Monday, May 23, 2016

I Really Didn't Expect This

I had to leave my apartment today. I have to leave my apartment every Monday, but the time varies. The maid comes to clean.

The maid comes to clean when she comes. The schedule says "2 p.m.". The schedule is not authoritative. The maid is, because when she isn't here, she isn't here, and when she is here, I have to leave, no matter what the clock or the schedule say. I hate maids.

This maid is OK. I don't hate her. I don't hate maids — it's maids I hate. I'd rather do it myself. I can. I know how. I'm good at cleaning. I don't mind. I prefer it.

But here they have maid service and I have to comply. That's one reason I hate maids. I don't hate maids. I hate having to work around a maid, no matter who it is. I always clean better than a maid because I know what needs the most cleaning and I know what my standards are. No maid knows either of those as well as I do. But I'm stuck.

I need to put all my things away before the maid comes. I need to put everything back where she expects it to be before she comes. I also clean up things like wild dust bunnies, spots on the floor where water splashed and looks like a stain, random bits of trash. And things like that. It takes time.

I hate that part. I'd rather do all of it myself but I can't. So I leave, and guess when the maid will be coming this week, and when she will be done. It's a crap shoot. Today I walked around.

On the way back I saw a blonde schoolgirl. This shocked me. Blonde nine-year-old. In a school uniform. They wear uniforms here, but all other schoolgirls here have black hair. My second blonde so far. The other one was waiting for the bus around 5 p.m. a few weeks back, wearing sunglasses, heels, and a fur coat. This was possibly stranger, but she also was not nine years old, so I had some other thoughts too. She looked good.

Totally out of place in a sort of Twilight Zone way, but good.


Closer to my apartment I had to cross the street. Check. But it's harder now, in places, because some streets are chewed up by construction, and the only way to cross is to turn right or left and walk to a sort of temporary footbridge laid across the construction trench. Today my side was full of a woman creeping along using a walker.

So I got there, and stood to one side behind her, behind the corner of the fence, intending to wait well out of the way until she was across. A younger woman trailed behind her, keeping watch, offering encouragement. Then I noticed a middle-aged man on the far end, holding out his arms, ready to grab her walker or her herself, and prevent any falls. Then, eventually, she was across, and I advanced.

When I myself got across I noticed that the old woman with the walker was alone. No young woman, no middle-aged man. The woman and the man had gone their separate ways. They were not her relatives or friends. They were just there, and offered their protection to the old woman while she might have needed it. My eyes filled with tears.

Yet closer to my apartment I passed a small tienda. I'm not quite sure what all they sell there, but some of it is dry pet food. My friend was there today. My friend is a cat.

I don't see the cat often. If I pass the tienda 10 times in a week, I might see the cat once or twice, but we have a relationship. I cultivate cat relationships because I like cats and I guess partly because it is a challenge. Cats are cautious, some more than others. The first time ever I saw this cat I kneeled, called to it, and it came over and climbed up my front side and gave me a hug. Then I didn't see it for roughly a month, but it knows me now.

It was a treat to see it today. I always look but usually it is attending to other business, and elsewhere. Sometimes I see it but it is sleeping on a plastic barrel just inside the door. Sometimes, and all too rarely for me, it is visible, awake, and out front. Like today. I stopped.

The cat climbed on me and squeaked is rusty-hinge voice every now and then while I rubbed its ears and cheeks and neck and head, and we had a great time. The cat lost some shed fur and I gained it. The cat is my friend. My friend is a cat. I like that. I don't like carrying cat fur home on my shirt but I like spending time with my friends, especially the cautious, choosy ones. I have no problems saying that one of my friends is a cat. In fact, I know some others around here. I like that too.

And today (even better) the cat decided when it had had enough, so the cat was the one to disengage, which is always easier, and then it turned away from me, stepped a few inches into the tienda, half-turned back toward the street side to gain the right angle, and stuck its head directly into a 25-kilo bag of dry dog food. It became a cat without a head, since its head was fully inside the bag.

I may try that some day. It would be easier. Probably not at that tienda though.

And also, something else, equally unusual, and strange too.

As I was coming around the stadium I had to cross another street where there is a roundabout. I stopped at the curb, letting my toes hang over, and looked left. One truck was coming. Clear after that. I stood, my head turned fully left, watching for whatever might be coming behind that pickup truck. Clear...clear...clear. And then the truck slowed. Then it stopped. Just short of the crosswalk. Surprised? Me?

Traffic here does not stop for pedestrians. Unless they are already directly in front of the vehicle. Sometimes not then either. Almost never is there a "courtesy stop", or even a slowdown. Mostly you stay put well back from the street where you are mostly safe, or you run like crazy. Like crazy and then some. I've seen too many people here missing one or more legs. I run then. I don't want to be like them. Except today.

Go figure — a pickup truck stopping to let me cross an otherwise empty section of street — still a shock. You never know what's going to happen around here. Maybe it's a stain on a sheet of plywood. Maybe it's a stain on a sheet of plywood, and it happens to seem like it has a certain meaning, whatever that might be. You really never know.

