Friday, March 26, 2010

Barranquilla VIII: Frogg's Leggs

Press passes in hand, Henry and I set out for the opening ceremony at the soccer stadium for the crowning of the People’s Queen of Carnival. The venue was fitting. Though Colombia is as soccer mad as the rest of the continent, beauty pageants rival sports in popularity and press coverage. The crowning of the Coffee Queen in Manizales dominated the national news for a week in January, and reporters and news crews from all over the country had gathered here to watch contestants from the barrios perform choreographed dances in groups of ten to twenty, an emcee explaining how the acts and costumes corresponded to traditional carnival themes. The competition was punctuated by musicians struggling to become the next Shakira, hometown superstar and pride of Caribbean Colombia.

When the girls introduced themselves at the end of the night, sections on the field behind us exploded in cheers and waved banners with the names of their respective barrios, names like Path of Roses, Eternal Hope and Beautiful Coast. An inverse relationship existed between the superlative in the name and the time it would take for a wandering gringo in that barrio to be stripped of his wallet, cell phone, and in these hoods, his shoe money.

“Imagine the reporters who have to treat this as a real assignment.” Henry said at the end of the contest. “They have to get real quotes from the girls.”

We followed the rest of the press corps backstage anyway. Devastated fans also stood aside as the new queen flanked by a retainer of runners-up were thronged by media from all over Colombia. I calculated the odds that I would have another chance to interview a contestant in a South American beauty pageant, then opened my note pad and approached the first girl I could find whose stage makeup wasn’t streaked with tears. My subject was polite, but her eyes were far off and her voice did not register above the background noise of the stadium. Not that I asked any good questions. I had no idea what were the relevant points in a beauty competition, though I had picked the winner. This year’s popular queen was clearly the most charismatic of the bunch.

Henry didn’t have to get quotes, but his camera drew attention from some of the passed over queens backstage. They must have calculated the odds that they would have another chance to appear in a foreign publication. They plastered falsetto smiles on their faces and posed for his photos.

We decided the interviews were good practice for Frogg’s Leggs where we decided to test Nancy’s theory that our credentials would get us access to anywhere in the city.

The most famous of Barranquilla’s nightclubs was in a northern neighborhood just a few minutes from the apartment I had rented from Rosita and Elena. I walked by the club several times on weekend evenings; even the posher crowds in this hard working town restricted the party to Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights. Occasionally I’d pause on the sidewalk opposite the club behind the scrum of taxis dropping off passengers and competing for fares. The party spilling out the door--chiseled guys in half buttoned designer shirts stalking for opportunities to light cigarettes for girls whose impossibly large breasts threatened the fabric of their perfectly taut dresses--was sufficiently intimidating to keep me in the shadows.

I’d like to think that cowardice was only part of the explanation for why I had never been. within fifty feet of Frogg’s Leggs. When it comes to security concerns, Colombia gets a bad rap, but the reputation has some merit. A reasonable traveller can navigate this country in safety with a few caveats--avoid remote jungle areas home to FARC remnants and motley para-narcos, leave the union card at home, and steer clear of anything that whiffs of the drug trade.

Sounds simple. It is for the most part. Though abiding that last rule is too much to ask of most of the Euros set to blow their way through the country. Cocaine in a Colombian nightclub is like steroids in professional sports. Almost everyone partakes for similar reasons. The average player can juice and have a chance at stardom or stay clean and languish in the minor leagues.

Every hostel in the country has a bleary eyed British backpacker lounging in a hammock just waiting for you to say hello so he can tell you the tale of how he stumbled into arrest at a nightclub in Cartagena, Cali, or Medellin. The story is so uniform it has the ring of an urban legend. The Brit (maybe Irish, Australian, French Canadian, though he’s usually English) went to a nightclub with a fellow traveller. Within minutes they were approached by a guy who wanted to share some of Colombian’s finest with them. Better than anything they can find off the street, he assures them. They agree, sniff, sniff, and then ask to buy a little off their new best friend.

