t was March 1996, but the doomsday predictions that a blazing comet would hit and destroy
Earth did not stop me from packing for my long bus trip. Supposedly, the comet Hyakutake the size of Europe, was to pass close
to our atmosphere, not to return for another 14,000 years. I was enamored with the idea but discounted the prophecy, just
as I had all the other exaggerated predictions of comets that never pounded the earth. I pulled out my favorite brown travel
suitcase, put in my new Jams World rayon dress, a box of Twining’s Lapsang Souchong tea, three favorite T-shirts, my
faux leopard cosmetic case, my box of old notebooks and a weathered copy of “The Elements of Style.” I packed
for a long Greyhound bus trip from my hometown of Asheville, North Carolina, across the country to San Francisco. I was going
to attend the “Ferlinghetti Beat Goes On” writer’s retreat. My itinerary included about 20 stops and six
bus transfers over the course of 70 hours. I was ready to see parts of America that I had never seen before, and maybe meet
some interesting characters along the way, if I was lucky.
The next day I boarded
the bus. The aisle
was filled with passengers. I edged
my way through until I found two seats side by side so I could stretch out and sleep. As I put my backpack into the rack above
my head, I was disappointed to see an old ratty woman plop down in the empty seat next to mine. She carried a weathered burlap
sack with the words “Le Sac” stamped on it in bold blue letters. She had an acrid smell about her like a cross
between Paregoric, nicotine, and dirty clothes. She needed a bath; she needed some clean clothes; she needed a stick of deodorant!
Soon, the bus departed and we jiggled along the highway. We were heading
west towards Tennessee, and I was elated that my new traveling companion was napping most of the way. However, after making
a stop for a bus change in Knoxville, Tennessee, the old woman felt obliged to talk with me. “Where ya goin’,
Honey? What’s your name?”
“I’m Eve and I’m
on my way cross country to a writer’s retreat in San Francisco.”
“A writer’s retreat,” she snickered. “Ha ha—a bunch of bookworms!”
“And you?” I asked, my curiosity heightened.
on my way to anywhere this old bus’ll take me.”
The bus driver shouted,
“Hey now! I smell smoke! Hope none of you are smokin’ back there! Is that you? I hope not!”
“We used to be able to smoke on the bus, but now there’s all
these rules. Can you believe it? Listen to that driver, would ya? Always upset they are. The bus people just don’t get
paid enough. Nobody does these days. Nobody! But me? I don’t have to worry ’bout that. I’m working for myself.
I’m a bag lady.”
Not knowing what else to do, I chuckled.
I had never met a bag lady before.
“You’re a bag lady?”
For the first time I took a closer look at her. Her face
was weathered, hard as steel, and her hair was dingy gray. She wore a threadbare yellow blouse, faded black sweater, and brown
pants that seemed to be a couple of sizes too large for her.
ay drove with determination around hairpin curves, bumpy back roads, and through
the cactus filled stretches of Mexico. We passed through the tiny towns of Camino Real, Lazaro, and Aguascalientes. Often
we camped in the fields of some newly encountered Campesino, stringing our hammocks under starry skies. In the glow of our
small campfires, we’d listen to songs on our cassette player, like those of Jerry Jeff Walker or The Grateful Dead. Often Jay would share his Four Roses Bourbon with an old farmer
until they would drift into an alcohol camaraderie.
Jay had brought his guitar with us, and all three of
us knew how to play it a little. Maxine was learning James Taylor's “Sweet Baby James.” Her voice was sweet and
childlike, and my voice had a country twang, I guess from my Southern roots. I liked to play and sing “Tennessee Waltz.”
“Shake Sugaree,” by Elizabeth Cotten, was one of Jay’s favorites. She toured some well into the late 1960’s
and Jay had even seen her perform. He said that she held her guitar upside down, and played the melody with her thumb and
the bass with her fingers. The song has only three simple chords. Some nights when we were camping in our VW van in some cactus
field or on a friendly peasant’s rancho, Jay after getting soused with the local pulque, would pull out his Gibson and
strum “Shake Sugaree.” We even learned the words. We’d all harmonize together under the starry night, singing:
“Have a little song, won’t take long, Sing it right, once or twice. Oh, Lordy me, didn’t I shake sugaree?
