Thursday, April 8, 2010

Barranquilla X: Bride Shopping

I walked from the abandoned pier into Puerto Colombia and caught a bus for Barranquilla. I had agreed to meet Henry and serve as an accomplice for his story on international brides.
The old Blue Bird school bus was striped with Colombia’s national colors: yellow for the land, blue for the sea, and red for the blood of the people. The paint scheme was reminiscent of the brightly colored wooden Chiva buses that still operate in remote parts of the northern Andes, though the throw back sleighs have reincarnated in urban areas as party buses that deliver tourists on night crawls to the local dance clubs.
Though Puerto Colombia marked the end of the line and the bus wasn’t due to depart for another ten minutes, there was hardly any standing rooming left when I boarded. The aisles were packed in with families and groups of revelers headed for the parade that unleashed four nights of insanity on the Caribbean coast. Following the advice that body counts on the passenger casualty lists posted at all major bus terminals in the country heavily represented passengers in the front half of vehicles, I weaved my way through the crowd to the back of the bus.
The Carnival chant I would hear once an hour for the next four days, Mamo Ron, Mamo Ron, blasted through the sound system. The cabin was steamed with sweat and alcohol, and the rusted windows wouldn’t shimmy open more than a crack.
I found myself wedged between two student groups who took the cue from the music and embarked on a competition to drain their bottle of aguardiente faster than the others across the way. As was beginning to seem the custom, each group was lead by a captain who held the bottle and a single plastic cup to distribute shots to his team. When one of the female crew members on the seaward aisle charges refused her turn by slumping her head into the seat back in front of her, the captain offered me her shot. Either to match the gesture or maintain competitive balance, the landward captain also offered me a drink. I could feel the clear liquid burn a course down into my gut. The successive drinks weathered what was left of my social reserve; it didn’t fit to stand aloof on a commandeered party bus. I can do anything for four days, I thought, as I yielded to the transient camaraderie.

