Sunday, December 06, 2009

Being In

Culture Shock, is a slippery term that I've been trying to properly define since my first extended period abroad some 5 years ago. Yet, its allusiveness is sometimes a blessing in that it allows the term to broadly cover an array of strange experiences and feelings when both abroad and returning home.

I remember after spending a good while in Central America, coming home to perfectly even-paved streets, nicely groomed median gardens and huge supermarkets felt strange, almost too bright and sometimes even wrong. I didn't want to go out to eat and I felt guilty for almost everything.

But I got over that, and being in and out of the country in the last few years, I was always happy to be home and comfortable. This time, after moving home, not just visiting, I didn't feel that same guilt and over-brightness but there were some "adjustments" and feelings of not-belonging that did happen. Feelings that made me want to run, with destination unknown.

This week, however, something the opposite of culture shock happened. Something even the opposite of reverse culture shock happened. I was at my first yoga class since I've been back. (I wish the story didn't have to be about cheesy yoga, and that the "something" took place in another context, but alas...) The class was tough enough to make my legs quiver embarrassingly, which is the first time that has happened in a few years, since yoga classes in South America haven't felt like yoga at home. When I looked around, I only sorta fit in. The rest of the class seemed either too perfectly sculpted and dressed OR too tattooed and dreadlocked for me to blend. But at the end of class, this surfaced: "Yes..this is the yoga I like, they get me. I belong here."

Wow. How often do you think that? I belong here. Instead of feeling OUT Looking In. Or IN looking Out. I felt perfectly pieced into a mutually satisfying part of the whole. Can it be?

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Poetry

And it was at that age . . . poetry arrived
in search of me. I don't know, I don't know where
it came from, from winter or a river.
I don't know how or when,
no, they were not voices, they were not
words, not silence,
but from a street it called me,
from the branches of night,
abruptly from the others,
among raging fires
or returning alone,
there it was, without a face,
and it touched me.

I didn't know what to say, my mouth
had no way
with names,
my eyes were blind.
Something knocked in my soul,
fever or forgotten wings,
and I made my own way,
deciphering
that fire,
and I wrote the first, faint line,
faint, without substance, pure
nonsense,
pure wisdom
of someone who knows nothing;
and suddenly I saw
the heavens
unfastened
and open,
planets,
palpitating plantations,
the darkness perforated,
riddled
with arrows, fire, and flowers,
the overpowering night, the universe.

And I, tiny being,
drunk with the great starry
void,
likeness, image of
mystery,
felt myself a pure part
of the abyss.
I wheeled with the stars.
My heart broke loose with the wind.

taken from Isla Negra, a notebook

Monday, August 17, 2009

Wretched City



Going down Javier Prado I started choking again on the sorry excuse for air coming in my taxi’s window and I thought:





Why is there always traffic in this wretched city?
Why can’t I find your redemption?
Beaches should redeem but clouds and pollution fall short.
How many shades of grey could possibly exist?
Your billboards are unbecoming.
Your air is unbreathable.
Wretched, wretched city, If only I could treasure you
As the campesino immigrants havening from the war.
If only I appreciated your survivalist spirit.
But I resent you…for wanting a future and not carefully preserving your past
With tissue paper, packing peanuts and romanticism for the cholitas that still live
Instead of those defeated Incans, torn to the four winds.
With regret for my bitter heart and your heavy grey sky, I take the best of you with me.
But Burro’s Belly, why couldn’t I love you?


And disappointed I asked the driver to roll up the window. Just then we passed by their little Pentagon. Admiring how its neighborhood had become an exercise zone with running trails and chin-up bars. The mere existence of its well-kept grass is surely the envy of other neighborhoods. I had heard that during terrorism, the president had once barricaded himself inside its 5 walls. Certainly he must have feared the treason of his own blood-thirsty military as much as the ruthless terrorist outside. It must have been frightening for everyone I thought. It somehow made smog seem less important and my opinions about the city’s ascetics too.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

before the cups

Before the teacups, but long after the kitchen table, there were others who had come. In a moment of great need I had learned the woman's secret. I always had mommy, but my grandmas were few and far. It never seemed important that I didn’t have them around me until one night my prayers didn’t feel appropriate for god, at least not my god. But oh how I needed to pray – and we all do you know. So I did it. I invoked them. I asked them for help as surely as if they too had been on the cross – and they loved it. The pure scandal of it made them laugh.

First I went to Nanny. I salvaged all the tidbits I knew about her, and the few memories I had of her late in life and feasted on them. Sometimes I confused her with her mother, of whom I knew only one story; but knowing that at some point we are the reason our ancestors have existed, I thought it acceptable to combine the two women. They were so daring that I knew they’d come to my aide. Nanny, in particular, I knew to be a survivor. She may have insisted on being tidy, but she also drank Budweiser with her lobster and had been a working girl in a big city. She had come into money at times and then seen it go, she had known love, and then heartbreak, and then a hardworking love. And there was evidence her life was charmed. If she could keep having coffee with her husband, despite his cancerous death, then she could surely coach me through the things I couldn’t tell god.

But as time went on I remembered my other grandmothers: precious immigrants who must’ve loved me dearly, women with strange aloof husbands and secret recipes, one who was a flea market of tackiness in life, but who I figured became the very best version of herself in death – just as I hope to, since eternity is so dang long. Some I had hardly known, some I weren’t sure were dead or alive and some weren’t even mine. Once I prayed to a friend’s grandmother just because she had taught me when in Vegas to pin money inside my bra. And because she had loved her grandchildren with outrageous generosity – I hoped she would love me too now that I needed her.

The grandmothers began appearing at the same time I was surrounded by Latin American Catholics. At first I hardly noticed the Catholics and the fading memory of the division of church and state. Besides, in Bolivia, the saying goes that in the mines they worship the devil, in the fields, Pachamama and in the church, well god of course. But I did find it curious that in my Lutheran confirmation course, we had been taught about Catholicism as our forefather, fellow biblical adherers (more or less) and only seemed to distinguish “them” from “us”, with regards to the papacy and confession. But in Latin America I had learned that most Catholics were self-professed polytheists. Saint worshipers. Often seeing Christ’s primary role as being the child of Virgin Mary. It gradually made sense that all of the bible’s characters and all of the church’s as well, would be included in the story. Had they too not cared about the Community of Faith? Had they not lived and died for it as well? And its no surprise that the Virgin appears to people all over Latin America as she really is everywhere: every park, apartment complex, bus, and household as her painted, framed or carved.

They’re lucky. I don’t have pictures of my grandmas. So when I found a one-dollar bracelet covered in icons of Mary, I could feel my insides grinning with mischief. I didn’t have to be jealous of the Catholics. If they could have a mother-god so could I. I had my grandmothers and I could have Mary too. Though, I’ve never prayed to her because I hardly know her. We had never met in my protestant upbringing. But sometimes I stare at her, sure she wants to wipe off that matronly face. I ask her if she knows my grandmothers. She says she does.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Tea Cups


It was about that time when mommy started collecting her treasures. Every Saturday she’d come home with precious-stone plated globes or a washing tub from the civil war. Then she’d look up the prices on e-Bay to feel good about the $20 she’d just turned into $200 by bidding at the city’s hidden goldmines. But it was the tea cups she had her eye on. She could spot and sort the value of antique teacups from across the auction hall, and the house just filled up with them. Daddy said Titan would walk in the dining room and howl at all the tea cups, then walk out with a cocked head looking back at Daddy as if to say, “What in the world is she doing with all those tea cups?”
Like almost all of mommy’s successes, the cups were borne of stress. One year when work was too much to swallow the house filled up with yarn, crochet hooks and slowly a step by step chronological showcase of the mastery of crochet. Once there was simply little else accomplishable with a skein she laid low for a while before moving onto something else and something else until it was tea cup city.

Meanwhile I was on a jet over the jungle when I began making out the slithery ‘ssssss’ and the hard ‘k’s and ‘t’s – the important consonances that give structure to a whisper. It had been almost 72 hours since I’d last slept and my ears began piecing together the sounds despite efforts to simply push them away and close my eyes.

Titan would never figure it out completely. He was Daddy’s dog; he went on long quiet walks, he had never sat at the kitchen table listening to women like I had. Though he must have heard something – that’s why he kept howling back at them. Between them all, I guess the cups had centuries listening to women talk around them; hundreds of patterns having been held in the hands of mothers. They must’ve loved hearing the secrets as much as I had loved listening to mommy’s stories while she permed a girlfriend’s hair in the kitchen. Sitting at the table, I’d practice writing my name in cursive, feet not quite reaching the floor and listen to how she drank castor oil so her water would break, or how it was when this one left her husband or what it was like when that one’s father died.

