Authors: Pam Withers
“Checkpoint No. 4,” Dad says, pointing ahead, and we breathe a sigh of relief. Not just because it means we're on track, but because there's a tarp strung over a table where a volunteer is handing out bowls of hot soup. Better yet, they've put up a series of pup tents in a clearing for those who want to crawl in for some shut-eye. Nearby, a handful of racers is sitting around a campfire.
“We can eat and catch a few Zs here, right, Dad?” I ask as a volunteer stamps our passport.
Dad stretches, nods and checks his watch. “Okay, the usual three hours. But if you don't get up when I order you to, I'll send that ghost after you.”
We line up for soup, then join the circle around the campfire: Mother, Dad and David on one side, Raul and me on the other. Members of an American team and an English team are conducting a lively debate as we perch ourselves on boulders.
“â¦Â Â fifty grand?”
“Don't believe it.”
Someone does a low whistle.
“Hi.” Dad smiles as he settles. “What's this about fifty grand? Prize money in an adventure race, I hope?” He chuckles.
. We're talking about that news item in Cochabamba about the baby broker who got caught,” says a guy with a strong English accent. “Hugo Vargas. Sold hundreds of babies for years to rich couples for big money.”
My dad seems alarmed as he and Mother exchange looks.
“So, how's the race going for you?” Dad addresses the group, trying to change the subject.
“Great. Anyway, what a scam! He pays doctors to help him find teenage girls who are pregnant, and then he offers the girls a home and free medical expenses till their babies arrive. Then if one tries to change her mind and keep her kid, he threatens her with a bill for everything he has spent on her! Shows her the contract she signed, and she doesn't know it would never, ever hold up in court. I know, 'cause I'm a lawyer. What a jerk!”
Mother has finished her soup in record time and stands up in a determined way. “I'll find a tent for us,” she says and disappears into the dark before anyone can reply.
“Yeah,” replies a tall American man, “but the real problem is all the couples who don't ask questions. Did that article really say they were paying fifty thousand dollars for a baby? Money like that in Boliviaâenough to turn anyone into a criminal.”
“But if the girls don't want the babies, and the couples do, and someone is helping match themÂ â¦,” my father says.
“Babies should never be for sale!” the English lawyer says, jumping up and all but dancing about as he points a finger at my dad. “There are licensed agencies for couples who want to adopt. Black-market ones are all about the money! The guys who run these operations aren't honest and don't keep proper records. So, unlike legal adoptions, the kid can't find his natural motherâor fatherâif he ever wants to. They don't give the couples the real story on the kid. And they don't check out the couple to see if they're even fit to be parents!”
“That's true,” Raul inserts with vigor.
“But why would an adopted kid even want to find a mother who just gave him away, when he has a real family, the one that actually raised him?” David dares to ask.
The men stare at him. “How old are you, kid?” someone says with sarcasm.
Even in the firelight, I can see Dad is a bit rattled now. He gives us a pained look and rises, pulling David after him. “Raul and Andreo, you boys need to get some rest,” he commands as the darkness swallows him, but we don't move.
“If they arrested this guy Vargas, why did they release him?” I ask.
“Well, it's tough to hold these guys 'cause neither the birth parents nor the adoptive parents are willing to come forward,” the excitable guy from England says, noticing me for the first time. “So this scam artist has disappeared. Probably running around the country trying to scare up more girls he can hide away till it's time to sell their babies to the top bidder. Totally wrong, wrong, wrong!” The finger is now wagging at no one in particular.
I picture the beggar girls we saw on the steps of Vargas's former office building in Cochabamba. Raul and I only need to glance at each other to know we've heard enough.
David is pacing back and forth beside the soup operation with such concentration that he doesn't notice us steal by. As we creep closer to the tents, I hear Mother whispering something and Dad's low, comforting voice in reply.
“He doesn't know who arranged the adoption,” he says. “And we didn't know it was illegal.”
“WeÂ â¦Â should have,” comes the firm reply.
Raul and I turn back. David is now sitting on the ground with his right boot and sock off, staring at a raw, puffy mess of blisters. I lower my backpack and pull out first-aid gear. “Let me dress that,” I say, and he lets me without a word more between us.
The light rain has turned to a serious hammering by the time Dad shakes us awake. We pull on rain gear, switch on our headlamps and accept bowls of porridge from the tired-looking volunteers.
“Andreo, David would like to have a go at navigating this section,” Dad addresses me.
“But I'm navigator, and I'm the one who has worked out the route!” I protest. Dad, of course, approved it earlier.
“We're proud you worked it out,” Mother says, “and you remain chief navigator, but it's time David has a turn.”
“Just a thought,” Raul inserts hesitantly, “but jogging down a super-rocky mountain in the dark and rain and cold is where we need an experiencedâ”
“You know I can do it, so just hand it over,” David says, grabbing the map from me.
Dad slips the compass from my wrist and places it around David's. As if I'd ever win where Mother and Dad have to choose between us.
“Whatever,” I grumble. “Onward, fearless leader, and if we get lost, we'll all know whose fault it was.”
Raul is correct about the challenge of this section. Climbing up to Checkpoint No. 4 before dark was tough enough. Doing a nighttime descent in a downpour is a horror show. Plus, three hours of sleep wasn't enough. Every one of us slips and flounders in the mud at some point. Soon we look like brown, mucky ghosts in our hooded rain gear. Five headlamps bob in single file. David leads; Raul and I take up the rear just out of earshot of the others.
“Wish we were still with Team Cochabamba,” Raul grouses.
“And that would be for what reason?” I tease him.
