On the Other Side
That night I saw my first sunset in two, maybe three days with my feet on the third continent. I remembered vaguely where I was from, but I felt, in my roots, that my life stretched back to this place, to this ancient and ever-dying, ever-living land. Africa. I flew here on a plane fueled with oil from another land, perhaps an older one in a way. But I came from a new one, filled with modern dreams of wealth, prosperity, and that self-destroying hope for the unsatisfying, because it always demands more. I did not know these things at the time (I really did not know anything), and I still do not know very much. All I know is the faces of those I have met, and that some of their stories have mingled with mine. And that is what Africa started in me: a cleansing, a refilling. The cinder block walls of isolation and American individuality started to break during this summer when I was thirteen.
In the brightest part of the sky a blue-green mist hovered, moving here and there, tangling itself with the stellar sea. I breathed deeply. It was amazing. My eyes widened. I had never seen that many stars. I heard the river, crickets, a deep bark rolling over the hills and water. Nothing was ever completely still, quiet, but in rare moments things were slow enough, calm enough to hear the whisper of life and meaning. The stars filled my eyes as the sound of the river gliding past filled my ears. I didn’t even know its name, and it didn’t matter.
In Africa, by this river, I did not recognize any of the stars (not that I knew any of them back in Florida). I had known that I would not recognize any in the Southern Hemisphere. I knew because I read it, and what I read had to be true because it was in a book. I also knew that I was standing in Namibia, looking at Angola. Namibia was a good land — a democracy, like my home, but Angola was not so great. It was in a civil war. Not that the Angolans were responsible for it, but that did not matter. My brother was staying in another part of Namibia, his guest house penetrated by Angolan bullet holes. But the river! The river separated us and them, drawing a line, a boundary, as rivers and people do. It flowed down to find my brother in the west.
We had flown from Orlando to London. I do not remember much about flying over the Atlantic; I mainly slept and watched movies, or played card games with other vagabonds. If there was any turbulence, I slept through it. Flying was almost a disappointment; I expected drama. Even though I was little I still had to cram into small seats with uncomfortable armrests. And the air had a taste. I had never experienced air that tasted. It tasted like uncapped water that had sat in an over-stuffed refrigerator for a month and a half, acquiring the odd combination of every flavor around it. It tasted like everybody, conspiring together; I could taste every stranger.
African air tasted too; it tasted like every friend. It tasted like clay and water, dying vegetation and dust. It tasted as humanity must have tasted for millions of years — animated dust with beauty in every being. I knew, looking back at the States, how sterile everything was — streets lacked dirt, even trash cans had bags. Africa’s taste was soiled.
I took another breath, turning my head down, away from the stars. The river was still flowing past, ebbing slowly along. I paused, then went back into the dark. I found my way from the cabins, at the east end of the resort, to the center lodge. I entered an open-aired, thatch-roofed, extremely large gazebo. Around me were wooden tables and chairs, and some other occupants of Kaquezi. I shivered. Though it was the middle of July, I was freezing. Of course, my parents and books had told me that this side of the planet tilts away from the sun during what I thought of as the summer months. I was still shocked that it was 40 degrees, and being from Florida, that was cold. I pulled my hoodie around my face as I sat down in a chair near the fire.
Sitting there, my thoughts began to congeal — traveling awakens me. Where am I? Am I one of those little points of light, millions of millions of miles away from anything, and content to be that? Can a star be lonely? Can it be cold? Can it be tasted? Could I be a little son of a sun, exiled from my origin, alone in the cosmic waves? But perhaps, someday, wandering far from home, I would finally figure out what it meant to be there — to belong, to be warm, to be. I hoped as much, staring into the crackling fire that breathed smoke, up and up, out through the hole in the roof to the stars, who waited patiently, expectantly, for the taste of earth to rise ever so slowly upward, for stardust to return to stardust.
Two weeks later I spent the day at the “Ark,” an AIDS orphanage. I had played with, laughed with, and smelt children. But children seemed like the wrong word. These miniature people had never been children; they were older than most of us on the team. How could they not be? They had suffered beyond their years. But as night came, it was time to leave my new playmates behind and head back to camp. Then, as the team was piling into the cars, with dozens of so-called kids hanging around and unto us, someone had an idea: let’s get them some ice cream. We had noticed a grocery store on our way here not that far back, so we headed there.
I don’t remember exactly what the streets surrounding the Ark looked like that night, but I remember feeling dread for the people out on them. The winter night was cold and I had on my blue jacket, but out there, on the other side of the window, in the dark, there was no warmth, no security, and if a kid died tonight, no one would notice. His death would be the last, soft, fading note of a failing symphony — too dim and quiet to be heard. I shook the feeling off. That was the other side of the window.
We reached the store and came out of our fifteen-passenger van and two six-passenger SUVs, then walked across the dusty, dimly lit parking lot — away from the three newest vehicles for miles around. I walked across the broken glass and rocks, happy in my ignorance. I would not leave the store the same way.
