I had just received a job teaching English in a remote jungle town in Peru, and to reach the almost-isolated town I was forced to take a small transport van through the Peruvian mountains. The following is an excerpt from the trip.
“The route from Cusco to Quillabamba rivaled a vomit-inducing theme-park ride, minus the safety regulations. What first became very evident was that our driver thought himself the Mario Andretti of the Peruvian taxi industry. A point he was so keenly willing to demonstrate in areas where the rational human-being would think “I should probably be extra careful here.” And this route had them in abundance.
The route requires the driver to ascend a large mountain in a process that is agonizingly inefficient. The road stretches horizontally across the mountain until it reaches the other side, then loops around sending the driver back in the opposite direction, only slightly higher. If you were to step back and look from afar, the route would look to be a series of continuous S’s stacked atop each other, while slowly winding up the mountain. Five days a week, the route is tedious and painstakingly boring. Fortuitously, I was making the trip on a weekend and had the good fortune of driving with our friend the drag racer. Tedious and boring gave way to terrifying and downright dangerous.
Our driver’s erratic style suggested that he was trying to elude some threatening vehicle forever encroaching from behind. We accelerated out of corners almost as fast as we accelerated into them. A process that ensured I was quite familiar with my neighboring passenger, as well as the hard glass window on the other side. The ride was torturous. The only sound being omitted was a constant crying from a baby two seats ahead of me, who only sometimes stopped for a few seconds to throw up all over himself, but for the most part, it was a constant. The rest of us remained in that quiet, sullen state that humans tend to adopt during periods of prolonged suffering. No one snacked, no one talked, we just unanimously entertained the idea that death might, in fact, be looming.
On one of my all-too-frequent trips to the right side of the car I happened to catch a glance out of the window and what I saw was quite unnerving. Rather, it was what I failed to see, that rose concern. There was an absence of, not only guardrails but any visual confirmation that we were in fact on a road. To peak ones head over was to look out into the void. This was a place where objects tumble and fall for periods of time that are inconceivable to anyone who isn´t educated in physics and classical mechanics. Once, while turning a corner that our driver friend hadn’t appeared to have taken notice of until the last microsecond, I witnessed a group of small rocks fly out into the abyss. I believe they are still falling to this day.
Every so often I would try to steal a glance at the ancient lady beside me to see how she was handling her affairs. She was by far the oldest and thus the most likely to die first in the car, should we arrive alive or not. I assumed she had some experience in the matter of confronting one´s own death so I tried my luck at giving her a sympathetic glance. I was hoping to start a conversation but every time I turned towards her I saw the same ambiguous look. This was the look of someone who was either plotting their own inglorious suicide or wondering what they were going to eat that night for dinner, I just couldn’t decipher her. So since I was confronted with an unnerving drop of considerable height to my right and an emotionally detached crone of impressive antiquity, to my left, I settled on keeping my eyes locked forward for the remainder of the trip.
At one point in the ride, our driver screeched to a sudden halt, sending all of us, nose first, into the seats in front of us. Fortunately, most of us were already acquainted with this process and had our arms cocked and ready to cushion the impact. Some of the more careless passengers, who made the timely mistake of tending to a puking baby, or blinking at the wrong second, were sent skull-first into what appeared to be a car seat cushion induced concussion. But that wasn’t important. What was important was that, to the disbelief of all of us, the driver had stopped the car, giving proof that if eleven people all pray simultaneously for something, even God can´t turn a blind eye.
To the implicit behest of the entire group, someone opened the van door. The girl, who was situated in front of me for the ride, fell out and instantly collapsed. She lay on the ground, defeated, for a moment then gradually began the ordeal of picking herself up. At some point during the process, she decided that the task wasn’t possible, or otherwise wasn’t worth it. She remained in a hunched position, on all fours, for a few seconds then dry heaved twice. Although we were all privately attending to our own wellbeing, this caught the attention of the entire van. We had adopted the mentality and demeanor of a platoon and here was a soldier on the cusp of a breakdown.
The young fellow who she had been traveling with, after attending to his own convalescence, reluctantly approached his, what appeared to be girlfriend and helped her up. It must be noted that at the start of the ride I had keenly observed at how passionate and vigorous this couple had appeared. Flirting, tickling, and kissing had given way to suffering, moaning, and if the girls face held any indication of what was to come, vomiting. Gradually, and cautiously the girl was helped to her feet, where she stood, almost tolerably, for a few seconds, then, quite suddenly, her face adopted a look of severe discomfort, even more so than before. A sense of trepidation held in the air as we awaited what was to come. If someone had dialed 9-1, in his phone for safe measure, I would’ve commended him on his sound judgment. But no one did that, we just waited. Suddenly, her body sprang to life in a convulsive, spastic manner. Whatever lay in her stomach, it was beginning its ascent to daylight. Then, out came a burp. A burp, equally impressive in volume and duration. A burp, so undoubtedly similar to vomit that the two could pass for cousins. It appeared that the body had summoned vomit to make a timely appearance but a biological misunderstanding sent burp to answer the call. We were all quite grateful, but no one more so than the girl herself. The driver was insouciant about the matter.
It appeared the intention of our stop was to attend to a frail, yet animated old lady selling oranges and baked goods. What confounded me was that we were in the middle of the mountains, nowhere near any sort of established community, and here was a lady selling insipid treats from a basket. Who on earth was her market? I, myself, had no appetite whatsoever, and I knew any food ingested would, in minutes, be making its way back up but I figured a small purchase might defer our return to transit, if only for a few extra seconds. So I indulged and bought myself a mysterious looking cube with the texture and colour of dog shit. But if it kept me off the road for a few extra seconds, I was all for it. Gradually this notion became evident to the group, as just before departing, someone new would vocalize an insatiable desire for a squash based treat. I was starting to see why this lady was in business.
After everyone had stocked up on treats they had no intention of eating, and a few dozen pleas to hold off on leaving were ignored, we promptly and impetuously departed, but not before the old lady inconspicuously handed our driver a brown cube, which he devoured with a lingering appreciation. The driver then whispered something to the lady in Spanish. ¨Te veré en unas horas Mama¨, which translates to ¨I will see you in a few hours Mom.¨