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Sunday, 01 March 2015

Forgotten Stamps on my Passport

Written by J. Jennifer Gadwah
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In the land of dreams, each country’s passport stamp surely has its own color and scent.  It is never a generic, odorless black.  Instead, the blueness, greenness, even orangeness, would fill up my nostrils in a celebration of travel – instantly reminding me from where I have just come.  I imagine the hand of an unknown customs agent holding the stamp’s handle, then pounding the base into the small rectangular box of ink for a refill, then finally sailing down onto the pale blue piece of booklet paper where it gently twists, and twists, to ensure a proper stamp.


What would the stamps of Latin America be in dreams?  I know the colors of their flags in reality.  I know red and green is Mexico – a colorful burst of hot peppers, the unofficial emblems of their land.  I know Chile is a solid-looking blue and red, adorned with a prominent white star – the dignified flag a seemingly fitting representation of its country’s recent economic stability and social prosperity.


I know the reality of Latin America in so many ways.  I have traveled there countless times in my twenties and thirties.  I have done both humanitarian and professional work there – seeming to cross countries off my bucket-list like I was leaving this earth tomorrow.  But what I have never known, what has pleasantly puzzled me since I was a young non-Latin girl growing up watching the Spanish channel on TV in Connecticut (not understanding a single word of Spanish), was why I have felt such a cosmic connection to this land.  Like invisible, forgotten stamps on a passport, the forgotten memories of my past lives seem to surround me whenever I travel to Latin America. 


I wonder who I was back then.  Maybe I was a professional tango dancer in Argentina, or a wise basket-weaving grandmother in Guatemala, or a laborer hollowing out the Panama Canal at the turn of the twentieth century – modern humankind disconnecting the approximately 50-mile tropical isthmus that lies between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, that was put into place millions of years ago by maybe the mythical, restless super-continents of Rodinia or Pangaea.  All those potential titles of me seem plausible, even beautifully expected and mythical in their own way.  Whichever the case, I’ve always known that I was in those countries before I lived this life.  I was there before my present-self first set foot on Latin American soil in May 1996. 


My first flight to Latin America in 1996 was like a long pleasant flight into the sun – the journey felt hot, ancient, dry upon impact (a.k.a. touchdown).  At the time, Mexico City was ranked as the world’s most populous city by various agencies.  Rumors were that mammoth fans existed at the mountain peaks of the city to circulate the hot air and decrease pollution.  Rumors were your car could only be used on certain days, so as not to overcrowd the city streets, but to also not worsen the already thick and dangerous carbon emissions.  Couple the climatic duress of this bulging city with its painful drug and kidnapping issues, it was hard to believe the city's inhabitants could even survive.  Nonetheless, Mexico City was also known for its huge green, flowered parks, its refreshing fountains, and its impressive Angel of Independence statue – whose sparkling golden wings would one day pierce my hazel eyes with loveliness when I looked up at her, and whose arms would seem to wave and motion to me encouragingly from every angle whenever I walked beneath her.       


That day, the immense Mexico City suburbs seen from my airplane window during descent seemed to last for thousands of miles – the colors of the red, orange, and blue tin-looking triangle houses below are forever burned in my brain as colors that could only exist on the face of my own science fiction sun.  I was on a humanitarian mission with my university to build houses in rural Mexico.  My final destination would not be the exciting, though dangerous, Mexico City – with its cab-clogged streets (green and yellow Volkswagen Bugs sputtering around in a perpetual song of low-pitched pops), with its upscale restaurant and nightclub neighborhood of Zona Rosa (the Pink Zone) that nestled itself into the chaotic city like a beautiful tropical oasis wrapped in a palm tree-bow.  No - I, along with my fellow volunteers, was heading south – further south.        


The next two weeks outside Mexico City, instead in a small town called Alpuyeca situated about three hours south of the behemoth capital, I transformed into a cozy wearer of dingy blue jeans who was building houses in a nearby village by day.  My beautiful village was called Xoxocotla – its indigenous name still a sweet reminder to my own homeland’s indigenous name of Connecticut.  I learned that the ‘X’s’ were to be pronounced as ‘Z’s’ – just as I once learned long ago that the original pronunciation of Connecticut was ‘Quinnehtukqut.’  

