Friday, August 26, 2005

Climbing Tunari

So back to Bolivia again for a second.

Right before we left, we decided to climb Cerro Tunari. Now, the mountains that surround Cochabamba are for the most part wholly unspectacular. Certainly, they are not what you would expect of a city set at 8,000 feet in the Andes Mountains. For the most part, the hills look just like the East Bay hills that surround San Jose and Fremont, California. Imagine Mt. Hamilton. There is one exception, which is Cerro Tunari, rising up over 16,600 feet to its scraggly peak.

We arranged our trip through the excellent folks at Volunteer Bolivia. To get up and down in a day, you need to get an early start. So, we were to meet downtown at the VB offices at 6AM. We arranged with Lourdes to watch the kids all day, but when 6AM rolled around Lu was nowhere to be seen.

Megan and I decided to go find her, so we left a friend with the sleeping kids, and we walked up the hill to Lu's house. It was pretty cold outside, even though it was summer. Now, Lu, like most working class Bolivians, lives in a "compound" with various extended family members. The house is a series of rooms that surround a main courtyard where the cooking is done in an outdoor kitchen.

After banging on the door a few times, Toby, her enormous but harmless German Sheppard mix was howling up a storm. Finally this gruff 80-year-old guy -- Lu's husband Vlady's grandfather -- comes to the door. We can hear him clearing the night's phlem out of his throat as he approaches.

"Who is it?" he yells.

"Is Lourdes here?" asks Megan.

"Yeah, but she's sleeping. Come back around 9."

"Well, here's the thing," says Megan. "She is supposed to watch our two little kids this morning."

"She doesn't have two kids," says the grandfather. "She only has one and he isn't little."

"No, we have the two kids. And Lourdes was supposed to come to our house around 6. She must have overslept."

"Yeah, she is sleeping. Come back around 9."

This went on for a bit, until Megan could finally convince him to go wake Lu up. Grandpa goes around back and knocks on Lu's door.

"Lu, there are two gringos outside and they want you," he tells her.

"Oh crap," thinks Lu, realizing she has overslept. She throws some clothes on and runs out the door, flying past us as she heads for our house.

So, this was how the day of our climb started.

When we got to the VB office, there were a few assorted volunteer-types waiting for us. Luckily, they weren't too pissed that we kept everyone waiting. We all hopped in a chartered van and sped for the base of Tunari.

Well, you don't really climb from the base because it would take you three days and be really boring. You take a van up as far as the road goes and walk from there.

On the way up, we passed a lot of beautiful old adobe villages. Tons and TONS of llamas, often crowding the road. The road itself was a narrow little tract that climbed a steep canyon, with an enormous drop off and no guard rail. We spent a lot of time trying not to look out the window.

The Lonley Planet guidebook will tell you the climb is a peace of cake. Let me tell you, nothing is a piece of cake at 16,000 feet. It was murder. Well, for everyone but Megan, who is a freak of nature and scampered up the climb like a billy goat, leaving us all gasping for air. To rub it in, Megan talked the whole time.

"How can she talk so much," said one of our group. "I can't even f$%king breathe."

After an hour of lounging around on the summit, which is as close to the top of the world as I will ever get, we dragged our now wobbly legs back to the van. Lacking the energy on this one-coffee Friday to tell you all the details, here are a few shots from the trip.

Above: Our group gathers its strength as the van drops us off. It's going to be a long-ass way up that mountain.

Above: Here we are resting on our way up. I'm pretty sure there are 6 people on the verge of puking or dying, and Megan chatting away.

Above: Here is me, Meg and a friend resting on the summit, which is like 16,610 feet. That is freakin' high up there, let me tell you. We all agreed that it was one of the most beautiful, peaceful hours of our lives up there, though.

Above: On the way down we passed a little llama-herder's camp. It was pretty neat to see. Though, to be honest, I was pretty blown by this point and could barely stand up.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Back to Bolivia for a moment.

My buddy Osama is obsessed with cholitas, which are Bolivia's native, dark-skinned women with the two long pony tails, pleated skirts and bowler hats. In fact, Osama, who is Muslim, claims that he wants one as his second wife. The sticking point is that he needs the permission of his current wife, Christine, before he adds to the stable. And Christine isn’t too keen on sharing Osama. The Kommandant is fiery like that.

