Friday, September 24, 2010

Darien Gap IV: The Devil's Mathematician

The port secretary called us to the launch one by one. Our packs were weighed in turn and the boys competed for the right to toss the double bagged bundles into the rectangular bow. Passengers loaded back to front, the smoothest ride went to those in the in the rows closest to the engine, each row forward experienced more amplitude as the hull rode up and down over the waves. As one of the last names on the manifest, I found myself on the front bench of passengers just behind the luggage pile.

The short and wiry captain in an oil stained yankees cap stood at the stern and tilled the twin outboard engines as he guided us through the choppy waters of the inlet. The front of the narrow launch elevated with each wavelet and slammed down hard on a surface that felt like concrete. Each jolt was a punch to the tailbone that coursed up my spine and rattled my clenched teeth. There was nothing on the wooden bench to cushion the blows.

The first stretch out of Turbo had been protected by the curvature of the gulf. The horizon undulated in the open sea ahead of us, where the winter winds had blown for months without interruption. As the gulf widened into the Caribbean, the snaking horizon foreshortened, then vanished, as the chop gave way to five, six, eight foot waves that broke over the starboard bow, trebling the merciless pounding. I closed my eyes to shield them from the stinging spray and found myself drifting back, way past the usual daydream fare--women I could have had, women it all went wrong with, the sweet moments that made all the frustrations worthwhile--back to a safe place, the source of my earliest daydreams.

While my second grade classmates experienced their dinosaur phase, I prefered the nearer enchantments of classical mythology. Not all the metaphors were digestible then, sex was still a fuzzy concept and death too far off to cast a convincing shadow on a nine year old. Hades I got all wrong. I imagined the River Styx a calm stream of odorless blood, the passage across smooth as the contrails of wandering shades. Closer now to the death horizon I can see its snaking tumult, and I know the ferry to the underworld was not an environ of wistful reflection, but a prelude to the punishments waiting on the other side.

Hades stayed up late with the devil's mathematician devising infinite combinations of prime numbers for the wave lengths beneath the hull; there was no anticipating when the elongated craft would end a string of smaller impacts over the tops of the whitecaps and plummet towards the depths. Then earthly laws suspended, in time marked only by the mortal migration of stomach to larynx, as our flesh slipped away from their grip. We paid for the moment’s freedom, both Hades and gravity are jealous gods. They reached up for us hapless escapees at the time they thrusted the launches skyward, so that the five foot drop doubled on impact. The only reprieve from this ceaseless and irregular pounding came when the swells rose high enough to obscure the horizon and the boat was forced to crawl up one slope of water and skitter down the next.

The Czech couple next to me had forgotten their temporal squabbles, their faces blanched of argument and color. The woman seated between me and her partner had braced herself on each of our knees. She cried and begged for respite from the lashing. She lurched forward with a wimper gargled by mush and bile and then collapsed into the saltwater that stirred her upturned breakfast on the hull. After minutes that seemed like hours the captain idled the launch. The boat reeled backwards in the driving surf as he cleared a space for her on the gentler aft bench.

I was worried about my back, a source of pain even in the smoothest of times on days I neglected rigorous stretching and exercise. I remembered my uncle who graduated from the pounding of jet skis to cortisone shots and disc surgery. I did everything I could to energise my core, to distribute the impact of the blows through my muscles. Bump bump bump bump SLAM! I pictured Ana Cabana, DVD pilates instructor, clinically perky tits and saccharin smile, and tried to direct the shockwaves through my stomach and my thighs. Bump bump SLAM! Sometimes, before there was time to recollect from the last blow, the hull came down like a hammer fall on the tail bone. The hundred bucks I might have saved by not taking the sailboat through the San Blas was not going to cover disc surgery.

Bump bump bump bump bump bump bump bump,WHOOSH! My legs, tensed to absorb the next blow, misfired just as the hull was dropping away. The involuntary recoil sprung me from the plank as the launch fell into the eight foot trough. The next turquoise wall yielded to a sharp azure sky as the horizon titled back and left me unsure if I’d land on wood or water.

The landing was both soft and dry as I came crashing down into the lap of the Swiss woman behind me. She screamed and I imagined her held at machete point on the dark streets of Turbo. I could not tell if the sloshing in the side of my head was ocean or eardrum liquefied by her piercing shriek. She thrust an elbow into my back and I tumbled from her lap into the pool of puke-water sweeping back and forth along the hull.

The Swiss soon got her revenge. A few dozen or hundred slams later I felt a chunky warmth splashing the back of my neck. The bilious gruel crusted on my shirt at the only angle my body wasn’t drenched by the stinging spray. Another hour of pulverizing blows and I gave in, I went loose and let the impacts throttle my spine with each drop. Acquiescence did not slow the time down, the seconds dripped the way months pass in the safety of home.

The craft turned landward and surfed atop the rolling waves to a thatched village that appeared on the bright yellow sands fronting emerald green jungle. It had been well over the two hours I had heard advertised for the trip. A wave of low grumbles splashed with pathetic whimpers spread from the back benches forward. This was not our dock. We were only at Acandi, the half way point between Turbo and Capurgana. The height of the waves and the strong winds and current had doubled our projected voyage time.

A single couple got up to disembark and I could feel the rest of the gringos thinking the same thing: Acandi, good enough, let’s get the fuck off this boat. I could feel every bone and every joint, I couldn’t take two hours of more pounding, not one more jolt. I didn’t have an extra day for Acandi. I had to be at the border tomorrow, and once I put my feet on land, there was no way I’d be getting back on a boat anytime soon.

I thought about Johanna’s ride through the swamps and rivers of the Choco, of her possible journey up the gut of the Darien, a trip that for the day at least couldn’t have possibly been as unpleasant as this white-capped roller coaster on the gringo trail. Where and when would she imagine she had taken the launch up the Caribbean with the other tourists? I pictured her on a forced night march led by the lucky militants who hoped to turn her captivity into ransom, jungle thorns shredding her clothes and ripping chunks out of bird bone thighs. The better story, but even hers had been done before. I had taken the right boat, no way in hell I’d be backtracking to Turbo to find out.

All things must pass I reminded myself over and over as the violence of the slamming hull stretched out the hours. Sometime just after noon, the sun almost directly overhead, we again turned landward and took aim for bright blue waters protected by breakers at the edge of the bay.

With two feet on the pier I did my best to forget all the promises I made to the gods I no longer believed in. For a moment I basked in the glow of safe passage and savored the illusion of land tilting beneath my feet. Though sunburn blistered my arms and I was sure I had done permanent damage to my lower back, the pain seemed too far away to negate the relief that came with knowing I was just a few miles, land miles, from the border. I might have kissed the sand beyond the pier had the soldiers who had gathered to look through our gear not fingered me for inspection. As they cut through the garbage bags containing my luggage, I was amazed to find the sea spray had penetrated both layers of plastic and soaked my polyester backpack.

I walked off the dock alongside the Czech couple whose bags had also been inspected for drugs. In another context we might have sought to team up and negotiate for a better deal on a room, or at least gone out for a beer. We had seen close up the minutiae of each other’s humiliations, the cries and curses and bodily protests of the morning’s passage. It would take some time before I could sit down and look either of them in the eye. It would take some time before I could sit down at all. Better to forget.

With the Colombian holidays over, I had my pick of guest houses. I settled on a place run by a friendly couple from Medellin. They were eager to accommodate, only three of their their twelve rooms were occupied. I could see their disappointment when I told them I only had a night to spend. I explained how tomorrow was the last day of my visa, and they urged me to get my exit stamps before the customs agent shut the immigration office until Monday.

I peeled off my jeans before the bathroom mirror. My ass had been replaced by two large welts, bright red where the flesh was stripped bare. Short of rubbing alcohol, I sterilized the wounds with a shot of aguardiente from the bar, and put on my dryest pair of boxers. Still well before nightfall, I passed out face down on the bed.
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Friday, September 17, 2010

Darien Gap III: The Launch not Taken

The receptionist recommended I be on the docks as soon as they opened at 5:30 to ensure a place on the launch. The water taxis out of Turbo all had a single daily departure around 7:00 AM. I got to the dock at 5:30, but the office was closed and I had another look around the main intersection of town. I found a vendor selling shots of sugary coffee and sat with the locals watching the roosters yield their ground at the last possible second to passing motorbikes.

I got back to the dock at fifteen to six and found myself twenty spots back in a queue that had quietly formed in front of the office door. It was an almost even mix of Colombians and gringos, the first I had seen since leaving Casa Carlos.

I felt the vanity rising up again as I waited in the purple gray of the pre-dawn hour. I couldn’t help but feel a little crestfallen that in the filth and fecal breath of backwater Turbo, Colombia, I was just one of a dozen foreigners taking the less traveled route to Central America. Why else would a person with other options visit this hole of a town if not to feel he was something more than an ordinary tourist?

The couple in front of me were locked in a bitter quarrel over who packed the bug spray next to the tin of sardines, or whatever it was they were going back in forth about in Czech or Polish as the young man rearranged the contents of his pack. At least the language barrier allowed me to imagine they were fighting about something exotic like the poisoning of canned fish products.

When I approached the counter there were two passenger logs, one for Capurgana, my destination, the other for Unguia, an inland town reached by water across the Gulf of Uraba and through the rivers and swamplands of the Choco. Unguia was just a name in my head. A smoldering village at the end of the earth that evoked respect and foreboding, a Colombian Mai Lai I’d visit only with the aid of books.

