Bolivia | Father’s Day

It was Father’s Day here, and we were celebrating on a Saturday at the school. The kids put on a show for us in the music room. All of the fathers were invited but only one showed up. He sat there on that wooden bench looking shy but dapper with his hat with a pink feather in it. Beth had told the volunteer men many times throughout the week: be there, no falta. The kids had mentioned us all by name and looked to us as fathers. When we finally all gathered and sat down, three of the boys of about eight sang a song about what fathers meant to them. Well, that one brought the old lump to the throat. Then came some of the boys and girls creating a human pyramid, which was really funny knowing the cast of characters involved. Next were the dancing couples. The girls with their braided hair and nice skirts and blouses, que linda. The boys dressed in black pants and white shirts. The dance was a traditional one that I have seen before. They act out some of the male female relations with the boys trying to sneak a kiss on the girls’ cheeks and the girls pushing the boys away. They did a good job of it. For the last act, some of the boys from the dormitory came in dressed like women and started dancing with some of the volunteers, very funny. Then some of the kids presented each of the volunteer males with a Father’s Day card that they had made. Florin presented my card to me and gave me a hug and a kiss on each cheek. Some of the crowd went out in the garden to wait for lunch while a group of the chicos and Marylu played music. A base and snare drum accompanied with reed flutes of various sizes. A lot of the kids were sitting around listening, when in came Linda who grabbed me for a dance. I swung her around for a bit, then we grabbed some of the kids holding hands and dancing in a circle. I kept grabbing more of the girls dancing with them in the middle of the circle. They tried acting shy but they loved it. Leave it to Linda to get the party going. A lot of the kids and volunteers were up and dancing by now in circles and in couples, great fun. I was out of breath and went out in the garden. The one father was there sitting in the sun holding the card his daughter gave to him. He held it like a treasure. I could picture the wall in his kitchen at home with the one picture of his wedding the cross of Jesus and now that Father’s Day card.

Bolivia

I took the long way, traveling by bus from Buenos Aires. After singing upon request from the bus driver, “Summer time when the cotton grows high and the living is easy,” I got on a bus for the 24-hour ride to Salta. A piece of cake, really Argentine style, riding in comfort. One night in Salta enjoying an asodo—carne, carne, yes, sir ree bob—and some gaucho dancing. I was up early the next morning for what should have been an eight-hour ride to the border.

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Not long after Salta we hit a roadblock from the farmers trying to make some political point. Man, these things can go on for weeks. The police don’t break up the roadblocks, I am told, on account of the past history of police brutality and the fear of reprisals from the people. Lucky we only had to wait five hours. I arrived in La Quica feeling not so good. At first I thought it was some road burn, checking into a hostel for a night’s rest. The next day I felt worse—very tired, no appetite, and it hurt to breath. It finally hit me it was the altitude. I was tired but it was hard to sleep, only getting half-hour naps before waking and struggling to breathe.

I stayed another night and felt I was not going to make it, like my batteries were all done. I got to thinking I should at least say fare thee well, so I made it to the computer at the hostel and found a message from Shelly saying someone probably hacked into my email. “Dude, I don’t do Viagra.” Great, my parting words to you all. “Buy Viagra.” I shut her down and went back to bed.

Lo and behold I woke up the next morning, forced myself out of bed and drank some coffee. It helped. I walked to the border and waited on a bridge for three hours before getting into the border office. Complete chaos, after another hour of paperwork and buying my visa I finally crossed into Bolivia. I bought a ticket for the night bus to Potasi and walked like a zombie through the streets until the bus left. It was a dirt road, no faster the 40 mph. The moon was big, enchanting countryside, cactus and high bluffs. The road just wandered. I slipped in and out of sleep feeling the road and sucking in the dust. Sometime in the night the bus stopped in the middle of nowhere. A jack knifed truck was blocking the road. The truck drivers and bus drivers tried for hours shoveling and placing rocks to move the truck but no go. It’s not like you can call a wrecker. They gave up on that and made a road in a dry river bed. Young boys with flash lights showed the way urging us along in a confident voice, “Dale, Dale.” Man, I would have not brought my mighty Ranger down that river bed. At times the tires would sink low. The driver would give it and the bus felt like she was going over. I was looking for hand holds if she did. We ended up backing up the bank back onto the road. Some slick driving if you ask me. On we went to Potasi, which they claim is the highest city in the world. Great. Sometime in the morning we arrived. It took me a long time to walk to the terminal to get the bus to Sucre. A local man asked what my troubles were and I said the altitude. He gave me a handful of coco leaves and said to chew on that. By God it helped. The last leg was a five-hour bus ride to Sucre, nice country by daylight.

