The Dust of Sonagachi

Preface: The dust of Sonagachi is highly coveted by artisans who make statues of the Hindu goddess Durga. Each year, a celebration takes place in Kolkata, India, called the Durga Puja. The dust is not just an important ingredient to make the statues--it's also a mandatory one, and any statue made without it is considered inauspicious.

Like the golden tree it is named after, Sonagachi has branches that curl and twist and capture. As the largest red light district in Kolkata, India, with over ten thousand prostitutes working every day, Sonagachi  catches whomever passes by: pedestrian, john, peddler, missionary, capitalist, holy man, change-maker, and tourist alike.

It caught me.

I had been working near Sonagachi for a year, but walked by without noticing it, my mind distracted by my own daily sorrows. I had found a volunteer job at an orphanage run by the nuns of Mother Teresa's order a few blocks away,  and by the time my shift ended,  I was often too exhausted to pay attention to anything at all.

But one night as I was returning home, I noticed that one of the large buildings that I passed by each day was actually an adult movie theatre. Sweaty men lingered in groups, eyeing women who giggled and rubbed up against them. Merchants displayed bags of sticky candy and fried dough rings tied up discreetly in pictures of airbrushed movie starlets half-clad. Blankets were spread out, covered in plastic penny toys, perfume, red underwear and gaudy trinkets, manned by enterprising families while their children slept.

It was then that I saw the glittering alleyway to the side of the theatre, one of the entrances to Sonagachi. Strings of lights lit up groups of women brightly dressed: sari sequins shining, eyes smashed with kohl. Groups of men walked arm in arm, laughing and spitting red betel nut juice on the sidewalk.

Suddenly a woman ran out from the alley towards the main road which was heavy with traffic, a blur of pink sari and gold bangles. She stood in the center of the street, blocking cars, her clothes torn,  beading broken, hemline stained. Her eyes glassy, her mouth moved silently as  her arms flapped uselessly like a flightless bird. A woman followed her and led her away, back into the alley. And just as quickly as she had come out of that hell, so she was captured by it once again.

Standing on the sidewalk, I lingered, waiting. Hoping she would come back.

That night I left the windows open to my room, allowing the acrid fumes from the burning barrels of tar set out in the cold months to burn my eyes and fill my room with soot. Yet with the windows open and the city air filling my lungs, I somehow felt closer to that woman who had run out into the street. The smoke was a strange comfort too, making the city seem less lonely and harsh. Tonight, we would breathe the same air, she and I.

One early evening several days later, I decided to visit Sonagachi  in search of an NGO that reputedly did good works there. I suppose part of me hoped for a miracle, to see that woman again. I'd heard about such places, but I'd never been anywhere near a brothel. Part of me wanted this dark side of the human experience to be untrue.

Walking into the alleyway, I was surprised to find it much like other parts of Kolkata: garlands of marigolds and tuberose decorated shrines, doorways carefully swept, children playing a game of cricket. But I kept walking, and as I left the outer shell, the scene changed. Women stood grouped in doorways, a single wooden bed of pallets behind them. Young girls sat on rows of crates, looking dull and drugged.  Men stumbled drunkenly, leaning in towards the women, and I was both surprised and ashamed that there were many tourists among them. Woven in between were sad little shops, smelling of hashish.  It was a grey place, a greyness that covered walkways, the men's faces, and the women's ashen glances.

I began to walk more quickly, faster and faster, stumbling over stones, trash and uneven pavement. My mouth dry, my vision blurred by tears, I was overtaken by a deep melancholy as I realized I was very lost in this dark place. Each street I took seemed to end farther away than where I had begun, and I had given up hope of finding the NGO I'd come to visit.

I just stopped. I stood there, my face red and wet with tears, the crazy American tourist. But I wasn't quite American, and I wasn't quite a tourist: I'd been living in Kolkata for a year, far from the Westerner hotels, in an edgy neighborhood. I'd  spent my days in the orphanage or visiting hospitals and grim places, watching a battle for self- respect and life itself. Yet despite daily exposure to poverty and difficulties of every kind, I was ill prepared for Sonagachi.

The sound of women yelling loudly distracted me from these sights and feelings, and I turned to look down a tarp covered alleyway, where a small group of women were shouting at several men. Despite an entire year of Bengali lessons, I understood very little, except it seemed as if the men wanted something, and the women didn't want to give it to them. One of the men spit on the women, and a crowd began to gather. The men moved back, shouting, and ran past me, throwing what seemed to be small packages wrapped in newspaper in the street as they ran.

Without thinking, I automatically reached down to pick the bundles up, and as I gathered them the crowd rushed towards me. The people were wildly gesturing, everyone talking at the same time, asking me where I was from. I was shaking and wondering what they would do.

 One of the women who had been shouting at the men came out of the crowd: small and wiry, with almost black skin, wearing a bright green sari. I reached out towards her to hand her the parcels, and her small hands lifted in a Namaste. She took the bundles from me and then handed me one, pressing it into my palm so forcefully that it hurt.

"For you", she said, in perfect English.

"No, no, n-n-no thank you." I stuttered, not wanting to accept anything. I tried to give it back to her, but she pushed it back into my hand.

I stood looking at my palm and the mark of her nails. I was worried that the packet contained money--some exchange for services rendered--and if so I did not want it. But the package felt soft, like bread flour, and I began to worry it was some sort of powdered drug. What was I doing here?

I had no time to think further about it, for the woman grabbed my elbow and seemed quite determined that I go with her. Her tiny hands in a vice grip on my arm, we walked for several blocks until I realized she was guiding me out of Sonagachi. Once we were out on the main boulevard, she flashed me a grin and then raising her hands in a Namaste once more, she turned and disappeared.

Once back at the orphanage, I told the nuns I might have been given a package of drugs. Together we opened the parcel, and unfolding the envelope, saw that it was not drugs but...dirt. Fine dirt, as fine as baby powder and colored like ground mace. Dust.

Thank God.

But why give to me? What was it for?

"It's blessed. It's sacred dust, called punya mati. It's from the nishiddo pallis, the Forbidden Territories. They use it to make the Hindu statues for the Durga goddess," one of the nuns  explained.

Forbidden Territories? Punya Mati? I had a world of questions.

It took a few weeks before I'd managed to answer any of them.  I discovered that people went to the prostitutes' homes once a year and asked the women to give them the dust from their front steps or courtyards. The prostitutes were supposed to respond to the request willingly, and give it as a gift. Even a miniscule amount of this material--the punya mati--was considered holy.

There were various theories about the origins of this tradition, depending on who I talked to. Some people said it began long ago when courtesans were honored, or adversely, that it was a way of including one of the lowest groups in the society in the celebration. Others told me that the dust was considered virtuous because the men who visited the prostitutes left their virtues "outside the door". But my favorite theory was the that the Durga goddess was actually the Divine Mother, and that this tradition might be connected to some long forgotten fertility ritual from a more matriarchal culture.

Nonetheless, this year the women of Sonagachi had rebelled. They had refused to give their dust to anyone who asked for it-- and they weren't giving out any blessings, either. The news was full of stories about the rights of the sex workers, who were using the need for punya mati to make their demands known: the artisans could have the dirt, if the workers could be granted more rights by society. Meanwhile, people had taken to trying to steal the soil or buying it on the black market, and there were even stories of Hindu priests impersonating johns in an attempt to get some dirt!

Perhaps this was the reason for that altercation I'd seen while lost in Sonagachi.

As the Durga puja approached, mediation talks began and a compromise was made: the women of Sonagachi had a few demands met, and in exchange, their dust would be available.

Inspired by hearing so many reasons why the Durga goddess statues might require punya mati, I set out to try to find the famous artisan enclave that made the statues themselves.  Named Kumartuli, it was the oldest artisan community in all of Bengal, the reluctant brother of its sister, Sonagachi.

There was no defined entrance to the place, yet it was easily found, for it strained and pushed against its walls, spilling sculptures onto the street. Kumartuli's marker rose from the sidewalk, a headless goddess in her humble beginnings, made of straw, cow dung, cow urine, and the precious dust of Sonagachi.

She was impossible to miss:

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The straw statue marked the artisan neighborhood of alleys and side streets, and I found myself drawn inside. Sheds and lean-to buildings huddled together, flimsy and faded. The smell of paint and chemicals overwhelmed my nostrils, and clay dust hovered in the air without settling.

Everywhere there were statues: armless, legless, sitting, standing,  kneeling. Any direction I looked, there was the Durga goddess: breasts bare, arms outstretched, her thick thighs interlocked as she stared back at me with enormous eyes. Large sheds and tents lined the walkways, where the Durga got her first coat of paint, her airbrushed curls, and her base goldenrod skin. And deepest within the artisan workshops, her features and clothes were hand painted in a dazzling lacquered display: pink, red, black, and silver. Here was the goddess in all her forms.

I began to walk to Kumartuli each afternoon while the children at the orphanage took a midday nap. I longed for sleep, too, but more than that I longed for peace of mind. I wanted that quiet that comes with looking at something with astonishment and joy.

The artisans began to expect my arrival, and if I was late, they would exclaim, "Your chai was waiting!"

I drank my chai perched on tables in their art studios, watching them work, making the world more beautiful. The craftsmen left me alone, and each day my hour of respite would be silent except for the sounds of their machine and tools.

One day, after I'd been visiting almost everyday for six months, one of the craftsmen asked me, "What brought you to Kumartuli?"

I didn't even have to think about it: I knew exactly what had brought me to Kumartuli and to the Durga goddess herself.

I replied, "It was punya mati--the dust of Sonagachi."

Amy Gigi Alexander

Free-fall in the Mojave

Sometimes when we take a risk, we feel like we are falling. Free-fall. It is both terrifying and exhilarating all at once.
— Don George

I wrote this piece last year January, after a road trip. It's a mix of genres and it's almost bordering on hallucination, but it is a true story, about a time in my life that was a breaking point, a time when I had to change. I wrote this before I even had a website. I hadn't even submitted any work at that time, ever, except one lone essay that is now in the newest Lonely Planet travel anthology. I'm free falling right now, in my writing and creative life, but not that long ago, I was far from myself and lost. A place can often bring out the things about ourselves that we need to rediscover and find. A person can do that for us, too.
 

I've always been fascinated by risk-takers. Maybe not so much risk-takers as people who listen to some inner voice and follow it where it takes them. They follow it even though they aren't sure where they are going or how things will turn out. They go anyway. These people are the great travelers, voyagers, discoverers. And I'm not just curious about them: I need them. For life without them as guides is like being in a beautiful palace with all the lights turned off and the curtains drawn.

There have been times in my life I felt suffocated, that I walked as though there was a pillow in front on my face, blocking my sight, my speech. Muffled. Closed. Squinting at shadows. Sometimes it has taken me awhile to figure out that the pillow is there, and that my words aren't being heard, that I'm blind. It takes me time to see that blurred lipstick shallow breaths are not sustaining. That's when I start searching for risk-takers and I follow their trail, usually in the form of a road trip, a journey towards. Road trips, particularly of the driving-a-car-for-hours-and-hours variety, to some hoped-for destination, sight, or encounter, have a way of unshackling.

That's how I found myself driving ten hours to visit a man I'd never met. Not meet him in the flesh, but in the spirit.

His name was Noah Purifoy.

Photo credit: Estate of Noah Purifoy, Noah Purifoy Museum, Noah Purifoy Foundation  

Photo credit: Estate of Noah Purifoy, Noah Purifoy Museum, Noah Purifoy Foundation
 

Purifoy was a risk taker. He was a Black American artist, born in Alabama in 1917, who left the deep South to attend art school in Los Angeles in middle age. In 1965, Purifoy was present for the Watts Riots, and collected piles of debris from the streets after the fires and destruction. He became a leader in the Black Power art movement in the late 60's, co-establishing the Watts Towers Art Center and creating a moving exhibit called 66 Signs of Neon, made entirely from the riot rubble. And while this history of his was rich and deep, this was not the part of his story that drew to me to him. It was, instead, his willingness to free-fall into a seemingly empty desert landscape when he was well into his golden years.

I came across a mention of his voyage across asphalt and sand to the center of the Mojave desert in California at the age of seventy-two, in an art book on alternative artists. What interested me was this slice of his life story: when he was a senior citizen, well settled into his life, a friend invited him to move to a strip of lonely land in the desert and make art. Purifoy took her up on the offer: within weeks he had left his old life behind and set up shop, crafting art assemblages out of trash and things long forgotten, in the middle of nowhere to an audience of the sky. He had said yes. I needed to say yes, too.

~

I set thoughts of Purifoy aside, until Christmas rolled around and I felt that loneliness that comes with having nowhere to go. My family was far away and not part of my life, and my relationship suddenly made me feel I was drowning. I felt unattached to my professional life, and longed to return to the days of travel and humanitarianism full time. I walked around stiffly, cautiously, feeling as though I was breathing in powdered cement instead of air. My chest ached, and I could no longer take deep breaths. The sadness I felt made my body billow out, beached and whale-like. Stranded.

I was at pre-Christmas party when someone asked me what my holiday plans were, and I heard myself say that I was taking a road trip alone. The words spilled out of my mouth as though they had been waiting there, for the right moment, dripping white pearl drops down my blouse and onto the wooden deck. I stood looking at the pearls for some time before I realized it was my necklace that had broken. Reaching down to pick up the beads, I recalled a picture of an art installation, of splintered wood shrines in the sand, littered with plastic pearls. Purifoy.

The next day, with almost no explanation to anyone, I set off to find him on the ten acres of grit and dust he'd taken over in the Mojave, swept up by the Santa Ana winds. I wanted to touch those pearls, see those sculptures being eaten by sand, feel the sharp jab of the of the spiny Joshua tree that grew like weeds in the desert.

~

It was a terrible time to choose going on a road trip: late Christmas Eve. The freeway was packed with minivans and after a single hour, my ankle ached from the constant need to brake. People sped greedily, yelled at one another, threw litter out the windows, changed diapers on the side of the road and gulped down coffee in gas station parking lots. California dreaming at rush hour, but instead of one hour, it took ten.

I did not mind. I was moving towards something, someone. Purifoy filled my mind, and I imagined him waiting at his trailer for my arrival, asking if I'd gotten lost along the way. I thought of his steady even gaze I'd seen in photographs. Work boots, the color of orange dusk. Overalls blue, copper buttons shining. I pictured him smoking a constant stream of cigarettes as I stood in long lines at pit stops and gas stations along the highway, buying snacks I hadn't had since childhood. Corn Nuts. Little Debbie snack cakes. Chocolate milk. The tasteless comfort food of travelers who have somewhere to go and aren't living in the present, but in some not too distant future.

Christmas morning, I finally arrived in the town of Joshua Tree, which was the nearest place on the map I could find to Purifoy's art installations. The town, in the Southern depths of California, stretched thinly across one of the strangest terrains in the Western world: an odd meeting of dry sandy earth and spiny cactus, peppered with tarantulas and  biting fire-ants. The landscape was dotted with the famous, almost prehistoric trees that the area is named for, the Joshua tree. I almost expected a dinosaur or two to run alongside the car in such a place.

Photo credit: ©amygigialexander 2014/ the beautiful Joshua tree of the Mojave Desert  

Photo credit: ©amygigialexander 2014/ the beautiful Joshua tree of the Mojave Desert
 

It felt strange to finally get out of my car and walk; instead I hobbled, ancient and tired. My right ankle was bruised, an oyster colored rectangle running across it like an arc, my ankles puffy and swollen. I limped into the National Park Service office and asked the rangers where to find Purifoy's site.

"Never heard of it." A park ranger wearing a Santa hat mumbled at me as he popped sticks of beef jerky into his mouth, his body wide, buttons on his shirt slit in-between like almonds, showing pinkish skin. He handed me a map which smelled of jerky, damp imprints from his hands marking it.

I bought the moist and aromatic map from him and examined it, but Purifoy's site was not marked. I'd come without a guidebook or even researching the location of the site on the internet before I left: I liked leaving road trips unplanned, folded. Sometimes I didn't even bother asking for directions once I got to a place, but drove around, lost, until I found it. Each time, it was a new grace. A lack of belief turned into a miracle.

I wandered into the coffee shop next door, where a single woman dressed as a Christmas elf seemed to be the only employee. I was surprised she was open on Christmas, and thought I'd better order, as I hadn't seen anything else open in the town except bars. I ordered several sandwiches and she insisted on making me something she called a Mojave Chaser, which was a single cup of coffee with extra shots of espresso. I asked her about Purifoy.

"You're going to go straight that way, and then you're going to go left. You'll keep going until you think you went too far, on the dirt road. That's when you'll see his sign. And you're going to need this," she said, gesturing towards the Mojave Chaser. "That's a funny place out there. You need to be alert--the desert changes things."

Ominous. But I'd come so far already to meet him in one way or another. I got in my car, started driving, and promptly got lost: everything looked the same. And then, just like the woman had said, I was found. The sign showed up just as my tears started to fall.

Photo credit: ©amygigialexander 2014/ entrance sign to the Noah Purifoy Outdoor Museum  

Photo credit: ©amygigialexander 2014/ entrance sign to the Noah Purifoy Outdoor Museum
 

I drove down the dirt road, following the signs, but I didn't really need to: Purifoy's art installations could be seen from a distance. Towers. Stacks. Piles. The earth was covered in groupings of objects which looked familiar yet not, as they had taken on new forms. Televisions turned into castles. Toilets turned into sailing ships. Bicycles and washing machines tied together with Christmas tinsel, braided and glinting.

