Archive for the ‘Travel’ Category

Old dog, new tricks for us

September 14, 2014

 

It was the message no one wants to receive while on vacation. We had just settled into our rooms at a lovely bed and breakfast overlooking a lake in the Highlands of Scotland when I noticed an email from our neighbor: “We’re at the vet’s office. Please call ASAP.” I realized that the email had actually come through a couple of hours before, but we had been driving through the mountainous Highlands: beautiful, remote, and completely without service.

Four days into our vacation this was the first place that had no wifi service in the rooms, only downstairs in the lobby. I texted back, not sure whether it was our dog or one of the cats in our geriatric animal unit who was in trouble. At nearly 18 years of age, our dog had already defied the odds multiple times, coming back from the brink of pancreatitis or dehydration, bouncing with remarkable spunk to his arthritic but enthusiastic self.

Navigating the communication was proving challenging. I had no phone service, nor did our daughter with a British phone. My husband, two daughters and I gathered in one section of the lobby, pooling our respective electronic devices. Skype! We used my husband’s iPad, and called our neighbor. We could hear her, but she couldn’t hear us. The service cut out and I called back and if I spoke loudly, she could tell I was there. She continued speaking even when she couldn’t hear me. Already home from the vet, they had administered fluids and an appetite stimulant, but needed to have our wishes clear should the dog start to fail again.

Teary, but clear, we call back and convey our wishes for him to be comfortable, but not to keep him alive until we returned four days later if he was in pain.

“The vet needs you to call and tell them directly, “ our neighbor advises. We ring off, and place a call. Amazingly we get through first try. I explain our wishes to the woman who answers in an increasingly loud voice because the wifi is shaky, fading in and out. “OK,” she says, finally, “but I need you to tell the vet herself. Can you hold?” I sigh, praying that the connection can sustain.

The vet picks up and I rush to try to get our stance across before we lose signal. “Our dog has lived a long and happy life and we don’t want to prolong it if he is in pain.” I’m speaking in a controlled shout so she can understand. “What?” she asks. I take a breath and go for the quick direct route. “IT’S OK TO GIVE THE DOG THE SHOT IF IT’S TIME.” I look around and see a couple on a Skype call with their grandchild, and another couple speaking in hushed tones. The vet responds. “So it’s ok with you if he doesn’t come around from the fluids?” “YES, IT’S OK.” I’m self conscious about screaming how it’s all right to send our dog into the next life with all these people around. I’m hoping they are foreign and don’t understand me.

“Ok,” the vet says. “I need you to just tell our tech since we can’t get it in writing.” She is transferring me over before I can tell her that I already spoke to someone. Tracy picks up and I feel a wave of nervous laughter bubbling up. I am in a sit come here, about to shout to a third person that IT’S OK TO OFF OUR DOG if necessary. I have to slap a hand over my mouth to regain control.

Miraculously the line holds, although it is staticky. Tracy is apologetic and sympathetic but I interrupt her and blurt out that “IT’S OK TO GIVE HIM THE SHOT IF NECESSARY.” Having satisfied this condition we are able to ring off and I breathe out a sigh of relief.

The next morning I remember that we have our calling card number and text it to Beth, our generous neighbor, suggesting she call my daughter’s phone. We receive the call in the afternoon and once again our little street dog from Puerto Rice has come through, happy to eat the special cans of dog food from the vet. I am eager to see the little guy, grateful that we will be able to be with him again, with no plans to be away more than a night for months to come.

Meg Stafford can be reached at megstaf@aim.com. She will have good service for the foreseeable future.

 

A Rare Friend Indeed

April 6, 2014

“I will need to take you to every house in the village!” my daughter Gale had declared when we arrived at her small vereda in Colombia, a two hour sweaty hike from the nearest sister enclave. That had sounded like a reasonable but undoable request even before we arrived. I didn’t know how many people this would involve, but I did know that it was not going to be like an end of soccer game moving line of hard slapping “good game, good game, good game.” Each meeting was personal. With only two days and lots of other important things to do, (like removing papayas from their post 15 feet in the air) it could not really even be a reasonable goal to aim for.

 

The second day we headed up the hill in the three rows of small dwelling that comprise La Union. In the farthest upper left hand corner was a small farm with some donkeys in the yard. Gale peered through the small window into the dimly lit interior. “Allo?” she called out. We headed around to the side where the donkeys were. Jesusa greeted us, and welcomed us inside the gate. She was grinding corn in a large waist high pestle to feed the donkey. “He is not eating,” Gale translated as Jesusa pointed to the donkey. “See how swollen he is here?” She delivered a firm punch to the animal’s lower left neck.”This is not good.” She was clearly worried. “Come inside.” We walked through the densely grown yard filled with low bushes, flowers, parts of equipment and into a small kitchen area with a very low ceiling. It was illuminated by the side we entered from, which was largely open.

