In Colima

25 February 2010

I began my first tour of town today smiling, nervous, reaching for names. I finished in Morena’s arms – she cries with joy when her friends are here – after reviewing with her the past few months’ worth of news of all of our common acquaintances in the United States. Mosquitoes are being born all around; it’s the planting season for beans; Don Huayo the guard stops me to admire the moon for a while – la lunita, ella es bonita, no piensas? Don Jorge says he thinks I’m in love.

Tomoki, the new Japanese volunteer in Colima, and Mauricio, our project assistant from San Salvador

The mural at Colima School, ready for renovation

la lunita

Mauricio and I visited ‘La Lobo’ – Marisol Lobo, subdirectora of the Colima School. She is a permanent ally here, for which I am very thankful. We joked, trying to find an ideal match for me here in El Salvador. Everyone’s so hairy, she said, picking up the end of one of Mauricio’s knotty dreads and looking toward a parent on the schoolyard whom she described as a bearish beast. Whom will we choose? Maybe the other Mauricio, the new president, but everyone’s unhappy with him. He’s called out the military to combat violence along with the civil police, something that is against the constitution and that every president has done at one time or another since the civil conflict. The left is disappointed, we aren’t sure the right is appeased, and it’s unclear what the crusade for a middle class in El Salvador will yield.

Yasmin y su hermana

Everywhere I turn, someone is greeting me, and something gorgeous is happening – the Hacienda set aside five manzanas of land this year to grow organic cane – and then the world turns upside down again, and the president of the cooperativa is telling me – but the cane from the organic land was mixed in with the rest at the molino and the project came to nothing in the end.

Now that Mauricio and Estefani have gone back to the city, and I made a little dinner to share with Tomoki, the Japanese volunteer – the very best salty cheese from Charito’s store with an aguacate and blistered sweet chiles over some brown rice I found in the capital today – I’ve been taking refuge in the first few pages of Octavio Paz’s Conjunctions and Disjunctions:

“As Baudelaire discovered, long before Freud: smiles, and the comic in general, are the stigmata of original sin, or, to put the matter another way, they are the attributes of our humanity, the result of and the witness to our violent separation from the natural world.
… Hearty laughter is similar to the physical and psychological spasm: we burst out laughing. This explosion is the contrary of the smile, and I am not certain that it can be called comic. The comic spirit implies two persons: the one who is watching and the one who is being watched; whereas when we laugh heartily the distinction is erased or at least diminished.
… hearty laughter is a (provisional) synthesis between the soul and body, the I and the other. This synthesis is a transformation or symbolic translation: we are like the Cyclopes once again. We return to the primordial unity — before there was a you and an I — in the form of a we that embraces every living being and every element.”

ernesto y diccionario

Ernesto y su diccionario

Paz goes on to discuss the diamondlike nature of asceticism and libertinism, another helpful avenue for today’s intersections and confessions, but I am more taken now with this we and how it relates to the Nosotros which Ryder Cooley proclaimed the anthem of this place, the year of our first visit here – just the one word. It has always rung true – nosotros as a battle cry to be sung out while driving through town on the double curves which have killed so many people this year, to be murmured to oneself on the turnoff to the Hacienda, or a partial curse and partial prayer to be hissed while sliding down the dirt and stone go-down with the schoolkids going home from morning classes, or a galvanizing thing to say while hauling up the driveway of round stones which threaten to break ankles and dump cars, with the cooperativa gathering inside to go over expenditures and incomes for the month – nosotros as an acceptance and a balm to what Paz refers to as carnal violence – the meeting-place of the ass and the face.

Safety sign by Heather Boyer, 'Niños Cruzando', installed summer 2009 by British volunteer group..

And so the first day is closing. Tomorrow includes beginning drawings of doorways at los mesones with Morena and Noemy; and Yoana, who is possibly the most difficult kid in Colima. Also investigating the Metapuentes blog with Marisol and beginning matchmaking with teens at Colima school. Also walking up the hill at the end of town to see Griselda the meanest and greatest of our asistentes de cocina, checking in on the old dog Flaco Delgado to see if he’s shown up at Manuel’s house again, and I hope visiting the internet, just to satisfy the data lust which is having its field day already, here where my cell phone never rings and the wifi signal is always down.


