There were no numbers above the seats. I looked down at our tickets and looked back up again to where the labels had been rubbed away. “It looks like that’s a five,” I said, pointing. “This must be 25 and 26.” I tried to move up to find our seats, but other people were getting on the bus, blocking the aisle. “Oh, hell,” I said giving up, “Let’s just sit down here. No one ever checks anyway.” But I was wrong. Almost as soon as we sat down someone came over and pronounced that we were in their seats. Our mistake was that we had sat down in some of the seats above which the numbers could still be made out. We moved to some seats with no visible numbers above them, hoping that no one would make a case out of it. Everyone that got on the bus consulted their ticket and then tried to check the phantom numbers above the seats. Two ladies came down the aisle counting. “Excuse me, miss,” one of the women said to Gina who was sitting in the aisle seat, “you’re in our seats.” “There are no numbers,” Gina shot back. The woman would not give up so easily and began explaining her counterfeit system of guessing numbers from one seat, four rows back, which had one number showing, to determine our seat numbers. It was like hearing an explanation of how an astrologist determines a horoscope: complete bullshit delivered like a pseudo-scientific tone. Seeing that we were not responding, the woman inquired, “What are your seat numbers?” obviously hoping that we would have to admit to having none and having plainly stolen hers. I produced our tickets with a flourish and stated our numbers in the same bullshit tone she had used on us. She mumbled something, looked around, pointed vaguely to some seats and then, when some other seats opened up she and her companion, seized on them, effectively admitting that her ‘counting’ system hadn’t been real all along, or else she just didn’t care.
It didn’t matter anyway, just before we pulled away, a fifty-something woman, got on and, finding every seat occupied, positioned herself unsteadily next to us. I waited for someone else to offer her a seat, but by the time we started moving, no one had come forward, in fact, the rest of the bus looked soundly asleep. I couldn’t let the woman, probably someone’s grandma, stand there for the whole three-hour trip. The guilt would’ve made it impossible, so I got up and gave her my seat and tried to steal myself for a long ride. It was a holiday weekend and we were going out of town, the bus was sure to be packed.
As we drove out of town, we stopped to pick up everyone waiting on the side of the road, and there were many people, so many that the attendant (who’d been curiously absent when we were all trying to figure out our seat numbers) now appeared and bodily crammed us into back of the bus. The man actually used his hands to shift the standing passengers so that they didn’t take up more than their fair share of the aisle, which was about 12 square inches. We stood two-by-two, back-to-back all the way down the length of the bus. The traffic was terrible, as we were not the only ones fleeing the city for the long weekend. Most of the time, the bus moved somewhere between a crawl and a rolling stop.
When the driver had to brake, we all toppled into each other like a bunch of bowling pins going down after a strike.
The plan had been to stay at a friend’s place who was out of town, but when we finally got to Villarrica, it was too late to disturb her landlady who had the key. We didn’t even know where she lived and after the arduous bus ride, I was hardly in the mood to go look for her. We’d brought a beer for the bus ride, but due to our positioning (Gina sitting and me standing), had been unable to drink it. Now among the dark lanes of the night-time empty marketplace, I opened the warm beer and took long, desperate pulls, trying to sooth my ragged temper. It was past midnight; I was tired; we had no place to stay and I didn’t even know why we’d come out here; everything looked the same as it did in Asuncion. We’d traveled all this way and still hadn’t escaped the city.
We woke up the doorman at Hotel Centro, who had been napping in front of the TV. He groggily took my name (no passport, no ID) and my cash and gave us two plastic bags filled with folded towels and two remotes, one for the air conditioner and the other for the TV. “Room 8,” he said, but gave no indication where it might be. We wondered around in the dark halls of the hotel for a while before finding the room on the second floor.
