Friday, November 13, 2015

Peace Corps to Evo

With my wife's retirement in September, we left the world of work to live near our son in Houston. A new home means a new house, and there is nothing surer to disrupt domestic tranquility than the selection of trims and colors and cabinetry. So in the name of preserving the general welfare, I left the house to my wife and flew south for one last trip to the Andes.

Although I have been back to Bolivia many times since I first saw it in 1968, it has been nearly fifty years since I visited Chuquichambi, the little town where I spent my three years in the Peace Corps.  I wanted to return while my aging body could endure the rigors of high altitude, risky diet, and uncertain transportation.  This seemed like the time.

Bolivia in the 1970s was a series of regions united by little more than a name. Moreover, the tiny elite and small middle class that had controlled the nation since its creation had very little interest in the countryside. When I left Chuquichambi in 1971, the town had 500 inhabitants, the same population recorded in 19th century records.  It had no electricity, no system of communication and no reliable roads.

It was this last deficiency that posed the greatest obstacle to a return trip.  In my experience, the onset of rains in November meant the end of predictable passage across the fifty kilometers that separate the town from the Pan American highway that runs south from La Paz. The annual rains turn the flat, dusty pampa into a sea of grasping mud. But it was now or never. I contracted a driver and four-wheel drive Land Cruiser, and this November meterology was running in my favor.

The Pan American Highway is now a four-lane expressway, and the ten kilometers between it and the jump off point on the railway is paved to two lanes. As we chatted on the drive south, I had warned the driver, Humberto, that we would have to ferry the Desaguadero River before we reached the pampa. But much to my delight, there is now a  bridge over the river, and on the other side of it a sign reading: "Papel Pampa 37 KM," "Chuquichambi 51KM." More surprises followed. All of the fifty-one kilometers were on a raised, gravel roadbed, much in need of grading but all of it a foot above the annual water level. Chuquichambi now has a bridge across its small river, electricity, and a cell phone tower, located just out of town. (I called my wife and learned that carpenters had misread the blueprints to the kitchen.)

These changes, all occurring in the last five years, are directly the result of Evo Morales' presidencies.  Morales, himself of a rural, peasant background, has diverted significant funds and attention to developing the countryside.

As Humberto laid out a picnic lunch, I walked around, testing my bearings. The town plaza was as I remembered it, but the church and its bell tower had been rebuilt, smaller  and closer to the plaza. The two buildings of greatest interest to me, the secondary school built with funds from the United States (see images below), and the house where I lived, were still as I remember them.

After lunch Humberto and I parked in the plaza, hoping to attract attention.  It didn't take long. First two tween-aged boys on bikes stopped and stared. Though they had no memories of the distant past, the boys served as a catalyst to my hopes.  One summoned a middle-aged man who remembered my residence in his youth and the building of the school. He asked me to give him names that I remembered.  Not surprisingly, everyone on my list is now dead. But a woman sitting in an open doorway nearby, now very old and nearly deaf, turned out to be the widow of one of my best friends.  She summoned her son, now middle-aged and nearly toothless, and we talked about old times. As we shook hands and parted, he thanked me for coming back and proudly observed that "we've progressed a lot since you were here last."

His words are full of meaning.  Operating under the ethos of development, the Peace Corps’ purpose was to bring progress to the countryside.  But in reflection, I, and many of my cohort, have realized that progress comes only from within.  What the Peace Corps intended, Evo Morales delivered fifty years later.

The drive back to La Paz featured one episode from the past.  In Chuquichambi Humberto learned that there was a more direct route back to the Pan American Highway and decided to take it. The route was shorter, but it included a ferry across the Desaguadero. As our vehicle reached the east side of the river a pilot launched his craft, and took us across, using a long pole for propulsion and navigation.  This modern-day Charons days are numbered, though.  Concrete bridge spans and a crane lay near the landing.

School 1971

School 2015

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Under the Big Sky

I had not seen the northern range of the Rockies since 1967 when I passed a delightful summer working in Grand Teton National Park.  Early September seemed like a good time to return.  My wife had just retired; I was nearing seventy, and the prospect of cool weather offered a welcome change from the Texas heat.  So let’s go to Montana, we decided.

My first Google search brought up an entry for Austin Adventures.  I naively associated the company name with my hometown, which gave it a leg up on the competition.  And even though it turns out that their “Austin” is a surname, the trip they offered was just what we had in mind—southern Montana and Yellowstone.  And as long as we’re going to Montana, why not visit Glacier as an appetizer?

