Monday, December 03, 2007


Yesterday the first snow that stuck on the ground fell in New Jersey, just days after the bulk of the trees fell from the leaves. Today violent winds blew, throwing the excess leaves across the road in a frenzy of activity. We will now officially have a winter baby.

I recently discovered a great new resource called Freecycle. Mark’s co-worker recommended it to us as a way to get rid of unneeded things and made sure they go to someone who needs them. It’s also a way to get used stuff you need for free.

In preparation for the baby, we moved the TV to the living room. I figured I’ll be spending quite a few hours at home, and wanted the option of entertainment via DVDs borrowed from the library. But we didn’t have a DVD player.

I first looked at the classifieds and at Craig’s List to see if I could find a used one for sale nearby. Nothing. Then we figured we’d buy a new one, though neither of us were eager to do so since we didn’t need anything special. Then I remembered the Freecycle recommendation and decided to check it out. I didn’t see any DVD players available. So I posted an ad saying we could use one. Within 24 hours, I’d received two responses. Today, we drove eight miles and picked up an Emerson VHS/DVD player that meets our needs perfectly. The prior owner says it eats VHS tapes but that the DVD portion works fine. The cost - $0.

I was so impressed, and grateful, that I posted another ad today offering a brand new portable desk that we never got around to using for free. At least 15 people responded wanting this item. I told the first person to respond that I’d leave it outside for him to pick up. Cool. Less unneeded junk around the house for us, no need to transport it to charity and no need to add to landfills. And someone who wants this thing and can put it to use gets it for free.

It’s a wonderful way to mediate supply and demand, to circulate items to the places they are needed with a minimum of transaction costs. I’m grateful to whoever got it off the ground.

Thursday, November 29, 2007


I watched another movie about Bolivia today, the third in a triad of depressing films about the country (The Devil’s Miner, Our Brand is Crisis and Bolivia). This is an Argentine film about an illegal Bolivian immigrant who comes to Buenos Aires in 2001, at the height of the Argentinean economic crisis. He has left his family and three daughters in La Paz, unable to work there after the “Yankees” burned the fields where he used to work on a combine. The fields grew coca, among other crops.

He’s a hard-working and polite man, doing his best for his family. But the majority of the clients in the lower-middle income restaurant he works at are also unemployed or facing serious financial difficulties as a result of the crisis. Not very accepting of other races to begin with, tensions mount when foreigners are given work and locals remain unemployed.
It’s a stark, simple movie, filmed in black and white, never for more than 3 days at a time due to budget constraints. But it’s effective, not only in portraying the situation in Argentina and the case of the common Bolivian migrant, but of highlighting the tensions of immigration in many countries, of the dichotomy between what is better for the individual and what is better for the national society.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Bolivian Strife

Today I spoke to a former colleague in Bolivia who told me the office and the country are shut down again due to protests. The topic is still the relocation of the government from La Paz to Sucre, the same issue that was causing commotion in August. It’s sad and difficult to see to see such continued strife in a country that needs unity and economic growth.

Yesterday I watched a fascinating movie about Bolivia called Our Brand is Crisis. It’s about the 2002 Bolivian presidential elections. One of the candidates, Goni, who had previously served one term as President, hired a U.S. political consulting firm, GCS Consulting, to advise him on his presidential campaign.

I’d heard of Goni while I was in Bolivia, heard how he was raised in the U.S., became the President of Bolivia, then fled to the U.S. after protests that drove him out of office. I’d seen leftover signs of support for him, especially in the rural Cochabamba region, where his name was still spraypainted onto walls and bus stands. But I hadn’t much sense of what type of a person or a President he was, nor did I have any idea that a group of Americans was so involved in the election. It seems from the movie that Goni definitely could not have won without the assistance provided by this consulting firm. The nagging question remains – would it have been better for the country had he not won?

The methodology used by the firm was quite impressive – endless focus groups and careful statistical studies to read the mood of the people, to understand what they wanted, and to instruct Goni how to deliver. At the same time, they also worked to discredit Goni’s two main rivals – Evo Morales (currently the President of Bolivia) and Manfred. Through carefully constructed messages, they were able to help Goni win by just a hairline. The final results were Goni 22.5% of the vote, Evo Morales 20.9% and Manfred 20.8%. No one candidate received more than about a fifth of the vote, an indication of divisiveness even more powerful than that in America.

Evo’s campaign was unexpectedly helped by the U.S. ambassador at the time, Manuel Rocha, a man James Carville (one of the consultants) called an idiot. Rocha made the following speech shortly before the election, linking Evo Morales to Osama Bin Laden:

“It’s unbelievable but true. A few weeks ago Evo Morales claimed the US embassy threatened to kill him. This vile accusation is totally false, an absolute lie. The U.S. has threatened to kill one man: Osama bin Laden. Perhaps Evo Morales, with his tremendous lie..wanted to show his solidarity with that assassin and terrorist. Evo Morales also said in a speech…that if he is elected…he’ll stop the US anti-coca program..I want to remind Bolivians California will only buy your natural gas if Bolivia is not involved in cocaine. Citizens of Bolivia. Open your eyes. The future of your children and families is in your hands.”

Goni joked that perhaps Rocha was actually Evo’s campaign manager, since after that speech, Evo’s support increased. “It’ll make me happy if he keeps talking,” Evo said. In focus groups, people responded that the ambassador’s speech made them more likely to vote for Evo. “It brings out the rebellious part in us,” said one man. “So now because we’ve been attacked and because I feel rebellious, I’m going to vote for Evo Morales.”

I try to imagine an ambassador of any other nation making a speech to the American people before an election and telling them to open their eyes. I don’t think such a condescending tone would go over very well with the electorate.

So Goni won by a hairline, but his victory didn’t last long. His reputation for arrogance continued and people continued to feel he didn’t understand or represent them. I was surprised to hear that his Spanish was about as heavily accented as mine, which seems to make it difficult to integrate among one’s followers. He didn’t seem to really understand or care about the poor and was extremely reluctant to communicate directly with or move among the poor. Under pressure from the consulting company, he sent someone else out into the communities to listen to the people, but didn’t do it himself.

Within seven months, the government was in crisis. Goni wanted to sell natural gas via Chile, but the people were against it. They considered Chile an enemy since losing their coastline to Chile in the 1879 war. And Goni raised taxes on all salaries above 880 bolivianos a month (about $100 a month). The consultants thought the tax should have been raised only on salaries about 5,000 bolivianos a month (about $500 a month), which would have avoided making the very poor even more poor. And finally, the people didn’t see progress on the creation of jobs, which was the number one issue during the election.

These problems led to street blockages and protests, led by Evo Morales. Goni used troops to clear the streets, resulting in the death of about 100 people. Forced to leave office, his vice-president took over for 20 months, but didn’t have much more success.

In December 2005, Evo Morales was elected with 54% of the vote, a landslide not seen since Bolivia’s 1982 return to democracy.

Now of course, two years later, there is a lot of criticism of Evo’s policies (especially in Santa Cruz, where I was). It’s true there are real downsides to having a poorly educated national leader, for pandering to sentiments of the majority rather than promoting technically strong plans that will have actual impact. But I learned from the movie that the large, poor, indigenous Bolivian majority is not going to understand or support economic plans unless they are explained and sold to them. That any candidate who wants to hope for success in Bolivia needs to take these people seriously.

One Week Until Due Date

Our due date is one week from today. For at least a week now, we’ve been living in the very unique and interesting situation of complete uncertainty. We took refuge in the statistics that 85% of first-time deliveries are late. Surely, we’d be in that 85%. So we mentally oriented towards December 5th or later as the arrival date of our new infant.

However, a scare last week, during which we thought it was coming, juggled the psychological bits. Now we know it could be any day. It could be today or it could be almost three weeks from today.

This means that if there is something we want to accomplish – we must do it now because we don’t know if there will be any time tomorrow. It’s pushing Jim to work hard at work to get his major deadlines out of the way ahead of time. And while I have less responsibility at the moment, I’m also trying to make progress on some of my larger goals. I try to make sure that nobody is waiting for anything major from me because at any moment I could become incommunicado.

It means that all social arrangements are made on an as-available basis. Sure, I’d be glad to have lunch next week, but only if something unexpected doesn’t happen first. Let’s be sure to confirm the day before.

While I still get out for a daily stroll, and still make it to the gym for a light workout almost daily, I’m getting to the point where I don’t want to venture much more than an hour from home. I had thought about meeting a friend in New York City this weekend, but am now rethinking it. Do I really want to face a three-hour trip back should the moment unexpectedly arrive?

As someone who usually plans ahead, this helps me to live more in the moment, to be more accepting of my inability to control things, which I suppose is just the beginning of parenthood. But this situation also helps me to understand people who choose elective c-sections. Many of the books I’ve been reading criticize this birth by convenience. I tend to think that nature will usually make sure the baby comes when it’s ready. But it actually is quite difficult for a woman and a partner to essentially put their lives on hold for up to month. I’m lucky in that I’m able to work from home. Others, especially those with physical jobs or long commutes, probably need to take leaves. But with the stingy leave policies available in the U.S., 3-4 weeks leave before a birth (while this is standard in many parts of the world) means an even shorter period of time is available after the birth. I can see how people would rather set the birth date and conserve all of their leave time to spend with the baby.

