|Apr/May 2010 Travel|
1. The House on San Antonio
In the Sixties, a decade before the road over the mountain from Maracay was paved, the elderly Doña Marquez still lived in the old house on Calle Principal which had ruled Hacienda San Antonio. She was the last of the farming generations, linked by marriage to the Hacienda Santa Clara, once notorious for its harsh treatment of slaves. Her family owned all the land between the two rivers just south of Puerto Colombia.
But like others descended from the "Gran Cacao," the Marquez family began selling off their heritage for some quick easy capital—a nice parcel to La Paisa, another to the Texeras, to Jose Gonzalez, Ramirez, Piñango, Villá, Carbonél, Penfold and the many others who came from Caracas to build weekend retreats. The Hacienda San Antonio, once rich in coffee and cacao, came to be known as "La Avenida"—a quiet section with dirt roads and simple cottages, apart from the village. The people here rarely involved themselves in local politics. And in turn, the village came to think of them as the wealthy outsiders.
At the heart of La Avenida, the Marquezes kept three choice plots for themselves. The largest went to a sister who was married to a German—a place now filled with towering mijaos, tall chaguaramos and coconut palms. From the house we rent, we can peer out over the hibiscus hedge at these monster trees and enjoy them as if they were our own. The owners never come, the house is decaying, the fence broken down and the land overgrown by brush and vines—magnificent in its abandonment, a jungle inhabited by vagrant cats, great green iguanas and raucous tropic birds. If we were not across the road, who would hear the thud of falling coconuts?
On its far side, nearer the river, a brother built his house on a smaller plot which he named "La Marqueseña" after his family. The land is less, but the house is more. Nothing spectacular, mind you, but done in a more classic colonial style—an "L" with three bedrooms, two baths, a kitchen and a long open corridor looking out onto what was once a charming garden with its own tall trees and colorful shrubs. But this Marquez is gone now too. Only rumors remain, neighbors' memories of loud squabbles between him and his German brother-in-law, of his few brief visits to La Paisa's for a sociable drink or two. Was he the one who was involved in a kidnapping? And didn't he go off to live in Australia? Chismes, rumors of a small, isolated village, none of which are probably true.
A few years back, La Marqueseña was sold to a slender Chilean named Chamorro, the owner of a Levi-Straus dealership in Barquisimeto. Chamorro, like so many others, had been instantly charmed by Choroní and saw this little house near the sea as a pleasant change from his desert surroundings in Lara. Or so he said. But did he perhaps have something else in mind? Under his ownership, the place quickly took on a new personality. Neighbors now complained of wild parties, loud music, drugs. "That place is lit up all night like a candle," they said. "Cars coming and going at all hours. I came here to get some rest." But was it only that which irked them? Venezuelans don't often complain about a good party.
When we first move into the neighborhood and I'm still completely ignorant of this history, young men come by asking for La Marqueseña and I can only shake my head in confusion. "No sé," I shrug. I have met most of the people down the road, but this name is strange.
"La Marqueseña?" I ask Nelson.
"Which is it?"
"Es la casa rosada," he answers deadpan. So I walk innocently down the road looking for a pink house, too dense to understand he has given me the code name for a gay residence. But after a few months, I discover why the neighbors are upset. There's no alarm over having a couple of gay neighbors, I'm told. It's that Chamorro and his friends are in the process of building a hotel in this residential neighborhood. A bar. A restaurant. A gay posada. A place for homosexual revelry.
Marisol and I don't concern ourselves. It's over there. Down the road. Almost out of sight. Their lights and music are filtered through that magic jungle beyond our hibiscus hedge. Sometimes on a moonlit night, a couple of men might wander by singing and laughing affectionately. Once a drugged-out visitor runs his car into a fence and leaves it for a couple of days. It seems no more an imposition than the occasional raucous partying down on the malecón or the booming music out of Camping. Live and let live.
But Chamorro's plans have been stopped dead in their tracks. Neighbors have gone to the authorities. Such an enterprise, he is told, is not acceptable in La Avenida. And this sours Chamorro's love affair with Choroní. He puts La Marqueseña on the market.
It so happens that we learn of this on a day when we've been pondering the chances of renting our present home for yet another year. A friend mentions off-hand that a young girl he knows has been looking at La Marqueseña as a business venture, still believing it could make a nice little posada. Her father, however, is against the idea, and he is the one with the money.
"She says you can talk him down, get a great price," our friend tells us. "He needs to sell."
"Well, what have we got to lose?" Marisol says, ever the nester. "Let's walk over and take a look." And so, curious to see a good deal in this inflated market, we head down the dirt path toward our fate. It is our first visit inside La Casa Rosada and I am appalled. Clearly, the original house still has charm, even if it needs work—a lot of work. But Chamorro (or one of his friends) has filled one whole side of the yard, from the front wall to the back, with wretched little cells I wouldn't ask the homeless to spend a night in. The acequia and the outside shower have combined to turn a whole section into a murky, sudsy swamp. From the dark, still waters jut bare concrete walls of yet more unfinished rooms. "Depressed" can't cover the darkness of my mood.
