‘I was thinking I might drive up to Ballarat after tea tonight to make love to you. Any objections?’
I don’t know that I’ve ever received a nicer text message. I’m working in Ballarat for a couple of weeks, locuming at the hospital, just at the key time.
Desperate times lead to desperate measures. I don’t know that anyone has ever driven from Melbourne to another town, just to have sex with me.
In fact, no one has ever driven anywhere to have sex with me.
If there is any advantage to not being pregnant, I guess this has to be it.
* * * * *
“Suse is driving to Ballarat tonight.”
“Oh, really?” Mum says.
“Yeah, she’s ovulating some time in the next forty-eight hours. So it’s pretty important that we…”
“Do you need us to leave the house?” asks Dad.
“No,” I say, trying not to laugh. “We only need one room. Just don’t come into the room.”
It’s nice knowing how supportive everyone is. It strips a lot of stuff away. It’s like a little vignette has opened into our life, and after that, we’ve just let the shroud fall away.
All that stuff we used to keep secret. I’ve never spoken to anyone about masturbating. Never. But since my experience at the hospital, I’ve told about a hundred people. Equally, I don’t think I’ve ever told either of my parents about an impending sexual encounter. Let me rephrase – I know that I’ve never told either of my parents anything about any of my sex life.
I guess things change when you’ve got blocked fallopian bits.
I look up. There Suse stands, wearing only a bikini. The comment is ripe for misinterpretation, if it wasn’t for her solemn expression and the origami in her outstretched hands. In each palm sits a paper boat; folded crescents, like upside-down party hats. They have been painted with watercolours, pink for one, blue for the other. The paint lines trace along the folds, making them look like international envelopes, each with a large heart in their middle. And each of the boats holds a flower as its cargo.
“They’re boats. For the spirits. One for the boy, and one for the girl.”
I look up at her to see a content expression on her face.
And my chest fills up, with all of those things that you don’t realise are missing until they return.
* * * * *
We pack a bag, both wearing swimmers. We close the door behind us, taking in the perfect day outside. Where the unblemished sky hits the water is hard to tell; the palm trees dot the manicured grass like a game of tic-tac-toe.
We walk across the plush lawn carpet and onto the soft sand, heading down to the water’s edge, where our feet sink into the waterlogged sand puddles, the lukewarm shallows splashing up the backs of our legs as we go.
“We’re heading for those rocks,” Suse says, pointing. Wordlessly she hands me the blue boat, small orange flowers its cargo. In her hand, she holds the paper vessel with pink pin-striping, a rose-coloured heart painted on its hull. In it sits a pink bougainvillea. “It makes sense that you hold the boy boat,” she says.
We walk on further, our feet slapping along the water’s edge, in the quicksand; in the most-fun part. I look ahead at the rocky outcrop to which we are heading. From it springs a solitary palm. It reaches out over the water, which spreads beneath it as a turquoise blanket; there as a soft landing, should it ever decide to fall.
“It came to me when I was meditating,” Suse says finally, “that those spirits from my previous pregnancies – the ones that didn’t complete – are still with me. I need to let those spirits go.” We walk on some more. I look across at her face, her beautiful face; at the first few freckles that already beginning to emerge in the sun. “I need to let them go, to really let them go, ceremonially, so that they can return to me – to us – now that their real father is here.” She looks at me and smiles. “And we need to do it in those waters up there.” She points, again, at the teal waters over by the edge of the dark rocks.
As we stroll we link our free hands. The paper boats remain in our other hand, held out ahead; guiding us forward, in perfect symmetry.
“When we went to see that clairvoyant,” Suse continues, “she told me that there would be something. That a little ritual would come to me. And that it would come to me while we were here, in the love waters. And that I would know when it came.”
She looks across at me, her eyes smiling along with her mouth, a contentment in her face that I haven’t seen for a very long time. We walk on in silence through the water. As we get closer, we can see a group of snorkelers rounding the corner, right at the point.
“It’s okay,” I say, “they’ll move on. It will be perfect.”
As we get closer, the snorkelers get caught in a rip. They wash along, ever towards us. They remain oblivious to our presence, sliding right on by, never even aware.
By the time we reach the rocks, we are again alone.
* * * * *
Suse looks at me, taking the boat from my hand.
“I need to do this,” she says. “I’m the one who needs to let them go. When that is done, they can return.”
As she finishes saying this, her head falls slightly, a self-deprecation, a solemnity; a reverence for this moment. She turns, and walks slowly out into the shallows of the Pacific, a folded piece of paper in each hand, delicately painted with a heart, each housing a flower.
I watch my wife as she gracefully wades, riding the small waves out, further and further. And then she stops. She remains still for almost a minute, looking down. And she first lets go of the pink boat, watching it as it goes. It floats off to the left, falling on its side. Her whole body turns towards it as she quietly watches it float away. She repeats the act with the second, the boy boat. It repeats the act, yet disappears from view more quickly.
She stands for a moment watching them, the mother of these spirits, as she lets them free. And I stand for that moment watching her.
And all the time, something else watches us.
Then she turns, and my mermaid swims back to me. As she gets closer, she smiles.
“The boy sank,” she says, her nose wrinkling up. Then she lets out a light giggle.
“Bloody boys,” I say. We both laugh. “That’s okay. He’s not coming first anyway. He’s just mucking around on the bottom of the pool, waiting his turn.”
I take my wife in my arms, her slender arms looping over my shoulders.
“Do you want to say anything?” she asks.
I stop for a moment, waiting for self-consciousness to kick in. But it never comes.
“In letting the spirits of this boy and girl go,” I start, “these spirits that have been with Suse since they were last in bodily form are now free. And with that, they are finally free to return, when they are ready, to us, so that they can be ours, to share as ours, two halves of us, our spirits that are already there.”
She hugs me tightly.
“We’re ready when you are,” she whispers. “We’re ready.”
Suse keeps her arms slung around my neck, but makes a quarter turn, so we can both watch the little pink boat and its flower, bobbing up and down on the lapping waves; the spirit of this little girl that we are now ready to receive.
“Of course I have, love. Did you get the power in every room?” she asks. The question comes out in a frosty plume, like a cartoon balloon. Suse rubs her hands, standing by the car in the dull morning light. “Then do it quickly!”
I jog back into the house one more time. I check the laundry door, one last time. The house is warm against my cheeks, as I stooping to flick off power points room by room. I head into the study and crawl under the desk. Flick. Flick. Flick. Flick. I walk into the bedroom.
As I do, I notice that the candle is out.
* * * * *
For two nights, its pink glow has left me sleeping sporadically at best. Despite a face mask, I’ve woken every hour or so, looking across at my wife, slumbering deeply to candlelight, like she was in a Bronte novel.
I always thought she’d be better suited to a Bronte novel than me.
Of all the candles to buy for a ritual, Suse chose the longest lasting, highest quality, most incandescent rose candle she could find.
The fucking thing just kept burning. It was like the Energiser of candles.
Last night, I turned to her.
“Couldn’t it just burn out like the cheap things we got the first time around?”
“Move it into the other room if it’s bothering you,” she’d said.
“Can you do that?”
“Can you move a candle after you’ve made an intention? After you’ve made passionate, baby-making love? And after I said that the candle was for us to receive our kid, only once it had burnt out?”
“Well, on that logic, you need to have supersperm, buddy, because this thing has been burning for twenty-four hours now, and looks like it’ll go another twenty-four. So are your boys going to hang around for two days before fertilising my eggs?”
We both looked at it, burning away.
“Okay, I’ll move it,” I said.
“I don’t know that you should,” she said sheepishly, “now that you’ve said that.”
We stared at it again.
“I won’t then. I don’t want to affect it.”
“I never knew you were so superstitious, Dr. Nethercote.”
“I didn’t know that I was either. That is, until we lost a baby on the day we moved into this house, you’ve had no end of back luck since then, and then a woman popped up out of nowhere to tell us that the reason we’d lost our child was because we hadn’t yet cleansed our house. Oh, that, and that I’m a sensitive.”
“You are very sensitive, aren’t you?” she said, patting my face jokingly.
* * * * *
We’d decided to leave it here. To let it burn to the quick. This, despite the fact that this morning we are heading overseas for nine days. We’d resolved to leave a burning object in our untended house. Shit, we hadn’t even resolved it. It had gone unspoken. As if we wouldn’t? My Dad would have apoplexy at the thought. And yet, there was no other choice.
