little packets of mayo that I’d snagged from the Quilmes brewery back in Buenos Aires. Tomato juice dripped onto pieces of white quartz at my feet.

I was eating when a car stopped. I was having incredible luck. Or, it’s just that I wanted to be on this road.

He was a geographer and had that rare quality of being friendly but somehow you know that you shouldn’t upset him. We spoke of the Malvinas/Faulkland islands.

“The Malvinas are Argentinian,” he said.

“So I’ve learned—from the signs all over the country that claim it,” I said, my sarcasm only detectable by me.

“They’re part of Argentina, the ocean bottom shows it,” he said.

I did not say, “Argentina claiming sovereignty is just as absurd as England claiming sovereignty.” I did say, “Hmm.”

“It’s like this. You have a porch right?” he asked.

“Um, yes.”

“Well, it’s like if I say I can live on your porch. That’s exactly what it’s like.”

I did not say, “It’s not quite like that.” I did say, “I see.” Then I said, “It seems there’s also a dispute with Chile over some uninhabited islands.”

“Yes, right. Those are Argentinian. The Pope intervenes and says, ‘oh come on give the islands to Chile they have so little space’. I say the hell with that, come on, let’s fight for our land, it’s Argentina!”

“So you’d have a war over a couple desolate, uninhabited islands?”

“Of course!”

“I’m more an anti-war person. Most wars aren’t justifiable.”

Later he explained how the Malvinas conflict was going to lead to the Third World War. Then he described how the country hates England for killing 700 Argentinians in the 1982 war. I wanted to suggest that Argentina attacked first. I wanted to say that it was absurd that the islands were English, but that it’s absurd that Argentina wants them. I wanted to explain that the first to arrive there were Dutch, and then the English, who gave the Islands to Spain, but the islands never saw an Argentine command. I wanted to say the whole thing was silly. And today the only clincher seems to be the 200 nautical mile zone and oil. There is no more nationless land. Countries dispute over every inch. A geographer… meh.

He was nice enough otherwise, and drove me to Tucuman. The city had villas on the outskirts, alternative cities where the people construct homes of whatever they can. There seems to be a strong belief in Argentina that most of these people are poor by choice, that there are many ways to get out of desperate poverty, particularly by utilizing free education and health care. I don’t know enough about it to have an opinion.

At the gas station where he left me I was in the middle of the city. The first guy I asked if he was headed to Salta, the next city north, said no. Then, he said “wait, I mean yes.” I hesitated to go with him, since he’d changed his mind, so I asked a few questions about the city and about the road to Salta, and when his responses seemed authentic and complicated enough, I threw my gear into the trunk.

“I have to stop and pick up a friend first,” he said.

We parked outside a building and went in. The ceilings were high and sported crown molding—that feature I like so much in old colonial rooms. I met an old lady who offered me soda and we spoke about New York. Then I left with the two guys, both around my age.

We drove through the center and I saw the central plaza. I had planned to spend time in this city, perhaps I’d return. However, seeing the main plaza is like check off the list in my mind, unfortunately. Who knows.

Jack drove. He looked like Tim Curry. Juan was a rocker and a drummer who lived in New York. He ran into McDonalds and came back with bags of food, tossing me a burger.

“Somos Macdonalderos. We come here a lot. You eat McDonald’s?”

“Not really.”

“Don’t worry man this is Argentinian meat, not that crap they serve in the states.”

I felt encouraged. The hamburger indeed tasted real. Oh joy.

We drove on, for three hours. When the window was open I felt refreshed, and when it closed my back sweated. The oceanic clouds accompanied a welcome change in the landscape that saw the desolation of pampa long since vanish. Now there were long fields of green giving way to hilly surrounds, the road coiling into them like a pup to its mother.

The car’s sound system was superb. We listened at high volume to Kiss’ Detroit Rock City, Red Hot Chilli Peppers, Metallica, Joaquin Sabina, Fabulloso Cadillacs “Matador”, and Miguel Mateos’ old Argentinian rock. Sound waves seemed to pump through me and give me spirit for the road onward, kicking pebbles from my toes!

Finally came the crossroads to Salta. I needed to go to the mountain pass called Paso de Jama, which they said was beyond Jujuy, the next big city north. I thanked them and they were off, off to party in Salta, and I’d camp at another gas station for the night.

A pair of other backpackers caught my eye. I was in such a good mood that I walked right up to them and introduced myself. She had starry eyes and he was rubio like me, with blond hair and a skinny figure. I spent the night with them, sharing my computer and watching their things as they showered. They gave me a back of cookies. We camped together in a grassy patch behind the station.

