by Suzanne Adam (Colombia 1964–66)
Colombia. 1966. Twenty-three and, seasoned by our two year Peace Corps stint, we were cocky, confident and keen on adventure. Barbara, Noel and I decided to wend our way back to the United States via Central America and Mexico. My friends were posted together in the interior; I was on the coast. We wrote back and forth.
“I’m not sure I’m ready for the U.S. yet — after this.”
“Me, neither. I have no idea what I want to do when I get back”.
“Let’s just take off. We can stop to visit Faye in Costa Rica.”
“I’ve heard Guatemala is fantastic.”
Unburdened by timetables, itineraries or reservations, we would first fly to the island of San Andrés, a Colombian possession in the Caribbean off the coast of Nicaragua. From there we’d travel by any cheap means available. We gave no thought to political unrest, lurking terrorists or precarious modes of transportation. Our plan — or non-plan — no doubt had our families frantic with anxiety — three young women travelling alone through unhealthy, unsafe regions, where presidents wore military fatigues and walls bore messages of “Yanqui Go Home!” But what did parents know?
I said farewell to my Colombian friends in the barrio where I had worked in Barranquilla and piled my baggage into a dilapidated taxi.
“Al areopuerto, por favor,” I told the driver.
Inside the muggy, one-room building, I spotted Barbara and Noel among the milling crowd. We hugged and laughed, all three chattering at once as we lined up to check in our luggage. Then I noticed, beside Noel, a large birdcage with a live occupant.
“Meet Benjamín”, said Noel.
Benjamín had every reason to be vain. The large shiny feathers of his back, wings and long tail shimmered a brilliant teal blue and the soft, short plumes on his chest and head a bright yellow. His eyes, ringed with large white circles crossed with black stripes, gave him the air of a circus clown. His face narrowed into a long, curved beak. He was truly a fine specimen of a macaw, or guacamayo in local lingo.
“He’s going with us?” I had difficulty envisioning the logistics.
“Where I go, Benjamín goes.” Noel flashed her toothy grin.
“Does he have a passport, or whatever it is birds need?” I asked.
“Yep, got all his papers.” She patted her bulging handbag.
A voice on the loudspeaker urged passengers to San Andrés to begin boarding. Through the windows we watched Benjamín in his cage bouncing across the tarmac atop the baggage.
In spite of my misgivings, Benjamín adapted well to hotel life on San Andrés, finding the shower curtain rod a most suitable perch. For all his exotic beauty, he lacked any trace of pomposity; he was a well-educated, friendly youth. His needs were minimal — fruit, seeds and water and an occasional stroll outside his cage to stretch his wings. He basked in our attention. He’d lift his wings so we could tickle his wing pits and cock his head at our inept parrot talk.
We tried Spanish.
“Lorito real, para la España no, sino para el Portugal.”
“Cara de huevo.”
He’d sidle back and forth on his perch, but say nothing.
We tried English.
“Benjamín want a cracker?” He’d make contented, throaty gurgles, a macaw version of a cat’s purr. Or he’d startle us with a loud squawk. But our efforts were in vain.
After a few days of soaking up the sun on San Andrés’ white sands and motor biking around the island, we looked for transportation to the mainland. A man selling mangoes on a street corner told us that there was a boat leaving for Colón, Panama the next day.
Captain Archibald looked doubtfully at us three, pale-skinned gringas and our two-foot tall macaw, but, finally, waved us on. Loaded with our bags, Benjamín and provisions for the overnight trip, we boarded the well-weathered craft. No thought of lifeboats or lifejackets. As for the boat’s seaworthiness — well, it floated and was headed in the right direction.
On board, amid the chocolate and black skin hues of the half dozen passengers and crew, we were like curds of cottage cheese accidentally dropped into a plate of caviar. Captain Archibald assigned us to first class quarters, two dingy cabins outfitted with small bunks and bare, stained mattresses. The others slept in the cooling breezes of the deck. In the late afternoon, as the little boat headed southwest through churning waters, we climbed the steps to the steering house to chat with the captain.
“What time will we arrive in Colón?
“What are these instruments for?”
“What’s the weather forecast?”
