the road

The Roads

This town is designed for walking. Within the length of a city block from my house are four pulperias. They sell everything from toilet paper to packaged cookies to produce to used clothes. Within a one mile radius are scads more pulperias and hardware stores, used clothing stores, produce stands, bakeries, and stalls that sell tacos and baleadas, underwear, watches, and fans, pharmacies, restaurants, cafes, clinics, churches, and two supermarkets. New stands appear every day. The only parking lot is that of the new supermarket, and while the store is crowded inside, the lot is mostly empty.

Until I reach the commercial area with its two paved parallel streets, I can walk anywhere in the road with little fear of being squashed by cars. At times this is required because a portion of the dirt and rock road is filled with a large puddle or is too rocky or uneven. The road isn’t much wider than a car, so there really isn’t any side to keep to. The street can be noisy, but it’s usually the noise of conversation, music, kids yelling, and roosters proclaiming some edict or other. Nothing rushes by faster than I could run, except a mountain bike braving the downward rocky slope. Cars that do pass barely crawl above 5 mph because the road is so uneven.

Everything is snug and huddled close. The houses are within speaking distance. The tallest building has two stories.

For while I’ve been gnawing on why I don’t mind walking to the supermarket everyday but would groan at the thought of doing that back in Portland, where the distance between house and grocery is comparable. I live in a “walkable” neighborhood, which in the US means there are sidewalks on most of the streets and a grocery store within a mile of my house. But it’s noisy. I have to stand at stop signs to wait for car (and bike) traffic to pass. The road is much wider than speaking distance and the buildings tall. It’s neat, contained, and no doubt all regulated by some sort of rule. And while I could walk in the middle of many of the side streets, I haven’t the desire since it all is black asphalt, without the proximity of trees, houses, any sort of character. After all, they are often wide enough to fit two cars, with more cars parked along the side of the road. I’m a dwarfed speck amidst the hubbub of machines, the shadows of apartment buildings. People walk protected in a self-contained armor of haste, preoccupation, cell phone, and distance. Doors are very much closed and sit separate from the street. Walkability is relative.

Here, every window has bars and houses sit behind barriers of some sort, yet the door might be only a curtain, laundry hangs in the yard, people are in the doorway or at the gate or hanging that laundry. The doorway is open and someone is watching television. It’s open, and yes that can be annoying when that means having those eyes on me, but often if I look up the eyes won’t shy away. Maybe they’ll smile or not.

[I interrupted this entry to write: Am I really writing about walking? Maybe, again, I’m really writing about fitting in? I look at everything through the lens of my previous life; objectivity is non-existent, in the end.] 

I am also cloaked in a silence that comes with the language barrier. I don’t have to fear being spoken to by a familiar face, beyond a greeting, because s/he knows I won’t understand. Back home, I would cross the street, turn a corner to avoid an acquaintance if I wasn’t feeling capable of awkward small talk. Here, that acquaintance and I warmly—at least on my side—acknowledge each other’s existence and then move along, little risk of small talk.

I am in no way idealizing the roads, not that this is really a post about them, is it? The roads are covered in trash. During a heavy rain, the bottom of our road floods and unless I want to walk several additional blocks to circumvent the pond, the only passage is through and, depending on the length of the rain, the water and other muck may reach knee height. Navigating the holes and rocks makes for moderate ankle-twisting ambulation or head- and rib-knocking driving/riding. The roads have been “repaired” since I’ve been here, meaning that piles of dirt were spread to fill the holes. Gradually, the heavy rains are exposing the gaps and large rocks. On other roads, gravel is used to fill the same areas over and over. Some kids miss school on rainier days. Our class trip to San Pedro was cancelled due to mudslides. The highway, with its lack of lights and many holes, is teeth clenching at night as cars swerve across the obstacle course .

I assume that poverty prevents car ownership and that many people would prefer to have a car. Or would they? Moto-taxis go anywhere within town for ten lempiras (USD 0.50) and bus connections take a person just about anywhere in the country. I’ve seen women unloading tuk-tuks stuffed with plantain-laden branches and tuk-tuks transporting construction equipment, the length of the wood or metal bars three times that of the little three-wheeler. And there is nothing quite like riding in a shared vehicle. A van that claims to seat ten will easily fit twenty-five if you leave the sliding door open so that passengers can grip the roof and stand on the runners. One of my students balanced three other boys on his bike and rode them all to football practice. People make do quite well, as you do when you have to. When you don’t have to…everything and everyone separates, I imagine.

