Today I went to the bank and tried again to exchange the gold ingot for
paper currency. It was humiliating. I realize what a fool I am to travel
so far from home and how ignorant I am of the ways and customs of this
country. In the first place, I had to take the ingot out of my pants with
everybody watching. Or I think they were watching. I didn't turn around
to find out, but I'm sure I looked like a bona fide pervert, undoing my
belt and taking out the secret money pouch at the teller window. It occurred
to me while the bank teller was staring at my ingot, while he was handling
it with his stubby fingers, that I am the opposite of an alchemist: I
want to turn gold into paper.
The usual shrug of the shoulders. The pout.
That hideous gesture that everyone makes in this country, palms upturned
to say, "See, my hands are empty, I am innocent and can do nothing." I
ordered him to bring the bank manager and make it snappy. I waited. Computer
printers clattered away (all transactions being recorded in triplicate).
The bank was crowded, even more so than usual. A political upheaval, "the
crisis" they call it, is looming and everybody wants to get their hands
on the family savings before the revolution starts.
The bank manager with slicked-back hair
and silk tie: "It is authentic?" "I direct your attention to the stamp
of international authentication." "I regret my inability to recognize
the stamp. The gentleman, may I suggest, might leave it with me that I
might expose it to my competent superiors." "Leave the gold? However,
one hears rumors. The banks, it is said, are closing soon for a period
of uncertain time." "Alas, one hears many rumors." "Surely the National
Bank, located per se in the national capital, surely the National Bank
possesses the ability to exchange gold for the national currency?"
He shrugged. Exasperated, and not wanting
to undo my belt and be a pervert again in the National Bank, I carried
the ingot outside. Which was a mistake, because now all the thieves in
the capital knew I had it. All the thieves knew I had it and so did all
the upstanding citizens, who would do anything at this particular moment
to secure their precarious future with a lump of gold. I felt certain
that the gold was shining through the threads of my coat pocket as a lure
to thieves and robbers, so I sprinted back to the hotel (and knocked over
a beggar along the way).
Where did I spend all those travelers checks?
And the cash I left home with? I still have 1,026 units of the local currency,
enough for a meal but not enough to pay the hotel bill.
The banks did close today and no one knows when they'll reopen. With no
money and nowhere to exchange the ingot, I passed the day talking to short,
skinny Jesus, the hotel clerk. (You might meet two or three Jesuses or
Salvadors a week in this part of the world and not even think about it,
but back home if I met a Jesus or Salvador I would have to think long
and hard about his parent's motives.)
"Look at this," says Jesus. He holds up
a tabloid: color photos of people in riding caps, the same people at a
cocktail reception, the same people at a function of some kind being given
roses. It was the Minister of Such-and-Such's family visiting Europe,
Jesus informed me. "And you know what that means?"
What that means? But I don't know
what that means. The whole country communicates in hieroglyphs,
but I can't read them. The press is totally censored, completely repressed,
so it shows you pictures of ministers' families and lets you draw conclusions.
Jesus says this is a very bad sign. The Minister has sent his family abroad.
There is trouble ahead.
Jesus and I worked out a deal. I showed him the ingot and explained my
situation. He says I don't have to pay the hotel bill until the banks
reopen and I can exchange the gold for paper currency.
Meanwhile, I have a new problem on my hands:
Jesus knows I have it. I can't hide the ingot in my hotel room anymore
and will have to carry it wherever I go. I pulled some threads out of
the bedcover and used them to reinforce the secret money pouch inside
my pants. It hurts to keep the ingot in there all the time, pressed against
my balls, but at least I know where the ingot is. If my balls stop aching
I'll know the thing is lost somewhere and I'm in big trouble.
Very eerie, very quiet at night. I think
there is a curfew.
Banks still closed. The streets are nearly empty. No possibilities. To
cheer myself up I went to the Plaza de la Paz Revolucionaria to watch
women in high heels walk on cobblestones. Here comes one now, chin up,
a wobbly picture of matronly rectitude. But what's this? Her heel has
caught between two cobblestones and off flies her shoe! See how daintily
she bends, one hand on her rump to keep her dress from hiking up and her
underwear from being exposed. Quickly she retrieves the high-heeled shoe,
slips it on her foot and starts off again like nothing happened.
Great fun, until some demonstrators showed
up, and then the police came, and then everybody had to disperse, high
heels and all.
Slept soundly. Decided to go to the embassy of my rich, powerful country
and seek help. I've heard they give loans to stranded citizens. Had an
embarrassing moment, a potential international incident, with a marine
at the metal detector. Showed my passport to a budding diplomat with teeth
as white as porcelain. (Where do they get these curt, baby-cheeked men
and women with perfect grooming habits? Do we breed them?) Filled out
some forms. On the waiting room wall: the clasped hands of friendship,
one brown and one white, superimposed on the stars and stripes. Come back
June 16 (night)
Just woke up in a cold sweat. Where was the ingot? Not in the wardrobe,
the dresser, or my luggage. I pulled apart everything. Of course, it was
stuffed in the pillowcase where I hid it.
My situation is getting desperate. What
if it goes on like this, for months and months, with Jesus becoming more
aloof and the tinderbox getting drier and drier?
Here, if I could, I would reproduce on this page the giddy sound of happy
laughter, because I've had a reversal of fortune! She said, pointing at
her temple: "But you should have not been worrying all this time. You
know, you must ride in your adventures and not weigh them in your head
Plump blonde Gretel! Only 36 hours ago I
was brooding on my nightmare, I was gnawing on my predicament, when into
the lobby of this fleabag hotel walked Gretel. You remember Gretel, don't
you diary? We traveled together for 15 complete pages about six months
She's still wearing her Indian clothes.
