Sunday, July 29, 2007

Four Wheelers and Smokers

Yesterday I was driving down the street in a taxi when I saw a girl cruise down the central street on a 4-wheeler. Amidst the loud roar from the bright green machine’s engine, I saw her white blouse flutter and her dark hair stream behind her. She wasn’t wearing a helmet.

I’ve seen four-wheelers around, especially in off-road areas and near the super-wealthy neighborhood of Ubari. But I’d never seen anyone using a four-wheeler as transport through the center of the city. I asked the driver whether it was legal.

“Here, whether or not something is legal doesn’t matter much,” he said, highlighting a significant difference between Santa Cruz and Quito.

He told me that it was dangerous to drive such a vehicle through town, given the risk of tipping over. And that not wearing a helmet was crazy. He said that four-wheeling is a popular pastime among the wealthy. Every year, a caravan travels over two weeks or so to a remote place like Beni or Trinidad, attracting about 500 people to the journey.

I have developed a canine-like sense of smell in the past few months. I can identify a scent from quite a distance and the scents affect me strongly – from the lemony scent of the bathroom cleaner used in Quito to the exhaust emitted by the micros, my cherry office freshener, dust buildup in a car, and of course, the ever-present problem of smoke. I’ve never liked breathing second-hand smoke. But I’ve never disliked it more than now when I notice it from all the way across a room.

In the office, it’s gotten better since the human resources department sent out a letter signed by the General Manager strongly recommending that smokers, in consideration for the health of their colleagues, not smoke in work areas during work hours. It still happens sometimes, but with the letter as a backing of institutional policy, it’s easier to ask people to stop and I notice a definite improvement in the air quality. This is not the case however in restaurants, cafes and other public places.

I think it’s unfortunate that the burden is on the non-smokers to have to ask to not have chemicals blown into their faces. I truly miss and appreciate the laws in the U.S. that guarantee everyone the right to breathe clean air (as well as pursue their personal habits in their personal spaces). That’s one aspect of working in the U.S. I’m really looking forward to.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Bingo and Babies

After a visit to the gym, I treated myself with a stop at the local spa. With only a month left in Bolivia, I wanted to take advantage of the luxury while in a country where I can afford it.

From there, I went downtown to the 24th of September Club, on the central square. There, a non-profit was holding a bingo event to raise money to help children with Down’s Syndrome. I went with three colleagues. A card valid for six games of bingo and a raffle cost $20. That’s quite a bit to some of my colleagues, so we each shared a card, contributing $10 each.

The event was organized well and attracted several hundred people. They sat on white plastic chairs at white plastic tables, amidst tall wooden columns and under a shimmering crystal chandelier. The prizes, donated by local merchants, were good – trips to Brazil and Buenos Aires, a bicycle, a stove, jewelry. No one at our table won anything though.

I soon became bored with the monotonous bingo process. I thought back to the bingo games I played as a child, at my grandmother’s country club. I remembered the excitement my brother and I felt, the way we’d hold our breath when we needed only one more number, the frustration when someone else called out bingo just before we had it. I remembered the joy of winning small prizes - $10, $20. And I remember when my brother won what seemed like the jackpot at the time - $70. Wow, he was lucky, and rich.

Bingo is a nice game in that anyone can play it – from the children, to the elderly – and one always has the hope that they hold out a chance of winning.

The people in attendance – mainly upper class families, some of whom had children with Down’s Syndrome – seemed excited by the event and participated with vigor. I was impressed with the quality of the organization and I think it was successful in raising a good amount of money for the organization.

My colleague Lorena told me that integration for people with Down’s Syndrome is difficult in Bolivia, that while they are capable of working, many employers aren’t willing to give them the opportunity. She told me some parents pay employers to give their children the opportunity to work, to contribute something meaningful.

From there we all went to a café in the popular Montsenor district. In the blocks heading away from the giant Christ statue, the streets are filled with one café after another, as well as a selection of great restaurants – Italian, Mexican, duck, frozen yogurt. About 20 colleagues got together to celebrate the baby showers of two women, both named Claudia, and due in August and September respectively.