After my Seattle odyssey (see the previous post to this blog), I started to watch reports of western wildfires with unusual scrutiny.  The Glacier area was particularly scorched this summer.  The Thompson Creek and Reynolds fires closed some of the roads surrounding the park and inconvenienced travelers there.  Turns out that our arrival corresponded to a change in the weather.  While we were glad to bring rains to northern Montana, our good deed did not go unpunished.  Although we managed a couple of short hikes, one to Salamander Glacier, and take the Jammer bus across the Going-to-the-Sun highway, my wife and I spent much of our time watching the drizzle and hoping that it would stop. On our last day in Glacier the Going-to-the Sun road was closed by a snowstorm. The weather changed for the better as we drove back south toward our Austin Adventure.

Bozeman, Montana, our point of departure, is a charming little city.  As the seat of Montana State University, Bozeman offers bookstores, haberdasheries, a movie theater, and the fabulous Black Bird CafĂ© all within a few blocks on Main Street.  We overnighted, unwittingly, in a hotel hosting the fiftieth reunion of the Bozeman High class of ’65, but all went pretty well (we didn’t want to use the swimming pool, anyway).  Bright and early the next day, just as promised in the Austin promos, our two guides-- Amy and Corey, a twelve-passenger van, and a large trailer, crowned by a dozen bicycles pulled into the parking lot.  With two subsequent stops, we were joined by three companions.  That’s right, all that infrastructure for five paying passengers.

Despite the rustic settings of the tour, Austin Adventures insists on over the top amenities.  No suitcases could be lifted, no one was allowed to step in or out of the van before a small, red carpet was laid out on the ground.  The trailer was filled with surprises. We were asked not to look inside-- reducing the risk of industrial espionage, I suppose.  But throughout the week, magical things emerged, like rabbits from a hat.  Fresh fruit, iced drinks, parfaits, sweets and nuts all found their way from the trailer to our mouths.

One thing that the trailer did not hold was camping gear.  This was not a sleep-on-the-ground kind of experience.  Each evening’s dinner was arranged at one of the area’s nicest restaurants, including Yellowstone Lake Lodge where we ate near retired US Senator Alan Simpson.  I could not help but notice a significant change in the staffing of the resorts.  The bright-faced American college students of the 1960s have been displaced by youngsters from Europe and eastern Asia.  All of them had H-1B visa status and were soon to return to their countries when we spoke with them.  I’m glad I worked in the Tetons when I did.

In between the meals we took a vigorous hike up the Beehive Basin in Montana, above Grand Prismatic Spring in Yellowstone Park into the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, and to Old Faithful geyser, just in time for its eruption.

We were blessed with pleasant companions and perfect weather. Traveling after Labor Day, a first for us, minimized the crowds and enhanced our animal sightings.  We managed to glimpse a black bear and her two cubs, a couple of mountain goats, several elk, and a small band of bighorn sheep. American bison are now so numerous in Yellowstone that we grew tired of photographing them.  That is until while having our lunch near the Fire Hole River a group of two-dozen bison huddled me behind a tree as they passed by on either side.  That was a little too close.

Our next adventure was selling a house in Austin and buying one in Houston, all in two weeks.  More on that later, perhaps.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Road Trip

My daughter, who lived in Houston, found a new job in Seattle. To bridge the 2,500 miles between the cities, we made a road trip.  Just Maggie, her dog, Alfred, her two cats, two suitcases, kitchen supplies, an air mattress and me. Google Maps and AAA agreed on the routing, mostly on Interstates-- Amarillo, Denver, Boise and Seattle, a three-day trip.

Day 1. We got away from Houston at 8:30AM, driving IH45 north toward Dallas.  It’s amazing how well a freeway works when you go against the rush hour flow. But it wasn’t long before strange things started happening with our car.  Slowly, but surely, it dropped speed until some sixty miles out of Houston full throttle yielded  only 45 miles per hour.  By this time an ominous warning icon, a red exclamation point framed in a redder triangle, had appeared on the console. We limped into a garage cum tire store in Huntsville, home of the Texas Prison Museum.  But upon learning that our car was a hybrid, the mechanic refused even to  open the hood.  It was time to throw in the towel and call AAA’s tow service to the nearest Toyota dealership, thirty miles away.

