I smelled like dried fish. As I sat in a coffeehouse in Bogotá, the sharp pieces of dried fish that clung to my cotton trousers were scratchy and annoying. The hard plastic chair—a neon shade of Orange Julius orange—pressed the bits deeper into my flesh. I squirmed with discomfort but then I looked at Bob and felt ecstatic.
Warm coffee. Cool mountain air. Such pleasantness on my skin after weeks in the steamy, prickly, bug-scratching jungle.
Usually I traveled alone on my import/export journeys when I collected unusual artifacts for my wholesale business and retail stores in California. Puddle jumping on prop planes from Bogotá into the heart—the artery—of the Amazon Basin to Leticia is not for those who like the comforts of first class travel. No one appreciates mosquitoes.
But I didn’t mind them or the staph-infected bites and the scars they left on my arms and legs after every trip south. They were merit badges. Evidence of survival and adventure. Malaria, piranhas, drug lords, lecherous men. I always returned home in one piece—well, almost—after the mosquitoes had taken their mordida.
What was I doing bringing a boyfriend with me on this trip? Bob was dreadful, too. He hated the jungle and despised the Indians I traded with. Couldn’t even paddle a canoe or take a photograph. He was in a constant state of hypochondriacal hysteria no matter how glorious the gigantic (two meters in diameter) Reina Victoria lily pads were—each one a universe inhabited by jade-green frogs and giant-legged bugs—or how strange and mythical the pink river dolphins appeared, quietly rising up and sinking back into the inky waters as our canoe wove through the tangle of vines and roots. I was so grateful to see this through our Indian guide’s eyes. Bob was not.
It seemed incongruous because I was Scandinavian-blond and delicate in appearance and he, Bob Duncan (an odd name for a Chinese guy from San Francisco), looked swarthy and indigenous, even though he was a strikingly handsome mutt mix of Chinese and Scottish.
This nasty, whiny, jet-black haired boyfriend and I escaped back up to Bogotá. Cool, refreshing Bogotá, in a cargo plane loaded with dried Amazonian river fish. We perched atop planks of the stinky, sun-dried fish in an un-pressurized cabin. The planks were our seats. He quacked so loud I could hear his complaints over the propeller’s incessant bronchial roar.
The pilot forced us to get out on the runway when we landed. We had to jump out as the plane was still taxiing. He was not supposed to have passengers—just fish. We scrambled across the tarmac, hopped a chain link fence and flagged down a bus to town. We were so stinky it was no problem getting a seat, as the passengers gave us lots of room.
So here we sat, together, over a cup of Colombian coffee in a modern plastic cafeteria. Bob, whom I wanted to push out of the airplane at high altitude less than an hour ago, suddenly looked delicious. His taunting eyes flashing at me, rich umber silken skin under my fingers, a song in his eyes as he felt my light touch. His slightly torn plaid shirt hung off his broad shoulders. Black black black straight hair.
Suddenly, I wanted to marry this man. This Bob Duncan man. This horse trainer from home whom I’d met six months ago at a dude ranch in Mendocino and didn’t even like when we first met. My chest was humming with love as I drank him in. I’d never felt like marrying anyone in all of my twenty-four years on this planet. Before. Ever. It had never occurred to me to get married.
He read my mind and proposed over the tiny cup of café tinto. Was it the intoxicating dizzying effect of the fish smell—an aphrodisiac that only we had just discovered? Some magic potion the curanderos (healers or witchdoctors) sell in the herb markets to weave a spell of love? Had we stumbled upon the “smell of love”?
Whatever spell or vapor or Mars-in-retrograde caused us to impulsively commit to spending the rest of our days together in marital bliss only lasted long enough for me to write a rosy letter about our future to my parents.
My poor parents. A daughter roaming the world to places they wouldn’t dream of traveling to—and she by herself. Finally, a man to take care of her! Alas, two weeks later when we arrived back in California, they were waiting for us at the terminal gate with a dozen red roses and a bottle of French champagne.
My father, ever the Old World charmer, said, “Come, let’s celebrate this joyful news of your marriage.”
“What are you talking about?” I was truly mystified.
My parents nodded and smiled knowingly at Bob with a look that said, “Now you get to deal with her whimsical, fickle nature.”
The letter. I had forgotten about the proclamation of love I had written about to them in that far away coffeehouse in Bogotá during that lull in our argumentative storm that tricked us into thinking we actually loved each other. The stink of the dried fish suddenly filled my nostrils and I remembered the proposal that wore off within a day of delivery. Quicker than the fish smell and with less of a trace.
This was the last trip I invited Bob on.
It is a good thing I did not marry him. I found out there were more differences between us than taste in travel. He turned out to be abusive—and a drug addict. Not qualities one wants in a husband.
This story is included in my book Exotic Life: Travel Tales of an Adventurous Woman.
Here is another short love story I wrote about the truth: The Lie