Monday, February 23, 2015

Smallest Angels

Yesterday it began to rain in the afternoon when I was driving the boy to art class.  I watched the pin sized dots on my windshield and sighed.

"San Diego doesn't seem to rain properly.  We prayed and prayed - all we get is this tiny piss from the smallest angel in heaven."

The boy laughed, making noises to imitate the peep squeaks of a tiny angel.  "Yeah, and it will stop in five seconds."

This heavy cynicism came from years of disappointment. Rain would start, promisingly enough as the sky would hang low with clouds.  But before the grounds could get wet, the hair like drops bearly floating off of the sky would slow, grow thinner before dissipate altogether.  The Sun would stick out its predictably happy and stubborn face.  San Diegans would take a good humored sigh collectively and head back out to the beach and resume their perceptually sunny life amidst the three year long drought.

But last night they proved us wrong.  The smallest angel must have rallied upon our disbelief.  Just after dinner the drizzle that had stopped earlier resumed as a heavy downpour.  We leaped for joy, chanting for our angel of rain and his friends.   The down pour held.   All night.   We wake this morning to a world less thirsty, flakey and agitated.

I pictured him getting his wings, hearing a bell last night, through the thick of my dreams, and rain.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Postcards and Rain

It's a rainy day in Cusco Peru, elevation 3400 meters (11,000 feet).  The air feels even thinner than usual, the sky darker and the rain colder.  I wrap myself in thick thermals and fleece jackets before dashing into the shared bathroom, praying for hot water and no interruptions.

Neither gets a proper answer.  The water starts out hot but 3 minutes later it turns cold no matter how slowly I jiggle the handle, as instructed by the friendly hostel manager a few days ago when I moved in.   Lights has gone out too.  

"What happened to our lights?" Someone shouts.
"The Internet is out!" Someone else shouts, louder and with more angst.

Something bangs on the bathroom door, sounds of a loud and breathy American moving in.  I keep my eyes closed and count to six, before diving back under the shower to rinse off my shampoo.  I only last a second or two, but it has to be good enough for now.

Wrapping myself back up in layers of sweaters and fleece, I run back to the bedroom and contemplate skipping the day's activities to hide under the feather down coverings.  But hunger and a faint smell of mildew mixed with disinfectant drive me out to the hall.  Lights pour in through a row of eastern windows, weak yet abundant, like the watery coffee offered as part of the hostel breakfast.  They serve hot toast, matte de coca and omelets, though I've been too busy catching early morning tour buses so far to take advantage of them.

It's my third week of traveling in Peru, and Cusco is my fifth city here.  The cold rain, the crowded streets and all the dashing about make me homesick in a way I've never imagined.  Yet I've grown a sicking habit of whirling by anything that looks vaguely familiar, hoping among cities, ruins and switchback trails winding up knife like cliffs.

* * *

But yesterday I slow down, noticing the pang inside when I see that Starbucks at the main plaza and its signature green awnings over a patch of ancient Inca walls - a study in contrast and irony.  The promise of free wifi seals the deal so I break away from my group and walk closer.  A steady stream of young travelers tread in and out of the wooden doorway, leading me into a courtyard and up a flight of stairs to a pair of pristine glass doors.  Once inside, I take off my rain coat and inhale the warm and dry air infused with caffeine.  My phone chirps at me happily in a tone at once far away and familiar, the tones of an established wifi connection and too many messages from various social networks.  So there I sit with a steaming cup in my hand, hungry, thawing and a little dazed.  Staring at my chirping phone, I long to touch the next set of keys yet suddenly afraid to see all those messages.

"Is this seat taken?"  A sturdy young man with a wide smile gazes at the cozy sofa seat next to me.

"No please go ahead." I point my arm towards the seat inviting him to sit down.

"Oh actually, we are two, oh three more."  He smiles again in apology, looking up sheepishly at me.

There are two more sofa chairs across from us, with a small table in the middle.  The four chairs are huddled together like an intimate group.

"Oh, it's okay.  I can move."  I stand up and look around.  The room seems to be packed full of young travelers ducking the Peruvian afternoon rain.

