high beam light
high beam light
I once had
to choose between
dinner, potatoes, maybe
a steak, or
art. The food
salty with skin
drips of sauce
or Goya’s bulging
eyes. I only
had enough money
for one or
the other, before
flying back to
Dulles. You may
have guessed it
but El Greco
had his way
with shadows, that
light in darkness
and me hungry.
They worry about me in pounding wind,
that I might collapse, my weight crushing
fence, roof, windshield. It never crosses
their mind that I might be dancing, green
leaves, trunk, thump-shaking, swaying.
That this is my journey song, while roots
hold tight. Air my music, feel it move, groove,
and yes, one day I will topple this glory.
Sitting shotgun in a truck, 3 of us squeezed in the front (Cayo, Ernesto, Me), no seat belts, sipping yerba mate. I’m speaking Spanish, asking questions about recycling plastic and filtering water with chlorine. Cayo drives, points his finger up at the windshield, motioning to each vehicle we pass on the two lane Caazapa highway. Yvaga, he says, cielo, heaven. That’s where you will go when you die, his finger silently communicates. Watching this ritual I see the other drivers smiling at us, their fingers also pointing upward, telling us the same thing.
Cayo asks me about California. The Paraguayan campo has no cable TV, no CNN, no movie theaters. He doesn’t question me about celebrities or our president, he asks about the land, trees, animals, what the air smells like, feels like. I tell him about non-native eucalyptus trees, how they suck water out of the earth, take nourishment away from other plants. He understands. The conversation is easy, like the cumulus clouds that float like cotton above us.
Ernesto speaks and at first I think I comprehend, the cadence sounds the same, but then I’m lost in a time before Spanish, before South American roads. I close my eyes for a few seconds, a lightness takes over. I’m hearing a Guarani language not of an evangelizing church or of plundering capitalism, but of a people, a community. A few minutes later we slow down, pick up a hitchhiker, normal in this part of Paraguay. I see the guy sitting in the truck bed, a large heavy sack between his legs. A man on a journey, we both watch the road, I look out the front, he looks out the back.
I’m staring down at the rails, air whipping as we pick up speed. Holding onto the steel ladder, the blur of tracks look like melting Kit Kats one after the other. Arms exhausted, my two hiking boots are balancing precariously on a single round bulb of protruding metal, as I contemplate velocity and how hard my body will hit when I jump off the train. I envision a quick touching down of feet, then a shoulder roll, maybe a sprained ankle at worst. But at 35mph, realistically I’d be broken. I see Jake standing on the small platform between the trains, he’s only a few feet away, but there is no room on it for me, he has his elbows out protecting himself from being shoved off by six Peruvian guys, their shorter bodies jostling him while the locomotive thumps along.
We are fatigued after four days of hiking the Inca Trail. We arrived at Machu Picchu earlier in the morning before the tourists, out of food, too tired to do much except sit and take it all in, the ancient rocks, the steps, the now open-air rooms where god only knows what happened hundreds of years ago. Our group had hiked with the Brazilians, their drums and guitar echoing into the Andean nights as we sucked on coca leaves. We left the ruins and dutifully purchased our tickets for the afternoon train to Cuzco, stomachs rumbling, longing for a big order of pollo and papas. The train pulled in; masses of non-paying indigenous humanity swarmed past our dusty backpacks launching their squat brown bodies onto the train. The scene was how I imagined Bangladesh or India, they were on board before Jake and I had time to react and join the throng. No space inside, we jumped up, Jake to the platform and me to ladder, then the rectangular wheeled hunk of iron erupted with that distinct chug of childhood stories.
The Inca Trail gone; I readjust my grip on the ladder wondering how much longer I can hold on. Jake, I’m jumping off this frickin’ thing if doesn’t stop soon, I yell. He shakes his head at me. No way dude, he yells back. I’ve got maybe six minutes left in my arms, max. While I’m pondering how far to leap out to clear the gravel, it starts to slow down, then stop. I hop off, thankful to have my kneecaps and face abrasion-free. I’ll meet you guys in Cuzco; I shout up to Jake.
