Leave the door open for the unknown, the door into the dark | Rebecca Solnit, A Field Guide to Getting Lost

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Good Friday

Friday is the day of the parade. Carlos and I catch the trolley from Diez de Agosto to the downtown, and I’m surprised that things aren’t more crowded. But the city seems calm, subdued, enjoying its day off; Carlos tells me that most people—the non-devout, he smirks—pack their weekend bags and head to the coast or their farms in the Oriente for some time away from Quito’s gray pavement and dark skies. And yet, today we are lucky; patches of sun fall onto the empty sidewalks and against the bars of the closed tiendas as we ride into the Centro Historico.

The buildings get taller and narrower the closer you get to the center; they begin to show delicate molding, long French windows, colonial lines. The sidewalks get tighter, winding around corners and up hills against the cobblestone roads. And the streets are getting fuller; now there are vendors: women with long slices of plantain on grill-carts, one man with thick, long colored bunches of shoelaces looped around his neck and arms and open hands. Carlos and I get off at the Plaza Grande, and as soon as we turn off Diez de Agosto and onto the street that brings you to the Iglesia San Francisco, we meet the crowds.

Some people got here as early as 2 AM to get the best places, Carlos tells me. If I stand on my tiptoes I can see the people in their purple robes, the bare-chested men with crowns of thorns, the veiled Veronicas, waiting to start their procession. We move along the crowded streets, searching for a vacant sliver of sidewalk for ourselves. We wait with the other patient waiters, who buy gum and candy from the ladies that pass by, who fiddle with their umbrellas beneath the patchy sunshine, who take pictures of each other with their cell phone cameras, or who sit quietly, waiting, their hands in their laps.

And then there's a hush, and the eruption of a marching band, and now I can just make out the procession moving towards us, making its plodding way. I see the tops of the cone-shaped hats, all those big wooden crosses, and I know this is not like any parade I've seen. All that purple, up and down the narrow streets: the robes, the veils, the sound of dragging chains. Whole families have taken crosses over, and while the father or oldest brother shoulders it at its crux, the mother and children help by lifting it a little, or by purchasing water from the women who sell bottles of it displayed in baskets for their suffering man. The biggest crosses, the ones that must weigh hundreds of pounds and extend a dozen feet long, require their bearers to shuffle quickly, then stop and rest, then hustle the cross a few more yards. Barefoot men with chains around their bare feet; men without shirts who have tied barbed wire around their bellies so that you can see the blood where the sharp knots are piercing. Those thorny crowns, and painted-on tears of blood. People are crying, the marching bands are playing, the sun has not stopped shining. The women who stand pressed against us on the sidewalk clutch handfuls of rose petals, which they toss towards the walkers who carry colored posters of Christ or gilt-framed portraits of the radiant Virgin.

And then come the statues; now the baby Jesus, now the Virgin Mary, and finally, surrounded by dozens of police and an eerily quiet crowd of onlookers, followers, devotees, now Jesus on the cross. Each statue, mounted on a covered cart that rolls solemnly past, is adorned with roses; bunches of red roses and pink ones for the Virgin, and all white for Christ. I think that I’ve never seen such piles of roses. And then the official parade ends, the onlookers all fall in behind Jesus, and this new, informal procession swells like a river in rain. I hold on to the back of Carlos’ jacket so I won’t lose him in the crowd.


(Las Veronicas)



If you return to the old center the day after the procession, you’ll find rose petals jammed in between the cobblestones and crammed up against the sidewalks, tucked into the cracks between doors and walls and caught in the branches of trees. The streets will seem so empty, so quiet, without the sounds, the press, of Quito’s devout. You’ll hear the wind as it tosses itself up and down the road, but all that remains of yesterday's procession are these rose petals on the ground: white and pink and crimson flecks, markers of that tragic and euphoric day.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The Phone Store

I knew when I boarded the bus that I would have no luck at the phone store. Every time, it’s been the same: they tell me to come back later, it will be ready by Sunday, it will be ready by Tuesday. I bought a phone in Guatemala, you see, and for it to work here, the band needs to be opened. Whatever that means. So a kind friend takes me to the phone store the first time, because she, too, had to open the band on her phone. They tell us to come back later, and so the next time I return by myself. The third time I return with another friend, the French guy who lives in my building, the nice French guy who told me that he, too, needed his band opened but who, I suspect, just wanted a friend, a walk, a place to go on a dreary Sunday. In any case, he speaks better Spanish than I do, and so can translate when the lady says I need to come back on Tuesday.

