In the tropics, they recognize midday not by the clocks, but by the absence of shadow. For one hour, the sun burns down vertically on heads, shoulders and toes, and those foolish enough to be caught in the streets pay the penalty in sweat. Those who know better take shelter.
When the clock strikes twelve today, I am ensconced in an air-conditioned Internet cafe, reading this week’s missive from my friend and former traveler Erhard Blum, now a one-man international charity machine. From Hamburg, he writes:
As it happens I am still in Cartagena, after a search for paradise—el paraiso—led me here. Here, where the torpid Caribbean laps against 500-year-old fort city walls, where the beauty queen of Colombia is crowned once a year and fat negresses carry steel baskets of coconut cakes on their heads. And the sun sets. It was the sunsets that finally seduced me; the city nestled against a silver sea, under a sky the color of a split papaya.
I call Edwin—my partner in charity—and together we catch a taxi to Olaya, one of the poorer barrios in Cartagena. As we get closer, the road begins to deteriorate. I notice the proliferation of potholes first, then whole sections of bitumen peeling away like cracked paint. In Olaya the paved road ends altogether, along with the street signs. But Edwin is a local and knows where the family lives. He grunts lefts and rights to the taxi driver, who negotiates the undulations in the clay streets by rolling slowly from one side of the road to the other.
When we arrive, the yard is full of children, kids from the neighboring houses whose parents are out working. We can see them playing on the bare earth through the wire fence that surrounds the house. I stoop under the frame of the wooden gate and the children stop and stare at me, taking in my height and strange clothes. The pale skin between my shorts and sandals patently fascinates them.
Edwin introduces me to the family. There is the mother, hanging wash on the line. There is a son-in-law with rare blue eyes fixing a car radio. There are the children—too many to count or name—and then there is Arturo sitting limply in a metal chair. When he sees us, he smiles widely. The mother picks up a cloth and wipes drool from the side of his mouth.
Arturo is fourteen years old and has a condition that affects the muscles in his legs, arms and face. He can’t walk or talk. His hands are contorted inwards so he can’t use sign language either. It's unlikely Arturo understands much of what we say, but he does seem happy to see us.
Edwin gestures towards a wooden shed. "This is the house." Inside, he translates the mother’s thick Costeña accent while she gives us the grand tour. "Kitchen, living room, communal bedroom. And that’s the wheelchair we bought for Arturo a couple of months ago." Modern and metallic, it looks out of place leaning against the wooden boards of the wall.
"It’s either extremely well looked after, or never used," I say, running my finger down the armrest, thinking about the roads in the barrio and Arturo’s useless arms.
"There’s a space for the washing machine here." Edwin marks the area with his foot. "And there's a power point in the corner. There are blackouts most days, but the rest of the time they have electricity."
"Agua?" I ask the mother.
She leads us outside to a tap and turns it on to show us the running water. "There’s no way of connecting it to the machine," Edwin says, "but the mother can fill a bucket with water and carry it inside. Three or four buckets and she’ll be able to do a load of washing."
"Is there a drain?" I ask.
"It looks like the best thing will be to let it drain out onto the street. The only other way they can get rid of water and sewage is to take it down to the lagoon. La Cienaga de la Virgen."
"La Cienaga de la Virgen." I test the words in my mouth.
"Por allá," the mother says, pointing the way.
By way of proof, an ill wind floats over from that direction. While I cover my nose, the others laugh.
"You should be here when it rains," Edwin says, "then it’s really unbearable."
But at least for today it’s all blue skies. We finish the visit and say goodbye to everyone with a smile and a wave. Everyone is smiling, especially Arturo. And just like that, we’ve created hope.
Now we have to make sure we don’t let them down.
As we roll out of the barrio in the taxi, past staring locals, Edwin and I talk about the plan in more detail. We discuss the benefits. Washing clothes for money is the mother's main source of income so the machine could save her a lot of work. Then we discuss the risks. The mother doesn’t know how to operate a washing machine. She might use the wrong washing powder, overload the device, or leave it out in the rain. Or the family might sell it.
