I've been asked not a few times how I find myself in Latin America, how I find myself in Chile, how it all started, this interest in a part of the world to which I have no real claim other than that I've adopted it.
I was twenty-one years old, with multiple bottles of sunscreen, a tiny Spanish-English dictionary, a six-month supply of tampons, too many teeshirts and pairs of cotton socks and barely a lick of common sense when I landed in Mexico City in October of 1992, for a six month trip on busses and boats, bicycles and the occasional buey (ox) down through Central America and back up again. It was a stint motivated by a million tiny factors: the belief that three years of high-school Spanish meant that I could communicate, a fabulous summer job that had plumped out my bank account enough to afford stepping out of my life for six months and finally, not wanting to sit around and wait to find out if I’d gotten into the law school of my choice (answer: yes).
So off I went, optimistic and unprepared, functioning at a two-year-old’s linguistic level, sticking out like a sore thumb and ready for some serious adversity. There was the time when, having already been relieved of her on-the-bus bag (you know, the one with the passport), the friend I was traveling with lost her tongue, leaving me to stutter out all the Spanish for the next couple of days. Or the time when, defeated after a lightning-strike pickpocketing, I took out my anger on a street dog, chasing it down after it stole our loaf of bread. Both of these in Mexico, and no, I didn’t catch the dog, though it makes you wonder what I would have done if I had.
But then there was the simple hospitality of my busmates in Guatemala, who shoved over just a little bit more, to help me improve my perch on the narrow green seat of the yellow Bluebird schoolbus on which we traveled, which hopefully would not hurtle off into the stratosphere and into the ravine below like the one before us had, this on the way to Chichicastenango. In Nicaragua between Managua and Rama, a man and his son took me in as their newfound friend when they saw me pull tape out of my backpack and repair a paperback book whose cover had torn off. Lo arreglaste? (you fixed it?), they asked, incredulous that I hadn't just thrown it away.
A month later in Honduras a woman who worked as a seamstress at a lingerie factory confided in me that after having all the children I wished to have, I could get a (shhhh!) type of surgery that would prevent me from having more children, but that I shouldn’t tell my priest or my husband. Single, Jewish and already aware of the existence of tubal ligations, I nodded my head solemnly at her advice.
I ate beans and rice endlessly, searched for the best Salvadorean pupusa I could find, learned to love avocado and fear tomatoes (too easy to get sick!), to drink soda out of a plastic bag with a straw (there were no plastic bottles at the time), and hold unknown children on my lap (with a special prayer for good diapering technique) and even suffered through a night in a hostel on the coast in Costa Rica where the giant palmetto bugs scurried so loudly this way and that on my hotel room floor that I had to sleep with the light on and a sock over my eyes.
This trip pushed me out of my comfort zone and into a place where I could remake myself. I was left to my own devices, and simultaneously disregarded by and cared for by strangers to the left, right and center.
I left for my trip to Central America a foolish and defensive 21-year old, a Brooklynite, a recent college graduate, a person who believed that the world she was venturing into was different than the one she was leaving. Six months later, and several pounds and teeshirts lighter, I returned at the ripe old age of 22, much more freckled, much more confident, with a decent working knowlege of Spanish (I was now linguistically at least ten or twelve ) and the belief that people around the world are pretty much the same. In the words of a long-ago exboyfriend “Everyone has to go to the bathroom, and everybody likes to get mail.”
And to all the people who took care of me on that trip and didn’t take advantage of me when they could have and smiled just a little brighter than they needed to when I walked into the room, well this is your mail. Thank you.