Doing Good or the Kindness of Strangers Gold Winner: Latin Carino

by Mohezin Tejani

I am on an eighteen-month overland trip from California to Argentina. The year is 1977. The thoughts that run through my head are considerably different from those that I’ve had before the short jaunts I have taken during summer breaks and holidays. When the open road turns into a long-term lifestyle, the obstacles and hassles of living out of a backpack take on new meanings altogether. Fear, danger, and isolation side by side with boundless joy, nature’s bliss, and a freedom void of time and space will all become my close friends.

I travel alone. It’s the best way to get to know myself and what I am capable of. A pelting rainstorm night spent solo in a leaky makeshift hut built by me three quarters of the way up Kilimanjaro has taught me that. At nineteen, I was a clean-shaven, short-haired geek with black square rimmed glasses. I’m twenty-six now and sport a bushy black beard, Gandhi glasses, a Mexican T-shirt, and blue jeans. Though confidence is written all over my face, inside I have doubts whether I can really pull off this extended journey into a continent whose languages and cultures though fascinating are still foreign to me.

It is now April and I’ve been in Mexico for the last four months. My three goals are to become fluent in Spanish, to explore the Mayan and Incan cultures of Latin America, and most important of all, to get to Buenos Aires for the World Cup finals in July 1978. After that, who knows?

Bits and pieces of a dusk-to-dawn conversation last year with Raphael keep replaying themselves in my head. He is a pony-tailed Puerto Rican fellow grad student at the University of California at Irvine, who explored South America extensively last year.

El Mundial? Que suerté! “World Cup? What a lucky guy!”

“Yeah but I’ve got just under $2,000 to my name,” I replied.

“Time is more important than money. You look like a Latino and if you get good enough in Spanish, you can easily live on five dollars a day.”

“That’s the plan. My three months studying Spanish in Mexico should give me a strong enough base to pull this off.”

“Don’t get stay too long in Central America, remember to move on. South America is even more amazing. Feliz viaje, amigo!

I now take stock of my life in Mexico. The three months planned in San Miguel de Allende, an artist’s town of cobblestone streets in Guanajato Province, have turned into four. Under the linguistic wings of Don Crucito, my Spanish teacher, I am already conversant in the language and improving daily. Every day, while on his errandsto the market for groceries, to the post office, to the barber’she takes me with him, correcting my grammar and expanding my vocabulary. Every night, I make notes in my journal of all the new words I learnt during the day.

Patricia, my Mexican girlfriend from Guadalajara for the last two months, wants me to stay longer. She has big black eyes that blend just right with her short, charcoal hair and that te quiero smile. When she’s not painting her abstract oils, she is my bedroom Spanish teacher, since she hardly speaks any English. The three week-long trips with herto snorkeling coves at Playa Puerto Angel in Quaxaca, to a bullfight festival in Queretaro, and to Tepic for her shopping spree for colorful weavings by the Huichol Indiansall gave me proof enough that I am able to hold my own in her language. From San Miguel, I made two other trips on my own to verify thisone to the Chiapas jungle in the South and one to San Ignacio in eastern Belize where they speak more Spanish than English.

“Move on. Move on.” Raphael’s words keep echoing in my ears. Four months have gone by and I’m still here in my first Latino country, except for that side trip to Belize. My compadre, Don Crucito, assures me that my Spanish is good enough to head south. I promise to come and see him on the return leg, whenever that is. Even though I prefer to travel alone, I ask Patricia to join me on my journey, aware that traveling with her would make my understanding of the Latino culture and language that much stronger. She, however, cannot bear the thought of not seeing her family in Guadalajara for two whole years. And mine? After the Uganda expulsion, my parents and eight siblings, spread all over North America, are pre-occupied with rebuilding their lives, imprisoned by mortgages for their suburban homes and school fees for their children. I am the only gypsy in the family, with different dreams. Homesickness is the least of my worries, since I really don’t have a home anymore.

So, I leave San Miguel. Inside my backpack are a few clothes, mountain boots wrapped in my sleeping bag, a prescription lens snorkeling mask, a bulky copy of the South American Handbook with college transcripts folded inside, and a novel by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. My money belt is tucked around my lean belly, protecting my American passport and 1,700 dollars in traveler’s checks. Hasta la proxima, amor, “Til next we meet, my love,” I say to her before getting on the bus. I am excited beyond words, but the doubt about whether I will achieve my goals lingers in my mind. On to El Salvador which is where my first real test comes.

***

On the train journey south to the capital San Salvador I meet up with Salvadorian Anna and her Canadian boyfriend Richard, who have been living together for the last two years in Santa Tecla, a small town twenty-three kilometers from San Salvador. Tall and slender, bronze-skinned Anna, with shapely curves, is the thinker. Scruffy, brown-haired Richard, an English teacher who speaks better Spanish than me, is the comedian. Cross-cultural couples always interest me, and we chat for hours as the train winds its way through the countryside. When we hit it off with the train’s friendly conductor, we talk him into letting us climb up onto the roof so that Richard can take better pictures of the spectacular countryside passing by. I lament that I cannot afford a camera of my own for this trip.

Up top as the wind zips though our hair the view of miles of lush green forest broken up here and there with villages and cornfields is breathtaking. In between ducking down through tunnels and under bridges, and clicking off snapshots, my newfound friends paint a picture of life in El Salvador for me.

Anna starts off saying that the country is on the verge of civil war. The nine oligarchic families that run the country with the help of a military junta that exiled the elected president Duarte in 1972 are fighting among themselves over their cafetaleros businesses and power. Richard adds that the US government is pumping in huge amounts of money to prop up the military regime, convinced, just like in Vietnam, that this is the best strategy to ensure that Central American countries don’t fall like dominoes into the clutches of communist ideology. The US doesn’t want a repeat of the 1932 Salvadoran peasant uprising led by folk hero Jose Marti. Anna adds that new guerrilla groups spearheaded by FMLN are convinced that the only way to create better conditions for the poor is through armed struggle. Kidnappings, murder, and torture of civilians, mostly by the military, are common everyday occurrences. I think of my Uganda under Idi Amin.

Richard and Anna are both involved in street theatre groups to raise political awareness about these inhumane acts. Anna is worried that even though she has a different political outlook from her father, their anti-government activities might endanger his job as a visa assistant at the US Embassy.

