Room 804, the right-hand side of the Avenidas.
It was a little after nine. The sunlight coming through the curtains was making the room warm. Keith woke, got up, stretched himself and walked over to the coffee table. He telephoned reception to order his breakfast, reminding them not to forget the eggs.
He asked some more questions just to test his Spanish. Although he had studied it for 10 years and had travelled to Spain many times, he was not confident enough to express himself without difficulty in Central America. This time he didn’t stutter and he had to change his intonation to make himself clear. He was pleased when he saw that he had been understood.
He reached out and drew the curtains. He saw by day the landscape that he had imagined the night before. The hotel was in the outskirts of the city, set on an attractive hillside. From his room he could see the mountains that surrounded San Salvador and some distant suburbs. He surveyed the hotel area and saw swimming-pools, bars, gardens and courts. He felt the sun on his skin.
He telephoned Barry and made an appointment for an hour and half later by the hotel swimming-pool. They talked for some minutes about the journey. Keith asked about Ramirez. The correspondent told him that the man was in the hotel lobby, ready to help him with whatever he wanted.
“I don’t need anybody. I can do it myself, Barry.”
“OK, Keith, I only wanted to be helpful. I don’t know what your Spanish is like nowadays…”
“Here, in the hotel, everybody speaks English.”
“All right. Send Ramirez back and I’ll get rid of him. Did you sleep well last night?”
“Yes, I needed some rest. I think I’m going to have some days off before I start working.”
“That’s good. How about the weather here?”
“Well, at the airport, during the day, the heat was terrible. Here in the hotel I don’t know because I arrived in the evening. I slept well. The temperature at night is fine, very fresh.”
“It’s because of the mountains.”
“I suppose so.”
Keith drank his coffee. As soon as he had washed and dressed, he went to see Barry. He took a book, some notepaper and a couple of magazines.
By the poolside nearest to the Tropical Bar there was a lively crowd of journalists. Keith met old friends like Hermann Fenbert from the Suddeutsch Zeitung, Paul and Steven from the New York Times, people from Le Monde, UPI and from the Corriere della Sera.
“Hey everybody, take a look! Isn’t that Keith O’Brien?”, shouted one of them.
The others stopped talking to look at the Englishman. Keith waved his hand and approached them.
“Hi! It looks like the whole of Europe has moved to El Salvador. I don’t mean to offend the Americans present here,” he said looking at the group from the New York Times.”Is there nothing happening in the old world ?”
“And Her Majesty’s correspondent? What’s he doing in this distant country?”
“Well, the winter there was too cold, don’t y’know?”, he said looking down at himself.”I’m on holiday. I came to swim in a pool at the foot of Mount Izalco.”
“So, welcome,” two of them said.
They reached out and shook hands.
“As we’re all on holiday”, said Hermann,”can I make a suggestion? Barman!”, he shouted,”a very cold pina colada.”
“Take it easy,” said Keith,”I’ve just woken up.”
A dim, blue light coming off the swimming-pool fell over everything in sight. The outline of bodies, the shadows on the tiles, the sun’s reflection, everything was blurred. Arms were moving in the water, legs kicking. A body was moving like a frog, hair trailing behind. Two strokes more and Keith reached the side of the pool. He surfaced and came face to face with Barry.
The London Chronicle’s correspondent was wearing patent leather shoes, blue trousers, a white shirt, striped coat and black tie. He was bald and his eyes were apprehensive.
“Good morning,” he said.
Keith stood up and lifted himself out of the pool.
“Hi!”, he said,”Sorry I can’t shake hands, but in these circumstances…”
“Don’t worry about it…”
They sat in the shade, a little apart from the other journalists.
“Do you smoke?”, Keith asked.
“Yes,” Barry said, reaching over.”Is this one of ours ?”
“Of course. D’you want more ?”
“Well, Barry. Where shall we begin ?”
“Let’s start with some general advice.”
“I’m ready to listen.”
“Don’t drink the water here without chlorinating it first. If it’s possible, avoid drinking it at all. If you don’t, you’ll get hellish diarrhoea. Another thing: during these first days avoid salads, raw food or food that’s been handled.