Room 8 had a closet, a TV bolted into the wall, two single beds and a balcony, which I immediately dragged a chair onto and set about opening another warm beer in hopes of mitigating the irritation I felt. Somehow, it all seemed so hopeless. We would sleep here, wake up and have a stressful time trying to find a way to get to Colonia Independencia, we probably wouldn’t even make it to the waterfall and, in the end, we’d go back to Asuncion on another crowded bus and I’d have to stand because another old lady would get on right before we took off. It all felt like such a huge hassle for no real benefit. The only thought going through my head as I sucked down the luke warm beer was “we should’ve just stayed at home.”
I felt a little better the next morning after a few bananas and a generous helping of the hotel’s complementary instant coffee. The weather was still mild and overcast, but the caffeine helped and I was beginning to feel less burdened by the situation.
We went down to the bus station and found out the bus to Colonia was to leave in an hour. To kill time, we wandered around Villaricca for a while and then went into café to split another instant coffee and watch the grey day drift past the plate glass windows in the form of tired workers and stray stands of fog.
When we got back to the station, people were beginning to board the bus. We got on and managed to get a seat as a woman vacated it. I was inordinately thankful to have a seat as multiple vendors kept coming through the bus with large wooden trays of sodas and sandwiches, bags of earth and mildew-scented vegetables and other kinds of brick-a-brack like sewing scissors and packets of natural remedies. Standing in the aisle, I would’ve been jostled by each vendor who passed.
We had been waiting on the bus, listening to the myriad calls of the vendors, watching the passing of their wares when suddenly, about half the bus’s passengers, or would-be passengers jumped ship like this bus was sinking. I watched as they scrambled to another bus that had just arrived, they began filling it quickly and I soon saw why. Even as these people struggled to board the bus, it was already pulling away, looking like an emergency convoy with refugees grabbing at it with full-blown desperation. Before I had a chance to gauge the situation or find out where the other bus was going, it was already pulling away, shaking lose clots of passengers and vendors still hawking their wares over the tumult.
We left after about half an hour, reaching Colonia Independencia about an hour later. There didn’t seem to be any town anywhere and we kept getting off the bus, looking around, determining that we were not yet in the right place and then bounding back on before the bus pulled away.
When the driver pointed out the trailhead and we got off, I was a little nervous about the situation for a return later that day. There didn’t seem to be anything in the town and transportation looked really limited. We had decided to walk out to a waterfall, but it seemed like it would be impossible to make it. It was already noon, the waterfall was a two-hour walk away and the last bus supposedly left the area around 4. As it was, we would barely have time to walk to the waterfall, turn around and immediately start back. The feeling of irritation started to come back, this whole trip had been a disaster, we would probably have to stay somewhere for the night again and I wasn’t sure I’d even brought enough money for another hotel stay.
Without discussing any of this, we started down the dusty two-track that led straight back into the green countryside. I wanted to stop thinking about details and just enjoy the scenery, but the clouds were heavy and the silver glow of the sky on the burnt sienna-colored road was giving me a headache. We didn’t even know where the waterfall was out here and this road looked like it went on forever.
As I walked, these negative thoughts began to decrease in severity, until I felt a happy sort of apathy welling up. Walking down the quiet country road, I remembered the quiet mountain roads of Armenia and how I’d often walked them for hours with no clue where I was going and no concern for destination. I was happy only to walk, to perhaps chance upon something new, and often, I did. Even if it was only something small, I always came back from a walk with something that made it worthwhile. Why should things be so different now? The walk gradually became pleasant in itself. The bus schedule ceased to be important. We would find a place to stay, maybe out here at one of these pleasant farm homes. We could offer money for lodging. Who knew what might happen. For the first time in what felt like ages, I was ready for adventure.
We wound through the mown pastures, glancing up from the progress of our feet to watch the lazy movements of the afternoon herds of cattle ruminating in the silver-grey sun. A number of flowers were in bloom and when the occasional motorcycle scooted past, the driver always lifted an arm in greeting. The peace of the place was contagious and many times, I had to stifle a desire to lie down in the grass on the side of the road and take a nap.
