Illegal: a true story of love, revolution and crossing borders [book serialization/ Ch.4]
I'm a journalist for publications such as The Guardian, Vice, The Diplomat and Narratively and my first book, a memoir, came out just over a year ago [Amazon link]. It's won numerous awards and sold thousands of copies. And now I want to give it away. This is the fifth installment [Prologue | Ch 1 | Ch 2 | Ch 3 ] and every few days I'll give away another chapter/ section. From the back cover:
A raw account of a young American abroad grasping for meaning, this pulsating story of violent protests, illegal border crossings and loss of innocence raises questions about the futility of borders and the irresistible power of nationalism.
Mi Amor [Chapter Four]
In September, when Latacunga was still a strange and foreign place, Veronica told me she had a friend she wanted to set me up with.
“Sure,” I said.
Veronica smiled. “Te va a gustar—You’re going to like her. She used to study industrial psychology with me in Ambato [a city an hour south of Latacunga].” Veronica paused before adding, “She has a child and doesn’t go out much, so she needs some fun tonight.”
We went to a bar down the street from my house. I was sitting at a table with Veronica and her date, Dan, when Lucía walked in. She had dyed-blond hair and was wearing tight black pants and a pink designer shirt that said ‘New York’ across the front. She was beautiful, but I immediately knew that she was not for me. She looked shallow and superficial. Before we ordered the second round I had already judged her. She drank too much, wore too much makeup, had too many secrets with Veronica, and I regretted coming out. But, as the night dragged on and the glasses emptied, I began to notice a certain innocence within her.
We ordered a hookah and Lucía inhaled the smoke and choked until she laughed. She had never tried it before. When she did it better the second time, her eyes lit up and she smiled like a child that had just learned a new skill. She was two years older than me at twenty-five but she had the sweet wonder of someone much newer to the world than I, like she had been frozen from reality for years and was just beginning to thaw.
“¿Quieres probar?—You want to try?” She asked as she passed me the pipe. Her fingers touched mine.
A pulse of warmth passed through me and we caught each other’s eyes. I smiled and let my mouth open partway but no words came out. Lucía touched my hand again, this time on purpose.
“Is it hard for you to live here without speaking Spanish fluently?” She was looking straight into my eyes.
“Sometimes, but sometimes keeping things simple keeps it closer to the truth.” I smiled. “What do you like to do?”
“Dance. I love to dance, but I also love my career. I want to figure out what’s wrong with people so they can be better.” Her body leaned in, just slightly.
When I told her I briefly lived in Cuenca her eyes lit up. She grabbed my idle hand resting on the table, placing her palm over the back and curling her fingers around mine. She gave a quick squeeze. “I was born in Cuenca! Isn’t it a wonderful city?”
When the bar closed we all went back to my place to have one last drink in a small common area near my bedroom. I was exhausted and told Veronica, Lucía and Dan that they could stay as late as they wanted but I was going to bed.
A minute later there was a knock on my door. It was Lucía.
“We’re leaving now and I wanted to say goodbye,” she said. She kissed me, but pulled back suddenly.
“I might not be able to come back to Latacunga for a while, but I’m glad we met tonight.” She seemed sad but it was just a flash before her eyes sparkled and she kissed me again, pulling me closer and harder than before.
Lucía got my email address from Veronica and sent me a message a few days later.
“I’ve been thinking of you. I hope I’m on your mind as well. I was wrong, I can come back to Latacunga this week. I want to see you.”
On our second date we bought ice cream and walked to a park at the edge of the city. On our way we passed a man lying on the sidewalk, clutching a half empty bottle of puro—cane liquor. His jacket and jeans were caked in mud and he had dried blood on his forehead. I walked right past him. Lucía stopped and crouched down next to him.
“¡Hola!” Her voice was cheery. She was smiling and gave a small wave. “Hey, how are you doing?”
The man mumbled as he tried to sit up.