In the morning they were headed back to Brazil south. I wished them luck and they left me with an invite to their home in the south of their country. I said I’d come, hopefully with a girl.

I spent an hour asking around the gas station.

“Man, I want to,” said one trucker, “but they got me on satellite.”

“No problem,” I replied, and kept on asking around.

Later, that same trucker motioned me over.

“Man I don’t like seeing you run around like this, I’ll take you.”

I hopped into the cab through his door, since he said there were sensors that read when the passenger door was opened. Then I sat on the bed, since he said there were sensors that read when pressure was put on the passenger seat.

“They’re pretty thorough, I suppose,” I said.

“El que se quema con leche ve un vaca y llora/He who burns himself with milk sees a cow and cries,” he said, apparently with the intention of it being somehow relevant.

Down the road we drove, passed lemon trees and fields of tobacco, the smell of that crop potent in the morning’s mist. Then it was sugarcane fields, but everywhere there were horses.

“Tucuman, or the north in general, should be called the Land of Horses,” I said.

“You’re right!” he agreed. “The people here, you know, they’re going to survive when the world hits its limit. These Indians here, in the north, they fish with their hands. With their bare hands”

Later, he let me try a taste of his bitter mate, after almost every ride I’ve had in Argentina asked me if I had but never offered. Mate isn’t to my taste, despite its popularity.

“In Misiones province they drink it cold,” he said.

Once in Juyjuy an hour later, he dropped me at what turned out to be the one gas station that everyone heading my way needs to stop at, including all the long-haul trucks that tackle the pass. And it wasn’t long before I met my ride.

Antonio was a Paraguayan grease monkey. His rig was falling apart. Inside the cab, besides the destroyed dash, there were all colors of dusty electrical wires tied together in a jerry-rigged power setup that allowed his fan and portable DVD player to function. The bed looked moldy and sunken, and all the in-betweens of the scene were of likewise disorder. A good truck.

We were off. He spoke very little. I just watched the landscapes roll by. Green hills and winding roads dashed by. Then it was a wide mud river valley. My mind rested constantly on Lima, on chocolate eyes.

When we came to the crossroads for the Paso de Jama, the land was interesting. It had dried out. I could tell from a distance that the town of Purmamarca was filled with tourists. I saw hitchhikers with billowing colorful pants. From the town we rode up. Multi-colored hills seemed shadowed by blue-gray counterparts, a contrast that made discovery of orange and red hills even further up all the more fortuitous. And the rock pinnacle forest that rose like a rogue wave in the middle of this sea of earth dominated my eyes until we’d risen beyond sight, but it wasn’t before green fields of corn joined the unlikely formations and gave a green luminosity to the view and life to an otherwise desert land.

The Argentinian side’s accent of the pass was a sharp and steep climb, the road switchbacks coiling tightly. Big fat cacti were the only plants around—the kind that dance in Mario World—and oh! Mario World, and Lima.

After cresting the plateau, we drove on through flatness. The flatness became interesting when all of a sudden it was not earth but salt that surrounded us on all sides, bleach white for as far as the eye can see. A thin layer of water spread out over the whiteness, creating a perfect mirror of the blue sky and distant mountains, and I felt like we were sliding along across a calm sea of mercury.

The salt flats not far frmo Salta, Argentina.

The salt flats not far frmo Salta, Argentina. Source.

 

Antonio told me he was headed to Iquique, but didn’t know where we’d arrive to that night. He had rosquillas, small toasted bread rings usually eaten with coffee. We ate them with salami.

A few hundred kilometers further into the altiplano, that highest of plateaus outside of Tibet, the sky changed from blue to dark contentious clouds. Then it began to rain. The rain quickly turned to slush and snow, and in a moment it changed to hail, and we had to rush to pull up the windows as Antonio let the engine brake slow us to a safer speed.

At a lone gas station I helped Antonio load spare gas tanks into the main, leaning against the harsh wind and soiling the skin under my fingernails for many days to come. He spoke with fellow Paraguayan truckers in their native Guarani, of which I understood nothing.

The pass seemed never ending, and Antonio took to pointing out wrecks where people had died, and where a trucker friend had “crashed and burned,” as he put it. We finally reached the first border, and we stamped out of the country together, since they wouldn’t allow me to stamp out without a ride.

The pass continued endlessly under a grim sky, and we slowly descended into Chile. The road was long and slow, not a drastic thing like on the Argentine side. Rain and wind, snow and cold persisted. An orange sun finally breached through lower clouds, but everything remained dark, except for the hint of dusk’s reflection in the bubbly wax ice sheet that spread itself over our road.

