Monday, December 2, 2019

Colombia Part II: Jungle Jaunt

“Do you think we’re lost?” Margery asks. “Should we turn back?”
“I don’t know.” I pause to catch my breath. “We’ve already come so far.” The thought of retracing our steps back to the trailhead feels overwhelming, scrambling up and down rocky steep embankments, clinging to tree roots and vines. Are we even on the correct trail? I imagine my husband reading newspaper headlines: Two elderly gringas missing in Colombian jungle. He’d had his doubts about this solo trip of mine.
We weigh the evidence. “Trail sign said a forty-five minute walk,” says my friend. “It’s already been almost two hours.”
“I hear the ocean ahead,” I tell her, “but we don’t seem to be getting any closer.” The trail supposedly leads to a mirador, a lookout over the Caribbean. “Let’s go on. We must be getting close.” Overhead loud claps of thunder accompany advancing black clouds. Though we’re already wet from intermittent drizzles, this storm sounds more serious. “Let’s try to beat this storm.”

We’re somewhere in the jungle in Tayrona Park in Colombia’s Sierra Madre. Getting to know the Park was one of the main reasons I’d given to my friend, who has lived many years in nearby Cartagena, for my proposed trip to Colombia. I was so pleased she agreed to make this journey with me.
                Margery and I met during Peace Corps training in 1964 in Kansas City. She was then posted in southern Colombia, and I in Barranquilla on the Magdalena River near where it flows into the Caribbean. Over the years we lost contact, until attending a Peace Corps reunion there four years ago.
Petite, sprightly Margery, wearing a Yankees baseball cap and sturdy shoes, leads the way, clambering crab-like up the embankment. I follow, looking for footholds on the root-ridden, muddy bank, thankful for my trekking stick, which helps keep my weight off my left foot afflicted with painful plantar fasciitis. Did I mention I am wearing my old Keen sandals? We hadn’t decided on our destination when we took the bus this morning into Santa Marta so my trekking shoes rest undisturbed back at the house.
We come across another wooden sign relating in lofty words the sacred nature of the area for the now-extinct indigenous Tayrona people. “I wish they’d cut the poetry and just say how much further we must go,” I grumble.

Just when we think we’ve conquered the last of the arroyos, another appears around the bend. I groan and struggle to make my way up the opposite bank, holding out my trekking stick for Margery to give me a pull. My turquoise clam-digger pants are smeared with mud as I slip and slide. Back on flat ground, I lurch to rest on an inviting boulder, where I loosen my backpack and lean back to gaze at the lush canopy, dotted with wild-haired palm trees. 

A parade of leaf-cutter ants trails up a tree trunk. In the understory I recognize a kind of wild philodendron and huge birds’ nest ferns. Such peace in this spot with only birdsong to be heard.
A rustling sound in the leaves behind me startles me.
 “Look! Monkeys!” I point up into the waving branches where three red howler monkeys make their way. I briefly wonder if they’ll come closer. Are we in danger? But they show no interest in us.
The roar of the ocean sounds closer. A wooden sign with a red arrow indicates we’re on an official trail, though not the one we set out to follow.
“I see the thatched roof of the mirador!” cries Margery.
Heartened, we wend our way up the steps to the lookout atop a small hill. The sky is overcast, a shade lighter than the pewter sea. Below us, waves break against a dark, jagged coastline, occasionally broken by stretches of white sand.
We snap some photos, proof that we are here.

 Yet the question remains: how far to the trailhead? Just then a human being appears coming from the opposite direction. He’s young, barefoot and looks like he might speak English. He does. His name is Joe. He’s been travelling around South America and now plans to return to Maryland for Thanksgiving.
“How much further do we have to go?” We ask in unison. We describe our odyssey and our hike of two hours.
“It’s not far at all,” he reassures us. “If you want I’ll go with you. It’s flat most of the way.”
Words sweet to my ears.
We tell him that we’d been Peace Corps Volunteers here in Colombia over fifty years ago.
“I’m thinking about joining the Peace Corp,” he says. As we slosh through puddles in the trail (my sandals weren’t a bad choice after all), Margery and I tell him that it was a life-changing experience for us, influencing the future paths we’d follow. Our choice of the Peace Corps maybe is proof of our genetic need for new adventures.
At last. The trailhead. We bid adios to Joe, thanking him for his company and head to the highway to try to flag down a bus back to Santa Marta. Just then the sky opens and releases its deluge. My sandals are packed with mud, my hair pasted to my head, and it feels wonderful, though I would like to find a bathroom.
Margery and I decide we’ve earned medals for our accomplishment. And we’re just starting. Another day we plan a pilgrimage to Aracateca (alias Macondo), the birthplace of Colombia’s Nobel winner, Gabriel García Marquez, author “One Hundred Years of Solitude.”
A son called this my “eat, pray and love” trip. Perhaps it is.

