by David A. Petreman
I was in Chichén-Itzá in Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula, exploring this ancient Maya-Toltec city. I climbed “El Castillo”–the Temple of Kulkulcan, the great pyramid in the heart of the city, also the judges’ stand at the most well-preserved ball court in the Americas and the Temple of the Warriors. I was walking above the patio of the warriors, named thusly because of the straight lines of columns lined up like soldiers. Suddenly, out of nowhere, a swarm of butterflies, hundreds of them, flew to the left and confounded my vision when they just abruptly disappeared. My mind simply did not comprehend. I felt very strange, disoriented. How could they have simply vanished before my eyes? I mean, I learned long ago to check my own beliefs and ways of thinking at the border when I leave the States, but this vanishing act truly confused me. I was stunned. These “harmless” insects stole my breath as well as the rationality of my Western mind. Damn! They simply disappeared.
I let it go, as almost any Latin American would, writing it off as somehow a natural phenomenon. I descended to the patio of warriors and walked between the rows of giant columns, admiring the perfect architecture. As I approached the “warriors” , touching them in a kind of ritual communication, as if inspecting the troops close up, I was surprised and shocked to discover dozens of butterflies that had landed on the columns, nearly imperceptible because they had evolved to become the exact same color as these stone structures.
El Salvador is Central America’s poorest nation. I was in the capital city’s central market, which consisted of rows of canvas structures whose owners sold almost anything you could want: fruits, vegetables, strips of beef and pork, live chickens, hats, wooden carvings, jewelry, sandals, shirts, pants, you name it. I was looking for a machete, the basic tool for the campesinos of this nation. Outside of San Salvador, the capital, men wore machetes on their hips, not unlike our six-gun cowboys from the Old West. One day a friend and I went up into the hills to a bar. Every man—and there were only men in there—had a machete strapped to his belt. We would read in the local newspaper that week about a homicide: a man hacked to death by another man’s machete.
But I was looking for a gift for a friend back in the States. At the end of one row of stands, there they were, hanging from a rope like long, thin fish, encased in leather sheaths. Two women attended the stand. As they took down a machete, pulled it out of its holder, I asked the price. Knowing the haggling tradition in Latin American markets, I offered a lower price. The women made a counter offer, just slightly lower than the original price, and I in turn countered with a slightly higher price. In the end, the price was still too high and I walked away. When I was two-thirds of the way down the row of stands, I heard a voice calling me urgently: “Señor, señor!” It was one of the vendors from the machete stand. She spoke swiftly, in earnest. “Señor, come back, please come back. We’ll sell you the machete for the price you offered! Please come back!” We walked quickly back to the stand. When I got there, the other woman had a cloth around one of her hands and there was blood oozing through it. When she was returning the machete into its sheath, she accidentally sliced her hand. Both women were distraught, and they insisted that I purchase this “weapon” for the lower price. They believed that the woman got cut because they refused to accept my price. At that point, I felt so bad that I wanted to pay the inflated price, but I knew that I had to honor their wishes, and not disregard their belief, which others might call superstition, so I paid the lower price and walked away, the infamous machete in my hand.
Many years later, my wife and I were in Chile, and often at night we would walk down the Alameda, the main thoroughfare that passes through downtown Santiago, the capital city. One night we entered a tiny, dark bar that had only a few green and blue lights. We had never seen it before. It was just a nice, small place where we could relax, talk and have a couple of drinks. During the day we could never find it. Not a trace. On several nights we went in and enjoyed our time there. Then it was gone forever, day and night. It simply disappeared. Not a doorway, not a trace. Nothing. We often wondered if we had dreamed it.
My wife and I are partial to cemeteries. We regularly find ourselves in one. The history there is fascinating and unforgettable. We had gone to Santiago’s General Cemetery on a deathly hot day, around 94 degrees. Not a cloud. This cemetery is like a city itself, what with gigantic mausoleums and apartment-like buildings with rows and rows of burial plots above ground. Then there is the “temporary cemetery”, where the poor are buried. It’s just a huge, flat expanse with small wooden crosses—if even that—marking the graves. There is no charge to be buried here, but the families have five years to come up with a payment or else their loved one’s remains get dug up and incinerated, making room for a new burial. Needless to say, very few—if any—come back.
