I'M RUSSIAN

I had met Fernando, a young Bolivian student, in Oruro a week before at one of the major folklore festivals held in Bolivia. He had invited to show me around Cochabamba if ever I visited, and so it was that I had tracked him down and arranged to go sightseeing with him that Saturday afternoon.

It was interesting to go to where a Bolivian thought a tourist would like to go. Surely just one church would have easily sufficed. Conversation followed tourist sight, followed by bus rides and led to me inviting him to dinner that evening.

We were sitting in an outdoor restaurant, enjoying the maddened red sunset and perfect weather. We had ordered and were again engaged in talk when beside me appeared a man who asked a typical question. In fact, it was one of three questions which seemed almost to be part of a pre-programmed line to conversation with travellers. The question was "Which country do you come from?" Normally, this would be followed by "What is your Job?" and not much of a gap before "How much do you earn in one year?"

My big mistake was not to take more notice of who was asking me the question, as I answered almost at the same time as turning around to see who was asking. What's more, I jokingly answered "Soy Ruso", or "I'm Russian".

The immediate retort, which peeled itself away from the drunken breath, was that this particular chappie "hated Russians".

This commenced two hours of psychological torture with me as the un-volunteered subject. Before I had time to retract my little joke, he followed it up with a barrage of questions and demanded quickfire answers. Easy-going subjects like "What religion I was, did I like Americans; where was my girlfriend and was I communist?" all seemed to spell doom.

He sat for a while and ranted about how much he disliked me; the Russians for exploiting the tin miners at Potosi, the Americans for imperialism, the Catholic curse. And "maricons" (homosexuals). It really seemed he didn't like anything too much, except beer and food! He suddenly got up and went back to his table at the drunken shouts of his friends, and both Fernando and I believed that would be the last we'd see of him.

Wham! And a small pocket knife comes stabbing into the table missing my hand by some inches. He's back and he's drunk, aggressive and now sporting a knife. This is serious! Where's the waiter? Again he asks which country I'm from and nervously I stumble through my Spanish, reassuring him that I'm an Australian, and the thing about being Russian had just been a joke. Did he understand the idea of a "joke"? But not only wasn't he into Monty Python, but he had the sense of humour of a "zit". He kept prodding me. I could see the anger, the violence, in his eyes and watched inconspicuously as he now carved up the cotton table cloth in front of me. He would slice this way and that, never giving a hint of what he'd say or do next. I was mentally overriding a frantic heart beat and legs which were shaking nervously below the table, to present a face and upper body which were cool and controlled. He left again for more loud cajoling with his friends and I could hear him talking about me ..... "El Australiano!"

The waiter, who was fully aware of what was happening, came to our table under the guise of clearing dishes, but nervously warned us to sit tight. Definitely don't fight, was his parting tip. Great! Just what we wanted to hear. I wondered why he hadn't called the police.

The restaurant was typical of such outdoor restaurants in Bolivia. It was surrounded by a high cast iron fence, mainly to keep beggars and rabid looking dogs out. Parked directly outside the only exit gate was a four wheel drive jeep, chrome and spotlights everywhere. More at home in some Hollywood western cop thriller than in Bolivia. Just outside the jeep and, within two metres of the gate, were the cronies. Aides to our assailant! He's back again! Consequently, there was no chance to do a runner. His cronies would surely have enjoyed the confrontation.

And so I continued to maintain my composed upper body, whilst my legs literally rattled away down below.

This was real and it was obvious that this ugly human was looking for some game. Two hours had passed since his first appearance at our table, and I was feeling sick with fright. I felt that he could, all of a sudden, "crack" and lash at me with his knife. I had thought through what I'd do once all that started. My only help would be that he was quite drunk and, hopefully, had lost his reflex and/or sprinting power. I wished I was some Kung Fu hero. I would certainly like to make an exhibition of him. I would cut him to pieces with my knife-like hands and then present him on silver trays. Gourmet meal to the roaming street dogs.

But as obscurely as it had all started, it was finished. Two women, dressed almost as if to overstate that they were prostitutes, came into the grounds. The heckles and garble from the table behind us attracted our "friend's" attention, and not five minutes later he left with one lady on each arm. As his jeep trumpeted off we knew our saga had ended. The waiter was soon out apologising, embarrassed and suggesting that we should leave immediately, just in case. He also told us that this chap was "cocaine mafia". He was inextricably tied to the local police and had we begun to fight it would surely have been reported that "a young Australian aggressor was badly stabbed today" while an innocent young Bolivian defended himself.

I had intended to stay in Cochabamba, possibly for some months so as to learn Spanish at a special school there. I left the next afternoon, only to return months later on my homeward path towards Australia.