I slouched against the window of the bus groggily. It hardly seemed worth the effort to wake up as then I would have to feel my half-numbed muscles and the stifling heat. The sun appeared to share my lack of enthusiasm for the day as it sprawled on the horizon, bloated and red.
We crested the hill and below us lay the vast, sluggish Orinoco. The red sky, green hills, and brown river seemed worth the effort so I lifted my head and stretched as much as the cramped seats would allow. The scene actually held my attention for some time until the heat began seeping into my conscious thought.
The night had been an endurance contest on par with the Ironman Triathalon in my un-initiated opinion. Between the broken air conditioning, Lilliputian-engineered seating, and midnight stop at the insect zoo disguised as a bathroom, I felt that perhaps a special badge was in order. I turned and looked at my sleeping wife. Yes we would have to get her one too. Of course that might make the cost prohibitive -- I would have to check into it.
Now that the sun had got off its lazy ass and begun working I could really feel the heat. I lay motionless with my mouth open, the sweat bleeding from my body, soaking my clothes. I wondered if it were possible for the heat and humidity to become such that one could not breathe. Vapor so thick that one drowned on land.
The bus stopped, jarring me from my musings. Perhaps if we had been at the river's edge next to the ferry of questionable safety that I could see at the bottom of our hill, then this would have been of little consequence other than ending our light breeze that was mercifully bathing us. However, this could spell heightened discomfort if I had to actually get my overladen pack from under the bus and walk the remainder of the distance to the ferry over quasi-molten asphalt. My wife woke up and looked askance at me. I shrugged.
Then three men came on board with red berets and automatic weapons and started yelling in Spanish, the key phrase for me being "todos de los hombres, salen." I briefly considered informing them that aside from their suggested course of action being not particularly appealing to me, it was hardly in the spirit of equality. But then again why get my wife shot if they were only interested in gunning down the men? She would just have to award my medal posthumously. However, I would be very annoyed if someone shot me. I felt that I could be shot in any other circumstance but how could you make some one suffer through a gunshot wound in this awful heat? Of course if they shot me in the head then there would be a lot less discomfort. Just in case, I kissed my wife as I stepped over her and into the aisle, making my way to the door.
Once outside I greeted an impressive looking soldier in my broken Spanish, handing him my passport. He gave it a very officious glance and handed it back to me with a crisp clicking of his heels and moved down the line. Round 1 to the Gringo, I thought smugly, waiting for our little show to end. However, once at the end of the line the chiseled poster-boy came back to me with two of his men. Now I consider myself a decent hack at Spanish, but the anger and rapidity of their discourse precluded me from understanding most of anything except for a few very ugly sounding words. I tried to hand them my Venezuelan ID Card, my Driver's License, my University ID, hell I even gave them my Sam's Club card. They pushed them away, jabbering at me even more heatedly. As I was formulating a prayer to make sure the head shot dispatched me immediately, they suddenly stopped if as on cue.
"Vete," he demanded angrily pointing at the open bus door.
That was one I didn't have to try and understand. I headed for the bus door, fully expecting to be shot in the back -- perhaps if they severed my spinal cord that would be equally painless. I did not even realize that I had forgotten about the heat until I touched the air-cooled railing at the bottom of the bus steps. Thank God! The air-conditioning was finally working!
I turned in the doorway and threw a quick salute to the young soldiers.
"Round 2 to the Sons of Bolivar."
The subsequent ride across the sluggish yet powerful Orinoco on a vessel that made the ferries back home seem like extravagant yachts, might have normally caused me some degree of consternation, but with things now nicely put in perspective by the helpful young soldiers from our roadblock, it was actually quite relaxing. We had a brief stop at the Bus Station in Ciudad Guyana and after picking up some water and some jerky we were back on our rusty steed headed for distant lands. I had every intention of taking advantage of our newly rejuvenated air conditioning, and after my brief repast I slipped quietly away into a mid-day nap that extended deep into the night.
There was a resonant clank and the bus dropped violently. Metallic grinding was the driver's reward for stepping on the gas -- in my mind a strange reaction to something so clearly wrong with our means of conveyance. I grinned to myself groggily. So far 50 percent of our stops had been unplanned. Having never traveled in Venezuela before, I wondered if this was actually a good percentage.
We eventually ground to a halt on the side of the road in what was quite literally the middle of nowhere. There was a Japanese student on the bus and along with my wife and myself, we, remarkably, appeared to be the only ones unconcerned with our plight. The driver said something about taking a look to see if he could fix it and turning the engine off, he and the relief driver stepped off the bus.
Not caring to wait until the heat and stench suffocated me in an exponentially rising tide, I stood up, stretched and walked off the bus. Having unstoppered the bottle, the others spilled out of the doorway for some fresh night air. Surprisingly, no one seemed too intent on spectating the wrestling match the driving team had engaged in with the unresponsive engine. Having been a reluctant assistant to many grudge matches with stubborn inanimate objects, I waited for the jumble of expletives to be vomited up, coupled with the throwing down of the tools at hand and then I pounced.
"Que lejos a San Francisco de Yuaraní?"
Ah, yes, the ebb of anger and ensuing disorientation. Will take him a minute.
And ... "No sé, pero muy cerca. Quizas tres kilometros."
"Muchas gracias, señor. Podemos obtener nuestros mochillas?"
"Claro que sí."
As I signaled my wife to follow, the Japanese student came up beside me and asked, I think, if he could come with us. I splurged on an emphatic "Hai", exhausting a quarter of my Japanese vocabulary in a grand show of extravagance.
We shouldered our backpacks from underneath the bus and headed down the dark road. It soon became apparent that Tokegawa's English was atrocious and after establishing that I should be called Jacobo and my wife Santa María (her real name did not translate well and this was just too much fun) we managed to carry on a fairly amicable conversation in our shoddy Castellano.
After maybe an hour, with the pre-dawn susurrus of light about us, we were able to make out what looked like yurts up ahead. The nice thing about walking in a remote region of a moderately developed country is the elimination of guesswork. From the map I had seen, and I doubt it was missing anything out here, San Francisco de Yuaraní was the last settlement before the Brazilian border -- another thirty klicks farther on.
As we got closer the conical roofs could be seen to be made of some sort of thatch that a broad faced man was repairing on the particular establishment that appeared to be the local cafe. The toucan perched in the window and monkey skittering around the open veranda provided a nice touch, although in other lands probably would have led to the subsequent closure of this establishment on sanitary grounds.
We sat down at the picnic benches serving as seats for the tables and our new acquaintance promptly ordered a beer. My wife and I looked at each other and she rejoined with, "Tres cervezas, por favor."
Our hostess, presumably the roofer's wife, returned with three ice-cold cans of Polar. Yes, perhaps this could substitute for our medals -- looking at my wife I decided this would suffice. Raising our beverages in their pineapple juice sized containers I gave our toast, "To the end of our bus ride."
"Hear, hear," my wife echoed softly and Tokegawa smiled as we drank our cold beer in the blistering hot sunrise near the border of nowhere.
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