About 12:17 p.m. / still Cajabamba, Peru
Well, this combi I am on that was supposed to leave at 11 or 11:30 (Which sir? I had asked the driver—Oh, 11:30, he’d assured me) still has not left. He just told a couple they would have enough time to go have lunch (ahem). Several other passengers have demanded their money back.
But the price is right—four soles, instead of the five other companies are charging. However I can save a bit here and there. And, well, we should get to Huamachuco within three hours, or about three-thirty. That’ll give me enough time to really scout around for the cheapest hospedaje. Ay, the challenge, the joys of long-term traveling when your money’s running out!
I take a break from my scribbling, three lines per space to save paper. I walk around to the side of the microbus, shoving my notebook into my shoulder bag. In the shade of the building, I take a drink to cool the heat of this growing day.
The driver’s assistant is stuffing a bag into the already jammed boot of the combi. After shouldering the hood closed, José joins me on the sidewalk. The smoke of his just-lit cigarette drifts past his dark, tired features.
“Already a long day, eh?” I say as I take his offered cigarette.
“Yeh.” His dirty fingers shake the match flame out. He drops it to the ground.
Our conversation wends to the trip we are about to take. What Huamachuco is like, where would be a good, cómodo place to stay. He looks young. “How old are you?” I watch his eyes watching the bustle of still-boarding passengers.
I would have guessed him to be younger. But his hands are scarred and nicked. Pale blood oozes slowly from a fresh cut. “How old were you when you began working?”
José takes a drag from his cigarette. The ash falls at his feet. “Ten years old.”
I raise my eyebrows. “Did you get a chance to finish school?”
“No, not even primary school. I don’t think I will ever get a chance to finish.”
A short, thin man stumbles up to us, under the weight of a heavy bundle. José stubs his cigarette out with his tire-soled sandal. Dust billows, coating his gnarled feet.
I had better get back inside, before my seat is taken. As I climb aboard, I see José’s face peer over the top of the microbus. He gives me a slight smile and a quick wave of the hand.
Hmmm—we’re getting mighty full here. People are arguing with the ticket seller about which seats are already sold. The few ones left are given to women. The only passengers that are standing are men. I guess chivalry is still alive and well here.
So, how many people can fit into a Peruvian combi?
The motor starts up. I pull my watch out of my pocket. It is now nearly one p.m. And still the arguments. Jam the passengers in, rake the money in.
Just as we are pulling out, a mob comes running, waving for the microbus to wait. Up the side ladder they climb. Thick, tough toes, cracked heels flash by my window. Now we have six—no seven, eight, nine, ten—here comes number eleven atop.
We rock down the road out of this town deep in the highlands. Eucalyptus forests scent the early afternoon. Adobe homes of rich beige, gold, lava-red melt into the earth. They are plastered with mud mixed with straw that glistens in the sunlight.
In the warmth of that star through my window, I nod to sleep.
About 1:30 p.m. / who knows where
And I am awakened by the sudden stop of our combi. We are in front of a half-dozen or so houses. In their yards chickens peck around drying roof tiles. Round adobe kilns hunch like beehives. A donkey brays.
Every one is ordered off. A few, though, stay on board, like that young mother with her infant wrapped in a soft-yellow crocheted blanket.
The driver and his assistant crawl beneath. The call for this wrench and that socket echoes up through the labyrinth of the chassis. Stones crunch beneath the weight of the transmission as it hits the ground.
After fifteen minutes I reboard to escape the blazing sun.
Out the streak-glared windows, I see other transports sway down the road. A large truck stops. Many of our passengers make a dash for it and leave in a cloud of dust.
From outside I hear others talking with the driver. Leaning against the side of the microbus, wiping his hands with a tattered rag, he says, “Oh, it’ll be about a half-hour.”
Some one responds, “One and a half hours?”
“No, no,” the driver assures him. “No more than an hour.”
Oh, well, we’ll see how this goes. The first rule of traveling, whether on a journey or through life, is patience, patience. You get there when you get there.
The young mother comes up and watches me write. Quiet María says she is sixteen years old. She sits on the seat across the aisle and pulls up her shirt. A bright blue cardigan hangs off her shoulders. María’s eighteen-month-old daughter takes the offered breast. The child’s frowning face is plastered with wild hair. She coughs often and loosely. A high-crowned hat shadows her mother’s already furrowed brow.
A fire slowly chars a distant mountainside. Its smoke reaches for the low clouds drifting by. A gust of wind whips up dry eucalyptus leaves, silvering the sky. A yellow plastic bag sails away.
