A Road Runs Through It

I strain to see stars through the tropical haze and the pollution of the city. Moto taxis rattle over the nearby road, and Latin pop music laced with Incan pan pipes plays tinnily from a nearby stereo—at least whenever the welding noises in the garage behind me cease. I’m lying in the back of a dump-truck sized truck, on top of a stack of thick lumber. Simon has gone in search of cookies and rum for our trip, and I’m half paranoid the men we’ve hitched a ride with will jump in the cab and rumble the truck to a start before Simon gets back, even though we’ve been waiting for four hours to depart. Occasionally I lean over the edge of the truck and watch the welding sparks light up the faces of White Cap, First Matey, and The Gimp, the trio Simon has already named that will drive this truck, and us, out of the jungle and over the Andes. I feel lifeless while the city bustles on about me. Occasional voices and laughter drift in from nearby yards; now that the sun has sunk the place comes alive, the hour when dark settles as lively as morning.

It must be somewhere about eight-o-clock in the evening, and I was expecting to be long out of Puerto Maldonado by now, out of this small city in the Peruvian Amazon near the Brazilian and Bolivian borders. It’s a muddy river city, the Madre de Dios winding sluggishly at the city’s edge, river boats constantly sucking at the murky shores down at the port where you can find the hub of the city’s commerce, men eternally loading and unloading, ferries carrying passengers across the milky water. And on the other edge of the city you can find a line of trucks preparing to depart, laden with lumber or fuel in cisternas, heading up the mountains to the larger cities of Cusco, Juliaca, and Puno for filling. You can walk up to the line of trucks and knock on any door, or find a driver leaning against a massive tire out of the sun, and ask “What time do you leave, and how many days will it take to get there?”

Simon and I are fresh out of the jungle. We’ve been volunteering in the Amazon, doing research for a parrot and macaw conservation project seven hours upriver from Puerto Maldonado. For two months I stayed at two different ecolodges, rising before dawn to count birds. I’d witnessed herds of white-lipped peccaries with their overwhelming musky stench, watched a jaguar stalk capybaras along the river’s shore; I’d been terribly sick with a stomach parasite and gotten better again; listened to stories about Chullachaki, the shape-shifting jungle gnome. Yesterday, we took the epic boat ride down the Tambopata River and back to port for the bone-rattling bus ride back to civilization. It was my idea to take the truck up over the eastern slope of the Andes. It was dry season, the best season to travel. I didn’t want to go alone, so about a week ago I began talking it up to Simon, who was supposed to be meeting a friend in La Paz, Bolivia in six days from now.

“When else are you going to be on the eastern slope of the Andes?” I had asked. “Imagine, that fresh mountain air, your hair tousled by it, rather than the breath of the crying baby sitting behind you on the bus. Imagine that landscape through crystal clear air rather than grimy bus windows. How could you not go?”

“I guess I’m a wuss if I don’t go?” Simon finally conceded.

“Pretty much.”

“All right, Gir-rat-face (Simon’s pleasant nickname he’d wrangled out of my last name). But if anything happens, I’m holding you completely responsible.”

But so far, Simon seems less paranoid than me about this trip. I try not to worry as I lie on the sleeping bag that Jesús, one of the guides at the ecolodge, gave me. (“You’re going to freeze up over those mountains,” he said. I traded it for The Birds of Ecuador, a book I was sad to see go, but it was nice to have ten pounds freed up in my pack.) I realize that even after three months in Peru I still can’t quite relax, can’t quite trust completely. Which is hypocritical of me because I travel to escape a mundane life, cobbling together my resources to make a trip because the idea of a scheduled, day-in-day-out life scares the shit out of me. I go to other countries because I get a thrill out of the unpredictable, yet there’s also a point when the unpredictable becomes uncomfortable.

Soon a package of cookies lands beside me in the truck, then Simon’s face appears over the truck railing, a flat pint of rum in his hand. “Success!” he says. We sit for a few minutes and eat cookies, deciding to save the rum for later. Who knows what sort of civilization we’ll be traveling through? Not us.

