“Shasta-boy, you’re a handsome dog…from an angle.” – Shasta’s Owner
The last of my sleep wafts away on the gobble of a turkey outside my window.
I start to walk the path back to waking reality and as soon as I become conscious of the road I’m walking, I spin on my heels and run back into my last dream. Some of the visions come back immediately. Others I have to stand and wait patiently at the door (wondering what I’m doing there and if anyone’s home) before they silently and slowly open by the hand of my subconscious accord. When my mind is sufficed with its collection of memories from last night’s mental vacation, I open my eyes.
I pull my pen and journal off my nightstand and jot down the captions to my night visions.
I sit up and cross my legs — American legs, Indian arranged — and salute Truth with a Namaste (“I recognize the divine in you.”) greeting to That Which Inspires my thoughts, intuitions and visions. I soak into the silence and find the place where I feel my insides peeling away from the outside. And there I simply sit. Suspended in my soul; Buoyant in my being.
I Namaste the Divine again and finally stretch back into my body. Shasta has heard my wakening rumble and runs to the foot of my bed. He points his nose down at my feet and looks at me from the curious corner of his eyes asking permission to lick my toes. I smile my consent and his tail curls up in a whipping white circle of its own excited 360 degree smiles. He saturates my feet in his saliva. He then tugs on the foot of my pajama pants as I slip on my flip-flops and grab my house keys.
As I cross the studio apartment I take delight in the sound of my shoes sweeping across the wooden floor. So I add a couple of foot-notes with a some salsa steps and spins. Shasta springs onto his hind legs in his desire to dance too and I note the musical addition of his clicking toenails.
Shasta hops down the stairs in front of me, pausing on every step to make sure that I am only one behind. “Attached Love,” I define to myself and chuckle.
I step outside. The sun is brave today. The overcast mornings that it usually wears during the dry season have been left in the closet, and it steps out in the gleaming colors that it usually reserves for the “winter” holidays. I rise up on my toes, close my eyes and lean in to receive my warm morning kiss. I wave of goosebumbing joy craws over my skin. This is definitely a partner I can wake up to every morning. I nod my re-agreement to the sun, “till death do us part.”
The neighbors call over in a language that can’t be bothered with English pronunciation.
They wave the dog and I over.
Shasta’s small rump wags in full circles in a desperate attempt to catch up with his erratic tail. The neighbors all pat his back and repeat his name to his ecstatic delight. They all laugh out loud and say to me, “You know that this dog doesn’t understand Spanish?! An Ecuadorian dog! That doesn’t know Spanish! Have you ever seen such a thing!”
I hear their laughing trail off behind me as I make my way to the market. I cross the street, but turn around when I hear the heel of an angry hand on a horn to see Shasta in a perfect squat in the middle of the street and a red faced taxi driver sign language-ing his hysteria over the situation.
But his furrowed brow tells me that this is a matter beyond language barriers. And in consideration of the parasite inspired dysentery of which he has a case, I give my best “sorry about my dog sir” shrug and wait patiently for duty to be done.
At the local market I stroll through rainbow towers of fruits, vegetables and small animals. I am certainly the only gringo in the market and me, my pajama pants with snowmen on them, and my funny dog that doesn’t speak Spanish are easy destinations for wandering eyes.
I settle on a shop run by a woman who I know from experience can’t be bothered with ripping gringos off. I select a Shasta-sized papaya and give her 30 cents. I offer her my burlap sack to drop it into and she laughs. She tells me she’s never seen a gringo come to the market with a burlap sack before. She wants to take a picture of it. We both laugh and I swing the bag over my shoulder and say goodbye.
While preparing breakfast I hear the door downstairs unlock and open. All the other volunteers have gone to the city for a convention, but I know the only other person who has the spare key to the house.
“You know, you’re driving me NUTS with these questions!” I hear echo from the hallway over heavy steps.
“Good morning Steffan. What questions?”
In his Danish accent he continues, “You know. These questions about the meaning of your life, my life, and all life. All these things that you keep talking about. I really don’t know how you can live your life this way. It’s just too intense to question life so much. You know, I would call you an intense person…but I usually reserve that term for people who overwhelm me. And I don’t feel overwhelmed by you. But how can you life your life like this? All these questions? How will you ever find the answers?”
I open up the coffee jar and drink in the deepness of the dark roast. Then I turn to him and say, “Steffan, I don’t care about the answers. I’m interested in the search itself.”
He shakes his head at me with frustration.
“Hum. We I have to go to work. I just came over to leave my organic waste in your compost bin and tell you that you’re driving me crazy. So. Do you want to have coffee later?”
I smile and agree.
While crossing the street on the way to the bus stand I suddenly hear horrific howling behind me.
I turn around and see Shasta whimpering wildly at a paw that was just run over by a bicycle. With his three good legs he hops to where I stand on the street corner, crawls between my legs and continues to yelp out the enormity of his painful paw. I crouch low and hold him till his whine whimpers out. I notice that many pairs of feet have congregated around me and think that I hear them talking again about how the dog doesn’t understand Spanish, until I realize that they are not talking about Shasta, but about ME.
I turn my attention upwards and declare,“I speak Spanish.”
The startled crowd jumps back at my unexpected smile of comprehension.
“Who are you? What are you doing? Is this your dog? What’s its name?”
The children in the crowd come forward and a half dozen pairs of small hands begin to pet Shasta. His sad eyes lift in excitement of all the options presented to lick and he miraculously puts weight on his injured paw in order to give a full body turn to allow all his new admirers a proper pet.
