Sasha is in a small market when she spots the completely out of place tall skinny blonde chick a few tables down.
This place is far outside where the tourists go. Her being here is incongruous.
The lady that owned the last guesthouse where Sasha stayed had described this little market in the valley center of a whole bunch of different mountain towns.
Sasha rode up and down and up and down those hills this morning explicitly because she’d be the only foreigner here.
Now, Sasha looks back at the bracelets she had put on her wrist. The last time she had this hopeful feeling was when she found those gorgeous shemaghs in Yazd. Those sold out immediately even with the ludicrous markup she added. Who knew there was no upper bound on how much people would pay for scarves?
She should have followed her gut that time and bought out the lot because after the first few sold, the vendor was impossible to relocate. And for the next weeks, she got emails from people asking when she would restock them. It was particularly unpleasant to be reading those messages at the same time she checked her bank account. Salt in the wound.
Sasha frowns, counts the bracelets on the table, does some arithmetic in her head, and then makes eye contact with the vendor and holds up one of the bracelets.
“Are there more? I want to buy for my friends.” She says it slowly in English and then in her clunky Spanish. “Hay mas estos? Quiero comprarlos por mis amigas y familia”.
The vendor grunts, bends down and lifts up a rubber tub from under the table. He pops open the lid, and Sasha sees dozens more of the bracelets, maybe hundreds.
He says, “Hay muchos, señorita, demasiado!”
Jackpot. She could put a shipping label on that box and send it back tomorrow. Sasha examines the bracelet on her wrist. It is beautiful.
These bracelets mean months more on the road.
“Los todos en la caja por 800 soles,” she says.
Sasha watches the vendor’s eyes narrow a bit at her and then he replies, in annoyed Spanish that goes too fast, but clearly he didn’t like that idea.
Everybody haggles differently. Maybe this is just part of the dance here. Maybe there are more bracelets than she realized.
“la caja — cuanto quiere?”
The old vendor gestures and more too-rapid Spanish flies past Sasha. His face suggests more frustration at the communication gap than offense.
It sure would be nice to know what he’s saying, but my brain wants to parse everything as Hindi. Maybe in a few more days.
Sasha listens for numbers and studies him for a minute. He doesn’t look like he lives in the mountains. He didn’t make these. He’s the same as Sasha — a predator.
He stops after talking for a minute and looks at her.
“These bracelets are very beautiful. I want to give them to my friends at home,” Sasha says slowly in English, trying to make some rapport with the angry vendor.
And then in her head, she starts gluing the Spanish phrases together to say the same thing.
Sasha opens her mouth but she sees the vendor is looking to her side. Sasha glances and sees that the blonde is now standing next to her at the table. Blonde hair streaked with a few other colors tied up in a white scarf. Artfully cut-off denim shorts, tank top, sandals, toe rings. Kind of like Tippi Hedren with tattoos.
The blonde speaks and touches the arranged jewelry on the table. And her fingers pause when they reach the same bracelets.
“Wow… these are really nice! What do you think they are?” She looks at Sasha, as if Sasha might know.
Sasha shrugs and looks at her. Behind her cateye sunglasses, her face shows disappointment, a little sunburn, and the fact that she is really young.
She’s not a flipper.
Sasha hears her speak in beautiful Spanish that of course Sasha cannot quite follow. But despite not following the language, Sasha knows very well this kid is ruining her chances to score that whole box.
If this market is about to fill up with rich tourists thrilled to pay his ridiculous prices, he won’t sell Sasha the whole lot at just a little bit above his own cost.
Sasha watches her dig out her camera out and snap photos of herself with all her trinkets. And now she drapes herself over the grumpy vendor and mugs with him.
Sasha walks away from the stall and grits her teeth. A wasted day and money is running out.
She buys two bottles of the weird dirt-flavored soda that’s popular here and walks away from the market back to where she locked up her bike. She squats down and drinks the first soda.
She finishes the bottle and feels a little better.
After walking for a bit, Sasha buys some gorgeous avocadoes from a charming old lady in a ridiculous bowler hat tilted sideways, and layers and layers of differently colored knit shawls and sweaters, sitting on a vividly colored blanket.
After Sasha pays her, the woman reaches up, grabs her wrist softly, pats her hand, and quietly says a bunch of stuff, all totally incomprehensible.
Maybe she just really wants to thank her for buying her avocados. Or she is telling Sasha she is too thin or not modest enough. Or maybe admonish her for running around and travelling rather than settling down with a nice-enough boy and raising children.
But there is an earnest affectionate sincerity about this woman that feels almost indecent.