All the kitchen tables they’d seen, all the women they’d heard – it’s no wonder they began to whisper too. I suppose I know now that’s why she started collecting them. She knew they’d call me home. And if she gathered enough, I’d be able to hear them across the globe.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

the humanity of church and chiropractics

On the vibrations of an "OM" in yoga class, it occurred to me that I'm expecting too much from my chiropractor.

It sounded like this:
DEEP inhale
"ooooOOOOOYOUAREEXPECTINGTOOMUCHFROMTHECHIROPRACTERMMMMMmmmmmmm"
another DEEP inhale
But there were some 30 chiropractic sessions before this realization, among which were the good, the bad and the metaphorical.....

I don't know what's wrong with me but my whole life I've liked church. However, I think chiropractics has given me a glimpse of what church must be like for the people who aren't that into it; the people who feel guilty instead of enlivened, or the ones who get sick of waiting for answers and solutions from an institution that promises such, and the people who learn to shut up instead of speak up because no one's listening anyway.
For example, if I have a C appointment after a stressful day, instead of thinking the C’s office is a place for healing and recuperation, I feel guilty that I’ve been stressed all day because they always tell me the stress is really bad for my already contracted neck muscles, but the guilt just leads to more stress. Is that how you non-church-goers feel when you finally step in the doors and some robed individual tells you you’re not trying hard enough? And overall there are just a lot of questions still unanswered and a lot of healing still undone...I can see discouraged churchgoers nodding here too.

But the upside is that my chiropractic disappointment reminded me that I don’t love church because its miraculous but because its humane!! Dunt dut duhhhhh…

One of my top five miraculous humanity church experiences of all time was in a church business meeting following months of serious congregational conflict. In the heat of conflict and shaky resolution one of the grumpiest of the grumpies shuffled her way to the microphone for what I thought was another complaint. Instead she made us all stand up, hold hands in a circle; look foe and friend alike in the eye and sing “Make us one lord.” It was just like in Whoville when even no gifts on Christmas morning could not hold back love and unity (and song for that matter).
Well, amongst the guilt and disappointment of the chiropractics, I had a church/whoville experience. First, I got in a fight with the chiro (who does that?…but we do spend a lot of time together). It was emotional, slightly ridiculous and did not go well, as most fights do not. After storming out, I was told by my agent and trusted advisor to go back in and demand professional services! Which I did. But that didn’t mean I was looking forward to the next visit.

But alas the Grinch did not prevail! Despite our fight, and my deep dread, the next visit my chiro brought me a cookie! A starbucks cookie! (Which is like gold in this land of rice and potatoes.) And then we hugged! Starbucks cookies are not professional in the least, but chocolate chip couldn’t be better when you’re expecting a grumpy to point fingers from the podium and you have no gifts to unwrap. Humanity to miracle's rescue.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Today is DO NOT GIVE UP day!

This is incredible...whatever you're fighting for, keep at it!


Man bites snake in epic struggle


A Kenyan man bit a python which wrapped him in its coils and dragged him up a tree during a fierce three-hour struggle, police have told the BBC.

The serpent seized farm worker Ben Nyaumbe in the Malindi area of Kenya's Indian Ocean coast at the weekend.

Mr Nyaumbe bit the snake on the tip of the tail during the exhausting battle in the village of Sabaki.

Police rescued Mr Nyaumbe and captured the 13ft (4m) reptile, before taking it to a sanctuary, but it later escaped.

The victim told police he managed to reach his mobile phone from his pocket to raise the alarm when the python momentarily eased its grip after hauling him up a tree on Saturday evening.


"We want to arrest the snake because any one of us could fall a victim,"
Peter Katam,Police superintendent

Mr Nyaumbe used his shirt to smother the snake's head and prevent it from swallowing him.

His employer arrived with police and villagers, who tied the python with a rope and pulled them both down from the tree with a thud.

Peter Katam, superintendent of police in Malindi district, told the BBC News website: "Two officers on patrol were called and they found this man was struggling with a snake on a tree.

"The snake had coiled his hands and was trying to swallow him but he struggled very hard. The officers and villagers managed to rescue him and he was freed.

"He himself was injured on the lower lip of the mouth - it was bleeding a little bit - as the tip of the snake's tail was sharp when he said he bit it."

Mr Nyaumbe told the Daily Nation newspaper how he resorted to desperate measures after the python, which had apparently been hunting livestock, encircled his upper body in its coils.

"I stepped on a spongy thing on the ground and suddenly my leg was entangled with the body of a huge python," he said.

"I had to bite it."

'Very mysterious'

Supt Katam told the BBC the officers had wanted to shoot the snake but could not do so for fearing of injuring Mr Nyaumbe.

"If it wasn't for the villagers and officers who helped him, he would have been swallowed by the snake over the Easter holiday," said Supt Katam.

He added: "It's very mysterious, this ability to lift the man onto the tree. I've never heard of this before."

The police officer said they took the snake to a sanctuary in Malindi town but it escaped overnight, probably from a gap under the door in the room where it was kept.

"We are still seriously looking for the snake," said Supt Katam. "We want to arrest the snake because any one of us could fall a victim."

Friday, March 06, 2009

The ChiropractOde


Your table is not magical and your hands are not golden.
Your character not that of a saint and your office no different than the doc's.

But still there is something magical in the possibility that all we need has been given us already.
That hands can heal as equally as cortisone injections.
That a simple table is worth a whole pharmacy.
That swimming in water could be as therapeutic as swimming in lidocaine patches.

And blessed be your chiropractic infancy in this land, that you may forever be as humble and explicative as you are in these early years when your services are still unfamiliar here.

It is evident you are not influenced by the lingering classism and oligarchy of the country. That a patient has a right to question you; unlike the doctors who think they are dioses.

And though your au naturale approach may be lengthy and unabbreviated, I so appreciate your less-side-effects effect, the way environment lovers choose washing soda over ammonia .

The moral of my ode is this:
beauty is sextuple beauty
and what is good is six times good
when it is a matter of 6 vertebrae in pain.


Ode to My Socks

Among my favorite poems, odes remind me that "To love and admire anything outside yourself is to take one step away from utter spiritual ruin..." Plus Neruda's odes redeem his TERRIBLE Love poems!

"Ode to My Socks" by Pablo Neruda (translated by Robert Bly)

Mara Mori brought me
a pair of socks
which she knitted herself
with her sheepherder's hands,
two socks as soft as rabbits.
I slipped my feet into them
as if they were two cases
knitted with threads of twilight and goatskin,
Violent socks,
my feet were two fish made of wool,
two long sharks
sea blue, shot through
by one golden thread,
two immense blackbirds,
two cannons,
my feet were honored in this way
by these heavenly socks.
They were so handsome for the first time
my feet seemed to me unacceptable
like two decrepit firemen,
firemen unworthy of that woven fire,
of those glowing socks.

Nevertheless, I resisted the sharp temptation
to save them somewhere as schoolboys
keep fireflies,
as learned men collect
sacred texts,
I resisted the mad impulse to put them
in a golden cage and each day give them
birdseed and pieces of pink melon.
Like explorers in the jungle
who hand over the very rare green deer
to the spit and eat it with remorse,
I stretched out my feet and pulled on
the magnificent socks and then my shoes.

The moral of my ode is this:
beauty is twice beauty
and what is good is doubly good
when it is a matter of two socks
made of wool in winter.

