And these purveyors of the crucible of character, who worshipped at the shrine of hustle, reported back to the staff shrinks, the high priests of normal, describing every nuance of our behavior, every tic, every slouching, grouchy, exhausted moment, made poignant by their weighty specificity.
And to our surprise, our joy, how sweet and unexpected, we were handed passports, immunization cards, folding money, and flown as a group direct to Bogota, Colombia, where we would be assigned our in-country domiciles.
Touching down in Colombia, anticipation, even euphoria ran rampant. Then gradually evaporated about the time most of us ran out of clean clothes.
And weeks later, I still didnt have a clue where to get anything washed, or where the damned buses went, or what words I might patch together like some randomly stitched quilt, resembling, remotely, a request for directions.
Someone, anyone, tell me: Why am I here?
And not to forget the two days spent sitting on the john puking into the bidet. The culprit? Maybe the goat-on-a-stick, bought for two pesos from a street vendor, happily sauteed in a kitchen no health department would ever see. And wiping his hands on a limp hand towel, once white, now the color of tobacco, the man took my crumpled bills, smiled politely, perhaps sympathetically, and watched intently, curiously, as I walked away.
Dear God. My kingdom for a pop tart. A burger. A drink of water straight from the tap. A bag of day-old fries. A glass of oh so cold milk, homogenized. Anything ordered from a laminated menu while seated on a swivel chair of bright chrome and red Naugahyde, delivered with a smile by a waitress named Flo who offers just one word, enjoy, in a husky, cigarette-filled voice, a voice so familiar, so friendly, that just the thought of it even now can bring tears to my eyes.
Sighing deeply, I gazed absently left, along the beach, and suddenly, coming around the point, walking on the firm, wet sand, was a black man leading six nuns, each in full habit. Their robes, heavy and flowing, covering them completely, were a startling, brilliant white, their faces framed by arched veils, making it difficult to see their expressions. All walked with hands hidden in cavernous sleeves, large black crosses swinging at their waists.
They moved in a tentative line, close behind the black man, who stopped at the waters edge. He wore khaki shorts and a faded red shirt, buttoned only at the bottom. Smiling and nodding, he motioned for the nuns to come close.
I sat very still, captivated, their presence on the beach so unexpected, so improbable, that all I could do was watch in wonderment. The man spoke to them, his voice lost in the wind. But I could see his white teeth flashing, his gestures emphatic and animated.
Abruptly, without hesitation, the nuns began to slip off their shoes and long black stockings, helping each other to balance. The man nodded in encouragement, and waded out into the water, leaving a line of wet on his shorts. Turning back, he called to them, dipping his cupped hands into the water and then lifting them up, letting the water spill over his face and slide down his arms, calling to them, Vengan. Come, see how wonderful it is.
As if by common agreement, in unison, the nuns walked toward him, their arms lifted high in the air, the milky blue ocean swirling around them. Some clapped their hands and I could see their smiles, hear their laughter, their robes flaring about them, ballooning with each wave like enormous white jellyfish.
The man came out of the water and took the hand of a nun who had ventured in only far enough to wet the hem of her robe. He pulled and coaxed her until she was standing up to her waist in the undulating swells. I heard her call out in surprise and delight, splashing the water with the flat of her hands, turning slowly like some strange, pirouetting ballerina.
In that one magical moment, a leitmotif for all that would follow, everything seemed to fall away. My isolation and wrenching loneliness were forgotten. There was only the beach. And the nuns and the black man.
Watching them was poetic and lovely and I sat and stared, looking long and hard, wanting never to forget the tableau before me: those remarkable nuns, moving in graceful slow motion, their white robes merging together, framed by the glorious blue water.