Black rocks came into view on the horizon between the strip of sand and the blue sea. The day was clear, but a little cloudy. Before them lay a succession of green mountains. A stream of dirty water was stippling the sand before running into the sea. The beach was deserted. Some huts were visible over on the right. They were walking northwards.
“Carry on like this and we’ll get to California,” said Antonia.
Keith was holding her hand and gazing at a row of shells on the sand.
“When I think how big the world is … How long have we been walking?”
“About forty minutes. Are you tired?”
“Not at all.”
“How about stopping here ? Do you want to swim ?” she asked.
They had reached a small inlet.
“Not just now. If you want to, I can wait”, he answered.
Antonia took off her clothes, smiled, gave him a hug and then ran into the sea.
While she swam, Keith let his eyes wander and became lost in his own thoughts. He had been there for two weeks. There he had forgotten about the rest of the world. There he had fallen completely in love with this woman. Antonia was astonishing. She was passionate and calm, impulsive and gentle. Her body was on fire and at the same time resembled a lake of calm water. Those times when she had been away on business, Keith had been reminded of his solitude in London, of the endless and monotonous routine in the absence of that vital spirit that is so much a part of the Latin American. Antonia knew how to live, have fun, be herself and make other people happy even in so hostile a place as El Salvador.
“Does Antonia really love me ?” he asked himself. On his own, he had been incapable of making a cup of coffee. He had missed the pleasure of walking and having long conversations as they had when she was there. She brought a passion with her. She was sweet and intelligent. She never went on too long on any subject. She had an ironic air when she spoke, dispensing with words for the most part. She adored physical sensations and abandoned herself to them. In bed she was a python, whose touches were like electric shocks.
Keith recalled the highlights of his time in Central America. The thought of the stuff he would write if he ever managed to find that bizarre shipment of arms. It would be explosive. For the first time he was afraid of being that close to danger. Without knowing what exactly, he knew he wanted something more than just an affair with this Salvadorean woman. And for the first time he was afraid to think of what his life would be like once he was back in London.
“Darling, what are you thinking about?” Antonia asked him as she came out of the water.
She pulled on her shorts and T-shirt without drying herself. The outline of her body was visible beneath the damp cotton.
“I was thinking about Life. Nothing in particular. I’ve been happy here, and I don’t remember the last time that was true.”
“You’re happy here ?” she laughed. “That’s what I call bad taste.”
“Perhaps it’s your being here too?”
“That’s what I call love, then” – she said, tossing her head and spraying drops of water . This country is one step from Hell. When the war starts the place will be on fire. And this beach is no big deal. Darling, maybe we could take a trip through Europe? I have an apartment in Paris, it’s small but quite pretty. Do you like Paris?”
“I love it, but I love it here too. It might sound stupid, but I believe we Europeans have a kind of hidden envy of you Latin Americans. Things happen here; you face almost insurmountable problems, you have to fight to build a future. In Europe nothing really new happens for ages. Our problems are quite different from yours.”
“Are you crazy?”
“No, I mean it. Do you know how many suicides we have there? And how many old people there are?”
Antonia slipped her arm around his waist.
“Keith, that’s the height of freedom ! You can be miserable because there’s no money left for the holidays ! Look! Instead of searching the streets for a little food … What’s more, you can choose when to die. Here people die without knowing why … Let’s go, huh?”
“OK. Where to?”
“Days have gone by, but it seems as if time didn’t exist. I didn’t see the time passing, darling. I don’t want to leave this place.”
“I need to go, but I promise. As soon as everything’s over we’ll have all the time in the world for us.”
“Do you swear?”
“Yes. Have you got the things I asked you for?”
“Here you are. High resolution films for your camera with telephoto lens. A good pair of jeans and boots. Come on, try them. Let me see if you dress well as an explorer,” she said smiling.
Keith looked over the equipment. Antonia was putting everything on the table and talking. She picked up a hat and put it on her head.
“Take a look at this. Is this backpack OK? I’ve also brought some chocolate.”
“Sure. And Keith, I’d like you to take my revolver. I know that you Englishmen don’t like guns, but darling it’s just precaution. It’s my revolver.”
“Thank you, but I can’t accept it. I’ve never fired a shot in my life. Domingos will take care of our security.”
“Keith, answer me sincerely. What do you hope to get out of being involved in this operation? Why don’t you tell everything to the police?”
“This is my job. I have to tell people what’s happening as objectively as possible. You must be ethical to have credibility.”
“You and your ethics. Do you risk your life for that?”
