Thursday, August 31, 2006

Happy 29th Birthday, Mol!

Last night I was invited to a surprise birthday party for my one and only daughter Molly who turns 29 today. It was organized by her girlfriend Tibi and her friend and housemate Tamara and we gathered in the kitchen of their rambling old Santa Cruz house to hang crepe paper, arrange flowers, and lay out fruit and chocolate treats while she and Tibi ate dinner at a nice restaurant downtown.
Besides the small group of her closest friends, Molly's parents were special guests. I haven't seen all that much of her mother, Cici, in the five years that we have been divorced, and sharing the honor of celebrating the birth of our daughter felt a bit awkward. But the focus on Molly filled the empty spaces and there was much laughter as we rehearsed how we would greet them when Tibi brought Molly into the house. Finally the car lights shone in the driveway and we hunkered down in dark silence as footsteps came down the hall.


Molly stood in stunned silence, her hands fluttering around her face, tracing the smile that threatened to break out and fly around the room. "oooohh," is all I recall her saying. Then, when her voice returned, she told us that she had never had a surprise party before (her mother and I looked at each other, trying to remember childhood parties which may or may not have been surprising). She went around the room to hug everyone who came.

We feasted on rasberries, wine, chocolate and watermelon. Cici remembers eating alot of watermelon when she was pregnant with Molly and credits this with her daughter's addiction to the big fruit today. The watermelon was fresh and sweet.
I gave Molly my small present first, a copy of Sharon Salzberg's book, Loving-Kindness: the Revolutionary Art of Happiness. Several years ago, I had given her the Buddhist teacher's book Faith and Molly said that she was finally reading it and appreciating Salzberg's insights. I thought the classic book on loving kindness meditation was a suitable followup.

A little later I pulled out her big birthday present, an Apple G4 iBook. Molly has wanted a laptop computer for some time now, and after returning from Argentina I started looking online and eventually started bidding for one on eBay. The first half dozen or so I lost in the final minutes of the auction when someone invariably came along to trump my bid. I realized that to win you needed to act quickly. Last week I had my eye on two and their auctions were ending about the same time. But I failed to see that I'd won the first and bid up quickly on the second, winning them both. I chose the fastest one with the most memory for Molly and updated all the software. Her mother and I paid for a little more than half the cost of the computer. When I presented it to her, she hugged the white laptop like a newborn babe. That's my daughter!

After the food and presents, we all circled around Mol and appreciated her with stories. Samantha remembered working with her at the Herb Room ten years before and several friends recalled how Molly always greeted them with warmth and love. A couple met her in the performance group Urban Rennaisance and were awed when they heard her sing. "She opened her mouth and out came this incredibly beautiful black voice." It was so good to see Molly's beauty and strength through the eyes and words of her friends.

I remembered the day Molly was born and how her mother and I watched so carefully for signs of labor that we went to the hospital too early and had to pass the time with pizza and massages and tea with Godmommy Ann. Her water broke while we were lying on the floor of the house in Harvey West Park, right on the oriental rug, and we rushed to Community Hospital where Molly was born in the birthing center, in a room with a large brass bed. She came out with a full head of dark hair (which quickly turned blonde and stayed there) and I gave her a bath in warm water to ease the transition from womb to world. The three of us spent the night in the brass bed and went home the next morning to begin the loving relationship that continues today.

I remembered swinging with Molly in our hammock outside when she was a week old. And I remembered our trip across the country when Molly was five and how I tried to impress her with the Grand Canyon, arriving at dawn to the accompaniment of music by Bach on the tape deck. She got out of the car, took a look, and said: "It's just a big hole." Molly was born with a deep strong voice. She and I appeared together in Mountain Community Theater's youth production of "Fame" when she was perhaps eight; I played a music teacher and she channeled Bette Midler in singing "Wind Beneath My Wings" which brought me to tears at every performance.

But, as I told her friends, our relationship has not always been a bed of roses. Molly was always head strong and determined. We clashed often as she was growing up. I stood by helpless as she struggled with weight issues and Bell's palsy during puberty, and I often felt like an outsider, watching the circle of supportive friends gather around her and seeing with envy the close relationship she had with her mother. Molly's courage in the face of adversity was astounding. Unsure of what I had to offer, I tried unsuccessfully to teach her the joys of research when she was home schooled, and I surrounded her at home with recorded music of all kinds. The academic example failed, but I think she benefited by absorbing music into her very bones. And it was Molly of all my four children who heard the siren call of spirituality and has followed some of the paths I have taken in my long search for the divine.

And finally, at a concert last week where Marina sang songs from the 1940's and 1950's, Molly and I danced. Following the example of her mother, she has always been involved in movement, from yoga to African, Brazilian and other forms of dance. When she was a babe in arms, I used to dance her to sleep. Now, as adults, we danced together, twirling around the polished wood floor at the Pacific Cultural Center, and it was delightful.

Molly, I love you. Happy Birthday!

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Jesus, Our Sadguru

"All we need is Jesus," the woman said. "Why do we need anything else?" she asked at the final session of Father Cyprian Consiglio's four-day retreat last weekend in the redwood-covered hills above Santa Cruz.

Her question deserved an answer, and Cyprian, who always diplomatically walks the razor's edge between orthodoxy and heresy, did not respond, other than to gently praise her faith in Jesus as the alpha and omega. The woman had seemed confused about all the talk of Hinduism and meditation during the retreat on the theme of "Spirit, Soul and Body: The Univeral Call to Contemplation." Much of Cyprian's theology is rooted in the writings of Fr. Bede Griffiths, a Benedictine monk who lived in India for forty years. Another man at the retreat was clearly upset by the video shown the night before on the life of Abhishiktananda, the French monk who came to India and put on orange robes and a swami's name. "I didn't hear anything about Jesus," he complained. Some of the retreatants come annually to the late summer weekend at St. Clare's Retreat House and were more used to the orthodox Christianity of George Maloney who used to give the retreat but died last year.

For those unused to the Eastern perspective on Christianity which Cyprian has been offering in public talks for several years, the distinction between meditation, contemplation and prayer was blurry. The man who could not find Jesus in Abhishiktananda's Asia journey claimed to have been meditating for 35 years. But it turned it his meditation was a technique for visualizing Jesus in the Gospel stories and not a method for setting aside discursive thought, even orthodox and very beautiful religious thoughts. Cyprian's talks came between periods of meditation, and each day began with yoga designed to lead into contemplation. Once we even meditated for three periods in a row, interrupted only by stretching to straighten out the kinks, awaken numb legs and massage sore knees.

Why, indeed, do we need to see Jesus and his Gospel message through spectacles from the East? Cyprian did not say that all paths lead to God, even through the emptiness of Buddhism. He did not say that other revelations leading to the formation of other religions were equally valid, and that Moses, Krishna, Buddhai, Lao Tzu, Mohammed, and other gurus, avatars and spiritual leaders were the equivalent of Jesus. In fact, he disavowed a "soggy synchretism" in which we would say of religions: "It's all the same." As if to demonstrate his orthodoxy as a Catholic priest, Cyprian told of his practicing of chanting the Psalms daily and praying the rosary. But he also spoke of his one meeting 15 years ago with Bede Griffiths at the Camaldoli Hermitage in Big Sur when he sat across from the tall, thin white-haired man dressed in an orange robe, looked deeply into his eyes, and decided: I want what he has.

"Christians need to open their hearts to Christ within, experience Christ within as their guru. This is the function of the ashram," Griffiths wrote. Sadguru is the name for the supreme teacher of Hindu devotees, the teacher who inspires us from within the cave of our hearts. And the monk Abhishiktananda, whose place Griffiths took at Shantivanam Ashram in southern India, was reported to have said: "I have often written that Jesus is my Sadguru. It is through his mystery that I have discovered God and myself, that I have caught hold of my identity."

During the retreat, Cyprian talked of the many young people who had left Christianity for the spirituality of the East. Bede encountered them in his ashram. They were ignorant of the depths of their own Christian tradition, of techniques of meditation thousands of years old and mystical wisdom from the Middle Ages that mirrored teachings in the Hindu Vedas and the Upanishads. It was to show them a bridge back to their roots, not an attempt to prove the superiority of the Christian revelation, that Bede and now Cyprian have dedicated their teaching.

I spoke up about my own experience. Raised in the Protestant faith, I drifted away from the church in my teens and explored a variety of philosophies and spiritual paths, including Theosophy, flying saucers, Subud and Transcendental Meditation, as well as Buddhism and Vedanta. The Christian God was too small, too culture bound, too locked into a language -- English -- that dogmatic followers claimed to be His (never her) words, the literal truth. Christians seemed to want to beat followers of other faiths into submission, into conversion. I wanted none of it.

In my middle years I discovered the writings of Thomas Merton, who led the way to a revitalization of Christian spirituality after the opening of Vatican II, and I decided that I wanted what that man had: I became a convert to Catholicism 20 years ago. But even then, I shuddered when one of my catechists said to me: "Buddhism and Hinduism, they're cults." Not long after my confirmation, unable to find kindred souls who shared my love of other spiritual faiths, I lapsed. It took a serious illness and a broken marriage to bring me back into the Church, and then I was able to find many who were on a journey similar to my own.

I could never believe in a God with a long white beard who lived in the sky, watching -- and judging -- our every deed. I could believe in a God who was the divine spirit indwelling within us all, and, indeed, in all creation. It is this Spirit which was the central topic of Fr. Cyprian's conferences in which he talked of the "anthropology" he borrowed from Bede, of spirit, soul and body. Soul and body are the ordinary dichotomy we think of as mind/body, the substances analyzed by Descarte. Soul, for Bede and Cyprian, however, is much more, and includes some of what is thought of as religious (visions, etc.). Cyprian's goal, along with the Apostle Paul, is the transformation of our minds so that we become receptive to the Spirit. But how to do this is the question. "God is in the details," a fellow monk told him, the "tremendous trifles" referred to by G.K. Chesterton.

