The Surreal Killer

The Surreal Killer
Machu Picchu. Peru

Thursday, July 4, 2013


To celebrate the 31st anniversary of the first time I lived in Montevideo, I present Episode V of this installment of the series to you.  It’s hard to forget that trip in both directions, an epic trip to the other side of the world.

You need to understand the rules of travel for me that first time as a Fulbright awardee.  The costs of my travel were reimbursed by the U.S. State Department, the agency responsible for administering the Fulbright Program.   The rules were simple:  Coach class only, lowest price ticket available, and you had to fly on a U.S. Flag carrier.   In 1982 South America, that meant Pan American.  And Pan American had already fallen on hard times by then, so that meant no-frills travel on a decaying and disillusioned airline soon to go into bankruptcy and give up its routes.  In older planes that were slow and uncomfortable.  And for those of you who remember the comedian Jonathan Winters, and his persona of “Granny Frickert,” the stewardesses were also older and decaying.  Varig or a couple of the European airlines with the right routes would have been nice, but that wasn’t allowed. 
I already lived in Northern California back then, so my route there and back was set by where Pan Am flew (and didn’t fly).   The itinerary was Sacramento—Los Angeles—Caracas (Venezuela)---Rio de Janiero (Brazil)---Buenos Aires (Argentina)---Montevideo.  With layovers for connecting flights and to give the old planes we were on injections of vitamins and other stimulants as necessary, the trip took about 36 hours from airport to airport, Sacramento to Montevideo.

This was all flying coach.  The flight schedules were rigged to miss lunch, dinner, and breakfast so late night airport food was all that was available.  Caracas is close to the equator, hot and humid.  Forget the food.  Everything was closed by the time we get to Rio.  All that was available was coffee.  It was very good coffee, but not too nutritious.  For food, there were cashew nuts for sale by the can.  We all bought several cans, which complemented the strong coffee.  The final layover was in Buenos Aires.  We had to enter and depart Argentina as we passed through the airport in those days---no in-transit privileges there.  My passport gets stamped a few times in and out.  It’s clear that they don’t like me with my big green USA passport and the Falklands war going badly for Argentina.  But the 3 hours on the ground in the B.A. airport leaves time for lunch, which is a mediocre sandwich or two that tastes like gourmet food, and a beer.  Finally, our plane (same plane) takes off for the 30-minute up and down flight across the Rio de la Plata to Montevideo.  More customs and immigration, more stamps on my passport, and I’m finally there.  I catch a taxi and manage to pronounce El Hotel Klee clearly enough for the driver to understand my Spanish and take me there.  He acts the part of tourist guide, in perfect English, all the way to the hotel, taking pains to point out the U.S. Embassy en route.  He calls it “Fort Apache, The Bronx”, named after the movie of an embattled police station.

The taxi driver handed me the piece of paper that lists the conversion factor for the fares on the taxi’s meter to the actual cost of the trip in pesos for today.   These conversion sheets were changed daily as Uruguay’s currency inflated to less and less value.  The recorded meter fare for the trip was multiplied by about 250 that day to get the actual cost for the passengers.   The peso was dropping in value daily, by huge amounts.  If you were paid in pesos their value was less and less every day, and they had little to no value for exchange into more stable currencies.  Nor were Uruguayan citizens allowed to exchange currency legally.  If you were paid in dollars (and we Fulbrighters were), you were rich in local terms.  We received the State Department-approved per diem for their personnel in Uruguay for our expenses, a per diem allowance that wasn’t adjusted for inflation.  As I recall, it was something like $55 per day back then for accommodations and meals.  With a nominal rate of a few pesos to the dollar, and an actual rate of a few thousand, you can see the problem/opportunity. 

At the Grand Hotel Klee, I was given another sheet of paper with the day’s cost for my room.  The rate was very expensive in pesos, very cheap in dollars.  I had to pay by week because of the instability of the currency.  My room was quite nice, with a double bed, a good-sized bathroom, and the normal furniture you’d expect in a 4-star hotel in the downtown area of a big city, a few blocks west of City Hall.   As I recall it cost $6 a night when I arrived, and was less than $2 per night two months later when I left.

My first night in Montevideo featured dinner at a nearby restaurant a block or two from the hotel starting at 10:00 PM, with tango music for company and slow service while I read a paperback mystery novel from the collection I’d brought with me (more on these books later), and too few hours of sleep when I finally got back to my room after midnight.  I slept late the next day before eating breakfast (price included with the room) at the hotel’s buffet table (rolls, jam, cold meats, cheese, yogurt, weak lousy coffee with only 1 cup allowed).  Then I walked a half of a mile or so over to the Fulbright offices to check in and get briefed on what I had to do and when I had to do it.  I met the staff and a few of the other Fulbrighters here in town for the winter semester (USA summer) and was given a couple of handfuls of orientation materials and an invitation or two, one for dinner with the local Fulbright Program Director and other to check in with the U.S. Embassy staff at Fort Apache, The Bronx. 

I’ve written, and will probably write more, about some of the things that happened while I was in Montevideo in 1982.  But for now, let’s fast forward to the flight back home some two months later.

