Friday, November 30, 2007

Equatorial Politics

If you're already sick of American electoral politics, perhaps you'd like to hear what's going on elsewhere.

Yesterday, Ecuador's Constitutional Assembly convened, and already the instability of South American democracy is being illustrated. A poll shows that 62% of Ecuadorians say they don't know what it means that the Assembly intends to exercise "full powers." Of those who say they do know, they are divided on the answer. Does it mean they're "over everyone," that they can "change everyone from the president on down," or that they can "make decisions and change laws without consulting anyone else?" Not that these definitions are any clearer or particularly distinct. Unfortunately, the article, while lamenting how confused the people are, doesn't tell what the right answer is, perhaps because nobody really knows.

The "full powers" language, as I understand it, was inserted into the ballot language after it had already been approved by the Congress. Congressional leaders clearly say that the Assembly doesn't have the power to dismiss Congress. This, however, is President Correa's majority party's first order of business. While party officials have tried to be careful in their language, some assembly members say that because of the Assembly's "full powers," it is incompatible with "a Congress like we have" and that the Congress has been "delegitimized."

Now I get that when you're rewriting a constitution, the old system system is going to be in conflict with the new system you're writing. So it seems that you have two options: either you let the current system keep operating, faultily, until you have the new constitution finished, or you completely dispense with the old system, set up a temporary, and probably limited, replacement, and establish your new system when the constitution is done. What's troubling is that the Assembly is eager to take over the Congress's legislative and financial functions, but there's no talk of terminating the President while they decide what kind of presidency to have. Of course it's the President's party that's booting the Congress, which makes it clear that this is all just a really involved partisan power grab. It's not really about establishing a better system; it's about eliminating the opposition and codifying the new administration's power. The procedural and structural justifications are totally contrived.

However, going along with the Assembly's wishes without fully complying, Congress voted to take a one-month recess, as the current constitution allows, leaving open the possibility of returning January 5th, as the current constitution requires. They'll let the Assembly go about it's business, although one deputy declared that "the little boys of Chavez's little boy [Correa's assembly members] don't know anything about legislative procedures," that all their laws will be illegitimate, and that "the citizens don't have to obey them."

The problem is, there is no ultimate authority that everyone agrees on. The current constitution doesn't establish a system to finally adjudicate disagreements, and while the plebiscite to establish the assembly should have established an ultimate power, Correa was only able to slip it past Congress by telling them it wasn't going to be all-powerful, then changing it by adding the vague "full power" language before the people voted on it.

Fortunately, there is such popular support for these changes that Congress may not put up much of a fight. Despite having no idea what "full powers" means, 62% of Ecuadorians have confidence in the Acuerdo PAIS-run Assembly. Perhaps when they ratify a new constitution in a year, it will be written tightly enough that it's clear where the final authority lies. The big question is whether the Assembly can do that through a carefully thought-through system of checks and balances, or whether they'll find it easier to give the final say to the President, who has enthralled the people enough to take that power without much objection.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Fighting to Fly

Kerri and I had worked our way south, almost to Peru, by bus, but decided that in the interest of saving time--getting to the Otavalo Saturday markets--and avoiding frustration, we'd splurge and pay $75 to take a 50-minute flight that, by bus would take 15 hours (and cost $15.) We did end up saving a lot of time, although for a bit it seemed like we wouldn't. But we still ran into plenty of frustration.

It's pretty easy to splurge down here. You can find a hotel room for $5, but when there's a tropical spa that includes organic dinner and breakfast for $20, how can you say no?
Why take a city bus for 25 cents when it's only a dollar to catch a cab? I vacillate between taking full advantage of the low cost of living by living on practically nothing, and, well, taking full advantage of the low cost of living by living it up.

After a very relaxing stay in Vilcabamba, we decided that paying a taxi $25 to drive us straight to the airport an hour-and-a-half away made more sense than switching between two local taxis and a couple of buses to save $15. Manuel would have been horrified.

The Catamayo airport is the smallest commercial airport I've ever been to, and at first I thought it was going to be a relaxing place to fly out of. There was a room with four ticket counters, though only two were in use, since there were only two airlines. Behind them, instead of a conveyer belt to carry away your luggage, a wall of windows and glass doors looked out onto the tarmac, which had room to park maybe three jets. There were no gates, just a security room with a door leading out to the planes.

The laid-back feel ended when we went to check in. The woman at the Icaro Airlines counter told us the flight was canceled due to a mechanical problem. They'd tried to call us to say we'd have to wait at least till the next day, but I had my phone off. She said we could use our ticket for a flight on TAME that left 45 minutes later. We headed over to the TAME line, where half a dozen other passengers from the Icaro flight were already waiting. No one showed up from TAME for another half an hour. When they did, they ignored the ticket line and checked everyone with a ticket in first. As the plane filled, Kerri slipped over to the Icaro counter and got a bit insistent with the clerk, who said there wasn't anything she could do. A couple of people behind us in line were carefully counting the number of people checking in. There were 104 seats on the plane, and by the time they had everyone checked in, more than 90 people were already onboard, with a couple dozen either milling around or in line. We were about 8 people back in line, which momentarily made me think we'd be fine, but earlier a pushy man had told someone in front of us that a suitcase sitting in line was his. When the TAME folks started taking care of those in line, suddenly he was back with half a dozen relatives. The people milling around pushed right up to the counter, ignoring the fact that people had been patiently waiting in line for more than an hour.

