When I feel lonely, I look for a shopping mall.
There’s one in every big Latin American city. I call a cab and ask the driver to take me to one of those shopping centers you see advertised in giant billboards, the kind with the happy nuclear family with the Pepsodent smile.
“Alto Las Condes”, “Palacio de Hierro”, “Jockey Plaza”- Santiago de Chile, Mexico City, Lima. Different names, same kind of places. I’m on a hunt for a familiar scene.
Walking down the aisles of the mall, I feel like I’m at home, in a timeless bliss where there’s no past nor future, while the present is gently massaged by the desire to buy.
The naked objects of the timeless super-stores create a sense of anonymity. In this giant acquarium I become a fish without rank and identity, no “job title” to speak of.
Is there anything more anonymous than a square building looking inside itself, without windows so that not for a moment your eyes are diverted from their purchasing duties? This is a non-place where I come to be looked at, to be seen and to look at my own self. Here everything looks just so available and so attractive.
The mall always matches the one next your home, transforming it into a tranquilizing experience. Shopping is just another brand of credit card people’s Prozac.
In front of the merchandise, facing what becomes the meaning of life – work to live, to buy useless object that overcrowd apartments getting always smaller and more expensive – finally I rest in a sense of calm which invites me to buy, to perform my role in the big mechanism.
Everywhere I’m that shopper, reassured by my credit card, accepted in all major chain stores and franchises. A buyer among buyers.
In this mood, I rest from the hot fumes of the exotic streets of Latin America, the continent where I’ve lived for 3 years, working as a correspondent for La Repubblica, one of Italy’s major daily papers.
Nature begins where culture ends or, rather, in those sterilized places like the mall, a hyper-ambiance whose purpose is to reassure. The plastic, steel, linoleum and wall to wall carpeting alienation rocks my eyes to sleep. Walking along the aisles stuffed with brands, I find another home, the great home of MacDonald’s, Blockbuster, Warner Village – the “Fourth Reich” of Microsoft-Nestlè-Ibm-Nike-Adidas, the one of the few names, but everywhere.
Inside every shopping mall, everything looks the same, everywhere. Objects as much as people.
And this makes me feel less lonely.
* * *
It was on my way to a flight to Buenos Aires that I first felt the need to draw a diagram of my life. I was riding a train, leaving once again Valdagno, my hometown in the humid valleys of Northern Italy, an hour ride from Venice.
I hail from a town that has been often described by visiting friends as being “a little like Transylvania”. The county it’s in has got it all – rain, factories, dark narrow valleys and the highest suicide, alcoholic, nuns, priest and lap-dance bar rate in the country. It’s a good place to go back and visit. Once in a while.
Valdagno, population 27.000, was also a good place to leave for good, especially at 16, as I was when I moved to Pensacola, Florida. I was an exchange student at first, then I staid on in the U.S. for a total of 11 years, spent between Washington D.C. at first and then New York City, where I’ve worked at La Repubblica’s U.S. Bureau.
This varied resumé is why I often feel like an intruder. I’m out of place in Italy, where I’m “americanizzato” while in the States – which feels like a second home – I’m always a grown up exchange student with an “exoticah accent”. Maybe that’s why I’ve moved to India!
And maybe that’s why, in that hybrid continent known as Latin America, I recognized a bit of myself. Not entirely Latin, because it is also Aztec, Inca, Maya, Arab, African and Chinese and not really “American,” a word which sounds much more northern. Latin America is a little bit of both. And neither. Like me.
And that’s also why I had to draw a diagram of myself as I was leaving for Buenos Aires. Blame it on the fog, outside the windows, hiding the lines of the cities and the landscape, transformed in a slow motion blinking lights show.
I was driven by the need to know that I exist, shed light on this confusion, exploring inside, after so many outside quests.
I drew a map to understand where I’m going, in this life.
“I” am that center of everything. Pretty easy. Around me, like satellites, there are memory, solitude, family, women, friends, my job, vocation, strangers, her, dreams.
Solitude, however, should not be a satellite but a color, the color of this piece of paper, where I’m drawing the diagram.
The color of solitude is yellow, and yellow is the light of the streetlamps shining through the windows on this legal size notepad.
Memory should be the thickness of the sheet.
“I” should not be at the center, but spread around the edges of the paper, like the borders of what matters in this life, given that it is mine we’re talking about.
Women are the smell of the paper, friends are the wrinkles.
My job is the handwriting.
Things are the sound of the rumpled paper.
Family is the shape of the paper.
