Authors: Pam Withers
“You're going to wreck theâ” I lurch over to grab the other corner, meaning to resist his push, but somehow the picture slides easily and Raul, dirty boots and all, steps onto our leather sofa to punch in numbers. I can't believe he's doing this. I'm half-panicked by the notion that Dad or David or Mother will walk in. But instead of tackling my friend, I stand there watching as the safe door swings open once more.
I know I should be telling him off, but a curious feeling of elation takes over. Access at last to the family safe, where secrets about my birth parents may be hiding. Secrets I've yearned to uncover all my life. So why am I shaking, unable to reach in for them?
With one sweep of his arm, Raul pushes the entire contents of the safe onto the sofa, then steps down and looks at meâflushed, triumphant, defiant.
“Take your boots off,” I order him. While he's doing that, I sit down and begin going through the pile of documents. Mortgage stuff, Mother's and Dad's and David's birth certificates, insurance papers, the passports and Bolivia trip information. We toss it all aside, pawing ever more desperately through the paperwork.
“Got it,” I say in a husky voice, lifting a yellowed envelope with “
Documentos de adopciÃ³n
” in large black type.
I spill the contents onto my lap. An aged photo catches
my eye first: Mother and Dad standing in front of a domed, whitewashed stucco building on a cobbled street. They seem very young. Mother is clutching a small baby wrapped in a woven blanket. She's smiling glowingly at the camera. I can just spot the knitted cap on my head. Dad, his arm slung around her, looks proud and protective.
“I've never seen this photo before.”
“There's a man behind them,” Raul says.
I move the photo closer to examine the shadowed doorway of the domed building. Yes, there's a tall fat man in a black felt hat and a cheap business suit standing there. He's holding something to his faceâa cigar, perhaps. Or maybe he's just moving his hand to his face to cover it. Either way, his action at the moment of the click blurs his features.
I return my eyes to my parents. They look happy.
Raul grabs the papers. My hand closes over his wrist as he waves three forms in the air.
Certificado de Nacimiento
âthat's the birth certificate,” he says.
“Certification of Birth Abroad and Order of Adoption,” I read out the titles of the other two.
“Order of Adoption? What's that? I've never gotten that off my parents,” Raul says.
I shrug and scan the birth certificate first. There's a big official circular stamp in the middle. “Born in Cochabamba. Male. Mother: Vanessa Gutierrez. And my birth date.” I
pause. “Hey, my real last name is Gutierrez.” I brush my fingers over her signature and try to picture her.
I remember Raul showing me his birth certificate once. It listed his birth mother as Adriana Apaza and his father as “unknown.”
Raul leans over my birth certificate. “Father: unknown.” He frowns. “We'll find him too, Andreo. And mine.”
I gather up the contents of the precious envelope in my arms. “We're not necessarily chasing anyone down in Bolivia,” I say. “All I've agreed to do is go to a library or city hall or something to see if there's more information. Only if there's time and if my parents never, ever find out.”
Raul looks like he's going to argue, but holds his tongue.
“Stand guard at the window while I go photocopy these in Dad's office.” I glance nervously at the wall painting and wide-open, empty safe.
Dad's printer is spitting out the final pageâthe Order of Adoptionâwhen I notice one of the signatures at the bottom: Hugo Vargas. The guy in the Internet article Raul found, the black-market Bolivian arrested for selling babies.
“Raul!” I call out.
But his own shout drowns out mine: “Someone's here!”
To the sound of a car motor in the driveway, we jam everything back into the safe, including the yellowed envelope whose contents I've now copied and stuffed in my shirt. We slam the safe door shut and roll the painting back in place. Then Raul walks slowly to the door.
I hear his elated voice: “Pizza's here!”
More than a dozen mountain bikes in boxes or cases are advancing toward us by forklift across the airport tarmac. We nod at what look like fellow adventure racers newly arrived from around the world as we sit beside piles of shrink-wrapped backpacks to which helmets, trekking poles, sleeping pads and canoe paddles are strapped.
The five of usâexcited and eager to stretch our legs after several long flightsâgaze about the modern, spacious airport in Cochabamba, trying to believe that we're really here.
“Okay, as soon as we've got our bike cases,” Dad begins, “we catch a minibus taxi to our hotel and rest up. We've got one free day to get used to this elevation, so take it easy today.”
“Wish they'd let us know the route before the first day of the race,” I say, eager to pore over maps and start strategizing.
“But that's part of the fun, not knowing,” says David.
I take out my binoculars and compass. “Bolivia has tons of national parks. Southeast of us is Torotoro National Park, with some crazy canyons and caves. I'm thinking the caving bit might be held there.” I turn and point east. “Somewhere that way is Carrasco National Park; maybe one of the sports in the racecourse will go through there. Plus there are two other giant national parks north and east of it.” As I face northeast, a spectacular snow-covered peak winks at me in the bright sun. “And that's Mt. Tunari.”
“Love this springlike weather,” my mother says, gazing about at the rolling, sparsely vegetated hills, one with a massive Christ statue with outstretched arms.
“Spring weather to us, but it's the rainy season here,” Raul reminds her.
“I'm okay with sun in the rainy season,” David says as the forklifts arrive and he steps forward to claim his fancy new mountain-bike case. “Good thing they're supplying the canoes. Must've cost a fortune to bring our bikes.”
“It did, but never mind,” says Dad. “Now, team, I'm passing each of you some money to stash in your money belts. Feel free to use it for the occasional souvenir or snack, but most of it's for emergencies, remember.”
“Can I go flag down a minibus?” Raul asks. “Can't wait to use my Spanish.”
