Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Adventure Island by Josh

The other day the kids and I had quite the adventure.  Now, you know it’s an adventure when you have some of the following: galloping horse rides through the jungle; cascading rapids; terrifying, brakeless rolls backwards; a vomit-spewing child; and a complete misunderstanding.
Our first day back at taekwondo practice, Max’s master, Jose, a wonderful teacher (stern and patient) told me all about his ancestral homeland in the central mountain range.  We talked for a while about how they camp out there sometimes, enjoying the fresh mountain air, building bonfires and communing with nature.  At the end of class, he asked what we were doing the next day.  “Um, no absolute plans,” I replied, faithful to my homeschool credo that life is a fieldtrip.
 “I’ll call you if we decide to head to the country,” he said, “so you all can come along and check it out.”
“Sounds great!” I answered, not entirely sure what I’d signed up for, but curious nonetheless.  Later that evening, I stopped by a friend’s house to see how she was doing and say prayers for her recovery from a fall.  While there, I found out why Max’s teacher had suggested an outing on a random Thursday: It was Corpus Christi day.  I found it amusing that in asking what the day was for, no one in the crowd could tell me much except that it was a day off, thanks to the nation’s deep ties with the Catholic church.  Good enough for me!  I love any place where there are so many national holidays that people aren’t even sure what they’re all for.
So, the next morning, we got the call: “We’ll be there at one.”  Rebecca helped get some snacks together (she had a previous engagement) and I got us ready for a day in the country (long pants, shoes, a good dousing of bug spray, etc.).  At one on the dot, el profe was here, ready to whisk us away in his trusty jalopy.  Now, this isn’t just any jalopy, it is the very definition thereof.  I was slightly surprised that he would take it out of town, but hey, it’s more fun to just roll with things (more on that later).
We saddled up and headed off through town, across the bridge that spans the Rio Yaque del Norte, and into the great beyond.  The highway was surprisingly smooth on the way out, as we stopped to get some pineapple and waters, and even up into the foothills as we made our obligatory halts to let the engine cool off. As we got into some steeper areas, I noticed that he had to put the car into 1st gear, and even then it chugged its way uphill.  “Huh, I wonder if it’s possible for the car to just not be able to go uphill anymore,” I thought to myself.
I was distracted, however, once we got into a little rougher, windier territory, when I noticed out of the corner of my eye a spray of liquid shoot onto the profe’s arm from the direction of the little girl in the front seat (with mama).  It was pretty clear, so I decided I’d hope she’d just choked on a bit of water, when suddenly the rest spewed out, all over his arm, herself, and the car stereo.  Eeewwww…I guess she didn’t take any Dramamine.
Luckily I’d bought a bunch of bottled water, so they washed her up, and it was at this point that I first noticed that the little girls we were riding with both had swimsuits on.  There was a snippet of conversation up front that I caught saying something about a river being far away, and I began to wonder.
So, we bumped and swerved our way past San Jose de las Matas (St. Joseph of the Bushes I believe, or Trees maybe?) and into the stunning central mountain range, home to peaks such as Pico Duarte, the tallest mountain in the Caribbean.  We began to see more pines than palms and the air took on the familiar scent I associate with ponderosas on a really hot summer day.  It was a welcome change from the dirty city air and I gulped it in eagerly as we slowly made our way in the beat up station wagon down a road only fit for SUVs.
We finally crossed a small bridge and pulled off the road, apparently at our destination: the river.  I wasn’t totally shocked by this point, but I was feeling pretty dumb for not figuring things out sooner or asking my host what exactly we’d be doing in the country (picnic under the trees?).  I’d read that Dominicans love going to the river even more than going to the beach, perhaps because it’s so much cooler under the arching canopy.  So, I was excited to be doing something very “Dominican”, but couldn’t put out of my mind the advice of a doctor-friend, who’d lived in Puerto Rico, when I’d made my first trip to the Caribbean 10 years ago: “Whatever you do, don’t swim in freshwater.” 
I awkwardly explained that I hadn’t actually realized we were going to the river, and with characteristic generosity he insisted that I use his sandals, then stripped to his boxers and offered me his swim trunks as well.  “If you don’t mind, I’ll just go in my chonies too,” I said, and seeing that I wasn’t with a modest crowd, disrobed.  The kids did the same, and before they could jump into the nice cool water, I pulled them aside. I racked my brain for useful facts, like “I’m pretty sure that little parasite that swims up the urethra is in South America, and this is technically North America.” Then I looked around for a moment, thinking to myself that if all these people were still alive after years of river-swimming, it must be fine.  “Just don’t put your heads underwater, okay guys?”  They nodded, and splashed off behind their new pals.
We had a good ‘ol time playing in the sand, throwing rocks, and moving mini-boulders to create a pool and waterfall.  Other than the occasional ferocious, biting insect, the spot was idyllic, a small river coursing down the mountainside, sweet-smelling air, and wonderful, wet cool.
After a few hours, as the sun began to sink behind the surrounding hills, we started to get ready to leave.  El profe’s cousin came down the path from their little camping hut, navigating his way on horseback between coffee and cacao trees.  “Who wants to ride the horse?!” he called out, and Max about peed his Batman undies.
Max has been horse-crazy for years now.  In fact, I think if he could transmogrify himself it’d be into a Centaur with Harry Potter’s head.  He trotted around a bit, as did Zora, and ultimately got to ride the steed up the hill and out to the road.  Jose’s family was just as sweet and welcoming as he is, and we were told to come back anytime for a nice swim and a big bonfire.
We said our goodbyes, and then the day got interesting.  It was decided that because of clearance issues, his wife and I should walk up past some of the rougher terrain to make it easier on the car.  We got back in and headed up the hill, when suddenly the little engine decided it just couldn’t. Tension mounted, as he was clearly embarrassed.  “Do you know how to drive a manual?” he asked me. 
“Of course,” I answered, “but I think I should push since you know your car’s idiosyncrasies.”
Not one to have a guest push his car, he insisted I take the wheel.  I assented, and climbed in, only to find a surprise.  I pushed down on the BRAKE so that I could then safely push in the clutch, when the car started to roll backwards, downhill, fast.  I pumped the brake, searched for an emergency brake in vain, then gave the brake everything I had.  It stopped!  I looked back toward Jose, who had just managed to jump out of the way, and noticed the expensive SUV behind us and the small drop off into the river, realizing just how close I’d taken both of our families to complete disaster. 
“You drive, Jose,” I repeated, “you know your car better.”
He admitted it was a better idea, and with a good push and some kind of unbelievable prayers, the car began to sputter up the grade.  His wife and I caught a ride with the nice SUV folks behind us and we met him at the top.