He refuses to answer; he's obviously that smitten. So much for any designs I had on her.
“Well, we're faster than them. Had to happen sometime,” I say.
There's silence as we work our way between giant boulders and down a treacherous, stepped, craggy ridge.
“Not much of a trail here,” Raul says eventually.
“Or there is, and David has lost it,” I say loud enough for the others to hear.
“Relax. He has been studying up. And he's a math whiz,” Raul tries to reassure me.
“What's that got to do with it?” I grumble. “Anyone can count paces.” I pause as a picture of the route I'd planned flashes into my mind. “Maybe my map memory
is wrong, but I thought the trail dropped off the main ridge and picked up a narrow ridge to the eastâback there in the boulder field. But hey, David's in charge.”
“How long do you figure to the lake now?” Mother asks David, as everyone studiously ignores me.
“Six, seven hours.”
“Good thing I've got The Man to keep me going,” Raul says. He pulls earbuds out of his pocket and gets Bob Marley happening. Soon his headlamp is bobbing to the rhythm, and I'm left to my own thoughts as David leads us up and downâmostly downâthis endless slope of mud, glistening boulders and dripping, leg-scratching bushes. There are no other teams within sight, but that's not unusual. I shiver and aim my light at my feet to minimize tripping and falling.
Bob Marley, or what I can hear of him, starts a new song, something about beauty. It gets me thinking about Maria and beauty queens.
“Doctor!” I suddenly shout.
Raul turns and takes out an earbud. “You okay?”
“Do you need a doctor?” Mother has rushed back to check on me.
“No, no,” I say, embarrassed. “Just falling asleep on my feet, I think.”
Mother hands me some chocolate-covered coffee beans for the caffeine, and Dad reminds us all to drink from our energy drinks at least every hour.
“Doctor,” I whisper to Raul after everyone has
resumed their position. “If my mom really was a beauty queen, it means maybe my dad really is a doctor.”
“Sure, you and me and the other five hundred and ninety-eight babies,” he says in a low voice. “It was a sales pitch, stupid.”
“Not for me,” I say, and tell him about my Internet findâmy birth mom's photo and the news she was from Torotoro. I dare not pull out the torn picture to show him here.
“Your mom's photo?” he whispers incredulously. “And we'll be in Torotoro in just twenty-four hours.” Then he turns away and reinserts his earbuds, but not before I glimpse mixed emotions on his face. The fact that I'm making progress on finding my birth parents and he isn't is beginning to bum him out.
We've been going for more than an hour, the rain refusing to let up. I'm half-jogging, half-slithering, my mind on autopilot, when David approaches me, map in hand.
“Just want to double-check the route with you.”
“You mean we're lost already.”
He bristles. Dad comes to stand beside the two of us and gives me a warning look.
“We've come a couple of kilometers since that last junction, I figure,” David says.
“Okay,” I reply.
“And we were going to take this ridge bearing off to the east, right?” He's pointing to the map, which everyone has gathered around.
I think back to the terrain we've been traversing. I remember a short uphill section interrupting the relentless downhill of an undulating ridgeâand wasn't there a broader plateau at one point, the one where I tripped and fell over a bush? (Where I really, really wanted to sleep rather than get up, as Dad made me do.) I study the map. I borrow back my compass and squint into the rainy blackness, which stubbornly obscures all features. I sigh.
“The ridge divides. See the plateau in between? You took us left at that junction, correct?” I ask.
“Yup, two kilometers ago,” David answers.
“How do you figure two K?” I don't hide the impatience in my voice.
“Three hundred steps per kilometer. I've been counting.”
He sounds proud. I want to kick him.
“Three hundred paces, David, not three hundred steps. A pace is two steps.”
David frowns and hangs his head.
“So we wouldn't be at the ridge junction yet even if we were still on course! We must have taken this trail back here.” I stab my finger at the map. “So much for the great math whiz!”
“Andreo!” Mother snaps. “Be respectful toward your brother. He's learning.”
I point again at the map. “We've come a kilometer down the wrong ridge.”
“What exactly are you trying to say, Andreo?” Dad asks in a warning tone.
“With all those boulder fields and the height we've lost, we're looking at a twenty-minute or longer scramble back up, then another ten to where we'd be if this idiot hadn't been put in charge,” I say.
David balls his hand into a fist and lets fly. We tumble in the mud till Raul and Dad pull us apart. Then we get subjected to a Dad lecture about team cohesiveness, team spirit and brotherly love as Mother looks horrified.
For a split second, I contemplate sprinting awayâleaving the entire team and racing to Torotoro, to where my birth mother was raised. I imagine her waiting for me with open arms in the door frame of a cute adobe house, an elaborate luncheon laid out on the table. In the backyard, my birth father will be swinging lazily in a hammock, and after lunch, they'll be eager to show me a collection of photo albums filled with pictures of other relatives eager to meet me.
“Andreo! Are you spacing out on us?” Raul nudges me.
I'm so tired, I have to put a lot of effort into pulling myself back to reality. “Best bet is to cut across the gully to our right,” I finally say. “We'll lose height to begin with, but then it's only a short climb. I suggest we contour out to the southeastâmaintaining altitude on this contour lineâand pick up this other trail. Then we'll meet up with the one we would have been on in another ten kilometers.”
Dad takes the map from my hands and studies it. His face looks haggard in the pooled light of our headlamps. “Might be a rough descent. And there's a stream down there.”
“I agree,” I say, “and with all this rain, it could be interesting getting across it. But I still say it's better than retracing our steps.”
David fidgets and stares at the ground.