Wednesday, June 29, 2011

A Surprise for My Sister

I got through the metal detector without problems in the airport, so I figured the nail I'd swallowed had found its way out. Then I was in the air, passing over the lane of lights marking the Panama Canal, moving in darkness over the tropical mass of the South American continent, awake in my seat listening to the hum of the engine, the ding of the seat-belt sign, the rustles and coughs of dozens of displaced people.   We were up so high and moving at such a constant speed that it felt like we were going nowhere at all, rather floating in a suspended state.  But in one long night I hurtled over a distance almost as great as that I had covered in the past six months.  The long continuity was broken.  What was passing below me was now only shapes on maps rather one land of slow transformations where the borders blur and the concerns of all the peoples echo up and down the road.

 The jet touched down on the El Alto runway in La Paz, and with a feeling of homecoming I stepped down onto the tarmac and remembered the first time I had come here, a year before, stressed and timid with my lack of Spanish, feeling like a child under the care of my capable and confident older sister.  The first thing I saw was the summit of Ilumani.  Its pure glaciers blazed over a layer of clouds and below me tumbled the city of La Paz, with its houses clinging to steep sides.  I went down into the city and spent the day drifting in the streets, seeking out old book stores and salteñas, talking to an Aymara woman, waiting for the night bus that would let me off in Cochabamba at dawn.

In that city where I didn't know a soul, my body vibrated in tense joy beneath the hovel-covered hillsides, in the crowded streets.  My trip began to pass through my mind.  I thought back to the second hour of the first day, when the bus had pulled off in gas station in Telluride, Colorado.  Night was coming on.   The driver cut the rumbling engine and there was silence.   I stepped off the bus with the other two passengers, the Mexican who asked me for a cigarette, the homeless guy from Oklahoma who began telling me of his heartbreak.  I went alone to the meadow below the service station and and the musk of yellow aspen leaves gave me pangs of longing, and I felt new things coming and stood electrified beneath the precipices of the Lizard Range.

I went and sat in the central plaza of La Paz and thought of the moment, while running across an endless field of lava in Mexico, when I forgot who I was. In this place a volcano had burst with no warning from a cornfield a few decades before and reforged the landscape in a fiery torrent, the old order overturned in an instant, the brushed clean stoops of houses twisted and wracked, the pig pen consumed in flames, the ancient stone basilisks of the conquistadors swallowed whole in the burning vitals surging to the surface of the New World.   When I was there all was stone and silence.  I came across a buried church.  Only the clock-tower stuck up above the stone.  It no longer kept time.  I wondered if the wind and water would one day sculpt down the stone and uncover the church, if they would vanish together, or if they would become indistinguishable as slow transformations molded them into some unknown shape.

And then I thought of fishing with Itzvan, the bearded bum in San Blas.  Every line we cast came back with a fat catfish or pargo.  We strung them all together in the water, imagining a feast of luscious fruits and juicy fish wrapped in leaves and cooked in embers.  But somehow the fish got free of their line and went one by one into the deep, leaving us with only fantasies.  When I left San Blas I never heard from Itzvan again. 

 Night was coming on and I wandered back to the terminal and got on the Cochabamba bus.  Once again there was the humming motor, the suspended state, the small snores and noises of uneasy sleep.  I arrived in Cochabamba at four in the morning.  When dawn began to break I shouldered my backpack and headed toward my sister's neighborhood.  She had moved since I had been there last, and I realized that I actually had only a vague idea of where she lived.  After thousands of miles it seemed like an insignificant detail, but now I was wandering along the streets, feet heavy, asking everyone I saw if they knew gringa named Katie lived.  I got a lot of funny looks.

I finally ended up at her old house and remembered a friend of hers who lived nearby.  He was still in bed when I arrived but jumped up right away and threw on his clothes and took me down the hill to her house.  He called her phone she came down from  her third story apartment and out of the gate looking a little bleary eyed.  She began talking to her friend and hadn't seen me leaning against the wall behind her.  He said that he had found someone that maybe she could help and she turned around.  A look of complete nonrecognition, almost of fright crossed her face, as if she'd seen an apparition.  But in an instant the fright passed and and I found myself in the arms of my sister.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Two Friends and a Snap Decision

My best friends Jeff and Karissa were in San Jose leading a group of youth from their church on a service trip and so I came down from Monteverde to meet them.

I went up the stairs of the mission house where they were staying I heard Jeff's booming laugh and I hesitated.  It had been six months since I had seen a familiar face, or been touched by someone who knew me.  What if I wasn't the same?  What if I was?

I took a deep breath and came up the stairs and before I knew it they were both leaping over chairs and wrapping me up in a huge hug and I felt joyful and frightened and relived and ready to run away all at the same time.  After a few seconds we realized that a room full of people was staring at us– the youth group that Jeff and Karrissa had brought down and a pastor who had been in the middle of a speech.  "Sorry," I mumbled, and took a seat.  He resumed talking but I didn't hear what he said because I was thinking about how the whole time I'd thought my journey was a line taking me farther and farther from where I had started but it felt more like a circle now that I was among familiar faces and feeling similar feelings.