Unguia was the last settlement before the Darien Gap, or, depending on one’s direction, the first Colombian village reached along the old footpath through the Darien, a trail now contested by guerrilla soldiers and their rivals in the drug trade. Robert Young Pelton was one of the last men to cross the Darien back in 2002. The author who penned the series the World’s Most Dangerous Places, the journalist who discovered John Walker Lindh in a truckload of Talibani prisoners, was fortunate to survive the trip in one piece. Pelton and his associates were kidnapped a few days into the Panamanian side of the Gap and were marched south by the AUC to be held captive on the outskirts of Unguia. Upon release the paramilitaries stated they had been protecting the journalist and his entourage. Given the catalogue of potential dangers on the way, it was not an outlandish claim.

The most direct route north has only gotten worse in the intervening years. This is why Donaldo mapped an alternate route for me, first along the coast, and then east over the mountains and down to the rivers flowing back towards the Pan American north of Yaviza. By the message boards I keep tabs on, there were still people out there who sought advice for the traditional route despite the known dangers.

As expected, the gringo names filled the Capurgana side of the ledger. As I logged in for the trip I glanced at the Unguia column, and noticed that the third signature bore a Teutonic script and surname. Who was this Johanna Klein?

Tourists do not travel to Unguia, a village without hotel or restaurant, whose single refrigerator is fed by diesel generator. Perhaps Frau Klein was an aid worker, or maybe a biologist set to rendevous with an expedition in search of more undescribed frogs and fish that have recently made news in the region. I imagined the scientists who hired a boat to Unguia did not do so without some kind of escort. Perhaps she was going just because it was the Darien Gap, a notch on the belt of the truly insane adventure travelers. She could have contacted the FARC and the AUC, and on some unlikely pretense, negotiated safe passage. Maybe I could tag along. A German planning an adventure so far afield would at least have excellent maps.

I had to find the reason this single woman was venturing to the edge of the most lawless region of the hemisphere on her own. If so, I had less than a half hour to get her story before the launches loaded and set off in different directions across the bay.

From the office I stepped onto the dock where I was swarmed by a half dozen kids selling heavy-duty garbage bags in exchange for a few coins. The other passengers were busy double bagging their belongings inside the plastic to keep them safe from the spray and the waves breaking over the bow. I bought a bag each from competing vendors and packing tape from a third and the four of us did our best to make my possessions waterproof.

A few gringos sat in pairs along the dock. A larger group huddled around a kiosk, hanging on the words of a Swiss couple who took turns telling their tale of being robbed last evening by a machete armed teenager. None of their faces matched my mental image of the woman who signed across the column from the rest of us foreigners.

There was one gringa sitting by herself near the end of the dock. This wisp of a woman, spectral in the pre-dawn light, sat erect and motionless while staring out across the muddy water to the mangroves on the other side of the channel. There was no good way to approach her since she was centered at the dock’s end and there wasn’t proper space for a stranger between her and either of the end posts. The best I could do was sit with my back to one of the piles and try a conversation from over my shoulder. My double-sacked backpack slid from my fingers and thumped onto the planks. The noise did not break her trance.

“Buenos Dias.” It was all I could get out on my second intrusion on her sunrise meditation.

After a short moment she craned her neck and I got a full look at her face. I took a breath so as not to shudder. Though she looked anorexic from behind, wraithlike in profile, I still wasn’t prepared for glassy grey eyes, sunk deep into charcoal sockets flecked with sickly greens and blues, and blanched lips indistinguishable from her translucent skin. With so little flesh covering her bones and only a the few centimeters of plaque yellow hair atop her head, it did not take imagination to see how the hollows of her skull might look as a future anthropology specimen, homo sapiens sapiens, on display behind a glass case in a natural science museum.

“Buenos Dias.” she replied.

For a second time in as many seconds I had to take control of my breathing so as not to shiver. Her voice was as thin as her bird bone fingers, there was no room for sound to develop body within the confines of her angular frame.

“Where are you headed?”

“Choco.”

Her answer revealed little. Choco was the department on the frontier with Panama, an area that included both the towns along the coast to Capurgana and the region surrounding Unguia. Surely death had many errands in that part of the world. Her vagueness confirmed my suspicion that she was headed further into the interior.

“Interesting. You work for an NGO?”

“No.”

Just as the conversation had its first momentum, she shut me off with a sharp look. Or maybe it was just how her face had focused while delivering the syllabic response. The pointed nose and protruding cheekbones, the severe cut of jaw over a steep ridge of collar bone, the accusatory shoulder blade--she had much sharpness to offer.

I turned my head back down the dock and watched the Swiss man pantomime last night’s assailant. After a few minutes I shifted back towards Johanna, hoping she might offer her story. She was ready for the jungle, her legs swallowed up in the boots now dangling over the edge of the pier. I asked her about them, her answer was polite and efficient and left no space for a follow up. At twenty to seven, I tried another tack.

“There can’t be many foreigners who pass through Unguia. Did you have to speak with the DAS official? They must keep count on travelers so close to the border.”

“No. Excuse me. I’m going to check on the launch,” she said.

And so I lost the thread. Most people love to talk about themselves, the lazy fact I relied on to get their stories. This woman did not want to reveal herself, and I had neither the time nor the angle to draw her out.

I admired the strength hidden in her stringy limbs as she sprung up with the pack-in-trash-bag that was several the diameter of her torso. She walked twenty feet back along the dock where the first boat was tied, a long, open craft with a squared off bow and twin outboard engines.

Why was this mysterious German (Swiss, Austrian?) headed to the border of one of the most dangerous and lawless stretches on the planet? I would not get any more details so I was left to imagine the motivations behind Frau Klein’s voyage. She was taking the land route to Panama along the old trails through the Darien, to see the teeming rain forest and cloud kissed mountains, a land that would always be without roads. She welcomed the dangers, drug runners and guerrillas, mosquitoes weren’t quick enough at this point to do her harm, over a last dreary winter in Berlin. She had nothing to lose. The doctors gave her six months, that was back in August. She laughed when they advised a last ditch treatment regime that would have sentenced her to spending her last days in the hospital fighting the inevitable. Now every day that she could rise above the pain was a delicious gift.

The boys who had been selling the garbage bags scrambled to help load the front of the launch to Unguia. In the chaos of flying garbage bags and a heated argument between the captain and the port secretary, the other passengers took great care with the foreign guest. She was offered a back bench, the smoothest ride on the boat. Two men approached her side as she stepped down into the craft. She twisted away to elude her would-be assistants, and her elbows seemed to pass right through their waiting arms. Once seated, she stared straight ahead back at the dock. Locals filled up the the remaining spaces on the launch, and with a yogi’s posture, Johanna rose a full head higher than the brown and black bodies around her.

It was too late to change my ticket and wedge into the crowded, river bound craft. I lacked the supplies, the time, even the desire for such a trip.

This time I would take the road more traveled, a launch across the open sea to the last sliver of Colombian coast before the border. Capurgana was a destination in its own right, for the last few years the sleepy fishing village had been free of guerrilla incursions and was now on the cusp of a tourist boom. This of course would soon nullify the town’s chief attraction, the elusive travelers’ grail of undiscovered paradise.

Then I could always push further, pursue the footsteps of this will o’ the wisp, or simply imagine her, hoping one day to come across her story and compare it to the specter in my mind.
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Thursday, September 9, 2010

Darien Gap II: On the Frontier of Bananastan

In the morning I boarded a truck for Turbo, Colombia’s most northwestern Caribbean port, from where I would have the choice of catching a boat to the coastal villages that straddle the Panamanian border or a launch up the rivers and swamps to the southern edge of the Darien. I was lucky, or perhaps it was a deliberate courtesy to the foreigner that landed me a seat in the air conditioned cabin. Several passengers had to endure the bumpy ride on a back bench fitted across the truck bed. The day burned hot over the interior lowland, no amount of sunscreen would have protected me from scorching under the afternoon sun.

A few hours past Monteria the blacktop ended and the ranching plains gave way to the wax-leafed monotony of banana fields. This marked a frontier of sorts, the historic lip of American dominance over the Carribbean Rim, where for much of 20th century national sovereignty yielded to the extensive acreage of the United Fruit Company, and to the lurking presence of the US Marine Corps on the seas beyond. It is an old, much repeated story, with regional variations, all the way up the Mosquito Coast to the Banana Republics of Central America, where all roads drained to the sea.

The story of rapacious tycoons who worked with the State Department to puppeteer obsequious local governments has been reduced to a cultural meme, as filtered through the anti-imperialist lens casting soft focus on all American involvement in the Caribbean since the Monroe Doctrine. On the micro level, parsing the facts reveals more nuance than polemics care to recount. On the macro scale, the larger forces shaping the hemisphere push perfidious governments and sinister corporations into auxilary roles. "Blame it on the invisible hand!" somehow does not satisfy. Not on the Colombian coast. This was the wrong jurisdiction to launch the post revisionist rebuttal.

Cienaga, further down the edge of Bananastan on the coastal plain near Santa Marta, was the site of the Banana Massacre, where in 1928 United Fruit was at least tacitly involved in the decision to send soldiers in to break a workers’ strike. The Colombian army set up machine gun nests on the buildings surrounding the town square and opened fire upon the Sunday crowd who had assembled to hear an address by the governor. Reports wildly disagree on the devastation wrought by the rain of bullets. The Colombian military initially claimed responsibility for 47 victims.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez describes some 3,000 slaughtered in a fictionalized account where the magical bleeds from the realism and the horror of mangled bodies and broken bones is compounded by the snuffing of collective memory. The resurrected consciousness of the events has come to embrace something closer to Gabo’s account. Colombian historians now place the number of victims in the slaughter at over 2,000.

