Somewhere down the long stretch of road between the Ecuadorian border and the first Peruvian city I looked over my shoulder to see a cyclist rolling across the lane to me. The man moved his glasses to his hat and revealed a pale face with sunscreen smeared over a few day old beard. It had been nearly a month since I’d had a conversation in English. I needed one. My Spanish was conversational, I spoke at length about writing with a professor in Macará, but speaking in Spanish still felt as though I were passing on ersatz copies of my thoughts rather than the thoughts themselves.
With the potential of a good conversation ahead my mind was already lighting up. I stopped and waited for the fellow gringo to pull up beside me. “Buenos.”
“De donde eres?”
“Ah a Brit. You speak English then.” The tension of speaking a second-language vanished as I switched to my native tongue. I didn’t have to focus to understand, the words could come and I could bat back a reply.
The fair-skinned man nodded. “And you?”
I moved my cart to the edge of the pavement so the Brit wouldn’t be forced in the road. He pedaled lightly as I walked.
“And you’re going like this?” he gestured to my cart.
“How long have you been on the road for?”
“About fifteen months now, from New Jersey. Yourself?”
“Fourteen. Came down from Alaska and followed the fault line. Then it was through Central America before flying into Bogotá.”
“I did the same thing, fly into Bogotá, that is.”
“I loved that city.”
“Me too man. What’s funny is that just about every Colombian I spoke to hated it. They always said ‘Bogotá is hideous. Go to Medellin or Cali! The women are more beautiful there!’ ”
The Brit laughed. He introduced himself as Joe. As he followed the white lane line we exchanged routes and figured out where our paths intersected. I told him my favorite place was Lake Atitlan in Guatemala, he said he didn’t particularly like Lake Atitlan, that it was hazy and he couldn’t even see across the lake.
“You know, whenever people ask me what it’s like in Ecuador or Perú or Colombia a part of me wants to say I don’t know. I spent three months in Colombia, but I don’t know a thing about it. Sure, I saw parts of the country, but I don’t know it at all. I’m just passing through.”
“I couldn’t agree more. We were both at Lake Atitlan, only a few months apart, but we had such different experiences. And even if we were there at the same time we’d see the place from entirely different perspectives. Maybe you’d have good interactions while I’d meet a bunch of jerks.”
“Eleven million people in Bogotá and eleven million Bogotás.”
Joe tilted his head to defend against the strong wind following a passing eighteen-wheeler.
“And where you headed now?” I asked.
“To Piura. I have a flight back to England on Tuesday for my best mate’s wedding. I’ll be home for five weeks. Three weddings in five weeks.”
“That’ll be a great time. Have you been back before this?”
“No. First time back. And yourself?”
“My family visited while I was in the U.S. but they haven’t been able to since then. I’m hoping they can make it down to Uruguay.”
“You miss them?”
“Not really. I’m sure you know how it is. Once you’re on the road this becomes your life. You get into a routine just the same.”
A stream of cars slid into the other lane to avoid Joe and his bicycle. The Peruvian drivers were some of the friendliest I’d come across. They always moved over and almost always waved. Joe and I were on the Pan-American however, and the people on it probably had some exposure to foreigners passing through.
“So if your flight leaves from Piura you’re just taking your time right now? Piura can’t be more than a few hours for you.”
“Yea, taking my time. I’ll probably get in tomorrow around eleven and find a hostel. That’s what I usually do – ride for a week or so then when I come to a city I get a room in the morning, stay one more day, then get on the road again.”
“What’s your plan?”
I looked down the long stretch of road ahead of me. Bamboo homes lined the asphalt. The pavement wove down to the right towards the horizon. “I don’t know, I’m probably two days from Piura. I’ll walk until I reach forty kilometers for the day then call it a night.”
Upon hearing my own voice the prospect of hours of uninterrupted walking suddenly left a taste of curdled milk in my mouth. The taste had been growing stronger for weeks. By the end of Ecuador the days passed without a stir of emotion. At night I’d try to write only to stare off with an lusterless mind. The problem was I’d never felt safer than when I was in Ecuador. There was no adventure, nothing to excite or scare. Joe was the change of pace I needed to get out of my funk and I prayed he’d continue with me.
Conversation flowed easily for us. We dove into politics. I asked him about the Brexit and he asked me about Trump. When he said he was interested in behavioral economics I told him I was a psychology major. For two hours we talked about different studies we’d read, different phenomenons, and man’s inherent contradictions.
We stopped at a dirt side road so Joe could change into a shirt that wasn’t soaked in sweat. “How about a spot of tea?” he asked. “I have some everyday around four. It sounds a bit mad having hot tea on a hot day, but I think it’s a nice way to break up the miles.”
