Sunday, July 30, 2006

At Home with Pablo Neruda

Yesterday we were invited to the home of Chile´s Nobel prize-winning poet, Pablo Neruda, on the coast at Isla Negra between the port cities of Valparaiso and Cartegna, about an hour and a half´s drive from Santiago. Of course he was not able to join us, having died of prostate cancer within days of Pinochet´s military coup in 1973. It is said that his will to live gave out after the death of his friend, Salvador Allende, who either committed suicide or was killed by soldiers. Allende had appointed Neruda as ambassador to France and it was during his two years in Paris that Neruda became only the third Latin American writer to win the Nobel prize for literature.

The area around Neruda´s home resembles parts of Carmel, with a curving coastline sprinkled with pine trees and granite boulders making for numerous tide pools. It was the weekend and we were not the only group going to visit Neruda´s seaside retreat. The building next door was the assembly point and it included an art gallery, restaurant and gift shop. Because of the success of the film "Il Postino," it was possible to mail cards from a kiosk, even though the film was made in Italy where the poet lived for a time. The views from the house were stupendous; freighters studded the horizon traveling to one of Chile´s ports. Down from the house on a point of land overlooking the ocean were the graves of Neruda and his third wife, Matilde. Poems were displayed beside objects important to him, a giant ship anchor, an aloe vera plant. Jorge, our guide, pointed out the tiny train-car shaped hut that appeared neglected and was not on the tour. It was there he said that Neruda prefered to write. And it was shaped like a freight car because Neruda´s father was a train engineer.

Neruda is now perhaps Chile´s premier icon, along with Allenda and Victor Jara, that folksinger who was brutally murdered during the coup. You can buy bronze plaques of all three with quotes from their work. But Neruda´s house complicated his personality for me. I knew that he changed his name because his father did not think a literary career the proper one for his son. But I was surprised to learn that he was a collector par excellence, to a manic degree, and one of the two buildings on his property was built solely to house the thousands of various objets d´arte that he assembled during his lifetime, everything from huge carved bowsprits from sailing ships, to colored bottles and glasses, masks, compasses, tiny ships in bottles, shells (including spikes from narwal whales) and a wide variety of art. He seemed to be in love with the sea, but apparently he never went out on the water, preferring to stay inside and look at it surrounded by fascinating representations and icons of things marine. Neruda loved fish as a symbol and a design he created is replicated on statues, weathervanes and souvenirs. Outside beside the house was a sailboat and we were told that he liked to sit inside it drinking, so that when he felt tipsy it seemed to him like being on the sea. How very odd!

This wasn´t the only house in which he surrounded himself with quirky objects. Another is La Chascona in Bellevista, a suburb of Santiago, which he named after his wife´s disorderly hair. We´re going to visit it during our city tour today. And there was yet another house, bought after his reknown brought him money, in Valparaiso. It seemed strange that now, 33 years after his death, the poet´s belongings would be surrounded with the trappings of tourism, his face on posters and plates. Would he like all of these people tramping through his lovely house, oogling the accumulations of a lifetime they were not allowed to touch ("No Tocar" signs abounded)?

The all-day trip began with a journey through several wine-growing valleys west of Santiago. We learned that the best white wines were produced in the Casablanca Valley which looked remarkably similar to Sonoma or Napa with huge vineyards, large manor houses with tasting rooms, and elaborate gates through which weekend wine fanciers would travel. We learned about Carmenere, the grape unique now to Chile, which originally came from Bordeaux where it was wiped out by the phylloxera plague in the 19th century, and were able to sample it that night when we ate dinner in Bellavista at the crowded Galindo (it went well with my fried conger eel (tastes like filet of sole). We caught a glimpse of the ancient Inca canals and stopped in Curacavi to nibble sweets, sample the potent Inka brandy, chicha, and feed grass to the llama. And we drove through the coastal resorts of Algarrobo, El Quisco, and El Tabo, stopping for lunch in Pomaire, a dusty village famed for its unique dark ceramic art and local crafts. At Los Naranjos, we listened to music and feasted on local treats. I tried the pastel de choclo, a chicken casserole topped with corn mash which was delicious, while others had a unique soup.

In the evening our group went out exploring, taking the metro to the center of the city where most of the traders on the pedestrian walkways were closing up shop. There were numerous vendors of CDs and DVDs, no doubt pirated. And there were at least three groups of fundamentalist Christians, screaming and singing the truth as they saw it to ignoring crowds. In the Plaza de Armas a man was making fun of them and had far more listeners. From there we took the metro a short distance to Bellavista where nightlife was booming, and throngs moved slowly along the streets from bar to restaurant to bar. We settled on Galindo because it looked neighborly, and our waiter turned out to be from Mexico, to Gerardo´s delight. The food and the conversation was terrific. But we never found a music venue where we could listen to folk music or dance to rock, and we were back to the hotel before midnight.

Today we travel around Santiago and tonight it´s back over the Andes to Buenos Argentina.

Crossing the Andes

The pilot on our flight from Buenos Aires, Argentina, to Santiago, Chile, announced that unfortunately clouds would obscure the Andes as we skimmed over the top of this gigantic range of mountains on our way west across the southern cone of South America. But he was wrong. As we crossed the border of the two countries the clouds broke and we could look down to see sun shining on craggy vistas of snow and rock. It was an awesome sight, one I've long wanted to see. My seatmate and I pressed our noses to the windows. As we flew into the valley where Santiago is wedged between the Andes and the coastal mountains, the white fields below changed to greens and reds, roads and houses, yet the high snow-covered peaks to the west never left our sight. Then, as our aircraft glided down onto the runway, the Andean backdrop changed from white to brown as pollution from the city gradually obscured the view.

The woman sitting beside me was a doctor from Buenos Aires, the daughter of an Argentine mother and an Italian father. She had grown up in Texas and although she had an Italian passport and a green card as an American foreign resident, she had an apartment in Belgrano where she'd lived for many years. Now she was traveling to Dallas to take a refresher course so she could begin the road to practicing medicine in the USA, perhaps in Austin, since she felt should couldn't make enough in Argentina. She was typical of the kind of people I continually meet on the journey in foreign lands, citizens of no one country, yet comfortable in all.

Irma, the neice of Felix who originally organized this tour of Cabrillo students, was joined by two friends from the East Bay, Zeta and Christy. Together with Trey, a high school student doing independent study, we traveled by hotel van into Santiago. The husband of Nancy, our teacher from Cabrillo who took Felix's place after he had a stroke in Barcelona (this is sounding like a soap opera) missed his connection in the US and they would arrive late. Our destination was the Hotel Montebiaco, located in a section of Santiago called La Condes which the Lonely Planet calls the "city's new financial powerhouse." It was certainly not my picture of Santiago. Our street is lined with gleaming new glass and steel skyscrapers, with more under construction. Compared with this, Argentina seemed like a third world country. The restaurants included familiar chains: Hooters, T.G.I. Fridays, Ruby Tuesday, and even a Starbuck's which had not made it to BsAs yet. There were a couple of Irish bars and a huge pleasure palace with drinking and dancing called Publicity, all nestled among tall bank buildings and embassies from foreign countries. I walked past a lovely fountain to a church which was locked, and returneded to the hotel, stopping at an excellent bookstore, and pausing for a cappuchino con crema (Italiano) at "Starlight Coffee" (perhaps they thought you wouldn´t notice) which cost 1,350 pesos (520 of them to the dollar).