I spent the week with Jeff and Karissa and their group– most of the time we were building a house for a single mom who didn't have a place.  I wasn't so good at it. It took me about five minutes to hammer in one roof nail and when I finally did the tin around the nail had a hole in it.  I got my hammer privilege suspended for a while.  Right afterward I stepped on the neighboring roof without stepping on a beam and almost made a surprise visit via the ceiling.  Later I had a nail in my mouth because I had been holding it there to do some hammering and was working along when suddenly I realized the nail was no longer in my mouth.  I had swallowed it.

"Karissa," I hissed.  "I just swallowed a nail!  What do I do."

She busted out laughing. "Oh my gosh..." she could hardly talk through her clashing hilarity and concern.  "Can you feel it?"


Uhhh...  we could tell..."

"No, don't tell anyone, that's embarassing!"

"Yeah, well we have to tell someone.  Steve's wife is a nurse.  She'll know what to do."  She called Steve's wife who said, "Rush him to the hospital!" and pretty soon the whole construction crew was crowded around exclaiming and thinking up extraction schemes involving electromagnets.  The Costa Rican foreman came up.

"No problem," he said. "I've probably swallowed a half a dozen of those things by accident.  It all turns out O.K."

For the rest of the week I endured comments like, "We just got a new bag of 2 inch nails, but keep them away from Collin" or "I hope you ate breakfast because today we're putting screws into drywall." But Karissa kept checking in to make sure I was OK and though it felt weird to have someone around who cared, I can't say I didn't like it.

San Jose.
In between construction time we sometimes sat up on the terrace and I spun yarns about my travels to Jeff and the youth.  Their awe made me feel at the same time like a conquering hero returning from battle and a fool cloaking his true strengths and weaknesses.  Jeff found a guitar and I pulled out my harmonica and we started playing a slow blues.  We improvised ridiculous lyrics.  We played some faster jams and he laid down some new riffs he had been working on and I bent note like you only learn how to do when your hungry and broke in some Mexican town and we lost ourselves in ecstatic improv.  We also visited parts of the city.  I watched Jeff and Karissa see this new country as they walked down the street, Jeff lapping it in with his boundless enthusiasm, practicing his Spanish.  I realized that my experience of new things had become dulled, like the person who no longer smells a pungent odor that is always present.

One night I had to escape from the group; I had come to treasure my solitude. I walked out to the plaza.  It was night. Strangers chatted on benches.  Young men shot hoops in the basketball court.  Everything in me was at ease in this place.  I was unknown there, unclaimed, an endless fountain of possibilities.

I thought of the Dane I had met in Mexico City, 6'6" with red dreadlocks and the utter composure of having faced and conquered fears.  He had left his country at age 18 to teach English in Central America but ended up cutting his credit cards and heading south completely without money.  He worked the worst kind of jobs until one day in Colombia he traded a rusty bike he owned for some juggling clubs.  Now, five years later, he lives by juggling in the streets and has a singular passion for his art. He has friends in every city in Latin America and just shows up with the clothes on his back and his juggling pins and begins to live where he lands.  I spent quite a bit of time with him and saw him as a sort of sage.  He shared everything he had with me.  He was broke in a city of 22 million people with absolutely no fear.  He had utter self composure and an acute sense for what was passing in the lives of anyone around him.  He had hurled himself into the unknown and was utterly liberated.

But when I thought about continuing my journey, instead of endless possibilities I saw nothing.  The map in my mind of everything between Costa Rica and Bolivia appeared blank to me.

Jeff, demonstrating the hazards of mixing water and
electricity in the same shower head. Thanks Caleb
Brown for these photos.
The week flew by and we were suddenly putting the finishing touches on the house and it was the last day for the group in Costa Rica.  I had no idea what I was going to do when they left.  It seemed as though the massive swell pushing me southward, the rush of energy always pulling me on, had dwindled away. I had forgotten how good it feels to be among people that know me. That night I began to talk to Karissa, who always seems to know how I am feeling better than I do.  How could I leave off my journey now? I asked.  I never again wanted to believe the easy lies of permanence and obligation.  Would I forget that huge horizon and put on blinders again to make the dazzling choices more bearable? I felt as if I had been constructing a great arcing bridge from Carbondale to Cochabamba, and, at the highest point of its span I was stopping, leaving a half-arc, a bridge to nowhere.  But as I continued to talk to Karissa it became more and more apparent that I was deeply exhausted from my journey.