This is the level to which my superstition has risen.
But now, as I stand here, on my last check of the house, the candle has gone out.
I flick off the bedroom power points and head back out. I lock the door, turning to Suse. Her face is white, frozen in Melbourne’s winter morning.
“Did you blow out the candle?” I ask.
“No. Is it out?”
“Yeah. It was still going five minutes ago. Are you sure you didn’t blow it out?”
Suse looks at me and rolls her eyes. “No, Mark. I’m here to fuck with your mind,” she says sarcastically. “Of course I didn’t. It must have gone out just now.”
“After burning for thirty-six hours, it goes out the minute we leave for Fiji.”
“The exact minute.”
I frown and jump into the car, reversing back, feeling the hairs stand on end.
* * * * *
We skim across the water, a dazzling sky above. All around us it is dark, a blank canvas against which to see the Southern Cross and the Milky Way.
“Do you know how to tell which way is south?” Suse shakes her head. I point over her shoulder up at the sky above. As I do, I cuddle into her, continuing my explanation. She leans into me, her head resting on my shoulder, her face pressing up against mine, and she whispers into my ear.
“I don’t really care, honey. You can always be in charge of directions.” She kisses my cheek softly, before letting out a little mew, snuggling further into my crook.
* * * * *
We pull into dock, jump off the boat, and watch as our bags are transferred onto the golf buggy.
“Will they still have food available when we arrive?” I ask.
“I think they will, sir,” says the driver.
I look across at Suse. The two flights, the boat ride, and five transfers are beginning to wear tiredly on her face.
As we pull into our resort, I see a group of people waiting. The drivers flicks his lights switch. Off, then on; off, then on. And with that, as we wind around in a circle towards the front entrance, the singing begins.
“Oh, my God,” says Suse with delight.
As we come around the corner, the palm trees clear. And then we see a troupe of Fijians wearing traditional garb, there to welcome us. One is playing guitar, one the ukelele, and all ten of them harmonise in a beautiful Fijian welcome song.
“Is this for us?” I ask, stupidly.
“Oh, my God!” Suse repeats.
We bundle out of the buggie, like instant celebrities in a wonderland.
“Bula!” one says.
“Bula!” says the next.
We shakes hands, all ten of them, there for us at 10.30pm at night. A group of singers have welcomed us, all there to say hello, honouring us like family. I see Suse hugging one. It’s as if we’ve returned after a long trip away.
“That is the sweetest thing I’ve ever seen,” she says excitedly.
We ring our family. We let them know. It makes us feel simultaneously better and worse. We pack. And we organise.
“Hello, is that Virgin Blue?”
“Yes, it is,” says the saccharine voice on the other end.
“I was just ringing up to change my flight.”
“MYQPBN.” I listen to tapping down the phone.
“You do understand, sir, that because this flight is less than twenty-four hours away, you will have to pay a cancellation fee.”
“I’m sorry, I would have rung earlier, but my wife was admitted to hospital last night with an ectopic pregnancy.”
“I’m sorry sir, it’s company policy.”
“Okay, whatever,” I say, sighing. “So we’re no longer in Byron Bay, we need to change our flight.”
“Because we’re in a different hospital, ninety minutes away.”
“So you want a new flight?’
“I’d love one.”
“There’ll still be a cancellation fee.”
“One hundred and twenty dollars.”
“Really?” I blink. “Really?”
“Do you know that I’m dropping our hire car off in a totally different city, 100km away, and Thrifty is only charging us thirty-five?”
“If you read the fineprint…”
“…So even in the case of hospitalisation or maming…”
“…It’s the policy, sir.”
“So, it’s three times more difficult for you to type our names into your computer, than it is to drive a car ninety minutes up the road?”
“I’m not saying that. But it’s all there in our policy document…”
“…You do realise that this was an emergency, don’t you? That we ended up in hospital?” I say, my voice rising. “That my wife was bleeding? That she had clots coming out of her vagina? That they were threatening to remove body parts?”
There you go. I lost my cool.
* * * * *
We travel to Coolangatta airport and drop off the car. Seven days of shopping has taken its toll. We still have our outfits from the ‘White Party’ we would have gone to last night, if we weren’t having so much fun in hospital. But right now, we can’t give away Suse’s cute little dress, nor my white shorts. It’s hard to believe, I know.
Even still, the environmentalist in me is keen to do something with the leftover food. I approach a group of Schoolies, holding up a plastic bag in offering.
“Are you guys coming or going?”
“Coming,” replies a boy, shocked to have been spoken to by someone over twenty.
“Do you want some food? We’re leaving and we’ll only throw it in the bin.”
“Nah,” he says with embarrassment. He scratches at a layer of bumfluff on his chin.
“There’s bread and milk?” I say, feeling slightly like the old man offering lollies.
“Still nah,” he says. He looks across at the gaggle by the bus, who start to pull faces.
Four of the boys turn, swooping like seagulls. Two of them grab at it, while the other two scramble around behind. Bum fluff boy stands there, overcome with disappointment. I’m reminded of those days, of what it was like; in that continual oscillation between embarrassment and disappointment.
“Have fun,” I say smiling.
I walk back towards Suse, turning as I leave. There they stand, embarrassed, disappointed, back and forth; changing like a set of Christmas lights.
* * * * *
We check in. We walk towards the gates. We go through the beepy machine, irradiating our hand luggage some more. We sit and eat shitty food. And we board.
We sit in our seats, next to each other, holding hands. Every now and then one of use squeezes a little tighter. The flight attendants go through the safety demonstration. For the first time ever, I listen. I look at the card for further information. I flip it over, searching for the section on ‘Sudden Descent when your Wife is Bleeding to Death’. Suse doesn’t have that bit either.
We ferry down the runway. And then we stop. We sit there on the tarmac for a long time. Maybe to give us the chance to ring an emergency bell. Or to call for help. Or to apologise for complaining about the cancellation fee. Or to just break our way out through the emergency hatch for being so goddamned foolish.
Who would put a woman with an ectopic on a plane? Who would be that stupid?
I think about the pressure changes in an aeroplane cabin during the ascent. About how water expands on the way up. About how your fizzy drink wants to spray its contents all over you when you’re up there. Are we thick? Are we completely daft? Did I remember to put four units of O negative blood in my hand luggage? Did I even pack my pen knife?
I don’t know. I think I left them at home.
So we hold hands. It’s about as helpful as assuming the crash position when you’re hurtling towards a mountain. What else is there to do?
We hold hands.
Eventually, the plane starts to move. The engines whirr, it picks up steam, and we start to speed along. The wheels lift, our stomachs jolt, and we are up. We’re up. It’s done. Too late now.
For the first twenty minutes, we sit there. Both of us. Staring forward. Directly at that annoying, flashing, buy-me-to-watch-a-crap-show in-flight screen. Neither of us moving.
“I’ve got to go to the toilet,” Suse says finally.
“Okay.” I squeeze her hand as she goes.
I sit there, waiting. The call bell goes four times while I wait. Each time, it’s like an electric shock in my undies. I look around, but the world doesn’t appear to be ending. I glance back and forth, back and forth, back and forth. People start to eye me suspiciously; the nervous, sweating guy, who keeps glancing back at galley at the rear of the plane.
And then the door opens. She emerges. Walking even. She can still walk.
She returns to her seat. I look at her.
Over the next hour, Suse goes back and forth to the toilet six times. Each time, she reports in. Each time, I resume breathing when she sits. Each time, the man behind us looks more and more disconcerted. I smile at him. It doesn’t help.
The flight takes months. Maybe years. I’m not sure. But at the halfway point, I start to relax. When I see Melbourne out the window, my shoulders drop. As we land, I finally let go of Suse’s bruised hand.
25 AUG 08 – DEPART – SANTIAGO/ARTURO MERINO 2300 NON-STOP
Terminal: TERMINAL INTERNATIONAL
27 AUG 08 -ARRIVE – AUCKLAND/AUCKLAND INTL 0400 13HRSOOMINS
Terminal: TERMINAL INTERNATIONAL
- AIRCRAFT – AIRBUS INDUSTRIE A340 ALL SERIES PAX
- CLASS – ECONOMY
I dried my bum with the towel, wiped up the puddle in the lobby toilets, and completed my impromptu shower before leaving the hotel that had refused me a real shower, with a smile. Within 15 minutes my shuttle for the airport had arrived. I got onto my third bus for the day, a minibus, and opposite me was a fat Aussie slob with tattoos like sleeves, the extent of both arms. Next to him sat a stunning Brazilian girl named Daniela, angling away from his B.O. The chalk and cheese of life, of my life over the last two weeks, sat right here in front of me. And for all of his physical deformities, B.O. Slob was the one I wanted to hug.