I stopped my car and didn't get out. There is always that fear of being let being let down by a place. I sat, my windows rolled down, and noticed how quiet it was. There were no sounds of any kind, no cars, no people, no animal rustlings. Even the wind was quiet and the sand was still. Anything could happen to me out here and no one would ever know about it. I rolled the windows up and swallowed down some swigs of the Mojave Chaser.

I talked to myself: I'd come all this way to meet Purifoy, to get a sense of him, to learn from him. I realized I was more desperate than afraid, and I got out of my car.

The site lined itself up along the road, and it seemed Purifoy had known I was coming, for the entrance to his world sparkled, the brambles having swept the path clean to his welcome archway. Glass bottle bottoms in round mosaic greeted, and I walked in.
 

Photo credit: ©amygigialexander 2014/ entrance to the Noah Purifoy Outdoor Museum  

Photo credit: ©amygigialexander 2014/ entrance to the Noah Purifoy Outdoor Museum
 

Seeing the site in person was so much different than looking at it in pictures. It was, for all practical purposes, a different planet. I was no longer anywhere familiar, but in a place between-time, of Purifoy's own making.

It looked, at first, like trash. Remnants. Broken. Bound with string. An unwieldy juxtaposition to this powerhouse of a man, who had moved to this place only guided by some unknown force. Why this place, so forlorn, so empty?

I walked slowly, for everywhere there were installations of all sizes: huge barn like buildings, circus tents made of painted scrap wood, wooden planks covered in glass and nails, leading to nowhere. The more I walked, the more I saw, and the details, the intentionality of the place began to order my vision. Gallows and trees with nooses were repeated images, as well as themes around black and white: separate drinking fountains, labeled; half bodies lined up like children; segregated entrances going nowhere. Turrets and houses with no door to get in or out, tracks with machines which moved in a circle, and buildings lined with old clothes, that looked like someone had left seventy years ago but the kettle was still on.
 

Photo credit: Noah Purifoy Outdoor Museum/Foundation. Art by Noah Purifoy: Earth Piece  

Photo credit: Noah Purifoy Outdoor Museum/Foundation. Art by Noah Purifoy: Earth Piece
 

Photo credit: Noah Purifoy Outdoor Museum/Foundation. Art: Noah Purifoy: The Stage  

Photo credit: Noah Purifoy Outdoor Museum/Foundation. Art: Noah Purifoy: The Stage
 

Photo credit: Noah Purifoy Outdoor Museum/Foundation. Art by Noah Purifoy: From the Point of View of the Little People  

Photo credit: Noah Purifoy Outdoor Museum/Foundation. Art by Noah Purifoy: From the Point of View of the Little People
 

Photo credit: Noah Purifoy Outdoor Museum/Foundation. Art by Noah Purifoy: No Contest  

Photo credit: Noah Purifoy Outdoor Museum/Foundation. Art by Noah Purifoy: No Contest
 

Photo credit: ©amygigialexander 2014/art assemblage close-up by Noah Purifoy  

Photo credit: ©amygigialexander 2014/art assemblage close-up by Noah Purifoy
 

Photo credit: ©amygigialexander 2014/view of the Noah Purifoy Outdoor Museum  

Photo credit: ©amygigialexander 2014/view of the Noah Purifoy Outdoor Museum
 

Photo credit: Noah Purifoy Outdoor Museum/Foundation. Art: Noah Purifoy: Carousel.  

Photo credit: Noah Purifoy Outdoor Museum/Foundation. Art: Noah Purifoy: Carousel.
 

Photo credit: Noah Purifoy Outdoor Museum/Foundation. Art: Noah Purifoy: The Gallows  

Photo credit: Noah Purifoy Outdoor Museum/Foundation. Art: Noah Purifoy: The Gallows
 

There was something about the place, the earthiness of it, the wood mixed with metal and glass and paint; the way everything seems both attached to the ground and the sky that made me feel imaginative. I hadn't felt original in a year. Here, the branches on the ground danced and trembled and the clouds were shaped like flowers and chariots, something I hadn't seen since I was child.

~

In the center of all of the structures is Purifoy's trailer. I really did expect him to come out--the desert air is a great housemaid, everything new and crisp and polished. His front door looks like the handle is just turning-- I can almost hear the click and creak of his footsteps just behind the door. There are still holiday lights strung up, and an ancient, faded plastic wreath dangles from a rusted nail. A reminder that today is Christmas.

But Purifoy died here some years ago: an avid smoker, he was found in his trailer which was full of smoke from a fire. There are no signs of the fire now. It looks perfect and pristine, and I sit on his front porch and imagine his voice. I tell him my life story and wait for his advice. I tell him of my unhappiness and deep grief at my lack of mothering and fathering, and my frustration that despite my best efforts, I am not content with the trappings of normal life.

Purifoy is silent.

I rest my hands at my sides. I lean against a wooden wire spool which holds broken glass and bowling balls and tiny art assemblages of rusted bottlecaps and mirrors. I sit until the sun goes down, until I'm in the dark, until the shapes of his sculptures change into animals, people, and trains.

That's when I see what he has made.

It is a circus, it is a moving picture, it is a protest march. His art is not a series of objects, but one, come to life.

At last, Purifoy speaks. One must curate one's life, and everything in it. One must have space to be. One must allow oneself to fall. He moved here to create his own world, because there was space for his vision in the Mojave, in this no man's land of silence and sand. One has to have a place big enough for who one is supposed to become. One is supposed to be visionary about one's life.

I'm crying.

I've been holding on and living a small life so I wouldn't fall down. Like Alice, falling through the rabbit-hole, my fall started a long time ago, but I've been so terrified that I reached out to anything that was nearby. I run sand through my fingers, and as it sifts, I let go of all of the things, ideas, and relationships that are holding me in one place. Tomorrow I'll go home and change things.

I'm so tired.

The sand is cushiony and warm, almost hot. I fall asleep on my sand pillow, and dream vivid dreams, of flying machines made of scrap metal with flapping wooden wings and cockpits that double as shrines.

I jump, and free fall.

 

AGA

(Oh yes! Do comment, like and share. Just click the arrow below to share and to comment scroll down. If you'd like to know more about Noah Purifoy, check him out here: http://noahpurifoy.com/index.html.)

Marta

Marta's abdomen swollen, she squats, holding herself up by her own arms, a testament of fortitude which somehow points out my lack of the same.

Me, hiding behind the curtain of trees, the pile of dried sugar cane stalks, more comfortable in the jungle of unknown noises than by the side of a friend as she gives birth onto the dirt, the dust, the earth.

Me, standing just far enough away, watching the midwife, the ritual, the work of bringing a life into the world.

Me, guided by my sister and friend Marta, to accompany her in the almost darkness to this bit of overgrown jungle shelved between rivers.

Me, watching Marta cry out as the baby emerges from her body.

~

I'd begged to be allowed to live in this remote enclave of Ngabe-Bugle indigenous people many months before. The small village, located near the top of a mountain range in Panama was an isolated outpost, one which had never seen outsiders or tourists. I had intended on spending only a week there before returning back to the capitol, but the first night I watched in awe as the night sky filled with pinpricks of stars, cast in a fabric of blue- black velvet. That night my hands had reached into the sky, touching it. I had an irresistible urge to rearrange the constellations, make new patterns, shift the planets.

Here, on this mountaintop, in this village: it was the closest I had ever felt to touching God.

That first week went by and I never left. My tent full of holes from persistent ivory colored scorpions, the village elders took pity on me and decided to give me a room in a hut.

A simple three walled structure, open to the night sky and wild animals. Divided in half with a few hastily tossed up planks, my pallet bed lay on one side; on the other, lay Marta and her family.

My side of the hut was filled with a small camp stove, my pack, and the sorts of gadgets travelers carry when they've no idea where they are going: Swiss army knives, instant clotheslines, med kits and mosquito nets. Marta's side of the hut was decorated by a makeshift table of tree trunks and planks, a few dresses hung on pegs and her babies of various ages suspended in hammocks or tied to the ceiling, to keep them from crawling away or being eaten by wandering wild animals or feral pigs and dogs while she worked in the sugar cane field.

When I left my hut each morning, I would often return to find Marta, cupping my possessions in her hands, turning the unknown treasures over and over, memorizing the design and lines of each. She was curious, an impromptu engineer. Occasionally my things would go missing, borrowed by Marta, returned later, shining, often in pieces. She carried my digital alarm clock in her pocket, taking pleasure in the sudden shock others got when the bell sounded from the folds of her dress. She took my digital camera apart, and put it back together without the memory card. She used my travel clotheslines to tie her toddlers to the roof and the bed.

~

Her dresses were beautiful, each one hand sewn by her own hands on a Victorian-style Flying Dove foot pedaled sewing machine. These were dresses (nauguas ) in the traditional Ngabe style: voluminous, with puffy sleeves and floppy sailor collars reminiscent of some Puritan influence not so long ago. Marta's nauguas were special, designed to shock the eye with their hothouse flower splendor, and her handiwork was coveted by every woman in the village. Violet and orange blossom. Avocado green and orchid pink. Grapefruit peach and acid yellow. Traditional patterns of lines, triangles and diamonds circled the collars, cuffs, and waist, each design based on an Ngabe folktale. The hems reached the ground, making each dress billow out, giving a gliding effect when Marta walked. Her bright skirts were so full that her body was secret, the rare glimpse of her feet an almost immodest gesture.

We shared the nights, Marta and I. We shared the nights through the plank wall, as I tried to sleep on the hard wooden board that served as my bed. We shared the nights as I tried to tune out the flying cockroaches that kept crawling on my skin. We shared the nights as I lay with one eye open, half vigilant with a shoe in hand, ready to crush any scorpions that wandered too far up the walls. All night long Marta worked to the single light of a candle, her feet steadily moving up and down on the pedals of her sewing machine. Up and down. Back and forth. A zigzag of noises soothing me into sleep. I needed her there, for I found her noisiness reassuring. She was a known thing in an unknown place.

In the morning, her children were always the first to wander into my lean-to doorway. They'd peek around the corner, holding a smaller version of themselves, sometimes another baby strapped to their backs, a puppy or a duckling cradled in their skirts. Marta's children were too numerous to keep track of, and sometimes it seemed she had at least a dozen. They were dirty children, the sort of dirt that comes not simply from a lack of bathing, but from the pleasantness that accompanies a young life lived almost entirely out-of-doors. The jungles held their forts, the embers from the village fires served as their pens and paper, the pigs and chickens that ran about freely everywhere their pets.

It was after I'd known her for several months that I noticed she was alone with her children. No man came to visit her, no husband or boyfriend. She seemed to manage all of her numerous children on her own. Ngabe women are quite independent, often having multiple relationships, which balances out the traditional family structure of multiple wives to one man. But no man ever came bringing the usual gifts of cassava or yucca, bags of rice or tinned sardines, penny candy or plastic flip flops. Marta was sewing all those nauguas each night to pay for her children, for shoes, for food.

It was at about this time that I discovered she was pregnant.  She seemed to not notice, her back bent in the sugar cane field, her children climbing over her as they all piled onto the family pallet bed. Her naugua dress stretched to its limits, she no longer glided as she walked, instead waddling slowly, shifting from side to side. She flirted with the men in the village, inviting them to bathe with her down at the river, teasing them, for she couldn't walk downhill anymore.

One night things became serious: her sewing rattle stopped, and I could hear her heavy breathing on the other side of the partition. She came over to my pallet and rested her hands on my abdomen, and then motioned for me to follow her to the midwife's hut. We three walked out into the night jungle, the midwife and I pushing Marta up the mountain.

~

Marta's abdomen swollen, she squats, holding herself up by her own arms, a testament of fortitude which somehow points out my lack of the same.

Me, hiding behind the curtain of trees, the pile of dried sugar cane stalks, more comfortable in the jungle of unknown noises than by the side of a friend as she gives birth onto the dirt, the dust, the earth.

Me, standing just far enough away, watching the midwife, the ritual, the work of bringing a life into the world.

Me, guided by my sister and friend Marta, to accompany her in the almost darkness to this bit of overgrown jungle shelved in between rivers.

Me, watching Marta cry out as the baby emerges from her body.

The baby cries out, too.

~

After.

It's raining. The soft rain that comes from high above the palms, and slides gently down through the canopy of leaves, droplets landing in chorus.

It's quiet, just the rustling of unknown creatures and my breath. In. Out. In. Out.

Marta. Slumped, shoved in a crevice between trees. Silent. Forever still.

Midwife. Gone. The baby, gone down the mountain with her, to the village.

Me. Droplets of rain aren't rain at all but my own tears.

Marta, gone.

The buzzing of an alarm startles me. My alarm clock is in Marta's pocket. I laugh out loud. She loved to surprise people. Even now.

I find it in her pocket and turn it off, and then carefully place it back in the folds of her dress.

 She's resting, I tell myself.

 

How strange life is. How terrifying and good it is, all at the same time.

~

 

After.

The hut is quiet now. Marta's children are all elsewhere, taken by relatives. I'm a guest of Marta's, a sister-friend, and I have been given the job of collecting her things.

The Ngabe people bury the possessions of the dead with them, so that they will have everything they need in the afterlife. How different this feels than back at home. I recall when my grandmother died, my mother and sister quibbled over the smallest piece of bric-a-brac, things that had no meaning at all. Here, people own so little there is no fighting over possessions.

I've gathered everything. It all fits into a single plastic grocery bag. Then I look out the window. Our window. Marta's dresses still hang on the clothesline. It feels strange to pull them off the line. They seem like part of the landscape, equal in value to the trees, the river, the view.

Clothesline empty.

Her dresses were the only decoration of this sad place.

Now it's just a cluster of simple huts and trash spread out over the jungle floor.

How come I didn't see it this way before?

Remember this, I tell myself.

Remember these dresses, these jewels, these bangles against this earthiness.

I know I will forget about Marta, that time will change how I recall her.

Closing my eyes, I describe her dresses over and over again to myself, mumbling through  orange zigzags and blue stripes. Gorging on the colors she mixed together, shifting like a Ferris wheel in motion.

I think of Marta and what she'd like. She enjoyed taking things apart, holding them in her hands, filling her pockets with pieces and gadgets. In our hut, I find my flashlight, my clothelines, my camera. With Marta-like precision, I take each object apart, down to its simplest form. A pile of pieces, nuts and bolts, the inner workings of me, of her, of us. They join the dresses and her meager possessions in bags and I walk down to the cemetery.

~

After.

She faces the moon. Her body wrapped in her dresses, the earth barely covering her. Someone takes the bag of bits and pieces, sprinkling parts of my camera and flashlight over the top of the mound. The travel clothesline is wrapped around the makeshift wooden cross marker in lieu of flowers.

"Won't people come and take these things? They aren't even buried under earth," I worry to my friend.

"No one will take them. She needs them to guide her to where she has to go," she replies.

People gather around the burial, men on one side, women on the other. Singing, conversations, gifts. Death is normal here, part of life.

Bright orange Kool-Aid is passed around in gourd cups, the men splashing chicha alcohol from sugar cane juice liberally into their cups. The Kool-Aid is sweet, squishing between my teeth, and then swallowed, gone.

~

After.

Marta's guiding me where I have to go, too. It's time to go home, time to leave this place, this hut, this mountain, this family. Her brother tells me he doesn't want me to go, I should stay forever, as a grandmother, sister, auntie. But Marta has taught me the importance of moving on, of getting on with it, of seeking the next place, the next self. I'm ready.

Sometimes we meet someone, and although we don't realize it, they are the person who is going to cause us to change. Marta was one of those people for me. Knowing her in life--and in death--transformed me and made me better. Everything about her and I seemed accidental, but really, it wasn't.

When I walk down the mountain a few weeks later, I'm not entirely alone.

Her brother has carved out a set of gourd bowls for me, just like the ones at Marta's funeral, except these have Marta's and my name carved onto them. They clatter in my pack, reassuring me in the same familiar way as the pedals of her sewing machine at night in our hut.

~

It's several years later now, and when I look at all the things I've brought back from my travels, the one thing I would never give up is this precious set of carved gourd bowls.

When I feel I cannot do something, I find myself drawn to them, their mushroom earthy taste, their realness.

Sometimes I drink my morning coffee from one of them, cupping the thin gourd in my hands, almost burning my palms.

Amy Gigi Alexander

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Grasshopper

Sometimes meeting a stranger takes your life in a whole new direction.

 

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He is not quite a man, and not quite an animal. He reminds me of a camouflaged insect, a bent grasshopper. Earth toned clothes worn and patched. Elbows oddly crunched together as he hunches over his knees. Worn brown rubber flip flops. Travel vest patched and yet full of holes. Instead of pants, he wears a length of olive green fabric, wrapped around his waist, making a long skirt.

Grasshopper remains hunched over until the plane begins to move down the runway. Then he unfolds himself, as if from a cocoon, limbs and fabric now stretched wide. His arm dangles dangerously over the armrest: an affront to my personal space. His eyes closed, mouth open, breath smelling like old leaves. Not unpleasant. Musty. Familiar.

 I watch his face. Suntanned skin the color of dried apricots. Glasses mended with masking tape.

