At age 22, Ellen Urbani left behind a classic Middle America upbringing, moving from a Southern sorority house into a scorpion-infested mud hut in order to live, work, and immerse herself in the culture of Guatemala's poorest villagers. There she encountered seven local women - among them the wife of a political martyr, a twelve-year-old incest victim, and an escapee from house arrest - whose experiences unexpectedly illuminated her own. Told with unflinching honesty, disarming humor, and an astonishing ear for dialect, this is a work of such atmospheric accuracy that the scent of fire-roasted tortillas virtually wafts from the pages as this tiny country - and the women who occupy it - bursts to life.
A paean to friendship and the resilience it lends to the human spirit, When I Was Elena joins a host of disparate voices into a composite of masterful storytelling. It echoes as a work of singular achievement.
|Publisher:||Permanent Press, The|
|Product dimensions:||5.80(w) x 8.80(h) x 1.00(d)|
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WHEN I WAS ELENA
By Ellen Urbani Hiltebrand
The Permanent PressCopyright © 2006 Ellen Hiltebrand
All right reserved.
Chapter OneElena's Story, Spring 1992
Darkness hugged tight to the ground and night loomed hot and dry over the site where the bus deposited me on the side of the highway. The scrub brush scratched at my ankles with spiny tentacles of welcome as a trio of lizards followed the fading fumes of the bus down the lonely two-lane road. The succulent and tropical Guatemala I expected, this was not. National Geographic lied. The broad-leafed, dew-dripping rain forest images peeking out from the glossy pages of the magazine with headlines coaxing, "Guatemala, Land of Lushness," existed in some place other than the country beneath my feet. My toes touched turf crossed by cowboy boots on the heels of gunslingers who defended their honor, their women, and their drunken opinions with loaded pistols and lewd gestures toward what they apparently presumed were well-endowed genitalia. The Wild West turned crude. Even in the pitch dark of the unlit night, the smell of sage and dust badgered me with each breath-a constant reminder that no tropical paradise would be found here.
Having visited this town whose name I couldn't pronounce once, the month before, I knew the mountain range must still be there, to my left, a ghostly apparitionloitering long enough for my eyes to adjust to the black night. As it claimed its shape, other, more diminutive monuments began asserting their position at the base of the towering giant. A cactus. An iguana. The bus stop (an elementary lean-to with one slumbering drunk prostrate just outside its range of coverage). All hugged the base of the mountain on the opposite side of the road. A broken kiosk stood sentinel next door. The specter of the leathery woman who manned it during the day stared me down; echoes of her pitch ("Coca-Cola! Coca, Coca, Coca-Cola!") mixed with the cry of an owl, and together they screamed at abandoned me while darkness engulfed me thick in her exhaust-laced embrace.
Loneliness, that age-old companion of night, almost brushed past me when, with an arrogant brace of my chin, I reminded myself, "You've visited here once before." But just as swiftly, my mind spewed forth images of the faces and places I met on that one brief visit: a vision of eyes, noses, and mouths swirling together to create a spiraling, incarnate mass. The phantasm loomed large, reminding me that I remembered not a single name, nor the path to the house I could rent for eighty quetzales a month. So loneliness, that sly denizen of caves in the spirit, quickly drifted back and clutched me deep within her grasp.
The weight of her crushed me and, seeking relief from the sudden pressure, I let loose the bags which, evenly distributed, had provided me with some semblance of equilibrium. Slowly uncurling my fingers from the strap stretched taut between my two hands, I let the largest duffel bag crash to the ground first. Purchased on a hazy Alabama summer day during my final trip to say goodbye to my college boyfriend, this duffel distressed me. Initially valuing aesthetics at least as highly as function, I lamented my inability to locate a royal blue duffel to match my new backpack, and had settled for black. At least, I rationalized at the time, the color matched the backpack's straps. Halfway through packing the thing, however, my obsession had turned instead to its inadequate size.
The belly of the bag longed to burst. The seams groaned. With the contents of a life, or a life to be, stuffed within its limited space, the zipper screamed for reinforcement, and in its voice I heard echoes of my father's words. His insistent command, "Take this, take this, take this," rolled through my memory, playing a strong bass note to the faint soprano of the cicadas and the persistent screech of a hidden owl. As clearly as if he stood beside me now I saw his frame outlined in my bedroom door the night before I stepped onto a plane and out of his life for years.
"Take this," he insisted, pressing a thick new roll of duct tape into my hands.
"Dad," I whined, arching an eyebrow and rolling my eyes at the already overstuffed bags lining the bedroom floor, "there's no room."
"Find room," he commanded in the exacting father-bred tone which ultimately indicated that if you didn't, he would. "Duct tape is important."
He quizzed me the morning before I left: "You have the tape?"
I extended my arm for his inspection. Lacking a place to squeeze the roll into the capacity-breached bags, I wore my father's duct tape like a bracelet into my new world.
