When the short, pasty stranger strode through the door, a hush fell over the cantina. A rum-soaked cheroot dangling from his chapped lips, the stranger squinted menacingly in the direction of a handful of locals gathered round the pool table.
“Quien es el champion, aqui?” he asked.
Nervous laughter ensued. Who was this gringo, and why has he come to our humble barrio? He looks thirsty. What say we buy him a cerveza?
Next thing I knew, I was drinking beer and shooting pool with some friendly Puerto Ricans. I told them I had come to Canto Gallo in order to practice speaking Spanish and hone my bosque survival skills.
First order of business was to infiltrate the community, which in the case of Canto Gallo consisted of just a roadside cantina surrounded by rickety hillside shanties. Was there a hotel hidden somewhere in the shrubbery where I might spend the night? I asked.
More laughter ensued. Why on earth would I want to spend the night in Canto Gallo? they asked.
“I’m a Peace Corps trainee,” I explained. “I’m on a mission to see how well I will fare once I’m assigned to a village in rural Colombia.”
Presently the barkeep introduced to a man who had a spare bedroom adjacent to that of his comely teenaged daughter. There was no door separating us, so the proprietor gathered some boards and nailed up a makeshift partition. Through the cracks between the boards I could see eyes—big, brown eyes—peeping out as I prepared to bed down in what wasn’t really a bed but just a cot with a thin mattress and itchy blanket. Underneath the cot I could hear the rustling of something—probably the disgruntled reptile whose place I’d taken. Come morning, I awoke to find myself covered head to toe with red spots. Manchas rojas—bedbug bites!
I staggered out in search of a restaurant, but found none. By and by I was befriended by a young boy named Luis, who took me home to meet his family. I asked if they had a bathroom where I might wash up, and was handed a bucket and a washcloth. Stark naked, I sponged myself off in the yard, yet those damn red spots weren’t coming off.
I was invited to stay for supper, which entailed me eating whatever food Luis’s mom could rustle up while the family watched. Between bites of arroz con pollo I explained that I had enlisted in the Peace Corps in order to fight poverty. This while I burrowed through the meager provisions of my impoverished hosts.
The following day Luis took me on a tour of his neighborhood. I was introduced to various relatives and invited into several casitas, on every wall of which was hung a painting of Jesus along with a photograph of John F. Kennedy. Kennedy was revered in Puerto Rico, not only because he was Catholic, but because he’d been determined to foster a better relationship with Latin America—the so-called “Alliance for Progress.” Latins also admired Kennedy because—unlike me—he embodied machismo.
Since it was now Sunday, I accompanied Luis’s family to their church, where I was introduced to the congregation by the pastor as having come from Utah, where there are Mormones who have “muchas esposas.” Everyone turned to look at me. How could this guy, shabbily dressed in sweatshirt and jeans, covered head to toe with manchas rojas, possibly hope to acquire multiple wives? Is that why he had come to Canto Gallo? To make off with our womenfolk?
Come Monday, I somehow made my way back to a designated rendezvous point in Arecibo, where I was joined by a handful of fellow trainees, none of whom looked even half as ragged as I did. One had found lodging in a jail; another had taken refuge in a church. I was the only one who had run naked in the woods and slept with bedbugs and lizards.
By and by a limousine pulled up, and out stepped Hoffman. He shook hands and exchanged pleasantries with a well-dressed gentleman who I presumed must be the governor of the commonwealth. In only three short days Hoffman had infiltrated the Puerto Rican power structure, co-signed several treaties and negotiated multiple trade agreements. It was at that moment I realized that at least one person in our group would be going on to Bogota, and that another would soon be headed home to Utah.