Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Beats a poke in the eye...

For the second morning in a row Landon and I got up at 0-dark, 30 and made our way to an international airport.  The first time we left our good friends' house in Lima at 3:30, and after checking in the nice lady at the counter gave us passes to LAN Airline's VIP lounge.  There we feasted on an extensive continental breakfast buffet and then crashed until the last minute to board.  On board LAN again treated us to a very nice breakfast!  We arrived in Quito shortly after breakfast, in time for a long nap.  Neither of us were hungry.

This morning my brother-in-law German braved the pre-dawn traffic to get us to the airport.  By 4:10 the line was already 40 people outside the ribboned walkways to the counters.  We filled out immigration forms, we talked to people, we gave a late-comer American girl the sad news that the 20 people behind us formed the end of the line.  Landon bought us both humitas, a delicious, steamed Ecuadorian corn bread, and yoghurt for breakfast.  We watched a couple of men at the counter argue with the attendant for almost the whole time we stood in line.  After an hour we finally got to the desk.  No checked luggage, this should be a snap, and we'd just have time to clear security and immigration and get to our gate.  But...

The lady said something inane to us about vaccination forms for yellow fever.  What vaccination forms?  Oh, the little yellow International Vaccination Certificates?  Mine is in a file in Harker Heights, last entry was  in 1972, for--you guessed it--yellow fever!  Landon piped up, "I had mine two and a half years ago to come here to study, but I don't have the form with me either.  Does that count?"

"No," the lady replied firmly as she tore up our precious boarding passes. It was all on the website, and she was surprised that the travel agent hadn't told us, but there was absolutely no boarding from Ecuador for Honduras without a yellow fever vaccination dated at least 10 days before travel!  She said we could get the vaccinations today and ask that the date be listed 10 days before, and she would put us on tomorrow's flight.

Crestfallen, we walked away from the impatient line.  The girl who had been behind us was approaching the hope of a boarding pass after all and her seriously depressed face was beginning to show signs of hope that ours had lost.

I was suddenly ravenously hungry, and it seemed a bit unkind to reappear at my sister's house at 5:15 in the morning ringing the doorbell.  As we walked toward the one open restaurant in the airport a very thin young man with a scraggly beard said something to Landon I didn't hear.  His response was clear though, "Sure, how about if we buy you breakfast?"  So the three of us sat down and had omelets, his first.  Turned out he had finished his studies in classical guitar at a local conservatory, but struggles at home had driven him out last night into the street.  He had come to the airport looking for a place to be, and Landon's kind heart treated him to breakfast after what was most certainly a sleepless night.

On the phone German gave us instructions to a clinic where we could get our vaccinations, but first we should drop off our bags at the house.  With that intro back into the household we caught a few winks and headed out.  We found the clinic easily enough, and they were willing and able to give us the shots, but not the international vaccination certificate the airline needed.  We would have to go one of the Ministry of Health's clinics.

We arrived at the closest one without too much trouble, and found the room titled "Vaccinations."  A number of people were in a waiting room outside, enough that if all of them were waiting for vaccinations we were in for a very long wait.  However, they didn't seem to be, and after a young mother left with her children we walked in.  In about 90 seconds we had each got a poke in the arm and a certificate to take down to the end of the hall to get transferred to an International Vaccination Certificate.  Would she pre-date the paper?  Absolutely not, it would mess up her records at the end of the day.

At the end of the hall a dour young lady sat at a desk, about 6-months' pregnant.  I explained the situation to her, that we had flown in from Peru the day before and had run into this problem at the airport.  Could she please help us out?  Absolutely not, the certificates are dated when the shots are given.  D.....!

I went back to the vaccinations office, maybe they could do something.  But again the lady explained--very patiently, really--how it would mess up her records and she just could not do it.  OK, so I figured we've got the shots now, no turning back.  If nothing else maybe the airline can help, fly us into Panama on one day and into Honduras the next or something.  Back we went with heavy hearts to get our little yellow cards.  A line came out the door by now.

We waited patiently.  A lady took the place behind us, asked Landon to keep her place, and disappeared for a few minute before coming back.  Slowly, one by one, people were seen.  Finally it was our turn.  I walked in and the lady said, "Well, what have you decided?"  I told her we would take the cards and talk with the airline.  "Please sit down."  We gave her our identifying documents along with the certificates of vaccination from the nurse.  She began filling them out, then turned and picked up a desk calendar.  "Were you in Ecuador on the 8th?" she asked.

"No, but we were on the 4th."

"That's OK, they won't check.  I dated them for the 8th!"

