I have two scars acquired during the two years I spent in Cali, Colombia between the ages of twenty-two and twenty-four. I was there on my first 'real job' – teaching English as a Second Language at the Centro Colombo-Americano.
One of the scare is a twonie-sized circle above the ankle of my right leg that resulted from my jumping on the back of a motorcycle and scorching my leg on the exhaust pipe.
The second scar is the result of a bizarre injury on my right hand and, given that I am right-handed, would have handicapped me for life but for a shot of luck, the kindness of strangers and amazing medical support.
Anyone who has been to a Third World country – from India to Brazil to Kenya to, well, Colombia – will know that a typical middle-class property will have around it either a wall with chunks of broken glass bottles along the top or or a metal fence with spikes along the top, the idea of both being to discourage intruders.
Within six months of my two-year tenure at the Centro Colombo-Americano, I had negotiated my schedule from split shifts that started early and ended at different times to one where I was working a straight six-hour day from 3 pm to 9 pm. My visa required me to work full time, and that schedule was an ideal one for me. It allowed me to go out in the evenings and to sleep in before preparing for work. As any teacher or former teacher knows, even when the textbooks and the curriculum are pretty much one and the same, there is still a couple of hours of prep work and/or marking that has to scheduled into every day, so I typically began working around 1:00 pm.
After work, I usually met up with friends at a bar called Martyn's that was catty corner from where the Centro was located. It was a place owned by a couple I came to know well – Martyn, who was Welsh and taught at the British school in town, and Angela, who was Colombian and worked in Marketing at Gillette Colombia – yes, the razor people. They had one hired bartender, a young man named Juan Carlos. It was an convenient place for me to meet people with whom I had plans for the evening or to count on running into people I knew if I did not have plans.
For reasons unknown to me, the railing along the steps leading up to the bar had metal spikes along the top. It seemed an exaggeration in burglar detraction considering there was also a fence around the terrace and a gate at the top of the stairs that was shut every night after the bar closed – each of which also had the spikes.
About three months before my contract ended with the Centro, I was battling a bad cold and stopped into the bar after work to tell my friend, Andrea, that it would make more sense for me to sleep in the next morning instead of meeting her for breakfast, as we had planned. I had one drink – a shot of Southern Comfort – with her and her new boyfriend, Tony, an American scientist who was in Cali working on a project with the Centro Industrial de Agricultura Tropical, before leaving to grab a taxi home.
It was raining. I slipped on a step and flailed my arms for a second to regain my balance. As I prepared to continue walking, I realized my right hand wasn't coming with me. It had been impaled on one of the spikes.
The two truly odd things about that moment was, one, the clean entry – in the fleshy padding under my thumb – and exit – in the skin extension between the thumb and the index finger, and, two, the fact that I felt no pain when the spike entered my hand or while it was in there. An ounce of Southern Comfort is not that powerful as pain killers goes.
My brain froze in horror, and when it offered up no instruction on releasing my hand, I resorted to screaming at the top of my lungs. The music inside the bar was too loud for anyone in there to hear me. A young couple going up the stairs edged away from me as if were someone not in full control of my mental faculties, but something in my blubbering explanation made them recognize that this was a crisis. I babbled the names of the people they should ask for in the bar. The woman stayed with me while the man ran inside. Juan Carlos was the first to appear. He grabbed me by the waist and tried to coax me into lifting my hand from the spike. Andrea and Tony were right behind him, Andrea weeping emotional support. Someone I knew as an acquaintance from the bar, Rodrigo, wandered up the steps. The salient fact about him to me, until that evening, was that he drove a Ferrari which he used to to seduce women. What I learned later about him was that he stopped outside the clump of people and watched me.
With the support around me, my adrenalin dissipated. I fainted. Had Juan Carlos not been holding me, I would have fallen and ripped my hand in half before tumbling down the stone stairs.
What I learned later was that the second I fainted, Rodrigo ripped my hand off the spike, and, with Juan Carlos' help, threw me into his Ferrari. Andrea came with us. He sped off to the nearest clinic.