In Dingy Blue Jeans, Mexico


After returning to the hotel each afternoon after work, chock full of earth-dust on my jeans, sweat drenching the blonde hair on my neck, and once even discovering a large gray stowaway spider in my jeans’ pocket (gasp and cringe!), I again transformed into a wearer of long spring skirts who loved to hang out underneath our hotel cabana.  Hotel Alpuyeca was indeed a tropical oasis – small, non-commercial, and beautiful with its mysterious plastic bags filled with miracle water that hung like translucent gems from the cabana roof and somehow kept all the tropical bugs from flying in.  The hotel was wondrous with its blue oval pool, soft quaint patio, and dancing palm trees.  The staff was beyond gracious, kind, and grateful of our group’s mission.  At night, we in our mission would listen to the poetic songs of modern Latin artists, not all Mexican.  The music fanned itself out from the outdoor wi-fi stereo system – its beats a sexy lullaby alongside the midnight dancing palm trees.  I was enraptured.  I felt at home.  I felt I was doing something worthwhile on this international mission.  


Then, in 2004, while still in my twenties, I took my first trip to South America.  I was going to Argentina with my job.  I was working as a sales exec for an international publishing company headquartered in New York City.  Somewhere inside myself, I always knew that Argentina would be my first country.  I purposefully wore a baby blue T-shirt for the eleven-hour flight down from JFK Airport in New York City.  As baby blue is the color of the Argentine flag, I was playfully intent on paying patriotic homage to my destined destination.  It was Saturday morning when I landed into a world of fog and rain.  It was August, which is winter for the southern hemisphere.  Buenos Aires can get cold, even freezing.  However, this day I was greeted with only rain and a hefty layer of low-lying clouds spreading itself out over the sprawling port city like an exhale from the not-too-far-to-me South Pole.  


Even with the dreary weather, I was filled with alegria – a pure joy.  I was sleepily happy, punch-drunk, as my taxi zipped on through the numerous Buenos Aires suburbs en route to my gorgeous, modern hotel in Puerto Madero.  I already knew that my hotel would have a window view to the Casa Rosada.  That would be the White House of Argentina.  I remember asking myself how I could be so lucky to work for a prestigious international publishing company whose focus was politics and economics, to then work myself up as a member of their Latin America team, and to be asked to go to Argentina for a conference.  I almost felt too young for this gift of destiny, but still ready.    


The eclectic neighborhoods of Buenos Aires were a welcome labyrinth.  Puerto Madero had swanky boats, waterfront stores, and a wistful stone’s-throw feeling once I learned that Uruguay was located just a few miles across the water.  La Boca, the old Italian immigrant neighborhood, inspired me to take more photos than anywhere else during my explorations.  Its arts scene and cheerful blue, yellow, and red buildings made me fantasize about becoming a painter.  I even think I composed and started humming the first bars to my own sailor’s song.  I surely would sing this song as I painted my masterpieces of art.  Then, La Recoleta had an old sophisticated Parisian feel.  Its shadowy, ornate architecture truly blossomed at night.  The neighborhood was perpetually draped in red wine, grilled steak, chicken empanadas, and the faint far-off sound of tango.


Then, back at Puerto Madero, I caught some good-looking guys who seemed to be training for the World Cup soccer tournament.  At least that’s my fantasy.  They certainly seemed talented enough, and I used to be a big soccer player with a good idea of the game.  These guys were playing on a neat, polished green turf soccer field located just across the street from the Casa Rosada.   If this were America, would we ever have a baseball field next to the White House?  I snapped a few photos of the hottest guys.   


Argentina was rebounding from a banking crisis in 2004, which panicked its citizens.  I could see the currency effects when out to dinner (supremely delicious meals, including wine, for an insane fraction of the cost charged at an American restaurant).  I could feel uneasiness in the spirits of the waiters, taxi drivers, and business executives I met at my conference.  I also attended a show one night where I was reminded of just how close many Argentines still felt to the bittersweet memory of Eva Peron, their controversial political and spiritual figure from the 1950s.  Similar to Mexico, I felt at home in Argentina.  I felt an understanding of their history and current somber spirit.  I didn’t merely imagine young Argentine cowboys called gauchos sailing across the vast green prairie fields of the Pampas in search of millennial glory.  No – I felt their wind, from atop their horses, breathe deeply within my soul.  They, and I, had been waiting to breathe this breath a long time.     

