Life on Earth

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Saturday, February 20, 2010

Cartagena: A city of squares

Cartagena is a city of squares, each with a life of its own.

One afternoon, we were headed to the Museo de Oro, or Gold Museum, when we noticed a ruckus on the street bordering one of the squares, Plaza de Bolivar. A crowd had gathered and was emitting periodic whoops and laughs. We detoured over to see what was going on and boy was it worth it! A man wearing a donkey costume was putting on quite a show. The costume looked kind of like a horse costume - the kind two people wear so there will be four legs poking out. But, in this case, it was just one man who had sewn two little feet, complete with boots, onto what would be the donkey's sides so it looked like he was a tiny man in a saddle. He had attached reins to the fake donkey's head and was using his own legs underneath the costume to make the donkey run. He pretended the donkey was prancing nervously and made a great production of trying to rein in the wild beast. Whenever someone walked too close, not paying attention, he'd lash out and kick at them, as though it were the startled donkey doing it. The innocent bystander would, in turn, be startled and the crowd would crack up! He also raced the donkey up and down the street and took photos with the crowd, collecting donations as he went.

As his performance started to die down, a beat-up SUV pulled up to the curb and what seemed like a dozen people, plus props and drums began to spill out into the afternoon sunshine -- it looked like passengers getting out of a clown car. We followed them into the square to see what they would do and it ended up being a performance on par with something you'd pay $30 to see at the Opera House. The group's drummers set up in the center of the square, at the base of a Simon Bolivar statue, and an equal number of male and female dancers spread out on the cobblestones in front of them. Once the music began, the dancers came to life, becoming the drumbeats with their bodies and providing full-throated narratives of the stories they were telling. Between routines, they would come around to collect tips. We stayed, mesmerized, for their whole performance. At the end, they matter-of-factly packed up their stuff and left with little fanfare before another group of drummers took their place.

We never made it to the museum that day, instead spending the entire afternoon sitting on a park bench watching the world go by. Even when no performance was happening, the square was entertaining - a fantastic spot for people watching! There was a huge flock of pigeons that seemed to call the square home and a lady there sold little bags of corn for people to feed to them. Children LOVED to chase the pigeons and would run themselves ragged trying to catch one. The pigeons would fly up in big bursts to escape the kids' grasp and then flutter back down to the ground or land on the heads of old men sitting nearby, which generated chuckles from observers and benevolent smiles from the gray hairs who'd become pigeon perches. When especially tenacious children got after them, the pigeons would fly up to the top of the Bolivar statue, where they were safe from pursuit. I wonder what Simon Bolivar, who helped liberate large parts of South America from the Spanish, would think of such an indignity.

To capitalize on the crowd of bench warmers, vendors offered a variety of food and drink for sale: Some pushed carts or wore strapped-on trays (like at a baseball game) containing candy, ice cream, lemonade and other refreshments. Others carried boxes that held thermoses of espresso and little paper cups. And, ladies in old-fashioned skirts and ruffle tops, carried huge bowls of fresh fruit on their heads that they'd pull down and cut up for customers. If food and drink wasn't what you were looking for, there was also La Carreta Literaria (literary cart), with variety of books for sale.

Some couples opted to simply kiss, cuddle and hold hands in the dappled sunlight under a canopy of green, with the sound of one of the square's four fountains burbling soothingly nearby. At night, when the sky darkened and the air cooled, old men set up tables on the edge of the square and played animated, hours-long chess tournaments.

There are many squares in Cartagena, but Plaza de Bolivar is my favorite.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Cartagena: Exploring Old Town

"This is the same territory where we live today, we who are the heirs of the Karib warriors, the men of the cross and the sword, and the African drummers. We are the inhabitants of this piece of earth that borders the "Sea of the Seven Colors." We, who have been born here, who have grown up here, who have cried over our dead and have been happy because happiness is the most natural way for us and for our life and is what best identifies us in regard to other people on the face of the earth."

So read a plaque inside the Palacio de la Inquisition, which houses the Historical Museum of Cartagena, where we visited on our first full day in the city. What beautiful and powerful sentiment to exclaim that happiness is your most-defining characteristic as a society, despite many years of hardship. Cartagena, the setting for Gabriel García Márquez's novel "Love in the Time of Cholera," has seen many misfortunes. Here's my recently learned, basic historic lesson (look elsewhere for facts and details!): Originally a meeting place for indigenous people from the North and the South, Cartagena subsequently was the target of pirate attacks and was invaded by the Spanish. The Old City is surrounded by a massive wall that was designed to fend off invasions; it is now a UNESCO world heritage site and can be seen in the movie "Romancing the Stone." As a port city, Cartagena remained of secondary importance until it became a hot spot for the slave trade, at which point, it became the empire's number one port in the Caribbean. Eventually, the citizens fought for and won independence from Spain, and the prosperous and decadent city fell into a period of decline and suffered several plagues, including the one depicted in Marquez's novel. At long last, the city began to claw its way back to health, both literally and figuratively. Due to its popularity among South Americans and Europeans as a tourist destination, it remained largely untouched by the drug trade that ravaged much of Colombia in the 1980s and 90s.