Later we had dinner at Coco Loco around the corner where I had a delicious charbroiled swordfish steak over rice. Ofelia had told me with a chauvinistic grin to avoid the meat because it´s much better in Argentina, and eat the fish since Chile is next to the sea. I was working on my third pisco sour, the national drink of Chile (they´re fighting with Peru over who had it first), which is made from brandy distilled from grapes with a high sugar content. It´s delicious and potent. The first was a gift from the hotel at the small bar in the lobby, but then I couldn´t stop. When I went to bed, the young ones were on there way to play. Santiago, like BsAs, is a late night capital.

Today we travel to Isla Negra on the coast to visit one of the houses in which Pablo Neruda lived.


After writing the above, I decided to do a little early morning exploring. It's Saturday so the streets were fairly empty at 8:30. You could see the snow-capped peaks to the southwest as a backdrop to the buildings. I found the Topalaba metro station several blocks away from the hotel and entered a huge modern underground lobby. At the boletero I discovered tickets were 370 pesos, or about 70 cents. There are 5 metro lines and directions were posted everywhere. The car I got in was clean and new. The ride to the University of Chile stop took about 20 minutes and I exited on the pedestrian street Paseo Ahumada which took me directly to the Plaza de Armas several blocks away, the center of town. The shops were still shuttered but people were setting up newspaper and flower stands. I was surprised to see public toilets which are nonexistant in BsAs where you have to buy a cafe to be allowed to pee. In the center of Santiago the new was side by side with the old. The Catedral dominates the plaza, along with the ornate post office. I took lots of photos which unfortunately I can't load from this machine because there is no USB port. But I will figure out how to post them later. But now I know that it is extremely easy to navigate this city via the metro, so I should be able to see everything interesting listed in the Lonely Planet. I came back to find our small group eating breakfast and I told them of my adventures. They have appointed me guia for this evening.

I also know I want to return to this city and country in that not too distant future.


Friday, July 28, 2006

Argentina´s William Blake

I´ve fallen in love with a painter.

His name is Alejandro Xul Solar, and he has been described as Argentina´s William Blake. The comparison is apt. His first name is pronounced "shool" and its an anagram for the Latin for light -- lux. Solar, also concerned with light, comes from his real name, Oscar Agustin Alejandro Schulz Solari. I first heard of him last week, was amazed by some of his water colors I saw at the Malba yesterday, and today I visited the small museum in Recoleto which is located in Solar´s old house. He died in 1963 and when the museum was begun the interior of the house was gutted and a new design with numerous floors on different levels was constructed. It´s modern and clean without seeming utilitarian; the floors are black and the walls gray. Dozens of his paintings and constructions are displayed. I spent an hour and a half, savoring his art like a delicious meal.

The works are full of themes dear to my heart, religion and music, language and landscapes. I don´t yet have the right terms to describe how his images affect me, and I haven´t digested the book I bought which contains reproductions from the permanent collection and essays on his life. Many of the paintings had been loaned to an exhibit traveling to Houston and Mexico City and I´ve only seen the prints. Eventually I hope to include some representation of his works here, but at the moment I have no way to do that easily.

What I can say is that Solar was a close friend of Borges. He lived in Europe in the 20´s and hung out with Picasso and the rest. Clearly Paul Klee was a major influence at one point. But I suspect that Solar was unique even among that crowd. His images drip with references to language and I believe he invented several of his own, as well as board games. I read an article at the museum that told of his belief that speech was a joint project and that dialogue was an engagement with symbols and well as meaning. He challenged people to understand him, and those that did benefit from the exchange.

Perhaps it was the colors that attracted me first, then the whimsy of the fantastic imagery. Solar is probably considered in the same class with Borges and Gabriel Garcia Marquez for their imaginative transformations of reality, a reality that in Latin America has not always been easy to digest. Then I noticed the references to Christianity, the Kabbala, and to Theosophy. Apparently he, as well as Borges, were followers of Rudolf Steiner, which surprised me. I must look further into that. I was particularly struck by a portrait of a yogi that was exquisitely symbolic. And I bought a copy of a moving image that bears the title "Gestation of Christ." It will have a place of honor on my wall. The collection also included a weird piano keyboard along with some other sculptures from found objects. He apparently also wrote poetry and composed music. When he returned to Buenos Aires in the late 20´s from Europe he was a key figure in the avant garde that revolved around Borges and the journals the author wrote and edited. In later life Solar moved to a house in the country by a river and continued to produce his unique art up until the time of his death.

It´s too dark in this locutorio where the computers are located for me to search through the printed material I brought I brought with me, so this brief note will have to be enoughfor now. I will continue to write more about Solari later.

Tomorrow morning I leave for a weekend in Santiago, Chile. The arrangements have been somewhat chaotic since the manager of the tour company here has been in and out of the hospital and his second in command had a tooth removed today. The ship is taking on water and listing. We learned late that this rather expensive weekend will also necessitate a $100 fee for the Chilean visa and $20 to the airport here as a exit tax. Only six of us are going on the trip, while most of the other students from Cabrillo will visit an estancia in the country where the gauchos herd vaca. It sounds like a dude ranch to me.

May all who read this be well.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

End of the World in Argentina

When the sky turned dark as night at 4 in the afternoon and moments later hail the size of plums plumeted (couldn´t resist that) from the sky, turning on car alarms and breaking windows, the students in my class all turned to each other with the same thought: "¡Es el fin del mondo!" It´s all over folks. Al Gore was right. And he even talked about the glacier that was shrinking not that far south of here in Patagonia.

As we watched from our 4th floor classroom in the Universidad de Belgrano, thunder roared, hail poured down on fleeing pedestrians and we saw the back windows on two cars cave in. Hail was followed by rain, buckets of it. The storm was over in 20 minutes but Ofelia told me this morning that 300 taxis were damaged and many people were sent to the hospital with bloody heads. According to this morning´s Buenos Aires Herald (in English), 14 people were injured, subway and train service was disrupted, streets were flooded and numerous accidents clogged highways. Eugenia, our teacher (who is probably in her early 30´s) said she had never seen a storm like that. One of our students, Marilyn, said it brought back memories for her of being in a high-rise building during the ´89 quake. The disaster syndrome.

I can´t say that my lessons are going well. I tanked an exam yesterday because the more I study the difference between verbs in the preterito and verbs in the infinitivo, the more confused I become. Spanish has a way to discriminate between completed activities in the past and ongoing actions. But there are numerous exceptions, at least so it seems to me. On the other hand, I´m enjoying the conversations enormously. One day we described movie plots and the others had to guess. My account in Spanish of "Superman Returns" was fairly easy. Yesterday we got together in groups of three and came up with stories about fiestas. Each member of the group told a story about a similar party and the others had to guess which of the three had really attended it. It was, as we say, "muy divertida."