We gazed through the windows at the deep blue waters of the Caribbean rolling around us in a seemingly endless expanse. But, as the sun waned, the mounting waves grew into liquid walls looming ominously over our small vessel. Like a cork, it rose at the mercy of the surging swells, instants later plunging into deep troughs. I had dealt with a variety of discomforts over the past two years — flying cockroaches, gooey mud tenaciously clinging to my shoes, damp sheets in the rainy season and gritty sheets in the dry season — but they had all been on terra firma. The boat lurched downward yet again. I grabbed for a railing and, then, heaved my lunch directly onto Captain Archibald’s shoes.
In the morning, we went on deck to the sight of a calmed sea.
“We’ll be arriving in the Colón harbor shortly,” said the captain. “A U.S. customs official will be coming on board to check for contraband”.
“You know. Fresh meat, vegetables, drugs, live animals . . .”
We scurried to the cabin to cover Benjamin´s cage with coats and implored him not to make a peep. I have since heard that women have tried smuggling parrots across borders by drugging them and stuffing them into their bras. Not even Dolly Parton could have accommodated Benjamín. Feigning innocence, we greeted the uniformed customs official and followed his every move about the boat. He opened the door to the cabin where Benjamín was ensconced. We stood silent, watching. That sound — was that a sunflower seed being cracked open? No. As if sensing what was at stake, Benjamín stayed quiet as a clam, and the coat-covered cage aroused no suspicions. We could breathe again.
But Benjamín faced another test— Panamanian customs. Captain Archibald reassured us: “It’s Sunday. Los muchachos at customs will be hung over from last night’s drinking bout. Standards ’ll be more relaxed.”
He was right. Benjamín only needed one more official paper with the proper stamp and signature. There were street riots in Colón that day, but a determined Noel left on her errand. Barbara and I watched the clock in our hotel room and waited. Finally, Noel returned with a grin on her face, waving the certificate triumphantly.
The next day we took the train from Colón to Panama City along the Canal. Benjamín travelled perched on the back of our seat, taking in the sights like any other tourist. As the train clickedy-clacked along, curious children came to pet him and share their snacks. He drew as much attention as the ships in the Canal. In Panama City, intent on exploring, we again left him on the shower rod. It was the easiest place to clean up bird droppings.
We then opted to fly via a local DC-3 propeller plane to Costa Rica. In the San José airport, a customs official examined each of Benjamín’s official papers, stamped and signed in triplicate. He shook his head.
“Lo siento. I’m sorry, but this bird cannot enter Costa Rica.”
“But he’s got papers from Panama and a Colombian vet’s certificate,” protested Noel.
“These papers are not valid in Costa Rica.” He shoved them back at her.
Benjamín was declared an avis non-grata, and not allowed to leave the airport. We had introduced an illegal alien into the country.
“What’ll I do now?” Noel was desperate.
“The bird can fly out on the next flight to El Salvador,” the officer offered.
“But I don’t have the money to fly to El Salvador,” implored Noel. The customs man shrugged.
No way was Noel going to part with Benjamin. Her only option was to travel by bus to El Salvador, while Benjamín flew. Since Barbara and I had plans to spend some time with a friend in Costa Rica, our travelling trio would have to split.
Early the next morning, a dejected Noel stood in line at the bus station with her bags. “We can meet up at Lake Atitlán in Guatemala — or Mexico City,” we said. She gave a half-hearted smile, hugged each of us and boarded the bus for the long journey to El Salvador and her reunion with Benjamín. As the bus pulled out of the station, we saw her face peering back at us through the window and her hand waving ‘adios’.
Barbara and I travelled for the next weeks through Costa Rica, Guatemala and Mexico. At bus and train stations, airports, plazas and markets, we kept an eye out for Noel and Benjamín. But there was no sign of them, not a word or a squawk.
After returning to the U.S., we waited for news of them. Had Noel been forced to abandon Benjamín somewhere in Central America? Or had she managed to get him across the U.S. border and back to Louisiana, her home state? Finally, we heard through the Peace Corps grape vine that Benjamin was doing time in quarantine somewhere in Texas.
Whether Benjamín passed his final red tape hurdle to be declared a legal United States resident remains a mystery. Whenever Barbara and I visit, one of us inevitably muses, “I wonder what ever happened to Noel and Benjamín.” I like to think that a determined Noel and an irresistible Benjamín, two free spirits, found happiness together on the edge of some secluded Louisiana bayou, where Benjamín could show off his plumage to the local fauna and squawk to his heart’s desire — and thumb his beak at all customs officials.