"Good God. How could they have done such a thing?"
"I think this place could be a jewel," Marisol says with enthusiasm. "A real jewel." Is this my wife or a real estate agent?
"I think the term is 'handyman special?'"
"First let's find out how much it will cost to knock all these outside rooms down and fix the acequia," she says in her practical tone of voice.
"How about putting in a new kitchen and bathrooms?" I counter sarcastically.
"Yes, and my swimming pool over there," she says dreamily, pointing toward the murky swamp.
And so the dance begins, pulling us relentlessly toward ownership. "Was not man meant to chase the illusive myth?" I ask myself. "To remain unencumbered by these mundane concerns? To be in the prow of some figurative launch, moving ever forward toward some as yet undiscovered romance?" But, alas, I have made the inevitable mistake. I have put my toe in to test the waters and an alligator has pulled me in up to my neck.
"OK, I surrender. This will be our home. Just not our posada."
I sit in the shade of our new corridor, looking up at the soaring presence of our newly acquired mijao. Is that a dead limb I see?
"Of course, first you must tumbar," our friend says, looking down the line of shabby cells. For just a moment I think he is speaking of my ephemeral male dreams. "Demolish. Then you will be able to see how much yard you have. And what a good investment you have made."
"Then by all means," I sigh. "Let us tumbar!"
2. Borracho Bolivar
We have bought our little handyman special, this former posada gay known throughout Puerto Colombia as La Casa Rosada on Calle El Colegio, and now enter into the time we call the tumbando—the knocking down.
Gustavo and his crew are razing everything in sight—the ten outside rooms, the storage shed, and many of the interior walls of what is to become our home, lifting off the asbestos roof, lowering the 2000-liter water tank and taking out the rotted wooden columns along the porch. Emilio and Fungo are checking the sewage lines and rebuilding the septic system.
But this is just scratching the surface. The whole yard is either flooded from the acequia or overrun by a jungle of vines and bushes that have been allowed to grow untended until they choke out the air and light around us.
"God," I say to Marisol, "I can't even see the sky."
And so we hire Julio Bolivar, who is said to be the best gardener in Choroní. He's a handsome-enough man, tall and lean with a well-shaped head, graying hair and pleasant face. But the look from his gray eyes is dreamy—perhaps vacant—as if he had just had electro-shock therapy.
"Sáca todo los crotos," I tell him. Crotos are a fashionable bush in Venezuela. They grow sturdy with little care, with rich brown and gold leaves. "Take them all out." Perhaps it's the way they're crowding the porch. Perhaps it's their color and the fact that I'm here, at least in part, to escape fall raking and the onset of winter in the States. But I loathe these crotos. They're deadening my space. I long to look out at the great green trees and the mountains beyond.
Julio looks puzzled. "Poldarlos?" he asks, thinking perhaps I just wish them pruned.
"No, no, sácalos. Bótalos." He lowers his head, gives me a strange sideways glance. To just tear them out and throw them away seems criminal. But he acquiesces, an accomplice to what he must perceive to be another case of gringo insanity.
"No lo quiero ningun aquí," I emphasize. "I don't want one of them here."
Bolivar works well—so quietly and methodically we barely notice him among the loud yelling and laughing and banging and crashing coming from the wrecking crew. By the end of the first day, he has already removed all the crotos from around the porch. The dwarf banana we save and plant over in the corner of the yard where I plan to have a stand of all my favorite varieties—pineo, topocho, manzano and titiaro.
But at four o'clock, the quitting hour, when Gustavo and his crew have piled into his truck and driven off, Bolivar comes over to me and speaks for the first time in hours.
"Can you pay me now?" he asks. It's a logical question, since I'm paying him by the day.
"No, lo siento," I tell him. "I only pay on Friday, when the week's work is done." This is not precisely the truth, but I have been warned about Bolivar.
Although I call him Julio and he is in fact a wonderful gardener, most people in town know him by the name El Borracho, The Drunkard.
"Whatever you do, don't pay him until he's finished," Juan Tronchoni has told me, and he should know. Juan not only hired him as his permanent gardener, he gave him the keys to his property. Julio proudly put them on a string and hung them around his neck like a talisman. They were, after all, visible evidence of his new position. Juan paid him a week's salary and left for Caracas. "Take care of the place," he told him. But when Juan returned the following weekend, he found Bolivar weaving down the main street of Puerto Colombia with a bottle of cheap aguardiente, the Venezuelan version of firewater, in his hand.
"Give me my keys," Juan said, naturally concerned about the security of his belongings. Bolivar nodded and smiled his wonderfully oblivious smile.
"Mis llaves," he mumbled, reaching up to his neck and caressing them fondly.
"No, no," Juan corrected. "They're mine. I need them." But in Bolivar's besotted brain these keys were much more than a matter of ownership, they were a matter of honor. So the more Juan insisted, the more Julio tightened his grasp.
Juan drove Bolivar around Puerto Colombia, thinking the confines of the car might help persuade him. He threatened, he pleaded, tried to wrestle them away, but nothing worked. Julio just smiled his benevolent smile and nodded at him. Juan was about to give up, open the door and toss Bolivar into the street, when a brilliant idea occurred to him.
