“The way to hunt is for as long as you live against as long as there is you and colors and canvas, and to write as long as you can live and there is pencil and paper or ink or any machine to do it with, or anything you care to write about, and you feel a fool, and you are a fool, to do it any other way. But here we were, now, caught in time, by the season, and by the running out of our money, so that what should have been as much fun to do each day whether you killed or not was being forced into that most exciting pervasion of life; the necessity of accomplishing something in less time than should truly be allowed for its doing.”
I found Hemingway’s The Green Hills of Africa in a Buenos Aires hostel, hidden behind the wood trimming of its shelf and pressed against the back by the weight of dozens of unworthy tomes. I considered myself lucky; that it hadn’t been stolen from such a place meant that it hadn’t been found. So I stole it.
In our hotel room the light pierced a small green glass window, giving the room an omniscient feeling that might have allowed us to sleep until the afternoon were it not for the unbearable altitude. I’d roll over and then crawl out of my cot to join Mayra on hers.
“We should leave soon,” I said.
“That woman neer stops yelling, and about everything,” said Mayra.
“I know, it’s bothersome. We should leave.”
“How does she ever expect to get return guests here?”
“It’s cheap, yes.”
Potosi was wearing on me. It’s a pleasant old capital city, but it’s the small things that bug me. At the intersections in the center, for example, tights corners meant on-coming drivers couldn’t see from the other direction, and since there were no stop signs, they’d honk to warn of their approach. This happened every time, and gave the streets a striking voice that courted migraines as we strolled.
We boarded a bus to leave, and the bus’ name, because they do name their buses, was John. I also saw Mickys, Bobs and Joes. I had grudgingly accepted to bus out of town, whereas normally in a city of this size I would walk, but Mayra would not. The bus took us to a main terminal, and from there we left on another for the outskirts. The dusty city of Potosi we left behind, and rose out of its bowl and into desolate surrounds.
Christians and then a trucker brought us the next 3 hours on to Sucre, Bolivia’s white city and at lower altitude than Potosi. The trucker dropped us at the far end of the city, and there we made camp in a ruined mud house perched overlooking dramatic green hills.
We visited the center in the morning, and I held Mayra’s hand as we walked, loaded with our packs, in and among the colonial city. The center was clean, but isn’t it almost always? The truth of a country’s tendencies is better observed on the outskirts of its urban centers. In America, the tendency is urban sprawl and ugly monotony, orderly and clean and unmoving for anything outside the norm. In Bolivia it’s the dirt and unorganized rampant expansion and migration to cities that are not capable of accommodating everyone’s hopes and dreams. It’s a simple architecture and a boring one as well. But outskirts have their encanto in that the people do not expect anything of you as a visitor. You are not a tourist, and if you are, then damn it you’re lost.
At the city market we finally found Bolivian food that we enjoyed, from the crisp bunuelos and coffee to chorrizo marinated in some kind of red oil sauce. The women working there donned uniforms that emphasized the full cholita get-up, from bowler hat to falda. As we ate we talked about how there were no pigeons in Potosi, how most Bolivians we met were curt with us, and how strange it was to see RC soda pop.
Before we left Sucre Mayra went to an internet cafe and I wandered. The streets boast colonial buildings that sit snug up against each other, and I came to one with a sign that read “Flavour”. Inside was a trap for tourists, but I’d finally found English-language books. I had been without that means of inspiration for some time. I browsed the titles; The Ugly American, Catch-22, Frankenstein, Heart of Darkness, and the list went on like that, with familiar titles that were so relevant for me it hurt. Alas I would find the old torn books to be priced like a new one in Chile (more expansive than in the States). I glared at the Dutch girl behind the counter, and then left.
We took the #4 bus to the Fancesa cement plant at the city limits of Sucre, then walked on down a dangerous curving road falling from the city heights to a small town below. We passed a touristic site where a wide, tall, flat rock face bore the vertical footprints of dinosaurs, having rotated underground in the millennia of earthquakes before the mountain split.
We made it to the next town walking, which wasn’t a town in fact but a small group of houses and a police checkpoint. Beside the officers’ booth, the pavement had been warped rotten with the passing of heavy trucks such that it looked like snakes laying trapped beneath the surface.
I sat with Mayra. The officer came to chat with us. He offered an abandoned room for us to sleep in were we to see night without luck. But fortune would have it that a large truck pulled over, the kind with a huge wooden open-top trailer behind it. They agreed to take us on when I asked. The man who helped Mayra climb up pushed on her butt and I fumed silently. Mayra laughed about it later.
When I got to the top of the trailer and looked in, I saw about a dozen people already sitting upon the cargo, which consisted of sacks of corn. They were all Bolivians, and their stares were cold and unmoving like concrete. There were no pleasantries of introduction, just the brutal silence that’s normal here and uncomfortable for outsiders. One woman in particular would not cease her staring, and when I said hello, she only whispered to her husband, I assume, in Aymara or Quechua.
I looked at Mayra and she was there in her black sweater, speaking to me with her eyes. We had already agreed that Bolivians were difficult to feel comfortable around, but this ride would turn out to demonstrate a few things we hadn’t known. It broke down beside a river bed 30 minutes after we had boarded. I took a piss and the other men followed suite, jumping down and walking to the edge of the dirt road to unleash their burden. And like men will do, we gathered around the engine and rubbed our faces in consternation.
I had scribbled something in my notebook; “people grow more people with time, that you create worth for a person the longer you’re with them.” When we had entered the trailer, the people had stares, but no faces. Now, though, that we were brothers in the breakdown, I was subconsciously putting faces to people, and giving them worth in my eyes.
A piece ordered from Sucre finally arrived in an expectable white wagon taxi, and soon we were underway once more.
The night grew frigid, and I let Mayra curl up beside me. She managed to sleep but I remained awake. I watched the sky change and turn to darkness, and an eerie fog that had appeared and harbored a whitish glow from the moon it obscured meant that the men whose faces I knew were now sharp silhouettes, like black cut-outs in time, like shadows of men who don’t exist.
When I could tell that we were on a straight stretch of the mountainous dirt road, I stood in the very moment that a deafening and sudden sound rang out, the kind that doesn’t take but a second to tell you that something bad has happened. The trailer shuddered and suddenly dropped on a slant toward the back left corner. Mayra jolted upright and looked at me. I had looked over the side of the wall in time to see a large tire rolling alongside the truck. Glancing back at Mayra I told her it was alright.
Men found the tire, and brought it back. They removed lug nuts from the other tires to compensate for the ones that had exploded off. Still there was fog, but not enough to hide the steep hill sides that we might have crashed onto were the factors of the accident only slightly altered. But on those things I do not dwell. Soon, we were again underway.
After hours of dirt roads and sparse headlights blurred in the haze of upwelling dust, the drivers kicked us out in a town called Aiquile, in the center, in the dead of night. They were headed to the same place we were, Santa Cruz de la Sierra, but they would no longer take us free of charge. So it goes (in Bolivia).
We made camp just outside of town, and in the morning it was wet from a light rain. We packed camp, and Mayra was smiling–she loves the tent. I climbed down a small hill.
“Chael could you help me down?”
I looked at the hill, and said no, she could handle it. We fought. We fought not because it was something important, but because in traveling you are made selfish. I told her I wanted her to be independent, to be able to handle herself. I wanted her to be able to tighten her backpack on her own. I said, “I don’t want a role.” I said it, and repeated it.
Back in town we found a market, where we ate thin, crisp and fluffy pastels with coffee and a coconut drink. We also learned about “augmentation,” wherein when you finish your food and drink, they give you half more.
Then we were walking, under a morning Aiquile Bolivia sun.
“Where are we?” she asked.
“Aiquile. I don’t know.”
“It’s hot, and this pack is heavy.”
“We’re just going to walk until we get somewhere to hitch.”
“There aren’t many cars here are there?” she asked.
“It’s because it’s not a main road. We have to hitch to the main highway, I think it’s paved.”
We were in the middle of nowhere, as far as the scenery and the condition of the road went, but on we walked, passed by a motorcycle in an hour. So you might imagine my surprise when a pick-up pulled over and took us onward, us in the bed.
They were construction contractors, and throughout the 2 hour or so journey, they pulled rank to stop the big machines working in the road to be able to pass. Where they dropped us off there was a truck stopped in the road, and nothing else. So we asked the trucker and he agreed to take us to Saipina.
“I thought he had a tumor in his mouth,” Mayra told me once we had climbed out of the green cab.
I laughed. “No he was just chock full of coca.” We laughed.
Then it was food and walking and a free lift from a taxi to get to a lookout over the small town of Saipina. We would wait there for a spell, and as we did I started to recognize a certain plant growing in abundance around us. I pulled out my knife and cut into it, a bright green ooze responding to the wound.
“Mayra! Look! San Pedro!”
And so it was; the San Pedro cactus. I had never seen it before in nature, and it was a surprise to learn that the foot or so of cactus we used to cook San Pedro mescaline in The House of No Ends grows in such a large collection of arms. We had a view over the valley, and everywhere I looked there were veritable trees of San Pedro. I cut another one open and recoiled at the smell, but a sick aching for more meant that I cut a few more open before I was satisfied.
By midday the next day we were in the celestial wooden trailer of a truck heading for Santa Cruz de la Sierra. Mayra lay down, covering her eyes from the dust that swirled and swirled in the wind but never left the space of the trailer. From time to time one of us would stand to peer out at the landscape through the slats. It had already lost its Andean attributes and was now flattening out into a lush green jungle.
I watched a bee that had fallen, broken, to the floor. It buzzed around, but eventually it would die. It gave me peace of mind, and I felt selfish. Mayra was probably sick and tired of my talking about “el viaje,” the voyage. She probably hated hearing me talking about Asia or going home for a best friend’s wedding in October. I, with all these feelings of what the journey means, and seeing beyond what is obvious, giving meaning to something that for her there is none. She would see the routine in hitchhiking, and she would see the monotony of the same conversation again and again. I tried to explain that all the in-betweens are worth those special few. That were she to travel for such a long period of time in a bus, a sterile and sanitary bus, then she might better see the romance of traveling by thumb. But then I thought, Oh! Damn it, my ideas of complexity are all in my head. My want to live to see the absurdity in life, is all in my head.
The trailer bounced and pulled and played with our kinetic energy, probably giving our butts rashes. The clouds were huge. The clouds are huge. They don’t move either, unless you stare for too long, in which case they hypnotize you and make you think that their movements aren’t happening. Then I think, sometimes looking at the world upside down is enough inspiration.
In Santa Cruz de la Sierra we were hot again. We stripped down to a single layer and ate a good meal. It was more expensive here. The humidity brought softness and feeling back to our lips, which in the Andes would crack open at the tiniest amount of stress.
Santa Cruz de la Sierra is wrongly named. It has nothing to do with the sierra. It’s the country’s second-largest city after La Paz, and as Evo’s party’s main opposition hub, it might be said to be conveniently non-Andean. According to everyone, it seems that the only governor that opposes Evo that has not been accused of something or exiled is the head honcho of Santa Cruz. The city wanted independence from the rest of Bolivia at one point, a fact which is made instantly obvious once you take in the differences between it and La Paz.
There are few cholitas here. The population is much whiter than elsewhere in the country, and the climate has nothing in common with the Andes, being in a low basin of thick vegetation verging on the Amazon. There is also no dust in the streets. Things are cleaner, more orderly, and the hegemonic commercialism that comes with globalization is obvious. Perhaps it’s that ugly familiarity which Mayra felt that made her decide that she prefers this city to La Paz. Santa Cruz reminded me of Pucallpa, just with more “development.”
The city itself was once a frontier town and the gateway to the Chaco regions. Walking its center brings you among its eclectic architecture, where in many places you’re strolling beneath the type of wooden awnings and pillars you’d expect from an old western flick, and the next you’re looking at a concrete block. Agriculture is easy in the local soils, the proof the wheelbarrows and carts of yucca and fruits. Immigrants from Europe showed up in droves, driving the city’s economy and shaping its demographic for centuries to come. Despite any animosity I might have toward places that court globalization, you can’t exactly blame the Santa Cruz inhabitants for feeling marginalized by Evo’s campaigns, which all have the underpinning theme of empowering Andean cultures. Nor can you expect an indigenous political expression that resents their centuries-long treatment at the hands of the white elite from Santa Cruz to go lightly in their revolution against the status quo. Not everyone can be like Mandela.
He had a British accent.
“I am the happiest man you will meet. You will always see me with a drink in my hand, and why? Because me and drinks get on like a house on fire. And I’ll tell you something, Chael, I’m really glad to see you and Mayra so real together. The world needs more of that. Most relationships don’t work out–trust me I know. My wife taught me how to lose a fortune–divorce.”
“You know I can see you as a redcoat in the American Revolutionary War?” I said. “You know, cheeky bastard, bloody American, God save the king.”
“Bah! But no, Chael I’m half Chinese. Which, of course, are two nationalities as different as chalk and cheese.”
Jules was full of useful idioms like that. I would hear him spin off a whole bunch in a row, perhaps telling me about what it was like managing private funds and making buck in the Philippines, or perhaps talking about poker.
“I need certain things. Unfortunately here they’ve already shut down a number of the casinos. I used to play online, but I try to get out more,” he said.
“Are there a lot of places to play poker around here normally?”
“A lot more than there were in Asuncion, I’ll tell you that much! I did a search for places that speak to my poker-playing self. I didn’t look into it when I went to Paraguay, I just threw a dart at a map. Oh yeah, I did. I was just through the divorce and I chucked a dart and it landed on Paraguay, and so I went. It was boring, so I came here.”
Mayra was watching television and eating some of Jules’ leftover sweet chicken, which thanks to his Chinese parent and love of food was quite tasty.
“Love is a fucking crazy fucking thing, Chael,” he said. Now we were in a bar downtown, drinking the drinks he bought us and dancing to reggae night tunes.
“Any word can be used to describe how drunk you are,” he added.
“Ah, like with boobs, too,” I said.
