In the late 1990s Steve Casey, a divorced man with a son, sets off from Brisbane on his third trip to Central America in the space of little more than five years. He is the second eldest of five siblings. Several years before, his youngest brother Kenny travelled to Latin America and lived and worked in the region as a volunteer. Over time, Kenny lost contact with his family in Australia and, as on the occasion of his first two trips, it is with the hope of trying to resolve his apparent disappearance that Steve goes overseas yet again.
He travels first to Mexico City, there making contact with Greg, an Australian consular official who assisted him in the past. Steve bristles in the face of Greg’s hint that Kenny, for some reason, may have deliberately broken off contact with his family. As far as Steve is concerned, this is unthinkable.
Pressing on with his quest, he endeavours to follow up flimsy leads in Nicaragua, Honduras and El Salvador. The pressures of the completely different culture combine with the seeming futility of his search to induce him to reflect on his life to date, in particular his failed marriage to Carolin, his ex-spouse.
In northern El Salvador, Steve makes contact with Dominic, an Australian expatriate who has resided in the region for years. Dominic informs Steve that he knows Kenny. Though it is sometime since he received any word from him, he recalls that when they were last in touch Kenny was on his way to Guatemala, where he planned to study Spanish at a language school.
Travelling to Guatemala Steve is prey to further reminiscences, this time predominantly of the events during the year Kenny spent in Australia after his first spell in Latin America. He recalls the marriage of their older brother Rene to his Vietnamese girlfriend, the gradual deterioration of his relationship with Carolin, and Kenny’s valiant but often painful bid to readapt to life in Australia.
Steve makes inquiries at many language schools in Guatemala but no one remembers a student by the name of Kenny. Finally, exhausted and frustrated, he decides on a whim to undertake several weeks’ tuition at a school in Xela. He resides with a local family for the duration. Ironically, his search for Kenny assumes less importance as he draws closer to an understanding of what his brother must have experienced.
He develops a close bond with his Guatemalan ‘family’ and also Marisol, one of the teachers at the school. She tells him about a group of internally displaced refugees based in the Petén jungle. Believing that Kenny would have been attracted to a group of this kind and despite being diagnosed with stomach parasites, Steve makes contact with their delegation in the capital. He journeys to the jungle with several other people including Olga. He is devastated when she tells him of the cataclysms that have defined her life. Spiritually speaking, he draws ever nearer Kenny and comes to understand that healing is a process he can bring to bear in his own life.
Part One Latin America
I must admit I undertake last minute preparations for my third trip to the region in the space of little more than five years with reluctance. In the middle of the day tomorrow I fly down to Sydney and proceed from there to Los Angeles, where I’ve an onward flight to Mexico a couple of hours later. I should reach Mexico City about mid-evening, all being well.
I plan a stopover of four days before continuing on to Managua in Nicaragua, as good a disembarkation point in the region as any given the raison d’être of this voyage, one I’d be happy to postpone or cancel outright.
Anyone would be circumspect faced with the prospect of a trip lacking a clear destination to speak of, irrespective of the details printed in red on the wafer-thin paper of my airline ticket. How long I will stay in the Nicaraguan capital, what direction I will take from there, I haven’t decided.
I’ll invent an itinerary as I go along. My initial two trips to Central America smacked of improvisation but on those occasions I had leads to go on. This time I have nothing new at hand. For instance, no stray letter or card has come to light. Thus, I’m apprehensive about the futility I will doubtless feel when the soles of my shoes touch the Latin world again.
More than anything I’m once more in this position out of a desire to placate my mother. I had no one but her in mind when I agreed, without a second thought, to make a third trip. My father, James, floated the idea three months ago and I supposed, as I’d done in 1993 and again in 1996, the onus fell on me being the oldest sibling.
I gathered with my sister Denise and my brother Rene and his family at James and Gillian’s one oppressive afternoon in the week leading up to Christmas. We had been talking about Kenny in a roundabout way when James came to the point. For a split second I held out hope of Rene’s volunteering to go in my stead this time. But I realised the forlornness of the wish in more or less the same instant.
Only two years have elapsed since my second spell in Latin America but to judge by the lassitude of my preparations this time I’ve learnt little from then or the experience before. I knew deep down leaving everything to the end would give rise to problems. The consequences had made themselves felt over the hectic past two weeks.
Prior to then, towards the end of February, I discovered I needed a new passport. No more than five months’ validity remained on my old one. I rushed straight to the passport office on Ann Street and set about renewing the document.
