Your Humble Pilgrim

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Dear reader That you choose to accompany me on my journey is an honour and a source of comfort. Your humble pilgrim Pablo

Chapter 1 A pilgrim’s first steps

It was the best of the worst times. Lying half-awake listening to the gunfire and screams, Pablo realises that the bodies of his own family will face the mortician tomorrow morning. A memory from the recent past, a vision which will cling tight while his conscious mind remains intact. Events on which he has the luxury to reflect now that things are much better. Yes the killings continue and comatose wretches still lie around the foot of world-famous sculptures, but now one can at least walk through the streets during the day, climb aboard cable cars and the Metro for a very small fee; for free in his social strata.

The politicians’ promise was of work, money and a better life. Social mobility was the mantra during election year. Here in his hometown Pablo believes that promise feels real. So this morning, lying half-awake listening to the familiar birdsong, is the day to begin. No more excuses not to go, today is the day to set out. This realisation evokes the feeling of a new beginning or at least a new chapter. He has survived the worst that the cartels could throw at his home. No, not survived, he has been spared. No, not spared even; “saved” according to the priest; “Saved for a purpose.”

This morning the mountain-slopes are unusually misty as if kindly to shroud the familiar surroundings and release Pablo from the sweet-yet-painful yearning to stay. Mist hides the tin roofs and adobe stucco walls of the poorly constructed homes precariously placed on the slopes. Mist makes it slightly easier not to look back or down as he boards the cable-car and passes over his cradle and familial comfort for his nineteen years in existence. Thanks to a public transport system built on visionary philanthropy and unquestioning belief in free enterprise, the small collection of notes and coins in his pocket will quickly take him far enough away from his home to make a new foothold and at sufficient distance for his home to become another world, from where to continue his pilgrimage. The dependable Metro, this symbol of hope and assurance, day after day gathers together and moves faces so normal and familiar on routine while remarkable journeys. To and from work, family gatherings, appointments bearing good and dreaded news, secret adulterous liaisons and this morning, a pilgrim moving on.

Prosperity was fated for the Tribe. Industrious, inherently business-like and sober, their story reads as an inevitable linear progression from modest-while obscure Gallic roots to sustainable New World wealth. Pablo was born and bred in its modern-day capital by parents, dirt-poor but with impeccable God-fearing credentials. “Knowledge comes from school – learning comes from home,” was his father’s mantra. Parents who had eked a living with courageous tenacity from a small bare patch of land on improbably steep slopes while raising six children by hand. Pablo’s people learned to walk with heads bowed to avoid the greedy gaze of cartel henchmen and their retinue. A violent death would surely come from one glance in the wrong direction, one word out of place, one pretty young girl identified as the next adornment and gateway to legitimate society. But now, since the Presidential terms of “Iron man”, the Tribe could be released from this pause in their progress to continue their destined path to prosperity.

Pablo has no doubt that this opportunity, created by his Tribal roots, is his birth-right. Surely his “purpose” was to build on the solid foundations laid by his ancestors. His father told him that he must free himself of his impoverished surroundings, search and travel to this Promised Land. He must take his rightful place with his fellow Tribe. Precisely where he should go was far less clear, however Pablo is convinced that those who seek shall find. His local priest told him of the “fellowship which binds the Tribe”. This fellowship would surely be his guide to the Promised Land.

Now feels like a good time to introduce and hand you over to Pablo and to let him be your guide. His schooling wasn’t complete but his learning so far has been wholesome while of course home-spun. He has read widely and voraciously as a way of escaping horrors as a child. I think you will find his deferential manner and youthful optimism touching — he’ll probably start with “Dear reader” as he doesn’t expect people to earn his respect and trust, but please don’t abuse it. I’ll return when the time feels right.