Sitting with a dog at your feet is a great conversation starter.  One woman, recently arrived in Huntsville, recommended a local veterinarian (more on this later); another asked if Alfred’s Thunder Shirt™ calmed him.  In the course of our exchange I shared our far-away destination and how the trip was beginning inauspiciously.  About this time our tow arrived.  Maggie and I climbed into the cab with the driver, and just as we were pulling away from the garage, I heard a tapping on the window.  It was the Thunder Shirt lady, pressing money into my hand; “I know it isn’t much,” she said.  I must have looked like Tom Joad, fleeing the dust bowl.

We spent the night at a La Quinta, which maintains the most permissive pet policy among the regular motel chains.  But Alfred nearly spoiled our best-laid plans.  Seems that he barks at strange sounds, so often that other guests complained to the management.  Fearing our eviction, Maggie slept on the floor with the dog and stifled his barks; I slept with the cats, very restful.

Day 2 began with some good news from the Toyota dealership.  Our car trouble resulted from the installation of tires of two different sizes on the front and back wheels which confused the computer that manages the hybrid transmission. We got back on the road with four new tires but not before making a trip to the recommended vet for a dog sedative.  Driving through Fort Worth on US Highway 287, we came to a vestigial segment of US 64.  That road goes through my hometown in Arkansas and appears sporadically from North Carolina to Arizona.  We reached Amarillo and, aided by the sedative, spent a quiet night at La Quinta.

Day 3. The grain and cattle country west of Amarillo is beautiful.  At one point Maggie observed that “you could make a western movie out here.” We crossed the New Mexico state line and into Mountain time a little before noon, and then disaster struck.

I was driving on a deserted stretch of four-lane highway; suddenly Maggie pointed ahead and said, “Dad, there’s an animal in the road,” and, indeed there was, a prong horned antelope.  I braked hard; the animal looked up, saw danger approaching, ran toward safety and then back into our path.  Colliding with our front bumper, the poor antelope flew into the ditch.  The only wild animal we saw on the whole trip, and I had to run into it. Although the bumper and hood were crumpled into the shape of a cleft palate, the car was driveable and not leaking fluids.  So we drove into Colorado and stopped at the Toyota dealership in Trinidad.

Examining the car hoisted on a rack, a Toyota mechanic assured us that the car’s internal organs were all intact and that it should get us to Seattle. He was right with a qualification; the air conditioner expired soon after we left Trinidad.   We reached Castle Rock, CO, and pulled into the La Quinta (of course), hot and wind blown from the afternoon drive.

In the middle of Night 3, after one of Alfred’s barking fits, I decided that we could go no further as we were.  The next morning Maggie and I explored how to fly her and the animals from Denver to Seattle.  It turns out that Alaska Airlines has a pet policy almost as liberal as La Quinta.  But we would need to get a doggie-sized crate and certificates of good health for all three animals.  Day 4 included a trip to Walmart for the crate and to a Pet Smart—who knew that they had a vet in their building? -- for the health certificates.  We repacked the car, and everything fit, including a little space I was reserving for the next mishap, unnecessary as it turned out.

Day 5.  Delivering Maggie and the animals to Denver International Airport was a piece of cake, considering that we drove there on a Sunday morning and quickly located a skycap for the luggage and pets.  A considerably lighter Prius rolled out of DIA at 11AM and into Rock Springs, WY, that evening.  I no longer had to worry about pet policies to find a place to sleep.

Day 6 began with a long climb to the Continental Divide in Utah and a descent into Idaho.  East of Boise three road signs warned of “Deer Migration Route,” “Extreme Fire Risk,” and “Dust Storm Area.” I was headed toward the valley of the shadow of death.  As it turned out the tires and the antelope exhausted my quota of misadventures for the trip, but while neither deer nor dust crossed the road, forest fires in Idaho, Oregon and Washington State, hazed the atmosphere all the way to the Cascades.

On Day 7 Maggie and I were reunited near the SeaTac airport.  The three-day drive had taken a week.  By the time I reached Seattle, Maggie had boarded her pets, made contact with the King County Library administration and signed a one-year lease on an apartment.  No longer needed, I returned to Texas on a four-hour flight.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Botero in Tuscany

Although Italy surely lies somewhere in Fernando Botero’s family background, I was quite surprised to find out that the famous Colombian artist has established a foothold in the Tuscan village of Pietrasanta.  In an interview given to Marlborough Galleries, Botero reveals that he was first attracted to the area by its world-class foundries but later came to appreciate the people and their lifestyle   This summer the work of the late Polish sculptor, Igor Mitoraj, held pride of place in the piazza centrale.  However, the south gateway to the village, shown above, and two Botero frescos are permanently on view at the church of Sant’ Antonio e San Biagio.