Friday, February 27, 2009

non-solidarity



looking through the face hole in the table at the chiropractor’s office, i reach my arms around to see if i can hold a book under the hole and read while i lie there with the hot compress on my back - but I cant reach. next a crescendo of internal bickering begins: why isnt this table in the middle of the room where the physical therapist can walk on both sides of it, instead of against the wall thatmakesnosensedoesntherrightarmgettired?....but that fades into enrique iglesias on the radio followed by my bad translation of his lyrics. eventually i settle in for the 20 minutes of heat compress i have coming. all i can see is the carpet. it's sorta a blue blend and i start picking apart the colors in it- a typical business or school carpet at home- but here it’s a peace-giving luxury. i can feel a noticeable calm in my chest, just by seeing this carpet.

i havent written lately because like thumper in bambi I’ve had nothing good to say. i've been put through the ringer, but felt i haven't handled it with aplomb, i've been given plenty to learn from, but felt i haven’t learned a thing. and if my high school teacher's poster was true "that your whole life has been a preparation for this moment" then my goodness, what have i been doing all this time? and as for when in rome...well im just not roman and its showed.

but i'm worried about that carpet. well the carpet and the taxis really. i've gone back to taxis, in fact ive become estranged from the bus, i pass her in my taxi and look away. but i think the carpet and the bus are different. what i mean is, i think i drew a line -- though whether i drew it or i simply have it is unclear -- either way its there.

even now i struggle to write because i haven’t figured it out. i think its that i'm comfortable making some choices in "solidarity", more accurately said, some choices of intentional discomfort in order to a. learn and b. live more Simply, but having sub-par healthcare is not one of them and what that says about me i dont care. that may seem an obvious choice, but its been a trying one. the story of the carpet is that i started treatment in a clean, costly but ineffective clinic, then moved to the equivalent of a bring your own resources, dirty summer camp, that actually caused harm, and finally ended up with the carpet.

i can say that the first hand experience of second rate care exposed me to another reality, deepened my understanding of the struggles of poverty and will hopefully lead to greater compassion, but i'll tell you i wouldn't do it again. and after all that’s happened i can justify my anger and after buildings with crumbling walls i can accept my peace at seeing the luxurious carpet. that’s why the carpet is on one side of the line i've found.

but the taxis i can’t justify. not even when the bus is so bursting-at-the-seams-full that my purse gets literally stuck between two people's butts. for all my healthcare confusion, the taxis are simple: "a private railroad car is not an acquired taste, one takes to it immediately."

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Row, Row, Row Your Boat

Until last week, I was unaware that the sea can be farmed. To date, I'm thinking its genius and I haven't figured out the negatives yet. Difficulties to be overcome were listed for me, but otherwise it appeared completely organic and sustainable.

As usual I found myself asking, "How did I get here?" while I literally hopped from rock to rowboat and headed out to sea off the Peruvian shore in Ancash. I was there to see an economic development project, where a bunch of Peruvian fishermen figured out they could cultivate scallops. By anchoring cables across the ocean floor and hanging mesh cages with the baby seed scallops inside, they could simply wait for them to grow by feeding off the sea plankton already in the water, then redistribute them to bigger cages until they're ready to be removed and cooked up at Red Lobster. They can even capture the fertilized scallop "eggs" to make more.

My rowboat captain happened to be the "president" of his 19 person fishing association. He was the most well-spoken uneducated fisherman I've ever met in my life. Their association had converted into a business in order to compete for a grant and participate in a training program. He was so convincing, he seemed the perfect grant candidate: in need, but completely qualified, positive and dedicated.

In need because he hadn't made any money on his investment in the last two years and believed he would need to suffer just one year more to see profits.

Qualified because he'd been a fisherman for some 30 years. When he listed potential threats to the scallops, it included changes in the current which could affect the oxygen levels in the water; this could be measured by an O2 Sensor, but usually he could smell the change in the sea.

He admitted to making mistakes in the project and expressed having learned from them as eloquently as possible in yellow rubber wading pants.

But what got me, is that this whole time he was rowing. He was individually rowing a big rowboat full of people against the current. And he just kept rowing. It took forever; I am almost certain that had I been captain I would have suggested we all swim and pull in the boat with a rope. But as long as we kept our eyes on him, his even strokes, the rhythm of his movements as equally hypnotizing as the tide, I felt calm. The moment I looked at the shore, I felt we hadn't moved at all and began to doubt we'd make it in with the single man rowing system we had going.

Eventually he said the perfect grant line. After enthusing the grantmaker with all his qualifications and potential he said, "I hope we get the grant, but with or without it we'll get there."

For a second I wasn't sure if "there" referred to "profitable scallop farming" or the "shore". And since I'm writing this from the rowboat, please send funds to the address below:

One Well Spoken Fisherman
Just Kidding, Peru

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Disorienting Ducks

Lima disorients me. Cardinal directions, seasons of the year, conversion rates and world order crash around in my head as unruly as the nighttime waves on the city’s beaches. When I think the Pacific Ocean is to the West of the Continent, Limeños say its South of the city; just as the exchange rate reaches 3 Soles to the dollar, I discover I don’t divide well by 3 in my head; and each time I devour a savory Papas a la Huancaina or a delicious Ceviche, I forget that I am consuming these culinary treats in a nation not so different from Bolivia and not so far from a 40% poverty rate as they would like to believe.

Sometimes I have “Lima disorientations”. Those ones come from a general sense of Lima’s strange place in the world and even within her country: such a developed city for such an impoverished nation. Recent weeks saw Bolivia-style protests in five Peruvian provinces, but with virtually no affect on the disconnected capital. The only action I’ve seen was on the bus when my driver almost hit a motorcycle. (After exchanging profanities, the motorist got off his bike and walked to my driver’s window where a fistfight broke out and I had to move from my seat behind the driver.)

And sometimes my disorientation comes from taking in a new lifestyle, job, and country. I spend a few minutes every few days deciding if I need to scream at all the Peruvians that don’t know how to wait in a line, or just accept, what in the moment, feels like a tremendous injustice. – That’s a “cultural disorientation”.

But those aren’t the only ones I’m having of late. Sometimes I have the life ones. The “life disorientations” have to do with bank accounts, and bottom lines. The life ones happen when there are clashes between what I say and what I do; between what I want to be and who I want to be. They happen when I can’t tell if humility was kidnapped, pride was beat up, or if reality just stole the show. And the life disorientations mix into all the other disorientations like Bacardi Dark back when Mark Wahlberg was Marky Mark, and they spin around, something fierce until all I can do is pray the same crappy prayers about them over and over and hope for an answer.

And I found my answer at my least favorite place in Lima: the US Embassy. I love America. I took American History three times in school and I taught it to GED Students. I cried watching delegates from each state proudly stand up in the convention to say crazy things like, “Aloha from the Pineapple state, the Dems from Hawaii cast x votes for her native son…” -as if it was proof that democracy works and everyone gets a say! But I do not like going to the embassy. It's larger than the state department in Washington and has more security than the Green Zone. I mean what are they doing in there? They always confiscate my iPod and my Gatorade bottle and they call me “Seeen-yore-ah” until they realize I’m American – its just awful. And I don’t even have to wait in the long line. I get to go in the short line. The long line is for Peruvians who want a visa. And they look nervous…even the wealthy businessmen who’ve been to the US before look nervous. The long line has a special embassy guy come over and shuffle them along and measure their passport pictures. And being in the long line, means you better have worn comfy shoes, because needing to impress or not, you’re gonna be there all morning.

I knew about the two lines, but I didn’t know that across the street from the embassy is the “waiting room”. Almost all those nervous people in the long line have someone who loves them, crossing their fingers across the street on the curb. There are no benches or grass, just a dirty ole corner with a lot of hopes and well wishes. And on this last embassy visit, instead of standing in the short line I stood with the hopefuls on the corner and I waited. At first I observed the others, then I got tired and sat down, then I got excited because I realized my bus goes right by there (embassy, home and beach – what a route!), and then I tried to read, and then I put on my glasses and squinted to see if I could see who was coming out the revolving turnstiles. But with all that waiting, eventually the spinning started and I gave in to the disorientations…the Lima ones, the culture ones and of course the life ones and when it got to be too much, I started the crappy prayers. And that’s when God slapped me and as my head swung back, I almost shouted aloud: “I don’t care about those crappy prayers today. Today I care about the same thing that everyone else on this dirty ole curb cares about." And it was the best answer ever to realize that in the disoriented spinning of my priorities, the circling ducks really are in a row and the really brave hope-duck is head of the line.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Confession #2

Here it is, the confession that is the antithesis to my very blog:

My name is Jess and I am a taxi-taker.

Since my arrival to Lima I’ve abandoned the bus against my heart’s desire and my better judgment.

I do it because both my schedule and Lima traffic are chaotic and unpredictable. So I haven’t yet calculated how long it takes to arrive by bus at a specific time between 2 specific locations. I know that a taxi ride might vary with traffic but much less so when unlike a bus, it can choose alternate routes and doesn't have to stop to pick up and drop off fellow passengers.

And it totally sucks. Firstly because I loathe Lima traffic, it is pure awfulness magnified by an overcrowded city and underdeveloped nation magnified by the Asian Pacific Economic Cooperation's arrival a month away which motivated Lima to begin massive repair of potholes all over the city magnified by the complete non-existence or non-enforcement of any kind of traffic or vehicle operation norms. (In complete irony, Monday I saw a taxi hit a traffic cop!!!)

