I am honored to present, once again, artist Steven Tomsik as our guest blog writer. He writes of his adventures cataloging his journey through sketches on the “chicken bus”. Read on, be entertained and savor Mr. Tomisk’s humor, thought patterns and delightful sketches. (Illustration at left — “The Chicken Bus – Opening” scene by Steve Lee Tomsik © 2013).
What am I doing here? My uncle’s wife had a sister who worked as a travel agent. She promised a low rate on airfare and ground transportation for Artist’s “Back to Nature” excursion in Central America. “Gauguin in Tahiti”, I thought, and I signed up. I had to admit, the vacation package price was attractive. The brochure looked good. The reality was a tour of Purgatory on broken roller skates.
I took the Chicken Bus for the last leg of the trip. Hours earlier, I asked another traveler, “How did it get the name, “Chicken Bus”? She explained: People in the out-lying villages have no electricity. They can’t refrigerate the meat they buy at the open-air markets. So they buy a live chicken, wrap it, and carry it home on the bus. An hour or two before chicken soup, they wring its neck, pluck, marinade, filet and pour in the chopped vegetables. It’s always fresh. But it makes for interesting sights, sounds, and colors on the long bus ride back to the farmlands.
The woman who explained it to me was a nun, travelling with a companion. Both were dressed alike in unflattering black and white habits and heavy shoes. The Sister Teresa was from Marseille and spoke passable English. The two nuns returned to studying a five-day old copy of the Wall Street Journal to track day-trader prices on their stocks. How do nuns who take a vow of poverty become so absorbed in greed? I was wondering about this, while the other nun pulled out a handkerchief full of chocolate pieces, some were white, some dark brown, and she began to suck noisily on the edges of each chunk. She seemed to be working the bites carefully with a look on her face like nothing in the world was more important than what was between her tongue and her teeth. It was outside my expectations. I struggled not to ask.
The whole trip was like this – nothing was as expected. I was working my way through a creative block, hoping to find a post-card landscape. Nothing here seemed good enough to drain the camera battery. Nothing inspired a painting or a story. Were my rigid expectations masking the real life unfolding around me? I thought I knew everything, thought I had seen it all, and perhaps I was just now learning how to really look. The bus rattled over a bumpy road, and as we crested a hill, a thousand birds suddenly launched across the lake in various colors.
There was a goat on a tether behind me. The rope was carelessly tied to the send the goat was chewing on my newspaper. “Good thing goats can’t read…the news would upset his stomach,” I said inaudibly. I imagined the goat’s reply, “Ah, if you only knew how good this tastes….the ink gives it that special something…and you should know, better than anyone that bad news is the sauce of conflict that gives literature its unique favor and distinctive taste.” And then the chicken clucked in, “Sir, you’ve been too long on this bus, talking to goats and all. I’d recommend some fresh air and a cup at the next stop, before you slip further to the next warning sign and start hearing advice from chickens.”
Well, nobody said the trip was going to be easy.
In the back of the bus, there was an old veteran missing a leg, and playing an accordion. He sprawled across the rear bench seat of the bus with his stacked crutches, coat, two folded blankets, and service dog that sang a little less badly than he did. The accordion he was playing was on a squeeze stroke when a piece of tape came loose and unplugged a leak in the bellows. It wheezed almost as loudly as he did. The player sang flat. I saw an empty bottle of rocket-fuel by his thigh-pocket, and guessed that might be the reason. He may have missed his pitch, but his service animal wasn’t missing anything. This one-eyed dog hit every note with howling precision. The dogs of Hades would have bowed before him at the gates of the under-word.
I felt something tugging at my bag, and turned just in time to see the goat pinch his teeth on the Spanish phrase book and dictionary hanging out of the open zipper of my art-bag. He only swallowed a few pages, but slobbered on the rest until they were too soaked to rescue. I now had only pencil, paper, and hand-signs to communicate with the locals.
A month would pass in this remote outpost before I managed any real fluency – I had to ask for everything by drawing a picture. The townsfolk quickly learned that I was an artist on a pilgrimage, and that I didn’t know what I was looking for. This didn’t seem to put them out, but rather, they whispered conspiratorially with side-ways glances, and nodded in agreement. Not speaking the local language, I felt isolated and suspicious.
I somehow knew I was in for some kind of a ride, and after a few complicit nods, I started to wonder where this ride was taking me. I always had to be in control of everything going on around me, and here I clearly wasn’t. I can’t express how much this bothered me.
An Indian and a llama herder by trade sat two seats in front of me with large, scuffy toes in worn-out leather sandals. I bet his skin was tougher than the leather. His head band was blue and green with red, geometric designs on it. He wore a red alpaca sweater that would have fetched several hundred dollars on a Newport retail store shelf. He wore white home-spun next to his body, and a necklace of coarsely polished gemstones – amethyst, blue lace-agates, tourmaline, obsidian, citrine quartz, and green malachite. No gold – wise of him. A satellite phone covered his ear as he loudly argued the prices of feed versus wool with a buyer – apparently someone in Edinburgh if I correctly followed the one side of the conversation I could hear. He spoke loudly to get above the noise reverberating in the passenger seating of the bus. My limited understanding of the local dialect was a contributor to my feelings of separateness from my surroundings.