“Maybe. Who knows? Maybe I risk myself for other reasons that I don’t know. I wouldn’t like to discuss it.”
“The maps you asked me for.”
They heard the noise of an engine and saw lights.
“It must be Domingos. He must be ready to follow you. Will you love me one more time before you go ?” she asked with a malicious look.
Keith answered yes. Someone closed the car door. Steps. Domingos came in.
“Good news !” he said.”The ship’s arrived. Is this our time to go ?”
“Welcome ! Come on in…”
They greeted each other. Domingos looked at the table and saw the maps and the equipment.
“Well, we’re ready. Now let’s see where our target is and what will be necessary for the expedition.”
The Cessna flew over the North of El Salvador and headed for the frontier with southern Guatemala. Flying at low altitude to avoid radars, Domingos was piloting the aircraft. Beside him was Keith, closely watching the landscape below. They flew over large plantations and flat plains and later jungle. Domingos turned eastwards and flew until he spotted a small landing area on the Del Rosario farm. The pilot had to exercise some skill. The landing strip was among trees, in a small clearing. They landed, spraying dirt in all directions. There were some men waiting on the ground.
“Domingos! Welcome. How long are you going to stay here?”
“We’re just passing.”
“And Don Carlito?”
“He’s fine. He’s travelling in the United States. This is a friend. His name’s O’Brien.”
“Pleased to meet you. Let’s go.”
Two men went to the airplane and collected the luggage. Keith fetched the photographic material himself. They walked to the house. A large building, sheltered in the interior of the wood, surrounded by look-out posts and armed men. While they were walking, Domingos spoke to Keith in English.
“Didn’t I tell you ? We’re in the war zone. This farm is only out of the conflict because it has a connection with the people who deal with drugs. They asked you not to take photos.”
“How do you know these people, Domingos? It’s not easy to land here. I couldn’t see the landing strip from up there.”
“They were from Los Chopos, some fellow citizens. With the war, they started doing this. I hope they’ve arranged our provisions and the car.”
The following morning the two men left the farm accompanied by an armed helper. They went by jeep along a small track to the road to Campillo. They went on to a village where Domingos hired three horses.
“From now on we are going to travel this way. It’s better. With the horses we can go up the mountain ridge, take a hidden route and avoid suspicion,” he said.
In the evening, they stopped to sleep in an old shack near the road where they also got their food.
“It’s good to have some rest, Keith. Tomorrow we’ll be there.”
“Domingos, you sometimes surprise me. You know the country like the back of your hand. I couldn’t do this story without you.”
“I’ve travelled a lot through these regions. The South is strange for me. Furthermore, our country is not that big. A person like me eventually knows about everything.”
“I don’t know how to thank you,” said Keith.
“I’m doing this because it interests me. You don’t owe me a thing,” said Domingos, ending the conversation. He opened the case and took out a rifle. He oiled it. Keith lay on his bed-roll, turned his face to the pillow and slept.
After a huge breakfast of tortillas, the men loaded their horses with the minimum of necessary material. Each one was carrying a small backpack with food, sleeping bags and medicine. Keith was carrying some photographic equipment and a tape recorder. Domingos and Agustin were carrying munition and guns. They left at sunrise. Domingos seemed to know the way well. He rarely looked at the map or asked a question of the peasants. From the house, which was in a valley, the three rode some kilometers until they arrived at the bottom of one of the mountain formations in the Salvadorean Northeast. As they continued, the forest became more and more dense. It was often necessary to use the machetes.
At the foot of the mountain they stopped for a time, replenishing the water-bottles and bathing in a beautiful waterfall. The water flowed between two fissures in the mountain ridge and fell, forming various cascades, coming out as a small stream that continued down the valley.
Domingos pointed the way. They remounted and went up the mountain ridge, following the stream. They rode between two walls, formed by rocks and tropical vegetation. They had to walk many times because of the steepness of the track. Near the top of the mountain they left the animals in a small clearing.
Agustin, the man that was accompanying them, was to remain with the food and water and to take care of the horses. They hid the saddlery in the vegetation and continued on foot.
For the first time in his life Kevin entered the jungle. The Los Alamos farm would be visible as soon they reached the summit.For safety’s sake, Domingos preferred to go through the wood and not follow the path.
It was almost evening when the two reached the other side of the mountain ridge, behind some rocks. They examined the place with binoculars. It was a small plateau surrounded by mountains. Just below their hiding place and difficult to get to, there was an old abandoned farm building. It was in fact a small house, dormitories for the peasants and two big barns previously used for the storage of coffee. Further on, in the direction of the farm road, there was another group of barns.
