El Condor Baranquilla · Nina Alonso

Fernando’s laughing with Marc, his college roommate, while I talk to Olga, Marc’s wife, though her English is bits and pieces and my Spanish is no better. She’s slim, sipping water while we eat lunch, tapping the table with orange nails, designer sunglasses perched on stylish dark hair.

I’m a ballet teacher, ordinary sunglasses, clipped bare nails. Olga reminds me of a teen dancer who refused to brush her teeth with toothpaste because it has calories.

We drive north to Santa Marta, crystal beaches, blue-green waves, luminous clouds, post-card palm trees, silken breeze, nothing like ice-gray Boston this November.

Marc says, “Simon Bolivar’s grave’s nearby, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez was born in Aracataca, nothing much to see.”

Fernando winks at me, as we wouldn’t mind seeing that ‘nothing much,’ but we’re guests, let it go.

At dinner Olga sips broth (avoiding noodles), then we drive south to Cartagena, check into a sea-side hotel and meet artist Alejandro Obregon.

Marc owns one Obregon painting, a thunder-cloud-gray bull, hanging above black chairs with steer horn legs, (real steer-horn), and wants another.

Alejandro’s smile is sleek as he refills our drinks, his blue eyes missing nothing, the mood more playful the drunker we get. When he hears I teach ballet, he pesters me for ‘Dying Swan’ until I ripple my arms and manage a few wine-soaked arabesques.

Olga complains English is “muy dificil,” pushes pasta around her dinner plate, drinks a thimble of wine.

Alejandro’s paintings are grotesque, nothing pretty. Around midnight Marc chooses a wide-winged Andean condor, a species of black vulture, flying through blurry spirals of gloom.

We drive back to Barranquilla on dark, bumpy roads, Marc flicking high beams at trucks speeding by, windshields edged with red fringe, but no headlights. He’s telling Fernando the backstory of Plasticos Caricos, and I’m half-listening, wondering whether steer-horn chairs were some interior decorator’s idea. Marc and Fernando banter back and forth about business, Olga’s dozing.

Reading in bed, I see them on the balcony smoking pot. Later Fernando tells me Marc screws around on business trips, a stewardess here and there, sampling women like amuse-bouches at a buffet. “He’s always been like this, before Olga and after.”

Marc’s handsome as an old-time movie star, reminiscent of the Gatsby elite, tall and lean with a narrow mustache, wealth and privilege palpable in the texture of his clothes, his demeanor. He’ll indulge whenever he wants, no guilt about fucking around. When Olga’s suspicious, he’ll deny accusations, insist she’s imagining things, no sense of wrong-doing, no need to confess or be forgiven.

She’s the daughter of a wealthy family, and their children, a boy of five and a girl of seven, are in school or with nannies. Getting her hair done, choosing nail-polish to match designer sun-glasses, can’t fix a permanent power imbalance.

I teach ballet, study with company teachers and guests from New York, France, and everywhere else. Sometimes a Big Personality arrives to set a ballet, Mr. Famous Russian Artiste, knitted wool cap pulled over his ears, shoves the studio door open, snaps his fingers and an assistant runs to bring a double espresso. There’s gossip about nasty interludes with company men, snippy remarks that he’s past his technical prime, a brief span in the life of any dancer. But he’s Rudy, the idolized Soviet defector, the choreographer, the spotlight super star.

Fernando manages a restaurant and partners in a design company struggling to break even. My dad worked his drug store every day except Sunday afternoon, so I’m uncomfortable in this hacienda with olive-skinned maids, cooks and gardeners, wonder about their lives, but can’t ask. Marc’s father came to South America from Eastern Europe, though nothing in the house signals that he was a Jew who got out, no menorah. Olga was raised Catholic, but no Virgin Mary, no crucifix.

My grandparents survived Kiev pogroms. Cossack brutes broke down my great grandmother’s door though she was in labor Christmas Eve, dragged her bed onto the ice of a frozen river where she died. They wanted to keep a Jew from being born on Christ’s birthday, but did they know Jesus was a Jew?

