How to Keep a Childhood Promise

part one—a taste

I’m in Oaxaca with my mother. I’m thirteen years old, and it’s the first time my mother has taken me out of the country. My grandfather thinks we’re on vacation in Florida, and my mother reminds me “not to tell Poppy” so many times that I start wondering if we’re really in Mexico or just a part of Florida that isn’t flat. 

Casitas the color of pomegranate and persimmon cling to the hillside at the all-inclusive, and my mother and I wear beaded bracelets to pay for extras. She posts up poolside en la mañana, and I do water aerobics with my hands in the air. My mother thinks I’m waving at her. I kayak, snorkle, and paint clay. 

Eventually, I make a few friends, white kids like me from the suburbs. By day we hit tennis balls, smoke cigarettes, and lay out topless on our windsurfing boards. By night we trade some of our beads for drinks at the on-property disco that allows kids. My mother doesn’t worry because we’re inside the resort. 

Some of these kids go on excursions with their families—catamaran trips to offshore reefs, horseback riding, fishing. My mother isn’t sure it’s safe to leave the resort, but she consults with the frontdesk and eventually we compromise on a short morning trip to a craft market. We go in a van with other Americans wearing coordinated outfits and clean white sneakers. 

My mother says it isn’t safe to drink anything outside the resort, but lets me buy a Coke that I’m allowed to drink only after she sanitizes the cap with a wet wipe from her purse, which hugs her body tight thanks to a cross-body strap. It’s not just Mexico; my mother’s home city of New York was full of purse snatchers in the 1980s, and she learned to take precautions. 

“Put it across your body,” my grandmother says, demonstrating “but be aware they might also cut the straps right offya, so holdontoit.” Decades before fuhgeddaboudit leapt the Hudson River and became known worldwide, my grandmother strung words together in that classic New York way so they appeared to be one—turning entire phrases into single words—rendering them both incomprehensible and beyond translation to non-native ears.

I learned a little Spanish in school, but I awkwardly counted pesos in the market and was too embarrassed to barter. I fell in love with the textiles and wanted to be wrapped in that brightness, but my haul was small—a woven ankle bracelet, a silver ring, and a few wooden figures. The figurines were bright and whimsical, not of this world—a donkey with butterfly wings, a rooster with bull horns—and when I got home I placed them around our home to lend light and promise to our beige-on-beige backdrop.

part two: a vision

I’m fifteen years old. I’m standing in the threshold of my great-grandmother’s galley kitchen in New York City. At the far end is a round table with too many chairs around it, though they only sit on three sides because nobody dares back up against the sizzling radiator. The radiator is under the window, so by default they’re all looking out of it and at a brick wall. 

One section of the wall has a carefully tended vine growing in the shape of a tree of life, tending to by the Tibetan neighbors. Another section has an old metal ladder that doesn’t do much beyond capturing the plastic bags that blow in on the regular. 

Huddled around the table is my great grandmother and her four living daughters, plus my mother and her cousin. They are having a conversation, but mostly it sounds like sighing. Somebody complains that the coffee is lousy, bic lighters flick, cigarettes tap into ashtrays. Their inhales sound like warnings and their exhales like whistles. I wonder if this is contagious. 

My great-grandmother tells me to go to her jewelry box and grab the two-dollar bill she left for me. “Go buy myself an ice-cream pop,” my great-grandmother says. “Get a couple boxes,” my grandmother says, “one is not enough.” My grandmother knows that one is never enough. 

Somebody asks if I can pick up a pack of cigarettes. Somebody else says that is ridiculous. Then they don’t want to let me out of the house alone. Finally they agree on something. Eventually they make a plan, and the whole pack of us goes into the street. 

We’re looking for two of the male cousins who’ve been on a bender for days or years depending on the angle. Nobody in the family has seen them in about a week, so we start asking strangers on the street, poking our heads into bars. My eyes cross the boulevard and land on a blond surfer-looking dude with a pink, popped-collar Polo shirt and a bomber jacket. My grandmother tells me that he’s my cousins’ drug dealer, and every syllable out of her mouth begins with a razor and ends with a knife. She folds me into her body and covers my face.

“Don’t look at her!” she yells to the drug dealer across five lanes of taxis and busses and everything short a rickshaw, but he can’t make out what she’s saying, so he comes toward us. We meet on the corner and I don’t dare make eye contact or sneak a peek. I remember him being polite and smelling like Drakkar Noir. He hadn’t seen the boys.

