THE CUSTOMS OF THE COUNTRY
The plane taxied out across the darkened airfield to where the runway lay, between two strips of diamond-bright lights. Here it paused, revved up its engine until every bone in the plane's metal body seemed to screech out in protest, and then suddenly rushed forward. The strip-lights fled past, and then suddenly we were airborne, the plane tipping from side to side like a slightly drunken swallow as it climbed higher and higher. Then, below me, Buenos Aires lay spread in the warm night like a chessboard of multicoloured stars. I unfastened my safety belt, lit a cigarette and lay back in my seat, feeling very mellow and full of farewell brandy. At last I was on my way to a place I had longed to visit, a place with a magical name: Jujuy.
When we had returned from the south the effects of the car crash we had had soon after arrival in Argentina (in which Jacquie was the only one hurt) had begun to make themselves felt; the terrible jolting we had undergone on the Patagonian roads, and the rough conditions under which we had been forced to live, had resulted in her getting blinding headaches. It was obvious that she could not continue the trip, so we had decided to send her back to England. She had departed the week before, and this left Sophie and me to finish the trip. So, while Sophie remained in our little villa with its garden already stuffed with animals which she had to minister unto, I made tracks for Jujuy, to try and add to the collection.
As the plane droned on through the night I dozed in my seat and tried to remember all I knew about Jujuy, which was precious little. It is a north-western province of Argentina, bordered on the one side by Bolivia, and on the other by Chile. It is a curious place in many ways, but chiefly because it is like a tropical tongue, as it were, inserted into Argentina. On the one side you have the mountains of Bolivia, on the other the curious, desiccated province of Salta, and between the two the lush tropical area of Jujuy, which compares favourably with anything to be found in Paraguay or southern Brazil. Here I knew that you could find the colourful, exciting tropical fauna, just starting to encroach on the Pampa and grassland fauna, and it was these creatures I was after. Thinking about all these magnificent animals I fell into a deep sleep, and was just dreaming that I was catching a particularly malevolent jaguar with a lassoo, when I was awoken by the steward shaking my arm. Apparently we had arrived at some god-forsaken place, and all passengers had to dismount while the plane refuelled. Plane travel has never been my favourite form of transportation (except for very small planes, where you get a real sense of flying), so to be roused from a brandy-soothed sleep at two in the morning and be forced to stand around in a tiny bar that did not offer anything more exciting than lukewarm coffee did not improve my temper. As soon as they would allow I got on the plane again, settled down in my seat and tried to sleep.
Almost immediately I was roused by what appeared to be a ten-ton weight descending on my arm. I extricated it with difficulty, before any bones were broken, and glared at the person responsible. This was not very effective, as the interior of the plane was lit by what appeared to be a series of fireflies suffering from pernicious anaemia. All I could see was that the next seat to me (until then mercifully empty) was now being inundated – there is no other word – by a female of colossal proportions. The various portions of her anatomy, which she could not cram into her own seat, she had generously allowed to overflow into mine.
"Buenas noches," she said pleasantly, exuding sweat and scent in equal quantities.
"Buenas noches," I mumbled, and hastily closed my eyes and huddled into what was left of my seat, in order to put an end to the conversation. Fortunately, my companion, after this exchange of pleasantries, settled herself down for sleep, with much grunting and shifting and deep shuddering sighs that were vaguely reminiscent of the elephant seals. Presently she twitched and mumbled her way into sleep, and then started a prolonged and interesting snore that sounded like someone rhythmically rolling small potatoes down a corrugated iron roof. Lulled, rather than disturbed by this sound, I managed to drop off myself.
When I awoke it was light, and I surreptitiously examined my still sleeping companion. She was, as I say, a fine figure of a woman – all twenty stone of her. She had clad her generous body in a silk dress in yellow and green, and she was wearing scarlet shoes, both now reclining some distance from her feet. Her hair was bright glossy black and carefully arranged in tiny curls all over her head, and to crown this she was wearing a straw hat to which half the fruit and vegetable produce of Argentina appeared to have been attached. This breath-taking horticultural achievement had slipped during the night, and now reclined over one of her eyes at a saucy angle. Her face was round and dimpled, and separated from her ample bosom by a lavaflow of chins. Her hands, I noticed, were folded demurely in her lap, and though they were reddened and work-roughened they were tiny and beautifully formed, like the hands of so many fat people. As I was watching her she suddenly gave a great, shuddering sigh and opened large, pansy-dark eyes and gazed about her with the vacant expression of an awakening baby. Then she focused on me and her dumpling face spread into a dimpled smile.
"Buenos dias, se~nor" she said, inclining her head.
"Buenos dias, se~nora" I replied, also inclining my head gravely.
