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Archive for the ‘The Andes’ Category

This is a more recent photo of Merida, Venezuela's Principal Market, but it looks very similar to how I remember it as a girl. Source: members.virtualtourist.com

“Enbotidos Los Andes” was the name of Fedor Ivanovich’s proud new enterprise; his very first company, a grand beginning in the New World. His meatpacking business was a complete operation from beginning to end, from birthing and animal husbandry to feeding and butchering, to selling direct to stores, shops, and families in the region. In the big outdoor public market, we had to slice thin samples of our salamis, kilvasha (which is the Russian word for “kielbasa”), and hams so that the people could taste it or else they would not buy it—there had never been that kind of deli and it was new and a curious novelty to the indigenous locals of Venezuela. Of course, the expatriated Europeans knew about delis and welcomed us; as a result, our business quickly grew.

Everyone was happy, Father was beginning to prosper. When I worked and helped father, I got to ask for a few pennies or a dime to buy chicha, a milky, creamy, delicious drink that I loved that was made from fermented corn. Some chichas had alcohol in them–in Chile they make chicha of fermented grapes, which is the drink of the gauchos, or horsemen–but then I did not yet know the difference and of course they sold me the chichas without alcohol (or perhaps they did have alcohol, which might have made them even more delicious to me). They cost the equivalent of 2 pennies of that time or maybe one because it was a quarter of one Bolivar, which was Venezuela’s currency.

When carnival time arrived, our little town of Merida went crazy, with everybody singing and dancing in the streets, fireworks and of course there were great feasts requiring our sausages and hams. The firecrackers and fireworks were frightening to me at first, but I soon realized these were not the gunshots and bombs of the Old World, with their ugly sounds of death and destruction. This was a happy sound, of the fiesta, and even at home we could hear the wild celebrations in the plaza while we gathered around the long table cutting meat by hand–manos a la obra as they say in Spanish.

Anatoly went to town to buy black pepper for the kalvasha and of course he couldn’t resist getting some firecrackers to frighten us. When he came back home, he snuck into the workroom, lit and threw one right behind Gala, who cried out in shock and whirled around knife still in hand–and accidentally sliced his wrist open, sending blood gushing everywhere! When we went with him to the big hospital, I was the only one who could speak Spanish, which gave me a new sense of responsibility and belonging in my adopted country. But the hospital was scary!

Soon afterward, Mother had a terrible pain under her ribs and after we had been to many doctors, none of whom could figure out what was wrong with her, we decided to try another method. Living in a place where witch doctors were more respected than medical doctors, My sister Galina and I went to a curandero (shaman) who lived far away in the mountains, to ask him to make some medicine to heal mama. It was against our religion, of course, but we were desperate. I accompanied Galina alone into the countryside, we left as the sun rose and didn’t return home until after seeing the sun go down. We passed winding rivers, big plantations and rising hills, until finally we got to this old man in a hut. There were other villagers waiting there for his “voodoo” medicine, so we waited until it was finally our turn. We entered the darkened hut with candles and incense burning, not knowing what to expect. After we explained why we had come, the curandero did his “mumbo jumbo” and chanted some prayers that we did not understand, then he sent us away. As we descended the hills to return home, we picked oranges and were singing again, happy to bringing mama the curandero’s medicine and the gift of fresh oranges.

By now I was back in class, public school this time, and going to my first ballet classes against my father’s wishes; he certainly did not want me to be an artist, much less a ballerina or anything like that because in the old world only loose women put on shows! Mother had to sneak me to my classes and hide my little costumes, until finally the day came when I had to perform in the little theater and we forgot the undergarments for my costume. We sent home for them, and it was Father who came back with the clothes and sat there watching silently; we were both scared stiff, but he didn’t say a word, and at the end he even applauded!

After that I was free to dance! I was happy in my soul and mind and my body, flying through the air as I breathed deeply and moved my arms. How could it be bad when it was so pure and clean? Every chance I had, with the slightest provocation, I would dance along with the wind or breeze, or when I heard any musical sound–my body could not stay still. There was a little movie house that was outdoors at the plaza. Before the show I would go behind the screen and dance so my silhouette showed for the people sitting waiting for the film to start. I am one with God when I dance, and there is no evil or pain or tears or fears, only love in my face and heart.

Father needed a truck to transport his animals, and so far I did not yet have a proper doll. One day he said to me, “Come with me to the bank and if you do a good translation and get the banker to give us a loan for the truck, I’ll buy you a big doll with eyes that close to go to sleep!” Of course I went (like I had any choice in the matter?) and to tell the truth, I don’t remember if I did well or not. But I do know that he left the bank and bought a bright red Ford truck with a wooden truckbed for his livestock, and I received my beautiful doll! Life could not get any better, it seemed to me! The embotida business was making good money, and soon we had a maid and a chauffeur, and lots of grapes that father made into wine for the table.

