Essays on América 3
“The greatest Christian virtue is doing, the least is talking” John Wesley
I HAVE SELDOM BEEN so rewarded for being a Methodist as on my fourth trip to Colonet, Baja California to help build the 39th and 40th small houses there; and to interpret for a Lighting For Literacy (LFL) project, where middle school science teachers and students lighted up the lives and nights of eight families in Ejido Punta Colonet. The students had been enrolled in STEM programs (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math), inspired by their science teachers, to put together solar panel powered lighting systems and to actually go to install them.
About 1.5 billion people (20 percent of the world’s population) must resort to some sort of carbon based fuel for night lighting; it is unhealthy, contributes to the CO2 burden, and is a significant fire hazard around flimsy remote structures. Otherwise they have no light after the sun sets. The cats at Los Gatos Methodist Church and Rotary International (RI) know LFL well, having witnessed it’s lightening fast 60 day gestation and assisted its birth. The very first LFL solar lighting system installation was actually in Colonet, Baja California in 2013. It was developed one afternoon at a fast food restaurant by two members of the Methodist Church; one was Doug McNeal, also a Rotarian, who promoted support by the local Rotary. Already, affiliated programs reach more than eight continents, introducing STEM and LFL to more than 1,200 middle school teachers and their students who are at an age where inner places and lives can be lighted up in the process of lighting up remote places. Kevin Kinsella, who was also at Colonet this April, is an inspired and enlightening science teacher with LFL.
I felt enlightened, as well. The photographs below reveal the depth of our experience more clearly than words. They also speak of the nature and the power of Family; in this case, families who keep animals in, and desert varmints like coyotes out by fashioning close-spaced fences from brittle, dead stalks of cactus plants, wire and woven plastic waste; who carve out a place in the desert to imagine a house – a home – into existence, though often largely made of trash. That’s something only families like those pictured below, can do.
As to my own family, I would have never gone to Colonet without following my daughter, Amy, who coordinated the complex project involving two countries, more than 40 people, and the finances involved; or John my son in law; and my son, Fred, a builder who hauled his tools and powerplant 3,600 miles round trip; and Tom, another builder from the South Bay who brought tools and material to the sites; or Ivan a local builder; or Antonio, a local pastor; or the many other volunteers and donors, the glue that held it all together.
After each solar lighting installation, instructions are given. The switch is turned on by one of the children. The student who put together the unit signs it and makes the final point by giving each child a set of age appropriate Spanish books. We take a group photograph. Adios is then the only perfect single word speech.
These live links tell about LFL better than I:
The photographs below and speak more clearly than words, and may encourage the reader to consider the possibility of LFL:
First job of every morning putting together two units for two houses. I couldn’t see how it was done, but these people did. A cell phone charger pug is included.
The plastic bag holds mounting brackets and connectors. Note all the wires, and the name of the student on the lid.
The rechargeable battery goes in the box too. Simple, no? Yeah, Right!
Tom in a moment of silent, serious concentration. He is a monk in the skin of a grizzly.
Below is a wash-house. Behind is a fenced garden and unseen in the distance is a small mountain range where 10000 ft high peaks pull water from moist sea air in winter, providing water for this productive sun drenched agricultural region.
A fence perfectly representing the environment. The stakes are dried up spikes of cactus plants. They are strung along barb wire wrapped in salvaged black plastic bags.
Below are dried roots of the same cactus- Maguey- dug up from the sullen and reticent gravelly soil at considerable effort, to serve for cooking.
Alejandro cleaning the spines from Prickly Pear cactus leaves for very common vegetable dish, nopales, He gave us a one week old dried rattlesnake which he advised us to let dry more, then grind up, and use with any food…like re fried beans and ground rattlesnake. Cascabel con frijoles refritos.
I fell under the spell of this woman. She was a migrant farm worker from Chiapas, not speaking any Spanish; met and married. Their 15 year old son son works for a builder and did much of the construction; 15 years is adult at times. (During WWII my dad worked at a copper mine in Chihuahua. When I was 10 my he took me to El Paso and put me on a troop train with $5. I got to Northern CA with some help from the soldiers. Like children in Colonet, we were old when young then. From this distance that doesn’t seem a bad thing)
I can’t pronounce or recall her name but will never forget her. In this photo Antonio, the pastor of the Christian church in Colonet is helping her dig a footing for a table in her wash house.
Another home when the light was turned on in this dark windowless room. It is only the equivalent of a 60 watt incandescent bulb, but What a difference! I like this photo also for the high heeled shoes over the door. There were 3 pairs but i didn’t want to be too intrusive; however they appear in the last photo.
Little silent things like those shoes have much to tell if we listen.
After the lights are installed, instructions for their use given and the switch thrown turned by one of the children LFL makes the final point by giving each child a set of age appropriate books; we take a last group photograph; and Adios is the perfect one word speech.