The Baby Blue Skyline, Buen 


The next four years I continued to craft my constellation of Latin travel by flying to Chile, Panama, Uruguay, and other countries.  Some countries, such as Chile, I was a regular, return visitor.  I still love Santiago as I would a beautiful, reliable friend – with the cold, majestic snow-capped Andes Mountains looking down onto a world of breezy hot palm trees and orderly rows of flower-filled sidewalks.  The awesome juxtaposition of cold/hot in Chilean geography extended to the Chilean people’s temperament.  Their order, efficiency, stability made them one of the most successful countries in Latin America.  It could’ve been boring and cold to some.  To me, it was not.  I roamed the notoriously competent, spacious malls of Santiago as if I were back in the States – making me feel at home as I ran errands after work.  Back at my hotel, I then marveled at my ability to watch the nightly TV weather forecasts that highlighted the temps of both the Atacama Desert in the Chilean North (reputed to be the driest desert on earth with no recorded rainfall ever) and Antarctica in the Chilean South (perpetually cold for those cute emperor penguins).  I was often incredulous at reading ’40 degrees celsius’ versus ‘-25 degrees celsius’ with accompanying cartoon-sun and cartoon-rain clouds. 


Chile, as thin as a pin on a map, it was contradictory, contrasting, but still enchanting as the deep, cold blue Pacific waters lapping at its shores.  Its people weren’t overly friendly, but they never cheated me.  Its food wasn’t the spiciest or most exciting, but I never got sick.  Chile was the most livable of all my Latin travels – and for me, the twenty-something who sometimes traveled alone and sometimes longed for home (that word again), I grew to adore the safe, comforting contrasts of Chile.                           


But how could I feel so at home in all these countries?  For comparison, who feels a bond with the entire continent of Europe?  Just as it is incorrect to blanket in all of the countries of Europe as being homogeneous, it seems that way for Latin America, too.  Beyond the Spanish language and Catholic religious commonalities existing between many Latin American countries, their cultures are quite different.  I also feel this uniqueness strongly whenever I travel and compare.  Nonetheless, Latin America in its entirety has provided me with a soul-affirming connection to myself that has caused me to look up at the sky and wonder about reincarnation.

 Behind Me A Developing Cent

In Uruguay, a cute brown bunny ran across the dewy green field next to where my plane had just landed.  I felt the light, tender ease of his jumps, the flecks of morning frost licking his back-paws in playful pursuit.  He had white speckles on his back which seemed to dance as he did – across the field and into the cold patch of fairy-tale woods behind Montevideo’s small airport.  I was convinced the bunny was there to greet me.  Though jet-lagged and in need of a good teeth-brushing, I felt a wide smile appear on my face.  I grabbed my tote-suitcase a little easier, and my body felt a little lighter, as I stepped off the plane to meet the cold Uruguayan morning.  Latin America was like that for me.  It was a coming home – but to a home that I had always felt I’d had.


In Costa Rica, a ginormous green mountain rose into my view as I stepped off the plane while on a quick lay-over to Panama.  It was the Titanic to look up at it – a giant ship heaved onto its side, bobbing like a cork, and submerged undoubtedly in 100% tropical humidity fogging up the lenses in my eyes like exquisite, savory coffee steam.  I swore the mountain was a volcano.  Because I don’t want to spoil my fantasy of looking up at my first volcano ever, I have refused to research this mountain boldly sitting next to the Juan Santamaria Airport in San Jose.  I also imagine a family of colorful toucans loudly chirping down to me from the lush volcano – welcoming me back to my old home as the Uruguayan brown bunny did a few months earlier.  Latin America has missed me!  

Tropical Rains At The Panam

                           Panama Canal 


I rounded out my tour-de-past lives by returning to, of all places, Mexico.  It was 2008 – twelve years after my first trip to Latin America.  It would represent my final trip to Latin America in a work capacity, as I was in the midst of switching jobs.  It would also represent an end to an era of travel in my life, as I was feeling ready for a quieter, more home-centered life back in Connecticut.  To think that my company would unknowingly ask me to return to a country that I had always considered tops on my myth-list felt nothing short of kismet.


