Moving day

Princes, adorn yourselves!
This earthly house is not our home.
Princes, adorn yourselves! 

A fragment of old poetry, translated from Nahuatl to Spanish to English. I did the Spanish-English translation years ago, but still don’t know what the writer meant by Princes, adorn yourselves! To prepare for the journey? To celebrate it?

Put on me a necklace
Of varied flowers.
They are in my hands,
Garlands flower on me.
We will leave the earth here.
We are loaned to one another.
We go to His house.

That’s another translation. I’m guessing it’s from the same Nahuatl original.

I left my bottle of flowers on a random doorstep, because they would not travel well. Hopefully the person who finds the daffodils in the lemonade bottle will be pleasantly surprised. My garlands are boxes of clothing, a red bicycle, and an unused banjo in need of repair. The Asheville apartment was boxed up, the forecast was rain. A good excuse to linger in town, postpone loading the bike rack until tomorrow… an unexpected urge, given my excitement to leave. But the daffodils and forsythia were out, and the redbuds were fat, and the birds sang. Spring was about to pop. It’s rumored that spring and summer in Asheville are top notch: festivals, music, exuberance, joy. There’s a lot more to see and do here. But maybe another year. I packed boxes into the car between spells of drizzle, grateful for the slight clearing. My week of solitude had been enjoyable, but it was time to go.

Hot beverage
Typical evening fun

I’d reverted, laughably quickly, to a tame spinsterhood in J.’s absence. (He left for Georgia several days before. His paying job was over, and he was drafted as a shuttler of recently repaired family vehicles.) Alone in the apartment, I was like a grandmother in an independent living facility: baby carrots and popcorn and microwaved soup for dinner, washing my singleton dishes to a soundtrack of NPR on a clock radio, in bed by 9:30, wrapped in blankets with a candle on the nightstand, reading my library book until it’s no longer indecently early to fall asleep. Not unfun, really.

I also read Asheville: A History, by Nan Chase. Without the internet, which J. took with him, I actually visited the library in person. After reading a few chapters after work, I’d walk around town, absorbing the living history, comparing notes and impressions with the history I’d learned. The book explained many previously confounding Asheville paradoxes. Despite an SUV’s bumpersticker that proclaimed “Keep Asheville Mediocre,” Asheville is a city of extremes, nothing mediocre about it.  “Asheville: Sweet Cesspool of Sin,” sported by more than a few rundown Toyotas, may be a bit more apt. Because the town contains both the grand Art Deco high school… and the painful and belated racial integration of same. The Grove Park Inn… and crumbling sidewalks. Magnificent public edifices… and apathy masquerading as uniqueness or bohemianism. The liberal “Coexist!” enthusiasm… the persistent segregation of the community. Pride and neglect. Warmth and coolness. Skill at craft and music, skill at boozing and mooching. Even an unenlightened newcomer can sense the legacy of the extreme boom-and-bust cycles of Asheville, which, after the Depression, had the greatest per-capita debt of any city in the United States. It took until 1976 for those debts to be paid: a wonderful time capsule for architecture, but a lousy omen for infrastructure. The effects still reverberate today in overgrown underbrush (is that an oxymoron?), the kudzu choking the flowering trees, nature overtaking blacktop.

Triangle Park Mural
A small part of the Triangle Park Mural

After clocking those last few, historically tinted miles on my labyrinthine MapMyRun of Asheville Ramblings, it was time for goodbyes, or goodbye-for-nows. I did not make fast friends here. I am a slow friendmaker. But I did make a handful of lovely acquaintances with potential. I made cocoa truffles as a gesture of thanks for my coworkers, dusted with red Hawaiian sea salt, toasted coconut, and cayenne pepper. For Carl and Jude, the lovely couple at the Farmacy Juice & Tonic Bar; for Rosanne, kind owner of the Market—the folks who let me paint their windows. For Sumitra, the tea bar woman who soothed J. and my post-move nerves with Pu-erh. And for my workmates, whether stylish, quiet, mysterious, jack-up, depressed, grumpy, kind, and/or deeply good. All containing hidden talents which I did not stay long enough to know. Everyone wrote notes in a card that Nicki gave to me along with that lemonade bottle filled with daffodils. Really touching notes. I was surprised to feel so sad to leave them. Does a part of me like leaving places because leaving makes people show you their affection?

We are loaned to one another.
We go to His house.

It’ll be good to return to the mothership for a few days: J.’s parents’ house. To smell country air and watch bluets, violets, and henbit shade the lawn lavender. To squeeze onto the sofa between family, one old cat, three dogs, maybe a rabbit. Then it is on to the next house, and again and again, until we make our own. Our own bit of earth, until we leave it. Every day is moving day!

Jungle routine

Even the wild becomes routine.

Between chicken duties (doodies?), I am painting as many signs as possible, which is satisfying. Yvonne laughed to hear me say that this is the best art studio I’ve ever had, given that it’s an old woodshed that was full of junk, spiders, and one small boa. But now it’s just got two or three cute iguanas who monitor the perimeter, open air, a jungle view, a spigot. Privacy. Equipment to cut and sand boards. And it’s just a three minute walk from home.

Meanwhile, Johnathan and J. have been working together on the volunteer cabina, though neither speaks the other’s language. They communicate in hand gestures and grunts. To accompany these, they make up meaningless syllables that sound to them like the opposite language. J. has learned a few Spanish words: Buenos días, buenas tardes, gracias, carpintero, hola, café negro, vivo, y muerto. An odd smattering. He has built a new outhouse for the composting toilet, and is working on stairs that aren’t rickety and crooked. Johnathan has erected a beautiful canopied awning in front, providing much needed shade and rain cover.