But things do happen. They do.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

It's Just Like Backpacking

Living in Cuenca is a lot like doing a long backpacking trip. Maybe my longest one yet. I'm not sure.

One thing I have to do is improvise. You do that a lot on a backpacking trip. Need to do something? Try hitting it with a rock, poking it with a stick, avoiding it, going around, over, under, or running away. See if that works.

If not, then maybe that's it. Maybe you can't do anything about it. Just live with it. Stay as close to what's pretty much OK as you can, and stay as far off as you can from the parts that don't agree with you. Whatever works, mostly.

Mostly is the key. Nothing is ever perfect, or if you want to be honest about it, no one knows the perfect, but a lot of life is learning what is pretty much OK, and then doing that. Same as life here. I think I'm getting by.

Life here isn't always pleasant, but it is most always interesting. Often in the same way as discovering that you are bleeding from your arm is interesting, especially if you didn't know that you were wounded. Life here is confusing to navigate. I never know what's going to happen next.

Mostly, nothing. Nothing interesting or notable anyway. Something always happens, but a big part of life is learning what to ignore, or more catastrophically sometimes, ignoring everything and learning by painful results what not to ignore. But either way I never know what's going to happen next. More so here than in the U.S.

After all, I grew up there and not here. I guess part of the deal here is being clueless and still getting by, which is, again, much like living on the trail. We are clueless animals, by and large, insulated from many of the realities and harshnesses of life by our social infrastructure. That would be agriculture, industry, education, medicine, packaged food, clothing, and all those other necessary and universal attributes of human society. We don't need to live by our wits or our instincts, fighting for the next meal. We can cruise along almost cluelessly, but being in a different culture highlights a lot of things.

Things are not always pleasant here. Navigation is confusing. I never know, really, what is going to happen next, and sometimes what does happen is dangerous, requiring adaptability. And there is shit on the trail at times. Shit is everywhere here, always.

The correct response, though, is the same — walk around it. I know how to do that, so I'm OK with that, mostly. Mostly is mostly working out. I've had to clean shit off my shoe only once in eight months. That isn't bad.

Little things. (That was one of them.) Little things are happening all the time. A person has to roll with them, just like while backpacking. Not everything is bad, either. Not everything needs a response. Most of it, not. Mostly, it's interesting. I notice something and either think about it or I don't, and keep walking either way. The things I think about are kind of interesting, to me. Or odd.

A few days back I saw a motor scooter go past. Then I saw a helmet rolling down the street, going like crazy. Then a motorcycle rider came along and hit it. Then the helmet kept rolling until it went up onto a grassy median strip, slowed, and fell over. Then I saw a man come trotting back toward me along the median. He went to the helmet, picked it up, and returned to the motor scooter. OK fine. Just another thing.

And another thing I never saw much of in the U.S., a whole family on a motorcycle. Dad was driving. Mom sat in back. Junior was in front of Dad, between his arms and sitting on the gas tank. I assume that it was Mom, Dad, and Junior (or Missy). Horrifically dangerous for the little one regardless of gender but you see some of that here. Another passing event like a cloud in the sky or the bark of an elk in the woods. Either way, I'll never know more of the story than what I saw, just as it happens while I'm backpacking.

See this, see that, see whatever, and keep walking. It's not my game. I'm not a participant. I'm just here, as much by accident as anything else, and it's only scenery for me. A luxury, I guess. Again, just like backpacking, which is one of the finest luxuries. You just walk, stop to eat, look at this and at that, make a quiet little camp and sleep, and then walk some more. No need to try understanding anything, although that is a fun game in itself — there's really only the detached walking and gawking. Just like living here, in this foreign place.

Which is foreign and still not too foreign. So it's entertaining. Mostly. Again, mostly.

A couple of weeks back, while returning from an early-evening walk, I got water dumped on me from over the wall of a raised playground. Water-dumping and squirtgun spraying go with carnaval, which was long past, but people are inventive. Someone had not got enough, and I guess I should have taken the wet spots on the concrete as a clue, and I did, actually, but disregarded them, and then I got dumped on. Eh.

I didn't even bother to look up. Didn't stop and look around in puzzled incomprehension. Didn't pause, or swear, or anything. I knew. I wasn't ready for it but I knew. It was obvious the instant it happened — someone had dumped water on me from above.

'K, so now what?

What else? Keep walking.

Again, that's just like another backpacking experience, because out in the woods, you never know. Something always happens before you expect it to. Or it doesn't, and something else happens. Or that doesn't either. You never know.

And right after I got dumped on, maybe three minutes later, I had to cross a street. It was at a "real" intersection, meaning that there were traffic signals there, which people obey here, for some unknown reason, because they don't obey any other traffic regulations, but I had the green and could legally and (kind-of safely) cross, except.