One day Fedor Ivanovich had to go out to the valley of the Andes with the chauffeur (of course he did not know how to drive), and by now Anatoly had gone far away because he could not smoke in front of father and they did not get along so well. Palina Vasilivna was in the market selling meat and so Gala and I were home for the holidays. By now it was more interesting to me to play with my pet, a live squirrel, than my longed-for doll! The big wooden barrel of wine had already fermented and were almost ready to drink, so Gala said to me, “Ludmila, let’s try it and see if it’s good!” She already knew about liquor, since she and Tola had tried it before, but I had not yet tasted alcohol. I was ready for any new adventure, so I answered, “Yes, yes!” I guess I liked the grapes’ taste at first; “One more?” Gala asked. Yes! And one and two and three! Soon I was sick, vomiting and calling to my father for help, but luckily mama arrived first and put me to bed.

Oh, the room was spinning around and I was swearing, never, never again, mama! Then I passed out, also for the first time. This was my first experience with the booze–little did I know at the time that alcohol would come to be my perdition, condemnation, and, more than half a century later, the salvation of my soul.

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I don't have photos of my father's butchering operation, but this photo, reprinted from http://kiscrapbook.knottsislandonline.com/hogbutchering.html, is very close to how hog butchering day looked

The Andes Mountains are the cordillera that runs north to south down the spine of the western South American continent. The great Liberator Simon Bolivar famously said, as he crossed the snowy peaks on a white horse, “If God is against me, then I will defy God.”

In Venezuela, which extends far south and west from the tropical coast, over to the western peaks of the Andes and down into the rain forest, my father entered into partnership with a man who owned a large tract of land in Merida near the border of Colombia with many trees that he used as a lumber forest. We went to live with this wealthy Jewish man and his hefty wife, who did not have any children, didn’t want any, and didn’t like other people’s children, either (which I sensed immediately). I remember their typical big mountain home with corrals, servants quarters in back, and a large garden with pomegranate trees heavy with this new-to-me, exotic fruit that was bigger than an orange and filled with juicy red seeds. I could not resist stealing a few and eating them eagerly, the sweet and sour flavor I can still vividly recall. The lady of the house, of course, complained to my mother that I took her pomegranates, and I was punished—an important lesson after my first incident of intentional theft.

The windows in typical Andes houses did not touch the floor from the inside, but were at knee height, while the outside of the window was from the floor almost to the roof. Late in the afternoon and on into the evening after dinner you could see the young women of the town sitting in their windows watching the world go by. The young local men would go walking around the block to admire and serenade the local beauty he loved as she sat in her window gazing down at him. How wonderful this beautiful, courtly custom was to me, how romantic. The front of our house had big wooden doors like the mansion in Caracas, but the local population was a mix of Indians, whites, blacks, and those of mixed race who were then called “mulattos” and mestizos, and there were also a number of albinos. Life in the Andes was a very different world from the big city.

I had not yet been to school, so my parents enrolled me in the local Catholic school run by French nuns; it was not proper Orthodox upbringing, but after all it was Christian. Then, after a few weeks, my older sister Galina was called to the school and told I was using bad words and was being sent home. I do not recall what the bad words were and I certainly didn’t understand what they meant, perhaps curses I heard from the workers in the sawmill and the slaughterhouse, but I suspect the real reason I was expelled was that we were unable to pay for my schooling– we had no money and no home of our own yet.

Papa went into business with the landowner; My father’s dream was to start a successful meatpacking operation and slaughterhouse along with a deli (as there was no other similar business at that time in all of Venezuela). He raised the livestock, then butchered it. Although Micha had left in search of his own destiny, Anatoly was still with us for a number of months, helping to build a smokehouse to smoke and age the hanging meat–big hams and links of homemade sausages, particularly kielbasa and salami. Anatoly, Galina, and mother were put to work cutting and grinding the meat, and cutting the fat off the pigs, dicing it up, and mixing it together with the ground meat. They would mix this in big bowls, then clean out the intestines (tripe) and stuff the meat into it. All the various meat products were hung up in the smoke house and then taken to market the next day. All this tiring manual work meant the whole family was exhausted by the end of the day, but even so Mama would be up cleaning the tools, knives, etc. and of course the house until the early morning. Sometimes, at two or three in the morning I would wake up and go find her still slaving away. I would sleepily watch her until she was finished, and then we would lie down together and pray, even just the simple Our Father, happy just to be alive together in our new world. While our magical money tree hadn’t flourished yet, Father’s new business seemed promising and we all hoped we had at least planted the seeds for a successful future.

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