The detested duffel now wore it too, cinched tight around its length in a zigzagging zebra fashion, a blessed reprieve for the soon-to-explode casing. Like the bag, lying forlornly along the side of the lonely road on this lonely night, I found some comfort in the silver-tinged lines of my father's duct tape which reflected speckled shafts of moonlight through the dissipating cloud of dust onto my shoes.
Slouching my left side, I let gravity have the second bag, relieving the place where the strap carved a raw, red line into my shoulder's skin. It crashed down with a frightening clatter. The contents smashed together as the bag fell, striking the ground and the peace of the night with an alarming chorus of metal upon metal. Apparently stunned, even the cicadas acquiesced, obliging the racket with their silence.
I damned this duffel too. Purchased hastily in a panic-driven moment when its larger twin refused to accommodate all my belongings, the original contents of this duffel had long since been farmed out to other bags. It now sheltered a full set of dishes, pots, and pans, and the sound of them crashing together chastised me. The bag spoke to me of my disobedience. It resonated with the voice of my mother.
"Take this," she had said, silhouetted in the doorframe recently vacated by my father. A tiny woman, her presence loomed large and soft, and she purposefully extended her arms to me. Between her two hands, which smelled faintly yet perpetually of raw garlic, she balanced a gift.
"Take this, take this, take this," she coaxed, placing the heavy-duty, no-stick, antiburn, handle-guaranteed-not-to-fall-off frying pan on top of the bursting duffel.
"Mom," I whined, arching an eyebrow and rolling my eyes for a second time at the piles of items about to be left behind for lack of space, "there's no room."
"Try to find room," she urged. "A frying pan is important."
I never found room. Of all the items I packed that night, sure I could never find a comparable product in Guatemala, at least 25 percent could be purchased in local tiendas. Another 25 percent sat on community market tables, poking out from between piles of stolen-and-available-for-resale sunglasses and assorted unfinished clay statues of the Virgin. But a good, hard-working frying pan did not exist in this country. As I stared down at the duffel full of tin pans which would soon turn black from the fire, wear thin, and disintegrate, I questioned the judgment involved in leaving behind this gift from my mother.
Of course, I brought along many others. In fact, as I let fall to the ground the rope bag of hammocks and the backpack full of clothes and toilet paper, I decided the stubbornness inherited from my mother may have had the most direct impact on my current predicament. "Stick-to-it've-ness" would have been her preferred means of couching the phrase, but determination, loyalty, and stubbornness all hide within the same definition in my book. So when my hardheaded Irish mother married my hot-blooded Italian father, borne within me were the genes which meant that once thought up, an idea must unfailingly be carried through to its ultimate conclusion. Thus, when my parents first raised doubts about the sanity of a single young woman teaching abroad, the seed of the idea became so cemented within me that it plotted a virtual road map to this very spot where I now stood, forsaken, on the side of a highway in the Guatemalan desert.
This place: The physical geography I ran to in a calculated attempt to alter the emotional landscape I fled from. Traditional. Ordinary. Wholesome. Reasonable. Mere words, yes, but they bore for me the weight of a conviction: a decree that image and social standing counted for more than honesty, more than a true life. Words that could trap you within the confines of your own backyard. My friends were planning weddings and picking china, choosing between the man of their dreams and the man with the trust fund, compromising the life they imagined for the one with the best 401K plan and six weeks' vacation. But I could have been Virginia Woolf's young Clarissa Dalloway, confronting the crossroads no one recognized: life with Richard (the sane, stable choice) or passion with Sally (the daring decision). I craved the cliché of the road less traveled, for it had suddenly become far too easy to see how the sensible life resulted in padding your pocket with a rock and walking placidly to a mundane death at the bottom of an anonymous river.
To this point, my life glistened with a veneer of shiny accolades and unquestionable accomplishment. Yet in the surface beneath I had little faith. I sensed acquaintance only with the mirage of me; feared the essence might not match up, were it there at all. I came to Guatemala to find me-all the vast possibilities of me-and save them from the gradual eroding decay of disuse. A trial not by fire but by cultural rift. If the substance of me was not buoyant enough to rise here, perhaps I was already lost to myself.
Lost, frankly, is how I felt. The month before when I visited this town for a few hours, I lingered long enough to put money down on a house, buy a popsicle, and catch the next bus out of town. Now I have forgotten where the house is. A month ago I drew a map in my mind which every day since has been chinked at and erroneously erased by the learning curve of acclimatization. There should be stairs breaching the precipice to my right, leading to San Marquesa de Trójillonada, the town in the valley below. Well, perhaps not stairs, per se, although the intent showed: Some cracked cement blocks embedded into the earth started the path from the road, and ended not quite halfway to their destination-at a point some distance beyond where I'm sure I myself would have sacrificed my body to the pure exhaustion of the effort. Stairlike carvings in the parched soil completed the downward dive into town, a multitude of etched impressions worn thin by the footfalls of a community. Leaving my bags behind, I searched for the staircase, peering over the hillside where cement blocks consorted with boulders, where every ten feet a rock formation masqueraded as steps. Their voices finally led me to its location; a small group of singers hovered in the night at the bottom of the stairs on the edge of the town.
