Into the Jungle
– MARCH 2010 –
“What do you mean, you don’t know how to steal?” I asked my two new besties who sat next to me on the hard plastic seat of the ancient, shock-less bus.
For me, thieving was a life skill, like lying my way out of a jam, or taking off at the first sign of trouble. Most nineteen-year-olds bum around Europe a month or two, then scoot back home to college like good boys and girls. Well, fuck that. I was a half-starved, high-strung wild child who lived out of a backpack, homeless since I was thirteen, obsessed with Spanish-speaking countries, animals, and the jungle. I was also a desperately lonely, cocky-yet-petrified infant. In the space of a minute I could drown in self-pity for what I thought I’d missed—a real family—then toss that aside to satisfy a rabid curiosity for the world and everything in it. That second part may have been what saved me in the end.
On my right, seventeen-year-old Britta from Austria gazed out the open window, taciturn, dreamy, dark hair blowing back from her pale face. “I stole something once,” she said. “Mints. From a restaurant.”
Molly, a tall, talky American from Seattle, grinned and leaned in to her with a bony shoulder. “News flash: those are free.” A ghost of
a pedicure clung to her dusty feet in beat-up sandals, just flecks of red polish on every other toenail.
Britta shrugged. “I took more than one.”
Molly and I howled with laughter. “Mint stealer! They’re gonna lock you up, girl.”
Below us, the narrow one-way street buzzed with lawless vitality and frenetic energy. Small European cars blew past stop signs with only a warning honk, pausing barely long enough for a withered Bolivian woman to yank a stubborn llama across the cobblestones. Young men on motorcycles cut between cars, even zoomed across sidewalks. These weren’t the downtown Boston streets I knew that zipped up at night with crusty Brahmin efficiency; this was raw, stinky chaos, life out loud with all its mess, sprawl, and noise, and I couldn’t get enough of it.
We three groaned each time we slammed into a pothole, tailbones bruised and aching. Laughing with fear and exhilaration, we clung to the windowsills, the seats in front of us, or each other as the cigar-chomping driver took every turn too hard and too fast. Pop music blared from the bus’s tinny speakers. Diesel gassed us through the open windows. Chickens squawked and scattered across the road as we blasted by.
We bulleted around one last corner, the bus practically coasting on its left side wheels as we turned onto a flagstone courtyard. I relished the feel of my switchblade cool against my thigh, nestled in the long pockets of my baggy shorts, my beloved backpack clutched under one bony arm. With a last belch of black smoke, the bus ground to a stop near a small farmacia tucked between rows of vegetable stands.
“This is it,” I said, jumping to my feet. “Let’s go.”
“Okay, chiquita,” Molly said, tumbling out her side of the seat. “We’re going, we’re going.”
We squinted into the afternoon sun’s last rays as they sliced across the plaza, the towers of a looming seventeenth-century church casting cold black shadows across us. We wove our way past shopkeepers
hawking jewelry, clothing, blankets, and cheap knickknacks, their stores squeezed into impossibly thin corridors between crumbling stone buildings. The usual stew of fear, pride, and excitement that preceded a heist—big or small—churned in my stomach. Everywhere the sweetish whiff of rotting vegetables mixed with a low note of sizzling meat, a smell that—those days—only ratcheted up the pain in my gut.
Britta pulled up short at a stall where a young girl was flipping fried corn cakes filled with melting cheese. She scouted around in her bag for some change.
“Come on, Brit,” I said. “Later.” Never rob a store on a full stomach: seriously, did I really need to explain this?
“But I’m starving.”
“Oh, for God’s sake. Just because you never eat.”
I tugged the straps of my backpack tighter across my shoulders. Pitiful as the contents were, I always had food, whether stolen or bought. Ziplock bags of dusty peanuts, half-melted candy bars, sad old apples, stale M&M’s, anything I could get my hands on. The truth was, I was always hungry; it was just a matter of degree. Growing up with seven other foster kids had me well acquainted with a chronic emptiness in my gut.
I glanced around nervously. “We’ll get something after, okay?” As used to copping things as I was, it had only just occurred to me that the punishment here might be a lot less lenient than in the States. Would it be actual jail time? Hard labor? And how in fuck would I get myself out with barely a boliviano to my name?
