by Brian Kerstetter
Unlike most people, I don’t mind my half-yearly trip to the dentist. In fact, I relish it. For decades Dr. Rudolph has chiseled, bladed and buffed the pearly whites of Shakespearean actors and transvestites alike in his Greenwich Village offices. Regal, with a year-round tan and a lustrous graying mane, his eyes sparkle as he recounts his bygone junkets around the globe with glossy women. I listen, mouth crammed with scalers, mirrors, and hoses, grunting my approbation. I once asked about a washed out postcard from Spain, postmarked 1967. He sat back and beamed: “Ran with the bulls that year. Rosetta, didn’t speak to me the whole way back to Madrid.” Adding with a wink, “She was Italian.”
Last week my appointment was an impromptu affair, the result of a drunken crunch on an unshelled pistachio. As Dr. Rudolph anesthetized my gums with what looked like a crochet needle, I tapped him on his rubber glove and informed him that I, for a change, had a parable of my own to tell. A tale of expedition, adventure and, he was enchanted to learn, women. Dr. Rudolph lowered his mask, crossed one leg over the other, and motioned to his assistant for a cup of coffee, as I transported him to 13,000 feet, high atop the Andes Mountains, between Peru and Bolivia, to the crystalline waters of Lake Titicaca…
For once, O. and I had made arrangements in advance, booking two seats on Imperial Bus Lines, specializing in First Class-only travel, from Arequipa to the Andean town of Puno, on the shores of Lake Titicaca. There are islands of note on this lake, constructed wholly of totora reeds, where boats with colossal animal heads that protrude from the bow ply the waters. O.’s goal was to photograph these floating animals. I, on the other hand, harbored dreams of encountering the legendary Uros tribe, the first pre-Incan people to domesticate the potato.
We boarded the bus in Arequipa and were at once welcomed in the grand style of Peruvian First Class – twenty-nine cotton farmers, their wives and children, a handful of cousins, four billy goats, a coop of Andalusian hens clucking, and twelve German Shepherds, not of the barkless breed. From the rear window I could see a crusty fellow and his burro running after the bus until the driver braked specifically to deny him entrance. “See,” O. chirped, in response to my doubts. “Told you this was First Class.”
The bus had barely trundled through the outskirts of town when O. and I dug into our fried chicken and bottles of Pisco, hoping to gorge ourselves into unconsciousness and come to twelve-hours later at our destination. When I eventually passed out, the side of my head banged against the clammy window curtain and I awoke certain that O. had lodged a rind of aged Camembert up my nostrils or my face had become lodged in my neighbor’s armpit. For the next eight hours, I inhaled through my mouth and occupied my time by wishing I was dead, finally serving O. with an ultimatum – turn up more alcohol or choke me to death with the chicken bones scattered at our feet. At the ten hour mark, I could see O.’s mouth twitching in the shadows – he was chanting in the cross-legged posture of a Buddhist monk, beseeching a higher power to send the godforsaken lot of us hurdling over the precipice outside our window.
In Puno, we sojourned at La Hacienda Hotel, recuperating by sipping mint tea and picking at buttered toast. On the third day, we managed to keep down a Kalamata olive pizza and hire Manuel, a Physics student and part-time motorboat captain, to pilot us out to the floating Uros Islands.
As we puttered out to the main island, I read aloud from our Lonely Planet guide:
“The history of the noble Uros tribe, now numbering in the hundreds, is a sad one, tortured by the Incans, imprisoned by the Spanish, to this day they are used as target practice by the land-locked Bolivian Navy. They subsist primarily from handicrafts and tourism…”
“So I’ll buy a finger puppet,” O. said, huffing onto his camera lens and wiping it with the front of his t-shirt. “Of a giraffe.”
“We… in Peru we don’t have giraffes,” Manuel said politely. “Only panthers, tigers, and pumas.”
“What’s a puma?” O. said.
“Tiger, just imagine a tiger,” I told him.
“Then just call it a tiger,” O. said shaking his head, annoyed by humanity’s stupidity.
“Can I ask the Uros about the potato?” I asked Manuel.
“What about it?”
“They were the first to actually cook…”
“Beets,” O. said.
“Beets, what?” Manuel said.
“They were the first to use the…” I continued.
“Walnut,” O. said.
I left it at that, hoping to revisit the subject privately with the Uros.
