Saturday, March 5, 2016

VICTORY AT ALL COSTS by Peter Nolan Smith

In November of 2010 the GOP and its Tea Party constituents swept the Democrats from the House of Representatives in the biggest shift of power of the 21st Century and this morning I was greeted at work by the security guard, Andy, who boasted, “We had a revolution last night.”

"At least it was non-violent," I replied, knowing that the next years would be a disaster for non-whites, gays, lesbians, and women.

“Obama is the worst president in my lifetime,” a white realtor said with heartfelt conviction.

Errol came from the Beltway. His father sold truth serum to right-wing believers. The lies tasted better with single malt Scotch.

“Worst than GW Bush or Ronald Reagan?” I didn’t mention WH Harding, the traditional choice for the USA's worst president.

“Ronald Reagan was a great president.” Errol had met Old Dutch in the White House. His father was that connected inside the Beltway.

“Really?” Not many people read history and I launched into a list of Reagan’s sins. “A 40% increase in defense spending, cutting taxes for the rich in belief of the ‘trickle down theory’ while slashing Medicaid, food stamps, and federal education programs. Let’s not forget Iran-Contra, the savings-loan debacle, cut and run in Lebanon, forcing NASA to green light the Challenger Space Shuttle launch in sub-zero temperatures for a photo-op, the arming of Islamic fundamentalist in Afghanistan, SDI, and worst for the nation the War of Drugs.”

“What was wrong with the War of Drugs?” Andy had been NYPD, when crack flooded the streets of Brooklyn during the 80s. He had arrested scores of users and dealers. Most of them were still in prison.

“Other than it was a failure and the CIA financed the Contra War by importing cocaine?”

“Do you have any proof of that?” Errol was an intelligent conservative. He read the Wall Street Journal and knew that the banks had ruined the economy.

“Of course not, it’s only a guess, but my hunch tells me that CIA were shipping arms to the countries around Nicaragua and returning with cocaine to sell in the United States.”

”Manny, my boss, seethed at his desk. The old man hated my bullshitting with the guards and non-buying customers. Like every boss he considered every minute that I wasn’t working for him as theft, but Manny hadn’t given me a raise in two years, so I didn’t care what he thought about my wasting his time.

“That’s a bullshit hunch.” Andy read the Post. It cost fifty cents.

“Really? Where did the CIA planes fly into? Fort Chafee.”

"Where?"

Americans were abysmal at geography, so I said, “That’s in Arkansas and who was governor of the Razorback State? Bill Clinton and his cooperation in the Contra cocaine traffic is why he became president.”

“That’s fucked-up thinking, but I appreciate how you put Slick Willy in the shit.” Andy like most reactionaries hated the fact that Clinton got away with getting a blowjob in the White House. “But you’re still talking shit.”

Like millions of Americans voting for the right in this past election Andy preferred a lie to the truth.

As did everyone on the left, but I had to say, "It's only because shit is all you've heard since birth."

"Fucking liberal." He gave me the finger and went on break to smoke a joint.

“One day you’ll wake up out of that haze and realize I was right. I hope it won’t be too late.”

His parting smile was a sneer, because I don’t have any proof of the CIA selling crack in LA.

My hunch was based on a trip to Peru fifteen years ago.

Ms. Carolina and I had traveled to the Andes for a hike on the Inca Trail.

The secondary purpose of this voyage had been to break up with the blonde athlete. Her married status had been unimportant, until I had met her husband. The elderly doctor was a good man for a southerner and adultery with a friend’s wife violated my moral code, so I had figured that nothing said ‘I don’t love you’ like a coke binge on a romantic vacation, except I hadn’t been able score any blow in Lima.

The police at the airport had recognized my intentions to break the law and trailed me on my search to score an oz. of legendary pink flake.

The dealers spotted my tail and accused me of being DEA.

I hated the DEA. I loved Ms. Carolina. She deserved better than me.

We left town for the Andes, but upon our return I resumed my search without success.

