I took the long way, traveling by bus from Buenos Aires. After singing upon request from the bus driver, “Summer time when the cotton grows high and the living is easy,” I got on a bus for the 24-hour ride to Salta. A piece of cake, really Argentine style, riding in comfort. One night in Salta enjoying an asodo—carne, carne, yes, sir ree bob—and some gaucho dancing. I was up early the next morning for what should have been an eight-hour ride to the border.

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Not long after Salta we hit a roadblock from the farmers trying to make some political point. Man, these things can go on for weeks. The police don’t break up the roadblocks, I am told, on account of the past history of police brutality and the fear of reprisals from the people. Lucky we only had to wait five hours. I arrived in La Quica feeling not so good. At first I thought it was some road burn, checking into a hostel for a night’s rest. The next day I felt worse—very tired, no appetite, and it hurt to breath. It finally hit me it was the altitude. I was tired but it was hard to sleep, only getting half-hour naps before waking and struggling to breathe.

I stayed another night and felt I was not going to make it, like my batteries were all done. I got to thinking I should at least say fare thee well, so I made it to the computer at the hostel and found a message from Shelly saying someone probably hacked into my email. “Dude, I don’t do Viagra.” Great, my parting words to you all. “Buy Viagra.” I shut her down and went back to bed.

Lo and behold I woke up the next morning, forced myself out of bed and drank some coffee. It helped. I walked to the border and waited on a bridge for three hours before getting into the border office. Complete chaos, after another hour of paperwork and buying my visa I finally crossed into Bolivia. I bought a ticket for the night bus to Potasi and walked like a zombie through the streets until the bus left. It was a dirt road, no faster the 40 mph. The moon was big, enchanting countryside, cactus and high bluffs. The road just wandered. I slipped in and out of sleep feeling the road and sucking in the dust. Sometime in the night the bus stopped in the middle of nowhere. A jack knifed truck was blocking the road. The truck drivers and bus drivers tried for hours shoveling and placing rocks to move the truck but no go. It’s not like you can call a wrecker. They gave up on that and made a road in a dry river bed. Young boys with flash lights showed the way urging us along in a confident voice, “Dale, Dale.” Man, I would have not brought my mighty Ranger down that river bed. At times the tires would sink low. The driver would give it and the bus felt like she was going over. I was looking for hand holds if she did. We ended up backing up the bank back onto the road. Some slick driving if you ask me. On we went to Potasi, which they claim is the highest city in the world. Great. Sometime in the morning we arrived. It took me a long time to walk to the terminal to get the bus to Sucre. A local man asked what my troubles were and I said the altitude. He gave me a handful of coco leaves and said to chew on that. By God it helped. The last leg was a five-hour bus ride to Sucre, nice country by daylight.

I showed up the next morning at the school with my pack loaded with first aid and art supplies from Kat. The social worker office was also the infirmary. Twenty minutes after unloading and taking inventory, a fourth-year medical student showed up to work on the kids. A lot of these kids live in mud houses with grass roofs. Bugs fall on them from the roofs and go under the skin. The kids scratch them and then get these nasty open infections. Well, he put those supplies I brought right to use. The anti-infection cream Bacitracin was a big hit. He squeezed out pus, poured on iodine and then applied the cream. It must have hurt but not a whimper from these kids, holding tight to their fists. Juan will be a good doctor. He has a strong heart but does not let it get to him, finding some laughter with each kid.

So here I am. The plan is to help these kids build 70 shoeshine kits and work on the buildings. Things move along slowly here. It will take some time adjusting and learning.

Bolivia | The Streets

We took to the streets to let the working boys know the shop at the school was open to fix their shoe boxes and build new ones if needed. Of course they all wanted new ones. Their hands were black from polish and their faces aged beyond their years, some as young as six. Two Bolivianos for a shine, eight to make a dollar. They came in small groups, some dragging a younger sister in tow. One boy complained that he had just gotten beaten up by some bigger boys because they saw a gringo hand out twenty Bolivianos for the shine. The Gringo thinks he is helping, but it only led to an ass kicking out of envy. The kids have hard lives. Some nights when I was out late I saw the ones from Nanta at twelve at night selling candy in the bars and streets. Some say their mothers won’t let them in the house until they have sold the whole box, but who knows.

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The bus drivers went on strike the week before, blocking the major roads with the buses. At rush hour in the mornings they blocked other major roads with their bodies. At one intersection I watched a truckload of riot police get out and push the group back to the sidewalks. When they got back into the truck the crowd went back to blocking the street. A taxi came up to the crowd and tried to talk his way through, and they just let the air out of his tires. For once there was little pollution in the streets from the buses. I was happy for the strike.

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The boys came to the shop all wanting to be first to build the shoe boxes. I made a list of their names and we started building. The kids here are like a pack of raccoons. They can’t keep from hitting one another. I gave them one warning—none of that crap in the shop If it happens again they are out. They listened. We worked on, and more kids came all wanting to be first and all saying they were carpenters and giving advice. I was exhausted and overwhelmed. I closed up the shop and went upstairs to use the bathroom. The door to the infirmary opened and Andros was there looking worse than I felt. He and Marcelo had just spent the last four hours working through lunch on a boys backside who had scabies. I felt like an ass for my problems in the shop. They work every day on the kids. Lice, flies, infections all over their bodies. The problems of poverty. Marcelo never complains, always a smile and laughter. I had to dig deeper in myself to find patience.

I went to a tourist cafe to buy an English speaking book, in need of some literature. A football game was on the TV—Germany versus Argentina. Three German men were watching the game. When an Argentine player tripped a German, one of the men watching raised his hand for the yellow card. When the card was raised they cheered. What a contrast I thought. I see these kids every day in the lunch line scrapping for every inch. It does not matter how big or small, if someone gives them grief, they go for them. The girls pull the boys’ hair, they grab sticks and brooms and smack the boys. Fair is clearly not in their game, and there is no referee to make their lives right. They have to make that fight on their own. Argentine 1 Germany 0.

Nicaragua | In Leon

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.

Honduras | The Chicken Bus

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.

Nicaragua | The Streets

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.

Guatemala | The Massage

dave-231The 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.


Guatemala | The Pueblo by the Lake

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.

guatamalaShedding 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.

Mexico | My Rock on the Road

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.