As we docked alongside the island, the inhabitants descended on us like we were made of gold. Direct descendants of the Incans, none of them rose above five feet tall. We hopped onto the reed surface and it was like landing on an oversized sponge cake. We wobbled, extending our arms like surfers riding a wave to get our balance. “Look!” O. said, and bounced up and down, raising his hands in the air like a kid on a trampoline attempting to get airborne.
“Please don’t do that,” Manuel said, as a crowd of Uros looked on, blinking in the sunlight.
Manuel led us past a row of dark, egg-shaped women displaying pottery, patchwork, and wooden sculptures of the Virgin Mary, when O. caught wind of a roasting trout and made a sharp left turn to follow his nose. He hadn’t managed five steps, when his right foot descended on a rotting patch of reeds, and plunged through the floor of the island. The hollow crunching, punctuated by a moist suctioning finale, echoed across the island, drawing a crowd of Uros to witness Lake Titicaca’s watery entrails gurgle up around his foot.
I’ve knocked around the globe with O. for the better part of a decade, visiting the shrines, grottos and ruins of civilizations long gone, bearing witness to the repercussions. Which is why the moment I got an earful of the splintering reeds, I knew nothing good could come of it. I slipped behind a hut and slithered back to the boat. My final glimpse of the proceedings featured the northern hemisphere of Manuel’s butt crack as he bent over to tug at O.’s leg, testing a variety of angles, like a waiter struggling to dislodge a stubborn cork from a bottle of wine. I stowed away in the cabin until Manuel put the finishing touches on a financial settlement with the tribal elders, which took the form of a $20 dollar bill and three Snickers candy bars.
O. eventually hobbled back to the boat on one bare foot, a mucky sock drooping from two fingers. He greeted me by asking how much cash I had on me.
“Where’s your shoe?” I said.
He inserted a finger into his left nostril. And stood there.
“I’m broke,” I lied.
“Really!” he said. “Hear that, Manuel? The guy’s broke! Ain’t got a dime!”
O. shuffled over and, employing the very same finger that probed the recesses of his muzzle, he plucked a wad of cash from inside my sock.
“That’s three days worth,” I informed him.
He mumbled something rude about my lilac socks, pocketed the money, and disappeared back on the island to settle his debt.
We withdrew from the island in the most unostentatious manner manageable – by wooden oar – navigating to an island where a clump of brightly outfitted matrons huddled around a gurgling cauldron. These sweet-natured homemakers proceeded to serve us the most succulent fish stew I’d ever savored and I conveyed my compliments to the chefs, asking which of the local fish were featured and if I might request the recipe. Adding: “And what, if anything, do you know about the first potato on these islands?”
This question provoked some snickering, then a fair amount of hilarity. At first I thought it must be my Spanish – I learned eight year’s worth at school but forgot every word of it two days after graduating, and have felt much better ever since. The women shoved each other back and forth, slapping their thighs, calling out “pescado!” “pescado!” nearly injuring themselves with violent laughing as the tears rolled down their cheeks. Turns out, they couldn’t make heads or tails of my potato inquiry. But my admiration for their fish stew, that was another matter. Manuel sheepishly informed me that, though the island was indeed renowned for its soup of killifish, catfish, trout, and a large frog (Telmatobius), they were presently out of fish, opting to substitute a local migratory bird stew in its place.
Hearing the news, O.’s jaws downshifted in what I regarded as an overly theatrical manner, leaving his mouth in a disjointed limbo between simple mouth-breathing and Holy Shit! He was clearly debating whether to swallow or evacuate the contents whence they’d come. I shot him an eye that, in light of his recent foot-through-the-island maneuver, indicated he couldn’t afford the luxury.
“Out of fish?” O. said, peering out at the blue expanse surrounding us.
I asked Manuel what birds he thought might crop up in such a goulash.
“Dunno,” he said, looking up into the birdless skies. “Maybe shore birds – herons, geese, gulls, pigeons, finches.”
“All of ‘em?” O. said, staring into his bowl.
