There are some things you just can’t pass up in life, no matter how late you are for dinner or in this case, to the gym. I was dashing across Central Park in La Antigua when right in front of me in the municipality building was the first voter registration table manned by the TSE,– the Tribunal Supremo Electoral, Guatemala C.A. I slowed my pace down, not quite sure how fast this registration process would be, curious, but not ready to commit. Then the significance of it hit me: I had never registered to vote in Guatemala, the country of my birth, ever in my life. Not only that, but here I was a journalist, just finishing up a two-day international conference for journalists specifically focusing on the upcoming election on September 11. Was I about to just cruise on by? I don’t think so. But first, I popped out my cellphone to record a video of the process:
It took a total of five minutes, the fastest process I’ve gone through in Guatemala other than buying saldo or pre-paid funds for my phone. All I had to do was present my DPI, Documento Persona de Identificación, or my cedula, tell them where I live, sign the form, give a fingerprint and then I was done! At the end I got this voter registration form that I’m supposed to take with me in order to vote:
Since the TSE website informs us that the end of voter registration is only 13 days, 23 hours, 2 minutes and 27 seconds away (a lot less after you read this), I felt an urgency to start reading the voter guide. I put the registration form into my pocket, put my cellphone away and then I asked the incredibly helpful young man who walked me through this process (after he got through his initial disbelief that I’d never registered to vote) if he was going to give me a voter guide. He looked puzzled.
“What do you mean, a voter guide?” He asked more curious now than befuddled.
“Oh, something to tell me who the candidates are, what political party they represent and educational information about their position statements on main government topics.”
“We’re non-partisan, ma’am,” he said matter-of-factly. I smiled and told him that many countries provided educational information so voters are informed about the basic information and that that doesn’t mean partisanship, it just equates to an informed voter. He nodded his head and then his face lit up with the answer.
“That’s easy! You can just look at all their Facebook pages and find all their information there. Some of them have their own websites, but definitely, I’ve seen them all on Facebook.”
Some cities you just can’t sleep in and Oaxaca is one of those for me. I wake up Sunday morning on my second restless night of sweaty half-sleep. The rings under my eyes are dark and deep. I’m exhausted, but ready for the road to Tuxtla Guiterrez and possibly San Cristobal de las Casas. Before starting our climb back into the Sierras, now lush and green, we pass by Matatlan which the sign in large type over the road tells us is the “Mezcal Capital of the World.” It’s a sleepy dusty town with houses converted to storefronts selling bottles of mezcal.
“They should sell shots at each tumulo, (speed bump)” Brad says stating the obvious fact that we’re not on an autopista toll road. We’re on a curvy libre winding in and around the mountains. Sundays are great driving days in Mexico and Guatemala, no one is on the road and whoever you happen upon they’re not in a hurry to get anywhere. I imagine I am back in California headed to Big Sur. I scrawl the words at 45 degree angles as Brad rounds the corners adjusting to less speed, less ground. He loses patience fast. There’s no rushing through this terrain. Two hundred twenty two kilometers of this and I can see why we have a nine-hour day of driving ahead of us.
We go through three military checkpoints and are asked to go through a full inspection during one of them. Brad turns on my phone camera and keeps it on throughout the inspection. Where are you from? Where are you going? What’s in the back of the truck? Why are you crossing to Guatemala in La Mesilla and not Tapacula? You’re a student? Journalism? Yes, journalism.
Tehuanatepc 187 KM. The Sierra de Juarez is diverse – alternating from fertile green to dusty burned soil, both remote, raw and uncompromising. The guys in military fatigues with guns bigger than the length of their bodies, stare me down. I am direct and don’t chitchat. I prepare for the Guatemalan soldiers who have no sense of humor. I ask how long to Tuxtla Guiterrez, they say nine hours and I feign disbelief. They smile. “Depends on how fast you drive.” I can drive fast, as long as I don’t have any mezcal.
