With every border crossing I’m amazed at how much difference the laws of men can make. Each country varies greatly, not just in infrastructure, but in mood.
Crossing from Colombia into Ecuador felt similar to when I crossed from Honduras to Nicaragua. The biggest difference being the danger in Honduras was known and palpable, while the danger in Colombia was implied, below the surface, as though each day a rubber band stretched a stone more, liable to snap at any instant.
Near the end of Colombia an unfamiliar feeling welled up in me, a feeling I hadn’t had since my first days walking over a year earlier. A day’s walk from the border I spotted a man on the opposite side of the street polishing a four inch knife. Likely he was only pruning branches of the nearby shrubs, he was dressed well enough, but my thoughts couldn’t settle on that. Instead I saw malicious possibilities in his eyes. The nearer I was to the Colombia-Ecuador border the more people talked about how dangerous Colombia was. I thought often of a friend in Bogotá when he said I was certain to be robbed at some point in South America. When he first said that I gave the idea little weight, however, I couldn’t stop a growing paranoia.
In Ecuador the tension was mostly released. During the first twenty-four hours I still imagined bad men standing on every corner, but the atmosphere was different, and over time that normalized me.
The border of Ecuador consisted of high-altitude pastures. Then my second day in Ecuador the pastures faded as I worked my way down the Pan-American highway.
In Colombia the Pan-American rarely had a shoulder, but in Ecuador the highway was like a giant anaconda slithering along the mountainside. Most of the time the road was four lanes with a wide shoulder, sometimes there were six lanes.
With cloud cover, a shoulder, and downhill walking Savannah and I had walked twenty-eight miles at the end of our second day.
We were in a desert valley with resorts lining either side of the Pan-American. I considered getting a room, but behind all the resorts were acres of dry grassy fields perfect for camping.
It was only four thirty but since my feet were beginning to hurt I wanted to sit down. When a pristine garden with manicured grass and white benches appeared on my left, I instinctively pushed the cart into the gravel driveway towards it.
It was someone’s home opened as a hospedaje, more of a bed and breakfast than a hotel; a single story with sliding brass-frame doors and bay windows running the length of the front.
Amid the desert the hospedaje was an oasis of calm.
I parked my cart, tied Savannah to it, then went to the door.
The sliding door was locked so I strode around the grounds hollering to find someone. After five minutes no one appeared, but I discovered an outlet around the back of the building so I plugged in my phone then sat beneath a tree in the front yard.
Though I knocked on the door, I still wasn’t certain if I wanted to pay for a room. The place simply had such a calm aura that I couldn’t help but fall into it after nine hours of walking.
I did my best to edit some photos in the sunlight then glanced up as a short-hair poodle approached Savannah.
The place wasn’t empty after all.
I glanced around, peered down a stone path back into some trees, but didn’t see anyone.
If there was a dog, especially a groomed poodle, then the owner was around, or would be shortly.
I hoped though for some reason a groomed poodle and pristine yard was left unattended for the night, that I’d be able to fall asleep on the grass right there.
Just then however I saw feet moving down the stone pathway towards the house.
I slid my laptop into my backpack then went over to the end of the path and waited for the person to come into sight around the trees.
A man rounded the corner.
“Good afternoon,” I said.
He wore sunglasses, was tan and had a gray beard. His pants were dark green and his shirt was a light khaki. His poodle trotted beside him.
“Do you have any rooms?” I asked as he neared.
“Ah, great.” There was no way I was leaving this oasis just yet.
The man paused in front of me, smiled briefly, then walked past. “Let me open the doors.”
Only a few steps beyond me Savannah jumped onto the man’s leg with her tail wagging ferociously.
“This one yours?”
“Good. No problem. She can stay in the room with you. We like dogs around here.”
In Central America most hotels didn’t give Savannah a thought. In South America though I usually had to do some convincing to get her into the room. It was nice to be in a place where Savannah wasn’t just tolerated, but welcome.
“I was using your outlet in the back to power my phone. I hope you don’t mind.”
“Not at all.”
