Chef Hector Gonzalez, the head cook of the orphanage, was supposedly the former sous chef for Hotel De La Opera: the fanciest hotel in Bogotá, Colombia. He did wear the squashed white hat and white outfit as he ladled up our meal, but what composed it made me question the validity of this information. I glanced down at the piled, pale-green vegetable and cringed. It was some sort of shredded cabbage interspersed with little marshmallows. To the left of this was a soup based on oily broth with a few chicken bones floating on top like the detritus of a flooded butchery. I sat at the long plastic table centered in the courtyard and just stared, with all my seventeen-year-old American pomposity, at the plate.
The rest of my group, if their slurping was any indication, did not seem to be having the same trouble as I. It was probably due to my imagination which conjured forth all sort of pestilences crawling around that food as plentifully as salt and pepper. Randy Petersheim -- who was my friend in 2004 but became my husband in 2008 -- met my eyes and understood my quandary. He swept his hands toward him.
“You’re sure?” I mouthed. He nodded. As inconspicuously as possible since the courtyard was in view of the kitchen, I stood and carried my tray over to him. He handed his empty one to me so quickly it looked like we hadn’t exchanged them at all. I carried the tray back to my seat and sat down. I then watched as he scooped that bony broth up to his mouth and ate that cabbage and marshmallow salad as if he wasn’t just saving me from having to.
But by three in the afternoon, I was famished. I was prepared, though, for I’d packed a chocolate protein bar in case something like that horrid lunch had happened. But when I checked my cloth bag to get it out (we’d been advised not to carry purses in Colombia), the bar was gone. Frantically, I searched beneath the bunk beds of the room we were renovating and in the orphans’ emptied cubby holes.
"Where’s my chocolate!” I exclaimed, hands on my hips. Randy's sisters, Jenny and Joanne, and his cousin, Sarah, glanced down from their ladders where they were systematically sponging and stripping paper from the wall.
“Don’t know,” Joanne said. “Are you sure you brought it?”
“Yes! I know I brought it!” I said.
Joanne’s eyebrows rose until they disappeared into the blunt line of her bangs. “Sorry,” she softly said, and I felt like such a jerk.
“The children might’ve grabbed it while we were at lunch,” Jenny commented after a few of my sulkily-spent minutes had passed.
I was incensed. “You’re kidding me! Orphans steal?”
“They never get things like chocolate, Jolina,” Jenny said with a tinge of annoyance. “You know that--you saw our lunch.”
My pious air was punctured as if someone had jabbed it with a pin. My squared shoulders sank; my face drained its color. Here I’d been begrudging a protein bar from orphans who only had bone-filled soup, cabbage salad, cubby holes, and rickety bunk beds to their name. And I had everything someone could desire and didn’t even want it.
After this realization, I tried to suck it up. I didn’t grumble when Betty Petersheim, Randy's mother, told me to begin peeling the zebra-striped wallpaper from the bathroom walls. I started wearing long-sleeved layers so when one became as soppy as the sponge I was using, I could just take it off and continue working unhindered. When Chef Gonzalez dished up our plates at lunchtime, I received mine with a smile and a gracias regardless if I found it worthy of one or not (this was also because Randy ate my truly less savory sides). The only thing I could not become accustomed to was our inability to go outside The Bethel House’s walls after nighttime. At my parents’ insistence, I had read splashy articles about the guerilla warfare and drug cartel infiltrating the deceptively scenic countryside. But I soon started thinking those events had been reported through the spectrum of yellow journalism, if they’d been reported accurately at all, for we’d been there three days already and hadn’t seen or heard anything to cause alarm except a few beggars and their slinking, rail-thin dogs.
Because of this nighttime curfew, the walls of The Bethel House started closing around me on Wednesday. We’d just eaten a quick dinner of spaghetti, and the Petersheims had cleared the table and settled in to play another round of spades. I’d tired of card games two days before and went to sit in the living room where there was nothing to do but translate sentences into English from the Spanish Bible. Randy had been playing with everyone else, but when he saw me sitting there -- pretty much pouting as I conjugated verbs -- he set his cards down and came to ask what was wrong. I told him without a moment’s hesitation. He looked to the side, then into my eyes. “Come with me,” he said. Setting La Biblia on the couch, I stood and followed him out through the living room and up the cement steps.