People here are ignorant and they rarely care about hygiene.”
“Am I supposed to take this seriously ?”
“Just listen to what I say. If you do anything different it’ll be your business, not mine. But I’m telling you. I don’t know anyone who hasn’t had a problem. When it happens, the only thing to do is to dose yourself with medicine and look out for yourself. Let’s forget about that. But don’t forget about malaria and dengue, mainly on the coast. Have you brought quinine?”
“The white pills?”
“Those are the ones. Take them with you when you leave the city. Even here, try to keep the window closed and avoid open areas in the evening. The mosquitoes are terrible.”
“The zancudos, right ?”
“They’re famous … Dollars, use them, people here think of nothing else. Everything can be solved with a handful of dollars. I reckon you could even buy space in the president’s palace with them.”
“Listen, take good care of your money. Don’t wander about alone, especially downtown. They’ll steal your money, camera, everything. Whenever you go out, disguise yourself, try not to show that you’re a foreigner. It’s easy for you because you’re not blond or too white.”
“I was sunbathing in Spain, before coming here.”
“I’ll give you some names for future contacts with the police. Those guys are nasty and if you’re not careful, they can make things very unpleasant. Don’t mess with them. Also, avoid problems with women, mainly if they’re either married or with a boyfriend.”
“Come on, Barry, what’s wrong with a little flirting ?”
“If that’s the case, in Jingle’s you can find stunning dark-skinned girls, women without any ties. I can even give you the number of a certain Rosita, who speaks English. I’m sorry if it doesn’t interest you. Try some”pupusas”, they’re a kind of pancake made with cheese or bacon. They’re cheap and delicious. You find them everywhere you go.
Avoid”tortillas”, that junk made with corn.”
“I’ll try. Where can I eat good food?”
“If you want to eat good food, go to Monterrey and El Greco.”
“They’re picturesque places.”
“Interesting cities around here are Panchimalco and Santa Tecla. You can see surviving indians of the old landowners in the first and the San Salvador volcano in the second. Ilopago lake you must’ve seen when you arrived. The airport’s there, but it’d be nice if you could walk around it in peace. They say that the indians used to honour their Gods by drowning four virgins every year in its waters. Who knows, you might find one…”
“If I could’ve, I’d ‘ve been in the water. And the sea, Barry ?”
“The coast isn’t that beautiful. But it’s near and it’s worth a visit. Go to La Libertad. I got shot of Ramirez, but he left his phone number. If you want anything, you can call him.”
Without hesitating, he opened his briefcase to show Keith a pile of papers.
“It’s everything I have. Names of the contacts in the government, functions and speculations. Take good care of this stuff. My sources are risking their lives here. Now the most important thing. I think that you should look in on the police, just to make contact with them. You should go to the president and deputies’ interview next week.”
“And the contact with the other side?”
“The first one is called Tachito. I don’t trust him but I arranged an appointment for you at the weekend. He speaks English and he’s already lived in London. He also said that he has some information, but he wants a bundle of dollars, didn’t I tell you? Some information. It wouldn’t hurt you to check it out. The second one is Santiago, a weird chap who has telephoned me a few times. I met him through a certain professor at the University who was later killed. This Santiago seems to be afraid of something, which makes me think that he has something hot. I gave him your telephone number. When you get in touch with him, make an appointment. Read my files later, when it’s quiet. This man is the right connection with the guerrillas. According to the information I have, we’re the only ones in this game.”
Keith met Tachito at the weekend. As he had arranged with Barry, he met someone called Marcelino first. He owned a souvenir shop in the city market.
For the first time he went out alone into the streets of San Salvador. He walked around the centre, looking at the houses built around the beginning of the century, colourful and with large windows. He examined more attentively those which had been built after the earthquake of 1854. He passed by the new cathedral and the National Palace. Then he turned off into a lot of sidestreets. He passed among street peddlers and idlers. He watched the comings and goings of the city and the habits of the poor.
