Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Sonidos de la Mañana (Morning Sounds)

Clip-clop, clip-clop…. it’s what I hear in the mornings in Córdoba.  And without opening my eyes I see the horse-drawn cart skillfully moving with the cars and taxis down my neighborhood street in Córdoba.  The carts pick up recycling in the neighborhood and even downtown.  Lying in bed, it is the morning sounds that remind me that I’m someplace new, someplace different.  I’ve never been a morning person; a person who immediately upon gaining consciousness hops out of bed to shower, make coffee, or do whatever it is that needs to be done.  I’m more deliberate in the morning.  I enjoy drifting between consciousness and not.  I enjoy the sensual realization of soft fluffy flannel sheets against my skin; guessing the time of day through my still-shut eyelids; and listening for the familiar in the morning sounds I hear. 

In my neighborhood in Portland, there were likely sounds of horses trotting through the streets delivering milk and other essentials when my home was first built in 1925.  But now I awake, depending on the day of the week and the time of the year to birds chirping mixed with my neighbor’s early carpool pick up and the growing hum of traffic.  This during the workweek and on the weekends I am always delighted to hear the bell chimes of a nearby church.  I try to count the number of bell strikes on the hour to see if I’m awake enough to make it all the way through to 7, 8 or 9 rings.  Opps, or did I fall asleep?

During the rush of the workweek I don’t give the morning concert much thought, but on the weekends when I allow myself the pleasure to drift in and out of consciousness I am contented with what the new day’s symphony foretells.  Living in the city, there are always sounds of traffic, yet it seems nature still finds a way to make itself heard.  Thus, feeling connected to the outside world, and having confirmed through the morning song that things are as they should be, I gleefully snuggle deeper under the covers.  (If you were expecting that I would hop out of bed to face the day, you might consider the vast gap between those of us who are in fact morning people and thus of us who are not.  In my experience many morning people are in denial about their status, but that’s a topic for another day.)

When traveling, I awake to sounds that remind me I’m “not in Kansas (or Portland) anymore”. There is the possibility of the oncoming day being filled with different sights, sounds, smells and ideas.  These distinctions start, even before I open my eyes. In Cochabamba, Bolivia it was the screeching parrot of a neighbor, not quite the same as a rooster’s call, but with a similar sense of irritation.  Then there was the clanging of the propane vendor truck driving through on Tuesdays and the daily mumbled calling of the fruit cart vendor, “mandarina, banana, papaya, piña”.  The refrain, would be repeated through an electrified megaphone and was actually much more indistinguishable “man-darina, anana, ayaya, iña”.  His call would recede and advance like waves in my semi-consciousness as he walked up and down the streets.  Now in Córdoba, Argentina it is the staccato clip-clop of the horse’s hoofs over the underlying rhythm of the cars driving by. 

Soon I move to downtown Buenos Aires.  And I wonder, will it only be the growing din of traffic noises in the morning?  Or will nature and humanity once again sing loud enough to be heard?  Will I connect to a new morning sound in my new home?


Thursday, October 7, 2010

How to sum up Bolivia?

I was trying to figure out a good way to sum up Bolivia and it was too difficult in words.  Instead of words, I have grouped pictures by the themes of air (sky), earth and people.  I hope you enjoy it.  

Sky (Air) in Bolivia

People of Bolivia

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Lecciones Aprendidas (Lessons Learned)

I remember when learning Spanish, one of the first things taught was how to say the Spanish alphabet.  Isn’t the Spanish alphabet the same as English, I thought, this is not Russian.  Totally disregarding the lecture, my ears perked up when the instructor gave the example of having to spell your name.  All my life I’ve had to spell my name, first and last.  You would think with a simple name like Kathy this would not be a problem but then, the K can be a C and the Y an I or IE and thus I’m usually left spelling my name.

So I listened to the lesson a little more intently:

K is “ka”

A is “ah”

T is “te”

H is… ha… no… is “hache”

Y is…. Say again… “e griega”

Over the years I’ve gotten the hang of this, although I still struggle to remember the H and Y.  But mostly I had forgotten the whole alphabet thing figuring, I could always write out my name.  This was until my most recent adventure of getting replacement prescription sunglasses here in Cochabamba.

Cochabamba at roughly 8000 feet has a brighter sun and amazing weather.  After having been here for two months and having experienced only a single day of rain, and few clouds, my super-glue repair job on my old sunglasses was looking a little weak.