A couple of hours, a bit more projectile vomiting, and lots of apologies later, we arrived at home.  Rebecca came out to help carry in the sleeping kids, and I took the opportunity to quell Jose’s concerns and embarrassment.  “We had a wonderful time, and besides, we love a little adventure,” I reassured him.  Adventure is always easier when done with good people you can trust.  By the grace of God, we’ve been blessed to meet many such people here.  

Monday, June 25, 2012

That Is Cheap! - by Josh

The best part of traveling are the misunderstandings that end up being hilarious.  There are certain words and phrases that, for whatever reason, are a really difficult mix of syllables and always come out slurred, especially if I'm speaking too fast.  Yesterday, I was on my way to the Baha'i center with some friends when we passed La Sirena, the giant superstore in our part of town ("La Sirena, it's more than just an emotion!").  
Anyway, my friend Mark, who was driving, asked me if that was where we did all of our shopping.  I told him yes, but we also got a lot of our stuff from the local vegetelera (veggie and fruit corner store).  "It's way cheaper," I added.
Now, apparently my enunciation leaves something to be desired, because everyone in the car busted up laughing.  "You get your groceries from the vertedero?!  That must be cheap!"
Suddenly I realized why they were about to pee their pants with laughter. A vertedero is the dump, which certainly would be cheaper, but I guess we shouldn't laugh about it since that is a source of livelihood for some people.
Maybe I can find some Spanish tongue-twisters to improve my enunciation, though maybe not.  Then what would we laugh about?