When they ask about my life, I tell them about how I lost my home and culture in Uganda during the Asian expulsion. Empathizing with my desire to find a new home, Anna clasps my hand to comfort me. As the train approaches the capital, she invites me to stay with them in Santa Tecla. I accept the invitation and end up using their home as a base for trips around the country.

Over the next few weeks, I make trips to Santa Ana Volcano and the surfer beaches of La Libertad with Richard, Anna, and their Salvadorian friends. Their circle of friends includes a television commentator, a social activist musician, a stage actor who directs political theatre, and an anthropology graduate who preaches revolution. All come to accept me as a paisano, a fellow “third worlder” who’s seen his share of political problems. I join them in theatre skits and learn protest songs around beach campfires. I talk to them about why the soccer World Cup for me is a bastion of world unity, and how this three-week event recently brought about truces in four inter-country conflicts around the world for the durationjust so the people in those areas could watch twenty-two players kick a ball around for ninety minutes.

I feel at home with these people in this land. The fact that the country is in the throes of political transition makes me want to contribute my two cent’s worth. So I explore the idea of teaching at a university in San Salvador. When Anna finds out that there is an opening coming up at the Santa Ana campus of Universidad de Salvador for teaching Latin literature, I type out my application on their typewriter. She helps me get my UCI college transcripts translated and notarized for the application.

Days later, I attend a personal interview. The panel members, impressed with my credentials and Spanish-language ability, tell me they’ll make a decision within a month. What about my goal of being in Argentina for the World Cup, I ask myself. Well, one semester of teaching won’t push my schedule that far off track, and teaching in Spanish will certainly improve my vocabulary. If I get the job, it will be too good an opportunity to miss out on. Who knows? This could be home for a few years. In advance preparation for the job, I continue traversing the country while devouring books on Latin history.

***

I am exploring the eastern province of San Miguel, a conflict zone where there has been guerrilla activity. It’s a bright sunny afternoon and I’m sitting on a bench in the busy Parque Guzman Plaza in the provincial capital reading Richard’s hardcover English-language copy of Matanza, an account of the uprising by El Salvadorian peasants and Indians in 1932, led by folk hero José Marti that resulted in the killing of some 30,000 Salvadorians by the military. I am inspired by the historic struggle of the masses to escape poverty.

The book’s jacketblood spattered across a snapshot of protesters, with the title Matanza, “massacre” in Spanish, splashed across the topis hidden in my daypack. Best to be on the safe side.

Que haces por aqui? “What are you doing here,” a curt voice asks from behind me. I turn around to see a soldier in fatigues, rifle in hand, peering over my shoulder.

I reply in Spanish that it’s just a novel.

Surprised that I can speak Spanish, he points to my bushy black beard and says, Communista?

I shake my head and reply “Americano.”

He demands to see my passport, which happens to be in my money belt, safe at Anna’s house in Santa Tecla. I tell him so and show him my California driver’s license instead. He doesn’t read any English and now insists on looking into my daypack.

Para qué? “What for,” I ask.

He points his rifle at me and says, Ahora! “Now!”

Trembling inside, I try to remain calm. I open my daypack just enough for a peek. He grabs it from me, pours the contents on the bench, and rummages through. The people passing through the park steal furtive glances at us but move on quickly. He finds the Matanza jacket, studies it closely, looking back and forth from it to me, squinting with suspicion.

He waves the rifle at me, saying A la estacion de policia! Vamos! “To the police station! Let’s go!”

As I shove all my things back into the daypack, I offer him some money as a bribe, which he refuses, shaking his head. During the ten-minute walk to the police station, his rifle prodding me in the back, I feel humiliated as people stare at me in silence. He keeps hold of the book’s jacket and won’t give it back, despite my pleas.

At the police station, I wait for over an hour on a wooden bench. Thoughts are racing through my head. Why didn’t I leave the damned book jacket in Santa Tecla? How could I be so stupid as to not carry my passport with me? How the hell am I going to get out of this jam? Think, Mojo, think!

Eventually el jefe, the station chief, beckons me into his room. Gloating behind a big wooden desk, he fingers the book cover and leafs through Matanza. He bombards me with questions in broken English. Why no passport? Why this book? Why San Miguel? Who do I work for? My address in El Salvador? My address in California?

I plead my case, assuring him that I’m just an American passing through who picked up this book in a second-hand bookstore in the city. The interrogation goes on. Then he rifles through my address book. Recalling that I have Anna’s home number in it, I ask him to call her to verify my identity. He says nothing. I say that I will pay for the long-distance call. Eventually he agrees when I hand him a 100-colon note for the call. The phone rings and rings. It’s five in the afternoon; Anna and Richard aren’t back from work yet. The police move me to a cell with iron bars, which has one rickety chair and a dirty cot infested with bugs. There is a filthy pot to pee in.

Every hour or so, a policeman lets me out of the cell to try the phone again, till finally around ten o’clock I get through to Richard. Panicking, I explain my situation, with policemen eavesdropping on every word. Anna gets on the phone and talks to one of the officers, verifying who I am and telling him about my job interview at the university. He keeps shaking his head as they talk. Anna asks to talk to el jefe but he’s gone home for the night. The policeman lets me talk to her.

“Be strong, hermano. I promise we’ll get you out. Need to call all my contacts. I have the station chief’s phone number and will call you tomorrow. Be strong.”

The policeman says it’s time to hang up. Anna’s caution for me to keep my wits about me spooks me even more.

I spend the night curled up in the rickety chair. Around midnight, for another 100-colon note, a policeman brings some food for me. No change returned. But I cannot eat. Sleep is impossible as I imagine what it’ll be like to be locked up in a Salvadorian jail for eternity. So long World Cup Argentina, I never even made it past El Salvador.

Next day, el jefe calls me in around midday. I stagger into his office, hungry, exhausted, and aching all over. He tells me I am free to go but the book and its jacket are to be confiscated. I think about asking why, but quickly change my mind. I hurry out the front door, run to my guesthouse, and pack my gear. After a quick shower and a meal, I’m back on the bus to Santa Tecla. I am shaking all over on the trip home, relieved yet perplexed as to why el jefe let me go. I imagine all the worst scenarios of what could have happened to me.

