Posted by John on

Bolivia Letter #5

Dear family and friends,                                        July 29-August 5, 2006

John here.  This will be a challenging letter to write, as it is likely to be composed in pieces from various internet cafes, using kezboards that are cleverlz rearranged so as to make my favorite punctuation, such as dashes, semicolons, and parentheses, unavailable.  Actually, this may be the universe telling me, just one noun and verb per sentence, PLEASE!  Oh, and as you maz have noticed, on this particular kezboard, y is z.  I will probablz go back and clean up all the transposed zs and ys from this document before zou read it, but then again, I may leave them just to make up for all those missing parentheticals.

We are now in Rurrenabaque, a town in the upper Amazon basin.  We arrived this morning after a 16-hour bus ride on dirt roads.  We knew the ride would be gruelling, and we told Paige and Marcus ahead of time that it is often the bus rides that give one the most enduring travel stories later on.  This one began by taking us farther down the same steep canyons and steep dropoffs that characterize the “road of death.”  It’s the same road, after all, just without the bicycles or the hype.  Then, after darkness fell, the canyons widened, the curves lengthened, and we went down, down, down in a series of steep winding descents that seemed to go on all night.  I kept thinking, we must be at sea level by NOW, but there always seemed to be more altitude to lose.  The bus, a Volvo that in a prior life was a fancy tourist rig but is now a grimy shadow of its former self, did well with the steep grades, and the driver stopped to pick up everyone along the way who needed a ride.  As a result, the aisles were packed, and I spent some of the time marvelling at the fortitude of people standing on an all night bus ride.  The extent of my empathy, however, did not reach actually offering anyone my seat.

There is something about an old bus travelling an old road that is symbiotic and very alive.  The bus and the road have worn deep grooves into each other through endless repetition of the same journey.  Some places are worn smooth and comfortable, others raw and sore.  The bus and the road talk to each other, familiar and complaining, like an old couple sharing their too-small bed on a hot night.  Every noise is part of the conversation, from the rumble and squeak of the rocks jarring the suspension to the rattle of windows that long ago lost their gaskets.  The “music” one hears through the blown stereo system is merely the upper register of this deeper song.  Last night it was an endlessly repeated cumbia, a three-beat rhythm limping like a lame horse or a loose axle, the bass and guitar grinding over the transmission, the singer’s tale of loyalty in the face of mistreatment rising above the throaty backup of the engine pulling over a grade.   There was a period, somewhere between the fourth and the eighth hour of last night’s journey, where it all felt deeply soulful.  By the end, of course, as the fatigue of the ride approached nausea, there was nothing poetic about it.  One gets off such buses with a mix of gratitude and revulsion at an adventure that ends with too much intimacy.

Beret will write her half of this letter after we return from our three-day jungle tour that begins tomorrow, so I’ll save the rest of Rurrenabaque for her.  Instead, I want to tell you about my little experience with the evolution of the expatriate psyche.  We saw this a lot on Saipan, the island in Micronesia where we lived in the 90s.  A foreigner arrives and, at first, is idealistically in love with the local people and culture.  Then, the glow of feeling that the local people are “just like us,” it begins to dawn that they are also NOT just like us in certain ways.   In particular, the issue of trust becomes very sensitive, as the foreigner tries to be accepted and liked, but perceives that locals do not trust him, and that some locals themselves behave in ways that are not trustworthy.  Also, the foreigner begins to see local customs that no longer appear picturesque and deeply spiritual, but rather, wrong, self-defeating, perhaps even – ahem, er, — ignorant.  A cynical, judgmental attitude takes over, as the foreigner begins to decide that he “knows” these people.  Some expats never abandon this cynical stance.  Others work through and past it.  But it takes time.

So what does this have to do with me?  Well, it started with the burning.  Before we left Coroico, the smoke in the valley below our hotel had gotten so intense that you couldn’t see the mountains on the other side.  This smoke is caused by the indiscriminate burning of fields and forests as part of traditional agriculture.  The local press reported the other day that the Amazon, often described as the “lung of the world,” has become a net exporter of carbon dioxide.  From our observation point in the Yungas, it seemed that the burning was giving the entire region, and everyone in it, a serious smoker’s hack.  The kids have not been able to shake their coughs acquired earlier this summer, and now Elena and I have it too.  So I have begun to get very judgmental about why in hell in this day and age people still think indiscriminate burning is an okay thing to do?  I tend to think that in the cosmic Bridge game Earth trumps Culture, thus my stance of cultural respect stops when it appears that the cultural practice is harming the Earth.  Not to mention my lungs.

Second is the trust thing.  We foreigners tend to be busy people who want to “get a lot done.”  Beret and I came back from La Paz with a large to do list of people we wanted to interview and footage we wanted to “get.”  We hoped to tick a series of items off this list before taking our “vacation” (I can hear snorts of derision from beyond the Northern horizons at the idea that this whole summer has NOT been a vacation) to the Amazon.  But, of course, the people we wanted to interview didn’t return our calls, weren’t in their offices when they “said they would be,” had unexpected family obligations, etc.  So, we didn’t accomplish much of our “list,” and we now realize that we will have only ten days in Coroico to do all this filming when we get back.  My response?  Of course, “they” are doing it on purpose.  “They” expect me to fulfil promises but don’t expect the same of themselves.

Underneath all of this, of course, is my sense of anxiety and loss.  Our trip will end soon, and we are unlikely to get past the outer vestibule of this culture in the short time we have.  Which was, of course, predestined to be true. Bolivia is a landlocked country in more senses than geographical.  Other than the initial Spanish conquest and the silver boom of the first fifty years of the colonial period, the country has received virtually no immigration in the past 500 years.  The few foreigners who come are almost uniformly interested in removing natural resources on terms favorable to the foreigner, or in “doing good” in ways that have often come to grief for the locals.  Add to that the current policies of the US administration (when we tell people we’re from the States, there is usually a hitch in the conversation as the other person tries to think of a polite response to such an embarrassing admission), and it is completely predictable that people would have enormous trust issues in talking openly with us.  In fact, we did predict it.  Yet my frustration is hard to escape, and I realize that one of its forms lately has been to become rather judgmental about certain issues.  Still – what is so hard to understand about NOT BURNING DOWN THE WHOLE DAMN VALLEY!?  I guess the same thing that seems so hard for us up north to understand about not cooking the whole damn planet.  Sigh.

And I’ll try to end on a positive note.  Above Yolosa, the town at the end of the “road of death” that is threatened with economic ruin once the new road comes in, a few people are building new houses and planting new coca fields on the steep hillside of an old hacienda.  A few of these people’s parents worked these fields as slaves before the agrarian reform.  Now they are returning to the land as a bulwark against the possibility of future starvation.  We interviewed one of the community leaders, a guy named Freddy who drives a taxi, and whose family plants coca, and operates a truckers’ kitchen, to feed their two kids.  He is guarded and occasionally defiant in his relationship to outsiders who want to tell him how to run his life but don’t offer him practical means of following their advice.  But he was willing to trust us enough to bring us up to his coca field, to meet his kids, to wait for us to follow through on our promises to him.  When we return, we hope to learn more about Freddy and his half-dozen neighbors.  We will see if there is enough time.

P.S.  Now we’re back in Coroico after a glorious jungle trip that I promise to leave for Beret.  But I wanted to add one thought on the tone of “regret at not enough time” in the above.  What there HAS been wonderful time for, is each other.  We have all thrived on the easy intimacy, inside jokes, and sheer time with each other on this trip.  Getting to know Elena as an adult has been a particular pleasure.  And the time with Paige and Marcus has been priceless.  After we got back from our tour of the jungle the jungle, we passed a truck with an illuminated “Globetrotter” sign.  Marcus, walking beside me with his hand in mine, asked, “What’s a ‘globet rotter’?”  So we spent that evening making up rhymes about the dreaded Globet Rotter, who goes slinking down the slankey water.  On the way back from dinner, we passed a bar blaring out another cumbia, and Marcus and I danced in the street as we passed, doing our best Where the Wild Things Are stomp.

Con mucho cariño,



I wrote my half of our 5th travel letter in an internet cafe in Rurrenabaque and promptly lost it, so I have started over, longhand.  When I travel or live in certain parts of the world, I try to open myself to fate or, otherwise expressed, to what is.  It’s a kind of que será será relationship to things.  I had longed to return to Bolivia since John and I visited in 1988, so I wake up here feeling happy and lucky.  I am happy that my dream of turning Paige and Marcus into intrepid world travelers is coming true, most obviously with Paige.  Marcus was born with joie de vivre, finds pleasure wherever possible, and keeps close track of how many days of our 60-day trip have elapsed.  He misses his tree swing back home.

The Amazonian jungle of Bolivia provided an idyllic experience of wilderness and beauty.  It’s an eat or be eaten ecosystem.  If a plant doesn’t have spines or thorns, it’s poisonous.  The river Tuichi, where our albergue (camp) was located, is in Madidi National Park.  In this season (the year is divided into two seasons, wet and dry), the river is the color of red earth, and is shallow and wide.  Pilots of motorized canoes read the rills of the river to keep from running their outboard motors over the rocks.  We traveled up the Bení river to the Tuíchi in a motorized dugout canoe.  Our camp was four board-and-thatch buildings with screens for windows, including on the toilet doors, so you could always see who was where.  We came during a surazo, an unusual stretch of cold weather, that turned out to be a blessing, except at night.  I ended up sleeping in a hat, socks, cotton pants, a shirt, two layers of fleece jackets, and my raincoat.  John spent that night in a t-shirt under a light blanket.

Our guide, Diter, is a true naturalist and we learned a lot from him.  He always took the lead, in rubber boots (poisonous snakes usually attack the first pair of feet to disturb them) and with a machete for trail maintenance.  We tucked our pants into our socks because of the remarkable assortment of biting ants, vast highways of them.  The bite of the worst sends you into a fever and acute pain.  I tried to pry one off Paige’s sock with a stick, and discovered it had suction cups for feet.  What amazes me about the tropical jungle is the interdependence of species and the struggle to survive.  Tree and plant species that are perfectly harmless elsewhere are covered with sharp thorns.  I impaled my fingers on tree thorns as we watched a stampede of wild peccaries.  I like these pigs!  They make an incredible noise as they chomp down on hard palm nuts.  When spooked – they’re rather shy – they run, emitting the foulest smell imaginable from glands on their backs.  (I would rather have a day and a night with scent of skunk than fifteen minutes with odeur de peccary).

The bird calls in our camp were other-worldly and went on all through the night.  We saw leaf-cutter ants, hair-cutting bees (they can’t sting, but when threatened they attack your hair, snipping with a pair of scythes sticking out of their heads), gorgeous pairs of red, blue, and green macaws who mate for life, alligators (and their red eyes glowing in the dark), squirrel monkeys high in the tree canopy, and a caravan of irridescent caterpillars traveling by day and resting bunched up like freight cars at night.  We also saw ‘walking trees’ that grow multiple slender trunks from the top down and the mata-palos tree, a very thick, coiled vine that strangles trees the way an anaconda asphyxiates its prey.  The branches of a certain tree, when cut clear through, drain a liquid that looks and tastes like water.  Paige loved drinking this tree water.  Marcus’s favorite moment was swinging on a thick vine over a creekbed as if he were Tarzan.  Actually, we all liked that.  I could not manage to watch my feet and head at the same time, and whacked the latter on low-hanging branches more than once.

Camp was very appealing. There was cold-water plumbing because of a well and a generator they turn on once a day to pump water into a gravity tank.  The kitchen stove and refrigerator were powered by a propane canister.  The only light was from candles.  We had picked a luxury tour, which means life preservers in the canoe, mosquito netting on the beds (more for dengue fever than for malaria), and good food, including a massive catfish the cook caught in the river.  Backpacker and budget travelers are also served, and they get what they pay for.  We saw a completely overloaded canoe full of tourists heading out on a tour with no life preservers and the boat so low in the water that one tourist’s shirttails were dragging in the river.

I have wanted to write about the domestic side of life in Bolivia, both for Bolivians and for affluent tourists like us.  As you gathered from John’s description of people standing all night in the aisle of a long-distance bus, transportation is a challenge, including the expense and difficulty of getting products to market, let alone out of the country.  (The national airline nearly imploded not long ago, due to having only two functioning planes and a cash shortage.)  Money is clearly a challenge, as many Bolivians work 12-hour days for $2 to $4 a day.  Some kids in Yolosa who should be in secondary school aren’t because their parents can’t afford the half-price bus fare of 37 cents a day.  The ‘bus’ is a truck with a lot of students crammed in the bed, standing up for the 20-minute ride to Coroico and holding onto a lattice of bars.  Money presents a different challenge for tourists, as the communication infrastructure and banking situation generally make it impossible to use credit cards or traveler’s checks outside of major cities.  Major tourist destinations do not rank as major cities, by the way.  The only bank I saw in Rurrenabaque hangs a “Visa / Master Card CASH ADVANCES” sign outside it to tease tourists.  As I suspected, only people with Prodem cards (the name of the bank) can get cash advances, and no tourist has this card.

Houses in the Yungas are usually constructed from hand-made adobe bricks and usually have concrete or earth floors.  A thin stucco-like facade fooled me in the beginning, but now I know better.  The older colonial buildings have walls two feet thick.  In Amazonas, many houses are made out of thin, loose boards (with daylight and breezes filtering through the cracks) and thatched roofs.  Less common are bamboo pole or brick houses and tin roofs.  Where we stayed, Paige and Elena and I concluded that there’s at least one chicken for every inhabitant.  Dogs sleep in the middle of the quiet dirt streets.  Some people have outdoor earthen ovens or cook over open fires.  In Coroico, many people cook on a two-burner stove attached to a propane canister, our equivalent of a camping stove.  Grocery stores here have a small but fascinating range of goods, and stores called “bazars” have mind-boggling collections of life’s other necessities, from pots and pans to safety pins, batteries to bowler hats, and fireworks to flashlights.  On the street, you occasionally see a whole, carefully skinned pig’s head or a hand-cart with open bags of vibrantly-colored spices.  At home, people in towns usually have a cold water tap and sink, but a great many of the people not in cities do not have a plumbed bathroom.  We watched a man build his family’s bathroom, a tiny adobe building with no water and a hard-dirt floor.  It’s very close to the family’s house and I wonder how it’s going to function as a bathroom….

Refrigerators are a luxury, so food is blissfully fresh.  (That chicken in your lunch soup lost its head at dawn).  Our lovely hotel in Coroico has a laundress who washes acres of sheets, towels, and bedspreads in two utility sinks.  It can take days for clothes to dry on clotheslines and until we asked for faster service, it took four days to get our clothes washed, squashed, and returned.  Cleaning is often a matter of sweeping and ‘throwing water’.  In fact, in public bathrooms with dry toilets and a single water tap, there are signs begging users to ‘throw water’.

In Rurrenabaque in the Amazon, we decided to splurge on the hotel.  You probably know this feeling – that little yen for luxury, something that might remind you of home. In my case, this means enough decent toilet paper (since toilet paper is on the list of “chemical precursors” used by illegal cocaine labs, you need a special permit to have or transport more than 20 rolls), a good shower, sheets that actually stay on the bed all night, and a warm swimming pool.  In Rurre, this meant $10 per night per person, including breakfast, and gave us the luxury of two rooms.  John picked the gorgeous Hotel Jatatal based on a recommendation from the jungle tour people and pretty ‘tropical paradise’ pictures on a website.  The hotel turned out to be in the quiet town of San Buenaventura, on the other side of a wide river from Rurrenabaque, the Amazon tour take-off point.  There’s almost no commerce on the Jatatal side of the river, so every time we wanted lunch or dinner or a bottle of drinking water, we crossed the river in a boat.  When we first arrived at the hotel, there were no guests, the pool had no water in it, and the cook was AWOL.  It felt like the hotel that time forgot.   We ended up liking it, though, and returned to the Jatatal after our time in the jungle.  It was so peaceful there.

The boat that ferries people back and forth across the river is a dugout canoe with built-up sides and a thatch canopy.  It holds up to 40 people, costs 12 cents per ticket, and has no pretension to safety (you can watch the guy running the outboard motor light up his cigarette two feet from the greasy gas can that shouts ‘DANGER: HIGHLY FLAMMABLE’ in English).  A handful of life-preservers are tied (for show or symbolic purposes) so securely to guy wires it would be very hard to extricate them in an emergency.  At night, the boat is lit by one orange and one green lightbulb powered by a car battery.  On the bow, there’s room for one motorcycle (the local land taxi and preferred form of transportation for families with up to two young children), a hand-cart, or a merchant’s wares.  We found the boat irresistible and loved riding in it.

We also fell in love with the sleepiness of our hotel and its hammocks and sky chairs.  The Jatatal is a four-star hotel (perhaps because of the not-plugged-in aircon units and mini-fridges), which makes it a great portrait of the meeting ground of form and function in Bolivia.  In form, it is very beautiful, at least on the outside and in the dining room.  Furniture is artesanal and made from local jungle wood. It has hot water showers (in six weeks, we have yet to encounter hot water at any sink in Bolivia) by virtue of a device known as a calefon, which heats water as it comes through the showerhead.  Years ago, these devices were known for giving 220-volt shocks to the unwary, but the design has improved.  However, if you want warm or hot water, you have to keep the water flow low.  It’s a relationship of inverse proportions: more water volume equals less heat.  A heating coil in a shower head can do only so much, even if it’s 5400 watts, as ours was.  Turning it on caused every bulb in the building to flicker and dim for the length of the shower.

For much of our time at the Jatatal, no one was taking showers — because there was no water.  The water was turned off for most daylight hours because the hotel did not have enough water pressure to refill the swimming pool with the equivalent of a garden hose and have water for the rooms.  So much for my longing for a couple of days in the lap of luxury.  We watched the progress of the pool filling – about three inches a day – and concluded that it would take 10-14 days at that rate to fill it.  The form versus function issue is intriguing and sometimes comical.  The rooms have a wooden door and a screen door, but you can’t close both at the same time.  When the screen door is open because the wooden door is closed (as at night), it bangs in the breeze.  The Jatatal’s showers seem designed to spread water all over the floor.  You get the ‘throw water’ effect with no way to dry the floor in a very humid (and mildew-prone) climate.  And along the way, you begin to ask… why, why, why?

Breakfast at the Jatatal was also interesting, most likely because what foreigners want to eat for breakfast is not what Bolivians necessarily want to eat.  We’d be served butter and jam, but no bread, or bread with no butter or jam.  The last morning, they forgot there were five of us, set the table for four, and failed to bring silverware or bowls (although there were corn flakes).  And while there was hot milk, nearly frozen milk, and tepid water in a carafe, there was no tea and no coffee.  We were at that moment on our way to board the dreaded bus back to Coroico and decided to stop for coffee during the long walk to the bus depot (we couldn’t all fit on a moto-taxi after all, and never saw a car taxi).  We asked for cafe con leche (coffee with milk) at a cafe, but were served cups of hot water and a thick sort of coffee concentrate syrup.  John politely asked, “Hay leche?”, which is code for “Could we have some milk?”  The waiter said yes – he had also indicated when taking our order that we could have cafe con leche – and then he didn’t bring any or indeed charge us for more than coffees without milk.  This is an example of “yes means no,” a language I am becoming more adept at decoding the longer we are here.

