Sunday, May 27, 2007

A final resting place

It’s warm and sunny here on the east coast, a big change from the cool winter Arctic breezes of Santa Cruz. It’s nice to experience at least a week of summer, and I’m glad that the Memorial Day vacationers have good weather to enjoy.

We drove directly from the airport down to Delaware, to visit some relatives. The trees are green and vibrant and leafy. It made me want to get out into nature. But I’ll have to save that for next weekend.

This weekend we went to visit relatives at an assisted living facility, basically a nursing home. It’s a good facility, with kind, attentive staff (many foreign born), nice facilities, activities, and decent food. But two very important things were missing – autonomy and dignity.

While in many cases it’s for their own safety, residents are treated like children, or zoo animals, with rules about what they can and can not have, what they are allowed to do and when. For some, it’s necessary. But for others, especially those who are independent and have lived a vibrant life, it can only feel suffocating and demeaning.

My own grandparents lived in such a facility and they were equally unhappy. It was just bearable as long as they were both alive. But once my grandfather passed away, my grandmother found it miserable. Worst of all, for her, was the high-school like atmosphere, where she wasn’t allowed to sit at the same table with “the cool ladies,” and the lack of people who shared her interests.

While the residents never mention it, I think the worst aspect of all must be being surrounded by aging, suffering, and dying. Of watching your friends and neighbors die off around you, a constant reminder of what’s to come. No matter how bad off I am, I’d rather live with a family, with people of various ages, so that I could at least partake in or watch their lives, to have something to focus on besides death.

Another challenge is how one can continue to feel meaningful, a useful part of society, in such a place. As part of a family, an elderly person can watch young children, can bake a pie, can tell a story, can fix something that’s broken – little things that contribute to the household and make them feel like they have relevance. Without relevance, it seems hard to find the self-esteem and motivation to go on. In this facility, the best one can do is to become part of a committee – such as the garden committee. It allows one to achieve something and to have a goal.

“But we have too many helpers here,” said Robert, a former active gardener, and a former member of the committee. “I’d like to be able to do something myself.”

I don’t spend too much time in such facilities. But I’ve yet to meet someone who is really happy to be living there. It makes me sad that our culture is set up with a focus only on the nuclear family, that the ties don’t bind across generations like they do in other countries. It makes me sad that the elderly are treated as something to take care of, rather than respected and included in familial life. It makes me sad that many people don’t have the funds to live in such a nice facility, or to have the regular home care they might need to live with their families. It makes me sad that people who are lucky enough to have lived long lives, spend their final years in sadness and loneliness.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

When it Rains, You're Stuck

Lately I’ve been using the taxis from a five star hotel near my house. For my most common destinations, they charge me the same price as other radio taxis (those you call, and are more secure than taxis caught off the street). Plus, it’s convenient to be able to walk out and get a taxi whenever I need one, since I never know how long it will take a radio taxi to arrive.

I also find that these are the only taxi drivers I feel completely comfortable with. The cars tend to be in better condition. But much more importantly, they are calm, professional, reliable and they all know each other. One of them couldn’t do anything wrong and get away with it. With any other drivers, even the radio taxis, I feel a certain caution and nervousness, as though at any minute the driver could pull something. None have yet, and the majority are good, honest people. But there have been enough cases of bad taxis that the typical local understands the need to be careful and is quick to offer tips. Only in these hotel taxis can I relax and do without that nervous caution.

I woke up at 5 a.m. this morning to a powerful rainstorm. When I left for work, it was still raining lightly. I commented to the driver on how little traffic there was.

“Yes, most people live on the outskirts of the city. And when it rains, they have a hard time leaving their homes because of the muddy roads.”

He told me that he himself lives on the outskirts, and had a hard time getting out this morning. The roads are truly terrible, made of dirt and dust. Even a little bit of water can turn them into a muddy soup. I’ve driven on some of them and each time, I’m amazed at how vehicles, buses and pedestrians make their way through.

I asked him whether the government was making any progress in paving some of these roads. It seems a shame to prevent people from getting to work whenever it rains, especially since those who tend to live in these areas tend to be people who need the income.

“No,” he said. “They just fill the holes in the road. Our area is very low-lying. A while ago, they whole place was flooded.”

During the day, I had a hard time getting a cab off the street, with one of them trying to charge me 50 percent more because of the water. I approached one at the same time as a man and the frustration I felt when he jumped in made me feel like I was in New York City.