Self Management of Early and Silent Diabetes or Pre-Diabetes
Colonet is an inland town of about 2500 in Baja California. I have gone there four times with my daughter Amy and the Los Gatos Methodist Church to build small houses. They have now built more than 40, generally during Easter vacations so school children can participate. There are two doctors offices and two pharmacies in the tiny town but it serves a wide local area; ‘universal care’ is available at a government clinic staffed – in a common South American way –by a recent medical school graduate who must pay back year for year of medical school by staffing several remote rural clinics; he is there only a few hours each week, so people line up at 4 AM for one of the few openings. Otherwise they must see a private doctor at about US$35 a visit. For those who have a job, the average daily income is about US $10 per day, but work is not available year round. The nearest hospital is 60 Km distant.
It may seem surprising, but the area is highly agriculturally productive. The largest tomato grower in the world is nearby. The Driscol strawberries we buy here are grown in the region. Why? It sits between the ocean and the Sierra de San Pedro mountain range that reaches up 10000 feet to suck in winter rain, allowing for irrigation like a tiny San Fernando Valley; water and sun and hard work make it productive. Migrant workers, often speaking no Spanish, invade for harvests. This year it rained a great deal and the area is lush with small blossoming plants and green with bushy growth.
The local Christian Church has been very helpful in building the small homes. They often help people to acquire a tiny plot of land, which is a required, as well as someone in the family with a job. The pastor’s wife has diabetes as does her mother and their four year old daughter; they assisted in preparing for a series of evening diabetes screening clinics during my week there. The disease is so common that among the first 20 people screened ( excluding the pastor’s family) 9 had diabetes or pre-diabetes. Below is the translation from Spanish of the written introduction and information that was given to people who attended the screenings. Of course, the problem is obvious: When you find a person with diabetes, under these circumstances what do you do? I believe self management is the only realistic, timely, and practical option. To make that sort of thing work, it is best for small groups of people with diabetes to work together over time to solve problems like Where to find medications and supplies most reasonably; How to measure and keep track of glucose levels; How to safely adjust medication in view of the results. The pastor has an internet connection. It is a long and twisted road, but one that otherwise most Colonet people with diabetes travel alone. What follows below is information provided at the screening clinics, addressing the screening process, the general nature of the disease, glucose self monitoring, and possibilities for self treatment. It is translated and redacted from a Spanish blog.
RAPID SCREENING FOR DIABETES AND PRE-DIABETES
Blood glucose is measured about two hours after a sugar or starch rich meal.
Diabetes Positive Screening test:
- Any blood glucose level above 200 mg/dL at any time, including the
- Challenge test: Blood glucose above 200 mg/dL 2 hours after a sweet or starchy meal
- After 10 hour fast: any blood sugar over 125 mg/dL
PreDiabetes Positive Screening test:
- after a 10 hour fast: blood sugar 100-125 mg/dL
- 2 hours after sweet or starchy meal blood sugar 140-199 mg/dL
Conversions between mmol/dL and mg/ dL here
Screening tests are highly suggestive but not diagnostic. When positive, reconfirm whenever possible, with a qualified laboratory and physician.
These screening tests are valid at all ages.
Diabetes has serious complications, all caused by elevated levels of blood Glucose (sugar). In early years the disease is silent. One feels fine while high glucose levels destroy the most delicate but critical circulation in the kidneys, retina of the eyes, feet, and elsewhere.Fortunately we live in a time when prevention of that damage can be effective, and simple. But only those who have or who discover their disease can successfully treat it; especially those with the most common kind: silent diabetes. To do that the disease must be revealed… diabetes diagnosed if present,. , and then controlled by:
- Using a personal glucose monitor to keep track of blood glucose levels
- Measuring and recording glucose levels
- Learning to manage the illness… i contend that is best done as a member of a small group who regularly share their experiences and information.
Some may wonder why it is essential or practical to self control and self manage this particular illness. Although it can best be done with the help of a physician, only the person who has this disease can do so. Physicians cannot hang around 24/7. The time a physician can actually help most is after the disease had done so much damage that a foot has to be cut off, or a kidney replaced: too late for prevention. A competent physician welcomes self management of early or silent disease. All this may seem complicated, but it becomes quite natural quickly when the diabetic can:
- measure, blood glucose, record the result, and then
- use the results to manage and control the disease
- share results and experience with others who have diabetes for: a) interpretation of results; b) finding sources for test strips, medications or professional advice;c) understand medications and ways to manage it. For example, glucose monitoring is crucial, but very expensive. However, an hour drive away is a large international chain store where costs for glucose monitoring supplies are: ( US$): Monitor $ 9.00; 100 test strips $17.88; one time cost of lancing device $5.84; 100 lancet needles, $1.84 Total $34.24 , adequate for about 6 months monitoring– $0.19/day! By comparison, costs where test strips alone are $ .50-.75 each, are many times that depending on how many strips are required.
The personal glucometer (glucose measuring device or meter) is inexpensive, accurate and lasts for years. One must learn to use it, use it regularly and record results and circumstances affecting each test. . At first it is advisable to measure glucose levels often in order to better understand the illness. Yet because test strip use can often gradually be reduced to as little as 5 or six times weekly, plus anytime a concern arises. For example, one might suspect, for whatever reason, a blood glucose is low, and eat “just in case.” That should not be done: measure, don’t guess!
