Posted by: seanmichaelbutler | January 11, 2009

BLADIMIR

Bladimir has me in a wobbly dugout canoe, its gunwales barely an inch above the opaque, piranha inhabited waters of Lake Limoncocha. He asks in Spanish if I’m afraid. I pretend not to understand.

Only a few hours earlier a bus had disgorged me in this Amazonian frontier town, two days journey from the heavily populated Ecuadorian highlands. I soon discovered that there was no accommodation and the next bus wasn’t due until tomorrow morning. Given the dire situation, I took the only reasonable course of action available, making a bee-line for the town’s social hotspot, a wooden shack displaying the familiar yellow and black logo of Pilsener, Ecuador’s cheapest beer. Before I could order a cold, frothy one from the twelve year-old behind the counter though, one of the men out front offered me his half-full glass.

“De donde usted?” he asked.

I told him I’m from Canada, but that I’m currently living and teaching English in Quito, Ecuador’s capital.

               “Un profesor?” He and his drinking buddies looked pleased. “Somos profesores tambien.” He struggled with the translation, in case I missed this important point, “We…teachers.” They grinned and raised their glasses, “Teachers! Salud!”

                Salud,” I said, clinking my glass before emptying its lukewarm contents down my parched throat.

—————————————————-

Bladimir is slightly older than I, shorter, and a lot more talkative. He misses his hometown, the lively port of Guayaquil, but there’s no work there. So he’s come to the frontier, el Oriente, where he has a job as a phys-ed teacher. Javelins and shot-putts are piled against one wall of his house, ready for the Limoncocha Olympics.

Out on the lake it’s the rowing competition, Bladimir sluicing in close to the shore and barreling through clouds of frantic insects and the overhanging branches of trees dangling in the water. Our boat bobs past a throng of children swimming and splashing. In Canada, all I had to worry about lurking beneath the surface of the lakes I grew up around was the occasional leach. But here, my mind dwells on all the little razor-teethed fishies and six-foot catfish and caimans and bottom-laying stingrays and writhing electric eels and those tiny buggers who swim up stream, if you know what I mean. Still, the kids seem undaunted.

We pull up to a natural dock – a huge pale tree stripped of its bark, fallen into the shallow water – and hop onto it. I climb barefoot into branches over mud-coloured water and sit down to breathe in the surroundings. After a few minutes of silence I offer to paddle on the way back. Even in a canoe hacked out of a log and with paddles shaped like giant leaves, I find the old J-stroke still works.

Bladimir is impressed. “Tu sabes como.”

“Claro, amigo, soy canadiense.”                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              

—————————-

When it comes to cooling off, I am thankful to have an alternative to the murky liquid of Lake Limoncocha, concealing god-knows what horrors. A small stream trickles down into the lake, arrested briefly in its journey by a bathtub-sized reservoir. Bladimir hands me a bucket and I pour the cool, clear water over my head. Several women wash clothes on rocks nearby while other strip down as far as is decent and lather themselves up with suds from hair to feet. A pleasant air of conjugality permeates this meeting spot under the canopy of trees. Bladimir says something too fast for me to catch and the washer-women laugh shyly, hands covering mouths.

My host fills a gallon jug with water to take back to his house. Refreshed from the shower, he leaps up crude stairs built into the hillside two at a time, and leads me across a clearing scattered with a few houses, cows and chickens, to his home. 

Bladimir apologizes for the mess. “Es una casa de hombre,” – a man’s home. The furniture consists of a wooden table and chair, a couch with two bare foam cushions, and a hammock. In one room a rooster patrols his territory. He cooks some rice, to which he adds canned tuna and green onions. Then he opens a bottle of Coke and mixes it with a yellowish liquid from another plastic bottle. I guess that it’s chi-cha, a homemade jungle firewater, fermented with human spit. Whatever it is, it’s strong enough to kill any unwanted bacteria, not to mention a few brain cells.

I mix up a brew of my own. Bladimir cringes at the amount of iodine I drop into my supply of stream water to kill the microscopic buggies that he can drink with impunity. Then he offers me the hammock and we pass the time with talk and a few more warm Coke and chi-chas. He shows me a prized recent acquisition: a new pair of tan Kodiak work boots. They cost $50, he says solemnly. They look like they’ve never been worn. But Bladimir, I say, everyone goes barefoot here. When do you wear them? He shrugs and smiles.

I tell him that I like the jungle, its smell reminds me of three months I spent in Costa Rica, building a medical clinic. He asks me if the pay was good. No, I was a volunteer. He looks incredulous. He can’t believe that anyone would willingly come to a place like this to work for free.

He tells me that he wants to study to be a doctor, and go live in the United States. “Es posible?” he asks. Anything’s possible, I answer evasively.

—————————————

When we hear the distant sputter of a generator starting up, the light’s flicker on and Bladimir leads me into his bedroom where I gape at the largest portable stereo I have ever laid eyes on. It can only be called a music system. It sits in his room, black plastic gleaming with a smug disdain for everything around it, a visitor from another universe here amongst the faded, broken objects. It purrs softly, tiny red eyes glowing. I edge backwards as Bladimir inserts a tape. The sound of the coast – salsa! – erupts through the quietly chirping dusk.