She's still got that woven blouse, orange and red and bursting at the
seams, made for an Indian woman half her size. And her German accent.
And those sandals made of tire treads and leather--she still wears them.
I was with her when she bought those sandals in what country was it? I
"Perhaps we share a room now to save money,"
Gretel suggested. Jesus, a conservative family man, raised his eyebrows
but arranged it, and now she's here, sleeping not four feet away, and
snoring in fact. How I'd like to wake you up Gretel, right now, and peer
into your mysterious eyes and see if I can see what's inside there, you
big Teutonic milkmaid!
Gretel insists that we not let the impending revolution get in our way.
We must do our duty and gad around like normal tourists. This morning,
she marked out a marathon itinerary for us--and off we went.
In between pit stops for ice cream, we visited
a sixteenth-century Inquisitional prison whose inmates were all innocent
judging by the graffiti they left behind, a clammy botanical garden, the
National Historical Museum, and the old quarter of the city (former home
to the aristocracy but now a slum). By the time we reached the National
Historical Museum, I couldn't conceal the pain anymore. The ingot was
killing me; it was crushing my balls. "You are having an intestinal something?"
I told her everything. In the museum, next
to a morbid display case with the Liberator's rusty sword, his death mask,
and the pen with which he signed the nation's declaration of independence,
I explained my situation. Gretel was very sympathetic. She offered not
only to pay my hotel bill, but to let me have spending money. She wanted
to carry the gold too. Reluctantly I gave her the ingot in the historical
national army uniform display room, where few visitors go and I could
safely pull down my pants. But people were short in those days--or else
those military uniforms all shrank in the wash!
After that, with my burden lifted so to
speak, the sun shone higher and brighter than it had in a long time. In
the old quarter I felt, all eyes and nose, like a tourist again. I forgot
my money worries and actually began noticing things. The number of mouths
with silver and gold teeth, for example. In an alley thick with rubble,
I caught a glimpse of fat whores and, opposite them, a row of lustful
men all with hands in their pockets. For sale on the sidewalks: thimbles,
earrings, fruit, plastic toys. And a cure-all made of pine sap, with happy
wasps hovering close by. A coat of arms carved on a door lintel. Exquisite
wrought-iron craftsmanship oblivious to the squalor on all sides.
The aristocracy lived in this part of the
city for four hundred years but left two generations ago. The salon where
ladies drank tea and gentlemen plotted to corner the maize market has
been partitioned and is now home to four or five turbulent poor families.
Gretel says that the crisis is an attempt by the poor to grab the present-day
aristocrats' mansions, now located in the suburban hills of the city.
She says the crisis is a counterattempt by the aristocracy to keep the
meek from inheriting. Me, I don't believe in class-struggle clichés.
All the modest poor want is leisure time and better plumbing.
One thing is certain: the crisis has insinuated
itself into everybody's life. People look as if they have terminal illnesses
but are bravely going forward. Meanwhile, Minister Such-and-Such's daughter,
still in Europe, has become a symbol. But of what I don't know. She is
in the tabloids everyday, sniffing roses or visiting monuments. I asked
Jesus what it means, but even he doesn't know. "She is quite beautiful,
don't you feel?" he said. "Perhaps that's all it is, another beautiful
woman in the newspapers. Still, I feel there is something behind it. I
will know what it is, I feel, when I have seen more pictures of the Ministerial
Madonna." That is what the newspapers are calling her--the Ministerial
I feel. I feel. I feel. But Jesus is right,
you can't think in this damned place.
Gretel has been reading her guidebook, a marvel of Prussian precision
with color-coded maps of commercial, cultural, scenic, and anthropological
points of interest. She wants us to go to Punta Desolación. In
a few days, her book says, a colony of Magellanic penguins will arrive
there as part of their yearly migration from Antarctica. Her book says
that this particular flock is dying out, perhaps due to the greenhouse
effect. Gretel says this may be our last chance to see them.
I have no choice but to follow her the seven
hundred miles to Punta Desolación, if that's where she wants to
go. Gretel is paying my bills and giving me spending money. Without her,
I'm doomed. Besides, we would be wise to get out of the capital before
the shooting begins.
Early this morning, we heard people running
in the street and then some gunshots. No guests go outside at night. They
sit in the lobby nervously discussing what is being called a revolution.
Last night, somebody brought a short-wave radio into the lobby and we
listened to the BBC as if it were His Master's Voice and not a squeaky
Englishman's reciting football scores. I wish I had an airplane ticket
so I could airlift myself to safety.
We made love this afternoon, Gretel and
I. Afterwards, while she stared dreamily at the ceiling and smoked her
umpteenth cigarette, I felt furtively along the cold tile floor for my
ingot. It was still inside Gretel's money pouch. She still has my gold.
I have to trust her. I have to learn how to do that.
Strange how the political crisis doesn't bother Gretel. Those soldiers
on streetcorners with Uzis, that roadblock where they made everybody get
off the bus and empty out luggage--kid stuff as far as Gretel is concerned.