Lucía reached out and grabbed his coat by the shoulder and helped him up.
“Arecely,” he grunted. “Are you Arecely?” He squinted at Lucía.
“No, my name is Lucía. What’s your name?”
“Edwin. My name’s Edwin.”
“Edwin. It’s nice to meet you.” Her voice held a constant cheer. Her smile never left.
“I think I fell down.”
“Are you hurt?’
Edwin thought for a second, stretched out his legs and looked up at the sky. “No. I think I’m okay.” He seemed surprised.
“Well it’s sunny out here, you must be thirsty.” She took out a fresh water bottle from her bag. “Here, take this.”
I had been watching the whole time but didn’t say anything. I’m not even sure Edwin knew I was there. When Lucía stood up and we continued walking I asked her. “Why did you stop for that man?”
“Because sometimes life is hard,” she said matter-of-factly. “And he looked like he needed someone to be his friend.”
We started dating regularly and Lucía would make the trip to Latacunga twice a week.
“I could go to Ambato some days too,” I offered.
“No!” She forced a smile. “I like to get away, plus I get to see Veronica here.”
“What made you move there anyway?”
Her face dropped and she looked down at her feet. “That’s where he is from.” Her voice was low. I didn’t know how to respond, so I kept quiet. She continued. “I moved there before I had my child and even though my son lives with his father now, I want to be close to him. That’s why I’m still there.”
“So do you live alone?” I asked.
She looked up at me with large round eyes, and I saw that they were glistening with moisture, ready to spill down her cheeks. “I don’t want to talk about it.”
I learned not to press for details but sometimes she would casually drop small pieces of her past into conversation and I thought I understood a little more each time. I didn’t mind; in fact, I was attracted to it. I wanted to start over too.
After a few weeks she began spending the night with me in my sky-blue bedroom. The days when I was sick on the toilet inside a military bunker were long gone. I was happy. Spending so much time with Lucía also helped my Spanish; I was haggling in the markets and having more complex conversations.
Lucía was a magnet for people in need. She had a constant stream of micro-interactions with alcoholic old men or kids working on the street. She would often just smile and wave, but it always seemed to leave people a little happier.
But there was a darker side that began to emerge too. Whenever details of her past were inconsistent, she would tilt her head down and look up at me, showing me the white in her eyes, and drawing me in, silently urging me to help her overcome everything. We both knew there was something deeper lurking, but I was content to wait until she was ready to share everything.
Latacunga was a small enough place that I began to recognize people on the street pretty often when Lucía and I would go for a walk. Lots of my students from the university would stop to chat. About half the time they were female. Often these interactions passed without incident. But not always.
“This is my girlfriend Lucía,” I would say. And Lucía would smile and kiss my friend’s cheek.
We would all say goodbye and usually that would be it. But sometimes Lucía would wait until we were alone and yell in a quick burst of emotion.
“Everyone always cheats on me and I knew you would too! I saw the way she looked at you!” A minute later she would apologize and forget about the whole thing. This habit surfaced even more strongly when she drank, and occasionally would turn into a small fight. It always left me a little bewildered, how quickly things could turn. But her emotional intensity didn’t scare me away, it drew me closer. Her gloom and rage was a quick thunderstorm that inspired more awe than fear and made me appreciate the long periods of sunshine that much more.
For my own part, as much as I liked Ecuador and my new home, I wasn’t always happy. In my quest to understand a new place, sometimes I just felt alone. From time to time, a deep solitude gripped me, and threatened to ruin everything else. But once I met mi amor, it all went away: she filled all the voids in my life. We knew that we were stronger together than apart. In the frigid face of adversity, we were each other’s warmth. We held each other through the parties and the rain. We woke with our naked bodies curled together.
I had dated the same woman for my entire four years at university, but compared to the romance with Lucía, everything before began to seem very casual. She was the first woman I loved. At what was a very intense time in my life, she made everything better. She seemed connected to everything good. Real or imagined, Lucía and the relationship we shared began to represent everything I wanted in life: she was my tomorrow.
