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Letter from elsewhere – Scottish Review of Books
by Alasdair Reid

Letter from elsewhere

October 28, 2009 | by Alasdair Reid

I have spent a good part of my life living in remote places, and almost always they have served up adventures in the form of small happenings that suddenly raise enormous questions, happenings that still rumble in my mind.

One of the most vivid of these occurred in the Dominican Republic, where I spent a string of shoeless winters in its remote province, beyond the reach of mail, telephone, electricity, newspapers, and running water. My neighbours lived mostly by fishing and subsistence farming, and over the years we grew to know them well. The men from a nearby settlement had helped build our small house above the beach, and they would often wander up of an evening to sit on  the stone terrace and talk, always bringing some offering – an egg, a hand of bananas, some coffee beans in a leaf. Few of them could read or write, but they were no less than eloquent in conversation, and inexhaustibly curious. They would ask endless questions about life in the United States, for many of them had a relative who had made the hazardous journey there; and we in turn learned their ways. Nothing delighted them so much as making small deals, a kind of barter that we all lived by, sharing harvests and catches by way of the children, a band of small, swift messengers.

Two neighbours in particular, Pucho and Porfirio, both fishermen, often helped me on the land when the sea allowed, and with them I made a deal, to bring them  fishing gear from the grand mundo, as they always called it, in exchange for an eatable share of their catch, an arrangement that served all of us well over the years. One morning, I had returned from my weekly visit to the nearby town to get some supplies and to pick up a batch of mail, and was sitting on the terrace, slitting open envelopes from what seemed increasingly another world, when Pucho and Porfirio appeared on the path, bearing fish, among them two squat cofre, or boxfish, to which we always looked forward. They perched on the edge of the terrace, and we exchanged news.

Among the mail spread on the warm stone of the terrace were two or three mail-order catalogues. Porfirio began to leaf through one of  them, stopping here and there to point to an illustration. “Alejandro, what is that?” I tried to wave off his questions; I sensed trouble ahead.

Sure enough, he eventually reached a double-page spread advertising a rowing machine. “Ale-jandro, what is that?” I could no longer put him off. “Es una máquina de remar” – a rowing machine – I told him. Pucho grabbed the catalogue, and the effect on both of them was electric. They crowed with delight. “And how much does wondrous machine cost?” Porfirio now had the scent. I made a rapid calculation: “Almost four thousand pesos.” They whistled, but their eyes were already gleaming.

“Do you know?” Porfirio stood up suddenly, and pointed far out, to where he waves broke. “To get to the reef out there where we fish, Pucho and I, we row for almost an hour. And back, when we’re tired. And when we fish nights across the bay, that is a two-hour row for us, and the same back! But with this magnificent machine – ”

“Porfirio!” I stopped him with a hand. “Take a good look at the picture. People keep these machines in their houses.” Both pairs of eyes looked at me in disbelief. “You mean, there is no boat?” Pucho said. I shook my head. “And no water at all?” He could hardly contain himself. “So people in the grand mundo have this expensive machine at home to make themselves do the thing we most hate doing in our miserable lives?” I could do nothing but confirm their horror.

Porfirio waved the catalogue indignantly, “Alejandro, forgive me, but this world in here seems crazy to me. Why would sensible people, who can afford to buy fish, want this torture instrument in their houses? It is far beyond my understanding.”

There was little I could say, for I felt much as they did. Feebly, I tried to explain. “People there sit at desks for too long, so they have these machines at home for exercise.” They frowned in unison. “Exercise?” Pucho had trouble with the word. “And what is exercise?”

I gave up. From then on, I got rid of the catalogues whenever they appeared. In that place, they had come to seem increasingly subversive. I discovered later, however, that it was as well Porfirio had stopped at the pages with the rowing machine. Three pages further on, a tanning machine had been lying in wait.

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