Saturday, September 4, 2010

A Time to Live, a Time to Get My Hair Done

Although my weightiest decisions in the last several days have been along the lines of whether or not I should turn over on my beach blanket, I have been thinking about things. After a few late-August days of quiet boarded up shops and streets filled with confused-looking foreigners carrying bags from international chain stores, the Catalans are back in town, and the city has come alive.

My friend Doug and I have been working out some heavy stuff. Doug was one of my teachers back in the martial arts days – as one friend remembers him, he’s the guy who made me do a series of 104 attacks and choreographed responses during a test not once, but twice (because it wasn’t good enough the first time). These were the kinds of tough love we knew were in our best interests and that have made us the ninjas we are today. . . or something.

Anyway, Doug and I have been grappling with various philosophical dilemmas over glasses of Crianza and café con leche, in restaurants and cafes and plazas, trying to sort out Catalan (totally different from Castillian Spanish) and pinching ourselves every once in awhile to be sure we really are cruising along a boardwalk on the Mediterranean amid the barely-dressed masses of late-summer beach goers. After growing up in a small town in South Dakota where he learned early that chicken doesn’t come in neatly wrapped Styrofoam packages, Doug has since traveled many places in the world, studied and worked professionally in the culinary arts, run his own business and scaled the slippery slope of corporate America. . . and he can do more pushups than I can. Like myself, Doug has an inquiring mind and also a taste for delicious food, innovative design and spontaneity, so we make good travel partners.

We have wandered around various neighborhoods, both touristy and local, photographing the ubiquitous grafitti and pretending to be Scarlet Johannsen. We have decoded the Renfe train schedules that have facilitated our journeys to Sitges, a beach resort just 40 minutes outside the city. We have eaten some great meals and some mediocre ones. We have scoped out what seems to be the Barcelonan Williamsburg and its most popular pub, filled with chain-smoking tapas eating Catalans (with asymmetrical haircuts, of course), back in town with eccentric fashion and stories of their summer vacations. I visited the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCBA) the other day, whose front entrance is a wide modern plaza populated by shirtless skateboarders and their admirers. The art left me cold – all except for a film by Helen Levitt from the late ‘40s, where she was observing New York street life, and specifically a bunch of kids playing somewhere in the Bronx, I think. It was interesting that in a vast beautiful modern museum, the most captivating ‘works’ were this particular film, and the scene out in front of the building – which, while a little menacing, felt alive and accessible and visceral.

Our journey has not been without a little drama. We entered one of the immaculate and perfectly ordered metro stations the other day to a bunch of hot-headed young men embroiled in some kind of battle. One guy jumped down onto the tracks and gathered some stones, which he started to throw at his adversaries, who mingled among the throngs of regular flip-flop wearing Sunday travelers. The station attendant called for help but the battle carried on for several minutes before any official-looking person showed up. Feeling their distinct absence, I of course had to examine my attitudes about cops, but am still pretty sure that we’re better off not counting on anyone else to protect us from anything. This attitude has been reinforced by the biography I’m reading of a Syrian man who was incarcerated and detained in completely inhumane conditions for WEEKS in the clusterfuck following Hurricane Katrina – all without ever being told what he was being arrested for, without being given a phone call, without being even read his rights, and while (wrongly) being accused of being a terrorist by a bunch of 18 year old ‘National Guardsmen’ carrying automatic weapons. Reading these stories and descriptions of history as recent as 2005 in what is supposedly a first-world democratic nation has been horrifying, to say the least – not surprising, but horrifying. That we live in a country whose system of justice can still plummet lower than those even of the most under-developed countries in the world -- natural disaster or no natural disaster, terrorism or no terrorism – is something that deserves a great deal of attention.