Two days later I was on a plane to Bolivia.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Scenes from San Jose, Costa Rica


The man towers over the people encircling him in the street, his frame angular and athletic, skin white, with the austere shaven head of a Buddhist monk in front and a torrent of wild hair sprouting from the back.  His feet are bare.  The circle of people around him begin to chant.  They take out gourds and notched sticks and beat rhythms of the tribes Angola.  The giant's eyes begin to blaze like a warrior in the moment before battle and his body begins to sway with the rhythms.  The circle begins to chant faster and a little dark man leaps nimbly into the circle and touches the hand of the giant.  They sway for a moment, gaze locked, muscles tensing, and then burst into a frenzy of whorls and flips, the giant's limbs arcing in huge swaths and the small man a blur of spins and dodges.  Their fluid passes are the same movements danced by Brazilian slaves under cruel masters on sugar plantations, the same ancient tumult orchestrated into beauty.  It appears that the white giant and dark dancer are locked in an vicious fight.  But, as witnessed by the eyes of all in the circle, neither has touched the body of the other. 


He has no ears and his nose is just a knot of flesh and his whole face is like a raised map of a country scored by unnatural lines.  It is a yellow plateau of petrified pus, and all the little boys scream at him "feo! feo!feo!"   "I don't think he likes that," I tell them and they say, "Sure he does.  Everyone calls him that. Watch. HEY FEO.  YOU DON'T CARE IF WE CALL YOU THAT DO YOU?" He gives a shrug as to say he doesn't give a damn what little boys think; his skin is thick.  But later as I am sitting in the plaza waiting for a bus to leave this hard part of town he comes up and sits beside me and tells me, "I'm not going back there, I don't like it when they call me feo."  And then my bus comes and I get up in it and never learn his real name.


In the Plaza de Cultura the pigeons bob and babble around edges of the polished granite benches and flock on the clean swept flagstones.   A tourist family appears in the plaza and begins scattering bread crumbs and the birds descend in an asphyxiating mass, landing two or three deep on their outstretched arms.   The tourists laugh in delight at their mastery.  The breadcrumbs are gobbled and the pigeons begin again to carefully place one foot in front of the other on the flagstones. Business people pass on the streets with a deliberate walk, well dressed university students stroll through with confidence, and a toddler breaks away from his parents, chasing after one of the birds, the whole world forgotten for this one befuddled creature who hops, skitters, and finally bursts into frightened flight.


The Nicaraguan leads the way into the Los Pinos slum, not wearing a bra, thrusting her huge teets forward like the prow of an icebreaker; large and in charge, always moving, bellowing her approach like a foghorn.  Her countrymen emerge from a tangle of sheet metal.  In a clearing at the center of the the tangle the exposed roots of the pines are treaded raw and we set up a table with soup. Kids flock en mass from dark doorways and fight to be first in line for the handouts. Later they play soccer and the ball thunders off the a sheet metal wall and spins into a sewage pipe.  The littlest kid is pushed forward, crawls into the sludge, and pops out with the tattered ball.  The game goes on.


The grand piano slumbers on the dark stage in the National Theater,
silent strings straining with several tons of pressure,
ready to drench the hall in a torrent of song.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

The Lonely Planet Matrix

"A traveller doesn't know where he's going; a tourist doesn't know where he's been."
– Paul Thoreaux

The Swede was beet red from all the beer sloshing around in his stomach, and his face was so close to mine that the sweat from his hairline was practically dripping onto my face.  "The deaf gay midget bar!" he shouted, spraying a bit of the sweat that had trickled as far as his lips.  "You mean you haven´t gone to the deaf gay midget bar!"

"Umm... no I haven't."

"You have to go... you see there´s this midget there, and he can´t understand anything you say to him, cuz he's deaf, right, and he just wants to hug you..."

Me and Jeff hitchin'
I was in the Bearded Monkey Hostel with Jeff, a relaxed Peace Corps alum from San Fransico with whom I'd begun to travel with a few days before.  We had got into Granada, Nicaragua during the heat of the day after getting a lucky hitch across almost half the country in one morning.  The heat there came shimmering up from of the pedestrian boulevard, it settled on our shoulders and seeped between our packs and backs, sapping our energy.  The sun reflected off the chrome fronts of the tourist restaurants and craft shops, searing our eyes with brightness.  The guide book had said this town was the highlight of Nicaragua, with elegant colonial architecture along the shore of a giant lake.  But instead of finding refreshing waters in a city of industrious people, we staggered along the bone dry and mostly deserted boulevard.  We had a budget place in mind, and as we came through the doors out of the monstrous heat we were met with a wall of frigid air and a polished chrome bar.

¨We´re not open yet,¨ boomed a tall American in his mid-fifties with a head as polished as his bar, "we´re still putting the finishing the touches on the rooms.¨

"Oh, we must have the wrong place," I said.  "This isn´t the Hostel Lago?"

"Backpackers hostel!?" he snorted.  "No man... this place is going to be nice.  We´ve got air conditioning, cable, everything you need."

"Ok, well, we´re going to keep going to check out our options."

"Yeah but make sure and come back for the games tonight.  It´s the final four in the NCAA tournament and this will be the place to BE."  He motioned to the flat screen TV dominating most of the wall behind the bar.  Next to it were two big Dallas Cowboy banners.

We finally found a hostel.   We sat around sweating for a few hours. We thumbed through the guide book.  Apparently the Bearded Monkey across the street was the place to party! We went over to check it out.

