“La Guajira, Colombia” by Jesse Myner
We stayed at the home of her mother in the pueblo of Villanueva on a dry, sun-baked plain between two ranges of mountains. The trees grew low and wide on the plain and the cattle grazed slowly in the heat. Mototaxistas drove through the dusty streets and it was very hot in the sun and we did not leave the house until evening. Then, in the evening, it was cool and we walked through the streets greeting neighbors and cousins sitting outside the cinderblock houses, and we ate sweet pan de queso and drank jugo de lulo under the great trees of the plaza.
One afternoon the sky went black and it rained. There was much thunder and lightning and the streets of Villanueva ran with muddy water. When the storm passed it was bright again but cool and the people celebrated the rain and sat in chairs outside their homes until the sun went down. Her brother drove us through the pueblo and pointed out the discoteca and the vallenato pavilion and we made plans for Sunday, when he was not working in the coal mine, that we would drink whisky for the entire day. Aguardiente was too expensive. Whisky is preferred in La Guajira, he said. Yes, by God, then we will drink that then.
The next morning a mototaxista delivered her blind grandfather. His eyes were full of cataract and his skin papery and his fingers gnarled by the land. I sat with the old man on the porch and he talked to me of the rivers. His eyes were teary as he talked of the great Magdalena which ran throughout the country. I remembered to him that I had bathed in it once in the Cauca. The Magdalena was a fine river, he said, but there were still finer ones. The white cat rubbed against my leg and purred. The señora called me for a breakfast of yuca arepas and sweet coffee and I excused myself.
That afternoon it was very hot and we sat in the shade of the mango tree and drank chilled whisky. The whisky bottle was in a small metal pail filled with ice and we sat in a circle around it. There was a single shot glass and one of the men would stand and go around the circle pouring out a shot for each of us. Vallenato played loudly from the corner bar and the domino players smacked at the table and argued. It was very hot and after the first bottle the women pulled down green mangos from the branches of the tree and returned with the fruit in wedges and salted for us to eat.
All the men’s names began with ‘Rafael.’ It was a family tradition. There was Rafael-Andres, Rafael-Gregorio, Rafael-Miguel, Rafael-Francisco and two other Rafaels that I did not remember. They worked in the coal mine, working twelve hour shifts day or night four days each week. On their days off they drank whisky. Her father, who was Rafael-Gregorio, was the president of the miner’s syndicate. He drew up his shirt to reveal a revolver tucked in his waistband.
“Los Guajiros son gente de la palabra,” he told me. “We are a people of the word.”
Three other Rafaels lifted their shirts to reveal revolvers. It is a necessity, her father explained. There was one attempt against his life and a cousin was assassinated two years before. It was some business related to his position as head of the syndicate.
“The assassin is still unknown,” said the one called Rafael-Andres.
“But we will know him one day,” said the one called Rafael-Miguel.
“Yes, we will. Por Dios, we will,” said the one called Rafael-Francisco and patted his revolver.
A mototaxista pulled up and a cousin I had been told about joined us under the mango tree. He was called Leandro and, true to what I was told, his head was abnormally large. At birth water had collected inside the cranium and swelled his head and stunted the growth of his brain. Leandro was now physically a man but had the mental ability of a small boy. He mumbled with his jaw clenched and he was not allowed the whisky, but he was good natured and even as the others made jokes on him he grinned happily.
We drank whisky under the mango tree all through the afternoon and into the night. When we said goodbye the vallenato had stopped at the corner bar and the domino players had gone home. We drank four bottles of whisky and we were all well drunk and happy and we promised to do it again.
That night in bed we made love carefully, to not disturb her mother. When we were finished a cool breeze blew in through the window. The cool breeze felt lovely.
“Negro,” she whispered. “I want to make a home for us.”
I was looking at the door and the wooden cross that hung above it.
“In two years, cielo. I want to make our baby.”
“In two years?”
“In two years I finish the dentistry classes. Amor, I want to make a home for us in La Guajira.”
She pulled me close and kissed me. “But your heart is still of stone.” She kissed me again and put her head on my chest.
“What will be his name?” I said finally.