Lines aren't sacred here. I've been cut in front of at the drug store and ticket windows. Unless you leave no room between yourself and the person being served, it's like you're not there. If you wait to let people get off a bus before boarding, you'll never get on, because so many people will have crowded in front of you. Perhaps it's about personal space, and they honestly think that one foot of space means you're just standing there for some other reason. I've never been asked, "are you in line?" as you often are in the States. More likely though, everyone just knows that they have to take care of themselves.

So I quickly realized we had to be pushy ourselves, even though I already felt like it was too late. We quickly pushed our bags up to the front and tried to get the clerk's attention. Everyone was yelling. The woman next to us was waving money in the air. Fortunately, the woman from Icaro had made her way behind the TAME counter. Apparently she didn't want to deal with irate Americans who would insist on a free hotel room. She reached over, grabbed our tickets and passports and put them right in front of one of the clerks frantically entering people into the computer.

She told us there was only one seat left. My heart sunk. Kerri started raising her voice, and our clerk said something to the guy working the other station. With them both checking people in, they couldn't tell if there were seats left or not. But then, she put labels on our bags and handed us our passports and two tickets, numbered 104 and 105. We hurried to the security station. When I walked through the metal detector, the alarm went off. This didn't lead to me getting patted down and chemically tested--they just told me to check my pockets, set my phone on the table, and walk through again, the way it was at home in "the old days." We were the last ones to walk out to the plane.

Even as I climbed the stairs, I wasn't confident we'd really made it till I was sitting in my seat, and they closed the cabin door. We rolled down a crazily steep taxi-way to the runway, which, rather than running down the valley, was aimed right at the canyon walls. We took off into the sunset, and an hour later we were collecting our bags and jumping into a car that wasn't a taxi, just a car with the window rolled down and the driver yelling "taxi!" to people like us, waiting on the curb.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

New Fruit (#7)

Every once in a while I see these little fruits being sold on the street, and the other day I bought a bag. I asked the guy what they were called, had him repeat it twice, and said it to him myself. I swore it sounded like GRUCILLA, but I am unable to find anything online resembling that name. Not rucilla, brusia, jucilla... nada. So I have no idea what they are. Unfortunately, they were past their prime, so I only tasted a couple. Only about the size of a dime, they're sort of hexagonal when viewed from the top. They contain a large seed doesn't cleanly separate from the fruit. The texture is really apple-like, crunchy and juicy, and they taste a lot like an apple too, except very sour. The guy selling them asked me if I wanted salt, but they definitely would need sugar to be enjoyable.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Who do you trust on the road to paradise?

Kerri and I got the Cuenca early in the week, so the town wasn't really hopping. One night, we stopped by a bar near our hostal for a couple drinks. The music was good, but there was American football playing on the big-screen TV. There were only a few customers, all up in the loft, but the two bar-tenders, who looked to be about 16, had several friends hanging around. They kept going into the back room. A few nose-rubs as they exited led us to speculate that they were doing coke. I'd earlier commented on how kids in Ecuador, unlike in the US, are given full responsibility for shops, and everything works out fine. But this made me wonder how wise it was to leave a couple of teenage boys in charge of a bar.

Two days later, when we were in the bus station, our bar tender came up to us and started chatting. I recognized him, but Kerri didn't remember him. His name was Manuel. He asked where we were going, and when we told him, he said that's where he was going too--it was his home town. He'd take the same bus. On the bus, he sat across the aisle from us, showed us a picture of his 3-year-old daughter, and said he'd stayed up all night, but he was chipper and awake. I wonder why. He made me a little bit nervous. When we got to Loja four hours later, where we'd need to catch another bus, he stuck with us and told us he knew a faster, cheaper way to get to Vilcabamba. We could go with him. We'd take a local taxi to a different shared taxi company that would take us the rest of the way for about a dollar.

Since getting robbed, I've been a bit jumpier. Someone taps me on the shoulder to ask me a question, and my heart starts racing. I've heard stories about people getting in taxis in Latin America (not Ecuador in particular) and being driven to a dangerous slum or the middle of nowhere to be robbed, beaten, or worse. So I kind of just wanted to follow the guide-book's directions. He motioned to a taxi, and Kerri and I looked at each other and quickly and quietly discussed whether this was one of those things you shouldn't do. Against our better judgment, we got in the taxi, perhaps just to avoid the awkwardness of saying no. I rode nervously, trying to tell myself that it was a real taxi, he'd picked it at random, but then wondering if it was all an elaborate set-up. I had no idea where we were going. It didn't seem right. I quietly slipped my credit cards out of my wallet and snuck them into my underwear.

When we pulled into the taxi depot rather than somewhere dangerously deserted and out-of-the-way, I was relieved, but still wary. We got in the next taxi and waited for more passengers. When they squeezed two young women into the front seat, I started to feel better. We drove through the spectacular hilly countryside listening to a soccer game on the radio.