“Do you think White Cap is full of shit?” Simon asks after a moment. Even when Simon curses it sounds innocent in his English accent. He has large brown eyes, slightly raised eyebrows, something slow in his movements—which combined with his terrible Spanish makes Peruvian women flirt unabashedly with him, giggling and grabbing his arm. He never seems to reciprocate the warmth. I lean over and watch The Gimp haul a tire tread back into the garage, hobbling with his slight limp. It’s something I’ve watched him do about six times already.

“It’s possible,” I say. White Cap could be full of shit about any of it—that this truck is actually going to Puno, or that there’s even a road to Puno. That we’ll get there within two days like he said. That this truck is even going anywhere at all. “But if they were intending to kill us Simon, they would have done it by now.”

“You think? I was thinking they’d wait until we’re up in the cloud forest before ditching our bodies.”

“Our bodies, yes. But they would have killed us by now and stashed our bodies under that canvas tarp,” I say, pointing to what neither of us realize yet is going to be our roof when we finally catch up with the rain. “They wouldn’t want to risk anybody in Puerto Maldonado having seen us alive in the back of this truck.”

“Good point,” Simon says, smiling. “I knew I could trust you, Rat-face.”

We’d originally been hoping to find a truck to Cusco. When we asked him if he was going to Cusco, White Cap had gesticulated wildly. “No, no, you want to go to Puno! It’s much more beautiful than Cusco. It’s very close to Lake Titicaca.” He wore a white cap advertising Hot Springs, North Carolina, and his eyes nearly popped out of his head when he spoke, a deep vein bisecting them that pumped madly. First Matey stood nearby and nodded slowly as White Cap spoke.

“There’s a road to Puno?” I asked. I took out my guide book and tried to locate it on the map, but could find no such squiggle. White Cap flicked his hand toward the book like it was a pesky fly and tilted his chin in the direction of the mountains, wiggled his finger around in the air as though drawing the road for us, which I later would realize was actually a pretty good depiction.

“Of course there’s a road.”

“What time do you leave?” I asked.

“Later. This afternoon.”

“But what time?”

“Four o’clock.”

I turned to Simon. “They’re leaving at the perfect time for us. It’ll still be daylight. Maybe we’ll even gain some elevation and get to see some mountains before it’s dark.”

“When will we get to Puno?” Simon asked.

White Cap waved a hand noncommittally into the air. “Two days,” he said. Before he finished the words First Matey was echoing the phrase. “Two days.” First Matey crossed his arms and leaned against the truck. The Gimp said nothing. He wore all black and one eye was cinched in a permanent squint. At first glimpse, they looked a little rough. And at first glimpse Simon had named them just like that, reducing them down to their defining characteristics, bringing out his inner imperialist. But admittedly I found the names catchy, and soon I was playing along. The men waited for our response. Our other option was to wait until evening and catch a ride with another truck heading to Cusco, a truck which already had a family camped out in the back, the two small children gumming mangoes, the juice running down their arms and dripping from their elbows.

“Puno is closer to La Paz than Cusco is,” I told Simon.

“Okay,” he shrugged.

“Okay,” I said to the men.

We all grinned and shook hands and agreed to meet back here at four p.m., which we did, just to drive a mile back into town, to a garage, where now we sit.

Nine p.m. reads my digital watch. Instead of asking any questions (after all, this just may be normal procedure) I sprawl across the nylon purple sleeping bag and sweat. Simon draws an invisible line down the center of the lumber.

“You stay on your side, I’ll stay on mine. Got that, Rat-face?”

“Got it,” I mumble before drifting off. I finally manage to relax, to place all my trust in these men—trust that what looks like their rudimentary mechanics will hold this truck together, that they intend to deposit us safely in Puno where the ungodly blue of Lake Titicaca awaits.

I am asleep when the truck finally rumbles to a start, the shouts of White Cap drifting into my dreams as the men load up in the seat down below. I drift off again, lulled by the rock of the truck over the rutted road, the dark South American sky over me like a blanket.