I suddenly grasp how entirely odd I must look. For not only am I dragging two enormous rice sacks full of empty two-liter plastic bottles, but I also have empty milk jugs hanging from my backpack and a machete in my hand. And I’m a gringo. Actually. I’m a gringa. And in Latin America, a girl alone (let alone a North American one carrying a machete) is ALWAYS a crowd-worthy curiosity.
“His name is Shasta. He’s not my dog. He belongs to a girl I live with. I’m a volunteer with Planet Drum. I’m carrying all this stuff because I’m using these things to plant trees.”
One of the men in the crowd nods his head wisely in agreement and explains to the rest of the crowd that he knows our house, where it is, and who else lives there. (Because this IS the business of people living in small towns: to know everyone and everything.)
“Ahhh. She’s a volunteer. She plants trees,” they all turn around and inform those standing behind them.
The bus is full. I manage to squeeze into a small space near the front passenger seat behind the folding entrance door. As I sit down I glance through the window and see a girl and immediately return the warm smile she sends me. Or did I smile first? And then I realize that the window in the folding door is not in fact a window, but a mirror.
I lean closer to the mirror and look for the fleeting vision of myself as not-myself. I know it’s hidden behind a layer of dirt, but did I really just not recognize my own face? I shake my head in unison with the girl in the mirror. We are one again. The bus driver motions for me to put my machete on the floor and asks me where “Shaw-Shaw” is today.
I make a stop at a construction site where a canal is being built. I ask for the foreman and the workers tell me that he’ll return in twenty minutes. I don’t have to look at my watch because I know that the effort is useless. “Twenty minutes” in Latin America can span anywhere from twenty seconds to twenty days. Time consciousness is not valued in the culture. And I note that neither is efficiency as I watch a dozen men watch one in their group break up concrete with a single sledgehammer. The American in me cringes. And then I cringe at the American in me.
I sit down next to a donkey tied to a light post. I watch him dig into a large heap of powdered cement. I can’t imagine what smell could survive the smother of cement powder, but he digs, and digs. And then he looks at me, curls his lips above his teeth, strains his neck into the air, and belches out the most comic cry of life absurdity relief. I nod my head in agreement.
A burly yellow tractor excavating the canal passes me. The driver watches me scribble notes onto a paper pad, and then puts the machine into neutral. He jumps out of his seat, traveling a good five feet to the ground, and walks over to me. Without a flinch of hesitation, he takes the notepad out of my hand. He cocks his head, tries to read it, and then looks at me.
“It’s in English.” I confirm.
“What are you writing about,” he states more than questions.
“I’m writing about what I think,” I reply.
“Humph,” he manages and tosses the notepad back at me, turns around, climbs back up the tractor and proceeds.
An hour later, the foreman approaches me. I tell him that I’m a volunteer working on a reforestation project and that we are in need of bamboo poles to help us with our dry season irrigation system. I ask him if he has any old ones that could be donated. He asks me how old I am and if I’m single. I consciously footnote how accustomed I have become to the sexual under-over-and-obviously-on-tones of every interaction I make with a Latino man. I ignore his questions (as I do most of the kind) and hand him an example irrigation pipe. He tells me he’ll deliver the pipes to our house in the afternoon and leans forward for a “customary” cheek kiss. I step back, let the American in me step forward, and offer a handshake.
I open the tarp to the greenhouse and step inside as a few butterflies make their excited escape. I inhale deeply and wonder what it is about the smell of soil that makes my insides smile. I walk around and touch the delicate leaves of the small plants. I try to remember each of their names as I go; Guachapeli, Guayacaan, Fernan Sanchez, Colorado, Agraobo, but I can’t identify the one with the white veins on the leaf. I note to myself to look it up when I get home.
I dump out the plastic two-liter bottles and begin sawing off their tops with my machete. Although the other volunteers never bother with it, I also strip the bottles of their labels. I imagine the marketing department of Coca Cola frowning in disgust as I free the plants’ future potters from a branded identity. What a shameful marketing major I am.
I inspect a small Guachapeli whose roots have outgrown its small bag and have broken straight through the plastic constraints to gasp and grasp for life in the ground outside of its container. I carefully dig up the ground around it, free its fleeing roots, and lift it up to the sky. I smile and say, “How similar we are young Guachapeli,” (Because this is what I do, you see; Have silent conversations with everything. And I’m over being shy about it.)
I put some nutrient rich soil into the two-liter bottle, slice open the bag of the Guachapeli and with the care of a heart surgeon, transplant the small tree its new home. “It’s not the wild, but you are still in need of special care until you are of suitable size and we have found you a suitable place. Here you can build your strength. Because you’re going to need it when you’re ready for the wild.” I top the plant with more new soil. And as I do so, I wonder what it is about the feel of soil that makes my insides sigh.
The late afternoon light is my favorite. It has the color of warm toast and the feel of softened butter. And it is this light that casts itself like as a slide of soft light through our front windows asking if I’d like to play.
I push our brown leather chair to the hopscotch sun squares on the floor and open up the large windows. The wind exhales upon my entire upper body and I can smell the strong flavor of the ocean on its breath. I inhale deeply and fall into my chair.
There is nothing. Absolutely nothing. I could ask more of this day, this life.
I open Ralph Waldo Emerson and on the slide of afternoon light, fall into his words:
“If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years, how men would believe and adore; and preserve for many generations the remembrance of the of City of God which had been shown.”