This story was written
for an anthology edited by Peter Laufer. He had some kind of disagreement
with his publisher and is looking for a new publisher for the anthology.
In the meanwhile, here it is, but please don't reproduce it as I don't
want to compromise Peter's efforts to find a publisher.
Let me know whether you find it interesting, funny, dull, whatever.)
. . . . . . . . .
WE WENT TO LIVE IN THE ANDES, I was young and stupid, but
I knew Latin America, I thought. Carol and I had recently spent more
than a year in Guatemala. From there we had returned to Madison, where
we found a snow shovel waiting for us in the driveway, and within weeks
we were on our way to South America.
had more sense than I did, but one can fairly wonder about a woman who
sets off for unknown lands in the company of someone who launches their
adventure by falling down a flight of stairs and breaking a tooth on
the way to the airport. Then again, those were vertiginous times in
Madtown, and few remained upright all the way through them.
had left Madison because the living was just too easy there—which provides
some insight into our reasoning processes. We saw the drunks and potheads
hanging out at the Green Lantern and the 602 Club, content in the certainty
that there was no hipper and looser and more radical place to be in
the entire Midwest. But we aspired to higher echelons of hipness.
we had found ourselves in Guate, which was a new beginning for us in
several ways. Before setting off, we had made our marriage official.
The judge, having asked what I was getting my doctorate in and been
told comparative literature, offered without hesitation: "Sounds like
one of those fields where you can't get a job." But it didn't take us
long, in Guatemala, to get our distinguished translation careers off
on the right foot with Frozen Coagulated Cultures in Wine, Cheese,
and Sauerkraut Production, which you've probably read.
were living outside the U.S. for the first time.
Guatemala colored our expectations about life in Latin America. I remember
that, on our way from the airport to our new home by the police checkpoint
on the road to Antigua, we saw men driving oxcarts through drifting
rainbows of blue, lavender, magenta, and red petals. A guacamayo greeted
us with a raucous squawk as loud as its plumage when we crossed the
barranca and made our way up the dusty hill and through the bamboo barrier
to our ancient adobe casita, where roof rats scampered gaily
over a dense maze of vines, and small green lizards sunned benignly
on weathered fenceposts. This adobe was a duplex, and our days would
soon be punctuated by the slap slap slap of María preparing tortillas
for Leonardo, the gardener, beside their yawning chthonic hearth, which
surely dated from the days of Tecúm-Umán.
was the eye of the storm in Guatemala, and comparatively few people,
it seemed, were being killed. We heard reports of the cultish right-wing
Mano Blanca, or White Hand (not to be confused with Monja
Blanca, or White Nun, which is the national flower); we were nearby
when a leading politico was killed in his car near the city center;
we were shocked when a member of a colleague's softball team was found
murdered execution-style, with bullet tracks up and down his spine.
(Not having got the position at the University of San Marcos that I
had expected, I had taken a job teaching high school at the Colegio
Americano de Guatemala.) Urban sprawl was also taking its toll on the
native and ladino populations, and on the environment. But despite all
that, Guatemala delighted us with its abundance of fruits and vegetables
that we had never imagined in Wisconsin; its beautiful huipiles and
other "típica" (the country is still mostly Indian, for unlike
their northern neighbors the Aztecs, the Maya were never completely
conquered); its churrigueresque colonial architecture (never mind that
it represents the spoils of bloody conquest); its unbelievably diverse
minicultures and microclimates; its cheerful marimbas; and its colorful
markets—at once rich and cheap—where shopping was a game of barter that
became genuine social exchange.
delight in Guatemala is the more poignant because of its long-standing
civil war. You can read about it in Victor Perera's excellent Unfinished
Conquest: The Guatemalan Tragedy.
on the Caribbean coast of Colombia, where, frightened by the apparition
of the snow shovel, we arrived one our second Latin American expedition,
did not greatly alter our expectations of Latin America. It is a grand
historical city that is blessed with warm, sandy beaches. From its overhanging
balconies you relax with a cool drink, whenever the nights are warm,
and watch the couples stroll hand-in-hand over the toasty cobbles of
the narrow streets below. The nights in Cartagena are always warm.
Quito (a stone's throw from the equator, but very high—9,348 feet) the
nights can be cold indeed.
not sure we fully appreciated that fact as we basked in the sun of Cartagena.
There, as our money was running out, we had, in good, democratic, North
American fashion, voted on our next destination. For forgotten reasons,
I voted Costa Rica, but Carol had set her sights on the fabulous lost
city of Macchu Pichu in the Peruvian Andes.
