The Blue Guacamayas
by L. Vocem
Ana Maria had to go back. How stupid of her, her mother had said. She was always a despistada, her brother commented. She had let her visa expire and since she didn’t renew it on time the only way to get a new one was to go back to Venezuela and get it from the American Embassy. They were already processing her daughter Silvia’s papers, seeking political asylum. Silvia had been on the streets during the demonstrations in Caracas and signed petitions that became part of one of the blacklists. At one point, she got shot with plastic bullets. The photos showing her purple welts and hematomas circulated through Facebook until their family already living in the U.S. decided to pay for them to come to the States.
It would take a month, tops, Ana Maria told everyone. Besides, it would give her a chance to check on her small apartment, which they had not been able to rent since she lost her last tenant six months ago.
The family took her to Hartsfield-Jackson Airport. In the terminal, full of shops, she bought a couple of trinkets that she could give to her son and nephews in Margarita. On the airplane, she asked for a coke. The attendant brought it with a plastic cup filled with ice and a napkin. She drank her coke, wiped her lips with the napkin and crumpled it up inside the cup. The stewardess came back collecting garbage and a voice said politely in English, then Spanish, that they would begin the descent into Maiquetia Airport. As she went through aduanas with her small suitcase, she remembered the times when she would come back from the states with three huge suitcases filled with clothes she had bought at a discount store or Target to sell in Caracas. Eventually, that little business dried up since they were only allowed to spend a particular amount and she could only buy a limited number of dollars.
When she got out of the airport, she felt the heat and smelled the salt from the Caribbean Sea. She loved the noises, the honking, the bustle of buses, por-puestos, taxis, cars loading and unloading people. In the distance, she noticed Julio, her ex-husband’s younger brother, who stayed close to her after her divorce. When she left the country a year ago, he took care of her small apartment.
“Hola chama,” Julio said, approaching Ana Maria and giving her the traditional kiss on each cheek. “¿Esto es todo?” he asked, looking at her single suitcase.
He took it and they walked down to a parking area. He opened the trunk of his Fiat, lifted her suitcase and placed it inside. As he leaned down, Ana Maria noticed, tucked in the back of his pants, a pistol.
“Qué es eso?” Ana Maria asked.
“Protection,” Julio said. “These days… you never know.”
“Have you ever used that thing?”
“As a matter of fact, I have.”
Ana Maria shook her head.
“How do you think I make a living?” Julio responded, agitated.
“What? You shoot people?”
“No, coño. I look after people’s houses. I make sure that things are working, that nobody has stolen crap and there are no squatters.” As he said the last word, he took the pistol out and showed it to Ana Maria, then put it back in his pants.
Things were really bad when she left the country, but how bad could they have gotten in only eleven months, two weeks and four days? She took a deep breath, trying to avert an anxiety attack; she had them frequently before she left the country the previous time.
They drove from the airport and began the ascent on the autopista towards Caracas. As they passed through each tunnel, the climate changed from beach-arid-hot to temperate-semiarid-green, to lush-cool-mountain forest. Then they came across a mountain filled with ranchitos and the air smelled of burning garbage. She thought that if one day she was president she would make beautiful little houses for all those people and clear the mountains of all the shanties before arriving in Caracas. They went through the last tunnel and before her was her beloved city; in the distance she noticed her mountains, Ávila, Silla de Caracas and Naiguatá. A little cloud hovered on top of one of the mountains like a toupee. To the other side of the valley, there were smaller mountains and cerros, some filled with high rises, others with shanties.
“I missed my city so much,” she said to Julio. “Amo esta mierda.” I love this shit. Tears filled her eyes. She had never felt at home in Atlanta. She found the people to be too cold – too gringo – and even her own family had somehow lost their Latino warmth.
They arrived at her old building, a rundown middle-class edifice built in the ’50s in need of a paint job and some repairs. She heard the familiar sound of metal scraping in the elevator around the third and fifth floors. They arrived on the ninth floor. Julio pulled out a huge wad of keys and read through the attached labels, then turned the lock, the deadbolt and a third lock. He opened the door and went in. She had left her apartment furnished since it was easier to rent. Inside, she was shocked to see that the place was a total mess; there were empty bottles of beer, broken glass, and the place smelled like old booze.
“How did this happen?”
“I still don’t know,” Julio said.
“So you knew about this?”
“I didn’t want to alarm you.”
“How did they get in?”
“No forced entry, so they know how to pick locks.”
“Or they had keys.”
“There are only two extra sets: your son Juan Pablo, but he’s with Enrique in Margarita, and your last tenant, Maritsa. So I have no idea.”
“We need to get new locks right away. Can that be done these days?”
