Adios to a Continent

Our trek through South America quickened its pace when I finally had a guaranteed job at in September. This meant we had an actual schedule and an actual itinerary to see the southern end of South America from June through August…Not a breakneck pace, but one with a beginning and an ending. What did not seem to change was the ever presence of paramecium. It was in all the water that washed all the fruits and vegetables, and we inevitable got a helping of those bugs once a week, though we tried to eat only raw fruit like mangos and bananas and things with skins. Fresh vegetables were harder. We only occasionally peeled carrots and all vegetables had to be washed and therein lay the presences of the paramecium. I started out at 180 pounds and ended up at 159, svelte and fast but afraid of the most nutritious foods. Sure they made fresh potato chips and donuts, fried in grease right there on the street, but most meat and cheese and eggs were always suspicious, meaning we could eat none of those with relish and no risk.

After becoming the Ambassadors of English in Peru, we headed by train across the continent to Lake Titicaca and an overnight boat on that huge inland lake, to La Paz, Bolivia for a few days, and then flew back to Arica, Chile. We rarely took flights in South America, but occasionally it made sense to save time and trouble, especially when the local airlines were less than the cost of a hotel room. There was a reason for that. First of all, many South American nations used their Air Force as a commercial airline. This drove down costs for all carriers and was kind of cute in the way the crew stood at attention as the passengers made their way across flat dirt airstrips and up the flip-out stairways in old two engine DC-3s. Secondly, these airstrips doubled as lower division futball fields, undoubtedly to the surprise of pilots and/or players if the schedules became confused.

When we landed in Arica, Chile, our taxi driver took us to his uncle the street banker, and he gave us four times the bank rate for our American Express traveler’s checks. Then we got on a bus that took us 24 hours across the northern Chilean desert. We stopped a few times in what looked like a state park barbecue shed, and drank exquisite white wine with the other passengers from a huge clay vessel, suspended by ropes so that you could tip it into your cup. Then at night we stopped at a small fishing village and tried the Congor Eel, its large diameter cut in steaks of flakey meat. Fresh fish and white Chilean wine, all for about a dollar.

What we were about to find out – first from rumor, of course –was that Chile was a bargain if we used our Chilean money, escudos, there in Chile. Because of some political and economic skullduggery, our absolute haul of escudos would become almost worthless when converted to Argentine pesos. After scoring big time on our traveler’s checks through the Mercado Negro in Arica, Chile, we ended up with cash that would drop 75% in value when we finally crossed from Santiago to Mendoza, Argentina. Funny, that was possibly the value we started with when we entered Chile.

We got off the bus in Santiago and started calculating. We needed to stay just a week in Santiago because we were on schedule to make it back to Oklahoma. It was the early part of July, and my first college teaching job started in a little over a month. We’d approached South America with some leisure up to that point, but now we were more like tourist, on a timetable, than nomads following the seasons. If we did not spend our pile of Chilean escudos here in Santiago, in a week, they would be worth only a quarter of the buying power we had right now. It was logic inescapable. We would have to blow that money here in Santiago. Holding our two pieces of luggage, we asked our cab driver to recommend a hotel.

“Barato?” he said, also as an assumption as he looked at our cloths and somewhat ragged bags. They were used to Gringo wastrels asking for a “cheap” hotel.

“No,” I said. We pointed out the window to a tall building on the skyline of Santiago. “Is that a hotel?”

It was a hotel. The best in Santiago. Taking us there, I knew he would expect more of a tip than he first estimated from us. When we stopped, he took our threaded bags from our laps like they contained precious glass crystal, and made the doorman take extra care stowing them on the roller cart.

The desk attendant in this very best of Santiago hotels was about to tell us that they had no rooms available, and then he saw our wad. “We do of course have the Presidential Suite,” he said, sure that we would not be able to afford that. “But,” he said, “It even has a grand piano for entertaining, and a small dance floor leading out to the balcony.”

“Who was the last President to stay here?”


“I guess we’ll take it.” I said. Strossner was the ex-Nazi who had taken over as dictator in Paraguay and ruled with iron tentacles around the whole region. The desk manager was shocked.

“You didn’t ask the price.”

I laid down a wad of escudos. He nodded. We who had been riding dirty buses and chasing rats out of small pensiónes and drinking only soda pop were now turning the tables. Tough life…but you understand, we had to spend the money.