Spirituality, Cyprian told us, is a practical science, and spiritual evolution is ongoing. He quoted Gandhi who said "my life is my message," and suggested that how we live is what we believe. Nelson Mandela said: "When we are liberated from our own fears, our very presence liberates others." A commitment to a spiritual life is what is important, not the constant monitoring of what progress we have made. Cyprian also talked about the solitude of contemplation and how in the depths of meditation we are "alone with the alone," no less a celibate monk than the nun or brother in a cloister.

Cyprian grew quite passionate when he talked of a Catholic who wanted him to be a gate keeper, to refuse the Eucharist to homosexuals and proponents of abortion. "I told him I wanted to be over there with the whores and tax collectors. I wouldn't make decisions to exclude anyone." And he was also passionate in discussing the environmental crisis. "Humans are the keystone species; we should be the priests of creation, taking care of it rather than desecrating it." How we treat our bodies, i.e. with junk food and TV, is how we care for the earth, he said. An individual transformation of consciousness, he believes, can lead to a social transformation, one person at a time. I don't totally share his faith in this gradual kind of change, thinking that it might already be too late for gradualism, but I agree that transforming our own consciousness may be all we can individually accomplish.

When I am alone with the alone, my soul talks incessantly, mostly of inane things, but sometimes it regurgitates memories and constructs imaginary scenarios that are disturbing. As a single older man, I find thoughts of sex an unwelcome and constant companion, and the vindictiveness I often feel towards a former spouse is an insurmountable barrier it seems to union with God. How can I experience the love of God if the preoccupations of my mind are so unseemly? I trust the words of Jesus, Cyprian, Bede, Merton and others: God's love is constant, the Spirit of God dwells in the cave of my heart (closer than our jugular vein, as the Muslims put it). But it is my stuff that gets in the way. I am not so much journeying to God as trying to find my way back.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Washington Comes to Santa Cruz

Our congressman, Sam Farr, held his annual Town Hall meeting at the Vet's Hall last night before a packed house of his constituents. We're fortunate to have a liberal and progressive (somewhat) Democract representing our interests in Washington, but I was not reassured by what he had to say.

Fiscally and politically, the United States is in deep shit (my word, not his). The Republicans in power, far from being fiscal conservatives, have turned out to be big spenders. At the same time as they were lowering taxes, the debt ceiling was raised to $9 trillion dollars. This was "reckless and immoral," Farr said, adding that "we're in the worst fiscal crisis in U.S. history. " Things are just as bad in the political sphere. In our electoral system, winner takes all, which means the end (winning elections) justifies any means. Because of Bush's narrow electoral margin and Republican control of the House and Senate, the Democratic party is effectively shut out of power. If we don't regain control of Congress in elections this fall, it's all over, folks (my pessimism, not Farr's).

The one sign of hope Farr mentioned was Lieberman's recent defeat in Connecticut. There the people made their discontent heard and defeated a pro-war Democrat.

On Iraq and Lebanon, Rep. Farr's positions are a mixed bag. He has been a consistent critic of the fiasco in Iraq and at the meeting signed the Congressional pledge offered by the Declaration of Peace to support legislation to withdraw troops and close bases. But when questioned about various bills and resolutions to achieve these aims, he seemed confused about details. As a minority party, he said, the Democrats have little chance of passing any of this legislation. The only solution is to win control back in November.

Farr is a consistent supporter of Israel and signed, along with most of the House, H. Res. 921 which puts most of the blame for the recent troubles on "terrorists," Hamas and Hezbollah. In his favor, the resolution was offered before Israel's disproportionate destruction of Lebanon and the slaughter of innocent civilians. And he said to one questioner at the meeting that debate on the issue might have been much more intense if the resolution had come at the end of Israel's shock and awe bombing campaign instead of at the beginning. But he made little attempt to explain his blanket support of Israel other than to point to an extension of remarks which simply repeats his criticism of Hamas and Hezbollah without any criticism of Israel's heavy handed methods which are supported and financed by the United States. He seems unable to connect rising terrorism in the Middle East with our policies there, in Iraq, Afghanistan and Israel.

One man stepped up to the microphone and said he hoped Farr would help put "some spine" into the Democrats. Farr protested that the news media, which has been concentrated into the hands of a few, was not covering what Democrats were saying, making it seem that nothing was said and Democrats were spineless. This, he said, was not the case. But the internet now makes possible a wide variety of news sources and blogs, and it is not at all apparent to me that any particular Democrats are challenging the status quo. After all, the Democrats under Clinton pushed corporation-sponsored globalization policies that have hurt poor people everywhere, and their support of Israel was just as myopic and short-sighted as Bush's.

I think Farr is correct that our winner-takes-all system makes it difficult if not impossible to protect minority (even 49%) interests. De Tocqueville warned long ago of the "tyranny of the majority," and that indeed is the case today. It remains to be seen if democracy, as a system of government in which each citizen has a stake, can survive in the United States. I am not very hopeful.

This morning in a discussion on NPR a constitutional lawyer voiced his fear that the groundwork is being laid for a dictatorship in this country, justified by an unending war on terror. All it will take is another attack of the caliber of 9-11 and the freedoms we have taken for granted for generations will be gone. King George is polishing his crown.

I was surprised that the local Israel lobby, which staged a demonstration at the Town Clock several weeks ago in support of the slaughter in Lebanon (they claimed they had a permit and would not allow dissenting voices on their corner), was not in evidence at Farr's Town Hall last night. Perhaps they know that he is safely in their pocket.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Coming Home

"You can't go home again," Thomas Wolfe wrote, and boy was he right. "Home," that figment of the imagination, somehow moved while I was away in Argentina. Everything looks the same, but I feel as if I'm still on the airplane and we're turning, turning, turning.

Yesterday evening, after watching Woody Allen's frivalous "Scoop," I walked down Pacific Avenue, drifting along with the crowds, into the book stores and down to the record store. Wherever I go in the world, I think of Santa Cruz as paradise, the urban sanctuary hippies dreamt of in the Sixties, a progressive and liberal, free-thinking bastion of freedom and hope for all the disenchanted and marginalized in Bush's America. But last night all I saw was ugliness and misery, tension and anger. Nothing overt, mind you. It was in the faces, in the dress and the posture of the people I passed, particularly the young. I know some residents are fearful of walking past the Catalyst and the bus depot where today's disaffiliated and rootless poor tend to congregate, but not until last night did I feel afraid. "Money for pizza," one young bearded man in mufti growled at me. An overweight young woman shouted nonsense syllables at people passing by. Tattoed and pierced people, their heads hid in dark hoods, wheeled bikes down the sidewalk, daring you to challenge them. A trio of young girls, stomachs agressively bare, walked by, speaking a foreign language (it was not Spanish) in squeaky voices. Was this MY Santa Cruz?

At my son's house in Sonoma not long after flying in to San Francisco, I picked up an issue of Rolling Stone and read a riotous rant against the modern world by that prophet of the absurdities of life, Kurt Vonnegut. Now in his 80s, he said "I'm forced to suffer leaders with names like Bush and Dick and, up until recently, Colon." Calling himself Jeremiah, he ticked off the sins of our age: We're "killing the planet as a life-support system with gasooline...This is the end of the world...Of course, the lunatic fringe of Christianity is welcoming the end of the world as the rapture. So I'm Jeremiah. It's going to have to stop. I'm sorry." But when pressed for advice he might give young people who want to help, he replied: "There is nothing they can do. It's over, my friend. The game is lost." In my most pessimistic moments, I agree. But is this an epiphenomenon of geography? If I had remained in Argentina, or lived in on a beach in Thailand as I sometimes dream, would the future of the world still seem as dire as it does in the belly of the beast?

As I write, the glug glug glug of plumbing in distress echoes from my bathroom. One of my closest friends, recently returned to Berkeley after a year-long manic episode that costs him thousands of dollars, tells me matter-of-factly that he had a heart attack a month ago. This morning I'll visit another friend, in the hospital recovering from an operation for stomach cancer which followed a stroke. Jim in Fresno seems to have disappeared; he won't answer my emails or respond to phone messages.

But outside my window a purple flower (will I ever learn their names?) blooms, and it attracts a hummingbird that seems unworried by my typing. A woman I knew as a newborn, visits from Georgia with her two girls and tells me that her third kidney transplant seems to have been successful. Shirlee's garden is a vibrant collage of greens, although it is probably the giant redwood's roots that are mangling my plumbing. The good and the bad always coexist.

Argentina gradually fades from my memory, leaving behind firm images in the photos I took, more than 1200 of them, which I now have to edit and put in some semblance of order so that I can share these Kodak moments I saw with others. But of course the sounds of traffic and Castellano voices and the smells of smokey air and dog poop on the shoe are missing, as is the welcoming sound of Ofelia's "buen dia" when I would come to a breakfast of stale toast and instant coffee precisely at 8:30 in the morning. As I walk down the street in Santa Cruz I am also walking down Avenida Federico Lacroze in Belgrano, and the faces I see here jar against the memory of the faces there.

When I travel, irksome conditions of the skin and scalp take a holiday. My doctor says his eczema disappears when he goes on vacation, and he attributes this to an abscence of stress. When I go away on a journey to a faraway place, I leave appointments, meetings, duties and responsibilities behind and focus on the task of getting to know a new place for the first time (or in some cases revist old memories to see how they hold up). Coming back home, they descend like an out-of-control heavy stage curtain on the unsuspecting actors below. The glorious freedom of sipping a cafe con leche with an empty mind at an outdoor table under the bright sun in Buenos Aires is gone. Anti-dandruff shampoo becomes once again a daily necessity.