* * * * *
I checked into the Flight of Adversity within minutes. Flight LA801 was not full, and as an Airbus A340-300, I knew the whole middle aisle deal. I smiled at the man at the desk, who didn’t seem to know exactly how to respond.
“Would it be possible to get a seat on a middle row without anyone else?”
“Because I’d like that, if possible.” He shook his head and sighed. You’d think I’d asked to borrow his car for the year. “You said the aeroplane wasn’t very full?”
“So there are some middle rows with no one in them.”
“So could I have an aisle seat in one of those rows, please?” His face said, ‘when you put it like that, it’s hard to pout with integrity’. He tapped hard at his keys, refusing to look up. I gave him permission to hit the desk – punching at keys rarely disperses enough anger. He handed me my tickets, concentrating hard to look over my shoulder.
“Have an enjoyable day,” I said smiling, which caused obvious consternation. As I left, I checked my boarding pass for the follow-on leg from Auckland to home, and saw that he’d put me on a window for that one. I glanced back, and saw that the look had changed. I won’t describe that one.
I passed through customs, putting my camera and computer through the electronic-resetting machine as a man made me stand in star-jump pose before waving a beeping wand over me and fondling at my genitals. I spent my final money on a Chile fridge magnet and a Dunkin Donuts wrap, lining my stomach like a baking dish, readying myself for the flight home. I sat in anticipation, waiting for almost the entire jet to board before getting on. I then headed for seat 42D.
Hope. It’s a dangerous emotion on long-haul flights. Inevitably, there is always this universal joke in the wings, just waiting for its moment to play out. I buckled up, aware of my relationship with hope, trying not to focus on it. I arranged my goods, ritual-like, iPod in place, wallet out, even ready to begin picking at nails. There I was, sitting all on my own, in my row of four. A fug of anxious calm enveloped me. I repeated the mantra that ‘whatever will be, will be’, like I was Edith Piaf or something. More and more passengers boarded. A whining French woman looped in my head. We were getting ready to take off. I was safe; sweet, flat sleep was mine. An announcement came overhead, telling us that we were waiting on two more passengers. I heard the loading dock pull away from the jet.
A mincey looking ginger-ninja and his lanky prostitute of a girlfriend walked down the aisle. No judgement. No bitterness.
The prostitute and the ginger-ninja
Whatever will be, will be.
They smiled at me, as they plonked themselves down in the two seats beside me.
A sensation that can only be described as a mix of every unpleasant emotion one has ever experienced, swelled through my veins. I had to think fast. I remembered that look on the face of the check-in desk guy. Edith started up again. The jet was doing its customary ‘sit still for no reason’ thing. I shot a look towards the back, and among the jungle of heads, I spotted two free rows. A blade of grass shimmered in the breeze – nope, make that one; a stealthy jaguar of a man slipped into place. I turned towards the front, only to see a man-lion out of the corner of my eye from the window aisle – my aisle – get up and walk aft to swiftly to claim his spot. A hunt was in tow. I watched as a wave of emotion crossed his face, as he performed his territorial pissing.
Let it go, Mark. Fuck this. Doesn’t matter. Bastard.
Frantic, I looked back to the front, and again counted heads. And there I spotted it. A free row, ten rows ahead. I looked behind once more, and saw not a single row free. There were the two gentleman, bliss across their gobs, in a sea of agitation, doing just what I wanted to do. Marking out territory.
With a jolt I jumped up, the plane beginning to ferry, and walked the ten aisles forward. I plonked myself down, the calm of the aftermath. Death stares came from every direction. I removed arrows from my back, and the in-flight magazine from the pocket in front. I thumbed it nonchalantly, my heart pounding. An ether of jealousy sprayed the cabin.
I took a breath, thinking. In my hurry, in my reaction, I’d left my seat pockets full, ten rows back. So I had nothing to mark my spot, nothing as entertainment, and my wallet and iPod were at the back of the plane with the prostitute and the ninja.
I untied my fleece from around my waist, bagsing one seat, and plonked the magazine as a marker on another. I unclipped my safety belt. The jet took a corner as I walked the aisle, bumping a jealous arm. I grabbed at my iPod, wallet, passport, and copy of the New Zealand Herald. I winked at the mince and the prostitute, and turned back. A couple of eyes bored, pupils fixed. I dared them back.
I bumped the very same arm on the way back, this time eliciting a wounded howl. Eighteen seconds later I was back in my seat. Had it been nineteen, and the wolves would have had my little hatchlings.
I sat again and reminded myself to breathe. I stretched my neck, the lividity from ski-stillness now well and truly flowing. I returned to an article heraldling the sixth fourth places New Zealand had secured in the Olympics, and waited for the plane to take off. Another ‘long enough to cause trouble’ pause happened at the end of the runway. I counted sheep. I felt comfortable, but, as a pirate, I wouldn’t feel truly safe with my loot until we’d taken off. A couple more checks of locks, wheels, propellers, whatever they do, and we were ready. The motors wound up.
And with that, just as I adjusted my eye-patch, a large, ageing New Zealand lady slipped into the end of my row. Her name was Bitch.
Bitch-eye view of the flight...
I looked at her for a few seconds, willing her to evaporate. Instead, she picked at the cellophane around the inflight rug.
“Bet you thought you had the row to yourself didn’t you?”
Watching twelve hours of blissful sleep evaporate before your eyes, not once, but twice in three minutes is character building. I’ve been robbed at knifepoint. The emotions are similar.
“Didn’t you?” Bitch reiterated.
It was an attempt at small talk, like asking someone when their grandmother had died. I was gobsmacked. There is an unwritten, unstated law of seat allocation on longhaul flights, borne out by the pall of emotion that had enveloped the cabin for the previous ten minutes. It’s primal. If you grab a row, it’s yours. No statement required. It’s obvious. The idea of doing what this lady had just done is morally abhorrent. Like stealing someone’s crack pipe. You just don’t do it. It’s bad manners.
Yet I had no leg to stand on. While I’m happy to play the seat-hog rules when they work for me, and I’d never dream of breaching this unspoken law myself, I understand that when challenged like this, it is indefensible. You just hope that others see the invisible wall too. This woman clearly didn’t. Not only that, but she felt making a joke about it was the appropriate course of action. Her nieces call her blunt Betty.
I stared at her some more, swallowing razor blades. Choosing to take the higher moral ground in this murky water, I gave her the cold shoulder. It was the most mature response I could muster. And the only one that didn’t include swearing.
* * * * *
Fight-flight LA801 continued in much the same vein. Choosing to steadfastly ignore Bitch was taking considerable energy. I placed my book in the seat hold in front, when another curve ball came my way.
“Would you mind not doing that?” a serpent hissed. Hello. What do we have here?
“That’s the third time…” her voice trailed off.
Confrontation is not my thing, but there was still the whole pall thing going on. I was up for it.
“Sorry, what’s the problem?”
“You just keep doing that.”
“Placing things…” again, her voice trailed off. I let it sit.
I ate my dinner sullenly, doing my best impression of a teenager. After dinner, Bitch popped her facemask on. By then, my entire daypack sat in the no man’s land seat pocket in front. And here began the politics.
Picture this. Seats one to four. I was in seat two, as close to centre as possible, guarding against the enemy. Clearly, it had worked well. Bitch was in four. She’d been gradually marking out space; the wrapper from her face mask, a packet of chewies, surreptitiously strewn across seat three. I’d spread my legs in the pose of domination and pulled up the armrest, my right leg holding the non-wrapper half of seat three. The power play had begun.
With her facemask on, stealth passive aggression took full flight. I lay myself out, my head on the aisle-armrest of seat one, my feet tucked up and on seat three. On top of the wrapper and the chewie. With my shoes on. Rough, eh?
