Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Believe it or Not

I saw Sam Baker, folksinger from West Texas, in Princeton a couple weeks ago and have had his four CD’s on my changer ever since. God they’re good. But the words distract me, and I have something I need to write this morning. So I replaced Sam with Johann, Bach that is. Put on the Brandenburg concertos and some complicated Bach organ pieces. It’s not Sam Baker, but it’s really good too. I’m stalling.

I have started to write this essay several times in past years and stopped. My parent’s advice, especially at big family dinners that Republicans and non Presbyterians might attend, was “don’t talk politics or religion.” I talk politics plenty in this blog, mostly around specific issues, but I rarely speak directly about religion. Although I attend a church regularly and spend hours involved in the organization and the programs it offers, I rarely talk about it. I’m not sure why.

To cut to the chase I am not a typical believer. If there is a package of beliefs Christians must ascribe to, a litmus test, I may well fail it. Is there such a test? I think those who profess to be Christian and know something about the church and its teachings carry something akin to a set of conditions in their heads you have to believe to be a Christian. Where exactly do we get that set of things? Jews, Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists no doubt have the same sense of what it means to live up to their prospective labels. What is the package of Christian beliefs?

The closest thing Christians have is probably the Apostle’s Creed. It’s old, very old, and hasn’t changed. (Church and change are almost incompatible concepts.) It was first mentioned in 390 A.D. in a letter to someone from a synod in Milan. The story goes that each of the apostle’s contributed statements of faith to the deal. However it became popular, I said it dutifully, out loud, every Sunday as a kid growing up in a Presbyterian Church. It followed the Lord’s Prayer like clockwork. I hardly knew what I was saying. Later as an adult I found I didn’t believe all of it. But I kept saying it. Finally I stopped all together.

Use of the Apostle’s Creed is or was widespread among Christian denominations. I think creeds have largely fallen out of favor. I know it has in my church. We haven’t said it in years. Professing adherence to a list of beliefs can be narrow. It can put people off who have a couple of items on the list they don’t ascribe to, forcing one to be publiclly hypocritical. Not that hypocrisy and church aren't strangers to each other, any more than churchgoers pretending to believe the whole package in front of their peers. In how many aspects of your life do you believe to the letter what your neighbor believes? How often do you accept the entire package of anything? Every plank in the platform?

I attend the United Church of Christ here in Ottawa, which affords me great latitude in what I believe. Thank God. I push those limits. The Apostle’s Creed is a good concise vehicle to illustrate what the church thinks (or thought) good Christians should believe. I’ll use it to speed this up if you don’t mind. What follows is what the Apostle’s Creed would have us believe and what I believe side by side. Why is it so hard for me to do this? I don’t know. We no longer brand people as heretics do we? It seems to me we respect each other’s privacy around matters of religion so much it’s practically secret. I don’t know that I’ve told more than ten people these things. Here goes.


I believe in God the Father/ Absolutely.

Maker of Heaven and Earth/ I don’t believe in heaven or the Bible’s account of earth's creation.

And in Jesus Christ our Lord/ Good here. A man whose life had tremendous impact.

Who was born of the Virgin Mary/ Born of Mary I believe. Virgin? No.

Suffered under Pontius Pilate/ Yes.

was crucified, died, and was buried/ All happened I believe.

He descended into Hell/ I don’t believe in Hell.

On the third day he rose from the dead/ I don’t believe that.

and ascended into Heaven/ I don’t believe in Heaven either.

Where he sitteth at the right hand of God
the Father almighty, from whence he shall
come to judge the quick and the dead./ Can’t embrace the judgment, neither quick nor dead.

I believe in the Holy Ghost/ Spirit of God? I believe in that.

The Holy Catholic Church/ The universal church? That’s OK.

The communion of saints/ Mortal people who exemplified Christian values in their life? Yes.

The forgiveness of sins/ I believe forgiveness is the very heart,the best part, of the Christian faith.

The resurrection of the body/ No.

And the life everlasting./ Nope.

Faith and belief, even when not discussed, are terribly important to people. When it came to light not long ago that I don’t believe in heaven a person very close to me was upset because she believed that cancels out the possibility of us being together there. I think she fears for my soul.

