Friday, October 19, 2007

The opening ceremony in Urandá.

. . . When I walked into the director's office, he was speaking on the phone to the minister of public works, a man of tyrannical temperament and draconian decisions, who at that time figured as a future president. My superior repeated two sentences over and over again in a kind of litany: "Yes, Minister, we will" and "I don't see any problem, Minister, don't worry sir, we'll take care of everything." Life looked bleak for whoever had to turn those promises into reality. If I had any doubts as to who that man might be, the director dispelled them when he hung up the telephone.

"Listen carefully. In ten days' time, in exactly ten days and not a day longer, we have to have everything, and I mean everything down to the last detail, ready for the opening ceremony at the pipeline terminal in the port of Urandá. Our minister of public works and the minister of mines will be there, as well as ministers and the company's regional directors from neighboring countries, and church and civic leaders from the provincial capital and from Urandá. The good news is that their wives will not attend. You have to stay on top of the situation at the Urandá airport and arrange accommodations for the guests in the event their return flights are canceled at the last minute. They'll be flying in on government or company planes. After the ceremony at the terminal and the bishop's blessing, a first-class luncheon has to be served, of course. Don't forget that church dignitaries will be there. You studied with the Jesuits. I don't think you'll have any problems on that score."

Although by now my assignment came as no surprise, I must confess that my prospects were fairly grim. A series of adverse factors combined to make the task almost impossible. Urandá is a port. Half of it is built over marshes that flow into the sea through an impenetrable tangle of mangrove swamps; the other half is on a hill and consists almost entirely of a red-light district. The region boasts the highest rainfall on the planet, and as a consequence the airport is closed for most of the year. The heat is suffocating, and the prevailing atmosphere of a Turkish bath exhausts all initiative and undermines all enthusiasm. At dusk, the occasional visitors, who by this time have been turned into true zombies, desperately seek a little cool shade and the glass of whiskey that perhaps will revive them. Both can be obtained without too much difficulty. Shade is taken care of by the night, which falls all at once and brings its entourage of mosquitoes and aberrant insects that seem to have escaped from a science fiction nightmare: great hairy, slow-moving butterflies with black wings insist on attaching themselves to tablecloths and bath towels; horned beetles, their color an iridescent, phosphorescent green, crash endlessly against walls until they plunge into the glass you are drinking from or fall onto your head, where they struggle until they are trapped in your hair; pale, almost translucent scorpions display their expertise in complicated couplings and deliriously erotic ritual dances. As for the glass of Scotch, it can be obtained at the bar of the only habitable hotel in the port, which bears the strikingly original name of Wayfarers Hotel. A ramshackle cement structure streaked with mold and rust, its three floors constantly ooze an evil-smelling, oily mildew on the inside and outside walls. This is a typical building designed by an engineer, with gratuitous spaces that are either outsize or far too small, depending on the mood of the capricious foreman in charge of construction: an immense dining room, with high ceilings stained by suspicious leaks from ill-fitting pipes; a long, narrow reception area, where the asphyxiating atmosphere, heavy with vaguely nauseating odors, brings on instant claustrophobia; each room with the most absurd proportions and shapes, and many, for some reason, ending in an acute angle that can disturb the most peaceful slumber of any guest. The bar runs along a cramped, windowless corridor that leads from the reception area to the patio, where a pool of murky greenish water is visited by indefinable fauna, creatures that are part fish and part bulging-eyed dwarf reptile. A row of tables fastened to the wall faces the bar made of tropical woods carved with indigenous and African motifs, all as spurious as they are hideous. The solace that could have been derived from whiskey, despite the ice of an unsettling brown color floating in the glass, vanishes immediately in the tainted ambience of that passageway, worthy of a police station, which some administrator with a macabre sense of humor named the Glasgow Bar. The hotel was surrounded by a sprawling extension of shacks built over a marsh that gave off the fetid smell of decomposing animals and garbage adrift in dead, muddy waters.

