Peace Corps Writers
A Writer Writes
Looking North
   by Finn Honore’ (Colombia 1967–69)
Read other short works about the Peace Corps experience

At First Light
also by Finn Honoré

I HAD BEEN STATIONED in Cartagena, Colombia just long enough to realize it was the tropics. The sun was relentless, harsh, glaring, and I wouldn’t havePrinter friendly version been surprised if late one afternoon it had simply refused to drop below the horizon.
Only in the early morning, briefly, all seemed fresh and cool, the sky a bruise of gray and blue and orange, the breeze from the ocean stirring the breakfast room curtains almost reluctantly, as if unwilling to make too much of it.
     Feeling spent, flattened, I often went to the beach, floating in the gentle surf, wondering if I could last. All was strange and new: the language a type of Spanish I had never heard before, words strung together, offered in a staccato delivery, consonants dropped or swallowed, all sounding unintelligible. Nothing was familiar, no smell, no taste, no sound. I was lost.
     One Sunday morning I took a small ferry out to an island, just off shore. I had heard it was lush, lovely beyond description, encircled by aqua blue waters, wonderfully clear, a deep blue far from shore.      And so it was. A postcard. Palm trees pushing down to elliptical beaches, the interior deeply green against a washed-out sky.
     The ferry moored at a long, narrow dock and I stood for a moment, taking it all in. Small cabanas, each with an abbreviated porch, painted a riot of bright colors, were pushed back beneath sheltering palm trees.
     A tienda, a small store, was just off to the left, one corner sinking into the sand, the corrugated tin roof covered with dried palm leaves. Tables and chairs were bunched near the front like an afterthought and ragged yellow and blue umbrellas stood at odd angles, creating an appaloosa of shade.
     At the tienda I bought two rolled tortillas filled with chicken, cradled in wax paper, and a cold beer. For a time I sat under an umbrella, on a chair fashioned from a tin drum, and watched the ferry gently rise and fall, the mooring lines never coming into play. The tortillas were sublime, salsa dripping down my chin, the beer, straight from the bottle, so cold my eyes watered.
     Then, as so often happened, I was struck by a sense of isolation that seemed overwhelming. Great good God, I thought, why am I here?
     And I gazed north, my eyes lingering on the horizon, seeing only flat, blue water stretching in all directions. North meant home. America. California. And all that was familiar and known and predictable and oh so easy.

So easy. What was I thinking? You tell me. John Kennedy, who lived in the White House and had room service, called for volunteers, challenging them to ask not what their country can do for them but rather ask what they can do for their country: maybe go live in the tropics, in a third world country, be of service, dig a well, stand in front of a class of eager students, point the way.
     And guess who raised his hand? Yep. You got it. Yours truly. Dear sweet Jesus. It’s not Kennedy sitting on a tin drum on an atoll in the middle of the ocean five thousand miles from a Laundromat. Didn’t someone, in a lucid moment, point out that you never volunteer? Isn’t that written somewhere? Etched in stone? I bet it is. You, the one with your hand up, the one wearing rose-colored granny glasses, idealism etched in your naive smile. Please. Quickly. Put your hand down. Unless, of course, you have an abiding affinity for atolls. Or for places so remote and strange that the world, your world, suddenly seems a dream.

I walked from the tienda along the shoreline, coming around a promontory to a small sheltered cove revealing a crescent of white sand shaded by a necklace of palm trees. The ocean was a milky blue, the waves barely cresting as they rolled toward the beach.
     I sat in the shade, leaning against a palm tree, watching small brown seabirds run through the foamy surf on long, fragile legs, their spade-like beaks probing the wet sand for small creatures. The wind moved the heavy palms above me, a whisper of dry paper, and birds chattered in the dense brush. Otherwise, everything was quiet.

Yep, not only did you volunteer, you prayed to whatever God was listening that you would get through the training, learn the language, survive the physical challenges. Three hundred hours of Spanish. Conjugation of verbs, endless vocabulary. And the Phys Ed coaches. Hell, they were fanatics, Mach-one jocks with their hair on fire, planning, with satisfied grins, forced marches through the Sangre De Cristo Mountains of New Mexico, Outward Bound the steely template. And each evening a desiccated gumbo, boiled in a soot-covered pot over the coals of a small fire, was seasoned with a liturgy of platitudes, resembling mantras, such as, “What doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger.” Followed by a chuckle, a grin, then, “Of course, first we try to kill you.”

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