Beetles continue to skid onto my bed as they lose their way mid-flight thanks to my feeble attempt to keep mosquitoes away with my volunteer’s tiny fan blowing on me full blast. I enjoy the creature comforts of a transient third year volunteer—a functioning air mattress, a host who shares her quinoa (imports!) with me, and the free mangoes and familiarity that I miss so much from my days in a town where everyone knows me.
Life in the Chitropolis is different.
I have been in my “new site” for a little over a month now. Chitre, Herrera’s provincial capital, is a bustling city in the most country sense of the word (I'm reminded of the Oklahoman ag-town where I went to school), but I can now say I live in a place with a McDonald’s, a humble but decent mall, a KFC, a subway, a movie theater, several casinos, discotecas, bars, and air-conditioned supermarkets where I can find (yes!) dark, leafy vegetables and many kinds of fancy cheeses. Hello, America light. I have a flushing toilet (after about twenty months without one). Tile floors in my house. An oven and a blender. A gym.
Don’t get me wrong, Macaracas was modern. We had a couple of restaurants open past six at night that served things like roasted chicken, pizza, and sandwiches. There is a discoteca that opened on holidays (of which there are never enough, segun mi gente), big names at our bailes, people with plata, cars, blackberrys. Jovenes that seemed continually dissatisfied with everything they had and in search of more and more instant gratification. We had development.
But in the same glance that you’d see new Hondas and Hyundais rolling around you’d see them stuck behind a cattle drive on the outskirts of town. You could walk to a mill a few kilometers away and smell the sticky-sweet aroma of boiling sugar cane while floating in a cottonwood-littered river next door. You could hear the neighbors sneeze and fight and love and still walk over to their porch the next morning and sit for two hours like nothing had happened. You could visit three houses in one day and come home four pounds heavier, coming down from a serious sugar high with a bag full of something from somebody’s tree.
Those first weeks were phone calls from my friends: “we’re making the cookies you taught us to make,” or “I made that thing you like to eat so much,” or “we went to the river/beach/mill and you missed it.” And then the weeks just kept coming, and somewhere between Panama City, Penonome, and the offices of the ministry of education I grew farther away from Macaracas. The phone calls slowly stopped coming, the Azuero fair happened and I was relegated to bumping into mi gente and awkwardly reminding them that I miss the place that I consider myself to be from. Suddenly the boisterous, arms-open, smiling people that I knew were just conocidos, acquaintances from back-in-the-day.
As I whined about this abandonment to a former volunteer friend of mine (who is also Colombian), he replied with "latinos are sensitive like that, we won't put ourselves out there if we think we're gonna get rejected. Call your (host) mother." Because that's how it is. You ask your friend why she doesn't talk to so-and-so anymore, and it's ella se fue (she left), ya no me habla (he doesn't talk to me anymore), or no sé, tengo tiempo que no sé de él (I don't know, it's been a while since I heard from him).
I call and the excited voices on the other line always start with a regaño: Estabas perdida (you were lost), ya no te acuerdas de nosotros (you already don't remember us), or my host mother's personal favorite, ya te olvidaste de los pobres (you forgot about the poor people already, eh? You in your Chitropolis). And then, I ride the bus to my site on the way to visit the volunteer with the air mattress and the quinoa, and I run into teachers and secretaries on their way to work at my old schools. Warm greetings, giant smiles, no bitterness expressed, just how is your family, and we miss you, and the kids ask about you, and so glad to hear you're doing well, when are you visiting? I have half a mind to get off the bus and follow my teacher into school, postpone my visit for the next day.
My inner gringa says no, stick to your schedule, and I stay on the bus. I like the city, I remind myself. No inter-american highway of kids running circles through my house, neighbors who can't hear me sneeze, internet 24-7, blessed anonymity.
But they've gotten me with their sudden 180 from regaño to cariño, just like they always do, and like a puppy in training I can't get enough of sudden doled-out love. I know what I'm missing. And I know I won't stay away for much longer.