A small boy, naked from the waist down, stands on a dirt road in front of a tin-roof shack, his face a smear of dirt and snot. 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 that she filled early that morning after standing in a long line, the barest hint of sunlight bruising the horizon. Her husband is gone. It is almost more than she can bear.
Soon, far sooner than I imagined, I understood that the contrasts between the First World and the Third World were not superficial but went to the bone. It was life lived on a precipice. For most, an exhausting scramble for survival.
No one has a lifestyle. Most will never have a career, or go to college, or possess a credit card, or walk through a mall (think of it, a mall) or buy food by yelling into the mouth of a plastic clown or stand in a supermarket so filled with abundance as to bring tears to the eyes. Most will never walk into a hospital of any kind, or turn on a faucet in a gleaming kitchen and watch sluicing water fill a glass, or open a refrigerator door, be bussed to a neighborhood school, or stand in a line at Starbucks, or sit at a counter and order from a menu of unimaginable choices.
Going to Colombia was, at first, an abstraction. And then it wasn't.
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 locals are black, descended from slaves brought by Spain's colonists to labor in the fields and mines and build huge coral revetments and fortresses along the mouth of the bay. Surely it was these same people who built the ancient houses that surround a lovely tree-lined plaza where an ornate fountain sprays arching fantails of water, marked by luminescent rainbows.
The port, just outside the city wall, teems with life. Wooden boxes, filled with bananas and mangos, are stacked three or four deep. Fishing nets hang on listing poles, drying in the sun, and men sleep in colorful hammocks above the decks of fishing boats, shaded from the harsh afternoon sun by heavy canvas canopies. All is redolent of decaying fish and fruit and motor oil, mixed with an astringent, metallic odor that seems ever-present.
On a finger of land, a narrow peninsula called Bocagrande, stands a three story, wood frame hotel named El Caribe. Stunningly white, shaded by enormous Jacaranda trees, it looks out toward the ocean, a wide pool, surrounded by umbrellas and lounge chairs and a rattan bar, opens to a sandy beach.
The hotel was, for a time, my sanctuary. A place apart. Feeling the weight of my isolation, a stranger in a culture that was often enigmatic, a constant puzzle, I would take the bus from the center of town, where I rented a small room in a residencia, out to the Caribe.
Walking between the white stucco pillars, each covered with massive bougainvilleas, the delicate flowers a riot of purple and red and white, I made my way up the long driveway.
It was my custom to spend the morning sitting by the pool, at a small table under an umbrella, sipping coffee, struggling to read the local paper, finally giving up and retreating to a copy of Time magazine international or a paperback novel, one of more than 200 that sat near my bed in a Peace Corps book locker, a locker that had been passed along to me from another volunteer. Every one had been read hard, as if they had been through an ordeal, the covers frayed, the spines broken.
The smatterings of conversations from the nearby tables were international, German and French and Portuguese; and, of course, Spanish. The people seemed exotic and I couldn't help but wonder how they came to be at the Caribe, of all places. Waiters in high-collared white coats slipped past with trays of food and sliver thermoses of coffee and white porcelain cups on round saucers.
Later, after lunch, I sat on the beach and gazed out across the ocean, noticing the parabola of the horizon, and then I swam far out and then slowly back. There was an outdoor shower where I rinsed off, the water cold and refreshing. As the sun moved toward the horizon, the sky a smear of purple and pink and blue, I left the hotel and walked back, between the pillars, and waited for the bus.
My shirts stiff, my underwear and socks grim-looking, I finally discovered a small laundry not far from the beach, a wood-frame house, its slats a faded green, the tin roof streaked with rust. Señora Escobar was the owner, a short, stocky woman, her hair salt and pepper, her smile startling because of gold caps on her front teeth. I often found her standing at a long table, pushing a heavy chrome iron over damp sheets or white shirts, which she carefully folded and placed into a deep wicker basket nearby. Faintly, in the background, I heard salsa music from an ancient black radio with large creamy knobs that sat on a shelf along with soaps and bleaches and tin measuring cups.
All of the windows were thrown open and trade winds gently passed through and on still days, when the heat seemed enveloping, a fan in the ceiling turned slowly with a slight, uneven sway.
