Read other short works about the Peace Corps experience
How to Make Recycled Paper
I shredded paper snowflakes into a bucket of water: Guatemalan newspapers, Peace Corps newsletters, embassy safety bulletins and the Catholic magazines that my mother mailed me each month in care packages. Then I stuck a bean grinder into the word-soup, twisting the plastic knob until the bucket filled up with purplish pulp. I was all alone outside a church in Guatemala.
It was May 2001, midway through my first year in Peace Corps. I had walked two hours to get to a wood-shack village called Buena Vista, planning to teach a youth group how to make recycled paper. The project looked so sensible in the Youth Training Manual they gave me, just memorize the script in Spanish and follow directions.
I sketched out my future the same way: follow the steps for two years, amaze the villagers and bring my life-affirming experiences back home. Writing this story a couple years later, I still cant tie up the story in admirable platitudes.
Peace Corps assigned me to a cluster of villages that sprawled between mountains in eastern Guatemala. Buena Vista rested at the very end of my area. Each trip I crisscrossed two valleys and inclines, land so steep that I had to claw my way up. The village sat so far from the world that they didnt have electricity, so I used a bean grinder instead of a blender to pulp the paper.
I had planned to teach the youth group how to make recycled paper and invite them to a big, inter-village talent show in the summer. But nobody ever came. I watched rainy season storm clouds creep along the sky, casting shadows the size of movie spaceships across the valley. Down there, a patchwork quilt of farm-plots shimmered between Emerald City green and space blue.
After a few hours, I crammed the crayons, markers, plastic sheets, homemade paper press, posters, and scripts back into my backpack. I walked home.
The Rainy Season
That night, the sky rumbled and crackled like tornado season in the Midwest, and the rainy season broke open with a whoosh of high-pressure rain. The thunderclouds and noise dissolved into a foggy gray roar outside. After an hour, the dirt chicken yard outside my room flooded and spilled muddy paste across my concrete floor.
I used my bucket from the recycling project to catch rain leaking through my flimsy roof. The rain pounded my roof all night, and I buried myself underneath four blankets to stay warm inside that blanket cocoon, the rain sounded like an ocean splashing at the bottom of my mountain.
I stared at my bookshelf, listening to rain on top of rain, and I thought of Amy back home. Amy had sandy hair that she dyed blazing red most of the time, she stood tall enough to wrap up my whole skinny body when she hugged me. We met as editors at a college newspaper, both of us carrying around the same robin-egg blue copy of T.S. Elliot poems. We matched each other, both of us disheveled and anxious from being stuck in books for too many years.
I knew her five years, but we spent what amounted to months of time in smoky coffee shops telling stories and trading books. Years before, we had promised each other that we would read James Joyces book, Finnegans Wake. That book stood between us, the ultimate literature-majors dream that we could unravel like compulsive kids.
The last time we spoke on the phone, Amy had been sick for months. Her doctor diagnosed pneumonia, but never noticed the two blood clots stuck in her lungs like sputtering firecrackers. She lay in bed with her mysterious illness while we talked long distance. Oh, by the way, she said, I had some free time, so I read the Wake.
You heartless bitch! I yelled, and she giggled back.
Read it yourself, she said.
Tower of Babel
And so I did. The first week of the rainy season, huge chunks of eroded fields washed out and my usual paths slicked with mud. I didnt see the sun for a week, so I hid out in my bedroom like a monk and read Finnegans Wake in heroic sessions. I went a whole week without speaking English, while reading the craziest book ever written in English.
Midway through that reading marathon, my neighbor Manuel stopped by. The 16-year-old from my youth group was just bored after hours of rain. Is that the Bible? he asked me, scrutinizing the 900-pages of English gibberish. I tried to explain, but he wasnt very interested.
People used to speak the same language, you know, Manuel said. Man decided to build the Tower of Babel, a tower tall enough to go to heaven. Then God smashed the tower and made all men speak different languages. Thats why you speak English and I speak Spanish.
His impromptu sermon shocked me. Joyce kept talking about that same Bible story in Wake, he wanted to stir all the languages together in a word soup, a dreamy story built from echoes of different tongues. Manuel had stumbled on the secret of the book. You should read more, I said, I think you could be a teacher, maybe.
Primero Dios, he said, I want to be a minister someday.
Primero Dios. That Guatemalan cliche means God first or God willing, and it stuck in my head after he left. The countrys long civil war and bad leadership had left public education in shambles. Manuel might have been the smartest kid for miles around, but school ended at sixth grade in the village. The richest kids moved to private schools in the city, but most villagers never made it that far. Too often Primero Dios glossed over sad realities that no Peace Corps Volunteers could ever fix.
I finished the Wake, and wrote Amy a huge letter about the rain, Manuel, and the book. We both loved writing stories within stories like that. Stories within stories make a magical circuit, an echo chamber with a little life bouncing around inside forever. Somewhere in this story, Amy is still waiting for my letter and Im still buried under blankets in Miramundo.