A Writer Writes

Looking North
by By Finn Honore’ (Colombia 1967–69)

    I HAD BEEN STATIONED in Cartagena, Colombia just long enough to realize it was the tropics. The sun was relentless, harsh, glaring, and I wouldn’t have been surprised if late one afternoon it had simply refused to drop below the horizon.
    Only in the early morning, briefly, all seemed fresh and cool, the sky a bruise of gray and blue and orange, the breeze from the ocean stirring the breakfast room curtains almost reluctantly, as if unwilling to make too much of it.
         Feeling spent, flattened, I often went to the beach, floating in the gentle surf, wondering if I could last. All was strange and new: the language a type of Spanish I had never heard before, words strung together, offered in a staccato delivery, consonants dropped or swallowed, all sounding unintelligible. Nothing was familiar, no smell, no taste, no sound. I was lost.
         One Sunday morning I took a small ferry out to an island, just off shore. I had heard it was lush, lovely beyond description, encircled by aqua blue waters, wonderfully clear, a deep blue far from shore.      And so it was. A postcard. Palm trees pushing down to elliptical beaches, the interior deeply green against a washed-out sky.
         The ferry moored at a long, narrow dock and I stood for a moment, taking it all in. Small cabanas, each with an abbreviated porch, painted a riot of bright colors, were pushed back beneath sheltering palm trees.
         A tienda, a small store, was just off to the left, one corner sinking into the sand, the corrugated tin roof covered with dried palm leaves. Tables and chairs were bunched near the front like an afterthought and ragged yellow and blue umbrellas stood at odd angles, creating an appaloosa of shade.
         At the tienda I bought two rolled tortillas filled with chicken, cradled in wax paper, and a cold beer. For a time I sat under an umbrella, on a chair fashioned from a tin drum, and watched the ferry gently rise and fall, the mooring lines never coming into play. The tortillas were sublime, salsa dripping down my chin, the beer, straight from the bottle, so cold my eyes watered.
         Then, as so often happened, I was struck by a sense of isolation that seemed overwhelming. Great good God, I thought, why am I here?
         And I gazed north, my eyes lingering on the horizon, seeing only flat, blue water stretching in all directions. North meant home. America. California. And all that was familiar and known and predictable and oh so easy.

    So easy. What was I thinking? You tell me. John Kennedy, who lived in the White House and had room service, called for volunteers, challenging them to ask not what their country can do for them but rather ask what they can do for their country: maybe go live in the tropics, in a third world country, be of service, dig a well, stand in front of a class of eager students, point the way.
         And guess who raised his hand? Yep. You got it. Yours truly. Dear sweet Jesus. It’s not Kennedy sitting on a tin drum on an atoll in the middle of the ocean five thousand miles from a Laundromat. Didn’t someone, in a lucid moment, point out that you never volunteer? Isn’t that written somewhere? Etched in stone? I bet it is. You, the one with your hand up, the one wearing rose-colored granny glasses, idealism etched in your naive smile. Please. Quickly. Put your hand down. Unless, of course, you have an abiding affinity for atolls. Or for places so remote and strange that the world, your world, suddenly seems a dream.

    I walked from the tienda along the shoreline, coming around a promontory to a small sheltered cove revealing a crescent of white sand shaded by a necklace of palm trees. The ocean was a milky blue, the waves barely cresting as they rolled toward the beach.
         I sat in the shade, leaning against a palm tree, watching small brown seabirds run through the foamy surf on long, fragile legs, their spade-like beaks probing the wet sand for small creatures. The wind moved the heavy palms above me, a whisper of dry paper, and birds chattered in the dense brush. Otherwise, everything was quiet.

    Yep, not only did you volunteer, you prayed to whatever God was listening that you would get through the training, learn the language, survive the physical challenges. Three hundred hours of Spanish. Conjugation of verbs, endless vocabulary. And the Phys Ed coaches. Hell, they were fanatics, Mach-one jocks with their hair on fire, planning, with satisfied grins, forced marches through the Sangre De Cristo Mountains of New Mexico, Outward Bound the steely template. And each evening a desiccated gumbo, boiled in a soot-covered pot over the coals of a small fire, was seasoned with a liturgy of platitudes, resembling mantras, such as, “What doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger.” Followed by a chuckle, a grin, then, “Of course, first we try to kill you.”
    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 didn’t 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 water’s 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.

Finn Honore’ taught for two years in Cartagena and then spent two years as a project director in two barrios in Bogota working with children in a head start program. Now a freelance journalist, he lives in Ashland, Oregon. Finn is married with one son.