Then finally, we arrived to San Pedro de Atacama. It had been over 3 months since last I was in San Pedro, but this time my stay would be a few hours longer. We went to the obscure border crossing, a wooden building, where we waited in line for hours behind a cohort of bus passengers. Finally stamped in, I tried to change Argentinian pesos for Chilean without luck. Like I said, Antonio didn’t speak much, so when he handed me a large steak sandwich and Fanta I was more surprised than normal. Just looking at the food reminded my stomach that it was twisted with hunger.

We feasted down the road where Antonio had decided to park for the night. After listening to the fast talk of Paraguayan comedy records on his DVD player, he crawled into the bottom bunk, and pointed to the top buck, “you sleep there.”

That night I slept well on the top bunk of the cab, the platform also jerry-rigged and dependent on two tied straps to keep me from tumbling down on top of the Paraguayan below. In the night I woke with a parched throat, and it made for an interesting 15 minute session of trying different things to reach my water down below without waking the snoring giant Antonio.

In the morning we were once more on the road.

“Pass is closed,” he said.

“What?”

He rattled off in quick Spanish: “Pass of Jama is closed we just made it good thing.”

We went on, passed the Cordillera de Sal, down the long stretches of high desert, through the mining city of Calama and skirting its largest mine at Chuquicamata. Finally we reached the crossroads of Chile’s famous Ruta 5, a highway that I now know start to finish. To the south was Santiago, to the north Iquique, Arica and Peru. Straight ahead, it was Maria Elena. I stared down that road for a moment, remembering all the great times I had with miner Claudio, his co-workers and family. I generally say that I don’t like returning the ways I’ve come, but retracing steps has its attraction. You feel you know a place. I felt bad that I’d be passing through here without visiting my friends, but it was Lima that I wanted to get to, and quickly. So far the hitch was treating me well.

We loaded some of the gas into the main and then were off. A few hours and hundreds of kilometers later, I was saying goodbye to Antonio as he turned off toward Iquique, leaving me at the Pozo Almonte crossroads.

I didn’t wait at all, for as soon as Antonio pulled away, another semi pulled up without my signaling. It was a goodwill ride to Huara, a town 40 kilometers on. There, I went into a restaurant to ask for work, explaining that I had no Chilean pesos. No go. I went to the restaurant next door, and they gave me chicken soup with rice. When I’d eaten I went to work, but the man smiled and said he didn’t have anything for me to do. So I thanked him, and left.

It wasn’t long before I hitched a ride with Henry, who told me tales of his many years abroad as a deckhand on a tuna hauler and doing many other various odd jobs. He came back to Peru when he’d lost the drive to travel.

“It’s funny,” he said. “When you travel you feel like you can conquer the world, that you can just keep going and going. I felt like that, you know. But I lost the drive, I lost that feeling.”

“I know what you’re talking about. I’ve lost it too, but it’s just because my mind isn’t in the thing.”

“You have to want to travel to travel. No distractions. That’s true. But I’m telling you that one day, you simply will want to go home,” he said.

Henry dropped me off at another crossroads, and drove off into memory.

Let me remind the reader of this part of the world, of which I have already written. It is the Atacama Desert, the world’s driest place and an oven under a clear sky, which is always a clear sky. The sun beats down on animate and inanimate things alike, unrestrained and unmerciful in its stinging onslaught, seemingly thrusting rays of pain into anything that stands still unprotected long enough. I donned my awkward costume of red handkerchief in hat to shield my neck, sunglasses and backwards hoody to cover my arms—I really need a lightweight long sleeve shirt!

My preparations kept me contented for the two hours I sat. When a semi pulled into the area and came to a stop in between a couple of buildings, I didn’t think twice—ask everyone.

And so I had a ride with one last Chilean trucker all the way to the border at Arica. Along the way he bought me a coke and said: “When you asked me for a ride, I was just going to leave you hanging for a response. I take my time, see. I need to analyze you. What went through my head?” he pulled out a shiny silver 6-shooter revolver from under his seat, “I asked myself ‘can I kill this guy if he tries anything’? Well, I figured I could take you out if I needed to.”

I was in a good mood. When I’m in a good mood my replies are better. So I unhooked my knife from my belt, opened it and said to the trucker, “I might be lanky but I’m a quick motherfucker.”

His wide smile then turned into a hearty laugh as he replaced the revolver under his seat, and instead pulled out an 8-inch serrated Rambo knife. “I gotchya there too!”

We laughed as we both put away our weapons.

“But seriously, I need to take care. I’m buena onda, just ask my kids. But sometimes there are crazies out there. You know, this truck has satellite connections. There are panic buttons all over the place.”

I pointed to a button on the dash that, unlike its English-labeled neighbors, was label-less. “Like this one?”