Over the ensuing five minutes, I’d heard Bitch sigh, pull at the chewie from under my feet, which I obliged by lifting – no need to be impolite – and my head had been knocked twice by aisle traffic. The first time was a mere brush; think sleeping peacefully as a bird swoops. The second time I got whiplash. Stunned and momentarily unsure what had happened, I lifted my head and looked back down the aisle where a man continued, oblivious, causing an entire row of torticollis. It had to be Bitch’s husband.
It was when Bitch starting playing footsies with me that I gave up. That I’d had four seats, then three, and now two was just not doing it for me. Clearly, I don’t have what it takes to invade new lands and rule with totalitarian subjugation.
“Here’s an idea,” said finally. Bitch lifted the eye shield from one eye and removed an earplug.
“How about I lie on the floor at our feet, and you can have all of these seats? That way we can both lie flat.”
To my mind, at the time, there was no irony in my statement. If there was, Bitch would have missed it. This could have played out in several ways, but I knew exactly how it would.
And that was that.
There’s not a lot of room at your feet. There are four metal struts that sit between each seat, and never really warm up regardless of how much they are heated by various body parts. The floor is carpeted, but has far more metal edging than is strictly necessary. They don’t dry clean Airbus A340-300s very much. People keep their feet down here.
I actually got as good a rest on metal struts as one could hope for. From Bitch’s snoring so did she. The seats blocked the sound of her snoring, but not the Plaza Dorrego men’s reunion that adjourned in the aisle by my head after a marathon three-hour sitting.
In the morning Bitch offered me a chewie, but I declined. I knew where my shoes had been.
* * * * *
I’ve been back in Australia for two weeks now, long enough for the joys of the return trip to be little more than a memory, and an occasional spasm of sciatica. I made it through customs, only having to eat the jar of cheese-stuffed olives from Argentina as punishment for importation. The lack of yellow fever vaccination proof again threatened to derail me, until an official from a side office walked up and told me, “You’re a doctor – if you get sick, report it to yourself.”
I love Australia.
But I have been left pining a bit, thinking back on the trip, wishing for some more of the craziness. A little bit, just something to hang my hat on. Just a little taster to keep me going until the next trip.
And then it came, just two days back.
An email from Janin Alejandro, the taxi driver who had hoped that I could find his ex-Chileno girlfriend. The one who’d moved to Australia twenty years back. I’d done a Facebook search, and pulled up 89 Cecelia Leals. I forwarded it to him, hoping one of them was the one. This was his reply:
“Hello as these graces for the mail but I did not have good results
I wait it you finds been OK in your vacations
If you can verify something when arrives to australia I it am going to be grateful very much
For My Pardon for my terrible Englishman and graces(thanks) for dealing.
You are a very agreeable person and of good heart.
I wish the better (best) thing you for you and your family.
I plan to bring Janin to Australia later in the year. I’ll import him in a jar of cheese-stuffed olives. And I’ll stow it in Bitch’s boogie board bag.
Todos los dias de Lunes a Domingo de 9:00 a 17:00 horas
I read this in the information column, and then looked across at the Mapa de Pistas. There in front of me were the 39 kilometres of ski runs, mapped out on the Mercator projection of Valle Nevado mountain range. I looked to my left and frowned as I absorbed the view of the service station fuel pump.
I checked my watch. It was 9.23am.
Three and a half hours earlier, I’d expectantly bounced toward the desk of Hotel Gran Palace, a misnomer if ever there was one. A man in a tired, threadbare green blazer stood there straightening the gold tassels on his shoulder.
“Hello,” he said, without looking up. A tassel was caught in a knot. His tongue contorted to the left, as his eyes strained to the limit of their range.
“I’ll be up in the kitchen eating breakfast when the bus arrives,” I said. He stopped, his hand still on the knot. A puzzled look slipped across his face.
“But sir, the kitchen doesn’t open until seven.” I looked at my watch. It was 6.55am.
Okay pedant. “Okay, in five minutes.” He kept the puzzled look.
“It’s not open for one hour.” He pointed beyond his tassel at the wall behind.
There hung an array of clocks, one telling me the time in Brazil, another in Sydney, even one in Moscow, as if every second guest is from Russia. I then saw the one labelled Santiago. I managed to distract myself from the fact that none of the hands were within five minutes of each other long enough to see that it read 6 o’clock in the morning.
Point one: When you cross an international border, always check the local time.
“Gracias,” I said, feeling rather foolish. I turned, resisting the temptation to fix the clocks, and returned to my room. I read a bit and wrote a bit, listening all the while to the whispered musac through the speaker on the wall that couldn’t be turned off. Michael Bolton was touring Chile in October. The hype was reaching fever pitch.
As I hummed along to his terrifying rendition of “Murder my Heart,” I crossed myself mentally, thankful that in crossing from Argentina to Chile we gained an hour and didn’t lose one. This was my one day of skiing in the Andes before flying out. This was the whole reason for being in South America. Forget the conference.
I whistled the hour away, and headed to the restaurant, where I stuffed my face in preparation for the day. My lift turned up at 7.20am: a little on the late side, but again, no problem. Plenty of time. I’d been informed that it takes an hour to get to the top of the mountain, give or take. Piece of cake.
Pedro grabbed me by the arm the second I exited the lift and frogmarched me to his van. He was a man in a hurry; I liked his style. He pushed me through the side door, forgetting the niceties of lowering my head as the police would have done. We then proceeded a wordless drive from Hotel Gran Misnomer across town. I stared out the window, a lump growing on my forehead, as I stared towards the Andes, the perfect backdrop to this city. After about half an hour, we arrived at a hotel without guests. Pedro waited there for a number of minutes, checking anxiously at his watch. He walked up to the door several times, but never knocked. Eventually he jumped back into the van and sped off.
We then headed back across town, the Andes now on the other side, making several trademark Chilean 270 degree left hand turns, right hand turns having been outlawed for their disruption of traffic. God help this place during the years they were still allowed. We crawled back to a block of flats just near my hotel where we picked up a mother and daughter, and then proceeded to creep across town again, past the guestless hotel, and into a service station. This whole process took ninety minutes.
* * * * *
The furrow became etched to my forehead at the twenty-five minute mark in the service station. I looked around, trying to massage it away, desperate for an answer. Sixteen of us sat in a bus, waiting to be sent up the mountain. The thirteen locals relaxed, patiently picking their fingernails in unison, like some weird local ritual. Three of us did not.
A huge black hand appeared across my shoulder, as Sam lent forward to introduce himself. He was an African-American skier from Florida. I know: these eight words have never before been written in this sequence. Sam was fifty-five and charming, but clearly had less patience for custom than the locals. He was my kind of guy.
“I was at my hotel room,” he began in a languid tone not dissimilar to Morgan Freeman, “at 7am. Seven…in…the…a.m..”
“Me too,” piped Barry from the back, a 40 year old guy from Boston. You get the idea Barry pipes a lot. He grabbed at the beak of his cap in a nervous tic – there was a slick of grime across it from years of such behaviour. “My wife’s a Chileno, and I’m from Boston.” He paused for a second, potentially waiting for applause. “And she told me to expect this.” He stopped once again, and took a breath. “I’m from Boston,” he repeated. Barry made up for the stereotype that Sam lacked.
“I’m Mark, and I’m from Australia,” I said in my best Alcoholics Anonymous voice, “and right now, I’m going to see what is going on.” I walked to the front and exited in search of Carlos.
Carlos has been introduced to us as the man who would see us right. He was perched on the edge of a planter box, picking at grass.
“Hey Carlos, what’s going on?” He looked up and shook his head, screwing up the edge of his nose.
“No, Carlos, wrong answer. This is not friendly small talk. When is the bus leaving?” A puzzled look slipped across his face. This was getting to be a trend. “We’ve been here for fifteen minutes. Is there any reason why the bus hasn’t left yet?” He pondered this question for a moment, staring into the middle distance. Eventually I walked away; I’d already studied the fuel pump.
Eight minutes, 37 seconds later, he boarded the bus. He approached and asked me to come with him. He led me out of the bus and back over to the plantar box, and then whispered, “I have an idea.” He looked around again. “If you swap buses, the trip to Valle Nevado is only seventy-five minutes. Not two hours.” He grinned, nodding his head knowingly. I found my head shaking in time.
“And why have you just told me this?”
“Because I thought you want the quicker bus,” he trailed off, dejectedly. He picked at grass.
