And we did. The engine roared, the door closed, and off we went, in hot pursuit. People cheered. I watched in silent amazement as bus stops passed by. My bus stop one of them. I looked out the window and recognized nothing. Then I glanced up ahead and there, stopped at the curb, was the taxi, the young woman and girl standing on the sidewalk. The passengers let out a cheer. The bus slowed, air brakes hissing, and the man jumped off. The last I saw of the woman, the girl, and the man, they were walking down the street in animated conversation.
I got off the bus and looked around. I was somewhere on the outskirts of Cartagena. Exactly where, I wasn’t sure. An outdoor cantina was across the street and a few of the passengers who had also gotten off the bus walked over and sat at square wooden tables shaded by expansive, arching trees and ordered beers and discussed the vagaries of love and using buses to pursue taxis. Everyone felt wonderful.
On occasion, I saw Paco, a fellow Volunteer, who was nearing the end of his tour. Where I was taut, filled with expectations and uncertainties, Paco was slow moving and accepting. Whenever he saw me, he always called out, “Como sigues?” How’s it going? And I would call back, “Poco a poco.” Little by little. He was tall with dark hair, wearing ever-present sunglasses and I often thought how rare it was to see his eyes.
Paco had endured. He had thrived. He had lost himself in the city, the language and the people.
Late one afternoon, I had passed a bar on the way to my residencia and saw Paco sitting at a table with a group of local men, laughing, drinking from long neck bottles of beer. The sounds of brassy music and banging dishes wafted through the high, open windows. He saw me and smiled, lifted his chin in greeting, but made no move to invite me to join him. I smiled back and walked on.
Often, in no hurry to return to my room, with its small window and slow moving ceiling fan, I would stop at an outdoor cafe and order a small coffee and a glass of water which were brought to me by a waiter with a large white apron wrapped around his waist and a towel over his shoulder. I knew the coffee, served in green plastic cups, the size of a demitasse, to be strong, very strong. Hence the water, which always gave me pause. I had heard the hyperbolic stories, told with gravitas and grim certainty: there were invisible bacteria in the water that could send the healthiest Volunteer into days of cramped and retching misery, the stomach and colon filled with creatures called amoebas, requiring a cure of horse pills taken twice daily, said to be an awful purge, on occasion turning the skin a bit orange. And all caused by a simple, clear glass of water. It had only taken a few weeks, however, for the “what the hell” syndrome to take hold, and, even for me, given to moments of intense hypochondria, a glass of water became simply a glass of water. As did a glass of milk or a fruit salad.
I would linger at my small Formica table, nursing my coffee, and watch with interest as men sat in small groups talking, smoking, some holding up newspapers like small white sails, reading and sipping their coffee. Most were dressed in dark business suits and narrow ties, leather briefcases nearby. In one corner a perpetual game of dominos was underway, with much discussion and gesturing. I tried to make out the conversation, but the words and sentences were lost, indecipherable.
One afternoon I noticed, across the street, a small boy walking with his mother. She held his hand tightly, almost lifting him off the ground as she hurried along. He had a small metal airplane in his hand and he extended his arm, watching the propeller turning slowly. She said something to him that he ignored, moving the airplane up and down.
I sat thinking of my family, so far away, and tried to decide what time it was in California, and what my mother or father might be doing at that very moment. From my seat I could see a wedge of ocean in the distance and then looked up at the pale blue, washed-out sky and sighed deeply. I had bought a local newspaper and sat looking at the headlines, trying to decipher subjects and verbs and having a rough go of it.
The task at hand
I was going to teach at a normal school, a high school of sorts that would prepare young women to work in the elementary schools both nearby and out in the campo. A group of severe nuns ran the school, each completely covered in blindingly white habits, cinched at the waist with heavy leather belts. It was August and school would start the first week in September. I was terrified, my Spanish ever elusive, the countless hours in language training suddenly glaringly insufficient. My inadequecy was made more real when I had to spend one long morning with the Mother Superior, struggling to understand and be understood, all the while trying not to take her looks of skepticism personally.