|Posted by daniel.venn on February 21, 2017 at 10:30 PM|
“You shouldn’t go there. They will rob you,” the man told me. He pointed a finger over my shoulder at the entrance to San Judas. He had waived me over from across the highway, the desperation and adamancy of his motions had convinced me to cross three lanes of traffic and talk to him and not just continue on my way. He gestured to my backpack. “They will take that. And your money. There are bad people there.”
I tried to tell him that I wasn’t worried. I walked through San Judas on a daily basis and, contrary to popular belief, hadn’t been robbed, kidnapped, or killed just yet. I didn’t carry money with me, and my backpack only had my materials for class that day in it. If it got stolen, the only benefit to the thief it held was a lesson on irregular past tense verbs. He kept on lecturing me, pointing to his security guard uniform to validate his knowledge of all things good and safe. San Judas clearly fell into neither category.
It was a popular refrain I had heard near-daily for two months. Whenever I mentioned the words San Judas to a local they practically shuttered and then fumbled over their words, in too much of a hurry to get a warning out to get it out clearly. After thoroughly scolding me for being so careless with my own safety, they always asked the same question.
“Why would you want to work there?”
The fact that they have to ask is exactly why.
I turned back to the man and thanked him for his concern and turned to cross the highway again.
“Wait, one more thing,” he said. I turned back just enough to show I was listening. “My sister, she is very sick. Could you spare 10 Cordobas to help her?”
I had gotten used to being asked for money, even started to expect the question. I typically just pretended like I didn’t speak Spanish and moved on my way. But he clearly knew I could understand him, given the conversation we’d just had in his native language. I reminded him that I didn’t carry money with me when I went to San Judas, but he was a step ahead of me, pointing to the wallet in the front pocket of my athletic shorts, a square bulge against the mesh.
“Anything would help my sister. She’s very sick.”
The Minnesota Nice in me made it impossible to just walk away at that point. I was running late for class and ending the conversation would be worth paying for. I pulled my wallet out and opened it to show I wasn’t carrying much on me. Two American dollar bills were the complete contents of my billfold.
“I don’t have any Cordobas, I’m sorry.”
“Those will be fine,” he said, reaching for the dollar bills. Before I could think of the words to protest in Spanish, he had picked them from my wallet. “Thank you. God bless you.”
The irony struck me as I crossed the highway. He had called me over to warn me that I could be robbed and then left with my money.
They put the garbage dump right on the outskirts of San Judas and the smell assaulted me when I reached the far side of the highway. Buzzards scattered as I stepped around decomposing trash that had blown onto the street, walking fast for my nostrils’ sake. It’s almost fitting, having to walk through the dump to get into the neighborhood. San Judas, the poorest, most dangerous barrio in the city, hidden behind everything else the rest of the city threw away.
I’ve almost stopped noticing the poverty in the city, even in the barrio. Your first couple days, it stands out. The sheet metal houses. The tin roofs held in place by rocks. Dirt roads and cracked sidewalks. The litter. Dirty clothes. The way they look at me. It all just becomes normal after a week or two, the way it is.
It isn’t until I walk through with another American, some volunteer or traveler that ends up passing through the center I live in, and they pull their camera out that I notice again.
“What are you taking a picture of?” I ask, and they gesture to everything in front of us. They look at me like I’m crazy for not noticing the destitution around us and thinking it’s worth remembering. I look at them like they’re crazy for not wanting to forget it.
Bizarre saturation is what a friend called it. After years of travel, he stopped taking pictures, stopped writing in his journals because nothing seemed noteworthy anymore. What had once been shocking and awe-inspiring became average over time. It takes a conscious effort for me now to stop and notice everything on a daily basis that seems so mundane to me now. I take a cold shower each morning that trickles from a single piece of tubing hanging from the ceiling. I wash clothes by hand using half a coconut to scoop water on to my laundry. I happily walk distances each day that I’d have driven without a second thought back home. My classroom is just a whiteboard hanging by rope from the ceiling of a makeshift softball academy, my students’ chairs set up in the dirt underneath the skinny trees outside, some sitting on a broken-down car parked inside the outer walls of the academy for a better view.
It even takes effort to get myself to write at night. To sit back and think about the day and pick out the details that stand out, that I’ll appreciate someday even though I cut my sentences short when I write them down because I’m bored by the idea and writing them down feels like work.
After jotting down my exchange, both verbally and financially, with the security guard, I played my class that morning back through my mind, looking for meaning in the day. We had been learning how to give and follow directions in English and I set up a scavenger hunt at the academy and the park nearby. The kids bounced from clue to clue turning right, left, forward backwards, to get to the next, all in search of a final grand prize I promised would amaze them.
Of course, when the winning team found their grand, grand prize, it was just one Cordoba in an envelope.
The exchange rate hovers between 28 and 29 Cordobas for one US dollar, so the value of a single Cordoba is next to nothing. My students laughed at my outrageous claims of a spectacular prize, holding up the single silver coin worth well less than a nickel.
“Who gets to keep it?” they asked, a question that I hadn’t expected. In the US, if given the choice between winning a few pennies or not winning at all, I’ll take the loss every time. I’d always rather have empty pockets than have a few worthless coins clanging around inside.
I told the students they could figure it out themselves and they began to argue in earnest, not angrily but sincerely trying to justify how they’d helped the team to earn the prize. Eventually, one of the students won out and pocketed the coin.
I walk on dirt roads past sheet metal houses every day, but hearing my students argue over a Cordoba made the poverty here glaring to me. It reminded me how different the worlds we come from are. Here, you argue over who gets to keep a coin. In the US, you argue over who has to keep it.
But I moved on with the lesson with a shrug and little more than a second thought. Trying to remain as functional as I can with the class, I threw lists of vocabulary at them that included everything you could find in your house. All the rooms, bedrooms, and bathrooms, and kitchens and everything you might come across in those rooms. Once their hands were cramping from copying the vocab, I instructed them to design their dream house using the new words we’d learned.
I showed them an example I’d made, fanciful and outrageous, intended to make them laugh. My dream house had a beach in the bedroom, a Jacuzzi set up in front of a movie theater screen, and a petting zoo outside. The students didn’t laugh, but they did look at me funny.
A few minutes later, when they shared what they created, I saw why. Their dream houses were not fanciful. There were no big-ticket items, frills, or helicopter landing pads. Their dream houses were, what us Americans would call, houses. Not even nice ones at that.
“My dream house would have two bedrooms so we wouldn’t have to share a bed,” one student stated when I prompted her to share.
“Mine would have a stove in the kitchen so we wouldn’t have to make a fire,” another called out.
“We would have a TV!” Multiple heads nodded in agreement with their classmate.
I silently count how many TVs are in my parent’s house back home. It took two hands and I immediately felt ashamed.