Now those men underneath are draining the casing. One soda bottle is already filled with dull oil. Another bottle, still filled with soft drink, is passed around until it is empty. It gets handed beneath. The grey-filmed lubricant swirls into the container.
The driver calls out, “I need a 22 wrench.”
His assistant digs around the tools left below, then madly runs inside the combi and rummages in the toolbox. “Damn,” José mutters softly. He leans out the window. “I can’t find any 22 wrench.
A while ago the ticket man swore to everyone all would be set to leave at 3 p.m.—and he took off back to Cajabamba to buy a part.
Down at one house sunk into the earth, people drink chicha. They sit on muddied-in benches under the overhang or on the embankment in front. A woman brings out a pitcher. When it is empty, she takes it back inside to refill. The fermented corn smell hangs in the air.
A man walks up to the front door and calls in, “Give me some of that chicha, María.”
(Every woman seems to be named María.)
Another truck comes along. Most of our passengers run for it. Some are demanding their money back. The driver passes his greasy fingers through his black hair. “Please wait. Patience, have patience.”
We are now only perhaps twenty-five.
A discussion ensues between that man and two others.
One señor smiles, “Didn’t you have any idea it was in bad repair?”
The second ones barks a laugh, “Why, why are you running a vehicle in such bad shape?”
Our driver smiles. The sun catches on his gold caps. “Well, my father thought something might be wrong. But surely it could make it.”
The first laughs, “Thought something was wrong, but still jammed so many people on and left Cajabamba?” He shakes his head.
The chauffeur shrugs with a broad grin. “Well, he didn’t know. It’s just one of those things of God.” He laughs.
The two passengers turn away, laughing and mumbling, “Just one of those things of God.”
The only people seemingly unabashed by all of this are the young couple. In the yard of the last house of the settlement, just out of sight, they embrace and kiss. The quilt wrinkles beneath their passion. Their radio is turned down low.
On one trip outside with more chicha, I step up to María. I ask in a low voice where there might be a latrina. She leads me around the side of her golden-adobe home and points to a wooden shed out beyond. As I climb back up the slope, I see a man and woman lay trapezoid-shaped roof tiles to dry behind the next house.
I walk back up to the combi. A soft breeze now and again cools the strong sun of these high mountains. Up on one hillside, families picnic in whatever shade they can find—at the side of a house, under thin trees, or near flowering and fruiting nopales. Twin braids sway with their movements as they pass food and drink from covered baskets. Little girls, their faces covered with juice, clutch chunks of orange-colored papaya.
I’ve got to remember to bring along more food, even if it’s going to be a short trip. You never know what will happen. Hadn’t I learned that rule of traveling before?
Before all of this happened with the combi breaking down, I’d already eaten the last of my cheese. I have no bread. The raisins are gone, too.
Other passengers have come inside this microbus. Some stretch out across seats to nap. The young María is still here, holding her coughing baby. She wipes sweat from the small, feverish forehead. Her daughter momentarily awakens, her small wool-stockinged legs kicking mama’s teal-green skirt. The driver tells José to go inside and put some music on. Soon a huayno whines, winds through our boredom.
Another truck comes along. A few more stranded travelers climb up the high stockade sides. I ask the man next to me how much passage would be.
“Oh, five soles, or perhaps four.”
I shake my head, “I can’t afford to pay twice for passage. I don’t have the money.”
“Yes,” he responds, “those without have to wait and have patience.”
just about 3 p.m., if not just past
One man sits on a roadside-ditch embankment. One work-thickened hand embraces the primitive woman painted on a gourd. He dips a short rod into it. The worn cuffs of his turquoise sweater brush his knuckles. He puts the alkali into his mouth. The foam of chewed coca leaves green his lips. His eyes are as bright as that sun, hidden now by clouds.
In the dense shade of one house, our driver sits down, joining a few of the passengers there. One woman’s many-layered skirts fan out upon the ground. She pulls up her knee socks. Two men walk up to them.
“Look,” the driver responds to their demands, “he’s gone to Cajabamba for the part. He’ll return.”
“Oh, yeh,” one señor says. “He’s in Cajabamba getting his rocks off.” He grabs his crotch.
The other man begins to tell a tale. “Once I was on a similar bus. Patience, patience, we were told. It took eight days.” He shakes his head with a broad grin.
The discussion becomes heated amongst forced smiles and laughs. Our driver holds up an Inca Cola bottle half-full of chicha. “Here, drink, drink.”