The heat was unbearable. Sweat was running beneath his white cotton shirt. He had the sensation that his body was going to explode. The sun was burning the asphalt, exacerbating the awful stench of the rubbish thrown about the streets.
He weighed up the passers-by, especially the women descended from the Indians. They were short, dark girls with straight black hair. He also took the chance to eat some pupusas: he found them rather tasteless. He tried three restaurants until he found one that he liked. There he ate some national specialities. He enjoyed the beer. After lunch, enervated by the sultry heat, he went to the market. There wasn’t a large choice, especially for a man who had visited Arab markets.
At three o’clock sharp he went into the souvenir shop.
“Good afternoon. I’d like to talk to senor Marcelino,” said Keith.
A fat, hairy middle-aged man, wearing a worn-out white T-shirt, came over. His eyes were rat-like.
“What about ?”, asked the man.
“I’m O’Brien. Barry asked me to come.”
The man’s expression changed. He smiled and made as if he were going to embrace Keith.
“Ah! Come in, senor O’Brien, please. I’m sorry about this mess here.”
The shop, a narrow corridor about 40 metres square, exhibited various types of souvenirs. From Maian ceramic plates to plastic dolls with”recuerdos” from Miami. The things seemed to have been there for ever, piling up during the passage of the years, tumbling over each other and stacked to the ceiling. The place was dark and dusty. Keith sneezed.
“Well, I think you know where I might find Tachito,” Keith said.
The man looked surprised. He put his finger to his lips.
“Silence. These things should never attract attention,” he said looking around the room.
Some customers were browsing about the place.
“Walls have ears here,”mister”, and things aren’t exactly the way you think they are.”
Keith had a bad feeling either about the place or the man. Something made him distrust everything.
“Tachito?” he insisted, speaking low.
The man scratched his nose.
“You know, I’ve spent a lot money on a taxi to bring him from La Libertad.”
Keith got the message. He took some colons from his pocket.
“Is that enough?”
Marcelino’s hands eagerly counted the money. His eyes lost their sparkle.
“Haven’t you got the green ones ?”
Keith lost his patience.
“I’ve changed traveller’s cheques for that. I don’t want to bother you anymore. If you could…”
“Of course, senor,” said Marcelino, changing the tone of the conversation.”I haven’t spoken about it before just to protect you, you know. I needed time to make sure that it wasn’t an ambush. Tachito! You can come out,” he shouted, turning to a small door at the back of the room.
A man, short, paunchy, almost bald came out of the shadows. With a tense look, he came slowly towards the cash register where Keith and Marcelino were talking. He introduced himself and put out his hand. Keith felt sick.
“Nice to meet you, senor. Tachito is ready to help you,” he said, looking up.
Keith greeted him coldly. Marcelino intervened.
“Not here. It’d be better to talk inside.”
With his belly and his hands he pushed the two people towards the door. Tachito went first and Keith, although annoyed, followed him.
They went into a narrow and stuffy room, with only a tiny louvred window near the ceiling. There was a small table covered with bits and pieces, sheets of paper and surrounded with trinkets.
Tachito provided two chairs and put them by the table. They sat down. The man’s face was lighted by a thin torchlight. Almost compulsively he started to talk, jerking out the words.
“It wasn’t easy to arrange this meeting. You haven’t been here very long, have you? But Barry must’ve told you that information about the war could cost us our lives. Did he tell you how we met each other?”
Keith nodded and listened. Flies buzzed around the table.
“Well, we’ve already met twice, I think, and I’ve already given him some information. Am I making myself clear ?” he asked.
“Of course,” said Keith.”It’d be better if you could speak a little bit faster.”
“Or in English,” said the man, starting to talk fluently in Keith’s language.” I lived in London,” he continued,”and I worked there as a waiter in a pizza house. Ah, senor, if I could find a way to go back there…I was sent home, papers not in order, but I’m willing to work. Ah, they’re some people! You’re educated and clean. Would it be too much if I asked you to help me with the people at the consulate?”
Keith stiffened. He felt trapped and couldn’t see a way out. He went straight to the point. “We’ll see about that later. First, the information. Barry said that you’d have access to the leaders of the guerrilla movement.”