He chuckled. “Yea, but there’s also a pedal down here by my door that works.”

“That’ll be the day when they put cameras in here to spy on you,” I suggested.

“Can’t do it. This area is considered my home, my private area. That would be an invasion of privacy. Can’t do it.”

We drove on, down through the enormous gorges that mark the northern route to Arica. My ears popped at regular intervals, and would hurt the next day.

“Man, why do you have so many cell phones?” I asked.

“One cell phone for each lady,” he said.

“How many?”

“I got a lady in almost every town. In fact, I’m going to meet up with one right now in Arica. I might be 45, but this chick is hot,” he said.

“How old?”

“22, I think.”

Disclaimer: Many truckers are womanizers. Many truckers are married with children, like this one. Many truckers don’t give a crap and sleep with anything. Sometimes, just to make conversation, I don false personae to engage the gritty speak.

“I make her scream all night, right here,” he motioned to the bunk behind us.

“Right on, right on,” I said. “Sometimes you need some little young concha to rejuvenate after sessions with the Mrs.”

“Yes, that’s right. And how can I not, there are so many fine asses out here.”

Despite my disclaimer, I can’t bring myself to write detailed about what we talked about next. Suffice it to say that we spoke of techniques for the greatest yield of pleasure screams. I spoke of all the many times I practiced on hookers, which seemed to delight the trucker as he sat up in his seat. He liked me after that, and said I should go with him to meet the girl because maybe she had a friend.

When Arica came I declined the offer, rather disgusted at the thought of it, since my heart was so heavily oriented on Lima. I thanked him for the ride.

Arica, where I’d spent a week saving money for a Bolivian visa that I never got, where I’d met my first strange and kind Chileans, and where I’d camped all over the place. I started walking, and after asking for directions, I was suddenly 500 Chilean pesos richer. The gift was to help me get to the bus terminal, which I knew from my first day here so many months ago.

At the terminal I changed a dollar of Argentinian pesos. It was getting dark, but I wanted to at least make it to the border crossing some 10 kilometers north of town. I hopped on a city bus. 30 minutes later I hopped off near the city’s northern edge. I found a small store where I went to buy tomatoes. I still had bread and my cookies from Argentina. The man looked at me, and said to just take the two tomatoes. I thanked him and continued.

Across the street at another store I held out what remained of my changed dollar, some 250 pesos, or fifty cents.

“Give me all the bread you can for this,” I said.

This man filled a bag of bread, threw in a yogurt, and handed me also a steak empanada.

“This is how we treat people in Chile,” he said.

And with that last kind gesture, I began walking out of the country, perhaps for the last time.

An hour and a half later I was still walking. Arica glowed orange behind me, down the long hill I’d been slowly scaling. I’d eaten the yogurt. The way was pitch black, so I wore my headlamp around my neck to warn passing cars not to veer off if need be at that particular spot. Traffic was scant, and my thumb in the darkness was for naught.

When I reached the crossroads for the airport, I stood under the bright lights to hitch at cars—mostly unwilling. Finally, a beater pulled up.

It must be Peruvians, it must be… They were. Two men sat in the front seat and I piled my gear and myself into the back. The driver was a person of weight, and his body seemed too big for the seat. I could tell the passenger was short, and his hair perked up with gel.

They took me to the border, where we unloaded.

“Where are you from?” asked the shorter one.

“The States.”

“Ah, really?” he looked at his friend. “We picked up a gringo in the middle of the night! Haha! Man, that’s funny. I’m Marcial.”

“Chael.”

“Nice to meet you. Good people. You know?”

“Yeah, thanks a lot.”

“I know the States. I have a company. We buy those big refrigerated trailers that semis haul. I used to be a trucker. But I go to Pennsylvania to meet with the sellers every year,” said Marcial.

“Hey, cool. It’s not every day that I meet someone who knows my country,” I offered.

“You know, if you want, I’m going to Ilo after Tacna, I can take you there.”

“Yea? I was just planning on camping here tonight so as not to have to deal with the big city.”

“No, don’t worry about it. Look, tomorrow is my birthday. You come to Ilo with me, stay tomorrow and celebrate with my family.”

I scratched the back of my neck, thinking of Lima. But I could use a day’s rest, and Marcialo seemed quite friendly. “Alright,” I said.

And so it was. We went through immigration and I lost my free tomatoes. It felt like shit, but there was nothing to be done about it. On the Peruvian side they stamped me in for 183 days when I asked for it. Superb. Welcome back, everyone, to Peru.

On the drive toward Tacna Marcial and his friend spoke business and also questioned me about this or that. His friend was very interested in zodiac signs, and after I told them about why I was going back to Lima, he asked me Mayra’s sign. “She was born May 15th, I think, but I’m not sure.”

