Chris Honore’ was born in occupied Denmark, during WWII. After the war, he immigrated to America. He went to public schools and then attended San Jose State University and the University of California, at Berkeley, where he earned a teaching credential, an M.A. and a Ph.D. After teaching high school English for two years, he joined the Peace Corps. He’s a freelance journalist based in Ashland, Oregon. His wife owns a bookstore on Main Street. His son is a cinematographer, living in Southern California.
PEACE CORPS VOLUNTEERS were known, at least within the ranks, for telling stories, urban legends of a sort, passed along over a meal or coffee. Many were humorous, some anecdotal, often embellished to make a point, others so improbable as to require a suspension of disbelief, many possessing a dark edge of frustration and cynicism and resignation.
One popular story that made the rounds, achieving an almost iconic status, involved two CARE nurses who traveled from village to village giving healthcare talks to the local women touching on childcare, nutrition and prenatal care. In one rural village, high up in the Andes, or so the story was told, they explained the dangers of leaving food out on tables and counter-tops uncovered.
As it turned out, the nurses had recently received from CARE a plastic modular fly, a bit larger than, say, a shoebox, its legs showing all of the hair follicles, its blue-black wings veined, eyes oval saucers, the antennae two thin wires.
With the women gathered around, sitting in straight-back chairs, the nurses brought out the model and explained that the fly would buzz out to, say, the barn or hog pen, land on manure, its hairy legs now covered with animal droppings, and would eventually fly back into the house and land on any food sitting on the counter. One of the nurses held up the fly as if it were a model airplane, executing a quick sortie back and forth across the room, explaining how the children would eat the now contaminated food and, of course, get sick. With the new fly, it proved to be a dramatic demonstration. Cover the food, they admonished, and, if possible, keep flies out of the house.
The village women all nodded and smiled, seeming unconcerned, as if they understood and of course agreed.
At the end of the talk, one of the women, older, her hair streaked with gray, came up to the two nurses, who were packing up their gear and dismantling the fly, and thanked both of them for their fine demonstration. She was very grateful for their time, and, of course, polite to a fault. She then paused and said, “There is just one problem. Here, in our village, the flies are only this big.” And she held up her forefinger and thumb to show how very small the flies were compared to American flies that were, of course, like everything in America, so much bigger.
THE STORY RESONATED with Volunteers. It said that communication and perspective can be everything, and though we think we are on the same page with the locals, it’s also possible, even probable, that we are decidedly not.
Finding common ground is more than just language. Letting go of hubris, of our assumptions about how the world works, both overt and covert, understanding that so much of culture is subtle and seemingly elusive, can be difficult, even painful, especially during those first months in-country.
The Peace Corps is not about changing the world. Our mission is far more humble and limited in scope than was ever generally expressed. We are there to know the people. To help in small ways. Do what we can and seek out our commonality. To allow Colombia to change us as much as we wanted to change it while becoming enmeshed in its rhythms and patterns, to befriend a people and a place and hopefully have them befriend us.
One Volunteer, in a reflective moment, over coffee in an outdoor café, told me that in her opinion — she actually said, “In my humble opinion,” though I knew she wasn’t feeling humble about what she was about to say — “the Peace Corps is one of the best ideas to come out of the second half of the 20th century. I mean, really,” she said. “It’s sheer genius. It speaks to the best in all of us. Clearly it’s not enough to wish for world peace. Think about what it would mean if the agency were three, four times as big. Consider a massive worldwide network of Peace Corps Volunteers, each returning to America with a profoundly different point of view regarding the world and its people.”
The Volunteer speaking was Cathy, and she was stationed in a small village north of Cartagena, near the port city of Baranquilla, working in an elementary school.
She stood erect and seemed especially resilient, fearless. She had thick reddish brown hair, freckles, and always had a woven bag the colors of the rainbow, made of tightly woven straw, hanging from her shoulder, holding her Peace Corps I.D. card, sundries, and several paperbacks from her Book Locker.
