Chilean Chronicles, Part XXXVII: On Hugo Rojas’ Longing for Pisco Sour and Ceviche

Hugo's lovely wife Angelica.

Hugo’s lovely wife Angelica.

After two years in England, new friend Hugo Rojas started hallucinating about ceviche and pisco sour from his beloved Chilean homeland.

The professor of the sociology of law shared the details of his hallucinations several hours into a thoroughly enjoyable Saturday evening with Dunreith and his lovely wife Angelica in their living room that has a comfortable couch on one side of the room and a neatly ordered bookshelf lined with English and Spanish volumes on the other.

Hugo’s revelation came after we had met his nine-year-old daughter Victoria, an avid reader who brought out three hefty, English-language tomes she is working her way through at the moment. Two of the works are by Arthur Ransome, an author who published in the 1940s and whose books Victoria is consuming because she wants to learn about the “old England.” Victoria´s third book was The Diary of Anne Frank.

It came after we had learned about new evidence in court case being argued in the Chilean Supreme Court at the moment by a friend of his who is arguing that former Chilean Salvador Allende did not, as has been commonly understood, actually commit suicide with a machine gun given to him by Cuban leader and revolutionary comrade Fidel Castro.

Rather, he was murdered, Hugo’s friend is asserting.

It arrived after Hugo’s telling us about his childhood in Sewell, an American mining town about two hours from Santiago that was nationalized during the Allende era.

His sharing came after he had talked us through the inner workings of Gen. Augusto Pinochet, about Pinochet’s middle-class background, insecurity and craving for recognition, and his only being made aware of the coup that had been planned since November of 1972 on September 9, 1973. Hugo told us about Pinochet’s taking a full 30 minutes to sign the document that came just before the coup that signaled he was committed to the plan, yet only did so after signing the document with his own pen and personal seal.

Before Hugo told us about his tantalizing visions, the four of us had consumed most, but not all, of the elegantly garnished seafood –Angelica and Hugo brought out shrimp and salmon and, of course, the ceviche-that we had dished out into individual bowls.

We had moved through drinking a tangy, cold pisco sour to a crispy white wine and a rich red.

The raw emotion of Hugo’s statement was in stark contrast with the reserved demeanor he exhibited the first time we met in person several weeks ago for lunch with Dunreith and our mutual friends Miguel Huerta and Macarena Rodriguez, one of Hugo’s law school colleagues at the University of Alberto Hurtado.

We had initially connected in 2008, thanks to dear friend Stacey Platt. After we had exchanged emails and spoken via Skype, Hugo had written a letter of invitation for me to spend a semester at Alberto Hurtado as a Fulbright scholar.

My application was not successful, and we had maintained contact in the ensuing five years.

During our meal together he had talked to me about his dissertation on memory in Chilea-when I told him it would be a significant project, he replied, “That’s what I keep telling my wife”-his experience of having met Ariel Dorfman in the United States, and his thoughts about why Dorfman is less known and less popular in Chile than fellow émigré author Isabel Allende.

Tall and sturdy, dressed in a sweater and a tweed jacket, his short black hair neatly combed, he exuded intelligence, perspective and reserve.

His statement about his food-based hallucinations contained humor and just a trace of anguish at the memory.

Of course, Hugo is not the first of my foreign-born friends to be driven to intense longing for their native countries.

Ntuthuko Bhengu, a doctor, businessman, and entrepreneur was part of a crew of exchange partner Vukani Cele’s friend who hosted me with unstinting generosity throughout my time in Tongaat, South Africa from August 1995 to July 1996.

Like Hugo, Ntuthuko started shuddering as he recalled the bitter winter cold in England that penetrated the core of his being and nearly made him weep with desire for the fierce humidity and heat of South Africa.

I had empathy for Hugo, too.

In August 1978, shortly before I was about to join the ranks of Pierce School eighth graders I had wanted to belong since entering kindergarten eight years earlier, Dad had come home and told us that we were moving to Oxford, England for the year.

Academically, it was the hardest of my life, with 12 subjects, school until 12:55 p.m. on Saturday afternoon, and a tracking system that meant, like the English class system, that top marks were allocated for the students in the highest set, teachers who openly mocked our being American and a minister who said that the Jews had had an easy go of things throughout history.

The lowest point for me, the equivalent of Hugo’s culinary deprivation and Ntuthuko’s winter, was my first midterm report.

In it I received five gammas, the mark that meant I was in the lowest quarter of the class.

I kept my composure during school, and burst into a near inconsolable flood of tears when I got home.

I understand what England can do to outsiders.

Angelica, who had arranged for me to speak to students about Dr. King´s life and legacy at the St. George´s school where she teaches, explained after Hugo spoke that she hates to cook-an announcement that sparked an enthusiastic, sisterly high five from Dunreith.

Nevertheless, she reached within herself to try again and again, perhaps 10 times, to prepare a ceviche that would meet her husband’s exacting standards.

Nothing worked.

Angelica was a key figure in a story Hugo told us about a fellow Chilean graduate student also studying in Oxford.

A group of the students would gather at each other’s homes and share food with each other.

This gentleman brought a bottle of pisco sour, but only shared a dollop with each member of the group.

When it was time to leave, he looked to take whatever remained in his bottle with him.

You have to leave it here, Hugo and the others told him.

No, Angelica told me I could take it, he answered.

She just told you that because she’s a very kind person, the group replied.

The man maintained his insistence on relying on Angelica’s kindness, and, eventually left with his bottle.

Decades may pass, but the stain on the man’s reputation will remain intact among his fellow Chileans.

This March, Hugo, Angelica and their daughters returned to Chile.

His mother greeted them when they stepped off the plane.

Angelica said Hugo’s first words to his mother were, Mama, did you bring the pisco sour?

I have it and the ceviche at home, his mother answered.

The son smiled at the memory of his mother’s anticipating, and then meeting, two of his most basic longings.

Hugo and his family have been home for about five months.

He’s made progress on his dissertation, and has resumed his teaching duties and other responsibilities without difficulty.

He’s not hallucinated once about shepherd’s pie.

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