Naperville Days:
A memoir

When I was a young boy I had the distinct impression that my dad thought it would be interesting for me to go to South America and seek my fortune, though I can’t remember a specific conversation about it, just things we talked about over the years

When I was a young boy I had the distinct impression that my dad thought it would be interesting for me to go to South America and seek my fortune, though I can’t remember a specific conversation about it, just things we talked about over the years. Somehow, at that time, the notion of me leaving Naperville seemed preposterous.  I was a pretty conservative youngster and I was not enthusiastic about the idea—too chicken, or too sensible. Much later I came to realize that this adventure was one that he wished that he could have had. Two of his sisters had emigrated to California during world war two, but he’d had to run the family business in Naperville for his widowed mother.  Anyway, it always felt good to me thinking about South America, sort of trying it on for size, and I guess I have always wanted to see what I missed.

 

I began this journal as a diary of the trip that Tricia and I made through a good portion of Latin America in the winter (in the north) and spring of 2001. I had the intention of writing something in it every day for my own amusement and perhaps that of my family and a few friends, that is if it didn’t get too boring. (You can be the judge.) But it was soon obvious that there just wasn’t something interesting to say everyday, and besides it is hard to write when one is sick to one’s stomach, which I seemed a lot of the time to be. So it devolved into a set of observations about the places we visited and the people we saw, written sometimes on the spot, and at other times in reflection from the next spot. You may notice me mixing present and past tenses indiscriminately.

 

Latin America is a huge place and we only hopped over it, lighting here and there for a look-see. Some places were very poor, others pretty much first-world, if such a term anymore applies.  There was a time, and not a long while ago either, when the world could be split rather neatly into a first world, largely western Europe and northern America, a second world consisting of the USSR and its satellites, and a third world, made up more or less of everywhere else.  Today this handy terminology no longer applies.  One might speak more fittingly now of northern and southern worlds.  Latin America then, by this metric, is certainly part of the south.  And while it consists of a great many countries there is a certain uniformity to it. That homogeneity, for both good and ill, was provided by Spain.

Though Latin America is quite a large place, with many distinct countries, nearly all speak Spanish, and the significant one that doesn’t, Brazil, speaks Portuguese, a kissing cousin linguistically.  It is quite remarkable if one thinks  about it: nowhere else in the world are there so many contiguous countries that speak essentially the same language. So partly, the feeling of the wholeness of Latin America is language, but partly it is also Latin style, food, mannerisms and manners.  

I should also mention my surprise at the intermixing and intermarrying of the European races here in the south with the area’s indigenous people, to an extent far exceeding the mixing of the European immigrants to the United States with its native peoples.  The kaleidoscope of skin colors, statures and physiognomies that one encounters in Latin America is truly striking. Furthermore, while I’m certain that there are tensions and proclivities among them that are invisible to me, and all too natural for our species, and while a knowing resident might marvel at my naiveté, their egalitarianism did seem remarkable. Their common language may be at play here as well.

 

To contradict the common scare stories about travel in Latin America I'd like to say that nowhere we traveled did we feel threatened or uncomfortable, even in poor Lima, of which we had heard some scary tales. This could be because traveling here is more benign than is commonly thought by northern Argonauts, or because we did not tempt fate traveling into poor Barrios, or just because we were damned lucky. Whenever we needed help it was given willingly, partly in Spanish and partly in English.

I like the term Spanglish for this mixture of the two languages and the desire to communicate.  Tricia has been studying Spanish devotedly—me (characteristically) less intensely—and yet we both find it very difficult when actually listening to a natural Spanish speaker saying something to us, our ears not yet on automatic. But everywhere we went people seemed to want to practice their English, so it was fun all around.

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