1940s Archive


Part VI

Originally Published January 1945

Leandra did not like me. She liked me so little that, although there was no definite proof, both Sandoval and I thought she had tried to poison me.


That was about the middle of November, just after Sandoval and I had returned from our 3,000-mile journey up to the headwaters of the mighty Amazones, in canoes, on mules, by small hydroplane, by practically every known means of travel, in our fruitless search for a particular kind of small grey bear. We had returned to Pangoa to start all over again, and we stayed at Leandra’s inn.

Now Leandra was Sandoval’s sister-in-law. In her youth she might have been pretty, but now her skin was yellow from malaria, and her body so thin that you felt a breeze might blow her away. But nevertheless, she was the gracious mistress of her thatched, dirt-floored inn that was always bright with extravagant tropical flowers growing in gasoline tins. She did a great deal of the cooking herself with the aid of Marietta, a pretty young jungle-Indian slave. There were also four other small Indian slaves.

Leandra’s ingenuity in managing her cuisine with limited foodstuffs sometimes soared to extravagant and somewhat exotic heights. I remember the night that she served as entrée something that had the texture of kidneys and tasted a little like them, but with an additional flavor that defied description. It was cooked in a tomato sauce flavored with sage and garlic. I asked Sandoval what the meat was.

“Criadillas,” he replied.

“And what,” I asked, “are criadillas? I don't know what that is in English.”

Sandoval’s eyes dropped, and under the bronze of his skin there appeared a faint tinge of color. He hesitated a moment, and then went to his room for the Spanish-English dictionary, which he handed to me. Sandoval spoke no English at all.

The dictionary said that criadillas were: (1) a small loaf, (2) a worthless little servant, (3) truffle, a kind of mushroom, (4) a Lycoperdon tuber.

“Well,” I said, “I don’t think we’re eating a worthless little servant, and I know a mushroom when I eat one—also I don’t think it’s a Lycoperdon tuber, whatever that is.”

Sandoval squirmed a little in his chair and said, “The noun criadilla comes from the verb criar.”

The light dawned. Of course—to create, to breed, to rear. Therefore, as well, creative organs! I finished the criadillas, which were really delicious in their spicy sauce.

Later I ate them in a Mexican inn, and I asked my fat and genial host, Don Esteban Canseco, how he prepared them. He brought me a cook book prepared by a famous chef in Mexico City, and under the heading of Soufflé de Criadillas I found, in Spanish, information that to me was a little startling. It said, “The criadillas encounter themselves in the menus of the hoteles, restaurantes and clubes most exclusive in Europe and the United States. They have a delicate gusto and are facile of digestion.”

The recipe read as follows:

“Criadillas, one pair; white sauce, one cup; yolks of eggs, three; whites of eggs, three; salt and pepper, al gusto; almonds, 50 grams.

“To prepare the criadillas, they wash themselves and stay in cold water with the juice of a lemon or a tablespoon of vinegar for two hours. They remove themselves of the membranes, wash newly, and cook themselves twenty minutes. They refresh themselves with cold water and leave themselves cooling before to cut. They are cut in cubes. Then they unite themselves with the white sauce and the beaten yolks of the eggs. They season themselves very well with salt and pepper, then aggregate themselves with the whites beaten à la nieva—to the snow. They put themselves in a refractory deep plate (I still don’t know what a ‘disobedient’ dish is) well anointed with butter, and it puts itself in the oven moderate for thirty minutes. The soufflé before entering the oven puts itself on top the almonds chopped very fine.”

When the soufflé brought itself to my table, with some aid from Don Esteban, who shared it with me, we agreed that American cuisine should take a leaf from South American cooking and include the unspeakable criadillas.

But to get back to Leandra. Her sister, Rosa Aurora, Sandoval’s adored wife, had died the year before, and Leandra, although she must have been a good fifteen years older than Sandoval, cast covetous eyes at her brother-in-law. So what with Sandoval working and traveling with the odious gringa, Leandra did not like me.

The first intimation of what might be danger came when Sandoval knocked softly on my door late one afternoon. He held out a clean white shirt that he had intended to put on before dinner. Turning up the collar, he showed me, pasted on the under side, tiny bunches of dark hair.

“Leandra’s,” he whispered, for the walls of the inn were of split cane. “Witchcraft,” he added.

For privacy we walked to the river and sat discussing Leandra and her intentions. Sandoval told me of the dreaded Santa Rosa herb, related to marijuana, that women give as love philters, sometimes with drastic results. Of ayabuasca, the Rope of Death, a liana that may be used to divine the future. There was real fear in Sandoval’s strange grey eyes, and his dark, handsome face looked almost drawn.

“And you, too, Señora,” he said. “I can’t know the truth of this, but do you remember a few nights ago when you were not feeling too well and left the dinner table to go to bed?”

I nodded.

“Well,” he went on, “I gave the meat on your plate to that stray yellow dog you always feel so sorry for. This afternoon I found his body in some brush by the river.”

“There’s no other inn in Pangoa,” I said. “What shall we do?”