“That’s right! Boobs! Knockers! Jumbo jets! Lithuanians!”
We spent a few days at Jules’ place in Santa Cruz, but eventually we had to get back on the road. In the back of my mind I was thinking about home, and October is not far off. Mayra knew it. The voyage was being pressured, and the buildup would rupture with floods.
Before we left, Jules the Brit gave me the book “Life of Pi”, and this:
NOTICE OF REVOCATION OF INDEPENDENCE
To the citizens of the United States of America,
In the light of your failure to elect a President of the USA and thus to govern yourselves, we hereby give notice of the revocation of your independence, effective today.
Her Sovereign Majesty Queen Elizabeth II will resume monarchial Duties over all states, commonwealths and other territories. Except Utah, which she does not fancy. Your new Prime Minister (The Rt. Hon. Tony Blair, MP for the 97.85% of you who have until now been unaware that there is a world outside your borders) will appoint a minister for America without the need for further elections. Congress and the Senate will be disbanded. A questionnaire will be circulated next year to determine whether any of you noticed. To aid in the transition to a British Crown Dependency, the following rules are introduced with immediate effect:
You should look up “revocation” in the Oxford English Dictionary. Then look up “aluminium”. Check the pronunciation guide. You will be amazed at just how wrongly you have been pronouncing it. Generally, you should raise your vocabulary to acceptable levels. Look up “vocabulary”. Using the same twenty seven words interspersed with filler noises such as “like” and “you know” is an unacceptable and inefficient form of communication. Look up “interspersed”.
There is no such thing as “US English”. We will let Microsoft know on your behalf.
You should learn to distinguish the English and Australian accents. It really isn’t that hard.
Hollywood will be required occasionally to cast English actors as the good guys.
You should relearn your original national anthem, “God Save The Queen”, but only after fully carrying out task 1. We would not want you to get confused and give up half way through.
You should stop playing American “football”. There is only one kind of football. What you refer to as American “football” is not a very good game. The 2.15% of you who are aware that there is a world outside your borders may have noticed that no one else plays “American” football. You will no longer be allowed to play it, and should instead play proper football. Initially, it would be best if you played with the girls. It is a difficult game. Those of you brave enough will, in time, be allowed to play rugby (which is similar to American “football”, but does not involve stopping for a rest every twenty seconds or wearing full kevlar body armour like nancies). We are hoping to get together at least a US rugby sevens side by 2005.
You should declare war on Quebec and France, using nuclear weapons if they give you any merde. The 98.85% of you who were not aware that there is a world outside your borders should count yourselves lucky. The Russians have never been the bad guys. “Merde” is French for “sh*t”.
July 4th is no longer a public holiday. November 8th will be a new national holiday, but only in England. It will be called “Indecisive Day”.
All American cars are hereby banned. They are crap and it is for your own good. When we show you German cars, you will understand what we mean.
Please tell us who killed JFK. It’s been driving us crazy. Thank you for your cooperation.
Re: NOTICE OF REVOCATION OF INDEPENDENCE
To the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland,
We welcome your concern about our electoral process. It must be exciting for you to see a real Republic in action, even if from a distance. As always we’re amused by your quaint belief that you’re actually a world power. The sun never sets on the British Empire! Right-o chum!
However, we regretfully have to decline your offer for intervention. On the other hand, it would be amusing to see you try to enforce your new policy (for the 96.3% of you that seem to have forgotten that you have little to no real power). After much deliberation, we have decided to continue our tradition as the longest running democratic republic. It seems that switching to a monarchy is in fact considered a “backwards step” by the majority of the world.
To help you rise from your current anachronistic status, we have compiled a series of helpful suggestions that we hope you adopt:
1. Realize that language is an organic structure, and that you aren’t always correct in your pronunciation or spelling. Let’s use your “aluminium” example. Sir Humphrey Davy (an Englishman) invented the name “aluminum” (note spelling) for the metal. However, in common usage the name evolved into “aluminium” to match the naming convention of other elements. In 1925 the United States decided to switch back to the original spelling and pronunciation of the word, at which point we dominated the aluminum industry. We’d also like to point out that the process of actually producing aluminum was developed by an American and a Frenchman (not an Englishman). However, we’d like to thank you for the Oxford English Dictionary. It’s an interesting collection, considering that over 10,000 of the words in the original edition were submitted by a crazy American civil-war veteran called Dr. William Charles Minor.
2. Learn to distinguish the American and Canadian accents, and then we’ll talk about the English and Australian accent issue.
3. Review your basic arithmetic. (Hint 100 – 98.85 = 1.15 and 100 – 97.85 = 2.15)
4. If you want English actors as good guys, then make your own movies. Don’t rely on us for your modern popular culture. We liked “Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels”, “Trainspotting”, and “The Full Monty”. We’ve also heard good things about this “Billy Elliot”. But one good movie a year doesn’t exactly make a cultural powerhouse. However, you’re doing pretty well with music, so keep up the good work on that front.
5. It’s inefficient to have a national anthem that changes its title whenever your monarch dies. Let’s not forget that your national anthem has an extremely boring tune. We suggest switching to that Rule Britannia ditty, it’s toetapping. Or maybe Elton John could adapt “Candle In The Wind” again for you guys.
6. Improve at your national sport. Football? Soccer? This just in: United States gets fourth place in men’s soccer at the 2000 Summer Olympics. United Kingdom? Not even close. By the way, impressive showing at Euro 2000. You almost managed to get through the tournament without having your fans start an international incident.
7. Learn how to cook. England has some top notch candy. Salt ‘n’ Vinegar chips are quite yummy. However, there’s a reason why the best food in your country is Indian or Chinese. Your contributions to the culinary arts are soggy beans, warm beer, and spotted dick. Perhaps when you finally realize the French aren’t the spawn of Satan they’ll teach you how to cook.
8. You’re doing a terrible job at understanding cars. The obvious error is that you drive on the wrong side of the road. A second problem is pricing, it’s cheaper to buy a car in Belgium and ship it to England than to buy a car in England. On the other hand, we like Jaguars and Aston Martins. That’s why we bought the companies.
9. We’ll tell you who killed JFK when you apologize for “Teletubbies”.
Thank you for your time. You can now return to watching bad Australian soap operas.
p.s. – regarding WW2: You’re Welcome.
We left on a train. Mayra had only once been on a train, and between a journey on the aptly-titled “Train of Death” and one on a mud dirt jungle road, she insisted on the train. We fought over it for a time, and when she asked if I wanted to travel alone I felt my jaw clamping down on my words, and it hurt, as though I were clamping down on steel.
At the station the tickets were 52 Bolivianos each, plus 3 each for “use of the station,” a stupid bureaucratic annoyance. The Bolivian train of death schedule and prices were displayed on a large reflective board. I stared at it a moment and scratched my chin. So it goes:
Entering the platform, an Interpol agent stopped me and reviewed my passport stamp and Bolivian visa. I felt bad for the customs agent who searched my bag, and smelled it. They let Mayra pass without incident.
The train was obviously old, but well enough maintained that I felt little reserve. After the risks I’ve taken with some vehicles, a train, on a track, does not faze me.
We bought a few bottles of cold Fanta before the departure. Inside, the leather bench seats were going to be sticky and hot. When we entered it seemed like we had to wade through the thick, stiff air that hung stubbornly before us to find our assigned seats. When the engine whistled and the jerking signaled that we were underway, I thought how horrible it would be, the 19 hours to the Brazilian border.
There were a number of stops along the way that morning, and Cruzena women vendors with baskets filled with food would board and repeat their goods aloud and with a high-pitched intonation to their utterances that made me think I was in a prairie filled with crickets. But no, this was the Train of Death, so named for its use to transport corpses out of Santa Cruz during an outbreak of yellow fever ages before, and these women were professionls.
It rained. It rained white-out, and Mayra was afraid of the bolts of lightning and bursts of thunder. Passengers shut the windows and we were in a furnace, the cool effect of rushing wind no longer reaching our suffocating skin. I watched other people and their expressions, some of which showed the heat, with perspiration, without care. The train rocked back and forth under the storm’s onslaught, but on it chugged.
Then, suddenly, the rain stopped, and the windows went down. It was twilight and I could smell the jungle. I saw a few hills and thought about the mountains, where the grandeur and sinking feeling in your heart was like homage to expanse, whereas in the jungle the same appreciation is got with closer inspection of things–insects, plants, fruits. Those things.
It was dark by the time we reached San Jose, the halfway point. There, dozens of children came aboard to sell things, outnumbering the passengers 2-to-1 and obviously having fun screaming their fare.
We tried sleeping in the leather bench seats, but it would not work. People began lying out on the floor itself, their bodies straddling the aisle. I went to the toilet, a sad thing, and when I returned it was tip-toeing over the bodies like tip-toeing over the dead. I eventually joined their ranks and left Mayra the space on the seat.
In the morning, we were at the Brazilian border.
“There are always those who take it upon themselves to defend God, as if Ultimate Reality, as if the sustaining frame of existence, were something weak and helpless. These people walk by a widow deformed by leprosy begging for a few paise, walk by children dressed in rags living in the street, and they think, “Business as usual.” But if they perceive a slight against God, it is a different story. Their faces go red, their chests heave mightily, they sputter angry words. The degree of their indignation is astonishing. Their resolve is frightening.”
-Life of Pi
The border town was called Quijarro, and didn’t show up on the map. Generic maps seem to leave all signs of life out when you look at this part of the continent. Not even a line, or a dot, as if it is nothing, just obscurity. So, it’s always surprising when you find that there’s movement where you weren’t expecting it.
We walked to the border, stamped out of Bolivia, and on the other side of a small creek, the immigration official glanced quickly over the Brazilian visa that I’d procured in La Paz. His apparent disregard for my documents, though, gave me a sensation verging on flattered.
“Obrigado-thank you,” I said.
We were now in Brazil. Brazil, and it was not like Bolivia. We walked. I found an insect the size of my finger dead on the side of the road and thought well, if it’s not a stereotype that tells me instinctively that Brazil has the impressive bugs then damn it, it must mean that these bugs recognize international borders.
The road was paved, and we began to walk. We walked for a long time under the hot sun.
“Oh I can’t take it!” Mayra said, and she pulled off her pack.
“Mayra wait look, we’re close to a crossroads. Let’s just arrive there and then we can rest.”
And this conversation came and went on most days, it seemed. It wasn’t like before, when I’d walk without heeding pain, letting the sweat have its way with my clothes. Ours was a sort of compromise, a word which elicits the most defensive of sensations in my chest. So we made the crossroads and sat, luckily, at a speed bump. Eventually our thumb convinced a Bolivian in his pick-up to take us toward the other side of the town, Corumba. As we sped through the streets, I took note of differences between the two countries. Here, high pitched and predictable Andean music was not polluting the air, but instead samba tunes and popular songs accompanied the people as they sat out in chairs and drank beer. People were dressed with comfort in mind, lounge-comfort. The only real similarity I could see was in the buildings–they were delapidated. Concrete structures were molding, expressing green tears in the humidity.
Later I’d learn more about the expensive reputation of Brazil, and it would surprise me to see the poverty that exists. A soda pop cost in reales, the Brazilian currency, the equivalent of what in Bolivianos you might purchase a legitimate meal and then some. Humans are indeed a strange lot, creating inequality out of thin air.
The pick-up dropped us off and we sat alongside the road to wait. I had heard that Brazil is difficult to hitchhike in. Combine pessimism with a Sunday and nothing gets done. That’s when a man came by and we asked him if it was indeed the exit toward Campo Grande where we were. He spoke back in Portuguese, and we all understand each other well enough.
“That’s right this is the exit east. Where are you from?”
I tried Portuguese whenever I could, using what little I’d learned from that pocket handbook my family had given me two Christmas’ previous. The result was mixed but legible. Then another man came to us, on a bike. He handed us pamphlets about God and Jesus and when are you gonna get on board? I eyed this second man as he explained something to Mayra in Spanish. I seemed to recognize him. It was a brotherly recognition, as though I should’ve been in deja vu.
“My name’s Josias,” he said. “Have you eaten? No? Please, I want to invite you both to my home. My church is celebrating its birthday today also, I think maybe you would like to come.”
I looked at Mayra and she was smiling. “Sure, we could use a bite to eat.”
We found a rutted dirt track that led passed a few shacks, and then came to a wide area fenced off by a short barrier. This was Josias’ family’s home, a compilation of bricks, wood, corrugated metal and whatever else was sturdy enough to patch the holes. I smacked a few mosquitoes and then Josias introduced us to his family; his mother and father, his sister, his wife, his neighbor, and so many miscellaneous children that it seemed unlikely they were all born, but rather manifested by the jungle. In any case, they took an immediate liking to us and began yelling and pulling us around the property to show us their riches. They had chickens, pigs, dogs, cats and two parrots clinging to bicycle rims slung from a tree. These were indeed riches, and the people here were happy.
The kids were talking with Mayra.
“This is the momma pig! She can’t come out because she attacks the chickens.”
“Really?” asked Mayra.
“Not some two weeks before she ate a rooster!”
We sat to eat plates of rice, noodles and a refreshing salad. Josias sat close to us, facing us directly.
“You should stay for the church service,” he said.
“Yes you should stay, Mayra stay!” Screamed the kids almost in unison.
“I suppose we could,” said Mayra, looking to me.
“Sure, we could pitch the tent somewhere,” I said. I slapped a mosquito on my neck.
“Here take this.” Josias handed me a bottle that looked like someone has pissed in it.
“What is this?”
“Rub it on your arms to keep the mosquitoes away. It’s alcohol mixed with cloves. Or you could just kill a few and rub the guts into your skin. They can detect their own dead and take it as a warning.”
“Ah ha!” I yelled “I know who you are now!”
Josias sat back and looked at me.
“You’re Cuba Gooding Jr.” The family laughed and Josias chuckled, looking into his hands then at me.
“I’ve been told that before. The Brazilian Cuba Gooding.”
“Josias I’m going to try to remember your name but if not, you’re Cuba G,” I said.
