It’s been one humiliation after the other since the Swiss girl in Banos. Someone should have told me that you’re only allowed to talk politics and drink beer with Northern European girls in crummy Latin American hotel rooms. She hadn’t exactly been angry with me for trying to kiss her, but I no longer felt comfortable hanging with her and her gaggle of international gringos.
I’d gotten myself up early the next morning to catch the bus over the mountains only to find that Riobamba wasn’t nearly as quaint as my budget guide had claimed. If I hadn’t been so depressed to be alone in another grimy town, I wouldn’t have drunk so much at the chicken joint several blocks away from my hotel.
Slipping up from behind me had only got them twenty bucks as the rest of my cash was back in my room, but the rusty knife unhinged me. All night I kept thinking they were waiting outside my room.
To make a long story short, I was pretty much of a mess by dawn and couldn’t get around the thought of another whole week in Ecuador before my flight back to New York.
This is pretty much how you meet me, checking over my shoulder to make sure no one’s around, as I dial all the numbers necessary to get my mother in Long Island.
After she picks up the phone with her usual breezy “Heylo,” I sob like I haven’t since something like junior high school when Dad was leaving us.
“Who is it,” she shrieks, ever alert to the obscene caller, “who’s calling me?”
“What’s wrong?!” she snaps when she figures out it’s me, “tell me what’s wrong?” She always manages to sound pissy when she’s upset, but it’s reassuring to know you can punch some numbers into a public phone and find someone actually worried about you on the other end. The traveling gringo circus has already forgotten the creepy American who probably supported the damn Iraq war no matter what he claimed to the contrary, and the Ecuadorians look right through me, just another backpacker who hadn’t bothered to properly learn their language.
Obviously, I can’t bring up the Swiss girl and only tell Mom about getting jumped after she’s drilled and drilled. When she orders me back home, my pride kicks in: “No way, Mom!” What would people think when they saw me back a week early? But it’s the astronomical airline change me that gives mom pause.
When she asks me where I’m staying, I sound like the whiny bourgeois complainer I’ve spent most of my first twenty-five years on the planet trying not to be: the urinous shared bathroom, the greasy sheets, the torn bedspread, the lack of decent heat.
“Well,” she says dubiously like she could pass fifteen minutes there without losing her mind. She may be watching the expensive intercontinental seconds tick away on the credit cards she’s paying for, but she doesn’t act cheap.
“Can’t fifty bucks a night get you someplace decent? We can spare it. Just put it on the card.”
I only didn’t major in anarchy in that tiny Pennsylvania college because they wouldn’t let me. My place in Brooklyn, now, isn’t exactly a squat (I didn’t want to give mom a heart attack) but plaster comes down from its ceiling and mice and roaches crawl through its floorboards. It’s okay that my legal proofreading gig doesn’t pay jack, as I do my drinking in dives. I can’t claim proletarian roots, but my life’s shades darker than my mom’s in suburban Long Island.
So when Jane (a cheaper skate than me) and I saved enough for a trip, we planned to head for the rougher side of the border. It was only after I’d put down the deposit on the flight to Guayaquil and told everyone I was going that she blew off not just the trip but our whole deal together. I wasn’t psyched about going it alone, but wimping out wasn‘t an option.
Back at the hotel after Mom hangs up, I find that all my budget guide’s “moderate” options lie down dreary dark blocks I already know. Nothing in the “expensive” category, but there’s what they refer to as “splurge.”: “huge,” “luxurious” and located just outside of town. You could apparently bargain down the renovated eighteenth century hacienda (called just that, “La Hacienda”) to exactly fifty a night.
I’m still not exactly planning on going as I grab my huge backpack and slip out of the hotel onto the tiny alley outside. (Evan Meyer didn’t usually do “luxurious” even with June Meyer’s cash.) The book wasn’t real clear about directions; you had to get to the bus station and figure it out.
It’s drizzling, though, an aching cold in my joints even though it’s July, so when one of those white cabs I’ve ignored so far pulls up in front of me, I don’t have the heart to use the phrase suggested by the guidebook to stop the driver from grabbing my bag and putting it in the trunk.
Soon we’re driving far enough outside of town for the driver to pull one of those scams you get warned about, the ones in which they take you out into the middle of nowhere and rob you blind. He looks back at me periodically, probably trying to figure out what I’m worth, but after ten more fast minutes down the bumpy highway, the sun coming out through the vast mountains surrounding us on either side, a weathered sign on our left reads, “La Hacienda, one km.”
The building at the end of the driveway is pretty impressive, a huge rambling adobe in the Spanish style with lots of goats and cows but only one car, a truck actually, in the driveway. The cab stops in front of a short gravel footpath that leads to the lobby.