I was really curious to see what a Bolivian shower is like. The fact that they refer to it as a “baby shower,” in English, made me think it was probably imported from the States. For much of the time, it wasn’t much different from any other gathering of friends at a café, except that two of the attendees were visibly pregnant. Both males and females came, they ordered coffee, tea and snacks, and chatted amongst themselves.

At one point they presented congratulatory cards to the two women, which everyone had signed. And they presented them each with an attractive green baby carrier, purchased through a collection. There wasn’t too much planned or personalized about it – no games, no stories, no pictures.

Toward the end, the Claudia who is due in September made the rounds around the tables with a gold chain. She swung it over the palm of both men and women to predict the number and sex of the children that person would have in the future. After raising and lowering the chain toward the palm three times, she let it move of its own accord. If the chain swung up and down, it would be a boy, if it swung in a circle, it would be a girl, if it didn’t move, there wouldn’t be any children.

My colleague Maria was upset, because when she’d had it done the previous day, it hadn’t moved at all over her right palm.

“I’m never going to be a mother!” the 29-year-old, currently without a boyfriend, lamented. “Try my left hand,” she insisted.

There, she received the answer that she’d have one girl. They explained that since Maria is left-handed, her energy came only from her left hand.

When they did it to me, they told me I’d have a boy, then a girl. The third time it didn’t move, which meant two biological children would be it. I told them I’d get back to them in several months to let them know how accurate their predictions were. But they seemed to believe pretty strongly.

Only my German colleague, Helen, refused to be tested – either not believing in the game passed down by Bolivian grandmothers, or not wanting her reproductive future to be made public knowledge.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Last Arrival in Santa Cruz

After the week-long seminar, I stopped in the U.S. for a few days. There, in another quiet, upper-class area, I saw Mexicans lined up along the street early in the morning, apparently looking for work. By 9:30, most of them were gone. In the time I previously lived in that area, I’d never seen that. It seems to be a sign of how out of control the immigration situation is becoming – that in towns across America, immigrants stand out in the open looking for work. Yet they are relegated to remain separate, apart from the population and the culture as long as they don’t pay taxes and can’t legally integrate. It’s an issue that definitely needs addressing.

It was nice to enjoy a couple days of summertime as well as unpack boxes into what will be our new home. It’s old and uneven and the basement is full of dust, spiderwebs and even live spiders. But I love it. It full of the soft light of wooden floors, I find the small rooms cozy, and I love being within walking distance of cafes, shops and a library.

So when I flew into Santa Cruz last night, into the chilly late evening, I realized it would be the last time I’d be arriving, at least this year. Mark and I are expecting a child. So I’ll be staying here through the end of August, then will work remotely from our home until after the birth. After more than three years of overseas living, I’ll be based in the U.S. for the first time. That in itself will be quite an adjustment.

After years of being an overseas resident, I’m afraid I may be one of the people Samuel Huntington referred to in a 2004 article,

“Coming back to America from a foreign strand, they are not likely to be overwhelmed with deep feelings of commitment to their “native land.” Their attitudes and behavior contrast with the overwhelming patriotism and nationalistic identification of the rest of the American public. A major gap is growing in America between the dead or dying souls among its elites and its “Thank God for America” public.”

I don’t think it’s so much a lack of feeling or commitment for my country. But it’s a deep questioning of the popular mentality that comes from learning to look at the broader picture, to consider other perspectives, to not accept what one is fed by a single nationalist media, and to not believe in my country’s superiority without comparative proof.

While I’m seeing more and more the underside of my nation, the areas in which services are desperately needed – from improving healthcare to addressing immigration, from building workplaces and life structures that support community and balance to providing safety and a quality education to poor youth, these problems can seem vast – difficult for an individual to impact. Whereas it’s easier to find individuals and issues in other areas where smaller efforts can make a meaningful difference.