They smile big and nod. “Have a good trip, ma’am,” they tell me. We drive. That’s all we do at this point, drive and drive past desert, mountains, brush, vast swaths of agave, orange trees hugging tight turns, making sudden stops for tumulous at small towns where often it’s just one person writing for who knows how long until the next bus to take them to their destiny. We’re close to the Pacific, Puerto Escondido, Bahias de Huatulco. We’ll be leaving the state of Oaxaca soon and entering Chiapas. Brad starts a Devo playlist on his iPod, the complete opposite of what’s outside. We eat lunch at Mojades, in a small restaurant run by women cooking up fried fish fillets, tortillas and tamarindo. There’s a baby sleeping in a hammock in a tight little knot of hands, feet and head tucked into itself.
We sit on plastic lawn chairs watching the random car drive by, the neighbor across the road sweeping her one-room home and porch. The sun is so bright the dog at the bottom of the stairs squints in our direction.
A camioneta (bus) with “Oaxaca” pulls up next to our truck and the waitress comes out of the kitchen to warn the little boy playing with the soap bottle, washing the dirt: “Alli viene tu papa.” He timidly smiles and throws himself in the hammock. Out of the bus hops the ayudante, the helper, who lifts his son, kisses him, strokes the baby now in another woman’s arms, grabs a big bottle of tamarimdo juice, hops back on the bus where arms dangle out into the heat. and waves back to his son, nods his head and says “¡Provecho!” I sprinkle big grains of salt on my tomatoes and cucumber salad, squeeze two lemons on it. There’s a simple way to live. But not necessarily easier.
We’re really the worst tourists ever. Instead of touring Oaxaca, we got Brad a new birthday tattoo. Video of the whole thing will be posted up next week! Later in the evening, we see Brad continuing his birthday celebration well into the night.
After a good hour of holding it in through the nightmare that is Mexico City traffic, I finally had to pull over and drain the main vein. The fact that we were rolling bumper-to-bumper through one of the busiest arteries of Mexico City didn’t stop me. Imagine Market Street, Cesar Chavez and Divisidero twisted into one giant congested stretch. That was the scene and as my grandpa used to say, “my teeth were floating.” So fuck it, I forced my way off onto a minor artery, pulled out my major artery, and sprayed my name all over the side of a wall- Mexican placa style, homes!
So now the problem wasn’t my bladder- it was getting back onto that crazy freeway. You’re thinking gee, if there was an exit, surely there must be an entrance in the next kilometer or so, right? Ha ha ha you foolish, logical gringo. No, that periférico was totally adios, so Kara took out the Guia Roji and mapped out an alternate route.
Luckily for all you astute readers, our alternate route included a surprise street protest! As you’ll see in the below video, they’re all shouting “direchale!” at me which roughly translates to: “get the hell out of the way!” Once they started pounding on the truck with their fists, the exact meaning was immediately communicated, and we were Adios 5000!
It hailed as we drove through the Sierra Madre Sur headed to Oaxaca – first small white pepples of rock and then bigger white stones straight to earth and onto the truck windshield as the sky turned an atomic red. We landed on Mars. We stopped underneath an overpass and watched the stones bead on the black asphalt and then turn to droplets again.
It’s more rural, poorer here and Southern Mexico starts to look like Guatemala – unpainted gray cinder one or two-room houses surrounded by raw nature. It’s a beautiful drive on a two-lane toll road reminiscent of Highway 1 in California with the Pacific on your right like a still painting. Here it is the sudden drop-off into the bosom of the Sierras. We take it in, but we’re tired. It’s been a tough driving day. Morning rush out of San Miguel Allende resulted in our leaving our two prized Keetsa pillows among the general cotton ones on our friends’ luxurious kind-sized bed (oh the pain!); reaching Mexico City, Brad makes an emergency pit stop as we’re about to take the outer loop skirting downtown Mexico City and we’re stuck taking Lazara Cardenas all the way through the Zolcalo, into Lagunillas where we are in bumper to bumper in flea market traffic until the cop cars roll in and our truck is surrounded by a large group of protestors who slap and shake our car, “¡Derechale!”
