|A Writer Writes
I DIDN’T KNOW.
We live in America. A place apart. Insulated by an affluence that is unprecedented and unimaginable to those in a place known as the Third World.
John Kennedy had called me had called all who joined during the Peace Corps in the 60s to service. He had suggested that we ask not what our country can do for us but what we can do for our country. Gladly, happily, without reservation. The torch had been passed to a new generation, he said on a bitterly cold day in January, of 1961, and I had reached out, wanting desperately to place my hand where his had been. To take the offered baton. It was as if Kennedy had hit a chord and his moving words reached countless young people who resonated to the idea of being of help, of traveling to a remote corner of the world and not merely passing through but staying. Of making a commitment.
Then it all began
When I received a large white envelope from the Peace Corps, in the spring of 1967, I tore it open and the words congratulations took my breath away. I had been accepted. I would be stationed in Colombia. Training would begin early that summer. I would notify my draft board. Vietnam was raging, hundreds of thousands of men my age were involved. I was on the cusp of being called up. Protests against the war, against “the system,” against LBJ had rippled across college campuses for four years. Draft cards were burned. “Hell no, we won’t go!” became a mantra for students, fists raised in defiance.
Of course, going to Colombia was an abstraction, an idea. A perfect thing. I didn’t know. How could I? My life had been surrounded by dishwashers, dryers, cars, thermostats, electric lights. Water, potable water, sluicing from the tap, hot and cold. Plush carpets. Central heating. Closets of clothes. I often stood in front of the refrigerator, the door open, a nimbus of yellow light bathing the room, the shelves filled with cold milk, lettuce, meats, fruit, vegetables. If we feel poorly, our pharmacies are veritable cornucopias of remedies. The supermarkets were fluorescent bright, filled to capacity with a stunning array of foods and produce and goods. Ubiquitous weight loss programs peppered the sated. Doctors were a phone call away. Everything was supersized in America, our cars, our houses, our lives.
Finally, we arrived in Bogota and the first days were a haze. Assignments given out, endless meetings, allowances and I.D. cards issued. Later, walking the streets of the capital, not unlike tourists, absorbing the newness of it all, the language, the frenetic movement of people and buses and cars, while surrounded by other Volunteers, a buffer of conversation and support that kept alive the idea that this was an adventure as well as a mission. The caveat was one long night spent sitting on the toilet while puking into the sink. A street vendor, perhaps, with chicken on a stick, succulent and tasty, eaten in great bites, only to return with a vengeance.
Nothing could have prepared me for those first weeks and months in Colombia. Being there was everything.
Life lived on a precipice. Everyday tentative. For many an exhausting scramble for survival. No one has a lifestyle. No one has a career or has been to college or possesses a credit card. No one has ever walked through a mall, or bought food at a drive-through or wandered the aisles of a monster department store. No one has had an MRI, or stood in a new car showroom, or been vaccinated or bused to school or stood in line at a school cafeteria selecting from a plethora of food. All of it, every aspect, viewed from a great distance, is surreal and seemingly unattainable.
A small boy, naked from the waist down, stands on a dirt road in front of a small shack, his face a smear of dirt and snot, clusters of flies gather at the corners of his eyes. A ditch filled with a rancid mixture of sewage and garbage and foamy water borders his house.
His mother kneads cornmeal in an aluminum pan, dropping flat cakes onto a blackened grill, a plastic jug of water nearby, filled early that morning after standing in a long line, the barest hint of sunrise on the horizon. Her husband is gone. No one knows where. She barely manages to stay above life’s Plimsoll line.
Breathe. Remember to breathe.
And then Cartagena, a city of colors and textures: the deep blue of the midday sky broken by massive billowing clouds; white buildings, shaded by umbrella trees that cast long shadows across rococo balconies and narrow streets; the barrios a sprawl of sepia houses and dusty roads; the ocean on all sides a milky mix of blues and greens. Cartagena, a city of shimmering, sultry heat, the sun scorching the days, the air a tangible thing, a gauzy curtain to be parted as a misty rain falls in the late afternoon, covering the streets and sidewalks with a glistening, steamy wet.
Many of the people living in Cartagena are black, the decedents of slaves brought by Spain’s colonists to labor in the fields and build huge coral walls and revetments with square openings for canons. Surely it was these same people who built the ancient houses that surround a lovely tree-filled plaza where an ornate fountain sprays arching fantails of water, marked by luminescent rainbows.
The port, seemingly ad hoc and running for blocks, just outside the city wall, teems with life. Wooden boxes, filled with bananas, are stacked three or four deep. Fishing nets hang on listing poles, drying in the sun, and men sleep in colorful hammocks on board fishing boats, shaded from the harsh midday sun by heavy canvas canopies. All is redolent of decaying fish and fruit, motor oil, tinged with an astringent metallic odor that seems ever-present.