Manuel told us about Vilcabamba, suggested places to stay. The main theme was that we shouldn't pay too much. There were plenty of businesses overcharging tourists. I partially agreed with him. It's frustrating to know or suspect that you're being charged more for the exact same product or service, just because you're a tourist. But he also didn't seem to see why you would pay more than the average Ecuadorian price for something that was genuinely nicer. He discouraged us from staying at Madre Tierra because of how expensive it was. But we went there anyway, and thought it was completely worth it. From the perspective of an American tourist, the price wasn't a rip-off, it was a deal. The same accommodations would cost ten times as much in the US.

When we arrived in Vilcabamba, he walked down the sidewalk with us, and I wondered if we'd be hanging out with him our whole stay. But he had to go find his girlfriend and catch another bus to go right back to Cuenca. Before leaving, he told us to pay no more than a dollar for a taxi, and told a couple of other locals to help us recognize the right taxi and to send it in the right direction.

It turned out that, sketchy coked-up teenager or not, he wasn't out to get us. It probably did speed up his trip to have us get in the shared taxi with him, so it would fill up and leave sooner, but his real motivation seemed to be that he just wanted to be friendly. He liked talking to us, and, glowingly proud of his native land like most Ecuadorians, wanted us to enjoy his home town and his country. Despite the frustrating aspects of Latino culture--the machismo, corruption, and petty crime--being friendly and helpful is also a big part of South American life, and, along with the natural beauty, it makes traveling and living here a pleasure.

Thursday, November 22, 2007


We have arrived at a lovely resort and spa in the Valley of Longevity, where people supposedly live longer than anywhere else on Earth. The owner, who greeted us with a hug and a "welcome home," tells us we're surrounded by "negative ions," which apparently are a good thing. Everything is "magnified" here, which we have decided applies to the popcorn, which is just about perfect. The owner also loves Dennis Kucinich, though she wishes he were stronger on the UFO issue. We were met at our room by a shamanic cat who, we're told, knows if you need to be healed and curls up on your lap to do so. There's been a gentle rain all morning, making the banana fields shine. I'm going to get a massage this afternoon, and Kerri's getting some other treatments, though we're both skipping the "colonic irrigation," which the shamans of the world come here for. They'll be serving Thanksgiving dinner for the benefit of the Americans tonight. It's an incredibly relaxing, if slightly kooky, place to spend the holiday.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Bus Music

Kerri and I took a 10-hour bus ride to Cuenca yesterday. Normally, I´m entertained by the always-blasting South American music, at least till I´m ready to sleep. Yesterday, the speaker right across from me was blown and sounded, at best, like a radio not tuned properly to a station. The guy in front of me dealt with this annoyance by pulling out a pocket music player with a tiny speaker instead of headphones, so I had to listen to two unlistenable music selections at the same time. I asked the conductor to turn the music off, and he did, but he turned it back on after an hour. I tried to endure for about half an hour, but then got up, started feeling around, and realized I could unplug the speaker. The music went off, nobody seemed to mind, and the rest of the trip was relatively peaceful, at least for an over-filled bus barreling down curvy roads through the Andes. Happily, we´ve found a hip, tranquilo hostal with a cafe/bar and are going to try to find hot springs tomorrow.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Side Trip

My friend Kerri arrived Friday for her Thanksgiving Vacation. We're about to head to the bus station to find a bus to Cuenca. Be back by the end of the week.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Miguel's Take: Children, Tourists, and the Peruvian Economy

Cusco, Peru, is a beautiful old town of tile-roofed buildings. The oldest, narrowest streets are lined with imposing walls of perfectly cut stone, fit together by the Incas without mortar, still serving as the foundations for buildings. It's also a city filled with tourists and locals scurrying to profit off of their rich, western guests.

One afternoon while visiting, I had a rather unpleasant experience that I couldn't get out of my mind.
I was walking down a famous stone-lined street, Hatun Rumyoc, and saw a boy of maybe 12 trying to sell a European woman postcards or something. I had my camera out to take pictures of the impressive Inca stonework a few minutes later, when he came up and asked if I wanted to know which was the most famous stone, the one with 12 corners.
He introduced himself as Miquel, and when he told me he'd show me the rocks arranged like a jaguar around the corner, I knew I'd be obliged to tip him for showing me around.

After we got around to the other side of the block, where there were a couple of girls dressed up with a lamb to photograph, the tour was up and he pulled out his deck of paintings, little watercolors mounted on white greeting cards that he said he'd painted, though they were clearly not done by a 12 year old. I looked through them and asked how much. "Three for ten dollars," he said. There wasn't anything that interested me, certainly nothing that I'd want to fuss about keeping flat for the next three weeks. I told him I wouldn't be able to keep them safe, but thanked him for the tour and offered him a five-sole coin--about $1.70--for his 10-minute tour. He got persistent and said I needed to pay him by buying three of his paintings. When I declined, he said, "Five soles isn't enough, you should pay ten." When he started to argue, I told him to take it or leave it, that it was good money for ten minutes work. He replied, "It isn't a good tip. The boys in the street have to pay for their school," but he finally let me put the coin in his hand, mumbling, "In your country..." and left me feeling like crap instead of glad I'd met him, as I had just a minute earlier.