"The deaf gay midget bar!" the Swede was emphasizing, in case I hadn't caught it the first time around.
 Behind the Swede I could see that the Bearded Monkey was packed with twenty-somethings from all over Europe and North America who hadn´t showered or shaved and were guzzling beer with gusto.  I figured the hostel's namesake probably smelled better than most of them.  I could hear snatches of the conversation Jeff was having with another guy: "Then I got smashed up there in El Salvador... and this other time when we were destroyed in the Bay Islands... and later with this other bloke we just got trashed, totally trashed."

After a conversation with a spring breaker from Miami who was just raving about how she had never been to South America before and how great it was and how about all the people were so nice, I couldn´t take any more and went to the bar and slurped down rum and cokes until peoples' voices began to blur together and then we were in some other bar and then we were in some place trying to dance salsa with not a latino in sight and no one who actually knew how to dance salsa and all the places began to blur together and then I was lying on top of my sheets in the hostel cot with a pounding head watching to fan blades go round and round and round in the dark and someone was yelling "but the deaf gay midget guy, what about the deaf gay midget guy?"

The next morning Jeff and I both decided to get out of there.

But before we did, we had to see the famed Lake Nicaragua, the largest freshwater body in Central America, so big that it has its own species of freshwater sharks.  We walked the half mile to the shore expecting crystalline and endless waters, and maybe a dock to jump off.  Instead, sludge oozed along a ditch into a brown cove and all along the shore were mounds of old tires, wrappers, syringes, rubber gloves... trashed.


We went to San Juan del Sur to surf, a town that felt much like Granada but was more bearable because the ocean was there with its blue horizon and scouring salt water.  Late at night, when everyone else was either in bed or belly up in the Ballena Bar, we went down to the ocean.  The combers glowed as they came in. We slid into the water and  swarms of sparks shot out from our hands at each stoke and our legs flickered pale green as we treaded water.  A current had surged up from some dark depth of the ocean and brought to shore this bioluminescene, the light of millions of small creatures living and dying in the vast tide.


After going down the Nicaraguan and Costa Rican coast surfing, Jeff left for his friend's wedding and I continued to the famous cloud forest jungle of Monte Verde.  The bus roared and bounced along the dirt road that rose up above the coastal plain and passed through pastures of grass more than head high with satisfied looking cows swishing their tails and looking as if they were about to burst with milk.  Pungent mangoes carpet the ground below the trees and their branches hung to the ground.

We came down into the town at dusk and the minute my foot touched the pavement a woman thrust a flyer into my face. "Come to the Hostel Monteverde!" she almost shouted.  "Do you have a place to be tonight?"  I didn´t feel like answering her so I went around the corner until the busload of tourists and crowd of hawkers they attracted had dissipated. I took a walk around the town and was back to where I started in less than five minutes.  It was not designed for wanderers.  What´s more, I hadn´t seen so much as a slice of pizza for less than five dollars.

I looked in my guide book and found a hostel that offered camping.  The front desk man led me to an enclosed dirt lot behind the hostel, walled in by a bank on one side and a hotel on the other. "You can put your tent here." He pointed to a spot and a that same moment a nearby pipe sticking up from the ground vomited up brown water with a gurgling belch. "Oh, that happens sometimes.  Don´t worry.  It´s clean."

Every time someone flushed the toilet that night the putrid fountain that ensued started me awake from my nightmares of rats scurrying in labyrinths and a world in which instead of feet we had little wheels and that were fixed to tracks and we had to purchase rights to move on them before going anywhere.

Over my breakfast of plain pasta, the only thing I could afford, I met Eliza, a Swiss lady, and we decided to go explore the Monteverde Park together. We were about five minutes in when Eliza started.  "So, I mean, isn't this supposed to be a cloud forest?  I mean where are all the clouds?"  It had dawned a beautiful clear day.

"Well, I guess we got lucky."

"Yeah, but don't you think that this forest looks like all the other forests out there?  I mean it's just green with trees... kinda like in lots of other places."


"Maybe we'll see some animals later... ooh! We better see a sloth!"

Twenty minutes later we had seen nothing more than a small brown bird hopping from branch to branch and peeping angrily at us.  We broke out of the deep forest and onto the ridge, and looked down into the wild and wet valleys leading out toward the Carribean and along the mountains undulating into blue.  We were on the Continental Divide, one long ridge that reaches all the way to my state in Colorado where it holds cornices of snow hanging over blue tarns.  When they were young my mother and father walked along it for hundreds of miles.  Here I was on the very same ridge only surrounded by verdant jungles!  I walked to the extreme end of the trail to see if there was a way to continue along the Divide, into the great wilds. I came to a gate and sign:  ABSOLUTELY NO ENTRY PERMITTED.

"Let's get out of here. The bugs are killing me," said Eliza.

We got out of the park and I left Eliza in the hummingbird garden, watching in ecstasy as the hummingbirds zoomed up to plastic containers filled with sugar water.  "Why would I pay to enter that park when I could sit here for free!" she exclaimed.

