“You were the attractive queen of hearts while I was only the jack of clubs.”
The driver glances knowingly at me, then adds, “that’s what the cards told me this morning.”
“Oh, really?” I laugh nervously and try not to look at where his hand is moving. He should really keep both hands on the steering wheel. But he rattles on.
“I always have my coffee in the same café, a nice gringo place by the way. And I always tell my fortune with the cards before each day’s drive. And isn’t it remarkable that a lovely señorita such as you need a lift just today when there’s a queen of hearts in the reading?”
“No comprendo.” I throw him the stupid didn’t-bother-to-learn-that-much-Spanish tourist smile and then I look out the window for the nth time but the car is still going at least 80 so I’d get squashed if I jump out now.
Let me rewind a bit and tell you how I got into this mess. I’m not certain you can make any more sense of it than I can, because my life sure as hell seems to be like a series of tornadoes these days, all crashing into each other and throwing things around.
But the fact is, I have lived for almost a year now in Bolivia, and I have never felt threatened here. Ever.
I guess any sane person should have. Mom would have freaked out if she knew just how far out in the jungle I was living until recently. Me: 21-year old, blonde, a ‘stupid American’, and definitely ripe for the picking – at least in the eyes of some men.
But nothing ever happened.
Then I finally decide to go back to civilization and things turn crazy real fast.
It starts when the bus’ gear shift breaks. The driver manages to wheel it into a village in the first gear and then runs off to find an auto mechanic without saying when he will be back.
As I drift around the village with the other passengers, mostly locals out to smoke and take a piss, I notice a lone taxi in a corner of the market square. I reckon I’m still at least an hour away from Santa Cruz de la Sierra, the only place here big enough to host an international airport, and I don’t know when the bus is going to ever move again. So I walk over and ask the taxi driver, how much for the rest of the way?
One hundred bolivianos.
Okay. It’s a lot of money here but back in the US, it’s more like two drinks, even though I still have to be careful with the little money I have left.
There are no phone numbers or addresses printed on the taxi, only a homemade sign in the window. Tourists are warned in all the guidebooks not to take taxis like that, only the official ones. But, you know I feel I have lived in Bolivia forever now, so I’m not a tourist anymore, right?
I look at the driver, trying to take stock of him. He is a sweaty 30-something guy with a thin mustache and piercing eyes but seems like the harmless silent type, or so I convince myself. And I really don’t want to be stuck here.
I agree to 100 bolivianos and off we go.
For 20 minutes he stares blankly out the front window, while his body is going through the motions to get his vehicle from the spartan upland and into the city where I plan to sleep for a hundred years. Then he begins to talk about cards.
And when I don’t seem to identify overly much with his vaunted queen of hearts, he ignores me and keeps talking about all the times he didn’t make that draw – and never met a girl on the road.
My mind is racing way faster than the car. I look out the open passenger window again and pretend to admire the withered baby palm trees, dry fields, and unfinished buildings on both sides of the road.
I try to say to myself that this guy is not going to follow up on his implied threat of pulling over and doing various things to me if I don’t pretend to be his queen of hearts. But who’s to say he won’t pull over if I do agree to play along, and he is not just out to give compliments and let that be that? What if it’s the little finger that will tempt the shark enough to fancy grabbing the rest, and then some? I heard about two female tourists getting raped and killed at Lake Titicaca not so long ago. A rarity in Bolivia, but not an impossibility.
This is insane. Am I about to be the next headline on some traveler warning site?
I glance at him again and see pearls of sweat dance over his brow while he tries to find a grimace that is somewhere between friendly and intimidating. My heart beats like a jackhammer but I try to remain calm and use the only asset I have right now.
Anger. And believe me, I have plenty of that.
I turn slowly towards him and explain in perfect Bolivian Spanish that he is going to pull over now because I am a crazy American chica who is here to jump from a chair with more than his loving arms around my neck, once I get to the hotel where my Bolivian boyfriend was supposed to meet me, but instead hung himself on this day exactly a year ago. I have tried life since but I have given up and now I am going to follow him.
Because I loooved him so much.
Yes, that’s right. Everything is planned. I have even reserved the exact same room.
So I am not afraid of you, Mr. Sweaty, and I have nothing to lose so you had better drive me all the way to the hotel and to the agreed price, or I’m going to fast forward my planned exit from this world by pulling at a lot more than what is in your pants and make this car go over in the other lane and get squashed against the next oncoming truck.
Sweaty looks like somebody threw him a gut punch, bewildered and somewhat in pain. He didn’t get what he wanted; he hadn’t even articulated it for himself and that was the hole in his defense. And so I made my move and now he is off-balance, his tired self-pitying mind trying to process the new information.
And so when a big fat truck actually pulls out to get in front of us (as Bolivian drivers are wont to do) but from a side road, and Sweaty hits the brakes – that’s when I kick open the passenger door. He forgot to lock it, of course, because, as I counted on, he hadn’t really planned this out. Or perhaps the lock didn’t work as most things in Bolivian cars.