In Argentina, more than halfway south to Antarctica, the news of the world came from far away: Slaughter in Lebanon, a drunken Mel Gibson goes anti-Semitic, terrorists in London plot to blow up planes with liquid explosives. But when we got to Ezeizia International Airport I realized once again how small today's globe really is. A very short time after the arrests in London, policies were in place in all airports to ban liquids and gels from carryon luggage. We had to endure very long lines at the check-in counter, at the gateway to the departure lounges, and again in the lounge for our plane where hand luggage was examined thoroughly by pleasant women wearing plastic gloves. And a man passed a magic wand over our body to ferret out anything metalic that might be dangerous, like fingernail clippers and the like. There seemed to be enormous duplication of effort. In Atlanta, even though we were in transit, the process was repeated, our shoes once again x-rayed, out luggage once again pawed over. I did not feel safer. And I realized that, like checkpoints and searches that sprouted after the first airplane hijacking years ago, these procedures would stay in effect forever. No more bottled water carried on planes, no more lipstick applied before landing. I expect that soon anything powdery, and indeed all carryon luggage, including detective novels and iPods, will be banned by the authorities concerned about saving us from the dark side of terrorism.

This might be justified if a real threat existed. But according to the stories I am reading, the so-called terrorists in London, who had been watched for some time, had neither current passports nor plane tickets, and they had not yet put together workable explosives. The threat of liquid explosives on airplanes was mentioned in the 9/11 official report, but no security measures had been taken back then. And the one known instance of a liquid explosive being used was not as devastating as feared. So once again the lying regime of George Bush has manufactured a threat that did not exist, outside of disgruntled and speculative conversation, to terrorize the world into accepting their disastrous agenda of spreading capitalism and control around the globe. It makes me sick.

Have I mentioned that everywhere I went in Argentina and Chile people wanted to speak to us about their dislike of George Bush? Of course, my inadequate Spanish made it difficult to carry on the deep political discussion I wanted to have, but it was easily seen that the United States and Israel are today the leading candidates for Number 1 Pariah.

It was encouraging to me to learn that the new democracies of South America -- Argentina, Chile, Bolivia, Brazil, Venezuela -- are uniting, under the paternal gaze of Fidel, to oppose Bush's policies. Everywhere they are overcoming the tragic years of military rule in the late 20th century, when numerous US supported right-wing dictatorships, their soldiers trained in torture at the School of the Americas in Georgia, murdered their own people for supporting peace and social justice. This killing still goes on in U.S.-friendly Colombia. I believe, with left-thinking people everywhere, that the United States is now the greatest threat to world peace. Our democracy is strangling in the grip of an unscrupulous religious right-wing cabal in Washington which utilizes 1984 newspeak to numb the consciousness of many Americans. Veep Chaney is channeling Joseph McCarthy when he accuses the foes of that turncoat Joe Lieberman of aiding Al-Quaeda. Oh, what a tangled web they've woven!

Friday, August 11, 2006

Last Thoughts From Argentina

Plaza de Lavalle
It's time to take stock of my experience in Argentina. I have been in Buenos Aires now almost four weeks and our plane leaves in tomorrow for California and home. Yesterday morning when we met in a cafe in Palermo to study for this afternoon's final exam, Toni brought with her a tourist guide she had found in her host's apartment. It was written for people like us who have come to Argentina to study Spanish. And it told of the three-week syndrome when visitors become sick of Buenos Aires, Argentina and their Spanish classes. But it passes quickly, according to the guide. Not so for Toni who by Wednesday was so sick of everything about this place that she was ready to fly off to Tierra del Fuego and Antarctica. She wanted nothing to do with the farewell banquet to be held tonight at a nice restaurant in Las Cañitas.

I don't want to speak for Toni, who has her own reasons to be fed up with being here. But the negativity among the students is palpable and it does not at all resemble the experience I had studying Spanish in Oaxaca a year and a half ago. I don't partake much in the gossip but I do hear that many in our group from Cabrillo are discontented. One reason might be sickness. A large number seem to be hacking and wheezing and one is able to manage only by taking codeine-laced cough syrup which she bought by canvassing numerous farmacias until she found one willing to sell her the drug. There are complaints about living arrangements, the lack of hot water, absence of privacy, the difficulty of finding a place to study, weak light bulbs, poor food (or no food). Several students have given up on classes altogether because they were more interested in exploring the city than memorizing verb tenses. Others find the material covered too demanding (or the progress too rapid), and some find their fellow students a distraction.

I have been told that I'm a success, that my happiness with the Argentine experience is rare. Certainly I don't embrace the negativity I've heard (being prone to make lemonade. But I am not a polyanna about this city and country and have some critical to say about it. On my part, I think I'm lucky. Ofelia has been a wonderful hostess,and although living together in such a confined space has not been easy, I have managed to get my major needs met: a good shower, adequate and tasty food, and a comfortable bed which has made sleep easy. I don't spend much time in Ofelia's third-floor aparment on Avenida Santa Fe in Palermo, but stay out daily from 9 in the morning until about 9 at night. Certainly this way, we don't get tired of each other.

I came well prepared to have a good time. For months I've been watching films made in Argentina, reading the Lonely Planet Argentina guide and two LP guides for Buenos Aires, reading a history of the country by Jonathan C. Brown, and listening to tango music, particularly the classic songs by Carlos Gardel. I watched again Madonna's "Evita" as well as a documentary on Mrs. Peron's life and a fictional version made by an Argentine director. I was familiar with the "Dirty War" and its consequences and I was particularly eager to march in the Plaza de Mayo with the mothers of the disappeared who have been in search of justice for almost thirty years.

Exploring new cities has become somewhat of an obsession with me. I've been to Bangkok several times and can find my way around it easily. Last summer I went to Barcelona for a week to study Gaudi's architecture and practice my Spanish. I followed this with Rome, and spent much time in London which I knew well from my days there circa 1964-66. In Vietnam last fall I walked all over Saigon and Hanoi. Antigua, Guatemala, may be much smaller, but I know its streets and churches well, as I do the sights in Oaxaca. So I knew what to do when I came to Buenos Aires and I had plenty of time to do it in. On our cathedral tour in England last summer, one of the members talked of "bagging" another church. I've just bagged another city.

Rather than recount every experience that I've checked off in my Lonely Planet guides, I want to make some general observations about the people I've met and observed here and draw some conclusions about the culture. When I met with Beverly Keene yesterday, an America who has spent twenty years here, she confirmed many of my impressions.

The Subte (underground or metro) is old and in need of some sprucing up, but it's efficient, and I have taken the D line numerous times from Carranza station in Palermo to the Catedral station in the Microcentro barrio downtown. Most of the time I've stood because the cars always seem full and I've looked closely at the people. The ride is frequently interrupted by beggars and entertainers. The other day a young man began talking loudly while holding up a picture of a cat. Then another man at the end of the car began shouting at him. They had a loud dialogue back in forth in Spanish which I could not understand and I tried not to look. Then the people in the car applauded, and I realized it had all been street (or Subte) theater, although I don't have a clue what it was about. Then the actors passed the hat. I've seen children with babies, jugglers, vendors of useless goods, a reggae singer, and more. It's often entertainer and never uninteresting.

My impression, however, is that the people I see are sad and lifeless. Their mostly European faces often have a gray unhealthy palor. Of course, visiting a city in winter is not the best time to make judgements about what its like all year round. But I can't help thinking that the long ugly war against its own people, and the endless economic trouble has crushed the spirit of Argentians. It doesn't hold true of everyone I've met. Eugenia, our wonderful teacher, is a live wire, full of curiosity and enthusiasm. The daughter of two doctors, she is obviously from a privileged class and has been well educated. The young people I see in the lounge at the Universidad de Belgrano are like young people everywhere. But the homeless I see sleeping or drinking in the parks (not unlike Santa Cruz or San Francisco), and the poor cartoneros who come into the city at night to pick up recyclable paper and cardboard show another side. Many of the poor I see have dark skin and are probably immigrants from Peru, Bolivia and Paraguy, and some are probably here illegally. Eugenia confirms that there is racism against people with indigenous genes and dark skin.

One of the high points of my trip was going to midnight mass on the eve of the feast day of San Cayetano. I heard about him at the Museo de Deuda Externa, where images of the saint are used to illustrate unemployment. He has become the patron saint of bread and jobs here in Argentina and his feast day, Augusut 7, is a major occasion. It turned out that Ofelia was a devotee of this saint and she took me, along with her tenant Rita, to the mass not far off Avenido Cabildo in Belgrano. It was not the major shrine, which is out of the city in Lineares, but there were hundreds of people at nearly midnight who were lined up waiting to be the first to pray at the statue of the saint and touch him for good luck. The hall was packed and we had good seats since we arrived early. The pilgrims streamed by the saint on the mezzanine upstairs endlessly during the long mass. At the end, people held up stalks of wheat, symbolizing bread, and the keys to their house to be blessed by the priest. It was for me a moving experience of popular piety in action. I think Jesus would be proud.

Another high point of my trip, two actually, was the discovery of two wonderful artists. Eugenia had mentioned Antonio Berni in class as an artist who painted social justice themes and I saw a wonderful painting of his at the Malba gallery of a strike in the 1930s with a sign in the background reading "Pan y Trabajo." The huge painting contained a sea of poor faces and was heart-rending. The other artist whose works I first saw at the Malba was Xul Solar. He has been called the William Blake of Argentina (I think the multi-talented Berni is probably the Pablo Picasso), and I later went to visit the mseum at his house and was awed by what I saw. His work is colorful and playful and his themes constantly refer to an eccentric spirituality that I love.