Yesterday morning I went to meet with Juan De Wandelear, a friend of Phil McManus´s. He works in the baroque city hall in the Comision Pro Monumento a Las Victimas del Terrorism de Estado. I didn´t get to find out what he does because he was unable to keep the appointment. We´re made arrangements by email to reschedule for next week when I also hope to meet with Phil´s other friend here, Beverly Keene, an American who has lived in BsAs for 20 years.

After a slow cafe, and a stab at doing homework, in the atmospheric Le Pureto Rico near the Plaza de Mayo, I took a taxi to the Mueseum de Arte Latinoamericano de Buenos Aires, better known as the Malba, which opens daily at noon. It opened in 2001 to house the private collection of Argentine multimillionaire Eduardo Constantini, and includes Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. There was an exhibit of drawings by Roy Lichtenstein in the upper of the two floors of the very modern and airy museum. I recall meeting him in 1967 when the Hollywood PR firm I was working for was hired by the Pasadena Art Museum, before Norton Simon took it over, to do publicity for a show of his work. Since I lived in Pasadena, I was in charge. It was humiliating. Since our specialty was celebrities, we made a spectacle of his show. And we erected a building on La Cienega in art gallery row which we had him unveil while the docents of the museum served tea to the media, dressed, for some unknown reason, in 19th century costumes. I recall Lichtenstein as being tall, thin and shy. But he climbed up to the billboard and unveiled it for the cameras while I cringed.

I was less interested in Lichtenstein´s pop art than the permanent collection which included Antonio Berni. The day before Eugenia had shown me a postcard of one of his works. It´s a large painting called "Manifestation (demonstration)" and it shows a variety of faces with a sign in the back saying "pan y trabajo (bread and work)." It was painted in the 30´s and obviously shows people suffering from the world-wide Depression. I found it an icon in general for suffering; very moving. I also liked his later work which include college, assemblage and sculpture. In the evening I browsed at La Ateneo, supposedly in the biggest bookstore in South America, but was unable to find a small book of his work. One of the more recent works in the collection was a large model of a U.S. Air Force jet headed downward which was hanging from the ceiling. Attached to the jet was a crucified Christ. Done by Leon Ferrar in 1966, the piece was entitled: "Western Christian Civilization." How very true. It was like a kick in the stomach. On a pedestal stood a bottle of red water which was entitled "Rhine Water Polluted: H20 + 10,000 Poisons," by Nicolas Garcia Uriburu. It reminded me of Duchamp´s found art. And finally, there was a huge painting on a balcony outside of an armed battle between revolutionaries and the authorities that was extremely powerful. I´m not sure if it was modeled after an actual event or something imagined.

Great art and a hail storm in one day. Life in Buenos Aires is full of surprises.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

The Ugly Side of Capitalism

Last night our small group from Santa Cruz visited El Museo de Deuda Externa in Buenos Aires. Opened last year in the basement of a cultural center near the medical school, this is the first ever museum of foreign debt in the world. But there ought to be more. Foreign debt is the reason why the rich -- primarily in the west -- prosper and the poor -- primarily in the south -- suffer. Although loaning money may seem like an altruistic move on the part of First World banks, it enables them to control and enfeeble Third World economies.

We learned about this during a talk by museum docent Albierto Murrillo. Argentina is a likely place to have a Museo de Deuda Externa because it was the first country to renounce its debt and free itself from a crippling economic burden. But, as Murrillo pointed out, renouncing¨"hated debt" is a recognized principle of international law. After the American Revolution, the new United States cancelled all its debts with Britain. And, more recently, under the direction of the U.S., Iraq renounced its debt to European banks because it was incurred under the government of Sadam Hussein. So when President Nestor Kirchner renounced (which sounds more positive than "defaulted") Argentine´s debt of something like $150 billion, he felt the country was within its rights since the loans were contracted by previous corrupt governments, particularly the military regimes which ruled in the 1970s and 1980s.

Murrillo told us, in Spanish (which was translated for the less advanced like me), that Argentina was first offered money by the British in 1824 which was used to build infrastructure. By the 1980s, however, a "financial bicycle" was in place which allowed corrupt politicians and businessmen to launder money and to profit from money transfers to other countries. Factories closed because imports were so cheap. Inflation and unemployment rose to astronomic heights. By the time of Carlos Menin, the country was surviving not by producing goods but by borrowing money. Eventually the economy collapsed, the banks shut, and everyone suffered. Under "Plan Brady" the country´s loans were sold and distributed around the world and interest rates rose rapidly, making it impossible to repay the loans. Kirchner´s only solution was to renounce/default.

This economic system, however, is no accident. The west prospers at the expense of weaker countries. In order for there to be wealth in one place, it is necessary that others must pay. Argentina now is struggling to become a victor rather than a victim. As the sign says in the museum: "Deuda Externa -- Nunca Mas."

I´ve been walking extensively through different barrios in Buenos Aires, and little poverty is apparent, at least during the day. The streets are mostly clean and many of the buildings are new. I know it´s different in the country and even in the city at night when the "cartoneros" come out to scavage for useful trash that might bring them some pesos. The streets in Palermo and Belgrano are lined with tall apartment buildings. Their lobbies are gleaming with marble, glass and overly polished brass. There are modern podiums outside the door where one rings a bell for the apartment. Block after block of luxury flats. Who is living in them? Certainly not the poor. Moochie told me the other night that these neighborhoods are populated mainly by the military, and they´ve been on top of the social structure in Argentina for decades. They also perpetrated the worst abuses of the "Dirty War" in the 1970s when thousands of people, mostly young, disappeared. Now they live in these beautiful buildings which are surrounded by shops catering to the middle and upper classes. It´s a lovely picture. But watch out for the dog poop on the sidewalks!

Does capitalism have a beautiful side? Only, I think, if you´re rich and powerful.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Hanging Out With the Gauchos

Yesterday we journeyed an hour in a collectivo (bus) to the western suburb of Matadores where a feria is held every Sunday. I met Lorraine and Toni at the apartment across the street where they are staying with a delightful former nun named Moochie who likes to host foreign students in her home. Besides the Cabrillo students, her guests currently include Pascal from Switzerland and Michael from Texas. Amelia from our Santa Cruz contingent joined us and Moochie led the six of us on a journey into the land of the gauchos.

The town is named for the slaughterhouse that once were located there. It was once nicknamed Nueva Chicago. Less a flea market than a craft fair, with entertainment, the Matadores Feria featured dozens of booths spread out in the main streets of the town. After checking out the lay of the land, we adjourned to a wonderful corner restaurant and enjoyed a two-hour lunch. The sign on the window said "Hoy Locro," so Amelia and I, being adventurous, tried locro, the speciality of the day. It turned out to be a stew of corn, meat and white beans and utterly delicious. Lorraine and Toni went for the steaks, and Michael and Moochie the pasta (the Italian influx has resulted in some terrific fresh pasta in many restaurants like I had for lunch yesterday).