Everything I got is done and pawned.” We weren’t aware that some of the lyrics were more symbolic than we realized.
We’d all laugh that Eve was now “out of the cupboard,” and it was true. I was in a magical bliss.
We continued through Mexico, to the mountain town of Solala, Guatemala, the ruins of Tikal, and the dense palm jungles of
About midway through our trip, we crossed the border into Honduras. We decided
to park our van at a public parking lot and take a side trip to a small town that we had heard about. We hitched a ride in
a battered pickup truck to where Recowata forked off the main road. Then we carried our packs on foot and over a steep track.
We zigzagged the trails down to a cluster of small adobe houses below. It was dark by the time we got there. Fireflies flashed
among the trees. We heard a loud commotion at the end of the tiny main street of sounds blaring from a loudspeaker mounted
to the top of a dusty old van.
“Jesus, what’s that?” Jay asked.
We laughed. “Maybe it’s a storm warning or some alien invasion.”
“Let’s investigate.” Maxine exclaimed in her usual adventuresome enthusiasm. She had the eagerness of a
squirrel in her eyes again, like she did whenever she was discovering a possible new escapade.
We walked closer to the sounds of the loudspeaker. The tiny funky van was patrolling the winding cobblestone streets of Copan
Ruinas, blasting out the theme song from Hawaii Five-0 overlaid with rapid-fire Spanish. “Fantastico! Esta noche! Treinta
pesos—El grande Circo Varga!” Then to our surprise, we knew that a circus was in town.
“A circus, and we are here for it, can you believe it? Come on guys. Let's go!” Maxine pleaded.
Jay grumbled a few words, and took a swig of his water jug.
we’d go to the local bar for a few shots of Honduran Rum, not a circus.”
“Come on, Jay,” I said, smiling with a sweet look to coax him into it. “You can have some rum afterwards.”
We got into our usual troubled triste over what to do next and then we agreed we’d
try it out.
Copan Ruinas was a fairly small town and we expected a large crowd but found
less than twenty people inside. The man at the outside tent said the show had been in town a few days and though it wasn’t
the “Most Amazing Show on Earth,” we could not resist. We marched up to the entrance a few moments after the show
had started and gave the old woman at the gate our friendliest “Hola! Como estas?”
With a scowl she grunted, “Thirty pesos.”
The three of us took a seat on the
weathered bleachers. Jay was in one of his dark moods again, I guessed because he wasn’t getting his shots of rum. So
often a mood swing would creep into his psyche, when Satan burned his smile and pushed him into a dark hole, and he’d
paint a gloomy black picture of everything he saw. He sat in his gloomy silence, but that didn’t detour Maxine and I
from our exhilaration of the small circus frenzy.
The Master of Ceremonies was this tiny young boy dressed in a tuxedo.
He looked about eight years old and his charming demeanor held the whole show together. He was so young but somehow he had
the showmanship of a real MC, flailing his arms up in the air with grand sweeps and announcing each act with theatrical glamour.
A young contortionist was from Chile and a lady swinging upside down from a ring was Venezuelan. There was this huge python
supposedly from Africa, and a massive anaconda they brought out was from the Amazon jungle of Brazil. Each act was better
than the last. There was an odd steel cage off to the side in the shadows and I hadn’t really paid any attention to
it until this guy rolled out. We immediately took a closer look. It was called “The Cage of Death,” where a Houdini-like
character trapped inside through his feat of magic, broke free as the crowd clapped in a frenzy.
Then the bear act came out. He was an old bear because we could see that he didn’t even have any teeth, maybe one or
two. A colorful old gypsy man with a painted face carried a big tambourine with bear written on it in Spanish, “Oso.”
The bear had a ring in his nose and the chain went to the man who told him to dance. The gypsy man had a warm old smile with
dark skin, even darker eyes, rough wrinkles, a large hat, and a red, striped shirt that was a little dirty. At a cue, the
bear methodically went on two feet, with the tambourine drum beating steady as the bear circled the gypsy man on the short
The colorful character shouted in Spanish, “And now my bear will dance.