So perhaps having room for this kind of contemplation, having time to read books and have long conversations that span several days – maybe these are the reasons to travel. . . not so much to tick off visited monuments from a list or to return with a fabulous tan and a new pair of shoes (although these things can happen, too), but just to make time to live and think and be present and enjoy the company of friends and family – all which are challenging to do when caught up in the frenzy of day-to-day survival and the pursuit of goals. These are my reasons, anyway. This is the wisdom I bring you from my beach blanket.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Director vs. Producer

Most of us spend most of our lives trying to find a voice. Naturally this process is nurtured more in some than in others – people who go to Waldorf schools, are raised by art therapists and play only with wooden toys have better odds than the rest. I’ve literally lost my voice just once before, and it was at a time when I was striving quite vigilantly to develop one that mattered. That was in film school. Since then, I have been developing my musical voice – and being sort of a verbal person, being able to express myself in words has been consistently important. In the last week, I’ve encountered a few obstacles to expression – including losing my voice – but I’m happy to report that I have triumphed in the face of absentee/non-functioning communication implements, both organic and forged by the hands of industry.

Yesterday – having a moment of solitude in a café in Oxford – I discovered that somehow in my ten pounds of essential baggage, I had managed to leave my brother’s apartment without a pen. There was a time when this would have been easy enough to remedy. The girl at the counter of Café Nero had to ask me twice what I was looking for. ‘A pen?’ She said as she rummaged around the computer register. ‘Or a pencil. . . anything that writes,’ I answered, as if a creature from some remote point in space and time. With a look of uncertainty, she handed me a dull pencil, which I couldn’t bear to refuse. I returned to my table and my blank pages. The pencil was miserable to write with, unfortunately, and I returned for another attempt – and this time she searched further and ultimately delivered a pen, although I was chagrined to find that it didn’t write for shit. So off I went into the winding alleyways of Oxford -- with all its rich history of writers and thinkers -- in search of what remains perhaps one of mankind’s greatest inventions.

While not terribly profound, this experience and the quest that followed seemed significant coming at the heels of my two-day confinement to whispers. I also watched “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” the other night, which offered some perspective on the subject of obstacles to communication and expression.

My friend Nupu and I had our annual summit in Paris last week. I must say, either the French just get friendlier each year or I am caring less, finding it easier to transcend all forms of challenging attitudes. We communed with the well-rested and sun-kissed Parisians to enjoy their skincare, shoes, art, rose, and snails, all which fueled lots of walking and talking and daydreaming. We allowed our inner directors to take the reigns and our producers to stand off on the sidelines and watch us spend our weak currency and indulge in moderate decadence. We returned in the evenings to a humble garret room at one of what seemed to be dozens of Comfort Inns, a franchise which appears to have taken over a large number of hotels in Paris in the last year. We climbed the rainbow carpeting six flights to the attic of the hotel, complete with slanted ceilings, and were reminded of our professional and personal stakes in things like budgets and schedules -- and practicality, for whatever it may occasionally be worth. I’m pretty sure practicality is worth something if you’re paying your rent by making Neosporin commercials. That said, sometimes the producer gets in the way of expression and creativity rather than facilitating them, and simply needs to go on vacation to let the director eat chocolate for dinner and brainstorm a few impossible plans.

Today I saw some shrunken heads while enjoying a rainy afternoon with my brother and two nephews at the natural history museum in Oxford. I’m not sure if our more common association with ‘head shrinking’ comes from this practice, or elsewhere, but it gave me pause. Shrinking the head of the enemy and then wearing it was believed by many people to imbue the wearer with the power to harness and utilize the spirit of the enemy. It definitely gives new significance to the common imperative, ‘don’t psychoanalyze me.’

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Mad River

I don’t always do or feel the things I’m supposed to do and feel: I rarely get eight hours of sleep. I was not dizzy with excitement during the 2008 presidential election. I opted not to take an SAT prep course. I have yet to fully appreciate One Hundred Years of Solitude. I never saw “Titanic.” Some people might call it defiance or peculiarity; I just don’t like feeling obligated or confined by other people’s rules. Anyone who knows me probably already knows this. Blame it on genes, astrology, familial conditioning, or maybe a minor personality disorder. In any case, I have never been one of those people whose dream it is to visit Macchu Picchu; I always thought it would be interesting and would surpass its revelation through a glossy coffee table book. Nonetheless, I felt myself resisting every time someone insisted that if I was going to be in Peru, I was obliged to brave the crowds and inflated prices to wind my way up to its hallowed site in the clouds.