The lights in the store were bright overhead, and the aisles were jammed together, a jungle of supplies, squeezed into a space a little larger than an average gas station. We filtered up and down the aisles. I stuck close to my older brother, Jamie, whom I had not seen or talked to in a week. We had been at our different stations in Namibia, working on different things, but finally, at the end of our trip, we could hang out. Standing at 6’2”, Jamie was a giant, like Dad. His arms could surround me, could keep me warm and out of harm. We wandered around the shelves and packaged goods, trying to find a treat or two for ourselves. How about this, Jamie? What do you think of that? Oh, I’d bet this would be delicious, brother. Tug. Tug. Tug. I pulled from behind. Follow me. I think the ice cream is this way.
Eventually we found it, and everybody else did as well. Someone got what we needed for the Ark, and we each got something for ourselves as well. Those who were heading back to drop off the ice cream checked out first.
I approached the checkout lane ahead of my brother. And there, standing in front of me, were two brothers. Even now, they are difficult to describe, the dust and grime covering the nuances of detail that I could have seen. The older one, the taller one, was wearing a dirty white T-shirt and dull, tattered red shorts. The younger brother wore shorts as well, but I don’t remember their color; his dirty pink winter coat, some rich kid’s donation or discard, overwhelmed my eyes. The older brother, probably only eight, could have taken the coat from the five-year-old, but instead he sacrificed his own skin.
But what were they even doing there? I saw a little fist drop a few coins into the extended hand of the clerk, whose eyes showed no real shock. The man handed over their purchase — two lollipops. Just small, normal lollipops, like the Dum-Dums I would get at the doctor’s office, along with a sticker or two. But these two boys had bought the candy with possibly their only pennies.
They were leaving. Numbly, I walked forward — do something, I told myself; anything. Scream. Shout. But I only mumbled my thanks to the clerk after giving him my money for the ice cream. I was mechanical. Where am I? What am I doing? Outside again. Looking down those dark streets. Two figures — those two boys! — skipping, I don’t believe it, skipping away. They were happy. How could they not be?
Two orphans were skipping away into the night, and I watched them go, ice cream dripping on my hand. I turned around. Jamie was looking at me. He had seen it. We had both seen it. But we had done nothing.
I lay down in bed that night and knew a darkness that I had seen, and that I had perpetuated. Why did I close my eyes that night, with the sheet over my head, with eyes that wouldn’t even water? It was the last night I spent in Africa, but not the last night I spent thinking about those two boys, those two brothers that could have been something different, even if I had smiled, even if I had looked. Even if I was.
In July 2005 I traveled with my dad and mom to Honduras, a grease-oven of a country in Central America, along with a team of thirty assembled from various churches in Florida. I was halfway through high school. We went to help some people in a village destroyed by a hurricane a few years back.
My parents said they were proud of me. I was “going out of my comfort zone.” Apparently, that’s some invisible line drawn somewhere around the self; a line that, when crossed, transforms us into brave or godly or whatever people. And by going to Honduras, by serving people I would not know in three weeks, I was crossing that line.
Under the watchful expectations of my parents, I tried to live up to what they wanted from me. My dad has always said he loves me for who I am, and perhaps that is true, perhaps just as true as “this is going to hurt me more than it will you.” They love me, and I love them, but it seemed I was always under some sort of expectation — to be something or to do something. Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned. What? What did you do? I imagine not an angry nor a harsh tone, but one of disappointment: how can you be my son?
The trip out to the little village of Zona Americana took thirty minutes. Leaving our condos, we traveled out of the city into the countryside, taking a paved road out to a left turn that took us up a mountain path. The large bus we took always rocked, gently and not so gently, as we passed by hillside communities where people struggled along, working for slave wages at the banana plantations further up the road.
We stared sterilely out the windows at all those places where we could have served, and we continued on to another little place on another little hill. I tried to imagine what living there would be like; seeing the same people every day, and only those people, and a car driving by would be an exciting, noteworthy happening. I would have to get comfortable with dirt — not the way I am comfortable with it now, knowing I will take a shower in a few hours, but instead living in that state.
I first saw Freddy running around with his friends, playing soccer. Laura, a fellow team member, and I decided to play with them. We went over and gestured that we would like to join them. Freddy, a little boy with bright, curious eyes, gestured to me to kneel down. I did, not knowing what was going on, and he went behind me and climbed up onto my back. Okay, I thought, I can do this — play soccer in work boots on rocky ground in 100 degree heat and near-total humidity with a kid on my back.
Twenty minutes later Freddy and I were inseparable. Needless to say we had dominated in soccer, laughing and sweating together. He had an instinct about him, and I had the size and speed. But the heat won in the end, and we headed to the uncompleted church, which had a roof — the only communal shade. There I spoke in halting Spanish and he just smiled and laughed at me for even trying. I was able to communicate that my mom was standing nearby, and that my dad was the man with the mustache. It wasn’t much but after that time, I always looked for Freddy and he looked for me, and then we would play or hang out or work together, attempting to build a better community for him. I should have realized that I could have been building one for myself.
