Story and photos by Montana Jones—The Bus to Loja won a CBC Literary Award, was aired on CBC Radio’s Under the Covers, appeared in EnRoute Magazine and the book Mind’s Eye.
The only plane to Loja is broken, in repair, roto. Ecuador so far, does not welcome me, and I have not warmed to it. All my Spanish knowledge lies waiting in the dictionary in my pocket. I’ve learned a grande total of twelve words, and even those acquired only since I landed at the airport, accompanied by mucho fumbling. After only a day in the high altitude of Quito, sorocho, altitude sickness, has my head wrapped in tight bands, ready to burst like a taut, overripe melon. Drinking bottled water has not helped, and even to breathe here seems unwise. Sand and grit permeate the thin city air and blanket me in a light layer of foreign dirt I cannot repel. Traffic and noise fill the only spaces left; there is no room here for me. I need to get to Loja, then to Vilcabamba. It’ll be different there.
With the only flight cancelled, I buy a ticket for the 15-hour bus ride, which will drive through the night to deliver me to a lower elevation in the Andes. On the platform in the growing dusk, I wait to load my gear and board. My eyes flit from turquoise bag to indigo backpack, like visual butterflies testing coloured luggage flowers, watching for the thieves and pickpockets of South America to dare try and alight.
I adopt the same imaginary shield of all women travelling alone. Distanced, protected, under a clear safe dome. I am strong, valiente – I looked it up. My head is pounding as I board the sooty, fuming bus and find a seat. The vehicle clatters and groans and idles diesel up my nose, choking out all air and clarity so that I must close the window. I have downed three codeine-laden Tylenol and a bottle of water to help chase away my head. Through the window, shades of grey muted city patches dotted with lights promise a colourless view this trip. At 7:15 pm, I close my eyes to the growing darkness, as the autobus finally heaves and pushes itself off and away from the platform.
At only 8:00 pm I awaken, wishing it were later and more distance had been wheeled away under me from Quito. It will be a long, fitful journey. I get up and make my way to the restroom. The road I cannot see, only feel. We are catapulted and replaced and flung again in every direction, an overland carnival ride along a trail so pitted, broken and rock-filled, only in South America could it be called a road. In the tiny bathroom I am tossed about by the lurching bus. As I open the narrow metal doorway, another bounce in the cratered surface spits me out into the aisle. I find my way back to my seat. Up ahead the TV is snapped on. The bright square glowing silvery static in the darkness as a woman fumbles for a video. I am glad for at least a few hours distraction, as sleep on this churning ride looks doubtful. I can’t read in the dark, or converse. My language isolates me.
The pain killer is fuzzing my parameters nicely, the thrusts and lurches of the bus seem suddenly normal…I am in it’s rhythm now, cradled by darkness and the undulations of a dieselly maternal mammoth shuffling it’s unborn cargo headlong into night.
I am surprised to recognize the opening credits of a Canadian film, but the comfortable rise of familiarity vanishes when I realize it’s all been dubbed over in Spanish. With the chugging of the bus I can barely hear it anyway, and I’m left alternately staring and drifting for the next few hours. Then, I want to nestle somewhere and fall into a well of sleep. I leave my aisle seat in search for a corner, a window I can curl into and wrap around me. All are occupied it seems. Then I see one near the back of the bus and head for it.
I can barely make out the outline of a man in the adjacent seat. His face in the dim light, a reflection on his dark glasses, the smooth plane of his jaw. He is a much larger build than most typical Ecuadorians. I squeeze by and ease into the corner, settle in with my back angled slightly away from him, creating my own little shell around me where I can safely drift off.
He has shifted his large jeaned thighs to allow me more space. The TV monitor is black now – only the rows of tiny overhead dots of light illuminate. Most all the passengers seem to be dozing. I shut my eyes. Lean against the cold hard window. Rearrange my shirt to pad my sleepy head.
My body had been tensed, ready, reined in – and the muscles finally begin to relax. My legs seem to exhale into easiness. They feel warmth and I know with closed eyes that his thigh is within a breath of mine. But we have no room to move, no room for doubt – two bodies existing in a tiny cramped span of time, protecting our selves with imaginary boundaries despite our physical proximity. So we resign into the ride, and hope for sleep to pull us away from this realm, where manners and customs and our different cultures both insist that strangers do not get this close.
I think he is sleeping. He has shifted his weight, and our arms align. I peek sidelong to see a gentle presence – a backlit caramel cheek, a closed eye beneath his glasses, soft pinky brown full lips. Behind my closed lids I picture our shoulders, our arms, our legs side by side. I feel the light between them as a white energy alive, melding and pulling, and suddenly feel that he feels this too. That he is not really asleep. Then I realize I am still giddy with altitude sickness and my minds edges are dipped in codeine. My imagination has unfurled random thoughts like a mimosa, their delicate, sensitive fronds moved to life at the slightest touch.
I shift ever so slightly away, and try to cast away my rampant mental meanderings and plunge into sleep. But I feel his arm move, almost imperceptibly back toward mine, perhaps feigning a sleepy shuffle. I respond with letting my hand go limp at my side, as if in slumber, and he in turn moves his bare arm just next to mine. The delicate whisper of hair brushing mine sends an immediate surge up my arm and through my body. So taken aback that my breath softly catches. We hold the seconds, minutes…unmoving, expanding the moment into an hour as the bus rattles along the black road.