The man was surprised.
“No, no, senor,” he said in Spanish, before starting again in English.”I’ve never said that. I’d be a dead man if I said that.”
“I can keep a secret.”
“There isn’t a secret that can resist a good interrogator.”
“But I’m a foreigner!”
“You die the same way. Don’t go where you shouldn’t, senor.”
“Listen to me, Tachito, What the hell is this information you say you’ve got?”
“It is in fact the possibility,” he stuttered,”of arranging a meeting with Ordonez, who is a sympathizer with the guerrillas. I…, I never… I only help the English, nothing more. You know, my wife’s ill. Barry helped us a lot.” Already impatient, Keith pushed his chair back, standing up. He thought quickly about the best way to get out. Suddenly he had an idea. As he had nothing to lose, he decided to be unpleasant.
“That’s enough ! I’m very busy and I think that your information won’t interest me. I have to go,” he said, walking towards the shop.
“Senor, senor,” said Tachito,” I know about something else but we need to be calm. I didn’t make myself understood because I haven’t spoken English for a long time,” he continued.
Keith looked back and continued on his way. He passed Marcelino, patted him on the back and reached the shop door. In the street, he decided to glance back inside the shop and he could see the two men talking loudly and angrily. He turned left and mingled with the crowd.
An unobtrusive figure, who was standing on the other side of the street, approached the place. He looked into the shop, went to the corner and made some notes. He took out a cigarette and in his left hand held his favourite lighter. The yellow flame flickered briefly in his narrow eyes.
Keith left the souvenir shop bothered by Barry’s inefficiency. He was wondering. If the other contact were a trick like that, he would probably be starting from zero. He stumbled into a woman. He heard an angry word and went on his way amongst the merchants and street peddlers. He thought about the time he had thrown away preparing the interview with the man and calculated how many colons he had lost. He was angry, very angry about the situation and about his naivete, as he realised that the men were professional crooks. He loathed the fetid streets, the rabble, people who would do anything for a handful of green bills. He took a taxi and went to the hotel. On the corner, a few blocks from the Avenidas, he saw a bar. He went in and drank some beer.
The last quarter of a waning moon was shining over the outline of the mountains. A breeze soughed through the branches. After dinner, Keith decided to walk through the hotel gardens. Some people were talking quietly by the swimming-pool. He passed them and walked on a little, to the golf course. He lighted a cigarette. From there he could see the view of San Salvador. It was intriguing to imagine himself miles and miles away from London in a country that, although apparently calm, was in the middle of a civil war. He listened closely and heard scattered sounds, laughter here and there and snatches of Italian.
A strange feeling of indifference and emptiness came over him, he felt he was alone. He started to think about the article he would write. Impressions provoked by the movement of the shadows in the garden soon diverted his thoughts. He decided to have a drink. With long, slow strides he walked to the Tropical Bar.
“A Campari and soda.”
He looked around. A group of American businessmen was complaining about the lack of interest from the Salvadoreans. An Italian couple gesticulated. He saw Philippe coming towards him.
“Keith, we’re at the same hotel and I haven’t seen you for days… Good evening!” said the Frenchman.
Keith was daydreaming.
“The same as they’ve always been: a pile of shit. Mind if I join you ? Keith, we don’t realize what this country’s like. What’s your opinion?”
“I haven’t had enough contact with the people here. I had a few days off. Then I organized the papers that Barry had left. You know, I like working this way.”
“Like the strike in Poland?”
“Like the strike in Poland. Have you got anything new, Phillipe?”
“I’ve got something. Things are getting hot. The number of people being killed by the death squads is increasing. It is a sign that things’ll be more complicated in the future. Today I saw something terrible. Two grenades went off in a bank downtown.”
“Are the guerrillas working here?”
“No. The paramilitaries must’ve done it. I was near the scene and took some photos. I may be wrong, it’s difficult, but one of the men in the middle of the commotion was Major Gomes, a well-known son of a bitch.”
“How do you know?”