From somewhere under the seat she hoicked out a handbag the size of a small cabin-trunk and proceeded to repair the damage that the night's sleep had done to her face. This was little enough, as far as I could see, for her complexion was as perfect as a magnolia petal. Satisfied at last that she was not going to let her sex down, she put away her bag, resettled her bulk, and turned her bright, kindly eyes on me. Wedged as I was there was no escape.
"Where are you travelling to, se~nor?" she asked.
"Jujuy, se~nora," I replied.
"Ah, Jujuy?" she said, opening wide her dark eyes and raising her eyebrows, as though. Jujuy was the most interesting and desirable place in the world.
"You are German?" she asked.
"Ah, English?" with again the delighted surprise, as though to be English was something really special.
I felt it was time I took a more active part in the conversation. "I do not speak Spanish at all," I explained, "only a very little."
"But you speak beautifully," she said, patting my knee, and then qualified it by adding, "and I will speak slowly so that you may understand."
I sighed and gave myself up to my fate; short of jumping out of the window on my left there was nothing else I could do. Having decided that my knowledge of Spanish was limited she came to the conclusion that I would get a better grasp of her conversation if she shouted, so now the whole plane was party to our exchange of confidences. Her name, it appeared, was Rosa Lillipampila and she was on her way to visit her married son in Salta. She had not seen him for three years, and this was to be a terrific reunion. This was also her first flight in a plane, and she was taking a childlike delight in it. She kept breaking off her conversation with shrill cries (which made the more nervous of the other passengers jump) in order to lean over me, enveloping me in scent and bosom, to peer at some landmark passing below. Several times I offered to change seats with her, but she would not hear of it. When the steward came round with morning coffee she fumbled for her bag to pay, and when it was explained that it was free she was so delighted that you would have thought the rather grubby paper cup full of gritty liquid was a magnum of champagne which the benevolent air company had bestowed upon her. Presently the red lights went on to tell us that we were landing yet again at some obscure township to refuel, and I helped her struggle to get the safety belt round her enormous girth. This was a strenuous task, and her shrieks of merriment at our efforts echoed up and down the plane.
"You see," she panted, between gusts of laughter, "when one has six children and one likes to eat, one loses control over the size of one's body."
At last, just as the plane touched down, we got the belt hitched round her.
We clambered out on to the tarmac, stiff and crumpled, and I found that my girl-friend moved with the grace and lightness of a cloud. She had obviously decided that I was to be her conquest of the trip, and so, with a courteous, old world gesture I offered her my arm, and she accepted it with a beaming, coquettish smile. Linked together like a courting couple we made our way towards the inevitable small cafe and toilets that decorated the airport. Here she patted my arm, told me she would not be long, and drifted to the door marked "Se~noras", through which she passed with difficulty.
While she was communing with nature I took the opportunity to examine a large bush which grew alongside the little cafe… It was about the size of the average hydrangea, and yet on its branches and among its leaves (after only a cursory inspection) I found fifteen different species of insect and five species of spider. It was obvious we were nearing the tropical area. Then I spotted a very old friend of mine, a praying mantis, perched on a leaf, swaying from side to side and glaring about with its pale, evil eyes. I detached it from its perch and was letting it stalk its way up my arm, when my girl-friend returned. On seeing the creature she let out a cry that could, with a following wind, have been heard in Buenos Aires, but, to my surprise, it was not a cry of horror, but a cry of delighted recognition.
"Ah, the Devil's horse!" she cried excitedly. "When I was a child we often used to play with them."
This interested me, for, as a child in Greece, I used to play with them as well, and the local people had also called them the Devil's horse. So, for ten minutes or so, we played with the insect, making it run up and down each other's arms, and laughing immoderately, so that all the other passengers obviously doubted our sanity. At last we returned the mantis to his bush and went to have a coffee, but just at that moment an official arrived, and with apologetic hand-spreading informed us that we would be delayed two hours. Groans of rage rose from the assembled passengers. There was, however, the official went on, a company bus which would run us into town, and there, at a hotel, the air company had arranged for us to have anything we wanted at their expense. My girl-friend was delighted. Such generosity! Such kindness! I helped her into the bus, and we rattled over the dusty road into the town and drew up outside a curiously Victorian-looking hotel.
Inside, the hotel was so ornate that my lady friend was quite overcome. There were huge, brown, imitation marble pillars, pots and pots of decayed-looking palms, flocks of waiters who looked like ambassadors on holiday, and a sort of mosaic of tiny tables stretching away, apparently, to the farthest horizon. She held very tight to my arm as I steered her to a table and we sat down. All this splendour seemed to bereave her of speech, so in my halting Spanish I ordered lavishly from one of the ambassadors (who did not appear to have shaved since his last official function) and settled back to enjoy it. Soon, under the influence of five large cups of coffee with cream, a plate of hot medialunas and butter, followed by six cream cakes and a half pound of grapes, my companion lost her awe of the place, and even ordered one of the ambassadors to fetch her another plate to put her grape-pips on.
