The Not So Happy Hooker
When I think of my time in Paraguay I think of the following:
The smell of burning wood.
People with brown leathery skin
And almost being sold as a prostitute.
I was 16. I thought it would be cool to spend the summer after my junior year in high school giving South American people vaccinations for Yellow Fever and Malaria. I went with an organization called Amigos! We were volunteers. But we had to pay to go. We had to sell Poinsettias at Christmas time to raise money for our trip. We practiced giving shots to oranges and lemons for a few months, brushed up on our Spanish and off we went. We were randomly partnered up with other Amigos! from around the country. My partner, Anna Maria was from a small hippie island off of Seattle where they did a lot of psychadelic mushrooms and had bonfires.
Anna Maria didn’t speak much Spanish and was a strict vegetarian. There were no such things in Paraguay as vegetarians. They had never heard of such a thing. There are a million cows in Paraguay and they are all made to eat. This made her an outcast from the beginning. Her Spanish pretty bad. I wasn’t far behind her though. Even though I am half Colombian my Spanish was pathetic. Still is. My mom raised me to believe that anything Latin was to be avoided at all costs and she pretended she just had a great tan all year round so my Spanish mostly consisted of swear words. She had this weird rapid fire approach to assimilation. Just go with the flow and fuck your past. I understood more Spanish than I spoke but even my understanding was severely limited.
So there we were. Me and my hippie dippy partner. Dropped off in the middle of South America, off to become Florence Nightingales. It didn’t start off so good. Our host family was definitely in it for the money. I’m not sure how much money Amigos paid our host family to house and feed us but my guess is about 100 Poinsettias worth. They treated us with indifference and fed us the same thing every day…meat and Yucca. Now if you don’t know… Yucca is supposedly the “potato” of South America. Bullshit. Yucca is plywood plain and simple. Our host family rarely spoke to us unless they were asking how much we paid for our clothes.
3 weeks in and our vaccination supplies hadn’t arrived from the US. We were promising the people in our village that they would be arriving any day now and then we’d get busy vaccinating everyone as far as the eye could see.
The main problem was that our host sister, Olga, was stealing from me. One day I noticed that I seemed to be missing some maxi pads. Huh. It is not good to be out of maxi-pads while living in the Paraguayan desert. Then my hair bands disappeared. This is also bad if you have long thick in 100-degree weather. The final straw was that one day at breakfast Olga was wearing my Chicago Bulls baseball hat. I was stunned. This meant that she most likely had taken my other things. Damn! But I didn’t say anything because relations were already strained with our host family and I didn’t want trouble.
“What do I do?” I asked Anna Maria after our yucca and beef breakfast. “I have no idea” she said taking off her Walkman. I could hear Indigo Girls blaring through the headphones. “I can’t think straight,” she said. “That’s because you haven’t eaten anything besides yucca in three weeks.” I answered. “For God’s sake Anna Maria just eat the meat, you can’t go on like this.” “Fuck you” Anna Maria said and put back on her headphones. She didn’t like me very much. I think she was jealous because our host family liked me more. This was for one reason and one reason only. I ate meat. It had nothing to do with my personality or anything else. I was a meat eater and so I won. I’m telling you, Paraguayans are serious business about their beef. No joke.
But even my meat eating hadn’t won Olga over. She continued to steal from me left and right. One day while Olga was in school I went on a reconnaissance mission to make sure that Olga was indeed the culprit. I snuck into her bedroom and looked around. By bedroom I mean a room made out of metal with a mattress on the floor. I found nothing in her room. Then I remembered where I kept the things I stole. Like my sister’s tip money from the restaurant where she worked, a knife of my fathers and a dirty book that belonged to my mom. Under the mattress. Ah ha! There was a treasure trove of my stuff under there. Indeed the hair bands and maxi pads were hiding there but there was so much more. Olga the thief had taken my jewelry, my camera and some American money. But what I found really creepy was that Olga had also taken many pairs of my underwear. Most of which was bloodstained because she also had all my maxi pads. I was angry. But mostly I was scared. Who was this Paraguayan teenager and how far would she take this stealing thing? Would she move on to other crimes, bigger crimes? And how could I confront her? We had been warned in training not to offend our host families and our relationship was already strained. We were told we shouldn’t flaunt our possessions, that we were to be culturally sensitive. But how could I go another 6 weeks without underwear? Something had to be done.
