We came together as strangers for the dangerous ride over the mountain.
Driving through the bustle of town. Cosas, cosas mucho. Everybody selling something. The smells of leaded gasoline and the mixture of all those foods from the street venders cooking in hot oiled pans fed by charcoal fires in home built stoves. Fried tortillas, papas, pollo. So many smells and sounds coming right at you. Then finally leaving all that. Leaving us with the darkness beyond the headlights. Everyone focused on willing that van to stay on the road.
I did not see her eyes when she came in at first and sat so close. Beyond full, that van. I could feel the whole side of her body against mine. From the side I could see a prominent brow and full lips and dark, shiny hair to her shoulders. Rounding those high mountain curves in the darkness of the night, I could feel the fear in her body leaning so close to mine. The van came to a screeching halt where a landslide had filled part of the road, raising our anxiety. We both needed comfort. I moved my shoulder so it was outside hers. She slid in closer and leaned against me, later resting the side of her warm breast against my arm. It was more an act of trust than anything else. I needed that. I needed to be trusted. I needed to feel her as a woman. We were in this ride together now easing our fears, willing the van safely to Oaxaca. Never once talking, we stayed focused on the road.
When I’d made the trip before it was daytime. I’d seen all the dangers then. How the building of the road had made the mountain unstable. All the crosses on the side of the road. The path of a fallen bus had scarred the mountain side, burned and rusted remains still resting where it stopped. A tribute to the dead. We came upon the soft light from adobe homes, the smell of burning charcoal from the cook stoves. A boy on bicycle. We were coming down the mountain, the worst of the steep curves behind us, that she let go and feel asleep. Her head rested on my shoulder. Her hair smelled of lavender and sage and something unique that was all her. I could hear her breathing and sometimes a soft moan of fear from the trauma of her dream. So tender and precious. When I had first seen her profile, she looked so strong. Now with her guard down, so vulnerable. I wanted to hold her, protect her from the night, from the demons in her dreams. I had a purpose now, focusing on her breathing and easing away the fear in the night. Rocking her in the crook of my head and shoulder.
When we came into the outskirts of Oaxaca she opened her eyes trying to get her bearings. I thought she might jerk her head up when she realized it was on a stranger’s shoulder. But she kept it there for a while clearing the sleep from her eyes. I was happy for that. When she lifted her head she put her hand on my thigh for support and let it linger there for a bit. Then she straightened her hair, gathered herself together and gave me a nod from the side letting me know she was ready to leave me and face the world. Not long after that she called to the driver to stop at the next light. The first sound of her voice so lovely to hear. When she got out, she turned and looked me square in the eyes. I can still see and feel that look. So open and honest, one of a deep connection and gratitude without a word being spoken.
The previous ten days I had been walking the beach holding my arms high across my chest, cradling a broken heart, letting my brain beat me up by rerunning the scenes of betrayal over and over again. A pathetic sight I must have been, those ten days on the beach. But the edge on that journey over the mountain took me away from the drama in my head and got me focused on the desire to just stay alive and keep this woman safe. The darkness of the mountain and the rhythm of the road burned its way into my soul that night. I can still feel it in there so many years later. I was lost struggling for a foothold. Feeling betrayed and without love. When I got out of that van I was no longer lost. She had been my rock and I had been hers; I had a purpose.
It always felt good getting to that whambly dock. She stretched out onto Lake Atitlán holding some grace amid dark green and blue waters surrounded by volcanoes and steep pitched mountains. Walking out that old dock, I could see the waves reflecting day’s brilliant light on the sandy bottom. It gave the lake another dimension, more depth that added to the magic.
Shedding my garb, I jumped into that cooling water. It let me open my eyes without the sting and see its underworld of blues. Coming to the surface, I was greeted by the sight of water birds fishing for their day’s feed and those big Fing mountains. Quite the way to start the day.
The dock had a good rhythm to its sway on my way back to shore. The dusty path along the lake’s edge spilled me out onto a bigger road of dirt and dust that was shaped by a field trimmed short by the grazing horses. I slipped into Lenas for my morning feed and laughs.