“Ana Maria please, this may be hell, but we still have good ferreterias.”
She spent the rest of the afternoon cleaning the place and making an inventory of the things they may have stolen. It was obviously young people since they never touched her wall of old vinyl records. They had money since they didn’t steal speakers or even her internet router. She was going to have a talk with Julio.
At sunset, she went to her balcony and looked for Ferdinand and Isabela, the guacamayas that had lived on her balcony in the past. There were no macaws around. From her window, she could see part of the big mountain, the shanties, and Parque del Este. How much she missed that place. She waited for that time before sunset when there was twilight. She pulled a chair to her balcony and with one of her wine glasses, drank water and waited. She had half-made ice cubes since nobody had filled the ice trays.
Then it started. First with a little noise. Then a few birds. They moved so fast across the twilight that they looked fake. More of them gathered together and formed a cloud – blackness and dots, movement and noise, a lot of noise. Macaws and parrots, guacamayas, pericos, loros, periquitos all flew in unison. The cloud twisted and turned, the noise became louder, then distant. They looked like apparitions out of a horror flick, out of that Hitchcock movie about birds.
She remembered her brother seeing this and not believing it. She told him how people bought parrots on the side of the road when they drove out to the countryside. It was illegal, yet people were just taking them to their houses and apartments. Since they did not know how to keep the birds clipped, the birds escaped into the city. The parrots were far, far away from their lush Llanos and jungles and had nowhere to go. They somehow found their way to the Parque del Este and started to hang out outside the aviary which was larger than two basketball courts. Tourists and children wondered why there were more large birds on the outside just hanging out, than inside. Why wouldn’t they go away and be free? They stayed there until sunset, then took off and went into a feeding frenzy; the city had plenty of bugs.
She had a good show that night. The bird frenzy came close to her building and then moved away as it twirled around buildings in the distance, disappearing and coming back again. Then as quickly as it started, it ended.
She loved her city. She loved the spectacle and passion.
After sunset the city became bright. High-rise after high-rise emanated shafts of lights going into the sky. In the distance, ranchito lights illuminated the cerros like ongoing Christmas trees. A cacophony of noises filled the air – ambulances wailing, cars honking, engines accelerating, music blasting. She could not stand how quiet it was in Georgia with only pine trees in the backyard. In fact, she could not sleep the first three weeks she was in Atlanta. It was too quiet, too spooky. Now she could feel her city and all its noises. Maybe she should just stay and not go back to the States. Before going to bed she checked her internet. She had an original land line. Those were so hard to get that even when she was not there, she paid it and made sure she would not lose it. She pulled out her small laptop, connected to social media and told the family in Atlanta that she was home, that she made it in one piece and everything was just fine.
Before going to bed she opened the balcony and looked around for Ferdinand and Isabela, but they were not there. Obviously, they found other places that provided them with food. So she went to her kitchen and looked at her empty refrigerator. It was stupid to expect to find it filled with fruits and vegetables and things that she could give the birds. She looked in her pantry and found a bag of seeds. She filled a couple of bowls with them and placed them on the metal racks at the edge of the balcony so they could eat while hanging on the balustrade.
The next day she woke up late by Caracas standards. The city noises usually started at about five in the morning. In Atlanta, where all the houses were insulated from the outside, she could sleep until ten. She realized that she had no groceries, no toilet paper, no soap and needed to visit the market. To her surprise, this did not give her anxiety, but a sense of purpose of what she needed to do.
She also needed to respond to the call of nature but had nothing to clean herself with; this was why bathrooms in South America had bidets. She squatted over the odd shaped ceramic structure and let the water shoot up over her parts. The water was frozen cold and quickened her breath. She used a hand towel to dry herself. She needed to turn on her water heater.
She went to her favorite panaderia, only a block and a half from her building. The guy at the counter recognized her.
“Señora, cómo está. Tiempo sin verla,” the man with a thin mustache and black hair said to her.
They had no bread, they had no cachitos; they had sold out at about 6 am. He reminded her that the lines were horrible. Had to make it there maybe an hour earlier. So she bought whatever she could find. She went to her supermarket and there was a line that extended a block and a half.
“What is this for?” she asked the ladies standing in line.
“Where have you been? What are your last four numbers of your cédula?”
She pulled out her national ID and told the numbers to the woman.
“No mija. You can’t get anything today. Your number is two days from now.”
“But I have no food, no toilet paper, no soap, no milk.”
“So. Trueque. Get what you can get on your day and barter.”
“Honey, where have you been? Are you from another planet?”
“No. I’ve been in Los Estados Unidos.“
“Ah, una viajadita.” A traveled one.
