June 15, 2007


Rosa lives in the lowlands of western Ecuador outside a town called Santo Domingo de los Colorados.  The town grew up not far from the very traditional Colorado tribe.  Rosa is 40 and has eleven children she supports working as a cook for a group of Peace Corps volunteers here, on a project to improve the local breeding cattle by artificial insemination.  The volunteers are all dairy majors from Wisconsin and keep their bull sperm in a large vacuum jar cooled with dry ice.
Rosa is alert and smart.  She tells me about the MIR, the Movimiento de la Izquierda Revolucionaria, or leftist revolutionary movement.  She’d like to see changes in the social system here.  I’ve met two of her sons, very handsome but not as smart as she is.  Her husband is 41 and living with another woman on his farm nearby.  The other woman also left her husband and children and now the happy couple has a small child of their own. Rosa and her children have moved to a village not far from her job.
After her father died young there was no money for schooling.  Rosa can’t read.  She says that at least in the old days the schools used slates and chalk.  Now you have to buy pens and paper, plus pay a small yearly fee for enrollment.  She can’t afford that for her children.  It costs her 500 Soles a month just to feed her kids, or maybe that’s per week.  She is not good with numbers.  At least one of her daughters got three years of school.  She can read, but Rosa can’t afford school supplies for the others.  “They will end up like me.  There’s plenty of work around here but the pay is low.  I make enough that we all eat well enough.  We won’t go hungry living here in the country.”
Slim and attractive, Rosa is very strong, quiet and competent and seems generous and kind.  She always welcomes me when I appear in her kitchen.  Between meals she does laundry for the volunteers.  Some days the two long clotheslines are filled with drying clothes, and sometimes they’re wet again by a sudden downpour.
In the evening, it’s raining again.  Dan says it rained over five inches two days ago.  I finish off a glass of milk and wipe my oily fingers on a towel because there is no paper towel.  Rosa will have to wash the towel in cold water.  The tap water is brown.  It comes from the pond deep in a wrinkle of the land.  I put on a teakettle to heat water to wash my dishes.  The crickets call, a loud sound like bacon sizzling in a hot pan.  I take a teabag that smells like the napthalene mothballs in one of the drawers. From a bag of peanuts from the market, I glean the bad ones out and roast the good ones in a fry pan over the gas burner.  Moths, winged termites and beetles thump on the window screens.
Rosa and I talk every morning in the kitchen.  She is here by eight o’clock.  After the volunteers go off to work, she cleans up then starts the laundry.  I want to ask her why she had so many babies.  Maybe if I get to know her better, I can ask the personal questions.  But that evening Dan asks me to leave.  I am ill and he is worried they will catch something form me. I’ve overstayed my welcome.  My travel buddy Kip will be back in two days from climbing Cotipaxi, so I won’t be alone for long.
A few days later, Kip takes me to a doctor.  The whites of my eyes have turned yellow.  I am diagnosed with hepatitis A.  I see Rosa on the street that afternoon and tell her what I found out.  She is in town to buy supplies for the volunteers.  She will return with her load, by taxi.  She is sad to hear my news, very kind.  I know I will not see her again and wish her well, encourage her to send at least one of the boys to school.  She smiles but she does not say yes.



