It was another quiet evening in El Dorado. The sun disappeared behind the horizon carrying away the heat of a tropical day. The gentle breeze began to blow from the ocean bringing the long-awaited coolness. There was no reason to stay any longer inside the poorly ventilated room and so we picked up our scarce supplies of snacks and beer and moved to the open air.
As on many past occasions, there was no particular reason for our small get-together this early in the day. Frankly, no one needed one. There isn't much one can do in the evening in our part of the world. To watch TV or read is fine but people here are more sociable and they prefer to spend free time in the company of friends and acquaintances, gossiping and drinking. Everyone in the country has at least a dozen friends, fifty acquaintances and in addition, an innumerable amount of relatives.
Of course, some of these people are closer than others. Nevertheless, it is not necessary to call in advance to announce that you are going to see a friend. It's okay just to turn up, say hello and stay for a while. Except for some, very rare occasions, no one would mind your unexpected visit, especially if you have a present. It is a part of El Dorado's culture and it has always been like this.
In our case there was Francisco. A man with an angry face but warm heart, whose humble abode was a primary target for all of us to stop by. Once a university professor somewhere in the States, he had come back to El Dorado and dedicated himself to the cultivation of exotic medical plants. His plantations were located right next to his house. The house itself was big enough to station a small army, and he would be poking around somewhere in the vicinity most of the day. This habit of his had converted Francisco and his dwelling into a Mecca for his buddies. Besides, he had a weakness for tittle-tattle and he was always happy to someone knocking at his door, whose chances of being admitted inside would grow exponentially if one happened to have a bottle of something strong in his hand.
So, there were six of us, sitting in an uneven circle on delapidated, plastic armchairs on the vast terrace and talking lazily. All the latest town gossip had been discussed, politicians and the military had been left behind, religion as always was a tabu, and the weather was of little interest. The recent stormy emotions wilted and were replaced with feeble drowsiness. Someone fell asleep. Yet it was too early for people to go home. There was still some liquor to drink and some snacks to chew.
Suddenly, as someone got up and began saying good-byes, Fransisco said, "Let me tell you a good one, boys He moved his chair closer to the others and started in his not quite native English. "It's the weirdest thing ever happened to me."
"You all know that my late father was a Spaniard and my late mother was a Doradea. My father fled from his native Malaga to El Dorado in the early forties when he quarreled with General Franco.
"Actually, my father was one of his closest friends but once, they argued over something trivial and finally they got into a fight. I know that Franco wasn't the best of men but my father had a very explosive character himself and would make enemies with the same ease as he'd make friends. I don't know what happened between him and Franco but as far as I understand that day they became deadly enemies and my father had no choice but to escape from Iberia before Franco got rid of him.
"Well, he settled here on the Coast and eventually got married to my dear mother and they had five children of which I was the only boy and that was probably the reason why I was the closest to him.
"He spent all his life here in El Dorado suffering from nostalgia but while Franco was in power, and even a decade after his death, my father didn't dare return home. Don't ask me why.
"I honestly don't know and he never told me his reasons. Well, I guess he had other enemies besides Franco or perhaps he was afraid of the communists. He thought they remembered him as one of Franco's cronies and would seek revenge. I'm sure you all remember in the late seventies they came out from the underground and were after Franco's people. Nevertheless, only when he got really old and began to mention the word "death" too often, did he decide that it was the time to visit his motherland.
"By now Papi had a few options where to stay because some of my sisters had emigrated to Spain and had become established. He chose Maria, the oldest of us, who had made her home in my father's native Malaga. Shes a doctor, you know, and back then she was the head of a hospital. All this was really convenient should our father suddenly need medical care.
"Honestly, we didn't expect anything like that to happen: He was a strong, healthy old man. He had never been sick in his entire life. But as the proverb says, God moves in mysterious ways. And so he did. Right on the first day, the day my father arrived in Spain, he felt a terrible pain in his belly and they diagnosed appendicitis.
"Maria called me to say that our father had been operated on and that so far, everything had gone successfully and now he was in recovery. I asked her whether he would pull through and she said that I shouldn't worry. She insisted that he was strong enough and in a few days he would be fine and I believed her of course. I mean, who was the doctor in the house?"
