ALCStudies Journal

Advanced Labor & Cultural Studies Web Site & Blog

Joseph Conrad

By Joseph Conrad, writer and traveler par excellence

Graffiti, Quito Ecuador

 

Art … may be defined as a single-minded attempt to render the highest kind of justice to the visible universe, by bringing to light the truth, manifold and one, underlying its every aspect…

 

[My task is] by the power of the written word to make you hear, to make you feel – it is, before all, to make you see!

Escribiendo El Viaje

 

If I succeed, you shall find there according to your deserts: encouragement, consolation, fear, charm – all you demand; and perhaps, also that glimpse of truth for which you have forgotten to ask.

 

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The Rains of Quito

Las Lluvias de Quito

Quito sits in the middle of the world on the equator – Ciudad Mitad del Mundo. The climate is changeable. If you don’t like it, wait five minutes, Quitoans say.

A new Ecuadorian friend recommended I visit La Capilla Del Hombre (The Chapel of Man). The museum sits in the Bellavista section overlooking Quito. I walked from my hotel near the Diego de Almagro. People warned me it was a hike, but despite being at a birthday party1 till 2 AM I wanted a little more urban adventuring. Ecuadorians know how to throw a fiesta, by the way.

Google maps shows routes by foot, taxi or bus. It does not show elevation. The museum sits high over the city. A little urban adventuring turned into a considerable urban ascent.

I saw some nice graffiti.

Urban steps like back home.

 And an urban cow.

 Entrance to the museum is eight dollars USD. Ecuador switched to U.S. dollars Several years ago to stabilize its economy. After some initial pain Ecuadorians I’ve met say it has generally worked.

The Capilla Del Hombre museum is a tribute to the work of Ecuadorian painter Oswaldo Guayasamín and the Ecuadorian people. The museum features his work and the work of other artists as well. There is a separate building aside from the capilla (chapel) itself. The docent at the entrance asked whether I wanted a tour en Inglis or in another language. I found myself on the ass-end of a group being regaled ad infinitum with the details of every object on display.

The guide was doing his job. But I’ve gotten a little tired of words lately. I use more than enough of them myself, both written and spoken, personally and professionally, to try and find a narrative to our sometimes crazy lives.2 Maybe we think if we talk (or write) long enough it will all make sense. What I desired was to soak up a little tranquility and appreciate the art and the space. Isn’t that what I hiked up the hill and paid for?

I saw an open door. There was no rope or sign indicating it was restricted. I left the group and went in. I found myself alone in Guayasamín’s studio. I immediately found the tranquility I was looking for. Canvases, tubes of paint and works in progress surrounded me. The docent came in and said for security reasons I had to go back and stay with the group. I explained In bad Spanish that no one had told me this. I said I knew visual and other artists back home and enjoyed the creative process. I said my wife had died in the past year and I wanted some quiet. I said this with a smile. She said there would be another tour in English in ten minutes.

While other visitors filed in and waited, I sat and watched a video in the lobby. I wanted to be alone with my thoughts – or with no thoughts at all. Solitude is an increasingly subversive act of modern life whether in Estados Unidos or in Ecuador. Our crowdsourced society cajoles, pokes and inveigles us to share (or submerge) our innermost ideas and precious attention in the constant media stream, turning our lives and experiences into commodities for sales and marketing.

I decided I’d had enough of the group experience. I left the museum and walked outside. Among the greenery and outdoor sculptures, I felt better. In the distance mist wreathed the Pichincha Mountains that rise above Quito and that Guayasamin depicted in his paintings.

I followed the path and entered the chapel itself, a vast space with Picaso-esque sculptures and paintings by Guayasamín and other artists.

 

Any human being who has a heart and isn’t overly-medicated knows the feeling before tears erupt. One of the most stupid and compassionate questions to ask someone is ‘Why are you crying?’ Half the time we’re not aware ourselves, at least to start. Pressure built up in my chest and behind my eyes. As I wandered through the chapel, tears started to flow – what in our family my father called waterworks .

I liked the view and the graffiti on the way to the museum. I liked the unexpected cow. I liked Guayasamín’s work. I went to the museum because a friend suggested it. I didn’t expect to see reminders of my dead wife’s face in the paintings on the walls.

‘Please don’t cry,’ my new friends tell me. ‘Don’t be sad and dwell on the past with us in this new place in this new year. They tell me this because they care about me and enjoy seeing me happy. But my tears were not pathological but cleansing.

Our society increasingly denies and medicates sadness and insists on normalization and conformity of our feelings to the mean3. Art retains the power to evoke our unruly emotions and memories, joy and pain, that do not conform to its rules.