Sasha crouches down and listens as the woman speaks. Sasha realizes that the woman is repeating a few phrases over and over in a sing-song voice and immediately Sasha’s eyes water.
She takes off her sunglasses and sniffs because her nose is running now. She sits down on the red blanket next to the old woman and puts her hand over the old woman’s hand and holds it and they affectionately stare at each other for a moment. Sasha feels the old woman’s boney and leathery hands and listens again to her singing softly.
After a moment, the old woman stops singing. Then she touches her own chest near her heart with her palm, makes a circle, then pats Sasha’s hand, and then touches her heart again and makes a circle again, and then touches Sasha’s heart.
Sasha sits back for a moment. Then scoops with both her hands towards her own heart, touches her own temple, and then folds her hands in front of her and smiles back.
The old lady’s forehead wrinkles as she watches Sasha’s gestures. Then at some point the old woman opens her mouth wide and guffaws with surprise. Sasha grins back and laughs along with her. They embrace and touch foreheads and Sasha wipes a few tears away. Then she puts the sunglasses back on.
Sasha puts the avocadoes in her backpack and stands up and walks away.
At her next stop, after checking her options, she reluctantly buys a skewer of organ meats and potatoes on a stick.
Then she finds a nice sandy spot on the ground with a clear view of the sky and the mountains and a little bit away from the market. Sasha gets out her mess kit. She tries to slide the meat and potatoes potatoes off the skewer, but the potatoes are too hot to touch. That’s reassuring.
So she uses her knife. She puts the potatoes in one corner, the meat parts in another corner. She peels the avocado slices it, and arranges the slices in a fan shape and then sprinkles them with salt.
It’s a beautiful meal on the plate and her first bite of the avocado is maybe one of the most delicious things she’s ever eaten.
All the avocadoes in her life before now have only been vague hints at what a real avocado is.
Sasha looks up at the mountains along the horizon. The sky is clear. Good riding weather.
Sasha pedals in a calm haze for the next three hours. On the way up a hill, she sweats. On the way down, she zooms down gets coated with dust. She imagines she must have gone up and down dozens of hills and now she has layers and layers of sweat mixed with dust.
The sun setting lights up the sky with amazing colors.
The next time she tops a hill, she stops, takes off her helmet and sunglasses.
Then she drinks her other soda and looks around at the mountains, the path behind her, the sun setting, and sparse clouds.
Not a soul in sight.
She puts the empty soda bottle in backpack.
“I’m never giving this up. What could be worth giving this up?” She says it aloud.
Sasha speeds up. It is getting dark now.
Sasha spots the guesthouse because it actually looks like the picture she saw online.
The old lady that owns the house welcomes her in. Sasha smiles and hands her the printed-out reservation from her backpack.
While the older woman reads it, Sasha notices her reflection in a mirror across the room.
Clothes are splattered with mud. Dirt on Sasha’s face outlines where she wore her sunglasses. Her hair has that blown-out wildness that only happens afters exposure hours of sweat and wind and dust.
She smiles back at her reflection and gives it a thumbs up. Standing there with her bags from her bike near her feet, she looks like a deranged street preacher or a sandblasted refugee.
The cool air inside makes her dizzy. While the woman talks to her, Sasha sits down on a bench. Sasha hasn’t felt this worn out in a while.
Sasha’s ears are ringing. She leans forward and puts her head in hands. She remembers the avocado lady’s singing voice.
Sasha realizes she might have fainted because now the old woman is standing there with a glass of water and looking concerned.
Sasha takes it and drinks it in one gulp. She was pretty thirsty.
After a moment, Sasha realizes the woman is waiting to walk with her to the room so she stands up and follows her, lugging her bags.
Sasha heard more incomprehensible Spanish as they walk upstairs and down a hall to a room. It sounds like medical advice.
The woman knocks on the door, a feminine voice says “bueno”, and Sasha sees the girl from the market stretched out on the bed reading a paperback.
She sits up on the bed. “Oh my god are you OK?”
Sasha isn’t thrilled to meet her again, especially looking like she just crawled across the desert. Meanwhile her roommate clearly got all cleaned up and dressed in new clothes.
“I’m fine. I just got dirty on the ride here. I just need a shower.”
Sasha watches her face fall. She speaks in Spanish rapidly. Sasha gets it this time. No water left.
The old lady grimaces and more Spanish flies between the two. It is clear that somehow she used it all up.
Sasha says to the host, “It is fine. Thank you for the room.”