“No,” the first man says firmly, still grinning. “Look, my fare, my fare.”
The protester takes a swig. A man lounging next to the driver reaches for his alkali gourd. He glances over to me as I walk up to this group, pulling out my watch.
“It’s about two minutes to three.” I lightly smile. Ah, the adventures of traveling.
“Patience, patience, woman,” the driver tells me.
“And how much patience am I supposed to have?” Still grinning, I put my watch back into its pocket. “The ticket seller said we were to leave at 11:30 a.m., and we didn’t leave until almost one.” I shake my head with a quiet laugh. We get there when we get there.
The driver peers towards the distant road. Everyone, too, looks that way. “Oh, I thought I saw something coming,” he says, relaxing against the wall. More tight laughs and smiles, more mumbles, “Yeh, sure.”
Part of the chicha gang approaches us. “We’re going up over the hill to a store on the other side for more chicha. Be sure to stop and pick us up.”
The driver tightens his jaw. “What, we’re supposed to be responsible for you? How do we know you were on the bus?”
One of the men bends over him, looking him in the eye with a hard smile. “Take a good look at us, and remember to blow the horn when you pass.”
The threesome walks up over the crest and beyond. The lone woman’s full blue skirts and magenta cardigan bounce with each step through the dry grasses.
Across the road, near where the couple still lies, two hairy black pigs have awakened from their nap. Their young snouts rout dry leaves.
About 3:30 p.m.
The ticket seller has finally arrived in a transport van. A light sprinkle is beginning to fall as repair resumes on the transmission. The tools lightly rattle as they are passed from one hand to another, or laid back on the ground. Occasionally a groan of exertion echoes up through the chassis.
That turquoise-sweatered man again is dipping into his lady gourd. His sharp-chiseled jaw grinds the coca leaves. His high-crowned hat is pulled up, revealing those wild eyes. Burning eyes.
The fire continues consuming that mountainside over yonder.
The order is given. We board, much fewer now in number. The couple emerges from the shadows of that house, brushing brittle grass from their clothes and quilt. The coca-chewer wanders down that way to urinate on a prickly pear cactus. We all hurriedly take out places. The seat next to me is now empty. My former mate had left on another combi. As we pass the last house of this settlement, a chickens scatter at the dust and pebbles our tires throw up. A burro brays.
We climb the hill, the motor groaning and gears grinding, and stop at the store atop. The chicha trio is there, standing out front with a woman and drinking. A serving is poured for the driver and passed through his window. He downs it.
Now the orange-colored plastic pitcher is making its rounds through this interior, from one passenger’s mouth to the next. I think I’ll pass on this part of the adventure. It’s amazing that it’s lasted this long. Whoops, I spoke too soon. There it goes back out to be refilled.
A man calls out to the vendoress, “Bring me a blonde, bring me a blonde.”
The woman shakes her head. Her single thick black braid swings from side to side.
“What, no blondes,” he says leaning out his window. One hand pounds the side of the microbus, punctuating his desire. “I’m so tired of brunettes!” He laughs. The reemerging sunlight catches on his gold-trimmed teeth. His wife swats lightly at his elbow and turns away.
We continue on to Huamachuco, the sun setting lower towards the cragged horizon. Passengers get off and come on. Young José climbs atop, throwing down heavy bundles.
Each time, that man is off, searching for more chicha, in search of an elusive blonde. The driver, his assistant, we all call after him to return. His wife chases him from store to bar.
And so it has been with that guy until we finally reached here, San Marcos, just before sunset. After those last packages for this destination are down-loaded by José, we’ll be able to leave this roadside restaurant where we’ve made a late-dinner rest stop. Chilled dusk has almost completely fallen. I’ll have to make this quick, as I’m writing by the light of the street lamp.
He has sunk into a deep-snoring sleep. His wife looks quite a bit relieved. Hopefully he won’t wake up at each and every stop and hold us up any further. I’m sure I won’t be the only one who will be pleased. Yep, a señora just smiled as she walked by them.
San Marcos—about half-ways to Huamachuco. I suppose it won’t be until almost seven by the time we get there. So much for well-laid plans. I just hope I can find a place to stay tonight and that it won’t cost too much. There’ll be quite a few of us looking for a room.
Dang, my light is just about gone.
Oh, well, patience, patience. We get there when we get there.
Lowestoft Chronicle (issue 6, June 2011)
Far Flung and Foreign (Lowestoft Chronicle Press, 2012)