Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Longest Day: Part 1

July 24, 2010
Saturday. I've officially been here for five days; only five days...? It seems unbelievable that so much has happened in less than a week. Above all, I've learned that the most important skills to have out here in the jungle are resourcefulness, flexibility, patience, and trust in your own judgment. Today I took each of these skills for a fairly harrowing test-drive...

By now I barely notice the loud bangs and rooster cackles all night long. The soft beep of my watch alarm woke me from a sound sleep nearly three hours before the first viridian-hued shards of daylight would grace my eyes. Caranavi. was the first thought to cross my mind; today I would once again head down the mountain to visit the lackluster town that had become my hub of communication to the outside world. I threw on my headlamp and anxiously collected, organized and deposited my travel necessities into the small green daypack that has become as much a part of my daily attire as my shoes or pants—I never, ever let it out of my sight. As I ate breakfast I ruminated on the differences between this trip and the one I had taken with Teodoro during my stay in Chijchipani; Teodoro had all but laid out a red carpet for me that day as he arranged cabs, ushered me away from the advances of unsavory characters, and led me into a series of pertinent storefronts and bustling markets in his calm, methodical way. Today I would be by myself; I had been given no instructions on how to leave or return, aside from where to find a cab into town this morning (“at the soccer field, 6 AM” was the answer I received to my inquiry more, no less). Despite the uncertainties, I was eager to prove to myself that I could manage the trip on my own. With my belongings on my back, uneasiness in my gut, and anticipation in my heart, I clicked shut the padlock on the warehouse door at a quarter of six and strode my long American legs over to the soccer field. I waited. Two small lights blinked and bobbed through the darkness and muffled whispers carried across the clearing as a small group of travelers labored by. They were weighed down by large 50lb sacks of oranges and coffee: these travelers were definitely headed into town, and they were clearly not staying to await transport at the soccer field. I contemplated joining their ranks but the thought of following complete strangers down a road I did not know in total darkness made me uneasy; I decided to stick it out where I was a little longer. A prescient intuition told me to return to my warehouse home and forget the trip altogether, but I ignored my inner warnings; after thirty minutes of waiting and a lot of deliberating I decided to follow the lead of the locals...I lit up my headlamp and hit the road.

This was the first time I had been back on the road that we had driven in on, and I was surprised by how muddy it still was from the fabled storm the week before. I slipped and slid across tire-carved ridges and crevices, hopped, climbed, and tip-toed across the jagged wall of mud that had dried along the road's edge, and left big X's on the ground in palm leaves at every intersection to help direct me home should I need to turn around. The damp cold of the winter jungle slowly fell away as I hiked down the mountain, and thirty minutes later I caught up with the small group that had passed me earlier. They had set up camp on the side of the road: the two women sat on the ground atop large leaves that looked like elephant ears, and the sacks of coffee and oranges had been stacked to one side. The younger of the two women gingerly coddled and rocked a screaming wad of pink blankets while a waterfall of thought streamed from her mouth aimed at no one in particular. The young man that accompanied them had climbed the opposite bank to find his own elephant ear, which he was bending and twisting and pulling off of a sturdy weed that was reluctant to let it go. They assured me that this was the best spot to await transportation, so I grabbed my own leaf and joined them. We waited. And waited. As daylight finally crept in the older woman announced with frustration that she was going home; no transportation is coming and what are we going to do...wait all day for nothing..? she explained with tired eyes. A little after 8:00 the three of us that remained simultaneously turned to look at one another. Is that...? our eyes asked each other without saying anything. I think it might be...! We jumped to our feet just in time to flag down a beat up, dusty blue pickup truck coming around the bend. Worn steel rails ran lengthwise above each side of the truck bed and a load of freshly milled lumber stuck out of the back. A quick negotiation on price was made and we rushed to toss bags of coffee and oranges onto the bed before hopping on ourselves. I settled onto a large spare tire at the front corner of the truck bed just behind the driver, and a smile spread across my face as we tore down the mountain (as fast as possible). We bounced and bumped over the storm-ravaged roads, the wind whipped my hair across my face, and I turned forward to take in every giant pink blossom, every iridescent blue butterfly, and every stunning yellow bird that faded into a blurred oblivion as we sped by. Today is going to be a great day, I thought to myself with a degree of undeserved certainty that almost dared the world to steal my sunshine. Whooooosh. I ducked just in time to avoid an ominous, thorny mandarin tree branch that hung into the road. Before long, our group of three had become five, our group of five had become eight, and our group of eight had become twelve; my white-knuckled grip on the steel railing had periodically loosed as we stopped to pick up more passengers and more sacks of fruits, vegetables, and of course, coffee.

