Friday, July 31, 2009

A Day in the Life of Someone Who Generally Fakes Knowing What She's Doing

Let’s just re-cap the events of the last 24 hrs shall we?

3:30: leave house, take taxi to “Ex terminal” – the city broke up with it in a nasty event last February. Most people still go there, but they don’t mention it in front of the city, in case it looks like they are choosing sides.

3:48: arrive at Ex, wander down side walk along the road next to the terminal to where trufis are waiting (a trufi is a taxi with a set route that will pick up and drop off passengers along the way – generally a station wagon or a Japanese minivan). See, now where would be the sense in having the trufis waiting IN the terminal? Like I said, we still gotta keep up appearances.

4:02: leave Ex in the dust and head out to Yapacani (or as I ‘affectionately’ call it, Armpit – erm, that would be the literal translation).

6:30: arrive in Yapacani. Find moto-taxi (yes, that is a motorcycle taxi) to take me to office. With one bulging backpack on my back and a smaller-yet-similarly-crammed one nearly choking me around the front, I saddle up behind a nice man who takes me to the office.

7:08: multiple repetitions of that time I shot down one of the guys I work with when he whistled at me. The line “in your dreams” has since become the stuff of legends. I am not kidding. They are way too easily amused.

8:14: We decide that 7 am is unnecessarily early to begin work, and settle on 8. I also pretend to be working while really skyping mom and friends. Handily, my male coworkers mistake my guy friend I am chatting with for my long-distance lover. He obligingly agrees to take the heat and the boyfriend ruse continues. Local attentions are somewhat on the wane. We are grateful for the repose – although I regularly have to defend my non-boyfriend’s fidelity.

9:22: make tuna sandwich in dorm room. Our office is sort of out in the boonies, and while I know that I don’t have to go to Santa Cruz to get dinner – I still feel like I do, because there is no way into town if someone isn’t willing to drive me – other than my feet, but that isn’t much of an option if you ask me.

10:28: glorious bedtime.

5:00(ish): awake to sounds of rustling leaves, light patter of rain and –what’s that? Oh yes, the high school band practicing – or at least, the drum corps. It’s only slightly creepy to hear drums emerging from the nearby jungle.

7:09: awake for real.

8:14: on the road again – Willy Nelson not included. I think to myself as I walk out of the office, ‘time to go for a motorcycle ride, you LIKE this Kiki” in order to psych myself up for what I am expecting to be a long, bathroomless day in the campo (field) doing interviews in Spanish-which-turns-out-to-be-more-Quechua.

8:35: Am pelted with either a stone or a bug kicked up from the tailwind of a semi-trailer. “You LIKE this, Kiki!” I am also regretting the choice of footwear (flip-flops) as the dust kicked up from passing trucks and cars feels like sandpaper. But the sandals will come in handy later, just you wait. The scandalous truth though is that I DO like motorcycles and the palm trees they pass.

9:02: Begin interviews “Frank,” my compañero from work speaks to many of the interviewees only in Quechua. Sweet. Turns out that some speak in Spanish though, so interview carries on, without too much double translation for my head. I am now becoming quite accustomed to the blank stare and then the drift in gaze when they don’t understand me. That look kills me. I know what I said! I know it’s grammatically correct! I just don’t know why it doesn’t make sense to you! However, when things are translated into Quechua a funny thing happens. A look of understanding and then a nod and then they launch into a nice long story in response. The lights are all on and all of us are home. It is a brilliant moment when it happens. It also makes you marvel at language – how they can be so different, and how impressed I am when someone is fluent in something else, but also – how comfortable it is to hear your own familiar words. We are all fluent in at least one!

