Authors: Pam Withers
“Well, as you may or may not be aware, Bolivian police have developed an interest in SeÃ±or Vargas and his adoption agency, which was recently shut down. I am working with police to analyze his files, gather information and locate both his former clients and him.”
“Locate him?” Raul barks. “I thought he was in jail.”
“Arrested recently, yes, but there was insufficient evidence to hold him. So he was released on bail, and now he has disappeared. I rented this office beside his old one specifically to help people like you. As we continue building our case, we are confident he will be
rearrested and tried. Tell me, was one or both of you adopted? Can you furnish me with appropriate dates and information?”
“We don't have any money to pay you,” I say, wiping sweat from where it threatens to dribble down my forehead.
“But that is not a problem,” Detective Colque replies. “It is the police department that pays my salary on this case. Also, I am finding it very fulfilling to help match adoptees with their birth parentsâwhere that is possible and if that is what they desire.”
“We're only sixteen,” Raul says, frowning. “Don't you need our adoptive parents' permission?”
The detective tilts back his padded leather swivel chair, rests his hands behind his shiny head and grins. “If SeÃ±or Vargas had done things in accordance with the law, it would be absolutely true.” The chair drops back to level, and he stabs his pen at a stack of file folders on his desk. “But, sadly, that was not the case with this criminal, and I mean to make him suffer for it. But, speaking of your adoptive parents, might they be willing to supply me with information, perhaps sign a document on how SeÃ±or Vargas went about his business with them?”
“No way!” I reply with more vigor than I intended.
Raul and I chat with Detective Colque for half an hour, me showing him my papers, which he photocopies and hands back, and Raul relating his own birth certificate
details. As we relax and the conversation flows, I begin to feel an enormous reliefâlike a shaken-up can of pop whose lid has just come off. A lifetime of hopes, fears and emotions are spilling into the room. Ignoring Raul's raised eyebrows, I even share bits of my dreams. Detective Colque nods and takes notes, his kindly face calm and encouraging, as if he has heard it all before.
“I can help,” he assures me. “I love helping. So you, Raul, don't have your Order of Adoption. It means we can't be sure SeÃ±or Vargas handled your case. But given your birth date and the fact you were born in Cochabamba, I may be able to help, young manâif you'd like me to try.”
“Sure,” Raul says after a moment's hesitation, “even though my birth parents will probably end up being worse than my adoptive ones.”
Detective Colque offers Raul a curious but sympathetic look. “It's true that adoptees have to be prepared for possible disappointment,” he says gently.
Then he turns to me. “Now, you two are off on this adventure race, and you have no cell phone, but perhaps I can send you updates by e-mail? Where does your race route take you?”
“We don't know that until race day,” Raul informs him.
“Really? That's interesting. Well, there are Internet cafÃ©s in most villages in Bolivia.”
Ten minutes later, we're flying down the staircase, whooping and high-fiving as we burst through the front door.
“So easy,” I marvel. “We might actually find out whether our birth parents are still alive and why they gave us up. That's all I want.”
“Not to meet them?”
“No,” I lie as an image of my adoptive mother's face flashes into my mind. If she knew we were here.â¦Â A knot of guilt forms in my throat, momentarily choking the excitement.
“Well, he may not actually find out anything, especially in my caseâthanks to my adoptive parents not having saved all the paperwork.”
I feel a stab of guilt at Raul's tone of resignation and resentment.
“Maybe that won't make any difference,” I say, resting my hand on his shoulder.
Truth is, I'm feeling so hopeful that I'm almost light-headed, but given the shadow on Raul's face, I decide it's time to change the subject. “Okay, it's all about the adventure race now,” I say cheerfully.
Raul nods. “Speaking of which, the last one to the hotel hot tub is a slacker,” he says. We all but knock down a dozen Cochabamba residents as we dart through the crowds back to our hotel.
David, Raul and I are cruising the streets of Cochabamba, being tourists in the warmth and sunshine, when I sense we're being followed. Twice I whirl around to the sound of bare feet padding on the pavement behind us, but whoever is in pursuit seems to hide in time. Finally, I catch sight of them: the three beggar girls in their oversize raggedy dresses.
“Guys,” I inform my companions as we step into a cobbled alleyway between two-story stucco buildings. “Don't look now, but we're being tailed.”
“And we're in a dead-end alley,” David observes, turning and removing his hands from his pockets as if ready for a fight. Raul and I spin slowly, only to see a slim woman of about thirty standing in the center of the lane. She has two long, thick, black braids and sparkling red earrings that set off her sun-reddened cheeks. She's wearing a white blouse and gathered cotton skirt: black with embroidered red and white stripes near the hem. A
colorful striped poncho rests over her narrow shoulders, and dainty sandals protect her feet from the cobbled street. A brown bowler hat perches on her head. She's startlingly attractive for her age. Her eyes are on me.
“Detective Colque told me you're looking for me,” she says in accented English.
I feel my skin prickle. I exchange glances with Raul.
“You look just like I expected,” she says, moving forward and beaming. “Handsome and strong-built, like your dad. Sixteen now, right?”
“Who is this woman?” David asks, his voice cracking.
She holds open her arms; bracelets on her wrists jingle musically. “Andreo, my son, we finally meet.”
