Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Fallen Leaves

I have loved the fall season, most especially when I lived in Sun Valley, Idaho because it was the 'shoulder season' - a bridge between the summer tourists enjoying everything the Wood River Valley had to offer and the frenetic pace of service for the winter skiers. With more rainy days, now I am spending time researching and writing, my own kind of shoulder season before the holidays.

The nights are also cooler, but not enough for me to get out my down quilt. Just enough for my pal Maksim to meow around 10 p.m. to order me to get into bed so he can snuggle up next to my legs.
Maksim, a large grey adopted cat, always has this look of
surprise, as if he should have a text cloud above his head.

The leaves have begun to turn, some curling up their edges as if burnt by the heat of summer, some proclaiming the advent of another season with brilliant oranges or red and many simply fall to the ground, pale from the lack of chlorophyll and receding sunlight.

My duties as caregiver to an elderly woman have been partially relieved as she has been placed in Assisted Living, though for her it is really much more care than that. We sit in the fading light of the afternoon and talk about when she will 'get out of this place,' and both of us don't discuss how that might happen.

Mrs. R, as I will call her, is widowed and her seasons are like the words in "September Song" where the days whittle down to a precious few as her bones resist any movement. Her son came by and asked if she had her hearing aid on. She and I chuckled privately at this potential for a silly exchange and I marveled once more at her ability to harness her wit to her will, still.  I said to him, "I wonder that she really needs the hearing aids as I have witnessed your mother's ability to almost hear the deer tiptoeing across the golf course." She smiled at the compliment and he pulled himself up and said, "I am still blessed with good hearing as well." (I thought to myself words my grandmother spoke to me: "Hearing is not the same as listening.")
Fall fog set off this ancient truck at the nearby dairy farm.

It was August, 1914, almost one hundred years ago, when war was declared by the Germans against Russia, after the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand and his wife Sophie on June 28, in Sarajevo, then the capital of Austro-Hungary's province of Bosnia and Herzegovina. My mother, born in February of 1913, was just beginning to toddle around, the last of four children of Elsa and Alain. My mother's father was French, nobly born and an honorable man. He worked as a metallurgist in Chicago, Illinois, and was near-sighted. This history lesson does have a point, hang in with me.

Alain, learning of the declaration of war, had graduated from a French military college and told his wife that his country would need him. There was an alliance between the French and the Russians so Alain knew all the young men of France would be called up to serve. The leaves of autumn in New Hampshire at the summer house of my grandparents would soon be turning, and it was decided that the family would make that their base of operations, closer to Boston and other family members. My grandmother hired a young woman to help tend her children and began to prepare for her husband's departure.

Germany's Kaiser Wilhelm told his troops they would be "home before the leaves have fallen from the trees," and other leaders of opposing forces parroted essentially the same message - useful propaganda to encourage enlistments, to minimize the seriousness of the conflict and thus high-spirited youthful, inexperienced men quickly responded to their country's call for manpower.

Alain, too, fell under the spell of "my homeland needs me," and returned to France. Whether he fought at Ypres under Ferdinand Foch, Commander of the French Northern Armies, or someplace else, he like everyone experienced the harsh November winds blowing hard across the battlefields in Europe. Everyone was complaining about the rain and mud and it was an unusually wet and grim winter, "Not good weather for war," one newspaper shouted in the headlines. At some point, Alain sustained an injury that removed him from the battlefield. (I recall my grandmother telling me he was poisoned with mustard gas which injured his eyes, but my research shows no use of that poison until 1917. It might have been chlorine, however, as the Germans did use that gas at Ypres in the spring of 1915. His nearsightedness certainly didn't help matters.)

Grandmother Elsa left her children behind in New Hampshire, under the care of the young woman, and caught a ship for France to work in the hospitals. This was an acceptable way for her to be near her husband and to meet her own desire to be of assistance. The wet winter was not relieved by a drier spring, and the 12 make-shift hospitals in Dinard, France where she was serving were overwhelmed with injured and dying men and refugees from the war.

Once Alain was well enough, he volunteered for a return to service in the ambulance corps, acting as a translator between the French and American Red Cross and helping to move supplies around as needed.

