Paula grabbed my fingers and promptly began digging out the dirt from under my nails with hers: long, chili-pepper red and perfectly manicured. I tried to balance with my free hand. A schoolboy kicked a puppy burying its head into his lunchbag. The puppy licked his toe. nothing lasted long enough to make sense. I felt free beyond fantasizing, like I was cooking the meal I would savor for years to come.
By Rachael Uris
Paula, my leader into all mysteries of volunteering in a Peruvian school, met me early in the day at the volunteer center in Trujillo. Due to our language barrier, we were off on our adventure with little more of an introduction than a round of charades. She clutched my hand, barely avoiding stabbing my pale skin with her acrylic nails, and dragged me through the crowded sidewalks and alleys. She took the lead, zipping as lucidly and gracefully as a dragonfly in an overgrown jungle, dodging fruit carts, goats, roaming toddlers, clouds of smells, calls of men, puddles packed with shivering reflections. Paula moved like she was an Olympic skater playing around the masses in a hell frozen over, her dusty faux-designer T-shirt beaming in the sun like a sequined costume. Struggling to keep up, I felt my skin tingle—hypersensitive, pulsating, elated. In a foreign country, there’s not a sidewalk pebble that doesn’t glow, not a street sign that doesn’t whirl into one’s brain like poetry. Everything was unusual and therefore beautiful. There was no way to cross town that wasn’t as dangerous and enthralling as skiing out of bounds. And so we flew together through the morning streets. I put more faith than I thought I had into Paula to lead us valiantly through the revolutions that had overthrown Trujillo’s intersections. Chickens dodged dogs dodging cows dodging buses. No one dodged us. Governing stoplights cried—bent, shattered and ignored a million miles above the people. “Hermosaaaaaaaaaaaa!” the revolution called around us in streaks of color. Paula laughed. My eyes, a blank canvas, met the blurring lines around me. We kept going.
14 | twine | autumn 2012
In a foreign country, there’s not a sidewalk pebble that doesn’t glow, not a street sign that doesn’t whirl into one’s brain like poetry. We stopped on a crowded street corner while Paula searched for our bus through squinted eyes. Dozens of buses slightly bigger than minivans slowed in front of us, teenage boys hanging out of them in the shapes of gingerbread cookies. They whistled with the pizzazz of Broadway stars, “Mira-mada-mira-mada-mira-madamira-mada-ocho-cho-cho-cho-ocho-ooo!” or “Dura-dura-dura-dura-dura-dura-nueva-vuevanu-vuvanuvuvanuuuuuu!” Listening was giving me simultaneous motion sickness and intoxicating velocity. The corners of my mouth lifted in subtle standing ovation. Nothing in me could turn away. Finally, Paula pranced halfway into the street to rope our stallion: a bright green bus with pink stripes, orange waves of fire and blue biblical verses. The radio had hotboxed its insides with earsplitting salsa tunes, sweaty clouds steaming from its windows. “Nuevo Jerusaleeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeem!” the gingerbread boy cried out as the radio guitar entered its solo. Our vessel slowed to just short of a stop, and skipping
alongside we hopped and squeezed ourselves in, squatting above the laps of the few who had grabbed the makeshift seats. A woman handed me a box of live baby chickens with a wordless smile. I eyed them as they shook their new tail feathers to the beat. A disco ball thumped from the ceiling in swirls and figure eights, framed by a mosaic of scattered glowing stars and countless stickers depicting religious saints, boobs, Loony Toons and Batman. My thighs ached and I prayed for them not to collapse onto the ancient chicken lady inches below. Paula grabbed my fingers and promptly began digging out the dirt from under my nails with hers: long, chili-pepper red and perfectly manicured. I tried to balance with my free hand. A schoolboy kicked a puppy burying its head into his lunchbag. The puppy licked his toe. Nothing lasted long enough to make sense. I felt free beyond fantasizing, like I was cooking the meal I would savor for years to come. And so we continued all the way out to Trujillo’s suburban wasteland. As the once-paved road crumbled slowly under our wheels into finer and finer desert sand, the music softened and eye contact ceased. Chicken lady climbed out and I sat on the naked spring she had warmed, my legs throbbing from the long squat. Space washed out the flutter of my mind. I stared at my nails on the hand Paula had left dirty until I felt a wave of motion sickness and I was forced to focus on the horizon. Outside the bus window, buildings grew thinner and thinner, losing first dresses of paint, then skin of
