This city, I thought, this place steeped in history and violence and exotic people, had been as it was for centuries. I had come for two years. What could I do in two years that had not been done in the hundreds before? Coming here, was it excessive hubris? A pebble dropped in a vast lake. Could idealism, good will, a wish to make a difference be tempered by a stunning reality and still survive? I turned and went back into my room and turned on the small lamp by the bed. I began rereading Time magazine, the international edition, looking intently at the black and white photos, reminded of where I had been and where I was now.
The frustration of it all
Initially, during those first weeks, I felt overwhelmed, frayed, as if the culture, the language, all manner of transacting the business of living would be forever elusive, just beyond my reach. The Spanish I heard was not the Spanish I had learned. Words were swallowed, pushed together, falling one after the other, all meaning lost to me. Everyone was a stranger. Nothing seemed familiar.
One late morning I was walking along the street with John, a fellow Volunteer. He was assigned to a small town in the campo. As we stepped off the curb, a taxi pulled to a stop directly in front of us. John hesitated for only a moment and then rather than walking around the cab, he crawled across the hood, looking at the driver in defiance. The man was stunned. I was stunned. John glared at the driver, as if defying him to say something. Anything.
John could rage against everything that was beyond his understanding, all the customs, the impenetrable customs, the ordeal of simply getting your clothes washed or ordering a meal or waiting in nonexistent lines or crowding and shoving to get on a bus.
One late afternoon I got on a bus, the sweltering heat enveloping me, and sat just behind the driver, leaning close to the open window hoping for an errant breeze, waiting as the bus slowly filled. I watched out of the front window and saw a man speaking insistently to a young woman who was carrying a net bag of groceries and holding the hand of a young girl. The woman, shaking her head adamantly, saying no, hurriedly pushed the girl into the back seat of a taxi, then got in and closed the door. The man stood there, stunned, watching the taxi pull away. He raised both hands toward the sky, a gesture of helplessness, then turned and for a long moment looked at the bus and back at the taxi that disappeared around the bend in the road.
Suddenly he ran and jumped onto the bus. “Senor, please,” he said to the bus driver. “My fiancée’ is in that taxi. Please follow. Hurry.”
I listened to this exchange, some words escaping me, but the essence of what he was asking was clear. Our bus, filled with people and bags and boxes, should chase after the taxi.
The man turned to the passengers and repeated his appeal, ending with, “I love her.”
Stunned, I heard the people urge the driver to follow. “Hurry,” some shouted. “Quickly.”