Wayuu

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PHOTO BY XENA GOLDMAN

A man sits in his hammock, looks down at his hands.
The sun rises in pinks and tangerines. The desert bears only this fruit.
A kitten cries, stuck in a tree: vultures roam the ground.
This shanty town needs us. The women look away.

The sun rises in pinks and tangerines. The desert bears only this fruit.
Sand gets in; hope gets out.
This shanty town needs us. The women look away.
Some do not speak Spanish; only the word, ¨BUY.¨

Sand gets in; hope gets out.
If not for tourism, not even their bodies would last.
Some do not speak Spanish; only the word, ¨BUY.¨
They make branches of their arms, hang hand-made crochet bags out towards us.

If not for tourism, not even their bodies would last.
We are their lifelines. We are reminders of what they do not have.
They make branches of their arms, hang hand-made crochet bags out towards us.
How dare we vacation here? How dare we not?

We are their lifelines. We are reminders of what they do not have.
A man sits in his hammock, looks down at his hands.
How dare we vacation here? How dare we not?
A kitten cries, stuck in a tree: vultures roam the ground.

Pozo Azul: Minca, Colombia

_DSC0819b.jpgPHOTO BY XENA GOLDMAN

Traveling with bad knees and bum hips that you can feel rubbing as you walk is nothing short of a major bummer, especially for someone who likes doing everything without help. Especially for someone IN HER 20s. However, when faced with the decision of stubbornly doing the 1 hour hike out of town to a small body of water for swimming or taking a cheap motorcycle or ¨mototaxi¨ ride, I gave in to the ¨adult¨ decision and shelled out the couple of dollars.

When we got to the entrance, the drivers parked and waited for us to leave, drinking their tinto (black, watery coffee) and chatting with the other drivers. We crossed a narrow wooden bridge and found a woman with a small, coal grill set up, selling arepas (thick, corn pancake) with chorizo. We ordered two and scarfed down the greasy delicacy as we watched the stray dogs rifle through a woven, potato sack used for trash.

Whether it was the cooler-than-usual climate or just late in the day, the pozo was surprisingly not so crowded. Wilson, who had gone unprepared and without a swimsuit, was more than willing to help me into the icy pond and watch as my face did an impression of Jim Carrey´s character; transforming when putting on The Mask. After the initial shock, I stood there with the water at thigh-height; feeling the cold alleviating my knees; listening to the flowing cascade and the birds; watching as a big-bellied grandpa snuck up on his adolescent granddaughter to attack her with splashes.

I turned back and looked at Wilson. He was sitting on a nearby rock, looking off at the waterfall. Though we had slept well the night before in the tent, he looked tired. Sad. I couldn´t blame him: before long he would be returning to Bogotá, I´d follow a week later, and then I´d be getting ready to move back to the United States. I had proposed the trip as a final hurrah for us before my departure, but going on vacation doesn´t make you forget what awaits back home. Feelings, like sadness, cannot just be taken off like socks when the climate changes. Joint pain doesn´t take a day off when you decide you want to climb that mountain. Wilson had been egging me on to dunk my head under, to just go for it, but I just couldn´t bear the cold. I wanted to—I really did—so for even just a moment he could be distracted; so he could see that even when I disappear, I am still here.

El Abrazo de La Serpiente Que Soy

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Almost a month has passed since arriving to Chicago. I am wrestling with the fact that numerous realities can exist at the same time and that I cannot live in both. While I am here, my puffy, black-gloved fingers rifling through my bag for my CTA bus transfer card, the Wayuu women in La Guajira continue crocheting multicolored bags; the unforgiving desert sun baking their skin. Choosing one reality does not cancel out the existence nor the option of another. What do I have by being here? What do I not have? By eating an apple, I am choosing to not eat an orange. By the same token, by living somewhere different, I am agreeing to this unspoken contract of memory: in learning street names in Chicago I am forgetting the best route to the fish market in Bogotá. Brains make executive decisions every day to replace old memories with new, more pertinent ones. In particular, this is how my brain works and it tends to happen quickly: is this a learned, survival tactic? To adapt to a fault? By being present in a new space and learning new things, I am consequently letting other things go. I am the snake constantly shedding its old skin, unable to let it go; trying to make a nest of the dead fibers.