Jung might have been on to something with his ideas about synchronicity.
In the book I am currently editing, I encounter this anecdote:
A man and woman
have stayed happily married for years. Nobody can understand how
they do it. Everybody else is getting divorced or separated—suffering
the agonies of marital estrangement. A friend asks the husband of
the lucky pair how they have been able to make a go of it. What's
the secret of their success? "Oh," answers the husband, "it's very
simple. We simply divide up the household problems. My wife makes
all the minor decisions and I make all the major decisions. No friction!"
"I see," says the friend, and what are the minor decisions your
wife makes, for example; and the major decisions, which are they?"
"Well," answers the husband, "my wife makes all the little decisions
like where shall we send our son to college, shall we sell the house,
should we renew our medical insurance, and, uh . . . and then I
take the big ones: like Should Red China Join the United Nations,
Should the United States Disarm Unilaterally, Is Peace Possible
. . . ?"
we were in the Andean highlands when our money finally ran out.
Inca empire (in contrast to the other great American empires, the Aztec
and the Maya) was short-lived. It first developed in the fifteenth century,
as leaders from the little highland town of Cuzco (the setting-off point
to Macchu Pichu) began to conquer neighboring people. By 1450 the Incas
had expanded as far as Lake Titicaca, and by the end of the century
they had extended their control into parts of current Ecuador, Bolivia,
Chile, and Argentina—an impressive accomplishment. But the empire rapidly
began to crumble with the death in 1525 of the Inca Huayna Capac while
on a campaign in Ecuador. A fierce struggle for power ensued between
his sons, Atahualpa and Huascar, who split the empire into northern
and southern kingdoms based in Quito and Cuzco respectively. Perhaps
this division could have been temporary, and the empire restored, since
Atahualpa, moving south from Quito, finally succeeded in conquering
(and executing) his half brother. But on his way to his coronation following
this triumph, the proud but unfortunate Atahualpa encountered the conquistador
Francisco Pizarro, who, not overburdened with scruples (but appreciative
of the value of gold), imprisoned him, demanded a seemingly impossible
ransom, and, when riches beyond reason were delivered, put an end to
the matter. This he did by threatening to burn Atahualpa to death, and
then, when some of his advisors objected to this injustice, simply strangling
him. Soon the conquistadors would reenact the brothers' conflict, as
they too would struggle for power from the same bases of Quito in the
north and Cuzco in the south.
hadn't made it to Cuzco, capital of the southern kingdom, but we had
at least reached Quito, the northern capital. From there, following
in Atahualpa's footsteps, we would begin our campaign south to Macchu
was, however, one obstacle—we were underarmed. Some months later, an
Ecuadorian friend would generously offer us one of his llamas, which
would have vastly increased our net worth, but at the moment we had
neither friend nor llama. To be a flat-broke and homeless gringo in
the Andean altiplano shows a certain devil-may-care insouciance ("I
love to go a-wandering, my knapsack on my back, fa-la-la"), a certain
disdain for bourgeois convention ("Survival? Pah! I spit on your survival!"),
a certain . . . It sometimes seems there is a benevolent fortune that
smiles on the young and foolish. When I called the American School in
Quito, it turned out an English teacher had just left, for some unspecified
reason (hmmmm), and there was an immediate vacancy, for which,
with my qualifications and experience, I would obviously be perfect.
So began my second and final stint as a high school teacher. With this
new gig, we were back in command of our destinies.
a pity that Evelyn Waugh's first novel, Decline and Fall, is
not much read in the U.S. these days, because if you had read that book
with its horrifying and hilarious depiction of a British boy's school,
you would already have a pretty good picture of the Colegio Americano
American School System in Latin America remains something of a mystery
(someone should do a study), but the way I think it works is
that in the years preceding the second world war, Nazi Germany started
setting up schools in Latin America as a way of spreading the word about
its special worldview, and the U.S. responded with its own system, which
has endured, more or less, to this day. These American Schools, or Colegios
Americanos, pop up here and there through Latin America, and they
cater to a mix of North Americans, citizens of the country in which
the school is located, and embassy brats from around the world. But
as far as I can tell there no longer is any governing body overseeing
the schools. Each one is different, and the educational philosophy and
mix of students vary from one to the next.
school in Guatemala, for example, had a three-track system: one group
of students took courses mostly in Spanish, one group mostly in English,
and one group was pretty much half and half. This buffered system worked
tolerably well. But the school in Ecuador used a two-track system: gringos
on this side, Ecuadorians over there, and everybody keep your distance.