Of course, choosing elective surgery because our leave policies force such choices is not a good sign of the priority placed on women’s health. I would hope that, like in Germany and in many other countries, 4-6 weeks before the birth and 8-10 weeks after the birth would be a normal and standard leave. I would hope that the opportunity to work at home before the birth would be made available to more women. But until then, I can see how people are tempted to end the expectation and the uncertainty and just get it over with.

Friday, November 23, 2007

A Tourist in Medical America

Yesterday, Thanksgiving, was unseasonably warm. I took my favorite stroll and soon put my jacket into my backpack, comfortable in just a t-shirt. I saw people jogging in t-shirts and pants, and others strolling in light, open jackets. The leaves are now a darker shade of magenta and mustard-yellow, with more brown branches mixed in. It’s still beautiful and brilliant, but a different hue. It’s like gazing at a different, but marvelous, painting every week.

Today we had our 38/39 week prenatal appointment. We’re getting to the final countdown. As someone who has never spent a night in a hospital, I find the frequent medical visits and the upcoming hospital stay to be a form of cultural tourism, especially given the troubled state the U.S. medical system is currently in. We’ve chosen a strong hospital and some of the best doctors available locally. But still, some of the overall problems of the system – the following of norms that haven’t been proven as effective and the emphasis on cost over quality of care - are still easily apparent.

Everyone who gets an epidural at the local hospital has to be hooked up to a fetal heart rate monitor. I’d read that when these monitors say everything is OK, it is OK. But when it says there’s a problem, it’s often mistaken. I asked the doctor whether there was any means of verifying a problematic signal from the fetal heart rate monitor.

He said no, that various methods had been tried, but none were reliable. He said he wasn’t sure why the U.S. had signed on to this technology and these procedures, but it had.

“So what do you do if it indicates a problem?”

“We do a cesarean, but 9 times out of 10 it proves to have been unnecessary.”

I then asked about the period we could stay in the hospital. It’s generally two days for a standard delivery, 3-4 for cesarean. But the timing is based on the time one gives birth. If you give birth at 11:59 p.m., you have to leave at 10 a.m. two days later, for a stay of about 36 hours. If you give birth 10 minutes later, you get an extra 24 hours.

I’d heard that a doctor could write a note saying that the patient needed a longer stay and then they could at least stay the full day, rather than having to leave by 10. I asked him about this and he said it depended on the hospital need for beds. If they need the bed, you can’t stay longer.

“So it’s not up to the doctor?” I asked.


“Nor does it matter whether the patient needs the additional time?”

“In the past, people generally stayed in the hospital 24 hours and most of them seemed to do just fine.”

That was the first indication I’d heard that the current standard of two days is somehow generous. The mouth of a Chinese friend fell open when we told her the standard stay is two days. She worked as a pediatric nurse for 26 years in China and never heard of such a thing. There, as in many parts of the world, ten days is more the norm.

Not to say that I want to stay ten days. But it’s unfortunate to think that people are pushed out before they are ready, before their milk has come in and they’ve learned how to breastfeed, before they feel ready to take care of both themselves and the new, needy being. I wonder if more support and care early on would affect the rates of post-partum depression.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

GIfts and More Gifts

This afternoon I turned on the TV for background noise and ended up on Oprah. It was an episode called My Favorite Things, during which Oprah shows all of her favorite goods for the holidays. It was basically a one hour advertising session.

The episode was filmed in Macon, Georgia, where 40% of the population is watching Oprah on any given day. Makes me wonder how the people of Macon have so much free time that almost half of the population has time to watch daytime TV.

Oprah gave all the products she reviewed on the show to the audience members. Of course, it was nice for them to receive all kinds of free things. But to see them (mostly middle-aged women) jumping up and down, fanning themselves, kissing each other, and looking like they were going to faint at the sight of a free refrigerator, or worse, a couple of free cupcakes or bars of soap, was pretty depressing.

The holiday season is already well underway and it will only intensify later this week. The big day of shopping begins on Friday, on the day after Thanksgiving. After people give thanks for what they have, they run out to get more. The local drug store began to stock Christmas candy on the same day they removed the Halloween candy.

I’m glad that during my first holiday season in the U.S. in years, Mark and I won’t be celebrating Christmas. While we will buy gifts for relatives who celebrate the holiday, for us, we’re going to replace Christmas with New Year’s as our big celebration. We’ll spend Christmas as a quiet weekend at home – no pomp and no stress.

Monday, November 19, 2007

The First Snow and I Become a Cord Blood Donor Reject

Today the first snow fell. It seems early to me for New Jersey. But it was so startlingly beautiful that it captured my attention and even led me outside to photograph it. When I looked outside my office window, I saw thick, fluffy white flakes drifting down in front of the brilliant red, orange and green leaf collage that composes my view. It didn’t stick to the ground but just fluttered through the sky – a magical white blanket – then disappeared. It now feels like winter.

Today I received the disappointing news that my application to donate our baby’s cord blood to a public cord blood bank was rejected. After doing quite a bit of research on the options – saving it in a private bank, donating it to a public bank, or throwing it out – Mark and I had decided to donate it. It was a decision I felt good about. It doesn’t hurt, it could help someone else, and if by chance no one else needed it, it might still be around if someone in our family developed a need.

I stopped donating blood after I was told by a blood collector I had the surface veins of a 90-year-old. So I was happy to have found something I could donate. I filled out the veritable mountain of paperwork required of donors and sent it back. Out of the many, many variables, the only question I marked a yes to was having spent time overseas. I have lived overseas for much of the past three years. But I didn’t expect that to be a problem. I’m in very good health, as the many boxes checked no indicated.

Guess I was wrong. They rejected me because I was in Bolivia and there is malaria in the Santa Cruz region. I told them I was in the city, not the rural areas and that I never heard of a malaria case among the people I came in contact with over five months. While I have taken anti-malarial medications in other countries due to the risk, in Bolivia it was so close to non-existent that I didn’t take anything, nor did the other foreigners I came into contact with. Even if, by chance, malaria came to the city, I was there during the winter, when mosquitoes just weren’t around. And if I had acquired malaria, wouldn’t I notice it by now?

Most importantly, malaria can be easily tested for. Why throw out a donation when they could just do a test and verify that I don’t have malaria. Last week, the medical director agreed with me. He said they would warn the doctor of a potential recipient of the risk and that doctor could order a malaria test. But apparently he consulted with his supervisors and they didn’t agree. Because today he called and said they couldn’t take the risk.

I wonder if it has to do with the recent case of the HIV-tainted organs donated by someone who acquired the disease shortly before dying. Similarly, they think I could have acquired malaria recently and not realize it yet. But in this sad, but single HIV case, the only one in more than a decade, everyone except the patients knew the donor was high-risk. The opportunity was there to order an HIV test before doing the transplants. It was just a failure of communication. It’s too bad that there is so little confidence in the communication structure of the donor system that it’s considered wiser to discard a potentially life-saving donation than to ensure that the appropriate information, documented in the reams of paperwork, is passed on to the people who need it.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Indian Women - Young and Old

This afternoon we went to visit a photo exhibit by Fazal Sheikh called Beloved Daughters: Photographs. The exhibit was composed of two parts – one highlighting widows, who lived in a community where they devoted their lives to Krishna. The other was about young girls kidnapped or tricked into prostitution or women who were burned or otherwise abused in marriage.

The stories were so sad. A few of the widows had supportive families and voluntarily chose a life of abnegation and devotion to God. But others were cast out by their families, devoid of any protections once they no longer had a husband. One was married at the age of 5 to a boy who was 12. While the marriage was never consummated, when she lost her “husband” she was never able to marry again and had to live in this commune of widows. Another was thrown out by her husband after a neighbor raped her while she was home alone. Others were cast out for producing only female heirs. Another had problems when she couldn’t conceive, so her husband took a second wife. Just then, she became pregnant. The second wife was jealous. When the husband died, the second wife set the bed on fire, killing the child and burning the woman over half her body.

The second part of the exhibit focused on the younger women – the children and teenagers abused and roped into prostitution, the young wives killed or burned because of abusive husbands or insatisfactory dowries. The saddest photos were those of the very young girls, well under ten, rescued from brothels. They had greasy hair, wide eyes, glittering shoes, and traces of makeup. The exhibit also reflected the valiant work done by some NGOs, such as one founded by two women, both of whom had daughters burned to death, to offer protection and safety to the victims of these crimes.