 

I wake up to the smell of smoke—wood and garbage. It is broad daylight, truck stopped, voices floating up from somewhere below. I can tell we have traveled considerably because the dirt of the road is redder, and a web of mist lingering over trees suggests we’ve risen in elevation. But only slightly. Simon’s not on the truck and behind me is a line of trucks just like ours, stopped, people milling about along the road. We are in a small settlement; I lean over the side of the truck and a group of children huddled around the worn-treads of the truck look up, they smile and run off, laughing. When they run red mud splashes up the backs of their calves, across the butts of their worn skirts and pants.

“Que pasa?” I call to First Matey, who is pacing slowly along the road. At some time during the previous evening Simon and I had picked up on his real name, Óscar. His eyes disappear into the folds of his cheeks, which may or may not mean he’s always smiling, but it looks like it, and we like him. White Cap seems to respect him a little, not like the way he treats The Gimp. “First Matey” is a good nickname; he’s reliable, the friendly go-between. He stands, cuffs of his faded jean jacket rolled to his elbows, stroking his mustache with thumb and forefinger.

“Anoche llovió.” He explains how there had been rain higher up in elevation, and the streams were swollen and running full bank to bank. One of the streams happened to cross the road in front of us, making an impassable five-foot current across a dip in the road. They allowed the water to flow right across because if they built diversions or culverts the yearly rains would likely wash them out again. “No hay passe,” First Matey says. No pass. No getting through, or something along those lines, a phrase I’ve heard many times throughout my travels in Latin America: a log truck upended across a highway; a landslide in Ecuador washing out the road ahead, forcing the bus to take a three-hour long detour; riots; severe weather—no passing. In Peru, people just shrug and turn their attention elsewhere, not up in arms pointing at their watches. What are you going to do about it? That’s the prevailing attitude. There’s no control when it comes to landslides, to unexpected rain filling the road, and patience was necessarily built-in to the culture. I have something to learn from this no-pass phrase. And really, if I can’t learn it, what business do I have traveling in the first place?

I walk through the tiny town. Posters of various Presidential candidates are plastered across cinder block walls. They are swollen and faded, corners curling in the humidity. It is a hot race, the country facing the second round of elections in about two weeks from now. It is between Alan García, who’d already been president from 1985 to 1990, a period marked by severe economic crisis, and Ollanta Humala, a former army officer who lead the uprising that finally accused President Fujimoro of corruption scandals, and who also had been accused of human rights violations while an officer. In the jungle, when I asked Peruvians who they would vote for they usually threw their hands up in the air. Someone I met said he’d vote for García because his name was Alan, too. Many of the guides who worked leading tourists at the ecolodges wouldn’t bother to travel back to Lima, where most were from, to vote (Peru requires its citizens to return to their city or town of birth in order to vote). It was too expensive, they said.

I find Simon seated in an open-air eatery, run by one woman and a small boy. The whiteboard propped on a chair outside serves as a menu. Almuerzo: Puerco. Lunch: Pork. Simon sits with his elbows propped on the flimsy plastic table, steam rising from a mug in front of him. “What I wouldn’t give for a good cup of tea,” he says. I pull out a plastic chair and sit.

“Do you think we’ll really get to Puno by tomorrow?” I ask him.

“Who knows?” he says. “I tried to get Matey to show us where we are on a map, but he wasn’t sure.” He shakes his head. “But I’m supposed to be in Bolivia in five days.” It was sort of a joke, as though the ride couldn’t possibly take that long, but there was a hint of doubt in his voice. I know it is useless to ask the men when they think we will arrive. They will say mañana, which, as I’ve come to learn, could mean tomorrow, the day after that, or sometime next week.

The smell of cooking meat wafts over, trumping the exhaust from idling trucks and the smokiness that woke me.