I stood there awhile, staring down into my future, watching the group grow. My hands, finally free of the bags they ferociously clutched from bandits and beggars on the four-hour bus trip, moved maternally across the protruding belly of my dress. Courage must be gathered before moving from this limbo space. Gently, I eased the puppy Calixta out from inside my clothes where she'd been cinched conspiratorially above my waistband for the long, pregnant bus trip from the capital. Calixta would allow me to move forward for myself without moving forward alone.
Navigating a stairwell in darkness is never easy. Navigating a handmade quasi-stairwell while balancing all your worldly possessions in four about-to-burst bags and simultaneously dragging one newly-awakened puppy on an improvised leash of two knotted shoelaces and one hair ribbon is, as I came to discover, essentially impossible. Once, visiting our new home in Virginia, my uncle walked off the top riser, thinking he turned into the bathroom, and incurred a few broken ribs, one shattered elbow, and a dislocated knee and collarbone. His damaged body haunted my steps. We proceeded gingerly. Each move required precision, analysis, and a good deal of contortion as the angle of the stairs conformed more to the lay of the land than to technical proportions. Some cantered off to the side rather than hover directly below; others required a leap, both of faith and of body, to land on the far-flung subsequent tread. As the unmistakable chorus of "Oh How I Love Jesus" wafted from the crowd below, my plodding gait acquired a cadence. We were almost there.
One step to level land. One chance to make a first impression on my new neighbors upon whom we snuck while their backs were turned.
Evidence how one misstep changes everything.
I remember the frog, landing on the overburdened duffel suspended between my extended forearms. I remember the sensation of shoelaces and ribbon lashing my ankles and knees together, turning my body into a living catapult. I remember the noise when Calixta's mandible gorged the frog, ripped the bag, rained my kitchenware upon the unsuspecting townsfolk. I remember the silence that followed the death of the last rolling pot lid, as everyone circled to stare in holy awe at my upended pink panties in the pile of self and stuff tangled on the ground.
I try to forget that on my first day in town, I crashed, and flashed, the annual Evangelical revival.
* * *
Oddly, my soap disappeared first. Very few items the general populous might consider theft-worthy accompanied me on my Latin American trek: Gortex hiking boots, a waterproof watch, a hand-me-down 35mm camera, a U.S. passport. The fact that someone stole my Crabtree & Evelyn Spring Rain Body Bar-instead of those far more worthwhile goods!-within less than twenty-four hours might have amused me were I not blinded with indignation at the intrusion into my personal space.
In retrospect, what did I expect? My house reeked of luxury: concrete walls and floor, a tin roof, a bed with a Sealy mattress, two rooms (three counting the one stuffed top to bottom with drying corn kernels). A door with a lock, a little front porch. My own pila in the yard for collecting water and washing clothes. And attached behind the house, not a latrine, but a bathroom. An intact, viable bathroom. The toilet, a beautiful porcelain model, required simple assistance from a bucket of water tossed into its bowl to function perfectly. (This in contrast to the filthy thrones in the capital's airport lounge; the things deposited there float, waterlogged, then coagulate.) Beside my toilet a showerhead graced the wall, useful at night when the water barreled into town sometime after sundown. Its arrival time being somewhat unpredictable, I learned to leave the pila faucet in a perpetual state of "open." Every evening as the curtain of night fell, sounds greeted me: mules' hooves on cobblestone, the soft scamper of sandals past my door, the collective crackle of supper fires, and the hungry clatter of spoons. Finally, the glorious racket-water, trickling at first, then splashing, ranting against the deep stone walls of the pila. The noise, a nightly taskmaster, bid me run to my bathroom and bathe. Soap on the clothes first, then clothes off and soap on me. Move fast enough, and the first few spurts burst warm from the pipe daily boiled by the beat ... beat ... beating of the sun. Too soon, hot transitioned to cold. Frosty drips slapped my skin, stung, but like a penitent child I stood rapt in the icy embrace, savoring the short-lived attention. Quickly it ended. A twenty-three and three-quarters hour drought ensued. With luck, the yellow plastic tub in which I stood performing the cleansing ritual captured sufficient bathwater for subsequent toilet-flushing reuse. I'd towel myself, pee, bask in the habitual pleasure of my makeshift boudoir.
But in the beginning, uninitiated still, the inherent splendor of my bathroom eluded me, and I merely lamented the theft of the soap. The ensuing discovery of two long black hairs-clearly Guatemalan!-in my hairbrush fanned my fury. Not only had I been robbed on my first day in town, but my beauty products had been vandalized. Worse, those two hairs bode a dire possibility. Lice might have gained a launch pad to my hair. Of all the things worth fearing in Guatemala-burglars, snakes, earthquakes, cholera-I arrived truly dreading only two. Lice and chickens.
Excerpted from WHEN I WAS ELENA by Ellen Urbani Hiltebrand Copyright © 2006 by Ellen Hiltebrand. Excerpted by permission.
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