Sunday, November 14, 2010

Class of 2010

December 9-12 2010

My recent trip to the campo occurred during high school graduation. I never plan it, but I always seem to show up during some sort of festival. This is not a reflection of my good luck, but a reflection on how many celebrations are on their calendar.

It was also well into summer now and the mid-day temperatures were not as pleasant as I had experienced on previous trips. Everyday from about 11-3:00 was spent in-doors reading or sleeping, but Saturday’s graduation would all-day event. Make that an all-weekend event.

Ten boys and two girls stood atop a make shift stage in the basketball/soccer court under the 100 degree mid-day sun. The boys’ wore new grey suits, and the girls a grey skirt jacket combo. The sun was relentless and the boys’ jackets soon became heat shields during continuous speeches. Outside the school gates were tables of cheap plastic flowers and other worthless Chinese made trinkets that are traditional gifts for the grads – stuff that that nobody should ever want or have.

Later, under the cool cover of darkness, I returned to the basketball court. The festivities had continued through my naptime and into the late afternoon. Now, most of the town folk were sitting around tables with a bucket of chicha acting as a centerpiece. (Chicha is the two-week old fermented corn beer that is popular in the campo.) A band was playing (“more drum machine please”) and there was some line dancing by the new grads and some adults. I got an eye full and left, but the party was full-tilt until 2:00am.

The next morning, during my coffee and bread, Damian approach and said that we had some work to do. I pointed to the cornfields where I had done some work with a hoe the day before, and he said no, and pointed in the opposite direction. Santusa came along and we all walked down the street to a neighbor’s house. Today was to be a party and feast in celebration of graduation. I wasn’t clear on the details but it sounded like we were going to prepare a special meal where the graduates would all stop by and partake.

Damian took me out to the woodpile and asked if I could chop wood. It was 8:00 in the morning and this was the last thing I wanted to do. My experience with their dense wood and dull axes was not my idea early morning fun. Also, wearing flip-flops, I didn’t want to have to travel two hours to the nearest hospital with a chief complaint of only having eight toes. I took a couple of half-hearted swings, and that was enough for Damian - I had failed my audition. He abruptly took me back inside the mud-brick courtyard and into one of the small dwellings. There I crouched onto a small wooden “pedestal” and began peeling potatoes with the old ladies. This was more my speed.

I soon poked my head into the adjacent room where Santusa and some of the other women were working. My stomach did a quarter turn when I saw an entire cow dismantled on the concrete floor atop a blue tarp. For a split second, in my brain’s eye, it appeared as though they had spread out of the parts and were trying to reassemble the cow, like you would a car engine or other complex mechanism. Of course the cow was not to be so lucky and within three hours the group had carved up all the “parts” until there wasn’t much left, but a head and a fetus (never figured out this part).

Soon the party moved outside, slicing and dicing onions, greens, tomatoes, and more potatoes – always more potatoes. Huge pots of soup were bubbling and plastic tubs filled with salad. There was no shortage of toothless grins or laughter, both were in abundance. I wish I could say that I saw someone wash their hands sometime during the day, but I cannot. "What doesn't kill you makes you stronger", right? Later, I ventured next door where men from another party house were roasting an entire pig in one of the “pizza ovens”. They were standing around the grill shooting the shit drinking corn beer, while the women were inside doing everything else – hmm, just like any BBQ back home.

Eventually the meal was prepared and the receiving room was decorated. The family’s proud graduate appeared in her finest blouse and pleated skirt and it was finally “go time”. I had gotten it all wrong; the graduates did not visit the different houses, the party house hosted a single graduate, usually a family member. The people of the village traveled to each house congratulating the person of honor by pinning money on a “money scarf” hanging around the graduate’s neck. Once the money has been given, you are energetically thanked and presented with a dentist cup of warm herb infused alcohol, some chicha, and a complete meal - whatever they had been preparing during the day.