It was Cathy who, grinning, holding back a laugh, stirring her coffee with a small, stainless steel spoon, told me about a State Department administrator who had flown into Bogotá and was picked up by someone from the embassy. “The Washington guy,” she began, “told the driver that he wanted to drive and, reluctantly, the embassy guy agreed. As you know, driving in Bogotá is a bit like the wild, wild West. Anyway, they left the airport parking area and headed downtown.”
What everyone who lived in Bogotá knew, but the newly arrived guy did not, was that the city had packs of small feral boys called “Gamins,” French for urchin, that roamed the streets, stealing what they could, sleeping in abandoned buildings. Many were runaways, ragged, dirty faces, the flotsam and jetsam of the city.
“So the Washington guy, who’s now driving into the center of the city, stops at a red light.” Cathy takes a long sip of coffee, looking intently at me, beginning to smile. I liked her smile, her sense of drama, and the direction this story was taking.
“His window is rolled down and his arm’s on the sill, his hand outside the Jeep, resting on the side mirror. So here’s the thing. The guy is wearing a really nice gold watch, expansion band type. He glances over at the embassy guy, now in the passenger seat, and starts to say something and suddenly feels a sharp tug on his wrist. That would be the wrist attached to the hand resting on the side mirror.”
I look at Cathy, my eyebrows raised. “Don’t tell me that . . .”
Cathy nodded and raised her right hand as if giving court testimony. “Swear. This is what I heard. Guy jerks his hand back inside the Jeep and guess what’s missing? The watch. Bare wrist where once there was a watch. Gamin got it. Gone. So much for driving from the airport. Great, huh?”
“Love it. Just perfect. Okay,” I said, “check this out . . . since we’re talking about driving. And I swear this is true. I mean I didn’t just hear it. You know I’m involved with this Head Start project in two barrios. Summer program for kids. Classes. Activities. Provide them with a daily lunch. And you’ve met Fred.”
“Isn’t Fred the guy who claims he never brushes his teeth, just cleans the fronts with some kind of kitchen cleanser?”
“Yep. That’s Fred. Doesn’t own a toothbrush. Anyway, he’s been assigned to help out. So we’re driving in the center of Bogotá, it’s midday, lunchtime, people are streaming out of buildings, filling the streets. It’s crazy. Anyway, Fred and I are in a Peace Corps Jeep. It has these side mirrors, both sticking out pretty far so you can pull a trailer. We’re heading downtown on the main avenida, there’s a median strip in the center. Some of the locals, as usual, are standing on the strip, playing this game of matador-toro. The car, naturally, being the bull. The idea is to step into the street and see how close you can come to the passing car. Driving during peak hours in downtown Bogotá can get hairy.”
Cathy looked at me, grinning. “I love the sound of this. Go on.”
“So Fred and I are slowly heading along the Avenida de Santander, you know the street, really wide, and I see this guy and a woman, both nicely dressed, office types, standing on the median, and they’re laughing, and he’s doing the bullfighter thing. Showing off. His girl is impressed, egging him on. Seriously. He’s pretending he’s holding a cape, turning with each passing car, doing a pirouette of sorts. All he needs is a crowd shouting olé. So I’m in the left lane, nearest the strip, traffic on my right, and I know it’s going to be close. Fred is looking at them as well, and he says, ” ‘Honoré, the couple on your left. You watching them? This guy is really into it, doing his matador thing . . .. I really hate it when they do this.’ ”
” ‘I see him,’ ” I say. ” ‘All this guy needs is a bull-ring and some really tight pants.’ ”
“I keep my eyes on the road, trying to navigate next to the other cars that are jockeying for position. Driving downtown during the lunch hour is something I generally avoid. The one rule is to keep moving forward as fast as traffic allows. The rest is a type of controlled chaos.