I could have kissed her, except that I figured pushing my luck at this point might not be advisable.   We smiled broadly instead, paid our money, thanked her profusely, and headed back to the nurse's office.  Her assistant took the cards upstairs to be signed, and then we had to sign one more book for her.  As she filled out the preliminary stuff on the page she noticed the date on the cards, looked up and smiled.  "Ah, she did it for you, eh?"  I smiled and nodded back. We were at my sister's house by 10:30.

The internal records of the Ministry of Health reflect our date of vaccination as July 20th, but our cards, which are the only document the airline cares about, inexplicably one might say, bear the hand-written date of the 8th, complete with validating stamps and signatures. We will be on the plane tomorrow barring any other unforeseen adventures.

Ah, bureaucracy can be managed after all!

Monday, July 18, 2011

A Balanced Diet

In Argentina Landon noticed a sign in the local hospital that urged its readers to maintain a balanced diet.  It went on to explain that a balanced diet included a variety of meats like liver, kidney and heart and not just steak.

Landon's observation:  "Aha, in Argentina liver is a vegetable!"  Yes!!!!  I could so live here!

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Unexpected Joy

I did my study in Peru in downtown Lima at the Church of the Lord of Miracles.  It is a beautiful colonial church just blocks off the central square.  The story goes that the statue of the Virgin and Child in the church was saved miraculously from a devastating earthquake in the 19th century, and therefore the fame of the church.  People filed in and out of the Nave, crossing a small stone-paved courtyard as Mass was said.  To the side of the main Nave a small chapel housed a large crucifix.  People kneeled and prayed in that side chapel at their own discretion.

It was harder to get people to speak to us here, big city, more reservations among the people, and finally one young couple gave voice to what was for sure a common fear:  people thought we were selling something.  In contrast, a group of catechists were very open and eager to participate.  We finished our interviews in about 2 hours, and then I spent some time in the side chapel in prayer.

And there was where I discovered unexpected joy.  The same sense of God's presence on the páramo in Ecuador flooded my being, a powerful, tangible awareness of the presence of God, spiritual tingling of the soul, silly-yeet-not-shallow joy that comes from incredibly deep gratitude, I find it hard to craft words to fit the experience, but I would recognize it anywhere and any time.

It was a totally unexpected surprisie to find in the center of a bustling city what I thought was only to be found in the wilds.  I found out later that the location had been a place of spiritual pilgrimage for pre-Incan peoples more than 400 years before the Spanish.  Perhaps...


I went to church tonight.  With our host family we attended Our Lady of Charity Catholic Church in Lima.  It was an amazing experience.

First, I got there ahead enough of the service to ask the priest if I could take communion.  By technical canonical law I can't, not being Catholic, but often the local priest has some discretionary authority in how the law is applied.  As an Episcopal priest I had often gotten permission before in other Catholic churches, but one never knows.  The priest was almost surprised that I asked, and (in good Anglican fashion) left the decision up to me.  I had already decided, and I told him.

Second, I was surprised to see that every one of the readers was female.  I knew that Vatican II had opened the way for women to participate more fully in the services of the church, but this seemed almost overkill.

Third, the choir's average age was probably 30 at best.  Young people with guitars and drums led lively worship music, and the congregation sang enthusiastically.

Fourth, when it came time for communion there were three communion stations; the priest in the center aisle, a layman to the right, and a lay woman to the left.  I tell you, this parish has taken inclusion of women in the Catholic worship to new heights!

Fifth, about half the congregation took communion.  I had been accustomed to very low rates of communion in the Catholic church, a hang-over from Vatican I strictures.  Here, on the other hand, one would almost have thought oneself to be in a traditional Episcopal service!

And finally, at the door of the church an elderly priest in a long black cassock handed out candy and cookies from a large grocery bag to all the kids, the great dispenser of happiness among the children.  He did so with an open and happy face, obviously enjoying his job.  I had told him who I was ahead of time, and he repeatedly gave me a side-to-side hug of welcome.

One theme stood out unmistakenly:  they throw the door open to anyone and everyone.  Men, women, children, old, young, locals and strangers--even Episcopalians, all were welcome, and as many as possible were offered a share in active, public participation in the worship experience.  Talk about spiritual hospitality, they do it in spades!

Just the theme of my Sabbatical study, and in a totally unexpected place!

To Run or Not to Run

In Peru there is a falconer that lives about 3 hours' busride south of Lima.  If you dare ride with him you will pull into his 650-acre farm in about 2.  He will show you his and his fathers' collection of Peruvian Paso horses that he sells around the world.  You will see acres and acres of tangelos and asparagas bound for markets in Europe and North America.  And he will show you his falcons.  He has Peregrines and Aplomado falcons, as well as Harris' Hawks, Bat Falcons, Bicolored Hawks (like Cooper's Hawks in the US) and Merlin falcons.  He flies them, he breeds them and he loves them.