I woke up on an examination table with Andrea beside me and, a few feet away, Rodrigo and a doctor standing in profile to me. I heard Rodrigo assuring the doctor that he would cover the cost of my examination. I heard the doctor explaining, in that particularly patient tone that a person uses after repeated explanations in a situation where frustration or impatience is not an option, that through my job, I had been paying medical insurance into a network of clinics of which his was not a part. I had no idea that I had been paying this insurance. I'm Canadian. Through the part time jobs I had held through university, I had learned to live with inexplicable deductions from my paycheque.
“She's a teacher,” the doctor explained to Rodrigo. “A right-handed teacher. She can't let chalk into that wound. It's not just the repair that needs to be compensated. It's the recovery. Take her to a clinic she's associated with, and she will be paid for her time off work. If I treat her here, she won't.”
Andrea had by then indicated to Rodrigo that I was awake. He asked me what I wanted. I was not earning enough to not worry about a loss of income, and I was concerned that I would be in violation of my visa conditions if I wasn't following the rules.
“I can make it to another clinic,” I assured him.
The doctor gave me a pain killer and cleaned out the wound with iodine. Then, we were back in the Ferrari with Andrea sitting splayed legged – since the car did not have a back seat – between Rodrigo and me behind the gear shift on the lip of the trunk.
At the clinic we arrived at, my wound was sown up and I was given a tetanus shot by a doctor who took a moment to wonder at my luck. “A millimetre to this side or that and you would have cut a nerve or a muscle and your hand would have been damaged forever.”
He explained that I would experience temporary pain because the spike had grazed some nerves. “Insultó algunos nervios,” were the words he used. Literally translated: it insulted some of your nerves.
“Were their feelings hurt?” I quipped, the painkiller from the previous clinic having by taken full effect.
He shook his head and smiled at me. “You have an extraordinary karma, señorita.”
Colombia at that time, thirty years ago, was already in the throes of what defines it today. The government and the rebels were already doing battle in certain states. Kidnappings for ransom were already beginning to be feared by middle-class and upper-middle-class Colombians who were part of the social circle to which I had come to belong. An Irish teacher I knew, who taught at the British school along with Martyn, had fallen in love with and become engaged to a Colombian man, Mauricio, whose family had money. Mauricio was gunned down at a gas station by police. He had been followed by them and asked repeatedly to stop – the reason was never made entirely clear to me. He had refused to stop because, as Miriam explained to me, kidnappers often wore police guise. I didn't know Mauricio well. I only knew him socially through Miriam. My read on him was a laid-back guy who wouldn't even know how to be a jerk. I had no idea of his family's wealth until he was dead.
A few days after his shooting, the Centro was shut down for the afternoon – along with all the businesses in the area – in the wake of the police opening random gunfire on sidewalk vendors on the main street – Avenida Sexta - two blocks from the school.
I, meanwhile, through what is to this day my worst accident, had six weeks of fully-compensated recovery. I was on antibiotics, which meant I couldn't drink alcohol, and my iodine-odour hand made me less-than-sexy presence in the dance clubs, which meant I couldn't party with my usual suspects, though I was guaranteed an honorary place on the couches of friends' hosting parties and responsibly fed lemonade. On the initiative of one of my roommates, a Polish woman named Sylvia, I went once to a concert at the Cali symphony when a visiting Israeli pianist whose skill was gorgeous, but not anything I could critically evaluate given my lack of familiarity with the world of symphony music.
Mostly what I did with that time was realize, recognize and embrace the fact that I happened to live three blocks from one of the best alternative cinemas in all of Latin America, a theatre called La Tertulia. It had been there all along, but I had been to it only two or three times until my hand was hurt and I couldn't work and I couldn't party. It was a theatre with red-velvet cushion seats and a massive screen. It was the place where I learned to overcome my snobbery that books are by definition better than film. There I saw movies that books would beg to better - movies that introduced me to Japanese film through an Akira Kurosawa festival and ones that introduced me to Italian film through a Luchino Visconti festival. That accidental education informs my love of film to this day.
My right hand recovered completely and functions as if it has never been hurt, but I will always have the scars to remind me of what could have happened to it.