June 15, 2007

Exploring China

I waited on a hard bench to board the train for Beijing.  My goal was to visit traditional medical colleges and clinics to seek help for back pain stemming from a mild case of childhood polio.  Around me sat shy rural people in gray Mao suits laden with baskets of food, steel thermoses and over-stuffed shopping bags.  In a separate universe, the stylish urban young clung to cell phones and designer leather bags.                                                          Outside, the October rain blew like curtains of gray gauze.  Behind the veils, the sprawling city of Shanghai shimmered in the dark, a sea of twinkling lights and neon.  I’d come to visit my son, who’d been working in China five years and spoke several dialects including Mandarin.  This was my fourth trip to China and with my son as cultural teacher, and having made some progress with the language, I was ready to venture off on my own.  Chris had made my reservations and asked our taxi driver to drop me at the railroad station.
We boarded our sleeper car, a rolling dormitory.  Strangers got acquainted.  Children played in the long aisle and foreigners were offered surprises slipped from brimming picnic hampers.  My few words of Mandarin echoed up and down the car as people smiled at my efforts and repeated my phrases.  “Did you hear what she said?  She’s learning putong hua, the People’s Speech.”
By morning, we had become a big extended family waking up together in tiers of bunks, everyone’s hair tousled, clothes and bedding disheveled.  Even the cell phone users, their cool collapsed by sleep, looked innocent of pretense.  A plump boy of three ran full tilt down the aisle while confused elders sat up and took steaming cups of tea in two hands.  I dressed then stood by the windows with a group of men gazing out at the misty dawn.
The train clattered onto a trestle over a huge river.  I pulled out my map and asked a middle-aged man, “Huang Huh ma?”  Is it the Yellow River?   “Shuh.” Yes it is, he said. “Huang Huh, da jiang.”  The Yellow River, the big river.  Now it was his words that moved among the people like an electric current.  “Huang Huh, Huang Huh.”  Some moved to the windows to take in the vast width of it, the legendary waters of the river where China began.
They all know the story, how ten thousand years ago beside the great curve of this stream, the first farmers built their villages, cast bronze and made pottery, and how they carved the shapes of words into their tombs.  Most Chinese are pluggers, not dreamers, but crossing the Huang Huh stirred them.  The shared glances told me this river would be part of their journey stories later.
As the red sun rose, we watched people on bikes along country roads where oxcarts and chatting groups of workers made their way.  Small children waved at the train.  We chugged through towns with factories coughing smoke into the blue sky.  At noon we pulled into Beijing.  Everyone stood, getting organized.  By cell phone, a well-dressed woman in bold make-up arranged to be met.
Feigning confidence, I pulled my rolling bag through the station and onto a sunny terrace where dozens of taxis waited.  My heart raced for a moment.  Would they understand my halting words? I stepped out, a stranger in strange land.  Swallowing, I unfolded the address I’d been given and stepped up to an alert young taxi man with a bad haircut, who had been shouting at the crowd.
He read the address, smiled and lifted my bag into the trunk of his black taxi.  He gestured for me to climb in, while he continued to shout for passengers.  The crowd thinned, but he would not give up.  “When we go?” I asked, in my best Mandarin.  “One more person.”  Heartened that he’d understood my question, I got out again to wait, leaning on the sun-warmed rear fender, chatting with English-speaking tourists climbing into nearby cabs.  At last, everyone had gone.
“How much go my place?”  I asked the driver.
“It costs a lot for one person.  Twenty yuan.”  It was about three dollars.
“Good.  We go.”  I’d worked every day for months with a Mandarin speaking friend back home, just to have this conversation.  I’d kicked the floor in frustration over the odd sounds so I could survive this place.  Shanghai had been a slap in my face.  They speak don’t speak Mandarin.  They speak Shanghainese and only a tiny bit of that dialect had made sense.  Now I was hearing my teacher’s refined Beijing accent and I got it — what a relief.
The hostel, a private hotel set aside for visitors to the School of Traditional Medicine, opens onto a broad paved square in the center of an immense city block.  It lies about three miles east of the Forbidden City at the heart of Beijing.  You enter this square through a grand old cast iron gate with a guardhouse.   I paid the driver and went inside.  The women at the desk spoke no English but the transaction was a basic one and soon I was unpacking in a shabby room with bath.  My windows faced a high wall beyond a yard filled with honey locust trees.
Going out a while later, I heard two men speaking English and said hello.  One of them caught up with me near the guardhouse.   “Hello, Madam.”  I turned and gave him a smile.  He was balding and, like me, middle aged.  We decided to go exploring together.
He’d also just arrived.  We talked as we strolled through the narrow lanes of the old hutong, or traditional neighborhood.  He was Egyptian, taught medicine in Cairo, and had just come from North Korea.  I said, “You’re the only person I’ve ever met who’s been to North Korea.  Tell me about the place.”
“Of course.”  He smiled.  “If you will be so kind as to join me for dinner.”  We chose a crowded restaurant with good smells and sat at a small table with our elbows almost touching those of our neighbors.  Curious about foreigners, most of the other diners stopped eating to watch us.
My new friend asked me to order, so I chose several dishes, pretending to know what to expect.  “North Korea,” Ali began.  “Pyongyang is the saddest place you can imagine. There is no life in North Korea, nothing, a feeling of no hope.  And spies everywhere, watching.  You cannot conceive of the repression.  I am so happy to get out of there.”
Our café faced a wide avenue with endless streams of trucks of all sizes, hundreds of people on bicycles, stalls brimming with food and manufactured goods.  Ali gestured to the busy street outside. “This place has life.”  Perhaps satisfied we were going to blend in, people around us returned to their food, conversation, smoking and tea drinking.
Ali had come to Beijing to learn about Chinese medicine.  “The poorer people of Egypt cannot afford imported pharmaceuticals or the kind of hospitals you have in America.  I must teach my students about what works for us.  We have to use what patients can pay for.  Herbs, acupuncture, massage – these Chinese practices can stop suffering.”
Eating clumsily with chopsticks, we exclaimed over broccoli with walnuts in a rich dark sauce, shredded beef fried with water chestnuts and slivered green beans.  The deferential waiter returned with a heavy pot of jasmine tea.
“There must be clubs here, with girls,” Ali said.  “In a city like this, where do men go at night?”
“I can’t help you with that one.”  I laughed.  Ali left me at the hostel guardhouse and went off to find the clubs he was sure must exist.  It was still early so I went for a walk. A gang of small children kicked a soccer ball along the lane.  To make a little extra money for the family, school girls sold candy and stationery, through house windows while they did their homework, or rented out minutes on the family phone.
A hard rain fell during the night.  In the morning, a huge dump truck backed up to our building and disgorged a great heap of black coal.  It was much colder this morning, the chill of Siberia’s winter all too near.  I bought a couple of steamed buns and an apple, through one of the windows along the lane and went off in search of the School of Acupuncture, said to be a short distance to the north.
When I’d walked several hundred yards, I pulled out my address card and asked a dozen people.  No one had a clue.  At last, in a clinic of unknown purpose, the man in charge sent me away with a little girl.  She took me around the corner and into another hospital.  Dr. Yang emerged from behind a white curtain, wearing rubber gloves, and we exchanged introductions.  Dignified and confident, he read my card and nodded understanding, then swung his arm directing me to walk that way.  The little girl had gone.
I went out again and through a long series of inner courtyards where hundreds of bicycles were parked.  Soon, despair crept over me.  This was useless.  I bought a cold drink from a machine and sat on a wood bench, feeling frustrated.  A girl in blue parked her bike and locked it.  I held out my address card.  She nodded then assured me with a soft voice that the place I wanted was just through that gate ahead.  And indeed it was. The clinic’s sign in English was three inches high and hidden by a bush.  Not a hundred yards north of the guardhouse where I’d begun, I walked into a building I’d passed by earlier, the School of Acupuncture.
A square-faced woman with big glasses sat behind a window in the entry hall.  She was reading my card when a voice behind me said, “Hello.”  I turned and was surprised to see a large blond woman and a slender, hopeful-looking Latina.  With them was a quick-moving local lady about forty.  All wore white lab coats.  The blond said,  “You speak English?  Come along with us.  We can talk.”
In your own language you trade vast amounts of information in moments.  By the time we’d climbed the dirty concrete steps to the third floor, I’d learned the slim woman was Sara Mendez from UCLA Medical School.  The blond was Hadda, an Icelandic doctor married to the Dutch ambassador to China.  Both were studying here to add Chinese methods to their western medical repertoire.  The Chinese woman was Goh Bing See, acupuncture teacher at the institute.  If I wanted to follow them around, Dr. Goh said she could give me a treatment before lunch.  I’d expected to wait several days for an appointment.  Like a child offered promises of acrobats and ice cream, I tagged along, humbled by gratitude and enlarged by the wonder of my good luck.
The clinic seemed to operate without a schedule or appointments.  All appeared chaotic, without structure.  Waiting people called out to Dr. Goh and other staff as they passed.  Various medical types strutted around in white coats, changing direction on a whim.  People went in and out of rooms with open doors, talking with those in beds or sharing food and tea.  An old woman swung her long rag mop left and right as she backed toward us along a dim hall lined with empty straight wood chairs.  Dr. Goh consulted with Dr. Chan and they decided to go down to the second floor.  Baffled, I went along, asking Hadda and Sara about their course of study here, what motivated them, what they were learning.  We entered a large ward with tall windows opening to the bicycle court where I’d had the cold drink.
A boy of about ten sat on a bed, his anxious parents standing beside him.  Dr. Goh introduced herself and began asking the boy questions, which the father answered for him.  The boy, in a hospital gown, was asked to stand up.  His leg appeared to be paralyzed.  His mother looked distraught, his father serious.  Dr. Goh squeezed the leg in several places, then his arms and the other leg.  She helped the boy lie facedown on the examining table.  His gown opened, revealing his brand new green jockey shorts.  Soon, Dr. Goh had placed a large number of needles into the boy’s flesh and moved on to the next patient. The boy’s parents hovered near their child, the one child permitted them, both too tense to sit down.
The next patient was an elderly man.  He showed how he could hardly move his stiff, arthritic hands.  He lay on his back, hands at his side, while the needles went in.  Next was a girl with crossed eyes and breathing problems.  She appeared retarded.  The mother seemed ashamed of her incoherent answers.  I sat down to rest my back and observe while Dr. Goh took care of several more people.
I looked around.  The patients were clean and neat and clearly filled with belief and trust.  True, their shoes were worn and dull and women’s purses looked beat up by hard use.  Hairstyles were simple, the greatest extravagance being an occasional perm among young girls without make up, girls who proudly wore their plaid shirts with flowered skirts.
Chinese are proud of their traditions, proud of four millennia of experience in what is of practical value for healing.  Dr. Goh seemed to me a mix of the best of east and west, efficient and quick, witty and knowledgeable as she worked.  Hadda and Sara followed her every word, moving through the ward.
As I watched in surprise, the little boy stood and walked normally.  The old man clenched his hands, grinning at the improvement.  I sensed I could trust this woman.  But I vowed I was not going to be fooled by some faith healing ritual.  Then it was my turn.
I lay back.  The needles went in almost unfelt.  Dr. Goh asked how I was doing, patted my hand like a sister and moved on.  I lay there about half an hour, awake and content, not expecting much.  Then the doctor returned and took the needles out.  That was all.  I rose and put on my shoes. The treatment was over.  Sara Mendez asked if I could notice anything.  I took a deep breath, stretched my back.  “I feel better than I have in months.”
Two days later, full of energy and renewed hope, I walked all around the immense Forbidden City with no pain.  The day after, with a friend of my son’s, I clambered on the Great Wall and visited the Temple of Heaven.  My back didn’t hurt.  I joined friends for Peking Duck and Mongolian Hot Pot, perused the Russian fur market and wonderful art shops in the oldest parts of the city then visited hotels that offered the newest of the new.  My back held up.
It had been a long journey, but at its end I felt a glow of contentment.  One can’t ever be good as new, but I was better.  At great effort, the goal had been won and along with it an adventure.   Once home again, I’d seek out regular acupuncture treatments.


June 15, 2007


The small German city of Regensburg occupies land that once marked the farthest extent of Roman territory, where the deep Danube River made its sharp bend to the south.  But the place was important long before that, as a Celtic town called Ratisbona.   The Romans called it Castra Regina and set up an army camp. Building went on for several centuries at the outpost, and the Roman walls of heavy stone are easy to spot today among the modern buildings.
In Carolingian times, in the 8th and 9th centuries, activities centered on a big monastery with its huge church of St. Emmean, still standing.   Building and trade reached their height here from the 10th to the 13th centuries, when the finest homes and businesses faced narrow cobbled streets.  Yes, they also still stand.
The first stone bridge went up in the 13th century.  At that time an enterprising family opened a beer and sausage stand on the city side of the construction project, to feed the workers.  Any afternoon, you can get beer and sausage at the little tavern, said to be the oldest continuously operating eatery in Europe.
So much for the setting.  The seeds for my discovery of this unspoiled gem were planted in 1965, when I was using my fresh degree in zoology to perform menial tasks in a laboratory at the University in Freiburg.
My best friends in Freiburg were Klaus and Karin Grossmann, a couple who’d studied in the US and empathized with anyone living in a foreign country and struggling with the language.  They were just what I needed  — a few years older, fun, energetic and inspiring.  Their 3-year-old girl Carol was a lovely charmer.  Klaus, fascinated by animal and child behavior, had his first real job as a professor that year.
We shared meals of bread and sausage, and good stories.  I thoroughly enjoyed the evenings spent in their simple apartment.  When I returned in August the next year for another visit, Karin lent me a pretty dress to attend a dance at the University.
For decades we had no contact, then in the early 90s, an article in the Atlantic named them as experts on early childhood.   I made a promise to myself that I’d see them again.  Once we had internet service, a simple search was all it took to locate people who regularly publish their research.  The psychology department at the University of Regensburg featured photos of both of them and information about their work.
I don’t usually cry over websites, but I broke down in joyful tears seeing those faces again, both of them looking happy and healthy after so many years.  I’d forgotten how attractive they were.   Immediately, I sent off an e-mail titled “Blast from the Past.”  An answer came from Karin the next day.  Of course they remembered me.  It would be great to meet again.  We set up a date for getting together in their town.  Then I did a little research of my own, to find out about the place they’d settled.
Arriving three days early for our appointment made perfect sense, given the history and architecture of Regensburg and the wonderful villages and valleys in the vicinity.   I checked into a hostel attached to the old monastery and set off exploring.