The frescos employ Botero’s emblematic, pudgier-than-life figures to present visions of Hades and Paradise.  In the Hades panel, the round shape of Lucifer and his imps sap some of the hellish imagery created by flames, serpents, and pitchforks.  In a bow to the traditions of Latin American muralists and engravers, Botero includes a pair of Calaveras, each accessorized with the trifles of wealth.  And as a final touch, Adolph Hitler raises his head from a sarcophagus, as he makes his final descent into the lower regions.

In Paradise, Botero brightens his palate—blue sky, green fruit trees—and paints a crowned Virgin with babe in arms as its central motif.  To heighten the celestial effect, Mother Teresa stands prayerfully, canvas left.  Botero includes a self portrait, adorning himself in the garb of conquistador, sword poised to decapitate a serpent that slithers under the Virgin’s slippers.  At the bottom of the panel, beside fruit fallen from the trees, sits a guitar player, wearing a red dress and a pair of wings.  

Who is that?

The Rains Came

And the Rains Came

For five years now most of Texas has struggled with drought.  Rice crops on the Colorado River, reservoirs of drinking water and lawns of thirsty grass have shriveled to dust.  In response, Texas municipalities prohibited outdoor watering and car washing and encouraged restaurants to serve water only by request.  The state also weighed in when Governor Rick Perry issued a proclamation calling for three days of prayer for rain in the state of Texas.  Nothing worked, until now.

On May eighth, my wife and I flew to Little Rock, with a plane change in Dallas Fort Worth International, to attend a wedding.    Two days later, with the newly weds happily launched, we drove to the Little Rock airport in a light drizzle, turned in the rental car and rolled our bags to check in.  Much to my wife’s chagrin, we were early; something about cutting it close lies deep in her genome.  But this time punctuality paid. Approaching the counter we sensed some high-voltage tension.  The lines were very long, and American Airlines had put all hands, including a man dressed as a baggage handler, out front.  Seems that the night before, heavy weather and a power failure had closed DFW and snarled air traffic for the entire region.  Since our flight had already been cancelled, we relaxed and did some participant observation.

The long lines mashed together people with destinations all across the west.  Like the characters in Julio Cortazar’s novella Todos los fuegos el fuego we soon began to reach out, sharing experiences, passing along bits of information gleaned from airline websites, calculating time and distance.  Our neighbor-in-line, also in Little Rock for a wedding, seemed desperate to get to his job in Denver.  As we guarded his luggage, he scurried off to other airline counters looking for alternate routing.  United offered passage on flights that would get him to Denver by midnight through Los Angeles and Seattle.  He took it and waved goodbye.

As soon as we got in line, I dialed the American Airlines customer service number and took the automated option for a call back.  Ironically, the call came almost simultaneously with our turn at the ticket counter.  “Austin,” the agent moaned.  “I just did that routing for another customer, and the best I can offer is Tuesday morning” (two days later). The agent on the phone offered a different reservation, but similar delays.  After some hemming and hawing, my wife and I decided that we had already done Little Rock and another day or two there was not an attractive proposition.   “Let’s rent a car and drive”, someone said, “Goggle Maps shows it’s five hundred seventeen miles to Austin.” So off we went.

IH 30 to Dallas; IH 35 to Austin; we wouldn’t get lost, anyway.  I drove the first shift, south by southwest on the compass.  We stopped in Hope, Arkansas, Bill Clinton’s birthplace, for gas and a shift change.  The rain now fell steadily but not torrentially.  As we passed Nashville (the one in Arkansas), our cell phones and the radio began to squawk in distressed tones.  “Tornado warning, take cover,” flashed across the screens.  OK, but where?  Later we learned that a twister touched down in the area; luckily we had dodged it.  The closer we got to Dallas, the heavier the rain fell.  Lightening occasionally illuminated the landscape with intensity far superior to our headlights.  During the flashes we could see that we were not the only ones driving and forged ahead even though the warning squawks continued unabated.

That night tornadoes struck Van and Corsicana, Texas, both frighteningly close to our route.  We pulled into our driveway ten hours from Little Rock, home but not out of the rain.

May precipitation in Austin has set meteorological records.  The good news is that the major reservoirs quenching our thirsts and washing our dishes are now 60% filled.  The bad news is that the ground is so saturated that any rainfall flows immediately down the watershed.  On Monday night two inches of rain triggered damaging floods in Austin and tragedy in some surrounding areas.

Governor Perry, your prayers have been answered.  Twenty-five more days and Noah’s record is ours.