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Getting there is half the fun

We left the jungle before sunrise, standing up in the back of a quarter-ton pickup with seven people and their luggage, plus a bed frame, six bags of aguaje fruit, a stack of unfinished lumber, and a live chicken in a plastic bag tied to the side of the truck that clucked mournfully with every bump. The landscape emerged slowly as the sky lightened. La selva, flat and expansive, rippled and became small hills which rose toward the cloudy peaks of la sierra. People waved us down as they ran out from houses along the road, tossing their luggage up then climbing over the side to squeeze in between the rest of us. Eventually there was no more room, and the driver had to get out and tie the tailgate open with bits of rope to allow a few more passengers a place to stand. I kept my face to the wind and let the rushing smear of still-dark countryside hypnotize me. Being on the road is romantic. Wheels rolling under me, tracing my path across the map remind me to savor the truth of where I am and what I am doing. Transit is traveling in its purest form. It is immersion: physically subsumed by the culture of movement.

The driver of the pickup coasted downhill into the bus station in Tarapoto, riding in neutral with the engine off. Gas is expensive. Jesus and I booked front row seats on the upper floor of a large, touring bus. The huge panoramic windows created a greenhouse heating effect in the afternoon sun and the entire second story swayed unsettlingly around every curve and I pulled my bandana over my eyes and tried to sleep. It was an eight hour trip from Tarapoto to Chachapoyas. I woke well after dark, suspended over the road in a glass-enclosed crow’s nest that bobbed on an invisible sea. It wasn’t until the bus headlights flickered back on that I realized why the night had seemed so black. The headlights wavered, off, then on, then off again, at the least reassuring moments. A knot of people crowded the side of the road. Beams from a few weak flashlights shone on the white t-shirt and jean shorts of the dead man laid out a few feet away from his crunched motorbike. People behind and around me rubbernecked shamelessly. Onward we groaned, squeezing past other buses and trucks and around hairpin curves. “Chachapoyas 75km,” said a dented road sign.

Three AM was the magic hour for transport in Chachapoyas. Massive construction projects routinely closed the roads between Chachas and all points north, south, east, or west. Leaving the city meant catching a taxi or combi at three in order to clear the construction zone before it closed at six. Getting back required waiting on the other side until the road reopened at six PM. The city was our base for several days, and Jesus and I became regular customers at the street corner where the combis left. We’d show up at two-thirty AM, buy over-sweetened black coffee in tin cups from the older woman who dozed behind her gas burner and glared at me when I woke her up, and start asking around. Everyone told us something different. “That bus already left.” Or, “Si, si, it will be here, just wait.” “It’s that truck, that one’s going to Coechon,” “No, that one’s going to Luya.” “No, there are no cars to Leymebamba, you have to take this truck to Tingo first then wait there and maybe another bus will pass. What day is today? Tuesday? Yes, I think today there will be a bus in Tingo.” No one wants to say, “I don’t know.” We learned to ask everybody, twice.

One day, Jesus and I visited Gojta Falls, to the north of Chachapoyas, the third highest waterfall in the world. 771m (2,500ft) high, the force of the water as it hits the pool at the bottom creates a hurricane-force wind and drives a wall of mist fifty feet in every direction. Later that afternoon, we sat in the backseat of a taxi in a long line of cars, combis, trucks, and buses, waiting for the road to open. ¡El Perú Avanza! (Perú is advancing!),” read the back of the bright orange uniform of the construction worker holding traffic back. The woman in the front told us they were widening the road to allow the two-story tourist buses to cut through the mountains. “Breaking news,” the radio shouted suddenly. A bus had gone off the road in Luya, the next town over. Cinco muertos.” Five people dead. We listened to the announcer talk on a cell phone to a hysterical woman who’d crawled out of the wreck. “No one is coming to help us, we are dying,” she said. Dios mio, oh, Dios mio,” the woman in the front seat crossed herself. A few minutes later, the worker standing in front of us lowered his stop sign and moved the sawhorse barricade to open the pass. We zoomed into the opening, jockeying for position with the other vehicles, speeding around the newly widened gravel curves like racers in a cross-country speed match. The driver steered with his left hand and with his right fumbled in a CD case, selected a disc, and popped it in the stereo, cutting off the woman’s sobs on the radio. Led Zeppelin’s “All of My Love” rolled from the speakers and the driver honked and accelerated to cut off the taxi squeezing in on his right.

On our last morning in Chachapoyas, the cranky coffee vendor glared and sold me cold, coffee-flavored sugar water. I poured it into the gutter, then sat on the curb and leaned sleepily on Jesus’s shoulder. Two abuelitas wrapped in blankets sat next to us, waiting for a car going to Celendín, same as we were. This was market day in Celendín, they told us. We were lucky, because normally there are no cars to this town. But they didn’t know when a car might be coming. “Ask that driver. Maybe you can ride with him.” They pointed to a man who was weaving up the street toward an already overloaded truck. Six young boys and a couple of tired-looking men saw him coming and swung themselves up on top of the merchandise, burrowing into the blue tarp cover. The driver dropped his keys twice as he struggled into the cab. “He’s drunk,” Jesus whispered to me. A different truck, a flat bed with wooden-slat sides pulled in next, and I negotiated passage for the two of us. We crawled in the back, over sacks of grains and corn and mesh bags filled with other wares for the market. The truck stopped a few times on the way out of Chachapoyas, then began picking up speed. I slid into a hollow between the sacks and tried to sleep. It was cold in the back of the truck; wind slipped through the boards and sliced through my clothes. Another passenger settled onto the bags next to me and offered to share his blanket. The three of us, Jesus, the stranger, and I huddled together under the blanket, grateful for the body heat. The men slept. I watched the stars play overhead like a film strip, interspersed with overhanging eucalyptus branches, and I breathed the air of the moment: cold, tinged slightly with diesel and old wood, dust, and romance.

7 – 19 August

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