I’ve got my bag out by the time the driver gets around to saying that he doubts it’s actually open but is willing to take me back to town if it’s not. That was probably his strategy in the first place, a sure-fire double fare, so I wave him off.
The door to the lobby is thankfully open, but the check-in desk on the left side of the cavernous room is unattended. They’ve got weathered couches, slightly cracked paintings of colonial Andean scenes and some pretty prehistoric looking ashes in the huge fireplace.
When the bell on the desk doesn’t work, I yell “Con permiso! con permiso!” several times as it’s all I can think to say. No one comes out, so I dump my bags and explore further inside, not yet ready to think myself a fool for sending the cab away. Victorian chairs circle another fireplace in the next room. A big sign on the wall lists all the hotel offers: saunas, Turkish baths, corporate meeting halls…
I’m still reading it when I hear footsteps from some distant hallway. They seem like they’re getting closer before drifting off like whoever it is has changed his mind.
That pisses me off. “Con permiso! con permiso!,” I shriek again, this time accusatorily.
Suddenly, there are several of them. Two young guys in tee-shirts emerge from the big dining room I notice for the first time off to the side of the lounge, some toothless ancient comes in from outside, and finally the perfectly preppy manager himself shows up in Chinos and a polo shirt. He looks suspiciously at my dirty, torn jeans and stained, smelly college radio tee-shirt. Your average Hacienda guest (at fifty dollars at pop) doesn’t show up like this.
He looks pensively at me when I ask for a room as if it’s a question he got to seriously consider before stating the price (“cinquenta dolares“) in a “we don’t serve your kind here” type tone. I don’t even have to bargain him down.
“Bien,” I say. When I pull a credit card out from my weathered old wallet, his eyes dart nervously around the room in search of an excuse not to accept it.
“Pero,” he finally says.
“But what?” I answer back in the English that any guy working the desk of such a fancy joint is bound to speak.
Shrugging his shoulders, he makes an imprint of my card and reaches behind him for a big wooden key chain shaped like an Incan god. Then he grabs my bag and leads me through the lounge into a hall so long and murky that I can’t see the other end.
Getting a little more into the spirit of things, he lists the various Hacienda amenities I’d read about on the sign. Once we finally reach the end of the corridor, we make a left onto another hall almost as large. Halfway down, we climb a moldy staircase onto a third hall with hardly any light at all.
“All these other rooms are full?” I ask him in my most attitudinous English. Ignoring my question, he opens a door into a room much bigger than my Brooklyn apartment with a king-sized bed, several fancy old chairs and what look to be nineteenth century etchings on the wall.
“Bien,” I say as neutrally as I can, and he disappears.
By the time the door is closed, I’m no longer quite so impressed. It smells a little dank, and there are several cracks in the hunting scene wallpaper. How am I going to get through a whole week by myself here without dying of boredom? Fortunately, eleven o’clock is arguably lunchtime.
But I need something to read in the dining room, as I’ve struck out with the political thrillers and the lefty tome I’ve brought with me. Sometimes, there are funny old books abandoned in hotel rooms. No shelves, but next to the television, on top of some weathered Galapagos Island brochures, I see something. Probably put out by the Hacienda staff in better days, the 100 or so pages are in several languages including English. The Hacienda in Old Times will have to do.
The first thing I notice after I’ve made my way back to the dining room is that everyone is dressed peculiarly: puffy white shirts and scruffy black pants. It’s some version of colonial dress. People can’t really still dress this way in remote Andean tourist hotels.
Not exactly thrilled to see me, the hound-faced headwaiter leads me sulkily to a table looking out upon the incredible sight of the snow-capped Chimborazo, the neighboring volcano.
Maybe I should have at least run a comb through my tangled, greasy hair, if not actually shaved. Dismissively, he hands me a menu that (though insanely expensive by Ecuadorian standards) would still be a total New York bargain. I still want to be careful, though, about tripping up mom’s generosity. Besides, I don’t want to come off as some typical American big spender. It’s better to blow it on booze anyway, an enormous Ecuadorian beer and the cheapest thing on the menu, a ham and cheese sandwich that I down in about two gulps.
I slowly sip the beer, my eyes taking their fill of the volcano. When I’m bored of looking, I open the book I’d found in my room. Depicting late eighteenth century Hacienda life, it encourages us guests to think of ourselves like the old time senoras and senores of the colonial past. Have some fucking pride, I think, already a little buzzing from the beer. “Bolivar, Bolivar, Bolivar,” I chant very quietly, wishing the meztizo waiter would notice but knowing it wouldn’t make much sense to him if he did.