Upon exiting the airport in Santa Cruz, I hopped into a taxi outside the airport, shivering in my t-shirt. The driver wore a jacket, fingerless black gloves, and pulled his collar up around his neck, covering half his face. Unlike the kind old man I had as a driver last time, this one was young, the vehicle ratty and the streets dark and bare. I felt nervous to be alone and didn’t enjoy the ride to my apartment much. But luckily, all went well.

I’m satisfied with my new home in Santa Cruz. While it’s still cold, the wind is light, just a whistle outside my window. I have my own bedroom, bath, and walk-in closet. So even though I share the apartment with up to four others at a time, and cockroaches crawl through the kitchen, my room feels almost like an apartment of its own. For the times when I do emerge from my room, I enjoy having some company I can speak Spanish with.

I returned to work today, and to the routine I have adjusted to here in Santa Cruz. I work for a few hours in the morning, get a workout and something to eat during the lunch break, return to work refreshed for the afternoon, then have some time alone to myself in the evening. Only the weekends vary much. On short notice, I was able to quickly fill up my Saturday, leaving Sunday for some quiet time.

I always knew I wouldn’t stay very long in Bolivia. In fact, I’ve been here longer than the initial two to three months planned. However, now that I have my departure ticket for late August, I feel myself a temporary inhabitant more than ever. And I look upon my experiences with an air of finality, knowing I have only so much time to see what there is to see of this area.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Orderly Quito

The taxis in Quito are new, professional and pleasant – as well as cheap. I was told there is virtually no such thing as a rouge taxi here. That as long as you flag down an official, yellow one, you don’t have to worry about being robbed, like in other Latin American countries. Yesterday I asked a taxi driver how the taxi system works.

He told me that in order to drive a taxi, one must be a member of a cooperative, that has rules for entry as well as standards that must be fulfilled (such as painting the car bright yellow). He said that membership must be purchased, but not anyone can buy it. Before being approved, a potential driver must submit a folder of personal documents in which factors such as the legality of the car, criminal history are checked. He can sell, or even give away his membership, he can’t sell or give it to anyone. Whoever takes over the membership has to submit his papers and be approved.

He said that most drivers tend to purchase newer model cars, and replace them every 3-4 years, because passengers won’t flag down taxis with old cars.

“If they see an old taxi, they’ll see a newer one coming just behind it, and wait for the better car,” he said. “They want to travel in comfort. So if a driver wants to get a lot of clients, he’ll make sure he has a nice car.”

“So one has to have some money to start as a taxi driver in Quito?” I asked.

“Yes,” he said. “It’s like any investment in a new business.”

He told me it is against the law to drive what are called “pirate taxis,” taxis that work outside the cooperative system. Most importantly, he said the police enforce the law. When they come across a pirate taxi, they take away the car and charge heavy fines. That enforcement seems to be the most important aspect in ensuring passenger safety.

I’m liking Quito better on this visit than my previous two. Perhaps it’s because I’m in a nice hotel, because I’m surrounded by interesting, professional people, because I took a really cool bike trip out into the nature and hot springs. Or maybe it’s because I have a regular view of thick groves of eucalyptus trees lining the mountain tops and the upper level view that allows me to look upon the orderly city as a toy town, in constant action.

Monday, July 16, 2007

A Colorful Capital

Today we started our seminar on the eleventh floor of a downtown building. Before beginning, we ascended one more story to the terrace, to enjoy the view. There are great views throughout the mountainous city and what I love most is looking out the window and seeing a different display of color each time. There are bright yellow taxis, sea green and bright blue buses, buildings in a variety of reds, pinks, greens, yellows, blues, whites, and modern glass – plus the greens of the forested hills and the city parks, the white mists and clouds, and the blue sky. The people seem insignificant, small pieces scattered across a majestic set.

I’m also surprised by the number of American chains – from McDonalds to KFC to Tony Romas to Baskin Robbins to Martinizing Dry Cleaners – that have set up shop here.