In the evening, I couldn’t get a ride at all. The radio-mobile company I usually use didn’t answer the phone. I caught a ride with a coworker to a supermarket, where there are always taxis. Tonight, there weren’t. I called the company and was told they didn’t have any taxis available.

I stood there for quite a while, with no luck. When I saw a hotel taxi approach, I jumped on it, but the passenger had asked the driver to wait for him. I asked the driver if he could call another hotel taxi to come get me. Several minutes later, I finally had a ride.

The driver told me that taxis don’t want to work when it’s raining, both because of the muddy roads, but also because the puddles make it difficult to see holes in the road. He told me how he took someone to a city market in the rain and his tire was damaged when he hit a hole that was underwater.

“But we work regardless of the weather,” he said. “And we only work with a limited clientele – people from the hotel and people who live in the surrounding condominiums. That way, it’s safer for us. We have less problems and it’s better for the passengers as well. They can trust us. If anyone ever forgets something in the car, they know they’ll get it back.”

He told me he’s been working as a taxi driver for the past six months. Before that, he worked as a police officer. He told me he earned about $120 a month and worked 10 hour days. But he didn’t like that he frequently had to travel to the site of disturbances, so he couldn’t have lunch with his family. Plus, he didn’t like the danger and the fighting.

I asked what the most frequent problem was.

“Protests,” he said, without pause. I asked him if it was true that police don’t have the right to prevent protestors from blocking roads.

“Yes,” he said. “Because this is a democracy and people have the right to express themselves in public. As long as they aren’t damaging anything, they have the right to organize.”

“But why can’t they organize in a park?” I asked. “Don’t other people have the right to use public roads and to be able to get to work and lead their lives?”

He agreed, but didn’t seem to think much could be done. “Just this morning, the college students were protesting at the airport and disturbing flights,” he said.

When I asked Oscar why the government just can’t pass a law prohibiting blocking transportation routes and give the police the power to break them up, he answered, “Because this is a government that came into power through blocking streets.”

Saturday, May 19, 2007

San Javier

This weekend I made my second excursion from Santa Cruz. Granted, not much for two months in Bolivia, but I'm getting there. I so enjoyed my time in Samaipata, experiencing the peaceful calm of small town life, and the invigorating freshness of mountain air, that I set a goal to travel at least twice a month.

San Javier is a town within the Mission Circuit, a series of towns and villages with beautiful and historic Jesuit churches that were named UNESCO World Heritage Sites. If I had more time, I'd take a week or so and make a loop of the towns. That would be the easiest way of doing it. But since I don't have that much time, I figured I'd spend a weekend in one town, and later, a weekend or two in others.

I chose to go to San Javier first because it's the closest to Santa Cruz, about 4 hours away. I left on a bed-bus (with reclining seats and leg rests) at 8 p.m. and arrived by midnight, giving me the whole weekend here.

I was the only passenger on the bus that got off here. And I have to admit that disembarking in an unknown place at midnight did make me nervous. Especially when I found out that no one from the hotel had come to meet me, as promised. I had no choice but to walk through the town in the still of the night to try to find my hotel. Except for on the main road, where shops sold local cheeses, baked goods and drinks to passengers and truck drivers, there wasn't a soul on the street. I reached the plaza and found it empty, dark, and forbidding. I saw the names of other hotels, but everything looked boarded up for the night, with thick wooden doors.

I couldn't find the hotel on my first try, so I went back to the main road to ask for directions, then tried again. I was very thankful when I arrived, was let in, and received my very own room and bed. I felt much more relaxed and safe.

My hotel, the Gran Hotel Reposo Del Guerrero, is simple but nice. Rooms are arranged around an attractive patio, filled with chairs, hammocks, trees, plants and wildflowers. I have my own bathroom, A/C, and more importantly in the current cold weather, nice blankets - all for $10 a night. Unfortunately for such a nice place, I think I'm the only guest here.

Most people visit the churches on a tour. And therefore, many tourists just pass by - take a look at the church and move on. I knew there might not be a whole lot to fill a weekend, but I brought books and a mini-computer and looked forward to some down time. However, I ended up finding plenty of interesting things today.

I started my day visiting the local San Javier cheese factory. I was hoping to watch the process. They wouldn't let me inside, but they did sell me fresh cheese and yogurt, produced from the milk of four local dairies.

