“It’s cold,” said Sarah.
“Yeah, that’s how it is in the desert,” said Claire.
They were at a crossroad, in Peru, in the middle of the Altiplano desert, in the middle of the night. And it was freezing cold.
Sixty miles before, a local farmer had picked them up outside some funky town they had already forgotten the name. The man did tell them that, after sixty miles, he’d turn right into the desert. He told them that if they wanted to go straight he’d have to drop them off right there, at the crossroad, and that there was nothing there but a dusty crossroad.
Sarah and Claire had been waiting for Christ’s sake just to get out of that town another farmer took them in. It was such a distressful place, a village of beaten men, hopeless women and scared children and of a vicious wind going through all of their heads.
Anyway Sarah and Claire’s Spanish was not that good and they didn’t quite understand what that new farmer was telling them. All they heard is that he was going in the right direction for sixty miles. So they climbed into the pick-up truck, Claire in the middle.
Pedro – must have been a Pedro – was as decent a man as a Peruvian farmer could be trying to grow something in the desert. He had missing teeth and laughed quite easily, having never been so happy on this ride home since god knows when. Two pretty girls from a foreign country, right out of the sky! Angels, they had to be angels.
Before she got in, it took about two seconds for Claire to understand that they didn’t have anything to fear from this Pedro. So when he played the radio, smile widely and tried to make conversation, Claire and Sarah gave enough. Especially Claire, sitting in the middle.
Claire could feel the man’s body next to her, jumping and touching on the bumpy road. Pedro never made an uncalled for move – indeed he was respectful, in the upmost – but she could feel the heat of his body. She wondered why, on this trip, it was always her sitting in the middle.
The music on the radio was catchy, the guy was fair, he offered drinks, cigarettes and did all he could to be nice. So Claire didn’t mind him getting hot, she knew he couldn’t help it. She even, out of generosity and kindness, let him know that she knew. She could imagine his wife, his kids in bumfuck somewhere in the Altiplano desert; she could guess the great story he’d tell them once he’d get home. And his kids being proud: “Dad helped two foreign angels.”
Well, after sixty miles, at the crossroads, Pedro announced he was turning right into the desert and Angels had to get off his car. Angels’ Spanish being not good enough, pleading was of no use. They saw Pedro’s tail lights eventually disappear toward the mountains.
“It’s fucking cold,” said Sarah.
“I know,” said Claire.
It was a beautiful night. The air was so crisp that the light from the crescent moon and the stars was like crystal. Very far away were shadows of mountains but, other than that, the desert was utterly flat and empty in every directions and a cold wind was sharply biting right into their bones. So, quivering so much, Claire cried out loud.
“Do you know the ‘3’ rule of survival?” she asked Sarah.
Sarah was freezing and clenching her teeth and was, again, pissed at herself to have gone on this crazy trip with Claire. Yet she trusted Claire and was somewhat proud to be there; freezing in fucking Peru sure beats watching TV in bumfuck Texas with her Dad commenting the news, her helpless mother whining and the kids too scared to dissent.
Sarah remembered how she begged Claire to let her go with her.
Claire had to be cold too, Sarah thought.
Claire was cold alright and it had occurred to her that, come to think of it, she had not seen any other headlights on that road, not once she could think of, since they climbed in with Pedro. And that was hours ago. She was the one who insisted on travelling light: “what, you want to go to Peru with three suitcases,” she remembers riling Sarah. Well, there they were now with two sorry ponchos and shoes bought in Miami.
“What’s the rule ‘3’ of survival?” asked Sarah.
So Claire explained. “See, in the cold, you die in three hours, without water you die in three days, without food you can last three months.”
“So we have less than one hour left?” quipped Sarah.
They just cracked up. And they laughed, laughed, laughed and their laughter erupted in the crisp air like a symphony of faith in the joy of being alive. It was so good that when the laughter subsided, they hugged each other and there was a lot of love and respect there. This hardly broke the Altiplano’s utter silence. It was so cold that even the girls’ hug had an icy chill to it. They were hours from the first light, from a roof.