The vocation is the pen.
Strangers are the empty space around the notepad.
And the dreams are of her.
Tomorrow I go back to her.
* * *
“Pasaporte…” orders the man with the mustache. The plexiglass between myself and the man in the uniform shows me a reflection of myself, a jet-lagged ghost overlapping the officer’s face.
Every time you cross a border you feel the uneasiness of an exam. The stare of the custom officer is searching something within you – your forbidden dreams, your vices, your inclinations. What you have done, what you might do.
Look in his eyes without challenging him. Smile, but not too much. Stay calm, serene, be ok.
The border is a zone of possibility.
Why do I like so much crossing borders, I ask myself while the officer leaves through my bordeaux-colored EU passport, where there are maybe too many stamps – 20 Mexicans, 12 Argentinians, eight Chileans, four Peruvians, two Ecuadorians, some Brasilians, a couple of Uruguay then Paraguay, Bolivia, Panama, Cuba, Jamaica, Venezuela, Kenya, Marocco, Hong Kong, the Philippenes, Tahiti and so on.
Not everyone is satisfied with some “Journalist” or “Periodista” visa stamped on it to justify so many trips. So, turning indifferently their head to the computer, they go looking for my name on the screen, hoping they’ve gotten their hands on someone who should be stopped. They maybe right. Someone should stop me from traveling too much.
Why do I enjoy that moment? Is it the blood of my smuggler ancestors from Valdagno who a 100 years ago crossed the mountains between Austria and Italy?
What am I smuggling, here? What makes me feel the pleasure of hiding something forbidden, carrying it across the line of legality drawn by the border?
The only illegal things I’m smuggling are my intentions, those of telling a story, distorting what I will see with my subjectivity. All right, I confess Mr. Custom Officer, yes, you, running your fingers through my passport, stamping it, throwing it across the counter, almost disappointed for not having found anything, not being able to keep me here in your limbo.
To be precise, the limbo has been abolished by the Catholic Church. Who knows where the soul of the agnostics and the non-christened will have to go after death. Before, at least, they had the consolation of that sort of V.I.P. Lounge section of Purgatory, whose name. “Limbo”, always evokes a tropical dance. I almost hear the voice of a dj calling the souls to the dance floor: “And nooow…limmmb-oooh!”.
And yet the limbo, presumed hideout of souls marred only by the original sin, is that waiting room, that condition, undefined and far from a solution, that for me remains the perfect hideout for eternal intruders like me.
As I’ve said before, I’ve always felt at home in the alienation of fast-food restaurants, in the cosmopolitan airport waiting lounges, in the country-side amusement parks, among the noise of rowdy game rooms as much as in shopping malls.
I feel at home here because these are borders as well. This is also a limbo.
I can’t say, however, that I felt at home in the limbo of the Mexico-Guatemala border, where I arrived one morning to meet a Mexican cop who went by the name of “Rolfi”, the person who first taught me the meaning of the typically Mexican expression “ni modo”.
Used in moments of failure and distress, “ni modo” is the layman’s version of the Islamic “inshallah”, or God willing. It’s a fatalistic sigh, which basically means “forget about it, and go on with your life”.
This trip would teach me how useful saying “Ni modo” can be.
* * *
The humid weather wets my neck and forehead. The heat breaths on me making my skin stick to the t-shirt as if someone had poured a glass of lukewarm soup down my spine. The streets are only muddy brooks that seem like they’ll never dry. There’s only a skimpy river deviding Tecun Uman in Guatemala from Ciudad Hidalgo, Mexico.
It’s simply too hot, that humid tropical heat of the Cuban summer, of Bahia, Manaus, Caracas, Panama City, El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, Puerto Rico, Jamaica. Names that are as hot as their temperature. Ja-mai-caaaah, Hon-du-rasss, just pronouncing them makes me sweat. Those temperatures mold the time-space formula in a molasses of shiny colors that seem to round off the corners of life. A calor verde tropical, a “Tropical-green heat” which lives in the lazy anticipation of the Frente del Norte, the cold wind coming from the north. It is hope that feeds Latin America, allowing it to endure the heat of its destiny.
In Ciudad Hidalgo, a special corps Grupo Beta Sur policeman offer me the chance to join a robbers chase. “Una pandilla de bandidos”, he says. They are looking for a group of bandidos and I’ve come here to find out more about their work.
The contact was given to me by a photographer friend, the Brasilian Sebastiao Salgado. He was on patrol with them, grabbing on ladders of cargo trains, jumping across the railroad into the woods, so he could take pictures of the illegal immigrants.
