Wednesday, September 10, 2014

From an early age, probably due to too much Wendell Berry and a hippie of a brother, I have wanted to get my hands in the soil. It's a commonplace, romanticized notion these days but then again, when hasn't it been?

At sixteen, I spent a month on a trail crew, where I weeded, stripped logs and cleaned up roadside trash in the same national park where an isolated Kerouac once lived on a 6,000 foot peak. After studying in Spain, I went to Nazano, Italy for three weeks to work on an organic farm and after college, the itch still tingled underneath the skin so I headed away from the city, down to Honduras. Although not my first country of choice, I was convinced to go after hearing that the place where I would be working was situated on 2,000 acres of property with a self-sustaining farm and gardens.

In all of my well-intentioned but futile attempts at country living, I've come away with very little knowledge on how to actually grow anything. I tried growing herbs (herbs!) from seed last year that never yielded anything that I could use in a kitchen. In Italy, I harvested zucchinis but mostly worked busing tables on the weekend when the farm's restaurant needed extra hands (and mostly just indulged in the house's expresso machine and the homemade tiramasu in the fridge). It took me a year in Honduras before my friend and I finally hunted down one of the farm hands and told him we wanted to milk a cow before we left for the States. The 22-year-old who helped us couldn't help but chuckle when I talked of my dreams of one day being a granjera.

I do, however, feel plenty confident in my ability to climb mango and guayaba trees and come away with a shirt full of fresh fruit. There's an art to it, I swear.

I'm now about to move into an apartment that doesn't have a yard or even a balcony. I have some succulents and a purple heart for greenery and a dream that next summer, I can spend Sundays at an urban garden learning how its done. I mean, I was never one to learn Spanish from textbooks. The concepts clear on the page were never fully digested until I actually had to speak Spanish everyday for a year. And the same goes for vegetable gardening; a seemingly simple endeavor, I just don't think I'll ever learn until I get my hands in that soil.

Monday, August 18, 2014

 Always, always dreaming of Mexico City but for now, I guess this little pocket of Chicago will do.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

In one’s mind, the end product always appears monumental; the work of art one always knew they had in them. But as always, the process is messier than that.

I remember there was a moment while studying in college, where I was also working, writing a short story collection, and editing the college’s literary magazine, that I realized my only time for reflection was in the 15 minutes on the bus from Roscoe to Fullerton. Woe is me, I thought, for being too busy to let my mind wander. But really, I was a bit nostalgic about my younger years where my only preoccupation was thinking of what I’ll do once out of the suburbs.

That lasted very shortly because I’ve come around to favor the latter option. Being busy trumps indulging in a musing, which in short, is why I made the decision, however disinclined, to write in this space. No, people do not need to be kept at the screen any longer, but I can’t stomach wanting to publish my writing; I just have to do it in whatever medium is available to me at the moment.

In its own way, the same goes for why I flew to Seattle last weekend. After returning from Honduras, I was faced with idle time and accordingly, a slight feeling of uselessness so I decided to organize a fundraiser with my fellow ex-volunteers. I flew to meet up with the group in Seattle and on Saturday, we collectively ran 91.2 miles and raised $10,000 for the orphanage I spent my time at last year.

You would think the highlight of the weekend would be celebrating how much money we raised or the moment I crossed the finish line but really the highlight was dancing to Prince Royce in the kitchen with my ex-volunteers as we made banana pancakes, rhubarb compote and coffee.

And that’s because as Shonda Rhimes says in her Dartmouth acceptance speech that I loved every word of, the end product never ends up as you imagined. But that is just as important, more admirable, more impressive than achieving the ideal. In the end, it’s all about the work. The aim is usually just a superficial expectation that springs up from the reverie and more often than not, springs up from too much time on social media (which always seems to conceal hard work).

As Beryl Markham says in West With the Night, "Work and hope. But never hope more than you work."

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Paul Theroux wrote the most apt descriptions of Central America in his 1979 book “The Patagonian Express”, most all of which still hold true today, especially this line that seems to sum it up pretty curtly: “El Salvador deserves to be serene but it is not.”

I am reminded of this sifting through the daily editorials and reports on the flood of Central American children coming through the border (overwhelmingly Honduran). A similar gut feeling that sat in my stomach reading Theroux’s words return to me when I read a Chicago Tribune editorial that begs the question, “When has there not been violence and poverty in Central America?”

Amidst these countries of undeveloped cloud forests, unscathed jungles and protected coral reefs is a lot of loss. Loss that I don’t know if people ever recover from. 

Traveling in Central America in general was kind of like my trip to Guasale, the border town I had to go through on my way to Nicaragua. The travel guide warned that one didn’t want to spend much time in Guasale but my friends and I had just endured a sweaty bus ride through southern Honduras that lasted five hours too long and we were hungry. We found a comedor (or you know, someone’s house) which sold us lunch and so we ended up staying to eat a two dollar meal. The cook’s three year old son talked to us in between his Dora episodes and chickens pecked at the ground by our feet and there, we ended up eating the best meal of our trip. 