There were all kinds of crafts for sale, an an usual number of little dolls made out of a variety of materials that appeared to be elves of dwarves. I finally found a mate cup that I liked, with a silver bombilla to drink it through. The others bought gifts. Both Lorraine and Moochie got rain sticks that make a noise like you might hear in a rain forest. Toni bought some gifts. The gauchos were having a riding contest called a sortija, and we went to watch. The horsemen would whip their horses into frantic speeds down a narrow street, stand up in the stirrups and attempt to stick a pencil through a tiny ring hanging from a ribbon while riding at full tilt. Only a few succeeded.

At the center of the feria was a stage which held a succesion of musicians while members of the audience danced in front. One of the traditional dances involved handkerchiefs and looked more like flamenco than the tango. The various groups dances, I learned, have the names chacarera, chamane and the samba, though not the one from Brazil. The latter did apparently involve the seducation of the woman by the man, symbolically of course. Men, young and old, strolled through the crowd in their guacho outfits. The old man picture above was particularly colorful. We went inside a pulperia, or saloon, off the main street where dozens of people were eating at long tables, and we watched a group of dancers perform while a woman sang and a man played guitar. It looked to me something like a square dance with the participants clicking their heels as if they were in Spain. Moochie told me that the music and dancing were "folklorico."

As the day wore on, clouds increased and soon it began to rain. We returned to Buenos Aires by collectivo, standing up most of the way amidst a crowd of porteños. Back at her apartment, Moochie offered off "facturas" -- little pastries she bought at the bakery around the corner -- and, for me, mate. Not in my new cup, for it needs to be properly seasoned (I´ll have to translate the directions which are in Spanish), but in one of her own. Actually the cup is the mate; a "cup of mate" would be an oxymoron. She packed the mate with yerba (pronounced "churba" in Castellano), and poured in very hot water. The social ritual is: you pour, you sip until it gurgles, and you pass the mate along to the next person. The tea is somewhat bitter and very strong. I´m sure it´s an acquired taste. Moochie continued to sip throughout the evening while we talked in English, Spanish, Italian and French. When I got home, Ofelia examined my mate and offered to season it herself. I think it involves letting liquid sit in it for some time to close any holes. But then I haven´t translated the directions yet.

When I arrived home from the Evita museum the day before, I showed Ofelia the literature that I had collected. She frowned. Evita was not her heroine, and she explained why. Rolling up her sleeves, she showed me her wrists which were covered with scars. She told me that she was badly burned when she was 16. But because her father was not a Peronista, a supported of Evita´s husband, Juan Peron, they would not treat her at the local hospital which was one of Evita´s projects. For this, Ofelia can never forgive her. She also told me that Peron was the friend of Nazis and was a fascists himself. So I could see her point and promised to give this perspective to people in the United States.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Sampling Culture in BA

This happy group of students of Spanish as well as all things cultural in their temporary home away from home, Buenas Aires, have just been to the Teatro Colon to see three opera ballets by Igor Stravinsky. They´re celebrating with a variety of taste treats (an incredible ice cream sundae for me) and alcoholic beverages (I discovered that cognac goes quite well with a selection of helados). Don´t we look happy? (from L to R: Toni, me, Lorraine, Jani and Amelia)

The Teatro Colon is a venerable institution, a huge concert hall that debuted with Verdi´s "Aida" in 1908 and was the biggest in the southern hemisphere until Sydney built their hall. It holds 2,500 in the audience with room for 500 standing. I´ve heard that more than 1,000 workers are employed behind the scenes and I´ll learn more when I take a tour on Monday. Inside, the Teatro is U-shaped with six balconies. Lorraine, Toni and I were pleasantly surprised that seats were available on the day of the performance, for only 230 pesos (about $75). Seats on the floor were twice that. Perhaps that´s why the hall was way less than half full, a real shame. We sat at the edge of the first balcony on the third floor (lower floors contained boxes), and peered down on the orchestra (4 grand pianos for one numbers), singers and dancers. Jani and Amelia waved at us from the stratosphere where their SRO tickets cost only 5 pesos each (about $1.50). The performance featured three pieces by Stravinsky. "Les Noces" was about a wedding between an initially reluctant and later enthusiastic couple. While the singing was in French, a Spanish translation was shown on a screen over the stage, thereby helping to advance our linguistic progress. The second piece, "Les Rossignol," was based on a Hans Christian Andersen story, "The Emperor´s Nightingale" and featured a magical bird, one emperor, and lots of subjects, as well as a fisherman whose role was unclear. The final piece was "Petrushka," and it appeared to be about the director of a dance troupe and his dancers. If I understood it correctly, the director was bisexual but ultimately it was the male dancer who broke his heart. Does that sound like Stravinsky? I knew BA was gay friendly, but...

Today was a very full day. I´m typing this at an internet "locutorio" near my apartment, and a group of three Hare Krishnas just danced by on the sidewalk, chanting through a loudspeaker. An hour ago I was walking in the early evening through an extremely crowded shopping area along Avenida Santa Fe in Recoleto. I´ve been to a number of such areas in this large city and the streets are always thronged with people and the modern stores full of the latest glossy consumer items. I browsed in a large bookstore designed like a concert hall, with a cafe where the stage should be. And I looked through the CD bins at a two-storey music store next door. I´m beginning to think that American cities are drab and spiritless compared to some of the places I´ve visited in the last couple of years, Buenos Aires, Bangkok and Rome foremost among them. And when the stores close, porteños party. The bars and clubs are full from midnight until dawn (so I´m told, not being a night owl myself).

What I do is explore. Today I slept in because of my late night cultural expedition to the Teatro Colon. Then I walked past the giant new mosque to the Parque 3 de Februaro (the significance of that date escaped me), rented a bike and pedaled around a lovely lake. There were strollers, joggers, bicyclists like me, rollerblade hockey players, others playing soccer and ping pong, a couple of groups doing yoga, and a jazzercise class. The weather is unseasonably warm and everyone was taking advantage of it. After strolling through a rose garden to see Borges´ bust among other writers in a poetry corner, I stopped at an outdoor cafe for a cappuchino followed by a dulce de leche cone, and then walked to the nearby Museo de Evita. A lovely series of exhibits and video footage have been gathered to celebrate the life of Eva Peron Duarte. I learned that she favored fashions in black and white and earth colors. I wonder why she didn´t wear anything brighter? Perhaps she didn´t want to outshine her husband. There is something about her that I find admirable, despite the hype, then and today. She rose from humble beginnings and really did strive to help her people, particularly women, the poor, elderly and children. It´s too bad it had to be in a fascist context.

My second pilgrimage today was to the home of tango singer Carlos Gardel, now a museum, in the Abastos district not far from where we had our first tango lession the other night. Since I signed up for this trip, I´ve been educating myself about music and film in Argentina, and Gardel is a giant, even though he died in a plane crash over 70 years ago. He is Presley and Sinatra rolled into one. Gardel is one of the three icons of Argentina, along with Evita and soccer hero Diego Maradona. The museum contained little beside clippings and photos, and some household artifacts of the 1930s. But the neighborhood features his picture on the side of buildings, and some of the houses on his street are painted in colors unknown to Evita.

