|Edition description:||Spanish-language Edition|
|Product dimensions:||5.90(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.00(d)|
About the Author
Kapka Kassabova is the author of two novels, four poetry collections, and two travel guides. Her memoir Street without a Name was shortlisted for the European Book Prize and the Authors' Club Dolman Travel Prize.
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By Kapka Kassabova
Alma Books LtdCopyright © 2011 Kapka Kassabova
All rights reserved.
Ute was not just well travelled, she was professionally well travelled. So she of all people shouldn't have been surprised that sometimes the road to hell begins with an ordinary bus ride, in an ordinary South American country, at the end of the ordinary year 2009. And on that bus, we sit next to the one we ordinarily love.
Ute and the one she loved had taken the last bus of the day from what the guide book, penned by Ute herself five years ago, called "the regional centre". That was guide-speak for hideous industrial dump with a car yard at one end and a bus station at the other. Having the transport to get away is its only saving grace, Jerry pronounced. The station was full of squat hustlers with dirty nails who waved bus tickets and yelled in high-pitched voices, "Guaa Guaa Guaaaaaa!" and "Jipi jipi jipiiii!"
"What's this hippie place they're selling?" Jerry enquired.
"Jipilini. Small transport hub a few hours down the main road. Been there once, and that was plenty."
"Guaa Guaa Guaaaaaa!" the taloned hustlers kept squealing, but nobody paid attention.
"They're paid commission by the passenger, aren't they?" Jerry snorted.
"Well spotted," Ute said.
"I'm an old South American hand, me. Any questions about South America, I'm your man." Jerry was good at self-parody. This was only his second time on the continent.
They had just spent two dust-choked days in the "regional centre", long enough for Ute to trawl around hotels and eateries and update the practical section of the guide, while Jerry stayed behind in cafés, nursing fruit juices and a jet lag headache. They didn't sleep much at night. The noise was diabolical, and it seemed to ooze from every pore of the city: traffic, car alarms, motorbikes, music, people shouting, dogs barking, and car alarms again. Every night, Ute cursed herself for leaving behind in an Andean village three thousand metres above sea level her box of silicon earplugs, the only type that really seals out noise.
There was a new, "revolutionary" government with great plans, which had just been re-elected that year. Along the road, giant billboards announced in excited letters "THE CITIZENS' REVOLUTION IS FORGING AHEAD!" and "THE FATHERLAND NOW BELONGS TO ALL!"
In the rickety bus, the citizens were asleep as usual, mouths agape, while the loudspeakers above them blared out Cumbia and advertisements at eardrum-shattering decibels.
"Are they deaf or brain-dead?" Jerry looked around at the inert passengers.
"All of the above," Ute said. "Round here you either go brain-dead from lack of sleep or from the music."
"You mean the same fate awaits us if we hang out here long enough?" he snorted. "Which we won't, thank God."
Jerry took things personally. He thought the world was out of joint if it didn't coincide with him. He was already not enjoying himself. He was normally great company, but outside his comfort zone he became ratty — another reason why they didn't travel together much, except for pleasantly uneventful holidays to France, Italy and Greece. Four hours on a potholed road, in a stinky clapped-out bus with seats that spilt stuffing was definitely outside his comfort zone.
Ute was worn down after seven weeks on the go and what felt like seven hundred days of broken sleep, but it was a habitual fatigue. Sore buttocks and broken sleep were part of the job description.
Jerry had joined her for this leg of the journey along the coast, to soak up some sunshine in the middle of December. It was his winter holiday.
They rarely travelled together, because his academic holidays never complied with her schedule. Besides, she always travelled alone for work.
She had covered the Andes, which ran along the centre of the country like a spine, and the better part of the coast. They were now headed for the last stretch of it, in the south. It was the least visited.