The uncomplicated process took a week. On the day in question I left work – I had a job on in Coorparoo at the time – and dropped into the office half an hour before closing time. I flicked through the blank pages with conflicting emotions while riding the four flights to the ground level.
Why, I asked myself, had I requested a sixty-four page document? Why had I gone to the expense of ordering something twice the regular size, as if considering exchanging my staid existence in Brisbane for the lifestyle of a wanderer? Nothing could’ve been further from the truth, I told myself.
Did it amount to a subconscious acknowledgement of my feeling of despondency in the face of this trip, a concession to a vague fear, sensed somewhere within, this journey would turn out different to the first two I’d made? In any case, how could I know what would ensue when I put my native shores behind me one more time?
After acquiring the new passport I sent it and a visa application form I had never used to the Nicaraguan embassy. But days later they called to say I had omitted to enclose the fee. As soon as I forwarded them x amount of dollars they would process my application. I did their bidding and received the visaed passport in the post yesterday.
Someone, I forget whom, once pointed out a person never has greater possession of a journey than when caught up in departure preparations. The business of the trip itself then must come as a letdown.
I can empathise with the sentiment and indeed at the moment, with frenzied preparation behind me and yet to come, I feel in possession of my trip. Tomorrow, when I board the aircraft, things will be different. I don’t doubt it.
Six o’clock has struck. Tim, my son, reappeared from university in the middle of the afternoon but went on his way again before long. I am not sure where he planned to go. Since he returned from Cambodia we’ve communicated less than ever.
Around an hour ago, convinced I had everything in hand, I lay down to catch my breath. But I began skirting too close to sleep for comfort and dragged my frame off the couch and into a straight-backed chair. I had no wish to take a nap given all I had to do.
For the past thirty minutes or so I’ve been listening to the rain. Since it started to fall on a daily basis in the first week of last month the summer has been moderate. It helps take the edge off the unrelenting conditions common at this time of the year.
The city’s parks and gardens will look lush and green this winter if it keeps up, in stark contrast to their appearance following drier than average summers. According to the calendar, summer has segued into autumn. But here in the subtropics little differentiates the two. Children in these parts grow up associating the four seasons with the southern regions of the country and wonder what the climate down there must be like.
Already, be it in Nicaragua or elsewhere, I can see myself in the coming weeks, picking up foreign newspapers and leafing through to the pages detailing the weather around the globe on the off chance Brisbane might rate a mention. As if the weather, or anything occurring in my hometown, could be of importance from a distance of thousands of miles.
On my previous trips I’d adopted the same thing in an attempt to feel less removed from the tried-and-true, the familiar and, by its familiarity, unthreatening. But this fruitless endeavour intensified my homesickness. I found myself dwelling on this again in the evening on the drive across town to Ferny Hills.
Prior to setting off I spent minutes on the phone. First, I dialled Denise’s number though I had to be content with leaving a message on her answering machine. I had my doubts I would hear from her before my departure in the morning. I found Rene in, however, and we yarned at length about one thing or another.
Someone overhearing the conversation could’ve been forgiven for thinking I had a trifling excursion ahead of me. It rated no more than a passing reference and this at the tail-end of the call. I ought not have taken this as an affront for I knew as well as anyone Rene’s thoughts on the subject of our younger brother. He had given me a better you than me look when I had expressed my willingness at the pre-Christmas rendezvous.
Late in 1982, after Denise moved into a place of her own, my parents sold their Camp Hill Queenslander and acquired a plot of land in Ferny Hills, on the other side of the city. Both appeared happy to exchange the house and suburb where they’d raised five children for the quieter ambience of Ferny Hills. I helped with the planning and building of the new abode.
Rain continued to tumble out of the sky when I reached their doorstep. The air carried the aroma of freshly sprinkled flowers, grass and leaves. Beyond the locked screen door at the front of the house, I made out the dim light emanating from a television set, operating at a volume not low enough to be indistinct.
I brought my face close to the tightly meshed wire of the screen and called out. I had to repeat myself three or four times before I succeeded in rousing Gillian. Blinking her eyes, she advanced towards me out of the shadows and unlocked the door. James had retired more than an hour ago, she explained.
I could not have stated the exact ages of my parents. In their late seventies, I would’ve answered had anyone inquired. For me, they had been more or less the same age for years. The grimness in Gillian’s expression had been there as long as I could recall. It had waxed and waned with the passing time. James’ difficulty walking also formed a benchmark in my memory.
Sitting with my mother, I reiterated the point I had made over and over again since the decisive family gathering of the previous December: the moment I had news of Kenny I would be in touch.