Domingos showed Keith the ruins of the construction and the normal ways of access. They both saw the damage that had been done to the walls of the barn and the house, testifying to the the complete desertion of the place. “The war has destroyed everything around here.”
The movement of people in the buildings was intermittent . They spotted little more than twenty people. But the presence of heavy armaments among them confirmed the probable storage of the supplies in the barns. Nothing happened until dusk. Keith photographed the place from different angles. With the telephoto lens he captured the faces of the men. A jeep arrived from the main road. Domingos made up his mind: Keith wanted to go on till the end. The journalist explained that he had risked more than this for a good story. They arranged a plan. They would wait till the end of the day. Then they would go down, enter one of the barns and try to see what was stored there.
“I hope nothing goes wrong. But remember: Agustin was instructed to tell the army if we’re delayed. If you prefer, we can wait here without risking our lives.”
“No. Let’s see what we can find there,” answered Keith.
Domingos looked at him. Keith’s eyes were distant and lifeless and his skin was pale.
It was dark. The two men took a nap to recover their energies. It was a quarter to two in the morning. Calmness. The crescent moon was setting. The mountains around the ridge cast eery shadows. They woke up and crawled towards the farm building. Through the branches they watched intently the comings and goings of the men. There were four in each barn. The night was cold. The men were talking.
As they had planned, they would enter the second barn, climbing up the wall to a gap between the roof and the concrete. They crawled there. While Domingos kept watch, Keith dropped inside. A moment later it was the Salvadorean’s turn. For some minutes they hesitated before switching on their torches. They kept quiet, trying to feel with their hands what was there. They touched the wooden boxes. They waited some more . Keith whispered:
“I’m getting the camera ready. See if you can open one of the boxes.”
Domingos switched on his torch, pointing its light to the floor. With the barrel of the rifle he forced one of the boxes. It made a noise. He turned off the light. They heard the men’s voices. Domingos started to work again. Soon the box was open.
“They are German rifles. Munition.”
“Keep your torch on. I’ll take a photo,” Keith said.
He adjusted the camera and set the ASA to 2000.
“Man, these are right up-to-date and reserved for army use only.”
“Fantastic. Let’s open other boxes.”
“We’d better get out of here, Keith.”
“At least one more box.”
They walked over to another pile of boxes. Again they found guns, but this time Czech machine guns.
“They bought the best available on the European market. All we have to do is find the special armaments.”
“They are probably in other barn. It’s more closely guarded than this one.”
“Let’s get out of here.”
The two men walked to the rear of the warehouse. They climbed over a couple of boxes to the roof. Keith was first. He jumped. Domingos looked behind, went up and put his feet on the wall in order to get the necessary leverage to jump. He pulled his body on to the wall. Some bricks fell on to the pile of boxes. A deafening noise echoed in the night. The guards moved into action.
“Freeze,” said one.
“It must be a rat,” answered the other.
Domingos fell on the outer side of the barn.
“Are you all right? ,” whispered Keith.
“I’m all right, but I think we’re in trouble.”
“Let’s get up there, quickly.”
Someone turned the lights on.
“Rats don’t open boxes !” shouted one of the men.”Sound the alarm.”
“There they are, at the bottom of the mountain.”
There were five rifle shots. Machine-gun fire. Bullets whistled past.
“They’ve seen us!”
“Keith, zig-zag up the hill. Run without stopping. When you get to the clearing, take your horse and go down to the valley. We’ll meet each other by the mountain ridge. Ask Agustin to wait. I’ll try to delay these guys.”
Domingos stayed near the barn, behind a rock formation, and fired his rifle. The gun-fire was getting heavier. The lights were turned off. In the night they could only see the gunpowder bursting from gun barrels. Distant echoes and machine-gun blasts.
Keith ran up the mountain. He stumbled many times. Almost out of breath, he looked back to register the strange beauty of the scene. At the other side of the mountain the shots almost disappeared, distant, easily blending with the sounds of the jungle. Keith took his horse, instructed Domingo’s assistant and galloped down the mountain. The dawn was cold. A dense mist reduced visibility. The animal became confused in the darkness among the branches in the wood. Keith had to force his memory to remember where he was supposed to go. On one side, some cliffs added to the tension of the escape. He was frightened. For the first time in his life he was afraid of dying, of the end. The density of the jungle was suffocating him. Now and then a branch struck his face. He heard the noise of a huge explosion.
Time seemed to stand still.
1989 – Copyright of the Portuguese version by
Alvaro Andrade Garcia
PART 2 (click to continue)