And he is given to extremes.  One of his extreme habits is to fly his Aplomado Falcons after Ornate Tinamous at 13,500 feet of elevation.  These birds are about the size of chukars, they range individually and in pairs throughout the high and dry Puna of central and southern Peruvian Andes.  We told him we wanted him to take us up there.  He agreed, because he is a gracious host, but I could see some misgiving in his eyes.

Jose Luis told us about a couple of Brazilians who came and could hardly get out of the car at that altitude.  He told us of some Colombians who barely managed 100 yards from the car without throwing up.  He suggested lower elevations where "there were hundreds of tinamou to chase," but we tenaciously clung to the highest prize.  The day came, we loaded up the birds and the dogs, and headed out.

He drove up the mountains like he drove from Lima, at breakneck speed, congratulating himself for making very good time.  On the way we saw Andean Geese and wild Vicuñas.  We arrived at the hunting area at about noon, and broke out the best of his Aplomado falcons and dogs.  We charged into the hills with Landon coerced into filming the action on his brand-new professional-grade video camera.

Bird after bird flew, and was duly chased in amazingly fast and agile flight by the falcon.  Bird after bird escaped, and the falcon began to get fatigued.  Soon she decided she had had enough and took to soaring up along the slopes, totally ignoring Jose's frantic efforts to recall her. She finally settled down on the brow of the hill, 500 feet above us.

A pair of wild Aplomados appeared soaring above her, and then the focus of the falconer's concern:  A Variable Hawk, a bird of prey about the size and power of our Red-Tailed Hawk, appeared.  These birds are entirely capable of killing and carrying off an unwary Aplomado Falcon.  We decided we had to climb after the bird, and we all charged up the hill, ignoring the searing lactic acid build-upn in our legs and burning oxygen-starved lungs.  Soon I was ahead of the pack, and a pair of Black-Chested Buzzard Eagles appeared.  They are half the size of a Golden Eagle and are the dominant avian predator of the Puna.  Jose calls them pirates.  He has lost four falcons to them over the years.

At first the eagles didn't have their eagle-eyes on the falcon, they chased the hawk around the sky with murderous intent until the trio disappeared in the distance.  Distance is deceiving, however, because they can easily cruise at 60 miles an hour, which means an eagle that is a mile away and out of sight can be onsight in 60 seconds.  I broke into a run up the ridge.

We got to the falcon OK, and began to hunt down the hill.  Finally, on the 10th try, the little falcon was successful.  We cheered her, we saluted one another, and we took lots of pictures.  Landon, in the mean time, had taken some truly excellent footage of flushes and chases, things that Jose will use in his upcoming video, with acknowledgment to the budding videographic skills of Landon.

We ran a pair of pointers and flew another falcon briefly, but by 5 p.m. Jose's knees were giving out, so we piled into the car for the ride home.  I noticed a new kind of openness in Jose's eyes.  He no longer warned us of the difficulties of high-altitude falconry.  He finally believed that the time we had spent in Ecuador on the páramo had prepared us well for his high-altitude adventure.

But that is not the point of this story.  At one point he asked if I was suffering because I was tired.  I pointed to the beautiful falcon on his glove, and then to the spectacular vistas surrounding us and said, "Look at this, look at all this!  I am not suffering in the least!"  Physical capacity not withstanding, if one were not open to the beauty around one would fail to enjoy it nonetheless.  Beauty has the capacity to energize the heart, and therefore energize the muscles.  There is truly a power in the eyes that gives life to the body, it's part of our ability to see God in the world around us.

No Trees

There's a great joke about a logging competition in the northwest that involved a tree-felling contest.  10 large logs were set up as trees, and 9 competitors with more hair growing out of their ears than most of us have on our heads signed up.  Each one felled a trunk in increasingly short times as the crowd yelled and screamed encouragement.  One trunk was left standing, and a wizzened old man stood forth from the crowd and claimed it. The judges were understandably concerned, and before they allowed him to proceed had him sign wavers of liability and warned him about possible complications, but he was resolute.  The whistle blew, and the old man's axe hit the log.  Chips flew and in record time the log fell to the ground. He had halved the time of his fastest competitor.  The crowd went wild, and as he came forward to claim his trophy the judges asked him, "That was amazing, old man.  Where did you learn to chop down trees?"

"Patagonia," the old man replied.

