Lust and bullets at Rumba Beach

If Chaucer had retired to a trailer in Margaritaville, would he spend his evenings watching Fellini movies? He might.

Published March 1, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

It's true what they say about the cold and the bones of the old. When late fall comes, our joints start to ache and we, like a bunch of honking geese, migrate south.

My winter home is far, far away, small and quiet, close to the Guatemala border. We call it Puerto Perdido. When I am there, I live just outside of town in a small trailer in the orchard we call "La Huerta." It's an acre or so of lemon, mango, orange and palm trees. There's a tiny creek filled with icy water and a couple of huts looking out over a valley.

Twenty years ago, when I started going to Puerto Perdido, there was no electricity, no television, no stores to speak of, one doctor (who, it turned out, was actually a veterinarian), no paved highway into town and very few cars. It's changing, but, in truth, Puerto Perdido is still small-town '50s America.

The kids leave their bicycles outside, unlocked. People congregate in the streets at all hours, male or female, young or old. The one park in town is busy until 2 or 3 in the morning, filled with food carts and balloon men and shy-of-light lovers. The public market is noisy, sometimes odoriferous -- especially where they sell the pig meat -- filled to overflowing with cucumbers, tomatoes, tomatillos, satsumas, ugly (but delicious) oranges, five varieties of banana, 12 varieties of pepper (hot and cool). And my favorite: potatoes that have been dyed red to hide their age.

I come here by driving south through Texas, through tiny towns (Hebronville and Falfurrias and Linn and Alice and Edinburg and Elsa). Except for the occasional 7-Elevens and Wal-Marts, in that part of Texas there are no living creatures. The asphalt parking lots are filled with cars, but I see no people, and suspect that I've arrived in a dead land created, perhaps, by the Texas Chamber of Commerce, filled with false storefronts, cardboard houses, plastic lawns.

The moment we cross over into Nuevo Progreso, Mexico, however, the streets are thronged with people, dogs, pigs; people laughing, talking, wandering about -- grannies with their grandchildren, boys with kites, friendly and noisy old drunks. "That's what's happened," I think: "All the people have migrated from the badlands to down here where they are allowed to walk about, to live and laugh and talk. Texas has died," I think, "but no one knows it yet." The moment I come over the border into Mexico, I am home, and for the next five days of driving, I am on my way to paradise.

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Naked lust is not a pack of flea-bitten dogs

To help me with chores around La Huerta, I once hired a worker named Valentine who had an insatiable appetite for fruit, booze and whores, not necessarily in that order.

He was big and hairy. He looked vaguely like King Kong before he got hooked up with the Empire State Building and that screechy woman. Those of us who had been around him for a while knew that, despite appearances, he wouldn't hurt a fly, but he was a menace to a bottle of mescal if he happened to pass one.

Valentine was friends with most of the ladies over at Chamisal, Chamisal being a collection of the local houses of prostitution. He would pick any ripe fruit that was growing in La Huerta and take it over as a present to the ladies. I was told that his love offerings were so well received that he never had to pay for a single night of passion.

We Americans have been convinced, since the U.S. attorney general closed down New Orleans' Storyville district in 1917, that naked lust can and must be banned. As Jimmy Swaggart and countless others will testify, we know how successful that has been.

Mexico, fortunately, has a Catholic pragmatism: The people there know that you can't chase away lust like a pack of flea-bitten dogs. So they keep it marginally visible, and marginally regulated. Every Mexican village, as far as I know, has its own Chamisal: somewhat apart from center city, dedicated to the raucous pleasures of drink and lust. The community's sin is thus properly sited in one single area, so the rest of the city can keep its nose clean.

In Puerto Perdido, our center of pleasure is located, appropriately enough, just across the highway from the gas works. It is actually a hutch of houses -- about six in number.

During the dry season, Chamisal is the home base for a road show. Whenever any of the towns within a hundred miles has its annual fiesta, the staff and management of Chamisal load up a couple of buses and take their entourage out to the sticks.

A pied-`-terre is set up in the village: Studs are planted in the ground (if not in the beds), palm fronds are tied atop the cross-struts and the whole is enclosed in a black tarp. Metal tables and chairs and a very noisy stereo system -- preferably one with huge, tattered speakers -- are installed, and a cooler is brought in for the beer. A corner of the palapa is set aside with one or two enclosed spaces, sheathed in tarp, complete with mattress, for what we think of as the heart of the operation -- "los negocios."

There always seems to be a crowd of young men hovering just outside the entryway of these portable love nests. They are as nervous and distracted a bunch as I have ever seen. They look inside and, amid the winking red and yellow and violet lights, gander at the ladies sitting around the tables. One of the things that may make them so dilatory is not shame, nor fear of some terrible disease (these places have hired medical inspectors to keep the wages of sin from killing off the paying customers), but more likely the inflation rate now piled atop the regular tariff. The going rate has risen dramatically in the past few years, being, now, up to 150 pesos (about $15) a shot, with what we used to vulgarly call "around the world" going for double or triple that, depending on the shopworthiness of the merchandise. For most workers here, that's two to four days' wages in the hot fields, picking peanuts, planting maize, sweating.