Noting the look on her face, I sensed the impossibility of returning home empty-handed on this occasion. If I did, she’d never reconcile his loss in her mind. I believed this to be her sole aim in life now, having long ago abandoned hope of regaining him.
How fitting to have found her in one part of the house and my father in another. For years they had spent more time apart than together, while residing under the same roof. I’m not one to judge but once, not long ago, I suggested to my mother she could try speaking to her husband. In a cutting tone, she remarked on the hopelessness of conversing with a post.
On uncertain legs, James manoeuvred his way into the room and joined us. My exchanges with him never veered away from practical concerns. Despite the countless precedents, I couldn’t help feeling disappointed. I sat subdued before the ailing couple, the ones at whose behest I would be winging my way out of the country in little more than half a day.
I heard Tim return home last night though I’d drifted into semiconsciousness by then. He rose not long after I did this morning, ready to give me the lift to the airport I had requested. We set off from Carindale around ten o’clock, turning straight on to the Gateway Arterial Road.
Tim and I conversed in monosyllables during the twenty to twenty-five minute drive. I kept glancing at my nineteen-year-old son’s profile though he did not consent to return my look. Taking in his posture, the way he gripped the wheel, I again noticed a resemblance to my late brother Doug.
As a matter of course, my mind drifted back to the middle of the preceding year when our respective roles had been reversed. Then, I had been the one in the driver’s seat, chauffeuring him to the airport, where a flight to a foreign clime awaited. The objections I had voiced then now struck me as unreasonable and Tim must’ve been tired to death of hearing them
I suppose he remembered too. Hence, the lack of heed to my scrutiny of his long, dark hair and the fair complexion it framed. Deep down I understood why he wanted to put up with a couple of mates in a flat in bayside Wynnum upon returning home from his six-month long trip. But when one of his friends backed out of the deal at the last moment he returned to Carindale. To resume his studies – a move I concurred with – he had no choice.
We bid each other a stilted farewell in front of the domestic terminal. He couldn’t stay with me, he explained. He had a class to attend. I recognised in the tone of the valediction another echo of the previous year. Tim had looked at me then as if in the hope I might bring a note of congeniality into my manner. I could run him to the airport, assist him with his luggage and other things but I could not uncover graciousness within.
Months later my flight lifted off into a murky grey sky on schedule. Leaning forward in my window seat, I watched the city recede. I glimpsed the discoloured waters of Moreton Bay when the aircraft banked east and then turned towards the south. A sodden green-brown land lay below and I distinguished Manly, Thornside, Capalaba, Alexandra Hills and the indented coastline.
I endured a wait of two hours in the international terminal in Sydney. I overheard airport staff remark on the intensity of the heat on the fine afternoon, its unseasonableness in the context of a March well under way.
In the downstairs foyer, I mused over the white departure card, in particular the question asking the length of time I would be away. How could I know? The fact of my being scheduled to return on such and such a date meant nothing. I left the space blank. However, when the female immigration officer to whom I brought the card insisted I write something I scribbled down three months.
In the departure lounge I browsed in retail outlets like a tourist on the verge of commencing a holiday at a destination bound to weave the spell of a tan and poolside relaxation. I listened to boarding calls for other flights, scrutinised people sauntering to their respective gates and could not help wondering whether any of them knew the measure of misgiving and uncertainty I did.
With minutes to spare I picked up a phone. Denise had not returned my call of the evening before and why I bothered to try and reach her again I don’t know. In any event, my bid failed. She could not come to the phone, one of her colleagues advised me. I dialled her home number and mumbled a farewell into her machine. Then, I called Don, my business partner, and chatted with him about inconsequentials.
Resuming the wait, I studied my boarding pass. I ran the tip of my finger over my name – Casey, Steve – and read From: Sydney, To: Los Angeles. I noted the carrier’s name and code, the number of the flight, the date, expected departure time and more until a female voice crackled over the speakers to announce the commencement of boarding.
If I had been a better traveller – I mean someone more adept at dealing with the morass of long voyages – I might have held a less jaundiced attitude. When Kenny mentioned years ago the number of hours it took to fly to Latin America I inquired what he did with himself to pass the time.
His answer shouldn’t have surprised in the way it did. He neither slept nor bothered with the movies or assorted short items shown during the time the aircraft glided at an altitude of in excess of thirty-five thousand feet. Rather, he meditated, with as much depth as he could in the cramped confines of the cabin.
In glaring contrast, I rued the prospect of flying. I’m six foot two inches and possessed of a solid build. No matter how I tried I could not find a comfortable sitting position. To the consternation of those next to me, I would shift my legs first here, then there, never content for long with the outcome.