Perhaps her grandparents told her about World War II and this just doesn't
compare to high-caliber, major-league, European-style atrocities. She
reminds me a little of the European tourists I used to see at home, the
ones in identical lavender overalls who stroll cheerfully and naively
though the worst crime-ridden neighborhoods of the city. And no, they
didn't see the broken glass or the steel-mesh doors or the riffraff, but
they did notice some beautiful calla lilies growing beside a fire hydrant
and even picked one. Here, want a smell?
Evil loves naiveté, if nothing else,
because our expedition to Punta Desolación has gotten off to a
very good start. With Gretel carrying her backpack and me lugging my suitcase,
we walked to the Hotel Majestic, a luxury hotel where money was still
being changed like the good old days. Gretel traded a swipe of her credit
card for a bushel-basket of paper currency. Casually, in her suave European
way, she plunked down the ingot too and asked to exchange it. The flustered,
embarrassed, startled clerk said it was impossible because he didn't have
that much money on hand. There wasn't enough money in the capital to exchange
the gold ingot, he told us. Nonchalant Gretel--as if the ingot was gouda
cheese or a mail parcel--wrapped it in a bandanna and thrust it in her
bosom where she keeps all her valuable belongings, her heart included,
the dear woman.
Then we went to the bus station, a cross-town
trip interrupted twice by soldiers. I should probably catalogue the different
kinds of buses we've been on these last four days. My favorite, and the
most exhilarating, is the sleek, souped-up macho bus, a lime green or
luminous blue schoolbus with a phallic hood ornament and girls' names
stenciled beneath the windows (the driver's sweethearts?). We've been
on seven of those. They go fast, these macho buses, sometimes at terrific
speeds, but I like that because it keeps me from thinking about my situation
and the fact that I can't exchange the ingot in the countryside, not even
if the banks reopen, because my ingot is worth the gross per capita income
of each barren, dehydrated province through which we've traveled. Unlike
milk-run buses, macho buses don't carry barnyard animals--because if they
did, the chickens, turkeys, and goats would fly out the windows on sharp
curves. Milk-run buses lumber by fits and starts across the countryside,
stopping for whomever flags them down and at religious shrines, where
coins are collected from the passengers and offered to the patron saints
of automotive safety. The last kind of bus is a sort of wingless airplane,
complete with reclining seats and a stewardess serving soda drinks, but
we've only managed to ride one of those.
After four straight days of travel, we are
halfway to Punta Desolación. I'm scribbling these words in a restaurant,
a hut made of cinder blocks with a tin roof and dirt floor. The cook is
barefoot. So are the chickens who roost here and peck at the food that
falls from the tables. Gretel just showed me a page of her phrase book
titled "In the Restaurant." It explains how to say "May I speak to the
head waiter?" and "We would like a table outside, preferably near the
bandstand" in Spanish.
I have fallen in love with Gretel! Who would have expected it? She's not
my type and yet I'm head over heels in love with her.
I realized it yesterday when I suddenly
woke up on a bus thinking that an accident had occurred. The bus, wheezing
and struggling on a steep muddy slope, lurched and slid backwards. Instinctively,
I grabbed what should have been Gretel's arm, but what turned out to be
a chicken. The angry bird clucked and leapt into the aisle. Nowhere among
the passengers on the bus, some Indians going to market, did I see Gretel's
blond bangs or chubby cheeks.
Where was she? Where did she go? I panicked.
Had she run off with my gold ingot and ditched me? No, because now all
the Indians were pointing down the hill in the direction we had come from.
And there, emerging from a roadside stand and breaking into a trot, with
a bottle of drinking water under each arm, was Gretel.
While the bus driver cursed and sweared,
while he ground the gears and worked the clutch, while the bus grumbled
and floundered on the steep muddy slope, up the hill trotted Gretel as
easy as you please. Where would I be without her graciousness and generosity?
Or her completely even temper which isn't bothered by polar air currents
or soldiers or fourteen-hour-long bus rides or fugitive buses? She came
chugging alongside us looking like a small car, the water bottles sticking
out like headlights. Gretel waited for us at the top of the hill. When
the driver let her on, I gave winded Gretel a kiss on the cheek, which
embarrassed her a little. But I love her! I love her courage and her fortitude
and the way her ears turned pink when she ran up that hill.
Presently Gretel fell asleep and I peeked
down her blouse. I wanted to see if my ingot fell out during her jaunt
up the hill. No, it hadn't.
We made it! We're in Punta Desolación and, moreover, we've arrived
before the penguins.
My God the nights are cold! I'm writing
this under the blankets with the help of Gretel's flashlight. We arrived
at nightfall, and are staying in a boardinghouse on the plaza above two
tiny groceries and a bar, the only commercial establishments in the town.
The plaza is a bare cement slab with one flagpole and one bench. It is
bordered by some rudimentary shrubs and splashed with seagull droppings.
Beyond the plaza are a few cinder-block houses and a marina with a pier
and fishing boats. And Punta Desolación, sad to say, has an army
garrison. (Some soldiers watched us get off the bus. While they watched,
I was reminded how alike soldiers and Dobermans are. One has the impression
that they know exactly what will happen next and they can detect fear,
and you have to move carefully and deliberately in their presence so they
don't leap up and eat your larynx.) The penguins will arrive at the Punta,
just north of here, and there is no bank.
I hope the penguins come soon. I want this
penguin episode to end. The plan is, after we've seen the penguins, to
cross inland until we reach the neighboring country. Presumably the neighbor's
banks are open for business and would welcome my ingot as an addition
to the national gold reserves.
