Cave Paintings

Journey over all the universe in a map, without the expense and fatigue of
traveling, without suffering the inconveniences of heat, cold, hunger, and thirst.
Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote
cavepaintings

Petroglyphs at Macha Q’ayma, Cochabamba Department, Bolivia

Surely you will be asking yourself, if this jerk hates travel so much, why on earth does he keep at it? Nearly drowning in Arizona; literal cliff-hangers in California; maneuvering the insane freeways of Los Angeles County; road trips and car breakdowns clear across the United States; war in Vietnam; dysentery and volcanoes in Costa Rica; well-nigh ship disaster in the South Pacific Ocean; earthquakes and ski slopes in Chile; jungles, flash floods, hail and electrical storms, hepatitis, more dysentery, precipices and killer roads in the Andes in Bolivia. . .. What else is he looking forward to? Is he a masochist? Is he a moron? Is he suicidal? The answer is probably a little bit of all three. A case in point is the time, in 1974 in Bolivia, when my stepson Augusto and I accompanied Nelson, the aventurero among of my several Bolivian brothers-in-law, who invited us along on a fishing trip with him and Pablo, one of his compadres, enticing us with a visit to see some ancient Indian cave paintings.

This was a totally harebrained expedition, of course. It was not out of necessity. It did not even fulfill the very basic reason of why the chicken crossed the road.[1] Aside from the fact that neither Augusto nor I were all that interested in fishing, we were hardly archaeological buffs either, so we could not rack it up to scientific curiosity, much less to research. In fact, we had not even been given a speck of information about which ancient Indians painted these figures, or when. On top of that, we both knew from past experience that Nelson, though perfectly charming and fun to be with, he was still an inveterate adventurer and not the most trustworthy companion to be traveling with anyplace outside of our back yard. And yet still we decided to go. See how pudding head some otherwise perfectly intelligent people can be?

So, together with Pablo, we rode the night through, from Cochabamba (the city where I lived for 20 years), into the high Andes Mountains in a light pickup truck, breathing, eating, and drinking dust all the way along the precarious dirt road. Fortunately (for me, at least), it was Augusto who did all the vomiting on this occasion. It’s just to show that I don’t get to have all the fun every time on trips.

I Think That I Shall Never See a Thing So Lovely as Adobe

Early in the morning, we arrived in a forlorn, frost-covered valley, somewhere between 11,000 and 12,000 feet above sea level. This was where Pablo lived precariously with his family, halfway up the side of a mountain. This was a place called Macha Q’ayma (in the Quechua language, meaning an insipid state of drunkenness) and located somewhere around the locality of Altamachi, several kilometers north of Cochabamba. His house, a simple, white-washed rectangle box and little else, was built of mud, stone, and adobe, with a thatch roof. If he had any neighbors, they must have lived miles away, for his was the only dwelling I could see anywhere. He invited us inside, where we were greeted by his wife and two small children, one of whom was Nelson’s godson. Inside was simple to the extreme, but cozy, and the adobe protected us from the outside cold.

cavepaintingsfig18Adobe: ah, I love the stuff. Not that it has anything specific to do with this trip. But since I’ve mentioned it, I think I should say a few words on behalf of this often maligned and misunderstood medium. Adobe has for millennia been the worldwide standard building material wherever clay is to be found. So important has it been throughout history that great civilizations were built upon it, and, admittedly, crumbled also. And it was not so much persecution as adobe bricks that finally triggered Hebrew rebellion in Egypt and eventually led to their exodus to the Promised Land.[2] I’ve no doubt that adobe played a role in The Odyssey as well, for while Greece may be famous for its marble buildings, and no doubt Ulysses’ palace at Ithaca(?) was of that noble material, and although caves abound in the story, surely it was neither marble nor caves but adobe of which were made the pigsties of Circe in which she penned up Ulysses’ men.[3]

So much for history and myth. On the practical side, some experts contend that adobe out-insulates brick and concrete, be it heat, cold, or sound; and it is cheap, strong, durable, and fire-resistant. But not to make it out as the Eighth Wonder, I must also qualify the stuff as also being heavy, thick, oppressive, and unsightly once erosion has set in. It needs to be clothed, to be covered, to be protected, and—oh, why not?—to be pampered. Uncared-for, it quickly falls prey to the elements, and if the elements are wind and rain, it soon returns to turbid gumbo. Put in that particular light, it does sound like ghastly stuff, and if you’re a wood-wall person, you might rather brave a termite any day over a bout of incipient hog wallow. Be that as it may, well-preserved and properly veneered, adobe is a joy.

There’s an awful fascination about the stuff, when you get right down to it. Almost an obsession, I’d say. Like kids playing in mud. It’s dirty, messy, and tastes awful, but golly, what a delight! Look what terrific castles you can build out of it. And if your dog doesn’t pee on it or the neighborhood bully doesn’t kick it down, why, it’ll last forever. And once you’re into it, you don’t want to come home, even for lunch.

But I digress.

Those Caves of Ice![4]

To return to our outing, Nelson and his compadre were going to fish and hunt, while Augusto and I intended to view the “ancient cave paintings”. Literally from out of nowhere, Pablo produced two horses, upon which my brother-in-law and he mounted, while Augusto and I were left to struggle along behind on foot, which didn’t bother me unduly, recalling my past regard for horses. After a breakfast of farmer’s cheese, unleavened bread, toasted corn, and syrupy tea, we set out from the adobe house, Pablo’s wife and children bidding us a fond “uj ratu kama” (actually, they were probably glad to be rid of us), and headed into the stark mountains.

Within minutes I was gasping for breath. The rarefied air hadn’t bothered me until we began to hike upwards, and now I regretted with every ounce of me that I hadn’t arm-wrestled my brother-in-law for that horse. After a bit, the trail leveled off, and I forgot those premonitions of my heart exploding like a rusty, over-pushed steam engine. Suddenly we saw in the distance a small herd of vicuña and a bit further on another, and just as suddenly the trip became completely worthwhile, or at least as worthwhile as a trip of this kind is going to get. The vicuña is on the endangered species list, and looks like a small, long-necked, very elegant version of the alpaca. It is a wild animal, related to the domesticated alpaca and llama (and more distantly to the camel), and whose fine hair is a lovely lustrous tan, soft as silk. You get all kinds of gooey Bambi feelings when you see one, and you wonder how in heaven’s name they could be hunted down so ruthlessly by poachers. Well, of course, their pelts bring hundreds, and today perhaps thousands, of dollars, so that might be a factor. I had never seen a vicuña in the wild before, and here was an entire drove of them, almost a totally unheard-of phenomenon at that particular time. As we hiked along, we watched them with great excitement, and I suddenly remembered my mother and how she ohhed and ahhed whenever she saw something lovely on our trips, and it was then that I really understood what she felt inside before the grandeur of nature. Mom! Where are you when I finally want to share a few “well-I-declares” with you?

The terrain was devoid of trees—tufts of long and short grass, very small yellow flowers, and colorful lichen being the only visible forms of vegetation. After a couple of hours of hiking, some peculiar rock formations emerged ahead of us. The horses sensed a new excitement in the air—what there was of it—and snorted. Pablo pointed his finger in that direction and said, “Chay orqosta pasaytawan qhespina kasqan.” Augusto and I looked at each other with what you might call a blank expression. Our command of Quechua was not among our stronger points. It’s true that I had studied Quechua, but despite the fact that it is considered a relatively easy language to learn, I could never seem to advance beyond the first lesson. However, I am very proficient in that first one, believe me. Anyhow, Augusto and I were looking at each other blankly before the incomprehensibility of “Chay orqosta pasaytawan qhespina kasqan.” Nelson glanced down at us from the highness of his horse and translated. “He said that the cave is on the other side of that mountain.” Augusto and I nodded in unison. As we neared the mountain, which countless millennia ago had sprouted out of the earth like a towering black mushroom, we saw ice and snow on the shadow side. “It never melts,” said my brother-in-law.

Now this is an interesting curiosity I have learned regarding high altitudes in Bolivia. When you are standing in the sun, it is so intense that you are sure it is burning a hole in the top of your head. Indeed, if you remain outside too long without a hat, it may likely do just that, though more often than not you will merely suffer from severe sunburn or a stroke. As a matter of fact, I have often attributed my ability for less than scintillating brilliance to overexposed noodle in the mid-day sun in Bolivia. Be that as it may, when you move from that piercing hot sun into the shade, you are suddenly stabbed by so intense a cold that you are certain that if you don’t get back in the sun pretty damned quick, you will probably turn into a not-so-jolly snowman. In these instances, I think of Lot’s wife, suddenly frozen solid into a pillar of salt, or one of Medusa’s victims, a finely chiseled specimen of stone, and I can’t figure why the shadowed Bolivian highlands aren’t littered with human anthraconites. So, on visiting these high places you find yourself in a continual ballet of pirouettes in and out of the sun, warming up, cooling down. You begin to feel like an unbasted chicken on a spit in an unevenly heated barbecue. The Indians, of course, are more stoic, and will calmly sit either in the sun or in the shade and observe your queer maneuvers with interest, and if there are a group of them together, they might make a joke of it and laugh and shake their heads.

It took us several minutes to pass around to the cave side of the mountain, and both Augusto and I began to peer eagerly for a first glimpse of the cave entrance. A bull and a few cows were grazing nearby. They looked up at our approach, and the bull snorted once, but returned to munching on the long grass. I thought of bull-fights and gored matadors and hoped that this particular specimen was of a Ferdinandish bent of mind. Opposite the mountain was a small, green lake with a couple of tiny islands in the middle. My brother-in-law mentioned that there existed a belief that they were man-made, and that treasure had been buried on one of them ages ago. Nelson, the inveterate Indiana Jones, had more personal adventures tucked under his belt than most people could shake a stick at. His mere mention of these islands, then, began to conjure up in our minds fantasies of hidden Inca gold, but we quickly turned our attention again to the main objective: cave paintings.

“Oh, no!” I suddenly exclaimed, and would have hit my head with my hand, but my hat brim was in the way.

“What?” asked Augusto.

“We forgot to bring flashlights!”

Augusto rolled his eyes. “Anybody got matches?”

Nelson reared back his horse. “You won’t need flashlights or matches,” he said. I was about to ask him how we were expected to see inside the cave when he pointed. “There it is. The Cave.” We looked.

In The Odyssey, caves play an important role in the story. There’s the cave where Ulysses is kept prisoner for seven years by the Calypso, who promises him immortality if he will only marry her. Then there’s the cave of Polyphemos, the terrible Cyclops, where Ulysses and his men are trapped for several days before they poke out his eye and manage to escape. We learn that in a high cave on a cliff overlooking the narrow Strait of Messina, which Ulysses and his men must pass through, lives the six-headed Scylla, who swoops down on Ulysses’ ship and snaps up a half dozen sailors and devours them in the most pitiable manner imaginable. And finally, the Cave of the Naiad nymphs on the island of Ithaca, where Ulysses, plotting the destruction of his wife’s suitors, hides the splendid treasures which the Phaeacians have given him. I had also visited a couple of caves during my travels as a youth, and I might have turned into a spelunker of note, were it not for once being accidentally trapped in a closet along with my sister when we were small children, which ever afterwards made me slightly nervous of tight places. It was therefore with both expectation and apprehension that I received my brother-in-law’s turgid announcement that we had finally reached “The Cave”.

cavepaintingsfig19The “cave” was one of the major disappointments of my entire world travel experience. According to Webster, a cave is a natural underground chamber open to the surface. This is how I had always understood it, but my brother-in-law evidently had taken it in the Latin sense, cavus, or hollow. And a hollow can be defined as having an indentation or inward curve, as in concave. The Cave was a slightly concave wall on the side of the mountain. When I say slightly concave, I mean that my spectacles have more concave. It would need another one hundred million years or so to get in the shape I call cave, but by that time, the entire mountain would have eroded away.