The cafe was run by a madre and her three kids, and the occasional stray that would wonder by. They put out some great food, music and some laughs from the kids. Milini Anna, the three-year-old, can be quite the little bossy boots on some days, then on others be all wine without the cheese. She is a little cutie with those pig tails going wing on wing. Clara, the older sister of 12, seems weighted by the thoughts of school and looking after the little sis. On some days she runs the place all by herself, cooking and all, not as good a cook as her mom, though. The brother of nine takes orders or runs the chores. He has quite the serious presentation. I wolfed down those spicy beans, had a quick sing and dance with Milini Anna and headed up the road. I could hear a young woman’s voice over a loudspeaker. It was pleasant to hear, an innocence to it like she was working around the house and felt alone enough to reveal her vulnerable emotions. Beautiful.
Walking on, I could see the lone Victrola speaker sitting atop the roof of a tienda. Inside I could see men playing guitars and clapping and young women singing into that mike. It seemed that most people in the streets were taking the moment to enjoy the beauty of that honest voice. Such a friendly place, this town by the lake with waters of so many blues.
The cobblestone street was edged on both sides by churches, stores and homes all tucked in close to one another. One of the churches had a blue steeple, giving it more of a human face than god-like. It was close to five so the streets were full of people and action. A mother with her two daughters caught my eye. They were all holding hands with the little one of about two in the middle. She swung from their loving arms only touching the ground occasionally, ponytails on both sides. She caught my eye and said ola, eyes smiling. She lifted my spirits. I got to the top of the hill where the road turned to dirt. A boy was running ahead of me pushing a tire rim along with a stick, keeping it alive in balance with his fancy stick work. A herd of women, all in their traditional dress of bright woven colors, all greeted me as they walked past. I cut down through a narrow dirt path tucked in by homes tight together. A gang of six-year-olds were hanging on the walls relaxing in the late afternoon and munching on chips, ola, ola.
I wove through the scattering of dogs that were hoping for some droppings and reached the casa of the Cruz family, which was a combination of cinderblocks and adobe with metal roofing. “Buenos tardes,” I called out several times. Maria came out saying, “Buenos tardes,” imitating my funny accent. I was there to get my third massage. Maria is Mayan, the daughter of the local shaman. The previous two massages, she had kicked my ass going very deep and not in the least bit put off by my screams of pain. The massage table was a straw mat on a concrete floor covered by a blanket. She started out soft, but once she had the egg shaped stone in her hands, she pushed it deep into my shoulders. I screamed out in pain, and two little ones not older than two came running in to see what it was about. The smaller one peered around the bigger one, all eyes, and I could not help but smile through my pain. Maria worked hard on getting some movement back to my neck. She was pleased with the progress she was making—my head has not had this kind of movement in years. I was very happy. When the massage was over, she sat across from me on the mat and looked at me with concerned eyes and said I had many problems. “Yes,” I said, “but I have a strong spirit to endure these problems,” she smiled. Walking back in the dark, I stopped and tilted my head back to see the stars. It has been a long time that I was able to do that little number. Yes, it is good to be alive. Love Dave.
It was a hot night, so I decided to eat on the street—one of those places that had an outside barbecue with all the meats, potato, and salad for a whopping dollar. I sat at a table that faced a gothic looking church. It looked bigger against the dark sky. The food was good. I ate with ease and watched the action of the street unfold. A motorcycle went by with the boy in front driving, the father behind him and the mother in the way back riding side-saddle, her hands folded in her lap. How she managed to stay on is beyond me, but I think it is a genetic ability for all the women of Latin America can perform this feat. An old Fiat came to a stalling rest in front of me, the driver trying the starter a few times before coming out, opening the trunk, pulling out a stick and sticking it in the gas tank. Now I can relate to that little number. He then calmly took out a gas can, told the two women who were riding with him the news. They got out laughing and stood by the car calmly talking while he walked down the road with his gas can. A young girl was sweeping the street around me. This is a country of sweepers and moppers. Now I have always considered myself pretty handy operating the old broom, but this girl had the moves, pure poetry of the broom. I was entranced with her magic. The clopping of the horse hooves took me away from it. A man driving the horse and cart, standing up and screaming at the taxis that were trying to force him off the road. The women cooking at the grills were laughing at it all. The walls of time divided by the old and new. The man with the gas can returned, giving the hungry tank a little something to drink. The ladies climbed back in and off they went, you got to love it.