Team seaside had a worthy drinking captain. The beer bellied twentysomething wore a whistle on his neck and a marimonda mask atop his head. He pressed with a friendly yet forceful hand when administering the medicine. The liquor burned a bit less with each each swallow.
My mind wandered back to rugby drink-ups, the one place where I pulled weight on the team. I had convinced myself cheap keg beer was just flavored water so that the only obstacle was how quickly I could swallow. To this day I guzzle a pint, water not keg beer, each morning, out of mindless habit that once kept me in form. Cane spirits are swallowed with a single tilt of the head, and they do not sit like flavored water in the stomach.
By the time I removed myself from the drinking competition the damage was done. The bus hadn’t started rolling until after the fourth shot, and my head was spinning by the time we passed Prado Mar.  As city lights announced Barranquilla, I realized I had missed another tropical twilight. The glow in my head began to assert its own gravity. My inner revolutions were not in sync with the bumps and jerks, the lingering heat, or the afro-Caribbean beats blasting through the school bus. I tried closing my eyes, which only made the spinning worse, and made me more vulnerable to the pickpockets who make a living off of the amateur drunks at Carnival.
Fortunately the bus let me off at my destination, a posh mall near the northern city limits where blocks of high rise apartments abruptly gave way to the slopes down to the delta marsh and mangrove bordering the sea.
Henry had lived in Colombia long enough to to pick the right setting for an interview with a potential Colombian wife. In Barranquilla the mall was the place for nearly all social interaction. It’s where families came for outings, students to study, lovers to date, evangelicals to proselytize, and for women of all ages to show off the bandages from yesterday’s nose job. Where else would they go? The only movie theaters were at the mall, so were all the best fast food outlets and supermarkets. As one of the few air conditioned spaces in the city some people came just to sit by the indoor fountains and escape the heat. Neighborhoods have come to be named after their malls and when people gave directions they reflexively started them from the parking garage of the nearest shopping complex. Only when the mall closed did the locus of activity shift to the nightclub.
Hard at work on his article, Henry had been meeting hopeful wives all day. In a measure to prevent stalking and to keep his dates separated from each other, his schedule had rotated between the Metrocenter, Prado, and here at Buenaventura mall. I saw him waiting for me inside the front entrance. I waved but did not risk opening my mouth as I made a bee line for the restroom where I made an offering of aguardiente to the porcelain throne of the gods of commerce. Post sacrifice I took stock in the mirror--not too bad, considering. Though my eyes were glazed and sunk behind swollen cheeks, I had kept the garlic fish sludge from splashing onto my shirt. I dabbed some water on my face and combed fingers through my hair a couple times, not that I wanted to look too presentable. It’s better a bride knows up front what she’s getting into.
“I can see you aim to make a good first impression.” Henry said when I returned to the entrance. He offered me a piece of gum which I declined.
“No, I insist,” he said with the charm of a drinking captain.
It wasn’t yet seven. Per custom, the girls would be at least a little late, so I had time to catch up on Henry’s day of interviews. The strongest contender so far was Yamile, the young cosmetologist in training who had brought her mother, father, four sisters, two brothers, and a baby niece along for the date. Her family in rapt attention, Yamile assured Henry that with her training in massage and the facial arts she would provide him a life of relaxation and physical bliss. Henry had a hard time relaxing or contemplating her definition of physical bliss with the twenty eyes on him sizing up their potential in-law. It was not the only family date he had stumbled into, and it had gotten expensive. The day’s tally of overpriced mall coffees and ice cream for seven dates and 32 relatives had set him back more than he’d make selling his article. It also put a crimp in his Carnival budget, though lucky for him his girl friend was arriving tomorrow from Bogota.
This was his last scheduled meeting of the day, a twenty year old named Katherine. After the Yamile episode, he requested by text she bring a single friend and no extended family along for the date. Katherine hailed from barrio Beautiful Coast. Beauty is relative, but her neighborhood was located nowhere near the coast.
Henry spotted two girls on the other side of the entrance hall, the angle was such where we could just see them through the triangle of space under the escalators. They were huddled near a store window, the shorter of the two cupped her hand to the corner of her mouth as she whispered to her friend. They had probably been there scouting us for a while. They hadn’t run away, so Henry and I approached to see if they were our dates.
Katherine was a lanky girl with thick black hair and dark caramel skin. Henry explained he was our translator and then made our introduction. Katherine introduced her friend Soledad, a short and heavy set girl a few shades darker than Katherine. After the introductions we silently agreed to get on the escalator and head for the ice cream shop in the food court because that is what people do on a first date at the mall.
Seconds after we sat down, I felt my stomach sinking. It wasn’t the aguardiente, this time it was something worse, my conscience a step ahead of me. A depressing reality was unfolding that this was one of those encounters only funny in the abstract. It seemed like a hilarious idea yesterday that I go along with this charade for the sake of Henry’s story. At the time I had a sweating can of beer in my hand and a new friend to impress. Now the joke involved Katherine and her friend who had traveled an hour on some equally insane bus ride through streets filling with crowds from neighborhood block parties. Now they were here in an empty shopping mall on the the first night of a party Barranquilleros lived the rest of the year waiting for.
Katherine’s radiant smile and hopeful eyes somehow made the set up all the more awful. Couldn’t she see that the promise of gringolandia wasn’t worth a guy who could barely hold what was left of his lunch down on the escalator?
The trace of glitter on her cheeks and eyelids made Katherine look younger than her twenty years. She was wearing a purple halter top with the word sexy airbrushed in yellow stars on her flat chest. The girls from this wealthy neighborhood might have snickered at her cheap plastic heels and lack of a boob job had they bothered to notice her at all here.
Henry started the interview by explaining to the girls that he had put the classified ad in the paper on my behalf, a 30 year old American from San Francisco, California. He told them that we would start with me asking her some questions. My stomach turned over again. I had no idea what to ask this girl. I didn’t want to ask her anything, nor did I want to be here in this climate controlled palace of commerce, teasing this poor girl with a chance for a membership into the first world shopping club. It was too late to run, at this point I had to play along.
“What kind of a wife will you make?” I asked lamely.
Henry began the translation, but Katherine cut him short. She understood the question, and had practiced a response in English.
“I make good wife,” she said with pauses between each word, “I work hard. I like the cooking. I love the children. I love English. I want speak good English.”
“What places would you like to visit in America?”
This time she waited for Henry’s translation. She looked at Soledad and then back at me.
“New York.” she said.
I put this question to every young person I've met here and have noticed a pattern. The rich and poor almost always choose New York, while every middle income Colombian answers Miami and Orlando. Most children of the wealthy have been to all three cities. They have relatives in Miami and New York, and daddy took his little princess on the obligatory pilgrimage to Disney World. As young adults they know New York is the cultural capital and the ex pat city that confirms their worldliness. My guess is the middle income kids were aware that their better off cousins took the trip to Orlando and still fantasize about going themselves, with a trip to South Beach to round off the vacation. Poor girls like Katherine answered New York because that is the city they have heard of, perhaps through a distant relative or because a brother or uncle followed the Yankees. Disney does not market to her demographic.
Katherine answered the rest of my questions with a politician’s positive. I felt a little less fraudulent by the end. Even if I wasn’t the gringo from Henry’s Clash of Civilizations classified, I was single and open to possibility. However unlikely it was that I’d fall for a waifish girl from the Barranquilla slums, I like to imagine that anything is possible so far from home.
I would have felt better still if Katherine hadn’t seemed to be enjoying the interview so much. So far, other than showing up drunk, I hadn’t done anything to make it clear I was not her prince charming.
Henry picked up on my inward turn and asked Katherine if she would like to ask some questions. I resolved to bomb her half of the interview and get out of there. She gave me the opportunity straight away when she asked about my family. Family was the most noticeable difference between Americans and Colombians in the daily experience. The Colombian family is a twenty four seven experience, even teenagers hang out with their friends in the same room with their parents. I could have told her how close I was to my family--I saw them two or three times a year. Or I could have told her how much I loved children and how I didn’t want to spoil that love by having any. I could have gone anywhere with the question. What popped into my head was my roommate’s fantasy about our San Francisco household.
“My family life is very special, and very important to me. That’s why I am here, to grow my family, but my family might not be the kind of family you think of here in Colombia," I said, then waited for Henry to translate.  "In San Francisco we have a lot of gay people. I live with two other women, they’re both lesbians, and we have a special relationship. We’re looking for a third woman to live with us and have our children. We would all have a relationship together, like a marriage. You would be married to me and two other women, and we would all be parents to the children.”
Henry flashed the prurient look of the Channel Four documentarian even as he faithfully translated my words. Soledad also looked scandalized, but the grenade fell short of its mark. Katherine didn’t blink or break smile. Her posture exuded confidence and graciousness as she gave a thoughtful response the dazed reporter could only paraphrase.
“She says she has a big family too, and is used to living with loads of people under one roof. A man with such kind eyes must have a loving family that he cares for deeply. The children will be very lucky to have so many people who love them.” Henry raised his eyebrows as if to say. “Next question, mate.”
This wasn’t my idea, I thought to myself. But that didn’t make me feel like any less of a schmuck. I had agreed to be here. That Katherine seemed ready to walk away from everything she knows and join a man with kind eyes who is taking her to a polyamorous household in a foreign land, made it all the worse. 