June 14, 2007

Father Crespi    Ecuador

The guidebook recommends the museum of Padre Crespi in a small town outside Cuenca, a lovely colonial city in southern Ecuador.  I enter and an assistant takes me to a sick old man, his long black robes dulled by dust and remnants of food and drink.  His eyes widen and crinkle with pleasure.  Bent over and stiff, he unlocks his storeroom and leads me around the messy warehouse, pointing out various treasures.  “This collection is worth more than the crown jewels of England,” he asserts.
I examine a chipped plaster painted saint.  “This dates back to the earliest Spanish settlement here.  And this is an ancient Inca god.”  The sheet tin figure has jeweled eyes of glass, cracked and coming unglued. Beside it stands a metallic painted wood god.  “This was cast bronze from a thousand years ago, at the height of Inca power.”
Spider webs and dust fill unlit corners.  None of the objects has a sign attached but the padre has stories to fill my half hour.  To one item after another he gestures with a flourish of his large hand.  I study his eyes and wonder if his sight failed long ago, if rogues sold him all this at high prices. I’ve only seen a small fraction of the stored items, but all are obvious fakes.
I am awed by the enormity of the old man’s delusion, a trite tale of broken dreams.  Is he a man sunk to being a laughing stock, the subject of gossip?  Or, could he know these are all fakes?  No, the smell of his breath, his defeated eyes, told me he is just a pathetic old priest, host of the hoax of the Andes, the joke from the jungle.
A week later, I’m on a bus coming up from the lowland town of Macas when an American missionary family climbs aboard.  I am happy to hold their son on my lap while we talk.  I ask what they know about Crespi.
After seeing his collections, they were as curious as I am.  Jean, the wife, found out from a local woman who is about 40 that he is an Italian count from a wealthy family.  He was already old when the woman was a child.  As long as anyone remembers, he’s been absent-minded and utterly selfless.
Once, people got together and had a new habit made for him.  When they presented it, he said, “Give it to someone needy.”  He went on in his tattered unwashed clothes, much to the disgust of the other priests who ostracize him for his eccentricities.  Another time, when he was walking in a procession, one of his shoes fell off and he went on without it, apparently oblivious.   They say he was married and had a son who died.  His wife became a nun and, for decades after they parted, he worked with the jungle Indians.
Apparently, at one time, he did have a collection of fantastic things.  A fire in 1963 destroyed the building and its contents.  He had already given away most of the authentic items to public museums and had copies made to keep, so some of those copies are on view now and he may have forgotten their real histories.  Who made the tin and plaster stage props remains obscure.
The people who love him don’t care.  In the municipal museum in Cuenca you can hold in your hands an authentic book printed here in 1682.  It doesn’t matter to his defenders that Crespi is confused.  He is said to be over a  hundred years old. Many believe he is a saint. All agree, he’s always been peculiar. He gave away huge huge fortune decades ago and some have not forgotten that generosity.