We finally reach the toll road to Puebla, speeding along to reach three full-on construction roadblocks past Orizaba. The best social hour was two miles before we got on the toll road to Oaxaca and everyone got out of their cars to chat with the sudden entourage of street vendors. We waited for the machine laying down asphalt on the freeway to amble along. Then came the hail.
Now the sun is disappearing all too quickly behind the gray and we still have 90 Km through curvaceous terrain. It’s been a hard day and I am reminded of why we skip Oaxaca on our drives down. Southern Mexico prepares us and it feels like Guatemala too soon before Mexico ends in our minds.
There is still no doubt that Mexico’s toll roads are the best south of the U.S. border and north of Panama. At every construction stop the vendors pop out from the freeway shadows, an opportunity missed being worse than an unlaid road. I pull out my book and wait. Nothing, we’re still stalled. I take out our Guía Roji, our road atlas through Mexico, which has seen many a coffee spill, multi-colored highlighters, tears and yellowing from dog-eared pages. I trace Sunday morning’s route with my index finger.
Tomorrow, May 14, is Brad’s birthday, a traveling one at that and an auspicious entry into 37 exploring new roads and unknown cities far beyond the red mountainous horizon. Thirty-seven. At restaurants they still call us jovenes, young people because we have no children. Do children age you or keep you young? Do they, as mi abuelita tells me, help you mark the passage of time? Abuelita always wonders how we measure time since we don’t have children. I scoff at this narrow definition rulers for time, feeling more evolved because I use Google Calendar on my cellphone to remind me of everyone’s birthdays one week ahead of time.
As I push towards 35, I’m starting to understand what she really meant, this process of ripening, a fruit falling from the tree and that moment when it breaks from the branch as the knowledge of its own ripening, whether known or understood, saber or concur, to know or to experience it. To be so present in that moment in time that shapes what comes after. How will we measure time I wonder.
A falcon flies between the mountains, floats above the treetops ever so lightly. The air is moist outside and we descent into Oaxaca right before nightfall as the rain starts to fill the evening rush-hour streets.
San Miguel Allende is far from the madding crowd, farther still from the endless asphalt dropping us closer to Guatemala. It’s Dante’s descent, it’s Hermes’ flight, it’s Persephone’s re-entering the cave – the journey becomes the mental preparation for another way of life and challenges to things we hold close to us: safety, security, consistency, continuity, the protection of basic human freedoms. I will no longer be able to go out at night alone.
Ensconced somewhere beyond the rolling hills of Guanajuato, San Miguel is a familiar place with its 415 phone code and narrow colonial streets. It’s a small pearl buried in the folds. We always come in through the back door, past all the tumulos, and the mangy street dogs that can’t be bothered barking at passing cars. It’s a dry mountain heat and there is the politeness of a small town whose local fabric remains intact amid all the arbitrary violence in the rest of Mexico.
We guide ourselves in by the light of the cathedral, by the narrowing streets, by memory. There is a psycho-geography to things and the way they imprint themselves in our mind. I remember streets as far back as five-years-old in Lancaster, Pennsylvania during my morning walk to Catholic School. I return to these streets and it’s as if a string pulled me forward along the same path. This is San Miguel, this is our journey back until we pull up to our destination.
Once inside, the winds sweep the long thin cotton curtains in our bedroom and the lightening fills the sky before the evening’s rain. The drive recedes somewhere into the backwards in our minds. We let out a deep breath and are cradled into sleep.
They are burning the land in Nayarit to prepare it. Large plumes of black smoke fill the sky and then are swept into the white wisps hiding the sun. The road winds between wide lush valleys, foothills to mountains, the horizon ends where green meets the blue.
“We’re not making good time today,” Brad proclaims. But time makes itself and we follow it. Nothing has stayed consistent, not the landscape, not the road, not the hours, we keep losing them as we head South and East. It is foolish to even measure progress, but I tell him we’re doing fine.