It was a gorgeous view of the city. We dropped our bags in this vastness of luxury. Couches, bars with real liquor. Tapestries on the walls. Carpet inches thick like walking on cloud in heaven.  I, who had who had learned the boogie-woogie in two years of teen piano from an always tipsy local piano teacher, was fastest to the piano, and started giving it the boogie-woogie workout as the bellman waited for his tip. Brenda, who had won school contests in piano, waited patiently to take over with Beethoven’s 9th.

There were real showers and bathtubs with gold fixtures. The toilet had a telephone extension on the wall beside the commode, which told us that powerful people never slow down. We found later that this suite had another bedroom and another bathroom, but unfortunately we knew no one in Santiago to invite. The ultimate party suite and no one to party with.

We had questions for the concierge. What is the best place to eat in Santiago? (He got us reservations) Where are the best clothing stores? (He made a list of streets where we should go shopping.)

So we ate…well. And we walked down the streets of Santiago’s boutique clothing stores like masters in need of regal drapery. Brenda got a green trench coat made of goat leather. I got a blazer and slacks and shirts (which, because I was so malnourished at that time, I could not wear after 6 months back in the States). That experience of buying anything you saw, staying at the top of the town, walking around expensive streets with money to burn…This should be accorded every human being once, so that it will never be an aspiration that exceeds family and community and real personal accomplishment. That’s what I think, anyway.

Another momentous event was happening, though we had little knowledge of the particulars. Salvador Isabelino del Sagrado Corazón de Jesús Allende Gossens (or Salvadore Allende to most of us) was elevated, with his socialist party, to the leadership of Chile. All through South American the young people felt the Chileans were the intellectuals of South America, and were ever so excited about his Marxist programs which froze prices and gave living wages to the poor. Allende even nationalized copper, one of Chile’s main exports, much to the despair of our President Nixon at the time. One of the sights of a lifetime I should remember is standing at twilight on the balcony of the Presidential suite in the best hotel in Santiago, drinking aguardiente and looking out over a large hill which hovered over the city. Lights strung across the whole hillside came alive in the encroaching darkness, and in large vibrant letters in the night, they proclaimed “Cobra es nuestra.” (Copper is ours!)

It did not dawn on me then, or for some time, how ironic it was to be standing there on the balcony in the best room of the most plutocratic hotel in Santiago, capitalist pigs from the US sipping our drinks, oblivious to the fact that a vast world was changing right front of us.

Turns out the depreciating escudos still didn’t last us more than four days – four really fun days – and then we had to fly over the mountains to Mendoza, Argentina and spend like normal pobre travelers again. Mendoza brought us back to earth when the plane landed. Things once again cost what things cost, instead of a fraction of expectations. A lovely piece of Argentine beef cooked over hot coals and a glass of wine with it cost over 7 dollars. What a shock!

To follow our schedule we took the Argentine national railway 24 hours across the pampas ( which looked for all the world like West Texas) and into Buenos Aires. Funny thing about that railroad. It seemed like something in a nation’s infrastructure that would always be there. However, recently I was brushing up on my fledgling Spanish and talked to someone on the Internet in Cordoba, Argentina. Someone in their twenties, it turns out. I said we liked Mendoza and had taken the train across to Buenos Aires. He sounded confused.

“What railroad?”

“Your national railroad from Mendoza to Buenos Aires.”

“There is no railroad across Argentina there.”

“Of course there is, I rode on it.”

“There has never been a railroad there.”

“How can that be?” I said, and excused myself from what I thought was one of those many prankish exercises young people indulge in on the Internet.

He was not wrong…Well, he was wrong, but had no notion that there ever could have been a railroad there. None of the Argentina history books were allowed to cover the real story. The real story is that the railroad went on high government subsidy and was dissolved by a political party, which then handed choice lands over to developers as quickly as the railroad ties were pulled up across Argentina. Someone as old as we are may be the only ones who remember, and we are easy to ignore by a country which did not want to admit such a failure.