Cartagena is now a lovely place with cobblestone streets and bright pink flowers spilling over the balconies of colorful, colonial buildings. Every few blocks, there are parks where people gather on benches around fountains or sculptures. Lazy pigeons, seemingly exhausted by the heat lay on the pavement like dogs. Women wearing bright, traditional outfits carry bowls of fresh fruit on their heads (think Chiquita banana lady) and sell refreshments. There are also many vendors selling necklaces, bags, carved figurines and the like. It's pretty touristy, but still charming. At night, the air cools and you can smell flowers everywhere. The clip-clop of horses hooves echo off the buildings as carriages take couples on tours throughout the city. Lovers walk hand-in-hand and music wafts through the air from bars and restaurants. It's a very romantic place.

If you ever decide to visit, here are some tips:

-- $1 = 2,000 pesos (give or take, depending on the exchange rate). Before you start using the money, you should sit down and assess what you've got and what it's worth. Darrel accidentally tried to give room service a $50 tip when they brought beers to our room. They looked at him like he was crazy and took of without the money. Ha ha!
-- I don't know if it's just our hotel or if this is common practice, but there is no iron in our room. If you want to get something ironed, you have to send it to the laundry service and it costs about $6 to get one shirt ironed. That's why I'll look wrinkly in all the pictures, LOL!
-- English is not widely spoken here. Spanish is not widely spoken by Ellis-i. It's working out OK though. On our friend Elizabeth's advice, we brought along a little English/Spanish dictionary and it's been very useful. We're trying to be friendly and humble when we butcher the language and, so far, everyone's taken it in good humor and helped us along as best they can.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Off to Cartagena!

Wow, I've been away from this blog for a long time - two years! The last entry was from just before Darrel proposed and now here we are in Cartagena, Colombia, celebrating our first wedding anniversary!

In a wild display of extravagance, we've gotten into the minibar in our room and are drinking cold cervezas and eating Pringles out on our balcony after our first day of exploring! Darrel's lounging in the hammock and we're listening to Steely Dan on his iPhone. He just enlightened me that their reference to "fine Colombian" is about coke, not cigars. Ha! Who knew? I had always pictured them sitting around with glasses of top-shelf tequila, blowing smoke rings! Anyway, let me catch you up on the first day of our journey.


When we left Detroit, !!Snowtastrophe 2010!! was under way and we worried our flight would be canceled. But, to our great joy, it wasn't and we even left on time! Before we got on the plane at 6:35 a.m., I drank a bottle of water and a coffee. About an hour into the trip to Fort Lauderdale, where we had a layover, I really had to go to the bathroom. But, I didn't want to bother the guy next to me who, heading to Cancun, had been ordering double rum and cokes since we boarded. His tray was littered with bottles and cans, so I figured I'd wait until he got up. When he finally did, I made a beeline to the least busy bathroom. A boy, about 10, went in in front of me. After he was finished and I went in, I discovered he'd left the seat up. "What a savage," I thought. "Didn't his mother teach him to put the seat down?" When I was finished, I headed back to my seat and, just before I got there, a woman reached out in front of me and handed her earbud to a friend across the aisle so she could listen to a song, effectively blocking my path. One of her traveling companions admonished her but she shrugged him off. Finally she took her earbud back and I was free to get into my seat. I figured Big Drinker, who had already returned, would stand up and let me in. Instead, I stood, staring at him, as he adjusted his jacket, pulled out his glasses, generally made himself comfortable, etc. The same considerate traveling companion who'd admonished the earbud girl now pointed out to Big Drinker that I was waiting to get back into my seat. Big Drinker looked up at me in a somewhat annoyed fashion and said, "Oh, I wondered why you were standing there." Savages.

Luckily, our next flight, from Fort Lauderdale to Cartagena (about 2 1/2 hours), was much better. We sat next to this great guy named Edgar. He was about 45, but you'd never guess it from his boyish, mischeivious face. He was born in Colombia but moved to the United States as a baby. He lives in New York now and was going to Colombia for the Carnival celebration in Baranquilla (the second-largest such event outside Rio! Baranquilla is also where Shakira's from!). Anyway, Edgar was a total New Yorker -- all smiles but with watchful eyes, a total character full of witty remarks and ready to party! He told us about the first time he'd come back to Colombia: After he enrolled in the Marines as a twenty-something, he said, his father wanted to show him what it really meant to be tough, so brought him back to experience their homeland. One night, after going out drinking with his extended family, he awoke crying. The sound, in turn, awakened his father, who asked what was wrong. Edgar said he was overwhelmed with the feeling of fitting in for the first time in his life. "You can take a child away from where they were meant to be," he said, "but that place will always be in their heart."

