A writer’s trip to South America opens her eyes in more ways than one
By Elena Robidoux
A man jumps up to offer me his seat, ignoring the pregnant woman with the cherubic bundle on her back. She carries a bag of stale pan de la chola and the weight of a child. I opt to stand.
There are so many people on the bus that I am surrounded on all sides. The vehicle heaves and stalls, farting out dense puffs of exhaust that linger in the air too long. As I clutch the ceiling rail nervously someone begins to rub his crotch against the back of my thigh. His movements are calculatedly subtle, impossible to prove intentional given our packaged state. To my discomfort, I resist addressing him, more willing to be violated than to call more attention to myself than there is already. Anonymity is something I’ve taken for granted in the States; that, and the efficiency of public transit.
In the months before coming to Lima I looked at Google images of white beaches and exotic jungles, of palm trees, umbrella-clad piscos and cloudless skies. On the bus, I am given power plants and smoke stacks, interminable mounds of dirt, sites for campaign ads — lofty slogans reading, “Castañeda: un nuevo Perú.” At an intersection, I notice a pack of gangrenous dogs waiting to cross, inured by the ruthlessness of taxi drivers and a lifetime of clipped paws. Outside a blinding winter mist creeps in over the city. I press my forehead against the cold glass as the bus moves onward, the sliver of land between highways, the dogs, it all collapses into nothing.
Each morning a man comes around to collect soles from passengers in exchange for a tiny paper ticket, the size of those found in a fortune cookie. I am listening to my iPod when he arrives at my feet. After taking my change he tells me to grip my bag close to my body and to sit away from the window: a courteous warning that I probably don’t deserve. “Alguien te robarà,” he cautions and continues on routinely down the line. I nod and struggle to reposition my knees by angling them outwards toward the aisle; the seats are cold and hard, situated too close together like an amusement park ride. I quickly learnt, after just a few days in the capital, that bus etiquette means giving up these seats to Americans.
We pass a pollería — an open market selling chickens and other meat products. There, yellowed birds and glossy intestines hang limply from metal hooks like tinsel from Christmas pine. Vendors in cracked plastic lawn chairs sit around waiting for a buy, each bouncing a toddler on their lap to pass the time. In the highlands, shantytowns unfurl for miles in all directions. The road quickly turns to gravel and the vegetation becomes large and erratic. The longer I ride the fewer people remain on the bus, mostly white NGO-aids like us resolved to “educate” the population.
Each morning a man comes around to collect soles from passengers in exchange for a tiny paper ticket, the size of those found in a fortune cookie. I am listening to my iPod when he arrives at my feet. After taking my change he tells me to grip my bag close to my body and to sit away from the window: a courteous warning that I probably don’t deserve. “Alguien te robarà,” he cautions and continues on routinely down the line.
All of a sudden, a sign for Pachacutec, our destination, becomes visible. Pachacutec, for whom the village was named, was once a formidable Incan emperor — a man whose many victories made him a household name in the scheme of Peruvian history. There is even evidence that suggests that the archeological wonder, Machu Picchu, was built in his honor. But as the bus comes to a halt, I am able to get a closer look at this sign. Each of the ten letters is scrawled in black spray paint, as if the village were defamation to itself, and the great warrior it attempted to venerate.
It is drizzling when the bus drops us off at the foot of some long, dusty road. The road is lined with bent streetlights and drooping wires that appear to be mourning the place. Gritty matter infiltrates onto the asphalt from under tin houses and abandoned storefronts, while discolored tuk-tuks beep recklessly up and down the street. When we get to the top of the incline we are made to trudge through mounds and mounds of wet, sulfurous sand to reach the school. The school, we later learn, had been ransacked and burned down by robbers, then rebuilt in a new location further away. On our way there, someone in our troupe notices a grey mass camouflaged in the sand. Curious, all of us make our way towards it, only to discover a headless dog rotting on the ground. Flies and grubs dance on the exposed flesh, as unforgiving as whatever did this to the animal. Someone leaves the scene to dry-heave while the others cup their mouths laughing, hypothesizing as to the whereabouts of the head.
When we finally file into the schoolyard, hundreds of little dark-skinned boys are kicking around a can and yanking each other’s uniforms. The game stops as soon as we pass by. All of the teachers convene in a stuffy space with a few battered desks and dried out markers on the floor. “Can you believe this place?” I hear a girl from LA whisper to another. “It’s so horrible. My host-mother didn’t even give us sweetener for our coffee this morning. I wanna, you know, help these kids and whatever, but I’m not sure how long I can stand it.”
I roll my eyes aggressively and leave the room to buy a drink. Without thinking, I hand the woman at the snack stand a five-dollar bill for a Coke. She pauses, looks at me square in the eyes, then shakes her head dolefully. I feel a wave of insurmountable shame when I realize she has no change — that with my five-dollars I could buy more than half the items in the store.
When I emerge back on to the playground, I see that a lot of the volunteers have joined in the recess hysteria. Crowds of kids climb all over them, shouting and wrapping themselves around their limbs like marsupials.
“Quick, take a photo of us!” one says. “I need a new profile picture for my Facebook, this will be perfect!”
