Saturday, March 28, 2015

Birds but not Birds (continued)

Huele Pega, or glue sniffers, who are often street urchins.
     Behind the story of the Birds but not Birds story below, is one of the saddest chapters of the Human Experience that I've ever had the misfortune to encounter.
     If Heroin is the dead end of artists and poets and others who wander down that alley, then Glue is the death of youth, of potential , of lives completely thrown away and wasted. Glue is the slow, lingering death, the numb blackness of the void out of which we all came; it is the stupidity of senseless life-taking industrial accidents and the driverless car smashing into societies' picket-fenced garden.
     I'm not sure that the Drug Addiction label applies exactly to this substance, which can be bought in a million shops worldwide, often for pennies.  I think of it as more of a fruit of poverty and abandonment.  Its use is most popular among the homeless street children of Latin America- perhaps it is an enabler for them, to endure their horrific situation, which means that they must sleep where they can, steal to eat, and endure countless other horrors at the hands of society and each other.
     I had put this story away into a deep, dark place in my consciousness, the details of which are fairly gruesome.  At the time I was living and experiencing this reality, it was perhaps the darkest visible aspect of poverty in large urban places I had briefly been in contact with (until Colombia, I had lived mostly in small towns in the mountains or beaches).  In fact, in going over my memories, I remembered that there was a rumor about one of the other boarders at a cheap hotel I had stayed at once, though I have no idea of the veracity, but others had said that one of our neighbors would purchase this glue, and would invite a young boy into his room, and there use the glue to abuse him.  This is the kind of thing that I still don't even want to allow into the realm of my imagination, and I apologize for breaking the peace of your mind as well, but this gives you an idea of the level of evil of this stuff.
     Of course, I didn't always see the urchins as merely victims.  They were more commonly viewed by the local people as adversaries.  Huele pega, or glue sniffers, are mostly homeless children who band into gangs of two or three, or sometimes ragamuffin armies of ten to twenty, as I witnessed in the previous Birds but not Birds, and most likely sleep in abandoned properties or other places where they are out of sight.  One sees them sometimes in the daytime, shoeless, with clothes grunge stained from their sleeping place, hair often unwashed, it is the most pitiful sight you can imagine.
     However, this empathy is often tempered with fear, because if you see a huele pega, it is most likely because they have seen you, and are now closing in for the kill.  Foreign white tourists are pretty obvious targets, and even with a different skin color, their clothes and expensive accessories would give them away.  I think personally, as one of the whitest looking people I know, I have avoided a lot of suffering by never having any sort of jewelry or accessories when I travel, not so much as a watch, and my phone I often have safely stowed away with passport next to my skin.
     There are many threats of pickpockets, scammers and other street robbers in Latin America; the prevalence of razor-wielding bag slashers was so acute, that some travelers a few years back were tramping about with their enormous 70 liter backpacks entirely enmeshed in steel webs, essentially a chain link fence around their belongings.  Personally, I just opted for camoflauge: from a farmer's supply store, I purchased a plastic 'burlap' grain bag, the kind of 50 pound sack that serves as a ubiquitous parcel on all the public buses in Latin America.  Often I would just toss my bag inside of this, so though it clearly was connected to me, once it was stowed on the rack above my head, it rarely attracted more than a moments glance by professional thieves, who would often conclude I was on a day trip or had stowed the bag on the roof instead.
     From the same farmers-type hardware store, I had also purchased a fine, 26 inch long machete.  I wasn't really clear on my reasons for buying it at the time.  I knew I was unlikely to put it to its most likely use, cutting sugar cane- I just knew I had always wanted to own one of these, and since almost everyone in Central America had one, I felt left out of the fun.  I was even allowed to walk across land borders carrying this modern sword, and no guards even looked twice at it!  That's how universal and widespread these 'agricultural tools' were then.  The blades come without an edge on them, usually you'd just pay a few cents more to have them sharpen it for you on a rotating stone at the back of the store, or sometimes an indy sharpener guy would be stationed out in front of the store on the sidewalk.