When I open my mouth to speak and feel the instinctual Spanish somersaulting up my throat and across my tongue, I know the past three years were real; that they are still part of my present-day reality. But for how long? How long still I stop thinking in Spanish altogether? How long til I forget what the woman at the bakery looks like? Or the smell of the rose garden in my apartment complex? In my brain, when memories become fuzzy, they often seem more and more dream-like and I begin to wonder if the experience ever happened at all. Was I really in the Amazon a month ago; in a place where my skin was not dry and cracking, where my glasses fogged up just walking outside?

The thought of these memories slipping away from me makes me sick. I still have so many experiences I haven´t yet made sense of. I wake up in the morning and Colombia feels like that dream that becomes more and more difficult to recall as reality sets in; yet, I feel so convinced that there is truth there; that I need to submerge my head back into my pillow, into the dissipating smoke; that I need to remember.

How do I not only hold onto these memories, to continue learning from them and feeling warmth from them, without walking around like I am still in the desert? I am trying to exist on two planes at the same time; trying to be present and make plans in Chicago while cuddling up to the warmth and revelations I found while in Colombia. How does one make room for it all? I´ve been sketching out the framework for a fictional story in my mind for the past three years: it´s about someone who becomes so consumed by his dreams and the answers he believes they have for him that he loses his grasp on reality. Isn´t it ironic that this figment of my imagination would now become my own warning?

There is a scene in the Colombian movie, ¨El Abrazo de La Serpiente,¨ in which a German ethnographer travels through the Amazon in search of a cure for a disease he has. He spends the majority of the movie hauling around these suitcases of field notes as his health and strength wanes. I am fearful that by losing these memories of Colombia—or, in turn, by not clinging to them—I will not only lose what I´ve seen, but reminders of what I´ve done; of who I´ve become and all the evidence to validate that. However, I am also fearful that by holding on to all this luggage, I will only become weighed down and gradually lose the ability to move forward.

The choice of holding on to the past may not even be mine, here, in this land that demands attention. Right now, the United States is a rickety boat, collecting water: it can barely bear its own baggage let alone mine. Some days, instead of focusing on the advantages of both countries, I can only see their heaviness; focus on all the ways I feel powerless to help; all the planes of existence I have seen and not made a difference in.

Arms, heart, mind, tears: all full. I recognize that I cannot collect more until I release something. Which? Perhaps by letting go the guilt of not being able to do it all, I might gain the permission to do the best I can. Maybe. For now, I pin my dead skin to my bulletin board; wonder if I can knit it into a sweater; wonder if cloaking myself in the past will someday keep me warm.

Blues For My Right Knee

When we are healthy, we take our bodies for granted; we fail to consider just how much each part of our anatomy is integral to our lives as a whole. We don´t appreciate all our parts when we are well and when we aren´t, we curse this segment of ourselves for failing us; even then, no love.

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When my knee started hurting, I didn´t listen or stop. Not touching my bike even for a day was torture: resting my knee meant losing my transportation, my exercise, my stress-relief, my friend circle, my access to adventure and my sense of strength. Bogotá is chaos and traffic jams and theft and concrete and none of that mattered because I had metal and wheels and speed. On my bike I could escape and feel grounded all at the same time. So I didn´t listen. I didn´t say ¨uncle¨ until I started walking with a limp and even then I just decided to bike less, some days feeling fine and others wincing with every pedal rotation. Still, going to the doctor and following instructions to cease physical activity entirely has been pain far worse than the inflamed, pinched nerve.