Reason number two why its dumb to take taxis, is that there is no sun in Lima winter. Supposedly this is a climatic phenomenon but the line is blurred where the overcast sky ends and the smog begins. Lima is so polluted that the Clinton Foundation has it as a priority city for its climate change initiative meant to fight the urban pollution. And here I am, pale from lack of sun and choking on smog riding along in my own personal smog producing machine in a city with accessible mass transportation that would diminish my green footprint by probably a thousand sizes!!

And finally, let's say you came across a sale for a product that you used daily and that sale was 8 for the price of one…you’d take it right? Of course you would! But not me, I'm paying 8 times the price of the bus in every taxi ride I take.

In a meeting yesterday I started jotting down my lose, lose, lose, taxi situation. When I left, I thought I’d walk around in the smog a bit before catching my cab. And wouldn’t ya know it, right then my bus, the brown bus, the number 70, my new number 54, crossed before me. So I hopped on and kid you not, in that very moment the sun came out.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Confession #1

Here's the thing, the confession I mean: Peruvian accents make my eyebrow twitch.

The accents are pushy and always end sentences, even statements, in question marks, demanding your immediate response like a harsh LAPD Blues spotlight shining on you in the interrogation room while thick beads of sweat drip down your forehead. The investigative aura of the words just sit in the air for what feels like forever, while I decide if the Peruvian really was expecting a response or if it was just her accent.

And the worst part is that i should be blogging about the crisis in Bolivia: the near civil war, the expulsion of the US Ambassador, the violent deaths of at least 8 people, the declared national state of emergency, the indigenous woman I saw on the news getting beat with sticks while her baby was on her back, and the South American summit of leaders that convened Monday in Chile to support president Morales and come up with a plan to avoid full out civil war. But instead I'm sitting at a Lima coffeehouse with WiFi annoyed by Peruvian accents while my eyebrow twitches. And guess what else, its not a peruvian coffeehouse, its Starbucks. Yes, Lima has Starbucks and I bet they don't even use Peruvian coffee!

I'm almost positive the eyebrow twitch is linked to the accent! And the other annoying thing about it, is that I cant even imitate it! I don't think I'll ever sound like a Peruvian, even if I try really really hard. At least in Bolivia I could occasionally fool people, here everyone asks where I'm from. Or maybe they're just stating that I'm not from here, but their accent makes it seem like a question.

It's called a Blepherospasm - the twitch I mean.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

So Glad You Exist



Just before I left Bolivia, someone thought it pertinent to remind me, “Bolivia should never have existed”. I assumed her comment referred to “Upper Peru”. During the pre-colonial era, Peru and Bolivia were a seamless territory. First the Aymaras were settled throughout it and later the Inca Empire stretched its condor wings across the near entirety as well. When the Spaniards gained control, they referred to the land of modern Peru as “Lower Peru” and the land of modern Bolivia as “Upper Peru”, for its higher altitude. Thus when independence came, each declared separately.

And so it is that I’m trading one brother for the other, trading the geographically stunning capital city La Paz for the polluted haze of the port city Lima.

I remember struggling with my research project last year and finally telling myself that if when I left, if I had loved Bolivia, really loved her, then I couldn’t have failed. And this month when I set sail, I knew I did love her. And success or failure aside, I'm SO glad she exists.

The next big adventure begins in a mere two weeks: Voyage to Lower Peru.

Can’t wait.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Transredes


The newspapers say Evo is shooting himself in the foot. Everyone says, that no way no how any business will ever invest in Bolivia now; the WTO will sanction and the WB will refuse loans. Why should the big transnationals come when they’ll have no way of insuring if what’s theirs will remain theirs for very long, now that the president of Bolivia has nationalized natural resources companies, telecommunications providers and now this.

It was the rash state takeover of a transnational oil transport company that’s got them all scared. Evo says the state tried to negotiate and Transredes was just taking too long, “obviously stalling”. So he took it. It’s Bolivia’s now. Not to worry, Bolivia will pay them for it. But I personally hope it takes 8 years, just as its taken 8 years for Transredes to pay Bolivia for their oil spill in the Desaguadero River. And even now it’s only by default that Transredes will be paying the $1.9 million dollars it owes the state as the standard 0.3% of business value owed for an oil spill. The state will be deducting that from what it pays the private company.

Included among the accused transgressions of Transredes are not only the oil spill and failure to comply with Bolivian law following the event, but also a terrible clean up job in which they re-contaminated a community by not lining the ground where they stacked the bags of contaminated soil. Furthermore, anthropology students confessed to being paid by the transnational to identify leaders in the indigenous communities, which sit along the contaminated riverbank and lakeshores. Later the students confessed that Transredes used the information to bribe the leaders instead of compensate the communities.

These days Bolivia is testing the soil and hoping to show it’s still contaminated which would validate a lesser payout to the company. I doubt it will be difficult to prove as nearly every community says their lands and water sources remain affected.

Transredes will fare much better in their exit from Bolivia than other corporate giants such as Bechtel. When Bolivia sought loans to overhaul its state owned water system in 2000, the World Bank conditioned that the company be privatized first. Bechtel became owner of a portion of Bolivia’s formerly publicly owned water system. The company was kicked out of the country by social protest after increasing water prices by 35% and making it illegal to even collect rainwater!

There will undoubtedly be economic and political consequences for Evo’s takeovers. But every time an Uru tells me how they can’t fish in their contaminated lake, or tales of the sinister corruption with local NGOs and anthropologists manipulated in the hands of the large multinational, I just keep thinking someone has to stand up to them.

For more insight on the unchecked powers of corporations check out this documentary.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Not what I was expecting

I realize the following is a full of faulty logic, a bit of a stretch, and has nothing to do with Bolivia, but I don’t care because I asked the owner of this blog if I could write whatever I wanted on it and she said I could.

Sometimes life makes it painstakingly clear that our expectations guarantee nothing, and certainty is little more than illusion. I have three cases to the point and there are proven millions (see primary results) who will disagree with me here. But the idea is that each is simply not what I personally would expect.


1. An international vocal star known worldwide for her intensely sensual imagine, the object of many a man’s desire, is repeatedly betrayed and cheated on by the one man who promised before state, god and family to love her.
2. Among the hardest working of all public servants, a woman who devoted her life to law and country, known as a wide-reaching advocate for the rights of children and women and a leader in the US Congress has a tough time getting a job.
3. A prophecy fulfilling miracle worker, preaching love and inclusion, armed with nothing but a new way of living, is crucified before the masses.

Who would cheat on SHAKIRA?
Who wouldn’t give SENATOR CLINTON a job?
And who would kill the GOD OF LOVE?

I’m sorry but Shakira is hot, Clinton is smart and God is good. So what went wrong??
In recent weeks I was mulling over these questions until my Belgium Chocolate friend* told me about the evangelicals on her bus in Colombia.

There’s pretty much two choices for Christians in Latin America: Evangelical or Catholic; the other protestants are few and far between. So I’ve become used to the evangelical “god by numbers” routine, but I also give it little credibility and honestly even find it a bit offensive, just as they might find my description of it. It basically consists of the confession of your sinfulness, acceptance of Jesus as god, acknowledgement of his sacrifice for you, then invitation for him to come on into your heart. Which is all well and good and I would even accept the attitude surrounding the routine that it’s a sort of an instantaneous, magical transformation. Weird stuff happens to me all the time and my own conversion experience wasn’t a far cry from steps one through four above. But what irks me is the attitude that steps one through four are the ONLY way, as if god is ONLY channeled through the above prayer, and also the urgency that is often placed on getting someone to repeat this prayer as if it’s the trump card.

So Senorita Belgium is a little unorthodox, not a Christian and not really religiously active, but interested in the varied possibilities of spirituality and holistic healing. She’s on a bus crossing the Colombian countryside, and I’m not sure how she started to speak with her seat partner, a young Colombian woman, but at some point she did and the conversation turned to God. Apparently the Colombian woman’s travel partners sitting in front of them were listening to the conversation, because as if on cue in the perfect moment they turned around in their seat to pray with my friend. Like I said, I don’t know how the conversation went, I just know that these three women taught her the prayer to repeat and prayed over her as she said the words. Then immediately following “Amen”, the bus stopped at my friend’s destination and she got off leaving the women behind.

I chuckled at the story, awaiting my friend’s comments of how she felt “attacked” and “uncomfortable” by the women, the prayer or the experience. But to my surprise, her first remark was, “I could feel the love of god radiating from these women.” I hushed up my chuckle. What I rudely call “God by Numbers” was a deeply spiritual blessing for my “unreligious” friend. At first I thought, well my friend doesn’t live in America with the baggage of our conservative evangelical movement, and knows little of the various pockets of Christianity and their approaches to living out the gospel, so to her it was just another mystical encounter. But so what if it was? Good for her that she doesn’t walk around with all the preconceptions and prejudices that I have. If she said she felt the love of god, then she felt it. Her prayer partners would argue their method was a success. My bias would argue that the Divine made it through despite their method. But in the end those opinions don’t matter, because contrary to my expectations she was blessed.