Dear reader. I’m not sure why I have been chosen. But I am truly honoured that you have done so. That you should travel with me is my privilege. He has, no doubt, given you some background to my life so I won’t repeat it all just really to say that I feel a great duty to fulfil my father’s dream. It wasn’t his fault he was poor just an accident really. Father Tomas explained it all during his sermons on Sunday. “All part of God’s great plan” he said. He also said that I was spared – no “saved” he said from the horrible days of the gangs, so that I could serve my purpose. Well that’s what I intend to do. Of course I don’t know exactly what it is yet but I’m sure it will be – what was the word Father Tomas used? – Ah yes “revealed” if I search hard enough. Thanks to God.

My first day hasn’t really started very well. I’ll have to sleep on the street as no one would take me in. The Cathedral closed a while ago and the Police moved me off the steps. That’s understandable as it would look very unsightly if the poor people were to lay around outside its doors. I must apologise but I hope you’ll understand that’s why I’m speaking to you from this shop doorway. It does smell and is very dirty but at least I’m out of the street and I can lean on my belongings against the wall. I find myself in a wealthy suburb so I may get moved on by the Police. In my neighbourhood we usually just step over the bodies of people sleeping rough and maybe place a coin in their cup, but here that wouldn’t do. Please excuse my yawns but I am very sleepy after a lot of walking today when I got off at the local Metro station. Someone told me there is work if I wait on a certain corner very early in the morning; I’m not sure where exactly but I think it’s near here; I will ask someone if they know. Perhaps you could come back in the morning if you wouldn’t mind as this is a very dirty place to spend the night and I know you must have a comfortable bed waiting for you. Please excuse me. Thanks to God.

Touching scene isn’t it? Pablo curled in the foetal position cradling his worldly possessions. He doesn’t expect an undisturbed night and, right on cue, here come the first of the street-dwellers, harmless enough if you don’t annoy them. Two men, one perhaps in his late twenties another in his fifties – maybe more, maybe less — and a girl, there’s always a girl, or is it a woman? It’s hard to tell what lies beneath the street patina laid down over a period which remains paradoxically both brief and timeless in the chemical fug which represents the remnants of their conscious minds. The female sucks on a baby’s dummy as she crawls gathering the detritus of the day’s proceedings in the town. Paper, cards, food-scraps, nothing of particular value or use but the remains of her motor skills carry out their daily ritual before she falls with the others into a state which removes the final firings of consciousness; a state which most people call sleep. It seems that Pablo has chosen their usual resting place. No polite exchange ensues as they shout, scream and eventually kick him. He rises and moves swiftly from the doorway in one move, confused, alarmed, not sure if he is still dreaming while simultaneously involved in a brief tug-of-war for his belongings.

“Fuck off we live here!” The oldest shouts after Pablo as he walks away from the unsightly mess close to tears.

I must apologise dear reader. My city is getting better but we still have many problems to solve before we can be happy. I can see a small park so perhaps I can sleep there, on a bench or maybe on the ground.

Save for the occasional passing police auxiliaries, who make an unconvincing attempt to move him on from the shelter of a monument to the city’s Tribe-founder, the few remaining hours of Pablo’s night pass uneventfully.

The day begins in time-honoured routine of city-dwellers attempting to escape the state-of-mind reset by sleep. Some try to release chemicals through rigorous exercise, others coffee, cigarettes, chocolate, alcohol; masturbation. Still others, who have found the acceptable drugs unsatisfactory, snort or inject, anything seems preferable to a numbed monotony induced by cosseted prosperity. The backing-track to the city’s life is 1980s’ pop music by English-speaking bands. Mostly upbeat, their catchy tunes and rhythmic lyrics seem to match the temperament of the upwardly mobile. It’s barely dawn but the first of the joggers and gym-addicts begin the grind. Songs of birds and street venders begin to fill the air. Early buses and motorbike-taxis compete for their first customers.

One upon a time Pablo’s Great-grandfather had worked on the railroad, the pride of the Tribe nation. But most of the rest of the country could not muster the same enthusiasm and industrious effort required to build rail transport, so there was nowhere for the Tribe’s pride to go. It had literally and metaphorically run out of steam and quite literally reached the end of the line at the nation’s borders. Despite his Great-grandfather’s skills, acquired at the plate, there being no treasured position to pass down, Pablo’s family began its decline into poverty.

