It was the last day of our pilgrimage, so I thought I could hold out a little longer. I refused to yield to a head ache caused by a week of hunger and to remorse over consulting weather forecasts but not exchange-rate projections. I also resisted regretting that I had encouraged Guido to travel from Bogota to Tokyo with me. I needed to renew my pledge to work for peace, culture and education in the Soka Gakkai. And I had hoped that Guido’s making an initial vow to do the same would break through his obsession with his failing business, would make his life bigger than his problems.
I also had been expecting that, on a trip I was paying for, Guido would control his tendency to focus on the negative. Alas, he complained about everything, especially the shortage of spaghetti and bread. The idiots in the Japanese government (Guido’s characterization) had yielded to the idiots in the anti-gluten fringe (Guido again) of the anti-carb lobby. They had outlawed the commercial production and distribution of wheat. Only a tissue of privacy prevented the prohibition of in-home cultivation and consumption of the commodity.
On YouTube, bread-baking tutorials vied in popularity with those on wheat bonsai and ikebana sprigs; same for cable TV. I knew because, without consulting Guido, I had booked a hotel room with television and internet instead of a convection oven. I thought we could live with just a mini-fridge, instead of a mini-kitchen. I had planned to rent a bread or pasta-making machine; but our stash of durum, semolina and winter red were seized on arrival because customs duties were trading at record highs.
Those developments enraged Guido whenever the odors of warm yeast and flour poured from apartment windows on our walk from the Hall of Worship back to Shinano-machi station. On those same streets, barricades of withering people begged wheat to absorb water and prevent death by dehydration. Bereft of grain and chaff, we were powerless to help. Our own impotence did not stop Guido from demonizing other passersby who ignored the desperate pleas for aid. And he scoffed at my short list of defenses.
“Maybe they’re not callous,” Guido aped me in scorn.
“Maybe they’re not,” I insisted. “Maybe the little they have left they need for their own survival.”
“Or for their children,” Guido laughed.
“And maybe the price on the black market is rising beyond even their reach,” I offered.
“And soon a child will be sacrificed for the father’s new Mercedes or the mother’s Prada pumps.”
“It’s a different culture,” I said.
“An idiotic culture,” Guido corrected me.
“Okay,” I said. “That’s why I renewed my vow here and you made your initial one, the way a lotus blooms in a muddy swamp and isn’t tainted by the mud.”
“How can anyone pass even a day here,” Guido asked, “and not be covered in muck?”
Bridling his tongue when we reached the entrance of a fancy bakery café, Guido asked if pastries made of rice were the only snack available.
“No,” the waiter pointed to little buns on a revolving display case in the window beside the door. “The green ones are soy and the yellow are soba.”
The price tag slipped by before I could read it clearly; but I thought the cost was a short series of ones and zeros. I had grown so used to living in Colombia that I mistook the currency for pesos. Eleven thousand pesos was almost four dollars U.S. for each bun. I felt bad for people who could not afford that much. I could buy a few to share with Guido though it was still a stretch. When the display case made another turn, I realized the price was in yen. The buns were out of reach for me too.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “The pilgrimage has been a bit more difficult than I anticipated.”
“It’s been a fucking ordeal,” Guido said, “compared to what you led me to believe.”
“Your attitude hasn’t helped,” I said.
“My attitude?” Guido said. “Your deceit.”
Perhaps I had not been scrupulously honest, but my intentions had been good. If the vow enabled Guido to change his financial karma, his business could thrive. He would feel like a successful entrepreneur. And I would have to lend him less money to keep the endeavor aloft.
“When we get back to Bogota,” I said, “right away you’ll see positive changes in our lives. That’s how powerful making a vow is.”
“Maybe,” Guido said.
“You did make a vow, didn’t you?”
“I guess so,” he said.
“What was it?” I said.
“I’m not telling you.”
“A vow is not like a secret wish you make blowing out candles on a birthday cake.”
“We can’t get bread or macaroni here,” Guido said, “and now you’re tormenting me with talk about cake.”
From the airport station in Narita, we moved with a slow crowd across a long, elevated concrete platform that followed the shoreline. On a metal walkway above us and extending farther over the ocean, rowdy, well-fed people were striding faster than I ever could comfortably. Guido grew impatient with our pace and wanted to climb up to the metal walkway.
“You can switch,” I said, “but I’m not going to.”
“The idiocy here is rubbing off on you,” Guido said. The metal walkway’s safe; it’s encased by a steel grill.”
True, but the spaces between the bars were wide enough to fall through, and I feared stumbling off or being pushed by an ambitious traveler whose progress I might impede. Maybe I deserved such a fate. Maybe it would have been retribution for the heavy slander of trying to change Guido, instead of changing myself. But maybe I had just received the lesson I needed to whip up a new batch of karmic errors, much lighter ones and all fresh from scratch.
Chuck Teixeira practiced law for many years in California. Now, he teaches English in Colombia.
His most recent collection of stories, Bad News from Bogota, is available at Amazon.com.
One of Chuck’s longer stories, Westminster Academy, is being serialized on Kindle Vella