Focus, and time for everything

Nov 28, 2011 | News

Written by Gina Spigarelli

691Last pack smokedSan José de Apartadó, Colombia – I quit smoking on November 7. I am still in a state of permanent nic-fit, but doing better. My body has been pretty crazy all month, so confused about why it is doing this to itself. I had a headache for ten straight days. In the 103,842,476 degree heat I put on a sweatshirt with the cold sweats. I fall asleep kicking at night and wake up at 2AM wanting to smoke. I chew gum like a rabid squirrel chews an acorn. People keep telling me I “didn’t look well” and for the first couple days I kept thinking I was going to vomit. I shake so much that people now impersonate me unable to drink a glass of water and laugh amongst themselves. But I am doing it. And I will make it. Addiction is a strange thing. The mind never ceases to amaze. There is now a sign on my wall that reads: Dear Gina, you no longer smoke, so find something else to do.

At 5AM when I accidentally broke the handle off of our prized campo espresso maker, Emily struggled to pour herself a cup of coffee in the dark without three degree burning herself. She sighed and said, “Mornings in the campo just got a little harder.”

Our accompaniment took us to another Peace Community village. This one makes our home like a bustling city center: individual ranches separated by mud paths and knee high fields of grass. It reminded me of some tropical Montana at the turn of the century. A tropical River Runs Through It. Mountains and valleys and plains. And war.

The walk there took us straight up the hill behind our house, through thick jungles and vines and moss and mud and more mud and pits of mud that seems like quicksand and dried mud that you can walk on and bog mud and pond mud and mud that steals your boots and mud that sticks to your legs and mud that platters onto your face. A jungle plant tipped towards me, thorned itself to my hat and pulled back, taking my cap with it. I felt like Alice in Wonderland. We saw our neighbor’s farms and small huts where they sleep in the jungle while they are away and working. Coming out of the jungle into the valley there was a rainbow. Our neighbor said, “now we just have to follow that rainbow and at the end of it we will have arrived.”

We were hosted in a wooden house by a multigenerational family of ten. We slept in high-hung hammocks under drying rice. On Sunday there was a birthday party and families came from the hills around the valley, some walking three hours to celebrate and have some social time. Their lives are mountain lives. The men played soccer in the pouring rain. The women cooked all day. When the cake came out so did the confetti. They call confetti hallelujah.

There was not any cell phone coverage and our satellite phone was having technical difficulties. Elisabeth and I whipped out our high-tech solar charger to try and amp the battery. We had a satellite phone balancing on a wooden plank, solar panels tempting the sun. We had out the manual and directions, we spoke rapidly in a foreign language, pleading with our little piece of gringo technology to work.  In the background, on a different slab of wood, our hosts gutted a pig.

The soccer field is in the valley. The backdrop is of lush green mountains. I found myself thinking how hard it is to believe that people grow up here. That this is the field on which they learn to play soccer.  Humidity sets in before the rainstorm. Men walk out of waist high grass in beautifully brimmed hats woven in shades of browns and grays. Muddy footpaths between homes and snakes and tall grasses swaying in the wind. The river runs the valley, swelling with every rainstorm.

By candlelight, the family tells us of getting lost in the jungle, of ghosts and witches and these things that happen to them and why they are scared and when they are not. They talk between themselves and distinguish parts of the landscape around them with personal experience (“I was at the part of the hill where a few years ago you said you were scared of mines”; “I came out at the mouth of the river where we ran in to the soldiers last week”; “It was in the rice field where Julian disappeared”). Listening to them made me feel like any time there are young men in a war zone, there is reason to be scared. Because war is not healthy for children, or other living things.

By candlelight they make us a map, drawing the mountains and rivers and streams and hills and valleys between our town and theirs.  Elisabeth continuously asks what the pets are named and every time the matriarch says, “we haven’t registered them yet.” Her children take a less sarcastic approach, but it comes out with nearly the same tone: “The dog is called dog, the parrot is called parrot…” We laugh into the evening. Before going to bed they all agree, “it’s fun talking to you guys.”

690We spend a few days in their company, eyeing the situation, learning about the problems. We listen to plantains falling into the hot oil and the dripping of water in the kitchen being pumped from the river beyond. The boys fish in the early morning. They milk the cows. They shuck corn and kill animals. Wash clothes in the river and sweat in the open fire kitchen. They work from dusk to dawn, all ten of them, all the time, just to sustain themselves on their farm in the valley.