None of this story mattered this morning. No admiration was offered – as would be the case if his family had been war veterans — as Pablo walked in hope to a street corner. A line of down-trodden figures suggested that this was the place to wait for work. No promises, no guarantees, nor security, simply a day’s work would be the most the men could hope for. An open-back truck arrived, jostling ensued and Pablo was left standing as a group of the more experienced and sought-after men jumped aboard and departed.

This scenario continues just before dawn each morning as Pablo observes carefully in anticipation of learning how to get aboard the work-trucks. Days then weeks pass without luck and, therefore, without the means to pay for food and shelter. Surely the sensible thing would be to return home? The one-roomed humble dwelling built by his grandfather on land that no one else had claimed, or indeed wanted, would be as he had left it; sparsely furnished while neat and tidy. When I have suggested returning home, Pablo’s reply is always the same; he says, “there’s no there, there.” It is not, however, our task to interfere or intervene; simply to observe with the luxury of detached curiosity.

Dear reader. I am embarrassed that I have no work yet but I must be persistent. Father Tomas said that my path would be a trial and it is God’s will that I seek for my purpose. The money I had saved is now gone but people have been kind here. Many days they have given me enough to eat and drink as they see my trial. Thanks to God. I remember father Tomas said that the fellowship which binds the Tribe would sustain me. I must also resist the many temptations here on the street. Many people turn to drugs for their comfort. They are often in despair and I feel sorry as I watch them begging.

I have lately met with a sound and earnest young man named Angel who sleeps close by. He approached me one day when he noticed my disappointment after being left behind once more by the work-truck, and commented that I would be a useful person to have in his team. I’m unsure as to what exactly he sees in me however I think he is kind and sincere. I enjoy our encounters and am learning from him. He speaks English, which I am told is a most useful skill. Some days he sits with me and offers me something to eat and drink. Yesterday he translated some music which is always playing in the café close to the work-line. He tells me that it is music from the North and Northern East. One song goes “I’ve travelled the world and the seven seas; everybody’s looking for something.” I am doing my best to remain alert for the “signs” Father Tomas told me about and I believe Angel has been sent to guide me. I was curious about how the story in the song would continue so I asked Angel if he would be kind enough to translate more. “Sure” he said. We listened. “Some of them want to abuse you, some of them want to be abused.” I have heard this song many times but never understood the meaning. Angel wrote these words on a napkin, as I asked, so that I could keep it with me. I’m sure it is a sign thanks to God. Angel asked me to wait for him tomorrow as he will ask his friends if I can join their team. I said that I would not do anything wrong and Angel assured me that he and his friends are good people. I believe him. Perhaps they are beggars.    

Begging doesn’t begin to do justice to the wide-ranging innovations people use to eke out survival from their surroundings. Despite mostly infertile soil, Pablo’s father scratched at the ground for many years with makeshift implements and countless prayers growing sufficient to feed his family. There was a time when Pablo’s Grandfather had to fight to defend his claim to land whose legal ownership was immemorial. As time passed accusations of squatting dispersed so that by the time Pablo’s father was old enough to work the land, it was considered to be rightfully theirs by common knowledge and understanding. Apart from rare comments made by the few remaining elderly folk of the area, who could remember some distant uncertain disagreement, the tin-roofed shack became known as “where Mr Pablo lives”. Crucial to this ownership was the inner-belief of Pablo’s family that the dwelling was their home. As with thousands of similar homes, the process became complete when a utility company sent a letter to Pablo’s father offering to provide electricity. This was soon followed by the local government’s eventual emergence from denial that the dwellings existed by posting notices on trees and lampposts inviting people to vote.

