Debbie Boucher currently teaches at the International School of Port of Spain in Trinidad and Tobago. Oblivia was a finalist in the 2013 ForeWord Magazine contest in the mystery category. Back to Normal, her first novel, was awarded Honorable Mention in the romance category by the same publication in 2010. Her second novel, Millennial Fears, won second place in general fiction from Reader Views in 2011. For more information visit her website at www.debbieboucher.com.
by Debbie Boucher
by Debbie Boucher
Published Nov 15, 2012
Genre: FICTION / Contemporary Women
Dan Mora, a Peace Corps Volunteer in Bolivia, is missing. Will Jamie Morgan find him before it is too late?
Oblivia introduces the reader to Dan Mora and Jamie Morgan, Peace Corps volunteers in Bolivia. At a crossroad in their lives, they discover the power of making a difference. Yet when Dan disappears, and Jamie is given the task of finding him, she discovers that nothing is ever as it seems in a country she and Dan have grown to love, a place they call Oblivia.
They say you cry when you arrive in Bolivia, and that you cry when you leave. Jamie Morgan has done both. On the verge of tears now, she fears she will wake the couple beside her. Their breathing synchronized, they incline themselves toward each other as the plane’s wing dips, their realignment subtle, in compensation for the aircraft’s steep tilt. Out the window the 757’s shadow glides across the altiplano, the high plateau scored by roads that lead nowhere. In the distance a patchwork of furrowed ground near the lake gives the land the look of corduroy. With a shudder the landing gear lowers. American Airlines, flight 922 from Miami, levels off to begin its long, arduous approach. Jamie stares once more at the lead to the newspaper article in her lap. PEACE CORPS VOLUNTEER MISSING IN BOLIVIA Search efforts hampered by difficult terrain and weather It’s sad it takes the disappearance of a U. S. citizen to rate several column inches of space in the Latin American edition of USA Today. Actually, it worries her. Reporters seldom search for the truth. Lies are preferable to the reality people vanish in this country all the time, an unsatisfactory outcome in an American society that wants its sitcoms resolved in half an hour. The plane jolts onto the tarmac and taxis to the gate. Jamie stuffs the paper inside her jacket. Secure in her decision to return, she knows Carla Mathews, the country director, will be annoyed and possibly angry. The medical evacuation to Washington was part of the deal, a week of psychiatric evaluation in exchange for Jamie being allowed to complete her final seven months of Peace Corps service. But now everything has changed. Is it love that brings her back? Is it love that keeps Dan away? All she knows is she must find him because without the answers to those questions she cannot move on. Her memory of their last time together evokes nothing but regret. If only he had remained the monk of the altiplano, and she the nun, they’d still be together, driven by their desire to make a difference. Her passport stamped, she makes her way from immigration to the baggage carousel and collects her backpack. At customs she is asked if she brings in anything electronic. She opens the front pocket and points to the yellow USED stickers on her laptop, portable printer, and solar panel attached by this same agent only days before. His eyes narrow with suspicion. She opens her passport and shows him the Peace Corps designation, which he mistakes for diplomatic status. He waves her through, though his gaze follows her to the terminal doors. Outside the air is frigid. Peaks block a newly risen sun. A head taller than the Aymara who surge about, Jamie elbows her way to a beat-up mini van and stoops to enter it. Two backpackers pile in behind. The driver’s assistant, a boy of no more than ten, slaps the dented side of the van, his signal the load is complete. The van pulls away once the boy’s chapped hand slides the door shut. The backpackers begin to converse in the guttural tones Jamie recognizes as Hebrew. Travel here cultivates nothing but culture shock in these bearded young men. Both wear anxious expressions. A few blocks from the airport, they ask the driver to let them out. At La Ceja, the eyebrow, the name given to the canyon rim above the city, the van stops to pay the toll. Downtown comes into view. So does Illimani, La Paz’s guardian mountain that is barely visible above it. At twenty-two thousand feet, the peak floats in the distance like a glaciated island in the sky. The van pulls away and begins its descent, only to brake when a little girl herds llamas across the road. The countryside continues to empty out, everyone headed for the city. During Jamie’s year and a