The next night they come back to the same club to find their guy, this time with money from all the other party people in the hostel. After they make the transaction, they notice a policeman at the door heading straight for them. The cop finds the drugs as if he knew they were there. He puts the two idiots in cuffs. Meanwhile, their new friend, who must have tipped off the cops, has disappeared. Perhaps he’d pre-arraigned a cut from the 1,000 Euros the foreigners are forced to cough up to the arresting officer in exchange for their freedom.

The threat from the drug trade is not always direct. That sultry beauty leaning against the bar? She may be single, or she may be one of several girls a Cartel player brought out that night. He will not take kindly to some gringo chatting her up. Since she is probably feeling neglected and bored, she might not bother to warn him.

Yet to visit Colombia and forgo the night life would be like going to Argentina and not eating the beef. In the six months I had logged in this country, I had visited two clubs, one in Medellin and one in Cali, I felt obliged to sort the claims both cities make that they host the most beautiful women and the best night life in the world. Barranquilla made no such boasts, though on the former front, the European and Middle Eastern immigrations grafted to the older Spanish creole and African bloodlines has produced some exotic results. With a reliable wingman--Henry did not seem the type of Brit to fall for the cocaine hustle--it was only fair to see how Barranquilla matched up with her more acclaimed sister cities.

Henry was our point man at the door. He walked to the head of the line and explained we were here for a BBC piece on Carnival week. The bouncer was suspicious of his camera bag, after a thorough search and pat down he said he would let us in for 5,000 pesos, a nominal two dollar cover. And no waiting.

Frogg’s Leggs was tiny compared to the night spots in Medellin and Cali, and it was not the full on sensory assault one experienced in the bigger clubs. No geodesic dome throbbing with laser lights or rooftop deck with panoramic views; no costumed performers or international circuit DJ flown in from Spain or California. Just a long rectangular hall with a bar up front and a dance floor at the rear, the length of it insanely overcrowded and buzzing with Red Bull vodkas and Andean marching powder. The ten dollar import beers were familiar.

Henry steered towards the bar while I pushed through to the dance floor. All those salsa lessons--culture nights at the Slovenian bars with their bizarre post-socialist agendas that mixed self-improvement and booze, quiet evenings in Central America where a dance instructor was cheaper than a beer, premeditated second dates with the girl who had also travelled south of the border--what a joke. I wouldn't be kidding anyone with my locked up hips and total befuddlement of rhythm. Yet the dance floor was less all-or-nothing than a pick up move at the bar, and as far as I knew there were no codes about dancing with the cartel man’s second girlfriend.

I didn’t have the technique nor the raw energy to keep in time with the beat. I figured a clean nosed gringo’s best play was somewhere between cultivated detachment and ironic incompetence. Not on the dance floor, it turned out. The first two girls I approached gave me the same withering look they might have given someone’s retarded older brother who pulled his penis out in the living room.

I edged my way to a side wall where I could watch without being noticed. As I passed through a crease in the dancers at the edge of the floor a girl with a round face and almond eyes flashed me a smile. I looked again to make sure, and for a second our eyes met. I motioned my head back towards the throng of gyrating bodies then extended my hand.

“You’ll have to lead. I’m a gringo,” I shouted into her ear.

She smiled. She didn’t need to play the part of dance instructor. She guided my arms around her waist then enveloped my knee with her fleshy thighs. From that point on I was along for the ride. I could feel the rhythm of the dance through the motions of her body.

“What’s your name?” I asked after the beat changed. The pace intensified, perhaps some sort of meringue. Americans do not dance meringue. The Dominicans had to invent a slower dance beat called Apambechau so the lead footed American soldiers could keep up with their partners. Pambeche was the name of the coarse cotton Dominicans wore which had a similar look to the finer cotton of American khaki, looks like the real thing but is a sad imitation.

“Katerina,” she said. She pulled me in tighter as if to speed me up to the beat. My cheek pressed into her matted hair and my shirt dampened where it touched her sweat drenched body. It must have been a long night for Katerina. She had a fragrance of cane alcohol over cigarettes butts mashed into urinal cakes.