Walking in the Plaza de Mayo with two groups of mothers of the disappeared was very moving and certainly a high point, as was talking with three of them at their office about what it was like to lose a daughter or son and not know what happened, then or now. I enjoyed talking with Juan De Wandelear about his work putting together a memorial to all the victims of state violence which will resemble the Vietnam wall. He told me about a memorial to four women that had been disappeared in the 1970s from the Iglesia de Santa Cruz and I went to pay a visit. I was surprised at how many demonstrations I saw of people disgruntled about something. Porteños do not seem as apathetic as my countrymen, many of whom are anesthetized by too much wealth, or by the media, to the wrongs of the world.

I loved sitting in the many cafes drinking cappuchino or caffe con leche or cafe costado and reading, doing homework or watching the people, and the very efficient waiters in their white coats. I liked that they always delivered along with the coffee a glass of water, with gas or without, and often a tiny cookie.

I've already spoken at length in my blog about the two weekend trips I took -- to Santiago, Chile, and to Salta and the Quebrada de Humahuaca in the northwest of Argentina. Both were illuminating experiences and they gave me very different perspectives on the southern cone of South America.

There is so much more positive that I could say, but I want to add a few more words of criticism. Buenos Aires is full of dogs and dog-walking is a major career choice (I saw walkers with up to 20 dogs at a time). But dogs need to poop and the sidewalks are filled with caca, even though there are laws like our own which require people to pick up afterwards. Stepping in Argentine dog shit is a memorable experience one would like to forget. The sidewalks are often dangerous for many reasons, not the least because the pavement is often uneven and broke, and the ground litered with trash. The residents seem to think nothing of droping cigarette butts, papers, and what we would think of as recyclable cans and bottles on the ground. I understand that Buenos Aires has a nighly garbage pickup but you wouldn´t know it from walking in their filthy streets. Ofelia agreed with me that it was a tragedy.

It's not that porteños are obsessed with death, but I have appreciated the ornate homes for the dead they've constructed in the cemeteries in Recoleta Chacarita. I visited Evita's tomb in the first and Peron's in the second and it's unclear why they're not buried closer together but rather reside for eternity across town from each other. It might have been the doing of Peron's second wife, Isabel. Both tombs are quite modest but the faithful bring flowers to each daily. I also visited Carlos Gardel's grave in Chacarita where the walls are littered with plaques thanking him for his music and favors rendered. I watched a man cross himself as if Gardel has already been beatified. There is a life-sized statue of him and devotees place lit cigarettes between his fingers. Another pilgrimage was to Gardel's house in Abastos, the district where he lived. The house is modest but a number of the buildings on the street have been colorfully painted with fileta decorations, the unique porteño style of baroque lettering. There are images of Gardel everywhere in Bs As and he stands alongside Evita as the icons of Argentina (Che Guevara who was born here comes a close third).

I haven't said anything about the Obelisco which looks like the Washington Monument, or about mate drinking or the fair in Matadores on the outskirts of the city that we attended the first weekend, or the limited national cuisine unless you love steaks and pizza. Also on that first weekend was a glorious sunny Saturday when the whole city seemed to congregate in the Bosques of Palermo, a lovely where where I went bicycle riding. Or watching Stravinsky's three ballet operas at the magnificent Teatro Colon which is about to celebrate its 100th anniversary. Clearly there is much to see and do in this city.

Finally, I want to say something about studying Spanish in Buenos Aires. It hasn't been easy, but I think that has something to do with the leaky nature of my aging brain. Although I studied at length, I'm sure I did a very poor job on the final yesterday. Not for lack of help from Eugenia, our teacher, however. She has been wonderful, and the conversations she's stimulated in class have gone all over the map: abortion, Argentina's politics, Noam Chomsky and various linguists, movies, whether we're optimists or pessimists (Argentinans, we learned, think little of the future but live primarily for today; they are obsessed with appearance). Rather than teach to the text, Eugenia took cues from our mistakes and our questions to guide us through the intracies of verb tenses and the difference between por and para. It didn't seem like we progressed through that much material in the four weeks we studied with her, but I know that I'll carry some of her lessons and insights with me back to California. For a party gift I bought her today a Spanish translation of Thomas Merton's writings on oriental religions.

Last night Moochie invited me to dinner with her guests, Lorraine and Toni, and Nancy, our teacher from Cabrillo, also came. Michael, Moochie's other guest from Texas, also joined us for a terrific dinner of gourmet pizzas, ensalada a la casa, and a fine Malbec wine which was my contribution (it's impossible to pay more than $10 for a bottle, no matter how good it is). Moochie gave me an interesting magazine on the martyrdom of Bishop Enrique Angelelli and the gesture touched me. She is a former nun and understands my interest in monasticism and Thomas Merton. I wish I understood her Spanish better. She speaks rapidly and has an accent I believe which sounds a little different from what I hear around me. After desert (lemon cream pie and some sort of dulce), I tendered my adios and went home across the street.

And so, after another farewell dinner tonight, and a farewell lunch planned for me by Ofelia on Saturday, I bid Bs As and Argentina adios and hasta luego. The news about air travel, however, is not good. Because of the arrest in London of two dozen people plotting to blow up U.S.-bound airplanes with bombs inside liquid in carryon luggage, all liquids now are banned and luggage is being examined more closely. There will probably be long delays tomorrow. My first suspicion was that it was another group of men who were overheard complaining about the U.S. and thinking of terrible things they might do to it. But apparently, the plot was much more sophisticated and advanced. So therefore I'm thankful they've been captured. But it will impact our trip home and might affect plans for travel to India in December.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Carnal Relations

I'm not sure if any readers of this blog are concerned about the absence of sex in the topics I've covered during my month-long visit to Argentina. Since the title I've given this space is "Religion, Sex & Politics," you might accuse me of false advertising. In the hopes of rectifying this omission, I present the following:
K response to US: no
more carnal relations

That was the intriguing main headline in the English language paper, the Buenos Aires Herald, yesterday morning. Hmmm, I thought: Does this mean that Argentina wants a divorce? Is she tired of getting screwed by Bush? Has she taken vows of celibacy? K, by the way, is El Presdente Néstor Kirchner, so perhaps it means that he has decided to split up with the U.S. because he's fallen in love with another, perhaps Chavez of Venezuela.

It reminds me of that classic explanation from El Presidente Clinton a few years back: "I did not have sex with that women" (because a blowjob is not sex).

Kirchner was in fact responding to a report that the U.S. is reviewing Argentina's privileged nation status as a trading partner, one that has been in effect for 32 years. While the country's international trade minister played down the significance of the announcement, saying it was a routine review, it was apparent that the threat of losing favored nation status was a signal from Washington that Bush, et al, is unhappy with the leftward tilt of Latin American countries. After all, Fidel Castro was an honored guest of Kirchner's (right before he went into the hospital for what has been reported as cancer) along with Chavez at the Mercosur conference in Cordoba last month.

The President's full response to the possibility of trade sanctions by the United States was given at a meeting in Buenos Aires:

"It is good for everyone to bear in mind, the world and Argentines, that this country no longer has carnal relations with anyone, and that it is an independent country." He compared the possible sanctions because of disagreements over trade policies to "old theories of the Roman empire."

Of course Kirchner spoke in Spanish and the reporter for the Herald, who presumably knows both languages, produced the above translations. Just what K actually meant is open to interpretation. Perhaps it was a more earthy expression in Spanish, something a mafiosa might say: "No one fucks with me, and I'm not fucking with anyone." Perhaps. But what about the "old Roman empire" jab. "Are you speaking to me?" Bush might respond.

I must now go and study for my two-hour final exam this afternoon. Which means I can't say much about my very interesting encounter yesterday with Beverly Keene, co-coordinator of Jubilee Sur and the translator and general assistant for the last twenty years to Nobel peace prize winner Adolfo Perez Esquivel. She met Phil McManus long ago while working on peace and social justice issues in Central America, and she's lived in Buenos Aires with her family since 1986. Phil put us in touch and we met at a cafe overlooking the Plaza Dorrego in San Telmo yesterday morning.

Beverly told me about her work to end the crushing burden of foreign debt that most developing nations in the South now face, a debt which forces them to curtail services necessary to prevent poverty. In all of these countries, the rich are getting richer and the poor, poorer. The middle class in Argentina, she said, is disappearing. Foreign debt is a means of control used by wealthy nations of the North to keep southern countries in line and enable them to profit from their resources. The debt in most cases was contracted by corrupt politicians and military dictators, many of whom pilfered their treasuries when they left the country. The poor never benefited from the loans of banks and world trade organizations. But they pay, and pay, and pay.

It's an issue close to my heart and I hope that I can get involved with Jubilee USA when I return home next week. Perhaps Pax Christi might be open to educating its members about the debt and its consequences. Or maybe the Resouce Center for Nonviolence might invite a speaker to Santa Cruz. The position of Jubilee Sur is that the debt is illegitimate because it was used to control people and rob countries of their resources.

"The accumulation and concentration of wealth in the North has been largely at the expense of the South -- our land, our minerals, our forests and waters, our labor, our communities, our economies, our cultures, our governments, our freedom, our truth, the North owes the South."

Rather than admit to being debtors, Jubilee Sur claims in fact that "we are the creditors," and the North is in debt to the south for all the wrongs it has committed.

And since I am a resident of the north, I should look at this claim closely and respond to it with justice.

Now to the homework...