Sheikh, the recipient of a MacArthur genius award, focuses his work on displaced peoples around the world. He reminds us, as India moves ahead into the global economy, that ancient prejudices deny rights to many and that only through awareness and activism can such injustices be halted.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Neverending Fall

Fall here is neverending and so beautiful. Now the trees that have turned color glimmer solid shades of red, orange, auburn or yellow – giant firecrackers lining the road. It’s like driving through a pointillism painting, with each leaf an individual dot.

From the window of my home office, I look out at boughs of deep red, over orange over green. I find it deeply soothing and am grateful for all the trees here. It adds enjoyment to any drive, walk or even afternoon daydream.

Today was a rainy, windy day. In the morning, I parked under a tree. When I went to retrieve the car in the afternoon, leaves had fallen onto the car and the water made them stick. All over the car – on the hood, the roof, the windows and the doors, beautiful yellow leaves clung, like an elaborate decoration. I found it disappointing to see many of them blow off with the wind as I began driving.

As we made the long descent from fall into winter, Mark and I are also preparing for a new season in our lives. There are less than three weeks to go until our due date and today, we saw signs that the process of labor is beginning. Just as the leaves explode, then fall off the leaves, our baby is now fully developing and is preparing for its descent. Whether we are ready or not, a new season is approaching in our lives.

Friday, November 09, 2007

Blue Man Group

Tonight we attended a performance of The Blue Man Group. It’s been around a while and has gained quite a bit of notoriety, but I never knew exactly what they did. The concert, How to be a Megastar, was put on at a local stadium and drew quite a crowd of people willing to pay the $65-100 ticket price.

It was a multimedia show led by three men with blue, bald heads and blue hands. It involved a variety of instruments made from unique materials, artistic lighting and jokes. I didn’t bring my camera, thinking I might not be allowed in with it. But so many people had cameras and phones that one of the Blue Men indicated that people wave their lighted cell phone screens, rather than cigarette lighters. That created the odd image of many lighted consoles gleaming across the stadium, swaying back and forth.

Now into my ninth month, I’m getting to the point where I might need to soon replace my long nature walks with treadmill strolls at the gym, with a toilet nearby. While my walk today was physically difficult, the scenery is quite amazing. Many leaves have now fallen, leaving more trunks. This adds more brown to the otherwise red, yellow, orange and green landscape. Leaves float on the still water, making a carpet alongside the dirt path. People come out to photograph the geese or stop their cars to take pictures of the beautiful scenery. It’s really magnificent.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Extended Autumn

Fall in New Jersey is a beautiful season. Having grown up in the Midwest, where trees changed color rapidly and winter quickly moved in, here I appreciate how the fall comes gently. I can watch the subtle daily changes in the colors and the gradual fluttering of the leaves. And we benefit from the moderate, cool temperatures for an extended period of time, as Indian summer transitions into frost, we set up our heating system, pull out the blankets, and take the air conditioners out of the windows.

Yesterday I took a walk at sunset and saw a scene so beautiful it caused a woman to stop her car and come out to take a picture. I walked across a bridge over a lake. On one side, the cloudless sky was a deep blue, the trees lining the blue water a patchwork of yellow, green, orange and red. On the other side of the bridge, a soft cottony carpet of clouds covered the sky. The clouds were a deep pink and violet and they reflected this color onto the water. Combined with the colorful trees, it made for a vision so vibrant it was magical. I could look back and forth from the calm blues and autumn tones on one side of the bridge to the wild pinks and purples and shadows on the other.

We took out our air conditioners today. That gives us more window space and more light. It also seals away the outside air better. With the heat from our recently repaired oil furnace wafting upwards through the iron grates, we feel warm and cozy. I think of all the people, all the families, who have inhabited this house over the past century or more.

We had a lead inspection the other day. The inspector found lead, but told us it was under 10 layers of paint and probably at least a layer of paper. I imagine all the history hidden behind the walls. What kind of walls did different families look at? What kind of life experiences did they have here? What kind of memories did they create?

There is one small reminder of a former resident on the stairs leading down to the basement. A single brown, tie-up shoe that once fit a toddler, caught on a ledge in the stairway, covered with a thick layer of dust. That person whose little feet once ran across these same floors could well be an adult by now. No one seems to have had the heart to remove the evidence of his former presence. Soon a new person will begin its life in this house that has been a home to so many others. While we will probably move away before the baby forms any memories of this place, it will remain in the pictures, in its history, as the place it first called home.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Recent News

I’m not doing a very good job at keeping this updated. I guess the things I do day to day in the States just don’t seem as worthy of a blog entry as the weekend adventures I had in Bolivia.

I will soon enter my ninth month of pregnancy, so I’m duly inflated and it’s now obvious to all passerbys that I am indeed pregnant. I recently had to order my third, and hopefully last, set of maternity clothing after a very rapid growth spurt. We had the second of our two baby showers and are pretty close to acquiring all the goods we think we need to care for baby. We each have quite a list of other things to decide and take care of in the next month, including pretty critical things, like settling upon a name. There are also more menial tasks to manage, like deciding what kind of diaper to get. Who would have guessed that I could spend four or five hours researching cloth diapers? Admittedly, after the first few hours, it definitely feels like a waste of time. If you have the stamina to try it, it’s much more difficult than it sounds. There is an incredible variety of goods, brands and models – so much that it’s quite overwhelming.

My parents recently came out and we took them to visit Cape May, the bed and breakfast capital of the country. Even off-season, the small ocean-side town is still busy on weekends. We stayed in an ocean front motel and took a trolley tour of the town. The guide pointed out the highlights among the numerous Victorian houses and painted ladies. The best part of our visit was eating. We enjoyed a spectacular meal of boiled lobsters, shrimp, mussels and clams at The Lobster House Raw Bar, eaten with fingers and pincers and bibs. The next morning, we made our leisurely way through a five course brunch at The Alexander Inn, a bed and breakfast oozing Victorian decoration.

This evening I attended a performance of the Georgian National dance troupe. I’ve always wanted to go to Georgia and watching the performances only heightened that desire. I wanted to bring out a bottle of Georgian wine, drink it to the sounds of the accompanying three accordions, and dance the night away in merriment.

The dance troupe was so large it looked like an army was taking over the stage. Sometimes, with their boots, sashes and swords, the male dancers did look like an army, swashbuckling across the stage with amazing grace and precision. The bright costumes and emphatic movements made it look like scenes from a storybook being created onstage. The women moved with such grace I imagined they had wheels under their long gowns rather than feet. The men could jump and leap from their toes, their knees and their hips.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Reaction to Tragedy

Today I walked a half hour to an appointment. As I neared my destination, I saw that one road was closed, blocked with cones and a truck and guarded by a man in a vest whose job it was to direct traffic away.

I imagine it might have been hard for some of the drivers to understand where they needed to go and some of them might have complained. I heard the white-bearded man in the reflective vest scream at one driver. “Take a left, then another left, and another left and maybe you won’t die!” he yelled, so loud I could hear him a half block away.

When I walked through the closed area, I saw a bicycle with a crumpled front tire lying on its side in the middle of the road, as well as several dropped plastic bags that had broken at the bottom from the pressure of a fall. An empty red Jeep was on the side of the road.

It looked like all the people involved in the accident had already been removed. But the block was crawling with police and men taking photographs and using what looked like land survey equipment to measure the scene. Perhaps someone had died and thus upset the guard.

It was amazing to me to see the entire street blocked off for over an hour and what looked like a small army mapping out all the details, which will probably later be used in court. I imagined what would happen had there been a similar accident in Bolivia. I’d guess the victims would be lucky if medical care arrived quickly to take them to the hospital. Maybe there would be an exchange of contact information, maybe the driver of the car would cover the medical expenses. But it’s hard to imagine that cars would stop for long, that there would be so many public servants available to spend time documenting the situation, or that the victims would receive any compensation for pain and suffering.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Into the Heartland

Today I traveled to the Midwest, taking my last journey by plane during this pregnancy. I transferred in Detroit and was impressed by that airport. It has a great indoor fountain where water shoots up out of holes and across the fountain into others, looking like thin silver minnows jumping across a pond of black water. The number and pattern of jumping sprays varies, allowing one to stare, mesmerized, at the dance.

I had a long walk between gates, but I enjoyed looking at the art, the shops, and the restaurants. One shop sold nothing but dog-themed items. I wonder how such stores are able to stay in business. Or are there really so many people who love dogs that they want to buy the dog-o-poly boardgame or fancy bones during their airport layover?

In Chicago I rented a car and got another General Motors. This was the same car I got last time I chose the cheapest rental model. It feels to me like a hearse, long and tall and dark, hard to see out of and with the feel that it’s made out of plastic. It makes me wonder who the target buyership was for this car when the engineers presented the model to management.

The outskirts of Chicago don’t excite me too much. I drove at least 15 minutes from the airport down a road filled with stoplights every block or so. An endless array of shops, fast food, gas stations, and box warehouse stores lined both sides of the street the entire way. It was flat, developed, commercialized and ugly. I longed to go past a block of parkland or a pond or lake. The freeway took me into farming country, but as soon as I reached my destination, I again drove down roads lined with traffic lights and shops, an endless strip of consumer.

