October 11, 2004

The Rainy Season

By Jason Boog
How to Make Recycled Paper
I shredded paper snowflakes into a bucket of water: Guatemalan newspapers, Peace Corps newsletters, embassy safety bulletins and the Catholic magazines that my mother mailed me each month in care packages. Then I stuck a bean grinder into the word-soup, twisting the plastic knob until the bucket filled up with purplish pulp. I was all alone outside a church in Guatemala.

This is May 2001, midway through my first year in Peace Corps. I had walked two hours to get to a wood-shack village called Buena Vista, planning to teach a youth group how to make recycled paper. The project looked so sensible in the "Youth Training Manual" they gave me, just memorize the script in Spanish and follow directions.

I sketched out my future the same way: follow the steps for two years, amaze the villagers and bring my life-affirming experiences back home. But in a couple weeks, my best friend Amy would die, and I'd figure out that life never worked in ordered steps. Writing this story a couple years later, I still can't tie up the story in admirable platitudes. I tumbled down a rabbit hole and I survived, that's all I can explain.

Peace Corps assigned me to a cluster of villages that sprawled between mountains in eastern Guatemala. Buena Vista rested at the very end of my area. Each trip I crisscrossed two valleys and inclines, land so steep that I had to claw my way up. The village sat so far from the world that they didn't have electricity, so I used a bean grinder instead of a blender to pulp the paper.

I had planned to teach them how to make recycled paper and then invite them to a big, inter-village talent show in the summer. My excitement dwindled every passing minute. I watched rainy season storm clouds creep along the sky, they cast shadows the size of movie spaceships across the valley below me. Down there, a patchwork quilt of farm-plots shimmered, shifting between Emerald City green and space blue.

Freddy Hernandez, the village youth group leader, showed up an hour late. A week's worth of mud caked to his blue jeans, and his stiff white cowboy hat had yellowed from the sun. "You have to understand," he told me, "These kids have family responsibilities. They can't come and go when they want. The rain is coming, and they have too much work today. That's life!" he smiled. A gold tooth glinted in his mouth, a strange vanity item in these poor villages.

I dumped out my purple water, cramming crayons, markers, plastic sheets, homemade paper press, posters and scripts back into my backpack-a month of preparation to sit on a hill and watch the clouds. I walked home.

That night, the sky rumbled and crackled like tornado season in the Midwest, and the rainy season broke open with a whoosh of high-pressure rain. The thunderclouds and noise dissolved into a foggy gray roar outside, the heaving rain rattled my tin roof so hard that I couldn't even hear my radio. After an hour, the dirt chicken yard outside my room flooded and spilled muddy paste across my concrete floor. My landlord waded out into the swamp, laughing like a little kid at the absurdly violent rain. We dug a trench along the wall of the house with shovels, slipping in the mud and half-blind from the pounding rain.

I used my bucket from the recycling project to catch rain leaking through my flimsy roof. The rain pounded my roof all night, and I buried myself underneath four blankets to stay warm-inside that blanket cocoon, it sounded like echoes of an ocean at the bottom of my mountain.

Tower of Babel
My best friend Amy had sandy hair that she dyed blazing red most of the time, she stood tall enough to wrap up my whole skinny body when she hugged me. We met as editors at a college newspaper, both of us carrying around the same robin-egg blue copy of T.S. Elliot poems. We matched each other, both of us disheveled and anxious from being stuck in books for too many years.

I knew her five years, but we spent what amounted to months of time in smoky coffee shops telling stories and trading books. Amy could write circles around me, and I stopped writing poetry after I read a couple that she wrote. Years before, we promised each other that we would read James Joyce's book, Finnegan's Wake, in a marathon session someday. That book stood between us, the ultimate literature-major dream that we could unravel like compulsive kids.

The last time we spoke on the phone, Amy had been sick for months. Her doctor diagnosed pneumonia, but never caught the two blood clots stuck in her lungs like sputtering firecrackers. She lay in bed with her mysterious illness while we talked over a crackling long-distance line. "Oh, by the way," she said, "I had some free time, so I read the Wake."