While we were crossing the temporary cemetery, we ran into a young man of maybe twenty-eight, dressed head-to-toe in solid black, even in the heat, and he was digging someone up. We began talking to him while he worked. He told us that his father and his grandfather were gravediggers. At one point he ripped tattered cloth off of the wooden coffin, and clothing off of dry bones. He began picking up loose bones and holding them along his own body to show us where they belonged. He was an expert anatomist without a degree. He said he had to find every bone so that they could be incinerated together. At one point he stuck a hand in the hole in the ground and lifted out the skull with his index finger by one of its eye sockets. He was really an interesting character who showed us a real glimpse of his useful job.
We’re still in Santiago closer to downtown. Since my wife is a painter, we were on our way to the opening of an art exhibit. Since we do what no Chilean does, we get there early. Fortunately, on the walk there, I caught out of the corner of my eye a bar sign a couple of blocks back. Call it a sort of built-in radar. It was called “El Cordobés”, and a couple of beers before the show sounded about right. So we walked in, and were forced after the entrance to turn left into an open space with tables and chairs and a bar on the right. There wasn’t a sign of life—no cash registers, no beers on the bar, no human beings, so we kept walking, and turned to our right. Same thing. Nothing. So we turned to the left again, entered another room, and in the back of it we saw two men drinking beer. Not another soul. But wait! I started laughing. One man was writer and National Symphony cello player, our good friend Enrique Valdés, whom we had first met in the States years before, and the other was the famous—and enigmatic—poet Jorge Teillier, known to Chileans as much for his drinking prowess as for his excellent poetry. In this dark and empty bar we shared pitchers and stories. During this trip, we kept running into Enrique everywhere in Chile. All over Santiago, in two different cities in the south. We’d look up, and there he was again. Jorge, who told me “I’d rather be drunk than bored”, finally drank himself to death before the year was gone, at the age of sixty-four.
Years later I was at legendary writer Francisco Coloane’s vacation house in Quintero, Chile, on the Pacific Coast. He had been a dear, close friend of mine for twenty-two years and had died two years previously at ninety-two. I was in Chile for a year of sabbatical to write a book of memoirs on our friendship. After the third day there, after my wife and daughter returned to Santiago, I began feeling his presence. It was unmistakable. It began behind me and it raised the hair on my neck; I got chills down my spine. I knew it was him, and I began writing fast and feverish, almost as if I were a madman. Page after page after page. He became comfortable to me. I began getting whiffs of the cologne he used to wear. Finally he showed up on the roof as a dark but multi-colored bird and spoke to me. This went on for three days until I couldn’t take it anymore. I wrote and wrote an incredible chunk of material, good material and then I had to bail, return to Santiago to get a break from the intensity of it all. It was other-worldly.
Finally, I was as deep south as you can go in Chile. I was visiting an old friend’s sheep ranch on the Great Island of Tierra del Fuego off the southern tip of the South American continent. I remember climbing a small hill at sunset and just watched. There were no trees anywhere, a few mountains in the distance. A few horses were moving around with no sound, some birds were just hovering in the air in the same place. The beauty was overwhelming, and I felt lonelier than I’ve ever been in my life. I wanted to cry. And yet, descending from somewhere, I felt surrounding me the most absolute peace I have ever experienced in my life, and I remember saying to myself that I could die right here, right now, and be perfectly happy. The most devastating solitude and the most overwhelming peace all in the matter of a few minutes. The enchantment of Tierra del Fuego.
I have touched briefly on seven of what could have been many more, strange, maybe magical travel episodes I have experienced in Latin America, perhaps to help prove something that I mentioned last month in this publication about Gabriel García Márquez and how he once said he never invented anything, that he just wrote about his own reality. Although they were not, any one of these episodes could have been fiction. García Márquez often took small realities from his life and expanded them into the most wonderful, extraordinary narratives that seemed to be truly magical. His genius wasn’t in what he presented, but in the manner in which he presented it. If there is magical realism in his work, that is where it comes from.