by Jason Boog (Guatemala 2000–02)
This essay was first published on PeaceCorpsWriters.org in the May 2005 issue,
and received the Peace Corps Writers 2006 Moritz Thompsen Experience Award.
How to Make Recycled Paper
I shredded paper snowflakes into a bucket of water: Guatemalan newspapers, Peace Corps newsletters, embassy safety bulletins and the Catholic magazines that my mother mailed me each month in care packages. Then I stuck a bean grinder into the word-soup, twisting the plastic knob until the bucket filled up with purplish pulp. I was all alone outside a church in Guatemala.
It was May 2001, midway through my first year in Peace Corps. I had walked two hours to get to a wood-shack village called Buena Vista, planning to teach a youth group how to make recycled paper. The project looked so sensible in the “Youth Training Manual” they gave me, just memorize the script in Spanish and follow directions.
I sketched out my future the same way: follow the steps for two years, amaze the villagers and bring my life-affirming experiences back home. Writing this story a couple years later, I still can’t tie up the story in admirable platitudes.
Peace Corps assigned me to a cluster of villages that sprawled between mountains in eastern Guatemala. Buena Vista rested at the very end of my area. Each trip I crisscrossed two valleys and inclines, land so steep that I had to claw my way up. The village sat so far from the world that they didn’t have electricity, so I used a bean grinder instead of a blender to pulp the paper.
I had planned to teach the youth group how to make recycled paper and invite them to a big, inter-village talent show in the summer. But nobody ever came. I watched rainy season storm clouds creep along the sky, casting shadows the size of movie spaceships across the valley. Down there, a patchwork quilt of farm-plots shimmered between Emerald City green and space blue.
After a few hours, I crammed the crayons, markers, plastic sheets, homemade paper press, posters, and scripts back into my backpack. I walked home.
The Rainy Season
That night, the sky rumbled and crackled like tornado season in the Midwest, and the rainy season broke open with a whoosh of high-pressure rain. The thunderclouds and noise dissolved into a foggy gray roar outside. After an hour, the dirt chicken yard outside my room flooded and spilled muddy paste across my concrete floor.
I used my bucket from the recycling project to catch rain leaking through my flimsy roof. The rain pounded my roof all night, and I buried myself underneath four blankets to stay warm inside that blanket cocoon, the rain sounded like an ocean splashing at the bottom of my mountain.
I stared at my bookshelf, listening to rain on top of rain, and I thought of Amy back home. Amy had sandy hair that she dyed blazing red most of the time, she stood tall enough to wrap up my whole skinny body when she hugged me. We met as editors at a college newspaper, both of us carrying around the same robin-egg blue copy of T.S. Elliot poems. We matched each other, both of us disheveled and anxious from being stuck in books for too many years.
I knew her five years, but we spent what amounted to months of time in smoky coffee shops telling stories and trading books. Years before, we had promised each other that we would read James Joyce’s book, Finnegans Wake. That book stood between us, the ultimate literature-major’s dream that we could unravel like compulsive kids.
The last time we spoke on the phone, Amy had been sick for months. Her doctor diagnosed pneumonia, but never noticed the two blood clots stuck in her lungs like sputtering firecrackers. She lay in bed with her mysterious illness while we talked long distance. “Oh, by the way,” she said, “I had some free time, so I read the Wake.”
“You heartless bitch!” I yelled, and she giggled back.
“Read it yourself,” she said.
Tower of Babel
And so I did. The first week of the rainy season, huge chunks of eroded fields washed out and my usual paths slicked with mud. I didn’t see the sun for a week, so I hid out in my bedroom like a monk and read Finnegans Wake in heroic sessions. I went a whole week without speaking English, while reading the craziest book ever written in English.
Midway through that reading marathon, my neighbor Manuel stopped by. The 16-year-old from my youth group was just bored after hours of rain. “Is that the Bible?” he asked me, scrutinizing the 900-pages of English gibberish. I tried to explain, but he wasn’t very interested.
“People used to speak the same language, you know,” Manuel said. “Man decided to build the Tower of Babel, a tower tall enough to go to heaven. Then God smashed the tower and made all men speak different languages. That’s why you speak English and I speak Spanish.”
