Tuesday, January 31, 2006

7000 vertical feet on "the world's most dangerous road."

Not to scare anybody, but that's what mi compañeros and I will be enjoying tomorrow on our way back to La Paz to meet the last two volunteers coming in for the semester.

The road's moniker deserves a blog entry all its own (or perhaps twinned with one on the road's replacement -- called "the world's most expensive road") but does not, I'm told, match with reality. In fact, our Bolivian driver and most of the long-term gringos here prefer the old road to the new ostensibly safer one. But again, that's another story for a different time.

Our power was out from 7am this morning until after 9pm tonight. And when I logged on I was beside myself with relief because (A) no news meant good news regarding Jess' surgery and (B) all the news about Mike was 'unambigously good.' In fact, one doctor was quoted as saying that Mike "landed better than Batman" and that the long-term prognosis was incredibly positive.

One note before I go to sleep that represents why I have such confidence that my comrades and I will enjoy our time here in the volunteer house. After a great dinner of pasta with sun-dried tomatoes (thanks Trader Joe's!), tuna (thanks Anastasia!), garlic and butter (thanks God!) we postponed our dessert of plum-pear crisp and coffee-cherry tea until after reading two short stories to each other around the candle-lit kitchen table. One of them, appropriately, was Jhumpa Lahiri's "A Temporary Matter" from Interpreter of Maladies. Our 4 voices in turn, the satisfaction of a simple well-made meal, the promise of sweetness (grounded with a hint of bitterness courtesy of the plums), and especially the irrepressible sense that good news would be arriving by e-mail made me feel very content, very glad-hearted, very much at home.

Which ain't too bad for your second full day somewhere.

PS: Lest our dinner sound overly gourmet, let me tell you that the pasta may very well have been from the Carter administration, that fruit flies molested the crisp through most of its stages of preparation, and that the tea was made with stuff most coffee farmers throw out. If you remain unsatisfied, I remind you that we cooked it all with mildly-tempermental propane and washed the dishes in cold water. In the dark.

Monday, January 30, 2006

Nuns pray a lot. And the ones I've met here pray well. Today they helped me pray for two dear friends that most of you reading this have heard me tell tales of -- if you don't know them directly: Mike MacHarg and Jess Myhre.

Mike took a serious fall Friday night but is in remarkably stable condition (considering a C1-C2 verterbral fracture that didn't result in paralysis, and broken arms, ribs, pelvis and who knows what else) in intensive care. His improvement has been steady and now he's squeezing hands, scribbling notes, and apparently even arching an eyebrow at the mention of sponge baths and nurses.

Jess went in today for her second brain surgery -- the first just before I left put a shunt in her brain to alleviate the high pressure caused by hydroencaphaly. Today's was to replace the valve because she had developed equally-serious low pressure complications. Perhaps by now she is again showing one of the early signs that the first surgery had not altered her celebrated personality: in response to some teasing, she raised a single well-chosen finger.

Both of these beloved people are surrounded by amazing networks of friends and families -- Mike in San Francisco and Jess in Saint Paul. Knowing this offers me great comfort, but sharpens my desire to be among them: to be there adjusting pillows, reading aloud from David Sedaris or Bailey White, and taking dictation for each of their "When-all-this-is-over" To Do list.

But I'm not there, and likely can't be until July. Of course plenty will be needed then too -- but that feels like a paltry response to the palpable urges to at least try to make these tough situations better. This sense of impotence is shared, I have on good authority, even by those who are in constant cell phone contact with the latest news. And the sense of waiting to help make things better is probably strongest among those who sit by the bedsides and pace the hospital halls.

And so I breathe myself to sleep at night with this: solidarity with everyone else who madly loves these two. And the hope that comes from knowing, as well, the unrepentant strength that is so evident in both Mike and Jess. And for both those things -- and for the prayers of nuns who will never meet either of these dear friends: gratitude.

Good night.

Sunday, January 29, 2006

Two more plane rides and about 4 hours in a happily crowded minibus have finally brought me to UAC -- la Unidad Académica Campesina en Carmen Pampa de la Universidad Católica Boliviana. (You can see why that mouthful gets reduced to a one-syllable acronym -- pronounced like 'walk.')

The beauty is stunning, made more so by the kind of sunlight that only comes at altitude (we're at around 5600 feet -- just a bit higher than Denver.) And the people I've already met exude a kind of gentleness that seems to come from a combination of strength with patience.

It may be a while before I can post much more than a few words -- I know there are planned power outages in the next few days -- but I wanted to let you all know I am here. I am safe. And I am smiling.