“As we swept by, the guy, with a look of intense concentration, executes a classic Veronica — I’ve never seen an actual bullfight — I mean, you know the ending going in, right? The bull dies. But I’ve read enough Hemingway from my book locker, like Death in the Afternoon, to recognize this guy’s moves — his back arched, his feet locked together, his right arm extended. And then, to my relief, we pass by. I glance over at Fred expecting him to comment.
“Fred, instead of shaking his head in wonder, looked pale and was trying to say something while pointing out my driver’s side window. I look over, in the direction he’s pointing, and I see, hanging from the extended mirror, a head of hair. Or a head with hair. Seriously. I slow to a stop, convinced I had hit the young woman. I look in the mirror and see the matador chasing after the Jeep, shouting, and behind him is the woman, wearing a skullcap, also yelling, holding one hand on top of her head. I had snagged her wig with my mirror as we passed. Of course, I stop. They both run up to the Jeep, looking stunned and angry, like it was my fault.”
Cathy puts a hand over her mouth and shakes her head, saying, “OhmyGod.”
“I know, crazy, huh? And there I am, trying to untangle the hair from the mirror. It got caught on a couple of wing nuts holding the mirror in place. I’m looking from the hair to the couple now standing next to the Jeep. I wasn’t certain what surprised the man more, the hair hanging from the mirror or his girlfriend sans the wig.
“Struggling, trying to give the couple a ‘it wasn’t my fault’ look, I finally manage to unsnarl and hand the woman her wig. All the while she’s yelling at me while trying to fit the wig back on her head with as much dignity as possible, the thing sitting on her head a bit crooked, looking like a reddish-brown hat.
“As we drove away, I glanced in the side mirror. The couple was standing there, lost in a heated discussion, the man gesturing toward her hair, the woman shaking a finger at him.
“I looked over at Fred. Color had returned to his face and he looked at me in disbelief. ‘No one is ever going to believe this . . . well maybe other Volunteers, but that’s it. Good God,’ ” Fred says.
Cathy shook her head, giving me a wide-eyed look, then holding up her hand, signaling that I should give her a moment. She was laughing, now, trying not to, letting out these snorts. I was waiting for coffee to come out of her nose. Finally she said, “Fred’s right. You have to be in-country to believe it.
“Okay,” said Cathy. “How about this? You know John Coffey, I think he was in your training group.”
“Yeah he was. A man of few words.”
“Well, you know he’s stationed in that small town, Manos de Dios. Doing some ag stuff with the local farmers. He’s telling me about sitting with the mayor, on the main street. Each in a chair, watching the locals pass by. They’re both sipping beers. Then he tells me he’s been practicing bottle cap sailing.”
“Bottle cap what?” I ask.
“You know, you put a bottle cap, from a beer bottle or soda, on your thumb. You snap your fore-finger across your thumb and the snap sends the bottle cap into the air like a Frisbee, flies some twenty feet in a nice arc. There you go. Bottle cap sailing.
“John says he’s been trying to convince the Alcalde to use some special seed for a project. Something like that. Anyway, John still has the bottle cap from his beer. He’s been holding it, sort of fiddling with it. Meanwhile the mayor is skeptical about the seed and seems reluctant to give it a go on a small cooperative farm just outside of town.
“Meanwhile John has been watching a rooster walk back and forth, just across the street. Strutting, like he owns the road. So John says to the Alcalde, ‘Mr. Mayor, see that macho chicken over there?’ The mayor looks in the direction John is pointing and says, ‘Of course.’ Says the rooster is well known and is ‘sin vergüenza.’ Without shame. So John lifts his hand, the bottle cap now balanced on the tip of his thumb, like a small hat, pauses for drama, then snaps his forefinger across his thumb and sends the bottle cap sailing in a nice arc across the street and unbelievably nails the rooster in the head. The rooster lets out a surprised squawk, jumps, and runs off down a side street. The mayor lets out a ‘Dios mio,’ and looks at John as if he had just healed someone. It was a wonderful moment, John said. And a short time later, the mayor agreed to give the seeds a try. He never looked at John in the same way.”
