Peace Corps Writers
A Writer Writes
At First Light
   by Finn Honore’ (Colombia 1967–69)
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WATER FROM THE FOUNTAIN in the park across from the hotel creates a fine mist that is carried upward into the trees by the wind. Children gather on the grassPrinter friendly version near the fountain and dance in the spray, their brown bodies glistening with the wet, their laughter breaking the mid-day stillness. I stand on the sidewalk watching them, their faces tilted upward, eyes shut, spinning, holding their arms close to their chests.

I had been in Cartagena only two days and already I was enchanted by its beauty, stunned by its poverty, a place of startling and unsettling contrasts.
Early in the morning of my third day, eyes gritty, sleep elusive, I left the hotel at first light and made my way along the narrow streets toward the ocean to a cafe I had noticed the day before. I carried a tattered copy of Time magazine under one arm and a paperback novel pushed down in my back pocket, my shields against an abiding sense of isolation and loneliness.
     The cafe was a small place, wood frame, painted green, its tin roof rust-stained, and canvas window coverings rolled up and tied. Inside were a few tables and chairs. A bright yellow and green sign hung above the doorway.
     Entering, I noticed two women in the back, each wearing a light blue bib apron, ironing what looked to be white table cloths. They both glanced up when I entered. I sat at the table nearest the front, looking out the large open windows at the empty street. It was still early and there were few people and little traffic. I listened to the muted sounds of the women ironing and talking, their irons hitting the cloth with muffled thuds, their words spoken softly, none of which I understood.
     I sat for a time, my magazine open, waiting, anticipating strong coffee, warm bread, eggs mixed with onions and sausage. I was famished.
     The morning light grew sharper, the sun now well above the horizon, already dominating the day. Across the street a dog came around a corner, moving slowly, pausing to stretch first one hind leg then the other, then walked stiffly over to a small bush and sniffed. Finally, unsteadily, the dog lifted its hind leg.
     Looking around the cafe, I noticed there were no menus, no napkins or flatware. But this was Colombia and since I had arrived, nothing had been as expected, nothing as it seemed.
     The day before I had gone to a bank and stood in a line that wasn’t a line but a cordial shoving match. I bought a few things at a small grocery store near the hotel and struggled to make myself understood when I asked for shaving cream. I couldn’t think of the verb, to shave. An older woman, soon joined by her husband, stood behind the counter looking at me intently, curious, as I shook a pretend can, squeezed white foam into the palm of my hand, and mimicked shaving. Finally, the woman threw her hands up in the air, saying “Si! Si! Jabon. Para lavar su cara. El hombre quiere jabon.” Soap to wash his face. The man wants soap, she said, beaming at me.
     Her husband raised both hands, shrugging, “Naturalmente. Jabon. Claro.” Naturally, soap. And he, too, shook an imaginary can, rubbing his hands together. “Jabon,” he said smiling. “Jabon,” the woman said, nodding her head, seeming happy and relieved.
Encouraged, believing we were making progress, I said, “Si, jabon. Tienen jabon?” Do you have soap?
The senora looked at me and smiled. “No. No jabon.”
     Later, I passed the long afternoon sitting at a small table in an open-air cafe, surrounded by men in dark suits, many drinking strong coffee in diminutive cups with water chasers, all talking emphatically as the sun dropped toward the horizon. In the dim light I stared at a local newspaper, the headlines and paragraphs enigmatic, elusive, and beyond my three hundred hours of Spanish training.
     That evening, in the hotel dining room, I ordered the catch of the day and was brought a plate of beef and tubular vegetables and the waiter stood next to me waiting until I took my first bite. When I did, he smiled at me and I smiled back, nodding my head in approval. Satisfied, he walked away toward the kitchen, a damp towel over his shoulder.
     After my meal I sat in the lobby of the hotel looking out at the park, a corner streetlamp casting a faint nimbus of light on the sidewalk, the fountain all but obscured. Feeling spent, I went up to my room and lay on the bed in the darkness watching the ceiling fan turn, distant voices on the street reaching me, the heavy night air resistant, unmoving. I tried to sleep.

Turning in my chair, I glanced back at the two women who were intent on their ironing, hoping to catch their eye, to say with my expression that I was ready to order. It would be the order I had practiced earlier in my room: huevos rancheros, cafe’y pan, por Favor. I would say the words cleanly, clearly.
     The two women continued to iron, one pushing her hair back behind her ears, occasionally dipping her hand in a tin of water, sprinkling the table cloth, water falling from her fingertips. The taller one looked across the room at me and said something to the other and they both glanced at me, smiling.

  
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