A few hours later the boys are still missing and anxiety has reached a new high. The women are gathered back around the kitchen table. The ashtray is filling. Most of them don’t drink, but a couple of them crack effervescent beers to take a bit of the edge off, though they don’t drink past the neck of the bottle. They need their wits! 

One of my great-aunts rubs her hand up and down her thigh, as if wiping a stain. She thinks she’s hiding her anxiety under the table. My grandmother picks at her fingernails, my mother files her edges. I stand there in the doorway, promising myself that I’ll live in another culture some day. 

part three: hear, listen

A dozen years later I leave for my first solo trip abroad. I’d gone to Mexico a few more times with my mother, and to Puerto Rico. I went to Jamaica with my husband, but now I’m his ex-wife and I’m going to Guatemala by myself. I don’t yet know what I don’t know. 

I’ll be meeting up with a writing group, but first I’ll spend a week traveling alone. I’ve read the guide books and know that Guatemala City isn’t an ideal place for me to stay by myself, so I arrange to stay in the colonial city of Antigua. The hotel will send a driver.

It’s not that I lack street-smarts. My mother taught me not to make eye contact with the junkies, not to walk alone after dark on deserted streets, not to open my wallet and show all my cash. I know that I should leave my expensive watch at home, and that a backpack will give me the look of someone who doesn’t have a lot of money, someone not worth kidnapping, though I’ll later learn on the streets of Tegucigalpa that almost any American is worth kidnapping. 

I get off the plane, file through immigration, and collect my pack, which is giant, like the kind you’d take on wilderness adventure in the backcountry. I don’t see a person holding a sign with my name it. I step onto the sidewalk, and still—no sign. I don’t realize it yet, but mine is the last plane to land for the day. This becomes clear as the crowd thins and doesn’t replenish. An American couple asks me if I’m ok and I tell them I have a ride coming. I wait an hour, then two. I’m still wearing the big backpack, and its weight increases by the minute. It’s getting late, maybe ten en la noche. I withdraw quetzales from the ATM machine and buy a bag of chips so I have a few coins for the payphone. 

I call the hotel and they’re glad to hear from me. They say that my first driver broke down and then they sent a second one but he got a flat tire, and gee, they can’t believe I’m still waiting. They tell me it’s about a forty-minute drive from Guatemala City to Antigua and that I should grab a cab. They say the drive might take an hour because there are hazards in the road at night—mostly livestock, probably not Zetas—but, and they laugh, at least there won’t be traffic leaving the city. They tell me they’ll wait up.

I’m angry and don’t hide it when I ask if it’s safe for me, alone, at this hour. There was a reason I booked their hotel and arranged for a ride in advance, to avoid this. They don’t make any promises, they just say, “Probably.” Then they tell me it might be hard to get someone to come this far so late. “So good luck,” they say. 

In the two hours I’ve been waiting, I’ve been asked thirty times if I need a taxi, but by now most of the drivers have called it quits. I scan the few that are left, and I try to be stealth but I’m also aware that stealth is not in my current wheelhouse. I wanted to dress low-key for my travel day, but my bright teal backpack and electric purple fleece make me feel like a Bird-of-Paradise in a sea of cinder block.

I pick the least eager-looking driver, sort of the way I pick puppies, and approach the passenger-side window of his car to ask if he’ll go to Antigua. I explain what happened with my other two drivers breaking down. I try to make it funny. I tell him the hotel is expecting me, not exactly as a threat, but more like a fact. 

He says yes to the ride and offers to put my backpack in the trunk. I quickly scan my brain for all the things I’m supposed to look out for while traveling, and tell him I’d rather keep my pack in the back seat. This leaves little room for me, so I’m pressed against the door of his small Corolla. I double check that the door is locked. Vamos. 

He starts speaking to me in Spanish and I’m a little uncomfortable that he’s looking at me in the rearview mirror and doesn’t have his eyes on the road, though I’m not sure which is more worrisome. “Más despacio, por favor,” I say. Please slow down. I mean his words, not his driving. He hears me. “Mi español no es muy bueno,”  I say, “Un minuto, por favor.”