“No, Carlos,” I paused, “that is a great idea. I just…” He looked at me with confusion. It was times like this that my world and his world seemed cramped on the same planet. “Where is this other bus?” He pointed. “When can this bus leave?”
“Can everyone get on this bus?”
He thought for a second. “Sure,” he said eventually, “no problem for me.” Cramped in the same universe.
Carlos seemed confused by the thought that everyone would want to reach the mountain in the shortest possible time, and was open-jawed at the speed with which the transfer occurred. Before he had the chance to slow down natural progress, the bus had left. I pulled out my Mapa de Pistas and looked at the opening times of Valle Nevado. I calculated. Maybe we were an hour away.
Maybe I forgot I was in South America.
* * * * *
Everything went smoothly for a while. The bus drove in a forward motion; the driver pointed it towards the Andes. He accelerated up hills and braked on the way down. It was all very Western in its philosophy.
We wound the curves, and the snow came into view. Sam, Barry and I made decreasingly interesting small talk, increasingly captivated by the pristine snow of the Andes. The traffic began to build – the majority of skiers seemingly happy to arrive three hours after the lifts start for the day.
On one side of the bus the windows began to fog; on the other they steamed from the intense sun. The road started to get icy, but that didn’t worry our driver. And running as late as we were, there was a collective agreement to try our luck without chains. But when, on one turn, the bus began to slide backwards toward the edge of the mountain, it became clear to us that it was time for something to be done.
This wasn’t so clear to Carlos. Sure, he stopped the bus. We all got out to stretch and take in the view while the chains went on. A couple of us even delighted in the yellow slurpees we created in the pristine roadside snow.
Meantime, Carlos took out one set of chains and laid them on the ground. The bus driver flipped it over, carefully smoothing it out. Then Carlos flipped it again.
Sam and I strolled away down the road, returning five minutes later. The chains remained there, dejectedly, on the ground beside the bus. Sam and I watched the driver as he watched Carlos watching the chains. It was like some weird MC Escher picture or something. After a couple of minutes of this, I broke the spell in Neverland.
“Is there a problem?” I asked.
“Sorry?” Carlos said, still staring at the chain.
“Is it broken or something?”
I paused and watched. The two of them remained there, crouched, their eyes fixed.
“Do you need a hand?”
“No, no, it’s fine.” They continued looking at the chains, urging them to levitate to the wheel by themselves.
I walked to the other side of the bus, and saw that this chain hadn’t even been pulled out of the side cabin. It was 10.45am. I blew smoke out of my ears, before opening the side compartment and pulling the chain out.
“What are you doing?” Carlos yelled from his position on the ground.
“Getting the chain ready,” I said, laying it out.
“No necessary,” he cried. I frowned, unable to contain a scoff.
“Can you put the chain on?”
“Relax, just relax.”
“But this one hour trip has now gone for nearly four hours. I kind of want to be skiing. It’s ten forty-five.”
“Just relax,” he said once more, rolling his eyes.
I put the chain down, and walked away. This was, after all, the last day of my holiday. Murder would likely delay things. As I took the step to re-enter the bus, I looked back to see the duo still staring at the chain. These two, who drive this route every single day.
Thirteen Chilenos sat on board, staring out the window. No one seemed perturbed, no one seemed surprised. The ritual continued, only interrupted by Sam. He sat there, shaking his head and saying “Oh, man,” over and over. Barry sharpened a knife.
Sam looks on in despair...
Barry tries to help...
Barry goes to find his knife...
I stuffed my iPod headphones in and counted to one hundred, feeling my ulcer squeeze. Finally, after about five more minutes, and no discernible change in the vapours, the chains were on. A watched Chileno never works.
Within seconds, the bus revved dramatically, and finally lurched forward to the sound of metal breaking. We travelled about five metres more, before there was another loud metal clank. The clank returned, and again, and again. After a few seconds it settled into the rhythm of the bus, the rotation of the wheel. Each time it turned, the cymbals clanged as a piece of chain smacked against the undercarriage of the bus.
I looked toward the front of the bus. Carlos picked at his nails, catching up on the ritual he’d missed, blithely disinterested in this 90dB den. As we sped up, Sam clicked his fingers around his ears, dancing a flamenco. The rest of the passengers seemed not to notice or care. I checked and at least two of them weren’t dead. Barry continued sharpening his knife. Aware that the bus was a Mercedes, I figured whatever damage it was doing would be unlikely to stop us over the final 3km.
We pulled into to Valle Nevado at 11.19am. Right on time.
As we disembarked, Carlos announced to us all that the bus would be departing the mountain at 4pm. With that, I resolved to return half-an-hour late.
* * * * *
The day was truly magical. After gathering skis and stocks, a lift ticket, and a locker, I headed out. Valle Nevado Ski Resort peaks at Tres Puntas, 3,670 metres above the water, with Valle Del Inca, its smaller sibling, just across the way at 3,521 metres. In the valleys nestled between and below, are a meandering link of runs that take you through green, blue, red and black runs. On this day, the sky was blue, dotted with clouds, and there was a whiff of wind in the air but little more. The sun was out, and the snow was perfect. In the lower valleys, it was warm, but as you headed towards Tres Puntas, the wind swept up the powder and slapped it hard against your face like sand.
Like a kid at a carnival, I lavished in the rides on the various lifts and pomas to these peaks, chatting to bewildered strangers, trying as many runs as I could, sucking the juice out of the experience. Who needs Spanish? Here we talked snow. I didn’t once think of Carlos. The runs were wide and ranging, the snow thick enough to be open and untainted by rocks. They were long in comparison to Australia; in fact there is one run, Sol, which descends 625 metres over several kilometres, without needing to stop for a lift.
It was on this run, nearing the end of the day, that I got myself into a bit of a bind. I’d made tracks all over the mountain, skiing solidly, stopping only for a brief lunch of a burger, oil and fries that I think were made of potato. In the early afternoon I basked in the gorgeousness of the views, and hit upon my favourite, the Andes express chairlift. For the last hour of the day, I ran it over and over, hitting the mountain’s solitary moguls, calculating exactly how many more runs I could do, and then adding two more. Carlos could wait. I pushed it right to the edge.
Eventually satisfied, and happy with my fashionably-late timed return, I took my last run of the day along Sol, to end right at the bottom of the resort, before a sneaky lift across to the bus. The run was several kilometres long, and with such an open, full cover of snow, at times you get lost in this white oasis. They mark out the runs, but like everything South American, you wouldn’t rely on them.
Unless you’re me. As I finished the run, I skated in towards the dude in the black jacket. Mmm, different colour to the other towies. He stood there, frowning beneath his goggles, as he looked at my day pass. I smiled back, keen to get on the poma to head back up. Wasn’t this meant to be a lift? Whatever.
I put my hand out to take the poma bar, and he waved his hands.
“Que?” I felt like Manuel from Fawlty Towers.
“El Colorado,” he said, pointing at his chest.
“El Colorado?” My head swam. I pulled out my Mapa de Pistas. There on the edge of the map was an arrow away from the widest run, Sol, pointing out of frame, towards the next ski resort. El Colorado. I’d skied all the way to the next Ski Resort.
I looked at my watch and saw that it was already 4.11pm. Shit.
“Donde esta Sol?” He pointed in the other direction, seemingly towards the sky. I went a whiter shade of pale. I took a breath, and off I went.
For the next twelve minutes, I proceeded to pull several abdominal muscles and blister the webbing of my hands as I traversed my way towards several osteopathic treatments. I congratulated myself on a personal best over the two hundred metre uphill slog, not likely to be an Olympic event anytime soon.
I caught the Prado lift, bolted down to Vaiven, and spent the interminable ride to the top looking out for a departing Turistour bus. The chairlifts hadn’t seemed this slow all day.
At 4.26pm, I unclipped my boots and ran up the final hill, only to find Carlos standing there, looking slightly agitated.
“Sorry, Carlos,” I said, between heaves, “I just came from El Colorado.” The look of agitation disappeared.
“Wow,” he said, “are you Superman?” I felt my neck crick.
“Nope, no, I’m not.”
When I got on the bus at 4.34pm, Sam and Barry were smiling. Amazingly, the entire bus had been there at four on the dot, breaking with national tradition. The nail picking went on.
“You owe me a Foster’s,” Sam said, slapping me on the shoulder, causing a knot to harden.