So we did ride the railroad, and came into Buenos Aires in the dead of winter. A beautiful city to explore with its lush parks and tango clubs, but by then we could give it only a few days on our diminishing itinerary. We bargained for some stopover tickets through a thoroughly corrupt travel agent, and plunked down nearly the last money we had on earth to get back to Oklahoma (- which might tell you a bit about our total prospects). We were able to go from Buenos Aires to Montevideo, Uruguay, whose residential streets looked like a vintage car museum. Turns out they put about a 4x tariff on any new cars, but had no tariff on car parts. So they just kept the old ones, pre-1940s, in great condition and running perfectly. The middle class teenagers who I grew up with in the 1950’s were always rebuilding cars, and they would have dearly loved Montevideo.

From Montevideo we went to Asunción, Paraguay, which had its black market bartering big Hotel Guarani on all its money rather than some political hero. The President at the time was Strossner, an ex-Nazi immigrant who took over every element of the government and created Dakotas, huge cartels which daily brought flights of Boeing 707s full of transitor radios and other highly taxed imports, to be distributed by mule back through the back trails into all major countries in South America. The Ricos (rich families) in every country owned stock in the Dakotas and profited from those, while keeping normal tariffs very high on imports because – of course – they controlled most of the government except in Chile. (That was resolved shortly after we came back, with a coup in Chile in which Pinochet brought the Army in to occupy the capital, and Allende committed suicide as his dream socialist state of South America was relegated to history’s many backwaters.)

Iquazu Falls is one of the world’s spectacular waterfalls, absolutely worth getting drenched in its volume and majesty. From there we bused to Sao Paulo, to which so many Japanese at the end of WWII had fled that it looked like a Japanese city the size of Kyoto or Osaka. Rio was gorgeous on the beach and up the sky tram to Sugar Loaf as we ran down to almost our last dimes. Brazilia was a stop along the way, a new and empty city build by the government back in the interior to be the new government of the new Brazil. I hear it took many years to fill it up, after almost being a laughingstock of one President’s vision.

Manaus was the last city we touched down in before Miami. It was on the Amazon river and had the look of a temporary encampment…but one in which they were already building an opera house. This was years before the fictional guy made the ball field in Kansas hearing “If you build it they will come.” Apparently they did come to Manaus, as it is now a city of over 2 million people on the Amazon. It now seems amazing what can happen to places in your own lifetime. You turn away and when you look back a river stop is a metropolis.

Next stop, Miami. The problem we had been wondering how to avoid was that Brenda could not come in to the States legally. As my wife, she would have to wait outside the States 4 months for a green card. We stood there in the customs and immigration line, contemplating a quick divorce. (For the rest of the story, see “Dostoyevsky Meets the Anadarko Indians” .)

Copyright 2018 David Hon – All rights reserved

Speaking of Peru

After 4 months teaching English in Manizales, Colombia, and a few more weeks seeing Equador, including Quito and Guayaquil, we ended up in Lima, Peru. It was winter in South America and being almost a thousand miles off the equator, Lima had a slightly snippy season. Another thing about Lima made it chilly (- but not yet Chile). An atmospheric quirk brings the cold Humbolt current up the Pacific Ocean from Antartica, just about non-stop. At a point in Peru, the Humbolt Current hits a southerly current bearing down from the Equator plus some hot desert winds from northern Peru. This creates an almost perpetual fog for most of 300 days a year. That place, where the major fogbank hovers, is Lima, the major city in Peru.

There is a local joke about why Lima resides in a perpetual fog bank. Apparently the conqueror Pizzaro had flashed his muskets and cannons and subdued the local Indians. The Indians had little use for wars and mostly fished the Pacific and farmed the countryside. Pizzaro was standing in one of the pensive poses he used for statues, all bejangled with armor and thinking about where they should build the imperial city of Lima. Why not ask the local Indians? They live here, they would know the best spot. So they asked a few of the tribal leaders where the best spot to build a city would be. The Indian leaders confabed for a moment and then, holding back laughter, both pointed to the same spot. Pizzaro had not been around all year, thought it was a nice piece of land, so and ordered the city of Lima built in that spot. The Indian laborers were laughing insanely as they carried out Pizzaro’s wish, and they were always pleased to laughter again, for all their lived, when they passed the cloud of Lima where all the fancy Spanish doings, balls and ceremonies, were going on within the cloud shroud.