Once we were on the ground, a driver from our hotel picked us up. On the way to the Charleston Santa Teresa, we passed along the seashore and saw a man driving a donkey cart down the side of the divided highway where cars, buses and scooters zipped past. There were skyscrapers and cranes, but also chipping paint and stumpy little shops along the road. The closest thing in my experience to compare it to is Puerto Rico. Once we got checked in to our hotel, a former convent, we went up to the rooftop pool/restaurant, where we had views of yachts out on the water and a beautiful old church roof. It was gorgeous - high 80s, mostly sunny, with a nice breeze - and we were just in time to watch the sun set! We ordered ceviche, empanadas and plantains with avocado sauce. I had a beer and Darrel had a Mojito. Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

WORLD VIEW: Jamaica, Day 1

To be honest with you, I did not think our trip to Jamaica would turn out as interesting as it did. Never having been to the Caribbean before and basing my expectations on what I'd seen in TV commercials, I thought we'd be cut off from the culture by the confines of our tourist experience in Negril. Luckily, it wasn't like that at all - we met tons of interesting people and learned a lot about Jamaica ... and American tourists!

When we left Detroit, it was 3 degrees Farenheit, gray and snowy. After an all-day trek, with a layover in Atlanta, we cruised in over the sparkling water of Montego Bay with a view of lush, sun-dappled mountains, marked by pastel-colored houses and palm trees. As the plane touched down and the pilot announced our arrival, applause and "woohoos!" erupted. We had managed to pack only carry-ons, so we booked through Immigration and were soon out in the warm, late afternoon sun. We found our shuttle driver, who told us to grab a beer and relax while he rounded up his other passengers. So, we headed over to the outdoor airport bar and ordered some Red Stripes - it was finally time for D to break his self-imposed, three-month exile from alcohol! Talk about a "woohoo"! Our driver took quite a liking to him and popped by to chat with us while we waited. A woman selling discount books also approached us and we couldn't resist buying one after she made it a point of pride, "This book is only $5 - don't you think your lady would like it? Isn't she worth spending $5 on?," she cajoled D. Sideways, with a wink, she said to me, "Don't worry, I'll take care of you." It wasn't so much that we needed the book as it was this woman was charming as hell and we couldn't resist. But, the point is - be prepared to be solicited as soon as you step off the plane. Also, be prepared for the currency quandary. The exchange rate between American dollars and Jamaican dollars (or Jai) is astronomical - when we were there it was about $1 U.S. to $65 Jamaican. Plus, different places charge different rates - there is not a uniform system. And, you won't always get change in the type of currency you pay with. Everywhere we went accepted U.S. dollars, but often you'd get Jamaican dollars in return.

Finally, it was time to head out, so we boarded the bus and hit the road as the sun went down. We were joined by a very outgoing woman from New Jersey, who immediately pegged my accent as Midwestern because she had attended U-M. She was a lawyer on vacation with her pre-teen son, whom she'd given Benadryl for the flight because he was afraid to fly. He sat quietly next to her as she spoke loudly and confidently on many topics until we dropped them off at their hotel. Heading out of the Montego Bay, the traffic got really crazy. As the main street narrowed from two lanes to one, it was like an all-out, horn-honking gladiator battle to get ahead. Plus, there were people in the streets selling all kinds of things: Flags, eggs, peanuts and pastries, which flumoxed me. Who would want to buy an old pastry from the side of the road?

It took us about an hour and a half to get to Negril from Montego Bay, with stops to drop off other passsengers and for Red Stripe. You can drink anywhere in Jamaica - except around the steering wheel - our driver told us. Along the way, he also pointed out a Rasta selling ganja along the roadside. Most households in Jamaica derive at least part of their income from marijuana, he said, but the prime minister has been cracking down on its cultivation and sale, which remain illegal. Not surprisingly, he didn't campaign on an opposition platform, our driver said. It was only after his election that he sent soldiers to cut down the fields. When we asked why he'd do this in a country where so many people depend on marijuana as a cash crop, our driver told us it was due to the long arm of U.S. policy. Tourism accounts for 60 percent of Jamaica's economy, he said, with the United States being a main consumer. So, the government doesn't want to ruffle any feathers.

Once we'd arrived at our hotel, the Samsara cliffs resort, we unloaded our stuff and walked across the street for a candlelit, outdoor dinner at Choices restaurant. We wound up the night mellowing out, stargazing and laughing on the oceanside cliffs of our resort.