This evening we ate at a place called Pim’s, located on the edge of the city, near a giant angel statue. We looked out over a landscape of twinkling yellow lights and stone churches illuminated by a soft white or purplish glow. We’d endured a day of cheap, tasteless food, so it was a treat to have some quality cuisine over such a spectacular outlook.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

mountain biking and a hot thermal bath

I arrived in Quito on Saturday afternoon. For the first time I flew west to east across South America – from Santa Cruz to La Paz to Lima to Quito. I went on Taca, which was a surprisingly pleasant and comfortable airline. I actually had several inches between my knees and the next seat – much better than the U.S. air companies I’ve been flying lately.

The scenery was quite fascinating – great views of mountains, and what seemed to be vast territories of harsh, brown landscape. The snow had disappeared in La Paz and it was again the dull, brown city in a brown landscape. Between La Paz and Lima, we also flew over high brown Andean mountains, rising towards the clouds. Lima also presented itself as a dull, dry and drab city (at least from the air), albeit with a nice airport. Then we approach Quito. And suddenly there are green fields, trees, mountains – a verdant land under a blue sky.

Someone commented to me that Ecuador is the ideal destination country because of the variety it offers – the ocean, the mountains, the jungle and the culture. While I also rate Kyrgyzstan and Vietnam very highly, I think it’s true. Ecuador has so much to offer and I’m glad to be here once again.

I took an adventurous bicycle trip, that involving starting out on a snowy 4,000
meter mountain peak, and bike down the Andes into the jungle, all in the rain. We warmed up with a fantastic thermal bath at the Papallacta pools, then headed for another ride down the Andes, heading toward Quito this time. Quite an adventure!

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Five Days in Santa Cruz, then off to Ecuador

The earplugs worked well in helping me to sleep through the wind. And within the few days, the wind went down. By the time I left, the sun had finally returned and people seemed to greet the day with a lighter, happier face. According to news stories, the cold was especially hard on the poor, who don’t have the clothing or houses needed to keep warm. On the front page of the newspaper was the wife of a construction worker, the mother of 6. Her toddler walked barefoot on the freezing ground, her baby was hungry, and they burned wood inside their home to try to keep warm. I read quotes from other poor families speaking about the difficulty of sleeping with cold bones.

From my new 7th floor window, I look right out at a construction sight. Until 9 p.m., the top story of a new multi-level building is illuminated by lights, construction workers in hardhats continuing their labors.

“Were they paid so poorly that their children went without shoes and heat?” I asked a co-worker.

“Yes,” she said. “People used in construction are common laborers, and they are at the bottom of the pay scale. Architects are paid well, but the workers don’t make much at all.” She told me she has friends who work in construction in the States and that they were shocked when they saw how workers in Bolivia are treated.

“We do our best as an institution,” she said, “by making sure we don’t hire companies that mistreat their employees or use child labor.” Noticing children is easy enough, but how one verifies that a company isn’t mistreating its employees in Bolivia seems a bit more difficult.

In an effort to help the common worker, President Evo Morales recently passed a law requiring that all non-management staff receive a 5% increase in pay, effective as of May. The problem is that many employers only have a portion of their employees registered officially, and the law will only apply to them. And there are those who say that the effect will be laying off some people to make up for the additional costs.

We’ll see. But the inequality is often so high. When the owners are making profits of thousands of dollars a month and the workers are making a measly $50-200, a five percent raise doesn’t sound so outrageous to me.

That reminds me of something I saw last weekend in my short visit to the U.S. I was in Southampton, the tony area of Long Island, outside of New York City. Driving down a residential street, I saw lines of Latino men lining the road – probably the same guys who’d get paid a pittance to do construction in Bolivia. There were so many of them that one couldn’t fail to take note. It looked like the corner near my house in Osh, Kyrgyzstan, where unemployed men stood around, hoping for contract work.

It turns out this was the same situation. Construction companies, landscapers, and others firms catering to the rich could stop by and pick up workers. A local told me they pay $10-15 an hour, significantly above minimum wage. But since they aren’t paying taxes, it comes out to be much cheaper for the company. And of course, it’s a great wage for the workers.