Of course when push came to shove, I ended up going, but not before first resting in the arms of the verdant mountains of the Sacred Valley. I spent a day and a night in Ollantaytambo, a beautiful little village that boasts some impressive Incan ruins, an other-worldly blind musician and a rushing river. It took me as long as I was there to learn to pronounce it, and I never learned to pronounce the name of the hotel – a hotel owned by one of Erika’s cousins, the Hotel Pakaritampu. The pace of Ollantaytambo was as gentle as a passing shadow. I bought a bottle of water there from an old man who ran a little store on the main plaza, a transaction that was drawn out over the space of about ten minutes while he smiled at me as if I was the first person to ever make a purchase in his store, asked if I was traveling by myself, opened his money drawer and fumbled around as if he’d forgotten why he was there, closed it again, looked at me and remembered how much change I needed, and finally sent me on my way with my water and my eight soles 50 centavos.

You may be aware that there were some serious floods in the Cusco and the Sacred Valley in January. Several people died, others were injured, thousands lost their homes, and even more lost revenue as Macchu Picchu was closed until April 1st while repairs were made to the train tracks that carry thousands of passengers daily to and from the pueblo that lies below the lost city in the sky. It reminded me a little of the swine flu of 2009, except that this was a bona fide natural disaster rather than a conspiracy perhaps dreamt up by some pharmaceutical company in New Jersey. Mexico is, by the way, still struggling to recover from the destruction the big ‘epidemic’ caused their businesses.

The train wound alongside the River Urubamba, taking its sweet time (about an hour and twenty minutes) to travel just 17 miles from Piscacucho to Aguas Calientes (also known as Macchu Picchu Pueblo). . . not that I was in any hurry. The descriptions I’d read and my own distaste for heavily-touristed places had left me with very low expectations of Aguas Calientes, but I was greeted at the station by a lovely young guy who walked me to the hotel his family owned where I’d made a reservation. He encouraged me to check out the hot springs up the street, which were open until 8:30pm, but upon seeing the line up at the gate, I sort of lost my motivation and decided instead to get some dinner and go to bed early so I could wake up before dawn. The whole point of spending a night in Incan Disneyland is in order to be one of the first to enter the ruins, which sit about 25 minutes and several thousand feet above the town. Thousands of others making this pilgrimage arrive later in the morning from Cusco or from other towns in the Sacred Valley.

While I won’t attempt to do the work of Lonely Planet or Wikipedia in my fact reporting, I will say it is one of the more striking natural settings I have had the fortune of visiting – and I’ve been to a few natural places. The ruins are, of course, very impressive – especially when you consider the technical skill and physical labor required to construct such sophisticated edifices in such an extreme location. . . and all without the aid of any machinery. More than the ruins, though, the majesty of the natural environment transported me – even beyond the shrill cries of a pack of Israeli teenagers being led around by their flag-wielding guide, Humberto. After spotting what I could not believe could possibly be people on the side of Wayna Picchu (“Young Peak”), I signed in the guest register and made my way up the thousands of stairs to its summit at 8900 feet. I heard at least seven or eight languages along the way, ran into a few New Yorkers, got a helping hand from a Frenchman, a word of sympathy from a Japanese guy who witnessed a minor fall, and reassured some Bolivians that they were close to the top.

Back in town later that afternoon, I was mildly alarmed to discover that the one functioning atm in town would not accept my debit card and my soles were few. I was sure there had to be some kind of solution in a town that received so many tourists. I had enough cash to get myself back to Ollantaytambo but not enough to pay for my stay in the hotel. Few but the most luxurious businesses in Peru accept credit cards, so that was out of the question. Unaccustomed to such inconveniences (although those who live outside New York City might disagree), I found myself quietly railing against the senselessness and injustice of having money but not being able to access it.

I began to descend into several circles of useless machinations – I didn’t have and could not get access to the pin for my credit card to get a cash advance from the atm, I couldn’t use a public phone to call the toll-free number on the back of my credit card, the phone card I purchased to make the call from my cell phone ran out after three minutes of security questions, the woman at the bank told me that – as a national bank – she couldn’t give me a cash advance from my credit card. . . blah blah blah. The girl at the internet café reminded me to be patient, and I returned to my hotel to tell the nice old lady behind the desk that I had no way of paying her for the night I had already spent there. She smiled sympathetically, ‘Ahhh. . . siii. . . .’ and rubbed her hands together while she considered this news. I humbly offered my apologies and explanations, albeit with some defensiveness, ‘I have the money – I swear.’ She replied that times had been very difficult since the floods, that they had had these problems with the banks and the trains and with getting supplies into the town. . . this woman was no stranger to the frustration of not being able to make things happen.