It felt nice to walk through town - to watch the families zoom past on motorcycles, up to three people aboard, to see the beautiful thatched roofs, that fit as neatly as a hat, to see the green, tree-dotted plains and the blue hills rising up in the distance. A friendliness and a slowness moved through the air, and I immediately felt the difference. I could walk here without looking over my shoulder, I could pause to watch the toddler in the cowboy hat run across the field, or the woman giving a man in a haircut in a single-chair beauty shop.

I went to the church, not really expecting much but an excuse to spend a weekend here, to say that I saw something. I've done all the great churches of Europe and considered myself churched-out. So this church must really be remarkable, because I was impressed and awestruck.

Approaching it from the square, I thought the carved pillars of faded wood, the pitched wooden roof, the heavy brown doors, and the the ivory carvings and brown fretwork were beautiful. Like the other buildings on the center square, surrounding the ample green park, the church took up an entire block. A covered walkway ran along the face of it, making it look like a long cow shed, but a much fancier one than the building opposite or diagonal it. A wooden belltower rose up from the interior grounds, with four bells visible from the center square. So far it was nice, but nothing amazing.

It was when I walked into the attached museum, which led into the church and its property, that I realized this was something special. The carved wooden museum pieces - the sacrificial cross, the old bells, the statues, were filled with an aura of age and beauty. They had been so much more lovingly than the gilded materials in many church. It was real artistic creation and it showed.

In the grounds, I walked under wooden porticos with carved wooden columns on one side, beautiful carvings and paintings along the church exterior on the other. The chapel was a wonder unto itself. Five carved scenes, framed in gold, surrounded a golden carved Jesus. The long and wide nave was a maze of carved and painted wooden boards and columns. No board, no surface, were spared the artist's hand, not even the upper boards of the roof. Everything was carved and painting. Except for the gold frames, nothing shone or glittered. The beauty was more gentle, natural, loving.

Carved cherubs with wings smiled down from the walls, over full-body carvings of saints. Two young boys went through the pews with rags, racing each other to clean the fastest, driving along the pews as though in an Indy-500 race.

Besides the beauty of the churches, another aspect that has made the mission circuit famous is the baroque music the Jesuits taught to the locals and carried on by youth musical groups. It's a little seen phenomenon when young village natives become masterful violinists or operatic singers. From what I'd heard, the quality is very good and these groups travel widely.

The mission circuit holds a two-week music festival in the summer (that would be six months from now) and they put on concerts over three weekends in the winter. I was disappointed to hear that I'd just missed one of those concert weekends. The next would be in early July and I hoped I could return.

As I exited the other side of the church and strolled the grounds, I suddenly heard a sharp, beautiful melody. Was someone playing a tape of this music? I approached the sound - the choralic ah, hah, hahs, the operatic arias, the smooth orchestral notes. I glanced into a dusty screened window and saw it was live, a group was practicing. I felt so lucky to come across this, I sat on the grass until the practice was over, enjoying the beautiful melodies.

They disbanded with members still calling out operatic notes, with violinists walking around while still practicing chords. As I'd heard, they were young, about high school age, average looking boys and girls, with jackets and backpacks. Yet they spent their Saturday mornings practicing in a dark church room and had the ability to produce a breathtaking sound.

I stopped by the Buen Ganadero for lunch, a recommended local restaurant. For less than four dollars, I had fresh squeezed peach juice, a giant, tender cut of beef, two fried eggs, french fries, salad and rice. It was enough to last me for the entire day.

During my afternoon stroll, I found the soccer field, where motorcycles were abandoned in a group, their owners in the stalls watching the game. I found a small tourist office, where there was a museum about the Yarituses. This religious group existed before the Jesuits. They dress in masks and costumes and dance in honor of Piyo. When the Jesuits arrived, they allowed them to continue dancing, as long as they danced in honor of San Pedro and Pablo.

The woman told me that every June 29th and 30th, they dance from the church to the Apostle's Rock, a large rock a few blocks away that she suggested I visit. So I walked toward it in the afternoon, and what did I happen to see, but a group of Yarituses, in costume, dancing in a circle in front of the rock and in front of a giant, iron cow.

I happened across the opening ceremony for a new art gallery that is located within a rock, a small, subterranean, artsy place that is meant to expand San Javier's cultural offerings. The area is actually more of a rock forest than one single, imposing rock, and I walked along a path surrounded by giant boulders and trees.