Whatever the case, I run to the roadside and then up the gravel lane that the truck came from where there is an excavator exhibition of all things, and I never see him again.
I even got my few remaining things, all in my small faded rucksack, which never needed to go in the trunk anyway – thank God.
All in all, I get away with the whole stunt with only a few bruises on my left leg, which I get because I stumble after I get out on the asphalt safely because there is a damn rock on the road.
Go figure. But I make it.
And now I have to make it on foot in burning noon heat towards Santa Cruz, still 20 miles away.
I hitch a new ride with a pharmacist, who drives an old American Ford pickup. Small, gray man, about 55. His wife, I take it, is in the pickup as well, so I climb in without too much apprehension even if my heart still hasn’t quite slowed to its normal routine.
She is a big woman, with clear native features. As I squeeze in, I’m really glad there weren’t any ice cream parlors in the jungle.
And you know, my feet hurt and it’s too bloody long to walk to the city center where the decent hotels are. So Señor and, yes, Señora Flores are going to be my saviors and hopefully no more surprises. If there was a plane today, they could have dropped me off at the airport, but in a way, I’m glad there isn’t so I get an excuse to burn some of my last reserves on a room with a proper bed.
I find out that the two are on their way to an evening shift, right after the siesta they both look like he’d rather be doing still. But there is a sharp twinkle in the tired eyes of the woman, when she asks me, why I am out here, all alone and walking to Santa Cruz.
So I explain it, as nonchalantly as I can, and she feigns a quick smile, as she hears the story about how the taxi driver looked like an idiot while I heroically bolted towards the fenced area with the latest fashion in excavators.
“Where are you going, then?” She says it just loud enough, so it makes me think she also wants to make conversation in order for her husband not to fall asleep behind the wheel.
“I’m going to … Hotel Amazonas.”
I had almost forgotten the name. It looked good on one of the few pages of my Lonely Planet that was still readable after almost a year in jungle humidity. I had thrown it away, but Luis – Julia’s kid – found it for me. Behind a shed. Apparently, I had been reading it last when I came to town, and then not really. I don’t even know if the hotel still exists. I didn’t call beforehand.
“I know that place,” she says and lights up as if something grand has just been revealed to her. “It is two blocks from our pharmacy.”
Thank God for small favors.
We get there without any more incidents, only lots of small talk which I can deal with.
So the Hotel Amazonas turns out to both exist and be okay, too. A middle-end hotel where everybody looks a bit tired and the vending machine in the lobby is empty, but otherwise, it is clean and friendly.
I hit the shower next and after that hop straight into bed. Then I treat myself to a good load of CNN droning on the fuzzy TV that is precariously mounted on the wall in front of the bed. But, of course, I can’t concentrate on president Bush’s first budget.
I try to imagine what a guy I could like would actually be like. Someone I might meet – tomorrow? Someone like Manuel maybe, with all his good parts and none of the bad.
How about a good-looking guy, who was born into a mob family or something – and he wants out because of me? Ha, ha …
I smile about that scenario for the rest of the evening, and in the beginning, it feels exciting. But as night descends on Santa Cruz, excitement gets replaced by a feeling of desolation. My construct of a perfect man fades out and only fog is left in my mind.
What is wrong with me? Can’t I even think of a good-looking guy anymore, after what happened?
Anyway, since I sure as hell can’t sleep I know I have to go out or lose my mind in here.
The problem is that the first place that strikes me as the place to go, is a bar I saw at the plaza and I promised myself I wouldn’t get drunk so easily anymore.
Yeah, just like I promised myself I would recover from losing my best friend back in Ohio, oh, and also find love again and, yeah, in general only think about love. Pure love. How else to attract it? Yes, I would seek out and find good things only. Rebuild. Those were some of my most cherished promises.
I get up and get my clothes on and head for the bar. It’s too late and I’m too tired to start over before tomorrow, anyway.
The bar is okay but boring. Irish theme. But it’s mostly tourists and the local rich kids who haven’t really seen what is going on in the jungle or highlands outside their city. Anyway, I had to go although I really shouldn’t have.
There’s some kind of, I dunno, expectation of richness that comes with being a white American. People here seem to expect you to bathe in money every morning and you get to think of yourself like that after a while, even if you constantly scrounge for cash and send pathetic emails back home for the support you can never really get and pay with promises you can’t really keep.
Julia once confided in me that Bolivians are used to thinking about Americans as either DEA agents or uncaring tourists with a gold bar up their asses. They only shit out pieces if they are allowed to take a nice photo of your kids and pet the llama.
And so I got enlightened about living in rural Bolivia for some months. At first, I felt superior. Then I felt inferior. And finally, we were all just normal. Just human beings getting by and trying to do the best we could.