Henry was nowhere to be found, maybe he had sought out another interview for his wife hunting article. It was nearly two, the time of night those looking to go home with someone make their move. I did not want another dance with Katerina. I pushed my way through to the door.

None of the taxis in front of Frogg’s Leggs wanted a part in a drive out of the city. These were the five nights of the year when the streets were flush with out of town fares with no idea of the prevailing rates. I finally hailed a driver on the road out of town who agreed to take me, or at least didn’t drive off when I stated my destination and what I knew was the rate for a late night ride.

The back seat smelled like the last customer had soaked the floor mats with aguardiente, a substantial improvement on Katerina’s acrid musk. It looked to be a quick ride as the driver was not much bothered by stop signs or traffic signals. The sleepy looking driver hunched over the wheel in a daze until he approached an intersection. Then for a second he sprung up, opened his eyes half an inch further, and flicked his brights a couple of times as the car was already accelerating through the intersection. I didn’t demand he stop the car because I knew this was the only cabbie in the city willing to run an hour long round trip at such an effective loss. I wished I had a beer, and a seatbelt.

There was a roadblock just past the the turnoff for the Puerto Colombia road. A DUI checkpoint, something I had never seen or heard about before in Colombia. The cops asked us both to step out of the car, and when they did I sniffed out that it was the driver, not the taxi, who was soaked in cane liquor. The cop produced a breathalyzer. Without pause the driver obediently blew into the machine. The device then made a series of accusatory short and sustained beeps, as if spelling out drunk in Morse code for the other machines who couldn’t see or smell the man who now leaning against his taxi.

“0.18,” the policeman informed two colleagues who had been drawn by the sound of the failed test. My driver had blown twice the legal limit for anywhere I had had a driver’s license.

What was I supposed to do, ten miles from the city and nearly as far onto Prado Mar? The only drivers bound for the coast at this hour were sure to be as smashed, and I doubted the cops were going to offer me a ride.

Two of the officers then grabbed the taxi man under either shoulder and escorted him away from the road.

“Where are they taking him?” I asked the cop who wasn’t propping up my driver.

“To the other machine.”

I followed the cops to a shed that looked like a little league concession stand. It was a concession stand, an open air convenience store selling drinks, snacks and cigarettes, though I did not see any donuts. I asked for a couple of beers, half expecting the cops to say something before the attendant opened the refrigerator. They were all preoccupied with the second, larger breathalyzer. I was told it was more accurate than the first device. My stupefied driver, again without protest, blew into the machine. A second passed before the machine beeped.

“0.16” one of the cops said.

“Your first Carnival?” anther cop asked to me.

“Yes,” I said, figuring that’s what he wanted to hear.

No one stopped the taxi driver as he started his shuffled back to the car.

“What’s the legal limit, for alcohol?” I asked.

It was 0.20, one of the highest legal limits in the world. Granted, few people would lose consciousness at .20, though stupor was the word most commonly used on the BAC charts when describing the affect of 0.20.

“You want to try?” the first cop asked. He held out the blow tube attached to the corroborating machine.

I looked back to road. The driver did not appear to be in a hurry. He could probably use a nap after expending so much effort with the police.

“Sure.” I said. For effect I pounded the rest of my open beer.

I blew. The machine made a single beep.

“0.15. With beer in your mouth. If you were a Costeño we would arrest you!”

It did not sink in immediately. Cops making sobriety jokes at a DUI check point was a new experience for me. He meant they should take me in for not celebrating enough. I was about to offer to drink my other beer to get back in their graces, but the break time was over. The lights from the next coast bound vehicle were bouncing along up the road.

The gate was chained when I arrived. Ruiz took his time answering the bell on the second ring. I got the sense he was keeping an eye on my whereabouts as he followed close behind me on the way into the house. I guessed that meant Natalie was home. No one else seemed to be. Carlos was still in the city, it was the first night of his make shift Carnival hostel. Irene must have still been out. Only the kids were asleep beneath the overworked air conditioner.
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Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Barranquilla VII: Credentials

I arrived back at the Najar’s just before noon, only 16 hours since I had left for the movie.

“Wee-liam!” Rosa saw me at the gate. “Where did you go? Mama was worried!”