So Claire checked their survival kit and said: “Look, we have only one cigarette left. We’re going to smoke it now and I guaranty you that, before this cigarette is over, something will happen.”
“Then what?” asked Sarah.
“Then we’ll see,” answered Claire.
So they lit the cigarette and started to share it with much ceremony.
“Headlights,” Sarah screamed.
Sure enough, far away yet but going in the right direction, headlights. Sarah and Claire cracked up again, overwhelmed, and started jumping in the desert.
“Didn’t I tell you?” screamed Claire.
“Yes you did!” screamed Sarah.
And they kissed and never cigarette had been so good so they hugged again, so happy and so proud and the moon and the stars were their witnesses.
Then they waited, if only because they had plenty of time to see the headlights coming slowly to them from the desert’s recesses. Indeed, as those lights were getting closer, Sarah and Claire weren’t speaking anymore. What time it was they didn’t know but it was for sure the heart of night in a cold and silent desert.
Then Claire and Sarah saw that these headlights were those of a tired and whining Peruvian bus screeching into a stop, in a cloud of dust.
Sheeee…. The front doors opened.
The bus had stopped a few yards away, so Sarah and Claire had to walk some. They didn’t run.
In the hollow moonlight, they saw faces through the windows. It took Claire only two seconds to figure out the alternative: the frigid desert or this bunch of guys. Through the doors, she saw seven of them, most of them young, cobber miners probably. And an older bus driver – not a Pedro.
None of the guys said a word. They were just looking, stunned, and quickly having devilish thoughts about these two angels fallen from the sky. They couldn’t help it: they knew the alternative and their eyes said they hoped to get lucky.
The bus had stopped puffing and the engine was now furring in the utter silence of the Altiplano. Nobody was saying anything, the bus driver was waiting, ready to go either way, ready to close the doors and move on.
Claire remembered Sarah begging to come with her. Where they were going to, Claire knew, didn’t matter really for Sarah as long as it was far from Texas. So there they were in Peru and Claire understood she had a choice and that her choice would be Sarah’s as well.
Between the plague and the cholera, Claire figured the cold was unbearable; the ‘3’ survival rule. So with Sarah behind her, she climbed onto the bus. She heard the doors going sheeeeeeee behind them and soon the bus went rambling on.
The back seats were already all Sarah and Claire’s. Soon there were drinks and cigarettes and a catchy music, the bus driver DJing the radio in anticipation. And there was also a punk, a kid full of himself talking with a foul mouth. Claire could understand he was getting every guy there excited.
“At least, it’s warm here,” said Sarah.
“Yes,” said Claire.
The punk was by now getting everybody way too excited by potential violence so Claire intervened. In her Miami Spanish she said: “Ok, nobody gets crazy. Everyone gets a piece, once, and that’s that.” Claire was no victim. She had done enough of that.
All men understood her and, save for the punk, were a bit embarrassed. The bus driver was watching the road as if he had never seen it before. The guys had no chance to get their nerves back when Claire said to three kids, pointing with her finger, and that was the finger of god: “you, you and you go with my friend here. No hitting, no biting, no marks, no violence.” They nodded in astonishment and hurried to light a cigarette and have more beer.
Claire had given Sarah the youngest and most handsome guys, so to speak. The kids were now smiling meekly, not quite knowing what to do and yet somehow feeling proud. Sarah said nothing.
Claire let them all catch their breath and started to talk again: “First violence and the deal is off. You’ll have then to kill us.” They could tell she meant it. Everybody could tell.
Claire had by now plenty of time to figure out the rest of them. So she said, pointing her finger again and looking straight in their eyes: “You, you, you and you, you’re with me.” Before they could argue, she added: “I’ll start with you.” She was pointing to the oldest guy of the mob. He hadn’t said a word since they came onboard and Claire had seen in his eyes more hope than despair. So she figured he’d be sweet enough and that the rest of them would follow suit.