Which got me thinking about my disappointments with Shakira and the gang. I find redemption in that if things aren’t always what we hope for, at least sometimes its good to be wrong and things turn out to be better than we expected. I’m hoping I’m wrong more often.


*She’s not made of chocolate, but she is Belgium and almost always has chocolate with her, which she generously offers up in sporadic moments.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Sun Worshiper

When I first arrived in Bolivia, I attended a workshop on diversity where we were asked to do an interesting icebreaker. We first had to draw a picture of ourselves, and then explain it to a partner. Then you and partner went in front of the group and explained one another’s drawings. You weren’t allowed to help your partner at all. So my lovely picture was a stick figure with arms open and overhead, head tilted back facing the sun. Then my little half circle sun was shooting down its rays from the corner of the page as the stick figure soaked them all in. I explained to my young partner that I had newly arrived in Bolivia and really just wanted to be open to lots of new things and “soak it all in.” But when he explained it to the group, he said, “The sun is really important to Jess’ spirituality,” then fumbling for words, he added, “and she worships the sun.”

Oh give me a break, that wasn’t even a reasonable lie. Who worships the sun?? If he couldn’t remember, he should’ve said I have a Vitamin D deficiency or something.



Among Bolivia’s finer qualities is that there is always something to celebrate. (Of course there is always something to protest too.) I think the constant celebrations come from the dual systems: the state vs. the indigenous authorities, the Church vs. the indigenous traditions. It just makes for a lot of civic, cultural and religious holidays. (And now that I think of it, the dual systems are probably the source for most of the protests too.)

Today´s cause for celebration is the Southern Hemisphere´s Winter Solstice and not coincidently the Aymara New Year. To celebrate, I accompanied a group of Bolivian friends out to a tiny Aymara community. All night long the community held vigil preparing their offering table. The “Maestro” or spiritual leader led the lengthy preparations inside by candlelight as the young men practiced their pre-Hispanic dances outside by moonlight. Being the only foreigner, I was treated with great hospitality and thus invited to participate in blessing the offering table. I was shown how to dip a coca leaf in pure alcohol then sprinkle it on the offering as I repeated words I didn’t understand in Aymara. I later learned I was naming the Andean mountain ranges, which roughly explained, are considered higher spirits.

Before dawn, I found myself climbing up one of those spirits, despite my deepest desires to just sleep. Present at the top, were the Aymara Jilakatas (leaders) from all around the area, the mayor, a band and many others. The offerings from the night’s table were set on a large fire, some prayers were said, and then a series of “toasts” were carried out by throwing alcohol onto the fire. As the shaman spoke in Aymara, I picked out the few words I knew. He addressed his requests to Pachamama (mother earth) and Inti Tata (Father Sun). Then at the perfect moment, everyone turned away from the fire and reached out their palms towards the rising sun of winter solstice.

And looking at the back of my hands against the morning sun I remembered my partner’s description of me so many months ago. Having celebrated Aymara New Year his whole life, hands reaching out to a glowing sun probably weren’t so unfamiliar to him. And in the end, his fumble wasn’t a lie after all.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Classic Bolivia


Yesterday, Mrs. Berna, a little old woman from the pueblo not too far from the Urus, called. I knew she had a cell phone, but I didn’t know she used it. In fact she asked someone in the plaza to call me from her cell. She was here in the city, some 5 hours from home, and was in the Government Plaza. She wanted me to stop by.

So I trekked up the hill, since the roads were blocked due to Bolivia kicking Paraguay’s butt in Soccer at the stadium, and met with them right in front of the Presidential Palace.

They were just hanging out drinking Tampico.

We chatted for a while.

Finally, I was so bold as to ask what brought them so far from home to La Paz:

“We’re trying to get an audience with the President. We’re going to ask him for help, for work, for something.”

“Oh…well have you talked to anyone yet?”

“No, not sure yet who to talk to, maybe a lawyer.”

“Oh…well maybe you can just go in and ask the front desk how to do it.”

I was dreading they’d ask for my help. My advocacy attempts in Bolivia are about 0 for 2billion. I rarely know where to start when someone asks for help and usually just end up running in circles. But they didn’t ask.

So is that it? Does Evo really hear people’s complaints like that? Very impressive.
The whole scene was so humble that it actually did make sense; the country’s poorest should have access to the most powerful. Help should be just a visit away.

By this morning, my friends were already back in their pueblo. They had presented their request to someone in the palace, and have an audience for next Monday.

Monday, June 02, 2008

The Legend of Llapallapani


An Uru legend, tells of a young Aymara boy adopted by a flock of condors. The boy is told the secret of the Condors´ treasure which is hidden in the Azanaque mountains (just outside the uru village, Llapallapani). In return he swears to protect the precious metals and jewels at all costs.

One day he is accidently left behind in Llapallapni after the Condors eat a llama and fly off without him. The Urus find him and and slyly trick him into revealing the secrets he has sworn to protect.

A war ensues between the condors and Urus. And when all seems lost, the Urus prematurely confident in their victory, the lead Condor summons the power of the wind turning their treaure into flowers and the young Aymara boy into a mountain.

Apparently the condor also condemns the Urus to a livlihood based on fishing alone.

This last condemnation is key to understanding Uru poverty and marginalization. The Urus are not agriculturalists like their Ayamara and Quechua neighbors. And if the lake is low or contaminated, fishing is made impossible and thus they are forced to search for work outside their community.

I wonder to whom this story brings peace? I don´t suppose the Urus could find that Condor king and beg for mercy, parole or a statute of limitations having served centuries of marginalization. Do explanations suffice when salvation is absent?

Friday, May 23, 2008

Pisagua is empty

Pisagua is the steepest street in La Paz. Okay that’s not a fact. But, it is true that taxis cannot get up it and that when we walk it, we zig-zag back and forth to make it less steep and thus our hindquarters less sore tomorrow. It’s like downhill skiing in reverse. As for the taxis, which also try the zig-zag method, I finally got sick of paying them and still having to climb the two steepest blocks anyway. I now advise, “Look brother, you ain’t getting up Pisagua, can we please take another street up and then turn down Pisagua instead?”

Pisagua is not my normal stomping ground; truth be told I don’t go that far “up”. It only yesterday occurred to me that property values increase, as you get deeper into La Paz’s valley. It then occurred to me that I don’t really leave the valley when I’m in the city.

But climbing, I feel, is an excellent ascetic sacrifice. My yoga studio in DC has what I affectionately call “the stairs of enlightenment”. I loved going to classes there, but you had to go up two very steep flights of very narrow stairs in a very old townhouse to get to class. I thought of it as a “sweating it out”, “leaving all else behind” exercise to both focus and humble me before practice. Equally discomforting, my Aymara teacher lives up a big hill too. It doesn’t hold a candle to Pisagua, but it takes a good 15minutes of high-altitude puffing before you arrive. But again, a small price to pay for a joyful visit with a wise old man.

So what made me trek Pisagua, the steepest street in La Paz, sometimes twice a day for the last 4 months? Simply put: a Frenchwoman who smokes more than she speaks and a buffed up Peruvian who keeps me in stitches. The latter first had the apartment and then past it to the former when he left. Now they’re both gone. A reunion is in the works. But until then...

Where will I climb? To whom will I devote my ascent?

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Danillo


He must have looked up each and every word as he converted his letter from Portuguese to English, surely slipping the phrases in and out of Spanish when doubting specific translations. In the end, it wasn’t his translation but his heart that bled across the page: A letter to his girl’s family. “I would crawl into the envelope with this letter if I could,” he writes. It’s mailed the next day and will fly to the northern hemisphere lovingly tucked in a shoebox along with the cookies he baked them.

His oozing sweetness and heaving sadness at the loss of his love is completely unexpected from the red-tinted dreadlocks hanging messily in his now red-tinted eyes. But tears don’t lie and he’s not confused about his desire for a family.

He’s been alone since age 15, when his Brazilian mother kicked him out of the house. At birth she had given him to an elderly couple that then died when he was 9. He went back to his mother for the next 6 years. She tried to kill him three times. He doesn’t share the details. He says that strangely the only time their relationship is peaceful is when he asks her love advice, though it’s not likely to be of help with this long-gone girl to whom he writes now.