"No please, we are only three, total.  Please don't move, sit with us if you don't mind?"  He grabs my arm and holds it, leaning towards me until his coffee gets too close for comfort. 

We both jump back and laugh.  He is Hans from Germany.  His two friends, David and Clara, join us a minute later.  We slip into our seats and easy conversations.  Hans studies medicine and will be doing a semester aboard in Chilli.   David, chiseled face with a mess of brown hair, "is gainfully employed but taking a much needed vacation".  Clara, blond with a sweet round face, is a student also.  They have been trekking and camping through South America for the past several months though besides sunburns and fatigue, they also radiate excitement and curiosity, their faces shining.

"Join us in visiting Chilli!"  They chant, showing me pictures of its pristine coasts and colorful cities.  Hans launches into tales of his last visit in Patagonia, but David falls quickly behind the conversation as he begin to write onto a thick stack of postcards.  The stack comes up to the height of my small coffee cup, and his handwriting was quite neat so I pause to ask.

"Are those postcards?"
"Yes.  It's fifty cards, for my family and friends."
"Wow, impressive. No one does that anymore, I can't remember the last time I've seen anyone write with a pen at all."
"Yes it's true."  Hans chimed in.
"Well, I like writing it.  It takes a long time to arrive home, but it makes them very happy."  David points somewhere far away as he explained, raising his eyebrows for emphasis, as if picturing the joy of his elderly parents or a younger sibling receiving one of his cards.  I picture it with him, raising my eyebrows and smile into the picture in my mind.

"That's true. No one writes with a pen anymore, but it is much nicer than email or sending an instant message."  Hans adds, moving his fingers rapidly as if texting on an invisible phone.
"Yes, I imagine people really like seeing my handwriting and the cards."  I nod with my head and my shoulders.
"And they like seeing my words next to the photos of where I have been. Not just in facebook like everyone else."  David points to the photos of a famous Inca ruin to which we've all been.

The rest of us look sheepish suddenly.  We drape our heads low thinking of the facebook photos we all post of that same site. It only takes a second, and hardly any thought.  We mentally check that mark and move on with our lives, rushing towards another famous relic, oblivious to the relics of our own lives, leaving it to social media web sites.  We take a vacation to get away from it all -- the rushing, the exhaustion and the mindlessness.  Only we rush our travel agendas just the same, racing towards mindless check marks that exhausted us in the first place.

"That's true. You are right."  Hans adds again, nodding heavily with his head and shoulders as well.

We stare at the tall stack of cards, falling into silent agreement for the next few minutes. The rain clicks on roofs and windows, yet I can hear David's pen scratch against the surface of the cards.  I hear the sound of his thoughts pouring like the rain, inking into memories of a time, a place, and a version of him long after he signs and mails them.  I chew on the edge of my coffee cup, as if the drink mixed with these thoughts have grown too thick to swallow.

*  *  *

I think about their friendly faces and talks now, filling myself back up with coffee, inspirations and warm thoughts.  Electricity has come back on and the smell of shampoo in my hair has grown so faint I could hardly smell it any more.  I sit down at the large breakfast table with a smile on my face and a notebook in hand.  At the bottom of my backpack I find a pen and so I scratch out my first written words in three weeks.

As if river water finally pushing through a badly clogged passage, thoughts rush through me and turn into lovely rivets of phrases, scenes and stories.  My frustration over the lack of internet and computerized writing tools dissipates as I write, ink blots smearing into my fingers and the back of my hands.  The aroma of coffee tickles my nose, and the rough-hewn wooden table reminiscent of the antique market in Paris.  My imagination takes flight as my senses soak into the richness around me.

"Is this seat taken?"  A tall young man points to the seat next to me and asks.

"No it's free.  Please go ahead, but excuse me as I'm writing something for now."

"Ah, another writer.  It's tough to keep writing...everyday, isn't it?" He sets down his cup of coffee, a notebook and a pen onto the spot next to me.

"Yes..."  I said.