“Una sifrina.” A snob.
She spent the whole morning going from place to place, market to market to see if she could find anything. Then she saw a fruit stand that was a shack on the side of the road close to her place. She walked to it and noticed that they had some produce. It was all bruised, dirty and full of flies. She remembered the counters at the Publix close to her mother’s house in Atlanta and how everything was perfectly stacked, shining like TV commercials. Nothing here was waxed and shiny, but instead full of dirt, cuts, and imperfections, starting to go bad. She felt reluctant at first, but then realized it was the only thing she saw all day. In the corner they had a produce crate filled with things that were nearly rotten, with mushy brown spots and syrupy liquid pooling at the bottom.
“What do you do with that?” she asked the man in the shack.
“Throw it way, I guess.”
“Can I have it?”
The man looked at the crate, then back at Ana Maria. He turned his head slightly as if he did not understand. “No. How much would you pay for it?”
She sighed theatrically. “It’s garbage.”
She looked in her purse at the wad of 100 Bolivar notes. She pulled two hundred and showed them to the man. He squinted and said no. She turned around and walked away.
“Look, lady, 300 hundred,” the man said. She didn’t turn, just lifted her arm as if to say “go away” and kept walking.
The next day she stopped by the fruit stand and bought some tomatoes, lettuce, and fruits. How much she loved tropical fruits, something that they didn’t have in Atlanta, and when they did they were crazy expensive. Who in their right mind would pay eight dollars for a guanavana, or three dollars for a parchita, a passion fruit. She filled a bag with nisperos, mangos, guavas, aguacate, merey, parchita, guanavana and a stack of bananas, some vegetables and paid the man. The man thanked her and pointed at the crate with the vegetable trash and asked her if she wanted it.
She gave him a look.
“Can you find gamelote?” she asked.
“I don’t think is in season yet, but I can find. Here.” The man lifted the crate, but she gave him a look as if saying, with which hands can I pick that thing up?
“I’ll keep it here if you want it.”
“It’s for the guacamayas. They like eating out of my balcony.”
She spent the rest of the day trying to buy whatever she could find to eat. Through a black market street vendor she found some soap and one roll of toilet paper at an exorbitant price. She saw a vendor that for a price would let you use a bar of deodorant, then clean it up and allow the next person to use it. She thought it was gross, yet there was a line of people ready to pay for his service. Before sunset, she stopped by the fruteria and picked up the crate and took it to her apartment.
An hour before the frenzy would begin she placed the fruits and vegetables around her balcony and waited, yet no bird landed on her balcony. She felt heartbroken. Where were her Ferdinand and Isabella?
On her day to buy basics from the store she arrived at the market early, yet the line was still around the block. It took until early afternoon for her to get close to the door. Then small motorcycles filled one side of the street. Many of the motociclados wore red shirts and red berets. They walked toward the supermarket. A woman next to Ana Maria whispered, “Oh no, nos jodimos, los colectivos.”
One of the men who looked like the leader said hello to the soldier who stood at the door. They exchanged a few words and both laughed. Then, looking at the line, the man said “Camaradas, revolutionarios aquí termino esta cola.” Comrades, revolutionaries, this line ends here.
Eight to ten of these men went inside the supermarket door. Ana Maria could not believe what she saw. So she asked the soldier, “Cómo es posible?” The lady standing next to Ana Maria looked at her with horror. The soldier looked at Ana Maria and took a tighter hold on the machine gun he had hoisted around his chest. The leader of the colectivos walked towards Ana Maria and looked her up and down first with disgust then with a grin.
Many of the colectivos came out of the supermarket holding boxes filled with Harina PAN corn flour, toilet paper and cans. Ana Maria’s eyes followed them from the door, down the steps to their motorcycles. One of them drove, the one behind held whatever they took. Their leader said goodbye to the soldier and walked towards the motorcycles. He stopped, turned around and looked at Ana Maria. He took his index and middle finger and pointed them at his own eyes, then pointed at her and threw her a kiss. He turned around and climbed on his motorcycle. They all revved their engines and left.
“Hay dios mio,” the woman standing next to Ana Maria said. “You’re going to have to be very careful. You don’t want to cross them.”
A person from the supermarket came out the front door and told everyone that they had nothing else available. The colectivos had bought everything.
“Bought or took?” Ana Maria said aloud for everyone to hear, mad as hell.
Ana Maria walked away and heard a motorcycle engine pass by her. She pulled her purse close to her body. Every way she looked the motorcycles were there. She felt her anxiety creep in and became disoriented. She called Julio and told him what happened.