I stopped at one of the box bookstores, Barnes and Noble. There I was surprised by the size of the religion section. It took up almost a full wall, plus several racks. There were rows of Christian Inspiration books, as well as a full two shelves on Religious Fiction in addition to the much smaller non-fiction section on eastern religions and other, more analytical texts. I gathered that was a sign of the reading tastes of the local population, hungry for Christian spiritualism and for novels that promote their values and worldviews in their characters.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Greenery and Music

While New Jersey doesn’t have the major parks, trails, hiking and camping opportunities that many Western states have, the foliage that grows throughout the state is really quite impressive. Garden State seems like a misnomer for a small, industrial area known for elevated rates of cancer. But as I walk through town, and along the canal pathways, I note the rich variety of trees, plants and flowers. Unfortunately, I barely know the names of any of these growths, but I enjoy watching them change with the seasons.

Amidst the greenery, the local canoe and kayak rental place was doing a brisk business yesterday, with many families out enjoying the warm fall weather. A small collection of dry yellow leaves is collecting on our porch and occasionally, I’ll even see a little burst of red. However, it’s still warm enough to wear a tank-top during the day.

Mark’s been working a lot this week, and I’ve been spending a lot of time within the walls of home. One month into it, I’m already starting to tire of the routine. So yesterday I looked for something new to do. I reluctantly settled upon going to a symphony orchestra concert. Not the ideal thing to do alone, but I didn’t see any better options nearby.

I ended up being very glad I went. The orchestra was conducted by Shi-Yeon Sung, a 32-year-old Korean woman. Though she dressed in a long tuxedo with a ruffled white blouse, she wore her hair in a ponytail and was full of movement and expression. She moved like a marionette, as though her body was driven by the music.

It was refreshing to see youth and femininity in a conductor, when one so frequently sees age and masculinity. One book I read recently, I believe by Malcolm Gladwell, wrote about the gender discrimination so frequent in top-level orchestras. Only when women audition behind screens, so that they are not seen, are they chosen by talent alone. This orchestra had a majority of females among the strings, males among the brass.

The audience was largely Caucasian and mostly over 60, especially those who sat in the most expensive orchestra seats.

I enjoyed the beautiful colors of the instruments – the mahogany bassoon, black oboes, golden trombones, silver trumpets and flutes, honey violas and reddish violins. And of course, the music was top quality.

The second part of the concert, Brahm’s Violin Concerto, Op. 77 In D Major, featured Dan Zhu, a guest violinist. From China,he debuted at Carnegie Hall at age 18. He played the entire 45 minute piece from memory and put in so much effort that he broke strings on his bow. He moved powerfully, together with the instrument, as though he was attached to it. At the end, the conductor hugged him and both received enthusiastic applause from the audience. They both looked like they were having fun, an attitude that they transmitted to the audience, who couldn’t help but enjoy themselves either.

Friday, September 28, 2007

The Prudent Land of Exhibitionism

One thing I’m having some trouble adjusting to in readapting to the U.S. is the hypocrisy between the commercialization of the body and the lack of acceptance of the body in its natural functions. It’s no surprise that images of barely dressed people fill the media, and sometimes the streets. Recently in Washington, DC I saw a woman walking in a public area with nothing more on than a bikini and a mesh cover-up. As long as the couple of strategic points are covered, it’s OK to bare a lot of skin.

Yet the sensitivity about those strategic points – the nipples and the genitals – is so extreme as to make me wonder what happened to make Americans so ashamed of their bodies. Is it the Puritan tradition, the influence of religion, or just never reaching the point of accepting the body as something other than a sexual symbol?

I recall a European friend in Kyrgyzstan telling me how different it was to get a bikini wax in the U.S., versus in Europe or Muslim Kyrgyzstan.

“In Kyrgyzstan I go in with no underwear on at all. The woman who does the waxing looks at me and talks to me normally, as though there is nothing out of the usual. She looks right at my pubic area and does her work, without making me feel there is anything wrong with me.

“In the US, I asked if I should take my underwear off. The woman said no, and just moved it to the side as she was working. It made me feel so dirty.”

Yesterday I got a prenatal massage. It was a nice, clean, professional place, very careful in making the conditions safe during pregnancy. However, I was so covered up in sheets and pillows I wondered if I was in another country. The masseuse removed only the part of the sheet she was working on while she massaged the back and legs. When she massaged my hips, she did so through the sheet. It made me think of my friend in Kyrgyzstan. Was I too dirty to be touched there?

I’m also concerned about breastfeeding in the U.S. It seems to still be considered something dirty to do in public, with books advising working women to go into bathrooms, to lock the lunchroom, or otherwise hide out in uncomfortable places. I see ads for slings advertising their ability to help with “discreet breastfeeding” and showing pictures of mothers on park benches, their baby completely covered by the fabric so as not to offend anyone.

Is the sight of a partial breast so offensive, or so disturbing that a baby should either be denied sustenance, or be kept in a hot and dark environment? Or is it only offensive to the idea that a woman’s breast is a sexual tool? Seeing it used for practical purposes could break some of the mystique.

Since I’m not too eager to hang out on toilet seats in order to feed my child, I went online to check what the laws are. La Leche League publishes a helpful list of current legislation by state. In most places, including where I live, breastfeeding in public is perfectly legal, and is not an obscene act or indecent exposure, even if the breast is exposed. In most areas, a woman has the right to breastfeed in any public place that she herself has the right to be in. I printed out the law for my state and plan to carry it with me. But I find the fact that such a right needs to be legislated rather sad. And I don’t look forward to having to defend my child’s right to be fed.

Having grown up in the U.S., I went overseas with this same prudery I’m now having trouble understanding. I never went to the public baths in Siberia, ashamed to be naked among my neighbors and co-workers. I was shocked the first time I got a massage and had to lie bare-chested on my back as the masseuse worked. I was mortified when I went to the doctor’s for a chest x-ray and I had to walk across the entire room naked, with no gown or other covering. But with time, as I saw them react to the human form as nothing special, I could accept it that way myself. What’s the big deal? We are over six billion people, with three billion or so of each gender. No individual really has anything that someone hasn’t seen before.

I can understand the countries that take a position on either side. Either they hide the body fully, in public and private. Or they accept and embrace it. Here I find a strange middle ground – where many seem to take pride in showing the maximum permissible outline of their shape and form. But once you pull back the little cover, what’s underneath is something lurid and shameful.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Mining with the Devil

I saw a great documentary about Bolivia this week. Called The Devil’s Miner, it’s about two brothers, ages 12 and 14, who work in one of the mines in Bolivia’s mining center, Cerro Rico. After their father died, their mother moved them from the countryside to a mountaintop, where she got a job guarding mining equipment for $25 a month. Since that wasn’t enough to both live on and allow the children to study, the boys worked in the mine during the afternoon, and studied in the morning.

In addition to the story of two boys, the movie portrays well the life and culture. It explains some of the history of the mines, of the forced labor the Spanish employed, in which every indigenous male had to spend six months working in the mines without pay. One aspect new to me was the concept of “tios,” devil figures located in every mine that must be worshipped and given offerings in order to not kill the miners. These tios receive more worship and respect by the locals than God does. But they go to church anyway, looking for double protection, hoping someone will help and protect them. It also displayed well the carnival, the happiness generated once a year among even the most destitute – the festivities, dancing and mayhem. Watching the dancing troupes reminded me of what I saw at the Festival de Urcupina outside of Cochabamba. And like what I saw in Bolivia, the celebrations in Potosi aren’t complete with random explosives going off all around.

These mines are located above Potosi, which at 4300 meters, is the highest city in the world. The children were living and working in very harsh conditions, at a very high altitude. Nevertheless, the movie inspires hope. It portrays the beauty of the harsh rocky landscape. And despite the incredible difficulties they face, these boys are determined to study and to find a career for themselves outside of the mines.

I’m currently reading Regreso del Idiota, (Return of the Idiot), a recently released book that seems to be getting some attention in Latin America. My colleague Maria’s brother was discussing it when I lunch with her family in Cochabamba. And I saw it prominently placed on the bookshelves in the Miami airport.

It’s written by three Latin American authors and is a diatribe against the far left socialist leaders in Latin America – mainly Chavez (Venezuela), Castro (Cuba), and Morales (Bolivia). They write that these “idiots”, with a purportedly social agenda, are actually harming the poor in their countries by prohibiting social advancement and the operation of free markets.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007


This afternoon I attended a presentation at my local library given by an employee of the US Census bureau. It was held in the technology center, a comfortable and modern room with 12 flat-screen computers, and a screen that showed what was on the instructor’s computer. The instructor was able to control our screens, so that we could see what she was doing as she navigated through the website. Then she released the control in order to allow us to try things ourself.

It was a presentation on the US Census webpage, intending to teach people what kind of information is available and how to access it. In just over an hour, it ended up being just an overview, but as a person who loves figures and statistics, I found it interesting.