The waterfall wasn’t so hard to find. There were signs posted everywhere and the road eventually thinned out to a narrow footpath. At the entrance to this foot path we came abreast with a new SUV, full of sun-glassed woman, the dark lenses corniced with plucked and expressive eyebrows. The driver was clean-shaven, man, who looked like he was probably wearing dock shoes and Calvin Klein underwear. He was holding a large glass of red wine and contemplating the footpath. He rocked the car ahead slightly and then braked as though trying to ease the car out of a ditch. The look on his face was completely baffled, like the owl-eyed character in Gatsby’s library. The man looked like he couldn’t fathom the possibility of a road ending. “I don’t think you can drive down there.” I told him, passing his open window. From the passenger and backseats, the bevy of plucked eyebrows and dark glasses regarded me in a vaguely hostile way. It was obvious they had been cheering him on to continue down the footpath in the monstrous car. “I don’t think it’s wide enough,” I said gesturing to the path, hoping he’d be able to see what was so blatantly obvious if someone else pointed it out. The driver repeated my comments like someone in a grocery store trying to recall a shopping list. “wide enough…” he remarked, one hand still on the wheel, the other cradling his wine glass. The lepidopterous sunglasses and eyebrows from the backseat flashed but otherwise gave no indication of emotion. After we had gotten out of earshot Gina asked “do you think they’ll turn around just because they can’t drive all the way?” I thought for a moment and then answered “I sincerely hope so.”
The day had not been hot, but the low sky and the long walk had brought out a sweat along my shoulders where my heavy bag had been knocking back and forth along the walk. When we came out to the clearing around Salto Suizo, despite the mild weather I was glad to have the opportunity to swim. There were only a few people around: two other young couples, one with their young daughter. We all greeted each other in subtle nods, but everyone seemed to be busy with their own contemplation of the falls. Above us, Salto Suizo was the type of high and precipitous waterfall that dissipated in the air and hit the pool below like a light rain, though it fell in a straight line with no bounding or splashing down the rocks. Each drop was like something loosed from a plane flying overhead with nothing to obstruct its passage to the ground.
Behind the falls there was a shallow cave scooped out of the rock and after taking the scene in, we scrambled up into this rocky maw and tried to sit and contemplate the beauty of the scene, but the sound of splashing water had made me impatient to swim and in a few minutes, I was clamoring back down to change into my bathing suit.
It had been overcast for days and the temperature hadn’t been very high since the previous weekend, but because it never gets that cold here, and because we had been walking so long, it seemed appropriate that we get in the water. The first few steps were feet-numbingly cold and it was only after I flopped in and all my internal organs retreated further into the hidden recesses of my body trying escape the cold that I realized the water was, in no place, more than three feet deep. I alternately stumbled and dog-paddled around the pool, glancing up at the sprinkling water falling from some infinitely distant point of origin in the rocks overhead.
The longer I stayed in the water, the more accustomed I became to the freezing temperature and eventually I felt comfortable in it. I felt the cool water relieving my back of the ghost of its burden: the impression of my backpack seemed to be fading; the light abrasions and the downward pull of the shoulder straps were being lifted from me. Thus refreshed, we climbed out, dried off and opened a warm beer we’d brought while wishing for a thermos of hot coffee instead.
An hour later, we were back on the country road, returning to the small town. The sun had come out, but it was now down around the horizon and the light was restful, striped as it was with unspooling shadows. I knew if we expected to get out of the town, we ought to try to flag down a passing car, but I couldn’t bring myself to give up the walk. When a car passed, I earnestly hoped they would not stop and offer us a ride.