“Almuerzo?” I ask, even though it’s still morning. Simon nods, downing the last of his tepid tea with a grimace. We order from the boy, who is wiping down a nearby table. The boy nods and relays our order to his mother, and Simon and I watch as the woman turns on a tiny portable burner to heat the rice. She gives instructions to the boy, who unwinds the cord from a blender and plugs it into a converter attached to an old car battery beneath the table where she works. As the rice steams she stuffs mint into the blender, pours a little water in, then proceeds to crush a dozen packets of Saltine crackers, tapping the contents of each onto the mint concoction. Simon and I exchange glances, but say nothing, and when she sees us watching her she smiles broadly and pushes the button, green goop splattering around inside the blender.

Our plates arrive steaming—sticky white rice, slabs of pale pork, and a serving of some sort of maize, white kernels the size of dimes. A dollop of the green Saltine-sauce leaks into the rice. It is surprisingly delicious, adding just the right amount of zing to an otherwise bland plate of food. We’ve eaten nothing but cookies since yesterday afternoon, and we demolish our puerco, leaving only green swipes and well-cleaned hambones on our plates. Other truckers drift in, and I see how the woman’s business must depend on the rain. If the river rises, then she can rely on people being stuck in the town, a whole flock settling in for an almuerzo of puerco, regardless of the time of day. I wonder what will happen to her when the road is paved, a bridge installed over the stream, a project that Peruvian president Alejandro Toledo and Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva shook hands on in 2004. A project to connect Brazil’s Atlantic coast with Peru’s Pacific ports that South American politicians have dreamed about for over thirty years. To engineer dozens of bridges that could withstand the rainy season, could hold the traffic of such trucks as ours any time of the year. What will happen to her little comedor when the trucks pass right through, never needing to stop?

Later, I ask if there is a bathroom, and the boy points down a little muddy path. I follow it and find a three-sided shack, and when I go in I’m confused for a minute because there’s nothing there, then I realize it is the bathroom—just a pit in the ground and a few rickety boards over the top to squat on.

An hour and a half later the long line of vehicles start turning on their engines. The little town explodes into a cloud of exhaust, men bustling back into their trucks. From where we are we see First Matey wave his arms at us.

“The water has gone down,” he says when we reach the truck. We climb up the ladder and onto the lumber. I’m excited to finally be moving in the daylight. We inch along the road until the trucks in front of us make it across the stream. As our truck lurches through the streambed, I cling nervously to the side, watching the water ripple past the tire treads. The water is the easy part; we skid and spin through the red sediment on the opposite side, trying to climb out of the ditch. But the tires finally catch and we make it, the long row of trucks gradually spreading out. It takes the truck a long time to get up to speed as we inch upwards. Now I learn the downfalls of taking the lumber truck—trucks with lighter loads pass us one by one, and eventually we are alone on the road, last in line. At some point we catch up with the rain and Simon and I pull the canvas tarp across the two-by-fours running down the center of the truck, making a tent for ourselves. We are quiet, listening to the soft pelt of rain, the strained whir of our truck, lying back on our respective sides with our hands resting on our full bellies.

 

There’d been much talk about the paving of the road when I was working in the jungle—the Interoceanic Highway, as it is called it now. It would be a huge economic boost to impoverished areas; it would increase trade between rising Brazil and struggling Peru, but it would also pose an enormous threat to the rainforest. The paved road means easier access for illicit gold mining, which meant more mercury in the rivers; it also meant the possibility of more drug trafficking across the border and more contact with indigenous tribes in the interior. Everything that happens will start to happen so fast, spreading up the tributaries like wildfire. The date set for completion was 2009, although that seems like a pie-in-the-sky as we wobble through muddy ruts, and slow down over washboard straightaways—we’ll be lucky if we reach Puno by 2009 at the rate our truck is going.

