Friday, December 3, 2010

The Longest Day: Part 2

This cab driver was by far the worst that I'd ridden with yet; his driving habits were not quaint, laughable, or remotely enjoyable even in a thrill-ride sort of way; I truly feared for my life on numerous occasions. The exaggerated back and forth movement of his steering wheel recalled to mind a hokey driving scene out of a 1930s-era film: it seemed to lack all regard for the actual layout of the road ahead. We arrived at Carrasco in 45 minutes, a full fifteen minutes less than it had taken us to travel the same distance in the pickup that morning. The town was a twenty meter stretch of road with a handful of saggy residential buildings, a small restaurant, and an even smaller convenience store. I was just shy of the halfway point home to San Ignacio.

I paid the cab driver 7 Bs ($1) for the ride and he asked me how much I would pay him to drive me the rest of the way home. I offered 20 Bs and he scoffed: I was thinking more like 40... But anyhow I'm not going up there tonight; I'd go up tomorrow morning. I almost laughed out loud at his proposition as I reviewed it in my head:
         1) He'd already told me he had no idea where San Ignacio was,
         2) He didn't plan to leave until tomorrow, and
         3) He had the nerve to ask for almost six times what I just paid for the first half of the ride...?

I was not in the mood to be taken advantage of because of my American passport; I smiled hollowly and declined his offer, saying I'd rather walk. As he drove away I checked my watch: it was 4:18. I had exactly one hour and thirty minutes before the sun hit the mountains...two hours before it was completely dark out. There were no taxis in sight (no people in sight either) and I hadn't the foggiest notion of what the chances were that another one would come through "town" again that evening. I weighed my options and decided to take my pride to task: I set out on foot before any more daylight had been wasted.

While my feet kept a comfortable urban-American clip, I busied my mind wondering how to convert minutes of downhill driving into minutes of uphill walking. I somehow convinced myself that with all of the bumps and mini lakes in the road I would probably be able to walk about half as fast as the truck had been driving, meaning that I would arrive back in San Ignacio a little after dark. Right.

I met a host of characters as I moved up the mountain, beginning with a pair of bewildered Bolivians walking in the opposite direction. As they gawked I pretended not to notice: Buen dia! I said with a smile, not lingering to hear their response. Soon into my trek I began to have what would become regular run-ins with the canine locals. Most encounters started with a few sparse warning barks that served as my cue to pick up as many rocks as my fingers could carry. I walked with all the confidence I could muster as the barking, growling and posturing inevitably grew more intense the closer I got to the homestead in peril (clearly they sensed my villainous intentions to....walk on by). Despite all their froth and furl, a handful of well-aimed pebbles and a larger rock or two were usually (...usually...) enough to keep them from getting too close.

The road wound around a mountain curve and I found myself squinting into the piercing amber sun of late afternoon. Seeking respite from the glare, my gaze drifted downward just in time to catch the unmistakably pulse-quickening arc of a serpentine slither mere inches from my toes. I stopped dead and watched the golden creature casually make it's way across the road, carving deep, graceful curves through the dust. Though it was still young, the patterned shades of brown that stretched down its back were all I needed to identify it as the deadly Fer de lance—el vivero as the locals called it—an aggressive species of pitviper that causes more annual human fatalities than any other American reptile. In the research I'd done before my trip to Bolivia I'd learned that this hateful creature has a fiery temper and is fond of hanging from trees in coffee and chocolate forests. Quite frankly I can think of few things I'd like to see less than a deadly snake with a bone to pick weaving its way towards my coffee-picking fingers. Luckily this guy was not losing any time in making his way across the road and away from me. I watched as it slinked away without a trace into the dingy undergrowth on the far side of the road; my body shuttered. I hate snakes. I hate snakes.

The road meandered lazily on, following the ebbs and flows of mountain topography and always heading up. The bag of oranges seemed to be growing in my backpack and I realized that I hadn't eaten since my mid-morning api con buñuelos. As I stopped to set my bag down on the ground I was approached by a timid, apologetic creature with droopy black ears and a tail that did not wag; folds of skin—once plumped with hearty muscle and healthy fat stores—hung loosely from her skeleton, swaying back and forth as she gingerly plodded towards me. Her frail body shook in a quiet, helpless way and I heard the softest of whimpers as she labored to lift her head from its low hang to look at me. My heartbreak was very nearly audible as her dark, desperate eyes pleaded with me for help; I had nothing to give her and knew that even if I did, it would only delay the inevitable and prolong her suffering. She sat down and watched me, looking utterly defeated as I reluctantly picked up my bag and kept walking...

I picked up the pace again—my mouth now stinging from eating too many oranges—and ran into a jovial puppy around the next bend in the road waiting to cheer me up. He jumped and barked in a friendly manner and followed me for a ways up the road until we came across the forlorn wails of a highly distressed feline. The puppy bounded back towards home and I followed the pitiful sounds into the underbrush until I spotted a giant tabby sitting just above a large tin drainage pipe. She did not appear to be in any immediate danger. ...Que pasó, gato...? I asked out loud, feeling like I'd been dropped into a strange episode of Lassie. What's that, cat? You say Timmy's in the drainage pipe...? As I got closer she jumped down into the pipe—still wailing—as if she wanted me to follow. I started to oblige, with visions of trapped children or drowning kittens flying through my brain; then I remembered el vivero and decided in the blink of an eye that the cat (...and the children, and the kittens...) could work out their own problems. I hate snakes. Hate them.

