'ha entrado el sol por la ventana, y han brillado en el aire algunas motas de polvo'
Posted 2013.02.22
Featured song: "Un Buen Día" by Los Planetas


In two days, I leave for Guatemala. My research job is housed in a clinic that, every year for over 15 years, has gone to a Central American country on a humanitarian trip through Operation Walk. The organization provides orthopedic surgery for patients in countries where it's badly needed, and in many cases the traveling surgeons teach the doctors in those countries how to do the operations themselves. It's a very good cause that has brought the Center for Hip and Knee Surgery to Cuba in the past, and now the trip alternates between Guatemala and Nicaragua every year.

I'll be there as an interpreter, so I'll get to fully flex my Spanish-major muscles for the first time since Madrid. I downloaded an iPhone flashcards app and made a deck of Guatemalan colloquialisms and medical terms that translate simply ("músculo") and more esoterically ("scalpel" can translate to both "escalpelo" and "bisturí").

I thought of listening to what Spanish-language music I have as another part of the preparation, but then I thought better of it.

Given how strongly a memory or emotion can attach itself to a song, each song seems only to force a recall of one memory or emotion at a time. This isn't a hard-and-fast rule, as I think of three different things when I hear "Like a Rolling Stone," but generally it holds true. Until I hear the song enough in a different context or an emotionally salient moment supersedes it, a song's feeling stays for a long time. Somehow, though, it always seems fragile, as if that emotionally salient moment could come at any time and nuke that memory out of existence.

Cases in point: Bajofondo and Los Planetas. Both bands are tied very strongly to my time in Madrid. In an effort to better comprehend spoken Spanish, I printed out all the lyrics in their respective albums Mar Dulce and (a compilation) Princípios Básicos de Astronomía within two weeks of buying them at a store on Gran Vía. While walking down the Paseo de Extremadura and riding the Metro, earbuds implanted, I would read the lyrics as I listened to the songs. For over a month, I took those two thick piles of paper, one for each album, everywhere I went, kept safely in my ever-present backpack when social interaction was required. Eventually, I could sing the songs to myself without the lyrics, and that felt almost as good as dreaming in Spanish.

Of course, whatever I was doing would get pulled into the rapidly-forming memory. Even now, I see myself walking toward downtown at night when I listen to Bajofondo's "Ya No Duele", and I see myself waiting at the Nuevos Ministerios stop when I listen to Los Planetas' "San Juan de la Cruz." (And boy, are there other feelings associated with that song! But that's for another time.)

Although it's been three years, every association I have with these two albums of songs is still strong. "Cristal" is getting lost in Casa de Campo; "Un Buen Día" is a sunny day in Puerta del Sol; and "Devuélveme La Pasta" is hurrying up the steps of my four-story apartment building to sit on the terrace. Like I said, however, the associations may be strong (and more profound than these descriptions can express), but I feel like they're hanging by a thread. A very strong thread, mind you, probably made of the neural equivalent of titanium, but still only one thread. I like those memories too much to let them go, especially when a transformative experience like Operation Walk can so easily push out the minutiae of my study-abroad days. I'd hate to treat these songs like over-written CDs, wiped of their original data.

So, I'm going to get new music for my week in Guatemala. I don't know what it will be yet, but I'm fully prepared to let the experiences of Guatemala imprint on a fresh set of music. I'll tell you how it's going next Friday. For now, ¡hasta luego!

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