And I return on Tuesday. I take the bus in the rain, I get off at the right stop, I go into the phone store and I dig around for the receipt. The factura, they call it. Do you have your factura? the guy at the desk asks me. He’s a slim, light-skinned guy in a tight t-shirt and black jeans and gel in his hair. I keep on digging, but there is no factura to be found. The girl who helped me out in the first place appears. Perhaps your boyfriend has it? she suggests, watching me shuffle through my bag. For a second I am stumped, and then I realize she is talking about the French guy. My translator. I am annoyed that she assumes he is my boyfriend, but I decide not to go into it. No, he doesn’t have it, I tell her. It’s lost. I keep on digging, and then give up. So, it’s lost, I tell her. Just give me my phone. Please, I remember to add.

But I must come back the next day. Without the factura they cannot locate my phone – do I know how many Samsungs they have? So many. The guy with the original copy of my factura will return tomorrow, and so I should come back then. I am huffy, I am grumpy, but what can I say? Already I feel like an idiot. I swear I had that freaking factura. I go outside and buy a cookie from the bakery and then board the bus and sit next to an old man who is doing the crossword. I eat my cookie, ignoring his disapproving glances. The ride takes forever in the traffic.

And today is the day I had to go back. I found the factura, of course; it was right in the middle of my bedroom floor, crumpled in an unimportant little ball. I picked it up and flattened it on the table, angry at myself. I made sure to tuck it into my wallet, right between my credit card and the copy of my passport that I have been told to always carry. I get back on the bus, again it is raining, again the windows are so foggy that I can barely see where we are, but again I get off at the right stop, right after the park. I take a deep breath, I reassure myself that the bakery will be open when I exit the phone store, and I go inside. Before I enter, I check my wallet once more for my factura.

But, like I said, I already knew that I’d have no luck at the phone store. Funny how your instinct can be so right on. The girl takes my factura and is not impressed that I’ve found it. She must have assumed that my boyfriend had it all along. She glances at it, she picks up the phone, she goes into the other room to talk. The guy with the gel in his hair and the black jeans ignores me. I sit on the chair to wait. I wait, I wait, I tell myself to calm down, I tell myself this is what I expected. There is no joy in Mudville, I think to myself, and I close my eyes.

Finally, the girl comes to me, a grim look on her face. She tells me some things, throwing a bunch of verbs in there that I don’t understand. No entiendo, I tell her, for this is my refrain. Finally, when she tells me se murio, I get it. My phone has died. It has died in the process of opening the band and now a technician must come, and he isn’t available until next week, because on Thursday they close at six and on Friday they close at seven. None of this makes sense except se murio. It died. I want to weep.

The thing is, I don’t even care about my phone. I hate phones. I love not having a phone, not having to take people’s numbers that I don’t really want, not having to look at my phone’s face and see that I’ve missed calls and I have text messages in Spanish that I don’t really get. I love knowing that I’ll never take my phone out during dinner and check it, that I’ll never wake up in the middle of the night to the sound of my phone ringing. But this was my phone. The lady at the phone store killed it. My Spanish, after four months in Latin America, continues to suck, and so I can’t figure out exactly what happened, and I know she won’t take me seriously when I get angry.

Come back Tuesday, the girl tells me. She wears too much silver eyeshadow but she has this power over me, this power of language, this power of being a part of a culture that I am so obviously not part of. What can I say? Hasta martes, I tell her, and I leave the store, blinking away tears. It’s not that I miss my phone. It’s that I miss understanding, miss negotiating, miss being a part of the dialogue, the process, the way things happen. I am always getting on other people's nerves, testing their patience with my faltering Spanish. I leave the phone store and I don’t even buy a cookie. I try not to cry, I board the bus, I ride it home in the rain.

When I get back to my apartment building, the lights are on. Raphael is sitting at the kitchen table, singing; he bought a vihuela - a small, deep-bodied Mexican guitar - and he's plucking it now. All the songs he sings are in English; our conversations are always in Spanish. He memorizes the lyrics and he sings then without an accent, the way Shakira used to do. He glances up when I enter the kitchen.

