This is a story of cheap rum, bad sex, hidden stretches of paradise and dank hotel rooms. The reader should note that it contains no heroic deaths, courageous battles, unrequited loves or great adventures.
It is the story of a lonesome gringo traveller's everyday impressions of ordinary madness, human restlessness and the joy and solitude of life on the open road. It is the story of passing through strange towns in a beautiful land. It is the story of Sanne Jansson.
When I awoke, the bus was passing through a low desert scrubland of grey thorn-bushes that looked like smoke. A rather thick-set Peruvian man was sitting by the road, in front of a garage under an arc of shade. Shirtless and glassy-eyed he picked his teeth with a stem of grass, watching the wind. A few vultures were gliding in circles above the trash heaps, floating like bits of ash lifted from a bonfire.
I was taking the night bus north to escape the beginnings of the rainy season. The driver frisked us all for weapons as we boarded (overlooking the boxes of cocaine the police found later during a routine stop at a check point.)
I was travelling with two Swedish girls. Sanne and Sara had cropped blonde hair and warm smiles that spread easy and lingered. We’d spent several days walking in the
mountains and were waiting by a dusty crossroads where there were three things: a stop sign, a bus stop and a bar that was really someone's house. We went in. Tablecloths drying on the line in the kitchen with kids running through. We piled in and, opening it, saw the fridge contained a golden light. We got drunk passing the cold bottles around waiting for the bus, got in passing the beer around so everyone was half-way-drunk when the dusk met the stars and it all got dark outside and everyone became quiet and close in the warm cracked-leather night feeling good and holding hands sleepy drunk, passing through hundreds of miles of rivers and valleys in the void outside, black and cold but for the two lonely yellow headlights out ahead and the warmth of the little hands we all still held though sleeping now, like lambs curled up in eternity, with some talking in low voices or trying to sleep listening to the sound of the engine and sound of the tyres on the road taking us all the way across the border to Ecuador where we’d wake up next morning rested and head out.
Drunkenness, like a good piece of music or a kiss, arrives best unannounced. In the afternoon, perhaps, cutting into a bar with no reason or hesitation and letting the time and worries and afternoon just ebb away. Or maybe at night, when it's so quiet in the dark you feel the world islanded in the universe, in a bleak stream of stars, and so you take a beer because, in that moment, mind too flows along that same great infinite course towards the eternity of that ole’ tender-blue heaven-going crazy dream we never found a word for nor will. And so rather than drinking to contemplate this, you drink to forget it, to forget your name and be carried along instead like an atom in the great atomic stream of endless tomorrows.
Passing Through Zorritos
We walked south from a tropical fishing village of Zorritos along an empty strip of shore until, after a few hours, there were no more houses or fishing boats or voices, just sand and sky and birds.
We made a fire on the beach and drank a bottle of Cartavio Rum as the sun set. The silence wrapped around us. The girls sang Swedish folksongs like ethereal, soft-lipped sirens from another time.
With flour, water and heated oil we baked bread on a fire in the sand. The evening light faded, replaced by a warm heavy wind that blew in over the sea carrying its salt smell. It was a warm, moonless night and time was there, drowsing in the breakers. We finished the bottle and lay there, a tangle of limbs, invisible in the dark.
I'm not sure when Sanne decided to take her clothes off. My thoughts had been slowed by the rum. But, when I looked up, I could see by her vague silhouette that she was naked. Sara followed suit and the three of us waded out, robed in starlight, into the warm Pacific waves low-crashing in the darkness with the great blazing stars overhead.
In the distance on the beach, the embers of the fire glowed in the wind. Overhead the stars did the same. Our voices were swallowed up by the immensity of the night and, playing there in the dark, in the soft music of the wind and waves, we thought about nothing that wasn't already there, and the nothingness that was.
I lost count of how many days we spent there, swimming in the ocean, lying in the hammock, listening to the boom and hiss of the green Pacific waves. The sea-sound found its way into our thinking so we no longer heard it. Old weather-exposed paint-faded fishing skivvies moored on the bay were stripped by the warm westerly trade winds one splinter at a time.