United Fruit was officially renamed after its longstanding Chiquita mascot in 1990, but the Latinized rebranding of the colossal fruit grower became tarnished with the revelations of Chiquita’s seven figure payouts to the AUC in exchange for protection of corporate executives. The US government fined Chiquita 25 million dollars last year as a penalty for bankrolling the terrorist outfit.

Chiquita containers were stacked along the road that upgraded to concrete for the last stretch into town. Turbo unfolded, chaotic and dirty, corrugated roofs and smoking trash piles compacted between the mono-culture of banana fields and mangrove lined channels.

I had been cautioned by many Colombians to steer clear of Turbo, a town with a reputation as a shipment center for drugs and illicit arms in the veil of bananas. There were only a couple of paved roads through Turbo; the truck dropped me off at their intersection a block from from the docks with the passenger launch services. On the landward side off the channel were the lodging choices, a sagging two story building of sun bleached wood under peeling paint and a three story story concrete box bare save for the tangle of wires running from a single satellite dish.

I picked the latter establishment, as it looked the better bet to sell rooms by the night and was one lot further removed from the shit smell of shoreline garbage and the festering scum crusting the shipping canal. The Afro-Colombian receptionist gave me a slow once-over as she asked me for my passport. She warned me to be back in the hotel before nightfall.

With only a backpack in tow, I bought things as I needed them, and gave away what I no longer needed when articles became dead weight on my back. Starting tomorrow I would need jungle boots and a machete, items I did not want to wait to risk bartering for in tiny Capurgana. Turbo did not look any more promising at first, the storefronts lining the packed earth streets were little more organized than stalls the last afternoon of a picked over flea market. A scan down the mishmash collections of junk revealed nothing with obvious uses in the jungle.

With the afternoon draining away and the warning of the receptionist clear in my mind, I stumbled upon an old man in front of a hovel built of plastic-lined crates and shipping pallets. He sat by a collection of knives arranged by size on a blanket, the last three were full-on machetes. I picked up the newest looking blade, and realized how ridiculous I would look with a knife I did not know how to use hanging from my waist, that I had a hard enough time slicing vegetables without a cutting board, that jungle foliage was likely to put up more of a fight than the carrots and onions of my stir fries, and that anywhere I needed a giant blade for walking I’d best have a local guide to do the cutting for me.

My hesitation made a good bargaining tactic, the price of the blade fell steadily as I imagined myself hacking into my shin while still within sight of the last beachside hotel. I thanked the man and laid the knife on the blanket. Despite the missed sale, he was kind enough to direct me to the street where I might find jungle boots.

This second alley stall was on the way back to the port road. The assortment of shoes, mostly in pairs, piled on the ground with a few set on low benches, looked like they had been salvaged from a Target-bound Chinese container thrown from its ship about a decade ago and left to fester in the mangrove swamps of the surrounding bay. The boots were set apart from the motley discount collection, lined on the back wall of the store. All the pairs were rubber, which meant they were probably FARC cast offs. One of the few sure fire ways to distinguish ideology in the jungle was by the material of the militant’s foot wear. The leftists settled for the cheaper material, though the flimsy insoles at least had the requisite holes for water to drain should I find myself fighting the muck in the Darien swamplands.

The rail thin shopkeep with caramel skin and wiry curls let me try on the largest pair along the wall. I could not even hook my foot into the boot, they were at least a couple sizes too small. I wouldn’t find a bigger pair in town, she insisted.

She gave me a couple of plastic bags and told me to put them over my socks and then try to slide my feet past the heel. Maybe it would have worked once, but the thought of walking for miles on clubs of severely constricted swollen flesh, the possibility that I’d have to cut myself free of the damned things at the end of trail, did not seem worth the protection. I at least enjoyed the idea that my feet were two sizes larger than the ex-guerrillas of the Choco, a fact that was not going to help me should I encounter a patrol of their more dedicated comrades while wearing slip-on walking shoes.

Without good boots I would have to approach the border along the Caribbean, but I hadn’t put too much thought into my alternatives once in Panama. Did I really want to be the sort of braggart who treks through the jungle begging for completely avoidable dangers, just to say I’d been there? If so, I’d be the braggart doing it in Eccos, a versatile shoe for globe trotting assholes.

Zero-for-two on my Dr. Jones provisioning expedition, I found my way back to the concrete road and the dock-side businesses. A red sun sank into the bay as I returned to the hotel. I asked the receptionist if there was a place to get dinner by the water. She shook her head, her look telegraphed exasperation and consternation--we had been over this before, how long was a gringo going to last here who could not figure out Turbo was not a place to wander around at night? She picked up the phone and took my order for a pizza to my room.
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Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Darien Gap I: Monteria and the AUC

“Open your eyes, man!”

The ferocity of tone more than the words themselves startled me awake, but I could not open my eyes. My lungs were locked, body frozen, and something pressed into my gut. The consuming panic for air and vision was compounded by the intimidation of an unseen commander whose directions I could not follow.

I did not surrender to the panic. From deep inside the darkness I told myself this was just a rebooting error, that I had awoken before my brain had the time to release my muscles back to voluntary control, and that even militants were unlikely to do violence to the unconscious.

The checkpoint, the barking sergeant with the rifle muzzle poking my gut, everything I imagined while my lungs and eyelids stood locked and shuttered, was all wrong. When my eyes finally opened the van was still moving. No one was looking in my direction, but forward. The other passengers were wide awake with expressions ranging from anger to fear.

Another voice, less forceful but with grave clarity, said “It’s ok if you need some rest. Pull over, take a nap if you need to. But don’t risk our lives if you are too tired to drive.”

Sensible advice. There were enough dangers to worry about in Cordoba without your driver falling asleep at the wheel. The driver sounded defensive, though his response was unintelligible. He stopped at the next village and we took a coffee break at a thatch-roofed store.

No one was in the mood for talking. We drank coffee from tiny plastic cups and took turns eyeing the driver as he drank one, then another of the sickly sweet caffeinated shots, gauging for signs that he’d be able to get us to Monteria without another nap.

I looked around at the sullen group for clues as to who they were and where they were going. If they were rich they’d have driven, if poor, they'd have saved a few dollars and taken the much slower bus service. That was all I came up with, that my fellow passengers were likely of middle income, a decidedly narrower band than back home. Beyond that I drew blanks. A few of them regarded me with similar questions on their faces. What was this foreigner doing on a mini van to Monteria? A plump woman in her late forties took meditative bites from her arepa as she stared at the notebook I had taken from my bag. “Well,” I imagined her eyes said, “hope this one is not a journalist.”

Me too. I hoped that my habit for reading the papers, talking to strangers, and suspicious scribbles in a little black book did not qualify me for the country's third most dangerous profession. Braver men than I were doing the job. The reports coming out of Monteria--daylight grenade attacks, assassinations reminiscent of the worst cartel days, thousands of displaced people flowing from upturned villages into the regional capital--illustrated trends running counter to the rest of the country.

Colombia on the whole has experienced a dramatic reduction in murder rates over the past eight years, though on the ranching plains of northwest Colombia, violence was again on the rise. New cartels were flourishing, the papers said, and were responsible for the cocaine shipments flowing through the porous Venezuelan border and on as far east as the African coast to dodge American surveillance on traditional routes through the Pacific and Caribbean. Of course by the time drug strategies reach the papers they are are likely obsolete, but they hadn't hit foreign wires as of yet. While still in Barranquilla, I typed a few lines to this effect to a friend and Washington editor. He asked me if I thought I could write these things up in a dispatch and offered to introduce me to a colleague at the New Republic.

Sure, I said, I’d look into it. Cordoba was unavoidable on my way through to the Panamanian border. I was excited about the opportunity to write for a real publication, flattered that my second hand observations might be worthy of a dispatch. That was over a month ago. Part of the reason I had put off leaving Barranquilla for so long, Rosa’s fish stew had set back my departure another week, was that my stomach churned every time I thought about nosing around a lawless drug town asking questions about the men who make sport out of threatening journalists, trade unionists, and any politician not already on the payroll.

And for what purpose, to reprint in English that a new crop of cartels have filled the vacuum left by the decimation of the FARC and the disbanded paramilitary groups, whose rank and file have been absorbed into the emergent criminal networks? To say, look here, there is still a Colombian cocaine trade?

My fears mixed with the dissonance from an earlier conversation.

“You can do better than that William,” Maria said from our balcony table safe from the flower sellers and the touts down on the plaza San Diego. “All the world hears about is the drugs and violence here. There are so many other stories you can tell about Colombia.”

So said the young doctor from Bogota whom I had met in line on the cobbled streets of Cartagena while waiting to hear Martin Amis tell me I was interested in the wrong revolution. (If that’s so, Martin, why did your arguments wither against the residual Catholicism of this wealthy daughter of the capital?)

She was right, people want to hear about drugs. By the time I hit fields of Cordoba, the question was already settled. This was not an ethical stand, rather, I had waited too long to conduct any worthwhile investigation. I was down to three days left on my visa, the last week lingering in Barranquilla had killed the possibility of any serious reporting on the way through to the border.

Even if I convinced myself in time that I was eschewing professional opportunity for some nascent personal code, this was also the latest in a series of missed chances, failures with a chronology that traced a line back along the geography of my route home. Of course it was an inescapable coincidence that the route also happened to course from the country of primary cocaine production to the land of consumption and all the trans-shipment points along the way and that anyone with eyes and ears and a knack for economics sees the effects of supply and demand and the violent forms of competition that accompany any lucrative and addictive product on the black market. I had a feeling that no matter how many times I played professor at the party with my grating little dicho "No hay produccion sin consumidores" (There is no production without consumers) there was no escaping the story of drugs on the land and sea between Colombia and the United States. I was sure I'd find room. Failure and drugs go well together, after all, regardless of the revolution that consumes you.