I emerged from the museum to the mists of Quito around the Pichincha mountains. Nowadays this includes smog from the herds of cars in Quito’s streets. A fine rain started to fall. I was starving and felt lightheaded. I’d bought water but knew I had to eat. I stopped for lunch at a small place. For 2.50 USD I had meatballs with rice and yucca, along with ubiquitous and wonderful Ecuadorian salsa picante. I came out feeling much better .

I descended the steep streets back to the traffic and bustle of the city.

The rain turned heavier, temporarily washing the grit and fumes from the air. It left the atmosphere clear and fresh.

Feliz Año Nuevo. Happy New Year. – CDL

1Fiesta de cumpleaños

2And yet here we are again.

3The statistical mean, as well as in the sense of low and unkind.

Urban Expeditions

Hola Snake

Hola, Gringo. You look tired

I shopped for clothes in Quito. It exhausted me worse than my jungle trip.

An urban expedition can be dangerous. Did you see any wild animals?

Taxis and cars that don’t stop and herds of shoppers stampeding for sales.

There are benefits to living in your own skin. If I get tired of a style, I shed it and grow another.

Like some people shed their personalities.

Humans are a remarkably transitory species.

Like the weather is Quito.

Whether or not I shed my skin, a snake is a snake. It is my nature.

Like some people.

You insult me. I have a friend in Quito. A lounge lizard.

I danced salsa at a club the other night. Sixty dollars for one mojito each for me and the lady I was with. But she was muy bonita, and there was live music and the salsa muy caliente. Maybe he was there.

He sings numbers like Snakey Breaky Heart, Don’t Come Slithering Around My Door and Reptile Love, among others.

Muy picante. Totally worth it.

Humans have strange habits. I’ve heard of this Tinder. Why would you want to set yourselves on fire before mating?

It’s an expression.

Si. I forgot Humans are hot blooded. Like your chica dancing queen?

She is a beautiful middle-aged lady – the energizer bunny of salsa.

Horizontal or vertical?

A gentleman does not tell.

But you are a gringo, not a gentleman.

I am trying to set a good example.

Better than trying to set someone on fire to show them you care.

Human love can be an incendiary.

So roast a marshmallow or an agouti. All that drama.

Si. Like an Ecuadorian telenovela: all those tears and mascara running. It makes the women look like lemurs.

And the men with heaving nostrils. Snakes are much more sensible.

Well, you are cold blooded.

That doesn’t mean we don’t have feelings. We’re just more straightforward when we entwine.

If you don’t mind my saying, you are sentimental for a reptile.

Mama Anaconda asked about you. She would like to wrap her coils around you.

Everybody needs a hug.

What a way to go.

I think Mama Anaconda needs to find someone her own species.

I will give her your suggestion.

Maybe she can try Tinder. I can help her write her profile: ‘Mujer serpiente seeks gentleman snake in the grass. Bring a fire extinguisher.’ – CDL

 

Hola from Ecuador

Image: Fer-de-lance

Hola, Gringo.

Hola, Snake. I see you have a friend.

This is my cousin the Anaconda.

Hola, Señor Anaconda. Como esta?

I am well. But I am a lady anaconda.

I’m sorry. I could not tell.

It’s okay. I only care as long as another anaconda can tell.

So you have finished your time in Pilchi?

Si. I am back in Quito and then will leave Ecuador.

How did you you find your stay in the jungle?

Mi gusta. The people in Pilchi were very friendly and welcoming. They respected and appreciated me.

My friend and colleague Pauli and her team are doing a great job building a settlement for the medical brigade coming to the village in February and for subsequent volunteers.

Didn’t you miss Facebook and Snapchat and constant news of every little tiny thing?

I felt peaceful and happy living basic life in the jungle. I played my harmonica, shared chicha with Maxi the community leader and its members.

I canoed in the lagoon with Pauli and our guide Raul. I joked in bad Spanish with Selso, Julio and their sons.

Did you see any wildlife? – Assuming that playing your harmonica, drinking chicha and joking with your compadres in a language you barely know is not wild enough.

In the lagoon we saw river otters, turtles and many birds.

You did not fall in I hope?

 

I stayed entirely in the canoe. No scuba diving. I heard there are piranha and anaconda – no offense Mama Anaconda.

None taken, lindo gringo.

Hmm. I think Mama Anaconda likes you.

I hope not for lunch.

I’ve just eaten, thank you.

Pirhaha are little fish with an overbite and a big opinion of themselves. They think they scare everyone. They scare themselves looking in a mirror because they are so ugly. You should be much more scared of the caiman.

I did not know there were caiman here. What is a caiman?