There was a moment of confusion. Eventually the crowd – save for the first two guys Claire had pointed out – had escaped to the front of the bus. The driver parked and they sort of all stood there watching outside while the two first guys were standing uneasy in the bus’ middle lane.
“It’s not very comfortable,” said Sarah from her half of the back seats.
“It’s easy to defend,” Claire said before calling the guys in.
Claire took her guy in and didn’t give him a chance to panic; she was helpful and talked to him of sweet tomorrows. It was over before he knew it and yet very happy about it, Claire could tell. She waited for the next guy. He came with the look of a man scared of nothing. And why should he, working in the cobber mine, thought Claire. It didn’t take him long either but Claire saw pride, good pride, behind the bravado. That was a fair encounter for two human souls left for nothing in the desert she thought.
Sarah was still at it with her first one, speaking awful Spanish and giggling! Giggling!
Claire heard the punk calling for blood. So she took him to his word, earlier the better. He had to show he wasn’t the weakest man on earth so he insulted Claire and slapped her, hard, her head jolting. The bus went silent, Claire could hear commercials on the radio. The punk was about to do it again when young Apollo number 2, naked from the waist down and about to go at it with Sarah, rose up so fast and grabbed the punk by the hair and pulled his face to his own with a great show of strength and was just about to smash the punk’s face with a fist that looked like a sledgehammer.
“Carlos, don’t,” screamed the older man Claire had already met with.
“You do that again and I kill you,” said Carlos through tight lips, still holding the punk’s hair with a mean grip. “Yeah,” hummed all the guys in the bus.
Claire heard Carlos whisper in the punk’s ear a slur that she could loosely translate as “you dog from a bitch.” Then Carlos released his grip and the punk laughed out loud and said something Claire could only loosely translate as “OK, OK, no problem, let me fuck this bitch and everything will be OK.”
“You don’t want your ass freezing in the desert you asshole,” thought Claire. Then she swallowed hard, didn’t humiliate him and, sure enough, as quickly as the others, off went the punk. As for Carlos/Apollo number 2, he seemed to have lost the feel for it and was done already too. Apollo 3 didn’t know quite what to do. The music didn’t seem so catchy anymore.
Indeed, it was over soon. Sarah was asleep and comfortable on the back seats with another cobber miner god. Claire was having a cigarette, thinking about what else could now happen before this smoke was over. She would never know because the hum of the bus, again on his way, slowly put everyone to sleep, everyone thinking or dreaming of angels and demons.
Then dawn broke out because that is what dawn does, every day. Once the bus got to town, everybody woke up. Claire could tell everyone was feeling odd. Indeed the punk, probably going back to his mother for vacation and clean laundry, had a stern face and didn’t look so good. For breakfast, the guys gave water to Sarah and Claire. Nobody was talking.
“Where should I drop you girls,” asked he bus driver.
“Downtown,” said Claire.
The bus eventually came to a screeching stop. The doors opened: sheeeeeeee. The guys had been murmuring among themselves. They all wanted to go home with a clean slate so they had gathered money and gave it heartily to Sarah and Claire. They didn’t take no for an answer and they all, save for the punk, wished the girls well and they meant it. So Sarah took the money while Claire checked that they weren’t forgetting anything and that none of these fucks had stolen their passports for example.
Claire and Sarah got off the bus and soon watched it rambling away. Last thing they saw were bleak faces through the bus’ windows.
The sun was by now shinning on the town’s plaza and it was getting hot. “That’s what happens in the desert,” thought Claire, happy to be travelling light.
She had a whole pack of cigarettes by now, she gave one to Sarah and lit one for herself and took a deep puff.
Under the blight Altiplano light, Claire saw the crowd looking busy, a cop standing atop a chair whistling traffic, cars honking and kids selling morning newspapers screaming the news.
“I need to pee,” said Sarah.
“I know, me too,” said Claire.
“And I’m hungry too,” said Sarah.
“Yeah, I know,” said Claire.
So they walked into the first greasy joint that they saw.
Originally posted on February 2015