In 1954 the government of Ecuador imported a string quartet from Barcelona. I spent the last years of my childhood in Quito, in a house that my father, my mother, and I shared with the three other players.
In those pre-pollution days, we all woke up each morning to the sight of five active volcanoes around the city: Chimborazo, Cotopaxi, Cayambe, Rucu Pichincha, and, the most apt to shower cars and sidewalks with ashes, Guagua Pichincha. After exclaiming about the beauty of the view and speculating on which volcano would erupt next, the quartet would rehearse.
This began with a lengthy session of meticulous tuning which the cellist, who had studied with Casals, insisted on. My father would play his A string, and the second violinist would try to match it exactly. This took a while. “Maybe it’s a touch flat,” the cellist would say. Then, “Perhaps you need to bring it down, just a hair.” The process was repeated with the viola and the cello, and finally the real playing would begin—Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, and what my father called a “piece of candy” for the audience: the Tchaikovsky quartet, Op. 1, with its saccharine second movement.
In the afternoon the musicians practiced individually, and my father gave violin lessons to the children of Quito’s Jewish community. On the weekends, we went adventuring—and in those days, the moment you left the capital you were sure to have adventures.
Only my father and the cellist knew how to drive. The cellist had a tiny blue Fiat, and my father drove a 1944 Dodge with a wonky second gear (my mother had to hold up the gear shift with a forked stick whenever we descended from the high Andes to a lower altitude).
We would pile into the two cars and set off for the páramos, vast barren plateaus so high above sea level that, even having grown accustomed to Quito’s nine-thousand-foot altitude, we would gasp for breath at the smallest exertion.
Time and time again we would pull off the stone-paved road, a legacy of the Incas, and everyone would get out and gaze with wonder at yet another set of volcanoes (Imbabura! Tungurahua! Sangay!). Everyone but me, that is. The more my parents exhorted me to appreciate the beauty all around, the less I saw to admire. If at least there had been some interesting animals, but other than the occasional high-flying condor or a herd of llamas haughtily ignoring us, all I could see was an endless expanse of beige barrenness.
The trips to the jungles of the Pacific or the Amazon were more entertaining—someone was always foisting a parrot or a monkey on us, and there were almost-naked Indians with painted bodies. We spent one Christmas as the only whites in a village populated by the descendants of shipwrecked African slaves. They were tall and majestic, very dark skinned, and dressed in immaculate white. All night long, on Christmas Eve, they drummed and chanted in ways that sounded just like the sound-track of King Solomon’s Mines.
Hotels were beyond rustic. On one trip to Puyo, in the Amazon jungle, the viola player, a courtly, balding, bespectacled Catalan, addressed the hotel owner. \”Madam,\” he said, \”would you be so kind as to direct me to the bathroom?\” She led him to an open window and gestured with silent dignity to the verdant vista stretching uninterrupted all the way to Brazil. In the morning it was raining and, since there was no running water, my father and his three colleagues shaved under the downspout in front of the building.
Did I mind living with five adults? As an only child, in Spain I had made my aunts, my uncles and my grandfather into playmates. Now I did the same with the members of the quartet.
I didn’t much care for the cellist, whom I found vain and affected, with his upturned nose, his little mustache, and his obsession with tuning. But the viola player, despite his thick glasses and his jowly face, made an excellent playmate. Our bedrooms were adjoining, and at night we would communicate by knocking on the wall between our beds. My favorite, however, was the second violin, because he was the best-looking of all–tall and aristocratic, with an elegant Roman nose. Also, he had an ocelot kitten, named Pepita, that I coveted.
Not only did I find these men entertaining, I did my best to entertain them. I made jokes and invented games, one of which consisted of appending Italian endings like -ellaand -etto to Spanish words, which I found hilarious as well as clever. I showed off, sang loudly out of tune, giggled. They in turn teased me and called me Unita, which translates roughly as “Onesy,” referring to my only-child status. If they ever found me annoying, they didn’t show it.
I burst into puberty like one of the volcanoes that periodically erupted around us. There was no graceful flowering into demure young womanhood. Overnight I grew breasts, pimples, and hair on my legs. But my mind lagged behind my burgeoning anatomy, and I persisted in my childish ways. Or perhaps those ways weren’t so childish, and my fondness for the violist and the second violinist was more of an adolescent crush than the reaching out of a lonely child.
After a couple of years, the second violinist packed his bags and returned to Spain. The violist married his Catalan fiancée, a woman in her mid-thirties, by proxy. (This had to be done because her parents would not allow her to cross the Atlantic alone as an unmarried woman.) My parents sat drinking brandy with the groom on his brideless wedding night, and months later, when his wife finally arrived, I lost my remaining playmate. But by then I didn’t care: I had met a boy my age at a bar mitzvah, and fallen in love.
Me being kidnapped in the Amazon by the viola player (holding knife and using my braid as a mustache) and the second violinist