Mate is ground-up leaves and stems of the Yerba Mate plant, grown all over South America for its cheap caffeine high when an infusion is used as a source of tea.  Mate was, and still is, consumed by the gallon in Uruguay as a caffeine source (Uruguay doesn’t have a commercial coffee crop).  Just about everyone carried a thermos of hot water, a mate gourd, and a special silver-plated straw with a strainer called a bombilla to have their mate in hand whenever the urge hit them.

The quirkiest thing on my return trip was going home with three kilograms of mate in my suitcase packed densely into three bulging Ziploc-type baggies.  I acquired a taste for the bitter brew during my stay there.  Hence the baggies.   For future reference, ground mate as sold in the mercados looks a lot like oregano or processed marijuana.  I also had all of the money I had saved from my per diem expenses while in Montevideo in my pocket, several thousand dollars in cash.  Add that I was traveling in my usual jeans and scruffy beard and hadn’t had much sleep, and we might guess that I’d be a prime candidate for scrutiny at customs in Los Angeles under the best of circumstances.  And, this was not destined to be the best of circumstances.  Keep reading......

During the stop in Rio de Janiero I bought three or four 1-Kilo bags of coffee to add to the luggage I was already carrying.  Next stop, Caracas.  We got there about midnight to the usual 100 degrees and 100% relative humidity.  I assume the El Aeropuerto de Caracas is aire conditionadoed nowadays, but in those days it wasn’t.  Half of our passengers, or more, switched over to the flight to Miami.  The California-bound passengers were left to sit there waiting for the connecting flights to arrive from Bogota, Colombia and Quito, Ecuador so we could fill our plane and fly back to Los Angeles.  In that heat and humidity it wasn’t too much fun.  Somewhere along the way, it occurred to me that my fellow passengers would include the ones who had flown with me from Uruguay, Argentina, and Brazil, as well as a bunch of newcomers from Colombia and Ecuador, the land of the coca leaf and its refined product.   And that translated to U.S. Customs being especially interested in us when we got to Los Angeles.
            We arrived at Los Angeles International Airport on time and disembarked from our flight.  First stop was Immigration, where we had to show our passports and answer any questions coming up.  I was one of the first passengers to get in the line.  Like most of the younger people on the flight (the majority), I was wearing jeans and a shirt, had about 30 hours or more of beard grown out, hadn’t slept much and looked it----in a word, I was pretty scruffy looking and arriving from the drug producing capital of the world as far as the officials were concerned.  The Customs officer looked at my passport, did a double take, and demanded an explanation of the frequent trips between Uruguay and Argentina.  Remember, if you passed through Argentina there was no in-transit status at that time; you officially entered and left the country each time.  My passport showed two Argentina entries and departures corresponding to my flights to and from Montevideo, and two more corresponding to real visits to Buenos Aires as a tourist.  That was four entries and four exits from Argentina in a little more than two months.   I was all too conscious of the $3,600 in cash in my pocket, and didn’t want to have to explain it in a public place.  So I played my trump card at the beginning of the game.

            I replied, with a lot more confidence than I actually felt, “I was doing exactly what you are doing here, representing my country and putting our best face forward internationally at the request of our President.”

            He asked me the obvious question, “What the hell are you talking about?”

            I pulled out my letter of appointment as a Fulbright Scholar, on its fancy U.S. State Department letterhead, and signed by the President (or a reasonable facsimile thereof).  I handed it to him.

            He took a long look, smiled, said something nice, and stamped my passport.  He put a mark on the Customs Declaration paper we fill out on the plane that said I had nothing to declare and waved me through.  Next step was customs.  The Officer looked at my Declaration, smiled, and waved me through.  No checking my carry-on bags, no questions, no hassles.   There wasn’t anybody following me from our flight that I could see, so I walked over to the gate by myself for the Sacramento flight connection half an airport away.  The flight was scheduled to depart in 3.5 hours, so I grabbed a sandwich en route and started reading a paperback book I bought in the terminal.

            About 3 hours later I recognized a couple of young women from our Caracas flight that arrived at the gate and sat down.  They were staring at me and obviously talking about me.  There were a few giggles.  I walked over to say hello. 

            “What took you so long to get here?” I asked.

            “Everybody on the flight got strip searched and all of our bags were searched and re-searched.  They had a tip that someone had smuggled drugs on board.  We just got out of customs twenty minutes ago, and were in the first group of passengers they released.  Except for you.  There are several more still to get here that may not make the flight in time.  And it looked like a few of the passengers were going to be arrested.”

            The other woman asked me, “What’s your story?  Are you DEA or CIA?”

            “Just a normal guy,” I mumbled, and went back to my seat on the other side of the gate.   Our flight left on time, with several more of the passengers from Caracas making it with just a few minutes to spare.  They all gave me the same look.  It’s not easy to be the one everybody suspects is the undercover drug guy when you fly on a small airplane.   You know what they’re thinking and it sure isn’t the summer of love!

            This is all true---no exaggeration.  You can’t make stuff like this up.  It just happens.  This scene probably belongs in one of my novels some day.....

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