June 14, 2007

From an old journal, exploring remote Mexico

We set off on a leisurely hike in late morning.  David carried Chris in the baby backpack.  My pack held diapers, baby food, a lunch and a canteen of water.  We had no particular plans other than to explore the countryside, as we wandered out into the farm fields north of the small town of Ixtlan del Rio.
A farmer told us we could find the trail up the mountain by following the railroad tracks east about one kilometer.  We decided to try it. We eventually found the old Toltec pathway.  Three boys herding cattle said that the rough trail took about two hours to the top.  In the highlands, the days are warm and pleasant but not too hot, so this sounded like an ideal excursion for us.
We began the ascent under big trees, stopping often to enjoy the cool wind or a shady spot.  As we moved upward, the view of the valley changed nearly as quickly as the shifting clouds.  At one point, where we could see the ancient ceremonial site we had visited the night before, we rested for half an hour.  We took off our shoes and ate some of our bread.
A man came up the trail wearing a new gray cowboy hat, a woven bag over his right shoulder.  He asked if we’d like to walk along with him.  Martin Llanos Solis looked about 40, his face weathered and smiling.  His feet, in tire tread sandals, were heavily callused, the cracked heels hanging over. His pace was strong and regular and we barely managed to keep up with him.
Our persistent questions kept him talking.  He had been to California, Arizona and Texas as a farm laborer on the bracero program and wished to go back, but with seven children now he did not see any chance of that.  He said he lived at the top of the mountain where many others also lived.  He and his three brothers farmed land that had been their father’s.
When it seemed we were almost at the summit, Martin said it was just two hours more.  I was beginning to tire at his pace and sure he was joking.  On top, he said, we’d find an icy spring known as “the birth of the water,” pure and fine.  So we drank a little more freely of our limited water supply and happily panted onward with Chris asleep in his carrier.
I kept my eyes open for interesting rocks and found an obsidian flake about three inches long with an obviously worked edge.  But Martin insisted it was natural rather than man-made.  Perhaps he simply did not know about obsidian tools from an earlier time.  I saved the stone and saw many more chips along the steadily climbing trail but no others with a worked edge.
Our trail crossed a dirt road with tire tracks on it.  Martin said trucks used this route to carry peaches down from orchards on top.  I was beginning to worry about getting back down and wondered if we could ride in one of the trucks.  Martin thought so.  I was relieved.  The day was getting hotter as we climbed higher and our ambitions were flagging.
A man caught up with us and nodded.  He wore sandals like Martin’s, a rough woven white shirt, short pants and an unusual hat of straw.  From the wide brim hung little dangling things, all around.  He was old but walked with strength.  When he was some distance ahead of us, Martin told us he was of the Huichol tribe, a group of Indians who still lived in the traditional way in the back country north of there.  The unique hat was what to look for.  All the Huichol men wore them, he said.
Gradually, the trail became less steep.  Now, we realized that the valley below was merely a wide canyon.  The true level of the countryside was up here.  I thought we had been climbing a mountain but there was no summit, just rolling land with hills in every direction.  Far below, we could see the town of Ixtlan, and other towns along the paved highway.
At last, Martin tired of our too frequent rests to breathe or to change or feed the baby.  He went on ahead.  We’d spent about an hour and a half with him.  Shortly after that, a man came up riding a mule, followed by another mule loaded with what he told us were empty peach crates.  He said his name was Angel.  He offered to let me ride for a while.  At first I didn’t believe he was sincere.  But he insisted.  I gratefully mounted and settled into the saddle.
Angel hung my backpack on the saddle horn and David handed me our little boy.  The mules plodded up the rough path deeply gouged by erosion until we began to descend again.  Angel asked me to get down.  It had been a good rest for me
We walked on, over a rim into country covered in pine forest, the sparse dry topsoil sprouting many varieties of cactus and agave.  We had seen no houses for some time but now a few stood scattered among the trees.  A small variety of oak was common here, with leaves at least eight inches long and silver undersides.  The land grew greener and less rocky as we approached an area with cornfields, grazing cattle and more houses.
We stopped for refreshments, sodas for all of us, at a house Angel called Casa Marqueta.  Angel enjoyed telling the woman about how he’d found us trudging up the hill sweating, carrying the poor baby in our arms.  Through a doorway, I could see stored bags and boxes.  In the corner by that door, a teenaged girl patted out tortillas and lay them to cook on a small, smoking woodstove.  A girl about ten came in and asked for 40 centavos worth of salt and the same of “cal.”  The cal looked like a sort of plaster but I later learned that calcium lime is used to soak dried corn and soften it, releasing essential nutrients.
We went on with Angel, farther than I really had the energy to go, arriving at a town called Rancho Rosa Blanca.  There were other ranchos nearby, Angel told us.  Just as we came to Angel’s home, a rain began to fall.  He invited us into the two-room house and introduced us to his wife Geronima.  Their home had uneven swept earth floors and no windows.  The walls of stuccoed adobe bricks met a solid roof of corrugated metal, with some parts made of traditional Spanish tile.
The first room served as kitchen and dining area.   At one end stood a wood stove and shelves and cabinets holding clay pots, dishes and a few pans.  Around the small wood table stood five handmade wood chairs. They used the larger back room for storage but had a ladder to a sleeping loft, with one large bed and a hammock that Geronima said was for their baby.  I asked her where the other children slept.  She said, “We are poor people.  Not everyone has a bed.”  I took this to mean some slept on mats on the floor.
A friend came by and he and Angel talked business while we conversed with the kids in the shadowy interior.  The daughter who was eighteen enjoyed holding Chris.  When a neighbor woman arrived, Angel told her David was a teacher and that we were very rich.
Soon a very wrinkled old woman walked in and David jumped up to offer her his chair.  She shook her head and said, “Oh, no.  I’m just stepping inside for a few minutes because I got cold walking up the trail.”  She sat down without ceremony on the pile of firewood, tucking her long wrinkled skirt tight around her legs as if to keep them warm.
After a while, Geronima put two plates of rice on the table she had covered with a clean white embroidered cloth.  To David and me, Angel said, “Eat your food.”  We brought out what we had with us to share, splitting our four rolls.  I made sandwiches of our can of sardines, pouring on all the extra oil, then got out our apples and cut them up also.  Angel greedily ate one of the fish sandwiches by the stove while we ate our rice.  I sensed that our food was a rare delicacy for him and though the hot rice was a meager meal, I ate it happily.
I asked Geronima to boil some water so I could mix some milk powder for Chris.  Riding in the arms of the oldest daughter, he’d had a complete tour of the house, yard and surrounding area including meeting most of the neighbors.  Everyone was amazed to learn this large, plump child was only six months old.  Most had guessed he was at least nine months.
After some urging, Geronima ate one of the fish sandwiches.  “Fish, fish,” she exclaimed several times.  We finished our rice and left the other two sandwiches and the apples for the family since they seemed so delighted with what we had to offer.  I only wished we’d brought much more.
At that point our concern shifted to getting back down to the valley.  It was late in the day.  We had no flashlights and walking down the trail would mean many miles of rough going on foot, nothing anyone would want to try in the dark.  Angel assured us there was no problem.  A truck would be leaving around four.  We had no watches but it seemed at least that late already.  We felt anxious, but Angel had more to talk about with his friends and there was little we could do until he was ready to show us where to find the trucks.
David had brought the camera, another reason Angel concluded we were rich, no doubt.  He had plenty of time to take lots of photos of the family and some of their friends, one in which I was holding their baby.
When we finally did arrive at the place where the trucks were loading, none of them was anywhere near ready to go down the mountain.  The small pickups with staked sides were all taking on a full cargo of small hard peaches from the surrounding orchards.  None of the drivers was excited about taking on the added weight of the three of us.
Angel walked us around, talking to four or five drivers, telling them of our plight and what nice people we were.  One of the pickups was missing a wheel and David pointed out a burro heading down the road to Ixtlan with the wheel and tire on its back, most likely to be repaired.
We walked to the upper end of the road where a driver unloaded boxes of peaches from a group of burros that had come down.  He said he could take us and would leave in an hour or so.  Angel suggested we would be welcome to stay the night with his family.  I thanked him but explained we had nothing to keep us warm, no food for the baby and none for ourselves.  And besides, we’d already paid for a hotel room in Ixtlan.
By that time, I was most concerned about feeding Chris.  David went down to the store on one side of the large central open area that served as the plaza at Rancho Rosa Blanca, to get a can of juice to put into Chris’ bottle.  While he was gone I sat on the steps of a large but unoccupied house and talked with an old woman.  She said she had lived in Rosa Blanca more than forty years, and that it had not changed much in that time.  She knew every person in the surrounding country by name, “and much better.”
Her face, like that of Angel’s mother, was deeply creased and weathered, her long, gray hair braided and covered by an old fashioned shawl she wore around her shoulders and head.  She wanted to know what life was like in the United States, what food we ate and what we fed our baby.
Martin had said that at times hunger came and the men went down to the valley to find whatever work they could.  After I told the old woman how beautiful it was there in the mountains, said, “Yes, but sometimes we have nothing to eat.”  We had seen very little food stored in the homes, few provisions, and not much in the little store.
I asked about the deserted house.  It belonged to a widow who was away.  “She goes often, out into the hills for several days.”  It had been drizzling lightly, but now the rain came down hard.  I and the old woman went into the widow’s house to take shelter, a home of two large rooms with a tiny kitchen shed behind, sparsely outfitted but with a fine treadle sewing machine, closed and covered, occupying a prominent corner.  Each of the two beds had an old wood frame and a set of rusty springs covered by woven mats rather than a mattress.
The wind blew and it grew colder.  We found some ragged clothes and put them on, then sat on the bed.  Chris had been a perfect boy all day but now he was angry, hungry no doubt, and I wished David would hurry back with the juice.  I held Chris close in the cold.  We had no more milk powder and I’d not seen any canned milk in the store earlier.  With no electricity, of course they had no cold case and nothing fresh to sell.
The rain came down harder.  Then a rainbow appeared over the nearest hill to the east and grew ever more brilliant as the sun beamed under a cloud.  The old woman left me.  I watched the rain carry little rivers down and around the truck, then had the brilliant idea of throwing the two dirty diapers onto the porch rail to get them rinsed out.  It occurred to me that the road could become to muddy and slippery in the storm and we might have to spend the night here.  If we’d had any way to stay warm, it might have been tolerable.
David came back with cans of fruit juice.  I fed one to Chris who devoured it hungrily.  About the time the rain ended, the old woman came back.  Just at that moment, Chris threw up a little.  The woman was quite concerned but I told her he drank his juice too fast so it was probably just air in his stomach.
David pointed out an old man passing along the lane, wearing a multicolored, flowered shirt and a wide brimmed hat with little things dangling from the brim.  I asked the old woman if he was an Indian and she assured us that he was a Huichol.
I asked the truck driver how the cargo was coming.  He said, “Fifteen more minutes and we will go.”  What a relief to know we would not be spending the night here, especially because we had so little to feed Chris now that I was no longer nursing.  Of course, the people here had been mystified why I had stopped breast feeding as it is the only option for mothers here.  I gave the only answer I could hope to have them accept.  “It is our custom.”  If only we’d come prepared, it would have been a marvelous adventure to stay longer.
As we walked down to the truck, David pointed out a man sitting on another porch.  Dressed all in white, he sat in a doorway, his angular face turned to watch as he gazed at us with fierce, immobile intensity.  His penetrating black eyes imprinted an unforgettable image in my mind.  He wore a wide brimmed hat similar to the other Indians except his was hung with little dangling mirrors.
When the loading was done and all the decisions made, David was in one truck and Chris and I sat in another.  Waiting in the truck cab, I watched the country people with their animals and children, returning in what remained of the daylight from their day’s work on the land.  The journey down the mountain began under clearing skies that soon grew dark as we slid, bumped and swayed down the rutted, muddy road.   It rained again, with lightning in the west.
I asked the driver what he knew about the Huichol people.  He said their lands begin about ten kilometers beyond Rosa Blanca.  They are very amiable people who prefer to stay together and live in houses scattered in the forests.  Some speak Spanish very well, but as yet there were no schools in their territory.
We had to stop to help pull another truck out of the mud.  That gave David and me a chance to compare notes and feelings of excitement and fear. We could see the lights of Ixtlan, Jala and other towns far below.  The driver said it would take about three hours. It was 9:30 when we drove into Ixtlan, all of us tired, dirty and hungry.
Chris was sleeping soundly, his weight pulling on my tired body as we shopped for enough food to make a dinner of bread, hard-boiled eggs, sardines and bananas, a dinner Angel’s family would have seen as a wonderful luxury.  After shopping and eating the next morning, we packed up to leave the hotel.
David spotted an old Huichol man coming along the street.  It was the man in the flowered shirt we’d seen the night before in Rancho Rosa Blanca. David remembered the cataract in one of his eyes.  I spoke to him.  He remembered us and said that indeed he was a Huichol.  I asked if we could take his photo and he agreed.
We left Ixtlan and drove through beautiful green countryside toward the city of Tepic.  Above the green valleys, clouds hung like gray curtains over the highlands we had visited, guarding them from the eyes of the curious.  Behind that veil of cloud, we now knew there was another world, another country up on the high plateaus and back in the pine forests where kind people welcome strangers and where the Huichols are at home.


