Traveling Alone

Suzanne Roberts:

Maybe it was the drinks on empty stomachs, or the dimly lit Quito bar, or my exuberant dance-floor fan kick that encouraged my young companions to forget that I was nearly twice their age. Liam and Adam sandwiched me into what can only be called a grind, and I thought about the beautiful star of Y Tu Mama Tambien, the movie where the much-older but totally gorgeous woman, played by Maribel Verdu, has a threesome with two much-younger men. Boys, really. And that’s how it felt—like I was Maribel Verdu and Adam and Liam were the two seventeen-year-old boys in the film. 

Of course, Liam and Adam were in their early twenties and I was thirty-six, so we were all older than the characters, and not a one of us nearly as beautiful, but the age difference had to be about the same. But that’s what a movie in your head does—it morphs time and reason. In other words, whenever I feel like I am watching my life as if it were a movie, I am totally fucked, or at least about to be, figuratively or literally. But I wasn’t thinking that, not at the time, rather this thought crept into my mind: Wasn’t a threesome something I wanted to cross off my bucket list of transgressions? 

I had recently divorced my husband and was traveling alone in South America. I was leaving Ecuador for Peru the next day, and Liam and Adam were headed to Bolivia. I was protected by the anonymity of travel, and I would surely never see them again. Wasn’t part of the allure of travel to leave your old self behind and embrace a more adventurous, interesting, reckless self? I was in my mid-thirties, young enough to think that I could be anyone I wanted to be, old enough to know that I would always, somehow, settle back into the me I had always been, whether I was hiking in the Amazon or at home on the couch, grading student papers. I knew being a new person because of a new place was impossible, but that didn’t stop me from fantasizing. 

I had met Liam and Adam earlier that day on one of those tours that promises “authentic” experiences and visits to local markets.  I took a year sabbatical to travel and “find myself,” whatever I thought that meant at the time. I thought that this day trip from Quito would be a good way to meet other people. These two young Englishmen were taking a gap year between university and everything else. Liam was a heavy-set fellow with a swoop of auburn hair, and Adam was a slip of a thing with a lisp. They told me they were two weeks into a year-long trip, though Liam already missed his girlfriend at home. “Stop talking about her already, would you?” Adam told him.

Adam might have been small, but he was bossy. If I were making bets, I didn’t think that they would last more than a month into their travels.

The Soft Cell version of “Tainted Love” came on the van’s radio, and we all sang along. Our group also included a Dutch woman named Natalie, an Israeli tour guide, and Mario, our Ecuadoran driver/translator.  I thought about the ways music crossed all nationalities and languages—here we were, American, Dutch, British, Israeli, and Ecuadorean, singing the words to this 1980’s hit. The rugged greenscape of the Ecuadorian mountains laddered the gray sky. A man herded black-and-white-spotted cows. A pig and a German Shepherd were chained to a fence. 

Our first stop was at the “real” shepherd’s home, a mud-thatched house shaped like a beehive with a hole at the top for cook smoke to escape. The blackened walls made the hut seem darker. Adam said, “My God,” when he looked inside, and I hoped the shepherd didn’t speak English, but just in case he did, I said he had a very nice house. Mostly I was uncomfortable because the shepherd and his house had become a tourist attraction. The shepherd nodded and grinned, showing the missing teeth. He pointed out his cuy, and Mario translated from Quechua, the language of the Andes, into Spanish. The Israeli tour guide translated the Spanish in to English: “He is showing us his guinea pigs,” as if that wasn’t already obvious. Squeals came from a cage in the corner. It was not just commonplace to find live guinea pigs in the restaurant kitchen, but many people kept caged guinea pigs in their own kitchens, a delicacy for special occasions. 

We thanked the shepherd and moved onto our next destination: market day in Sasquili, which meant that the streets filled with everything from fruit and vegetables to live animals, including more cuy. Men worked on sewing machines, tailoring clothes for customers, who were waiting and gossiping with their friends from neighboring towns.  A woman stood by a basket of rabbits and chickens. A potential customer came by, felt the bodies under the white feathers. While the women negotiated a fair price, the customer ruffled her fingers along the bellies. Hanging upside down, the chickens did nothing, resigned, it seemed, to their own deaths. 