I was a bit intimidated when I entered the crowded room, not knowing the exact protocol. People lined the walls drinking with music blaring and everyone having a good time. (Sometimes, being the only outsider, I often think that I should leave them alone to their rituals and celebrations, but I am almost always proven wrong and welcomed wholeheartedly.) I approached the table where the person of honor stood. On the wall behind her was a makeshift alter of plastic flowers mounted on a hanging blanket, and her new diploma authenticated by all its various rubber stamps. Streamers of toilet paper hanging from the ceiling completed the shrine. She stood covered in white confetti waiting for me.

Once face to face with her, I suddenly felt like I was at prom, not knowing where or how to pin the money, so I just handed her the 20 Boliviano note ($2.85) and shrugged my shoulders. She motioned for me to come forward and remove my hat, and she “blessed me” with a handful of white confetti over on my head. Her father patted me on the back and thrust a cup of chicha in my hand, as a woman put a plate of food in the other. I found a place along the wall to crouch and soaked it all in. “How cool is this?”, I thought and soon found three more house where my technique improved, but I got to the point of not being able to eat anymore food as good as it all was.

Thanksgiving 2010

Thanksgiving this year was spent in the jungle. Silvia and I had taken a flight to Cochabamba in order to catch a bus for a three-hour trek over the mountains to Chapare. A long way to go just to sit by a pool, but what the hell it was a holiday.

Cochabamba, Bolivia’s third largest city was hot and humid, and noticeably more green than Sucre’s dry landscape. The presence flowers and lush gardens was a welcome change, but nothing else about the city impressed me. It was dirty and industrial. The next day we arrange for three seats in a Toyota minivan. The third seat was my idea of upgrading ourselves to first class. At $3 a seat for the three-hour journey, $9 secured the whole row for us.

The van did not have air conditioning, and the air coming in from the windows was thick and sticky. In the row of seats in front of us were a young mother and her two kids, and a young girl of about 12-years old traveling by herself. Her mother had sent her off with a couple of bags of flowers that were stowed in the back, and she sat with a floral table setting in a plastic bag in her lap. I suspected that someone was getting married.

Thirty minutes out of town we started to climb. The higher altitude meant cooler temperatures, and once in the clouds, we were closing all the windows due to the chill. I thought of the movie Scarface, because these were the mountains where Tony’s Bolivian connection lived. I caught myself looking out the window for the mansion compound in the dense mountainside, but reminded myself that the drug lord was a fictional character, besides, “the house would not have been visible from the road you dummy”.

The road was terrible, and it was impossible to relax or sleep. The constant switchbacks, road construction and our driver’s obsession of passing trucks on blind corners were anything but relaxing. Our driver did redeem himself when he handed a lone construction flagman his bag of coca leaves, which was a very nice gesture. He then opened his glove box and pulled out one of two other plastic bags of the leaves.

I offered to place the young girls flower on our floor space to get it off her lap, and let her read Curious George (in Spanish) on my Kindle. You could tell that she was not used to traveling alone, but I think the extra attention helped.

What goes up must come down, and what I thought was hot weather before in Cochabamba now seemed like sweater weather. We had dropped down into a completely different ecosystem and it was now 100-degrees with equal humidity. Palm trees, giant ferns, banana and papaya trees, everything tropical and dense. This was also one of the main coca growing areas of Bolivia, or at least the beginning of it. The area is known for its cocaine production, but also as the childhood home of the country’s current president, Evo Morales. He made news about five years ago when he became the first indigenous president of Bolivia. Before his political career began, he was a coca farmer in Chapare.

Part of our two-day stay included a two-hour jungle hike, which took me away from the pool and I could have done without, but what I did find interesting were all the homes that we passed along the way that had coca leaves drying out in front of the house. We also passed many coca plants alongside the road, which were pointed out by the taxi driver, and then came across many small coca fields during our hike in the national park. All of which was on the up-and-up because it was for personal use.