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Mosquita Muerta

Last week, Eugenia, our Spanish teacher, gave us a short story to read and, more importantly, to comprehend. It's called "El Olvido (forgetting)" and is written by an Uruguayan author named Mario Benedetti, and it's from his book, La muerte y otras sorpresas (death and other surprises), published in 1968. I plugged away at it on the plane to and from Salta, my trusty pocket Larousse dictionary close at hand. It was slow going, and about half-way through I began skimming, reading the words I knew and skipping the rest. I got the gist of the story: a girl wakes up on the bank of a river in a city and can't remember anything. A man passing by stops to help her, takes her home, and tries to take advantage of the situation. She runs away, back to the river bank, and falls asleep. A little later whe wakes up and can't remember anything. A man passing by stops to help here, get the picture.

At the end of the story there is a list of questions, and a vocabulary of words and expressions. The one that puzzled me was "mosquita muerta." I couldn´t figure out what a dead mosquito had to do with anything. In the story, the man, after he stops being nice to the girl, asks her to tell him her name. She says she doesn't remember it. Then he calls her "mosquita muerta."

It was a puzzle. Last night, in the tiny kitchen of Ofelia's apartment, I sat down at 10 PM (everyone eats late in Argentina) to a huge dinner of salad, rolls, soup, roast chicken, carrots, potatoes (both sweet and regular) and vino, enough to feed a futbol team. I suspect she thinks all students (despite my obvious girth) are starving. Stuffing it all in (it was the only polite thing to do) was complicated by the fact that after school Me and Copa MundaI went to our favorite cafe with Lorraine and Toni and I ordered a Copa Mundo for the outrageous price of 19 pesos (about $6.25), a monstrously huge ice cream sundae with fruit and some kind of liquor. It was over a foot tall. So I came home, after my usual nightly round on the internet at a neighborhood locutorio (surrounded by kids playing gigs and giggling over chat room chatter), to a conversation in Spanish with Ofelia and Rita.

Rita is Ofelia's tenant, probably in her forties, and I think of her as the Argentina Sophie Tucker. When she comes into the kitchen through the narrow door that connects with her room, I have to step aside from the table to let her pass. She is the Hardy to Ofelia's tiny Laurel. Her hair is dyed deep red and she waves hands featuring bright red fingernails when she talks. Rita warms up some coffee and tells Ofelia about her day which seems to involve three men. I understand about every tenth word, her sentences racing by like a formula one race car. "Su novio," I inquire innocently, wondering if she's talking about a boy friend. She roars with laughter and waves my question away.

To include myself in the conversation, I tell them about the story I am trying to understand. And I ask them the meaning of "mosquita muerta," the dead mosquito. Both laugh hysterically, in an Argentinean sort of way, with much shrugging of the shoulders and high pitched squeals. They proceed to tell me, by means of simple words and pantomime, that a "mosquita muerta" is a bad woman who pretends to be good, who acts coy and innocent but really is a slut at heart. Suddenly I comprehended at least one point of the story. The man mistook amnesia for a pose, and therefore she was ripe for seduction. He turned the victim into a victimizer, perhaps a prostitute looking for money. But what will stick with me forever is the way these two women acted out the meaning of the lunfardo expression, a description of the particular slang of porteños. In lunfardo, for example, che means hey, a boliche is a night club or disco, a pucho is a cigarette and a pendejo is an idiot. Now I could add mosquita muerta to the list.

Talking with Ofelia, and occasionally Rita, over dinner and breakfast is perhaps the best form of Spanish instruction I´ve had during my stay in Buenos Aires. It is very intense and sometimes wears me out. We´ve settled into a steady routine. I wake up at 7, shower and dress before planning the day and reviewing homework. Then at 8:30 I go into the kitchen where Ofelia has been preparing my toast; she cuts off the crusts after noticing that I didn't eat them. She boils my instant coffee with milk while I butter the six pieces of hard toast and cover them with marmalade. All the while we talk about the weather (it will rain in the evening, she said this morning before I left, but it's already started), and the construction noise in the street and in the building next door which is being renovated.

This morning, as I crunched the dry stale toast, we spoke of the apartment that she'd inherited from her mother 38 years ago, and of the price of real estate here and in the states. She said norteamericanos were buying luxury condos in the high-rise buildings in Belgrano and that property in Patagonia was being purchased also by foreigners. Shifting the subject, she says her mother was religious but not her father. Ofelia speaks in a squeaky voice and rarely slows down to help me comprehend. I tell her I don't understand her, and she tries again from a different perspective, sometimes pointing or pantomiming or using objects on the table to help this poor feeble norteamericano make sense of her linguistic reality.

It's not easy being a student of another language at a time when you should be rocking on a porch and reading detective novels. I recall my class in Oaxaca and remember how the 18-year-olds would go out drinking every night and STILL be able to speak and understand Spanish better than me in the morning. Here the students are a broader range in age (I'm still the top end), and the older ones go tango dancing rather than bar hopping, but I still struggle to make some progress. Smita, the 16-year-old, with a porteño's proficiency in the language, is scarey. A couple of the students are native speakers but wanted to learn grammar. Gradually some are falling by the wayside, their priorities changed. Amelia only came to school the first week, Ryan stopped attending classes last week, Toni may stop today. Several are going to Colonia in Uruguay today, believing that the experience of travel is more important than class. One of the students went back home after having a nervous breakdown. I doubt that it had anything to do with the difficulties of learning Spanish.

Eugenia is a marvelous teacher, animated, intelligent (she likes Noam Chomsky and we talked about Virginia Sapir and Benjamin Whorf yesterday), and she tailors her lessons to our individual problems. This week we're working on the subjunctive tense which is quite common in Spanish and hardly noticeable in English. Spanish makes a distinction between probabilities and certainties that no doubt accounts for the reason that magical realism is a popular form of literature and cinema in Latin America. It's hard to confuse the imaginary and the definite when you express each in a different tense. I get the principle, but I'm still a little weak on verb conjugations. I'm fearful of the final exam on Thursday for I know I shall certainly confuse verb stem endings in the different past tenses and subjunctive that we have been studying.

But in the end, no me importa. I am here to learn and understand and experience the reality and the possibilities of Argentina and Chile, and I have accomplished much of that in only three weeks. What grade I get (if I don't choose the pass/fail option) is unimportant.

Monday, August 07, 2006

Vive San Cayetano

The evening began with a bang: fireworks in the street outside the Iglesia de San Cayetano. Once inside, the congregation shouted "Vive San Cayetano" three times, at the beginning and at the end of the vigil mass for the much adored patron saint of bread and work in Argentina. During the mass, a steady stream of pilgrims processed on the mezzanine in the modern church to a statue of San Cayetano. Down below them, a packed audience sang the saint's hymn:
San Cayetano danos la paz
danos trabajo, danos el pan.
Siempre vivamos en alegría
en la justicia y en el amor.

I attended the midnight ceremony with Ofelia Gonzalez, my hostess for the month in Buenos Aires, along with her nextdoor neighbor, Rita, and her good friend Sylvia. Rita is a fiery redhead, whose Castellano is too rapid for me to understand, and proud of her Italian descent. Ofelia and Sylvia are perhaps under five feet tall and I towered over them as we stood in the crowded colectivo for the short ride along Avenida Santa Fe from our building in Palermo to the neighboring barrio of Belgrano. We walked a few blocks to the church in a poorer section of the same area where my school is located and where I am told many retired generals live in the luxurious high-rise apartment buildings. There were chairs in the square outside for the mass and procession through the streets today, the feast day of San Cayetano, but I'm sure the rain will put a damper on festivities. Vendors were selling medals, statues and prayer cards, along with stalks of wheat to symbolize bread. They reminded me of the palm branches we hold on Palm Sunday.

Inside the church, Ofelia proudly introduced me to her many friends, some of whom trying out their English to say "hello" to me. It was a cold evening and many of them were wearing fur coats, the kind that would get you run out of town in fur-unfriendly Santa Cruz. A large image of Argentina's patron saint, the Virgen of Lujan, was beside the altar, and people came up to her, touched the icon, and prayed. As elsewhere outside of the U.S., it seems important to make tactile contact. The mass was familiar, if in a different language. Only the intercesory prayers to San Cayetano and the various hymns to the saint marked the liturgy as exceptional. But what was truly unusual was the blessing. People held up stalks of wheat, prayer cards, and keys -- yes, keys -- to be blessed. It was a symbol, so I was told, of the house, and San Cayetano sends down his blessings on households.

Because I was unfamiliar with the saint who seems so important here, I looked him up on the internet. Saint Cajetan was born near Venice at the end of the 15th century. He studied law and worked for Pope Julius II before become a priest in 1516. He founded a hospital but was more interested in spiritual healing and in combining the spirit of monasticism with the an active ministry. It sounds very much like the work our own Father Cyprian is doing. Cajetan founded the Oratory of Divine Love which, following the name of his companion, the bishop of Chieti (in Latin, Theate), was later known as the Theatines. After the sack of Rome in 1527, he moved to Naples, and later to Verona and Venice. It's not clear from the official biography why the Argentine poor have embraced him so warmly.

The image of San Cayetano was used at the Museum of External Debt to illustrate the roller coaster ride of Argentina's economy. In bad times, went their thesis, people flock to church, and in particular to San Cayetano who promies to provide them peace, bread and jobs. This is a functional explanation that doesn't entirely satisfy my need to know. In the church I saw a broad range of popular devotion. I expected to see mostly women, as I have in churches in the U.S. and abroad. But last night there were men as well as women, along with young people in their teens and twenties. I didn't see small children, but that was probably because of the lateness of the hour. What I witnessed was the expression of an active faith in God's concern for the poor and the needy, and not an intellectual exercise.

As we walked back to the bus at half past one in the morning, the streets were mostly empty save for the vendors, who seemed to be mostly poor Indians who are otherwise rare in the streets of Buenos Aires, along with cartoneros who were clearning up the trash. On Sante Fe the newspaper stalls and flower stands remained open and traffic was steady. Bs As is a city which rarely sleeps. I know that from the nightly rumble of trucks and buses that reaches my third floor room.