“And you sign?” he asked.

“I’m Libra.”

“You’re earth. She’s air.” He thought for a moment. “It means you have good sex.”

When we arrived to the friend’s house in Tacna, I saw that it was a mansion. Marcial retrieved his pick-up truck from his friend’s garage, we said goodbye and were off toward Ilo, but not before stopping to run some errands in Tacna. Marcial tossed me some sols, the Peruvian money, in case you’ve forgotten. “Go buy us some chicken. Half breast each.”

The highway to Puerto Ilo followed the ocean, an alternate route that I hadn’t yet taken. We feasted on pollo a la brasa with French fries and cokes. Later, Marcial thought it was weird that I wouldn’t follow suit and chuck my Styrofoam plate out the window.

“I guess I’m just kind of a hippy,” I said.

“I see. Anyway, Chael. Do you believe in Jesus?”

We spoke about that popular guy for a while, and then as we approached Ilo, the subject changed.

“I have a paintball area you can sleep at. There’s a bed and everything,” he said.

“Paintball?”

“Well it’s not running right now. My last worker was stealing from me. Next time I gotta find someone honest.”

“Like me,” I jest.

“You want to?” He became enthusiastic then. “Yea! You should stay. I’ll pay you. All you have to do is charge the players and read the rules and act as referee for the matches. You can sleep there. One week. What do you say?”

“Man, I would be all over that offer, usually. But I have to get to Lima, you know—“

“Yea yea, I understand. Anyway, tomorrow we’ll have a good time and then I’ll try to find you a trucker friend to take you to Lima.”

We arrived to Ilo a couple hours later, the latter of which I had to struggle to keep a stream of conversation going so that Marcial wouldn’t fall asleep at the wheel. We drove through the quiet port city and into a large gated area that played host to tennis courts, defunct go-cart tracks and his outdoor paintball area. I unloaded my gear and passed it through a small door in a camouflage-themed wood hut. Inside there was a dirty but serviceable mattress and empty metal shelves.

“Wow, thanks a lot Marcial.”

“No problem. Tomorrow, ceviche and party. I’ll come find you tomorrow morning around 10,” he said, and drove off.

In the morning, after a night of sweaty sleep listening to the crashing waves nearby, I entered the paintball area to stroll around the splash-stained ramparts, brushing my hand over them in a retrospective imagining of my days of Call of Duty 1 for the PC. Then I heard a –BEEP!-

It was Marcial come to find me. I packed my things and threw them into the bed of the pick-up. He had to stop at the bank for some business things, and then we went to his house.

The house was a two-story building with red tiles on its exterior. The first floor was filled with towers of plastic bins once used to store fresh fish. There were also several mini ATVs, tons of paintball equipment including guns, masks and air tanks, and a bathroom hidden away in the back. I took a quick cold shower, the first since Buenos Aires, and then climbed the stairs to find Marcial.

The second floor was a clean and modern-looking space with Ikea-like furniture, a computer, and lots of stuff. Although Marcial was becoming my friend, I couldn’t help but notice the typicality of his belief system, idea of work and what’s right. Christian, Evangelical, believes in work, has a quiet submissive Andean house keeper, named his daughter ‘Macy’ after the department store, has a lot of expensive toys which is to be expected of the new rich, and yet the environment matters little as the previous night’s heavy littering suggested. The problem with many (not all) religious folk is that they already know everything, and that everything that happens does so because God wanted it to, which to me seems like easy and dangerous scapegoat. Marcial’s is a veiled hypocrisy that I see more often than not, but a hypocrisy that seems to be a natural phenomenon when new richness and Evangelism mix.

I shelved my concerns and took Marcial for who he is; a kind father of two young girls, a good person and loyal friend. He let me browse the internet for a moment before we were again underway in his pick-up.

“Happy birthday,” I said.

“Thank Chael! You know, I’m turning 33.”

I wanted to compliment his success. “So young and already you live so well,” I said.

“I feel good. 33 is an important year. Jesus was 33 when he died.”

I was going to make a joke, but of suppressed it. We drove down through the colorful streets of Puerto Ilo’s center. My mind wandered to considerations of could I live here, and the dangerous imagination took me to futures that deep down I may not want. Thoughts of love are corrupted by thoughts of the future, I decided, and came back to reality.

“Beautiful city,” I said.

“You like it? The people here are good, hard workers.”

“There are no tourists. It feels authentic.”

