The expedition was scheduled to take an unspecified number of hours, we were politely informed, and would therefore begin in the middle of the night. It might have been early morning. You say tomato, I say semantics. There wasn’t going to be a lot of luggage space — presumably cattle don’t have a lot of carry-on — so our basic necessities had to be rationed to whatever could fit inside a backpack. I brought a change of pants, a pair of dress shoes and the extra banana I’d pocketed at breakfast. Refried beans hadn’t seemed practical. My friend Dave couldn’t bear to part with his CDs, even for a night, so he asked me to share the load. One of the group leaders asked me why I was bringing the Green Day catalogue into the El Salvadorian jungle. I told him I was spreading the Good News of Dookie. He told me that wasn’t funny.
The thirty or so of us sweating suburbanites, pink and proper, huddled together under the only functioning street light on the block. The sun hadn’t even shown its overbearing face yet and my shirt was patchy with sweat. The entire group smelled of B.O. and failing deodorant. Even the cute girl I’d been covertly taking pictures of all week — under the guise of photographing this historic building and that ancient ruin she just happened to be standing next to or in the general vicinity of — was looking a little flushed. I took another picture. Of the street light. She may or may not have been in frame, I really can’t say for sure.
A POP! A BANG! A collective tensing and then a quiver through the stiffest of upper lips. Perhaps a new drug cartel with an ambitious business strategy was knocking off the early morning competition. Or civil war had erupted, negotiated by the tourism board to provide fodder for our debriefing and subsequent slideshows. At the very least, a fiery love triangle had turned bloody.
A slow rumble grew beneath our feet. I clutched Dave. Dave held his CDs tight. To the left, where the shambled concrete street rose and abruptly dropped out of sight, two headlights appeared. Labouring to crest the hill, the driver ground the gears and the antique diesel lurched forward. The machine slowed as it neared us. Its driver peered at our pasty party, his fat face lazily offering flickers of amusement. An unlit cigarette hung from his lips. He said something in Spanish and our interpreter said something back in Spanish. The driver laughed. The interpreter laughed. One of the girls cried.
“We’re not taking this thing, are we?” Dave asked, checking his backpack for cracked cases.
“Nah,” I said. “We’re taking a bus. Definitely.” It came out sort of desperate-like. I hoped Cute Girl couldn’t hear me.
“Alright kiddies,” our interpreter vaguely interpreted. “Hop up back.”
The truck was a crate on wheels. Someone had constructed a wooden box and attached some spare rubber tubes and hoped for the best. Someone else suggested they go into business shuttling foreigners into the darkest recesses of the jungle and charge oodles of Salvadoran colónes for the privilege. Then the two someones shook hands, lit their cigars, and laughed their enterprising laugh. And then a foreigner wrote a cheque and they were in business.
The driver slid out of his cab and casually pulled a plank of wood from the back of the truck, propped it against the tailgate, and tested its sturdiness with a couple of gentle kicks. He pointed at the closest kid in the group and said something in Spanish, cocking his head toward the plank. The kid looked terrified. He turned around, flushed; hoping one of us might volunteer to lead the charge. The group took a step backward. Emboldened by our cowardice, he indignantly teetered up the unconvincing ramp and into the truck bed. A few more grunts from the driver and the rest of the group cautiously followed. Cattle to the slaughter.
“Isn’t this an adventure!” The Humourless Group Leader wasn’t stating a fact as much as attempting to quiet his aggravated ulcer. He was smiling but showing too many teeth, like a deranged hospital escapee bumming a ride to anywhere. He caught me staring at him.
“Moo!” He said it with gusto. He seemed pleased with himself. I didn’t return his crazed smile, so he turned to the girl beside him. “Mooooo!” She scrunched her nose at him and moved away.
When we’d all been squeezed into the pen and the gate locked, the driver got into the cab and tried to start the truck. The engine let out a dull, sputtering cough but didn’t turn over. He tried again with the same result. He got out, popped the hood open, slammed the hood shut, and got back in. He cursed prayerfully in Spanish and tried once more. The engine slowly caught and settled into a begrudging but steady metallic knock. With a lover’s touch, he coerced the transmission into submission and the truck and its uneasy passengers pitched forward into the dark.