I was going down for a mere two days to work the Mexico Government Round-table, which my company was organizing.  I would meet the President of Mexico who was our speaker – it was one short year before the infamous H1N1 flu would grip poor Mexico and the President’s vigilant attention.  The night of his speech, I was again patriotic.  I sported my red short-sleeved suit jacket – my bright red color a symbolic shout-out to Mexico’s red flag, Mexico’s celebratory love of red hot peppers, and my own love for my red-logo publishing company.  That night, I was gifted with a patriotic kiss on the cheek from the President himself.  I would later joke to friends and family, not to mention my boyfriend at the time, that the President had crossed the aisle to kiss me.  My statement was a humorous nod to American politics, and the expression relating to political unity and cooperation.  In this case, the President did actually cross an aisle to kiss me.  

After Meeting The Prez Of M 

If past lives do exist, I thank them for bestowing me with numerous opportunities to connect with them in this life – even if I haven’t been able to definitely validate them.  I remember the Egyptian attaché in Guatemala City who insisted I drink something during our meeting.  He was keen on coffee or tea.  However, when I politely declined these caffeinated and possibly jitter-inducing beverages, he was just as keen on a little juice from a little juice box – plastic straw and all.  The Embassy of Egypt actually brought me a children’s juice box.  I sucked on a juice box while I sat in a room with old dusty paintings of ancient Egyptian pharaohs lining the walls, and the Egyptian attaché puffing on a big unpolitically-correct cigarette, as he asked my colleague and me if we preferred to speak in English, Spanish, or Arabic for our meeting. I don’t know if this was the closest I came to validating my past lives, but I always come back to this memory.  The handsome, green-eyed attaché was extraordinary in his eccentricities, his ability to permeate the room in various languages, cultures, and social mores – the cigarette smoke undoubtedly adding to the hazy and oddly cozy feeling.   Sometimes I think if I just squinted hard enough, I could’ve stared straight through those old dusty paintings on the walls and landed back on the Nile River in ancient Egypt – witnessing the attaché in a reed boat, his eyes just as green if not greener.  Maybe his eyes were a striking emerald back in ancient times, representing the newness of his soul.  Maybe his green eyes had softened over time, with every new life.  I imagine his coal-black eyelashes fanning out the sun, as the sail on his boat breezed him down the river in one beautiful lilting word – Aswan.  Both the word and city, beautiful in their easy, languid countenance, were at the southern foot of his country, at the border of a memory, ancient and breathtaking as both clear water and moistened brown sand.  Maybe that was his constellation – who he was, and who he is still is, in some way, today.


But who was I?  Maybe someday I will be given a confirmation – as sweetly simple, breathtaking, and life-affirming as a trip down an ancient river, in an ancient part of the world like Egypt, from where so many modern civilizations can trace their roots.  I think my river might be the Amazon or the Rio Grande.  The flower on my boat would be a cactus flower.  There would be a deep clay pot filled with green, prickly spears protecting a gorgeous red and pink flourish.  My eyes and hair color were surely a dark brown back in ancient times – dark as the cocoa bean carried in a sack down from the foothills of the Andes Mountains in Colombia.   My eyes and hair have since softened over time to that of a light cinnamon brown.  Most Americans would call me hazel-eyed and sandy-blonde.   


I know that I am all things cinnamon and nutmeg as I hail from British colonial Connecticut in this present-life.  When I look in the mirror, I see those things.  Surely Latin America sees something when she looks in the mirror, too.  I’d love to see and smell that.  When I pull my passport book out of my orange desk (a simple unfinished blonde oak desk, which I painted vibrant orange years ago), I would treasure each Latin American stamp – each country’s vibrant hue and fervent scent.  In my land of dreams, it would be possible for each country to be so uniquely alive.   No matter if it’s not possible in reality (a customs agent a far cry from an art director), I know the celebration of Latin America is in me – her past, present, and future.  I imagine her colorful flags are open arms that wave to me like the Angel of Independence.     


© J. Jennifer Gadwah                      


Last modified on Sunday, 01 March 2015