John’s Journal April 15, 2010
Two days ago I was in alone in a hospital room (bacterial infection in the gut and dehydration) hooked up to an IV, making an hourly pilgrimage to the bathroom- a ten days worth of Guatemala and El Salvador memories reduced to a mucousy mess of mishaps, images and smells. I was in these countries on the admirable Clowns Without Borders mission of “No Child Without a Smile,” yet the inglorious commonTourista would send me home, as the other Payasos travelled further into the jungle to spread laughter. Now that I am in my Brooklyn apartment, drinking water from a tap, walking my dog on even sidewalks and understanding almost 100% of what people are saying to me (it is still Brooklyn), my memories, as if in communication with my err…movements, are taking shape- and taking on meaning.
From my first steps in Guatemala, literally- I sprained my ankle within my first 100 steps, on the uneven sidewalk, the relatively simple task of Clowning for impoverished children was way more complicated than I had imagined-yet somehow absurdly simple. Our first night together – in Quetzaltenango – Sayda, Kali and I were sitting around the dinner table with Steph (our local contact and the fourth clown) and his family. Our first moments as a group were a blur of languages – none of them quite being understood by everyone. Steph and his family speak French and Spanish, Sayda speaks Spanish and English fluently, I speak English fluently and Spanish brokenly and Kali speaks English and some French and some Brazilian Portuguese. “How are we going to make a show together like this?” I thought to myself. And then, as if in answer, Steph’s 10 year-old son entered urgently telling (those who could understand) that their cat had gone into labor. We were immediately on the same page- a miracle was happening- it was the first time any of us had been present for a feline birth, including the momma kitty- and what information needed to be exchanged – just was: efficiently and with a sense of curiousity and fun. This feeling carried over into our rehearsals over the next couple of days. When we got bogged down with language, we figured out a way to get on our feet and play. It was good practice. The pueblos that we would be visiting mostly spoke a language that none of us knew: Tz’utujil, a Mayan language spoken by approx. 84,000 people (according to Wikipedia), so we had to depend on real reactions that come from our characters gut, without much thought. Like when Steph’s Clown (the ‘lowest status’) was standing too close over Sayda’s shoulder while she tried to read a paper, and Sayda’s body twitched in annoyance. That’s universal.
Another vivid memory: our first show was not quite together, and right before going on, Kali warned us that she might, mid-show, have to make a run for the baño. Or our second show, Sayda says the same. And our third: they both say it. And it’s okay, cause we’ve got each other’s back (literally). And no, none of them left in the middle of the show. Or: sitting on “stage” (a concrete soccer court), with my jaw dropped. The young students had theirs dropped too, because I’m making music on a carpender’s saw- but behind the kids a huge volcano, solid & majestic rises up and is giving me shivers. Or a couple moments, from the same show, when I and a couple of teenage boys make eye contact throughout the show. Every time Kali or Sayda were doing something silly, I would look to them as if to say “what weirdos!”, which they returned, with an extra- you’re a weirdo too, but you’re also cool, cause you keep looking over here. Or another show, where a large number of the 400 student crowd seethed at us as the show was ending. During this show I realized that pretty much every audience we had laughed really hard any time we moved our butts. Did they all know we were having problems down there? This same show I discovered the power of crying. I’d never surfed a wave of giggles on a surfboard made of pretend sobs. Though they would laugh during the shows, at the end there was never applause. I had heard from other Clowns with no borders that indigenous villages’ seldom applauded. But here we were at the end of our show, expecting applause-because that’s what’s happened at the end of every show we’d seen- and silence. A softer, more honest activity developed at the end of the shows: we’d simply start packing up and say ‘bye’ in our individual way. And then, as soon as we got used to ‘saying bye’ in this gentle way, when I went out to perform at what was to be my last show- the audience roared, the kind of roar that scared me, made me run for cover. And they did not roar just once. Whenever any of us Payasos did anything notable they would simply roar, together- with a school spirit that was infectious – hey! Maybe that’s what got me so sick!
Now that I am safe and sound at home, three simple words are my souvenir: “Vaya con Dios.” Translated as “Go with God,” the expression was said amongst us Payasos anytime any of us had to go to the bathroom. We ALL had it, and we ALL knew how crappy our craps were and, being Payasos and knowing that every problem is better when embraced and celebrated rather than hidden and dealt with in isolation, this became our shorthand for ‘may you go have solid poo, and when you get back I expect a report.’ So…there’s my report.