Thursday, November 22, 2007

Fifty Lempira

Doña Keña sold me pistachio ice cream for 50 Lempira a scoop. She was a kind woman, a loving mother, a devoted wife and a humble ice cream vendor. Every unbearably hot Honduran day she sat at her ice cream stand-on-wheels to the side of a dusty dirt road in the small Evangelical pueblo of Cofradia, where I had taken a one year teaching position. Doña Keña sat silently, most often alone, save for the brief company of her customers.

While her face seemed difficult to gauge in years, her motherly, round body was probably in its fourth decade. She dressed casually, in jeans and a t-shirt or simple blouse. Doña Keña could often be found waiting for customers with a book in hand. When talking with her, people (especially foreigners like myself) wondered why she sold ice cream and was not instead in La Universidad or the head of some other institution. The Doña was smart. She could converse easily, in an informed way about matters of politics, science, or history. Yet, her forte, as far as I was concerned, were matters of the heart.

Doña Keña's eyes implied a deep appreciation of life and also, a sad resignation, as if she had in fact once dreamed of teaching or traveling and perhaps did not actually enjoy selling ice cream on the side of the road for 50 Lempira a scoop. Yet, it was the gratitude and sense of wonder that she made more obvious, especially when she spoke of her daughter. Like many Honduran women, her greatest joy, and her endless sacrifice, was her family.

Ice Cream is one of my comfort foods and my 50 Lemp bought me both comfort and food. Though I was clumsy with her mother tongue, Doña Keña and I somehow forged a friendship. At the end of every difficult day of teaching I craved nothing else more than a scoop of ice cream. And so became my ritual. Doña Keña was one of the few people with whom I could speak (or try to speak) Spanish and not feel intimidated. She spoke at an easy pace and was very patient. She also, unlike many in Cofradia, did not seem to see me as suspect or strange. Our conversations began simply enough within the licks of this creamy consumption. Initially, we would talk about the weather and children. But it wasn't long before we were talking on more personal terms about more personal things. It wasn't long before "ud." became "tu". Though our talks were often limited by linguistics, they were never inhibited by emotion. It is amazing what complex things people can express with just a few simple words. It wasn't just words of course. We spoke in gestures, we spoke in frowns. We spoke with our hands and we spoke with our eyes. At the time I did not realize just how precious this was, this experience of bridging worlds without words.

Sadness is as much of a bridge between two people as laughter. Over one particular scoop, I told Doña Keña about how I'd been born with a heart condition that resulted in several surgeries. She replied with her hallmark motherly sweetness.

"Oh but Chris, you have such a good heart.", she said from behind a playful smile. I asked Doña Keña if she had been in the hospital before, other than giving birth to her precocious daughter. In fact, she had. She too had a medical condition which changed her life. Truth be told, my English ears understood very little of what this condition was. The affect it had on her however, was very clear. From this story, I began to understand the sadness that sat in her heart and looked out her eyes.

"I didn't always look like this" she said.
"I used to look more like my daughter". Whatever this condition was, it caused her to gain weight and this became a source of shame for Doña Keña. A few minutes of watching Univision will reveal that Latin America has as many narrow standards of beauty as the United States. Doña Keña's weight had created tension between her and her husband. Hearing this created in me an odd mix of gratitude and indignation. I felt honored that she shared such heartache with me. The women that I had met in Honduras had been far more guarded about the deeper parts of themselves, especially with a gringo. I was also vexed by her husband's intolerance. The few times I'd met him he seemed so kind and yet, he was part fool. I responded in an imitative fashion.

"Oh but Doña Keña, you have such a good body!", I quipped. A small laughter crept out of her smile.

It was Doña Keña, before anyone else, to whom I confessed. After months of chaos, disappointment, struggle, and intense sickness, I wanted to leave my teaching position, and thus her lovely, sad country. I actually didn't want to leave Cofradia, but life never comes in well-organized packages and often the destination looks nothing like the brochure. I was there to do a job and if I could not do the job, my presence there would be superfluous and awkward, at least. So, over my next scoop, I put forth the uncomfortable facts. At first, I allowed myself to believe that I was just sharing the news. Yet, I hadn't shared this news with anyone else. As disappointed by the experience as I had been, it was difficult for me to disappoint others. I felt like a predictable failure. I was another person coming into and leaving the lives of these children, who as it was, had so little. I was a team player quitting the team and only half way into the game at that.

There are sometimes moments between two people when it is realized that the presence of the other changes something in themselves. Suddenly, what is casual becomes less so. In this way, I was taken aback by Doña Keña reaction when I casually told her "the news". I was not prepared for the long look of sorrow on her face. This was not just a woman who sold me ice cream. Her sadness told me that Doña Keña, my acquaintance, had become Doña Keña my friend. I was leaving not just the children and my coworkers, but also my friend.
I departed Honduras without seeing Doña Keña again. During my last week there I was beside myself with guilt and relief, both in equal measure. I was also busy wrapping up the semester before Christmas break and making plans for my next less-than-bold move. There was really no good reason why I did not stop by for one more scoop and one more hug. I guess I was afraid, afraid of her sadness and my shame, afraid of our intimacy.

As the years go on and my time in Honduras gets smaller on the horizon of my past, there are some things that remain large, vivid, and close to shore: the smell of burning trash, the way that Dengue fever penetrated my bones, the one student in particular who, not so different from Doña Keña, was wise and sad beyond her years. I remember the 55 mornings that I walked to school, so disgusted by how hot it could be before 7 a.m.. I remember, and sometimes wish I didn't, the sadness of Doña Keña whose friendship to me was worth far more than 50 Lempira a scoop and whose friendship I neglected. Simply put, I miss Doña Keña. I hope that one day, from one of my more committed coworkers, I will hear something great about her; that she no longer sells ice cream but instead teaches, that her daughter got into a prestigious college, or that she is celebrating her 30th wedding anniversary. This hope is my vigil for our friendship, gone but not forgotten.

The Unafraid

The day can't fool the season. It is hot and the occupied and unobservant go on pretending that it's summer in October just like they pretend that they will live youthfully past 100.

The night is a fortune teller wearing winter as perfume. She is asking you to sniff the scent of her bony, old hands.

To the unafraid this is nostalgia. All that cold darkness they have lived through, without television, without flying south.
The hibernative holing-up in order to measure the year by its losses.
They are careful knowing there is only a few pieces left of the twelve piece pie. They know also that Time is a prolific baker.

For the unafraid the cravings begin:
Acoustic nylon guitar strings
Songs in the minor key
An old pepper-minted tea

And also, a freeze that reminds you of bones (the same bones that will one day host a buffet for a clan of grave-robbing maggots), white and shiny.

The unafraid are two-faced hedonists who welcome tragedy and gain in equal measure. The truly unafraid see little difference. The day and the night are two masks the earth wears trying to impress both sun and moon. But earth is earth and life is life, regardless of which tragedies or gains revolve around it.

The unafraid are the prairie trying to break the plough.

The unafraid will light a fire and sing midnight duets as they play on that minor key.