I couldn't lose the cops and finally approached them explained my strategy. The police shook their heads. They had had seen Ms. Carolina and their commander tapped a finger to his heads

“Tu es muy loco.”

Ms. Carolina was as beautiful as she was good.

“I’m doing this as a gift to her. She should be with her husband.”

“Nothing in this world is a gift. Whatever must be learned must be learned the hard way,” he said this as if it were meant to be a deja vu, then added, “Carlos Castenadas.”

“A warrior never worries about his fear.” THE TEACHINGS OF DON JUAN had been required reading for hippies in the late-60s.

“Exactemente.” The cop saluted me and I returned to my hotel straight as a Mormon missionary.

Ms. Carolina was sitting on the terrace drinking a Diet-Pepsi.

It was her drug of choice.

“I've been reading about the Incas.” She held up the Rough Guide book on Peru. “They had no wheel.”

“They had the wheel, but used it as a toy, because the llamas were too weak to haul a wagon. Freight was carried on the backs of people. Still is off the road.” I had read Prescott’s CONQUEST OF PERU along with accounts of Bingham’s discovery of the Macchu Picu ruins and several historical books about Tupac Amaru, the last Incan ruler.

“I’d like to see that.” Ms. Carolina was a curious traveler.

“You will on our trek.”

“Fantastic.” Ms. Carolina clapped her hands together. She loved the unusual.

Tomorrow we were flying to Lake Titicaca, which was over three thousand meters above sea level.

Later in the week we were heading to Cuzco and then taking a taking a train to the trailhead for the Incan Trail, after our lungs were acclimated to sea-level.

“I wish we had some coke for this.”

“I wouldn’t let you down.” Ms. Carolina placed a small bag in my hand. She had gone out and scored me a bag of blow. I knew better than to ask how.

It was good gear.

She also knew about my attempt to break up with her and after a tearful discussion we agreed to be intimate ex-lovers.

That evening the two of us sat at a bar overlooking the Pacific. We ate tuna ceviche and drank pisco sours. The lemony brandies went well with the blow. Back at the hotel I showed my gratitude with a kiss.

“Just doing my part to keep you happy.”

The next morning the plane took us over the Andes. The bag went fast on the reed-strewn shores of the Lake Titicaca and my lungs never suffered from the altitude, but Ms. Carolina was wheezing like she had been transported to the surface of Mars

I offered her a hit in the hotel.

“Not for me.” Ms. Carolina was a good citizen.

“You sure?” I asked hesitantly, since I was almost out.

“I’m sure.” She liked whiskey, sex, and loved me.

The next day we flew to Cuzco. I killed the bag high above the old Incan capitol. Ms. Carolina was not handling the altitude well. I bought coca leaves in the market place before the cathedral and brewed tea for the two of us back at the hotel.

“Drink it.” It was an order.

“If you insist.” Ms. Carolina gasped for breath.

“I insist.” Leaves were not powder. They were legal in Peru.

A half hour later she and I were at the hotel bar drinking beer.

“It’s a miracle drug.”

“That it is, which is why we’re taking a big bag with us for the hike on the Incan Trail. We’ll chew it in the morning and while we’re hiking. At night we’ll drink it as tea.” The guide had insisted on this addition to our diet. Its ingestion was for our own good.

That evening Ms. Carolina breathed easy for the first time since we arrived in the Andes. We slept without fits.

In the morning the two of us met with Juan, our guide, for the ride to Kilometer 88.

After the ancient locomotive lurched from the Cuzco station to switchback over the mountains, the three of us crammed our cheeks with coca leaves, which Juan prepared with ilucta or the ashes of the quinoa plant.

“It strengthens the effect.” Juan ignored the rest of the gringo tourists in the 2nd Class car. They were mostly elderly Yankees or long-haired backpackers.

“I’m good with that.”

One middle-aged hiker with two teenage boys studied us with disdain. He had a buzz-cut and wore impeccable mountain gear. I figured him for military.

