Thursday, April 29, 2010

Turning Sixty in Honduras

I’ve begun thinking of this blog as a book. Not that it’ll be published as a bound, paper book that you could hold in your hand, lay in bed reading or take to the beach with you. Rather that it is being published in installments for any one who comes across it and cares to peruse it.

There is a Cuban saying that in his life every man should plant a tree, raise a child, and write a book. So I’m counting this as my book.

I am two weeks away from my sixty-fifth birthday. May 14, the date I officially become an old man, is the focal point of this year long project; a slightly off center focal point since I started Portrait of the Artist as an Old Man at the beginning of January, 2010 and plan to run it through the end of December, but close enough.

I really like to stretch out my birthday. Therefore, I’m anticipating that the next couple of posts will focus on birthdays, on hanging one more year on the line, on getting to the point where I am eligible for all the senior discounts. In this spirit, what follows is a description of my sixtieth birthday. I wrote it while I was in the Peace Corps in Honduras. It was one of a series of emails that I sent home to family and friends describing my life during those two years, January 2005 through April 2007.

Turning Sixty in Honduras

Most of you know that I really like to stretch out my birthday. My celebration this year started a couple of days in advance and ran through the following weekend. Leading up to it, Thursday (5/12) was La Dia de las Enfermeras (Nurse’s Day.) They closed the Health Center so we could have an outing. Health delivery for greater Sonaguera is organized into the Cesamo, a large supervising health center with doctors, and Cesars, smaller affiliated centers staffed by nurses or nursing assistants. There are seven of these smaller centers. The outing was for personnel for the whole system, about twenty people showed up, Deb and me the only gringos, me the only man. We were headed for El Sostre one of my favorite villages, where there is a popular cascada, an area where the river tumbles over big boulders and spills down a couple of impressive falls, forming a series of natural swimming holes.

(In November of 2009, a flood swept through El Sostre and destroyed this whole area. Reportedly, the waterfalls and swimming holes no longer exist.)

We spent the day playing in the water, eating carne asada (grilled beef,) chismol (a salsa of tomatoes, onions, green peppers, lime and salt,) beans and tortillas.

I’ve been waiting for the chance to describe the Honduran outdoor grill of choice. It consists of the rim of a car or truck tire with legs welded on. I think the bigger the rim and the fancier the legs the more prestigious the grill. The central hole in the rim is covered with the top from a five pound coffee can and the surrounding holes for the lug nuts provide ventilation. The standard grilling practice requires non-stop fanning. A lot of street food is cooked on this type of grill. Most days in Sonaguera you can find a smoky corner where someone is selling carne asada or grilled corn on the cob.

After lunch with the nurses, Deb and I went down to the river alone. Getting to the swimming hole at the bottom of the falls involved climbing over and around boulders and down some steep inclines. My knees complained the whole way, but I could do it. We swam across the pool and pulled ourselves up on some mossy rocks at the base of the falls. I felt so grateful that, approaching my sixtieth birthday, I was there, in the sunshine, with the water beating down on me, with Deb. I was Grateful that I was capable of climbing and scrambling and swimming. Certainly, it wasn’t elegant, but I could still do it.

When we got back from the outing I stopped to check my email. My favorite Internet place is in a former motel. The rooms have been converted into small businesses, a dental "consultant," a beauty parlor, a lawyer’s office. This is Sonaguera’s equivalent of a strip mall, with the obligatory chickens, cows and pigs grazing in the courtyard.

(Since then, the main streets of Sonaguera have been paved and this old motel has been rebuilt into startlingly modern, two story, mixed use property that looks like some of the fancier buildings in LaCeiba. Thankfully, the chickens, cows and pigs are still there.)

I had a birthday email from my friend Ted Bronsnick. We’ve had a thirty-eight year friendship, having met when I was twenty-two and Ted was twenty-four. Attached to the email was a photograph of Ted and his motorcycle. They were together in a roadside rest area off some back road. He was dressed in his high tech riding gear, helmet under his arm, white hair, white beard, big smile. I’m not sure it is correct lingo to call his type of bike a "hog," but it should be since it is only slightly larger than some of the bigger pigs that wander around Sonaguera. Knowing Ted and seeing this photo of him reinforced my thought from the waterfall about living fully and with appreciation. I think the depth of my gratitude comes from the awareness that I’m operating in a window of opportunity that isn’t going to stay open for ever. The odds that I could be doing any of this ten years from now are slim.

(Now five years down the line, I’m feeling more optimistic that I’ll still be having adventures when I’m seventy, but seventy-five is questionable, eighty is a long shot, and eighty-five is down right improbable.)

The morning of my actual birthday, Deb served me coffee in bed under the mosquito net. While I was sipping and reading Paul Farmer’s Pathologies of Power, she prepared my present which involved banging a lot of nails into our cinder block walls. Every once in awhile a nail would ricochet out of the wall and she’d curse at it. After about twenty minutes she was ready. There were two arches between our dinning area and kitchen, one forming the doorway, the other over the counter. She had strung colored lights over the arches and wove in multicolored plastic flowers. It was beautiful and tacky and very Honduran and my mother would have loved it. My other presents were a ceramic wall clock with a rooster on it, a spatula, and a big bottle of Cuban rum (not Havana Club, but Cuban just the same.) That night Deb and I and Adam, the other volunteer in town, put a pretty good dent in the rum.

We spent the weekend in Trujillo, staying at a great, but rundown hotel, The Villa Brinkly, up in the hills overlooking the bay and the tourist islands off shore. The owner was an eighty-six year old American woman named Peggy Brinkley. According to her son, thirty years ago she was traveling around Central America in a jeep, pulled into Trujillo, pointed at the hill and said, "That’s where I’m going to live." Peggy told us she was going back to the States for a week to participate in the senior Olympics. Her sport was ping-pong. Since Hurricane Mitch and 9/11, tourism had been way off in Trujillo. At the Villa Brinkley, the pool was cloudy, there were weeds growing between the paving stones of the patio, everything needed a coat of paint, but I thought it was just the right place to commence my seventh decade.

One of the afternoons in Trujillo, we walked down to a beach bar and settled into hammocks slung under a thatched palm shelter. I drank a mango licuado (milk shake) and read some more Paul Farmer. I thought about how to save the world. Now that’s the way to turn sixty!

The Portrait

This is a portrait that Tony Janello did of me in 1982, twenty-nine years ago. I thought about it last week because I used a self-portrait from around the same time when I was studying with Tony. Then I remembered that I had commissioned Tony to draw me as a birthday present to myself. It would have been my thirty-seventh birthday if my math is right.

At that time Tony had a studio just off Broadway near the Columbus Theater, which in those days, before DVDs, before the Internet, was a porn house. He had a very aggressive dog. To cater to the dog’s aggressiveness, Tony kept a stuffed rabbit suspended from the ceiling by a pulley. There were many stuffed rabbits all of them named “big Bunny.” Tony would lower Big Bunny down into the dogs strike zone and the dog would go crazy, first chomping down on one of Big Bunny’s extremities and shaking it from side to side until stuffing flew, then humping it wildly.

I haven’t been in touch with Tony in a long time.

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