A relative of the alligator. Their eyes glow red at night. Definitely not a sailor’s delight.

Yes. Pauli said they lurk beneath the path on the way to the villiage from the Rio Napa in the swamp where Mama Anaconda lives. She and Mama Anaconda are friends.

I thought you said su amiga Pauli the witch does not like snakes.

There are exceptions to everything.

Si. Señora bruja brings me agouti and capybera to the swamp. She has a salad. We have lunch and gossip about Rumpiado Serpiente Corazon de Amazonas — a telenovela of cold-blooded jungle love. We also talk about our children and share advice and sympathy. She is a good friend.

Buen provencha. Perhaps the snake charmed the witch.

It’s good to have a friend.

The rest of the world should get along so well.

What about the compadres who work for Pauli on the Volunteer Village project. Do they get along?

There is a lot of respect and humor among them. There are always problems in projects, but they listen to her and get the job done.

Here is a picture of Julio at the work site, a skilled carpenter, mechanic and all around cool guy.

He looks okay for a human being.

Selso, the crew leader, el maestro, has a beard like the dense, dark Ecuadorian rain forest. He trims it with a machete. The government of Ecuador is thinking of making it a protected national park. His son has tattoos.

Nice ink. Though mine are better. Where did he get them done?

Quito.

The other muchacho on the crew has dark, luxurious hair which he combs often in case a linda chica shows up in the jungle.

Es lindo chico!

Okay, Mama Anaconda. I went to a tattoo conference in Quito once. I ate at a fast food restaurant and got a bad case of the runs. You can imagine what that does to a snake. You can keep your civilization. I’ll stick to agouti and capaberra in the jungle

How can a snake who does not have feet get the runs?

Ha. The gringo is a comedian.

Si. My two weeks in Ecuador have been well-spent. I can now tell a bad joke in Spanish.

Better than being one.

And la serpienta is a standup comedian even without legs. I’m sure I’ve provided entertainment to some people. If I return to Pilchi, fifty hectares of land and a wife are  possibly waiting for me. I can have many children and all the yucca I can grow.

The gringo made an impression teaching the village kids, eating yucca and roasted worms and drinking chicha. So what are you waiting for? Go. They will call you ‘professor yucca’.

My friends and colleagues at home would think I’m crazy.

People where you live spend their time arguing on Facebook, talking into their handheld devices and typing on little tiny keys. Here Mama Anaconda talks to your friend the witch in the swamp who loves the jungle and names her car Vladimiro. What is crazy?

It’s good to have friends who understand and appreciate you wherever they are. Chevre. Chao.

— CDL

 

A Star to Steer By

In lieu of being in Pittsburgh for the December holiday in the wake of my wife’s suicide in June, I am traveling to Ecuador.

The week after I arrive in Quito, I will join a trip to the jungle to a local community in preparation for a medical relief group. In return for a place in a canoe, food and place to sleep, I will take photos and write up the trip for their web site and teach community members some English. Then we will drive back to Quito.

Compass to Steer By

The Tool for the Job

After that the trip is open-ended. For several weeks I will travel and sight -see. I have no idea what I will do and who I will meet. I may visit Machu Picchu. I may go to the Galapagos. I may do something else entirely. I’m creating a new script, navigating without a map. I’m bringing a waterproof journal, my folding compass, my laptop and my harmonica — and the ubiquitous smartphone with camera. (I don’t plan to be constantly taking a lot of selfies, but who knows? You may hear from me.) It’s about being present for the journey, as someone I was close with recently reminded me.

Be rather the Mungo Park, the Lewis and Clarke and Frobisher, of your own streams and oceans; explore your own higher latitudes . . . Nay, be a Columbus1 to whole new continents and worlds within you… HDT, Walden

Or, since the Galapagos2 may be on my itinerary:

I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by… – John Masefield, Sea Fever

Our local Engineers Without Borders chapter has a water project in Curingue Ecuador, and a new one scheduled that I’m the education lead on. Our EWB contact in Quito has been tremendously helpful. I’m grateful for her and others in Pittsburgh who have encouraged me. A number of people have warned me to be careful​. Well, yes. Life is not risk-free. It’s also not a spectator sport. I got a full complement of immunizations this past week, including yellow fever and typhoid. I trust those I’m meeting. I am looking forward to , dare I say, fun after being in a long, dark tunnel. Namaste: Seek the light.– CDL

Sunset in Utah

Sunset in Utah (Photo credit: Cherie Byars, Ph.D.)

1Not the most popular explorer now in South American or anywhere else, but Thoreau was creating a metaphor.