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Some snippets--by Josh

I was thinking about this past week and some of the funny things that have happened, so I decided to write them up briefly, by my standard anyhow.  Enjoy!

Saddle Up
The other day Rebecca and I headed to San Francisco for a job interview.  We had a great time, met some interesting people and felt overall welcome in our new city, then grabbed an afternoon mini-bus back to Santiago.  These are much nicer than the mini-vans that travel within cities or to neighboring cities, this one even had A/C. Think "senior center activity bus", and you'll have a good idea of what it looks like. Just as the bus was pulling away from the stop, some guy with a level and a hammer jumped on the bus.  The driver immediately stopped, telling the guy there was no room and that he should go away.  
"But there are two open seats right back there!" he protested.
"Those are for people who called in, I'm picking them up on the way. Now get out!" he answered.
Construction-dude indignantly exited the bus, only to jump back back on before the door could be shut.  By this time, the driver was fully out onto the busy avenue and was yelling at the guy to get off the bus.  Construction-dude angrily refused, and while they were going at it and Construction-dude was forcefully taking a seat, a FAMILY OF FOUR squeezed through the still-open door, making themselves comfortable (relatively).  
At that point, the driver cursed under his breath, asked for the door to be closed and set off for Santiago.  Man I wish I'd recorded the whole thing.

Intervention Time?
Yesterday I had the pleasure of going out with a bunch of Baha'is from all over the country, who were here in Santiago to discuss and study community-development, to visit families whose children are involved in Jr. Youth Groups.  It was a scorcher of a day (surprise!) so I grabbed a bottle of water on our way to one of the neighborhoods.  
My particular group finished up more quickly than the others, so we headed out to wait on the street corner, where I quickly finished the water so I'd have plenty to sweat out later.  As a matter of convenience, I stuck the empty water bottle in my back pocket, and proceeded to loiter around the block, waiting for the others.
Almost two hours later, back at the Baha'i center, I took the bottle out and set it down.
Just then, one of the ladies who'd been with us gasped, then laughed out loud.  "Oh! That's what that was!  I guess that makes more sense," she said.
"What do you mean?" I asked.
She then proceeded to inform me that the average neighborhood drunk can generally be distinguished by the clear bottle of rum sticking out of his back pocket.  Maybe the next home visits can focus on Baha'i views on alcohol!

Y'all come back now, ya here?
In order to support the aforementioned gathering, we offered hospitality to three wonderful youth from San Juan de la Maguana, a lovely city surrounded by mountains that turn a gorgeous hue when the sun begins to set.
These are seriously quality young men.  They're heading into their senior year in high school and they have completely dedicated their lives to the service of their faith and their community.  They are hard workers and have an amazing capacity for both details and a wider vision of what they're trying to accomplish.  When we first got back to the house after a very long day at the conference, I gave them a quick tour, then got distracted by a phone call from Max (Rebecca and the kids were out of town). When I wandered back through the house, the three of them were in the kitchen, finishing washing the dishes in our sink!  I protested, but they insisted.  If only my children would do the same!  One of them even gave us a magic show!
Anyhow, we had it set up to put a bed each in two of the bedrooms, then a mattress in the living room, but they're best buddies so we moved all of their stuff into one room. This morning, our ride showed up and I headed out to the car, thinking they'd be right behind us.  After waiting for quite a while, I headed back in to see what the hold up was: They were carefully folding the sheets they'd used, had moved one of the beds back to the room it'd been in when they'd arrived, and were in the process of cleaning up the mess my kids had left in the bedroom that I'd been too lazy to take care of before our guests arrived!
Having had adult guests who didn't even bother to do any of this (and I've probably been one of those people too), I was thoroughly impressed, as well as encouraged for the future of the human race.  It's young people like this who are changing the world, as well as educating the younger generations to do the same.  The future certainly looks bright!