Quebrada de Humahuaca

Quebrada de Humhuaca
"Quebrada" is the Quechua word for canyon and on Saturday I traveled with four other Cabrillo Spanish students and our tour manager Lucila into this World Heritage site in northwest Argentina. Here the group poses against a backdrop of multi-colored mountains (L-R: Lucila, Susanna, Ryan, me, Smita and Marilyn).

The trip included visits to a number of small villages and historical sights in this area of the country which is surrounded on three sides by Chile, Bolivia and Paraguay. The Bolivian border was not far north of us, and on the other side of the dry mountain range to the west was jungle. I wanted to see Argentina outside of the crowded metropolus, Buenos Aires, and this journey to Salta and points north than rewarded me with a feast of new sights, sounds and smells. In the foothills of the Andes (which, unfortunately, could not be seen), the land here is high in altitude and dry. The weather was sunny and warmer than in the capital, although it was quite cold when the sun went down.

We flew from the riverside airport in Bs As on Friday afternoon and checked into our rooms at the Refugio del Inca Hotel close to the plaza in Salta, a city founded in the 16th century that retains somewhat of a colonial character. Some of it I suspect has been reconstructed for tourist consumption. Salta is a popular vacation destination, for Argentines as well as foreigners. Crops grown in the Lerma Valley were sent to the mountain of silver in Potosi, Bolivia, to feed the thousands of mine workers.

On our first evening we walked to a nearby peña for dinner and a folklorico show. I had cazuela de cabrito, a casserole of stewed goat meat that was quite delicious. The audience was packed with customers and we sat cheek by jowl with a wild group of men from Chaco who whooped and hollared at the dancers, singers, and a ventriloquist whose jokes in Spanish were mystifying to me but whose style of comedy with a dummy was immediately recognizable. The music featured a drum beat and guitars, and a style of singing that included ear-splitting falsetto sounds. Some of the songs were coplas which, I was told, included nonsense rhymes and were common during carnival.

Kids in Uquia

We spent 13 hours on Saturday in a small van, from before sunrise to after sunset, traveling through the painted scenery of the Quebrada de Humahuaca. Most of the inhabitants, like the children pictured above, are closely related to the Quechua people in Peru and Bolivia. They raise goats and llamas and scratch out a living from the dry soil. Diego, our lively guide, told us that the truly poor lived high in the surrounding mountains and were rarely seen. Driving out of Salta, we saw fields of sugar cane, about to be harvested, and were told tobacco was also an important crop (cigarettes are absurdly cheap in Argentina). In addition we saw natural gas pumping stations and electric plants operated by thermal heat. As we entered the canyon we began to see stovepipe cactus every where and in the absence of trees the pockmarked wood was ubiquitous in houses and churches.

The first small village was Purmamarca below the seven colors of the Cerro de los Siete Colores (seen behind us in the first photo). There was a small square full of items to buy (mostly made in factories, we learned) in front of the small Igelsia Santa Rosa de Lima, a 17th century church. Our next stop was El Pucará, an ancient fort atop a hill above the Rio Grande valley, with incredible views north and south, which was discovered in the early 20th century and was believed to have been occupied in pre-Inca times. The houses, however, are reconstructions, and only the scattered rocks on the hillside among the cactus remain from ancient times. Our next stop was Tilcara, the village down the hill which takes its name from that of the pre-Inca civilization. In addition to the square where natives and hippy trekkers sold their art and machine fabrications, there was a museum containing some artifacts from Pucará, including torturous devices for the head which enable the original inhabitants to devlop flat foreheads. This was common in Mexico as well, though I'm not sure why it was appealing. It seems similar to the binding of women's feet in China to achieve some bizarre standard of beauty. But then are things any different today, with piercings and tattoos? In Tilcara I bought a grey sweater that makes me look like an llama, for only about $8. I also found a pirated CD by León Gieko whose song, "La Memoria," was played in class last week by Eugenia. He mentioned some of the Catholic martyrs in the Dirty War like Angelelli and the "padres palotino" who I discovered were three Irish priests killed by the military in Belgrano in 1977.

Our final stop at the north end of the Quebrada was the village of Humahuaca. There we walked through the cobblestone streets to the small plaza in front of the Iglesia de la Candelaria with its image of the town's patron saint and art by the Cuzco painter Marcos Sapaca. I had a bowl of locro, a soup of corn, beans and meat, at La Fontin and we listened to a trio play familiar songs which I always associated with Peru. From the Lonely Planet, I was expecting to be able to order llama stew, but the waitress looked horrified when I asked for it.


On the way back we stopped on the road to look at Maimará, a small village set against the backdrop of a mountain know as La Paleta de Pintor (the Painter´s Palette), with an amazing hill of tombs, not unlike those at Recoleta. Many of them seemed empty. Do the dead rise here, or are they awaiting fatalities on the highway nearby? There we met a group of people with homemade trinkets which, Diego told us, they did not want to sell. Rather, they wanted us to send them something useful from our home cities. I took one of the objects from a woman named Rosa. Rosa in MaimaraI took her photo and promised to send her a copy when I got back to Santa Cruz. This seemed to me a unique twist to begging (and we were asked for money in every village we visited) which encouraged dialogue rather than charity. Though I rather doubt that Rosa has access to the internet.

Our last stop before heading to Jujuy at the south end of the Quebrada was the tiny village of Uquia where I photographed the children above. Besides the tiny square with a handful of goods to sell, including small cactus plants that I did not think would travel well in my suitcase, was the Iglesia de San Francisco de Paula which featured paintings of angels armed with Spanish weapons. The artist was also from the Cuzco school which generated much of the church art in colonial South America.

The last stop of the day was in Jujuy (prounced who-whoey), and I took a quick walk around the plaza, into the 18th century Catedral and down a few blocks to the Iglesia San Francisco. This large city, after the day's journey, had little to offer this jaded tourist, and I was ready for the ride back to our refuge in Salta.

Salta Catedral at Night

Back in Salta, we separated for dinner, and Marilyn and I walked down to the brightly lit Plaza 9 de Julia where I photographed the colorful Catedral. All of the colonial buildings of the plaza were illuminated and reflections of the 19th century Catedral could be scene in the glass facade of the tall modern building next door. In the center of the plaza was a large statue entirely wrapped in a green tarp. We were told it was under repair from damage caused by excessive pigeon shit. Got to keep up appearances for the tourists. The next day a different guide took us on a tour of Salta and we visited the baroque Iglesia San Francisco where we had seen a mass baptism of infants the night before. The statue of St. Francis in front was, we were told, a present from Italian dictator Mussolini. Then we drove up the Cerro San Bernardo, named for the city´s patron saint, for some incredible views of the city and countryside. Along the way we passed Sunday joggers, walkers and hikers. Our ride down the hill was high above the ground on a telférico; while some of my comrades were a bit nervousat the prospect, I saw that it was constructed by the Swiss and was assured. And I'd taken a similar trip last weekend in Santiago where the teleférico was older and smaller. Our guide took us outside the city to San Lorenzo, an upscale area that grew up around a strange castle built by a visitor for his girlfriend. Beyond the castle is a park around a dry riverbed where people were hiking and riding horses. I bought some flat bread from a woman toasting it over a fire, she had a big hat like a Bolivian. Before heading to the airport, we visited the Mercado Artisanales where crafts not made by machine were sold. On the lawn in front two dogs were stuck in an amorous embrace. Inside I finally found a poncho that I liked, but when I looked at the price tag, I gagged. 500 pesos, or about $160. I went across the street and found a satisfactory poncho for 40 pesos.

All in all, my expedition to the northwest was an enjoyable weekend and a welcome alternative to the hustle and bustle of Bs As. While I can't get away to Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego, at least on this trip, I did get a sense of what Argentina is like outside of the commanding capitol. We learned a little of Cordoba, a large city near the wine growing area of Mendoza, from an architect who joined our tour of the Quebrada with his family. He said that there was so much construction going on that he had to turn down jobs. So obviously there are parts of Argentina that are prosperous and recovering from the disastrous economic meltdown of ten years ago.

Now, on this rainy Monday, I have to do mucho homework that I've neglected since last Wednesday. It's the last week of school and I have to give a report on the barrio of La Boca on Wednesday and take a final exam on Thursday. Some in our group are going tomorrow to Colonia in Uruguay but I feel I need to devote this last week to one of my goals of improving my Spanish. The other goal -- seeing Argentina and Santiago -- has been fulfilled beautifully.

Friday, August 04, 2006

Walking With the Mothers

Mothers of Disappeared

Yesterday I cut school and walked around the Plaza de Mayo with Los Madres de Desparacidos, the mothers of the disappeared. We met with three of them during our first week here and heard their stories of loss, disappointment and grief. Between 10,000 and 30,000 of their sons, daughters, spouses and other relatives were seized, often tortured and killed, some of them by being dropped alive from helicopters or airplanes over the Rio Plate. In some cases, children born to women in prison were taken and adopted by friends of the military junta that controlled Argentina for much of the 1970s and 1980s. Every Thursday, for almost thirty years, these women have walked in the Plaza de Mayo, ground zero of Buenos Aires, in the hope that someday justice might prevail, that the secret records of their missing relatives might be released, that those responsible for kidnapping and killing them might be punished.

Mothers of disappeared

There are actually two groups of mothers. The smaller one, in the left of the picture at the top, is the one we met with our first week here. Three women in a downtown office told us the stories of their missing children and how they searched for them for over a year until they discovered that other mothers were looking as well. In 1977 they began their witness in the Plaza. The larger group, carrying a banner which says "Redistribute the Wealth Now," receives funds from the government, according to the mothers we talked with, and is led by a woman they do not trust. The big group is more political and now compaigns for larger issues, while the small group continues to seek justice for what happened so long ago. I split the difference and walked behind both groups. There is also another group that does not march, the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, and they focus on finding the children born from pregnant women and uniting them with their biological families.