I walked back into town and sat down to read among other tourists in the hostel.  I was sick of simulacrae.  I felt like we were all swimmers in a lap pool, back and forth, back and forth without ever daring to cross the lane lines, which for us were formed on one side by the advice of the all knowing Lonely Planet guide book, and on the other by the constant warnings of the "danger out there," the robbers, killers, scorpions, snakes. We were seeing the world as we were told it should be seen by tourist officials with dry coughs siting in drab offices.

I began to remember the hills of the Cuchamatanes where, after a day of walking through the brush on animal trails, I came down onto a small plain and met an old man rattling along on a rusty bicycle and he told me the names of each part of the plain and showed me, off in the corner, two brightly painted miniature houses, below which rested the bones of his relatives.  I remembered the upstairs room of a nameless bookstore on Calle Doncales in Mexico City where a short man in a denim jacket plays blues, jazz, Bach, and Arabian music on the harmonica and fixed my broken reed while revealing to me the infinite possibilities of the instrument.

I got up early the next morning and put on my running shoes.  I searched for the highest point on the horizon and headed for it.    I reached the hilltop and entered a small opening in the jungle at the end of it.  The path went into the forest, with logs with the girth of trucks slowly softening into nothing on the forest floor, and hollow trees with dozens of roots clinging to the soil like the tentacles of enormous squid.  I came to a viewpoint and realized I was on the Continental Divide.  The silence was as thick as the loam on the ground.  I passed a rivulet that sluiced across clean stone.  I kept running, deeper into the forest, deeper into the tangle of wild vines, of plants growing where they sprouted and fighting upward toward the light.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

The Road to the American Dream Runs Both Ways

I met Geovani in Matagalpa, a pulsing Nicaraguan town with streets full of big women frying plantains and cheese on griddles in the street and the back-beat of reggaetón thumping in every corner.  I was looking for a soccer game to jump in on, and was directed to a big roofed basketball court where they play footsal, or indoor soccer.  As I went in, the ref was standing on the line that divides the two halves of the court and blowing his whistle to end the match.  I went over to ask him if I could jump in and since he was between games we got to talking.

He was in his early twenties, with close cropped hair and precise energy coiled behind each of his movements.  His refs uniform was complete and professional.  He spoke slowly and articulately, each word formed with immaculate enunciation, and stood up when he was saying something especially important.  He asked me what part of the States I was from.

Me: Colorado. Have you been to the States then?

G: Yes I have.  I was in North Carolina.  I have a sister and her husband who live there.

Me: And do you have family here?

G: Yes I have a wife and two kids.

Me: So did you to the States to work?

G: Yes.  I worked in a company called Fire Alarm (BIT) that installed systems of security.  Then after two years I was caught by immigration and deported.

Me: And how did you arrive in the U.S. originally?

G:  Well we were wetbacks, we went illegally.  We went by bus to Guatemala and then from there sometimes by train, sometimes by bus, sometimes on foot.

Me: What was the train like?

G: Well, they are cargo trains that go through Mexico, but if you have ever seen them you know they are full of immigrants.  People pile onto the trains, onto flatcars, the roofs of boxcars, clinging from poles... People died while we were on the train.  A father and his child were sitting on the edge of a car when the father began to fall asleep since it had been days since he slept.  He slumped forward which made it so they both started to fall off.  Our guide was able to catch the child before he fell off but did not have time to save the father.  The train ran him over and cut him in half.

Me: And when you got to the frontier, how did you cross?

G: We crossed from Tamulipus into Texas.  There it is not desert but more scrub-land.

Me: And was your guide trustworthy when you got there?

G: Yes, in our case.  We tried to cross once but our coyote realized that there were too many U.S. immigration officer on the other wide.  We went back.  But when we went back, we were caught by Mexican kidnappers.

Me:  Who are these kidnappers?

G:  They belong to the Zetas cartel.  It's like this.  We all come with the phone numbers of our U.S. contacts memorized, not written down on paper.  If the Zetas get you, they torture you until you give them your contact number, and then they call that person and force them to pay around 10,000 dollars to let you go.  If your contact pays the money, then the Zetas deliver you to wherever you want to go in the U.S.  They say that if George Bush himself was kidnapped trying to cross and had his 10,000 paid, they could deliver him right inside the White House.  That's how high up their contacts are.

Me:  And if no one will pay your 10,000?

G: They kill you.  Some arrive adventuring without money, or seeking a better life.  They have no money.  These are killed and remain anonymous.  Sometimes they are put alive into barrels of diesel and burned until there is no evidence of their remains.  These kidnappers are mostly ex- military men.  The ones that caught us traveled in a black, unmarked suburban.  They each carried around 4 weapons– an assault rifle (the kind the U.S. Army uses), an AK 47, and two short arms.  I caught a glimpse of a .357 Mag.  You can do nothing against them, to fight would be illogical.

Me:  So what did you guys do?

