“The incident is just what falls down gently like a leaf on the carpet of life – a light, disappearing fold in the fabric of the day, something which is barely worth saving.” R.Barthes
I’m in the States. Finally. It’s not that I want to say that I didn’t like Latin America. Far from that. But somehow it seems I was a little “tired” of it. I could even say that I missed the States. How can you miss something you neither possess nor belong to? Well, I don’t know, but the truth is – I felt longing. And I was right to think that I would like being there.
No sooner had I crossed the border, I immediately felt at home. Just a few hundred feet and you feel the difference. Someone was walking along the sidewalk with a Dalmatian. I stopped and asked for directions. I glanced at the dog. It looked as if it was smiling. Satisfied, well-nourished black and white patches in a clean background of juicy greenery emerging from the park. And that silence and emptiness in the streets of the same city called Nogales, divided by an invisible line separating two alien worlds, two different mentalities. But yet the sky and the sun above it are the same and equal.
One night I was putting up my tent in the desert and then I heard meowing. A small, little kitten ran out of the prickly bush. We ate pasta together. The sausages were eaten by the dogs a few hours earlier. There were lots of those hungry, bony creatures, but I fed only two. After some time you stop seeing them. As if they were invisible, or at least transparent. You look at them, but you do not see. Because when you do, then it hurts, it hurts physically. I will not feed every dog in the world and I will not take them with me. I won’t take even one.
And then more cats. And all those beautiful houses, where I am just a casual shadow – those colorful walls filled with paintings, pictures and the smells from which your head is spinning. Those people, yet strangers, but so immensely hospitable and warm. How could you not smile when you are among them, and how couldn’t you grieve when you have to leave?
And invariably that thought – what do I leave behind? What confusion I have to put into those usually ordered lives when I say that I have little more than a bike and four panniers filled with clothes and some food, when I talk about free time, wind and blue skies above me. What do those people think hearing me saying that my life had stopped? Listening that everything inside me remained unchanged, and it is still as spatious as their colorful houses filled with so many objects. The houses to which they will soon return, where a longing dog is waiting to be stroked and hugged and taken for a walk. So they finally go, they run together under the starry sky, roll in the grass or on the sand, chase themselves who first will come back. Who will first come to the door? Who will enter the house being breathless? Although the house may be located on both sides of the door.
It’s hot. One hundred eighteen in Fahrenheit in the shadow. There was one hundred twenty in Phoenix a week ago. In Celsius it would be fifty degrees. Can you imagine cycling in fifty degrees in the scorching sun in the desert? At night it cools down a little – to ninety degrees in Fahrenheit. Cycling at such a temperature resembles being at high altitude. You can’t accelerate because your body immediately feels bad, it somehow swells, your pulse accelerates, your heart beats like crazy and you need to slow down, otherwise your entire body would burst like a soap bubble.
I’m sitting in McDonalds, leaving pretty soon. Some cranes are flying over my head. They wait. Someone might say that there are no cranes in here. Well, all in all, they are, I can see them. I do not even have to look too far in the sky. Actually I do not have to look anywhere at all. I feel them hovering over the road, swinging over my head. We fly north. I have wings again and I feel fine. So much warmth around, so many glances inside me, so much of me along the way, and so many minutes to the end, so many days ahead of us, and so much light before winter comes.
“Writing is tedious, systematic, daily sitting over a white sheet of paper that either wants to fill up with words or does not. But even if it does not want to fill up with even one sentence, that sitting is very important. Even if one can’t do anything, that helplessness is fruitful. And from that helplessness something comes up. Because working on a book is working on oneself.” Wiesław Myśliwski
For a few days I have been trying to write something. And nothing appears. There are no words. Wiesław Myśliwski said in one of the interviews that during the writing process “matter must give its voice; one has to hear the voice.” Well, this time no ghost haunted me, no voice spoke, no light flashed. And I do not want to write about the same stuff all the time. That all the people I meet are very hospitable. That I still get lots of warm words and gifts, that I eat a lot of fruit, that I drink good coffee, that the sun shines, and that the cats are still with me in that reality. But what kind of reality is it? In fact, I am still floating, somewhere in the air, looking at the stars and maybe I should finally settle down on the earth. Maybe I should start “living normally,” as one of my friends recently said to me. But what does it mean to “live normally”?
Last week I spent in so-called “casa de ciclistas” – a place where people traveling by bicycle can stop, relax, and get back to full strength. I slept on the bed; I could use the stove, take a shower, and listen to the world in the tales of those with whom I made acquaintance. The world, which invariably is full of beauty and goodness. The eyes of this world smile, even when they are sad. They are bright and calm. There is a road in them, over which the birds fly, moved by the warm wind. Just stop and look deeply into those eyes. You can see everything. No words are needed.