Grumbling, Britta zipped her sweatshirt to her chin with a shiver and joined Molly and me as we huddled outside the pharmacy. “So, Molly, you’ve stolen things before?” she asked.
Molly gave me a sly look. “Of course.”
“What’s the biggest thing you’ve ever stolen?”
“Good to know.” Britta laughed, then turned to me. “Lily? Biggest thing?”
“As in size? Or worth?”
“A turkey. For Thanksgiving.”
“Did you get caught?”
Molly whistled, impressed, but back on task as she glanced apprehensively at the drugstore. “So, how is this going to go—?”
“We go in,” I said. “We’re super friendly. Smile and say hola. You know that much Spanish, right?” I pulled out a beat-up map from my backpack and handed it to Molly. “Just do what we talked about. We’ll be fine.”
Molly’s head knocked into a little cowbell that hung over the door, announcing our entrance more than I would have liked. She giggled as she approached a solemn-faced woman who slouched behind a cash register staring out a narrow lead-paned window. Molly and Britta stood near her to block her view of me. I cased the aisles quickly: the place was dirty, everything looked old and beat. Pawed-over packets of Band-Aids, dusty bottles of American shampoo, toothpaste, deodorant. We honestly could have used all of it, but I had to concentrate on what we came for. Even before they had unfolded the map and began to ask the proprietor in stumbling Spanish the best way to get to La Paz by bus, I had lifted a roll of rubbers, three boxes of tampons, three small bags of rough-cut tobacco, and rolling papers.
“Hey, Molly,” I called out. This was the signal that I was done, and they could step apart. The woman peered down at me as I picked through some dry goods. “You wanted cornmeal, right, Molls?” The absolute cheapest thing in the store, at twenty-five centavos a half kilo.
I grabbed a small package and took it to the counter. A glass bowl
of wrapped mints sat near the old-fashioned crank register. I took three and laid them next to the cornmeal. “How much?” I asked in Spanish, counting out a few coins.
“The mints?” she said with a gap-toothed smile. “Those are free.”
Molly burst out laughing and couldn’t stop. Britta fought to contain herself and was unsuccessful, turning crimson as she folded the map. The woman’s smile soured as she watched us, folding her arms across her sparrow chest. She looked me dead in the eye and said, “Show me what is in your backpack.”
Her face grew stone-hard. “My son is outside. He’s a big man. He’ll open it for me.”
Feigning offense, I counted out twenty-five centavos and stuffed the cornmeal in my bag. “Buenos días, señora.”
I took a big stride toward the door, but she cut me off and ran past us into the square, shouting, “Diego! Diego! They robbed me, Diego!” We sprinted past her toward the bus that had just fired up its engine, leaping aboard as it lurched into motion. In seconds, the square receded behind us and we were climbing the steep hills back to the city center.
Screaming and laughing, high from our theft, we burst into the Hostel Versailles Cochabamba—a hilariously named fleabag where we all worked for room and board—and raced down to the basement, our roach-infested “staff apartment,” which was just a moldy bunk room the size of a jail cell, complete with cold, always-damp cement walls. I dumped the contents of my backpack onto a broken-down couch squeezed between the cots.
All the stolen goodies tumbled out, along with a beat-up copy of a book I’d lifted from my last group home in Boston. Reddening, I reached for it, but Molly grabbed the book and turned it over, while
Britta nabbed a pouch of tobacco and rolling papers and bolted up the stairs.
“Charlotte’s Web?” Molly said, examining me. “I remember this book from when I was a kid. Can’t remember reading much since, if you want to know the truth.”
At the time, I had no explanation for why this little pig’s life saved by the efforts of the spider who really loved him tore my guts out. I only knew that the story had gotten to me, made me cry, but also gave me hope that I could—someday—overcome my wordless sorrow.
“I keep some old photos in it.”
As Molly flipped the pages, one fell out, all dog-eared and scratched. “Is this your foster mom?”
I took the photo from her. “Yeah, that’s Tia.” As I gazed at the picture, I was struck by the resemblance between the proprietor of the store I’d just robbed and Tia, my Bolivian foster mom who had died of cancer when I was twelve. Same age, same tight expression of defensiveness against great odds. Ashamed tears backed up behind my eyes, but I held them off.
“She has a kind face.”