Thinking that Sebastiao had already done it, and that maybe that was the only way to find “the” story, I let myself be seduced by this proposal. So, as I hear the invitation to join them in a thugs-hunting expeditions I reply, maybe too quickly, “Si, señor.”
The officer warns me: “It’s risky, you better think twice about it…”
“Don’t worry”, I reply, and than, taking advantage of the slang learned on the streets of Mexico City, I encourage them to put a stop to their doubts with a very macho: “vamonos, güeyes!”, which translates more or less into: “let’s go, homeboys!”.
The agents laugh and I’m told I can go, but, to limit the risk, I have to wear a bulletproof vest under my t-shirt. We get started on the expedition, the agents dressed like poor illegal immigrants – checkered shirts and torn sweat shirts hanging from their shoulders and hiding sawed off shot guns and smaller guns, which they loaded back at Head Quarters.
Checov wrote that when in the first act you see a gun, before the end of the story it is most likely to be used. I hope this time the Checov rule won’t apply.
Along the railroad where we walk, runs another of the “Roads to the North” where everyday hundreds of migrants flood in from Central America. They head to the US border, a desperate river of people trying their luck, searching for a gateway to los dolares. Hidden in their satchels, inside their belts or rolled up in their socks, they hide the savings of a lifetime. And that’s what the robbers are after.
There’s a boy from Honduras with us, the husband of a girl who only two hours earlier, exactly on this railroad, was forced to strip naked, then was robbed and gang-raped. He says he’ll tell us where the assault took place.
The heat feels like it’s swelling, growing, almost as if reacting to our sense of suffocation by growing even hotter, more humid, oppressive.
Rolfi, the cop who acts as my guide, says that it could’ve been the Salva Truchas, the cruelest gang in Mexico, made up by former Salvadorean guerrilla fighters who often sport a tatoo on their forehead which is an autobiography summed up in one phrase – “Mi vida loca”, my crazy life.
Those with three spots tattooed on the skin between thumb and index finger have already gone to jail for homicide. Those with a tear tattooed under the right eye have killed their own mother.
What am I doing then, in the middle of the railroad, with Mexican police hunting for rapists who killed their mothers? What’s wrong with me? Was it in order to find myself here that I spent my summers – when I was 18, 19 and 20 – working as an intern for the Associated Press in Rome instead of going on holiday like the other kids? Is this the landing spot of the wanderlust which has kept me going through so many trips? Why did I let the thirst for a new story push me all the way here?
Mexico has a police corp that protects from assaults and violence the ilegales coming in from Guatemala. For decades hurricanes and wrong economic policies have filled the “Roads to the north” with poor people who have transformed California into their obsession. But before getting there, or to Tijuana, you first have to survive a series of dangers.
For those who enter illegally, escaping the “uniforms” is easy. If “imigraciòn” catches you the only risk is being sent back to Tecun Uman, in Guatemala, where you can try again to break through the border. The real danger are bandits.
The Salva Truchas haven’t showed up yet. From a banana plantation, a farmer, fooled my our looks, warns us: “Be careful, get yourselves some rocks, you’ll find bandidos ahead!”.
Rolfi looks around, and reminds me to hit the ground and hide between the rails if I hear shots. He tries to let some steam off by saying to his partner: “Hey, pendejo, you remember that lady who was raped and scarred in front of her son, who had been tied to a pole? It was a Guatemalan cop who did it, everybody knows him, but they never caught him”.
The friend replies: “What about the Nicaraguan we found in the ditch after 12 hours who was screaming “I’m alive, help me!”, remember? He was missing one hand and the nose, cut off with the machete. The upper lip was dangling and bleeding like mad”.
“We looked for his hand and nose in the bushes”, says Rolfi, “And we found them, so they stiched ‘em up in the hospital. But two days later he was dead”.
The next few minutes are filled only by the sound of our own steps.
The boy from Honduras will show us the place where the assault took place. “Maybe the gang’s still there”, says Rolfi.
The boy, however, is too shaken to realize that we’ve already passed the little bridge where the first rapist had appeared, he’s still too shocked to remember that it was exactly under that sign reading “Peligro Zona Despoblada!” (Warging Deserted Area!) that the first bandido had made his appearence a few hours earlier. He’s too distracted, too nervous, he’s probably thinking of the violence his wife suffered.