I have been urging John to write about food, as he sometimes lapses into hysterical laughter at some of the cook’s valiant efforts to create vegetarian entrees here at our hotel-home in Coroico.  Memorable highlights include a stew of leftovers from the salad or vegetable selection of the day before topped by sodden french fries floating on a sea of broth.  Today was truly creative: half a boiled potato stacked with half a hard-boiled egg, peanut paste, and a slice of sour-tasting local cheese.  It was weird, but it gets high marks for protein content.  Paige and Marcus are able to survey the entire buffet here and walk away in dismay.  John and I eat more healthfully here than in Colorado, as there are fabulous fresh fruits and unprocessed, pesticide-free foods.

I am now writing from the far side of the dreaded bus trip back to Coroico, so I can say we survived.  I don’t know about the people who stayed on the bus all the way to La Paz, however.  It dawned on me – with some horror – that our driver, who had driven 16 hours with minimal breaks by the time we got off, was going to start up the camino de la muerte in a state of utter exhaustion.  His wife (who also served as his ayudante or helper) was working hard to keep him awake by talking to him and fiddling with the radio as their four-year-old daughter slept on a shelf right above and behind his head.

Only about 10 percent of the road system is paved and vehicles get horribly beaten up by these long hauls.  We had tire changes, ropes being tied ominously around parts of undercarriages, and other sorts of adventures in both directions.  John briefly toyed with flying back, but that is possible only on the military airline (aging prop planes anyone?) on Rurre’s grass and dirt runway and only 2 or 3 times a week and only if the grass isn’t wet.  It’s not cheap either, and you land at the La Paz airport and have to drive down the camino de la muerte to get back here.  Elena and I thought about that and vetoed the flying idea.  Besides, the bus costs only $9 and it’s expensive to fly.  We got to Yolosa at 2:30 am last night, a mere two and a half hours past the scheduled time, and had arranged to have a jeep taxi waiting for us. The ride to Rurrenabaque was the third circle of hell, but the return was merely the second circle.  The trip was more than worth it and we’re glad to be home again.  We will be back in Colorado in less than two weeks, full of gratitude at having had such a delicious break from northern obsessions with individualism, efficiency, the latest machinery, and speed.

P.S.  Today was Bolivia’s national independence day, all 181 years of it, and there was a moving and shared dignity, pride and celebration at being Bolivians and being free.  The spirit of autonomy from all other nations is palpable.  I felt a pang that I feel so ambivalent about my country, especially our foreign policy, and wish I could feel the pride I saw today.  An Afro-Bolivian man sang to the assembled crowd a song whose most important lyric was “Me gusta la palabra ‘libertad’” (“I like the word ‘liberty’).  Coming from someone whose people have been free for only 54 years, it was deeply affecting.  John was filming.  I looked over at him at the end the song and his eyes were misty with unshed tears.  The people take care of themselves and do it with dignity.  Given how hard they have to work to do it, witnessing it has made me fall in love with them and their country.  I hope I can bring some of their spirit home with me and weave it into the threads of our lives.



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Posted by John on

Bolivia Letter #6

Dear family and friends,                                                     August 11-12, 2006

John here.  Today is the last free morning I will have to gaze out from our upper-story perch, past the blooming lilies in our window box to the layers below: the banana groves below our building, the bright blue of the pool, the brick walls, tile roofs, and flame trees of Coroico, and the smoky void of the valley below.  Today the haze has lifted a bit.  One can dimly see mountains across, with the camino de la muerte running like a ragged scar up one valley and the new road coiling more fluidly up the next canyon over.

The new road, still under construction, reminds me of the patch of I-70 that runs through Glenwood Canyon in western Colorado.  A series of bridges and parapets hangs off the side of the slope as it switchbacks eight times before entering into a 1.5 km tunnel at the top of the mountain.  Drainage culverts, concrete retaining walls and deep anchors seek to restrain the crumbling slopes above and below.  It really is an engineering marvel – or will be, if it ever opens to the public, and if it doesn’t come crashing down.  There is a massive section where the hillside has refused to stabilize, and those big anchors and the concrete facing they are meant to secure have already buckled and fallen into the roadbed below.  Traffic on that stretch is being routed into a jouncing single-lane detour that reminds one of the camino de la muerte the whole thing is supposed to replace.  People are also skeptical that these high bridges will survive the heavy traffic and deferred maintenance that the new road is likely to experience.  Communities at the bottom of the valley have suffered landslides, massive runoff, and environmental contamination during the construction phase.  The road has been in the works since the 1970s and has cost $174 million so far, or nearly $4 million per kilometer.  The new president has issued an ultimatum that it must be finished and opened to the public by October of this year, come hell or high water.  I’m not sure that this pressure will turn out to be a good thing or not, depending how many corners get cut to meet the deadline.   Still, many people will be thrilled finally to have a modern highway between Coroico and La Paz.  Others deeply distrust the safety of new road and have proclaimed their intentions to keep using the old road indefinitely.

However, the events of this week tested people’s faith in tradition over modernity.  A full-sized bus, overloaded with nearly sixty people, went over the edge of the camino de la muerte and fell more than 200 meters, killing 28 and injuring the rest.  It was big enough news to make the La Paz papers, which reported that the roadbed at the site of the accident was exactly 3.67 meters wide, whereas the bus in question measured 2.5 meters.  Still, survivors recounted that the bus was speeding and had been passing other vehicles somewhat recklessly earlier in the trip.  There had been a delay leaving La Paz and the driver was apparently trying to make up time.

I accompanied Freddy, one of our film’s main characters, to the site two days after the crash.  His first cousin Sixto, a man exactly Freddy’s age with several kids, had been the relief driver on the bus.  Freddy had spent the previous evening trying to reach Sixto’s wife with the news of her husband’s death.  With all of the television and radio reports, she must have heard already, and was probably en route to La Paz, where the bodies had been taken.  The accident took place in late afternoon, and as the traffic police in Yolosa lack even a vehicle to respond to events such as this, it had taken some time for rescue operations to get underway.  First responders had to ride up in buses or private trucks to reach the scene.  One of the guides from Gravity Assisted Mountain Biking, the company that ran the bike tour I took down the road a few weeks ago, had tried to reach the wreck with his climbing rope and rescue backboard.  But the rope was only 120 meters long and he couldn’t get down to the victims.  There was no light to continue the rescue at night, so everyone who was not hauled up by full dark had to spend the night in the wreckage.

Freddy and I drove up the road from Yolosa in silence.  When we pulled up at the site, a minibus from the company whose bus had gone over was parked by the edge with a blue polypropylene rope tied to its bumper, extending taut over the edge.  An employee assigned to guard the wreck explained that the bodies and injured had been retrieved via this rope, up a diagonal route hacked through the brush by machete.  The actual place where the bus had gone off was fifty feet further up, a swath of shorn-off trees and scrub extending down, down into a debris field barely visible in the forest below.  There was nothing that resembled a bus.  Freddy and the guard stood at the edge, pointing to bits of wreckage and talking quietly about how the bus could have gone off.  In a few minutes, a cargo truck full of people arrived, and everyone climbed out to look.  One of them made a harsh comment about bus drivers going too fast, and the company guard flew into a rage. He swore at the man and shouted at him to wait until the accident had been investigated before condemning the driver, who apparently had been his close friend.   The rest of the group, mostly women and kids, stood quietly at the edge and just stared down, eyes wide.

I am tempted to write that they stared down “as if looking into their own graves,” but in truth it is hard to know what they felt.  Some were just rubberneckers with no personal connection to the crash other than the fear that it could happen to them.  Others, like Freddy and the company guard, were looking at the place where close relatives or dear friends had just died.  Freddy told me later that his cousin Sixto had been a champion boxer, and that he, Freddy, and another cousin used to spar as kids, to become tough enough that the older boys wouldn’t pick on them.   Freddy’s sad eyed brightened as he talked about how they were the “three terrors” of the boxing circuit for a while.  “Our fantasy of youth,” he called it, remembering days before the need to support a family blotted out more colorful ambitions.  Another friend, Hans, a German guy who has lived in Coroico eighteen years and Latin America for nearly thirty, suggested only half facetiously that at this time of year, Pachamama, the spirit of Mother Earth, gets hungry and demands blood.

Thursday, Elena and I had a different sort of encounter with life’s mystery.  The town of Coroico, and our hotel above it, are built on the slopes of Uchumachi, the tallest mountain and the spiritual “uncle” of this valley.  We had been planning to hike to the top since we arrived.  An acquaintance told us early in the summer that there was a magic forest up beyond where you can see from below, and that once we entered the forest we would not be walking on the ground any more, but walking “on top of” the trees.  She told us that we would not find the top of the mountain, but would get lost in the forest.  I listened politely, mentally identified this woman as a credulous New Ager, and somewhat lost interest in climbing Uchumachi.  Then when the smoke got bad, it seemed that it would be impossible to “see anything” from the top, and so our motivation declined further.

Well, all I can say now is that this woman was right.  It was one of the most strange, beautiful hikes of my life.   We hiked straight up from the hotel, past the Stations of the Cross and the “Calvary” shrine that marks the overlook point above Coroico, as it does above many Latin American cities and towns, then further up past the cell phone towers that have been recently erected in homage to the new gods of technology.  The trail was open, steep, eroded and rocky.  An entire hillside had been burned to our left, and we climbed past it with the sense that this hike would hot, tiring, and a sad illustration of how badly this place is being damaged by local “agriculture.”

But soon the trail entered a meadow of ferns and flowers, followed by a thick grove of bamboo and low trees.  We emerged again on a narrow ledge over a high slope.  Knowing we had until lunch to get to the top and return, I looked up and saw a steep knoll above, covered by brush.  Instead of ascending the knoll, the trail veered further left and entered thick trees.  Soon we were inside an ancient, moss-covered, deep forest.  The canopy blotted out most of the light, and the air was cool and cleansed by transpiration.  Underfoot was a layer of mulch, fallen branches, moss, and leaves so thick that we had no idea where the actual earth was.  It actually sprung and flexed underneath us.   The trail cut so deeply into the steep slope that the hillside above created a roof, with roots and moss trailing down.  Soon we entered a shallow valley and the trail leveled off.    We seemed to be entering some high undulating plateau, but the forest was so thick that it was impossible to sense the topography more than thirty feet away. It was utterly quiet.

Even more odd, the trail seemed to be getting fainter.  We hadn’t “arrived” anyplace, but the well-marked and maintained trail we had been following had gradually faded out, and we were trying to keep on what now looked like a winding game trail.  Every few feet a machete scar on a tree indicated that we were still on a human-made pathway, but otherwise we became uncertain we were on a trail at all.   Then, at a certain point, the ground pitched downward, and the trail seemed to die out altogether.  The woods were very thick, with branches woven together and moss draping everything so that we had no idea whether we were on, or even near, a “summit.”  You couldn’t see the sun or orient your direction.   If we went forward it felt as though we risked becoming truly lost.  So we turned around while there was still a trail to follow.

Growing up in the Rockies, I have always experienced climbing a mountain as an accomplishment.  One stands at the summit like a little god, looking out over a vast landscape that one feels, openly or secretly, one has dominated.  People talk about “bagging” peaks as though they were hunters after Big Game.  Even for those of us who pretend to a higher level of enlightenment, at the very least, when you climb a mountain in Colorado, you know – and it matters — whether you’ve actually climbed it or not.  But hiking up Uchumachi turned all of these notions upside down.  The trees were above the “timberline,” not below it.  The higher we climbed, the more enclosed, enveloped, and lost we became.  We never got to the “end” of our journey, or if we did, there was nothing to indicate that we had.  Instead of feeling like we were gods, it seemed we had been wandering through the house of a god who had graciously allowed us to slip out the way we came.

For our last adventure of our last week in town, we went last night to Yolosa to film the town’s annual procession of the local Virgin.  This year’s festival is perhaps Yolosa’s last, since most people hope to relocate to a new, modern truck-stop facility after the new road opens.  The Interamerican Development Bank is financing the new service center as an effort at “social/environmental remediation,” in the same category as cleaning up the diesel dumps and trash heaps left by the construction crews.  But the loan disbursement appears to be held up pending the completion of various “conditions precedent.” Thus, if the new road does open this October, it looks like people in Yolosa will be left in the lurch for a year or more, with their current properties nearly worthless and with no money or infrastructure to start their businesses over at the new site.  Anticipating this risk, Freddy and others have built new houses and planted new coca fields on the slopes above Yolosa.  If the new world fails, they can always rely on the old, at least for a margin of survival.

I had wanted to film this procession of the Virgin as a kind of funeral for the town, coming as it did on the heels of a funereal week.  Once again, I had it all wrong.  People spent all evening decorating the little concrete shrine at the crossroads of town with balloons, flowers, candles and ribbons.  Then the youth dressed in bright Aymara costumes that the town seemed to have stashed away for this celebration every year.  The boys wore bright orange with woven hats decorated with mirrors in front, and wielded toy pickaxes.  The girls wore deep red and purple, and carried shawls filled with flowers and feathers forming cornucopias.  After the Virgin had been appropriately paraded through town and placed in her niche, the kids and young adults began their dance.  Called the Salaque, it seemed like an ancient harvest dance, as first the boys and then the girls weaved joyfully back and forth in a hoeing and gathering motion.  A brass band followed behind, pounding out the same urgent melody.  They danced past the overloaded buses and weary drivers waiting to grind up the camino de la muerte, past the dining tables and kiosks that are slated for abandonment, past the little cantina where the bicyclists get their ceremonial beer and t-shirts, and over the river that has washed away every attempt to provide decent sanitation for the town.  They danced up to a shrine that, in the name of a father, mostly venerates a Mother.  The elders surrounded them, women in their finest pollera skirts, shawls and bowlers, men in open, starched shirts.  And they kept dancing.

I’ll end by thanking you for your indulgence in listening to us this past two months.  We discovered a while ago that travel stories are better when they’re fresh, and writing them down has helped us give shape to our experiences as we live them.  Thanks for coming on the ride with us.  In a week, we’ll be back to the web of work, schedules, activities, and worries that dominate our lives at home.  We and the kids will scatter into the separate spaces of our enormous house.  Money will resume its “natural,” daunting scale.  But we will have the images of our video, and the memories of our trip, to remind us.   Here’s hoping we remember.

Con mucho cariño,



I just read what John wrote and my heart is heavy again with the emotion of the bus accident.  As for the people of Yolosa, finding out there is money earmarked to help them with the road transition was like coming upon a miracle, as I fully expected they’d get nothing.  Once again this evening, we watched people bathing and washing clothes downriver from the raw sewage draining straight from the baño público, where 50 centavos (6 cents) buys you a length of pink toilet paper and a visit to a doorless stand-over-the-hole pit toilet in a line of such toilets.

This morning Paige and I did a walkabout with the video camera in hand, documenting “a day in the life of Paige” and recording various images on our way to the plaza.  We watched a man with an ancient treadle sewing machine sewing a cholla’s pollera, the gorgeous skirt many women wear here.  A man who works at the hospital saw the camera and invited us to interview accident survivors.  Fancy by Bolivian standards, the hospital is run by an Italian nun named Sister Rita.  There is one traumatólogo (as they call them here), no orthopedist, and there are dozens of broken bones….   The accident brought into sharp focus themes of our project and sharpened our resolve to make our return to La Paz on the new road.  The owner of our hotel has a pass to use the new road and has agreed to take us.  We are lucky in so many ways, and I don’t take it for granted.

Tonight the kids and I rode up the mountain in a mini-van driven by a taxista trying to save his tires from wear.  He careened from one side of the road to the other as he took the turns, so as to keep either the left or the right tires on the smooth, narrow edges (think deep gutter on one side, dropoff on the other) as much as possible.  That particular road is made of hand-laid river stones.  They are round, water-smooth, and most fit in your outstretched hand.  The driving was unnerving even when I figured out what he was up to, and I found myself thinking: Would you just cut that out?  But we were three of eleven passengers and so….

We have been visiting special places in our final days here.  We took a truck taxi (with Marcus standing up in the bed and loving it) all the way to Chairo, a tiny village next to a beautiful river which itself borders one of the Inca trails.  We went up the trail a bit and vowed to return to swim in the river.  We’re hoping to do that Sunday afternoon, our last afternoon here.  Tomorrow is the fiesta of Tocaña, where we will watch the Saya perform its unique music and dance, and celebrate and our friends there and say our goodbyes.

We visited the only local college, UAC Carmen Pampa.  It’s an incredible place – a new college, funded partly by USAID, and featuring an organic farm, a budding local entomology collection, and studies on whether chaqueo – the burning of land to prepare for planting – damages or enhances the soil.  The students, who clearly realize they are in a very special community, are required to be indigneous and the grandchildren of people who served under the hacienda system and were forbidden from getting an education.  In 1952, everything changed in what was essentially a social revolution. Bolivia’s current goal is a just, multi-ethnic society.  To this end, the head of the new Constitutional Reform group is an indigenous woman.  (There are “white” folks here, and they tend to live in big cities, have money, and drive “4 por 4” cars.)  Carmen Pampa’s mission is to inculcate in students a strong commitment to returning to their home communities to work, which means not drifting off to the cities in search of bright lights and better money.  It’s a beautiful dream and is working well for the students in education, veterinary science, and agronomy.  Paige is already planning to come back as a volunteer.  The fourth group at Carmen Pampa is nursing students.  We interviewed the program director and her two Afro-Bolivian students from Tocaña, who dance with the Saya.  They would love to create a health center in Tocaña, but it’s impossible.   I’m giving them – with instructions – medications and health-related items we brought with us, along with toys for kids.  We are also working on establishing reliable connections here so that if we’re able to support or find support for local education and health projects, we know whom to trust with funds.

As I mentioned before, a dollar goes a long way here.  Most of the hotel employees at the Esmeralda make about $3 a day, but since they work 13 hour days (from 7 am to 8 pm), it comes out about 2 Bolivianos an hour or 24 cents.  John cringes to think that he makes their monthly salary in under an hour at his law firm.  If we do get something worked out to support local endeavors, you are hereby invited to join us in watching our dollars do a lot of good. Bolivia has come a long way in recent years with literacy and child and maternal health, but the statistics are still painful.  A recent article in the newspaper indicated that fewer than 6 in 10 births are attended by a trained professional.  Nearly 20% of women are illiterate.  Infant mortality is about 1 in 20, I believe, and there’s a lot of malnutrition.  I think kids here do better than in many other parts of Bolivia, because there are so many fruit trees and nearly every family can grow some food or have chickens.  On the altiplano, the land is not so giving.

People here are self-reliant and uncomplaining.  They don’t expect help from anyone and they certainly don’t ask us for help.  (By this time in our stay in Ecuador, John had been petitioned to buy a new fire truck for the town.)  Bolivians are dignified, proud and resilient.  They are also optimistic.  I haven’t met a single one who doesn’t place hope in Evo Morales, the new president.  The word ‘communitarian’ keeps coming to mind, although for all I know I’ve transliterated it or made it up.  (Things happen to one’s English after a while.)  There’s something here that we found in the islands of Micronesia – contributing to the community is valued more highly than individualism.  Coriqueños have a great respect for old people and children, both of whom were the first to walk in the Día de la Independencia parade.  People here are even kind to animals, and we often see dogs eating bowls of leftover soup.  Every day is a chorus of sound.  In the night, the dogs make quite a racket.  At around four a.m., the dogs go to sleep and the cocks begin to crow.  By dawn, the Uchi bird has begun its raucous song and the hammering and pounding (Latin America is always under construction) begin….  This morning there was singing in the distance, the last hours of a wedding celebration that took place yesterday.