26 February 2010

The directora at the Colima school seems confident that most students have email at home, though I see that the school has an email address that I’m not sure anyone checks. However, Profesora Marisol, aka La Loba (this means The Wolf), is ready to back me up and since I’ve known her for seven years, and she’s never failed to show up to a project ready to shovel compost or anything else in high heels with a team of thirty high schoolers, I feel I can trust her to gather kids for our meeting on Monday and help me lay out the structure of our project with them.

After my meeting at the school today, Morena and Noemy met me at the Hacienda and helped me to trace the doorways of all the houses in their part of town that need secure doors – we traced eight today, and I’ll go to Griselda’s house tomorrow to work with people in her part of town. Hopefully we’ll end up with around ten or fifteen.

Tracing the doorway at Rosa's house

One potential snag is that many people would like the kind of door which is made of painted sheet metal with a balcon of wrought iron, sort of like a screen door. This kind of door is pretty safe – it has three locks, and the inside door can be left open when the wrought-iron door is closed, so the breeze can come through. We’ll have to make our doors pretty nice to be able to compare, especially since a puerta compleja made of metal costs around $300 -400.

puerta compleja con balcon

For most of the women who are getting doors, that’s about 5 months’ salary, so it still seems very much worth it to give them something that’s secure. But we’re planning the doors to have a shape that makes space for a transom at the top, so that the house is not completely closed up in the hot nights.

Not much else is happening here. Town dynamics are becoming clearer – Pascual’s store is becoming bigger and the nearby hot chocolate parlor has stopped selling everything but cigarettes, pan dulce, hot chocolate, and beer to go along with the pinball machines frequented by the men around 5pm. The ciber cafe boom has ended, and all the cibers except Erick’s have gone away. Erick has run the cable from the ciber proper to his living room, so I got to hang out with his baby girl tonight while sending my messages. It’s the planting season for beans; Morena wants to take her 13 year old out of school because she’s afraid she’ll get a boyfriend; and I’m going to market tomorrow to see what’s there to roast for a birthday dinner. It’s quiet here. So quiet. I fall asleep listening to the palms rubbing their leaves together and the occasional truck roaring on the highway.

Fin del día al porton de la Hacienda Colima

27 February 2010

Maybe I already wrote that we have no media here in town – no newspapers, no radio in the Hacienda – most of the time I wander around without even really knowing what time it is, since by my estimate it gets light around five and dark around six, and my body is completely disoriented with its own rhythms. I slept twelve hours the first night and six the second, and just awoke from a nap on one of the hottest and driest days I’ve spent in Colima, to find it’s only noon.

Coming home from Aguilares on the bus today, a woman began to talk with me about the news from Chile, and I could hardly understand what she was saying because it seemed so absurd – an earthquake in Chile that took place in the middle of the ocean and now a tsunami is predicted for the entire Pacific Rim? Is this true? Morena and Noemy tell me it is, because they have been watching the news on the television they won in a raffle last December, and they say that people on the Salvadoran coast are preparing to evacuate before eight a.m. tomorrow. I wonder whether there will also be big waves all the way in California? N & M say there are violent oleadas predicted for New York and Hawaii. Can this be? Nueva York?

Here there are no signs of water levels increasing; on the contrary, tomorrow is the one day per month that the water will be turned off to clean out the tanks and refresh them with cloro; everyone is at home today and doing their laundry in preparation. When the midday heat finally relents a little I am headed across the highway to see Maria Fernanda and her mother Esperanza.

Esperanza at home

Shirlin y Bayron al jardín

I ran into E on my jogging route today and she seemed so calm that I am looking forward to the visit, although sometimes I put it off until the very end, in avoidance of her usual wild anger, at being poor, at her rented house being recalled, and at her having to move into a metal champa two years ago. I am maybe too familiar with this kind of anger from having grown up in my own family, and so I don’t always do what I feel might be right by E and her family. But early today she showed me her garden, which was full of rue, purslane, and hibiscus, and the champa looks trim and well-cared for, and we’ll draw a picture of the doorway and make a plan to add a door. From there it’s an easy walk to Griselda’s house and the playa de flores, which is really the bank of the Rio Acelhuate, and I can give Griselda the purple pants and jeans I’ve been saving for her and her sister, and find out what’s happening with Gerzon, who’s been spotted kicking girls in the neighborhood, and see what their little brother Daniel’s been building in the yard.