The family story, which has some gaps, is that Alain, Elsa, and a doctor were in Paris, most likely to pick up supplies from a ship arriving from America in order to move those items to hospitals that needed them. The scheduled driver failed to turn up and they were given someone else, a young man that I had heard in this story over and over again was "driving too fast."

I found this photo of a PreWar (1913) Philos Ballot Double Phaeton for
sale. This was a French manufactured vehicle and as you can see, if it
flipped over, there was no protection for the occupants.
At any rate, the wet weather and lack of prudence along with the high-aspect cars equipped with slippery tires resulted in the motor car turning over, tossing all the occupants out. Elsa was only slightly hurt, the doctor was hurt seriously and would die much later from his injuries, but Alain's neck was broken, which he apparently knew and remarked of it to Elsa. When people came to help, not knowing how to prevent injuring him further, they moved him too roughly and he died instantly, a devastation for my grandmother.

I suspect the reason she stayed in Dinard to continue her Red Cross nursing work was so that she could be close to her in-laws, and to assuage her grief by doing something purposeful. But the stories she told of the smells of the injured, the attempts to save the hundreds who were dying from their wounds, the lack of supplies and the frustrations of being fatigued and alone left her with a permanent desire to end war forever, if possible. In her lifetime she personally wrote letters and had appointments with hundreds of world leaders believing she could single-handedly put a stop to the mayhem.

As a little girl growing up in New Hampshire I recall hearing her story more than a few times over tea and looking over at the aging photograph on the mantelpiece of my two grandparents standing next to each other in their uniforms, I could not comprehend the agony this represented for my remaining Grandmere. Or worse yet, the abandonment each of the children would feel by not having their mother around and then when she returned alone, saddened and weary by all she had seen and experienced, facing life without their father.

The war raged on for two more years and finally on November 11, 1918, Germany was forced to its knees. Many leaves had fallen in the meantime and many people had died as well. While my grandfather's death was not directly due to a bullet or gas or a bomb, his wife and his family suffered as much as the relatives of others who died in the trenches.  Really, I think Elsa would agree that we have the intelligence to avert war and we must do so.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Planes, Trains and Automobiles....

The Cathedral de Immaculata Concepcion in Barichara.
I am finally back in the U.S., thanks in part to the 'benedicion' of Sra. Helena in Barichara, Santander, I feel certain. A trip that usually takes about 32 hours to complete, took me considerably longer and with significantly more expense than was expected. The reason? The national strike in Colombia... created by the unhappy campesinos (farmers) who are being undermined by their government's agreement to Fair Trade with the U.S.
A view from the Mirador area of Barichara, during a last
walk with my pal, Isabel. The clouds seemed to be as heavy
as my heart about leaving.
A coffee farmer or grower of onions, potatoes, etc. in Colombia cannot count on their government to ensure they will make a profit or a living wage when free trade allows for cheaper products to be imported from the U.S., undermining their efforts to sell well in the marketplace. This is the essence of the conflict. The farmers want subsidies or some kind of assurance they can sell their goods for what it cost them to produce them and have something left over for their families. It doesn't seem unreasonable to me.
Looming thunderstorms and late afternoon setting sun
created this wonderful contrast as seen from my apartment
in Barichara, a few days before leaving.

But the strike closed the main road to Bogota, making it impossible for me to get there, unless I was willing to ride as far as Tunja (about halfway) and then get off the bus and drag my suitcases (there were plenty of them!) about 7 kilometers in the hopes of finding another bus on the other side. Oh, and the 'war zone' of strikers had to be traversed as well - unhappy and resentful men who probably would assume it was a 'rich gringa' passing by them with all her luggage. Does this sound like a safe way to get to my destination?

Milk being delivered in Barichara.
So, I opted to catch the 5 a.m. bus to Bucaramanga from Barichara, almost three hours in the opposite direction, where it was possible to arrange a flight to Bogota, although many hours were spent waiting. leaving my bags in a secured storage unit at the bus station) into town and met up with a buddy from Barichara who took me to the virtual library near the Justice Center. There were even books from the U.S. and we spent some time looking at photos of places he was going to see when he visited in September.

Flowers still covered with the rain from the night before.
And I had to sacrifice my ticket for the bus to Bogota because the company had closed its service desk, knowing no one could travel. Once in Bucaramanga, I caught a taxi to meet up with my friend, Andres, who was also going to be flying to Bogota.