A perfect ending to the day that began a wonderful trip.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

SPIRIT: Dalai Lama to visit Ann Arbor

Heads-up everyone: His Holiness The Dalai Lama will visit Ann Arbor on April 19 and 20. Tickets to hear him speak are still available! Until then, ponder the lyrics to Yael Naim's song "New Soul". Sound familiar?:

I'm a new soul I came to this strange world hoping I could learn a bit about how to give and take.
But since I came here felt the joy and the fear finding myself making every possible mistake


I'm a young soul in this very strange world hoping I could learn a bit about what is true and fake.
But why all this hate?
Try to communicate.
Finding trust and love is not always easy to make.


This is a happy end cause' you don't understand everything you have done why's everything so wrong
this is a happy end come and give me your hand I'll take your far away.

I'm a new soul I came to this strange world hoping I could learn a bit about how to give and take but since I came here
felt the joy and the fear finding myself making every possible mistake


Monday, January 21, 2008

SPIRIT: Technology vs. humanity

Would you like to have sex with a robot? Do you think you could fall in love with one?

Author Damon Levy says that sex with robots will be possible within 5 years and love with robots will be possible by mid-century. Levy made these claims while promoting his book "Love + Sex with Robots" on the "Colbert Report". While Colbert whole-heartedly mocked him, I couldn't help but think there would be a market for hot 'droid nookie and, worse yet, for R2-D2 lovin'. And it made me sad. Because what are love and sex besides spiritual experiences? Yes, yes, sex feels good and you can have it with someone you don't love - a stranger or a client or a rapist. But, even then, it is an interaction between two human beings that leaves both changed. And, when there is love with sex, it is one of the most uniquely human experiences we can have. If you take one of those spirits out of the equation and replace it with a pre-programmed pile of metal and plastic, you eliminate the spiritual element. In which case, how are you any different than a robot?

With all that on my mind this weekend, I began watching "Children of Men," an apocalyptic film in which the human race has become infertile and the last generation is living a bleak, hopeless, dead-end existence in a chaotic world. And, that's when it occurred to me what was so disturbing about sex with robots: What is beautiful about sex is not just the thrill, the feel or the kink - it's the miracle of it, the humanity, the possibility of new life it brings. For generations and generations, it has never failed to continue the human race. It is like the sun rising or the sky being blue or gravity - you take this daily miracle for granted. And, with this regeneration comes renewed hope for a better future. But this miracle comes with strings attached - emotions, obligations, etc. That's where technology steps in - it can make things easier for us, entertain us, occupy us, and, according to Levy, even love us. It's easy; it's clean; it's free of the complications that are intrinsic to human beings. But, in our quest for ultimate efficiency, are we sacrificing our humaness? Our ties to each other? In "Children of Men," one young character sits at the dinner table, strapped into an electronic gizmo, so immersed in technology that his father has to shout into his face for him to hear - and, even then, he glances up with resentment at the human intrusion. In another scene, the young woman the film centers around, Key, misses an introduction to someone because she has her headphones on - her face clearly says she does not appreciate the interuption. I couldn't help but wonder if the people in the movie had become so immersed in technology and so detached from each other that that's why the miracle of life had been taken away from them. But, something wonderful happens. Key becomes pregnant - the first person to do so in years. She explains that she didn't even think about pregnancy as a possibliity when she had sex with so many men. But when she felt the baby kick inside her, she knew the miracle of life was real. Alive and kicking inside of her were humanity and hope for the future - something technology cannot replicate.

You are the product of a miracle, as am I. So, in parting, I say namaste - I honor the divine in you.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

MUSIC: Bomba

So, the other day on NPR, I heard this group I wanted to tell you guys about: ¡Bomba!. They describe themselves this way:

"Latin/World group ¡Bomba! is led by three artists of contrasting cultural and musical backgrounds- drummer Mario Allende originally from Chile, bassist Rubim de Toledo of Brazilian descent, and keyboardist Chris Andrew from Vancouver Island. Taking different routes to the same destination, they landed in Edmonton, Canada and banded together to share one vision. These three are a new generation of musicians well schooled in traditional Latin music forms from timba to rumba, to son, salsa, songo, as well as North American popular music and jazz."

While I was checking them out on the Web, I found out that there's a whole style of music and dance called Bomba. Maybe you've already heard of it, but it was new to me. Bomba is a vibrant style that originated in Puerto Rico as a spiritual release for sugar plantation slaves and their descendants. Here's how National Geographic World Music describes the genre:

"Traditionally bomba is danced by a mixed couple who take turns showing off their skills, competing with each other and with the drummer. The dancers proceed in pairs and without contact. The excitement and sensual tension in the music is generated by the often improvised interactions of the singer and chorus, the drummers' rhythmic exchanges, and the suggestive "conversation" between the highest pitched drum and the dancer. The drummer follows the movement of the dancer; dancer and drummer cajole, tease and challenge each other to what appears to be a sensual dual, which lasts as long as the dancer's stamina continues. The effect is that of an intimate visual and musical exchange between singer, drummer and dancer."