The afternoons drifted by like a cool breeze. Half asleep half drunk on a deserted strip of shore we watched the sky, read stories, drank beer, swam between chapters, forgot our names and slipped into a deep warm tropical languor that lasted for weeks with an end of land, end of the world sadness that the old trade winds of time carried in as we floated away, watching the perfect light playing on the backs of the waves. The wind rising and falling forever, the sound of it almost reaching the shoreline of my dreams.
One night, after drinking by the sea, Sanne and I decided to go into town. In the darkness we saw a bar lit up where there were a few people who turned to look at us as we entered before going back to their beers and conversations. All but one young mulatta who looked at us until we said hello and invited her over. Andrea had glazed eyes and a smile so wide it made you think she had more teeth than everyone else. Pleasant and languid and drunk and friendly she stayed with us and we drank, got closer, got drunker and finally cut out so we could walk by the sea in the wind and the dark. We sat down in the sand heavy together like sacks of grain and began kissing and sloppily stroking one another.
A tangle of limbs, I kissed Sanne’s thighs while Andrea kissed her neck and Sanne stroked Andrea’s heavy breasts. They both began to moan and we licked and caressed and penetrated and held each other, whispered to each other and set one another ablaze so completely and so delicately over the course of the early hours that the sound of it was like a hospital ward after a battle.
It is true that the wellsprings of pleasure lie deeper than those of thought, and we tried our very best to quench our thirst in the sweetness of that weary pre-dawn embrace, lying down together in the warm sands like tired angles of some kind, anesthetized, comforted, having found what Kerouac called “the closest most delicious thing in life together” feeling all of emptiness and love, limbs and private thoughts entangled there on the shore as we fell asleep until morning, waking into the strange blue sea-breeze sun-blasted dream of life again, disoriented and happy and closer together, somehow, because of sleep, and because then the sensations were keener and the skin more lucid.
Looking into Sanne's eyes you could see her heart was good. A natural humour came from within her. When she laughed it was a good clean pleasant laugh; she had the kind of smile that reassured your soul: no time for worry when life is short. She had the clearest eyes I ever saw. Nursery blue and full of light. Her smile reached into you and dragged something out of you, dragged you towards her light.
Looking out down the coastline from the wood-stilt cabin, you could see the blue stars shine brightly. The palm trees fanned the sky and warm breeze came in from far away with the sound of slow-breaking waves that replaced your thoughts after some time. I was not alone, but far away from the world
Passing Through Montañita
The stretch of coastline around Montañita is formed of windswept cliff-tops, forest villages and sandy beaches where the waves break far out and come in slow.
At night, the sound of the ocean is drowned out by the reggaeton music from the beach-front clubs. In the morning the streets are littered with last night's drunks. Everywhere you look you're sentenced by a bloodshot gaze. People become fragile shadows if they spend more than three days here, as many do, going without sleep and replacing food with the relentless pursuit of liquor and depraved acts of copulation.
Stoned surfer girls with desolate eyes and salty yellow hair, spent-up tourists and gaunt Argentinian drifters line the curbs. They sell just enough handmade jewellery to keep them in fish-head soup and marijuana.
I saw one unpleasantly-white German family who must have been given bad information. They were horrified. Their eyes paralysed with fear. They sat on wooden stools assessing the scene, looking paler than milk bottles, and as out of place, at the bar.
Tonight will be a garish mirror-image of last night: the smell of sex and rum will blend in the evening air and bass drums will shake the ground. Out on the beach people will pass a bottle and a guitar around little fires until dawn. You will see silver rags in the shallows and not know whether they're moonlight-crested waves or the tattered clothes of those who've waded out naked to urinate or kiss or stroll in the sea.
The cutest little Ecuadorian girls in jeans and bikinis, full of unintended grace and sass are, by midnight, stripped of all sensuousness and wear pale death-masks of themselves. The lust and sorrow and feelings of guilt of hundreds of electric ghosts become visible in the whites of their rolled-back epileptic eyes.
There is sex everywhere. Packs of depraved underfed animals disinterestedly sniff each other’s sunburnt haunches. To make it through the madness three things are essential: 1) a good pair of dark sunglasses, 2) a daily swim in the Pacific 3) the occasional sane talk of a new arrival.
