Sunday, May 27, 2012

Raw Fish and Contact Juggling

            I never cease to be amazed at…well, life.  That’s the sort of thinking that produces this kind of stream-of-consciousness writing.  There is no main topic, and it isn’t going anywhere.  I hope you find it interesting.
            A few nights ago, Oldest and I meandered a mere two blocks away, on a quest for sushi.  By sushi, I don’t mean the junk they serve in the United States, stifled by health codes.  I’m talking about real raw tuna and salmon and other things that would make the local health inspector’s face red as he hunches over his clipboard, scribbling furiously.
            I understand the need for regulations to protect the public.  Sewer pipes shouldn’t cross connect with runoff pipes, and employees should always wash their hands before returning to work, even if they are 99.99% sure they didn’t get pee on them, but I think an over-regulated society misses out on a lot, and becomes blinded and ignorant of what the world has to offer, if one is to take only a modicum of informed, calculated risk.
            Otherwise, it produces things like this label, found on a package of peanuts, served to me on an American Airlines 767 two weeks ago:

Ingredients:  Peanuts Roasted in Peanut and/or Canola Oil, Salt.
Produced in a facility that processes peanuts and other nuts.

Seriously?  I think I would be more concerned if the warning stated that it was produced in a place that didn’t.
            Following a hearty meal of sushi (is that an oxymoron?), we strolled back to the house, and at the corner, saw a new group of street performers.
            Some background is necessary here.  Intersections in Lima are often occupied by a variety of people.  On rare occasions, you will see someone leading a blind relative or carrying a special needs child, who will walk between the cars, asking for coins, but with those exceptions, begging isn’t well tolerated.  I do wonder sometimes if someone on the next corner isn’t renting out little blind men for this purpose, but I will move on.
            Instead, Peruvians are imaginative, and not that limited by their own disabilities, or rather, willing to work inside those limitations.  During our time here, we have met a blind man, Alan, who sells individual pieces of candy from a larger bag.  Gino, a paraplegic, sells random items from his wheelchair near a local grocery store – and by random I mean wooden spoons, dish towels, or umbrellas.  Veronica, a “little person” also confined to a wheelchair, sells bracelets and key chains that she has made from beads. 
            You may notice that these people have names.  Thank you.
            The more able bodied individuals are known to work the intersections as well, performing various acts of entertainment, during the 75 seconds that the light is red.  Traffic lights here actually have countdown timers, which may be for motorists, or for performers.  If an act isn’t finished by the time the clock shows 15 seconds, there isn’t enough time to walk between the rows of cars and collect tips.
            We have seen pin jugglers, fire jugglers, acrobats, clowns, and magicians.  Traffic really is a circus in Lima.
            Tonight we saw something I hadn’t seen yet – a “contact juggler.”  A contact juggler manipulates clear, heavy balls made of glass or acrylic, without actually throwing them.  He maintains “contact” with the balls at all times, but creates the illusion that they are floating or moving. 
            We didn’t have a camera, and I wasn’t carrying loose change, but this act was worth coming back, since we live on the same block.  A few minutes later, armed with about the equivalent of about $1.50 in local coins, we returned with iPod in hand.  The contact juggler agreed to do his routine for us, since the intersection was currently occupied by some little kid juggling flaming sticks and chainsaws or something boring like that.

            It sure beats a cardboard sign that says “Laid off.”  I hope you enjoyed

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Memorial Day Thoughts

I’ve never understood why people visit cemeteries.

A few weeks ago, I made two exceptions, a few days apart, one for a man I had once loved as closely as a brother, and for a grandfather who was so close that it feels like a part of me is now gone, and perhaps it is.

The two of them departed this life in very different ways, one faded away, and the other flashed out.  I don’t know exactly what I stood to accomplish by going to the cemeteries.  Closure, perhaps, to finish something off that had been brewing inside me since both of their deaths.

Pappy’s stone wasn’t hard to find.  I was alone in the small Missouri graveyard, so I got out of the car and just stood there and looked at it.  I had always considered myself his closest grandchild, due to geography more than anything else, but I hadn’t attended the funeral.  The old man had spent the last few months of his life in an old folks’ home, and while the flame flickered at times, he had always known me when I came to visit.

Mom had had him buried in his black suit, with a light green shirt and a tie he had worn only a couple of times in life.  I could almost see it through six feet of Missouri dirt.