But under that same sign, the same gangster pops up. I can see him clearly, even though it doesn’t really seem possible to me. A man with a rifle in his hands, and he’s pointing it at us. He’s so close that “I can see the white in his eyes”, as people say in these situations.
The gangster recognizes the boy and screams something at someone behind us, hiding in the trees and in the bushes: “It’s them! It’s them again!” and he starts shooting at us.
I jump to the floor, as I’ve been instructed to do, trying to make my whole body get inside the bulletproof vest, while I hear shooting and explosions all over. I bite my teeth as hard as I can, staring at the wooden board of the railway in its every little detail, while I ask myself: “Was it really necessary to come all the way here?”.
The cops in front of me scream: “hijo-de-puta-cabròn-pendejo-de-mierdaaa!” running towards the guy, shooting randomly at him while the he runs backwards shooting at us. I say to myself, with a strange calm: “They are insane”. Then I add. “I’m stupid”.
I think that not having a helmet could lead to my getting a bullet in the head, I ask how stupid one must be to risk his own life like this: “What for?”.
For a newspaper article, for the desire to live a fragment of a life that is not mine, in a world very far from mine, which is about to become mine. I understand that for all the victims that I met, and that I’ve heard about, all it took was a moment like this to get sucked into a cosmic swindle like the one I fear I may be about to experience if I don’t keep my head down. Because, while I’m here on the ground with my hands crossed over the back of my neck, those guys keep shooting at each other in the woods.
I close my eyes and see, in the red darkness of my eyelids, a familiar image, that which I have seen since I was a child when I was about to fall asleep: the universe with the stars moving fast towards me. It’s like the tension towards the infinite that one feels when thinking about eternity.
I say to my self, fuck, this could be my turn…
I “think” the image of the stars in movement for a split second, as fast as an explosion. Is it possible that a bullet, getting close to my head has caressed me with its cone of death? The Germans call Augenblicksgott a minor divinity that speeds around you as fast as a shiver. Is it possible that maybe in the instant a bullet nearly hit me I felt infinity?
When the sound of the shoot-out starts to fade, I raise my head. There’re three of us left: the boy, myself and a cop with a sawed off shotgun ordering us to keep our heads down.
Panting, I ask: “How many have you seen?”.
“One. Just ahead”, the boy answers.
“But we had two of them right behind us”, adds the cop watching over us. I see something moving some 60 yards ahead.
“Over there, there’s another one – I say between a sigh and a scream – The yellow one. Or is it one of ours?”. It is. I better calm down.
The hunt is on. There were two of them shooting from behind, and then the other, the one under the sign, who shot right away. We are hyper from all the adrenalin, but we try to keep cool, maybe out of dignity, or maybe to hide the joy of not having gotten hurt, after having faced a risk like this one.
We find the hideout. After kicking away a tarantula from the back packs, we find a soldier’s uniform. It’s not the Salva Truchas then, but military people, maybe Mexican former soldiers who rob people to round off their salaries. It wouldn’t be the first time that happens, given the level of corruption in the army and police.
Out of a truck that just arrived jumps the raped girl, pointing to the cops the place where she was forced to strip. Her dark brown hair wound in two braids, the puffy cheeks on her tanned skin, after the hours spent walking under the sun while excaping from Honduras. The girl keeps her eyes to the ground, walking awkwardly, in short steps. How can one keep away from one’s mind the images of what has happened to her, after seeing where it took place?
She’s still shaken by the violence, bundled up in her gray jump suit borrowed by the cops. She walks keeping her arms crossed over her stomach. Her eyes aren’t able to hide the hope to see those cabrones dead.
The Beta Sur agents get back on the pickup truck for a final round. They stop some suspects for questioning. The hunt is useless. The gangsters know the terrain much better and have vanished. Rolfi kicks the truck’s tyre before bringing us back to HQ.
While we pass by a farmers’ village, the wheels crush a little pig crossing the street. But Rolfi keeps driving as if we had just bumped on a large pebble. In the rearview mirror I see the farrow walking to the middle of the road, trying to move with her snout the flattened piggy pudding, with his entrails all over the dirt road.
The farrow then let’s out a scream in the air, condensing all her motherly pain. A scream that fades in a weeping sound as we move further away aboard our truck.
Seems to me this is the most appropriate soundtrack for the official “the end” of a day like any other in the life of clandestine immigrants, gangsters and police in the great limbo between Guatemala and Mexico.
“Ni modo”, says Rolfi, shaking his head and lowering his eyes on the driving wheel.
“Ni modo”, I reply.
(copyright Carlo Pizzati © 2001-2014)