Friday, November 22, 2019

Colombia - Part One - Nightmare

My Colombian trip does not begin well. In fact, as I hobble from one end of the Botgotá airport to the other end, I think, “This is a nightmare.”
I’d had my doubts about going ahead with this two week trip to the coast of Colombia,  that I’d been planning for months, but that was before I was afflicted with painful plantar fasciitis in my left foot. In spite of the exercises and a cortisone injection days before, the pain stubbornly persists. Ignoring the warning signs, I decide to take a chance. After all, plane tickets are bought and my friend, Margery in Cartagena, is expecting me.
An airline official calls out to the passengers as we descend the plane, “Cartagena? This way. Hurry.” She presses a sticker onto my blouse. “Go down this hall to Immigration.” Several of us rush down the corridor, but with the pain in my foot I can’t keep up with the others. I ask someone. “Imigración”?
Bogotá airport

            Al fondo, at the end” Is the answer.
Of course, I think, it would be al fondo.
A huge mass of passengers wait in the long curving lines at immigration. I ask an airline official, “Which line?” She directs me to the “preferential “line, somewhat shorter than the other lines. We crawl forward inches at a time. Finally, my number.
With the official stamps on my passport, I look about me. Now where? Signs are scarce. I ask a guard, “Which way to my Cartagena connection?”
He points in a general direction, “Al fondo, to the second floor, turn right and then al fondo.”
Al fondo rhymes with Macondo and the tune repeats itself in my head. Macondo, al fondo…to the catchy song celebrating the birthplace of Gabriel García Marquez, Nobel Colombian author of “One Hundred Years of Solitude.”
Al fondo

Now on the second floor, I again ask for directions to the gates for national flights. When I arrive at the security check line, I realize I do not have a boarding pass for this flight. I’m directed to an airline desk and step to the front of the line. “Excuse me but my flight is about to leave and I don’t have a boarding pass.”
                “What is your flight code?”
                “I don’t know.” I´d left my itinerary with all my flight information on my copy machine at home.  (I know. I could have entered the info on my cell phone.)
                Thank god for computers. They locate my information with my name and issue me a boarding pass. Will I make my connection? I imagine that this was the last flight to Cartagena tonight.
             I flash my boarding pass. “What gate number?” I ask.
“Eleven. Al fondo.” I want to scream.
I run along another very long corridor, looking at the gate numbers. 1,2,3,…where in the heck is eleven? Will I make it?

Finally. Gate eleven. Still open. I rush along the tunnel to the open door of the plane, where a smiling stewardess greets me. I tell her of my odyssey. “Everything in this airport,” I tell her, “is al fondo. I must have walked five kilometers the whole length of this airport,
She laughs and looks at my boarding pass. And laughs again. “Al fondo,” she says pointing to my seat at the back of the plane.

Friday, October 25, 2019

Musings of a Country Mouse in the City

 I emerge from the “Robin Williams” tunnel in California’s Marin County, and there she is: Mt. Tamalpais. The mountain that taught me how to love a mountain. Always there in my growing years and now, as I return for my yearly hometown visit, she is there to greet me. I’m home. Known in Miwok Indian lore as “the sleeping lady”, her curvaceous verdant slopes give life to fragrant redwood glens and hidden lakes, while her southern face descends to meet the Pacific Ocean.

Driving north to my hometown of San Anselmo, I’m comforted knowing that the mountain stays. Yes, there are changes in town – the row of decades-old elms along the Miracle Mile is gone to be replaced by a landscaped garden, the windows of a favorite shop are papered over, Phoenix Lake picnic ground, where we’d gather on summer evenings, has a new look. But the mountain stays, as does the lake rimmed with flowering tarweeds,

 the creek winding through town, my aging elementary school and the nearby hilltop seminary, whose grey stone walls are over a hundred years old.