half of work here, El Alto has spread. No longer confined to the urban sprawl she passes through, the red-bricked, tin-roofed shacks spill down an eroded canyon from the twelve thousand foot plain that encompasses La Paz. The driver negotiates the curves of the toll road as it follows the course of the Río Choqueyapu. Today the river is DayGlo orange, colored by whatever the factories of El Alto spew into it. The sudsy water tangles itself in knots as it churns through a concrete ditch, the level high enough the river often splashes out. Perhaps like Jamie it longs to be free, to overflow its cement banks and broaden its horizons. In a land so near the equator, with little difference from one season to the next, the summer has been wet by Bolivian standards. Before Jamie left showers turned to downpours that continued unabated for days. Dry gullies became muddy rivers that inundated city streets. Minivans and SUVs were launched on wild rides down urban sets of rapids. From one day to the next, the shanties built in the floodplain were swept away, their corrugated tin roofs and crate-slat siding left as litter along the high water line. The destruction beyond the van’s window is incomprehensible. That people so poor would lose their crude shacks to a river no better than a sewer breaks Jamie’s already broken heart. Rain flecks the windshield. From her jacket she removes the copy of USA Today. Yesterday’s article neglects to mention the casualties caused by last week’s flooding. Such is life here, everything a mirage. Even its chroniclers suffer from collective amnesia. She rereads the lead, comforted that bad weather in the Yungas is blamed for Dan’s disappearance. There is no speculation beyond that. But the paragraph that follows, about the lives lost every year on the Choro Trail due to its disrepair, upsets her. Dan was trying to change that with a project to make the trail safe. The final sentence cites La Niña as the cause of the landslides that have impeded rescue efforts so far. Jamie, however, has a theory of her own as to why Dan has not been found. Traffic slows the van. Chrome skyscrapers glint in the sunlight. The mirrored windows of one reflect the cathedral. Its Spanish colonial architecture breaks the monotony of the drive downtown. Every plaster-sided building is sorely in need of paint. Men line the Prado, looking for work. They set up hand-lettered signs along the curb at Plaza Isabel la Católica. PLUMBER reads one, CARPENTER another. It is the Aymara version of the Yellow Pages, though more than a few beg for spare change. The sad part is whatever these men earn, it will never be enough to provide their families the access to clean water, nutritious food, and the health care they deserve. Yet they smile. Blinking back tears Jamie’s smile now matches theirs. They give her hope, and that is what she needs. It would be tantamount to treason for her to wallow in self-pity. From their perspective she is comfortably housed, amply fed, lavishly entertained, yet they are the happy ones, as inconceivable as that is, like so much she has encountered here. The women that scurry by are even more resilient than the men. Their bowler hats cocked on their heads, their satin shawls fringed with macramé, their velvet skirts stiff over petticoats, they stop to haul up metal doors on market stalls from which they will hawk junk food to all who pass by. The Aymara boy, the driver’s assistant, points to a crumbling cinema, at a poster for Exit Wounds, a Steven Seagal film that screens in this theater. Why do the worst American movies end up in La Paz? A pop culture that glamorizes violence, materialism, and sex only makes Jamie’s job more difficult. But then this, too, is Bolivia, a place where globalization threatens the traditional way of life of the Aymara. Strange that the city’s dilapidated charm still intrigues her. It makes Jamie think she has either lived here too long, or not long enough. “Let me out here,” she calls to the driver. At the next corner, the boy opens the door of the van and hands her pack out. She heads toward the Puente de las Americas. The bridge spans the deep gorge that divides La Paz in half. Vendors are already set up along the sidewalk. Their cheap wares gleam against velvet drop cloths strewn across the cracked cement. She weaves back and forth as she makes her way to Miraflores, the district where the crash pad is located, the apartment where she sleeps when she is in town. At the sight of the shoeshine boy, his boot black hair and buffed brown face, she ducks down a side street. Jorge chases her, his face radiant at her return. The jars of shoe polish in the box he carries jiggle as he runs. He pulls even with her and points to the scuffed boots she wears. “May I clean