Dios los bendiga
The kids and I headed out to get some ice cream for Rebecca (and ourselves while we were at it) this evening, about a 15 minute walk down a busy street near our house.  I was doing an experiment with my kids at the time, refusing to answer any of their questions about where exactly we were going (I'd even prohibited questioning me before we left the house) and I was in the midst of pondering the significance of their inability (refusal?) to let an unanswered question rest, when a couple of sweet moments occurred.
A very thin old woman, her face wrinkled and tanned like leather from years of, well, life, was heading down the sidewalk toward us.  She had quite a load to carry (a plastic bag with two 40 oz. of Presidente) so I scooted the kids to the side to let her pass.  Her face lit up when she saw the kids: "Oh! God bless them! They're so beautiful!" she gushed.  "I just love kids.  I had 15 myself, and would've had more if I could have.  They're just so wonderful, I love kids so much.  You're very lucky to have them. God bless those beautiful children of yours!"
I thanked her, marveled at any woman who could bear and raise that many munchkins, returned her blessing and bid her farewell.
A few blocks down, a woman and her two small girls, braids bouncing as they skipped along, were drawing close to us.  We all said hello, and the youngest girl instinctively reached out to Max, who jumped back in confusion.  As the families passed each other, I reached out to shake her hand as she went by, with "holas" and "bye-byes" floating simultaneously and another set of blessings gracing us from their mother's lips.
There is much to fix here, as with any place on this planet of ours (anywhere I've lived anyway), and those problems should not be ignored or glossed over.  However, there is so much good in this country, so much sincere caring and love that people bother to express, I can't help but realize that God truly has already blessed us.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Santiago Cash Cab

The fam all hopped in a taxi last week, running late to meet a friend downtown, and hit the jackpot. In this, our 11th month on the island, we came face-to-face with none other than Santiago’s own female taxi driver. I felt, quite literally, like we’d stepped into Cash Cab for all its rarity and wonder. Betty Boop car mats, plush flowers and bling galore. Zora was in heaven, "Mommy! Do you see that?" and "Max! Look!"

We love taxis. We’ve met many great drivers: Honest Juan (he never overcharges), Fast Eddy (he doesn’t say so much, but he’ll get you there in a hurry), Leo (who has made coupons he passes out if you ride with him), Vintage Vincent (who only listens to Billboard Top Hits from the 60s & 70s), Jose (who spontaneously joined us for a Holy Day celebration he drove us to), Kelvin (who every time I got in his cab smiled and said “To my ha-uuuse?” to which I’d respond, half-giggling, “Yes, to my house, please.”), the Professor (who will thoroughly enjoy any profound conversation between 5 and 25 minutes), and a great many more colorful characters. All these dudes aside, this woman had the best name for herself. I keep a taxi card in my wallet just for the name the driver goes by: Bobo. But our femme-driver has even him beat. She calls herself: La Shorty. And she’s totally hip.

Safely at our destination, Josh paid her the fare we normally pay. La Shorty reached into her pocket and gave him change. If that isn’t Santiago’s very own Cash Cab, I don’t know what is. My constant-bargain-seeking Josh was thrilled. Then, La Shorty let us take a picture of her & her sweet ride. You too can ride with La Shorty. Call the cheapest taxi company we’ve found in town, Taxi Monumental (809.581.0002) and ask for La Shorty. She’ll roll right up.
La Shorty, taxi #86, keepin' it real.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Bleach on My Block

Some snazzy tunes roll past our house every couple of weeks and if it weren’t for Josh, I still wouldn’t know the delightful details. I didn’t want to share until I had actual video since lowly words wouldn’t do this one justice. Yes, friends, video footage. It’s a rarity around these parts since uploading video looks like this:

Sloooooooooow. This video is all of 18 seconds. If you’re not patient, you’ll go mad or you’ll go elsewhere. That grey box to the left? That’s where YouTube normally puts a preview picture of the video. The connection can’t take that kind of heat. I love this. Like I’m a side-story in an aerosol-can-cheesy B movie.