I showed up the next morning at the school with my pack loaded with first aid and art supplies from Kat. The social worker office was also the infirmary. Twenty minutes after unloading and taking inventory, a fourth-year medical student showed up to work on the kids. A lot of these kids live in mud houses with grass roofs. Bugs fall on them from the roofs and go under the skin. The kids scratch them and then get these nasty open infections. Well, he put those supplies I brought right to use. The anti-infection cream Bacitracin was a big hit. He squeezed out pus, poured on iodine and then applied the cream. It must have hurt but not a whimper from these kids, holding tight to their fists. Juan will be a good doctor. He has a strong heart but does not let it get to him, finding some laughter with each kid.

So here I am. The plan is to help these kids build 70 shoeshine kits and work on the buildings. Things move along slowly here. It will take some time adjusting and learning.

Bolivia | The Streets

We took to the streets to let the working boys know the shop at the school was open to fix their shoe boxes and build new ones if needed. Of course they all wanted new ones. Their hands were black from polish and their faces aged beyond their years, some as young as six. Two Bolivianos for a shine, eight to make a dollar. They came in small groups, some dragging a younger sister in tow. One boy complained that he had just gotten beaten up by some bigger boys because they saw a gringo hand out twenty Bolivianos for the shine. The Gringo thinks he is helping, but it only led to an ass kicking out of envy. The kids have hard lives. Some nights when I was out late I saw the ones from Nanta at twelve at night selling candy in the bars and streets. Some say their mothers won’t let them in the house until they have sold the whole box, but who knows.

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The bus drivers went on strike the week before, blocking the major roads with the buses. At rush hour in the mornings they blocked other major roads with their bodies. At one intersection I watched a truckload of riot police get out and push the group back to the sidewalks. When they got back into the truck the crowd went back to blocking the street. A taxi came up to the crowd and tried to talk his way through, and they just let the air out of his tires. For once there was little pollution in the streets from the buses. I was happy for the strike.

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The boys came to the shop all wanting to be first to build the shoe boxes. I made a list of their names and we started building. The kids here are like a pack of raccoons. They can’t keep from hitting one another. I gave them one warning—none of that crap in the shop If it happens again they are out. They listened. We worked on, and more kids came all wanting to be first and all saying they were carpenters and giving advice. I was exhausted and overwhelmed. I closed up the shop and went upstairs to use the bathroom. The door to the infirmary opened and Andros was there looking worse than I felt. He and Marcelo had just spent the last four hours working through lunch on a boys backside who had scabies. I felt like an ass for my problems in the shop. They work every day on the kids. Lice, flies, infections all over their bodies. The problems of poverty. Marcelo never complains, always a smile and laughter. I had to dig deeper in myself to find patience.

I went to a tourist cafe to buy an English speaking book, in need of some literature. A football game was on the TV—Germany versus Argentina. Three German men were watching the game. When an Argentine player tripped a German, one of the men watching raised his hand for the yellow card. When the card was raised they cheered. What a contrast I thought. I see these kids every day in the lunch line scrapping for every inch. It does not matter how big or small, if someone gives them grief, they go for them. The girls pull the boys’ hair, they grab sticks and brooms and smack the boys. Fair is clearly not in their game, and there is no referee to make their lives right. They have to make that fight on their own. Argentine 1 Germany 0.

Bolivia | School Life

I could hear the patter of small feet before I felt the hands around my waist. A brother and sister who attend the scholl spotted me in the street and ran to greet me. I was out buying supplies for the shop and was making my way back. They walked along, those little bodies falling in rhythm with mine. They said they had been doing homework all morning long, so I started singing out numbers and they added them in song. It was like this all the way back. Andres is eight, his sister Patrice, seven. He is fierce and shows no fear of the bigger kids. I have seen him going after them in the lunch line. She often has a look of fear in her eyes, and I wonder what horrors go on at home. After lunch they are off in some corner squirreling leftovers into their packs, I am told it is for their mother.

