An extract from Julianne Pachico’s debut novel, The Anthill, published in the UK by Faber & Faber in May 2021
—I love feeling like I’m in danger, the Welsh girl tells her as they rattle up the hill. When I was in Brazil and went into the favelas, I’ve never felt more alive. There were guys walking around with guns everywhere. Guns, tucked down the front of their underpants! And in plain sight! And the view was beautiful, the Welsh girl continues, nodding at the window, not able to gesture due to her tight grip on the seat cushion. Mountainside views, she says. Isn’t it crazy how anywhere else in the world, this view would be prime real estate? Like Los Angeles. I moved to LA last year but what I really want to do is travel. Europe is so boring, she says, as the bus groans its way past two rusty metal dumpsters. Through the grimy bus window, the new volunteer catches a glimpse of a wizened old woman, picking through the trash with a stick. The people aren’t alive there, the Welsh girl says. Not like here. Everything in Europe is so well arranged. So overprotected. If I can travel for the rest of my life, I’ll be happy.
A pregnant woman pushes her way past the man carrying two buckets, and Mattiás steps towards the bus door to give her space. He’s now riding with his body half in, half out of the vehicle. As the bus scrapes past a dying bush, its long brown strands scratching his face, the German volunteer starts laughing. —I wish I could take a photo, the German volunteer says, as Mattías ducks his head to avoid hitting a rock jutting out of the mountainside. No one would believe this! No one would believe this crazy bus!
—It’s a romanticised view, the new volunteer says carefully, as the Welsh girl unscrews the cap of her water bottle and takes a long sip. Isn’t it? The idea that it’s our unique experiences that define us. Like those tubercular poets tramping around the Alps and Italy in the nineteenth century. The Magic Mountain. Isabel Archer.
—Who? The Welsh girl spills some water on her jeans as the bus bounces over a particular deep pothole.
—This Henry James character. Portrait of a Lady.
It feels dumb to be talking about The Magic Mountain and Henry James on a bus while outside grandmas are picking through garbage in search of food. It feels, pretty much, like the worst thing in the world.
—Sorry, she says, I’m rambling. But it’s an idealised concept, isn’t it? The idea that, if we have enough special, authentic experiences, that those experiences will make us exceptional, singular individuals. And that’s to be valued above all else.
—I couldn’t agree with that more, the Welsh girl says. She asks the new volunteer to take a photo of how her knees are crammed in by the seat in front of her. This bus is absolutely insane, she says. No one in my family would believe this. This bus is so crazy.
The new volunteer has to take the photo several times in order to get the angel the Welsh girl wants. It’s hard to keep the phone stable with the bus rattling. —Hang on a sec, she says, tapping the ‘Square’ option.
Has this phone followed the Welsh girl all over the world? The favelas of Brazil, the hair salons of Los Angeles? If there was a Google Maps line of blue dots following the Welsh girl around, where else would it go, tracing her movements? Through the other desirable Southern countries, maybe: Thailand and Cambodia. Meditations centres in India, yoga retreats in Indonesia. And apparently here is Colombia, joining the list of shiny, appealing destinations.
Her own dotted blue line: from Medellín to Heathrow and back again.
What about Mattías? A simple blue dot, hovering in Medellín, unmoving?
And Gabriela’s—to New York and back again?
But the Welsh girl, the German guy (and her? Does she count?)—the North to South flow of people, as opposed to vice versa. She can see them coming, clear as anything, as she raises the phone and taps the red button. Digital strategists and venture capitalists, dozens of them, countless. Pressing their faces eagerly against the walls of the countries they want to enter, rattling the doorknobs in their desperate enthusiasm – how desirable it all was! The dirty, filthy energy of these countries and their shitty buses! How authentic! For them, the doors opened. For them, entrance was permissible. Here they came, were coming, had already come: admitted effortlessly, unhesitatingly.
—Oo, the Welsh girl says, nodding in approval as the new volunteer hands the phone back. That’s a good one.