“Giving me a little buzz.” We were having a good time on the ride over the Andes, as Juan told us about the trail.

“Once we leave the train, we go back to the 19th Century. Maybe even the 15th. There is no electricity and very few communities. Only pack animals, horses, mules, donkeys, and llamas are allowed on the trail and only some of it, because their hooves break the trail.”

“Just like you said.” Ms. Carolina grabbed my hand in excitement. Her life back in the South consisted of golf, shooting shotguns, and church. This was a real adventure and she liked adventure.

“It was a lucky guess.” I had been in the Himalayas, where the only pack animals were yaks and Sherpas. I gave Ms. Carolina a kiss as a peace gesture. We weren’t over yet. “Are you okay?”

“Fine.” We were both revived by the miracle cure.

An hour later the train shimmied to a halt by the river. This was Kilometer 88.

“This is it.” Juan clapped my shoulder. The other hikers rose from their seat.

“Not much to look at.” I peered out the window. The water roared over the rocks with a glacial fury. The trail disappeared into fingers of fog. I blew into my hands. They were cold.

“Just a kilometer sign and a small bridge over the river.” Juan pointed up and signaled to four barrel-chested Quechuan men, wearing filthy parkas discarded by previous trekkers. The cheeks of each bulged with coca leaves.

The same faces had greeted Pizarro on his march into the Incan Empire in 1526.

“These are your porters. They get $20 a day. They sleep in the dining tent. Please keep the night short. They need sleep and it gets cold up high.” Juan came from a travel agency known for treating the porters with dignity. “Cold porters with little sleep are bad porters.”

“We’ll be good.” Ms. Carolina’s kindness heart was dedicated to everyone.

“Gracias, señora.” Juan helped her from the train. About twenty gringos were struggling with their packs.

“Glad they’re here.” I handed over my bags to the tallest of the three and said, “Napaykuyin.”

A shallow nod muddied the stony stoicism in response to my hello in Quechuan.

“Guess he didn’t understand your Boston accent.” Ms. Carolina repeated my salutation with a smile. The porter returned her gesture with a broken-toothed grin. “See, he’s a Southerner like me.”

Ms. Carolina was in high spirits.

The other trekkers were hefting heavy bags onto their shoulders. The older folks on the train pointed cameras out the window and snapped photos of the forlorn stop. The middle-aged father was already herding his sons up the steep path. My lungs were gasping for air and I looked at Ms. Carolina.

“Are you sure you want to do this?" The path led into the Andes for a three-day hump to the ancient ruins of Machu Picchu. In 1911 an American explorer was led by a young boy to an unknown site of Incan ruins. Several families of Quechuans were living on the mountaintop, but Hiram Bingham announced his discovery, as if Machu Picchu had appeared out of the clouds.

The train whistled its impending departure.

“Precious, don’t even think about it.” Ms. Carolina had grown up in the Jersey pine barrens. They grew them tough in those swamps. “We came here for this.”

“If you say so.” I stuffed more leaves in my cheek. The porters nodded their approval.

“You ready?” Juan only wanted one answer.

“Si.” Ms. Carolina nodded and our troop of seven hit the trail.

The uphill trudge was a test of our endurance, however the coca leaves enabled us to breathe without exertion. The porters spoke in their language and smoked cigarettes, while joking about the struggling backpackers.

“They never leave the high altitude.” Juan was a half-caste. He offered Ms. Carolina a pinch of coca leaves. It was better than ours and the effect erased years from her body. We passed the American and his sons at the edge of a eucalyptus forest. The wind was cold.

“What are you doing?” the bush-cut American demanded, re-arranging the packs on his two teenage sons.

“Climate acclimatization.” I crammed my cheek fill of coca leaves.

“That’s coca.” His erect stance was the result of a long career in the military. “That’s against the law.”

“Not the leaves. Just the powder.” I held up my bag. “You want to dry some?”