June 14, 2007

( October 2003)

Early one bright Tuesday morning, a bus filled with energetic women twisted up the winding road above Cannes, on the French Riviera. We’d joined a tour, to make our personal perfumes.
The deep voice of our guide said, “In the second century B.C. the Romans found reedy marsheS here, filled with mosquitoes.  There on the hill above the old town they built the Castrom Cannois, the castle of the canes, thus our city’s name.”  I yawned and sat up to look.
As we rose higher into the foothills of the Alpes Maritimes, we glimpsed the blue Mediterranean in the distance.  Here, the clear, brilliant light and voluptuous flowers had inspired the great Impressionist painters.
Our guide said, “We are passing the village of Mougins, where Picasso spent his last 15 years.  At the Moulin de Mougins, during the film festival, Elizabeth Taylor holds her annual party.  I was still sleepy and open to anything the young man wanted to tell us.
“From the twelfth century the hill town of Grasse was a place of glove makers.  In the fifteenth, this area was part of Italy.  Catherine di Medici was offended by the stink of the leather tanneries and suggested some sweeter smelling activity.  The townspeople took her seriously, first making perfumed gloves.  By the 18th Century, they had built a new prosperity based on flower and herbal essences.  Today Grasse is the perfume capital of the world.  Three perfumeries dominate — Molinard, Fragonard and Galimard.  The region’s growers cultivate plants with excellent aromas.”
In Grasse, our chatty group in colorful vacation clothing glimbed off the bus and trouped though Galimard’s sparkling showroom, where ornate crystal bottles glinted under starry halogen spotlights.  I followed the others into Le Studio des Fragrances.

Open to the public, this is the only place in France where an ordinary mortal has access to hundreds of scents and, with the guidance of an expert, can create a personal perfume. The showroom, studio, factory and small perfume museum in nearby Eze-Village are open all year.  (The personal perfume creation process takes about two hours and costs 34 Euros.)
Like dutiful science students, we sat on stools. The sparkling laboratory glassware on a smooth black workbench took me back to high school chemistry, where I’d singed my hair on the Bunsen burner and could never balance a reaction equation.  Had I consented to relive that horror?
Our professor of aromas would be Monsieur Morelle, aka Le Nez (luh NAY).  Though that nose looked entirely normal from across the room, it is but one of fewer than a thousand worldwide that qualifies its owner as a master perfumer.  Fewer than fifty perfumers alive today are true “Noses,” with the creativity and originality to launch trends.  All have apprenticed in Grasse, birthplace of the worldwide perfume industry.
Le Nez was explaining the theory. “A perfume has three parts — the top, middle and base notes.”  The top or peak is the scent you detect first. It must be fresh and pleasant but is gone in fifteen minutes to two hours. The middle or heart lingers for at least four hours.  It gives the perfume its character and style.  In a masculine scent the heart will be woody or green.  Women prefer fruit and floral aromas.  The base, fond or foundation essence is a fixer to link together the parts and join with the natural scent of the skin.  This should be strong and moody, what is left at the end of the day.”
It was a lot to take in, but we were here not for a lecture but to complete a project. “Now, let us begin.”  We students glanced at each other and waited for clues on how to approach an imposing selection of scent concentrates.  Within reach we each had more than a hundred small brown bottles, with mystery labels.
Kristi, Monsieur Morelle’s pretty assistant, appeared at my side.  She said to the group, “First, we will develop the fond layer.”  I relaxed a bit and let her help me choose my favorites.
Sniffing each, I grew as delighted as a child with the wonder and novelty. “I’m in a new universe of the senses,” I told the woman beside me.
“Exactly.  It’s like exploring a realm we never knew existed.”  She sniffed a small bottle and set it aside with a satisfied smile.  “You know, scent arouses the most primitive and ancient of the brain’s sensual capacities.”  That resonated with something I’d read.
For my fond I chose ambriene, santal, ambre orientale and vanille — all powerfully lush, sharp, deep aromas that were both familiar and strange.  We don’t have enough words for scents.  While we added selected flower and fruits scents, happy chatter filled the room as people tried to express their feelings.
“It makes me hungry.”
“That one smells like my dentist.”
“Oh, I could get passionate about doing this.”
“Such richness.  I never imagined it possible.”
I think of myself as challenged when it comes to the sense of smell, but here I felt some primitive instincts surging into awareness.  Professionals say the right aromas will put us into a state of grace so that we feel a divine well-being at the core of our life.  In this lab, surrounded by intense and marvelous odors, that was easy to believe.
I added to my tall graduated cylinder five milliliters of Muguet de Mai, plus five each of Fleurs de Jacinthe and Fleuri Ylang.  The curved meniscus measured 60 milliliters at this point.
“Now, the complex phase begins,”  pretty Kristi said. “We will choose two more, each judged in combination with what you have, to add the perfect heart to your base.”
In this phase, I discovered scents so heavenly I felt my heart flutter with pure ecstasy. If only we had more time, I kept thinking as I reached for one little bottle after another, just for the surprise of what it held.  “Now,” Kristi said, “We select three more for freshness, to create the peak.”
A woman in a lab coat appeared at my side, clutching clipboard and pen.  “I must have a name for your perfume.”
“I have not yet made it.  How can I name it?  Please come back to me.”  She looked annoyed but moved on.  Too much attitude.  I added Rose Petal and Muguet with little thought for how they mixed with what I already had.
Kristi appeared beside me and we talked.  She said she’d been in training seven years.   Her first year was impossibly frustrating.  “One day, at last, I sniffed and recognized what was in it — such a joyful moment.  But it takes decades to be a real nose.” I suspected it would take several lifetimes for me.
The woman to my left sucked in a deep whiff.  “Hmmm.  I’d like this on ice, with a twist of lemon.”
Kristi must have guessed I had no natural ability.  She suggested that Fruits de Cassis and Accord Fruite’ might be the perfect final touch for my creation.  I gladly followed her nose, not trusting my own.
The clipboard woman stood beside me again.  “You have the name ready now?”
“No, I’m sorry.  Let me think a moment.”
“No.  I must have the name now.”  Did I imagine it or had she stamped her foot with impatience?  “Give me a name, or I will call it by your own name.”
Horrified by that idea, I said,  “Please.  I need a moment more.”  I squeezed my eyes shut and sent my inner poet on a five-second treasure hunt.  She came back with “Queen of the Sea.”  I rejected it outright, but time was up.  The woman wrote it down without comment.  What an uninspired name, I thought, in a world of fantastic and romantic perfumes with soaring, glamorous names.
Le Nez had advice for us as we topped off our 100 milliliter cylinders.  “Wait to use your perfume.  It must mix and settle like a good wine.  Keep it ten to fourteen days in a cool dark place.”
Krisit laughed and added, “But it’s not like wine.  You don’t have to wait years.”  She came by again and sniffed my final result.  “This is excellent.  Truly very nice.”  She sounded nearly as surprised as I was that the result was any good at all.
We moved to rows of chairs.  After a short film on harvesting rosemary, lavender and thyme and distilling them to extract the essential oils, we each received our labeled bottle and soon passed them around.  “I hope my teenaged daughter likes this,” said the woman who’d wanted hers on ice with a twist.
I sniffed a dozen lovely perfumes, each new in the world, never known before in all the years since Parfumerie Galimard was founded in 1747 by Jean Paul Galimard, Lord of Seranon and friend of the poet Goethe.
As they had once done for the kings courtiers of France, Galimard’s heirs would keep each of our formulas on record so that in the future we might reorder, or perhaps select personally scented products such as body cream or bubble bath.
Monsieur Morelle handed out our diplomas with a handshake for each of us.  I could not help staring at his nose.  Even up close, it looked normal — not at all suspect.  Kristi reminded us that ten more years of this and some of us would become real experts.
Well, some of us.  She looked at me with a complicit smile.  We’d worked together on this one.  No matter that I have no talent.  Queen of the Sea would never be sold in a crystal bottle, but I rather liked my unique personal perfume.