Finally, I stopped at the Clasica y Moderna Cafe on the busy Avenida Callao. Like many of the cafes I´ve visited in Buenos Aires, it is a quiet haven away from the crowds. This one also contains a wonderful bookstore. It features performers in the late evening and even Mercedes Sosa, Argentine´s best known folk singer, has appeared there. Yesterday I had lunch at the Richmond along the pedestrionized Florida, where Borges once ate. In the basement, old men played billiards and chess as they have for decades. Sitting in some of the cafes, I am reminded of what the Java House (later Union Street) might have become. But I´m afraid we in Santa Cruz are not part of a similar cafe culture, despite the crowds at Lulu´s and the Pergolesi. Someone needs to open up a branch of the Cafe Tortoni or the Richmond in our city.

It´s hard to escape the shame of being from the United States. Everyone comments about Bush and is pleased when I explain to them that not only do I hate him and his policies but that I am not alone in my country. I had an interesting discussion with a taxi driver last night about Hiliary Clinton whom he likes(she´s not my choice). And the newspaper headlines here (BA has many more papers than any American city) scream the news about Lebanon and Bush´s unqualified support for the atrocities being commited by Israel while the rest of the world watches and does nothing. We´re a long way away from the Middle East but not far enough.

Tomorrow I´m off to a giant flea market, or feria, in Matadores. Hasta luego.

Friday, July 21, 2006

"A Generation has been stolen from our country."

Yesterday our group of students from Cabrillo College studying Spanish in Buenos Aires visited with Los Madres de Desparecidos, a group of mothers who have been demonstrating weekly in the Plaza de Mayor for nearly thirty years in the hope of
finding out what happened to thousands of children and spouses that were "disappeared" during the "Dirty War" from 1976 to 1983 when up to 30,000 were arrested, tortured and killed by the police for having even vaguely leftist ideas and opinions.

We gathered in the group´s downtown office in a room on the first floor and listened to the stories of three of the mothers: Aurora (pictured above under the photo of her missing daughter), Pepa and Aida. All three lost children who would now be in their fifties. The women should be grandmothers but the possibility of descendents was eliminated when their children were taken by a repressive military government intent on wiping out all opposition.

The first wave of arrests began in March of 1976. Numerous students were identified by an undercover agent even though many of them had no connection with the Montoneros rebel organization. Even taxi drivers worked for the police. The students´parents were mystified because neither the police nor the government would admit they were taken. Only a few rare witnesses could provide evidence that the police were involved. Even the clergy (some of whom were aware of what was happening and supported it) denied knowledge of the arrests. Gradually the mothers ran into each other during their searching and discovered a pattern of disappearances. Their first march was on April 30, 1977. Several of the early leaders were themselves disappeared, but the marches continued, the mothers wearing white scarves and carrying photos of their missing relatives. They march every week on Thursdays.

Although government files on the missing people have never been released, the mothers gradually learned that their children and spouses were in many cases tortured and sometimes thrown out of planes alive. Women were raped. Babies were born in prison and adopted by people friendly to the government. Only now are some of them discovering their biological grandparents. Those responsible have not been brought to justice, and the women have reached beyond Argentina for help from world agencies.

Because my Spanish is a tad insufficient, one of the group coordinators, Lucilla, translated the stories of the women. Some of us were in tears. All three women were in their 70s, their hands and faces wrinkled with age. They have been telling these stories of horror and loss for years. I wondered how they can cope. And how is it that a government can go so out of control that it assassinates the best and brightest of the younger generation? The Nazis marginalized Jews and then exterminated them. The Argentines in the 1970s destroyed its future. Fear of progressive ideas -- that the poor should be fed, that outrageous wealth should be moderated, etc. -- was the rule in South America during the 1970s when most countries were ruled by military dictatorships. Can this kind of repression happen in the United States? We should watch closely and learn from what happened here.

Afterwards, some of us walked to the Cafe Tortoni, a venerable BA institution since the 1850s. Jose Luis Borges used to sip coffee here, as did the singer tango Carlos Gardel. Now both are memorialized with wax life-sized effigies with another friend, the artist Solari, sitting down in at a corner table. We had a delicious lunch of beef, the national bood of Argentina. Outside in the street, thousands of poor workers marched for a decent wage while tourists gazed at them from the sidewalk.

In Argentina, it was El Dia de Amigo, the day when friends contact each other and express their love and affection. I was told that it was on July 20 because that was the day that Neal Armstrong walked on the moon. I´m not sure how that connects with friendship, but the Argentinians are nothing if not creative. We have Mother´s Day and Father´s Day and Valentine´s Day in the U.S., but no day for to celebrate our friends. Perhaps it´s a good idea.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Looking for Robert Duvall

Robert Duvall is a hero in Buenos Aires. He fell in love with the tango many years ago and visits frequently. Not long ago he made a film, "Assassination Tango," with BA for the setting and the tango as a subtheme to an aging contract killer plot. It wasn´t a very good movie, I thought, and I believe Duvall to be one of our best actors. On Monday we tried to find a restaurant in La Boca where, according to Lonely Planet, Duvall is a frequent diner. It seemed like a good recommendation to us. But we got lost and, even with the help of a taxi driver, could not find the place.

Last night, however, I came close. Our class adjourned to the Academia Carlos Coppello for our first tango lesson. And there on the wall was a poster from the film with Duvall´s autograph featured prominently. There were also pictures on the wall of Duvall and the owner. Surely he had passed through that very room, not more than a year ago.

It didn´t help my dancing, however. Nor did my shoes, the comfortable Chaco sandals that I´ve worn from Europe to Central America, Asia and back. Tango shoes have heels, even for the men, and they make a clicking noise on the floor. Mine made kind of a shoosh sound every time I stumbled or stepped on my partner´s toes. Still, we made a brave show of it, slipping and slidding to the seductive rhythms of the tango. On the walls the famous tango singer Carlos Gardel´s ever-present image looked down upon us. His picture was on the side of two buildings we passed in Abastos, the district where he lived before his tragic death in a plane crash in 1935. Carlos is a god here, Elvis and Frank Sinatra rolled into one. I´ve got dozens of his songs on my iPod.

Getting to the tango school was an adventure. Lucila decided all 22 of us would go by bus. When it arrived, Diana, Ben and I got on board, but no one else would fit. Before we could get off to wait for a less full bus, the doors closed and Lucila waved goodbye. It was our first bus ride and neither of the three of us were clear about where we were going. But the passengers and driver were friendly and I was able to talk with Lucila on my cell phone to receive directions. As it turned out, we arrived well before anyone else, and Lucila was very pleased at our accomplishment.