Leaving Mazatlan was the maze that killed the mouse with all its detours, craters full of steel, cement, overpasses, widening and thinning roads, people as extensions of all the rubble. In the morning we saw the sun rise over the Golf of California, saw the mist over the ocean as the heat inland was pulled towards it and a few pedestrians ventured the cold, rough waters. Outside the sleepy tourist town barely opened its doors at 9 AM as we wandered around looking for our one big meal of the day.
The Sierra Madre Occidental frames the East and we continue to push South and then inland towards Guadalajara. The tolls don’t go under $61 pesos ($5.30 USD); the highest was the one to Tepic, $171 pesos ($14.86 USD). Lovely road, but can’t say I’ve ever paid that much for a toll road outside of Mexico for a 150 KM stretch. It explains the emptiness of the roads and the sporadic Federales, federal police, who randomly pick speeders. A joke really when we’re all more than the 100 KM per hour speed limit, over by at least 30 more kilometers.
I get lost in the terrain and my foot slips off the pedal dropping my speed below the 80 MPH –Brad’s requisite measurement for our progress. He tries not to say anything, but the silence says it all. We are not making good time because of you. It’s true, I forget destinations. The journey gives me peace. I have learned this, there’s nothing like a 3,300 mile road trip to test a marriage, over and over again.
We reach Tepic, population 336, 413. Really? Jalisco awaits and so does the four-lane freeway with triple digit tolls. We’re talking four-lane freeways of unbroken lovely new asphalt, no Federales, no topes, no towns, no nothing to stymie this forward catapult.
Pedal to the metal and Brad hits 80-85-90 MPH while I doze off. Between waking I see the steep red canyons of the Sierra Madre and they’ve swallowed us completely in their folds. We’ left the coast and it hurts me to be that far from the water. We’ve entered Central Mexico: Aguascalientes, San Luis Potosi, Guanajuato, Queretaro, Hidalgo, León, D.F. The rains descend upon us washing away the insect corpses splattered against our windshield. Rains, thunder, and rumbling from the Gods.
There’s an edge to Sinaloa. In less than two hours we go through three security checkpoints – military men with rifles, dark sunglasses and crisp blue uniforms sizing you up to determine whether or not you must get out of your car for further questioning, or simply wave you on for the next 50 KM. These checkpoints are on top of all the tolls, construction and gas stops we must make. We don’t stop for anything else.
This is the way to get through Sinaloa- as quickly and unnoticed as possible.
We’re getting closer to the Pacific Ocean, you can smell it in the air and the heat is different. It’s no longer dry and dusty, it sits under your armpits and above your upper lip. I put my hand above my brow to protect from the sun when I get out for gas. I try to talk to the gas attendants asking them what’s up ahead, any trouble, any news. The light is more direct, blinding. You’re exposed.
We drive past Los Mochis and the corn stalks start to grow in small patches and then entire deep green fields brushed by the wind and reaching as far as the base of the Sierra Madre foothills where the border with Sinaloa and Durango hangs. Closer to the Golfo de California I imagine all the fishing villages, Las Arenitas, Boca del Rio San Lorenzo, places that stand as a time capsule, a life lived as a farmer, a worker, a fisherman, the old man, the sea.
Two hours from Mazatlan and while I can’t say we’ve taken our shoes off yet, we’re definitely well inside. The road resonates, the imprint manifests from the last two trips, intelligent genes pumping their DNA into our blood streams as we inhale the landscape like air itself.