The man wiped dirt from his hands then went around back.
Once the sliding doors were open I pushed my cart into a spacious room with two beds and two reclining chairs. The room smelled of some unfamiliar herb. White cabinets were set into the far wall.
I paid then sat at one of the tables in the long common area looking to the garden. I unfolded my journal and wrote – already I was thinking how I could spend a week there just writing and sitting on the grass.
The owner returned, now with his sunglasses off, revealing slightly bloodshot eyes from being in the sun all day.
“What was your name?” I asked.
“I’m Tomás. This place is like heaven.”
Silvio smiled. “Did you arrive on bicycle?”
“But your bike, you came on bike?”
“Oh no, that’s a baby carriage for my things. We walked here. It’s been fourteen months on the road.”
Silvio shook his head. “Too much walking.”
I capped my pen and sat it in my journal.
Silvio craned his neck to look into my room at my cart.
“Do you have any food here? For dinner?” I asked.
Silvio wore his emotions and I could the disappointment that he didn’t have any dinner for me.
“If not that’s fine,” I said quickly. “Are there restaurants near here?”
“There are two down the road, three hundred meters. One is for tourists and it’s a little expensive. There’s another past it that had local food but is cheaper.”
“Cheaper is better.”
“We’ll have breakfast for you tomorrow.”
“What time will you leave?”
“If that’s too early I don’t need breakfast.”
“We’ll see, we’ll see. We can have something small ready for you, coffee and bread.”
“That’d be great.”
Silvio put his sunglass on then returned outside. I got Savannah’s leash and limped down the road in my sandals to the local restaurant. A blister had formed over each of my big toes’ knuckle. At the restaurant I had soup, a huge plate of chicken and fruit juice for three bucks. Then I returned to my oasis for the night.
I took up my seat in the common area again and continued in my journal. It was dark now. I could no longer see out to the garden.
After a little while an SUV pulled in. Silvio went outside to it and Savannah followed Silvio.
In came Silvio’s wife; a tan, gray hair woman with bright eyes. She said hello to me then went to another room to drop off what she was carrying.
Silvio helped his mother down the hall. The grandmother wore big yellow frame glasses over a triangle-shaped face. She made her way past me by moving her walker ahead of her, bracing her arms, then swinging both her legs forward at the same time.
The grandmother spoke to Silvio. “What a beautiful dog. What a cutie. What a cutie.”
Savannah was in front of the grandmother, her tail wagging. When I realized Savannah might be impeding the grandmother’s path I jumped out of my chair and took Savannah by the bandana around her neck.
“Sorry about that. Come on, Savannah.”
“It’s no problem,” said Silvio.
“Are you sure?” I said from my crouched position holding Savannah.
I released Savannah who immediately retook her position in front of the grandmother’s walker. As the grandmother moved her walker forward another foot, Savannah shimmied backwards with her eyes fixed on the matriarch. The grandmother seemed to forget her walking with Savannah in front of her. “What a cutie, what a cutie,” she repeated.
Savannah continued to follow the family around. I edited some photos and wrote, then I used the wifi to call my mom.
It had been two weeks or so since we’d spoken and there was a lot to catch her up on. Once her face appeared on my screen my brain flooded with dopamine and a familiarity impossible when traveling consumed and calmed me.
We spoke for about fifteen minutes before Silvio’s wife came over.
“Would you like to join us for some coffee?”
“Oh, I can’t have coffee this late or I won’t sleep, but I’d love to join.”
“We have tea or sugar water if you’d like.”
“Tea will be perfect. I’ll be in in a minute.”
“Of course. No rush.” She took a step then turned back. “Did Savannah eat?”
“Just fed her.”
“Is she still hungry?”
I laughed. “She’s always hungry, same as me.”
“Can I give her some bread?”
“Venga,” Silvio’s wife said to Savannah.
Savannah burst up from the spot she momentarily occupied beside my feet.
My mother and I finished our conversation then I went into the small common room where Silvio, his wife and his mother were waiting for me with already empty mugs.
“Did you finish?” I asked.