June 14, 2007

Royal Chitwan National Park

A plush bus had carried us out of the Himalayas and down onto Nepal’s southern plains, known as the Terai.  Until a few decades ago, the region was a malarial swamp unfit for farming but, thanks to mosquito eradication efforts, its villages and wildlife refuges now attract outsiders.
A man from the Rhino Lodge was on hand to meet our bus.  He escorted me, Sue and Garreth from Britain, and a German named Jentz to an ox cart driven by a local boy named Shankar, who said he was seventeen.  We climbed into the cart and sat on facing wood benches.  Our patient ox plodded down a long dirt lane past huts and farms, then pulled us out into a slow river.  When the water rose nearly to the floor of the cart, we all pulled our luggage onto our laps, just in case.  But it rose no higher.
An evening storm was brewing.  In the foothills, great flashes lit up the black clouds.  Thunder echoed across the Terai.  As we rolled beneath a flowering tree, seen against a backdrop of heavy clouds, the wind shook loose a sweet aroma.  I felt overtaken by images from Tagore’s poetic book Gitangili, and the Nobel Prize winner’ praise of the landscape of rural India.
About sunset, we arrived at Rhino Lodge, in an area known as Sauraha near the boundary of Royal Chitwan National Park.  Twenty whitewashed cabins formed a horseshoe around a lawn with flowerbeds.  The clean and simple cabins with concrete floors and thatched roofs each had four small, screened windows that closed only with shutters.  Inside stood two wood frame beds with foam pad mattresses and mosquito nets.  To the rear of the complex, I found the toilet and shower building with black barrels serving as solar water heaters, on the roof.

After a rest, I walked over to the dining house and found other guests talking by candle-light.  A recent storm, with a lightning strike nearby had destroyed the generator at the lodge.  Following dinner, we listened to a talk on wildlife of the area and learned of activities available.
Walking back later, brilliant stars and a half moon shown in the clear sky.  Next morning, the Himalayas towered like a broken wall of ice along the northern horizon.  A German climber was pointing out the summits — Machapuchare, the Annapurna Massif to the left, the Manasli Massif at 8000 meters and Himachuli to the right.  In the pristine clarity that follows a good rain we had a perfect view of those incredible ranges.
The lodge keeps an elephant to do heavy work.  The mahout, astride the broad neck, drove his young female into the rear service yard.  The roped bundle on her back was green banana tree stems and leaves that would feed her during the next few days.
I shared a breakfast table with Kitty and Wai Man from Hong Kong.  Then we three and some Australians walked upriver to where we’d been told we could find a guide and dugout canoe to take us across the river to Royal Chitwan — royal because Nepal was ruled by a king who is the default owner of all resources.
Our boatman poled his craft along, then let us drift with the slow current.  Sitting on low wood benches, we relaxed while our guide named many of the water birds.  We saw three species of egret, ruddy ducks, ospreys, cormorants, and sand martins that nest in holes they dig in the soft riverbank. Most of us let all this information slide over us as we gazed north at the white line of snowy peaks shining in the sun. “That one is an irutian kingfisher.  See the blue back and rusty red belly.  That’s the small pied kingfisher, and there’s a darter which is similar to a grebe.”
Having arrived at our down-river stop, we climbed the bank into a tall grass meadow.  Walking along the edge of a forest, our guide pointed out honey kites, wagtails, a large killdeer.  “There go two shrikes.”  We saw magpies, a blue-tailed bee eater, large golden-backed woodpecker, and lots of colorful parrots.  This guide knew his stuff, correctly pronouncing all the Latin names of animals and plants and providing much information about habitats, habits and the Chitwan ecosystem.  I jotted down more names for my list — a rose-headed parakeet, gray-headed mynah, common mynah, roller, forktail and the Little owl.
In this area of the park, the lush natural grassland of the river bottom appears to surround islands of jungle on slightly higher ground.   Deep in the forest, we glimpsed the spotted backs of shy Chitral deer.  A rhesus macaque sat in a tree and watched us pass as hog deer scattered away into the nearby tall grass.  By running silently ahead on the path while the guide stopped the group for a lecture, I saw a group of wild boar that the others missed.
But I paid for my solo time.  The guide gave me a stern warning not to do that again.  If I’d come across a rhino, anything could have happened — none of it good.  Minutes later, hushed by our leader, we approached a sleeping rhino deep in the brush.  We could see only its massive form like a large boulder among the trees and fragrant flowering bushes.  We stepped over piles of rhino turds.  “Each animal consumes about 100 kilograms of plants and drops 40 kilos of manure daily.  When full grown, they weigh 2000 kilos. An adult Indian elephant weighs 3000.”
Late that afternoon, following a mediocre lodge lunch that consisted of a gray broth with a few noodles in it, it was time for the long-awaited elephant ride.  On the walk to meet our beasts, we bought bananas and oranges to make up for the bad meal.
Mahouts had gathered at a walled compound near the park boundary, where the elephants were brought to tall platforms.  We riders climbed up a wood ladder and stepped across to sit on the hard wood bench mounted on the elephant’s shoulders.  Three of us sat side-by-side, with the mahout right in front of us, guiding the lumbering animal with a pronged stick.
A line of eight elephants started into the forest, carrying visitors from many nations down a wide trail.  Rocking along, sliding into the Dutch guy beside me, this felt like seatbelt time.  Of course, no such luxuries were provided but the ride grew no worse.  The elephants walked smoothly and were remarkably surefooted on the muddy and steep places.
Through the open woods we could see the wide grassland, rust and gold in fine slanting sunlight that looked perfect for color photographs.  We soon emerged into a dense prairie as high as the elephants’ bellies.  Rhinos are terrified of people and will not let us approach on foot without charging.  But because rhinos are extremely nearsighted, and because they have no natural fear of elephants, they don’t realize these are slave elephants carrying members of an aggressive hunting species.
The small rhino herd grazed contentedly as we approached.   The only rule was, no talking.  Our voices could have set the rhinos off on a run for safety.
A mother at least four feet wide glanced up as we neared her young calf.  Her horn looked very large, her eyes tiny.  She went back to munching, grinding grass with her huge teeth, as we framed photos of this remarkable scene.
Our mahout steered the elephant among the rhinos, providing new views and closer looks.  The light was perfect.  I snapped dozens of pictures.  At one point our feet were no more than four meters from the back of a rhino who stood watching the horizon for trouble, twitching its ears and scenting the air.
Seeing these beasts up close, I realized how foolish I’d been to leave the group earlier. If one of these animals got mad or frightened, and decided to run you down, you’d have about as much chance of surviving the experience as you would walking away from an encounter with a hit and run bus.
That evening, in the dining lodge, those of us who’d been at Chitwan a few days felt like old-timers as we filled in the group of new arrivals about what they would be seeing.  I stayed up late talking with the other travelers, hearing about backcountry treks and grand adventures, the kind of tale swapping that is among the supreme pleasures of visiting remote areas.  I was not anxious to get to bed.  Early the next morning, I had to face the torturous, winding road back into the mountains and clamoring Kathmandu.

Caribbean Tale

June 14, 2007

On the island of
Sint Maarten

From the sea, miles to the west, you see the island rising steep and green.  At night the ocean looks black.  Swells run wide and high.  At night on that sea around the island, the silver lights of stars define wind-whipped wavelets that texture the rolling waters.  Atop of the highest peak on the island, you see miles away a radio tower with lights.  If you are a pilot of a plane with 230 once-in-a-lifetime vacationers on board you will veer around those lights and so the peak will not reach up and knock you out of the heavens.

Even on foot, if you should be so brazen and energetic as to climb up there before sunset and decide to stay the night, you will be safe.  The lizards are small. The mosquitoes are few and the natives are of generosity spirit.  This sweetness, even they would lose in the cities where the tourists work, to earn the luxury of a vacation on an island as untroubled as this one.
If the next day, your boat enters the harbor, you tie up and go beyond the docks and past the last big hotel, you come to beach the color of the breasts of northern women who never sunbathe topless.  There you will find seashells.  The water is cool and sweeps gently over small rocks and up the slope of crushed coral that looks just like sand.  Stand in the water and see your feet pulled apart into fragments of light. It is hot every day here and the water is always pleasant.
Big trees shade the shore between the beach and a gravel road.  One tree that fell years ago is a gaunt wood skeleton in the sun. When it rains the fantastic dead tree takes on dark streaks. When it rains, the dense curtain of drops hide the hill with the radio tower.  The drops pock the puddles in the gravel road and the salty wavelets at your feet, and as far to sea as your eyes can see.
Beside the beach, two brown boys wrestle on the wet grass together.  Grown men stand, hands on hips and laugh at them, remembering how it is to be eight or nine and to run loose all day wearing nothing but cut-off pants.  Across the road, the brightly painted signs on the restaurants and stores look darker in the rain.  The sun comes out and the signs glisten.          Some people, even here, are too busy to turn and look at the rainbow.  Or perhaps they’ve had their fill of rainbows and prefer to think about food.
Or they are watching the girl in the turqoise turban who walks beneath the red bougainvillea, on her way to the bakery. She goes several times every day, and again to buy fruit.