Puerto Seco wasn't in the guidebook. But it was on a newly printed local map she'd picked up somewhere further up the coast. It seemed to be the closest point to a local attraction — a recently established national park which consisted of dry tropical forest and cloud forest, an unusual combination. Ute was curious. Every travel-guide writer, even when updating their own guide, wants to discover something new. Who knows, she thought, maybe Puerto Seco was worth a look. Jerry agreed to stop overnight, or maybe for a couple of nights. He just wanted a nice beach, somewhere to warm his bones for the second half of the English winter. Ute had a feeling they weren't going to find his dream beach along here, simply because all the good beaches were further up north. But they were already on their way, no point in bringing the mood down.
An hour into their bus journey, when it was still daylight, a salesman got on. The bus slowed down, and on he hopped with his suitcase. He was a young man, well groomed, with slicked-back hair and a buttoned-up pink shirt under his jacket. His baked-earth face glowed with sweat. He addressed the lethargic crowd.
"Señoras y señores," he shouted over the music, holding in one hand a tiny bottle and gripping a seat with the other as the bus dived in and out of potholes as big as moon craters. "Can any of you here honestly say that you are completely healthy? That you have never experienced aches and pains, mental and physical? No, of course not. Can any of you tell me how many green vegetables you eat every day, how much broccoli, tomato, carrots? ... Ah, you'll say, but we eat banana and plantain. Señoras y señores, do you know the nutritional value of a plantain?"
He went on like this for a while. People's heads bobbed up and down, and he staggered about the front of the bus like a man on the deck of a ship in a sea storm.
"That's one hell of a sales pitch," Jerry said. He didn't understand Spanish, but it was obvious that the man was blabbering. The salesman didn't make eye contact with any one person; his glazed eyes hovered over their heads. He finally came to the point.
"Have you heard the magic word 'ginseng'?" He held up the tiny bottle for everyone to see. "Ginseng means health and long life. The Koreans and the Chinese take this regularly, and do you know that China's oldest man, who is a hundred and twenty years old, has a lover of twenty-five? Sí, señores, you too could enjoy that if you started taking ginseng regularly."
"What I have here is pure extract of ginseng," the vendor went on. "You can buy it or not buy it, it's your choice. You can buy health and a long life for three dolaritos apiece, five dolaritos for the pair, or you can continue to suffer fatigue, anxiety, arthritis, indigestion, uterine cramps, cancer, erectile dysfunction and early death."
He cheerfully distributed tiny bottles to the audience. Jerry took one too. A couple of women were already reaching for their bags.
"Thank you," Ute said to him when he passed to collect the unwanted bottles, "we already have some." Lying is a form of politeness. Ute had learnt this long ago.
"Thank you, senora," he lied back, for he knew this too, "you're very kind."
His business completed, he sat in a free seat across from them, to wait for the next stop. They were enveloped in a damp cloud of cheap eau de cologne. After a while, he leant towards them and spoke to Ute, glancing at her inflamed face.
"Senora, ginseng is also excellent for skin ailments."
Ute grimaced a smile. "Bueno," she said. "I'll remember that."
The faces of women were open to judgement everywhere in the world. Something about a woman's face made it a free-for-all. Anybody with half a brain had the right to comment on female beauty or the lack of it. Not that Ute was ugly. It was just hard to see her face properly when the evil flower of eczema blossomed over her cheeks, nose and eyelids.
"What's your destination?" the man shouted over the music — which, unbelievably, had just got louder.
"Puerto Seco," Ute shouted back. The salesman fixed her with his cherry-black eyes.
"Are you visiting someone there?"
"No, just stopping for a day or two. Do you know it?"
"Yes, I'm from a village further down the road. Not for tourists. Puerto Seco is not for tourists either. But the national park is nice."
"Is there anywhere to stay in Puerto Seco?" Ute asked.
He shook his head. "I don't know, there used to be ..."
A fresh explosion of Cumbia from the loudspeaker above their heads wiped out some of his words. "I don't know ... still ... animals ... Pacifica ..."
"What?" Ute shouted.