tile and wood, muscles of brick, furnished organs, until all that was left was the soft skeletal marrow of dried mud. Ripped trash bags draped over them like dollar store ponchos. Fewer and fewer of the people we passed had somewhere to walk to. Fewer and fewer of their cracked feet bore shoes. Dogs became more and more naked: from leashless to collarless, from hairless to legless. The air grew thicker, hotter—closer to the furnace of the sun. Or of Hell. Many passengers left; no one climbed in. Our stop was one of the last. Where the bottoms of buildings ended and the sandy streets began had become nearly invisible to the naked eye. Muddy ponchos fluttered like white flags of surrender; the ground’s broken glass glistened like morning dew. Empty Doritos bags and Coke bottles danced through the air, proving to whoever would listen that their homeland still bore color. Pubescent girls with babies on their backs or in their bellies traced their eyes along our path silently, camouflaged by the grains of their home that no one would wash out of their clothes, nails or hair. Babies old enough to crawl dug through open trash with stray dogs and chickens. Babies old enough to walk hauled backloads of milk and honey to and from the markets to be sold by their siblings who were old enough to talk. Flies harvested their blood from open wounds. Some of their eyes followed us, but most hadn’t the strength. For moments I let myself see them, my mind thinking of nothing but sand, and all was silent save the wind that finally penetrated my ears.
autumn 2012 | twine | 15
Outside the bus window, buildings grew thinner and thinner, losing first dresses of paint, then skin of tile and wood, muscles of brick, furnished organs, until all that was left was the soft skeletal marrow of dried mud. The four mud walls and two large tables that were to be our school glowed from their flapping blue roof in a shade reminiscent of the sky. A classroom of homeless children pulses with an aroma unparalleled to any other. It is one perfumed by bodies too young to produce their own perfumes— one that is instead perfumed by the dirt and smoke and sweat of a world forced upon them. It is the smell of poverty, of untimely labor, of famine that clings to the surface of their silky skin before it has erupted as a wasteland of wrinkles, hair and scars. It shamelessly slurps away at its youth like they are nothing more than ice moments from melting. Nuevo Jerusalem offered neither shade nor a chance to congeal as children for just one more year. Perhaps we were trying our hardest to build a shelter: a three-hour sunblock to calm the ongoing burn of faces polluted and discolored decades before their time. The children begged for extra homework and had to be forced to stop work as the bell rang for lunch. They complained when the school closed for Sundays like their parents did at the doors of the liquor store. The organization’s official mission statement was to build a morning time school in Nuevo Jerusalem for those children who had spent their lives working so that they could to learn to read and write. Whether or not they would ever use the skills we were giving them was questionable. Still, on their morning vacation from reality, they were learning what it meant to be who they were: kids.
If for only three hours a day, they had a space to laugh, to concentrate, to feel how their cranium was growing without them as though they were the drafted fathers of their own minds. My mission statement was to be their teacher, their guidance, their best friend. A thousand fears haunted me in that classroom, the greatest of which was not having any impact of all—of being forgotten to them, or worse, them being forgotten to me. And my selfishness became so painfully clear. All of a sudden it was like everything was riding on my work in that school. It was easy, after all, to be unhappy in the Real World. I had plenty of excuses for feeling unfulfilled, depressed, miserable. At home I had no greater purpose, no orphans to save, no street children to show me the tragic beauty of the world in their smiling eyes. If misery had followed me here, it meant it had crawled into my baggage, into my skin and flesh; it meant that it was a part of me. And beyond what I would hope New Jerusalem would mean to me, beyond a series of stories, letters, and bullet points on my future CV—I didn’t know how to let them in. I don’t know if I ever did. After a while, they stopped asking me for help. b —An excerpt from Rachael’s forthcoming book, “Valparaiso, Barefoot.” autumn 2012 | twine | 17