We were completely surrounded. Bodies pressing into us, hands prying and violating; a crush of human flesh and bones.
The ATM’s had been emptied out days before, so we had stashed as much cash as we were able to withdraw underneath our clothes, to tide us over. The air thick with the mixture of sweat, cheap perfume, dirt and waste was going to my head. There was nothing to do but let ourselves be dragged along by the horde, hoping we would find an opening somewhere to allow us to escape. Loud disjointed music from various radios and ghetto blasters, people yelling and fighting and calling out to us accompanied the nerve racking procession made surreal due to it being deep dark night. You’d never know it from the overflow of humanity out on the roads, hanging out of decrepit buildings, sitting on curbs and doorsteps and on the hoods of scrapyard vehicles. A yellowy green light from bulbs on precarious electrical wires and old strings of Christmas lights overhead cast their unapologetic ghoulish light on the scene making everyone look fiendish.
Not that we looked any better. We were caked in sweat dust and dirt that had dried out and then started to run again leaving streaks on our clothes and exposed skin. The shadows created by the dried dirt and the overhead lights, at first glance, made our faces and arms look bruised. We had been on the move since early morning and were starting to feel depleted.
The previous night we had slept in a windowless room at the foot of a hillside shanty town. Using our beach towels we had covered the lurid mattress and soiled bedding and had slept fully clothed after wiping ourselves down with the last of our wet wipes. The bathroom had a tub with huge brown and black cracks running through it; the water from the filthy faucet sputtered and dripped out a milky grey substance. There was only a rusted vent and tiny window, in the bathroom and both were sealed shut.
The woman, standing in the doorway of the devastated building, that had called us over had a hard face with mean eyes that darted all over us; right through us. She asked a ridiculous amount for the room but we took it anyway not having other options and wanting to get off the streets.
Most of the night, we had laid on our towels making nervous conversation. Around 3:00 a.m. we heard the first gunshots and felt the floor beneath us vibrate as the sea of humanity on the street below pounded. Sirens blared, more gunshots and an indescribable upsurge of chaos ensued. We just lay there frozen, holding hands and waiting.
Although it seems impossible to me now, we eventually fell asleep from sheer exhaustion. The next morning, through a sliver of the grimy bathroom window, we saw blue skies and sunshine.
We unlocked the door and made our way down the four flights of the dank grey stairwell, emboldened and heartened by the brightness of daylight.
The woman from the night before had disappeared, replaced by a man older than Moses with incredibly wrinkled skin, bare feet exposing long yellow toenails, a dirty head of hair and beard and soiled shorts and shirt. He was sitting on an old gas can propped up awkwardly against the building just outside and to the right of the door we had just exited.
The crowds were still thick but in the light of day you recognized kids and elderly people amongst the throng. The noise on the street was tinnier and higher in the morning air; less menacing. As we walked, neither of us mentioned the puddles of viscous liquid we passed, nor the streaks and smears of blood along the dirt road and cracked sidewalk. We had made our way, on foot, to the next town where we had hopped on a local bus that had seen better days and throughout the rest of the day had walked and taken other buses until the last stop that had dropped us off about two kilometres from where we currently found ourselves being crushed by yet another concentrated mass of humanity.
We hung on to each other and let ourselves be dragged along.