Now maybe I was being a stingy American, but from my point of view, there are a number of things wrong with this situation. First, he was working for a tip. He didn't show me that he even had paintings until after the "tour." Why should I suddenly be obliged to buy something when he'd been showing me around? The nature of a tip is that it's a bonus. Yes, it's sort of expected in that situation, though many tourists don't realize it until the hand has been stuck out--they think the locals are just being friendly until they realize it's all about money. If he'd wanted to negotiate a price, he should have done so ahead of time (just as I've learned it's necessary to do with South American taxi drivers.)

Perhaps I should have been more generous and pulled out ten soles to start with. In Ecuador I would have grabbed a one-dollar coin--even less. Considering that my college-educated Spanish tutors get paid $3 for an hour of teaching, that a half-hour taxi ride is $3.50 and that has to cover gas and car maintainance, what I gave him really seemed adequate when I initially pulled it out. So why didn't he think so?

Maybe he was being totally honest in saying that twice as much would be a good tip. Maybe that's what the average American or European traveler (on a bigger budget than me) gives. In which case, if the money's so easy, why not grab the small tip and scramble on to the next "client?" The thing is, I doubt it's so easy. Having "worked the street" in prosperous San Francisco, fund-raising for the Democrats in the 2004 election, I know that most of your time is spent either trying to get people to talk to you, or giving the spiel unsuccessfully. In his mind, Miguel must be thinking about the whole afternoon, the amount he brings in compared with how long he's out trying, while I think about only the ten minutes he spent talking to me. As a business, you do have to bring in enough money to make up for the down time, but if you have a lot of time without customers, you can't just charge the customers you do get extra to make up for what the missing customers would have paid.

My first reaction was that 12-year-old Miguel had a rather entitled attitude. By American standards, he's in no way privileged, but living in the tourist center of western--if not all of--South America, he's got a level of opportunity that few kids on the continent have. Riding the train across Ecuador, I saw little kids fighting viciously for the candies tossed their way by well-intentioned passengers. Hundreds of kids as young as four wander the squares of Quito trying to get you to let them shine your shoes for a quarter or 50 cents.

It raises a moral quandary. I think many Americans see the childhood poverty and feel guilty, or at least self-conscious. They probably do give bigger tips than they would if they were thinking about it as a business transaction. They think of themselves as being generous, not getting a good deal. What they're really paying for is to have their consciences appeased, not just for a good or service. Miguel, apparently, had picked up on this guilt, but the other side of it. He experiences it as entitlement. He doesn't just perceive an injustice, but has discerned that he deserves to be compensated. Maybe that's the case, but if so, the remedy isn't small reparations in the guise of business. A few dollars here and there does nothing to eradicate the poverty that pervades Latin America and much of the rest of the world (despite a few dollars being pretty significant when your family only makes $100 a month.)

The problem is that this "generosity" is supporting child labor. In fact, it probably encourages adults to send their kids into the streets before themselves because the "cute factor" is certainly profitable. If we saw elementary school kids bagging groceries, paid only in tips, in the U.S., we wouldn't tip them day after day; we'd report it to the authorities. Here thousands of kids are being exploited and we, western tourists who wouldn't tolerate it in our own countries, cough up the money that makes the exploitation viable.

Perhaps, though, young workers are inevitable. Miguel may need to be selling cards and giving tours, and, all things considered, it could be much worse. He's not in a sweat shop, and he's practicing his English and people skills. I can't blame him too much for going about business so badly, since the people in this part of South America, and Cusco in particular, don't get how to do business, especially given that their most profitable customers are Americans and Europeans.

One common job is being a tour guide, what Miguel was trying his hand at as a tactic for his real art-dealing job. In the United States, it's pretty unheard of to hire a personal guide to show you around. But here, it's cheap enough that I sometimes do it. Paying $20 each, along with 3 others, to have a couple of local guides take us overnight into the jungle was absolutely worth it. In Cusco though, Miguel's strategy seems pretty common. Men come up to you and just start talking, following you. They're hard to shake without being rude, and expect to be paid if you let them continue. Perhaps it's a profitable strategy for the individual, but I don't think it helps the economy of the town as a whole. I imagine that when people feel continually hassled, they're less likely to open their wallets in general. I certainly was. I appreciated that at the entry to one of the ruins I visited, they asked if I'd like a guide, and then, when I did say, "no thank you" it was no problem.

A similar strategy is employed by restaurants, where someone stands outside trying to get you to come in. I just feel hounded, and it causes me to walk quickly by places I would otherwise want to peek in and check out. This may be more of a cultural difference, but for me, I'd rather check out the menu without feeling pressured. So many stores, restaurants, and bars have tiny entrances and dark interiors that make you commit to entering before you can even find out if they sell anything you'd be interested in. Some big windows or a wide door would be a lot more effective than someone blocking the door and barking at you.

Even once inside an otherwise spacious store, the counter-productive pressure continues. I've gone into several department stores and had women follow me, standing right by or behind me as I tried to figure out what underwear would fit me without sizes in inches. I was inevitably made uncomfortable enough to walk out empty-handed. I suppose if you grow up with it, you see it as service, but in a tourist town, it would be indispensible for business owners, chambers of commerce, and tourist bureaus to understand that Americans are used to going into stores, even upscale department stores, and having to search for someone to serve them. It doesn't take much more than someone standing back, available, to make them feel like they're getting the kind of great service that makes them spread money freely. But it also doesn't take much more than that to make your customers feel uncomfortable, in which case they'll just want to leave.

