Manuel sat next to me. He was leaning against the door of the car while I drove. Manuel used to be a soldier, an officer in the Sandinista army, but now he was as retired as one gets, pissed off and constantly badmouthing his former comrades. Not that he had changed sides, he hated the Contras and the right-wing government of Aleman even more than the Sandinistas and he hated all that was in between, which appeared to be by now north of ninety percent of the country.
“Manuel”, I asked, “Do you think Eden Pastora really had those hundreds of children with hordes of different women? Or do you think the story is slightly exaggerated?”
“Of course he made all those children”, Manuel replied staring straight ahead at the road. “Pastora does not lie about certain things. He does not lie about the children.”
“A strange bird, Pastora”, I said.
“A strange bird”, repeated Manuel.
“What is it that makes women fall all over him?” I asked. By then Pastora was around seventy. ‘I don’t drink alcohol, I don’t smoke… But I have hundreds of sons and daughters all over this country’, he told me just one hour ago.
“Did you see his eyes?” Asked Manuel. “He is absolutely together. He is intense. He penetrates you with his eyes. He doesn’t talk much… He acts.”
‘We have all been acting,’ I thought, passing a long truck at very high speed. ‘Acting with absolutely no rest, acting day and night.’
“And I guess when you are the one who led your boys ‘up there’, to take the National Assembly; if you are the one who helped to trigger one of the greatest revolutions in human history…”
“It may get you…” I tried to fill the gap. “You may get a few extra admirers…”
I began driving right after we left Pastora’s house. Now it was dark. We passed the city of Granada and then drove towards Rivas on Lake Nicaragua. There was some work to be done at Rivas and I tried to get us there as soon as possible.
Pastora used to be the hero of the revolution. He was called Commander Zero. He was almost as big as Che, at least here, at least some time ago. Then strange things began to happen. He fell out with his comrades, went into direct confrontation with President Daniel Ortega, while the civil war with the US-backed Contras was in full swing.
“Daniel tried to kill me on several occasions”, Pastora told me. He said it in a matter of fact voice.
“Some people say that you actually joined the Contras, that you linked with the CIA against the revolution.”
“Never!” He banged his fist against the table. “Daniel tried to kill me because I told him he betrayed the revolution. I went back to the mountains and I fought him. Then the Yankees came. They offered me money and arms and they said they would train my men. Do you know what I told them?”
“I told them to eat shit!”
“I suppose that was not their favorite item on the menu.”
“Apparently not”, he nodded. “They tried to assassinate me, too, on several occasions. You would never believe how many assassination plots I actually survived, from both sides.”
“But you are alive”, I had to remind him. “While the revolution is dead.”
“Manuel”, I said. “Your name is Manuel like in that famous poem of Ernesto Cardenal, ‘The Parrots’. And you were one of the commanders, also as in the poem.”
“Yes”, Manuel was gazing at the road, faintly illuminated by the beams of my car.
“I knew a girl”, he said. “I knew one girl that Pastora…”
“Right”, I said.
I liked Manuel’s stories. I slowed the car, almost to a halt. I was getting ready to listen.
I was now driving so slowly that I could actually see each separate banana leaf, as well as the fruits by the side of the road. I even saw a village girl walking slowly parallel to the car. The girl was neatly dressed and she suddenly turned towards me and smiled. I returned her smile. Her face was delicate and a little bit sad.
“The girl…” he began but suddenly stumbled, could not continue.
“Do you realize how bad things were? Here, in El Salvador, and later in Panama? Do you realize what they had been doing to our people?”
“The Gringos?” I asked.
“Yes, the Gringos and those who served them.”
“Manuel”, I said. “Of course I realize it. I know it. I wrote about that shit for many years.”
“Yes,” he replied. “But I did not mean that. Not what you wrote, not what you and I say.”
“You mean: do I imagine how things were when the Contras raided the villages in the middle of the night?”
“I do imagine, I do know.”
The girl waved at me. Her teeth were beautiful, very white, her black hair falling to her waist.
“Pastora said he fought against bought sides of the conflict”, I said.
Manuel shrugged his shoulders. Then he asked: “How many wars have you witnessed?”
“Many”, I said. “Maybe too many. Definitely too many.”
“How often did you see a commander ordering his soldiers to fight against two warring fractions?”
“Never”, I said. “I know that such a scenario could theoretically happen, but I never witnessed it.”
“If it happens”, said Manuel, “the Commander is either a madman or absolute bastard.”
I said nothing.
“A girl…” I said. “Tell me about the girl you mentioned. Pastora’s girl…”
“My wife… My ex wife.”
I accelerated just a bit. This would be probably the shortest one of all Manuel’s stories, I thought.
“Pastora’s babies”, he mumbled.
“Which hardly makes you capable of being objective about him”, I said.
“Listen… There is nothing, do you hear me, absolutely nothing real or objective about this part of the world, about this motherfucking place called Central America! Don’t you get it?”
“And there is nothing real or objective about Africa or the Sub-Continent either.”
“I know nothing about those parts of the world”, he said. “I really don’t know what you are doing, voluntarily, in places like this. Why the hell are you here?”
“I hear the same questions when I work in Africa, Bangladesh, India, and in Oceania.”
“Good”, he said. “And since you are here, I will tell you something you may want to remember: we are all fucked up here. We have all betrayed the revolution! There are no saints here. Don’t search for saints.”
“I am not, Manuel”, I said. “But weren’t people here ‘helped’ to betray the revolution?”
“Yes, we were helped. Some of us were paid. Some were killed if they refused the offer. But some of us just did it. Our women betrayed us, we betrayed our women. We all betrayed Nicaragua. Not all of us, but many. Most of us did.”
“Why is she following us?” I asked. The girl was now moving very fast. The banana trees were hiding most of her body. I could not see her legs. I could only see her white blouse, her torso and her face. Her eyes were glued to my face.
‘Why do I see her’, I thought. ‘It is dark and the lights are pointing forward, on the road. And it is very cloudy outside, no stars and no moon.’
Manuel did not reply.
The girl held steady, moving along the side of the car.
I looked at the speedometer. The needle was showing 80 kilometers per hour.
She kept smiling at me, her face now almost glued to the window.
Manuel began to snore.