So what is this post really about? I’ve touched on cars, roads, walking, poverty, language barriers. Maybe it’s about the pleasures—to an introverted outsider—of a smaller (adjective chosen without the slightest condescension and with full awareness of how much could change with improved technology and infrastructure) world. Whenever I return to something that resembles my previous life, I have no doubt I will miss the community and quiet and coziness of a walk down the road.

Ta ta,

theresa

P.S. This may be the only time I say that the town is quiet. In most other ways, it is anything but.

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Smiling

Thank you for smiling

I never knew just how much I rely on smiling in business exchanges. It happens less now, but I when I purchase something from the secret pulperia (a pulperia semi-hidden behind a wall) and the owner doesn’t smile, I wonder if I insulted her, was rude, or if my purchases were annoying. When she does smile, I walk down her steps content, even if she’s out of the tortillas or tajadas I requested. This type of interaction repeats everywhere: the produce stands, the school supply store, and the supermercado where the clerks tend to look rather bored, though that’s probably just their resting faces. The clerks and owners are polite, but there’s no smile to accompany their Buenas/Hola or Gracias and, despite repeated exposure, I replay the interaction, looking for my offense, searching for the smile.

Resting face

My neutral face looks a little sad.

Articles, discussion threads, and studies about cultural differences often cite the “friendliness” or “politeness” or “smileyness” of the U.S. population (just google “culture” + “smiling”). Depending on the author, this is either praised as welcoming or disparaged as sign of the culture’s falsity. In my previous life, when I read these articles I would think of frozen-faced flight attendants as they waved me off the plane or the grumpy check-out person who definitely did not smile while helping me, the supposed British stiff upper lip or the rumor that Germans have no sense of humor … but I wouldn’t really understand what the author was talking about. People in the U.S. smile too much? Yes, some are bad at faking it, but what does “too much” mean? After all, I come from the land of smile therapy.

Now I think I understand, at least a little. As much as the disinterested facial expression causes the furrow between my brows to deepen into a canyon, why is it reasonable to expect a smile during our business transaction? I need something, s/he supplies it. Why does s/he need to appear thankful, and why do I either when it comes down to it? Does this transaction give either one of us significant pleasure? In the day-to-day, probably not. It’s about supply and demand. Let’s keep it honest and not muddle it with emotions. I find working in customer service, particularly in a store, face-to-face with customers, exhausting. I have to fake enthusiasm for a stranger and her/his purchases for 8 hours. Really, while I wish the customer no ill will, I rarely could care less. I’m there because I need money and the customer is there because s/he needs what I happen to be selling. I and the store I’m in are no more than a convenience. Yes, I’m happy to have a job and I will serve you with the courtesy you deserve as a human being, but why am I required to make it personal? Does it have something to do with the U.S. prioritizing industry and money over humanity? I’m sure there is a profit margin attached to a smile, or what appears as a smile, because a genuine smile can’t be imitated. (Accept no imitations, folks!)

Smiley face.

I don’t really smile like this, but I look happy.

Despite my burgeoning awareness, I continue to seek out the smile. I frequent the same licuado stand because the young man always smiles during our exchanges. I doubt our secret pulperia has better prices than my usual produce stand, but the young girl who occasionally helps me can be so goofy, thus I buy bananas. In the States, I will return to a store if the clerks smile, even if the prices are slightly higher. That’s my reaction to an upturn of lips or baring of teeth, but what is the reaction of someone used to a less smiley culture? A culture that doesn’t equate smiling with competency and courtesy? (There have been reams written on this topic and my question doesn’t merit notice, so I’d rather ponder and navel gaze than research at the moment.) Conversely, I am slightly more comfortable with not accompanying my Gracias with a smile if I’m not feelin’ it. I’m less afraid that I will be found rude.

Besides, smiling causes wrinkles, and who wants that? Hmm…maybe cultures that smile less are secretly obsessed with appearing youthful. No, that’s the U.S. Never mind.

(No, I really don’t care about wrinkles. Well, not much, yet.)

Shake your ta-tas,

theresa

P.S. Having a mouth close up at the top of this post may not be the best decision.