There certainly are cultural differences, but I wonder if some of these lessons that I know apply to Americans would actually make good business sense anywhere. Isn't a store that you can see into with room to move around freely in going to be more inviting anywhere because of basic human psychology? For customers to come in and spend, they need to feel safe and comfortable. (Maslow's hierarchy of needs?) Very few small-scale businesses in South America seem to have figured out how to do this. I suspect one of the reasons American business is so successful--and American businesses do so well here in South America--is that the buildings are designed and staff trained to be inviting. McDonald's is successful all over the world, and though the menu changes a bit (rice as a side, ciabatta buns,) the walls are always mostly glass. Even if you've never been to McDonald's, you don't have to go inside to know what it's going to be like. Every U.S. chain is like this, open to the street, with staff waiting back or off to the side, encouraging you to come in and browse, no obligation, and as a result, we spend money on things we really don't need at stores that don't seem desperate for our business--the complete opposite of Calle Procurdores, the street full of restaurants I walked down the evening I met Miguel. I was half-looking for dinner, but felt so hassled that I skipped dinner and never walked down the street again.

It's sad, because they're desperate for business--the market over-saturated, but the costs so low that the tiniest profit makes staying open worth it--and they could get more business by working less hard for it, though perhaps it's something everyone would have to agree on. A quiet restaurant with just a menu might not be noticed, and sitting empty, wouldn't attract more customers.

At the same time, there are high-pressure sales people in the US--think car dealers. It must be an effective strategy sometimes. They won't let you leave without a car. But I know that this strategy convinced me not to buy a Hyundai and to pick the Toyota I now own instead. I also bet those places don't get a lot of repeat customers, since many must leave the transaction not feeling good about it. Maybe in a tourist town saturated with indistinguishable vendors, return business isn't very important--it's now or never.

Thus with Miguel. What did he have to lose by pushing me for a couple dollars more, even if it meant making me feel like a jerk whether it worked or not. The only thing was, it wasn't a calculated strategy for him. He was a kid and clearly emotionally invested in every sol. It was obvious that he walked away from me feeling jilted just as much as I did. When you're doing capitalism right, that doesn't happen.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Huevos Escalfados

Tonight, I just needed a quick dinner, and I had some ramen lying around for just such an emergency. I decided I had enough energy to spice it up a tiny bit, so I threw some sliced onion, soy sauce, and racist hot sauce in the water along with the noodles and "vegetable flavor packet." I also decided an egg floating on top might be nice, like you see in the Asian cookbooks in the soup section, or modeled in plastic in front of a Japanese restaurant. I broke an egg into the cooking noodles, but it sank right to the bottom. Three minutes later, when I gave it a stir, lo and behold, I found a perfectly poached egg right in the middle.

A poached egg...that mythical way of cooking an egg that everyone knows about but no one has ever actually seen. When I was taking spanish lessons, I asked my teacher to teach me the names for all the ways to cook an egg, so I wouldn't be stuck eating the default scrambledhuevos revueltos (revolted? returned?) every time I went out to get breakfast. As it turns out, here they have three levels of boiled eggs, not just hard and soft. Instead of soft, you can get either tibios which means "warm" and is barely cooked and runny, or pasados--"past", which is a little bit more cooked than soft-boiled--the white is solid, along with a little bit of the yolk, but the center is still runny. These are perfect to my taste. But, anyway, my teacher had no idea what a poached egg was. I wondered if perhaps they weren't possible up here where the water boils at 196 degrees. Apparently it's not a problem. I made one by accident--no whirlpool involved. Perhaps now I'll have to try without the noodles.

Phoo phee phoo phee

Since I was a kid, my immediate family had a little tune of four notes that we whistled to get each other's attention. This "family whistle" was particularly useful in crowds. Mom might be looking around, not seeing me, and I could whistle, letting her know which way to look, without yelling, "Hey MOM!" We could also find each other in the grocery store without looking down every single aisle, and again, without obnoxiously shouting.

In decades, I've never come across anyone else whose family does this. Until I was at Machu Picchu.
I was coming down Wayna Picchu, the big mountain that's always in the background of photos of the ruins, and overheard a guy telling the rest of his group "...'s our family whistle," after which he blew out his family's four notes. A girl commented on how easy it was to hear, then they got too far away to make out. I was so excited to find out that it wasn't just us, it was a phenomenon. If I'd stumbled on one other family whistle, there must be even more. I pulled out my phone and recorded myself whistling the notes so I wouldn't forget. I just found that recording (along with the horrible-quality sounds of street vendors, a kid begging on the bus, and the mating calls of blue-footed boobies) and it reminded me to investigate.

So how many more families are out there with their own family whistles? I just did a Google search, and found almost 2000 references. Many refer to a Holocaust memoir titled "The Family Whistle." Knowing how my family uses its whistle to locate each other, I can only imagine that its role in this book is gut-wrenching.

But there are many happier references too. Someone mentions in a forum about family words that just about every family in Mexico has a whistle. A blogger stumbled upon the concept in Target and isn't sure what to think. A columnist reminisces on the lost tradition. The BBC even has a page with recordings of half a dozen such whistles. (Though I don't have room for Real Player on this old computer, so I haven't listened.)