While I was distracted by the tiny dramas in the other bus-seats, the goat got my sable travel brushes. He nibbled the zip-lock bag, and dragged them out of a side-pocket until they fell and rolled across the steel-grated floor of the bus towards the back. They alternated from side to side as the bus curved along the serpentine road. Sometimes, the road was paved, sometimes it was packed-dirt, but usually, it was paved on one side, and under-construction on the other. After one more bad bump, the goat’s tether came loose, and no sooner was the goat free than we had fresh entertainment for everyone on the bus.
I scarcely retrieved the sable brushes from goat’s mouth when he turned to the bus-driver’s lunch. The driver had one hand on the wheel, and the other on the lunch-bag, wrestling with the goat, blaspheming in Spanish – I wasn’t sure what he was actually saying, but I think the goat caught it, as he ran for cover under a seat when the bus swerved and clipped a low-lying tree branch. The scrape with a tree-limb startled a Quetzal bird, and as we watched, this feathery, flying rainbow unfolded its wings, and glided across our path. “An omen,” said one woman who had boarded with a chicken under each arm, and a knowing look in her eye. “Something extraordinary awaits you at destiny’s end, ” she predicted, and two other passengers nodded in agreement. Was it a curse or did good fortune await? Sister Teresa said, “Depends on what kind of life you’re living, and how you look at that life – for you, the only certainty is that destiny has acquired your path forward, and has taken hold of your journey. You’ll have to hold on, and see it unfold on its own. But always know that ‘the gods favor the brave’, she said. I wondered what kind of theological ideas were running loose in her head. I knew better than to ask.
My mind was a whirling, muddy pool of messy thinking: If the front page has bad news on it, does it upset the goat’s digestion when he eats it? If a goat eats the financial section, when it comes out the other end, will the fertilizer stocks see a rise? A thousand useless thoughts were confusing my efforts to organize a work plan. I gave up trying to make efficient use of the time, I stopped saying, “Are we there yet,” and imperceptibly, the landscape changed. I started to pick up pieces of the conversations, and I failed to reconnect with the frustration I had held so tightly in the earlier day.
The bus stopped in front of a café to unload an assortment of boxes tied with rope. I saw wooden crates, suit-cases of mismatched design, a sheepish goat, and some nervous chickens. I hadn’t eaten in six hours. Delicious scents were wafting on my air – coffee, limes, cinnamon, melons, sautéed garlic and lamb with caramelizing onions on a comal. I peered through the front window and saw a cook pouring light oil on fillets breaded with barley flour. Suddenly, I was in less of a hurry to reach my destination, and was more interested in the road-side attractions of the journey – that food and coffee smelled incredibly good.
The nun motioned to me to join her for coffee in the local internet café. Somebody from the café next door carried two plates of empanadas with corn and beans and laid them on the edge of the table for us. She offered a coin, to which the mesera replied, “no te voy a cobrar,” meaning, “We’re not going to charge you Sister,” and went back to fetch the home-baked bread and locally grown coffee. This was the kind of coffee that could set a stone monument in motion. She spread her stock portfolio out as she pulled out a laptop, and peered into a spread-sheet. The other nun was supervising the ware-housing of a cargo of chocolate in unrefined form. Sensing my curious disapproval, she spoke at length….
“A parishioner died last year. In his last will and testament, he parted out some land and bank accounts to various people. He left this stock portfolio to support the orphanage we oversee. We figured the stocks were worthless, but the wool-traders who knew something about it advised us wait, and watch the share values for a year. They seemed worthless. One involved small, low-cost medical instruments that plug into a smart-phone and transmit EKGs to doctors, or glucose monitoring for diabetics. We thought it was a fraud at first. The other stocks were for two on-line social network, and were developed by some college students who wouldn’t get a date and had too many lonely hours on their hands. Some years passed, and they turned out to be worth something. We were able to collateralize a loan against the stocks and install electrical service, plumbing and sanitary service in the orphanage and school – we have the best in the area now. Sister Teresa, my travel companion, takes care of a section of a terrace farm – another parishioner gives her the revenue on his cocoa-bean farm in exchange for tuition in our school for 3 daughters. She exchanges the harvest and crude-process chocolates for fresh vegetables and blankets in the street fair. They took unfair advantage of her until she became expert in chocolate.
In our calling, we’re trained to confront any kind of challenge, and so she stepped into resolve it. She makes enough off these boxes you see them unloading to feed all the children for three months. The vegetables she is now loading are just the first payment, more are promised. If we accepted delivery of all of it, they would spoil before we use them, and the insects might get to them before we do. So she takes them in several deliveries, each two weeks apart.
I asked her, “Where did all these orphans come from?” and a far-away look crossed her face, and she changed topic.
The destination had not changed, but the journey had taken a new direction of its own.
Steven Tomsik’s artwork can be seen on New York Artists Online: http://www.newyorkartists.net/steventomsik/