A few months after Lucía and I started dating we went away together for a long weekend. We traveled on winding roads down the eastern slopes of the Andes. The mountains dropped off rather quickly and yielded to another stunning scene: the Amazon rainforest.
I spent a lot of time riding buses around Ecuador, partly because of how much I enjoyed just looking out the window. Most buses had televisions and at first I was surprised how frequently they showed Jean-Claude Van Damme movies, but I suppose that jump-kicking bad guys doesn’t need translation.
The real entertainment for me was to the left and to the right, on the other side of the windows. Unlike in the U.S., the highways were never walled off or hidden. The traffic slowed and the roadside filled with shops and restaurants when it cut through the center of cities and towns. A cluster of vendors waited to board the bus and sell their wares. There were always staples like Coca-Cola, potato chips and even freshly cooked meals of chicken and rice, the heat steaming out of their grey plastic containers. Each place had local specialties as well.
“This is Pelileo,” Lucía announced after we passed Ambato and approached the next town.
“What do they have here?” I asked.
“This is where I come to buy jeans. Look.” She pointed out the window at a row of shops, all of them selling jeans.
“No, I mean what kind of food. I’m hungry.”
She smiled. “Wait, I’ll show you.”
As the bus slowed I could see half a dozen giant woks lined up. Men and women were rolling dough and putting it into the pan. The odd thing was they weren’t using any oil. The first vendor jumped on and Lucía flagged him over.
“Give me one, please.”
The man handed over a plastic bag filled with what looked like little pieces of bread. It was difficult to see because the bag was clouded with heat and steam. The bread was fresh.
Lucía tore the bag open and handed one of the pieces to me. I bit in and burned my mouth on a thick brown liquid in the center.
“It’s good. What is this?” I asked.
“They cook it with panela inside until it melts.” Panela is a raw form of sugar, dark brown and not as sweet. It was sold in solid wheels that weighed a few pounds each in the markets.
We ate the whole bag before they could cool.
Outside Pelileo, we began our descent on winding roads along steep mountains whose peaks were so high they held ice year-round. At the will of the mountainside it was built upon, the road was filled with blind turns and didn’t permit any mistakes. Powder blue hearts were painted on the asphalt wherever there’d been a death, and around some curves you would see dozens of them stacked next to each other—a whole bus that had tumbled down the hill.
The area we were driving through was arid and inhospitable to trees. The steep slopes simply appeared yellow from a distance, but up close you could see a thousand clumps of dried grass, holding the dust down and waiting for the next rain. About an hour after turning east and heading down the valley that Río Pastaza follows, Tungurahua, a highly active volcano, juts into the clouds. Shortly before our trip, the volcano had erupted and the lava flowed over the highway leaving it impassable for several weeks. The road was an important one, and one of the only links between the Andes and Amazon, so the government was quick to send out bulldozers once the lava stopped flowing. The heavy machines scraped off the jagged top layers of igneous rock and flattened the surface enough to make it drivable, leaving the leftover black rock as the biggest and most spectacular speed bump I had ever seen.
Once we returned to the pavement the scenery changed dramatically. We had dropped enough in elevation that, while the slopes were still steep, they were beginning to come alive. There was no firm border between these two very different environments, and they began to blend into each other. As we descended farther it became wetter and hotter. Water dripped down the walls and nourished the small green plants that had replaced the yellowing grasses. Dropping farther, the plants grew larger and thicker, and before long, a dozen different varieties of orchids, each with brilliant colors that filled the spectrum from red to violet, emerged between the bright green leaves. Continuing down, giant leaves of the split-leaf philodendron crowded the ground and turned it a dark green, while red bromeliad flowers poked through. Mokara Orchids dotted the roadside, attracting tiny hummingbirds to the droplets of rainwater around their orange blossoms. Down and down we went until the decline became more gradual, the mountains faded to hills, and the hills became sloping fields. As the earth leveled out, great trees began to push through the green undergrowth and reach into the sky. Finally, we were in the Amazon rainforest.