Julio picked up Ana Maria in front of a big avenue. Before taking her to her apartment, he stopped at a big house in a very expensive part of town. He went around checking on things, then got on the phone and told some guy that he wanted the front wall with a fresh coat of paint.
On the way back to her building they got stuck in traffic.
“Ana Maria, you should have known better. The colectivos go all the way back to Chavez. He armed them and gave them power so they do whatever they want. What you did can get you killed. But you knew that. It was like that long before you left.”
“Thanks a lot, Julio. You’re not helping me feel better.”
They arrived at Ana Maria’s building and Julio went up to the apartment with her. When they reached her door she said, “why didn’t you take care of my place the way you do for those people?”
“You don’t pay me. They do.”
“So that thing with my place?”
“Okay, I rented it to a couple of kids for a weekend. Didn’t think they would trash it that bad. Sorry.”
She twisted the keys and opened the door. They both went in.
“Oh my god,” Julio said, walking towards her balcony and looking outside. Her whole balcony and side of the building were packed with blue guacamayas. There must have been at least thirty to forty of them. All the produce and grains were gone.
“You have an infestation,” Julio said.
“Stop that. They are my friends.”
“Take some video and post it online.”
Ana Maria grabbed her phone and took several photos and videos of the birds. She went to the refrigerator and took out two cervezas Polar and gave one to Julio.
“Where in the hell did you find these? You know they can’t even brew them anymore because they can’t buy hops or barley.”
They took a sip of their beer and looked at the birds, just hanging out.
“I wish I’d known this about this place. I can get you a tenant real fast.”
“What happened to my last tenant. Was she bad?”
“No, it was that stupid law. After six months she could claim squatters rights and take your place. Good thing they revoked that law.”
The birds took off all at once. They made a circle around some of the buildings and flew by the balcony.
“I’m setting an appointment at the American Embassy to get my visa,” Ana Maria told Julio.
She was able to set an appointment with the American Embassy online. Unfortunately, it was going to be more than the couple of weeks she had hoped; the appointment was two months down the road.
Ana Maria learned to spend her time going from line to line, market to market to collect what she needed. If she got to a market and they didn’t have it, she would buy whatever she could get, then she could exchange it for something else online. Having cafecitos with one of her girlfriends she mentioned how it felt that people had x-ray vision and could tell whatever you had in your store bag and comment about where she got it and was she willing to exchange it for something else they may need or want. Toilet paper, soap, toothpaste, catsup, and spaghetti were big commodities. Everyone was a wheeler and dealer and everything had a price. She got a good exchange for the things she bought at the airport in Atlanta.
There was even a line at the American Embassy. At least it was limited to the people who had appointments for that day. Unfortunately, when they looked at her papers, they noticed that her passport had also expired and she needed to take care of that before she could get her visa.
She came out of there exasperated. She did all she could to keep her anxiety at bay. She had lost a few kilos in what people called the Maduro diet. The last time, her ex-husband bribed someone to get all of their passports and papers fixed, but right now she didn’t have that kind of money.
She got to her apartment, sat on her couch and drank some tamarind juice. Then she noticed outside on her balcony two large blue and yellow guacamayas. They were obviously a male and a female and they cajoled each other. Could it be that maybe they were Ferdinand and Isabela? She wanted to test it. She opened the sliding glass door slowly. The two birds didn’t fly away but remained perched on the balustrade. She walked towards them and extended her hand to one of them. One of the birds moved its beak to one side then the other and looked at her. She moved even closer. She was so close that they could bite her if they felt threatened. One of them leaned forward with its beak. It scared her at first but she did not move and the bird started to rub his face on her arm. It was Ferdinand. That was how he always greeted her. Isabela was usually more reserved, yet sometimes she would allow Ana Maria to pet her. She went inside and found a bag of grain and poured what she had left in the bowl.
It took her months to get her passport updated. In the meantime, there were several big demonstrations. She went to a couple of them and helped carry Venezuelan flags and chanted slogans against the president, but as she was walking back home at the end of a demonstration she noticed a group of colectivos in their red shirt and red berets. She had a panic attack and hyperventilated as she walked away towards her street. They moved rather slowly and followed her down the avenue. She made a turn on a particular street and they continued along the avenue. Her heart pounded with great intensity. She even peed in her pants. She was so tired of living like this. She daydreamed of the times when her children were small when they would walk into supermarkets filled with food and people. She used to buy two carts of food and have some kid take it to the car and place it in the trunk, giving the kid a big tip. Nobody hated her and everyone worked hard for their money.