your shoes?” he asks. “They’re dirty.” “No, thank you. I don’t have time.” She quickens her pace and zigzags off. “Please,” Jorge pants. Like a puppy he nips at her heels. “I said no,” she tells him, surprised she has responded so harshly to a child who only tries to make a living. When his face crumples, Jamie stops and digs the last of her Bolivianos from her pocket. She presses them into Jorge’s upturned palm. He runs off. “Bless you,” he calls. Jamie basks in the glow of his smile until she remembers Jorge is one of the many abandoned street children who live this way. She walks up Avenida Busch from Plaza San Martín with its statue of the great liberator of the Southern Andean nations. Her president’s less-than-liberated foreign policy does little to help children like Jorge. By demanding Bolivia eradicate coca from the Yungas, the cloud-forested valleys east of the Andes, the U.S. creates more hardship and controversy. The Aymara and Quechua people revere coca. They burn it in ceremonies. From its leaves they brew a tea that cures soroche, the altitude sickness Jamie suffers from as she puffs up the street. The building that houses the crash pad is deceptive. From the outside its pink cement and silver windows lend it a clean, modern look. Inside it is anything but. The elevator is broken, the stairwell dirty. Jamie’s head throbs. She reaches for her water bottle and drains it as she prepares to ascend. On the tenth-floor landing she pauses to catch her breath. At apartment 1002 she pulls out her keys and wiggles one after another through myriad locks. When at last the door clicks open, she comes in quietly to avoid disturbing anyone who was out late the night before. Her effort is wasted. No one curls up in a sleeping bag on the straw mattress that takes up the better part of a corner. No one makes coffee in the kitchen on the “Barbie” stove, as the volunteers call the hotplate with two gas burners. In fact, no one appears to have been here for days. They must all be down in the Yungas, searching for Dan, which is where Jamie should be. Sleep was in short supply on the overnight flight from Miami, the baby behind her screaming nonstop, but there is no time for sleep now. She refills her water bottle from the filter in the kitchen and sips it dry. Two short beeps followed by a long one announce the arrival of the propane truck. She should take the canister down and fill it. Gas, gas, GAS, the truck honks ten stories below. She opens the window, leans out, and waves the driver on. In the living room she takes everything out of her backpack and loads her laptop, portable printer, solar panel, and a few clothes into her smaller one. A musky scent drifts up from the straw mattress she works on. There are no relationships between Peace Corps volunteers, only hook ups. Dan’s words haunt her. Is that what they had? She believes it was more. Shouldering her daypack, she locks up and descends ten flights of stairs. Her first stop is the bank. Her dollars exchanged for Bolivianos, she walks to an open-air market, hoping hunger fuels a headache that just won’t quit. In a country criticized for its lack of commercial potential, a vendor stands in every doorway, eager to sell her something. Above her the Aymara’s beautiful woven blankets, folded in triangles, are draped over clotheslines. The ahuayos flutter in the breeze, along with the remnants of a silver tea service that dangle down on either side. Like wind chimes the sugar bowls and creamers clank together which only makes Jamie’s headache worse. It still strikes her as odd that the Aymara would admire the trinkets brought here by the Spanish conquistadores. Is it a misguided attempt to show wealth, as Graciela Vidal, a Peace Corps Bolivia trainer maintains, or some postmodern version of old world meets new? Jamie still feels unsure about so much here. She once believed science was the only way to make sense of the world, but science matters little to her now. The ahuayos overhead bring back memories of a trip she took with Dan to a village outside of Sucre where they watched the women weave the intricate patterns that make these blankets so beautiful from memory on backstrap looms. As if in a trance, the women threaded shuttles in and out of the warp and weft, their hands deft, their meditation deep as they contemplated designs that were universes unto themselves. And although Dan is far away Jamie feels his presence. He understood that art inspires, and while he never dismissed her need to be rational, he insisted she suspend judgment whenever they bought produce from the women at this market, knowing it was grown in the Valle de la Luna, a valley to the south of La Paz that is irrigated by the Río Choqueyapu. A river so full of shit it’ll choke