P.P.S. Feeling a little bit of the goof today, in case you couldn’t tell. And while we’re on the topic of goof and smiling, Miranda rarely fails to evoke my genuine smile.

Hunger

In the States I was always hungry for what I didn’t have, for who I wasn’t.

In Portland, a city of, among other people, fashionable, hip(ster) types, I always wanted. To have pretty clothes, a thin yet busty frame on which to hang those clothes, hair styled with the right amount of sass and nonchalance, make-up that accentuated the right features, with just a splash of whimsy, a shiny computer, a shiny bike, and eclectic, comfortable, and colorful home decor. An attitude of You Wish You Were Me. Because this, with my tunnel vision, is what I saw everywhere, in walking down the street, or biking to work, or going to the grocery store, or sitting in the lobby of a theatre. Even at the library I would see something I longed for, perhaps previously unknown. I lived in a very trendy part of town. A short walk supplied a day’s worth of ego crushing eye candy, sometimes enough to send me back to bed, burrowing beneath the sheets, simultaneously wishing to be and live in pretty and wishing it not to matter. I pinched my excess flesh in the mirror. I sighed at the sight of my 4 work outfits. I drooled at Modcloth and friends on Facebook, among too many others.

[I feel I should mention that it was my choice to live without much of the means to my desired ends. I worked part-time for 7 years so that I could pursue creative fantasies that paid nil. After awhile I grew resentful that I had to choose. And ashamed. Although, even if I did have the money, I wouldn’t have the skill to put together all the pieces of the person I wanted to look like or the world I wanted to see.]

Of course, I would also see people who had little, some by choice and others not, and would try to use those images to counterbalance the ache. Isn’t that what you’re supposed to do when focussing on the superficial?

Here, I’m not bombarded with these images. Being thin doesn’t seem to be fetishized, nor starving yourself (I happily accept your extra plantains.), and while the women may dress well, they’re rarely fashions I would want. Make-up uncommon on faces I see daily. Fancy computers non-existent. Bikes functional, not fashionable. Furniture plastic chairs. Houses concrete blocks. I look in the mirror to balance my pig tails, check for zits, and seldom else. Sure, some of the co-volunteers are my thin ideal and all are more fashionable than I, but I don’t think much about it. I have no one to impress. I want less, although if that’s due to lack of reminders or just exhaustion, I don’t know.

One day I will return to the States, to the land of desire and want and don’t haves and shoulds, and the hungry gremlins will return, because they’re still there. I do want pretty dresses, I still want to know how to wear make-up on sparkly occasions, I want to know how to style my hair, I want a new computer. I want pretty. I like shiny objects. It’s not that I’ve figured out what’s important—I know the important—only suppressed these desires. I don’t look forward to the want, the hunger, the sighs. Want wastes so much energy and what I want are unnecessaries.

Or are they? Is there anything wrong with wanting pretty? Or is the wrong in that it means so much?

Briefly,

theresa

P.S. This is only the tip of my complicated thoughts on this topic. No doubt I will revisit. Stay tuned!

P.P.S. Sloths really like zucchini.

Placencia view

Placencia and Virginia Woolf

A week ago I returned from a blink of an eye trip to Placencia Village, Belize, a touristy beach peninsula with one main road. The transition back to school and its surroundings, even after such a brief excursion, was rough, but I think I’m back.

IMG_1543
Technically we are here on tourist visas, 90 day stamps issued upon entrance. We can’t tell immigration we’re volunteers. While the school’s attorney works on our residency visas, something that is years in the attempt, we have to leave the country every 90 days, linger outside the border for a few hours or days, and re-enter. Guatemala isn’t good enough because it’s in the CA-4 region. The closest qualifiable escape destination is Belize, an 11 hour, 5 bus, 1 boat journey, plus 1 more and a taxi since we went to Placencia. Add in 2 currency exchanges and 2 border crossings. All for a two day stay.
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And what a stay it was. NevMy roomer have I so relished having my own room (see: A Room of One’s Own), hot shower water, potable water from the faucet, the ability to flush toilet paper, a reasonably quick internet connection. Consistent power. Consistent water. Miles upon miles of town to wander without accompaniment. The locals and I spoke the same language. (English is the official language though most speak Spanish or Creole as their home language.) These are all things I’ve taken for granted during my life, except for the past three months.