His impromptu sermon shocked me. Joyce kept talking about that same Bible story in Wake, he wanted to stir all the languages together in a word soup, a dreamy story built from echoes of different tongues. Manuel had stumbled on the secret of the book. “You should read more,” I said, “I think you could be a teacher, maybe.
“Primero Dios,” he said, “I want to be a minister someday.
Primero Dios. That Guatemalan cliche means “God first” or “God willing,” and it stuck in my head after he left. The country’s long civil war and bad leadership had left public education in shambles. Manuel might have been the smartest kid for miles around, but school ended at sixth grade in the village. The richest kids moved to private schools in the city, but most villagers never made it that far. Too often Primero Dios glossed over sad realities that no Peace Corps Volunteers could ever fix
I finished the Wake, and wrote Amy a huge letter about the rain, Manuel, and the book. We both loved writing stories within stories like that. Stories within stories make a magical circuit, an echo chamber with a little life bouncing around inside forever. Somewhere in this story, Amy is still waiting for my letter and I’m still buried under blankets in Miramundo.
My Bicycle Crash
On June 14, 2001, the blood clots burst and Amy died on an operating table. Before anybody could tell me that she was in the hospital, I rode my bicycle down my mountain. I left my emergency beeper at home, thinking I’d ride the bus back up later that afternoon.
Halfway to the city, I ran over a scrawny puppy. He dashed off screaming into the bushes and I wobbled around a steep curve. The dirt road was a minefield of rainy-season potholes. My tire caught a rut, and I flipped over the handlebars and skidded across the gravel. The crash tore a hole ten-stitches wide in my face.
I stumbled into the first house I saw, trailing gobs of blood behind me. An old lady was working in the yard, and she helped me tape a bloody rag on my face. I rode the rest of the way down the mountain in a shaky daze. At the hospital, a doctor sewed up my face. Doped up on painkillers, I drooled all over his rubber gloves. I spent the rest of the weekend in a hotel, swallowing pain pills.
On Monday, I found out that Amy died and that I had missed her funeral. By nighttime, I was drunk and spending a fortune on phone calls home at a tourist cafe. I called Amy’s mother, and rambled into the telephone. “I sent her a letter two weeks ago. Did she read my letter?” I begged her to answer me.
A Picture of Me Dancing
“Ven, ven al gran show de talentos,” I shouted, a full month later, into a rusty P.A. system. There’s something tremendous about hearing your words beamed through a scratchy microphone and booming over a mountain; your voice lingers and feels tangible.
We had built a plywood-plank and cinderblock stage in my neighbor’s lofty garage. We pumped recorded mariachi music through the amplifier to attract more people to the party. The rainy season rain held off for the whole night. Just before I opened the show, a red and white striped chicken bus rumbled outside.
In one of the happiest moments of my life, I watched more than 50 parents, grandparents, kids and a whole mariachi band spill out of the bus like circus clowns — the youth group from Buena Vista had come back. They knocked off the recorded music and pounded out the real thing on their tubby instruments. People danced and sang along, and the crowd swelled to 300 by the time I opened the show.
The youth group did the rest, performing all the skits they had planned. Veronica sang a country duet with her husband, the 17-year-old girl wailed out the love song. By the time I left, she would have her first baby. Marcella dressed up like a ditzy farm-girl, skipping around the stage. She left for high school on a scholarship that Christmas.
Towards the end, the Buena Vista leader stuck a cowboy hat on my head and dragged me onstage. “Dance,” he ordered, “Dance and we’ll dance with you.”
The band struck up that lilting mariachi beat, and I hopped from one foot to the other, following the beats in my invented gringo dance. Each time I landed, the wood planks banged out the beat beneath me; Freddy and his friends laughed and bobbed beside me, our footsteps booming even louder. I laughed and laughed, I was dancing fast enough to fly.
Somebody took a picture of me dancing, and I still keep it on my wall. I see a younger me: I’m high-stepping like a Vegas showgirl in dirty jeans and a cowboy hat; for one pristine moment I’m lost in my crazy march-step, I danced so fast that both my feet hovered in mid-air; for one moment, I left the ground and I floated, close to Amy as I’ll ever be . . .
Jason joined Peace Corps after graduating from the University of Michigan with a degree in literature. He recently graduated from the journalism program at New York University, and hopes to return to Central America as a journalist. His work has appeared in The Revealer, Newsday, and Street Level.