I will miss our unusual, intimate, always interesting life here, as you can surely tell.  I appreciate being witness to the distilled survival of my species and to having an opportunity to live in the moment.  There are many images I’ll carry away with me, such as people sitting at tables with manual typewriters outdoors in La Paz, filling out tax forms for people in the old manner of scribes writing love letters for those who never learned to write.  The police station in Yolosa, where all vehicles stop, has two officers at a small wooden desk in an otherwise empty room.  They have a cell phone, a light bulb overhead, and a Bolivian flag on their desk – and that’s all.  This evening, we saw a whole skinned pig lying for sale on a streetside table in Coroico, its head and feet in an unrefrigerated glass case.  We had two hours earlier seen a bunch of foraging pigs and nursing piglets in Yolosa; the life cycle of living things is always close at hand.  Driving down to Yolosa, we passed an open-topped cargo truck so overloaded with citrus and people that it tilted to one side and one of its wooden sides bulged ominously.  Even the local people were pointing at it with alarm.  We watched that truck stop and perform its ablutions in Yolosa and then chug off up the hill toward La Paz.  Say a prayer for them.

It’s true that reality and unreality are mixed together here, just as time takes on another way of being.  I have had the most amazing dreams since we came here.  Elena suggested it might be due to mefloquine, our malaria pills.  I think it’s something else, though, some internal change in the sense of the possible.  Last night I dreamed we had a new president in the U.S. – a good one, someone we were all excited about.  In the last week, two of my most beloved dead came back to life in my dreams — my great-aunt, who would be 106 if she were still alive, and my and John’s firstborn, our cat Rachel.  Most miraculous of all was the dream of being in Grace Cathedral in San Francisco with my cousin Marcus, for whom our Marcus is named, and a vast number of black-haired Aymaras and other Bolivians in traditional clothing.  It was snowing inside the cathedral and it was so beautiful we were all wild with joy.

Yes, thank you so much for sharing in our journey.  It has meant a lot to us to have your spirits near us through this time.

Yours ever,


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Bolivia Letter # 7 — 2011 Return

Queridos amigos y familiares,                 Bolivia — June 25-July 7, 2011

John here.  Today I have dined on tubers shaped like giant grubs, been savaged by sand-flies, and been kissed — and then slapped — by a very saucy squirrel monkey.  We are back in Bolivia’s Yungas Valley, where we spent two months in 2006.  During one of our letters home that summer, Beret said she would love to come back in five years to see how the valley had changed, how the place and the people weathered the moments of transition they were going through back in those days.   Well, as she does with many things to which Beret puts her mind, she has made it happen.  We are back to finish the documentary video projects we began back then, telling the story of the “world’s most dangerous road” and the people who earn their living from it, the tourists who flock from countries so safe that they must travel abroad to buy risk, mountain-biking down the road, while locals send their kids up the same road on rickety pickups to study their way to a better life.   And as we did five years ago, we are having a blast.

In 2006 we shot over 40 hours of video, and we came home with a sprawling sense of landscape, issues, and people.  But somehow, the story kept eluding us.  The raw footage split into two documentary film projects: the first, a simple portrait of dance and cultural resistance in the Afro-Bolivian village of Tocaña; the second, an unwieldy, double-plotted hodgepodge about adventure tourism, coca politics, and economic hardship on the “Road of Death.”  Since then, successive rough-cuts of these films have sat on the hard disks of our editing computer like overgrown adolescents in the basement, refusing to grow up, but too old to be still living at home.   Friends and colleagues would ask, “What are you working on these days?  How is that Bolivia thing going?”  And we would respond with embarrassment and later resignation about the fact that we were just plain stuck.

Then this year, Paige graduated from high school and went off on her first adventures of adulthood, and Marcus gathered his moxie to attend a month-long sleep-away camp.  So Beret and I decided to celebrate this taste of empty-nesting with a trip that would reconnect us to the days of travel before kids, when we blew with the winds of our own desires through Latin America, Africa, and Europe.  I’d only dimly remembered that sense of freedom, one of my chief pleasures in travel.  And coming back to Bolivia did not immediately present itself as the best way to regrow those wings of youth.  In fact, Bolivia felt a bit like the wall I had been banging my head against for the last five years, and part of me was at times ready to let go of the project, as a failed attempt to tell a story that just wouldn’t seem to fit together, a 500-piece jigsaw puzzle with only 389 pieces in the box.  But the one time I gave voice to that feeling, Beret looked at me in shock and said firmly:  “We are NOT giving up.  We need to go back.”

I knew this was right, but I didn’t know why it was right.  Because I didn’t really know how we were going to get unstuck.  When we visited in 2006, the old “Road of Death” was about to be replaced by a new, modern highway passing over a different route, which meant that the mountain-biking groups would no longer have to share the road with the buses and logging trucks that gave the experience its main ingredient of actual risk.   I mean, the road is still a steep, one-lane, dirt shelf with 200-meter cliffsides and frequent landslides.  But if you’re not at risk of being run off it by a gigantic bus on a blind corner, the challenge of staying on the road becomes much more manageable, and the “danger” recedes to a level not much greater than that presented by a jeep trail back home.  On the locals’ side of the equation, once the road was relocated, the town of Yolosa, where we had done most of our shooting, would suffer the loss of its principal means of livelihood.   We had later heard that, after the new highway opened in late 2006, Yolosa indeed seemed abandoned, and that the mountain biking companies had largely taken over the old route as their own theme park of perceived risk, an “authentic” travel experience with most of the authenticity now drained out of it.  If we went back to do more shooting, would these realities simply be confirmed, making our story less coherent, or perhaps more depressing, than ever?

Still, our curiosity, our resolve to finish, and our memories of love for this corner of the world brought us back.  Last Friday we flew through the fleshpots of Dallas and Miami, landing without a hitch in the wee hours in the thin, frigid air of La Paz.  Beret had dreaded this leg of the journey because of its extreme altitude (nearly 13,000 feet in La Paz and over 15,000 at the high pass leading to the Yungas), and her fears were not misplaced, as she developed a fierce headache during the first twenty-four hours.   With Beret abed, I had the first day to wander the city by myself, navigating the steep streets and profuse sidewalk commerce by memory from five years ago.  I needed a cheap wristwatch (one of my thief-deterrent strategies when traveling) and so I started hunting.  Shopping in La Paz is a completely asynchronous experience, in which past, present, and future coexist simultaneously.  On every sidewalk is a row of women, dressed in traditional pollera skirts and bowler hats, selling mostly fruit, root crops, and fried breads, as they have done for centuries.  Right behind them are businesses selling computers, cell phones, stove parts, treadle-powered sewing machines, ribbons and lace, huge bags of confetti for special occasions, raw fish, soccer jerseys, refrigerators, dynamite, dried llama fetuses, and pirated Lady Gaga CDs.   All of this commerce takes up any available pedestrian sidewalk space, so to navigate on foot you have to walk out in the street, next to the line of cars and buses easing their way past with polite taps on the horn and just inches to spare.  For relief from the congestion you can enter old stone buildings into labyrinths of kiosks selling bolts of bright fabric or auto parts, with high ceilings and staircases leading God knows where.  And each business, each half-block, sells almost exclusively one type of item, so if you want a cell phone you go to one stretch of stores, and if you want an MP3 player you go up a half-block farther.  I thought a cheap digital watch would be among the electronics vendors, but they kept telling me “Más arriba” (go higher), so I kept climbing the steep grades, stepping over sidewalk displays of bubble-gum and fried pigs’ trotters, alternately delighted and nauseated by the succession of smells, mystified at how so many vendors could keep afloat, and amazed at how tightly-organized it all seemed to be.  Finally, just after passing a kiosk that sold literally nothing but VHS video cables (hundreds of them, twisting like black snakes with white, red and yellow heads) I came upon a man sitting on the sidewalk behind a large glass case full of wristwatches, pocketwatches, analog, digital, cheap, fancy, every kind of watch I could desire.    Five minutes and $3 later, I was on my way back down, navigating in reverse order the succession of vendors (let’s see, did I turn left here at the toilet seats?) in order to find my way back to the hotel.

The next day, we hired a very calm, thoughtful driver to take us up over the pass and down to Yolosa.  We opted for the new road, which we had only seen part of in 2006, on a clandestine shoot before it opened.  It really is an engineering marvel, full of cantilevered bridges and switchbacks.  But it is no scarier than Loveland or Berthoud Pass in Colorado.  In order to round out our footage (and I confess, for the sheer I’m in Bolivia now and I get to do whatever the **** I want joy of it), we shot standing up through the sunroof as the high Andes rolled by, not quite managing to climb back inside before the drug checkpoints came into view.  But the narco police didn’t care.

We arrived at the Senda Verde Wildlife Refuge and Eco-Lodge, one of the new developments since we were last here, in a state of elation to be back.  I’ll let Beret tell the rest, except to say that it is challenging to maintain your composure while conducting a video interview with a monkey sitting on your head and sticking its surprisingly human little fingers into your ear.  But now I know it can be done, and I’m a better person for it.


My turn!  Beret here and, having just read what John wrote, gratified that I got credit for our return to Bolivia.  We had a brief chat about going to Italy instead, but that felt pretty expensive and touristic, if that’s a word, and I like to go where life is a little more raw.  That’s one of the exciting things about the jungle – you realize that it could pick your bones clean.  But since we’re taking the path of greater creature comforts, we haven’t had such close encounters, though I did manage to get my thumb bitten by a pick-pocket of a Capuchin monkey this morning and our first night here John found the tiniest, most darling little baby of a scorpion lost in the oceanic dimensions of our bedcovers.

It’s very beautiful here, with a river that can sweep away whole towns during its flood stage of December through February.  I saw some men with shovels and wide, shallow wooden bowls and I thought… hmm, they look like gold miners (only the pan was the wrong material).  And that’s what they were.  We’re at a refuge for Amazonian animals rescued from various bad fates, and there’s a cacophany of irridescent, large wild birds and various species of monkeys.  Something here, I haven’t figured out what, has a cry that sounds almost human.  The monkeys are my favorite, especially the spider monkeys, which are remarkably elegant whether walking, climbing, or flying from tree to tree.  They climbed in our laps yesterday morning because it was cold, proceeded to wrap themselves into balls, and close their eyes in bliss as having a warm lap and chest to lean into plus a little bit of grooming to boot.  (Not being a genius with monkeys, I just treated them like cats.)  The smaller monkeys will leap from anything to anything, and one decided, while we were filming an interview with the reserve’s co-founder, that the top of John’s head was desperately in need of some nit-picking.  He (or she) ate peanuts all the while, so pretty soon there was quite an ecosystem on John’s head.  Our interviewee was saying serious and eloquent things, John was trying not to laugh, and I was trying to keep the monkey from mauling the camera, as it very much wanted to climb all over it.

I will be very sad to leave here tomorrow, but we are off to Coroico, our old home, which is up the mountain about a thousand vertical feet and where we hope to cross paths with our niece, Elena, who helped us film here five years ago.  Back to the birds for a moment (I can’t bear to stop talking about this wonderful place), they are so formidable that the one domestic cat I’ve seen must know it would be in shreds if it so much as cast an eye in their direction.  The birds groom each other, eat, and squabble.  There’s a baby alligator with a pool of its own and a large Andean bear that looks a lot like an adult Colorado black bear (with an extra lustrous coat – he gets fed raw eggs, papaya, and coconut, among other things) except for the distinctive yellowish mask on his face and his long, narrow nose.  We watched him being fed this morning.  It took a while for him to get interested in his food, but he came downhill, knocked his massive papaya off its perch, took one large chunk of husk off of his coconut, and stood up on his hind legs on his side of the fence to inspect us.  We were all of three feet away, but there was an electric fence that was reputedly in a good state of repair.  There are a dozen volunteers here, plus local staff, and the volunteers are young travelers from Europe and other places who heard about this place, or came to it after biking the World’s Most Dangerous Road, were as enchanted as we are, and asked to stay on.  I would too if I were 22.

Speaking of our age, the other evening John said to me, “You know what we are?’  This was after we’d shot a badly played game of pool (where we bent various rules) and the volunteers had come in to occupy the movie-watching and pool-table space for their evening’s leisure.  We could feel that it was their space, at least in a certain way, so after our game we went back to our large cabana.  That’s where John posed the question.  Somehow I could tell this question carried a bit of freight.  I waited, and then he said, “We’re their parents.”  Oh!  Indeed!  Yes, he was definitely right.  No way can we pass for young, hip people.  And John lathered it on some more: “No one wants their parents around when they’re doing their own thing.”  (He probably said something more elegant than “doing their own thing,” but I can’t remember now.)  And suddenly I saw myself through their eyes.  Thanks to John, I can’t go back to my ambiguous, free-floating traveler’s identity that didn’t have a lot of ideas attached to it.  THANKS, JOHN.

But, you know, we are finding ourselves to be the ones in the zoo, and that is wonderful.  This place is animal habitat, and we are just interlopers.  The dining room has a sort of tin roof and chicken wire for walls.  The spider monkeys go “thwack!” loudly onto that roof at any moment.  Various dogs, monkeys, birds and other animals are on the outside looking in at us, very much like we were aquarium animals and they had paid admission to be entertained.

We miss Paige and Marcus, but Paige feels not so far away (we’ll be even closer when we get to Isla del Sol on Lake Titicaca), though she’s currently a few thousand feet higher.  Marcus feels farther away, but we know where he is and so I can bring him almost close in imagination.  It’s really a shock to be reduced to just the two of us – with almost acres of time to talk, so much time in fact that we run out of things to say.  If we weren’t so focused on our filmmaking during these days, it would be stranger still because we’d be reading and writing and walking and gazing into the middle distance, maybe as we did 20 years ago, when we were finally finishing our schooling.  I remember long, slow mornings of coffee, the Sunday New York Times, and my favorite cat on my lap.  Into the middle of that came a fierce want: baby!  And holding the spider monkey in my arms yesterday reminded me how fine it is to hold a baby (though I confess this one was all hairy black arms and twining tail).

Lest you think I don’t care a whit about the film (and John does), here’s the deal: I am now very glad we didn’t finish the “road film” (as we call it) because it’s going to turn out better and truer to its subject than it would have had we called it done before now.  John gets the credit for this.  I was never going to give up and say “no film, it all goes in the trash” (are you kidding??), but I was at one point ready to say, “It’s good enough,” which it wasn’t.  I have long admired filmmakers who take years to make their films – because the story takes years or building the relationships necessary to document the story takes years – and felt that they were our betters.  After all, look at that staying power.  But now we can say, well, we did that once – we had the patience to wait until the story told us it was sufficiently complete.

When we got here, we reread the six ‘travel letters’ we wrote about and during our summer (well, the Andean winter) in Bolivia five years ago.  It’s a portrait of dawning awareness.  We kept wondering about this and that, and sometimes finding answers.  Now we’re again feeling the pleasure of revelations.  Talking again with the characters in our film after five years has been really interesting, and I keep learning things, such as that the former truck stop village of Yolosa actually has a municipal water supply.   I thought they piped their water out of the river (and who knows what goes on upstream), but in fact they have cleaner mountains water and use the river for washing clothes and bathing.  I almost wrote “and for runoff from their sinks, drains, and toilets,” few in number as they are, but that would be an assumption.  And my assumptions of the past have clearly led me astray.

La Paz is fascinating in the way John expressed.  It’s also amazing to see such a vertical city, houses clinging to steep mountainsides with a narrow valley in between.  I love the old colonial buildings best, but the day we were there and I got progressively sicker, I was thinking that if someone wanted to put me out of my misery (a nail through the skull was what came to mind), that would be okay.  It was magical thinking, the kind that strikes one at high elevation, and my goal wasn’t to die, but to be utterly without suffering.  We are headed back to quite high elevation for the last week of our trip and I think I am doing that based on hope (which feels like faith and almost like prayer) that I can get through to the other side, where my body comes right with the environment and I can enjoy the bliss of Lake Titicaca’s brilliant blue water and the sere, barren, and beautiful landscape of the altiplano.


Greetings from a fabulous balcony at the Hotel Esmeralda in Coroico.  It’s still Beret at the helm.  This is our old haunt, the hotel where we lived (and lived through the glories and low moments of the eternal buffet) for two months in 2006.  We had a double-decker room two doors down from our current room.  The kids’ beds were hobbit-sized, meaning too short for Paige, and there wasn’t even a door between the upstairs and downstairs of our room.  (Parents, time to pause: can you imagine that for two months?)  It’s as beautiful here as ever, and we’ve got our fingers crossed that our niece Elena will somehow roll in before night.  The chaqueo, meaning the burning of fields (as a way to get them ready for new planting), is starting up again, and it drives John crazy.  Over time, it fills the valley with smoke and bothers every living thing.  It’s technically “prohibited”, but that doesn’t mean much around here.   An out of control chaqueo burned for days over Yolosa a couple of years ago, killed the trees that were holding up the mountain, and when the rainy season came, down came the mountain, covering the road and bursting into the house of our film character, Don Timoteo, who is famous for being the first “human stoplight” on the road of death.  He is now out of work, aging, and eating a whole lot of oranges, which are cheap and abundant here.

This morning we bade farewell to the Senda Verde, but not before a baby howler monkey had snuggled in my lap and a traumatized spider monkey had been caressed and stroked in John’s lap.  One of the owners of the reserve is basically the alpha of alpha monkeys, but he was gone somewhere today, and two of the spider monkeys began to fight each other for the alpha position.  Such fights are usually brought to a stop when the staff douse the monkeys with buckets of water, but these two wouldn’t stop and … guess what happened to them?  They literally rolled off the proverbial cliffside.  Even down here, there are cliffs, and below them are rocks and rivers.  The monkey John held had been found shivering on the rocks below, but mainly unhurt, and he needed comfort.

Did you know that guinea hens travel in packs or pods – well, always together – and that their heads (I mean brains) are about a hundred times smaller than their big speckle-feathered bodies?  Well, now you do.  The coatis don’t pay an attention to humans (insects are much more interesting) and the strange ferret-looking creature that evidently has a mean bite is as curious as a smart kindergartner.  As for Coroico, it’s luxuryville, as we were able to go to the bounteous downtown and buy a slice of linzer torte (from Hans the baker, someone we know from years ago) and buy a big box of coca tea so we don’t have to live without it for another minute.  The Senda Verde had none and that was steep deprivation.  It also didn’t serve enough food for some reason (we have theories on that), and so John had three pieces of fried chicken for lunch and was a happy man.

One thing I love about Boulder is that it sometimes feels like a small town.  You run into people you know.  Miraculously, that’s happening here, too, even when we don’t expect it.  We were walking around downtown and I heard the voice of a woman talking on her cell phone.  Dios mio if she wasn’t the very same woman we interviewed in the Yungas Room of the coca market in the capital city of La Paz five years ago, the one who complained about the U.S. government’s desire to eradicate coca.  On what are we going to live? she said then and again now when I stopped to talk to her and told her that we’d interviewed her five years ago.  She was just as forthcoming as before, and looked not a day older.   We had also been trying to mail a letter to Paige in Peru, but the gate of the postal woman’s house was up, which means “I’m not in.”  We had dropped by and then circled back again an hour later, only to be disappointed.  I randomly asked the first woman I saw walking by when she thought the post office might be open and she was the post office!  The post office was her front room, fancied up with doilies on chairs and family portraits on the wall.  I feel like we’re in the land of small miracles.