 

In the back was a wood burning stove. She shooed two tiny cats off an upturned log that made a bench and offered us seats and then she retrieved some wood to stoke the fire. The hard packed dirt floor was swept clean, and Jesusa pointed to a small side table with an attached shelf underneath. “See the duck and the chicken asleep there?” I had not even noticed them, so quiet were they in their slumber.

 

She took some eggs and was busy by the stove as we chatted. How did I like it here? Where is my husband? How is my time here? I labored through my responses, coaxing my high school Spanish into the present. Gale allowed me to wade through, interrupting only when I came out with French, which I frustratingly and consistently retrieved more easily, as I had lived there for six months in college. It had taken root more firmly than the Spanish I was now summoning.

 

As if by magic she turned around holding two bowls of soup made with what looked like oversize kidney beans, chunks of banana, with a cooked egg on top. I should not have been caught off guard, but I was not expecting a meal. “Aye, muchas, muchas gracias!” I could utter before I tucked into it. We chatted a bit more. Gale’s housemate had arrived as well and was also given soup.

 

Jesusa turned to face me and look me directly in the eye. Her manner and tone conveyed absolute conviction as she stated, “You do us great honor by visiting us here.” The tears that sprang up instantly hindered my ability to form words. “Oh, Jesusa, no. The honor is mine. Thank you so much. You are so generous.” I am stammering, searching for the right words, which would not have been easy in any language. I am so appreciative of her welcoming me into her home, of welcoming my daughter who is living there for a year, of dropping what she is doing and making us a meal.

 

As I stutter she hands us chunks of bread. This serves to stymy my attempts at formulating more coherent thoughts and “Oh gracias, ortra vez gracias” (once again, thank you) is as eloquent as I can manage. It is the depth of her sincerity that so moves me, and our connection is unmistakeable. Not only was there a great deal unspoken, but we both know that we have young adult daughters. Without words, she has told me that she appreciates the work my daughter is doing in the village, which ensures the safety of the people there, she appreciates that I have come to visit her, and visit them. She is able to feel my respect for her, for what she is doing.

 

Even though I know I am taking some license in my assumption, it is perhaps because I cannot understand all the words that the feeling is conveyed even more strongly. In that instant she has greeted me in her world, welcomed me in a way I have not often experienced.

 

 

As we get ready to leave she asks when I am going to return. Before coming I had not even entertained the notion of a return trip. With my visit, I am now wondering the same thing. She is not asking out of politeness. She really wants to know. I can only tell her that I have no plans at the moment, but I know that if and when I come back, I have a friend to welcome me.

 

Contradictions in Columbia; Where the Cows Really Do Come Home

March 29, 2014

It is many of the everyday things that we take completely for granted that are different in a tropical place like Colombia. I had been fooled by the modernness of the large city of Medellin, and touristy section of Cartagena, especially by staying in hotels which are thriving by accommodating westerners. It was not until arriving in the countryside that I understood how different the relationship with animals would be.

 

Hiking up two hours to where my daughter Gale is living I am struck by the natural beauty of the place as well as the fact that country life in a hot and humid climate by itself dictates many differences from what I am used to in the American Northeast. The differences expand out from there once you add in the country of Colombia, the fact that her village is rural by any standards, and then the fact that this village has made a point of declaring its neutrality in a country that continues to be rife with conflict.

 

The hike, although not arduous in terms of technical difficulty, is steadily uphill through rolling and sometimes steep hills. I get winded at times and Gale reminds me that it is very humid, and that I am carrying 15 pounds on my back. This feels like small consolation, but we are all dripping when we arrive at her little home.

 

There is one sink in a home, composed of two parts. Made of concrete, the right hand side is a large tank filled with water. On the left hand side is a downward sloping surface that drains at the bottom. A plastic bowl is used as a scoop to get water for rinsing dishes, or teeth, or clothing, depending on what is currently being washed. It takes a little time to get used to it, but it is easy enough to splash water on our faces to cool off immediately (until we have the energy for a quick cold shower). It is also a relief to remove the knee high mud boots and socks which are much too warm now that they are not necessary. There is a hammock tucked off to the side of the main room and another on the small back porch. The young women who have hiked up the mountain with us each climb into one and fall immediately asleep.