Every month the library puts on a presentation about how to use different databases or research tools. I never took advantage of such things while still in school. But now that I no longer have the easy university access to endless data sources, it’s helpful to understand better what I can find online and in the library.

I am a big fan of public libraries in general – of the free access to knowledge and information, of the promotion of literary and learning, and of the ability to congregate and share in a non-religious setting. While I’ve been a happy user of many U.S. libraries, my current local library is the best public library I think I’ve ever come across. It was built just a few years ago and is new and comfortable. In addition to modern technology centers and meeting rooms, it has a gift shop, a coffee shop, lots of events and speakers, and a full-range of multi-media. One driving reason in choosing our current residence was the ability to live a few blocks from this library. Now that I’m here, I very much appreciate the access. I think someday, when I retire, I’d like to work in a library or a bookstore – if they still exist then.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Transition to Fall

This week was the official transition from summer to fall. Though practically, it’s still warm and beautiful, like summer. But the hints of change are in the air – the slight yellowing of some leaves, the drying of the forest, the temperature that changes from warm, hot and sunny, to cool within a day.

I’m enjoying living here. We’ve finally gotten unpacked and organized and feel as though we have our first home together. Our street is quiet, with a view of a cemetery and the sounds of church bells and squealing children in the daytime, crickets at night. People seem calm and comfortable. I see a population of immigrants that concentrate in a certain area, and I imagine life is more challenging for them. But even they benefit from the calm and quiet here, the good public services, and the good, neighborly spirit that’s easy to generate when people are living comfortably.

I’m readjusting to having frequent internet access and to the experience of online shopping. I’m impressed by how many of our purchases we can do online. Every few days, a package shows up on the doorstep – anything from a pillow to a swim cap to peanut butter. As long as it’s not needed urgently, I can easily do research on quality online, find a cheap price, and then have it head toward my house – all without taking a step outside. I suppose many Americans have long been accustomed to this. I’ve certainly been using the internet to buy things while away. But in the years of living overseas, I’ve missed out on the transition from using the internet for certain objects (like books, electronics and clothing) to a far wider spectrum that can include toilet paper, milk and furniture.

Yesterday Mark and I had the unique experience of interviewing a doula – a birth attendant. Neither of us had any idea what a doula was as of a couple of weeks ago, but now we are considering hiring one. We felt the need for some personal care even more after visiting the doctor today. The doctor was nice enough, and if we could keep him as our permanent doctor, it would be fine. However, we found out there are six doctors in the practice, not five like I thought. So somehow, by early December, I need to have appointments with the four I haven’t met yet. That will give me about 15-30 minutes of contact with each one before the due date. And then it’s a random lottery as to which of the six will be my attending physician. I have a 16.7% chance of getting any particular one – the one I like the most as well as the one I like least.

A doula would be a person we’d select in advance, who would take the time to get to know us and our wishes. In the course of a couple of meetings, our time spent with her would be a vast multiple of the time spent with any one doctor. She’d then be with us from the very start of labor until the end, and visit us once more post-partum. Her job would be to help make the process more calming, relaxing, comfortable, and safe. She’d also be our advocate with the doctors and nurses, helping to ensure our wishes are carried out as much as possible, at a time in which we might not be a good position to argue. According to doula advocates, by reducing stress and making the experience more personal and comfortable, it can speed up labor and reduce the chance of complications. If nothing else, it seems likely to make the process less impersonal, bureaucratic and uncertain.

We’re entering the phase of active preparation. We bought our first big-ticket item today – a used carseat. Slowly, we’re collecting a pile of stuff for this future being. I don’t want it to enter a world of materialism, and we’re trying to stick to the essentials. But I do want it to be comfortable and well taken care of. And we want to be as comfortable as possible ourselves while adjusting to the changes in our lives.

Speaking of materialism, I thought it was amazing to see orange and black aisles full of Halloween candy over a week ago – a good month and a half before Halloween. But even more amazing was that today I received several holiday catalogs in the mail. Holiday meaning Christmas. They were selling things like hot chocolate in red and green tins a full three-months before the holiday! An entire quarter of a year is spent marketing this holiday to people, during which they spend an average of $800.
Mark and I have decided we will not celebrate Christmas as a family holiday. Instead, we’ll follow the example of the Russians and others in making New Years our big annual event. I’m sure we’ll still get drawn into Christmas to a certain extent from the celebrations going on around us. No matter what, we’ll be subject to the ads and the pressures to spend more and do more. But we’ll have the benefit of celebrating once everyone else is already tired out. But really, no need to think about that three months ahead of schedule.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Good Movie and US Impressions

The other day I saw the 1986 movie, The Mission. It won the Cannes prize for Best Picture and seven Academy Award nominations. In my opinion, all the prizes were deserved. Starring Robert DeNiro and Jeremy Irons, it portrayed the Jesuits who worked with and tried to defend the Guarani Indians against Spanish and Portuguese settlers. The nature portrayed was so lush (it was filmed in Colombia) and the acting so good that I was able to get a sense of what the situation must have been like for the Jesuits, the Indians, and the colonists at the time of the Missions in the 1700s. This was especially useful to me, having visited many of the Bolivian missions. I saw what they are today, but enjoyed imagining what they must have been like 300 years ago.

In the past two weeks in the US, one of the things that strikes me most is the absence of wrinkles on middle-aged women on television. Geena Davis, Christie Brinkley and Oprah Winfrey are only a few examples of women in their 50s and 60s with unrealistically smooth skin. Some look good, others look scary, with their skin plastered against their skulls. I wonder how the numbers are growing among the general population and sense we are reaching a point at which it’s getting more difficult to age gracefully (aka naturally), that wrinkles will stand out even more among age-mates that attempt to maintain their young adult visage.

I’ve also noticed what seems to be fewer SUVS than before, and that makes me happy. On previous visits, I sometimes felt trapped by giant vehicles surrounding me on the freeway. Now, when I take the time to notice, I usually see at least several other small or mid-size cars. The giants are there, but no longer predominant. I guess it’s the cost of gas that may have driven people away. But whatever it is, I appreciate it. For the environment, for the safety of all drivers, and for lessening congestion on the roadway, I think the European model of mini-cars makes society a more pleasant place.

I’ve noticed the opposite trend in baby strollers. Maybe it’s just where I live, but almost no one walks around with a simple umbrella stroller. Despite good sidewalks and a flat, paved landscape, everyone has what one of my friends calls “a beast” – the stroller version of an all-terrain vehicle. I’ve seen them in magazines for $200-$1000 and it’s hard for me to understand what they can offer to make them worth so much money. A good shade, a convertible seat, a smooth ride, a statement of fashion or income, plenty of storage space for mom and dad’s accessories? Maybe after having a child I’ll coming to appreciate those things as being worth hundreds of dollars. But for now, I appreciate the used beast that my friend gave us. It’s down in the basement awaiting its first use. I didn’t even look at its features or test its roll. At the moment, it doesn’t seem important at all.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Searching for quality maternity care

My husband and I had another pre-natal doctor’s appointment today and again, the quality of the visit was disappointing compared to Bolivia. At my last appointment in Bolivia I received quite a bit of information. In addition to 3-D pictures, the doctor spent a good 45 minutes examining the fetus, he provided detailed and helpful responses to my questions and I learned a lot. I was told the fetus was almost one kilo, and was in the top 3% for height-weight at its point in development. He showed me a chart indicated that if that rate of growth continues, I could expect the baby to be between 3.5 and 4 kilos at birth.

The American doctor listened to the heartbeat and measured my abdomen, saying “OK.” That was it. The answers to our questions were extremely terse and I had the feeling we were taking his valuable time. We asked if there were any doulas he’d recommend. He gave us a single first name.

“Any ideas on how we could locate Gloria?” Mark asked.

I asked why he recommended this particular person. “Because she knows my name,” he said. “The other don’t.”

Is that really a reason why we’d hire someone? Because she knows the doctor’s name?

Mark’s impression is that the doctor is flakey and he isn’t impressed with the knowledge levels displayed by the staff we’ve had contact with. Now, when we still don’t have full confidence in our primary doctor, we have to begin to rotate through the other four doctors in the practice, so that we’ll have had at least five minutes of contact with the random person who will deliver our child.

It’s understandable, with such a low level of personalization, with no single individual really paying attention to the needs of the couple throughout the pregnancy process, that demand is growing for non-medical staff like doulas. I almost look back nostalgically to the local country doctor – the person who knew his client well, who was available to come in the middle of the night if necessary. Since doctors have moved so far from this model, people have to look elsewhere to find a person who will listen, provide personalized advice and promise to be available over a period of several months.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

American Date Night

My husband and I had a date this evening. Typical American style, we went to a Mexican restaurant off the highway, followed by a movie (Superbad – which is super stupid, not recommended), followed by ice cream at a local parlor.