Back in the van with a caffeinated driver. I remembered Henry’s comment that you know when you have entered paramilitary country because there are no more checkpoints. I had assumed at the time this was either was bravado or passed down wisdom from an earlier time. But now it had been over an hour since the last checkpoint, where an officer approached the driver’s window and asked us to produce our documents and alight from the vehicle where we were each patted down in turn.

No one seemed to mind the searches. Soldiers under the Uribe regime do no ask for bribes, and regular checkpoints alone have nabbed hundreds of rebel soldiers on their way to and from their families and their jungle outposts, there were less than 14,000 FARC guerillas fighting the government forces. Most of these plastic booted troops have been pushed from Colombian soil. The major guerrilla forces now operate from bases inside the boundaries of Venezuela, Panama, and Ecuador.

Here on the ranching plains of Cordoba, the guerrilla forces had been beaten back even before Uribe’s campaign to restore national security. In the late 1980's the paramilitaries began to assert control in the countryside. Despite the fact the first massacres occured at the inception of the movement, like bloody focus groups for a new brand of violence and social control, I still met conservatives who maintained the paramilitaries were a good idea gone awry.

The country was abuzz early this the year with the publication of “The Gates of Uberrimo”, a book by Ivan Cepeda and Jorge Rojas documenting the history of the paramilitaries in Cordoba and the nexus of guilt by association of President Uribe’s extensive ties to the region and its paramilitary leadership.

The story starts with the rich men who ruled the immense green pastures sprinkled with gold leaf trees, the men who organized private militias to confront left-wing terrorism in the countryside. These outfits in turn evolved into internationally recognized terrorist groups themselves. They funded their operations through extortion and drug trafficking while they massacred thousands of peasants, many times with the complicity of the regular army, in the guise of eliminating the Marxist threat.

The career of Salvatore Mancuso personally illustrates the paramilitary phenomenon. According to local legend, the son of an Italian immigrant was just a wealthy rancher walking his property with a couple of his farm hands when he spotted three guerrillas approaching through the fields. Mancuso took a rifle from one of his men and waited for the soldiers to approach. They had come to take him for a ‘meeting’ with the local commander, which could have meant anything from a shakedown to kidnapping or even execution. As the guerrillas drew near, Mancuso raised his rifle and pointed it at the chest of the lead soldier.

“If you want to take me, you’ll have to haul off my dead body,” he said. “And before that happens, I am shooting this rifle. So, why don’t you tell your commander if he wants to hash out our differences, that’s fine. But we’ll do it right here.”

The guerrillas would have been wise to shoot him. The looks on their faces inspired the mantra he used time and again to rally his troops, “the enemy is also afraid.”

The year was 1992. Mancuso spent the next 15 years on a path to second in command of the AUC, the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, the nation’s major paramilitary organization. Mancuso became the strong man behind a movement with aims beyond the safety of rural landowners and organization of the drug trade. Mancuso sought to consolidate the paramilitary movement into a political force that would secretly reshape the leadership of the country. In 2001 he convened at his estate outside Santa Fe de Ralito with 50 prominent Colombian politicians and emissaries who signed a clandestine pact promising a new social contract for Colombia.

When the political tide turned against the paramilitaries, Mancuso helped negotiate the demobilization accords that left him temporarily unassailable in a government designated safe zone that encompassed his Santa Fe de Ralito estate. He could not escape justice entirely. Mancuso was the commanding officer over at least three major massacres, and by his own confession, delivered with the surreal professionalism of an 87 page Power Point presentation, hundreds more assassinations. In exchange for his confessions as part of the peace process his prison sentence was capped at eight years. Then in 2008, the Armani suited prisoner was suddenly extradited to the United States to be tried for drug trafficking. Mass murderers, it seems, can side-step the law in Colombia, so long as they don’t ship their cocaine into the United States.

Mancuso was only the the second most famous land owner in Cordoba. Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, the elusive figure of the Gates of Uberrimo, owner of a sprawling estate of the same name in the fertile Sinu valley. As Governor of Antioquia, he avidly supported the militia-like security forces known as Convivir ‘coexistance’ who absorbed into the paramilitary networks when the Colombian courts deemed it illegal for private security outfits to possess assault rifles and other heavy weaponry. Many of the signers of the secret pact at the Mancuso estate would become influential ministers and ambassadors in the Uribe administration when he took office the following year. Cepeda and Rojas lead the critics who have noted the web of connections associating numerous paramilitary figures to Uribe and his cabinet, though they are unable to place the smoking gun in the hand of the president whose father was killed by FARC guerrillas in a botched kidnapping turned shootout. If such a gun ever existed Uribe did a good job of hiding it. From the beginning of his first term as President he set about disbanding the AUC with tireless force and energy while at the same time waging unrelenting war against the FARC.

So in theory, the right-wing militias were disarmed in the middle of the decade. On the ground it is less clear this is the case. The paramilitaries and the guerrillas had filled the void left by the disbanding of the Medellin and Cali cartels in the 90’s, and creating another opening in the drug business made it difficult to snuff out these groups entirely. Many of the AUC combatants were recycled into criminal networks still active in the drug trade and perpetrating the selective assassinations and displacements that have taken the place of massacres as the preferred method of intimidation and control in local governments and throughout the countryside.

Any lingering thoughts I had about my own half-assed investigation of the resurgent underworld in this remote cow capital extinguished when we reached downtown Monteria after nightfall. The other passengers got off the van before the city center. Had I known better I would have joined them.

I gave the driver the name of one of the two hotels I had found listed for Monteria in the national road atlas and tried to remain confident as he wove through the downtown streets that seemed to grow progressively darker with each turn. Few of the sparse street lights functioned, and unlit or heavily curtained buildings rose like dark monoliths blotting shadows onto the sky.

My view was bound to the twin cones of the van’s headlights. Street level shops were shuttered, the streets deserted, a few stray dogs nosed through the trash heaped onto street corners. I hoped the driver was taking me through some disused section of city on a shortcut. On a block as dark as the others, he slowed, then slalomed down the center of the empty road so that the angled headlights might reveal my hotel’s address.

The driver pulled to a stop. Either he counted the streets wrong or the atlas was mistaken, the Colombian address system is among the most efficient in the world. An address consists of three numbers, street, cross street, and the number meters from the intersection to the door. There wasn’t a door 40 meters from what he insisted was the corner of 3rd avenue and 5th, just roller shuttered shopfronts with no signs of a hotel on the floors above. He suggested my guide had the wrong street, and experience led him a few blocks to the only establishment that did not require the aid of headlights, a lone bulb was sufficient to illuminate the garish sign with uneven pink and black stenciling, all spelled out save a rabbit in tux and tie. A couple of high heeled loiterers of determined profession if indeterminate gender prowled the concrete within the parabola of yellow light.

He tried convincing me this was the place to stay in Monteria, but I refused to get out of the car. I was not going to pay by the hour for a night in a love motel, or risk mugging by the Amazonian hookers on the way to the door. The driver shrugged, then returned to the first address where he told me to get out, he was done for the night.

I offered him several thousand pesos to take me back across the river to the suburb where he had dropped off the others. He said no, he was not a taxi service, that he was going home in the other direction. As I thought of the words to beg him for some kind of help, the number for a taxi in this deserted city, he switched on the interior lights and I when caught sight of the festering rage in his bloodshot eyes I could only scramble for the door with a gracias senor and a buenas noches. I jumped to the curb with my backpack and without a plan.

The city was darker than any other urbanscape in my mind, though it was far from the pitch black I had imagined from inside the van. Light did spill from the upper windows of the mid-rise buildings. A working street light at the corner of the next block gave definition and measurement to the space in between and would illuminate anyone approaching from that direction.

More startling than the darkness was the quiet. I could hear the van for blocks after it motored away from the curb, it was minutes before the purr of the engine finally receded into nothing. There were no trains rumbling in the distance, no hiss of steam or exhaust from the buildings, no gurgle of generators, no voices or footfalls, the city was more than asleep, it was entombed. The only sounds were an intermittent breeze rustling the garbage and a far off punctuation of the dogs’ bark and reply. At least it wouldn’t be easy for unheard robbers to sneak up across the undisturbed vault of sidewalk, I decided, as I shuffled up the street.

Not more than twenty paces from where I started there was an unmarked door wedged between the rolling shutters of the neighboring storefronts. The address, blocked from street view by a small overhang, matched the one from my book. Perhaps in the darkness the driver misjudged the distance. I rang the bell and a young man answered the door. Yes, this was a hotel, he informed me. Yes, of course they had room.

The receptionist took my information at a desk crammed into a hot and narrow passageway in front of a clear plastic door to stairs leading up to the guest rooms. The doughy young man had the tips of his hair frosted and a hint of glitter on his face, an unlikely look in a cowboy town. I could tell by the way he looked at me after I began to speak that he wasn’t accustomed to seeing gringos, and that he welcomed the change. When I handed him my passport, he glowed beneath the glitter.

“Oooh, jess! I want to go to USA!”

I asked him where he wanted to go.

“New York...Miami.”

I asked him if he liked Monteria, and what there was to do in the ranching capital of Colombia. He gave an exaggerated shrug.

“Well,” he said, “Nothing happens here. But there are worse places.”