Every time we pass a cholita in the street, Osama will say in his clipped Pakistani accent, “Look at the strong legs on that one! She would be marvellous!” He will then goad me on, “Jim, I think you need a cholita too. We both should have cholitas!”

I mention this only because it tells you that any advice you get from Osama needs to be taken with a grain of salt.

Note: This photo has nothing to do with the story. It is just a nice picture of Christo, who sits on a hill overlooking our house. He is a bit over 33 meters high.

So for whatever reason, when it came time for us to have some dental work done, Megan asked Osama for advice. Now, we had originally been sceptical of Bolivian medical care, but after discovering that the medical care in the U.S. actually rates just 36th best in the world, behind Columbia and tied (tied!!) with Cuba, we figured what the hell. Plus it is dirt cheap to have stuff done down here.

“You must go to the fat lesbian,” was Osama’s advice. “I am a big baby when it comes to my teeth. I will only go to the fat lesbian.” Then he added, “But she is not a cholita, though.” To Osama the world is split into two camps: “cholita,” and “not cholita.”

Dr. Karin (turns out she does have a name) has an office in the Torres Sofer building, which is home to Cochabamba’s one and only high-end shopping center. It is something of a Tony address in an unquestionably un-Tony place. We always wonder who in such an impoverished place can (or would want to) buy Benetton clothes and $200 lighters. Probably the guys from immigration who have all my money.

We make appointments with Dr. Karin and on the day we show up, Megan decides to do a “twofer” and have the kids see their doctor, who also has an office in the Torres Sofer building. So, Meg checks us in and then disappears to take the kids for their physicals.

I’m sitting in the waiting room reading some Argentinean fashion magazine when the assistant calls me in for my cleaning. Nice office. It looks, to be honest, just like my dentist’s office back home, if a little cleaner and more modern.

Dr. Karin is very nice and, well, a fat lesbian. Not that there is anything wrong with that. And she’s not a cholita, either. Osama is two for two.

Note: Again, this photo has nothing to do with anything. But don't you think they add to the story, none the less? This is our supermarket IC Norte. Rumor has it that this place was started by drug lords as a way to launder money. Only a rumor, I stress.

Dr. Karin’s English is about as good as my Spanish at this point. Which is to say it sucks. Karin gestures to her dental chair and I sit down. She pokes and prods in my mouth a little bit. She hems and haws. Grunts a bit. She says something about three somethings. I just understand the “three” part. She then asks me some questions and I just say “si” in response.

Now, nothing gets me in more trouble than this. I really hate to look dumb, or to admit that I am as clueless at Spanish as I am. Especially considering how much time I spend studying. So, people say things to me and if I don’t understand, I just say “Si.” I can tell you that this is not a really good strategy.

So Dr. Karin asks me something else, and again, not wanting to look dumb, I nod and say “si.”

I hear the sound of the tooth cleaner warming up. I like the taste of that bubble gum stuff they use, so I’m kind of looking forward to this part. Plus, nothing in the world like the super-clean feel of freshly scrubbed teeth.

So I kick back and close my eyes as I hear Dr. Karin move the polisher towards my mouth.

Only it’s not the polisher. It is the drill.

And Dr. Karin hasn’t given me any novocaine.

Note: Yeah, nothing to do with the story again. But this is a pic of an ugly mob descending on Cochabamba's main square protesting the natural gas situation. Or maybe it was the price of diesel. Or the time they changed a trufi line. Can't recall . . . .

I turn white. Dr. Karin asks me if everything is ok. I say “si.” See, there I go again. I’m in this predicament and I still don’t have the balls to say “Holy crap I have no idea what you are saying get away from me!”

She starts to drill into my teeth.

But surprisingly, it really doesn’t hurt. She drills and fills three cavities and despite sky-high anxiety I have to say I don’t feel a thing. I may have just shaved 5 years off my life because of the terror, but there is no pain.

A bit later Megan shows up. It’s her turn. I tell her about the no novocaine and she thinks it is pretty funny.

Post Script: Meg had a tooth filled by Dr. Karin this same day. Only Dr. Karin royally screwed the tooth up. Megan makes 4 more visits to the doctor, trying to get it fixed, before we leave for the U.S. It never gets fixed. Eventually the tooth starts to break and the gum swells. Megan endures months of pain while we wait to get some dental insurance to cover the insanely high U.S. prices.