"Villa Pacifica," he shouted back. Then he got up, waved goodbye and moved to the front of the bus. The bus slowed down without stopping, and he jumped off nimbly. Ute and Jerry looked out the grubby window. He was already walking along the road with his case. He didn't look up at the bus as it passed him.
"What was that about?" Jerry asked. "Were you asking him about Puerto Seco?"
"Yeah, places to stay. Apparently there's none. It's not a touristy place."
"There's a surprise," Jerry snorted.
"But there's one place called Villa Pacifica, or something like that. I'm not sure if it's for people or animals though. He wasn't actually sure if it's still there. I didn't hear everything he said."
"First he's keen to talk to you, then suddenly he's keen as hell to get moving."
"It was his stop. Anyway," Ute said brightly, always bright when faced with Jerry's fussiness, "it's good to have at least one recommendation about a place to stay. It could be interesting — this Dry Port."
"Good name anyway. And we might get a couple of nights' decent sleep out there. This noise and dust are driving me nuts. Have you got any water left?"
They took a last sip each from the warm plastic bottle, and he put a sweaty hand on her thigh. They had another bottle of water in her pack, somewhere in the viscera of the bus. She leant into him and sniffed his familiar sweaty, chicken-soup smell.
And she thought, quite out of the blue, that she would leave the last sip of water for him if they were both dying of thirst. But would he, she wondered hazily, would he do it for her? Then she berated herself for thinking such neurotic thoughts.CHAPTER 2
It was suddenly pitch-black. Unlike everywhere else in the world, here on the equator things didn't cast shadows in the falling dusk. Darkness didn't creep over you crab-like, from the side. No, it hit the land vertically, at a right angle, and without warning it was suddenly night.
The bus driver hadn't heard of a place called Villa Pacifica, and he dumped them in the middle of an empty road. They had passed no signs for the last half-hour. The driver just slammed the brakes and grumbled "Puerto Seco".
They were the only passengers to get off. Not surprising, since most people had already got off a while before. Only a few men remained scattered inside the dark, smelly bus, fast asleep and snoring. Ute knew there was a special kind of poverty in some parts of the world where sleep is the only commodity left to people. And even their sleep is somehow threadbare.
The driver barely waited for them to extract their packs from the trunk on the flank of the bus, and started moving before they'd even shut the trunk door.
"Wait, wait," Jerry shouted and, running after the bus, slammed the door, which nearly dislocated his arm. "Dickhead," he spat out. The bus left them in a cloud of grit and dust.
They took out the large water bottle and drank for a long time. It was dead-dark and dead-quiet, except for the distant barking of a dog. On the other side of the road was the outline of what looked like a forest.
"Well," Jerry said, "I feel like we've crossed the whole continent, but on the map it's nothing. Now what?"
"It's the roads," Ute said. She too felt a bit disheartened by the lack of any discernible village. "They make it longer than it needs to be."
"They're a shocker. Never seen anything like it. This puerto better be good," Jerry said, and helped her put on her pack. "Now what? Where the hell are we?"
"Well, we didn't pass anything resembling Puerto Seco or any other puerto, so let's walk this way." They started walking in the direction the bus had gone.
"Have you got your torch handy?" Jerry said.
"I think it's at the bottom of my pack."
"Hmm. Might have to stop and dig it out. That dickhead of a driver was a maniac. Do you think he just dumped us in the middle of nowhere to spite us?"
"No. Drivers here can be a bit rude, but they wouldn't do that. Let's not panic yet."
"True, true." Jerry went quiet. "I'm starving," he added after a few minutes of silent walking.
And just then they saw the lights of a village to the right, and the dog was barking somewhere close ahead. Ute realized why Puerto Seco wasn't in the guidebook. Because unless you knew it was here, you wouldn't find it. And last time she hadn't found it. A dirt road branched off the main road, and they took it.
"This Puerto Seco is really just a bend in the road," Ute said. "That's why the driver dropped us there."