It was true, there were worse places than the dark and garbage piled corners of this regional capital, evidenced by the displaced families, unseen and unheard, but who according to the papers arrived daily from the surrounding towns and countryside.

I asked him if there was a restaurant in walking distance. He looked me up and down, rolled his eyes, shook his head.

“Better if I order you a pizza to your room.” he said.

I took his advice, unsure if the streets of Monteria would have been any less terrifying with functioning street lights.

I felt safe in the tiled eight by ten foot room in a city faceless save a flamboyant hotel clerk and a mustachioed pizza delivery man. The window opened into an interior air shaft, so I had no light to contribute to the ink blot skyline, nor could I look out and listen for pulse on this comatose city. Monday morning was a few hours away, and surely the streets would be gridlocked with cars, the sidewalks thick with vendors and pedestrians so that tonight would seem like some half remembered dream.
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Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Barranquilla XVII: Mourning Joselito

Dawn was just breaking and was she was already in mourning. Nancy sat alone--not even Ruiz was up yet--pensive at the courtyard breakfast table in a black satin gown. Fat Tuesday on the Colombian coast is a denouement, still a party, but with a theme well suited to reflection.

The final send off parade was not another manic celebration along the wide open swath of the industrial corridor, but a funeral procession within the narrower concrete banks of the Calle 84.

Within hours of the last revelers staggering home, or falling on the wayside of the once a year phenomenon of streets turned open air nightclub, women in black veils lined the raised sidewalks to weep for Joselito.

According to legend, Joselito was a coach driver who was found passed out drunk in his carriage the last day of Carnival. His friends put together a make-shift coffin and toasted Joselito with cane liquor before drawing his coach through the streets. Thousands of last-legged celebrants, laden with the guilt of their own overindulgences, stricken with grief for the unknown man whose fate was worse than hangover, fell into line unaware of the joke being played. Hundreds of years later Barranquilleros still recreate the mock procession. No one mourns more devoutly than Nancy Meyer.


I made my own coffee in the kitchen and joined the somber matriarch. She attempted a smile, but her mouth could not push back at the wrinkles weighing down her cheeks; her eyes were dulled with sleeplessness and the recent humiliation of her dethroning in the bleachers. Her face was a mask of somnolent reflection betraying the tens of thousands of hours at trial before the mirror, in cross examination of every new blemish and imperfection, the accumulated testimonies in the case of beauty versus time. I noticed what seemed a new flaccidity of jowl, a new ring on her neck recording her sixty fourth Spring. The coming year would leave her a half century past her reign as Queen Carnival.

I hadn’t returned to Villa Meyer until yesterday evening, and had yet to hear what happened to Nancy and Diego after their scuffle in the stands at Saturday’s parade. The sergeant at the police tent had assured me they were not in the habit of arresting the elderly. Nancy seemed to have enough on her mind without me asking about her ignominious departure.

“Diego has returned to Bogota.” Nancy said.

“Is he alright?”

“A papaya given, a papaya taken,” she said. It was a Colombian expression, with so many uses I was never sure of the meaning. In this case, an admission that she had allowed herself to play the fool, or perhaps there was another papaya.

We sipped our coffee and listened to the breeze blowing through the mango and almond trees, ripping at the dead palm fronds and rustling the plastic on the trash heap the next courtyard over. In the distance I could make out the churn of river-stained surf.

We lingered in our thoughts as the grey light of dawn gave way to morning sun that rose hot and sharp over the coastal hangover. As I thought of the words to thank my host for her hospitality, I saw the confidence rebuilding in the grooves of her face. She put her cup on the table and took my hand into hers. What power those eyes must have held forty years ago. The old puma’s stare no longer mesmerized.

“You know there is room for you here, my love.”

She squeezed her hand to feel for Diego’s replacement. Why wouldn’t she entertain the possibility with the lost gringo, out of step with time and reason, on a sojourn to understand a place where she fancied herself royalty. I was an older man for her after all, Diego was seven years my junior.

Clasped in the dry scales of her hand, I entertained the possibilities of lingering at the Villa Meyer--Irene’s outrage, Ruiz’ redoubled looks, the upstairs bedroom. Had Diego made love with the woman five decades his senior? It seemed implausible that the shadow of a boy was capable of such a delicate production as intercourse with a sexagenarian, but then I could not have imagined the unannounced explosion of energy that propelled him off the bleacher and into the gut of his foam spraying antagonist, or his furious protest at his and Nancy’s arrest on the parade grounds.

The spell was broken when the doorbell rang. Irene was at the front gate, she had either crashed with someone in town or stayed up all night. By her red eyes and flushed face I guessed the latter. She grumbled morning and went straight for her bedroom.

Moments later a guttural roar shook the house. Irene burst back through the bedroom door and headed straight for the computer where her sleepy eyed youngest daughter was watching a video. She grabbed the child’s arm and began shaking her.

“Everything is a mess. What is wrong with you? I didn’t raise you to be a pig!”

The little girl, who couldn’t have been awake more than a few minutes, protested her innocence. Irene slapped her across the face.

“Don’t talk back to me. You need to learn how to act like a girl.”

I ducked into the room which looked about the same as it had on the first night when five of us shared the two mattresses. The mess, dirty clothes and empty DVD boxes on the floor, an overflowing ashtray by the bed, was mostly Irene’s.

By the time I reemerged with my backpack, Irene was finished with her youngest daughter. The little girl whose name I had already forgotten, children are an afterthought during Carnival, was curled into a ball crying in the corner. I wondered if she was old enough to know that mommy’s cocaine addiction and not anything she had done was responsible for the outburst.

“You are a good girl. You are a very good girl.” I said it several times as I patted her on the head. It was all I could think to say.

I paid my respects to the matriarch in mourning, thanking her for everything. I would not have experienced Carnival had it not been for Nancy Meyer. I tried to give her the press pass she had insisted so vehemently I get, but she smiled and shook her head.

“That is for you, mi amor, so you’ll remember to return to us.”

She bid me a speedy return, in time to celebrate another Carnival.

“When you do, I have a niece for you. She is a good girl, she will make a good wife.”

I returned to the city in time for a family lunch at the Najar’s, Rosita and Elena were eager for a report on Carnival with the Meyers. The two families were plausibly within concentric circles of gossip, so I spared the salacious details. It was scandalous enough to the old maid and her ancient mother that an old and single woman like Nancy was still out on the town in any capacity. Elena smiled and shook her head whenever I mentioned the elder Meyer.

“No, no, no” she said as she chuckled into her lap. The joke would have been funnier if she had known about Nancy’s twenty something lover, or their parade exit in handcuffs. The comedy for her was a woman who did not know when to accept the limitations of age.

With the whole Najar clan back, stuffed into their living room, there was not enough couch space to accommodate the toll of sedation induced by mama’s fish soup. Rosita must have sensed my hesitation before the long road to Monteria. Since their Carnival renters had left that morning and they did not have a new tenant, she suggested I take back the apartment.

“Wee-liam! Stay! As long! As you want to!”

My eyelids were too heavy to contemplate the next move, though the journey had been condensing in my mind for weeks. Across the jungle to Panama, up the spine of Central America to Mexico and Texas, from New Orleans to Natchez and finally the Trace home.

First I needed a nap. I handed Mama the bills meant for the bus ticket and shuffled into the tenant’s apartment where I fell back into the uneven mattress and afternoon dreams of death and lost time.
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Monday, August 9, 2010

Barranquilla XVI: Calle 84

Our thirty odd travelers and four Colombians absorbed into a tributary of celebrants two blocks from the main channel of the street party. Traditional wood-benched Chivas buses, rented by well heeled Barranquilleros as bars on wheels for Carnival, stalled in the party-clogged streets. A few of the riders jumped down to coax the foreign girls onto their buses while their girlfriends splashed us with handfuls of flour.

The stream bottlenecked between two trucks of out of town policeman parked just beyond the reach of the street lamps on the 84. I could not make out their faces in the shadows, whether they were good cops or bad, relishing another opportunity to grab the batons and riot shields stacked inside the vehicles and bludgeon through a wall of drunks, or just happy to be drawing wages on a balmy Caribbean night, listening to the dance beats over the murmuring crowds.

The stream thickened then coagulated as we neared the sidewalks and parking lots along the main strip of the zona rosa. The scene on the raised banks of sidewalks along Calle 84, the now dry riverbed for one of Barranquilla’s fiercest arroyos, was reminiscent of the Venetian Carnival, where the flesh managed to pack to within centimeters of the canals without spilling over into the water. Slow moving cars with open windows and trunks doubled as sound systems, blasting competing notes of salsa, meringue and vallenato up into the crowd. A slightly older set emerged from the cabs and pushed through the wall of bodies to the doors of the night clubs, which seemed like madness, unless by experience they knew the interior passageways were less crowded and sweat soaked than the street party outside.

From a distance the crush of people along the 84 appeared as writhing chaos. Closer in, the atoms of individual parties were distinguishable within the larger celebration elemental. A Doctor Fernando type held the center of each nucleus. His arsenal of booze kept the dancing electrons bumping back to within arms length so that he could pour rum and aguardiente straight from the bottle and down their throats. More surreptitiously, slender vials passed between the fast moving particles along the edges. Flirtatious friction further charged the outer valences as dance partners jumped back and forth from neighboring parties. Occasional free radicals in twos and threes slashed through the outer rings, young men spraying their foam cans in the air and mashing handfuls of flour over heads and faces in the crowd.

Covered in flour, filled with powder, the unbroken mass danced a grind to the proximate rhythms, shouting epithets in honor of Carnival gods.

