There is no sound but the phlegmy growl of the engine, and no other lights on the road bar my headlamp, a faltering air-raid-shelter yellow-brown that barely reaches the grass verge. The dark undulations of fields and hills fold away on the left. Two handspans above them is the moon, fat and full as a target in a sniper scope.
Washington is two hundred yards behind, the death rattle of his own bike lost in mine. It’s touching midnight, and Uruguay’s empty countryside is our own. No cars have passed in what seems an age. We found the one road out of town and followed it in unspoken agreement. Down off the municipal bridge and out in to darkness, beyond the range of street lights. A series of curves, then a little outpost town that blew by before its speed humps had even finished rattling our teeth. Then a promenade of plane trees, stretching long and straight from the last curve to this distant next. The moon shining between their trunks laddered the road into stripes of white and dark, a flickering over our faces like someone drumming their fingers on our eyelids, a series of Morse code flashes between the uprights. Leaves broke free and parachuted towards us, arms spread wide. The bark was patched in green and cream, glowing dully like the horses had the night before.
Now out here in all this open space, the moonlight makes the same surreal world it has always done. There are the planes of black and white stretching away and it seems we can see forever. The air all around us, hanging warm and easy as a shawl. Everything is a feeling of openness, of feeling completely comfortable in your own skin, a strange blend of calm and exhilaration so tangible that you feel like you’re breathing it in.
Further along a dirt track branches off from the road. Again we take it without speaking. This is a different kind of fun. The corrugations of hard-packed earth jackhammer us up and down. We take them front on, feeling our teeth rattle together. Nothing drops from 80 into reverse on the highway like a rental car. We’re flying, weaving around patches of gravel, lifting up off the seat for the worst of the dips. We’re riding two of the most clapped-out shitty scooters in automotive history, but when you can only see five yards ahead and the road throws up strange dents and holes at will, the sensation of speed remains absolute. There is no thought of streetlights out here, no sense of direction. The occasional house blurs by in the darkness. The high-grown crops in the fields lean in close from either side like they wanted to brush their fingers across our skin. If we were taken in by them, who knows if we would come out. The road becomes a corridor, a trench of sky shovelled out above us.
It could be a dream. There’s no sense of time passing, no sense of time. It could be ten minutes or two hours before we fly through another intersection, and then it’s back onto the highway, the tarmac running smooth and long as a tongue up a woman’s thigh. We pull up at the top of a big hill, cut the engines, feel the night and the quietness. Taking in that moonlight that lies like a flat palm over everything we see. Then taking off down the hill again. Grinning into the wind. For a minute I’m worried about copping an insect in the teeth, but feeling like this, I’d just swallow it down and keep riding.
It wasn’t always this easy. The point when I was getting on the bike this morning was the point when I remembered I have never actually chauffeured any analogous form of motorised transport in my entire life, bar a PeeWee50 in The Soldier’s driveway when I was ten, and an underpowered quad bike at Gumbaya Park on a Grade 6 excursion. On the way home on the bus I sat behind the principal Mr Wenn, and carefully deposited little plums into the crown of his straw hat while he talked to the person next to him. I had to be very careful so he wouldn’t see me or feel anything. For the second half of the trip, the entire back six rows of the bus were a mess of suppressed giggles as my heist continued. By the time we reached school he had half a dozen plums, a handful of Lifesavers, a Le Snak biscuit and a chicken bone all rolling around in the top of his hat. I made it off the bus and bolted home before he’d noticed, too busy marshalling the kids around like some impoverished Carmen Miranda.
But this is not the sort of thing you want to share with the rental guy as he hands you the keys – neither a story about Gumbaya Park nor an account of your complete lack of relevant experience. And so I didn’t. Nodded politely, smiled confidently, and watched Washington to figure out what to do. This was also the point when I remembered that riding a bike in thongs is generally categorised as A Bad Idea. (I’m referring to the footwear, but it applies to the underwear as well, I guess.) Any hesitation might give me away, though, so I hit the throttle and away I went. Within three minutes I was bemused to find myself in the middle of the footpath entirely without volition or intent. Within ten minutes I had already sacrificed one toenail to the kerb gods on a bad cornering attempt that nearly ended in the river. I knew I had to put my foot down to avoid crashing, and in that half-second I was expecting things to end up a lot worse. But after that it only got easier. Now, the neat row of scrapes across the top of my foot gleam a dull red in the light of a rare passing car. It’s sometimes nice having scars to show, and anyway, I don’t have any other shoes to wear.
This is what Uruguay offers – a sense of ease. When I go down to the beach alone the next morning for a swim, a kid comes up to me, no more than four or five. ‘Te gusta el agua?’ he asks. (‘Do you like the water?’) I do indeed, I tell him. Speaking in Spanish to a five-year-old is easier than an adult (though depressing to realise how much more able they are in the language than you). His name is Tómas, he tells me. We chat for a while, me trying to explain the concept of countries that are very far away. ‘That way,’ I say, pointing to the west, ‘a long long way. It would take weeks to get there.’ He follows the direction of my pointing hand. ‘In Buenos Aires?’ he asks. Buenos Aires is a two-hour boat ride from here. Never mind. He wants to show me all the games he can play – how long he can hold his breath under water, how many backflips he can do. Then he starts clambering on me. ‘Ahora me tiras!’ he says. (‘Now you throw me.’) I give him a little launch into the river water. More, he says, throw him further. I give him another careful heave. By this stage I’m glancing around anxiously, waiting for the child abuse police to come and haul me away, or at least a delegation from the Concerned Parents Association to come and give me an interview and a quick search of my criminal record. But nobody is concerned. He sees me looking over my shoulder and waves to his mother, a hundred yards down the beach. She notices and waves back, then goes back to talking to her friend and sipping her mate, all the while staring in the opposite direction. It’s a different way of living.
Now I feel happier handing out the heftier throws that he’s demanding. We can communicate. This is a pretty novel experience. I ask him about his life, his family. No, he tells me straight up and with no hint of grievance, he used to live in Dolores but now his mum and dad don’t like each other anymore so he lives down here with his mum. He seems to be the most together five-year-old in the world. He dictates the agenda, the conversation, with total confidence. Next he wants to walk out to the end of the long sea-wall, so narrow you can only fit one foot in front of the other. Once we reach the end, quite far from shore, he freaks out just a little bit, and wants me to hold his hand to help him on the way back. The care-giving instinct is insanely strong – in this little gesture it’s impossible not to feel a huge rush of affection for these small people who place their trust in you so readily. Later, as he leaves, he waves back at me every five seconds, around the little parrilla restaurant, in between the parked cars, and on until he disappears around a bend in the road.