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Last of the Nice Girls


How a Nice Girl from the British Empire Ends Up a Witch in the New Mexico Desert

by Elizabeth McBride

from Chapter 1: HONG KONG / SCOTLAND


By the time I was six years old, I was an experienced traveler: Our family made four ocean crossings half around the world, and spent two home leaves in Scotland. It felt normal to live in multiple worlds. I knew the chill grey of Scotland, tempered by cheery teas around the fire, with curtains drawn in family sitting rooms. In contrast, I enjoyed far-flung shipboard travel and the open, leisurely life of the hot tropics.

Every three years, the Crown Agents for the Colonies paid for civil servants and their families to return to Britain for nine months' home leave (Europeans' blood was said to grow thin in the tropics). Our first-class fares were paid on the regular passenger liners of the P & O (Peninsula and Orient) and Blue Funnel lines. This was how people traveled across the world in the 1930s and '40s before the era of long-distance passenger flights.

The ocean voyage between the Far East and Britain took five weeks. For a young child, five weeks is a lifetime, so the ship became our home away from home.

The liners were magnificent in our eyes, with their belching funnels, high boat deck under the stars, captain's bridge, lower promenade decks with tennis courts, deck chairs and salt water swimming pool aft. Although they were not luxury liners in the modern sense, these were fine passenger ships with cozy cabins and wood-paneled lounges, in which people traveled comfortably back and forth across the globe.

The excitement began with preparations for departure. There was more anticipation at the Hong Kong end since we looked forward to seeing the family again. The doctor checked that our inoculations against typhoid, yellow fever and cholera were up to date. For weeks beforehand, trunks and suitcases lay about, ready to be neatly packed by my father, using his special method of fitting everything in with the least amount of crushing. Heavy shoes lined the bottom wrapped in newspaper, followed by layers of winter coats, suits and woolens and topped by light frocks and blouses. Clothing was folded with tissue paper in a certain way and underwear and small items stuffed into cracks. My father painted "McBride" in white paint on the trunks, using a stencil with cut-out letters. He tied cloth labels onto the suitcases, printed in his neat lettering with indelible ink.

A few days before departure, the shipping agents arrived to fetch the luggage and load it on board. The large cabin trunks were sent down to the hold, where they were arranged in sections by last name initial. The smaller suitcases were kept in the cabin with our tropical clothes. Once the weather turned cooler after Gibraltar and into the Bay of Biscay, the Purser arranged for passengers to go down to the hold in turn to bring up warm clothes.

Finally the moment of departure arrived. We clambered on board up the long, swinging gangway, then leaned over the railings to wave goodbye and throw streamers to well-wishers on the wharf. A brass band played lively tunes or bagpipers wailed a farewell lament. As the ship churned slowly away from the wharf in a froth of foam, the music swelled and the streamers stretched until they finally snapped. The shoreline receded and the wavers on the dock dwindled to specks, until finally the ship sailed out of the harbor into the open sea, its funnels belching black smoke and the foghorn booming.

We spent most of the time on deck. At night we loved to climb to the top deck to gape at the huge stars and marvel at the green phosphorescent trail of the wake. During the day we ran around the shady lower promenade decks and climbed up and down the narrow iron staircases. The boards of the deck felt warm underfoot. We played endless games of deck tennis and toss-the-quoit (a circle of thick rope), and swam regularly in the gently heaving pool of green seawater. Along the edges of the decks hung the lifeboats covered with canvas tarpaulins. The ship smelled of salt and fresh paint.

Comfortable staterooms opened off the promenade decks, as well as a writing room with desks and lamps, a tea room upholstered in chintz, and the main lounge with the bar at one end and deep armchairs and sofas. Sometimes two sittings for meals were arranged to accommodate all the passengers in the dining room, and people vied to be invited to sit at the Captain's table. There was a lavish regular menu, in addition to a separate curry menu offering five or six different spicy dishes.

The cabins were little havens, with upper and lower bunks. We children claimed the upper bunks, climbing up removable ladders. Each bed had a polished wood frame around it, so that if the ship rolled we wouldn't fall out. Each had a little reading lamp in the corner which we could switch on to create our own pool of light. In the morning, a steward knocked at the door to announce breakfast, then later made the beds and took away the laundry. As first-class passengers, we were assigned an outside cabin with a porthole, where the green swell of the ocean sloshed against the thick glass eye.

Inside, a narrow corridor led past the row of cabin doors, low ceilinged with a tangle of ship's pipes overhead, and smelling comfortingly of salt, new paint and steam.

If we wanted a bath, the steward turned on a powerful jet of hot, foaming blue salt water in the bathtub and placed a large pitcher of fresh hot water beside it to rinse off.