“Yeah, take one of me afterwards! I do too!” another responds.
After about twenty minutes of waiting, the director of our program appears, heels clicking rhythmically as she makes her way across the wet, uneven pavement. “Each of you will be given a class to instruct,” she relays. “We’re teaching them colors today, so just make up an hour lesson and do whatever you can to keep them engaged.” Without any plan of instruction, I am led up two flights of shit-stained stairs to my assigned room. Sonic chatter and giggles emanate from outside the door: a daunting audio for an amateur teacher.
When I walk inside the room I am greeted by forty pairs of onyx eyes: all scrutinizing, all-pupil. Abandoning my jacket on the floor, I begin writing the names of colors on the board. I read the words aloud and ask the students to repeat them back to me in English: Blu! Rrred! Gween! Yello! Poorpol. Blu! Rrred! Gween! Yello! Poorpol. Blu! Rrred! Gween! Yello! Poorpol. Blu! Rrred! Gween! Yello! Poorpol.
Their zombie-like recitations and slouched postures testify to their boredom. In minutes, nearly half the class has stopped paying attention. Some students attempt to squeeze expired glue out onto someone’s head. Others take off their shoes and put them on their hands, clapping like dumb seals.
“Hey!” I yell. “Please sit down!” I feel like a dictator, an insidious colonizer.
A few timid girls obey the command but everyone else chuckles and sneers, sticking out their tongues and running in bee trajectories around the room.
“Hey! Everyone: Blue, Red, Green, Yellow! Blue, Red, Green, Yellow! Blue, Red, Green, Yellow!”
“¡Ándate a la chucha, güera [Fuck off, white girl]!” an oversized boy hollers forcefully from the back. His face is mean, uncompromising,
What am I doing here?
I relent. By this point, even the obedient girls have lost interest. I pass out faded construction paper that quickly transforms into paper airplanes and colorful snowballs.
“Puedo ir al baño?!” a group of boys ask in unison. I don’t even bother to say “one at a time.”
At the hour mark the students quickly pack up their belongings and sprint out of the room, loose papers slicing the air as they make their swift exits. I let out a sigh of relief and begin erasing the board to get ready to go. But as soon as I’m finished I notice a straggler still doodling halfheartedly in the back of the class. I walk up to her and inform her that class has ended, that she is free to go home.
“Meese, Meese,” she coos.
“Yes. What is it, cutie?” I say.
“You know Obama?” She twists from right to left as she asks, her navy skirt late to follow.
“No, I don’t. I mean, I know him, just not personally.”
“Ok…Meese, Meese! Does face ring hurt?” she asks, running her slender fingers across my nose.
“Um, well it did when I got it, but it doesn’t anymore. See?” I say, rotating the ring slowly.
“You have brother, Meese? I have four brother.”
“Yes, I have one brother. He’s eighteen. Dieciocho.”
“Ohh… Meese! You like ceviche? Good, yes?”
“It is good, very flavorful. I just don’t like fish very much so I can’t eat a lot of it. I’m sorry I really have t-”
“Meese!! How you say Gabriela in English?”
“Ha, Gabriela. It’s pronounced the same. I’m very sorry but I have to g-”
“Meese, do you believe in God?”
My heart sinks as I look down at Gabriela who is biting her bottom lip shyly and waiting for an answer. I can tell by her worried demeanor exactly what she wants me to say, to tell her that God really does exist because why else would she be made to live in this godforsaken pile of sand with next to no food or electricity or running water or any hope of getting out of it someday. And here I am believing that teaching her fucking colors will have any influence on making that a possibility.
“I want to believe in God,” I say, struggling to keep composure.
Sometimes, there aren’t enough words.
The philosopher Peter Singer has an analogy called ‘The Drowning Child and the Expanding Circle.’ In it he asks students to imagine coming across a child drowning in a puddle. The child is drowning, but the situation is nonthreatening; one need only miss class and dirty a pant leg to save its life. It is unsurprising then, that when asked whether or not students would save the child, the unanimous response is yes. It is next that Singer asks students why, given their answer, it is any different if the drowning child were suffering far away, in another country perhaps.
Singer’s work demonstrates that we are a visual species, motivated by convenience — a species lacking contrasts, often ignorant to what we cannot see. In the United States, it was very easy for me to live guiltlessly, to willfully deny those millions upon millions of puddles. It was easy, because I had somehow managed to convince myself I was different from other white people — more informed, more considerate, less vapid. But in Perú, that perceived distinction between myself and my race, which I had worked so hard to maintain, became as arbitrary and baseless as it should have always been.
On the bus ride back from the slums I look out the window again. Far away in the mountains, a single fire is burning. And as I stare back at the rocks and rubble, at the distant sputtering flames, I cannot help but ask myself why is it that I am able to escape, to log my good deed, quench my guilt, and go right back to my old, seamless existence.
Elena Robidoux is a writer of prose poetry and creative nonfiction from Boston. Her work has been featured in Fog Machine, Wu-Wei Fashion Mag, Potluck Magazine, theEEEL, Little River, Alien Mouth and Jerkpoet, among others. Her chapbook, Tragic Kingdom is forthcoming (Saucepot Publishing 2016).