Rarely does one get to look headlights directly in the eyes, vision tunneled and free from reflective surfaces, engaging them in a staring contest. And don’t dismiss headlights as infallible, simply because they are the eyes of a machine. They blink. At speed bumps, in potholes, perhaps under the tutelage of an enraged driver who wishes to go faster. They blink. They blink, and I nod, as the HoboTruck speeds in front of them, hitting the same potholes with less caution, my seatbelt a metal bar – part of the contraption’s structural framework – that I grip with my right hand. Looking them in the eyes, the headlights, gives one the feeling of escape, of fleeing and watching your captor’s frustration in confidence as the distance between you and him remains, whereas viewing headlights in mirrors or with quick glances over your shoulder provides the paranoia of being chased. Perhaps I am escaping, from linguistic familiarity, from suburban filtered air. The ether surrounding me in the truck cabin is a swirl of Spanish and exhaust fumes and mechanical vibrations, and everything else – the cold air, the light, the sounds of the city’s monologue – is sucked out into midnight. In my insulated environment I play language games in which I pretend to understand a dialogue not my own, make eyes at headlights, stare at the perforated yellow line on the asphalt in front of me that continues to unfurl and count how many arcade tickets the lit-up eyes of trailing cars devour from the road’s jackpot. Thus is my preoccupation from the back of the HoboTruck.
Airport arrival is a string of lotteries. Will your five-pound overweight suitcase arrive at your destination to take a spin on the carousel? (It does). Will an airport employee wave you, a gringo, and your baggage away from the tedious line of exhausted passengers re-checking their luggage and into the porthole of salida? (He does). Will your brother be standing among the crowd of eager eyes and arms contained by retractable cotton and nylon bands, on time and anticipating your arrival? (He is). My brother stands above the eyes and heads and craning necks of support, woven cap of a vibrant green tapered to a point on his skull, sprouting like a stalk of asparagus from the homogenous crowd. Two indigenous friends, hair strong and pulled tightly into pony tails, stand grinning on either side of him. We exchange greetings, flash smiles. My brother takes a bag from me and the four of us head out to the parking lot for airport pick-up. I know what this means. The cash my parents slipped my brother to pay for our ride from the airport back to the city is not in the hands of a taxi driver. He has given his friends the money for the ride, still paying for a necessary service, but allowing pals to reap the benefits. I have no problem with his ethics. My brother introduces me to his friends, but I somehow forget even my most basic Spanish greetings and choose to smile and nod instead. One of the indigenous men pulls an iPhone from his pocket and stands beside me – my bag strapped to his shoulder – holding the camera phone out to my brother for a photo. I remain clumsily at his side, nearly doubling his height. The freak show has arrived in Ecuador. Buttons are pressed, moments are digitalized, and the freak show lugs his suitcase down a flight of stairs to prevent the rest of the posse from having to endure the slow descent of a multi-angled ramp. Lugging and rolling down the parking lot, we approach the last line of cars before the fencing, which leads to a quick assessment and conjecture on my part as to which auto we’ll be taking for the 45 minute drive into the northern part of the city (the airport is brand new, and newly inconvenient). There are an abundance of compact sedans extending outwardly, but in the exact middle of these – the grand divining rod – sits an off-red pick-up with metal pipes connecting and extending from the sides of the bed to form a makeshift roof, the whole framework topped in an Oregon Trail-like wagon canvas. This is HoboTruck, perfect for smuggling gringos into Ecuador. I hop onto the bed and load my luggage onto the truck. An indigenous friend (via my brother’s interpretation) says that there’s only room for three in the cab, and asks if I want to sit there or in the bed. When entering Quito by HoboTruck, the obvious choice is to ride in the secrecy of the bed, facing away from motion, while the city unfolds itself before you. A mat is laid out for my comfort, and I take my seat stage right, linking my arm around a metal pole. My brother decides to sit beside me, and his friend hops onto the truck bed and finds a place to sit as well, smacking the side of the truck to instruct his friend that all is settled and he will be driving alone in the cab. And so here we sit, semi-circle, having an Ecuadorian pow-wow in the truck bed with the makeshift canvas tent over our heads. I spend time catching up with my brother with frequent timeouts for politeness. The indigenous friend and I take turns being stranded on islands, sometimes bridged through interpretation. When I’m not employed as the interlocutor, I shift my ass on the thin mat covering the truck bed, shift my hand on the steel rail, attempting to negotiate some sort of treaty between metal and flesh. Billboards and buildings fill the middle distance, but all of these are rendered small and insignificant by the imposing mountains that loom paternally over hut and skyscraper alike. The Andes encompass the city’s entire panorama, almost making Quito a naturally walled city. I gawk at the domestic lights dotting all facets of the mountains, lights that are like distant, unfathomable stars compared to the immediate, intrusively large coronas of headlight bulbs illuminated on cars in front of me, below me, as the HoboTruck continues its ascent from Dante’s Inferno, climbing and bumping and shaking and accelerating and braking and breaking and everything is motion.