Of all these peddlers, the avocado & mango vendors who come every morning, random wares sellers (Once, a guy came to the gate and sat on top of the enormous vase he was trying to sell. He said he could sit there quite comfortably for as long as it took, even though I had told him no six times), the shoeshine twins who are here every Saturday, the battered truck that buys all things broken, my favorite is this guy. HipsterCloroGuy. He has a good thing goin’ and his garage band put all pertinent information into the jingle he blasts around town. Check it out:

For those non-Spanish speakers out there, the song says something like this:
Fill your gallon jug for just 40 little pesos. Did you hear that right? Just 40 little pesos. Just say no to store bought bleach. Hey! Yo! We’ll fill your gallon up. It’s the most economical.
How can you deny a guy who uses the word economical in his hip jingle? Once, HipsterCloroGuy didn’t have change. So he gave Josh this dish soap instead. Totally hip.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Cell Phone Saga: Part I

I’m finally ready. I can now tell you of the Cell Phone Saga. This, of course, means that I’ve happily forgotten any number of maddening details that likely would have had you mouth-agape at my misfortune and/or stupidity. I consider myself blessed, however, to be as forgetful as I am. Forgetfulness means I am happily married, depend greatly on the kindness of others to remind me of necessary details and can live in a country like this one. For everything else, I just have to give up all hope of a better past. That’s forgiveness, bumper-sticker-style.
In all of our unknowing when we moved here, we decided a couple of things before truly exploring the details. Perhaps that was our first mistake. After all, exploring the details here means that you talk to a bunch of Dominicans. In true American style, we just wanted to look up the information on the internet, systematically examine it in an evening and decide. To be fair to ourselves, we did ask the few Dominicans we knew at the time, “Which company has the best coverage?” and “Which company do you recommend?” Coverage was important at the time because Jesse was going to be doing quite a bit of traveling for his research and would need it. The best coverage comes from: Claro. Clearly. Why did we all need the same company? It’s cheapest to call within network. What is even cheaper? If you have a family plan. Or so we thought. Free phone calls to the people you call the most sounds great! And you get free phones with each plan. We decided then. A family plan from Claro.
Since I was working every day, all day and Jesse didn’t speak Spanish, Operation Cell Phone fell to Josh and Martine. Serious troopers. Months after the ordeal, I asked several times for them to sit down with me and recount the traumatic details of their efforts, but to no avail. The PTSD would always kick in first. I do, fortunately, recall one amusing story from the beginning of the cell phone saga: the first time Josh and Martine decided to ask for the manager, a fail-safe strategy in the US of A.  The response: "No, you cannot."
"What do you mean I can't talk with the supervisor?!" sputtered Josh. After all, even wee Zora had once suggested, Daddy-style, to speak to the manager when we had issues at a fast-food restaurant. 
"I can't go and bother her," the minion replied, glancing up (literally) to the supervisor, who was in her elevated perch, just behind the staff desks, likely playing solitaire. In this moment, another minion left his post and came over to help FirstMinion argue with Josh and Martine about whether they should get to see the supervisor or not. Dys.func.tional.
Josh and Martine insisted that she descend from her retreats on high.  Eventually, she deigned to grace them with her presence, and they were sure the cat was in the bag.
"How can I help you?" she asked, exciting Josh even more.  They explained their case. Then High&MightyManager turned to whisper with her minions. She turned back to our intrepid explorers and said, "No, we cannot help you with that."
At that point, both Martine and Josh were trying their best to resist the temptation to give each other a boost over the counter and strangle these people, but decided instead to re-state their case. To no avail.
"No, we cannot help you with that sort of thing here."
"You can't help us sign up for phones? You're the main customer service office of the largest telecom company in the country, for the second largest city in the nation.  Who can help us if you can't?"
"I don't know," she replied, straight-faced, and it became clear that it was a lost cause.  It would appear that asking for a supervisor is much like asking various taxi drivers at the same cab stand for a different fare.  There is a fierce loyalty that your money cannot possibly hope to violate, regardless of the logic of the situation. The supervisor is not there to ensure that "the customer is always right", but rather to defend her employees from meddling customers, and other such riff-raff.
Aside from this recollection, all I can tell you is they made countless journeys to Claro headquarters, talked with just as many minions as managers and each day came home empty handed. Frustration mounted. These phones were expensive before we even had them.
Claro HQ demanded everything under the sun before they would accept us as clients—I’m surprised we didn’t have to bring in dental records or photos documenting our childhood birthday parties. They did ask for all legal documents we had in the country, our bank records for the last three months, a letter from Josh’s previous employer stating his salary, a letter from his current employer, and our rental agreement. We have money, we promise! And if we don’t, we’re good friends with VISA. Claro HQ wouldn’t have it. Josh was denied. Martine was denied. We kept fighting, though, our heads held high. Perhaps that was our second mistake.
I kept asking myself, "Really?" The last time I got a cell phone, I hopped online, chose my plan and the color of my free phone in twelve minutes. Two days later, a box arrived on my front door step. Ta-da. Service. Efficiency. And I used my VISA card. I probably could have used a pseudonym had I been cool enough to think of one; they didn’t care. ‘Twas good enough for T-Mobile as long as they got their money. They’re not just good friends, they’re besties with VISA, for sure.