"You heartless bitch!" I yelled, and she giggled back. Amy loved being called a bitch, especially when the line sounded like a cheesy movie.

"So read it yourself," she said.

And I did. The first week of the rainy season, huge chunks of eroded fields washed out and my usual paths slicked with mud. I didn't see the sun for a week, so I hid out in my bedroom like a monk and read Finnegan's Wake in heroic-sized sessions. I went a whole week without speaking English, while reading the craziest book ever written in English.

Midway through that reading marathon, my neighbor Manuel Rodriguez stopped by. The 16-year-old from my youth group brought over a new Yankees' hat to show me, really he was bored after hours of rain. "Is that the Bible?" he asked me, scrutinizing the 900-pages of English gibberish.

I explained how Joyce decided to write The Novel to End All Novels, mixing different languages, inventing words and telling the most convoluted, dreamy story possible.

"People used to speak the same language," he said, taking on the crazy preacher-monotone that I heard every weekend. My village had five churches, each one with a giant P.A. system to blast their sermons across the mountain, as sort of guerilla evangelism. "Mankind decided to build the Tower of Babel, a tower tall enough to go to heaven. Then God smashed the tower and made all men speak different languages. That's why you speak English and I speak Spanish."

His sermon shocked me. Joyce kept talking about that story in Wake, he wanted to stir all the languages together in a word soup, a dreamy universal language. Manuel had stumbled on the secret of the book. "You should read more," I said, "I think you could be a teacher, maybe."

"Primero Dios," he said, "I want to be a minister someday."

Primero Dios. That Guatemalan cliche means "God first" or "God willing," and it stuck in my head after he left. The country's long civil war and bad leadership had left public education in shambles. Manuel might have been the smartest kid for miles around, but school ended at sixth grade in the village. The richest kids moved to private schools in the city, but most villagers never made it that far. Too often "Primero Dios" covered up sad realities, glossing over things that would never happen. An army of Peace Corps volunteers with recycled paper projects could never give him a degree.

I finished the Wake, and wrote Amy a huge letter about the rain, Manuel and the book. Up top, I wrote her this unpunctuated mess of text: "So I thought, Wouldn't it be funny if I read one page of Finnegan's Wake and then decided to read the whole thing like I just fell into a giant hole and I couldn't stop, wouldn't that be a great story to tell Amy in a letter?"

We both loved telling stories within stories, playing writing games. I was sure she'd love reading about me thinking about writing to her. Stories within stories feel like echoes. Someplace in this story, Amy is still waiting for my letter and I'm still buried under blankets in Miramundo, imagining what Amy will think when she reads my letter. A few years after Amy died; her mother gave me my letter back. My jumbled handwriting on airmail stationary, that's the last thing I have that she touched.

My Bicycle Crash
On June 14, 2001, the blood clots burst and Amy died on an operating table. Before anybody could tell me that she was in the hospital, I rode my bicycle down my mountain. I left my emergency beeper and home, thinking I'd ride the bus back up later that afternoon.
Halfway to the city, I ran over a scrawny puppy and he dashed off screaming into the bushes. I wobbled around a steep curve, trying to see if the puppy was hurt. The dirt road was a minefield full of rainy-season potholes. My tire caught a rut, and I flipped over the handlebars and skidded across the gravel. The crash tore a hole ten-stitches wide in my face.

I stumbled into the first house I saw, trailing gobs of blood behind me. "Ay, Dios!" yelled the homemaker working in the yard, and she brought me rags and a bucket of water to wash my face. When I saw the gash on my face in the mirror, I shivered. There were no bandages, so I taped a bloody rag on my face and rode into the city in daze.