We wormed our way down the edges of the party to where Carlos knew a spot on a less crowded block fronted by a deep parking lot there were still pockets big enough to accommodate our group. The little Colombian pumped his fists in the air as he rode atop the shoulders of Shawn and the even more enormous Bruno, a rugby prop from France who with his free arm poured streams of aguardiente down his own throat. I trailed with the rest of the Irish contingent in the wake behind our twin crowd breakers.

When we arrived to our destination at the tail end of the street party, a trio with flour bags and foam cans sliced through our group. The guys received the customary handful of flour to the face, though the women got more thorough treatment; the temptation of real flesh in this land of surgical augmentation was too much to resist. I noticed the lead flour man, short and muscular, didn’t bother with Sarah’s blonde hair. He kneaded his flour covered palms into the burgeoning symmetry of her chest.

The Irish boys also noticed the display. Mark shielded his girlfriend and both he and Liam grabbed the offending groper by the wrists. The little body builder lashed free, and after another dip in his bag he jumped up to slap a handful of flour into Liam’s head, and another in Mark’s face.

Shawn, now alerted to the chalky hand prints on Sarah’s chest, set our Maestro to the ground and wrenched the flour tosser around to face him.

“Fuck’s wrong with you mate? Keep your hands off the girl.”

Tranquilo, es Carnaval (Easy, its Carnival),” The flour man replied. He then ripped at his bag and as he mashed two last fistfuls of powder into the Irishman’s face his fat fingers dug into Shawn’s eye sockets.

Shawn grabbed the the flour man and flung him backwards. His head pin-balled off elbows and thighs on his way to the concrete.

The two accomplices sprang between Shawn, and their downed comrade, shouting and gesturing at the bigger man who stood seething beneath his fresh mask of powder. Liam and Bruno, whom the Irish lads hadn’t known more than a couple of hours, stood shoulder to shoulder in solidarity with Shawn.


The downed man sprung up from his ignominious dive. The combination of cocaine and public humiliation had popped out the veins on the little body builder’s neck and at his temples. Rage bulged his bloodshot eyes and flared his nostrils as he pointed his finger at the Irish boys.

“Are jew crazy, gringos locos?” he shouted.

Then he turned and pandered to the crowd behind him where a dozen young men now flanked his associates.

As quickly as the crowd grew behind the Colombians, the foreign ranks thinned. Our only common link was to our little host whose entire body screamed danger. Bug-eyed and hands trembling, he hopped along the back line of the crazy gringos and tugged Shawn, Bruno, and Liam at the elbow, repeating over and over, “We go. We go. We go.”

Liam turned halfway to Carlos, and then back to Shawn, waiting for a cue from his friend that it was ok to split. Though Liam’s face was expressionless, I was sure the worst case scenario was locked on repeat in his mind. He didn’t get the out he was seeking. The other two lads ignored Carlos and focused on the other short Colombian in front of them.

The remainder of the disparate travelers heeded Carlos’ alarm and resisted the temptation of spectacle. We melted away in twos and threes. I grabbed the girl next to me, another wandering San Franciscan named Veronica who was transfixed by the coming showdown. I whisked her to the far side of the parking lot where we could watch from a perch of concrete embankment just beyond the arc of street light.

We turned to see the little body builder strut between the rump of the Carlos crew and crowd behind him. He continued his taunts in English so that the foreigners could be sure of the stakes.

“Fucking Americans! Don’t you know you’re in Colombia? We are going to keel you tomorrow. We are going to fucking keel you fucking gringos! Tu puta madre me la chupa!”

For many Colombians in the interior of the country, Gringolandia was a vague, transnational supercontinent that encompassed most every nation in the non-Latino, European derived world. I have told Colombians I am from the USA who enthusiastically replied they had relatives in Paris or Sydney. Among costeƱos, like their neighbors on the Caribbean rim, gringo had more specific associations with the United States. It takes a far higher level of language skills than most locals possess to pick up accents in a second language. The English speaking foreigners became American by default.

But the Irish guys didn't know this, and Bruno, still at Shawn’s side, could have only caught snippets of the heavily accented vitriol. Not that it mattered. Both sides were sufficiently powdered, inside and out, and any insult from the muscle man was enough fuel for a fight.

“What’d the little cunt call me?” Shawn asked, turning his head back to whom he assumed was Carlos and the rest of the hostel at his back. In fact he had turned on the only empty space on a sidewalk elsewhere thick with bodies. After his frantic attempt at intervention, Carlos had melted away along with the rest of us. Even Mark had disappeared, wisely escorting Sarah into the anonymity of the crowd. Only Carlos’ cologned drenched business partners stood at a distance behind the gringos. With no need to fear the impending race war, they could afford to be spectators. They did not make any signs of alignment to the gringo cause.

Liam, still stoned out of his mind, clenched a bottle and made an awkward chopping motion with the intention, so he claimed, of splashing the Colombians with the remainder of his beer. He didn’t judge the distance between himself and the opposing line, and unfortunately the taller sidekick leaned forward just in time with the downward snap of Liam’s hand. The lip of the bottle smacked across the bridge of the Colombian's nose.

Silence. A strange silence, because music still pounded from oversized speakers and in every direction the party churned on. Yet for a long moment, what must have seemed an eternity to the three Europeans, a whisper would have been enough to break the spell. Everyone within 50 yards of the confrontation stood hushed and still, enraptured by the insanity of the gringos either too crazy or too stupid to turn and run.

“You threw a fucking bottle at my head?” The tall flour man stepped forward and asserted himself in Liam’s face. Then he turned to Shawn, then back to Liam. He swiveled a third time and threw a sucker punch that landed square on Shawn’s jaw. The attacker coiled to launch a sprawling hook. Shawn easily ducked the second punch. Only then, with an open shot on his attacker, did he seem to appreciate the scenario. Instead of leveling his assailant he grabbed at the shirts of his old friend and new acquaintance and the three took off in a dead sprint for the street.

The mob waited for a second, then their little Napoleon shouted, “Kill the Americans!”

The crowd at the edge of the sidewalk parted for the honorary Yankees. Sympathetic revelers waved them forward as if they were runners on the home stretch of a marathon. As the boys jumped down into the street, a taxi driver attuned to the situation opened his back door. One after the other they dove head first into the back seat. The French giant was still airborne as the cab cut away from the curb.

Bruno’s legs dangled out the back door, providing the opening for two Colombians to jump into the moving cab and grab at the bodies in an impossibly crowded backseat. The second attacker could not get enough of his torso in the car and his dragging feet pulled him out onto the curb. After a brief scuffle the second attacker tumbled out backwards onto the concrete.

The street was too clogged with bodies and cars for the taxi to make a clean get away. With a half dozen men closing on the traffic constricted vehicle, the driver swerved into the oncoming lane and screeched a u turn that narrowly missed sideswiping the crowd filling out to the edge of the opposite curve.

Surely such a scene would have drawn attention from the police, but I couldn’t see a uniform in either direction. Neither did the mob. With Liam, Shawn and the Frenchman out of the way, the pack of taxi chasers scanned the crowd for another target.


“Where is the other one?” shouted the muscle man, scanning up and down the sidewalk for the boyfriend and the blonde with the powdered chest.

***

At first I couldn’t see what he was pointing at. Not Mark and his girlfriend, they should have been long clear of Calle 84.

Then I saw them. A flour besmudged couple made their way up the channel of the road.

Were they insane?

No, apart from North European ancestry, the two foreigners edging along the street only superficially resembled the Irish couple who had wisely fled the scene. The man was too short to be Mark, too gangly, and even at 100 yards it was evident his woman lacked the measurements worthy of a street riot. But they had the same coloring as the Gaelic pair. With the competing sound systems and the thousands of wasted revelers spilling out of the lots to the edge of the sidewalks above them, the approaching Canadians were completely oblivious to the half-dozen cocaine riddled beserkers flying in their direction.

The sequence slowed down in my mind. The wheels of justice turned. For a moment I enjoyed the illusion of fleeting equilibrium in our rapidly expanding universe. The wheels of justice were grinding, and I was in perfect position to watch the scumbag editor’s moment of reckoning.

As the pack closed to within 20 strides, probably still shouting kill the Americans and something about what they would do with their grieving mothers--I was well out of range to hear the particular epithet--I watched it dawn on Ian McKay that he was the target of their venom and that the Maple Leaf sown onto his day pack was not going to save his ass this time.

There was no time for mediation, to plead a case of false identity, nor was their honor in his last moments. He made no move to protect his lovely girlfriend. He had probably just been pouting about her pulling him from the safety of their comped hotel room. He just threw up his hands and lowered his chin into his chest. He twisted towards the curb and lowered into a half squat so that the whole of his body reflected his existential terror of the oncoming plow.

Only one detail, or lack of one, saved Ian from more than the humiliation of soiled shorts and the initial blow from the wedge of attackers. The lovely Vanessa had just a hint of convexity under her tee shirt. It was such contrast to Sarah’s bosom, that no man, tit man, ass man, straight or gay, could have possibly mistaken the two blondes. The pursuing general, noticing the disparity, called off the attack. The danger had passed I walked closer to the scene so as to get more details of the aftermath.

I hugged the distraught Mrs. McKay. She hugged me back and whispered something in my ear as the bystanders peeled her shell shocked husband off the concrete and sterilized his wounds with searing splashes of cane liquor.


***

Alas, Barranquilla is not a city of Justice or Karma. After the heroic cab driver threaded the needle’s eye and delivered the Irish boys to safety, the mob petered out. I imagined the rest on my solitary walk back to the hostel. Veronica had found what she had been looking for, a smooth faced and quick-footed Colombian whose ostentatious dance moves were superfluous to his going home with the 26 year old American.