A friend of mine, a very accomplished child welfare agency director who grew up Jewish and was an avowed atheist, contracted a serious cancer and became terminally ill. As he died, he reminded his family and friends of his belief that once he was dead, he was dead. It was over. At his memorial service, secular, one of his children said “Dad, we really hope you’re wrong about this.”

I don’t think I’m wrong. And I think many silently believe as I do. Why would rational people who use science and modern thought to guide their lives every day suddenly fold up their tent when confronted with ancient religious dogma? I am not an atheist, but resurrection of the body? Eternal life? Why is that so important? Isn’t it greedy?

Another thing that distinguishes my beliefs from traditional Christian teaching is my sense of us as humans. I believe we are born good, not persons with an evil nature that requires salvation. I think mankind is intrinsically good and that each of us has a duty to find that goodness within us and live it. Celebrate it even. Church is vital to helping us find that goodness. It creates community around those values.

Does all this mean I shouldn’t go to church? Do I have to drop out of the choir? Should I stop cooking Sunday lunch once a month for the public? Can I no longer listen to the pipe organ? Am I unworthy because I don’t believe the whole package? I don’t know. I just know what I believe, and I see no reason not to be honest and open about it. I wish we could all be honest. We might get to know one another better. We might even find a new kind of faith.

Boy I’m glad that’s over. How about those Cubs?

Thursday, April 16, 2015

It's Spring. Wear a Hat.

I can’t imagine that I haven’t written this same post before. Every year spring wakes me up. Joy and warmth find their way into my old and worn heart, still beating after 64 cold winters. Spring is the same and yet it seems so new. I bet each April I celebrate and write about these same wondrous events. I don’t care if I repeat myself. Spring deserves an annual homage.

I burned my skinny strip of asparagus, which fronts the little vegetable garden by the garage, the Saturday after Easter. I was afraid I’d waited too long and would scorch new shoots of asparagus coming through the dirt under the old dead stalks. I don’t think I did. Each Easter on the farm, or a week before if Easter came late, Mom would go to the tall patch of brown asparagus ferns, matted and brown, between the edge of the garden and the ditch by the blacktop (formerly gravel) road with wooden, strike anywhere farmer matches. We kept Ohio Blue Tips in a tin holder on the kitchen wall. It only took one. She would bury her hands in the asparagus ferns at the edge of the patch and light the match with her fingernail.

“Stand back.”

It burned amazingly fast, bright yellow flames and black smoke. Nothing around it to catch fire, too much moisture in the air and in the ground for it to spread. The fire might spread a little, at most a foot, into the green grass in the ditch, burning the dead grass under the new sprouts, which were unfazed, the green never leaving new blades left standing.

The heat would drive us back further. We stood under the clothesline. Mom was calm in the face of the furious fire. She knew there were no trees nearby to scorch, no wires strung above to melt, the hedge posts holding the woven wire fence would not catch. Nothing to be concerned about. She’d done it many times. Just start the process and watch it complete itself. The asparagus fire was a conflagration, feeding in on itself, multiplying and compounding, heat rushing up and out carrying with it ash and smoke. It roared and crackled. Every spring the asparagus fire was over almost as soon as it started. Flames furiously and quickly ate up those lacy ferns and light hollow stalks. As we watched the fire ebb and the smoke clear we saw that the asparagus had disappeared and a black rectangle, flat to the ground, speckled with white ash, had taken its place. Such rapid change visited the asparagus patch every spring, around Easter. That change comes about in my little asparagus patch still.

We burn the prairie grass too, after cutting it short with a hedge trimmer, in a pile right on the driveway. Fluffy ash is all that is left on the white crushed rock. I burn the Christmas tree. It takes a slow trip sometime after New Year’s Day from the living room to the back yard. It first stops by the bird feeder. When it’s cold and the snow is deep, birds like to go from the feeder to the safety of its branches, getting out of the wind for a while, then going back for more seed. As winter stretches out the green branches dry and go brown. When the snow is gone for good I drag the tree further back by the fire pit by the ravine. One day, hard to determine when, it seems odd to have a dead pine tree lying just off the patio by your bird feeder. Out of place somehow.

