Of the many untranslatable phrases of my life, “paradero” is among the least translatable. It’s Spanish for “the place where one stops,” but it is so much more. Paraderos are about respite and journey: a bus stop, a rest stop, a gas station, the whereabouts of something, a place on the side of the road where someone has set up a pot and a tent and some plastic tables. 

I was at one such paradero somewhere in the Cauca Valley in October of 2017. It was late afternoon and the sky was cloudy. The mist from the Andes had not yet descended over the mountains. I found myself in the company of two bus drivers who attacked their sancocho noisily, fishing the chicken out of the soup to suck the marrow out of the bones. 

The paradero was about the tenth hour of a thirty-hour bus trip I had undertaken with thirty-seven of my American friends who had all joined the same yearlong backpacking trip. We had spent the last month living and working as volunteers at Ciudad Refugio, a shelter for homeless people in the heart of Medellín. 

I eyed the sancocho in front of me. “The Last Supper,” I thought. It did have something final about it, the taste of homegoing, warm broth, chicken on the bone, potatoes, cilantro, onion, yucca, corn. We were on our way to Quito to volunteer as needed with different organizations. Maybe they had sancocho in Ecuador, but I was certain that Colombia’s was better.

Behind me, my American friends sat on the bus. They had declined to join us at the paradero. Instead, they ate peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. I knew I had one waiting for me when I rejoined them. My friend Bella Sorrentino had used some of her precious peanut butter to make me a sandwich. I didn’t even know where she had gotten it. I wasn’t aware of any Colombian grocery store that sold the awful stuff. And yet, I didn’t have the heart to refuse her generosity. I’d have to sneak the sandwich to one of the boys on the trip. 

My friends on the bus didn’t know where we were. I didn’t see the point of telling them. The Cauca Valley was the kind of place where Colombians went missing and gringos were worth a sizeable ransom. They wouldn’t get it even if I did. To them, civil wars were things that happened in the nineteenth century and were written about in textbooks. 

I had grown up in Bogotá in the 2000s. I was raised on stories of kidnappings and ransoms, rescues and returns. I knew that civil war was real. It was in the faces of the mothers of the dead and the missing, the bodies shown on the news, the dogs that smelled our car before we went into malls.

Back at the table, the bus drivers gawked at me as I scooped up a spoonful of rice to accompany my sancocho. They probably thought I was too young to be in charge of the group. They weren’t wrong. Deb Jones, the trip leader, didn’t speak Spanish very well. A few days before we traveled, she had thrust a phone number into my hands and told me who to call and what to tell them. I complied and didn’t register that I had booked us a bus through the Cauca Valley until afterwards. By then, the deposit had been paid and we were traveling through the Valley of the Shadow of Death—or its Colombian cousin, anyway.

That morning, the bus arrived at the hostel where we were staying in Medellín. I greeted the drivers and loaded my friends onto the bus. Once we were all on, I told them that we would be okay to leave. They said they could only leave once the encargada arrived. I nodded and went to my seat to wait. A minute later, I realized that I was the encargada. I blushed when I explained my mistake to the drivers. They were gracious about it and we promptly left Medellín to follow the rolling spine of my continent southward.

Encargada, another untranslatable. It means “female person in charge.” But to me, it meant something like “the female person who is to blame in case these dumb gringos get themselves kidnapped or killed.” 

Nevertheless, encargada I was. The virtue of growing up in a country and speaking the language gave me the right to exercise authority over the group, even if I was severely underqualified. The drivers explained that the next part of the trip was going to be the trickiest. 

“You, me, and him, are team,” the older bus driver told me very seriously as he gestured at the three Colombians sitting around a plastic table in a paradero. “We have to work together to make sure everything goes well.”

He told me the sun would set soon, making the road even more dangerous. We would have to have a police escort until we arrived at the border with Ecuador. I nodded and said I understood, asking a few questions about how the bus company had arranged for the escort. 

I finished my sancocho and thanked the drivers for my meal. Turned out, free food is a perk for the encargada. Food for the stomach to ease the soul. I got back on the bus and sat near the front. 

“Everything okay?” Deb asked.

“Yeah,” I lied. “I’m going to miss Colombian soup,” I quipped.

I felt bad for lying about the danger that I had put us in. We should have flown. I should have realized earlier that the road from Medellín to Quito goes through the Cauca Valley. I should have told Deb and not booked the bus. I had failed to understand, and unlike my American friends, I had no excuse. I decided I’d have to explain later if anything bad did happen to us. Please, God, don’t ever make me explain, I prayed.

As we traveled, the clouds parted and the sun set in a glorious blaze over the Andes. Bella and I watched a Nicholas Sparks film. Around me, my friends slept. Even Bella dozed off eventually. I stayed wide awake.

I don’t think any of them noticed that we were following the flashing blue-red lights of a white police Toyota SUV.

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