9:49- 12:00: More interviews are conducted. A river is portaged with the moto (2 times of course – Frank does the portaging) and I pray against piranhas and leg worms (which I am CONVINCED I will soon get on my next micro ride or by crossing rivers in flip-flops. There was a woman on the bus the other week that had a worm in a tight squiggle in her leg. Not kidding you. I know they are not contagious – certainly not by just looking at them down the aisle five rows back and with multiple bags of oranges and other market products in the way. But part of me still wonders and checks the backs of my calves daily).

12:37: We are back on the road. Dirt road. A road Willy would fear to tread. Actually, that’s a lie - I’ve seen worse. But I hear that Willy is a bit of a diva anyway.

1:21: arrive back in Armp- I mean, Yapacani for lunch. Discussion centres around bottled Starbucks frappuccinos and the Korean Hogwan educational system. Best not to ask.

2:19: return to office, spring my computer from the dorm and head back for the city.

4:41: arrive in Santa Cruz, in time to purchase flag (Independence Day is only one week away) and bottled Starbucks Frappuccino. Make friends with FOB American school teachers in line ahead of me in the supermarket, feel solidarity as one of them is a redhead.

6:36: arrive home. Sigh of relief. Tomorrow we do it all over again, but for tonight I am home.

Epilogue: The devastating events of the next morning are worth noting. I had planned to return for noon the next day to do interviews with a large group. This would have been an interview goldmine. I would have been able to get many more than I can get in a day of trying to go farm to farm (it’s a lot of distance and by mid-morning they are generally out working in their fields that could be far away). So I went back to the Ex and squish into the front seat of a trufi and wait patiently for our driver to sally forth out of the city.

Only to be informed that there was a blockade in Warnes, about half an hour out of the city. Now, blockades are not uncommon. Once already this summer I have had to cancel work because of a blocked highway. I was told that it is a very bad idea to cross alone (which apparently you can try to do on foot sometimes). The issue is this: often “they” are just protesting illegal taxis or some sort of regulation that they don’t like. But if the protest is political, it can be a pretty big deal. So I made the call to ditch the wonderful, beautiful few-and-far-between opportunity to get ahead in my interviews and stayed in the city. On the one hand – I was so frustrated to miss them because I didn't stay the night but on the other, can’t really change that decision now and coming home was a sweet rest. So I was set back, but not completely defeated: I had a blessed encounter with a doctor which leads me to our next post. Stay tuned.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Intentions and Attentions

I was once told that I was not allowed to make cultural judgements until "I had been here six months" ('here' being Nicaragua, but I heartily concur that the rule applies pretty much anywhere that you move). The following isn't so much a story about making a cultural 'judgement' so much as being able to maneouvre adeptly within a culture that at times baffles and/or confounds and other times works EXACTLY as you would wish.

I went on Monday and yesterday to do interviews in one of the communities out of the city. The micro ride is about 1 hr to 1.5 depending on several issues such as time of day, the whim of the driver and the relative responsiveness of the on-board market for yoghurt-selling pre-teens who bombard the micro during its stop in the El Torno market, and therein detain it until every passanger has either bought one or declined at least the obligatory 4 times. After the micro ride is a breezy 20 minutes or so on the highway leading to the lush foothills on the back of a motorcycle with my co-worker, an agronomist from our organization. So that makes about 2 hrs of my travel time just to get there and get settled.

I went out Monday - yes, I went out monday after booking the week before to do interviews with a person within the local government, only to arrive and find out that no one was there. Let's not mind that. So I call again to see, as we agreed, if we could indeed do it later in the week (like Thursday or Friday, as I was told). Of course we can do it Friday. Sure, sounds good. So arrive at the appointed hour on Friday, ready to get this done so I can move on to the next zone for my interviews. This is, this is the last one I need from the south zone and then we are on to other issues. Right? Riiiiiiight.

Of course, I am informed that the person we are supposedly going to interview is not going to be at the office until 5pm. FIVE PM?! I can guarantee you that 5pm on a Friday is NOT the time I plan to arrive at my office if I am a public official. No sir, there is a bureaucratic union that has LONG sorted out the issue of working hours in government offices. 5pm ha! But we go, to see whom we can find and perhaps they're at home and not the office, so we check there.