Friday, August 19, 2005

Hangin' With Riley

We got a babysitter for the kids last night for the first time in forever. The occasion was Riley Baugus playing a gig down at our local coffee place, The Green Bean.

Riley is one of these young guys who is just the real deal. He plays guitar, fiddle and banjo and has a voice that absolutely oozes blue ridge. I mean, the man has played with Tommy Jarrell. Tommy freakin’ Jarrell!!! To translate that into rock ‘n’ roll terms, imagine what it would be like to jam with the Rolling Stones or Jimi Hendrix. Tommy Jarrell is the Jimi Hendrix of Appalachia. Only better. Have you seen the movie “Cold Mountain”? Then you’ve heard Riley play.

Before the show we hit Natty Greene’s, which is our local brewpub. Damn good pale ale that is hopped to high hell. We’re sitting at the bar, talking about our kids (which is what parents do because after spending so much time being a parent you forget what else to talk about) and in walks Riley. He sits a couple seats down from us at the bar.

“Hey, that’s Riley,” I say to Megan.

“Really, are you sure,” she asks.

“Hell yeah,” I say. And then, because I have already had two beers, I tell her “I’m gonna go talk to him.”

So I waltz right over and introduce myself.

Now, even though I have never met the dude, I kind of feel like I know him already. Our favorite band in Portland is a group called Foghorn Stringband. Riley is not only buddies with them, but he plays with them quite a bit in the Dirk Powell Band.

So immediately we have something to talk about. We jaw about Foghorn and Riley tells me that he is going to tour England with them next month. We also talk about Pig Iron, which was a different band with a bunch of the Foghorn guys. When I mention Foghorn leader Caleb Klauder’s solo work, Riley blurts out “Oh, I LOVE that song ‘Joseph’!!!”

How much do we like Caleb Klauder? We had his record playing in the delivery room when Jane was born because we thought it should be the first thing she heard in this world.

Well, I tell Riley we can’t wait to see the gig tonight and then excuse myself because I’ve had two beers not four.

The show itself was cool. The Green Bean is like our second home in Greensboro -- so much so that we consider the owners Pete and Ann our friends. Pete is actually helping me find a job. He talks up his other lawyer customers and then calls me at home later in the day with leads. Plus, they have two kids – Otto and Angus – that are roughly the same ages as our kids. How cool is it that they have a kid named “Angus”? You know that kid will rock.

I will say that Greensboro shares with Portland and Los Angeles and most places that one thing that f#$king drives me insane: People talking during a concert.

Listen, folks. If you go to see live music, shut up and listen. It is not OK to talk during a concert. You’re not in your living room. Talking in a concert is like farting in church. You don't do it. Plus, you are bugging the crap out of the people next to you and you are disrespecting the artist. Stop it.

So about 10:00 Riley is still playing but we have to get back and relieve Silia, our babysitter.

Anyway, that's what we did last night.

Monday, August 15, 2005

Foist Away

To follow up my "Foisting Imperial Ale" story, I am happy to share with you that Gov. Easley signed the bill into law on Saturday, raising the beer alcohol limit to 15%.

So, pretty soon we should be able to get our hands on some tasty imperial ales down here.

Oh, the baptists and pentacostals must be sooooo mad today!

Old Fiddlers Go to Heaven

Saturday night we headed up to Galax, Virginia for the 70th Annual Old Fiddlers Convention.

Galax is just across the border on the other side of the Blue Ridge Parkway, not too far from Mt. Airy. Mt. Airy is best known as the hometown of Andy Griffith and the inspiration for Mayberry. You can go up there and visit Aunt Bee’s BBQ and Floyd’s Barbershop and all kinds of kitschy things like that.

Anyway, it is beautiful country up here, with rolling green kudzu-covered hills (everything up here is choked with the devil weed kudzu) and quaint old towns. Galax itself has a nice downtown with old brick storefronts. I love these old Southern towns and fall in love with every one we visit. Galax is the kind of place where every house has a nice front porch with 5 or 6 wood rocking chairs lined up and ready for some serious porch sitting.