Authentic it was, but I had still yet to see the port market. We parked among a bustle of busy stalls with colorful overhangs, and walked down the drippy ramp to the dock. The fish market was alive! There were orange and yellow-clad fishermen stomping to and fro, large and older women yelling prices or selling something else, and hundreds of boats tied up together. The boats closest to the dock were unloading fish they’d had stowed away in their stores packed in with ice, and there were all kinds of fish and weird rubbery sea creatures, each of them a strange sight outside of the Discovery Channel. Giant pelicans walked among the humans, snapping at anyone who got too close (as in touching), or they just loitered and lounged anywhere they could—and there were many. Carts shot buy filled with crates of the catch, and Marcial smiled at everyone he knew, which seemed to be everyone.

Puerto Ilo, Peru

Puerto Ilo, Peru. Source.

 

“I used to load my trailers here, take fish to Arequipa, Lima, even further sometimes,” he said. “Today I just sell the trailers. More time at home.”

He was looking for a certain kind of fish. A toothless old man with totally calloused feet and plenty of energy seemed to be guiding us around, but Marcial knew the place well. When he found the fish he was looking for, he had to convince the lady to sell it to him, since they usually sell them to the interior cities for much higher prices. The toothless man was like a mute translator between them. Since Marcial knew the lady, she sold him the fish.

“This is perico,” he said to me, “the best for cebiche.”

We hauled the large three-foot greenish-gold fish to the pick-up, and drove back to his house.

“Now it’s time to make us some cebiche,” Marcial said as he slapped and rubbed his hands together.

First we chopped off the fins, tale and head. Then we sliced the dorsal spine and ventral skin with a wannabe filet knife. I held the body as Marcial tore back the skin, revealing plump peach and ruby meat. When the body was stripped of skin, we cut out filets and chopped them into small cubes. His house worker, who not surprisingly was so shy that I couldn’t hear her when she spoke, had cut a bowl of onions. We added the pieces of perico to the bowl, and squeezed small green and round lemons into the batch. The meat transformed into a cottage-cheese texture and color.

Later, Marcial’s family and friends arrived. The women took over dealing with the ceviche-in-progress, and I went out back with two of his buddies and a case of beer. When the beer bottle was passed to me I drank from it, and the stared at me. I had forgotten the rituality of drinking beer in traditional Peruvians. They drink from a single shared glass. You fill you glass with beer, and pass the bottle to the next person in counter-clockwise rotation. You drink your glass down and pass it along, and the thing is repeated. They say it’s so that the cold beer stays cold longer, but I don’t see any obvious benefit to the practice, I just see a way to embarrass ignorant gringos.

I was drunk. My qualities beam when I’m drunk, sometimes. The next morning Marcial would tell me that I made myself popular. I spoke with everyone, despite the clear distance put between family and friends. I spent most of my time with the pair of friends, since the family consisted of women speaking matter-of-factly about Jesus. We drank heavily and prepared a Peruvian-style parillada, barbeque. The ceviche had already disappeared down our bellies, and I was still basking in the fact that on my first day back in Peru I was fortunate enough to be eating ceviche.

And the meat was delectable as well. That recognizable scent of grilled meats filled the small outdoor area where we were sitting. The glass came my way. I filled it, drank down and passed along. With the friends we spoke of their businesses. One had a gas station, and the other was a lawyer who also had a night club. With Marcial and his buddies I brainstormed ideas about the discoteca.

“Man, since facebook I the thing these days, you should include that somehow. I don’t know… something easy like a computer where guests register when they walk in, and everyone can see all the profiles of people present with their status of why they’re there…”

“Sounds interesting,” the lawyer said. He reminded me of my friend Chava in Mexicali, at whose business I’d camped out.

“You even have each table with a computer, and the tables can communicate with each other. People are disconnected. People go to clubs to meet people, and they drink to reach their comfortable disconnect. Facebook is a way to offer disconnection at a club. Imagine… I’m shy and nervous and don’t want to talk to that girl, but I can send her a message on facebook and she can see it on one of these many computers in the club, and I feel protected from rejection. Or I don’t know. It needs to be thought about.”

We spoke on and on, and eventually decided that we’d have to terminate the night with a match of paintball.

The paintball never happened, and the night came to a close. All the children that had been running around were now passed out, and the women seemed to be all out of anecdotes about Jesus. Marcial let me crash on the floor downstairs among those plastic crates and paintball gear. The night ended on a full stomach and a very dizzy head.

I’ve never liked how you need a key into to leave an apartment or house. It seems to me like a very dangerous status quo.

I woke early and found Marcial roaming around upstairs like a zombie.

“Chael would you help me with something?”

“Sure, what is it?”

“I need to call my supplier in Pennsylvania, who hasn’t sent me the trailers and I need pictures of them.”

We sat at the computer and called the States. I acted as translator and told the heavily accented Pennsylvanian man to send Marcial the photos. Then I felt good about myself when Marcial thanked me—the ego boost for the day.