My adventure maintained a predictable pace over the course of the next hour and a half as I put several miles of dirt road behind me. I had found the main road to be generally easy to follow, and by some miracle of luck I had had the fortune of meeting locals at every major fork except one. I met their gaping mouths and bewildered eyes head on: Buen dia...¿San Ignacio está por aquí? I'd say, pointing in the direction that looked correct while making certain not to give them time to ask who I was or why I was alone. With a quick thanks and a nod of my head I was gone, leaving behind what I'm certain evolved into speculative whispers and rounds of gossip....“you'll never believe what I saw today...

Soon, the dulled browns of palm leaf roofs, the thousand greens of the surrounding foliage, and even the dingy dust underfoot were all set aflame by the crimson glow of the jungle sunset; Though the red hues cast new life upon a tired setting, the only thought on my mind was the fact that my daylight was about to expire.

And expire it did: my guiding star, having turned from yellow to amber to crimson as it fell to the horizon, was replaced by a brilliant full moon. Soft, gauzy white light fell weightlessly on the jungle around me, which seemed to be letting out a collective sigh of relief—the cool humid haze of the moon soothed the sun-weary inhabitants. The dim beam of my headlamp began to flicker; batteries have an infallible way of picking the most inopportune time to kick the bucket. I clicked the light off to conserve what was left and let the moon light my path.

Jungle dogs become more aggressive after dark. Perhaps the stench of fear trailed behind me in a damning pheromonic tell; perhaps their nocturnal ancestry gave them more confidence under the cover of night; perhaps it was nothing more than the frenzied pull of the full moon. Whatever it was, it was not a joke. I clicked my headlamp back on to keep tabs on my canine companions. Two pairs of blue-green eyes shone back at me from the side of the road, where low growls warned of an impending attack. I walked backwards and shot stones into the dark, dipping to the ground often to pat my hands through the dust in search of more artillery. I didn't dare divert my gaze from the glowing eyes for a second—their slow, calculated pursuit was different from the feigned aggression of earlier run-ins: these dogs were ready to take every inch of room I gave them. The rocks I hastily and nervously threw into the dark were quickly assessed to be of little threat, and the creatures' perpetual motion through the velvety void of black that surrounded the beam from my headlamp made it impossible to aim with better precision. They advanced. I began yelling to scare them away. Short, echoing yelps of VENGA, VA! and VETE! broke through the silence of the surrounding jungle and disrupted the quiet peace of the moonglow. The dogs advanced. I kicked the air in front of me, I yelled, I threw every rock I could find, all while scanning the side of the road for a stick—something, anything to swing like mad. In the nick of time my headlamp fell upon a two foot long stick with a jagged end. Dogs nipping at my heels I swiftly dipped to snatch it up and in one foul swoop jabbed into fleshy jowls and made solid contact with muscular shoulders and front legs; the dogs backed off. VETE!! I yelled once more into the darkness, but the glowing eyes and glowering voices did not disappear. I continued walking backwards, keeping tabs on my aggressors for a full 15 minutes before they were finally inked out by the black of the surrounding night.

Or so I thought.

Shortly after I lost sight of the dogs I heard movement through the tall grass and bushes that lined the road to my right. I clicked on my headlamp yet again and aimed it in the direction of the noise, stick held at the ready and a fist full of stones waiting to fly. Nothing happened; I let out a full volume scream to scare away whatever it was, and kept moving. Once again the brush of life on leaves reached my ears, this time accompanied by a deep, slow curdled growl. I let out another nonsensical yell at the top of my lungs, hoping by sheer volume I would be able to keep my stalker at bay; at first I assumed it was the same pair of dogs, but my imagination quickly began to wander as I recalled stories the farmers had told me of pumas and jaguars in this region. I picked up more rocks. Big ones. Each time I heard a growl I let out a yell or two and swung the stick around a few times as I peered blindly toward the source. It must have been an utterly ridiculous scene to watch from above: solitary white girl intermittently screams and swings a stick at nothing in the middle of a dark Bolivian jungle. After what felt like an eternity of yelling and swinging and plodding onward with my eyes scanning the shadowy bushes, the night finally became quiet again; I breathed a sigh of relief but once again felt my pulse quicken—as I rounded sharp turn I realized I was traversing the same ridge on which my travel companions and I had awaited transportation that morning. I was only thirty minutes away...

I followed my palm leaf X's back to town by moonlight and arrived exhausted at the soccer field a little after 8:00. My trip into town that should have taken five or six hours had transformed into a fourteen-hour epic journey, complete with plot twists, a cast of good guys and bad guys, full-on action scenes, breathtaking scenery, and a fair amount of danger. The village was waiting for me: I walked into a circle of men who all looked slightly shocked, slightly irritated, and more than a little baffled. Ingeniera....¿qué pasó, Ingeniera? ¿Por qué has tardado tanto, Ingeniera? I recounted my story for them from the beginning; after a long, lonely day of self-reliance and utterly failed expectations, it felt good to watch the bewildered expressions of my caretakers break into knowing smiles as I told them of the more memorable moments of my day. I was even able to elicit an eruption of hearty laughter when I recalled how no one in town knew where San Ignacio was. They apologized for the dogs; they patted me on the back and told me my giant legs move much faster than theirs do (only four hours to walk from Carrasco??!), they told me how glad they were that they didn't have to call Jorge to tell him they'd lost the Ingeniera, and though they didn't say it, I'm pretty sure they looked at me in a different light from that night on.

Maybe this American isn't so spoiled after all...