Blue Canvas Shoes: Footwear of the Deported

November 1, 2011 § Leave a comment

I was preparing to head back to El Progreso from a business trip in Tegucigalpa after my co-workers had left me there the day before – without warning – to wrap up a few early morning meetings.

“Good luck!” my cohorts had yelled while zooming away in our organization’s rickety pick-up, leaving me behind in the middle of a busy Tegucigalpa street.

They could have at least driven me to a hostel, I thought.

After taking a few seconds to think about my predicament, I still couldn’t tell if my co-workers were:
A)    Just being lazy
B)    Honestly trying to cut back on our NGO’s tight travel budget
C)    Fleeing Tegucigalpa out of revulsion (I haven’t met a single Progreseño who speaks highly of the city)
D)    Telling me that I smelled, in their own special way
E)    All of the above

But I didn’t mind. I was ready for some peace and quiet after a chain of days that felt more like summer camp than adult travel with the youth empowerment squadron.

After boarding the Progreso-bound charter bus, I eyed the seats to my left and right until I spotted two empty ones near the back. I did what any seasoned bus-rider would do and measured the seats’ distance from the bathroom, which was suspiciously absent from the old charter bus. I took that as a good omen, since it not only meant that I would have my own seat, but also that I wouldn’t have to worry about any odd smells.

I felt the collective weight of brown eyes fall upon me as I made my lanky foreigner’s strut down the aisle. I carried my 6 foot 2 inch form with goose-like grace until I had finally plopped myself into the seat next to the bus’s window.

I watched the people who were rushing about outside. They moved like ants, haphazardly at first but eventually settled on a direction. I enjoyed the scene while munching on a Tupperware container full of unsalted peanuts and raisins – travel food that succeeds in fending off hunger when the next full meal looms in the far-off future.

When I turned back to the aisle, people were still boarding the bus. I looked around and noticed that the seats were beginning to fill to capacity.

That’s when I thought to examine my large, grayish-green Northface backpack, which was occupying the entirety of the fabric-covered seat next to mine.

I nearly slammed my head against the window when I realized how American I was being. If Americans enjoyed anything more than being left alone in their private space bubbles, it was being left alone in their private space bubbles while riding on some form of public transportation. Hence the reason why I had instinctively used my backpack as a deflector,  sending out an unspoken message to the other passengers that “this seat is taken.”

It’s difficult to claim multiple seats in Honduras since buses almost always fill beyond capacity – even the buses that you’re supposed to book tickets for in advance. When all of the seats are taken, plastic seats appear from out of nowhere (thus disproving the theory that matter is neither created nor destroyed), and people start sitting on them in the middle of the aisle. When those seats fill up, people start standing. And then squeezing. And then piling, effectively bursting any and all space bubbles.

I had no idea why I thought I had a right to be so territorial on a bus that wasn’t even mine. I supposed that I hadn’t thought at all, since the behavior had come so naturally. Regardless, I decided to make up for it by lowering my backpack between my legs and freeing up the seat next to me. I glanced to the right to make sure no one noticed my oh-so chivalrous act, which would allow an actual human being the luxury of a seat during the five hour ride up north in lieu of my lifeless backpack.

I readjusted my backpack between my legs just as a young man with unkempt hair, bloodshot eyes, and rustled, unwashed clothing approached the open seat.

“Is anyone here?” he asked in Spanish.

I took a deep breath, successfully suppressing the stubborn American brat inside of me that wanted to shout, “Mine!”

“Nope,” I said with a smile. “Have a seat!”

“Gracias,” the man said.

“No problem.”

The man sat down just as the bus started to chug forward. Unlike me, he had nothing else on his person other than a black plastic bag with goodies that he must have purchased outside of the bus station. We introduced each other. I soon learned that his name was Olvin and that he spoke nearly flawless English.

“Where are you going?” Olvin asked, his Honduran accent barely traceable.

“El Progreso,” I said.

Olvin’s eyebrows shot up. “El Progreso? That’s where I’m going! But why in the world are you going there?”

“I live and work there,” I said.

Olvin wanted to know what kind of work I did. I told him that I was helping run a local non-government organization that promoted the right and access to education for local youth while teaching yoga on the side. When he asked me how I knew yoga, I told him that I had studied in Korea, Chile, and Ireland before getting certified in India nearly one year earlier.

Olvin’s questions continued, as did my responses. Olvin’s eyes seemed to widen with every word.

“So what about you?” I asked.

“Me?” Olvin said with a nervous laugh. “Well, your country just deported me, I guess.”

“Really?” I asked.

Olvin nodded. “You can’t tell? I haven’t showered in forever. We couldn’t at the deportation center. I must smell awful.”

