Monday, August 1, 2011

On The Lake Of Guinea Pigs

It's August, 1955, so despite their formal attire these people cannot possibly be survivors of the Titanic.  You can tell by the look on their faces that they're not worried about survival on their crowded life boat.

Actually, it isn't a life boat, but a canoe, with an Indian pilot taking us out on Cuicocha, the lake of guinea pigs, in the Ecuadorian Andes.  The child in the baseball cap, center back, is the pilot's son.  He is staring into Cuicocha's unfathomable depths.  In front of him are an Ecuadorian couple.  He is an intellectual and a poet, the first to translate Walt Whitman's Leaves Of Grass into Spanish.  She is the mother of his sons.

The woman sitting next to the poet is a lyric soprano, born in Austria, who in the nick of time fled the Reich to South America.  She is also, I find out much later, the first divorced woman my mother has ever met.  One day in Quito she showed up with two puppies, male and female, as a gift for me.  Therefore, I adore her.

Across from the lyric soprano is the violist of the string quartet (of which my father is first violin) that the Ecuadorian Ministry of Culture has imported from Barcelona.  He is engaged to a woman in Spain, to whom he writes every day.  She cannot honorably cross the Atlantic to meet him as a single woman, so they will marry by proxy (my parents will sit up drinking brandy with him on his wedding night), and many months later she will arrive by boat, wearing the latest European fashions.

The cellist of the quartet, in sunglasses and pipe, sits next to the violist.  According to my father, he is a splendid musician who doesn't practice enough.  He is a ladies' man, and answers the phone with an affected "'Alloooo..."  I am contemptuous of him.

Across from him is my mother, in her glory.  She is thirty-seven, and she is having an adventure in an exotic land.  In fact, she is planning to send this photo, which my father is taking, to her parents on their farm in Catalonia.  "You can't imagine how beautiful this is!" she writes on the back.

The fourth member of the quartet, the second violin, is not on the boat, but back in Quito.  He is handsome and aristocratic, and has an ocelot kitten that I covet.  In retrospect, I think his absence on this and other trips must have had something to do with a woman.

And that's the ten-year-old me, surrounded by adults, as usual.  I am emphatically withdrawing my gaze from the natural wonders around me.  I am sick of natural wonders, sick of Indians who smell because they are so poor, sick of endless talk about music and art.  I am looking into the bag in which I have secreted a tiny doll for whom I have improvised a miniature apartment where I can visit her.

Cuicocha is a quechua word composed of cocha (meaning lake) and cui (guinea pig).  Guinea pigs are everywhere in the Andes, especially in people's kitchens, and especially in their cooking pots.  Like rabbits, they provide high-protein meat, and like rabbits, they reproduce like mad.  But my mother, brought up on her mother's hand-raised rabbits, find cuis too much like rats, of which she is deathly afraid.  So that is one Ecuadorian delicacy we do not taste.

Cuicocha is a lake in the crater of an extinct volcano.  Its bottom has never been found.  None of the people in the canoe know how to swim.

11 comments :

  1. I have the pictures to bring when you were 17 on our patio and laughing. Keep the memories coming! The contrast of 7 years of adlescence and cultures is fascinating!

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  2. And now it's my turn to have you on our patio, and laughing! Looking forward to it.

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  3. Fantastic. And I do so love the last line.

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  4. This is lovely, Lali. I love the bit about the doll in the satchel. Sounds like something my daughter would have done.

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  5. Dona, I bet your daughter was much younger than I. I played with dolls until puberty!

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  6. no one knew how to swim??!! And yet they look so happy... It is a wonderful recounting and a heady group to have for you homies, Lali.

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  7. Margaret, my homies were an imprudent bunch, for sure.

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  8. I love to hear your stories about Ecuador. It gives me a sense of what life was like when you and my sister were girls. Our 18 years in age difference makes her childhood so distant, and you are bringing it closer to me.

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  9. Erica, my sister and I are sixteen years apart, so I know what you mean about distance. Ecuador in the 1950s was a bit like going into the 18th century, in some respects. Our life there was not rosy all the time, and the friendship with your parents and Anita made the experience much more pleasant for us.

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