"Those are my old keys," he lied. "I had to change all the locks of the house. Let me have those and I will give you the new keys tomorrow."
Julio looked bewildered.
"Sí," Juan repeated. "Estas son viejas. They have no more value."
A shadow of panic darkened Bolivar's face, a sense of sudden loss. Juan seized his advantage and pounded his point home.
"No tienen valor." El Borracho thought awhile, mumbled something incomprehensible, puzzled some more over this new problem, then all at once smiled again, took the keys from his neck and handed them back to Juan like so much useless trash. Juan never let him have the keys again and never paid him until the job was done.
Julio shrugs off my refusal to pay until the end of the week with the same smile. He leaves with a pleasant "hasta mañana" and shows up the next day in the same good humor. He listens patiently as I explain which palms I wish to keep, which bushes I want thrown out and which I want cut back and transplanted.
"I want this all open here," I throw my arms wide to indicate great expanse. "Abierto," I emphasize in my best pidgin Spanish. "Nada aquí. Solamente allá." I point to the edge of our small property. "Hibiscus here, banana there."
He sets about his day's work, carefully weeding out, pruning back and moving plants from one place to another. He sits on the ground, seldom rising, legs splayed out, pushing his bare feet ahead like some paraplegic caught in the undergrowth. Around him, sledgehammers are cracking concrete, walls are falling, but he is like the calm eye of a storm, seemingly at one with the earth, as still as a Buddhist monk in meditation. The others, busy with destruction, pay him little mind until they hear the shout.
"Macao," he calls. There's no trace of panic in his voice. It's a simple, flat yell. But to anyone here that one word is an alarm. Once is enough for all the workers to drop what they're doing and run toward him, wielding their machetes and shovels. Ching and Monstro, Chiquito and Fungo. They all know how venomous this snake can be. Less than a meter from Bolivar's foot, they fall on the snake, beating the ground until the last death spasm ends. Fungo picks it up with his shovel.
"Mírala. It's a big enough."
"It's big all right."
They strut back to work, laughing, their virility stirred. Bolivar hasn't budged. He carries on as if they had just stepped on a grasshopper. His machete carefully prunes a bush with scarlet leaves, loosens the earth around its roots. But a half-hour later we hear the toneless cry again.
Again they run to Julio and beat the earth at his feet. Again they raise the snake in the air, wondering at its size, its wide diamond-shaped head, its long black and tan body.
"They must be mates," Monstro says. "They like to come in pairs." He tosses the carcass over our garden wall so another snake won't blame him for killing this one.
Julio is concentrating on more pastoral matters, sitting among the plumas rojas, their deep green fronds and red flowers rising above him. He communes with each plant, asking it which part needs trimming. It is late afternoon and the sun is falling toward the mountains in the west.
And again the race is on. This time Chiquito gets there first, pulverizing the ground, smashing a plant and wounding the snake with his shovel, just as it is raising its head to strike.
"Coño su madre," Fungo whispers. "This must be the mama." He digs out the bloodied snake and tosses it on the ground for all to marvel at. It's well over a meter long. Bolivar gets up and dusts himself off. It's quitting time.
"Hasta mañana," he says and walks away. At the end of the week his work is through. The yard has the beginnings of what we hope will someday be a neat lawn reaching out to a lush border. I pay him and shake his hand.
"Gracias, Julio, por todo." And then, remembering his drinking problem, I add, "Cuídate bien—y seco. Keep yourself well—and dry."
But this weekend, Puerto Colombia is full of tourists and I hear reports of Bolivar, drunk again, wandering into restaurants, bothering the people, exposing himself on the malecón. I run into his brother, Miguel Mayora, the one the father legitimized with his name.
"But what a shame about Julio," I tell him. "I feel bad that I gave him the money to buy his liquor."
"Míra," Miguel says. "When he's on a drunk, he'll sell the bed from under his wife, anything, just to get a bottle."
I walk up to the malecón and find him standing there stiff as a scarecrow, staring vacantly out to sea, his loose shirt and shorts flapping in the breeze. As drunk as a man can be and remain upright.
He looks at me, his face flushed and twisted with drink. Who does he think I am? For a moment there isn't the slightest recognition in his glazed eyes. Then he smiles idiotically, spittle at the corners of his mouth. He makes a strange gurgling sound.
Knowing from the start that it's useless, I try the lecture route. After all, there's no AA in sight. Maybe I can lay a little shame on him.
"Look at yourself,"I hear myself saying. "You're killing yourself, Bolivar." It sounds ridiculous, particularly in my pidgin Spanish. He looks puzzled. "Esa cosa es veneno. Poison." I reach for his bottle of aguardiente, but he pulls it away. I'm thinking, you gringo ass, would Johnny Walker do him any better? I try out a silly comparison. "Peor, peor que... worse than el macao."
I watch the thought, the word, pass through his brain and into his distorted face. He grins at me, whoever he thinks I am, and cradles the bottle lovingly to his breast.
"Macao," he says with passion.