 

Gale and I go back outside and sit on the stoop directly outside the door. I can see other similar small dwellings further up and down the hill. Three little pigs walk by, grazing and moving without once looking up from their work. I wonder how they even get anything in their mouths, but during my two day stay they wander by a number of times, like tiny vegetarian land sharks, ever moving and eating.

 

The horses, cows, dog, and chickens also roam quite freely. Gale and her housemates take advantage of this by tossing banana and papaya peels outside for them to eat. I practice taking aim with my peel from the kitchen out the six inch square window to the back yard. Once a horse paused long enough for us to show the banana peel and it obligingly sauntered over to take it out of our hands, much to my delight.

 

This is not to say that I could engage the horse any other way. When I heard that the animals roam around I had wondered aloud whether I might be able to ride on a horse. “Well,” Gale had replied. “You’ll see.” I now understood that it was not easy to explain this seeming contradiction. The animals roam free, but that does not mean they are friendly or seeking interaction. In fact, I realized they would be quite unaccustomed to people from the outside, unlike any American farm I have visited. Even most of the dogs, while happy to congregate on the porch, do not look for affection, except from the family with which it lives. All the skinny animals are happy recipients of whatever food scraps are being offered.

 

One cow in particular, a cafe con leche colored beauty whose tan fades as it moves toward her belly, was particularly forward. Gale and her housemates had dubbed her “Daisy” and had on more than one occasion needed to usher her out of the house. Gale confessed that Daisy had once peed in the house. WHAT?!! I was appalled, but her roommate calmly reassured me that it wasn’t that big a deal. (Clearly his idea of not a big deal did not match my own sensibility about a bucket of cow pee being delivered indoors.) “Really, it mostly drained out right away. We followed it with water immediately, and the cleaning impact was pretty small.” Happy not to have this demonstrated, I had to admire Daisy for her perseverance and initiative. She had only been passing through the house because she noticed the garden in the back yard. On my second day we learned that Daisy is pregnant, thus possibly accounting for her head butting insistence on getting scraps.

 

My first night I was jolted awake by the sound of grass being forcefully ripped from the ground. I realized that it was a horse or cow who had chosen that moment for a midnight snack. The roosters conversed raucously through the night as well and as I drifted off for perhaps the fourth time I realized that these entertaining yet aloof creatures were integrated into the community in a way they knew and understood. In two days I could only begin to observe and appreciate their roles. I would have to settle for imitating the calf who bellowed like a bull. The rest of the mysteries would have to keep for another time. I could live with this.

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Insistence on Peace

March 12, 2014

These people are heroes. It is not what they set out to be, or how they strive to be recognized. It is the challenge of their everyday existence, which they live with simple grace, that highlights their bravery and determination to live life on their own terms, with harm to no one.

 

Set in the Abibe Mountains, a two hour hike from the nearest town, the people who live in La Union in northwestern Colombia are farmers. The land is lush, verdant, and produces multiple crops with the watchful guidance of the people who live close to this land.

 

The cluster of roughly three rows of one story abodes comprises the physical living space, which includes a school, and also a child care/preschool. The men rise early to head out to the farms, stopping on the way at the home of Maria Jesus who bakes breads (arepas), and lunches for them to take with them, which they stop and purchase. Because of the close proximity to the equator, there is little variation in the time the sun rises or sets, thus the routine continues year round, as does the production of crops.

 

There are a number of communities such as this one, who need to not only hike an hour and half to a store, but must also take an open air jeep to get to the city of Apartado to find supermarkets, clothing stores, or a reliable internet cafe.

 

What sets this village apart is its declaration of peace. Living in the country with the most displaced people in the world, they have come together to lay claim to their desire to farm their land, and live their lives while supporting neither the military, paramilitary nor the guerrillas. While this sounds simple and straight forward, it is not so. Each of these groups can perceive this stance as a threat, and react accordingly, which sometimes means occupying people’s land, eating their crops, and in some cases, rounding up leaders and shooting them. Such was the devastation experienced by the community in 2000, four years after its formation. Likely it had been the hope that by violently and graphically removing these leaders, that the community itself might perish.

 

There had previously been no recourse for these actions. Rather than responding with violence, after intense grieving and regrouping, the community decided to engage the help of an organization called Fellowship of Reconciliation/Peace Presence. This organization, almost 100 years old, although in Colombia only thirteen years, sent people to live in the village. They are accompaniers and witnesses, providing no counsel, but only a presence and connection to headquarters in Bogota, as well as a link to much more global organizations like the United Nations. The village is no longer invisible, but has transformed into a beacon of hope for what can be.