The wall/cave was large, I give it that. No telling what kind of stone it might have been, since none of us knew the least thing about geology, but it was light-colored, gray/white, starkly contrasting the surrounding black rocks and mountains, the brilliance of the sunshine on its surface nearly blinding us. It took me several seconds to adjust my eyes in order to see the “cave” paintings. (Ref. photo of petroglyphs at top of this piece.)

Whoever the ancient artists were who had painted upon this wall, they hadn’t taken colorfast pigments and the elements of wind, sun, and rain into much consideration insofar as the preservation of their work. Remember the once-popular madras shirts of the early sixties? We all thought they were the greatest thing since the Taj Mahal. Everybody had to get out their encyclopedias to find out what madras was in the first place, and lo and behold, it turned out that it was an important Indian textile center on the Bay of Bengal. Whether or not madras shirts actually came from Madras is immaterial. What was important was that they were “in”, and no self-respecting teenager stalked the streets without one. The shirts were brightly colored plaids when you took them home and put them on for the first time. But when Mom put them in the wash, the colors would bleed worse than a stuck pig, and they seemed most intent on adhering to any other cloth in the washing machine but the shirt they were originally attached to. After a few washes, your madras looked like they had been bleached for three days straight in full-strength Clorox, while the rest of your clothes had assumed a peculiar nondescript dingy blue/gray, dingy pink/gray, dingy brown/gray, or dingy gray/gray, depending upon the original predominant hues of your madras. Of course, in those days we thought good shirts were supposed to bleed and fade and look like they had once belonged to Claude Raines,[5] or had accompanied the Twenty-Mule Team borax caravan across the Mojave Desert a century ago.

Again, I digress.

Anyhow, our cave paintings immediately reminded me of thrice-washed madras shirts. The pictures and designs were almost undetectable. We squinted and stared and strained, and only after considerable effort, and not a little imagination, were we finally able to discern the patterns of human intention. I looked up at Nelson and Pablo, and they looked back. I turned to the wall again and thought of Pink Floyd. I took pictures for the record, but had no confidence whatever that the figures would come out on film.

Olé!

The horses snorted and champed, and Nelson told Augusto and me that he and Pablo were going to do a little hunting further on. Viscacha was their principal target, a large rodent that looks like a rabbit with a long tail, what we call a chinchilla. And if they had no luck at that, they would fish for trout in one of the many small lakes in the area. Since we were on foot, it would be difficult for us to follow them, and it was suggested that we go back to Pablo’s house and await their return. There were two ways to do it: one, to retrace our steps, which would take a few hours, but was less strenuous than alternative two, which was to hike up the side of a nearby mountain and down the other. This second choice would probably knock off a couple of hours of travel time. Nelson and Pablo reared up their neighing horses and, with a “heigh-oh, Silver away!”, rode off, leaving the two of us alone in the middle of the Bolivian Andes.

“Not bad, a four-hour hike to see six and a half minutes of poorly executed stick figures from the past,” I said to nobody in particular. As you may have noted, I did not have the proper appreciation for petroglyphs at the time.

“Let’s get out of here,” said Augusto.

“Not impressed enough to stay for another couple of minutes to contemplate pre-Columbian art?”

“It’s not that. Just that right this second there’s a cow with sharp horns charging us.”

I whipped around to see a very large chunk of prime beef thundering down in a direct collision course toward us. I think my next words were “Aaarrgh!”, or something to that effect, and both Augusto and I made fast tracks for a protective boulder. As soon as we were behind it, the cow—for indeed it was one of the cows—seemed to lose interest in spearing us, and returned to grazing, although she might have been dissimulating.

“I didn’t realize that cows were so territorial,” I said, breathing hard from the chase.

“Perhaps they’re too far away from civilization to know the social amenities,” Augusto suggested.

“In any case, I thought bulls, not cows, were given to pursuing humans.”

“We live in a feminist age.”

“So true. Hmm, Amazon cows. Will wonders never cease? Well, what’s it going to be? Back where we came from, or across the mountain?”

Up the Airy Mountain

We flipped for it, and the mountain won. I’ve since checked a map, and the range we were about to scale tipped 13,000 feet. Had I known that then, I never would have attempted it. But at the time, it looked like a snap. The slope was covered with green grass and multi-colored lichen and little yellow and white flowers belying any sign of treachery. I kind of felt like Heidi might be skipping down any moment to greet us with a friendly yodel. As soon as we had begun our ascent, however, I realized that my oxygen intake was dangerously below the green mark. My heart began to pound ominously, like the knock of Death in Beethoven’s Fifth—dah-dah-dah-DAH—and my breathing took on the tempo of a rip saw in full, rusty swing. Suddenly I discovered that I was alone. I turned and saw Augusto several yards behind me doing what looked like one of those fancy Michael Jackson moon dance steps where he is sliding backwards, although the feet seem to be moving in a forward pace. What do you call that? A progressive backslide? A trailing foreglide? A recidivist forward backstep? Anyhow, Augusto was doing it. I stopped and watched a moment in fascination.

“Augusto, I don’t think this is the moment for peripatetic footslogging,” I said.

Augusto adjusted his thick glasses. “I’m not footslogging. I can’t get any traction. It’s my shoes,” he panted. “The soles slip on the grass.”

I went back to inspect the situation. In my state, I should have waited for him to work his way up to me. It could have been done in much the same way skiers walk uphill. And there was no telling whether I could get back to where I had been. I wheezed to a stop and gaped. He was wearing street shoes! Their soles of smooth leather had no tread whatsoever. I scratched my head.

“What should we do?” I asked. Aside from this particular lapse of planning, Augusto was a pretty smart kid. I figured that for someone his age who’d discovered a new scientific formula while still in high school, he ought to be able to provide a solution to this relatively simple dilemma in a snap.

“We can either go back down the mountain and take the long way back,” he reasoned, “or we have to figure out a way of improving the forward thrust.”

“Right,” I agreed, glancing down the mountain where that wild, vicious cow, now placidly munching grass, still awaited with hopes for our return.

He thought for a moment, and then reached into his jacket pocket, extracting a pair of long, thick wool socks. His mom had slipped in a couple of extras for the cold. Augusto sat down on a rock and began to pull the socks over his shoes.

“Uh, Augus, are you sure you aren’t suffering from oxygen starvation?” I began.

“You mean by putting my socks on over my shoes instead of over my feet?”

“No, no. I understand perfectly why you’re putting them on over your shoes. What I’m wondering about is whether you’ve fully considered what your mother will do to you when she sees those socks afterwards.”

He thought about it. “I’ll take my chances.”

“It’s your skin,” I said.

We started up again, and this time we walked side by side. But soon my lungs were bursting, and I signaled Augusto to keep going, while I rested for a moment. He trudged several yards up ahead and finally stopped, waiting for me to catch up. Then I proceeded, passing him by until I could go no further, and waited to catch my breath. We continued this see-saw trek for about half an hour until I collapsed on the ground, unable to go on. And believe it or not, I burst into tears. Which was an amazing thing, considering that my throat and lungs didn’t have one drop left of moisture. Augusto waited patiently until I collected myself. In the meanwhile, he changed his by-now worn-out socks for a new pair of treads.

“Augus, I have never been so utterly exhausted in my whole life,” I blubbered. “I don’t think I can get to the top.”

“Well, it’s not too far now,” he said, looking up the slope. We had probably traversed three-quarters of the ascent.

“It’s so far.”

“It could have been Everest.”

“In a pig’s eye.”

“Where’s the native hue of resolution?”

“’Tis sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought. Don’t forget, that’s Hamlet contemplating suicide. Okay, Augus. Let’s do it.”

I got up, but my legs nearly buckled under me. We started up again. My entire body, even my brain, felt like demulcent(?) rubber, or maybe sun-softened margarine, squishy pudding, flaccid blubber. Zero temper. Zilch force. What is that special rush that athletes talk about getting when they have pushed themselves to the limit of their endurance? Well, they lie. I know I had reached the absolute outer limits of my endurance, and the only rush I was getting was the pukes. I began thinking about the hereafter and how wonderful it would be to just lay down and die. If I could only force myself a foot or so beyond my endurance, then my suffering would be over and I would be laid to rest in green pastures, or wherever. I think somewhere along the line there my prayers for survival transformed into prayers for release. I wondered idly how my stepson, who was such a bookworm, had so much more stamina than I, and then I seemed to recall that he did play soccer and tennis from time to time, he was younger than I, and of course he had an iron will. My will was more on the light metals side of the Periodic Table: like potassium or magnesium. I had no strength to raise my head, and so I stared at my boots and willed them to stride forward. When that didn’t work, I willed them to simply tread forward. Or drag. Even stagger a little. Whatever, just so they would move up! It was no good. The grass I tread upon no longer shifted to the rear. It remained in the same position beneath my feet and only stirred to the sharp gusts of cold wind which now whipped across the slope. I stared and stared, and my boots stayed firm. They would not budge. I was a goner.

“The summit!” I heard a voice.

“What?” I mumbled, trying to lift my head.

“We made it!”

It was Augusto. He was perhaps a yard ahead of me. I looked, and saw him throw himself down on the ground, and I looked, and we were on top, and all the world was beneath us. I smiled and let my body fall flat alongside his. And we both closed our eyes in heavenly bliss. It was all downhill from here on out.

Gertrude and Heathcliff

I don’t know how many minutes passed where we were stretched out like two stiffs in a morgue, but after a bit through my benumbed brain I began to perceive strange signals from the outside world. Something like “sshhhwss…sshhhwss”.

“Steve.”

“Mmm?”

“I think we better be going.”

“Another wild cow?”

“I wouldn’t say that exactly, no. Open your eyes.”

I clicked open my eyes and looked straight up into the dark blue sky. So beautiful. So serene. So… Suddenly the “sshhhwss… sshhhwss” signals made crystal clear sense. It was the soft whisper of zephyrs on extended feathers. The gentle rustle of the breeze on flaring pinions. The terrible shriek of the wind whistling against the mighty, outstretched wings of savage B-52 CONDORS!

There suddenly emerged from me a sound I didn’t think humans could make. It was something like “Hhhaaayyakkk!”.

Two hugecavepaintingsfig20, rapacious condors, the largest living birds on the face of the earth, and surely descendants of the Harpies, had just buzzed us within inches, their sharp, lethal claws nearly grazing our prostrate bodies, and I shuddered as their prop wash and foul breaths fluttered over us like an evil gust of doom. They circled round slowly and came in for another bombing run at two o’clock high.