G: Well, we were imprisoned for three days while the kidnappers checked to see if our guide was working for them.  Fortunately he belonged to a group of guides who pays the Zetas to have a right to pass through.  So we went on.

Me: And once you are on the U.S. side, what are the dangers?

G: On the U.S. side it's much better.  Then all you have to worry about is immigration patrols.  Well, that's not exactly true.  Some civilians living near the border invest a lot of their own money in reinforcing the border.  They build fences, buy guns, and lay bear traps.  I saw many people mutilated that stepped into traps as they walked during the night. Apart from that the only real danger is that you will work a week or month of hard labor and when payday comes they give you nothing and say, "Get out of here or we will call Immigration and have you deported."  And you can do nothing.

Me: Did that happen to you?

G: Where I work they started out paying me five dollars an hour.  They said, "You are illegal.  This is what we will pay you." I said O.K. because I was happy to be earning money.  After one week they saw that I worked very hard and said, "we can't only pay you 5 an hour" so they gave me a raise to $8.  Later they were paying me $10.

Me: So you won their respect...

G: So much so that they are helping me request citizenship from the Government.  The U.S. makes you wait 5 years of punishment after being deported and then you can request a letter of pardon.  Luckily I paid all my taxes and have proof of it.  I can prove I would be a productive citizen.  Meanwhile the company is sending me to work on projects they are doing outside of the States.  I recently got back from Trindad and Tobegeo for instance, where they were installing systems.  Soon they might have a project for me in Barbados.  I don't have fixed work right now because I have to be ready to go at any moment.

Me: And what was is like when Immigration caught you?  What happened?

G:  Immigration was there in two minutes after we were discovered even though we were far from the border.  For six days they put us in a room where we had to sleep on a bare concrete floor.  We had no blankets nor cushioning.  The air conditioning, as it always is in the U.S., was turned on full blast.  Me and five other Nicaraguans all huddled together for warmth.  The lights were always on so we never knew if it was day or night.

Me:  What were you given to eat?

G:  They gave us water and a cold slice of ham between two pieces of bread.  This was offered six times in 24 hours.  We were told that these six days were punishment for being in the States illegally.

Me: And did the guards ever physically mistreat you?

G: No.  In fact when they arrested me they put on the handcuffs very tight.  I let them know and they took them off and put them on looser.  They kept their distance.  We were told that the only crime we committed was being in the country illegally, and that crime did not merit corporal punishment.  If the guards mistreated us, we had a chance of getting our residency as compensation.  So they kept their distance.

The soccer players had begun to congregate on the court.  "Would there be a chance for me to jump in and play?" I asked.  Well no, all the teams had been organized since a long time ago.  They pay dues to the futball organization of Nicaragua.  Sounded like I'd have to stick around for a while and pay my dues to get in on the game.  But before I left Giovanni to ref, I had one last question for him.

"So what is your opinion about the U.S. border policy?  Should we have an open border?"

"Though it is hard for me to say, I understand why the U.S. must have security on its borders.  One of the things I valued about the States is the security and safety I had there.  I paid my taxes because I wanted to contribute to that security and peace.  If there was an open border the States would be the same chaos that Central America is, where each government has little control over its people.  There are Hispanics that come and cause trouble.  But there are many who come to help.  Many contribute to the productivity of the nation.  I would love it if the border were open, but I understand why it is not.  But there must be a way to let those that come to work through and especially those who come out of the necessity of poverty."

Geovani stepped away from the bleachers to officiate the match.  I thought of the long road through the pines of Chihuahua, the blue agave of Jalisco, the cacti of Oaxaca, the stark highlands of Guatemala, the steaming volcanoes of El Salvador, the dry Nicaragua scrub that separated me from where I started from.  I had passed through gangs of soldiers, jolted in the metal beds of pickups, been taken in and fed by warm hands, worried about where my next meal would come from and had arrived at this point on the dusty concrete that echoed with the sound of shuffling shoes and the referee whistle.  And I thought of Geovani heading the other way with hundreds, thousands, millions of others that had passed me like a hot wind welling from the south, a great multitude with their faces fixed on the Rio Bravo del Norte, heavy with fear and hope.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

The Quebrada of Mozote

As I went southward I seemed to enter a dark jungle of stories about the my country and how it had been involved in the lives of Central Americans.  On the bus down to El Salvador I sat next to a fat and pasty bald man that leaned away from me in his seat and shot sidelong glances at me from time to time.  But when I began to ask him questions he became animated and began to talk.

He was catholic priest who had worked alongside Oscar Romero, a Salvadorean martyr who had stood up on behalf of the poor against the oppressive military dictatorship funded by the States and was shot down while serving communion.  "I was with him the day before he died," the priest told me.  "We went out into the campo to give communion.  Monsignor Romero was the most important bishop of the Catholic Church in the country but he would not forget the poor suffering in the countryside.  His theology was grounded, based on the actual lives of the people he served, based on liberating them from injustice." As we moved on through the hot lands skirting the Salvadorean volcanoes he told me stories of brothers killing brothers, of his brothers who had died or fled to The States, of heroic priests and violated nuns.  "I am glad to be telling you this," he told me.  "Most Americans have no idea."