Father of disappeared

There were even a few fathers walking with the mothers. This one carries a sign with a picture of his son who would be over fifty years old now. The mothers themselves should be grandmothers since most are in their seventies and eighties, but their posterity was stolen from them by a brutal and cruel military regime intent on murdering all its opponents.

The marchers were surrounded by tourists with cameras taking photographs. Marx wrote that history always repeats itself; the first time is a tragedy and the second a comedy. There is something farcical about the mothers selling tee shirts and mugs and key chains, turning what was a personal and social tragedy into a profitable item of consumption, a sourvenir of Bs As. Nevertheless, I was moved by the opportunity to walk with such a courageous number of women.

The unreality of the Thursday event was compounded by a loud demonstration of poorly paid workers who were blocking traffic and singing songs to the rhythms of several drummers. A line of police in bright orange vests prevented them from getting close to the Casa Rosada. And behind them were crowd-control shocks troops with arms, helmets and see-through shields. Most of the demonstrators were young and some set off firecrackers, which made me a bit nervous. I walked away from the Plaza to get a cup of coffee and encountered yet another group of demonstrators, also with drums, getting ready to proceed up the street for their protest.

I was reminded of the Thursday march when I met yesterday morning with Juan De Wandelear, a friend of Phil McManus, who works in City Hall for the Comisión Pro Monumento a las Victimas del Terrorismo de Estado. His project is a Parque de la Memoria on the river which will commemorate the 10-30,000 victims of the "Dirty War" with a monument similar to the Vietnam wall in Washington. A competition was held among artists and several proposals were chosen for the park. Three art pieces have already been erected and I hope to visit it today. Juan, a Belgian, has worked on social justice issues for years, all over Latin America, and he once stayed at the Resource Center for Non-Violence during a visit to Santa Cruz. He lives here with his Argentine partner and their five-year-old son, Ivan. He told me that he hopes to have 10,000 of the names engraved on stone and put in the park by next year.

Juan said I might be interested in seeing memorial at the Iglesia de Santa Cruz for three of the founders of the Las Madres de Desparacidos, as well as a French nun who supported them, and I went looking for it in the afternoon.

Iglesia de Santa Cruz

The women were all seized by the police in the church in 1977 and disappeared. Last year the bodies of several of them washed up on the banks of the river and it was determined they had been pushed out of a plane and killed. I found the story and the memorial particularly poignant because it reminded me of my own church, Holy Cross, in Santa Cruz. There, it is not the disappeared that are remembered but the native people that died during the Spanish conquest.

And finally, Juan told me about a film that was shown last night about the life and death of Enrique Angelelli, bishop of the diocese of La Rioja in northwest Argentina, who worked with the poor and with workers trying to unionize. He was a thorn in the side not only of large landowners and mine owners who profited from cheap labor, but also the military who saw all social unrest as subversive. Thirty years ago today, he was driving back with a fellow priest from celebrating mass for two murdered priests. Two cars forced them off the road and their vehicle overturned. When the driver awoke, Angelelli was dead. Police said it was an accident; others felt he was murdered. The Catholic Church accepted the official story. But two days ago President Kirchner declared today, the thirtieth anniversary of Angelelli's death, to be a national day of mourning. Juan said that Adolfo Perez Esquivel, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1980 for his work here in Argentina, would be at the screening of the film.

Unfortunately, the cultural center where the film was to be shown free of charge was mobbed with people trying to see it, and I could not get in.

It was a wonderful day of wandering, nevertheless. I continued my search for interesting cafes and restaurants in Bs As. First I visited the large and brightly lit Las Violetas in the barrio of Almagro before going to the Iglesia de Santa Cruz. Then I took a taxi to San Telmo and had lunch at the ancient El Federal with its lovely carved bar. After marching with the mothers, I had a cappuchino at the bustling London City Cafe. Then I walked passed yet another recommended cafe that was overcrowded to the Confritería Ideal to have one more coffee while watching niños practice their dance moves on the tango stage in this cavernous old restaurant. There are no public bathrooms in Bs As so it's necessary to buy something in order to use the facilities. But of course drinking more coffee just hastens the process.

Today I depart for a weekend in the northwest of Argentina, in Salta and Jujuy.

P.S. The bald picture of me and other assorted information about my blog have been moved to the very bottom of this page. Scroll down if you wish.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

The Tango Show

Tango dancing
No, the tango show I attended at Tacoreando in San Telmo last night did not star me. But I did get to dance with one of the star dancers. Here I am pretending that I know what I'm doing.

The show was organized by Lucilla for the Cabrillo group as well as for several other foreign students studying at Universidad de Belgrano, and we took a taxi to an area crowded with restaurants offering similar dinner shows for tourists. Lorraine, Toni and I decided to splurge on a dinner which was outrageously priced at 100 pesos (about $32) while the younger students bought an entrance ticket for 30 pesos followed by very high priced drinks. The food was terrible, but the show was terrific. Five women and six men put on an integrated performance that featured songs, dancing and a pantomimed story about love and loss, billiards and a fight which culminated in a knifing. Since they wore 40's costumes, the context was the golden age of tango. All of the dancers/actors, ranging in age from 20's to 50's, were talented and I was mesmerized, temporaily forgetting that the event felt like a tourist rip-off. At the close of the show, the dancers circulated in the audience and invited diners and drinkers to come up on stage and dance. My inclination was to flee, but I resisted and got into the act with one of the more attractive of the dancers. She tried to get me to follow her tango steps but I fell into my usually pattern and even twirled her a couple of times to her surprise. It was lots of fun.

The evening ended badly when the waiter tried to get us to pay for wine and water and we objected. A woman came over and jabbered at me in Spanish. Because I was feeling ripped off, I shouted "basta!" and walked out, throwing the money she wanted on the table. She came outside and gave it back to me, and I'm not sure if she was mad or apologetic. It was an unfortunate end to a nice evening.

Earlier that day the group met at the Museo Nacional de Belles Artes, the national art gallery. There was an incredibly powerful show by the Colombia artist Fernando Botero. His usual subjects are rolly polly people and these were no exception, but this time they were all being killed by right wing militias in Colombia. It was an artistic condemnation of the violence there in the 1980s and 1990s. The pictures of arrests, torture and murder, in an almost cartoon style, were horrific and made their point like a kick in the stomach. There is a Botero in the Malba gallery that features a family mourning their wife/mother with tears running down their fat cheeks. In Santiago we saw a giant fat horse by Botero. But this paintings of violence were exceptional. The rest of the collection was fairly standard, with some European impressionists included, but I prefered the Argentine painters exhibited on the second floor. It include works by my new favorites, Antonio Berni and Xul Solar.

I´m irrated at Blogger which has managed to lose all the information that used to appear on the right side of this page, including the bald me that I love so much. There is supposed to be some reprogramming this weekend, if I understand the Spanish correctly, so maybe my profile information will reappear next week. Until then, consider me the mystery blogger.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Slumming in La Boca

La Boca
La Boca is a slum for tourists. Named for the mouth of the Rio Riachuelo where the waterfront of Buenos Aires was located in the late 19th century, La Boca was also home to the dock workers, butchers, seamen and poor immigrants from Italy and Spain who lived in delapidated splendor. If you were looking for a bar or a brothel, or a place to dance the once forbidden tango, La Boca was the place to go. And, according to the guide books, it remains as unsafe today as it was then, outside of a few streets where tourists, and the businesses that nuture their needs, congregate.

Which is not to say that La Boca is not charming. It is. Many of the buildings are constructed from corrugated-metal siding, and back when there were ships in the harbor the paint that was used on them was borrowed by inhabitants to paint their houses in bright colors. It is the pastel collage of colors in the urban landscape that defines La Boca's charm.

This abundance of color must have attracted artists, for there was a budding art scene there before World War One. The most famous graduate was Benito Quinquela Martin, and I was given a book of his impressionistic paintings of ships and dock workers for my birthday. Quinquela lived on the waterfront in La Boca and his house (he died in 1977) is now an art museum which contains his own work (and home furnishings) as well as a varied collection of paintings and sculpture by Argentina artists, old and new. There is also a selection of painted wood bowsprits from old ships, but they don't compare with the beautiful examples that I saw in Neruda's house. From the top floor terrace of the museum there were excellent views of La Boca, the harbor, and not far away La Bombonera, the stadium where the local Boca Juniors soccer team holds sway.

La Boca
This was our second attempt to visit La Boca. During the first, shortly after we arrived in BsAs, Lorraine, Toni and I walked through San Telmo on the way to La Boca but we got lost and had to wave down a taxi. Trying to find a celebrated restaurant, the taxi driver also got lost. This time, we jumped in a taxi near our apartments in Palermo which took us directly to the tourist center of La Boca a half hour's drive away. Ground zero is a short alley called El Caminito, the Little Walkway, which was made famous by a 1926 tango song. It is lined with colorful houses and a large number of artists who have set up shop to sell their representations of the neighborhood and the tango dancers and musicians who got their start there.

Spreading out from the harbor are several streets along which tourists navigate through the many independent salesmen, assorted folks looking for a handout, and stores selling cups and other objects with your name on them. Pictures of Carlos Gardel, the icon of the tango, abound, and store signs are painted in the picturesque and colorful fileta style. There are wood cut-outs behind which you can pose and get your picture taken (the Lonely Planet describes them, perhaps ironically, as "fun"). Buskers play for coins and many of the cafes feature a couple of dancers and musicians which comprise an instant "Tango Show!"