He didn’t wait for a reply, placing the bowl at his feet and ducking out to speak with the Mayor of Bird Stew Island (O.’s name for the island) about lining up some animal-headed boats for his photo. Manuel and I sipped bottles of urine-colored Inca Cola and dangled our feet in the sacred waters of Lake Titicaca, surveying the tranquility of the most hallowed body of water in the Incan Empire. I laid back and daydreamed about the mysterious record of the potato on these forgotten islands. Suddenly, out of nowhere, O. rounded the corner of a thatched teepee at full throttle with a squat woman in a stovetop hat, flailing a spatula, on his heels. He appeared to be shaking a leg as he darted past, hurling himself head first over the side of the boat like a soldier diving into a foxhole for cover.
The butterball rolled up to Manuel, spatula still smoldering, and danced about and caterwauled at the top of her lungs, and roared herself red in the face, and cursed everything she knows, gesturing back at her hut, and clutching the spatula below her waist and pointing it into the water. Turns out, fancying himself alone with his shadow, O. saw fit to relieve himself into the porcelain waters behind the very hut where the woman, her sister, and dear mother were chattering over a pot of black lentils. When the woman caught sight of O. in the glorious posture – head back, eyes closed, wringing every ounce of luxury from the maneuver – she exploded from the hut on abbreviated legs, spatula flourishing toward the Heavens. With barely the time to tuck it away, O. found himself kicking his heels in the air in an effort to remain one step ahead of the incensed Incan.
Manuel’s diplomatic skills, along with a portion of O.’s wallet, managed to disentangle the events just as a fleet of animal-headed boats – panthers, cheetahs, dragons, lions, pumas – rounded the corner and converged on the island. O. enlisted a mob of kids with long reeds to infiltrate the crafts and tie them in a row for the photo. After an hour of tugging, pulling and cursing, the boats were corralled into perfect alignment, and O. released the shutter on ten large format, plate photographs.
Before heading back to the mainland, O. compensated the boat owners, and anyone loitering in the vicinity, with a handshake and a few dollars, our last. I suggested we reward the children with the sweets and chewing gum littering our backpacks, so Manuel pulled the boat out into the open waters and accelerated past the island at full throttle, as O. and I hurled fistfuls of kaleidoscopic candies and gumdrops high into the air above the island, like an exploding rainbow, hoping the delirious kids would one day grow up and tell the story of the day it “rained candy” on the Uros Islands.
In hindsight, we might have reconsidered the “raining candy” idea. The reed islands are also known as Las Islas Flotantes, the “floating islands,” and no sooner had we raced past, than our churning wake sent the island buffeting violently from side to side, such that our last vision of the noble Uros was a chaotic scene of swarming kids and the elderly being sideswiped over the edge into the frothy cobalt waters.
As our vessel chugged peacefully back to Puno, O. waved his cap in the air, while I read aloud from a section of the guidebook I’d hitherto neglected:
The Uros often demand “tips” for having their photographs taken – they now realize that instead of working and creating handicrafts they…(I paused)… can make more money by asking tourists to pay for their pictures. DO NOT DO THIS. It will only serve to undermine the longevity of the ancient Uros culture until it ultimately dies out.
Neither O. nor Manuel uttered a peep, so preoccupied were they by the uniformity of the surrounding landscape. I continued nonetheless:
The Uros have no dentists and no access to dental care. Tourists often make the VERY SERIOUS mistake of… (I paused again)…giving the Uros children candies and gumdrops from their home country. DO NOT DO THIS. Without fluoride and dental care, the children’s teeth will rot and ultimately fall out, one by one…
At this point, I was forced to abandon my tale, as the effects of the Lidocaine had suddenly retreated, the pain piercing through my jaw like an army of blistering needles. I implored Dr. Rudolph to re-numb the tooth, and his assistant handed him a syringe.
“That won’t be necessary,” he said, in a voice I didn’t recognize, methodically replacing the mask over his mouth, snapping the latex gloves around his long, veiny fingers, and planting his feet squarely on the ground, in the posture of someone about to engage in vigorous manual labor.
“Open,” he intoned. “Open wide.”
“It’s killing me, Doc,” I blubbered, thinking if I acted like a whimpering child, he’d take pity. “Can’t you give me something? Anything!”
“Oh, I’ll give you something,” he said.
Then he performed the gesture that has evolved into the staple of my nightmares. He clutched the drill with both hands, elevated it into the searing dental light, and plunged it toward my face, eyes blazing like an unhinged lunatic – humming, unmistakably, the tune to the Mr. Potato Head song – as I spiraled into the throes of unimaginable torment.