I told her I had run into an old friend and that I had been invited to stay with the Meyers during Carnival.

“Nancy! Nancy Meyer!”

Rosita knew Nancy. Barranquilla might be the smallest city of two million people on the continent.

I told them about the villa at Prado Mar and how she had invited me there for Carnival.

“They don’t have any money!” Rosita yelled. Elena slowly shook her head and chuckled to herself. It must have been preposterous to them that Nancy would take in a guest on the one week of the year people would pay anything for a room within striking distance of Carnival.

“I’m sharing a room with some others,” I explained.

Rosita made me promise to come for lunch before leaving Barranquilla. I sensed she wanted more details about Villa Meyer. Still, I was happy about the prospects of Elena’s sedating fish soup before the eight hour bus ride to Monteria.

I arrived at the compound known as the Carnival House just before three. The front gate opened to a spacious courtyard abuzz with activity. Lines formed at various unmarked tables set at intervals along the interior walls. Several news crews interviewed producers and participants for the upcoming pageant. Volunteers skittered about with printouts, some with sprocket holes from ancient dot matrix printers. I couldn’t remember seeing as many busy people in this city of tropical languor.

I found the door marked press office where I was met with a friendly but slightly frazzled assistant.

“Press is on this list, who do you work for?”

I hadn’t had time to arrange anything. I had only done a couple travel articles to date, and I didn’t want to burn any bridges in the off chance someone checked up on my lack of paperwork. I still had delusions that I might make a career out of this sort of thing.

So I gave her the name of a magazine where they had done the bridge burning. A few months back I submitted a cold pitch for the online edition of a travel magazine I don’t care to name in print. The editor responded and told me they’d take it on spec, which means they’d have the option of accepting or rejecting the story after I submitted it.

I submitted. Weeks passed, a long time in the world of online content, and I hadn’t heard a word about the article. I assumed that meant rejection. Out of curiosity I checked to see the stories they had gone with instead. Front and center on their homepage there was a link to my story. Except that I hadn’t written it. I wrote the editor again to see if they were still planning on running my story. A few days later I got a reply back, that yes, they were still running it, in fact they had decided to make the story into a series. A few days after that I got another mail asking if I could make a few tweaks to my article. The tweaks constituted another story, naturally, since the duplicate had covered all the same ground as my original. I needed the clip, but who was to say he wouldn’t steal the next one too? I checked with a friend who had been a freelancer for years who told me that yes, this was a screw job and no, I had no recourse, probably better that I drop it entirely. So this was the outfit I was going to represent this long weekend. With Carlos and Nancy’s crew in tow I planned on being a real ambassador for their publication.

I gave the name of the magazine as I debated whether to feign anger or astonishment over my omission from the list. Anger was my idea of the Latin way to handle the error, though I wasn’t sure I could see that ruse through, as attentive as this girl had been.

“Let’s see, here,” she read the name of the magazine from her list. and the name beside it, “Ian. McKay”

Ian McKay, that was him. The douche bag editor was here in Barranquilla. Out of all the travel writers at all the carnivals throughout the Catholic world the guy who stole an article from me must have also made the choice for this afterthought of a city. In moments like these I believe in a creator, the one who reached out to Adam from his cloud top and said, “pull my finger.”

In the shock of the moment I had neither confirmed nor denied that I was Ian. She handed me the list and pointed to the name.

“No, there must be a mistake, my name is Moss Williams.”

She asked me some more questions. Since truthful answers would not have helped my cause, my Spanish deteriorated. Playing dumb, that was something I was confident I could see through.

“This one doesn’t speak Spanish, and isn’t on the list,” the girl informed an older woman who was handling a registrant at the other end of the counter. The woman told her to go and find a translator. She looked around the room and then out the window. Then she handed me a form and led me through it with a game of charades.

While the press volunteer went to find a camera to take my picture, a red haired gringo walked into the office looking for his credentials. I leaned on the back wall of the room and wondered if this was Ian. On first impression I hoped it wasn’t, the way he joked and flirted with the assistant, this was a guy I would have a hard making enemies with. Fortunately not, his name was Henry, a photo journalist based in Bogota. He was no more prepared than I was, though with a precise and rapid fire Spanish he charmed his way onto the press list. The assistant returned with a camera and offered to take the pictures that we were supposed to send in with our registration forms.