 

The community must accept that if they are going to travel to one of the other ten sister communities that populate the mountain, that the FORistas will literally walk with them in their bright blue tee shirts, whether it is a hike of an hour or six hours.

 

For its part, FOR/Peace Presence, too, seeks to maintain neutrality. While they are clearly there as a form of protection, they are not bodyguards, nor are they attempting to control or sway the community’s decisions in any way. (think Star Trek’s Prime Directive of non-interference as much as possible, in some ways). At the same time, they inevitably develop relationships with these friendly people while still maintaining their own role as witness and accompaniers. They cannot be too friendly, or favoring particular community members, but it is only natural that closer bonds will form with some rather than others.

 

They get to know each other, come to trust one another, and this is important in any community, but particularly one of a couple hundred people total. The community accepts Peace Presence while I can imagine it must sometimes feel challenging to consider that it is too risky to simply go count cattle on their own, or take a trip into town. Thus the more they can be considered as a part of the community, the less it might feel like being watched or watched over, both of which necessitate some distance in the relationship. They are clear that without these additional people in their village, they remain at risk. Though one might wonder whether there may at times be some resentment, this does not appear to be the prevailing reaction.

 

Thus, these people who are making history with their insistence on being Switzerland in a world that tries to demand otherwise, who are devoted to the land they love and the life that surrounds and supports it, are heroes. It is their unassuming and openhearted willingness to persevere that inspires a profound hope for what is possible. With the cooperation between FOR/Peace Presence and La Union they have created a model from which we can all flourish.

Initial Thoughts Regarding Rural Colombia

February 26, 2014

First Thoughts About Colombia

 

After a day in Medellin, a large city set into and completely ringed by mountains, and three days in Cartagena, a port with an old walled section and beautiful architecture, we set out for Apartado, in the west of Colombia, and then to the pueblo where Gale is currently making her home. The half hour ride in from the tiny airport took us past mile after mile of banana fields. Gale was pointing out the various types and sizes that were growing.

 

Our taxi left us off at the station where we would get our jeep ride partway up the mountain to L’Holandita, a sister community to hers where we would spend the night since it would be dark by the time we arrived. Gale inquired about the leaving time of the jeep, and learned that we had enough time to dash to the market for some food to cook that night. When we returned , we hopped under the roof of the open air back along with a couple of women, two young girls, and a young man. We fit comfortably in the jalopy which could easily seat four adults on each of the two bar seats that faced each other. Another man tossed a bag on top, and stood outside on the back fender, holding on to something I could not see from where I sat. We set off and stopped five minutes later. The man at the back hopped off, pulled a few eight foot long wood boards from where we parked, put them on top of the jeep, and off we went again. We made a couple more stops and then dropped off the whole load, to Gale’s dismay, because after a half hour of travel we were within a block of where we started.

 

“This is very unusual,” she explained. “A couple of stops, maybe, but not so many that we’ve now added a half hour onto a usually 45 minute trip.” We finally headed out of town, making a couple of quick drops, and then came upon a swarm of children getting out of school, perhaps? At this hour? It was past 6:30 pm. A couple of policemen pulled over our vehicle. Everyone needed to show ID. We retrieved our passports easily, but a couple of people had to get their ID from a bag that had been tossed onto the roof of the jeep. Nothing else happened and we were sent off within ten minutes. The rest of the trip was in darkness because this close to the equator the day is always divided nearly in half and by 6:45 it was completely dark. I couldn’t see the greenery that I could tell now surrounded the potholed, gravelly road. We stopped a few more times to let off a couple of people, or a bag here, or a message to that person until we arrived at La Holandita and jumped down with our backpacks.

 

A nun dressed in chino pants and a tee shirt greeted us, as well as a Bosnian girl and a German girl who both spoke perfect English. They, too,were staying there for the night because they had heard about the intentionally peaceful community and wanted to visit it. We all made food on the two burners that comprised the stove. The Bosnian girl had learned to make arepas while living in Venezuela for three months. (They are a type of flattish cornflour bread that could be sliced and buttered or eaten with cheese.). We cooked our vegetables and the German girl made lentils. We feasted and chatted and turned in for the night under our mosquito netting. I had feared that I would feel claustrophobic but it is so light and see through that this was not really the case. Gale elected to sleep in the hammock in the main area instead, preferring the open air to the slightly moldy cast of the mattresses.

 

Not long after I managed to drift to sleep I heard some kind of flapping outside my window. I couldn’t quite place what it was, although I kew it was not wings. Seconds later a rooster close by crowed like mad, setting up a series of calls like the game telephone, and I could hear the ripple of roosters going around the small community. Then, like a wave, it restarted with the rooster by my window, delivering an equally urgent and compelling message, and spreading with the same efficiency. After a third round of this, a dog responded with a long and plaintive howl. This set off a new call and response from the roosters, not to be outdone by a single canine.

