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Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The Post Office

Octavio heard voices all around him, in nearby houses, even down the street.

A chorus of dogs howled at one end of the city, then another. Fireworks exploded in the unpaved tangle of narrow lanes. Liberation Day was past, but children were igniting whatever unexploded firecrackers they found in the dust.

Dawn came and Octavio understood just how different this place really was. The brilliant sun, blue as the tip of an acetylene flame, oozed blood-red where it hit the iron-red earth. Octavio remembered words of a friend in Mexico, who made predictions by observing the color of light from stars.

"The light touching every spot on this planet acquires a color, and an energy from the earth and the fates of all the bodies that shine upon it."

Sr. Cesar Bosquim, interrupted his thoughts.

"Don't go beyond the end of this street today, Sr. Octavio." Octavio saw the large figure of his host in the doorway.

"Rest today. Czima will take care of you. If you do go out please stay on this street. It is not safe in other parts of the city." Bosquim pointed outside to the dirt track. A woman selling vegetables, and another, hawking used bicycles, were visible through the iron gate.

"I need to mail some letters," Octavio said.

"There is a Post Office at the next corner. But do not go further, Sr. Octavio. It is for your safety. Tomorrow we will drive and look at some interests. Czima will make you some wonderful eggs."

Local militias dominated every resource on the scorched earth. Drought, and expanding deserts drove millions into camps near the capital. Prisons really, cordoned by barbed wire with armed guards, they lacked food, medicine or doctors. Death chiseled away at the numbers in the form of typhoid, dysentery, and starvation. Yet every day thousands pleaded for admission because there was a chance of some food.

Many hostages had been taken and killed. A few Westerners even, but mostly in remote villages. Across the expanses of desert, UN convoys could be seen roaring along the dirt highways, pulling plumes of dust. Perhaps this smaller city was divided in a similar way. It is not the foreigner's duty to question. Only to listen, and try and understand.

For a moment Octavio was alone in the small simple brick house. Then Bosquim's cook, Czima the old woman arrived and began to clatter dishes in the kitchen. A parade of vendors rang the doorbell. She greeted them in local dialect. Octavio's ears tuned to the language and the streets. Each of the sellers had a bicycle, or a three wheel cart, and a little bell that they rang repetitively just outside the steel grate of the front door.

The egg seller carefully unwrapped a plat of tiny brown chicken eggs and showed them to Czima.

Czima peered into the eggs like small gems about to be purchased for a giant sum. Pinched between the two hems of her veil she held each egg up to the sun, flipping the veil over her head the way a practiced photographer uses a cape to shield the glare. After a number of minutes gazing through the yolk of each egg, she selected four, which the vendor wrapped in newspaper. They spoke, but no money was exchanged. Perhaps it was a weekly arrangement.

Ten minutes later a larger three wheeler came by. The bell was deeper, more like a cowbell. The seller was a large woman, with two nose-rings, and a garish American T-shirt.

Again Octavio heard greetings. He made notes of language. "Tzich, talla" seemed to mean good-day, a variant of the phrases he'd memorized before the journey. 'How are you' though it also could mean "Good morning".

The large woman took a zinc-plated milk can from one side of her cart, and removed the top. She produced a tin ladle and measured three dippers full into Czima's outstretched vessel. Czima took it back to the kitchen, padding noiselessly in her bare feet. She returned and handed the woman some money.

The meat seller had a half of a goat's carcass tied to his bicycle wrapped in a piece of blue tarp. When he opened it for Czima to inspect, a swarm of flies appeared which he swatted away with a small whisk made of feathers. Czima selected a piece and he hacked it off. She paid him and took it inside.

All was quite for the next hour. Octavio heard Czima preparing something in the kitchen. Maybe it was his breakfast. He was quite hungry, but somehow being hungry here felt like the right way to be.

He nodded back into a daze. The bed he slept in was the best in the house. Sr. Bosqim slept on the roof. His two sons were grown, and worked in construction in nearby city. His wife had died some years ago.

Octavio met Bosquim years earlier on a tour of nations conducted by a world renowned development organization. Octavio had been invited to consult on ways to use crafts to make a greater variety of goods for export from some of the poorest nations. Bosquim had many friends. Octavio noticed the way people on the streets of other countries greeted him.