That evening, overjoyed to see me safe and sound in Santa Tecla, Anna explains that the soldier in the park was convinced I was a guerrilla sympathizer, maybe even a spy pretending to be an American traveler. Early that morning, skipping work, she had gone to visit her estranged father at the US Embassy to secure my release. All morning long, he was on the phone with all his contacts, both inside the embassy and with the Salvadorian Army. A colonel who owed him a favor agreed to make the required phone call to the police chief in San Miguel. El jefe was pressured into letting me go in return for future favors.

“Favors are in high demand these days. Worth more than money or gold,” says Anna.

I hug her in gratitude. I have never met her father, but if it wasn’t for him, I might still be languishing in jail, forsaken, maybe even tortured. I shudder involuntarily.

That evening, I persuade Anna to visit her father so I can personally thank him for his help. In his fifties, he’s a gentle man, but he gets right to the point. He asks me about the interrogation, and upon hearing all the personal details they got out of me, he advises me to leave the country quickly for my own safety.

“Dangerous times now. Your name has been circulated with the military. You must leave now,” he warns me.

At home, Richard and Anna concur with his advice. So that week, in tears, I leave El Salvador on a SAM airlines flight to Cartagena, Colombia. The university job was a pipe dream after all. How naïve to think I could actually make a difference in this troubled country. Though spooked, I am determined to carry on with my trip. I just need to be more careful where I go. Best to head for South America before time and money run out. Exploring the rest of Central AmericaNicaragua, Costa Rica, Panamawill have to wait for another day.

***

Two months later, while changing travelers’ checks to pesos at the American Express office in Cali, Colombia, I find a letter at the poste restante forwarded mail center from the Universidad de San Salvador offering me the teaching job. The deadline to present myself at the Santa Ana campus to start the semester classes expired twenty days ago. So it goes.

A year later, I read in the papers that El Salvador officially declares a state of civil war. Death squads are on the rampage every day. The country is in turmoil for the next ten years. My repeated letters and phone calls to Richard and Anna in Santa Tecla remain unanswered to this day. I never hear from them again.

***

The few weeks in Colombia, with the country rife with drug cartels and rampant crime, turn out to be a test of mental endurance. In my mind, I am trying hard to put the Matanza episode behind me so as to not curb my adventurous spirit. Yet in the very first week, while walking along a narrow footpath in Cartegena, a passenger on a passing bus plucks my Guatemalan straw hat right off my head. Chasing after the speeding bus would have been futile despite the sentimental value of my well broken-in, one-dollar hat. The incident upsets me. Nevertheless, I will myself to think positively and not be deterred by it. I recall the street mugging I went through two years ago in Greenwich Village in New York City, when a heroin addict, with a knife to my throat, emptied my wallet to get his daily fix.

On an early morning bus, I make my way east to the coastal town of Santa Marta, where the thick rainforest literally creeps right up to the white sand beach by the Caribbean Sea. On the idyllic deserted beach, I look for people in two run-down huts, but they are empty. Quick-paced thoughts run through my head. Why is no one here? Is it not safe? The Guajira Peninsula, where much of the marijuana grown on plantations finds its way to America, is not much further east along the coast. Is this area secured by armed vigilantes to scare off strangers? Am I being too paranoid? To be on the safe side, I skip the Caribbean sunset on the beach and pick up a local train heading south to the town of Arcataca.

The town is the birthplace of author Gabriel Garcia Marquez, whose classic novel, One Hundred Years of Solitude, I have just finished reading. His fictional fantasy town of Macondothe setting for all the bizarre events that the Buendia family goes throughwas actually inspired by Arcataca. I find Marquez’s home, which has now been turned into museum of his books and pictures of his childhood life.

At the museum, while paying my respects to one of Latin America’s greatest contributors to literature, I run into Pedro, a Colombian artist with long hair and buck teeth, who is also an avid fan of Marquez. Over lunch together, I discover that both of us are travelers in search of inspiration. Worried for my safety, I ask him to travel with me. He is willing to escort me through the eastern stretch of the Andes, up to Bucaramanga where he lives.

A couple of days later, we make our way down to erosion-ravaged Bucaramanga, where I end up spending a pleasant week with Pedro’s hospitable family at their home. His four-year-old daughter, Elena, loves piggyback rides on our daily trips around the area. When alone together, Pedro gives me history lessons on the drug czars who hold the country’s underground economy in their hands. Some of the drugs cartels he talks about are in southern Columbia, which I have to traverse to get to Peru. The night before my departure, I persuade Pedro to travel south with me to the San Agustin ruins, where he’s bound to find more inspiration for his painting. I will feel much safer with him on the journey. With some persuasion, he agrees as long as we avoid cities that he’s not too fond of.

At the Incan ruins of San Agustin we have our first encounter with the Otavalo Indians from Ecuadorfriendly, long-haired poncho vendors who will take on much greater importance in my travels through Ecuador. Pedro pencil sketches one couple with a backdrop of the ruins while I roam around the local market. Later, for the overnight excursion to Silviaa deep valley town nestled among a forest full of gnarled trees covered in lichen and Spanish mosswe seek the help of a Guambiano Indian guide to take us horse-riding through this magical land. We camp overnight by a gushing waterfall, next to an Inca site with statues dating back to 3300 BC. Pedro works on new sketches while I catch up on my journal. The next morning, Pedro and I clasp each other before parting ways. I thank him for safe passage through his country.

Hasta la proximo. Llegas al Mundial porque Brazil ganara, he says. “Till we meet again. Get to the World Cup to see Brazil win.” The Guambiano guide escorts me to the Ecuadorian border before turning back.

***

Ecuador reminds me of Uganda, except that Uganda has no ocean. Like Uganda, the country is small, with good tarmac roads bisecting it, so that a traveler can easily get to the jungle, the mountains, the market towns, and the Pacific beaches all within one day of the capital, Quito. Over the next two months, feeling safe among the welcoming bienvenido smiles of Ecuadorians, I enjoy traveling alone again for the first time since El Salvador.

For a measly ten dollars a month, I rent a dirt-floor hut with a hammock in a tiny aldea called Agato, on the outskirts of Otavalo in northern Ecuador. The Otavaleños are dignified entrepreneurial weavers who travel as far north as Panama and as far south as Chile to sell their famed alpaca wool ponchos, armed with pocket calculators for price negotiations. The pony-tailed men dress in calf-length white pants, rope sandals, reversible gray or blue ponchos, and dark felt hats; the women wear embroidered blouses, long black skirts, glass-bead necklaces and bracelets, and colorful head cloths that denote their marital status. Proud of their heritage, they make their own music, sing their own songs, and dance their own rituals during local festivalsa rare sight in the indigenous population of South America. I am quite enamored by them.