Usually there is some sort of rebel flag hanging off the house. Many have two. In fact, right on main street is a store called “Rebel Without a Cause” that sells nothing but rebel flag pillows and flags and throw rugs. I can tell you that to most of these folks the flag really does stand for Southern Pride and nothing more.

But the Old Fiddlers Convention is serious business in these parts. It runs for a full week and takes over a huge park right in downtown Galax. Early in the week, they have individual instrument competitions including claw hammer banjo, guitar, mandolin, fiddle and dobro. Friday brings out the old time bands and Saturday is the bluegrass band competition.

We headed up Saturday and when we arrived, about an hour before the show was to start, were greeted by an endless mass of RV’s as far as the eye can see. I mean, there must have been several thousand campers covering the park. I hear that quite a bit of pickin’ and singin’ goes on in the campground, but we decided to head for the grandstand.

The stage itself is set up to look like someone’s front porch. Behind it sits a big ugly yellow tent where the bands warm up. The first 100 feet in front of the stage are flat and covered in lawn chairs. Behind that is a large covered grandstand, where we sat. I’d say there were about 5,000 people there watching the music.

For the bluegrass band competition, there were about 75 bands. Most came from rural Virginia and North Carolina, but there were some from West Virginia, Tennessee, Pennsylvania, South Carolina and even one each from Connecticut and Florida. You’ve never heard of a single one of them, but I can tell you every one of them was excellent.

The organization was incredible. Each band got to do one song. The first band came out from stage right, took 15 seconds to test the mics, etc. They played their song, took a bow, then exited stage left. The band would not even be off stage before the next band would be out setting their mics. Fifteen seconds later, they were into their song. And so on. Band after band after band.

Now, Portland has a big bluegrass and old timey scene. But the bands up there tend to be young guys in their 20s or early 30s. In contrast, the bands here were generally much older. There was one group of Gen-Xers who did a cool blue-grassed-up cover of some classic rock tune to thunderous applause. But usually the bands were a bunch of guys in their 40s and 50s who just love playing.

Quite a few were what I call cross-generational bands. I loved these. You’d have some 16-year-old on mandolin. His 45-year-old dad on guitar and vocals. A couple guys in their 50s on bass and banjo. And then some codger about 82 on the fiddle. This music brings folks of all ages together.

And the old show business adage about never going on after acts with kids or animals really held true. While there weren’t any animal acts, a few bands featured young kids and these just went down a storm with the crowd.

The crowd was a diverse but mainly rural, working class bunch. Lots of good ol’ boys I imagined were named “Bobby Lee” or Darryl or something like that. Most of them brought their blue-haired momma with them. Like I said, this music brings generations together.

Mac is obsessed with his Brio train set right now and not only sleeps with the train cars but insists on bringing them with him everywhere he goes. So, he was a pain in the ass up in the stands. He didn’t want to do anything but yell “choo choo” and run his trains into people. Megan eventually took him and Jane over to a patch of grass next to the grandstand. I joined them soon after. They ended up playing with a bunch of other kids for most of the night, having a great time.

Around 8:30 we finally decided to head out. We had an hour and a half drive home, and the kids were getting cranky. It was cool though, because the local country station was broadcasting live from the festival and we were able to listen to bands all the way home. When we pulled up to our place at 10, four hours after the show started, they were still going strong, one band after the other.

Next year's festival runs August 7-12.

Friday, August 05, 2005

Foisting Imperial Ale

North Carolina is one of the few states that caps the alcohol content of beer at 6 percent.

This is a stupid law, and one that really has no justification for being other than the fact that it is 70-years-old. Keep in mind that the tax on cigarettes in this state is just a nickel a pack. So, apparently, strong beer is bad but cigarettes are good. One kills you, one doesn't.

For the past few years a group called Pop the Cap has been working hard to get this law changed to a more reasonable 15% alcohol limit. This week, their bill passed the state senate, clearing the way for governer Mike Easley to sign it into law.

Now, if you are not a beer snob like me or my buddy JP, you are probably wondering why this law even matters. Two words: Imperial Ale.

The finest genre of beer known to mankind is the imperial ale, which is a very strong beer that is chock full of flavor. As far as ale goes, this is the brass ring. Your average beer drinker probably couldn't stand more than one or two sips of such a beer -- its flavor intensity is something you need to work up to. But for the sophisticated palate, there is no better beer.