Small sunflowers grow among the corn and eucalyptus trees line the road on both sides. It’s hard to tell what lays at rest in their shade – fruit vendors, a man fixing his motorcycle, a family waiting to cross the road, a man sleeping against the trunk of the tree with his sombrero over his face, arms crossed against his chest and his legs entwined like roots. There’s nobody on the road except a few tractor trailers, and newer vehicles with completely opaque limousine-tinted windows like us. The toll roads remind you of the privatization of things that should be public infrastructure. I shake my head at the insane costs of the roads as we stop at yet another cuota. A large crowd of people in white t-shirts suddenly surround the toll booths before we reach the front of the line. Their t-shirts read “No a Las Casetas, Si a Las Libres.” No to the tolls, Yes to the public roads. The cars line up and idle as the crowd of 100 or so gathers in the lane next to us, then march over to overtake our lane.
Mainstream TV news camera crews film every car that passes without paying and I wonder what time we’ll be the news tonight. When it’s our turn to pay, I reach for my money, look at the group of protestors, then at the toll collector and I don’t know what to do. Finally the toll collector lifts the gate and waves us through. Everyone cheers and claps. In the United States we would get ticket in the mail. Here in Mexico, I honk my horn in solidarity and drive on to seamless road.
Knowing more doesn’t necessarily equate to feeling more control, more groundedness in that knowledge. Knowing more can be quite unnerving – you are more aware of the myriad ways things can go wrong so quickly and in awe at the small needle hole that has to exist for things to go right. The question for me is always how do you stay optimistic, maintain a beginner’s mind in the face of that knowledge of the inevitable entropy of all things?
At the Nogales border it’s every runaway thought for itself, stories spun from news stories about the rising drug-related violence in Mexico, the mass graves, the bus raids, the extortions and kidnappings, the passing through a narco-war torn country. At the Aduana I pray to the Virgin de Guadelupe to keep us safe and show us the right path.
Out there is only the expanse of the desert, all brush and the heavy curtain of heat and blue sky. Everything opens into it, movement slows, things wither, toughen, create another skin – the Palo Verde blooms yellow flowers, the cacti stand eternal, and everything braces for high noon. We race across the uneven two-land road headed south to Hermosillo, the capital of the State of Sonora, our gateway into the rest of Mexico.
Discovery: El Claro, Los Chinos, El Oasis. My nerves relax into the landscape, evaporate like water from the land. Out here it’s a balance between movement and rest, openness and closure, destination and seeking.
The jagged desert rocks are painted with names “Chito y Juana” billboards for past and current loves, until the sun’s fading.
Our truck feels like a canon and our bodies the canon balls bring hurled through this terrain. Today we put our feet in the door, tomorrow we enter completely, a drive of 12 hours and the next day ten more. It doesn’t get any easier from here. We just find peace with one passing kilometer after the other.
This is the dude who makes photocopies of your important documents at one of the many Aduanas (customs offices) in Mexico. Like all good bureaucratic agencies in Central America, they require copies of everything, and this guy is basically the on-site Kinko’s. Anyway, he’s obviously enjoyed a bit of downtime to be able to build some terrific little model cars, trucks and campers. Some even double as jewelry boxes. Here’s a detail of one of his works-in-progress:
We started our drive from Oakland to Guatemala today, first stop: Venice Beach. Tomorrow we go to Phoenix and then we cross the border at Nogales over the weekend. We’ll be posting up photos, words and videos every day – stay tuned!
You always think you’ve made it past certain places in your life that like points on a grid, create lines deep inside you etched in skin, sweat and memory. Your being winds around the labyrinthian turns that you took for straight lines, endless and at times wide stretches of possibility that in fact could explain how curiousity killed the cat, simply by inviting him in towards his disbelief. And so I think about the imminent departures, the living out of a car, old childhood drawings locked up in basement storages deep under kitchen utensils, favorite books sold out of garages, family photos wrapped in blankets; I think of my wedding dress shrink wrapped for the next three years, frozen in time, grandpa’s gold watch unwound. In unburying I bury again, the journal from my childhood moving from town to town, the daughter of an immigrant, of a coyote, finding crevices to pour herself into, shadow puppet freedom. But that was then and yet it is now, now by choice, re-creating it with the pompousness of ostrich feathers at full bloom. Not I, this time. I find myself not alone in this recasting, more troubling in a way for the responsibility; I step into that terrain with husband in tow, to test the lines, like a spider’s silk fibers suspended above the earth. “Hay un precio para todo,” mi mama reminds me. There is a price for everything. “Everything?” I’d ask. “Sí, para todo.”