Presently, replete with free food, we made our way outside to the coach. The driver was sitting on a mudguard, moodily picking his teeth with a matchstick. We inquired if we were now ready to return to the airport. He gazed at us with obvious distaste.
So my girl-friend and I went for a walk round the town to kill time. She was delighted to have this chance to act as guide to a real foreigner, and there was nothing she did not show and explain to me. This was a shoe-shop… see, there were shoes in the window, so one knew, without a shadow of a doubt, that it was a shoe-shop. This was a garden, in which they grew flowers. That was a donkey, over there, that animal tethered to a tree. Ah, and here we had a chemist's shop, where you purchased medicines when you were not well. Oblivious to the people trying to force their way past on the pavement, she insisted on standing in front of the chemist's window and giving such a realistic display of suffering that I expected someone to call for an ambulance, if the town boasted of such an amenity. Altogether our tour was a great success, and I was quite sorry when we had to return to the bus and be driven back to the airport.
Once more in the plane we had the Herculean task of lashing her into her seat, and then unlashing her once we were airborne on the last leg of our journey. Hitherto the country we had been flying over had been typical Pampa, with here and there an occasional outcrop of small hills, but by and large the view from the plane had been flat and featureless. But now the hills became more and more frequent, and higher and higher, covered with scrub and gigantic cacti like huge green surrealist candelabra. And then the air-pockets started.
The first was quite a big one, and one felt one's stomach had been left at least a hundred feet up as the plane dropped. My companion, who had been in the middle of an intricate and – to me – almost incomprehensible story about some remote cousin, opened her mouth wide and uttered a cry of such a piercing quality that the whole of the aircraft was thrown into confusion. Then, to my relief she burst into peals of happy laughter.
"What was that?" she asked me.
I did my best, in my limited Spanish, to explain the mysteries of air-pockets, and managed to get the basic facts across to her. She lost all interest in the story about her cousin, and waited expectantly for the next air-pocket to make its appearance so that she could enjoy it to the full, for, as she explained, she had not been prepared for the first one. She was soon rewarded with a real beauty, and greeted it with a scream of delight and a flood of delighted laughter. She was like a child on a switchback in a fair, and she treated the whole thing as a special treat, which the air company had provided for her enjoyment, like the meal we had just eaten. The rest of the passengers, I noticed, were not treating the air-pockets in the same light-hearted way, and they were all glowering at my fat friend with faces that were growing progressively greener. By now we were flying over higher and higher ground, and the plane dropped and rose like a lift out of control. The man across gangway had reached a shade of green I would not have thought the human countenance could have achieved. My friend noticed this too, and was all commiseration. She leant across the gangway.
"Are you ill, se~nor?" she inquired. He nodded mutely.
"Ah, you poor thing," she said and burrowing into her bag produced a huge bag of very sticky and pungent sweets which she thrust at him.
"These are very good for sickness," she proclaimed. "Take one."
The poor man took one look at the terrible congealed mass in the paper bag and shook his head vigorously.
My friend shrugged, gave him a glance of pity, and popped three of the sweets into her mouth. As she sucked vigorously and loudly she suddenly noticed something that had escaped her sharp eyes before, the brown paper bag in a little bracket attached to the back of the seat in front of us. She pulled it out and peered inside, obviously wondering if some other magnificent largesse from the kindly air company was concealed inside it. Then she turned a puzzled eye on me.
"What is this for?" she asked in a penetrating voice.
I explained the necessity of the paper bag. She held it aloft and examined it minutely.
"Well," she said at last, "if I wanted to get sick I should want something much larger than that."
The man across the gangway cast a look at her ample form and the size of the brown paper bag, and the vision conjured up by her words was obviously too much for him, for he dived precipitously for his own bag and buried his face in it.
When the plane eventually touched down my girlfriend and I were the only ones who dismounted without looking as though we had just been through a hurricane. In the foyer of the airport her son was waiting, a pleasant-faced man who was identical in shape to his mother. Uttering shrill cries they undulated towards each other and embraced with a fat-quivering crash. When they surfaced, I was introduced and commended for the care I had taken of my protegee en route. Then, because the driver who was to meet me was nowhere to be seen, the entire Lillipampila family (son, wife, three children and grandmother) hunted round the airport like foxhounds until they found him. They saw me to the car, embraced me, told me to be sure to look them up when I was in Salta, and stood, a solid facade of fat, beaming and waving as I drove off on my way to Calilegua, the place where I was to stay. Kindness in Argentina is apt to be overwhelming, and after having been embraced by the entire Lillipampila family I felt every bone in my body aching. I gave the driver a cigarette, lit one myself and leant back and closed my eyes. I felt I deserved a few moments' relaxation.