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 costeƱo 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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