Accordingly, travel in Central America is rarely recommended (as my Dad let me know, Honduras wound up on the travel advisory section of the paper quite often during my year there) but it is surprisingly delightful where you least expect it.

El Salvador has its surfers, Nicaragua has its buzz (coined the new “Costa Rica”) and Guatemala its language learners, which left Honduras to me.

Rarely did I meet another gringo and if I did then most likely we had mutual contacts. Mostly I was packed shoulder to shoulder on buses with locals. On one bus ride from Tegucigalpa to where I lived in Honduras, a man selling rosquillas sat down next to me. He knew a little bit of English (“I live eight years in States – two kids there”). After spending hours on buses, I welcomed conversation from people I probably should have best avoided. He, for example, confessed that two of his years in the States were spent in prison.

He moved on from me, walking toward the front of the bus to sell his cornbread biscuits that are somehow a delicacy in Central America. By the time he made it back, I had a new woman sitting next to me, and he was out of his rosquillas. “Gracias a Dios, se acabรณ,” he said. Thank God his work for the day was done, he sighed, wiping his hands.

The lady turned to me, “Primero, Dios. Despues, nosotros.” I laughed, perhaps one of the first times I understood something clever in Spanish and perhaps because it’s a wonderful statement all the same. Thank God first, she joked, then thank us.

I really wonder if in my lifetime I'll see Honduras rise up from its third world barriers. As Katherine Boo writes in Behind the Beautiful Foreversher novel about an Indian family living in a Mumbai slum, "If a house is crooked and crumbling, and the land on which it sits uneven, is it possible to make anything lie straight?" Perhaps pessimistic but I don't think it was written to be discouraging; instead to help put things in perspective, inspire some compassion, to say one should have a little sympathy for these children because so much is stacked against them from the start. And from what I've seen in Honduras, there are people down there who are not discouraged by a shaky foundation, who think building what you can even if it cannot endure the rainy season is better than giving up, calling it a day and saying a banana leaf will do.

If things change for our neighbors south of the border, which I hope they do, I suppose God is to thank. And next, the people who made that change happen. 

Pictured above: Copan Ruinas, Honduras; Volcan Pacaya, Guatemala; Ometepe, Nicaragua; Cayos Cochinos, Honduras; El Zonte, El Salvador

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Headed to San Francisco this weekend for a wedding. I basked in the pastel painted city, admired the succulents in the lawns and eucalyptus trees, its dry grassy hills, its proximity to mountain country. But now I'm back in flat land, reading my City Lights find (Jane Jacobs "The Death and Life of Great American Cities") in the Chicago humidity with some iced green tea and crickets singing like sirens.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

The other night, I watched Frances Ha, the most recent Noah Baumbach film about a twenty-something girl in New York. Her crowning moment in the movie is when, for the first time in years, she is able to afford her own apartment. Perhaps it's because I'm amazed by the simple things (admittedly, I am still blown away by how good ice water tastes) but I'm with Frances: living on your own is a pinnacle life experience, one deserving of a cinematic ending.

I am twenty-three, a Boomerang kid as the New York Times puts it, and subscribe to the outlook that Adam Davidson suggests somewhere in the piece that "sleeping in a twin bed under some old Avril Lavigne posters is not a sign of giving up; it's an economic plan."

Economically, I have had plenty of advantages and with those blessings, I have been able to study in Spain, even forgo a salary for a year and live frugally in Central America. The travel has broadened me, which helps now because I feel shameless in the fact that I am in my twenties and living at home. Friends in Spain lived with their families in flats; I never walked into a house in Honduras where three generations weren't sitting around the cable TV.

There are down sides to living at home though; one being that it took me two train rides and a mile walk to get to Lake Michigan for the Fourth of July fireworks. But when I finally got there and watched the array of fireworks amidst the Chicago skyline, it all looked pretty majestic. 

I really couldn't complain.

Monday, May 26, 2014

So even though I'm three months out and a world away, I'm realizing that most of my posts concern Honduras, and that's a bit unexpected. However bizarre this might sound, I did not expect to be entirely changed by my time abroad; at least, not changed in that coming of age, Motorcycle Diaries-esque sense. I expected to be changed by the lifestyle differences, the disparities but I didn't expect to be so deeply affected by the language, the community, the music.

Before leaving, I never would have thought I would walk away listening to such a different genre of music and go from John Cale and David Bowie to musica Latina. Latin music is now modern, more global, and Calle 13 (pictured above), Anita Tijoux blew me away when I heard them but I'm familiar with the indie sound. More than anything, it was the salsa, cumbia, merengue, bachata, pues even reggaeton, ranchero (un poco) that affected me.

For a gal who never tuned into this type of percussion, never realized what was lacking without horn sections and never heard a pan flute except in Simon and Garfunkel's "El Condor Pasa", it's life changing on like a Che Guevara-hitting-the-open-road kind of scale.