About me and this blog

I was born on a native reserve in Ontario, grew up on the west coast of Vancouver Island (as far west as you can go without running out of Canada), came of age in Mexico City. Between times, I lived in the Fraser Valley, Texas, Seattle, Oklahoma, Bella Coola, on the BC north coast, and the Fraser River Delta, just south of Vancouver. For now, I'm "settled" in Campbell River, on Vancouver Island.

I have a boatload of stories to tell. These are some of them.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Pocketful of Posies: Day 10


Day 10: Somoza's "Palace"

(Day 1, here)

We still had a fair amount of food left, and someone at the hospital suggested that we take it to an orphanage. They were always in need of help, and now their sources had dried up. We went to the address they gave us first thing in the morning.

The building had suffered very little damage, and the children were still sleeping inside. They had no choice, the director said; they had no other place to go. They were glad of our supplies. We gave them most of what we had left.

"People are getting desperate, now," we had been told. "There is no food anywhere. Yesterday someone shot a farmer from the country who brought in some milk. Shot him and stole the milk. Be careful."

So it was a relief to unload the station wagon. We covered the remaining food, mostly powdered milk and oranges, with our blankets and bags. Carlos had replaced the signs, as well.

The director of the orphanage showed us around. It was an ordinary house, crowded with beds and cots, even in the hallways. A few of the cribs contained two babies each. "We are expecting more children soon," she said. "So many have lost their families. I don't know how we're going to manage." She stood by a crib, smoothing the hair of a toddler who clung to the rails, a repetitive motion that looked habitual. She wasn't watching the child, but rather staring blindly at the curtained window. "I don't know..." she repeated.

It was Carlos who came up with the idea. "We could adopt some," he said. "We could take them home to Mexico with us, we have space in the car. For four, at least. I can take one home to my mother, so can Paco, and George and Susana here would take one, wouldn't you, George? And Raquel has a big house and a big heart; she would take one home, too."

George glared at Carlos, then thought better of it and said, "Sure, we'd love to take an orphaned baby home." I nodded.

"That is so kind of you," the director said. "So kind. To know that four of our children, at least, will have a safe home... But to take them out of the country, you'd have to have permission. You'll have to go to the Presidential Palace to get an order from Somoza himself."

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The road to Somoza's walled compound was lined with soldiers, standing, lounging, watching, leaning on rifles and engine hoods, waiting. Baked red dust covered everything, even the uniforms. When we halted at the guard station, the heat flooded the car; a dry, choking heat that seemed all the worse for the vision of green lawns just beyond the gate.

There were the usual questions; Who are you? Where are you from? What do you want?, the answers taken truculently, as if we were expected to lie. Finally the guard stepped back, and motioned with his rifle. "Go on. Over there."

"There" was a semi-circle of large canvas tents. American Army tents; stencils on the sides labelled them clearly. We parked and walked over. Inside the central tent, American soldiers sat at a long table. There were papers strewn over the table, but no-one seemed to be doing anything. A man at the end looked up and, in passable Spanish, asked our business. We explained. The others ignored us, and when we were passed on to the next soldier, he asked the same questions over again, as if he had not heard us the first time.

The next man, and the next. Same story, same feigned ignorance, same response: "Talk to him." Up the chain of command, until we were sent to a second tent, where one decorated official sat alone, guarded by two stiff soldiers at the tent flaps. He heard our story, steepled his fingers, and leaned back, considering. We stood humbly before him, five sweating, dusty foreigners asking for an audience with the supreme commander. Four Mexicans and one Canadian. The official looked us over one by one, always coming back to me. George, me, Carlos, me, Paco, me, Raquel, and me again. I was the one who didn't fit, who was raising suspicions. I should have stayed back at the hospital.

I was feeling light-headed, with the heat and the tension; I was probably very pale, except for the sunburn on my nose and forehead. I knew I didn't look dangerous. But it seemed to take hours before the official in front of us came to the same conclusion. At last, he put his hands back on the desk, and looked at one of the guards. "Take them out," he said in English.

He looked back at us. "Someone will see if General Somoza will talk to you. Wait."

Another soldier escorted us to a lawn in front of the Residence. "Esperen aqui," he said. (Wait here.) He went to lounge in the shade. We sat on the grass; it was cool under us, although the sun still beat down unmercifully on my head.

After a while Raquel went back to the car and brought out some lunch; more eggs and oranges, the last of our bread. Later a soldier brought us a pitcher of water to drink. I remember the ice cubes floating in it; they looked like heaven.

In mid-afternoon, Carlos said, "I know what's wrong here."

"What?"

"Why we're not getting in; we're trying to do this on our own. We haven't asked for God's blessing on our plans."

"But we prayed this morning, asking God to lead us," Raquel objected. "So we're doing what He wants."

"Sure, but we have to be in constant dependence on Him; ask for His help all along the way. And we haven't done that; we're just sitting here waiting for army officials to make the decisions."

So we formed a circle, there in the centre of the lawn, all five of us on our knees, heads bowed reverently. Carlos prayed, a brief, fervent prayer, asking God to move on the hearts of the soldiers and the President himself. George followed with more flowery language, but the same request. There was a brief silence; were we expected to pray around the circle? If so, Raquel was next. But she said nothing, and soon George said, "Amen," again, and stood up.

When a soldier came to get us a few minutes later, Carlos smiled at us all meaningfully.

The soldier led around the building to a small gate. He knocked, and we were admitted into a walled area around a large swimming pool. At the far end, a woman lay on a lounge chair, with a tall glass of something amber at her side. "Esperen aqui," the soldier said. Mercifully, this was the shady end. There were chairs and tables, but without an invitation we didn't dare use them; we stood.

The soldier went to speak to the woman, then went through another door, at her end of the pool. The woman showed no awareness of our presence. A maid came and refreshed her drink, went away again. We waited.

Our soldier came back, and spoke to the woman again, then came over to us. "Mrs. Somoza will speak to you now," he said. "One of you."

George stepped forward immediately, but the soldier pointed at Carlos. "You," he said.

It didn't take long; three minutes, four maybe. Carlos came back, and the soldier led us out, around the building, across the lawns and parking lots, back to the car. He stood watching alertly as we turned the car around and drove to the gate.

"Well?" George said, as soon as we were out of hearing.

"No. She said that it wouldn't be fair to the Nicaraguan people; their children are their only heritage. They can't allow them to be taken out of the country."

"But they'll starve here!" I blurted out. "And they're orphans! There's no-one to watch out for them!"

"I told her that," Carlos said. "She says that we have no guarantee that they're really orphans. When all this is over, maybe their parents will show up alive; then how would she answer them?"


To be continued ...

Stories of Mexico: Non-fiction
©Susannah Anderson, 2001


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