“Stay away from us.” He grabbed his two kids and tramped up the dirt track with a warning glare. A mist descended down the slope. Cold and wet were ch'ulli and armay in Quechuan

Juan shrugged with a smile. “Macho man.”

“Like Randy Savage.”

“Yeaaaaah. Slim Jims.” Juan echoed the crazed wrestler’s famed cry, showing that the WWF’s reach traveled far and wide. The Indian signaled it was time to go. We had five hours to make the first night’s camp.

We passed the angry American again within fifteen minutes. He was struggling from oxygen deprivation.

“You need some help?” My offer was sincere. 

“I told you to stay away from me.” His eyes blazed with hostility.

“Suit yourself.” I shrugged and his sons stepped to the side to allow our passage.

“What’s that about?” Ms. Carolina was accustomed to Southern manners.

“People like him hate the idea of drugs, unless prescribed by a doctor. Our chewing cocaine like it was normal grates against his grain.”

“I feel fine.” She was a convert to the benefits of the coca leaf.

“As you should.”

While chewing coca leaves aren’t supposed to induce euphoria, the juices were a stimulant and I sucked on them with purpose.

The clouds masked the mountains, as we zigzagged up the slope past various ruin, tombs, and terraces. Our rest stops were frequent, but we arrived at the village of Llullucha before any of the other trekkers. The porters set up a dining tent and Juan arranged a room in the decrepit inn.

“Better than sleeping on the ground.”

The rest of the hikers straggled into the makeshift tambo on their last legs. Ms. Carolina and I drank coca tea and our lungs were sucking down paper-thin Andean air with pleasure. I thought about offering the other trekkers some tea, but Juan said, “Mana, let them be monse gringos. Maybe they make problem.”

“Problem?”

“Some think it is bad. Some think it is too good. Gringos.” Juan spat out a wad and replaced it with new leaves.

“Why did you give it to me?” Ms. Carolina and I were as gringo as you get without wearing a flag.

“Because you have the face of someone who like coca and your lady is a good woman.” Juan translated this conversation into Quechuan for the porters. They had a good laugh and even better one when the American stumbled into camp at dusk.

He stared at me and shook his head before dragging his sons to set up their tent.

“What'd I do?” I asked Ms. Carolina.

“You took the easy way out.” This was a sin for hard-cases like the father with the two boys.

“It’s the only choice this high up.” I stuffed more leaves into my cheek and sipped at the tea. The fire burned warm against the soles of my feet.

Warm was q'onichiy in the High Andes.

Later that night the father explained to the other hikers that he was a DEA colonel stationed in La Paz. He had raided a series of cocaine plantation. Guns had been his calling card.

“We tear up the crop and arrest the growers,” he spoke proudly of his accomplishments.

Juan and the other porters spat on the ground.

“A fucking narc,” I muttered under my breath.

“Stop it.” Ms. Carolina punched my leg.

The man noticed the hit and glared with righteous superiority.

“Don’t.” Ms. Carolina grabbed my arm. She was no stranger to my temper. “He’s with his boys.”

“Okay, but only because you say so.”

Actually the real reason was that this man looked like he was a black belt and I was in no shape to fight someone of that skill even with the advantage of coca.

Juan prepared a traditional dinner of Olluquito con charqui or crunchy cooked yellow tubers with llama meat washed down with fermented corn maize or chicha. The father glowered at us, as we entered the inn for the night. The MRE on his lap was an unappealing reward for a hard day’s hike, but it was his choice and I slept with a clear unconsciousness.

The next day was a hard one.

The trail rose to a pass of 4,200 meters. Juan checked on us during the ascent for the effects of soroche or altitude sickness. Neither Ms. Carolina or I had any headaches, although two of the backpackers were suffering badly and picked up the pace for the descent to the valley of a river with many syllables.

“Better safe than sorry.” Juan watched the pair disappear down the trail.

“I agree.”

At this height my responses tended to be short and sweet.