“That sounds good to me my brother.”
Josias told us his story. He was a crack fiend, then he found God and cured himself. Now he loves God and his life is his church. His family listened intently and from now and again his mother muttered a Hallelujah. The children continued pestering Mayra, which by her is always alright–they remind her, probably, of her niece.
In the night we went in a large group. The church was 10 minutes away, over the dirt roads of the town under feeble orange lights that exagerated the contrasts. The children and Josias’ sister went with Mayra while I walked with Josias and his ‘church brother’, as he put it.
At the church we shook hands with the men in suits out front. The building was small, with a high ceiling of slanting sheet metal. Everything was glowing white fluorescent, and eyes told us that everyone knew about us. About 60 people made up the congregation, and everyone took their seats. I made sure not to sit near the front; this is an evangelical church, after all.
I wanted to remain hidden in view, inconspicuous, like a comma. I didn’t want to draw attention, so I sat low and moved very little. Mayra was anxious as well, and I imagine she hoped for anonymity too. The minister stood before the chairs, his feet cased in black shoes buffed up to a shine that, against the concrete floor, looked out of place. That theme continued with his suit and tie, and a jacket black and free of lint. This is a poor town, I thought. He must have been in his early fifties, a large man, shaven to reveal acne scarring, and little eyes set close together. His hair was dark grey and military cut, and when I’d catch a smile it was as convincing as Spam. He reminded me of what a successful saleman should look like. Then he spoke.
“We’d like to welcome here with us on this so very special occasion for our little church two new family members. Please welcome brother Chael and sister Mayra, if you will.” I imagine that’s what he said–I could make outour names, in any case.
I couldn’t exactly resist the introduction, and impulsively stood and turned about. The minister rattled out something like a prayer as I did this, a blessing of some sort, and a few of the crowd yelled out “Hallelujah,” an unmistakable exclamation in any language. Now thoroughly red under the bright white fluorescents, I was glad when the minister began his sermon.
The tactic, it seems to me, of Evangelism, is to illicit a strong physical and intimate reaction from the congregation. It’s not easy to ignore the kind of intensity that an Evangelist minister exposes you to. This minister suddenly exploded into a rapid succession of prayers and here’s-what-jesus-did’s, from quiet and passive to intentional and smoldering passion. You couldn’t quite tell if it was convincing, because it’s easy to be loud. The people responded. We were all standing, and the people screamed and yelled a mixture of blessing and hallelujahs. A few raised their arms to the ceiling.
Later there was a play of some sort the likes of which I hadn’t before seen and which I couldn’t for the life of me interpret. If I take the cues of their costumes, then I would determine that a girl’s WWII French Resistance fighter with a tin foil sword was slain by a jealous Robin Hood and carried off by a hospital patient. I decided it was probably a sad ending.
The minister began once more to talk, though his talking always followed the pattern that so many anthems seem to rely on; a gradually increasing intensity and volume that culminates in all-out use of every noise instrument available. The man was in a rage, and if suddenly taken out of context he would surely be asked to leave. I felt like I was in BOPE training and Capitan Nascimento was cussing me out in front of the whole squad.
At one point the minister grabbed hold of Josias’ ‘brother’ and began yelling, eventually releasing him to fall backward into some helpers’ arms. They laid him on the floor, where he stayed, apparently invaded by the Holy Spirit.
Again the minister broke into a progression of chants. He built on each utterance with more intensity and volume. At one point, when the build grew to its zenith, I half expected the man to scream “GOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOAAAAAAAAAAALLLLLLLLL!” like a Mexican soccer broadcaster. Instead, though, the minister began shaking his finger with such violence that it was hard to keep track of it, and it looked more like he was waving a hot dog frantically, trying to explain himself. “Damn it look at this hot dog! Is this how they’re supposed to move!?”
Later, I could tell that the end was near, because the whole congregation had stood and come to the front of the room. Chairs were pushed out of the way and hands were raised to the ceiling as the minister continued to yell and a background music played, presumably to keep people in whatever trance they had decided to let themselves sink into. People were crying and shaking, and several sub-ministers held heads and spoke rapidly in that most horrible thing they call “tongues.” In no time the floor was crowded with bodies of people who, if you asked, would tell you that the spirit entered them and it was overwhelming.
A man in a suit and a hasty comb-over appeared to my left. He was holding a woman’s head and lower back, screaming at the top of his lungs in tongues and stomping a broken sole relentlessly against the floor, snapping the air. His hands were enormous, and obviously placed to guide a fall. I hadn’t noticed him before, and mused that perhaps he’s just some guy from the street who pretends to speak tongues and make people fall–his way of hitting on girls, like a wedding crasher. But his current subject was just weeping and rocking back and forth. Whether she too felt the spirit or that she was just horrified by her assailant, I could not tell.
Finally the night ended, and the spent bodies found themselves once more. There was a limbo period where everyone was still crying and hugging. I received a few handshakes, a few hugs. I think I prefer hippies, I thought. But then they brought out cake, and that’s how my night in the Brazilian Evangelical congregation ended.
“Hindus, in their capacity for love, are indeed hairless Christians, just as Muslims, in the way they see God in everything, are bearded Hindus, and Christians, in their devotion to God, are hat-wearing Muslims.”
-Life of Pi
We left the next morning, a Monday, after bread and burnt mate with milk. Before we left we snapped a photo together, and then stood in a circle to “say a prayer,” as the family put it. Josias started to give us a blessing, and then everyone else just started talking, some somewhat distinguishable but others obviously in tongues. It built just as the minister’s sermon had built up the night before. Even the parrots began to cackle and Hail Mary. It was without a doubt one of the strangest goodbyes. And despite the words I use to critique the manifestation of their faith, I felt gratitude for Josias and his family, who treated us with great respect and honest-to-God brotherly love.
Mayra didn’t enjoy our eventless walk up and out of town. We stopped several times. One time, a man approached drunk and said it was alright if we came with him, and he tried to get us to walk with him, telling us that he had “2 kilos” he had to take to Campo Grande, 6 hours away. Mayra was afraid and I told the man away much more kindly than he deserved to leave us be.
We walked more, and eventually a blue truck took us to a police checkpoint, where the police said we would never get a ride there, and from where we eventually went with Nathan, a trucker headed to Campo Grande.
We listened to “Au si eu te pego,” a popular song in Brazil which, in Spanish, sounds like “oh, if I hit you,” but which really means, “Oh, if I get you.” Nathan told us that Michel Telo, the singer, is from Campo Grande. Oh joy.
We drove through El Pantanal, the wettest of places, and spotted caimans, giant rodents and colorful parrots. We drove on for 6 long hours, during which the jungle changed into long, endless savannas. Of course, these were not savannas but lands rid of trees and prime for cattle-raising. Someone needs to supply McDonald’s.
In a country like El Salvador, they’re running out of space for their 8 million people. Maybe they could rent parts of Brazil, a country boasts a vastness more than ample for their 190 million inhabitants. When the savannahs came, the orange earth that had already been an accent in every scene had changed to a deep, rich red. Against a celestial sky and the greenest of green grass, the red completed a natural canvas attractive and inspiring in many ways. I could see far beyond the foreground commanding clouds dark at their base with rain, and blinking was like touching it all.
And when the sun reached the horizon it was pulsating an orange that swept over the land and blanketed it in warmth. Then it disappeared, and a few hours later Mayra and I were walking down a highway unable to see through night. Semis rumbled by and shook the pavement, which was already wet from a light mist and whose puddles shook.
We finally reached an area where a few buildings collected opposite a Petrobras looked like restaurants. We were without any money at all, and so opted to ask for work. Mayra was famished, and her pack visibly weighed her down more than normal. We approached one of the buildings and asked of a few people on a cigarette break. They told us to wait. They emerged and handed us a large container heavy with food. Without any thought of self, these people gave us food. We ate the rice, beans and chicken under an awning behind the establishment, as it had begun to drizzle heavier. Sounds of an accordion and aged voices mouthing Portuguese songs fluttered through the air, and echoed in the little space we had, so I smiled at Mayra and she at me.
We walked to another house after having thanked our benefactors. At the house we asked permission to camp on their lawn, and that they granted. The man changed his mind and had us camp under the house porch overhang. Then he emerged with a bag of rice, beans, meat and salad. The unsolicited kindness shocked us, and despite our full bellies we gladly took to downing our new gift. When it was clear we would not finish the food we stored it safe from eyes in the tent.
The next morning the workers invited us to take coffee with them. We filled our stomachs with bread and cheese, and thanked them. I was glad to have Mayra’s words to support my own–she says nothing that she does not mean to uphold.
We continued traveling. A trucker to a crossroads through dots of depths of green all around, on to Nova Aldorada and singing Louisiana Saturday Night. Cars with air conditioning took us to Dourados, then again to Coarapo. Food is gifted, and the surrounds change completely from jungle to wide hills of soy and wheat, a light green and airy picture moving in the breezes that skirt the ground. The land was big.
At gas stations we found free bathrooms and cold water. Everything became orderly. Curbs were well kempt, as were sidewalks. A Catholic man picked us up and when we told him about Corumba, he spoke of how Evangelical pastors are robbers, a horrible thing in a country so expensive where the minimum wage is 600 reales. Probably so.
“We are all born like Catholics, aren’t we-in limbo, without religion, until some figure introduces us to God?”
-Life of Pi
We made it to Foz do Iguacu two days later. It involved more gifted food when we asked for work, and 7 rides through those soft parsley-green fields. The earth remained a constant red everywhere we went. Mayra began talking about her home, about missing the freedom to make a cup of coffee when she liked. She hated walking under the sun, sweating, and then the especially dusty roads of Mato Gross do Sul would plume with passing vehicles such that the particles found their way onto her face, inviting pimples.
We had felt lucky to be so early arrived in Foz do Iguacu. But the day was not with us, and we ended it walking halfway across the city to camp just outside the main customs area where all trucks had to pass entering and leaving Paraguay. That country was down the same road we walked. In fact, Foz do Iguacu sat at the tri-border with Paraguay and Argentina. Our destination was Puerto Iguazu, on the Argentinian side of the Iguazu river, where I hoped to meet up with my long-time French friends who traveled on a watch, hence our rush across Brazil.
Asking for work at a buffet yielded another free plate of food, after which Mayra admitted her shame, and I felt it also. We agreed to accept food only for work, and not for free, an agreement that I have since convinced myself to abandon. It’s food.
“It was frightening, the extent to which a full belly made for a good mood. The one would follow the other measure for measure: so much food and water, so much good mood. It was such a terribly fickle existence. I was at the mercy of turtle meat for smiles.”
-Life of Pi
In the tent beside customs, we had a bag of mangos that a few of the truckers had gotten from a tree by chucking sticks at it. One trucker had asked rather directly, rather bizarrely, “Are you hippies?”
The next morning it rained hard, and claps of thunder pounded across the sky, shaking the earth, or, at least, shaking our resolve to continue. In the rain in the tent we read and waited. When finally the storm subsided we had no luck hitching the trucks, none of which, it seemed, were headed to Argentina. So, we walked.
I walked ahead of Mayra, as I usually do. The rain had ceased, but a slight drizzle kept us fresh. Foz do Iguacu was the first large Brazilian city we entered. The stoplights had too many lights.
5 hours later it was night. We had passed through Brazilian and Argentinian immigration, crossed the high bridge over River Iguazu, and were once more in the country of Che and mate, walking in the drizzle still, and still.
In Puerto Iguazu I made a reservation online for a hostel, with the expectation of seeing my friends the following day. Mayra and I asked around and eventually found rest in an abandoned house, where the tent fit perfectly. We also ate pizza.
In the morning it was the smell of wet grass recently cut. We packed the tent and made for the hostel. Not since Colombia had I paid for a place to stay. It felt somewhat surreal to go from free nights to ten dollar nights and a warm bed after the storms. Stop Hostel, it was called.
Puerto Iguazu is expensive even for Argentinian standards. This is the town I had been trying to hitchhike to from Buenos Aires before relinquishing the dream for love. Alas, we decided to take up that dream and walk the road, and now we had arrived to this destination from the complete opposite direction. Instead of finding my Brazilian visa here, I had found it in La Paz. But now, here we were, at the Tri-border, albeit the only bridge from Paraguay arrived to Brazil, not to Puerto Iguazu.
It’s a tourist town. Nearby, water raged in that most heart-pounding and inspiring of natural features, forming the Iguazu Falls, one of the largest and they say one of the most astounding things on the planet, even included in the 7 natural wonders of the world. I’ve never enjoyed the “7 Wonders” argument for greatness, even though the 7 wonders are indeed great. But the wonders were voted to stardom, so really, the “7 wonders” winners reflect good publicity campaigns.
I had told Mayra that I needed to stay in a hostel, because there was no other way to enjoy the company of old friends than to have complete and total freedom from house-guest or camping obligations. We ate a continental breakfast and Mayra cupped her mug of coffee, something she loves, that she savors. I watched the breaking particles of heat rise into her nostrils, a thing to blame for her smile.
When I went online to see about the whereabouts of my friends, I learned with joy and a sigh of relief for skipping all the logistic hassels of meeting up that they were in the same hostel, sleeping in room 14.
“They called it quits at 4 am,” the front desk clerk told me.
“Mind if I surprise them?” I asked.
I found my friends in their bunks. The front desk clerk didn’t tell me which beds they were in, and I think it was an Israeli that I confused for my friend Alexis. I decided not to nudge him, and instead nudged Martin, with whom I had had a drink when he passed through Lima.
“Chael!” he exclaimed. “Man where the hell did you come from?”
“Been here, watching you.”
“Ah ta gueule! (shut your face!)” he retorted. “Man we have to wake up Alexis,” he said in English.
Alexis rolled over with a nasal groan. It had been 4 years since I saw him last in Poitiers, France. He’s an absurd Frenchman, who reminds me of Slash both in aspect and countenance. And cigarettes.