The Fine Balance of Our Stories

His sentences poured out like perfect seams, holding the garment of his story together without calling attention to the stitches. Was he aware of ordering the events for her?… Perhaps the very act of telling created a natural design. Perhaps it was a knack that humans had for cleaning up their untidy existences — a hidden survival weapon…

Rohinton Mistry, A Fine Balance

Entertainment for the Journey

I’m preparing for an upcoming trip to Ecuador in December. I tend to overthink, and am learning there are some serious snakes and spiders in the jungle there, including the Fer-de-lance and black widow. But if we can’t entertain ourselves during the journey, never mind others, what’s the point?

Image: Fer-de-lance

Hola, Señor Fer-de-lance! (Courtesy BBC Nature)

 

Interview With an Ecuadoran Snake

Hola, Señor Snake.

Hola, Gringo .

Como estas ?

Muy bien. Y tú ?

Okay. Thanks for asking .

Are you on a holiday. ?

Yes. A friend invited me to accompany her.

Be careful where you step.

Gracias. You are a courteous snake .

De nada . We try to make guests feel welcome in the jungle . Did you get all your vaccines? I could administer any you’re missing with my built-needles.

Thanks. I’m good. Some people are afraid of snakes.

Some people are afraid of their own shadow.

Yes, there seem so many things to be afraid of these days. My friend says she hates snakes.

Strong words. But that’s nothing to me. I just exist here, doing snake-like things.

Do you bite?

Only a little,  if someone steps on my head.

But you are very venomous.

Lo siento. It is my nature. I use my venom to catch and eat small rodents like agouti — preferably accompanied by a glass of Syrah.

Not fava beans and a nice chianti ?

No! What do you think I am? I generally don’t much like people either .

I hope you’ll make an exception for me.

We’ll see.

My friend said some folks here call her a witch .

Then she should be okay. She can cast a spell to keep me away. Is she a good witch or a bad witch?

She says she can be very bad: muy malo.

Make sure she does not cast a spell on you and turn you into an agouti .

Too late. The spell is cast. Here I am thousands of miles away in the jungle bringing medical care to local people. At least it’s for a good cause.

Did your friend bewitch you to lure you into her lair ? Like a spider.

No, I think she likes me. I call her querida bruja* for fun .

She is like a lady witch doctor , perhaps.

Kind of . Though she is a very interesting witch — she leads eco tours and runs a farm.  She goes rafting .

Sounds like she has a real pair of ovaries. Does she intimidate you?

Not too much. And who wants boring?  And If she turned me into an agouti, we couldn’t have interesting conversations.

Yes. Conversation is important.

You have some some serious spiders here by the way, including black widows, tarántulas and very unhygienic spitting spiders. But no. I came because I wanted to.

You are from the States ?

Si. Pennsylvania .

The keystone state . Two main cities: Philadelphia , city of brotherly love , and Pittsburgh , city of three rivers .

You are an educated snake.

Gracias. I have my degree in herpetology.

I know other snakes where I come from, like timber rattlesnakes.  I come across them when I hike.

I know a nice family of timber rattlesnakes el Norte, in the central part of  Pennsylvania. We stay in touch by Facebook and WhatsApp.

Being a snake, you have no opposable thumbs. How do you dial your phone?

Google voice activation works well enough . So when are you leaving Ecuador?

A few weeks.

What a pity . Back to all that cold . Away from your friend .

That’s the way the world works now: everyone is connected but apart.

Yes. Strange. If I may be personal, you seem not always positive.

It’s my nature sometimes. And it’s based on experience.

But you entertain me. Will you visit again?

I’m here to show up and enjoy the journey now.  I’m not thinking about the future . Sure. Maybe.

If you visit again please look me up. I’ll keep the light on for you.

Will you put a mint on my pillow?

No. An agouti .

Gracias .

Just watch where you step and lay your head. You never know what you might encounter in in the jungle. See you later.

Not if I see you first. Ha ha.

Hasta la proxima.

Chao.

# # #

*Dear Witch

Image: Agouti & Syrah Wine

Better Together (Photo credits: Agouti: brian.gratwicke, Syrah: Ricardo Bernardo | ricardobernardo.net)

 

The Human

Facebook, texts and e-mail optional. Actual conversation recommended.

Greeting [Hug, handshake, secret society signal]

Them: Hey [Bro, Buddy, Honey, My Man, Sweetheart, Sweetcheeks, Hot Stuff or actual name if recalled]. How are you?

You: Meh.

Them: So, my [wife, significant other, family, coffee klatch, coven, paramilitary group, Illuminati subcommittee, tribe, friends, colleagues etc.] and I are headed to [the shore, our camp, Chautauqua, music festival, etc.] next week/weekend/August. It’s a pretty low key interesting crowd. Would like like to come along? You’d be welcome.

