By the morning I check out of my hostel in Santa Teresa I have twenty-five soles and three US dollars left. I head to the main plaza and ask the men waiting on the bench for cars how I can get back to Cusco. One of them tells me that I have to take a collectivo to Santa Maria first, for ten soles, then get a fifteen-sole bus from there. I have just enough, and I can exchange the dollars if I need to.
The collectivos are parked outside the town market, three blocks away. I find a driver with a station wagon headed to Santa Maria and he says we’ll probably have to wait twenty minutes for the car to fill with passengers. I put my bag in the trunk and head into the market for breakfast, which ends up being a freshly-blended juice served in a glass the shape of a female torso. Finish my juice and wait in the shade outside the market, make small talk with the driver and his friend, fielding the softball questions people give you when they know you’re just visiting and your Spanish isn’t very good. Where are you from? How long are you traveling for? Did you go to Machu Picchu? Do you like Peru? I answer in short direct accented phrases. A Chilean man I met earlier this trip told me I talk like Tarzan.
Fifteen minutes later we have a full car. A man with crutches rides shotgun and I’m the third of four in the back seat. To my right is a Peruvian guy wearing knock-off athletic wear, to my left is a couple not much older than I am. The wife, who is sitting next to me, is carrying a bundle of colorful striped blankets and wrapped in that bundle is a baby newborn enough that I can’t tell if it’s a girl or a boy. Sitting in the trunk next to my bag are their two other young children, along with two old men. Off we go.
When we get to the crutched man’s stop along the way the driver gets out to help, halfheartedly shutting his own door in the process and leaving it slightly ajar. The husband to my left reaches out his window and holds the door to keep it from opening into traffic.
It would be nice, I’m thinking during the ride, to spend the last of my money on something in the San Pedro market once I get to Cusco. Something to eat, like some passionfruit or an avocado. I’ve been looking for an ending to my stint in the Sacred Valley and this, I think, would make for a decent one. I’ve noticed myself trying more and more to put my experiences into neat little packages, vignettes and scenes, chapters and acts and story arcs. I have forgotten my credit card at restaurants three times in the past year – three more times than I’d ever forgotten it at restaurants in any previous year – and it could be my memory’s getting worse or it could be I’m putting myself into more challenging situations without even realizing it, because it would make for a better story. I find myself sometimes holding multiple potential endings in my head at the same time, the way I might do while I’m writing, and I suppose this is the kind of openness that over time becomes closedness, interesting stories that become unnecessary drama, going the way of entropy, the heat death of all things. I’ve said this in forms before, that the only way I know how to deal with it is to realize I’m doing it, to realize when I have too many endings and just need to decide, or when I’m fixated on one and need to stop trying to force it. I may have even made a possibly impossible promise myself that, when I’m writing about “real life” like this, that I’ll never write a story while I’m still living it, that it has to have already ended before I can start documenting it.
So I have an ending in my head, and now I know I have an ending in my head. But this is what actually happens: We get to Santa Maria, a town whose central feature is a small parking strip. I pay my ten soles and while I’m paying my ten soles another collectivo driver is asking if I’m going to Cusco. I tell him I’m taking the bus. He says the next bus isn’t until 1:30, four hours from now. Or I could take another shared ride in his van, he says, which leaves as soon as we have enough passengers, for twenty-five soles. I tell him I don’t have the money on me, but if he doesn’t mind driving to an ATM when we get to Cusco … He says there’s a bunch of ATMs in Urubamba, along the way. We can stop there. I tell him okay, put my bag in his van, and again I wait.
The occasion car arrives from the road and my driver goes up to the exiting passengers, like he did with me, and asks them if they’re going to Cusco or Urubamba. None of them are. Half an hour passes. Women sit outside the shop near the van with baskets of avocados in front of them. I spend three soles and buy a bottle of water. A car arrives carrying a family, and from afar I can tell they’re tourists and they’re going to Cusco, but they turn down the driver and buy tickets instead. A bus headed the opposite direction stops in town and the women board it with their baskets, offering avocados to the passengers. More time passes before another bus comes, this time on my side of the street. I ask the old man next to me if it’s going to Cusco and he says yes, it is. It’s not even eleven o’clock. I have seven soles and three dollars, which at a conservative 2.7-for-1 exchange rate is just enough to cover my fare. I tell the van driver I’m taking the bus, and his response is indifference. I grab my stuff and rush to the door and ask if they accept dollars. They wave me on board, we’ll figure it out later. The bus is already moving as I make my way to the last open seat.
A couple hours later a guy in his early twenties comes down the aisle to collect the fares. I hand him my seven soles and three dollars, and the men next to me confirm my math. Twenty minutes before we arrive in Cusco, the music lowers and a man stands up toward the front of the bus, switches on a portable speaker on his hip connected to a wire connected to a microphone connected to his ear and goes on a sales pitch about the benefits of maca, which is sort of like the Andean flax seed. He goes up and down the aisle, handing us palm-sized boxes of maca powder for us to examine, pouring small samples of it into our hands for us to taste, talking about omega-3s and bee pollen and breakfast. He’s selling the maca for five soles, he says, and when he comes back down the aisle to collect payment, I hand back the box.