The blood glucose monitoring record: ( for one month…the first of 30 spaces appear) below)
|Date mo/day||Time 24 hr||Level before meal||2 hours later||Useful details like: what was eaten, an unusual event like illness, or any other comment|
How food affects blood glucose:
Carbohydrates fats and proteins can all be converted to glucose…which is vital to the human body even if too much is harmful. Some carbohydrates convert to glucose very quickly and therefore are a problem for people with diabetes:
Fast: processed or refined bleached grains like white wheat flour, and white rice; processed fruit sugars (fructose) like corn sugar and beet or cane sugar; starchy vegetables like potatoes and some sweet fruits like peaches, apples, bananas, oranges.
Slow: beans, seeds like most nuts, peas, lentils, meat, fish, chicken, cream is less fast than milk because less lactose, milk sugar.
Take control of your diabetes when it is silent and serious irreversible complications are most easily prevented.
You are the only person who can control your disease!
Note 1) Insufficient insulin was discovered to be present in diabetes nearly 100 years ago. Insulin is made in the pancreas; in the most common sort, Type 2 diabetes, the pancreas still can make some insulin, but not enough to meet the body needs; so glucose accumulates. The disease usually gets worse with time– especially if not controlled well. In type 1 diabetes almost no insulin is produced, and that is a different but related illness.
Note 2) Fasting blood sugar— after not eating for about 10 hours– can be deceptive in Type 2 diabetes because the pancreas has been resting (usually overnight) making enough insulin to keep blood glucose levels normal or nearly so.
Note 3) Hemoglobin A1C test: Red blood cells are not alive. They were grown in the bone marrow, and when growth is complete, they are delivered to the blood where they act as tiny carriers of Oxygen. That Oxygen is delivered to the tissues, and the empty red blood cells are sent back for more. They live about 90 days and are then discarded. But when they were being formed they took in the amount of glucose that was in the blood at that time. Therefore, the average glucose level in those red blood cells is a measure of the average blood glucose during the previous 90 days. Problem: both high blood sugars and low blood sugars can be seen in early type 2 diabetes because the pancreas can over react to high blood sugars and therefore over-produce while trying to catch up at night. So an average of high and low glucose can be deceptively normal. Conclusion: a challenge test, similar to the old glucose tolerance test, is superior to looking at averages or fasting blood glucose level. This screening test is significant because it offers a fast, and economical screening that can be done by anyone with a glucose meter.
Note 4) The personal glucose meter was pioneered by Richard K Bernstein, an engineer with severe diabetes working on a glucose monitor for physician offices. His diabetes became so advanced he began to control his own blood glucose very tightly and began to improve; then he did his own study among students, which suggested a personal glucose monitor was the key to diabetes control. What happened is classic:The study results were rejected by the academic medical profession. So he went to medical school and began to practice immediately as a diabetes specialist. His book –The Diabetes Solution- is largely viewable on line
Dr. Bernstein completely recovered on a very low carbohydrate high protein diet and tight glucose control; he suggests an average blood glucose of 81 mg/dL; he is alive, and lively, over 80 years old. He participates regularly in Teleseminar Webcasts. The March 29 2017 event can be seen here.
* A Modest Proposal is a 1729 satire by Jonathon Swift: ‘For preventing the Children of Poor People From being a Burthen to Their Parents or Country, and For making them Beneficial to the Publick’. He outrageously suggests newborns be harvested for food to reduce the numbers of poor and also feed the rest. Perhaps the only bearing of Swift’s satire to this little essay is the focus on the millions of poor we seem willing to sacrifice to diabetes, even though it’s cruel, and irrational. and avoidable.
By working together outside a system that tends to sacrifice the good to the perfect, and by self managing their own disease, people can at least greatly improve their lives and well being. Yet for our world’s millions of unsuspecting pre-diabetic and diabetic people, only those who discover their disease early and begin to self control it can easily limit its ravages. I believe that worldwide– and even in the USA– there are tens of millions who could benefit from a similar process until something more academically perfect comes along.
Even privileged, idealistic and committed people can become insensitive, intolerant, and dismissive, based on disagreement about dogma, about the meaning of ideas and words. Words are, after all, only symbols; like metaphors they represent things or ideas usually unseen. When we hear or read a word, we rewrite it in our own minds. We interpret and give it our own personal twist. When one half of our nation cannot stand to hear or see the other half, because of ideas or words, it would seem wise to ask ourselves Why do Words Hurt? Why are we so willing to wound one another? Or to put another way, Why so terribly thin skinned? Who ever said ‘sticks and stones will break my bones but words will never hurt me’ was from another era; like Swift.
It seems to me more appropriate to think about deeds rather than only words. So in Colonet this year, I wore a baseball cap with a silent modest proposal written on the face to imply that :
We are in this together. In this place, this nation, this world. We should try to ‘read’, or value one another for what we DO, not what we appear to BE: Not color of skin or political affiliation; or religion; or citizenship, or age, sexuality or gender— but rather, our behavior; our acts; and judge ourselves and others as reasonably as our acts allow.
