Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Barranquilla IV: The Turk's Granddaughter

There was a disposable camera I brought back from college that sat on my desk at my mother’s house for years. I’d look at it each Thanksgiving and Christmas and think about getting it developed, then didn’t, reasoning it was several pictures short of a full reel. When I finally got around to taking the seven-year-old film to the pharmacy, the negatives had long turned the color of tomato soup. In the muck of reds and browns and rust I could see the outlines of faces, but they were indistinguishable to the point I couldn’t tell which face was my own. On my last evening in this apartment on avenue 43B, I woke up reminded of those negatives. Afternoon sleep for me has always been tinged with death and sweet lost time.

Since my Protestant upbringing has left me ill suited to siesta, I had tried to fight off the drowsiness, but my work ethic proved no match for Mama’s fish stew. Few sedatives were more powerful than the pungent broth special to this city of baking concrete where the only air conditioners are found in the bedroom. I had planned to cool off just a little, while waiting for the three o’clock sun to soften. Instead, I leaned back onto the uneven mattress, just to rest my eyes.

I woke up groggy, the even stripes of yellow streetlight on the wall had appeared sometime beyond the blink of twilight at this latitude. I reached for the remote to turn off the ac so that sun-baked walls would flush the cool air from the room and me from the bed.

The sound of heated argument that came from next door, as it did almost every afternoon and evening and on every weekend morning, was no longer the unsettling reminder that I was far away from home. The shouts had become familiar, and now that I knew their source, Rosita shouting into the phone line so that her 86-year-old mama would not miss a thing, I would probably come to miss them.

The old woman was leaning forward in her plastic chair, her ear cupped towards her daughter’s conversation. Rosita smiled and waved me to the couch, and she shouted through the line that their gringo was about to depart.

“Wee-liam! You are leaving! Us!” she shouted after she put down the phone.

“Returning! To the United States!” she said. Though she spoke at maximum volume for her mother’s sake, she now screamed each word with an exaggerated emphasis that surely even an American could understand.

“Mama! Will miss you! You are like! A son! To Mama!”

“Mama will also miss her primary source of income,” I thought.

The flat next door was in her name, and her daughter couldn’t possibly have wheedled as much money from a Colombian boarder. Perhaps they should have thought of that before they decided to turn me out for Carnival. They could easily fetch a month’s rent over the next five nights, and then I wish them good luck while waiting for another wayward gringo to fall out of the sky.

Still, I was going to miss this apartment house with Elena and her daughters competing to keep me stuffed with tabouleh, babaganoush and the other dishes passed down from their Lebanese great-grandfather they referred to as the Turk. Elena kept the most watchful eye over my plate, and she hovered in the space between the counter and the stove, serving spoon in hand to fill any spaces that might open on my plate.

“Mama doesn’t think you are coming back,” Rosita shouted, word by word, when I sat down on the couch. Elena pursed her lips into a pout and shook her head. I assured her it wasn’t true

Elena knew that I wasn’t coming back, despite everything I had said and done to the contrary. It was easier to say I’d return than it was to say goodbye. I had almost convinced myself it was true, why else had I gone through the charade of sending resumes to all the colleges for teachings post next year, hedging my bets? I hadn’t read an American paper in three months, but if it was true that gringolandia was settling into the next Great Depression, maybe I could do worse than spending a few more years in Colombia.

“If you stay for Carnaval, maybe you’ll meet a Colombian girl! Not a cachona!” Rosita yelled, sticking two fingers behind her head to emphasize cachona, a devil woman Rosita was convinced populated all the regions of Colombia outside of Barranquilla, though she suspected more than a few cachonas outside the radius of our block.

“Lots of Cachonas” Elena repeated, chuckling into her lap.

Elena mumbled though the beginning of a story. I struggled to make out her raspy words, but it was a story I had heard before. When she was a young woman, barely 20 years old, her family forbade her to go out the Saturday before Carnival. That has always been the night locals celebrated before the tourists arrived. At time Elena was engaged and her father did not think it appropriate for her to be out on the night when Barranquilla went wild.

“Phew,” Elena whistled through her dentures, in rebuttal to the past.

