by Lucia Cupertino, translated from Italian by Pina Piccolo.
– A cachapa and a pineapple juice, please.
I head for the quietest corner in this open-air café. It looks onto an abandoned lot with some measly weeds, while old jalopies zip by on the other side. I take a seat on a rickety chair and sit there deep in thought, trying to figure out some numbers. In the meantime the cachapa’s fresh cheese is sizzling on the grill and the girl flips it over.
I shouldn’t really stick around on the streets with all that money on me. Granted it’s only the equivalent of 50 dollars, and it’s still daylight, granted that the person who changed my money was a friend of a friend, and everything took place with the outmost discretion, still I shouldn’t be out here. Because my backpack is chuck full of bolivares. If I had packed even one more t-shirt for the trip, I wouldn’t know where to put all those bills now. It’s five thousand bolivares divided into bundles of 100 bolivares.
I relax a little. After all, you can’t always let yourself be hostage to so many fears, I am less than 400 meters away from my friend’s house and the sun is still shining on my forehead. The cachapa is delicious, poisoned by too much white sugar to be sure, but still delicious. And the juice is not to be trifled with either. The girl blended a whole pineapple that was slightly rounder and smaller than the ones that make it to the supermarkets in Europe. It is certainly sweeter and more of a temptation.
I think about the plans we had talked about all day. I am an hour and a half bus ride away from beaches that would make your eyes jump out of their sockets, as well as your heart; a decaying paradise circled by black gold vultures. We are stuck living in the Age Of In Spite Of Everything, so in spite of everything I already see myself happily splashing around in my turquoise bathing suit and my mask, far away from this urban furnace.
I take one of those bundles out of my pocket, where I had moved it earlier. Paying is a monstrously slow operation: I must count fifteen bills bearing the faces of the history of the fatherland, then count them again to make sure that it’s the right amount, and then the girl has to repeat those same operations one more time.
I realize that it is getting dark. It is the girl who reminds me of that very fact by pointing out the corner where a guy on a scooter attacked her brother the day before. He threatened him with a knife and stole everything he had in his pocket, as well as the package he was holding in his hands. It was decorated with a red ribbon – headphones for his sister birthday. I could lie to myself again, but what good would that do? I am hostage to fear once again. And to make matters worse, while I am turning the corner all the streetlights decide to turn off at the very same moment.
I forgot that today is Monday and that power was supposed to be cut off from seven to ten tonight. Some bolts of lightning light up the sky, and it’s beginning to rain too. Rain instills a sort of serenity in my spirit, something that happens to me since childhood. A blues playing in one of these tall apartment buildings reaches my ear and it gets in sync with the rhythm of the rain. I walk past the gentleman who normally sells chicha on the street but is now waving to me from the window where he standing with his wife. I am already in the street where my friend lives, with my backpack still brimming with bolivares and by now getting soggy. Everything returns to a peaceful state.
But just when I thought the coast was clear, I hear some gunshots. And then a crescendo of whistles propagating throughout the whole neighborhood. I jump, can’t decide whether to run or stop one those people I see coming down to the street and run myself. What could those gunshots be? Why is everyone blowing whistles? Why is everybody running? Some young guys with homemade sticks arrive, the shouting grows louder, and other people go on running until a guy knocks me down as he slams violently into me. I am lying face down on the street now, with all my wads of bolivares that start scattering about, my knees have peeled and a bump is growing on my head. A car lights up the back of my head with its headlights, at that point I gather all my strength, lift my body and try to pick up all the bundles I can. Then I start running and manage to sneak inside the doorway.
The breeze from the seventh story window restores my nerves. I listen to some blues mixing in with the sound of sirens. I look out of the window and see people beating up a man and yelling: Thief, Thief! My friend explains that in the neighborhood they got organized so that when somebody catches sight of a thief they sound the alarm by blowing a whistle or with a gun shot in the air. Then everybody rushes towards the thief and they lynch him, taking justice into their own hands before the police arrive, assuming they do arrive. There are tales of thieves who were burned alive on the street, just like witches burned at the stake. It’s always done with gasoline because it is so goddamn cheap, even when the prices of everything else, especially groceries, rise to the stars.