I met their female companions, who with Mayra spoke Spanish and left us men to ruin. It was beer and reminiscing, and foosball, in which I do not lose. Only the Brazilian in the Cusco Pariwana almost beat me 2 out of 3.
“Yes, Americans are generally fatter than everyone else in the world, per capita, on average. But they can hardly be blamed. In Europe you guys have labels on your food that say exactly what’s in each, like genetically modified organisms. In the States it’s obscured.” Finally a good conversation, a lacking must in weeks of routine general chatter with rides. Well, we had made it from the Bolivian border to Puerto Iguazu in 5 days, and we had spent 2 dollars between us, so I can’t complain.
Alexis and Martin were constantly rolling cigarettes, and it took me back to my room in Poitiers, and back to 2007. We talked about how we met, in the kayak course, surfing the waves at a small dam along the town’s periphery in the dead of winter.
“That was pretty stupid, actually, we could’ve gotten hypothermia.”
“It was so cold! And you never shut up about the gear you had back in Oregon,” said Alexis.
“When your standards lower you remember what it used to be like.”
“Good days, 2007.”
The next day the weather had cleared.
“I’m going to sneak into Iguazu Falls,” I said. The others agreed, and Mayra as well. “I looked at a satellite image and it looks like there’s an access road, which, if sneaking into other tourist sites has taught me anything, it has taught me that there’s always a poorly-guarded access road.”
A 2 dollar bus brought our gang to the Iguazu Falls entrance. We had passed the access road, and also a guardhouse, which I decided might be a problem were I to start walking out that way. This would become a theme; when I’m on foot, I’m suspicious, but when I’m in a bus, I’m normal.
We found the entrance filled with people, despite it not being high season. I looked to the sky, the white clouds clumped together like cotton balls, and that light blue canvas deep in all respects.
My French friends were looking at me. The day before my French was sputtering, but now it rolled off my tongue quickly.
“Bon les gars, qu’est-ce qu’on fait? Vous voulez entrer avec moi ou mieux acheter un billet? Moi je l’achete pas, et c’est pas que je suis radin, c’est seulment que je cherche quelque chose different. D’abord c’est trop putain cher payer l’entree pour voir quelque chose naturelle. Puis, si je dois etre parmi les tourists, ca va etre avec un peu de risque de mon part. —- Alright guys, what are we gonna do? You want to enter with me or buy a ticket? I ain’t buying a ticket, and it’s not because I’m cheap, but just because I’m looking for something more. First, it’s too damn expensive to pay a ticket to see something natural. Then, if I have to be among tourists I’d prefer to put myself apart with a little risk.”
“We’re with you man, 130 pesos is ridiculous.”
My French friends bought tickets. So it goes.
“We’re on a trip,” said Alexis. “I would be with you on this but really it doesn’t bother me to pay because I have a flight home, and I’ll work when I’m back anyway, so..”
“Understood, understood, no problem,” I said. “You guys go in and I’ll find you there.”
Mayra and I stood together around the corner of one of the buildings, observing from a convincing embrace.
“Look, there’s a way in here. We just have to hop the fence. Wait wait, there’s a worker there.”
The worker was looking at us. I kissed Mayra and he went on his way. I noticed a small wood shed behind the brush where we’d found a hole to get to the fence beyond.
“We have to go, ready?”
“Yes I’m ready,” she said.
“3, 2, 1, go…!”
But just as we moved a man appeared on the other side of the brush.
“Ah damn it!” I said. “Well, we can’t go in here, this must be a shed they’re using pretty regularly. We have to go through the jungle.”
Mayra hesitated. “No, Chael, I think better that I buy a ticket. You go.”
“They’re just insects,” I said. But she insisted.
Mayra bought her ticket and joined the herd through the gates with my French friends. So, I was alone, and the crowd was thinning. I might’ve become suspicious soon thereafter. I walked to where the bus had let us off to the left of the main gate, and found a guard there blocking a a different access road, and then a small white guard house just beyond him. I asked the guard when the next bus would come.
“15 minutes,” he said.
“Ah, yes, thank you.” He eyed me, but I shrugged it off–I was dressed prettily enough.
I began strolling slowly around, back toward the ticketing windows. I thought that I’d have to risk leaving the parking lot back towards that dirt access road. It was then that I noticed for the first time unprotected brush just behind a ticketing window building that was not being used. I decided on it, and when I thought the guard was not looking, I made a dash for the bush.
“HEY!” I heard. But then, no one was after me. The guard wasn’t there. Did I just make up a voice? I thought. And so it was.
I was in a thick jungle brush, and through the mess of twigs and branches I could make out the bright colors of clothing. I was right next to the entrance, really, but hidden in the brush. It was so thick I wondered how I would manage. Crouching with fully bent knees, I ducked through the vegetation until I was sure that I was hidden. When I looked down I realized that I was standing on a section of the fence which had, quite conveniently, falling flat to the ground. So it goes.
At several points as I waded through the spider webs, thinking how Mayra would truly hate it, I tried to reemerge to the crowds. Still too close. When I tried to the left, I could make out the paved access road, and a guardhouse. I shimmied on, in between that road to my left and crowds of people to my right.
Eventually I could barely hear the voices, but nor could I see where I was except for in a thicket of flora that was a promising hassle for the next 15 minutes. But finally, I made it to a clearing, and saw an outdoor amphitheater just before me. There wasn’t a soul in sight. So, I emerged. And I emerged victorious.
I had asked whether or not I would need to show a ticket for the train that takes you on a short trip to the top of the falls before I had begun my attempt, and no, I would need no such ticket. I found the train station, boarded the miniature, open-air wooden-seating train, and away we went. At the last station everyone debarked and began the kilometer walk over a lattice-work of walkways. In our want for beauty and access we have made a mockery of nature by building up and over it, disconnecting ourselves completely. It was very similar to the walkways at the Perito Moreno glacier. A sensation in the chest of awe grows in magnitude in relation to the difficulty and hardship you must endure to reach whatever it is that elicits such feelings. Alas, here, we strode lightly over snake-filled water, protected by 15 feet of distance.
When I reached the summit, the place was packed shoulder to shoulder with visitors. Everyone had a camera. I saw birds rising with the mist in vortexes that began within the falls. I couldn’t see the falls yet, but nor did I want to with so many people. A bee entered my shirt, and I killed it before it could sting me.
Employed photographers had ladders and would yell at everyone to get out of the way when someone had paid them to snap a photo with the falls. He’d climb his ladder, take the photo, and climb down again. It was an unspectacular routine, and it made me decide to search out my friends before taking in this part of the falls, the grandest part, and known aptly as “La Garganta del Diablo” “The Devil’s Throat.”
I found the French and Mayra on the blue circuit of walkways, I think it was. That is, Iguazu Falls, on the Argentinian side, is built up like a theme park. The water is the theme, and the park is just a bunch of walkways tearing through the jungle, three or four circuits of them. You could tell from the faces of most people that, were there no easy access to these falls, they would not try to see them. At least they get to see them, I suppose.
With Mayra we fended off a few coaties, raccoon-like scavengers who have become quite unafraid of the humans, who ignorantly give them food. We also saw monkeys, and a man who threw a pebble at one. The whole scene made the air taste bitter.
But then we decided to return to the Garganta del Diablo, and when we arrived once more on the wooden train, the crowds had diminished significantly. The mists now were whiter, and when we reached the rails and peered over into the mouth of the caving water, it was a brilliant sight. I thought what a perfect way to die it would make, to disappear forever into those mists, the roaring tumble of water blotting out any cries of agony or sounds of cracking when you reach the rocks.
Mayra pulled me from the rail. I put my arm around her, and we stayed like that for some time. The falls’ intensity was before us, and it made a powerful and furious demonstration. A few laser bluebirds shot to and from, and a number of brightly-colored butterflies fluttered in the wind. It was hot, and the mist felt good wetting my face. “So you’re hunting above the falls now, Captain Mendoza?”, I thought. For here The Mission was filmed, a work of art that dramatically depicts the struggle of the Jesuits and their missions to resist the incoming Portuguese mandates, whose epic score serves the same purpose as the falls themselves; to strike you with emotion.
“The reason death sticks so closely to life isn’t biological necessity-it’s envy. Life is so beautiful that death has fallen in love with it, a jealous, possessive love that grabs at what it can.”
-Life of Pi
Every region has some kind of cheap, simple food to call its own. In Missiones, Argentina, it was “chipa”, a sort of bread made from corn. The trucker who took us from Puerto Iguazu to Posadas taught us about it, and treated us to a bag.
We had met the trucker at the outskirts of town, the morning after one last night in our P. Iguazu squat. We’d said our goodbyes to my friends in the hostel the night after experiencing the falls. We left, and my friends as well. They’d cue up in memory, there to stay until the next time we meet, and there will most definitely be a next time if I do not die and they do not die.
From the jungles of the tri-border, the land transformed into confierous forests and thinner underbrush. In Posadas, we met Maxi, who would put us up for a few nights there. He was a solitary type, but also the kind of person whose loyalty would not be questionable were he a close friend. He was quiet, but something about the way he acted gave the impression that his resolve was unbending. So I decided not to question the idea of having a degree in ‘tourism’.
We were in Posadas, a modern and short town, a dot on the map where you would not think to glance twice. It had everything you’d expect in other Argentinian cities. It had cheap “pancho” (hot dog) stands. It had “parrilla” restaurants and dulce de leche on the shelves. It had nicely lit plazas filled with people drinking mate (even homeless Argentinians andan with their thermos’).
We were in Posadas, however, for one reason. Paraguay. From Dourados in Brazil, crossing the great Parana River and seeing the country in the distance, and then from Foz do Iguazu to Posadas with the country just opposite the water, we had been skirting Paraguay for some time. The thing is that Americans need a visa. I would not get the visa.
“I don’t understand why you need to do this,” Mayra said to me. “Why don’t you just work a bit, then buy the visa?”
“You just don’t want to seperate from me,” I said.
“No, I mean, I can meet you in Encarnacion, and maybe I’m a little worried, but I just don’t understand why you need to do this now, and risk getting caught and sent home.”
I chuckled. “I really don’t think I should have to worry about them sending me home.”
“Well then maybe they’ll take your passport and you won’t be able to leave or I don’t know-”
“-I haven’t heard of that happening.”
“But it could,” she said.
“Maybe,” I replied.
“You’re an addict,” she said.
“Me? You’re the one obsessed with coffee. You don’t function without it.”
“That’s a different conversation. You’re an adventure freak, that’s why you’re doing this. You want to be able to write about it.”
“I wouldn’t say I’m an adventure freak. I’m a careful person,” I said, trying to hide that I could already tell she wasn’t convinced.
“Look, I wanted to do it in Bolivia, for example. But I couldn’t because we were going to be leaving into a third country. Same thing with Brazil. This time, I can come back into Argentina and no problem.”
“Why do you insist on doing it like this though, it could be a big problem.”
“Because maybe I see it differently than you.” I said.
“How?” she asked.
“Maybe it means something more.”
I thought for a moment. “It’s solidarity.”
“What? What do you mean?”
“That’s it; it’s solidarity. I’m trying to create a feeling of solidarity with illegals around the world.” As I said it, it seemed like fluff, but as I continued, my explanation became The Reason, like a personal mandate.
“Ok…” she said.
“Look, I’m always talking about how I hate borders. We all have our different sides, right? Well I have my side that says fuck borders, and fuck immigration law. It’s my idealist. It’s the me who would raise all the gates and burn all the paperwork. But then there’s the realist me, who recognizes that with modern circumstances how they are, believing that completely open borders is good would make me an anarchist, which I’m not. The only thing the idealist and the realist can agree on is that borders should at least be free. And I’m saying it all along. I’m saying it, but I’m not doing a damn thing to convince anyone that I actually believe it. And here’s a damn good chance to walk the walk, to make my actions, for once, reflect what I believe. This isn’t just adventure-seeking, this is solidarity with an idea.”
“That’s a mouthful. But you do pay to enter countries,” she said.
“You’re right. But that’s realist me. I’m not a purist in anything, I don’t even think it’s healthy.”
“So?” she said.
“So? So, at least my actions can reflect both sides, right? I care about this. Let me do it. Maybe it’s actually really easy and it won’t be adventurous at all. Borders are usually pretty easy, don’t you think?”
“Well yes, they’re so little guarded it seems,” Mayra said.
I left in the morning on a short bus trip to a town some kilometers south of Posadas, called La Candelaria. On the bus I grunted about our attempt, just an hour before, to simply walk across the bridge from Posadas to Encarnacion, Paraguay. After having passed so many borders where “sneaking across” would simply mean walking across the bridge, we had finally arrived to somewhere where not only the guards were diligent, but where walking was expressly prohibited. When we made our attempt, we hesitated just before the immigration office to wait for a bus-load of people from town to arrive with which we could blend in and walk through the office as though heading to the immigration official further down. Our slight hesitation had attracted a gruff customs agent with a handle-bar moustache, who came over to read us the riot act and demanded my papers, and then demanded that we proceed. Inside I had failed to convince the official to let me pass to the other side to ask the Paraguayan officials for clemency. ”
Go to the consulate in Posadas,” he had said. Defeated, now I was in a bus to option #2: cross to Paraguay on a boat from La Candelaria.
I had left Mayra in Posadas with the instructions to meet me in Encarnacion, the Paraguayan city opposite Posadas, at noon the next day. On a satellite image I’d seen that it was in La Candelaria that the Parana River contracted to its thinnest, albeit still quite wide. So, I’d resolved myself to search for boats.
La Candelaria was a simple town, made up of shacks occupying wild blocks replete with vegetation and gridded off by bright orange dirt roads. It hadn’t been raining, but as most humid places go, the ground was moist. It often squeaked when I slid my boot over it.
I made my way passed the houses to find the Parana River. Coming over a hill, I saw the Paraguayan side before I could see the Argentinian bank. Unfortunately I came right up to a large house, which was not a house at all but actually the town prefecture.
They had spotted me right away, a hulking thing under the weight of a bulging backpack, so it would make for a suspicious event had I turned around then. So I walked directly to the officers, eyeing the beyonds cooly and making out dozens of rotting boat hulls.
