A Writer Writes

The Book Locker

by Chris Honore’ (Colombia 1967–69)

    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.
         As I stepped out onto the street the midday heat enveloped me, the sounds and strangeness of it all a gauzy curtain. A woman stood holding the hand of her small son while he urinated into the gutter. Across the street several men were seated at an outdoor table, coffee cups and flasks of water at hand, their newspapers open, smoke rising from their cigars. They sat silently, barely taking notice of the incomprehensible drama that ebbed and flowed and swirled around me.

    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.
         I stopped an old man and asked him in halting Spanish if he could tell me where the Cantina Azul was, the Blue Cantina. Smiling, his teeth the color of tobacco, a white rectangle of cloth folded over his shoulder, a long machete hooked on his belt, he nodded and said, “Si. Si, senor,” and pointed to a corner across the plaza. “Esta’ alla.” It’s there. On the corner. “La Cantina.”
         
    I thanked him and with my bag in hand walked past the fountain, the sun low in the sky. What struck me was the quiet and the absence of people. A dog barked in the distance, and two small boys ran across the plaza, kicking a ball. They slowed, then stood looking at me, squinting into the harsh light. The taller nudged the other and they ran on, pushing the ball in front of them. A woman stood in a doorway folding a towel, and then reached down and picked up a watering can and went back inside. Small red flowers grew in a lone pot on the abbreviated stoop.
         I watched a nun, her habit startlingly white, leave the casa corral and walk up the steps into the church, her face obscured, her hands buried deep in the full sleeves of her robe. A black cross, tied to a knotted rope around her waist, swung back and forth. She never glanced in my direction. A man, leading a donkey, stopped at the edge of the plaza and waited, taking his hat off then putting it back on.

    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.
         “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.

    Chris Honore’ is a freelance journalist based in Ashland, Oregon.