The driver seemed surprisingly keen to return home, speeding the entire way. On the home stretch, at the end of the day, he’d found his mojo. All the way we listened to golden oldies, a video playing the best of Michael Jackson, while rigor mortis set in.
By the time we said farewell to Sam and Barry, I was barely able to move. I was thrown out at Hotel Gran Misnomer, the bus slowing slightly for my departure. I waved Carlos into the sunset, who was already preparing himself for the repeat farce on another unsuspecting group in the morning.
I took the stairs, and the bellhop fetched my bags. The day before I’d attempted to negotiate with the Good Palace Misnomer about having a shower on my return, but they’d baulked. I understand their position, but after a day on the mountain, prior to a 19-hour leg home, I was pretty keen to wash.
Again they sidestepped my request, like the slick dancers they are. So, I proceeded to their public bathroom, blocked the door with my bag, stripped naked, and had a birdbath.
Those little hotel towels have trouble soaking up an entire drenched floor, but they can do it. I exited the dunny, a wet rag on the bench the only evidence of my cleansing ritual, the staff none the wiser.
Other than the three people who barged in. But they were public.
2. Cast-iron grid or grate is used for grilling or making tortillas.
3. Method of torture where the victim is strapped to a metal frame and subjected to electric shock.
Menu at La Florencia restaurant, Mendoza
Parillada para uno (Rinon, Chichulenes, Chorizo, Morcilla, Molleja, Ubre, Asado o vacio y 1/8 de pollo)
I sat there, drinking my beer, watching the group of four in the corner. People-watching is a specialty of mine. I’d heard the accents and watched the mannerisms, and then it was just obvious. The gay cowboy and his partner were trying to sell their wares to the rich hog and his younger trophy wife. I was still figuring out what their wares were.
I looked down at the menu and scanned the pork section. The wife placed her hand on the sweaty man’s mitt. His comb-over had lifted a little in the heat, so he brushed it back in place with the fat fingers of his other hand.
While in Argentina, I’d promised myself that I would visit a proper Argentinian Parrilla. I knew I’d find all manner of porcine delights, but I hadn’t expected it amongst the other customers. My eyes settled on the “Parillada Para Uno”, described as an enticing mix of Tripe, Pork Sausage, Blood sausage, Gizzard, Teat, Veal ribs with a side flat of veal and 1/8 chicken.
The shoulders of Gay Cowboy Number 1 moved up and down with animation. His partner smoothed the Brille cream on the back of his head. The heat was causing everyone’s hair to lift. I sipped at my beer, waiting for my kill to emerge from the kitchen, plonked on a plate. I watched the ruddy-faced businessman, his wife acting the part of the faithful wife. She touched his arm some more. She was definitely having an affair.
The clang of crockery on wood brought me back, as a plate thudded down in front of me, an array of barbequed bits skidding to a halt. A liver spilled free, and as it did, it’s juice branded my T-shirt. I looked up to see the waiter already halfway back to the kitchen.
I appreciate that there is a lot of animal protein that we usually discard. But there’s an argument for why we do.
I studied the carcass, edges cut clean by a cleaver or a circular blade. I looked up again, momentarily queasy. Boss hog had just been served his meal. He rubbed his hands with delight. I imagined him with an apple stuffed in his gob.
I looked back down at my prey. They could just as well have dragged the bleeding animal out on to the floor beside me, gasping for air, desperate for the lung on my plate. Choosing to begin with the steak felt positively wholesome.
The cowboy scratched nervously at his armpit as I chewed at the side flat of veal – an interesting cut of meat – and moved on to my first organ. I usually have a strong constitution, but, wow, they’d laid it on thick here. The waiter returned with a pot of oil and chilli mix to help lubricate the body parts on the way down. I ordered another beer and felt an artery harden. I considered commencing a statin. The sausage had pieces of gristle the size of eyeballs. Yes, I know.
Gizzard? Seriously? Teat? Seriously? I still don’t want to know what morcilla, molleja or chiculenes are, because I’ll tell you, I’d identified bits. They weren’t gizzards, and they definitely weren’t teat.
I recognised omentum. There were two more serves of I don’t know what. Offel never looked so good in comparison. I cut at it with a knife. And then I tasted it.
Seasoned, barbequed shit.
I looked back up at the businessman, his mouth open in defiant laughter. The Gay Cowboys were losing the deal. A piece of something fell from his mouth and on to the table. The deal was off.
I then looked across at the next table, at a three year old boy, nibbling on black pudding. I felt his lost innocence. Or my lost innocence. The taste was still there. I noticed a tear on my hand. I realised I was crying.
I pushed aside the side serve of chips untouched, and left the establishment in an intestinal hurry.
* * * * *
Mendoza had been good to me before this.
This was the town where they X-ray your bags when you land. Where aeroplanes retired from the Russian army are used by the local airline. Where you are offered a ride into town by passing families with mini-buses. And where you stay to explore the heart of the Argentinian wine district.
Mendoza is also the world capital of underage, public displays of affection. As I returned to my hotel through Plaza Independencia, I must have seen fifteen sets of 14 to 18 year old kids, all in pairs, all male and female, and all going for it. Like, really going for it. At one stage, a girl called out to me in Spanish, and then in English. I turned to find the only group of girls without male counterparts in all of Mendoza. I marched on, pushing back the tears, chewing on cud. They laughed as I went.
I entered my hotel, waved quickly to the manager, and headed up the lift. True to the hotel’s name, Puerto del Sol was hot. As I opened the door, I was slapped in the face by a slab of hot air. I attempted once more to turn off the bar heater in my room, but failed. It may have been the ideal climate for washing socks and jocks, but with the window locked shut, this town – at the base of Sierra de los Parramillos, an Andean Mountain Range – felt more like a sweaty beachside resort. I lay there, my guts churning, thinking of my winery tour the next day. I switched the dream for one with a pina colada by the pool.
By the next morning, I’d lost 26% of my original body weight. I rose, showered, rehydrated, and then headed out to find a temperate climate and a rather chilly day. I marvelled at the buses with their white walled tires, expecting to see drivers in collegiate cardigans. I quizzed several tour operators on their winery tours, each with the same asking price, but claiming vastly varying itineraries. I ate a Mr Dog(R) to help wash the meat through. As Charles Darwin said of the Argentinian diet: “I had now been several days without tasting any thing besides meat: I did not at all dislike this new regimen; but I felt as if it would only have agreed with me with hard exercise.”
I chose, as my form of exercise, the winery tour that included a visit to an olive oil and chocolate factory. Charlie would have approved. As my Dog(R) disappeared down my gullet, I boarded a packed mini-bus filled with people, all speaking Spanish, Hebrew or French. We’d all bought tickets at separate agencies. What a surprise. I found a seat by the window and rocked gently, holding my knees.
The tour took us to ‘Carmina Granata’, where our group divided into two; one for Spanish, and one for English. I felt decidedly uncool relying on English as my first language. There were a couple of French Canadians, two more from Israel, and a dear little Canadian girl from Calgary. No one was quite sure what she was speaking.
Our guide excitedly described the epoxy-lined wine vats he was going to show us. They each held 20,000 litres of grog. They were a century old, and getting older by the second. Eventually he relented and actually let us see them. As we descended the stairs towards them, the air cooled and took on a fug that would intoxicate within an hour. We tasted some Malbec, the specialty of the region, and after a couple more, purchased some bottles. Seemed like a good idea at the time.
Next was ‘Bebeda y Vinedas Familia Secchin’, an organic winery, where nothing other than copper, sulphate and, it appeared from the smell, the owner’s urine, was used for pesticide. They proudly showed us their vineyard, with its densely packed rows, only wide enough to pick and plough by hand. Our guide looked in need of a good sleep. I mean, I get the organic thing, but turning the soil by hand? By the end she couldn’t muster the energy to sell us any wine; probably would have had to barter in potatoes.
Please give me some chemicals to grow...
Some of the modern machinery...
The ‘Laur Olive Oil Factory’, however, was the picture of modernity. With each tree producing 8kg of olives/a litre of oil per year, this slick plant was designed to make cash. Olive trees can live for thousands of years, but here the majority are sacrificed at 120 years of age, because their best fruit bearing days are over. The olives are crushed, the mush and pips separated, and the seed used as fuel to power the extraction of the oil. A laboratory, with Bunsen burners and equipment out of a Bond film is used to measure the oleic acid content, and hence classify the grade of the oil. We tasted it with bread and sundried tomatoes, and were then frog-marched to the counter to buy. Olive oil? Sure, I’ve got a backpack. Give me two.