As you might expect, this institutionalized line in the sand resulted
in a general, pervasive polarization throughout the school, where a
mixture of tension, despair, and resignation always hung in the ambiente.
Needless to say, the polarization extended to the faculty and administration,
and it was in this climate that I fell afoul of one of the Ecuadorian
administrators, a certain Sucre (perhaps a descendent of Antonio José
de Sucre, Bolívar's lieutenant, for whom Ecuador's basic unit
of currency is named), who seemed suspicious that my presence at the
school did not reflect a genuine dedication to the improvement of young
Ecuadorians. Soon a full-fledged network of espionage was in place.
Spies would sneak into my classes and then propagate disinformation
among the masses as well as those in power. From time to time, I would
receive urgent summons to the office. "We have received reports!" they
would darkly declare, "that you are barely teaching your students anything!
but are only! playing! games with them!"
accusation—I can now at last confess—was not entirely without merit.
But, I mean, my classes were huge—forty-five, fifty students.
You try holding forty-five squirming, oozing teenagers in thrall
with the enchantments of conjugation alone.)
had, however, a powerful ally, Mr. Metz. This was the man I had spoken
with when I was hired, and he was a curious character who bore a resemblance
to Charlie McCarthy (but without the hair). I don't think he actually
wore a monocle, but one would not have looked out of place on his puffy,
sixty-something face. The main thing about Bernard Metz was that he
was rich. He lived, off and on, in an opulent downtown apartment, which
was furnished in Louis XV antiques and pre-Columbian artifacts. He also
kept homes in New York, Paris, and London. And he was somehow the titular
head of the American School, though he was never actually at
the school. How he happened to take my call I cannot fathom, and who
he really was, why he was in Ecuador, and why he cared about the American
School I never discovered.
was a good fellow who generously allowed us to stay in his apartment
while we looked for a place to live, and he never complained, even though
in the course of our adventures we had become so flea-ridden that we
were covered head to toe in little bloody bites and left dense constellations
of red blots all over his previously perfect sheets.
was generous with the wisdom of his years. In my most indelible memory
of him he is sitting before a priceless tapestry in one of his high-backed
antique chairs, complacently sipping a fine sherry, and assuring us,
"Money problems, you know, are the best kinds of problems to have."
long we found an apartment in the little Quechua village of Guapalo,
not far outside the city. This was a spanking two-story building that
an enterprising Quechua wheat farmer had built as a source of supplemental
income. It was the only new building in town, which we would get to
by descending a steep, narrow road that switchbacked past the sprawling
hillside brothel with its flashing neon lights to arrive at the charming
town center with its gleaming historic church and pleasant, tree-lined
plaza. If our apartment building was an anomaly if not an affront in
that rustic Indian village, then we must have been even more so, as
we sat grading papers on the brand-new hardwood floors (the boards not
flush but amply spaced, apparently to provide shelter for our thriving
colony of fierce Ecuadorian fleas) and looked down on villagers walking
their pigs on leashes or across the hillside to the slashed-and-burnt
fields that periodically exuded a thick, gray haze—or, from our frost-covered
rooftop, we would gaze down the precipitous valley with its dramatically
cascading climatic zones, looking for all the world like a live diorama
of natural history, almost as far as the steamy bamboo plains of the
lay within Quito's power utility grid, which meant that we could work
into the night if we wished—except on Fridays, when there would be a
blackout. Someone in Quito had determined that since the power blacked
out every week anyway, they might as well manage the blackouts. Each
day of the week a different quadrant of the city would go dark.
I was young and stupid. I thought of the blackouts, "Welcome to
the third world." Now I find myself in California, where rolling
blackouts are almost as common but not as well managed. What world is
again, I read that my nemesis Mr. Sucre also got a comeupance, since
Ecuador is abolishing its Sucre currency and replacing it with, of all
things, the U.S. dollar.
Fridays, rather than cook in the dark over our portable propane burner,
we would go out for dinner where the current still flowed. We enjoyed
our time in Quito. Really. But I don't think you have to worry about
a chain of Ecuadorian restaurants moving into your neighborhood any
time soon. Latin America for us was colorful Guatemalan markets filled
to overflowing with wonderful fruits and vegetables. But we were now
high—very high—in the mountains. That austere gray landscape is best
known for its wealth of potatoes, arduously grown in steep terrace patches
(see for example, Wendell Berry's "An Agricultural Journey in Peru,"
with its praise of the "rich genetic diversity of potatoes in the Andes").