Every evening the village has two hours of electricity. Most are content with the light this provides, but Bladimir uses the wattage to make up for a day deprived of music with pure decibels. As chickens explode from their roosting tree outside, he dances happily around his creaking floors:

Uno! Dos! Uno, dos, tres!

Todos borracho!

Todos arriba!

But I soon find that Bladimir prefers the slow boleros, the Spanish version of hurtin’ country music. He sings along, face twisting in agony: “Tú! Solamente tú!”

We refill glass after glass of chi-cha, until I ask him, “Y amor? Que pasa, Bladimir?” What about love?

He looks at me with genuine relief in his eyes. “Gracias!” I thought you’d never ask! He was married, I learn, and has a daughter, but his ex-wife won’t let him see her. He shows me a picture of them smiling. He is very lonely here, he says, the women are so withdrawn, not like Guayaquil, where the people are falling over each other and there’s music 24 hours a day. But a man must eat.

He says he’s so tired of Ecuador, he wants an American woman. I think of a student of mine who was going on an exchange to the US. He came to me with this dilemma: should he dump his girlfriend now or when he got back, because he was sure to meet much better girls in the States.

What’s so great about American women, I ask. Bladimir looks at me like I’m talking crazy. I realize that what’s worse than economic inequality is when people buy into the myth that because they have less money they are lacking in every other way as well. Not as beautiful, not as smart, not as talented. Do you think rich people are happy, I ask Bladimir. There are more important things than money. You may be alienated from power and wealth, but at least you’re not alienated from each other. Why do you think so many rich tourists keep coming here? What is it they’re looking for?

Bladimir waves aside my efforts. What right do have I to talk to him about poverty? Instead, he wants to know if I have any sisters.

“Si, tengo una, mas joven y con pelo rojo, como yo.”

Red hair. That’s all Bladimir needs to hear to fall madly in love with my younger sister. His eyes sparkle with excitement as he races off to find a photo of himself. He pulls out his best one – leaning against a building, shirt half undone, bottle of Pilsener in hand – and writes his address on the back, then signs it with a flourish.

“Tu eres loco,” I say, noticing, as if from a distance, that my speech is slurring badly, and wondering vaguely for how long this has been going on. I lurch forward to refill my glass.

Dame la dirección,” says Bladimir eagerly, pushing some paper in front of me.

              “Okay.” It takes all of my addled concentration to write it and underneath scrawl:

Para un buen tiempo, llama Meagan.

             For a good time, call Meagan, it reads. Bladimir holds the paper aloft and twirls in joy. Then he grips me by the shoulders and asks, “Crees que es posible? Ella y yo?”

               Anything’s possible, I repeat. Against love, all obstacles crumble. Drunk and in a foreign language, I grope for the words that will strike the balance between realism and hope that I have endeavoured to live my own life with, but at the same time I realize that the balance in his life is weighted heavily towards realism. In his world, maybe anything’s not possible.

Yet I want to give him something, repay him for his instant friendship, and if I can give him hope, even for just one drunken night, I will. I imagine a letter to my sister:

Dear Meagan,

I’ve married you off to a guy who put me up for the night. Sorry, didn’t have anything else to offer him. Next time I’ll bring maple syrup.

  

If I give you my sister, I say, you have to give me yours. We both have a good laugh over that. Why, though, does he assume it’s a joke?

The stereo has long since succumbed to life off the grid and candles light the space around us. Bladimir insists that I take his bed, while he gathers up cushions to sleep on the floor. I’m too drunk to argue. The world is already fading…

———————————-

Another day begins in Limoncocha, abruptly heralded in by the rooster in the next room. Bladimir and I walk out to the road to wait for the bus. As we sit nursing our chuchaquis – the Quichua word for hangovers – Bladimir suggests I stay here and teach in the school. But my urge to keep moving prevails. Bladimir doesn’t mention my sister.

I mentally search my bag, hoping to find something to give him, as a token of my thanks for everything he’s done for me. But I come up empty – I packed too economically.

Then I know what I wish I could give: the experience of wandering far from home, of encountering many wonders, and of realizing to your surprise that they all come up short against a certain indefinable quality that makes the place you grew up special. I wish I could make Bladimir pine for Ecuador the way he pines for Guayaquil now that he has left it, and the way that I often miss Canada. But then I realize that to think that way is to do a disservice to all the people who have immigrated to other countries and found a better life for themselves and their families there. If Bladimir left Ecuador, would he want to return? My gift might backfire.

The bus doesn’t come, but a pick-up truck does, and I hop into its back. We shake hands, and then I’m away, bounding down the bumpy road with the truck’s other passengers.

I flew from Canada all day to come to Ecuador. I descended the mountains to enter el Oriente. I met with a song long dusty roads to reach Limoncocha. And I walked to the porch where you stood, Bladimir, to deliver a message that I didn’t even know I carried until just now, a moment after leaving: Ecuador is great. You are important. Anything is possible.

Copywrite Sean Butler 1999

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