When the weather turned rough, almost everyone got seasick. We simply accepted this as part of ocean travel before the days of Dramamine. Often the ship began to pitch as soon as it hit the rollers outside the harbor of Hong Kong or headed out of the Thames into the Bay of Biscay. Those early liners did not have stabilizers like modern ships, so they both pitched up and down and rolled from side to side. My mother took to her bunk immediately and was always laid low for several days. When she finally raised her head, she asked for tea and water biscuits. Seasickness was called "turning green." We children also knew what it was like to lie miserably on our bunks, dreading the ghastly heaving of the stomach, when all we wanted to do was die. Later when we got our sea legs, the motion of the ship did not bother us anymore.

When I was older I learned some tricks to relieve the queasiness, like staying on deck in the fresh air, or leaning the opposite way to the ship's pitch so that my body remained stable. But outside on deck, I had to brace myself against the storm and endure the whipping of salt sea spray. As a child I watched in mesmerized terror as the ship's bow plunged into the deep chasm of water below each gigantic wave, while a wall of water towered above, blotting out the sky. Somehow, each time the ship managed to heave itself up out of the trough and ride the crest of the roller, before plunging downward again. I have always had nightmares of being engulfed by a tidal wave. A high point of the voyage was berthing at foreign ports of call. The ship often tied up for one or two days to load and unload cargo and passengers. We were free to go ashore to explore a strange new world. We threaded our way through the high-pitched cacophony of crowded streets and colorful markets in Colombo, Bombay, Aden, Suez and Port Said.

Sometimes a local British representative came on board to offer suitable guides to accompany passengers to reputable stores, but mostly we chose to go off on our own. We wandered, fascinated, among the tangle of smells, sights and sounds, exploring the teeming chaos of a foreign land. These outings heightened my sense of the "other worlds" that I had tasted in Chinese life in Hong Kong. At the same time, I knew we would return to the safety of the ship when the day's adventure was over. I developed a double sense of pleasure: being able to plunge into the unknown, yet able to return to the familiar and secure.

Many activities were organized for the children, apart from swimming and deck games. A highlight was the "Crossing the Line" ceremony. The Captain or First Officer dressed up as Father Neptune in a long robe with a beard and brandished a trident. Other crew members, acting as his attendants, busily grabbed the children to duck them in buckets of water or lather them up with shaving soap, pronouncing them official "pollywogs." We received certificates signed by Father Neptune attesting to our having safely crossed the Equator. Another big event was the children's Fancy Dress Ball. Once Stewart and I dressed up as a footballer and tennis girl in costumes planned by my mother ahead of time.

The passage through the Suez Canal was another highlight. We got up at dawn to watch from the deck as the ship was hauled along between the narrow banks by stout tenders. The throbbing ship's engines were turned off and all was eerily quiet. Port Said was the last Middle East port of call, where passengers went ashore to buy presents at the Simon Artz store—lengths of silk, silver jewelry and exotic souvenirs.

Once the ship entered the Mediterranean, the weather turned cooler, and we knew we were approaching home. After Gibraltar, sweaters were pulled out and grey skies and choppy seas accompanied us all the way to England.

After the magical five-week voyage from the Far East, we were deposited on the grey, chilly shores of Britain. We loaded our trunks and suitcases onto the train at Tilbury docks in London and headed for Glasgow to be welcomed home by the McBride and Stewart families....

from Chapter 24: LATIN AMERICA


May 3. The flight from La Paz to Santiago on a big Lloyd Boliviano 727 plane, with only 20 passengers, took 2-1/2 hours. We flew along the blue shoreline with the Atacama Desert—the driest in the world, where it never rained and nothing grew—in the foreground, backed by the distant snow-capped Cordillera. I was met at the airport by Gaby Videla's sister Victoria and husband Ricardo and driven to their spacious, comfortable home. This was actually Gaby and Ray's house which they left in 1973 when they had to get out of Chile at the time of Allende's overthrow by Pinochet. The Videlas were kind and welcoming and there seemed to be lots of children and comings and goings. Chile looked green and European with poplar trees lining the roads. The airport was modern and the city big with expressways and a subway.

I was taken completely by surprise at how much I loved Santiago and the Chileans from the first moment. They greeted even strangers warmly, kissing them on both cheeks. It was winter there, cold at night with a need for woolen clothing and fires, warming in the middle of the day to shirt sleeves. I felt extremely well and full of energy, with no effects of descending to sea level after six weeks at high altitude. On the contrary, I seemed to have extra energy, maybe from the abundance of globulos rojos manufactured in the mountains! Some days I spent from early morning to late in the evening in the city, traveling around to make contacts.