The truck was moving so fast, the road so dark, and my terror so palpable, all I saw the first hour were streaks of hinted colour and incomprehensible black shapes passing uncomfortably close to my head. By the second hour — or third, or fourth, or fifth — the sky had begun to lighten, as did my grip on the wooden railings. I tried to pick a few of the splinters from my delicate skin but the uneven road was frustrating my efforts. We were off the semi-paved streets and vaulting along a single lane dirt track. The pathway seemed haphazardly cut through the brush, as if no serious consideration had been given to a particular destination. Anything beyond a slow crawl made my teeth rattle. A kid beside me threw up over the side of the truck and a few of the girls beside him squealed in disgust.
As the sun broke across the horizon, the forest came alive. The sounds of exotic birds squawking and unseen insects jittering and slimy things slithering and imaginary monsters stalking drowned out the misplaced growl of our diesel transport. To the left of the makeshift road the land climbed to a near vertical slope. Yet the trees had been cleared away and the hill was being farmed. Several men, carrying rakes and pushing carts, moved across it with ease. They stopped and stared down at the truck’s displaced cargo. Someone in our group shouted, “Hola!” The farmers, bewildered, shouted back, “Hola!” Then everyone in the truck shouted, “Hola!” The farmers said nothing but watched with curiosity as we disappeared around a bend and into the thick of the jungle.
There were no cheery signs with a village name and motto to welcome passers-by, no gas stations, restaurants, hotels, motels, RV parks. There wasn’t even any indication that we’d arrived in an area populated by human beings. But the truck came to a stop and the driver jumped out, leaving the engine idling, and disappeared into the brush. A few moments later he returned, followed by another man in a faded Nike t-shirt and disintegrating khaki shorts. The new man, his dark skin covered in a sheen of sweat, looked us over carefully. Satisfied, he smiled and waved, said something to the driver, and disappeared back into the foliage.
The driver took the truck a bit further before making a sudden right turn down a well-covered path. A succession of low hanging branches beat at our disoriented heads. Minutes later, the road opened into a clearing. Several shed-like homes, no more than a dozen, lined one side of the lane. They were simple buildings, forged from a motley collection of materials — some more wood than brick, others more metal than wood, still others indeterminate — and the roofs no more than bundled bamboo. On the other side of the lane was a large, warehouse-like building built entirely of grey brick. At the far end of the clearing two other large buildings, made of the same colourless blocks, were fenced in with chicken wire.
A group of children who had been kicking around a soccer ball saw the diesel beast and came running up alongside it. They were laughing and reaching for the truck’s railings, trying to climb into the back with us, its exotic envoy. The driver stopped hard and a couple of the kids fell off and landed in the mud. They laughed and tried to climb back up. Humourless Group Leader told them to be careful. They looked at him wide-eyed and uncomprehending and laughed hysterically. He seemed pleased someone finally found him amusing.
The driver had lowered the plank and we shuffled down like freshly-minted zombies. The man in the Nike shirt had reappeared along with several other locals, and they and our group leaders had a meet and greet. The interpreter feverishly tried to juggle half a dozen conversations. The rest of us stood together, staring at the local kids, offering unsteady smiles and saying things like “Buenos días” and “Lo siento” and “Qué chistoso” and “No tengo ni idea” and whatever other Spanish phrases our adolescent minds had been able to retain. The kids were ecstatic. They grabbed our hands, trying to pull us along to whoknowswhere. I caught Cute Girl’s eye and tried my best to seem nonchalant, as if I travelled to remote jungle villages and met with hyper local children on a regular basis.
The leaders came back and divided us up, sending some off to lose a soccer match to the kids, some to the solitary warehouse-like building and the rest to the fenced in complex at the end of the clearing. Throw-Up Boy and I were delegated to the complex along with six other uneasy volunteers. A large burly fellow came and shook our hands, nearly ripping mine clean out of the socket with friendliness. He spoke little English — a few key words here and there — but what he lacked in vocabulary he made up for in gestures.
“Si, si,” he said, pointing to the cinder block buildings behind the meagre fencing. “School.” He pretended to write on an invisible sheet of paper. He tapped his forehead. “School.”
“Oh,” I said, rubbing my sore shoulder. “A school. That’s…good?” I looked at my team. They were smiling at him like idiots.
“Si, school. You—“ He held his palms up, as if ready to defend himself. “—paint school?”
“Ah ha. Paint the school. Well.” My peers were still smiling dumbly, except for one girl who looked as if she’d just been told she was never going to see her family again. She looked down at her fingernails and then back up at the man, then at the rest of us. Burly Man laughed and his belly shook.
“We’d love to,” I said. “To the school!” I cursed myself for not bringing an extra shirt. Perhaps I could fashion something out of a banana peel and several CD liners.