“Tea sounds amazing.”
Joe pulled his hat back on and we continued walking. “Whenever you see somewhere.”
We pulled in the shade of a bamboo awning beside a house. I laid out my tarp. Joe started boiling water on his stove. Local kids spotted us and spied from behind bushes.
“Could you imagine doing this in England or the U.S.?” Joe asked. “Sitting beside someone’s house like this?”
“I know. People are so much nicer here. I’d kick us off. Look at this bum.”
“Have you ever had a problem sleeping on someone’s land?”
“There was one guy in Costa Rica who yelled at me, but it was five in the morning and I was already packing. But he was cool, after he wrangled his cows he came back and apologized for yelling. You?”
“I don’t know how people are so trusting.”
Joe shook his head.
“You have a cup?” he asked.
“Ah. No. Here, I’ll use this.” I poured the little water remaining in my Nalgene into Savannah’s water bowl then passed the Nalgene to Joe. Joe hung two tea bags in the bottle then filled it about halfway with water.
The local kids were growing surer of themselves. They’d worked their way up from the bushes and were now standing a stone’s throw away staring at us. There were three boys and one girl, the oldest boy being about twelve.
“I bet you they’re all family,” I said, then waving to the kids.
The oldest boy waved back. He proceeded towards us and the other three kids followed. Soon they were at the edge of my tarp looking down at Joe and his stove. The smallest boy, maybe six years old, crouched in front of the stove and poked its windshield. “What’s this?”
“A stove,” answered Joe in heavily accented Spanish.
The other kids surrounded the stove and examined it as if a turtle out of its shell.
“For water?” one child asked.
“For water, for tea.”
I took my Nalgene and leaned over the steam drifting out of it. It was a bit insane to be having hot tea on a hot day, but the conversation more than warranted it. Since Quito my days had been set in unbudging routine. Maybe I’d stop for lunch or breakfast at different times, but that was the only variance. On my own I’d never take the time to sit and have tea. There were always more miles to be walked.
“Are there any stores around here?” Joe asked the kids.
“Yes!” The oldest boy sprung to his feet. He pointed down the street. “There’s one shop there and another there.”
“Do they have cookies?”
All four of the kids nodded.
“For the tea?” I asked.
“I have something.”
I rifled through my food box until grabbing the graham crackers I picked up two days earlier.
“Perfect,” said Joe.
“Have as much as you want. And thanks for the tea.” I raised my Nalgene to him then attempted to take a sip of the steaming liquid – still too hot.
The kids sat across from me and Joe in a row. They stared at us. The oldest boy and the girl occasionally whispered to each other. It felt a little strange that they could just sit across from us in silence. There’s no way kids in the States would do the same. If their parents didn’t wave them off from bothering the strangers then there were video games to play or practice to go to.
“No school today?” I asked the kids.
“Are you on vacation?”
Joe laughed. “In Mexico there were always kids in school uniforms walking somewhere. It seemed like every hour of the day there were kids out walking, but I don’t think I saw them in school once.”
“Costa Rica is the only place I can remember regularly seeing schools.”
Joe turned to the kids. “Are you brothers and sisters?”
They shook their heads.
“Cousins?” I asked.
They stirred with excitement. The oldest boy swung his arm around the neck of the boy beside him then announced proudly, “We’re all cousins!”
“No we’re not,” said the girl sourly. “I’m your sister.”
The boy grinned. “She’s my sister.”
“But we’re cousins!” said the youngest to me.
“They’re always cousins,” I said to Joe.
“Seems like a pretty good life. No school and exploring the desert all day with your family. But how do you find a wife when all the women are your cousins?”
I chuckled. The kids looked between us.
The tea was great once it cooled down. I usually didn’t have caffeine beyond ten in the morning so the two tea bags had me wired. Joe and I turned our conversation to each other. The kids watched us for a good while, occasionally prodding the stove or knocking on the tires of my cart.
“I feel so civilized,” I said. “Tea in the middle of nowhere.”
“Sorry it’s not better quality. Colombia had great tea, but there aren’t many tea drinkers down here are there? It’s all coffee. At home I would have tea, biscuits, and some salted cashews at the same time everyday. The only thing missing is the cashews.”
“Tea and crackers works for me.” I leaned my head back on my cart.
Joe sat his plastic mug down and packed up his stove. I feared he was getting ready to leave.
“Hey,” I said. “I don’t know if you were planning on riding further on today, but I only need to walk two more hours to reach my quota. It would be cool if you wanted to camp together tonight.”
I felt like I was back in high school asking my crush out on a date. I was actually nervous Joe would say no.
“Yea, sure man. I’m in no rush.”
I could feel my interest in the world being restored already.