But I had, of course, met Julia, not to mention her brother. That changed the game. From eternal-backpacker-moves-in-with-locals to … I don’t know, but it didn’t work out. Living with them became the kind of normality I had run away from in Ohio with family responsibilities and close ties that hurt when they broke up and people died. I had run away from closeness because it brought me too much pain and lo and behold – I ended up just the same in the Bolivian outback of all places.
God, Julia was crying when I said I had to leave. And I lied when I said I would go home to the States, the natural thing to do now that my little ‘Second Life’-project in South America has met its end.
And at the bar there is no one interesting to talk to about all of this, and, more importantly, no one to buy me the drinks I don’t feel I can afford.
So on the wrong side of midnight, I finally retire to my hotel room’s small balcony with a bottle of the local sweet booze, Singani, from the store across the street and a surprisingly cold coke from the machine in the reception. They make good company.
I checked the only computer they have in the reception and there was no email for me. No messages in the reception. I’ll check again tomorrow.
I let my mind run through all the impressions from the last 10 months. Like a kaleidoscope of love and hate and quiet evenings outside the tin-roof house listening to the jungle murmur. Julia and I never got tired of that. And she was – is – very sharp. She’ll get out of that one day, to some better place. I’m sure of it.
And she has heart. She was the one who found a doctor we could trust and pay for when we thought I was pregnant. Manuel had just found his friends and an extra bottle.
I bet he was scared. But does that excuse him? I think that’s when it started to go wrong.
I drink more and my mind churns around the possibilities. Below me, the streets of Santa Cruz are as alive as ever. The warm tropical night mixed with clinking bottles, hooting scooters, and boys and girls laughing.
As I crane my neck to see, I also move my butt and the rest of me and I accidentally push the bottle so it topples. I manage to catch it but not before a good deal of Singani goes through the empty spaces in the metal railing.
“Hey! Que pasa!“
Down below are two guys, looking up and laughing and waving at me. Goodlooking, shining smiles, pastel-colored t-shirts, nicely tanned and trained. Some more rich kids. They’d never dress like this where Julia lived. Maybe I missed that, too.
“Hey, guys – sorry for dripping on you.”
I raise the bottle up again and the dripping stops.
“Why don’t you come down here?”
Direct, aren’t they? Okay. I give them my best and least drunk smile. “I can’t. I have been drinking too much.”
What? Did I just say that? Oh, what the hell. Let’s see how they react.
“You speak good Spanish,” Guy no. 1 widens his toothpaste smile.
“I have lived in Bolivia since last summer.”
“Here in this hotel?” Guy no. 2 snickers again. I notice a splotch on his pink shirt, near the collar. Probably beer.
“No.” I roll my eyes and try not to have the world roll back at me. They are only one floor down, but I’m glad the railing is there.
“Where then?” Guy no. 1 insists.
“In the Chapare.”
That stops the snickering.
“Chapare is where the drug barons live,” Guy 2 confides, his demeanor suddenly all too serious for his age and level of intoxication.
“No, they don’t,” I explain. “Some people grow coca and sell it. Some coca ends up as drugs. That’s not the same.”
“Bullshit.” Guy 1 shakes his head. He grins, but there is a grimace behind the grin that is not friendly anymore.
“You were just the lover of a drug baron, I bet,” Guy 2 dares and smiles, too, but not in a friendly way either.
More like the way you smile at a cat before you kick it.
I feel the anger rising again. I have not had enough Singani to quench that.
“Fuck off.” I almost feel like throwing the half-empty bottle after them, but I manage to at least control that.
So I just sit there and scowl.
“I think we’ve got ourselves a drunk drug-whore,” Guy 2 explains to his mate as if he had just discovered something important that they might have to report somewhere.
“Go fuck yourselves.” I get up, almost without reeling. One hand is firmly on the railing.
They just snicker some more and then begin to walk away.
“All gringas are whores,” I hear one of them add to this most brilliant analysis of who I am and where I come from.
I should never have told them I had lived in the Chapare.
There are a million farmers there and maybe a thousand or so sell coca plants for cocaine that somebody else does, but I had forgotten the prejudice and racism here in Bolivia. It’s not as if it wasn’t in Chapare, either. Just reversed.
Back there you talked about everyone who lived in the East province cities as assholes who bled the poor working people dry. And also in cahoots with the “gringo oppressors”, as Manuel’s friends in the Movimiento Al Socialismo would say when they thought I didn’t listen.
I lean so far over the railing that I almost forget my plan about not falling out. “Go to hell! Go to hell!!“
All I get for being a drunk bitch are some more stares from the street below and some more snickering from the two guys who round a corner and then they are out of my life but not of my mind.
I slam the balcony door and retreat to the dark room. My half-finished bottle stays outside.
Eventually, the morning comes. It always does.
No email for me, so I go to the rundown hotel pool and try to float, but in the end, I just sit in the shallow half for too long staring at my own reflection in the water.
But it’s okay. I have all the time in the world.
I get up and get dressed and head back down to the reception.
Still no email. No messages, either.
But I can wait some more.
I have all the time in the world.
She has to feel the same.