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.

Bolivia | School Life

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.

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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.

Nicaragua | The Walk

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Guatemala | The Caves

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.

dave-267-1I 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.

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.