I move toward her, drawn as if in a dream, when three men appear behind her, grab her roughly and drag her backward. One, the mustached fat man with the black fedora I saw earlier, clamps a hand over her mouth and turns to glare menacingly at me.
“You! Leave her alone, you hear? Or you'll be sorryÂ â¦”
“Mom!” I shout. I try to sprint forward, but both David's and Raul's hands grab on to my elbows. “Mom! Someone! Help!”
From above, a woman opens a window and empties a bucket of water into the lane, striking me full force in the face.
“Mom!” I shout, struggling more violently against my companions' restraint.
“Andreo, I'm here,” I hear my adoptive mother's voice. “Are you okay? You're having a nightmare. David, it was quite unnecessary to toss a glass of water in his face.”
I sit up in my hotel bed to see Mother in her nightgown perched by my side, David in pajamas holding an empty water glass and Raul behind them peering sympathetically at me. I wipe droplets of water from my face and blink at the trio.
“Way to wake up half the hotel,” David says. “Like we need to kick off the race in a few hours exhausted from your ranting.”
“Do you think you can get back to sleep now?” my mother asks, touching my shoulder gently.
I know I'm too old for a motherly hug following a disturbing nightmare, especially in front of David and Raul, but for a split second, that's what I long for. And yet, even when I was little, I don't remember her doing that. Just the light, tentative touch on the shoulder.
Does she know what my nightmares are about?
I flop back down, turn my head to the wall and growl, “Thanks for the shower, David. And you can turn off the light now. Sorry.”
The door clicks as Mother leaves; David and Raul crawl back into their beds. When I hear both breathing deeply, I rise, pull on my clothes and tiptoe down a narrow stairwell. In the lobby, a sleepy attendant observes me blandly as I seat myself at the Internet terminal.
Sure enough, an e-mail from Detective Colque.
Andreo, I've been able to confirm that your birth mother was born in a small village near Cochabamba. She moved to Cochabamba at the age of seventeen, after being rejected and shunned by her family. She gave birth to you here, then seems to have disappeared. So far, I've found no death certificate, so she is likely still alive. Nor marriage certificate, though I am still searching, as that would give us a different name to pursue.
I will update you and Raul (on whom I've found nothing so far) as I can. When does your race start, and where will it take you? Good luck, and please contact me should you come across any helpful information yourself.
Sincerely, Detective Diego Colque
I sigh. “Well, that's something.”
After hesitating for a moment, I type Thanks, but
small village near Cochabamba? P.S. We won't know our race route till later this morning. Then I traipse back to bed and sleep soundly until my alarm goes.
Three large buses with plush seats move from hotel to hotel until all twenty-five teams of five are aboard,
motoring northeast out of Cochabamba to the mystery starting point. Partway up a paved road with heavy truck and bus traffic, we're discharged into a giant parking lot where minibuses full of our bikesâcollected from us earlierâare waiting. More excitingly, we're issued maps of the region, checkpoints marked carefully. Dad allows me to spread these out as the rest of our group looks over my shoulders.
“So, our first leg is biking,” Dad declares, his eyes sparkling as he moves in his sleek, black Lycra bike gear to claim our bikes. At one end of the parking lot, a giant banner is strung between two poles:
COCHABAMBA ADVENTURE RACE
it declares above a podium on which three officials with microphones and a couple of media types await us. According to announcements being made, the first is the mayor of Cochabamba, the second the race organizer and the third a police official who will advise us on traffic safety for biking on this crazy road. Barely into the speeches, it's this third guyâa tall, straight-backed man in police uniformâwho takes long strides toward us, followed by a knockout cute, athletic-looking teenage girl.
“Team Family Dynamics, I presume?” He addresses us in clear English, his face and tone friendly. It's the lame team name Dad came up with after commenting that “Raul is honorary family for the week.” Dad invited no further opinions on the matter.
“Yes, that's us,” Mother says, looking slightly alarmed.
“Ricardo Ferreira, Cochabamba police chief,” he says, extending his hand. Mother and Dad shake it nervously as he looks at David, Raul and me. The three of us, of course, are staring at the girl. What guy wouldn't?
“It turns out your team has the youngest competitors, along with Maria here from Team Cochabamba. So the mayor would like to get you kids up on the podium for photos and our little send-off celebration, if you don't mind.”
We nod at Maria and follow the police chief. Photographers shoot us as Raul tries to impress Maria with his Spanish and teams gather around the podium to hear the race organizer's speech.
We're reminded of a bunch of rules we know already: no phones or electronic devices allowed, so no one can use them to cheat. The five members of each team must stay within sight of each other at all times. Teams get a special booklet called a team passport, which must be stamped at the checkpoints stationed every fifty kilometers (thirty miles) or so. Teams must halt at two designated stopping pointsâone overnight and the other a full day's rest. Their check-in and check-out passport stamps will prove they've done so. Each team has been given a satellite phone in a sealed bag, to be used for emergencies only. We can get disqualified for breaking the phone seal or using a GPS device, and there are time penalties for going out-of-bounds. And finally, if anyone drops out, the rest of the team can continue but
will move from a “ranked” to an “unranked” category (which is better than the third option, the “did not finish” category).