“Josefa González Espilco” by Warwick Wise, Paris

Crime and Punishment,Paris September 9, 2011 04:04

topic: BORDERS medium: TEXT, AUDIO

as shared at a PenTales event in Paris


Listen to the Story!

When I first went to South America I was traveling on a huge truck that
had been painted blue and refitted to carry gap-year travelers across the
continent, spending their parents’ money and pretending to read Gravity’s
Rainbow. I got on in Santiago in Chile and paid to go all the way to Quito,
two thousand miles and three countries away.

I had left England to get over someone, and because I’d decided I wanted
to spend all of my time and money being out of the country, which is what
happens when you grow up in Bromley. So I thought this bus trip might
give me the freedom to cover a lot of ground while also getting some
social interaction. I have since concluded that living on a small bus with
twelve other people is not a great way to make friends. We bonded, but it
wasn’t so much real friendship as the kind of relationship you might
develop during a mining disaster, or with someone that was tied to you in a
hostage crisis.

There were about a dozen of us in all, mostly, like me, in our early
twenties, plus a crew-cut old Liverpudlian called Mick who drove the truck.
Mick’s job was to get us to Ecuador within three months, and he took this
job extremely seriously. He had a plan of how many miles he had to cover
every day, and he was determined to stick to it despite the irritating
tendency of his passengers to want to waste his time on frivolities like
sightseeing, taking pictures, looking at the scenery, or buying souvenirs.
As far as he was concerned, the important thing was to cover as much
ground as possible. I tried to point out that, if I had been in that much of a
hurry to get to Quito, I would have flown directly there, rather than landing
two thousand miles away and then catching a bus—but he was deaf to
these appeals to common sense.

And the strange thing was that no one else on the bus seemed that
bothered about their lack of contact with the countries we were driving
through. I wanted to be wandering through villages meeting people and
pretending I was a real traveler. Instead, I seemed to be involved in some
kind of Cannonball Run-style race to reach the Andes. And no one cared.
They just played endless games of slam and listened to minidiscs, which
at that time were the zenith of technology. Two of them also fell in love,
and by ‘fell’ I mean ‘had’, and by ‘in love’, I mean ‘sex constantly’.

I fell in love with the Panamerican Highway. It seemed amazing to me that
one road would take us the whole three-month journey, and that was only

a fraction of its length. It started way down in Tierra del Fuego and
stretched directly north all the way to Alaska, with only a tiny jump in the
middle for the unbroken, cocaine-filled cloud forests of the Darién Gap. It
made Route 66 look like a cycle path. I became obsessed with this road,
which was lucky because there were some days where there was nothing
else to see but the Panamericana tapering off to the horizon from dawn
until dusk, when we pegged up a few tents by the side of the road, weed
on a bush, slept for five hours, and then got up and did it again.

Despite the fact that it was a major highway, we traveled through some of
the most remote villages I ever saw in South America. When we stopped
to refuel I would talk to whatever locals I could lay my hands on, and in
some places there were kids who had never seen a European before, and
lots of adults whose grasp of geography was so shaky they thought we’d
driven all the way from London.

One Tuesday morning we came through a Peruvian hamlet called Ciudad
de Dios. It looked like a lot of others we’d passed: a little local shop, a
dusty row of houses either side of the highway, a chapel, some carts
selling vegetables, a boy with a tray of corn bread. And suddenly Mick
slammed his brakes on, and all of us and all our bags went flying forwards,
and there was a scream from outside, and a bump as though we’d run
over something.

And what had happened was, Josefa González Espilco had just bought
some fruit from one of these wagons, and was crossing the road with her
husband, and we ran into her. And when I got out of the truck and looked
back, I could see someone pulling a tarpaulin from one of these grocery
wagons over a body on the road. And that was the body of Josefa
González Espilco, who was now dead at 53. According to the local paper,
she was ‘crossing the Panamerican Highway when a tourist vehicle came
up from the south at excessive speed….Witnesses said that on impact, the
woman was knocked ten meters away, and then the tyres from the heavy
vehicle destroyed her skull. According to the victim’s husband, they’d been
on their way to a local village called Cajamarca to visit their eight young

Now this was a woman that had traveled on a donkey, to a village which
had probably not seen a European in it for years…and for her husband to
see her knocked over by this bright blue bus must have been like seeing
her get killed by an alien. We had a guide, Caroline, but she’d been sitting
up in the cab and was so traumatized she couldn’t speak. So because I
was the only other person who spoke any Spanish, I spent all day with the

local policeman examining blood stains on the wheels and bumpers.

And what really upset me was the fact that I had been the only person to
get off the bus. Everyone else stayed on and closed the windows because
they thought the locals would start throwing stones. But in fact, even there,
if they’d got off they would have seen that everyone was still delighted and
fascinated to see us, so much so that after hours with this policeman
looking at the evidence of someone we had just killed, he gave me a
handmade necklace — making necklaces was apparently his hobby — as
a gift to remember our short stop in his village, ‘even though,’ he said, ‘it
was in such sad circumstances.’

And I looked at this guy with his necklace, and I looked back at this blue
truck, where everyone was putting their headphones back in just a few
hours after we’d mown someone down in a road traffic accident, and I
thought: I don’t want to get back on there. I don’t want to sit in a bus full of
tourists doing 80 miles an hour through Peru.

And I thought: I’ll just stay here. I’ll just stay here, and hitch a ride north
with someone locally. Make it to a town, find a local bus…take my time. Do
it properly.

And then Mick honked the horn, and I said goodbye to the policeman and
got back on the bus. And ten weeks later, still wearing my necklace, I got
off in Quito.

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