“A little bird told me. These guys are trying to arrange an excuse to make the regime even more oppressive. Keith, you’ll feel it in your skin. The government of this damned country is set up and run by the Americans.”
“Do you think so?”
“Isn’t it incredible that a poor country like El Salvador should be so important for the Americans? This country only produces coffee, bananas and some useless tropical stuff. They’ve been financing the war for years …”
“Please don’t tell me that you don’t know why, Phillipe…
Keith decided to use the week to plan his activities and make notes of his first impressions. He went to public departments and collected some data on the economy, the war situation and international business. He arranged appointments with prominent politicians and he registered at the government palace.
It was hard for him to get the information he wanted, because it was too difficult to understand how the government worked. The public finances were in disarray, the bureaucracy was insurmountable, production had come to a halt and defence expenditure was enormous.
At first, he thought of analysing the effects of an exhausting war on the country’s economy. But that wouldn’t do. He was there because of the increase in hostilities and he needed something more substanial. On Friday he was invited by the members of the British Club for a dinner party at El Bucanero.
El Bucanero was located in a pleasant sidestreet in San Salvador. It was a luxury restaurant, frequented by businessmen, diplomats and foreigners. On the menu there was typical Spanish food, specially shellfish, prepared by cooks trained in Madrid.
Because of the war, the street and the neighbouring buildings around the Bucanero were watched over by armed men with machine guns. The customers demanded security. At the entrance, everyone was searched and it was not difficult to pick out policemen in plain clothes, armed and mingling with the customers.
The British Club staff table was to one side of the restaurant, next to a small winter garden. There were about 40 people sitting at the table. Keith sat next to the head of the table, between Mr. Marvin, the first secretary at the Embassy and Mr. Cornell, a representative for an English multinational. The renewed outbreak of guerrilla activities was the chief topic of conversation.
Cornell was speaking.
“I have been informed by intelligence sources that the Soviet Union is taking advantage of the popularity of the Reagan administration to reinforce the guerrillas’ positions. It seems that they’re gaining some advantage after the recent inauguration of the Bush government. They are testing him to see which way he’s going to go.”
“Seems logical,” agreed Mr. Marvin, looking at Keith.”What do you think ?” he asked.
“If it weren’t for the intervention of the Soviet Union, this region would prosper,” said Mr. Marvin.”The war only drags the country down. A guerrilla victory would not be acceptable to the American administration and a government victory is unlikely,” he concluded.
“Mr. Marvin,” Keith inquired,”to what do you attribute the ineffectuality of the Salvadorean army in its fight against the guerrillas?”
“Incompetence, corruption, Mr. O’Brien. The help these guys have already received from Western governments… It’s a lot of money! And where are the generals and the colonels ? Breeding cattle on their farms or on holiday in Miami. There is neither planning in this war nor professionalism.”
Cornell was incisive.
“This is a country without a future. People are not educated, the authorities are corrupt and the communists are gaining ground. And that’s not all. The guerrillas have been very well trained by Cubans and Nicaraguans.”
“Do you believe they’re involved?”
“There’s no doubt about it. If Cuba and Nicaragua were not in this story, it wouldn’t be so easy for the guerrillas to get the guns. That way, they would certainly be wiped out.”
Keith was working hard. After all, the majority of people sitting at that table had direct access to the palace and to the highest institutions in the country. In amongst the pleasantries, there were comments on Salvadorean customs and recollections of old London. The Englishmen gave Keith valuable information. Names of politicians, areas controlled by the guerrillas, data about the economic situation in the country. It was much easier to get information from English businessmen than in his pilgrimage through the ministries.
“Dad,” said Antonia,”there’s only a week to go before you celebrate your 50 years in politics. Aren’t you happy?”
Carlito Vidal, the ageing deputy, was one of the most influential men in the country. A man of about seventy, he had deep and misty eyes, a wide forehead, his white hair combed back. He was of average height, paunchy and weak on his legs. He invariably wore white clothes, preferably linen suits and silk shirts.
Don Carlito was one of the oldest members of the Salvadorean Christian Democrats. For a long time he was one of ex-president Napoleon Duarte’s assistants. During Alfredo Cristiani’s government he was keeping a low profile, a link between parliament and the armed forces.