On my lunch break, about three weeks into the battle for phones, I was chatting with a fellow professor, Melanie, and she couldn’t believe my story.
“Let’s just go and ask what the process really is, because this sounds totally ludicrous,” she offered, “Surely, they’ve just stumbled upon a stupendous case of incompetence down at HQ.” Melanie is an expat, married to a Dominican and has lived here for seven years. Plus, homegirl is feisty. I immediately accepted her offer.
As luck would have it, we happened upon the friendliest salesperson ever at the Claro kiosk in the grocery store, Carolina. She gave me her home phone number and I kissed her. No joke. And she was hot. As it turns out, HotCarolina was just really great in sales. Let’s say, she’d make a lot of money selling cars in the States. Those kinds of sales. My dad met a pen saleslady like that once. He bought a thousand pens he didn’t need. He stands by his purchase to this day though, a decade later, and we still have any number of those pens lying around. I did not have quite the same luck with HotCarolina. Had Josh and Martine not been through three long weeks in the cell phone battlefield, I may have made clearer decisions. I was vulnerable. We all were. It turned out, anyway, that I was actually the only one of us who could get a cell phone family plan because I had a legit Dominican job with a big-name institution. We all unanimously said “Yes, I do.” Third mistake? For an 18-month contract. HotCarolina knew exactly what she was doing. I trusted that beautiful face, all the answers she gave me and didn’t read the contract before signing (something I NEVER do, especially after the cloth diaper fiasco of 2005). We were so eager to have phones already. Fourth mistake. She didn’t even give me a copy of the contract. Nor did I think to ask. Fifth mistake.
We picked out our free phones, including a 5th guest phone because HotCarolina assured us that it’s the same price whether you get four phones or five. Weird, I thought. But I had that same thought so frequently in the first months being here, it didn’t raise any red flags. Sixth mistake.
And here I’ll take a short intermission since I can’t admit to more than six mistakes in one blog post according to my contract or else I’ll certainly need a bubble bath and good chocolate, both of which are currently unavailable. 