On our weekends, Tuesdays and Wednesdays, we usually ride into town with Mike or Yvonne, then get our tourism on. J. is happy going from café to café, relaxing and sipping local coffee and trying every flavor of fruit refresco and the occasional milkshake. We also might rent bicycles, kayaks, or snorkel gear. I sometimes have trouble relaxing on weekends, since days off are a precious, limited commodity and must be maximized, every second! Then I drag J someplace hot, or make a less than ideal choice of restaurant, and suffer regret. One night I wound up, PMSing in a stuffy hostel room, cranky and sunworn, totting up the amazing speed with which we had burned through 50,000 colones, and felt like nothing more than crying into what turned out to be a moldy pillow. Cry me a river, vacationing gringa! If only I surrendered more easily. Our neighbor writes self help books about being intuitive and letting things flow as guided by one’s higher power. I don’t know how well most people walk that talk, but I could stand to do better.

Just as we get used to this, used to the cycles of heat and cooling, work and rest, used to sinking gladly into our plastic chairs every evening at six, clean after quick showers with a sunset view, waiting for the breadfruit fries to brown… we realize that we have less than a week of volunteering left. Just as I begin to imagine that we have always been here and always will be (which happens everywhere), it is time to hit the road. Take a deep breath, erase our domestic presence from the cozy cabina, shake up the routine again. Change takes a toll, but we’ll be ready. Tropical farm life is good, but without a car it’s difficult to get out and do anything between chicken shifts (approximately 7 am, 11:30, and 4:30 pm). Instead, we read, pick crazy flowers, play guitar, hang out the laundry, think, and cook. All pleasurable habits, but I’m still aware that beautiful Arrecife beach is three miles away, aqua and inviting and just out of reach. So… Arenal Volcano, Monteverde Cloud Forest, and who knows where else… we will soon be on our way!

P. S. Update on the household creature situation: the morning after I posted “Freakout,” I awakened to find a scorpion in the sink, scuttling around a dinner plate and fork. I pulled the girl card and got J to kill it (with the machete!). When I scooped up its body with a soon-to-be-washed fork, it sounded like a dangly metal necklace. J. found another in his shower towel. When he tried to kill it, he only severed its tail, which clung to the wall and stung itself repeatedly until it died. The body ran away, weaponless but presumably pissed. We would think it still roams the bedroom, except that afternoon we received a benevolent visit from the cleaner ants. They periodically take over one’s house and comb it like a landmine team of several hundred, consuming dead insect parts, gecko eggs, and who knows what else. While they do, it’s best to stay out of their way and let them perform their service in peace. So we think they took care of the scorpion. We’ve not seen him again.


We’re here. It took some doing: a car ride, Megabus, walking (while toting our luggage, much heavier than backpacking gear), the Atlanta subway, two planes, two taxis, a Costa Rican express bus, and a bumpy Jeep ride. Two days of travel. Nervous the night before: We’re doing this. I’m the planner. New country. Traveling en espanol, which is pretty rusty twelve years away from my Latin American Studies major. What am I dragging J. into?

But we did fine, and lucked out: every link was on time and the miniature guitar didn’t get smashed. The Spanish is coming back fast, the vocabulary if not the grammar. It does take practice dividing prices by 500. It’s terrifying to withdraw 10,000 colones from your debit account, but that’s only $20. On our first grocery run we wound up with a six dollar, eight ounce bag of sunflower seeds… and a bag of something called sal inglaterra that is white granules, but definitely not salt. (The beans ended up pretty tasteless after two hours of cooking in it.) Next time we’ll buy what the locals buy. We have been enjoying the delicious pan y pasteles y, of course, frutas. The $35 hotel where we ended up that first night after our midnight arrival served a morning banquet of homemade breads, jams, and tropical fruit, which was a lovely initiation for J’s first trip outside North America. He’s also a big fan of the peanut doughnuts they sell at the bus station deli.

Immediately I was amazed by the difference between this country and Nicaragua (of 2001, but I doubt these aspects have changed there)… No huelepegas – kids who sniff paint cans that they hide in tattered long sleeved shirts, to dull the hunger. No little boy with wet eyes crawling down the aisles of the bus with a shoeshine rag, rubbing it against sneakers and begging for coins. We saw one guy sleeping on the street in San José, but that’s about a dozen guys fewer than I expected.

We have not merely shunted between tourist districts, either. We walked to the Supermercado Jumbo to buy cafe and use the ATM, and took the bus that all the locals use, from San José to Puerto Viejo via the shipping port city of Limon. It was a real city bus, though tight. (Nicaraguan buses are repurposed US school buses, painted uniquely in glorious colors and named, clung to and hung out of.) We flew through traffic – driving is about as wild as elsewhere in Centroamerica – through exhaust smelling streets, ignoring stop signs and other directives that I like to think are not optional. Then the narrow highway rose over a twisty, misty mountain range, making J. slightly green, before descending to the Caribbean coast. Four and a half long hours, but it was good to see so much of the country right away.

The campo got increasingly beautiful the further we rode. By the time we reached the beachy, hippie town of Puerto Viejo, it was gorgeous coastline with colorfully painted and repainted houses all along the narrow road, and bicyclists, pedestrians, and motor vehicles of all sorts weaving around each other.

Now we’re on the farm in our own little house. The low, rolling calls of howler monkeys start at five. If you didn’t know they were skinny, cute little critters in trees, you’d think from the noise that a pack of giants with bellyaches was about to close in on you. Then the birds start. Would you believe that this is actually a pleasant way to wake up?

There’s a lot more to describe, but it will have to wait for our next spell at an internet cafe. Hasta luego!