Sleep came in small draughts and no form of the in-flight entertainment held my attention for more than a few minutes at a time. In 1996, I made the grave mistake of drinking too much alcohol, coming to the end of the transit of the Pacific feeling as dried out as a sponge forgotten on a window sill.
Midway through the journey the voice of the flight service director returned. By then we had traversed the International Date Line and flown above a number of islands in the South Pacific, islands whose existence I had been ignorant of prior to November 1993. He made a general announcement requesting any doctor among the passengers to alert one of the cabin crew.
One of the passengers had taken ill and required medical attention. Lifting my head, I sighted two female attendants hovering around someone on the other side of the cabin, close to the exit nearest the left wing.
With the western seaboard of the United States far to the east, I had a presentiment we would divert to Hawaii to enable the sick woman to be hospitalised. We had altered course with this in mind when the flight service director confirmed the fact.
My window seat afforded a peerless sighting of Waikiki Beach on our descent into Honolulu. But I took no solace in the view. The moment the aircraft drew to a stop the doors nearest the sick passenger opened to reveal a team of medical personnel. In no time the woman had been lifted on to a stretcher and wheeled away, accompanied by a travelling companion.
Resigned to a protracted wait, I observed with envy those among my fellow passengers who appeared fresh and unperturbed. I appraised again a young woman with a book cradled on her lap. Hours after I had first set eyes on her she continued to turn the pages with exemplary concentration.
The all clear to resume the journey came two hours after the enforced layover began. We backed away from the gate and took to the skies minutes later. The remainder of the transit passed in a thickheaded daze.
Disembarking in Los Angeles, I had the feeling, familiar from my previous trips, of scarcity of breath. I suspected the effort of putting a handful of sentences together would drain the remainder of my fast dwindling energy. Waiting to go through Immigration, I glanced at my watch every minute or so.
When it came my turn to approach one of the counters, I nodded a greeting at the immigration officer but didn’t elaborate on my plans until he remarked on the newness of my passport. My old one had been about to expire, I hastened to point out. When he turned to the page bearing my Nicaraguan visa, I explained I had an onward flight pressing, if by some miracle I managed to make the connection.
Are you a seaman, sir, he went on to inquire. Smiling, I answered no. For form’s sake, he stamped one of the first pages of my passport. Aware of the time but with no idea where to proceed, I retrieved my luggage and dashed through customs.
I sought the assistance of a young man whose jacket insignia identified him as an employee of the airline I had flown with. We boarded a bus in front of the building and while I waged a battle with my possessions I heard him radio through to another part of the airport. We discovered we had no need of haste. My connecting flight had closed for boarding.
I refrained from giving vent to the curse rising in my throat when he assured me I would be able to switch to a flight with another carrier. After seeing to the check-in procedure, I entered a restroom and doused water on my face and neck.
I made surreptitious efforts to avoid my reflection while I ran wet hands through my thinning hair. But something compelled me to inspect the lines the journey had accentuated as well as the marked silvery tinge around the temples. The closer I drew to the landmark of fifty the more defined it became.
I discarded the unflattering portrait in the glass and sunk into a chair in the departure lounge. Not for the first time I dwelt on the incongruity of having arrived in North America on the afternoon I had left home. Long ago I had needed someone to sit down and decipher the conundrum.
Hours later, touching down in Mexico City, I felt adrift. I might never have set foot in a Spanish speaking land for all the good my basic grounding in the tongue did. It had accumulated rust with lack of practice. I could understand most of the signs but failed to comprehend a word of what the customs officer, an attractive woman, said when I strolled over to her, pack slung over my left shoulder.
I should have guessed what she wanted but I needed her to spell it out. With the flicker of a smile, she gestured for me to lower my luggage on to the platform between us. I then made feckless attempts to unlock my pack.
After the fifth or sixth failed try she brought a piece of metal from her pocket and inserted the narrow, pointed end in the zipper lining. In this way she prized open the bag and rummaged amongst my belongings. Satisfied, she zipped up the pack and bid me adelante.
Passing through the main foyer of the terminal, I had the uneasy feeling multiple pairs of furtive, dark eyes pursued me. At a booth near one of the exits, I paid in advance to take a taxi to the centre of the city.
The drive ought to have rung a host of bells but did not. In spite of my past visits, I had never come to grips with Mexico City’s layout and geography. I failed to see incontrovertible signs I had been here before.
A short distance from my destination we negotiated a rundown area notable for its paucity of light. In the shadows either side of the street, ladies of the night plied their age-old trade. Leaving the district we drove for five more minutes before stopping at my hotel.