Out on the tip of a finger of land, a truncated peninsula called Bocagrande, stands a grand three story, wood frame hotel called El Caribe. Colonial in style, from another time, it faces the Caribbean. Large windows, framed by wide, green shutters, look out over an expansive patio with a swimming pool and round tables and an elliptical bar with high bamboo stools. The languages spoken around the pool are international and only enhance the sense that Cartagena is a remote, exotic destination.
A frequent guest at El Caribe was a tall German man, deeply tanned, who often sat at a table with two lovely dark-haired young women. They laughed and spoke Portuguese in staccato sentences and sipped drinks and swam in the pool. His back was pock marked, as if shrapnel had exploded near him. He would be absent for days, a week or more, then reappear at the same table. From the first moment I saw him, his silver hair combed severely over his balding pate, I assumed he was a Nazi officer living in exile, one who must surely have Israeli agents on his trail. One who when Germany fell had escaped on a tramp steamer to South America and made his way to Brazil a suitcase filled with gold bars and a painting by Van Gogh.
I had been in Cartagena for just a few weeks and had spent my days trying to absorb its beauty and its poverty, the contrasts stunning and sobering.
A man sat at the entrance to the hotel, his back against a white pillar, and held out a large tin cup, often banging it on the sidewalk. Look at me, he seemed to say. His face was ravaged, deeply lined, burned walnut-brown from the unrelenting sun, his clothes rags. His gnarled hands were dark, blackened by the grime of the street, his nails broken.
Often, I would wake in the dead of night, covered in a sheen of sweat, tangled in my sheets. The fan overhead moved slowly, the air in the room stale. I walked to the truncated balcony and stood looking out over the street and a small park nearby. I was dreaming. I was home. Everything was familiar. My parents were in the kitchen and the sounds of dishes and pans being moved reached me. So real, so tangible and I heard my mother’s voice. But now, looking out into the darkness I couldn’t remember what she was saying.
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.”
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.
During that month of waiting for school to start I began walking the beach between the school and my residencia. I grew to love that stretch of sand. If I walked its entire length, a mile or more, I would end up in front of the El Caribe. Most evenings, the sun sinking below the horizon, the sky turned a bruise of yellow and purple and blue, and shafts of final sunlight would fan the sky and then fade. The sudsy, scalloped waterline was dotted with small hermit crabs running back and forth and then disappearing down small holes. The trade winds blew steady, heavy with the odor of salt and drying seaweed and damp wood. White seabirds rode the wind currents, and small gray sand pipers ran across the wet sand, darting into the foamy water on delicate, pink stems, their long, sharp beaks searching for small shrimp.
On one of those languid, late afternoon walks, as I neared a park some blocks from my residencia, I stopped. In the distance not close, but not far I watched several young men running out of the surf, a young woman being carried and pulled toward shore. There was a sense of desperation about the men as two of them laid her on the sand. I hurried toward them. One grabbed her by her shoulders and shook her vigorously, his cries of despair carried to me, heavy with panic and pleading.
As I approached, I saw that the girl lay very still, her arms and face covered with sand. She was wearing a white blouse and black shorts. Without thinking, I kneeled down at her side then glanced up at the three looking at me intently. “Can you do something?” asked one of them. “I don’t know,” I said. “I’ll try.”
I leaned over her, seeing her eyes half open, vacant, her lips parted. I grasped her nose and placed my lips over hers and exhaled. I did this over and over. Each time I blew air into her lungs, her chest would rise and the men and the small crowd that had gathered became hopeful, saying, “She’s breathing. See. See.” And so it went. The minutes passing. I heard a siren in the distance and kept pushing air into the girl, waiting, and trying again. One of the men walked away and dropped to his knees and leaned forward, his forehead touching the sand, his fists clenched.
Finally I was aware that a doctor and men in uniforms had arrived and they took over, and I grimly stood up. A stretcher was brought down to where she lay, and I watched as they took her away.
The next morning I went to the hospital and asked about her, already certain that none of it would have a right ending.
A nun in black and white robes, sitting at a large desk covered with papers and stamps, looked at me and shook her head. “When she arrived at the emergency room, there was nothing to be done,” she said. “It was too late. You knew her?”
“No, madre, I didn’t.”
I still walked the beach after that, and often thought of the young woman, seeing once again that afternoon and the three men pulling her out of the surf. I thought of this place, its people, and turned and looked back, toward town, and saw lights blinking on, a gloaming glow settling over the rooftops. and I listened to a dog barking in the distance, and a woman calling out to someone and a door slamming.
And then I breathed in the warm air and looked toward the horizon and walked on. Still I didn’t know. That would come later. But it was a beginning.
After his tour in Colombia, Chris Honore’ earned a PhD in Philosophy of Education at the University of California at Berkeley. He is a freelance journalist, married with one son, and lives in Ashland, Oregon. He is a frequent contributor to Peace Corps Writers.