I'm tempted to speculate, as I find others have, that cell phones have probably replaced this tradition, but haven't you been talking to someone by phone who was in view, but couldn't figure out where you were? Wouldn't a quick whistle be simpler?

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

New Fruit (#6)

The little, oblong GUAYABA, known as guava in English, is non-descript green on the outside, but, cut open, it's surprisingly between watermelon-pink and salmon on the inside. It smells of pumpkin and grass, with a fruity tang, very summery, like sitting in a garden or stomping through a cornfield.

(photo courtesy of Wikimedia)

The delight diminishes once I start scooping it into my mouth. The center pulp, with little, tomatoey-looking seeds has a strange smooth feel, slippery and gummy at the same time, textureless, if that's possible. The seeds are incredibly hard. I cannot crush them with my teeth. I scoop this part out--not worth eating. Perhaps it could be blended and strained for juice. This leaves about a third of an inch of fruit inside the thin rind. This part is mealier, a little less sweet, slightly bitter, and dominated by those earthy green aromas. Maybe because of it's happy color, I can imagine it being better in a sorbet, lightened, sweetened, and tanged up with lemon, than fresh.

The peel, I've read, is edible, and it has a totally different flavor, perhaps better than the inside. It's a bit bitter, but dominated by a piney taste, with an aroma of frankincense. Maybe not the best flavors for a fruit, but definitely distinct. Overall, it's in no way a disgusting a food; I'd eat a little of it if it was on my plate, but I don't really understand why this fruit, which wasn't dirt cheap in the supermercado, makes its way into all sorts of "tropical" beverages in the States. There are definitely much better fruits being totally ignored.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Ants in Transit

There's an ant highway passing through my apartment. Little black ants enter from the light well through a crack on the side of my bedroom window. They cross the window sill, go down the wall and out the door, and follow the bottom of the wall through the living area to the kitchen, where they cross the room along the seam between the wood and tile floor, run along another short wall and go out the door. Outside, they climb up the edge of the door, across the wall and the top of my kitchen window, and through a window into the neighboring apartment.

The traffic goes both ways, and at any given time there must be a thousand ants in my apartment, but they're just passing through and don't seem to have any interest in what's going on here, so I leave them be. There was another route in my bathroom, coming out of a hole in the wall and heading to my wet sink where they'd drink. I tried to wash off their chemical path and even sprayed some insect repellant on the wall, but as soon as it dried, they found their exact same path again, so I gave up. But when I came back from traveling for a month, the water had dried up and they'd gone. Now I'm just left with the one ant highway and the question of where the heck they're all going.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Under Communism...

I was in the middle of nowhere, Bolivia in a small llama-raising town called San Juan, at least eight hours from the nearest paved road on a three-day 4WD tour of the rural southwest corner of Bolivia, a desolate land of volcanos and desert, mummies in exposed graves, salt lakes full of flamingos, grazing llamas, and, often in places where it seemed there was nothing to graze on, the llama's wild cousin, vicuñas. My traveling companions were five Polish kids in their mid and late 20s, along with our driver and guide, and our cook. The Polish kids all enjoyed traveling and working in the US, apparently on some kind of "study" visa that lets you work as a way to learn. They'd all spent time in Alaska and had visited San Francisco, and three of them had worked in Hatteras, North Carolina, where my family vacations every summer. One of them even knew Asheville, where my brother and sister-in-law live.

I wasn't thrilled at first that I ended up in a group of non-English, non-Spanish speakers, and it was mostly Polish for the first day. But that night, in the dining room of our very modest mud-brick hotel, we had a nice dinner talking, in English, about travel, politics, and language.

What was interesting was that they were just old enough to remember Communism from childhood. I got to hear stories that seemed half horror, half nostalgia, about having money, but nothing to buy, having to wait in line with mom with their siblings so each person could get a ration of coffee, sugar, or butter ("...I don't remember butter," one of them added.)

I already catch myself saying, "when I was a kid..." but these guys' children and grandchildren are going to be in for a lot of "under Communism..." stories. The second night, they shared more memories. They remembered loving cotton candy, which was available from "someone important," someone who had the connections to get his hands on a machine to make it--a rare person who had a business. For each of them it was someone different, but whoever he was, he set up in front of church on Sunday mornings.

This led them to reminiscing about the standard first communion present--a set consisting of a calculator, a watch, and a pen. For those a few years older, it had just been a watch, but one that played tunes--American songs. At school the next day everyone would compare how many songs their watch played--10, 12, 20.

They remembered going to the house of the one person who had a VCR, who charged admission like a theater (another rare business opportunity), to watch the Karate Kid or Rambo.

And they made me try a spoonful of powdered dry milk--a clearly nostalgic treat from when there was no candy available. It was gummy and kind of gross till all that was left was the rich aftertaste. For them, now, this is a treat, because it was back then. They offered me more, but I declined. As they took second and third spoonfuls, I couldn't help but exclaim, "Now I understand Communism!"