Back at the hostel, the Irish-French contingent were the heroes of the night. They recounted the play by play of the fracas between congratulatory shots of rum and and pulls from bottles of Aguila beers, the same label which had nearly induced a lynching.

"He left himself open,” Shawn said as he shadow boxed on the sectional couch. “I could have dropped him after that hook, but then they would have killed us."

“You’ve been in a few fights in your life?"

“More than a few,” Shawn grinned.

“Where did you go?” another of the vanishing spectators asked Mark.

“Me? I’m too pretty to fight.”

With every angle of the street fight hashed and rehashed, it was wasn’t yet 2 AM. Bruno, who remained stoic throughout the glory session, suggested there was still time to hit a nightclub.

I mentioned Frogg’s Leggs. The Irish lads were in, even Mark was up for it. Sarah, our Helen of Troy in the near riot, had gone to bed. The Colombian boys, still a touch too fragrant, offered to drive. Maybe Carlos was there ahead of us. No one had seen him since the confusion of Calle 84. Shawn asked me to tell him once more about the pre-pays and again we ventured into the night.
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Saturday, July 17, 2010

Barranquilla XIV: The Second Casa Carlos

The Battle of the Flowers concluded several miles to the southwest as the last comparsa danced into the sunset. At street level it was already dark. The last glow of fast fading tropical twilight concentrated in the western sky.

The side streets teemed with Carnival goers in a languorous flow away from the river and the spent expanse of parade route. The concrete was refinished with a sticky carpet of overindulgence: beer cans meshed with candy wrappers, corn shuck woven into mangled straw hats, florescent colored flyers advertising restaurants and nightclubs cross hatched with several thousand green pamphlets explaining the personal power and exaltation, the godliness achieved with man’s defeat of the reactive mind. The police who manned the barricaded entry points to the boulevard had handed out these last pamphlets, no telling what or how the Scientologists paid for this tacit sponsorship.

The words of L Ron would proselytize in the matted garbage until the first deluge of April or May invoked arroyos which would run counter to the slow moving herd. Brown rapids scrubbed the surface filth and carried it along with anything without foundation-- dogs, children, cars, shanties--into the Magdalena. The city without a drainage system was a seasonal garbage disposal, and not just for the mundane. Toxic waste trucked clandestinely from as far away as Medellin and Bogota mingled alongside more conventional garbage in anticipation of the seasonal flow. When the rains fell and the rapids formed it would all go gushing into the muddy river and blossom a shit brown plume into the sea.

Toxic waste and deadly rapids would wait for the hangover after the party that would continue into the night, the morning, and the next week on the streets-cum-riverbeds of Barranquilla.

Even the most euphemistically named barrio held its own block party, most with their own stages and line-ups of musical performances, where whispers of a Shakira appearance were de rigueur. The rumors themselves were a sign of respect, appreciation that Barranquilla’s brightest star has not forgotten her hometown. Students, out of towners, the posh set of Barranquilleros flocked to the zona rosa along the Calle 84 where the din of competing baselines rumbled through the bodies crammed onto every inch and elevation of banked sidewalks and parking lots. The corner lot of last night’s street battle with the cops was where I agreed to meet Ian and his wife.

The crowds thinned as I turned north into Prado Viejo, the old money neighborhood where villas set back from street had collected their favored strands of the early 20th century immigration, facades flush with flowery Churrigueresque of Spanish Baroque fluttered alongside the grounded geometry and soothing repetition of the Levantine tradition. Everywhere the walls were splashed with Bougainvillea and assorted blooms so vivid as to seem artificial. Gnarled roots of ceiba trees cracked the sidewalks and rows of tapering palm trees reached for the sky. The Prado Hotel stood like a fortress on the neighborhood’s flank, its block-long neoclassical walls shielded the old world neighborhood from the high rise apartment blocks to the north and west. Though designed for the city’s affluent, collectively the towers reminded me of the drab concrete worker hives ringing the charming centers of Prague and Ljubljana.

The high rises began on a subtle upward slope of irritated follicles across a twenty block mosquito bite on Barranquilla’s concrete skin. What was subtle to the eye was obvious to the storm rains, the gradient inspired bright yellow and black warning signs posted every two hundred meters depicting an upturned car floating atop a river of curving black lines.

The security guard did not look up from his television as I entered the aluminum gate into a narrow courtyard and out of my imagined exile. As I walked through groups of fellow travelers who stood on the steps and sat along the low wall, a psychic wind was stirring, its vortices tickling at the back of my mind. Then a gust. I could feel it tearing away the months of inertia. Suddenly I was surrounded by familiarity, a setting dense with texture, texts and sub-texts, I could readily interpret. I was starved of social fluency, an essential vitamin complex for any higher order primate. The depletion had caused my self to atrophy. For the first time in months, shirts weren’t just shirts, nor backpacks backpacks. The hairstyles and piercings, smiles and postures, and most of all the words--English was the default language of all but one of the clusters--were all steeped in meaning.

I found an empty section of wall to sit and watch and listen. And no one seemed to mind. It was unlike the those-in-the know hostels where the new arrival was immediately sized up for membership. Here there were no intimidating glances, no silent hostility from a jaded in-crowd with the menacing territoriality of middle school cliques and cell block gangs. In part because there were no veterans here, everyone had arrived today or last night, and everyone thought of themselves as a friend of Carlos. It was a Democracy of gap years and Peace Corps, next year’s law schoolers and committed wanderlusts, good timers and aspiring novelists, murky pasts and and opaque futures, all smoking and drinking and planning procurements for the all-night party ahead.

Was I back on the gringo trail? A matter of perspective, like the Cold War joke about a railway platform in Warsaw where the westbound Russians marveled at the bright city lights alongside eastbound Germans who could not believe a capital lay shrouded in such darkness. I had ended a self-imposed exile from the far reaching tendrils of the guidebook-destination travel complex. But the second annual Casa Carlos was hardly an established outpost. It was a five-night phenomenon, an ethereal agglomeration too fleeting for the pages of the next Lonely Planet or Rough Guide. What better place to re-acclimate? I was getting back on the trail soon, after all. I had been delaying my trip north for weeks, and just eight days left on my visa. I needed a weekend at Carlos’s fun house. I could stop being a shadow on the streets of a wasteland city and pass out in company for a change.

The energy was good in this courtyard. For the backpackers Carlos had drawn from the seedy alleys of Getsemani, his insider’s invitation to a city-wide street party had been a revelation. Carlos knew his audience--the budget travelers who couldn’t afford the charms of old-town Cartagena, a UNESCO site among the most beautiful cities in the world. They had gotten stuck in the dingy hostels off the Calle Media Luna, where the cocaine dealers and hookers jostled for space in the doorways beyond the fortified walls that bounded the old town’s fairytale and astronomically expensive tourist zone. Travelers could lose weeks there, mired in a drug binge or waiting for a boat to Panama that never materialized. Carlos filled his four apartments on a single visit to Cartagena’s backpackers ghetto. And every traveler here loved him for it. For twenty bucks a night, by far the cheapest rates in a town with no vacancies, Carlos had given them Carnival time in Barranquilla. A reaffirming experience after a week wandering the cobblestones of magical consumerism.

I knocked, then gently pushed the door open, remembering last year’s flophouse with mattresses blanketing every inch of empty space save the desk wedged into the corner of the room that doubled as the office for Carlos's fly by night enterprise. The sleeping quarters were elsewhere. This year Carlos had the use of a furnished apartment to serve as a living room for his guests. A beige sectional couch wrapped around a glass coffee table centered over a white tile floor. A canopy of waxy jungle ferns rose along the walls behind the couch. A pair of potted pygmy palms framed an LCD television atop a black cabinet with gold trim. Barranquilla’s ghetto good version of Miami.

Three early college age Barranquilleros, local friends of Carlos, residents of the apartment, sat on one side of the couch positioned to watch the television and the door. They each wore pressed shirts unbuttoned halfway down their chests. The two with straight hair combed theirs straight back. The third had his curls under the lid of a Yankees cap. As I leaned forward to shake their hands I did well not to grimace. They may as well have bathed in the cologne that burned through my nose.

The young men wrung their hands as they watched and waited. Casa Carlos had transformed their living room into a landscape formerly accessible only through Hollywood and the internet. They were voyeurs in their own apartment, a brave new world where girls, the good girls, smelled of sex the way the boys reeked of perfume. Girls free to act like boys, to flirt and fuck without a thought of tomorrow. Carlos had stocked their building with young women from across the globe, some of them traveling alone. The boys knew enough to know that if they played it right, these exotic women were capable of doing things tonight, and more, that they might not get from the local girls, the good girls, after many persistent months of pursuit with promises of marriage.

Conservative mores in Colombia had so far held up a counter weight against the global tide of sexual revolution. Not that the cracks weren’t showing. Gay culture was remarkably open in contrast to a hetero world where young couples were forced to meet at underground sex motels. Part girls navigated the murky every man’s land of the prepaga and the disco, where girls acted like their first world cousins for (and at) a price. Good girls were by and large reactionaries. What was left to bind them to this old world? Catholicism? These young women went to college, parties and bars. They wore their skirts cut high and their tops low and were immersed in the same do-it-now advertisements from the rapid frame global media. They lived in the same world where the rest of us were second and third generation beneficiaries of a movement that had long divorced sex from marriage, love, religion. Yet unlike these boys, they mostly lived at home.


