Wednesday, September 30, 2015

The Call of the Tropics

I’ve done it. Reserved a flight for Barranquilla, Colombia in three weeks time. It’s been a long-time wish of mine to return to the barrios in Barranquilla where I served as a Peace Corps Volunteer. Fifty years have passed, yet the imprint left by those experiences and those people continues strong. A formal invitation in Spanish arrived by email announcing a ceremony commemorating a total of twenty-five years of Peace Corps service in Colombia. Not twenty-five consecutive years as for many years as it was considered unsafe to send volunteers there.
I’ve been filled with apprehension while taking this decision. Browsing Internet I learn the new reality of the city and the barrios of Las Américas and Santuario. They have changed drastically. Some roads are now paved and shacks have become solidly-built, though still humble, homes. These began as invasion barrios, shanty towns with no plan or organization. I once knew my way in the dark through the labyrinth of dirt roads. Now I would lose my way.
My doubts peak with an email from the Barranquilla Peace Corps office responding to my inquiries. Las Américas is now considered a “red zone”, off limits for Peace Corps for security reasons! I read online news items of criminals, murders and gang fights. On the other hand, there is news of large new schools, a new health center (the first one was my last project while working there), football programs for kids.
I will persist. I want to be adventuresome. Flaco Bob, from my old training group, emails that he is going and offers to accompany me in my searches. He knows the city well and has contacts. I dig out old letters and jot down names and the address of a godson in a more-established barrio, whom I last heard from in 1996. Will I be able to locate my dear friends Petra and Fidelia in Las Américas? I have no addresses for them. No one used street names or house numbers in those years.
I’m gathering photos, letters and yellowed newspaper clippings to take. I am hopeful. I want to hear once more the wild, wonderful cacophony of the frogs in the night.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Chile’s True Colors

Three days of music, dancing, barbecues and shows, while red, white and blue flags brightened city streets, honoring September 18th, Chile’s Independence Day. Lines of cars and buses filled the roads out of the city – to the coast, to the countryside. Like many others, though, we stayed in town. Hubby needed some down time after his long flight home from Italy. Some stayed in town to settle their nerves.
Two days before the celebrations began, this land performed true to its geography. I was sitting home alone at my computer (hubby was en route in the sky somewhere) when the shaking began. A strong sideways movement (8.4 at its epicenter) that seemed endless.  I held onto my desk and waited it out. An hour later, another one. I went to get a flashlight, just in case. Fortunately, no damage, just pictures rocked askew on the walls. Immediately, a text message from my Brooklyn-er son. I assured him all was well. The next day a flood of emails from concerned friends in the States.
On the second day of the festivities, I suggested to hubby that we go with friends to the “fonda”, a traditional Independence week fair. Everyone who hadn’t gone out of town was there. Families with children and their dogs dressed in traditional costumes.

 We bought lunch at food trucks, while, mouth-watering smells of roasting pigs and lamb tempted crowds to wait in long lines.
Enough for all

 Exhibits and traditional dancing and games attracted others. We headed to a large field ringed by bleachers to watch a demonstration of the Army’s Hussars Death Squadron, attired in pre-independence uniforms, bearing spears and mounted on handsome black horses. Their skills and precision drew enthusiastic applause. Once again I lamented that I’d never had the opportunity to learn to ride those magnificent creatures.
Selling beef jerky and "cuchuflí" Chilean sweets

Stiff and sore from the long stretch on hard bleachers, we headed for the exit gate, as new arrivals poured in. We’d immersed ourselves in Chilean traditions and were ready for the comforts of home, the start of spring in two days – and a series of ongoing aftershocks.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Detour to the Unexpected

A strange sight greeted us as we stepped out of the downtown metro station – no traffic on the Alameda, the city’s main artery, no roaring cars, buses, trucks, taxis and motorcycles. Nothing. Nada. At the end of the block, in front of the Moneda, the presidential palace, a series of barricades were detouring cars.
 I’d come with two sisters-in-law to attend a free noonday Sunday concert downtown. At the theater, we found all the doors closed, people wandering about with puzzled faces. We learned that the concert was cancelled because this was the route of a protest march to the general cemetery to commemorate “los desaparecidos”, the disappeared, victims of the military coup which occurred 42 years ago on a September 11th.  We considered our options and then called a friend who lives downtown. She invited us for coffee.
It was my first visit to her apartment, located in a grand Bauhaus-style building built in 1928. The polished brass railing at the entry stairs gleamed. In the elevator, the metal grill door rattled shut. A trip to the past. Dora and her schnauzer Franca greeted us at the door, leading us into a spacious entry hall and living room, filled with antiques, paintings, art-deco lamps, enameled Chinese boxes and books in every room. We’d stepped into a museum. We made our way around the apartment stopping to take in interesting objects and asking their stories. Among her books lying about on table tops, two caught my eye. One very familiar. My memoir. I thumbed through another, biographies, photos and drawings of renowned women writers over the years. I jotted down its title. Dora then invited us to see her daughter’s apartment on an upper floor – white, modern, bare, minimalist.

We stopped for a bite to eat on the outdoor terrace of a nearby café. A tall, bearded, none-too-clean man in loose-fitting clothes entered and offered to draw our portraits. He said, “Such nice-looking ladies. A portrait?”
We smiled. “Thank you, but no.”
He wasn’t easily dissuaded. Looking at me, he asked, “How many boyfriends have you had?”
I flashed my ten fingers several times in the air. He laughed.
A good stretch of the afternoon lay before us. One sister-in-law suggested we explore a new, elegant boutique hotel across the street. In the lobby, we told a uniformed young man that we were just looking. He offered to take us on a tour. In a smooth, silent elevator we rose to the roof garden that included a pool and a bar. The elevator whisked us to another floor where our guide showed us several rooms, all in tones of black and soft grey. Below street level, we visited the spa. Leaving the lobby, our young man handed us brochures with special honeymoon offers. I left my copy on my husband’s night table to see when he returns from his two weeks in Italy.
Our next stop was the Museum of Visual Arts, just around the corner.

A sculptress, who lives in the same apartment building as one sister-in-law, had a major exhibit there, entitled “Tiempo de Piedras”, Time of Stones. The exhibit – a mix of installations, paths, and photographs of stones gathered from river beds and the seacoast –evoked in me the special love I have for stones. They connect me to nature. I couldn’t take my eyes off an exhibit of overlapping, wafer-thin charcoal grey stones arranged in a long horizontal line, simulating the ridges of the Andes. A soft overhead light shone on the ridges, which were suspended from the ceiling, projecting onto the wall the shadow of the bare Andes. Stone is the essential element, the raw material, of these mountains and the detritus carried from their ridges, smoothed and rounded by rushing rivers.

I came away from our downtown visit with two riches: not the memory of music, but of the beauty of stones and the name of the book that called to me from that table in Dora’s apartment, Stefan Bollmann’s “Women Who Write Are Dangerous.” I must have it.