Members of the vulture family, condors are voracious eaters, and although they prefer their meat dead, will attack living animals, and there have been reports of children being seized and carried off. Although the California condor is all but extinct, a fair number of Andean condors still survive in the wild. It is Bolivia’s national bird. They grow to great size, with wingspans surpassing nine and ten feet. I have heard accounts of even up to fifteen-foot wingspans, but these may be the avian version of fish stories. Whatever, condors are not to be kitchy-kooed to. Need I say that Augusto and I were not in an enviable situation?

By some heaven-sent miracle, the exhaustion in my body instantly melted, and I was alive and scared and feeling all too carrionish for my own good. Both Augusto and I suddenly found untapped strength in hitherto forgotten wells of adrenaline, and we simultaneously leapt to our feet and began flapping our arms around hysterically and squawking what we supposed might be fair imitations of a couple of Pterodactyls not to be messed with. And just in case, we were also ready to flee for our very lives. As the two condors zoomed in, they blinked their red eyes and seemed genuinely surprised that their mid-afternoon dinner had suddenly resuscitated. They looked at each other densely—very much like comedian Red Skelton’s Gertrude and Heathcliff, I would say—shook their heads, shrugged, and then aborted their dive, swerving away from us and swooping off in opposite directions, hopefully in search of smaller prey. Soon they were specks in the sky, and we allowed ourselves to breathe normally again.

“Where to?” Augusto asked.

I looked back from where we had just come, saw our little lake and its two perhaps-man-made islands and little cow dots far below. Then I turned around and gazed on the other side of the mountain. It slid sharply downward for maybe two or three thousand feet, ended in a creek, and started up another slope. About half-way up that incline, there was a tiny white dot, and a little off to the right a tinier red dot. The first dot was Pablo’s house. The second was our pickup truck. I pointed.

The second half of our return was only fraught with downhill muscle cramps, along with the potential danger of rolling down the mountain and breaking our necks. Anticlimaxes are such a drag. Nobody was maimed or killed. Nelson and Pablo returned empty-handed. No viscachas were hunted down. No trout were fished. The pickup didn’t even break down on the way home, like we expected it to. Oh, we did stop at a couple of chinchilla burrows, but they were apparently out for the day.[6]

cavepaintings_1974

Fishing at 14,000 ft. alt. No luck even here!

Steve Pulley
7/23/2017

Note: This piece is a revised version of a chapter from a manuscript I wrote in 1995 of travel experiences in the United States, Vietnam, Costa Rica, Bolivia, and Chile.

End Notes:

[1] Which, for those who’ve never heard this riddle, was to get to the other side. We were more like that bear in the children’s song who went over the mountain to see what he could see, which is a pretty silly reason for going over any mountain.
[2] Exodus 5:6-23.
[3] Some scholars will opt for stone over adobe, stone being another popular building material, particularly in Greece, and citing Circe’s house, “well built with shaped stones,” as evidence; but I see no reason why the sties could not be constructed of adobe; after all, there is a lot of mud in Greece as well.
[4] Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Christabel: “That sunny dome! those caves of ice! / And all who heard should see them there, / And all should cry, Beware! Beware!”
[5] Claude Raines portrayed the original Invisible Man of the cinema.
[6] After our “cave paintings” caper, Augusto thought it safer to finish his education outside the country and leave bird-watching to me. He eventually became a distinguishe international economist. He has also become an outstanding public speaker. But he never mentions our excursion to the high wastes of the Andes, nor will he admit that he wore wool socks on the outside of his shoes. As a matter of fact, to this day I don’t even know for sure whether he ever confessed this to his mother. I sure as heck didn’t rat on him.
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Trifecta

trifectaNow and then you hear of the term “trifecta” used in winning bets by selecting in correct order the first three finishers in a race; in politics, such as the control by one party of the federal government: the presidency and both houses of Congress; a trifecta as achieved in show-business: a platinum record, hit TV series, and an Oscar; a summertime trifecta for meteorologically induced misery: hazy, hot, and humid; and so on.

My personal trifecta, however, happens to be that of deipnophobia, mageirophobia, and pentherophobia. I’m talking about fear. More precisely, the fear of having to cook, the fear of dinner parties, and the fear of my mother-in-law. As such, it would only seem logical that I would resolve the issue by simply catering the dinner party, right? Well, in theory, yes . . . at least partially. But you aren’t married to my husband Freddie.

Freddie, you see, who’s the CEO of the Phrigofax Hogantwanger Corporation in East L.A., has invited several of his employees, co-workers and their respective spouses over to a “home-cooked” dinner tomorrow evening. Freddie dotes on me and thinks I can do anything, that I am the ideal wife, his helpmeet, his soulmate, his bastion, his support, his partner, his whoop-de-doo, the love of his life in both this world and the next, and so on and so forth. In other words, Freddie is an idiot.

I don’t call him an idiot out of malice or derision, mind you. I adore the man to pieces. He really is a darling. But he’s still an idiot and hasn’t figured me out yet. After all, we’ve only been married for four months, so he’s going to need some time to adjust. He cannot conceive that nestled away between my strengths, I am also awash with insecurities, flaws, failings, shortcomings, and phobias. He simply can’t see them. He thinks I’m just about the most perfect being to ever walk into his life. The poor man is delusional, obviously. But there you have it.

I begged him to call off the dinner party, which is to be our very first. I even went so far as to explain to him that for me it was a trifecta of disaster.

“Please, sweetheart, I can’t cook.”

“What do you mean, you can’t cook? You’re a veritable Julia Child in the kitchen.”

“Julia Child? She’s been dead for over a dozen years.”

“She has? Are you sure? I see her on cable TV all the time.”

“They are reruns, Freddie. She died when I was twelve years old.”

“For goodness sake! Well, uh, Lakshmi Singh then.”

“Darling, don’t you mean Padma Lakshmi on ‘Top Chef’? Lakshmi Singh is a newscaster on NPR.”

“Oh. Okay, Padma Lakshmi. You know what I mean.”

“Not really. She’s a famous cookbook author, actress, model, television host and executive producer. I’m none of these. It’s a lucky day indeed if I can throw together a simple casserole of my own and actually recognize it as one.”

“Dear! Why are you selling yourself so short? I love your casseroles. And your crispy cheddar chicken, and your spaghetti and meat sauce, and, uh, your spicy Dr. Pepper shredded pork, and your pinto beans with rice and salsa, and, let’s see, what else? Oh, your Kielbasa hash and shrimp campi pasta are to die for. You’re marvelous!”

I couldn’t help it. I rolled my eyes while throwing my arms around the man and planting him a big sloppy. Most of these were pre-packaged frozen foods that took all of 20 minutes to cook.

“Sweety, I cherish you, just in case you haven’t noticed, but I hardly do anything but toss them in the oven or microwave and set the table. Not only that, but I’m a terrible hostess!”

“That’s absolutely not possible. What on earth do you mean?”

“Darling, if I hadn’t met you, I probably would have taken the vows and joined a convent. I’m that shy and retiring.”

“But you’re not even a Catholic.”

“I’m just saying I don’t do well in crowds. And perish the thought of being hostess to one! It terrifies me. I’d be an embarrassment to you, and I can’t stand the idea of disappointing you. Freddie, I treasure you beyond belief, you know that, but I’m telling you now that if you go through with this cockamamie dinner party, you’ll end up divorcing me for hurling all over your guests.”

Laughing, he then tsk-tsked, or tut-tutted. “Absolute rubbish! You’ll be the life of the party. Darling,” he cried, swirling me off my feet, “you are my trifecta of love, love, love.”

He said it with such affection, devotion, sincerity, that I realized that I was a dead duck if I ceded to his plea and would probably end up in an asylum out in Piltdown, Nevada, gibbering like a chimpanzee, to mix metaphors. I took a deep breath, seized him by the ears until he released me.

“What?”

I couldn’t help it. I added: “A-and your mother, dear God forgive me, she scares the bejeebies out of me.”

He looked stunned. “My mother? What do you mean she scares you? She adores you.”

I thought otherwise. His mother, whose name, by the way, is Phoebe, and which under the circumstances I naturally associate with “phobia”, is, to put it mildly a formidable woman. Had I met her before Freddie and I decided to wed, I can’t but help believe that I might have changed my mind about marriage. To her credit, she isn’t autocratic or mean, but she is a powerful force of a different mien than my own, which in comparison verges on the wimpy. I don’t mean that I am a wimp. Though I’m shy and inhibited, I never thought of myself particularly as a wimp or a wuss. Freddie certainly doesn’t. But whenever Phoebe is around, I feel like I’m a parlor maid before a queen. She is regal whereas I am plebeian. We are of different worlds. Maybe even different planets.

I didn’t wish to contradict my dear husband, but I also could not deal with this trifecta of doom.

“Oh, darling, forgive me, but you offer me no choice,” I exclaimed, tears beginning to dribble down my cheeks.

Freddie, poor man, blinked, stricken. “W-what do you mean?”

“I-I’m leaving you.”

“W-what!”

“I don’t mean forever, but just now. I don’t want to disappoint you, really I don’t, and I detest myself that I’m going to hurt and humiliate you, but I can’t face this evening. I can’t. It’s too much for me. See how I’ve broken into a sweat? See how my hands tremble? Hear how my voice shrills? I’m having a panic attack. I know I must sound bonkers to you, but I can’t help it. I can’t deal with three of my phobias all at the same time. One, yes, maybe. But three? You may as well ask for the Moon. You may as well phone the boys in white to come haul me away. Tell them to be sure to bring along a strait-jacket.”

I broke into sobs. Freddie gaped at me for what seemed several interminable seconds. Then he gently wrapped me in his arms.

“Angel mine,” he murmured ever so sweetly, “I am so sorry. I had no idea how you feel, what you’re going through. I’m a total idiot. Forgive me. Listen, what say I make a few quick phone calls and then just you, me and last night’s leftovers be our dinner party?”

Steve Pulley
7/20/2017

Posted in Stories | 1 Comment

Onslow and Monica

onslowandmonicaOnslow Buttfinch (pronounced Bütf-inkh, his late mother adamantly asserted, emphasizing the umlaut over the ‘u’ and enunciating the Germanic ‘kh’ sound at the tail end, a little like Hyacinth Bucket in “Keeping Up Appearances” insisting her surname be pronounced Bouquet) kept his apartment in reasonable disarray. He lived by himself. As such, there was no irresistible reason for him to impress anybody but himself with inordinate tidiness, and he shown no particular inclination to impress even himself beyond keeping potential obstructions at bay so that he didn’t trip and kill himself on the way to the bathroom or the kitchen. If company arrived with fair warning, he did make an effort to neaten up things, but just enough so that after they left they would harbor no justifiable grounds upon which to deem him an inveterate slob. On his own, however, he was quite comfy in his clutter.

It should be noted that Onslow Buttfinch (again, pronounced Bütf-inkh), outside of his habitation was well-regarded as a productive buyer-seller in a firm dealing in commodities, principally the orange juice on your breakfast table, the gas in your car, the meat on your dinner plate, the cotton in your shirt, and the corn in your tortilla chips. In other words, fastidious at business, loose and carefree at home.