It was a very tense moment in Chile. Unemployment had reached 30%. The powerful Copper Miners' Union called for a paro the following week on May 11. All across the nation other groups and unions bravely expressed their support. If this dangerous action came off, it would be the first national challenge to the Pinochet regime in ten years. However, at the same time, there was much apprehension because of the repression. The action was planned as a paralyzation, with no street demonstrations, which were too dangerous. Workers were being asked to stay home or take other non-violent measures. Very painfully, the organizers decided they had to leave their companeros of the CP (Communist Party) out of the action as a tactical move—which everyone understood, since their presence would allow Pinochet/Reagan to blame Russian/Cuban influence....

The National Non-Violent Day of Social Protest was a tremendous success, far beyond the nation's expectation. The main issues were the 30% unemployment rate and the disastrous economic conditions, also the demand to return to democracy and to regain national dignity. To everyone's surprise, 70% of school children did not go to school and there was a 50% reduction in buying in stores, as well as a slow-down of traffic and work pace. There were peaceful marches and, at night, the noise of saucepan lids being beaten and car horns honking. Everyone was impressed and elated by the enormous participation in the first national protest in ten years and the first experiment in non-violent protest. There was total silence from the government, except to declare to the outside world that "all was normal" in the country.

Padre Renato Hevia, a Jesuit—editor of the progressive Church magazine El Mensaje—was my next interview subject. He explained that the three important achievements of the Protesta Nacional were its non-violence; that all opposition sectors found "unity in action" which they had not always found in discussion; and that it was organized by the workers and the people, not the political parties, who stayed out or supported indirectly. He gave me a tape of the radio news announcements of the unfolding events and his speech, which was repeated all day. This would become a historic tape, since, soon after, the government closed down Radio Cooperative (the last openly critical station) and severe repression set in, with arrests and house-to-house searches in the poor barrios. However, people felt encouragement and a subdued euphoria, as they got a glimpse of their unity and strength. Further non-violent actions were planned for the 11th of each month.

This town was the southernmost point of my trip, 500 miles south of Santiago. Again the time here turned into another unexpected and moving experience.

I traveled south at night on one of those wonderful, solid, elegant, old-fashioned Orient Express-type trains, with beautiful shiny paneled woodwork, dark blue velvet seats and discreet individual lamps. The passengers first sat on the velvet seats in the sleeping compartment, waiting for dinner to be served, while the efficient attendant stowed the luggage and a white-coated and gloved waiter passed down the aisle with whisky glasses on a silver tray! I went to the first sitting for dinner at 8:30 p.m. (the $20 ticket included the sleeping berth, dinner and breakfast) in the coche-comedor, with its linen cloths, leather chairs, table lamps and attentive waiters. The menu was cream of mushroom soup, fish with potatoes and a bunch of grapes. I sat with two older men, one a businessman and the other a retired Colonel from Pinochet's Fuerzas Aereas who told me chillingly about his training in the U.S. and his good relations with U.S. generals!

Back at the compartment, I found my upper bunk had been made up with clean sheets and soft blankets, the head-lamp switched on and heavy velvet curtains closed for privacy. The bathroom had hot water, soap, toilet paper and even a shower! Next morning I peeped out the window to see the southern mists and green of this rain-soaked region.

We arrived in Valdivia at 11:00 a.m. I was met with a taxi by a young man of 24. All I knew about him was that he was a painter, poet and musician and worked part-time for SERPAJ (Servicio de Paz y Justicia). He took me to his house where I met his delightful young wife, S.—a music teacher—and their 14-month-old daughter. They received me so naturally and simply and warmly into their home, as if I were a cousin who visited every week. I was very touched....

On the first evening, P. took me to the Human Rights meeting, composed of young people and university students. It was very moving, listening to them telling about the control and repression at the universities, where all progressive faculty members had been removed and careers in the humanities eliminated.

Next day we took a magical all-day boat trip down the broad river of Valdivia to a small village, Corral, at the mouth of the ocean. We tromped through the mud to eat lunch at the simple home of another poet, who had been captured and severely tortured after the 1973 coup, and his gracious wife. In spite of the grey, cold and rain, it was a very beautiful trip, reminding me of all the northern places I knew—upper Michigan, Scotland, Galicia. The area was settled by German immigrants who pushed the Mapuche Indians back into poorer lands. Solidarity with the Mapuche cause was another whole story.

Another day we got up early and spent the whole day traveling by bus 150 miles south through the lake country of Puerto Montt, Puerto Varas and Osorno. The buses in Chile were magnificent (none of the rattletraps of Lima), modern, heated and luxurious, with large windows, piped-in music and even TV! But here was another shock. All the music on the radio was American, songs sung in English, or European (Voz de Alemania) and the TV programs were directly imported from the U.S. I saw Maverick, Kojak, etc. The opposition believed this was a deliberate campaign of cultural invasion or alienation organized by the government in order to suppress national feeling. There was no Latin American or Chilean culture at all—very chilling! Hence the emphasis I had felt in progressive groups for the recuperation of national culture.