“Our baby is a boy?” She was smiling.
“What name do you like?”
“What is strong?”
“Me gusta Geronimo.”
“In my country Geronimo was a great Indian warrior.”
“Do you like it?”
“Es raro y fuerte. It is both rare and strong.”
“Do you like it?”
“Geronimo será un Guajiro, un hombre de verdad de verdad. He will have fear of nobody and nothing, nor death even.”
“You will be a very fine mother to him.”
“En serio, amor? In seriousness, do you mean it?”
“Vas a ver, mi vida. Women of the Guajira are hogareñas. We cook and we clean. We keep a perfect home and we are the best mothers. For this all Paisas and Rolos want us.”
She pulled me closer.
“I will be like a lion to protect our home and our family. Neither the envidiosas, nor the bochinche, nor nothing will harm us, not ever. Te amo, negro. Te amo muchisimo. Con todo mi corazón, te amo.”
It was dark and very early when we left for the sea. We drove through Valledupar in darkness and passed the coal mine and then as the sky lightened the mountains appeared as a high black silhouette. With the morning sun came the first heat of the day and the road continued across dusty pastureland and sun-baked scrub and then, following along a river, it was green and lush and below the road were rice patties. We left the river and climbed a low pass into wooded country and through a village and dropping into the next valley the road was broken and pot-holed and her brother swerved and braked and it was very rough driving.
Passing us were convoys of pickup trucks with plastic barrels stacked high on their wagons. Her brother said they were smugglers bringing gasoline into Colombia from Venezuela. They had made their drop and were rushing back for the frontier.
The road forked and turned to dirt and broken asphalt and we entered a pueblo of rundown cinderblock homes. Pimpineros lined the roadside selling gasoline from plastic barrels We stopped opposite an abandoned service station and her brother negotiated for gasoline with a young man. Up ahead a team of men were breaking apart the asphalt with a jackhammer. The jack-hammering was very loud and the air was very dusty and the pueblo smelled strongly of gasoline.
It was late morning when we made the coast at Riohacha. The beaches at the north of the city were empty and said to be polluted and the sea broke in a long gray line along the sand. There were some Arhuaco men selling artisanias on the boardwalk and we stopped and got out to look at the mochilas and jewelry.
The Arhuaco were short and dark and long-haired and they dressed in white tunics and pants and wore a white conical hat called a tutusoma. They did not speak much Spanish other than the prices and they chewed at the coca leaves they held in their cheeks. Each man had a long-necked gourd called a poporo and, as they watched us, each dipped a rod into his gourd, covering the end in a white powder which he put into his mouth. Then they gently rubbed the rod, wet with saliva and powder, along the neck of the gourd.
The youngest of the Arhuaco tried to interest us in his mochilas. The bags were hand-stitched by Arhuaco women and each stitch represented a thought. He wanted too much for the hand knit bags. He refused to negotiate and we did not buy anything.
We left Riohacha and drove east across a long and arid plain. It was afternoon now and very bright and goats wandered the sandy scrub and crossed the road. To the left, through the heat-light, you could just make out the blue of the Caribbean Sea.
We drove another thirty kilometers and turned off onto a single-track road that led back to a Wayúu settlement along the sea. There were five Wayúu caserios and a boy ran out and directed us to park beside a thatch-roofed hutch on the beach.
The white sand was hot and blinding and we sat in the shade of the hutch at a wooden table and we ordered beer from the Wayúu boy. The sea was turquoise and there were fishing skiffs tied off in the deeper water. We were the only ones at the beach. The boy returned with the bottles of beer and we asked about lunch and if they had fish, but he did not know Spanish well enough to understand. We were hungry but the beer was cold and it tasted delicious in the heat.
Following a good five year run as a futures trader, Jesse Myner does what he wants and goes where he wants to. He has lived in Paris, Budapest, Croatia, New York, Philadelphia, Chicago and Miami. He currently splits his time between Bogotá and Alaska, where he goes for the salmon run and to hunt caribou with his Inupiat Eskimo friends. He is the author of the story collections Home Depot Profiles In Courage and Slime Line: Adventures In Fish Processing.