 

Pondering the reason why this was happening at midnight instead of six am, I shifted on my super firm two inch thick mattress and welcomed a bit of shut eye into my humid bed.

 

An hour later, a nearby cow lowed. Nothing serious, it had probably just noticed a few pigs in its path. This received the same enthusiastic narration from the roosters who clearly could not let any comment go without a conversation. Who knew they were so freaking social? I ventured outside my net to the bathroom, hoping they would not see fit to declare this another reason for comment.

 

I must have drifted off again because next thing I knew it was three am, and a delicate melody as if from a music box filled the air. In my extreme disorientation I could not place where it was coming from and after a minute it stopped. I realized it was probably someone’s cell phone, though why it was ringing at 3 am was baffling. Fifteen minutes later the same delicate melody repeated, again with no response from its owner. Or the roosters, which was a relief. When it went off again 15 minutes later I nearly jumped out of bed, ready to throw it in the large basin of water that served as part of the sink, and was sooooo close by. I didn’t but I did hum along with the tune this time, not quite getting the last little bit right yet. I heard rustling and the pressing of cell phone buttons, and the creaking of the bed on the other side of the wall.

 

At four, the rooster contingent had something else to discuss, and the ring leader outside my window made sure that all the roosters in the camp had it clear before settling back down. And at 5 am someone a few houses down the grassy path demonstrated the “one up, everyone up” rule and blared Reggae so loud I was shocked that the rooster had no response. More surprising to me was that there was no discernible human response, either. Were people so accustomed to noises of all types that they could screen out all but those that pertained to them?

 

I have not been blessed with the heavy sleeping gene, so I was able to witness each event as the night unfolded. I recalled when Gale was five years old and I mentioned that I was a light sleeper. “Oh, then I must be a dark sleeper because I don’t wake up at all in the night.” she replied. I was hoping this skill still applied at age 23.

 

By 6:30 we were all awake, making coffee and oatmeal, and preparing for our two hour hike up the mountain to get to Gale’s community. I wondered whether the roosters wanted us to convey any messages to their brethren there. I hoped not. My Spanish was still weak, and I had other plans for my night than deciphering conversation between the community’s fowl. Armed with my broken night’s sleep I breathed deeply and looked around at my spectacularly lush surroundings. And this was just the beginning. I couldn’t wait to learn about the rest.IMG_1836IMG_1843IMG_1881

Got My Bag, I Got My Reservation

February 5, 2014

My husband remembers that the boots are to prevent snake bites. I recall that the boots are for mud. We ask my daughter who confirms that we are both right. How convenient of me to forget that little detail about the snakes. If you screen out the risks and the scary bits, what you are left with is adventure. It’s a tricky business sometimes, maintaining this perspective, but most of the time that’s just the way it is.

 

As I make preparations for my trip, my daughter informs me that there is a pair of boots for me. They might be a little big, but that shouldn’t matter too much. I am bringing extra pairs of tall socks for her anyway, so I’ll be all set.

 

I call the credit card company to let them know the dates that I will be in Colombia. The customer service rep asks for various pieces of information, and makes conversation about the reason for my travel. I begin to explain that my daughter is living for a year in a community that is a 45 minute open air jeep ride and a two hour walk in the mud from the nearest town with a store. I can hear a shift in the rep’s voice as she responds. “Wow.” There is a moment of silence. I go on. “Yeah, it’s pretty far out there. They’re just used to it, though. They make that trip every week because they don’t have a refrigerator.” I hear her attentive silence, so I continue.

“She’s there with two other (essentially) volunteers (they do get a tiny stipend) living in the community and accompanying the people there to other communities or wherever they need to go to make sure they are safe. It’s just by their presence that they do this, not by any other means.”

 

“You’re blowing my mind,” say the rep. “I’m living in my comfy home and don’t think twice about running down the street to get food or anything for my one year old daughter. Wow. WOW,” she repeats.

 

I realize that I have begun to take this situation for granted. It is just the way it is. Even though internet contact is sporadic, or nil when she is away on accompaniments, we have recently invested in an international calling card, and when there is service, we can hear her perfectly well. In the few pictures that have been posted she looks delighted, at ease, radiant. In one, she is holding an enormous leaf over her head like an umbrella which is exactly what she used it for when a sudden rain cloud burst on their travels.