"You look so happy... What are you writing about?"  His blue eyes flashes with curiosity and amusement.

I tell him the postcard story.  He nods and waves his pen in camaraderie.  "I love writing with a pen, even though..., sometimes, my hand is too slow for my thought!"  He declares with a wide smile.

He is a writer from France and he has been traveling through South America, experiencing the ruins and the difficulties in traveling and home sickness just as I have been.  "You need to slow down." He stares at me intently as if lecturing a small student, yet the sincere crinkle around his eyes softens his face.  "It's not the way, you won't feel inspired to write if you are so tired."  He glances over me as if checking for broken parts, then adds a shot of hot water into my matte cup.

I nod and thank him for the water.  "I tried, I'm trying." I say, filling him in on some unsuccessful attempts at breaking free from "The Schedule".  Then we decide to let the subject drop, gripping onto happier thoughts as I grip the handle of my coffee cup.

A friend of his walks up to join us a few minutes later.  We trade stories of explorations and favorite books.  We share a love for Isabel Allende, Gabriel Garcia, Carlos Fuentes, magic realism and a suite of other South American writers.  Outside clouds hang lower and the rain grows heavier as the day whirls by, but our supplies of hot drinks and heated conversations never run out.  Without announcing it we all decide to stay in, writing side by side on that big table.  Our notes, books and coffee cups spread wide, our ideas sparkle like the lightening flashing across the sky outside our small windows, our mind won't stop running.

*  *  *

Yesterday after Starbucks, I stroll through the narrow streets towards my hostel, letting the world around me seep in slowly, even the rain and the rich muddy earth beneath my feet.  Back home, in perpetual sunny California I'd always wanted and whined about not having the opportunity to walk in the rain, or to jump in puddles.  Yet somehow the daily shower in Peru has become a nuisance rather than an answer for my prayers.

So I look up towards the sky then through my rain soaked lashes, at the golden fringes around the leaden clouds, at their menacing yet magnificent purple, navy, gray, black and silver shapes spread low across the sky.  I feel like I can reach out and touch them.  Perhaps it's all in the attitude. Then I realize that I did reach into the clouds, while walking across the ancient city streets in Machu Picchu yesterday, when clouds and mists turned into rain from one minute to the next.

So I laugh, appreciating and thankful for all I've seen and experienced, and for that moment of stillness and reflections.  I open my mouth, letting in the rain, tasting its raw and sweet perfume, full of the fragrance of quinoa,  potatoes, and alcapas - the signatures of Peru.  I let my hood down, wind up my trousers and skip home, into puddles and over rough stones, until my hair is wet, my legs are muddy, and my spirits are full.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Yun's First Day

I was late for the bell that day.  But no one noticed since Mrs Wang was busy introducing a new kid.  There were sixty five of us in class, so that made Yun number sixty six.

Mrs Wang went through her usual spiel:  "Yun - ... from welcome her..."

I paid little attention, scrutinizing the new girl instead.  She was tall for a kid our age,  her cheeks sunken like the valley of dooms.  Most of her shaggy hair had escaped the pigtails dangling by her shoulders.  From what I could see, her slit thin eyes were the color of rain clouds, a translucent yet shadowy gray.  I choked when I caught Mrs Wang saying: "her name meant 'Winter Clouds'...".

She came and sat in the empty chair next to me before I could protest.  I bunched up my nose and scooched onto the far side of my chair.  She smelled like she hadn't met a shower.

Lu, the boy who sat behind me whispered: "what the heck is that smell? And look at her hair, she looks like she just ran out of a mental hospital!"

I tilted forward on my chair and leaned into my desk, cupping my face with my hands.

Lu had a hard time sitting still.  He tossed a paper airplane at me when Mrs Wang wasn't looking.  Then he patted me on the shoulder.  "Hey, leaky spoon, give this to the new kid."  he pointed his chin towards Yun, his cheeks giggling a bit.  I couldn't see what he was holding, his hands caked in some kind of oil so I shrank from his touch.

He called me leaky whatever because I dropped some rice on the floor on my first day during lunch. 