Of his nearly 20 Brazilian cousins, half have died before age 18 – mostly from violence. His family has had a series of encounters with easy come, easy go money – mostly embezzlements. He confesses a recent banking scandal he was invited to participate in – a tempting offer for someone in his shoes. Instead he pays his tuition and rent humbly, by selling chocolate cakes out of his backpack at the University. The other students, especially the other Brazilians, make fun of his cakes and his dreadlocks. But his grades are good and the cakes help pay the bills.

It’s unclear how he became a believer. But there was a stint with the Mormons that may have been his hook and though he left them eventually, he spent two years studying theology in Brazil before coming to Bolivia. Since then, he’s been in a series of unlikely positions that seem to scream God’s plan for his life whether he knows it or not.

His humility is dumbfounding. Born to help people and with a life crafted for compassion, he will be an amazing physician.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Jesus and Autonomy

On May 4th the Bolivian Department of Santa Cruz will vote (illegally) on regional autonomy, to separate themselves from La Paz (the central government) in what some have called a statutory divorce. Yeah, its a big deal. But it's also slightly ridiculous, just like the constitional assembly pushed through by the central government was a big deal, but also slightly ridiculous. By ridiculous, I mean not that productive, but seemingly lacking other options.

Anyway, click the link above for a humorous summary of possible events if you so desire.

Meanwhile enjoy how santa cruz set up their "Vote Yes" rally around the enormous Jesus statue, as if Christ is hailing the vote for Autonomy.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

A Rant About Roaches

In Daddy and mine’s favorite movie, there is a great scene where someone is standing behind a bus, letting the exhaust engulf him. When a woman asks him what he’s doing, the character says, “Just wanted to feel like I was back in California”.

Somehow that has to do with how I feel about Lima – more than willing to brave the ugly, I suppose.

On the beaches of Peru, this Latin metropolis, pushing on 9 million inhabitants is want for charm and so covered in smog that most days the sun seems more a hot haze than a defined distant shape. Lima is perfectly urban, in every sense of the word, and that makes it straightforward and un-confusing, and that makes it a wonderful friend. She’s not hidden behind colonial style downtown restoration projects, flashy tourist districts or a get-old-quick-one-business-town-feel; its just normal people doing normal things.

La Paz is a little-big town, similar to DC – but Lima is huge, and not even sprawling, just full-to-the-top enormity. Her crime reports are high and I’m sure she's dangerous; not so long ago she was overrun with Marxist Guerrilla’s car bombs. I don’t think cities survive that kind of unpredictable conflict and come out innocent – people start carrying iron rods in their cars. But despite the crime, I never felt the decaying sense of corruption that I’ve sensed in places like Managua, Nicaragua. People trying to make a buck sure, lots of black market absolutely, but not right out cheat you to your face. Cheating systems are one thing, but ripping someone off to their face is disheartening to my concepts of humanity.

One of my favorite Limeños likens his compatriots to cockroaches that can get in anywhere and survive anything: including bombs, earthquakes and a failed economy. Among the evidence of said cockroachness that I gathered on my stay, were two accounts of airport security violation (in the name of romance) and a host of black market activity. The most fascinating was observing the highly skilled and detailed work of selecting only the finest quality imitation brand clothing for resell. This, it turns out, is hard work requiring a skill-set and knowledge base: someone should get paid to do it. It takes a trained eye to identify a well-stitched logo, perfectly textured fake label tags etc... And we’re all suckers for paying more for a name, because these products really are just as good. We’re not talking about generic drugs or rip-off electronics that don’t last as long. We’re talking about people who want to feel cool and waste money. And we’re possibly talking about a company’s dominion over its name and image. However, I think the former interests me more and it definitely interests Lima more.

But just as my affinity for Lima smog seems connected to the movie character’s affinity for California smog, the illegality of selling fake designer brands seems connected to the capriciousness of country citizenship, visas and the randomly assigned rights to cross randomly drawn territorial borders – an increasingly manifest pet peeve these days.

Part of my research supposedly measures people’s empowerment within a given context, taking into account personal capital and opportunity structures. Protected brand names and travel visas fall into the Formal Opportunity Structure variable. That’s the variable I love to hate, because its easy and sometimes fun to get mad at “the man” or “the way things are.” But it’s also the most difficult variable to overcome. Cultures (informal opportunity structures) are always evolving, and personal capital is almost always accessible through education and determination. But changing laws, and institutions takes large-scale collective work and lots and lots of time.

Anyway, I think the cockroaches of Lima are quite impressive in their evasion of a formal opportunity structure that seeks to provide no opportunities whatsoever. I think its safe to sympathize with what I’ll call their quest for empowerment.

So can you name the movie?

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

EVO, EVO, EVO



CHECK IT OUT! THE PRESIDENT OF BOLIVIA....MR. EVO MORALES

Okay, i confess i allowed my peace corps friends to believe that i was actually shaking his hand - since it looks like that in the foto. But since i trust ya'll i'll confess it was really the person in front of me and i just annoyingly snapped the shot over her shoulder.

But still pretty cool.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Digging Deeper

It usually costs 20 pesos for a taxi out to Llapallapani when I visit the Urus. But feeling brave, this last time, I took a friend up on the offer of a bicycle to cross the few miles of dirt road. I wasn’t in a hurry, and only needed to finish an interview with the Jiliri and deliver the baptism pics I had taken a few weeks ago. The little trip was tougher than it looked. Beyond just a dirt road, its not uncommon for municipal projects to run out of funds before the fiscal year is up, meaning there are actually obstacle mounds of gravel and sand to get around. About half way to the village, I biked through The Station, Huari’s ghost town from when the railroad used to run through.
Completely abandoned, it was a bit more eerie on bike than in auto. I thought I was fine to take a rest there, since the day before I had confirmed with German I would be coming. Silly me, I don’t know why I keep thinking that confirmation is worth something down here. When I arrived at German’s I saw his 1975 Chevrolet truck out of its usual resting place. Funny, because I thought the orange monster – the only auto in the village - didn’t work at all. Once I got closer, I could see the whole family was standing behind, pushing the orange truck. I shouted, to ask if they needed any help, they kinda giggled and walked over to see what I was up to.

It was quickly made clear I wasn’t getting my interview that day because German and family were busy. They were taking the truck out to the lake and planned to be gone “working” most of the day. I didn’t really get what it was they would be doing, but understood there was “collecting” involved, and it was something that looked like rice, that gets put in chicken and pig feed. I was warned it would take most of the day, but invited to come along.

I loaded my bike in the back, just in case I needed to escape – hey it happens. And we all started to push, then hustled to hop in. We sailed through the fields, no road in sight, holding onto our hats, and I confess I was grinning ear to ear. I’ll never feel Uru, but in that moment I did feel part of the family. For just one day we had conquered some of the world’s useless boundaries: culture, class, color, country.

***

It turns out what we were looking for are these teeny tiny concha shells that are under the dirt and sand, not too far from the lake.

Here’s the method:
1. You walk around lightly stomping to feel for hollow ground.
2. When you think you’ve found something, ya give the earth a good kick with your shoe. (I was wishing I had worn my hiking boots, but German’s wife and daughters were in slip-on flats, so I couldn’t complain about my Keens.)
3. Then you just dig. With your hands that is. Sometimes you find a “joya” or hotspot full of the teeny, centimeter-long conchas.
4. After digging up the joya, you spread out the concha concentrated dirt, so that it can dry in the high-altitude sun.
5. Eventually you come back, sift the dirt through two sieves, and into the potato sack. When we finished I thought we had about 4 arrobas (25 lbs. each). In the fair where they planned to sell the shells they earn 35 Bolivianos per arroba. Which is about $5. So that means 6 adults working 6 hours to earn about $20 total (not per person). But when I said, I thought we had done good, Doña Maria smirked. We still lacked step 6.
6. Wash the shells; which means we lose half the weight. Meaning two arrobas = $10 for a full days work of 6 adults.

But I figure since I’ve got the grant and all, I wont take my cut.

Stupid world, makes no sense.

Beautiful People, thankful to know them.

Friday, February 29, 2008

Jessica's Big Day

I’m still not quite sure what to make of it all.

I was told to be in Llapallapani, the Uru village on Lake Poopo, at 7am so I could go through a class for godparents. The priest, and class instructor, would be coming from Challapata to perform the mass baptism of some 40 Urus.

But of course he wasn’t there, and they hadn’t even come close to starting when I showed up at almost 8am, after picking up baby Jessica’s baptism dress at 6am from the seamstress two towns away.