Jerry was peering ahead into the darkness. They walked for another fifteen minutes before the first houses started to form out of the darkness. They were all built on stilts. Apart from the invisible barking dog and some salsa music blaring out from an invisible house, there was no sign of life. They walked along the dirt road until they suddenly came to what looked and sounded like a beach. It took Ute by surprise because, normally, she could smell the sea from a mile.
There were dim lights along the waterfront, and it felt good to be able to see, at last. They were standing on something resembling a waterside promenade, what the locals called a malecón.
"I'm confused," Jerry said. "Isn't the ocean that way?" He pointed to their right.
"It should be," Ute said. "It must be a very curvy coast around here ..."
"This place stinks," Jerry said. "And we're stuck here."
He was looking around. There wasn't much to see apart from the shuttered front of a seaside café and a couple of shops. The façades were different colours and heights. There was a gaping hole where a house had been before, like a missing tooth in a smile. Just then, a motorbike tricycle revved along the dusty road.
"Life!" Jerry exclaimed. "There is life in this dump!"
"Hola," Ute waved to the chunky driver. He stopped and looked at them in dismay.
"We're looking for somewhere to stay," Ute shouted over the noise of his engine. "Is there anywhere in the town?"
He shook his head. He was lost for words.
"No hotel, nothing?"
Again, he shook his head. He looked a bit wary.
"What about Villa Pacifica? Is it somewhere nearby?"
"Villa Pacifica," he said and spat thickly. "Yes, I can take you there." He spoke with that lazy, hard-to-understand coastal drawl that sounded more like Portuguese than Spanish.
"That's OK," Ute said, "we can walk. Which way is it?"
"It's too far to walk," he said, and turned off the engine. "It's beyond the end of the malecón, that way." He waved behind him. "But there's no lights. You'll get lost in the forest."
"I don't like the look of this guy," Jerry said.
"Do you want to walk then? It's either walk or take a ride with him. I'd rather get a lift. And he's a taxi driver. Doesn't get much safer than this."
"OK," he gave up. "He's smaller than me if it comes to that."
Ute scoffed. The idea of bespectacled, uncoordinated Jerry getting into a fist fight with this phlegm-spitting, thick-limbed ruffian was comical. She dumped her heavy pack on the tricycle's seat.
The man started the engine again. They rode along the malecón. The sea was to their right, when it seemed as if it should have been behind them. But soon she didn't even know whether there was any water at all, because there were suddenly no street lights. They rode along a bumpy dirt road plunged in complete darkness, then seemed to get back onto the main road.
They soon swerved off the road again and into a forest. Jerry squeezed Ute's hand. She glanced at him in the dark. She too hated disorientation. Lose your north and south, and who knows what you might lose next.
Suddenly, a bright spot appeared in the shrubs ahead. A massive wood-panelled gate stood before them in a clearing.
"VILLA PACIFICA", said the large wood-carved letters over the gate.
Some people were standing outside. Two men, locals. They were watching the approaching taxi intently, perhaps even grinning. Ute paid the driver, who rode off without a thanks or goodbye.
"Buenas," the men greeted them, and let them through the heavy wooden gate. After the rudeness of the bus and tricycle-taxi drivers, this was five-star politeness.
Inside the gates, Ute and Jerry stopped in their tracks, stunned. They were inside a live tropical garden, heaving with exotic plants twice their height.
"Oh, hello!" Jerry said. "I think we've come to the right place."
"This way," one of the men said. He must have seen his share of new arrivals with mouths agape like this. He led them along a white, pebbled path, and they crunched along behind. The warm, moist air was filled with the sweet, intimate smell of rotting vegetation, reminding Ute of the smell of the Brazilian Amazon. Tiny water jets purred among the plants. Insects screeched and fluttered around them.
Excerpted from Villa Pacifica by Kapka Kassabova. Copyright © 2011 Kapka Kassabova. Excerpted by permission of Alma Books Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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