Suddenly, he opens his eyes. “Do you know anything about butterflies?” he asks, voice hoarse and cracked.

Butterflies. No.

My hands are shaking. I have no time for butterflies. Lift offs make me nervous.

Grasshopper glances at my face. “Butterflies can fly three thousand miles. Three thousand miles just to get home.”

Home. I’m not sure where that is anymore. Right now home is this plane; in a few hours, home will be Guatemala City, where I will be a volunteer teacher to young children.

Grasshopper is still talking, his arm still dangling. Closing my eyes, I try not to think about being on an airplane. There’s the smell of old leaves again. Earthy. Heavy. It reminds me of the road trips I used to take to the California Redwoods with my mother. VW bus moving slowly on the curvy highway. Secondhand army tent we’d camp in at night. Dinner of canned oysters and crackers. Fire snapping twigs and pine.

“Butterflies are how I met my wife.” says Grasshopper, his shoulder touching mine.

Campfires and road trips vanish, replaced with the realization that peace and quiet are not mine to own on this flight. I give in. We order glasses of watery orange juice, and Grasshopper folds back into his seat as he begins to tell his story.

~

Thirty two years ago, he’d been a law student who had gone down to Mexico for summer break with friends. His father had been involved in politics, and he’d thought about that as a career. But what really interested him were birds. That Mexican summer, he’d brought along all his birding equipment. When everyone else went back home to California that August, he’d stayed behind.

“Weren’t your parents upset?”

They had been upset, but they thought he’d come to his senses before the next semester. He hadn’t. He stayed. He traveled around Latin America, studying birds. Toucans. But it was when he got to Guatemala that he fell in love.

“That’s when you fell in love with your wife?”

No, it took a long time to meet his wife. He fell in love with the river Polochic of Guatemala, which was surrounded by one of the most pristine cloud and rain forests in Latin America. It also was a birder’s paradise. For ten years he was alone most of the time, his only companions the birds and the animals. But one day that changed. He was canoeing down Polochic when he saw a large group of Blue Morph butterflies. Hundreds, clustered together. It was the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen.

When he heard that someone had arrived at Polochic to study the Blue Morph, he wanted to meet them. It was his wife to be. Carmelita. They got married in the Cloud Forest. Magical. Romantic.

“I’m going back to her now. And you, what’s your story? Where are you going?”

I tell him I’m going around the world. I’ve spent a year planning the itinerary. First stop, Guatemala. I’ve already arranged to volunteer at a school there. I’m planning a very structured trip: I don’t want to miss any of the important sights.

“Does your itinerary include Polochic? Or the Blue Morph butterfly?” he asks.

I explain I won’t have time for that. I’ve already planned everything.

Grasshopper reaches into one of his vest pockets and pulls out a worn rumpled business card.

“Here.” he says. “Just in case you decide to visit us. Carmelita will make real coffee. We’ll talk about butterflies."

The pilot announces our flight will be over soon. I put the card in the pocket of my jacket as Grasshopper hunches over, elbows bent in like folded wings, preparing for the landing. I close my eyes. I’m already forgetting his story.

~

One month later, my perfectly planned itinerary isn’t working out as well as I’d have liked. The small school that I found to volunteer at in Guatemala City is charging me double what they promised for my Spanish lessons. Children who attend my classes are grouped together randomly, and the lesson plans they insist I use don’t seem to work as most of the children are illiterate. The director of the school has several lavish homes and fancy cars, although he presents himself as a poor man with only a bicycle to the volunteers.

I begin to wonder if my plan to travel around the world was a mistake. Maybe I need to go home. Or maybe having such a structured trip—in which I rely on places like this school in Guatemala to make my time meaningful--isn’t what I’m looking for. I’m going to have to make my own meaning.

~

I travel around Guatemala until I find a remote Mayan village in the mountains where I rent a two room cinderblock house. Dirt floor. Broken windows filled in with cardboard. No bathroom. But the little house rests on the side of the mountain, and when the cardboard is removed from the window panes I have a queen’s view. The sky blue kitchen comes with a tiny stove, and the main room is just big enough to have a tiny school. I begin offering English and art lessons for free. Children eagerly come, sometimes walking many miles barefoot just to attend a single class. My house is surrounded by maize fields, and I learn how to dry maize on my roof and make tamales.

Each morning, a few women come to my kitchen and we sit and drink weak Nescafe at my table. I boil fresh milk and put out plates of snacks. Dry salty biscuits. Penny cookies. Sometimes we sit in silence, other times one of them talks. For the first time in my life, I listen deeply. Listen to stories about husbands, fathers, brothers who went to America. Disappeared. Listen to loneliness. Acute. Aching. Absolute.

Winter comes slowly to the village, but once it comes it is relentless.  One day I notice that the father of one of my students has pants which are full of holes, held up with plastic twine. Legs red, chapped from the cold.  I offer him a spare pair of my pants and a jacket to keep him warm. He accepts the gifts and takes them home. The next morning, I awake to his son at my door, his hand outstretched. A small wrinkled piece of paper rests on his palm.

Grasshoppers’ business card. I’d put it in my jacket pocket many months before.

~

The cinderblock house has no heater and each night is colder than the last. I wear all my clothes to bed and wake up to the cement floor slick with frost. My kitchen is now too cold for the morning Nescafe sessions, and my friends stay home. Classes are taught around the stove, which constantly bubbles and hums, boiling milk for hot chocolate. It’s time to leave the little schoolhouse and find someplace warm.

Polochic. Blue Morph butterflies. Grasshopper.

 

The village matriarch sees me off. She climbs onto the bus and inspects it before as I buy a ticket.

“You’re my sister.” She says. Crying, she hands me a package of warm tamales. She’s never left the village in her entire life and she wishes she could come.

“You’re my sister, too.” I say. I tell her I’ll take pictures. I’ll return.

~

 I read about Polochic as the chicken bus travels into the tropics of Guatemala.

A wide river, it meets the largest lake of Guatemala, Lake Izabal, like a kiss. The wetlands and cloud forest radiate outwards like a lover’s embrace. The lands around Polochic and the lake are part of the Mayan Biosphere Reserve. Within the reserve are multiple smaller refuges, protected havens for animals and plants of all kinds. The only way to reach these reserves is take a boat across Lake Izabal to the other side. A boat. A very small boat.

 Fifteen hours later, I’m standing in a tiny office in the city of El Estor, arranging a one week stay in Bocas de Polochic, an animal and plant refuge. There are no brochures, only a single clerk who tells me that once I arrive I must find the hut for guests, called Chapin Abajo.  

The next morning I stand on the shore of the lake, waiting. A tiny narrow fishing boat is being loaded with giant bags of beans and maize. The boat is so heavy that the top of the lake is only a few inches from the rim. Once all the cargo is on, I wade out into the lake and awkwardly climb aboard. The boat’s little motor barely moves us across the water. Gasping. Sputtering. Putt-putt. Putt-putt. An hour later, we’re barely half way across. But I can see the refuge, a verdant green blur running along one side of the lake.

We finally enter the wetlands, the lake closing behind us. Oars are brought out and the motor turned off, as we glide into paradise. Vines hang above. Mangrove tree roots twist and turn like bent fingers, clutching at the muddy banks. Princess crowns of water lilies and water adorn the water. Green glitters, laid out like precious stones. Celadon. Jade. Emerald.

Animals have come out to give us welcome. Birds stand in the water on one leg, crests of blue and gold arched forward. Turtles laze on rocks, sliding into the water as we move past. The air is thick with tiny insects, which fly into my nose, ears, and mouth. Alligators linger in the shallows, their olive green heads still as they watch us with unblinking topaz eyes. Howler monkeys sit clustered on vines and branches, adorable until they let out a guttural cry that sounds like a cross between a scream and a flushing toilet.

A refuge welcome station is just up ahead, a tiny Mayan community perched around it. The cement dock is covered in moss, its landing half consumed by the swampy water. A guide comes to take me to the hut where I will spend the next week, and I follow him, trailing behind a few small children.

“You will enjoy the beauty of this place, the animals, the birds,” he says, as he cuts down jungle greenery with his machete, clearing a path.

And then I see Chapin Abajo: it’s not a hut at all, but an enormous guesthouse. It rises spectacularly from the rainforest floor, two stories of bamboo, palm, thatch and tree trunks.

An expansive wrap around porch greets us, covered in rainbow hued hammocks, ready for siesta. The kitchen is magnificent, with massive raw tables and benches, enough seats for twenty people. The bedrooms upstairs are long narrow halls of bed after bed, all empty. I am the only guest.

Adjoining the larger hut are two smaller ones, connected by plank walkways raised four feet above the ground. One building holds the toilet, the other walls in an outdoor shower.

“I’ll be back tonight,” the guide tells me. “Be careful not to wander to far from here, and do not walk at night. Jaguar roam here,” he pauses, drawing a circle with his walking stick around scat near one of the plank walkways. “Jaguar. She will be back.”

Walking back into the large hut, I shut the rickety door behind me. Its screen is torn and loose: not the best protection against hungry jaguars.

Grasshopper, what place have you sent me to?

~

 I spend the rest of my morning unpacking my things. Slowly. Deliberately. Trying not to think about jaguars. I line up my cans of food on the shelf in the kitchen, tie up my mosquito netting over one of the hammocks, and lay out my clothes in little precise piles. My company is the jungle: a cacophony of insects, birds, rustlings, and screaming monkeys meld into an ear splitting hum of noises, screams, calls, and vibrations. A million insects rubbing their wings together at the same precise moment.

It takes me all afternoon to rally enough courage to leave the guesthouse. At first I run across one of the plank walkways to the bathroom, and then run back. Sitting on the porch in one of the hammocks, I swing back and forth, looking longingly out at the trees. I think of Grasshopper, wandering this forest for ten years. Jumping off the porch into the grass, I take off into the jungle, following the first path I see.

The first realization I have after a few minutes is that I’m lost. The second is that I entered the jungle looking down, and it never occurred to me to look up. Up is where the jungle really is: black little monkeys clustered in trees; orchids and bromeliads exploding purple and pink like resplendent peacocks; and flying from branch to branch, toucans. I’m still, quiet, watching. The jungle requires me to pay attention to it.

Something hits me in the head, a huge butterfly. Shades of brown, each wing the size of one of my hands, it lingers near me on a tree trunk, neatly vanishing. An ambassador sent by Polochic.

At my feet, an enormous snail, slowly gliding over debris. On closer inspection, the debris is actually thousands of bugs shaped like perfect brown leaves, gracefully dancing into the air in unison, a carefully orchestrated ballet. Clusters of blue and red tree frogs shine on the trunk of a tree, glossy jewels.

Hearing the sound of water, I walk off the path further, and find myself in a mangrove swamp. At first the tree roots look like they are strangling everything around them, their brown octopus legs reaching, stretching, and suffocating anything in their path. But I step closer and then I see them differently: now they seem to be holding up the earth, lifting it out of the water, balancing mid-air. Their branches curve gracefully, spilling out of their center like rolls of fat, attended by tiny lizards whose tongues dart as they lift off small intruding ants.

The top of Chapin Abajo shows itself, peeking out above the swamp mangroves. I wade across the water, watching for snakes, moving in slow motion. Minutes later I’m back at the guest house—I wasn’t lost at all, only minutes away.

~

That night I eat my dinner of oranges and canned sardines looking out into the darkness. It is far from silent: night loving animals have awakened and are getting ready to hunt or be hunted, and both prey and predator greet nightfall with uproarious applause. No peaceful bedtime lullaby here; instead, groupies scream at a jungle rock concert.

Inside, too, the night has to come to life. Huge centipedes crawl across the floor. Flying cockroaches, busily flying back and forth, hit me in the face. Invisible insects move in clouds or independently stake a claim on my orange slices. Lizards and geckos click as they cling to the walls. Climbing into one of the hammocks, I wrap myself in my mosquito net like a cocoon. I fall asleep to the sound of the cockroaches, grouped together on my mosquito net, wings rubbing together, strangely melodic.

~

The next few days fall into an easy rhythm. Awakening to the sound of howler monkeys screeching at four am, I flick the sleepy cockroaches off my mosquito net and prepare a breakfast of biscuits and Nescafe. Once the light appears, I wander the forest, exploring until late afternoon. Children from the village sometimes accompany me, welding machetes against the lush green like King Arthur knights, as they teach me to look for the animals of Polochic. Armadillos. Coati. Anteaters. Otters, Tapir, Kinkajou. I learn to look all directions as I walk along, poking the ground or swamp ahead with a long stick, checking for snakes, thankfully never finding any.  Boa constrictor. Fer de Lance. Guatemalan Pit Viper. In the evening over dinner I sit on the porch, listening to the concert of Polochic. The cockroaches and I have come to an understanding: if they don’t crawl up my legs, I’ll let them sleep on my mosquito net. The whirring and rubbing of their wings becomes a sound I look forward to.

~

The humidity has eaten away at all of my supplies: my matches are limp, my fruit has molded, and even my dry rice and beans have taken on a jungle slime. I’m down to my last can of sardines and peaches, and with no place to buy supplies, I have to leave Polochic.

My last day of wandering I decide to explore the waterways, and finding a small cayuca, traditional dugout canoe, at the dock, I ask to borrow it. The canoe is narrow, scarcely wide enough for my oversized American body, and it’s quite short, so that I’m forced to fold my knees together. Balancing myself takes time, and the canoe almost turns over before I’ve even gone anywhere.  I take the heavy oars in my hands, and paddle towards the wetlands.

The scenery changes every five minutes, becoming more verdant and alive, teeming with animals and birds of every kind. I’m not alone: every once in a while another cayuca drifts past, it’s adult passengers sunning themselves while their children gather water lily flowers and bundles of reeds. Sleepy, relaxed, and warm, I lift the oars and allow myself to drift into a patch of water lettuce clinging to the surface.

My eyes close and I breathe in the beauty of Polochic.

Hearing the sound of water moving, I open eyes, alarmed that I might have come across the path of an alligator. But I see nothing. My eyes have trouble adjusting to all of the bright colors here: the water the color of the sky, the red lilies that grow from the trees, the plants shaded in tones of lime and avocado. Then I see something near the boat, just below the water. Carefully moving so I don’t roll the canoe, I look down into the blue. Manatees. A group of manatees swims just under my canoe, their pinkish nostrils coming up for air every few minutes. As they slowly roll and turn, they remind me of grey lumps of clay come to life. Everything halts, my mind quiet, the only sound I now hear the gentle lapping of the manatees as they touch the surface. Glorious.

How thankful I am for you, Grasshopper.

~

At the dock the next morning, I’m sitting in the fishing boat that brought me to Polochic, waiting to go back across Lake Izabel. Pitch black air, dense with fog, thick with mosquitos. We move through the water, watching the sun flirt with Polochic, its yellow rays lighting up a small patch of sky and the river. Lake Izabel appears, stunning me with its grey splendor. Silver spangled waves move across the surface as dawn fully breaks. A visual feast, this is the sunrise of my lifetime.

We arrive at the shore, and my bag is lifted out of the boat. Something glints blue on it, trapped in the netting pocket. It’s the partial wing of a Blue Morph butterfly. A partial mandala. I fold it into Grasshopper’s business card.

 I’m on my way, Grasshopper.

 

Amy Gigi Alexander

Thanks for reading, as always! I write for you. Leave a comment or a like on FB or Twitter, I love it when you do that. 

 

 

The Star Woman

A series of dreams about an elusive island and stars lead me to a small village on the coast on Honduras, where I learn to let go.

The stars, that nature hung in heaven, and filled their lamps with everlasting oil, give light to the misled and lonely traveler.
— John Milton
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The bus swayed like ample hips, rocking gently back and forth in the flood water that was several feet deep. The Garifuna women on the bus paused and then went back to their chatter. Their skirts and blouses of bright gingham resolute, the flowered kerchiefs on their heads bobbing up and down as the bus bounced, like optimistic flags.

“Pig Island. Pig Island. Pig Island.” I repeated to myself.  Two words. My mantra. Four days’ journey across Honduras by bus. Once I got to the island, everything would be fine.

 Pig Island. Cayos de Cochinos. I’d heard about the island while visiting an animal sanctuary for rescued birds outside of the ruins of Copan. The owner also had a large collection of animals endemic to Honduras. Tiny white bats. Flesh colored geckos. Snakes. I had stopped short at the snake cages, afraid. Snakes were otherworldly, eerie.

“If you want to see an unusual snake, go to Pig Island.” The sanctuary owner continued on, describing the snake he was so enamored with that he thought it worthy of a journey across the country. “Pale pink, the smallest boa constrictor in the world—and they are only on that island.”

I imagined myself handling a baby pink boa constrictor. Somehow the idea of it being pink and small made the idea a little less terrifying.

And that was how I ended up on a bus, headed across the country to the coast, to Pig Island, to a hopeful encounter with one of the rarest snakes on Earth.

 It had started raining from the moment I had decided to go. Flooding made the buses take unusual routes, making the trip twice as long. Yet I was so focused on reaching Pig Island that I barely stopped at the bus terminals, choosing instead to sleep and eat on the move. Munching on fried fish and plantains, I’d stare out my window. Tiny shacks. Men standing on lean to porches made of palm. Endless muddied green. After a few days, the monotonous view began to lull me sleep.