Here in Mexico City Sunday had begun though my wristwatch remained on Eastern Australian time. Thirty hours had elapsed since my Sydney bound plane had lifted off the tarmac in Brisbane. The passage of time had robbed me of all sense of possession of my journey.
From my outdoor table at a restaurant near the corner of Madero, the street where I’m staying, and Brasil, I have an unhindered view of the Zócalo, or Plaza Mayor. The greater part of the twin-towered cathedral and the adjacent Sagrario Metropolitano, with its standout Churrigueresque façade, lies obscured but I’ve a better sighting of the National Palace, on the eastern side of the square, and Jesus of Nazareth Hospital on the southern flank.
Before pausing to eat, I strolled to the centre of the square and appraised the cathedral façade and its smaller but no less noteworthy neighbour in the near distance. Closer, erected in the middle of an elevated area, stood a Mexican flag. The immense green, white and red folds hung limp on a light breeze. Not a cloud could be seen but the sky bore a pale, anemic aspect, forbidding reminder of the distance I had travelled from home.
The night before, I had fallen asleep the moment my head touched the pillow. But I roused in the middle of a vivid dream two or three times. Not until later in the morning did I sleep uninterrupted for an interval. I knew full well I would experience the capricious slumber of a jet-lagged traveller for days to come.
Rene once told me sunshine, fresh air and exercise amounted to the best antidote to jet lag. He swore by the strategy, motivated by a determination to adhere to the new time zone without delay. But travelling no further than Asia he never had to cope with dramatic time shifts.
Nevertheless, having no grounds to doubt the advice, I dragged myself out of bed around ten o’clock, ignoring my inclination to go on lying there another two or three hours. I toasted the day with a drink in the hotel bar before stepping on to the streets.
I wandered back to the Zócalo after settling my bill for the midmorning breakfast. This time I didn’t linger in the square, thronged with people, but continued on to the Templo Mayor ruins behind the cathedral.
En route, I halted by the elbow of a stallholder dispensing a sweet looking fruit and paused longer at another stall. There, I listened to the oration of a man who’d garnered an audience of women wooed by the sight of a blonde wig on a mannequin’s head.
The ruins left me as unmoved as they’d done in the past. I may have been standing on the site of the former Aztec capital but when I looked around the fact failed to register. I regarded many of the sites in the historical centre of the city – among them the colonial buildings on Plaza Santo Domingo, Minería Palace, San Francisco and San Pedro Church and San Pablo Church and Convent – with the habitual cynicism.
The buildings on the Zócalo lost much of their pre-eminence on closer inspection. As a restorer of old colonial buildings in and around Brisbane, I shuddered to think what a headache the vocation must’ve comprised in an environment laden with a soup of smog and pollutants like lead and sulphur dioxide. I would not have wanted the job for anything in the world.
I put the historical centre behind me in due course and drifted past my hotel and on to Alameda Central. On Avenida Hidalgo, near the Fine Arts Museum, I sniffed eucalyptus on the breeze. At the Palacio, I roamed west until I reached Paseo de la Reforma.
I stood motionless, disregarding the traffic whizzing by in opposite directions either side of the trees planted in the median strip. Already ruminating on the morrow and the call I intended to put through to the embassy first thing, I began retracing my steps.
I learnt I would have to wait until Tuesday to see Greg, the embassy staffer I had liased with in the past whose responsibility extended to Australians who may have gone missing in the region. I set up a time to meet with him the following afternoon.
The thought of remaining in the capital another full day palled. Therefore I asked one of the hotel staff to advise me on the best means of travel to the Teotihuacán ruins. He informed me regular buses made the journey from the Terminal del Norte and verified the fact over the phone.
I rode the metro to the bus terminal, purchasing a ticket and boarding a couple of minutes later. Forty-five kilometres of congested roads separated this part of the capital from the ruins. No sooner did we pass the last of the shantytowns on the city’s limits than the driver planted his foot on the brakes one last time and his moustachioed cobrador announced our arrival.
Beyond a car park, souvenir stalls and the site’s museum, I sighted a broad avenue, the Avenue of the Dead. Swinging my gaze left, I glimpsed two huge pyramids, the closer of the two, on the right-hand side of the avenue and rising out of an immense base, the Pyramid of the Sun. The Pyramid of the Moon loomed large at the end of the avenue.
I explored the ruins for hours. First, La Ciudadela with its array of smaller pyramids, foremost among them the Temple of Quetzalcóatl. I sat awhile in contemplation of the serpent carvings on the façade of an underlying structure.