A few hours after almuerzo, we’re at a halt. There’s a new voice outside the truck. We lift the tarp off to find that the rain has stopped and a man is climbing up into the truck with us. He wears a tee shirt, gray sweatpants, and work boots, carries a small backpack. He is impeccably clean and I suddenly feel slightly ashamed because I’m still wearing my ratty jungle clothes. Simon is sporting a five-o-clock shadow across his chin and his hair has acquired the sort of consistency where it stands straight up when he runs a hand through it. We exchange hellos, and the man perches on the lumber near the middle of the truck. It’s a half-an-hour before the truck takes off again, White Cap fiddling with the tires, making adjustments. We introduce ourselves and offer the hitchhiker some cookies and he accepts, but instead of eating them he holds them in his hand for the duration of his ride.

We’ve clearly risen in elevation, and when the truck starts moving again I involuntarily gasp at the sight of the hills. They are rich and lushly green, and every once in awhile a draft of air will lift the fog, and I’ll catch the craggy outlines of foothills—the beginning of the Andes. The vista is fleeting, but the ephemerality adds to the beauty of it. The road is clearly winding now, rather than a straight path, and it must take the grade into consideration, bending around the sides of mountains. After one bend the hillsides are suddenly bare—stripped down by some sort of agriculture, the slopes slightly terraced with a single crop.

The hitchhiker asks where we’re headed, and when I tell him he raises his eyebrows and says, “Puno?”

“Is it far?” I ask.

He nods.

“How far?”

He shrugs. “No se.”

I ask where he’s headed and he tells met the name of a town I don’t know, but it’s reassuring to know that there is a town nearby. We’re quiet for a moment, and then he starts talking. My Spanish isn’t good enough to understand everything he says, but I listen, and I must look like I understand because he keeps on talking. Then I start to understand he’s talking about the church in his town. He is talking about God. He pauses and looks at me. “Conoces Jesús Christo?”

I shrug. It’s not a conversation I want to have, but I like the hitchhiker, his polite face. “Un poco,” I say. A little. He smiles and nods. After a few moments he doesn’t say anything, and quietness settles back in the truck. I don’t know if he’s disappointed or satisfied.

Simon has been keeping to himself, and I see he’s looking at the photo again, one I’ve seen him take it out and peek at it a few times during our time in the jungle. It’s of a blonde girl wearing a bikini top and a cowboy hat, smiling and waving at the camera.

I bring my camera to the hitchhiker and show him pictures of the Tambopata, of the macaws perched on trees, of the howler monkeys clinging to branches. “Conoces la selva?” I ask him, do you know the jungle? He smiles and tucks the cookies into a pocket in his backpack.

“Un poco,” he says.

I scroll through my photos until I’m at the beginning of the round, looking at pictures of snowy New England, explaining to the hitchhiker my cat, the boyfriend I’d left back there, the little cabin I had been living in. They look like scenes from another life. But maybe Simon has the right idea. Maybe it’s time to be longing for home, looking forward to the next phase.

 

I awake to the dark. It’s been hours since we dropped off the hitchhiker, leaving him on the edge of a little village, where all the houses had matching corrugated metal roofs. We are stopped on the side of the road in what appears to be the middle of nowhere. It is dead silent. I struggle my way out from beneath the canvas and am surprised to feel the bite of the air, a coolness my skin has not felt in months. Slowly, as I become increasingly aware of the middle of the night, and all the silent depth that comes with it. For the first time in a long time I feel a sense of deep loneliness. What I miss first and most is the jungle. The people there. Then, as I dwell on the loneliness, I start to miss the boyfriend. Then I dig around for a distant pang, and I find myself missing my parents, tucked up in New England, cozy and together where they belong. But first I miss the sounds that riddled the night right outside our mosquito nets and thatched roof: the low gentle whistles of tinamou birds, the rustle of trees under restless squirrel monkeys, the sound of a sheet of rain descending with astounding suddenness in the early morning. I miss what’s closest, what I’ve just left behind.

