Adrift in Colombia…Sácalo

It’s hard to say how we discovered Manizales, or it discovered us. Perhaps because it was on the road from Medellin (which was just a lovely spring-like city then and not yet a drug-kingpin headquarters). Anyway, Brenda and I were just beginning our travels, and were thrilled to get our first South American jobs in Manizales. We stayed, and learned as well as taught.

The Centro-Americano was one of the US Information Agency outreaches, basically English language schools that sought to make a good impression on the populace whereas “gringos” (from the US) had not done so well. The Peace Corps was a similar undertaking. Not too many Americans wandered through Manizales, as it was in the mountains and had no touristy attractions. For us, however, it seemed an ideal first stop, and a respite from riding cheap dirty buses over bandit-infested mountain passes with partially eroded roads that had no guardrails. As I remember, some of these mountain passes had a collection box sponsored by one of the Saints. When the bandidos were active in the area, people filed off the buses to drop a few pesos in the “protection box.” At least if the bus was stopped those were a few pesos the bandidos did not get.  But then, perhaps it was easier just to rob the collection box.

Manizales is a city in one of the major coffee-producing regions in the Colombian Andes. It had its major city buildings on the top of a ridge, and the barrios – the poorer sections of town – lay down in the small valley below. The barrios had constant mudslides in the rainy season. In the dry season that made everything coated with dirt and dust. On the other hand, along the top of the ridge was the city where everyone did business, and where the “Ricos”  (rich people) had their in-town houses. Of course most of the Ricos had “fincas” (farms) where they grew coffee.

The administrator of the Centro-Americano, a diplomat named Applegate,  snatched us up when we went by to inquire about this facility. As native speakers we were most welcome there, as people felt we could offer real American English. Only a few of the most snobbish South Americans felt that British English was superior. This feeling was more prevalent in Europe, as I understand it, and probably with good reason. Many of the US troops stationed there could get gigs teaching English, and I heard of one English school in Europe where you could walk past the doors and hear instructors teaching the students to say “had did.”

Of course, our Spanish was very poor and remained so, though it is possible to pick up words and phrases that get you where you want to go. Brenda was more studious and careful in her approach, and thus more consistently correct. On the other hand, I used what few words I had to rattle on with people, and in the process learned somewhat proper Spanish pronunciation by imitation, which made me sound like I knew more than I did. Brenda was teaching bilingual secretarial students, an excellent fit because she had been an executive secretary in Barclay’s Bank in Africa and the Bahamas. This also meant that she gave them essentially British English, which was another gold star. Some of our pillow talk was on which was the correct thing to teach “We usen’t to go to the beach in the winter,” or “We didn’t used to go to the…etc.”

My small advantage here was that I had played soccer in college and now could go out with the Centro Americano team and hold my own. Scoring a couple of goals in the weekly games made for immediate friendships, and those were further cemented by the drinking we did after the games. Aguardiente was a South American anise-tasting liqueur that the players mixed with strawberry soda pop to make a truly awful concoction that led to some truly heartfelt conversations (, my Spanish truly notwithstanding). I taught with the same enthusiasm for English equally poorly at every level. Because of my light brown hair I got the nickname of “Mr. Armarillo” (Mr. Yellow.) There were entry level classes where we largely smiled a lot and pointed at things. And then there were were English conversion classes with doctors and lawyers and other Ricos, sometimes just to take a yearly trip to shop in New York or Miami. Also in those classes there were a few airline pilots, who needed English as the universal tower language. With this group I ordered Time magazines to read, and wrote short one-act plays in intermediate level English, for the class to produce. These one act plays were especially good for learning English, because each person had a role to learn and how his or her words interacted with others. Because they were simple one-act bare stage pieces, these plays eventually became easy-to-use director’s projects for college drama classes, and at one point even took the stage with the Second City in Chicago. Eventually several of these plays were published in a book called Rehearsals for Amageddon and then later as Not Quite Shakespeare, where they now reside on Amazon. This level of intermediate English also, much later in life, put me into contact with an international phenomenon called Globish. Funny how your youthful sins follow you forever.

Making a new home in a foreign city can be at least as foreign as the language. We found a room in the higher section of town, in a building owned by a family who also lived there on the bottom floor. We had first to buy a mattress. A new one was available cheaply in the barrio section of town, and so we bought it there and I carried it on my head up through the streets. Crowds gathered to see this crazy gringo pretending to be Christ with a cross. It was a long way up the hill from the barrios, but I was determined not to set it down. I’m sure there was some betting going on amongst the onlookers.