As we moved slowly through the afternoon rain, I dreamt about Pig Island, which was in Garifuna territory. In my dreams I was on a small fishing boat with several Garifuna men, rowing to the island at night. They caught small metallic fish with their hands, tossing them on the floor of the boat. We gazed at the stars, and they told star-stories. But each time I awoke, I couldn’t recall the stories about the stars--only the sound of the men clapping their hands in the water.

The Garifuna had woven themselves into my waking life, too. As we neared the coast, seats which had been occupied by Honduran cowboys and city girls wearing tight jeans were now filled by Garifuna matrons. Full layered skirts. Peter Pan collared blouses. Babies and packages. My own lap had been borrowed for use by a Garifuna woman who had shoved her ample body into my seat, her corpulence spilling over onto me.

 Squashed and trapped against the side of the bus, we sat and stared at one another. Me, messy ponytail and dirty traveling clothes. Her, kerchief and dress of black and white calico floral starched and pressed.  Her plump hands rest on a package on her lap. Every once in a while, the package emits a muffed protest.

My eyebrows raise in a question, and she laughingly pats the package, saying, “It’s a chicken.”

“Where are you going in this rain? It is the wrong time to go anywhere here-- I am only coming from work.” Her Spanish lilts, melodic from her Garifun accent.

“I’m going to Pig Island,” I told her. I thought about telling her about the pink snakes.

“Oh, Pig Island. The island of women.”

She began to weave a story about the women who lived on the island. According to her, they ran the island alone, without the help of men. They’d come to this decision simply: the island had limited resources and the men didn’t do their fair share of the work. The men had been sent away to live on the mainland and fish in the sea. Every now and then, they’d bring the women needed supplies. The Garifuna women of Pig Island seemed practical, strong, and fearless. The ideal women to be with as I wandered the island in search of pink boa constrictors. It doesn't matter to me whether she is weaving a tale or not--the mere fact the island women could inspire such a tale makes me want to go there even more.

 I tell her that I am a just tiny bit of afraid of snakes, and that’s why I’m headed to the island.

“You don’t need to be afraid of the snakes on that island! They raise them in bins! It’s the spirits here that you need to worry about. The spirits that guide people to their final home.” She leans in and whispers, “The ancestors. Gubidas.”

I smile at her. “I’m not worried about the spirits. I’m interested in the snakes. Besides, I’ve been having dreams about the island since I decided to go. I’m meant to go there.” And I tell her about my dreams of the island, the men and fish, the night sky and the star-stories.

“Stars. Waruguma. Stars are from the Gubidas. Dreams are brought by the Gubidas, too.” She bites her lips, her hands pressing hard on the chicken package in her lap.

Our conversation is dramatically interrupted as our bus lurches sideways without warning, stranding us in the mud. Stuck. The bus groans and creaks as everyone tries to get up at once, a blur of red and blue gingham.

The women push their way out the double doors of the bus, ignoring the rain. Walking in groups, they balance packages on their heads as they shelter babies under a Technicolor rainbow of blouses and skirts. Thrusting their legs through the flood, they walk towards homes I cannot see, and disappear.

The driver looks at me expectantly, and I suddenly understand he is waiting for me to get off the bus. I was waiting for someone to offer to help me or send me somewhere, but no one had.

Standing in the road, the brown water swallows my feet and my sense of direction. I feel somehow comically helpless, and find myself laughing nervously at my predicament: lost in a strange place, all because I want to go to an island I’d never even heard of a week ago.

Slogging through the mud and water is slow going and I hold my daypack in front of me, like a compass. It carries clothing, journals, and a few talismans: an ivory plastic statue of Mary in miniature that had belonged to my grandmother; my grandfather’s broken watch; and a faded laminated photograph of myself at age eight. More than simple trinkets or objects, these are amulets that have helped me feel at home in this faraway place. Trusted guides.

I wade through the high water for over an hour, the rain my singular companion. Thick mud. Palm trees. Flimsy huts. A landscape abandoned.

Then I see small dark speck of black up ahead. As I get nearer, the speck transforms from shapeless dot into the Garifuna woman who sat next to me on the bus. She’s standing in the road, water up to her mid-calf, battling with a flimsy Hello Kitty umbrella against the rain.

She glances at me making my way towards her. She calls out, “Buiti, Waruguma Hinyanru.” Welcome, Star Woman. She turns and begins to walk up to her house.

“Are you inviting me in? I don’t understand,” I call back to her. Star woman? Is she talking to me?

“Are you going to stay outside? Then stay outside if that’s what you want.” She laughs, but she waits for me.

Her home is high, on cinderblock stilts. Walls of woven grass. Thatched roof of bleached palm fronds. The porch is crowded with red plastic palm oil drums, numerous children, and skinny dogs.

I follow her up the stairs and into the one room house, immediately surprised by its tidiness in this swampy setting. Pallet bed, crisply made. Wooden floor swept. Tables covered in cheerful yellow oilcloth. The room smells sweet and salty, like nectarines and the sea.

She pushes me into an alcove that has a plastic shower curtain running across it. “Here, take this dougou, skirt and blouse.” The clothes are heavy, decorated with ruffles of large black and white flowers. The skirt is much too short, but I can’t complain, for I’ve no clean or dry clothes of my own.

When I come out of the alcove, I see the contents of my bag have been placed on the table. The children are playing with my grandmother’s Mary statue, my grandfather’s watch, and my laminated photo of myself as a young girl.

“Is this your daughter, Waruguma Hinyanru? Why does your watch not work? Why do you carry this statue?” The children are full endless questions.

I explain that the picture is me, and that the watch and statue had belonged to people I loved who had died. The woman from the bus comes over and puts the things up high on a shelf, and then abruptly pulls a short curtain, displaying a tiny shrine with photographs of a young man. Everyone is quiet as we stare at his face. Young. Expectant. Defiant. “My son.”

“You understand the ancestors, the Gubidas, very well, Waruguma Hinyanru. It is important to honor them,” she says, leading me out to the front porch. “It’s time to prepare the food for tonight. You are here, so you will help.”

 She explains we are making hudut, a dish of fish cooked in coconut water, served with plantains. She shows me a box, heavy with silver fish, the fish of my Garifuna dreams.  I watch her slit open the belly of each fish with a rough knife, gutting it in one instantaneous motion.

 I realize I still don’t know her name. She looks up, and seeing my face, reads my mind. “Sara.”, she says, slapping my thigh with a dead fish. “But for you, you are simply Waruguma Hinyanru. The Star Woman. The woman who dreams of stars.”

She shows me how to mash plantains in a wooden bucket with a tall paddle. I stand on the porch, pounding the green hard plantains, unaware that a small crowd has gathered in the rain. Sara, too, is busy cutting open the fish, and we don’t notice the visitors until they are almost on the porch.

“What is she doing here? Tonight is the beluria. She can’t be here. What about the Gubidas?” Voices heavy and harsh. Arms crossed. Eyes stare at me accusing me of something I don’t understand. I stand frozen, wooden paddle in my hand, afraid to move. Should I leave? Should I stay?

Sara stands, fish in one hand, knife in the other. Her singsong voice now sounds angry too. “Where is she supposed to be? Look at the rains! She was supposed to come here.” She thrusts the bloody fish into one of the men’s hands, and the women follow her into the house. She shows them my grandmother’s Mary statue and my grandfather’s watch. “ Waruguma Hinyanru, she brings her ancestors with her.”

They file out, arms crossed, glancing at my lumpy excuse for mashed plantains. Sara follows after them, her mouth fixed and resolute. I’ve seen that expression somewhere else today, on the face of the young man in the shrine of her living room.

“Would you like me to leave? I don’t want to cause any problems. I was just on my way to Pig Island…” I trail off as she glares at me.

“No. I will tell you what has happened. My son. He died. Tonight is the beluria, the ninth night wake. Everyone comes. But tonight, with the rains… The ancestors have taken him to his resting place, and we have a party for him. The community doesn’t want you to come. But I have agreed to take you to the buyei, the village priest, and I will do what she says.”

 Tearing strips of newspaper, she delicately wraps my statue and watch, placing them in a plastic shopping bag.  “These will help us.” she said.

We set out for the buyei’s house: both barefoot, not wanting to lose our shoes in the mud. Sara’s heavy body moves through the flood carefully determined. I trail behind her, all eyes on me as people watch from their porches in silence.

The buyei stands waiting on her porch. Enormous, her rolls of fat press against her clothes, her upper arms flapping as she waves to us in greeting. She wears a tent dress of green calico, navy blue pockets torn. Her skin is smooth, her teeth gone, her hair pulled tight under a worn kerchief printed with red roses. Her eyes squint at my face as she invites us into her house.

Buiti. Welcome. I’ve been expecting you.”

 I fiddle nervously with the handle of my shopping bag, watching her hands, crudely tattooed with circles and stars. Ball point pen tattoos.

“I’ve been waiting for you. I knew a stranger was coming. I knew many days ago.” She takes my bag, and opens it. “What have you brought me? Fish? Cassava bread?”

Sara avoids my gaze.

“What do you call yourself?” the buyei asks. She unwraps my plastic Mary statue and wristwatch. I am silent, thinking about my precious talismans.

“Her name is not important, buyei. She is only here for my son,” replies Sara. “I am calling her by the name of Waruguma Hinyanru, Star Woman. She dreams of stars.”

We both sit on a narrow bench, as the buyei walks back and forth across the room. She stops and leans down into my face. “What are your star dreams, Waruguma Hinyanru?”

I tell her about Pig Island and how I want to go the island to see pink snakes. I’m really just on my way somewhere else. I’m not supposed to be here at all. I’m actually ready to go right now.

The buyei brushes aside a curtain. An entire wall of Mary, candles, plastic flowers. Jesus takes center stage in an enormous metallic crucifixion, surrounded by stuffed animals and plastic grapes.

Then I see the stars. Small stars have been painted all over the wall. They rise in an arc above the shrine, painted in bright red and metallic pink. Nail polish.

I watch as the buyei’s starred hands cradle my watch and Mary statue. She nestles them in carefully between stuffed teddy bears and red candles. A front row seat of the crucifixion.

“What are your star dreams, Waruguma Hinyanru?” she asks me again, moving so close to me that I can smell her breath. Nectarines.

I feel my mouth moving, my voice speaking, telling her my Garifuna dreams. The little fishing boat on its way to the island. Garifuna men that caught fish by clapping their hands under the water. Silver fish piled up in the bottom of the boat, scales flashing in the moonlight. Stars and star-stories.

“Tell me about these,” she says, her jiggling arm moving in a wide sweep across her shrine, pausing for a moment on the statue and watch.

“They belonged to my grandparents. They died. I wanted to keep them with me…  I didn’t want to say goodbye.”

“They’ve found a home now.” The buyei stroked the watch. “Your ancestors are our ancestors. They have come home.”  I stared hard at my little amulets, trying to picture what my grandmother would have thought of residing in such a place. I wasn’t sure she would have liked it very much. But then again, she had been daring as a young woman. And my grandfather had ridden trains across the states when he was a boy. In their youth, they had each been travelers out of necessity. Maybe they were ready for their next adventure, here with the Garifuna. Perfect and ironic at the same time, for their conversations in life had always been overripe with racism against black and brown people. Now they could float about this village, without white bodies or voices, listening and learning from the Garifuna. Afterlife lessons for this next stage of being.

Sara rose. “What about the beluria, the ninth night wake?” she gestured toward me. “Can she go?”

The buyei stood, her arms folded across her chest. Starred fingers dancing a rhythm on calico. Her face turned towards the shrine, and she replied, “Yes, she is a guest. An important guest. A guest of your son, with powerful stories.”

We walked back to Sara’s house in silence. Water lapped up over my calves. Mud pleasantly squished between my toes. Rain gone, replaced by a fine mist. For the first time in days, I’d stopped thinking about Pig Island, about getting somewhere else.

The belluria that night was a huge party, and despite the floods, everyone came out to celebrate.  Children splashed in the water, the sky cleared, and wooden drums beat long into the night. I danced badly, overcooked the hudut fish, burned the fried plantains, and could scarcely handle more than a single cup of rum. But none of this mattered, for everyone wanted to hear the Waruguma Hinyanru’s stories most of all.  I told the stories of my grandparents, my ancestors, my Gubridas. The stories my grandmother told me: how she arrived in America from Italy as a young bride; her mustard yellow kitchen, the importance of orange Jell-O and pot roast on Sundays; her penchant for too tight floral jumpsuits. The stories my grandfather told me: his secret trunk in the basement, opened on a hailing summer afternoon, full of pictures of women whose names he'd forgotten; how he'd left his home, traveling across the country, and ended up working on a ship. The story of how after they married, they stopped going anywhere, squirreling their money away behind paint by number paintings of the Last Supper.

 With the telling of each story about my grandparents, I felt more and more like Waruguma Hinyanru, Star Woman, who had brought her ancestors to their final resting place. I pictured my grandmother admiring Sara’s immaculate house. I saw my grandfather watching the men come in from the sea, their boats full of fish. The buyei was right: here was a place I could lay them to rest.

I sat on the back porch of Sara’s house, tossing cassava bread to the dogs, watching the stars that had entered my Garifuna dreams… and brought my grandparents home.

Amy Gigi Alexander

Thanks for reading, as always! Please comment below or share on FB or Twitter. I love that. xo.

 

Oranges and Roses

A community in Paris helps me rediscover joy.

Photo: Renoir, Orange Roses

Photo: Renoir, Orange Roses

Women stand above me, brightly colored boubou dresses blending into an African origami screen blocking my view. Hands, like undecided hummingbirds, hover over my heart, swiftly moving to my eyes, covering them with damp palms. Children tied to their mothers’ backs watch, as I lie on the thin mattress in the tiny apartment, wooden bones of crates underneath pressing into my back. I feel the slap of hands hard against my calves, hear the metallic ring of the spoon as it stirs an elixir of powder and mango juice. I drink the glassful greedily, juice running down my chin, tasting the sweetness mixed with clay, dirt, earth.

 Glimpses of the room through the crowd of women: verdigris green walls splattered with tea colored stains, sporting faded posters of a Senegalese paradise. Plastic bags of fruit and spices hang from the ceiling, an occasional cockroach dancing among them. Cherry pink satin drapes hang crookedly at the window, dirty glass framing a view of the largest African street market in all of Paris. The sweetness of carnations and the lushness of rotting fruit argue and push their way into the apartment. Street sounds blend and float up: the lilt of the melodic languages of the Ivory Coast blending with clipped French and rap music, forming a background chorus to the cluster of women in the room, who call to one another loudly, as if they are far apart.

Rocking, singing, the women close my eyes and cradle my head, guiding me to sleep, to an earthy rain forest I once knew that is far from this green room. I travel until I touch reddish rainforest earth, hear shifting animal sounds, smell bitter coffee beans roasting in fired gourd pots. Prompted by the creaking of delicate strings of a hammock sighing with my weight, following the echoes of stone hitting stone mashing yucca roots, I re-enter jungle time, and dream.

 

How I’d come to this bed, this room, this apartment, this tiny piece of West Africa located on the edge of Paris felt almost like another dream, too.

 

~

 

I’d been on a multi-year journey around the world, and having spent more than half a year living and working with an indigenous tribe in remote Panama, I wanted to experience something different: Paris. When the day finally came when I had to leave, I walked through the village, finding it hard to say goodbye. Embraces exchanged with women in circus colored dresses, grinding corn by the river in lean-to kitchens, sheltered by shiny slick palm roofs. Prayers spoken with holy men on horses adorned with collars of fruit, braided with sugarcane stalks. Accompanied by barefoot children in wet party clothes, I walked for a day through a downpour to the nearest village, where a four by four truck sat waiting to take me to a plane, sending me far from such a rare and untouched world. 

Halfway to Paris, on a layover in Dubai, the news came that a flash flood had destroyed the part of Panama I just been in. Torrential rains and manmade erosion had made the river of my memories swell almost overnight. Dams broke, leveling villages, leaving people clinging to trees, eventually swallowing them whole. Only the night sky remained the same, still dressed in midnight, strung with stars of alabaster pearls. Hours later, boarding the plane for Paris, eyes burnt from tears, I was filled with longing for a place that no longer was. The pull towards the City of Light extinguished, I would arrive in Paris blinded by grief, blind to the most beautiful city on Earth.

 

Paris. It had begrudgingly welcomed me with rain that streaked the sky like scattered silverfish. I searched for the Paris of my imaginings as the taxi from the airport took me through city streets, but all I saw was cool cement and stone, attended by molding statues and bedraggled pigeons. Brisk Parisians, dressed in a monochromatic blur of black-charcoal-mushroom-brown rushed by homeless tent villages reflected double in glassy mirrored windows. Finally arriving at my rented rooms, I stood in a puddle in the street as the taxi pulled away, my shoes crushing crumpled red geranium petals that had fallen from the balconies above.

 

Cathedral bells outside my pied-a-terre rung each morning while it was still dark, sending me out into rain drenched streets, dodging flowing gutters, wandering in search of something that would make me feel the soulfulness of the people I had just lost. My loss, incompatible with the touristic laminated veneer of the Michelin route, allowed me to avoid the café where Hemingway ate his meals, the standard photograph from the top of the Eiffel tower.