She told us to come back at five for our credentials. With time to kill and nothing else to do, we introduced ourselves and decided to go look for a drink. Barranquilla is not known for its bar scenes, and in this neighborhood the best we could hope for was a corner store with a working refrigerator. A market across the street fit the bill, old men were sat out front playing dominoes and sipping from sweating beer cans. Younger men circled around a guy shaving elaborate patterns into the skulls of customers with a straight razor.

Henry had been in Colombia for over a year. As a freelance photographer, he took full advantage of his foreign press status. He had secured credentials to Bogota’s best soccer club, a second rate outfit by South American standards, so from the press box he enjoyed the games for free. He claimed this was one of the more organized events he had seen in Colombia. Most of the time his red hair and the giant lens on his camera opened the back door to most events.

Henry had come to town for Carnival, but he was also here working on a story about dating services. The press assistant had been unable to find the translator for me because Henry had locked onto her in the courtyard. The woman worked at one of Barranquilla’s famous marriage agencies, and Henry was looking to shadow her for a couple days at her work. She was dubious about the proposition, Henry had to convince her he himself was not looking for a wife.

The marriage agencies of Barranquilla are a major industry, each year thousands of older men from Europe and North America arrive in search of second and third wives from the endless ranks of beautiful and economically desperate girls from Barrnaquilla’s outer barrios. Henry had planned to get his story over the next two days, he already put out adds in El Heraldo, the city’s largest daily, where the classifieds have not been much affected by the rise of the internet. He had to rewrite his first attempt, judged too raunchy by the editors, though they consented on a second draft where he proposed that Barranquilleras looking for a gringo husband “get together for a clash of Civilizations.” Even his toned down add seemed to be working. Henry’s phone rang every five minutes as we sipped our beers and watched the domino games and shaving artists at the make shift barber shop.

“Con quien hablo? (with whom am I speaking)” Henry answered.

“You don’t know who you’re speaking to, Henry?” I could hear the English voice on the other line. It was Henry’s girlfriend, who had moved to Bogota a few months ago.

Henry’s girlfriend was flying in Saturday morning to join him at Carrnival. This was the reason he had to finish the research for his story by then, he hadn’t yet told her about the subject matter.

All signs pointed to Henry meeting his self-imposed deadline. His phone did not stop ringing, and all the girls he spoke with wanted wanted to meet him as soon as he was available. He jotted down their vitals: age, occupation, neighborhood in the city, then booked a few for Friday evening. He then proposed that I come along on a few of the dates, pretending to be the guy from the ad. Henry would play the role of translator.

It seemed a little sad, interviewing some desperately poor girl who believed she had a chance to get away from her hellhole of a barrio with a young, non-obese American. Henry’s mission reminded me of the Channel Four documentaries I’d seen while living in London where an investigative journalist visits a swingers’ society in the middle of Nebraska. By the end, no matter how pathetic the lives of the fat bodies piled into the hot tub, the swingers come off as decent souls trying to enjoy something in life as they freely over-share with the journalist who lampoons them in whispered asides at every opportunity. It all reeked of mean-spirited better-than-thou voyeurism.

Maybe there was a bit of the prurient private eye in Henry. He was also a funny guy, and with all the language and the culture barriers here on the Colombian coast, I hadn’t gotten a good dose of humor in months. I wondered if he was prepared for the awkwardness when confronted with desperate girls who were ready to come to America or Britain tomorrow if we asked them. If I played the wife hunter, I’d be the one doing the walking away. I didn’t mind a little awkwardness in the sake of a good story, besides, I’d craft some poison pills that no good Catholic girl could swallow.

