This is a story of love and death from the tip of South America to the end of Canada. Never underestimate the beauty of the unknown and the beautiful stranger. These are excerpts from a woman’s diary from 2002 to 2004.
We met in a dishevelled village in Uruguay. I was younger than I am now and on the run from something that now seems without purpose. I came from my hometown of Mexico City. I travelled the coast through Central America, hitting Columbia and taking the Rio Orinoco through Venezuela. Hitchhiking from Guyana to Brazil until I found myself in a village in Uruguay…this is where I met him.
It would be any old bar love story unless it were told like this. It was a small cafe, filled with native locals that had come in and out all day from when they were children to as they are now – old, worn, sick, and wise. I had been in town for a few days now taking pictures, painting, writing, enjoying the silence and solitude of my own being. The air was thick and the beer warmed fast. The slow spanish waltz quietly played from the radio above the bar where the waitress sat smoking slims and sweating down onto her newspaper. The sun was almost putting an end to the day and the insects began their woeful song of the dusk and the night. I was sketching an old man that sat high and straight above his chair. He drank with a most fluid motion as if time were perpetual. His lips moved in a great silent conversation that only he could question and answer. He fingered the brim of his felt hat with one hand and slowly slid his coarse fingers down the sweating glass of his beer with the other, almost as if the feelings to him were all too similar and the difference between all of the senses were nonexistent. I was writing a caption above his head that read “AND OF” when I heard familiar spanish at the bar, the dialect of Mexico City boomed throughout the room with the silence of a lamb. I looked up with eyes of disinterest and a heart of curiosity. It was not love at first sight. He certainly was not a looker but had a rugged handsomeness all the same. I continued to finish my headline “AND OF TH”-
“How is your trip proceeding you?” The voice was clear and concise and directed toward me.
“How. Is your. Trip. Proceeding you?” he said this with a smile that hooked at corner of his lips.
“How did you know I – ”
“Well, only a local or a traveller would come into a place like this. No woman in this town wears white dresses – at least from what I’ve seen thus far. And that white dress that you are wearing has not been changed in what? A few days? A week? I can see the tear in the side is mended with a pin- no time for a proper stitch – your skin shines from sweat, dirt and travel and only a whimsical foreigner, most likely from the city, would sit and sketch the “inspiration” of an unfamiliar bar.” I sat trying to sound a sentence with my lips when he cut me off once again, “Oh and also, I´ve been lucky enough to be graced with your presence since I first saw you in Cayenne, Guyana. There is nothing in this life like the beautiful stranger.”
“You’ve been following me?”
“On the contrary, just mere coincidence really. I saw you again through Brazil- Fortaleza. Belo Horizonte. Sao Paulo. I’m just assuming you’ve been following the coast as well.”
I don’t know what it was, but I hadn’t felt lonely through my three months of travelling until that very moment. I returned back to my page “AND OF THE OTHER”.
His name was Francis Hierra. He was a journalist and a painter. He would do his own illustrations for his articles and made good money doing it too. He originally went to South America to interview President Fernando de la Rúa of Argentina during his resignation. It was the second consecutive time he had been travelling around the coast when I met him that humid night in the cafe. Francis said he was supposed to return to Mexico City four months prior but paid off an officer friend he met in Rosario Argentina. The officer agreed to tell the magazine that he was arrested and detained for visa issues and would not be released until the “bailout” was paid. So the magazine sent a couple of thousand and Francis had been living and travelling on the funds ever since. He said he felt that Latin America was the land of the true, the common and the beautiful. Full of love and deceit.
We stayed in the town for a few days meeting up for walks, going for coffee, painting each other, writing to one another, saying nothing and saying all that could be said. And eventually, like most friendships with the opposite sex, we eventually became lovers. It wasn’t the nostalgia of the road or the lust of the thick night air. It was something much more than that, and even I cannot explain it. I suppose it was meant to be.