And thus one night, always have my strokes of brilliance in the middle of the night; I thought, well if a taxi ride is only $1 and a complete lunch, soup and desert included, only $2.20 it stands to reason that prescription sunglasses should be cheap as well.  This was a theory, which at a minimum, needed to be tested.  With “insurance” I pay $400 or more for my sunglasses in the US, I couldn’t lose by trying.  And so the next morning at breakfast I approached my Bolivian “house mom” Julie about the idea of getting sunglasses.  No problem she said.  She was busy that evening, but the next night we could go out and see what we could find.  

An odd phenomena for us from the US, but as many of you may have experienced overseas, all the vendors of a particular item will be grouped along a single block or couple of blocks; all the furniture stores in one area, all the office supply in another, and kitchen supply in yet another.  It can make simply buying a frying pan a nightmare if you don’t know what part of town to look in.

I’ve never understood this grouping idea.  How am I supposed to pick one store over the other?  Julie showed me how.  It’s called dogged persistence.  We started at one end of the block and went into every store.  I tried on frame after frame (which was another story in that I learned I do not have a Bolivian face – I had a difficult time finding a single frame in a store, where nearly every frame looked great on Julie).

And so there we were, up one street and down the next.  Frame after frame; store after store.  How much is this frame? How much is that one? Does it include the eye exam? Does it include the lenses? Oh too expensive! I was exhausted.  I think Julie was energized.

And thinking we had visited every store in the area, the next morning on Saturday, there were still more.  Finally as it would happen, we ended up in almost the first store we had started with.  They were “muy caro” and Julie explained that having visited every optical store in Cochabamba that the price had to come down, and it had to include the eye exam and the lenses or we were ready to move on.  I was ready to pay.

After many ohs and ahs, and retreats to the back room to discuss what could and couldn’t be done (I felt like I was buying a car) Julie and the sales lady struck a deal.  I had hardly understood a thing, other than the fact that Julie would shoot me stern looks indicating that I was not to say a word and play total ignorance.  I played my part well.

And that’s when it was time to go see the optometrist.  Julie entered the dimmed optometrist’s room with me, just in case I didn’t understand a question.  The doctor took my current glasses and measured them to get an idea of my prescription.  After she handed them back to me, it was only then that I saw the eye chart across the room.  But, it still hadn’t quite hit me that I was about to be asked to read the chart… in Spanish.

The doctor was fiddling with the little round lenses and putting them into an old-fashioned holder so it was like having large spectacles on my nose.  There was no fancy machine with a giant arm swinging around having all the lenses magically inside.  Balancing the spectacles on my nose, the doctor blocked my left eye, and asked “Please read the chart starting wherever you want.”

And that’s when it hit me; this was more than an eye exam.  This was payback for not paying attention in 1st year, actually 1st week Spanish.  Taking a deep breath, I thought, I can do this.  But then the first letter was a G.  G? G is not pronounced in Spanish.  Why would the Spanish eye chart start with a letter no one pronounces?  All I could think of was “jota” which strangely I knew was J, but not G. 

Breaking the ice, I said “En español o inglés?”  I was thinking perhaps I can say the letters in English Julie can translate them for me.  Ugh.  They both laugh and the doctor says “Lo que quieres” - whatever you want.  I say G in English.  Then I’m back to Spanish, after all I’m not going to be beaten by an eye chart.  I struggle through the I’s that in Spanish are E’s and E’s that in Spanish are A’s only to be hit again with an used letter, X.  There are only two or three words in the whole language that have X’s in them.  I had no idea what X was in Spanish.  Beaten, I reverted back to English.

This is a story for my friends who are Spanish teachers out there and need some extra justification when they see their students sleeping through the alphabet lesson.  Yes, it could happen to you!

For those who are curious, it turns out G is simply “hey” and x is “equis”.  Which I would have known if in times past, I had paid more attention and drunk a few more “dos equis” beers.  And the sunglasses, without insurance, but including the eye exam, lenses, and Bolivian negotiation services, cost $125.  My hypothesis substantiated.

Me sporting my new sunglasses at Tiwanaku outside of La Paz.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Walking around Cochabamba.

Walking to Work

It just takes a second.  A slight hesitation, a flash of recognition.  But recognition of what?  A twinkle in his eye.  A prolonged look.  I returned with a crooked, unsure smile.

He was an older man. I passed him going the opposite way on my way to work.  I get so many stares being a fair-skinned gringa in a land with so many shades of brown.  Most of the time, when I stare back, the eyes go down and we both continue in our anonymity.  Sometimes I get tired of the stares.  Typically they’re not friendly, but rather cool and blank like they’re unsure of what they’ve just seen.