“The ideal travel book’, Christopher Isherwood once wrote, ‘should be perhaps a little like a crime story, in which you’re in search of something.’ And it’s the best kind of something, I would add, if it’s something you never find.” Pico Iyer
I’m already in Mexico, the thirteenth country on my way from Argentina, but let’s go back in time and space and return for a while to Panama – “the land of our dreams, where everything is different and much bigger,” as Teddy Bear said in one of Janosh’s books titled “The trip to Panama”. This country will always remind me the archipelago of the islands Bocas del Toro, where several months ago I had been writing my latest book “Sen powrotu” (Dream of Return), and where I was glad to accept generous hospitality of Józek Gwóźdź (his surname, very difficult to pronounce for English-speaking people means a “nail”) – a Polish catholic priest who has lived in Bocas del Toro for a couple of years and soon will be responsible for co-organizing a very special event (not only in the Catholic Church), as Panama will be hosting the next World Youth Day in 2019. If anyone is interested in Józek’s job, there is his website: www.misjapanama.pl
This time I spent only a few days on Bocas del Toro. A few days of resting in safe and friendly environment, with good food, on the paradise island surrounded by the calm sea – what more could you expect to be happy? Nevertheless, similarly like the previous time, I could not escape from feeling some kind of incompatibility, or disharmony. And I am not writing about the bishop’s residence in which I stayed nor the people who lived in it, far from that. I am writing about the island itself. I could not stop feeling that mismatch between what was inside of me and all those various physical stimuli that surrounded me and which I had to – albeit unwillingly – experience too intensively. One should not come to that island alone, with their own loneliness. Even if the cats are coming out of their nooks to soften that feeling.
And then more countries: Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, Salvador, Guatemala, and finally Mexico. Despite so highly developed communication techniques (even in the backwoods people use smartphones, not to mention satellite TV), it didn’t change a lot on the cognitive level. Everybody builds their image of the world watching stereotypical, biased and usually dramatic TV news.
In each country people warn me off going to the next one. In Peru they advised not to go to Colombia, in Colombia warned off Panama, in Panama warned about smugglers in Costa Rica, in Costa Rica – about corrupted police in Nicaragua, in Nicaragua – about gangs and youth in Honduras, in Honduras I heard that in Salvador I will be robbed and decapitated as soon as I cross the border, and so on and so forth.
But in spite of all these ominous warnings I still keep going. I cycle surrounded by ghosts and Jesuses, sometimes stopping surprised to look at such curiosities as “Selling Tires Saint John Paul II”, a meat shop “Jesus Maria”, a shoes shop “Who is like God?”, or a coffee shop “Holy Heart of Jesus”. Among those ostentatious emblems of alleged though highly doubtful devotion I go constantly warned but all the people I meet are invariably good, hospitable and friendly. Am I surprised? No, I’m not surprised at all.
Maybe they simply return a smile I usually wear on my face, or maybe it’s just a sham that hides their true and terrible character, which however neither I can see nor I can feel. I cycle in the scorching sun, in deafening noise of the passing trucks, I follow lots of unpaved roads, which are full of surprises such as not-always-clearly-marked “hops” (reducers of the speed) or the holes (in which the half of my bike would fit), I put up the tent in ditches, I cycle through some of the most dangerous countries in the world (at least it is what you may hear in the news), but nothing bad happens to me.
Since I left Panama, I have not experienced any form of aggression; I have not heard even one bad word. On the contrary – even if I don’t expect anything I still receive something. Accommodation, sometimes clothes, but usually – lots of food: fruit, bread, some local specialties to try (I still remember the taste of delicious Salvadorian pupusas, served with a whole jar of cabbage salad), or even panela (cane sugar, about which I have already written).
It turned out that panela is not only an essential component of Colombian cuisine, but it can be bought throughout Latin America countries, including Mexico, where it is known as piloncillo or panoche. The process of preparing panela itself, at least in theory, seems to be very simple. The sugary juice obtained by squeezing sugar cane is cooked for several hours until it becomes more dense. Then the thick liquid is poured into the appropriate molds where it remains until it hardens and turns into a solid form of panela. Although today the production is becoming increasingly industrialized and panela (or piloncillo – as it is also known in Mexico) can be purchased in almost every supermarket, many people still continue home-based manufacturing.
Well, and what about Mexico? Well, Mexico still exists and is full of cats, of course, one shouldn’t be surprised. At least I shouldn’t. Even if they are not the same, it is enough to look deeper into their eyes to see what is usually hidden for us under the thin layer of unconsciousness.
I got to Rigoberto’s home town almost at noon. I easily recognized the gate through which the little red cat wanted to escape. And the whole house, where basically everything started. In which the dream began. The dream of return. Although still unfinished it is already long-lost and forgotten.
Because the ginger gata passed away. She was already dead when I wrote my previous book; in fact, she was no longer in that dream two weeks after my visit to Rigoberto’s house. La gata, a little red cat, was bitten to death by a dog, a sweet, little pit bull. Maybe the dog just wanted to play, maybe he did not want to hurt her, but anyway, this time nobody was running after me so I didn’t have to regret leaving.
Rigoberto recognized me. He wanted me to stay longer, but somehow I was not in the mood. I sat at the table, listened to some stories, I nodded that it was a pity he could not go with me on the road, I ate some fruit, looked at the same furniture and paintings that I remembered for almost three years until finally, overwhelmed by all those memories I got up from the chair, thanked for everything and went on the quiet day of improvisation, on the bare road, deprived of all old passions. Only bare life remained.