The hell she was staying home. Her brothers were going out, her parents were going out, even her grandparents had bought seats for that night’s parade. Who had ever heard of staying home on Guacherna on the account of marriage?

A friend of Elena’s was hosting a party for her comparsa, a group that is the equivalent of a New Orleans crewe. This comparsa dressed as Marimondas, one of the most traditional of the Barranquilla Carnival disguises. Marimonda wore a clownish suit and a mask with elephant ears, a long, brightly colored tubular nose and matching tubing that made exaggerated eyes and lips, combining for a-not-so subtle symbol of the cock and balls.

Elena noticed her fiancé almost immediately by his height and the wobble of a bad leg. She was busted. But he did not notice her, and since she was not supposed to be at the party, she did not let on to him.

“When he died, and I still hadn’t told him I was at that party,” Elena chuckled into her lap. "that was 43 years ago."

The minibus for Monteria left early, so I wished Elena and Rosita well, and in another token gesture that I would see them again, I entrusted them with a few books I had brought and a few more I had accumulated during my stay that I had no intentions of hauling through the jungle. I threw the rest of my things in a backpack before going out on a night walk.

No one walks in Barranquilla, at least not in this relatively well-off quadrant of the city. During the day the tropical sun stirs a noxious cocktail of car horns and diesel fumes on roads where traffic signals are suggestions and pedestrians a nuisance. At night there are no cars, no pedestrians, and it is possible to walk on the roads alongside two foot high curbs that allow the streets to double as a drainage system in the rainy months.

The breeze that blew in off the Caribbean during winter months was a gale tonight, and my blood had thinned to the point I almost agreed with the locals that 70 degrees qualified as cold. I walked across a concrete park, and weaved along a grid of riverbed streets in the direction of a supermarket Cineplex.
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Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Barranquilla III: Donaldo

“Donaldo, leak the duke.”

Like the duck, he said.

That’s how Donaldo introduced himself the first time he sat down at my table at the vegetarian place in Barranquilla. In a culture whose social currency is it’s grilled meat, the vegetarian restaurant is like a social club for adults with Asperger’s. Colombia was not as bad as Argentina, where downtrodden vegetarians didn’t dare make eye contact with one another as they shuffled through the buffet lines of second floor haunts invisible from street level.

If the patrons here didn’t bear the shame of their Argentine compatriots, they shared in an element of ritual about this restaurant and health food store where printed placemats announced two calendar months worth of daily menus without a repeating meal. Everything else about the place was OCD delight.

The same regulars made up the daily lunch crowd, and they would trickle in to what might as well have been assigned seats, designated by profession. Nurses occupied the two tables nearest the door, the next two tables in the shotgun floor plan were filled in by the secretaries. At the other end of the narrow dining hall, businessmen with suspiciously round bellies conspired underneath the overmatched air conditioner on the back wall of the dining room. Various artisans and professional types I couldn’t quite pigeonhole filled in the remaining tables.

As the only representative for the freelance gringos I took a less desirable table next to the kitchen door. By second week Donaldo, an emissary from the professors table, began joining me for coffee and by the second month I became a part of his lunch crew.

A few days before Carnival, Donaldo unfolded a map of Panama and Northwest Colombia across the table. As he leaned back in his chair a wide smile revealed the gaps between jagged teeth. The way the corners of his lips stretched to his back molars and his small black eyes squinting under thick lenses balanced atop a long and pointed nose he reminded me less of a duck and more of cartoon crocodile.

"El Tapon," Donaldo said, tapping in the space between a broken red line that represented the Panamerican Highway.

"Juan D, ease possible."

I nodded my head to buy the time I needed to figure out what he had said while hoping Julio or Maria might offer a clarifying comment, but our lunchtime companions just sat there staring into the map.

It would have been easier if Donaldo had spoken in Spanish, but he was proud of his language skills. Rightfully so in a city where neither of the two English professors I had met, including Maria at my right, were reluctant to speak more than a few words. Donaldo did not lack confidence, though his inclination for outrageous pronouncements made his arbitrary grammar and thick accent difficult to decipher.