B-Bum, B-Bum, A-hey. And now he’ll ride a horse. A-hey, A-hey.” He threw his long stick to the bear and the bear
We kept our eyes directly on the gypsy man in amazement at how lucky we
were to discover a circus that night in this little town. Maxine was in rapture at the thrill of it all, and so was I. The
circus, with its brilliant colors and the excitement of the daredevil thrills found underneath its tents, had captured us
in its magic. The clowns, trapeze artists, acrobats and circus animals, were a grand march of life, removing our cares and
easing our nerves from our long day of backpacking.
Next a juggler came out. He was so
snake-like with such graceful contorted movements. He writhed in space as he juggled balls above his head, reminding me of
Nijinsky’s character in “The Rite of Spring.”
The little boy,
as Master of Ceremonies, and his circus menagerie was a delight for our eyes and drew us into the center of the madness, and
beckoned us to join in. By the end of the night the circus had even pulled Jay from his bad mood, and he was his old animated
self, eating popcorn and having fun like some kid again.
After the show, we met some of the
small group of performers. They called themselves malabaristas, itinerant circus performers who wander the streets,
hitchhiking from town to town and surviving on whatever donations they receive for their impromptu shows. Fernando, the knife
thrower, was a handsome muscular man, with dark curly long hair. As we usually expected, Maxine gave him a look with her dreamy
eyes, and soon Fernando was entranced with her. Jay and I looked at each other and made an amused smirk. Maxine always seemed
to be drawn to some Latin Romeo along our travels, and Fernando was no exception. Before the end of the show, Fernando invited
Maxine back to his tent and we could see their shadowed silhouettes, just like in the movies, enraptured in an embrace. Later,
Maxine told me that Fernando had invited her to join the circus. They needed a bareback rider. A white skinned petite woman
like Maxine, he said, would be perfect. She giggled as she imagined what it could be like to go off with Fernando.
“Me on his white steed in a glittery leotard. God, what a chance.”
let’s get real. Then what would I do, stuck with Jay and his ups and downs and no girlfriend on my side?”
Jay chimed in, “My ups and downs? Since when do I have ups and downs?”
We all laughed and sipped some circus cinnamon coffee at the communal table. Maxine did not accept Fernando’s invitation,
although it was fun for her to imagine the idea of abandoning all and taking off with him. She did spend the night with him
in his tent and Jay and I slept on a little matt next to the bear and the gypsy man. The next morning, we continued in our
van on our journey onto Costa Rica.
After we spent few days in Costa Rica, we
parked our old, tired and worn van in a government parking lot. We minimized our backpacks, throwing out all but the bare
necessities. We flew from San Jose, Costa Rica to Cartagena, Columbia, and were transported into another land of exotic smells,
stone paths, Llamas, sloths, and wild bus rides. The farther south that we traveled, the more excited we became. We shared
the desire to explore the heart of the indigenous cultures…gravitating towards the obscure.
Our trip, which was to be a couple of months, was turning into 4 months, then 5, then 6. Through winding roads and countless
small villages, we met peasant people and other travelers from around the world. We wanted to go to the enchanted Islands
of the Galapagos. I had read in my travel book alluring stories of “The Baroness of the Galapagos,” a German dilettante
who, in the 1930’s, took off to the uninhabited islands with her two Scandinavian lovers in search of “Utopia.”
Living as nudists in a silk and tapestry filled cave, they eventually disappeared, rumored to have been brutally murdered
in a lover’s scandal.