At the hospital, a rich doctor sewed up my face. While he stuck me with the needle, he kept chatting to me about all the places that tourists visit in Guatemala. He was amazed that I lived so far up the mountain. Doped up on painkillers, I drooled all over his rubber gloves. I spent the rest of the weekend in a hotel, swallowing more pills and staring at the black thread stitched into my face.

On Monday, I went to the Peace Corps office so the nurses could examine my stitches. I filled out pages of accident reports before I checked my email. Two days of backed-up messages glowed on the screen, messages from Amy's boyfriend, my friend Andy, my mother. Her boyfriend calmly explained that Amy had died suddenly in the hospital. My mother sent the last message: "This must be hard for you, but Amy's funeral is today. You aren't answering your beeper, where are you? Friends come into our lives for a season, a reason, a lifetime... " she said, trying to console with blocky computer letters. The stupid cliche made me spitting mad, empty words for a girl that should still be here; I crashed my bicycle and broke my face and I missed her funeral while sitting in a hotel room feeling sorry for my self; fucked up, fucked up...

I spent the rest of the afternoon finding out how to quit Peace Corps, just sign the papers and go home. I don't remember what happened the rest of the day. Writing this story, I sifted through hundreds of notebook pages, letters from home, interviewing my friends like scientific subjects.

It was like digging into the scar on my chin, bloody and hurt, trying to figure out what I missed during that messy month. I'm writing the story but I still don't have a full picture, I wasn't there, but I wasn't home either; I was lost.

I remember this: By nighttime, I was drunk and spending a fortune on phone calls home at some tourist cafe. I called Amy's mom, and rambled into the telephone. "I sent her a letter two weeks ago. Did she read my letter?" I begged her to tell me, because I couldn't think of anything else to say.

We Didn't Know It Then
Guatemala went to pieces the next day. That night, 80 prisoners escaped from a maximum-security prison near the city, using guns that gangsters smuggled into the prison inside a refrigerator. The Guatemalan president declared a national emergency, blockading the entire country with Army checkpoints.

For two days, the military and police could enter any home or building, arresting anybody they thought was involved. In the strangest coincidence of all, Peace Corps nearly evacuated all the volunteers the same week that I almost left.

Instead of leaving the country, I went home with my volunteer friends Allison and Shannon. Police stopped our bus two times along the national highway. The first time, cops with assault rifles took all us men outside and scrutinized our papers. An hour later, an officer prowled the skinny bus aisle, digging through bundles and bags in the overhead racks and staring at each individual passenger. Somebody must have moved suspiciously in the back, because he whipped out his gun and stuck it in the air over Shannon's head. The crowded bus went silent. I squeezed my eyes closed, like a little kid trying to become invisible. The officer holstered his gun, and left without an apology.

That night, Allison played us a Cat Stevens CD that her brother sent from home. We didn't say much all night. We didn't know it then, but we had survived our first national catastrophe, a dress rehearsal for the madness that would arrive in September.

And Cat Stevens sang:
"I listen to the wind, to the wind of my soul
Where I'll end up, well I think only God really knows."

When I was small, I loved to play my dad's copy of that song over and over. I felt safe listening to Stevens' warm voice and acoustic guitar, like he told me a secret that I couldn't understand. Many years later, I saw the movie Rushmore with Amy on a snowy night. That song played during my favorite part. On the screen, a skinny boy with glasses stared into an empty gray sky, in-love with his movie-girlfriend. I wore this big dumb grin, falling in love with Amy a little bit.

After the movie, Amy and I walked home in a snowstorm. We pretended that we were a couple strolling through a cheesy movie, the kind where snowflakes sparkle in the streetlamps and soft snow smoothes the sharp corners. We talked about all the places we would see someday and the stories we would write about them.

I remembered all this in the beginning of the rainy season in Guatemala. I lay on Allison and Shannon's couch with on bandage on my stitched up face. I cried in the dark, missing the safe world that I believed in when I was small.