There were three levels to The Bethel House. The first was composed of the kitchen, living room, bathroom, and one bedroom where Randy’s parents, Betty and Rich, slept. The founders of the orphanage, Jeanene and Richard Thicke, had designated the second floor Girls Only. The right half of it was one big room where eight bunk beds were wedged. A bathroom composed the left half, but the hot water was so minimal we were restricted to military showers, and even then the water was glacial before we’d rinsed the shampoo from our hair. Randy led me past all this and up to the third floor: Boys Only. I was not fearful, for he’d only treated me with brotherly/sisterly-style affection and nothing more. I wouldn’t have admitted it to anyone, for I’d barely admitted it to myself, but despite our seven year age gap I almost wished he’d express his affection in a deeper, less platonic way. I knew, though, if he did I would run right out The Bethel House’s door regardless of any nighttime restrictions.
The boys’ floor was a mirror image of our own--excluding ours smelled better and every surface was not draped in dirty clothing (those two factors were unquestionably linked). Randy said, “’Scuse the mess,” and went past even this. He opened what appeared to be a closet door, and although the area inside was the size of one, it wasn’t. “That’s an opening to the roof,” Randy explained, pointing to the seven foot ceiling where a square of tin was bolted with a rusty latch.
He smiled at the excitement in my words. “Well, no. I found it last night.” Taking a wobbly wooden chair from the room, he set it beneath the square.
“You’re gonna stand on that?” I asked. “Can it hold your weight?”
Randy put a hand to his chest and opened his mouth in mock horror. “What exactly are you saying?” His dimples flashed. “Just kidding. I used the chair last night. It worked fine.”
Despite his reassurances, I held the seat of the chair as he stood on it and wiggled the rusty padlock. He opened it as easily as Houdini, and this made me question his previous history of occupations. He pushed the tin off the opening with a solid punch, bracketed his hands on the ledges, and lifted himself inside. Once he was firmly settled, I climbed on top of the chair. But even when I was standing on tiptoe, I couldn’t touch the ledges. Randy reached one hand down. “I guess I’ll have to pull you up,” he said. There was no way around it: either I was staying inside another night, or we had to make contact.
My claustrophobia made the latter choice the convincing one. I clasped his hand with both of mine. His fingers were more calloused than I’d imagined. He lifted me up like I was a leaf, but I couldn’t flatter myself too much for he’d obviously been preparing himself for something far heavier. He pulled so hard and so fast when I made it to the top, his body went sailing backward and mine went sailing forward onto the flat cement roof of The Bethel House. Thankfully, these kinesics did not cause us to collide, and besides a few dust and pigeon specks, we were fine. I just flipped onto my back, and we lay there, side-by-side, sharing sips of the cool night air and seeing what we could of those citified stars.
On Sunday, after the Thickes picked us up from The Bethel House, I sat in the back of that bucking Blue Ox (a 1980-something suburban), stared at the sparse countryside sliding past, and thought this road trip to Guatavita something much deserved. In less than a week, the Petersheim girls and I had sponged and peeled wallpaper from an entire floor of rooms and used paint-thinner and sandpaper to annihilate whatever pasty glop was left. We’d covered the edges of numerous windows and trim pieces with tape and begun painting the walls in colors of wonder: sea-foam green and summer-blue; mango-orange and sunset-mauve. (Out of the five, I was the only one whose hair, hands, and clothing were coated with every color we’d used. Let me just say, the effect was not very inspiring.)
Besides the loss of a few key brain cells from inhaling all those chemicals, the physical labor at the orphanage hadn’t been that bad. But I was still looking forward to getting out of the city and seeing a patch of countryside for a change and perhaps, if they weren’t too hostile, a few guerillas. And as luck would have it, it was right during this sporadic thought process I overheard Jeanene and Richard discussing what we would do if we came upon them.
Tapping Randy on the shoulder, who was seated in front of me, I whispered, “What are they saying?”
He angled his body toward me and said, “They’re telling Mom and Dad what we’ll do in case the guerrillas set up a road block.”
“They do that out here?”
Randy nodded gravely. “Yeah.”
I hollered up to the front seat, “I’d like to see a guerilla!”
I was trying to lighten the severity of the situation -- like we were traveling to a zoo or something -- but the silence following my sentence told me humor, at this point and time, was not appreciated. To my surprise, Randy didn’t slip me the reassurance of his smile either, but just faced forward again--rather quickly. So I resumed staring out the Blue Ox’s window and didn’t say anything until we'd arrived in Guatavita. And even when I did speak, it was only a terse comment about the weather.
Although we’d been advised to stay together, in Guatavita's outdoor plaza I zigzagged in and out of the twisting crowds while tucking my bag firmly against my side. The vendors -- despite their darkened skin, leather hats, and wool clothing -- reminded me of the ones from my home town’s annual threshermen show. They all had the same crinkled faces and gap-toothed grins as they held up their wares while hawking about their one-in-a-kind attributes. Thankfully, though, unlike the ones at home, I could just sputter No Habla Espanol and walk right on by.