She finally set another appointment with the American Embassy. She went to the market to get basics since it was her turn, based on her cédula, to go. The day was hot and the sun beat at an angle and she was dehydrated. After standing in the scolding sun for several hours they managed to move two car lengths when suddenly she heard a loud clunk, like a sack of potatoes hitting the ground. She looked about ten people ahead of her to an older man on the ground, passed out, eyes closed and mouth open.
“Está muerto?” someone asked.
“Let me check his vitals,” Ana Maria said.
“Go ahead but I’m not going to lose my spot,” the lady behind the old man said.
Ana Maria placed her finger on his neck and could feel a pulse.
“Someone call an ambulance,” Ana Maria yelled.
Some people behind her began to laugh.
“To take him where? A hospital, where he will die waiting, or from giving him una enfermedad?”
“Someone do something!” Ana Maria yelled again.
The line moved and everyone paced forward past the old man and Ana Maria.
“Don’t think you’re going to get your spot back.”
Ana Maria looked through the man’s pockets and found a wallet and a cell phone.
“Lady, so now you’re going to rob him? Dios mío, someone get the soldier.”
The soldier that usually stood by the entrance of this market was way down the block. Ana Maria pulled out the man’s ID and looked at his name, then looked through his cell phone and called several people until a lady responded “Papá, Papá.” . She told her what had happened. The lady came over about 40 minutes later. She gave the old man water and some medication and sat him on the back seat of their car. The lady’s name was Marisela and she thanked Ana Maria and took her to her apartment. They talked and soon they became friends, sharing information about where to find faster lines and where they could buy things cheaper from the black market. She would visit Ana Maria sometimes right before sunset to watch the parrots go into the feeding frenzy and then watch Ferdinand and Isabela land at her balcony and hang out.
One day Ana Maria arrived at a market that was supposed to have toilet paper, napkins, and soap. She had a great position on the line; she felt lucky. She had been so long without toilet paper that she craved this moment with great intensity. The line advanced and advanced and she was able to get in and buy toilet paper, white paper napkins with a flower embossed, and a bunch of other stuff that she could trade. She was so happy as she walked home with her bags. Then she heard the motorcycles. She turned. There were two of them, with two men on each. They did not wear red shirts and looked just like civilians so she kept walking. She felt a shortness of breath.
One of the motorcycles stopped in front of her with only one man on it and suddenly, a man behind her stuck a gun on her back. The other man went to pry the large purse from her hands and she tried to hold on to it, but it jerked forwards and all the contents fell on the road. The man, now angry, hit her over the head with his gun and she fell to the ground. The two men quickly looked through her big purse and took the large wad of 100 Bolivares, her groceries and her toilet paper.
“Is this all you got, maldita vieja!” one of them screamed, not happy that the money would only buy a couple of arepas and a jugito. The man with the gun was so angry that he leaned on top of her and put the gun in her mouth. Ana Maria heard a big bang. The two men jumped and ran away to their motorbikes. Two other men surrounded her and yet another man screamed at the men on the motorbikes as they sped away.
“Está bien, doñita?” one of them said. He looked about the age of her son.
“Did you shoot at them?” Ana Maria asked, confused as to what had taken place.
“Nah, that was me slamming my car door.”
“Is this what you’re looking for?” one of the men said, holding her passport in his hands. A sense of relief overtook her. Who cared about the money, who cared about everything else. Her true treasure was that document, with her old visa, with all her stamps and ports of exit and entry, and soon her new updated visa. Who knows how much it would fetch in the black market. And who knows how long it would take her to get a new one
When she got home she got online and connected with her friends and family. Many of them had already left the country and were in Spain, Chile or the US, but others were still in the country. She told them what had happened. She almost died for toilet paper. She posted photos of her purple and black face.
Marisela, came to see her and Julio brought some arepas de pabellón. She had a hard time chewing her food. As they sat there, Ferdinand and Isabela landed on the balustrade and soon over thirty other blue and yellow macaws landed on her balcony.
“You know what’s tomorrow?” Julio said.
“No, what?” Ana Maria said.
“Your interview at the Embassy. You’re banged up pretty bad. You think you can make it?”
She took a deep breath and felt her anxiety and sense of dread subside numbed by the knots, the bruises, the pain on her physical body.
“Pues si, si voy.“
The bell went off indicating that she could remove her seatbelt. The airplane stabilized and the stewardess rolled down the corridor offering the passengers a drink. The lady in the light blue uniform and blue and yellow scarf smiled at Ana Maria and gave her a coke, a plastic cup and a napkin. She drank her coke carefully, still feeling the pain from all the bruises on her face. She stroked the white paper napkin with the tip of her finger. She was about to crumple it; instead, she left it intact, pristine, as something of great value, coveted. She placed it in her purse next to her updated visa.