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Andres was my first student in the shop to build his shoeshine box. What a smile he had on his face when he sent his first nail home. That alone was worth the long trip here. When it came time to put on the tiny hinges with little screws, he got frustrated and went for the hammer. No, no, amigo, steady with the driver. How that boy can swear in Quecha. Now more boxes have been made and the kids really love to work in that tiny shop. I am not even halfway through with lunch when they sit around me wanting to know when they can get to work. They’re jumping up and down when I open up. I can only work with one boy at a time, but there is a bunch of them leaning over my shoulder leaning into my side giving commands. There is only one of me and so many of them. How they want to learn. There are days when I get overwhelmed with the demands and get short with them raising my voice. How they go to shame when I yell. Heads down in silence. It stings my heart some to see it, but they need the discipline. All the contact is good for me, though. I am not used to being touched so much. It is nice how they are always in contact with hands on my back and shoulders.

For a few days I worked over at the old location that was much bigger but too much for them to afford. The new school is way smaller but a better price. The little buggers have done some damage to the old place. I am rebuilding raised panel doors with a skill saw and chisel—a challenge there, I am telling you. For the second day in a row the saw was gone to shit. But here in Bolivia there is always a small shop to fix anything. Today I did not have a key to get into the old place so I was waiting for Ulysses to show up at school with the key. Waiting is a common thing here. All the tools, what few there were, were over at the old place, so I went into the kitchen to help the cooks prepare lunch. Salsa music was playing so I danced a few turns with Mary Beth around the concina before sitting down to chopping carrots. When Ulysses finally showed up, he came to the door of the kitchen and yelled at me saying I am carpenter not a cook, “Vamos.” I got a great laugh out of that one.

Brazil |The Road

It’s always hard to break away from that familiar hold of the sea. Heading west down that road, I was slowly slipping out of her grasp, letting the feel of the rolling hills ease into me. Gentle and soft, fresh greens of spring, the pungent taste of raw earth. Hills giving way to mountains. Spruce and fir mingling with the clear smell of mountain streams. The land worked its way through me, whittling away worries. Wandering lost down that dirt road, caught under the spell of that ravine with its lazy stream. It felt so familiar, with its quiet strength. I drank in the feel of it. The way the meadow tucked into the twisted stream triggered thoughts of other places. The open feel of it took me to Wyoming. The funny flat spot on top of one of the hills looked like a volcano in Guatemala. The smell of sweat grass and the call of the mourning doves, smells and sounds of Kenya. This place was a window, like I could wrap my arms around the world for one moment and hold it close. I savored it, took it in deep and smiled big.

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Nicaragua | The Walk

I missed the truck ride into town. Not surprising, so I decided to start walking.

I needed to escape; the last 8 days had been some wild ones hanging with the English and Kiwis. We had some laughs. When you spend that much time together you become a cog in the wheel and no one wanted me to leave. I had to sleep with my backpack so they could not steal it to keep me from moving on. We all speak the same language, but the English and Kiwis have so much slang that I only understood half of what they said. I had learned a lot in the last week. I told them in the future they should carry a dictionary of their slang for people who plan on hanging with them for more than a week. It would avoid some misunderstandings, but then again some of them were quite funny.

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I was walking along at a good clip feeling the freedom of the dusty road. It was a dry land with a diversity of trees that were quite enchanting to look at. As I walked along, it felt like all living things were trying to suck the moisture out of me. There was a scattering of houses along the road all blasting music. They looked more like the outbuildings you would see on ranches in Wyoming, but no people lived in these buildings with their families. I would get the occasional wave from people out doing their morning chores, then the houses gave way to the wildness of the land and that winding road.

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I heard them before I saw them—ump ump and getting louder—I looked up to see about 14 howler monkeys in one tree all moving out on the limbs to get a better look at me. What a collection of characters. One old boy had his knees high, elbows on the wing, scratching his cheek head tilted to the side wondering who I was. I had a good visit with them, got a chuckle out of it all and walked on.

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I was getting hot and dried out. I knew that two miles from the beach camp was a little store, so I kept up my pace in anticipation of some cold juice. I got there with a powerful thirst and was greeted by a young boy holding a baby followed by the mother. I stood under the shade of that porch sucking down cold juice while the boy with baby moved closer to watch. I looked out on that wild land thinking it looked so much better from the shade. I said my goodbyes and walked out into the heat of the day, which was building fire. Just when I was thinking about hitching, a truck came along and offered me a ride. Good karma. They were headed into town. The teenager sitting next to me had on a baseball uniform and looked eager for the game. We stopped next to a cornfield and he got out and walked right into the corn. Christ, so it is true the story of the playing fields.