Nonna turns on the light in the kitchen.
The chiripas, as cockroaches are called here, have invaded the burners, the counter and the sink. They seem to be engaged in a dance, and as any good futurist insect, they do it lavishly and at a crazy speed. All the food is crammed in the refrigerator, including rice, pasta and cornmeal. Two baguettes are safe in the microwave.
Picciridda mia, aquí está pieno de chiripas, picciridda ven, dammi na mano! Mixing Sicilian dialect and Spanish, Nonna yells hysterically for her grandaugher to come give her a hand, because cockroaches are everywhere. As she says it, she puts her hands in her hair, and a roller falls from her head into a pot full of boiling water, boiled so that it can be potable. She’s disgusted, her eyes open wide.
Coño de la madre, nuddu che me ayuda, acá una mierda de cristiano che te ayudara mancu pagato!
But no one answers. Truly nuddu, ‘no one’ as the Sicilians would say, to help you, not even if you pay them. There is an almost ghostly silence, even outside those four walls, except for that annoying hit parade music coming from the corner bar with its few decrepit customers.
Nonna was born in a small village a few kilometers away from the Valley of the Temples in Agrigento. Her parents ran a little eatery, and before the long war, it had enabled the family to live in a decent, though not large, house. Not a banquet was set up that was not hosted at Vincenzu’s place. Then came the hard years, black bread, the food was rationed and people were forced to fast. Then the young uncle died in action, the fields were abandoned, and there were air raids at breakfast time. Vincenzu could find neither wine nor customers. He found a partial solution to the first problem by making his own wine at home, and watered it down with something. But the second problem was harder to solve. Even when the war ended there wasn’t a lot of money going around and if you gave up a little of that watered down wine it surely helped the family budget.
Nonna picks up a wooden spoon and belabors to save whatever can be saved. Actually, as she manages to fish out the roller, another one falls from her head and lands again in the pot full of water, Then, after cursing a good dozen saints, she turns off the light and heads for the sitting room. There she starts unrolling her rollers one by one.
As she unrolls them so do her memories; her glance falls on the Casa Italia complex, which stands taller than the other buildings. Who knows how many card games of tressette and briscola her husband played there? And who knows how many times she had cursed another dozen saints when he would show up drunk and way too late? She couldn’t say. But all in all, those were good years, her husband was a good husband. He didn’t make her go wanting for anything, he only had a few vices that could not be rooted out. When they were engaged you couldn’t see those shortcomings, otherwise she wouldn’t have decided to buy two one-way tickets for Venezuela.
It was a gray November morning in 1953, and after a long odyssey to reach Naples from Sicily, they found themselves at the harbor looking at the Franca C., the cruise ship that was to land them two weeks later at the Guaira harbor, not far from Caracas.
In those years, the economic boom was still a mirage for many Italians. In the meantime, better go looking for your fortune in the Americas, maybe in the country that Amerigo Vespucci, had named Little Venice or Venezuela, after seeing some huts on stilts made by the indigenous people on the Maracaibo lake.
How many times had Nonna kissed Marcos Pérez Jiménez photo! He had promoted a plan for European immigration to Venezuela, which had found responses, in statistical order, among Italians, Portuguese, and Spaniards as well as some groups of Rumanians and Greeks. Adapting wasn’t hard, but it wasn’t so automatic either. Whenever she fell on hard times, Nonna loved to laugh thinking back to the mouthwatering pasta con ragù she was served as she crossed the ocean on the Franca C, and how it brought tears to her eyes. For her it was the dream of a new life coming true.
There isn’t much of interest for Nonna on TV and her zapping leads to nothing. She likes courtroom dramas; programs where families fight but all she finds are soccer games and series for teen-agers. She turns the TV off. The noise of her slippers and the ticking of the clock accompany her to bed. Even the corner bar has closed, judging by the fact that those annoying melodies have stopped.
