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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