It feels weird to me to frequent large restaurants where I have no idea who the owner is. And it’s a bit of a sticker shock to spend $65 on an evening’s date. But we had a good time, and I’m slowly moving back into the American way of life – chain restaurants, highways, $5 movie sodas, and all.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

A Hospital Tour

This afternoon Mark and I went to visit the hospital where we’ll most likely give birth. We went as part of a regularly scheduled maternity tour and joined a group of couples and young families. It was a varied group –including Africans, Hispanics, Indians and Caucasians – with the women’s stomachs in various stages of protrusion. All however were couples and it seemed a single woman would probably stick out in such a group.

With three months to go, we’re in the stage of starting to have to plan and prepare more actively. We’re slowly collecting a few baby possessions, we have to decide what kind of classes, books and other education we need, and we need to make decisions as to who will be involved in the process and how.

Given the impersonal nature of medical care in the U.S. (we have a 20% chance of getting our own doctor during delivery, and the nurses rotate according to their shifts), we are seriously considering using a doula, something I’d never even heard of a year ago, much less ever imagined using. But we think it could be helpful to both of us to have someone with us the entire time who knows us and our preferences and can be a continual, supportive presence.

Touring the maternity ward made the process seem more real to both of us – both in an exciting and a scary way. It was helpful to be able to familiarize ourselves with the environment, so we won’t be surprised on the day we show up. The hospital offers the helpful service of pre-registering up to two months in advance, so we can check right in on the day of delivery and not be held up by paperwork.

I suppose it’s a nice place by most standards. I haven’t spent much time on maternity wards anywhere in the U.S. It’s certainly nicer than most of the places I’ve visited overseas. Every patient has a private room with a phone and TV and a pull-out bed for the spouse or partner. A menu is available next to the bedside with a full selection of Indian entrees, as well as other special foods. They hold an ice cream social every afternoon to celebrate the new births. There is a single room available with a Jacuzzi and birthing balls, though I don’t know how patients are supposed to get back from there to their rooms to give birth.

Despite these amenities, it still had an institutional feel. The furniture was rigid. We were told that women who give normal, vaginal births usually stay two nights. Those with c-sections stay 3-4 nights. But this depends, “on you, on your doctor, and of course, on your insurance,” she said. The hospital’s c-section rate is 30%, at the national average, but a number I find quite scary.

Maybe it was a slow day, but things seemed pretty quiet. There were only two babies in the nursery (they seem to push mothers pretty hard to keep the baby in her room at all times) and most of the staff congregated at the desk, eating leftover ice cream from the day’s social in their blue and green uniforms.

I’ve been lucky to live several decades without ever spending a night in a hospital. I suppose it’s quite a privilege to be allowed to take a tour of the facilities before I enter for the first time.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

A Visit to DC

Here I am, back in the U.S. After several years, I feel like a tourist in my own country. I appreciate that, as it offers me more opportunities to explore, learn and travel.

This weekend I went to DC to visit some friends. The growth of the immigrant population since I lived there a decade ago is very visible. In Annandale, we passed a very large house for sale, but instead of For Sale, it said Se Vende. I thought they were trying to attract a wealthy Hispanic family. “No,” my friend Larisa said. “They are going to get about 7-10 families together to buy the place and they will stuff everyone inside, breaking all housing laws.”

Since the northern Virginia area has the largest concentration of Bolivians in the U.S., as well as lots of other Hispanic immigrants, I asked if we could eat at a central American restaurant. It seemed we’d have a good chance of getting authentic food.

Larisa told us she’d take us to an area with a couple of places and we could choose one. We followed her and pulled up at a ratty El Salvadorian-Mexican place. Across the street was a much nicer looking place. However, this place had a couple of customers at the late hour of 3 p.m. Maybe the food was good.

We went in and the crowd of Hispanic men at the bar winked and smirked. There were two other pairs there, both Hispanic, seated at the plain tables. I didn’t get a good feeling, but at that point was too lazy to drive across the street. So we decided to stay, as long as we could sit far back, out of sight of the men at the bar.

Brightly colored El Salvadorian paintings lined the walls and the jukebox blared music in Spanish. We weren’t there five minutes before I started to notice regular traffic headed to the men’s room. Within a period of minutes, at least one male from every group had gone to the bathroom. There was something going on in there – we later theorized it was a drug drop site. Looking out the window, trying to ignore the men coming past us into the bathroom, I saw several stocky men loitering in front of the check cashing joint/Latino Laundromat across the street. We seemed to have showed up for lunch in gang central.

“This is the kind of place I can’t come and eat alone,” Larisa said.

I wondered why she brought us. Poor Mark was very uncomfortable. He’d just succeeded in getting me from South America to his own country. And within days, he was brought into a micro-El Salvador, right within the DC metropolitan area.

We paid a visit to a pleasant local park, took a riverboat cruise past the monuments, from one vibrant, café-filled area (Georgetown) to another (Old Town Alexandria), where the streets were filled with a variety of performances. And we paid a short visit to the Manassas National Battlefield, where we learned about the battle of July 21, 1862. Early in the war, it still attracted picnickers that came from Washington, DC to watch the fighting. However, over 6,000 soldiers died in what would eventually result as a Confederate victory. It was impressive to look out over the green hills, lined with trees, and imagine the people there on a hot summer day, dressed in woolen pants and long-sleeved jackets, marching miles upon miles, and fighting a battle for their lives.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Last Day in Bolivia

Yesterday I had a taxi driver only on the job five days and not yet jaded by the endless queue of passengers. He told me about a festival for the Holy Child that would be taking place in a small town this weekend. He was planning to go and urged me to consider it, saying it would be a beautiful sight.

A call came in from the dispatcher, ordering his taxi to his mother’s house. I laughed.

“Is your mother your customer?” I asked.

“She makes empanadas and when someone wants a delivery of empanadas, I transport them,” he said. “If you ever want a wonderful empanada, you should try hers. She’s been making them for 27 years.”

I had a busy day yesterday, finishing up my work and all the errands I wanted to finish in Santa Cruz. It was better to be busy than not though, as I’d reached the point where I was just counting the hours until my departure. In the evening, several of my colleagues took me out to dinner – a delicious meal of fried yucca pieces with various sauces, a chicken breast in cheese sauce, vegetables and potatoes. My Spanish teacher Oscar gave me our first baby blanket – a soft, pretty yellow blanket with a little arc full of animals on it.

The light was soft and gentle when I left this morning, the sun rising from a mottled sky, the palm trees on the way to the airport waving in the light breeze. There were no blockages, no protests, just the quiet normality of a city getting ready to go to work.

Overall, the city and the country have been good to me. I’ve met a lot of kind people and have generally had good experiences over the last five months. However, the country hasn’t taken a hold on my heart the way Kyrgyzstan did. It was painful to leave the land and the people of Kyrgyzstan as I felt it had become a part of me. Here, I remained a visitor, someone here temporarily. I was glad to have a final chance to spend time with colleagues. But I don’t have a connection with the land. And rather than with regret, I leave happily, eager to start a new adventure in the U.S., happy for the first time in years to be able to set up a home and family, however short-term it may be.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Stroll Through a Strike Zone

It’s 6 p.m. and as the sun fades pink against the horizon, the city wakes up. Even though the strike was for 24 hours, and shouldn’t end until midnight, everyone seemed to know that one evening came, the restaurants would open back up, the cars return to the road. The bicyclists head home after enjoying a day of unique freedom. The hum of cars fills the air again. The silence pill has dissolved.

From my seventh floor room, I had a nice view of how things were developing throughout the day. From morning on, occasional sounds of firecrackers and little plumes of smoke would come from the city center. I imagined what it must be like to live in a city at war – to hear the crackle of gunfire, to be unaffected as long as its far enough away.

One of my roommates went to work early this morning, before the blockades were put into place. She was picked up and brought home by the company car.

“Nothing’s open,” she said. “Not the supermarkets, no stores, no restaurants.” She said there was a large blockage when she returned to the apartment, at the fourth ring. But that they were able to find alternate routes around it.

In the morning, there were a couple of cars, a few private taxis, and some vehicles with green and white Santa Cruz flags flying from their windows. Were they “authorized” cars, who brought the blockades to their jobs. Or were they the ones assigned to make sure no one else moved around?

Despite a bit of traffic, I saw four tourists, hauling large suitcases and giant backpacks, making their way by foot up my street. I wondered how one would warn a visitor who didn’t speak the language about a general strike the next time. I imagined them arriving by an evening bus, and finding themselves in a still and quiet city of 1.5 million.

From an early hour, people were out walking, and they quickly made the roadways theirs. I watched a father push a child in a car-stroller, casually sauntering down the middle of a lane. More and more bicycles emerged and they especially liked the street in front of my apartment building, which has eight lanes divided into four sections of two each. It’s long and smooth and for once, was empty.

A few blocks away, I watched them set up a minor roadblock. First it was a car put in the middle of the road. This was more of an inconvenience than anything, as most were able to drive or maneuver around it. I wonder who volunteers to let their cars be used as blockage objects, and why the large numbers of people who are being blocked by a few don’t ram their cars into the one in the middle of the road.

