Last March, in the middle of Book Week, the US Embassy asked me if I wanted to participate in an international writing program at the University of Iowa this fall. It sounded like exactly what I needed: a few months of peace on the other side of the ocean in a country that has influenced so many of my dreams through books, songs and movies. So I said yes. Since I could, I decided to start with a road trip instead of traveling directly to Iowa.
That road trip is still in full swing as I write this from a motel in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Of course, more happened on the first day alone than I can write in a column, but very briefly, this is what happened during the first week: My boyfriend and I traveled from Los Angeles (Hollywood! Beverly Hills!) to San. Diego to Palm Springs. Everyone was nice to us: we were given free nights, invited to eat, always greeted with a smile. When we asked people how things were, they told stories of heroes who had courage, will, and bravery and made impossible dreams come true. Yes, those stories ignited us, made us feel like nothing was out of reach, and yet…it was hard not to notice that there was a homeless person on every street corner, and we were all warned about the Los Angeles subway. Filled with people of the same color as me and when I asked what was here to make all dreams come true I got the same answer: the forest.
They were rarely mentioned: those who were before America became America.
They were rarely mentioned: those who were before America became America. Not in museums, not in the brochures we received on nature parks, not in the swimming pool behind our new friend the filmmaker’s villa. Even though I was determined not to ever point the finger, it pissed me off.
On the sixth day we went into Joshua Tree National Park. I saw huge, round rocks that looked like the heads of giants and the spiky, scary trees that the park is named after. Before the arrival of Europeans, the area was inhabited by people known as the Serrano, Cahuilla, Mojave, and Semehuvi. You can’t see them anymore, but I feel them everywhere. It was as if they themselves had become the trees.
So we stopped the car. I grabbed a bottle of water, a Reese’s peanut butter cup, and pulled out a pangi, a traditional Afro-Surinamese cloth I’d brought with me, from my suitcase. Red and white are the colors used by Afro-Surinamese during services honoring the indigenous people. I went to a nice cleaning area and did what the employee of the Amsterdam Windy Store advised when I flew to Suriname for the first time in my life eight years ago; It is very logical, but for some reason it is often forgotten in the history of mankind: “When you come later, give water to Mother Earth and ask permission to enter her. And sweeten the spirit of the Indians, for they came first.
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