If the coarse alcohol hadn’t been tightening viselike at my temples, I might have appreciated the cult forming possibilities Katherine's case presented. I had drunk too much cane liquor kool-aid to imagine myself the reverse Jim Jones, snatching the girls out of the jungle and back to San Francisco. No, I felt like a run of the mill sex tourist.
I answered the rest of her questions as succinctly as possible so I could go find another bottle of fire water and a hole to pass out in. I couldn’t make eye contact with either of the girls as Henry thanked them for traveling across the city to meet us and wished them luck on their long ride home.
Katherine told Henry that we were both invited to her birthday party next Tuesday. She wrote her phone number and the closest coordinates to her house-- households often lack proper addresses in the barrios-- on the back of a napkin. Henry said we would try to make it.
Later I’d discover I was just another subject in a mock reality that so often passes for the way things are in the BBC or CNN version of the world. Put a camera in front of a situation, and see if people act the same; send a writer out for a story, see if he doesn’t come up with a story. At least I would be the butt of the joke. Henry wove a yarn about a Yank journalist representing the Ethical Traveller while binge drinking and bride shopping his way through Carnival. And fortunately, he published the article in Spanish.
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Thursday, April 1, 2010

Barranquilla IX: Oscar, Prepagas, and the Pier at Puerto Colombia

Even before I opened my eyes I could feel them hovering over me.

Diego, Ruiz, Irena, Natalie and three girls and a guy her age who I had never seen before were crouched down around the perimeter of my mattress.

Mamo Ron, Mamo Ron!” they chanted. When I opened my mouth to speak Ruiz pressed a bottle of aguardiente to my lips. Other hands pinned my arms and pushed my head back into the pillow. The chant turned to cheers as I followed the literal instruction of the words and suckled liquor from the speed pour in the bottle. That is how a guest wakes to Carnival in Villa Meyer.

There was something to this little initiation. The cane spirits burned through the fog in my head and kept me on course--64 more hours to lent. Now that there was a goal in mind, I would either keep up with the party or I wouldn't.

I followed the celebrants out of the bedroom door then snuck into the kitchen for a few glasses of water. I rejoined the crew by the pool where Ruiz administered the fire water a dose at a time from a plastic dixie cup. Nancy sat apart from the revelers, though I could tell by her glow she was enjoying the warm ups as she took breakfast in the courtyard.