A day spent waiting for penguins. I didn't go outside much. This boardinghouse
has a genuine English bathtub, a big old-fashioned one with lion's-paw
legs and enough room for Gretel, myself, and about 200 cubic gallons of
piping hot water. The boardinghouse we are staying in used to be a wing
of a timber baron's mansion. The rest of the mansion burned some forty
years ago, shortly after the last tree was cut down.
Whoever named it Pt. Desolation made an
error. The little town and its nearby promontory aren't as desolate as
they are bleak. The word "desolation" has romantic overtones. This ice-dry
place with its sickly pale sky, frozen dwarf grass, purple shadows and
crippled tree stumps is bleak, bleak, bleak.
In the grocery
today I noticed, wrapped in cellophane and pinned to a clothesline alongside
other week-old magazines, a magazine with the Ministerial Madonna on the
cover. Of all the pictures I've seen of her, this one is the most intriguing.
In this one she stands with the national soccer team and holds a shiny
trophy. The cocky team members smile for the camera, but the Ministerial
Madonna gazes maternally at the trophy, which she holds in her arms like
I bought the magazine. I've been staring
at the cover now for three hours. In a country like this, where soccer
is a kind of minor religion, the picture is brimming with political significance,
obviously, but I don't have a clue what it means. All the headline says
is "Panthers Take Milan Cup." No story appears in the magazine about either
the Milan tournament or the Ministerial Madonna.
Anyhow, after I bought the magazine I immediately
tore the cover off and hid it in my pocket. I didn't want to be seen in
public with the Ministerial Madonna. Who knows what the soldiers would
do if they saw me with her picture. Would they beat me senseless? Would
they buy me a glass of fuego medicinal, the local alcohol, and
toast the revolution? I have no way of knowing.
So I tore the cover off right after I bought
the magazine, and no sooner had I done that when along came "the philosopher,"
a deranged wildman, all skin and bones, with long greasy hair. This strange
man is the town pariah, shunned by shopkeepers and chased by schoolchildren.
I asked our landlady about him. "Him," she answered, "he's just our philosopher."
The philosopher walked up to me, pointed at the magazine cover, grinned,
and gave a close-fisted "power salute," the universal hand signal for
revolution. Then off he went, muttering and clutching his dirty blanket.
What the hell is going on?
Still no penguins. Gretel and I strolled along the rocky bluffs and down
to the Punta. We examined a penguin skeleton. We looked at some
guano. We looked at fishing boats. Only two events worth noting:
1. The philosopher has been following me!
During my stroll with Gretel, he crept along behind us, hiding behind
rocks and crouching behind tree stumps. At one point, while Gretel sat
on a bluff and looked out to sea for the penguins, I doubled back and
surprised him hiding in some tundra grass. He jumped up and gave the power
salute. Then he ran back to the village with his dirty blanket fluttering
behind him like a cape.
2. This morning I witnessed what could have
been Scene One of a science fiction movie for all the suspense it generated.
A futuristic bus with tall tinted windows pulled up at the plaza. Who
was inside the bus? Who would come out? What would they look like? Whoever
they were, they took a long time deciding whether or not to make contact.
And then (low humming refrigerator sounds tinged with violin music: hello
Stephen Spielberg, hello George Lucas!) out came a pack of Velcro gypsies
in colorful nylon parkas and elephantine snow boots.
The villagers have never had this kind of
visitor before. They are completely enchanted by the newcomers' colorful
high-tech gear and obvious wealth, not to mention the commercial opportunities
that they have brought the town. I would trade my soul for one of their
down parkas or polar-proof sleeping bags. It is getting very very cold.
At the Punta this morning I noticed that the lace-like fringe left
behind by the ocean waves had frozen stiff on the sand.
The penguinos are late--Gretel and the Velcro gypsies can't stop
talking about it. They were supposed to be here six days ago. By now the
males should have marked off their territory, the females should have
decided with whom to mate, and the great penguin orgy should have begun.
Has the greenhouse effect killed the penguins? Has the Antarctic ozone
hole evaporated them?
The Velcro gypsies have a huge stash of
California wine. I noticed it today in their camp and wrangled an invitation
to dinner by remarking that I haven't seen or tasted Merlot since leaving
the Old Country. "You're a wine man?" their leader said. "Why don't you
come by for dinner?"
Their leader, Steve, has a great haircut.
I had forgotten you can get haircuts like that, with the hair feathered
along the sides of the head to give the impression of permanent action,
so it looks like you're skiing on the crest of an avalanche when really
you're sitting on a camp stool counting the number of blades in your Swiss
Army knife. I wanted to ask Steve for the name of his barber, but realized
how ridiculous the question would sound this close to the Anarctic Circle.
So I asked him about the revolution. How was it coming along?
"Couldn't tell you," Steve answered, "though
I've heard they had some turmoil. I've only been on the ground for a total
of eight hours, not counting sleep, so I couldn't tell you anything. As
soon as we hit the capital, we all got on a P-14 Storker, which took us
to Santa Cruz, and from there we climbed aboard a Ramsgate Flatiron and
came here, or near here, where we grabbed the bus. But from the looks
of it," he concluded, glancing at a lame albatross and at some lichen,
"I'd say it's pretty peaceful."
The Velcro camp has a sort of military look,
with the tents laid out in orderly fashion and the men sitting on camp
stools polishing their bazooka-like telephoto lenses. These aren't your
run-of-the-mill tourists. Half are eco-adventurers on a packaged tour.
