Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Barranquilla XI: Saturday Morning

I had slept off the worst of the hangover, I thought, until I tried to sit up and my neck buckled with the dead weight of what may as well have been a taxidermy head. So I lay on the mattress and listened to the chorus of breathing and snores on the bed above me, Irene the bass, the two child sopranos, and a tenor I did not recognize. Carlos had left the day before yesterday to set up his Carnival hostel. There was a new adult in the room.
Nancy was the only person awake. She sat at her courtyard table sipping coffee and looking over the wall towards the sky above the sea. She was dressed in flowing white linens, the only costume I had seen her in during my stay at Prado Mar. She either owned a closet full of matching gowns, or she hadn’t changed since Thursday.
“Today is Battle of the Flowers, the best parade of Carnival,” she said as I sat down at the table, “All the best comparsas march today.”
A comparsa is similar to a New Orleans crewe, a group who enters a float or a dance group in the parades. They also serve as social clubs throughout the year. Comparsas practice their dances for months and can be seen training in parks throughout the city from November through February. All but the most established crews must compete in lesser events to make the cut for the final weekend, as hard as it is to imagine that a six-hour long parade does not accept all comers.

Soon after I sat down a slender young man about 26 came down the stairs and joined us at the breakfast table. Dressed in knee length shorts, a snug fitting ironic t-shirt and top tinted aviator shades, Eduardo dressed the part of Natalie’s international DJ boyfriend I heard about from Irene. Nancy took hold of one of his soft hands as she drank in his smooth face and Old World features. I looked around to see what looks Ruiz might be giving the boy who had just emerged from his daughter’s bedroom, but this morning Nancy’s manservant was nowhere in sight.
“Good morning mi amor!” Nancy said.
With two younger men at each side, neither of whom was her 27 year old boyfriend, the matriarch glowed.