In Honduras I have a rule: silently forgive people of all hygiene issues no matter what. I was hardly one to judge Olvin, after all. Though I had showered in the morning, I had probably sweated my body weight under the Tegucigalpa sun at least seventy times over between then and getting on the bus. No one seemed to care or notice, so why should I have done any differently with Olvin?

“You can also tell by the blue shoes,” Olvin said, his gaze shifting to his feet. He swiveled both of his navy blue canvas shoes back on forth. They were slip-ons without laces.

Olvin lifted up his head and puckered his lips to the seat diagonal from us, a gesture Hondurans perform when they want you to look at something. I followed the direction of Olvin’s lips until I saw another young guy of about 18 years. He was lanky, had black Sideshow Bob hair, and was sporting the same exact blue shoes that Olvin had on.

“There are a whole bunch of us,” Olvin said. “They flew us in from the center in New York.”

“They?” I asked. “As in the US government?”

Olvin nodded. “They paid for everything. They even give you money so you can make it back home once you land. Since this is my second time getting deported, I knew to tell them that I lived farther away then I actually do. They gave me extra money for that.”

I was shocked. Not only was I sitting in a bus full of real live “illegal aliens,” but said “aliens” had actually been paid hundreds of dollars by my government to leave the United States and return to Honduras.

Not knowing how to respond to that, I puckered my lips over Olvin’s shoulder. He spun around in a quick semi-circle, anxious to see what I was getting him to look at. When he turned back around to face me, he gave me the same disappointed look a daydreaming whale watcher might make after missing the rise and fall of an orca’s tail.

“What?” Olvin asked.

“Gotcha!” I said. “I love doing that to Hondurans. It gets them every time.”

“Hey, that’s not funny!” Olvin said, laughing. He puckered his lips once again. “Americans don’t do this, do they?”

I shrugged. “At least not when they’re trying to get people to look at things. So…if you don’t mind my asking, how did you end up getting deported – twice?”

“It’s a long story. After the first time, my mom told me not to go back. She said, ‘I don’t know why you think you’re like them – the gringos. You’re not one of them. So just stay here.’

“But I went back anyway. I got a job working as a busboy at Chili’s. After eight months of that, I found a better-paying job cleaning pools.”

“So…what went wrong?”

Olvin let out a frustrated sigh. “I met a girl from Ecuador. We ended up having a daughter. She’s three years old now.”

I scanned Olvin from head to blue shoe-covered toe. Even in his unshowered and exhausted state, he still didn’t look like he was any older than 23.

“You have a daughter?” I asked.

Olvin nodded. “The Ecuadorian and I didn’t get along. That’s why we never got married. She was so difficult all of the time. So one night we were arguing and her dad, who lived downstairs, called the police on me. He knew I didn’t have any documents, and when the police came, they found out. Then they brought me to the deportation center.”

“Oh wow. That sounds…so dramatic.”

“It was. “

“Do you miss them?” I asked.

“My daughter, yes. I wish I could just be a father without ever having to deal with that Ecuadorian again. I miss my daughter, though. And now I don’t know how I’m ever going to be able to keep in touch with her.”

Olvin lowered his head. I could sense that we had treaded a bit too far into sensitive waters. I needed to find a way to reel him back.

“Well it’s not impossible, Olvin,” I said. “Just because you aren’t in the United States doesn’t mean you can’t be a presence in your daughter’s life.”

“I’m going to call every week. Even if I have to talk to the mom.”

“I think you should. You have to if you want your daughter to know that you love her.”

Olvin nodded.

“So what are you going to do now?” I asked. “Are you going to try going back to the States for a third time?”

“I don’t know,” Olvin said. “Sometimes I think what’s the point? The first time I did it and it was sort of fun. But now…I left so much behind in a place that’s never gonna accept me.”

Never gonna accept? I thought. How could that be? Wasn’t the United States supposed to be a melting pot that accepted everyone regardless of who they were or where they were from because the United States was a nation of equality and diversity and democracy and gay marriage (in select places) and pursuing happiness and scratched out three-fifths compromises and blah blah bliddy blah blah blah?

It was such an unequal system. Here I was, free to bounce in between Honduras and the United States as many times as I pleased, while Olvin could not simply by virtue of being Honduran. Not even when he had a three-year-old kid that he wanted to raise across the border.

It wasn’t a pleasant situation, but I knew it wasn’t my place to tell Olvin that. Instead, I searched for sunlight.

“Maybe you have to take your mom’s advice,” I told him. “Besides, you can do a lot here in Honduras. With your English, you have to be able to find something.”

“Really?” Olvin asked. “Even though there aren’t any jobs?”

“You have the best English I’ve heard from any Honduran I’ve ever met,” I told him truthfully. “You have to use that to your advantage.”