Women sorted through beans and rabbits, socks and eye shadow. A man whipped yelping hogs with a stick in order to load them into a pick-up truck. A lamb tied to the top of a bus bleated in terror. We all took pictures. I wrote notes in my journal. Novel to me but quotidian to the locals—ordinary is a matter of perspective. And then Natalie said, “I can’t take this. All these live animals. I’m an animal lover. I want to go.” 

We started back to the van, and a young woman walked toward us and lifted her blouse, revealing a gash, red as a plum, where a nipple should be. She held out her hand and mouthed the words, “Ayúdeme.” Help me. Her face in a squint. We hurried past, looked down at the dirt road. I looked back, and so did she. She turned and started walking back toward me. I scrambled to find change in my pocket, placed it into the nest of her palm, knowing there was nothing my coins could do for her. When we left the woman; Natalie didn’t say a word and neither did I.

We loaded into the van drove up a windy road. At the top, we ate lunch at a restaurant perched at the edge of Quiltoa, an extinct volcano with a small sapphire lake below at the center of the crater. Natalie, the Dutch girl who loved animals, ordered lamb, and I tried to smile at Liam and Alex, but they didn’t notice. And weren’t we all hypocrites in our very own ways? 

When our food came, I watched Natalie saw at her meat with a dull knife. She told us that it was her birthday and asked if we would join her for a drink later that night. We all agreed. 

After lunch, we hiked down a steep, sandy path into the throat of the extinct volcano. A local boy followed us down and then asked us if we wanted to buy a ride back up on his mule. We declined, and the boy looked disappointed. When I realized I might have made his day or even his week with my ride, I paid him a small tip to take a photograph together at the lip of the crater. 

Our little tour group then boarded the van again and drove back to Quito. There was no chatter, the usual where-are-you-from, and where-are-you-going, and where-have-you-been of travelspeak.  But when Abba’s “Gimmie! Gimmie! Gimmie! (A Man after Midnight)” came on the radio, we all sang along.

Later, in the Quito dance club of Natalie’s choosing, she said she liked to drink but wasn’t so keen on dancing. Because I am fond of both drinking and dancing, perhaps overly so, I skipped onto the dance floor. By the second or third song, Liam was behind me, his face over my shoulder, nuzzling his chin into my collar bone. Adam had both hands on my waist and was attempting to spark a fire between his nether regions and mine. This is where I started to wonder if there might be a threesome in my future, where the movie reel played in my head, looking like someone else’s life. Certainly for Adam and Liam, this was just dancing, and the lusty storyline belonged to me alone. And maybe that’s the thing about travel; it enables us to get outside of ourselves, to try on new stories, to take paths we wouldn’t otherwise follow.

Before I could find out what was really happening here on the dance floor, I slipped out from between them, ghosting my new friends. I walked out of the club and into the cold night air alone. Taxis honked and flashed their lights at me, wondering if I wanted a ride. I shook my head, waved them away, and walked the few blocks back to my hostel.

 I fell into the narrow bed. I wondered if the movie in my head really would follow the script of Y Tu Mama Tambien in real life. If so, those two boys would be making out with each other in their hostel bedroom soon, and I would die very young. 

But then I realized that I was no longer young, and I went to sleep.

BIO: Suzanne Roberts’ books include the award-winning memoir Almost Somewhere: Twenty-Eight Days on the John Muir Trail (Bison Books, 2012), and the poetry books Plotting Temporality (Pecan Grove Press, 2012). Her poems, stories, and essays have been published in many journals and magazines, such as Creative Nonfiction, Wanderlust, Litro, ZYZZYVA, ISLE, Brevity, Fourth River, River Teeth, National Geographic Traveler, and elsewhere. She currently serves as the El Dorado County Poet Laureate and teaches for the low residency MFA program in Creative Writing at SNC-Tahoe. She lives in South Lake Tahoe, California. Her latest book, Bad Tourist, is now available


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