If only it were a matter of throwing money at the problem. But even if we put all our money in a big bag and left it in the Plaza Santa Domingo for everyone to share, it wouldn’t make a difference. The next day the sun would rise over a beach studded with a few more empty rum bottles and shine through the windows of the houses onto a few more sore heads. Then the city would wake up and begin crawling through the heat, like it always does.
Over the next week, a triangle of communication opens up between Edwin, Erhard and myself. We air our concerns about giving the family something that they will not use properly and I point out that the wheelchair doesn’t seem to have left the house.
More than that, I wonder how much of what we’re doing is helping the Fernandez family and how much is assuaging our own guilt. I mean, it’s not like any of this is our fault, but sometimes when you’re sitting in the Plaza San Diego, drinking in the humid beauty of the old city with a cold beer, you can’t help but think about Arturo’s family in Olaya, the electricity gone again, the smell of the barrio’s shit drifting through the house, and all of them hungry.
In the end Erhard makes the call. We go ahead and buy it.
Two weeks later Erhard writes again:
This is part support and part prevention; by marking the machine we make sure the family can’t sell it on. Edwin and I find some paint and a paintbrush and head out to Olaya.
It’s hotter today, and the smell is worse. Arturo is smiling like always. He smiles more than the man who pushes a wheelbarrow of watermelons through the barrio, more than anyone else in his family. He smiles more than I do.
They’re putting away the washing machine as we arrive—sliding it back into its box with the Styrofoam packing. They say that they put it away like this after every time they use it and being here with the family, it's suddenly much easier to believe them. I want to take back my thoughts about the wheelchair, even as I carefully paint the letters onto the machine: "Donacíon de la Casa Aleman." Translation: "We do not trust you."
But I don’t feel bad for long. A recollection of the times I’ve been ripped off since arriving reminds me that you have to walk a line between skepticism and generosity. Blame all the thieves who have taken advantage of tourists. You can’t measure the damage in terms of the value of the goods and money they steal. That doesn’t even begin to cover it.
My thoughts are interrupted by Edwin, who comes in from the yard, cursing. "The family are having a problem with Arturo’s doctors," he says. "Turns out the names on some of his documents don’t match, so they won't give him medicine or treatment anymore. They can change the documents at the notary, but it’ll cost more than the family earns in a month."
I look up at Edwin, my paintbrush halfway through an N.
"I’ve told them that we’ll all go to the notary tomorrow," he continues quickly, "to see if we can find a solution."
I get to the clock tower at 9am. The heat is already oppressive enough to make me sweat standing still. Sweat never figured in my visions of paradise. In paradise, you do not sweat; you float serenely in crystal-clear water. Or you get drunk but without dizziness, without lethargy.
As I wait, men with fake ID badges call me amigo and offer to buy dollars for pesos. They do not know that in paradise there are no tourists, or rather, that being treated like a tourist in paradise is somehow equivalent to being in hell. In paradise, locals smile and wave and bougainvilleas spill off colonial balconies simply because it is in their nature. The web of life is perfect whether you are there or not. And you lose yourself in it—vanish from the map.
Edwin turns up at 9:15, then at 10:00 Arturo’s parents arrive.
"Right on time by Colombian standards," I joke to Edwin.
"They didn’t have enough money to catch the bus," he explains, "had to walk for two hours to get here."
As we head towards the notary, Edwin tells me that the family's problems aren't limited to transport—they haven't even had money for food over the last two days. So while the others go inside to talk to the officials, I go to the supermarket and buy five-kilogram bags of rice and beans, blocks of cane sugar and vegetable oil, onions and garlic. At least the family will have something to eat tonight. I get back in time to see them all coming out of the office, smiling and waving documents at me.
Edwin recounts the success while Arturo’s parents beam, perhaps at the story, or perhaps at the sound of the English words coming out of Edwin’s fat lips. I hand over the bags of food and some money for a bus home along with the latest farewell I’ve been practicing: "Que les vaya bien." I hope it goes well for you. But instead of leaving, the mother and father begin arguing. Just when I'm convinced they’re about to start throwing punches, the talking stops and Edwin translates.
