I have a trove of memories from the times I spent with Hilario Martinez in Colombia, the most vivid among them his reaction when I told him of news reports in 1975 that said some Americans were eating dog food. We were in a Chinese restaurant in Bogota, and the image so contradicted Hilario's preconceived notion of America as the land of plenty that he put his hands over his ears and shook his head "No!" while hunched over his plate slurping a spaghetti noodle.
Hilario lived in the Barrio Simon Bolivar in the steaming coastal city of Barranquilla, Colombia, where I met him a year before and made him a partner in my nascent importing business. He had a wife, Teresa, and six kids, ranging in age from 18 to 7. He drove a 28-year-old bus and earned about 200 pesos a day -- $6 American -- and spent as much time under the bus making repairs as he did in the seat driving, maybe more. Six bucks was nothing, even by mid-1970s economic standards. It was enough to buy two wall hangings, wholesale.
The Martinez home had concrete floors, lawn chairs for furniture and three beds -- the oldest son Marcos had his own, the three girls shared, and mom and dad slept with the two little boys on the other. All of the roads in the barrio were dirt, with ruts in places that resembled four-wheel trails in the Jackson County woods. The windows were shuttered, with no glass or screen. The mosquitoes were god-awful.
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For my purposes, Hilario was perfect. I needed someone to handle on-the-ground tasks that an importing business requires in the country of origin -- purchasing the products, shepherding them through customs and shipping them to the states. Most importantly, I needed someone who was honest, as Colombia was notorious as a land of thieves. I traveled with the people, and they were always warning me of the dangers. Don't drape your arm outside the bus, a stranger once admonished from across the aisle, they'll cut off your fingers for your ring. A Venezuelan woman told me on a plane that the worst insult one South American could hurl at another was "Colombian!"
Hilario, I knew instinctively, was trustworthy. And I had no doubt he would prove a loyal, dependable hand. Besides, the opportunity to uplift a poor, Third World family appealed to my naturally bleeding heart. Social conscience was as integral to my business plan as balancing revenues and expenditures, to a fault, actually. Plus, I adored Teresa and the kids, from oldest to youngest: Estella, Marcos, Luz, Patricia, Eduardo and Ricardo. They called me Sr. Esteban. Hilario called me Sr. Heegssh.
Over the next two years, Hilario and I traveled together to the northern craft village of San Jacinto and the Andean cities of Bucaramanga and Bogota, where we added leather bags and Amazon Indian baskets to our line of cotton wall hanging imports. But Barrio Simon Bolivar was my Colombian home, the source of my fondest remembrances.
Every morning began with Teresa cooking what I called Huevos Colombianos, which were essentially scrambled eggs with onions and tomatoes. I don't know what made them so delectable, but I can taste and smell them to this day. In the daylight, we'd take care of business or visit with neighbors and family in Barranquilla. One excursion entailed an afternoon at the beach, made particularly memorable by the company of a comely neighbor named Mayo. Hilario said she often spoke disparagingly of Americans, but she liked me. I can't say I was a big fan of the beach's black sand, not to mention the rest room facilities, or lack thereof. Unforgettable.
Evenings were my time to bask in Barranquilla. After dinners of rice, vegetables and fresh chicken (from the back yard), I drank beer in the living room and honed my Spanish by trading stories with the family. Crowds would form outside the window and door, as neighbors clustered around to see and hear the gringo. Hilario regularly shooed them away, but within minutes children, quickly followed by adults, would reappear. It was an oft-repeated process.
I loved being the center of such attention and getting to know the barrio culture from the inside, even the more discomforting aspects. Luz and Patricia, ages 13 and 14, were full of the little-girl spirit I came to relish many years later in my own daughters and now in my granddaughter. But my heart ached the afternoon I witnessed them snap at each other, like stray dogs, over who got to suck the marrow from a chicken bone. At that moment, I understood just how different life was in the Martinez house when I wasn't there.
It wasn't until my last trip to Colombia in May 1976 that I truly understood the special nature of my time in the barrio. While waiting for a plane at the Barranquilla airport, I met some teachers from a local American school. When I told them I stayed in Simon Bolivar, their eyes bugged in disbelief. They would never venture there on their own, they said. We traded contact information, and I promised to take them to the barrio upon my return. I was looking forward to it, but it never happened.