We stopped for lunch with friends and in the evening decided to look for a youth group in a poor poblacion of Osorno. Another shock awaited. We found an empty muddy site in the dark where all the shacks had been pulled down, part of a government program to relocate slum dwellers. We eventually found one youth in his new home, a minuscule, poorly constructed house, a "gift" from the government. Using the threat of taking back this gift, the government could control any signs of protest from the poor.

We returned to the house in Valdivia late, to find P.'s brother there, a magnificent classical guitarist, one of the most brilliant I had ever heard. We sat around the typical igloo-shaped stone stove, listening to the wonderful music. I was again aware of the courage and fragility of life for this young couple and wondered in the face of their hospitality whether my visit had harmed or helped them.

It felt almost like treachery to keep my appointment next day with the officials of the University, even more so when I was received by the Rector himself—a classmate of Pinochet's. It was a chilling reminder of the meeting with the students. The Medical School accepted a few U.S. students and I spoke to Pam from Washington in her sixth year.

On the last evening, P. disappeared into his studio and later presented me with a striking black and white painting of two figures dancing on the mountain tops with birds flying from their heads and guns pointed at their bodies.

The week following my return to the capital was tense with underground excitement in the aftermath of the protest. For nearly ten years, Chileans had turned inward towards their families or small groups of friends, fearful of their neighbors, remembering the terrors of the 1973 coup (one million exiled, 100,000 people killed, hundreds "disappeared"), cut off from easy access to news or communication. Now all of a sudden on May 11 the population responded massively and non-violently in all sorts of creative ways. The cacerolazo (banging of saucepans) at night and the atmosphere of fiesta for a few hours following the protest, brought neighbors into the streets, giving courage and a beginning of loss of fear. For the first time, when Pinochet appeared on national TV, he seemed nervous and insecure.

Although official protest had been banned for all these years, people kept working quietly in their own area and suddenly found their work and faith rewarded by the massive response of the "base." Fernando, a member of the comando for the May 11 action, told me how awareness had developed in the unions, proved by their maturity in calling off the official strike when the tanks moved in, yet triggering a national response when the rest of the country came out in unofficial support.

I visited the Ollas Comununes (Common Pots) or famous soup kitchens organized by the women in the poor poblaciones. These poblaciones show some of the worst poverty I had seen in Latin America, made worse because of the cold, wet winters and the contrast with the sophisticated center of Santiago. It was said half of the city's four million population lived in poblaciones.

In addition, I visited the Penitentiary where 500 prisoners were taken after May 11. The families crowded outside waiting to hear the names of their relatives called and to send in parcels. I went with a girl whose brother was inside.

Two new words came into my vocabulary in Chile: amedraomineto (harassment) and allanamiento (entering, searching and destroying homes).

I also spent a moving day with a women's group, where women talked about their growing commitment and problems of family and social relationships. They said that mistakes had been made under the Unidad Popular of Allende's time and that ideas in themselves did not change people's lives. It was always specific action that brought about change. A few years ago they began again, very humbly, to bring poor women together to talk about the imported and alienating telenovelas (soaps) which 90% of women watched. They started a discussion on the "need" to watch, which led to a more critical approach and a slow attempt to use their energies in other ways to try and improve their situation.

I met a group of very militant university students who were involved in organizing in their barrios. In spite of a strong Christian base to their actions—like the youth group in Potosi, Bolivia—they were doubtful whether non-violence will succeed. They believed that the "violence" of poverty and unemployment inflicted on people required a response of "armed struggle."

Chileans had an amazing gift for friendship and openness, once they knew you were on the same wavelength. In spite of my fascination for the Andean cultures, I realized it was nearly impossible to "enter" these almost entirely Indian cultures, whereas here in Chile, the homogeneous population with its high level of education and culture made you feel instantly at home. They were direct, open and simple, extraordinarily comfortable in sharing their thoughts and feelings. They invited me into their homes for a meal or to stay or drove me wherever I wanted to go....

Time was moving on. After Argentina, I would be heading back to the "North American continent," although this would include visits to Central America and Mexico first.... I wished I could include Uruguay and Brazil, not to mention Colombia and Venezuela. However, my good fortune had been to spend time with families and like-minded people everywhere. I thought that a trip consisting of hotels and tourism would soon lose its enchantment. Instead, all the people I had met had changed my thinking, touched my emotions and changed my life forever.

How a Nice Girl from the British Empire
Ends Up a Witch in the New Mexico Desert

© 2007, Elizabeth McBride Trust

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