From here we went to another cottage industry, ‘Chocolates – Dulces y Mas’. The shopfront is the living room to the home of a little old Swiss husband and wife, who spend their days making jams, chocolates and liqueurs. It seems in retirement, they’ve really hit their stride. They produce Rum, Absinthe, Vodka and Whisky. They have Pomelo, Irish Cream and Tia Maria. There are cream liqueurs and crème liqueurs. They make fruit liqueurs and nut liqueurs. They have a herbal liqueur mixed with banana and white chocolate. There is one based on aniseed and rose petals. There is even one called Tobacco, made, as I understand, from old cigarette butts. It seems that anything this couple have ever put near his nose or mouth is worthy of consideration.
We tasted a few varieties, more out of curiosity than for enjoyment. After three, they began to sit heavy in my stomach. I really should have asked for the meat liqueur. The timid little Canadian said something, several words that all seemed to have four O’s in a row. It sounded Icelandic. The Israelis laughed, and she didn’t try it again.
We drove back to town and I was dropped back near the corner of my sun hotel. I realised after the bus had driven off that I hadn’t looked back to wave. I’m not sure that I’ve ever felt less sentimental about leaving a group of people in my life.
* * * * *
The following day I caught a bus across the Andes. It had white walled tires, but the driver had forgotten his cardigan. They screened a movie called “Incorrigibles”, an Argentinian comedy which was essentially a vehicle, it seemed, for Gisela Van Lacke’s breasts. Occasionally the inane comedy of local favourite Guillermo Francella would get in the way, but on the whole, it and he did not. Argentinians are not known for their subtlety around sex. On my first day in Buenos Aires I had seen more billboards for an adult store named ‘Buttman’ than I had for the Michael Bolton’s upcoming tour. But there is something refreshing about it’s openness; there is no time for newspaper opinion pieces about the subversive sexualization of children when you have a front page spread of a naked woman bending over next to an article about agriculture. See: Nude, Read: Farming. No context required. It’s kind of honest in its transparency.
A vehicle for Gisela Van Lacke's breasts...
Occasionally the inane comedy of local favourite Guillermo Francella would get in the way, but on the whole, it and he did not. Argentinians are not known for their subtlety around sex. On my first day in Buenos Aires I had seen more billboards for an adult store named ‘Buttman’ than I had for the Michael Bolton’s upcoming tour. But there is something refreshing about it’s openness; there is no time for newspaper opinion pieces about the subversive sexualization of children when you have a front page spread of a naked woman bending over next to an article about agriculture. See: Nude, Read: Farming. No context required. It’s kind of honest in its transparency.
I saw more Buttman than Bolton...
...but even then, I saw too much Bolton...
...and even more Bolton...
“Incorrigibles” began and ended with a wet T-shirt scene, a feat of ingenuity in a film about a bank robbery, and before I knew it, my bags, my wine, my oil and I were making our way towards the centre of Santiago. I was yet to be decide where I would stay, but, again for old times sake, I headed to look at a hotel I’d stayed at before and laugh. As I trudged through Plaza de Armas, I became increasing tempted to crack open one of the three bottles of wine. Each step, my hopes for a reflective experience like Buenos Aires were fading.
But then I saw something. As I drew closer, the weight began to lift. There he was.
His spine curved forward a little more, and cataracts left his eyes more clouded than last time. He had the beginnings of a beard, but had shaved at least once since I last saw him in exactly this point, six years earlier. He hadn’t seemed to age that much, but when you already look 104, six more years can be kind. He wore the very same tracksuit top, and the same open toe sandals. And he still had the ukelele, still without strings.
I don’t know that I should have felt such a sensation of gratitude for seeing the same poor man still living on the street. But I did. The familiarity was comforting. I even got a photo of him. And as a backdrop there was a newsstand, a row of porno mags up against the glass. And directly under them: a magazine on gardening, a book on knitting, and a farming magazine.
I looked down at the piece of paper, and then back up at the face of my taxi driver. His deep brown eyes stared at me in hope. I smiled. I felt like I had in the plane in Row 13, the collective hope of the entire cabin resting on my ability to use the emergency exit door as a tray table.
I glanced down at the paper again before answering.
“Sure,” I eventually heard myself say, “sure.”
“And you think you can find her?”
“No,” I said, shaking my head, “no, I really don’t think I can. When did you last speak to her?”
“Twenty years ago?”
“And she’s been in Australia since then.”
“I don’t know. Maybe.” He gave an impish little grin and shrugged. He was a hard man not to like.
“What about her family? Maybe they might still be in Chile? You could contact them.”
“No. They all went to Australia with her. Maybe you will find all of them together?”
“Oh,” I said, feeling the sweat in the middle of my back, “or maybe I won’t.”
“Your English much nicer than mine…”
“Maybe you find her Embajada?”
“No,” he laughed, “no, she not embarazada.”
“Ah, you haven’t spoken in twenty years. She probably has children. She probably has been embarazada – pregnant.”
A frown came across his face. “No. No, I don’t think so.” The imp returned. “You find her, yes?”
“I’ll see what I can do.” We fell into embarrassed silence. Not embarazada.
* * * * *
It had certainly been an interesting trip. Three days earlier I’d been at Iguaçu Falls, and now I was leaving Buenos Aires for Mendoza. A man named Rogue drove us headlong towards the Argentinian airport, topping out at 170km/h in his Fiat Idea, with the pose of the other guy from Miami Vice.
The hour-long trip took 26 minutes. This included an international border crossing. We got out, windswept and a little dazed. I was unsure whether to feel violated. Gabi’s face mirrored my thoughts. We managed to convince Rogue to stay stationary long enough to unload our bags, before her sped off toward the film set.
We entered the airport, a little saddle sore, and promptly sat in queue, waiting for the check-in staff. Forty-five minutes later they arrived. Nothing like a smoko in the hour prior to departure. Rogue could have driven us to Buenos Aires by now.
Gabi and I boarded the jet, and with some excitement, again found ourselves in the emergency aisle. This time though, Lan Chile expected us to speak neither Portuguese nor Spanish. This time, they decided we could help pull people from a cindered wreck in English. This time, they provided tray tables, but continued to advise us to use the seat-bottom cushion for flotation, should we feel the urge to swim. I checked behind to see why no one was applauding.
But the lack of attention didn’t matter. I was excited. I’d splurged. Three hours before losing my innocence to Rogue, I’d booked the only five-star Tango Hotel in Argentina. I know I’m taking liberties here, but from that, I think it’s safe to assume it’s the only one in the world.
An unremarkable landing and a leisurely, measured cab-ride later, and we were at the front door of the Abasto Plaza Hotel. Literally. As our driver mounted the footpath, seeming at one stage to be readying himself to ‘do a Rogue’ and ram through an ATM, I realised that we were in the Abasto Plaza’s driveway entrance. It was a petite three metre diameter arc; imagine a sidestreet round-about sliced in half. The garcon opened the door to the ATM letting us through. And here we were, in the lobby.
Floor to ceiling glass was etched with a couple doing the Tango. A stylised painting of Carlos Gardel – Carlitos, the king of Tango – sat above the main desk, royalty of this shrine. Airbrushed paintings of dancers littered the walls. The carpet swirled like Shrek’s vomit. It was so kitsch that it was cool. I was in love.
The Hotel itself was in Abasto. This is not a state of emotion, but a region, named after the gorgeous art-deco building that was originally an enormous central market for fruit and vegetables. Following its demise and closure to trade in 1984, it has since been restored and turned into a chic shopping centre, it’s elegantly restored façade looking like five golden Wurlitzer jukeboxes lined in a row. Within it, you can find a kosher McDonald’s, with its requisite gang of jewish folk out front, oddly munching on Burger King burgers. You can buy any manner of foods based around oil and meat, and afterwards, you can wipe your hands on Argentina’s world famous non-absorbent napkins.
Gabi and I entered through the centre Wurlitzer at 10pm, to discover a playground for kids, bustling with children and their tiring parents. The entire third floor is an arcade, with everything from merry-go-rounds to pinball machines. We searched the centre for an ATM, soon to understand that we were more likely to find a Ferris wheel. We sampled the food, used the napkins and returned to the hotel, all in time for Gabi to catch her 3am flight to Costa Rica, leaving me to the ravages of solo travel. I was excited. It took all of my strength not to call home from the phone by the toilet.