Saturday I got out the chain saw and lopped the branches of the Christmas tree off its trunk. It was a fourteen foot Frazier fir. I’ve been buying firs the past ten years or so, sometimes Douglas, sometimes Frazier or something else. Every year I cut off the branches and burn them in the fire pit with the pile of assorted branches that fall off the yard trees during the winter, the boughs from the Christmas wreath we finally make and hang on the garage, and the little wreath my brother Denny and his wife Sandy send us which we hang on the front door. Burning those things marks the official end of winter for the McClures. I keep the Christmas tree trunk to cut up and burn in the fireplace on Christmas Eve eight months away. Funny little traditions. They go on year after year.

I’m careful when I cut off the fir branches. Sometimes I find ornaments. We have a lot and it’s hard to get them all. We’re always so anxious to get that big dry tree and all its needles out of the house. This year I found the little brass trumpet ornament we’ve had for so long and a beaded quetzal I bought in Guatemala. They were there on brown branches, shiny and as good as new. I put them in my pocket and showed them to my wife. She laughed.

I sat on a stump and drank a Lagunitas Little Sumpn’ Sumpn’Ale as I fed branches into the fire pit where we have our wiener roasts. The sun felt as good as the beer tasted. It’s been a while since the sun felt that strong. I should get my Cub hat, I thought. I’ll burn the top of my head.

I looked around. The hostas are pushing up. We have little wild flowers, tiny blue and white blooms scattered around, coming up under the oaks. There are leaves on the lilac bushes. The weeping willow is yellow green. In the front yard by the street peonies are stretching up, nearly four inches high. The circle of surprise lilies is back. It’s like magic. Soon May apples will come up south of the shack. In the yard, things we’ve planted and things we haven’t, and off in the woods wild things, morel mushrooms, random and hidden, respond, each of them, to rain and sun, in any order, and grow, even at night while we sleep. The world is coming alive. Under the ground moles are tunneling, pushing up dirt in long lines. Worms, for some unknown reason, stretch out on the sidewalk and die. Birds that were long gone, some that show up when the worms do, come back. A Northern Flicker picks at the leaves by the shack. It’s spring. We wait so long and it comes so fast.

I put my golf clubs in the trunk. Out on the course for the first time, even without leaves, trees get in the way of my ball and, on some holes, ruin my score. Though all in all it went well. More relaxed it seemed. I avoided the yips on my chips. Think golf is mostly a physical game? Think again. Ask David Duval or Ian Baker Finch. So much of it is in your head. My head slowed down and took its time, uncharacteristically so, during my first couple of rounds. I was able to hit the ball, often but not always, where I intended. I chipped up close to the pin. Amazing. Maybe retirement is finally kicking in.

On Sunday morning I brushed my hair before church and the bristles hurt going over the thin spots. I have to remember to wear that hat. The sun is once again something to be reckoned with. It’s a player, the spring sun is, bringing life back with new found power.

Sunday afternoon we watched the Master’s golf tournament. I explained an important aspect of that tournament’s famed attention to detail to my wife.

“Since they’ve developed lightweight miniature microphones, the tournament people have been capturing birds that live around the golf course down there in Augusta, the ones with the prettiest songs, and gluing tiny microphones to their breast feathers.”

“That” I told her, with a perfectly straight and serious face, “is why you hear the bird’s songs so well during the Master’s telecast, and why they sound so good.”

I paused as she thought about what I had said. I went on.

“The most difficult part turns out to be catching the birds again after the tournament is over and taking that gear off them.”

She believed me for about five seconds. She has known me since 1975 (forty years now?) and I was amazed I was able to fool her even that long. She doesn’t typically like having her mind messed with but she laughed again. I think there is something about spring that makes people want to fool around more. Spring and laughter go together well.