We had a nice walk about the area where he was staying, including a delightful lunch in the huge mall - Thank you, Andres!

Another time I would like to spend a few days in this city because there is much to see and it also has a long history in the growth of Colombia.
The virtual library in Bucaramanga and buddy, Andres,
crossing the street ahead of me.


In Bucaramanga travel was not restricted by the strike,
but there were a lot of sympathetic events and messages.

My ceramics professor, Jaime, and my buddy, Andres in
Bucaramanga. We were just walking back from the library
and saw Jaime who also lives in Barichara... small small world!

Usually I would catch the bus in San Gil (the nearest city to Barichara) timed to arrive at the bus terminal a few hours before my flight was scheduled. Then I would catch a taxi, arrive at the terminal and proceed to the JetBlue service desk, get my boarding pass, clear Immigration and be on my way. No need for a hotel room (sleeping on the bus wasn't ideal, but affordable).

Sunset view from the Nuevo Dorado hotel in Bogota.
This time, once I arrived in Bogota on Tuesday afternoon, I was still many hours too early for my flight on Wednesday morning. Camping at the airport might have been fine when I was 25 or 30, but not at my senior age, already tired from a day of traveling that started around 4 a.m. So I entrusted myself to the porter (and God's protection) to find someone with a hotel that would offer security and proximity to the airport. (Helena's benedicion was hard at work now...) A man was presented who offered a room in a clean and close small hotel called the Nuevo Dorado with a promise to provide taxi service back to the airport in the morning.

Hotel room showing twin beds, and there was another
room with a double. WiFi was free and everything was
very clean and proper. 10 minutes from the airport!
It actually was all that was promised, including a nice little restaurant with a very large dinner meal for less than $10 USD. The room ($160,000 COPs = $84 USD more or less) I was given could have slept four people easily and thus would have been wonderfully affordable for each person, but the greatest delight was that the shower had warm (not hot) water, much appreciated after the day's travel. It had a nice view of the streets below and I watched the sunset at 6 p.m. Sleep was elusive as the hotel is newly decorated with a lot of tile which caused the noise to reverberate down the halls to my door. Again, thanks to God and the alert night desk man, I had a call in for wake-up because my alarm failed me!! I scrambled out and down two flights of stairs (Did I mention there was no elevator?) and the desk clerk helped me get the luggage down the last flight of stairs to the taxi which was indeed on time.
I fell asleep remembering a nice walk to Steve's with tea,
laughter and a lovely sunset over the Andes.

Breathing heavily from the 8,000+ feet of altitude and a mouth as dry as burnt toast, we arrived at the other new El Dorado (airport) on schedule. Bags offloaded, porter found, I scurried like a cockroach under siege to the JetBlue desk, eager to leave the conflicts of Colombia behind me. The agent said, "We have no record of you on this flight." I showed her the confirmation code, and she kept saying, "I don't care if you have a confirmation code, you are not on this flight." She was about to tell me to move on, call the people in the U.S. and get it straightened out, and then come back when I said, "Do you still have a seat on this flight?"
This time the sunset was fused with delicate pinks.
She did and I purchased ANOTHER ticket. I know what it is like to try and talk to someone from another country and I knew the cost of my international phone bill could equal the cost of a seat. Screw it. Pay it and get out and solve it on the other side, I thought.
Taxiway in Bogota as we were departing. The new airport
is a pleasing improvement from the old one.

It wasn't until the plane was on the runway about to lift off that I finally was able to relax because I felt in my heart of hearts that the situation with the farmers was not going to be easily resolved and could escalate. (UPDATE 9/8/13: The situation is still volatile with the police sometimes creating more of a problem than a solution as in a recent report of tear gas and bombs being used on the protestors near Cauica, SW of Bogota.)

Last bit of sunlight reflected off a cloud somewhere over
the middle of the U.S. as I was flying westward.
Colombia is still a wonderful country filled with terrific people, but in all honesty I would have to say that the leadership lacks foresight and a true understanding of what negotiation is supposed to be. So, until the situation is stabilized, I will not be returning and cannot recommend traveling as a tourist to anyone at this time. It is unfortunate that the U.S. State Department makes no mention of this unrest in their Travel Advisories because it really does affect travel throughout the country.