Thursday, November 1, 2012

In which I run into another Chile volunteer in La Paz and get the tip of the iceberg of the story about his engagement

Once in La Paz, after a night on relatively smooth road, I cabbed to the hostel (I had decided this walking with backpack stuff was for the birds, especially in countries where cabs cost 50 cents) and fell into bed. Unfortunately, my room opened onto the courtyard lauded by the Handbook. (“Great place to meet other travelers!” it enthused. All I saw and smelled were Frenchmen returning after four showerless days in the mountains.). My room had huge windows that allowed in both sound and light. Those elements, coupled with the cold that I was  unable to escape (have you ever wakened because you are too cold to sleep?) allowed me only a few hours sleep. Frustrated, I resigned myself to being awake and showered and dressed.
A word about budget showers in Latin America. It is rare to find a shower that is set off from the rest of the bathroom. Usually, a shower head hangs somewhere over the toilet and the water drains out through a drain set in the bathroom floor. (This was why squeegeeing was important in Argentina.) No shower curtain protects the rest of the bathroom. (If there is a shower curtain, the stall is sure to be absolutely tiny and you end up fighting the curtain off your body, where it insists on wrapping itself and clinging with clammy intensity.) Your toilet paper and your towel usually get soaked.
Sometimes hot water is available. Usually, this is only in tropical countries and then only at the end of a steamy day. In the cold countries, some places might have hot water, but only during certain hours. I learned to ask the right questions about the water supply. Not only must you ask, “Do you have hot water, and, if so, when?”, you also must ask “How is your water heated?” If it is by solar power, hot showers in the morning are out. If it is by electricity, the likelihood of the power going out during your shower is high. (I also learned that an American definition of “hot” is  different from a Latin definition. They think we are sissies because we can’t bathe in cold water.)
Another important shower fact is that some places don’t have water at all sometimes. Ecuador was going through a drought (until I got there) and I found out the hard way that sometimes the shower just -- stops. Even when there was water, the pressure was barely enough to get the shampoo out of my hair.

I walked across the courtyard from the bathroom to my room. A tall, dark-haired man with a mustache was sitting at a table drinking coffee. He looked familiar, but without my glasses and out of context, I couldn’t place him. From inside the room, I looked out the window. Who was he? The n I remembered. He was Scott, another volunteer from Chile. I’d met him a few times and had found him to be humorless and dull.
I walked out toward the main door. As I passed him, I scrutinized him. Yes, it was Scott. He looked up and saw the recognition in my eyes. I was stuck. I couldn’t ignore him now without being totally rude. “Hi, Scott!” I said. “What are you doing here? I thought you were getting married.”
He and another volunteer, Cindy, had become engaged after a whirlwind courtship. The whole affair had been grist for the Peace Corps gossip mill for weeks. He was 42; she was 35; and they’d both been married before. (“Shouldn’t they, of all people, know not to rush into this?” we said.) He was dull; she was beautiful. He was a millionaire; she was hooked. (“I wouldn’t marry him, even if he is filthy rich!”) Peace Corps had refused to sanction the marriage and wouldn’t give Cindy an assignment in Santiago, where Scott worked. Cindy had said, “Fine. I’ll live in Santiago and commute the hour and a half every day to my office.” They’d announced they were marrying -- with or without Peace Corps approval -- in September.
But it was now September and Scott was in La Paz without Cindy.
He told me what had happened and I felt sorry for him -- until I heard the rest of the story from Cindy’s former roommate. “Cindy had this boyfriend in Hungary,” he said. “I thought when we started going together that was all over with. After all, she had come to Chile and left this other guy behind. Anyhow, we were living together and talking about getting married and she kept pushing back the date. First we were supposed to get married in August, then in September, then in December. Then I found out she was still corresponding with this guy in Hungary. And that she’d made arrangements to visit him over Christmas! Well, I realized it was all over. I confronted her and she moved out.”
His voice was sad. “You know, I thought we had something. At our age, you can’t expect passion and romance. Those aren’t real. They don’t last. The best you can expect is strong friendship. I thought we had that.”
How romantically melancholy, I thought. I still found him to be humorless and dull, but he seemed a little more human than he had before.
When I returned to the US, I heard the rest of the story. Apparently, Cindy had decided to move out and had informed Scott that their relationship was over. One morning, she got up and saw Scott’s open journal lying on the breakfast table. She did what any normal person would do -- she read it. Scott had written that he’d had a dream about killing Cindy -- and that it had felt really good.
She moved out but had left her furniture in Scott’s apartment. When she returned for it, she found it all chained together in the living room.