Monica Flapworthy (pronounced Flap-worthy, no getting around it) was a talented, upcoming artist, though as yet of very modest notability. She was also Onslow Buttfinch’s next-door neighbor, and who secretly festered an ongoing crush for the man. One afternoon in late July, Monica diligently put the finishing touches to a birthday cake what she regarded as a crafty and tasty ruse to work her way into Onslow’s apartment . . . and ultimately his heart. It mattered to her not a whit that this day was quite probably months away from his actual birthday. She hadn’t, in fact, the faintest clue what day he was born on. Her plan was simple: With festooned confection in hand, she would ring his doorbell, cry out, “Happy birthday!”, and present the delicacy to him. Onslow, she expected, would most likely say, “I beg your pardon, kind neighbor, but today’s not my birthday.” Monica would then reply, “Oh, my goodness! I was told by whom I thought an impeccable source that today was your birthday,” or something to that effect. Onslow would no doubt politely shake his head in the negative and come back with something along the order of, “Well, as much as I wish it were, I deeply regret to report that such is not the case. I’m dreadfully sorry.” To which Monica would come back with, “Goodness me, I can’t tell you how mortified I am at this contretemps!” She would then pause, flutter her lashes perhaps in a melodramatic way, then say, bobbing her eyebrows provocatively, “All the same, there’s no sense in our wasting it, now is there?” and then brightly finagle her way into his apartment. And, voilà!

Delusional, Monica Flapworthy thought her plan flawless. Moreover, she also entertained the conviction that she and her neighbor would sooner or later — sooner, if she had any say in it — become wife and husband.

As it turned out, however, when she arrived at his door, Onslow had been uncharacteristically busy vacuuming his living room carpet and did not hear the doorbell. Fate seemed to be on his side that day. That he was vacuuming at all might ordinarily have been something of a rarity, but the night before he had managed to stumble over some discarded pajamas, spilling onto the rug an entire bowl of tortilla chips that he’d intended to eat while watching an old episode of “Get Smart” on TV. He then landed squarely belly-down upon the majority of these, transforming the mess into minute particles of baked corn, the remains of which he’d presently been sucking into his Hoover vacuum cleaner, muting Monica Flapworthy’s persistent bell ringing. What discarded pajamas were doing in the living room in the first place is anybody’s guess.

Monica’s diabolical plan toward seizing a soul mate seemed thus thwarted by Hooverian fate. Au contraire! The concept of thwarted, however, figured not in her vocabulary. No mere vacuum cleaner, regardless the brand, would stay her from the swift completion of her self-appointed objective. It was time for plan B. Plan B consisted of Monica precariously balancing the cake in one hand while managing her cellphone in the other and calling the landlord, an elderly gentleman named Jonathan Whiplash, who suffered from emphysema.

“Hi, Monica,” he wheezed. Whenever Monica Flapworthy called him, it was more often than not for some off-the-wall matter, leaving him breathless, but she was such a sweetheart that he always cooperated. “What’s up?”

“Sorry to be such a nuisance, Mr. Whiplash, but I’m wondering if you could please give the neighbor next to my apartment a call on his phone. I’m at his front door trying to reach him to give him something, but I don’t have his number. I’m pretty sure he’s there, because he’s making some kind of racket inside, but he doesn’t seem to hear me when I ring his bell.”

“Let’s see . . . oh, you mean Mr. Buttfinch?”

“Bütf-inkh, yes.”

Whiplash had never heard it pronounced it that way. “Bewt-finkkhh, you say? Umm, I don’t think I have any tenant by that name . . . .”

“Onslow,” she added.

“Ah! Yes, like I said . . . Onslow Buttfinch. Nice chap. Pays his rent on time, even a day or two ahead. Sure, I’ll give him a ring right now.”

“Thank you so much, and please forgive me for the trouble. Just tell him I’m at his door.”

“Will do,” he exclaimed, quite out of breath.

Three minutes later, after decrypting Whiplash’s labored breathing, Onslow at last opened his door a crack in reply to the phoned behest, though kept the chain latched, just in case. He’d had casual encounters with Monica Flapworthy in the past. She always seemed pleasant and friendly whenever he saw her. Perhaps too friendly. Onslow, though not by nature paranoid, at the same time felt a peculiar wariness whenever she was around, unsure of her intentions, if any. Either way, he intuited that she was possibly on the make, or a nut case. Or both. He wasn’t at all certain he wanted to pursue either.

“Hi, Mr. Buttfinch,” she said, pronouncing his name correctly, and with a glowing smile hoisted her cake toward the crack in the door. “So sorry to be bothering you, but I came to wish you a happy birthday!”

He gaped at the cake, which had to admit was a gem, then at Monica. What was this woman about? Was she really crazy, or was she up to something slyly fishy? Should he play along, or tell her that she got it wrong and shut the door. Still, he could not help but feel curious over the off-season birthday cake and greetings. And, after all, it was the weekend, so he didn’t have any pressing engagements. And somehow his apartment actually looked neater than it ordinarily did, thanks to the tortilla chip debacle, so he would not appear to be a total slob. So, what the hell, she might just be entertaining. Worth a gamble. On top of that a brilliant idea was beginning to take form in his head. Definitely worth a gamble. He removed the safety latch and opened the door.

“Why Miss Flapworthy,” he exclaimed, feigning surprise and delight, “this is extraordinary! How could you possibly know today was my birthday? Please, come in, come in!”

Monica was taken aback. She believed in karma, of course, but for her purely contrived birthday ruse to get closer to the man, she hadn’t even dreamed that she would be assisted to this dumbfounding degree. But whatever the cause, the door was now wide open to her without a hitch, and she had no intention of muffing this phenomenal opportunity. She crossed the threshold with keen resolve.

“Oh, what a lovely apartment!” she exclaimed, looking briefly around and then back to Onslow.

He, for his part, looked around in wonderment. “You really think so?”

“Oh, absolutely.”

Onslow reckoned Monica Flapworthy might either be pulling his leg or merely polite, ignorant of the fact that she was every bit as topsy-turvy as he. He even speculated that she could very well be suffering from myopia. For her, however, this place seemed well-nigh immaculate.

“Please, have a seat. Here, let me take that gorgeous cake off your hands. It looks positively scrumptious. And you made it yourself? You have a rare talent. Give me a second and I’ll put it in the kitchen and we can lay waste to it over a cup of tea, or would you prefer coffee? I’ve got both. Of if you are looking for something stronger . . . ?”

“Coffee would be fine, thank you,” she said, lowering herself onto the sofa.

“I’ll crank up my brewer. Make yourself at home.” He rushed off to put on a fresh pot, and some order in the kitchen.

Monica lifted herself up and began wandering about the living room to inspect Onslow’s curios and bric-a-bracs. The paintings on the walls were all fairly cheap reproductions. One or two ceramic pieces interested her, however. The lone bookcase was not a large one, but held several volumes she recognized as noteworthy literature and not merely throwaway novels, others serious non-fiction, and yet others oriented possibly toward his work. A photo album lay on the top shelf, which she opened and perused, smiled at several of the family pictures she found inside, pursed her lips at others, winced at one in surprise, shutting it when she heard Onslow call that he’d be right out, and quickly returned to the sofa. He reappeared finally and sat down across from her. She smiled.

“It’ll be ready in about five minutes. In the meantime, tell me, Miss Flapworthy, how on earth did you know it was my birthday?”

“Oh, do please call me Monica.”

“Monica it is, then. Lovely name, by the way. And I’m Onslow.”

Monica, now suffering guilt over the man’s apparent delight at her surprise birthday visit, decided to own up. “I-I’ve a confession to make . . . Onslow.” She allowed herself to blush.

“A confession?”

“Yes. I won’t lie to you. I really can’t. To tell the truth, I had no idea at all it was your birthday. I made it up as an excuse. Even now I can scarcely believe that today really is your birthday.”

Onslow allowed himself to look surprised and confused. “You made it up? How is that possible? Surely you’re teasing me, aren’t you? You must have known somehow.”

“I swear to you by all that’s holy I did not know. I mean it’s uncanny.” She shook her head. “My word! Is it possible? What do you suppose if it turns out that I’m a closet psychic?”

Buttfinch was beginning to enjoy this.

“A closet psychic?” He mused. “Well, I don’t know about that, but if you are, it would be pretty extraordinary. On top of that it would make you the very first person I’ve ever met who is. Be that as it may, why would you do that? I mean come over here with a birthday cake? We barely know each other than to say hello on the stairs.”

“To think that my fib turned out true is scarcely believable, isn’t it?”

“Well, yes, to be frank. But tell me something: do you think you were simply drawn here against your will by some supernatural force?”

Monica fidgeted on the sofa. “Uh, not exactly. I-I think I was motivated by other forces . . . More, uh, vagarious, you might say.”

“Vagarious? I’m unfamiliar with that expression.”

“Sort of by the . . . uh, by the gut?”

“By the gut . . . . I don’t think I . . . .” He paused then. “Hold onto that thought. I think the coffee is ready. Come, let us away to the kitchen.”

As the two arose from their respective seats, Monica mused that Onslow must think she was a ditz, which in fact wasn’t far off. She’d have to come up with a more logical reason without owning up to her true designs. Oh, for timing! For his part, though, she had thrown him with ‘vagarious’. He wondered if such a word even existed. By the gut, indeed! What on earth was going on in the woman’s head?

Once they’d seated themselves at the kitchen table, and coffee and birthday cake soon on the enthusiastic intake, each sharing oohs and aahs at the divine repast, Onslow said, “So, tell me a little about this motivating vagarious force of yours.”

In her mind, she was telling herself, Monica Flapworthy, don’t blow it now and spook the man!

“It’s nothing, really,” she said, tittering. “Even though for me it’s a total surprise that today is your birthday, I actually thought it would be hospitable to get to know some of my apartment neighbors a little better. I thought of you first, naturally, being right next door and all, and . . . and the cake might help, uh, break the ice as, uh, as something amusing. I went by my . . . my gut feeling, you see? Uh, vagary. Ha-ha! After all, we’re virtually an arm’s throw away from one another, aren’t we? It seems a shame to remain strangers . . . don’t you think?”

“Oh, indeed.” So vagarious came from ‘vagary’, did it? A whim . . . by the gut. This didn’t stop him from wondering, though, what she might be covering up . . . or, for that matter, cooking up. “And this delicious cake? I have to admit, truly an imaginative ice-breaker!”

Her face lit up. “Do you like it really?”

“Absolutely.”

“Thank you so much! I-I baked it with love.”

Onslow raised an eyebrow. He ahemed. “I can tell, I can tell.” He decided to change the subject. “So . . . Monica, if I may ask, what do you do for a living?”

“Me? Oh, well, this and that.”

“Such as?”

“Well, I dabble in the arts.”.

“The arts? That’s, uh, a bit vague. There’s a pretty wide range of arts, I’m told. What kind of arts?”

“Oh, you know . . . painting, sculpting, potting, that sort of thing.”