The whole day long I made a point of examining everything with studiousness, whether the palace-like residences lining the central avenue or during tentative forays along more off-the-beaten paths. Beneath the warm sun and carrying a flask of water in my daypack, I climbed to the top of the Pyramid of the Sun. An Englishwoman encountered at the apex informed me it ranked as the third largest in the world. The view dazzled.
I encountered a no less inspiring one half an hour later when I completed my ascent of the Pyramid of the Moon. To the south, I could see all the way along the avenue. When I concentrated my vision, I detected La Ciudadela, from whence I’d come, and a series of pale green hills in the background.
The surrounding landscape, a fusion of green and brown tending to a determined shade of yellow, appeared discoloured, as the blue skyline of the capital had done the day before. The people descending or ascending the Pyramid of the Sun, as well as those strolling the avenue, amounted to dots in the picture. The temple platforms of the Plaza de la Luna rose in front of the pyramid.
Reflecting on the whole, and my unaccustomed wish to know more about the why and wherefore, I couldn’t help but reach the conclusion I had been spoilt growing up in Australia, land of prodigious deserts and plains.
Therein, I supposed, lay the reason for my derisiveness towards anything in the world cut on less than a grand scale. The other side of the coin? Speechlessness when I happened upon something surpassing mere greatness, as now.
Disembarking at the Polanco station, in Colonia Los Morales, I could not for the life of me remember the direction I had to take. Proceeding blind, I ran across a number of people hawking odds and ends at the corner of Avenida Homero and Temjstocles.
An elderly woman among them could not grasp my Spanish. When I repeated my request she appeared to comprehend in part but her reply, a counter question to judge by the intonation of her voice, bamboozled me.
At the close of the conversation, I opted to follow Avenida Homero west, turning north on one of the intersecting streets. To my pleasant surprise, I arrived at the street I wanted within minutes.
To my mind, embassies and consulates, and I’ve had my share of experience of them, tend to the prosaic. None more so, I felt, than the one in front of me. I entered the building, rode the lift to the tenth level and strode into the office, adorned with touches of Australiana, glossy photographs of tourist locales and newspapers and brochures scattered on tabletops.
Greg breezed into the reception area fifteen minutes after I lowered myself into a chair, shook my hand and led me into his office. He didn’t need me to remind him Kenny first travelled to Central America in 1987 and stayed two years. Regular contact held up, first and foremost through the agency of correspondence. There had also been the occasional disjointed phone call.
He returned to Australia but about a year later decided to travel back to the Latin world. In contrast to the situation between 1987 and 1989, the contact fell away in no time. Besides one or two letters early on, no word came.
We felt this unusual for someone who’d proven himself an assiduous correspondent. If there had been any indication he intended to cease writing we would not have considered for a second the possibility of his having gone missing. But without this kind of suggestion on his part the thought lodged in our minds.
As far as anyone knew, he travelled alone in the earlier period and he departed Australian shores for the second time without travelling companions. Hence, no other family could be consulted as to his possible whereabouts. Outside of family, he had few Australian contacts.
Someone suggested his credit card company be notified in an attempt to gain access to transaction details until we realised Kenny had never acquired credit cards. Also, a letter to his last known whereabouts, a hotel in Nicaragua, yielded nothing. A reply in broken English reached us in due course, a reply failing to shed any light.
We notified the Consular Operations Section of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. They conducted preliminary inquiries and then asked for a missing person’s report to be filed with the Federal Police. At this point, consular staff based in Mexico became involved in the case.
In Australia we made approaches to the Red Cross Tracing Service, the Salvation Army Family Tracing Service, the International Social Service and the Canberra-based National Missing Person’s Unit. But we met dead-ends at every turn. In doubt about the department’s seriousness on the issue, I flew to the region and initiated my own investigation, of a kind, in November 1993.
I met Greg for the first time, learnt of the small-scale nature of the investigation and demanded an explanation. He informed me the department – and the consular staff had acted at their behest – had still to be convinced my brother needed assistance.
More than five years later, the Privacy Act of 1998 needed to be taken into consideration. He illustrated the point by referring to a recent case. Inquiries with local authorities had brought about a resolution of the case. Assistance had been rendered to the Australian concerned but because this individual did not want personal information relayed to his family the embassy had to respect his wish under the terms of the Privacy Act.
If it had been left to Greg, the next of kin and those with a valid interest in the man’s welfare would have been privy to the news, but in order to ride roughshod over the stipulations of the act important reasons had to be invoked. The requirements of Australian law, for instance. If the person’s life or health, or the life or health of another person, had been under threat information could’ve been disclosed. But in this case no justification of the kind existed.