Around 11, a more substantial roadblock was set up, with small piles of roads and bricks spread across the road. A car blocked half the road, a green banner and a Santa Cruz flag the rest. There weren’t a lot of people manning this blockage though, and no firecrackers at this point. I saw some bicyclists pause as they approached, then turn around. Others moved forward and were able to get through along the edges. Some cars found a way through, others turned around. I saw motorcycles and four-wheelers push up the curb and drive on the sidewalk to get by. But by this time, few cars were out and the world belonged to the bicyclists.

My roommates told me the members of the Civic Committee – those who declared the strike – were pressured do to their employment to participate and to enforce the roadblocks. I don’t feel like there is a strong public sentiment that moving the capital to Sucre is an important, immediate concern. So the few people in charge of the roadblock near my house had already gone home by the time my roommates and I went out for a walk later in the afternoon.

We walked randomly, probably a mile-long circle. We passed a casual roadblock or two – small streets blocked off with a couple of tree branches and rocks. But what we saw a lot more of was people having a really nice time – flying down the streets on their bicycles, bright-faced and smiling. Families walking their babies, pushing the strollers down the center of a lane. Kids playing soccer, people walking, or gathering on street corners.

My roommate Juanita, from La Paz, looked enviously at the bicyclists. “I wish I knew where I could rent one. I haven’t been on a bike in so long.”

My other roommate, a mother of a two year old who has left her child for the first time on this 11-day business trip, spoke endlessly of childbirth and childrearing.

When we returned, we went to the top floor of our building to look at the swimming pool. There, one of our co-workers, who apparently lives there, opened the door. He was bleary eyed from an evident nap.

It’s an interesting experience to have nowhere to go, nothing to do, all day. And for the entire city to be in the same situation. Yet, unlike a warzone, to know that despite the social tensions, there aren’t any serious conflicts going on. It seemed to give people the chance to sleep, relax, get some fresh air, and spend time with family. I think if they could ban cars once a month, on a weekend day to not disturb work, it would make for a much happier and healthier city.

Babies from multiple partners and fighting back against road blockages

Last night I took a taxi from work into the center of the city. My driver, Leo, was a talkative man and since traffic was heavy at that hour, we had quite a bit of time together. Suddenly, he let out a big yawn.

“Are you ready to go home?” I asked.

“Yes. I work until ten, but I’m tired already.” It was shortly before eight. “The thing is I have a three-month old baby and he doesn’t let me sleep, crying all night.”

I congratulated him.

“I actually have two children, both born on the same day, May 6th. One is from my wife and one is from my second woman. I certainly didn’t plan to have two, but my boys are really beautiful, really special. One was born at 11 a.m. and the other at 8 p.m.” I wondered how he arranged the logistics of that.

His chubby face fell into a reverie as the images of his baby sons appeared in his mind. He didn’t even seem to think it strange at all to admit to his foreign passenger that he has two women, or two babies that may or may not know about their brother.

I had to stock up on food last night since stores and restaurants will be closed until this evening. Early this morning, around 6:30, I saw a couple of cars driving around. That might be early enough to be safe, before the blockaders get out of bed. A little after seven I heard the first firecrackers going off. And now, shortly after 8, I hear only an occasional car going by. I expect it will stay that way until the late afternoon, when people will start to reopen and try to recoup the income they lost during the day. As long as the strikers prevent a full day of normal business operations, they will probably be satisfied. The government estimated that the strike, taking place in six regions across Bolivia today, will prevent the exchange of $20 million.

People seem to accept the limitations on their freedom with surprising passivity. Yesterday, while returning from Samaipata in a taxi, I told the driver I’d read that in a national road blockage, the population only rose up against those blocking the roads in two places. One of them was Samaipata, a small mountain town.

“Yes,” he said. ‘They are afraid to block the roads near Samaipata now. When they do, we all go out, as an entire community – men and women and children, all carrying sticks. And we get rid of them.”

He told me how the church bells are used as a means of announcing community information. “Usually, when they ring, the children rung to the square to find out who has died, or what has happened. But when they ring urgently, as they do when there is a road blockage, the adults gather.”

I’d also read that it wasn’t so easy, that some citizens were severely injured. However, it seemed to have been a good investment for the community. Now, unlike much of the country, they are free from being trapped within their town. But today, even my driver who shuttles passengers between Samaipata and Santa Cruz, will be sitting at home. He hasn’t been able to stop the strikes in the big city.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

El Fuerte

Today was a cold, drizzly, windy day – the kind of day that’s perfect for curling up indoors with a book and a cup of hot chocolate. I did find two cups of hot chocolate, and luxuriate in the warmth of Tuscany in my book Under the Tuscan Sun. But I also took a half-day tour of the nearby El Fuerte ruins, one of four UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Bolivia.

It’s only nine kilometers away, at the summit of a mountain, but the going was rough. On the way out of town, the driver stopped at a store to buy shampoo. “So the window won’t fog,” he said. “It’s a secret trick among drivers.”

It did keep the window from fogging, but it also streaked the inside of the window, so viewing was still difficult. We headed up a dirt road that had turned to mud from the drizzle. We crossed a river, continued uphill, then drove over rock. We were among the first to make it up. An SUV in front of us turned around partway. When we left an hour or two later, we saw many cars stopped part of the way up, or turning around in defeat.

Our guide, Erica, took us along the path through the pre-Incan ruins. The area was beautiful. Unfortunately, the fog and mist prevented us from seeing more than 10-20 meters ahead. When we climbed the overlooks, we could see only what was right below us. The photographic sites were, for us, just a collection of mist off the edge of a mountain. From what I’ve heard and seen in photos, the views are supposed to be spectacular. But I imagined they had misty days centuries ago as well. And I could try to visualize what it would have been like to live there and see a scantily dressed warrior with a bow and arrow emerge along the misty jungle path.

Though conditions were less than ideal, it was still interesting to see. It was unique compared to other ruins I’ve seen in that the highlight was a giant, 200 by 60 meter sandstone rock, carved with jaguars, serpents, ceremonial circles and tombs.

I had my lunch in the Latina Café, a nicely decorated place with large windows looking out over the hills. I ordered the pollo milanesa and was surprised to see it was as big as a pizza, taking up the entire plate. They brought the sides in a separate dish.

I’m taken with the prevalence of natural and organic food here, so I stopped at the local market to see how much the local products reflected the finished goods sold so enthusiastically to tourists and to restaurants and grocery stores in Santa Cruz. The first thing that caught my attention were the green and brown eggs from sale, from criollo chickens. There was a full and colorful selection of fresh vegetables overflowing wicker baskets – lettuce, spinach, carrots, peppers, radishes, and herbs.

Erica told me that now should be high tourist season, due to the European summer vacation. But they have less visitors than they’d expect. “Bolivia has a lot of problems,” she said. What amazes me though is how many Europeans cross the world and the ocean to get here, yet so few Americans know about it or make the trip. Samaipata is a wonderful little retreat – a great place to relax and enjoy nature, or to explore the surrounding ruins, national parks, or a giant, ancient fern forest that I unfortunately haven’t been able to get to. I’d love to come back here for an extended time.

The cold prevented me from using my hammock or spending any unnecessary time outdoors. Even so, every time I went out, I breathed in the spicy, sweet scent of herbs, flowers and tropical trees. I purchased herbal teas, an herbal mix for pizza and a rhubarb compote. But I wish I could somehow bottle the scent of the air and take some home with me.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Return to Samaipata

I’m extremely content right now. I have my own little house with a gate (called La Casita) and I’m currently sitting in a hammock, with my laptop on my thighs. I look out at vines, flowers and tropical trees. I smell herbs and flowers. I hear thunder, the rustling wind, and someone whistling to a dog.

It was so hot in Santa Cruz this morning it was almost uncomfortable. I took a shared taxi, that took an hour to fill up and cost just over $3 per passenger. I was happy to have a good driver and a comfortable ride. On the way, we passed a dance troupe and band, similar to those that performed in Cochabamba, walking down the side of the road. The dancers wore heavy red and gold costumes, with bells built into the men’s shoulders. Despite the heat and the sweat, they smiled, wiggled and blew into their heavy brass instruments.

We traveled along the old road to Cochabamba, driving under sheer rock faces, occasionally looking up for pending avalanches. As we followed the edge of a cliff over a river and winded around the mountain turns, we drove through a dense conglomeration of greenery, flowers, rocks and birds. I felt dwarfed by the nature, impressed by our insignificance.

Samaipata was quiet, but still looked the same as before – the dirt streets calm, the central, cobblestoned streets lit up by the stones, sculptures and greenery of the central square. Carefully built homes stood next to small, mud structures. Cacti grew around both types of residences, a natural art form. I noticed the signs throughout town – fresh bread, ice cream, homemade cheeses. This is a really unique town in that people seem to compete with each other to produce the most natural, healthy and organic foods. It’s a culinary paradise, set amidst a cool, flowering tropical mountain setting.