Coca is completely and totally ubiquitous outside the cities in Bolivia, and commonplace enough within the cities. It is used on a daily basis by many people. It is used in almost every religious ceremony, both by chewing it and by using it as an offering. It is used as a medicinal remedy, and to alleviate fatigue and the effects of high altitude. Historically, the Incan elite chewed it, and to chew was to be Incan. It many ways, it was, and still is, the cornerstone of their cultural identity. Recently, a team of international researchers discovered that coca leaves have been chewed by inhabitants of Peru and Bolivia for over 8,000-years!

I have chewed coca leaves many times, and always have some coca tea on the shelf in my apartment. I like it. The stimulating effect is very mild without the jitters you get with caffeine, and I do think it has helped me at altitude. The only noticeable side effect is that your cheek can go slightly numb after awhile. Many people include a pinch off a calcium rich stone that helps release more of the leaves active chemicals. The leaves contain several alkaloids, but only one is extracted to make cocaine, and that is a very complex and difficult process to complete. The everyday indigenous person has zero interest in cocaine.

The point is that the leaves represent so much more here than just the production of cocaine. It is a major part of people’s daily existence, so when a UN agency on drugs reports that Peru and Bolivia should “abolish or prohibit activities … such as coca leaf chewing and the manufacture of coca tea”, it is absolutely and utterly impractical. The UN list coca leaves as a dangerous controlled substance, along with cocaine and opium. That is like putting poppy seeds on that same list.

Now I don’t like the current president here. He is a “Chavez high-fiving, want-to-be dictator”, but he has been able to stand up the US and DEA regarding the eradication of coca leaves. Bolivia refused to follow the US’s demand of spraying herbicide over coca fields. The US cut off funding, and subsequently the DEA and US ambassador were kicked out of the country (there was other finger pointing going on as well).

When I was in Colombia, a country that does spray herbicide from low flying planes, I read in the newspaper several times about indigenous people coming out of the jungles with untreatable skin lesions and dying of respiratory disorders. People in loin clothes with sticks through their noses who have been living peacefully on their own for who knows how long, but now are getting dump on with toxic herbicides, not to mention the animals and everything else that lives in the jungle.

Of course this is an incredibly complex issue, and there are a lot of problems here associated with the drug trade, and wherever the drugs end up, but you cannot eradicate an entire culture and way of life during your quest for a remedy. There is nothing in the American culture that you can compare it to. We have plenty of vices that would be hard to give up, but nothing that connects us to who we are and where we came from like coca does here.

(more coca news)

Stay in the Campo: Follow-up

Since my initial visit to Santusa’s, we have kept in close contact. I have made many drop-in visits on the bike, even taking friends on occasion, and stayed again for a multi-day visit. When they are in town visiting their son, they stop by to say “Hi”. They are open and honest good people that show empathy towards others, and through them, I have experienced everything that is good here, but also what keeps this country down – prejudice and an archaic class system. Santusa and Damian treat me as an equal, and I them. I would do anything for them, as they would for me. Whenever doubts creep into my head about what I am doing, or if I simply get into a funk, just being around Santusa makes it all better. There is such a positive energy about her, always giggling or laughing, in spite of a difficult life. So, during my last visit when they asked me to be Padrino, or Godfather, to their youngest son I was incredibly touched. In their culture, a Godfather is someone to stands up for a child during the major events in their lives, i.e., graduations or weddings. It is a position of great honor just to be asked, and once you accept, you become part of the family. So, I am now considered their brother, and they are my brother and sister. If I am here next December I will stand up with Carlos during his high school graduation. They know that I may not be here, but with the relationships that I have made since "pausing" the trip, it will be incredibly hard to leave.