Hot Showers

In South America, they don't usually use the typical American hot water heater that keeps a big tank of water hot and ready-to-go at all times. In fact, when checking into a hotel, it's wise to ask whether they have hot water at all and whether it's available all the time. Sometimes it's only available in the evening. When there is hot water, if it's not heated by the sun, it's usually provided by some type of on-demand device that heats the water immediately before spraying it on you. It's probably more energy efficient, but one disadvantage of this method is that hot water and high pressure are incompatible. The faster the water flowes through the heater, the less it gets heated. You control the temperature by changing the pressure, so if you want a really hot shower, it has to be a trickle.

Sometimes this system is a box with a gas burner in it located somewhere near the shower. You can hear the flames kick on when you turn the water on. But other times it's an electrical device that's integrated into the shower head. Here's the one in my otherwise very ritzy $7 hotel room in Copacabana:
I hate these things. They rarely work as they should, and this one was no exception. Here's what it looked like by the time I actually was able to take a hot shower:
Looks dangerous, doesn't it. Fortunately, I didn't get electrocuted...this time. As often as not, when I use one of these contraptions, it's messed up somehow, and I do. And since they're used where the voltage is 240v, it's even less fun than being electrocuted in America. In Brazil I encountered one with the plastic caps covering the switches missing. The switches themselves were metal, and when I tried to switch it from luke-warm to hot...zap! Another one in Brazil was made entirely of metal, and when I lifted my arm over my head, I inadvertantly touched it and...zap! In La Paz I went into a shower and turned the metal faucet handle on the wall and got zapped. Instead of fixing the faulty grounding, they'd taped the handles, which only lessened the shock.

Fortunately, in my apartment building, there seems to be a real water heater. It must be far away from my bathroom, because it takes a couple minutes for the warm water to arrive, and at least five for all the pipes to warm up and the water to get really hot. But that's a small price to pay not to be electrocuted everyday.

Saturday, November 10, 2007


Even without the photos from Chile, I took about 1500 pictures of Peru and Bolivia. After three days, they are finally dealt with. I uploaded about a quarter of them to flickr, but to make it easy, I've picked some of the best and made five flickr sets of the main segments of my trip.

Cusco and Machu Picchu, which were touristy, but spectacular
Lake Titicaca: peaceful, austere, and beautiful
La Paz, the bustling capital of Bolivia, and the most foreign city I've visited
The Word's Most Dangerous Road, which I road down on a bicycle
High Bolivian Desert, where seemingly endless salt flats are surrounded by volcanoes, steam vents, colored lakes, vicuñas, and flamingos


Foreign language menus are often entertaining when you travel. When I was in Aguas Calientes, I was talking with a restaurant owner. When he found out I was an English teacher, he offered me a little more wine to go over his menu with him. A frequent problem is that they translate "a la..." literally, so you get "spaghetti to the sailor" which is harder to figure out than the "espegueti a la marinera." His menu had one dish that had a particular local name that couldn't really be translated, and he wanted to describe the dish in English--Pork fried in its own fat. I tried to explain that you couldn't put that on the menu. It might be muy rico, but, while you can talk about fat and grease in the kitchen, it doesn't go on the menu in America.

But my favorite menu item was found in Bolivia, where a spicy dish of beef and hotdogs over fries with onions, peppers, and ketchup called "pique macho" is popular. The English side of the menu listed it as "Male itch (very hot) 30 bs."

Friday, November 9, 2007

New Fruit (#5)

Tried one new fruit in Santiago that I'd been curious about after seeing them in Ecuadorian markets, but never in the supermarket, where you get to see how the name is spelled. The CHIRIMOYA is a weird scaley-looking green fruit, a little smaller than a grapefruit. Inside are lots of big, unavoidable, but easy-to-deal-with seeds, like giant tan watermelon seeds or fat pumkin seeds. In the interest of science, I counted them. The first chirimoya I ate had 38 seeds, the second had 50!

The white flesh has a pear-like texture, only more fibrous, and softer, especially as they get riper. It smells of drying bread dough, but tastes sort of like a pear, sort of like a mango. The fruit is sweet and creamy, very summery, with a hint bubble gum. In your mouth, it feels satiny, like it could be the filling of a hostess pie, only fresh and unprocessed. Once swallowed, you're left with a light spicy clove aftertaste.

In English, apparently, it's called a "custard apple" (whatever it means for something to have a name where it doesn't exist), because the flesh, especially when very ripe, supposedly is like custard.

Thursday, November 8, 2007


Unfortunately, I don't have any pictures from Chile, and won't be able to share any more of my own pictures, since I lost my camera when I was robbed at gunpoint in Valparaíso, Chile. I've always sort of wondered how I would react in such a situation. Of course, I hoped I wouldn't get robbed, much less at gunpoint, but I knew it wasn't impossible. Even before traveling in South America, just living in San Francisco, or visiting other cities, I'd thought about what I'd do. I'd always imagined I'd be cooperative and concilliatory, anything not to get shot, but thinking about such hypothetical situations, which are about gut reaction, not logic, doesn't necessarily tell you much about what you'll really do. Now I know what I really do when I have a gun pointed at me.

(Photo by Alejandra Liode Luces)
The coastal city of Valparaíso is known for the counter-balanced cable cars, or ascensors, that have carried people up and down its steep hills for over 100 years. I went to find the Ascensor Polanco, recommended by my guide book, but it was closed.