What follows is Creative Non Fiction about a hot air sauna burn in late November, 2016
I am Pablo. I most enjoy those times when I alone am personally responsible for what I do, whether in on a mountain peak, or in an ultra-lite over the Sierras, or a Cessna flying from California to Punta Arenas, Chile. At times, of course, that sort of self indulgence, lust for adventure – arrogance perhaps- has put me precariously clinging to a cliff face, or flying alone over SW Argentina when it was prohibited by the threat of war. Similarly, I enjoy dry heat so much it recently put me alone in a sauna, on Thanksgiving day 2016, for between 20 and 40 minutes. I cooked myself like a turkey. The recipe, or receta para asarse:
Lie down in a hot air sauna at the highest, hottest level. If you are diabetic and use repository insulin, which activates more quickly in heat, drink some water often, and eat an apple or an orange every 20 minutes.
I followed the recipe, but remember nothing after lying down to begin my second 20 minute session in the sauna, until sitting in a wheelchair, confused, frightened, and hyperventilating, amid about ten strangely dressed strangers in a strange world who spoke in unintelligible tongues. I had no recollection of being found unconscious in the sauna or being extracted. I could not formulate my own thoughts, or movement or speech. I began to shiver and have coarse muscular spasms. There was no pain, but I was angry at having no control of what was happening; about missing the rest of my life; maybe that anger motivated me to mumble some jumbled thoughts that surfaced: though it took me several long minutes to get the words to form, i finally managed to say:
“Diabetes!” a voice in English said,
“Your blood sugar is 87. You are going to be fine.” Happy to hear a familiar language, I said
“Adrenalin?” The voice said
“ No. ” and after I insisted on some water with sugar. The voice said “ Your blood sugar is 87. ” I said
“Wet towels, Ice” …The voice responded
“Your temperature is normal now.”” But then my wife and daughters appeared and got the towels, and gave me sugar water with a straw. I suggested
“Ambulance.” The voice said
“ It is on the way” I still could not get up or control my movements, and felt hopeless, as if i were sliding into oblivion. But gradually I was thinking more clearly assuming I was in Sacramento. I began to fear I would live, and be terribly embarrassed when my E R colleagues saw me and learned of my my stupid sauna behavior.
I was lifted on to a wheelchair and for what seemed a very long time was pushed down a long series of poorly lighted bare cement halls and walls, set among conduits, and dark recesses. Then out into the night to be lifted onto a sheet, and then to a cot and placed into primitive station wagon ambulance. I began to recall I was in some other country, but couldn’t recall which: In the ambulance I asked about a place I had been recently:
“ Brazil?” My wife, Marili answered,
“ Panama!” It all came back to me. I had been alone in the hot air sauna of a hotel. I felt that surely I would need to be hospitalized for some time and said,
“ You go home as planned. I’ll fly back later, or come by helicopter.”
“No, we will not and you will not!”
By the time we got to the hospital, I was fully alert, coherent, and coordinated. The nurse took vitals, did an EKG, asked my name and birth date, asked the litany of questions about illness, medicines, and allergies, and drew blood with some difficulty due to collapsed veins. The Dr. repeated the same questions, checked my coordination and strength. My Family Angels were allowed to be with one at a time. Lili asked about an MRI, because it might be possible I that I had a stroke or a fall with injury because found unconscious with strange lower extremity injuries. And though the Dr. said there was no need, and I agreed, the universal rule prevailed: when a test is possible and suggested it must be done. In short order the normal labs and MRI results were back, and I was released. The Dr. explained that I had minor first degree burns. Obviously neither of us knew much about Hot Air Sauna Burns* at the time. We paid the $753 bill, of which more than $400 was for the MRI.
As I write it is six days since trying to cook myself for Thanksgiving; I am now guardedly thankful to be alive, and in relatively human condition. It was at first curious that most of my injures were below the knees; it became clear they were not abrasions, but: Bullae! Blisters. The skin is cooled by evaporation of sweat and by cooling from blood circulation; because circulation is less in the lower extremities by comparison to the rest of the body, both circulation and sweating are decreased there… more blistering or burning result. Deep partial thickness burns are very tender to touch . They can look something like the skin of a turkey leg that begins to blister as it cooks. On standing up the pressure increases immediately and for about 10 min causing pain. very pa. Yet after lying down again they become more tolerable. I lie about a lot. The deeper ones form an eschar… a leathery covering that must be scraped off to allow healing; that eschar removal process is almost beyond tolerable, but smaller wounds like mine are not worth the risk or trouble of anesthesia. When being cleaned up I despair about the purpose or significance of life. On the other hand, yesterday I was able to do a half hour of upper body workout and a half hour of elliptical trainer. I should be healed within a few weeks, though full recovery will require several months, and resolve to avoid hot air saunas from now on.
* two links on the subject:
- Virve Koljonen, MD, PhD Summary from ResearchGate \
Hot air sauna burns (HASBs) are rare but potentially fatal injuries with simultaneous rhabdomyolysis. The mechanism of HASBs involves prolonged exposure to hot air because of immobility. The burned areas are on the parts of the body that are directly exposed to hot air. This type of heat exposure results in a complex injury, in which full-thickness skin damage occurs concurrently with deeper tissue destruction. Sauna bathing is becoming more and more a popular recreational activity around the world. The objective of this review article is to familiarize burn care specialists on this unique and clinically challenging type of burn injury and to illustrate our department’s long experience in treating.