My leg falls beside his – if I opened my eyes I swear the connection would be painted bright fire. Minutes more pass and in the darkness his arm seeks ever so slightly – it halts just shy of my right breast. The thought of such intimacy with a faceless stranger sends a surge through. His hand moves quietly and rests next to mine. And still we both feign sleep. Protected by it, it frees us to moves we do not have to acknowledge. I leave my hand lifeless – I am at once thrilled and terrified of this dangerous game I am suddenly playing. I do not know this man. But I am pulled by an inexplicable sense. And in this world I really am asleep and not responsible for where I stretch or yawn, nor is he. So wordlessly we agree, interpreting only the energy igniting us.
He pretends to expand into a more comfortable sleeping position, and his warm hand is now cupping mine. I remain motionless – I am, after all, asleep. I could retreat, move it, pretend to awaken and re-arrange myself. But I do not. Every cell is acutely tuned to his slightest movement, and each stir sends a lick of lust through me unlike anything I have felt before. We stay this way, trundling along, the bus rhythm rocking us, encouraging us. The rest of the passengers have long been asleep and we are alone together in this surreal sensual dream.
After a long while he presses between my thumb and forefinger, but I clasp my fingers tighter. His large hand ever so slowly cradles mine, protective and warm. His finger pushes harder, seeking, asking, until I give. My fist relinquishes just enough and he thrusts his finger down into the waiting dark cave my encircled fingers have made. A little breath escapes me. I am awed and excited by the power of this simple act. His finger gently strokes my palm, and I lean into his waiting arm, my head still turned away, as if in sleep. I stretch and rest my arm there, my breast still against his arm, daring him, asking him, to touch the soft handful of this sleeping stranger, this fair skinned foreign woman next to him. And if she is truly asleep, risk arrest for your liberties with her while she dreams.
I turn my head down, cuddling into my own arm, where I can watch him sideways undiscovered. In the dim between us I see his closed eye nearest me under his glasses. His breath is slow and steady, and I suddenly think maybe he really is sleeping. Or he is good at this, or may think I actually am as well. But his serene expression quiets my mind.
We stay this way for miles and miles more down the road, dozing, close, comforted, still never acknowledging consciousness. An unspoken but definite trust. I feel strangely more safe and right sheltered by his presence, cradled in this night, our warm bodies murmuring to each other though we have not.
When I awaken, out the window the earth’s edges are aglow, tinged in pinks with a spreading pale yellow wash that filters through between black mountains, light and dark in alternate jagged triangles all around us. It is strange and wonderful unfamiliar terrain. My ears gently pop as I swallow. We have been descending gradually all night, moving down and away from Quito’s 9,500 plus feet. My head is finally deflating. Still pressed into my unknown partners shoulder, I move my head a bit to see his eyes not yet open, and close mine too and take a full deep breath. His hand stirs, and seeks me under the cloak of his sweater. He is slow, gentle, deliberate. Lifting under my shirt to find my last rib, he caresses my skin with such tenderness another soft gasp escapes, in wonder of this tactile dance.
We ride connected this way, his hand centred on my stomach, softly and quietly midst the sleeping bus still chugging and ferreting its way along the rock strewn winding road.
In the dawn’s light the distant rain hangs over the mountains like a spreading grey ethereal cluster, a misty curtain on a muted green canvas. Soft far away mounds textured like rumpled rich mossy velvet. The edges blur as the heavy clouds move forth and swallow up each pleated fold of mountain before them into silvery vapour. There is not a drop here yet, but the rain is coming.
The outside world is coming to life. We pass an early rising lone farmer, a small man picking carefully down a steep rise toward the road, an invisible string connecting five dusty grey burros dragging their first days load of sugar cane. I think of how the growing light will change everything, washing away our time like a vaguely remembered dream.
Sharp quick streams ping against the bus, decorating the window in transparent aqua lines as if the sky were icing a flat clear cake. He reaches up and brushes my cheek, slides up along the bridge of my nose, the arch of brow, sweeps my forehead and pauses. We still have not looked directly at each other. His finger is gentle but brusque, it slides down to caress my lower lip, resting there, his hand then offering it’s palm to my whole face. My tongue reaches out, tastes his finger and ends with a soft kiss to his hand.
He speaks no English. I know little Spanish. But we have made it this far and learned more than we could with words. I think of my cocoon of protection against being alone in this unfamiliar place, gone, and the neutral grey tones that have vanished with it. Sliding the window open I breathe in fresh air, the smells of lush new growth.
The rising light plays under his glasses, highlighting his cheekbone and I reach out to touch it. He cups my face in such tenderness, and turns my face to him, and we take each other fully in for the first time. I look to his eyes, and though one is open, it is a dark, still pool. The other is half-closed, guarding a badly scarred shrunken pupil. I realize neither can see me. His hand on my face reads instead, and he smiles. On our dark journey I had not noticed the white cane on the floor at his side. Pulling my head closer, with his lips to my ear he whispers “Alma bonita, alma bonita.” Good or pretty soul, I think it means, and I smile too. He extends his coat over me, at once claiming me and joining us together, warmly bundled as one.
Only another two hours to Loja, I am tranquillo, holding onto him holding me while the bus travellers begin to rouse and stir in the morning light. After the rain, out the streaked window the grey also recedes, chased by a bold equatorial sun rising high above the Andean horizon. Pursed like luscious moist lips, huge scarlet trumpet flowers splash their glory across the verdant roadside, teasing hummingbird jewels to halt and whir, to dip and sip their brilliant mouths. I place my head on his side, put my whole arm across his wide chest and hold his shoulder tight, hold him, in a final embrace that must last long after we get off this bus.