After each excursionto the snow-capped Andean cordilleras of Cotopaxi and Chimborazo; to the beaches of Atacames and Esmeraldas; to the market towns of Latacunga, Santo Domingo de los Colorados, and CañarI am eager to return to my hammock in Agato and to my Otavaleño friends in Poncho Plaza to play pelota (a game like handball but without a court). By now, they have nicknamed me El Condor Indio, the “Indian condor,” after the famed bird of the Andes.

On Christmas Eve, I am back in Otavalo at my friend Juancito’s home, enjoying the festivities with all his friends, munching on cui, roasted guinea pig, as glasses of aguardiente, a potent liquor made from anise, are passed around. Folk songs are booming from a tape recorder, while some of the womenfolk dance among themselves. No mistletoe or Christmas carols here, and frankly, I don’t miss them. We are all excited about a folk music concert by a touring Colombian band that will take place in Poncho Plaza tonight.

The open-air plaza is a sea of blue ponchos and felt hats. Everyone is seated on wooden chairs when we arrive. On stage, the musicians with close to a hundred wooden instruments are tuning up their charangos and marimbas. The winter air is chilling. To warm up, my friends and I wander over to a semi-circle of kiosks to buy a bottle of homemade cinnamon wine before grabbing some empty chairs towards the back. Once seated, I take off my silver daypack with all my valuables worn over my blue poncho, and place it between my feet. A full moon hovers over us, its light reflecting off the glass beads and necklaces of the Otaveleña women. A few fair-skinned gringos are scattered among the crowd.

Viva la raza indigena! “Long live our indigenous roots,” the bandleader shouts. This is followed by a short speech on how the invasion of Western music is destroying the fabric of Andean cultures and changing the values of the children. This receives a thunderous round of applause from the Otavaleños. They already follow the band’s message in their daily lives.

The traditional songs from all over South America are magical, as band members switch from flutes to pan pipes, from alpaca-skin drums to llama-skin congas. As the concert goes on, more and more Otaveleños pick up the beats and start dancing around the chairs. Some move up to front stage. Juancito and his friends beckon me to join them up front, most of them, including me, now reeling from the aguardiente. Jumping up, I follow them.

Two hours later, the final song has our small group bouncing up and down in front of the stage, felt hats flying and black skirts spinning in the cold moonlit air. Feliz Navidad!

When the concert’s over, as the crowd disperses Juancito and I climb on stage to talk to the band members. While chatting, I suddenly recall that my daypack is still under my seat. I gallop back to retrieve it, but it is gone, nowhere in sight. Frantic now, I am running through row after row of seats, in case I went to the wrong row to begin with. No silver reflection in the clear moonlight. Gone with it are my journals, my college transcripts, and yes, my money belt with all my IDs, my American passport, and about 1,200 dollars in traveler’s checks and cash.

I curse myself. Sober now, I check my pockets to count what money I have left as Juancito comes over. With tears brimming in my eyes, I tell him that I have lost my daypack and have less than 200 sucres, about six dollars, to my name.

The plaza is almost deserted now, the last few stragglers heading home. None is carrying a silver daypack. Juancito finds the concert organizer, who insists that no one has handed any lost property to him. I am desperate now. His assurances that Otavaleños are honest people and that a radio announcement in the morning is bound to recover the daypack from some kind soul, don’t relieve my anxiety. Juancito takes me home, lays out an old mattress on the floor, and pumps me with more aguardiente to help me sleep. But it doesn’t help.

Even if I can convince the US Embassy in Quito that the passport theft is genuine, it will be weeks before I can get a new one. Replacing traveler’s checks at the American Express office without a passport or some kind of identification is unheard of. Why on earth did I take the daypack off? Why didn’t I keep my money belt tucked around my belly like I always do? Because it felt uncomfortable? That added comfort has come with a very heavy price. I keep reprimanding myself till sleep eventually takes over.

When I wake up, Juancito has gone to the radio station. His wife gives me some breakfast before I rush off to find him.

The radio announcer promises me that he will announce my loss in the Otavaleño and Spanish languages every hour, on the hour, all day. I wait for the next one to hear it for myself in Spanish.

He has included all the pertinent information, describing the daypack, where it was lost, and where to return it. I thank my stars that most of the locals in town know who El Indio Condor is and where Juancito lives.

Now it’s a waiting game. In my room, I rummage through my backpack, wondering what I can hawk for money. I take my hiking boots and snorkel mask to Poncho Plaza to sell. After bargaining, one of the poncho vendors gives me 800 sucres for the boots that I paid 75 dollars for, but he refuses to buy the snorkel mask. Never mind, the 800 sucres will keep me going for a few more days.

At the bus station, now counting every penny, I check out the cheapest tickets to Quito, but hold off on buying one for another day. For the rest of the day, I make the rounds of the radio station, the plaza, and Juancito’s home on the off chance that some good soul has returned my daypack. But no luck at any of these places. Just getting back my passport and the traveler’s checks will sufficethe thieves can keep the cash for all I care.

Another night of broken sleep is interrupted by the midnight realization that I have lost my address book too, so I have no way of contacting my family to wire money to me via Western Union. This time you’re really done for, Mojo.

Another full day passes, with the same routine and the same results. During dinner, Juancito continues to be optimistic. I tell him that I have to leave for Quito at eight the next morning, hoping against hope that the US Embassy will give me a loan to fly back to America with a temporary pass to re-enter. So long Buenos Aires and the World Cupmaybe I’ll try again in four years’ time. He understands and insists that I take the 1,000-sucre note he has in his hand. I promise to pay him back and hug him and his family one last time.

The next morning, as the bus to Quito is about to pull away from the station, I hear a loud rapping on my window. I see Juancito gasping for breath. He motions me to stop the bus, which I do by yelling Para, por favorcito! Juancito gets on and calls from up front that someone has called into the radio station this morning with news of my daypack. I get off the bus and rush with him to the station, my fingers crossed in both hands. An address of a local shop has been left there with instructions for Juancito to come alone to retrieve the pack. Why alone? I ask him. He shakes his head and says it may have something to do with the person wanting to remain anonymous. I don’t understand and insist on going with him. He pleads with me to wait at his home while he goes to the specified address. I look into his eyes and see no malice. Yet, when he leaves the station, I stalk him around every corner of every street, careful to stay far enough behind so as to be out of sight. When he enters the shop, I stay outside, trying hard to listen in on the conversation, which turns out to be in the Otavalo dialect.