“Good day,” I said. They nodded and one huffed something. “Can I draw here?”
“Can I draw here?” I decided to use drawing as an excuse for aggressive probing.
I sat in the grass beside the station to draw the river, and also to observe the place. The guards had retreated inside, and I was alone with those boat hulls, long since confiscated in some raid or nighttime chase. I also saw the cops’ boat, and then looked across the water. It must have been a kilometer across. I could swim it. Or I could rob a boat. So my mind went along that train for a spell, imagining my face wax black with camouflage and swimming up in the night to steal away a vessel.
Before I left I made small talk, asking about the boats and about the smuggling that was done. I learned that there was a legitimate boat crossing from La Candelaria to Paraguay on Wednesday and Friday, via a small wooden motorboat that would arrive to the police station’s small dock. However, in our conversation the two officers mostly just forced the point that the Paraguayan side was filled with kids and bad men who would slice my throat were I to have the misfortune of finding myself on their turf.
“They’re bad, horrible people, the Paraguayans,” said the men. Borders.
They hadn’t suspected me, and when I left I turned down a new dirt road that paralleled the water for a kilometer or so until it came out to a sort of natural boat ramp. Two canoes were chained to trees on land. I wasn’t going to think about stealing such a thing. Stealing from police seems justifiable. I glanced around at all the logs and miscellaneous underbrush, considering the idea to construct something. The problem was time. I had to meet Mayra not only on the opposite shore the next day, but on the opposite shore and a good 20 kilometers west. I didn’t have time to build something. Always trapped in time.
A man appeared, and then another. One brought a motor and the other carried fishing equipment. They began preparing one of the boats I’d come across, and I opted to introduce myself.
“You can’t swim this, very dangerous,” one said, after we had made introductions and fulfilled the chit-chatter that comes with new encounters. “Besides, the police are down river and there’s no way you could get across without being seen.”
“I see,” I said. I watched the men load their boat, a short, laborious task that seemed to please them both, probably because they knew they’d make a catch that day. The boat was old but sturdy, and I wanted so badly to ask them to just drop me off on the other side, but I held my tongue. Instead I had created a sort of false sense of fear of the river, a useful tactic when talking with strangers. They sensed this fear, and subconsciously feel authoritative and confident, which makes conversation with them easier.
“You need to find the family Aire,” the other said. “About two kilometers up river. They take people across, illegally… that’s what you said you wanted wasn’t it?” I had made them privy to my intentions, a slip of my ego when it comes to adventure.
“Yes, ask for Aire.”
I left after the men had pushed off into the current, which by the wave against the bow I could see secret might, a force that would not be so kind to a mere flesh and bone swimmer like me.
I walked for a time, asking around, and everywhere it seemed that there were horses or cows watching me. There weren’t so many people. Some schoolchildren pranced by and giggled, and I sweated under the sun. Eventually the road ended and I still hadn’t found the Aire family. I found a stream and followed it down its steep decline, through jungle cut away like a tunnel, until I’d ripped my pants and did not feel any wiser. When I returned to the road a bus to Posadas was passing, and I judged it a better bet to hop aboard and try the border elsewhere.
When I returned to Posadas, I went directly back to the large international suspension bridge that I’d tried and failed earlier that day. It was nighttime now. The air had cooled only slightly. I sat on a railing near the immigration office, and when a bus load of people showed up I instinctively decided to give up and return to Maxi’s apartment. When I began leaving the area, a soldier stopped me, and began questioning me. I must have spun a convincing story, which I can’t for the life of me remember, because he eventually let me go, after a determined ruffling through my passport.
After one last night in Maxi’s apartment, telling ghost stories of all things, Mayra and I once more hit the road, this time to curl around the southern tail of Paraguay to arrive to Clorinda, the Argentinian town just opposite Paraguay’s capital city of Asuncion. There, I would try again.
A few rides brought us through Corrientes, a large city, and across the bridge over the Parana to another large city, Resistencia, which would come into our story a second time after this first time camping in the bush. The next day we were underway after hours of failing hitching from a roundabout, this time with a pair of truckers who I had met by chance when asking for directions from an outdoor hamburger stand. They were too talkative for Mayra.
Thankfully, since she had lost her glasses somewhere in Brazil (things), she didn’t see the hardcore porn photos tagged above the windshield. The driver was short, chubby and jolly. The passenger was reserved. When we would pass police checkpoints, of which there were many, Mayra and I would hide behind the bed curtain. The jolly trucker stopped once and his passenger bought an orange tree, which he seemed to cuddle the rest of the way. Apart from the normal banter, we listened to a tape the trucker had recorded of himself playing the harp. He was surprisingly skilled with that instrument. Harp music and orange trees.
We walked across Formosa, and it clearly hurt Mayra’s resolve. It was a clear sky and the combination of heat and sweat and dust that once more brought her almost to the brink of surrender. I’m trying. I’m trying. Thankfully a man brought us the rest of the way to Clorinda. It was nighttime when he let us off in front of “Lo de Maria” restaurant. Maria, as it turns out, would be our host.
We met Maria and her husband Migue, short for Miguel. They were a pleasant, enthusiastic couple with whom we would share 4 days and nights of company. “Lo de Maria” was Maria’s pizzeria, and our stomachs were glad when they insisted on treating us to a meal of sizzling pizza, packed with mozzarella and ham, green olives (aceitunas) and tomato.
Their house, just next to the restaurant, was large and filled with interesting things. Migue and his son spent time watching rugby matches, and Mayra and I, when not sharing with the family, read or relaxed in our room apart. The family was not only generous with food, and kind to compliment the food we cooked for them, but they were also engaging and creative people, the kind of people whose happiness is apparent and whose presence is delightful. One day the entire family came together, with uncles, aunts, grandparents, kids and friends, and Migue prepared a grand asado on the parrilla, that most present of Argentinian culinary features. It was a merry gathering, which is to be expected when so many minds are brought together to eat well.
Another day there was what in couchsurfing is called an “invasion”. In this particular invasion, a group of Paraguayan couchsurfers from Asuncion came to the house of Migue and Maria for an evening of pizza next door and a day trip the following day to Laguna Blanca. That night we went out to a club, and as is customary of booze and loudness, I danced. I think I danced impressively. And the next day we went in a grand group to the Lagoon, where we ate and snuck up on alligators drying their mouths.
But we were in Clorinda for one primary reason. My attempts to sneak into Paraguay from La Candelaria and Posadas had failed. Judging by information given me by Migue, I figured sneaking in from here would be simple. Allow me to explain the scene.
Clorinda is a small Argentinian city that sits across from Asuncion, separated by the River Paraguay. That river is large, and well-patrolled. To the north of Clorinda the international bridge crosses another, smaller river called Pilcomayo. This same river breaks in two and coils south to just a few blocks from Maria and Migue’s home. There is a wooden pedestrian bridge over which Paraguayans and Argentinians cross in droves and are rarely questioned about documents. Mayra and I tested this one day, and without backpacks. We made it across, I blowing my nose, convinced that it would deter any questioning. The Parguayan side looks a lot like the Argentinian side, a bustling outdoor market with all sorts of goods and produce on display. When we returned to the Argentinian side once more, we decided that this is the way I would come the next day.
“Mayra, go and cross at the main border, to get your stamps and everything, then take the bus, and meet me in front of the cathedral.”
“You’re not going to take your pack?” she asked.
“I don’t think it’d work. The only reason they didn’t question us on the wood bridge is because we didn’t have backpacks.”
“Ok, but be careful.”
Again, I walked across the pedestrian bridge, through the people and passed the beige-clad Paraguayan immigration officials. The small market town on the Paraguayan side of the Pilcomayo was called Puerto Elsa. Migue had told me that I should find boats that cross the Paraguay River to Asuncion from there. He had warned me not to take the bus directly to Asuncion, which is what Mayra would do, legally.
“It takes about 40 minutes to get to the city. But eventually you come to a large bridge spanning the Paraguay River that leads into the city, but there are two checkpoints there, and every time we’ve gone they have checked our documents. You need to find a boat across, either from Elsa or from Chacoi.”
So, I began walking.
The roads were dirt, but a powerful sun kept them dry. I strolled away from the market, looking for boats. I rounded a corner and found men loading a large vessel, obviously bound for the capital. After chatting with them for a spell, it came to nothing and I continued onward. I was following another river, part of the Pilcomayo. The wooden pedestrian bridge had brought me across the first part, but I apparently had to get across the second. I knew there was another bridge up ahead, but when I spotted the beige color of an officer, I immediately turned left and toward a group of men working on motorbikes. More conversation convinced me that I had to cross that bridge and get to a crossroads that would lead to Chacoi.
“Chacoi?” I asked.
“Yea, that’s where they take people across in boats.”
“Ah ha, and, if I want to get there without this officer over here seeing me?”
The men chuckled. “Take a bus.”
“A bus, from here?”
“Yea the bus that passes here goes to Asuncion, but you have to get off at the crossroads, and go right. 5,000 Guaranis.”
“Are there police?”
The men had said that if I continued toward this second bridge, that that officer might ask for documents.
“Take the bus. He only stops it every once in a while. Better chances.” they’d said.
I decided to play the odds, and boarded the first bus to pass. It was an old bus, which was to be expected on a rutted dirt road like this, and it was already filled with people. I shimmied in among them. We passed the guard without incident. I was grasping a metal rod for support, flakes of paint sticking off into my sweaty palm. I asked a man with a wrinkled face if he might tell me when the crossroads came. Our road made for a rough journey for a half hour or so, when finally we stopped at the crossroads.
“Here’s your stop,” the ticket taker said. But outside I saw that it was also a police checkpoint. Damn it, I thought. Another beige officer was approaching, and my heart began to pound. I awkwardly and in front of everyone asked the ticket taker to instead let me off further on. I wasn’t going to be the only person, and damn foreign, to get off the bus right in front of a security checkpoint and walk toward where everyone knows boats take people across to the capital.
The men were rightfully confused by my request, and after the officer had checked something in the back, and wrote something on a pad of paper, he allowed the bus to continue. Here was the crossroads. To the right was Chacoi and the boats to Asuncion, and to the left was the road to the spanning bridge and confirmed police checkpoints. Thankfully, the driver obliged me, and well on they pulled over and let me off, by now out of sight of the crossroads post.
The bus pulled off and left me in its fumes. Around me, flat wetlands and sparse brush made for a moist cow pasture, and the feathery appearance of the air beside the road was actually clouds of teeming mosquitoes. I began walking back toward the police checkpoint, but knew that I’d have to bushwhack to go around it. I found a dirt road leading north, and opted to follow it to penetrate the bush and begin whacking around. Where the road ended there were a few structures, and then suddenly from behind I heard a motorcycle approaching. Without much time to find a good place to hide, I went prone flat on my back just a few meters from the road in grass about a foot high. The motorcycle passed me, and I could see the man’s face. His beige clothes were unmistakable. They must have seen me get off the bus.
He hadn’t spotted me, but I was in such a position that he would once he turned back down the road. When he had passed and turned a corner among the structures, I instantly jumped to my feet and ran with light feet to a skinny tree, a poor choice but the only one in time. The man returned, and as he passed some 10 feet from me, I circled the tree to keep him opposite the trunk. The motorcycle’s whine dimmed, and he was gone.
So, I began bushwhacking through the marshland. In some places the water was knee-deep, but I avoided those wells for the most part, and instead found footing on clumps of high grass that I’d break over with my weight and use as walking stomps through an otherwise impervious wetland. Pain shot through my spine, which was excruciating but necessary–there was almost no cover between me and the checkpoint, which little by little I neared. My shoes became soaked anyway, and my unwillingness to remove my hoodie, whose brown was the best camouflage I could manage, meant that my body became drenched with sweat.
After an hour crossing the marshland, and a close call involving a dog and a mad owner, I came to the property line, a fence sitting upon a dike and surrounded by deep trenches filled with water. I had to leap and expose my movements to the checkpoint, but my timing was lucky, and I heard no calls of alarm. I wondered then, and I wonder now, whether all this was even necessary. Perhaps the guards would never have questioned me. Was it just adventure-seeking? In retrospect, the answer is that it doesn’t matter. I was in a country illegally, and all precautions had to made in order to not be caught and put through who knows what kinds of hassles.
Once on the other side of the fence, I was at another, diagonal road that lead right back to the checkpoint. I was too close to simply dart across the road t begin a second phase of bushwhacking, so I stuck to the bush and went parallel with the road until it curved and I was out of view. The other side, however, was completely flooded. It would be an even wetter endeavor.
When a motorcycle came toward me, and I could see no beige, and signaled him and he stopped.
“Good day!” I said, trying to hide the strangeness of my aspect and place.
“Where does this road lead?” I asked.
He gave me a good look-over. “To some houses down the road.”
“Ah ha. Well, I thought I could get to Chacoi this way.”
“No, it’s back that way and to the left,” he replied.
“Ah, well, you see, I don’t want to have to show documents to those police,” I said with hope of trust.
“Yes? Well, get on I’ll take you there.”
“They won’t stop you?”
“No. Come on.”
So, I got on the motorcycle and we rode back to the crossroads, passed the police checkpoint, from which I averted my eyes, and on down the wide dirt way toward Chacoi.
He stopped half-way there.
“There’s a police station up ahead, but I have to go back. Good luck,” he said, and went off.
I walked the rest of the stretch, which opened up to a green river bank along the Paraguay, Asuncion sparkling white across the water. The police station was closed or empty or who cares what; no one stopped me.
Colorful wooden motorboats crowded a small dock, and 5 or 6 people were gathered there. They were the drivers. I had created a complicated alibi in my head should I get caught; something having to do with a hostel in Asuncion, leaving my passport there to see the city from a boat, being French, etc. I spoke Spanish with a French accent to the drivers, then boarded one of their boats, a blue and red one.
