(New pictures in the Colombia Album)
The heat has exhausted me and I slide under the shade of a palm-thatched hut on the beachfront. Small, tanned, naked children roll around on the sand floor absorbed in their individual imaginations. I smile, again admire the world that those under seven live in, and wonder if I’ll ever be able to find that door again. Two older boys play chess with soda bottle caps on a hand painted log stump in the corner of the hut and a man and his wife recline in the table next to mine. The woman is nursing a new child. Every few minutes someone from the community stops by the hut and tries to steal the baby for a toss, coo or cuddle. A group of men return from the sea and take seats at the table and a round of cold beers are immediately placed before them. Fingers and feet naturally tap along to the salsa streaming out from the radio as if the beat can never quite escape their bodies. I am always awed by this natural relationship with rhythm that those of lighter skin seem always to struggle so much with.
Someone whistles from the back and one of the young men disappears and returns with the pitcher of fresh lemonade that I have requested. He puts it on the table and stares at me without reserve or embarrassment. Then he asks me where I’m from.
“The United States,” I slowly reply. I always say the name of my country as gently and softly as possible, perhaps in silent hopes that this grace will also soften the sharp and cutting edge of the controversial conversations that usually follow.
He plops down soundly into the chair next to mine and crosses his arms across his chest.
Noting his body posture, I appropriately brace myself for the Question. What will it be today? The election? The war in Iraq? Bush’s recent visit to Colombia? The Free Trade Agreement the US is trying to push on some of the poorest countries in S. America in order to guarantee its freedom to exploit their precious resources? “Plan Colombia” and infamous drug war? What will be the Question today?
“Como hago?” he says.
I’m confused by his coastal slang and look at him blankly.
He puts both his hands on the table and clarifies, “How do I get there? Why can’t I go there? You can come here, right? Why can’t I go to your country?”
Ah. The immigration question. An exhausting discussion that I’ve had on islands around the world. And one of my least favorite. Because not only do I not have any answers for why people are constantly denied visas or even visiting rights to the US, but I also have to battle bitterly with the “dream” that Hollywood has not only painted on the “life ideal” billboards of America, but also broadcast across continents to make citizens of otherwise perfectly content communities question if they actually are happy without a car, two story house, vacuum cleaner and wall mounting television.
I shake my head and sigh.
“Why do you want to go to the United States? Do you know that what you see on television is not true? Do you know that Americans work 50 weeks a year in hopes of finding the time and money to spend only a few days in a pardise like this?”
I throw my arm out and spread it over the tropical beach, the sea, the children playing in the sand and the family laughing behind me…
“Look what you have here! You live on an island in the Caribbean with everyone you love! You have warmth, and beauty, and music and community and family, and comfort and long, lazy and sunny days to enjoy it all.”
He looks around for a second and acknowledges, but swipes aside, what I see.
He squints his eyes and says, “I hear you can make $20 dollars a day just washing windows of the cars in the street. Tell me. Is that true?”
I press my fingers to my temples and sigh. I, as of late, have been feeling particularly overwhelmed by qualities of life and humanity. Earlier this same day, I found out that Playa Blanca (see pictures below) was recently bought by a huge international 5-star chain resort that is making the island private and is now in the process of kicking off its inhabitants. No longer will people be able to rent a hammock on the beach for a night (4000 pesos, US $1.80) and enjoy a fresh fish and coconut rice meal (7000 pesos, US $3.18) prepared by Mama Ruth. Via exuberant prices, only the elite will have access to the island. And Mama Ruth and family, may themselves have to relocate in order to oblige.
“Is that what life is about? Money?”
He rubs his fingers together and says, “Not just money; but the Dollar.” He contines, “If I can get to the States, I can get myself some dollars. And then I can find myself a nice American wife and…”
I don’t have to listen. I know how the sentence and story ends. I’ve seen it in music videos, magazines, movies, soap operas, and TV enough times to have the script memorized on all kinds of conscious and subconscious levels.
I look at the sea and watch a small naked child taking chase after a retreating wave and then turn, shrieking with joy, as the chase suddenly turns on him.
The children see so easily. If there’s anything we should watch, it should be them. When did we forget those innate secrets of living and loving? When did the simple recipe for joy become so cluttered, complicated and confused? And what must we unlearn to reveal and realize them again?
Playa Blanca (“White Beach”)
December 1st, 2004
Playa Blanca, Islas de Rosaria
Off of coast of Cartegena, Colombia
Yesterday, today, tomorrow. 365 days a year, For millennia upon millennia. Over desert, jungle, city and sea. In the slums, on the streets and over the suites. Morning, noon and night. Life diligently and gracefully raises a hand and sweeps the sky. In a brush of brilliancy to allure and lift weary and downtrodden eyes. To bring to attention the questions that the striking evidence would only imply; In inspired wonder of who, what and why.
My favorite color is that of the sky minutes after the sun has set, but before the first star has shown itself yet. A fleeting and paradoxically incalculable minute. That by these instructions can be recognized and captured only by intuition. (As I think all life’s most inspiring moments to be.) This color. If captured in a stone. Would woo and wow the Royal to send troops to destroy, devastate and enslave, just to put a piece of it on their plump fingers. And here it is. That same color. Spread across the sky wide. Unprejudiced of all whom it adorns. Making even the sea look small and pale. In bold declaration. That all royalty and richness will befall. To those who look up. Any and all.