I didn’t speak.  I always thought that talking to tombstones was a little weird.  I didn’t have anything to say anyway.  I said goodbye to him for the first time when I went to Iraq in 2005, because I thought I might not come back.  I said goodbye again in 2007, because I thought he might not remember me when I did.  I said it for what I knew would be the last time in June of 2010, when I left for my new job in D.C.  The last words I said to him were “I love you,” and it doesn’t seem like I could have done it any better.  Mom told me a few months later that he was gone.  I was the only grandchild not to attend the funeral. 

I took a deep breath, and told myself that this was okay.  I had said what I needed to say to his ears, and the others probably had to say it to his casket.

It had been a year and a half, and the dirt still hadn’t blended in with the rest.  In fact, there was a big patch of clover growing right over the top of it, the only patch in the whole field.  I spent the next five minutes looking for a four-leaf, something Pappy and I had done together many times in his yard, when I was barely old enough to walk.  I didn’t find one.

I brushed a bit of dirt back from his flat footstone that had been provided by the U.S. Government as a token of his wartime service.  I’ll have one of these someday as well.

A few days later, in a different field, I paid my last visit to my friend from high school.  Once upon a time, he had been a member of my “one hand”- meaning the friends that you could count on one hand.

He had left this life at a time and in a manner of his own choosing, more than 20 years later, but less than a day after my wife and I had pondered aloud how he was doing.

He had become a riverboat captain, and his stone was wrapped in a thick rope.  Next to the stone was a large glass jar.  It had somehow gotten a couple inches of water inside from the rains, so I opened the lid and carefully poured it out.  Inside was such a strange assortment of things:  A couple of pens, which he always carried, two debit cards from the local bank, an old lighter, and a notebook.  I assumed that these were items he had with him when he died.

I allowed myself to get a little excited.  He had often carried a notebook when we were young, he had called it his “brain.”  I opened it, but instead of seeing the notoriously sloppy handwriting, there were letters from his wife and children.  I read each one of them.  Perhaps I shouldn’t have, but I did.

He had once considered me family, but adding my own thoughts to the pages seemed a little invasive, since his children barely knew me at all.  I knew what I would say, though.

I would tell them that forty yards away from their dad, lies the father of dear friends, a set of brothers close enough together that we hung out with all of them.  My friend consoled his that day in a way only he could have done, having already lost his own father.

Two years later, another of our group lost his dad, and my friend was there, too.  It wasn’t wise words or a caring touch, it was a cigar and a cold beer, and let’s go do something to take your mind off this.  At that point, “something” was blowing up an old refrigerator in the middle of a cow field at midnight, and it certainly took one's mind off mourning.

Ten years after that, my wife lost her father, and my friend was there again.

I would tell them that when we were kids, he had saved me from being bitten by a three-foot copperhead.  We had explored White’s Creek cave together, before the Forest Service put bars across it.  One night in town, he had pulled a toy gun on me, after I pulled one on him as a joke.  We stood there for a moment, sweating, each convinced that the other’s was the real thing.  He let me stay at his place when I didn’t want to go home. He had taught me how to drive a clutch.  I drank my first beer with him.  He had attended a few karate classes with me, and could kick harder than Bruce Lee, he said it was because he had practiced on cows.  He had showed up to help me fix Dad’s fence after my truck rolled through it.  We pondered together what to do about the tattoo with his first wife’s name on it after his divorce.  His creative solution was to add a banner with start and end dates below the big red heart on his arm.  He had married again, and taken her three children as his own when they were barely school-aged, and now they were adults.  We had shared all sorts of happiness and anger and laughter and fear, during that time in every man’s life when he is trying the hardest to figure himself out.

For all of that, and for all of the people for whom he was there, none of us were there for him.  I wish I would have called, but I didn’t even know I needed to.  I'm not sure how long I will carry that, but I know he wouldn't have wanted me to.

I put the notebook back in the jar, and put the lid on a bit more tightly to keep the water out.

In this field, as in the other, I recognized names.  Not just one or two, but dozens.  I remember what these people looked like, the sounds of their voices, the kind of people they were.

I suppose that is the reason people visit cemeteries.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Surfing and Bembo's Near the Beach.

After a couple of weeks of blog silence, I’m writing again.  After our week-long vacation in the U.S., we’re finally home again.  That seems like such a strange thing to say. I suppose I should share the real reason I took this time to write.  The neighbors are having a party with loud music and it’s 3 a.m.