Most ex-pats know the feeling of loneliness that comes from living in another country, particularly a big city: from feeling betrayed and disappointed by a tongue for not being strong enough to truly speak for its owner; from being asked so often where you´re from that you dissolve into nothing more than your accent; from being asked so often where you´re from that sometimes you prefer to not speak at all; from being swallowed by a city that was never yours, rattling in its cage so fervently that even if you—deep in its belly—were to scream, you couldn´t possibly be heard.

I learned to lean in to the snarling of the city. I learned to stay calm when 14-wheelers would roar past my two. Biking meant that it was OK to not speak or scream because I could kick: each time the universe would push me down, my legs would push down harder on the pedals and it still somehow felt like a fair fight.

Since my knee has gotten bad, the universe has been fighting dirty. First, the fridge broke; the stench of rotting, raw meat filling the apartment. Then the water heater broke, so ice cold showers followed. The nails holding the bed frame together gave way (only in the corner of the bed where my head goes). The owner of our apartment asked for the place back so we only have a few weeks to secure an apartment and paint the walls and pack. I´ve gotten various types of colds in the past two months, I´ve had restrictive and incredibly painful digestive problems—which, along with my knee, has guzzled my income– and my mental stability has become a thin strip of gauze.

The doctor tells me that in a few more months I will heal, that I need to be patient. Family and friends tell me that two months isn´t so bad and that I need to be patient. Co-workers, students—hell, taxi drivers– ask about my knee brace and tell me that I just need to be patient. Some even tell me it´s my own fault for not respecting the limitations of my own body… So when they later ask how my day is going I usually say ¨fine,¨ because someone who thinks two more months isn´t so bad after almost three months of waiting couldn´t possibly understand how simply taking a bus means losing another piece of myself; how every time I look out the Transmilenio or SITP window and see a cyclist whizz by, its trajectory crosses out the reflection of my face in the glass over and over again.

I have spent the past several years learning how to expertly zig-zag through traffic, to compensate for tardiness by pedaling faster. I don´t know how to stop. I once scotch-taped shut a deep, open wound because the bleeding was inconvenient. Patience means resisting the urge to tear open scabs; to see sorry excuses for progress, curl my hands into a claw and do

nothing.

Your “Ahorita” Is Not An Effective Nor Instructive Measurement of Time

Studies show that Colombians are some of the happiest people in the world. It makes sense when you think about it, considering how laid back everyone is. Also, the majority of people I’ve met here are extremely sociable. I have never known more neighbors than I do right now and I often have to factor small talk into my transportation time, knowing that it’s probable that I’ll get stopped. Greetings are long and drawn out: there are about 10 different ways to ask, “How are you?” and it’s not uncommon for people to utilize all of them in one conversation. Even strangers won’t begin conversations until proper greetings are exchanged:

Me, addressing a police officer on the street: Excuse me, how to I get to the bank?
Police Officer: Hello, good morning.
Me: (Irritated) HELLO, GOOD MORNING. HOW DO I GET TO THE BANK?

Even writing this was delayed by a shoe-shiner who frequents this coffee shop, who insisted on giving me a free shoe shine and having a conversation with me. Living in a country in which people are generally very outgoing is an opportunity to meet more people and learn stories and practice Spanish. However, it can also be a bit irritating, at times. I extremely enjoy my solitude. (To quote a friend, “Xena is a master at ‘me time.’”) I max out on social interactions more quickly than a lot of people and particularly more quickly than the average Colombian. When I decide that I’m ready to leave, I want to leave right in that moment. I’ve been known to—on occasion—go so far as to leave a gathering without saying good-bye to anyone. It’s not an excuse, but this reaction is in part because the process of leaving is so difficult, especially when in a group.