Where was I going next, she asked. The woman’s daughter had gone out for supplies and would be passing through Cusco the next day, where I could give her the money for the room. I assured her I was good for it; she told me not to worry and I was on my way.

Back at hotel in Ollantaytambo that night, I sat down in the restaurant filled with small groups of older married couples and a book of Latin American short stories, prepared for a quiet evening. A wild-haired woman sitting at a table behind me asked if I wanted to have dinner together; I got over my Lucy Honeychurch reservation and said yes. She proceeded to order an awesome bottle of wine (not Peruvian) and to entertain me with stories about her unusual and peripatetic life as a Norwegian ex-patriot living on an island in Panama – her exile in Greece, her paranoid cocaine addict ex-husband, her years working as a caterer in the film industry in Northern California. We became fast friends and planned to meet up again the following night in Cusco.

After a day and night in Cusco, I returned to my family in Lima long enough to shop for and deliver gifts and to graciously be fed and have my laundry done. Karla -- sister of Erika and the director of the daycare center I visited in Ica -- invited me to meet up at her natural food store, which is part of the ‘Club Regatta,’ where Karla is famous not only for being the unofficial curandera of the oceanside community but also because she is a champion of a Peruvian racquet sport called Paleta Fronton. We were serenaded by a neighboring table of viejitos (old dudes) when we sat down for lunch; I smelled like cologne for the rest of the day. After some incredible ceviche, we stopped by the club’s best coffee vending machine (even the coffee from a vending machine in Peru is pretty dope quality) and enjoyed a perfect sunny afternoon walking along the beach promenade. We stopped by Karla’s husband Juan’s incredible new television/photo studio (talk to me about production services in Lima), and headed home to take a pre-flight run. Lucho, my favorite Liberace fan and Lima taxista extrodinaire, chatted me up as we traversed the insane Friday night traffic in Lima to carry me to the airport. To my chagrin, a stopover in the US was unavoidable enroute to Mexico, and this of course included an extensive process with immigration and customs officials who looked at me askance as soon as they saw the countries I’d been visiting. Good thing they didn’t know I’d been hanging out with Pablo Escobar.

Now I am in Guanajuato, enjoying the beauty and familiarity of this city where I’ve become a regular visitor – and most of all, enjoying the company, creativity and unique brilliance of my friend Hugo, as well as his family and other friends here.

Wherever it may carry me next, I ride the mad river that floods my heart.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Hope for Wild Life

It’s difficult to encapsulate the range of experiences I’ve had in the past week – I smoked a joint rolled in a page from the Bible with a woman going through a mid-life rebirth. I wandered around in a convent and contemplated the notion of a cloistered existence. I taught kids how to wash their hands. I sampled Peruvian wines and Piscos in the vineyards outside Ica. I sang to two 14 year-old girls in a town plaza. I slept in the vacant hacienda of the proprietress of an artisanal chocolate factory. I floated in the waters of the Hitchcockian-reminiscent Islas Ballestas. I saw a real oasis.

I’ve mentioned my surrogate family in Peru. I met them through a friend of a friend I worked with in New York, and they have taken me in like one of their own without really knowing me at all. One of the two sisters, Karla, is the director of a daycare center for children living in what they call a ‘human settlement,’ just outside the city of Ica. Ica and the surrounding area was devastated by a massive earthquake in 2007; while a typical earthquake lasts between 20-30 seconds, this one lasted four minutes. Corruption and misuse of government funds and international donations has resulted in a town that still barely seems to be getting back on its feet, even three years after the fact. Imagine the stalled reconstruction efforts of Ground Zero but covering the surface area of an entire city.