After a week or so, the fair runs out of steam, the love nests are dismantled, the ladies are loaded on buses and shipped back to Chamisal and the whole thing disappears in an evanescent haze, as if it had never been, as if it, and we, were a mere dream.

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love and bullets

When my friend Pedro isn't working, he lives in Las Negras -- a village about 10 miles from Puerto Perdido. Like most people in this part of the world, his skin is the color of semisweet milk chocolate, and he has the high cheekbones and eyes that give him a slight touch of the Oriental. He also has scoliosis, an S-shaped curve of the spine that he's had since he was very young.

Several years ago, Pedro fell in love with the Las Negras version of one of the Spice Girls. Her name was Maruga. He was 19, she was 15 -- and her father took a dim view of this rather ominous curved figure courting what he thought was his innocent daughter.

Pedro was warned away, several times, but love has its ways. Pedro made plans to spirit Maruga away (the local phrase is robar una chica -- literally, to rob a girl) and her father got wind of it. When our would-be Don Juan put in his next appearance, her father pulled out a six-shooter and plugged Pedro three times: once in the knee, once in the shoulder and once in the belly.

In his village, there is no such thing as a doctor on call, much less an ambulance to the nearest hospital (the nearest full-time professional hospital is in the city of Oaxaca, eight hours away). Pedro had fallen on his girlfriend's doorstep and was bleeding badly. The nearest commercial "clinica" was in Puerto Perdido. Someone ran to Pedro's house, and his sister-in-law got one of the six taxis in town, but the taxi driver refused the fare because he didn't want blood all over his seats.

After a half an hour of frantic searching, they found one of the few people in the village with a car. He wanted 150 pesos -- a fortune -- and demanded that they put blankets over the seats to protect them. Finally, they drove Pedro to the Clinica Alvarez, but the doctor there refused to treat him because with so much loss of blood he knew that soon enough he would have a corpse on his hands. For the few doctors here, a newly dead patient is a tremendous bureaucratic problem with the government. Finally, the family was able to talk the director of another clinic, Clinica Santa Fe, into taking Pedro if the family agreed to accept full responsibility.

Pedro was sewn up without benefit of anesthetics and blood transfusions (too expensive) and was laid out, presumably to die. (I was 2,500 miles away at the time and didn't hear about it until several months later, so I was no help at all.)

Well, you know about love and youth. Pedro was young and strong and angry, and the combination may well have been a lifesaving tonic. He survived, but after people at the clinic brought him back from the dead, they told him he would have to go to the public hospital in Oaxaca to have the last of the bullets pulled out. Again, there was no ambulance service to get to the city, at least not for the poor, so the only way to go was by third-class bus. Since the bus was full, Pedro had to stand most of the eight hours until, fortunately, he passed out; then someone gave him a seat.

Well, he survived, even though he damn near died in the cause of love. When I returned to Puerto Perdido, I found him much thinner, a bit more sober and far less optimistic about the world. He works and works hard, but he doesn't smile like he used to, and at times, he broods and says, "Vengari." ("I'm gonna get vengeance.")

Sometimes he tells me that he believes he's had a bit more than his share of suffering. He wonders why. I give him my "no one suffers anymore than anyone else" speech, but I think he doesn't hear me. I tell him that he's very lucky that he survived, that he has friends and work. I tell him that most of us can't figure out how he survived, but now that he has, we are all hoping that he will also survive his anger. I also lecture him on the "what goes around comes around" aspect of vengeance.

He scowls, shakes his head, looks at the ground and, as is his habit, rubs his hand back and forth across the S of his spine.

"Vengari," he says, half to himself.

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When I am with Jeszs and Manuel and Jeszs and Jorge and Poldo, I often think how different our lives are. They work every day in the hot sun, live for the Saturday paycheck and the "fiesta" -- those noisy, well-contained riots that take place in the village most weekends between 10 at night and 4 in the morning. When I was their age, I was in college studying John Stuart Mill and sociology and 19th century European history and "The Odyssey." Weekends were time for drinking and dates with our peers at the "girls college" across the way.

I was in training to be a womanizer, so I would date Leslie or Ginny or Paula -- all very gorgeous freshmen or sophomores, at least by the standards of the 1950s. We would have "study dates." They would come over to my room with their books, which we would immediately forget. Then we would go through the peculiar rituals of neo-intellectuals of the '50s, trying to be in neo-intellectual love.

Can you imagine the world before Vietnam, before hippies, pot and cyberspace? We read the existentialist writers -- Albert Camus was our favorite -- and brooded on the bombs tethered between the two big nation-states designed solely to destroy them (and us). We found our lives disaffecting, and, most of all, we felt powerless, for our president and John Foster Dulles and Joseph Stalin were set to determine if we would live or die, and they didn't seem to care for our input at all.