On this same street, on the 4th of July weekend, stood a group of white people, holding flag and banners saying “Deport illegal aliens.” The Mexicans and the Caucasians were only feet away from each other, and it seemed a potentially explosive situation. A cop car sauntered past, watching.

The same local resident told me that the mayor had proposed a space in a park for the workers, so that they weren’t lining the road. But people got upset that a park could be used for such a purpose. So now the township is suing the village, or the other way around, and the conflict continues.

Of course, the country needs to come up with a solution to the immigration issue. But the fault lies in Washington for the lack of a policy, not with people who are working hard to try to make a living. I found it hard to believe that these people had nothing better to do on a Saturday than to stand out on the street corner of a wealthy neighborhood and try to send poor people back home.

This week I celebrated my birthday in Santa Cruz and was able to see from the celebrant’s perspective how the locals treat birthdays. First thing in the morning, a whole stream of people came into my office, some of whom I didn’t even know their names. They all kissed my cheeks, wished me a happy birthday, and told me they hoped I had a “beautiful day.”

At lunchtime, my team took me out to La Casona, a tasty German restaurant, where I had pumpkin soup and strawberries with fresh cream. In the late afternoon I returned to my desk and found a giant red-glazed cake there (Congratulations jj written in white icing). Birthday gatherings are not allowed in the office, so that those not invited won’t feel excluded. So again, visitors stopped by, singly or in pairs, to give me their birthday wishes and simultaneously enjoy a piece of cake.

The cake was from a shop my Spanish teacher Oscar had recommended to me, Karmelle. And it was the best cake I’ve had in Bolivia – chocolate, filled with layers of strawberries and chocolate pudding, topped by a delicious fresh cream, sliced strawberries, and strawberry glaze.

The celebration was neither elaborate nor expensive. But it was clear people thought about the occasion and made an effort to make the day special. They succeeded in making me happy on what might have otherwise been a lonely, foreign birthday.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Kept up by the Wind

Last night, before going to bed, my roommate Nora warned me I might be kept up by the wind. She lived for a period in this room and told me she had trouble sleeping.

“It took me three nights before I could sleep through the night,” she said.

“I like it,” I told her. “It’s somehow romantic, as though I’m out in nature, even though I’m in a condominium in an urban area.” It reminded me of my stay at the bird reserve in Buena Vista and how I felt united with the nature that lay just outside my window. Here I could feel the same.

Not long after falling asleep I woke up. The wind screamed and roared and shook my window. I repeatedly imagined it breaking. And should that happen, the glass would fly right into my face, as my bed is right across from it.

This kept me up for much of the night. At one point, I got my ipod, and tried to blast classical music into my ears to drown out the sound of the wind. It helped, and it was 28 songs before I turned it off, but I could still hear the harsh whistle behind the soft melodies.

The next morning, when my roommates asked me how I slept, they laughed when I told them I was up half the night.

“Yes, the windows shake,” Nora agreed as we rode to work in a taxi. “And it feels like they will break right into the room.”

“You should get used to it in three nights,” Renata said. “But there are some people who can’t get used to it at all.”

I didn’t look forward to three sleepless nights.

“How did the woman living here just before me adjust?” I asked.

“She got lucky. There weren’t any winds while she was here.”

But I moved in during the coldest week of the year. The temperatures ranged from 7 to 16 degrees Celsius today. People on the street dressed in winter coats and scarves. There was less traffic than usual, with those who had the option of staying home, avoiding unnecessary ventures outside. Right now in my bedroom it’s a mere 16 degrees.

I’m spending next week in Ecuador. Today I looked at the forecast and saw the exact prediction I received for Germany – cool, cloudy and rainy, every day that I’ll be there. I’m starting to wonder if it is me.