 

“She has called it paradise.” I inform the rep. “She says it’s lush lush lush with lots of delicious unidentifiable fruits and great food because she’s living amongst farmers.” In our companionable silence I sense we are both thinking about how relative each of our perspectives is. Just our conversation about this has shifted our transaction from one of routine business into something more meaningful that we will each continue to ponder. I imagine telling her colleagues, or perhaps her husband or friend about our conversation…”So I was working with this lady on the phone today and she’s going to visit her daughter who’s living in a Colombian village that’s three hours from the nearest store. Her daughter’s there for a year but these people live like that!” I also wonder if it makes her day dream about her relationship with her one year old, wondering where in the world she might be when she is 23.

 

I think about the level of inter dependence that must exist between the people there. With it not being possible to pop off for some eggs or flour they must regularly need to borrow food and supplies. My daughter has talked about how people drop by, and I am bringing markers for the kids when they come to draw in their tiny home. She describes her triumph last week in figuring out how to bake a chocolate cake using someone’s combination gas and wood stove.

 

I am eager to be there with her, to see the countryside, meet the people, the cow who hangs out in their yard, test out my rusty Spanish, and drink in a new part of the world.

 

Defining Colombia

December 4, 2013

We learned more about where, exactly, in Colombia our 23 year old daughter Gale is, and how she got there. What was first billed as a 12-16 hour bus ride is actually an 11 hour bus ride followed by a seven hour bus ride, followed by a 45 minute open air jeep ride followed by a two hour walk through the mud to get to the village where she is now living. I think that qualifies under the heading “remote.”

 

Along with two other people who work for Fellowship of Reconciliation (whose name will be changing to something like Pathways for Peace,) she will live in this intentionally peaceful community, and will act as the eyes and ears of the world. In this remote area where many people have been displaced, the people working for the almost 100 year old FOR stand as a reminder that although remote, they are connected to the outside world, and are there to note when there is not fair treatment of all. Sometimes they are asked to accompany Colombians to the hospital, or to another community. They must evaluate the request, and the safety at that time.

 

Gale’s first bus ride out of Bogota was overnight, and after the second ride she spent the night in the city of Apartado, having a meeting before going forward with the jeep and walk. If I think about it too much, it makes my head hurt a little (or is it my heart?) so I focus on the fact that she has emailed a few times since her arrival.

 

As fate would serve it up, her first day there was Thanksgiving, when she had originally expected to still be in Bogota, putting together a meal with the fixins with her colleagues there. Instead, she made arroz con leche (a rice pudding variant) and lit tiny birthday candles to acknowledge Hanukkah.

 

She called us via Google chat on Thanksgiving, and again as timing would set it up, my husband was getting the bird to the table as I pulled out tray after casserole of harvested earthly heaven from our oven. Torn, I ran back and forth between the office where I could listen in as she and Kate, our daughter at home for a few days, exchanged updates, and then back to the kitchen. As we corralled our group of 16 to the table, I abandoned hope of meaningful conversation with our Colombian landed daughter and consoled myself with the notion of a longer conversation later in the weekend.

 

Knowing that she called was at once a reassurance that we could be in touch that quickly, and also a reminder that she is not here at this moment, that she is not just a text away.

 

I try not to think of it too much; I cannot focus on the distance, but must instead consider the closeness with which I can connect to her tone, her words, her intent behind a few lines of text on the screen.

 

“This will be life changing,” our guests comment. I agree, although I cannot know how, or where it will lead her. I don’t want to know now. Part of the deliciousness, if I can stand it, is in watching it unfold. She is reassuring about the security measures that FOR is taking when they decide whether to honor a request for accompaniment. I still don’t know the details of how they obtain their information, and find myself once again at a crossroad, trying to highlight the reassurance of precaution rather than the fact that there is need for it.

 

I feel similarly about this as I do the fact that the hospitals are very reputable. Although I’m glad to hear that, and the organization jokes about how past volunteers have put that to the test with good result, I do not want to learn through experience that their perspective is valid. I’m quite willing to take their word, and have Gale’s visits there be informational only. I consider the travel there, and choose to feel good about my daughter’s good health and strength.

 

Gale has wondered how soon to get pictures out as part of her post and I realize I am hungry for them. If i can imagine her there, I am able to be with her in my mind’s eye. Even before knowing who is welcoming, who is shy, what she means when she emphasizes that it is HUMID, although not unpleasantly hot, if I can get a visual, I can start to fill in some of the blanks. of course, ti will remain to be seen whether I create a separate reality, or how close I can come to understanding her experience. Time to dust off my high school Spanish. I have learned that with one stop, I can get to Medallin in eight hours. Then it’s just the seven hour bus ride, open air jeep and a hop skip in my mud boots to see her new life.