At least Henry was in search of a story. What the hell had I done with my months in exile aside from waking up on the concrete floor of my apartment to an empty bottle and another hangover?
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Monday, March 8, 2010

Barranquilla VI: Villa Meyer

I awoke to the hum of an overworked air conditioner. To one side and a step below me Carlos and Irene were sleeping on a double mattress without a box spring. I tried to roll over, but couldn’t, a polyester tiger blocked my progress. The stuffed animal was just one of my bedmates, the girl who had opened the gate last night and a boy about her age were on the other side of the bed.

Out the bedroom door it was only a little warmer than the air conditioned room. Most of the space under the roof of the villa was open to the outside air, trellis work allowed passage of the sea breeze through the house.

The surrounding courtyards betrayed the dilapidated state of Villa Meyer. Weeds sprouted in the cracked walls and uneven masonry, and the mosaics were pockmarked with missing stones. A few hammocks drooped to the ground under overgrown mango trees around a pool dyed green with algae.

A narrow path ran through a low wall to an empty lot in the direction of the sea. Brown waves were visible through an iron gate, though its rusted lock and heavy chain barred passage to the beach. What should have been prime real estate was nothing but tall grass and waist high drifts of plastic bottles, rotting wood, and rusting metal. Whether the garbage had been dumped into the yard or was deposited by the surf was unclear. Perhaps a little of both, I recalled Diego throwing an empty bottle over a side wall at the end of the night.

It looked as if the Meyer fortune ran out at least a generation ago. This backwater Grey Gardens was their last connection to the local aristocracy.

The village, like this estate, had seen better days. In the first half of the 20th Century, Prado Mar, which means “Prado by the Sea,” was named after the wealthiest neighborhood in Barranquilla. This stretch of coast had been the weekend getaway for the elite. Now that Barranquilla boasts an international airport and a divided highway running to historic Cartagena, the wealthy have better options than a beach lapped by brown waves of filthy delta plume--Prado Mar sits just a few miles from the mouth of Colombia’s longest river. There were still a few villas here hidden from the road and from one another by high walls and dense tropical brush. A friend of Irene’s ran a hotel on the beach where surfers gathered for the break and where fat and balding businessmen brought their college-aged mistresses.

Nancy was the only person from last night’s crew already awake. She sat at a table set along the open wall to the patio, the folds of her white cotton gown billowing in the breeze. A tall man in his mid fifties, with a thick mustache and salt and pepper stubble, brought her a coffee. As he turned from the table Deja Vu cut through the mist of my hangover.

His name was Ruiz, Nancy’s houseman. We found him passed out in a hammock when we arrived from the city last night. Within minutes of our arrival he had taken up the role of Fernando the doctor. He rustled up a bottle of aguardiente, firewater of clear cane liquor, and took turns administering us shots from a tiny plastic cup or simply pouring it into upturned mouths. In between stints of filling glasses he retreated to a hammock in the shadows where I felt him keep an eye on the newcomer. Diego showed no such concern, not in the car, not the few times I got Natalie to laugh at my Spanish. She had hardly noticed me otherwise since the ride home, probably a good sign. Though she didn’t notice Diego either. The thrasher took notice of no one save Nancy, who for a time came downstairs and sat with him on the couch. He found no takers for the joint he spent a good twenty minutes rolling. He smoked until the slits between his eyelids resembled those of a sleeping lizard.

Nancy invited me to join her for breakfast. She explained in a rich costeño accent that this was the best fortnight of the year. Nancy lived for Carnival, she had been going to all the parties and had tickets in the grandstands for each day’s parade. Tonight was the first official Carnival event, the night the popular queen was elected from among the representatives of all of Barranquilla’s outlying barrios. Eighty contestants were to compete in a pageant style event that included dancing, public speaking, and of course a swim contest. Five finalists were chosen, the queen, her runner up, and three princesses. These girls would represent the lower castes of Barranquilla during the week-long festivities.

Her eyes grew distant. She explained that in addition to the popular queen, a Carnival Queen is selected from the ranks of Barranquilla debutantes. It was a year long duty for the deb, and as the most coveted role in high society, the selection was no doubt spiced with scandal and intrigue.

I could tell Nancy was lost in one of those years at the moment.

"What was it like when were you the Queen," I asked her.