You: That sounds nice.

Them: It comes out to about $200-$300 a person. Do you mind sleeping on a sofa?’

You: Sure, I can swing that. No problem.

Them: There’s a hammock out back and canoe/kayak rental and cycling nearby. We’ll cook most of our meals. We might go out to eat once or twice.

Me: Sounds nice. I can bring some groceries and a bottle of wine to share. I can help cook and clean up. I would enjoy that.

Them: We may have some plans. You’re welcome to join us for some or just chill on your own. I know it’s been a rough month/year/life/millenium.

You: Sounds like what I need. I may do some writing if I feel like it, and bring my harmonicas.

Them: Um, yeah. That’d be good to do while we’re out. We’re leaving [date]. We’ll carpool split gas/taking our own cars. Coming back [date].

You: Sounds good. I’ve got plenty of vacation time. Plus I need the break. Feel like I’m going to lose it some days. I’ll go ahead and schedule the time.

Them: Great. Give you call to touch base.

You: Thanks. Looking forward to it.

Parting hug, handshake, fist bump, what-have-you.

# # #

 

 

 

Voodoo ToDo

 Our age of social networking compels us to devote time, effort and attention more into promoting what we are doing than doing it. Add to this the sense that what we have done never quite measures up to the accomplishments of others1, never mind our own hopes and dreams. There be dragons, and a recipe for craziness.

My friends and acquaintances and I interact almost entirely via text and email. We seem always distracted and busy with work, undefined obligations and idolatrous demands. Our conversations – such as they are – are reduced to monosyllabic, abstract exchanges like those between dyslexic telegraph operators.2 Notwithstanding the efficiency this mode of communication offers, indulged in exclusively it shortchanges the ephemeral, non-algorithmic serendipitous aspects of fun, humor, intimacy and creativity that make human life worthwhile. What are we selling to each other and ourselves, to choose such a simulacrum3 of living?

Anyone who knows me can hear me quoting Thoreau: ‘We have traded our birthright for a mess of pottage .‘ Or perhaps, Do we run on the railway, or does the railway run on us?

Let me take a step back from this harried, hypnotic, delusional state we allow ourselves to become heir to. I spent the past few months doing fun, creative and worthwhile activities with those same friends and acquaintances. I helped organize and participated in Lawrenceville’s Art All Night event in April, and serve as education lead for a non-profit engineering group conducting a water project in Ecuador. I play harmonica with a local music group. In May I lectured on the depiction of technology in film, literature and popular culture to a science fiction and fantasy group. And I start a local arts residency this week that includes a canoe trip on the Youghiogheny River.

So why do I feel inadequate for (until now) not sharing these activities on a public forum with people who may not care to give a damn? Why do I feel constantly that there is something else I need to do? (Oh, wait. My laundry needs to go in the dryer.).

I’ll admit these activities sometimes offer displacement from the anxious, frustrating, lacking or painful aspects of my life. They tend to cost money, effort and time without any obvious or immediate financial gain. They do not advance what is euphemistically termed my career path, at least at present. They might be regarded merely as Quixotic, fanciful pursuits. Except that they represent a choice to connect to human aspects of myself and others and direct my energy in purposeful ways, if only in fits and starts. To me that beats the hell out of getting a fidget bit. HDT again:  All our inventions are but improved means to unimproved ends.

Just say ‘No’.

I recently had a birthday. I am more aware than ever of the time and energy we devote to vain tasks masquerading as productivity in our lives and work.4 There is dignity and sacredness in chopping wood and carrying water: Trash does not take itself out. Dishes must be washed. Bills must be paid (don’t they?). But when we program ourselves to press a virtual pressbar as the chief end of our humanity, who profits?5

# # #

1 See also FOMO (Fear of Missing Out)

2 Note that our texts often leave out names and personal pronouns – just saying. I cannot claim this comparison as original. Read Tom Standage’s The Victorian Internet

3 A representation or imitation of a person or thing that becomes accepted as real. (Thanks to artist buddy Chris McGinnis for pointing me to this reference by Jean Baudrillard.)

5For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?, Mark 8:36, KJV

Letting Go

The previous post addressed attachment vs. non-attachment. I took a walk through a nearby cemetery a few weeks ago, and thought of Christ’s imprecation: Let the dead bury the dead.1  The gravestones attest to our continued connection to those passed on and the difficulty (if not impossibility) of letting go. Cemeteries are made for the living, and for providing comfort in the face of our inevitable mortality.– CDL

1Luke 9:60

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