Three million Salvadoreans live in the US, out of a population of 10 million total, and when I got off the bus in San Salvador the effects were evident everywhere. The city's arteries are clogged with American fast food chains and shopping malls, the infrastructure of the city was much more developed due to the capital sent home from America, and every person has a story about their journey north, or their father or mother or brother or sister's journey north.  The air was thick in the city and clung to my skin and made me sweat.  No matter what I did I couldn't rid myself of the sticky filthy feeling on my body.  I began to dream of clear cool rivers, of diving into pools below clear cascades.
I left the city and hitched up to the highlands of Morozan, a complex and rolling country just below the dark rim of the Honduras pine lands.  As the pickup groaned up the grade, the air began to cool, but the thin film of humid sweat lingered on my skin. At the top of the road was Periquin, the bastion of the rebels in the civil war, impoverished peasants who started fighting with picks and hoes for the right to farm their own land.  I set in the plaza, suddenly very weary.  The land fell away on all sides; even the town was built on a steep slope.  People did not greet me.  They did not talk much at all.  I began to walk a bit and on the hill above town I saw craters five feet deep and fifteen across from 500 ton bombs.  On the mangled iron shrapnel next to the crater I could make out the words MADE IN USA.

I began to feel ill that night, a strange aching in my shoulder joints and neck as if a heavy iron bar were pulling down on them.  I was alone in the hostel that night and laid awake long hours sweating and aching on top of the sheets.  In the morning I felt somewhat better so I began walking. All below me in the cloudless day were the thickly populated lowlands, burnt brown by in the dry season but were I was the foliage was still green and tangled.  I was nearing the village of Mozote.  The only noise was the crickets that screamed from the trees, and I was once again aching and nauseous under the noonday sun.  Suddenly a truck rattled up behind me with blaring loudspeakers, making my heart jump into my throat.  "GAAAS! Get your gas! GAAAS!"  No one came out.  The streets were almost empty, many buildings abandoned. Twenty years ago soldiers from the Salvadorean government had rounded up a the thousand plus villagers in this town– men, women, and children– and had killed them all with the exception of one.  In the center of the town was a memorial.

I shuffled out of the town, wondering if I would make it back on the parched roads to Periqiun.  I felt dizzy, the world spun slightly.  "GAAAS!" I waved frantically at the truck to give me a ride but it barreled past me, leaving only the dust that settled silently on the leaves beside the road.  I walked on for miles.  Finally got I ride clinging on the back bumper of an already packed pickup, the billowing dust caking in my eyes. 

When I got back, I walked down the path to the quebrada, a series of small cascades of spring water that fall into a deep cleft in the rocks.  The water is clear but the cleft so deep that it looks black.  The sun was lowering, and one side was in deep shadow and the other in light.  I slowly peeled the clothes off my aching body.  I paused a long time at the edge, spent in the silent afternoon.  Then I toppled into the icy water.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

The "Love Seat"

I decided to couch surf in Guatemala city, and the moment I saw Jhonatán Cejas's couch I realized that no human being, barring some of the most diminutive members of remote bush tribes in Africa, would be able to sleep on the thing without coming away with severe and permanent scoliosis.   The furniture in question was what see-the-silver-lining types would call a love seat, but I saw it for what it was: a sophisticated instrument of nocturnal torture.  I can see it in my mind's eye, its sardonic cream color that seems so inviting until you see the sadistic armrests waiting to wrack the skeletons of weary travelers.  I was busy contemplating which Parisian cathedral I would spend my hunched over future in after sleeping on the thing, when I was given a second thing to think about.  Jhonatán wouldn't mind, in fact he would prefer, well really he insisted eagerly that I share his bed with him. 

Jhonatán, a slender and affectionate 24-year-old, had come to pick me up when I arrived on a bus from Joyobaj.  I had been on in Joyobaj, which has a feature that lets you see other travelers in the area who are also on the site.  I was looking for someone who would host me in Guatemala City when a message from Jhonatán popped into my couchsurfing inbox.  "Hey I see you're in the area; if you need anything just give me a call."  With characteristic cynicism I thought, "Why is he so friendly... what does he want from me? " I snooped around on his profile, which said he preferred hosting males.  Then I looked at his reviews from other surfers, all of which were positive and one of which was from an American named John who said, "At first Jhonatán kinda freaked me out but later I realized that was just my problem, he is really just a genuinely helpful and hospitable guy."  Usually it is a bit complicated to find a host, and with John's comment in mind, I decided to go for it.