Yet he lived simply. What did Sr. Bosquim do for money? This was mystifying. There was no evidence of any office or paperwork. Bosquim's involvement in the tour of nations had been like Octavio's, his role was simply to consult. Bosquim's expertise was in the area of security. Where had Sr. Bosquim gone today? Some things are best not asked, particularly of a host.

'Could anything I am doing change anything?', Octavio wrote in his notes. At times it seemed as if the job was just about seeing, about vision, about simply noticing, and that all the effort his hosts went through to to make his travels pleasant were efforts made to subsidize his own observations. Maybe that's all that's important. Perhaps the only value, is that I see, that I understand. Why me? Maybe the book doesn't matter at all.

Then on the other hand he wondered, what am I seeing? I'm protected, rushed from one secure zone to another. I don't speak these languages. Perhaps they just want me to notice, the hunger, the crime, the plight of the poor, the blighted crops, the expanding deserts. Does one Westerner noticing such harsh realities have value?

He awoke to Czima's prodding. "Sr. Octav, Sr. Octav!" She held in her hand an earthenware plate. On it were some scrambled eggs, cut pieces of fruit, and a piece of fried goat. In the other hand she offered a large mug of milky coffee. It smelled delicious.

"Tzori, Tzori!" Czima smiled and left him. She provided a small spoon, but no utensils for cutting the meat. No matter. He ate holding the piece of goat in one hand, realizing it had been nearly three days since his last full meal.

Rioting had broke out in the area north of the airport. Police barricaded the presidential palace, and general strikes shut most essential services and transportation. Octavio had been lucky to find the driver sent for him by Sr. Bosquim. intha knew Bosquim well, and often drove him back from the capital.

"Tsibili is a long. Two days we drive." Indeed for two days they bumped over stony roads, cooking rice on impromptu fires made by the roadside. They spent a night in the midst of a desolate seabed, concealed in a musty tent and sleeping bag which Pintha kept stowed in the trunk of his small Fiat. Pintha pulled the car at dusk behind a rock cropping out from the salty flat. He waited until dusk, and no truck lights were visible in either direction, then  swept his tracks from the road by dragging an old canvas tarpaulin.

They stopped for tea every few hundred miles. Pintha was a cheerful young fellow, and proud of his abilities to start a fire with just a few pieces of dried cactus.

He also had some bits of bread which he offered, though Octavio had not felt hungry since arriving. Hordes of young children swarmed the vehicle at every village. They reached to him with tiny hands pleading for anything, a morsel of food, candy. a bit of change. The sun, heat, flies and dust raged his senses like a fever.

The whole place is fast becoming a desert. Things must change soon Octavio predicted. They have to.

The last hundred miles to Tsibili was a bone jerking torture test over craters made by rebel mortar fire. The country turned rocky, a deep iron red. Driving off-road was impossible. Octavio and Pintha worked together with a cheap shovel to fill in an impassable ditch. Then they hit barricades, erected every few miles. Sone were deserted which they drove around, others manned by young boys with submachine guns who looked suspiciously at Octavio and his driver, but waved them past. "Not police," shouted Pintha. "Militia."

They arrived late in the evening. Bosquim greeted them. He insisted on paying Pintha himself. "You are on my territory now!" he said. "Don't worry. One day you will pay for a driver for me in your country."

Bosquim led him to the small room with the single cot, looking up at a whitewashed stucco ceiling.

Octavio slept, hardly remembering, or even caring, what his reason for being here was. Now he was alone, eating breakfast, in Bosquim's house.

Octavio brought out an unfinished letter to his daughter. "Today I woke up in an even stranger city in the interior. I'm going out to learn what I can. Darling I send you my best wishes from the end of the world. One day I will tell you all about this trip. I'm exhausted, and am missing home. Much love, your Father".

Who was Sr. Bosquim? A man who knows many men. It seemed it was impossible to do things in this land without knowing Sr. Bosquim. Octavio tried not to wrack his brain too much about it. He rinsed his face with water from a small basin that Czima had provided, and then signaled to her that he was going out for a few minutes and would soon be back.

The sun stared, a jilted lover. He unlatched the steel grate from the inside, and stepped out into the street.

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