"There are no trees in Patagonia!" answered the judges.

"Not any more!" the old  man replied calmy.

Well, I an attest that there are trees in Patagonia, along the rich river bottoms of the Rio Negro.  Some of South America's best apples, pears and cherries are grown there, along with grapes for fine Argentinian wine.  Up on the open steppes, however, it looks a lot like Laredo Texas, where the highest shrub is hardly higher than your head.  World-famous Argentine beef is raised there, and any restaurant in the area will serve you up a delicious"asado," that will melt in your mouth but not on your fork.

But there are taller things in Patagonia.  One of them is the figure of Ceferino Namuncurá, young Mapuche Indian chief apparent, who became a devout Catholic.  The church shipped him off to Rome to study for the priesthood.  His wish was to return as a missionary to his own people, but illness cut him short in Rome and he returned in the form of ashes that are buried in the town of San Martin de los Andes.  Near his place of rearing, however, in the village of Chimpay, there is a shrine dedicated to his memory.  Like many shrines in Latin America, expressions of gratitude for miracles by his hand range from large, expensive plaques to grafitti scribbled on his statue's base.  People who live there come daily, others who drive through on the highway stop a moment to find peace and offer thanksgiving.

This is not an apparition of the Virgin Mother of God, interceding before the throne of her Son for her people.  Here is a man of unusual spiritual depth whose example inspires, and who, in good Latin American style, offers his standing before the throne of grace as an intermediary before God, much like a senator or congressman might achieve favors from Congress on behalf of their constituency, or even an appointment to West Point for an individual.

In his own way, and in the ways of this people, here is a man whose roots go deep and whose branches reach tall and wide for the people of God, a true tree of Patagonia that no one will ever chop down.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Holy Wind

The word for Spirit, especially the Spirit of God in both Greek and Hebrew is also the word for wind.  The ancient writers could have taken their inspiration from the high "páramo" of Ecuador.

The páramo east of Quito is an area I frequented as a teen.  It begins at 12,000 feet and goes up to 14,500.  (You don't count 14'ers in Ecuador, there are too many to matter.)  Further to the east the Amazon jungle generates copious quantitites of humidity, that is summarily wrung from the air as it cools on its way over the high passes.  400 inches of rain a year is standard, which means it normally rains multiple times a day, and the rain may very well come at you sideways as downwards.  The temperatures average in the high 40's, on a clear night it will freeze hard any night of the year.  It is high, cold, wet and windy.

And it is also one of the most bio-diverse places on the planet.  The highest hummingbirds live there, going into a dormant torpor overnight to survive the cold.  It is home to a small race of White-tailed deer, the Spectacled Bear (every bit as big and ornery as the North American Black Bear,) and the elusive Mountain Tapir.  If one is especially lucky one can see the magnificent Andean Condor soar by on wings as big as the mountains themselves.  Flowers peek up through the thick coarse grass, club-mosses 10 inches high paint the marshes in orange, dwarf forests of Polylepsis trees, draped in moss and epiphytes, choke the steeper gullies.  It is truly a magical place.

I found it magical in another very un-magical way when I was a kid and just the other day when I was there.  It is often in the margins of life that we most potently encounter the Holy.  The páramo drives one to the margins very quickly.  God was there, powerfully, unequivocally, driving through me like the rain in my face, filling my soul with such incredible gratitude and happiness such that tears are hardly avoidable--perhaps my small oblation to the God of Wind!

Considerate Drivers

We've been in Ecuador now for three weeks.  We've been to Our Lady of the Sacred Waters in Baños, to the high wet and windswept "páramo" east of Quito, the thermal hot springs of Papallacta, and to the idyllic beaches of northwest Ecuador.  We have lived and loved and laughed as family.  Throughout it all we have relied on either hired drivers or public transportation.

On first appearance the local traffic customs remind one eerily of Hatrry Potter's Night Bus.  Vehicles seem to go where they couldn't possibly fit, and people and objects magically get out of the way at the last minute.  Our son Leni made an interesting comment the other day.  He said drivers here are more considerate than in the US.  I think he's right.

Oh, there is certainly a lot of cutting people off, disregard for lanes and general mayhem out there, but in it all people generally give other drivers at least 12 inches of leeway, and if you really have to get in you roll your window down and wave your hand frantically--other drivers will let you in.  I never once heard a driver yell at another driver or even make a comment to me.  Everyone knows that everyone else is also trying to get somewhere, and if everyone gives a little bit everyone will get through.  Last minute decisions are part of life, and you just live with it.  What goes around comes around. if such an attitude could somehow seep through the doorframes and windows of the United Nations...