Litro #165: Breaking Borders | Rotterdam

Litro #165: Breaking Borders | Rotterdam

Translated by Thomas Bunstead.

The freighter slowed as they drew into the port. Having been tossed around constantly for the past several days while the ship had been traversing the Channel, to begin gliding smoothly like this added to the uneasiness now resident in Cárdenas’ chest and back. He lay down on the cabin bed and replayed the final phone conversation he’d had with Irene two days before leaving Bogota; she had found an apartment in the centre of Madrid, she said, not far from the university campus. Previously uninhabited for two years, the landlady was letting her rent it for next to nothing on the understanding that she would clean and help out with odd jobs.

He heard Irene’s soft voice in his head again, the tone with which she explained the world. It would be a bad idea, he felt, to mention the night he’d gone up to the top of the ship and looked out over the dark waters, or the vertiginous feelings that took hold of him; how he had clung to the metal beams, aware of the small strip – how small – separating the tips of his toes from the clear air beyond. Now, as he looked through the porthole at the night outside, the unmoving stars, it struck him that the most important thing, when he saw her, would be to stay patient – Irene’s beauty was sure to make him feel very impatient. He ought not to try his luck the moment he arrived, better to tell her about the Caribbean, the incredible light it contained, and how he’d arrived at the port minutes before the freighter was due to set sail; his flight from Bogota had been delayed because of a papal visit. He thought about inventing some kind of metaphor from the turbulent time the Pope had spent in Colombia, the second Pope ever to come to the country; the blessings he had brought to that disjointed, brutal place had almost prevented Cárdenas from catching the freighter, the one that was to finally deliver him to Irene. A pope who was Polish, like the port in which this freighter was due, at the end of its journey, to disappear.


In the morning, after coming ashore, they were divided into two groups by the customs officers. A man dressed in civvies motioned curtly to Cárdenas to pick up his bags and come with him. Cárdenas knew how this went – it had been the same on his two trips to the US – and calmly did as he was told. They went into a room and the officer pointed, with a forefinger that seemed incredibly chubby to Cárdenas, to a long bare table. It was like a meeting between deaf-mutes, and Cárdenas obediently placed his suitcase, laptop case and rucksack down on the table, and started unzipping them. The man pointed him over to a wall and waited for him to go and stand by it. Two more officers came in. One was a policewoman with a blue kepis on her head, and blonde, golden-sheening hair pinned up, and the other was a man, fat like the first man, and like the woman wearing a police uniform. They then made Cárdenas empty the contents of his luggage before each of them, with excessive slowness, inspected the seams of the bags. The woman worked with such conviction, such measured skill, that Cárdenas began to worry she might actually find some secret compartment even he did not know about.

The second man showed the same care with the books in Cárdenas’ rucksack. He turned the pages, almost one at a time, checking for any loose sheets that might fall out, or any tucked inside. Cárdenas had the brief sensation of all the sounds inside the room dropping away, and he felt woozy for a moment – losing his sea legs, he put it down to. The officer spent longest over the copy of Stevenson’s Journey to Samoa; it wouldn’t be so surprising if the man were also a lover of books, but from the silent movements of his lips Cárdenas imagined him trying to put words back in the right order, the order they had been in before being translated into this incomprehensible language.

Then the female officer asked him for his passport – she spoke in Spanish. He handed it over and she went out. He knew it was illegal to make photocopies of the document, but it would be pointless to make a fuss. The words printed at the front of his passport came to mind, a sort of warning but at the same time a request: the government of his country asked that any and all authorities make available to the bearer of this document anything required in order to enter the country. In his case, a Colombian arriving by sea, he was sure the request would be taken for what it was: laughably ingenuous.

After a few minutes the woman came back and, handing him his passport, asked what brought him to Europe. She spoke with a strong accent and the phrases she constructed were straight out of a textbook, like she was being fed them by some silent recording, without necessarily understanding the meaning. Cárdenas explained that he had plans to go to Madrid, to work and to study. She asked if he knew anyone in Rotterdam. Cárdenas said no, that it had never been his intention to travel via Rotterdam, and that he planned to leave the following day. She gave an inquisitive look and took a step away from him, as though rocked backwards by some hidden apparatus.

A long silence ensued, before the woman asked him to take his jacket off. Cárdenas thought he was going to be asked to take everything off; a striptease, that would be a new one. But it ended up just being a body search, and they weren’t that heavy-handed. One of the male officers stamped his passport, and Cárdenas was told he could go. He managed to stay calm as he straightened his clothes, but as he went to close his laptop case his cool deserted him; he couldn’t get the zip to move. The trio of officers stood doing nothing, unmoved by Cárdenas’ efforts. He had broken out in a sweat.


