I am in San Francisco. I am in Texas. I am whirring on the back of a golf cart speeding to the closing gates of a midnight flight to Bogota. I am breathing, living, moving from one life to the next, remembering my always-on travel mantra that helps me dive full-in whenever I travel: I am that.
All of it. Everyone I see, all the idiotic things, the lamentations and prejudices, the angelic offerings and the petty short changings. The joy in the eyes of the smiling grandfather whirring along side me, on his way to a family reunion in the countryside of Colombia. The passive voice of the driver echoing- anyone else going to Bogota? Anyone?
The plane doors shut. I am asleep.
I am in Bogota. I am waiting. I am in Lima.
I am in Piura. The airport.
I am waiting for an official cab, though the gypsies hover on the other side of the curb with laments and pleas and intensity. A legit taximan with lines on his face deep like ocean trenches pulls up, helps me get my bag in the car. He eyes me with a weary friendliness through the rear view. Where are you from? He asks in Spanish.
Guess, I say.
No. Guess again.
No, the US, I say. I look at his face. Probably not the best answer; but the mood doesn’t change. I am remembering.
The roads twist past rows of cinder block buildings; their open-air windows throw colorful curtains to the sky. Children shriek and play in the streets and women walk in purposeful groups along the sidewalks. The streets start to narrow as we burrow deeper into the heart of this dry desert scrub town, the once grand boulevards are mud or worse, stalled roadwork has left bricks jutting out everywhere, creating an obstacle course for speeding cars. The driver curses, it´s been like this for over a year, he says.
Dangerous here now. He looks at me in the rear view.
Dangerous, I say, thinking. More dangerous than 5 years ago?
Much more, he says. More people. More unrest. Less work. There are rumblings all over, he says. Problems. And elections are coming up.
Not the same as it was.
We arrive at a busy street and now my pulse is racing just a bit faster as we step out into the hawkers and the dogs, the children and stalls of food, the smoke and the earth and the visceral real. He insists on bringing my bag down the block and helping me find someone to go to Mancora. I am grateful for his help, and a little surprised at myself for feeling nervous. Of course, this also is the kind of authentic adrenaline rush you can’t buy online and so I start to smile, despite it all.
We come across a group of men standing, bickering and laughing over something, and they nod, eying me. Yes, going to Mancora.
The old man looks at me, smiling apologetically, almost sadly, and says cuidate.
Be careful. It feels like a warning.
I am in a cloud. A watch. A ticking bomb. I am in the hyper-vivid now that will bloom a gilded memory, one that floats down from the flickering florescent bulbs of the van office and makes the moment feel like it should be preserved in a glass block of time. A TV plays overhead, and the sexy male voice whispers intently, passionately, luring his prey into the mysterious joys of MasterCard.
I know, no one has to tell me, I know. It´s better if I don´t go out. So I sit. And watch.
The little office faces outward to the street, buses squeezing by each other on the narrow strip, crowded by palms and crumbling facades and yelping dogs, in and out of the town´s main artery. These are no ordinary buses, to be sure. Double deckers with shining new paint jobs, elegant stripes and potent colors, each one with a specialized center art piece. A redheaded mermaid, encircled by a fiery setting sun. A Herculean loin-clothed god, posing majestically under the rays of Heaven, surrounded by clouds. A cherub, with blond ringlets and pink lips, a beacon of purity and innocence. Highway protector forces like a Pan-American-style Super Friends, etched in echoes of ships’ helm carvings. The roads ahead are cliff-huggers and treacherous, I now remember. Peru’s answer to Highway 1.
A map is hung on the wall that leads to the open-air entrance, faded now and lined on the edges with ads for local businesses. In the middle, blocking a portion of the city center section, is a large photo of the local beauty queen dressed in a glowing pink gown, triumphant white sash and tiara, her face full of pride and claws. Underneath the map are three dust-and-grimy plastic chairs, very shortly above which are three amorphous brown stains, which mark where brilloed hair must regularly come to rest.
Outside, men walk around with colorful boxes strapped to their necks, selling snacks and trinkets; toenail clippers and sunglasses and files, while the women hawk homemade cake, proudly presenting their Tupperware offerings to those in line for the next bus.
Suddenly, a loud, echoing thunderclap of noise startles the entire area into a fleeting moment of silence. I wonder if it could have been a gunshot, but I tell myself that I’m not that paranoid. And then I wonder if that’s actually true.
The men outside start laughing. It happens again and again. Dogs are barking now with ferocity and fear. The men gaze down the street, watching.
I never find out. But the earth-shaking booms continue and have jarred a flickering thought to life. The Now blooms huge and potently.
Finally, I follow a man across the street and down the block a ways, into what seems to be an open-air warehouse where all the buses and vans load up. Women surrounding the entrance have set up a makeshift barbecue, skewers smoking and colorful bags of supplies making a barricade from the dogs. After finalizing my paperwork, I stand awkwardly to the side of the sitting area. All seats taken. My awkwardness is reflected in the faces of those in line, those at the counter, those in the seats, looking at me from under lashes and making brief personal adjustments before looking away. Or maybe it´s that I am the only gringa in sight. In fact, I haven’t seen anyone but locals since I arrived, it´s only the indigenous Andean tribes and me. The smell of roasting meat fills the air with a savory heat.
The van guy takes pity and ushers me in to wait on one of its empty benches. I sit, door slid open, peering out of the darkness and watching the hustle and commerce of the station, listening to voices and lives and moments. In line for the Herculean bus, girls carry purple flowered bags and shiny vinyl Minnie Mouse purses, whispering and laughing and secretly eyeing the boys ahead. Style is Bronx style- clean cotton brand name knock-offs, everything pressed, everything tight. A young kid, maybe 15, has a slick black boom box, red and white lights flicker and flash drive pulsing. As I silently watch him, he watches the bus and waits for his moment. Then, the moment the doors push open, with a knowing nod, he presses play with the authority of a big-crowd showman and begins jamming to a reggeton sensation, raising his hands up, rocking the line as they slowly pile in to the belly of the Greek god. This, I later learn, is likely a technique for owning what music is played on the journey. This is someone who already knows that good music can change your life.
