Feeling a bit anxious by these strange surroundings, never having traveled over-seas before, I began to pace about looking for anyone the same color as me. Breaking through the crowd appeared a white man in his early thirties. He waved me over and introduced himself as Ed, my in-country contact for the volunteer organization Jatun Sacha. We got into Ed’s SUV and headed towards Mariscal Sucre, the tourist district of Quito. This was unknown to me at the time, but apparently it was the only area of Quito that Americans were advised to stay in by the Embassy. I found out not much later that carrying an American passport in South America can be like holding a target symbol in front of your face. Ed dropped me off in front of my hostel and told me to report to the office in a couple days for my assignment. Feeling surprisingly liberated and confident, I carried my bags up to my room and opened the door. Laying in one of the two small beds was a half-naked Asian girl who jumped when I entered. Giving a somewhat lingering apology, I slowly backed out of the room to give her time to dress. After spending five minutes speaking in broken Spanish to the manager of the hostel, I went back upstairs to unpack. The girls name was Leena, and she was a beautiful mix of Chinese and British. A fellow volunteer, already two months in-country, she was headed out to her next assignment in the morning. About an hour later we found ourselves on the dark streets looking for a place to have a drink. A couple frozen margaritas later and I came to the realization that travel can do amazing things for your self-confidence. I had gone from loathing life and myself, to wanting to absorb everything this country could throw at me with an un-quenching thirst.
A few days later I was on a cockroach infested bus headed to the rainforest. The only directions I had been given were to go to the Terminal Terrestrea in Quito and get on a bus for a remote village, then find some mode of transportation to an even more remote town called Tito Santos. At this point I feel it necessary to describe the conditions of the roads leading away from Quito. When you leave the main terminal you’re on relatively normal paved roads with traffic lights. After about fifteen minutes the bus hits dirt roads that wind upwards into the mountains. This is when you begin to wish you had brought sleeping pills. The “highways” are wide enough to fit two trucks side by side, but judging by the maneuvering tactics I witnessed these drivers thought they were New York City cabbies. The only problem was that at the edge of the road there was nothing but air. You couldn’t see the ground below because you were so high in the mountains…all you saw were clouds. There were no railings, no dividers, nothing to stop a careening bus from plummeting about ten thousand feet to a fiery conclusion. At times, the wheels of the bus would come so close to the edge that I would close my eyes and prepare for the long descent. Occasionally you could see gravestones marking the sites where the unlucky ones had perhaps fallen asleep at the wheel, or been too drunk to realize the difference between the blackness of the road at night, and the actual night sky.
My first venture out of Quito thankfully went smoothly enough but I was very anxious to exit the bus and get off those roads of doom. There was only one hitch, but it had nothing to do with the wild near misses and movie style stunts of the death road drivers. Every volunteer working for Jatun Sacha and Peace Corps had to take Malaria pills. I had strict instructions on how to take them, one every day…or was it week? The daily or weekly dose eluded my memory and for five days before this trip I had been taking a Meflaquin pill a day. Of course, I had picked the wrong interval, and one of the side effects of over-dosing on Meflaquin is severe hallucinations. While trying not to stare death in the face I had dozed off and fallen down the rabbit hole.
I awoke in Jerusalem. I’d never been to Israel but something inside me intuitively new this was my location. It seemed like a normal day: people were walking and talking, birds were chirping, cars and public transportation were puttering around. The sky was like a living Monet exhaled onto a giant canvas forming a sphere around the Earth. Muted colors, smoky grays and blues the shades of rough seas. The city loomed before me in giant perspective as if I was at the narrow tip of the looking glass. A plane buzzed overhead moving in lazy circles leaving vapor trails that dissipated like seltzer bubbles. A sense of overwhelming dread suddenly overcame me and I knew, deep within me I somehow knew that there was a nuclear weapon aboard that plane and that it was going to crash into a building in the center of the city. This knowledge came packaged: several more planes in various key locations around the world were on the same kamikaze mission. As these thoughts fluttered through my mind the plane hit and a mushroom cloud quickly rose as the ground beneath my feet trembled. Death was on its way and it came painlessly; a searing wave of splitting atoms that turned me from flesh and bone to ash.
Somehow I still stood, thought, saw, and understood. I was conscious, yet sure of my passing. Other souls around me moved like beacons on a shore, swinging back and forth in shocked automation. My thoughts strayed from my plight to the situation of my family…I desperately wanted to know their conditions. Had New York been hit hard? Had the fallout reached Somers and my father’s house nestled in Granite Springs. Were my brothers alive…my mother…I needed answers and as if wishing it made it so I found myself in my mothers’ bedroom. She was on the phone with the embassy, crying, the pages of the YellowBook flayed open on her desk soaked with tears. I had this overwhelming desire to make her understand I was ok, that I was gone but still here…that I wasn’t in pain. I yelled, screamed, and resorted to guttural sounds that would have ripped human throats apart from the strain. A page moved, gently. Something about it caught her attention. She froze like a cat when you catch them with their paws halfway towards your plate. I summoned every last vestige of will and strength as I swept the book off the desk. She looked in my direction and I whispered, “I’m ok, mom, I’m ok.” She must have heard or sensed what I was trying to convey somehow because I could see the muscle tension in her body release and her jaw slacken. Tears poured from her eyes as she nodded and placed the phone on the receiver. The last thing I remember before waking is seeing her smile and feeling this over-powering calm invade every inch of my spectral body.
Eight hours passed while in that Mefloquin coma, but eventually we reached the city of Pedernales and I climbed off the bus with a sigh of relief. After some asking around, I found myself in the back of a milk truck ‘hopefully’ headed towards my destination. We reached a tiny beach village and the driver let me out in the center of “town.” Lugging my bags, I started to ask around if anyone knew where Tito Santos was. All hands pointed down a dirt road that faded in the distance. I walked for hours past herds of skinny cattle and dried husks of snake skin that made me wish I had worn boots instead of sandals. I reached the end of the road, literally, and a ranch appeared. It was stocked with more skinny cows and even skinnier horses. A few dogs roamed about or lay panting in the shade of trees. A few were pregnant, one or two were missing legs. An elderly man introduced himself as Tito Santo, and in broken English obviously learned from dealing with gringos like me, directed me another mile or so east past a line of mammoth trees, into the Amazon. After a short breather, and a quick mosquito repellant shower, I picked up my bags and entered the jungle.
Submitted by HGL, Copyright KMG Inc. 2012. Part of a work in progress. A new chapter will be submitted every week by the author so stay tuned!