The chamber that housed the couch in question was a ramshackle cube of sheet metal build on the concrete roof of Jhonatán's parent's house.  The house happened to be a hundred meters from the touchdown end of the runway of the international airport, so every so often a 747 jet would thunder over the room, narrowly missing the roof peak, and setting all the walls a-flapping and a clanging like a one man band whose equipment had got away from him.  For all its apparent dilapidation, inside it was immaculate. The "love seat" smugly occupying the central space along the left wall and Jhonatán's bed, more than a single but definitely no queen, along the back wall.  A plush colorful rug was laid down on the floor and my towel was folded with a bar of soap across the "love seat."  

But from all the darker corners of the room, googly eyes gaped down at me.  Stuffed Elmos stared from the tops of cupboards and foam visors with the gooney cartoon faces pasted on them hung from the bedposts and lined the desk.  A jet flew over and all the faces wobbled grotesquely.  "I used to do a kids show," Jhonatán explained.

I managed to hide my reaction on seeing the "love seat," and Jhonatán welcomed me in to his abode.  "You must be really tired from all your walking," Jhonatán said. "Here. Have a rest on my bed."  He propped up some pillows, put my feet up, and handed me the TV remote.  "Now don't you go anywhere.  I'll be right back."  Thirty minutes later he came up the stairs with a steaming plate of food in his hands and wouldn't let me move a finger to help him with it or the cold beer he opened and gave to me.  "No you just rest.  We got a busy day tomorrow all planned out and you've got to rest up that foot."  I had told him about a foot pain I had developed over my walk.  In handing me a plate of food, Jhonatán had found my weak spot, and I put all worries aside and tucked into the fare.

Dinner was done and the hour was late so I got up and approached the "love seat" as a convicted criminal might approach the execution block.  "Oh no." Jhonatán said.  "You don't have to sleep there. Look, there's plenty of space in my bed."

"Look... errr... Jhonatán, thanks but that's OK, I'll just sleep here on the couch..." I lay down on it.  My head stuck out one side and my legs from thigh down off the other.  I could feel a ninety degree angle already ossifying in my neck.

"C'mon," said Jhonatán, "No one deserves to sleep in that thing. There is plenty of space here."

And so I found myself wide awake at 2 AM, teetering the extreme edge of the bed,  tense as a hunted animal, alert for any sign of movement from Jhonatán's side so that I could flee the room if need be.  A huge jet roared over the roof.  The wind buffeted a loose corner of the tin roof.  The "love seat" sat in mocking repose an arms length away.  The Elmos leered down at me.

The next morning, as promised, Jhonatán had a slate of things to show me around the city, one of which was a new cafe that his friend was opening downtown.  "He's gay though and it's supposed to be sort of a gay hang out, so I hope that doesn't freak you out."

I seized the opportunity.  "And are you gay?"

He looked surprised. "Yes I am, but I don't really tell people unless they ask. How did you know?"

"I have a keen sense of observation," I told him.  The sarcasm was lost on him.

We continued exploring the city and Jhonatán called me his little gringito tousled my hair in a way that made my jaw clench. Every so often he insisted that on getting a bystander to take a picture of us and he would give me the good-ole-side hug and tousle my hair again.  We went into the museum of the history of Guatemalan money and a beautiful docent came to demonstrate how they used to mint money by pounding on the mold with a huge metal hammer. 

"Here you can pound it," she said to me and I slammed the hammer on the mold.  I got to keep the coin that resulted.

"Thanks," I told her.  "And if I accidentally lose this one will you still be here so I can come and get a new one?"  That was for Jhonatán's benefit; it wouldn't do for him to get carried away with the wrong impression of me.

We went to the coffee place his friend was opening– a fifties style diner with pink accents and young waiters in bow ties and tight pants.  It was nearly empty and so we headed to his house.

"I love hanging out with foreigners like you!" Jhonatán told me on the way.

"Oh yeah, why's that?"

'Well I just don't have that many friends here... a few, but we don't hang out that much.  It's hard."

"What makes it hard?"

"Well its just that people here really don't accept gays.  I don't really have anyone to talk about it with."

"And your parents?"

"Well I can't talk about it with them.  They think it is a sin."

"That must be tough."

"Yeah, when I was in high school I always went to youth group and church and prayed hard that God would change me.  When I was first realizing I was gay it was awful and for years I didn't accept it.  I had no one to talk to.  But finally I realized I had to accept it."

"Those must have been some rough years just feeling guilty and trapped."

We got back to Jhonatán's room again, to the Elmos, the jets, the thick concrete floor separating Jhonatán from his family below.  I was resting longways on the "love seat," my legs sticking off the end of course, when Jhonatán got an idea.

"I know what we're going to do," he said.


"I'm going to give you a foot massage."

My foot was sore, but not that sore.  "Um,  no you're not."

"C'mon.  Why not?"

"No.  You're not giving me a foot massage.  I hate massages."

"No this has nothing to do with the gay thing.  I just like to treat my friends well."

"Right.  No foot massage."

It was a long night again.  In the morning I said goodbye to my Elmo friends who had kept me company during dark nervous hours.  I took my leave of the "love seat," and the rattling rooftop shack.  I thanked Jhonatón for his hospitality, which had been exceptional, wished him the best of luck, and headed to El Salvador.