“Miguel, I do not feel very well today,” Miguel Ángel’s mother says. “I would like to cancel dinner with the Bertoni family tonight.”
“But Mom, we can’t cancel now,” Miguel says. “Maybe if you take something. Does your stomach hurt, your head or something else?”
Lying is sometimes a good option, but when the memories are deeper than the lies, inevitably there are problems.
“Why don’t you want to have dinner with the Bertoni family?” Juan Carlos asks. “This is important to Miguel.”
Luján does not answer. Her eyes are lost in time. Everything becomes a memory. She remembers the last time she sees Arnold. It is 1989 and Matiauda Alfredo Stroessner is the president. His dictatorship lasts for 35 years. It is the morning of February 3rd and her memories are still vivid after all those years.
“Arni, my parents may be in danger, too,” Luján says, her forehead wrinkled. “Stroessner believes this is just a game, but the opposition wants to overthrow him and anybody connected to him.”
Arnold and Luján have just arrived at her home, walking the back streets and staying in the shadows. It is eerily quiet on the streets and everyone seems to be staying indoors.
Luján looks up at him, her eyes pleading. “My parents will go to Bella Vista Norte and stay with a friend until this is over one way or the other. I need to go with them. You can come to.”
“Maybe it’s for the best,” Arnold says. “I agree with this revolution, but I’m worried about you.” He pauses to think. “I will go with you. I don’t care about anything else. My Mom can take care of herself.”
Arnold and Luján hold hands and look into each other´s eyes. It feels like things are ending but as long as they are together, it will be fine.
“Luján, why are you still talking? We must go,” her mother says from the door of her house. “Arni, please, my apologies, but these are difficult times.”
“Mom, Arni is coming with us,” Luján says. “His mother is in town and it isn´t a good idea to go to the center of Asuncion right now. Arni will call her from Bella Vista.”
“Mi amor, his mother is….”
“Yes, I know she is part of the opposition but I love Arni,” Luján says raising her voice. “It’s not his fault what his Mom does.”
“What?” She can see that Arnold doesn’t like that comment.
“You know what I mean,” Luján says turning to face him again and taking both of his hands in hers. “I love you. That’s all that matters.”
“I love you too and I want to be together always,” Arnold says. “But now I can’t help worrying about my Mom.”
“You can call her when we get to a safe place,” Luján´s mother says. “We need to leave right now.”
Bella Vista Norte is a town a few hours from Asunción and is the ideal place to hide. Luján´s family has good friends there. It is where the country´s elite lives when they are not in the capital.
“You’ll love Bella Vista Norte,” Luján says as they get into the car. “It has the same name as the town of Bella Vista, on the Brazilian side. They´re separated by the Apa River. It’s like being in the jungle of Mato Grosso.”
Luján is worried about Arnold. He is taking a risk coming with them. His mother will certainly be angry that he goes with Luján´s family without telling her. They aren’t exactly friends. But the riots in downtown Asuncion erupts quickly and there is no time to make plans.
Luján tells him about Ojo de Mar, the lake where it is dangerous to swim because no one knows the depth of the lake. Many mysterious deaths seem to happen on that lake. It is located in the Rinconada colony of Pedro Juan Caballero. That area is called the “terrace of the country” because it is more than 600 meters above sea level. It is about 50 kilometers from the city of Bella Vista.
Arnold and Luján finally fall asleep in the back seat, after they talk and dream of visiting the lake. The 436 kilometers to Pedro Caballero goes by very quickly because Arnold and Luján sleep almost the entire trip.
When they get to the city, they get out of the car for a break and decide to order mate cocido in a nearby café.
“Listen, Luján,” Arnold says. “People speak Portuguese here.”
“Spanish, Guaraní, Pidgin Yopará and Portuguese as well as Spanish-Portuguese Pidgin called portuñol,” Luján explains. “Actually, three or four different languages are spoken. The International Avenue, Avenida Francia, which we are on now, separates Paraguay from Brazil. It is a great tourist and commercial center.”
However, they do not stay in the city. They continue to the Cerro Corá National Park until they get to the Route 5 detour. They drive 77 km along an unpaved, rocky road until they reach their destination. It is a wonderful, unique place in the middle of jungle.
“In this park, Arni, the Triple Alliance Paraguayan war took place and one of the final battles was fought here,” Luján´s Dad says. “There were other sad events that took place here too, like the Acosta Ñu battle, where more than 3,500 children died fighting against the Brazilian army in 1869.” He pauses. “War is dirty business.”