I decided to take the chicken bus. It is a harder ride than the 1st class bus, but a lot more happened on the old Blue Birds. It’s like a movie short of the life of the locals, and for four hours I figured the old body could take it. As usual when I first got on, all eyes were on me. The questions in the glances, “What is this gringo doing here?” They got tired of looking after a while and we all settled into the salsa beat that was blasting on the radio.
The driver had done some personal decorating of the front of the bus: feathers, springy heads and a couple of Santa Rosas to keep God on our side. We were in the highlands of Honduras heading down to San Pedro Luis, the industrial town where I could take the bus on to Nicaragua. Most of the men wore cowboy hats and carried matches that they had to check in at the front of the bus, I guess to keep the causalities of on bus skirmishes to a minimum. Most of the faces looked worn and tired from a lifetime of hard work in the sun, hard telling the ages of the adults.
She was a throaty bus, blowing out big plumes of black smoke on the hills. Two girls in the seat in front of me were playing like a bunch of puppies. Their giggles got me laughing. It seemed that about every ten miles the bus would stop to pick up or drop off riders. At times a package of groceries was dropped off to hungry hands waiting patiently on the side of the road, a few coins exchanged. Other times some galvanized roofing was taken off the top of the bus and left on the side of the road. The bus driver’s sidekick would have to run after the bus, hang onto the rear ladder and climb in while the bus was accelerating along, obviously the highlight of the job.
We passed a waterpark and the younger kids gazed with long dreamy looks while the older kids glanced away with contempt, knowing it was an impossible dream. For a moment I wanted to stop the bus and pay for all the kids to have a go, but I knew it would not be fair to be a one-day wonder in their lives.
We would pull into these little towns whose outdoor markets were full of merchandise and bargaining, where a gang of kids with dirty t-shirts and pants ran through grabbing a quick handful of something to put in their mouths. One boy got caught clean across the face by a fast swat from a tight lipped woman. The boy, although stung, held the look of victory as he chewed on his hard won loot. The bus inched its way out of the market and off we rumbled through the highlands with open fields and palm trees.
Soon we were on the side of the road and the bus was filling up with smoke. Before I knew what was happening, everyone was on their feet in the aisle with panic in their eyes. I was buried deep in my seat feeling quite trapped and thinking about busting out the window and climbing out. Then I had visions of straddling broken glass and decided to take my chances on waiting for the crowd to thin and going out the door. The black smoke was thick in the bus by the time I retrieved my pack and got outside. One of the tires had caught fire. The sidekick and the driver were throwing water and sand on it and eventually put it out. With the front and back doors of the bus open, it aired out quickly and the bus driver hollered out, “Vamanos!” We all got back on board with the locals laughing away. Just a typical day on the chicken bus.
I was getting pounded sitting in the front of the launch, so I grabbed a bumper and sat on the nice suspension, but too much bounce. We were crossing Lake Isabel heading for the thermal waterfalls. The green hills that led up to the mountains were a powerful sight as I bounced along on my bumper. Our captain was loving the wave action and took great glee in trying to bounce me clear out of the boat. I knew he would get his way, given the increasing size of the waves, so I stood up and took the action in my knees.
I loved the contrast of the amber reed grass and the green fields that warmed the lake’s edge. We hit the beach in style and climbed out eager for our adventure that lay ahead. There were ten of us, a motley collection of British, French, Canadian and American. We had been together long enough to skip past the social shine and get right into the abusive humor, which suited me just fine. Nothing sacred at this point. Lots of laughs. We walked along a dirt road surrounded by cattle in the fields, very peaceful. The smaller cattle had collars with three-foot sticks wedged through them to keep the little buggers from slipping under the fences—good idea. The road gave way to a small jungle trail that would occasionally flirt with the banks of a good sized stream. Occasionally some of the local girls would be on the trail trying to sell banana bread. We assured them we would buy on the way back.
Coming up a small hill and around the bend, the smell of sulfur hit us first, then the sight of the thermal pools and waterfalls. Man, what a sight, something out of dreams. It did not take us long to get into the water and swim over to the waterfalls. Better than any hot shower I have ever had. I could go for the heavy volume and hot pounder or the light hot tease. I tried them all. They call me mellow yellow, that’s right. One hour of that and I was mister limbo.