In that huge house where we had rented a room, one of their teenaged kids had a boom box and incessantly played South American rock (whatever that was) loudly through 24 hours. The landlady was not into giving tenants any hot water in the bathroom and so one of my fondest memories of Manizales was coming back dirty (and a little tipsy) after a Futbol (soccer) game and taking an ice cold shower. However, this landlady was OK in that she saved my life. I was grabbed one week by “La Grippa.” This was an undiagnosed disease that the Colombians were quite familiar with, and my immune system had never seen it before.

My temperature went up to 105 degrees and stayed there. I was in a daze and it seemed like I had formaldehyde in my veins. For a week the landlady came up with pitchers of this mixture of cane sugar, lemon and hot water which she called “Panilla.” After a few days of this high temperature, she told me I should be dead, but she kept pouring “panilla” down me every few hours. This went on for a week until finally the fever broke. Then – and only then – I was visited by some of my students from the English conversation classes, including a couple of doctors who had curiously stayed away until I was well. Perhaps they trusted the landlady’s folk medicine. Or perhaps they just preferred well patients to sick ones.

The Ricos were unlike the Ricos in the States or anywhere I had been. They interacted daily with the “Pobres” (the poor) on a daily basis, but always from a position of superiority. Actually I think it is like this in most of the world and, being from the US middle class, I just hadn’t seen much of that. For instance, I had heard of the student protests in South America, many of who were Marxist and vaguely espoused land reform and other leftist solutions. We in the US in the 60s thought these South Americans really knew how to do it. However, this was not at all the kind of activism I had seen in the US. Here, it was totally different. When students had protests it was usually the university students from rich parents and they used the protest as a social occasion. The girls put on their make up and the latest designer jeans for the occasion, and the boys took showers mid-day and slicked back their hair, all going to the protest to meet each other. The local police were notified of the protest and stood at attention in the town square. The police commander was on a white horse and, I swear, had a sword. The gathering students started shouting things at the police who stood firmly at attention.

Then a student or two would start throwing rocks. This was the signal for the commander to charge forth on his horse, and chase the students down the cobble stone streets. People gathered along the edges of the streets to watch this political entertainment. After chasing the students a few blocks, it looked as though the horse would catch the slowest girls and so, to delay the chase, the commander would motion to someone in the crowd and the police on foot would go in and drag  away some unsuspecting bystander. This allowed the students to escape and run to the private clubs that their parents belonged to, where of course the police – of a lower caste – could not follow. So it was all a show, a ritual between the rich and the poor, a bit of social theater to perk up the constant conversation on the streets.

On a few surprising occasions the theater became reality. One afternoon when the Futbol team was sauntering back after a win — and the necessary imbibement that followed — the streets of Manizales were crowded and a woman in her Land Rover moved through one avenue crowded with pedestrians who lingered in groups. The woman was dressed nicely in an Italian leather coat, and seemed impatient that something had stopped her large vehicle.

“Es un niño” (It’s a boy) was the mumble around as the crowd bunched around the front of the Land Rover. A little boy had been run over and caught up in the front of the large vehicle.

“Sácalo,” said the rich woman very coolly, expecting the crowd to do something. The boy seemed to be alive but tangled in the front suspension. “Sácalo,” she said. “Take it out.” The words could have also meant “Take him out,” but the way she said it definitely conveyed “Take it out,” whatever was this bothersome obstruction under her vehicle. She pulled off one glove and inspected her fingernails while she was waiting. Near the car, looking under it with the other bystanders, the mother was screaming.

Sometimes it is handy to have a Futbol team around. In this case, we all rushed to one side of the Land Rover and about ten of us lifted it up, with a little whimper from the rich lady who was much inconvenienced by the aggressive tilt, luckily held in place by her seat belt. Instantly some brave little man with no fear at all scrambled underneath, and disentangled the little boy from the front axel. He was pulled out limp but breathing. The bystanders hailed a cab and took him to a local hospital. Sweating mightily, the Futbol team lowered the side of the Land Rover back, the exasperated rico lady started the engine again. We stood back as she drove away, as if nothing had ever happened.

When I think of South America, I remember many scenic venues and many lovely people, but I cannot forget the Rico lady in her Land Rover whose command to the frantic bystanders was merely “Sácalo,”get it out, because “it” was interfering with her privileged life by being underneath her car.

Copyright 2017 David Hon – All rights reserved

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