But Nonna can’t fall asleep; she is hostage to her memories. Of the Floridi Sunday lunches, for example, the ice cream eaten with her husband’s friends who had found employment in a Venezuelan factory owned by Italians, the outings on the lake, the return trips to Italy to visit the famigghia, her son Giacomo’s first bicycle, their brand new car. She’s hostage to all that abundance, and today she feels it’s kind of shaky on all sides.
But now Nonna is alone in her room, in her house, till she dies. Even her picciridda, the young one, by now 55 years old, who had sworn to keep her company in her declining years, even she abandoned her. She left with a suitcase, maybe to Panama or to any other country where she could start a new life. The economy will choose her final destination.
The sun drives pine needles into my eyes, I forgot to draw the curtains and even though it would be nice to rest for another hour or so, I get up. I have two long bus rides ahead of me; I’ll catch some z’s then. I shut the door behind me, I am about to leave the pensione.
The old concierge is glued to her rocking chair but still makes an effort to lift herself and pick up the keys from my hands. Then she gives me her blessing for the trip. You may not share her beliefs, but a blessing is an inviolable leap of someone’s soul towards yours, I tell myself, and today you may need it.
I am in Maicao, it’s five in the afternoon, on the dot. Not exactly tea time for me! It’s time for me to decide what to do, whether I should cross the border or stop in another little pensione to sleep, it’ll be dark in an hour. Should I cross the border or not? Should I buy another large bottle of shampoo or buy more rice or white corn meal? Should I enter the station’s cafè or sit on a bench? Should I leave with the taxi of the man with the yellow shirt or should I wait for the taxi driver who is friend of the street vendor who sold me three bars of soap? Should I change all my pesos or leave a few unchanged? I resolve to sit on the bench and think it through.
Everything falls into place. I am in the middle of two rows of stands displaying an incredible number and quantity of products, many, a lot of them made in Venezuela. I am in the Colombian side of Guajira, just an inch away from the Venezuelan side, but the closed border lies in the middle.
I climb into a taxi as the hard rain gives way to a light one. Even before asking my name, the taxi driver asks me if I am traveling with dollars. Obviously I say no, I am a mochilero, a traveler who reduces his material world to a backpack, I am getting to know Latin America and live off of selling the crafts I manage to make on the way. I show him some bracelets I carry in the backpack.
After getting a Colombia exit stamp on my passport at the checkpoint, I can’t do the same in its Venezuelan equivalent, since President Maduro closed down the border. There is a narrow, unpaved road in the middle, which is the illegal path to enter Venezuela. All the authorities can easily see us, but nobody cares.
– The flow of goods towards Colombia hasn’t decreased at all, actually – the taxi driver comments in response to my inquiring glance – only that now you have to give a little more money to the guards and the mecate kids.
– What’s mecate?
– You’ll soon find out.
The taxi drives across the community, tin houses sitting on the edge of the street, it’s a desert landscape.
We get to a thin rope stretched between two poles. The taxi driver hands 200 bolivares to the kid, who is eight or nine at the most, He lets us through.
– These are the mecates. They are roadblocks made by the local population, since we are crossing through their territory. This is where the wayuu live. They don’t have much in the way of opportunities, live in absolute poverty and this work is something the kids often do. They have to drop out of school, but this way they help their family.
I am just astounded. I think I’ll have to write about this in my travel blog as soon as I have access to Internet. We go through a bunch of mecates, then after we get back on a paved road the taxi driver starts driving at a crazy speed. He says he’s speeding because he’s afraid we are going to get stopped. I think he means by another car, which will attack us, especially now that’s pitch black.
– Now get ready, there is going to be alcabalas. A total of 8 of them, all the way to Maracaibo. If you collaborate everything will be fine.
Which translates to: soon I’ll have to engage in skirmishes with the military in 8 check points until Maracaibo, I’ll have to explain why I am entering Venezuela illegally. Then I’ll have to pay a little something for them to let me go through. I have processed the message, so I nod. I am not worried. Now that I am in Venezuela, I would love to go to Merida; maybe on the way back. There is a collective of artist who paints murals in the city; I really have to go there.