I decided to stay in Guatemala. About a month later, I picked up the recycling project and tried to motivate people for the talent show. Back in Buena Vista, I unpacked my bean grinder, bucket, paper stacks and posters. The rain had stopped for a couple days, but the churchyard where we met was still empty. I settled down, waiting for the group to arrive.

Down the hill, I heard hooting and shouting. A crowd of farmers came crashing around the bend, their cowboy hats bobbing. They cradled a thick, 15-foot post between them, wrapped up in rope slings. Yelling more, they hoisted the giant pole with more ropes and stuck it into a hole beside the road. Grubby children shovelled dirt back into the hole, and everybody stepped back and cheered for the new electric pole.

Freddy emerged from the crowd, offering me a sweaty handshake. "We're getting electricity now," he said. "The power company will pay us to put up the poles ourselves. As soon as we finish, we'll come to your meeting."

I watched them shove five more poles into the ground before the youth group met me for the first time in more than a month. Something changed while I waited. I was tired of my scripts and pre-made posters, I just wanted to talk to them. For the next half-hour, I told them that Amy had died, that I felt homesick and frustrated that I couldn't change anything in these villages. Freddy stood behind me, smoothing my bungled sentences with his Spanish.

Then, for the first time, the kids responded. A shy girl in hand-made dress told the group how she worried constantly about her sick grandmother. Another boy told us how he still felt physically sick when he thought about his cousin that died in a car accident. The best I could in my unscripted Spanish, I told them to share stories with each other, instead of bottling up the things that scare them. They nodded, really listening to me for the first time. A few kids even promised to participate in the talent show in a few weeks. "I'll take care of everything," Freddy told me.

Walking home, I decided to stop lying in bed, thinking about Amy. These were my kids. I could do something, however small, for this village full of brand-new electric posts.

A Picture of Me Dancing
"Ven, ven al gran show de talentos," I shouted into the P.A. system that a nearby church loaned us for the talent show. There's something tremendous about hearing your words beamed through a scratchy microphone and booming over a mountain; my voice lingered and the echo felt tangible. We had built a plywood-plank and cinderblock stage in my neighbor's lofty-ceiling garage. We pumped recorded mariachi music through the amplifier to attract more people to the party. By dusk, about 100 people milled around the stage. A man weaved through thickets of people, selling pushcart ice creams to the crowd.

The rainy season rain held off for the whole night. Just before I opened the show, a red and white striped chicken bus rumbled to a stop outside the garage. In one of the happiest moments of my life, I watched 50 parents, grandparents, kids and a whole mariachi band spill out of the bus like circus clowns. The band knocked off the recorded music and pounded out the real thing on their tubby instruments. People danced and sang along, and the crowd swelled to 300 by the time I opened the show.

The youth groups did the rest. They performed all the skits they planned during the month I spent hiding in my house. Remembering now, I can match faces to the stories. Veronica TK sang a country duet with her husband, the 17-year-old girl wailed out the love song-by the time I left, she would have her first baby. Freddy tucked his cowboy hat under his arm, telling jokes with funny accents-he would represent the village at a national youth conferences next year and tell those same jokes.

Marcella dressed up like a ditzy farm-girl, skipping around the stage like she was born there-she left for high school on a scholarship that Christmas.

Towards the end, Freddy stuck a cowboy hat on my head and dragged me onstage. "Dance," he ordered, "Dance and we'll dance with you."

The band struck up that lilting mariachi beat, and I hopped from one foot to the other, following the beats in my invented gringo dance. Each time I landed, the wood planks banged out the beat beneath me; Freddy and his friends laughed and bobbed beside me, our footsteps booming even louder. I laughed and laughed, I was dancing fast enough to fly.

Somebody took a picture of me dancing, and I still keep it on my wall. I see a younger me: I'm high-stepping like a Vegas showgirl in dirty jeans and a cowboy hat; in that picture, for one pristine moment, I look lost in my crazy march-step, I danced so fast that both my feet hovered in mid-air; for one moment, I left the ground and I floated, close to her as I'll ever be...


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