I smiled. I could easily picture the moment. The rooster, the bottle cap, John’s wanting to change the mind of the Alcalde. “Bottle cap sailing. I’ve got to give it a try. The newest thing in community development. Can you do it?” I asked Cathy.
“Sure. It’s a snap . . . so to speak.” And she went to the waiter and asked for a bottle cap and returned to our table. She sat down, placed the cap on the tip of her thumb and with a look of no sweat, watch and learn, snapped her fingers, sending the cap sailing out across the café and out onto the walkway. “See?” she said. “Nothing to it. A skill you may need during your tour. And remember, you learned it here first.
“Oh, one other thing about John,” Cathy continued. “I just heard this. Not from John. From another PCV. Apparently John had been in Baranquilla and was on the way home on the bus, but stops at a small town. He’s going to meet up with a group of farmers who’re considering starting a co-op. So he’s walking up this street on the outskirts of the town, heading toward city hall where the men were going to meet. John also wanted to discuss with them the new seed he was now using in the co-op back in his town, the type he was discussing when he beaned the rooster.
“As he walked along this wide street, the houses separated by trees and patches of fronds, he said he could hear the sound of children playing in the distance, their voices rising and falling, but something else. A strange sound. Turning a corner he sees a metallic green Pontiac Bonneville sitting in front of a white stucco bungalow. So John slows, then stops and stares. He’s looking at a dusty muscle car from Detroit. And to make things even more interesting, there’s coming from the house the thudding beat of music. It’s the Rolling Stones. John swears it’s I Can’t Get No Satisfaction. With lots of bass. Jagger’s familiar voice. The vibration making the front windows tremble.
“And he’s standing there in the street, treading water, looking at that Bonneville and hearing the heavy bass sounds of the Stones. This is way weird, so he decides he has to check it out. Actually, it reminded me of that time you told me about in Cartagena, when Marlon Brando and a movie company came to town, rented a house just across from the beach, and you knew he was there . . . think of i . . . Marlon Brando. What film was he making?”
“La Quemada,” I said. “The film company wanted to hire some PCVs to play English officers. Period costumes. The whole deal. The Peace Corps nixed it, though. My one chance at a star on Hollywood’s walk of fame.”
“That’s right. And you told me how you stood out on the sidewalk in front of his house and looked down the long driveway and you knew that Brando was there, in the house, and you couldn’t bring yourself to go and knock on the door.”
“God I wish I hadn’t chickened out.”
“So John tells me how he walked through this leaning picket gate, noticing that up close the house is sort of a wreck . . . and there he is, John’s standing looking at the front door. He swears he knocked and waited. Nothing. Then knocked again, Jagger filling the air with that familiar Stones sound.
“Nada. He knocks again. And this time the door opens and this guy, this really big guy, is standing there, filling up the doorway. He’s wearing camo pants, a T-shirt, jungle boots and a gun in his waistband. Or at least that’s what John remembers.
“Guy looks John up and down, says, ‘Yeah?’ John hesitates, then says, ‘Well, I was just passing by and saw your car, heard the music.’
“He’s invited in, and notices two other men, also big, forearms like tree trunks, tattooed, crew cuts, standing in the kitchen. They both gave him a quizzical look. He’s so tense he can’t remember if they said much. He does recall not saying anything like, ‘Hola. What brings you to Colombia?’
“Everything about them said they were not interested in small talk. Tourists they were not. He does mention to the guy who let him in that he liked the Rolling Stones and really dug the car. He gets nothing back. Were they Green Berets? It would be the most logical conclusion. I mean we all know there are rebels in Colombia and there’s been talk of drug cartels. So, who knows? Or they could have been some cartel’s stateside connection. And there’s John, acting like he’s happy to see these fellow-Americans since they’re all so far from home. Which of course is true. Rolling Stones and green Pontiac aside.”
I looked at Cathy, at her wide smile, and nodded. “Indeed we are.”