The rest are professional photographers come to shoot the penguins and
sell the pictures to nature magazines and animal TV shows. I noticed a
little professional jealousy in camp. The thing to do if you're a cameraman
and you have to wait for penguins to arrive is polish your telephoto lens
and peer over the shoulder of the next guy to see if his telephoto is
longer than your telephoto.
I can hardly wait for dinner. Besides Merlot,
the Velcro camp has a generator and real electric heaters, and tents you
can stand up in, and card tables and folding chairs. When Gretel gets
back to the hotel I'm going to ask her to come to dinner with me. It will
be fun, our first date together.
However, first I need to have a little chat
with my fräulein. When I got back to the hotel just now I found the
ingot on the night table. That was dumb of her to leave it in the open
Everyone is in a state of high suspense
and anxiety. When will the penguins get here? Even the philosopher has
gotten into the act. When I walked back from the Velcro camp I saw him
on the seashore strutting back and forth in a Chaplinesque imitation of
July 2 (afternoon)
Just had my little chat with Gretel. She came back to the hotel, teeth
chattering, and jumped in bed to get warm. Except for a few hours at mid-day,
we spend all our time in bed. It is too cold to go anywhere else.
"You left it there," I said, pointing to
the nightstand where the ingot lay.
Gretel opened her cow eyes (she has long
eyelashes) and just as quickly closed them. "I am not wanting to carry
it farther," she announced.
"Too cold," she said, and wriggled deeper
into her sleeping bag. "The gold is cold. That rhymes, hey?"
She was right, it was cold. I touched it.
It was cold as death, colder in fact. What a strange object a gold ingot
is! It literally absorbs the cold. I hadn't looked at my ingot for a while.
On the table it looked supernatural, and its stamp of international authentication
looked like an occult symbol.
I've hidden it in my pillowcase and am waiting
for five o'clock when the Velcro dinner party begins. Gretel does not
want to go with me. "Too cold," she said when I invited her. "But they
have wine," I said. She wouldn't budge.
"Nothing warms the cockles of the heart
like a bold bottle of red! That's a German proverb, isn't it Gretel, hey?"
I asked her.
"No," she said from deep inside her sleeping
July 2 (night)
What happened at the Velcro gypsy dinner: I must write the conversation
down before I forget it. It's cold outside! On the way back here I thought
I would freeze to death and I broke into a run to keep my blood from crystallizing.
We discussed Michael Jackson and world environmental rot. Were dinner
parties always like this in the fatherland? I must get back home. I must
At the dinner there were, besides me, Steve,
Lynn, Wade, and Debra, my compatriots all. Four handsomer, healthier,
more tanned people you will not find in the Southern Hemisphere. (Where
they come from the days are warm and the sun is shining--hard to imagine
it.) We ate by candlelight in Steve's tent around a fold-up table. These
Velcro gypsies have all the modern conveniences: electric heaters, camp
stoves, gas lanterns, a cellular telephone hookup. We ate freeze-dried
turkey tettrazinni, which I didn't care for. But the wine! Mon dieu
the wine--a seductive little Merlot with a saucy-on-the-tongue flavor.
"Have you eaten the lamb stew yet?" I asked
them. "You can get it at the bar in town. It's very good. It's the local
"We don't eat in the local establishments,"
said Steve, "it's against our travel philosophy."
"We don't want to corrupt the local economy,"
said silver-haired Lynn. "Can you imagine what would happen if all of
us just walked into town one day and ordered stew? It wouldn't take very
long for the owner to realize that he could raise the price. And then
the local people wouldn't be able to eat the stew. They couldn't afford
"What it all boils down to," Steve concluded,
"is we don't want to exploit the people who live here. We don't want to
pollute the local economy. So we try not to have any commercial dealings
with the locals."
"Safe-sex tourism!" I announced.
"Yes, that's a good way of looking at it,"
said mustached Wade. "What kind of lenses are you shooting the penguins
"I don't have a camera," I told them.
Not have a camera! To come all this way
and not have a camera!
"Actually, it was my girlfriend's idea to
come down here," I explained. "I'm not that interested in penguins myself.
In fact, all penguins look alike to me."
"The problem is," said Debra, "you need
something to view the penguins with. You can't get close to them without
upsetting their mating and breeding rituals. The rule is to stay at least
fifty yards away, so unless you have a telephoto lens or some binoculars
you're out of luck as far as seeing them goes."
"I just hope they get here," Lynn whimpered.
"This flock of penguins is very important because most of the year it
lives very close to the ozone hole. Some scientists say it lives underneath
the ozone hole."
"The whole world is watching this flock,"
Steve confirmed. "Think of these penguins as a sort of thermometer for
the world. If their numbers are dwindling, if they show signs of bad health,
it means the whole world's in trouble. It's essential for this flock to
make it here, if only so we can measure the damage that the ozone hole
Debra, who had left the tent a moment before,
poked her head back in. "Hey you guys, come outside and see the moon,"
The moon, a full moon lovely and dead and
pure, was rising magnificently over the horizon near the Punta.
Twisted rock and tree-trunk shadows appeared on the cold ground. In the
luminous moonlight you could see what you couldn't see in the day--diamond-like
ice cakes floating on the ocean. Suddenly a figure, a shadow, appeared
in silhouette against the moon. He did a sort of skeleton dance, his boney
arms and legs convulsing. Then he grabbed his crotch, jumped up and down
several times, and disappeared behind a rock. The philosopher!
"How sick," Wade said. "Did you see that?
