A Constellation of Memories

BosniaMountains

1.

My cousins, my siblings, and I used to hold chicken therapy sessions in the attic of the barn.

My grandparents own a farm in Central Pennsylvania where we spent Easter and parts of each summer, running wild in a space still free of cell phone towers, the internet, where I remember when the house was assigned a street number. At some point, my uncle, the youngest of my mother’s siblings, decided we needed chickens and goats up there. We called an ad out of the local paper and returned with two goats we named Shimmer (after “Shimmer” by Fuel) and Shawnee (after the local Native American tribe that used to be there and for whom the local lake is named). And a bunch of chickens.

Originally we thought we’d be eating the chickens at the summer so our parents cautioned us not to name the chickens. In the van, rolling through unmarked, semi-paved roads with nothing but fields and cows as shoulders, we came up with names we were sure would allow us to eat the chickens. So even though when we arrived, it turns out the chickens were bantam hens and not meant for eating, they still got those names. Barbeque, Crispy Tenders, Colonel Sanders, etc.

I’m not sure if it was witnessing Colonel Sanders forcing himself on poor Crispy Tenders even when she protested or what, but we decided the chickens needed therapy. We’d each catch one–an event unto itself–take them into the attic, and sit in a circle. Then we’d flip the chickens on their backs, and pet them, and they weren’t allowed to leave until they had relaxed.

I’m a writer, but I swear I can’t make this stuff up. We’d talk about their perceived issues and what they needed, and eventually, we’d carry all the chickens back down and release them back into the yard where they’d walk around in slow motion, dazed and confused.

We were strange children. We’ve grown into quirky adults.

2.

The taxis dropped twelve of us off in the wrong place so when we climbed out, snow falling in an early snowstorm, even for Sarajevo, we had no idea where we were. We didn’t realize it right away. We meandered by the river, eyeing the mortar-pocket and abandoned buildings across the bridges. We took photos and then headed to the building where our long-departed taxi drivers had pointed. Instead, we walked right into a press conference with Sarajevo’s mayor.

One of the mayor’s aides rushed over to herd us out, and was utterly confused how twelve American students had walked into the press conference. We told her what we were looking for, and she found someone to give us directions. He pointed us across the river. So we walked, laughing about how angry our professor was going to be, across the bridge where once, in our lifetime, people were shot by snipers just for trying to obtain fresh water. At 1,425 days, the Siege of Sarajevo remains the longest siege of a capital city in modern history.

We were not unaware. We were not intentionally flippant or disrespectful. We had crisscrossed Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Serbia over the previous two weeks visiting ethnically cleansed site after genocide site after ethnically cleansed site. Every inch of ground there is a graveyard, every street pocked by grenades and mortars, every person a victim. For a brief respite in the snow, I could laugh again, my heart rising out of the ache of carrying all those ghosts in my bones.

We reached the second destination, a mosque, where a man came out and quietly told us that we were not in the right place. He did not speak English. We did not speak Serbo-Croatian. We retreated over the bridge and meandered by the market, wondering if we should just return to the hotel. One of my classmates still had the business card in her pocket, like we were all supposed to in case anything happened. Then one of my classmates who spoke a decent amount of Russian said he was going to try and ask in Russian in the grocery store.

Russian can go either way in Sarajevo. In Serbia, it would have been safer. In Sarajevo, the idea made most of us nervous. But he trotted inside the grocery store while we debated what would happen if we accidentally incited violence. The snow kept falling, inches now, and the city looked beautiful and peaceful.

I remember thinking it was so strange to imagine a prolonged, violent war carried out against civilians in that valley. It felt like a little haven from the rest of the trip which I couldn’t understand, given what I knew. I believe cities have memories. Some cities collapse under the weight of their ghosts. Others stand up, together, and carry on, their ghosts wrapped around their necks like albatrosses. Sarajevo is one of those latter cities.

A few minutes later, my classmate emerged from the grocery store with a Turkish woman who spoke English and was studying at the school we were supposed to be finding. She offered to show us the way on her way to class. We tromped back up the hill where we found the right Islamic School, our furious professor, and the one student who had been with her and their apparently more competent taxi driver.

Even now, almost seven years later, I think back on getting lost in Sarajevo in the snow with a heart full of hope. There was something about the snow, the river, the people, and all of us lost together that buoyed me through the final weeks of the trip.

3.

In Nicaragua, I spent time at Project Chacocente, a rural housing project designed for families that had lived previously in La Chureca, Managua’s landfill. Back then, my Spanish was decent. We helped in the classrooms, cut down plantain trees after they lost their field to a flood, visited a women’s clinic only months after abortion was made illegal in Nicaragua for the first time in decades, and played with the kids.

I walked around, absorbing new vocabulary, even in the curious Nicaraguan Spanish. I’d point with my free hand, my other hand almost always held by one or more children, and ask, cómo se dice esto? The kids would tell methe names for different fruits and plants that we found.

Occasionally, they’d find a bug that I’d never encountered before. I’m not a fan of many bugs, but I really dislike bugs with a copious number of legs. The kids would come over, their hands behind their backs, sly and excited smiles breaking across their face. Miss Katie, Miss Katie, tengo una sorpresa por ti! And then they’d drop a many-legged bug onto my lap. I’d shriek, scrambling up to brush it off my lap, and darting away, flapping my hands.

Meanwhile, the children would be in tears from laughter. It was one of their favorite games, and they learned to mix it up. Occasionally they would give me a pleasant surprise–a plantain, a flower, a picture of themselves, a postcard from New York–so I still waited, patient and curious, when they told me they had a surprise.

In Nicaragua, I rode on the handlebars of a bike, down a dirt road, to a plantain fields. I wielded a machete for hours. A sweaty child in a velvet dress fell asleep on my lap during a meeting. I rode a bus with sweatshop workers, to a women’s clinic where they need an armed guard, and used my Spanish even when I was afraid my vocabulary or verb conjugations were not correct. I stood on a landfill where people lived in worked, where children die from eating rat poison they thought was chocolate, where children fall asleep under cardboard to shield them from the sun and are run over by trucks, where sometimes, the trash spontaneously catches fire.

I remembered how to be curious. I remembered how to be quiet. I remembered how to be heartbroken. I remembered how to be hopeful. And I remembered how to be surprised.

For more information on Project Chacocente, you can check them out here at www.outofthedump.org and watch this YouTube video here.

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