I left everything where it was and went to take a walk in the desert. After a few moments, you can only walk in the desert for a few moments before your skin begins to sizzle, after a few moments I had what I thought at the time was a brilliant idea.
When we had first arrived in Paraguay our American liaison, some rich white 20 something from Redondo Beach who spoke perfect Spanish had introduced us to a local woman. Our liaison told us that this local woman was to be a sort of “mentor” to us. She told us that our “mentor” was there to help us with any problems we might encounter during our stay in Paraguay. We were to go to this local woman with any issue, big or small our liaison said. And I indeed had a problem. I was being robbed blind. I went in search of this mysterious mentor. I thought it would pretty easy to find her as there were only 100 people in the village. But I didn’t know how to say “mentor” in Spanish. I knocked on the door of a hut. Once the man with no teeth answered I tried to describe the woman I was looking for. In broken Spanish and hand gestures I asked if he knew where the short lady who looked like a man lived. He knew exactly who I was talking about and pointed me to a hut down the road.
I knocked on the door. El Mentor opened her tin door.
“I need help.” Was all I said. She motioned me to come in.
“The bad girl has taken my money. I had no idea how to say hair bands and maxi pads in Spanish.
“The bad girl has taken my money and I need money to live, please help me.”
“Ohhh I see” said El Mentor. “I see.”
She looked me up and down for a moment. Finally she said, “No problem my child, I will help you. Yes, I will help you.”
Oh my Mentor, my friend! I was saved.
“Come to my jeep” she said smiling. “We will go to solve the problem.”
Yea, El Mentor would set Olga straight!
Into the jeep I happily jumped and off we went bouncing along the dirt road. I wondered why we were taking the jeep since Olga’s house was just a stones throw away but I thought, “Maybe that’s just how El Mentor rolls.”
We passed Olga’s hut. Huh. I thought. El Mentor must have another plan in the works.
We bumped along for a while and then the desert seemed to part and we came upon what looked like a large industrial compound. There were other Jeeps, just like El Mentor’s zooming around the place. We came to a large steel gate. There were two men in full military garb and guns standing in front of the gate. El Mentor spoke to them in soft Spanish. The men looked at me and smiled. “Hola!” I said. They laughed at me. The men opened the gate and let our jeep through. I looked back just as the gate slammed shut and the thought dawned on me that the sound sounded a lot like when they show prison cell doors slamming shut and locking. Huh.
I began to get a little nervous. Who was this El Mentor really? What did I know about her? Nothing other than she had poor taste in clothes and was perhaps a lesbian, but that was just a hunch. But our liaison promised us that….wait a minute…what did I really know about our liaison? All I knew was that she was perky, blond, thin and I hated her guts.
My stomach began to hurt. I was alone, in a jeep, in the desert, in South America on what appeared to be some sort of military base. I no longer cared about my missing sanitary napkins or even the money.
“Senora Mentor,” I shouted over the roaring the jeep, “Don’t mean to trouble you, but where are we?”
“We are going to see the Capitan!”
Oh, good the Capitan, I thought. That made me feel better. Maybe stealing was big deal in Paraguay. Maybe El Mentor felt it warranted military intervention.
Somewhere inside I knew I was in trouble. Mostly in my bladder. I really had to pee.
Finally we pulled into a small paved parking lot in front of a large one-story building with tinted glass. I was comforted that I was out of the jeep. We approached the office building and I noticed there was another gun toting military man standing outside. He was smoking a cigarette and once he saw me he smiled. He smiled this really creepy smile. I looked away. We went inside.
The office space was filled with empty cubicles and looked like it hadn’t been repainted since the Ford administration. It was quiet. No one seemed to be working today. Huh. A holiday maybe?
We walked down a long hallway. At the end was a door. On the door was a placcard. On that placard were the words El Capitan. No name, just El Capitan. El Mentor didn’t knock. She just walked right in and I followed. El Capitan was sitting behind a large wooden desk. There were no papers or office supplies on this desk. There was no nothing. In fact, the whole office was bare except for some cardboard boxes in one corner.