So when the class hadn’t begun, I headed to baby Jessica’s house where bloody sheep lungs were hanging from the clothesline – a morning salute to the day’s special events. To the right of his lungs, the sheep’s head and skin sprawled on the dirt floor.
I found baby Jessica leaning against the stump used for scrubbing clothes clean, with a bucket of bright red blood to her side. I wanted to pick her up or at least move the bucket, but I resisted the cultural impulse. Roma – baby Jessica’s father – was very dirty and very busy chopping apart the sheep’s skinned carcass. Alicia – baby Jessica’s 18 year old mother – was slapping mud onto the seams of the adobe firewood oven I had seen Roma construct just the day before. They paid me little mind, as there was much to do, much of which would be in my honor for accepting the responsibility of being Jessica’s godmother and namesake. I wanted to make myself useful, but honestly I wasn’t about to touch any part of the sacrificed sheep, so instead I snapped a few photos and mostly just stood around with my mouth open until it was time to bathe and dress my goddaughter.


Around 10:30 the priest and his crew showed up to begin the godparents’ class. But the thing is, I’m not Catholic. But the other thing is, neither are the Urus…well not really. But in Bolivia, the Catholic Church’s baptismal certificates are legal documents, which can serve as personal identification, which can then serve to receive state benefits such as social security. And most Urus, with their on average 5th grade education, either never had or have lost their personal identification documents. I’m assuming the priest got all this. I mean its not everyday a little Uru village asks a priest to come baptize some 40 people – ages 0-65. But even if he did understand what was really going on, there were rituals to be followed, sacraments to be observed. And though I know many of the Urus flat out lied when asked if they had been baptized before, (many have been, but have lost their certificates), they too seemed to take somewhat seriously the traditions. How strange to observe a practice for a motive completely apart from it’s intention, but to do so faithfully.

As I learned how to cross myself properly in my class (its left to right, right to left is a sign of the anti-Christ), I wavered between a soaring hope for a people who somehow serve a faceless God with the bizarre mix of cultural and catholic tools they’ve been given in life, and the verge of tears as the priest periodically called upon church authority instead of God’s love and shot out what felt like rays of intense power that did anything but empower those in the room.

Afterwards I paid my five bucks for baby Jessica’s paperwork and provided a bent Texas driver’s license to verify my own identity for her certificate.

Henry Ford would have been impressed with the mass baptismal ceremony, as it was a regular assembly line of holy water. First everyone was crossed, then everyone was wetted, then everyone was anointed.

The priest suggested now that so many people were baptized he would like to come out once a month to give mass. I give it two months, if ever. Like I said, they’re not really Catholic, and besides that I’ve began documenting the Urus history of failed development projects which range from green houses to evangelicals – somehow they never last long.

After his speech about commitment, we all sang and then went to eat the slaughtered sheep.

But I did something awful. I lied. It’s just some days I’m more adventurous than others, and some days I know I wont be able to handle it. So I said I was a vegetarian. Its awful because first of all the sheep was probably very expensive for Alicia and Roma’s budget and secondly because I know they got up at 3am that day to begin the skinning and cooking process. Its just the day was so intense and stretching for me, that I wasn’t sure I could add the sheep on top of it.

But what I wasn’t lying about was when I said I knew that someday baby Jessica would show up at my doorstep in the US and I would say to her, “Girl, I knew you before you even had a name…come on in.”

Monday, February 18, 2008

This Is It….

This is it, I’m moving to the campo. The time has come to be bold, to dive in, to go for it and see what I got. No more fancy dinner parties, no more hot water shower, no more easy Internet access, no more easy to understand Spanish, no more distractions in the sufficiently metropolitan capital city.

If I’m ever going to get any work done its gotta be now. Will I be tired of limited water access after two days? Yep. Am I scared my “informants” won’t trust me or talk to me? Yep. Am I predicting I’ll have a bacterial stomach infection thing, after one week? Yep. Am I afraid it’ll take weeks to get any information out of the mayor’s office in the small town? Yep. Will I be forced to eat and drink strange things, go to the neighboring town for a shower or internet or cell phone service or something even remotely resembling a meal to eat? Absolutely. Am I dreading that eventhough I’ve packed all my books on local development, my methodology, and the scientific history of Lake Poopo, that I won’t actually read them, just as I haven’t actually gotten around to reading them in La Paz? Yep, totally afraid of that. Am I a little nervous to travel by myself without my anthropology friends or my NGO partners? Eh...not really.

But I need your prayers and well wishes. And if you need to find me, ask for the Huari Brewery, I’ll be renting a room someplace near there, and if you still cant find me, just sit in the plaza, I’ll walk by eventually…it’s a very tiny pueblo.

Huari or Bust!!

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Then what are we fighting for?

To much of the world “Feminism” is a scary word. To much of the world, “Feminism” isn’t part of the vocabulary. I’ve always lived in that first part of the world. And now I do “research” in the second part. I don’t like it, but I expect an Uru woman to have to ask her husband before she can do almost anything. And for better or worse, I even make allowances for many of the seeming gender inequalities I see, because I know that my cultural concepts aren’t the base for which to measure all others against.

But like Gloria, there are some things that worry me - apart from research, in my modern urban life. The first day I met one of my now dearest Bolivian friends, she compared herself to the Bolivian miners who “worship God in the church, worship Pachamama in the campo, and worship the miner's devil in the mines.” I’ve continued to try to understand how she compartmentalizes her life.

I’ve known for a while that she’s involved in the women’s movement in La Paz, and I’ve known that she more or less has to keep it a secret from her job, despite working for a so-called women’s organization. I assumed it was because she preferred not to stir an ideological battle with her more conservative boss…that’s fine.

She also has a radio show with her husband, and for some reason his identity is known publicly, but hers isn’t. And despite having been a guest twice on the show, I still haven’t figured out why this is the case.

So when she started talking about how welcoming the women’s movement was, how accepted she felt whenever she went to their center, how it was the only place people accepted her as is, I was happy for her, but didn’t really get it. Was home and work that bad?

And then I got a more complete picture. My friend hasn’t been paid in 4 months. I knew about this but it wasn’t exactly the organization’s fault, it’s more the project’s financer. But I can definitely understand if she can’t afford to keep going in to work each day, considering I’ve watched her beg and borrow to pay her bills lately. Part of her project is to teach people about human and citizen’s rights, and isn’t being paid for your work in a timely or at least the agreed upon manner a basic right?

So when she expressed to her boss that she wouldn’t be coming in until the accounts were straightened out, I expected reason from her boss, an accomplished woman who has spent most of her life fighting for women and indigenous people’s rights.

But what my friend got instead was a four-page email, questioning her commitment, and worse, THREATENING TO CALL HER HUSBAND AND PARENTS TO TELL THEM OF HER “ACTIONS”. My friend is 38 years old, the mother of three, the eldest sister of 8 and has been married for 13 years. I’ve never heard her complain about her responsibilities.

If I were my friend, I would take the four pages, rip them to shreds, dump them on my boss’s desk, I would call her a hypocrite, I would tell her that her whole life’s work has served for nothing, and I would tell her that with these four pages, any good she’s ever done for women is rendered null and void, and any right she’s ever fought for was in vain.

Then I would go home and pray for forgiveness that I had now become part of that same ugly hatred, and ask one of those three deities to help me take the resentment out of my heart, to help me find coherency in my life and to help me pay my damn bills.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

The Pollera


There are certain things one needs to know in order to grace the Pollera – that huge skirt Indigenous Bolivian women wear.

I was a bit concerned when a friend wrapped a scarf around my waist to “protect it”, then started tying on one petticoat after the next, totaling three in my case, plus the arrestingly heavy pollera itself.

I was more than concerned when I began trying on the plastic shoes, which traditionally accompany the pollera outfit and after taking a few steps they fogged up…

I was downright perplexed, when I pre-washed my braided hair extensions and they came out tangled beyond repair. And I was in pain when the hairdresser managed to braid them in anyway, and told me to hold on to the chair as she yanked my braids hard enough to pull back my eyebrows.

All of this was in preparation to dance the Chuta…in “The Temptation” parade that officially ends Carnival and marks the beginning of Christ’s temptation in the church season of Lent.

The dance wasn’t so difficult, but as in penance, the procession goes uphill, no matter if you’re a woman who has to do the twirling part.

The best part though, was when the women dancing behind me decided my pollera was too loose and might fall (I still don’t believe them.) So in the middle of the street, in the middle of the procession, in the middle of the dance, they snuck up behind, yanked up my skirt, re-wrapped the cord that ties it on, and pulled so hard, I was gasping for air. Afterward the crowd applauded.