“Is that why you´re a supporter of Stroessner?” Arnold asks quietly. Luján hits his arm to tell him to be quiet.
“President Stroessner,” Luján´s Dad says but then he sighs. “Say what you want but our country has been at peace for the last 35 years and that counts for something.”
As soon as they get to the house, Luján and Arnold slip out of the car as fast as they can. The house is the perfect hiding place, but they only go inside for a moment to eat something that Luján’s mother has already prepared in Asuncion. Then they go outside to explore the place.
“Luján, please stay close to the house,” Luján´s Dad says.
“Dad, I´ve been coming here since I was a child. I won’t get lost.”
“That’s not what I meant…”
Luján takes a machete and grabs Arnold by his arm to tell him to follow her. She starts running toward the tree line. Arnold hesitates for a second and then follows her quickly. Luján is cutting branches and leaves, opening the way into the jungle.
After an hour, they get to a deep ravine. Below them is a cavern, a cenote, where only the echoes of toads croaking were heard. It is invisible from above. These caves are born from a collapse of limestone because of the rush of water during the constant thunderstorms in this area of the country. They are like windows that have underground tunnels, probably connected to one another.
“Look down there, Arni,” Luján says. “This place is unbelievable. There are underground caverns with a lot of frogs. That is why this cenote is called kururu kua which means toad cave.” Luján moves closer to the edge to look straight down. “And very few people know that these places exist.”
Arni is really impressed. It is the perfect hiding place. He looks at Luján with new eyes. Luján is an incredible girl and he is in love. He kisses her intensely. The first love is unique. Luján does not resist. They spend the afternoon in the cave with the toads croaking at them from the safety of the pond. They share their love like it is their last day on earth. But the shadows start to invade their thoughts and they realize that they have to return. It is late and they are in the middle of the jungle.
“Do you hear that?” Arni stands up. “It sounds like… a helicopter.
Maybe they found your parent’s hiding place! We need to go back.”
The plan to overthrow Stroessner has the name “Operation 33” because it is scheduled for 3:00 am on the 3rd of February 1989. The end of that government is close, very close.
When they reach the house, Arnold’s mother, China, is already getting out of the helicopter. The sound of the helicopter is too loud to talk but Arnold understands why she is there. His mother has gotten help from the Colorado party, the opposition. They offer the helicopter to pick up Arnold to make sure he is safe. Colonel Oviedo is in charge.
Apparently his mother is more important than he knows. Arnold knows that China has a lot in common with the opposition party. They share the Guarani language and their desire for social assistance to the most needy classes. In fact Colonel Oviedo is the right hand man of General Andrés Rodríguez, the most probable future president of Paraguay after the revolution and leader of the coup. The problem is that he hates Luján’s parents and wants to put them to death as supporters of the dictatorship.
“Do not be frightened,” China says to Luján´s parents once the door is closed. “You are protected. No one knows that you are here.”
Luján’s father looks at Colonel Oviedo standing with his back to the door, his semi-automatic rifle in his arms. He does not seem happy.
“Thank you,” Luján´s father says. “But why?”
“You should thank my son,” China says. “If it wasn’t for him, you would be arrested.” She pauses to look at Arnold intensely. “Still, there is a price that must be paid for this kindness.”
Arnold knows what he has to do. He turns to Luján. “We have to leave the country. There is no other way. It isn’t safe. Even if we win, many people will be resentful and will target my mother for her role in the revolution.” He looks at her with desperation. “You have to leave as well. Go through the jungle and get to Argentina or Brazil. Come back in a few years when things are safe again. I will find you.”
Luján cannot say anything. She just looks at Arnold, her eyes brimming with tears. It is the price of protecting her family. They hug each other for a long time.
“We have to go, Arni,” China says softly.
Arnold goes with his mother and Luján presses the arrowhead very hard between her fingers. She also presses her rosary to her heart. Their love is true. It will last forever.
“Are you day-dreaming?” Miguel asks his mother a bit concerned. “Are you alright?” He put his hand on his mother’s shoulder.
“He never came back…” she says out loud to no one in particular.
“Who never came back?” Miguel Ángel asks, his eyes full of curiosity.
Luján looks at her son and her eyes fall on the arrowhead around his neck and she smiles sadly.
“You’re right,” Luján says with red eyes. “We can´t cancel the invitation now. Besides, who knows? Maybe your first love is forever.”
“I don´t know what you’re talking about,” Miguel Ángel says, a bit embarrassed. “Please just say yes or no.”