First of all, there is the aspect of etiquette. To be polite, you kiss the cheek of everyone you know. If you just met someone for the first time that night, you either shake their hand or kiss them on the cheek, as well; depending on how much you interacted with them on this first encounter. Men slap and fist bump the hand of other men, but always kiss women on the cheek. If there are a lot of people, this can be a very long process, as one could imagine. Secondly, you may have to deal with the possibility of people trying to convince you to not leave. In my case, this is a common occurrence, contributed to by the fact that I usually try to check out early: on weeknights between 10-11 and weekends between 11 and 1 (at the latest). The response is usually the same: “Xena nooooo, ¡no te vayaaas! Una cerveza mááááss…….” (No, Xena, don’t go! One more beer…) The exit is made more difficult still by the fact that all of my friends get around by bike. The common protocol is to leave in a group of other people who are traveling to the same area as you or at least plans to take a similar route. This practice is especially encouraged for female riders, who are considered more vulnerable than men, despite the fact that most stories of robberies involve men as the victims—not women. Also, the whole thing seems especially silly to me considering that every other night of the week I bike home alone at night and it’s never been an issue. So, after I say I want to leave and after trying to convince me to stay, the next move is to tell me that I should wait to leave with (Person) who leaves near me. When I ask this person when they are planning to leave, their answer is almost always the same: Ahora or Ahorita.

To all of you who’ve taken a basic Spanish class, Ahora mean ‘now.’ You also might have learned that the diminutive is frequently used either to indicate a small amount, make a word sound less harsh or to show affection; adding –ito/-ita, -ico/-ica or –cito/-cita to the end of a word. In Colombia, the diminutive can be used anywhere and any way. A tinto (cup of coffee) becomes tintico, agua (water) becomes aguita and pan (bread) becomes pancito. Names, in particular, take this form when speaking to a friend: Leo > Leíto, Juan > Juanito, Sara > Sarita. As such, it makes sense that an abrasive word like NOW would be softened by the diminutive form. Regardless, ahorita NEVER means ‘now.’ A better translation would be ‘in a minute’ or ‘in a bit.’

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As you can imagine, this makes for a frustrating combination: a girl with persistent ants in her pants and a population that is as relaxed as Rastafarian turtles. Consequently, I am left with a few options: be impolite, wave good-bye and bolt; pull an Irish exit and avoid good-byes altogether; or grit my teeth and be patient. The problem is that when I have made the mental decision that I’m done being sociable for the evening, my body slowly checks out. It’s like that warning you get that your computer is going to shut down in ten minutes to make system updates. From the time I resolve to leave, I have a limited amount of time before taking a nap on any given corner of concrete becomes the most appealing plan in the world. (We spend a lot of time outside.) Considering how popular public urination is, this is not in the best interest of anyone. The majority of the time I try to head out alone, so I don’t have to wait for anyone and so I don’t have to hop around in a desperate attempt to summon the strength of the Energizer Bunny and buy myself some extra time. On occasion, I have known “ahorita” to last as long as an hour and a half. A gal can only hop for so long until her energy and or integrity expires.

Though I get stressed about time, as many people with anxiety do, I’ve gotten a lot better at dealing with it. For example, my students never arrive to class on time and seem to have no shame about it. (Perhaps it’s because they’re always taking 20 minutes to say good-bye to people?) At first I scolded them, but realized that it wasn’t making any difference and that I was getting paid either way, so the situation is what it is. I’ve learned that everything needs to be done early, because nothing goes according to a normal timeline. Last weekend, three appointments to visit apartments (to potentially move into) cancelled. People take on a falsely apologetic tone to their voice, blame it on the traffic and go on with their business. When I expressed to some friends how frustrated I was about the matter, they simply gave me a typical response to this sort of thing: “Bienvenida a Colombia.” Welcome to Colombia. It is common knowledge that people here are consistently unreliable, never punctual and accepting of this as the status quo. Instead of thinking, “This would never happen in the United States!” It’s no one’s fault but my own to expect things to go according to plan. Surprise strikes shut down public transportation on a moment’s notice. The sky can go from blue to charcoal in a matter of an hour, which greatly encumbers one’s mobility. And people? They can have a real or made-up excuse and it doesn’t actually matter. Regardless of the place or the culture or the situation, I’ve come to realize that the world around me and its happenings are largely out of my hands. I only have control over myself: how to plan accordingly, how to not let frustrations get under my skin and how to adapt to whatever language or culture may have in store.