“Fuck, the fucking Spanish,” I go on a little more loudly.
The page I’ve turned to (describing the times the senor’s family is out of town) seems tailor-made for the single guy staying by himself at the hotel. The description of the enormous breakfast is definitely a covert advertisement for the lavishly expensive desayuno especial del senor I’d seen on the menu.
Another younger waiter hangs out right nearby in case I get it in my head to order something else. At first, it’s annoying, some fly buzzing around me, but he gets me more bread and fills my beer glass from the huge bottle every time it begins to get empty. There must have been dozens of them around the senor, the opposite of the grumpy Greek dudes at the coffee shop across the street back home.
I plunge headfirst into the soft mattress the moment I’m back in the room, but despite the beer and sleep deprivation, I don’t fall off right away. If Jane were with me, there wouldn’t have been any humiliating passes at Swiss girls to obsess over. But La Hacienda, which I’m kind of getting into, would have been way too bourgeois for her. I tuck one of the many big pillows strategically under my armpit to represent where her head would go if she were with me. It’s more malleable, of course. Though she was relatively into fucking as long as she was the one to initiate it, she pretty much hated to cuddle. She wasn’t into the whole bed thing, in general, only needing about four hours of it a night.
When she dumped me she said she needed someone more energetic, but I wouldn’t have gotten tired and wanted to go home early so often if her artist type friends hadn’t pretty much ignored when we were out together. She was probably right, though, about cramping her style. But since she was kind of impressed I was still heading to Ecuador, I may call her when I get back. She doesn’t have to know about the Swiss girl or the Hacienda.
Pillow Jane doesn’t mind snuggling, but it’s only a half an hour later on the big clock on the wall that I wake up weirdly anxious that the place might be haunted. No one knows where I am or even cares too much if you think about it.
If I don’t get moving, I’ll sink into total self pity, and what the guidebook says about good hiking seems confirmed by the proximity of the volcano.
The first couple of dogs a hundred yards down the nearby trail are pretty friendly. The shepherd mixes stick their muzzles into my pants in that endearingly dick-obsessed dog way but leave me alone to make my way past them as the path starts to crawl uphill.
But about half a mile later near some shacks with goats grazing in front of them, I hear barking. Nasty looking black and white mutts come out from behind the out-of-season corn plants.
The three dogs circle me, growling their big ugly heads off and slobbering greedily all over themselves. The rock I throw at them (just missing on purpose as the guidebook advises) only seems to inflame them.
They’re snarling and nipping, closer and closer, the littlest, mangiest one almost getting a piece of my hand when the deep voice comes out of nowhere.
“Vaya, vaya,” but the dogs ignore the stooped old guy dressed in the same antiquated way as the hotel people. It’s only after he’s expertly rained rocks on them that they finally take off yelping regretfully for their lost meal.
A moment later, he profusely apologies for not arriving sooner in a fairly fluent English that sounds incongruous in his wizened, indigenous mouth. Apparently, he’s the guide that comes attached to every guest, but no one had told him I was there. I don’t feel like hiking any more as my heart beats dangerously fast. Do I have to add this to the humiliation list (getting mugged, the Swiss girl, of course) or can I claim it as a travel adventure. I’d have to edit out the guide.
He leads me back to the hotel, knocking vines out of my way and steering me around various types of animal shit. When I stop for a moment to tie my shoes, he points out Chimborazo in back of us like I could somehow not have not noticed it.
Back in the Hacienda lobby, the fire blazes warmly, and even the surly young manager is dressed in colonial threads. It finally dawns on me that I’ve walked into a colonial Williamsburg type theme-park, time-warped back to just before Bolivar. I’d just caught them out of costume when I first showed up.
Can they really be putting on the whole show just for me? There’s got to me some rich Latin Americans or Germans, maybe, secreted away in a distant corner of La Hacienda. The manager looks kind of dismayed when I ask him, finally answering back like from some old Cuban ballad, “”tu, solamente tu.”
I’m already hungry, but it’s too early for my only event of the evening. Back in my room, I make a not entirely unexpected discovery, a colonial suit hanging in the closet, a frillier, fancier version of what they wear themselves. It seems almost exactly my size, which is why they must have picked this room for me. Attached to it is a tag with a number to call if you need help getting it on.
Waiting for the hour to get later, I reopen the book to find pages of photos decades old: light-skinned guests in senor and senora costumes get served sumptuous dinners. Some of the servants are younger version of the guys I’ve met. In one photo, many of the tables have been cleared away to create a dance floor. A caption below it explains that “La Hacienda provides dancings partners upon request.”