 

 It was on one of these wanderings that I discovered the Grand Mosque of Paris. Turquoise pools filled with cerise hibiscus blooms. Walkways tiled green and gold, a stylized forest floor. The hamam, staffed by women who had looked at my face wet with grief without questions as they willingly scrubbed a years’ worth of jungle dirt away. Pinkish, glistening, I had emerged from the hamam blessed to witness the sun finally unveiled, glinting white and yellow lights off the Mosque minaret, its spiral tower reaching to God.

But while I’d been being pummeled and scrubbed raw, the street outside had come alive, not just with sunshine but with the sound of drums. The pavement was a blur of crowded commotion, held back by police. Everyone arched towards the drumming: fast, furious, exuberant.

As the procession turned the corner onto the avenue and came into view, the crowd had roared in angry French, shaking hands and fists, a few among them spitting or mumbling curses. Their cat calls were drowned out by day-glow orange bullhorns, trumpeting songs in a melodic language alternating with French.

What was this? A parade?

“It is the Africans. They are allowed to legally protest today about their status in France. Many of them are here illegally.” A man standing near me had replied to my silent question. “Stay away from them. They are dangerous.”

The protesters were so close I could trace the flowery details of their long robes of bright batik, see the folds of the complex crossword of fabric covering their heads, black skin shining brightly against the white marble of the Mosque. I watched their happiness as they sang and danced, pausing now and again to state their case, voices resolute. They were the first people I had seen here who seemed alive, real. My hands lifted the ropes dividing the crowd from the Africans, and I ran, flying, towards the protesters, ignoring the shouts of the police, ignoring everything but the joyful drumbeats.

 

Soeur! Sister!” The protesters had called out to me as I entered their group, breathless, giddy from the realization that I’d just broken the law. Everyone hugged me, kissed me on the cheek, smiled. My shoulders and waist were wrapped in a piece of African batik, and I held onto it tightly as I attempted to copy the curving moves of their dances. The beating of the drummers forced my feet and arms to move in ways they never had before, past the City Hall and the Sacre-Couer Basilica, through the Jewish Quarter and Montmartre.

 

We moved, swirling and dancing through the streets of Paris, a Paris I had never seen before that afternoon. And what a way it was to see it: not a rushed blur from a tour bus, nor a route suggested by a stuffy guidebook; instead, a view from the center of the street. Traffic stopped and statues gazed as traffic lights blinked in unison, fountains timed their water show with our steps, and parks bloomed. Paris, at last, was no longer grey and sullen, but had come to life. And so had I.

 

Goutte de’Or, Drop of Gold, was our final stop: the African quarter on the outskirts of central Paris. People greeted us with explosive exuberance, handing us flowers and cakes smelling of peanuts and sesame, dancing alongside us until we reached the center, an enormous outdoor market filled with hundreds of people. The drumming got louder, the singing flashed faster, spinning the dancers into streaks of violet and orange batik, turbans touching. With a throbbing head and blistered feet, I pushed my way out of the mass of music and neon to the comfort of the sidewalk.

 

Surrounded by endless food stalls and grocers, the scent of food was overwhelming. Cinq Centimes, sugar cookies frosted with peanut butter, cooling on racks in front of Senegalese bakeries. Rainbows of fish, metallic against slabs of ice, pink eyes glassy. Ochre bundles of spices, hot pink coconut candy, shining stacks of iridescent white tripe. Crowds stood around open backed trucks, watching the live butchering of goats and chickens. Sizzling chunks of meat twirling on wires over hibachi grills.  Men carrying silver canisters of hot sugared mint tea, cups clattering on carts. Ropes of green plantains mixing with dark red bananas hung from rafters. Baskets of green mangoes leaning against celadon melons stacked in crates. Clusters of dusty pink grapes resting delicately in sky blue paper.

The Islamic call to prayer sounded out, followed by church bells. Then sirens sounded. Shutters marked with graffiti suddenly closed. People disappeared. Blending. Fading. Left was the lingering smell of fish and peanuts, shopkeepers’ blank expressions, the rustling of goats and chickens as they shifted legs, having gained a little more time.

I stood alone.

 

It was then that I recognized a woman from the protest: wide face with equally wide-set eyes, thick arms in bangles, dress of acid yellow, black stripes. She stood staring at me from the doorway of a restaurant, its façade painted in an oceanic mural of moonscape waves. I found myself pulled towards her, as if strung along by an invisible fishing line cast from within the mural of watery blue wilderness.

 

~

 

“Welcome, welcome! I am Binta. Come, come!” she exclaims, opening the door and quickly grabbing my hand to pull me inside.

 I introduce myself, but she moves her body impatiently, jiggling protest from her arms to her hips. “Sister! You are the one who marched with us. I already know who you are.”

The street is suddenly pockmarked with police vans with grated metal windows and officers running darkly past the windows like quick daggers, helmets shining black. Binta swiftly locks the door and shuts the crusty blinds, motioning me to follow her to the back of the restaurant. My anxiety surfaces just for a moment, but her smile reassures me as we walk up a rusted metal staircase, her chatter effortlessly moving from French to English.

Once upstairs, Binta opens a door to a tiny apartment, the color of a greenish copper penny. The room is tightly filled with a dozen ample women wearing voluminous dresses of sorbet shimmering polyester, a display of batik fireworks golden and green, lounging on mattresses spread out on the floor.  The jangle-jangle flash of gold bracelets mixes with babies and toddlers swaddled in between folds of flesh.

 “There is no room for me.” I protest. “I will just stay downstairs until the trouble is over.”

“No.” When Binta says it, her eyes narrow, her yellow and black dress puffing up like a bumblebee. “You walked with us. You will eat with us. This is our way, terranga, to be welcoming. Welcome to Senegal!” she heartily laughs, as she moves babies off of a mattress to make space for me.

We both sit down together, Binta beside me. A woman brings us bowl of water, and I reach out to take a drink, causing wild laughter amongst the women. Binta takes the bowl from me, motioning for me to wash my hands, then dry them with a washcloth. The water smells of oranges and roses, the washcloth sour and ripe. Binta leans forward, taking the cloth from me, and I breathe in more of the same smell: she smells like oranges and roses, too.

Stories begin, Binta first. As she tells me about Senegal, her home, several women get up and begin to make tea in a tiny kitchenette serviced by a single hotplate. Binta tells me who she left behind: children, parents, family. A journey by boat from West Africa to Spain, she was one of the few who survived the trip. Traveling by night on foot, by bus, by truck, hiding until she reached France. And then joy, to arrive here, at Goutte de’Or. Her luck at finding a job, learning English, saving money for her children. Her words are punctuated by the clatter of spoons mixing with the whistle of the kettle, and when her story is finished, a dozen teacups magically appear, brimming with hot mint tea.

“And you? Why did you join us? You are different, not like the rest.” Binta says, her hand squeezing mine tightly.

“I came here because I thought Paris would be beautiful, but it isn’t. I’ve been terribly sad.” Crying, I tell them about the extraordinary people I had left behind in Panama. The flash flood that took them away. Their bright dresses. The ring of their language. The night sky from my shared hut. How I don’t want to say goodbye to that mountain, that village, those people. How I don’t want to forget. How they taught me how to live in the moment, and now, their moment was gone.

When I finally look up, it is to silence: the women stare at me and the children are gone.

“We don’t believe in showing our sorrow with tears.” Binta wipes my face with a cloth. “Tears take your power away. Tears are not good for children to see.” As she says this, the women begin moving the mattresses against the walls, rolling the bedspreads, clearing the teacups. It must be time to go. I get up, confused, embarrassed. Everyone pushes me to sit down again. Binta presses harder than the rest.

She tells me that they will do something to help me, a ritual.

“You helped us, and now, we will help you. Death is not the end, it is just different. You must keep the relationship with your friends forever. To do this, we will call a Jabaran-Kat, a healer. You will stay. ” Binta says the words firmly, yet her expression is warm and her hand is still holding onto mine.

For a moment, I feel my familiar grief, sharp, the spaces where the people I once knew now empty. But then I turn her words over in my mind: death is just a different place…I don’t have to say goodbye.

“Ok.” I say softly. I want to say more, but no words come out.

 

An hour later, the tiny apartment is a flurry of activity, the women a blur of cleaning and cooking.  A long green plastic mat is brought in, rolled out into the center of the room with the mattresses laid around it. The kitchen has moved onto the balcony, where hibachis roast meat so spicy my nose itches. Like new puppies, the children have returned, bundled in blankets, some asleep on my lap. Men sit on plastic lawn chairs in the hallway, drinking tea and reading newspapers while teenage boys stand in the doorway shyly watching me. Binta stands in the center of the room, her wide face beaded with sweat as she waves her plump arms, shouting orders to everyone all at once. Windows opened to the street below, sirens gone, market stalls bustling, rap music filling the apartment.

When the Jabaran-Kat arrives, I am nervous, afraid to even look at him. Perhaps he knows this, for he never speaks to me, and disappears after a long conversation with Binta, spoken in low and soothing tones. Binta comes and explains to me all the things we will do: a meal, with special foods; bowls of water outside the door as offerings; and the women will sing all night. But she says the most important thing tonight is that the Jabaran-Kat has given me a gift, so that I will not forget my Panamanian friends, but remember them even more so than when they were alive.

Never once do I consider leaving and going back to my lonely pied-a terre: I know I am in the place I need to be. The colors, laughter, and spiritedness here reminds me of my friends I lost in the flood, of their connection to one another and to me. Tonight, there are no strangers, only friends.

~

The meal is served to the men in the hallway first, individual dishes scooped up, piled high on a single communal dish. Once the men are done, dozens of women file into the apartment, until they fill all of the mattresses on the floor, propping up sleeping children along the walls or tying them to their backs with long strips of cloth. Chipped floral platters are placed in the center of the green mat on the floor, lit by a single bare fluorescent bulb, which casts an unappetizing purplish glow on the meal of rice mixed with meat.  

Binta sits near me, full of advice. “Eat with your right hand, never your left. Use only three fingers to scoop up the food into your hand. Only eat the food nearest to you. Do not touch the mat with your feet. Do not point your feet towards anyone.”

Everyone waits for me to eat first, but there are no forks, spoons, or plates, and I wonder if they have been forgotten. Soon I figure out cutlery isn’t coming. I pretend to take a few bites, and the platters are quickly emptied by expert hands, rings glinting, red polished fingers grasping bones and meat. Laughing gaily, telling jokes, clapping hands, shouting louder and louder across the room. Many hours later, when toasts are being made with swigs from jars of thick soured yogurt, I discover the gaiety they have been showing is false. They believe their happiness will encourage the dead to go their next destination.

As women begin to sing and clean up after the meal, Binta takes me out into the hall, showing me shallow pans of water lined up at the door. “We put these here when someone dies suddenly in the night. It keeps them from entering the house. For you, the Jabaran-Kat did not know what was best. So he put them here, to protect you.”

I stare at the tin pans of water, not understanding fully yet overcome at the trouble that they have gone to insure my peace of mind and the peace of a people they don’t even know halfway around the world.

“You all have done so much, Binta. I don’t even know you.” My lips feels swollen and thick as I stumble over the words.

 Binta leans down to straighten a pan, her eyes tearing. “I know you, Sister. You open yourself to people. They open to you. Come. It is time for the gift Jabaran-Kat brought for you.”

 

~

As we turn away from the hallway, there is a sharp bitter taste on my tongue matched with a heady perfume clinging thick in mid-air. Oranges and roses again. Binta and I walk through the cloud of scent, back into the center of the crowd of singing women, their babies gurgling wisdom wide eyed, towards a single mattress set up high on wooden crates.

I sit, Binta beside me, guiding me. Two glasses are poured of mango juice, each mixed with brown powder. I drink the first quickly, spilling it on my face and blouse. Sweet, raw, the bark of a tree. The second glass is harder to finish, the green room now mixing with smells of the jungle: sharp and distracting, a fast moving kaleidoscope of palms, cherry pink satin,  the smear of batik.

 

“Sister, finish it all so you will not forget.” Binta’s voice slides in, slow motion.

 

I drink it all, and fall down to the ground, listening to the cicadas playing their rainforest sonata. 

 

The room, damp, steamy, seeming to perspire, rivulets of sweat running down the walls, over my legs, dripping onto the floor. Crowding around me, the women’s patterned dresses moving like book pages quickly turned. Their voices singing louder and louder, lifting me high, out the window, across a blue-black sea, deep into the jungle of Panama, to my friends who run to greet me. They tell me I smell of oranges and roses. I tell them tonight, we are together forever.

 

Dedicated to Binta.

Amy Gigi Alexander

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The Garden of Forgetting

A story from my growing collection of tales from my recent Moroccan journey, this one : Marrakesh and the Jardin Majorelle.

This piece combines all the genres I have been writing in lately: a bit of travel, a bit of memoir, truth blended with fiction, all mixed with the feeling of being distinctly in-between myself and my past selves.  Morocco did that to my words. And people who go there come back--if they come back at all-- sometimes changed, comfortable inhabiting the place in-between.

~

 First the story. I'll follow it with a bit of history. Enjoy!

~

To enter the famous Jardin Majorelle in Marrakesh is to walk into a parted sea of bright cobalt and goldenrod on a raft of red. Chest expanded, back arched, arms extended into miniature forests of bamboo, cactus, and palm.

Each door acts as a holy gate, each archway a love song from Solomon, lifting me into Eden.

Everything here is designed to please, to cast me in my temporary new roles as both artist and muse. Windows reflect my beauty, fountains comment on my grace, benches invite me to pause and absorb Paradise.

Here I am, a cactus flower blooming its hot pink bloom for the first time in thirty years. Here I am, a sudden flash of orange scales in a koi pond, glinting. Here I am, a warbler-bird, casting my song from my nest of palm. Here I am, the leaves of bamboo, sharp-edged and green. Here I am, ivory filigree surrounding this window colored like the sun, perfect, symmetrical, smooth.

This garden does not care who I am outside of its walls. And once I enter it, I find myself lost, without directions back to who I just was.

This is the garden of forgetting.

~

I come from a long line of people who forget. We take to forgetting as if it is our native tongue, an easy language.

Forgetting is taught early in my family, its importance vital to the survival of the bloodline. Taught to us while crawling, crying, sleeping, dreaming, until memories are slips of paper, folded into pockets, forgotten. Tossed in the wash. Wet. Blurred. By the time we are seven or eight, we have forgotten our history, the hurt that we have done to one another.

On my mother's side, there are memories, all around forgetting: My grandmother came to the United States from Italy after World War two. She forgot her family, left them behind. She forgot what she'd done for a living in Italy: in some stories she danced on tables, in others she was a milliner. She forgot who she'd loved, my mother's father, and that he was married to someone else. She forgot the war, being shot, earrings pulled out of her ears by the Nazis. She wore her hair just curled over the sides of her face, slit-ears hidden. My real grandfather I never knew. He forgot my mother and went back to his family after the war. I have only a single story about him from my mother: she met him and he gave her a bicycle. Or maybe that story is one I have imagined, just to be able to tell a story about him.

The only man I ever knew that took the title, grandfather, happily, was married to my grandmother late in life. Knowing my bloodline's dislike of remembering, he kept all of his memories locked in a trunk in the basement, and once, when I was a young girl, he opened the trunk in front of me. He cried as his hands shook, unfolding an American flag, his yellowed fingers opening a manila envelope of photographs of people, smiling and fuzzy.

My mother was a rebel, tall, a baton twirler, big boned and full lipped. She left home as soon as she could, anything to get out, to get away. My grandmother's idea of home was part shrine to my mother and part shrine to the lies my grandmother told about who she was before America. It was place of false memories, new and old, which pressed my mother through a sieve and left its mesh-marks on her body. She would have run from her mother if she could have, but she did what women did of her era to escape. She married.

My father's parents: I recall only names, a memory of ambrosia salad in the summer, the smell of cigarette smoke. My father? He was tall, with dark hair and green eyes. Or were they blue? To tell the truth I have only a single picture of him, and that is the image I think of when I try to describe him. He's standing near a lake, wearing blue jeans and a green shirt with sleeves that are too short for his long arms. Other than that photo, what can I say about him? I have the stories I can tell you that were told to me, or I could tell you the truth. Or I could tell you a mixture of both.

He was kind. He secretly loved Moonpies, and would buy them at gas stations. His pockets always crunched with candy wrappers. He smelled of pipe smoke, apple wood. His feet were long and flat, perfect to stand on and be carried as he walked long strides. He tried.

He was cruel. He forced. Thinking of him hurts. Sharp.

~

I'm different than the rest of my family.

Sometimes I forget, yes. But most of the time, I remember.

~

Standing on the red painted walkway of Jardin Majorelle, I am relieved to be standing in a garden which has the fullness and presence of a person, but unlike people, it asks nothing of me. No questions about my family life, my parents, my sister, my brother, where I grew up. No one wants to know if it is hard to cut your family off, if it hurts, if it's lonely. No one wondering what I do on Christmas, no overly polite invitations given for Thanksgiving dinner. No comments, no opinions. No questions about family love: if I miss it, if I know what it is, if I'll ever have it. No scripted replies, no bright smiles, no wonderment over Norman Rockwellian family reunions.

Here I am able to forget.

Jardin Majorelle is so saturated in blue that the color slides over me. Blue that pours over my feet, moves up my legs, between my thighs, over my too wide hips. Blue that circles my breasts, rubs into my shoulders, kisses my elbows, wraps around my wrists. Blue that covers my head, drips into my ears, trickles down my neck. Blue. Majorelle blue.