“One day? You are saying I can cross the Darien Gap in one day?”

“Si,” Donaldo’s smile broadened.

As he nodded, wisps of mad professor hair flew in all directions.

“How is that possible?” I asked, “That’s at least 100 kilometers by land.”

I measured a 100 kilometers with my forefinger and thumb on the map’s scale and transferred the pinched off space to connect the only missing link in a network of roads that stretched from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego.

“No, leak these,” like this, the old man bit off his smile as he concentrated on the map.

Donaldo then ran a finger past my thumb up the wedge of Northwest Colombia that tapers between the border and the Caribbean coast until the two lines met at point marked Cabo Tiburon, Shark Cape. The top of this little sliver of Colombia was north of the of the Pan American Highway’s terminus at Yaviza, Panama. He pressed his thumb down on a distance half the width of the north-south break between the red line of roadway.

El Tapon means the plug, the 100 km wide swath of jungle clad mountains and treacherous swampland between Colombia and Panama otherwise known as the Darien Gap. The Darien is not only home to some of Earth's least inviting terrain, it is teeming with tropical diseases and all sorts of venomous life forms that creep and crawl and slither.

The noxious plant and animal species are only outdone by the particularly terrifying strains of homo sapien found in the Darien, nominally left-wing guerrillas and right-wing paramilitaries who have eschewed political ideology for cocaine profits. The variously affilated drug traffickers and arms smugglers contest the few semblances of trails that meander through the Darien Gap.

I expected Maria to interject, or to give me some signal that this man in the gray smock seated across from me was putting me on, that gringos should not think of blazing trails through the jungle. She stared into the blue space that indicated the Caribbean on the map, her far off eyes seemed lost in a daydream. Julio was with us, but the shop teacher wasn’t as worldly wise as Donaldo. He waited for his friend to continue the lesson.

I’m not sure I could have found another three Colombians more consenting of an American making a land crossing of the Darien Gap. While I sat there and watched Donald connect the blue coast to the red line of the Pan American with a single joint of his gnarled thumb, it looked possible.

Donaldo had given me the idea for a trip back up the spine of Central America while looking though a folder of ESL materials I had brought to teach conversation classes to some university students Maria had referred me. He took interest in a wrinkled brochure I had picked up years ago in the Nashville airport. The brochure had become a stock lesson plan, students used it to make an advertisement highlighting the places of interest in their own hometown.

“Nashville, Music Seedy, U. S.A,” Donaldo said, smiling at the words on the cover.

He flipped open the brochure and read from the list of tourist attractions with a voice of mock wonder.

“The home of William Walker”

The grey-eyed man of destiny was definitely not included in the list of Music City attractions. How Donaldo had linked Walker to his place of birth by looking at that dog-eared brochure, I will never know.

“William Walker?” I said, “How do you know about William Walker?”

“El Filibustero, from Nashville Nosh Veal!”

Donaldo knew a great deal about William Walker. He had spent some time living in Costa Rica and Nicaragua, where the name William Walker, was still an incantation used by grandmothers to scare the children at night. Be careful, or William Walker is going to get you!

The crazy professor knew when he had a captive audience. He gave me his widest crocodile grin and told me a story I had yet to hear about my doctor-turned-lawyer-turned-journalist-turned-soldier of fortune ancestor.

“Walker had plans to invade Martinque, he was going to use it as a beachhead to invade Central America. He was going to use the blacks on the island as plantation slaves in Nicaragua. The President of United States had given him permission,” Donaldo said.

His anecdote made about as much sense as William Walker’s motives in his filibustering years, so though I had never encountered this particular rumor, I scribbled it down in my notebook. This just egged him on, and on. He rambled through stories of his time in Costa Rica, Nicaragua and Honduras.

The more he spoke the less I understood, until his swallowed Costeño accent washed into the whine of the hopelessly overmatched air conditioner losing ground to the afternoon heat. But I knew I had to go back to Nicaragua to find the other wild haired professors who dug for arcana and yellowing half-truths to spin legends about the little man from my hometown and family tree who came to terrorize a region and personify two centuries of American imperialism.

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