Practice your Español reading UAC's site: here

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Here's a shot from a night out in Barranco -- a gorgeous, salty district of Lima -- with my friend Blanca Bladoceda's charming cousin, Andrea.

We got to the peña early enough for me to take a few pictures with just available light -- they're posted on my all-photos all-the-time blog casibastante.blogspot.com -- including this dual self-portrait.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Sano is the Spanish adjective for 'healthy.' Because of the sound of the word and its associations too, the nickname for really healthy people is zanahoria. Or, in English, 'carrot.' This caused me to crack up for the better part of 3 and half minutes yesterday. It also, I think, caused mi profesor Arturo to seriously question my ability to learn anything more that day. (The following photo doesn't show us being all that healthy -- though microbreweries are always a good choice.)

Today, though, brought a very welcome sense of traction. Reviewing and, in fact, rewriting las formas de los verbos regularos (incluyendo por la primera vez 'presente de subjuntivo' y 'perfecto de inidicativo') was almost (but not quite) as satisfying as the Light & Easy Sudoku puzzles I'm crunching through with increasing speed.

Éstaban reminded me, necessarily, of the peaks and valleys (y especialmente las mesetas) of learning any language. And I know I will be frustrated again in short order -- perhaps even mas fuerte but until then I'll enjoy what feels like cosmic authorization to hope that my learning is moving perceptibly in the right direction. (Or, failing that, I'll enjoy -- as I've apologized for in a few e-mails today -- peppering my paragraphs with what I'm sure is an annoying amount of Spanglish.)

Ooh, and just for fun here's a link for all you MacOSX Tiger users: Your soon-to-be-favorite widget

[Addendum: it is a fantastic thing that the kids working the Starbucks where I cybersquat are too polite to say anything to me about how it's customary to buy something when you spend hours in their establishment. It is a phantasmagoric thing that this Starbucks, which uses no real cups (only those paper take-outs), has valet parking and, at times it seems, a waiting list for a table.]

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Luciano Choi, a Korean nun and Maryknoll missionary, celebrated her last day in Peru. But what made today so special was that it was the last day -- mas o menos -- of the construction of her chapel. Not hers, of course -- like a lot of chapels in the poorest part of Lima it's named after the Lady of Miracles, la Virgin de Guadeloupe. And it's not even Our Lady's chapel, truly -- it belongs to what I'm told are the impossibly impoverished people Sr Luciano has worked with for her 6 short years here. It's an impressive story that reads like that folk tale about stone soup. Once the first brick was laid -- and the laughing died down -- the impossible became possible. Cement showed up, then bricks. A local architecture firm practically gave the blueprints away. Whole families came on their one day off (some of them resting from two jobs -- or more) to help. And some Koreans donated the money for a local artisan to create stained glass windows that showed apostles in front of each of Peru's distinct geographical regions. And in two months -- two months! -- the chapel was ready. Everybody was there to celebrate, incluso los perros.
It reminded me in a way of some of the celebrations I witnessed on the Tohono O'odham Nation -- white plastic chairs, proud grandparents, dusty feet, generous servings of food that somebody probably went into debt to make, long songs made longer by not skipping a single verse, a healthy amount of waiting around and giggling kids.

Here are a few extra shots from the fiesta:

The four faces of Catholicism in Peru (five if you count the photons that snuck in one of the windows and lit the crucifix). Padre Kyungsu of Korea, Padre Cristobal de Peru, y Padre Ed of Los Estados Unidos.

My view from the surprisingly stable balcony. (Mookie, don't ask how I got up there.)

One of the chapel organizers toasting Sr Luciano with the famous pisco sour -- if I understood things right (and there's always a good chance I didn't) he said that until Sr Luciano asked him to help make the chapel a reality, he thought the purpose of his life was to sit around drinking with his buddies.

The joy of digital cameras. The Tae Kwon Do students did an impressive demonstration after Mass, before announcing they've named their summer school martial arts academy after her (it meets at 6 on weekend mornings and is led by a 4th degree black belt who happens to live in the neighborhood).

My host for the day, Padre Kyungsu, and Éstaban, a Maryknoll seminarian from the Punjabi region of India. And of course, the dogs.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

In case you're curious about what just over 150 pounds of luggage looks like . . .

(And if you work for Continental Airlines -- I mean, "just under 140 pounds of luggage")

I'm finally online, thanks to a smoky cafe with Wifi and a terrifically misnamed service called Speedy. Expect more in the coming days, especially because it's so refreshing to communicate in a language with which I have some faculty. (Yes, I'm showing off my command of English grammar -- the imperative, dependent clauses, even non-dangling prepositions. It's a nice change from my role as an inarticulate, frustrated toddler en español.)

