Bump, lurch. Bump, lurch. Bump, bump.
Bodies sway back and forth. On the roof, fists of rain pound incessantly. The black man drives on, staring eyes fixed to the road, like a croupier following cards on a table, his concentration absolute. We stop. The road's too bad, he says.
There's a mire of light brown mud as long as a football field ahead. Nobody fancies getting stuck today. We pile out of the jeep, all thirteen of us. A young Indian-looking girl struggles, her sleeping baby cradled in a thin blanket. A few despondant words are exchanged in the thick drizzle. Some young men start walking along the side of the track, stepping on the firmer ground at the edge of the forest. We follow in single file, thankful for the shelter afforded by the overhanging branches and vines. Later, back in the jeep, the girl with the baby asks me where I'm going.
"To El Paují," I reply.
"To do what?"
"Erm, I've come to see this part of Venezuela," I mumble in less than fluent Spanish.
"Yes, but why?" she insists.
"It's beautiful, isn't it?" is all I can come up with.
She shrugs, and stares out of the streaming window. We hit another huge pothole and the suspension bangs and shudders, eddies of pain reverberating through our spines. We sit facing each other, the fat man in front of me looming perilously close, till I put my arm out to push him back, my hand disappearing into his blubber. He smiles back at me, sweating. I try to grin.
I'm uncomfortably convinced my genitals are about to peep out of the sides of my baggy shorts at the very next lurch. I try to avoid eye contact with anyone, I pretend to sleep and secretly fret about preserving my decency. I've been travelling for the last sixteen hours, and I feel as if a yappy dog is nip-nipping at my patience, willing it to snap and kick out. Bump, yap. Bump, yap. Bump.
The jalopy lumbers up another impossibly steep incline of rock, only for the next one to loom up ahead like a tombstone. As I tuck my shorts under my legs for the umpteenth time and sleep unconvincingly, the girl's questions echo in my head, tugging at my confidence and picking holes in my inadequate reply.
That was the first time, and of course it was the worst. How different it is now. How I love it now. I could cry with happiness along that road. I want to clamber out of the window and shout my joy to the forests and plains. I know every hill, valley and curve and I don't resent a single bump or lurch.
When I finally reached El Pauji that time, I saw a tile hanging on the wall, quoting a poem by Antonio Machado: 'Traveller, do not seek to find a path, your footsteps create one as you go'.