We visited the local Centro-Americano school there, and I was asked to give a few classes. Someone said I should go see the Embassy about giving lectures in the major cities. As it turned out, they did want to send someone around to show the branches they cared about them, and so it looked like I was it. They gave me a South American Honorary Doctorate so it looked like I knew something, and left it to me to come up with the topics. The level of English I would speak was 4, which meant simple sentences and about 1000 words and lots of gestures and acting out what I was talking about. A podium was a hinderance to this kind of walkaround speaking, so I usually jumped down from the podium and walked up close to the first rows. Especially when there is no sound system, one does better to get as close to the action as possible.

Sometimes you have to fumble through your past to dredge up a connection for the present. Since the needed to come up with press releases for these two-night visits to major Peruvian cities, I had to think of topics people would like. One was “The History of the English Language.” Now little did they know that that was the only “C” I ever got in graduate school. The tombs of dreary middle English poems and sermons had had a sleep inducing effect on me, I guess. But then no one here knew that I was hardly an expert. Dr. Hon was the way they put it in the newspaper. The other subject was one I knew a little about from talking with my friend Dale at the UCLA film school. I showed them about how to tell a story with close-up and panning and tilting and cutting with understood inference, like seeing a lion from afar and then instantly cutting to his snarling mug. This sort of movie apparently terrified aborigines who had never seen film, but most of the audience would know that this was a visual language, so I called the second talk “Cinema: The Existential Language.” I have no idea what that title meant, but it sounded good in the press release.

So off we went across Peru, Brenda and I riding in nice train coaches now and being met by the Mayor or a town of a few million people and going out to dinner with he and his wife and staying at the grandest hotel in town. The Mayor and his wife would show us the newspaper press release and I was amazed to be the very guy in the picture (, who would be talking about his “C” subject and his Existential Language).

This is definitely the way to travel. We were in Cuzco, an ancient Inca city, and I was told that I was the first American since Robert Kennedy to speak in that auditorium. That fresh in my halo, we took a side trip down to Machu Picchu and stayed in a small 12 room hotel right in the ruins on the Andes ridge. We climbed the terraced mountains and traveled all the surrounding trails by which fresh fish had – centuries ago — been brought by runners from the Pacific. Their Inca rulers had resided in this city hidden from viewers below by the angle of the slope up, and by the cleverness of the ancient architects. The stones fit perfectly together in a way the historians could not account for with the crude tools they had then. Many believed they had been helped by alien wanderers from the skies. They even had the world UFO convention in Machu Picchu one year. Obviously travelogs talk about this, but I should too. Most of the water had to be carried to a high point in Machu Picchu, so that it served various functions as it flowed downward through channels. Highest was for drinking and cooking, and then the animals could drink it at another level. Then the same water was used for washing clothes and further down, to water the crops. It was probably repeated 1000 times across the ancient world, but here in Machu Picchu you could see the simple utility of their city planning.

At night, when all the tourists had gone home, we wandered back into the well-preserved ruins, in the Sierra light at evening. Llamas occasionally frisked in and out of stone doorways. And somewhere back in the city, a dishwasher off for the evening sat playing an Indian flute.

It was an addictive way of life, but the truth was we were almost broke and anything we earned here would last about a day in the States, so the attractiveness of all this was actually becoming a trap.

Back in Lima, I tried to establish contact with David Ward, who had behaved more responsibly than I, got his PhD, and was now the head of the English Department in a small college in Oklahoma. Before we left he said that if he got the job then perhaps we could find one for me. It was time to start seeking our way out of South America. In 1971, this was not as easy as dialing up on a cell phone. In fact, there were no public lines to the States except in Peru’s Ministry of Communication (or some such). To make a call to the States to find out if I could get a job with Ward at the small college, I had first to buy some “telephone stamps.” Then I had to give the “telephone stamps” (pretty things with South American birds on them) to a sort of teller in a window behind bars, and tell them where to call in the States. Then I had to go and sit on an ornate wooden bench that might have been used as a church pew – and I sat for hours. They’d call and it was busy and they would give me my stamps back and then I would give them their stamps back and have them make another call and after a few more hours they said the person was not in. Getting one call through took me three days of stamps and sitting on a hard pew just to get a long distance call through. The world is better now. With all its sins, it is better.

The call went through and David Ward had my job, but I would have to come from Peru to Oklahoma and meet his boss. That meant risking most of the money we had on that plane fare, and leaving Brenda in Lima for several days while I tried to get this only Stateside job that it looked like I could get from here.

