The door opened. “Hey, Jaime,” I said, using Jim’s Spanish name.
“Hola, Cristobal,” he said. “You made it. Nice bus ride, huh.” It wasn’t a question, rather an understanding of what was involved.
“Yep, quite a ride. Only passed on curves, never on straight-aways. Other than that, poco a poco,” I said. I looked around his flat a narrow bed pushed against one wall, a wooden table and two chairs, the bathroom with a sink, a spigot sticking out of a concrete wall for a shower, the water always cold, I learned. His clothes hung from pegs on the wall. In one corner sat a Peace Corps book locker, filled with paperbacks, and books were stacked on the table, next to a writing pad and an empty bottle of beer with a candle pushed down in the opening. The electricity was unpredictable, he said.
Jim went into the bathroom and from the toilet tank took two beers, dripping water on the unfinished wooden floor. We sat until darkness filled the windows and the sounds from the cantina below grew louder, raspy music mingled with voices and laughter. He talked of his two years in San Antonio, of his friendship with the padre, of the many meals they had shared in the casa corral, and of his long rides backcountry.
I told him about walking in downtown Bogota not long ago with a fellow Volunteer, John, who had just come into the city from his small village near Cali. He was frayed, distracted, uncertain about his assignment and about remaining in Colombia. We stepped into the street and a car pulled in front of us, narrowly missing John, and stopped, waiting for the light to change. Cars always had the right of way and gave no quarter to pedestrians. John stood there, looking at the dark sedan and the driver, then crawled up on the hood of the car and slid to the other side. The driver was astonished, then outraged. He opened his car door and yelled a string of Spanish words not found in any dictionary. John just kept on walking down the street, his shoulders hunched and never looked back.
Jim and I both laughed, for there was a truth in that story that even I, being only a short-timer, recognized. “Hell,” said Jim, as if he understood all that I was feeling without my having to say a word, “it isn’t just the language. It’s a completely different view of the world, us and the locals. Things look familiar and then we realize they’re not. When I first arrived, I thought I had dropped off the edge of the world. The silence up here haunted me, especially at night. Good thing they gave me that book locker.”
I glanced at the locker of books and Jim smiled then shook his head at the memory of it all. “For days and then weeks, I sat right here in the Cantina, reading books, drinking too much beer, looking out the open door at the folks walking by, an occasional car. Life like I never could’ve imagined. At first I was terrified and damned lonely. But then things changed. I read less and began talking to the people, all these amazing people, met the padre, became good friends with a doctor who visited once or twice a month who spent most of his time sewing up machete cuts. The capesinos come into town, drink too much beer and start disagreeing, then pull out their machetes.”
Jim shook his head and looked at me for a long time. “Don’t worry. You’ll get the hang of it. Just don’t go home. More than a few in my group have. Some in your group will too. But stick with it. May take a year, but then it’s more than worth it. You won’t believe how worth it. Help a few people, do a little good. Become a different person. Hell, I’m worried that when I get home it’ll be like reverse culture shock. Being back there in the world, probably it’ll make my head ache. Or something.”
The next day we said good-bye. I never saw him again. Strangely, he was from Texas. From a much larger town called San Antonio. I often wondered how his life turned out.
I returned to Bogota’ on the behemoth yellow and red and blue bus, the driver with a death wish, the passengers stoic, the small radio on the dashboard playing salsa music. I never returned to San Antonio. I did take with me more than a few books from Jim’s book locker, books I read and reread, along with others I begged and borrowed from Volunteers, and I did stick it out and the second year was more than wonderful and every day was worth it and more. You can’t believe how worth it, being out in the all of it.