Yesterday, my family of five (my oldest daughter returned to stay with us for a couple of weeks) piled onto a bus and headed to Miraflores for an afternoon of activity.  While Middle and Youngest are still emotionally scarred from our adventures in Stranded, we braved the bus system yet again.

My oldest daughter wanted to surf, and of course Youngest was all for that.   We walked the last few blocks to the coastline, and descended roughly a half-million stone steps to the beach.  Lima is probably one of the few cities in the western hemisphere that has good waves 24/7/365, and a number of enterprising locals have built thriving businesses by offering surf lessons to tourists.

To my friends in the north – remember it’s almost winter here, because the seasons are reversed.  Add this to the fact that the current brings water straight up the coast from Antarctica, and it’s COLD.  For reference, it’s about a degree chillier than Greer Springs in Missouri.

Our regular company is Surf Peru, basically because they ambush us the second we step off the footbridge on the way to the beach.  Oldest and Youngest, with some assistance, got into their wetsuits, and I became about $45 lighter.  The price isn’t bad, but it seems to change with the seasons and perhaps how nicely we are dressed.  At least it includes the board, wetsuit, and one-on-one instruction.

After some discussion with my wife, we agreed to let Youngest solo, rather than riding a board tandem with her instructor as she had on the previous two occasions.  I pulled her off to the side, away from Mom, who had already bitten off two fingernails.

“You know you are going to suck saltwater.”  This was the prelude to my confidence-building discussion.  I promise it got better – I told her some gobbledy-gook about anything cool not being easy, and it might take her ten or fifteen tries to catch two or three good waves, but she should just keep trying.  I reminded her that the surfboard floats and if she got swept under, she should just find the cord tied to her ankle, and it would lead to the surface.

She reminded me a little bit of a professional boxer, getting advice from his coach.  She nodded at the end of each sentence, and I think a couple of times she said, “Got it.”

Once she hit the water, she paddled out a hundred yards and I don’t think she even looked back.  She raised her head up like a seal as she crested each wave on the way out.

The process works something like this:  An instructor, on his own board, will go out with the student, get them turned around and in position.  When a suitable wave comes along, the student paddles like crazy, and with a shove at the exact moment from the instructor, she can hopefully catch it and ride it in.

Oldest was having a little trouble with this.  She would stand up, but immediately fall off.  In her defense, I think it was gravity.  She’s taller, and thus it’s harder for her to stay low and keep her balance.  At least that was my assessment.  Since I have also tried this twice, I can tell you that anyone who says it isn’t a real sport has never done it – it requires some pretty serious endurance, not just to ride the waves, but to continuously paddle out to get the next one.

For the next hour, Mom, Middle, and I watched the other two fall off of their boards a lot, but both of them managed a few good runs.

Youngest came in first, and after approaching us, she looked around for Oldest.  We informed her that she was still out on the waves, just as we watched her get her best run of the day.

“Why is she still out?” She shivered.  “My teacher told me it was time to come in, that’s not exactly fair.”

“Child,” I said, “Your lips are purple.”

I am pretty sure that Youngest is addicted now, this is going to cost me for at least a few more lessons, and I may even end up buying a surfboard.

Since now my squad was ravenous, we hit a place called Bembo’s, a Peruvian fast food chain, much more popular here than McDonald’s, although they have a few of those too.

Why is Bembo’s so popular, you may ask?

First of all, the name is funny.  My wife will say I am acting like a 12-year old boy, but I’m sorry, they might as well call it “Sluts.”  It makes me giggle.

Secondly, the burgers are made from real South American beef.  I hate to offend American beef producers, but if they can’t convince American fast-food restaurants to build burgers like this, they have already lost the global meat war.

Lastly, and perhaps the most important reason that Bembo’s is awesome:

(translated into Redneck English from Peruvian Spanish)

Me:  “I want one of those big German-style hamburgers with the relish on it, and some cheese sticks.”

Bembo Girl (See?  The name is funny, it never gets old!):  And what would you like to drink?

Me:  I'd like a cold beer with that.

Bembo Girl:  We’ll get that right out to you.

Bembo’s for the WIN!  Yes, readers, not only is the burger thick and beefy, but you can order a beer with your extra value meal!

I’m glad to be home.