With their ironed shirts and waterfalls of cologne the young Barranquilleros had prepared themselves for the onslaught, the long-past revolution drawn suddenly inside their door. But how would they act on this opportunity, the four more nights of uprising? Could they riff off the irony soaked words flying through the courtyard or decode the outfits that designated hipster from raver from granola from post-post punk? By what language did they navigate these daughters and granddaughters off the barricades and onto the mattresses?

They twisted their hands in terror at the prospects of the girls who, despite all the misunderstandings and lack of conversation, would still choose to come home with them. Because what then?

We sat and watched the Europeans, the Commonwealth Anglos, the Latinas who had grown up in the States, we sat and admired their short-shorts and cleavage baring tops as they came and went through the apartment looking for Carlos, their new friends, their stashes of liquor.

Carlos was out. This worried me, Carlos was not one to leave guests unattended. He spent the year planning, living for and off of this makeshift hostel. It would have taken a crisis, say Nancy and Diego’s misadventures at the police station. The boy in the baseball cap claimed not to know anything, the others nodded in silent agreement. I thought to explain I was a friend of Carlos, but then everyone here was a friend of Carlos.

So I waited in the living room where for the next four nights I was the native and they were the foreigners, their collars galvanized in cologne, parsing the runes of near future feminine advances.
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Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Barranquilla XI: Saturday Morning

I had slept off the worst of the hangover, I thought, until I tried to sit up and my neck buckled with the dead weight of what may as well have been a taxidermy head. So I lay on the mattress and listened to the chorus of breathing and snores on the bed above me, Irene the bass, the two child sopranos, and a tenor I did not recognize. Carlos had left the day before yesterday to set up his Carnival hostel. There was a new adult in the room.
Nancy was the only person awake. She sat at her courtyard table sipping coffee and looking over the wall towards the sky above the sea. She was dressed in flowing white linens, the only costume I had seen her in during my stay at Prado Mar. She either owned a closet full of matching gowns, or she hadn’t changed since Thursday.
“Today is Battle of the Flowers, the best parade of Carnival,” she said as I sat down at the table, “All the best comparsas march today.”
A comparsa is similar to a New Orleans crewe, a group who enters a float or a dance group in the parades. They also serve as social clubs throughout the year. Comparsas practice their dances for months and can be seen training in parks throughout the city from November through February. All but the most established crews must compete in lesser events to make the cut for the final weekend, as hard as it is to imagine that a six-hour long parade does not accept all comers.


Soon after I sat down a slender young man about 26 came down the stairs and joined us at the breakfast table. Dressed in knee length shorts, a snug fitting ironic t-shirt and top tinted aviator shades, Eduardo dressed the part of Natalie’s international DJ boyfriend I heard about from Irene. Nancy took hold of one of his soft hands as she drank in his smooth face and Old World features. I looked around to see what looks Ruiz might be giving the boy who had just emerged from his daughter’s bedroom, but this morning Nancy’s manservant was nowhere in sight.
“Good morning mi amor!” Nancy said.
With two younger men at each side, neither of whom was her 27 year old boyfriend, the matriarch glowed.

“It is a pleasure to host young men with such class,” she said, turning from Natalie’s boyfriend to me and back again. “I can see you both come from good families.”
She took a series of slow, deep breaths, as if to savor the young flesh and old money.
After some more flattery about the class of her guests, she reached out and took Eduardo’s hand in hers. “Amor...”
Sure of her new tack, I pushed back from the table yielding right of way for Nancy to make her pitch to the son of the Venezuelan elite.
At first I had been taken aback by Nancy’s request for money since at the same time she was adamant that I was her guest. But I was a stranger here, a friend of a friend with no connection to the Meyer clan. So it was not unreasonable that Nancy ask me for rent even if she had invited me to stay here. Now, in front of my eyes, Nancy was asking for twice as much from her daughter’s visiting boyfriend. So it turns out I got a great deal at the Villa Meyer, except that I was sleeping with the wrong sister. I wondered if Diego paid rent.
Irene came out from her room as if she had sniffed out the transaction. Her look turned from annoyed to incredulous as the situation sank in. She stormed towards the table.
“Mother! What are you doing?”
Nancy had already folded the bills and pocketed them inside her linen gown.
“Fernando picks us up at 11,” she snapped back, “You need to get ready.”
“You can’t take money from Natalie’s boyfriend,” Irene shouted. By this time Eduardo had disappeared from sight. “And I’m not going to the parade!”
Irene stormed back in the direction of her room as if she might have considered going before watching her mother extort pesos from her sister’s boyfriend. Irene had told me yesterday she had no intention of joining us in the city. The old Carnival Queen turned her chin away from her retreating daughter to emphasize she was the one ending the conversation.
I spied Eduardo at the top of the stairs. He shrugged and cracked a furtive smile.
A moment later a younger version of Irene appeared in the courtyard to say hello to Nancy. Nancy introduced me to her granddaughter Nina. It was the first time I had seen the girl so I assumed she was the tenor. I asked her if she lived in the city.
“No, but I am only person who works around here,” she said in English with a thick Jersey accent. “AND I go to college.”
Nina had grown up in New Jersey and moved back to Colombia with her mother when she was 16. It was a rough transition for her. She thought her Spanish was good while growing up, and it was a shock when she couldn’t even understand the math teacher in her first month at school. Now she was 21 and loving her life in Colombia. Her native English skills qualified her for teaching jobs in the same University she attended. She was full of questions: why I was here, how old I was, where I was from, and where I had been living in town. She chuckled when I tried to describe the Najar’s neighborhood.
“Over there is ghetto good,” she said.
“Ghetto good?”
“You know, people have nice things, they think it’s something better, but it’s still ghetto.”
Short of Prado, Nina reckoned ghetto good was the best descriptor for a city like Barranquilla.
Her curiosity satisfied for the moment, Nina turned back to her grandmother, gave her a peck on the cheek, and bolted for the front gate before Nancy could rope her into any Carnival commitments.
Diego, Natalie and the rest of the crew slowly gathered at the courtyard table, each in turn placating Nancy as 11 o’clock came and went without any sign of the doctor. The girls got out their phones and after a few calls determined no one was coming by Prado Mar to pick them up. At first Nancy refused to process the news, it was unimaginable that the Carnival Queen of 1960 was left unaccounted for on her biggest day of the year.
Nancy was adamant we find another neighbor to give us a ride into town. Natalie rolled her eyes, and convinced her the only way we could get to the city on time was by taxi. Fury bubbled up into Nancy’s face, but we managed to get her to walk with us out to the main road in search of a taxi.
While we were waiting, Nancy jumped into the street and flagged down a motorbike. The biker looked confused as the old woman held out some pesos in front of his helmet and ordered him to go to the store for cigarettes, cola, and a bottle of liquor. The young man pocketed money and continued down the road. I wondered to myself how many times such boldness had worked for Nancy, and if so, how long ago. Did this 74 year old woman--with a boyfriend almost 50 years her junior--realize that her long faded beauty could no longer command whimsical acts from men she plucked off the street? Or maybe he would return.
Diego rubbed Nancy’s back as we waited for the taxi and the possibility of a motorcycle delivery. A taxi pulled up before the motorbike returned, and as Nancy negotiated the price the six of us piled into the tiny car. Nancy blanketed Diego in the front seat as she continued her back and forth with driver, Eduardo took what had once been my place underneath Natalie’s perfect curves, and Natalie’s friend Violeta, to whom I had just been introduced, reluctantly squeezed in on top of my lap The driver shook his head, we were so stuffed into the little cab that he had to wag his disapproving finger out the window.
“Too many,” the driver repeated several times, still shaking his head. He refused to leave with more than four in the car. A chihuahua might not have fit into the airspace left in this two cylinder ride, but Nancy was determined to get her way on something this morning. It had been her idea to take one car, though I was sure Eduardo and I would end up splitting the fare. Eduardo must have realized this too, he mumbled from under his girlfriend about paying for a second cab while Nancy barked directions into the driver’s ear. Her assertiveness did not have its intended effect.
“Get out!” the driver yelled.
Then Natalie put a hand on the driver’s shoulder and from her position doubled over into the space between the two front seats, she made a soothing plea into into the driver’s ear. The driver kept shaking his head, but he stopped shouting. Natalie was angled so that a quarter turn of the driver’s head would have given him a perfect view down her low cut top. After a long moment he put the car in gear.
I could not see Diego from behind the two women on top of us, though he somehow managed to hand back a plastic bottle filled with cane liquor. The girls took nips and then leaned forward so that Eduardo and I could take pulls from the bottle. Though I had sworn off liquor just last night, I figured a swallow might help with the heat of the cab and the weight of the girl who made no effort to be delicate on my lap. I closed my eyes and drifted back to the ride with Natalie in Fernando’s car a few nights before.
The cab let us out a few blocks from the route, where the crowd in the street pushing towards the parade route was too thick for traffic to enter. The side streets leading to the main parade were lined with tents where the pungent smells of grilled meats and fried corn meal mingled with the dust and stink of sweated alcohol. Vendors swam against the tide competing to sell cans of soda and ice cold beers. Every quarter block six foot high speakers drowned the crowd in competing bass lines. Masked revelers attacked Carnival goers with handfuls of flour to the head and face and with cans of foam spray which according to the papers had been banned along the parade routes because of their potential for inflaming respiratory problems. A few groups ahead of us an angry mother sought to enforce the no foam rule. Her effort backfired as the party minded crowd responded with laughter, mock applause and handfuls of flour as the culprits redirected their noxious spray on the would-be vigilante. Otherwise the scene had all the tranquility of the first Friday of a Spring Break beach exodus, we were all brothers here to drink and broil together under the tropical sun.
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