Our fearless leader, another Dave, gathered us together to head further up the trail to the caves. The jungle smells that tickled my nose were something else. You could never quite name what it was before a new smell would waft up your nostrils. These were the same jungles where Tarzan was made. Once I was told that I was on the lookout for Jane—hey a fellow has to keep an open mind.
As we headed down the slick mud trail, both my feet went clear into the air and I took a good dumping. That smartened me up some. The trail got so steep that Dave had to tie a rope to one of those thorny jungle trees so we could rappel down. The adventure had begun.
At the bottom was a stream that ran out of a 30-foot high opening in the side of the mountain. With just swimsuits and head lamps we all swam into that dark opening—cool, unreal, a little eerie. This was a new one for me and I was loving it. We took breaks every hundred yards by clinging onto the sides of the rock before swimming further. I could hear hard water ahead and see rock and white water. We climbed the rocks next to the waterfall, and there were some very scary moments where the wrong slip could have plunged us into the waterfalls. At one point Katua stepped out from a rock and missed her footing but was caught by her friend. I swallowed my heart watching that little number. Once we were up to the top we killed our head lamps and sat in the darkness feeling the strength of this ancient cave. Woooooo. Love Dave.
They say Leon is one of the safest cities in Central America. It is also one of the hottest. It is not a big tourist destination, so when I walk down the street I DO NOT FEEL LIKE A DOLLAR SIGN but a human being. Students stop me in the street to practice their English and ask where I am from. It is an old city with many churches that rise up against the faded buildings, radiating the passions and pains of the past. They still use horses here so the streets are full of horse and buggies that move construction supplies and serve as collectivoes to carry as many as 20 people like taxis.
At times it reminds me of Cuba, but here many of the children go hungry. Nicaragua is poor so that we can be rich; U.S. foreign policy has exploited this country for decades. There are many street kids here, some look 6 but they are really 12 and 14. The glue they sniff to take away hunger pains has stunted their growth. Last night when Joanna and I were eating at an outdoor café, the kids waited in the shadows. When they felt we had eaten all we could they asked us very politely if they could eat our leftovers, shyly taking away our plates. In the park there are many young barefoot boys who shine shoes. I get mine shined a lot to help a little. At times the boys argue with one another because they feel I am their customer and no one else should shine my boots. When they argue, their faces are those of grown men. Life is very hard here for them.
Las Tias means “aunts” and is an organization that the women of the market started to help out the street kids. I am working with some of the young men who are carpenters and are making furniture to sell in the market so the profits can help feed the children. They need tools, a planer, a good table saw. They are good workers, but it is hard for them to compete. I do what I can to help. Las Tias has two buildings—one for the young kids and another for the teenagers. Two days ago I visited the one with the children. It was so wonderful to see these kids looking so happy. When they look you in the eyes and smile it goes clear to your soul.
Then came the Americans from the Southern Baptist church. They made the kids line up on the basketball court and roared out their indoctrination. I had to leave. The church is dividing Latin America, telling teenagers not to use birth control and of course no abortions. Many young girls become mothers too early in their lives. It is a very big problem, and families are divided. Las Tias has no choice because these groups bring food and money so they have to swallow the conditions that are attached. They provide dental care but only if you go to church first. This city is raw. It is life and I feel happy here.
I missed the truck ride into town. Not surprising, so I decided to start walking.
I needed to escape; the last 8 days had been some wild ones hanging with the English and Kiwis. We had some laughs. When you spend that much time together you become a cog in the wheel and no one wanted me to leave. I had to sleep with my backpack so they could not steal it to keep me from moving on. We all speak the same language, but the English and Kiwis have so much slang that I only understood half of what they said. I had learned a lot in the last week. I told them in the future they should carry a dictionary of their slang for people who plan on hanging with them for more than a week. It would avoid some misunderstandings, but then again some of them were quite funny.
I was walking along at a good clip feeling the freedom of the dusty road. It was a dry land with a diversity of trees that were quite enchanting to look at. As I walked along, it felt like all living things were trying to suck the moisture out of me. There was a scattering of houses along the road all blasting music. They looked more like the outbuildings you would see on ranches in Wyoming, but no people lived in these buildings with their families. I would get the occasional wave from people out doing their morning chores, then the houses gave way to the wildness of the land and that winding road.