It was our last day in Zona Americana. We had not completed all the projects, but that was okay. With our clinic, with our time spent with these people, we had helped. Perhaps that is the only way we can ever help anyone. Is that how we show we care? We have dug into a mountain, but that rarely demonstrates love, and besides, the mountain always wins.
I was there that last day working away, trying to finish up one last path, from the church to the main road — it was only about twelve feet, but it was going to be a good path. I was tidying it up the best I could, and then my dad came over to call me down to the cars, since we were leaving soon. I gathered up my tools and headed down the mountain. I wondered if I was going to see Freddy again. It was time to say good-bye. How many transient relationships have I had?
I pined a little bit, as I do every time I have to leave a place, but then my mom tapped my shoulder and pointed behind me as she smiled; I turned around and saw Freddy running down the hill after me. “Freddy!” I started to run up the hill, but it was harder than coming down, so he met me. And for a moment I was real. Freddy embraced me, and I, him. His small, malnourished nine-year-old body folded into my sweaty arms. He gave me a sheet of paper with his name and a number. A phone number. Freddy’s parents ran the local store, so he had access to a phone. We both knew I didn’t speak very good Spanish, at least not well enough for a good-bye or a phone conversation, but I took the number and put it in my pocket, thinking that I could learn if we didn’t forget about each other.
With Freddy’s arms around my neck and mine holding him up, I breathed. In that moment I was a person. In that moment, I smelled Africa again, that connection, that solid breath that is life. I don’t remember letting go. I don’t remember getting in the bus. I don’t remember leaving. I remember never calling.
A fan oscillated softly in the room, battling the sticky heat as I lay on the bed. I was the furthest I’ve ever been from home, having traveled in the last four years across human history: from rural Africa to village life in Honduras to where I was then living, in the capital city of Cambodia, Phnom Penh.
I couldn’t see the stars from there, and the trees were small and few. What has humanity become? We surround ourselves with exhaust and noise, concrete and trash-filled streets, children riding with pigs and their feces, children who are sold for sex and men who buy them. We are alone, disconnected from clean air, clean water, green growth, any semblance of order, and even from our fellow human beings. The beacon of civilization, the city, is our home, lacking only the civilized.
As the heat ebbed, images floated in and out of my head. A dirty orphan in the market, begging for life. Two prostitutes, dressed in black with dyed red hair, trying to seduce bread, but needing love. A brown river, its banks lined with houses and refuse — soda bottles, paper, tires, debris the rich don’t need and the poor live off of. Streets, shaded by buildings that housed five-year-old sex slaves, now empty, the market having moved due to police enforcement. A bus, filled with travelers, coming home or merely visiting. But how could hell be home and who would visit?
Perhaps the people outside this room were not in hell. But lying on that bed I abstracted them, considered them more as characters in the movie of my life, with me as the lonely main character, searching for identity. But even in hell a routine developed: I got up every day; had a rice breakfast, along with fruit and perhaps some oatmeal; got my bike and rode down to the church’s school to teach English; came back; ate lunch; took a nap; read; visited an NGO; had dinner; went to bed. Repeat.
The heat nailed me to the bed. And the images floated away, only to be replaced by the sense of disconnect and despair. Why am I here? And how long have I been here? Time seemed to work differently. I lived a day, but absorbed what seemed to be years of age. How do I explain what it means to live so close to death with so much life? How do I explain how I live with the faces of the dead? How do I ever tell anyone about them?
The heat began to overtake my consciousness, and my mind slowly let go of its hold on truth. I see three boys, all of whom I have disappointed. They’re coming to forgive me. But I can’t touch them; I can’t hear them; I can only imagine where they are or what they would say.
The worst thing about traveling is coming back. I don’t understand how comets can do it. The cycle is alienating and destructive. I arrive back in Orlando on a Thursday morning, July 27. My parents and my girlfriend, Amanda, and a few other friends are waiting at the gate, but not for me. They are waiting for the Jeremy that left, and he was never coming back. In my memory, I never leave the gate — I’m still in Namibia, Zona Americana, Phnom Penh, anywhere but here. I see them waving in the distance, but I cannot approach them, I don’t know who they are. They’re faces I saw in another life, on a different planet, under a different sun. I see them through windows opaque with experience.
Amanda looks at me with eyes I once loved, but now I only see pain there. She knows that she doesn’t know me, and she knows that this will end. Everything ends. Spouses may die, friends may leave, children may starve, and even stars explode. Everything flows, and unless we are riding together, we are always taken to different places. Is the gap uncrossable? Is the difference too great? Can I touch those that waited? My life has run parallel to them for so long now, a lifetime really. I have seen life, death, suffering, and poverty, but what have they seen or done? How could they understand? The experience was so singular, so individual, that nothing can compare — like stepping outside of the window, off the bus, while they remained inside. And as a star, composed and seated in the indiscriminate and unforgiving Black, windowed by the sky, far off and far removed, I have been cleansed from their sterility, and now am in my own. I have been cleansed, but I’ve lost my breath.
Copyright 2009, Jeremy Heuslein
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