I always go by my hillside family home. For as long as I can remember, a magnificent old eucalyptus tree grew on a bare lot across the road from our house. At night I loved the rustle of the wind through its leaves, the rhythmic call of its resident owl and its pungent scent after a rain. Some years ago the tree gave way to a multimillion-dollar home. I’m glad I wasn’t there when they took it down. The creek at the back of the lot, where I played as a child, now flows through large concrete pipes.

I’ve come from a Chilean spring to a California fall. There will always be seasons, I think. Or will there be? Seasons already are undergoing change. On a drive to the coast with friends, I delight in the first fall colors and the tangy scent of centuries-old redwoods.

 We stop and walk along a dirt lane, marveling at how the sunlight illuminates each dappled leaf of the mixed forest– a palette of greens and burnished yellows. Then we return to the road and wind through familiar, rounded hills before arriving at the Pacific Ocean. It hasn’t gone anywhere – yet.

I realize that my home county is unique – possessing unsurpassable natural beauty and a population which protects that legacy tenaciously. I have no doubt that, because I grew up here, I became a lover of landscapes. Now, surrounded by the trees and hills of my childhood, I turn to Barry Lopez’ book “Horizons.” His thoughts take hold of me, deepening my understanding of the natural world. I pull this thought-provoking thread from his writings: “Whatever one finds in front of her at the moment, is what the given situation is. …The pristine landscape of a former time is no longer available….a person must make peace with that.”

I must make peace with living in the city of Santiago, my home for forty-seven years. I often recall Aesop’s fable “The Country Mouse and the City Mouse,” in which a proud city mouse, shocked at the meager meal offered to him by his country cousin, invites the cousin to visit the city. There the humble cousin, at first impressed by the bounty provided there, is terrified by the presence of humans and a prowling cat.  The little country mouse decides it is best to live with little and in peace than with abundance but in fear. I’ve always felt like a country mouse destined to live in the city.

Here, in Santiago, change is drastic and abrupt. Perhaps that is true of all Earth’s metropolitan areas that two-thirds of the world’s population will call home by 2050. My journey back home while reading Barry Lopez created a backdrop against which I view our modern society and its culture. I watch the lines of cars, swinging demolition balls and swaying yellow construction cranes as if from a distance, feeling I’m not a part of that.

 I am disturbed by many of the changes I’ve observed over the decades. Passing by a massive mall, I remember that there was once a tree-lined, tranquil field with grazing horses, a scene I’d enjoy on my way to my teaching job. The city is climbing into the foothills of the Andes. Cerro Alvarado, over which I’d spot eagles circling, is now weighted down by luxury condominiums.

Perhaps, because a city dweller is more removed from nature, she is less aware of the wonder of the natural world and of the interdependence of all living things (including Homo sapiens). Nature gives us lessons in harmonious living from which we city residents may draw, if only we’d pay attention. Countless species and their rich habitats have been lost due, not only to natural forces like climate change, but also to our lack of respect for and appreciation of them.

Santiago residents are demanding a voice in decisions affecting urban development. Our architects and city planners are recognizing errors of the past, in which the quality of life was given little consideration. I’ve joined with others to protect our small neighborhood, where the corner fruit store and shoe repair shop can survive, where a park lies in within walking distance.

 With this sharpened awareness of what constitutes a more benevolent habitat and a more equal and humane distribution of resources, city inhabitants can live more dignified lives.

I’m reminded once more of Lopez’ wisdom: “It is impossible, biologically, truly to “restore” any landscape. Humans aren’t able to reverse the direction of evolution, to darn a landscape together.”

I am at peace with evolution but not with the mindless destruction we are imposing on Earth’s landscape.

Thursday, August 22, 2019

Cactus Lessons

Like a caged bird set free, I have escaped the grey, cement confines of the city. Below me spreads the overwhelming expanse of ocean, where at the foot of rocky cliffs waves break over and over and over again, their foam, like shreds of white lace, flying into the air, then receding.

Sea thoughts: from these briny depths the first fish with legs crawled forth onto the land. Mysterious. Infinite. 

