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.

1 comment:

Whit said...

Bill, this was one of the most poignant things I have read in a long time. Very well written.