Alpacas, highland flute music, flawless stonework, coca tea—those things
it offers, but a really good sapote or chirimoya or even
an aguacate para hoy—I don't think so. Instead, we would wander
past smoky spits where charred-black chickens and guinea pigs rotated
gruesomely in thick clouds of hephaistian smoke. Once, on a class excursion,
we sampled a dish called chuchucaras ("dog-faces," in our malicious
translation), one of the main ingredients of which appeared to
be unpopped popcorn. Another time, we were on a bus crossing some impossibly
high pass when Carol began to suffer from soroche, or altitude
sickness. The bus driver stopped and we all filed into a little stone
hut for a hearty serving of llama stew, which for Carol pretty much
completed the job the soroche had begun. Most Fridays we ended
up at a Chinese restaurant where a few coarse ingredients were served
up in great crude chunks.
that I would complain. But with the end of the school year drawing closer
with each blackout, we began more and more vividly to visualize ourselves
upon the winding road to the fabled city of Macchu Pichu, which still
stood like a glimmering grail at the end of our quest. Which brought
up the matter of our passports. As educators of the youth of Ecuador,
we were not, it seems, completely legal. That didn't bother us. As the
other teachers picked up their checks from the office, I would take
my under-the-table sucres and stuff them into my boot (to disappoint
the ubiquitous pickpockets, I also carried an old empy billfold), just
as I had done in Guatemala.
when I picked up my pay I got a surprise. The school had asked if I
would consider doubling my classload from three to six classes, and
I had agreed to this not as a way of further financing our travels but
to improve more youthful minds. Honest. The surprise was that I now
received fewer sucres than before. This was not, the school patiently
explained, a mistake. Previously, I had been paid on a special per-class
rate for visiting profesores, but with a six-class load I was
now a regular full-time teacher, and they receive a standard flat fee,
which is, yes, a little lower than the amount I had been getting.
we had overstayed our tourist visas but had not obtained work visas,
our passports were invalid and, moreover, not in our possession. They
had been taken from us and were languishing in an office downtown, but
we weren't to worry, because the school would take care of everything,
tomorrow. Except that the end of the school year was drawing nearer
and nearer, until finally Carol began visiting the office weekly to
try to goad the bureaucracy into some semblance of action.
week, she would enter the nondescript federal building and deferentially
approach the desk of the bureaucrat who was "processing" our visas.
He was a plump, bland, and not unfriendly man, who almost seemed to
look forward to her regular visits. But no progress was made on our
visa application, despite the school's long experience in this arena
and its purported leverage. The day of departure was drawing ever closer.
story of our passports may seem funny but at the time it really was
a cause for concern. (Always remembering that while our situation was
serious, it was still privileged and transitory—Ecuador's large population
of the poor face lifetimes of graver hardships and difficulties than
ours.) While we were fortunate in having made some contacts that ultimately
helped us to resolve the problem, the bleakness of our prospects brought
home the powerlessness that anyone must feel within the meshes of a
third-world bureaucracy (or one in the first or second world for that
matter, but there does exist a difference of style—and style, as we
know since the New Critics, is content). As an editor, I routinely delete
the overworked and devalued word Kafkaesque, but ... Carol made
her way from building to building and from office to office, always
referred somewhere else, never in the right place to find a resolution
or even to make any progress—she always returned to the same nondescript
man in the same nondescript office, where the same nothing had been
accomplished. All the while we had little money, and obviously we possessed
no passports—even if we had, they wouldn't have been valid—and if we
were stopped for any reason we could have been arrested. The school
year ended without a change in our visa status, and everyone who worked
at the school vanished overnight. We were on our own. We tried to get
help from the U.S. embassy but there too we struck a blank wall.
Carol steeled herself and marched down to the familiar man in the familiar
office and demanded our passports. Our work at the school was
over, she insisted, and we absolutely had to leave Quito—now!
He looked at her with a combination of bemusement, reluctance, and sorrow.
The processing had not been completed. "Are you sure that you want your
passports," he asked. "Absolutely," she insisted. "You're sure?" he
repeated, and again she affirmed our immediate need for our passports.
And he opened a drawer and handed them to her! Effusive in thanks, Carol
turned to leave. She was stopped. "Where are you going?" she was asked.
"Those passports are illegal!" They were taken from her. And put in
were free (though trapped in Ecuador) but our passports were prisoners.
I don't mean that figuratively—they were transferred from the bland
bureaucratic office where they had for so long resided to the scary
intendencia, a forbidding structure that seemed unchanged since
the days of the inquisition. We would have to find someone with the
influence to obtain their release, and convince him to exercise it.
