This is the last segment I have of Christian Zozaya’s memoir stretching from the Spanish civil War through WWII and his childhood (and adulthood) in South America. Here is a brief recap for those of you joining us late: Born in Madrid, six-year-old Christian was evacuated to Barcelona with his family because of Franco’s War. As German troops marched into Austria, Mussolini increased bombing of the Spanish coast and Barcelona became as dangerous as Madrid, thus it was decided to send little Christian to boarding school in England. He was thrust alone into another culture and had to quickly learn English to communicate. The situation in Spain became so dire that his entire family had to escape over the Pyrenees and into France with only the clothes on their backs and whatever they could carry. His parents became separated and more hardships ensued, but strangers helped them and friends loaned them money so they could reunite with Christian now age 8. This is where we left off in his story.
I had not spoken Spanish since the previous September except for the brief visit by my parents in October and I had forgotten how to speak the language. Fortunately I could still understand Spanish, but my answers at first were limited to Si and No.
Eventually all my family managed to cross the puddle…my grandparents and my uncle and aunt boarded a ship and went to Mexico. Dad chose to go to Colombia (where) two of his former students, Colombians, procured a contract for him with the Ministerio de Trabajo, Higiene y Previsión Social.
We boarded the ship on May 11th and departed for Colombia. Molly gave me a book “Great Sea Stories of All Nations” that I still have it in my library. The M/S Margaret Johnson was a mixed cargo and passenger ship with capacity for sixty passengers and “all modern conveniences” such as electric fans and running water in the cabins. All the passengers were Spanish Republican refugees.
We made land on May 28th at a town called Puerto Colombia… the main port for Colombia since 1893. We stayed in Puerto Colombia a few days until the next riverboat was due to depart (from) Barranquilla on the shore of the Magdalena River. A railway ran between Puerto Colombia and Barranquilla and we
went to Barranquilla the day before the boat was to leave. We boarded the S.S. Pichincha, a stern wheeler with four decks. The main deck was reserved for the cargo; the second deck held the third class cabins, the second class cabins were on the third deck and the first class cabins were on the fourth (upper) deck. The pilot house stood in front of the first class cabins and there was a small cannon mounted on its roof.
The cargo on this trip was about twenty head of cattle so when Father bought the tickets he asked for the first class deck. The man who was selling the tickets asked him if he wanted a cabin. It seems that if you bought the ticket for just the deck that’s where you slept. Father bought the tickets for the cabin as well.
The trip up the Magdalena River to Puerto Salgar took eight days. The new experience started when we went down to the dining room for lunch. Hanging large on the back wall of the room was a sign.
SE RUEGA A NUESTRA DISTINGUIDA CLIENTELA
NO DISPARAR ARMAS DE FUEGO
EN EL COMEDOR
In other words if you are going to shoot somebody please don’t spoil our dinner, do it outside on deck.
The diet was unusual for our European tastes. The first course of the meal was not a bowl of soup but a glass of pawpaw juice and then followed a soup like we had never had before. It was known as “mazamorra” and it had ingredients such as yucca and corn that had never formed part of our diets. After a more or less normal main course we had guava preserve for dessert.
During the afternoon the ship’s “orchestra” assembled on the deck in order to entertain us. This ensemble consisted of people who couldn’t afford the fare to so they agreed to pay by playing in the “orchestra” for as long as they were aboard. The group consisted of five people and they only had two songs in common; one was the “Guabina Chiquinquireña” – I forget what the other one was. They all wanted to go to Bogotá which meant that we listened alternately to the two songs for every afternoon of the eight days that the trip took.
We had to retire to our cabin when the sun set because the people who had paid to be on the first class deck, but had not paid for a cabin pulled out canvas cots, opened them, took off their clothes, put on their pajamas and went to sleep.