We chugged out into the Paraguay, a choppy river that jolted the boat back and forth. We passed groups of lily pads bunched up together, their small pouches of air keeping them afloat. I imagined it as an interesting way to cross the river if a boat was not an option. We rounded an island of these and motored on toward the city, and as we neared I could just make out the letters above the large white collection of buildings we were headed for: “Aduana”… customs. Oh crap, are probably the most descriptive words of my feeling then. After all the caution I’d taken to avoid beige, I was headed for their headquarters. The customs house was huge. Against its bleach white I could see dozens of figures, some army-clad and others beiges. At least this makes things even more interesting, I thought.
When the boat pulled up on a dock just beneath the building, I could feel the eyes of about 4 or 5 soldiers beaming down on us. I was one of three passengers, and so I decided, so as not to look lost and obvious, to follow the shoes of the man debarking before me. I also blew my nose a few times.
His shoes were quick, and I walked with as much purpose as I could muster. After passing through the building itself, and passed dozens of official-looking suits, we came under an archway and onto the streets–Asuncion. Then it hit me–that feeling so pleasant and relieving and grand: success.
Someone making the boat journey daily might think nothing of the fact that no one stopped me–of course it’s lax, they might say, there’s nothing particularly interesting about it. Nothing is interesting about the quotidian, I’d agree. Alas, for me it’s all blank pages that are now filled. I felt damn good about what I considered to be a feat. The only given here is that things would not have turned out so well had I been burdened with a pack–from the wooden bridge crossing to the marsh bushwhack and the arrival at customs central. Let it be known that the Pilcomayo is easily swimmable, but unnecessary, as there are plenty of small boats that cross from Clorinda to Puerto Elsa.
Asuncion is a small capital city, but big enough for a country of only 8 million people. The streets are unremarkable, and even a Paraguayan will tell you that the only thing their country really has to offer visitors is the comfortable fact that tourism has yet to take off. The streets are empty of tourists, to be precise. It makes it seem like a novelty, like something undiscovered and still authentic. It’s rare to find. Unfortunately for Asuncion, this feeling of uniqueness is really the only thing it has going for it. Otherwise, it’s just another city with a remarkably visible rich-poor gap, light green eyes, pale skin and jet black hair.
Mayra and I stayed with Horacio in his high rise apartment, with a view overlooking the city and the Paraguay River in the distance.
“No, I don’t drink terere,” said Horacio about the chilled Paraguayan version mate, “I work.”
I liked his accent. It was a truthful Paraguayan Spanish accent. Don’t ask how their ‘r’s became so pronounced, which are articulated in the exact same way as an American ‘r’. It might have something to do with prominence, as Horacio was explaining that the more well-off Paraguayans often make an effort to exaggerate the ‘r’. Or, it might have to do with the Guarani language’s influence. 80% or so of the country speaks Guarani, which is a language unrelated to any other and carries the country’s pride in its usage.
When I wasn’t playing God of War or Lego Star Wars in the apartment, Mayra and I were wandering the streets. It surprised us to find that Asuncion was more expensive than Argentina, a country far richer and far more developed. I suppose that’s the way of some capitals, especially of countries without much industry where everything must be imported, like in the case of Asuncion.
At the “Casa de la Independencia,” which, when Horacio told us to go there, his tone wasn’t unlike many Paraguayans, who seem to consider their country somewhat of a strange thing to exist, but in the house we found free entry and information. I had known little about the infamous “War of the Triple Alliance,” during which Paraguay not only lost gold-rich lands to its enemies, but also saw its male population reduced to 10% of the whole. I learned that Paraguay had a larger army than Brazil, Uruguay and Argentina (its opponents) combined, and more resources as well. Despite the unjustifiable slaughter of Paraguayan soldiers and civilians, it was Paraguay’s expansionist and at the same time isolationist president/dictator Lopez who stoked the flames and ultimately triggered the conflict in the first place. The House of Independence, of course, painted the war as a tragedy, which is was, but nothing else. Wikipedia told me about the facts.
Elsewhere in the center we found open parks with interested mangled-looking trees. Ample benches allowed for us to take a rest in between eating panchos and walking more. At one point, just beside the main government house, we found a wall from which we could glance over the Rio Paraguay. Below the wall, a poor shanty town marked the beginning of the banados, the equivalent of Argentinian villas or Brazilian favelas.
“Excuse me,” said a beige-suited soldier who had approached us from behind. “I’m sorry to disturb you, but you can’t be here.”
I looked at Mayra. “Why’s that?” I said, turning back to him.
“It’s very dangerous.”
“But the Palacio del Gobierno is right here,” said Mayra.
“Yes. But it’s dangerous to be here, you can get shot,” he replied.
“Get shot? Really?” said Mayra.
“By who?” I asked.
“The people in the Banados can be bravo, and if they see people looking at their homes here, they sometimes shoot at them.”
“Damn, and that happens often?”
“Twice a day about,” he said.
“And all these cops here–” of which there were many “–they don’t deter that?” I asked.
“No, ’cause the shooters they hide in the alleyways and it’s too dangerous for us to go in there–the people don’t let us anyway.”
I thought it must be a trip to see the world through the eyes of the shooters. There are their lives, down there in their makeshift homes, which apparently they rebuild once every two years or so after the river breaks its banks. They see everyone else as outsiders, not part of their lives, and therefore, in many cases, worthless. Murderers and thieves, the ignorant, the trash, the vandals who aren’t vandals for a reason but for lack of one. And then their families who are just trying to get by–but how can anyone get by when the world is always looking down on you? Maybe that’s why there are shooters.
One night we jumped a bus to see a contemporary art museum. Horacio worked as a graphic designer for the ministry of culture, and always had good suggestions, from an exhibit about the War of the Triple Alliance, to a bar where fried yucca was eaten in place of French fries.
The contemporary art museum, like so many of its kind, was mostly empty of people. The first exhibit was a bright room filled with giant canvases of Pollock-like work. Splashes of black. Mayra said it wasn’t art, but I wasn’t sure. I think art needs to have a purpose. Art is and perhaps should be hard to understand out of context. The explanation that a panel on the wall gave us was not clear, and so it was not convincing.
Upstairs we found a room dedicated to old crucifixes and effigies. I’ll let the video explain:
“I have nothing to say of my working life, only that a tie is a noose, and inverted though it is, it will hang a man nonetheless if heâ€™s not careful.”
-Life of Pi
A bus brought us back to Puerto Elsa, and we crossed the wooden pedestrian bridge without incident. Legal once more. At Migue and Maria’s we said our adieus and I shouldered my pack. That night we only made it to the outskirts of Clorinda, where we had to fight off hordes of mosquitos like I’d never seen as we prepared the tent. Backpacks to the right, leaning against the fabric wall, Mayra’s sleeping pad in the middle, my thermorest on the left. Most of the time, the tent would be a refuge from daily bickering. It served as a reset button, allowing us to appreciate each others’ company and be well. But then, the road.
Mayra, I felt, was beginning to hate the road. She didn’t see the goodness in the little things. She saw mostly the destination, which is a sure way to destroy joy in the getting there.
We had to walk further out of Clorinda, all the way to a police checkpoint. There, we encountered faces of solid stone, with eyes like donut glazing and stiffness that made us uneasy.
“Passport!” they commanded. We handed them over. A dog sniffed our packs as the man ordered it to “find something.”
They drilled us then. “Do you smoke marijuana?”
“What are you doing here?”
“Where is your destination?”
“Cordoba” I said–But Mayra, simultaneously, “Resistencia.”
They were untrusting and looked at our passports more carefully. When finally they relinquished their search, their determinated search for drugs, I asked if we could hitch.
“50 meters that way, no closer!”
We sat at 50 meters for some time, under the sun, with the dirt of passing cars brushing over us. It was unbearable for Mayra. She would attack me with words, and I her.
“Why don’t you throw that shirt out?” she said.
“Because it’s useful still. It has history.”
“But you look homeless.”
“Is there something wrong with that?”
“Do you want to look homeless? Sometimes I think you do.”
“No,” I said. “This shirt has function still. It’s synthetic, I like it.”
“It’s incredibly ugly.”
“I don’t care.”
“You should throw it away.”
“Drop it already I’m not throwing it away. I don’t want a tidy look like you have.”
“Tidy? I’m normal.”
“Normal? That’s relative and quite frankly a stupid word.”
“Stupid? I never call you stupid!”
“I didn’t call you stupid.”
“You did,” she said.
“I didn’t! Damn it! You think I’m fake, don’t you?”
“Sometimes you change the way you talk, like you’re someone else. Like when we’re asking for work or we meet new people.”
“Of course I do, I don’t speak with everyone the same,” I said.
“You should throw out that shirt.”
“It’s a fucking couch!” I yelled in English, letting my thoughts form words. I was thinking of American Beauty, when the wife interrupts passion for fear of dirtying the couch.
The day seemed to go on like that. Eventually a few pick-ups took us onward to another police checkpoint where the bastards treated us like crap again. I’d been treated so well by the gendarmeria the first time I was in Argentina, but these guys were hard-ass pricks.
We broke up.
Then we got back together.
The tent did that.
It happened often. Sometimes I wanted it to happen, and sometimes I didn’t.
It wasn’t all hellish, but sometimes our circumstances would determine events.
We arrived in the night to Resistencia, again. At a shell station we put up the tent, and inside all was forgiven. Our church between us, you might say. We were famished, so I went looking for food. There were no markets, but I found a dark, desolate road lit smally and dangerously, but I walked down it. It was a villa, and the people silhouetted in the doorways looked at me with suspicion. I found a house of sorts, with a sign telling me they sold hamburgers. The old couple inside were good people, and made me feel better.
Back at the tent the hamburgers were quickly gone, and we embraced and kissed and all the warm things a tent and hamburgers are likely to bring. But then came the morning.
We walked across Resistencia. Every time we walked too far in the sun and heat, it would break Mayra again, and she would threaten home and I would threaten to leave. At one point the decision was made that we would arrive to Buenos Aires together, and she would return to Lima and I would continue alone. Maybe that’s why I had returned to Lima, to give us an end, something final and unmistakable. But until then we were playing with absolutes. She loves me, she loves me not.
They kicked us out of not one, but two gas stations. I had never been kicked out of a gas station for asking for rides, but here in the so conveniently-titled Resistencia, we had been kicked out of two. Damn it. Sometimes, hitchhiking can be horrible.
We walked out of that city, and then a bit further, each kilometer gained with the hopes of finding a speed bump or something that someone had told us about. But there was nothing, just the unbecoming feeling of lostness. With Mayra we would enter a neutral state, where we wouldn’t fight, but there would be no substance to our interaction. It made me upset.
We decided to backtrack toward a pasarela where the cars might move slower, because where we were not a soul considered us. But when we were about half a kilometer to the spot, Mayra gave up and began in again about how she didn’t want to be there. I yelled. She went into a park, and I said damn it, I’m leaving–and I left.
I made it as far as a restaurant, where I bought two hamburgers and walked back toward the park. She was walking toward me. The hamburgers made us good to each other again. Then we backtracked further and found ice cream. When we returned to the pasarela, the pedestrain walkway that goes up and over the road, we found yet another hindrance to our hitch; a protest.
Where we had been fighting not a half hour before, there were now crowds of people with a giant banner and burning tires. The smell of rubber in flames filled the air. They wanted food, apparently. I don’t know how many people we met who disliked villa protesters. “They just want everything for free,” we’d be told, “they don’t work.”
In any case, our road was blocked. It turned out, however, to be the one blessing to finally free us from the clutch of Resistencia. Trucks were backed up in a long, unmoving line. We met a trucker who grudgingly took us on, once the protest was broken up, to Basail.
To get out of the city of “Resistence”, your best bet is to wait for a mob to torch the highway and stop traffic.
We camped in Basail, and as is the case with most days following extremely shitty days of hitchhiking, the next day we had a ride all the way to Santa Fe, 6 hours south. He was a construction contractor, the profession which most often picks me up. We spoke of the legalization of marijuana, and I was alone in the debate. One knows one strikes a chord when their competition falls back on something as petty as using age as a factor in why you’re wrong. Volatire once said that what is often considered virtue, after the age of 40 is just a lack of energy. The man bought us a meal, “loma a la espanola,” and we thanked him thoroughly.
It is hard to write about fighting between Mayra and I. I do not know if it’s appropriate. Unfortunately, I’d like to remember it, and it puts the journey into context–my mind was often invaded by worry, and more and more I craved to be alone again. But then, I was still quite obviously all for this girl.
We were at a tollbooth outside of Santa Fe. The sky was grey with the oncoming night. A strange thing happened–the tollbooth people made us a sign, figuring we were Cordoba-bound, which we were. How nice.
While we waited, the only other person around was a man selling sweets a bit further down. I walked over to him, and made small chatter. At the close of our encounter I had bought a bag of alfajores. I’ve written about these delights before; they originate from Moorish Spain, and consist most often of dulce de leche squeezed between two soft cookie patties and dipped in brown or white chocolate glaze. Santa Fe happens to be the most famous city on the continent for alfajores, so I decided on a bag of 12. They were a crackling, delicious treat to quell any pains of thought.
The next day we had advanced beyond a city called San Francisco, and were in a small town called Devoto. It was a farming town. Arriving there, we passed fields of soy and wheat that had been resently picked by giant John Deere harvesters, and the trucker told us not only about that, but also about his time as a hitchhiking artesano in Fortaleza, Brazil. I’d never met a trucker ex-hippy before. He left us in Devoto with 40 pesos that he insisted on us despite our refusals. So it goes.
Devoto told of autumn in the center of Argentina. Walking, crunching my feet through the rushing yellow and orange leafs took me to a time in Chicago when I was a child, when I would create piles of such leafs and dash into them at top speed and stomp around contentedly all of an afternoon. Olfactory senses are a beautiful thing to trigger images in the memory, and my mind was elsewhere, while Mayra’s backpack bobbed up and down in tune to her strides in front of me.
And the buildings of Devoto were magnificent; small, brick, country. Their facades were gorgeous, and I couldn’t resist snapping a few photos. I did the same in the next town, El Tio, only that town would bring us a different experience.