Thankfully there were no cow heads awaiting me at the end, as was the case in Oruro’s carnival celebration. Please see before and after photos:

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Monday, February 11, 2008

La Paz Thinking, La Paz Reality:



Alasitas is a festival of little things… it comes to the city for a couple of weeks each year. This year, the vendors are blockading the street in protest…demanding that they be permitted to stay another week.

Did I say it’s a festival? As in a street fair? Did you get that they’re demanding the city let them stay another week and are blockading the streets to do so?

You can’t make this stuff up….

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

The Artist & The Witch

Every day, I think this is it, my life cant get any stranger. Every trip, I think this is it, I’ve found the end of the world. But tomorrow always comes and it’s more bizarre than yesterday. And each new part of the country I visit, seems more isolated than the place before.

For two days, I rode shotgun in what I swear was not a Land Cruiser, despite its markings, down an oh-so-long, oh-so-lonely dirt road in the Bolivian Chaco. Vegetation so encroached upon the kaki colored path that certainly a few rains and a week without cars would erase it from history – creating yet another indigenous myth.

Dozens of small Mennonite farming communities sit along the path reminding passersby of humanity’s existence. They’re friendly in their buggies, lifting a hand in greeting, but look both foreign and hot in long sleeves and overalls. Their presence seems welcome by the locals, whose children run along side the Mennonite buggies hopping on to steal a ride.

If you survive the heat on day one, the climate improves on day two, but just as one problem often gives way to another, your next obstacle will be the grit. The dirt. It’s everywhere. Is it dirt or sand? It doesn’t matter; it’s in your teeth, in your bottled water, between your toes and behind your ears. Best you try to forget about it if you ever want reach the land of pregnant trees and butterflies, where reside the Guarani.

As promised a witch and an artist were waiting for me in Isosog, with a dirty bed and propane-powered refrigerator. The whole village says she, the witch, killed the artists’ former wife with her black magic so she could have him for herself. Even my travel mate claims one can sense a certain energy coming from her. I don’t feel it. I just see a gorgeous older woman who has likely had a difficult life, is somewhat reserved, but still has a bit of confidence beneath her layers. Besides, to hear the artist tell it, his first wife died some four years before he even met the so-called witch. I figure it was either a jealous ex-girlfriend who started the rumor or more likely a group of local men who fear feminine power. Or maybe she really is a witch, she did give me a special herbal infusion, to help my tummy ache. Either way I eat her cooking – hesitantly at times- but it goes down none-the-less.

He, the artist, paints scenes from Isosog (the community) and Guarani people and their traditions. He paints lots of those pregnant trees and all the livestock that wander around freely in the community. He understood my Spanish well and takes care of the solar powered light fixtures and pumps the well every morning. What a beautiful life. If I were an artist, I’d like to just paint scenes of Texas and portraits of Texans all the time.

The Guarani of Isosog seem to be doing okay as far as rural Bolivian living goes, but my informal surveys show they feel betrayed by their king. He’s not exactly a king, but it’s true he wasn’t elected, and he’s got the gig for life, and his daddy had it before him and appointed the son upon his deathbed (as if they didn’t all know that was coming). Anyway the traitor left the pueblo, and lives in Santa Cruz. My informants tell me he’s well involved with the Santa Cruz elite, and often pays the Guarani to rally and demonstrate with the opposition (that is, with the Santa Cruz elite) against government initiatives such as land reform. The artist says they lie to the locals saying the government wants to take their land, but the truth is the policy would help the Guarani. The point is that while each tiny Guarani community changes its leader (in this case, its “captain”) every two years, the aforementioned king has it for life. Of course they all liked his father – a common grievance of dynasty. But, despite my rabble-rousing it seems they would never revolt from his leadership or even ask him to step down (just kidding about my rabble rousing). On the other hand there is a suggestion floating around that Isosog, which is currently divided into “High” and “Low”, could perhaps let the traitor keep the north and find a new leader for the south. Hmmm, sounds like biblical Israel or the Incan empire at the time of its fall.

Each afternoon I spray down with 40% Deet repellent, look for some shade beneath a pregnant tree, throw cookies to the scraggly dogs that follow, try to let the sound of children playing block out both the cows’ mooing and the horror soundtrack of insect noises, spend a few moments holding my breath so a bright green butterfly might land on me and then I open my so-out-of-place Mac and attempt to write about the Urus. But it seems unnatural to be writing about the Altiplano when I’m in the Chaco, or about the Urus when I’m with the Guarani. So I usually give up pretty quickly and go see Doña Eugenia. She explains about her weavings, shares the history of her women’s group with me and then teaches me a few words in Guarani: “Pooama” = “Good Morning”. After that I go for a walk but stop for all unsuspecting victims keeping watch over livestock (usually a teenager) to harass about the potential of going to college in the city or see if he really knows how to use his lasso. Eventually I end up back at the witch’s house where people come and go from the makeshift store they have in front. Their biggest income is from the popsicles they make in the gas-powered freezer. They’ll sale over a hundred on a good day! I like how the artist and the witch fill the plastic bags together each morning and take turns getting them from the freezer for customers.

Sometimes when it’s raining, and there’s nothing to do (which is most of the time), the ever-curious artist will ask me questions about America, “Did Superman really exist?” “Can two men really marry one another in your country?” Then its my turn, “Why does your medicine man blow smoke in your face?” “To whom do the Guarani really pray, when not in church?”

It’s always mind-blowing to be so completely immersed in another people’s reality, but when its time to go, its time to go. A girl can only eat rice and eggs for so long (7 days is my personal limit, though I made it 8). In the end I was anxious to get out, and “the spirits of the fields” (who they really pray to) with their terrible rain on my poor dirt road, were not cooperating. Thankfully the Land Cruiser did cooperate with its precious 4-wheel drive and accompanying winch. Despite my initial prejudice against it, now, I wouldn’t trade it for a Porsche, a Hummer, or a Mennonite buggy.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

La Mamita de Charagua

The Virgin of Charagua

Charagua is a hopeless little town in the Bolivian Chaco. And though hopeless it may be, blessed it is yet, for a special keeper it has.

Long ago when some poor souls were luckless enough to wander through the Bolivian Chaco, only God knows when, BEHOLD, there appeared the Virgin Mary. And thus the people decided to stay in the place, build a tiny pueblo (which no one ever bothered to finish), and dedicate themselves to this Virgin of Charagua. And so they sculpted her icon and adoringly placed her in their little chapel. And the days passed, with the Charaguaños praying to their virgin and farming their little Chaco.

Years later, while the world was distracted with the Great Depression, greedy little Paraguay invaded from the South, marching all the way to the Bolivian Chaco, thus beginning the Great Chaco War. And as the Paraguayan soldiers marched upward and onward, passing through blessed Charagua, one soldier in particular took notice of the little Virgin and wanted her for himself. How can I take the Virgin of Charagua back to Paraguay he asked himself? And thinking some time, he decided he would force her into his little suitcase. But, BEHOLD, she did not fit. How can I make the Virgin of Charagua fit in my suitcase he asked himself? And thinking some time, he decided he would cut off her feet. And footless, she fit for a felonious flight to a foreign family.

Many years the soldier hid her in his home. But asked of his wife that she return the Virgin to Charagua upon his death. And so the man died, and so the days passed and the Virgin remained hid in his home. Finally his wife too became ill. Cancer she had. Tests they did. Sick she was. And upon her deathbed, she brokered a deal – with the devil, no, with the Virgin, yes. What will make the Virgin heal me she asked herself. And thinking sometime, she remembered that the Virgin belonged to a little pueblo in the Bolivian Chaco. Virgin, she said, if you heal me I will take you back to your blessed Charagua in the Bolivian Chaco. Better she felt. Tests they did. Healed she was. And so the Virgin made her way back to Bolivia, back to Charagua and back to her little chapel. The people were so happy she’d survived the Great Chaco War that they made her a General and now she wears an army uniform, with the stars of a war hero. And the days passed, with the Charaguaños praying to their virgin and farming their little Chaco.

Many years she lived there contently, blessing the town and being adored. Her Charaguaño devotees adorned her with rings and necklaces of silver and gold. But one day another foreigner entered her chapel and robbed all her jewels. But this time the criminal dared not take the Virgin for himself, for he’d heard of the Paraguay debacle.


So the people built her a little glass hut where they could protect her and still adore her. And they made her prosthetic limbs, to replace her amputated legs. And so the days pass, with the Charaguaños praying to their virgin and farming their little Chaco.