Sasha gets to the bathroom down the hall. In the mirror and the unflattering light, she looks nearly dead.
Sasha takes a shower that feels more like standing under a dripping faucet of icy water.
The trickling water doesn’t wash off the dirt as much as turn it back into sticky mud.
After a while Sasha turns off the faucet and gets out. She stands in front of the mirror and uses a washcloth to clean up.
She ain’t filthy anymore.
She sees a few bottles of water by the sink and brushes her teeth with one and drinks the other two.
She gets dressed in some clean clothes, ties up her hair, digs out her straw fedora, and almost feels normal again.
On the walk from the guesthouse over to the only place to eat in this villa, Sasha sees sky is full of stars. She can just barely see the outline of the mountains.
She finds the spot: a corrugated metal shelter next to a house.
A few locals sit at nearby picnic tables.
Sasha sits at the bar under the shelter. A radio plays music with static mixed in.
Sasha gets out her tiny notebook and her pen from her pocket and writes down a few details about the day.
Overdid bike. High altitude. 50 miles to market and 28 miles to guesthouse. Not enough h2o and food.
A screen door bangs and a stout woman exits a side door of the house. She walks behind the bar and looks at Sasha and smiles.
Sasha asks for a beer and points the bags of chips behind the bar.
Sasha goes back to writing.
Found bracelets, seller had big inventory, would not sell. Find supply?
Lunch: inca cola, avocados, meat+potato skewers. Avocado woman did something like grandmother sign. I did granddaughter sign back and she laughed.
Sasha stops writing and her eyes water up. She goes back to writing.
Light rain starts drumming the roof and Sasha opens the bag of chips and eats a few.
And the girl from the market appears.
She sits at another stool at the bar. Sasha dusts her hands off and stares at her notes on the day.
The stout woman brings over a couple of bowls of pickled vegetables and puts one in front of each of them.
Sasha hears the woman behind the bar talking for a while with her roommate. They’re not speaking Spanish or any romance language. It’s clear the woman is teaching her some phrases.
Sasha watches her snatch a few pickled carrots off the plate and eat them and then swigs the beer.
“These are good!”
The blonde looks at the plate of carrots and then at Sasha’s bag of chips.
“Let me guess — you won’t eat food here?”
Then she looks at the woman behind the bar says something to the host while looking at Sasha. The stout woman smiles at her.
“What did you say?”
“I said you only want American food.”
Sasha squints. She sees the stout woman realize she has been involved in an insult, rather than friendly banter between friends, and now she looks sheepish.
Blondie snatches up a few more pickled carrots with her fingers, eats them, swigs off her beer.
Sasha notices the bracelets from the market around Blondie’s arm.
The stout woman returns with two bowls of soup. One for each of them.
“It’s on me. Sorry about using up all the water. I didn’t realize anyone else was coming.”
The blonde chick grabs a spoon and digs in while Sasha stirs with her spoon. This is some kind of vegetable and meat soup.
Sasha glances at her.
“C’mon just try it. Don’t be such a tourist! Eat your protein bars another night!”
Sasha finishes her beer then grabs the spoon, stirs, picks up a potato and eats it. Not great. Not awful either. She was hungry and she finishes the bowl quickly.
“I took a bus to get here today. Did you really bike all that way?”
Sasha nods. She feels her forehead. Clammy.
“Wow. I was worn out just from the bus ride. You’re an athlete! My name’s Maggie.”
Sasha feels herself shivering. And then she remembers the glass of water she drank after she fainted.
“I gotta go.”
The white tile floor
Sasha slaps down too much money on the bar and walks fast toward the trail back to the guesthouse.
She gets a few steps out from under the shelter. The rain is coming down hard now and the ground is turning to mud.
Sasha tastes salt. The hat keeps most of the rain out of her face but the rain is washing dried sweat out of her hair.
As she steps through the mud, feeling her guts churn, the rain and sound of her squishy footsteps brings back a memory of eels thrashing around inside that muddy bright orange bucket.
Where was that?
She picks a big tree out, runs behind it, and as fast as possible she pulls her shorts down and squats, just barely in time because now her insides spray out on the grass.
Vietnam. The rice farmers searched for eels in the rice paddies and threw them in that bucket.
It is raining hard now. The tree works like leaky umbrella.
While squatting and feeling her insides sloshing out, Sasha checks her small bag. She exhales in relief when she spots wet wipes and the extra underwear — the ones with the supergirl stamp on the front.
A few unpleasant moments later, Sasha cleans up as best she can. And she is running back to the guesthouse.