 

To Colombia with Love

November 20, 2013

I have long known that fear can worm its way into an equation, stopping a story at the point at which it enters, thereby derailing or hijacking an otherwise perfectly lovely time. The trick is to see past it or through it, so that it does not get in the way. Fear has its place, and is vital for self preservation at times, but I generally do not cotton with the amount of anxiety it generates and selfishly, I do not like for it to get in the way of my own fun or that of others. I therefore have become quite skilled at finding effective ways to squeeze uncomfortable fearful feelings into smaller packages, leaving more room for laughter, adventure, and love.

 

When our 23 year old daughter made clear that she was pursuing a position in Colombia with an organization that actively supports peace in areas of conflict, I’m sure my eyes grew wide and my pulse quickened. The Colombia I grew up hearing about sported drug cartels and violence and unpredictability. Gale’s reassurance about the changes did little to erase the images that had taken root when I was her age. Reading on the website made clear that this is an established organization with connections to better known groups (like the UN) and also that violence was more than a decade in the past. I reminded myself that a decade to me reads like “last week” whereas to her it is long ago, back when she was a young teenager of 13.

 

I hear her excitement about how impressive the week of training was, how well thought out, executed and how helpful. I listen to the security measures that are now in place, and to her eagerness to be speaking Spanish all the time.

 

I consider the amount of walking she will be doing (45 minutes to the nearest town for things like groceries), her skill at mediation, even though that is not her role, and how much she is nurtured by being in a new culture.

 

I reflect on our five mile walks together over these past couple of months, and understand again how important this transition is for her. Having completed an excruciating year of graduate school, she was thirsty for something non-academic. Despite her passion for teaching, she could not settle into a position just yet, not with the world beckoning, inviting her to connect to people in a different way.

 

Residing in an intentionally peaceful community, her presence is a reminder of all of their connections to the outside world. Although she will be living in the northwestern corner of the country (a 12-16 hour bus ride from Bogota), she will have access to cell phones and internet, (when they are working), and tee shirts that bear the name of their organization.

 

When she walks with community members to their negotiations with government or other groups, or to the hospital, she will be getting to know them, and they will be learning about her. She will see what they eat and how to prepare it, what their favorite dances are, and she will teach them songs to sing as a round and show them photos of where she lives here in the States. She will learn how to make puns in Spanish and how to spot a pig in the path when it is belly deep in mud and the same color. She will find out what is important to these people, what their dreams look like, who is related to whom.

 

Spending a year in this community she will become a part of it, and they of her. I know that she lives to immerse herself in a situation and live it fully, from the inside out. We will look for her posts, her photographs and stories, what she is finding challenging and what surprises her most.

 

And I? I will be starting my internet search for affordable flights to Bogota, and quicker-than-a-16-hour bus routes to her village from there. I can hardly wait.

 

A New York State of Mind

October 26, 2013

It is all about expectation, whether it is a medical procedure, a holiday dinner, or a family visit. As much as I know this to be true, I was still not prepared for the deluge of thoughts, memories and feelings that flash flooded on my last trip to New Paltz, New York to visit my mom.

 

My friend Jo, who had not been to the area, was coming with me, and my mom and I wanted to show her the spectacular Mohonk Mountain House and also the home outside of town which my parents had built and lived in for 25 years following my graduation from high school. I had only lived in this open, light filled haven in the woods for two summers, and it had been 15 years since my mom had lived there.

 

 

As we drove slowly down the bumpy uneven lane I recalled the Christmas Eve we slid down the last portion on foot because the snow had fallen so quickly during dinner with our friends that our small car could not make it up the hill in the driveway. As the 80 foot cliffs of the Shawangunks came into view I breathed deeply, aware of the tremendous calm that accompanied the sense of well being this place engendered.

 

There was the small pond directly beneath the dramatic cliffs. Each of our daughters had caught her first fish here and my mother swore that the snappers who inhabited the pond wouldn’t bite while in the water. Easy for her to state so confidently from the safety of the deck. We declined to try out her theory.

 

It was a crisp fall day with the temp in the mid 60’s, just as our wedding day had been, here, 26 years ago. The hawks had circled protectively overhead, and we pointed out the route my husband, his parents, each of our siblings and my parents and I had walked up to the porch where we took our vows. I recalled the rows of people sitting on what is actually the septic field before moving to the back where a large tent had been set up.

 

The couple who live there now showed us the interior. They had installed dark, almost black stained bamboo flooring which was a striking contrast against the white walls. Where my parents had covered the walls in artwork from around the world, they had created a more Zen like, minimalist beauty.