But the deeper I went into this labyrinth, the more I liked what I saw. I started pitching pesos like they were pennies for items I wanted simply because, like the vendors said, they’d be purchased somewhere other than the States and when complimented on them I could say so: a chunky-knit scarf for Mom; rose petal earrings for Misty; a buckskin drum for Caleb; a jangling Gypsy belt for me; a leather wallet for Josh; Columbian, whole bean coffee for Dad--even though he never really drank it. And then I saw the magnum opus of my shopping frenzy. A pure silk shawl that was dragon’s breath red, braided, woven, weeping with fringes. It was exquisite, and I imagined wearing it to my college banquets and balls with lipstick and jagged stilettos to match.
“65,000 pesos,” the vendor said. I looked down from the wooden rack where it was being displayed to the shriveled, pint-sized lady watching me with a capitalistic gleam in her eyes.
Hoping I’d heard her wrong, I repeated the number. “65,000 pesos?”
The lady knotted her hands together and bobbed her head in agreement. “65,000 pesos.”
I pointed to it and frowned. “50,000 pesos?”
She shook her head--her heavy earrings swinging; her silver hair catching sunlight. “No,” she said, jabbing an arthritic finger at me. “You pay 65,000 pesos.”
Ah, she speaks some English, I thought. Reaching up, I plucked at that beautiful shawl like it was something diseased. “Really?” I sneered. “How ’bout 55,000 pesos?”
“NO! 65,000 pesos!”
It was obviously time to walk away. Everyone always said when you did that, they always called you back. I did that, and she didn’t. The fashionable part of my soul was swooning with remorse, but I wasn’t about to pay that price--mainly because the people with me would ask, and I would have to tell them; and they would know what that translated to in dollars, and what that sum could purchase for those darling but destitute orphans.
I absolutely hated being a short term missionary right then.
Minutes later, while I was still mourning the loss of my shopping magnum opus, a hand snaked out of the crowd and clenched my elbow in a vice grip. Perching my mouth into The Scream position, I took a deep breath before letting it rip; but right before I did Randy’s voice hissed into my ear, “What do you think you’re doing--running away like that?”
Casually turning away from the beaded jewelry I’d been browsing, I faced him -- inches away -- and shrugged. “I just had to get away for a little while.”
“Well,” he said, stepping even closer, “that’s perfectly all right, but not when we’re in kidnapping territory!”
“Who died and made you my bodyguard?” I snapped.
At my words, Randy’s face took on a tinge of red and his nostrils flared. But only once. “Oh, just take care of yourself,” he muttered, releasing me to stalk through the crowd.
All shopping desire dissipated after Randy and my altercation. And when I made my way back to the plaza’s entrance, everyone was waiting. Of course, I was the only one laden with more things than a pack mule.
“Get some deals?” Betty Petersheim asked.
I gave a tight smile. “Yes. Souvenirs. For my family and Misty.” (They didn’t need to know about my jangling Gypsy belt.) I loaded it all into the back hatch of the Blue Ox and went around to climb inside. Leaning forward, I asked Jeanene in the passenger’s seat, “How much is 65,000 pesos in American dollars?”
She replied, “About 30 bucks.”
“Oh, my word!” I exclaimed. Grabbing my bag, I scrambled over the girls’ laps and slung open the suburban’s door. I began to run as soon as my feet hit dirt. I sprinted past the plaza’s stucco entrance and wove through the tangle of people with no trouble at all due to my boost of bargain adrenaline. Regardless, I was breathless and sweaty by the time I arrived at the pint-sized lady’s booth.
She actually cackled when she looked up from her knitting and saw me there: hunkered over, gasping, my pesos fluttering from my bag onto the earthen floor. But then she stopped, for I hadn’t been at her booth for more than 10 seconds when Randy arrived. His hazel eyes were wild and his face -- only tinged with red before -- pulsing blood. “I thought I’d lost you,” he panted, hands on his knees.
“No,” I said, smiling benignly, “I just had to get something.”
Scooping up the paper littering the floor, I counted out 65,000 pesos and handed it over without haggling the price. The pint-sized lady jerked on the silk shawl displayed above, and it fluttered like a fiery bird of paradise into my arms.
“Happy now?” Randy asked, wiping his brow.
“Oh, yes,” I said.
Thanking the lady, I marched out of that outdoor plaza with the shawl draping my arms, and Randy trailing behind me. Before we reached the Blue Ox, I sneaked a glance over my shoulder. He was shaking his head. But his lips, they were smiling.