Once it’s finally late enough, I forgo the senor costume for the least stained and threadbare of my jeans and my one button-down shirt, however smelly.
In the dining room, I see at least half a dozen costumed waiters. The grumpy head one shows me to my same table looking down into the volcano-lurking darkness.
I fall immediately sucker to the 20 dollar cena del senor especial however much it might have offended Jane’s proletarian tastes. In the English section of the menu, I learn it includes “all the bonuses the mister wants,” which sounds pretty good to me. Tomorrow night I’ll order a peasant burger and a beer, but tonight I go whole hog.
“Especial, especial,” whisper some of the waiters. I’m getting more than just a meal. First off, this beleaguered looking old man emerges with a dusty violin along with some pimply young guy with an equally out of tune guitar.
They’re getting into a version of a real simple Schumann piece I remember from piano lessons when the first course arrives, a sort of salad with lots of mayo and still slightly frozen shrimp. But I drink the wine, pick at the lettuce and open the book back open again. In the dinner section, they’ve got the senor (now with the senora) eating some game caught in the mountains, drinking Spanish wine and discussing what I guess would be called business. There’s some English dialogue.
“The crop of corn will be fine this year.”
“Yes my lord, much fine.”
There’s sort of a footnote at the bottom of the page letting guests who arrive “without their mistresses” know they can “ask the staff for nighttime assistance.”
After the salad, an enormous piece of tough beef arrives with watery fries. The dessert is a Jell-O-like flan. While you have to order wine separately, the rotgut brandy arrives on its own.
I’ve gulped down the flan and am half way through the brandy when who should arrive but the especial del senor’s crowning touch.
But first the music has to switch to one of those famous waltzes I recognize from the classical best hits records my grandmother used to play when we’d visit her in Boca Raton. La Hacienda’s been relocated to Vienna.
My dancing partner wears one of your pretty typical Indian-chick bodies: sturdy, powerful legs, round stomach, big tits. Her ratty, off-white gown looks like it’s left over from her quinceanera.
I expect her to approach my table, but she prefers to hang out with the musicians drifting back and forth the area where they’ve cleared away a few tables half dancing to herself. Every once in a while, I catch her looking my way to check out what I’m up to.
The next dance is from a ballet I got taken to as a kid, the Sugar Plum Fairy. Are they saying I’m too gay, I wonder, suddenly paranoid.
By the third number, everyone looks at me a little uncomfortably. Someone looks at his watch. The fourth is just a sullen repetition of the first, and the hound-faced headwaiter heads my way.
“Would you like?” He hesitates like he’s scared to insult me. Shrugging quizzically, I ask him what his problem is.
“Ask her to dance. She’s been waiting,” he commands.
The fit of pique starts somewhere around my shoulders, which ache from all the backpacking, heads up towards my wine and brandy buzzing brain before finally sizzling out. Okay, if asking the girl is what you do for the especial del senor, I’ll ask the girl. It’s too fucking weird to pass up.
The waiter nearly kills the deal, though, when, after I’ve gotten up to my unsteady feet, he points to my untied shoelaces like I’m in fourth grade. I don’t care if I trip over the band, give the girl whiplash.
But she sticks out her hand kind of cutely as I approach, so I try to whisk her away to the music that’s started up again with a little more gusto now we’re finally moving. Worse than shoelaces, though, I’ve forgotten that I have no real idea how to dance. All we did was this sort of mock disco in college to seventies music and slammed around a bit when people put on Nirvana or Pearl Jam.
The girl may not have planned on my awkwardness, but she’s pretty nice about it. She smiles at me, managing not to laugh, as I keep bumping into her, once almost knocking the old violinist off his stool.
My closest reference point were those slow-dance parties in junior high, my first whiffs of girls up close. The Indian girl actually smells a bit rank under her cheap sugary perfume. She can’t have bathed all that recently, but, then again, we’ve pretty much monopolized the world’s showers back where I’m from. The WTO sees to that.
The guys stop playing, as the song is apparently over. I’d spent most of the dance nervously waiting for it to end, but now I want more. The musicians stay silent, but if we start up they’ll follow suit. They’ve got to know at least a few more songs.
“Tu quierres bailar otra vez?” The Indian doesn’t look happy after she’s finally puzzled out my Spanish. I don’t get what she says back to me, so she calls over the headwaiter to resolve what seems to have become sort of an “issue.” I finally get it when she explains it to him, but it’s too late to stop him from giving it to me in his condescending bad English.
“You must contact me for to dance. Three dollars an extra, four for ten.”