A few minutes later, unable to control myself, I duck my head into the shop, and, on spotting my daypack on the counter, rush in unannounced and grab it. The man behind the counter looks up startled, and flees.

Juancito is upset that I didn’t listen to him. I ignore him and search the pack. Every single item is therethe money belt, the passport, the checks, the transcripts, the IDs, even the journals and the address book. The only thing missing is seventy dollars’ worth of sucres I had exchanged last week and put inside the money belt.

The man behind the counter returns, looking embarrassed and offers me a handful of sucre notes.

The story slowly unfolds. At the concert, a nephew of the shop owner, on seeing the pack, had picked it up and given it to his uncle, explaining that he had taken the sucres to help pay for his sick daughter’s hospital treatment. The nephew asked the uncle to explain the situation to Juancito since they know each otherhence the request for Juancito to show up alone.

Humiliated that I have followed Juancito, the uncle behind the counter is trying to pay me back for the lost sucres. I apologize for my sudden intrusion and assure him that the least I can do for his nephew is to help pay for his daughter’s hospital bill. Mille gracias, Indio, he says, bowing ever so slightly as we leave his shop. Outside, I clasp Juancito’s hand, mumbling apologies for not listening to him. He just smiles. During breakfast together, I return his 1,000 sucres and swear I will never forget his kindness. This time, instead of hugging me, he prefers to shake hands as we part. I pay my bill at the hut in Agato and take the afternoon bus to Quito. Time to keep moving, Raphael echoes in my ear.

In Quito, I get two important things done. First, I photocopy all my IDs, the front pages of my passport, and all the travelers’ checks, and stash them in my backpack, not the money belt. Second, I find a travel agent. After assurances by the clerk that the ticket, if lost, can be reimbursed at any Aerolíneas Argentina office in South America, I buy an economy class, one-way open ticket from Quito to Mexico City and double check the receipt. Mexico City is close enough to get home from, if another disaster strikes. Now down to about $600, I am worried that I am running too low on money with still two more countries to cross before reaching Argentina. A detour to the famed Galapagos Islands, though enticing, seems too expensive and geared to high-end travelers. The next day, I head southeast to the Ecuadorian Amazonas. A quick taste of the mighty Amazon wilderness will be my consolation.

On the only local bus to Misahuallí, the last town before entering the Amazonas, I meet a loin-clothed man who tells me in broken Spanish that he is a jungle guide. His face looks more tribal than Latino with deep knife scars down both cheeks. He claims he is an Auca from the warrior Waorani tribe up the Coca River and knows the area well. I have no way of verifying either of his comments, but I decide to go with him on a two-day trek anyway, reminding myself to trust the locals. It has served me well so far.

Before taking off for the trek the next day, I make sure my backpack is safely locked away in the guesthouse locker with my own combination padlock on it. On the narrow trail, the humidity is stifling. On our second day together, sweaty and grimy from the humid jungle heat, upon coming across a shallow river, I jump right in to cool myself. The Auca guide taking a pee by a tree hears the splash, sprints towards me, his pee flying in the air, grabs me by the neck and pulls me out. His eyes are wide and I think he’s going to kill me. He lets go of me. Peligroso, he says. Then, finding a sharp stick, he draws blood from his forefinger and, without stepping in, trickles a few drops into the water. Within seconds, scenting the blood, a school of piranhas are thrashing about on the surface. I imagine what it must be like to have my body torn to shreds by hundreds of human flesh-eating fish. All the way back to Misahaullí, I keep thanking the Auca for saving my life. He just laughs.

The arrogance that I have been shedding since Guatemala is now all but gone, or so I think. Replaced by lessons learnt and a better understanding of the cariñothe affection shown to me by strangers like Anna’s father, Pedro, Juancito, and the Auca with no name.

***

The border crossing into Peru is open but all the officials have gone into town to watch a friendly football match between Peru and Mexico. The whole country is in the streets and the bars because Peru is one of the four South American countries to qualify for the World Cup finals. When I finally find the visa officer, he is so drunk that he stamps by passport twice.

With renewed spirits and in good physical shape, I crisscross all over Peru for the next four months. In the north, I wander through the pre-Incan ruins of Kuelap. The place is hardly excavated, with buildings still encroached upon by the rainforest. It is much less visited, though bigger than the famed Machu Picchu in the south. No guards, no entrance fee, no busloads of tourists. Total freedom to explore undisturbed.

At the ruins, I meet Jorge, a Peruvian jeweler with a silver nose ring who crafts his own coral bracelets and necklaces to sell them at festivals around the country. Throughout the day, we wander among the pyramids, deciphering the hieroglyphics as best we can on these stelae artifacts. He shares his food with me and convinces me to camp for the night in these centuries-old ruins. Tucked up in sleeping bags around toasty campfire embers, we learn each other’s history while watching falling stars shoot across the sky. Traveling all over his beloved country is his passion. Selling jewelry to pay his way is the only way he knows how. He doesn’t know any English, so he asks to travel south with me to help him sell his wares. I remember what Pedro did for me in Columbia and agree without thinking twice.

The next day on a dirt road, we hitch a ride on an Inca cola truck up to the mountain town of Cajamarca, traversing switchbacks with huge limestone cliffs on one side and 3,000-foot drops on the other. We head down to the towns of Callejón de Hualayas, nestled in the valleys of the northern Andes, where there are lots of travelers. I become Jorge’s sidekick translator as he peddles his wares to the tourists. We make a good teamtwo brown men who live life day by day. He makes good profits over a few days.

When we eventually part ways in Huaraz, one of many Inca towns that afford magical, panoramic views of some twenty odd peaks, each over 5,000 meters high, Jorge gives me a six-inch-long, half-inch-wide “stick” as a farewell present. He claims it is black coral from 200 meters underwater and will make buena plata“good money” if sold to the right jeweler in gringolandia. He laughs. Just in case I run out of money before getting back to the US.