(Photo by Francisco Martins)
So I decided to just walk up to the top, see the view, and from there to descend down a different nearby street. There weren't many people around, and I stopped to take a picture of a house with a girl sitting in front of it. Two guys a ways up the hill must have seen me, but I didn't really pay attention to them, I was more concerned with the girl not noticing me. I put my camera back in my backpack and continued down the steps. The two guys must have moved quickly, because I didn't realize they were right behind me. Suddenly, there was something poking me lightly in the side, and my backpack was yanked and literally ripped off my back. I knew without thinking what was happening, spun around, and grabbed my bag. The guy who had my bag in his left hand, pointed a very small hand gun at me with his right. I paused; maybe I loosened my grip. I kind of felt like the gun wasn't real, or that they weren't likely to use it. He'd barely touched my back with it initially, had relied on snatching my bag, not scaring me into giving it up. But I still froze, and having a better grip, he yanked it away from me, and started running up the steps with his accomplice. I realized it wasn't just my backpack, but my camera, and I started running after them, which is when I must have stomped on my heel.

I'd imagined getting robbed in a busy public place. Other travelers have described how one person distracted them in a crowd, and a second person grabbed their stuff. I'd scripted this part, and chased them around a corner screaming, "¡Socorro! ¡Me robó! ¡Ayudame!" They turned around, and pointed the gun at me again, which made me stall, but as soon as they started running again, I ran up the steps behind them. By the time I got to the next corner, though, my foot injury was slowing me down. They were nearly a block ahead of me, about to round the next corner. There was nobody ahead to hear me and stop them and I realized they'd have disappeared by the time I ran another block.

I'm surprised by the way I reacted. I was determined not to give up my bag without a fight. It's not that the gun didn't scare me. I was momentarily paralyzed when it was pointed right at me, and that was decisive. If they hadn't had a gun, they would have had to start beating me to make me give up the bag. With it, even if my foot hadn't been injured, it would have taken a good bit of luck and some other people reacting very quickly and fearlessly for them not to have gotten away. But when the gun wasn't directly threatening me, I wasn't inclined to give up. I've never thought of myself as a fighter, but I can be pretty determined, and I guess those two characteristics aren't so far apart. Still, I'd prefer not to find out how I react when fists start flying.

Once they were gone, I turned around and walked back and told the girl I'd been robbed. She'd certainly seen and heard it. She was locked out of her house and told me it was a dangerous neighborhood to be walking around in alone. Good to know. She gave me her name and the street name, but had no idea who the thieves were or where the police station was, so I started limping down the hill, not realizing how hurt I was. I made it to where there were people, and immediately a woman asked what was wrong. She later said I flinched when she tried to get me to lean on her. She helped me find a pay phone, called the police for me, and waited half an hour for them to arrive.

By that point I couldn't put any weight on my foot and they took me to the hospital, which was a dismal place. Since I was brought by the police, I managed to skip the waiting room and paper work, but it still took several hours to get an x-ray. My foot wasn't swollen--it wasn't a sprain, but the bottom of my heel hurt terribly. I was remembering my friend Diane, who broke her foot by stepping too hard on it and was laid up for months. I was pretty certain I'd be leaving Chile with a cast. When it was finally time for a doctor to look at the x-rays, they just wheeled me into the doorway of an eight-bed examining room. Standing 10 feet away, he held them up to the light, surrounded by other patients, and said there was no fracture, so I could go. No explanation of what the problem was, no pain killers, no crutches. With dozens of other people trying to get help--one guy with blood soaked pants dripping onto the floor and no one acting like his problem was urgent, others in handcuffs--I couldn't really demand more time, especially in Spanish. They gave me my x-ray and wheeled me to the police desk to make a statement.

Eventually I was taken to a police station, waited a while, and was given a slip that I was supposed to take to another office, who knows where, the next day, to pick up the official report. Knowing I had to get back to Santiago and be on a plane in less than 36 hours, I pushed and got someone to type it all up that night. Then I was on my own to get back to my hotel on the other side of town. I had to hobble a few blocks down to deserted main road, which seemed far sketchier than where I'd been robbed. I flagged down a taxi, but it was a 'colectivo,' a car that has a fixed route. Fortunately, the guy was willing to illegally put down his route sign and take me to my hostal, where I stayed up talking with some other travelers, finishing the bottle of Chilean wine I'd started the night before and drinking a couple more beers to ease the stress and pain.

The next day I had to get back to Santiago. I took a taxi to the bus terminal, but then had to limp through that station and the one in Santiago, as well as the Metro, with my big backpack. I quickly threw out my back, which was already out of whack from the previous day, and at one point had to lie down on the subway platform because my muscles were spasming. But on my own, I had no other choice really. I made it to the hostal, downed a bunch of ibuprofen, and drank another bottle of wine, which helped. The next morning, I hobbled through the Santiago, Lima, and Quito airports, where my friend Rebecca was nice enough to meet me. By the time I made it to my apartment, I'd pulled a muscle in my leg, and the problems had cascaded all the way up from the bottom of my foot to a nasty kink in my neck. But I'm home, and I have enough food around to stay put for a couple of days. Already my foot is feeling noticeably better. Hopefully by tomorrow, I'll be able to walk enough to go out and get some bread and eggs for breakfast. And while I'm resting, there are more tales to write about.