In Quito, Ecuador, we stayed a few days in the city to try to get a boat or plane to the Galapagos. Quito was on
the edge of the sea. Walking the streets the first night, looking for information on how to get to the Islands, we discovered
a place where a line of old timey view master boxes were set up. On the fronts, there were numbered frames of movies you could
see: “Sinbad and the Princess,” “Godzilla,” “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.” We could
not resist. A little girl, about eight years old, cranked the wheel after she placed a large reel of film into the box. We
took turns looking through the viewer. As Maxine, Jay, and I watched “Sinbad and the Princess” and “Rio
del Amor,” the girl cranked the reel. Her sister, only about three or four-year-old, stood on the other chair. We took
turns peering into the viewer, as two nude bodies rubbed together amidst a jungle setting, and for only 25 cents. We entertained
ourselves beyond our belief and laughed ourselves silly. Jay loved “Rio del Amor” the best, with an enthusiasm
like I had never seen from him before.
We eventually discovered that there was
no way to get to the islands of the Galapagos without paying a huge price for a tourist tour. But by luck we found a way to
get there on a small army plane, that flew there once a week for only 50 dollars each. It was a cramped aircraft but we arrived
safely to the small town of San Cristobal. It took a day to find a fishing boat that would agree to take us and three other
travelers for a week to sea. The fisherman, named Juan Pablo, was a gnarly sort of fellow, fat, with an active case of gout
due to eating rich foods and drinking too much. He told us that we would have to pool our resources to buy fruit and other
provisions for the trip. We were lucky to find three odd travelers who chipped in to go with us on our excursion. They were
a colorful trio. One light skinned freckled French guy, a mixed race albino of about twenty, had a matted reddish-brown afro
that was three or four inches from his head and shaved on the sides. He wore a black leather jacket, black pegged pants, and
black shoes. A small tattoo on his chest showed through his torn black t-shirt. His girlfriend introduced herself as “Tracey.”
She had thick curly blonde hair and was dressed in green ocelot pants. The third was a thin, more conservative British guy
in his late twenties. He boasted that he was determined to fulfill his dream to swim with sharks in the Galapagos.
The old salty fisherman took us to see his weathered boat, which looked a little formidable, like a prop from “The Sailor
Dog.” We paid him and we set off at dawn the next day. After a rough day at sea, we finally arrived to the first of
the four islands that the fisherman promised we would visit. Espaniola was an island known for its blue-footed boobies. When we arrived to shore, we were greeted by droves of all kinds of
exotic insect and flying birds. It was the boobie mating and nesting season. We saw the long winged albatross in their mating
dance. It was a little violent, the way they walked their beaks together in a dance, and it looked more like a battle than
a mating duo. The desolate beach glowed with its rose-tinted sand. The bright sun shone through the grey-blue clouds, creating
wavering shadows of light over the ground. Thousands of birds meandered along the shoreline. Black shadows of bird silhouettes
made patterns over the barren beach, as they glided down for approach, landing and staring into the vast infinite ocean. Sand
crabs ran in and out of their hole homes in the sand. The animals on the islands had grown up with zero fear of humans, so
you could be sitting on a beach and a sea lion pup would even come up and sniff your toes. I was sitting on the shore when
a mocking bird just came and perched on my shoulder.
We stayed the afternoon there, then
sailed on through rough seas to our next little island. A small island east of Santa Cruz was where we stopped for the night.
It was an awesome and stark weird volcanic landscape, void of much vegetation, almost like a moonscape. Jay had saved in his
wallet three tiny paper blotters of LSD that a traveler had given him months before. We decided this would be the perfect
time to take a trip, even though I wasn’t too experienced with acid. We each, squeamishly, put a tiny stamp in our mouth
and then started our swim to the rocky shore. Jay and Maxine got there before me, so by the time I arrived to shore they were
nowhere in sight, only the weird volcanic landscape. Amongst the scrabbly brush, lava lizards darted in and out. I was coming
onto the acid about this time, so it was difficult to distinguish whether the surreal lunar landscape was an imagined vision
or real. Because of a violent volcanic eruption thousands of years ago, the lava quickly entered the island and filled the
landscape with strange volcanic pockets of rock, created when the molten lava first touched the surface.