Friday, June 8, 2012

See You Soon

“It’s not as hard this time,” my mom gestured at the air.
After a six week visit in the States, we were just an hour before departure, in the final countdown and on our way to the airport. I looked at her, she kept straight ahead, hands at 10 & 2.
Her eyes softened and she glanced over at me, “Because this time, you’re just going home.”
I smiled. Everyone we visited over the course of our trip asked, “So, are you staying forever? Have you settled down there for good now?”
Our answer seemed to appease even the most eager, albeit slightly disappointing to those who desperately want to hear something definitive: “We’ve only ever been able to plan out a year. So, we’ll be there for this next year.”
The last time we made this journey, we were jumping into so many unknowns. I was terrified and joyous all at once. My fear was to have made immense efforts only to discover that it wouldn’t be the place we could settle. I so desperately needed to settle somewhere and raise my family. I ached to set up a home and develop deep relationships with my neighbors, entwine my life with a community from the very beginning.
We arrived last summer to Santiago and were told that it was no longer a “goal community” for the Baha’is—the primary purpose in our international move. This didn’t mean that we would be useless (we were joyously welcomed and made to feel at home right away), but it did mean that they were no longer in need of new pioneers like ourselves. My test had arrived before I had. Through bad-internet-connection induced choppy, international communication with housemates yet to arrive and our own consultations, we decided to honor decisions we had already made (based on two years of planning) and stay in Santiago. I knew I had just moved to a city that I would most certainly be moving out of again in just a year. Baha’u’llah has a way of delivering tests designed especially for you. I’m always given the same test, in different forms (I should probably take the hint, eh?): Oh, you’re attached to something? Here, let Me show you what it’s like without it.
Reflecting on this last year, I experienced a great many tests. Raise your hand if you didn’t. Yeah, I kinda thought so. It’s the stuff of life. And I’m grateful for it, though still can’t seem to find the gratitude when I’m in the thick of it. Gratitude is more of a post-op feeling for me. Maybe I’ll work on that next. Maybe it was a collection of experiences specific to this year, maybe it was me adopting pieces of relaxed Dominican culture, but I’m no longer as eager to put down thick roots. Don’t get me wrong, it does sound nice. It’s just not nearly as important to me as it has been this last decade. Maybe my priorities have been shuffled. Maybe I just finally realized that my strongest connections will never be to a specific place (and don’t have to be)—not even to the house I grew up in and called home for most of my life. My strongest connections will always be to people. Conversations with my loved ones only further confirm this.
Two years ago, I had a conversation with a man I love dearly. I called him Papa Bear. He was a second father to me—and I’m not the kind to “adopt” additional parents. I was blessed with two amazing and irreplaceable ones. But Papa Bear was beloved of my beloved. And I came to know him like that too. He was dying, his body succumbing to its pain; immense suffering. When I said goodbye, I knew it would be the last time I saw him, his thinning frame a shadow of the giant he once had been. He radiated with a genuine kindness and reverence for love that was gargantuan. His body, made weak and fragile by vicious cancer hadn’t changed that—it had made the parts of him I loved stronger, easier to recognize. When you say goodbye for the last time, you speak with your eyes the most, the words don’t matter as much. Perhaps words seem too cliché or insufficient for those moments. Or maybe you do that because your eyes are the most honest part of you—“the windows to your soul.” We said I love you and I will see you soon, though not like this. Papa Bear shows up in my dreams fairly often now, just long enough to crack a joke usually and I wake up smiling. Whatever you believe about where we go when we die, if we have souls or not, what dreams mean—if anything, I don’t miss the most important parts of Papa Bear because they weren’t tangible things. My relationship is nourished by memory, conversations about him and the legacy of virtue he left in his daughters.
I had a similar conversation with my sweet, gentle grandfather a few days ago. We didn’t say much. I held his hand and we looked at each other. I had wanted to spend so much more time with him.  A week after a jolting cancer report, he fell and broke his leg. The last half of our trip he spent in various medical facilities and to this day isn’t home. He is slowly coming back, getting stronger, but doubts sometimes linger. And so our goodbye looked like that, but with uncertainty—some hope. I couldn’t get my fill of looking. Memorizing his features, my grandmother’s love etched around his eyes, graceful hands that changed, in some wonderful way, thousands of lives for the better, a bottom lip that quivered any time he heard mention of June. I’m most attached to the things that will stay with me though: his generous spirit, his fervent desire to serve humanity, his excitement for new things, his love for his family and intense dedication to my grandmother. And more recently, his burning love for Baha’u’llah.
One day in his hospital room he turned to me, eyes shining, “Your dad gave me this new book. It’s wonderful! Have you heard of…” He trailed off as he shuffled through a pile of books by his bedside. He pulled out a small, soft cover and continued, “Yes. It’s called…” and he looked carefully at the cover, “The Hidden Words.
I laughed, enjoying the newness of his love and responded, “Yes, grandpa. I’ve heard of it.”
“Don’t you think it’s wonderful!?” he smiled wide.
“Yes, grandpa. Yes, I do.”
Living between worlds offers me frequent opportunities to say goodbye—more often than I’m comfortable with. It can be heart wrenching, and my heart is tender. See you soon is easier. I’ll always be leaving someone and saying hello to another it seems. But in all this rambling, what I hope to tell you is: I never feel far from any of you—no matter what spot on the map I am. I think of you often. I think you’re wonderful. And I’m grateful for you, whether you have tested me immensely, taught me to see new facets, loved me more fiercely than I deserve, sacrificed for me, fought with me, laughed until our bladders gave out, tried new things with me, failed miserably beside me, shared secrets with me… or are even just passing by this particular part of me in cyberspace. This is where I thank you—tell you I’m grateful. And say, I’ll see you soon.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Photolog: Galavanting in the Northwest