We manifested our angst in strange ways: inflicting on ourselves astounding states of alcoholic stupefaction, inarticulate fumblings in bed and certain death-defying acts. Ginny, as lovely as any woman I had ever known (she had the face of a young Virginia Woolf), would come into my bedroom, lock the door and stand looking at herself in the mirror over my gray metal dresser. She would take off her blouse and brassiere. "Do you think I am beautiful?" she would ask me. I was lying back on the bed, hoping that this was a prelude to a night of passion, so I gave her my movie line:

"Of course you're beautiful. Come here."

"Sometimes," she said, looking at herself, not moving, "sometimes I want to take my fingernails and just claw my face to ribbons."

Then she would put on her clothes, unlock the door and go out to the living room.

After an hour of sulking, I came out and found her lying on her back on my secondhand couch, burning her arm with a cigarette. We were taught to be nonreactive (the movies, Freud, Camus, Hemingway), so I said to her, "You know, you really shouldn't be doing that." She contemplated her wound with equanimity and asked if I had a razor blade. I said no, but that I thought it was time for her to go back to her dorm. I was angry at her for messing up our evening with her dramatic performance.

She got up and put on her coat and I drove her back to her dorm. We didn't speak all the way there, and the next time I saw her, there was only the red-purple scar on her arm to remind us of that night. Many years later one of her friends told me that she had been in an automobile accident that had "almost killed her, and practically destroyed her face."

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This year I brought the video of Federico Fellini's "8 1/2" down with me to Puerto Perdido. One night I was watching it and, about halfway through, I ran into the scene of Saraghina dancing. Do you remember?

In the scene, Guido, the hero of "8 1/2," is consulting with the bishop about the movie he is supposed to be making, and the fact that he is feeling lost. As the bishop stops to listen to the singing of a bird, Guido turns around to see a barefoot peasant woman coming down the hill, and immediately he is transported back to when he was in Catholic school, age 12 or so -- and Saraghina.

Guido and his friends would play hooky from school and run off to the beach to find Saraghina. She lived in one of the concrete bunkers left over from World War II. The boys would get to the bunker and call out to her through one of the slits, "Saraghina! The rumba!"

She erupts from the bunker, this huge woman, with her huge malevolent face, and one of the boys gives her a coin, and she -- in her black, somewhat heavy, tattered dress -- looms up before us on the screen. The music begins (magic music, the rumba from nowhere). She begins to move.

She runs her hands up and down her hips, her eyes flicker deliciously, as does her tongue. The music begins to boom. She kicks up her heels, dances enthusiastically, kicks the sand, makes a heavy leap, presses her huge body against the side of the bunker, smiling lasciviously, eyes rolling wildly. She licks her lips, pulls down her dress ever so slightly to tantalize them with her massive breasts. The boys are crazed, jumping up and down, clapping, kicking their feet in the air, moving in time to Saraghina's delicious dance, all moving together to the music. The rumba is loud, slightly distorted, divine.

Then come two of the masters from the school in their black robes, running toward the boys. They spot Guido dancing with Saraghina, and he turns and runs, and they chase him up and down the beach. They finally run into him, catch him and haul him back to school to be chastised by the fathers.

"For shame," says the schoolmaster, with his pinched face. "For shame." His mother is brought in, and she cries in shame. Guido tries to go to her, and she pushes him away. "For shame," she says. He is forced to kneel on pebbles for atonement, in front of the whole school. The priests read to him from the "Lives of the Saints," telling him about those who have resisted evil, the temptation of women. They tell him that Saraghina is the devil.

As soon as he is through with confession, Guido runs back to the beach. He sees Saraghina sitting, looking out at the waves, humming her song. He stops, maybe 50 feet from her, kneels down in his black cape, waves his black cap at her. She turns around slowly, and slowly smiles and says, "Ciao."

The sequence with Saraghina is a minidrama reminiscent of the early days of film: At the end of the sequence, Fellini speeded up the action, so it resembles the slapstick of an old Mack Sennett Keystone Kops movie (boys running, wild dancing, priests running) in sharp black and white (the whites of her eyes, the boy's black cape, the white of the beach, the black robes of the schoolmasters).

I must have played back that sequence 10 times in the past two weeks.

The last time I watched it, Jorge and Poldo came in as it was playing, were immediately pulled in by the action, the wild racing back and forth on the beach, Saraghina's rumba. They thought I had made a video right there where we live. They thought I had made Fellini's "8 1/2" with the camera I bought at Wal-Mart and brought with me to Puerto Perdido.

"Where is she?" they said. "What's her name?" they said. "We want to meet her!"

By Carlos Amantea

Carlos Amantea is the author of "The Lourdes of Arizona." His writing also appears in RALPH.

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