We were throwing our thumbs at cars at the exit toward Corodoba when a cop car pulled up in front of us, lights flashing. The woman police officer came toward us with a clipboard.
“Hi, I’m sorry to disturb you, but I’m going to need to take down your information.”
“Why?” I asked.
“Were you taking photos of buildings here?” she asked.
“Well, we got a call from one of the homeowners and she was scared you were going to rob her store.”
“Is that right?”
“I’ll just need your information.”
She took it down and then a frantic-looking, pale-skinned girl in a bright turquoise blouse came running up to us from around the corner. She was panting. She looked at our chests, but not in our eyes, and only spoke to the officer.
“Are these them?” she asked.
“It’s alright, they’re travelers,” the officer said.
“They need to delete the photos,” she said.
“Are you serious?” I asked her. She only spoke to the officer.
“Can you have them delete the photos?”
“Sorry, but can you delete the photos?”
I went through the annoying steps to erase the photo of the girl’s clothing shop.
“If it means anything, we weren’t going to rob you,” I said. “Look at my shirt, do you think I care about clothes?”
She said nothing. The rims of her eyes were caked ugly in black eyeliner, and when she blinked it looked like they’d stay stuck together were it not for her fear.
Eventually the cop and the girl left, and I snapped a new photo of a building behind us. Apparently it’s not uncommon for small town Argentinians to be extremely suspicious of everyone, which didn’t sound so unfamiliar to me, just unfortunate.
Later that day two cereal farmers brought us the rest of the way into Cordoba, Argentina’s second city. We were here to meet up with my old friends who I met so long before in Quito, and who came several times to the House of No Ends in Lima. Nicolai and Zulay, the Colombian soulmates and young couple who had kicked off their dream studying in Argentina.
“It’s not quite what I expected,” said Nicolai.
“But this city is nice, even though we had to walk about 30 blocks to get here. Mayra didn’t like that,” I said.
“It’s nice, but it’s limited. I can’t get pizza whenever I want. Siesta is really annoying.”
“Damn right. Siesta. If you don’t aleady have food at 1 o’clock, you’re scewed until 4!”
“And everyone here is a musician, it doesn’t really impress that I’m learning classical guitar.”
“And Zulay?” I asked.
“She likes to study, and it’s completely free to study here, but, I think we just need more movement. Buenos Aires would be nice.”
We stayed with my Colombian friends for a little over a week. We mostly lounged around the house, always filled with one of 5 roommates. As for the city, it’s attractive and small, for a big city. Wide avenues busy with traffic cut at 45 degree angles, forming plazas that are always occupied by statues to some hero in this or that. San Martin, for example, rid the land of the Spanish. And he’s always mounted on a horse, the oxidize bronze always leaking, some graffiti always telling lies or of lies. The city’s cathedral has enough gold leaf inside it to wrap around the urban sprawl, and perhaps brighten the more villa-esque areas. Jesus is there on a donkey, reliving his arrival to Jerusalem. Music in the background. What if Jesus’ second-coming happened on reddit? Maybe fighting in a relationship is necessary to end it. Maybe you can’t just let love die, but you have to kill it.
Nicolai had a hookah, so memories of the Lima house rushed back when we smoked, and washed our throats with Quilmes stout. Meals were large and hearty, shared with 6 or 7 people. One night we found ourselves strolling through the “Paseo de las Artes”, a fine outdoor space of artists and collectors, where anything and everything is for sale, from antique trinkets and cans to wire statues and incense. I liked to watch people meander. I meandered.
We continued to a free concert put on by the University of Cordoba, picking up a miga sandwich on the way. As is normal with large university student concerts, the crowd was young, jostling and high. The only marked aspects unique to Argentina, it seemed, was that despite the concert being about music, a big gathering is apparently enough to make it about soccer. Huge banners and team songs gave fans away. Also, I started to think that there are a lot of Argentinians who look like Jesus. Maybe that’s why so many Mexicans thought I was Argentinian when I was traveling there.
In the house there was a girl from Barcelona. She was one of these people who insists that she’s a ‘world citizen’, and was obviously taken in by belief far more than science. The problem is when a belief tries to base itself off science. Like when she insisted that there were only 8 solar systems, a silly thing to say as far as my education tells me. Then when I was debating with her, I again struck a chord when her scapegoat was to turn to Mayra and ask her if I was “fire”. No, damn it, and I’m not “earth” either. Sometimes we have belief systems and we feel so sad when our sureties are debunked.
One night Nicolai and I saw Battleship at the cinema. I had wanted The Avengers. Dubbbing, ugh.
Then we left.
It took another episode of getting kicked out of a gas station, then it took hitchhiking from kilometer 666, and finally it took our tent getting completely obliterated in a thunderstorm whose winds were something fierce to finally arrive, two days later, to Buenos Aires.
When we were let off by the American who had brought us the last three hours into Buenos Aires, I watched Mayra’s eyes as we emerged onto the town. The tallness of it, the elegance of its buildings and breadth of its green parks filled her eyes. I wanted to leach off of her enthusiasm for something so new and different, for this largest of cities she had visited in her life. I wanted to share in her feelings of awe. I wanted to take her around Buenos Aires and show her it all. But also, something the American had said echoed in my mind, “once I had to burn a tick off my balls.”
This time we would not stay with my Argentinian friend Julian, who I’d met in Ecuador, but instead with a familiar face to us both. Zac. The Zac. Zac who had stayed twice in the House of No Ends, and whose story of having to return to Wisconsin for a wedding was now my own. Zac lived in an apartment with his Australian wife Andrea. The subte subway was Mayra’s first, and I felt her excitement for it. We found the apartment through the drizzle, leftovers from the previous night’s rage; that, and an ominous orange sky lingering overhead.
Great hellos were had, and a meal of pasta a la Chael y Mayra. We had made ourselves experts in the culinary art of pasta al diente, and our sauce, specially spiced, had few rivals. I find comfort in Zac’s company. He’s a fellow Midwesterner. He and I find humor where others do not, and make jokes that for some are without base or without reason. We also spoke in English. You can love language to death, but you’re really only you in your mother tongue.
With Mayra we did the town, as they say. We saw the Museo de las Bellas Artes, where she could’ve stayed for ages, and we strolled down the 9 de Julio avenue. We wandered through the center, into Chinese grocery stores and then into the grandiose department stores and shopping centers. It’s a bustling city, set among blocks of European design. Most buildings have something attractive to look at, whether it’s the trim around a window or a gargoyle at a corner. The Plaza de Mayo was on our list, as was San Telmo and El Caminito (where tourism takes too much of a hold and disturbs what appreciation you might have otherwise had for the birthplace of tango). We boarded the C line, the light blue line, and sat in one of the ancient metro cars of the 20th century. It was wooden, with windows like a townhouse might have, and leather straps to lift them. The doors were all manual, and orange lamps lit the space just enough to see other passengers standing there in 21st century attire, awkward against the slat benches varnished still to a bright glistening shine.
It was a special day for Mayra, the 19th of May. It was her birthday.
I told her that maybe we’d cook up a big meal for her, Zac and I. I warned her not to expect material things, and reminded her that I’m a vagabond. She said it was alright; she was happy enough to be sedentary. We walked hand in hand through San Telmo, snapping photos of buildings. She stopped in front of one building in particular, fronted with tall, elegant mahogany doors, and a white facade complicated and interesting what with all of the statues and frescoes to look at.
I urged her inside, and we snapped photos of the stairwell.
I’m very careful with money. I don’t like to spend it. I make it like anyone else, but I appreciate far more the experiences in which money has no say. However, every once in a while, I’ll spend on something important.
Mayra was surprised when I told her that we had a reservation at this hotel. I was happy that she was surprised. It meant that I had been successful in killing her expectations.
Our room in the Mansion Dandi Royal was something out of the past. The whole hotel was something out of the past. Everything inside was interesting to look at. The rugs and carpets, the little cased trinkets, the marble statues and old wooden stairwell, the manual elevator and immense chandeliers in the two atriums; it was all something so different from our routine vagabonding that it made her forget our fights.
The hotel’s 20th century elegance was brought even more to life with murals of men and women dressed in that time’s fashion. The whole place represented something like an outdated globalization. Today it’s all sleekness and lights, but back then it was art.
Our room was small, with a towering ceiling around which ran an intricate crown molding. A cylindrical doorway created a space separating the bathroom from the room and its balcony, acting as an axel of sorts. We were both surprised to find that we had the best, most central balcony overlooking the street below. It was altogether lovely.
“I want you to come to Uruguay with me,” I said.
“You don’t want to?”
From Zac’s place, we stayed two nights in a hostel when couchsurfers would not respond. We built a fort on the bottom bunk and spent most of our time in there, watching Star Wars. Another day came and we relocated to Jime’s apartment, smack in the center of town. She had agreed to host us for a few nights. We stayed a week. She worked most of the time, but the conversations, when she’d return, were good. The food was good. Her kitchen was splendid: unlabeled jars of herbs, laurel leaves, vanilla, Italian seasoning, then the fridge with vodkas and red wine (since in Argentina red wine is chilled), maple syrup, vinagre settling in a bottle atop, Capettini olives, grey poupon, a single red bell pepper, wine and sherry glasses, wooden spoons, etc.
We visited the ecological reserve beyond Puerto Madero, Buenos Aires’ most affluent neighborhood. On the far end of the reserve, the expanse of Rio de la Plata, which is not silver-colored but mud-colored, and which is the widest river in the world, spread out before us like a sea. The whole reserve was built with the leftovers of construction projects, and the hidden-away shore that we found was littered with smoothed chunks of brick still in their mortar, and glass and concrete pieces were scattered about.
We visited the cemetery, and saw Eva Peron’s grave (which apparently is why you go to see the cemetery–bullocks). We found ourselves at a race at the Hippodrome. Old men and strangers stood seriously at the betting kiosks. The track was huge and muddied. Marble stairs and grand stands and exclusive areas spoke of elitism in a sport that is meant for the elite anyway, or which is meant for men bald or going bald. It was raining. Oh, that annoying subconscious that makes you have to go the bathroom all the more the closer you get to it. At a McDonald’s I’d found one, and no matter how clean they make it seem, a McDonald’s bathroom always feels dirty.
A concert at the Teatro Colon was the last gift I gave to Mayra. The tickets weren’t cheap, but the experience was a necessary one. I had to borrow nice clothes and shoes from Zac and Jime, because the dress code at the old opera house was apparently strict. When I’d read that the Colon Theater was considered to be among the five best in the world for acoustics, the decision was immediately made, along with sushi and Italian and an old hotel, that the money did not matter. We went on a Wednesday.
If the outside of the theatre is not already magnificent enough, then the inside is where your eyes may swell with wonder. First, you have to get over the idea that the communist in you presses, which tells you that here, too, is a way for the elite to feel elite. Maybe so, and maybe you will roll over the injustices as they stick in your mind. Then you’ll remember all the cathedrals and unnecessarily elaborate government halls and palaces that you’ve seen, and you’ll want to convince yourself that it’s a horrible thing, that inequality is ugly, that he with more shouldn’t have, and should be the same as the rest regardless of his worth to society. You should let these thoughts in, to keep you humble and to keep you sane and wanting realistic and righteous things in life. But you should also remember that some of the most beautiful things in the world exist because someone had more than many others, whom they hired or forced to construct something ridiculous and extraordinary that today we appreciate. Machu Picchu was a summer getaway for an emperor. Versailles was the home of the kings of France. The Great Wall of China is the manifestation of that country’s leaders’ xenophobia and fear of invasion. The pyramids are graves for a select few. The list goes on.
Inside the Colon Theater, 7 or 8 levels of seating form a horseshoe around the main floor seating, and the stage at the forefront. It is the quintessential theatre of 19th century splendor, elegance and taste. At one point it was neglected, and only recently has it been restored. The lights seem bright, but it’s an illusion of metals. They reflect off the infinite gold plating and gold leaf which decorates the entire interior, creating a royal combination with the seats of red, romantic felt. Everyone feels royal. We felt royal, despite being on the top floor. But I saw that most seats offered sure views, and most anywhere you might feel lucky to be there.
When the concert began, the lights dimmed and the stage lights magnified to make the Buenos Aires Symphonic Orchestra look like they were floating. Then began the sounds. Sweet sounds, and sometimes sour and always accented, perhaps by a flute, or paralleled by rumbling drums, and they rose to my ears as though beside me, and I felt fervent, intrepid and basic. When the concert finished I wanted more. I craved Pavoratti. I wanted more intensity. The people behind us in their assigned standing-room only places were already on their way out when I began to frantically draw the theater. But we too were soon kicked out, and the rose petal curtains drawn shut.
Couchsurfing relationships are like skipping a rock over the surface of a stream. Most of the time, the rock hits once and lands on the opposite shore. Sometimes you share more experiences with the people you meet, and the rock skips several times before reaching the other side. The best times, though, are when the rock skips, and then sinks, forever fermenting something profound and lasting, because there the rock stays, the water rushing past. These are rare experiences, but they happen. Readers might question why I write so little about cs hosts. Mayra has come to think about it as I do. Couchsurfing sometimes feel forced. Sometimes it feels inauthentic. The encounters we experience that come to us in an organic way feel more precious. However, just like in hitchhiking where one must humor oftentimes routine conversation to meet those special few, so it is with couchsurfing. None of it is to say that you don’t appreciate people who share their home, or their car.
When Jime dropped us off at the Retiro park, just in front of the English clock tower, a strange thing happened.
We were seated on a bench waiting for Zac and Andrea, with whom we would have one last lunch before we got on the road again, when a woman began feeding a single pigeon in front of us. There were no other people around. The lady kept throwing handfuls of kernels at one pigeon, which struck me as strange. Then a man came walking by in front of us, and directly at my feet he fell down, and without words he started to hiss in pain and grab his shin. I didn’t think much of it, but when the lady was screaming “help him help him!” I eventually approached and grabbed him. He seemed to be weighing me down. He said nothing. I thought he might not be all there mentally. The woman continued to scream, at Mayra too, to help. Instead, Mayra grabbed all our bags and stayed seated. Good girl.