Now gold. Gold the color of the sand in the Sahara. Gold, ancient, dignified: the dust of Marrakesh, powdered and rimming my nostrils. Metallic.

My head feels thick, crowded.

Moving slow motion, my feet stumble past orange flower pots and tree orchids dangling, through palm frond fingers, stopping under a lime green archway covered in a magenta crushed velvet mantle of bougainvillea.

Under the blooms, I find myself packed next to people, waiting for something: they wait in designer scarves, striped linen suits with bow ties, too-short shorts, floral dresses thin like rice paper. Here are people wishing to be looked at, wishing to be caught, wishing it so badly they stand in line to take photos in front of perfect backdrops. Cameras everywhere, all photographing one another in front of same cactus, the same doorway, the same purple leaved plant, its leaves glowing black against a peeling golden pot. I get in line too. My camera moves without my asking, taking the same photographs.

~

I walk through a bamboo grove, three stories tall. The bamboo is etched with hasty graffiti, abbreviated manifestos of love and self, covered by a liquid green canopy.

Alain loves Michel.

Princessa, Madrid.

Sophie and Petre.

I was here. Maxie.

J.P.  Yves. Amour.

I could sit on a teal bench the color of Monet's lily pond, watch the day slip by, just breathe. I could enjoy forgetting. Forgetting me. Forgetting you. Forgetting them. Free.

Instead I go in search of a knife.

Where to find a knife? The café.

I'm here with a friend. She's in the museum. Act quickly.

The outdoor café steams. Full of people, sweating in the heat, drinking wine and eating too-hot tagines, carrots and couscous glowing orange. I step in.

A family is just leaving, meal half eaten, tossed across the table like a messy still life. Bread. Pottery. Tangerines. A wilted green. Meat and crepe, gristle and sugar. No knife.

It's then I remember: my pocketknife in my backpack, red handled, reliable, small.

~

I walk out of the café, circling around the garden, past the fountain, through a circle of orange lilies, into the bamboo grove.

Is anyone watching?

I reach for my pocketknife. Don't fumble, I tell myself. I don't even know what I'm going to carve on this bamboo stalk. Then it comes to me:

Thank you. Gigi.

The bamboo is tough and stringy, my scratches barely readable. But it's there.

That's all I have to offer this place, my thanks for the gift of forgetting.

Just for a little while, lighter.

Amy Gigi Alexander

~

A Bit of History on the Jardin Majorelle:

Painter Jacque Majorelle arrived in Morocco from France in 1919, attracted by both the idea of Africa and the climate, which was supposed to be good for his fragile health. But Majorelle also had a very domineering father, and he wanted to live a life free of his influence, to unremember, to find solace. He found it in the Atlas mountains and the filtered yet bright painterly light of Morocco.

The garden was borne out of this first taste of forgetting, leading him to create an environment which excluded his past. Majorelle bought the property over time, eventually expanding it to more than three acres, employing eight gardeners and several architects, while he curated it with an almost obsessional attention to Moorish and Berber design. Deciding he was not just an artist, he began to call himself not a gardener, but a gardenist.

Majorelle's garden was his palette, and it was within it's tall walls that he painted the majority of his life's work, guided by an astute sense of order and color. Every palm frond, every stalk, every pot had his handprint on it. The garden features in much of his artwork, a fastidious yet wild backdrop.

 An artist heavily influenced by Orientalist movement and Art Nouveau, his art and garden were environments which allowed him to push the boundaries of exoticism to the extreme. We can look at his some of his portrayals of African culture and identity much differently now, but keep in mind: he was a by-product of his time: a man of (comparative) privilege in an era of rampant colonialism.

~

Gardeners uniformed in blue meticulously raked gravel with a Zen precision and trimmed bamboo while Majorelle's models posed on the grounds for his paintings, sometimes clad only in a belt of yellow bananas:

                                        Painting by Jacque Majorelle

                                        Painting by Jacque Majorelle

              Painting by Jacque Majorelle

              Painting by Jacque Majorelle

Or paired together, on blankets against the famous wall of Majorelle Blue:

                           Painting by Jacque Majorelle

                           Painting by Jacque Majorelle

But one senses a shift from the relaxed informality some years later: the garden changes, and becomes something more visceral, larger than Majorelle's vision. A live and reaching animal:

                   Painting by Jacque Majorelle

                   Painting by Jacque Majorelle

The duality of the financial strain to keep up the garden and his dream to share his inner sanctum as his greatest work of art led to Majorelle to open part of the site to the public, in 1947.  Now the garden becomes wild and unruly in his paintings, no longer solely his retreat:

 Painting by Jacque Majorelle

 Painting by Jacque Majorelle

Soon Majorelle was forced to sell parts of the site to pay off debts, and after a tragic car accident in his beloved Atlas mountains which led to the amputation of one his legs, he abandoned his garden and returned to France. He died alone shortly thereafter.

~

The garden, as it is now, has become a shrine to Yves Saint Laurent, a fashion designer who saved the site from destruction by purchasing it with his partner, Pierre Berge, in the late 1980's. Saint Laurent had lived in Marrakesh in his boyhood, and had been attracted back into it's waiting arms in the 1960's by the free expat lifestyle and the visual smorgasbord that defines the city which is very French and very Moroccan at the same time. He and Berge lived in a villa near Jardin Majorelle before purchasing the estate.

Saint Laurent and Berge took the crumbling garden and turned it into an escape for Saint Laurent, who was, by that time, suffering from mental problems, drug addiction, and a distinct dislike of social interaction. But the couple remained true to Majorelle's original vision, which is what you see today:

Saint Laurent retired from the world of fashion and became something of a recluse, hiding within the walls of Jardin Majorelle from a world that possibly expected too much. He died there in 2002 of brain cancer, and his ashes are spread in one part of the site. The garden has become a place of pilgrimage to visit his memorial under the palms.

A garden of forgetting that chooses to remember.

Amy Gigi Alexander

(Yes, leave a comment! There's a new comment feature to make it super easy. Just look below for the word "comment" and click. Don't see it? Click on the title of the piece above and then it will appear below. And don't forget a "like" or a "share. Thank you!) All images of Jacque Majorelle/paintings belong to the estate of Jardin Majorelle.

Want to see more of Jardin Majorelle? Of Morocco? Here's a slideshow: Moroccan Sojourn.

Finding Courage: My #YesAllWomen

In the past few weeks many things happened which influenced my state of mind. Maya Angelou died, and popular media exploded with stories and quotes from her life. The New York Times ran an article about the dangers women face when they travel: an article that spoke a truth that is rarely spoken. A misogynistic, mentally unwell man went on a shooting spree in California. People responded to the shooting with #YesAllWomen: a platform of discussion and intention around the treatment of women worldwide, calling for change.

I felt depressed at Maya Angelou's death. I never met her, I only read her books. But I was disappointed that I would not meet her, that her living voice was gone. Most of all, I was overwhelmed by the challenge of how to pay homage to such a woman. A woman who was so real, so true, so honest she deserved the same back from me, from the world...not just a list of top ten quotes. I thought I should share something here which required the same honesty I had learned from her. A thank you in the form of a story deep and wide.

The New York Times article on the world of difference women face traveling compared to men made me think about how I always read essays and blogs which are encouraging women to travel, but that don't really spell out: here is what you will face when you are somewhere else. How we don't really talk about those dark things, because we don't want to live fearfully, we want to go.

My response to the misogynistic rants of the shooter were twofold: first, I was surprised at my acceptance of it, that I was not outraged, only saddened, for these kinds of events and points of view have become almost expected. It frightened me that I did not find it unusual, but instead fell into a state of uneasy grief. But then quite quickly there was a turnaround within me and within the outside world: #YesAllWomen, a movement of women's voices sharing stories and calling for an end to the misogyny which runs rampant in our culture filled my social media feeds with opinions, essays, calls to action.

Somehow these four events blended, and I found myself writing a personal response to them, a collective one, a little essay that honors Angelou with truth and talks about travel as a way to bridge the gap between how I'm treated because I am a woman and how I respond to that challenge.

Here it is.

~

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Women often ask me if I'm afraid of getting raped when I travel solo. The answer is yes. I am. I am terrified of being raped.

But it's a more complicated answer than simply yes. I was raped in my late twenties by a man I barely knew. He broke into my apartment, raped and tortured me for days: I barely survived it. The rape was brutal, leaving me severely beaten and in shock. Afterwards, people, even those very close to me, asked me what I had been wearing, or what I done to encourage him. I had done nothing at all, but this seemed to make little difference in the minds of people.

Afterwards I shut down almost entirely: I stopped eating, I spent my days in bed sleeping, I watched as my body seemed to fall apart, disintegrate. Suffering from post traumatic stress syndrome, I hallucinated my rapist constantly, lived in a state of half aliveness, just breathing.

The house where I was staying had a long bookcase in the hallway, and one day, wandering down the hall, I chose a book with a bright yellow cover. It was Maya Angelou's I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings. I don't remember why I chose it, but I think it may have been a simple reason: on the cover was a bird in cage, and I felt like that bird.

I took it back to bed and read it over and over: here was someone who understood. Understood raw, numb, closed. Understood that I was afraid to leave the house. Understood silence, chatter, madness.

Angelou had written more than a book: she had come to life, and now she sat on the edge of my bed, stroking my hair, and I did not mind she was there.

Slowly, over months, I began to feel better: I began showering, I cut my hair, I changed the bed sheets, I ate, I dreamed, and finally one day I left that house, and went out into the world again. I was still closed, still terrified, still hurting, but I knew I had to become someone more than I had been being.

I can be changed by what happens to me, but I refuse to be reduced by it.
— Maya Angelou

It's been more than sixteen years now, since that rape. I never talk about it, although I write about it. Sometimes people treat me differently when they find out I've been raped: they don't know what to say, or they use it against me. A few men have treated me like I was dirty or tainted, or too troublesome to have a relationship with. Some people have told me I was being a victim when I have talked about it, other people have broken down in front of me and told me their stories of being raped. Some people feel sorry for me, other people get very uncomfortable. Talking about it often feels like an exercise in powerlessness: everyone has an opinion about it and strangely there does not often seem to be room for my own. But here I can share my opinion, and it is this: it was the worst thing that ever happened to me, and I wish sincerely that it had not happened at all. But since it did, I had to use it the best way that I could, I had to find something good to come out of it, otherwise I think I would have never left that bed, and just slowly starved to death.

Stepping onto a brand new path is difficult, but not more difficult than remaining in a situation, which is not nurturing to the whole woman.
— Maya Angelou

It made me tougher. It forced me to think harder about who I was as a woman and what I wanted as a woman. My womanhood, my personhood, my life. It made me fight for myself in a way that reached deep. I had to do it, for there was no one else to do it for me. It meant a daily practice of overcoming for years: nightmares, recoiling from touch, folded. Slowly it moved from overcoming into flying: soaring high above my old self, above the rape, above what society said I was. It made me draw on a courage that I had not known I had.

Having courage doesn’t mean we are unafraid. Having courage means we face our fears.
— Maya Angelou

~

Traveling solo as a woman is an act of independence: it says, I can be here, despite whatever you may think. I am free to go where I want to go and experience more than what you may believe I should. One reason I prefer to travel alone is that it is a courage-building exercise: it is not for the faint-hearted, it is for the Joan of Arcs, the Warrior-goddesses, the Valkyries. It took me a long time to get to the place that I actually enjoyed it. When I first started intensively traveling solo, I was so afraid I could hardly sleep, scarcely able to enjoy the travel itself. But I've experienced firsthand how traveling can make me whole, and it is through travel that I found myself again.

Even though I travel alone much more comfortably now than I did ten years ago, I still have fear. I still have doubt. I still ache for the ease of a tour, a perfectly planned vacation with a guide, no decisions, minimal risk. That ache is just a small ache, however. An impression, fading. For I am well aware that to have the kind of richly varied and adventurous experiences I seek, I need to travel alone. For its only in traveling alone that a strange partnership is forged within me: a balance of vulnerability and power.

It's not all roses traveling alone. I've had my share--perhaps more--of danger, of close calls, of almosts.

The time I was locked in a Honduran border patrol office and the official took off his clothes, telling me that he was going to rape me. The time I was on a crowded Calcuttan street and a group of men groped me. The time a Columbian taxi driver refused to let me out of his cab and drove me around for hours, talking dirty to me. The time I discovered my hotel room in Bangladesh was full of peepholes and I had been being watched for months. The time an Englishman, the husband of a dear friend, offered to take me on a day tour of London and instead took me to a hotel, and I when I refused to go in with him, he held my wrists so tight he bruised them. The time in Spain, along the remote trail of the Camino, that a man forced himself on me, trying to kiss me, holding my arms down as two other men laughed. The time in Bihar that I couldn't stand being cooped up anymore in the compound with the women, so I went on a walk and found myself surrounded by a crowd of angry men who wanted to teach me a lesson since I had wandered out without a headscarf. So many more stories I have:countless leers, jeers, stares, fondles, lingering touches I had not asked for.

When these things have happened to me, I have done whatever I needed to do to escape. Smiled. Prayed. Yelled. Pushed. Fought. When it was possible, I have tried to search for the humanity in each man, and in doing so, helped him to see mine. When I saw that the Honduran border patrol officer was actually going to rape me, I knelt on the ground in front of him and prayed the rosary in Spanish. When the Columbian taxi driver would not let me out of his cab, I asked to see pictures of his children, encouraged him to tell me his life story. Other times, I have left the scene running so fast I barely touched earth, shaking and angry, wondering if I should go home and stop going places. Sometimes I have locked myself in my hotel room for days, too afraid to go out. But when the hurt passes, I open the door and go out again, into the city, the village. I am a fighter, I am doing battle. I refuse to miss out on what is extraordinary, what is beautiful, what is important, simply because in that place, there will be a handful of men there that have a different idea of who I am and what my identity is as a woman.

There have been so many articles written about what to do when you prepare for solo travel as a woman. How to dress, how to walk, how to wear your hair, how to ask for directions, how to take a train. Where to sit, where to eat, where to go and not go. I'm not going to write any of that here. It's obvious to me that when I travel somewhere else, I'm going somewhere else. Therefore there are always a plethora of customs and beliefs which must be paid attention to, rules to break and rules to follow. I don't like some of rules in other places, but I feel like I'm changing things for the better, for women everywhere, just by going.

Hoping for the best, prepared for the worst, and unsurprised by anything in-between.
— Maya Angelou

Traveling solo can be a lot of different things. But it's not limited to fears and challenges. It's also this wonderful high, this sublime conversation with yourself: you are actually here, doing this, alone. This is, for me, the greatest achievement of my life: I can get on plane and go anywhere on Earth and have a marvelous time. Every time I do it, I'm terrified. Yet slowly the fear takes leave of me and I begin to take on the colors and patterns of a new place. I'm not limited by my fear of rape, of having been raped, of wondering if it will happen again and what I will do if it does. I'm trying to encourage other women to just go, to not plan, to take charge of their own experience of the world. I'm calling the world out, I'm calling that rapist out, I'm calling men out, I'm calling women out. I'm saying, I am here.

This is my tribute to Maya Angelou, a truth-teller, a sooth-sayer, a woman whose words got me out of bed and out the door into the world.

This is my answer to all the questions I get about traveling solo as a woman.

This is my #YesAllWomen.

Amy Gigi Alexander

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The Voice of Volubilis

Volubilis. An ancient Roman site, spread out over a small valley in the center of Morocco that I was blessed to visit in March. This story is the first in a series on my Morocco adventures. Enjoy! ~AGA

Volubilis stretches its limbs and body over rocks and peach pit earth, a fading giant, with crevices of secrets. Grand slabs of quarried blue limestone, still thick with thumbprints, slide out in all directions, drawing my eyes and body into it, a time tunnel framed by blue sky and layers of wildflowers. The gate to the city stands solemn and heavy, as though the Romans who built this place wanted me to bow down upon entrance, weighted by the gods and kings that went before me.

I know little of Roman history, know little of the glory this place, know little of its failure. I am vulnerable to it, and I forget that I should be cautious. Cautious enough to listen to the wind, feel the sun, touch the stones. Cautious enough to pay attention to the stories that have been waiting for me here for more than a thousand years. Just like all grand ancient places, this place was the site of famines, wars, campaigns, opulence, orgies, prayer, shrines, art, poverty. Yet it is so succinctly pristine, in such elegant crumbling decay, that I cannot help myself: my eyes feast upon the scene.

The city is built within a valley, a an ancient nest on grass so green it looks fake, like AstroTurf set out in huge rolls that has been allowed to grow. In between hills are Tuscan-like orchards of olive trees and citrus, trailed by lean lines of grapes, twisting around stakes of apricot wood.

Listen.

Here is the shuffle of the legs of a beetle. Now breathe as the wind rustles through that drift of yellow mustard flowering. Wait, there is sound of laughter by the olive press, just there.. laughter and song, a girl singing.

Listen.

The constant sound of stone chiseled and chipped. Here is the sound of the plow, scraping the earth. A wooden bowl beats a drumming sound.

Lean in.

No, closer.

There is the sound of water being poured into a tiled tub. Calendula blossoms being crushed with mint. The slap of wet rags being laid out to dry.

I open my eyes, and the sounds are gone. There are only ruins.