I dig into the top pocket of my backpack and pull out my headlamp and Spanish-English dictionary specific for Guatemala. I ask him to repeat himself. He’d asked me a question and now I’m preparing myself to answer. I knew he asked me something about a man, but before I answered I needed to be clear if he was asking if I have a man or if I want a man. 

I blank on the verbs for have and want—tienes and quieres, such basics—but I know that my one-word answer has the potential to make or break this night. 

“No echcuche,” I tell him. “I didn’t hear you.”

“Quieres un hombre?” He asks me, looking again in the mirror. He asked if I want a man. 

I decided to remove want from the equation. 

“Si, tengo un hombre.” I say,  “No, no necesito un hombre.”

Yes I have a man. No I don’t need a man.

part 4: “The first condition of understanding a foreign country is to smell it.” (Rudyard Kipling)

I was thirty-one-years-old when I moved to Honduras for an undetermined amount of time, my only goal to fulfill that childhood promise of living in another culture. I couldn’t wing it with accommodations because I wasn’t traveling light. In addition to my duffel bags, I had my massage table and my long-legged wolfdog that required a jumbo-size crate. I rented an apartment sight-unseen off the internet and hoped for the best.

Because the dog crate precluded us from the smaller planes that fly directly to the island, our journey included several modes of transportation, and each leg was separated from the others by at least one night at a hotel because that was the only way to string them together logistically. 

We began at our home in Montana with an eight-hour drive, then a night in Salt Lake City before flying to Houston. Lucky’s plane ticket was already more expensive than mine, and if he left the airport the price doubled, so he stayed at the kennel and I stayed at a hotel. I ordered chicken fingers and fries and started an extended process of second guessing. In the morning I met a man on the shuttle back to the airport who knew nothing about me, but questioned my decision to live on a island thirty miles off the coast of Honduras.

“Do you know how remote that is?” He asked me.

“Have you ever been to Montana?” I asked him.

Next Lucky and I flew to San Pedro Sula, where we met up with one of my best teenage friends and stayed there several night because I wanted to buy a truck. That was unsuccessful, so we hired a guy to take us on a long, dusty pickup ride across Honduras, after which my black dog was so dusted he looked like a German Shepherd.

We stayed the night in La Ceiba, where we were entertained by an American military retiree who had a full-size tattoo of a hand giving the middle finger on his forehead. The end of the journey included a ferry ride to the island, which—let me assure you—was not like the ferry to Nantucket. Lucky rode in the cargo area with the luggage and other dogs and chickens who did not have luxury dog crates, but who were in cardboard boxes with tiny openings for their snouts and beaks. I spent the 90-minute ride leaned over the railing as I watched waves crash onto the deck and fill Lucky’s crate before flowing out.

This was a few years after 9/11, but the year that waterboarding made the news as a technique used in Guantanamo Bay as an interrogation technique. 

“You’re okay, baby, you’re okay,” I repeated to him, knowing he couldn’t hear me but hoping the message would somehow be received.

We got off the ferry in the hectic village of Coxen Hole, and needed to arrange transport to my place, which required two taxis for the three of us and all of my stuff. When we arrived at the apartment the manager wasn’t there to let us in, so we sat in the sun until a neighbor brought us beers and offered dog water for Lucky.

The Canadian property manager finally arrived arrived—several hours late—to show us around. She arrived in a Suzuki Samurai with the doors rusted off. Her yellow hair had turned to straw and she’d lost so much weight she’d given up on wearing anything more than a sarong, under which her deflated breasts swung like two tube socks with shot glasses in the bottom. 

“Don’t mind the smell of the water,” she said, “it’s rich with sulfur and you’ll love it—it’s amazing for your skin.”

The water wasn’t great for my skin. I got mosquito bites that got infected and turned into abscesses. I got a Hondureño boyfriend who told me he couldn’t shower at my place because the smell of the water made him gag. The sulfur smell increased daily, and my boyfriend said, “Sorry, baby, but that’s not sulfur.”

Eventually my water flow reduced to a trickle, and the property manager had someone come look inside the cistern, which was shared by a few people. They discovered that our cistern has almost no room for actual water because it was filled to capacity with bloated, decaying rats. I did the next logical thing: I bought my own house.

part 5: touch 

The power is out in the supermercado. In the absence of harsh, overhead light and conditioned air, the place is almost peaceful. The front doors are propped open with wedges of wood. Birds swoop and dive around the market. A woman shoos rats with a broom handle.