A member of one of the”fourteen families”, the most powerful of the country, owners of almost all the fertile areas, he had a large holding in the North. Through his astuteness and sense of timing, he had accumulated one of the largest fortunes in El Salvador, increasing tenfold the inheritance his father left him. An affable person, open-minded and arresting as a speaker, Dom Carlito had never had serious problems in his political career and it had never interrupted his meteoritic ascent as a businessman. He controlled a number of coffee, cattle and sugar cane farms, a local financial conglomerate, various import-export companies and even a string of snack-bars in the United States.
He married the widow of a former US Ambassador to San Salvador and had only one daughter, Antonia, who had been educated almost entirely in the United States. Antonia studied there from the age of thirteen to twenty seven, when she completed her MBA and returned home to manage some of her father’s companies.
They were talking in the living room.
“It takes a long time for Mom to get to sleep because she’s much too worried about organizing the reception. And old Carlito? Is he excited?,” Antonia went on.
She went over to her father, kissed him softly and sat on his lap. The Deputy caressed his daughter and said: “I don’t know. I don’t think I’m that interested. I have a lot of other things to worry about.”
“Dad, you need to relax for a while. Come to my room. I want to show you the dress I had made for the occasion.”
They went to the bedroom. Antonia held the dress in front of her body, holding the ends of the hanger. It was a classic model, made of delicately printed silk, predominantly black and olive-green. The dress was tight to the waist from where it opened up into a loose circle. What made it special was the exaggeratedly low-cut back, which came down almost to the waist. At the foot of the bed were the scarpin shoes she would wear and on the dressing table her jewellery.
Antonia was smiling. She was showing her father the beauty of her twenty eight years. She walked, triumphantly, around the room, stretching her neck, with the air of a professional model.
“What do ya think, dad? Don’t I look gorgeous?” she asked.
“Wonderful,” said the deputy.”Darling, you know better than I how beautiful you are.”
They were in the bedroom where Antonia had spent part of her childhood. Through wide windows, the sun brightened the room, even with the curtains closed. The place seemed to be untouched. The walls were painted in pale yellow. The curtains were coloured and trimmed with lace and the furniture was laquered in beige tones. Picture frames with drawings of Walt Disney heroes hung on the walls, except the one facing the corridor, which had a built-in closet, a mirror and a collection of dolls.
“Oh, my daughter,” said the deputy while he was walking through her bedroom, observing the dolls on the bedside table.”You know your good points. You also know that I don’t like your way of life. Antonia, don’t forget that time’s passing and you need a good home and peace and quiet. Oh, I’d like to see you married to a good man who could help in the business… I am getting older and more tired as each day passes. My daughter, I would like to see a responsible man helping you to expand our patrimony.”
Antonia’s spontaneity evaporated. She stopped smiling, listening to the first part of her father’s speech, and looked out of the window. Clouds drifted overhead. Her strong nature rebelled against her father’s repeated interference in her private life. She had been brought up far from him for the greater part of her life, in a country where individual freedom was important. She couldn’t adjust herself to the rigid control he tried to impose on the family, in the Latin way, especially on her, his only daughter.
Antonia lived on her own and managed not only her various business ventures but also her apartments in San Salvador, Paris and Atlanta. Even though she had an independent life, she was subject to her father’s interference because she worked in the family companies. The kind of conversation that was taking shape didn’t interest her at all. Although she was angry inside, on these occasions she tried to change the subject and avoid saying anything more about it.
That was what she would have done if she hadn’t been interrupted by one of the staff at the door.
“Senor, Mr. William Wilbur is waiting for you in the living room,” said the butler.
Dom Carlito stopped what he was saying and looked towards the door.
“Go and ask him to wait. We’ll be there in a minute,” he said, turning to his daughter.”Will you come to the living room with me?”
Antonia tried to smile. She left the dress on her bed and put her arm through her father’s.
1989 – Copyright of the Portuguese version by
Alvaro Andrade Garcia
Chapter 22 (click to continue)