That someone coming along made a right turn as I was almost fully across the street (on the green light), and didn't slow down. At all. And almost brushed the front of my pants with his left-side door. Which isn't that unusual either. I once had the toe of my left shoe run over by a car's right rear wheel, which is a close call but also not too unusual. Which is what then?

Which is about average for here, which is a lot like backpacking, when I (you, we) have to deal with ordinary recurring hazards, like getting from one side of a stream to the other. No matter how ordinary and simple and usual it seems, there is always a surprise hidden somewhere in there. Somewhere.

Maybe it doesn't bite you this time. Maybe it's napping, or looking the other way, but it's in there, and suddenly you can find yourself facing a real problem, and mostly you bend a little or do a side-step, or stop and think and then try a short detour, and then it's on to the next thing. Or else you get killed. But you never know.

It's like living here, I think. Living in Cuenca is a lot like doing a long backpacking trip.

Sunday, May 1, 2016


They're everywhere.

I don't understand dogs. I do understand dogs. As much as I need to.

Dogs are as American as gunfire on the Fourth of July. Dogs are as American as spilled beer on a pickup truck seat. Dogs are as American as the smell of cigarette smoke and dried puke in a dark bar. Dogs are like drinking buddies. Dogs are like that belligerent guy who directly approaches you at the bus depot, completely unselfconscious, full of confidence, and tells you to give him a sandwich, or a cup of coffee, or a handful of your money. Because he wants it.

I understand dogs as much as I need to, and that amount is only enough to keep myself clear of them. I like dogs as much as I like some flabby, stinky, 200-pound ignoramus who has decided that his time and thirst and hunger and need for a pocket full of change are more valuable to the world and more important than mine.

Dogs are everywhere here. Dogs are everywhere everywhere. I guess I can't help that. If I could I would. If I had a little gizmo about the size of a pack of those cigarettes, and it had a big red button on it, and I could push that button and instantly kill every dog on earth, I'd do it. Before you could clear your throat. For better or worse.

And I understand the use of dogs. They are tools. Humans found that out early on. Dogs are self-mobile, self-cleaning, self-feeding, reliable tools. They make noise. That's the point, most of it. Dogs are alarm bells with teeth. Fences that chase intruders. Killers for hire, and all they require is a bit of meat, some water, and a place to sleep.

That's good value for a paleolithic hunting team. And for neolithic gardeners and gatherers. For medieval farmers. For suburban commuters. And for Latin city-dwellers. I get it. Tools. Some love them. I don't. That's me.

Today is Sunday. I'm up. It's 7:11 a.m. I've been up since 4:57, before even a hint of daylight.

One of the first things I noticed this morning was the sound of dogs barking. In the city. Here.

That's unremarkable for several reasons. One reason is that you'd expect to hear dogs — dogs are everywhere, remember? People like dogs, as a rule. I'm in a country that isn't that rich. So people rely on dogs. Dogs are cheap security. Granted.

But noticing the sound of dogs barking is remarkable in some ways.

I'm in the very center of a large city. I call it large. It's officially got 350,000 inhabitants. Some say more — closer to half a million, but that's the city and the rest of the province combined. But a lot. For me. It's definitely an urban area here, and I'm in the middle of it.

So hearing dogs barking at all hours in the middle of the commercial district of a large city is not normal for me, because I don't frequent such places, and because, where I come from, there are only faceless building facades and machines in the middle of large cities.

Different. Different here. I realize that. Fine. I still dislike dogs. I dislike dogs the way I dislike raw sewage flowing in the street. (I've seen that, not here but in Seattle, so don't assume I'm only in the mood to disparage a place that isn't like home. Seattle wasn't like home either, but the sewage was real, surging up out of a break in the asphalt, spreading itself and its load of turds and wiping-paper in a wide apron across the southbound lane.) That much is how much I dislike dogs.

So, what? What now?

Not much, just an observation. No point to this. Only a note scribbled on the wall.

I don't like dog shit on the sidewalks either. I expect that someone does, but in this case I'm willing to bet that I'm in the majority, even if most actually appreciate the source of that shit while I prefer the shit to its producer. The good news in the world of local shit is that this is the rainy season. Rain washes. But there is bad news here too.

The rain doesn't seem to do anything for the shit. Shit falls. Shit sits. Shit dries. Rain falls, wets shit. Rain quits, and we got soft, smeared wet shit to deal with, because if there is one thing that people do with dog shit, it's to step in it and smear it around as much as they can. The rain doesn't seem to wash anything else away either. I still can't figure this out.

After the rain dries, the sidewalks are dusty and dull again. They're tile, not the rough concrete I'm used to, so I'm still surprised by this. I don't know about tile, except that when it's wet, it's as slippery as snot on a doorknob, so I keep expecting it to wash clean in the rain but it doesn't. We're always left with dusty shitty tiles. And barks.

Even at five Sunday morning.

You want some dogs? We got 'em. As many as you can carry. I'll even help you load them in your truck.