That night Ms. Carolina hit bed and I avoided any contact with the DEA colonel by wandering farther up the trail. When I returned to the camp sites, he and his sons were heating up MREs. The content smelled like Chef Boyadee.

“Me and my sons are champion runners,” he explained to the other trekkers. “I figure that exposure to this altitude would open their lungs, which is why I pulled them out of school for this trip.”

“Just be careful about soroche.” High-altitude sickness was potential fatal.

“What would you know about it?” He was about my age, but in tiptop shape.

“I’ve been up in the Himalayas.” I stirred the fire with my walking stick. “Seen people get sick very fast from too little oxygen. Just don’t push yourself too much. It’s a long way back to the trailhead.”

“We’ll be fine.” He was proud of his purity of body and soul, although his two boys appeared ready to join my side of the argument.

“All the best.” I had already said enough and walked over to our fire. The porters were smoking cigarettes and playing cards. Juan offered me a cup of coca mate.

“Thanks.” The heat warmed my hands.

“You did good today.”

“It’s the coca leaves.” I almost played basketball every day back in the states.

“Many gringos cannot make it this far.”

“I was in Nepal several years ago. The mountains are high like this.” They were actually taller. “The porters are all Sherpas and they say that the first thing that a westerner learns in Sherpa is ‘carry this’ and the second is ‘carry me’.”

”Same in Quechuan.” Juan nodded with a wide grin. His teeth were covered by the green slime of coca leaf residue. The light of the fire flashed the 14th Century against his face. “Buenos noches.”

The porters muttered the same and I lay down on my sleeping bag next to Ms. Carolina. The stars clustered overhead like grapes on the vine. She pointed out the Southern Cross.

“I never saw it look so big.” MS. Carolina snuggled closer. “Thanks for not starting with that father. He’s with his boys.”

“I wouldn’t want to embarrass him in front of his kids.”

“Not you wouldn’t want to do that.” She kissed my cheek and the two of us watched the wheel of heaven spin across the sky.

The next day the clouds dissipated to reveal a 360 degree horizon of mountains, glaciers, and valleys. Juan and the porters were ready to go after we finished our breakfast. The day ran long and the path was high. The stone trail dated back to before the Incan Empire. We skirted more ruins and climbed through the terraces to village of ancient buildings known as Sayaqmarka.

The other trekkers were exploring the various ruins. Ms. Carolina and I joined them, while Juan prepared our lunch of noodles and eggs. I ran into the DEA colonel and his sons. They were exhausted by the hike. So was I.

“Pretty amazing these sites.” I was extending a peace offering and spat out my wad without replenishing it. “Back before Pizarro thousands of people traveled these trails every day. They were the freeways of their time.”

“And I suppose that coca was the gas of that civilization.”

“It’s not easy doing anything strenuous this high without it, but you three have proven that it can be done. The Spanish called it the tool of the devil.”

“Yet you chew it like the natives.”

“I’m not in as good a shape as you.” I turned to his sons. “Prior to the 1968 Olympics many of the athletes trained in the mountains to get used to the high altitudes in Mexico City. I wish you luck back in the States.”

“Thanks, mister.” The oldest nodded to me.

“After today Macchu Picu and then we get back to a lower altitude.”

“I think I’m going to like that.” His younger brother was having a more difficult time with the oxygen-short air.

“We all will.”

I bid them good-luck on the trail and joined Ms. Carolina at the lunch tent.

Juan sent back two of the porters. Their bags were empty. I tipped them $20 and they muttered thanks in Spanish. As they left, I stuck coca leaves in my mouth. The exertion of the last hour had zapped my energy. After a few minutes the coca juice restored my vitality and I got to my feet. I was ready to go.

Ms. Carolina and I cruised along the trails like Steve McQueen in the jungle escape scene in PAPILLON after the convict gives him coca leaves. I didn’t have an ache in my body and could have climbed the nearest mountain with the agility of a goat. Coca was not a god, but the leaves came from the sun and the sun was all there was above the mountains in the Andes.