The End of Power
By Moisés Naím
From Boardrooms to Battlefields and Churches to States, Why Being In Charge Isn’t What It Used to be..
By Moisés Naím
Perseus Books, 2013
Hardback $35, kindle $9, audio $ 35 ( + tax, & shipping)
Amazon 2015 Editors Pick
This is a book for millennials. It is an extensive and possibly seminal work, not a quick or easy read. There are eleven chapters, each consisting of about ten sections. I found it almost impossible to summarize, so will start with some observations that may put it in context:
We live in a time of world wide societal upheaval, arguably brought about by critical developments in technology. Similar radical change has occurred in the past, as when:
- mobile hunter-gathering was replaced by place-bound agriculture, leading ultimately to cities, tribal warring religions, art, architecture, scientific discovery, and monarchic faith backed nation-states;
- The printing press made information or knowledge, formerly tediously recorded in manuscripts and available only to the monastic and wealthy few, available to the many; this lead to many decades of bloody revolution- the Thirty Year War- culminating in the overthrow of monarchic religious states, and the birth of political and individual religious freedom.
- A perfect storm of scientific developments like the chronograph, compass, telescope, and gunpowder, led to the ‘age of discovery’, brutal conquest, and colonial domination.
- A philosophic and political Enlightenment led to the overthrow of colonial power, continuing until after WWII, and including that imposed on the British Colonies in North America.
Today, here we go again. The limitless internet and its consequences make accepted barriers obsolete; old lines are breached: national borders, commercial, religious and political fiefdoms are violated. The powerful -nations, presidents, governments, CEOs, large multinationals, all seem weak and ineffective, causing public disillusionment, and anger. Nowhere is the old order respected, or trusted.
What are we, Millennials who live at the beginning of this century, to do? It appears the most interesting reaction of millennial young people is to try to adapt continuously, like children of miners, diplomats, or warriors who live in alternating realities, and move over and over to into a new town, country, language, and culture.
to adapt to new people, groups, languages, cultures,
to be astute and adept at knowing and learning about the Other,
to embrace, value, and respect one another above Self
to consider the earth, and even the universe, as home
to be family to every age, race sex or condition.
They find that:
personal liberty requires constant shedding the old and taking on the new;
nations and peoples have their own beauty, and truth, but all are transient;
each person has the right to accept, or to ignore, any religious belief or unbelief
that ‘scientific certainty’ can be useful, but is as always, suspect and transient
that doubt is the primal force of both science and religion
every age, race, sex, or condition can be both confining and liberating
Author Moisés Naím finds that those who hold power try to retain it by erecting barriers to keep challengers at bay; but now multiform insurgent forces from every remote area of the earth dismantle those barriers quickly. He calls dispersed collective power micropower. Example: personal diverse acts of both terror and commercial or scientific innovation collectively challenge civilizations.
Micropower defeats megapower in warfare because of plentiful and diverse microweapons, and the rejection of more chivalrous “rules of war” (Isis, Jihad). Yet power, once grasped, fades fast; the new power quickly becomes vulnerable and loses that edge. Maybe the process could be thought of as constructive or creative destruction.
Naím catalogs the general changes as three revolutions:
1) More: people have more and more means to overwhelm or evade control.
2) Mobility: people are not controlled by governments, borders, distance.
3) Mentality: even the most remote people are now aware of possibilities, options, needs, desires, rights.
He notes that in chaos we tend to listen to “Terrible Simplifiers”: people who offer vague, bombastic simple solutions to complex problems. He summarizes the decay of national politics (parentheses mine):
Empires to States.
Despots to Democrats.
Majorities to minorities (as the U.S.)
Parties to factions.
Capitals to regions (Pinks, Blues, rural, ranch, city )
Governments to lawyers (unjust courts, straitjacket laws/regs) Leaders to laymen (NGOs, Buffet-Slim- Gates-Bono).
Hedge funds to “hactivists” (Assange, Snowden, etc).
Chaos results; maybe the process could be thought of as constructive destruction.
Naím ends with suggestions to reorder the national chaos. This is the most disappointing part of the book for me, because I’d prefer a quick fix; of course. Yet that is, de facto, unlikely. The author’s suggestions are rational, but require great and gradual, likely painful, public re-orientation, and a conscious and conscientious media: No quick fix there either. He suggests:
- Forget about who is first or what country is up or down, who we like or fear.
- Reject the Terrible Simplifiers. (You know them!)
- Restore the power of our institutions (Well,Yeah but…)
- Bring back Trust ( Ditto)
- Strengthen political parties (?!)
- Increase political participation ( but maybe non voters are careless quiet patriots!)
Wow! This book is well worth some time, for at least one rational evaluation of what the next few decades could be about.*
* In 1952 Sci Fi writer Robert Heinlein wrote a postscript to his series voluminous writing titled Stories Never Written; they were too dark. Reading those comments 62 years later is sobering considering our in world chaos today.