I want to get down and walk around in this dark nowhere land, and I am partway down the ladder when my stomach cramps. A pain sears through my abdomen and I make it to the ground just in time to vomit. A chill passes over my whole body and I lean against the truck. Images of puerco and that minty green sauce rise up in my mind and I retch a few more times, my body eager to purge the contaminated source. I will not eat pork again for two years after this trip, the idea of the meat always sending a ripple through my gut, permanently attached to this feeling of illness. Something in my stomach makes a quick turn and I run to the side of the road and squat, evacuating the remains of my intestines. Shaking, I clean myself, retrieve my water bottle from the truck. I sip and stand in the middle of the dark road, my body radiating with the feeling of its own emptiness. As my eyes adjust to the dark, I can see the silhouette of the three sleeping men in the cab. Complete strangers. Even Simon, really, what do I know of him? Working in close quarters with someone will force you to know something about them in a short period of time, and I know facts about Simon. We exchanged some confessions like we were prison mates—lovers we’d betrayed, people we’d crossed—with a detached honesty, but nearing the end of our three-month long trip, our attention turned away from Peru. But I can’t say I know him, what drives his curiosity or why he travels, why the blonde girl isn’t with him. I feel random for being here, so far from people who know and love me, or like I’m like a ball of string unraveling into one thin, unsubstantial strand.

I stand in the road and let the silence of the eastern slope sink in. My shriveled belly makes me think of indigenous Americans who purged themselves to allow spirits to enter the body, who fasted in order to achieve a level of insight, to see. My eyes adjust to the landscape, make out the craggy line of mountains in the distance—a shape of black against a lighter shade of black. I make out the slightly illuminated curves of the road, the path behind us indistinguishable from the path ahead, just one long thread unraveling through the terrain. I’m glad I don’t have to be anywhere like Simon does, because at this moment I feel myself cede control—the way a Peruvian bus passenger might in light of a landslide. It really doesn’t matter for me if we make it to Puno by tomorrow, next week, or ten days from now.

 

As it ends up, we’re not in Puno the next day anyway. And my sickness hasn’t left. In the morning the truck rolls into a small town, the terrain distinctly mountainous now. It’s mostly noticeable via the way the people dress—instead of muddy shorts and sandals, we find women in indigenous dress. They wear long embroidered skirts, some with Western style jackets slung over their shoulders. White Cap pulls up to a cafeteria and the trio gets out; they stretch, squint in the thin air. “Vamos. Desayuno!” they call up to us. A woman outside the cafeteria has a baby strapped to her back, swaddled in gorgeously woven cloth. Both mother and baby have purple-splotched cheeks, and the woman stares up at us as we rise and stretch in the back of the truck—and I suppose she has a right to: we are dirty and alien-looking; we haven’t seen running water in days, except for the stream we drove through on our first morning. All public restrooms we’ve come across have been some rendition of the first one, although we have seen nicer versions—cement floors angling inward so that any missed matter runs—or rolls—into the hole at the center, some even with indentations for the feet.

Simon and I climb down and follow The Gimp into the cafeteria. The building is all cement inside, and we sit at a plastic table with a plastic tablecloth, a small vase with a vinyl carnation in the center. A woman comes and offers us a choice of two meals—chicken soup with rice or various pieces of another sort of meat—a dish that always appears to me to be various animal organs in a broth that Peruvians seem to love—with rice.

“I don’t think I can eat,” I tell him. “I was sick last night.”

“Great. I wonder if I’ll get it, too.”

“Your sympathy is too endearing.”

“Yes, I know. I’m sorry to hear you’re ill, but I must admit I’m starving.”

He orders a bowl of chicken soup and rice and downs it. The trio sits at another table, and this is the first time I’ve seen them eat our entire trip. They are silent, stooped over their bowls of organs-in-broth, spooning hungrily. The tables only seat four, but I regret not offering to pull our tables together, to try and get to know these guys. But they look exhausted. I imagine the terrible sleep they’ve had sitting in the cab of the truck. I wonder if they would have slept on the lumber if we weren’t there—but there was certainly plenty of room if they had wanted to. Later it will occur to me that I should have asked where they’re from, how often they do this, are they mountain men or jungle men or permanently on the road men? Or, what their names are even, aside from Óscar, of course. But then again, they haven’t asked our names, either. We have this mutual quietness, a sort of traveler’s weariness, too conscious of our impending departure and the fact we will never see each other again. It’s almost like we all silently agree—what’s the point? And we accept each other this way, like an amicable business deal, no need to get personal. It’s just a truck ride, nothing more.