On the eighth day we arrived in Puerto Salgar and it was time to leave the ship and board a train. When somebody asked what the fare was the station master lined us all up pointed to each Spanish refugees with his forefinger as he counted us and pondered for a while. He hemmed and hawed and came up with a figure; the group tried to pay it proportionately to the size of each contingent. The train chugged up the slopes of the Cordillera Oriental until we reached Bogotá.
The President of Colombia was Eduardo Santos (1938 – 1942). He had been instrumental in allowing Spanish Republican refugees into the country against the opposition of several members of his Cabinet. Colombia received us with mixed feelings. The political world was divided into, the Liberals and the Conservatives. The Liberals liked us because to a greater or lesser degree we were from the political left, but disliked us because we came from Spain, the colonizing power. The conservatives disliked us because to a greater or lesser degree we were from the political left but liked us because we came from Spain. There was also the fear that the Spaniards would take jobs away from the Colombians.
My parents did not want me to forget the English that I had learned during my stay in England so they enrolled me in the Anglo-American School (attended by expats from all over Europe). Being taught in two languages was good for me. Leaving a class in say geography that was taught in English and ten minutes later receiving a class in Spanish forced me to switch not only languages but my whole train of thought …
On September 1st (1939) World War II began. It had been well rehearsed by Germany and Italy in my home country. (Meanwhile) Dad was working on the malaria campaign which meant that he had to travel through the lowlands of the country: Los Llanos, through which the best means of transportation was often by boat. Not a steamboat such as the Pichincha, but a dugout canoe fitted with an outboard motor.
To get where the boat was he had to fly by commercial airliner and very often all three of us went to see him off at the airport.
Sometimes Dad had to go to very remote places where there were no commercial flights close to where he wanted to go. One of these was Leticia, a town situated where the borders of Colombia, Brazil and Peru meet. The area of course is called Las Tres Fronteras. The southern tip of Colombia is the only place where it reaches the Amazon River and Leticia is one of two major ports on the Amazon, the other being Manaos in Brazil.
The Colombian army had a base there and the place was reachable only by float plane. The planes approached the town by following the river, flying just over the tops of the trees. When they reached the clearing they dived down and straightened out just in time for the floats to touch the water. The city has an international airport now and there are three Colombian airlines as well as several international ones that reach the city but at the time that was all the transport available.
During one of Dad’s trips a soldier had an attack of appendicitis. There was no hospital but an army doctor decided to operate. The operating room was a mud brick shack with a dirt floor, open windows, and the operating table was a door resting on two wooden boxes with a mattress on top.
The spaces outside the windows were full of curious people looking in while the doctor operated and his assistant stood by with a tray full of instruments covered by a cloth with which he would occasionally shoo away the flies. The soldier did survive.
One of his trips to Leticia Dad was told that he could not return on the plane because one of the pontoons was leaking. Sure enough when the plane took off he saw that water was coming out of one. What annoyed him was that he was the only person who was asked to leave the plane. When he asked when the next plane was due he was told that he would have to wait for a week. Dad didn’t complain but he sent President Santos a telegram. The next day a tandem cockpit biplane arrived in Leticia. The weather was dreadful (but) Dad climbed in the plane and flew back to Bogotá.
On another trip he met an itinerant salesman… another Spaniard who was selling hand-powered sewing machines to the women in the bush. How he carried the machines I do not know but he walked through the forest plying his trade. He told Dad that once he walked into a huge clearing and found a city in the middle of the jungle. The place had public transport and an opera house. The man had stumbled into Manaos.
This is the tale of Christian Zozaya’s disrupted early childhood as an expat. The Zozaya family later moved to Venezuela where Christian will eventually meet his wife and both become professors. But before that he will return to Europe and travel the continent. Thank you to Christian for letting us share these excerpts of your unusual life.
This memoir is so interesting we can only hope he decides to publish it so we may read it in its entirety. (I am re-posting this blog which was popular a few years ago – with minor edits.) It seems to echo the experiences of refugees today.