Feb 6 – Mar 25 2015 Brazil and Chile
Feb 25, 2015: I have often found it most interesting and informative to explore a new place free of appointments and guides; whether in mountain or city, that leaves me open to the unexpected, to personal discovery. The most insignificant person, or remote corner can be a more open doorway to an inner sanctum than an accredited official or guide.
The Asociación Paulista de Medicina offices are at Brigadeiro 278, 8th floor, in a modern office building. There is strict security. Yet my CA driving license and avuncular ‘Walking White Man’ appearance were adequate documentation. The guard asks: Why am I there? Not confessing the truth (no clear idea), I decide it is to visit the Association Library and Museum, listed in the extensive São Paulo Visitor’s Guide. The guard speaks at some length with the Museum Receptionist. I am issued a visitor tag and assigned a pleasant guide; perhaps she is also my keeper– to keep me from being lost– or making trouble. After all I am just a self identified Tom-Rick-or-Enrique.
After wandering through and taking photos, I venture to ask some questions of a young man i see cloistered in a small office. He is a pre-med student, working there as a library docent. After a few minutes, he dismisses my guide, and spends the next two hours taking me through the other sections of the Association offices.
These include: one devoted to the history of medicine, a museum of painting related to medicine; the inner sanctum of the library filled with fine old books; and an exposition of about 100 paintings by internationally known portrait artist, Adelino Angelo, with a section titled ‘Faces of Misery’– from Europe and South America.
Though he is not there, the museum has a curator and mentor. So I log the museum secretary on to the SSVMS site and web page with Bob La Perrierre’s fine on-line tour of our museum. Outside, dark thunder clouds loom and began to speak and leak. I thank everyone, ask that they visit me or SSVMS whenever possible, and leave for my next stop.
São Paulo claims at least ten formal cultural centers like that of the Medical Association, 23 formal museums, 20 schools of art, and 10 active ateliers. There is also the Museu do Futebol, a national shrine of sorts, but at this time a place of mourning over Brazil’s failure to win the last World Cup. Even so, The Futebol Museum is more than a celebration of male sweat and hormones; it is a celebration of Brazil. I had visited it earlier.Two major museums looked attractive: The Museu de Arte de São Paulo (MASP), Av Paulista 1578; and the Pinacoteca de SP, Praza de Luz 2, (Plaza of Light) in the big park by that name, across the street from a beautiful restored building, the Luz Metro Station.
The MASP owns more than 50,000 classical works of art. It is featuring an exposition that takes the visitor through the 18th and 19th century of art in Brazil and elsewhere: Manet, Degas, Cezanne, Gaughan, Matisse, Renoir, Lautrec, Van Gogh, Picasso, Hals,My iPad shuddered as I clicked on ‘photos’.
I am here for about 4 hours, while the sky darkens. Now I want to visit the Museu Pinacoteca. It is housed in a huge, block structured building next to yet another large park and plaza the looks off into the distance toward… What? More high-rise buildings. There are parks at every turn in this contorted city. The Pinacoteca sits atop, and covers, a large plaza which serves as a place for artisans to show their wares, for a weekly farmers market, and a shelter, especially in heat or rain..
The major part of the Pinoteca is on the second floor. Oldsters are admitted free; it was not crowded and I stay for 5 hours while outside the storm rages. At about hour 3 I am the only person on a guided tour provided by the museum; perhaps others, wiser than I, fled the storm. It was an unforgettable private introduction to both the history and the art of Brazil. early paintings by Europeans (Rodin visited and left some of his bronzes); the colonial period as seem by monarchists; the coup and independence; a gradual growth of national painters and sculptors. Obviously a huge collection but here are two I thought particularly relevant to Brazil:
One is by French painter who had never been to Brazil. if you enlarge it, ( click) you will note all indigenous are European. The other is by a Brazilian painter, who depicts Tiradentes (teeth puller), a dentist who supported the revolt against the monarchy and was drawn and quartered. The painting is so gory it was never exhibited until recently.
While I am drinking in this dose of art and history, lightning and thunder continue. I finally have to leave. The Luz Metro stop is about 300 yards across a wide empty street. I cross during a slight lull and take the metro. It is very extensive, elegant, nicely maintained for the most part, with escalators and electric walkways moving passengers three or four levels underground at times from one line to another.
It is still raining heavily when the train reaches my station, a few big blocks from my hotel. I wait about 20 minutes, but finally just go, arriving completely soaked. I strip and dry myself gratefully, and turn on the TV.
There is live coverage of extensive flooding, cars piled up by the roiling brown water, metro stations closed with people walking the rails to escape, fallen trees, and a man electrocuted when he tried to leave his flooded car as a wire carrying 15000 volts fell. I stored my museum photos and pulled out my still shuddering iPad to record a news broadcast.
This storm dropped more water in less time than any on record. It seems clear that reports of people fleeing SP because of the drought were premature; but some actually are leaving because of flooding. I hope to leave tomorrow, despite weather and an independent trucker strike. It involves huge theft of money from the State owned oil monopoly PetroBras, and a government decision to replace those losses by raising only the cost of diesel! Will the president survive? If so, won’t she be powerless? The greve, (strike or grievance), is blocking freeways without warning. Can I make it to the airport tomorrow?
