My eyes swell, mostly from the stench of rotting flesh and decaying rubbish. Like onions, the fumes are leaking out from the streets and into my virgin eyes. We arrived via a discount airline then hassled into a taxi. Now we’re cruising along a holey road with a man whose name I cannot pronounce. The streets are lined with cars, once useful, now burnt almost beyond recognition. While housing stray dogs, moss grows over the shell and covers the rusting metal.
I stink already. The sweat pours out of my body, a smell I have never experienced before. My skin radiates a sense of foreign and my normally tanned skin now white; my cheeks flush with rubies. My body is numb. My neck is stiff, and my insides feel cold and tense. The hot air smells wet with mould, and I stare out the window of the car and see a life I’d only seen in documentaries. A life I didn’t accept as real, until now.
“You ok?” asks Wally. We’re sitting at a traffic light, the first one since leaving the airport 20 minutes ago.
I nod. “Look,” I say as I point out the window towards a row of decaying stone buildings. “How random. A Havaianas shop next to a church next to a…” I look up at the driver who is smoking a cigarette, blowing the smoke out the open window. He is watching a group of small children play by the side of the road. They are whacking something furry with sticks and are holding plastic bags with rocks inside. None of them are clothed.
As the rest of my sentence falls out of my mouth, we continue down the road of loose rocks and windy bends. The only noise I can hear is my own heart pelting against my chest and a jackhammer we cross at the next corner. It’s loud, constant and piercing. A group of young men, shirtless and sweaty are moving bricks from inside a half fallen building to a pile just inside the kerb a metre away from where I am sitting inside the decrepit car. The youngest looking of them all drops a brick on top of the pile and snatches my eye contact. On prolonged inspection, his skin looks like the fake leather I saw at the airport. Thin, imperfect and bumpy. He starts muttering in a language I cannot understand and hassles towards our car, a cigarette shifting in his left hand.
We jolt forward and continue our trip, leaving the boy and the building in a parade of dust. I don’t know if my ears are damaged or it’s just the ringing, but I can hear the echo of the jackhammer for the remainder of the 45-minute ride.