Lucía had spent much of her youth in a jungle outpost at the edge of the world’s largest rainforest, and I had grown up on another continent idealizing the famous river basin, so our first trip together was a natural choice. We arrived at our destination, Tena, with enough time to walk around and eat before going out.
On our first morning we walked across a wooden bridge to an open-air zoo located on an island. The city was divided in two by the massive Río Tena, a tributary to the mighty Amazon River, and the island was in the middle of this flowing water. At the end of the bridge sat a middle-aged woman with long messy hair collecting an entrance fee. She tried to charge me extra since I was obviously a foreigner. “But he is my husband. He is Ecuadorian,” Lucía protested before I even had a chance to reply. The woman looked at me again, then at Lucía, and we just smiled at each other as she charged us the entrance fee for two nationals.
We held hands and walked onto the island as if on our honeymoon.
We spent the entire day exploring the island. The flora was incredible; everything not only looked other-worldly, but also had a fascinating backstory. All along the trails were the bizarre-looking socratea trees, also known as ‘walking palms.’ The trees grew three or four feet above the forest floor, held up by a dozen stilt-like roots that formed a triangular dome. This protected the trees from seasonal floods, but even more incredibly, it allowed the trees to travel. The stilts grew quickly and if a large tree had fallen that allowed more sunlight to shine down in one direction all the new stilts would grow toward the light while the stilts on the far side would die off. The tree, albeit slowly, literally walked to better locations throughout its life.
The fauna was also stunning. One of the spider monkeys that roamed free took a liking to us and followed us everywhere we went; swinging through trees, wrapping his calloused tail around my neck, or sitting on my shoulders as he picked bugs and berries from the lowest branches and snacked.
By day we explored everything green, and by night we drank gin and tonics at riverside tiki bars between my dance lessons from Lucía. She loved to dance; she lived for it. I did not, but she was teaching me and with her at my side I was beginning to grow fonder of that ubiquitous part of Latin culture.
After three days we needed to return to the mountains for school and work. On the way to the bus station I saw Lucía yawn.
“¿Tienes hambre?—Are you hungry?” I asked.
“Yeah, a little.”
We stopped at a small restaurant and I ordered a side of rice and French fries. Being a strict vegetarian severely limited what I could eat outside of my own kitchen. Unless you were in the capital or a tourist hotspot, there were no menus or choices but rather just ‘breakfast,’ ‘lunch’ or ‘dinner’ courses that centered around some kind of meat. Chicken was the most popular, but it wasn’t just a drumstick on the side of your plate; every part of the animal was used in each part of the dish. The soup that accompanied every meal was often little more than leftover parts boiled in water: toes, kidneys, bones, and so on. If pork was served, there may be deep fried chips of skin. But if you were really lucky, you got guinea pig, which was considered a delicacy. The animal I once raised as a pet was impaled on a metal rod that tore through its asshole and exited through its mouth, then roasted over a fire.
I had grown accustomed to surviving on side dishes when I ate out. Having little more to eat than rice and potatoes for the weekend did not come as a surprise to me, but Lucía’s order did: rice and potatoes. While we were waiting for the food, she rather matter-of-factly declared: “I won’t eat meat anymore. When I’m with you, I will be vegetarian.”
We had never spoken about this before. “Really?” I asked.
“Yeah, I didn’t realize how hard it was for you before, but now we can do it together.” She looked up at me and smiled.
We never spoke of it again, but she kept her word. In my strange new world she was always the woman who was holding my hand—and that meant everything to me.
I'll be releasing the entire book this way but if you want to buy the paperback with Crypto-currency, email: [email protected] with your mailing address (U.S. only) and your preferred crypto and I'll respond with a wallet address and mail the book. $10 USD including shipping, limited time/ crypto only