Ten years ago, I thought it would be fun to write a book about how to take small children into the outback (ours happened to be rural, gold mining Ecuador) and entertain them with virtually nothing but … trash.  (I am not joking.  You can make a lot of cool things out of trash – whole cities, in fact.)  Now I am thinking about my current plan, which is to do this entire trip without washing ANY clothes.  Ladies, I have some tips for you on how to make your supply of underwear last three times as long as it should.  But I fear that if I went into details, it might be slightly disturbing.  So just imagine….  On the pants front, though, I can say that a pair of semi-dark (gray is good) hiking pants can last forever.  Mine have had orange juice and beer spilled on them, I’ve knelt in the dirt a bunch of times, been monkey-slimed, and they look really good.  This is day 7 and I’m wondering if I’ll even need to break out my backup pair.  (-:


John here again.  We’re still at the Esmeralda, and now it’s my turn to sit on the balcony and gaze over the endlessly-shifting configuration of clouds and fog in the valley across and below.  The weather over the last day has turned positively wet, with rain and fog blowing through all evening and most of today.  My niece Elena joined us yesterday (she was with us in 2006 as well) and we have been catching up on old times, talking about graduate school (she’s studying for a PhD in Latin American history), and taking a hike in the nearby mountains.  The hike normally boasts panoramic views, but with the fog we contented ourselves with closer pleasures, such as ferns, butterflies, and — suddenly — a very large rattlesnake curled on the side of the path.  Fortunately we saw him from about five feet away and stopped short before we got in striking distance.   He sat there lazily, sluggish from the cold, eyeing us, deciding whether we were really going to be stupid enough to make him bestir himself.  The answer, of course, was no, he could have his mountainside trail, and we would happily head back the way we came, grateful for the walk and the visitation from the ancient snake-god-from-the-mountain, or so in all his scaly glory he seemed.

Yesterday we had another memorable walk, to the Afro-Bolivian village of Tocaña, where the other of our two films is set.  We walked to the colonial main square of Coroico, found a not-too-aged taxi with a sufficiently-aged driver (there’s a sweet spot in there), and set off down the vertiginous cobblestone road to the valley floor, expecting to climb up an equally steep dirt road on the other side to get to Tocaña, perched on the side of the adjacent hillside.  But when we got to the riverbottom and turned towards the bridge, we hit an unexpected traffic jam.  It turns out the locals in the vicinity of the bridge were having a meeting with some government officials about repairs, and the meeting was expected to last for the next four hours.  I looked across the bridge and saw a cluster of perhaps 50 people standing in the middle of the roadway.  At a certain moment a forest of hands shot up, apparently voting on some matter.   After some consultation with our driver and some people on the fringe, we decided we could cross on foot, carrying our camera gear and daypack, and the taxista would wait for us to return.   As we nudged our way through the crowd (their looks were not terrible friendly toward us trespassers, as you might expect) I was struck again by how, in this world, the road through town is the meeting-hall, the market, and sometimes even the church.  And when the local people need the road for this purpose, traffic on either side patiently waits, as it would for a landslide to be cleared away.

After we humped up four km. of steep switchbacks on the far side, past coca fields and shrines to dead drivers, Tocaña itself came into view above us.  Upon sweaty arrival we learned that the new health center locals had been hoping for had been built in 2007, that the Bolivian constitution had been changed to account for Afro-Bolivians as a distinct ethnic group, and that not much else had changed.  We were happy to discover that the people had received an earlier cut of our film that we had sent to them some time ago, and that they were very pleased with how they were portrayed.  I sat in a small house with a grandmother whose daughter was one of the characters – and who had not yet seen the film — and watched it on a small TV.  Her dark face bloomed at seeing her daughter on screen.  Once townspeople realized we were the people who made the film, their faces radiated friendliness.   I had been nervous about going back, worried that we had created a portrait of the town that would not feel true to the people who were its subject.  But apparently we did OK, and we’re arranging to ship a bunch of copies of a bilingual DVD that they can sell to tourists.

But most moving was the former truckstop town of Yolosa itself.   We had also brought a cut of the “road film” to show people, a half-hour version that I had recently shown to a Rotary group in Boulder.  The film ends on a funereal note, with the town’s young people performing a traditional dance in costume in front of a shrine during their annual saint’s-day festival.  As we predicted back then, 2006 was the last time they danced that dance.  Once the new road opened in early 2007, Yolosa died back to a remnant of its former self.  Out of 80 original families, only 14 are still there.  Adding to the woes, a landslide hit the north side of the town last year and destroyed the shrine they had so beautifully decorated in our 2006 footage.  So when we showed the cut to a small group under the awning of an abandoned kiosk, people’s reactions were mixed — they laughed and smiled to see themselves on screen, but by the end they seemed subdued and sad to see the portrait of what they were, compared to what they are now.

And yet, there are signs of renewal.  The valley environment has recovered so wonderfully with the lack of smoke, dust, noise, and trash — now that the old road no longer carries the heavy truck and bus traffic — that Yolosa is now a beautiful, tranquil place.  The river flows picturesquely through the center of town.  Native birds and animals have returned.  The international agency that financed the new road’s construction is FINALLY about to release the funds for building a new tourist infrastructure, complete with a hotel, new, shops for receiving the mountain-bikers, houses, soccer-fields, and a wider channel for the river so that these new improvements might actually survive the rainy season for a year or two.  Along with these changes, there is a new awareness among the people about their environment that was almost completely absent when we were here before.  Now that they have re-oriented their efforts to earning money from tourists, they have begun to market their town as “eco-friendly,” complete with recycling bins and freshly-painted slogans.  Greenwashing?  Sure, to some extent.  But it’s partly genuine as well.  Perhaps the biggest change has to do with the landslide that hit the north side of town.  It was caused by the fact that the townspeople had set a fire to a nearby hillside the year before to prepare it for planting, and the fire had gotten out of control and burned the trees on the steep slope right above town.  The lack of trees made the slope susceptible to erosion, so the next year, it all came crashing down on their heads.  Thankfully, no one was killed.  But a lot of townspeople are now opposed to the traditional burning practice, which, by the way, the national government has now made illegal.   In 2006, when I would complain about the smoke and destruction, locals would just shrug.  Now they are actively trying to find new ways to prepare their fields.

The Senda Verde animal refuge is part of the change too.  The owners are Bolivians from La Paz, so they might as well be foreigners as far as the locals are concerned, but they employ local people to staff the place, and the animals’ effect on them is as profound as it is on the foreigners.  They also invite local school groups in to tour the grounds, teaching the kids a new way of thinking about the planet and their place on it.  Yolosans are a little nervous about having so many “wild animals” so close by, but they are realizing that this is their future, and the initial distrust they felt for the project appears to be waning.

The tourist trade is ramping up in other ways as well.  The leading bike company has installed a three-legged zipline over the town, employing more local youths in a job that requires them to learn English and maintain the safety equipment.   The high-pitched whine of the thing probably drives them bats as tourists whizz over the town, but it gives the locals another way to keep the gringo dollars in town for a few brief moments before they head off to test their bravery on another “dangerous adventure.”

Our two main characters from Yolosa, Mary and Julia, are both women in their fifties.  Mary is outspoken and judgmental, with short red hair and a businesswoman’s directness, whereas Julia is quiet and traditional in her long black braids.  But they are both survivors.   As Mary showed me the architectural drawings for the new Yolosa, I asked her what her own new place is going to look like.  “This isn’t for me,” she said.  “This is for the kids.  I’ll be dead in five years.  I’m old already.”  When we protested that this couldn’t be true, she told us of her diabetes, of her hope that she would live to sixty but her expectation that she wouldn’t get much father than that.  Julia, on the other hand, has living parents in her eighties and appears ready to live at least that long.  Other than the fancy gold dental work she had done, she hasn’t aged at all.  Probably all that coca-chewing keeps her young.  Anyway, we promised them both we would be back before another five years pass.   And when I return, I fully expect to see them both thriving.

Well, I’ll give this back to Beret.  If you’re still reading this tome, you have as much stamina and patience as the Yolosans!  Thanks for listening.


Beret here.  Yes, we’ve been ruminating for days on the fact that most people will not want to read anything this long.  Maybe a good machete job is the ticket.  Speaking of machetes, young boys carry them, working alongside their fathers.  We miss our monkeys, and have had to make due with less glamorous fauna – wolf spiders, a rat on our balcony, birds shrieking in packs or circling silently, a cat in an overly small sweater, and some sweet old dogs.  As for Mary, our Yolosa shopkeeper interviewee and friend, I found it very poignant that at 52, she’s thinking of her death.  We are her age-mates and we figure on 30 more years at least.  Life is hard on Bolivians and their lifespans are significantly shorter than ours although I could get monkey bite fever any minute and John learned from our Lonely Planet Guidebook, which we have had for years but clearly didn’t read, that the chuspis (sand-flies) that plague everyone here can carry leishmaniasis, which can infect internal organs and kill you.  Wahoo!  If the locals are worried, then I cock an ear.  Otherwise, why worry, eh?

I see that John didn’t mention that he just HAD to do the zip line.  And he just HAD to do it with our best video camera in his flying hand.  It was all fine, but only because the zipline staff sent a handler with him on the wire who could do the braking so John didn’t drop the camera or smash into the bumper for runaway tourists at the end of each leg.

It is COLD here.  There being no such thing as heat in Bolivia unless you live in La Paz and are upper class enough to have a space heater, alpaca comes in handy.  I’ve been sleeping in pajamas and socks and wool sweaters and my favorite alpaca hat, all this in addition to blankets.  I also, as Marcus will tell you, have a reputation for being a wimp.

Tomorrow we go back to La Paz, and the next day on to Isla del Sol.  We’ve had a great time listening to Elena share her knowledge about Latin American history.  I’m reminded of our student days, when our heads were full of what we were learning.  Now my thinking is more … dispersed.  Here, I grow prone to a certain empty-headed meditative state.  I would hazard a guess that Bolivians live much more in the present than Americans.  That suits me right now.  Here’s what I like so much about Bolivians: they’re hard workers, honest, and (most of all) have a very solid sense of pride and identity.  They believe their country is full of wealth – mineral wealth and fertility and beautiful ecosystems – and so they don’t say they are poor.  They will say that their governments (and the Spanish before them) have robbed the people.

As for small dishonesties, our taxista of yesterday was hoping to be hired to take us back to La Paz tomorrow, but his Toyota is too old and rickety for that.  John asked how old it was, and after a slight pause for cogitation, Marcelo answered, “Five years.”  John’s estimate was 15, given the car’s state of technology.  Can you blame Marcelo?  And his price to La Paz was less than half of what we paid to get here, so….

It’s time for bed, so I’ll sign off for now.  All of you in warm places, please radiate a little in our direction.  Even my feet are cold within my thermal socks.


Beret again.  Greetings from gorgeous Isla del Sol on Lake Titicaca.  To set the scene, it’s now nighttime, there’s no place to plug in any electrical object in our hostel, and what light there is is golden, from a single bulb overhead that dims at random.  This island is very beautiful and unpopulated.  It juts straight up from the very blue lake and across the water we can see the magnificent 20,000 ft. peaks of the Cordillera Real.  We are in a village called Yumani, populated by happy kids, hardworking adults, burros, amorous dogs, llamas, a few pigs, and a lot of sheep and lambs.  The burros do their loud burro call every so often and it seems to be their way of talking across distances or calling out their hunger.  Sound carries far because there’s so little vegetation, though there are eucalyptus trees and beautiful flowers.  We’re in the tropics, after all!  The steep hills are terraced, so people can grow potatoes and a plant I don’t know to feed the sheep.  The rooftops are tin (which glints in the sun), thatch and reed, and tile.  The buildings seem to be adobe.  The days are somewhat warm, but the nights are around freezing, and I have been sleeping for days in alpaca socks, pajamas, a wool sweater and an alpaca hat.  My biggest packing regret is not having brought long underwear on this trip.  So, here I am in bed, John dozing off beside me (he’s sick but starting to recover), in a shirt, two sweaters, and a Gore-Tex shell, with blankets atop.  And Bolivians are very good at blankets because they have to be.  Isla del Sol (Island of the Sun) is one of the most beautiful and peaceful places I have ever been.  We took a walk (which felt like a hike, since every step up at 13,000 ft. is a big deal) up a hill and then sat outdoors and watched the day slowly wane.  We ordered a pizza, having skipped lunch and been given a skimpy breakfast at our cheapest hotel yet (under $12), and waited for the dough to rise and the pizza to be made.  Long years ago, we’d make jokes in Mexico while waiting for food.  They went like this: now they’re catching the chicken, now they’re plucking the chicken, and so on.  In those days (and maybe still?) a bowl of chicken soup might easily have a pair of chicken feet (I’m talking yellow talons) sticking out of it.

Last night we were in Copacabana, the embarkation point for boats to this island.  We got on a boat with a bunch of young travelers (mainly Latin American, with some European thrown in), but the lake was rough and the boat was overcrowded, so they said they’d take just the ones who were going “one-way”, meaning staying on the island.  They got a new, smaller, nicer boat, but communication was so poor that everybody mobbed onto the boat.  I got on after the seats were all taken, and John was stuck on the dock.  That wouldn’t do, so I got off and we overnighted in Copacabana.  I loved the rocking motion of the boat out here, but a bunch of people seemed to be succumbing to seasickness.  The boats seats were two benches, one along each side of the cabin, and on those we perched.  Some people and two yappy dogs were on the deck.  Even getting to Copacabana required riding a sort of tiny boat (which was rocky enough that they gave us life jackets) and watching our big bus come across a stretch of water on something resembling Huck Finn’s raft.  John’s comment: “There are definitely some vehicles on the lake bottom.”

Taking in the stunning beauty of this place, John said, “Let’s stay here for a month.”  It is considered the birthplace of the sun in Incan cosmology, and it feels sacred.  It would be amazing to be a writer or a painter and live here for a while.   If only.  But we are very lucky to be here at all.  I was listening to a song: “We’ve traveled so far to be here.”  Yes, because we travel our entire lives in a way, don’t you think?  John and I visited Lake Titicaca 23 years ago.  That was when I fell in love with Bolivia.  I’m not sure how much longer this battery will last (it’s John’s old laptop), so I’ll sign off for now.  Thank you for sharing our journey with us.  Wish you were here, with all of your winter clothes on!  Right now I feel toasty warm (at last) and, as I do every day here, so happy to be here.


John here again.  If you’re still reading this shaggy dog – er, shaggy llama – story, I guess apologies for its length are superfluous.  It’s late morning of our second day on Isla del Sol, which for the moment is Isla de la Lluvia – Island of Rain.  The weather throughout Bolivia has been unusually cold and wet during this entire trip, and so I’m neither surprised nor unhappy about today’s weather – though it may make for a rough ride back on the ferry this afternoon!

We are lodged in a small set of rooms built in the past few years by an enterprising señora named Iola who wanted to divert some of the tide of tourist dollars that has flooded up this hillside lately.  This morning we had an interesting chat, which tempered our rosy projections about the pastoral community of this island.  Here’s what she told us:

In the old days, when Iola was a girl, there was little to do in the evenings except gather with your family and relations and tell stories, communicating with those closest to you what was really in your heart.  There were visitors, but they were few, and given the lack of infrastructure, they tended to be hardy and curious.  The islanders had of course always been poor; in fact, Iola’s grandparents were slaves of the local plantation just down the hill from our hotel.  But since 1952, slavery has been abolished, and the people were tired of their poverty compared with what they knew of the outside world.  In particular, they wanted electricity for their island.  It was a twelve-year campaign of petitioning authorities for the extension of high-voltage cables strung from towers straddling the strait between the island and the nearest peninsula.

They finally got their wish in 2000, just as the Millenium broke over the rest of the world.  The effect was immediate.  As soon as the households got electricity, they started spending their evenings watching TV.  Their kids learned more about the outside world than they ever had before.  They stopped spending the evenings talking with their elders, they stopped wanting to wear traditional clothes, and they started wanting things that they had never wanted before.   What’s more, with electricity came many more tourists, as the island was now able to offer them the accommodations and foods they were used to.  The old Hacienda was refurbished as a fancy tour destination.   The community became divided between those who wanted to develop tourist facilities as a group, versus those who wanted to build and earn for themselves.  A few people started making a lot of money, and others not at all.  Some of the new jobs were most suitable for children, such as the young boy who lugged our duffel bag up the steep slope from the wharf to our lodgings.  Iola told me that the kids who make money this way lord their wealth over their classmates, and kids who lack this money complain to their parents.  And what authority does a father have over a 12-year-old son who makes more than he?


Beret asked Iola whether, on balance, the electricity has been a good thing.  She said yes, but not without its drawbacks.  And I am thinking the year 2000 was a particularly rough moment in world history to jump from the grassy banks of subsistence agriculture into the deep and swift currents of the service economy, tending to the whims of 20-something backpackers, with their university degrees and gore-tex.  We stopped for coca tea at one particularly breathtaking vista overlooking the lake, and in the window of the adjacent pension sat a young gringa fresh from the shower, wrapped only in a towel, sunning herself in full view of whomever passed by.   I wondered what conclusions a local boy – or girl – seeing her might draw.

Iola tells us that the community has instituted a 20% tax on all tourism receipts, to be shared among all residents, as a way of evening things out, and she thinks this is a good thing.  I wonder whether the island’s traditional, communitarian values might be more adaptive in the 21st Century than the individualist, market-driven phase into which they appeared to be plunging.  But for communities, like individuals, it is often hard to skip steps on the staircase of development.

Still, Isla del Sol bit into my heart, leaving an itch more profound than a chuspi bite, and as the ferry took us off into the sunny lake (I am finishing this entry a day after I began it, and the sun returned by lunchtime) I vowed to return, some year, for perhaps a month.  Anyone want to come?

— Con mucho cariño, 

John & Beret

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Zaruma letter # 1

Zaruma letter # 1

Hello from Zaruma!                                                                  June 20, 2001

We are perched on the side of a mountain in this colonial mining town in southern Ecuador, where John’s grandfather worked for thirty years between the world wars and his father was born, and where we will be spending the summer shooting a documentary.  The subject?  Well, we’re still not sure.  But today’s subject was the alumni reunion celebration of a local high school, where half the town watched the other half parade through the narrow colonial streets to the central plaza, and where they danced to a brass band until noon (in fact, they’re still dancing now at 10 pm).  In an era when we spend so much effort “building community,” it’s heartening to be in a place where the web of life is out on the street, not on the internet.

We found a furnished apartment our second day here, with breathtaking views out the back balcony.  The mornings are sunny and warm but not hot, and mist rolls down the mountainsides in the afternoon, sometimes filling the valley below and cooling the evenings.   We have been more or less adopted by two local families and are meeting more folks every day.   Paige has a new girlfriend and is starting to make out bricks in the wall of Spanish that confronted her when we landed.  Marcus is still sizing up from a distance the crew of boys who play on the packed earth outside our apartment, which is actually a flat in a tall San Francisco-style house on, surprise, la Calle San Francisco.  Inspired by the local boys, Marcus has begun to work on his marble-shooting skills.   I (this is John talking) have been communing with the older generation, with the help of photos my grandparents took in the thirties of the nearby mining camp (now mostly destroyed), and am cheerfully butchering the Spanish language in all directions.

I’ll turn the laptop over to Beret for her own report. For my part, now that we have gone through the time-and space warp of leaving Colorado and arriving here, I am seized with an urge to crow at our amazing fortune (and I suppose I have just done so).   To avoid further irritating those of you who are reading this from your desks at work, I will just keep my s— eating grin to myself.


I find this town utterly charming — it’s not just that it’s beautiful here and vibrantly alive (no thanks to tourists — we’re the only foreigners in town as far as we can tell), but the people have a great sense of community, with components of pride, honor, friendship and togetherness.   Children as young as four are allowed to navigate the narrow streets by themselves.