It's almost bliss, but there's something flawed. It's like Goa, but with too much tequila and plastic jewellery and not enough tea and yoga. The mentality of Montañita is so grossly atavistic that it’s possible to spend the night with a girl, walk past her on the street the next day and have no recollection of the beautiful and terrible things you did together or – if you do remember – feel no guilt, as you look at her and her new man, about being seen with the new girl who is now on your arm.
There’s usually a point at which excess leads not to the palace of wisdom but to the piss-soaked gutters of reality; when the smell of the rum becomes sour and offensive. When the lovers, lost in the weightless shadows of their embrace, howl as they did in the Paris bordellos of the 1800´s: in an orgy of slow desperate moans that makes it hard to distinguish pleasure from sickness and easy to mistake night for death, the airless garrets swollen with the sweet-bitter stench of syphilis and absinthe.
The turning point for me came when I was standing on the shore, watching the shadows of strange sea-birds circling overhead. They wheeled around silhouetted by the intestines of a pale dawn sky and ascended like souls departing. I caught sight of myself in a window reflection, hollow-eyed, carrier of a sickness that has existed since long before man (I told myself it gave birth, in fact, this virus we call love, to man out of darkness). I looked down at the two withered hands I could no longer feel and I knew I was doomed and that all humanity was doomed. The terrible screeching of the birds filled the void and, as though from a great distance, I heard my voice say to the others it was time to lay down.
As I watched the bus carry my friends away - whether it was the hangover or the sunlight or the sadness of one too many farewells in this too-huge world we’re all vaulted in - the knot in my throat made it impossible to lift the weight of my hand to wave. Instead, without words, I said goodbye in my heart and watched the bus shrink down the road until
it became a tiny speck on the horizon. I thought of Sanne's clear blue eyes, more beautiful than the sea.
Passing Through Manta
I watched the waves going in and out and listened to the couple next to me arguing. South American women never lose an argument with their husbands. Never. I have not seen it happen once and don’t expect to. The men fumble helplessly for words while the women wield theirs like well-sharpened blades they've spent years polishing in secret. Their arguments are as clear and deadly as hammer blows and, realising this, the tone of the man - if he is stupid enough to persist with his argument - becomes one of pleading, supposing, contending, imploring, compromising, petitioning; he squirms for a gap in the flow of her monologue. Her lips are a blur. Her gestures too. Whether she is right or not is irrelevant and often completely unknown to everyone involved.
But such is her rigour, her precision and her fury, that you believe her completely. Her voice has the inbuilt capacity to increase in volume at exactly the right moment without the slightest hint of hesitation, causing the man's eyes to roll back in resignation and you are able to see his glassy thoughts switch track at this point: to another woman, where he's going to pass the evening, what he will eat for dinner, regretting the wedding day ever happened.
It is a pleasure to listen to the music of this verbal machine-gun-fire. Unless, of course, you are the target: "of course, but..." cut off; "perhaps it's just that..." drowned out; "listen a second because..." shot down. Her lungs are more powerful, her logic more cutting and, most importantly, her eyes simply more ferocious than his. There is no earthly way to interrupt her if she believes that A. she is right B. she is not being listened to, or C. what she is saying is not being accepted. The wise will simply wait. But the majority are not wise, or just not that patient, and stutter along beneath her with pleading little gasps amid the avalanche of her glorious fury.
When she flares up like that, when she gets enraged, he looks up at her timidly and then, as if he has decided that silence is the best course, he lets his head drop and he fiddles with his napkin. But this little gesture, which she knows so well and which of course is secretly pleasing to her because she is convinced now that he is guilty, only increases her anger. "Hablas, tonto! Speak, fool!" she shrieks. And with a squeaky, timid little voice he explains to her woefully that she is right and – best of all – having forgotten the point he had wanted to convey all along - he is also now convinced that she is right after all.
From the forthcoming book ELECTRIC GHOSTS OF PACHAMAMA by Michael Molyneux. Copyright ©2016 by Michael Molyneux. Published by arrangement with Shanti Arts. All rights reserved.
To contact the author please email Michaelmolyneux@hotmail.com