Monday, July 09, 2007

A Seventh Floor View Over Santa Cruz

From Germany, I had a short stopover in the U.S., where I enjoyed the fourth of July weekend celebrations. Last night I flew into Santa Cruz. The plane was supposed to fly from Miami to La Paz, then continue on to Santa Cruz.

“I have good news for some of you, and not such good news for others,” the pilot said as we approached La Paz, already two hours behind schedule. “Due to poor visibility and snow, we are unable to land in La Paz. Even if we could land, we then wouldn’t be able to take off again. So we are continuing on directly to Santa Cruz.”

I was happy to be in the group that received good news. Not only would I arrive on schedule, but I wouldn’t be stuck involuntarily in La Paz, at a dangerously high altitude of over 4,000 meters. The woman next to me, traveling with her son, was part of the unlucky group. She put her head in her hands.

“It never really snows in La Paz,” she said.

This morning on the TV I saw how it snowed. The entire city is covered in a layer of white, the airport is closed, and the roads are almost empty. Children, who rarely see snow, were out in hordes building snow sculptures. I suppose my fellow passengers are still stuck here in Santa Cruz. But they aren’t alone. Even the President, Evo Morales, is stuck, governing from Cochabamba.

Argentina is also under a snowfall and the cold air is blowing east to the plains as well. It’s chilly here (only 19 degrees Celsius in my bedroom right now), with a wicked wind blowing outside. The news said this was the coldest week of the year and Wednesday should be the coldest day of all.

So I appreciate the warm Saturday I spent on Long Island even more. That was one of the few days of summer I’ll experience this year. Germany, though green and flowering, was cool and rainy the entire time I was there. After a short dip into American summer, I return to the coldest week of the year in Bolivia. I haven’t put on sunscreen in months.

After a short rest and a morning at the office, I moved apartments. I loved my last home, but since I’ll be traveling quite a bit in the upcoming weeks, it was no longer worth the price. Now I’m in the apartment I originally rejected, which I share with four other people. However, this time I got the best of the three rooms. Not only do I have the room to myself, but I have my own bathroom. It was sharing a room that I had a problem with before. As long as I have a private space to myself, I don’t mind sharing an apartment.

So I’m on the seventh floor and this is a big change from my former first-floor dwelling. First, I have a great opportunity for exercise if I can continue to use the stairs instead of the elevator. In the daytime we have a nice view over the city. A large window, directly across from my bed, looks out onto the yellow lights of the city below, shining in the blackness. But most noticeable of all is the wind, which rips by my window like a razor through paper, whistling with a violent strength, making me wonder whether it has the power to blow my window in. It whistles so loudly, so persistently and with whips of violent strength, that goosebumps form on my arms and legs, as though my body was the direct recipient of its force.

In coming back to Bolivia, I simultaneously felt glad to be back in a developing country – as though these types of places are where I belong – and impassive about returning to Santa Cruz. This city has not grown on me. I didn’t miss it, nor did I feel any love for it upon my return. My taxi driver was a kind, older gentleman and I realized as I looked out at the passing building that it’s the people I like best about Santa Cruz.

I’m looking forward to the opportunity to travel to other parts of Bolivia, specifically Cochabamba next month, in order to gain another perspective on Bolivia. Santa Cruz is serving as my window onto Bolivian life and culture, even though I know it’s an anomaly, rather than a representative piece.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

A German respite

I’ve come to Germany for some meetings this week. Having a little time in Europe feels like a pleasant respite from life in Santa Cruz, despite the jet lag.

I’m staying in my usual place, Hotel Motel, a cheap (for Frankfurt) but comfortable and utilitarian place. I have a small room with a small bed and comforter (no sheet) and a window looking out onto a green, leafy park. Occasionally I find myself bumping into things in the room, but it’s quiet, clean and efficient. I also like the neighborhood, with plenty of shops, cafes and internet within walking distance.

Entering Germany was a breeze – even easier than entering my own country. Free luggage carts are provided to all passengers to ease their exit, the passport line went quickly, with the official not even asking me how long I planned to stay before stamping my passport, and I soared right through customs.