Hiking back home we have a mule to carry our bags. We set a pace through the jungle. When the oranges fall from the tree I look up to see a man there. “Eat one,” he says. I do and I keep walking. If the oranges hadn’t fallen, I would’ve walked right under him. I think about how many people have seen me walking and not said a thing. We walk back through the same mud in the hot sun.  Finally coming back down into the La Union, we pick up our familiar home path. We come out into the clearing, overlooking our thick jungle home with the Caribbean off in the distance. It’s postcard perfect. It’s paradise. As we come down the path into our cacaotera (cocoa grove), Elisabeth and I stop. I ask her if it’s true we actually live here. I ask her if she can really believe it. This place is just so beautiful.

We arrive home to Carla. We watch her settle in. I think about how we adapt, all of us, wherever we are. The day Emily left for vacation, we shared one final cup of campo coffee at 5AM. Eight months and then she walked down the hill and it was done. Everything changed, then changed again.

They finally took down the decrepit fence around the central kiosk, but I find myself still walking the long way around the park. I still walk through the canter of town as if it is still there, crossing where the openings in the fence were, not stepping where I haven’t before stepped. No matter how much I remove myself from my comfort zone, I am still such a creature of habit.

“You must be used to walking n the mud, otherwise that would itch you,” a neighbor says looking at my muddy legs. “If I were really used to walking in the mud, my boots would look more like yours,” I said. He looked down, confused. (His boots had no mud on them at all, even though we’d just walked the same path.)

I have learned about focus here in the community. While working, my neighbors only think about what they are doing. There is no multi-tasking, there is no zoning out. They focus on the movement of their machete, they think about the yucca they are pulling from the earth. This makes sense, of course, because if they don’t focus on what they are doing they could cut off their limbs, but still, it is a nice lesson. This is why they say there is time for everything- to work, to play, to talk, to think. And they really do this. They dedicate time to things and then they do them with their full attention dedicated to them. I want to learn to focus this way. As though my limbs depended on it.

692Jungle and more jungleI went up with him at 6AM to pull yucca from the earth. I walked a path I had not yet walked across a rushing river with huge flat boulders. I tried to keep his morning pace through banana fields and over jungle logs. Up on the slope where the yucca was planted we weren’t high enough for the Caribbean view or the overlook of the valley, we had only the view of more jungle slopes. For a moment, I had this feeling that the dense jungle went on forever and ever and ever. That where we were was all there was. Sometimes the jungle does seem that immense. Sometimes life does seem that intense.

Tropical jungle humidity ruins everything. All of my CDs now skip. I have taken to listening to the military radio channel (there isn’t much option with the reception in our zone). In the evenings, it bounces from romantic vallenatos to army propaganda to family shout-outs aimed at the soldiers in my backyard.

November was hot days without rain
And then the sudden relief of a sunset after a thunderstorm
Making honey in cauldron pots, smoking on the hill next to the cemetery.  Hauling sugar cane and grinding sugarcane and cooking sugarcane and then there is panela
Bunuelos and hot chocolate
Walking in mango groves
Dusk in a light rain
Fog lying low in the valley between us and town
A still-born baby buried in the backyard
Slipping through a hole in the fence only to be attacked by ants on the underside of the board
Swinging tandem in hammocks and laughing while my friend impersonates me
Trying not to punch my neighbors when they come day after day to bum cigarettes from me knowing full well I have quit already.
The full moon calls me from bed and I watch her fall in the darkness and then the half light behind the filo
A new mother is carried up with her baby in a hammock.

A neighbor talks about how proud she is her son never went to war. He is my age. Here, kids my age didn’t grow up in the Peace Community. They are teaching their kids to do what they did as if it is normal, because now they are part of a neutral Peace Community. To the children it is as if that is how it has always been. I look at the men and women here aged 25 and older and I think, you really resisted. You really are changing your world for the better. You really do practice what you preach. Living in the war zone, I have realized it is hard not to go to war.

I turn 29 years old this week. There will be no dance, because the community is in mourning, but there will be cake. And hot chocolate. And if I have anything to say about it, there will be at least 29 hugs.

When she stopped by on her way home, I was reading by candlelight. She lit up all the spiders spinning webs in my bedframe and then looked at me quietly for a few minutes while I read. She said, “You could really live here with us.” I said, “I do really live here with you.” She said, “I mean for real. For your whole life.”

All things outside the war zone seem so far away, but they are so close now. In less than 1 week, I will live in the Bogota. In two I will be on vacation in the Minnesota snow.  Right now, as I sweat through my shirt in the mid-day heat and listen to a light rain outside my window, it’s hard to believe that in a couple of days there will no longer be tropical heat or cows mooing outside my window. There won’t be fireflies above my bed or lizards on my wall. I will exchange mud for salsa shoes and military radio for my Itunes library. From the country to the city… Oh! How we all adapt!