Francisco stopped and lit another cigarette. We noticed that his hands were trembling and his face became sad. He took a deep drag and then exhaled the smoke through his nose in two thin plumes. Nobody made a sound; we were waiting. He flicked the ash from his cigarette and continued.
"That night I was reading something, I think it was Garcia Marquez, and when my father called me I wasn't asleep so I picked up the phone after the first ring. He didn't greet me and as he heard my hello, he just said that he was going to die that night.
"I had spoken to my sister about him a few hours earlier and she seemed quite positive and not too concerned about his condition at all. I was confused. It didn't sound right: why should he die if Maria had said all the analysis and tests showed him getting better?
"Father, why do you think you are going to die? Don't say that. You are going to live longer than any of us."
"Francisco, he said, I am an old man. I've done everything I could ever wish. I've got kids, I raised them. I planted a garden, built houses. I have a bunch of grandsons and great-grandsons. I am a happy man. And there's nothing else for me to do here on this Earth. It's time for me to go.
"We were silent for a while. I heard his breath on the other end of the line as probably he could hear mine.
"Francisco, he said broking the silence, there's one thing I will ask of you."
"What's that? If it's about death, you'd better not say anything, because..." I began to say but he interrupted me.
"Listen, he said, when I die, burn me, and bring the ashes back to El Dorado. I want to be reincarnated as one of those eternally happy cholos. I want to spend my next life happier, enjoying the simple things without knowing the miseries and victories of our world. Can you promise me that?"
"What could I say? Of course, I said that I would do whatever he wanted to. Then he just said thank you, I love you, farewell and that was it. I sat with the phone in my hands I got to be honest I started to cry. In ten minutes or so, I called my sister to ask whether our father was still doing OK.
Francisco sighed deeply and asked for another cigarette. His pack was already empty.
"Well, can you imagine, she told that our father just passed away. I don't think she could believe it either because she had checked up on him just half an hour before.
"Next day, I took a flight to Madrid and then to Malaga. I did everything as he had willed and I was thinking about him, especially his last words. I told you I was very close to him and it was a very, very painful loss. Obviously, I got really depressed. My inner world practically collapsed. I needed someone to fill the gap - to fill my soul with anything that would calm it, pacify it, and all of a sudden I decided that I should visit Madre Teresa and seek her spiritual advice. So, I flew to India. It's a whole different story about India and all the things that I had to go through before I managed to approach Madre Teresa's convent.
"All I can say about it was it was both an exciting and at the same time awful experience. Finally I made it to her house. To my complete disappointment I found that she had left for Rome. I'd missed her by four hours. No one knew when she'd be coming back. So, I had to leave with the same burden of doubts with which I had arrived. Can you believe that? I made it all that way from El Dorado, then to Spain and finally, to India just to go sightseeing! I was angry at myself, I didn't know what to do. The solution came as quick as it was unexpected. I found a new religion, the leader of which happened to be available to listen to quench my spiritual thirst. His name was Bab and he was very popular in India at that time, so I became sort of a Krishna follower. Now I had a spiritual leader who would guide me in the search of my internal peace. At last I'd got what I'd been looking for.
"I met him and we had long conversations. Honestly, I felt better, and I don't know why but I felt relieved and healed, so I headed back to El Dorado."
Francisco stopped talking. We thought that the story was finished and started our comments, "That's a good one, Francisco." "So, you've been to India...?"
Then someone asked, "Francisco, and what happened to the ashes?"
He smiled bitterly, stood up and said, "The ashes... hmm...the ashes I left them in India when I was purging myself in the Ganges before going to Baba. I had felt that something had been missing all the time but remembered what it was only on my flight back to El Dorado."
"Did you go back??"
"Did I? I left them on the very crowded stairs of a temple. They were enclosed in a nice redwood box and definitely someone picked it up, threw the ashes away and held on to the box."
"And what did you do then?"
"Nothing. I never told my family our father's last wish. They still think that I scattered them in Spain..."
"Oh, I saw something like that on TV with the only difference the guy filled the box with ashes from cigarettes and he had had to chain-smoke the entire night."
"Well, good for him."
"Francisco, honestly, did you make up that whole story?"
"No, I didn't but I wish I had."
"Now he's a Hindu. He's walking through those crowded and stinking streets of Bombay or Calcutta and I am the one to be blamed."
No one said a word.
"Or probably, it was his Karma. Who knows?"
July 2005 Ballenita, Ecuador