The weather has improved dramatically. Yesterday was bright and sunny, and today promises to be the same. Porteños, however, dress all bundled up as if it´s winter in New York, when actually it feels like a nice summer day in San Francisco. Yesterday, after writing my blog, I set out on the subte for the city center, the Plaza de Mayo, and walked through the busy business district north to the district of Retiro in search of Plaza San Martin which my friend Norma from Holy Cross had told me about. First I encountered the Galerias Pacifico, a huge monument to consumption that includes an art gallery in the center with works by Freda Kalho and Diego Rivera, not to mention Picasso. On the way I stopped by Norma´s church, the Basilica de Santisimo Sacramento which is relatively new, having been built at the turn of the last century. Plaza San Martin is a very large park facing the harbor and the wide lawn was filled with sleeping porteños while the pathways contained numerous dog walkers as well as people like me enjoying beautiful weather. I stopped to take a picture of a fenced area for dogs and was approached by a helpful young man whom it turned out was fund-raising for some kind of AIDs project. At least that´s what I think he said. I gave him two pesos which seemed to him insufficient.

My next stop was Recoleto, another upscale business and residential district north of Retiro where a large cemetery houses the now dead rich and famous in hundreds of little houses decorated with elaborate statuary. The most notable, of course, is Evita. I donated five pesos for a map but I still got lost in the maze of cemetery streets. Eventually I spotted a crowd and realized I´d found her. The tomb is modest in comparison with some of the others. Made of black marble, the door (can she leave?) was covered with flowers. The visitors with me did not seem especially reverent, but were frantically taking photos to remember this moment at a later date.

After a lovely lunch at an outdoor cafe bordering the park in front of the Cemeterio de la Recoleta, I took a taxi to Belgrano in order to be on time for class at 3. There were secretive murmurings halfway through the session, and Lorraine unveiled two beautiful cakes and a candle, numer 9 (signifying my 39th birthday), which was lit and I blew out. Feliz Compleaños was sung and we all celebrated my advanced age. I also received for a gift a lovely book containing paintings by La Boca´s most famous artist, Benito Quinquela Martin, whose subjects included colorful ships and their seamen.

After class we viewed a video documentary of the mothers of the disappeared by a professor from San Jose State, Bob Freimark. Today we are going to have a "charla," a chat, with some of the mothers and grandmothers who lost 10-30,000 relatives during the "Dirty War" from 1976 to 1983 against anyone with vaguely leftwing or progressive politics. This group of women continues to demonstrate every Thursday in the Plaza de Mayo for justice, since few have yet been punished for the many crimes committed back then. I also hope we will be able to march with them.

Robert Duvall, I´m still on your trail...

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Pampas Grass on the Steeple

It never occured to me that the weedy pampas grass which dots the highways along the central coast might have been an unwelcome import from Argentina. Surely, though, the name is a dead giveaway. But yesterday, walking down Defensa toward San Telmo from the central Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires, I spotted a patch of pampas grass sprouting from the top of the steeple on the Iglesia Santa Domingo, the ancient Dominican church which is currently undergoing renovations. I took a photo of the odd growth but haven´t figured out how to important them yet into my blog.

After two full days in BsAs (as they write it in shorthand), I am beginning to feel at home among the porteños. Yesterday Lorraine, Toni and I headed south on the subte (subway) to sightsee. In the Plaza de Mayo, not far from Casa Rosada where Juan and Evita waved to the adoring crowds, Lorraine bought a mate bowl made out of the hoof of a cow. I´m not sure I´d like to drink mate out of it, but she said it would please one of her sons. We walked south on Defensa into the San Telmo district full of antique stores. This is where the citizens of the town successfully defended against the invading British in 1806 and 1807. Unfortunately, these successes gave them unwarranted confidence against the British during the Falklands War in the 1980s. Now, artisans sell their wares around the picturesque Plaza Dorrego. From there we walked into the large Parque Lezama which, we were told later by a taxi driver, was not safe. The only danger we saw was from frequent piles of dog poop. My sense of direction failed, however, and we ended up hopelessly lost. Finding a cab, we went in search of a restaurant in La Boca, the slum area recently gentrified, that was reportedly frequented by Robert Duvall. The driver, however, got lost himself, giving us a tour of La Boca and it´s colorful houses and appalling poverty in the process, and we settled for a small restaurant back near the Plaza Dorrego where I had mystery meat and "freedom fries" for lunch.

Our language classes begin at 3 and we headed uptown to Belgrano by yet another taxi. This one took us, via the wide thoroughfare Avenida Libertador, between the harbor and the more upscale areas of the city: Microcenter, Retiro, Recoleta and Barrio Norte, and Palermo. I saw tall glasss-skinned skyscrapers, modern office buildings and luxury hotels, the Hipodromo Argentina where horses run, as well as numerous leafy parks and ostentatious statuary. In short, a city of wealth and prosperity. The undeniable poverty must be hidden, in rural areas and in slums where the cartoneros, who harvest recyclables from city streets at night, live in their humble homes.

On Monday I failed my entrance exam and was put back into Spanish 2, the same level I took in Oaxaca a year and a half ago. As a long time student, I should have known better than to not study, and review the Spanish I thought I knew. I wasn´t unhappy however; the Spanish 3 folks were clearly fluent and their grasp of the idioma was far superior to mine. I´m not here to excel anyway. I want to improve my vocabulary and grammar and to be able to hear and speak the language of the street. So I joined eight others in a lecture room with a beautiful view of Belglrano to meet our maestra, Eugenia, a young and enthusiastic porteño. The three hour conversation was intense yet filled with jokes and humor that some of us occasionally understood. By the end my brain was fried.

Today, as if to celebrate my 67th birthday, the sun is shining brightly. Vive el sol! (Yesterday I saw my frist "Vive Evita" graffiti on a La Boca wall.) I am headed off to Plaza San Martin and the Recoleta Cemetary to commune with St. Evita. Tonight is our first tango lesson at an academy in Carlos Gardel´s old neighbor, Abastos.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Hanging Out with the Porteños

Residents of Buenos Aires are called porteños, a nickname I believe which refers to this port city on the huge estuary of the Rio de la Plata. I spent my first full day here yesterday, strolling in the morning all over the barrio of Palermo which is where I´m living, and then in the afternoon attending the first session of our language study at the new and very modern Universidad de Belgano.

When the Spanish arrived here in 1536 they named the south bank of the estuary Puerto Nuestra Señora Santa Maria del Buen Aire, or Holy Mary of the good air. But the air for me has been full of fog, drizzle and rain so far, though I´m told the weather is changing and sun is not far off. It´s winter here but I´ve not been cold, and I packed for a typical winter in Santa Cruz. I`ve been reading Jonathan C. Brown´s "A Brief History of Argentina" and have been struck by the resemblance to the history of California. Both were settled by Spaniards against the will of the local indigenous people, but it seems the Indians here lasted longer despite imported germs and fought fiercely before being absorbed into the European culture. Both were fringe settlements and grew slowly, dependant on the silver trade from Potosi in Argentina and, later, gold from the Sierra in California. Each colony developed a landed aristocracy which raised cattle primarily for the hides. But here the comparison ends. Argentina, a third the size of the U.S. and long full of promise, has suffered from corrupt and militaristic governments and an unstable economy. Nevertheless, with a current growth rate of 8 per cent and booming tourism, prosperity may be just around the corner.

