Villa El Salvador, Lima - Perú
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One Night in Villa

About five years ago, during grad school, I was planning a summer of backpacking in South America, and my Peruvian classmate Enrika kindly suggested that I start the trip by spending a few weeks at her parents’ house in Lima. Because she and her mom were still in New York, and her brothers worked office hours, and her dad was off covering auto races for his TV show, the only person at home during the day was Rosa, her family’s reserved but wonderfully buoyant 22-year-old maid.Most mornings while Rosa cooked and cleaned, I lounged at the table in the garden, reading or flipping through Spanish flash cards in preparation for afternoon classes in town. Our conversations were brief, hampered by her heavy workload and my limping Spanish, but they occurred in comic installations throughout the day. The breakthrough came the morning I woke up to see her tiptoeing out of my room like a hunched cartoon safecracker, trying to make off with my dirty laundry. I sat up and laughed. Rosa blushed and scolded me and stomped away. Pretty soon she stopped addressing me as young man, and we became friends. I had a little bell I was supposed to ring if I wanted anything, but I much preferred shocking Rosa by barging through the service door to the kitchen. During one such interruption I reported that I’d spent the morning reading about Villa El Salvador, Peru’s famous shantytown, and later in my Spanish class met three British architects studying the construction methods there. Hearing that the architects were having trouble winning enough trust to photograph inside the homes, Rosa offered to take us there herself, saying that the Brits would get all the photographs they needed. “Do you know people in Villa?” I asked. “Of course.” She laughed. “I’m from Villa.”Rosa’s next day off didn’t come until the day before I had to leave. We got on a wobbly minibus and arrived an hour later in a megacity of huddled shacks, built mostly of cement blocks and plywood with corrugated metal roofs. The architects were ecstatic with Rosa’s assistance; they must have photographed 50 homes. Rosa and I waited outside, talking, playing soccer with kids and constantly claiming superiority over each other. Her neighbors were obviously wondering about the extent of our friendship. The gleam in my eyes didn’t help; it was the first time I’d seen Rosa in jeans with her hair down.When the sun set, the architects thanked Rosa and hurried off to meet the old couple they were going to stay with. I’d planned to return to Lima on my own, but Rosa said it was too late and too dangerous. Thus began our impromptu night on the town, highlighted by pan-fried guinea pig, warm Cusqueña beer and a salsa club with a generator that died every third song. Rosa teased me as we wandered the alleyways to her sister Victoria’s place, arguing that I looked “too jolly” and was putting us at risk of being robbed. But once we got there, she grew visibly tense: the lighting was poor, her toilet was just a hole in the ground blocked off by a shower curtain and we were alone. (It turned out Victoria had gone to Lima to cover Rosa’s shift.) Over tea she described each of her eight siblings and asked a million questions about my two. After about an hour, we said good night. Rosa went into in her sister’s bedroom, and I crawled under a stack of blankets on the couch. The next morning, while waiting for the minibus back to Lima, I gave her a big American hug that caused her to stiffen and blush and hold her breath. We cracked a few clumsy jokes and then bid our solemn goodbyes. After I got back to New York, my Peruvian friend informed me that her mother and probably every mother in Lima knew about my little overnight adventure in Villa El Salvador. Romantic plots had been imagined and mused upon; Rosa had been chewed out by Victoria, quizzed by Enrika’s mother and endlessly taunted by her two brothers. Just a few months ago — five years after my trip — Enrika was still hounding me for details: “Seriously, you’re gonna tell me nothing happened? Nada? Zilch?” Then she grew serious. “Before you answer, you should know that Rosa doesn’t work for us anymore.” Apparently Enrika’s mom sent Rosa to the doctor for a bad cough. It turned out she had tuberculosis.

Later that night I e-mailed Rosa for the first time in more than a year. I confessed my wish that we had kissed. For all the pestering, we deserved at least that. Rosa wrote back: “If we only had more time! We could have stolen kisses all day long!” She mentioned nothing of her sickness, only that she was living in Villa El Salvador again and working for a catering company. The attached photo pictured her on a beach, waves crashing against the breakers, the sun sparkling off the water. Rosa’s caption read, “How magical!”

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Michael J. White (*)

Mayo 2009
May 29, 2009
"The New York Time Magazine"
(*) Michael J. White is the author of a novel, “Weeping Underwater Looks a Lot Like Laughter,” which will be published next year.
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