Tango in La Boca
Lorraine, Toni and I browsed for souvenirs and then paused for lunch at La Perla, a dark and cozy cafe on a corner of the center of La Boca. The walls were filled with photographs and I found one of Marcello Mastraioni when he visited the area in the 1990s. There was a photo of Gardel and, inexplicably, a poster from an old Mohammed Ali boxing match. During lunch, Lorraine discovered that her money belt was missing. She last had it during our visit to the museum when she bought some post cards. It didn't seem possible that someone could have lifted it out of her purse where she'd put it, but it was gone nonetheless. We returned to the museum but it was nowhere there. On the taxi ride to school for our Spanish class, Lorraine received a call that her student card had been found but not the money and credit card. She spent the rest of the afternoon cancelling the card and having money wired to her from home. It's not easy being a tourist.

La Boca is not unlike Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco, a former working class waterfront area that has become a tourist mecca. Or perhaps it is more like the now touristy Latin Quarter in New Orleans where jazz had its origin in the bars and brothels after the Civil War when discarded band instruments were taken up by freed slaves and turned into a kind of music unheard before. The same thing happened in La Boca when the bandoneon, a small accordion from Europe, was used, along with the guitar and African rhythms, to make a new kind of music called the tango.

Tonight we are going to see a full-scale, high-priced tango show at a restaurant in the city center. I doubt that it will be as good as one after World War One in the back room of a La Boca brothel, but it might give us some idea what that was like

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Day of the Dead

Carlos Gardel
No, it's not El Dia del Muerto, and anyway, South Americans do not celebrate it with the ghoulish flair that Mexicans do. But the dead do have an honored place in two cemeteries in Buenos Aires. Last week I visited Evita´s tomb in Cementerio de la Recoleta, and yesterday I made a pilgrimage across the city to the most honored gravesite in Argentina, the tomb of Carlos Gardel in Cementerio de la Chacarita.

Gardel, El Zorzal Criollo, The Songbird of Buenos Aires, as I've written here before, was THE tango singer in Argentina, indeed the entire Spanish-speaking world. In his day in the 1920s and 1930s he was Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra, Valentino and the Beatles all rolled into one adored celebrity. When his plane crashed in Colombia in 1935 he was mourned by thousands. It was said that a woman in Havana committed suicide when she heard the news and women in New York and Puerto Rico drank poison, even though none of them had ever seen him. The day of his death, June 24, is celebrated annually with a pilgrimage to Chacarita.

His picture and his voice are everywhere in BsAs. I learned of him before this trip and collected dozens of his recorded songs which I listen to on my iPod. His name is a key which has opened numerous conversations here with porteños. So it was with a sense of anticipation and excitement that I made the journey by subte to Chacarita. Out front of the cemetery, vendors were doing a brisk business selling flowers. I had to ask directions several times, from a security guard and several workman, before I found the site.
Carlos Gardel's Tomb
It's on the corner of two streets and features a lifesize statue of Gardel in the pose for which is was most famous (missing is his trademark hat). His right hand is position to hold a cigarette and pilgrims frequently put a lit cigarette in place. There was the stub of one there when I arrived. The walls around the statue are covered with plaques thanking Gardel for his music and for favors received, as if he were a saint. While I stood there an older man walked up and crossed himself. St. Carlos.

Chacarita, like Recoleta, is a city of tombs, some quite elaborate. I went in search of another important Argentinian buried there, Juan Peron. For some reason he is not buried with his first wife, Eva Duarte, who rests eternally across town. Again, I had to ask directions. There were no crowds of pilgrims to guide my way. I finally found Peron on a side street, in the tomb reserved for his families.
Juan Peron's Tomb
There were flowers to mark the spot, but nothing that announced the tremendous significance this portly general had for a generation. Peronistas still exist; indeed the current president, Kirchner, belongs to the party that continues to bear Peron's name. But Peron, who symbolized politically the weird conjunction of fascism with a kind of worker's socialism, is probably unknown to the pierced and tattooed, belly bearing and pants sagging younger generation.

The graves of both Peron and Eva are drab and almost hidden within their respective cemeteries, making them little more than footnotes to the history of Argentina. But along with Gardel, they continue to tug at our psyches, reminding us both of the power and the fleetingness of fame and celebrity.

Chillin' in Chile

Santiago View
Sunday in Santiago began with brilliant sun over the snow-capped Andes that forms an ever-present backdrop to the city and temperatures not much above freezing. Which meant that it was chilly in Chile. It was the last day of our quick weekend trip from Buenos Aires and our small band of seven made the most of it, traveling by van, taxi, funicular, teleferico and feet all over the city that 4.5 million Chilienos call home.

We began with a drive past the modern bunker-like fortress which houses the American Embassy in protective custody, so to speak, along the rushing Rio Mapucho to a residential area of mansions our guide Jorge called the Beverly Hills of Santiago. It was on the side of a hill in southwest Santiago that was above the smog line and offered us incredible views of the city and the Andes mountains beyond. Residents of the neighborhood include the infamous Don Francisco, host of the very popular television show, "Sabados Gigantes," which is viewed by Spanish speakers everywhere. No doubt there are a few retired generals from the Pinochet dictatorship who are living in guilt-free splendor behind locked gates.

Coming down off the mountain of privilege, we drove through a section of the city where the rich used to live. The Portuguese family Cousiño formerly owned much of this area and built houses and palaces and even the Iglesia San Lazaro in which to worship. For their parties, they constructed a huge pleasure palace that is now the Club Hipico, a beautiful race track, where we watched horses and their jockies work out before the evening races. Many of the houses in the adjoining neighborhood were empty and falling into disrepair, and Jorge told us that during the military junta many people were tortured and killed in them and now they cannot be sold. Next to the neighborhood of ghosts was the University of Santiago where students too young to remember went to school.

Our next stop was the Palacio de la Moneda, the president's palace, which used to be the country's mint ("moneda" means coin). This is where the democratically-elected government of Salvador Allende was overthrown by General Pinochet in 1973 (with help from Kissinger), and Jorge pointed out the window of an office on the second floor where Allende either committed suicide with a rifle given him by Castro, or was killed by invading soldiers. On the walls of the buildings around the Plaza Constitucion you could still see marks made by bullets during the military coup. Since it was Sunday, there were crowds of citizens and tourists walking through the palace under the watchful eye of colorfully dressed Carbiñeros.

From the seat of Chile´s presidency (currently occupied by a woman, Michelle Bachelet), we passed by the former Congresso Nacionale where hundreds of people died in a fire many years ago, but which today houses a museum, and stopped in the Plaza de Armas. People of the southern cone seem to arise late and even though it was almost noon the plaza was just waking up, with vendors setting up shop, and musicians from an orchestra of soldiers preparing for a band concert. We toured the Museo Historico Nacional which presented the history of the country in images and artifacts very succinctly. Aftewards, we crossed a corner of the plaza and entered the Catedral Metropolitana where the midday mass was just begining. The lavishly decorated church was designed by the same Italian architect who designed the Moneda in the late 18th century. I felt a bit uncomfortable in the role of a tourist in church and tried to concentrate on the liturgy as well as the sights while walking along the aisles.

Our next stop was the Mercado Central, a elaborate wrought-iron palace for vegetables and restaurants that was built by the British. We ate at La Galeon at an upstairs table and my paela, or fish soup, containing a variety of seafood was lip-smacking good. Two strolling musicians sang for us Violetta Parra's magnificent "Gracias a la Vida." After lunch we walked through the Parque Forrestal up to the Palacio de Belles Artes, behind which was a huge black, bloated horse sculpted by the Colombian artist Botero who specializes in over-sized people. From there we journeyed back to the barrio of Bellavista where we´d made a reservation to tour Neruda´s Santiago house which he named La Chascona after his wife´s unruly hair. But we missed our appointed time and the next was too late, for we had a plane to catch in the early evening. I consoled myself by buying a Neruda tee shirt. There is no tragedy that consumption can´t fix.

We strolled from Neruda's house a couple of blocks to the Parque Metropolitano which stretches around the Cerro San Cristobal. There is a large statue of the Virgen de la Immaculada Concepcion on the top and a Jardin Zoologico and the sides of the hill, and there were thousands of Sunday visitors. Jorge hustled us past the long lines waiting for the funicular railway up to the top and said he'd "paid the bribe." (Jorge knows all the tricks of the tourist guide trade). At the top we climbed up to the foot of the statue, where Pope John Paul II once said mass (and his lectionary has become an icon of worship for the visitors), and enjoyed another tremendous view of the city and the signature Andes peaks. Then we boarded the teleferico, an aerial tramway which resembled the cars that travel above the Boardwalk in Santa Cruz Both Nancy and Zita were not at all happy with this form of transportation, but they survived. It carried us high in the air above the park and we could see the entire city and the Sunday pleasure seekers below.

At the end of the ride, we disembarked and walked through a suburban section of Providencia, an upscale neighborhood, and it was so similar to a similar scene in California on a Sunday that it would have been a stroll through the backstreets of Palo Alto. We crossed the river at Parque de los Esculturas which was filled with some incredible sculpture. Santiago is obviously very supportive of public art and even the bridges contain artistic flourishes with no apparent utilitarian purpose. Our walk took us along a lovely landscaped area into Las Condes with its gigantic skyscrapers and passed the huge hole in the ground that will become Latin America´s largest building, 77 stories, when it´s finished in 2009.

After collecting our luggage and ransacking the large wine store next door, our hardy band of vacationers headed toward Santiago's modern airport where I splurged with my last Chilean pesos on a bilingual book of poems by Neruda and a CD of music by the martyred Chilean singer, Victor Jara. After all, as Trey pointed out, the foreign currency often seems like so much Monopoly money.