The apartment in which I´m staying, with the Señoras Ofelia and Sylvia, is on the noisy Avenida Santa Fe in Palermo, a large and rambling neighborhood. I walked around most of it yesterday, include Palermo Viajo (subdivided into Hollywood and Soho) and Las Cañitas where I had lunch at Novecento, a corner restaurant. There were cobble-stoned streets and modern shops and stores selling clothes, jewelry and all the accoutrements of modern life which tourists love to accumlate. All of these areas are more populated in the late evening when porteños love to eat and play, I´m told until 6 ot 7 in the morning. As an early riser, I expect to miss the wilder aspects of life in Buenos Aires.

My Lonely Planet guides are full of juicy information about this part of the world. Since the economic meltdown of 2001 when Argentina defaulted on its debt, the largest such event in history, over 50 per cent of the people fall below the poverty line. Of the country´s population of 40 million, a third live in Greater Buenos Aires)about 3 million in the central city. Argentina has the highest number of psychiatrists and plastic surgeons for the population in the world.

I've noticed that people here kiss each other, upon greeting and leaving, on the right cheeks. Everyone, men and women. And everyone seems to smoke, and love dogs. Dog walking is a major career choice. I saw a man with a dozen dogs yesterday walking with them down the sidewalk. I´m sure that if they all chose to chase cats at the same time, he would be helpless.

Today I´m off to San Telmo, La Boca and points north with Lorraine and Toni from our Cabrillo group. With any luck, the sun will come out of the clouds.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Turned Upside Down

Now that I´m at the bottom of the world in Argentina, I feel turned upside down. If I could dig down into the earth I might turn up in Kansas somewhere. Help me Dorothy!

Buenos Aires is four or five hours ahead of California, so there is no great jet lag problem. Our group of 22 Cabrillo studies, along with Nancy our teacher, arrived here Sunday morning to be greeted by fog and rain. It wasn{t my welcoming picture. But then the best travel can promise is surprise.

After all, it´s winter. I looked for the sun this morning at 7:30 and it hadn´t gotten around to rising yet. When I suggested to Ofelia Gonzalez, my hostess, that 7 might be a good time for desayuno, she shook her head and said "temprano," too early. And she was right.

After gathering our bags yesterday, we drove in the rain to our host families. Mine resides on Santa Fe, a major avenida in the district of Palermo. Ofelia lives in a tiny 3rd floor apartment with her friend Sylvia. They warmly welcomed me with rapid fire Spanish that went right through my addled brain. So we struggled for dialogue with smiles and courtesy. It being Sunday morning, I asked about the nearest church and was directed to Nuestra Señora de Lujan several blocks away where the mid-day mass was in session when I arrived. The church was packed with people who looked European. I don´t expect to see too many indigenous or blacks here where most of the immigrants over the last century have been from Europe, and Italy in particular. Since there was a large Franciscan cross over the altar, I expect the priests are from that order. Ofelia told me that the Our Lady is the patron saint of Argentina.

After mass, Ofelia and Sylvia treated me to a late lunch of cheese, what looked to be baloney, and ravioli. They were surprised I didn´t join them in a glass of vino. But all I could think of was a nap. After a delicious sleep, I ventured out into the city, taking a subte (subway) to the Plaza de Mayo, ground zero of the Microcentro district. Although the sun had set, lights lit up the Casa Rosada across the plaza which I instantly recognized from "Evita" and all of the photos I had seen of Evita and Juan Peron waving to the crowds from that very building. I ventured into the Catedral Metropolitana across the square where evening mass was in progress, and the young priest was delivering a very earnest homily. I wandered along the side chapels and found the tomb of San Martin, the "saint" of the South American liberation from Spain in the early 19th century. It was guarded by two very tall soldiers in elaborate uniforms and the tomb itself was drapped with a very large Argentinian flag.

Before joining the other students for dinner, I strolled through the damp, dark streets where, it being Sunday, most of the stores were closed. There was a long line, however, in front of the Cafe Tortoni, the oldest and most famous cafe, and the pedestrianized Florida was filled with evening shoppers in a tourist area that rarely closes, as well as diners at the numerous McDonald's and Burger King restaurants. The only cappuchino I could find was served in an espresso bar at one of the McDonald´s. May the ecological gods forgive me.

Our inaugural dinner was held at Siga la Vaca (follow the cow), a large dining emporium in Puerto Madero, a classy new area of shops and restaurants bordering on the harbor. There the folks began to get to know each other, in a mixture of English and Spanish. The table seemed to divide into los joven at one end and the los viejos like myself on the other, although there was frequent cross over. It´s an interesting and adventurous group and I look forward to getting to know many of them better.

The news today is that classes begin at 2:30 and we are to meet Marcos and Margarita, our native guides, on the steps of the Universidad de Belgrano, in a district not far north of here. In the meantime, I intend to explore the neighborhood as far as possible.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Thoughts for the Road

As I prepare to leave for a month in Argentina, the headlines scream their daily litany of madness and chaos: Thousands are dying in India, Iraq, Israel, Sri Lanka, Cechnya, Palestine and Lebanon. Death and destruction is threatened for Syria, Iran and North Korea. The world's leaders bellow like bullies on a schoolground, threatening & shouting & whacking the other when their back is turned. What's a poor human being, who just wants to get along, to do?

In the Gospel reading from Mark today, Jesus gives his disciples their traveling orders for the road. As they go along, they should say "the kingdom of heaven is at hand." Fat lot of good that would do them now, in the 21st century. Who would believe them? Then he tells them to perform a few miracles: Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, drive out demons. That might help. I'd like someone to cure Noel who is suffering the effects of a stroke. Or raise Peter from the dead. I miss him. As for the demons, Luke has them in spades and could use a little exorcism along with the psychotherapy and medication. I saw lepers in Bangkok and they could use their fingers and toes back. But when I google the news, these miracles are few and far between.

"As you enter a house, wish it peace," Jesus tells his disciplines before they head out into the countryside. I wish peace for the house of Ofelia Gonzalez who will be my hostess in Buenos Aires during the coming month. She lives on the third floor of an apartment building on Avenida Santa Fe in the district of Palermo which should be not too far from my classes at the Universid de Belgrano. I look forward to the people and places I will meet in Argentina, Chile and Uruguay, and wish them peace. This peace among strangers might be the closest we will get to the kingdom of heaven in this life.

In my men's group this week we talked about faith and hope. We're all a bunch of cantankerous old lefties and hope is often hard to find. Earlier I'd seen the manifesto for global warming, "An Inconvenient Truth," for the second time, and I was not very hopeful about the fate of the planet. There is an intimate connection between faith and hope, but which comes first? In the letter to the Hebrews, we Christians are told: "Faith is confident assurance concerning what we hope for, and conviction about things we do not see." I do not see the end of the world, but I expect it, considering what humans are doing to her. But I think of faith as a fundamental trust in reality, in the deepest sense. Existence, incarnation, is meaningful. And though we won't get out of here alive, our presence in time is not a random accident.