"They’ve invited us to their place for dinner tonight."
Caught off guard like this, I break into the archetypal goofy gringo smile. The words of acceptance come like hiccups.
"Si, si, si."
It's dark as we approach the Fernandez house. I cradle a watermelon we have brought as a present and an equally large bundle of reservations as to what this dinner will be like. There is no breeze tonight, which means that the air is relatively sweet, but also that we are sweating profusely. In a nearby street we can hear a stereo booming out tropical rhythms across the barrio.
"Every house with a sound system or a television," says Edwin, sweeping his arm down the street, "even if the walls and roofs have holes in them."
The Fernandez house is no exception. We arrive to the sounds of a soap opera theme emanating from a television in the corner of the room. The mother explains proudly that they have borrowed the TV from some friends especially for the evening. The family huddles around one side of the dinner table, transfixed by the screen. Arturo is sitting in his wheelchair, which shines like a throne. When we enter his face is fixed in a receptive drool. It’s not until he notices Edwin and me standing in the doorway that he graces us with one of his smiles.
During the meal, the television casts its soft blue spell over the room. We spoon mouthfuls of rice and beans while the drama of La Costeña y El Cachaco unfolds.
After dinner and halfway through the second soap opera of the evening, the power sputters and then dies. There is a moment of profound silence, as the entire neighborhood breathes in. Then it explodes with curses that ring out along the street and down to the lagoon.
The Fernandez family takes the power failure more philosophically and murmurs jokes while the mother flits into the kitchen and comes back with candles that she positions around the room. Again she disappears into the kitchen and returns with cups of coffee, black and laced with the unmistakable sweetness of cane sugar. She takes her place at the table and we sit looking at each other in silence, waiting for someone to speak.
When the mother begins talking, I barely recognize her voice. It sounds like it is rising up from under the table, from under the ground. In the still and silence that prevails, I find myself able to follow the dance of her accent for the first time, missing a step here and there, but catching her at the next turn. I focus on the candle flame in the center of the table, and listen.
She tells us about the legend of the witches that live in the lagoon, how on moonlit nights, the witches patrol the neighborhood, leaping from tree to tree, searching for men stranded outside the safety of their homes. Married men especially she says, as the father fetches me a wink across the table.
The witches are ancient and ugly. Their rotting flesh hangs from their bones in strips. They are hairless and toothless, but in the moonlight, they look like beautiful young girls. A man, walking alone at night, perhaps after a few glasses of rum, is easy prey; so eagerly drinking in the witch’s dark gaze from the deeper shadows at the side of the road; so obediently following the hypnotic sway of her nubile hips down to the lagoon; and so readily succumbing to her embrace at the bottom of the lagoon where the men remain forever, sucked down under layers of filth and mud.
When the mother’s voice stops I look at the faces around the table, searching for signs of belief. The son-in-law is visibly shaken. The father suppresses a smile. And on the opposite side of the table, Arturo is still rapt. In the candlelight his eyes shine. They are wide with a mix of surprise, fear and delight. His gaze passes through me, through the wall, perhaps through to the lake, where it probes the mud searching for victims of the witches. A steady rivulet of saliva pours from the side of his mouth until he feels my eyes on him and reverts to his usual grin.
We drink some more coffee, listen to some more local legends, then, promising to travel straight home and not talk to strange girls in the street, Edwin and I say our goodbyes and leave.
That was the last time I saw the Fernandez family. Not long after that I left Cartagena and went home, realizing perhaps that there was no travel guidebook entry for the place I was looking for.
Sometimes I wonder how the family is getting on, try and imagine the scene. With little effort I can conjure the bad smell floating over from the lagoon, hanging over their barrio. If I try a little harder I can see the washing machine, chugging away, flushing soapy water into the street.
But by far the easiest thing to visualize is Arturo, sitting in a metal chair in the merciful shade of the yard, smiling and drooling. Smiling at the barrio going past, at the tiny mirages formed by the heat radiating off the street, and somewhere beyond that, visions of paradise.
Copyright © Mark Vender 2004. Title graphic: "Awash in Paradise" Copyright © The Summerset Review 2004.