She smiled at me in a way I hadn't imagined a grandmother could smile. For a second I could see back through her eyes to the woman as foxy as Natalie, and more confident.

"That was another world," she said.

Now the Queens are chosen from women in their early twenties, but in 1965 Nancy was barely fifteen years old.

"Fifteen is too young, you must have more maturity, especially these days.”

Nancy went on about the customs of the week. I told her I might write some stories about the event.

“Are you a journalist?” her eyes lit up.

“Yes.” She was so excited I did not want to disappoint her.

“You are international press! They must give you a press pass!”

Nancy, ecstatic about the prospects of having a journalist in her entourage, bid me to go to the Carnival House. She explained that a pass would give me access to the parade route, and to all the events associated with the week long party. She pinched an imaginary pass in between her thumb and forefinger and waved it in my face.

“With this you can go anywhere in Barranquilla, just say international press, and they will let you go anywhere.”

At this point there was no way to explain that I didn’t have the slightest interest in attending another Carnival. I meant to be on the road this morning, to clear out of Barranquilla before the city temporarily doubled in size. I had fought through the crowds to see the parades last year, and I didn’t have the stamina for one hundred hours of non-stop partying at Carlos' Carnival flophouse.

“It would make a nice article,” I said slowly, searching for an excuse “ but I haven’t made any reservations here, my plan is to go to Guajira.”

“You can go to Guajira anytime. You will stay with us here, we’ll be going into town everyday,” Nancy replied.

I looked up through the railing atop the staircase and saw Natalie emerge from her room. A long tee shirt just covered the tops of her thighs.

“That is a kind invitation.”

“An invitation you must accept, mi amor.” Nancy said.

Nancy insisted again I go at once to the Carnival House to sign up for my credentials. I had to go back to town for my backpack anyways, and the address she gave me was not too far from the Najars. Mama and Rosita were probably wondering where their gringo disappeared to on his last night in town.
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Thursday, March 4, 2010

Barranquilla V: Detour

When the winds pick up and the traffic dies it is finally pleasant to be outside. Winter nights are delicious in this city. It was nearly midnight when I crossed a concrete slab that could have been an ancient sewer bed as well as a deserted thoroughfare running through this northwest quadrant of old Barranquilla. At any moment in the rainy season this roadway could become a turbulent river; tropical downpours have nowhere else to go but over these concrete channels. Everything not bolted to a foundation is sent whipping through brown rapids eventually into the river.

I hadn’t noticed the changes to what had been a vacant building on the corner of the intersection. Under the floodlights the white stucco and blue windows looked impossibly clean in this city of garbage and dust. This Greek villa was the only business still open on the block, and dozens of people were milling about on a porch raised to make a second embankment a couple of feet above the sidewalk.

“Beel! Beel! Beel!” came a shout from up on the porch. I recognized the voice, though it seemed impossible I could know anyone on this nameless block in a nowhere city. A short, balding fellow came running out the front door to greet me. It was Carlos, my first forgotten acquaintance from Barranquilla.

Carlos acted as if we were long lost friends and introduced me as such. In fact I had known him for less than 24 hours over a manic night and day last Carnival. He was the proprietor of a fly by night hostel in a building twenty blocks from here. He had rented a few apartments for the week and lined the floors almost wall to wall with mattresses. Either he didn’t remember our last interaction, or in the context of a week-long coke bender, the confrontation had not been a highlight. In any case, he hadn’t lost our passports in the streets of Carnival, and for a moment I played the role of his good friend from Tennessee.

Carlos was heavier, his face more bloated than I had remembered. At the same time he looked more healthy. His eyes weren’t bloodshot, and he didn’t seem amped on anything other than booze and the excitement of a chance encounter.

Carlos led me through a crowd to the back of the new restaurant. At the bar he introduced me to Nancy, a silvery blonde in her early to mid 60’s. She had the airs of the proprietress as she stood with an elbow propped on the bar.

“Do you like whiskey?” she asked.

“Yes, I like whiskey.”

She snapped orders to the bartender and gave me a long look over. She handed me a glass with an ice cube floating in six fingers of scotch.