Gerzon a la casa


1 March 2010

The message from Morena, the jefa de cocina, not to be confused with Morena, Noemy’s partner, is that the waves at the beach are too big to be believed. I know she’s an adventurous swimmer (she jumped off the puente Colima a few years back into the Rio Acelhuate, which is both fast and dirty), so I feel maybe I’ve made the right decision not to go to the (supposedly) marero-laden coast and surf. Instead I’m hanging around old Suchitoto, the colonial town southeast of Colima, and sleeping in a hot-water hotel tonight. Que lujo! I drank an espresso today, and I utterly didn’t know what to do with all the excitement. Fortunately I ran into two older Canadians who are building a theatre stage at the school here in town, and they helped me realize what a farce my English has become in only five days of speaking exclusively Spanish.

There’s much more to say – today’s despedida from Colima was just as desperate as the word seems to imply, perhaps in part because it took shape with so much less drama than usual. Each year, this good-by feels more final. Is it because I give away more vital objects each time – for example, my Salvadoran cell phone to Griselda? Or because I really am making my peace with Colima’s slow pace, and feeling more realistic, perhaps less optimistic, and more challenged, each time the despedida comes? Am I closer to letting this town confront its problems without my puny, two-times-yearly visits? I don’t know. I do know how I cling to the phrases that save me as my Spanish is running out – nos vemos en julio; si, yo voy a regresar cada año; no puedo esperar de verles otra vez; vamos a ser en contacto; nos vemos muy pronto; hasta luego. Until a little later, Colima. I board the bus with my very light backpack as Morena, Noemy, and Griselda watch from the side of the highway. Morena doesn’t cry so hard this time, and I don’t cry in response as the bus speeds away. Like normal we barrel through Colima’s two curves, and I notice how the cobrador looks at the river Acelhuate – gently, like it’s something he loves seeing. Like me – I love seeing that river through the window of the bus.


6 February 2010

The Poetry of Getting to Know You

Here is one of the poems that was behind the making of ‘The Poetry of Getting to Know You‘, our first classroom project with Metas at Contra Costa College. ‘Having a Coke With You’ is a love poem based on an equal number of ordinary events and high-art references by the poet Frank O’Hara, who was appointed to a position as curator of modern art at New York’s MOMA when poets still got asked to be part of museums for the poetry (and the diversity of opinion) of having them there. Like Bill Berkson, Peter Scheldahl, and other poets of the era, O’Hara came to be considered one of the most important art critics of his time.

Having a Coke with you

is even more fun that going to San Sebastian, Irún, Hendaye, Biarritz, Bayonne,

or being sick to my stomach on the Travesera de Gracia in Barcelona

partly because in your orange shirt you look like a better happier St. Sebastian

partly because of my love for you, partly because of your love for yoghurt

partly because of the fluorescent orange tulips around the birches

partly because of the secrecy our smiles take on before people and statuary

it is hard to believe when I’m with you that there can be anything as still

as solemn as unpleasantly definitive as statuary when right in front of it

in the warm New York 4 o’clock light we are drifting back and forth

between each other like a tree breathing through its spectacles

and the portrait show seems to have no faces in it at all, just paint

you suddenly wonder why in the world anyone ever did them

I look

at you and I would rather look at you than all the portraits in the world

except possibly for the Polish Rider occasionally and anyway it’s in the Frick

which thank heavens you haven’t gone to yet so we can go together the first time

and the fact that you move so beautifully more or less takes care of Futurism

just as at home I never think of the Nude Descending a Staircase or

at a rehearsal a single drawing of Leonardo or Michelango that used to wow me

and what good does all the research of the Impressionists do them

when they never got the right person to stand near the tree when the sun sank

or for that matter Marino Marini when he didn’t pick the rider as carefully as the horse

it seems they were all cheated of some marvellous experience

which is not going to go wasted on me which why I am telling you about it.

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