Paige is on the way to having more freedom than she has in the U.S.   Paige and Marcus are clearly homesick at times and blissfully engaged at others (we have begun daily pilgrimages to the town swimming pool), and John and I are having a great time, having dreamed this summer for a long time before it arrived.  The U.S. seems like a parallel universe and I can barely conjure it up.  We are writing this email without yet knowing how we’ll send it, though there is one “internet cafe” in Zaruma, less than a year old, and some talk of cell phones that connect to computers.  The phone system is analogue and antiquated and I’m not sure how often we’ll be able to get on line.

The film project is underway already in the sense that the whole town is connected to gold mining, which is done by many with picks and dynamite and prayers for safe return at the end of the day.   The people of Zaruma are friendlier and kinder than I expected and they all seem to know one another.   The streets are incredibly steep and we practically tumble down to the market and main street below.  The long arm of multinationals reaches here — one can buy Fruit Loops, Coke Light, and Doritos, surely expensive by local standards, but we can’t find any pasteurized cheese and Marcus is going through grilled cheese sandwich withdrawal.  The mountains surround us, steep and layered as in Bali, and a sea of clouds some days pours down drom the high valleys near dusk, blanketing the land below.  I am, in a word (well, two), blissed out.   We hope all is well with  you wherever you are (that would include Saipan, Nigeria, Quito, Boulder, the Philippines, and various other parts west, north and east of here).

Yours from afar,
John and Beret (and Paige and Marcus)

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Zaruma Letter # 2

Queridos amigos y familiares,                                            24 de junio, 2001

We enjoyed writing our first joint letter and especially enjoyed hearing from some of you in the days that followed.  I feel like my senses are sensitively tuned at most times here.  When I’m at “,” the sole (and new) internet “cafe” here in Zaruma, which is also a larga distancia telephone outlet with a shortage of telephone lines (one line — so its either phone or internet but not both at once), part of my mind is in the northern hemisphere, and the rest is in the small room, grappling with the stiff keyboard and its differently placed keys, the music and engine sounds drifting in from the street, and whatever else is going on.  Two days ago, the Ecuadorean man next to me was weeping copiously into his email, which struck me as brave and open, not what a man from the U.S. would be likely to do in such a public setting.

Yesterday we had an almost all-day power outage, which pointed out the electricity dependence of our addictions — email, ice cream, warm showers.  We have warm water in our shower (if set at very low water pressure) and cold water elsewhere.  Cold means cold.   We have a three-burner gas stove, which is hard to modulate.  It’s a burn and boil kind of stove.  We’re enjoying our adventures in food procurement and cooking.  I especially love the indoor-outdoor market.  Do I miss my fabulous kitchen in Boulder?  You bet!  But that house feels like someone else’s mansion right now, which it in fact is, as we’ve rented it out and our fish, cat, and my best orchid have all been placed in other homes for the summer.

By late yesterday afternoon, my mother arrived in Zaruma by bus and pickup truck from the coastal city of Guayaquil.  She had been on a tour to Machu Picchu, the Galapagos, Quito, and Otavalo.  The lovely woman (who is also a nurse at the local hospital) who has been washing our laundry by hand in the cement sink on our balcony-terrace offered to meet my mother at the airport in Guayaquil.   Which was a very lucky thing, as it proved harder to get here than any of us expected.  Changing buses in Machala, a couple of hours into the journey, required dragging the luggage across several city blocks.   We learned that the very next T.A.C. bus from Machala after my mother’s crashed between the small city of Pinas and our city of Zaruma, killing three passengers.  I found that pretty unnerving, though when I asked John whether it gave him pause about taking the kids on buses — essentially our only way to go on side trips here — he just shrugged.  And I know what he means.   You do your best to be safe and then you give over to a kind of fatalism.   The drivers in Zaruma are very careful, which they need to be, given the narrowness of the streets and the number of pedestrians, especially children, who are in them at all hours.  But elsewhere the passing on blind curves, passing three abreast, passing while the passengers debate about whether they’re better off or worse off if they watch the road, is the norm.  We decided to offer an extra dollar to local taxistas if they promise No Unsafe Passing.  Ecuador is newly on the dollar — dollarization is generally a destructive thing for Latin American countries — and that makes money dealings easy for us.   We can tell when things have sat in stores for a long time because their prices are still marked in sucres, usually to the tune of five or six mystifying digits with a period plunked somewhere in the middle.

We’re two weeks into our ten-week trip and we’re … still happy.  We continue to be delighted by this small city and the wonderful people who live here.  Word has gotten out about us and why we’re here.  It’s said that 3/4 of the families here live off of mining in some way or other.  John has all sorts of interview prospects.  Last week he interviewed an 84-year-old miner who remembered the old, old days when John’s father was a child.   The relationship between Zaruma and mining is not completely obvious because when one is near downtown, as we are, it feels like the city lives off of commerce.  But mining is everywhere — any dirt road out of town seems to lead to an artesanal mine.   Signs that say “I buy gold” hang from storefronts downtown.  Many of the older buildings are wood and there are old-style wooden shutters for many storefronts and swinging saloon doors for saloons.  It’s the Ecuadorean West.  There’s a store that sells nothing but carbide lanterns.  Rubber boots for miners cost $4 and I’m off to buy a pair tomorrow because it looks like we have a mine shoot tomorrow afternoon.

Today we attended a fiesta at a local Catholic school where our neighbor teaches and where we’re going to take Marcus to the pre-kinder to see if he enjoys the preschool scene.  John was the Pied Piper of children — at one point, he had about a dozen boys clustered around him and the video camera.  We were told my another neighbor that part of the school is actually subsiding and is structurally unsafe because too many mine shafts have been dug into the ground underneath it.  Can you imagine?  They’re been mining continuously since the mid-16th century here and so they have to go down much deeper than in previous centuries.  This is dangerous for a number of reasons, especially bad air and cave-ins.  But I bet two hundred years from now it’ll still be going on … somehow.

My friends Lynne and Don were married today in Colorado and I took a walk up above town to commune with their wedding long distance.   It was so beautiful at that hour — 5:30 pm — with twilight coming on, the clouds spilling into the valleys between the mountain peaks and lying there in a thick layer, peaks above and peaks below.  In the course of my walk, I came upon many gardens — bougainvillea, roses, orange trees, bananas, onion, lettuce, cilantro, mysterious tropical fruits, chickens, dogs, a pig, a gold mine, an improvised cobblestone street (small rocks set into the earth), a house made partly of earth and bamboo, and a girl from the fourth grade class I visited with Paige earlier this week.  I love the beauty of this place and I love its sounds — the Andean music that we hear sometimes, the cocks crowing at all hours, the crickets, diesel motors, dogs barking, and hum of human voices.

The ten o’clock siren went off 20 minutes ago, signaling bedtime to all those with timepieces and without.  We’re so greedy for our quiet time when the kids are asleep (they’re currently sleeping together across the short axis of a double bed) that we tend to stay up late.  The cockroaches tend to creep and skitter in the dark hours, so I slip on my shoes if I get up in the night.  Last night we had the most beautiful leaf-mantis creature on our terrace — about four inches long, as green as Ireland in the spring, and shaped like a leaf with skinny legs.  It stayed all night and was gone by mid-morning.   Paige and her friend Karen have taken to scavenging in the canyon behind the houses — a graveyard of junk and trash and tropical trees and decaying foliage and, oh yeah, all the cockroaches murdered by yours truly.

As you can see, I am not running out of things to say, but I think it’s John’s turn now.  We’d like to write a “group” letter a week except for the times when we’re on the road.  We’re thinking of trips to Loja/Cuenca in the southern highlands, to Quito/Otavalo in the northern highlands, and to the beach near Machala or Guayaquil.   The acute homesickness of Paige and Marcus seems to be subsiding a bit, but still — it has been more intense than I anticipated.  Of course, they have a huge language barrier, while John and I are blabbing away in our fractured Spanish.  My hubris that our nearly undivided attention would be enough has been punctured, as all hubris ought to be.  Now that my mother’s here, we’ll focus on getting some footage shot for the documentary.  We miss all of you and hope you’re having a lovely summer.  We’ll be at while we’re in Ecuador and we welcome all news of you.  John and I are happy here and I’ve actually read two books, one set in Sri Lanka and the other set in Nepal-Tibet.  Now I’m hanging out with Galileo in the early 17th century.  I haven’t started writing poems yet, but I’ve read a bit of Neruda, whose poems I love, and have been keeping a journal….  Be well, everyone.


John here.  I’m not sure how much there is to add to the above (I’ll claim first dibs on next week’s installment).   I guess the main thing is that the fun and of researching our film project has exceeded my high hopes.  Last Thursday I went with a 76-year-old neighbor to the town of Portovelo (where the mining operation that my grandfather worked is actually located) and toured the places that show up in our family photos: the giant, cylindrical cyanide tanks used for processing ore; the company store; the camp hospital where my grandmother worked and my father and aunt were born; the gringo social club, with its swimming pool now filled with rubble but the high dive supports still standing; the “casa mirador,” as the house where the family lived was called, set on a bluff above a steep slope with sweeping views of the valley, with the ruins of formal plantings and overgrown, shattered walkways all around.  The man who now lives in the downstairs of the gringo social club says he hears ghosts in the billiard room.   My image of the place has been so shaped by sepia photos that I was surprised to see it all in tropical green.

And there is a fair feeling of archaeology to the work, as the gringo company left in 1950 and the national enterprise that tried to continue the works failed in 1979.  Since then, small-scale miners have tunnelled this way and that with little great success, the ore tailings have been sifted through and the buildings once located on them destroyed, and the company files apparently burned.  The headshaft superstructure of the mine, known as “El Castillo,” was knocked down some years ago, to the great distress of the old-timers.  And the jungle has worked relentlessly to erase anything that humans have not actively preserved.   As a friend once remarked to me, the difference between the first and third worlds is not construction; it’s maintenance.

On the human side much is lost as well.  Most of the retirees I am in contact with remember the company in the 40’s, after my grandfather had left.  One exception is my neighbor’s 102-year-old mother, who worked as a housemaid for the gringos in the 20’s.  She clutched my hand as we talked in place of seeing me, and as I fairly shouted my questions and she keened her replies, I had the feeling of a conversation over short-wave radio with the static drowning out every third word.  She was upset by the camera that day and drifted in and out of lucidity, but I hope to get her on tape on a good day before summer’s end.

Some things remain, though.  My father’s and aunt’s births remain inscribed in the large folios of the Registro Civil of Zaruma, where even the staff awoke from their bureaucratic lassitude when we found the right hand-written pages from 1918 and 1921.  My father’s entry confirms an old family tale, that his middle name was initially “Burr,” until the maiden aunts objected by telegraph from New Jersey that they would nave no great-nephew named after a traitor.  So my grandfather relented and changed it to “Bayard.”

Well, now it’s 11:30 and the kids will be up with the roosters (around here that’s NOT a figure of speech), so I’ll sign off.   We’ll try not to be so long-winded next time.   Enjoy your northern summers, and be well.  XXOO John.

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Zaruma Letter # 3

Queridos amigos y familiares,                       30 de junio – 1 de julio, 2001

John here.  It is remarkably quiet for a Saturday night.  There is salsa music pulsing somewhere in the darkness, but too far off to get the melody.  It has been over an hour since any M80-sized rockets exploded in our vicinity (though there were twenty or thirty earlier this evening).   Only one dog is howling.   Nobody is doing any late-night mufflerless transmission testing on the steep grade that winds up past our apartment.  And the ten o’clock siren has come and gone, summoning all the Christians to their beds.   I may actually sleep tonight.

It is not too much of an overgeneralization to say that, on the whole, the Zarumenos love noise.   Large social gatherings are overladen with music loud enough to make conversation difficult.  The early morning trash truck repeats the same salsa tune endlessly over a loudspeaker to alert the neighbors to its whereabouts (I have thought of this song as the “trash song,” and was amused to hear locals dancing enthusiastically to it the other night, but my friends tell me it is an important traditional melody).  But just how much the locals love noise we shall soon see, because we are approaching the time of the annual fiestas.  Every night the Virgen del Cisne is paraded through a different neighborhood, accompanied by  powerful rockets and a brass band.  Last night there was loud music and a whooping DJ until about 3:30 a.m.  When the fiestas really get started, I am told, this will be a nightly occurrence.   We will either have to join ‘em (which involves figuring out late-night childcare options that are not readily apparent) or go deaf.  If in the meantime these weekly e-postcards get a little grouchier, you’ll know the reason.

Monday we toured another mine, with our wonderful friend Fabian.  Our first mine experience had been pretty tame, with electric lighting and no really scary precipices, so we were feeling pretty cocky.  And then there was Paige, militating to be allowed to go into a mine.  So we decided to take her on the next shoot.  This time we had carbide lanterns instead of electric lights, plenty of scary precipices (a couple of which you had to cross on planks over blackness you could not see the bottom of), and at the end the air was so thick with moisture that I didn’t dare film where the men were pounding away with a deafening air-hammer.   Paige thought it was all pretty cool, and it was educational as well.  As soon as we got home, she went to work with colored markers on a document entitled “My Mining Report.”  The first section gave the reasons Why Mines Are Not Safe, most of them based on her personal observation.   An apt subtitle to this report would be Why Child Protective Services Should Meet Us At the Airport Upon Our Return, and no doubt several of you will be making such arrangements shortly after hearing this tale.  But you’ll be relieved to know that we have learned our lesson, at least for now.

*** Next day.  Beret here.  John is on the back terraza reading The Hobbit aloud to Paige and Marcus.  Paige’s recent letter to Maggie, our friend and childcare provider, gave us a good laugh.  Herewith a couple of excerpts.   On the mine she went into: “There were big black holes and wooden bridges.  There was a place where a long time ago people threw down the sacks of ore they carried on their backs.   There were these weird lamp thingimabobbers that had fire flames sticking out of the front of them.  They didn’t usually go out from the water that dripped from the ceiling, but sometimes they did.”  It was, in a word, scary, because the shafts that drop off the cramped main tunnel are easily 100 feet down.  Fabian also led us through some of the “detours” dug to go around cave ins.  It was scary during, exhilarating afterward, if that makes any sense.

On the subject of her sleeping arrangement, Paige wrote to Maggie, “I have to sleep with Marcus in a two-person bed, shortwise, not longwise, and my feet hang off the edge.”  On what she does for fun, “There’s a place near our apartment that I call the secret hiding place.  It has a table and an old chair with three legs and no seat on it, and a lot of trash.  There’s also a broom that I sweep the trash with and use some of the trash to make stuff.  Like an old telephone wire and a piece of wood are a telephone.  And for the chair I take pieces of wood and put them on the chair to make a seat, and put sticks underneath to make it look like a fourth leg.  I put a sign that said coca cola on it that’s made of metal and a piece of rubber rug on it so that it didn’t hurt anybody, and then I put some pretty tissue paper with stars on it and today I put tape on it.   I strung a cord from things around and tied confetti on it.  And I found some old soap that I’m using as soap for the bathroom.   I did this with [my friend] Karen.  She helped me a lot.”  Alas, once Karen’s mother figured out that this was the playplace where we had lured her daughter, she said Karen couldn’t play there any more.  Which is just as well, really, because even with tetanus shots….

Still, it’s hard to give up the wild canyon with all its treasures.  One of their games (before they were banished, that is) was to pick wild coffee beans and baby avocadoes.  Postscript: After I wrote the above, our upstairs neighbor suggested that we shouldn’t let the kids play out back because of “culebras”.  John translated this as “cobras,” but perhaps it just means “snakes”.

If you were waiting for me to say that there’s something surreal and magical about moments in our life here, then I will.  Marcus walks around with a tiny, hundred-year-old copy of Shakespeare’s Henry VI in his pocket, asking to have it read aloud from time to time.   He likes to walk through churches, the market, and the parque central.  Paige likes to play “orphanage” and “harvest.”  The other evening I came upon John sitting on our bed reviewing footage — “dailies” as filmmakers call them.   Right over his head a large cockroach was taking in the evening air.  For some reason, an extended family of cockroaches began to take the night air on our bedroom ceiling.  I am a bit phobic about cockroaches, so the only comfort for me was that they favored John’s side of the bed.  In the end, I demanded fumigation with “Baygone.”  Put on your best Spanish accent, say “Bye!” “Gone!” and you’ve got it.  My other favorite brand name is “SNOB”, which makes the best strawberry jam to be had.  The food here is so much fresher than in the U.S. and we are being treated to incredible hospitality by our neighbors — shrimp ceviche, tegrillo (cooked banana, egg, and cheese), yuca (yucca), sopa de pollo (chicken soup), and manjar (carmel dessert).

Before I leave the land of insects, there’s a winged creature here, kind of like a giant grasshopper in that it can hop and fly, that scares the local people because it has a fierce bite.   We found one in the street the other night and John put his hand down to measure the beast.  It was bigger than John’s hand — about six inches long!  Now keep in mind that we’re not even close to the Amazonian basin here, being in the mountains and all.

My mother and I went to visit the local hospital with a nurse we know.  It’s the most basic medical care facility I have ever laid eyes on, but they are able to do emergency caesareans and local women usually give birth there.   There’s a women’s ward and a men’s ward, with bare mattresses, a couple of bedside tables, and bare lightbulbs hanging from the ceiling.

Yesterday we went to a nearby river (upriver from the mercury and cyanide processing mills for the 800+ gold mines around here) that has a wonderful balneario — a swimming concession with various pools, not to mention the river itself.  The kids asked to go back today, but it’s a ways past Portovelo on a dirt road and yesterday the taxista decided it was better to stay and swim than have to come back for us in three and a half hours.

This morning John and I took the bus to the barrio of Faique, where the norteamericanos were buried in the era of John’s grandfather.  With a couple of local guys, we hiked down to the town of Portovelo, stopping along the way to film.  We were able to visit the house on the hill where John’s father was born.  The people there had some old books in English, including one with John’s grandfather’s signature inside.   I videotaped, John wept with the emotion of the moment, and the family that lives there graciously showed us every room.  The glassless windows are covered with chicken wire, but the house, in spite of its decay, retains some of its former grandeur, having the only fireplace we have seen in these parts and an old woodburning stove with an oven.

To get an idea of what life costs here in Zaruma, a large unfurnished flat might cost $25 a month.  We are paying a king’s ransom for ours, but that’s another story.  Coffee is $1 a pound, rice 20 cents a pound, carrots 12 cents a pound.  The miners who work full time might make around $100 a month (sometimes more, sometimes less), which means $5 is good money around here.  Many people have abandoned agriculture because mining pays more.  These days in many local mines each ton of ore yields only a few grams of gold and the sheer physical labor of carrying out each ton of ore in sacks on men’s backs is just staggering.

I’m charmed by the local buses which grind up and down the mountain between here and Portovelo.  Many of them are trucks with painted open air wooden structures on their beds.  The structures have four wooden benches apiece, a roof, and enough wooden sidewall that people don’t fall out.   The seats are numbered 1 to 20, but people end up riding on the runningboard if there are more than, say, 15 passengers.   If you want to get off, you yell, “Bajo aqui!” (I get off here!) or you reach out and pound the metal roof hard until the driver hears the noise.   Zaruma reminds me of Boulder — at random moments, I’m struck by the breathtaking natural beauty all around.

We do have longings for the creature comforts of home.  John misses our bed the most, with its sheets that fit and its pillows that aren’t like like river stones under our heads.  (I brought a down pillow with me and I’m the envy of all.)  I don’t mind the bed much, but I miss my kitchen with its double sink and hot water and liquid dish soap. Yesterday we made pancakes with yeast as leavening and jam instead of syrup.  We had offered this cooking idea to Paige a couple of weeks ago, but she essentially said, “Wait until I’m more desperate.”  Which translates into, “Wait until the memories of things left behind recede.”  And that is exactly what is happening.   Some days the membrane between Spanish and English feels as thin as the filament in a butterfly wing.  Other days, well, it’s time to butcher some reflexive pronouns!  I love living in the moment, as we do here, and having the sense that there is enough time.  We parents aren’t getting as much time to ourselves as we would like, but we have ample time to be together as a family.  I hope you’re all well.  Sometimes one or another of you walks through my dreams.