As my van begins loading, the handlers usher me into the very back seat on the right, where I share a bench with a young guy I later nicknamed Kid Cowboy, who is so-named for both the continuousness of his ringing phone, the obviousness of his importance to whatever logistics game he runs, to his staged protest of the driver´s music (what better way than to play a weepy dramatic countryside-style ballad from his cell phone, holding it up Say Anything-style to make sure everyone could hear both, and therefore neither, at the same time). This guy feels passion without fear. This guy is not ashamed to relish a woman singing past the point of control about the betrayal of love. This woman sounds like she could be his mother. Kid Cowboy shuffles his boots under the seat.
Two more rows of people fill in the seats, locking us back without an exit, and the front drivers´ level row adds a few more. The doors close, but we sit for what seems like 20 minutes, the van filling with gasoline fumes. I am able to push out the window a crack for fresh air, but it wafts in almost never. I rotate between loving the absurdity, and soberly grasping the familiar feeling of the odd predicaments I seem to get myself into, like this one. I flash back to the travel mantra: I am that. I smile, face as close as possible to the glass, without going so far as to make obvious that I might be the exact soft-focus kind of gringa that erodes any semblance of respect. (Well, natch, this was probably already happening anyway. But I digress.)
We finally set off, slowly making the trek out of town, rumbling along in relative silence, the locals all staring straight ahead and speaking only occasionally. I watched as the urban buildings began to fall away, replaced by big box stores like Maestro, selling fertilizers and farm equipment and seeds. Retaining walls are covered in advertisements for Keiko for president and Dole and local shops, and once these also started to fall away the landscape opened up to farms and fields and mountains in the distance. The night sky showed red, the black earth propped up in relief, and campfires blazed occasionally deep in the fields. Pale green trees, illuminated by the headlights, flashed by with such grace and ferocity it felt like being a silent observer of electric phantoms dancing a ballet.
And all of this happening, fascinating, otherworldly, intense, when.
The music had been an unknown rotation of Spanish-language reggae and jazz, all of it surprisingly great, and I was sitting there vaguely wishing I had some way of figuring out what it was, and then.
It came rumbling from a distance, snapping forward and striking with a deep and echoing bolt to the heart. An unmistakable entrance.
(Sharp intake a breath. wait for it. is this..?)
Yes. Yes it is.
(Fireworks begin in my mind, colors exploding up and over one another in greater and greater heights, jumping and sparkling and just for me. A glowing white teeth Cheshire cat smile begins to expose itself in the far back right corner. No one turns around. It glows, silently.)
And as Eye of the Tiger comes thundering out of the darkness, the sky is red and the earth is black, telephone wires dig in their nails, dragging deep across the horizon, their lines moving one way and trees drawn in another, ghosts unraveling, their electric green forms bending and thrashing as they become part of the distance passed. Campfires of migrant workers flash in the distance, 15 stone-silent Indians and me. Exploding in gratitude, far back right corner.
I nod along, controlling the urge to full-scale rock out. Instead, dancing on the inside dancing. Then (it just comes out, what are you gonna do. it´s “Eye of the Tiger”) a little dancing on the outside dancing. I could feel Kid Cowboy looking at me and pretending not to look at me.
And finally, the song gallops off toward the jagged mountain line of the horizon, and I smile as I push my face as close to the window as possible. Breathing deeply.
And before I can even turn the Cheshire smile from crescent to waning, “Turn Around Bright Eyes,” in Spanish. And all the added drama that brings. I swoon. And then feeling lightheaded swoon a little closer to the crack in the window.
A rocking disco version of “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood.” Manu Chao, “Me Gustas Tu.” And whatever other totally spectacularly awesome Spanish music the driver was playing. It was, let it be said, and have there be no doubt, that this was the most incredible driving playlist in the history of driving playlists, when you think about having a playlist that matches each bend and curve of the road. A playlist that in all likelihood should have been a maddeningly monotonous run of cumbia. Music orgasm happening, far back right corner. Face pressed to window, caring not at all if the Kid thinks I’m a wilting white flower.
Music. As if its playing the role of Jesus in the one-footprint-in-the-sand thing that you always see on plaques and inspirational posters and framed in wood-like plastic things along the stairways that reach up to the neatly arranged bedrooms of all good people everywhere.
Music the chariot. Music the hand. Music the smile and the light and the message.
After what legitimately felt like forever, (me casually wondering what would happen if I passed out from the fumes, would Kid Cowboy help me or rob me. wasn’t sure.) we rumbled in to Mancora, travelers spilling out of restaurants and bars, little shops alive with song and laughter and tuk tuks honking and weaving through it all. I grab my bag, turn to find the first tuk, smile a little sideways smile, and head to the hallowed entrance of Wawa hotel.
Passing through the gate it felt like a colossal victory. I plopped down in a waiting area chair in relief, and before I even have a second to breathe it in, two beautiful Argentinian traveler women sitting on the couch, watching me.
You must be Molly, they say.
Yes, I said, surprised.
You have the only room left, it seems, they say. We thought we had a reservation but it turns out we don´t. I secretly thank Jesus and the Gods of Rock that my local friend checked on this for me earlier and flash a huge grin, wishing them luck and then go swimmingly to my room, sliding inside the enveloping sounds of ocean crashing and palms rustling, lungs expanding with what must be the freshest, most seaside sparkling breeze in the whole. wide. world.