Nicaragua | In Leon

They say Leon is one of the safest cities in Central America. It is also one of the hottest. It is not a big tourist destination, so when I walk down the street I DO NOT FEEL LIKE A DOLLAR SIGN but a human being. Students stop me in the street to practice their English and ask where I am from. It is an old city with many churches that rise up against the faded buildings, radiating the passions and pains of the past. They still use horses here so the streets are full of horse and buggies that move construction supplies and serve as collectivoes to carry as many as 20 people like taxis.

At times it reminds me of Cuba, but here many of the children go hungry. Nicaragua is poor so that we can be rich; U.S. foreign policy has exploited this country for decades. There are many street kids here, some look 6 but they are really 12 and 14. The glue they sniff to take away hunger pains has stunted their growth. Last night when Joanna and I were eating at an outdoor café, the kids waited in the shadows. When they felt we had eaten all we could they asked us very politely if they could eat our leftovers, shyly taking away our plates. In the park there are many young barefoot boys who shine shoes. I get mine shined a lot to help a little. At times the boys argue with one another because they feel I am their customer and no one else should shine my boots. When they argue, their faces are those of grown men. Life is very hard here for them.

Las Tias means “aunts” and is an organization that the women of the market started to help out the street kids. I am working with some of the young men who are carpenters and are making furniture to sell in the market so the profits can help feed the children. They need tools, a planer, a good table saw. They are good workers, but it is hard for them to compete. I do what I can to help. Las Tias has two buildings—one for the young kids and another for the teenagers. Two days ago I visited the one with the children. It was so wonderful to see these kids looking so happy. When they look you in the eyes and smile it goes clear to your soul.

Then came the Americans from the Southern Baptist church. They made the kids line up on the basketball court and roared out their indoctrination. I had to leave. The church is dividing Latin America, telling teenagers not to use birth control and of course no abortions. Many young girls become mothers too early in their lives. It is a very big problem, and families are divided. Las Tias has no choice because these groups bring food and money so they have to swallow the conditions that are attached. They provide dental care but only if you go to church first. This city is raw. It is life and I feel happy here.

Guatemala | The Caves

I was getting pounded sitting in the front of the launch, so I grabbed a bumper and sat on the nice suspension, but too much bounce. We were crossing Lake Isabel heading for the thermal waterfalls. The green hills that led up to the mountains were a powerful sight as I bounced along on my bumper. Our captain was loving the wave action and took great glee in trying to bounce me clear out of the boat. I knew he would get his way, given the increasing size of the waves, so I stood up and took the action in my knees.

dave-267-1I loved the contrast of the amber reed grass and the green fields that warmed the lake’s edge. We hit the beach in style and climbed out eager for our adventure that lay ahead. There were ten of us, a motley collection of British, French, Canadian and American. We had been together long enough to skip past the social shine and get right into the abusive humor, which suited me just fine. Nothing sacred at this point. Lots of laughs. We walked along a dirt road surrounded by cattle in the fields, very peaceful. The smaller cattle had collars with three-foot sticks wedged through them to keep the little buggers from slipping under the fences—good idea. The road gave way to a small jungle trail that would occasionally flirt with the banks of a good sized stream. Occasionally some of the local girls would be on the trail trying to sell banana bread. We assured them we would buy on the way back.

Coming up a small hill and around the bend, the smell of sulfur hit us first, then the sight of the thermal pools and waterfalls. Man, what a sight, something out of dreams. It did not take us long to get into the water and swim over to the waterfalls. Better than any hot shower I have ever had. I could go for the heavy volume and hot pounder or the light hot tease. I tried them all. They call me mellow yellow, that’s right. One hour of that and I was mister limbo.

Our fearless leader, another Dave, gathered us together to head further up the trail to the caves. The jungle smells that tickled my nose were something else. You could never quite name what it was before a new smell would waft up your nostrils. These were the same jungles where Tarzan was made. Once I was told that I was on the lookout for Jane—hey a fellow has to keep an open mind.

As we headed down the slick mud trail, both my feet went clear into the air and I took a good dumping. That smartened me up some. The trail got so steep that Dave had to tie a rope to one of those thorny jungle trees so we could rappel down. The adventure had begun.

At the bottom was a stream that ran out of a 30-foot high opening in the side of the mountain. With just swimsuits and head lamps we all swam into that dark opening—cool, unreal, a little eerie. This was a new one for me and I was loving it. We took breaks every hundred yards by clinging onto the sides of the rock before swimming further. I could hear hard water ahead and see rock and white water. We climbed the rocks next to the waterfall, and there were some very scary moments where the wrong slip could have plunged us into the waterfalls. At one point Katua stepped out from a rock and missed her footing but was caught by her friend. I swallowed my heart watching that little number. Once we were up to the top we killed our head lamps and sat in the darkness feeling the strength of this ancient cave. Woooooo. Love Dave.