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Zaruma Letter # 4

Queridos amigos y familiares,                                  el 7 de julio de 2001

Muchas gracias to those of you who sent wonderful letters in the wake of our last missive.  We are not very good at individual correspondence this summer, for want of time mainly, but we hope you can hear our silently composed and warm responses.  The XVI Feria de la Mineria began last night in Portovelo.  The official schedule stated that the annual national contest to choose the Queen of Mining would begin at 9 p.m.  We gringos arrived at 8:30, which meant good bleacher seats for us, and the beauty contest began a bit after 10.   I was sorry that I forgot my earplugs, and ended up stuffing kleenex into my ears, which was good for about 15 decibels.  Before the pageant a young Neil Diamondesque singer tried to rouse the crowd, but it was early yet.   The mayor’s office had a lovely projected slide show of historical photos of Portovelo, some of which belong to John’s aunt Betty Sykes’s collection.  We got to see John’s grandparents on the big screen and John was personally thanked in the course of things.  (We were already conspicuous with our blonde daughter and video camera on tripod.)  More entertaining was when the mayor came over to ask John to be one of the pageant judges!  It would have meant staying until the happy (the Portovelo candidate won) and inebriated end (4 a.m.) and not getting to videotape the increasingly rowdy and entertaining goings on, so John told the mayor, “It would be a great honor, but….”  I detected a bit of wistfulnes (“It’s the only beauty contest I’ll ever be asked to judge”) and some relief (“I have some hankering to be a judge … but not that kind”).  Speaking of judges, he learned some interesting things about corruption and how judges here make their living this week.  But back to the beauty pageant, Paige and I stayed until she’d seen the contestants do a mini-skirted dance number.  She was hoping they’d all be in crowns and long dresses.  It was then after 11 p.m., teenage boys were dipping into their stealthily acquired hard liquor supplies, and the crowd was warming up to the evening.  Paige and I decided to head for home, which was a good idea, as it proved hard to find transportation back to Zaruma.  At 1 a.m., John had to settle for a friendly but drunk owner of a pick-up truck, who brought him home VERY FAST for $5.

For my part, I prefer the open air buses to the taxis.  Yesterday all five of us (the two of us, the kids, and my mother) hiked from El Faique, where the Americans are buried, to the Casa Mirador where John’s family once lived, and ended up down in Portovelo, where we caught the most overloaded camioneta we have been on to date.  (And it just figures that it would be my mother’s first ride.)  This was the smaller of the open air buses.  There are four benches and they’re so close together John and I have to sit partly sideways.  I counted 19 people in the back, three in the cab, one on the running board, and two plus cargo on the roof.  Someday, if I’m lucky, I’ll get a photograph of a moment like that.

In the afternoon, John and I went to a merienda (afternoon meal) at the house of Las Senoras del Faique.  They are three sisters who live by themselves in this tiny village/neighborhood of 10 houses, a wooden church, and the American cemetery.  They want to repair their church (whose roof is leaking and spoiling the beautifully painted wood ceiling) and fix up the graveyard whose occupants include a 2-month-old baby, a five-year-old boy, and a young wife.  There’s a lot of nostalgia among older people for the old days of the Campamento Americano, which was lovingly landscaped, and a lot of criticism in leftist writings of the imperialist doings of the “South American” company.  People here don’t always agree on facts about the past, and in the end some of it comes down to politics and to how one sees the world.   For my part, I like trying to hold the opposing points of view in the palm of each hand.

Perhaps the most wonderful thing that happened to us and our incipient film this week was an interview with Don Delfin Calle who, at 94, is said to be the oldest living miner left from the South American Company era.   He is living in the house where he lived decades ago with his growing family (nine children in all).  He arrived at the Campamento on foot to ask for a job, having walked for five days through the mountains from Loja.  This morning John interviewed a former mineworker labor organizer and ongoing communist intellectual who lives in Portovelo.

Paige is developing a good Spanish accent — believe it or not, she actually says “No!” with an accent when playing with her friends here — and both kids have perfected the art of playing with kids without much conversation.  Paige surprises us sometimes by what she understands in Spanish.   Just this minute a pickup is driving up our street announcing over its rooftop loudspeaker that the Reina de Zaruma (Zaruma’s Queen) will be crowned tonight beginning at 8:30 p.m.  And so it starts again (only louder, because it’s not far from here).  In preparation for the upcoming Fiestas, people have begun hanging colored streamers over the streets of their neighborhoods and the bomberos (firemen) went around town late at night washing down the streets.  Three firemen walked down our steep hill holding onto the blasting hose, the truck trailing slowly behind.   The Virgin is being carried around Zaruma in the evenings, always accompanied by lovely singing.   There’s some tension between the many Catholics and the few evangelical Christians; I try to avoid the subject of our religious beliefs, though people have impeccably good manners here and the strongest response to our relative atheism has been, “Of course, God made the world and everything in it.”  I like the shrines to the Virgin at the openings of many mines, because the miners are in need of protection.  Two months ago, there was a cave in in a former South American Company mine above Portovelo.  The three miners who were killed fell so far down that their bodies were hauled out from the other side of the mountain.

I’ve been thinking about the schools here, as Paige and I visited the primary school across the street and Marcus spent part of a morning in a pre-kinder at another school.  We live and breathe primary school, as the recited lessons, a loud group chant from a dozen or more classrooms, reverberate all morning Monday through Friday through our house.  The learning method is very different from what goes on at Paige’s school — it’s mainly oral and group- oriented.  I was at one moment reminded of the terrified law students in the film “The Paper Chase” when third graders were asked to recite one by one the definition of the “subject” of a sentence.  All in all, there seemed to be a greater emphasis on theory (they were actually learning grammar) than on the practical application of concepts, which  is about the opposite of Paige’s school.  There’s also a contrast between individualism (U.S.) and uniformity/group (here), though I’m not sure what happens at the secondary level.  The starkest contrast between the schools here and in the U.S., besides the teaching methods, is the extreme plenitude of materials in the U.S. and the extreme dearth here.   Public school is free, but if the parents can’t afford the pencils, notebook, and one or two or three schoolbooks out of which the pupil works all year, then a child can’t go to school, because the schools do not have the funds to provide those materials.  When Marcus visited the preschool at a school wealthier than the one across the street (which educates many of the miners’ children from the hills above us), there was one bin of crayons, one bin of plastic manipulatives, a few Pokemon and Disney puzzles, and that was it.  The teacher hand-drew each child a banana and an orange and gave each a yellow crayon to color them in.  Marcus thought his orange was an apple and asked for a red crayon, but yellow was the color of the day and that was that.  I felt like sweeping into American schools and gathering up armloads of materials for these students because it’s just not fair that these kids and their teachers have so little and our kids have so much more than they need.

We tried to buy sparklers in Portovelo to celebrate the 4th of July, but that proved impossible.  So our ever resourceful Queen of Holidays daughter improvised.  She wanted a red, white, and blue theme, so we had red jello, white stovetop playdough, and homemade blue confetti.  Then we had a disco dance to one of Christina Aguilera’s songs, which Paige shyly lip-synched.  She is happy that her dad thinks she’ll be a teenybopper at the age of 8.

For those who like to hear about the domestic side of life (senoras y senoritas y hombres liberados?), how about the subject of hot water?  I admire the degree of resource conservation that goes on in so many other parts of the world, though I also am attached to having an endless stream of hot running water.  Here, as I may have mentioned, the only hot water is in the shower.  The heat is provided by a device that costs $10 and is essentially a heating coil-shower head.  To turn it on, you flip what John dubbed years ago a “Frankenstein switch” because it has two bare and electrically-live pieces of metal that appear when the switch is in one of its two positions.  Years ago, we failed to warn my stepmother about how to use these devices; I still remember her scream from the shower on her first day in Guatemala City.  The problem is reaching up with a wet hand to turn the thing off….  But anyway, the art of our shower is in turning the thing on (lightbulb dims overhead, so you know it’s on), and then turning the water pressure down low enough that the water moves from tepid to warm or maybe even deliciously warm, but the instant the pressure gets too low, the device turns off, the lightbulb instantly glows 20 watts brighter, the water runs cold, and you have to start the water pressure dance all over again.  I go through this about 20 times each shower, mainly because I don’t like cold water and because everything can be going along swimmingly until, say, the fridge motor kicks on, there’s a drop in power, the heating coil goes off, and so on.  In Argentina, we had a calefon, which is a larger version of a heating coil and can provide kitchen and bath hot water, but which one lights only when hot water is needed.  Imagine how much energy is saved each year by these devices.  Next week’s exciting subject: grocery shopping!

We’re off on the bus on Monday to Cuenca for several days and then to visit old Tweedy family friends in Machala.  We’ve had good luck with health (I was expecting GI ailments, but we’ve had almost none of that), though Paige had a sore throat and fever for a couple of days this week and my mother got a severe muscle spasm that spurred us to go buy an “esponja” (foam ‘sponge’) to soften her bed.  True to the spirit of the human drive to Find Cause, women we know here offered their theories on Paige’s illness.  It was caused by (a) our letting her play in the dirt, (b) the cold water in the swimming pool, (c) the temperature differential between the warm days and cool nights (“Oh yeah?” I wanted to say.  “Try a week in Colorado!”).  What’s sure is that the medical profession isn’t being paid enough by the government.  A dentist acquaintance from Portovelo who works full-time for the government earns $150 a month, which “isn’t even enough to buy food,” as he put it.  Locals have opined that it’s better to work for the government than to be in private practice, waiting for patients who can pay $7 or so in fees.  (I suspect many doctors and dentists do both — certainly in Argentina most professionals had about three different jobs.)  This week doctors and dentists all over the country are on strike.  And so far the government is saying no to their petition.  And now it’s John’s turn.  Take care, everyone!


Indeed, I HAVE been gnashing my teeth all day about not accepting the offer to judge the Mining Queen contest, and if they hadn’t sprung it on me at the last minute I might have accepted.  But as regrets go, it’s one I can live with.  After Paige and Beret left, the bikini portion of the contest was held, and the atmosphere became more charged with loud music and increasingly drunken cheering and catcalls.  I had as much fun filming the faces of the crowd as the events on the stage: fathers in profile with their teenage daughters; middle-aged mothers muttering comments to each other; roving bands of girls moving past roving bands of boys; portly town councilmen gazing from the front row like iguanas contemplating insects.   Spectators from out of town brought banners to cheer on their candidates, one of which blocked the view of the row of 50-ish men in front of us.  They protested their blocked view at first with the almost courtly expression “Tenga la bondad!” (Have the goodness).  By bikini time they were throwing plastic bottles at the offending banner-holders, and by coronation time who knows what they were throwing.  But I can’t tell you how that part turned out, because at a certain point I realized that the festivities were likely to go on until 4 am and I needed to bail if I was going to get a ride up the hill to Zaruma (which, as Beret mentioned, I barely did).  On my way out I ran into a local poet friend who had helped prepare the slideshow.  His comment was, “We will know the winner by breakfast, when they send up the white smoke.”  He also said, “In a few years we may get this down to its essence, with nude contestants and a nude audience.”  They have a ways to go to get to that level, but it’s still a ways past the marching bands of the fourth of July celebrations of my grandfather’s day.

I also wondered whether, in not agreeing to judge, I may have missed my best opportunity to receive actual bribes.   But whether the result was straight or crooked, the word is that the local candidate from Portovelo was crowned queen.

Speaking of bribes, a lawyer acquaintance recently illustrated the judicial corruption here thus:  “Sure, I’m expensive.  But from my fees I take care of everyone, the judge, the prosecutors, the court staff.  Other lawyers, you pay their fees and then you pay bribes to everyone else separately.  With me, its all in one price. “  Another classic moment in officialdom occurred one evening in the central plaza when a jeep roared past at top speed, a bottle spinning out the front window in the general vicinity of a trash can on the sidewalk.  As I looked up to scowl, I read the logo “Ministry of Public Health” on the door.   (A noteworthy number of public trashcans, by the way, are former sodium cyanide cans, with skull and crossbones still on them.)

For all this, the openness (to a certain degree) and warmth of the people is intoxicating.  The oldsters we are interviewing describe experiences that are beyond imagining.  The 94-year-old miner said that when he started in 1930 he was given two candles for an eight-hour shift.   They had typically burned or blown out by the end, so he would make his way back, up ladders and through tunnels several hundred meters long, by feel.   Today’s interview (which I had the poor judgment to schedule at 9 am) was with a communist union leader in the mine camp during the 60’s who was actually sent to the USSR by the Portovelo communist party for training.   His description of the paternalism and authority (but at the same time the care for basic necessities) in the Portovelo mining camp was strikingly similar to his experiences in model factories in Russia, and he had glowing memories of both.

And the daily living is full of  pleasure.  I love the verticality of the environment, present in so many ways: the open-air bus-toboggan ride down the hill to Portovelo (I  have become something of a commuter) and the slow grind back up; the switchbacking cobbled trails the miners used to take, now overtaken by ferns and floods and giant spiders; the winding concrete staircases traversing the town instead of sidestreets; the 10-degree temperature difference between Portovelo on the valley floor and Zaruma perched above; and the sweeping, enormous views so ubiquitous that we take them in like air.    I, like my father, do adore mountains.  And it’s great to discover where he got it.

Be well,  John

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Zaruma Letter # 5

Queridos amigos y familiares,                                    17-18 de julio de 2001

Saludos a todos.  We’re back in Zaruma, after a week of travel to the beautiful colonial city of Cuenca, its smaller and quieter neighbor Gualaceo, and Machala, the banana-growing capital city of this province, El Oro (literally: The Gold).  John and I were turned loose for a memorable evening  in Cuenca by my mother (our first evening out alone this summer) and we visited several bookstores and dined on shrimp and goat.  The actual name of the goat dish was “seco de chivo”, which means something vaguely like “dryness of goat.”  Ecuadorean food is wonderful and WAY fresher than U.S. food.  We will mourn the passing from our lives (our summer here is half over and a certain daughter of ours is celebrating) of very fresh eggs and chicken, and fabulous avocado, pineapple, papaya, and tangerines.

As for Cuenca, we enjoyed our beautiful hotel next to the Tomebamba River (luxurious hot showers!) and a trip to the Supermaxi netted us a version of maple syrup, two washcloths, and a knife for spreading peanut butter and jam.  For the first time since arriving in Ecuador, we were among our own kind — tourists — and John found that he didn’t particularly want to be related to as a tourist.   I enjoyed my solo trip to the Museo de la Medicina, which had all sorts of fascinating medical apparatuses dating back to the early 20th century.  Some of the more interesting devices originated in the U.S.  Can you imagine what Cunningham’s Incontinence Clamp looks like?  Hint: it is about two inches long and includes two rows of metal teeth.  Your guess is as good as mine about what the teeth clamp onto.

Our four days in Gualaceo were idyllic.  We stayed at the Parador Turistico, a chalet-style hotel on a hill above town.  It has a broad band of land around it, including a stream, a Eucalyptus grove, and a couple of pastures with cows, goats, sheep, and lambs grazing, attended by an old woman in the indigenous dress of women in the Andes (ample skirt, blouse, and long braids down her back).  The kids played happily under the umbrella of an acacia tree.  When John was down with a terrible bout of food poisoning, Paige pretended she and her family (Marcus) were so poor they lived under the tree, harvested their own food, and that sometimes people who stayed in the hotel gave them food.  The new John is thinner, has a tan, and is having to grow his sideburns back because the barber here shaved them off.  On our first afternoon in the countryside, we were all wandering up a path through the eucalyptus grove when my mother said, “Isn’t that poison sumac or poison ivy?”  Two days later….  By the way, one of the most enjoyable things about writing this group letter is the mail we get back with your personal tales.  Cockroaches were a rich topic.

We were struck by the number of beautiful new houses in both Cuenca and Gualaceo, so we started asking about the local economy.  It turns out that a large number of people from those two cities work (usually illegally) in the U.S. (mainly in the northeast) or in Spain or Italy.  They send the money back to their families, and the families in turn have the houses built.  Sometimes the whole family gets to the U.S. in the end, sometimes the marriages don’t survive, sometimes children end up being raised by other family members.  Since our arrival here, various attempts by visa-less Ecuadoreans to get to the U.S. have failed, though I’m sure many more have succeeded.  The most distressing recent attempt we know about involved over a hundred people packed onto a rickety boat.  We don’t know the details, but the crew abandoned the boat and left their human cargo locked below deck to die.  Ah, but someone had a cell phone and called someone in Ecuador, who called the U.S. Coast Guard, who rescued them.  The person who told us about it is the owner of a banana plantation in Machala; her carpenter was one of the rescued and he was quite pleased with how he was treated by the Coast Guard and has already left on his next attempt to get to the U.S.  Apparently, a lot of the route is by sea in overloaded and rickety shrimp boats.  Landfall is Central America, often Guatemala, from where the coyotes take people overland to the U.S. border.  The cost is as much as $10,000, and people often deed their houses over to the coyotes (called coyoteros here) and if they don’t pay within three years, guess who owns their house?   Another, sadder recent story is that this year a shrimp boat sank and all aboard were drowned, including a father and mother of five children who had been left with a neighbor.  When it was learned that the parents had died, the neighbor approached a relative of one of the parents, who also has five children and said he couldn’t take care of five more.  We don’t know what happened after that.

It’s not hard to imagine why people would risk their lives to change their destinies and those of their children, but why they would stay in the U.S. after earning the money is harder for us to understand, because each dollar goes so much farther here and because the southern highlands are incredibly fertile and beautiful and the climate is perfect.   But all that fertility doesn’t translate into a living wage.  I loved watching the Quechua-speaking women washing clothes on the bank of the river that flows through Gualaceo, but that doesn’t mean they enjoy standing knee-deep in the river, bent over a flat stone, scrubbing, year after year.

We went on a spectacular hike to the top of a hill overlooking Gualaceo and on our return crossed over the river on a wooden bridge that reminded us of walking the planks in the mine.  When we got to the far side, we were amused to find the sign, “Danger: Bridge Closed”.  It didn’t feel dangerous except for passing situations — if you’re the person next to the open water and the person you’re passing has, say, a bike.  And you’re toting a squirmy, 40-pound child.

The banana plantation in Machala was wonderful in its own way.  I finally thought I had found my way into a Dickens novel (specifically, Miss Havisham’s house in Great Expectations), because the tropical humidity has had its way with this elegant, large plantation house for over 50 years.  I have never before heard such a clattering of songbirds.  The owner was John’s aunt Betty’s childhood friend in Portovelo.  She is an 85-year-old grande dame and I thoroughly enjoyed her.   The kids enjoyed her Spanish-talking parrot and pet monkeys.  The problem with the banana plantation (bananas for export to the U.S., by the way) is that the Ecuadorean government is paying only $2.90 a box for export-quality bananas and it’s a dismal price for the growers.  The bananas have to be just so to suit the American mania for beautiful-looking food and this requires, you guessed it, chemicals.  Sorry to sound so many sad notes, but that’s the way it goes when one learns more about the realities of a place we have already grown to love.   I’d best not get started on the respiratory and other ailments suffered by people, including young children, up near the Colombian border because of aerial spraying to kill off the coca crop.

