A man in hiking boots was setting up a tent in the courtyard of the hostel when I came back. Hola, I said. Are you sleeping here?
He was. The hostel owner told him that there weren’t open rooms, so he asked to camp. Where are you from? He asked. He was from Colombia and finishing his trip through Bolivia on his motorcycle. Was he handsome? I couldn’t tell in the dim light.
I had been lonely in Cochabamba, a city that reminded me of California, with wide streets and shiny malls. Earlier I stood waiting for the traffic light to change, and someone had thrown an orange at me. It hit my upper arm, a blunt pain and the scent of citrus. I heard laughter as the car drove away. Maybe they hadn’t liked my hat. Another time I got on a bus to get to the central plaza, but instead the bus was headed for el campo, the countryside. When I realized, I was too embarrassed to ask the driver to stop, on a desolate street that couldn’t have been anyone’s destination.
The hostel had a lovely garden, with white metal swings and pink flowers. One morning I did yoga barefoot on the grass. But there were no other travelers here, and I was eager for my luck to change.
I talked to the Colombian until the lights in the garden went off. I like South America because things are simple here, I said. I didn’t think so much, overanalyze. He said it wasn’t simple at all. Did I understand the phases of the moon, the stories told by the stars? It was enough to look at them, I said. But maybe I was wrong. He could have taught me everything about the stars.
I asked him about Villa Tunari, a jungle town a few hours away. Someone had told me the name the night before. It was supposed to be very beautiful. He was going tomorrow, he said. Oh! I wanted to go too. Vamos! He said, like I’d hoped.
In the morning, I packed my bags. My hiking shoes were still at the cobbler’s. They had split like an open mouth at the front. The cobbler’s door stayed shut. I asked the store owner next door if he knew Villa Tunari. Could I wear sandals there?
Sure, he said, it’s hot. As long as you’re not planning to walk in the mountains. I decided I’d be okay.
The Colombian started his motorcycle, its steady roar. I’d only ridden the back of a motorcycle once before, not wanting to miss a bus in a small Colombian town. I had been nervous and held on tight. Could I do it for four hours? I didn’t even have a helmet. Come on, he said. I climbed on.
We started out of the city. He had no map. I loved listening to the way he asked for directions, the way the locals smiled at us. I went to the jungle on a motorcycle with a Colombian I met the night before! I thought of tweeting. I was giddy. The wind felt wonderful on my face. At a stop light, he put his hand on my thigh. When I put my hand on his waist, he pulled it close and held it.
The bitter wind of the mountain roads turned into a warm breeze. We stopped for lunch close to Villa Tunari on a strip of road lined with restaurants offering identical almuerzos of grilled fish or meat. The conversation across the table stalled.
I thought we would find a cheap hostel in town, but the Colombian asked a skinny boy on the sidewalk for a good place to camp. The boy pointed towards the river.
The riverbank was a jumble of rocks, with pieces of trash strewn in between. A small line of cars were parked at the edge of the river, waiting to be washed. Should we camp here, nena? He asked. Nena. I wasn’t sure what it meant, but I wanted to hear it all the time.
Maybe, I said. The sandflies were already swirling around me. They left tiny red spots that itched and bled days later. We needed to set up the tent and buy a bottle of wine, overwhelming tasks in that sleepy air. Down the river, a couple frolicked in the water. The Colombian took off his shirt–his body was just as I imagined, beautiful and tattooed. I felt embarrassed sneaking glances, though I knew would see it later.
He befriended the couple, who were from Uruguay, hitchhiking and traveling. After they dried off, they left for the town, but promised to be back. Alone, the Colombian pulled me close and kissed her—an embrace suited to a movie screen. I wished we would have been alone all night. But we had to set up the tent. He gathered sticks for a camp fire and left for town. I swatted at the invisible insects around my legs and tried to keep the fire alive in the humid air. He came back with wine and very small apples. We toasted with plastic cups.
The wine made me drowsy. I laid my head in his lap. When the couple from Uruguay came back, I listened to their conversation with closed eyes. Their rapid words were hard to understand, but I was happy that I had a place there. Above us, the stars started to sprinkle the sky.
That night, the sex was forgettable, customary. Mostly it was the novelty of it, the tent, the jungle outside. I fell asleep quickly, but kept waking from the stings of bug bites. The clammy heat invaded our tent. In the morning, I breathed in the light, the air, and walked naked into the river. Soon, locals carrying dirty clothes and packets of shampoo would come do their washing. For now, though, it was mine.
The Colombian made coffee on his tiny camping stove. I drank it, sitting on my favorite rock with my feet dipped in the water. I imagined going with him to Santa Cruz. He would cook inside the house, while I sat crossed legged outside, strumming my guitar.
I helped him roll up the tent and collected the plastic bottles around them. Back on the road, we kissed goodbye.
I stayed in Villa Tunari another day. I liked it there, the strange cries of birds, the women with tanned bare legs, the heat that simmered. I took cold showers and sprawled naked on the bed of my hostel room. Already, the Colombian was becoming a ghost, a reminiscence. I realized that I never got his email, and that I didn’t mind. In the evening, I sat in the empty town plaza and sipped an icy drink. A golden sunset dusted the tops of the palm trees, but the heat persisted late into the night.