About me and this blog

I was born on a native reserve in Ontario, grew up on the west coast of Vancouver Island (as far west as you can go without running out of Canada), came of age in Mexico City. Between times, I lived in the Fraser Valley, Texas, Seattle, Oklahoma, Bella Coola, on the BC north coast, and the Fraser River Delta, just south of Vancouver. For now, I'm "settled" in Campbell River, on Vancouver Island.

I have a boatload of stories to tell. These are some of them.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Pocketful of Posies: Day 8


Day 8: Managua, Nicaragua. New Year's Day, 1973

(Day 1, here)

Our host was fortunate to have taken us in; the next morning he was probably the only man in miles who didn't have a hangover. The roads were empty, the soldiers out of sight. We made it to the border early, and were waved on through after the most cursory of glances. We would be in Managua, if all went well, by noon.

Our mood had changed. Perhaps it was partly because we were approaching the site of the disaster. We had heard some news on the car radio; they were saying that some 50,000 people were missing, that the entire downtown core of Managua was flattened. It was hard to imagine how that could be. It was possible that the others were dreading the sights we were driving towards.

George was speaking to Carlos only as much as was required for strict politeness. He was driving, and Raquel was in the front seat next to him. He kept up a conversation with her, but quietly, so that the three of us in the back seat could not join in.

I had my own reason for misery. Today Philip would be admitted to hospital to be prepped for surgery in the morning. I kept my face turned to the window but I saw nothing except Philip's bewildered face. He was three years old and couldn't understand; all he would know was that he was in a strange place, and his Mommy wasn't there. And tomorrow he would wake up and his hand would be sore, worse than when he slammed his finger in the car door. And Mommy wouldn't be there. We should have canceled the surgery; it wouldn't have hurt to wait a few months more. He would be so afraid! I wondered if he could ever forgive me.

Beside me, Carlos was speaking; "What's wrong, Susana? You're so quiet."

"Nothing. I'm fine." I kept my head turned away from him.

"Are you sure? Are you feeling sick again?"

George spoke up, from the front. "She's just fretting because Raquel's parents are taking our youngest son into hospital today. No," in response to a question from Paco, "it's no big deal. Just a webbed finger being corrected. He'll be fine." He said nothing to me, and there was silence in the car for a while.

I felt guilty now, for worrying the others with my petty concerns. I should make an effort, I thought, try to smile and make conversation. When Carlos spoke to me again, I turned to listen.

He was talking about his mother, about how he respected her for her strength. He went on to praise all mothers, everywhere. Such courage! Such a wealth of love! Such a privilege! To be a mother must be the greatest earthly blessing God could give! The stuff of Mothers' Day sermons; hackneyed ones. Still, I appreciated the effort he was making. I smiled for him and changed the subject.

Managua. All other concerns faded away once we drove into the capital city. On the outskirts, adobe houses had crumbled, walls lay flat on the ground. Ahead of us, a cloud of vultures marked the centre of the city. Army trucks were everywhere. When soldiers stopped us, we asked for directions to the Baptist hospital; we had medicines to deliver, we said.

"It's on the other side of town; follow the highway. But drive carefully; watch for holes and glass on the road. Stay on the main road!"

That was simple enough, but there were more instructions. Entering a building that was still standing, for any reason at all, was absolutely prohibited. There was a curfew, to prevent looting; anyone on the street after 6:30 would be shot on sight. Above all, be careful!

Farther on, towards the centre of town, I began to understand the numbers we had heard on the news. 50,000 missing didn't seem outrageous any more; I was amazed that anyone at all had survived. The downtown core of the city was flat. Most of the buildings had collapsed straight downwards. They had been constructed, we could see, of heavy cement slab floors separated by brick and lath walls. The walls had disintegrated, and the floors had dropped, entire, one on top of the other. I counted seven grey slabs in one building, each one separated from the one above by a few inches of brown paste; a cement sandwich. I thought of the bodies flattened inside; impossible to reach, impossible to identify once reached.