He decided to try his luck at the hostel recommended by one of the crew on the San Buenaventura. He found a taxi and showed the driver the piece of paper with the name written on it. The man seemed to understand and put the suitcase in the boot, more or less throwing it in. From the way he drove, he did not seem that happy in his work and, luckily, thought Cardenas, it was less than ten minutes before they stopped in front of a neon sign.

The hostel, sonorously entitled Dunderlandsal, had an attractive front door made of wood. He rang the bell for a few seconds, and a kind-looking man opened with a smile. He let Cárdenas in and took down his details, before confessing, with some excitement, that he himself had spent the 1940s in Bogota. He enunciated a few words in Spanish – to Cárdenas’s surprise and slight amusement. Once he had paid for the night, and listened smilingly to an anecdote concerning the beauty of all Colombian women, he followed the owner down a spiral staircase to a kind of backroom. The owner proudly talked him through the room’s features, the small window that looked up to street level, the spacious, clean shower and the lamp on the bedhead, which he said was perfect for reading by.

Cárdenas decided to have a lie down. The affability of the landlord had softened the unease of these past few hours. A little while later he got ready to go for a walk around the streets of the famous port. As he finished dressing he took a closer look at the single picture on the wall. It was a country scene showing what was probably the family of some well-known nobleman tramping around some fields, either taking in the great extent of their properties or, perhaps, noting the loyalty of their impoverished serfs. The landscape itself had been rendered in great detail – too much detail. And yet the look on the faces of the aristocrats was melancholy and Cárdenas imagined that some disagreeable or inexplicable – certainly uncomfortable – task had forced them to embark on this tour, like having to stroke the flea-ridden heads of the great gaggle of children that surrounded them, or the obligation to go and listen to a dramatic account of some cripple’s fate. A tram rumbled by, almost brushing the window, bringing him out of his imaginings.


Up in the reception area the landlord drew him a small map showing an easy way to get to the city’s main square; “the life of Rotterdam” was there, in his words. As Cárdenas went to leave, the landlord gripped his arm and, theatrically, told him to be careful; this was a rough city. Cárdenas thanked him; the warning reminded him of the kind always issued by secondary characters in horror movies, describing the dangers in store should the protagonist go on into the darkness. The little map showed the bus station, and to the right of the main entrance the main square. After a couple of blocks on foot he was there.

It was quite busy, in spite of the late hour. There was a statue of a man on a horse out in the middle and, alongside it, a rock group was busking. He went and sat down on the pedestal with some other tourists and watched the show. He soon felt hungry and went looking for somewhere to eat. He had a sense that any person who caught sight of him in that moment would be able to tell he was new in the city, and that he was trying to hide the fact, and certainly that he was a foreigner. And, like any person far from their home, he would seem vulnerable. He felt a number of conflicting things about the end of his time in Bogota; the slow process of depositing his belongings at his mother’s house, where his two younger brothers still lived. He knew he would be going away for at least five years, and that he was likely to stay on in Madrid forever. He finished his sandwich and left the square.


He made his way into what he supposed was the old town. He paused in front of some window displays, tried to think of something Irene might like. The buildings were tall and narrow, the result of the mind of some architect obsessed, it seemed to him, with the kinds of curves and flourishes you get in pastry-making. He found himself on a long, zig-zagging street. He felt he was going to come out on the square again at any moment, like someone lost in a desert who comes full circle by constantly placing more weight on one foot or the other. There was a fresh breeze, a very slight hint of warmth in the air. Looking at his watch he calculated the time in Colombia – early afternoon. Then, suddenly, he felt a heavy blow that sent him stumbling. Buffeted by a series, an avalanche, of further blows, he fell back against a wall, while at the same time a nauseating smell assaulted his confused senses. Then, almost immediately, a knife was at his neck.

He could not make out the man’s features as he began going through his pockets at high speed, uttering unintelligible words the while; Cárdenas felt like a drawer being rummaged around in, as though the man were looking for some document in particular. Like one more body search for the undesirable, nuisance immigrant – this was how it seemed to Cárdenas. In his bewilderment, he remembered the little over $200 he had on him. Finally the man found the money, and took a couple of cautious backward steps: as he stepped into the light, time stopped for a moment, and the knife had fallen from his hand. Cárdenas did not know what was happening but, on some obscure impulse, lashed out, striking the man very hard across his left ear. His assailant, tottering, made no attempt to defend himself. Cárdenas threw another punch, this time aiming at the man’s nose, before launching himself forward, throwing him back against a tree trunk – their quiet tussle had unfolded in its unexpected shadow. Cárdenas heard something crack, like a dry branch snapping in a fire. The man let out a soft moan and slid to the ground.

