It was late in the afternoon when the bus stuttered to a halt outside the old hotel in the foothills. The town square was deserted, save for a cow in the shade of the once-imposing colonial buildings, swishing its tail by a water trough.
Inside, we sat on worn leather sofas in a huge vestibule, cooled by the blades of an enormous fan above. “Buenos dias,” I heard a concierge say to our leader, West.
“What’s your name?” a bespectacled woman asked me. Her hair was held back in a grey pony tail and her bare legs and calves were brown and pudgy. “Mine’s Norma.”
“Oh, it’s Colin, pleased to meet you.” Though I wasn’t really.
“What do you do?”
“Oh, I’m a … I’m a plumber.”
“Oh, we’ll know who to come to if we have any leaks in our room then!” She gave a laugh like a car backfiring. “This place is rather quaint, isn’t it? Did you know there’s been a drugs war around here? West was telling me on the way. Seven killed in this village last month, he said.”
“Great. Actually, I thought it was further down the valley.”
“It was right here. But the bad men are in jail, or dead, most of them anyway, apparently.”
Just then I became aware of raised voices from the desk. After a while I heard West say, “All right, I’ll tell him.”
He came over and addressed the walking party. “Manuel, the concierge, tells me you can all collect your keys. There’s a form to fill in, the usual passport number, date of birth, national insurance number etc.”
We all groaned.
“But, Colin, I’m afraid there’s a little problem. Could I speak to you in private, please?”
I looked out of the window down onto the town square, where a little brown boy in a yellow football shirt was poking the cow with a stick. In the room it was cool but outside in the square the flagstones were hot enough to fry a tortilla. I took a bottle of water and went to the bathroom to clean my teeth. “Don’t drink the tap water,” West had said, “and don’t use it to clean your teeth either, unless you want dysentery.”
I heeded West’s advice, all the while fuming at the impossible choice I’d been given. Seems everyone else was with a spouse or partner or friend. Only West and myself were travelling on our own and he had a room in the concierge’s house across the square. Due to an influx of mourners, the hotel was full and there was ‘no room at the inn,’ Manuel had been quite insistent on that. “Lo siento señor, lo siento mucho, er, I very sorry.” He’d given me a choice, I could sleep in the cowshed “Is quiet there, señor, Bella she good cow, and hay is fresh.” Or I could share my room with Carlos, a student staying a week for his uncle’s funeral. The problem being that there was only one bed.
“Did you sleep well?” Norma asked me the following day, as we slogged up a muddy mountain track. It was the rainy season, apparently.
“I did, actually, thank you Norma. There was a drip in the shower, but fortunately I brought a monkey wrench and managed to fix it myself.”
“Clever you.” She gave a bright smile.
“Yes, and I tightened the tap washers too. One looked like it’d been fitted at least thirty years ago, but it was some weird size, not one I carry a spare of.”
“Er, I met Carlos at breakfast, he seems a nice lad, very, er … animated, he speaks good English too. Tells me he’s sharing your room.”
“That’s right, he’ll be getting his head down right around now. Then he’s up at four, he’ll change the bedding and tidy the room and clear off by five. He’s working overnight at a bar in the town for the week.”
Norma nodded. “Ah, all’s well then.”
“Hm. Apart from him washing his socks and underpants in the sink and leaving them hanging over the bath. Oh, and he didn’t bother to rinse the sink out afterwards either.”
Just then there came a sound like a machine gun. Norma grabbed my arm with a vice-like grip. “Did you hear that?” Her face was white.
Well, I wasn’t stone deaf. “Don’t worry, it’s probably just a drug gang fighting it out on the path up ahead.”
“Don’t worry everyone,” bellowed West. “That was only firecrackers, they’re having a little party at the next village. We’ve all been invited for a ‘breakfast tequila.’”
A general cheer went up as West began to hand out party hats and masks.
I took a green hat and skull mask in disbelief.
He laughed. “It’s a national holiday, the Day of the Dead!”
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