Dad and Mother nod approval, but I notice that Raul's
path to the taxi lineup takes him on a zigzag route from one hot Hispanic girl to another. A few indulge him in conversation practice.
Half an hour later, we've barely checked into our rooms at one of the city's few five-star hotels when Dad, Mother and David announce they're off to the palm-treed courtyard's mosaic swimming pool “to get used to this elevation.”
“Not us,” Raul says before I can open my mouth. “Andreo and I were born at this elevation, and we're hitting the market now.”
My family members exchange glances, but no one's in a mood to argue. “All the more room in the pool for us,” David says.
With that, we're off, free to race fleet-footed through the narrow and sometimes cobbled streets of this city of almost a million. We pass squares with flowers and grass, and a stately building with a clock tower and walkway under stone arches. We dodge dusty buses, men in colorful striped ponchos and women carrying babies in richly woven slings. Vendors call out, trying to sell us bright baskets, hats, purses and fabrics.
Back at the airport, people had stared at us, clearly knowing we were foreigners. They were the kind of stares I've had to deal with all my life in a community of few Hispanic people, the type of stares my parents learned to ignore long ago when out with their two young sons: one brown, one white.
But without my parents and David, I find that no one gives us a second glance, not even at Raul with his dreadlocks. It's a heady feeling, this blending in for the first time in my life. Or maybe it's the altitude's effectâ2,548 meters, or over 8,000 feetâmaking me light-headed. When we find ourselves in a market featuring delicious-smelling food, I say, “Hold up, Raul.”
, I'm starved too,” he says.
QuÃ© es eso
?” we try out in Spanish, stopping before an indigenous man with meat on a stick over a hot grill.
What is that?
“Guinea pig,” he replies in Spanish. Raul and I wrinkle our noses, then grin and produce some coins.
“When in Bolivia, eat like Bolivians,” I say. Guinea pig turns out to be delicious.
The vendor, obviously noticing that our accents don't match our Quechuan faces, studies us curiously. “Quechuan?” he asks.
“Quechuan Canadian,” I reply politely as we move toward a fruit stand. There, we buy bananas from a kind-looking woman in a broad white straw hat, hoop earrings, plastic sandals and a checked apron. I hold up my photo of the domed building and ask if she knows where it is. She points down a street and gives me a stream of directions I can barely follow.
!” we say
âand are off again, walking now to accommodate our full stomachs.
“There it is!” I say finally. My stomach goes tight and
my breathing becomes shallow. The domed building is in greater disrepair than in the photos, its paint faded and peeling. Three beggar girls about our age are sitting on its steps, barefoot and filthy, in sacklike dresses. I offer one my banana, which she grabs and peels as she mumbles timid thanks.
Just then, a tall fat man in a business suit and shiny black leather shoes emerges from the building. “Go! No food here!” he says to them in Spanish as they flee to a nearby alley.
“Nuisances,” he says, fingering a thin mustache and tipping his broad-brimmed black felt fedora at us in apology before strolling down the street. I turn to see the girls pause and peer back at us. As a breeze rustles their dresses, I realize that all three are pregnant.
“That fat man reminds me of someone,” I say.
But Raul has leapt up the steps and is examining a plaque. “It's an office building,” he says. We run our fingers down the list of business names.
“Hugo Vargas,” I say gravely, the first to see it. We look at one another, and I push open the heavy wooden door.
“Wait, Andreo, what's our plan?”
“Plan? Who needs a plan? The guy's in jail anyway. Maybe there's a secretary with files that would help us.”
“Yeah, right,” Raul says. “A guy who sold six hundred babies on the black market and got locked up for it is going to have all the up-to-date addresses of the moms
who gave us away, ready for a pretty secretary to hand out to anyone who wanders in.”
I turn and face my friend. “Raul, now that we're here, we have to at least see the place and play things by ear.”
“True,” he agrees, glancing about. “Okay, boss. Onward.”
Up the worn marble steps we go, our footfalls echoing in the skylight-illuminated grand stairwell. Our hands slide along its wrought-iron railings. Up to Office 13. We pause, crushed. The door is open and the room is bare. Electrical wires poke out from the walls and ceiling. Dust covers everything. We walk in, worn floorboards creaking with each step. I rest my hand on a broken electric fan. “Oh, well.”
“Good afternoon. May I help you?” booms a voice in Spanish in the doorway. A short, trim bald man in a pinstriped suit is beaming at us as if he delights in visitors. A waft of his cologne drifts our way.
, just looking around. Leaving now,” Raul says in nervous-sounding Spanish.
“You have a connection with Hugo Vargas?” the man asks in perfect English, looking us over closely but without losing his smile.
“Sort of,” I blurt, with a sidelong glance at Raul.
“Yes,” Raul declares, studying the man intently.
“Maybe I can help you,” he replies, extending his hand. “Diego Colque, from the office next door. Private detective. Coffee in my office? Bolivia makes the best in the world, you know.”
Since I can't come up with a reason not to, and since fresh-brewed coffee suddenly sounds very appealing, we follow him into his carpeted office next door, past the
DIEGO COLQUE: DETECTIVE PRIVADO
plate on the door. He gestures for us to pull upholstered chairs up to his massive mahogany desk, which is piled with papers. The window behind him frames the snow-covered peak overlooking the city.
“You are possibly adoptees handled by SeÃ±or Vargas?” he asks. I hear myself draw in my breath. Raul's jaw comes unhinged.
“P-p-possibly,” I reply, my hand automatically moving to the photocopied adoption document signed by Vargas in my jeans pocket. I steal a look at Raul, whose face is struggling to project confidence, but whose hands are pressed so tightly together in his lap, they've turned white.