When I packed my van with every thing I might need to start a new life in Ecuador, I had been driving 54 years in the US or Canada. After I crossed the border into Mexico a late evening in December 2014, all of my own bets were off. Even the signage was barely manageable, but the shape and color of their signs was enough similar to what I was used to to assure me that “alto” meant “stop.”
This is the rest of that story: here I was alone in a foreign country without any real command of the language; I was a 76 year old dame driving a big old red Ford van with California license plates! My friends left behind had all made pilgrimages to my back door, wringing their hands with frowns of worry holding back their missing smiles: banditoes… bad people…. knives and guns….. danger …be careful ….be very afraid. Whoops, I’m going anyway. Where I’m headed must be better than here.
I learned when I hitch hiked when I was still in my twenties: should I be afraid of my fellow man? In fact, no, I am not. He is another myself.
And it was thus through the entire drive through Mexico and on through Central America, even the border inspectors who were lining their pockets with their retirement cash from tourists were themselves like favored grandsons treating granny to ice cream. And they put my white girl money in their pockets along with the rest!
Funny stuff. I was without fear. These are my people and it was the money that lured them. How might I know what their lives were and how their families interact.
Along the way, I had some challenges and so, found myself parked in red dirt in an alley near the border in El Salvador for about 7 weeks: I was assimilated into the family as the ‘extra’ granny: Mum and Dad, 2 grown sons; one wife, two single women, and one kid; and the old lady sleeping in the alley in her van.
Culture that I had never encountered was there in the hand built brick and mortar dwelling structures ready for scrutiny and begging for my understanding. There it was: a hand built poured cement water tank fitted with a giant ladle to pour water over ourselves. We stood on the cement floor, poured and splashed, dried and got dressed behind the bare brick walls under flat roofs of simple beams and plywood. Nothing was painted except Diana’s nails.
Two voraciously hungry, very aggressive goats gnawed on straw and vegetables stomped out of the garden; where also lazy, very pretty peasant cows wandered their way through the fields to the Arce river to drink and splash. Here was a natural paradise before my eyes peopled with indigenous Indians: my friend George found me stranded at the border and brought me home with him. It was a major cram of sense, knowledge, experience and people making up this ever evolving kaleidoscope. My fortune! A kind of PhD course in sociology out the door of the van: my gracious hosts!
George brought me avocadoes, cucumbers and tomatoes, all organic back yard varieties; we got local made goat cheeses at the market up the road in the next town. We climbed, George in front and me behind, onto the small put-put motorbike to make the 10 minute short tootle up the road. We were surely as lifelong friends might be. From him, I learned the inside El Salvador history especially the worst of the civil war, which really was the systematic elimination of all those who aided and abetted the disastrous American occupation, I learned the tribal culture of George’s family. Nefta, dad and I played hit the ball up and down the alley with two gourd ‘bats’ until the heavy seed ‘ball’ broke my bat!
Now I have come back to Canada, having come to broke in Panama, only to leave behind all those things that I might have needed to start a new life in Ecuador.
Except it’s not my home! Perhaps it never has been the home I was looking for, but now in this twenty-first century kind of the world, it is useful at 80 to be where the government cannot kick me out and where for 2 ½ years of free charity shelters, clean beds and showers, I was their guest. The answer to that is thank you very much.
There is more: I am now housed with another kind of charitable organization that sponsors efficient, innovative varieties of rental housing that provides safe, suitable places for women. It is a great comfort at that magic number 80 to I know I will not be thrown away for more money. The grind and the greed are not in my face as parts of my life. Thank you very much.
I roll in a power chair in the downtown east side ghetto of Vancouver. I go out to do my life here: food and clothing, a little recreation. I am looking at another kind of culture (it is even quite different from what it used to be when I was a younger woman: the people around here live on these streets). They live in tents on the perimeter of Oppenheimer Park about 5 blocks east of where I am. Along with them are the cops, the fire people, the ambulance service, the commuter traffic and giant busses crisscrossing the whole metro. There is a sense of siege: the cops job is to keep people off the streets, there is no where to go so they are herded around the blocks dragging their mountains of stuff around on grocery carts, hand trucks, baby buggies, assorted conveyances. It always feels mean: the rules are definitely more important than hurting, addicted, hungry, marginalized people, many aimless older men, young woman who have become whores for a little cash to live, larger barky dogs, teens who already look like seasoned street warriors: grandchildren!
The cops are also children, or grandchildren!
I’m watching all this. I listen to what is going on, what the people are saying, what they dare not say. Even so, there is an atmosphere of barely disguised anger and a viciously protective style within the homeless community. They are beleaguered in their own nation, ignored entirely or barely tolerated only because it is not possible to disappear them out of sight. And, government and developers have only enough in them to talk about money, tax rebates, incentives, and, oh yes, the money that can be made by building ‘housing.’
So what does this story bring to mind for you? Is it hard to put it together? There is this 80 something old lady who does not understand that it’s not possible to pile her life into a van and drive it off to South America. She didn’t understand the rules of travel: one person, one suitcase. My loaded van was taxable: $800 in Guatemala, $600 in El Salvador, Honduras: all places corrupted by the plundering occupations.
Moxie is a Yiddish word that loosely refers to courage under pressure. Homelessness takes moxie: the raw grit of slinging a pack on the back and crouching in back of a doorway to sleep a few hours. It takes moxie to pile a life into a vehicle and drive away. Does not mean anything about just not figuring it all out properly. Simply to go for it is moxie. Just being curious to go, crazy as it might be, just to find out something that could not be learned sitting at home wondering if: that’s moxie. Consider the idea that by taking on my own curiosity, I chose to learn by the wonderful mistakes I made. I learned what I could not learn any other way. What might it be that the tide of homeless people are learning squatting on the sidewalks, hauling their stuff around with them, living on charity meals of white flour and white sugar, dealing with official government, with the dealers and their for profit business peddling drugs, disaster and overdoses?
Made a case for me. I gotta know. Bon Appetit!