“Potting?”

“I pot. I throw pottery. Ceramics.”

“Uh-huh. Interesting. Ceramics. So you probably have a kiln?”

“I do, I do. And easels and paintbrushes, chisels and hammers, and other what-nots . . . tools, supplies, you know, stuff . . . for . . . for, uh, dabbling in the arts.”

Onslow nodded, cracking an almost imperceptible smile. “I see. And is dabbling in the arts lucrative?”

“Can be. But I do it more for fun. It has to be fun, or I guess I wouldn’t do it. All the same, I still make a modest bundle from my fun.”

Onslow grinned widely then. “Good for you! And where do you do all this?”

“Oh, I have a small studio a couple of blocks from here.” She pointed a finger in a vague easterly direction.

Their natterings meandered to various subjects; they spoke tangentially about themselves without too many particulars. Each learned that the other was presently single — Monica, had actually never married, while Onslow was divorced. He confessed that his ex-wife, a neat-freak to the max, could not adjust to what she regarded his ‘bohemian’ manner at home.

“Schlumpy was one of her kinder expressions,” he said, laughing.

Monica smiled back, relieved to hear that he, like her, was relaxed around home. Monica also asked him about his work.

“Like you, I too make a modest bundle,” he said, “but it’s not nearly so fun, I imagine, as what you do. I work in commodities.”

“Commodities?”

“Um. Buying and selling stuff in volume, like the orange juice on your breakfast table, the gas in your car, the meat on your dinner plate, unless of course you’re a vegetarian, the cotton in your shirt, well, your blouse, and,” here he couldn’t help chuckling, “even the corn in your tortilla chips. That sort of thing.”

Monica nodded. There was a brief lull then in conversation. Then she took a deep breath.

“I’ve another confession to make,” she said.

Onslow raised his eyebrows. “Another?”

“Yes. I know that your birthday’s not until November. November 26th, to be exact.”

“What! You know? And yet you still showed up with a birthday cake today?”

She nodded. “But I figured it out only a few minutes ago.”

“You did?”

“While you were brewing the coffee.”

“Really? How so?”

She pointed toward the front room. “While you were here in the kitchen, I couldn’t help but snoop around the living room, saw your book case and a photo album sitting on top. I ask you, who can resist a photo album? I started flipping the pages, and there you were, in your mother’s arms, and right below the photo your name and the date of your birth.”

“Wow,” breathed Onslow. “Not just an artist, but also a bit of a con artist, as well as a sleuth.” He eyed her with heightened interest. “I have to say that I am impressed.”

Monica blushed. Onslow wondered if her intentions toward him were honorable.

“More coffee?” he asked.

She smiled demurely. “Please, and maybe another slice of your birthday cake?”

Steve Pulley
7/15/2017

Posted in Stories | 2 Comments

The Halter of Clyddno Eiddyn

Man and Woman Waiting in LaundromatClyddno Eiddyn met her at the singles laundromat. She was a pleasant but nothing-spectacular-to-look-at redhead busy reading novels while she waited out her laundry cycles, which made him breathe a sigh of relief. Why? Because the place, in addition to the usual chit-chat one might expect to find between patrons at self-service laundromats, was more often than not crawling with a flock of hot and not-so-hot women of all ages, shapes and sizes between late teens to early stages of senility on the make, strutting their assets between wash, rinse and dry cycles, straining to appear as available as they possibly could, shyly, coyly or openly pursuing and being pursued by men of all ages, shapes and sizes also on the make. It was a wonder to Eiddyn that any of them ever got around to attending to their laundry, which at least was his primary reason for being there. Beside its proximity to his residence, that he used the place at all was only the result following numerous irate and fruitless phone calls to his apartment laundromat service to fix their damn faulty coin-operated machines.

He had noticed the red-headed woman with the habitual novel on a number of previous washhouse forays. She seemed disinclined to participate in the goings-on around her, politely discouraging periodic advances of men thinking she too was seeking companionship. At the same time, however, she did observe activities between her page-turnings with a certain degree of scientific or amused interest. He also saw that she always carried with her a writing tablet, on which she would now and then jot down notes. He wondered if perhaps she was actually scoping out possibilities . . . who might be naughty and who nice, and jotting down the particulars?

One Saturday, which was the day he normally came there, while lolling on a bench working a crossword puzzle, waiting out a load of laundry, she walked in, stuffed some laundry of her own in an adjacent washer, added the requisite coins, and then, hesitating briefly, sat down beside him. She extracted her writing tablet and a book from her purse. They glanced at one another and nodded with perfunctory smiles and “good mornings”.

“Glorioski Pentwiddler,” she said suddenly after a pause.

It surprised Eiddyn. He had not expected her to say anything, having observed her former reluctance to initiate conversations with any of the men who’d ever approached her. Glorioski Pentwiddler. Peculiar name, he thought. But he was too polite to ask straight off.

“Pleased to meet you,” he said instead.

“Likewise. Yours?”

“Mine? Oh, you mean my name? Clyddno Eiddyn.”

She blinked twice. “Say again?”

“Clyddno Eiddyn.”

“Once more?”

“Clyddno Eiddyn.”

She gave him a smirk. “Any relation to Dumnagual Hen?”

It was his turn to blink. “Uh, not that I know of.”

“Okay if I call you Clyde, then?”

“Everybody eventually does. Who’s Dumnagual Hen?”

“Doesn’t matter, really. Not unless I guess you lived in southern Scotland a long time ago.”

“Can’t say that I have. Are you Scottish?”

“For the red hair?” She grinned. “No, I’m afraid not. My ancestors were Udmurt Russians.”

“Udmurt Russians?” He had no idea what Udmurt Russians were. “Really? Well, I guess Glorioski does sound a bit Russian, in a Little Annie Roonie way, but Pentwiddler somehow doesn’t at all.”

Her grin widened. “That’s because it’s not. By the way, it’s Pen-twiddler.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“You pronounced it Pent-widdler. It’s Pen-twiddler.”

“Pen-twiddler? You mean like someone twiddling pens?”

“Yes. Just so you know, it’s my nom de plume.”

“Nom de plume?”

“Yes. I’m a writer. I write novels.”

She held up the book she’d been reading, “Forget It Ever Happened”. Clyddno saw ‘Glorioski Pentwiddler’ in the by-line.

“You wrote this?”

“I did.”

“I’m amazed! Why, this is the very first time I’ve ever met a published writer in the flesh . . . at least in a laundromat. My-my. Glorioski Pent-widdler. I mean, Pen-twiddler.”

“My real name, by the way, is Gloria Pendergrass.”

“Pendergrass.”

“Though my ancestors were Greco-Albanian, Pendergrass is Welsh.”

“I see.” He didn’t.

“It’s my late husband’s surname. His ancestors were Welsh.”

“I’m sorry for your loss.”

“Don’t be. He’s been dead for twenty years.”

“Twenty years?” Clyddno Eiddyn stared at her. “You must have married when you were ten then.”

She laughed. “Very flattering. I’m forty-five years old.”

“And you never remarried?”

Shrugging, she shook her head. “For the first few years after his death, I’d lost my way, truly. I was a mess, and remarrying was the last thing on my agenda then. Much later, however, I realized it was time to move on. Life simply cannot freeze forever through a tragedy, can it? Anyway, I went back to school, graduated, started working. I got interested in writing, found that I was good enough to get published, began traveling. All these and other activities eventually took up pretty much of my time, effort and enthusiasm. Thoughts of marriage remained on the back burner.”

Well, mused Eiddyn, that was certainly revealing, coming from a stranger.

She paused. “Mind if I ask you something?”

“As long as it isn’t about detergent and getting the grime out of collars, go for it.”

She laughed. “Where on earth did you get your name?”

“Clyde?”

“No! Clyddno Eiddyn.”

“Ah, that. Hey, you pronounced it right!”

“I did.”

“I’m told that Eiddyn is also an old Welsh name. I somehow suspect from the double take you made earlier that you already know something of the historic Clyddno Eiddyn.”

“I do.”

“And I’m also guessing that your reference to Dumnagual Hen also fits in with that history, which makes me think you know about it a lot better than I do.”

She smiled. “I don’t know whether I know it better than you do or not, but in doing a little preliminary research for one of my novels about that period — never finished, incidentally — I remember Clyddno’s name appearing in lists of the so-called Thirteen Treasures of the Island of Britain. According to these, he possessed a magical halter, the Cebystr Clyddno Eiddin.”

“I’ve heard of it. If I recall correctly, whenever he affixed it to a staple at the foot of his bed, he would find whatever horse he wished in it.”

“Yes, that’s right.”

“Not sure why he needed more than one horse on the fly. I can think of better ways to use a magical halter.”

Gloria laughed. “So can I.”

“Okay, although some of my relatives claim otherwise, I rather doubt we’re related. To be honest, I don’t much care one way or another. But if we are, and going back that many centuries, probably every Scotsman alive today is related to him in some measure. Kind of like virtually all peoples of European descent are purportedly related to William the Conqueror, as are those of Asian descent to Genghis Khan. In any case, my father, unlike me, was a history buff of Celtic Briton and convinced that we are direct ancestors of that Eiddyn. And he ungraciously prevailed on my mother that I be named Clyddno. And you would be right if you thought I was the butt of many a jest at school over that one.”

They continued chatting informally. She asked what he did for a living, his family. He was a mechanical engineer, divorced, no children. He asked her about her career as a writer. Besides “Forget It Ever Happened” and several short stories, she’d also published “A Change in Appearance” and “Not In the Mood”, neither of which he confessed he’d ever heard of.

His dryer beeped. It meant that its cylcle would end in one minute.

“By the way,” she said, “mind if I ask you why you come to this particular laundromat?”

“Probably for the same reason you come here. I had nothing better to do.” He laughed and she joined him. “No, to wash clothes. The machine at home is on the blink. Again.”

“Ahh, too bad. As for me, I’m in an apartment where there’s no room for one.”

As his dryer cycle had finally ended, Eiddyn stood up. “Well, I guess I’d better be off. It was a pleasure to meet you.”

Gloria Pendergrass also rose. “For me as well. Perhaps we’ll run into one another again.”

“I hope so, too. I’m usually here on Saturday mornings, assuming that my laundry service never gets around to fixing the machines I share with other residents.”

He piled his clothes into a basket and hoisted it onto his hip. Then he waved Gloria a final goodbye and was gone. But from then on, whenever the both of them showed up at the laundromat at the same time, they would get together to chat.

Unbeknownst to him, however, the halter of Clyddno Eiddyn II had begun to tighten.

Steve Pulley
7/8/2017

Notes:

Definitions for “halter”:
1. Rope or canvas headgear for a horse, with a rope for leading.
2. A rope that is used by a hangman to execute persons who have been condemned to death by hanging.
3. Either of the rudimentary hind wings of dipterous insects; used for maintaining equilibrium during flight.
4. A woman’s top that fastens behind the back and neck leaving the back and arms uncovered.

