Peace Corps Writers
A Writer Writes
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by Chris Honore’ (Colombia 1967–69)

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WHEN THE PLANE TOUCHED DOWN on the tarmac in Colombia, the contingent of PCVs on board let out a cheer. We’d arrived. After months of training, discussions, evaluations, countless hours of language instruction, we were ready. Or so we thought. What we didn’t understand was that we were about to be tested in ways we could not have imagined — our idealism, our belief in service, the words of JFK, all would be dropped into a crucible of culture and custom and language, compounded by levels of poverty and deprivation that had to be lived to be understood.

I sat in a tired, damp smelling hotel room looking at a pitcher of water. The light was fading and the sound of birds chattering in the lush trees filled the open courtyard below. I glanced out the window then back at the pitcher. Tearing open a packet of pills, I dropped three into the water that turned a murky brown. Were there microbes in the benign looking water? Who could know? I filled a glass, and using my toothbrush I stirred slowly watching the pills dissolve, the water turning a rusty brown. Was this necessary? I had turned on the tap in the bathroom. It looked fine. I thought about showering with my mouth and eyes tightly shut. Could I do this for two years? Could I do this for two weeks?

Earlier I had spent the afternoon sitting in a corner cafe’ sipping a bottle of beer and trying to read the local newspaper. Failing, I took out a well-thumbed copy of Time Magazine International and slowly turned the pages. People and cars and buses passed by, and, for a time, unable to look away, I watched a man, balanced on a square wooden platform with wheels, his desiccated legs tucked under him. He held blocks of wood in his hands and pushed himself along, stopping to beg spare change from pedestrians who barely slowed. His clothes were ragged, his ravaged face deeply brown, his hair matted and uncombed. He had a tin bowl, and he banged it on the sidewalk, then held it up, pleading, blocking the sidewalk. I was riveted by him, his aggressive efforts, his hands calloused and gnarled and blackened from the street. He was unwilling to yield. I couldn’t imagine what had brought him to that moment, to that place and I shuddered.

The bus ride to San Antonio would take the better part of the day. With ticket in hand, I stood outside the station looking at the buses, trying to sort out which one would take me to the small mountain town. Each was painted a riot of colors — red, yellow, white, blue — and fringe framed the front windows. On the dashboards were small plastic Madonnas and blinking bulbs of colored lights hung from the rear view mirror. Brassy music played harshly in the distance and one bus, pulling away, filled to capacity, let out a whoosh of air and rolled slowly down the street, the brake lights blinking briefly. A child, his face pressed against the window, stared at me with large, dark eyes. Seeing a bus that said San Antonio I boarded, giving up my ticket, and with a small duffle in hand walked toward the back. Dust seeped up through the floorboards and the smell of diesel gasoline and people and luggage and bags of food filled the still air. I had heard of horrible crashes. I had seen crosses clustered on the side of roads. The bus rides were the stuff of urban legends among Volunteers, the drivers kamikaze pilots who embraced blind curves, horns blaring, the shoulders of roads falling away into deep ravines.

Several days before I had tried to call home. I needed to speak to someone, if only to reassure myself there was still a there there. I went to a public exchange, a large room with wooden enclosed telephone booths against one wall. There was a window where a clerk took the telephone number to be called and a few pesos. I sat down on a long bench to wait. It was not unlike a bus station and people came and went, many sat silently, some reading the day’s newspaper, a few women with children sat patiently. I had a paperback book that I carried with me, one of many that I had received from a Volunteer, and I sat and read, trying to concentrate, and it was a struggle. The novel was Cannery Row, and I longed to be on the Monterey coast, welcoming the gray days and early morning fog. Or north, near San Francisco, looking out at the bay and the bridges and the ubiquitous sail boats, their white sails bleached against the deeply blue water, and long tankers, stacked with containers, slowly made their way past Alcatraz Island, heading toward Oakland. It had not been that long since I had looked at the bay and the two bridges and the San Francisco skyline, but now it seemed far away. Would it be there when I returned, I wondered, smiling at the thought. How could it not be?

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