As the driver overtakes a truck on a blind corner the old man beside me dabs his forehead with a handkerchief. There is a bunch of squawking flowers between his feet- two chickens tied together at the legs. We pass a derelict water park. Abandoned slides plunge into the thick green of a swimming pool.
The border is preceded by a series of villages where houses perch angularly on wooden stilts. Mothers linger at windows with babies wrapped in brightly coloured cloths. After a jumble of market stalls and immigration police we cross into Peru. The lush greens of southern Ecuador are replaced by pale desert.
When we finally reach a town the sun is setting. The coach stops and two women climb board. They are clutching orange nets filled with mandarins. Polystyrene coolers rest on their hips.
‘Esta Mancora?’ I ask them.
‘Si, si,’ the first woman tells me.
I rush past before the coach can pull away.
It’s easy to find my hostel in such a small place, and I’m soon heading to the beachfront for dinner. I see a woman that I recognise from the coach. ‘A hellish ride,’ she sighs, and introduces herself. Jane from Australia. I smile, happy to have found a dinner companion.
We chat about our experiences in Ecuador as we stroll along the beach. Plastic tables and chalkboards slant into the sand. We choose a crowded bar. An old man sits in the corner with his ear pressed to the battered body of a guitar. He plucks the worn strings gently with his eyes tightly closed.
We order two bowls of ceviche. Jane tells me about volunteering in the Cloud Forest while we eat the fresh, raw fish. Three other musicians have gather around the guitarist. He leads them in a gentle rhythm with his ear pressed to the wood. Eyes closed, he begins to sing. It is a gravelly song of experience. Suddenly I am nostalgic, although I’m unsure what for.
Barefoot couples dance in the sand between the tables. The rhythm is slow and lazy like the sea. Peruvian Cumbia, the waitress tells us.
The band pause for an interval and the old man walks over to our table with his guitar. His feet are bare. The skin around his ankles is gnarled like driftwood. He props the guitar against our table and gestures towards it.
‘Don’t ask her anything, she knows all my secrets.’
He winks, and his closed eye is an eclipsed moon in the dark contours of his face. Jane is soon chatting to him in fluent Castillano. Victor, he tells us.
‘A drink?’ he asks, and we accept.
He soon returns with three glasses and a pack of playing cards.
‘ Sangre del tigre.’ He gestures towards the drinks. ‘For courage’.
Tiger’s blood? We eye the pink liquid suspiciously. Victor laughs and urges us to try it. A mixture of fish and lemon juice sharpens my senses. He pulls up a chair and begins to shuffle the playing cards whilst explaining a game called Cuarenta.
Although I can’t follow I somehow win sporadically. Victor tells us about Peru as we play. His eyes are animated as he describes his childhood. The hours go by, and soon we are strangers who know each other quite well. When Victor was a boy he nearly drowned in the sea. I tell them about a panic attack when swimming in deep water. Echoes of a past life, Victor says.
When we leave he signs his name across two playing cards. The King of Hearts is pressed it into my hand. ‘To remember me by,’ he says.
Some months later, back in Yorkshire, I am searching for change at a bus stop. My fingers find the dog-eared card in my wallet. I press it into my hand and think of that night when I had shared secrets with strangers and drank tiger’s blood. Oh to be back there, I think.
But then a realisation. That same life is here. Now. There is a rush of excitement as I contemplate what might happen next.
About the Author: Sophie McGovern is a travel writer, yarn spinner and full time nomad currently living on a canal boat near Bath. Her first novel, House of Mirrors, is almost finished.
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