Letter Two: of a series about Brazil and Chile, Feb 5 to Mar 25, 2015
Note: These letters are a form of Creative Nonfiction, but accurately coincide with real events. I have changed little excepting the personal names
Monday Feb 16, 2015
This small town in Minas Gerais is 4 hr by car NW of Sao Paulo. I am spending the next ten days with Volunteers in Mission, a Methodist program, working on an asilo–a home for invalids and old people. It has been a long term project, now reaching a state of viability, with increasing support from town people, who at first were quite dubious; they doubted the project could be completed. At first the Methodists worked, while locals, and politicians talked and watched; but now both are more active, as are average people in this rural town of less than 15,000.
This is my second trip to work on the asilo. I was here before in 2008. Methodists, consistent with the views of founder John Wesley, generally value doing over talking; good acts over good words.( Politicians of the world please note.) The VIM leader, Ted, is from silicon valley, compulsive and aggressive. Probably that’s essential there, and as a VIM leader. He constantly speaks of herding cats; there are only six of us this time, three men and four women, all hard working and dependable, rather un-cat like in that regard. There are no slackers, but Ted doesn’t seem to suspect that cats are more easily led than herded. So we quietly do what cats do. Example: After it becomes clear we will finish what we started, the cats began to bypass our herder to repaint a dingy dining/TV area currently in use, and that will still be in use until the project actually opens; a place they spend 90 percent their days. The asilo director approves, and it is done, despite contrary rulings by Ted: ‘that’s enough… stop here’ and so forth. But the cats stray on, even recruiting a local volunteer and some residents of the asilo, who can be herded even less easily than Nortemericanos. And to his credit, our herder, who is wise and experienced, having led many similar missions, is unperturbed. He himself is an extraordinary cat.
Extraordinary is also the perfect word for people who leave their comfortable homes and and pay their own way to a remote part of the world in order to try doing something that might be illusory or idealistic, but takes them to a world that is new and renewing, where there is much to be done. That is just one reason I like to go on VIM trips. My companions are a breed apart, one I admire and enjoy being around. One can, as has been so common over the last century, ridicule missionaries. But that is merely a cheap and easy abuse, directed at those who are’t able to aren’t there to respond..Of course there are self serving frauds among all of us, including religious types, and those called missionaries. But I have traveled the world for more than 80 years one way or another, and my experience with missionaries is nearly universally positive. I may disapprove of religious institutions; I often do. But only very rarely do I disapprove of activist religious individuals. And this kind of VIM mission attracts the best amateur missionaries.
After our work is complete, Carnaval begins. It lasts about four days, shorter and low key by comparison with the cities. It is less crowded than I remember last time, less beer, more friendly; maybe that’s because the country– indeed the world– is more limited than it was then. Everywhere government is unpopular, corrupt, bungling, and worse: powerless. Brazil is no exception. Some things like this annual celebration endure in that hot humid Summer, one reason nothing happens until well after dark.
Here is something i found by the road while looking at coffee plantings. It captures the feel of Carnaval, and samba competitions. My translation, of course, is amateur, but it is roughly accurate. ‘Block’ is akin to barrio, or sector:
We are arriving, rich folk
we are only beautiful people
A toast to life itself
Founded in Alvarada’s garage
With Anisio Perez the theme’s fun
It’s Carnaval not UTI (?)
With peace and love in our hearts
with audacity and joy
And regard for the holy church; to the sound of my drums.
Come my love,Let’s do Aue Aue Aue; At Carnaval and Block Fuze.
I’m watching while a samba school band practices for their competition. Maybe 40 people. A leader starts to conduct from the front, then moves around constantly into the band, urging them with arm gestures, and rhythmic jumping, shouting instructions, arms pumping up and down in rhythm for emphasis, blowing on a police whistle to signal certain changes or rhythms. Toward the rear are 10 or 15 boys; they beat small metal rimmed plates, making metallic sounds. Toward the front are three or four large drums of differing sizes. They sound a heavy, usually steady beat. There are a number of high pitched drums, some tall with middle pitch some small with a higher pitch. All this collection of instruments, and some i miss, put forth complicated patterns of beating; often changes are made in unison. I could not figure it out; will have to go on line for more info!
It is Sabado and I go to the celebration. Two big schools compete, going slowly around the covered block by turns. Afterward are stage shows and professional bands for the rest of the night. The Samba parades are impressive, but I feel sorry for two performers in particular (reportedly women).Their school has chosen Disney theme and they are completely clothed in heavy Mickey Mouse costumes, dancing with great energy ahead of their samba school parade that takes at least 1/2 hour to circle the big old church square. And at the end or their route they are not done. The drummers keep drumming, the people keep dancing and prancing. The two Mouses stand and gyrate for pictures. When I stand between them for my photo they radiate heat through their heavy mouse costumes. It is still quite hot but they continue for another hour. Wow..