Viva el Mundial! La Copa quedara en Lima por quarto anos. “Long live the World Cup. It’ll be in Lima for the next four years.” We give each other a high five.

***

Further south in the town of Recuay, I run into a grave-digger who talks me into going on an excavation, looking for pottery from the Recuay culture dating back to 800 BC. We wander off to a site about ten miles outside Recuay town, digging for three days and come back with broken pieces of a Recuay pot decorated with a snake’s head.

After this, I take the forty-eight-hour bus ride from hell, heading south from Huancayo to Cuzco. I am traveling with Hilde, a small, blonde Norwegian student who speaks good Spanish and is exploring Peru for the summer holidays. We communicate in Spanish. The busdirty, smelly, packed with people along with squawking chickens and baying goats strapped to the rooftop and on the wooden shelves above our headsdemands coca leaves to numb the pain. An Aymara man on the bus gives me a handful for us to chew. On the outskirts of Cuzco is the Sacsahuyman fortress, built with 300-ton stone slabs. How the hell did these ancient Incans achieve such incredible feats of engineering without mortars and nails?

Our next stop is a four-day trek up to Machu Picchu, the ancient city nestled in the mountains. We are going to pay homage to the sun god Inti. There are quite a few more gringo backpackers on this trek, some with no Spanish ability.

Speaking English with some of them for the first time in months, I feel weird inside, not quite sure why. I seem to prefer hanging out with only those gringo travelers who speak Spanish, so that I can continue my learning momentum. My Spanish has improved considerably and I am now on my third new vocabulary and verbs notebook.

The trek that cements my on-the-road-relationship with Hilde is so thrilling that we backtrack to Ollyantaytambo, a friendly town at 2,800 meters, to hike more trails around the bottle-green terraced valleys around snow-capped Mount Piñculluna. We rent a hut with two hammocks for two dollars a week from a Quichua Indian woman. Every morning for breakfast, she comes by with freshly baked bread from her clay oven. Turning the hut into our temporary home, I imagine myself living here with Hilde for a few years.

On one of our hikes, on a mountain trail with very few villages, a desperate farmer stops us to ask for medicine to help ease his wife’s agonizing labor pains back in his hut. I give him all my aspirinthe only medicine I have in my daypacktelling him that it’s the strongest painkiller that gringos ever invented. Time to pay back that cariño.

On another hike, we come upon a group of bandits dressed in black masks holding villagers at gunpoint to stop them from taking their produce to market. The cries of the women and children are horrible. They look at me very suspiciously. On spotting blonde Hilde, they realize that this white foreigner shouldn’t be seeing this. After swearing on Mao Tse Tung’s Little Red Book that we won’t tell a soul down below, we bolt out of there. The encounter scares us both. For me there are flashbacks of Idi Amin’s thugs terrorizing the villagers of Uganda. Hilde decides she has had enough and wants to return to Norway right away. I convince her to spend just a few more days crossing into Bolivia, which is where she leaves me for the safety of her home in Oslo. Football, even the World Cup, has no special appeal for her. I will miss that sweet, serene smile of hers. . . Adelanté! “Move on!” whispers Raphael.

Within two years, the masked gunmen of the Sendero Luminoso, a secessionist Maoist movement aimed at overthrowing the bourgeois military government in Lima, have turned their campaign into guerilla warfare, resulting in the killing of thousands of innocent farmers by both rebel and government sides.

***

It is now May 1978, five weeks until the start of the World Cup in Argentina. Conscious that I am running out of time and down to my last $400, I keep moving fast, staying no more than a couple of days in places that captivate me. The bus ride through the Bolivian altiplano where boy shepherds play pan pipes while tending their flocks, their animals’ tell-tale bells chiming in the arid silence takes me to La Paz, surrounded by the Bolivian Andes. The majority indigenous culture is very apparentblack skirts and felt hats everywhere. Occasionally I come across locals wearing baseball caps and blue jeanssurplus American clothing sold cheap. I decide to explore La Paz for a day.

The poverty and hyperinflationa sack full of Bolivian notes to pay for lunchis shocking and depressing. One time, while eating at a local comedor, I witness a robbery where the thief picked up a suitcase full of money, emptied its contents and ran off with the Samsonite instead. In the afternoon, I visit the gringo prison in La Paz to help out backpackers languishing in cells on charges of trafficking cocaine. The prisoners tell me stories of how the prison itself is a thriving Mecca of drugs. Adelanté, Mojo.

I zip through the Bolivian Andes on express buses, stopping overnight in Sucre and Tarija only to rest. I am still 2,000 kilometers from Cordoba, Argentina, where some of the first- and second-round World Cup games are being held. In Cordoba, the first game is between Peru and Scotland on the third of June and the second between Germany and Mexico, three days later. I keep my fingers crossed that having a week to scout around for tickets will be enough. Ojala!

Eventually, I cross into Argentina and jump on a bus heading to Tucuman. The drop in elevation is immediate, though the countryside is still like Bolivia, arid altiplano with a few trees scattered here and there. In Tucumán the next day, I hop on a train to Cordoba to save time, even though the prices are much steeper than Bolivia. I will have only four days to find scalpers selling tickets for the Cordoba games. Mission almost accomplished. Ecstatic to have gotten here, I can finally slow down and spend more time in the southern cone of Latin Americaas long as I watch my pennies. I breathe a huge sigh of relief.

Ever since my childhood days playing soccer on a patch of grass behind my house in Kampala, I have been an avid fan of the game. When I was twelve, television came to Uganda and I was glued to the black and white tube watching the Brazilian masters Pelé, Garrincha, and Tostão run like gazelles on the world stage. Since that time, my team has always been the “Samba Boys” from Brazil. Uganda has never qualified for the World Cup.

On the Cordoba train, passengers are animated in their talk about the upcoming El Mundial. Some state categorically that this World Cup belongs to the Latinos and that the Europeans are in for a slaughter. The tally of the last ten World cups, dating back to the very first one in 1930, is five for the Europeans and five for the Latinos. Other passengers are concerned over whether star Argentinean player Mario Kempes can get them through the tough first round in Group A against Hungary, France, and Italy. I keep my mouth shut about Brazil and focus on getting to know all the star players at this quadrennial event. The fantastic four from EuropeJohan Cruyff of Holland, Paolo Rossi of Italy, Michel Platini of France, and Karl-Heinz Rumenigge from Germany are all considered dangerous. So are Zico from Brazil and Kempes from Argentina.