  • Udmurt Russians:
    There have been claims that they are the “most red-headed” people in the world.
    They are an ethnic group, most of whom live in Udmurtia, a federal republic of Russia. Its capital is the city of Izhevsk.
    See also: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Udmurt_people
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Suburban Sasquatch

suburbansasquatchIt’s always the quiet ones who set off the fireworks. Well, that might be regarded by some as a bit of hyperbole, seeing as how these days the loud ones do more than their fair share of noise-making as well. At any rate, take Orson Washbroughton for example. He was one of the quiet ones. Few knew what the heck he was thinking about, not even his own family, or his closest friends, who were a total of three, and who swore they weren’t all that close when interviewed by the tabloids. Orson wasn’t the melancholic type of quiet ones, nor was he of the morose variety. Rather more the somewhat peculiar type. He wasn’t a people people, that’s all. Okay, he wasn’t exactly a cat or dog people either, but they paid him little heed in any case, nor he them, so that probably doesn’t count.

According to his story — headlined by The Globe and the unimpeachable National Enquirer, and subsequently corroborated by Star, Weekly World News, and the British News of the World, so it must be true, though the validity of this last one has since been debunked, given the fact that it went out of business in 2011 — whilst sitting beside a babbling brook near his house, which was, without any particular reason he could point his finger at, not quite up to its babble that day, he felt a presence lurking about behind him.

“A bit off its babble,” he reported to the tabloids. He declined to enter into specifics. This constituted no problem for the tabloids, since these were exceptionally talented for filling in all nature of details, even eager to do so, knowing exactly who buttered their bread at the supermarket checkout. In any case, none was as interested in the brook’s babble as they were in the as yet unknown lurking presence about Orson’s behind.

“At first I thought it was my grandma,” he remarked. “But naturally it was not.”

How did he know that, he was inquired.

“Grandma doesn’t lurk,” he explained. “She rattles. When she approaches, she sounds like a Brazilian afoxé. She also wheezes. It’s a rattling wheeze.”

The tabloids had to rush to find out what an afoxé was, but not before they learned what the unknown lurking presence behind him was about.

“Suburban Sasquatch,” he said.

“Beg pardon?” queried they.

“Suburban Sasquatch.”

“You saw a suburban Sasquatch?”

Orson peered at them a moment as though they might all be idiots. “I don’t believe I’ve ever heard any Sasquatch being suburban, or we’d be seeing them wandering about town all the time,” he replied at last.

Tabloid reporters on scene scratched their collective heads. Orson Washbroughton was beginning to sound enigmatic, perhaps even a kook. Which was fine, the kookier the better, for that matter, but it meant more work figuring out how to make it sound perfectly plausible for their readers.

Orson noted their perplexity. “This is Suburban County,” he explained. “It was Suburban County’s Sasquatch lurking aft.”

A collective “aahh” arose from the horde of reporters. Now they were getting somewhere.

“So then what happened?” they demanded.

“Happened? Nothing happened. I looked at Sasquatch, Sasquatch looked at me.”

“That’s it?”

“Pretty much. I noted that the brook wasn’t up to its usual babble. Sasquatch observed it a moment, kind of pursed its lips in thought, then nodded assent, and sauntered away.”

“That’s it?”

“Yep.”

“You mean you’ve nothing else to report?”

Orson paused to reflect. “No, I don’t think so . . . Oh, yeah, I got up and went home after that. No sense waiting around for the brook to get its babble back. My Aunt Ellie Mae, who’s been here visiting, was fixing lunch. Seems to me that I may have mentioned it to her.”

In fact, it was Ellie Mae Washbroughton who first broke the news to The Globe and National Enquirer. She had been far more forthcoming with details than her nephew.

“It was a close shave,” she’d exclaimed. “My poor darling Orsie could have been mauled or even eaten by the beast. Oh, the wiggling worminess of it all!”

“Beg pardon?” asked the tabloids.

“Leaves me squirming the heebie-jeebies just thinking about what that ghastly creature might have done to the dear boy.”

“Ahh. Wiggling worminess,” they replied. “Tell us more.”

“I intend to.”

She did.

Steve Pulley
7/5/2017

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Persimmons and Periwinkles

persimmonsandperiwinklesFrenchy Farbinshlocken enjoyed a good bowl of soup.

“Today’s menu,” announced my cousin Roxie Tuttwizzler, “is going to be Persimmon and Periwinkle Soup.”

“It is?” I said, fighting not to reveal the terror in my eyes.

“It is. I’ve invited Frenchy Farbinshlocken over for lunch this afternoon, and I want to try out something absolutely new on him to see how he likes it.”

“You do?” I began to see scenarios of disaster pass before my face. “Will he?”

“I do, and we’ll see.” She paused, then furrowed an admonitory eyebrow in my direction. “And you are going to either help me or stay the hell out of my way, because I mean business. I’m giving this one my 110%. I’ve got Frenchy in my gun sights, and I don’t want you botching up the works.”

By gun sights, I hoped Roxie meant that she aimed to marry Frenchy Farbinshlocken by hook or by crock-pot, not shoot him.

“I think it’s probably to my best interests to stay the hell out of your way.”

She bobbed her head once. “Fair enough.”

“All the same, I would like to look on from a healthy distance . . . say, over there next to the door in case I have to beat a hasty retreat?”

She gave me another stern eye. “Okay, but only if there’s no kibitzing. Otherwise, this concoction may well result instead as Periwinkle, Persimmon and Full Cousin Bouillabaisse.”

I retreated to the kitchen door leading to the back yard, making sure that it was unlocked.

I guess I should clarify for the uninitiated that in the main you can rely on persimmons as an innocuous, pretty straightforward fruit. They are an edible orange fruit of the genus Diospyros. In case you might be wondering, the word “Diospyros” comes from the ancient Greek meaning “wheat of Zeus”. Just what wheat or Zeus has to do with persimmons is a mystery to me. Basically, depending on the variety of persimmon, the crunchier kind (often called a globe or kaki persimmon) can be eaten like an apple right off the tree, while the soft, gooey sort, when raw taste kind of slimy, are nonetheless delicious as an ingredient in baked cookies, cakes, pies, sweet breads and preserves. Either way, though, they are a treat, and probably won’t kill you so long as you don’t choke on a lurking seed.

Periwinkles, on the other hand, are chancier as to their latent consequences, depending on what the heck we are talking about. What I mean is, the name is misleading; it can apply to completely different things. Periwinkles can be trailing poisonous plants with blue flowers, Old World woody herbs having large pinkish to red flowers, or, go figure, edible marine gastropods . . . in other words, sea snails, which can be steamed in wine or baked. So, it would seem that your options here can be potentially fatal, totally gorgeous, or, depending upon your notions about taste, either curiously scrumptious or downright ghastly.

At this point, I had not a clue how Roxie might proceed, for she was, to quote Winston Churchill, a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma whenever she entered the kitchen. And I wasn’t idiot enough to engage in inquiries at this point. Whether she was really attempting to woo Frenchy Farbinshlocken to the altar or instead poison him remained a moot question in my mind. I knew Frenchy only casually, but he seemed a likeable enough fellow, so I gave Roxie the benefit of the doubt and opted that she had a thing for the guy.

Still, I couldn’t help myself. “By the way, Cuz, how is Frenchy’s heart?”

“Fine, as far as I know. Why do you ask?”

I shrugged. “No reason. Just curious.”

She gave me a look, then shook her head, convinced, no doubt, that I was weirder than she.

Roxie Tuttwizzler, by the way, is a first cousin on my father’s side of the family – the only child of my Aunt Twyla Tuttwizzler (also the only child, at least that I know of, of my late Uncle Maxie Tuttwizzler, who died last year wheezing his last wizzle, so to speak, due to anaphylactic shock on a tutti frutti ice cream cone served him by a woman who shall remain unnamed, that had mysteriously gone rogue . . . the ice cream, not the unnamed woman, though she too may have gone rogue, if we are to accept the jury’s verdict of the case) – and about to venture upon yet another of her periodic experimental cuisine manias.

Perhaps there is a key to her madness, I pondered, continuing my squeeze on Sir Winston. Or perhaps not. Commingling periwinkles and persimmons into a soup boggled the mind.

While Roxie is my very favorite cousin, and I love her more than I do myself, she’s a nut case when it comes to re-engineering otherwise perfectly acceptable and often, to my way of thinking, unimprovable dishes. With food, she simply refuses to subscribe to the old saw, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Oddly . . . even inexplicably, more often than not she actually does. It’s uncanny. This time, though, she was embarking upon unknown seas. To my knowledge, nobody had ever before prepared Periwinkle and Persimmon Soup. This was a brand new concoction altogether.

To my relief, I saw no sacrificed periwinkle plants or flowers posing ominously on Roxie’s cutting board, though the pile of cleaned and gutted sea snails in their place awaiting her cleaver had not fared so lucky. We looked at one another.

“Okay,” she confessed, “I admit that this is going to be my variation on a blend of Chinese and Vietnamese sea snail recipes I found on the Internet – luó piàn and bun oc. Plus the persimmons, of course, my own contribution to the mix.”

She glanced at me. “Are you okay?”

“Yes, yes. Uh, just trying to envisage this delicacy. Ahh, persimmons and sea snails, together at last.”

“You better have your hand on that door knob, I’m warning you. Just so you know, there’s a lot more to it than that. First off, sea snails are said to nourish the Yin and the kidneys and to improve eyesight. I’ll stir-fry them in ginger, lemongrass, onion, mmm other spices, then add pork-bone broth, chili, cilantro, mint, lemon and bean sprouts, black bean sauce, together with soft noodles. What else? Oh, honey dates and wolfberries. And . . . le pièce de résistance: my persimmons!”

“I thought this was a Sino-Vietnamese dish,” I murmured, but Roxie heard.

“Oh, ye of little faith. Listen, smart guy, I’m sure as shooting that Frenchy will find my adaptation to die for.”

I didn’t like the possible connotation at all. I closed my eyes and prayed for Frenchy Farbinshlocken.

Steve Pulley
7/4/2017

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A Trip into the Bolivian Outback

Note: What follows is one of the several trips I took while living in Bolivia (1968-1995). My presence in the first place in that South American country, and later in Chile, is a whole other story, which I won’t get into here, other than to say that it came about because of my being a member of the Baha’i Faith and my decision to move to Bolivia as a travel teacher for my Faith. As it turned out, I ended up serving in other capacities as well, not to mention marrying, helping raise a family, and working in a number of different jobs to make a living. Here, then, is a somewhat typical trip I used to make in the Bolivian Andes.

It was June 1969, my first winter in Bolivia, and I had been invited to accompany three other people to visit the Aiquile Province, one of the high valleys areas in the southern part of the Department of Cochabamba. This would be my sixth trip into the back country since my arrival in Bolivia eight months earlier, and the second time to this specific region.

