Thursday, May 24, 2012

In which my second trek across South America begins

My trip began the night I left Temuco, the city in southern Chile where I’d been a Peace Corps volunteer for two years. I’d envisioned scores of friends and well-wishers waving good-bye to me from the platform as the train pulled away, but only my counterpart Monica and her husband stood shivering in the cold August night. I’d waited until just before the train was to leave to board; even so, Monica ran inside the coach to give me one last good-bye, then waved madly as the train finally rolled out.

I held the going away present she’d given me. It was a carving of a Mapuche woman offering her breast to what appeared to be a child of at least three years. Even though I’d spent two years working with the Mapuches, I’d never quite become accustomed to the casualness with which the women breastfed their children or the age to which they did it: it was not uncommon to see three-years-old children walk up to their mothers, unbutton their shirts, and suck. I’d thought that I’d be able to avoid such culturally-different sights once I’d left Chile, but now I had a statue to remind me constantly.

I put the statue on top of my backpack and leaned back in my seat. Chilean trains are wonderfully plush. The sleeper cars have wide padded velvet seats that fold out into beds. Unlike the buses, which have loudspeaker systems that carry music to the willing and unwilling alike, the trains are quiet. The only noise is the soothing clack of the wheels on the track. The only disconcerting part of the ride is the jerky lateral motion to which you are subjected when you sleep in the top (a.k.a. “cheap”) bed. It’s impossible to lie on your side because your body does not have enough points of contact with mattress to stay put. Fortunately, drugs such as Valium are not under prescription in Chile.

I tried to read my book (one of the many I’d packed in to my backpack -- the right book was so important to a traveler’s image), but the lights flickered too much and I finally gave up. I asked the porter to make up my bed and tried to sleep, but visions of my trip marched through my head. I had it all planned: Not only would I meet the perfect man -- intelligent, witty, and single, but I would also land the perfect job by accident. On the train to Cuzco, I would find myself sitting next to another American, who, unbeknownst to me, would be a partner at Highly Prestigious International Consulting Firm. He would ask what I’d been doing with the Peace Corps and I would tell him modestly of my tremendous accomplishments with Casa de la Mujer Mapuche. He would say, “You know, we really need someone with your intelligence, creativity, and language ability at HPIF. Could you come to work for us as soon as you return to the U.S.? We’ll pay you one hundred thousand dollars a year.” I would demur and say I would need to think it over and he would thrust his card at me and say, “We’d give you two months of annual vacation as well! And dental!”

I was also sure that I would run into James Spader, the thinking woman’s sexy actor. (At the time, Kenneth Brannaugh was still with Emma Thompson, so he was off limits.) He would be making a movie in Bolivia and I would meet him at a cafĂ©, where he would tell me that their business manager had been struck with severe giardia and they were desperate for a Spanish-speaking business person to handle things on the set. He would offer me tons of money to work for a short time, then would ask me to be his girlfriend.

It would be tough to work it all in, given that my ten-year college reunion was only three months away and in Texas, but I would manage. (I was determined to attend my reunion. I’d been going to the gym for three hours a day for six months in anticipation of seeing a former boyfriend. He would look upon my well toned body -- I had managed to make my thighs bigger by lifting weights, but besides that, I looked OK -- and regret the day he’d decided his life was complete without me.)

Eight hours later, I awoke and found myself still in Chile, with neither a job nor a boyfriend. I got dressed and climbed down from the bunk. Not all of the bottom beds had been made up and restored to their chair states yet; the only available seat was across from a stocky man with long, curly hair and a long, curly beard. He stared at me intently, then asked, “Are you German?”
I was used to this question. Chileans usually assumed non-Latins were Germans, not Americans, maybe because Chile has a large German immigrant population. I have blonde hair -- well, light brown but as soon as I’m in the sun for a while it’s blonde -- and blue eyes.

“No,” I answered. “I’m from the United States.” I’d learned quickly in Chile that I could not call myself “American.” Chileans would retort that they, too, were Americans, as were the Argentines and Bolivians and everyone else on the continent. I would try to explain that in English, the only word we have is “American” -- that there is no way to say “United Statesian” as there is in Spanish, but never had much success.

“No, no, no,” he said impatiently. “Your ancestors. Are they German?”

“Well, some of them. How did you know?”

“I’m a geneticist. You have blue eyes. They’re recessive, you know.”

Yes, I knew that.

He pulled out a newsletter. “I’m the president of the World Society of Alternative Medicine. I’m going to Santiago to give a press conference.” He leaned forward. “I’ve found a cure for AIDS!”
“That’s good news!” I said as I drew away from him. I know a night in a train without access to a shower hadn’t exactly left me smelling like a bed of roses, but he had emerged from bed smelling like he’d been working in the garden for a month without deodorant. And I at least had figured out that it was possible to brush one’s teeth in the train bathroom.

“You know, ‘AIDS’ is the wrong name. It should be called ‘IIDs’ for ‘Inherited Immune Disorder.’ It’s actually a genetic disease that can be cured by treatment with amino acids. I have a one hundred percent success rate curing people with AIDS.”

“If it’s a hereditary disease, why has it just shown up now?” I asked.

“But it has been here before! Only it was called by other names!” He lowered his voice and spoke darkly. “What do you think bubonic plague and smallpox really were?”

I murmured politely and looked out the window, watching the vineyards and the mountains slip away and trying to figure out how long before we arrived in Santiago and I escaped his overwhelming body odor.

He continued enthusiastically. “My special medicine -- these amino acids -- cures rheumatism, tumors, and menstrual cramps. Drugs are what make people sick! Why do you think they’re called ‘antibodies?’

“AIDS is just a big hoax by the drug companies. My medicine makes super-humans! I have ten children and not one of them has ever been immunized. And not one of them has ever been sick!”

I challenged him. “Not all medical treatment is drugs. What about operations? Would you operate for, say, a burst appendix?”

He answered solemnly. “I wouldn’t have to. My appendix would never burst.”