It was back in 1975, and the 22-year-old Dowbrigade was in rough shape
in a tight spot. Huddled on the floor of the glorified warehouse that
served as the International Terminal of the airport in Cali, Columbia,
stomach empty, nary a dime or a peso in pockets grubby from a
week on the road, sleeping in the rough, it now looked as if we were about
to thrown out of our final resting place.
We had arrived that afternoon after a blitzkrieg 5-day run down the
spine of the Andes from Huancayo, Peru, where we had run out of money
after spending our last $200 on 50 intensely beautiful hand-embroidered
Andean ceremonial shirts, each of which represented dozens of hours of detail work by talented
Indian maidens in an isolated Andean village we had tracked down from
rumors and travelers tales.
The designs were fantastic folk art; landscapes with giant mushrooms
and anthropomorphic plants, and the technique utilized cross-stitch,
satin-stitch and various clever knotting schemes in addition to the standard
chain stitches. We were convinced we could sell them for ten times what
we had paid in New York or Cambridge, so we dropped the last of our traveling
cash without really thinking about how we were going to make it back
3,500 kilometers over some of the planet’s roughest terrain to Cali,
where our return ticket would get us back to Miami and an effective support network.
To make matters worse, we had somehow gotten involved with one of those
talented Indian ladies, whose talents proved to be well-rounded, and
to linger a few extra weeks we had gradually sold all of our equipment,
books, and clothes to locals and other travelers. What did we need
with accoutrements at that stage of the game, we could replace all that
stuff back in the States. By the time we finally left Huancayo with a
bus ticket to the Ecuadorian border our only possession besides the
clothes on our back was a dirty green duffle bag stuffed with those precious
50 embroidered shirts.
Two days to the Ecuadorian border, two days to hitchhike across Ecuador,
then another day in the back of a truck to get from the Columbian border
to Cali. Subsisting on leftovers and hand-outs, local travelers feeling
sorry for the obviously mad, starving gringo, restaurant owners with pity
or scraps to spare, we inched our way northward on the map. By the time we got
to the airport we were starving, filthy, semi-delirious and odorific.
Still, it was with a great sense of relief that we staggered up to the
counter, presented our ticket, and demanded a seat on the next flight
to the states. Of course, we had no reservation. We were informed that
the next available seat was on a flight in three days time. Where
were we staying, we were asked.
Right here, we answered, and crawled off to sleep in the bath. Once
we had convinced them that we truly had no money or resources and
might very well expire on the spot within the next three days, creating a potentially ugly diplomatic
incident, the airline employees had a quick huddled conference after
which one of the
counter ladies came over and told us they would probably be able to get
us aboard a flight leaving the following morning at 11.
We mumbled profuse thanks and hunkered down in a corner with out duffle
bag to wait it out. Just 19 more hours. After what we’d gone through
to get to the airport, that was nothing. If only the terminal stayed
open all night (some did, some didn’t, in those days) we wouldn’t have
to move until boarding time. We drifted into semi-consciousness
for a few hours, with visions of delicious airline food dancing in our
But now, at about 1 am, it looked as though the uniformed guards were
clearing out the terminal, shutting it down for the night. As they
were armed with nasty looking submachine guns we were not inclined to
argue. The only other passenger who was left at that hour with
nowhere to go was a frantic-eyed gringo shaking in a heap behind a bench
in even worse shape than the Dowbrigade.
We immediately recognized a severe case of Cocaine Paranoia, also known
as "The Horrors". Twitching limbs, trapped, desperate eyes, a dank stink
of fear we could smell clear across the terminal. We stayed as far away
from him as possible.
Outside we stumbled down the road away from the airport. It was
pitch dark on a moonless night, and we were so beat we could care less
for comfort or safety. As soon as we found an empty lot we looks
for a reasonably soft and secluded spot. We wrapped our self in the long,
black wool Moroccan cape we affected back in those days, and passed
out on our duffle bag.
In the morning we discovered we had chosen a makeshift local latrine
as our resting place, but we were already so dirty it hardly mattered.
Cleaning our self off as best we could, we wandered back to the airport
to wait for the 11 o’clock flight.
At around 9 we went into the airport bathroom and threw some water on
our face and under our arms. Of course, there were no towels so
we dried off with an old newspaper. After some hesitation we broke out
one of our exquisite embroidered shirts. It couldn’t disguise our smell
or obvious exhaustion, but if it just got us on the plane it would be
It DID get us on the plane, and the plane took off on schedule. We were
about 45 minutes into the flight, and the Dowbrigade could smell those
delicious lunches simmering in the microwave, when the plane went into
a disconcerting series of steep left-hand banking turns. Momentarily,
the captain came on the intercom and informed us that due to a slight
mechanical problem we were making an emergency stop in beautiful Santa
Marta, on the Caribbean coast.
The emergency landing came off without a hitch, and we were treated
to a slide down a big inflatable emergency exit, and a walk to the terminal. After
about an hour we were informed that they were either going to fix the
plane or fly in another one to get us to Miami. In either case
it was going to take a few hours, so they were bussing us all to a local
restaurant for a complementary meal.
This was fine with us. By this point we were literally passing
out from hunger. The restaurant turned out to be a real fancy joint;
we were glad we were wearing a clean shirt. Despite this fact, when we
were the first one into the restaurant and sat down at a table set for
four, nobody joined us, although the place was almost full.
Finally, a last little knot of passengers strolled in, obviously from
First Class. Despite the tropical heat and customary travelers
informality, a group of three distinguished gentlemen were dressed in
expensive European suits. They looked around the restaurant in
vain for a private table. It seemed like everyone in the restaurant was
watching them as they came over and asked if the three empty seats at
the Dowbrigade’s table were available.
They were actually quite nice. One of them was clearly the boss,
a handsome, urbane man of about 40. The others were somehow subordinate,
and took their cues from the handsome guy, but it was unclear if they
were business associates, bodyguards or just buddies.
We had a delightful lunch, chatting in English and Spanish about politics,
sports, traveling and food. We remember describing in detail the effects
of prenatal diet and infantile malnutrition on indigenous populations, which is what we
were researching at the time. They didn’t seem the least bit put off by
our stench, or offended by our polite requests to consume everything
on each of their plates after they seemed to be done eating.
The curious thing was that during and after our meal, at least 10 of
the women in the restaurant came up to this guy and asked him to autograph
something; a scarf, a menu, or a book. We figured he was an author or
That was the last we ever saw of him. Our plane was fixed by the
time we got back to the airport, and he disappeared into first class. It
was only on a subsequent trip to South America that, passing a small
local record store in some nameless Latin city, we saw his smiling mug
on a dozen album covers, and realized we had had dinner with Julio Iglesias. Such
are the vagaries of fame.