After my experience with Colombian corruption in early August 1974, I had to borrow some money and return a mere three weeks later to rebuild the operation. Hilario proved to be as reliable as I had hoped, and over the next 14 months we imported and sold more than 2,000 wall hangings, long distance, without my having to incur any travel expenses. Our retail customer base expanded to include fashionable boutiques, trendy import stores and large furniture outlets like Kittle's Furniture. The bulk of our sales, however, came from a network of individuals, who bought wall hangings wholesale and sold them to friends and retail outlets.
About this time in the fall of 1974, I moved to a little, Depression-era shack on State Road 446 six miles south of Bloomington, with a kitchen-window overlook of Lake Monroe and a relic outhouse about 30 feet outside my back door on the forest's edge. The address, Route 3, Box 262A, would be home for the next two years to a business I called Steven C Imports. Letters, cards and hundreds of bales of wall hangings, wrapped in burlap bags, flowed between there and Barranquilla.
I returned to Colombia in October 1975, ready to expand our operations, with a new partner by my side, my girlfriend and soon-to-be wife Judy. She was artistic with impeccable taste and had moved in with me that summer. Our first destination was San Jacinto, where a network of artisans made wall hangings specifically for us. At stores called Almacen El Tipico, No Hay Como Dios, Almacen el Popular and Casa de las Hamacas, we bought a variety of hand-crafted merchandise, including baskets, panchos, purses, sweaters, straw mats, carved gourds and sandals.
Judy joined me on that and my final Colombian excursion in May 1976. We spent most of our time in Bucaramanga and Bogota, where Hilario had family we could stay with for free.
Bucaramanga is located about 300 miles south-southeast of Barranquilla, 3,300 feet high in the northeastern Andean slopes, in the Cordillera Oriental, to be geographically specific. We stayed with one of Hilario's cousins, who was a policeman with a home in the suburbs, where we got a taste of middle-class Colombian life -- comfortable furniture, clean bathroom, an open garden with tropical plants and a well-stocked refrigerator. The 8-foot-high, concrete-block fence around the house had jagged, broken glass embedded along the top for security. So did every other house in the neighborhood.
The city is Colombia's sixth largest, with a population of 1.2 million today. The weather, I recall vividly, was nearly perfect both times we visited -- blue sky, cumulous clouds, no humidity, temperature in the 70s. Hilario and his family swore the weather never changed, an assertion that is supported by contemporary climatic data. Multiple Internet sources put the city's average monthly high at 77 to 79 degrees -- no more than a 2-degree variation in each of the 12 months. Similarly, the average monthly low is 64 to 66 degrees. The record high is 88, the record low is 55. The average annual humidity is 65 percent.
Bucaramanga is a college town with four universities. During our first visit, local officials raised bus fares, and students poured into the streets in angry protest. We missed the confrontations but afterward drove down thoroughfares littered with boulders measuring several feet across, dumped by students to block traffic. The police imposed a nightfall curfew, and we experienced some frantic moments trying to catch a taxi to the suburbs as dark approached. The next day we learned that four students had been killed.
We went to Bucaramanga in search of leather, and when we returned five months later, Hilario's relatives had located a company called Manufacturas Carabeus Ltda., which produced high-fashion leather bags. On May 18, 1976, we met the owners, toured their manufacturing facility (all female laborers) and ordered 176 bags, which our invoices described as travel bags, book bags, valises and purses. They averaged $12 each.
Before we ordered another 125 four months later, we had found ourselves in the middle of an intercontinental business tiff. We took our bags to a leather store in Nashville, Ind., which already carried the same line from a company called Bugatti Leather in Cambridge, Mass. We learned that Bugatti had helped organize Carabeus and didn't appreciate the competition. While the Carvajal brothers in Bucaramanga acknowledged their relationship with the Massachusetts company, they insisted they could sell to anyone they chose.