“Go without dinner tonight, and tomorrow we move to Paotoshiari, a day’s journey down the river, where there is an abandoned house we can use. We’ll take Tzongiri with us. His family lives there, and they can work for us. We can carry on the search for the little grey bear as well from there, if not better.”

So the next morning, while Sandoval hunted mules for the journey, I shopped furiously for provisions at the bodega of Quiroz. There was jerked beef, some dried mutton with bones, which gives a sort of smoky flavor to the bean soup I made for my jungle Indians, and dried Chinese shrimps which, soaked, then cooked and “united” with white sauce well seasoned, are very palatable. Argentine corned beef was a good stand-by, as well as the inevitable sardines and salmon you can usually find in the little South American bodegas. And, of course, the usual staples of various kinds of dried beans, bean meal, spaghetti, and rice. Just as I was finishing up my shopping with the purchase of red handkerchiefs, fish hooks, and small mirrors for trade with the Indians, Quiroz handed me a battered and rusty can, saying with some pride that it was Americano.

And truly enough it was. It was a tin of Heinz baked beans—ancient, but proudly bearing the familiar label. It must, I thought, have been the great-grandfather of all the fifty-seven varieties. Sandoval and I shared them on the trail that day for lunch, and he’s had a passion for baked beans ever since.

So it was that we went to the abandoned house that stood on stilts in a jungle clearing. It was a primitive little thatched cottage of one room, with a resilient palm bark floor that was somewhat reminiscent of my childhood, when it was fun to walk on a bouncy mattress.

I commandeered the main room, reached by a ladder, for my own, while Sandoval and Tzongiri camped on the veranda. The kitchen was separate, just a thatch mounted on poles, with burning logs on the ground for a stove.

The sink was a gurgling stream a few yards away. The bath was the same stream farther up in the jungle, where there was a pool overhung by great trees in which grew orchids, and which were draped in clinging lianas.

November pleasantly drifted into December in the lazy tropic climate. Although it was the rainy season, there were days of hot and brilliant sunshine when the earth steamed and dried, and the air was filled with floating butterflies whose color and brilliance made one ache with the wonder of the multiplicity of creation.

Butterflies in December, I thought one day as I took my towel to bathe in the jungle pool. Suddenly there swept over me a great nostalgia for a “white Christmas” … snow, a brilliantly decorated tree, the open hearth, roast turkey, mince pie, nuts, and Christmas carols. As I bathed, I wondered what I could give Sandoval.

Back in the hut on stilts my eye fell on a dog-eared copy of the National Geographic which belonged to Sandoval. It was ancient and dirty, but one of his most prized possessions. I had seen him pore over it by the hour with the dictionary, trying to figure out the captions under the highly colored pictures. If I got a letter off to Lyn Manduley in Lima, she could cable for a subscription to the magazine, and perhaps it would arrive in time for Christmas.

So December went by, with Sandoval and his jungle Indians gone much of the time on their searching trips through trackless forests. A few days before Christmas he came back ragged and tired from a particularly hard ten days in the jungle. Food was very low, and it was something of a problem to feed a hungry man—to say nothing of the two salvajes, for where ordinary people have a stomach, they have a bottomless pit.

On the morning of the twenty-third, I suggested that we send one of the Indians to Pangoa for provisions, in order to have them by Christmas Eve. Sandoval demurred, saying he would go, saying that the salvajes have no sense of time and might stay several days.

“There might be mail, too,” he said. “I’ll see what I can find in the way of food, and I’ll be back by Christmas Eve.” He smiled, and taking his machete was off for the two-day trip, followed by Shora with his bow and arrows. Tzongiri stayed with me.

The day before Christmas seemed endless. All morning long the rain came down in a solid wall, and my sink was swollen to rather alarming proportions. I worried about Sandoval, because at best the trail to Pangoa was a mere thread high over the river’s edge, and dangerous even in the dry season.

I spent the afternoon cooking black beans, which were about all that was left in our larder. Tzongiri ate a huge panful, but as the afternoon waned, I had little appetite for food. Christmas in the jungle!

My previous Christmas had been spent in a dark bungalow up 12,000 feet on the Lhasa trade route, surrounded by the lordly, snow-capped peaks of the Himalayas, with only Tibetan porters for company. The one before that, in a lamasery on the Chinese-Tibetan border. Why, I wondered, did not people stay where they belonged, and as darkness fell, my loneliness and sadness increased. For I had given up hope of Sandoval’s coming. After all, it was Christmas, and he had friends in the village. There would be festivity.

The fire burned low, Tzongiri, squatted with his long robe tucked up about him, dozed. His red-lacquered face, shadowed by his raven hair, glistened in the firelight. Christmas Eve for him held no centuries-old connotations. An owl, hunting for his supper, hooted near the hut, and all the jungle whispered to itself. Far, far in the distance, some night-prowling animal uttered its hunting cry. It came again persistently. Or was it an animal cry? I listened intently, and realized as never before that jungle nights produce a symphony, of their own. Again came the cry, fainter.

“Tzongiri! Tzongiri! Listen. Is it an animal?”