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Crawled into bed at 4am this morning, after a heckuva day and a helluva week. Some highlights. . .

In the last week, I

• bungled the verbal section of the GRE by not answering a question (the very thing I taught my GMAT students at the Princeton Review never to do!)

• found out that a 'high' math score isn't really all that high when expressed as a percentile (who said that numbers never lie?)

• shared a goodly number of pitchers of Summit Winter Ale and plenty of French fries with the fine folks who stopped by the Nook to say 'adios' (here're a few pictures and more below)

• packed up all my worldly goods -- after which two angels appeared in the form of my parents not only to store them, but unload them as well

• savored some favorite foods/places courtesy of some favorite people: Galactic Pizza's amazing 'pizza with a conscience' with Marilaurice; Hell's Kitchen with Paul & Wayde; Cafe Latté's fantastic chicken salsa chili (twice!) with Keith & Jess & Heather; Holy Land's preposterously profuse vegetarian platter with Steph & Jared; a chocolate raspberry malt as an appetizer with Mookie & King Alli at St Clair Broiler; the squash soup and tres leches cupcake at Cupcake with Rhonda and her daughters Chloe & Kylie; the tomato brie scramble at Longfellow Grill with Matt, Anna, Sarah, Mary, Paul, Becky & Daniel; and St John's Johnny bread and classic yellow cake with chocolate frosting at Kent & Trisha's with parents in rare comedic form and Trisha wishing she could ban the word 'pouch'

• received not one but two blessings at St Stephens -- one at choir practice and one from the 11:15 community, plus a very kind 'prayer of the people' from Matt

• declared that packing for 6 months is not appreciably different from packing for 1 year, which is not really that different than packing for life

• discovered that repacking can make things smaller but alas not lighter (who can I blame for this? Newton? The Conservation of Mass? God?)

• pulled what I hope and pray is my last 'all-nighter' -- packing and moving and cleaning and recycling and breaking down the cardboard boxes that have been driving my beloved housemate Melissa crazy since I moved in

• learned from Mookie what it's like to be early for a flight (does everybody really do all that waiting around every time you fly somewhere?)

• relished, yet again, the anti-airplane-fatigue effects of earplugs and a liter or two of water

• decided that it's OK to be addicted to Sudoku puzzles even if you're not actually all that quick at them

• lined my cherished water bottle with vomit after the second landing of a rough redirected flight (I think my body was just, well, sick and tired of my shenanigans -- I'd been awake for over 30 hours at that point)

• thanked (ad nauseum, naturally) the hostess of an airport restaurant for sending said cherished water bottle through their industrial dishwasher

• made lil' brother Kent reprise his celebrated role as executive assistant (though this time it wasn't international finance but rather taking dictation for an e-mail to a Peruvian priest)

• used real silverware on an airplane and plastic silverware at a semi-schmancy sit-down restaurant -- but was so out of it that I couldn't decide if it was ironic or just odd

• realized that landing at 3:00am after a day chock full of delays is not appreciably different from landing at the scheduled time of 11:39pm -- except that the passport control lines are shorter

• haggled for my first cab in Peru -- an experience not unlike the unrelenting joke with merchants in Egypt ("that price is just fine -- if you're paying in English pounds!")

• marveled -- when it comes to my speaking español -- that someone who knew so little could forget so much

• remembered the all-is-right-with-the-world feeling that comes from being called a diminutive nickname by a bespectacled little abuelita who fidgets with her apron when she tells you it's not a problem that you don't eat red meat

• sipped my first cup of Coca tea (mate de coca, technically) -- how does it taste, you ask? Like the next 6 months . . .

(Um, yeah -- this is lot of pictures with me in them. Sorry! Can I blame the very thoughtful and kind photographer, Keith?)

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

My favorite new GRE word: perspicacious

An adjective that means having keen discernment.

My favorite easy-though-perfidious GRE math question:

Wish me luck!

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

You cannot wander anywhere that will not aid you. —St Francis of Assisi

Fresh off a great trip to niece-and-nephewland and mere days away from South America (with the GRE and packing up my worldly goods hanging over my head) I can't imagine a better way to inaugurate this blog than with that line -- translated by Daniel Ladinsky in his remarkable book "Love Poems from God." It's both a comfort and a call.

And here's Summer, Tully, BearBear, and me.