Spring is a good time in the lives of human beings, in addition to plants and animals. Maybe the best time. Get outside and enjoy it. Wear a hat.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Machu Picchu

It wasn’t exactly a pilgrimage. I attached no real religious significance to my trip to Machu Picchu. It wasn’t exactly a lifelong goal. What was it then? What made this trip, this one day outing in the Andes mountains, so special to me? Why was I so filled with anticipation?

It was an old regret erased. It was the chance within a short lifetime to do what I’d once set out to do, to finally go where I once vowed to travel. It was highly personal and hugely satisfying.

Had I gone in 1976 as planned I’m sure the trip would have been much different. I certainly wouldn’t have flown to Cusco, the Ancient capital of the Incan empire at 12,000 feet. I might have gotten there some way but not on a plane. It is now a bustling modern city of 300,000, built on top of an obscure but visible Indian past. We stayed there two nights. I was travelling as part of a large group of more than twenty complete with large group behavior: way early to the airports, riding big busses with luggage in the lobby at an appointed hour. Nice hotels. Sightseeing arranged. Had I seen me two weeks ago: gray haired, overweight, wheeling my suitcase, wheezing in the altitude, as I was in 1976: a solitary and fit twenty five year old backpacker travelling light, I would have scoffed at myself. Laughed even.

Cusco was hard to manage. The change in altitude and temperature (sea level and eighties to 12,000 and nights in the forties) hit many of us hard. I started chewing coco leaves in the airport, drank coca tea, and took it easy. It hit me anyway. I breathed oxygen for five minutes in the hotel lobby. Don’t know that it helped. I moseyed around the streets of Cusco with my friends, not venturing far, trying my best to rest. People offered me pills for the altitude. I took them all.

We made our way down the mountain through the Sacred Valley, following the fast flowing Urubamba River. The Sacred Valley is full of ancient Incan ruins. It was and it one of the more fertile and prosperous areas of Peru. Where there is water in Peru there is life. Much of the country is arid altiplano. It was fall and the corn was just beginning to be picked. It looked good.

The Incans knew what they were doing. Terraces like giant staircases on the mountains still stood thousands of years after their construction. Granaries built high into the mountainsides with thin window openings to catch the wind and sun, drying the corn, quinoa, and other grains looked ready for the next crop. The bus made planned stops. We visited an animal rescue, saw Andean condors, sacred to the Incas, in flight. We petted llamas and alpacas. I did my best to repel the trinket vendors and be kind at the same time. They gave up fairly easily. Spanish helps.

Mid afternoon we reached the small town of Ollantaytambo and boarded the narrow gauge railroad, with comfortable seats in glass topped cars, which would take us to Aguas Calientes, the town at the foot of Machu Picchu. There is no road to Aguas Calientes. Travel is limited to the train following the narrow gorge cut by the Urubamba River. I joked that the Incans probably rafted down. When I saw the rock strewn riverbed and the churning water I doubted it. Even modern rubber rafts would find it a challenge. As the mountains grew higher the water rolled and tumbled more violently. We passed through tunnels and narrow passes in relative luxury.

Friends of mine, Bill and Sue, visited Machu Picchu in 1979 on their honeymoon. At that time Aguas Calientes was dirt streets and a few concrete buildings. 36 years later comfortable hotels and nice restaurants fill the small town. It’s an important part of Peru’s tourist industry. We checked into a small hotel en masse and made our way into the small town and a nice Italian restaurant with an open fire pit and wine sold by the bottle. As a twenty five year old backpacker I could have lived three weeks on the amount of money I spent on that one meal.

I hadn’t done my homework despite all good intentions. I was a small part of the planning the eye care mission, I’d been writing a lot, busy with church, all excuses. I didn’t set aside even five hours to research and read about the significance of Machu Picchu. I kicked myself and then forgave myself for my sloth. It was getting there that mattered most. I was on the cusp of atoning for an old decision. I was about to both have my cake and eat it too. I felt extremely lucky.

All my planning took place on the fly, during the trip, talking with others who knew more than I. The serious and ambitious, also young, members of our group were taking the first bus. Breakfast at the hotel began at 4:45 a.m., the first bus up the mountain left at 5:30.

“Why so early? What makes that so important?” I was asking Nick, young three year optometry student from St. Louis via South Dakota.