Honduras | The Chicken Bus

I decided to take the chicken bus. It is a harder ride than the 1st class bus, but a lot more happened on the old Blue Birds. It’s like a movie short of the life of the locals, and for four hours I figured the old body could take it. As usual when I first got on, all eyes were on me. The questions in the glances, “What is this gringo doing here?” They got tired of looking after a while and we all settled into the salsa beat that was blasting on the radio.

The driver had done some personal decorating of the front of the bus: feathers, springy heads and a couple of Santa Rosas to keep God on our side. We were in the highlands of Honduras heading down to San Pedro Luis, the industrial town where I could take the bus on to Nicaragua. Most of the men wore cowboy hats and carried matches that they had to check in at the front of the bus, I guess to keep the causalities of on bus skirmishes to a minimum. Most of the faces looked worn and tired from a lifetime of hard work in the sun, hard telling the ages of the adults.

She was a throaty bus, blowing out big plumes of black smoke on the hills. Two girls in the seat in front of me were playing like a bunch of puppies. Their giggles got me laughing. It seemed that about every ten miles the bus would stop to pick up or drop off riders. At times a package of groceries was dropped off to hungry hands waiting patiently on the side of the road, a few coins exchanged. Other times some galvanized roofing was taken off the top of the bus and left on the side of the road. The bus driver’s sidekick would have to run after the bus, hang onto the rear ladder and climb in while the bus was accelerating along, obviously the highlight of the job.

We passed a waterpark and the younger kids gazed with long dreamy looks while the older kids glanced away with contempt, knowing it was an impossible dream. For a moment I wanted to stop the bus and pay for all the kids to have a go, but I knew it would not be fair to be a one-day wonder in their lives.

We would pull into these little towns whose outdoor markets were full of merchandise and bargaining, where a gang of kids with dirty t-shirts and pants ran through grabbing a quick handful of something to put in their mouths. One boy got caught clean across the face by a fast swat from a tight lipped woman. The boy, although stung, held the look of victory as he chewed on his hard won loot. The bus inched its way out of the market and off we rumbled through the highlands with open fields and palm trees.

Soon we were on the side of the road and the bus was filling up with smoke. Before I knew what was happening, everyone was on their feet in the aisle with panic in their eyes. I was buried deep in my seat feeling quite trapped and thinking about busting out the window and climbing out. Then I had visions of straddling broken glass and decided to take my chances on waiting for the crowd to thin and going out the door. The black smoke was thick in the bus by the time I retrieved my pack and got outside. One of the tires had caught fire. The sidekick and the driver were throwing water and sand on it and eventually put it out. With the front and back doors of the bus open, it aired out quickly and the bus driver hollered out, “Vamanos!” We all got back on board with the locals laughing away. Just a typical day on the chicken bus.

Nicaragua | The Streets

It was a hot night, so I decided to eat on the street—one of those places that had an outside barbecue with all the meats, potato, and salad for a whopping dollar. I sat at a table that faced a gothic looking church. It looked bigger against the dark sky. The food was good. I ate with ease and watched the action of the street unfold. A motorcycle went by with the boy in front driving, the father behind him and the mother in the way back riding side-saddle, her hands folded in her lap. How she managed to stay on is beyond me, but I think it is a genetic ability for all the women of Latin America can perform this feat. An old Fiat came to a stalling rest in front of me, the driver trying the starter a few times before coming out, opening the trunk, pulling out a stick and sticking it in the gas tank. Now I can relate to that little number. He then calmly took out a gas can, told the two women who were riding with him the news. They got out laughing and stood by the car calmly talking while he walked down the road with his gas can. A young girl was sweeping the street around me. This is a country of sweepers and moppers. Now I have always considered myself pretty handy operating the old broom, but this girl had the moves, pure poetry of the broom. I was entranced with her magic. The clopping of the horse hooves took me away from it. A man driving the horse and cart, standing up and screaming at the taxis that were trying to force him off the road. The women cooking at the grills were laughing at it all. The walls of time divided by the old and new. The man with the gas can returned, giving the hungry tank a little something to drink. The ladies climbed back in and off they went, you got to love it.