Before I left, we did move around Lima, and noted the better eating places (which would not be rife with paramecium, for a change) and observed other peculiarities of the city. Here’s one for the road: At Guzman Blanco plaza, three major highways converged on the world’s fastest roundabout — with the cars going 60 mph. At Guzman Blanco, the two and three-story buildings of Lima were thus on pie-shaped blocks, each coming to a point at the roundabout. To follow one road by foot, the pedestrian would have to cross three major highways at these intersections, just to continue in the same direction. Merely walking there was death-defying, and people waited parts of an hour for traffic to clear enough to cross each highway. So… given this constant, fast-moving traffic, where the buildings’ narrowest points came right up to the roundabout, where would you imagine the Peruvians built their National Institute for the Blind?

Copyright 2018 David Hon – All rights reserved

Guayaquil in the Rear View Mirror

Some things look good on the map, and from everything we saw about Guayaquil — a large population, the only pacific port city for 1000 miles, a warm climate with Pacific Ocean breezes — this had to be a good next stop to make while we were in Ecuador. However, when we mentioned we might go there, people looked away, a bit shifty. Our Spanish was embryonic, but there was some message. Something we didn’t know.

Quito had been gorgeous, a tiny European replica in the Andes, almost on the equator but high enough to be like spring year round. A lot of ex-pats, banks, coffee shops, big hotels. Pretty much the real South America if you could afford it and didn’t have places to go on dirty buses. Dirty buses were the way to see that world though. Buses with banana stalks and stowaway kids on top. Buses with chickens and goats and dirty diapers you lived with for hours. Buses which stopped quickly at every town and the vendors stuck frozen juice popsicles up for tourists to buy through the open windows.

And if you were a Gringo, the buses stopped at every state boundary and made you spread you belongings out on the dirt road for the local policeman to inspect along with your passport. As I was obviously a Gringo I qualified for every inspection stop. Brenda, however, had an Irish passport and, though we were married, she jumped at the chance to disown me. “No Gringo!” She said as she flashed her Irish passport. “Irlando. Yo soy Irlando.” So much, I thought, for death do us part. (I probably deserved about anything because I had forgotten her birthday that year, not in a flush of activity, but as the two of us waited patiently for half the day at a bus stop.)

The word Gringo, if you haven’t heard, comes from when Texans and other cowboys went down through Mexico with cattle herds and sang the mournful songs to put the cattle to sleep at night. One of their favorites (and likely the cattle favorites as well) started out “Green grow the lilacs in Oregon.” They slurred “Green Grow” into Gringo, and thereafter every American who ventured south of the Mexican border was a Gringo. Its usage spread clear down to the chilly tip of the southern continent. Brenda, by the way, just became an official Gringo last year, perhaps a world record for holding onto a green card.

Guayaquil, which provoked sideways glances and few endorsements from people we queried about it, seemed a little foreboding — but it wasn’t our first forebodement in Ecuador. Upon crossing from Columbia into Equador, right at the border, I pulled out a map I had brought from the States, and started to look for a route to Quito. I was lifted under the shoulders by two stout gendarmes and deposited in a room with no windows. Brenda was allowed in, but they took my map, and I could hear them arguing outside the door. Vaguely it sounded like they might shoot me for carrying this map.

“We take this map.”

“Can I have it back?”

“No, it is a crime.”

We did not like the idea of being criminals in a place where the jails were the dark hole of any political universe. “But it is not a crime if I give it to you.”

This sort of question is a horrible mistake when you use it on non-native English speakers. (Yes, it is not – or, No, you are right that it is not?) Spanish speakers cannot really comprehend how to answer a question asked as a negative question. It does not translate. The mistake could send someone to jail.

“We take this, and you stay here now.”

They came back half an hour later and with no reason at all, the head gendarme flicked his hand in a signal we could go.

Go we most certainly did. The taxi driver got a huge tip to hurry us to what was the dirtiest, dustiest, hangdog bus station on the continent, I am sure. Later I learned the story. My father had received the map when he worked as a petroleum engineer for Standard Oil in the States before WWII (which, sadly, claimed him). The map was in his belongings and so I took it along on our trip in 1970. As often happens in South America, I learned what follows from a drunken history professor who probably later got his tongue cut out.