El Capitan was dressed in a military uniform. Complete with a military hat. He had on Aviator sunglasses and had a mustache. He looked like a parody of a South American dictator. But the most striking thing about El Capitan was that instead of a right hand he had a hook. A real hook. A metal hook. He was in fact, El Capitan Hook.
He smiled a big old smile when we walked into his office. He and El Mentor exchanged some words in Spanish that I didn’t catch. Why oh why hadn’t I paid more attention in Spanish Class? Why hadn’t I demanded that my Mom speak Spanish around the house? But it was too late now. Here I was with a El Mentor and El Capitan Hook in the desert. I still clung to the hope that maybe this was going to turn out all right. That I was panicking for nothing. That I was overreacting and we’d all go out for yucca sandwiches and laugh all of this off.
This is what I think I heard next:
El Mentor: This is Jennifer
El Capitan: Oh, I see, how nice.
El Mentor: She has a money problem. I told her you might be able to fix it. That you could help her.
El Capitan: Oh, I see.
El Mentor: She is pretty no? They will like her no?
El Capitan: Yes she is pretty. A little plump but pretty nonetheless.
El Mentor: The men, they like Americans, yes?
El Capitan: Yes, this is true.
El Mentor: Of course I’ll need my finders fee Capitan.
El Capitan: Of course.
Now, my Spanish was bad. But not that bad. I got the gist of what was going on. I was being sold as a prostitute. El mentor wasn’t a mentor at all. She was a pimp, a little Latina pimp with a jeep. I was about to run screaming out of the office but then El Capitan turned to me.
“My pretty girl. I am El Capitan. I am an important man. I can help you with all of your problems.” Then he reached for my hand with his metal hook. That’s when I totally freaked out.
I began to yell things out in Spanish. Anything I could remember.
“I have Yellow Fever!”
“I have Dissentary!”
“I have Malaria.”
“I’m not sanitary!”
“My teeth are bad!”
“Fuck, Shit, Piss!”
I was screaming and crying and carrying on for quite some time. Both El Mentor and El Capitan had their jaws dropped wide open. Their eyes bugged out and El Capitan’s hook fell to his side. Clearly I was not the hooker they had hoped I’d be.
Then I peed. I peed a long river of pee. Right on El Capitan Hook’s linoleum floor. It just kept flowing and flowing and I didn’t care. I was not going to be an Unsolved Mystery. El Mentor looked mortified.
“Oh, my Capitan,” she gasped. “I am so so sorry.” “I had no idea she was retarded. No idea.” “If I did I would never had brought her here to you. Clearly she is not employable.”
“Yes!” I thought. “I am not employable!” “I am retarded!” “Hooray!”
El Capitan still looked stunned as El Mentor shoved me out of the office. I was still crying and dripping as we walked back outside. The military guard looked surprised that we were leaving in such a rush. El Mentor was cussing up a storm under her breath. Something about her rotten luck and retarded Americans. We got back into the jeep and she sped off.
I gave her a few moments to calm down and then I asked, “Umm El Mentor, can I go back to my host family now?”
“I will drop you off at the edge of town and you will walk from there.”
“Ok, great!” I said. I would walk a million miles if I had to. No problemo. As long as I was free.
As she had promised, at the edge of town El Mentor stopped the jeep with a jerk.
“Get out,” she said.
I jumped out fast.
She sped away, kicking up dust.
I ran as fast as I could back to our hut. I saw Olga. I ran to her and hugged her for a long time.
“Olga, I love you. What’s mine is yours.” She looked at me like I was, well…retarded.
I walked into the tin room I shared with Anna Maria. She took off her headphones. I could hear The 10,000 Maniacs coming through the speakers.
“You know Jen. I am so sick of this place. They don’t like me. They treat me like shit. I’m not like you, you know. I can’t just eat anything. I’m picky. All I eat is yucca day in and day out. I’m losing all this weight and…”
I cut her off.
“You know Anna Maria, you know what this sounds like to me? This sounds like a perfect problem for El Mentor.”