Somehow newborn Batsheva was rescued, as well as my terrified five year old grandma Bessie, hiding in a cupboard, obeying her mother’s instructions to keep quiet, no matter what she heard. Years later both sisters followed Grandpa Sasha to America. I heard this story at a banquet during a cousin’s baby shower. I was twenty two, newly divorced from a brief blunder marriage.

“My mother--your grandmother--was the five year old in the cupboard listening to her mother scream,” then Aunt Dora shoved her cigarette butt into the pink frosting rose on her cake plate, refilled her wine glass, wouldn’t say another word. Many questions, but no one alive to ask.

Displays of wealth feel wasteful and foolish to me. The night we arrived in Barranquilla needing a shower, the faucets were gold, but dry, and we’re told water flows eight to ten in the morning, that’s it. Our attic flat in Cambridge has an outmoded claw-foot tub, but there’s water. Barranquilla rations every drop, collects rain in storage tanks, builds bridges over streets impassable during rare, torrential, downpours. But Marc and Olga’s walled garden ripples with hibiscus blossoms and orchids, the air moist and heavy. We grow red geraniums in clay pots on our Cambridge back porch.

But at home we can go to the bank. Here Marc changes money for us from his bedroom safe, a huge, tank-like contraption with double-locked steel drawers for passports, currencies, documents and jewelry, insisting that if we go, we’ll be robbed, later drives us to see guards holding automatic weapons at the bank’s front door.

“Not enough guards to protect clueless tourists from drug cartel bandits.” Fernando, born in Argentina, is fluent, but Marc won’t let him go either. “They know who’s local and who’s not, so forget it, you’d be a target.”

I want to open a car window as it’s hot, but Marc says,“Windows stay shut. Thieves steal jewelry.” My watch is cheap, as I’ve traveled enough to know better than to display valuables, but Olga’s wearing two diamond rings and a glitzy gold link bracelet. Marc asserts proudly, “This car has military grade, shatter-proof glass,” confirming Barranquilla as a border-line war zone.

At dinner he says,“The kids want a puppy, but we’d need escort, as bandits kidnap dogs, demand ransom, sometimes kill them, happened to a friend’s Corgi.”

Fernando sees my gloom and changes the subject. “Ever hear from Russ?” No idea where this usually stoned college buddy may be.

Marc says airport security examines shoes because smugglers hollow out heels to hide drugs and emeralds. Everything—suitcases, purses, bodies--will be searched, and this is years before such procedures became routine.

At the airport the guard x-rays trinkets we bought in Cartagena, paws through our luggage, watching to see if we’re nervous, maybe hiding something, finishes digging through and lets us board. Too tense to sleep, I’m dragging by the time we reach Miami and start hiking to the next gate.

Fernando squeezes my hand. “Good to see Marc and Olga, but Colombia’s a fucking mess--bandits, rebel groups, drug cartels. Marc is thinking of buying a condo in Miami and putting money in US banks in case they need to leave. His father sold plastic conduit to anyone with cash, got complicated.”

“Meaning?”

“Multiple account books, underground network. His mother never knew how her husband was supporting the family. Plasticos Caricos has legitimate clients, but many under the radar. I was seven when Peron’s thugs raided our Buenos Aires publishing company, jailed dad for weeks. Afraid they’d arrest him again, he somehow got us to the UK, then the states. I couldn’t speak English, spent school days playing pick up sticks. Marc’s telling Olga shopping trips will be easier with a condo instead of a hotel, doesn’t want to scare her. But they’ll need permits or visas, not sure this will work.”

“He cares about her, but keeps screwing around?”

“That’s Marc, as long as he can get away with it,” Fernando’s tapping his fingers to thumping airport music.

Overhead fluorescents hurt my eyes, lost my sunglasses somewhere, maybe on the plane. I lean on Fernando’s shoulder, close my eyes but can’t relax, keep seeing guards with machine guns, paintings of bulls and condors, Marc’s Italian leather briefcase, full of secrets.


Nina Alonso's work has appeared in Ploughshares, The New Yorker, Ibbetson Street, U. Mass. Review, etc. David Godine Press published her book This Body. A chapbook, Riot Wake, is upcoming from Cervena Barva Press.