I’m selling my wedding dress and I’m sure my mother doesn’t want me cryogenize it, freeze it and preserve it for posterity. She quietly backed into the topic while were were talking on the phone about the minutia of moving back to Guatemala, to all of Central America, but for three years this time. It starts out with a simple question: “What will you do with your wedding dress?” Right now it’s on eBay, Craigslist and a boutique wedding dress website that will pour oodles of bridezilla money down my way for a new digital camera or feed into the new Toyota Tundra fund. It’s only a matter of time.
“Well you know I was thinking, maybe if you decide to ever adopt a little girl, maybe she could wear the dress?” What little girl mom? An imaginary girl somewhere in the future? And what if she doesn’t get married, what if she’s gay, what if she’s obese, what if she couldn’t care less about a yellowing lace dress that her mother had kept all these years just for her to wear, for what, exactly so her mother has a visual symbol of the continuity? What if I’m the last person she wants to be reminded of?
“Well, then, you could have your dressed preserved, like people’s bodies get preserved or frozen.” I should freeze my dress?
“I was just saying, mija, what if you change your mind? I could keep it for you.” The last time, I remind her, she safely stored anything of mine was when I left for college and she and my stepfather forgot to pay storage and all my boxes of photos, art, books, clothes and my favorite oak desk were sold by some random guy in North Carolina backwoods town. “But I don’t do that sort of thing anymore.” The scorpion bites and the frog jumps, ma. “I’m not a scorpion.” No, but you’re a fire and you burn through things. “People change.” Maybe, but their essence stays the same. And what does any of this have to do with selling the dress? I wasn’t listening. I was going to sell it and that was that. “Lo voy a vender, si solo es un vestido.”
I understand,” she said quietly. I immediately got off the phone and told her I was going for a run. Estaba alterada. I ran and I ran, against the wind, as the sun peered through the mounting gray clouds. I thought perhaps like reverse engineering, my mother was reverse inheriting a legacy. Perhaps because she never had a vestido de novia, she wished she’d had one to present to me, a gift a mother gives to her daughter, of herself, of her innocence, of her youth, of her hopes and dreams embodied in one dress that women in the US and UK were now burning in protest of the bridal industrial complex. I felt her sadness now in her silence. She always accepted my revolt, because in part it was hers.
She would keep it for me because that would be her gift, that would be our tie formed from myself to her, a trust as fragile as the lace that lined the blusher draping over my back. She’d spent hours on my hair before the wedding. It’s all I wanted from her, to take the tangles out. My scalp throbbed for hours later. I sat crossed-legged on the chair with my little radio listening to the news and she hummed to herself.
A pear cannot fall from an apple tree. If I had listened I would have heard the branch rustle. I would have heard the fruit’s journey through space, time a moment’s breath, as it fell towards it destiny, hit hard against the ground – a noise perhaps no one would ever hear. It would use the momentum of gravity to exert some will into its final place and then bide time under the sun.
Our friend, the talented and resourceful Mark Kendall, is almost done with his documentary film, LA CAMIONETA.
After 10 years or 150,000 miles on the road, many school buses in the United States are deemed no longer usable and often end up at one of the country’s many used bus auctions. From there, a sizable percentage of these buses end up in Guatemala, where they are converted into camionetas. Beginning at a used school bus auction in the States and following one bus and its new owner on their 3,000 mile journey across two borders to the highlands of Guatemala, LA CAMIONETA will document the entire process of how a school bus is bought, sold, exported, re-equipped and, ultimately, reborn. This film will explore the personal, social, and economic realities that fuel the trajectory of a school bus’s life.