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I am suddenly surrounded by an enormous group of  tourists, wearing equally enormous sunhats and face masks, with rhinestone Hello Kitty sweatshirts and Gucci sunglasses. A few have latched onto a guide, eagerly buying badly printed postcards, Technicolor and blurred. Another group of tourists is coming towards us: women wearing black see through slip dresses over jean shorts and high heels with band aid colored pantyhose, their children on leashes attached to teddy bear backpacks.

Standing in the center of the main boulevard, I remain still, constant, faithful. The tourists are like a school of fish in ancient waters, moving to the right or the left, one body. I feel their scales as they swim past. A ripple of water.

I close my eyes.

Listen.

A woman's voice, tight and shrill. "This is the main road to the place, but it doesn't go anywhere."

The guide speaks over her shrillness, his liquid voice rapidly stretching taut, almost breaking, like glue not quite dry. Ironically commanding. "Volubilis is named for the Berber word for Oleander, Oualili. You will now see all the Oleanders on the site."

The woman's voice, again, this time a sharp whine over a murmur of Japanese giggles and the sound of photos taken. Click. Click. Click. "Oleanders are poisonous. If I'd known there were so many around here, I wouldn't have brought the kids. Don't touch anything."

They walk past, voices fading, at last gone.

I open my eyes and walk past the grand mosaics, past the columns ailing and broken, into the drifts of pink Gaura flowers which hide an acre of broken olive presses, the workers' quarters.

I sit on broken chunk of limestone, and I realize it's not a random piece of stone but a bench, warmed by the sun, crawling with ants. Ants that are the ancestors of ants that were here in the 3rd century. Ants that were here when these hills were planted with Roman olive groves, and pressed in the press I now rest my feet on.

How different Volubilis is when one listens to it, notices it, breathes it in and out. Stops moving, stops looking, starts seeing, starts hearing.

Who is the voice of Volubilis?

Not me. Not that tourist in that enormous sunhat. Not that child littering candy wrappers, nor that man peeing in the corner, against that stone wall. No.

Nor is the voice of Volubilis in these arches, these columns, these structures to a greatness which was only temporary. I thought that it was those things when I arrived here, because that is what my culture still strives for: arches, columns, temporary greatness.

The real voice of Volubilis is a collective one: the lives lived in the past and the hum of life that is now being led.

Insects and flowers mixing with ancient song, forever.

Listen.

Amy Gigi Alexander

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Crossing Over Into Fiction

This past week has been a series of miracles for me in my writing life. I literally opened my email box every single day to read that pieces of mine had been accepted. In fact, every single thing I have ever submitted was accepted. I almost became hysterical Friday evening when driving home from work on the freeway: the impact of all this good news was overwhelming. I had to pull over at a gas station and wait until the haze in my mind cleared. I am still finding it difficult to concentrate!

I am not sure why my stories were accepted. I can only say that they were liked by whomever made the final decision, and for that I am grateful.

I have been without words to describe how all of this feels. To have gone from never sharing a sentence with a soul eight months ago to beginning to identify myself as a writer publicly..to this..it's almost too much to take in.

But I have been very encouraged by this past week to widen my writing scope. I have been blessed to have conversations with both writers and editors in several genres, and because of these illuminating conversations I have decided to begin to write fiction.

I will still write stories that are creative non fiction, just like the ones you've been reading here (and beginning soon, in other places!). Tales of place are my strong love, especially when intertwined with memoir--but I think you will find place has an equal importance in my future fiction. (And of course, I will still be writing travel stories for this website and for submission elsewhere.)

My two current book projects are travelogue/memoirs: the first, a tale of regret and renewal (as well as a bit of a nervous breakdown!) while living with an indigenous tribe in Panama. The second, a love story about falling in love with a boy in Calcutta while working with the sisters of Mother Teresa.  You'll find a "Books" page on the website this week  which will tell you about the upcoming books!

But at the same time, I will be trying my hand at short fiction stories and outlining a larger fiction book project which I have been thinking about for awhile. It will dance through some of the exotic locales I have lived in and so those of you who have enjoyed my adventures will find plenty!

Here on the website you will continue to find stories about  real places and people, and sprinkled here and there you will begin to find fiction short stories as well.

Everything, interwoven.

The past eight months have been very difficult for me, despite the praise and the chances to publish my work. Sometimes the harshness of adhering to a disciplined writing life and the devotion that it has required has meant great loneliness and rapid change. Yet at the same time, the stories I have been writing have nurtured me and cared for me as no person could.

When I began to call myself a writer, I knew that my life would be different. But I didn't know any other writers and I had no one to ask what I should expect. Perhaps this was a good thing, for it made each writer I have met recently a fascinating creature, both weather beaten and full of glory. A few writers were brave enough to tell me that my life was about to crumble, but that it would rise up again. They were right: it completely fell apart. But it then immediately grew into a green valley, a city, a metropolis, until my life was so large that now I find myself forever lost in it. It's not unpleasant. It's just vast.

I used to fit writing into tiny spaces, moments. Now I think about it all the time, and I rush home each day to meet my words with kisses. This is a love affair of the truest kind, one that has taught me more about self love and reflection than I could have imagined.

I took a lot of risks in the last eight months. This past week has shown me that I need to continue to make them. I thank all the people who have helped me thus far. I hope if I keep working very hard, the future will continue to be bright.

Amy Gigi Alexander

(Leave a "like" on the Facebook tab, a comment, or share. I love it when you "like" a post. Thank you and bless you for being on this journey with me.)

The Absence of One Mother Gives Many

Some years ago, I took a trip around the world,

and when I came back, I cut off my mother.

Even now, it's hard to say to people.

Cut off. Mother.

Not because of the words, but of how people hear it.

She was not a bad mother, nor a bad person. Truthfully she did her best and I always understood that. And perhaps for other people that best would have been enough, but for me it fell flat. For while she did love, she was somehow absent. Not just when I was small and needed her protection the most, but when I was older, and needed a mentor and a friend.

There was a moment, somewhere along my journey, that I knew I would not see her again.

~

Standing in a crowded market in the highlands of India, on the edge of Bhutan. For months, each day I had I visited the same market-man and his mish-mash stall leaning into the dust and gutter. Day old produce stuffed in cracked plastic pails. Aluminum forks and pots mixed with lumpy greenish tangerines. Spices wrapped in newspaper tied with blue plastic string. He squatted like a king, surrounded by streaks of red betel nut juice and half empty biscuit wrappers, drinking chai from clay cups.

His wife, blurred. Moving, dusting, yellow sari flecked with silver threads in soft focus.

One day, as I knelt among the kitchen ware and spices, I turned to see his wife beside me. She pressed a cake with marigold petals into my hands. Warm, saffron scented, marigold blooms staining my palms. And for the first time, I noticed  the market-man's wife. Hair streaked with silver. Eyes milky. Nails uneven. Brittle. Bitten.

"She knows your sorrow, so she gives you this. For luck. Blessing." Her husband came and stood near me. His hands brushed crumbs from his hennaed beard, his eyes searching mine. His wife, bent, blurring again, as she swept the ground with a broom of homemade branches. Each time her wrist flicked, a question. Each time the dust billowed, another question. I knew what she was asking.

I knew what he meant, too: my sorrow. I knew what it was. I just didn't know that it showed, because I worked so hard to show joy. In fact I had forced myself to go half way around the world to escape my sorrow, and I was surprised that it had followed me to this remote place.

I knew then I could not escape it, not simply by traveling.

To go was not enough.

Letting go would be.

In that moment, I felt closer to my market man and his wife than I felt to my own parents. And over the next month, that woman cared for me, and I cared for her. We sat together under the jade green eaves of her crumbling house, weaving brooms from sticks, without talking, but each knowing. Her loss: the death of her children. My loss: the absence of my mother. There were no more questions to be asked. She rocked as she wove the branches together, rocked children that were long since gone. I rocked against her and as our backs slid against one another, I cried tearlessly.

~

When I came home some years later, my heart had already said goodbye. The words came easily. There was no agony in deciding. Goodbye opened my heart to love, to love of myself, to loving others. It was a moment when I had to decide what was true: my memories of abuse or the story I was encouraged to believe. I choose my own truth, and in doing so, empowered myself. But I couldn't keep her--or my family-- in my life to do that. It was difficult only in its finality. But the world went from red to gold in that instant. Red to gold.

My mother was artistic, funny, passionate. A traveler. An adventurer. A reader. She was very intelligent, diverse and opinionated. She was like a child, brilliant and shining in her own universe. And for these things I thank her, for I take after her and I am grateful for these gifts.

~

Today, I am grateful to all the mothers I have met, women who mothered me when I did not even know I needed mothering. Here are a few of them below:

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Mother's Day used to be such a confusing holiday for me, until I realized that I had so many mothers to thank and to celebrate. Without these women, I think I would be afraid. Afraid of being alone, afraid of living, afraid of giving. But they've each taught me that fear doesn't conquer. Love does.

Amy Gigi Alexander

(Leave a comment, a "like", or share just below. And Happy Mother's Day to each of you, who all mother someone, somewhere.)

Confessions of An Addict: My Writing Life

I write because if I don't, I'm like a meth addict without meth.

 I cannot sleep or think about other things except the story I'm thinking of. I become completely obsessed with the fact I'm not writing, and I can't think about anything else until I'm back at my desk with another 3,000 words written, story complete. Putting words to paper gives my life a symmetry that otherwise it does not have.

Therefore I pursue my madness gladly.

Good stories are like perfected algorithms: specific sets of words, stacked like waiting arrows. Shot into lines, paragraphs, pages, endings. As I write, I am an archer, aiming for the story I predict.

Sometimes my arrows fall, and I must collect them in the dark. That darkness can be terrifying, but it always leads me to where the story was supposed to go.

In order for a story to come to life, to wield this kind of power, it requires everything from me. But once the story is done, I am released, at least for few hours, an afternoon, a day.

This temporary liberation is not truly free, for my mind is already working on the next story, the next chapter, without my awareness. Wherever I am, it watches, taking notes, pulling everything apart. Simplifying until it has the details it will weave into the next story.

A single jade green grape resting on gravel.

The pink curl of a chicken's beak as it breathes it last breath.

An untied shoelace, orange and dragging.

A woman's left hand that moves like a jellyfish as she talks, exuberant.

And then my writing addiction calls me back: the words want me, and I want them. We are addicted to each other. A new story calls to us both.

~

Recently a writer/blogger friend of mine, Ellen Barone, of  asked me to take part in a Blog Hop about my writing life. The questions and answers are below the photo slideshow below.

Slideshow? Yes. As I was thinking about writing this post, I realized that a slideshow of doors from my recent Moroccan journey might give you the sense of what my writing process is like. There are a series of doors that my words must pass through to become joined together. Some of these doors open easily, others remain closed. But my words, my arrows, must shoot through the wood, the metal, the gate, the lock.

So, dear reader, a few doors for you:

I wanted to ask a few other writers/bloggers about their writing process, too. I've included their profiles and a link to their sites after my own answers. Since Ellen Barone is a memoir/travelogue writer/blogger(and so am I!), I've chosen three women writers who are not only writing in the same genres, but have written pieces that have moved me: Annemarie Dooling, Kimberly Lovato, and Mara Gorman.

~

What am I working on/writing?

The most important writing I do is for myself, and I always put that first. I keep two daily  journals, a habit that I started when I was about twelve years old. One journal is of the usual variety: meandering thoughts about experiences and ideas. The second journal is really where I pay attention to detail, and it is entirely made up of character sketches of people I meet or see on the street, café, and so forth.

For this website, I try to write one or two times a week: short and longer length pieces.

I'm working on a dozen + stories for publication, primarily about place, a handful of which are heavily memoir. I'm concentrating on writing for literary magazines and anthologies right now, but a few pieces are set aside for magazines and online sites.

My largest project is my book, which is about living in an indigenous isolated community of Ngabe people on a mountaintop in Northwestern Panama for many months. It is a story of finding my own strength and liberating myself from a difficult past. Guided by the Ngabe people and my own experiences, I both lose and recreate myself.

I also am working another book, which is about spending a year (and more!) in Calcutta, India, working at a Mother Teresa orphanage. It is about the experience of falling in love, both with a small boy whom I tried unsuccessfully to adopt, and my love affair with the city itself.

How does my work/writing differ from others in it's genre?

That's a difficult question, as I cross back and forth between two genres: I am both a memoirist and a travel writer. At the moment, I am mostly cast in the travel genre, but think this genre has it's share of difficulties, in that (some) people writing travel write "travel-lite" pieces: Top Five, etcetera. I do think that the genre is being restructured right now, and that there is a huge interest from all avenues--editors, writers, and readers--to focus more on long form pieces that are deeper and literary. Most of my writing heroes/heroines, whom I model my own work on, are travel writers of the old school variety, and so my goal is to write books and stories that are worthy of being included with their work. (A lofty goal, I know.)

My writing differs from other memoirists because I write about place and my relationship to place more than most people in that genre do. Places seem to inspire revelations in me: something about the experiences I have connects me to my own life story, and most of my stories come out of those epiphanies.

Within the genre of travel writing, what makes my writing different are a few things. First, I consider myself an explorer, not a traveler: I take risks--sometimes big ones--because I feel that I have to do that to understand a place. Second, I don't have much interest in doing the usual things everyone seems to do. I tend to choose places that are off the map and of little "tourist" interest--or if they are popular places to go, I work hard to see it differently. A good example of this in action is my  Oranges and Roses story, which is about Paris, but not the Paris you're thinking of. Third, I don't write stories to try to convince you to go anywhere. I write stories to find commonality, the universal, to help people see themselves in cultures other than their own, and I try to use my own vulnerability to do that. Last, women are still not where they should and could be in the travel genre--or in the world at large. This motivates me to write stories which inspire women to explore outside of the constraints that they find at home and abroad. To go where women don't go, do it solo, and enjoy it.

Why do I write the way I do?

I'm dyslexic, so my writing process comes from having that disability/ability. Being dyslexic pushes me to work harder and to come up with solutions to problems that most writers don't have. I usually visualize--almost in 3-D--most or all of a piece before I actually write it down. It comes out fully formed, a living thing, a copy of what I see.

Journaling has helped me a great deal with dyslexia, and it also has helped me to maintain a practice of paying attention to details, even when I'm doing something else. For example, (although most people don't realize it) I have terrible social anxiety, and so while I'm nervously chattering away, I'm also distracting myself by taking note of all the small things in the room. Details I make mental notes on often show up in my journals later the same day, and slither into the stories I write if they made a big impression.

How does my writing process work?

Sit at desk. Write. That's it.

But, seriously...

I divide my writing--and therefore, processes-- into two categories:

One, the writing I do to maintain my sanity and perspective (journals), which also have the delightful by-product of giving me lots of interesting fodder for future work. For this category, I write 3,000 words a day, or more, everyday. When I travel, I usually take notes on everything, up to twenty pages per day. At home, I use any in between moments to meet that word goal: my break time at work, mornings at a my favorite café, evenings after I get home. I don't force myself to do it, I just have the habit of doing it. It took time to turn it into a daily practice and I had to have patience with myself and let go of doing it "perfectly".

Two, the writing I do for others (website, stories for publication, book). For this second category, I write another 3,000 words per day, or more, everyday. When traveling, I will often complete a story every few days. While at home, I work on stories and my book every weekend, for two or three days in a row. I don't do rewrites: any edits I do are about making things cleaner, succinct, spared down. If I have questions about how to write something, I usually will ask one of my mentors for help or clarity. I take walking breaks often because walking clears my mind and leaves me free to write without distractions. (Note: I used to reward myself with jellybeans, but now I reward myself with a walk.)

If what I write moves me when I read it aloud, I'm done. Then it's time to write the next story.

 

Now it's time for the Blog Hop. Four women I admire, who combine travel with memoir and do it differently: raw, brash, sophisticated, lean, contemplative, bubbly, ironic. Each one has written a piece in the past few months that has opened a door in my own work. Thank you to each of them. Go, girl. (And readers, leave a "like" at the end of the post, because that makes us all feel wonderful!)

Visit each blog to read about how these women write.


Visit Ellen at her blog The Internal Traveler to read her piece on her writing life.

Consumer travel journalist, Ellen Barone, has been creating and curating intriguing, trustworthy and engaging travel inspiration and advice since 1998. With her signature blend of narrative/service journalism, editorial photography/digital technology, Ellen is a notable example of a photojournalist fusing blogging, multimedia storytelling and social media to engage with a diverse and active following. She's currently working on a travel/memoir book, and  her Travel Updates features blogs on every travel topic imaginable.


Annemarie can be found at Frill Seeker Diary and at the Huffington Post.

Who is Annemarie Dooling?

An Italian girl from Brooklyn, first college graduate of her family, orphaned at age 20. She's climbed a mountain in Africa to meet gorillas, toured World Cup stadiums overhead by helicopter and shared shoe recommendations with Nancy Pelosi.

 She's spoken to audiences at NYU, Internet Week, Book Expo America and TBEX, and contributed to Marie Claire, National Geographic’s Intelligent Travel Blog,  AOL Travel, Huffington Post and Time Out.


Visit Mara at her blog, The Mother of All Trips

Mara Gorman doesn’t know when or where the travel bug bit her: Italy when she was nine? Paris when she was 19? India when she was 29? But having children has done nothing to cure her of it. She’s been traveling with her two sons for over a decade, including a 13-month adventure across 6 states, 3 countries, and 2 continents with her toddler. An award-winning freelance writer, she chronicles her family’s adventures on her website and offers inspiration, stories, and advice in The Family Traveler's Handbook My favorite piece: What My Mother Taught Me About Travel.

