“Are you afraid of the mountain?” asked my unofficial guide and co teacher, Randall, after we had already been hiking for half an hour. “Should I be?” Oh well, too late. His staggeringly sharp jaw line eased momentarily to admit a laugh that only confirmed my own thought. Even if I had wanted to turn back the option was no longer there, as unobtainable as my urban site was visible.
Two months earlier, I stood waiting by the church, enjoying a cool evening that was busy painting the large leafy plants in the central park myriad shades of purple as the sun slipped behind the volcano. I had received a mysterious phone call from a friend of a friend who was curious about the Peace Corps and was wondering if I could help teach English is his small eight-student school in a remote tribal village. Feeling a broiling angst over the fact that I had been assigned a city of 80,000 people for my two year Peace Corps service, I couldn’t help but smile at the idea of living out the old-fashioned and romanticized vision of the Peace Corps I still somewhat clung to in my mind. I knew that the world is growing and that the old vision of the Peace Corps is out-dated, but I couldn’t shake the lust for a real adventure. I had always thought of my Peace Corps service as living in a remote village, with no running water, toilets or electricity, and yet I found myself in a larger city than the one I grew up in. Suddenly, a pair of sharp brown eyes caught mine, a quick introduction, a detailed discussion, and Randall and I had come to a decision. A complete stranger was offering me a chance to be the first citizen of the U.S.A. to venture to the Karkö tribe and make a fresh imprint, and I’d be a fool to pass it up.
After driving for four hours in a thirty year old Jeep into the surrounding mountains that helped form the Turrialbeña valley, I began to think I was in Vietnam. Rolling patch works of greenery dotted with cows, banana and coffee plants slowly morphed into steep mountains as we climbed up rocky twists and turns, until breezy pines and open skies surrounded us. Stopping briefly to buy supplies in the tiny border town of Grano de Oro we began our hike into the official indigenous territory. The logging road we had been rambling along took us to an abrupt drop off of deep red mud and thick, emerald foliage. And so began our descent. We chatted about the tribe, culture, taboos and native language and we walked down, down, down. The distance between Randall and I grew to reflect our natural paces: his fluid and fast due to the fact that he has made this strenuous commute to work twice a week for the past six years, and mine, unsure and cautious. My inner dialogue took over as we continued ducking, weaving, dodging, sliding and slopping. I began questioning my decision to put so much trust in this perfect stranger as I followed him further into the wilderness ahead. Suddenly, my ankles were wet with the aggressive mud that had rapidly over flowed the tops of my hiking boots. A firm voiced cut the humid air, “It gets dark earlier during the winter, so we have to move fast”. I glanced at the little sky I could see through the trees to confirm that the little sunlight we had was, in fact, fleeing at an alarming rate. My watch read 3.45 pm. We continued in a rushed silence, racing the darkening shadows. During the one quick break we took, the jungle seemed to move on without us, steadily inhaling and exhaling, as we stood tensely still, holding our own breath while listening to the invisible living creatures moving around us. The dusk was flooding into the few open spaces left and I was beginning to think that we would never end our hike, and that the mountain would never meet the river when the soft rush of water hit the hard air. The opaque greens parted to reveal large smooth boulders scattered in a river. Almost there. Our trail became a dirt path that lead us to multiple thatch huts. Randall stopped, said hello, gave a quick handshake, and let the village elders know that we would be having class the next morning. We continued on until a little yellow rectangle of a building gently glowed our official welcome. The school. Thank god, because night had consumed the few vacant spaces left in the jungle and I was beginning to feel claustrophobic. Exhausted, we showered, ate, and slept in the blackened and condensed silence of the night.
The next morning I sat on a wooden bench in the school’s comedor sipping on a well deserved cup of coffee noting the stark comparison of the jungle in the dusk and the morning. Through the large glassless windows I watched small white t-shirts bob out of the extensive tree line surrounding the school’s soccer field. As we began our awkward first class five pairs of large dark eyes gazed openly at me and darted away the moment I tried to make eye contact. At the end of what seemed like eons; we left the classroom. A small tug drew my attention downwards to see the smallest student at my elbow, her eyes widen as she met mine for the first time and she timidly squeaked, “Where are you from…?”
“California, in the United States of America.” Her large raven-colored eyes silently expanded in recognition of the name. The same small voice unexpectedly erupted with the question, “Do you play soccer?”.
The mid-day sun beat on the backs of our necks as we ran around the field barefoot, finally treading on some grassy common ground, the kids began to ask me questions that progressed to be bolder and bolder as their curiosity finally triumphed over their initial shyness. A sudden deluge herded us back into the small sunny schoolhouse as I came to the realization that Randall had scheduled a surprise adult class for the afternoon. After quickly drying off, I walked into the classroom once more to begin the same lesson, complete with multiple pairs of darting ebony eyes and pregnant silences. As we waited on the porch for the heavy tropical rain to lighten enough for my new students to sprint home, a brave soul asked me the same question; “Where are you from?”, and thus a new deluge began as, to my relief, the invisible barrier collapsed. We found a quickened comfort standing out on the humid porch watching the aggressive rain as my authoritative aura inside the classroom was washed away with the fat grey drops of rain.
Randall and I were waiting patiently on the dirt road that had begun our adventure. The thin mountain air stung our lungs as we reflected on the hike, the students and my future role. The same rugged jeep collected us. Trees swiftly tapered into scattered houses and houses into compacted cityscape. My adventure was over, and my oppidan Peace Corps life resumed its natural pace.
As I go about my work, rushing through the reverberate streets of my city, the jagged and wild mountains to the East hang patiently in the background. From their depths I can feel multiple pairs of wide onyx eyes, reminding me that they are waiting, that I have the responsibility of being their first introduction to the United States of America. No past impressions, no stereotypes to try and defy. To this day, I still sense their composed presence, hidden in the dark jungles to the East, beyond the distracting hum of my bustling valley city, simply waiting and watching with their wide black eyes brimming with the promise of a new, untainted start.