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...a sweatshop of moxie

Monday, October 06, 2008

Bolivian Eyes

Scroll down a few posts below, and you'll notice I just mentioned my memories of living in South America.

By the time I was 16, I had packed a memoir-full of stories that would raise your hair on end about my time there. Feeling nostalgic, and reminding myself it's been a while that I haven't blogged like my Reims post, I'll try to amuse you with a shorter memory.

There I was, arriving in La Paz airport with my parents, just a kid but a remarkably well-traveled one for her age.

It was the late 80s, which were not a good time for South America. It was the time of hyperinflation, of food shortages, of coup d'etats, of counter-coup d'etats, of Cindero Luminoso, of martial law, of the daily toll of living in a land where the majority of people were illiterate and worked to the bone for 1 dollar per day in US currency.

We arrive, and go down those steep steps from the plane, surrounded by very uniformed soldiers with bayoneted rifles, some not much bigger than I was and I was fairly small. Their skin tone is a deep dark nutty brown, and I have this unbearable desire welling up inside to run and put my arm on theirs to compare the shades.

It's one of those children things which instinctively I know I shouldn't want to do, so I don't. My parents would be mortified.

My father is carrying the bigger of the two carry on bags, since my mother always manages to sneak in enormous luggage with her on the plane. She's got everything inside, including her roller hair machine. Remember them?

I'm in charge of rolling her hair at night in hotels, and I love twirling her hair (which I babyishly call yellow) over one finger, over and over again.

But father is struggling, and a man kindly comes up to him and motions that he'll shoulder the bigger bag. Dad smiles. I smile. My mother frowns, as ever suspicious of any stranger's charity.

The Customs area is awash with people clamouring to get in. Money is changing hands freely with uniformed personnel, which I take to mean there are fines to be paid for excess baggage. My mother's hair rollers, I suddenly realise, will cost her plenty. My father is now frowning too, even though the kindly stranger is still behind him, still shouldering the bag.

We put our luggage on the long Customs table. My eyes catch sight of the wine-coloured bags all around us, and I notice we're the only ones with Louis Vuitton pieces. That is, except for my father, who is faithful to his sturdy black Samsonites.

The gentleman is now pushing my bags too, even though there is no need for his continued ministrations. I turn briefly to my mother, and I read a signal in her eyes which mothers and daughters can give to each other imperceptibly. "Achtung". Watch him.

Finally, it is our turn, and my father groans when he is told Customs will be charging him extra for the cameras, the watches, the jewelry and yes the hair rollers, which we failed to provide papers for. The stranger motions to the Customs official. After a whispered few seconds, he comes back. The price is U$150. Cash.

Yes, it's a shakedown. A racket. The Customs official and this guy are in cahoots.

They probably split it, with the Customs guy taking the largest share because he's got the uniform, and the other guy is just a spotter. He targets the richest-looking gringos and directs them to their guy or gal in Customs. Since you're treated like dirt if you are not dressed well in a South American airline, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy that you will be targeted.

My father pays. What can you do. It's the "law".

But there is a fresh piece of hell in store for me. Little me. Observant little me.

The Customs official says that my vaccination papers are not in order. My father groans. He knows that they are. Another racket. An uniformed person (South Americans love uniformed people, and stamps, and ink pads, and papers, and pens, and all kinds of fluttering documents waved under people's noses with an air of supercilious life or death authority) directs us to a holding pen of a sort.

It looks like a hospital. This isn't good, my mother's eyes tell me.

A lady in a lab coat comes out. She's got two great dark circles under her eyes. I remember her years later with a start, when I'm watching a Jeanne Moreau film.

Her eyes are the darkest shade of brown, but stop well-short of being called black. They look like burnt chestnuts, and are the kindliest eyes I may have ever seen in my life.

(But then, I've often thought brown eyes are infinitely more expressive than light-coloured eyes. It's a fetish I have)

I turn. My mother, I can sense by her expression, is telling me with her eyes that she is a nice lady. She means us well. Somehow...

My father is informed by another doctor that I need to have rubella innoculation, and he argues and argues against it to no avail. It's Bolivian law. No foreigner may enter without his vaccination papers being in order.

Another U$200.

The doctor lady with the lab coat and kindly eyes motions me to enter one of the curtained cubicles. My mother follows me. The lady smiles at this. I smile now too, despite not realising I was to be given a shot. I hate shots. To this day, I hate bloodwork being done on me.

The lady closes the curtain. She rolls up my sleeve. My mother grabs my shoulder. The doctor lady and my mother exchange glances. They hold it. 1. 2. 3. I am between them, directly underneath them looking up as if to some azure sky above.

The doctor lady bends down. She strokes my cheek. And as long as I live, I will never forget what she does next.

She mimics the motion to "shout" with her mouth. SHOUT LOUD. And without needing to be told in words, I know exactly what she means.

She goes through the motions. Her colleagues can hear her ripping the bandaid. Ripping the syringe. Tapping the needle. Again she looks at me, and with her mouth she transforms her visage into Munch's "Scream".

She goes close to my skin with the syringe. NOW! Her eyes say.

I scream with all my might. I scream so well and convincingly that my own mother thinks she's injected me, despite our unspoken pact.

I stop screaming bloody charnel. The doctor lady smiles. We all smile. It's over.

The pantomime is over.

Instinctively, right there and then, I realise this is an one-time thing.

The doctor lady is tired of playing the game with tourists, of fleecing them, of having others in uniform make her betray her Hippocratic oath. The three, no four people counting my waiting, paying father outside, have circumvented a corrupt, and disagreeable system by half-glances, and unspoken agreements.

We've made a mockery out of mockery.

The curtains part, and I rush outside rubbing my arm. No one suspects a thing. It feels wonderful, but at the same time, on the ride to the hotel inside the taxi (a taxi ride that will live just as long in my memory, for its death-defying scariness) I remember the Bolivian doctor lady's eyes, those deep brown pools of sadness and knowledge, and realise something very unsettling:

I became an adult at that exact moment.

For the first time in my life I had played the adult game of pretending that lies were reality, and instead of being upset, people expected you to play your role to the hilt.

I was 12.

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  • Dear Victoria,

    I've been visiting your blog via Althouse for a while now and I've liked it a lot. But this is your best post, IMHO. It really speaks to me.

    I wonder how you deal with the conclusion, or apotheosis perhaps, of your post. Personally I cannot stand the fakery I see all around me. The little play-acts that are performed and that we're expected to perform in education, work, family and friendships. The whole denial of the Emperor's nakedness; of the man behind the curtain.

    I'm probably very naive. Or stubborn. At any rate, I liked the way you put this. I've never understood how people can just play along.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at Mon Oct 06, 10:29:00 am GMT-4  

  • I agree with Anonymous... During the height of this season, I wasn't expecting this. Excellent post.

    (I'm also with Anonymous in that I register this more strongly than may be good for me.)

    By Blogger JSU, at Mon Oct 06, 11:29:00 am GMT-4  

  • Thanks so much for your kind words, Anonymous! Please feel free to comment at leisure. :)

    And JSU, thanks too! I know you must have a treasure trove of similar memories...


    By Blogger vbspurs, at Tue Oct 07, 05:45:00 am GMT-4  

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