We were glad to come home to “our town” yesterday, after three hours on a hot bus.  The amazing thing about the bus from Machala was that no one opened a window to the foggy air except us, which is why a little girl brought me her trash to throw out the window.   I tried to explain why I didn’t want to throw it, but she was only about five and I think she just thought I was odd.  The roads are always interesting — people often dry their coffee and cacao beans on the edge of the asphalt, marking off the thin strip of borrowed pavement with stones.  There are a lot of landslide scars and rock falls on the highway to Cuenca and occasionally you’ll come around a curve and a steer will be staring you down from the middle of the road.

I was going to write about grocery shopping, but what’s on my mind today is the mail.  People here say that if you want something to get through, send it by DHL or some other expensive private service.  They don’t mention that the nearest DHL office is an hour away on the bus.  The Correos (government postal service) in Zaruma consists of one amiable woman.  If she goes on vacation, so does the mail.  When we received an aerogramme from a friend in Illinois, she climbed our steep hill to deliver it in person.  There are no house numbers, but I had named our neighbors for her.  We have been awaiting a package from our friend Pattea in Boulder, but today learned that the Correos (or possibly Customs) is holding it hostage in Machala (that would be SIX hours round trip on the fetid bus).  I am wondering whether we will have to pay ransom or merely show up with a passport and gracious manners.

Good news has been coming in over the wire about our documentary on Iwo Jima.  We won a Golden Eagle in the CINE competition (which is big news for little filmmakers), will be screened at the Great Plains Film Festival, and have been accepted into the Independent Feature Market, which means a trip to New York for me in late September if we feel we can afford it.  My dream is of a lucrative broadcast.  Thanks to all of you who have helped in one way or another with the film (that would be at least half of you)!

I’ll turn this over to John, but before I do: imagine yourself at 8,000 ft. near the equator.  Everything is green; there are patches of corn, stalks of sugar cane, fruit trees, animals cropping the grass, brooks tumbling down the hillsides.   You are below the snow-capped volcanoes and above the broad-leafed bananas.  The air temperature is perfect.  You have entered Eden.

A final note: how do you know you’re off the beaten track in Ecuador?  When you ask for salt in a restaurant and they bring it to you on a teaspoon.  Paige is planning a Pacific Islands birthday party and we’re on day 52 of the countdown to the big event.   Both children have learned to play happily and long with leaves, sticks, rocks, and found objects.  Marcus walks his one beanie baby dog, Tramp, on a leash made from a travel clothesline, and Paige plays house by sweeping the dirt in the yard smooth and marking the invisible walls with small stones.  Thanks for the wonderful letters.  — Beret


OK, I’ll get the bit about the food poisoning out of my system (ark ark) first.  Last Friday (the 13th as you’ll recall) Beret and I took the kids on a hike to a church we had seen perched atop a steep hill across the valley, above a grove of eucalyptus.  The cobblestone path went up sharply, switchbacking past adobe walls, front doors, and pigpens; through deep grooves in the hill covered with ferns and moss; under squawking chickens, hissing rubber water pipes, and hanging parasitic orchids; and over a maze of splashing streams and irrigation canals.  Dogs came bounding out to bark at us, stopping at the invisible limits of their territory sometimes too close to our heels.  Paige now being an ace hiker led pretty much the whole way, and Marcus did well too though he needed carrying by the summit.  The church at the top was locked, but the view was great — and as always it was the path getting there that was the real highlight.

We cruised back down in a quarter the time and headed into town for lunch at a restaurant that had been recommended in two guidebooks.  Needless to say, after walking three hours and toting Marcus a fair piece I was a bit peckish, so I devoured my plate of chicken, rice, fries and (gasp) vegetable salad covered in a mayonnaise sauce.  This last was against my better judgment, but these salads are so common in Ecuador and the place was full of well-dressed people, so I indulged.

That evening, Beret’s mom and I sat around after a nice dinner congratulating ourselves on how well our trip was going health-wise.  We told war stories of The Worst Road Sick Ever, and smugly opined that it wasn’t so hard to stay healthy if you were careful.   The restaurant was playing an old tape of the Carpenters, which felt nostalgic at the time . . . .

By four the next morning, I wasn’t eating my words, but rather — well, you know.   I won’t go into the next phase, except to praise the age of antibiotics in which we live (long may it last) and to say that in the afternoon my fever broke enough to try to watch TV (you know you’re ill when the commercials are too hard to understand), and I watched parts of a VERY Catholic movie about the apparition of the Virgin of Fatima.  Then my fever came back, and the Virgin of Fatima and Karen Carpenter got twisted together so that all these people were asking me to bless them but all I could do was sing Rainy Days and Mondays to them.  I was on the road to recovery the next morning (thanks to megadoses of Cipro, as much gatorade as I could keep down, and the tender care of Beret), and am now completely fine.

Another surreal experience in Gualaceo was two days earlier, when I walked up the road above our hotel and stumbled on the little village of Quim-zhe.  There, the locals were celebrating their local fiesta de Santiago with a horseback ceremony.  Two groups of indigenous men, one dressed as kings with colored capes and paper crowns, the other dressed as women with ballooning skirts and panama hats, took turns galloping their horses in a circle.  A brass band of men in their eighties with battered instruments stood among the stalks of a dried cornfield and honked out the same melody over and over again.  The rest of the village stood by, watching silently and drinking homemade liquor from a shotglass passed from hand to hand, or eating ice-cream bars sold by a guy who came from down the valley.  He saw me watching and said after a minute, “You understand nothing?”  I confessed this was true, and he explained that this ceremony was based on a reenactment of the Moorish Wars in Spain.

The thing I liked most about the display was that there was nothing canned, nothing for tourist consumption, nothing for outsiders at all, about it.  So much of Latin America on the tourist route is such a caricature, so far removed from people’s daily lives that I think it looks more at home in the fancy shops on Boulder’s Pearl Street Mall than in the countries where it originates.   So why didn’t I turn around and leave the people of Quim-zhe in peace?  I did, after about ten minutes — though I confess it was for the purpose of going back to tell Beret, so that she could see it too (they had finished before she arrived).

Back in Zaruma, travel delays resulting from my food poisoning had caused us to miss some of the annual fiesta activities we had intended to film, but we were back in time for the fireworks in the square.   Ecuadoreans, of course, lack funds for the pyrotechnic stadium displays we are used to back home, but they make up for it in danger.  Indeed, they have managed to put the FIRE back in fireworks.  The main event was a wooden structure about thirty feet high with various pyrotechnic pinwheels attached, which sprayed sparks and flares in all directions at unpredictable times to a radius of about thirty feet.  The crowd kept some distance except for a maniacal group of boys who danced about five feet in front of the thing with their jackets over their heads as protection from the pelting flares.  They had a blast, and so did I.   As my Aunt Betty’s friend, Dona Luquita, had told me when we visited her in Machala, when you ask a Zarumeno how a fiesta went, the traditional reply is, “Not too bad.  Only one death.”  Half of me cheers to be in a society unchoked by tort lawyers.

But even I drew the line last night, when we took the kids to the little carnival ride setup they have here for the week.   The merry-go-round, comprised of rockinghorses bolted to a circular platform powered by an electric motor, went nicely around, and both kids enjoyed it.  But the “off switch”?  The guy running the thing reached under the platform, pulled out the power cable, and untwisted the bare metal wire with his bare hands, sending a little pop of spark into the night.  Then, of course, when the next round of kids got on, he put the wires back together, again twisted them with his bare hands with the current running, and tossed the thing back under.   And then it started to rain . . . we didn’t wait to see how he did the procedure in the rain, but the kids want to go back tonight, so we’ll see if he’s still living.  If he is, it’ll make me think these Catholics actually do have something on the inside with the Big Guy.

But that’s another topic for another week.  A couple of you have asked if the film is taking shape yet, and I’m happy to report that it is.  This week’s project is to write out the first draft of a treatment, pulling together the various themes we’ve been developing.  Some of you may find yourselves dragooned in for advice before too long!  For the present we’re well and happy.  Marcus has taken to sporting a baseball cap and big plastic shades at all hours, causing Beret to call him Mr.  Hollywood.  “Mo-om,” retorts Paige.  “He can’t be Mr. Hollywood if he has a blankie.”  Sure he can, we say.  Be well, y’all.

John.  (ojo! Beret postscript to follow)

Okay, just one more story….  A carnival is a carnival is a carnival, but this one is almost too much for me.  Both kids hang off the balcony during the day, looking lovingly at the Rueda Gigante (Giant Wheel), aka the ferris wheel.  After we let the kids go on all the other rides (imagine a theme park with almost no protective barriers around whirring metal cars and electrical cables snaking across the bare concrete where everyone is walking), John decided to take both of my babies up in the Rueda Gigante.  Here is Paige’s point of view: “It was really fun and it was beautiful when we were at the top.  Marcus kept on sliding around in his seat.  Bye bye.”  My point of view: It was like watching my whole family go up in a small plane that had recently had mechanical problems.  The amazing thing is that what drives it is an uncovered car motor with a skull and crossbones painted on the radiator.  A young guy shifts up through the manual gears to get it up to speed.   Acceleration sounded like a car peeling out, only screechier.  The teenaged boys like to rock their seats as hard as they can.  Everyone moves to the pulse of salsa music.  I can hear it even now, filling up the night.

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Zaruma Letter # 6

Queridos amigos y familiares,                                 24-27 de julio, 2001

John here.  Greetings from the backside of fiesta week in Zaruma.  People here have spent the last two days taking down banners, sweeping up broken glass, dissipating the odor of urine from the streetcorners, and, yes, burying the dead.   Two separate traffic accidents last weekend — one involving two  Portovelenos and the other involving a Zarumeno — resulted in large funerals in both towns in the past two days.  The Zarumeno who died, a well-liked fellow with the nickname of “Chesterfield,” was minding his own business on the road to Loja when a landslide hit his car.  The Portovelenos were two kids who were hauling wooden beams for a local mining company, driving one of the open-air buses we have written about.  The driver, 22, and the passenger, 19, were apparently drunk.   Today Portovelo was heavy with the anguish of sons pointlessly dead, and yesterday over two hundred Zarumenos came out to carry Chesterfield down the church steps.   To add to the atmosphere, yesterday there were some fifty buzzards forming a tight funnel cloud down to a point in the trees about halfway up the valley between the two towns.  Of course, the buzzards are always present here, gracefully riding thermals past our balcony with feathers splayed like the fingers of surfers riding the curl.  But yesterday’s concentration was not exactly picturesque.

And aside from the deaths, people are just tired.  There were dances every night last week, culminating Sunday in another fireworks display and an open-air baile down below our house.   We turned in before the thing got properly started (we blame lack of childcare when asked, but the truth is we old gringos ain’t got no stamina for REAL partying), but I awoke at around four a.m. to realize that the disco beat had ceased, giving way to hundreds of people singing in the night.  The tune had the heavy, fraternal feeling of auld lang syne, wafting up as the cocks began to crow.   After the last belted chorus there were just a few sleepy voices and footsteps on the cobblestones, as people headed home for a couple of hours sleep before facing the mother of all Mondays.

Another fiesta highlight was the parade, in which the fifth grade class of every school performed dance numbers in costumes that parents spent a week of nights and probably a week of wages preparing, led by floats carrying the beauty queens of every grade school, high school, trade group and neighborhood in town.  The mayor invited us to sit up in the reviewing stand (two blonde kids and a video camera will get you all kinds of perks) and Paige’s fascination with beauty queen culture only deepened.   This week she sewed a beauty queen sash for herself, and our neighbor who actually was Reina de Algo a few years back let Paige borrow her tiara.  I don’t know if the lessons she’s drawing from all this will pass feminist muster, but she’s having fun with it.  Even Marcus is in on the act, proclaiming himself “King of Zaruma” in lordly tones.

It was Marcus who suffered our only fiesta mishap for the week.  He’s fine, but it could have been much worse.   Those frigging rides!  We parents had hoped that our one evening of living dangerously at the carnival would pacify the kids, but the rides were set up in a soccer field in full view of our back balcony, and every night the munchkins wanted to go again.   Finally, last Thursday they prevailed on me for a repeat visit.   It had been raining, and the bald tires, electrical cords, and other devices that power the rides were somewhat damp.  Plus, it appears that a week of use since these clanky things were assembled had loosened a few screws.  Anyway, Paige and Marcus rode the mini-ferris wheel and the kiddie train without mishap and were agitating to ride the Giant Wheel.   I convinced them to do the merry-go-round instead.  Halfway through the ride, one of the four springs anchoring Marcus’s horse sprang loose and his horse lurched over sideways.  He managed not to fall off, and I got him off the ride after only one revolution.  He was badly scared,  but of course the next day he wanted to go back and do it again.  By then, though, we had heared that a ferris wheel in Guayaquil fell over recently, killing some fifty people, which took riding the Rueda Gigante off the negotiating table.

All of which got me thinking about my glib discussion of risk in our last letter.  The “uncolorful” truth is that people accept more risk here because they are too poor to afford safety.   Boulders fall on motorists because there are inadequate funds to retain the slopes.  Brakes fail on buses because the company’s margins are too thin for adequate maintenance.  Some of the other parents at the carnival were just as dubious about the rides as we were (especially after Marcus’s horse broke).  But I can mollify Paige and Marcus with the promise that we will go to Six Flags when we get home, whereas for the Ecuadorean kids there is no other game in town.  So they live dangerously, not because they are wild and crazy latins, but because they have no meaningful choice.

This lack of choices encompasses more than safety.  In our film interviews we have progressed to the third generation, the grandchildren of miners who are now trying to raise their own kids and find opportunities today.  And there basically aren’t any.  Raw materials prices on the world market are so low that agricultural producers here can’t make a go of it.  The ones who emigrate to Spain and Italy work in the fields of the European Community, where subsidies protect local agriculture and market share is negotiated by trade ministers.  But Ecuador lies prostrate before the “liberalization” requirements of the international monetary system.  So Ecuador’s fields, some of the richest in the world, produce little more than subsistence for its people.   When I’m in the States, international economic news is like a dim buzz in the background, a sort of droning undercurrent to REALLY important things like the latest quarterly earnings forecast for Cisco Systems.   From this vantage point, though, it’s hard not to view it all as a casino that the Americans and Europeans rigged years ago, where the rest of the world bellies up to the roulette table only to be cleaned out over and over, or just looks in the windows at all the tuxedoes and caviar.

Not that Ecuadoreans aren’t their own worst enemies in other ways.  Even the simplest official activity can involve suffocating bureaucracy.  Zaruma is small and remote enough that we have not had to deal with the State very much this summer, other than to read of the bank failures and financial scandals in the Quito papers; but yesterday’s trip to customs in the provincial capital of Machala to pick up the wonderful care package sent by our friend Pattea was a reminder that Kafka is just a busride away.  I won’t bore you with the details of this experience (Latin American bureaucracy tales are the quintessential shaggy dog stories), except to note that it involved a trip to a nearby copy store to make multiple copies of all relevant documents, large numbers of people crushing anxiously against windows in ill-lit offices, an elaborate but false pretense of order, and in the end the payment of a very small duty.   I’m not complaining; the customs people actually served me in half the time other people were forced to wait (I had a brief spasm of conscience about receiving this servicio gringo, but got over it in time to take my package and run) and the package was well worth the field trip.

One can ponder whether bureaucratic malfeasance is a cause or simply a symptom of underdevelopment.  But whichever is the chicken or the egg, poverty and corruption make a grim breakfast for the kids chanting their way through their morning lessons in the school across the street.

I keep looking for a moment to brighten up this week’s assessment.  I guess part of getting to love a place is that one feels its troubles more.    But people around here aren’t daunted.  In fact, if they weren’t so hung over, tired, and broke from fiesta week, they’d probably say, “Let’s light some more firecrackers and DANCE!”  Which is probably an excellent response to the situation.


Hello.  Beret here.  If I wasn’t feeling sad before, I am now, after reading the above.   Everyone we have gotten to know even a little bit well is struggling.  Our retired upstairs neighbor has a government pension of $30 a month and we share our newspaper with him because he can’t afford one.  Our laundress has a beautiful 15-year-old daughter with kidney disease.  She sold her one piece of land to pay for surgery several years ago, and doesn’t know what she’ll do if her daughter’s remaining kidney fails.   Her summer earnings from us are going to pay for ultrasound and lab tests.  And Paige’s Spanish teacher, who is also the mother of Paige’s best friend here, is supporting a family of five because her miner husband is out of work.  Ana makes $45 a month teaching English full-time at a local public school.  She sells beauty products on the side.  By paying her $2 an hour for her lessons with Paige, we have nearly doubled the household income.   Of course, we’re also leaving Zaruma in less than three weeks.

I am quite in love with Zaruma — the steep streets, beautiful houses, bird calls, chants of children, even the sound of trucks lumbering by.   This town provoked poems to spill from my visiting uncle Dick at dawn two days running.   Parents, wouldn’t you like to live in a place where the first thing out of people’s mouths (before even “Buenos dias” and “Como va?”) is “And the children?”  We greet one another in the street whether or not we’ve met before, and the kids and I have a lot of fun shopping for buttons, fabric, and fresh-baked bread.  This morning as I tumbled down the hill to my favorite grocery store, I noticed a man sewing in the dark shadows of an unmarked shop, his feet pumping the treadle of an ancient sewing machine.  Just below him was the barber cutting hair in the open air, and below him was the office of the Registro Civil, where John found the birth records of his father and aunt in ancient tomes that have somehow never been consumed by fire.

I have been meaning to write about shopping for groceries and household supplies, so I will….  The main market is not far from our house.  It’s a three-story building with stalls spilling out into the street.  You can buy everything from shoes and clothes to produce, meat, and certain groceries.  Sometimes we hand pick our peppers and carrots out of the heaps of vegetables and sometimes we just ask for a pound of whatever we want.  $5 buys a lot of produce.   Corn, rice, and and bulk grain are sold from large burlap sacks.  Eggs are counted and placed in plastic baggies, tied at the top.  Calculations are done by hand on small pieces of paper and sometimes recorded in a ledger.

The chicken lady has most of her wares laying out on a bloody tile counter (best to buy before the day heats up too much!).  For the last chicken we bought, we requested no head, feet, back, or organs, and please cut the breast in two.  Hack, hack, hack went the cleaver in her right hand.  With her left, she held the chicken, tucking her thumb under her fingers so that it was out of danger.   For one horrible moment I thought she had lost it in an accident of her trade.  When she finished cutting and bagging our chicken, she had a splash of blood in the middle of her forehead, right where an Indian woman sometimes puts her marriage mark.

There are a lot of small grocery stores on the main street down below.  On a single block, you can shop in five or six stores that carry the same items at the same prices.  If you want something out of the ordinary — such as canned mushrooms or tomato sauce or corn flakes — the hunt begins … and often ends with the item unfound.  My favorite store, run by Xavier, a self-described extreme leftist who loves a good laugh, is so narrow you can just about touch both walls, but it goes straight up a good ten feet.  So I spend a lot of time scanning from bottom to top, to see if I’ve missed something that reminds me of home.  I asked Xavier how he knew about certain odd items he stocks (nutrasweet, zip-lock baggies, etc.).  He grinned broadly and said, “In-ter-net!”   When I come in, he greets me with “Senora Estrong,” and then pulls out something he hopes will dazzle me.