The incident was an obvious ruse to rob us of something. I admitted afterward that I would’ve liked to see someone try to run away with my backpack, which weighs a body.
After a pancho and hamburgers with Zac and Andrea, who loved our near-robbed story, Mayra and I boarded the train for Zarate, a train I had taken so many months previous to head to Recife, Brazil, but decided instead to return to Lima. Goodbyes are always briefer than greetings, because leaving is abrupt. I wished Zac well in his project.
The train chugged off down the track, and my friends faded into memory.
“Writers should work alone. They should see each other only after their work is done, and not too often then. Otherwise they become like writers in New York. All angleworms in a bottle, trying to derive knowledge and nourishment from their own contact and from the bottle. Sometimes the bottle is shaped art, sometimes economics, sometimes economic-religion. But once they are in the bottle they stay there. They are lonesome outside of the bottle. They do not want to be lonesome. They are afraid to be alone in their beliefs and no woman would love any of them enough so that they could kill their lonesomeness in that woman, or pool it with hers, or make something with her that makes the rest unimportant.”
In the morning we awoke in the tent, having arrived only to Zarate the previous day. We packed our things and began hitching from the same tollbooth I’d hitched from 4 months before, rumbo Gualeguaychu. This time, this is the road I wanted to be on. You have to want to be on the road you’re traveling, otherwise it just doesn’t work.
“Back in the 70’s the hitchhiking was good, and not just here in South America but everywhere. The roads were a lot worse then, and there was much less traffic, but rules were lax and things were, I don’t know, more human, it seems to me. I wouldn’t hitch today,” said Eduardo, our savior from a cold 2-hour wait at the tollbooth, where we had to humor a troupe of gendarmia police who badgered us about what they insisted was a bad lifestyle. They also asked if we smoked marijuana. I thought the US was stupid with their question “Are you a terrorist?”, but the “do you smoke pot?” interrogation technique takes the same cake.
“Sometimes I think I was born in the wrong decade,” I said.
“No, no no, you were born exactly when you needed to be born. Maybe you’re important. Maybe you’re not. But you’re going to be important for some people, anyway.”
“Did you travel a lot?” asked Mayra.
“Did I ever. You know the Hippy Trail?”
“Yea I’ve heard of it,” I said.
Eduardo began in on the explanation. “Back in the late 60’s and 70’s the vibes were really good. People trusted each other more. The hippies traveled, and they traveled a lot. The Hippy Trail is the road, or the way, I should say, from Europe to India. People traveled it in buses, cars, hitchhiking and even just walking.”
“People went to Goa right?” I asked.
“Oh! It was such a great time to go too, and Goa wasn’t the tourism hub that it is today. I went many, many times. I had a minivan, and I traveled back and forth between India and Europe for years.”
“I hope to travel there one day.”
“You should, but I don’t know how safe the road is now.”
And later, the conversation changed.
“Back then, you couldn’t communicate with home at the push of a button. You had to send letters, which could take weeks to get home,” said Eduardo.
“Today it’s all Skype,” I said.
“I actually prefer letters,” said Mayra. “They’re more thought out. You have to write down everything you want to say. If you forget something in an e-mail, you can just send another right away.”
“There are good things and bad things about our connectivity,” said Eduardo. “I agree, letters are more personal.”
“It has really become an art, and a failing one at that,” I added.
“I think seeing a loved ones’ handwriting is also 100 times more meaningful than a font,” said Mayra.
“Letters are more romantic.”
“Yes they are.”
“Do you write them?”
“…no, do you?”
Eduardo drove us all the way to the border, passed Gualeguaychu, and our goodbye included hugs. Once he had driven away, we ate one last meal in Argentina before putting out soles to the road. We had to walk to the international bridge which crosses the Uruguay River, traverse it, and stamp out and in in the shared Uruguay-Argentina immigration office.
The walk took some 2 or 3 hours. The sun peaked through the overcast, and like salt brought out the flavors of the land, from trees’ vibrant green to the orange of Mayra’s pack. Before the bridge, there were signs prohibiting pedestrians crossing on foot, but as there was no one to stop us we went along anyway. The wind was fierce on the bridge, which rose to an impressive height from which we could see the giant Finnish paper mill plant that had caused so much controversy, which had shut this border crossing for some two years in recent times. By the time we had reached Uruguayan soil it was dark, and chilly. June is the beginning of the southern hemisphere’s winter, and in the coming days the climate would have us know it. We stamped into the country, and the Uruguayan officials took me alone into a small room, the kind of room where you can expect torture to happen, or at least the kind of room where an immigration officer could safely plant a bag of drugs and come out with accusations against you. Thankfully, the room was just a room, and after an awful thorough search of my things, we were on our way.
We had camped just beyond the border, among pines and beside the peripheral fence of the paper mill. In the morning there was a thick, moist fog, through which the sounds of industry penetrated. A quick ride brought us into Fray Bentos, where we would stock up on supplies. The town was pleasant, and Mayra decided that she quite enjoyed Uruguay already. We ate 2 dollar hamburgers, bought fruit and bread and marmalade, and then we sat on the riverfront.
By the end of the day we had walked out, gotten a few rides, and were now with Guillermo heading toward Nueva Palmira. There were two routes to Montevideo, the main highway and the smaller roads skirting the river and touching many towns. We opted for the latter.
Guillermo was a jolly fellow, and the image that enters your head at such a description might not be so far off from the truth. He was big, round, friendly, smiling, bald and talkative. We arrived after a few hours to Dolores, where we watched with joy as the truck was loaded with sand to take on to Nueva Palmira for use in construction. And we continued on the road.
“So prostitution is legal?” I asked, after inquiring about a few loosely-clad women beside the road.
“Actually it is,” replied Guillermo. “We have some weird laws here in Uruguay.”
“Such as?” asked Mayra.
“Well, for example bus passengers are not allowed to drink mate.”
“Really?” I was surprised. How could any Argentinian travel any amount of time without their beloved mate? And I’d heard that here in Uruguay mate is even more important.
“They outlawed it after hundreds of people in the year visited the hospital because their bus stopped suddenly and the bombilla (metal straw) jammed into their gums.”
In Nueva Palmira Guillermo unloaded the sand and took us to the outskirts of the city.
“I’ve never really done this before, but I was going to offer you guys a place to stay if you wanted. We’d have to go 40 minutes back to Dolores, and my place is small, but we can eat a good meal and you can sleep well. I think it’s going to get very cold tonight.”
I looked at Mayra and smiled. “Of course! We’d love to,” she said.
At Guillermo’s apartment his giant dog greeted us with enormous weight.
“Make yourselves at home, really, feel right at home.”
That night we washed all the dishes, and Guillermo cooked up a meal in a pressure cooker that came out glorious. Meat, peppers, rice, washed down with coke, and afterward we ate mini alfajores. Guillermo told us much about his life, and kept telling us how much he appreciated our company. He lived alone, and Mayra, being romantic, suggested to me in secret that he was lonely, that he needed a woman, to which I promptly disagreed. With Guillermo we entered a conversation about the topic at one point.
“I know a guy who had 3 wives and three divorces. And for that, he decided to be gay,” I said.
“Goes to show you doesn’t it?” said Guillermo.
“Oh, I don’t know, I think maybe your friend was gay all along,” Mayra added.
The night was cold, and at 5 in the morning we had packed our things and loaded them into the truck. Guillermo let us out on the outskirts of Dolores. After thanks and well-wishes had been given, and he had driven away, we found ourselves in freezing winds and sideways sleet that battled our brittle skin in the dark of early morning. It was unbearable, and we decided to run toward what looked like a gas station under construction. The workers there allowed us to shelter behind the new walls, though the slapping construction paper in the wind made for a particularly ominous soundtrack.
Eventually the rains abated, and the skies lightened some. A man picked us up and took us to Nueva Palmira, all the while saying that hitchhiking doesn’t work in Uruguay. We were too cold to argue. The day unfolded like that; sometimes it was cold, and we had to walk, and sometimes it lightened up.
By the afternoon, we had made it to Colonia, a small city on the point closest to Buenos Aires, and from where boats leave for that city daily. We had made it through a rough day of cold and wind, which caused us to fight once more, over little things.
We camped in a forest park on the outskirts of Colonia, and were sad together when we decided again that we would end our relationship in Montevideo. She would return to Lima.
We stayed for two nights in the forest park, and walked around the old town during the days. The wind coming in off the Rio de la Plata was magnificent and frigid. We could only stand it for so long. The town itself was filled with old constructions and cobblestone streets. One street didn’t even bother with shaved cobblestone, but instead was made up of jagged rocks. The tourism board must have come up with the idea to place early twentieth century cars around the old town, which worked, if their intention had been irony; those cars couldn’t handle Colonia’s streets even in the best of shape.
The second morning we hitched to Montevideo. I had been telling Mayra about how the rich never stop to pick up hitchhikers, when right then a Mercedes E-class pulls over, and a couple from Puerto Madero took us the few hours onward. We spoke of exotic food like whale and marmot, and of opera. When they had dropped us off at a gas station just outside Montevideo 2 and half hours later, I said to Mayra, “I usually believe that, in general, the more money someone has, the greater the fear of losing it becomes.”
“Do you think they would’ve picked us up if this was Argentina? Or if we weren’t in a touristy town?” she said. And her point was very valid.
When we had our last ride into Montevideo, we began walking toward the center. We bickered over small things again. When we arrived to an old train station, of the same plausible elegance as European train stations’ renown, there were more explosions between us, and I sat on my pack beside the station, now abandoned and boarded up. Mayra wandered off somewhere and I stared at the ceiling, and the pigeon feces bleaching the pillars. A number of statues filled open spaces, but their feet were all broken off to reveal that they were molds.
“It’s sad that this station is in such a state,” said Mayra, when she had returned and sat next to me. But maybe it wasn’t sad. It put into perspective the beauty that we might take for granted of other, well-kempt stations. It shows us what happens when we forget, or ignore, or close up.
We found our host Kevin’s place up in a high-scurity tower in the most expensive neighborhood in Montevideo, Pocitos. Kevin and I spoke English together, and a familiar English at that; he’s from Chicago. He was calm, reserved, and conversational. We spoke of many things, from teaching methods (he’s a science teacher) to his feelings about being black in Uruguay.
It was difficult to be in Montevideo, because everything was expensive. Bread cost a dollar and 50 cents, and tomatoes more. The cheapest thing to be had is hot dogs or hamburgers from one of the many silver trailers dotted the cityscape. “Chivitos” are the customary sandwich, which is basically bread stuffed with everything, but it costs 10 dollars.
Montevideo sits at the end of Rio de la Plata, the Atlantic Ocean beginning just a short distance further east. When we arrived it was sunny but cold, making for a dulled appreciation of the truly spectacular riverfront beaches. We walked one day to the old town, but our minds were so preoccupied we the fact of separation that mostly, we stayed between the apartment and the shopping center beside it.
Mayra and I would stay for 4 nights. On the third day, we walked to the bus terminal, where I bought Mayra’s ticket back to Buenos Aires. Your body trembles when it continues to do something you’re not sure you want to do. It feels depleting. It’s emptiness.
The next day I walked with her to where she’d take a city bus to the terminal. She had her pack on. I held her hand. I would also leave that day, but after her this time.
“Today’s June 12th,” she said. “We met on June 12th last year.”
We were doing it all over again. We are destructive. She had tears in her eyes. When the bus came our last words were I love you, and then she was gone.
I had my hood on to hide my face from people. I looked after the bus, waiting for it to stop, for her to get off and run toward me and say none of it matters, that she wants to stay with me and endure our frustrations. I waited, and watched. But the bus moved rapidly, until it was out of view, and I was alone, standing, looking at the plain concrete curb.
I remember a quote from the Wizard of Oz, which said that hearts will never be practical until they are made unbreakable. I wonder how true that is. Hemingway was especially concerned with the truth of stories. He said that all stories end in sadness because someone must eventually die first. Hollywood, for example, allows us to believe that happy endings are never-ending, that the good sanitary man at the end of the flick and the good sanitary woman, they will love each other, and continue to love each other and live good until the end. Hollywood continues to chime out the same tune. And Hemingway committed suicide. So it goes.
I went into the shopping center and bought bread. The lights buzzed. I couldn’t hear anyone around me, but when I walked I could make out the squeaks my soles made against the shiny tiles. Back at the apartment I sat in the sofa, useless and empty. I was useless. I did nothing but sit. My mind was broken, my chest heaved. I managed to compose myself when Kevin returned from work, and we spoke.
It was 6:30, so Mayra’s boat must have arrived in Buenos Aires. Zac and Andrea would meet her to accompany her to the hostel where we had stayed before. They must be together now. I wondered.
Then there was a call from the security desk below and Kevin answered it.
“They say someone’s here, I think they say it’s Mayra.”
My heart raced at those words, and I went out into the hall. When the elevator opened, it shocked me to see her there, red and streaming tears. She came back.
“Chael! I’m so happy you’re here. I didn’t know if you would be here,” she said, struggling through a pumping chest and unyielding tears. “I couldn’t do it I couldn’t go.”
I hugged her and kissed her and again.
“I don’t care about the little things. They’re so little. I can walk further, I don’t care about the sun. I love you so much,” she said. “I made it to Colonia, and they stamped my passport into Argentina, but then I just couldn’t, and I came back and bought a bus ticket back. I thought you were leaving today.”
I managed to mutter through emotions, “you know, I thought you’d get off the city bus.”
She smiled, and when finally we found a tolerable level of composure, we went into the apartment.
We are doing things quickly. That most exciting pervasion of life is making us feel rushed; we do not have the time to do it right, but we will do it anyway. The next pervasion is obvious. This love story is not limitless, and our short-sightedness sees walls and distance. The pervasion is that we continue, saturating our hearts with very, very red blood.