Hola, Katy, he tells me. Katy is my Spanish name. He offers me a coffee and then, without waiting for a response, stands up and lights the stove to heat the water. He pulls out a chair for me. He sits back down and picks up his banjo again, and he closes his eyes and starts to sing. Sweet Susie Q, he’s singing now. I take the seat he offers and lean back, listening, waiting for the water to boil.

To be continued...

(Read 'The Phone Store Part II', here)

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Here is what I can tell you

I haven't seen much of this city, but this is what I know so far.

When you exit the volunteer house, you must use a key to lock your room. You must use a key to unlock the front door, you must slam it closed behind you, or else it won't shut. They say these streets aren't safe at night, and so you must keep your key close to you. You must not carry your camera, your laptop, your fancy backpack, your fancy handbag. You must leave your room with the canvas bag you found in Guatemala, the one with the lettering long faded, the straps worn and thin. You must carry your umbrella all the time, the umbrella you found at the drugstore on the corner, because this place will always be on the brink of rain, or else drizzling, or else, like it now, pouring.

If you take a left out of the volunteer house, you'll come to a street with tiendas and bars and restaurants advertising pictures of grilled beef and tall glasses of beer. Gnarled trees grow out of the pavement, people shuffle past without looking at you, homes with bars across the doors will glare at you. These buildings are pink, they are red, they are orange, they are green; it's like this street is trying to preserve the little sunshine it receives in the colors of its walls. This street is narrow, busy, dirty. This street is beautiful.

If you walk and walk, you'll pass sprawling restaurants with tables set up outside, and everywhere the streetlamps will reflect the puddles of rain on the pavement. You'll pass whitewashed buildings, gated with gardens inside. You'll pass boutique hotels, you'll pass buses, you'll pass the post office. There's a dancing school with its door open; you can see that the girl closest to you is a few steps behind everyone else. You walk past, but the music follows you.

You will come to the bus stop at the corner. If you take the bus through the Tunnels, as the man at your school instructed you to do, you'll get to San Roque, that poor neighborhood in the old part of town. You'll see the market that stretches up the hill, the market that reminds you of every market you've seen since you've been in Latin America: plantains in rows, baskets of gum and cigarettes, hawkers with plastic sacks of thin, fried potatoes. Poles lined with canvas bags for sale, just like the one you bought in Guatemala. You will come to the gates of the school you are to work at; an old man with a cooler of ice-cream pops will stand just outside, his clothes faded and dirty, his back hunched over. He will pass the pops through the bars to the schoolchildren, who hand him coins in return.

And if you get inside the schoolyard, you will see the piles of trash pressed up against the walls. You will enter the tall brick building and see the broken glass on the floor, the dirty walls, the broken lightbulbs. You will see the children, children who touch your hair, children who hold each other's hands and smile at you and tell you hello, ask if you are the English teacher. You will go into the room with the littlest ones, who sit at long, low tables waiting for their breakfast. God, they are adorable, and you will remember why you have come. You will forget to feel scared, surrounded by all this strangeness and broken glass. They will hold their hands out to touch you, they will stare up at you with open faces, they will wave at you when you go. You will talk with the suited superintendent, who speaks too fast and tells you to come back tomorrow to set up a schedule.

And so you will ride the bus home, staring out the window as you pass the long stretch of public gardens, the universities, the grocery stores, the other buses, the tourists. You will wonder why they carry their cameras like that, looped around their necks like some kind of prize.

You Never Get The Bread Back

"Once bread becomes toast, it can never become bread again." Today I saw that piece of wisdom scrawled on the wall of a cafe's restroom. I immediately thought of you. Metaphorically speaking, you're thinking about dropping some slices in the toaster, even though you're not actually ready to eat yet. If it were up to me, you would wait a while before transforming the bread into toast -- until your hunger got ratcheted up to a higher level. The problem is, if you make the toast now, it'll be unappetizing by the time your appetite reaches its optimum levels. That's why I suggest: Put the bread back in the bag. For the moment, refrain from toasting.

-My horoscope for this week, care of Rob Brezsny's Free Will Astrology

Read yours!!!!

Saturday, April 9, 2011

New Continent!

Up sick all night last night, but at least I had my mother there. One tearful goodbye in the JW Marriott parking lot, six hours in the bus to the airport, four more waiting in San Jose, one quiet flight, one flight with a group of school children and some Haitian refugees, one peaceful ride from the airport to this room. Two cans of Coca Cola, one-half a mini bagel, one handful of raisins. I am alive. I am in Quito now.