But as we reach the first alcabala my legs start trembling, but I pretend to be calm. The taxi driver helps me, tells me not to show all those shampoo bottles, he’ll take one and pretend it’s his, and then he’ll give it back to me when we arrive. They don’t do much of a check; I sense that I have to play a role that’s already been played by a thousand other people. I can negotiate on the collaboration and everything will go smooth.
We get back into the taxi, and the driver tells me he’s Venezuelan but his mother is Colombian. At this time the road is deserted, but he sees buses and cars with trunks crammed with products sold at low, government set prices in Venezuela that get sold 20 times higher in Colombia. Even if they find something at the checkpoint, they’ll close an eye.
We are about to approach the second alcabala when two guys step in front of the car. They are bound to be other shady characters from the border world, I tell myself. That’s not it though: they are two wayuu, one is sick and the other is accompanying him. We have to take them to a friend’s house and he’ll get him cured. This emergency causes us to skip a couple of checkpoints.
The next few alcabalas turn out to be more complicated than I thought. They want to get more money out of me, so I have to work on my performance. I say I am going to visit Venezuelan friends (which is true) who are in dire need of medicine (which is less true, even though medicine is scarce at home and in the pharmacies, should something happen). Those who actually can get their hands on them have gotten them through relatives living abroad.
I get to Maracaibo just about at dawn; the sky is still dark as coal. The taxi driver is hungry and orders an arepa. I say goodbye to him and walk towards the terminal’s entrance. Or better yet to the restroom.
The men’s restroom is way in the back and I have to walk in front of the women’s. I see a youngish woman express milk from her tits and squirt it into a sink. Her breasts are probably really hurting, I think, if she’s forced to do it there, with no privacy. I proceed towards the men’s toilet.
Coming from the back, I hear a voice; it’s a man’s voice and it says:
– Don’t waste milk at times like these! It has been two years since I found milk in the supermarkets. Why don’t you sell milk shots? If you offer the service on tap, I’ll guarantee you people will line up!
He winks, but she approaches him quietly and with a really annoyed face squeezes her tit enough to squirt him. Then she adds,
– Take this, you idiot!
He leaves with his tail between his legs and almost stumbles on top of me. I make no comment, but tell myself, “Welcome to Lattenzuela!”
These short stories were originally published in Italian in La Macchina Sognante N. 3
LUCIA CUPERTINO (Polignano a Mare, 1986) is a cultural anthropologist, poet (in Italian and Spanish) and translator. Currently living in Colombia where she is currently experimenting with traditional indigenous agricultural techniques and sustainable lifestyles. . In 2010 she undertook fieldwork among the Wichì people in the Argentinian Chaco (in collaboration with the University of Bologna). She collaborates as poet, critic and translator with Italian literary journals Nuovi Argomenti, Fili d’aquilone and Iris di Kolibris. She is a founding member of La Macchina Sognante and a current editor focusing especially on South and Central America, indigenous people, traditional plants and agriculture, as well as migration. Her first chapbook is titled Mar di Tasman (Collana Isola, Bologna, 2014) with drawings by Paolo Cattaneo, other works appeared in the anthology Poeti contemporanei 179 (Pagine, Roma, 2013) and the magazines Fili d’aquilone, Sagarana, Poeti e poesia, La Macchina Sognante. Some of her poems in Spanish have been published in La otra, Círculo de poesía and Vallejo &Co. She is the editor of 43 Poeti per Ayotzinapa (Arcoiris 2016), a multilingual collection of poems with Italian translation, about the 43 disappeared Normalistas in Mexico, which includes poems written in indigenous languages, as well as the work of Spanish-speaking poets from s Mexico and from other Central and South American countries. Her first full collection of poetry Non ha tetto la mia casa/No tiene techo mi casa was published in a biligual Spanish and Italian edition in 2016 by Casa de poesia, San Jose. Her latest publication is the origami-book Cinco Poemas de Lucia Cupertino, published by Los ablucionistas, Mexico City, 2017. She is currently experimenting with short story writing, and some of her work can be found in la Macchina Sognante.
Featured image: Photo by Adrián Pablo Alvarez.