Many missing people, Greg added, stroking his moustache, had no wish to re-establish contact with their friends and kin but the majority did in the long run. It took many of them years but the mysteries had a way of resolving themselves.
Ignoring his inference, I answered no when he asked whether I had anything new to go on. However, I made clear my determination to leave no stone unturned. After registering at the front desk, I rode the lift to the ground level and returned to the warm mid-afternoon air.
Nearing the Polanco stop, I decided on a whim to amble over to Chapultepec Park. I navigated its paths for around half an hour before resting on a bench in the shade near the Modern Art Museum. I watched two guards killing time on the front steps of the buildings comprising the complex.
Leaving the park, I wandered east on Paseo de la Reforma, passing monument after monument on the way. One of them induced me to dwell on fleshly comforts. In a fog wrought by my imaginings, I rested at my hotel before setting off once more. I sought refuge in a bar on Avenida Cinco de Mayo.
The walls, and the gilded ceilings too for all I knew, bore the fissures of bullets dispatched by gunslingers in halcyon days past. To my mortification, I could not avoid my reflection in the shiny glass above the stupendous bar. Suitably attired waiters darted in and out amongst the tables and booths till my head spun.
Afterwards, I drifted over to the Zócalo and then south on Pino Suarez. Near the metro stop, a man assailed me but I dismissed him out of hand, mistaking his moneda request for a begging attempt. Seconds later it dawned on me; he had sought change, a ficha to make a phone call in all likelihood.
To the north of Fray Servando Teresa de Mier, I stumbled across dingy back streets dissecting the area where I had spotted the professional women on the drive in from the airport. In the midst of the ladies, eyes seized on mine, eyes obdurate enough for me to avert my gaze. But a chorus of ch, ch, ch, ch, ch mixed with Spanish phrases I didn’t understand escorted me to the nearest corner.
I returned by the identical route and half-stopped to take a closer look at one of the women. Her dark orbs and jet-black hair might’ve enchanted me in different circumstances. But I lost the inclination to approach and arrange the business the instant she began exhorting me in rapid-fire Spanish. Dismissing it as a bad deal, I turned away.
When it had come time for me to depart the city in 1993 and 1996 I had taken it upon myself, like an audacious voyager, to hail a taxi on Madero or nearer the Zócalo, despite the protestations of the hotel staff. This pigheadedness had resulted in my paying an exorbitant price for the fare to the airport, located thirteen kilometres away.
I had parted with the pesos, muttering oaths under my breath. Had the taxi-drivers understood English they might have blushed at the curses I laid on their heads. Later, I regarded my hypersensitivity as peculiar. Could anyone blame the people if they did try and prey on hapless gringos, to coin the term used to describe Caucasians?
On the morning of my third departure from the city, riding the lift to the ground level, I asked Jorge, a young man I knew from my previous trip, if he would hail one of the green beetles on my behalf.
He left his post, happy to assist. I followed him through the ornate foyer to the pavement where in the space of a minute he whistled down a taxi. After negotiating with the driver, Jorge turned to me and said he wanted no more than the going rate. I shook hands with Jorge and passed him the change I dug from my pocket.
Feeling more accustomed to the language, I launched into a chat with the driver. He asked me how long I’d been in Mexico, where I intended to go, what I planned to do there and whether I would return to his country. I informed him as best I could and received his good wishes outside the terminal.
Following an uncomplicated check-in procedure, I dallied on the ground level before making my way to the departure lounge. I placed my camera and a set of keys on a tray made available for the purpose and lowered my daypack on to the belt at my end of the scanning paraphernalia. I stepped through the frame and then stood and awaited the reappearance of my possessions.
I picked them up and had begun to move away when a woman hailed me. Lastijeras, I understood her as saying. However, I had no idea what the word meant and gave her and her colleagues a puzzled look until someone thought to chime in with the English equivalent: scissors.
A week prior to setting off from Brisbane, I had purchased a pair of scissors. But I could not think why I had packed them in my day bag rather than with the bulk of my gear. I dug deep in my pack and relinquished them, unable to disguise my disbelief.
I had felt much the same in 1993 at one of the Central American border crossings. Then, a customs officer discovered a Swiss knife among my things, extracted it with surgeon-like precision and carried out a scrupulous inspection of each of the blades before returning it to its place.
Mexico City’s high altitude and suspect air had tired me out more than I had foreseen. I hadn’t long been settled in my window seat when drowsiness stole over me. But I forestalled it until a meal came and went. I could not find much appetite for the fare though I gulped down two cans of a Mexican brew.