“She did the best she could with eight of us running around,” I said, eyes downcast as I stuffed the book back in my bag, embarrassed to be seen reading anything other than the Jack Kerouac or Charles Bukowski from the ragtag hostel library, not that Molly or Britta would have been impressed by that sort of thing. Of course, I looked nothing like Tia; I don’t look like anyone. Well, I guess I did look like a miniature version of my real mom, who I’d never known. Same curly red hair, blue eyes, but I lacked her glamorous length of bone; she stood six feet in flats, while I was just five one. Small and small boned. A social worker once told me my mom—who overdosed when I was a baby—had been a poet; in my fantasies she was a brilliant one, too brilliant to live, like Sylvia Plath.
Molly sorted the condoms from the pile and stashed them in her
pants pocket. “Thanks for doing this. Mark’ll be here in a few days. He never has anything.”
“No problem,” I said, slinging my bag over my shoulder. “But I’ve got to go.” Thirty-four beds needed a change of sheets.
“Me too. Britta’s alone at check-in. Bad idea.” We grinned at each other. Britta rarely stopped flirting long enough to write down reservations and keep the beds from being double-booked. A nightmare when dozens of exhausted international travelers flooded in nightly, all of them desperate for food and sleep, none with the cash for a real hotel.
Halfway up the stairs, I turned back to look at Molly, to find her gazing after me. “A turkey, really?” she said.
“Yeah. I wore a big coat. Pretended I was pregnant. Worked like a dream.”
None of us ever had enough cash. Evenings off, we made spare change washing dishes alongside laughing toothless grandmothers in local cantinas. On the best days, we nailed the occasional gig teaching English to the sons and daughters of rich families in parts of the city with dreamy names like Cala Cala or El Mirador. We were picked up in big, noiseless town cars to spend an hour or two with their precious babies in vast rooms with balconies featuring jaw-dropping views of the city and mountains beyond, then taken back to the Versailles, to our damp room with floors that glittered with silverfish. Otherwise, we worked constantly at the hostel—booking rooms, cleaning floors, washing linens, and cutting onions and potatoes for enormous pots of stew till our fingers bled.
All of us were running away from something. I’d been suckered down that January to teach English at a school that didn’t exist. Stole the money—over time at a shit job in an appliance store—for plane fare, got here, no one met my plane or answered my calls. I
had maybe five dollars on me, which got me a cab to the Versailles. I begged my way in, then stayed, too broke to go home.
Molly had dough, even though she swore she didn’t. How could you travel the world to get over a guy, à la Eat Pray Love, sans cash? Still, there was something else wrong that kept her from going home, I could feel it. Britta had been traveling nonstop for a year with no idea what to do next. Anything but Vienna, she’d quip between deep inhales of her hash pipe—anything but that. Something about her father. She didn’t elaborate, but that was fine. I never did either. It didn’t matter.
I loved these girls with all the passionate intensity and conviction and delusion of my not-yet-twenty-year-old self. The damage in me honored the damage in them, and as far as I was concerned, that was the sum total of truth in the world. Ignoring the fact that we didn’t have much in common, that Britta had a mean side and Molly lied probably more than me—which was saying something—I told myself we’d be friends forever.
But my gut knew that we were all lost children pretending we were A-OK with our clove cigarettes and our fuck-everything, we’re-never-going-home attitudes. None of us had any idea what we were doing; all of us were devastated inside. There were reasons we’d ended up there, trying to sleep in noisy bunk rooms with doors that didn’t lock, a new boss every other week who leered and leched at each of us. But it was as if we were stuck there, like food caught in a drain. If anyone had asked us, What makes you tick? Where are you going? Why are you here? Why can’t you get through the day without crying? What do you want from your life? We would have been stumped for any answers at all.
As I whipped the thin sheets off rows of narrow cots, grimacing at the occasional period stain or worse, I tried to feel happy for Molly, but the truth was, this new fragile family of lost girls was falling apart, bit by bit. Did it matter who would be the first to leave? For
all of us, it was just a matter of time. Soon, I would have to face life after the Versailles, a fate I dreaded—exhaustion, filth, and roaches be damned.
Nine years later, I wish I could wrap my arms around my younger, stupider self and tell her to hold on tight, because flying to Bolivia on a scam was the least of a series of bad decisions I was about to make.