She agreed to wash my clothes and I soon learned that it wasn't so much washing as committing assault and battery on my cotton shirts and pants until the collars and cuffs began to fray, the material distressed. She insisted that everything be ironed, including my underwear.
When the collars were beyond repair, she expertly reversed them, working on her large, black Singer sewing machine, pushing the treadle slowly, up and down.
Without fail, whenever I arrived to pick up my laundry, she stopped what she was doing and insisted that I sit near the front of the store at a wooden table, the wide windows looking out onto the street and the ocean beyond. She would bring out a tray with small blue cups and a thermos of steaming coffee and set it down and then sit with me and we would drink the coffee and look out at the passing traffic and the people walking past and the blue water beyond. She would ask me questions about my time in Cartagena. "Why," she asked, smiling, "would your mother permit you to come to a place so far away from your home, to live, here, in Cartagena? And what is this thing you call El Cuerpo de Paz?"
She always spoke slowly, knowing that I had to grapple with the words and the sentences. And if I didn't grasp every word, she was confident that I understood the meaning and intention of her questions.
I explained that the Peace Corps — el Cuerpo de Paz, the Body of Peace — was an agency of the United States government and said that I was soon to begin teaching in a normal school, run by Catholic nuns. The young women who were enrolled were studying to teach small children in the schools in Cartagena and in the countryside.
Señora Escobar listened politely and asked, "But why do you come here?" She said this kindly, her curiosity genuine, her intelligence obvious and I knew that it was a relevant, probing question. I constructed a short, familiar answer having to do with wanting to help other people — volunteers built wells, taught health classes and worked in schools.
But I knew that the Señora's question was larger than my capacity to answer. It would take some time before I would have it sorted out. What struck me from the moment that I arrived was that Colombia was a very old country, colonized by Spain in 1499 and granted its independence in 1819. Its history all but paralleled America's.
So why was Colombia still a Third-World country, and why were so many of its people poor? And by extrapolation, why were so many nations that had equally long histories still hobbled by poverty, members of that vague category called the developing world? But then came the far more personal question: Could my short two years in Colombia possibly make a difference? Double the numbers of volunteers in Colombia and would it change the nation's narrative?
But gradually I came to understand that the volunteers weren't in Colombia to change the country. We had come to do small things, seemingly insignificant things — help in a clinic, talk to mothers about nutrition, teach a group of locals how to start a co-op, teach in a normal school.
In the exchange of information and in the quality of our interactions, in the process of building a wall or constructing a small schoolhouse, or in planting a straight row of soybeans, we came to know one another and soon recognized our common humanity.
The locals soon understood that we were not passing through with cameras and guide maps. We arrived and hunkered down. We had come to stay, to share in the rhythms of their lives and share those of our own. We set out to learn the language and the customs while submerging ourselves in the culture, out of respect and appreciation and sometimes wonder.
But anything less would be hubris, a remnant of the colonial syndrome, call it the "Bwana" syndrome, in the past blatantly perpetuated by countless nations and best described as the white man who showed up nurturing the assumption that the locals are primitive, without "real" culture or complexity, "savages" if you will, and from a sense of unchallenged superiority sets about instilling his or her values (often religious) and, of course, offering imported aid and assistance, understanding little about the people, their culture or their country. It's a trap that those from the First World fall into repeatedly, no matter what history or experience teaches.
That would later become my truth. But I didn't understand it then. Not at first. I wish I had for I could have shared it with Señora Escobar, and I think she would have understood.
Most evenings I ate at a small café where the waiter, Enrique, would bring me my meal and then stand nearby and refuse to leave until I took the first bite and pronounced it perfect. Delicious. I often ordered the catch of the day and Enrique would grin and nod and say "Muy bueno," and return later with a meat dish I didn't recognize.
Early one morning, a few weeks after arriving, I was to attend a meeting with several volunteers in a nearby town, just north of Cartagena. I decided to take a cab instead of the bus. And I admit it. Riding the bus for long distances was harrowing, a crowded, steamy, dusty ordeal. People, young and old, sat stoically, shoulder to shoulder, swaying at every turn, youngsters cried and pungent odors of people and bags and exhaust fumes, wafting up through the floorboards, filled the air.
To travel from town to town by cab it was necessary to leave from a location, not unlike a bus station. Cabs were parked out front, by the curb, their trunks open, and passengers stood nearby with luggage, waiting. The idea was to pick a cab and negotiate with the driver.