If you follow her inside, you will smell fresh bread, and see fantastic delicate pastries, and the ice cream in the freezer.  The big glass door is heavy for her to push open with her arms full of bread and fruit.  You can walk behind the girl in the turban, smelling her sweet perfume, astonished at the grace of a healthy woman’s walk, even up the rough path and down along the beach toward the small hotel, built in the embrace of the cove.
Older women come down to the beach by twos and by threes now, the children running ahead.  The men come along too, solo or in groups.  One man carries a guitar and is singing.  The sun is hot on their backs.
At five o’clock, a hundred Adventists gather near the biggest tree for a baptism. The two pastors arrive, wearing dark suits, starched white shirts and black ties.  Each carries a briefcase.  They remove their shoes and socks and talk together near the public dressing shelter.  Women in stylish, bright colors talk in groups.  Two teenaged girls, leaning on the skeletal tree, trade shoes and giggles.
Down at the little hotel on the cove, a pink-faced American of sixty sits alone at the bar.  A heavy black woman is mixing a drink for him.  He stares out to sea, at the white caps near the point.  The wind is picking up.  New rain clouds have blown in.
A slender Frenchman dives into the pool, leaving the board bouncing on its pedestal.  He comes up at the far end of the pool, his black hair falling in his eyes, and grabs the coping.  A young woman in a red shirt, white shorts and white tennis shoes walks through the lobby twirling a large, iridescent leaf in her left hand.  The Frenchman watches her.
She stops at the wrought iron rail above the beach, puts one hand on the rail and lets the leaf spin down onto a rock.  Behind her, in the garden by the pool the yellow trumpet flowers are tossing in the wind.  The palms rustle.  A bumblebee attempts to alight on a moving yellow petal.  The bee gives up and flies toward the young woman.  She watches it coming with interest. It vanishes and then she screams.
Shocked by the scream, the American at the bar knocks his glass off onto the tile.  The bartender shouts angrily.  The Frenchman climbs out of the pool and runs toward to woman who screamed, cuts his bare foot on the glass and cries out in agony.  The two boys who were wrestling on the grass by the beach run up the steps to see, as the sky bursts open.
The woman in the turquoise turban, who had stopped to watch the baptism while she carried bread and fruit back for the hotel cooks, hurries up the stairs with her arms full.  A pastor and seven newly baptized parishioners follow her up to the terrace, to get out of the rain.  The pastor comforts the young woman who dropped the leaf.  She has been stung on the inside of the thigh.  He wants to see.
The girl in the turban puts cocktail napkins on the Frenchman’s foot, talking with him, expressing her sympathy, undismayed by the blood.  The bartender asks if the Frenchman would like a drink.  One of the baptized women discovers that one of the boys in cutoffs, hiding behind the bar, is her son missing since church this morning.  She launches her angry shouts at him.  He runs out into the pouring rain, followed by his pal.  They run along the beach until they vanish in the heavy downpour.
More parishioners come up from the beach to get out of the rain.  The bartender sees among them her ex-husband with her old guitar, which he took when he left.  Annoyed, she spills a glass of scotch she’d poured for the Frenchman.  The whiskey sprays over the pastor who has come behind the bar to get a towel for the cut foot. The big bumblebee alights on a leaf that has fallen on a rock above the beach.  The wind lifts the leaf and drops it into the waves a few feet from shore.  A fish snaps up the bee.
The rain clouds move away and the radio tower appears once more.  Off to the west, out over the ocean, the big drops pock the waves for miles, until the last cloud is spent.  It’s almost dark now.  Soon the silver stars shine through a thin mist to make silver patterns on the wrinkled surface.  From out here, your boat rushing away on the wind, you can see the outline of a green island where nothing at all ever happens.


June 14, 2007

Making Chapatis in Jaisalmer
(Published as a food story in The Eugene Weekly)

We woke in the chilly dawn, our train rattling past flocks of goats and an occasional camel. The previous evening we’d left Jhodpur, in the state of Rajastan, out on the northwest edge of India. Curled under coats, we’d slept while the ancient train crossed the Thar Desert.  Our goal was exploring centuries-old fort cities from the Mogul Empire.

A few hours later, in the bustling town of Jaisalmer, we settled into a little hotel high on the butte, with a view over the dry countryside.  Now it was time to explore the narrow lanes of the hilltop village that had grown up around the fort.

In the 1500s, the Maharaja permitted high caste Brahmins to build homes near his palace of carved golden sandstone. Today, the low buildings stand densely packed. A few white cows stroll up angled ways.  Children play on terraces while women sit in the sun with cups of tea and chat with neighbors across the alley. Bearers carry purchases up from the market, balanced on their traditional orange turbans, plodding up the cobbles on bare feet.

At mid-day we smell good things and notice a small sign that says Restaurant. We step into a bright courtyard with painted wood tables and
chairs. A British couple describes the food as tasty and plentiful, so we choose a place near them beneath a flowering vine. The food is indeed good.

After our excellent meal the cook appears, wrapped in a soft blue sari. She is introduced as Chandra Vyas, a small woman with white
hair who seemed friendly and generous of spirit.

We return for a late lunch the next day. Thanks to the good English of her chatty 21-year-old nephew, Hari, we convey our appreciation
for Chandra’s tasty cooking. She asks if I’d like to see her kitchen, beckoning me in to the low room that smells of cumin, nutmeg and  cardamom. Hari says she’d like me to keep her company while she works.

Chandra’s husband is tall, slim Madan Vyas. He shops for food and serves customers who wandered down stone lanes and through the
double doors, into the sunny patio. The couple serves a few dozen lunches and dinners daily and offers the Rajastan version of take-out through a small kitchen window.

Soon Hari vanishes, leaving only my few words of Hindi and lots of gestures to keep the conversation going.

Most Indian kitchens are starkly simple. Chandra sits on a low stool in front of three portable kerosene burners that stand on a swept earth floor. To one side is a cutting board where she chops vegetables in the strictly vegetarian establishment. A few blackened pots stand in a
corner. Spice jars line a shelf beneath the take-out window. Dishes are washed in big buckets.

In recent years, the south Indian custom of serving a thalli meal, a collection of sauces and toppings to put on rice or scoop up with flat  bread, has spread throughout the country. In muslim areas, one of the dishes will be a spicy mutton stew while another might contain
chicken.  Traditional Hindus eat no meat.

Mrs. Vyas agrees to let me help her put together the evening thalli. She will serve plain steamed rice with a hot lentil mash called dhal, two soft and warm chapati wheat cakes, a vegetable dish of cauliflower, potatoes and tomatoes, and another of spicy cabbage. For seven rupees more, about 50 cents, the “super thalli” includes a fragile lentil cake called babar, a fruit salad and a dessert of milky rice pudding with soft raisins.

To make the large pot of dahl, we start with dry yellow lentils and simmer them in salted water about 40 minutes, until they form a soft mush. Chandra lets me smell the curry powder, so I’ll know what she is adding so generously. In goes a bit more water, and we have a thick golden gravy.

Rice and dahl, grain plus legume, make a complete protein. This dish is the daily staple of a billion Indians, and has its healthy counterparts around the world where several billion more depend on corn and beans, rice and tofu or even bread and peanut butter.

The art of making chapatis, the tortilla of the subcontinent, is basic to any attempt to duplicate this cuisine. My teacher, seated on her low stool, starts with a big bowl of dry, whole wheat flour plus a dash of salt. She gradually adds water, mixing slowly with strong hands, to form her dough. One cup of flour makes four chapatis.

Kneading the dough well develops the gluten and a more fibrous texture. No, she doen’t explain all that in Hindi, but I know from baking bread at home, so smile and nod. She knows I know. Then she lets the dough rest a few minutes.

Next, she pulls off a bit and forms a dough ball the size of an egg. This she flattens, pats in dry flour and rolls out with a small rolling pin. The result is a thin chapati about the size of a dessert plate or large saucer.