He, he had recognition in his eyes.  Clearly we had never met.  Him being 20 or 30 years my senior with silver grey hair and a face deep with folds of character, rugged from the Bolivian sun.  And yet still I can feel that hold on me, that sparkle in his eyes, and again it brings a smile to my face, a pause in my step.  And just at the end, at the end of the hesitation, there was a tinge of sadness in those eyes.  Was it recognition of a life gone by, of a love lost, of a time no longer? 

As we passed, walking our opposite ways, I could only feel sadness.  Sadness at the unknown story I had just let walk by.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Trip to Toro Toro National Park

La Via Lactea (The Milky Way)

I visited Toro Toro this past weekend.  Land of the dinosaur.  And on the second night after a full day, we were getting into the truck a bit later, when I looked up into the darkening sky and I saw stars popping all over.  They were close enough that I had the instinct to duck.  And then I saw it, not a thin cloud layer but the vía láctea, the milky way.  It was the first time in years I had seen it so brilliantly without air or light pollution.  It was like beautiful jewels, awe provoking creating both a sense of immortality and yet a sense of impermanence.  And as much as I wanted to just stand there for a moment to absorb it, I unfortunately had a car full of hungry men waiting to get back to the hostel for dinner after a long day of hiking and spelunking.

Four of us had ventured from Cochabamba to tour Toro Toro known for its dinosaur footprints.  They were there, and both in size and in number, they were impressive.  There were prints from a very slow moving dinosaur that basically squished its way along tortoise-like, leaving large round prints in a regular row.  As well there was a 3-splayed print from a fast moving carnivore which brought to mind frightful scenes from Jurassic Park.  And just to complete the dinosaur ambiance there was a huge dinosaur standing fiercely in the stead of the local historical figure in the main plaza.

We saw most of the dinosaur prints on the last day of our visit, previously we had donned cascos (helmets) with lights to head into a cave, hiking in for about 1/2 mile round trip.  We of course saw appropriately named stalactites and stalagmites such as champagne glass, sombrero and Christmas tree.  I’ve been in caves before, some much more impressive such as the extensive Carlsbad Cavern’s in New Mexico.  But of course due to the thousands of visitors it gets, it is a highly regulated cave out of need to protect the living environment.  The portion of the Toro Toro cave we visited is no longer living, that is to say it has very few growing formations.  It is dry and in fact the National Park personnel have cut off the points of the stalactites and stalagmites.  But still impressive, the cave is a fun treat because instead of walking down marked, brightly lit pathways, you get to crawl up, down, in and around the rocks, thankful for the hardhat thoughtfully provided.  

But even before the dinosaur prints and the spelunking, simply the drive from Cochabamba to Toro Toro is enough to make the trip worthwhile.  At only 80 miles the drive takes 4 1/2 to 5 hours due to the mix of cobblestone and windy, dirt roads.  This provides plenty of time to contemplate the uplifted vertically driven layers of rock formations with colors of greens and reds unlike anything I’ve seen, provoking a nervous tick in my camera trigger finger.  This is an ancient land little changed from, obviously the day of the dinosaur.  It is both cursed and blessed with a lack of rain, wind, and freezing temperatures all of which are required for erosion.  There has been erosion.  Much of the soil is volcanic sand (don’t know the technical term for this - sandstone?).  But there is evidence of erosion with great tall cathedrals inside rocks forming smooth walls and high arches much like seen in Utah’s Zion and Arches National Parks.  Yet, this is a land which is still much like it was millions of years ago geologically and is still lived in by mankind much like it was two thousands years ago.  The Bolivians of today who live on the road between Cochabamba and Toro Toro, may live in two different departments, Cochabamba or Potosí, a present day construct, but they live with one or more feet in the past herding goats, sheep and cattle.

We hiked in what is now the protected areas of Parque Nacional Toro Toro where the original people used the eroded rock formations as cattle corrals, where they continue to plant and harvest potatoes in a harsh sandy soil, and where close to Toro Toro they are lucky to find clean water springs coming from the volcanic earth.  This is a beautiful part of Bolivia in both the hard and soft shapes found in the rocks and in the stark reality of the dryness and the remoteness even close into Toro Toro.  That evening after hopping into the truck, our driver asked if we could give a ride to two young girls who were walking two hours into town Sunday night so they could attend school the next morning.  This is not an easy life.  These people have stared at the stars for the centuries working diligently in their glow, favored by their beauty, cold in their indifference.