Here the street-dwellers, with whom Pablo is now becoming familiar, use equally impressive ingenuity, tenacity and, crucially, confidence, with which to stake their claim. They gain favour with passers-by on foot, well-healed shoppers and motorist held for a few minutes at lights or in the frequent traffic-jams. For example, equipped only with an old rag one could become an unofficial car park attendant who also returns supermarket trollies to their storage place. The rag is waved in one hand while the other gestures towards the space to create an illusion of assisting drivers while entering and leaving any parking space. The service includes of course watching over the owner’s prized possession. Crucial to this endeavour is an understanding that any equipment, whether makeshift or not, is only the finishing touch. The act is made convincing by an inner belief which manifests itself in confident body movements, posture and voice projection. If both the performer and audience believe that what is happening is somehow real, then the transaction becomes complete with the exchange of coins.

Following an unsuccessful attempt at windscreen washing and parking attendant’s assistant, Pablo is invited to join a group of young men, by their leader Angel, who turn their hand to mime artistry. This is surely the natural extension and pinnacle of this agreement between rich and poor as even the equipment, forming part of the transaction, is now imaginary. Their performance is impressive, made so by many years of honing illusion skills which include “being locked in an imaginary box” or “attempting to move a seemingly unmovable object magically suspended in mid-air”. One man is an accomplished juggler who, despite the fact that his actual equipment has been lost or broken for some time, makes a mime-juggle sufficiently convincing to earn not only coins, thrown from darkened vehicle windows, but applause. Pablo was alarmed by their whitened faces at first, as were some anxious children and their tense parents, who stared unswervingly ahead from within their oversized excessively secure air-conditioned vehicles waiting nervously for the lights to change. The majority of the audience however seem appreciative of their initiative and effort. Pablo learns the ropes quickly. His speciality is pulling vehicles toward himself from their stationary position with, of course, an imaginary rope. Children particularly enjoy this act often encouraged by indulgent parents moving their vehicle slowly towards Pablo then stopping to make him pull harder at the rope. Precisely why Pablo’s act earns more than the others doesn’t occur to him as he has been raised to accept that his existence is entirely at the mercy of the Supreme Being.

While the members of the group are mostly unfriendly to Pablo, apart from their leader Angel, his nights are spent on a fold-away bed under shelter in a derelict building condemned and soon to be demolished or collapse whichever comes sooner. As the group works as a collective, sharing equally their coins and occasional notes, the other mime artists are at first appreciative of the lucrative addition to their team. Then one day the local government decides to re-route some of the roads downtown.

Banners are hung from trees and telegraph poles indicating the new direction of that particular road. A delegation representing local commercial and private drivers, submits an open letter, pointing out that if you could read the banner it was too late to change direction. The City hall officials are quick to respond. An ad is taken out in the local newspaper proclaiming the new routes to be “yet another major improvement” by the City hall administration.

Banners and propaganda aside, previous “public-service improvement projects”, have not presented a successful track record. Immediately preceding this road reroute was an attempt to return the city’s refuse collection to public sector management, the result of which was months of uncollected refuse, dramatic increase in the rat population and a hefty clean-up bill. The Mayor was sacked by the Attorney General and reinstated after appeal to the court of Human Rights as his dismissal was declared “unconstitutional, against democracy and therefore against the rights of the citizens”; most of whom were not moved to vote in his election. While clinging to office by his fingernails the Mayor decided, following management brainstorming retreats and an even heftier bill for consultants (the product of which was an 885 page report on how to “create Public Value”) that re-routing the city’s streets would send his popularity soaring to unprecedented heights and restore confidence.

The ensuing chaos results in statistics during a weekly presentation by one of the senior management team indicating that “accidents involving serious and/or fatal injuries” have increased ten-fold. The presentation is leaked to the press after which an urgent press conference is hastily convened so that a City hall spokesperson can describe the figures, during a television interview, as “disappointing.”

Among the statistics, presented at 11.00am one Tuesday, as members of the management team sip imported coffee and idly scroll their smartphones, is the name Angel Mario Palacio Perez, the leader of Pablo’s team. A personable young man with an inexplicable absence of bitterness toward the parents who abandoned him at birth and with whom he will now never meet. The police report reads, “Hit from behind by a taxi while supporting a friend on his shoulders at the traffic lights outside the Belleview shopping mall. Driver confused by recent re-route project. No further action required.”  