Nodding off, I recollected an event dating from 1968. It had come back to haunt me often over the years, more so in the period since we’d lost contact with Kenny. All in all, I had a fuzzy memory of distant times but I had never been in doubt with respect to this particular incident. Kenny would’ve been nine or ten, still at primary school. Five years older than him, I had long since begun attending secondary school.
I would not be the first sibling in the world to have disdained those born in his wake though Doug, the oldest, never tried to lord it over me. But rather than follow his lead, I leaned in the opposite direction and in my dealings with Rene, Kenny and Denise played the cock-of-the-walk big brother. When I donned a new uniform, I worsened in this regard.
I felt entitled to a range of privileges. I had surrounded myself with a group of friends and fashioned interests regarded by me as not to be intruded on by younger siblings. Most of the members of this clique possessed personalities similar to mine. How easy then for us to reinforce our awry predilections.
Camp Hill back then bore scant resemblance to the inner suburb it’s become. Brisbane in the late sixties resembled a large country town rather than a state capital. Near where we lived, tracts of vacant land outnumbered Queenslanders. In years to come the same parcels of land served as the foundation of dwellings. They sprouted from the soil like the dreams engendering them.
One Saturday I gathered out front of the house with five of my mates. Each of us in his turn took surreptitious puffs on a cigarette someone had lit. As a rule, indulgence in this tacitly forbidden ritual did not occur in the public view, being confined to the undulating expanse opposite.
However, a group of older boys from elsewhere in the neighbourhood blocked the way. For no particular reason, we thought of them as foes. While things had never come to a head, the bold stance they’d assumed left no doubt they would scrap with us at the drop of a hat.
We held our positions, our collective nervous energy at an all-time high, unwilling to disperse given this would amount to a loss of face. But we lacked the courage to rise to the challenge of a brawl with our bigger adversaries.
The standoff had lasted half an hour when I heard the front door open and close behind me. I threw a glance over my shoulder and catching sight of Kenny yelled for him to beat it. He did nothing of the kind. Furious, I lashed out with my right fist the moment he drew alongside. But this failed to deter him. He brought a hand to the place where I had connected and stared at me with aggrieved eyes.
My acquaintances echoed my anger and frustration in their fidgety movements and parrot calls for him to scram. He took no notice. On the contrary, he stepped on to the road, pausing for an instant halfway there to fix on me the same hurt incomprehension of a moment before. Proceeding, he halted a second time, right in front of the others.
What he said to them, if anything, we couldn’t make out but the tension in the air died the instant he passed by the older boys and reached the stretch of land. I did not sight Kenny again till late in the afternoon. By then, his eyes had regained their habitual aspect. He had, I knew, put the incident out of his mind. If only I could have done the same.
I shook off the drowsy state and leaned forward as far as the belt around my waist allowed. Luxuriant highlands shared the landscape with foraged land and rivers. Twenty minutes later we touched down at the airport in Guatemala City. Those of us continuing on to Nicaragua bided our time. Meanwhile, the passengers who’d reached their destination went on their way and others boarded.
Taking to the skies again, I gained an impression of a city, typical of Latin America, at odds with the natural boundaries – in this instance, mountains and volcanoes – confining it around the edges.
Shanties, squat, rectangular buildings observing the faintest semblance of order amid the disarray, dotted the high ground near the airport. Our route to Managua continued over the Pacific Ocean and I began dozing once more.
‘Taking a familiar plot device–the search for a missing loved one that becomes a quest for the searcher’s own soul–the author spins a tale about loss and living, reminding the reader how redemption may be borne out of wandering and restlessness. The novel is not a bildungsroman per se, yet it is revelatory–foremost about its protagonist, but also about sibling rivalry, the Australian middle class, and life in Central America after the devastating Hurricane Mitch. The novel succeds the most, I think, in its description. Don’t let the prose fool you into thinking the book’s observations are mundane or commonplace. Rather, it is that very crisp, deceptively plain language of the book that reveals the precise details of the characters and the places they inhabit, making the book a true joy to read. Highly recommended.’ Quentin Beck
‘Very interesting and enjoyable book. You feel as if you are a part of the self-discovery journey with the main character, Steve. It’s one of those books that keep coming back to you after you read it. The author writes with such clarity, yet he’s very thought provoking. I was not able to put the book down for long as I had to find out the end search for a family member in Central America, a truly shocking and revelating end. The book exposes and penetrates your human psyche at all levels while continuously entertaining you. I would highly recommend this book for someone who is looking for depth and substance in a book. I am looking forward to more books from this author.’ Joanne Cooper
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