At the moment someone, a male voice on loud speaker, is going on about something… roving groups of similarly costumed people come and go. The samba band music seems a bit mindless at first. I’m reminded of a friend, a protestant, who said at a Catholic funeral mass: SOO Repetitive!! Samba drumming can give you that impression. But it is quite complex and precise. Even so, it’s hard for me to guess why people find this collective celebration as significant as anything else in life, like Futebol. Why it is samba so elemental to this culture. Maybe because it is a collective abandon. In a small town it involves everyone; even dogs come and go. Lots of beer for kids, as well as caipirinhas whenever they can grab them (rum and stuff …think, ‘rum and Coke’; the word implies rustic or hick); little kids running and jumping about; a sound stage… no, two.
The VIP section fills with dancers; it’s a central, raised area, where some important folk like to hang out. I think it costs about U$100 to get in but that includes plenty of booze. All around is a milling crowd, mostly young, not all in costume, dancing and talking and drinking. Lots of loud harsh male voices, flocks of teens. It continues til dawn of course.There are only two days when the samba schools compete. The rest are for music, alcohol, prancing and dancing. . It is not a gaudy celebration here, more a family sort of thing; a barrio thing, where people from one area get together, make up some costumes, and dance along together in a sort of neighborhood solidarity that’s been developing for months.
Catholic Mass on Sunday is not particularly crowded. The religion was celebrated the night before, perhaps so people have the right to rest up during the day for the night to come. I can’t understand much at mass– even though in many regards there are similarities with protestant Christian litany. As usual, I can read almost everything, speak passably, though people don’t find my accent easy; but as to understanding average fast speech, and especially teen talk, almost nada. The church is fairly full. I want to take a little bit of video but am shushed immediately by my friends, and properly so I suppose; but one admirable thing about Catholics, it seems to me, is that it is very tolerant of real people’s behavior; much that would not be allowed in organized protestant churches is acceptable, even welcome.
We don’t go to carnaval that night. To finish the asilo work is demanding– and to recover from just one evening takes all the next afternoon, at least for me, just sitting around, napping and eating.
Last evening you may be surprised to know we ate Pizza; like many US imports that are re-exported, it is big in Brazil. The Pizzeria da Roca isn’t pronounced the way one might think; the c is cedula c with a tail, an ‘s’; and the R is like our H. It means small country hut and sounds like ‘Hosa’. It was an interesting place… a couple of local kids went to Italy, studied pizzology, and came back, bought a piece of land about 8 km out of town with nothing commercial around. They created a little park with rustic walkways meandering through the woods, and opened up their restaurant. It is regularly packed on weekends; especially with well off folk here. Perhaps they prefer to congregate in a more remote place. This Sunday night it is packed by 7 PM!
The next day, Monday, or segunda feira, I decide to wash clothes and everyone follows. It’s about time. As I hang out my rags on the clothesline the clouds thicken. A huge black cumulus rises in the East (Which is not E but L here– for Leste; neither is West W… it is O for Oeste. So the compass points are NSLO). Raucous parrots, (maritakas) hide in their hollows as a sudden wind comes up, mourning doves cease crying, and little hoppers flee… to where? And of course all this is my fault for hanging out clothes which brought on the storm. Worse, the wind that comes in ahead of the rain dries my things so I take them in quickly… not so lucky are those who wash and hung out their clothes after I do. Maybe that rain washes off the old-fashioned lye soap better for them.
Nana, has again loaned me her wi -fi connection; she is in her kitchen, on her own computer, copying verses from the bible in HUGE text. It looks like she’s almost finished. I don’t want to abuse her by writing too long, and stop. She loves to talk, is quite alert, and lonely at times. It is afternoon, and the clash of a practicing band and some samba drummers invades Nana’s house and its windows rattle to different resonances. It is muggy and warm. This evening the parades, will return with the drumming corps marching behind or among costumed samba dancers, schools in matching colors and designs, among people just coming and going independently. The celebration will be loosely guarded by … generally black… guards.
We talk of everything and nothing. Once she says: “A mea mae estaba en Cadeira de Roda por seis anos.” (My mother was in a wheelchair for six years) but I didn’t understand. . Roda of is pronounced Hoda. After a time she made clear it means Wheel Chair… I had forgotten that cadiera is chair.. I kept thinking of back or hip as in Spanish cadera. So I broke out my hearing aids to hear the foreign sounds better. She’s somewhat hard of hearing too, so I passed her one. We spoke comfortably each one-eared. Nana had tried some hearing aids before but my COSTCOs seemed much better… so she plans to get a pair. We talked, for hours, almost understanding one another!
The country house where we stay at night is at least an air mile from the cathedral on the hill, the site of Carnaval. Yet sometimes at night our windows rattle with the drum beats. Our rental is quite impressive as decayed luxury: a large one story house with a long veranda, a four car garage, a private well and leach field, large grounds, a pool, a lighted tennis court, and a few square miles of land for cattle grazing. I suspect it is empty most of the year, but all is cleaned up to make it attractive for rental during Carnaval. Tomorrow it will be time for me to go to São Paulo Sao to meet my daughter who is a very skilled barrista and coffee roaster; she speaks four languages–Spanish, French, Portuguese and English– ideal for scoping out coffee growers. She’s in Guatemala now, but I will meet her there tomorrow, and later we go to Chile to meet my wife and family.
My VIM colleagues are back, anxious to go home to bed, and they are not a patient bunch; so, Ciao.!