The following is an excerpt from my upcoming book Green Machine and the Mototaxi Junket. Stay tuned for more excerpts and updates!
Cindy, “the Slut.”
Cindy did not receive this title from me. She had done nothing to warrant it. So it should be no surprise that, in this story, Cindy is the victim.
Like the rest of us though, Cindy had actually sought victimhood. Like the rest of us, Cindy had tempted fate. Like the rest of us, Cindy had traveled to the northwest coast of Peru, to a village of a few hundred people, expecting a mototaxi to carry her a few hundred miles to the Sacred Valley in southeast Peru. That’s the exact stuff victims are made of. And Cindy was not in poor company; we were all looking for our own brand of victimhood.
What had really set Cindy apart, though, were her Barbie Doll proportions. And even with such difficult measurements to fit, she had brought two outfits. When we were first acquainted, she was wearing a lime green formal gown. Her second outfit was a blouse with jeans which she kept concealed beneath the gown. How do I know this? Like I said: victim.
Even so, let’s not ignore the fact that we liberated Cindy from her plastic prison on top of a quinceañera piñata. That’s right, Cindy was a doll. Not just a doll, but one deemed the Pink Fairy Award. She was our additional challenge.
Cindy was, our punishment.
The cells of your body routinely kill themselves. Stay calm—this is a good thing.
Old cells malfunction, collect inefficiencies, and are prone to disease. To preserve the organism as a whole, they elect to die. Meanwhile, healthy cells divide in order to replace those lost. Given the varied stresses and demands across cell types, tissues age at different rates, and so are replaced at different rates. The lining of your small intestine will replace itself after just a few days; your stomach lining, after a week; your skin takes ten to thirty days; and the red blood cells circulating through your body will be replaced after four months–that’s 100 million new red blood cells every minute!
How do we know these rates? It began with some scientist that were very smart. During WW2, they developed the atomic bomb. You may have heard of it. After two detonations dropped the curtain on the Pacific theatre, research was amped up, dragging the world into the Cold War and igniting an endless series of test detonations. Then came some scientists that were very clever. They put these bombs to good, honest, morally undisputed use. And the clever part: not required were more detonations.
Nuclear explosions create different atomic isotopes. These are the variants of an element’s structure, the slight tweaks to that old family cookie recipe. Because of those nuclear explosions, the atmospheric concentration of the carbon-14 isotope shot up to twice of normal. Plants used that carbon to make sugars and starches. Those sugars and starches found their way into grandma’s kitchen and then into her cookies. And with the holiday abundance of baked goods, everyone reached into the cookie jar and ate this variant, this carbon-14.
Since the nuclear age though, the amount of atmospheric carbon-14 has been decreasing as it has percolated into the ocean and the biosphere. Every year, there is less carbon-14 to be made into sugar, less to be put into the cookie jar. And it is this decline which is key to calculating the age of tissues.
Remember those new cells your body is producing? They are made of the carbon from grandma’s cookies, and take a snapshot of the carbon-14 concentration at the time they were created. By comparing this snapshot with previously known concentrations of carbon-14, scientist can–after jotting some quick math on the back of a holiday themed napkin–tell you how old that cell is.
Back to my point though: cells die. Not only do they die, but they’re supposed to die. That most of us are ignorant of this process doesn’t alter the outcome. In fact, I might argue that because it doesn’t alter the outcome, most people would choose ignorance. That’s not difficult to understand–that millions of these little pieces of me are dying every minute is not something I want to think about.
Perhaps that’s why I wasn’t phased when Duncan, standing before the craziest group of people I’ve ever been apart of, made a case for ignorance.
At least when dealing with Peruvian Police.
“There’s a phrase I want you all to memorize. I think you’ll be surprised at how often it can get you out of trouble.” When you’ve decided to race one of the worst pieces of machinery on the planet a few hundred miles across Peru, trouble is exactly what you’ve signed up for. “For all of you who don’t speak Spanish—and for those who do—here it is: ‘No fumar español’–” Duncan chuckled, the one or two other Spanish speakers in our group joining him. “–which means, ‘I don’t smoke Spanish.'”
The group burst with laughter.
“Saying ‘I don’t speak Spanish’ is one thing. It is quite another to demonstrate it.” Good point. What cop wants to have a mime argument over a petty traffic infraction? The audience settled as we saw the cleverness. “Yes, it makes you look like a stupid Westerner, but you’d be surprised how many people have gotten out of a tight spot with that phrase. So please, commit it to memory.”
After giving some more advice and reciting the rules of the race, all of which centered on the theme of “Don’t be an asshole,” Duncan concluded the meeting.
I left, my mind already racing. Would we get lost? Stranded? Robbed? Would we spend a fortune to keep our Honda-knock-off engine running–all 150CCs? Would the desert allow us to cross before our determination desiccated? Would the mountains maintain their stubborn tendency to stand tall, the serrated edge a divide between us and our goal? Would the jungle sprout our success, or would it leave us devoured by a humid and hasty decay?
My mind darted, but my body strolled. We made our way back to our hostel, not far from the hotel that had hosted our meeting. Nothing was far in Colan, a quiet beach town near the city of Piura. Sand buried the streets. Each step sunk into the road, cushioned and muted. The offshore breeze filled the footprints and tire tread left behind, erasing the signs of progress. There was no rush here. The sand wouldn’t permit it.
At the hostel, a few teams had gathered on the oceanside deck. The table was covered with maps and beer bottles, the air-filled with speculation on routes. The Scots paid extra attention. They didn’t even have a map. But that’s because this wasn’t a race in the traditional sense. The reason for speculating was because there was no course and, in fact, there was only one rule: get your mototaxi from start to finish. How we went about this was irrelevant. The whole purpose of using mototaxis was to make their second-rate quality, low dependability, and unpredictability contribute to the adventure.
The sun arced to the horizon, beer bottles emptied, and the tide came in, the extended surf polishing the stilts on which our hostel stood.