These jutting cliffs separate land from sea. The land I stand on is dry, rocky, sandy. This is dry country. Cacti country. I am a visitor in a garden of an astounding variety of cactus and succulents: round, spiky, thorny, smooth, barrel shaped, broad leaves or lance-like; grey-greens and pale yellows; violet, yellow, blue blooms. Prickly beauty at home in this inhospitable landscape, vestiges from ancient times, testimonials to Nature’s adaptability to geographical and climatic change.

Two potted cacti in my garden are native echinopsis (also known as sea urchin or hedgehog cactus). They are very old, handed down to me from a son’s classmate who, supposedly, received them from an elderly woman. In warm weather they produce spectacular, but ephemeral, pink flowers, lasting only a day and a half.

Small potted succulents round out my cactus assemblage. I care for them for they remind me of their donors: my deceased father-in-law and friends - and of special places: cuttings from my childhood family garden.

Yet, I find the cacti family thriving in its native habitat more spectacular, its hardiness and adaptability more evident and wondrous. Lessons for us living in this drought-ridden country.

Monday, July 22, 2019

Reading the Earth

“Horizon”. An expansive, all-encompassing, promising word – and the title of the book I’m reading. The author, Barry Lopez, was recommended to me years ago by the man next to me on a flight from somewhere. I am pleased with my choice. In an autobiographical style, Lopez, a worldwide traveler and nature writer, relates how his interests developed from childhood into adulthood and then proceeds to take the reader to visit memorable places he’s traveled, searching for deeper truths to be found in those places.
I instantly relate to his habit of returning home with mementos from afar. In an earlier life I may have belonged to a hunter-gatherer tribe. When I’m out and about, I can’t resist depositing a unique rock, a seed pod or a feather into my pocket. Offerings from the Earth.
Here in my study a fossil poses on a shelf. Elongated and pointy, the gray-brown rock bears the reddish imprint of an ancient sea dollar. The design stood out in a vast windswept plain awash with marine fossils. Here it was not difficult to imagine that this Patagonian plain was once ocean floor pushed upwards over the millennium to form the Andean cordillera, the vertical column of South America. What an overwhelming thought to know that I was standing on geological history.
If I rustle through the papers in a drawer of my night table, I’ll come across the silky softness of an owl down feather, given to me years ago by the writing coach of a workshop at Los Parronales farm. I was the first to notice the owls there and whenever we return, people ask, “Have you seen the owls yet?” and we cross a field to scan the “owl trees.” The feather reminds me of the joyful companionship of those workshop days. Over the years, urban sprawl creeps closer to the farm.  Once those trees are felled to make way for factories, where will the owls find refuge?

A basket of rocks sits on my round oak table off the kitchen: a shiny black rough chunk of volcanic lava from Easter Island; a wafer-thin oval deposited on a beach by the retreating Marinelli Glacier; a pale grey pumice ball expelled from the Calbuco volcano and propelled by a river into a Patagonian lake; a sliver of shale plucked from the edge of Glen Alpine Creek in the California Sierras. As I hold each in my hand, I am reconnected with the place that prompted me to bring home a piece of that landscape.
I cannot walk a beach without “combing” it, alert to an offering from the sea, the origin of all. Shells in a variety of shapes and sizes: compact bivalves and smooth gastropods left on a sandy strand in Costa Rica or a pristine Galapagos beach, or a sand dollar found on a Monterey Bay shore. I think of shells as feminine. Plain or intricately designed, white exteriors with blushes of pale pink within. I wonder what creature once lived within. Did you tumble in with a crashing, booming wave? How far did you travel? Are you a descendent of the First Mollusk?

Image result for sand dollar

Being a transplant to this country, I’ve made an effort to learn to identify the native vegetation. My book of “Flora Silvestre de Chile, Zona Austral” (Native Chilean Vegetation, southern region) bulges with dried leaf specimens, each inserted into the species’ corresponding page. Not having grown up with these species, I need memory aides to take me back to treks through the lush temperate rainforests of Patagonia, inhabited by wild fuchsia, the ancient alerce and the Nothofagus families of trees, giant ferns, nalca (giant rhubarb) leaves (umbrellas for hidden frogs), the iconic araucaria (monkey puzzle tree). Like the rocks and the seashells, these trees are remnants of ancient times. My eyes follow the trunk of an alerce, up, up to its towering peak and I try to imagine what this landscape was like millennia ago when the tree first took root.
My mementos had their origins in the Earth. They tell an awe-inspiring story too huge to comprehend. I have them here in my city home so that I will never forget.