The man might have been a painted idol for all the expression on his face. He took the lantern and said, “It is human,” and disappeared into the night.

The kitchen was left in darkness except for the flickering light from the logs on the ground. I stared out into the deep velvet blackness of the jungle night, straining my eyes for the returning yellow light of the lantern. Time seemed to stand still. I mistook the great luminous insects which are like lamps in the night for a lantern flickering through the trees.

Finally the steady yellow glow gradually approached along the mud of the trail out of the night and into the kitchen. Tzongiri put on the ground a heavy bag, and behind him was Sandoval—an almost unrecognizable Sandoval. To his waist he was covered with dark slime; even his bronzed face and jet hair were encrusted with red mud. He wore only one shoe, barely visible.

He smiled. “Yes,” he said, “I was sucked down in the mud when I called for help. I couldn’t have got out unless Tzongiri had come.” He handed me his handkerchief in which something was tied. “Careful,” he said.

With fingers that trembled, I untied the mud-stained handkerchief. It contained seven precious eggs, which I put in a tin plate, but in doing so, in my excitement, broke one. Sandoval had carried them all the way from Pangoa without so much as a crack.

“But where,” I asked, “is the Indian you took to carry the pack?”

“Drunk, very drunk, in the village.”

“And you carried that pack all the way?” I said, trying to lift the heavy sack, which must have weighed between fifty and seventy pounds. “I had concluded that you would spend Christmas Eve in Pangoa.”

“But, Señora,” said Sandoval reprovingly, “I said I’d be back. There is much mail for you, and” … a smile lighted his mud-stained face … “something for me. But now I must go to the stream to bathe.”

Tzongiri built up the fire while I opened the bag. On top, somewhat stained and battered, was the carefully wrapped bundle of mail. There were dried meat, spaghetti, beans, and the usual staples, but also there was fresh bread from the outdoor brick oven of Quiroz, and, marvel of marvels, half a kilo of butter! Sugar, and the good native coffee, tea, a few tins of salmon and sardines that looked like a veritable treasure store to me. Deep in the bottom of the bag I found a bottle of red wine known as el ojo del gallo, eye of the cock, and a banana-leaf package, which I guessed must contain meat.

It did … a young wild turkey. At that point a lump rose in my throat, for it was Christmas after all!

The fragrance of coffee had mingled with the smoke of the strong Peruvian cigarettes he had brought, by the time Sandoval returned from the pool, his dark face shining, his hair gleaming.

Over the meal I went through the mail … letters from friends and family. But more important than that, there was the National Geographic for Sandoval. He almost forgot his hunger in the excitement of the pictures, for almost the entire issue was in lavish Oriental color—Princely India. All the pomp and glory of the ancient East were there in the jungle for Christmas. Many of the places I had seen for myself, and could explain to Sandoval. We sat drinking coffee, smoking over the pictures until far into the night.

Outside, ghostly streamers of mist floated low through the tree branches, and on the tips of the palm fronds over the kitchen lay the Southern Cross.

Christmas dawned with a brilliant hot sun, and Sandoval said, “I’ll show you how the salvajes roast turkey.”

He plucked and cleaned the bird, and washed it in the stream. Then, after drying it over the fire, he thoroughly rubbed it with garlic inside and out, then salted and peppered it. He sent Tzongiri to cut a certain kind of green wild cane that grew near, with which he spitted the bird through the body lengthwise, from neck to tail. I watched with fascinated interest as he took a small loaf of bread and spitted that below the bird, carefully wrapping it in a banana leaf and binding it with tough green vine. “To catch the juice,” he said.

He firmly drove the strong green cane horizontally into the ground beside the blazing logs, and Tzongiri squatted beside it, turning the stick slowly.

It must have been almost noon before the bird was crispy brown—Sandoval had brushed it many times in the roasting with the precious butter—and the aroma in the hot, still day was as tantalizing as any Christmas feast I’d ever known. He had taken the bird from the spit and was carving it with his machete when quietly there appeared at the edge of the kitchen a ragged small burro, accompanied by an equally ragged dark man. It was difficult to tell who was in charge of whom, except that the burro wore bulging saddle bags.

The ragged man swept off his straw sombrero, and said, “For you, Señora,” and proceeded to unload his burro.

To my astonishment, there were several cartons with a label from Lima that I knew well—the American grocery store known as The Hole in the Wall.

Sandoval’s curiosity was as great as mine, and our wonder grew as we unwrapped Swedish rye bread in tins, bottles of sauces, tins of preserved meat, chocolate, cheese of various kinds, and—wonder of wonders!—jelly beans and gum drops. Sandoval had never before eaten a jelly bean, but he approved of this product of the strange American genius. Deep in the bottom of one box was a little note with Saludos and Merry Christmas from Senhor Juan da Silva, the Portuguese gentleman who was also a gourmet—and a thoughtful one.

Perhaps spitted wild turkey—the juice-soaked bread was almost as delicious as the bird itself—and Swedish rye bread spread with Limburger cheese, washed down with the red wine, “eye of the cock,” is not exactly an orthodox Christmas dinner, but it was one I shall remember for many a long year.

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