“Really?” Olvin asked again. He spoke with the tone of a small child who hadn’t received a compliment in a very long time.

I nodded. “There’s a demand for English here. With tourism, education, or international business, there has to be an opportunity for someone like you.”

My eyes lit up as an idea came to me. “Hey, do you have a CV?”

“A what?”

“A CV…or…you know…a resume?”

“I…well…I don’t really…no,” Olvin said, blushing.

“Don’t worry,” I said, swatting my hand in front of Olvin. “Here’s what we’re gonna do. Why don’t you come to my office this week and I’ll help you make one, okay?”

“You’d do that for me?” Olvin asked.

“Why not? Resumes are fun and easy. You just have to divide them into sections. One for your objective, one for your education, and one for your experience.”

“I haven’t really done much education,” Olvin admitted.

“Don’t worry,” I said. “We’ll put what you have done. And we’ll make it look pretty. At the end of the day, that’s all that really matters.”

“Thanks Michael. That means a lot.”

“Anytime, Olvin. Here, let me give you my card.”

As I reached into my backpack for one of my business cards, I took an unexpected whiff of something that caused my face to wrinkle with disgust. All of the sudden it smelled like a cat had gone and taken a giant piss in the back of the bus.

It didn’t take me long to locate the undeniable culprit – a man who was balancing himself with his left hand against the back wall of the bus while he was aiming himself…poorly…with his right hand into a plastic shopping bag.

“Oh gross!” I shouted, nearly puking into my palm.

So much for my silently forgive people of all hygiene issues rule.

The man turned his head and puckered at me while he peed. He was trying to tell me to look away, which I did gladly.

Olvin laughed. “That’s Honduras. I don’t get why you’re even here in the first place.”

“Me?” I asked. “I told you. I came here to work.”

“I know, but why Honduras? Usually people do it the other way around.”

I shrugged. “I guess I really like the nature of the work. Plus, I like getting to know other parts of the world. I’ve never lived in Central America before.”

“You must get paid a lot.”

I closed my mouth before shaking my head from side to side.

“How much?” he asked.

When I told Olvin my monthly salary, his reddened eyes nearly burst free from their sockets.

“You’re working here for that?” he asked, nearly yelling. “I guess that’s why you’re so skinny. Do you even eat?”

I lifted up my Tupperware container of peanuts and raisins.

“Sometimes,” I said. “Want some?”

Olvin smiled and took a handful of the granola-less trail mix.

“You know what, Michael?” Olvin said while munching. “I think I can do this.”

“Do what?” I asked.

“I think I can stay. I mean, look at you. You came here. You decided to do the opposite of what I’m doing, and you’re not making any money doing it. I don’t know anyone who has done that.”

“Hey!” I said defensively. “I’m making some money.”

“Yeah, but not a lot!”

I sighed. “You’re right. I’m probably just insane.”

Olvin laughed. “No you’re not. You’re helping keep Honduran kids in school. And you’re keeping people healthy with yoga. You’ve made a home for yourself here, and you’re not even from here.”

I took a moment to reflect on the home that Olvin was referring to. A small house on a dusty dirt road in El Progreso. Pipes that rarely, if ever, had running water. A big red bucket I used for bathing and laundry, though never simultaneously. The perpetual coat of dust that seemed to cake everything I owned. And the army of red ants that accompanied me in my bed while I slept…and sometimes in my underwear when I was awake.

“I guess if you put it that way,” I said.

“It’s true, Michael. I feel lucky to have met you.”

This time I was the one who was blushing.

The five hours in the bus with Olvin couldn’t have gone by faster. In fact, they went by far too quickly. The conversation about Olvin’s life – pre-USA and post-USA – and his concerns about and hopes for the future made it one of the most genuine and inspiring exchanges that I had had in a long time. Though I couldn’t be sure of what would become of Olvin, I thought that someone with his level of energy and linguistic talent would discover something promising in Honduras, a place he had given up on but returned to with a new set of skills that he probably never would have acquired had he not left in the first place.

I hoped Olvin would take me up on the offer for me to help him with his resume, but I knew that would have to wait for a few more days at least. First, it was time for him to reunite with the family he hadn’t seen in years.

“My mom doesn’t know I’m coming,” Olvin said as he stood up for his stop. “I’ve kept it a complete surprise.”

“Enjoy it, Olvin,” I said, recalling how sweet family reunions could be. “It was great meeting you.”

“Thanks Michael. I’ll see you in a few days, okay?”

Olvin and I shook hands and batted knuckles once more before he bounced down the aisle and off of the bus. He ran across the paved street onto one of his neighborhood’s many dirt roads. He smiled and waved at me as the bus started to pull away. I waved back, keeping my eye on Olvin, and watched as his blue canvas shoes made footprints on the land that he was ready to call home once again.


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