We had a fabulous time this week visiting an exquisitely beautiful hacienda out in the countryside.   We and my intrepid soils-analysis-specializing uncle Dick (aka Tio Ricardo) and the kids had a wonderful experience exploring ranch life Ecuadorean-style — in the hen house, at the river, watching the cheese clot in the bucket.  Paige and Marcus frolicked among Holstein calves (the Holstein is Paige’s school symbol, so we tried to photograph her with calves but they were so young they would get scared and run away).  We also visited the pig stalls.  The 9-month-old male, already a father, looked like he could crush a small car, of which there are some to be found, as Russia is selling Ladas here.

Later we watched two chickens being killed — creatures we and our hosts ate less than two hours later.  It was hard to watch a living, struggling, frightened animal have its throat cut on our behalf.  The blood poured out into a plastic bowl, the reddest of reds.  Half a minute later, the chicken was dead.  The women then dunked the chickens in boiling water so that their feathers would pull out more easily.   It was a reminder of just how fragile we all are — one minute alive and the next, irrevocably dead.  I feel the hypocrisy of my meat-eating ever more deeply.

As John wrote, death hovered nearby this week.   Paige and Marcus and I were on the main street, walking hand in hand, when people began to pour down the cathedral steps.  I asked someone whether it was a wedding or a mass, as people were dressed up.   “Sepelio,” he said, which means “burial.”  And then I noticed the women in widow’s black, which Catholic women wear for many months.  The coffin bearers were laboring under the weight of their burden, and when they got down to the street where a pickup truck decorated with elaborate sprays of flowers was waiting, they motioned it on, and two hundred people, including children in their school uniforms, walked down main street behind the coffin, while the sidewalks were lined with passersby who stopped to watch.

This week we helped two children who couldn’t afford to go to school for lack of supplies begin the school year a couple of months late.   Their mother lives with an abusive alcoholic, so the children live with their father in a two-bedroom flat with five adults and eight other children.  My fantasies were running to pencils and books, but the reality is that we also ended up buying shoes, underwear, cloth for school uniforms, backpacks, and so on.  We are having some of the clothes sewn by a local seamstress.  The children were a sad sight; I spent a morning with them and with our laundress-nurse friend, Charo, as we went from store to store.  The 7-year-old boy is already a street urchin of sorts, darting into stores and coming out with pieces of candy (how he gets them, I never saw) and generally acting like a child who lives by his wits.  The 6-year-old girl looks and acts like a 4-year-old (development stunted by malnutrition?), though her big teeth are coming in.  Her feet were stuffed into ruined tennis shoes two sizes too small and when we took them off to try on school shoes, we discovered she also had on wet socks that were three sizes too big.  When the children were finally taken home by Charo and their father saw that they now have a year’s worth of supplies, he wept.

Though we were somewhat fiesta-weary, a wonderful friend of John’s invited us to the fiesta of his parents’ village of orgin, el pueblito de Roma, which consists of 50 families, a church and a multi-purpose dirt cancha for futbol, volley y basket.  We watched the end of a cattle auction (young cattle sold for $200-300 apiece) and part of an impressive 3-on-3 regional volleyball game as the brass band played on the church balcony.  The church floor was covered with wax that had dripped from candles held during the morning mass.  Behind the church, a young girl folded lengths of purple toilet paper for those willing to pay cinco centavos.  (When we visited the mayor’s office in Portovelo and I asked where the bathrooms were, a middle-aged male city employee asked solicitously, “Can I get you some toilet paper?”)  We visited the village graveyard, which included concrete burial buildings where caskets could be slid into slots (kind of condo-like, actually), a handpainted cross with a tin roof, and a cross made out of rebar and adorned with plastic flowers.   We rode home in the back of a pickup truck (pickups are the dirt road taxis here), all fourteen of us (not counting the people in the cab), including two babies, a huge stalk of bananas, and other mysterious sacks.   John’s comment on the driver’s way of handling his load was “medio bruto,” which means “half brutish.”

It’s now the twilight hour when the light over the mountains is tinged with violet and rose.   Gas stoves are being lighted for hundreds of pots of rice and soup.  I have been rereading Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “El amor en los tiempos de colera,” which has such a beautiful and rarefied vocabulary that when I muster up the energy to look something up in my 600-page dictionary, half the time it’s just not there.  Wishing you all good things.  We’ll be back in Boulder in less than a month and you’ll receive only one or two more of these tomes from us before we head for a final week communing with el Oceano Pacifico and then for home.

Con carino, Beret y John

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Zaruma Letter #7

Queridos amigos y familiares,                                     1-3  de Agosto, 2001

John here.  I begin this week’s missive in the spirit of procrastination.  Tomorrow night I’m supposed to give a talk in Portovelo to high school students, after they view excerpts from the film footage my grandparents took in the ‘30s and ‘40s.   I haven’t prepared anything, and of course doing it in Spanish adds an element of sport.  People here are extremely good-natured about my mistreatment of their language, but one does want to avoid major linguistic faux pas, such as calling the head of the Catholic church a potato (el papa vs. la papa).  My only major worry is that someone will ask me a question that I flat out do not understand (a likely prospect, because it happens to me all the time down here).

Also in the public events department, on Monday I attended a ceremony at the city hall to witness the signing of a public works contract to improve the water treatment system, involving an expense of some $800,000.   Presiding were the mayor of Zaruma, the governor of the province of El Oro, its two representatives to Congress, two officials of the state central bank, the mayors of all the neighboring towns — and of course the Reina de Zaruma in her tiara and sash.   All of these were arrayed at a banquet table at the front of the hall.   And because half of the dignitaries arrived late, the line of chairs facing the audience grew to somewhat comical proportions as the morning wore on.  The tone of the speeches started with the monotony befitting a party congress in Stalinist Russia, but after about an hour the gloves came off.   The speakers started yelling into the mike, accusing one another of failing to advance the Cause of the People (“The road to Loja is a bloody disgrace!”) pleading for unity (as defined by their own party line), and evoking the territorial dispute with Peru (“We didn’t fight just for colors painted on a map on the wall!”).  After the ceremony ended with the Anthem of Zaruma, the audience scrummed to the front to participate in the match.  I didn’t stay to see who was declared the winner and who required paramedics, and there weren’t any referees, but I sensed that all the locals were keeping score.

Now it’s two days after writing the above.  The August winds are in full force, with dried leaves the size of saucers bouncing down the hill past our window and people squinting into the dust as they climb against it.   We just returned from a morning spent on the nearest hilltop, chasing butterflies, drawing, climbing rocks, and soaking up the views we will be leaving before long.

I am pleased to report that I survived the event in Portovelo with my linguistic dignity (such as it is) more or less intact.  The audience of 250 was a mixture of students and older folk, and I’m afraid the latter drowned out any possibility of dialogue with the former, but it was interesting nevertheless.  The toughest part was the people who asked me, in more or less pointed terms, when there will be a new wave of investment in Portovelo comparable to Grandfather’s time.  I had to answer that I thought the American company came at a particular moment in history, with a particular mission to spread the gospel of capitalism, that is not likely to recur.   But the questioners’ subtext of “How, and when, are you going to help us?” was loud and clear, and my tacit response of “I don’t think I can,” rang fairly hollow.

That message accentuated one of my persistent thoughts of this summer.   I am continually struck by the size and challenges of the enterprise Grandfather took on, and by the ideals of progress and civilization he espoused.   My generation grew up adept at pointing out the contradictions inherent in those ideals and the flaws in that enterprise.  And one can’t honestly tell the story of Portovelo without mentioning the high incidence of silicosis and tuberculosis in the early years, the tons of gold shipped to New York with only minimal taxation, the hillsides deforested, the rivers polluted.  But still there remains a dominant theme here that the time of the Americans was a golden age, and we critics have done poorly in creating an alternative vision that comes close to matching its organizing power, discipline and self-sacrifice.   One of my interviewees said, “We have lost our sense of heroism”; indeed, there is something heroic about the early photos of staggering mules and shoeless men hauling heavy machinery over the muddy mountains.  But Portovelo of today is not alone in its need to recover an ethic of heroism from the cultural morass.

The best I seem to be able to do these days is to be alert for the sublime moments in everyday life.  Like Tuesday, which would have been Dad’s eightieth birthday.  I had planned to carve out some time in the day to mark the occasion, but I had a shoot in the morning, the kids were clambering in the afternoon, and before I knew it dinnertime loomed.  Suddenly I looked out the back terrace to see the towers of Zaruma and the Portovelo valley bathed in the clearest golden light I had seen all summer.  I grabbed the video camera and hustled out to the promontory I have been passing for weeks thinking, “In the right light . . . .”  Dios mio, was it the right light.  The sunset just kept unfolding over the high sierra until the moon rose in the dusk.

That night I had a dream, drenched in the same light, of a garden party of old people dancing.  It seemed to be a wedding; the couple of honor were tall, ancient and dressed in luminous white as they waltzed on the lawn.  And Dad was there, smiling and hale, shaking my hand, loving the party.

Here’s hoping you’re well and enjoying the onset of August.  We have ten days left before a week on the beach reorients our minds to life in Colorado.  The kids are ready, talking fondly of all the things they will do when they get home.  I have refrained from telling them about reverse culture shock, which I know awaits . . . .


Beret here.  Happy 80th birthday, Jack Tweedy!  We are glad to have been able to see the house where he was born (in Spanish, the verb for giving birth is “dar a luz”, which literally means “to give to light” — beautiful, no?).  It feels like Jack’s spirit hovered near us this week.  As for last night, I was very proud of John, because it was a loaded evening — the South American Development Company represents a mythical past for which there is no small amount of nostalgia, and to the Portovelenses, John represents both the past and in a lesser but still palpable way symbolizes the hope of the future (for only a company with very deep pockets can pump the thermal water out of the bottom of the mine, where the mother lode, many believe, is still waiting.)  And just for the record, John’s Spanish was impressive.  We speak a lot more Spanish here than we did during our year in Argentina when I was buried in books and John was writing a novel.

This week we had two very wonderful outings to two different rivers, including a videotaping/surreptitious bathing outing yesterday to Zaruma’s beautiful and forbidden source of potable water.  On the way there, we visited the manjar-making place.  It’s a large shed with five massive kettles for the making of manjar, a caramel dessert made mainly from milk and sugar.  A woman stirs the boiling manjar for four hours with a wooden paddle.  It was like seeing a factory from the Middle Ages that had reached the 20th century through the addition of cooking gas in the place of firewood.

Sunday at the Rio Pindo was an interesting window on local culture.  You need to know that the Rio Amarillo (Yellow River), which flows murky, muddy, and yellow through Portovelo, is heavily contaminated with mine trailings, mercury, and sodium cyanide.  Its sister river, the Rio Pindo, is in comparison relatively untainted.  What I find intriguing is the myth of the Rio Pindo, that it’s as pure as Rocky Mountain spring water just burbling out of the earth.  I don’t know where the Pindo originates, but it flows past casas de campo (simple earthen dwellings without running water) and ruminating cattle and other signs of human encroachment.

We arrived at a shady bend in the river in two pickup trucks with four other families and proceeded to unload an impressive supply of cooking pots, foodstuffs, and other infrastructure (guitar, hammock, etc.)  We set up camp by the river and set a huge kettle of river water to boil for coffee.  In the course of the morning, my friend said, “This water is cleaner than the agua potable in Zaruma.”  By the time we had been there for a few hours, our children had peed in and near the river (who knows what the adults did), we had washed dishes with soap, washed a carseat liner (for Maggie, a 9-year-old with cerebral palsy), and swum (shod!) in the river.  We also burned up local tree limbs, blackened rocks for two different cooking fires, and consumed a banquet.

From the moment we arrived, the women (3 of them, not counting the otherwise occupied mother of Maggie and the useless gringa Beret) began to cook.  They made an elaborate soup of banana, peas, and pork fat(?).  Then we had marinated chicken, rice, a cold salad of grated carrots, peas, green beans, onion, potato, and mayonnaise dressing.  And a fabulous chocolate cake with manjar in between its layers.  All prepared painstakingly on the river bank (except for the cake and the premarinated chicken) for h-o-u-r-s while everyone else was having fun in the river.  I told my friend Ana that I would never, ever go to so much trouble about food (she was up at 5 am doing prep cooking).  But for these women, cooking and chatting and feeding their broods was what gave them pleasure.  The children — all 9 or 10 of them — played in the river, catching tadpoles and frogs and butterflies, swimming, and looking for gold. We all came home sunstruck and happy.

Our kids continue to invent their own entertainments here, though we’re scraping the bottom of the barrel in terms of raw materials.  Every box in the house, from tea boxes on up to cereal boxes pilfered before the cereal has even been eaten, has been made into a house.  There’s a cardboard swimming pool with popsicle stick steps, a bed, and three very little people.  August is the month of wind and dust, so children are making kites out of the ubiquitous striped grocery/garbage bags and string.  We bought extra big grocery bags for a dime apiece and right now out front are five kids with all the scissors and knives we own trying to take a length of bamboo into kite-sized sticks.  Knives are apparently a tool most kids are handy with (though I was dismayed to see our kitchen knife being dragged across the concrete in an effort to cut a plastic bag to size).  The other evening at dusk we made it to the top of the Cerro Zaruma-Urcu, which is a large hill that offers a lovely view of the city.  We pulled out our water bottle and cookies and Paige’s friend Karen pulled out a knife with an 8-inch blade and several fruits that taste like lemons, only sweeter.

There has been no school for the elementary school kids this week, which has made things more peaceful at our house (during “recreo” or recess, we sometimes have two dozen uniformed kids out front, half of them with their faces pressed through the wrought iron grille to look for our kids through the window.)  Thank you to those of you who wrote  asking  how to offer supplies to the schools here.  Because it is too expensive to send things (not to mention the problem of customs) and because the kids’ supplies are different here, we are going to buy locally and deliver some supplies before we leave.

The story of the friend who teaches full-time for very little money and sells Avon on the side (for which she receives “product” but no payment) broadened into a river of sorrow when I learned more about  how things really are in that family.  Everything they touch has gone bust.  They tried to ranch cattle near the coast by taking out a “cattle loan” from a bank (the bank gives you your loan in the form of livestock), but there was a five-year drought and the cattle starved to death.  They are still in debt to the bank even though they lost their land.  These days they don’t have warm water in the shower (can’t afford the electricity) or eyeglasses for the daughter with myopia, and the two teenagers barely made it to high school this year because when the school year started the parents didn’t have the $12 in annual fees for each child.  Needless to say, they are eating a lot of rice and vegetable soup.  The worst of it is the husband has had very bad luck with jobs, though he is willing to work in the Oriente (the Amazon basin) or wherever work is to be had.  He is so discouraged that he sometimes tells his wife he wants to die; she is afraid he might just follow through on that impulse.  The thing is that this family looks and acts like the urban middle class, which is the group of people we’ve been hanging out with this summer.  But open one door and you find….

Yesterday’s newspaper had an interesting statistic.  A government institute here says that the “basic” cost of living for a family to get by in Ecuador is $290.66 a month, but that the average family has only $200.73.  Meanwhile, we are worried that our upstairs neighbor is having a health crisis (kidneys? liver?).  The doctors are still on strike, though emergency cases are being taken at hospitals.  When I urged him to go to the little hospital here for care a few minutes ago, he said “No money.”  I said, “We’ll pay.”  He said, “That would make me ashamed.”  He brings us treats — warm bread, candied peanuts.  Two days ago a beloved local pharmacist died suddenly of a heart attack.  Hundreds of people went to his funeral today, which means we were a town dressed in black mourning clothes.  Don Marcelo was everyone’s friend and he was also the only pharmacist who gave out medicine to anyone in need, and let them pay when they could.  This is the most anguish I have witnessed all summer.

The headline story in Quito paper for the last three weeks has been that of a large bank that suddenly shut its doors, swallowing many people’s life savings and causing thousands of salaries and pensions to go unpaid.  The doctors’ strike is still on and the news is that when the police tear-gased a peaceful protest march of doctors outside a maternity hospital in Quito, the gas went right in the open windows (and maybe a canister went in too?) and gased a bunch of preemies in their incubators and new mothers in their nightgowns.   Two babies died of asphyxia and the fallout is still raining down.

And now, for a lighter topic.  Being able to get around in Spanish doesn’t solve all communication problems, I’ve found.  There’s the question of culture gap.  There’s also what I’ll call the “macho creep.”  Creep as in a thing that goes crawling and creeping across the floor (la cucaracha, la cucaracha, ya la vemos caminar).  John and I have a few gendered habits of labor division in the U.S., though we’re pretty flexible on the whole.  So what happens to us when we find ourselves in a traditionally macho society?  You guessed right — the macho creep!  The form it takes is so insidious it took me some weeks to notice it was happening.  For instance, when a man comes over to see John about something, I feel compelled to serve beverages to the two of them.  And if a male acquaintance invites John to bring us to an event or on an outing, it is expected that John can answer for the whole family without consulting any of us.  After all, es el padre de la familia!  John gave into this a few times before I said, “Basta con esto!”  Then when he told one of these men that he needed to consult with me, the fellow said, “Oh, you have to ask permission.”

Strange cultural moment: A woman friend asked whether in the United States  we routinely cut something inside our daughters’ bodies.  WHAT?  It took a few minutes and a piece of paper, and a sidetrip into the land of episiotomies, for me to understand what she was asking.  She had seen a T.V. show about American parents who were so liberal (?) or … I can’t even think of a word here … that they wanted to dispense altogether with the notion of virginity in their daughters, so they had doctors surgically remove their hymens.   My friend wanted to know whether we had done this thing to Paige.  I told her I had never heard of such a thing (have any of you?), that it was definitely not a common practice in the U.S.  As you can imagine, women are very careful to protect their honor here and I have the impression that there are a lot of virgin brides.

Being a housewife in Ecuador is a luxury of sorts — you have the luxury of getting to cook 3-6 times a day (I’m not kidding) and, unless you’re wealthy, to wash the family’s clothes in a concrete utility sink by soaking them in a bucket with detergent and then scrubbing, scrubbing, scrubbing them with abrasive soap, wringing out the water the old twist-the-rope way, and hanging them inside out on the clotheslines to dry.   The front page of yesterday’s Quito paper business section announced a course called “Electricity for Women.”  We women are being offered the opportunity to solve the problems presented by vacuum cleaners, irons, and other electric apparatuses.  Felicidades a todas!  (But let’s not be fooled — vaccuum cleaners are for the urban rich.  I haven’t seen a single one in Zaruma.)

Many women here, especially the young and the hip, dress in tight jeans and spandex halter-type tops.  If you’re under 40, that is, or even if you’re 40 and are going out dancing.  When I contemplate going to a Catholic country, I prepare my wardrobe as if I were going to teach at a junior high school run by Jesuits, with the added thought (in this case) that it could well be hot and that my clothes may be ruined by summer’s end.  I favor two tent-like cotton dresses I bought in Bali years ago, which earned me the question, “Are you expecting a baby?”  Another equally startling question is, “Can you have more babies or did they operate on you?”  It took me a while to unravel this question.  What it means it that when women don’t want to have any more babies here, they typically undergo tubal ligation, subsidized by the state.  A more philosophical question: who is more likely to be adulterous, United States men or Latin American men?  For bonus points, discuss your reasoning.  (I actually had this conversation with someone last week and we ended up wallowing around in the difference between Protestantism and Catholicism on the question of guilt and absolution, on machismo, and on equal rights for men and women.)

Now that I’ve set you thinking about a strange array of things, it’s time to go fly kites!  They came out beautifully, thanks to the talents of two teenaged boys.  John just made Marcus a kite out of newspaper.  This I’ve got to see.   Next time we write, it’ll be to say adios to Zaruma and to this series of letters.  Thanks for being our gracious and wonderful audience.  As they say in Zaruma, chao!

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