We finally exited onto the familiar mountain road that I had been up and down several times during my stay in Chijchipani. My eyes lit up in awe at the incredible and unimpeded view of cascading blue-green mountains and stream-carved ravines that traced the horizon from east to west as far as I could see. The cold wind felt refreshing on my face, the intense sun warmed my hands, and I poked my head through the truck's railings to get a birds-eye view of the valley floor hundreds of feet below us: conserva la izquierda road rules were in effect and our beat-up blue pickup traced lines through the dust mere inches from the precipice. This. Is the way to travel, I thought to myself just before I noticed the huge cloud of dust being kicked up by a coming vehicle. I closed my eyes against the grit and turned to sit backwards for the remainder of the ride. I arrived in Caranavi around 10:30 feeling happy and invigorated (despite the velvety coating of dust that had settled on all exposed surfaces); I paid the driver 10 Bs ($1.30) and arranged to meet the truck at a specific location in town between 1 and 2 pm to catch a ride back to San Ignacio.

My first order of business was to find some api con buñuelos for brunch; I then made my way to one of the many Punto Entel storefronts and disappeared into a phone booth. I was startled to see my reflection in a scratched, plastic mirror that had been taped to the wall above the phone. Not only had I not seen any reflection of myself since my arrival in San Ignacio, but I was also completely filthy. Smudges of dirt smeared across my face, and a mist of dingy ivory-colored dust had settled onto my eyelashes, eyebrows, and hair. I brushed myself off before picking up the receiver with anticipation—though I was not burdened by the same need to speak English that had been so overwhelming during the first days of my stay in Chijchipani, I was still hoping to reconnect with a world that was daily feeling further and further away.

Alas....five hours of travel for one phone call would all be for naught: a familiar baritone rose above the static but I could barely make out any words—the hum of four thousand miles of separation was too much to overcome. Several minutes of futile and incoherent yelling drew frustrated tears and I exited into the street feeling detached, disappointed, and defeated. It was 11:30.

I made my way to the town plaza to find a place where I could sit and check my email. I flicked aside a stack of sticky plastic cups (once filled with the ever-popular jello and whipped cream dessert) as I sat down on a bench underneath a landscaped canopy. Blue, green, and yellow tiles were arranged neatly underneath my feet, but their sun-dulled hues annoyed me—why does everything have to look so tired...? My eyes were starved for the cleanliness of perfect lines, the squeak of polished floors, and the sheen of something new; I could find none of those things here...the dust simply gave no reprieve. A young girl carrying a blue bucket approached. Brightly colored straws stuck out the top of the bucket at every angle and as she neared I saw that they were stuck into plastic bags filled with juice. ¿Comprame uno? (Buy one from me?) she asked in the sweet voice her mother had taught her to use. When I declined, she sat her bucket down on the ground and climbed onto the bench a couple feet from me. She kicked her legs (which did not reach the ground) up and down several times before walking tiny fingers over to the same sticky stack of cups I had flicked away in disgust not minutes before. I watched out of the corner of my eye as she brought each cup to her face, licking away second-hand flecks of artificial strawberry goodness. Grubby little fingers scraped microscopic amounts of red glistening sugar from the inside of the cup before disappearing into her mouth. Oof. I stopped feeling sorry for myself.

