Riding a Combi in Lima, Peru
A woman boards the combi and stands at the front like a chaperone. Her eyes are ever so slightly almond and her skin is the color of a russet potato, both of which reveal her ethnic heritage as East Asian and Spanish. She’s armed with a headset and portable microphone kit that attaches to her belt. I only notice that, however, after she bursts into a rant that I’m seeing as commonplace on combis (one of three forms of buses in Lima, Peru).
“Disculpen, damas y caballeros,” she shouts into the headset. From there I lose her Castellano, my head in a literary fog thick as Lima’s garúa or obscured grey, drizzled skies. She continues talking, saying something about how good it is to give to charity. I return to the copy of Graham Greene’s Ways of Escape in my lap. Yet in my peripheral vision she remains.
Her pencil skirt in muted jewel tones is alpaca, like mine. Unlike mine is her choice of cap, a black baseball cap to my green gypsy rag of alpaca. Hers too, like mine, is a thick black winter coat that protects us not so much from the balmy 17 degrees Celsius as the 82 percent humidity of the so-called subtropical desert that is Lima’s province.
Suddenly she opens a professional legal pad holder. In it two lines of blue, black, and red pens are lined up neatly enough to resemble an orthodontist’s masterpiece.
“This is a unique charity gimmick,” I think. She has finally arrested my full attention with a collection of cheap pens. The particular kind she solicits sell for four or five soles at an office supply store I’d shopped at last week.
She drops a blue one. At first I thought it accidental until she bent over to pick it up and continued squawking. Her calm Peruvian expression would have been lost on me a couple months ago, but by now I can read it enough to see no derivation from her sketch. She drops it again, demonstrating its sturdiness. This time I discreetly look at passengers sitting in the combi’s torn black leather seats around me. Whether she’s actually convinced that this pen possesses the tensile qualities she claims, and whether the other pasajeros believe it, I am not quite localized enough to understand.
I know these pens. They were the bane of my writing process while living in China, where they’re made. That they withstood her repeatedly dropping them onto the bus’s embossed metal floors piqued my curiosity. Was she a witch? I had often attempted to use these pens, usually not on my own volition, in the big red country, and just as often been frustrated. If the pen doesn’t crack and break to pieces upon uncapping it, be surprised. If it actually writes more than ten lines of script, be doubly surprised. Hell! If the ink is even the same color you might actually have an instrument with which to write your check out to this woman’s charity.
I’m back in my literary mind, recalling those shameless devices, as she moves toward the back of the combi. A man who I take for her coin collector replaces her. He moves slowly among the seats. A fellow rider before me crumples up the bus receipt in his large milk-chocolate-colored hand just as the collector reaches me. The woman’s voice comes to a harsh break and she races out the back of the bus, barely able to close her portfolio. Did she find a buyer? I’ll never know.
The ticket checker passes by and out. A young boy stands up from his front-row seat and takes center stage at the front of the combi.