you. She hears his voice again and wonders how many times she has watched these same women wash their clothes in that filthy water, their children bathe in it. Carla Mathews recommends PCVs not buy anything here, but Dan ignored this, as do most Bolivians. Jamie lines up behind the maids who buy fruit and vegetables to serve to the wealthy for lunch. The female vendor regards Jamie mutely when she steps to the front of the line. It is Dan who is the regular at this stand. The squat woman claims she can’t understand Jamie’s Spanish and becomes irritated when Jamie speaks to her in Aymara. Jamie moves across the aisle to deal with the sisters whose straw hats, cotton skirts, and tire-tread sandals mark them as Quechua speakers. Like Jamie they are outsiders here, which probably explains why she feels more comfortable with them. The sisters are less bashful, more willing to converse. Jamie appreciates their patience. When they tell her they haven’t seen Dan, Jamie lines up again to ask the Aymara vendor the same question. But first, she buys a mango. The woman whips out a knife to skin it. Jamie sinks her teeth into orange flesh that is firm yet juicy. Strings of it catch in her front teeth and make her hesitant to smile. She sets it on the sheet of newspaper the woman offers. “Try this.” The woman pares a small fruit and passes the pale green oval Jamie’s way. It has the texture of a pineapple even with its skin removed. Jamie holds it to her nose, surprised the scent is piquant, even though that is often the case with tropical fruit. She imagines it growing in someone’s “garden,” those cultivated plots of paradise she passes whenever she hikes in the Yungas with Dan. “How much?” Jamie asks after she pops the fruit in her mouth. She sieves through her pocket for coins. The woman bags a dozen without weighing them on her hanging scale. “It’s free,” she says as she wraps Jamie’s abandoned mango in its juice-soaked newspaper and adds it to the bag. “Thank you.” Jamie allows her daypack to slip from her shoulder. Tired of wrestling, she sets her pack down and loads in the fruit. “Have you seen Dah-ñell?” Jamie uses the Spanish pronunciation for Daniel. The woman shrinks from her. Jamie asks again in Aymara, trying to draw the woman’s gaze back to her own. Only then does Jamie realize the woman is giving the evil eye to a man who stands directly behind Jamie, who throws up on her as a diversion before he snatches her pack. The retching sound activates Jamie’s gag reflex. Her shock, however, quickly turns into action. “Hey!” she cries as she runs after the thief. “Stop him!” she yells, to no avail. It doesn’t matter because he is easy to keep track of in the dark suit and dress shoes that impede his flight. He glances over his shoulder surprised to see her chasing him. He shoves aside more than the Aymara women who stand in his way. A crate of oranges is overturned. A sack of purple potatoes is slung across Jamie’s path. When that doesn’t work, a crate of cabbages is toppled. Jamie hurdles over it all. There is no way she will allow the thief to escape. When the man pulls up, hobbled by a leg cramp, he gives Jamie an anguished look. Then he hurls her daypack at her feet and dashes out of the market to the street. Jamie doubles over. Taking one hand from her knees she hooks the strap of her pack over an arm. A few days ago she would have continued the chase, but it has left her winded, a sign not to push it. Pulmonary edema, the abnormal build-up of fluid in the lungs brought on by altitude sickness, would only complicate an already complicated situation. She checks the contents of her JanSport. The laptop, portable printer, and solar panel are still there. Her cell phone, however, is gone, stolen the week before she left. The diversion that time had been bump and run, the thief knocking her to the ground. She chased him, too, only to lose him in a crowd. It’s the blond hair and blue eyes. You’ve got SOY VICTIMA written all over you. Dan’s words haunt her again. Is it true she gives off a victim vibe? Getting robbed is getting old, especially when the thief throws up on you. Warm, white, and sticky, the vomit on her jacket has the same yeasty odor semen does. But Jamie refuses to let this upset her. She has come back to learn the truth. So what you do is you pick up your bed, and you walk. Those were Dr. Anderson’s words, the psychiatrist in D.C., when she told him she had to return. A nearby vendor hands her a piece of newspaper to wipe off her jacket. Only then does she realize a crowd has gathered. Their faces glow with admiration. Perhaps they have never seen a victim fight back. It’s a rarity here, especially when the victim is a woman. And while Jamie is shaken, with their encouragement she walks on.