I look around, the multitudes are gone, only mountain cloud forest, a few Quechan women in their bowler hats. They are selling cuy, I can smell the grilled guinea pig, a rustic delicacy I ate a few years back when I lived in Ecuador building latrines. I should be scared, but I have my sleeping bag and a little money, and I know the Quechua, know that they treat people like people. As I take steps toward the women, toward the communal life, I’m almost giddy. Will I follow the tracks back to Cuzco? Will I hitchhike? Will I live with the Quechua for days waiting for a random truck to pass by some isolated road? I feel free, knowing I’m about to drift into the ocean of the unknown.
Behind me the train starts up again, and I hear Matt and two other guys from our group yelling, Dan, we have room! My fantasy bubble pops as I muster my legs and backpack for a sprint to the open door where Matt is holding out his hands telling me to jump for. It is my Indiana Jones moment and I make it count. They hold my arms, strip off my backpack, my butt hanging out the door, catching wind. I ride like that for many minutes until eventually more people get off and I finally sit inside the compartment. We make several more stops before finally getting to Cuzco, at each one, I stare at Quechan faces, the people who were going to take care of me and help me get back to civilization.
They sport cowboy boots and We Love Elvis t-shirts holding iPads, wearing headphones for the tour. I sang Blue Suede Shoes karaoke once, but that wasn’t enough to keep me walking around his Graceland estate with the rest of the ducks, waddling from room to room taking photos of the King’s white TV set and blue curtains.
Not sure how we got here, Memphis sweat and people twanging about how it was Grandma who liked him, not Grandpa. I wanted to love this little slice of my country, even woke up listening to Paul Simon’s tune, but ten minutes in I knew I was a goner. To say I don’t really care is an understatement, the man was a man, sang songs, acted, died of drugs and bodily neglect, his health wrecked by fame and addiction.
But the pre-tour film left all that out, as generation after generation venerates the get rich success, crash and burn failure of his jumpsuit days and private plane, and I suppose I’m the curmudgeon, sitting watching them all, waiting for the shuttle to take me back, away from America’s celebration of this glorious excess.
In the backseat, we must be going 80 mph, reverberating Berber music like Salat, ritualistic Islamic prayer with drums, voices, sintir strings plucked, boom from the old Peugeot’s speakers, permanent Sahara hair dryer heat fills my nostrils. We left Merzouga earlier in the morning, before that, the Atlas Mountains, Azrou, Fez, Tangier. The road is gone, only sand, like after the first inches of snow have fallen. We stop at the edge, no billboards, no little tourist kiosk, nothing, only a thousand miles of granular fragments, beaten down quartz, dolomite, calcite, sand pixels. I touch its wildness, primitive, uncontainable, not a Tonka truck home, not the domesticated box from my childhood backyard, it looms, immense with dry waves of undulating silence. We walk into it alone, like swimming past the ocean breakers, together, apart. Speechless, it has absorbed our words, sun pulsating, the desert almost asking us to quietly join it, forever. Human shadows elongate, planet rotates, heat ebbs, darkness, then stars. They appear first one by one, little white births, souls of the night sky. Then a torrent, a blanket of speckled light, countless orbs above, total blackness below. I think of Yad Vashem, the Holocaust, children who died. Never thought much about heaven before, alone, surrounded.
Manicured ladies in stilettos navigate ancient smooth
stoned pathways, corridors assembled during Roman times.
Smooth curves of their exposed skin pattern the night,
wafts of perfume mingle with the smell of grilled
octopus and cigarettes.
Some cling to tan wrinkled arms
of sugar daddies, men with white chest hairs
attached to fortunes drenched in cologne.
I never visit the island for Gucci or Fendi,
air-conditioned square shops of consumer luxury.
The purring cicadas surrounded by sea
are my siren song, blue water darkening as it journeys
to Tunisia. Pulsating, my calves quiver up and down steps
to Villa Jovis where Tiberius reigned supreme, decadently
tossing the unwanted off cliffs into the watery
chasm of time.
The ruins sit unaffected by sun’s sweat dripping
from my elbows. I rest in pine tree shadows, imagine when
Neruda was here, arranging verse in his head. Away from the glitz,
everything is as it was, as it is, ants, jasmine, laughter
of the old women who were born in Capri,
born by the sea.