Patterns of colors started to flash before my eyes, and prisms of light swirled into purples and greens in my mind as I stumbled over the ragged rocky terrain. I called out for
Jay and Maxine, but there was no answer, only my own echo. I was a little worried in this strange place all by myself. I called
again, stepping over the brittle lava surface until finally I heard two voices call my name. It was Maxine and Jay, but no
one was in sight, and it seemed the voices were below me under the ground. I knew it must be the LSD fooling me. I decided
to trust my intuition and forget logic and I lifted a rock by my foot to see if they were underground. That was totally illogical, but when I picked up a large flat lava rock to look below, there
was Maxine and Jay in the dark ground beneath.
“Come on in.” Jay shouted.
Maxine giggled. “Bienvenidos!”
I cast logic to the wind and went
below. We three layed against a cool lava rock in this tiny sort of air pocket beneath the earth. It was too weird for words.
The memory of all the other bad times traveling with Jay disappeared, like when he complained that I didn’t take risks
or know how to act or be. He had, I guess, from the help of LSD become kind and caring for a change. With a warm heart as
big as a papaya, he grabbed me close to him. Not long afterwards, we heard two of our European companions above us, speaking
French. We stayed silent in our hidden intimate cocoon. They walked right over us, oblivious that we were beneath him.
We must have stayed below for hours, lost in our feeling a special closeness. We then emerged to the bright sun. We took off
our clothes and bathed in the blue ocean. We saw a handsome tribe of sea lions in the distance. The head of the sea lion tribe,
as we were later told, is the male is customarily known to cruise up and down the beach, while barking his orders to his crew.
Maxine was entranced by the bull lion’s beauty, so she bravely swam up to him hoping he’d think she was part of
his pack. The bull lion did not welcome her advances and gave her an aggressive swat while darting off through the waters.
That night we were exhausted from our magic “trip” and lulled ourselves
to sleep in the boat’s bough until morning came.
The next day we headed off to Floreana,
a sandy colored rocky terrain. A large cactus with white hairy covering, called “Old Man Cactus,” dominated the
island. The night before there had been a sea storm and the wind blew all night long, but that next day the ocean was crystal
blue. No houses, except a few mud houses with a roof made from straw and dried bush. Everything was dry, with mostly rocks
and mountain cliffs.
We trekked to a little square house on a hill, painted
pink, blue, and white. An old lady served us wine made from her small orange grove. It was little square house painted pink
and blue and white, where an old lady served us wine made from her small orange grove.
The short weathered woman wore a matronly faded blue dress like from the 1940’s in a William Faulkner novel—with
huge strong hands, a solemn face like from The Grapes of Wrath. She had a white scarf draped on her head. She told us that
her wine was made from a special citrus fruit found only on this island—a fruit called Tumbo. She had a stern look in
her eyes and spoke few words, adding to her mystery. We wondered how she ended up in this desolate island all alone except
for a few workers. We only stayed a short while because we had to get
to our last island before night. After we got back to our boat I pulled out my book on the Utopia Galapagos. I discovered
to my surprise that the old lady from Floreana who served us the orange wine was actually the remaining trio of the scandalous
German dilettantes who had fled their country in the 1930’s in search of utopia.
September 9, 1975
darkness. Five in the morning, cold and damp. A small sliver of light creeps through a crack in the wall. I can hear weird
rustlings and scratching noises, and clanging of cold metal that could wake the dead. In the blackness, silhouettes on bunks
are obscured by the darkness. Scribbling graffiti on the walls written to mark time passing: September 25,1972, September
26,1972, September 27,1972.... words in Spanish and English carved onto theses dingy, filthy concrete walls. “!Ayudame!”...“Pinchi
cabrones”.... “Today is my birthday. It came and went”
sounds like a giant invasion of monster cockroaches chewing paper. One piece of paper in the shadows jerks into the light
as if by its own momentum. The paper gyrates. There’s writing on the paper...in scrawled handwriting... "Please help me.
I am in..." From the darkness, I see him. A large beady eyed rat. He grabs the note, and fucking eats it. Sun shines
into my cell room. It’s not just one rat, but a colony of hungry frenzied fuckers chewing at the decayed food and paper
scraps pilfering around with their little claws. This shadowed dark room is a jail cell and the obscured silhouette a prisoner