“Yes, but it’s not important. Here, sit.”
I took the seat where an empty white mug was placed. Silvio passed me a few boxes of tea to choose from and I removed a bag of tea without caffeine.
The grandmother was at the head of the table looking down at Savannah. “What a cutie. What a cutie.”
“I never asked your name,” said Silvio’s wife.
“Tomás. And you?”
“Great to meet you. You have a picturesque spot of land here.”
“It was him.” Cecilia thumbed towards Silvio. “He bought this twenty-five years ago and there was nothing here, nothing. It was all desert and I said, ‘Why are you doing this to me?’ ”
“It’s beautiful now though, isn’t it?” returned Silvio.
“Of course.” Cecilia smiled to me. “But at the beginning…”
“And Silvio said you walked here.”
“That’s right. It’s been fourteen months now.”
“When will you see your family again?”
“In nine months, maybe. I’m headed to Uruguay. I have cousins there. My parents may fly down.”
“My God. Nine months.”
“What did he say?” the grandmother leaned to Cecilia.
“He won’t see his family for another nine months.”
The grandmother made an expression of shock, then in an instant her expression was wiped clean and she seemed to forget the past sentence. “Tomás, did you know there was an earthquake here two months ago?”
“I did. So terrible. It was along the coast right?”
“What did he say?” The grandmother leaned to Cecilia again.
“He asked if it was along the coast.”
“That’s right, along the coast.”
“Where were you then?” Cecilia asked.
Silvio was watching a soccer match over my shoulder but then looked to me. “You didn’t have any problems in Colombia? No one robbed you?”
“No. In Panama City a man tried to rob me but I ran into a shop.”
“What did he say?” asked the grandmother.
“He said a man tried to rob him in Panama City.”
The grandmother covered her mouth. “How terrible!”
“You know, what confused me about Colombia is that they’re the friendliest people, always smiling-”
“The friendliest people,” said Cecilia.
“-but at the same time they’re always talking about the bad people up the road.”
Silvio nodded. “Colombia has been a violent country.”
“But La Violencia is over, the FARC is small now.”
“But the FARC still exists.”
“It seems to me that it’s in their history. The violence is hard to forget.”
“That’s it, it’s in their culture,” Silvio said. “They have a long history of violence. They’ve always had violence.”
“Nothing happened to me there and everyone was kind, but I could feel it, below, the violence. I don’t feel like that here though. Ecuador feels much calmer. Crossing the border I felt it.”
“Ecuador doesn’t have the same violence. There’s been some, but very, very low. Here it’s safe.”
“I feel it. Especially here. I saw your grass and needed to sit on in.”
Cecilia rubbed Silvio’s back.
I sipped my tea. There was cheese and bread laid out that I ate. Silvio told me how when he was younger he worked in the Amazon and had since planted hundreds of Amazonian fruit trees on their land. His favorite fruit, the araza, looked like an orange with peach fuzz and smelled like a mango. They brought out araza marmalade for me to try. The flavor stunned me, it was unique. I was twenty-seven and experiencing a totally unique flavor – a mixture of peach and lime and even strawberry.
“We’ll give you some for the road,” said Cecilia.
After a half an hour I told them I was supposed to call my mother back. In the long front room I resumed my call. Cecilia sat a bottle of water and an araza fruit in my room.
Soon I was in bed. The room was clean, that was my favorite part about it. The area was quiet too, even though we weren’t far from the road I couldn’t hear any traffic. I realized how relaxed I was. I thought of staying a few days, possibly learning about the fruit trees during the day with Silvio then writing and drinking tea at night. Savannah would like it.
I was behind schedule though. The month of waiting for my axle had set me back. The plan was to spread that month out in different towns, not spend it all at once in La Plata, but the best laid plans…
I took the araza from my bedside table and stuck it to my nose. Beneath my loose grip the soft fruit gave slightly.
Then I bit into it. Immediately my mouth went numb from the outstanding amount of acidic bitterness. My face puckered, my eyes welled. Not all is as it seems on the surface.