The door isn’t locked and she bounds up the stairs and down the hall to the bathroom for more emergency evacuation.
At least this place has working indoor plumbing.
Sasha finds her travel pack of medicines. And there is a new stack of bottled water. This place is wonderful! She takes some pills and mixes some electrolyte powder into one of the new bottles.
And on a whim she checks and discovers the water pressure is back. Does this place use a rainwater cistern?
The shower feels amazing, despite twice getting out, squatting, and going back in, each time less intense than the previous. The medicine always works.
Sasha turns off the water and towels off, feeling like the worst of the illness is behind her. She’ll live on herbal tea and saltines for the next day or two.
I’ll get used to the altitude. I’ll catch up on writing to people. I’ll ask about those bracelets.
Sasha gets jerked out of the moment because footsteps pound down the hall, the door swings open, and Maggie runs to the sink and vomits.
She screams in a hoarse voice while she does it, too.
Maggie heaves a few more times and then sags to the floor and holds onto the counter to keep her head off the floor.
“Oh shit, oh shit, oh shit,” Maggie says while breathing heavy.
“Get out of the way! I have to come out of here”
“Shut up shut up stop yelling at me!” Maggie turns and looks at Sasha standing in the shower in a towel.
Sasha yanks the shower curtain out of the way and steps behind Maggie to sit on the toilet.
“Don’t look. I’m sick too.”
On the bowl, her sides cramp, but there’s almost nothing left to squeeze out. Sasha looks around and traces the spray from Maggie’s vomit down the mirror: drops near the top form a narrow green stream that gets wider, less translucent, and more studded with food bits down to the sink.
In the shower, the hot steam kept the smell at a distance. Now Sasha inhales and instantly Sasha’s guts want to join in on the vomit party. But they want to stay at the diarrhea party too.
Sasha feels more stomach clenches. Maggie stands up again heaves into the sink.
This tiny bathroom has a white tile floor. It is a small place. There’s a simple toilet, a sink with a mirror over it, and a shower in the corner with a curtain.
There’s a window too. It’s closed right now.
“Are you just puking because you’re drunk?”
“I felt fine until–” HURRGH — “I just don’t think that ceviche was good.”
“You fucking ate ceviche in that mud garage? You’re insane!”
“Shut up!” Maggie’s voice squeaks and she leans over and yell-vomits again into the sink and then sags down. “Why are you so mad at me? You don’t know me! I wanted to talk to you but you stormed off!”
Sasha yells back: “You called me a tourist! And today, you ruined my deal with the bracelets. And, and how the FUCK do you know the language?” Sasha realizes her eyes are bugging out. There’s something abominable about this trust fund bitch learning to speak a native tongue.
Sasha closes her eyes hard as her guts squeeze painfully again. She opens them. She sees Maggie’s hands are all muddy.
“That guy in the marketplace … he didn’t make those bracelets. I was going to buy them all until you got here and then” Sasha stops, and liquid squirts out of her making an embarrassing sound, but she doesn’t much care any more.
“And then you’re there, fucking FAWNING over him, and ruins my chance of buying him out”
“You’re mad because I called you a tourist?” Maggie stands up over Sasha. It’s clear Maggie slipped in the mud on her way home more than once.
Maggie runs to the other room and then comes back. “I got this on your site!” Sasha recognizes the shemagh from Yazd.
“I was fucking thrilled to meet you but you’re a total bitch!”
“You ARE drunk!”
“What the hell? You think you’re the only one that deserves to live on your own?” Maggie screams at her. her face shadows. “Get off there! I gotta go!”
Sasha moves off the toilet and Maggie sits down and Sasha hears her noisy guts slop out.
Sasha finds a clean spot on the counter to lean on.
“Fucking ceviche, really, out here? What were you thinking?”
Maggie starts crying and leans forward.
Sasha turns back on the shower, rinses a wash cloth, and then cleans up the counter. She opens up the window. The room instantly fills with breezy cold air. The rain has stopped.
Sasha goes to the other room, gets clothes on, digs out her hand sanitizer and a few other things.
Maggie is slumped on the floor. Sasha sits next to her and uses her wet wipes to clean her face and hands.
“Here, take this.” Sasha says and gives her one of her pills.
Maggie rolls a little to her side. “Last night I was by myself and I sat at that same bar. There were so many stars out,” Maggie’s voice creaks. “It felt like I was the last person alive in the whole world. I just want somebody to talk to sometimes.”
“You know my site. So that’s why you knew about the protein bars.” Sasha realized.
Maggie smiles a little. Sasha wipes off Maggie’s forehead.