They even have MTV down here. Did you see him do that Michael Jackson
"That's the philosopher," I told them. "He
lives in town. He's a revolutionary, an agitator, but instead of killing
him they sent him down here. 'Internal exile' they call it. He can do
whatever he wants as long as he doesn't leave or make any trouble."
The dinner party ended abruptly with everyone
hoping that the penguins come soon. As for "internal exiles," this country
really has them. I didn't make it up. I read about internal exiles somewhere
and for all I know the philosopher really is one. Why not? The man is
savvy, he knows the secret of the Ministerial Madonna. But even if he
isn't an internal exile, and I told Wade, Steve, Lynn, and Debra a lie,
so be it. They ought to know that studying penguins is not the only way
to measure the health of the planet. You can also measure the planet's
health by seeing how well the planet treats philosophers.
Four days later...
I've been dipping into this journal. I've been trying to figure out where
my luck went bad. When I left the capital? I should have stayed in the
capital. Maybe the revolution is over and done with. Maybe the banks are
open. I should have set aside a few traveler's checks. I should have known
that the banks would close sooner or later and I wouldn't be able to cash
in my gold ingot.
Now the ingot is on the bottom of the ocean.
The gold is somewhere in the waters off the Punta. I should go
out there. I should try to find it before the water freezes and the money
Gretel left me runs out. If I retrace my steps carefully maybe I can find
the spot where the killer whale attacked and I dropped the ingot.
My fever comes and goes. One minute I'm fine, almost well, but then I
think about the gold and get the shivers. It makes me angry. I start trembling.
I really ought to retrieve it. I ought to go out there, no matter how
cold the water is.
This morning I was having one of my trembling
fits when the landlady came in. I thought she was Gretel. I thought Gretel
had returned and wanted the money I borrowed. I gave the landlady all
the money that remained, all the money that the real Gretel gave me when
she packed her bags and left Punta Desolación. I wonder where Gretel
is now. It was a mistake to stay here and try to recover the gold. I should
have left with Gretel.
Anyhow, there is nothing left to do but
find it. It's torture to lie in bed with this fever, to know that the
ingot is in the water rusting. Does gold rust?
July 8 or 9
I can't go anywhere with this fever so I'm going to write it down. I'm
too sick to go out there. I'm going to write it all down, starting with
the arrival of the penguins, and describe all the events up to and including
the killer whale attack. I'm going to see if I can place myself correctly
in the water and figure out where my ingot is currently resting, teeth
marks and all.
The penguins came on the morning after the
Velcro dinner. They came at dawn. We heard the Velcro bus idling loudly
in the plaza, and then Steve shouted up to our room to tell us that the
penguins had arrived and did we want a ride to the Punta.
Gretel put on her clothes in no time. She
urged me to hurry and put mine on too, but after I put them on I had to
think of a hiding place for the ingot. I decided not to leave it in the
room. The landlady's daughter, a sly creature with a mole on her lip,
had been changing our towels and emptying Gretel's ashtrays far too diligently.
She would find the ingot if I left it behind, so I stuffed it in my pants.
I put it in the money pouch. The thing was cold as ice and gave me a wake-up
jolt like you wouldn't believe. And then I was scrambling down the stairs
after Gretel to get aboard the Velcro bus.
Someone handed me a cup of coffee. I found
a place to sit. For once it was a clear day. The polar fog, the solid
polar fog that daily winds its silken threads around and around Punta
Desolación, had lifted. In the tawny light, while the Velcros fiddled
with their camera equipment and put on new layers of high-tech clothing,
villagers gathered beside the bus. They stood on tiptoes and shouted for
us to buy their sheepskin gloves, their lamb stew and hot drinks. Even
the philosopher was there. He was in a frenzy, giving his close-fisted
power salute and leaping up and down to see in the bus windows. Some soldiers
came too. They came to see why the usually docile residents of Punta Desolación
were making such a ruckus.
Without any warning, a soldier clubbed the
philosopher. It happened right in front of me. He hit him square in the
back with the butt of his rifle. But the philosopher kept jumping. He
leapt like a madman, his closed fist held over his head like a flag or
standard. That made the soldier angry, or perhaps it just encouraged him
to have a bit of gleeful fun, because he lifted his rifle high this time
and clubbed the philosopher again, only harder. And this time the philosopher
went down. He fell right at the feet of the Punta Desolación
merchants, who still shouted and held up their goods to the bus windows.
Was anyone going to stop them? Two soldiers
joined in the game. Now three of them, a circle of three, were beating
the philosopher, were clubbing him with their rifles. Were we just going
to sit there on our bus and fiddle with our camera equipment and adjust
our gloves and pretend at being blind? Apparently we were going to do
that, so I opened my window--clawed it open actually, because I had some
trouble with the slide mechanism--and shouted Basta! Basta! Basta!
A soldier looked up. He gazed straight at
me and I couldn't help but notice, even under the circumstances, how beautiful
he looked. How angelic his face was. How innocent and cherubic and completely
without guile or spite. The boy couldn't have been more than 16 years
old. We gazed at each other for I don't know how long, while the other
two soldiers beat the philosopher, their rifles landing on his ribs with
a noise something between a crack and a thump. We gazed
at each other, the boy and I did, for as long as it takes a tour guide
with a great haircut to walk to the front of a bus and order the driver
to get the hell out of there.
The bus leapt into the road and my cheek
struck the window jamb and I keeled over sideways into a seat. In two
seconds flat we had rounded the plaza and were on our way down the bumpy
road to the Punta. And Steve was standing over me, shouting all
kinds of obscenities and making me into an example of how not to behave
in countries whose governments are headed by geriatric murderers.