“It is a pleasure to host young men with such class,” she said, turning from Natalie’s boyfriend to me and back again. “I can see you both come from good families.”
She took a series of slow, deep breaths, as if to savor the young flesh and old money.
After some more flattery about the class of her guests, she reached out and took Eduardo’s hand in hers. “Amor...”
Sure of her new tack, I pushed back from the table yielding right of way for Nancy to make her pitch to the son of the Venezuelan elite.
At first I had been taken aback by Nancy’s request for money since at the same time she was adamant that I was her guest. But I was a stranger here, a friend of a friend with no connection to the Meyer clan. So it was not unreasonable that Nancy ask me for rent even if she had invited me to stay here. Now, in front of my eyes, Nancy was asking for twice as much from her daughter’s visiting boyfriend. So it turns out I got a great deal at the Villa Meyer, except that I was sleeping with the wrong sister. I wondered if Diego paid rent.
Irene came out from her room as if she had sniffed out the transaction. Her look turned from annoyed to incredulous as the situation sank in. She stormed towards the table.
“Mother! What are you doing?”
Nancy had already folded the bills and pocketed them inside her linen gown.
“Fernando picks us up at 11,” she snapped back, “You need to get ready.”
“You can’t take money from Natalie’s boyfriend,” Irene shouted. By this time Eduardo had disappeared from sight. “And I’m not going to the parade!”
Irene stormed back in the direction of her room as if she might have considered going before watching her mother extort pesos from her sister’s boyfriend. Irene had told me yesterday she had no intention of joining us in the city. The old Carnival Queen turned her chin away from her retreating daughter to emphasize she was the one ending the conversation.
I spied Eduardo at the top of the stairs. He shrugged and cracked a furtive smile.
A moment later a younger version of Irene appeared in the courtyard to say hello to Nancy. Nancy introduced me to her granddaughter Nina. It was the first time I had seen the girl so I assumed she was the tenor. I asked her if she lived in the city.
“No, but I am only person who works around here,” she said in English with a thick Jersey accent. “AND I go to college.”
Nina had grown up in New Jersey and moved back to Colombia with her mother when she was 16. It was a rough transition for her. She thought her Spanish was good while growing up, and it was a shock when she couldn’t even understand the math teacher in her first month at school. Now she was 21 and loving her life in Colombia. Her native English skills qualified her for teaching jobs in the same University she attended. She was full of questions: why I was here, how old I was, where I was from, and where I had been living in town. She chuckled when I tried to describe the Najar’s neighborhood.
“Over there is ghetto good,” she said.
“Ghetto good?”
“You know, people have nice things, they think it’s something better, but it’s still ghetto.”
Short of Prado, Nina reckoned ghetto good was the best descriptor for a city like Barranquilla.
Her curiosity satisfied for the moment, Nina turned back to her grandmother, gave her a peck on the cheek, and bolted for the front gate before Nancy could rope her into any Carnival commitments.
Diego, Natalie and the rest of the crew slowly gathered at the courtyard table, each in turn placating Nancy as 11 o’clock came and went without any sign of the doctor. The girls got out their phones and after a few calls determined no one was coming by Prado Mar to pick them up. At first Nancy refused to process the news, it was unimaginable that the Carnival Queen of 1960 was left unaccounted for on her biggest day of the year.
Nancy was adamant we find another neighbor to give us a ride into town. Natalie rolled her eyes, and convinced her the only way we could get to the city on time was by taxi. Fury bubbled up into Nancy’s face, but we managed to get her to walk with us out to the main road in search of a taxi.
While we were waiting, Nancy jumped into the street and flagged down a motorbike. The biker looked confused as the old woman held out some pesos in front of his helmet and ordered him to go to the store for cigarettes, cola, and a bottle of liquor. The young man pocketed money and continued down the road. I wondered to myself how many times such boldness had worked for Nancy, and if so, how long ago. Did this 74 year old woman--with a boyfriend almost 50 years her junior--realize that her long faded beauty could no longer command whimsical acts from men she plucked off the street? Or maybe he would return.
Diego rubbed Nancy’s back as we waited for the taxi and the possibility of a motorcycle delivery. A taxi pulled up before the motorbike returned, and as Nancy negotiated the price the six of us piled into the tiny car. Nancy blanketed Diego in the front seat as she continued her back and forth with driver, Eduardo took what had once been my place underneath Natalie’s perfect curves, and Natalie’s friend Violeta, to whom I had just been introduced, reluctantly squeezed in on top of my lap The driver shook his head, we were so stuffed into the little cab that he had to wag his disapproving finger out the window.
“Too many,” the driver repeated several times, still shaking his head. He refused to leave with more than four in the car. A chihuahua might not have fit into the airspace left in this two cylinder ride, but Nancy was determined to get her way on something this morning. It had been her idea to take one car, though I was sure Eduardo and I would end up splitting the fare. Eduardo must have realized this too, he mumbled from under his girlfriend about paying for a second cab while Nancy barked directions into the driver’s ear. Her assertiveness did not have its intended effect.
“Get out!” the driver yelled.
Then Natalie put a hand on the driver’s shoulder and from her position doubled over into the space between the two front seats, she made a soothing plea into into the driver’s ear. The driver kept shaking his head, but he stopped shouting. Natalie was angled so that a quarter turn of the driver’s head would have given him a perfect view down her low cut top. After a long moment he put the car in gear.
I could not see Diego from behind the two women on top of us, though he somehow managed to hand back a plastic bottle filled with cane liquor. The girls took nips and then leaned forward so that Eduardo and I could take pulls from the bottle. Though I had sworn off liquor just last night, I figured a swallow might help with the heat of the cab and the weight of the girl who made no effort to be delicate on my lap. I closed my eyes and drifted back to the ride with Natalie in Fernando’s car a few nights before.
The cab let us out a few blocks from the route, where the crowd in the street pushing towards the parade route was too thick for traffic to enter. The side streets leading to the main parade were lined with tents where the pungent smells of grilled meats and fried corn meal mingled with the dust and stink of sweated alcohol. Vendors swam against the tide competing to sell cans of soda and ice cold beers. Every quarter block six foot high speakers drowned the crowd in competing bass lines. Masked revelers attacked Carnival goers with handfuls of flour to the head and face and with cans of foam spray which according to the papers had been banned along the parade routes because of their potential for inflaming respiratory problems. A few groups ahead of us an angry mother sought to enforce the no foam rule. Her effort backfired as the party minded crowd responded with laughter, mock applause and handfuls of flour as the culprits redirected their noxious spray on the would-be vigilante. Otherwise the scene had all the tranquility of the first Friday of a Spring Break beach exodus, we were all brothers here to drink and broil together under the tropical sun.

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