By Phyllis Houseman
In my early twenties, I still felt immortal—ready for anything. Almost anything.
My Peace Corp teaching partner Tricia and I were on summer break from our classroom duties in a small city in southern Ecuador. We got permission to take a free airplane ride on the monthly Brazilian mail flight from Ecuador to Rio de Janeiro. After crossing the jagged snow-covered peaks of the Andes, our plane dipped down thousands of feet into the rainforest jungle. The craft stopped late in the afternoon at Manaus, the former center of Brazilian rubber production in the early 1900s, on the banks of the Amazon River. Allowed to exit the plane for a brief two hours, we managed to see the famous Teatro Amazonas opera house and stroll the swirling patterns of colored brick in the center of the city. As we walked back across the tarmac to the plane, a cane toad as big as a cat croaked a goodbye, and we took off for Rio de Janeiro. After several intoxicating days in Rio, we plane-hopped to Sao Paulo and then crossed over the frontera between Brazil and Uruguay.
During the bus ride across tiny Uruguay, Tricia and I stopped speaking to each other—again. I don’t remember the cause for our latest argument, but when passengers got off at the town of Melo, I snatched up my backpack and found a seat in the rear of the bus.
As I watched new travelers board, my jaw dropped. A costumed huaso, the Uruguayan gaucho, locked eyes with me and the empty seat beside me.
Politeness stopped me from pulling my camera out of my travel bag to snap a shot of the rather handsome, middle-aged gentleman. He wore a trimmed, gray-streaked beard, and his clothing was impeccably clean, with a wide chupalla hat, a colorful poncho on his shoulder, and gleaming knee-high leather boots.
As he dropped into the seat, a faint trace of rich tobacco tickled my nose.
My Spanish was fairly good by that point, and I understood most of what he said when he began talking about his family.
“My oldest son, Enrique, is a judge. Then there is Eduardo and Chocha. Eduardo is already a surgeon, and Rosa—we call her Chocha—will begin her studies to be a pediatrician at the Universidad de la Republica in Montevideo. My youngest, Felipe, is seventeen, and he doesn’t know how to tie his shoes yet.”
His explanation of his children boasted of love and a father’s orgullo. The twinkle in his eye included the teenager in the assessment.
He then said with a sigh, “The rancho has many empty rooms now. The children are gone most of the year. The estancia needs a woman’s care. My wife died three years ago. I miss her. She was so beautiful, inside and out.”
“Lo siento.” I offered up my condolences for his loss.
Then looking me up and down in that classic male way, he asked if I had a novio—a boyfriend or intended.
I immediately invented a fiancé back in Detroit.
When the bus reached his destination, he rose to leave. With his hat over heart, he bowed to me, asking:
“¿Estás seguro de que no hay esperanza para mí?”
Are you sure there is no hope for me?
The entire bus must have been listening to our conversation. Waves of laughter went up and down the aisle after he exited the bus.
Trying to suppress the red in my cheeks, I returned to the seat next to Tricia. As I settled down, she hissed, “Did you realize what he was saying!”
I just smiled, then we both broke into a fit of giggles over the episode. Our argument was forgotten as we confirmed plans for the upcoming visit to Montevideo.
I’ve often wondered what sort of life I would have led if I had gotten off the bus with my huaso.
Phyllis Houseman was born in Detroit and received degrees from the University of Michigan and Wayne State University. She served in the Peace Corps, Ecuador, and then taught Biology and Physical Science in Detroit and California schools. In a step into another career, Phyllis has published five novels and several short stories.