While Angel’s body lies in preparation for its despatch inner-group politics gather apace, at the City hall and among Pablo’s fellow mime artists, as members vie to claim the vacated leadership position. Orlando the juggler is street-wise enough to spot the jealousy which emerges among those who feel their act has been put in the shade by Pablo’s popularity. Secret words in ears suggest that Pablo is not sharing all of his earnings. While untrue, this pernicious intrigue leads inevitably to Pablo’s dismissal from the group, Orlando’s election and an ominous warning to Pablo not to go it alone with his act. The Mayor is elected for another term.

So a return to no food or drink and no means to buy it leads Pablo back to the line of work hopefuls at dawn. A return to nights in unbearable filth often running from other street-dwellers high on a cocktail of any chemical that comes their way. Eventually Pablo finds the safest place to sleep is in one of the squares. Here a police station is located directly opposite a large derelict building in grand colonial style whose heyday has seen hard-earned prosperity both legal and illicit. Standing adjacent to a cathedral it is today notorious for dealing cocaine. Assassins often pray at the cathedral before carrying out their deed. Most people assume this to be an act of contrition or to seek absolution, however it is more a delegation or abdication of responsibility. Somewhere buried in the perverse logic of this routine confession is a notion that if the bullet finds its victim then it is God’s Will manifest. Alongside the cathedral is a brothel specialising in “lady-boys.” From this square Pablo has to walk an additional three miles to the work queue each morning however he can at least get some sleep at night and beg in relative security unnoticed among the square’s daily and nightly routine chaos.

It happens one morning, much as routine as the others. Pablo’s health and resilience are fading fast and he is resigned to whatever fate God’s will may befall him. As Pablo stands in the pitiful line, the words “You! Get on!” ring in his ears. Familiar words but never before directed at him. Three times the words sound before Pablo realises he is the object. “Yes you dip-shit – get on!” Mustering the remaining energy and aided by others grabbing his body in different parts, he is hauled aboard. Sitting on the floor of the flat-back truck he is hauled further to his feet. “No room to sit dip-shit.” Pablo grasps the bar along with the other chosen few and clings tight as the truck pulls away swerving through the morning traffic at speed. Precisely what has led to his selection doesn’t occur to Pablo as he has been raised to accept that his existence is entirely at the mercy of the Supreme Being.

After more than six months on the streets, as the sea covers and reclaims any object it finds on the beach, Pablo has started to acquire the familiar patina of the street-dweller. He stopped noticing the smell weeks ago and, as washing seems unnecessary, not to mention impractical, he simply finds the dirt to be part of himself. The men on the truck however take exception to his condition and move him quickly from hand to hand with expressions of disgust. “You stink mate!” Pablo is only partially conscious, not as a result of drugs I must add, as the vehicle speeds to its location. He holds on with all the strength he can muster.

After a long exhausting truck ride Pablo is in no condition to labour but this doesn’t appear to concern the foreman as he steps from the cabin to inspect what his aides have selected from the morning’s queue. Pablo remains on the truck when the other men climb to the muddy ground of a lane leading to a coffee plantation, which will be their workplace for the day. When Pablo attempts to climb down the foreman tells him to remain aboard. “Fancy a ride to coast?” is the rhetorical aside as the foreman prepares the truck for a further journey. “To the coast?” Pablo enquires from within his confused and half-starved state. The foreman can see that Pablo is in a pretty bad way and so decides to take him to a friend to see if, after being cleaned and fed, Pablo would be worth transporting to his destination. Pablo was selected from the work-line as he fits the requirements of one of the foreman’s clients, an employer on the coast. However in his present state the foreman fears that he may not get paid and be lumbered with the young man. It will mean another hour’s journey, he muses to himself as he studies Pablo and lights a cigar, but I suppose that it would be worth the extra time and expense to make sure. After all this chap fits the criteria well.

 

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