By the time we reach Cordoba, I am well educated on which teams are strongest on defense or attack, and the complete schedule for the three-week tournament. The realization that the home team, Argentina, which has never won the World Cup, may meet up with three-time world champions Brazil as early as the second round of knockout matches is very disconcerting to me. The home advantage can never be underestimated, as previous World Cups have proven.

In Cordoba, a city of over a million inhabitants situated near the mountains, I find the cheapest guesthouse I can, at three dollars a night, and begin my search for tickets in the vicinity of the Estadio Olympico Chateau Carreras, where the Cordoba matches are being played. The rest of the matches are being held in four other cities, with the final in Buenos Aires. After three days of desperately scouting around, I manage to find a scalper willing to sell me nose-bleed tickets for the first two matches for a much-inflated 1,000 pesos, well above my budget. But to see Peru play Scotland and Germany play Mexicotwo Latin teams playing live in Cordobawill be sheer ecstasy. Even though I’ll now be down to my last 200 dollars after eighteen months of travel, I buy the tickets, making sure they are legitimate.

On June 3, with thousands of fans cheering in the overflowing Estadio Carerras, Peru’s 3-1 win over Scotland generates an all-night party in the streets of Cordoba. The free booze and dancing stops only at dawn for much needed sleep. I am in football heaven. However, three days later, Germany’s 6-0 thrashing of Mexico, with superstar Rumanigge scoring two brilliant goals, sobers up the fiesta crowd. Watching Rumanigge’s mastery serves as some consolation for me, since the cup’s other superstar, Johan Cruyff from Holland has declined to play in Argentina in protest against the military junta that took over the country two years before.

Partially satiated with two superb World Cup games under my belt, I become practical and once again do the math on my travel budget. I realize that getting a ticket for the final in Buenos Aires will be both unaffordable and probably impossible to find. Thoughts reel through my head to come up with the next best alternative . . . Why not hop on a bus to the Argentina-Brazil border, then hitchhike to Buenos Aires in time to watch the final in the streets of the capital on June 25, my birthday? This way, I will at least get a quick glimpse of Brazil, even if only at the border. If I can find a cheap flight from Buenos Aires to Quito, use my pre-paid ticket to Mexico City, I’ll be home free. Getting to Texas from there should be no problem.

Am I cutting it too close with only $200 to my name? Naaah… I can do this … I will do this. I spend the rest of the day searching for a cheap flight from Buenos Aires to Quito. Eventually, I find a helpful travel agent who secures the last seat sixty-nine dollar flight from Buenos Aires to Quito leaving on June 27, two days after the final.

Hitchhiking to the Argentinean capital on June 21 proves easy, since most tourists with cars are headed to the World Cup final, now only four days away. A young couple from Costa Rica, both working on environmental issues, picks me up in a blue Toyota sedan and we share travel stories on the way to the capital. They have been through Ecuador and Peru using in-country rental cars like this Toyota to travel in style.

In the afternoon, when the husband turns on the radio, two commentators are announcing score updates and the schedule of live games for the day. Great! I didn’t even have to ask. Our chat switches to football. Like me, the Costa Ricans are cheering for Brazil, all of us convinced that it is the only Latin team who can beat the strong European teams on the other side of the draw. The Dutch, ahead on points now, appear most likely to proceed past Germany and Italy into the final.

Hoy en la mañana, Brazil gano Polandia 3-1 en la segunda ronda! “This morning, Brazil beat Poland 3-1 in the second round,” one commentator blares out with pride. A whoop of joy escapes my lips. The Costa Ricans are just as ecstatic. The commentator adds that for this afternoon’s Argentina-Peru game, the home team has to win by a margin of at least four goals to qualify over Brazil for the World Cup finals. “Impossible!” I reply to the commentator. The Costa Ricans both nod their heads.

When the game commentary starts up on the radio, the wife turns up the volume and we stop talking altogether. I am leaning forward from the back seat of the car, with fists clenched and my ears tuned to the play-by-play Spanish commentary. Over the first forty-five minutes the commentator explodes with “Goal! Goaaal! Goaaaaaal!” three times. Argentina, the home team, cheered on by a tumultuous crowd, leads by three goals with Kempes scoring the third, just minutes before the first half whistle blows. The Costa Ricans look worried, while I am digging my clenched fists into the backseat. In the cliff hanging second half, before the final whistle, Argentina scores three more times to win by an unbelievable 6-0 margin, thereby advancing to the final over Brazil. I am crushed, with my head in my hands. The Costa Ricans shake their heads in total disbelief. Brazil is now out. Our “Samba Boys” would have definitely destroyed the Europeans in the final. Can the Argentineans rise to the challenge?

Both commentators are now frenzied. One claims that the six goals let in by Ramon Quiroga, the Argentine-born Peruvian goalkeeper is potential favoritism for the home team. The three of us in the car concur with him. The other announcer vehemently disagrees, claiming that all six goals scored were superbly crafted with no foul play evident. We listen to the heated debate, aware that even if there was any foul play, it could never be proven anyway. Later, the announcers tell us that Holland will proceed to the final having won 3-0 against Italy, who will now have to play Brazil for third place honors.

As we enter the capital at nighttime, Buenos Aires is swarming with celebrating crowds, creating a traffic jam that seems endless. As we crawl along, the deafening noise all around us feels like salt on the bleeding wound in my head. The Costa Ricans console me that at least I will get to see the final in Buenos Aires, even if on TV. I nod, confessing that it will still be a sweet birthday. To cheer me up, after we find my cheap youth hostel, they invite me to join them for an early birthday dinner at their hotel.

It has been weeks since I ate a decent meal. After checking in and taking a quick shower, I walk over, weaving through the staggering hordes on the streets. That night, I pig out on a four-course meal of Argentina’s finest steak washed down with Chilean wine. The open road sure has its own mysterious ways of providing compensation for this traveler down to his last 100 dollars.

June 24. Buenos Aires reminds me of France with its street cafés, wide boulevards, and men wearing berets. It is brimming with excitement and many businesses are closed for the next two days. People are dancing in the streets. Cars with national flags tied onto their radio antennae honk every few minutes.