"Leaky spoon, leaky spoon, can't keep rice in your broom!"

He made no sense but the whole room laughed and pointed at me and my "leaky" rice spoon.  I was starting to cry then I decided not to.  His belly spilled onto his thighs and he whizzed as he stuffed his face with candies, dumplings and twice fried pork.  People laughed at me but just for a moment, they ignored him most of the time unless he offered treats as bribes.  I made up names for him in my head that day, like jelly bubbles and pork bellies but I decided not to call it out.

Now he tipped his chair onto two legs as he often did until they squeaked, tapping on my shoulder incessantly.  Finally I turned and shook my fingers at him.

"No talking Ling!"  Mrs Wang's voice jolted me from my chair. I wanted to kick myself.

"I wasn't talking..." I mumbled, studying the black corduroy surface of my ugly winter shoes. 

"No talking in class. Good student or not. No exceptions.  Follow good examples, not bad."  She glared at Lu when she said "bad", as if I would have considered the possibility.

Lu wiggled his feet forward into the space under my chair, making suckling noises just loud enough for me to hear.  I leaned back hard, pointing towards his feet hoping for a smash hit.  But he shrank back faster and I missed them narrowly.

Once Mrs Wang asked him to stand in the corner of the class for pushing another student into a large puddle.  He cursed and cried and flung his arms at her.  Mrs Wang shoved him into the corner anyway so he convulsed with his eyes rolling into the back of his head, foaming at the mouth and finally peed into his pants.  His mom shrieked at the principal when she stumped into the teacher's office to pick him up that day.  She shouted something about her husband who worked at the government bureau would "see to things" and "fix or transfer" any "ill-behaving teachers".  She had painted her face milky white and she stood almost a head taller than Mrs Wang, especially with her shiny hair piled high like a bird's nest.  The principle hovered around her getting her tea and biscuits, nodding and smiling until she sat down and glared at Mrs. Wang with satisfaction, who stood around them silently, her face rigid and steely like a statue.

After that Mrs Wang ignored Lu when she could.  By the end of the semester they decided to put him in the back of the class so he could "have all the freedom his special dispositions would require."

At recess Mrs Wang ran to her office for a cup of hot tea and some quality time with the stove in the teacher's lounge.  The minute her back was turned, Lu trudged up to Yun's desk, whistling and lolling his head as if he was checking out the stalls in the afternoon market.  Yun looked up, only to find him swiping his arm and pushing all her books and pencils to the ground.  He studied at her face, discovering how her eyelids folded her eyes into strange triangles.  He shouted: "Oh god!  Look at those triangular eyes.  Yuck. What a witch and a freak!" He jammed a dimpled finger into her thin lashes, spit flying into her hair and her desk as his talked.   As students shuffled by, he waved two other boys over to join the taunt, drawing circles around her face and pointing so that others could see the angry shape of her eyes, the mad tangles in her hair and how she chewed on her lips.  They pressed closer as Yun stood up to leave, walling her in.

Yun's chest went up and down fast but she didn't say a word.  As she caught sight of Lu laughing hard and his stance slacking, she punched his face until it snapped hard.  He lost his balance and stumbled back several steps, giving Yun the chance to leap onto her chair and over her desk.  She ran into the school yard, a stick figure in motion, hair floating behind her like a flag.  The wind whipped us hard, but it seemed to carry her as she threaded through the various groups jumping ropes or playing tags.  The boys chased her to the edge of the grounds and back.  Lu huffed in exhaustion after one lap and hunched over his knees.

"Two White Rabbits!"  He shouted the name of that coveted (yet often unobtainable) candy to the other boys.   He waved them forward like a wounded commander charging his troops ahead.   They pursued the gray shadow that was Yun in motion but the bell rang, when one of them slipped on a patch of ice and the other one slowed down to watch his steps.

"She really is a witch!"  He said.

We were all happy to hear the bell and see Mrs Wang return to the classroom.  Yun slipped in a minute later, smelling worse for the sweat sticking to her hair and dripping down her face.


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