Follow-up to the follow-up:

  • · The pottery pieces were dated from between 1200-1800, which could pre-date Incan times, or not.
  • · Yale has not returned any of my calls.
  • · When I went back to the States in October for a visit I was able to sell a lot of Santusa’s textiles at Write Around the World’s fundraising auction (and I brought her back some decent sewing scissors). Now, some of my most favorite people back home also have a piece of Santusa.
  • · Damian has become accustomed to riding on the back of the bike, and I think sits a little taller now when we enter the town’s center square.
  • · The black poncho that Santusa made Damian when their oldest son was only two is now one of my most cherished possessions, and keeps me warm on many a chilled mornings while drinking my coffee and answering emails.
  • · That feeling of contentment is still with me.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Stay in the Campo: Part 2

Part II

Day 2 continued

Sunsets are beautiful here, but where are they not? Here, there is burst of activity as all the animals are brought back from pasture. It is the closest thing there is to a rush hour. Besides the playground noise coming from the nearby school, the days are pretty quiet. But twilight is a convivial time of socializing before dinner. However, I noticed that Damian had socialized too much and had apparently continued the San Juan festivities throughout the day and was now red-eyed and staggering. Santusa was annoyed but mostly embarrassed. She has plenty of work to do, but now has to also had to take care of an inebriated husband.

As much fun as I was having on my own, the stay was not turning what I had hope for, and I thought about leaving a day early, on Saturday. I knew that they had to be at the Sunday market early to sell their textiles, so I would skip out the day prior and reduce Santusa’s workload by one less male dependent.

When I later mentioned this idea to Santusa, she immediately jumped on it and insisted that I stay, and told me how she wanted me to give Damian a ride to the market Sunday on the motorcycle, on my way home. He was really looking forward to it. I could tell then how much she really loved him. Not because of a ride on a motorcycle but the sincerity in her voice. I will stay I said.

My original intention with the trip was to help out more and be part of things, but in reality it just wasn’t practical. I had tried helping the nephew chop wood, but with the dull axe and cracked handle, I ended up with a bloody splinter in my hand, which Santusa freaked about and wanted to care for. “What a pansy-ass thin-skinned weenie of a gringo”, I thought. I went back to my room to lick my wounds – after I broke the handle of their only axe, ARGH!

Around 8:00pm Santusa came into my room with a bowl of hot soup, chicken based, with root vegetables and pastas. This whole time she would enter my room unannounced and just sit and chat. As a second language, her Spanish is slow and clear and I understand her better than most. She is patient with me – a nurturing mother to her core. I have taken to leaving my door open all the time, for the fresh air and view of the mountains, but also with the hope of initiating more of her visits. On this visit, while I ate my soup, she told me more about her life. How her father left them when she was an infant and how her mother raised three girls in extreme poverty. She managed to only get through the third grade, but continued to study Spanish on her own (her mother only speaks native Quechua). She started weaving at eight years old, but had been spinning wool before that. She is my age of 46, and Damian (one year older) is her first and only love. Moving up to present day, she told me about how her eldest son, of 26 years, will soon finish the medical program in Cuba and will return as a doctor, how her middle son is now in University in Sucre studying music, and her high school senior will be going to University next year to study English. I tried to express what a fine job her mother did and how she in turn has also done a great job with her children. I tried to explain how it is every parent’s ambition to give their children a better life than what they had, no matter where they are from. She asked about my life and my family with genuine concern and interest. Tears welled up in her eyes as she told me how difficult it was for women in her culture living in the countryside. She spoke of the prejudice among her own people, and how poorly she is treated when she attempts to go to a restaurant in Sucre, because of her indigenous dress and darker skin. I thought to myself, "here is a woman putting three boys through college, who runs her own successful business, creates amazing art, and lives a decent and honest life". Others here should be so lucky to live up to her standards.

Day 3 - Friday

Still in bed, Santusa entered my room with a bowl of fresh scrambled eggs and bread, and said that she needed my help downstairs when I was finished. The eggs were damn tasty, as I threw them down as fast as I could.

When I got down stairs into the salon, she and her mother were setting up a new loom. She was going to start a shawl and I was going to be able to see the process from the very beginning. What a great opportunity. This video explains it best.