Kara and I both witnessed Mark’s determination, skill and just plain hard work last year as he was filming in Guatemala. It’s pretty incredible what that skinny gringo captured as he made the trip from a used school bus auction in the States and followed one bus and its new owner on their 3,000 mile journey across two borders to the highlands of Guatemala. Check out the trailer and visit Mark’s Kickstarter page to help him complete this awesome movie!
Nothing like running errands on a Sunday afternoon to get a crash course in the weekend habits of Chileanos in Santiago. After a four-hour nap I woke up to my trusty shortwave radio blasting bad 1980s hits. I dragged my disconcerted self out of a bed which faces the balcony overlooking the Cerro Santa Lucia where I was already plotting a Monday run. I threw the androgynous parachute pants on, just to play it safe and get the street pulse. Cloth bag over my chest, I mentally prepared to part with any of the goods inside of it should it come down to that.
I jotted a few things: electric plug converter, hairbrush, SIM chip for my cellphone, a hot spot (the Internet was down at the hotel, not surprising), bottled water (the water from the tap tasted like chlorine), and Peruvian ceviche. It was an eclectic mix of needs, but I promised myself a partially successful mission.
Already I had realized from ambling around the Santiago airport and shuttle ride chatting with sleep-deprived locals that Chilenos are in fact, much like the older, more prudent brother. Quiet, tranquil, unswayed by the day to day dramas. The proved to be good listeners. With at Chileno I was starting to feel there was never really a need to shout or lose your cool. They had a quiet hustle, with very little bustle to it and a shrewd paying of attention to the right details.
I had begun to appreciate the Chileno. They were used to tourists, knowing exactly the subtleties of navigating someone through their country’s customs. That became obvious when I tried to order a cappuccino and created a state of confusion between the tightly clad barista, showing plenty of leg in an industry that is more like bartending; the cashier (who takes your money and issues you a ticket for admission to your much-needed drink), and the owner of the cafe carefully reading his Sunday newspaper at the front desk.
It was hot, it was muggy, I wanted an iced cappuccino. I knew I was asking a lot, but I had to do it. I had to know sooner, rather than later, where Chile was with customer service and picky people like myself.
The two women were confused by my request iced cappuccino request. I was quickly ushered over to the owner who raised his eyes from the newspaper. He peered at me over his bifocals. “So what you want is a separate cup of ice and also the espresso and milk?”
Yes, I told him, just a separate cup of ice. It’s true, I had wimped out when his eyes penetrated right through me and made me forget all my two years of barista knowledge back in college. He nodded his head at the cashier behind me. I walked back not daring to turn my back to him. She gave me a ticket and then I quickly walked over to the slinky barista in the spandex black dress. I gave the the stub to her.
“So separate cup of ice and no sugar?” No, I wanted it plain. “Crema?”
Of course, I want crema, milk that is. She moved to the espresso machine with a confidence I had not noticed in her before. The men watched from the corner of their eyes without turning their heads.
She poured the espresso, brought the ice, and the mineral water (compliments of the house) and began steaming the milk. I was in good hands. I relaxed. On both sides of me were two locals – a tour guide and a cab driver. The tour guide lit his cigarette, offered me one, I turned it down. He then asked softly, but not timidly where I was from.
“Guatemala,” I said. “Via the United States.”
“That’s a combination you don’t often hear,” he said. He puffed placidly on his cigarette. It was a standing up cafe, so we all quietly leaned in to listen to one another, conspiratorially. Here was our tryst. He looked over and signaled to me with his pursed lips that the barista was coming. I was aghast when I saw the swirls of whipped cream on my otherwise perfect cappuccino. She noticed it in my face.
“Thank you,” I said reluctantly taking it.
“You don’t like it?” She asked.
“Oh I do, very much,” I said and started scooping the whip cream off. Her face looked beyond confused. She looked over to the cashier and then back to me. “Oh, you didn’t want it with crema?”