"It's their thing," shouted Steve. "Whatever
those soldiers want to do is their thing, and you can't stop it. Do you
know how close you came to getting us all in trouble? They could stop
this bus. They could search everyone and take all our passports. In fact,
maybe they'll do that. We're powerless here, understand? Just leave it
alone for now on because it's their thing. Their thing, understand?"
I don't remember the ride to the Punta.
I don't remember getting off the bus or walking along the bluffs or climbing
down to the beach. I remember how miserable I felt. It was too cold to
stand in one place, so I paced back and forth, back and forth, behind
the line of penguin watchers. "Sixty yards, people," Steve warned them.
"You must stay back sixty yards or else you will disturb the males as
they establish territory."
The idiot had actually drawn a line in the
sand and he patrolled the sixty-yard barrier like a sentry. If an eager
photographer crossed the line, Steve was there with his "Sixty yards."
That, and the hee-haw braying of the penguins, and the screeching
of the terns, and a tall naturalist with a gray beard who narrated the
event ("Notice their white bellies, which from below look like the sky
and serve as camouflage against sea-based predators who live in the deep;
their black backsides, meanwhile, offer camouflage against winged predators
from above"), and a woman who kept remarking on the penguins' "tuxedos,"
and the ingot which sat in my pants like a cold frozen turd--all of it
made me miserable, utterly miserable.
I hated having been humiliated by Steve,
and I hated it all the more because he was right. The globe-trotting tour
guide, more cosmopolitan than me, understood not to disturb the goons
who guard paradise. It's dangerous and futile. Bad for business, too.
And it's "their thing" anyway. As I paced back and forth on the sand,
I imagined soldiers tearing open my luggage with their bayonets. No, I
shouldn't have shouted Basta! Probably they had found my picture
of the Ministerial Madonna by now, the one in which she poses with the
national soccer team. That photo probably gave them grounds for arresting
me. Torturing me, in fact.
I paced back and forth on the sand, thinking
these gloomy and frightening thoughts, while Steve barked "Sixty yards,"
the penguins brayed, and hawklike skuas wheeled over the penguin colony
in hopes of finding a weak straggler to peck to death. At some time, I
don't know how many minutes into the morning, I realized that Steve was
dogging me. We walked on opposite sides of the sixty-yard barrier, me
on one side and him on the other, and whenever I changed directions and
walked the other way, so did he. Perhaps I was fuming and my face was
in all kinds of contortions and he rightly understood how close I was
to doing something rash and dangerous, how close I was to coming between
man and nature.
After a while I noticed that the penguin
watchers had stopped talking among themselves. On tiptoes, gasping, clutching
their hearts through layers of thick clothing, they squinted at the waters
off the Punta. "O my god!" someone cried. And when I peered over
their shoulders and saw what they were looking at, my heart fluttered.
It was subtle and extremely lurid. It was well-choreographed, the shapes
moving gracefully and in unison. It was evil and majestic and beautiful.
When they arched their backs in the water, you could glimpse their snow-white
underbellies. The killer whales were the penguins' Antarctic cousins.
Like the penguins, they had white bellies and black glossy backs, and
that made the bloodbath seem even more abhorrent, as if we were witnessing
an act of cannibalism.
Photographers, tempted by the scene, crept
across the sixty-yard barrier and Steve shouted, "Back, people." The tall
naturalist embarked on a new narrative that was supposed to soothe but
failed altogether to do that, in my opinion: "The killer whale, or Orcinus
orca, does not properly belong to the whale family. No, he belongs
with the porpoises. These stately fish can grow to thirty feet long and
weigh as much as ten tons. Those sharp teeth you see are not meant for
chewing. You won't find molars in a killer whale's mouth! If you watch
carefully, you will notice the killer whales gently take the penguins
between their jaws, drag them into deeper water, and drown them. That
is how they do it. They slowly drown the penguins, then swallow them.
A clean and bloodless death. Clean and bloodless, and all part of nature's
A handful of photographers breached the
sixty-yard barrier. "Back everybody," Steve commanded. "Nature needs space."
But he couldn't stop them. It was one of those prize images--Old Lady
Robbed at Knifepoint, Soldiers Open Fire on Peasants, Bomb Falls on Orphanage--that
photo-journalists crave and scour the world to find. The photographers
broke ranks and advanced on the penguin colony. It would have been impossible
for them to stand back and not record the carnage at close hand. They
scurried across the beach with their cameras and tripods while penguins
scattered and Steve cried in vain for the photographers to come back,
come back, because they would trample the penguins' breeding grounds.
Somebody, I think it was silver-haired Lynn,
burst into tears. All you could hear were her sobs, the click-clicking
of cameras, and the crazy braying of the penguins. And make no mistake,
the penguins on the beach brayed and honked because Velcro strangers had
desecrated their breeding grounds, not because their brethren at sea were
being slaughtered. A penguin gouged me with his beak and I felt myself
floating to the water's edge. That is the only way to describe it--floating.
For the life of me, I can't piece together the sequence of events that
followed. I can't remember what happened first, second, or third. All
I have is a jumble of hideous memories. I don't know how long I was in
the water or where I picked up the tripod. I don't remember wading into
the water. I shouted Basta! Basta! when I hit them--I know that.