IMHO, the two best beers on this planet are Stone Brewing's Arrogant Bastard and Dogfishead's 90-Minute IPA. Both are imperial ales. Both have alcohol content far in excess of 6%. Neither can be sold in the state of North Carolina.

That is about to change, and my tastebuds are doing a happy little dance about it.

Rev. Mark Creech with the Christian Action League of North Carolina is not as thrilled as I am. "I'm so terribly disappointed," he said in today's paper. "These beers of high alcohol content are now foisted on the people of North Carolina."

I can't wait to foist one, Rev. Creech. But this is one of those examples of people who have no idea what they are talking about foisting their opinions on the world. I guess Rev. Creech is scared that there will now be a bunch of yuppie alcoholics shelling out $5 for a pint of strong ale, leading lives to ruin. Maybe he is mad that malt liquor may become available. Yeah, because until this bill passed winos had no access to drinks in excess of 6% alcohol?

Anyway, the day Easley signs this thing I am going to be first in line for a pint of imperial ale.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

This place is a zoo

So yesterday was $2 day at the North Carolina Zoo. Us being po' folk right now, we jumped all over that.

In the past 14 months or so, we have been to the Portland Zoo, here in the U.S., as well as zoos in Baja, Mexico, La Paz, Bolivia, Santiago, Chile, Mendoza, Argentina and Buenos Aires, Argentina. Without exception, we find that each zoo has something wonderful to offer.

For instance, though he was kept in a tiny cage, you could get literally inches away from the lion at the Mexico zoo. In Mendoza, there were some monkeys and llamas that had escaped from their cages and were wandering the zoo freely. In the same zoo, they had a lion exhibit with 7 or 8 big male lions, all roaring up a storm. It was awesome.

But if you read crap like the Lonely Planet guides, the authors always come down hard on second and third world zoos for their "inhumane" cages, etc. In the U.S., the big thing is to put animals in these elaborate exhibits that simulate their wild habitat.

And so it was here at the N.C. zoo. Really, at this zoo the cages were the stars. I say this, because unlike at zoos in South America, I don't think we saw any actual animals at the NC Zoo.

The thing is they have all of these giant "cages" for the animals. I mean huge! The African plans exhibit was so big that they have those touristy binocular like things you can pop a quarter into to actually see the animals. You know, those things they have at "scenic overlooks" on the sides of highways. I swear the animals were like 6 miles away!

At the American Bison exhibit, the bison were little specks some 50 miles away at the edge of a forest.

To make matters worse, in order to see the entire zoo, you needed to walk over FIVE MILES. And I kid you not -- they only have like 12 different animals!

Contrast this to the wonderful zoo in Buenos Aires, where you can see like 1000 different animals and only have to walk like 3/4 of a mile. And in BA, the exhibits are cool old school ones. Like, "Let's make the elephants live in a castle". And you can buy buckets of animal chow and actually are encouraged to feed the animals.

Here in NC, you can't bring any food into the zoo. If you want to feed your starving kids, you need to either walk 5 miles back to your car or buy the zoo's ridiculously expensive food.

That is one of those "Only in America" things. Why is there a need to rip off captive audiences her? For instance, if you go to a night club in Bolivia, a beer will cost you a dollar. Same as it costs in the supermarket. In the U.S., they will charge you like $6 or $7 for a beer. At the local baseball park here, they played a game the other day in humid 98 degree weather with a "heat index" of 110. And they would not let you bring water into the park. If you wanted to avoid heatstroke, you needed to pay $3 for what is otherwise a $1 bottle of water. Evil.

But back to the zoo. If I was an animal, I would definitely want to be in one of these cush U.S. zoos. I could roam around and hide from the people.

As a zoo patron, the zoos in the U.S. totally suck.

Speaking of which, my neighbors have this old black Cadillac Fleetwood. You know, the old school one with the rear wheels half covered up. It has no front grill, only 3 hubcaps, and is missing two windows. In the evenings when it is especially hot, they like to go out and sit on the hood and smoke cigarettes. They do this shirtless, except for the girl who mercifully keeps her top on. It is like they are really proud that they own a Cadillac and want to make sure everyone knows it. Which is pretty cool.