“I’m sorry, I just didn’t know crema in Chile meant whipped cream. In Guatemala it’s sometimes used interchangeably with milk.”
She politely picked up the coffee, “Permitame, no hay problema.” She set the lovely frappucchino next to the espresso machine and then returned. “What you really want is a cortado grande con espuma. I will make it, no problem, but you have to get another ticket from the cashier.”
Of course, that was the logical, orderly and sensible thing to do. So I went up to the cashier who then shuffled me over to the owner again who this time put down his paper, neatly folded his glasses and pushed himself off the counter. He opened the barn door to his stall and walked me over to the coffee counter where the barista and my new friends where. I dragged my feet behind him.
“Let me explain to you how our coffee works,” he told me in the gentlest and most patient voice. For the next five minutes he explained their entire menu to me. The entire cafe leaned in for this important lesson. He might as well have had a microphone. When he finished, there was silence. He then nodded his head at the barista. That was her cue. He waited right next to me chit chatting until she came with my new coffee.
He waited until I sipped it and smiled. It was delicious. “Muchísimas gracias.” He nodded in approval to all.
“Disfrute su cafe y bienvenida a Chile.”
And the ceviche you ask? I got that, too, although it proved a little easier at the local Aji Seco:
Santiago, Chile – There are many things mi mama taught me – many of which I wasn’t prepared to learn until adulthood, but slowly the knowledge seeps into the roots. One of the most important things she taught me is to be fluent in Spanish. We struggled over it. At school I spoke English, at home, it was only Spanish. She didn’t care what the nuns said, she didn’t care how many people teased me, she didn’t care how important it was to me to sound American. “Tu lenguaje es tu cultura, es de donde vienes.” Your language is your culture, it is where you’re from. She taught me to remember my culture by living its reality in the words I shaped wherever I went.
Spanish has served as an immediate lifeline, connecting me to what will soon be, by 2050,10 percent of the world population. Anywhere the winds take me, even in Taiwan, there is always someone I connect to immediately in Spanish at the most basic level of interaction from taking a bus to ordering food.
This morning as I stepped out of the airport into Santiago, Chile – thick layer of gray cloud topped with the red ball of sunrise – I was grateful again that not a few minutes after I set foot in another continent, after surviving a 12-hour flight, I spoke my mother tongue, as my mother had intended it. At the very least I did my best.
It does help that the culture of airports is similar in Latin America: a dubious entry process and close-up encounters with customs officials, babies screaming, six giant bags per person and then the wall of people that greets you as you part the sea of taxis with hand scrawled signs. Before you know it, drivers have attached themselves like plankton as you make for the open sea.
At dawn Santiago is not a pretty city. It is not Oaxaca, Mexico; it is not La Antigua, Guatemala. It is a dusty, sleepy, colonial city somewhere in Latin America where the street dogs don’t look as desperate or decimated and there’s a certain peace that lingers in the emptiness of the Sunday streets where not a single church bell rings and the buses don’t spew out plumes of black smoke. On the radio I hear old Chilean ballads from the 70s, before I was even born, or perhaps as I was coming into being in a completely different reality. In another country, where I was born. But I could just as easily, just as randomly, have been born here.
Kara stumbled on this photo of the Lancetillo kids and me from last year. Most of these kids don’t have a lot of experience behind a computer so it’s all new and shiny to them. As I was showing them my MacBook Pro, they expressed an interest in viewing any photos I had. Lucky for them, I obsessively collect images of all sorts: internet memes, wiggly .gifs, graphic design inspiration, weird old archival stuff and personal photos. As I recall, here were some of their favorites:
This is a pic I took a few years ago of my friend Jay & Eilleen’s two boys. The Lancetillo kids were pretty much in awe of the hair. ¡Que estraño!
I collect old ads because, ahem, “I’m in the biz.” This one got a lot of giggles because, well, it’s a man spanking a woman and they’re a bunch of Catholic school kids who’ve probably never seen anything like this. Needless to say I clicked through this one pretty quick.