Marcial convinced me to stay for lunch, my favorite pollo estafado. We drove around, me in the back of pick-up and his daughter and mother up front, and I helped him carry a giant wooden desk from his mother’s place around the corner to his.

Finally I decided it was time to get back on the road. He drove me up the dunes that enclose Puerto Ilo, and onward to a gas station at the very end of the city. I thanked him immensely; for the food, the hospitality, the 3 sols he handed me, the good times. He smiled and said something about Jesus, then drove back down the road, into memory.

By the time night had come I was at the crossroads to Arequipa 5 hours out from Ilo. It was a quick ride with a private man to Moquegua, and then a long haul with a trucker who treated me to tea and pork sandwiches on the way to the crossroads. I asked a gas station attendant and with his permission pitched my tent behind the building. Sleep righteously stole me away then, strangely intent to take me into bizarre dream worlds that dazzled me until morning.

I woke very early to the sounds of growling, barking and running. When I emerged from my tent I stretched my arms and yawned, but froze when I caught sight of a large black blob hidden only slightly in the building’s shadow. Damn it, I thought. It was a Rottweiler. No, it was two beasty Rottweilers.

They were laying down staring at me, their shoulders obviously tensed. I held my umbrella under my arm and calmly took down my tent, packing it all slowly into my back. I did not look at the dogs, but kept them in my peripheral vision. When all was set I threw my pack over my shoulders.

But as soon as I turned to walk, both dogs exploded from their place in a sprint, barking horrid and growling white fangs, and each bark threw their gums back in that violent snarl that shows you they want to bite. Their intent was clear as their barks were really their jaws snapping the air, which probably felt pain, too.

I had pulled down my umbrella just in time to cause them doubt and they stopped in their tracks, their violent ferocity continuing to ring cringing through the morning air. I hissed at them, but tried to walk away indifferent, avoiding their eyes completely. I managed to walk out to the front were a different attendant had been looking on anxiously.

“Man, you can’t go back there! Those dogs will kill you!”

“I got that much,” I replied.

A few hours throwing my thumb at passing trucks down the road amounted to nothing, and I had to turn down several taxis. Back to the land of disguised taxis, it seems. I noticed there were Rottweiler dogs at every establishment of this particular crossroads. I walked back to the gas station. There, I found a pair of semis hauling onions that agreed to take me along.

“I’m Chael,” I said, reaching my hand across to the driver, who shook it after pulling into gear.

“Julio,” he said. Another quiet one.

Julio was quiet on most subjects, but like my last Chilean ride, loved to talk about all the girls he had in addition to his wife. We spoke techniques.

The descent to Camana, the last big city on the road until Nasca, was dangerously steep and curving. Julio constantly pointed out that perhaps roads like that don’t exist in my country. I shrugged.

Julio had a powerful brow and high cheek bones. The mouth was set low and wide, and the cheeks themselves were somewhat sunken. The skin was a dark bronze, and surprisingly scruffy around the chin. He looked like some kind Incan ruler.

At Camana he and the other semi pulled over. We drank tea and ate a meal of fried fish, rice and beans.

“We’re going to get you to Lima to see your girl,” Julio’s friend said.

“You guys are going to Lima?” I asked.

“No, we’re going to Ecuador. These onions are on their way to Bogota,” he replied.

“But Julio and I have decided to get you to Lima on a full stomach. Maybe you’ll remember us that way,” he said. Julio just nodded.

Onward we drove, the two semi convoy of pink bags of onions. The stretch of coastal highway between Camana and Nasca was new to me. The road followed the cliffs and desert mountains, which fell steeply into the Pacific blue, waves exploding over the rocks. The mountains were huge and the road dangerous. It took many hours to navigate them, and we made a stop along the way.

Both trucks had pulled over to the shoulder—the one spot on the road that actually had a shoulder. There was a medium-sized white tiled animita decorated with flowers and a weird decal of a cows head in a rose bloom. The memorial was surrounded by small cacti, grass and mini palms. A barrel of water was stored there, and Julio took to watering the plants.

His friend came over to me. “Julio lost three cousins here last year. They crashed right there.” He pointed off the road. Down in the gulley was a sticky-looking area of black scorched earth. Rubbish littered the area, but it was all the same rubbish of the cargo that the cousins had been hauling.

The two truckers discussed the accident, pointing with outstretched fingers where they think the culprits had been to cause the cousins to veer off the road.

“Do they know who did it?” I asked.

“No,” said Julio.

“They never caught anyone. The bastards just drove off,” said his friend. So it goes.

The desert coastal roads of Peru, near where the accident took place.