I heard them before I saw them—ump ump and getting louder—I looked up to see about 14 howler monkeys in one tree all moving out on the limbs to get a better look at me. What a collection of characters. One old boy had his knees high, elbows on the wing, scratching his cheek head tilted to the side wondering who I was. I had a good visit with them, got a chuckle out of it all and walked on.
I was getting hot and dried out. I knew that two miles from the beach camp was a little store, so I kept up my pace in anticipation of some cold juice. I got there with a powerful thirst and was greeted by a young boy holding a baby followed by the mother. I stood under the shade of that porch sucking down cold juice while the boy with baby moved closer to watch. I looked out on that wild land thinking it looked so much better from the shade. I said my goodbyes and walked out into the heat of the day, which was building fire. Just when I was thinking about hitching, a truck came along and offered me a ride. Good karma. They were headed into town. The teenager sitting next to me had on a baseball uniform and looked eager for the game. We stopped next to a cornfield and he got out and walked right into the corn. Christ, so it is true the story of the playing fields.
It’s always hard to break away from that familiar hold of the sea. Heading west down that road, I was slowly slipping out of her grasp, letting the feel of the rolling hills ease into me. Gentle and soft, fresh greens of spring, the pungent taste of raw earth. Hills giving way to mountains. Spruce and fir mingling with the clear smell of mountain streams. The land worked its way through me, whittling away worries. Wandering lost down that dirt road, caught under the spell of that ravine with its lazy stream. It felt so familiar, with its quiet strength. I drank in the feel of it. The way the meadow tucked into the twisted stream triggered thoughts of other places. The open feel of it took me to Wyoming. The funny flat spot on top of one of the hills looked like a volcano in Guatemala. The smell of sweat grass and the call of the mourning doves, smells and sounds of Kenya. This place was a window, like I could wrap my arms around the world for one moment and hold it close. I savored it, took it in deep and smiled big.
I could hear the patter of small feet before I felt the hands around my waist. A brother and sister who attend the scholl spotted me in the street and ran to greet me. I was out buying supplies for the shop and was making my way back. They walked along, those little bodies falling in rhythm with mine. They said they had been doing homework all morning long, so I started singing out numbers and they added them in song. It was like this all the way back. Andres is eight, his sister Patrice, seven. He is fierce and shows no fear of the bigger kids. I have seen him going after them in the lunch line. She often has a look of fear in her eyes, and I wonder what horrors go on at home. After lunch they are off in some corner squirreling leftovers into their packs, I am told it is for their mother.
Andres was my first student in the shop to build his shoeshine box. What a smile he had on his face when he sent his first nail home. That alone was worth the long trip here. When it came time to put on the tiny hinges with little screws, he got frustrated and went for the hammer. No, no, amigo, steady with the driver. How that boy can swear in Quecha. Now more boxes have been made and the kids really love to work in that tiny shop. I am not even halfway through with lunch when they sit around me wanting to know when they can get to work. They’re jumping up and down when I open up. I can only work with one boy at a time, but there is a bunch of them leaning over my shoulder leaning into my side giving commands. There is only one of me and so many of them. How they want to learn. There are days when I get overwhelmed with the demands and get short with them raising my voice. How they go to shame when I yell. Heads down in silence. It stings my heart some to see it, but they need the discipline. All the contact is good for me, though. I am not used to being touched so much. It is nice how they are always in contact with hands on my back and shoulders.
For a few days I worked over at the old location that was much bigger but too much for them to afford. The new school is way smaller but a better price. The little buggers have done some damage to the old place. I am rebuilding raised panel doors with a skill saw and chisel—a challenge there, I am telling you. For the second day in a row the saw was gone to shit. But here in Bolivia there is always a small shop to fix anything. Today I did not have a key to get into the old place so I was waiting for Ulysses to show up at school with the key. Waiting is a common thing here. All the tools, what few there were, were over at the old place, so I went into the kitchen to help the cooks prepare lunch. Salsa music was playing so I danced a few turns with Mary Beth around the concina before sitting down to chopping carrots. When Ulysses finally showed up, he came to the door of the kitchen and yelled at me saying I am carpenter not a cook, “Vamos.” I got a great laugh out of that one.