I joined the Carnival Queen of 1965 at the breakfast table.

“Good morning, mi amor!” she said and before I hit the chair, “Where is your press pass?”

I told her it was in the room.

“You must get it! You must wear it everywhere! So people know who you are.”

A Colombian host adamant that her guest announce himself as a journalist at every juncture. How this country had changed.

She insisted I get the pass from my bag before I took my coffee.

Ruiz took a break from the aguardiente to bring us a plate of arepas and plantains.

I thanked her again for her hospitality.

“You are welcome my love. You have manners, I can see you come from good people. You are always welcome here.” she said.

She blinked her eyes a couple of times and then leaned towards me.

“Please, amor, we want to provide everything for you, if you could just give me, 10,000 pesos for the nights you are staying here.”

I produced the bills from my wallet, slightly embarrassed that I hadn’t already offered anything more than the bottles of aguardiente I brought from the city. She folded the bills and kissed me on the cheek.

“Let me know what you want, amor, anything you want.” she said.

The doctor was picking Nancy up to go secure seats for the Friday evening parade. Nancy invited me to join her, but I declined. I had spent enough time in the city of baking dust and cement, and I was already meeting Henry early in the evening to pose as an American on wife safari for his story about the marriage market. Nancy looked disappointed, but there where plenty more parades, each day from Saturday through Tuesday, and excepting the last parade, they were all similar enough for the casual observer. I opted for lunch with Irene at the beach and an afternoon with Natalie and her entourage around the pool.

The hotel down the street from Villa Meyer was the only stretch between Prado Mar and the pier at Puerto Colombia with a relatively clean and safe beach. The hotel was run by Irene’s childhood friend Oscar who had also spent time in the USA. When Irene introduced me as a foreign journalist--I was starting to regret indulging Nancy on that point--he insisted on giving me a tour of the grounds. He was proud of his place, and deservedly so. If not quite a luxury resort, Hotel Prado Mar was among the best weekend retreats from Barranquilla this side of Cartagena. The main building housed second floor rooms with balconies facing the sea. Bungalows flanked both sides of the hotel, their roofs matched the thatched sunshades on the beach. Shade was a necessity under the relentless tropical sun, though a few folks who had not gotten the word about skin cancer lay out broiling on the dark sand. Oscar was tolerant of the local surfers and allowed them access to the break off a rock outcropping on the eastern end of his property. On a flat rise of ground above the surfer’s rocks he built an open air lounge for dj’s to spin on weekends and holidays.

Oscar worked and studied to become a chef in restaurants in Miami, New York and Montreal. After five years in the States he returned to take over the family business. His restaurant training was obvious, the open air kitchen fronting the beach was a professional operation. On Oscar’s recommendation, I ordered fish bathed in a sauce of garlic, peppers and local spices. It was the best food I had eaten in months.

Oscar had been back 16 years now, and like every repatriated Colombian I have so far met he was happy to be back in his motherland. He believed Colombia was a better place for family and offered a higher quality of life than the States.

“And the LEE-tul things,” he said in a way that made me prepare forced laughter at a version of the well worn Pulp Fiction monologue. With his gold rimmed aviator shades and brass beads on a nest of chest hair exposed by his Hawaiian shirt, Oscar was more Al Pacino/Scarface than a pony-tailed John Travolta. And fortunately, his material was more original.

“Once in New York I pay 200 dollars for a woman. Then when I touch her, She say, ‘no, no, no! You only pay for these!’” his fingers drew a box around his crotch. “ You no pay for these!” his hands groped the pair of not-included tits.

“In Colombia, it's not all business. She will have a good time with you.”

Irene was not impressed. She scowled, her eyes almost squinting, probably focused on his wedding ring. I was not ready for the show to stop, so I blurted the first thing I could think of to cut off her attack.

I asked him what a gringo had to to get a girl's attention at Frogg’s Leggs.

‘You say, 'Hola, baby I'm from United States.' That's all you need with prepagas!”

“What’s a prepaga?” I asked.

Oscar’s smirk and Irene’s scowl spread over their faces in Yin-Yang harmony. Then Oscar sat down at our table to give me a lesson in prepagas. He confirmed my suspicions about the shades of Colombian prostitution. Irene rolled her eyes and clicked her tongue but didn’t interrupt our host.