Urandá also had a district of buildings constructed on the solid ground of a small hill, where a merciful but short-lived breeze passed by from time to time. As one might expect, the madams lost no time in moving in and establishing their brothels, in which visitors familiar with the port would frequently take a room with air-conditioning and a few relatively predictable hotel services in order to avoid the sinister Wayfarers Hotel. The prostitutes were not too insistent about offering their companionship; their preferred clients were sailors who brought the dollars, marks, or pounds they longed for, not guests carrying a devalued national currency. Furthermore, the houses were staffed by undernourished, anemic, toothless creatures, many of them suffering from exotic tropical diseases, the most prevalent of which was pian, a terrible vitamin deficiency that eats away the face so that the victims never show themselves by day and at night avoid electrical lighting. The women, their faces covered by improvised handkerchiefs and whimsical veils, attend to their clients in semidarkness and dispatch them with so much skill that the men never suspect anything, especially after a few glasses of adulterated rum.

And so planning a six-course buffet with three different fine wines, the kind found in any hotel along the Riviera, and serving it in Urandá, was a feat that exceeded the limits of the possible and moved into the realm of the utterly lunatic. Then there was the problem of landing and takeoff at the airport, where the precarious control tower usually lost its electrical power at the first drizzle, even though it was located in an area with almost permanent rain, a fact that also accounted for minimal and ephemeral visibility on the highway. It is easy to imagine my state of mind when I left for the provincial capital, where I checked into hotel I knew very well. It was run by couple from Luxembourg, who gave the establishment a special appeal and provided impeccable service. The capital of a prosperous sugar-producing region, the city enjoyed a moderate, pleasant climate, a certain lively, cosmopolitan atmosphere, and a life free of serious alterations or surprises. It was like an island in the storm of unrestrained political passions that devastated the rest of the country and kept it submerged in blood and mourning. I enjoyed spending long hours at the hotel bar, located on a veranda cooled by a breeze heavy with intoxicating vegetal aromas. The days passed, and I found no solution to my problem. My visits to the city's private clubs produced nothing but incredulous looks from dining room managers, who listened to me as if I had lost my mind.

A new bartender, also a subject of the grand dukes, was working at the hotel, and as I evoked the years I had spent in Belgium, and my frequent visits to Luxembourg, I easily established a friendship with him. He was much more imaginative and enterprising than most of his compatriots. One day when I happened to be in a mood for confidences, I told him about the critical situation I was facing. After listening to me attentively, he walked over to the bar without saying a word, brought me a Scotch that was somewhat more generous than usual, and stood beside me in a meditative attitude. He finally broke his silence to ask:

"Do you have any budgetary constraints for this piece of madness?"

"None at all," I replied, intrigued. "I have carte blanche."

"In that case, I'll take care of everything," replied my savior, who was named Leon.

When he saw what must have been my expression of astonishment and disbelief, he unfolded his plan with the utmost naturalness.

"Look, my friend. I've worked in places on the coast of equatorial Africa that make Urandá look like paradise. And I've served buffets there that the guests still remember as something extraordinary. The problem is simple, but very expensive: it's merely a question of having adequate, reliable transportation, lots of ice, and perfect coordination. Every minute is decisive. The highway to the port is hellish. I came in on it, and it's not easy to forget. We need three trucks to stay in Urandá, with their motors and tires in perfect condition, prepared to replace the three that will leave here with the food, wines, dishes, and flatware; we'll install two-way radios in both fleets of trucks, and if there's a landslide on the highway, or one of the vehicles breaks down, an emergency call to Urandá will bring assistance. As to the menu, for a varied and elegant buffet I suggest six dishes, most of them cold. I can prepare the sauces and the aspic when I get to Urandá. Don't worry, I have a good amount of experience doing this kind of thing. As to the cost, I can give you a detailed list of expenses to present to your director. You can tell him as of now that everything's been arranged. Trust me, I won't make you look bad: Urandá is no more difficult or dangerous than Loango or Libreville." I confess I felt an impulse to kiss this loyal Luxembourgian on the forehead. I stopped myself in time and drank to his health instead, draining the glass he had brought me. . . .
Alvaro Mutis, "Abdul Bashur, Dreamer of Ships," in The Adventures And Misadventures Of Maqroll 476-79 (NYRB, 2002) (Edith Grossman, trans.).

As usual, Ms. Grossman has done an elegant translation of a wonderful book. All of the adventures of Maqroll are worth reading, if not in Spanish, then in Ms. Grossman's translation. Mutis is an under-appreciated Colombian poet and novelist whose fame in Colombia is second only to Garcia Márquez, and whose protagonists are much more compelling.
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