The taxi I took from the airport traveled down the freeway at a frightening 180 kilometers per hour, while the driver constantly removed one hand from the wheel to poke his GPS machine. I enjoyed the traditional German breakfast with a nice selection of teas, deli meats, cheeses, whole grain breads, jams, yogurts, pates, granolas, and sliced vegetables.

While I spent most of the day sleeping and overcoming jetlag, I did get out for a good walk. I like the small cars and the variety of houses and apartments (no gated communities or identically constructed complexes around here). I love the excellent walking and biking paths, the prevalence of bikers, and the courtesy shown by drivers to bikers and pedestrians. Now, in the summertime, I enjoyed the greenery and the beautiful flowers.

I stuck to park paths as much as possible and despite being in the middle of Frankfurt, was able to walk amidst greenery for much of the hour. I passed an adult male soccer game, where spectators relaxed around the field, or sat at tables just outside the fence enjoying grilled bratwurst, beer and gummi bears. Other than that, there was not much going on on Sunday, with almost all businesses closed.

Both in the morning and the evening, I heard the beautiful melody of church bells ringing, a surprise to me in a country so secular. I can also hear the regular roll of the tram.

The people are usually not too friendly or helpful to an English speaker here, though the Indian owners of an internet shop were nice to me today. But I don’t mind too much. It allows me an unusual and welcome period of silence, in which I speak only a few words during the day, and have a greater than usual opportunity to think and to drink in my surroundings.

I traveled here through the U.S., with a one day stopover. That also went better than usual. There aren’t too many fliers at Miami at 6 a.m., which helped the lines go quicker and the agents were more friendly. Everything – from the flights to the subway to the local trains, moved more or less on time and I was able to get where I wanted to go on schedule.

I was a little embarrassed for my country upon watching a couple from England enter the New York Jamaica subway station from the airport. The air was hot, stifling, and stinky. The station was dark and dank. And the train, metallic gray, is ugly. I knew they had images in their mind of the London Tube and the other European subway stations, which are brighter, cleaner, faster and more pleasant. Definitely not up to European standards, but at least it is relatively safe.

I was listening to A Tipping Point on audio book today. The author spoke about the small steps that were so critical in reducing crime on the New York subway in the 1980s – stopping fare beating and graffiti. The ugly metallic cars are used so that as soon as someone vandalizes it, they can use solvent to remove the graffiti. And making such small crimes unacceptable prevents the jump into larger disorder and criminality in the subway system.

Yesterday I walked with my husband to a local bagel shop where they also served a selection of pancakes. I ordered cranberry walnut pancakes and we sat at the simple tables enjoying the paper over our breakfast. The small, independently-owned business was full of couples, families and individuals. It was the closest thing I’d seen to a community hang-out in a town I generally consider an isolated suburbia, lacking a center or culture of its own. As we walked home, we passed a group of adults in the park practicing Tai-Chi. Most were Asian immigrants, but a few African-Americans joined them. I found it beautiful to watch them lifting their arms and legs in slow motion in the neighborhood park under the morning sun. I loved seeing people join together outside, bringing an aspect of Chinese culture I like so much to the U.S.

On the way to the Newark airport, a large billboard, Divorce Made Easy (through Mediation) caught my attention. It seemed to be directed at commuters. Frustrated with their drive to New York, upset by the fight they had that morning, they see the giant billboard and realize they can get a divorce and escape from all their problems. It’s made easy.

I was surprised by the emphasis on the 4th of July celebrations in the U.S. This year it falls on a Wednesday, which is inconvenient for those without much vacation. But it’s leading others to either take a five-day weekend or an entire week off. Radio shows were full of talk about barbeques as people prepared for the largest outdoor picnic day of the year.

The fourth of July is a holiday I can do without. I don’t miss it while in another country. But since I happen to be traveling back to Bolivia next weekend, I’ll be celebrating it with family next Saturday. It’s always nice to have a reason to bring people together and to enjoy a barbeque.