Between trips I forget the way Central America feels. Smells. Enfolds you in warm humid air the moment you step off the plane. I’m not at home.
Painted mountaintops drape the horizon and telephone wires droop in the foreground. The horses are skinnier here and so are the cows. Red bougainvillea explode against corrugated tin roofs.
Tang and Pepsi ads cover the faces of the pulperías and blur together as I watch from the bus. Men roll tires as tall as their waists. We slow for checkpoints where baby-faced military policía wave us through with their AK-47s. Colorful laundry on the line, Easter egg houses, banana leaves, sugar cane forests, and babies holding babies on the side of the road. A dozen men pass us, legs dangling off the pickup bed. I watch the mountains through the gaps in the pine trees, my head resting on the window. Smoke rises from the valley.
At the end of the first day my feet hurt. Faces watch us at the windows. I crouch in front of an elderly woman who is waiting for her medicine. She reaches out and we hold each other’s arms, hands around elbows, forearms on forearms, and touch each other’s skin. Holding the moment. My friend says, “You can’t repeat something. It happens once and it’s magic.” So I squeeze tighter, to stretch it and take it with me. Her strong weathered hands on mine.
Before sleep we stretch, a circle of hands on a dirty clinic floor. My thoughts slip between Spanish and English as I braid hair and drink clove flavored coffee.
I sit on the step outside the kitchen and am surrounded by children. Swarmed by laughing children. I teach them to say “thank you” and “you’re welcome” and am trailed by bright smiling faces shouting broken English at me for the rest of the week.
I sit with the doctors. I talk with an older gentleman about his blood pressure, his alta presción, which he walked three hours to have checked. I tell this dignified man, in a white vaquero hat, that the medicine is working. Continue the medicine and go to the clinic when you run out.
The word parásito sits in my mouth when I get tired. I roll it out, with effort. So many moments lost in translation. The heat settles into my bones and I feel heavy. Unwell. I need to pause, despite working in the shade with a tall bottle of clean water. Despite the line of hundreds in the sun, waiting to be seen. The door to the shower is locked, so I bathe from the cool sink with a small green bowl and feel alive.
The crowd parts as I walk through it. As if in deference. The line cleaves so reliably, I have to guard against feeling entitled. As if I possess something special inside me to deserve it. As if our insides aren’t made of the same stuff. As if their feet and backs don’t ache the same as mine.
There is joy too my friends. So much joy. The way the cerebral infectious disease doctor transforms when dancing. Peals of laughter chasing bugs out of the girls sleeping room. Fast friendship. Running after kids around the yard, their little faces looking up expectantly. Dancing in the village square, kicking up dust, twirling little girls in the hot sun.
On the way in I see poverty; on the way out I see beauty. Horizontal stripes of color meeting at the seams of buildings. My friends dancing down the hallway of the bus. Tan mountains, green mountains, chocolate mountains. The kids of town waving at us through dusty bus windows, chasing us as we pull away.
There are moments of the trip that are still too raw to write. A suitcase of stuffed animals in the peds ward of a broken down hospital. The mismatch between the gesture and the gratitude.
Trips like this stretch my emotional bandwidth. They break my heart and lift me up and it feels good to feel so much. To laugh with my whole self and to cry and to feel alive. To shake off the staleness of routine, and open my eyes again to see color.