I know it’s hot because the bored cashiers fan themselves with rolled newspaper and the old, white men with beachball bellies walk around with their shirts unbuttoned. “Hey, lovely,” one of the old men calls to me with a Caracole accent. He runs the customs office, and the day I went to collect a few boxes, he was drinking Chivas out of a yoghurt cup at eight en la mañana, and he asked me to come around to his side of the desk so he could show me the papers. 

He went line by line through the paperwork, and at each one he dragged his pen across the paper, using enough force to make three carbon copies. The hair on my body stood on end as if that pencil was digging into me. When every line had a mark through it, he pushed his stamp into the ink pad and marked my page PAGADO. I owed nothing.

Now he’s standing in the doorway of the supermercado, which I’m trying to leave. The shelves had been picked over, and the only things left are boxes of crumbled saltines and dented cans of soup, but my shopping cart remains empty. I realize I’m leaning on it, using it like a walker, and it’s not just the heat that’s making me weak. My skin has that crawling feeling. The weight of my cotton dress feels like too much. The man touches me as I walk by. I try to ignore him, but he speaks: “Yuh burn fiyah, lovely, go si di doctor.”

I drive myself home, but by the time I arrive my head throbs and my hands shake and opening the corroded padlock on my gate is almost more than I can handle. I race to the shower, but the power is off at my house too, so no agua caliente. I get down on my knees and drag my suitcase out from under the bed. I’ve stashed a set of warm clothes in there on the off chance I needed to fly home during the colder months. I pull on knee socks, long underwear, fleece pants, a sweater, a wool cap. I wrap myself in a few cotton blankets and I get in my bed where I shake.

A few hours later, I heard noise from my upstairs neighbor and remembered it was his birthday party. He’d imported steaks from the USA and bought local lobster. I didn’t want to miss the surf-and-turf dinner, so I headed upstairs. As I reached the top of the stairs, I saw that most of the guests were still in bathing suits and sarongs. I was dressed for cross-country skiing. “You’re sick,” a woman told me, “It’s ninety-five degrees with ninety-five-percent humidity.”

In the morning I dragged myself, wrapped in blankets, to la clinica to get tested for both malaria and dengue, as the treatment is not the same, and taking the wrong one will make a person even sicker, though I could hardly imagine anything worse. I’d taken Tylenol for the fever and pain, and that interferes with the test results, so they sent me home to wait out 24-hours without painkillers.

The power was still out. I had no running water, no air conditioning, no fans, no light, and would be without for five days, the longest stretch I endured while I lived on the island. I attempted to mellow my fever by spreading as much of my body against the tile floor as possible. Inner thighs and arms, neck and check, belly. The absence of motors humming made everything more pronounced. Geckos chirping on the walls, crabs clicking on the tiles, my racing heart. I crawled around like a dog looking for the next cool spot. 

I soon found out that the treatment for malaria is almost as horrible as the disease itself, though the effects of the parasite and its cure lasted years longer than I could ever have imagined, which was sort of a prolonged hell.

I crawled around my apartment for days that felt like weeks. My toothbrush felt heavy, and my neighbor heaved pitchers of water into the toilet tank so I could flush. After the pain subsided, my skin began to itch. I couldn’t tolerate anything touching me, and the only thing that cooled the fire was floating in the sea.

six: hindsight— how not to be spoiled

I’ve returned from Honduras and I’m visiting my family in New York City. My mother and I are walking down Queens Boulevard, the main drag through heart of her neighborhood, which extends six blocks between two subway stops and boasts an impressive thirty-five different types of cuisine. 

A friend stops us on the street, asks me about my time in Honduras. I’m tired of trying to explain it to people who travel but don’t leave the resort, so I came come up with a schtick. 

“I went because I didn’t want to be a spoiled American my whole life, and I came back because I realized that being a spoiled American for the rest of my life wouldn’t be so bad.” Sometimes they laugh, gasp, or snort. Sometimes they just stare at me. 

“But by spoiled,” I continue, “I mean having access to things like electricity and clean water, being able to go to a store to buy basics like contact lens solution, tampons, fresh milk.”

I don’t tell them anything else. They need to see for themselves. If they want, if they dare, if they promised.