And I know that the ingot wasn't in the money pouch when I got back to
shore, but whether a killer whale dislodged the ingot or it fell out of
my pants when I pulled them down, I don't know. I don't know exactly what
happened, but that is not what baffles me the most. What baffles me, what
I cannot understand, is where I found the courage to do it.
I wasn't scared. Their slow lumbering tails,
their cold murderous indifferent fish eyes, the double rows of sharp conical
teeth in their mouths did not scare me at all. I even managed to admire
them. In my adrenalized state, as I swung the tripod and shouted Basta!,
I saw how graceful they were and how smoothly they moved in the shallow
water. They had only to bend a flipper or flex their enormous dorsal fins
to turn their bodies wherever they pleased. They were perfect, the whole
wriggling herd of them! The killer whale is the perfect animal, all cartilage
and bone with nothing extraneous, like a conscience, for example.
It was madness, of course, to swing a tripod
at them, to swing it like a chambermaid swings a rug beater! It was madness.
And it wasn't as if I rescued any penguins. All I did was get myself wet,
because half the time I missed and splashed water on myself, and when
I hit a killer whale, nothing happened. I didn't matter. Had I not been
in the water that day, they would have devoured just as many penguins.
For practical purposes, I was invisible. You could say that I didn't exist
in the time I was in the water.
Then I noticed the blood. Blood oozed from
a rip in my pants. I bent to examine it and heard the splash. A killer
whale rolled sideways. I slipped underwater. My eyes hurt, my ears and
nose hurt from the cold, and when I got to my feet, everybody, everything,
was in a state of panic. The terns screeched louder than before. The penguins
brayed louder. The Velcro gypsies shouted at me to come ashore. I couldn't
feel anything. I couldn't feel anything and I thought for a split-second
I had been bitten in half. I was dead-numb and couldn't feel the ingot
or anything else on my body.
I stumbled to shore, trying to hike my knees
above the water, and undid my pants. The ingot was not there. I couldn't
feel it and I couldn't see it in the money pouch. Nothing was inside.
I had lost my only means of getting home, my only connection to banks
and ticket counters and airports and the miracle of aviation and landing
gear and taxi cabs.
I hope a photographer took a picture. Standing
on the shore, with my pants at my knees and everybody staring, I saw only
my shrunken penis and scrotum where the ingot used to be. Fear and the
Antarctic cold had shrunk me to minuscule proportions. I hope a photographer
took a picture. He could call it "Man in Nature."
Two months later? Three months later?
We eat eggs. We eat scrambled eggs, hard-boiled eggs, and poached eggs.
We trudge across the frozen ground to tree stumps and break them into
splinters for firewood. Sometimes we eat the penguins, too. The philosopher
is a good cook. We eat boiled penguin and roasted penguin sprinkled with
rosemary. The breast meat is tender, but the wings are tough and chewy.
Once the philosopher made a soup out of penguin feet. I didn't care for
the broth, but the toes crackled nicely between my teeth.
We live in a leaky shed filled with oil
drums, packing crates, and other refuse. The philosopher is standing across
the shed from me now, smiling, his arms akimbo, the yellow teeth dangling
from his gums.
He has epileptic fits and half his tongue
is gone. I wish the philosopher could speak. I would like to know more
about him. He nursed me back to health in spite of the cold and the miserable
conditions under which we live. He is a superb mime and gives performances
to cheer me up. He does Napoléon Bonaparte and Groucho Marx and
Cantinflas. He does one called "Tango on Slippery Ice." My favorite is
"French Waiter on Horseback," in which he stamps his feet to make the
cloppety-clop sound of a horse and teeters precariously in the
saddle while balancing dinner plates. By mimicry, he showed me how to
creep up to a penguin and steal its eggs or crush its skull.
I have become very
fond of the penguins. The males and females take turns brooding, their
eggs clamped between their webbed feet. When one returns to relieve its
mate, they stand chest to chest, nibbling and pecking affectionately.
Penguins are terribly near-sighted. The only way for them to see at a
distance is to waddle or wag their heads from side to side, peering with
one eye and then the other. If you waddle or wag right along with them,
you can get quite close and kill them before they notice anything wrong.
My plan now is to lay low until either the
Velcro gypsies return or the revolutionaries show up. I expect the Velcro
gypsies to come back. When they do, I will offer my services as a tour
guide. I know the penguin colony better than anyone. When the tourists
get here, I will make like one of those pious, humble old men who stand
in cathedral portals. "May I show you our lovely church?" And when the
tour is over: "Perhaps a small gratuity for the time I have taken? I am
a poor man, as you can see." I could make money that way.
On the other hand, if the revolutionaries
get here first, I am not sure what will happen, but my prospects can only
improve. The philosopher appears to have some clout with the revolution.
He knows the secret of the Ministerial Madonna. He can read the hieroglyphics.
I can appeal to my friendship with the philosopher and perhaps gain something
I realize how paradoxical it is, expecting
to be rescued by rich self-complacent tourists or by violent desperate
men with guns. Such are my options, however. I am frightened by violence
and want the tourists to come, but if the revolutionaries get here first,
I will invite them to our shed. I will invite them here and I will point
to the pictures of the Ministerial Madonna on the walls. Here she poses
with the national soccer team. Here she lights the cigar of a man in jungle
fatigues. In this picture, she serves pasta to orphans. Here she is singing
a duet with a renowned folksinger. Here she lays roses at the foot of
an ornate tomb. There are 25 pictures of the Ministerial Madonna in the
philosopher's collection. If the revolutionaries get here first, I will
ask them to explain these pictures to me.