Like a frightened child clinging to his mother, my normally silky hair clings to my neck and forehead in thick, grimy clumps. Raucous laughter and pulsing disco music accost my ears and enter my body so that my heart begins to throb to the rhythm of the music, while my head becomes an unwilling prison for the sounds of drunken laughter.
I hold my hands open, palm down, over my eyes as a sort of shield from the punishing sun, and squint down the narrow highway that sits like a ragged gray ribbon along the northern boundary of our town. I glance at my watch and notice the bus is already fifteen minutes late.
A steamy breeze pushes at my face, forcing odors up my nose: the sharp, fetid smell of urine from the soiled public restrooms mingled with the too-sweet scent of cheap perfume. As the oppressive breeze thumps at my body one last time, my nose is surprised to detect the mild, syrupy aroma of piping-hot corn merged with sauteing garlic and onion. My stomach flutters and gasps at the aroma, and, glancing at the empty road one last time, I turn toward one of the crowded food booths tucked haphazardly into the south end of the open-air bus station.
I try to ignore the dust latched on to the bottom of my jeans, oozing between my toes, and sticking to every inch of my sandal-clad feet as I squeeze between myriads of rickety blue plastic tables and matching colossal, wobbly chairs heaving with people. My ears buzz with the cacophony of hundreds of voices competing with the disco music for their companion’s attention. I trip over a toppled chair in my path, nearly knocking over a nearby table roofed with half-empty glass bear and coke bottles.
As I regain my balance, I see that I am, miraculously, standing near the victuals that apprehended my attention. Lined up behind a smudged, sticky glass panel are dozens of arepas—disk-like, thick white corn pancakes stuffed with garlicky shredded beef.
In exchange for a few meager bolivares (Venezuelan money), a clammy-faced, plump woman clad in a stringy white tank top and tight-fitting blue jeans shoves an arepa, wrapped loosely in waxed paper, into my hands. Excitedly, I sink my teeth through the deep-fried shell into the juicy, meaty center. Grease streams past my fingernails and pools in the crevices between my fingers.
Now that my hunger has begun to be satiated, I swivel to see if my bus has arrived, just in time to see it slamming its brakes as it comes to a halt next to the empty highway. Knowing that if I miss this bus, I will have to wait three more hours for the next one, I trip and fumble my way through the bustle of the bus station towards my ride. I send up a prayer for protection as the bus driver hops out of his vehicle to pour water on the bus’s overheated radiator, but I am not so worried when dozens of rumpled people, who have been riding the bus for the last few hours, disembark, tired, yet unhurt.
My body might be curled in my favorite blue chair in this quiet living room, but my mind is busy, awakened by the scent of the hot chocolate in the giant mug my hands are hugging. Tonight I will indulge myself in this hot-chocolate memory, though I will have to travel at least thirteen years back in time, and two countries south.
When I close my eyes, the backs of my eyelids become a sort of planetarium. No matter where my eyes turn, there are stars. The sky is deep with them. I am so dazzled by the stars I don’t notice the moon, but I know it is full because when I look down, I can see my swimsuit-clad body, and when I look around, I can see all twenty of my friends, perched with their knees by their faces in our small bark canoe. I can also see the white ripples the motor makes in the tranquil tar-colored water as we move forward.
The only part of my surroundings the moon doesn’t illuminate is the thick vegetation on the banks of the river. It is a black wall, though I know if we moved closer, turned off the engine, and sat in silence for an hour, that wall would be alive, screeching, slithering, and growling with life. Here, far from either shore, I believe the lie the darkness tells me—the jungle-covered shores are secure walls, embracing us, keeping us safe from anything which might want to harm us.
My memory’s eyes shift back to the canoe and my friends. This memory is far too pleasant to be marred by the reality of my environment. I see a blue thermos rocking perilously on a small platform at the end of the canoe, ahh….hot chocolate!
Our chaperone cuts the canoe motor off. Our voices are shrill from competing with said motor and, feeling as though we are rude intruders into the serene night, we lower our voices to a whisper. This abrupt silence allows the chaperone to get our attention and admonish us to behave, telling us next that we are free to jump into the water.
We forget about being rude to the quiet and, lugging oversized inner tubes made from tractor tires, we crawl and clamber and finally jump over the edge of the canoe into the murky depths of the water. There are too few inner tubes for us, and we have to share. Soon, someone starts a game of King of the Mountain (aka "King of the Tractor Tire").
Some of us tire of the game and swim to “quieter” inner tubes to gossip and ponder the deeper questions starlit nights bring to mind. When we get cold, or thirsty, we drift over to the canoe, and there is hot chocolate.
My body in the blue chair takes another sip. I open my eyes wide and blink, trying to decide whether I should come back to America and my dry, cozy living room or not.
Then I hear my precious son’s breathing on the baby monitor, and I decide I would like to come back to the present. Now I have a new story to tell him about when I was a teenager going to boarding school in the Amazon jungle, and how I used to float on the Orinoco River with my friends at midnight.