Hotel Damasco by Xavier Alcalá, Chapter IV

by Xavier Alcalá

When Manuel and his friend were well seasoned by the sun and the ocean winds, the ship finally reached a sea of red-brown water which the sailors on their ship called a river. On the shore there was a big port and cluster of long, tall buildings, with police, customs, health inspection and a “Hotel for Immigrants”.

They didn’t spend long at the “hotel” because Eladio’s eldest brother, Cosme, turned up to rescue them. Cosme didn’t use their names but called Eladio “lad” and Manolo Varela “paisano”, countryman.

He bought tickets for the train and they travelled over a green plain full of cows and men on horseback. After a night had passed, the ground turned brown and incredible beasts appeared: some like huge hens with long stilts for legs, others like woolly sheep and as tall as ponies. Frightened by the train, they would charge off in one throng and — Varela understood without having to ask — they served as a warning of things to come in that topsy-turvy land.

But there was still a good way to go, the worst part according to Cosme. So they spent the afternoon and night in a little village of painted tin-sheet huts, where Manuel listened to speech so strange that he couldn’t believe people were capable of making such sounds. Cosme called these strangely-spoken men “gringos”.

The next day was spent travelling down a gravelled road, through fields with hardly a miserable tree in sight save those bravely fending off the wind around gaily painted tin huts. Those dusty deserts, pocked here and there with a yellow plant and grey shrubs, were home to flocks of sheep stained the same colour as the earth and bands of those queer animals of two and four legs they’d been seeing for some time, called ñandús and guanacos.

When they reached the end of their journey, Manuel Varela was overwhelmed with a feeling of self-pity. It seemed that he had arrived at nothing — a dead end, a place of rusty huts and streets of gravel and sand that a wild wind twirled up into whirlwinds.

Cosme had found him lodgings in the boarding-house of a “Turk”; and a job on the beach where all the Galicians worked.

The Turk’s name was Ibrahim and Manuel Varela liked him even less than his ancestors had the moors, because they instilled mistrust even when they tried to behave amicably. Ibrahim Ghada, or Ghadar, or whatever the hell he was called, had a sly look, his large black eyes hidden under bushy black eyebrows. He had a large hooked nose, sallow skin spotted with moles and his mouth was hidden behind an unruly moustache. To make things worse, his speech was almost unintelligible: he would say “beat” instead of “meat” and “boint” for “point”.

But it was he who gave board and lodgings nearest to the beach and Varela had only just arrived…

The man from the mountains wasn’t exactly well suited to the work. His limited experience of getting wet came from catching trout in streams, but here the Galicians spent their time — well paid, though — continually in and out of the water. They were needed to ferry people and goods between dry land and the rolling ships anchored out in the blue windswept waters. Their job was to load and unload the flat-bottomed barges called chatas. These chatas would ground on the wave-lashed beach and men and goods had to be carried ashore on the stevedores’ shoulders while women and children were carried in their arms.

Varela was sturdy, tall and broad-shouldered, with blue eyes and dark, curly hair. Although he was strong, he had a gentle touch. Overcoming his distaste, he found that this business of going around wet through up to his chest in a sea that could kick up rough at any moment wasn’t really so bad. He did well at the job and even lost his dread of the water.

And, on the matter of Ibrahim the Turk (“Syrian, dammit!” as Ibrahim corrected), Manuel pointed out to Eladio that, in his determination to avoid the Moroccans, he had come all this way only to fall into the hands of a Moor from other Moorlands. His friend chuckled at this while they waited their turn at a whorehouse that had prospered near an encampment of oil-workers.

Manuel was getting used to his circumstances; but he felt that he couldn’t spend all his life at his present job. So he made the acquaintance of a schoolmaster, whose father ran the Telegraph Office. Manuel Varela had pesos to burn — more than he could spend on beer or gin — and decided to pay this man to teach him what there was to know about letters and numbers.

Héctor, the schoolmaster, taught him more than he expected. On nights when the snowstorm made returning to his lodgings after the private class a decidedly unpleasant prospect, he’d stay on while this educated man, born in that southern desert, told him stories about the country. Manuel learnt how it had been before the oil had spouted, who the inhabitants had been, those wise fur-clad indians; what there was to be found travelling westward, the windswept plains, the sheen of lakes in the midst of a brown desolation, the pale green that announced the hills, the snow-covered peaks, green-black forests, deep chasms filled by the sea, “the other ocean, the biggest in the world”…

The master explained to Manuel Varela the anguish of the discoverers, the greed that drove them to the conquest of new lands; and he taught him how there were areas amid the rugged mountain ranges that nobody knew which country they belonged to — this one or the next.

Months passed by and became years. The man from Soacinsa had amassed such vast savings that he had to consult a bank; especially when he saw how Ibrahim would sidle up to him with the story that, “if he had any boney”, he could look after it.

Not a chance in hell, he said to himself. He couldn’t trust the owner of what had now become the “Hotel Damasco” since the construction of some extra rooms out of wood and corrugated iron sheeting…

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