I joined Carlos who was standing in a circle with Nancy’s two daughters, Irene and Natalie. Irene had hard lines on her face and a smoke cured voice. Her brusque manner fit her stocky build, her husky New Jersey accent and the large tattoo on her upper arm —Irene was clearly a woman not to be fucked with. Natalie was half her sister’s age, and a stone cold fox. She was well aware of the tight curves on her compact body. She looked everywhere but in my direction as she flicked strands of raven hair back to her shoulders. Her fierce black eyes hinted a temper a twitch away from combustion.

I couldn’t make out Diego, a metal thrasher type with dirty blonde hair longer than Natalie’s. He did not fit into context with this group. He was too young for the older daughter and too scruffy for the fox. His eyes were dead-red stoned beneath droopy lids; he did not engage in the conversation. When Nancy rejoined the circle she draped an arm across his shoulder. A third man introduced as Fernando the Doctor was in constant motion back and forth from the bar, attentive to his patients rum glasses.

It was past midnight when I joined the circle, within minutes Carlos invited me to go to the Meyers’ place in Prado Mar.

“Prado Mar?”

“Eats only twenty me nuts,” Carlos said. “Eats nice. Tomorrow we go on the bitch,” on the beach.

I was just one finger into my oversized whiskey as I mulled the invitation. Nancy had anticipated this. Before I could answer she motioned to the waiter and signaled for a go cup. I took a few long pulls on my drink so that the remainder would fit in the smaller plastic glass I was promptly issued. Nancy marshaled her crew out to the sidewalk.

Fernando the Doctor pulled up to the curb in a black Mercedes. He had not looked any more sober than anyone else staggering through the restaurant. I whispered to Carlos if he thought this was a good idea.

“Is ok, he's a doctor.”

Nancy grabbed Diego and stuffed him into the front seat with the doctor’s girlfriend while the others piled into the backseat. Maybe Prado Mar was only twenty minutes from here, maybe it was more. It was one of those split second calculations one has to make while on the road. A car full of drunks and a liquor prescribing doctor and I don’t even have a toothbrush. Here was the first group of interesting people I’d met in months who have invited me to something more than a seat at a table, and they were going somewhere I suspected I’d never see otherwise. The Doctor tapped on the horn, while Natalie, the last to climb into the crammed backseat, made the decision for me when she extended me her hand.

Natalie took my whiskey, then arched her back and stood up on the floorboard as I brushed under the perfect half moons of her bottom. I was just able to click the door shut as the girl on my lap took a long pull from my go cup. Diego, who I now decided must have been her boyfriend, was not paying the slightest attention. Maybe he was too stoned for machismo. I couldn’t guess what he was thinking as he groomed Nancy's blonde and silver in the front seat.

Presumably there was something in the Hippocratic oath about staying awake at the wheel. The streets were empty on the ride out of the city as the Mercedes swayed gently back and forth across the lanes. But it was a divided highway, and the motion was not out of time with the vallenato blaring through the speakers. Natalie and I took turns sipping the whiskey and Carlos next to us was prattling on about all the things we would do tomorrow on the bitch. Something about a hotel a friend of theirs owned and a pier which I had read about somewhere, either the longest or the oldest in South America.

Natalie leaned her head back and I tried to think of anything but the perfume on her neck and how well her body fit onto mine. I did not want my lap betraying how little luck I had been having with the cachonas of Barranquilla.

A bright moon illuminated our descent down to the Caribbean whose waters for months had been close but unseen. I wasn’t ready for the ride to be over when the Mercedes spun over the packed earth off of the Puerto Colombia road. We reached the alley that led to the Meyers’ place and slowly decompressed from the car. I followed the others into the dark alley that ran along a high stucco wall topped with broken bottles and chards of colored glass until we reached the chained double gate of the villa. Nancy rang the bell several times. No one answered. Someone grumbled that the night man was asleep. We sat on the stones outside the gate and the girls smoked and Irene tried to call the house. Finally a little girl, about seven or eight, emerged from the house cradling a stuffed horse and rubbing her eyes with the hand that held a large key.
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