Sunday, June 16, 2019

Rainy Day Travel to the Past

This drought-ridden city has finally quenched its thirst. Rain! Beautiful, pitter-pattering rain. My sequoia tree is waving its fluffy branches in contentment. Clouds opened this morning to let the sun shine through onto freshly fallen snow on the cordillera, ringing the city with a gleaming white crown.

Temperatures have dropped. A perfect time for warm sweaters and socks and a good book. I’ve been re-reading “Anne of Green Gables,” recommended by my writing group to help me get a feel for the early 1900s. I have this crazy idea to write an historical novel….
The story hooks me. Who doesn’t want to know what happens to an orphan girl who has been passed from one foster home to another? Having watched the first excellent season of “Anne with an e” on Netlfix, the characters feel very real. I do find the book overly sentimental but it was written for the times. I relate to Anne’s deep love and appreciation for nature. Reading the book now feels like connecting with a simpler more innocent world. Though it might come across as “old-fashioned,” universal topics are woven throughout: men’s and women’s roles in marriage, women’s education, empathy, poetry, inner versus external beauty, the peace to be found in nature.
I probably read the book in the 1950’s so it didn’t feel terribly old-fashioned. In fact, as a young girl, I loved reading books set in the past. Some of the books had been my mother’s books: The Little Coronel Series, The Little Princess, Copperhead, Little Women, The Wizard of Oz.

I bought Spanish versions of “Anne of Green Gables” for my twin granddaughters. They’d seen the Netflix version which I hoped would motivate them to read it. But I wonder if a story set over 100 years ago appeals to adolescent girls now in this swirling world of cell phones, Instagram and social media. They might learn a great deal from Anne’s authenticity and faithfulness to her values. Values that will never grow old.

Friday, May 31, 2019

Our Little Miracle

She’s three weeks old today. The day Mila was born, I looked down at her tiny form swaddled in her mother’s arms and kept telling myself, “Just minutes old. A new life.” I had difficulty wrapping my mind around what seemed to me to be a miracle.
Mila is our fifth grandchild, but the first for our youngest son and his wife. Since she’s American and has no family nearby, we stepped in as substitute support until her parents arrived from New Jersey and have followed her pregnancy with close anticipation. Every night I expected the phone to ring announcing that they were on their way to the hospital, until one night a WhatsApp message arrived: “Contractions more frequent. We’re on our way!”
I remembered baby clothes stored for years in a wooden trunk – sweet, impractical dresses from my babyhood, an ivory, lacy bonnet that had donned my mother’s infant head. I washed and ironed them with care. Now they hang in Mila’s closet. Since they live nearby, I couldn’t keep myself away after her birth and stopped by just to gaze at her every day that first week. I also enjoy watching the wonder of my son and his wife as they get to know this brand new person they brought into the world.
One concern was how their two dogs would react to the baby. It’s been fascinating to watch. Mocha, a gangly, year-old adoptee, seems uninterested, though one day she did lick Mila’s ear. To me an animal’s lick signifies acceptance and caring. Little black Frida, their 3-year-old rescue dog, evolved from curiosity to a fierce protectiveness. She quickly picked up the signs from Mila’s parents that she is a loved new member of the family.
All this joy has a downside which I try not to dwell on. Our son took his time meeting the right woman and starting a family. I said to him, “It’s about time!” He answered, “Forty is the perfect age to be a dad.” But that makes us “old” grandparents. When our older son’s twin granddaughters were born thirteen years ago, I still had the energy and flexibility to “play” with them once they grew into the toddler stage. We’d crawl around our house chasing each other pretending we were wild animals. “I’m a fierce lion,” or “I’m a hungry shark!”
What can Mila and I play in a year or two? I tell myself to focus on today. Enjoy her first smiles, her sweet face as she sleeps, the soft skin of her tiny hands, and the cuddly outfits her mom dresses her with, each day a different one. And notice each little change for Mila changes every day.

Mila and Frida