‘And where is the senora?’
‘Out in the car,’ answered Spen.
‘Go and get her,’ he said. ‘You both need a beer.’
When he returned with Sara smiling shyly as the object of renewed interest, the only female in the bar, Spen was subjected to a skill-testing question.
‘Which beer do you prefer? Cerveza Polar or Zulia?’ All eyes were on him.
In his childhood, Spen recalled an enormous advertisement perched above city traffic, a three-dimensional tableau featuring a polar bear on an iceberg who sees a can of Polar beer repeatedly float past it on an ice floe. Time and again, the bear would lunge unsuccessfully at the can. This never ceased to fascinate Spen, who prayed for the animal’s success. Some day, he hoped, its thirst would be slaked. Cerveza Polar was thus Spenser’s natural choice, but they were near Maracaibo now, and that city was in the state of Zulia.
‘Cerveza Zulia,’ he said. It was the correct choice. There were broad grins and applause all round, and Pancho Villa became instantly avuncular. He had more questions. As a visitor, did he like this country? Yes, very much, said Spen. And the senora, did she like it, too? Spen translated for her; Sara smiled and nodded. So far, so good. Did they like the people? Oh, yes, people had been helpful and kind. Was there anything about the country their guests did not like? No, all their experiences so far had been favourable. What about the prices? Wasn’t everything too expensive? The wording of the question should have forewarned Spen, but he plunged on heedless: no, all was to their satisfaction. There was a murmur of disapproval. Perhaps it was time to change the subject.
‘Do you know of a place for us to stay the night?’ He tried not to sound insistent.
Pancho gestured impatiently, brushing off the question. ‘We’ll find you one.’ It might have been a rebuke for a lack of trust. He returned to his line of questioning.
‘We asked you about the cost of living. Do you know why we’re here in this bar, instead of at work?’
It had not occurred to Spen to wonder at this; after all, this was a continent where siestas could take hours, and the attitude to work was often to leave until manana what should be done today. Spen shook his head in reply. No, he didn’t know.
‘Estamos en huelga!’ They were on strike. Pancho burst into laughter, and so did his cronies. Spen was mystified. Was this cause for celebration?
‘Have another beer!’ Pancho would not let them pay for this. To protest would be to run the risk of insult, so Spen accepted. Sara stood beside him at the bar with a fixed and uncomprehending smile on her face, while the big men drank boisterously around her.
‘Ramon here,’ said Pancho, ‘wants to impress you with his English.’
A thinner, younger man, proud to be briefly the centre of attention, made a series of incomprehensible noises that bore no relation to English whatsoever.
‘Did you understand what he said?’ demanded Pancho.