Today, the third-place match between Brazil and Italy is being played at the Estadio Monumental in the city. I am watching the afternoon game on television at the youth hostel with an international crowd of about fifty fans. Brazil fans outnumber the three Italians in the crowd, yet when Italy scores in the first half to take the lead, the crowd goes quiet. The three Italians wear wide grins to rub it in. Brazil comes back in the second half, scoring two brilliant goals, eight minutes apart. My ululations of joy get louder as we spill out into the streets, samba dancing on Argentine wine well into the night. Around midnight, my newfound hostel friends douse me with a bottle, singing the birthday song in Spanish. Feliz cumpleano, Indio!

June 25. The Argentina-Holland final is on at 3 p.m. Bookies on the streets are taking final bets. The last time these two teams played was in the 1974 World Cup, when Holland, with Johan Cruyff present, soundly defeated the Argentineans 4-0 in the earlier rounds but lost to host nation Germany in the final. Four years later, even without Cruyff, they are ravenous for victory. In turn, the home team is seeking revenge for its humiliating defeat. Their superstar, Mario Kempes, unknown then, is this year’s top goal scorer in the Spanish league. Neither team has ever won the World Cup.

I am watching the game at a street cafe, swarming with locals buying me drinks. Close to a billion people are watching this game around the globe. The TV screen shows the Estadio Monumental packed to the rafters with flags, confetti, and hands all waving in the air. The camera zooms on a huge placard: La Copa o la muerte! “The World Cup or Death.”

The kick-off is delayed as the home team, late in coming out of the changing room, protests the legality of a plaster cast on a Dutch player’s wrist. The tension spreads through the 70,000 plus crowd. Around me in the street, viewers debate the pros and cons of this tactic. I just want the game to begin. When it actually does a few minutes later, the roar of the crowd in the street café is echoed all over the stadium, all over Buenos Aires, and all over Argentina.

The game is a fast paced attack with both teams intent of getting an early goal to have the psychological advantage. When Kempes scores the first goal in the thirty-eighth minute, the same roar can now be heard all the way to Amsterdam. He is only one goal away from getting the “Golden Boot” for being the World Cup’s top scorer. In the second half, the repeated Dutch attacks on the Argentine goal go into high gear time after time but the home defenders miraculously manage to hold off the orange-shirted strikers. Eight minutes before the final whistle, the Dutch equalize though Nanninga’s superbly crafted goal. The crowd lapses into shocked silence. When the final whistle blows, the game goes into thirty minutes of extra time. Kempes scores a second goal, seconds before the end of the first half of extra time. The Argentinean fans go berserk. Four minutes before the end of the game, Bertoni scores again for the home team. Victory is sealed. Once again, the Dutch are denied victory by the home team in the final.

Viva la patria! Up on their feet, the cheering fans at the café are dancing in the aisles. Within hours, the streets of Buenos Aires are filled with a million-strong horde of tango-salsa-merengué dancers snaking through the city. I am one of them, home among the multitudes of Latinos hugging and kissing each other. The wine flows freely throughout the evening. The clip of the Argentine team kissing the World Cup is played over and over again on the screen throughout the night’s celebrations. La copa es nuestra! “The cup is ours!” Cry with me, Argentina!

***

Two days later on my Aerolínea Argentinas flight to Quito, drinks are complimentary as Argentina continues celebrating their first ever World Cup victory. I land in Quito with seventy-seven dollars to my name, sleep at the airport, and take the next flight out to Mexico City. The overnight bus ride from Mexico City to San Miguel de Allende is interrupted by constant stops for passengers. The morning after, while recounting stories of my trip, I fall asleep in Patricia’s chocolate-brown arms for the rest of the day and night.

For the next few days recalling all that I went through to Patricia, I am invigorated to write long heartfelt letters to the Latinos who have been my guardian angels on this tripAnna and her father in El Salvador, Pedro in Columbia, Juancito in Ecuador, and the Costa Ricans in Argentina. Sadly, I have no known addresses for the Auca in Misahuallí who saved my life, or Jorge the jeweler who traveled with me in Peru. All have taught me to place my trust in the locals, albeit with a discerning eye.

Time to head home. Patricia, in tears again, promises to meet me in California next year. Don Crucito offers to help pay for my bus fare to Laredo, but I refuse. Armed with seventeen dollars in my pocket, I head to the Texas border with just enough money for the Greyhound bus from Laredo to Austin, Texas. Within two hours, I cross the border at Laredo and make my way to the Greyhound bus station.

The smooth ride on the flat highway, with drapes drawn across windows that don’t open, takes place in total silence except for the hum of the air-con blasting though the vents. I yearn for the bumpy rides in cramped seats, the constant chatter of passengers, chickens squawking, and merengué music blaring from the speakers. Here, everyone is either asleep or reading by overhead lamplight. Suffering from culture shock, I am back in the land of privacy and feel all alone.

In Austin, I find Carlton, a musician friend I met in San Miguel, who kindly agrees to put me up in his university dorm room for a couple of days. When undoing my backpack that evening to wash my stinky clothes in the communal washing machine, I come across the six-inch-long black coral stick, the farewell present from Jorge in Peru. I have completely forgotten about it. The next day, on a whim, I take it to a jewelry store in Austin to get it appraised. To my great surprise, I walk out with $400 in my pocket, leaving behind an ecstatic American jeweler who’s thrilled with his purchase. I remember the pony tailed Peruvian’s words when he handed me the coral stick: Buena plata. “Good money,” he had said with that contagious laugh of his.

I make plans to get to Irvine, California. Time to pay forward the cariño.

* * *

Mo Tejani is a global Muslim gypsy who has been roaming the world for over four decades now. Exiled from Uganda during Idi Amin’s reign of terror in the 1970s, he was suddenly left homeless, with little sense of his own cultural identity. He spent the next forty years traveling through all five continents, working with the poor. He has taught world literature in Uganda, Canada, the United States, Thailand, Guatemala, and Ecuador. The first of his three-volume travel memoirs, A Chameleon’s Tale: True Stories of a Global Refugee, was a 2007 New York P.E.N. Book Award finalist. The India edition, re-titled Thank you, Idi Amin, is being published in 2010. Tejani is a regular on the Asian literary circuit. He has been called a “cross-cultural Kerouac,” and Tim Cahill says that reading his stories “is like eating popcorn: you can’t stop devouring them.” Visit his website at www.motejani.com.

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Travelers' Tales