Oh delicious solitude here in luxury let me compose an ode to thee…the quiet, the independence, the crickets calling in the night.

Our inn was a minute to the beach, if that. Being the offseason, a little stormy, it was mostly deserted, a little seaweedy, with trash among the weeds. Between the inn and the sand ran a skinny sidewalk—or the skinny sidewalk that the town is known for—that I ambled down to the tip of the peninsula to find breakfast at a spot known for its smoothies and stuffed fryjacks, doughy pieces of bliss filled with beans, eggs, and cheese. That first morning, after breakfast, I walked along the shore, back to the inn, sandals in hand. I waved to one or two locals, admired the vast blue-gray water spreading west, calculated how to move there. Calculated how many meals I could reasonably squeeze into my stomach in two days. I observed happiness.

The Copán trip was full of aOliverdventures; this was much quieter. I swam, exposed my thighs to sun, read in my room, on the porch, on the beach, in a cafe, avoided, mostly, the other volunteers, except for a brief bike ride north of the village center on new bikes with extremely uncomfortable saddles, and met a parrot named Oliver. I met two delightful women who run a cafe called Brewed Awakenings. The cafe served espresso, even decaf, chai lattes and kombucha (what?!), and delicious, luscious shakes with seaweed powder harvested sustainably. They stressed the coffee was roasted and the chai spices grown locally. (“Sustainable”? “Local”? Haven’t heard those emphasized in awhile.) The women, who spoke different Creole dialects, I was informed, admired my hair on the first visit, greeted me familiarly the second, and gave me a departing hug the third and final time. I wish I could have tucked them into my pocket and carried them back. Surely the locals need to experience the joys that are chai and kombucha and sustainably grown seaweed?

Delightful sums up those 2 days. I don’t like thinking too much about the trip, actually, because the transition back to life here, reality some would say, was painful, literally. Respites are necessary but the cost of re-entry may be too high at the moment. I fantasize about the solitude. The reading a book on the porch with frequent breaks to watch the cat descend the stairs into the rain at the house across the way. Walking along a deserted sidewalk to breakfast. Swimming alone in the ocean, chasing the waves. No one needing anything from me. And not worrying about anything. I could have done that for a very

long

time.

Sign: Judge a person by the contents of his character not the color of his skin.IMG_1551
As I wandered, I wondered, of course. How can I have these moments of happiness more often, not just while I’m in Honduras, but ever? Or not happiness, but satisfaction and contentment, with bliss highlights. Over the past few years I’ve read so many blogs that say you get those by Doing What You Want Or Are Good At. Often this means the blogger is on a beach making money writing a blog about giving out advice on happiness. It’s circular, isn’t it? The people who are happy are writing blogs about how to be happy. So to be happy I should just write a blog about how to be happy, but anecdotal evidence and cherry-picking pop psychology aren’t my style, neither is cleverness, obviously. All this aside, how do I get here, to this beach, to what it represents? I want to believe that it can happen for me, but I don’t. I think it requires a sparkle of magic dust or a massively huge sense of self-worth that isn’t growing in this little garden.

I met a man from Vancouver B.C. who moved his family here a few months ago. They’ve rented a house for a year. Yep, the dream is real. I didn’t inquire after his secret, but our conversation lead me to suspect money.

Well, those last bits are little downers, aren’t they?

Other interesting trip moments: Puerto Barrios, Guatemala—Look at all these women driving and riding on motorcycles and mopeds!

Rapidito to Frontera (border), Honduras—A 60+ year old Guatemalan man and I have a very rough conversation. Honduras is dangerous, Guatemala is beautiful, he has a friend in New York, or maybe it was Florida. I enjoy the conversation but wonder if I should be worried that he will get off at our stop and then want something. This is actually something I fear in any stranger-meeting conversation, no matter where I am. Sigh. Introversion + anxiety = distrust of anyone.

Placencia grocery store—Should I buy this dark chocolate Milky Way bar for the shear reason I haven’t even had the option in months?

I suppose I will end this post dangling and unresolved. I want to keep Placencia in a little bag like some precious object. Once I was happy here.

Permanently,

theresa

Me with a bike, looking bad ass.

I attempt to look bad ass with my purple bike.