I began my culinary experience at Landhaus, a German owned hotel and restaurant. I enjoyed a meal fit for a king – pork medallions in a mushroom sauce, potato croquettes, green beans with grated cheese, vegetables, salad and homebaked rolls. This was accompanied by two bottles of mineral water and a slice of apple strudel with vanilla ice cream and sweetened cream sprinkled with cinnamon. Given the quality of the ingredients it was made with, it could easily have cost over $30 in the U.S. Here it was a mere $8. Even better, while eating, I got to watch the wind ripple the tropical trees and see a tortoise stroll by.

In the afternoon I came to my hotel, La Vispera, the place I stayed before. The hotel has a fully functioning organic farm and café, specializing in herbs and teas. I have a cabana, or a little house to myself. It has a hammock out front, where I can lie amidst the scent of fresh herbs and watch hummingbirds feed from nearby flowers.

I had pumpkin soup, cubes of gouda cheese, whole wheat rolls, and fruit tea delivered to my cabin for dinner. I could heat it up in my own little kitchen. Darkness fell at 6:15 and I moved inside, to my cozy little abode. I was struck by the silence, and by the feeling that my one-room space (that encompassed a double bed, a table and chairs, and a kitchen) was all I needed. I dreamed of returning here for an extended time with my family. Until then, I enjoyed the peace and the deliciously sweet air that surrounded me.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Upcoming General Strike

I read in the paper today that the regional assembly declared a 24-hour general strike for this coming Tuesday. From what I could understand, it’s in support of Sucre. Several regions will be joining in, paralyzing the majority of the country.

I called Maria to ask what that means. “There will be no transportation,” she said. “Neither government agencies, nor private companies will be working.”

“So we have the day off?”


It doesn’t do much good to have the day off when there is no transportation and you can’t go anywhere. I’m going to have to cancel the appointment I had for an ultrasound on Tuesday afternoon. That’s disappointing since I was looking forward to getting a good view of the baby for the first time. I hope it will be possible to reschedule before leaving. The same service of a 3D or 4D ultrasound that costs $25 here costs $400 in the U.S.

I asked one of my roommates why she thought the strike was being called.

“Every region wants to be independent, to manage its own resources,” she said.

“So Bolivia could become a bunch of miniature countries?”


I asked if there would truly be no transportation available during the strike. I
imagined some of the drivers must need the money.

“They make an agreement that anyone who is out driving will get attacked, will have their tires burned. So everyone stays home.” Guess I have no choice.

Tomorrow morning I’ll be leaving for Samaipata, the mountain resort a few hours from Santa Cruz, where I’ll spend my last Bolivian weekend.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Political Problems

Although warm weather has returned, the winds haven’t died down, reaching up to 82 kilometers an hour today. As a result, sand swirls through the town. It’s common when driving in a taxi with the windows rolled down to suddenly get a whip of sand across the face.

Political problems relating to the location of the government continue in Sucre. I see the images on TV and in the newspaper – of lawmakers punching each other in a brawl, of police gassing protestors, of street hoodlums destroying property – but it seems like another world. It could be another country as much as I feel it here.

I asked my co-worker Julia what is going on there, because I find the newspaper stories so full of politics it’s difficult for me to decipher. She said that according to the constitution, the Bolivian capital is Sucre. Based on this, some people are demanding that the government should be located in the capital and move to Sucre. Practically, however, La Paz is the capital. She said these “constitutionalists” believe that La Paz has become too imperialistic, that the people there have too much power and whatever comes out of La Paz, the rest of the country has to follow.

I asked her what President Evo Morales’ position is.

“He has a strong base in La Paz, so he’d rather stay there,” she said.

“And what do the people in other parts of the country think?”

“They think it would be good to move the government to Sucre. It would reduce La Paz’s power and spread out the areas of influence in the country a bit more.”

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Final Days

It feels like winter is finally departing from Bolivia. It’s getting to the point where one can wear a sleeveless shirt all day long and be comfortable. Today I flew from Cochabamba to Santa Cruz and upon both embarking and disembarking, I felt the warm rays of the sun and felt as though I were in a tropical country. It’s too bad I’m leaving just as the nice weather returns. On the other hand, with no A/C or fan in my current apartment, maybe it’s a good time to go.

This morning, at my hotel in Cochabamba, a bevy of bodyguards in black suits milled around the front door, looking at me suspiciously. I found out a Mexican musician, Anna Barbara, was in town to give a concert the next day. I’ve never heard of her, but I was told she sings ranchero music.

Upon leaving Cochabamba, I took in the view of the giant white Christ overlooking the city, the purple flowering jacaranda trees dropping their leaves, and the foul smell of a canal. I sat near the window on the plane and looked out over the dusty, brown mountainous city, then a landscape of bare brown mountains and scrubby matching homes that stretched until the flat, greener area of Santa Cruz.

Santa Cruz is the same as usual – hectic, loud, dusty and though now warmer, still windy. I noticed some new graffiti among the usual anti-Evo material. This one reads (with a large E, V, O):

(In Venezuela I obey), referring to what anti-Evo people consider his bowing to Venezuelan leader Chavez.

Today I read the second report within just a few weeks of illegal Ethopians and Eritreans caught in Bolivia. In the first case, a group of immigrants was found in a house near my original apartment. I wondered why they’d choose to emigrate to Bolivia, especially since I almost never see an African here. Today’s newspaper article said they are using Bolivia as an entry point to the U.S. and Canada.

For what seems like weeks now, the newspapers have been full of stories of protests and conflict in Sucre. I could never quite understand what was going on. So today I asked my taxi driver. He said that people in Sucre wanted the governing bodies moved to Sucre.

Idiotically, I asked why. “The capital is in La Paz isn’t it?” I asked.

“No, it’s Sucre.”

I’ve lived here five months and didn’t realize the capital was Sucre. In all practical senses, La Paz is the capital, with the government, business, and airlines centered there. So understandably, Sucre wants a change. If they could get the government to relocate, maybe they’d get some more recognition.

My taxi driver didn’t think it would happen. “The people in La Paz feel just as strongly about it staying,” he said.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007


On Sunday, I continued my adventure in Villa Tunari. I hired a taxi to take me to the Carrasco National Park. I’d heard that the Chapare region was Bolivia’s prime cocaine-growing area, but only on the way to the park did I realize it. My driver stopped on the way to buy a bag of coca leaves (for 25 cents). We passed by small village households actively drying coca leaves in the sun in their front yards. When I stopped to take a picture and said hello, I received a gruff response.

Conservation International implemented what seems to have been a successful project, training locals to serve as guides in the park. Visitors are taken on an easy 2.5 kilometer loop. First, we crossed a river in a cable car, which was an exciting way to enter. Then we walked along a path, looking at jungle wildlife along the way. Our destination was two caves – one that held a variety of bats, the other the unique guacharo bird. This nocturnal bird is very aggressive and at the sound of our approach, they began to squack, filling the dark cave with audible anger. Our guide, Juan, told us that the man who originally found the cave thought there were wild cats inside. He was so afraid by the sounds that he didn’t approach too closely, but came back the next day with someone else.

Villa Turani is known for its fish – fresh and delicious from the many surrounding rivers and streams. I enjoyed a piece of surabi, fresh from a streetside grill. Then I went back on the same mode of transport that had served me so well the previous day.

But this time it didn’t go so well. I should have been warned when I saw the driver picking his zits in the mirror when I entered. My arrival didn’t affect his work. Once we started moving, I had the strong sense something was wrong. He leaned forward and gripped the wheel in a strange manner. His head seemed somehow to be loose. He frequently bent over, and drove with only one hand. It took me a while to realize he was typing text messages onto a cell phone while he drove. His reactions to things in the road seemed impaired and when we stopped at a checkpoint, he yawned and stretched.

I thought he was going to fall asleep. I tried to reassure myself. Maybe he’s missing something upstairs, I thought. I’d had several similar drivers in Cochabamba. Maybe he’s worked long hours. But when I asked him, he said this was his first route of the day. Night was soon to fall and we were driving on mountainous roads. If he was having this much trouble in the daylight, how was he going to manage in the dark?

He illegally picked up another passenger on the side of the road and put him next to me. It seemed to be an acquaintance and he told this man he “was dying of sleep.” This passenger pulled out a bag of coca leaves and they both started to chomp. That, plus the music and the conversation seemed to help. But I still wasn’t reassured. And an hour after departing, when we reached the first place with some civilization (a police checkpoint), I got out. Even though it was already dark, I’d preferred to take my chances flagging down another bus than to risk flying over a cliff with this guy.

Luckily, I found another option quickly – a private citizen with a minivan who’d been vacationing with his son. He took passengers back to cover his gas expenses. He was an excellent driver and I could pass the rest of the journey relaxed, breathing in the scent of the coca leaves the elderly man next to me was busy chewing. It smelled like the dried piles of leaves I used to jump into at Halloween as a child.