 

The tree we had planted over my dad’s ashes had been replaced by decorative grass which had grown to an astonishing eight feet in height. They had placed Adirondack chairs on an extension of the deck to enjoy the scene. It was bittersweet to be here, wishing this sanctuary were still a more regular part of our lives.

 

On to Mohonk Mountain House where we spent our wedding night. We had arrived in our wedding garb after first visiting the DIY car wash to rid my husband’s truck of the paint eating shaving cream which decorated it. They took us to our room, opened the door, and we were greeted by two lovely twin beds with a stunning carved nightstand in between. They looked at us, regarded the set up and declared that “this will not do” and promised to return with bedding for a king size bed which the twins became when turned sideways and put together.

 

Outdoors was the glacial lake with surrounding cliffs and color coded gardens and trails which make this the captivating destination that it is. As we walked around the lake I recalled spending time there as a child as well, swimming in the clear aquamarine water and running around the maze of walkways by the beach area. We had stayed in this hide-n-seek heaven when my dad played in musical performances in the evening.

The deep sense of home the area exudes was undeniable. The connection to my roots, my family, and my tie with nature were palpable, almost overwhelming. I wondered why we have not returned more frequently, apart from the expense of spending a night there. Perhaps it was the idea of bringing someone new to enjoy it with, to show off its special character that brought fresh appreciation. Having it be 70 degrees, sunny and dry didn’t hurt either.

 

Next time I will be in a better position to be ready for the onslaught this combination would render. It will make going home that much sweeter.

 

Zumba With a Twist

August 29, 2013

I arrived at class a few minutes before the start time as I always do, carrying my sneaks to change into so that I wouldn’t track in any dirt or grit from outdoors. However, it was clear from the outset that this would be no ordinary Zumba class.

 

Welcomed at the gate to the huge enclosed backyard corner lot at the Acton home of Michael and Zuzana Smith, I could see the lushly landscaped areas as well as some open grassy sections.  Teenagers lounged by the pool, some sitting at a table underneath a green umbrella, others around a picnic table that was covered in drinks, interesting looking dips, chips and watermelon slices. There was a sprinkling of adults who were chatting, tending to the food or preparing for a dip in the pool themselves.

 

Apart from the hosts, the other adults were affiliated with Friends Forever, a group whose mission is to promote trust and understanding among cultures in conflict. This group was comprised of ten teens from Israel, five of them Jewish, five Muslim considering themselves Palestinian, and Friends Forever is bringing them to the United States for two weeks where they spend time with each other in a new host country and city. Already in the Boston area for a week and a half, these 15-17 year olds had been on a Duck Tour, climbed Mt. Morgan in New Hampshire, seen the MIT Robotics lab, walked around Salem, and played Bocce Ball with the elders where they are housed during their stay. They were as yet unaware that they would be introduced to Zumba.

 

Judy Quint, of JRO Fitness arrived a few minutes later in a bright pink Love, Peace, Zumba shirt and matching pink shorts. We had had a brief conversation about the play list, although I knew that the teens would move to anything she chose. More introductions with Judy trying out her Hebrew from years past and she brought her music to a large open (shaded) area. (So much for shoes..barefoot we go!)

 

Cue music and I recognized Good Time, by Owl City, a warm up song to get us going. We started in a relatively orderly way- straight lines of teens and adults facing Judy. As the set continued, including the Party Rock Anthem, and All Around the World, the teens loosened up and began improvising on their own – sometimes joining hands in a small circle, sometimes turning towards each other or one bold boy strutting his stuff around the yard. There was laughing and giggling, shy smiles, genuine effort to follow Judy’s lead and encouragement from the adults not indulging in the dance.

 

I have never chuckled so much at a Zumba class. We lasted as a group about 35 minutes before they exclaimed “Enough!” and Judy reminded them that she is usually teaching 55 year old women for a full hour!

 

I realized that apart from one hijab (headdress), I would not be able to identify who was who, and that, perhaps is the idea. We are all people who love music, who like to dance, relax in a beautiful setting, and eat good food. I have heard it said that a laugh is the shortest distance between two people. Let us hope that this group continues to share many guffaws as an effortless way to forge connections between people who have not often had the opportunity to do so. I hope that I may retain the openness to do the same. Peace, Love and Zumba.

 

 

Meg Stafford, LICSW, is a 20 year resident of Littleton, Massachusetts, Zumba enthusiast and author of Topic of Cancer: Riding the Waves of the Big C. She can be reached at megstaf@aim.com.

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