“But what is the meaning of that nudity? The enormous ignorance embraces you in this silence, powerful and swaying. But still, peace and quietness are in here. They are important. Like premonitions of eternal silence, eternal rest and eternal ignorance.” Jarosław Iwaszkiewcz
“Every dreamer knows that it is entirely possible to be homesick for a place you’ve never been to, perhaps more homesick than for familiar ground.” Judith Thurman
He comes every morning, more or less at the same time and stands for a few hours in the middle of the small but overcrowded square. In the midst of lingering scents, in the midst of screams ringing out in the scorching heat, among the shadows of the running people – he stands awkwardly, with his legs apart, holding more than a dozen backpacks, the biggest of which every now and again slides off his shoulders and falls down to the ground. He puts him up and throws it on his back again and then he stands still for another few minutes.
Not only does he not say anything, but he doesn’t seem to be encouraging anybody to come closer to have a look at his stuff either. No one stops, no one slows down and nobody asks anything. Nobody needs those too big, too whimsical and impractical backpacks. Anyway, probably none of the passing people could afford them. But even if they could they would surely buy for the same price something absolutely different – a wheelbarrow full of beans or a plastic chair or simply a bag of rice, not to mention the whole mass of other useful little things, spread on sweaty arms, backs and shoulders of stubborn and desperate vendors.
Sometimes a little girl approaches the man. She comes barefoot and plays with the strips and strings which stick out of the backpacks. A swinging, stooping figure of the man bends, moves as he was dancing in the wind until a large backpack slides down to the ground and the man’s loud voice can be heard. The girl stands still, puts her hands behind her back and lifting her belly raises her head and looks up. She seems to be saying something, but her words die out in the bazaar hustle. After a while the child goes away and the man returns to his posture, enshrouded by vagueness and silence.
There is something irreversible in his persistence, inexorability of fate, a sort of necessity which eludes definition. In his figure there is nothing that would reveal impatience, fatigue, resignation, nothing. He sticks around silently in the middle of the screaming noise, like a clumsy puppet from which the strings were cut, a fragment from a long-running show, a silent cry of those who are not able to change anything but they try anyway.
Silence and noise, light and darkness, inertia and movement. There are no halftones in here. When it’s dirty – it is like being at the dump, when it’s clean – it is almost sterile, and even I have to put on a fresh t-shirt to be allowed to enter the mall. When it is poor, something squeezes you inside, when it is rich – everything glitters and flourish.
And in that whole intensity of sensations, in those halftone-free impressions, in that changing colourful kaleidoscope of characters and landscapes – I often think I don’t move, I stand alone, I do not know what I try to sell or what I have to offer for those who probably do not need anything. I often feel that I myself stand still in the eye of silence or, as Noteboom once wrote – “in the eye of the cyclone”.
And that everything I had experienced, even if it really happened – it has already gone, leaving no traces. And there is no redheaded female cat that I was going to see in a Salvadorian village. A month ago she was run over by the car. Just a month before my arrival. And there are neither kittens nor Oscar, who nearly three years ago helped me in Salvador. I arrived the day after his funeral. There were no warning signs, there was no transition, no halftones – it was a beautiful, sunny day, I had a smile on the face, a friendly, warm wind pushed me to the west, and then the evening came, quickly, unexpectedly, bringing sadness and sorrow.
The family recognized me. They even remembered Rafineria – my mascot. I put up the tent in the same place as three years ago. Someone caught a new kitten and brought him home. The cat climbed on my knees, we ate some rice together. I did not even notice when he fell asleep. I took him to the tent. In the morning the roosters were noisy as usual. I left early and that day I was talking only to the rain.
The Holy Week in Guatemala Antigua. Everything is prepared with pump, tangibly, spectacularly, full of sophisticated gestures. The Holy Week is not so sad here, rather far from reflection, all-danced in a strange, feast-shaped performance.
Holy songs resonate over the rugged streets. Vendors run among curochos – those who painstakingly carry huge, lavishly decorated floats. The biggest demand is for sunglasses and hats. With huge roses and wooden crosses everything wins – blown balloons, cotton candy, sticks for selfi, ice cream, even ordinary burgers.
It is no wonder – the weather is good, there is a holiday, and most people do not seem to come here to seek any spiritual rapture. The procession passes, the flowers are trodden down, and everything what is left on the road will be swept in a while. They passed. One can make another selfi, then go back to the table and open another beer. Laughing returns, although in fact it did not stop at all – it just got frozen for a while, enveloped with the clouds of incense which odour still rises above the cobbled streets.
The bells are ringing, the night is coming, It gets cooler and the sounds become more intense. Streets are full of worshippers. The flames of the candles flicker, the whole world seems to be moving around. The parade seems to be floating above the ground in a dreamlike, phantasmagorical dance. Its movements swell out and crawl on the walls. The space is dancing in the flames. Everything moves when the light flickers. The figures shine, the halftones intensify, and the silence harmonizes with the sound. The trumpets blare, the drums beat, the bells toll and echo across the streets.