Cárdenas stood over the body. He felt astonished, stupefied; how hard had he hit the man? He looked up and down the street for any sign of movement, but there was nobody around – the deserted street felt as though it had been cordoned off, somewhere further along. Looking down at the crumpled form, he didn’t know why, but he was reminded of the ceremonious attitude adopted by cats after pouncing on prey. He knew he needed to get away, and as quickly as possible, but the blows continued to resound in his ears, and he felt rooted to the spot. He nudged the man’s thigh with his foot; a feeling of desolation washed through him. He couldn’t be dead, he just couldn’t be – Cárdenas’ heart pounded fiercely, as though within the chamber of his chest some frenzied chemical reaction were taking place, incompatible elements.

His shock began to subside, and he lent down and removed the notes clamped inside the man’s hand. Cárdenas crossed the street and quickened his pace. Advancing along the zig-zags of the street, he had no idea if he was heading in the direction of the hostel – the only safe place he could think of – or away from it.


Relieved to see lights at the end of the street, he slowed down, the sound of his own footsteps on the pavement loud in his ears. He made his way to a set of traffic lights, crossed a wide boulevard and, seeing a bar, the Andalucía, went towards it. The coincidence with his near future, just then, filled him with hope. It was semi-empty inside. Two men sat chatting with the barman. No one looked up. He took a seat at the bar and ordered a beer. On his right a man pumped coins into a fruit machine designed like a roulette wheel; every now and then strains of “La Cucaracha” issued from it. A short hallway led through to the bathrooms and a restaurant, where he heard women’s voices. He took a couple of long sips of the cold beer, and his throat felt less constricted. It seemed strange to him that, throughout the mugging, and when he had fled, he had not made a single sound, not the slightest moan or groan. And then, for a moment, none of it seemed real, and this in turn took him back to the encounter with the three officers at customs, being forced into that mute, pitiful assertion of his innocence of some hypothetical crime. Then he heard sirens in the street outside and gave a start, staring at the door, convinced they were after him already. He took another drink and got down to go to the toilet.

Looking in the mirror, he found some scuffing on the collar of his shirt and, on the chest, a few spots of blood. He thought about being arrested, about claiming he suffered from nosebleeds. He used a lot of soap to clean his hands, rubbing them together vigorously under the water. He splashed his face and took a little water into his mouth. Stretching his arms out in front of him, he saw that his hands were still trembling noticeably. He shook out his legs and rolled his head back and around. It was difficult pissing. He scraped his hair back before going out.

He returned to his seat at the bar and ordered another beer. He looked at the photos on the wall. There were landscapes of hilly olive groves, images of the fiesta in a place called El Rocío and posters from bullfights. He took out the little map and placed it on the bar. Looking at it, he could find no escape route. He looked over in the direction of the barman and the two men, who were still in conversation. One of the patrons was recounting an anecdote or telling a joke, speaking in short monotone bursts while taking sips of his drink: it was some kind of white liquid, served in a tall glass with lots of ice. Cardenas tried to pick up what was being said, but the Spanish they spoke was closed, incomprehensible to him.

Then, the man telling the story said something under his breath, and drained the last of his drink. A silence ensued, broken faintly by the sound of the fruit machine and the coins being dropped into it. Suddenly the barman burst out laughing, short, infectious chuckles – the other two soon joined in. The laughter gradually died down, the memory of the anecdote seemingly fading in the men’s minds. It struck Cárdenas that he needed to act now, get back to the hostel as soon as he could. The barman pointed him in the direction of the bus station. He said a friendly goodbye and left a tip that was doubtless too much.


Coming back into the hostel, he saw a light on in the room at the end of the corridor and assumed the landlord must still be awake. He tried to make as little noise as he could as he went down the stairs to his room. He swung the door quickly open to avoid any squeaking and left the light off as he lay down on the bed. Having unbuttoned the shirt and taken off his trousers, he lay still. Like on many of the nights on the freighter, he tried to come up with some way of getting to sleep. Once more the idea of himself as a killer came to him, and once more it simply struck him as ridiculous, but, most incomprehensibly, it was as if nothing had changed, the presence of the death had not sent out any shockwaves, and there was no tangible sign of it here in his room.

He hugged the pillow, bit down hard on the foam inside it. Genuine fear, the magnitude of it, was something he had never known. He looked through the window at the darkness outside. He felt the saliva on the pillowcase against his cheek and knew he ought to stay awake and attentive as the night unfolded, and that when it grew light that would be the proof of his salvation, the announcement that he made it safe and sound onto dry land: in spite of the vertigo, he had reached this solid landmass. Irene was waiting for him.

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