Our new friend led us through a gate into the schoolyard. The two buildings faced each other, and each one had four doors leading into four rooms. The door furthest from the gate opened as we neared it. A middle aged woman walked out, her movements slow and deliberate. Her thick black hair was tied tight against her head. She waved a frail arm and beckoned us to her. Her legs were bandaged with white tape.
“What happened to her legs?” I asked Burly Man. He looked at me curiously. I pointed to her legs. “Legs.” I mimed a wrapping motion around my own. “Bandages.”
“Ah. Si. Serpiente,” he said, smiling. “Snake.” He held his hands apart. “Muy grande.” He shrugged and let out another hearty laugh. Startled, I glanced over at Throw-Up Boy. He was looking a little green.
One of the girls took a few apprehensive steps forward. “What did he just say?”
I kept walking, not looking at her. “Oh, she has shin splints. Big shin splints. Muy grande.” The girl eyed me suspiciously but kept up with us.
Snake Woman greeted us with a warm, well-practiced “Hello.” She spoke a few sentences in Spanish and we smiled and nodded politely. Then she went back into her office and came out with two rusty paint cans, straining to hold them before dropping them at our feet. She pointed inside her office. We followed her directions and found several more cans, along with some decrepit paint rollers and used paint trays. We took them outside and opened the cans. Electric blue. The woman took a dry paint roller and rolled it up the wall beside the doorway. Burly Man was smiling and nodding with enthusiasm. “Paint. School,” he said.
The eight of us painted with fervour, more than happy to disguise the drab grey of the concrete walls. Throw-Up Boy and I took shifts searching the premises for muy grande sperientes. A group of kids came and played soccer in the school yard, stopping now and then to stare and laugh at us. One boy tried to talk to me. We had to make do with exchanging silly faces, a universal language. A few of the bolder kids decided to sneak over and paint each other, until Snake Woman came out and chased them off with a string of sharp words. She would occasionally stand and watch us work and offer an encouraging nod, as if witnessing a masterpiece unfold — or graciously trying not to injure our sensitive egos.
By the time we had used up all the paint the sun was beginning to set. One of the school buildings had been covered completely and about half of the second. They looked out of place, the bold blue brick mocking the grey and brown of the rest of the village. But it was a hit. The kids were racing around, daring each other to touch the wet paint. Several of the local adults came over and shook our hands appreciatively before dragging their audacious children away with them. Snake Woman clasped our hands in hers and said gracias to each of us in turn. Fingernail Girl didn’t seem too concerned with her electric blue nails.
Burly Man returned and invited us to come and eat. “Food,” he said, holding his fingers up his mouth. My stomach rejoiced audibly and Throw-Up Boy looked faint.
“Yes please!” I said. “Si! Gracias!” He laughed, either at my poor attempt at his language or my overzealousness at the thought of food.
He brought us to the grey warehouse. Beside it a new shed-like house had materialized, about three-quarters finished. Around the whole lot a new fence had been constructed. Our guide pointed at the two new additions then at us and said, “Amigos.”
Inside the building, dinner was well underway. At the far end of the room there was a raised platform. An elderly man sat on a chair on the stage and played his guitar while another man sang about something beautiful. Several tables had been arranged about the room, and at each the locals and our teammates talked and ate and laughed. The room smelled of rice and meat and spices. I drooled all over myself. Burly Man took us to an empty table and sat and ate with us. We laughed and mimed what we could, but mostly we broke bread and enjoyed each other’s company.
The diesel engine woke us in the morning. The fumes helped mask our collective stench. We shook hands with our new friends and kicked the soccer ball back and forth a few more times. Finally, we were herded back onto the unwelcome taxi, each less willing to hurry aboard than the other.
“What’s up with those fences?” I asked Dave as we followed Throw-Up Boy and the other stragglers up the plank.
“Mountain lions,” he said in hushed excitement. “They’ve been coming into the village at night and eating their animals.”
Throw-Up Boy stumbled and glanced back at us, wide-eyed. He looked a little pale.
The freighter soon began its agitated return to warm showers and CD players. Before it faded out of sight, I took a roll of photos of the village, of its small homes and beaming faces and blazing blue school. Cute Girl didn’t make it into any of them.
Kyle Stewart currently lives in Surrey, BC, where he is finishing his BA in English at Kwantlen Polytechnic University.
Volunteers for Issue 7
For sub-editing this issue MTLS thanks:
- Lequanne Collins-Bacchus
- Amanda Tripp
- Bianca Spence
- Rosel Kim
MTLS is grateful to Ian Loiselle for his hard work on web management.
PEN Canada Presents: TAXI Stand Jam!"