She gestures for me to go ahead and make a few. Sheepishly, I roll a ball of dough between my hands and then work it flat with the little roller. Mine takes about four times as long as Chandra’s did, and is spiced with our laughter, but the result was not bad.

Chapatis cook on a hot dry surface such as a griddle, wok or fry pan.  In India, cooks use a curved bottom pan called a tava to brown the
chapati lightly on both sides. It then goes in a warm oven for about five minutes. A pile of chapatis is served hot, usually wrapped in a
cloth napkin, to dip up other food.

The mixed vegetable dish can be made with a variety of items in season, as we learned in other parts of the country. Chandra steams her day’s choice of cauliflower, potaotes and tomatoes with a dash of hot pepper. Twenty minutes is usually sufficient.

A vegetable combination of squash, peas and tomatoes is popular throughout India, with potatoes and cauliflower more common in the north.  Plantains, those large starchy cooking bananas, join the mix in the south. During our trip, we enjoyed combos that included coconut,
pineapple, onion, cashews, diced green apple, green pepper, eggplant or bits of dry fruit.

Chandra next shreds about a cup of cabbage per person, fries it in oil, then adds a little water and a cover. She mixes cumin, poppy seeds, a dash of tumeric and some red pepper and added these to corn oil, about a tablespoon per serving, in a small fry pan. The hot, spiced oil is added as a dressing to the cabbage, which continues to steam until it’s soft.

The spicy cabbage dish is popular all over Rajastan. We later eat lots of it when we join a camel trek across the dunes and scrub country south of Jaisalmer, our guides building a fire under a sparse tree at noon, and stirring up a delicious meal in half an hour. But that was a week later.

Indians drink a good deal of tea and at the Vyas home, Chandra’s husband Madan makes it. His special secret is fresh ginger, a richly aromatic half-inch thumb per serving, unpeeled and pounded to a pulp. At home I grate my ginger.

He starts by boiling a mix of half milk and half water, then adds the ginger and about a half teaspoon of black tea leaves per cup.  After the tea boils hard for about a minute, he dumps in plenty of sugar and strains the brew into cups. This mixture, formerly known as a decoction, came to America as Chai. But in India, Chai simply means tea.

All over India, when your train pulls into a station, you open the window and listen for shouts of “chai.chai.” The tea men walk along
the crowded platform, piled with luggage and freight, swinging huge samovar-like pots that hold smoldering charcoal in the firebox beneath.

Wave a rupee coin through the window bars and one of the vendors steps up and pours sweet, milky tea into a small unfired ceramic cup.
Travelers all down the train are waving coins and the tea men move fast. When you finish the hot drink, just drop the cup onto the tracks and it melts back into the earth, the ultimate in recycling.

Madan Vyas also makes a yogurt drink called Lassi. You’ve probably found India’s most popular dairy treat on menus close to home, but may not know how easy it is to make. With plain yogurt, he mixes enough water to form a creamy liquid, then adds sugar or honey and serves it
up in a tall glass.

Yogurt is such a simple and delightful contrivance, the ancient solution in this part of the world to both lack of refrigeration, and
lactose intolerance. Friendly bacteria in a spoonful of starter from an earlier batch will consume the lactose, sometimes-indigestible milk sugar, turning it to acid. This not only makes for a tummy-friendly protein source, but
preserves the milk for several days against spoilage by other organisms.

Fruit lassis blended with banana, berries or any soft fruit, are popular throughout India. For Special Lassi, made by Mohan Katri at his juice stand not far from the Vyas’ place, you can add a dash of whipped cream, a few drops of rosewater or Grenadine syrup and a dash of saffron. Katri topped his lassi with minced, candied fruit.

Indian food can be simple or quite time-consuming to prepare. The distinctive flavors and unexpected use of spices bring savory delights to our food routine. What I learned in Chandra’s dirt-floor kitchen has served me well for being inventive in my own kitchen.

The number one lesson she taught through demonstration was that, for authentic flavor, you need larger quantities of spices than are
specified in our recipe books — two or three times larger. As far as I’m concerned, rich spice flavors are great and hot is not a flavor, but  an interesting option. Just add a dash of cayenne pepper. Or leave it out.

Indian cooking reminds us that even mild foods can be filled with redolent aromas and distinctive taste. If you’re an experimental cook
like me, fooling around with Indian recipes will turn up some new favorites to add to your repertoire of great meals.


June 14, 2007

Florida – 1999

“I have to come with you, Daddy.” Jeff’s ten-year-old daughter was dancing on her tiptoes at the news of her father’s upcoming conference in Orlando.  “Disneyworld is, like, the coolest place on the planet.”
“Honey, it’s for work and Mom can’t take time off.”
Jeff phoned me.  “Ever thought about the Florida theme parks?”
“In summer?  No way.”  Leah was more persuasive than her father.  We’d all stay with a friend of the family.  “It would be SO fun,” she crooned.  Leah and I flew to Orlando and our first day, rose at five.  Leah was set to “Swim with the Dolphins” at Seaworld, scheduled for the hour before the park opens. Dad’s conference was over and he had some free time.
While participants struggled into wetsuits, Jeff and I found seats at the show pool. The dolphin gate opened.  A powerful carnivore, the size of a great white shark, swam over to Leah’s group right on cue.
Dad looked nervous but this was under full control of a professional. Leah stroked the sides and shook the flippers of a friendly nine-foot female.  She gave the order and the dolphin made a great leap and fell back with a splash, then took a small fish reward.  It was a dream come true for this young dolphin lover.
We had the whole day at Seaworld, starting with the Atlantis roller coaster.  My heart thumped as the car poised atop a near vertical drop.  Gravity took over and we whooshed screaming into a shallow pool where everyone got wet.   As we climbed out I was still shaking with fear.  We all had milkshakes, to calm down.
High point of the afternoon was the killer whale show.  The orcas draw a huge crowd.  Amazing tricks are topped off by antics of big daddy Shamu.  On cue, he splashed the first 15 rows of spectators with freezing water, using one whale of a tail.  That set the audience screeching – either from shock, or the pure joy of cooling off.  Sitting near the back, we missed out on the big shower but ice cream cones made up for it.
Disneyworld was the next day, then MGM-Disney studios, a theme park glorifying Hollywood’s extravagance.  “Main Street” evoked Los Angeles in the fifties. Leah, the roller coaster connoisseur, planned on doing every ride in the place.
We waited 45 minutes for the Tower of Terror, a haunted Hollywood hotel from the Twilight Zone. Your group sits on benches in a big box supposed to be the hotel freight elevator, bodies held tight behind padded bars.
The elevator rises higher and higher.  At the 13th floor, it jerks along a spooky hallway where ghosts and electric phenomena twist and dance to weird music.  At the end of the hall there’s nothing between you and a view over the whole park.  The elevator drops a couple of stories, rises again and “falls” 13 floors.
We were screaming so hard, we hardly felt the soft stall.  I sighed with deep relief.  “It’s over.”
“No it’s not.”  Leah was right.
Up went the elevator.  Again.  Heart racing, I was terrified we wouldn’t survive another free-fall.  We dropped all 13 stories. I was still screaming, and Jeff and Leah were still laughing at me, minutes after the final landing.   “What doesn’t kill you, makes you strong,” Jeff said.  I had some fries to calm down.
Another long wait and we buckled into a little car in the disco-dim inner sanctum of the Rockin’ Roller Coaster. “This is going to be fun,” Leah announced.
Rowdy fifties rock music blared at 120 decibels. Our car accelerated, zero to sixty in 2.3 seconds then spun upside down.  My scream stuck in my throat.  It got faster.  We flipped through a series of spiral rolls and inverted turns.  It got louder.  I held on, white knuckles tight, desperate to keep down my food. We barreled down a dark chamber of hot neon and flashing lights.
On and on and on — it was torture beyond comprehension, terror, agonizing and without end — at least a full minute’s worth.
Finally, the car stopped.  Dazed and all shook up, knees weak from adrenalin, with Leah and Jeff holding on to me, I staggered out into the daylight and took a deep breath.
“That was cool,” Leah said, dancing her exuberance.  “Let’s do it one more time, Daddy.”  They rode twice more.  I sat in the shade, swearing off all forms of intense mind-warping insanity, forever.
As the day unfolded, I realized I was not a coward but a heroic ride survivor, a woman of courage.  I could handle just about anything.  When you’ve lived through the Rockin’ Roller Coaster, whatever else a theme park, or ordinary life, throws at you is just kids’ stuff.