We continued our journey together through South America escaping the coast and heading deeper into the heart of it all. We slept hiding from the rain in Caaguazú, Paraguay beneath vast trees that boomed and shook their lullaby for us as we cowered and slept. Small boys shot us down with fiery fingers and wild spitting tongues in Goya, Argentina. We watched a herding dog with bleeding broken legs trying to lead its flock – falling miles behind yet still following with purpose – in Tarija, Bolivia. We met an unknown walking traveller wearing denim and carrying nothing but a 100ml bottle of water on his way to court in Calma, Chilé. Francis would sing “I tried to follow the dust, but the wind is blowing far too much. I never try to follow the wind on the coast, it only has one place to go.”
We saw a guard resting in a watchtower with no ladder on the southern coast of Perú. We fell in love with the same woman, staying by her side and making love in the crossroads of Tarapoto for two weeks until her other lovers returned home to take her will. We walked past an old woman crying over her dying goat as if it were her own child in the mountain city of Lima, cradling and petting its eyes to sleep. He would slip his hand between my hair and my neck and say to me, “Ah, my beautiful stranger.”
We ran from rioting villagers after a bullfight in Ecuador. We listened to the twisted tongues of the prostitutes waving lost goodbyes to the European sailors in Manta. We got swept into a dance surrounded by naked women throwing flowers and singing palms from their palms on the western border of Brazil. But it wasn’t until we watched the sky expand in front of our eyes in Pasto Columbia when something happened to Francis. He had not eaten for weeks and had lost 10 kilos in two months. He would vomit occasionally and our journey started to come to a small wade. We continued to Cali where I begged and pleaded for him to see a doctor. He finally agreed but not until we passed the Parque Nacional Darién in Panama.
He breathed hard as we walked into the clinic a few weeks later in Tocumen. The doctors took a test and we waited in town for about a week until the results came through. When the papers came in the mail he opened them with a slow hesitation. He gave a quick look and handed me the letter with an almost ashamed expression covering his once unwrought face. I read the results. First I felt nothing at all. And then, a forceful wave of pain enveloped me as if ice was shot into my blood piercing my entire body. It started in my chest and quickly spread throughout every vein.
“My beautiful stranger,” he muttered as he sat apathetically at the bedside. Pancreatic cancer was the diagnosis. Apparently he had known this for quite some time but paid no attention, almost in denial of it all. I thought it was over. The dream had fallen into a deeper sleep and everything slowed down around me.
“So this is it. We have to go back to Mexico City. You have to get treated!” My voice began to swell with fear and hatred, “And you knew about this! You lied! I am in love with a dead man and the dead cannot love!”
“This is not true. Yes, I have been dead for some time but have loved you since the ports of Cayenne. Our journey is not finished…If I wanted to die I would have died long ago. We will continue. You can love a dead man until his body blooms the first flower above his grave.”
So we did. Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, the sacred city of El Salvador, Belize and Guatemala. We went north through Mexico and crossed the water to the Gulf of California. I had never been in America before and, as we drove through Los Angeles eyeing the dirt and glamour of it all, I finally felt at ease with Francis´ sickness and embraced the now and the end of it all. This man’s dying days were not in vain or sorrow, but rather in love and with a savouring of every breath, step and heartbeat.
The weather grew colder as our journey continued north towards Canada. The mountains resembled monks – forever still, meditating, silently rising and watching with a cold and powerful glance at the little worries below. Sending their prayers to the sky for us as they grew ever higher. These mountains were different from the mountains in South America. There was something so…’American’ about them. People camouflage themselves in their landscapes. The Andes are like its people. Warm, slim, round chested and brown, rising with the sun and carrying the people upon their back. And the American mountains are bold, large, indifferent, holding their wide toothy smile to the clouds, conquering and holding as caretaker to the land.
When we came to Alaska Francis was too weak to go any further but, by that point, we had reached the peak of the earth already. We had drifted south to north feeling the wind change, seeing the color of the people change – their black hair and dark skin had paled and become a translucent gold. The land had grown greener as we’d journeyed through the inevitable seasons, but we could not do it again. After a short stay in Nelchina we took a flight back to Mexico city.
It had been a year and a half since we’d met in the south, and with all the unknown mystery of that first day, I was at his bedside in his last hours peering out onto the gulf in the city of Tampico.
I don’t know if flowers ever grew beside his grave but would assume there are hundreds of them now. And I hope a beautiful stranger takes a look now and then. My heart does not wilt with them when it grows cold on the coast and his song of travel crosses my mind when I have nowhere to be.