Even Simon and I drift into our own worlds throughout the day as the truck ascends higher and goes slower, the twists in the road tighter and tighter. Steep mountain walls flank the road, and we choke on dust around each corner and yawn to relieve the pressure in our ears. The higher we go and further from the jungle we are. I see him take out the picture of the girl several times. As the air cools, I pull out my collection of alpaca hats I bought in Cusco two months earlier and pull one on. After Simon and I drift into our own thoughts, I take out a camera and snap a self-portrait. I look overtired, my eyes creepily large and dark, my smile forced. I sneak one of Simon, a profile, his face pensive and brooding. We’re clearly people at the end of something.

We won’t reach Puno that day, or the next day either. Our final night in the truck is so cold I pull on all my layers and shiver in the thin nylon sleeping bag. I will huddle as close as I can to Simon without him thinking I’m putting the moves on him. In the morning the water in our bottles will be frozen across the top, and we’ll awake to snow covered peaks looming over yellow and brown ground, bulking and so near I’m almost frightened. We’ll soon realize it’s our final day when we stop climbing and start descending into territory that’s more and more inhabited. The towns will come quickly, and then it will feel almost like we’re in the suburbs, if the cities of Juliaca and Puno can possibly have anything like that, the buildings and crossroads and other vehicles are the continuous scenery the last two hours of our trip. Before we know it we’ll be saying goodbye, Simon rushing to catch a train to La Paz—he’ll get there just in time to meet his friend. He’ll email me a few days later to let me know he arrived. Then we’ll email a few months later, then never again. I’ll return back to the States; Peru will elect Alan García; Peru will become a memory, a place I ache for when I look through my photos. In five years Peru will have another election, this time giving Ollanta Humala a shot at the job, and in his final weeks as president Alan García will inaugurate El Puente Billinghurst, the bridge spanning the Madre de Dios River in Puerto Maldonado, the final piece of the 1,600-mile paved road. It’s a moment I will read about in a June, 2011 article in The Science Christian Monitor, which will say, “The outgoing president sees the highway as a crowning achievement of his tenure.” And I’ll miss the muddy river and wonder how good the new road can really be.

But before we start descending on our final day, we arrive at a plateau and hit a straightaway. The land opens up around us—a vast sea of yellow grass, the rock and snow of peaks close now, very close. Meandering through the contours of open field are herds of vicuñas. Sometimes we pass the people who tend the herds, women in brilliant colors, men in faded pants and button-downs, stooped, skin shaped by wind, the women and children with cheeks splotched from cold. They follow their animals, perhaps through their own fifteen-mile radius, and the vicuña move like water, as a whole. We pass their houses—stone huts made out of stacked round cobbles, tiny pieces of the mountain collected and arranged. This has to be some of the bleakest terrain on earth: yellow, gray, white, brown. The truck slows and comes to a stop at a shrine, a white cross bearing a red and gold vestige, a wooden arch over it with the words “Santisima Cruz de Oquepuño.” The cross is mounted on three steps, which hold offerings of flowers, rocks and liquor, a few empty bottles scattered around its base. The men get out and say a prayer. White Cap takes off his cap and I’m surprised by his baldness. Gimp and First Matey bow their heads. It seems to me that at this point there’s little more to pray for, except, perhaps, that the brakes hold out. Simon jumps down and stretches his legs, watches vicuña nibble at brown earth. I stand on the truck and look from where we came. The lush land is now completely behind us. The wind comes down from the mountains, and I can’t get a scent of the jungle, not even a hint of that humid air. It’s only snow and rocks and ice, the road a dusty strip unraveling behind us.

 

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