The desert coastal roads of Peru, near where the accident took place. Source.

 

We too drove off then, down the long stretches and abrupt interruptions of road that led us once more into barren mountains. By nightfall we reached a small town where there was plenty of activity. They bought me a meal of arroz a la cubana and a coffee.

Then there was more road and more Andean music. Requirements to be able to sing in an Andean music band are that you must sound like a 12 year old girl and you must use no more than 2 words for your lyrics, amor and corazon. We also listened to Peruvian folklore band Pata Amarilla, which has great instrumentals but every song used the same lyrics only reordered… “corazon and amor”, “labios”, etc.

 

A few hours later we arrived to Yauca, and at the tollbooth out of the town, we pulled over to sleep for the night. Julio and I climbed onto the onion cargo and set a tarp over the sacks, where I promptly laid my sleeping bag and fell into it.

The next day we quickly arrived to Nasca, where my chest pounded as I was suddenly in very familiar territory. We stopped for the truckers to take bucket showers and to wash off the rigs. Then we ate caldo de gallina, and were again underway for Lima.

The urban sprawl of Ica seemed to take forever to drive through, and the dirtiness of that city got me down. We took a detour into the city center and I pouted at the dumped trash that littered every corner. Where is there a clean poor country, I questioned myself. Then again, we are the ones wasting all the food, so what’s worse: littering or wasting food? The horror… , the horror.

I also got depressed about the telecommunication company Claro, which does an incredibly annoying job of saturating the public sphere with advertisements. Entrances and exits to most towns and cities in Peru are marked by a highway overhang of Claro wishing you well or welcome. It’s like Coca-Cola; do they really need to be advertising anymore? The bastards have even started an advertising campaign in which they insert the sounds of opening a bottle and pouring it into a glass into the middle of songs that are playing on the radio. And the worst thing about it? I know it’s Coke without them even saying something like “drink coke.” Damn it.

As we emerged from Ica I cheered up, but my chest cavity was straining. Every moment brought me closer to Lima, closer to her. If ever nerves could jump…

Fog drifted over the desert as if looking for something. It was so thick, visibility became null. It made for an eerie way to experience the Ayacucho crossroads at Pisco. As we passed through, crowds of people and riot police emerged through the mists. The road was marked with recent struggles. Further on we passed running soldiers, who were chasing a group that had just thrown large rocks over the highway to block traffic in protest at something or another. I looked down at the soldiers’ faces and wondered why they were there. Then we were gone.

Passed the long stretches of Pacific coast and chicken coops, passed the tourist town of Asia, passed San Bartolo, and passed the tollbooth where I’d hitched out of Lima twice already. Slowly the highway expanded and traffic thickened. Lima was covered in the same fog. Finally we came to Atocongo Bridge, and as I climbed down from Julio’s rig he tossed me 3 sols.

“Thanks!” I yelled over the din of day. Distracted by traffic, he said nothing, so I shut the door and he drove off, leaving me among familiar ground.

I crossed the highway, walked to Bolichera, where I found once more that blue 24B bus that would take me to Miraflores. I noticed that the metro train was in service, the only real thing that had changed since I’d been gone. The bus took me quickly away from my old haunts. Bolichera, the House of No Ends, a thousand memories and more.

My mad dash of sparse respite had finally ended with me at my destination. 10 days, 20 rides, 4,357 kilometers and 1 spent dollar later I was standing in front of Pariwana Hostel in Miraflores, where I had worked as receptionist and blogger back in September. I was in her neighborhood. I would see her soon, I hoped. I was dirty.

I walked into Pariwana and found Fiorella at the desk. We smiled at each other and I explained what I’d been up to. Alonso also showed up and I greeted him. They smiled at my plans and said that sure, I could clean up there. I took a scorching hot shower and changed into fresh clothes.

“Hat or no hat?” I asked Fiorella.

“Hmm… I think you should go with the hat,” she said.

“It’s better right?”

“Yeah, it’s better.”

 


 

Dripping hair, I ran my hand through it, and then knocked on the door. I heard the lock. It opened. She peaked out and saw me, and I saw her.

“Hello,” she said.

“Hello,” I replied.

We opened the metal gate, and stood looking at each other. Don’t take me, part of my conscious said. Hate me, reject me. Send me away.

“I couldn’t stand it anymore,” I said. “I couldn’t stand it anymore.”

On her feet were those pink crocs, and she was still dressed in that professional garb that I like so much. Her eyes were chocolaty and watery.

“Mayra,” I said.

“Chael,” she replied.

Don’t. Don’t. I whispered something into her ear. She said she did too. I held her. That adamant embrace, that melting, that kiss.

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