I spent the next hour checking emails on a painfully slow internet connection, then quickly picked up a large bag of oranges and some crackers before heading to the agreed upon meeting place to catch my pickup truck home. It was unbelievably hot in town that day; I stood waiting on the sidewalk with trails of sweat streaming down my face and my eyes pinned down the road to my left, scanning a near constant stream of white vehicles and expecting at any moment to see the familiar dusty blue pickup. It did not appear. At 1:30 I started to get a little anxious; Teodoro had explained the taxi system in Caranavi to me on our first visit here, and thus I knew that if my ride did not come, I would need to find a completely unmarked, wholly ambiguous singular location somewhere in the city that acted as the “cab stand” to San Ignacio. I approached a nearby cluster of taxi drivers and asked them if they knew where this spot was. They looked blankly at me and said, San Ignacio? Dónde está San Ignacio...? Well. That was a monkey wrench I hadn't anticipated...

I continued asking around, always keeping one eye to the road for that blue pickup. The majority of those that I asked had no clue where San Ignacio was, and I realized with slightly terrifying dismay that I had no idea where San Ignacio was either. I described it as being “waaay up the mountain , past the road that you take to get to Chijchipani” (leeeeeeejos es...I said in my newly acquired exaggerated Bolivian prose). Around 2:00 someone finally threw me a bone: San Ignacio, eh? ….Is that close to Carrasco...? Something in my brain fired: Sí, sí! I said, vaguely remembering a rusted metal sign on the oddly out-of-place gas station that we had passed about halfway through our trip into town that morning. It's about an hour beyond Carrasco, I said. Aaaaah San Ignaaaacio, he repeated before quickly saying I was in the right place. I found this to be highly improbable, considering that less than half of the cab drivers I asked had even heard of it. You're sure. I said. Si, siiiiiii, claaaro que si...aquí no más! He assured me. I returned to my post and willed the blue pickup to appear, putting every ounce of my concentration and every last grain of my gravely faltering morale into somehow making that truck materialize before my eyes. It did not. Instead, the sardonic humors of the great beyond sent me a parade.

I watched four marching bands and four groups of dancers pass, each group decked out in matching Bolivian attire, each group doing slightly different variations of the universal Bolivian “dance” step, and each group more intoxicated than the one before it. The last group had completely given up all pretense of maintaining appearances: their matching outfits were now complemented by matching cans of warm Paceña that were clutched between clumsy alcohol-impaired fingers and dangled above sluggish, alcohol-impaired feet. The clamor of the band united on a single final note, the drums rolled to a halt and everyone swaggered to the side of the road where they all enjoyed a rest and more beer. It was 2:30 and my blue pickup was a no-show. When cars began once again flying through the street I redoubled my efforts to find an alternative ride: I approached every taxi that stopped in the general vicinity; not a single one knew where San Ignacio was, but a handful said they were going to Carrasco and that I might have better luck finding a ride to San Ignacio from there. One by one I knocked on windows and contracted with drivers to reserve a seat in their cab; each time, I finished the conversation by asking the driver when he planned to leave. One by one each driver hemmed and hawed before assuring me that it would be a while: forty, fifty minutes, at least, they'd say. One by one, each of the taxis disappeared ten to fifteen minutes later and did not return. I worked hard to fight back a growing sense of helplessness by acknowledging how well I'd handled things thus far: any residual fear that I had of speaking in Spanish had completely evaporated at the hint of a crisis...I had made it into town this morning and found my way through the day by approaching strangers and knocking on car windows until I found the answers I needed. Now I just needed a bit of luck to find someone going my way—and fast: precious few hours of daylight remained, and under the cover of darkness all bets were off.

At 3:30 a cab driver that I had approached an hour earlier came running up to me from down the street. He yelled and pointed at a taxi that had just turned onto the main road in front of us and was starting to pull away. That one! He has room! He's going to Carrasco! We both ran into the street with our arms flailing; I nearly threw myself in front of the cab to get him to stop before I opened the back door and jumped in. I waved and mouthed Gracias! Muchas Gracias! to my savior through the closed window and we sped away. By “room” in the cab, the driver meant that there were only four bodies already in the back seat; apparently it's not full until there are five passengers.

The driver turned fully around without slowing the car to ask where I was going. San Ignacio, I said. He of course told me he had no idea where that was. You're going to Carrasco, right? I asked. Si, Carrasco. "Just take me there," I said with all the polite enthusiasm I could muster.... 

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