As usual, darkness fell by 6:30 and I was back in my room by then. I heard the church bells chime at 7, a light, melodic sound that carried across the village. But I decided to wait until the next morning to see part of a mass. I like the quiet and the isolation that falls in small towns at darkness, giving me nothing to do but read, write and sleep. It's very calming and relaxing.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Weekend in Samaipata

Yesterday, together with several colleagues, I made my first weekend excursion out of Santa Cruz. We came to the town I'd heard most about, Samaipata. It's a mountain hideaway, snuggled amidst tropical green hills, with a cool, fresh air and an enveloping scent of flowers, ferns, pines and herbs. It's also very quiet. One feels the night when the blackness falls here, which led me to bed early. And thus, I appreciated the morning, the fresh greenness, the sound of the birds and the crickets, even more.

I shared a station wagon with three other passengers, 2 male and one female. As we began to drive out of town, it felt good to be heading somewhere new. And it was nice to be with people other than my colleagues, to hear about some different topics and opinions.

The passengers were an interesting enough bunch. The man in front was from La Paz. He is in town to check the radiation levels emitted from cell phone towers, to make sure they aren't harmful to human health.

"In reality, they never reach even half the level of the limits set by the FCC," he said. "The bigger problem is holding the phone up to your head. They should ban that."

The other two passengers got into an impassioned discussion about societal problems.

"The most important thing is liberty," said the man.

"Yes," agreed the woman. "Democracy. We should help the poor with education and health. Because a person with a bit of education can defend himself. Instead of spending money on stupid things, like sheets and paintings, we should spend money on schools, hospitals and churches. The churches helpas well, because a person without values, who isn't afraid of anything, isn't good for society."

"That's the most serious," said the man. "We live in Santa Cruz, where we live well, and we forget that the rest of the country lives in a different world."

"But Santa Cruz as well used to be without water and light," argued back the woman. "But who brought those things. The village did it itself." She complained about how the local rich take their money and spend it in Europe and the States. She thinks it should stay here, to help the local economy. "What do Europeans do?" she asked. "They collect taxes and invest it in their country. We also have brains, but we have bad customs and habits. We need to do this ourselves. Everyone who has the ability has the obligation to teach, educate, help."

Shortly after she left the taxi, the man threw a plastic bag with the remnants of his snack onto the mountain ride, a nice example of a bad habit.

The drive was beautiful. Leaving Santa Cruz, we saw women selling stalks of sugar cane, and little baggies of peeled, individual-sized pieces. Fifteen minutes outside of the city, it already felt open, more free, greener. Donkeys pulled carts on the side of the road, a man rode an umbrelled bicycle with a canister in front filled with a local drink for sale, and white geese waded along the mudded, wet brown roads. As we traveled further, I had vast, wild views of tropical green trees. As the road became smaller, the trees came closer and we entered a countryside of green field, green trees, and green misty mountains. Small village cemetaries were marked by a tall, colorful oval of flowers atop each white tomb.

We made our way into the mountains and I suddenly felt myself back in Kyrgyzstan - the windy roads following rivers below, the sheer rock faces emerging from mountains, and portions of road that just disappeared into the canyon below. We were stopped by an avalanche, which caused us to pause for close to two hours while they cleared the roads.

"I don't know what we are waiting for," the radio tower guy said. "The rocks will continue falling. It's like a lottery."

We saw several falls during our wait. During the first one, a rather large boulder rolled down the hill and across the road. It could have done quite a bit of damage to whatever might have been in its path. Most the others were small rocks. But no one knew when another large fall could come. We watched two motorcycles risk it. They got across OK, but several rocks fell behind them. The rest waited until the crane cleared the way. Then a parade of vehicles came through, one by one. Giant trucks and buses wavering on the rough road, then picking up speed and gunning across as fast as they could.

"I've been to Samaipata 11 times and this is the first time I've come across an avalanche," my colleague Maria said. It made it all the more an adventure.

The rest of the journey was along a windy road, through thick greenery and a gorgeous landscape of red soil, rolling mountains, and cliffside white homes with red tiled roofs, fronds, flowers, cacti and trees. We crossed a bridge over a sheer rock waterfall, and within a couple of kilometers, were in the small town of Samaipata. The central square is the prettiest I've seen, dense with flowers, greenery, stone arches and sculpture. It has a speaker's corner, modeled after London's Hyde Park. When one stands on the circular platform and speaks, you can hear your voice amplified. The central streets are made of cobblestone, making it sound like we were driving over a washboard.