That we would travel by train sounded like a romp (on the prior trip it had been in a temperamental, wheezy 1947 Studebaker pickup), and so I was all the more eager to join the group this time. In 1969, there were basically three principal kinds of passenger transports that traveled on rails. One was a comfortable diesel-driven four-car ferrobus (literally, iron bus). Another was a steam engine-driven train, whose passenger service offered three classes — no, four: first class included upholstered, half-way decent seats (though from a bygone era), and toilet facilities; second class: hard wooden benches and little else; third class was not much more than cattle cars without the cattle or the hay; and fourth class was atop the cattle cars (which, though not safe, was probably better than second and third, for at least one could breathe). And then there were the folks who lived on these trains, traveling day-in and day-out, crisscrossing the country and even into neighboring Chile, selling snacks, meals, reading materials and other sundries to the passengers.

tripbolvianoutback1As for the third type of railroad travel, this was the carril, a peculiar hybrid consisting of a broken-down yellow and green school bus mounted on railroad tracks. It was on this that I now had the distinct, though dubious, I was to learn, pleasure of riding.

My companions were two Bolivian Indians, Manuel Juchazara and Máximo Medina, and an Argentine, Athos Costas, who had settled in Bolivia with his family some years before. Early one morning we set out on the carril from the city of Cochabamba — where I was to live for nearly 20 years — our destination a town called Mizque, where reports and reached us of persecutions against some of the Indian Baha’is in the area and destruction of their properties by members of a sometime politically steered peasant organization. It was our hope to speak with some of the local and provincial officials to find out exactly what was going on, as well as to appeal that they intervene in the matter. Moreover, we were also taking advantage of the trip to visit some of the affected rural Baha’i communities.

On the way, our carril stopped at various villages to take on new passengers and leave off others. At each station, hordes of people would descend upon us selling food, drinks, candy, clothing, trinkets, icons, cure-alls, and the like. At one stop I hopped down to quickly eat some soup, but made the fateful error of forgetting that Bolivia’s favorite seasoning is locoto (Capsicum pubescens), a misleadingly sweet pepper that packed more than just a respectable wallop. My soup was pre-loaded for action. I wept and whimpered pathetically the whole meal through, causing disconcertion among passers-by, some of whom no doubt assumed I’d recently suffered a tragic, heart-breaking loss.

tripbolivianoutback2Our treks into the outback in the days that followed would also take us to places I felt certain would lead to madness . . . mine in particular. These were often two-day hikes, which of themselves would have been exhausting though still tolerable. But in this region of the Aiquile Province, there happened to be ranges of mountains which seemed to reproduce themselves like clones, popping up like mushrooms one right after the other in a straight line . . . and this was unendurable. These were what I later referred to as the “Great Xerox” Mountains, a geological phenomenon peculiar to the Bolivian Andes. At the time, I didn’t know mountain cloning was scientifically possible, but tramping along lonely dirt roads in this region with my companions I was sure we’d limped past the same exact mountain five or six times! At first, I thought we were walking in circles, and to prove it I contemplated leaving tell-tale signs in the road. My troubled twitchy reactions did not go unnoticed by my companions, assuming possibly these to be a peculiar idiosyncrasy of Americans. I don’t doubt they surmised that had they not been along to keep a close eye on me, I would have wandered into the wilderness never to be seen or heard from again.

We arrived finally in the late afternoon at the Mizque train station. Mizque itself awaited a mile away, requiring our traversal of several rivers, mud holes and quicksand. If one had the dubious luck of catching a truck into Mizque, it was like riding a bucking bronco, not only because there were countless rocks, but also because the driver had to drive fast enough not to be mired in any of the three traps.

At long last we slogged into the town of Mizque. Although not very large, unpaved, and primarily a shoddy conglomeration of fading white-washed adobe houses packed side-by-side like overworked Legos, still it was the provincial capital. And despite its homely appearance, it looked positively lovely after the train ride — a quaint and bucolic retreat situated in a lovely valley surrounded by rolling, green hills.

As time was short and the day fading, we quickly left our gear at the house of a friend and set out to see the Subprefecto, the chief administrative authority of the province. This was to be my first experience in provincial bureaucratic disregard, for the Subprefecto, although deigning to receive us, did not exactly jump up with enthusiasm. We explained our mission, which was to request redress for the shabby and unjustified treatment of several local Indian Baha’is by three members of the Sindicato de Campesinos. This was the powerful agricultural union whose ostensible purpose was to protect Indian rights. However, in some areas it had taken up less charitable initiatives, including coercion, graft, swindling, and extortion. And now, Baha’is living in the Mizque area had been threatened, beaten up and even jailed by Sindicato henchmen for not joining their union. We had papers from regional officials in Cochabamba indicting several of the ring leaders of these persecutions. Without looking at the papers but in a bored, indifferent way, and barely stifling a yawn, the Subprefecto said he would look into it and see what he could do. Though hardly encouraged by his attitude, all the same we politely thanked him and retired.

After our less than encouraging meeting with this authority, we decided to go someplace quiet to talk things over and figure out what to do next. We located a tree to sit under, and while breaking out the bread and bananas we’d brought along to snack on, an old man who lived nearby approached us. He was a kindly fellow, a veteran of the Chaco War of the 1930s, the bloodiest military conflict fought in South America during the 20th century, claiming the lives of one hundred thousand Bolivians and Paraguayans.  We chatted a while, and then he graciously invited us to share with him the simple but nutritious supper that his nine-year-old daughter had prepared. The two beamed their pleasure when we told the little girl how much we enjoyed her meal.

We finally excused ourselves, thanking our new friends for their kind hospitality, and departed, only to encounter shortly afterward another girl, she in a store we had entered to buy coffee. Curious to know why two Indians, an Argentine and an American were traveling together, she struck up a conversation.  When she learned our purpose in Mizque, she urged us to see the provincial police captain, as he had shown himself to be sympathetic to the plight of the Indians. Taking her advice, we immediately set out for his office. To our immense surprise, he offered us his complete cooperation. He promised to speak with the Subprefecto himself and get things straightened out as best he could. He then asked us to return in the morning to give him the names of the offending union members and other specifics. We thanked him, feeling considerably more relieved after having seen him. The following morning, again the police captain assured us that something would be done.

After our brief visit with the police captain, we headed back to the train station. Our intention was to go into the hinterlands to visit several Indian Baha’is. The particular area where we were to travel was close to another town, Tin Tin, a train stop further west. My heel, which I had bruised from a defective pair of shoes purchased months earlier in the United States, started troubling me. By the time we arrived at the Mizque station I was limping. The ride on the carril took about half an hour. At Tin Tin, Athos, Manuel and I got off and prepared ourselves for more walking ― I dressing my heel with a bandage so it might be more comfortable. Máximo would continue on alone by carril to the next town, go into the countryside from there, and tell some of our Baha’i friends that we would be visiting Yuraj K’asa. We then would catch up with him the following day.

Just before the carril pulled out of the station, one of the passengers, approached us. He was perhaps forty years old, short, a little paunchy, dressed in light khaki pants, a black leather jacket, boots and a black hat, and looked like a rancher or typical citizen from a small town.

“Good morning. Are you people by any chance Baha’is?”

“Yes, we are,” we replied.

“Pleased to meet you,” he said, shaking our hands. “I am the Sindicato chief of this province.”

This was one meeting we had not anticipated. After introductions, he said that he was aware that there had been some misunderstandings between the Baha’is and members of the Sindicato. We affirmed that to be the case, mentioning that we had discussed this with the Subprefecto and police captain back in Mizque.

“Yes,” he replied, “well, I’ve received reports about this case, but I assure you that I never had a thing to do with it myself. Unfortunately, it was some subordinates of mine who got out of hand. If you would allow me, I’d like to suggest something that might help. Because there has been so much misunderstanding between our two groups, why don’t we organize a meeting with representatives from both sides to clear this up among us?”

His idea greatly surprised and pleased us. We agreed that this was an excellent idea, and we promised to let the Baha’is of the area know of this proposal so they could decide upon when, where, and so forth. “After the rains abate,” the chief suggested. “Either April or May would be perhaps a better time.” We agreed. He seemed delighted, and perhaps even a little relieved, that we were in conformity with his proposal. And with that he bade us good-bye, climbed aboard the carril, and left. What a blessed good morning, we thought.

tripbolivianoutback3Our journey was a grueling eleven-hour hike to visit Baha’is in the area. Oh, for a carril, I sighed with yearning, that outlandish contraption suddenly becoming more attractive to me by the minute. Despite the discomfort, the scenery was magnificent, breathtaking — Arizona, Colorado, and the Black Hills of South Dakota all rolled into one. Indian farmers plowing fields with metal-tipped wooden tools pulled by gigantic black bulls, gentle rolling hills back-dropped by azure skies and extraordinary, white Rorschach-shaped clouds, lonely rambling dirt paths leading to primitive stone and adobe dwellings with thatched roofs surrounded by stick fences, red rock cliffs falling into meandering river beds. And as the sun moved across the sky, the whole lay of the land subtly changed, each succeeding moment more marvelous, more powerful than the last. Such immense beauty.

It was 9:30 in the morning when the three of us set out from Tin Tin, and 8:30 at night when we finally arrived, flashlight in hand, at a place called Rumi Corral, where some Baha’is lived. Rumi Corral meant stone corral, and it was certainly all of that. A primitive place, but such wonderful, welcoming people. We stayed overnight and half the next day. We spoke for quite some time with the friends who had gathered. I think I ate considerably more than I talked. My first taste in local hospitality was almost overwhelming. Our hosts seemed to always be feeding us.

In the morning, a bronzed, sturdy teenage girl was sent for water, a ceramic jug tied to her back. She traced her way down a precarious cliff to a spring nearly a mile away, and then she climbed back again. Quickly the water was emptied into a kettle, and soon mountains of potatoes were set to boil on a mud stove. At Rumi Corral alone I think I ate more potatoes than in all my life before. Boiled potatoes for breakfast, boiled potatoes for lunch, boiled potatoes for dinner, boiled potatoes for supper . . .. Not just a couple of potatoes like I was accustomed to in the States. Fifteen and twenty potatoes at one sitting! And mote de maiz, boiled corn. The staple of the Indians was potatoes, corn, wheat, with an occasional hunk of dried goat meat and, of course, goat cheese. Also, whenever they had the opportunity, tea. They loved tea and put frightful amounts of sugar into it until it became virtually syrup. Except for the wheat soup, they ate their food without spices or sauces or any other kind of flavoring. Have you ever tried to eat twenty boiled potatoes five times a day without salt? Truthfully, I had never eaten a tastier potato in the United States, or anywhere else, in my entire life — but with no seasoning, a meal becomes something of a task. I also noticed that it could even be hazardous for the health. Iodized salt was unknown, and nobody ate fish, and I saw case after case of goiter among the Indians of this region.

Here’s a menu of what I ate while visiting this region: potatoes (boiled), soup (generally wheat and potato with a hunk of meat and picante), corn (boiled), tostados or chuspillo (an elongated black corn that is popped, but the puff never gets out of the kernel), eggs (either soft or hard-boiled), goat meat (usually dried into strips called ch’arki (we get the word “jerky” from the Quechua word ch’arki), and then boiled for use; tough as nails and not too tasty. On a previous trip to another part of Bolivia I ate fresh fried goat, which was very good, goat cheese (looks like cottage cheese, but is more compact, has a sour taste — not unpleasant — and settles heavily in the stomach), and tea.