Metz would have helped, but like the others at the school, he had disappeared.
Instead we turned to the friend with the llama (who was not, as you
may have assumed, a serape-covered indigène but rather
the Jewish owner of a company that harvested the sort of chrysanthemum
called pyrethrum out of the upper Amazon and extracted an environmentally
correct pesticide from it; the llamas grazed on the grounds of his plant).
The next phase of this story took a long time in the doing, but it can
be shortened in the telling: from our friend we got an introduction
to an army colonel, whom we regaled with our tale of woe. The colonel
was not himself able to help, but from him we got an introduction to
another colonel, with whom we again shared our woes. This second colonel
was also not himself able to help, but from him we got an introduction
to still a third colonel, to whom we once more repeated our woeful tale.
And that third colonel was able to help, sort of. While he didn't free
our passports, he did obtain for us visitation rights.
let us take a moment to flash forward a few decades. Carol, having finally
read this just as I'm about to send it off to Peter Laufer, my editor,
reminds me of the system of communication that was employed in our efforts
to free our passports. At each step along the way, each of the colonels
gave us sealed letters to deliver to the next one. We would deliver
the letter, and the colonel would rip it open and read it in silence
as we anxiously waited. We never knew what the letters said.
also says that she does not recognize me in this story because I seem
more irresponsible than I really was (I'm not entirely sure how to take
that). As for the tone, she thinks I have somehow resurrected a kind
of cheesy breeziness characteristic of the Madison of the sixties and
seventies. Overall, she says, "the good parts were good in different
ways than you say, and the bad parts were bad in different ways too."
I do not fully convey the feeling of isolation of being stranded high
in the Andes. There are also specific problems—as a matter of fact,
my account is riddled with errors: it was not the pyrethrum manufacturer
but someone from the school (of whom I have absolutely no memory) who
got us our first introduction to the series of colonels, and as far
as that goes, I've put in one too many or maybe it was one too few colonels,
or perhaps I have promoted or demoted one or more of them. Metz's houses
were in Paris and New York, but not London; or perhaps Paris and London,
but not New York. Plus (she is warming to her subject) I didn't get
paid in sucres, so I didn't put them in my boot: that was Guatemala.
I got paid with checks just like everyone else, and we would always
dash downtown to cash them, because the exchange rate worsened with
each passing minute.
can I say? You can be pretty sure Carol is right, which is one of the
more aggravating things about living with her all these years. But this
all took place a quarter century ago, and I have tried to stay true
to my recollections of the events, the way they felt to me. I
get the feeling Carol could go on, but she simply concludes by saying
mildly that, despite all of this, she "likes the piece." Though she
doesn't elaborate on its presumed virtues, at least in this she has
done her duty, just as she did in freeing the passports all those years
in the mid-seventies, having obtained visitation rights, we went to
see our passports in the intendencia. You will think I'm exaggerating,
but it is little short of socialist realism, I insist (despite my spotty
memory), when I say that the intendencia was straight out of
The Persecution and Assassination of Marat Sade. Its centerpiece
was a dusty, trodden courtyard in which hapless wretches cringed, slobbered,
and moaned. Sadistic-looking soldiers paraded with pomp about the periphery
and stiffly guarded the labyrinthine corridors and the narrow winding
stairways. Up one of these we were led, gazing through slits at pitiful
prisoners whose blank-eyed faces expressed a lack of hope so absolute
that it was as chilling as the swirling, howling clouds of dust that
chased after us like avenging furies. Finally we reached the office
of an army colonel, who brought out the hostages and demonstrated that
they had not been harmed. With that, we went away.
this process we came at last to an interview with a grim-faced army
general, who was (and here I am being quite serious) intensely frightening.
He was such a stereotype that I am embarrassed to describe him: stony
expression, cold eyes, pencil moustache, aviator glasses, rigid posture,
clipped speech, medals up and down his chest—the whole package. He was
clearly uncharmed by the story of our criminal residence in his country.
Uncomfortable as we were in our interview with him, he did turn out
to be the right person to talk to, for after toying with us for a time—a
cat with mice—he seemed to weary of the sport, snapped his fingers,
and within minutes reunited us with our passports.
still had to be processed. And so we returned a final time to the nondescript
office where the nondescript bureaucrat, following the general's instructions,
briskly validated and stamped the passports and returned them to us
with the single stipulation that we be out of the country within twenty-four
hours, a condition to which we assented without demurral. We were on
a bus to the border in record time.
Pichu, Carol agrees, was marvelous.