 

 


Read Kimberly's piece on her writing life on her blog, Fluent in Fabulous

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Kimberly Lovato is a freelance writer and author specializing in lifestyle and travel, with a heaping spoonful of culinary curiosity on the side. Her articles and stories have appeared in various print and online media from around the world, including Travel and Leisure Magazine, American Way, and BBC Travel. Her love of France—the language, the culture, the people, and of course the food—led her to write a culinary travel book, Walnut Wine & Truffle Groves, about the people and the cuisine of the Dordogne region. The book has been honored with several awards including the coveted Lowell Thomas Award given by the Society of American Travel Writers.


Thanks for reading. Leave a comment, share, or give a "like" after scrolling down a bit more. You know how much I love it when you do!

Amy Gigi Alexander

Yes, I am a Strong, Beautiful Woman. Anywhere.

Here's what I've been thinking about today: how women often apologize for thinking that they are strong and/or beautiful, and how we don't often intertwine the two characteristics in an empowering way. Strength as Beauty. Beauty as Strength. I know many women who don't think they are beautiful at all, because they don't "match" the standards of beauty within their own culture. I know other women who spend a great time trying to meet those same standards, using unhealthy means, like eating disorders, over exercise, and cosmetic surgery. I've had my share of years trying to meet those standards.

Travel--exploring far away places, and often ending up in the middle of nowhere--changed that for me. There is a delightful dissociative feeling that comes with the freedom of not looking like anyone else where you happen to be. The trappings become less important , and suddenly it no longer matters that all the clothes that you so carefully packed and achingly deliberated over before leaving for weeks in the wilderness, the jungle, or the desert were lost en route and you only have what is on your back. At first, these sorts of things are painful but then the thought occurs: none of it really matters. You take secret joy in your new liberation, despite the inconveniences.

Somewhere between realizing your difference and taking on the challenges required to be in a fresh landscape, you stop thinking about beauty in the way it has always been presented to you. Beautiful is not a fat-free body. Beautiful is not a face without wrinkles. Beautiful instead becomes something new: the markers change. It is now defined by scars, by lines, by experience. Such experience spreads like a map unfolding over your body, boldly remolding it without asking.

There's something about owning your body, owning your face that is powerful. It takes guts. It takes moving against the prevailing tide of a society that thinks you shouldn't.

Such thoughts require strength. Not the sort of strength that is brutish. No. I mean the sort of strength that is caused only by ruling your mind, and giving yourself permission to see beauty as the stories only you can tell, the stories that are reflected in your physical perfections and imperfections.

My list of stories is long, but I will share a few. My hysterectomy scar. My skin that aged quickly, broken into spider web lines from spending a year in the oppressive pollution in Calcutta.  My broken ankles from skydiving. Someday I hope to have a body covered in stories from one end to the other, for with each story comes confidence, ability, and self discovery.

Those stories are what makes me beautiful. Those stories are my strength. Anywhere in the world I happen to be.

Amy Gigi Alexander

From Lost to Loved in Bihar

This is the story that just won gold in the Travelers' Tales Solas Awards ! First place in the category of Love and Romance.

The theme of "place" is key in my writing, and this story shows how a place can be more than just a landscape--it can become something that we have a relationship with. This story is about one of the greatest love affairs of my life coming to an end, and a new one beginning.

I am humbled to have won and excited to share this story with you here. Enjoy!

~

My voice is gone. It leaves me as I stand on a street corner, waiting for a moment to wade across a road awash in the Calcutta monsoon wilderness. The water is up to my knees, and I wonder how I will ever cross the road. I step down into the street, unsteady, and fall. Crying out, no sound comes out of my mouth. I stay in that same spot in the gutter with water gushing around me for what seems like hours, but it’s just minutes.

 I think about Calcutta, how it seduces you, swallows you, draws you into its dark murkiness when you aren’t looking. The city tempts you to move in closer, like the body of a woman in a sari soaked by the rains. An outline, a promise, an impression that you can almost remember but then you forget. Like a passionate lover, who attracts you by the mere fact it wants you. Stealthily it takes your body for its own, moving you this way and that as it pleases, until you are no longer a visitor, but dancing in some symbiotic union until it uses you up.

I feel two hands on my shoulders, lifting me from the water. The hands belong to Ahsan, a market man who has become my confidante and companion in this complex city. He usually sits in a nearby shop this time of day and the news of my fall has traveled quickly through the streets, leading him out into the torrent to find me. He tries to ask me questions, but I have no words, my voice has disappeared.  His face tenses as we cautiously wade to a dingy dank cave of a tea shop.  We awaken the rumpled owner, who offers us his dilapidated sleeping bench as a seat. Peering out through the glass, we watch as the city becomes clean, monsoon and city dancing their annual waltz. As chai is passed around in little china cups with broken handles and faded pink flowers, Ahsan calls for a doctor to examine me.

Ahsan takes a pinch of betel nut from his pocket, wraps it in a green leaf with a sprinkle of silvered seeds, and then places it in the side of his mouth as he sneaks a worried sidelong glance at me. He drinks chai and chews betel nut at the same time, spitting out blood red juice in magnificently straight and perfect lines against the wall. Our cracked plastic bench sighs with his weight as he shifts his body back and forth, pulling at loose threads on his soiled cuffs. I lean against him, drinking cup after cup of milky sweet chai, hoping the warmth will bring my voice back.

Ahsan began as my market man, and despite his lack of English and my lack of Hindi--as well as the different worlds we roam-- we quickly became close friends. We sit for hours at the tea shops, observing the crowds in silence. Like me, he takes note of the small things: a mended shoe, the way biscuits are arranged on a plate, a leg slightly longer than the other. Like me, he could not tell a lie, for his soft doughy face tells of his sins at a glance. I watch him as he bites his crimson stained lips in concentration, tying his broken umbrella delicately with string.

The doctor arrives and mysteriously examines my hands, mouth, and eyes, and after an abrupt unintelligible conversation with Ahsan , announces that I am suffering from nervous exhaustion.  Quietly I decide I am suffering from a love affair with a city that has behaved like an adulterous lover whom I cannot forgive.

I was resistant to Calcutta’s overtures at first. I arrived overwhelmed in a taxi in the middle of the night, and when I walked out into the steaming street, I could only see hastily built hovels, beggars and crumbling buildings covered in mold. The decay and decadence of a past era, mixed with a chaotic collection of people who seemed on the edge of starvation and disaster.

But surprisingly, the city drew me in, and I found myself taking notice of its literary and artistic spirit, its intimate city streets lit with neon strings of lights, its doorways adorned with marigold garlands. I began to see it as my city, and I thought if I ever left it, my soul would surely stay behind to inhabit such a perfect place.

I did not understand the city I loved. I did not understand that living there, as a longtime resident once told me, was a full time job in itself. To love such a city, to live in it meant to forget oneself. That protective personal space that surrounded me when I first arrived was gone one morning, and I became a feature of the landscape, unable to react to the painfully raw scenes which were everywhere one looked. The city required absolute loyalty and acceptance, but it did not offer that to me in return. It did not care that I was worn down and had nothing left to give.

I lost my voice because I loved the city and it did not love me back. My voice was lost in the tumult and trials of so many people, crushed together and demanding attention.

Ahsan decides I need a rest and that I should go to his village in Bihar. Voiceless, I do not protest, instead following him first to a taxi and then to my squalid hotel, whose saving grace has been the small vases of geraniums carefully placed in the entryway each morning. I change and pack without fuss, and we make our way to the train station, where we are greeted by his plump little wife. She is armed with plastic bags of gifts for his family: biscuits, milk sweets, and several mystifying bottles of skin bleaching cream. She fidgets, twisting the edge of her sari as Ahsan tells her she must stay behind with their small children. Sobbing softly, she covers her face with her sheer scarf, which glints silver as her eyes flash at me.

Rushing for the train, cramming our bodies into tight spaces in the jostling crowd, we push our way to our seats. Lurching forward, the train then stops and starts, as if changing its mind.  Slowly we move out of West Bengal and into the Wild West world of Jharkhand, and I wish I could stretch out on the sleeper car seat and rest. Then Ahsan tells me we may have to be awake all night, as the train is overbooked and people are sitting on our seats. In a grand effort to stay awake, we begin to drink cup after cup of watery chai, throwing the little clay cups out the window as the train moves along.

I’m confronting the grim reality of the bathroom as the train makes its first stop in Jharkhand, and upon returning to my seat find our compartment filled with soldiers, casually carrying AK-47s like businessmen holding briefcases. Fatigued and frightened, I don’t argue when Ahsan tells me to put sunglasses on because they are staring at me. They seem riveted by my every move, and as I pretend to read a very dull history book about India, I imagine they must wonder how I can read on a night train with dark shades. I try of thinking of calming things, like my grandmother’s chocolate cake, English gardens, the Dalai Lama. I recall how the Dalai Lama said that you have to look at situations from all angles so you can become more open. I do not feel open and I wish I was back in my city that doesn’t love me back.

I sit on the edge of my hard plastic seat for hours, unable to move, crippled by fear. But once the fear and I get accustomed to one another, I try to look at the scene from their point of view.

Encouraged, I take off my sunglasses, and pass out sour little tangerines and peanuts. This seems an infinitely better plan than being terrified, and soon the guns are stacked against the wall of the sleeper car, tangerine peels and peanut shells litter the floor, and I’ve given my terribly boring book on Indian history away. I fall asleep and dream of the used bookshop I love in Calcutta, and how after I go there each afternoon I gorge myself on fruit in the fruit market, where all the merchants know my name.

Still dreaming of mangoes and Bengal pears, I’m awakened by Ahsan. We’ve arrived in Bihar, and we step off the train into a foggy silver mist. We move slowly, like dull-witted  sleepwalkers, towards a line of tuk-tuk taxis, handing over our bags as we settle in on the narrow seat. We are soon jolted to alertness, bouncing along holding on tightly, for the dirt road is rutted and muddy.

Just as we are a few miles from the village, the driver stops quite suddenly and tells us we’ll have to walk the rest of the way. Bihar is in the middle of a civil war, and an insurgent group, the Maoists, have been causing problems, murdering innocent people in the area around his village. As the driver explains that he is too afraid to go on, Ahsan looks grim. Yet he smiles at me, a smile that says, “We are in danger but I don’t want you to think so.”

As we walk, I wonder how he knows where he is. It’s early morning, dark, and everything looks the same. The villages we walk through are shuttered and cold ghost towns, the buildings and road all the same orange brown color, like that of a robin’s breast. Yet Ahsan navigates through this landscape majestically, like a magician, crossing a rice field here, ducking down an alleyway there. At some point I realize he’s managed to avoid all the main roads, taking us on a secret route which avoids the Maoists entirely.

As we near his village, people come running: children, uncles, neighbors. The children chatter excitedly as they run barefoot, while the men hold back: elegant, reserved, patient. The ghost town villages we now pass come wondrously to life: wooden gates opened, doors unbolted, toddlers playing games in courtyards. People run out to greet us, carrying baby animals sweetly attired in cast off sweaters of hot pink and banana yellow.

We arrive at his village, which seems to be a single road, a single strip of narrow earth, with a scattering of mud brick houses on either side. We pass a small mosque, painted bright electric blue with a raspberry heart shaped door, slightly ajar. The road has been carefully swept, and as if to prepare for our arrival, rose petals litter the pathways. The mud brick houses resemble medieval miniature castles, several stories high, with little turrets and small windows. Each door we pass is a work of art, heavily carved and decorated with symbols painted saccharine yellow.

His mother, round like an apple, is waiting for us at the family compound. His sisters and their children dart around us like birds, touching me and then running away. Everyone stares at me as Ahsan, his eyes tearing and his voice cracking, tells them I lost my voice.  His mother takes my hand, leading me to a tiny mud brick room, where an empty rope cot sits waiting for me.

Sinking into the tiny cot, I try to fold my enormous body into proportions that will fit. Closing my eyes, I am gratefully ready to go into a long hibernation, when I realize I am not alone. Dozens of women from the community are entering the room from a tiny side door, some of them squeezing themselves onto my sagging cot like sardines, giggling at my enormous feet. An endless parade of colored saris swish past my eyes: jade green, eggplant purple, watermelon, cobalt, goldenrod.

Ahsan enters the room, telling me he doesn’t want me to be alone, but because he is man, he can’t stay here with me. Instead, the women of the village will look after me until I am well. I wish I could be alone, but it is fruitless to argue, I have no choice—and no voice.

The moment he steps out of the room the women surround my bed, touching my forehead, my hair, my legs, my feet. They turn my head this way and that way, pulling my hairpins out until my hair is loose. They look in my mouth, examine my teeth, and open my eyes wide, as if they are looking for my sorrow that has caused me to lose my voice. As they look intently for  their signs, their hair coverings fall and they begin to use all of my hairpins, carefully doling them out so each woman gets a few.

More rope cots are brought in to the little room, so that there is scarcely space to walk between them, and soon they are covered with lounging boisterous women. They’ve brought their babies and their young toddlers, whose mothers delight in them whether they scream or gurgle quietly.  The few windows are shut tightly, and the door is sealed from the inside with an enormous metal bar. Even in the dark, the women continue to talk, shout, and sing, and I wonder if peace will ever come.

It’s so hot in the room that I feel I may pass out, but I reason with myself that in my current state of exhaustion, this may not be such a bad thing. Yet in spite of the heat, someone is stirring coals in small clay pots, which are then placed under my rope cot, a mere foot from my behind. I try to shift position, but a woman holds me firmly in place, and motions for other women to lay down on either side of me, as well as a tiny child at my feet. Frustrated I cannot move and wondering if I will suffocate, I try to say that I am too hot, but no sound comes out of my mouth. Instead, more thick blankets are brought and layered upon my roasting body! Trapped, overheated, and with little oxygen in the tiny room, I fall into a deep dead sleep for two days, and dream of Calcutta.

I awake feeling I had been asleep for weeks, and I prop myself up on cushions to look around the room. I am alone except for a single woman, her soft broad face familiar--like Ahsan, she has a face which cannot lie. She moves to the side of my cot, and leaning down, she strokes my hair and face. She points to herself and softly says a word over and over again, “Salina. Salina. Salina.”

 Salina  swiftly leaves the room and returns with chai and deep fried bits of sweetened dough, which taste like pancakes and remind me of the pancake eating contests we used to have on Sunday mornings when I was a girl. As I eat, women with half covered faces gather at the doorways, leaning in and nodding appreciatively as I devour the entire plateful.

Salina and I walk out into a sky blue hallway which is half indoors and half outdoors, whose main feature is an enormous milk cow that is tethered to a tall wooden table. A mattress is brought, along with cushions and blankets, and I realize that they have set this table up as pallet  for me. Next to it there is a grated window, where I can see into a neighbor’s garden of peach roses and jasmine growing in blue gas cans. I will share the sky blue hallway with this cow as my main companion for the next three weeks, as the women nurse me back to health.

Each morning I am taken to the sky blue hallway, and each morning I watch as the cow is milked to provide milk for my morning chai. At first I spend my days almost entirely alone, writing in my journal about the city I miss. I don’t notice the small things where I am, like the hand sharpened pencil that always is placed by my journal; the mural of leaves and vines the neighbor is painting on her back wall; or the constant plates of sweetened deep fried dough that always seem to appear when I wake up from my nap. But my voice returns, at first soft and breaking, then moving into its old graceful self, a gentle but powerful sound.

  Slowly I forget my love of Calcutta, my love of its tangled urban alleyways, my love of its beat and pulse. I begin to notice the small things again, the way the cow has become accustomed to me and I to her; the way someone always leaves me a piece of hard candy on the windowsill by my pallet; and the way my clothes appear laundered and pressed as if I had taken them to the best laundress in New York City. Salina provides everything before I even know I need it, and she seems to appear whenever I think about her. She sings songs to me in the morning when I wake up, and in the evening she lays on my cot, stroking my hair.

One day I realize the neighbors’ mural is complete, and I ask Ahsan why they painted such a big mural on their wall. When he tells me that they painted it for me, so that I would have something beautiful to look at, my heart opens wide, healed. I find myself in love with these people who did not know me but who chose to nurture me back to wellness over the last few weeks. For the first time in months I am whole again and unbroken, and I spend the rest of that day looking at the mural of vines and leaves on the neighbors dun colored adobe wall.

My spirits lifted, my pallet somehow becomes the center of village life for the next few days, and it seems I always have visitors of numerous women and their children. Sometimes the children stay and nap with me, and when we wake up, I share my sweetened fried dough with them and teach them Patsy Cline songs with my recovered voice. The pallet that was once a place to rest becomes a place to laugh and love, and even the cow seems to enjoy having more people around.

When it’s finally time to leave, I know I’m not leaving behind just a simple one road village. I’m leaving behind my family: brothers, sisters, mothers, and fathers. In spite of telling everyone not to cry when I leave, they begin wiping their tears with their saris and handkerchiefs. But I promise I will return, and since then, I have returned many times to the people who loved me even when they did not yet know me.

 

For my brother Ahsan, whose name means “an act of kindness”, and for my sister Salina, whose name means, “to bring peace”.

Amy Gigi Alexander

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