|A Writer Writes
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?
When my name was called I was told to go to phone booth five. “Numero cinco,” the woman said, and pointed to one of the booths. I stepped inside, pulled the door closed, and picked up the dull black phone and said hello. Twice. Then a third time. Vaguely, indistinctly, I heard a familiar voice. “Dad, is that you? Dad?” The humming and static overwhelmed me, and I began to yell into the phone. Finally, filled with frustration, cursing the phone line that traveled from that building across Colombia and ever northward, up the coast of Mexico, then baja, up to California and finally to my house. Hearing only a crackling hum, I yelled that I would call again. I hung up the phone and for a moment stood looking at the black box and the thin cord that was connected to the receiver and then left, trying not to look at the people on the benches, at the men who peered over their newspapers, or at the woman in the window who had called my name.
The bus arrived in San Antonio late in the afternoon. Jim, the Volunteer who was leaving Colombia shortly, had given me his address and directions to his flat over a cantina. I walked from the small bus station, an office with a dusty plate glass window and one scarred wooden desk, and crossed a wide plaza of stone and grass, a waterless fountain in its center. The church, its square steeple topped with a cross, wide doors open to a dark interior, bordered the square. To the left was the casa corral, a white, flat building, home of the local priest.
Months later, stationed in Cartagena, on the Caribbean, I would, one long afternoon, sit on an ellipse of beach under a cloudless blue sky and watch a black man come around the point leading a group of nuns, all in full habits. Their high voices reached me, lifted and carried by the soft breeze, their laughter captivating. In disbelief, I saw all of the nuns follow the black man into the ocean. Some turned slow pirouettes, their robes flowing around them, creating a nimbus of white and milky blue, the easy waves lifting and falling. I sat very still, under the leaning palm trees, the birds restless above, and told myself that I should never forget that moment. Never.
Standing on the landing I knocked on Jim’s door, hoping he was in, knowing he could be out in the all of it. I knocked again. I could hear music from the cantina below. The well of the stairs was redolent of fried food and stale beer. People laughed, their voices loud, then fell away into silence.
The door opened. “Hey, Jaime,” I said, using Jim’s Spanish name.
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.
Chris Honore’ is a freelance journalist based in Ashland, Oregon.