The main road had been cleared. Along the edges, twisted signs, shattered glass and blocks of concrete covered the parking lane. One building had skewed sideways as it fell; a slab of cement had cracked off from the main floor and fallen on a car the same colour as ours. Not much else could be seen of the car; it was pancaked as effectively as if it had been to the crusher.

Our station wagon jolted and creaked over the cracked pavement. When we stopped, the only other sound was the flapping of vulture wings, and their occasional cries. The city had the sickly sweet odour of rotten meat; it caught at the back of our throats. It was a relief to get further out of town and smell dust and smoke again.

On the edges of the city, the buildings were smaller, made of a variety of materials; adobe, lath, brickwork. They had crumbled, but in the haphazard way typical of earthquake damage. Poles and roofs and walls leaned crazily every which way. Carlos was driving now. Suddenly he stopped the car, jumped out, and ran down a narrow, impassable side street. A small boy came out to meet him; a kid about 8 or 10 years old, carrying a pigeon in his two hands. Carlos talked to him for a minute, then came back to the car.

"Hand me some of those eggs," he said. "And an orange." He took them to the kid, and stuffed them into his pockets, since the kid's hands were full. He got back into the car, and we drove on down the road.

"Kid came back to find his family," he explained. "Can't find anyone, just his pet pigeon."

The Baptist hospital was outside the city; here the earthquake had been milder. The building was still standing. From a distance it looked fine, but it was barricaded off. Beds and supply stations had been set up on the lawns, partly surrounded by makeshift screens. Tents served as operating rooms.

It took only a short while to unload our cases of medicines and stacks of blankets. They looked very small, sitting there on the ground separate from all our own supplies. We could have left our food at the hospital, as well, but Carlos thought we should find a way to distribute it ourselves. "There must be lots of people out there, like that kid," he said. "They need help, too." So we kept the food.

We were assigned a corner of the grounds, away from the "hospital" area, where we could set up camp and sleep on the ground. No-one, the coordinator told us, not even anyone whose house looked safe, was sleeping inside. There was always the danger of aftershocks that could bring down an already-weakened structure.

We found a flat space with a shrub or two to give us some privacy and parked. Raquel and I directed the placement of bedding rolls and a cooking area. Paco collected rocks to contain a small fire. I went back to the station wagon for the coffee, and found Carlos setting out a communion set on the tailgate.

"What are you doing?" I asked.

"I think we should celebrate communion just to thank God for getting us here safely."

Raquel had come over. "Are you allowed to do that? Outside of a church?" she said.

"Sure. Where in the Bible does it say we need to be in a church? Nowhere." Carlos dug into his duffel bag and produced a small bottle of grape juice, which he proceeded to pour into five of the communion cups. "Raquel, can you bring me a slice of bread?" he said.

George came back with her. "You're not supposed to be giving communion;" he said, "you're not ordained, are you?"

"I've done this lots of times. There is no Biblical rule against it."

"The denomination doesn't allow it."

"I'm not a member of your denomination."

"But my wife and I are. And Raquel. We can't take part if you officiate."

Carlos straightened up and faced George. I looked anxiously from one to the other. I knew that George would never back down; I wasn't sure about Carlos. For a long moment they stood still, then Carlos turned back to the car. He unfolded a white lace cloth and draped it over the communion set. "Okay. You're ordained. You officiate. It's all ready for you."

Carlos called Paco over, and we all sat on the ground around the back of the station wagon. George led in prayer, and read the familiar Scriptures. Carlos handed around the cups and the tray of bread chunks. George prayed again, then recited; "...as oft as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you do show the Lord's death, till He come." We sipped, chewed, swallowed in silence. A dog barked on the hillside.

George hesitated. In the church at this stage, the organist would start playing, and George would announce the final hymn. But there was no supporting program here.

Raquel provided the solution. "If we don't start supper now, we'll be cooking in the dark," she said. "Come on, Susana."

We scrambled to our feet. "Where did you guys pack the coffee?" I said.


To be continued ...

Stories of Mexico: Non-fiction
©Susannah Anderson, 2001


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