Our shrunken group arrived at Runkuraqay slightly before 4. Juan suggested that we continue onto a visitors center near the Phuyupatamarca ruins and we tramped ceaselessly to the orchid forests near the Wiñay Wayna ruins.

That evening we shared beers with the other trekkers.

Even the DEA colonel had one.

We toasted our achievement and I offered them coca leaves.

Our conversation became our animated with the effects of the coca and the DEA colonel motioned for his boys to move away from me. I was the antithesis of his struggle against drugs.

“I know you’re dedicated to the struggle against drugs, but it’s a losing effort.”

“We make progress every year.”

“That’s what the charts say, but I’ve seen the streets of South Phillie and East New York. There’s no victory there and the only way to escape defeat is to alter the lines of supply and demand by shipping all the junkies and crack heads to drug-producing countries. That way supply will meet demand face-to-face.”

“That’s madness.”

“It would work same as the coca leaves in this altitude.”

“I’ll beat you to Machu Picu without them.”

“First one to Machu Picchu buys the beers,” I said before he disappeared into the darkness.

“Is that a bet?”

“I guess so.”

“You’re on.”

“That was a stupid bet.” Ms. Carolina was amused by my wager. “Losing means you drink for free.”

“I don’t intend on losing.” The DEA killed people. Their war was waged on the poor. They never attacked the banks or the rich or the tobacco barons of Richmond, Virginia.

Under normal condition the colonel might have bested me, however the coca leaves gave us an unbeatable edge and we tramped past them thirty minutes after departure from the previous evening bivouac.

Later that morning, we sat at the stone gate marking the entrance to the Incan fortress awaiting the colonel’s arrival. When they arrived, we gave Coca-Colas to his sons and a cold beer to him. He didn’t refuse and we accompanied them to the ruins.

“You know you cheated.” The colonel drained the beer in one go.

“We played by local rules.” I stuffed a wad of leaves into my cheek. The noon sun was high above the sharp Andean ridge. The guides were huddled around a fire casting a welcome warmth.

“No game, I see you every day chewing those leaves, looking back at me, thinking that I can’t walk as fast as you.”

“Well, you can’t.” I’m pro-drug. The DEA is the enemy.

“Only because of those leafs.”

“Hey, it’s all natural.” I had a bone to pick. A persistent rumor. “Unlike the crack the CIA was selling in LA.”

“The CIA never did that."

"Everyone knows it."

Rumors."

"Not rumors. The truth."

"No way it could happen. They are too many people involved. Someone would have said something.”

“Not unless they killed them and that is what the CIA and DEA do best. Kill people.”

I stood up and walked away before the words got too angry.

The colonel and his sons left the fire, taking my beers.

That afternoon all the trekkers rode a tourist bus down to Aguas Calientes and caught the afternoon train to Cuzco. Ms. Carolina and I luxuriated in the hot waters and spent the evening drinking chicha with Juan and the porters underneath the ruins long abandoned by its gods.

“You were mean to that colonel.” Ms. Carolina snuggled next to me.

“He deserved it.” I wasn’t in a sleeping mood.

Chicha and coca leaves were a combination made for a long night of staring at the universe.

“But not his kids.”

She was right, for a father knows best for his kids even when he’s wrong.

I kissed her on the lips and she said that she loved me.

I said the same words, as if they were spoken by another person. The coca had numbed my lips, but not my heart and I closed my eyes to breathe the fragrance of a woman in love.

A hand tapped my shoulder.

Peru was gone.

“Are you going to work today at all?” Manny stood over me.

“Yes, I was lost in thought.”

I was on 47th street.

“I can see that.” Manny studied my face. “Where were you?”

“Someplace far away and long ago.”

Only several seconds had passed since I first remembered getting off the plane in Lima. The reminiscence was not a flashback, for the memory of that bonfire in the Andes smelled of victory on Ms. Carolina's skin and it will last forever in my mind, because the word for the past is Xdit in Quechuan, which is never far from Xnākht or the future in every language.

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