Now, after finding all houses void of any adults, we decide to sit in the park that forms the town square and wait. I use the term 'park' loosely. But there are benches, so it will do. The thought momentarily crosses my mind that this official is not coming at 5pm either. But we decide to sit anyways. I take the opportunity to interview my coworker instead.

Now, cultural cue number one: there is a strange obsession with trying to find a husband for me amongs the people I work with. So I also take the opportunity to start casually spreading rumours in my workplace that I have a nice boyfriend waiting for me back home and that is why I am not trying really hard to marry a Bolivian so I don't have to extend my visa and get citizenship instead (the major selling pitch that they usually give me). The question arises frequently from the gentlemen of my organization (both married and single - I think they are plotting to help out one particular fellow who doesn't seem to have much luck): "Well Kiki, have you thought about just marrying a Bolivian? That would solve a lot of problems." And I now reply that while I agree, naturally, that would be the simplest way to do - ahem - solve things...(!?!?) it would make my flame upset, so if it doesn't happen, perhaps it is all for the best. I know, I know. In some cultures (my own for instance) my part in the following conversation would be considered a "lie" but really he just assumed I had a boyfriend, so whom am I to contradict?

T: So what does he look like - is he dark like us or blond like you guys?
K: (without hestiation) "He's blonde. Very blonde. Yes, pasty like me, shame really - our children will probably have melanoma by the time they hit puberty." Maybe next time he'll be asian, who knows? Whatever takes my fancy. But I will have to keep my stories straight with the different crews at the office.

If anyone calls me on it, I will stand by my defence: I simply didn't understand the question in spanish. He said 'boyfriend??' OHHHHH - Still working on those language skills!

Anyways, after an enlightening 2 hrs discussing Bolivian agriculture, politics, visa requirements, migration and of course, my love life, the appointed hour of our meeting came. "Give it a few more minutes and we'll call to see if she's ready" I am told. A few more minutes pass (it's now about 5:30 - 'few' is a cultural term as well). We call. The Very Important Person is currently running a marathon. Or they are caught in the midst of a bicycle chase with the fuzz in hot pursuit. Or they are pumping vigorously to make the swing go higher. I can't quite tell but there is wind and a lot of huffing and puffing. And no, incidentally, they will not be in town any time soon. Could we meet tomorrow? No, that doesn't work for us (are you kidding me?! It's SATURDAY! we both seem to say with the mutual roll of our eyes). So we book Monday afternoon between the three of us.

But I know that I really don't want to come back Monday, two strikes are enough. So I climb on the back of the motorcycle and consider my options and settle within about .4 seconds that I will just call back Sunday to cancel. That will look legit: "something came up, sorry but it just won't work tomorrow. I will call you when I get this week's schedule sorted out, ok?" I am already planning the spanish version in my head. It's all settled. So when I climb off the moto at turn to say goodbye to my coworker, he says "You know, it's best if we all meet in El Torno so you don't have to come so far, so I will call one day ahead of time next week to figure that out."

And the thought dawns on me - culture cue #2 - not a single one of us has, had or ever will have any intention of meeting at the appointed time on Monday. I am SO off the hook. There is a certain satisfaction in that.

Saturday, July 04, 2009

Here's a saturday story for you entited "We Ate Steak and It Was Fabulous"

A few posts ago I promised stories soon to come. If I recall correctly, the insinuation was that they would be stories about my trip to Argentina. I can tell you without hesitation that was a fabulous adventure full of wonderful stories, such as "The Time Steve eats Three Steaks in the Meal to End All Meals" or a little ditty I like to call "Tango with Dulce de Leche" (That one is more of an ode, put to music it becomes quite romantic). These and other tales that will confirm - heed ye well - that what you've heard about Argentina being the magical land flowing with steak and wine is. all. true.