We stayed at an organic farm called La Vispera. It has a spectacular setting on a hillside, the air rich with the heady scent of lavender and tropical flowers. I had a gorgeous little cabana called the Sweet. I could look out at pink bouganvillea, at cacti, rhubarb, herbs, and all kinds of tropical flowers - blue, yellow, red, white - that I didn't recognize. They also serve organic, vegetarian food at their cafe. Only problem was the service. They say their food is slow. But when my pancakes didn't appear after an hour and 45 minutes, I had to leave. I'd forgotten my camera in the taxi and had to go try to find it before the driver returned to Santa Cruz (luckily, I got it back). They said they'd leave the pancakes for me and I could have them for dinner. When I returned at dinner, no one knew where the pancakes were. The kitchen had already closed, at six. I asked if I could have something simple and cold, like bread and cheese, because I had nothing to eat. Nope, the kitchen closes at six. So I was unhappy to spend much of the afternoon and evening hungry.

This town has a serious fixation on the healthy. The sugar is brown, the tea is herbal, the bread is wheat, and meat can be hard to find. When I sought out lunch in town, I went to a place that I heard had good hamburgers.

"Would you like a vegetarian or meat burger?" the waitress asked me.


The hamburger came accompanied by lettuce, grated carrots and grated beets. I was so hungry I didn't notice at first, but it soon became apparent that my burger was greenish and the texture soft. It looked like I'd gotten vegetarian - like it or not. There is lots of great, homemade stuff for sale here - from herbs and herbal teas to cheeses, sliced ham, chutnies, james and marmelades.

While some of my colleagues went to visit some nearby ruins, I stayed on the farm to participate in an outdoor yoga class, to walked up to the golden throne (a thrown made of rock under a flowered arch up high on the hillside), and to listen to the crickets and watch the butterflies, sip lemon-orange herbal tea, and enjoy the tranquility.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Life In Santa Cruz

Last week we had what could be considered cold weather in Santa Cruz, rainy, windy and chilly. It’s called the Sur, a series of winds that comes up from the Argentinian pampas, following cold chills in that region by about three days.

I haven’t been out of a 20 mile radius of Santa Cruz, which leads me to believe sometimes that I’m just in an isolated, developed and rather sophisticated Latin American city. Sometimes it’s hard to remember that I’m actually not too far from Argentina. Nor am I too far from the Amazonian jungle.

I get reminders every so often, such as this Sunday, when I walked a few blocks to the grocery store. On the way, I passed by several beautiful, exotic (to me) birds, with rich brown or yellow breasts. A type of lizard I’d never seen before scurried under a fence. Even more surprisingly, in my upscale neighborhood, was the horned bull sauntering casually down the residential street, no owner in sight.

At such times I place myself – yes, I’m in the center of South America. But it still doesn’t seem entirely real as I move daily between my home, my office, and my daily activity.

Yesterday, I was reading an article in a local paper during Spanish class and I passed over a mention that Bolivian President, Evo Morales, didn’t finish primary education and has trouble reading.

“Is that true?” I asked my Spanish teacher, Oscar.

“Yes,” he said.

“Why doesn’t he learn?” I asked.

“Because he has power.”

“But precisely because he has power, he could get a good teacher and learn.”

“That’s why you think and what I think. But he doesn’t seem to care.”

“Isn’t it embarrassing?” I asked.

“Yes, especially when he represents our country overseas. It’s very shameful.”

He told me that in his opinion, Morales’ greatest weakest is the way he foments confrontation between the rich and the poor. “One can sense that he just hates rich people. And you know, a lot of people in Santa Cruz have money. So the people here feel like he just wants to take away what they have and give it to the poor. This gives more support to the idea of independence for Santa Cruz.”

Oscar believes that the greatest problem in Bolivia is the focus on keeping up with the Jones and the lack of thought, intellectual inquiry and new ideas. He seems quite troubled about this. He gave me an article to read that said all 36 universities in Bolivia are underdeveloped, lack research capabilities, and don’t get involved into social debate. He has set a goal for himself to study how Harvard and Oxford became world-class universities. “What do you need to do to get brilliant people to come out of there?” he asked.

Another local problem he told me about is the second hand clothing that comes from the U.S. I’m not sure how it is gathered or shipped on the US side, but tons of used clothing are shipped here every year. It’s sold cheaply on the local market, from one to two dollars per item, and is a good way for many families to get decent quality and low-cost clothing. But at the same time, because it’s so cheap, it prevents the Bolivian textile industry from developing. It can’t compete with the low prices.

So, according to Luis, President Evo Morales recently banned any more imports of used clothing. This caused the many families who earn their livings running used clothing shops to hit the streets in protest. And those who are linked to the local textile industry protested as well, in opposition.

There is always something to fight about.