About half-way down the road, I saw something that I am thankful to have experienced. In the light of the setting sun, Gina pointed out a matrix design stretched over the road, something like an invisible net, but at every point of intersection on the net there was a large black dot. Even as we approached, I had no idea what we were looking until Gina solved the puzzle and gasped “those better not be…” and then in a whispered tone of awe “…spiders!” She was right. Hanging directly over us, at six-inch intervals, there was a vast web of spiders stretched across the entire road. There must’ve been 100s of them just above our heads and their vast web continued on into a stand of trees. I had never before seen spiders share a communal web, but here it was, with meticulous arrangement, each of them had plotted their own little square. I wanted to wait for something to fly into it, to see how they would handle dividing the quarry, but the night was cool and there seemed to be few insects out. Perhaps this was why the spiders had decided to economize their efforts. We ducked under the volleyball net of spiders, Gina with great trepidation, and continued.
We were nearing the main road, when another black SUV pulled abreast of us. “Like a ride?” the driver asked and, as I knew we only had about 15 more minutes to walk, I decided to accept, although I did so with regret and every feature of the road we sped past in the car seemed to be robbed of some of the beauty that I could’ve seen if I had been able to walk past it and appreciate it longer.
Back in the town, we learned immediately that there were no more buses for the night. We asked a few people but they all said the last one left around five. I checked my phone to see it was only about fifteen after five. We must have just missed it. “Well,” I said shrugging, “I guess we’ll just start walking and see what happens.” We stopped into a little store to buy supplies in case we had to sleep out in the open, which I fully saw as a possibility and then set off down the darkening road. I had no idea what I was doing, I wasn’t even sure if I was going the right way. The only thing I knew was that we had a long way to go before we would reach another town. I guess, I was thinking vaguely that we would walk until we came to some kind of hotel, I remembered passing a few on the way in.
I hadn’t communicated any of this to Gina, because I was trying not to admit to myself just how untenable my plan was. We started walking and she said “should we try to get a ride?” I shrugged. “Sure.” But I didn’t hold out much hope of getting one. “It’s going to be dark in a minute,” I said despondently. “You can’t hitchhike in the dark.” Gina stuck out her thumb and I walked on, slowly, like I wasn’t sure where I was going. The car passing us made a ‘no’ gesture, but, bizarrely, a car going the opposite way pulled over. “Need a ride?” The man called out. I bolted toward the car like a dog who’d been kept inside all day; my tongue was probably lolling out of my head. Only Gina had enough wherewithal to notice that the man seemed to have another car following him and had, originally, been going the opposite direction. “Do you think it’s ok?” she asked. “Sure!” I bellowed out, jumping into the car. “Hola! Muchas gracias!” I barked.
The man who gave us a ride turned out to be the ideal person to get a ride from, an interesting conversationalist who owned his own campground/restaurant. (He took us there, but didn’t pressure us into staying, despite the fact that we were totally at his mercy.) He drove us 30 km back to Villarrica, conversing on various subjects the entire way. We were having a good time talking, but as we drove further and further into the night, I began to worry that we had really inconvenienced him. I had promised him some kind of payment for the ride, but I was earnestly beginning to wonder if I even had enough to give him. When we got into Villarrica, he drove us around, pointing out a lot of the sights and finally dropped us off at the bus station. In the end, he wouldn’t accept any money, although the round trip that he would have to take for us, would probably took him over an hour; I don’t even know how much it would’ve been for just the gas. Before we parted ways, I remembered that he worked in the capital (where we live) during the week and had said that he’s always wanted to study English, but never had the time. I offered to do some classes with him and he seemed happy with this as a fair trade and I was happy to have something to offer him other than the dullness of money.
The bus station was dead and the Asuncion bus was to leave in 15 minutes. We got our tickets, a couple cans of beer and settled down to watch the dogs roam around the place, sniffing at the garbage and each other. Soon the bus pulled up and after a few minutes, not even half-full, we pulled away from the station and into the quiet night. I struggled against sleep for a moment, but soon collapsed under its pressure, like an old barn giving out under the weight of a heavy snow.