     Whatever the case was, I made a conscious decision to leave it without an edge.  I really did not want to hack someone's arm off at the shoulder, the mere idea of which was repugnant, but which often occupied the back page column of the local news after a particularly rowdy night at the pulque or aguardiente bars.  Yes, machete attacks were a regular occurrence here, and I never wanted to be part of one.  I decided that this machete was going to be a deterrent and a psychological tool- what's more, if I actually had to draw it, then I could lay about someone without actually drawing blood- they might piss their pants from the fear of losing an arm or something, but would come away with nothing but a bruise at worst. If I were challenged to a fight with another machete wielder, gods forbid, I planned to throw it down at the guys feet and point out that it had no edge and rely on future public opinion of him as a coward to save my arm from being hacked off.
This deadly weapon is  mostly viewed as just another tool like
 a rake, and only costs about 6 dollars in a local hardware store.
     So it was, that about that time, I was also making myself a custom backpack.   I had found some amazing bags that were woven of agave, one of the strongest of natural fibers, in beautiful colored patterns, that would form the bottom of the bag (since the bottom seems to be what rips out first from the effects of gravity.)  The top would be made of ordinary canvas, with a big zipper access.  As for the backbone, because this would be an internal frame, I would use the long machete, and have it bolted in so that its rigidity gave the bag the ability to stand up instead of mushrooming out like a bean bag.  While I was not carrying about this immense behemoth (overall, I think it was almost 100 liters in capacity, and often weighed 35 kilos or more), I would take out the machete and stick it in my day bag, where the handle popped helpfully out of the top, and if I needed it, I just needed to reach over my shoulder and grab it. I needed no sheath because of the lack of an edge I mentioned above.
     So about three months after the first time I had witnessed the horrifying speed and fury of a mob of huelepegas stealing from someone, the multitude of hands whirling in and out of pockets, I began to form the idea that the machete would be central to my escape plan, if I were set upon by a similar mob.  One must immediately get into a small enclosure if the storm of small hands overtakes you, and then hopefully you can deal with a smaller number of hands stealing from your pockets; obviously it would be wise to have only one pocket well protected in this case, however impractical that is.  My thinking was that I could use this machete and some good acting, to clear the way enough for me to achieve the safety of a smaller enclosure.
     So about three months later, I was on a date with another traveller I had met, a lovely girl from Canada, and we had just come out of a movie theater in downtown Lima.  It was around 9 PM, hardly a witching hour, but late enough that there were no longer crowds of people about.  I remember that we walked arm in arm in the chilly night, in that pleasant slow manner that they call andando in Spanish.  The first sign of trouble was when an urchin appeared on the outside of my lady friend, a small dirty faced urchin was attempting to wrest her purse out of her hands.  Of course she was no fool, grabbed it with both hands and firmly grabbed it out of his hands, shouting at the same time.  No more than a microsecond after this, I felt another hand feeling into my front pocket, and nearly simultaneously, another in my back pocket.  Hands appeared to be groping my bag, and swiveling my head, I soon realized we were surrounded by what seemed to be about one or two dozen of these little guys.
     Completely by blind instinct, without any conscious thoughts beforehand, I reached back for the handle, whipped out the machete, and to my own surprise as well, began screaming and shouting complete gibberish, almost like speaking in tongues.  I must have seemed like a crazy man run amok, and even my date was suddenly cowed and afraid, as the machete caught the light of the streetlamps and went shining around the square.  Like a Warner Bros. cartoon, the imps vanished in all directions, almost leaving little cloud trails behind them.  Our problem was over even faster than it had begun, and we went home, discussed it a few times and went to sleep.  Later I was much troubled by the inevitable questions: what if I had had to use it?  What if there were men with machetes instead? and many other things which I had no answers for.

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