All this happened, more or less...

My name is G and these are the true stories of my adventures.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

El Tacuacin

Inquiring minds often ask me if I was frightened by the prospect of moving to Japan by myself. I had never been there before and spoke the language about as well as your average house cat ties a shoelace. I admit I was overwhelmed -- and for the first few days, I suspected I'd made a pretty terrible mistake -- but I would never describe myself as "afraid" of any of it. Only somewhat jittery, and that was as much excitement as nerves.

The reason for this uncommon boldness probably stems from the myriad of bizarre travel ordeals I had been through long before I went to Asia. Occasionally, when my high school students are being particularly well-behaved, I regale them with the tales of my exotic adventures. Yesterday, we got to talking about the summer I spent working at an orphanage in Honduras when I was seventeen. That inspired me to flip through some of my old journals -- an enlightening experience, to say the least.

Officially, this blog is centered on issues of culture between the US and Japan, but actually, it's about my journey as a Citizen of the World, and therefore an excerpt from one of my first major stays abroad seems appropriate. Enjoy!


Honduras, 2000

Carlitos has a pet chicken that he named Santa Teresa Marquez de la Mer. He calls her “la Santa” for short. When he first adopted her out of the henhouse, Sister Yolanda protested, but since la Santa continues laying eggs without fail, Sister has given up scolding Carlitos and resorted to simply shooing him out of the buildings whenever he has the dusty bird in his arms.

Early one afternoon, Sister Yoyo shoos Carlitos and la Santa out of the dining hall, and he wanders over to where I am sitting in the shade of the building, bouncing Moises on my lap. The day is so sweltering that Moises has long since wiggled out of his rompers. I chirrup the "William Tell Overture" while I bob him up and down. He throws his head back and laughs the toothless laugh of a child in pure ecstacy.

The heat makes Carlitos sluggish and fussy, and he plops down next to me with a dramatic sigh. La Santa squawks and flits out of his grasp, but once free, she settles herself down in the dust by his feet. My leg is growing sore anyway, so I plop my little vaquero onto the ground next to me, pick up a stray chip of blue chalk, and start scratching on the sidewalk. Carlitos perks up instantly at the sign of his favorite game and eagerly snatches the chalk when I offer it. Underneath where I’ve written, “¿Como estas, Carlitos?” he slowly etches a frowning face with a v-shaped furrowed brow. He’s aching to tell me why, so I ask obligingly. In his quick childish Spanish he complains that la Santa is hot but Sister Yoyo won’t let him bring her inside where it’s cool. ¡Ay, que lastima! I sympathize. Poor Santa.

At that moment, a shout comes up from the back corner of the yard where some of the men are tearing down a rickety old shed. “Ah! Mira!” “What was that?!” They call to each other in mingled Spanish and English, and there is a general commotion around one corner of the shed as they gather to peer into a gaping hole in the wall. For several months now, Sister Yolanda had been pulling her hair out over a pest of some kind – she suspected a rat – that had been breaking into the orphanage pantry and stealing food. Apparently, the men had found the culprit’s lair. From across the yard, we can hear an argument rising. Carlitos is halfway to the shed before I’ve collected Moises and gotten up to follow.

“That’s the biggest frickin’ rat I’ve ever seen!”

“It’s not a rat!”

“It looked like a rat! A huge one!”

“Mira, just because you’re in Honduras doesn’t mean there are giant rats. It’s not a rat. It’s a tacuacin.” This insight comes from Melena, who has stepped back from the others to survey the scene with a general air of calm rationality.

“Mele, what’s a tacuacin?” I join in as I approach them, bending down to snag Carlitos by the hand before he gets too close to the tangle of shattered boards and rusted nails.

Mele screws her mouth into a little knot while she searches for the word. “I think it’s a... possum?” She turns to me and quickly describes the creature in Spanish. It has a long, bare tail like a rat, but it’s bigger, it has a long nose, and it climbs trees. I assure her that “possum” is the right word. Mele is from Acapulco, so whatever language she is speaking has that little Mexican lilt to it, like she’s reciting something she learned deep in her childhood. This is how I learned to speak Spanish – in the singsong rhythms of Mexico – and I understand Mele at least ten times more easily than any of the Hondurans we’ve been working with.

The men fold their arms over their chests solemnly and begin contemplating aloud what’s to be done with the thing. Josh picks up a thick stick and starts sharpening the tip on a nearby cinderblock. Manuel picks up a hammer. The others arm themselves with similar implements, and I attempt in vain to convince Carlitos that we should go back to our chalk-drawing game. He stands stalwart, hypnotized by the way the men gather their weapons and plot battle in low voices. I can’t persuade him to look away. Moises is gurgling to himself and fiddling happily with a curl of my hair, oblivious to the impending violence.

There is a smash of splintering wood, shouting, and in a moment, the beast is hemmed in along the garden wall and the struggle ends quickly.

Daniel skewers the corpse with a makeshift spear and moves to toss it into the great stone incinerator with the rest of the scrap from the dilapidated shed. Suddenly, he starts and stares awestruck at the thing. Through the bloodied fur, a tiny pink nose makes its way apprehensively into the world. It’s followed by a miniscule pair of eyes, still covered in a thin, pink veil. Two ears, two delicate front feet, and the infant creature tumbles from its mother. Before it hits the ground, another nose emerges, and another, and another. A half dozen of them are in a wriggling pile and more on the way when Daniel blinks, looks at the incinerator, and tosses the whole gruesome spectacle in. His fellows hesitate only a moment before they go after los tacuacinitos on the ground with sticks, hammers, boots. Melena looks ill and turns away.

The bit of blue chalk is lying forgotten on the ground next to Carlitos. He watches the men with his mouth hanging open slightly, his bottom lip trembling. He doesn’t resist when I gather him up with my free arm and begin walking back toward the house. Before we get there, the ordeal is over and the men are back to work on the shed, but Carlitos’s eyes remain riveted on the flames in the incinerator.

I set him down on the sidewalk where his hen is still sitting patiently. Moises is quiet and frowns down at Carlitos, understanding that he has missed something but unsure what. Without taking his eyes off the red glow on the other side of the yard, Carlitos scoops la Santa Teresa Marquez de la Mer up into his lap. He stares silently for a moment longer, then drops his face into her dusty feathers, and weeps.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

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