The Truck Ride

Travel Stories: A muddy Bolivian road snagged the old Chevy, leaving Amberly Polidor stuck in the middle of the Amazon. Out there, amid the mosquitoes and the molten glass air, rescue took on new meaning.

Perched on the tailgate of our truck are a teenage boy with orange streaks in his hair and a girl in a tank top barely old enough to have begun wearing a bra. They sit tightly in each other’s arms, impervious to the passage of time and the rising temperature. I’ve heard the sensation of oppressive heat described in various poetically accurate terms. Gabriel Garc"a Márquez writes of air like molten glass. However, there is a point at which heat becomes so unbearable one is rendered incapable of thinking about how it is or what it is. It just is. And it’s best to sit still and let the sweat flow, lurking in a realm somewhere between transcendence and coma. My legs melt into the sticky vinyl of my narrow bench as I observe the men outside pretend they’re actually doing something to aid the stranded bus.

The pointlessness of their activity leads me to question the point of my own: a journey of indeterminable duration through the jungles of Bolivia and Brazil to find a former American settlement that today may be no more than a few vine-covered fire hydrants. I can’t help but compare myself to Wiley, the generator of this plan, and I’m beginning to think his main motivation is not in reaching the destination but in battling obstacles along the way. At every sloppy puddle, he has been the first one to jump out of the truck and push on the rear bumper while tires spit mud in his face. And now as a horde of hungry mosquitoes invades our truck, Wiley swats furiously with windmilling arms and a blood lust that quite possibly surpasses that of the bugs, all the while muttering epithets more appropriate for trench warfare than truck travel. I, on the other hand, don’t share this conqueror mentality, so why am I on this beat-up, overloaded truck, slowly dehydrating and being eaten alive by mosquitoes?

I look around at the faces of my companions, which over the course of the day have become so familiar: the boy with the crackers, still sitting patiently by his father’s side; John Charlie’s toothy smile; the teenage couple sharing quiet affection; the alligator man, who has set his box aside and closed his eyes. An indigenous woman with golden-brown skin and a proud curve to her nose splits a hunk of bread with her daughter. I remember the jar of peanut butter tucked in my backpack, pull it out and offer it to them. The woman’s face lights up. “Thank you,” she says to me in Spanish. “I love peanut butter, but you can’t buy it here.” She tears off a piece for me, and the three of us dip our bread into my near-empty jar. I realize I’m grateful for the opportunity to be sharing a day with these people. This is my reward for not being in a mad rush, for pausing to visit a place most travelers simply fly over. My endurance test starts to feel like a worthwhile trade-off.

The sound of a revving engine interrupts our feast. I peel myself off the bench and stand, leaning against the cab, to get a better view. Another truck has arrived with a chain to haul out the stuck bus in front of us. The rescue is a success and, after two long hours of waiting, the way is clear for us to proceed. Our driver, who looks like he could be a Texas cowboy, pats my arm and gives me a reassuring thumbs-up before hopping behind the wheel to resume our crawl along the muddy road to Trinidad.

We passengers resettle ourselves and smile with the shared relief that we’re finally in transit again. The acceleration of the truck generates a slight breeze, creating an almost festive mood among us. Wiley, dappled with the blood of squashed mosquitoes and still giddy from the slaughter, begins singing the theme from “Gilligan’s Island.” I’m struck by the parallel: We are 14 castaways stranded on a truck in a rolling sea of mud. But among this cast of characters, to whom movie stars and millionaires could never compare, I find myself no longer yearning for rescue.

Amberly Polidor is a San Francisco-based writer and editor.

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