Our Mexican friends, to a person, all thought six weeks was a bit too short. Everyone else upon hearing "six weeks" responded with one of the following:
1) Wow. That is a realllllly long time.
2) How are you able to stay away so long?
3) Oh my goodness! We'll have plenty of chances to visit!
And in the last two weeks:
4) What have you been doing this whole time?
5) And you still didn't manage to ____________(fill in the blank)?
Nope. No, we didn't manage to do that. If visiting you was one of the things we really wanted to do, but didn't manage it, you have a place in the Caribbean. We own a hammock and can guarantee warmth and tropicalniceness. :) So, we'll still see each other. No worries. There were quite a few of you, so don't all come at once.
Whether you thought we were here too long or not long enough, our time has been cut short with stomach flu this week and we depart this lovely place in a matter of hours, barring more illness, family emergencies or unforeseen disasters (all of which we actually experienced while here!). Quit your yapping, Rebecca, and get to the pictures already! In no particular order...

We found snow on one of many road trips. 
An oft occurring scene: Baba David with grandkids on the couch, reading, tickling and much hullabaloo.
My sweet grandfather was invited to a book fair for local authors. Check his biography out here. That orange book on the left is my father's poetry, though he is best known for his biogas handbook.
Guess it's my turn to keep the tradition alive.
My darling dad and his Burgerville Biogas Digester (the BVD, man) project thus far.
A recent interview with my suspender-wearin'-pops: check this out.
Another day, more reading sessions on a sunlit couch. 
Proof that my people go out in the rain. No problemo.
We had an awesome amount of cousin time.
Hammin' it up on JuneBug's bike.
We met new family members. Announcing gentle, good-natured cousin Henry.
And the "Bear", chunk-master, loving bundle of joy: Oliver
As they took off through the park, Max yelled, "Let's run like the wind, Sampson!"
Rousculp cousins. Too cool.
Calling all the ladies: (top) Sammy-Jo, Suzie Q, Susan darling, Ali the lovely bride, Generous Chrissy, Sweet Kati,
(bottom) Moi, Socialite Caitlin, June Bug, Happy Bria and Zora Bean.
Source of all that progeny: Great great-grandpa Lincoln. He turned old, but is still kickin'!
Ceremony. <3
Uncle Tom stepped up the kid department with structure and rules.
And fun. 
Keep it in the air, up, up, up!
The athlete in the family. JuneBug's got hops. Even with her shoes on backwards.
Oh my. That most certainly meets my approval.
The sharing consult lasted no less than 8 minutes before they started eating their slice of Oreo cake.
They both run a hard bargain.

"We're four. We like each other. And our favorite color is rainbow."
The two brides share trade secrets.
Oliver can sit anywhere since he has his own built-in Bumbo chair, ('dem thighs, oh my!) including on CrazyHair's lap.
Max receiving his first lesson in structurally-sound architecture .
We tried to go to the movies. Apparently, I can't read movie times very well,
so I just took a picture of how clean the sidewalk is.
Like good Americans, we just went out to eat instead.
Birthday phone call from Uncle Sam before dinner.
The menu, created by Max: bubble tea, green beans, mashed potatoes & gravy, fried chicken and waffles. 'Course.
Texas sheet-cake on fire. Classic. Happy 7th, kiddo.
You know you're loved when your cousin will wear an eye-patch with you,
even though she doesn't need to. <3 Melted.

We spent a fair amount of time with Great Cap't at the various facilities medical professionals hauled him to.

We visited Max's kinder teacher and read stories written by Dominican kids their age.

And the kinders interviewed Max about his international man-of-mystery lifestyle.

We put aside a wad-o-cash to spend at Powell's on Spanish language kids' books for our community library project.
Baba Ed helped in the decision making.

Grandma Susan was caught red-handed dispensing copious amounts of syrup.

That pretty much sums it up right here. Sweet, sweet, sweet.