Yep, we had a good time. No, we had a GREAT time. But I don't want to spoil the magic (or the forthcoming bestseller) so I will summarize in point form:
- Get up
- Drink coffee at trendy cafe
- Wander charming park, sit on bench,
- Drink coffee at trendy cafe
- Wander charming streets, sit on bench
- Eat steak and drink Malbec,
- Sit on bench
- Sleep (not on bench, but at nostalgic-if-somewhat-frgid hostel in early 20th century art-deco architecture apartment building).
- Repeat

There were a few deviations, most often for photo opportunities at which point I would "kindly ask" Steve, my aussie partner-in-crime for this adventure, to do something rather embarrassing in public (see for example facebook photos of Steve running through a flock of pigeons or wearing gold lame hat). And by "kindly ask" what I suppose I really mean is "plead and badger shamelessly" until I got my photo.

However, as you may surmise from the list, most events either entailed happily wandering or happily eating. The former usually provided surprises tucked around each corner: booksellers in a park or a magnificent cathedral, just sitting there, minding its own business. The latter was a bit more ostentatious. Buenos Aires knew she was fine and she did not mind showing you so. Let's take, for example, the evening we went to a place called La Cabrera. We should have known from the start: we arrived and figured we should get our names on the list that was for an empty restaurant (apparently was booked full with reservations). We were skeptical about all this upon arrival until... The girl out front didn't even take my name or how many were in our party. She just handed us two glasses of champagne. Not kidding.

We would have been content to just sit at the table on the sidewalk-patio at which we sat to wait to see if we could enter (still a bit baffled that they were holding out on us, seeing as there was about 8 other people mingling on the sidewalk and no one inside except a few waiters). However, within about 10 minutes of sipping our bubbly, they allowed in the VIP guests who materialized out of thin air and cobblestone (who were legion, after all. Moral of the story: reservations, who knew?). We were ushered past the red curtain on the door and seated. The hitherto empty dining hall was now crowded with beautiful argentines. We were seated rather close to an all-american family (oh yes, beautiful argentines and that one american family) who's headship was loudly proclaiming that what we have here was a prime example of the Real Argentina. The family was also about as fresh off the plane as they come - having arrived earlier that evening and so they would know. The big kahuna's slightly sullen 15 year old son didn't seem impressed. We'll give the young lad the benefit of the doubt and assume he was jet-lagged. But for all the father's gusto, he was right. He hadn't seen nothin' yet.

What ensued was quite possibly the most encredible meal of which I have had the honour to partake in all my quarter-century on this earth: Carmelized garlic, fresh artisan bread, sautéed mushrooms in a brillant sauce, creamy garlic potatoes, sundried tomatoes and olive oil.

Most of all: Steak. Steak like you never imagined steak could be. Steak in all its bountiful glory. Steak that noble heifers would willing give up their lives to become, knowing that their sacrifice makes the world a more beautiful, a more peaceful, a more wonderful place to live for all. Steak that makes you - for the first time in your life - mindful of those precious little buds lining your tongue: 'Oh THAT'S what those were made for!'

Really, I like writing, and I'm not one to toot my own horn, but I know I am not horrible at it.
Nevertheless, on this subject, words just don't work. Suffice to say, that it is WORTH the 1500$ plane ticket to Buenos Aires - I. kid. you. not. The next morning I was still full. It didn't really hold me back from having quite possibly a heart-stoppingly wonderful dulce-de-leche filled pastry warm from the oven of a bakery we accidentally wandered by in La Boca. But... I feel like there should be a but and then something that justifies that pastry after such an extravagant meal. A 'but' that legitimates the insanity of such perfect steak and pastries in such an imperfect and broken and hungry world. A 'but' that puts it in worldly terms so that the whole experience makes sense. But there is no 'but' in Buenos Aires. There is only senseless joy of senses. To that I can truly add nothing. Provecho!