Later in the afternoon we started out for Yuraj K’asa, which was probably two leagues away (a league was the unit of measure in the campo, about three miles), and arrived about 6:00 in the evening. The family that we stayed with greeted us warmly, and sat us down to eat . . . again! Later that night, Máximo showed up with some Baha’is from surrounding areas, and a letter from the police captain with whom we had talked to the morning before. The letter was a demand for the three sindicato members to appear in Mizque so that an arrangement could be made to correct the abuses against the Baha’is. Máximo had been directed to deliver this message by the local authorities to the offending parties, which he proceeded to do the following morning.

tripbolivianoutback6

By the next day, approximately 22 Baha’is had arrived at Yuraj K’asa, and in the afternoon a study class on the laws, principles and history of the Baha’i Faith was shared by Athos. Earlier, before noon, we ascended a nearby hill where the Baha’i community was building a center. Such a beautiful spot overlooking a magnificent valley. But again, trouble from the Sindicato. Members from that group had come and told the Baha’is that it was illegal to build such a building and threatened them not to continue. The believers didn’t know what to do, for they were totally ignorant about the law. After some discussion over the situation, Athos advised them that unless the Sindicato could come up with a written legal document stating that the Baha’is were doing something unlawful, to go right ahead and complete their center. This community was the only one in the immediate area that hadn’t allowed the Sindicato to scare them into disbanding their Assembly.

Luciano Negrete

To give an idea of the harassment the Baha’is suffered in this area: the family we were staying with had just been fined by some judge and was never told for what reason. The patriarch of the family, Luciano Negrete, a staunch, middle-aged man, and his entire family were Baha’is. I learned that a few months following a previous trip I’d taken to Yuraj K’asa, Luciano had been tortured by sindicato thugs, hung up by his thumbs and beaten until senseless. They tore down his house, and the Baha’i center that he was helping build was destroyed. This man, unschooled, poor, humble, had suffered and passed the tests of his faith with a courage and steadfastness that most might envy. When frightened friends and family members asked him what they should do, he replied, undaunted, “Why, we’re going to rebuild, of course!” And that’s exactly what they did. I remember trying to sleep in his home that first time I’d stayed there — a cold, flea-infested adobe hut with a dirt floor and a thatch roof — and how Luciano so lovingly covered me with fusty sheepskin blankets to keep me warm.

I discovered that day how more capable teachers were needed to go out to the campo. Athos presented a series of mimeographed drawings which were, for the most part, very elementary visual aids for teaching. But the people were so simple, so unaware of the outside world, so unaccustomed to anything even the least bit abstract, that they found it difficult to understand some of the ideas the pictures conveyed, as well as even to comprehend what some of the pictures were. They were so in need of education, and what was more, they wanted so very much to learn. They would ask questions far into the night when we were all but falling asleep. They thirsted to know.

tripbolivianoutback4Serious difficulties existed here. For example, most of these people spoke only Quechua, but could neither read nor write. And if they could read, there were no books, virtually little or nothing in Quechua that they could learn from, and no knowledge of their own rich historical past. There were no schools close by, and the nearest towns lay hours, sometimes days, away. In the 1960s, progress in much of rural Bolivia seemed at a near standstill and its people destined to remain abandoned and ignored for decades to come.

Later that day, Máximo returned from delivering the police captain’s summons to the sindicato members. Only two of the three were contacted. One declared that he saw the error of his ways (he was quite obviously frightened about the whole thing now) and agreed to go to Mizque. The other fellow became incensed, refused to cooperate, and in his fury nearly struck Máximo.

The following morning, we met with the Baha’is again for more classes, to discuss their problems, and seek out possible solutions. In the afternoon, Athos, Manuel, Máximo and I packed up and bade farewell to our friends. After a couple of hours hiking, Manuel and Máximo parted ways from Athos and me, heading to different areas.

tripbolivianoutback5

This new leg of our journey took us through even more spectacular scenes than we had already traveled through. In the evening, we arrived at our destination, a town called El Cruce, where we were scheduled to take the following morning’s carril back to Cochabamba. El Cruce was a salt mining town, and as mining towns would have it, every night  a drunken spree complete with chicha (corn liquor), women, and song rang out. A congenial boozer helped us find shelter under a canvas, and by eight Athos and I were dead to the world.

Around midnight, however, I awoke from the dead abruptly with the realization that the Curse of Atahualpa (aka Montezuma’s Revenge in Mexico and Central America) had laid mighty hold of me again (my intestines had been shot ever since my return from a previous trip), not to mention the fact that fleas were eating me alive, and with obvious relish. DDT was still being used in those days, but not even copious dustings with that seemed to daunt the fleas. So it was off to nature’s water closet scratching furiously.

Before returning to the makeshift tent, I looked up at the night sky and the Milky Way, with its billions of stars glowing like illuminated gossamer. A meteorite sliced brightly across the heavens and faded. The majestic Southern Cross stood out like a guiding beacon. And then I saw for the first time in my life the Magellanic Clouds, two breathtaking blobs of hazy light containing millions of suns, orbiting our galaxy. Such overwhelming splendor after living in the smoggy Los Angeles basin for so many years was by itself a great reward for having come so far. I have heard that after the great Northridge earthquake of 1994, Angelinos began calling the Griffith Park Planetarium to find out if in some way the earthquake had affected the sky. Observatory workers couldn’t understand what these people were talking about until they went outside themselves to see what was going on. And then they realized. The earthquake had knocked out a goodly portion of the city’s lights, and for the first time these people could actually see the stars! I got back into my sleeping bag with thoughts of awe and wonder, only to be greeted by some more relatives of the band of fleas I took with me to the bushes, and a few other crawly things I could not identify.

I had not yet been apprised of the vinchuca, often called the “kissing bug” in the United States, a far more pernicious threat than fleas, and quite common to this region. It is an elongated, triangular insect, dark brown or black, about an inch, inch-and-a-half long that likes to live in nooks and crannies and especially those of adobe houses. At night, it crawls out and alights upon sleeping people’s faces, where it proceeds to quietly suck their blood. Were this been its sole activity, probably not much harm would be caused. But the vinchuca has the disgusting habit of defecating around the same spot where it feeds, and it is in its waste where the danger lay. If the excretion contains a parasite particular to the vinchuca, and if it were rubbed into the wound, it might eventually work its way into the cells of the brain and heart, and from there would develop the insidious Chagas’ disease — A. trypanosomiasis — the American cousin of African Sleeping Sickness. Chagas is prevalent in Bolivia, Peru, and Brazil, marked by fever, anemia, and heart disease. It can be arrested if timely treated, but no vaccine has yet been developed. Several years might pass before its effects are felt, but by then the damage is done. Some estimates surmise that 30% of the Bolivian population suffer from Chagas disease. I, ingenuous soul that I am, did not know this until later, after I had been bitten.

By two a.m. I was finally dropping off to sleep from the sheer exhaustion of fighting fleas — more like passing out. Suddenly, I felt something touch my ankle. Something human. It was either drunken thieves out to steal my boots or, I also imagined, assassins of the worst order. The hand crept up my leg, and I decided then and there that if I was going I was taking some of them with me. I let out a horrible whoop, leaped up and lunged out at the waiting enemy, yelling all kinds of insane invectives both in English and Spanish.

“Thieves! Assassins! Highwaymen!”

The awful monster turned out to be a woman looking for her chicha-besotted husband.

“Is my man in there?” she demanded.

“No, lady, he’s not,” I said, my heart pounding.

“You’re sure?”

“Sure I’m sure.”

“Mind if I look around?”

“Go right ahead.”

“Who’s he?” She indicated Athos.

“A friend.”

“Has he seen my husband?”

“No.”

“Sure?”

“Ask him.”

“All right. ‘You seen my husband?”

“Uh-uh.”

“Oh, okay then. Goodnight.”

“Goodnight. And by the way, you scared me half to death.”

“Really?”

“Yep.”

“Hee-hee!”

tripbolivianoutback7Later in the morning while we were waiting for the carril, the same woman came up and teased me for being a scaredy-cat. I insisted I had been startled, an entirely different matter, though I think the gathering crowd was more inclined to believe her story, seeing as how she could speak in Quechua and I could only defend myself in English and broken Spanish. The carril finally arrived and we got on.

The trip back was yet another experience. The carril was either under-powered or not working properly, and it did not help that the tracks had an oil slick on them, so whenever we’d go uphill, the wheels would begin to spin until we would come to a complete halt. Then some of the train’s maintenance men would run alongside of the carril and throw dirt and small stones to get enough traction to start the beast going again. The trip, which was only 85 or 90 miles, took 10 hours, and by the end I was beginning to believe that I could have walked faster. At one stretch, all the passengers had to get off and push the carril uphill because it didn’t have enough oomph to do it on its own. Once we were on the downslope, we all piled back on, hoping then that the brakes functioned properly.

We sat opposite of some half-intoxicated Quechuans, and most of the journey we spent kidding one other. I was to learn that many, many Quechua Indians possessed a lavish sense of humor and wit. A woman in the group, middle-aged, a little glazed over from drink, and looking formidable, caught my eye and addressed me severely.

Runasimita rimankichu?” she asked (i.e., “Do you speak Quechua?” She spoke no Spanish, and so Athos, who had somewhat of a handle on Quechua, translated).

“I’m afraid that I do not,” I responded.

She harrumphed. “Well, then, until you learn Quechua, you better stay out of this area. I’m the killing kind.”

I raised my eyebrows, but saw a little twinkle in her eye.

“Okay,” I replied uncertainly, but seeing Athos grinning, I played along. “I appreciate the warning.”

“Not at all.” She looked at me for a moment, her hand cupping her chin in a musing demeanor. “You know? You’re not all that bad-looking, I guess. I have a daughter, and I’ve a good mind to marry her off to you.”

I said, “Oh? Well, perhaps, but until your daughter learns English there’s no deal.”

We hashed out that for a while, and then she said, “Well, wait a minute. I think I should tell you that it just so happens I have not one, but ten unmarried daughters.”

“Indeed? Ten daughters?”

“That’s right. Ten. Tell you what: you can have your pick.”

I nodded, looking impressed. “You really are too generous.”

She nodded in agreement, pooched her lips, looked me over some more, then exclaimed, “You know what? To heck with my daughters. I’ll marry you myself!”

It was impossible to keep a straight face then, and her companions and Athos all burst out laughing.

“Madam,” I replied, “I am touched and deeply flattered. This is the very first time I’ve ever been proposed to. But I must tell you that I have to get permission from my mother first.”

“Your mother? Where is she?”

“In the United States, very, very far away.”

“Listen here, young man, I swear I’ll cut your throat if you don’t agree!”

I gave her a resigned look, sighed, and stretched out my neck slightly. “All right, I am ready.”

She cracked up at that, recovered, and snapped back, “At the very next train stop you are to step down and receive the killing blow.”

“Madam, I must tell you how considerate I think you are, not wishing to spray my blood all over these other passengers.”

She gave me a smirk. “Well, I’m just that kind of woman.”

tripbolvianoutback8

These are the 4 travelers of this trip into the Bolivian outback: Athos Costas, Máximo Medina, Manuel Juchazara and Steve Pulley

Steve Pulley
6/19/2017

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