Our first experiences in Bogota were frigid and unnerving. We took the bus from Bucaramanga to the nation's capital city, where a half dozen of Hilario's nieces and nephews shared a home in a suburb. On a map, the distance measures 150 miles or so. But the journey starts at 3,300 feet and ends at 8,600-plus. Who knows how many road miles were actually driven.
In October 1975, we made the journey at night, pulling into the city just past daybreak, as Judy and I huddled under our panchos, shivering our asses off in the thin, cold air. We had little time to feel sorry for ourselves, however, as we noticed mounds of children, literally stacked on top of each other, sleeping inside storefront doorways. They were, I would later learn, denizens of a massive population of Bogota runaways who lived brutal street lives.
We made that same journey in May 1976 in the daylight. The mountainous vistas were the most scenic I've ever witnessed. Looking out the windows at the roadside memorials erected next to thousand-foot drops just inches from our wheels left us breathless, from the view and the fright. But Hilario was a bus driver, and he had assured us the drivers and the vehicle were safe.
At that time in my life I wasn't particularly enamored with big cities, and Bogota wasn't my favorite place in Colombia. We had a blast drinking aguardiente, a powerful, anise-flavored liqueur, at 8,000 feet with our youthful hosts. Hilario's nieces were aghast (and a bit jealous) at Judy's participation in our shot sessions. But their home had neither heat nor hot water. We showered in ice water every time we bathed in Bogota, like Polar Bear Club members, with no place to warm after the dip.
During one of our trips to San Jacinto we had purchased some basketry, which sparked a preoccupation in me for South America's Amazon Basin. Among our goals in Bogota was to find contacts for baskets and research a trip to Leticia, Colombia's sole port on the world's second-longest river. I don't recall who our contact was in Bogota, but I have an invoice dated June 15, 1975, for 162 "canastos de esparto," which translates into grass baskets.
In the spring of 1976 I still entertained dreams of traveling the South American continent in search of arts and crafts. To this day I chuckle at the memory of an aguardiente-soaked conversation one night in Bogota when we told our hosts we wanted to buy llama rugs. My focus wasn't exactly razor-edged, and I pronounced it "lama," to which Hilario made sour faces and regurgitating sounds while rubbing his hand on the wall. When I realized my pronunciation mistake, I looked up lama in my Spanish dictionary. It means slime.
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But a combination of forces converged to make the May '76 trip our last. Money was high on the list. We had always operated on a shoestring, and six trips and a dozen or so shipments in two years had convinced me I needed more money than I could raise to really make a go of it. And the whole thing was enormously complex and frustrating.
Also impacting my decision to change course was an emerging interest in my activities by the DEA. 1976 was, after all, the year that Pablo Escobar and the Medellin cocaine cartel tapped the American market.
Our plane to Barranquilla was among the first to depart the Miami International Airport, and we always flew a red-eye from Indianapolis that arrived around 2 a.m. When we approached the Aerocondor ticket counter that last trip, an American and a Colombian were checking in. I read the addresses on their boxes: American Embassy, Medellin. When we sat down, in a nearly deserted airport, the American sat in the seat next to me. A couple minutes later, the Colombian, clutching a briefcase under his right arm, sat two seats down from him.
The American and I engaged in a lengthy conversation about where were going and what we were doing in Colombia. I remember asking the guy if he could suggest any destinations that would suit our purposes. I also recall him turning the conversation to politics, specifically California Governor Jerry Brown's run for president, which I enthusiastically supported.
When we left Bogota to fly home, we were stopped midway down the ramp, and Judy and I were taken to a small, windowless room and frisked by Colombian authorities. Men seated at small tables in the corners flipped through books the size of big-city telephone books. We were detained briefly and then allowed to board the plane.
After we cleared Customs in Miami, the same American we talked to before our departure directed us to another back room, where we were separated and interrogated. The room I was held in had windows, and when a couple Latinas walked past wearing 4-inch wooden heals, the G-Man commented, "Probably an ounce of coke in each one."
He then told me a story about a guy who had swallowed a balloon full of cocaine, planning to pass and retrieve it later. The balloon ruptured, and the guy died in the airport, he said. When I didn't sweat, he let me go.
Steven Higgs can be reached at .