The prostitution of the fucking waltz. It’s like Jane and I would always say, I think to myself as I sullenly march back to my table, we fuck over the third world and would be fucked over eventually in turn. I’m out of here tomorrow, mom’s generosity be damned. It takes one little dance, I think to myself forgetting that it came with the senor special, to turn you into a john.
Once I’m back at my table, everybody (the girl, the waiters, the band…) looks at me like the classic American kid who doesn’t get how things work. I gesture impatiently for the check.
“Tranquilo,” says the headwaiter once he’s made it to my table (finally figuring out that his bad English just pisses me off), “mas conac en la casa para usted.” Though I’m still pretty “hot under the collar,” as Mom would have put it, I’m also at that particular point of being drunk in which pretty much all you want to do is get more drunk, and there’s nothing to get more drunk with back in my room.
The band goes back to their non dance numbers, and the girl goes back to where she had been hanging before as the brandy (a big old glass this time) arrives at my table.
By the time I’ve made a dent in it, I‘ve mellowed a little, not quite so pissed off. But I still wish I could think of something to trip up this headwaiter who’s had in for me since I showed up this morning. What he really wants more than anything, I figure, is for me to get out of there as soon as possible.
Calling him over, I go for the four dances for ten dollars.
The Indian girl seems pretty psyched. My moment of resentment about the headwaiter’s probable share in the cut disappears as the waltzes start up and we get back down to business. A little more in command now, I start us off with a good, old-fashioned junior high slow dance. She’s not Jane or the Swiss bitch, but it’s nice to have girl flesh against my boy flesh, another person’s heart beating close to my own.
I’ve got a change of pace in mind for the second dance. The band won’t know the right music, but we can play that game I loved in college, mixing and matching your dancing styles with your music genres. (We’d disco to Rage against the Machine, slam dance to Abba…) I’ll teach her an alternative waltz.
Extricating myself from her arms, I give her the sly smile that’s worked on at least some American girls. When I start to shake my hips ironically a la Elvis, it’s no wonder she’s puzzled. She doesn’t look unhappy about it, at least not at first. But when I order her to “sigame,” in this slightly tough guy tone, she looks like she’s about to cry. The suddenly rough-sounding gringo does this weird routine and orders her to follow him when he’s not going anywhere.
When she figures it out, shaking her bigger, way more expressive hips, it comes out kind of like salsa.
Okay, she’s got that. Now try this. Onto the ironic disco thing. (I tried to get Jane into it at a club once, and she’d just got pissed off. But this girl’s being paid.)
Waving my hands in the air like John Travolta’s idiot cousin, I gyrate to the Sugar Plum Fairy. The Indian girl suppresses a giggle. Disco must have invaded Quito and Guayaquil at some point or other but may not have made it to her mountain village. It’s probably not worth it for a lousy 2.50 a dance, but she’s willing to try. She waves her hands and struts her stuff.
My final turn is the most problematic, but we can make a kinder, gentler mosh pit.
Lightly, I bump my shoulders into hers, but she gets me back more forcefully, a bit of aggression coming out, the resentment she feels at having to be put through all this.
That’s pretty much my repertoire (Elvis, disco, the nod to eighties punk) and, besides, the band’s out of songs. She hesitates when I invite her back to my table, but I have nothing screwy in mind.
When I order a drink for her, I don’t have to decipher the waiter’s censuring words. I knew if I’d wanted a hooker for the evening, I’d have had to have ordered it in advance, but post dinner companion-ship should be free.
“Hablar,” I tell the waiter, “cuanto para hablar.” I reach dramatically for my wallet, but that just upsets him more. They’ve got their price lists for dances and fucks, it seems, but nothing set up just for talking.
She doesn’t drink the brandy I’ve ordered for her, and we sit pretty awkwardly across from each other without saying anything as the staff prepares to close up. They’re supposed to be open for another hour, so they can hint all they want. (put out the fire, remove the excess glasses, send the musicians home) but they’ll have to stick around until the witching hour.
The Indian girl may not seem so into this, but she doesn’t look miserable. I’m not raping her like the Spanish did her ancestors, and the oil companies are doing to her distant cousins in the jungle. She shuffles in her chair to get a little more comfortable as she figure that she’s got to stay for the duration. She’s got more patience in her little finger than Jane has in her whole long lanky body.
The waiters in their period costumes give me nastier and nastier looks, but they should be grateful it’s not the real old days of the haciendas when they’d have to stay up til dawn’s fucking early light if that’s what the senor demanded. I’m getting more and more into this whole deal, my belly full of bad food, my brain soaked in rotgut spirits, 21st century Yankee tourist as eighteenth century colonial senor. It’s not what I would have expected to enjoy.
David Winner is the Brooklyn, New York-based fiction editor of The American. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org