* * * * *
I woke the next morning and hit the pavement. It’s been six years since I was last in Buenos Aires, and I was keen to retrace my steps. I headed for Plaza de la Republica, past the dilapidated Teatro Colon, the famous opera house that in its hundredth year is desperately receiving a facelift. But the stitches are in place with scaffolding and closure to the public; it will be another two years before the crow’s feet are completely gone and the botox is instilled.
I headed north towards Retiro to see Torres de los Ingleses, a poor cousin of Big Ben, and, not surprisingly a regular site of vandalism since the Falklands War. Nothing like the history of international arm-wrestling and needless bloodshed to get the juices flowing. Feeling the sudden thirst for knowledge, I headed off to find an organised a tour for the afternoon, and then to ride the Metro. Having Gabi’s fluent Spanish in close proximity had made me lazy, and in the half-decade since I’d last been here I’d become a bit rusty. But there’s nothing like a busy line in the Subte to get oiled up again. Before I knew it, with patrons almost kissing me as they breathed down my neck, I’d bought uno viaje and was on my way to San Juan.
Feeling a little sentimental, I wanted to visit the area that I’d stayed in last time I was here. As I nosed around the San Telmo tango district, memories crept back, until, almost by instinct, I found I was back at Plaza Dorrego. I strolled around for a bit, feeling a vestige of my earlier path. Something guided me down a street and towards a gate, where I pressed a buzzer. It was one of the weirder experiences of my life. Getting to this point had not relied on what you’d call classic memory. Nothing seemed familiar, yet all of it did. I honestly don’t know why I chose this side street to head down, but I had.
And a woman answered. I asked to see a room. Looking dishevelled enough, she let me in.
It knocked me backwards seeing the place that I’d stayed at in 2002. Not only the sight of this – our digs in my favourite of South American cities – but the realisation of the miserly budget we’d lived on. Sure, I was splurging at the Tango hotel this visit, but in the tango district last time, we’d stayed in a slum. And what’s more, there’d been nine months of them before this one.
I looked around wistfully, asked a couple of pertinent questions regarding lice and other infestations, before gratefully declining. On the way out I asked if I could take some photos. I pointed toward a puddle through an arch, as if something of particular photographic beauty. She shrugged her shoulders and walked off. Being a stupid gringo sometimes has its advantages.
I took a few shots, edging towards my room. The snoop in me just had to see it. I got to the window and peered through. It was hideous. I got my shots, to show Amnesty International or the UN or whoever. The owner had by now lost interest in the weird foreigner. I called farewell on my way out, and she waved down the stairs like she’d see me again soon. I don’t remember her, and she definitely didn’t remember me, but I wouldn’t be surprised if she’d expect me to return in five minutes time to repeat the same charade.
But the time for wistful memories was over. It was time for my tour. On previous trips I’d avoided city tours in the same way that – on recent evidence – I had sanitation. I couldn’t help but feel, however, that it felt like cheating. This was the pop-culture, sitcom version. The high GI index hit; the Cliff’s notes on BA. But I was time poor and I had an excuse: this was the only way to see Buenos Aires proper in half a day.
So I caught the Subte back to San Martin, feeling authentic as I did, before meeting my group and my tour guide, Nicoletta. I ate a wholemeal muesli bar to compensate.
The major advantage of completing a tour like is to then be able to wear it like a badge of honour.
“No, I haven’t served in Afghanistan, but I went on tour with Nicoletta.” Nicoletta was fond of her own voice, but only when it was distorting through the microphone. Occasionally feedback would stop, so she would crank the volume some more. She had an uncanny ability to ensure the interesting monuments were always on the opposite side of the bus; the few times they were on my side she’d get the driver to park a tree just by my window. BA is ringed by fascinating monuments to your right, when viewed travelling clockwise. Monuments were of particular interest if closed. If she’d found one that still charged an entry fee, we’d have been there in a second.
But Nicoletta aside, our tour of Recoleta, Palermo, a few old trees – which I saw very closely – a couple of embassies, the Teatro Colon again, and then into San Telmo a second time was extraordinary. She drove us past a large metal flower that opens and closes, and a park bench where Eva Peron once sat. We saw a huge number of McDonalds outlets, and a few imaginatively named sex stores, just enough to write home about.
I woke up when we made it to La Boca Junior stadium, the home ground where Maradona spent his non-amphetamined infancy, and then we moved onto Caminito, a previously affluent region that was ravaged by the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1871. It’s been a tough 138 years since then. But the region, with its kaleidoscope of colourful house-fronts, now keeps the germs at bay and the tourists trapped.
We then drove past the port of La Boca, which 6 million immigrants entered through after the epidemic. Russians, Italians, Spanish and Germans came to Argentina via this port, which, according to Nicoletta, “is now 99% polluted.” I kept looking back as we drove past, in case today was the day it became super-saturated and the entire bay solidified.
From here we returned to the centre of town. I left my motley group, thanked Nicoletta with a fist, and took the higher moral ground back to my hotel for my Tango lesson.
Daniella, my Tango instructor, did not use a microphone. She did not need to. Nicoletta could learn a thing or two from Daniella. She had a presence, a smile and a stare that makes me think that she eats men whole for breakfast.
And so it was, that the entirety of my lesson was conducted within a foot of her. I looked her in the eyes while she spoke, so as not to be rude, and spent the rest of the time averting her eyes, attempting to not look at her cleavage, watching out for other couples, and occasionally looking at my feet. I made upturned movements with the corner of my mouth in simulation of enjoyment.
Regardless, Daniella was very impressed with me. This was probably because she’d struck me numb with fear, and knew it. I got the feeling that she was most comfortable when men did exactly what she commanded. By the end of the lesson I’d learnt three basic steps that I to weave together at my discretion.
“As the man, you decide on the steps,” she said. “At will.” She was clearly daring me. With that, I looked at her cleavage and stood on her toe.
But it was fun, because Daniella told me it was. At the end of the hour I bade my leave, nervously heading for the lifts, waving as I did.
“Thank you, Daniella, that was truly memorable,” I said, hoping that I might not ever have to see her again. As I turned, I bumped my head against metal door.
* * * * *
“So you find Cecilia for me, yes?”
The taxi drove straight past Pizza Bum, my newly favourite Argentinian food chain. Mr Dog (registered trademark) is good, and New Shop is too, but it’s hard to pass up a good Pizza Bum.
“Well, Janin,” I sighed, “Like I said, I’ll see what I can find on the internet.”
“Or, like I said, maybe you know someone Embajada?”
“Oh,” I said, finally understanding. “No, no I don’t know anyone at the Embassy. No one at the Chileno Embassy. No one at the Argentinian one.” He nodded and grinned, a sweet, hopeful, uncomprehending grin. “I don’t know a single person that works at any Embassy.” He nodded some more, raising his eyebrows in mock understanding. “I’ll try.”
“Oh, you got that bit, didn’t you?” I mumbled.
“My Ow-star-ray-lee-an friend will try.” He guffawed. I’ve never actually seen anyone guffaw before.
“Your Australian friend will try,” I whispered. I looked searchingly out the window, hoping to see another Pizza Bum.
There are 355 people on Facebook named Cecilia Leal. Only one of them has listed her network as Chile. She looks old enough to have been Janin’s ex-girlfriend, but then so does Jocelyn Cecilia Leal Carril, and so does Elizabeth Cecilia Leal Jara. And so do at least two thirds of the other Cecilia Leals.
The man was married. But I know a sentimental bloke when I meet one.
Good Weekend Magazine, The Age, Saturday 8th May 2010.
The entry was an edited down version of our original email, sent to email@example.com, on 22nd December 2009:
My wife and I were recently travelling cattle class on a plane trip to Brisbane. The man next to us, an ageing, yet hip gentleman, listened to his treble-heavy music through his iPhone while he dozed. My wife ordered a cup of tea, and through turbulence, spilt some milk on this gentleman’s striped black trousers. It was not enough to wake him immediately, but had potential to do so after soaking in. What is the etiquette in this situation: does it depend on the depth of the sleep, the amount of milk or the blend of the fabric?