Later that night Damian and Santusa came in with bowls of sopa de mani, or peanut soup. It doesn’t taste anything like peanuts but is a rich thick soup with a peanut stock and various vegetables, sometimes with chicken. Earlier, I had noticed Grandma crushing peanuts on the grinding stone, but hadn’t thought much of it. I had had this soup before in Sucre, and know that is reserved for special occasions and events, so it was special that they were serving it to me now. The soup was far better than anything I had tasted in the city, everything being fresh and made from scratch it was not surprise. We sat our empty bowls down and laughed over the video footage that I shot earlier that day. Apparently weaving is women’s work and seeing a grown man “flub it up”, was quite comical. We said good night, after Damian agreed to take me on a hike in the morning to look for proper fossils and some Incan ruins. The visit seemed to be turning around into what I had hoped for.

Day 4 - Saturday

We set out after breakfast. Damian carried a small pickaxe and had strips of rawhide wrap around his corduroy blazer. I felt underdressed. We followed the dry riverbed as he pointed out plants and salts clinging to rocks that were used in the production of dyes for the wool. I don’t understand him as well as Santusa, but we get by. Later, we come across an ancient stone bridge, and then remnants of a stone silo used for grain storage, next an aqua duct system originating from the river, all dating back from the Inca times in the 1400’s.

This area was the southeastern corner of the Incan empire back in the day, and the rulers placed some the empires best warriors along this border. They were fierce and fought off many invasions from other tribal people. Today’s Tarabuquenos are direct decedents of these people and they are very proud of their history. In many respects, not much has changed. Seeing these ruins was amazing, even more so knowing that not many other people have had the opportunity to see them.

The sun was intense. I opened up all the vents on my ExOfficio safari shirt, rolled up my sleeves, and put on my floppy sun hat. Damian forged ahead still wearing his wool cap and blazer, and only drinking water after practically forced him to. Before we turned around to start heading back, we stopped to collect firewood. The straps he had been carrying were to bundle dead branches and to haul back over his shoulders. As he ingeniously secured the near 50-pound bundle to his back, with nothing more than a leather strap, I thought how the engineers at REI would capitalize on this and create a specialized wood carrying apparatus available online for $99.

As we walked back, I was started feeling it. The relentless sun and climbing, had taken its toll. I offered several times to carry the wood, but I think he knew, as I did, that doing so would have about killed me. We never found any fossils, and never really looked, but had a good time, and I had finally had a chance at some alone time with Damian.

Closer to home, I was trailing behind Damian and his burden by about 40-feet carrying only my Chapstick and empty water bottle. We were walking through some plowed fields, me with my head was down focusing on my dragging feet, when I noticed some chards of terracotta. I began filling my pockets.

Over a lunch of chicken and rice with a fresh green chile sauce, I proudly and excitedly pulled out some of the pottery pieces and laid them out on the table. I had collected only those pieces that had paint showing on them. Naturally, I was planning on calling the anthropology department at Yale to notify them of my monumental discovery once back in Sucre, until Damian and Santusa shrugged their shoulders and gave me a, “oh, those things”, kind of look. They told me that they are common after the fields have been plowed up. I didn’t care, this was the coolest thing ever – cherry picking ancient pottery off the ground! I virtually begged to go back out there to look for more, almost tugging on Damian’s pant leg. He agreed that after siesta and after we shucked some dried corn that we would go back out. We did, and it was the perfect ending to my “Day of the Inca”. Besides his "hiccup" involving too much San Juan celebrating, Damian proved to be a very kind man, and we eventually connected.

Day 5- Sunday, Market Day

The morning was cold, damn cold, and at 7:00 it was hard to peel back the heavy covers and get started. Eventually, the bike was loaded, which included a bag of old pottery chips, and Damian mounted on the back. At we rolled out, my riding suit was completely zipped up to keep out the cold, while Damian wore a down coat under his long poncho, wool cap, his white wool “shorts” and sandals. Thirty minutes later, we were setting up their spot at the market as the sun finally began throwing down some warmth. I grabbed some street food, said good-bye and headed off on my way home, to Sucre. I had arrived in the campo with curiosity and naive interest, and left with a new set of friends. Friends that would soon become family.

Video montage of my four day stay in the campo.