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 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.
“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.