I spotted a man leaning against the fender of a hard-used Chevy, smoking. The collar of his white shirt was soiled and I assumed he had never met Señora Escobar. He looked at me passively, his eyes brown and rheumy. I explained where I wanted to go and he told me the price. I agreed and followed him to the back of the cab and put my duffle into the open trunk and began to get into the back seat. I noticed someone approach the driver and they began a brief conversation, punctuated by "si', si'." He then reached into the trunk and put my duffle on the ground, explaining to me that it would be better if I took another cab. Uncertain, I tried a second cab and then a third, and each time my suitcase went into the trunk and then came out and I could not sort out why.
"Qué?" I asked the third driver, anger creeping into my voice. "What?"
The man answered, an explanation spilling forth, sailing past me, followed by a shrug, his hands raised, palms outward, meaning there was nothing to be done. Who knew? Other forces were at play. The universe was being realigned. It was a gesture I would soon become familiar with and would use myself to fine effect.
Finally, in frustration, in a flurry of English directed at no one in particular, the one Spanish expletive I knew thrown in for good measure, I thrust my right arm up into the air and I grabbed my elbow with the palm of my hand, a gesture of contempt, or so I hoped. I then stalked off, heading in the direction of the bus station.
Passengers and drivers watched me walk away, my duffle in hand, some shaking their heads, perplexed, others grinning at this strange gringo who, for reasons that were a mystery, refused to take a cab ride to the next town. But in truth, who could understand the strange ways of the Norteamericanos?
Several days later I returned to the hotel, the bus again dropping me at the entrance.
Next to one of the pillars, just outside the entry, sat a man on a wooden pallet with casters attached at the corners. I had never seen him before.
Seeing me approach, he banged a large tin cup on the sidewalk. My first reaction was to quickly walk past the man, perhaps nodding but no more, feeling intimidated by his need, by the depths of his poverty. With one glance I knew that he lived in an abyss comprising struggle and pain and anger and humiliation.
But then I slowed and reached into my pocket and took out a 10 peso note and walked over to him. I thought he would hold out the cup so I could place the money inside. But he didn't. Instead he stared at me out of one eye. I saw that his other eye was a milky blue, covered with an impenetrable cataract.
"Why do you take the bus?" he asked. "You are a rich gringo, no?"
"No señor," I said. "I'm not rich.
He shifted on his palette, and I realized that his thin legs were useless, flaccid, and tucked under him. He was wearing a white shirt that was soiled and stiff, and tied together in the front with string. His long hair was matted and wild, his face a burnt sienna, deeply lined, a spare goatee and strands of beard barely concealing his jaw line. His hands were ravaged and gnarled, the nails blackened and broken, the knuckles of his fingers calloused from years of pushing himself along sidewalks and tarmac holding a block of wood in each hand.
Again I held out the 10 pesos and waited, my body leaning toward the entryway signaling that I was leaving.
Still he held back the cup and looked at me closely. "So, who are you, gringo? You are not rich. You don't arrive in a car. Tell me."
I took a step back in his direction, suddenly curious about this man and his unwillingness to quietly accept the 10 pesos that I still held in my hand.
I began to answer him and stopped. There was nothing I could say or do that would change anything. It was a truth that existed in that moment, and the idea that there was just six degrees of separation between us was sheer myth. I could no more change his life than he could change mine. It was what it was. And in that realization was a certain wisdom.
I looked at the man and took the 10 pesos and offered it to him and not his cup. "Aqui. Por favor," I said. Here. Please. Placing the note in his hand I walked into the hotel.
When I left the hotel later that afternoon he was gone. I did see him later, downtown, on the street, pushing himself along slowly, people moving around him, like a rock in a stream, clutching the blocks of wood in his hands, his cup now on a string, around his neck.
Over the next weeks and months, I sought him out, on a street corner, in a narrow alley, near a bus stop, and often, before I saw him, I would hear the banging of his tin cup. I would give him 10 pesos and he would say, "Pues, gringo, qué pasa?" What's happening? And little else. We would look at one another and I asked him how he was and he always nodded, saying, "Como siempre." As always. And soon I would leave and walk away toward my residencia, and I would say to myself, "Poco a poco." Little by little. One step, one day at a time.