Prepaga literally means 'pre-pay', yet they are not prostitutes according to Oscar. Prepagas are party girls, and unlike the good Catholics under the thumb of their families, they will actually go home with a guy at the end of the night. She knows the man she goes home with is never going to call her again, so she figures she might as well get something out of a good time. This works well for a happily married man like Oscar who would rather pay for a one night stand than have some crazy girl calling his cell phone over and over when he is home with his wife. It also works for many students who use the weekend nights to help pay tuition.

“You have fun, then no worry.” Oscar said as he made a show of wiping his hands clean.

Irene shook her head at the performance.

“If she takes your money, she’s a whore, Oscar.”

Oscar gave me a conspiratorial look over the the top his sun glasses.

After Oscar went back to the kitchen, Irene pointed out a couple of bald men in their fifties sitting under a thatched shelter with three young girls.

“You don’t have to go to Frogg’s Leggs to find them.” she said.

“But they could be their daughters,” I said.

“Daughters my ass. Look at the way they are sitting, almost as bad as mother and Diego.” she said, squinting and shaking her head again.

“Your mother and Diego? Natalie’s boyfriend?”

“Natalie’s boyfriend?” For a second she looked as confused as I was. Then the misunderstanding sunk in for both of us. “Jesus Billy, are you blind? Diego is with mother. How long have you been staying with us?”

Only two nights, but it made sense when she said it. Diego was always at Nancy’s side like a puppy. I had just assumed he was trying to stay with Natalie by keeping in her mother’s her good graces.

“Not bad for the Carnival Queen of 1965.” I said.

“And lying about her age,” she said with more grunt than exclamation. “That was Nineteen six-oh.” She almost smiled before a fresh wave of disgust wrinkled her face. “Maybe she has her eye on you now. Oh God.”

That meant Nancy was at least sixty three years old. Still, forced to choose, I might have taken the Carnival Queen of 1960 over her oldest daughter.

“She is really embarrassing herself.” Irene said.

I wanted to say that it was fashionable of her, taking a younger man. But with the look on Irene’s face, I checked myself.

“I don’t see how she does it in front of Ruiz. You know he’s one of her ex husbands. And Natalie’s father.”

Villa Meyer was starting to come into focus: Diego’s listlessness, Ruiz’ unspoken hostility, Natalie’s flirtation. I had nearly ignored the girl on Diego’s account, though maybe it was best I had on account of Ruiz.

“Natalie’s boyfriend is flying in from Spain this afternoon.”

By trying to react casually, I am sure I gave away that I had been thinking about her sister. Was I that transparent? I shifted my attention to the surfers paddling their boards out the break and slipped further away into the refuge of daydream.

After lunch I suggested we walk to Puerto Colombia to see the pier. Irene declined as I expected--it was a three mile walk to town and then the pier extended another half mile into the sea. So I had the afternoon to myself, free to mull my land trip home, the upcoming madness of Carnival, and how exactly I telegraphed my stream of consciousness on the beach.

Stiff winds blew into my ear on the walk to the pier. Brisas, the local term for the winds common in January and February in this part of the Caribbean, had been lashing the trees and screaming through corrugated roofs for a week. Eight foot swells might be good for surfers, but I was already thinking ahead to my boat ride I must take next week to get within striking distance of the Panamanian border. The old pier was taking a beating by the sea. Spray from the waves broke over the worn concrete, and the deep grooves that once housed rails for cargo containers now looked like little aqueducts coursing with water.

The pier did not look like it had seen any renovations since its construction in 1893. Thousands of immigrants from Germany, Lebanon, Italy, Spain, and Jews from across Europe first set foot in America by walking down this half mile structure while rail cars loaded with coffee and bananas rolled the other way to the ships ready to steam to the USA or back to Europe. Now it was just me and a couple of old fisherman who sat in the shade cast by a pair of abandoned two-story buildings, ruins built on ruins near the sea end of the pier. No one could tell me what was once housed here because they had sat empty and crumbling for as long as anyone could remember.

I took the liberty to imagine one of them was the passport control for the men and women who had chosen the promise of South America over their known discontents in the Old World. We think of ourselves living in a global age, and its true, but it was just as true for those new arrivals at the dawn of the 20th century. International trade did not again reach pre-1914 levels in real terms until the early 1970’s, and arguably no continent was as stunted by the collapse of the pre-war trading regime as South America. Argentina after all was the fifth richest country in the world the year Gavrilo Princip shot Franz Ferdinand and Europe spiraled into protectionism and conflict. Right here, on the Colombian Ellis Island, new immigrants walked onto a shore that would see its own century of bloodshed and suffering. After all of it their great-great grand children would still be proud to return and call Colombia home.
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