Take care, northern hemisphere, as I slip into the south. Watch out for those bullies, particularly Bush and Israel's Olmert who don't know the meaning of "collateral damage" or "innocent civilian." Don't start Armaggedon or World War Three (or Four or Five) until I get back.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Happy 100th Birthday, Fr. Bede!

Father Bede Griffiths, the British Benedictine monk who died thirteen years ago, would have turned 100 this year, and the Camaldolese order, of which he was a member, began celebrating his birthday last week with the first two of five conferences to be held in his honor this year.

Fr. Bede is known for his journey to India in the 1950s to find "the other half of my soul," and for the "marriage of east and west" he articulated in his many writings and the talks and conferences he gave around the world. In 1968 Fr. Bede was asked to take over Saccidananda Ashram, popularly known as Shantivanam ("Forest of Peace"), in Tamil Nadu, and there, clad in the orange colored cloth of a sannyasi, he gathered around him disciples from all over the world. Since his death, the ashram has continued to draw pilgrims from diverse religious traditions who want to experience the spirituality of India from a Christian perspective.

Fr. Bede was one of the outstanding religious leaders of the 20th century. The Dalai Lama credits him with "opening the hearts and minds of mankind to gain understanding and acceptance of all the major religions." C.S. Lewis, with whom he studied at Oxford, dedicated his autobiography to him. Cardinal Basil Hume called him "a mystic in touch with absolute love and beauty." In his writings, Bede attempted to harmonize Eastern mysticism and Western science with Christianity. In his person, Bede exemplified presence and generosity. He was a priest, guru, prophet, teacher, swami and friend to all he met on the path.

The first two conferences, organized by Fr. Joseph Wong, assistant to the Camaldolese Prior General, Dom Bernardino Cozzarini, were held in California, and the next three will take place in England (this month), at Camaldoli in Italy (November), and at finally at Shantivanam on the centennial of his 100th birthday, December 17.

The first gathering, an invitational affair for monks and academics, was held at New Camaldoli Hermitage in Big Sur a week ago. They were welcomed by Dom Bernardino from Italy and Hermitage Prior Raniero Hoffman. Father George Nelliyanil, prior of Shantivanam, was on hand, visiting the U.S. for the first time, to present a paper by Brother John Martin, the ashram's resident teacher. Invited to read papers from the academic world, where scholarship into Bede's thought is generating numerous dissertations, were Jesuit Francis Clooney from Harvard, Brad Malkovsky from Notre Dame, Joseph Prabhu from California State University at Los Angeles, and Michael von Brück, theologian and Zen teacher, from Ludwig Maximilians University

(front l-r, Clooney, von Brück, Prabhu, Coff, Malkovsky, Corcoran, Matus, Freeman; back l-r, Hoffman, Barnhart, Hale, Consiglio, Cozzarini, Wong, Nelliyanil).

in Munich, Germany. Monastics also presenting papers included Fr. Bruno Barnhart, Fr. Thomas Matus, Fr. Robert Hale, all from Big Sur; Sr. Donald Corcoran, prioress of Transfiguration Monastery in New York state, and Fr. Joseph Wong. Presenting a paper by video was theologian Beatrice Bruteau. On hand to discussion their experiences with Fr. Bede were Sr. Pascaline Coff, founder of Osage Monastery in Oklahoma, the "Shantivanam of the West," Fr. Cyprian Consiglio and Fr. Laurence Freeman, director of the World Community for Christian Meditation.

The two California conferences, both entitled "Carrying Forward the Contemplative and Proaphetic Vision of Bede Griffiths," were sponsored by the Camaldolese Institute for East-West Dialogue. The second gathering for the public was held over last weekend at Mercy Center in Burlingame before a crowd of nearly a hundred people (300 more were on a waiting list unable to get in). Papers were presented by Wong, Matus, Hale, Corcoran and Barnhart, and a round table discussion, chaired by Fr. Cyprian (who led Sanskrit chants before each presentation), featured Dom Bernardino, Sr. Pascaline and Fr. George with stories about their personal experiences with Fr. Bede.

The scholarly papers and the discussions about Bede and his significance were a bit overwhelming. It will take awhile to sort out all the ideas. Clearly, he was a man for all seasons and paths to the mystery that many call God. I missed my one chance to meet him when he visited a bookstore in Santa Cruz in 1992. But I've been to Shantivanam twice, meditated in his hut and sat by his tomb. I find the writings of his predecessor at Shantivanam, Fr. Henri le Saux (also called Abhishiktananda), more congenial. Abhishiktananda agonized over his attempt to integrate Hinduism and Christianity, whereas Bede often seemed to paper over differences with optimistic obfuscation. Several of the academic speakers pointed out that Bede romanticized Hinduism and focused on the intellectual and mystical Vedanta tradition while largely ignoring (perhaps because it frightened him) the popular religiosity of temple worship. While he was a strong critic of the institutional church, and a supporter of equality and rights for women and gays, Bede was in many respects and orthodox Christian. The Christ event, whether historical or cosmic, was at the center of his faith. He advocated a "Christian advaita," making use of the Sanskrit term for non-duality, the mystical oneness at the heart of the revelation of the Upanishads. But, as several speakers pointed out, at the heart of the Christian revelation is love, and love is not possible without two separate identities." Only Jesus can say "I and the father are one"; we are sons of the father by adoption, not by birth.

Because Fr. Bede was first and foremost a Christian, I do not see him as an important figure for inter-religious dialogue, as Fr. Robert Hale argued in his paper. Theologian Karl Rahner used the term "anonymous Christ" to locate the Christian revelation within other religions, and Bede followed this practice. But this can border on arrogance and be a stumbling block to true dialogue (in which surprise is always a possibility) with followers of other faiths. Bede's importance, I believe, is for Christians who stumble against the antiquated and reified language of a 2,000-year-old Gospel tradition, a language articulated in a very different cultural context from today. Bede, and Thomas Merton before him, have recaptured mystical insights from both medieval Europe and the Indian subcontinent and made them live again, in Bede's case with the assistance of new scientific and philosophical thinking from Sheldrake, Capra and Wilber, among others.

Perhaps Bede's most radical ideas concerned the reform of monasticism. Although a priest, he felt that the monk should be a lay person. And although most of his adult life was spent in a monastery or ashram, he felt that the future of monasticism would be in the world. In his last book, The New Creation in Christ: Christian Meditation and Community, Bede wrote that
Some monks may live in monasteries, but increasingly the majority will live in their own homes or form small communities -- a monastic order in the world.
To that end, Bede traveled widely in his later years with Sr. Pascaline, Russill and Asha Paul, and Brother Wayne Teasdale (who died earlier this year) in search of somewhere to settle in such a community outside the cloister walls. While that search did not result in the establishment of a lay monastic order, there are numerous experiments going on in that direction at present, including the Sangha Shantivanam in Santa Cruz.

Father Bede Griffiths continues to exemplify the possible of a radical holiness in a radical and secular world.