Apparently two dictators in Colombia and Equador struck a deal when the dictator of Equador amassed humoungous gambling debts. Colombia demanded about half of Equador’s land mass in repayment. Probably the real story is far more complicated. In any event the two dictators apparently staged a war, prenegotiating the eventual boundaries and even estimating the what would be an acceptable number of dead and wounded. It had to play with the populace, of course, with harangues and bands and young men marching off to war. One can imagine it being managed by a Madison Avenue advertising agency like the product rollout of a new potato chip.

Mindless as I am of the details, this little war did happen in the early 1940s when most of the world’s attention was elsewhere. It truly resulted in the decision by a world tribunal in the Conference of Rio de Janeiro to change boundaries between Colombia and Equador to give Colombia about 2/3 of the Equadorian land mass. My father’s map displayed a much larger Equador. That is why the border guards confiscated it, as their politicos needed no reminders of this skullduggery lingering about, even this far in the future.

All of this brought us with a detour in lovely little Cuenca, to the big bad port of Guayaquil. On the map it had a large zoo and a race track. One could imagine families on weekends buying cotton candy on one of the large parks. What could be that bad?

To this day I cannot tell you why we had the feeling, shared by most who I’ve talked with, that Guayaquil had some sort of evil seeping out of its pores. When we got off he bus people looked at us a bit askance, not a friendly sort of askance, like here are more stupid Gringos (though Brenda quickly apprised them of the difference). Instead it was sort of a strange askance, like they knew something bad might be about to happen. Where we ate sandwiches was oddly unhospitable even to our money which was clearly their money and it was not refused, but everything seemed dirtier, as if disease germs were riding on our money, but they had to take it, reluctantly.

Across South American, we often were befriended by the first taxi drivers we hailed, who we asked to show us where to eat with no amoebas and to sleep with no rats. Usually that was an opportunity for him to make points with his friends (– we never had a female driver) or relatives. The understanding was that if we would tip him, and perhaps exchange travelers cheques with him at a rate higher for us than the bank, he would not send us to die.

He dropped us at a large hotel near the government buildings. Maybe the day was just grey, but everything seemed bland and tasteless in Guayaquil, and as I said, always steeped with foreboding. Our hotel room was clean, with a double bed in the middle of the room under a light bulb that hung all the way from the ceiling from its cord and was turned on with the little beaded string such lights have.

There were no windows in the room. All the rooms seemed to be accessible from a long balcony with stairs at each end. It was not a friendly place, but not friendly to rats either, so we slept soundly – until early the next morning. Of course with no windows we had no way of sensing the time. And then we heard the commotion on the balconies outside. The room was pitch black and I realized the only way to see would be to reach up for the light cord above. I reached – and it was not there. Groping this way for the light must have seemed comical to some creature with night vision, but it was weird to the point of panic. Then my fingers brushed the cord. The cord and its light bulb were apparently swinging in large arcs above out bed. I caught the cord on the next swing and pulled it, stopping the pendulum. We quickly pulled on clothes and opened the door to the balcony.

Guests were all out of their rooms, some making their way to the stairways, others staring at the sky. We stood at the rail of the balcony and stared at the sky as well. Government buildings of that architectural period have a crest upon which sit half of the birds in the city. Right now they all chose to fly at once, like a huge black swarm of bees, clouding the sky which had tried to turn bright this morning. It was the flight of nature from itself. The blackened sun seemed to represent the evil of Guayaquil.

We took the first bus we could get to anywhere, just out of Guayaquil. Though the small earthquake had subsided, I guessed later that the whole city must rest on some gigantic geologic fault that quivers enough to bestow a constant tension on the air, and only occasionally jiggles enough to disturb the animals. The buildings which still stood had probably made it, some inadvertently, through several earthquakes.

We fled all the way to the border of Northern Peru, where we discovered the city of Tumbes and its graveyard. The hotel was horrible but the people all proudly told us to visit the cemetary. And they had reason to be proud. The majestic sculpted shrubs there, many of which were two stories high, represented Alice in Wonderland with huge rabbits and queens, and clubs and diamonds as they would be on playing cards. I could call it therapeutic.

In Tumbes, it seemed as if the sheer effort and creativity of the gardeners at this cemetary were somehow the antidote to Guayaquil. This was a place which – though a cemetary – had happiness and humor and a vigorous confirmation of life.

Copyright 2017 David Hon – All rights reserved

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