These settlements existed before the earthquake, though, and I’m sure they exist all over Peru. Basically it’s a shantytown built on a gigantic sand dune – houses of cards, literally, held up by sticks and covered by tattered woven roofs. A family’s latrine might consist of a tarp stretched around a shapeless frame reaching a few feet off the ground. There is no water, save for the Rotary International-sponsored spigots that appear here and there, irrigating the towns – and that’s when they’re functioning. The day Karla and I walked through the neighborhood (which had some kind of euphemistic name like ‘The Beautiful Hillside’), they neighborhood had been without water for four days; the people of the town had gathered around one providing faucet and were joyously filling their buckets and large plastic tubs. We stopped to talk to a few different people; Karla wanted to check up on how people were doing with their small gardens -- another project that the daycare center helped implement.

It wasn’t until after I had spent a couple of days pushing the kids on the merry-go-round, spotting them across the jungle bars, auditing their Spanish language classes, which were right around my level of sophistication (‘Fresa, manzana, tomate. . . que color es? Rojo!') taking their photographs and generally enjoying a Madonna level of celebrity that I heard some of their stories. As is often the case, the most heart-breaking moment happened at lunchtime.

I’m not sure why but I’ve always felt that lunchtime or perhaps the meal ritual in general is something that exposes people’s vulnerabilities – a packed lunch reveals a lot about where somebody comes from. The girls lined up to wash their hands; I assisted with the washing and the teacher dried. Next came the boys. The quietest table would be rewarded by having their lunches first; the kids, all around four years old, put their heads down dutifully and took their turns retrieving their little lunch bags from the cubbyholes. Incidentally, the cubbies were filled with ants – which one of the teachers attributed to Diego’s lunch bag.

One of the many goals of the center is to teach people better nutrition; at three or four, many of these kids already have rotting teeth and have subsisted on diets of potatoes (I have heard estimates ranging from 350-1500 varieties of potato that Peru produces) and candy and soda. They had crackers, fruit, bread, eggs. . . almost all of them had an old soda bottle filled with water or juice. . . progress! Then there was Luis. . . little Luisito. Luis opened his bag and pulled out one article, a plastic bag filled with orange liquid, which I can only guess was some kind of orange soda. Seemingly unperturbed, Luis brought the bag to the teacher to help him untie the knot and she looked at it disapprovingly, then turning to the class to solicit donations for Luis’ lunch. The children came forward, one by one, offering a piece of fruit, a cookie. . . all until Luis had a decent lunch. I couldn’t help but feel the embarrassment that I imagined Luis might be feeling – the shame in not being provided for and needing to ask for charity. Of course, it’s possible that I was just projecting and that Luis is too young and too pure to have any problem with the situation at all. . . there was just something about the whole scene that tore me up.

At the risk of approaching a Mexican telenovela level of drama in my storytelling, I will also recount that one of the other little girls, Soledad, lost her mother and two sisters in a car accident when she was just a few months old; Soledad survived because her mother threw her from the window of the moving car (she’s the little biscuit with the monkey t-shirt). One of the boys had been found dying in a backpack at around four months by a cancer-ridden taxi driver. The driver took the child as his own and after a multitude of treatments, his cancer has gone into remission -- and the boy is happy and healthy.

Karla and I encamped at the practically-vacant hacienda of a friend of her mother’s, a confectionaire and singer named Helena who started a chocolate factory in her kitchen when her family’s other businesses and assets were claimed by the Velasco Alvarado regime (a president who won his seat by coup d’etat in the late 60s). The dramatic contrast between this gigantic empty-but-for-the-caretaker Spanish-style house and the shacks meant to shelter five, six or seven people was a bit hard to process.

After a brief stopover in Lima – long enough to peace out with and enjoy the Jewish motheresque caretaking of Vito and Erika – I landed in Arequipa, the white city of the south, named for its construction in sillar (a white stone). The streets of the center of Arequipa are lined with tourist agencies, most of whom promote a trip to the Colca Canyon – which is mostly in a bus and required more days than I had. After stopping in several times at Naturalezza Activa to see if any groups had formed, I arranged for a private bike tour with the owner, Lalo. Lalo seemed to have some kind of outsider status in the tourist business, which of course made me like him more and also compelled me to promote his business – which, unlike the others, seems tailored to the individual and doesn’t hard sell a bunch of crappy expensive bus tours. Lalo and I spent a day cycling the streets and dusty hillsides of the small pueblos that surround Arequipa, finishing the tour with an exotic beverage new to my seasoned palate: Coke and beer -- a cocktail of contrasts, a toast to Peru.