Monday, September 22, 2008

Back in the Barranca

(Editor's note: On Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays throughout the semester the Lutheran Center program will be held in Cuernavaca. We take a bus there on Thursday afternoon, stay in homes with families, and return on Saturday evening. The following was written in Cuernavaca on Saturday morning.)


So here I am in Cuernavaca again. I am upstairs in the bedroom of a little house on one side of a barranca (ravine - be sure to roll your r's when you say barrrrrranca, it's way fun). The house is literally on the side of the barranca, not on its edge or anything like that. Both sides of the barranca are covered with square cement houses like this; from a distance they look like barnacles on the side of a ship. Up close, however, they are colorful, painted in pinks and blues. Stray dogs wander the bumpy stone streets; graffiti is everywhere, but much of it seems overtly political. Inside the houses are families: large families, small families, abuelos (grandparents) and ninos (children) and everyone in between.

The barranca is beautiful, but it can be dangerous, too, especially in the rainstorms that are so common this time of year. The street outside this house slopes downward at at least a 45 degree angle. When we first arrived on Thursday afternoon it was pouring rain, and these sloping cobblestone paths had been turned into not streams and puddles but rivers and waterfalls. (The rest of Cuernavaca doesn't flood, you see, because all of the water flows here, to the barranca.) The waterfalls are the most frightening. I am still haunted by the way the water came pounding, overwhelmingly, down a stone staircase right where we stepped off the bus. Now, I have been to Niagra Falls, but this impromptu waterfall dropped my jaw more. Niagra is massive and worth visiting, but it is a tourist destination; it is so controlled that tour boats flit around it all day. The waterfalls in the barranca, on the other hand, flow anywhere they want to without regard for human civilization. Water in the sloping ravine of an well-inhabited barranca is chaos.

We are here in Cuernavaca for for homestays with families. We are going to do this every week: Take an hour-and-fifteen minute bus ride down to Cuernavaca on Thursday afternoon, have a Bible class at a retreat center here, then go to host families for cena (dinner) and sleep, then activities on Friday, then back to the host families for the night, then Saturday with host families until after comida (main meal of the day) which is usually at 2 o'clock or so but can last for a few hours. I expect (hope) to be back in D.F. by 5 or 6 so that I can spend at least the evening and Sunday with Chris.

Today is Saturday, and I think I am supposed to be using it to spend time with/chat with/practice my Spanish with my host family. Except that my host family is a family with three kids, so they have, how can I put this...a life. Saturdays are busy, so no one is home right now and won't be until the afternoon. It doesn't matter. Even if they were home it would be a challenge. My Spanish is really weak right now (it's been wasting away the last few weeks in the English-speaking Lutheran Center); I seem to be struggling even more than I did the last time I was in Cuernavaca in August. Last night most of the family was out with more activities, so my roommate/fellow student and I had dinner with the daughter of the family who I think is in high school. She was extremely polite and made a valiant effort to think of conversation topics, but the language barrier was rough. I think we talked about animals and zoos and pets for about 10 minutes, but the language barrier kept settling over the table like a pall and the meal passed with lots of really awkward silence.

After dinner I wandered upstairs to do some reading. I finished the assigned pages for The Amnesty of Grace: Justification by Faith from a Latin American Perspective by Elsa Tamez and then moved on to a book I picked up at the library of the retreat center, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard. It's a description of life by a creek in the Virginia mountains, full of richly textured observations on the tiniest parts of nature that somehow balloon out into reflections on the big questions of life. I love books like this; they can be like oxygen for me, when the time is right.

I read late into the night, then woke up early to the sounds of dogs and roosters and car alarms and reggaeton rhythms and read some more. Around ten o'clock I wandered downstairs and ate breakfast and sipped Nescafe. In many homes here, instant coffee is far more common than brewed coffee. This always seems strange to me, since back home Mexico is known for its high-quality coffee beans. It seems they send the good stuff abroad and drink the little Nescafe crystals at home.

Around eleven o'clock some other students from our group came by; they were going to find a cafe somewhere or something. I bid farewell to my roommate and stayed where I was. I needed a break from the group with whom I spent most of my waking hours. Besides, my energy was almost totally drained by all the liberation theology / neoliberal economics readings. Yesterday I broke into laughter about something, and one of my classmates remarked that it was the first time they had seen me laugh in several days. Liberation theology and economic systems are rough things to study. I see the problems...I just can't find the solutions. And so I feel drained, and overwhelmed, and, I think, paralyzed from action by circumstance.

But now I had found some reading that was actually giving me energy, reading in the form of the poetic prose of Annie Dillard. Strange, that descriptions of life in the shadow of Virginia mountains would resonate for one living in a ravine south of Mexico City. But they were, and now that I was on a roll with some reading that was giving me energy instead of draining it, I thought I better keep going. So I did.

1 comment:

From Michigan with Love said...

remember to flail your arms and make big sweeping gestures when speaking spanish (or as you likened it to playing sharades!)