“You can catch the sunrise if you’re lucky. We may not get that tomorrow because they are predicting rain. But it’s usually clearer earlier. Clouds can sock you in up there and obscure the view. Either way, earlier is better.” Nick had done his homework.

I responded blearily to my I Phone alarm the next morning at 4:45. I think I hit snooze. I hardly knew where I was. But I made it down to breakfast in time to join the four young docs, my old friend Dave Eldridge, eye doc from Beverly Hills who has gone on so many trips. Dave might have slept in, I guessed, but he was with his thirty-something son Dan who was on his first I Care trip and had done so well in the clinic’s dispensary. Dan was clearly there for the adventure. Kids can keep you young.

We left town in total darkness, packed on a Mercedes bus. Soon we were climbing the mountain on tight switchbacks. In the dark scattered and tiny lights bobbed and blinked, together making a straight line up the mountain while the bus turned back and forth. Gradually it brightened. Through the bus windows were magnificent views. Such a steep climb among such beautiful mountains. Far below us we saw, at times, the river. Fog (clouds?) swept past us intermittently.

My previously honeymooning friends, who declined to make the trip back to Machu Picchu fearing it had been overrun and ruined, asked when I returned if it was true there is a now a hotel at the top. As we leveled off into a parking lot at the top of the mountain there was a one story hotel with a glass front restaurant above us. Tasteful. No doubt very expensive. But there all the same. We learned later that the hotel was to blame for the greatly reduced flow of the natural spring on the ancient site. Such is progress.
As we waited at the gate young muscular hikers emerged, bathed in sweat, faces flushed, taking off layers of clothing, their bodies steaming in the cold. Some of them still wore their headlamps. Those were the lights we saw bobbing up the old trails, the lights of those who eschewed the busses and hiked up the mountain. That could have been me long ago. The very thought of it made my knees ache.

As if it were another country they lined us up and asked us to show our ticket and our passport. It was a large crowd. We made it inside the gate. I was close to Nick and the baby docs.

“Which way we going Nick?” Nick had a map.

“Left. Up.”

From inside the gate you could walk right into the fairly level ground of the main urban area of Machu Picchu or go left up a steep route through the trees. I looked wistfully at the direct path to the stone structures and followed Nick and the young people. I quickly fell behind.

The right knee, the left ankle, the extra weight, the years- all combined to slow me down. I quickly decided not to be a hero. I stopped, stood aside, and let others pass me. I breathed hard. I kept going. Along the way I encountered Dave Eldridge. Even though he’s more fit than me he was breathing fairly hard himself.

“Take my picture will you Dave?”

“I’d be glad to.”

We both appreciated the pause.

After climbing who knows how many uneven and ancient stone steps the ground began to level off. We came to a clearing. We were at the top of the mountain. A turn right and there it was. Machu Picchu from above.

I found a little place to sit away from the crowd of hikers taking selfies, posing and preening at the edge of the cliff. I just sat, caught my breath and took it in. I said a little prayer of thanks.

I still don’t know why it means so much. It was like a loop closed. I found my way back. Such a different man now, with such a different perspective, so many changes in my life. But the place, Machu Picchu, despite the crowds and the changes that have taken place around it, despite earthquakes, weather, the ravages of aging, remains timeless. Unchanged for 1500 years. A llama grazed freely on the grounds. As I sat there I thought not of Hiram Bingham, the archeologist who searched for and found the lost Incan city in 1911. I thought not of the Incans who finally abandoned the site, no doubt crushed in spirit by the conquest of their brothers in Cusco by the Spanish conquistadors.

I thought of the person who first sat on that ledge. The Inca person who imagined a city there. We can quarry the rock there, on the left he may have thought. We will build terraces to grow our food there, in the all day sun on the right. There is water from a spring. We can route it to the people and the terraces by building channels through the city. We can be self sufficient. It has everything we need. We’ll build a city here.

Here of all places. On top of the world, their world as they knew it. They didn’t over reach. Machu Picchu is a small city, no more than five hundred structures, an estimated population of no more than a thousand. They used the finest, purest, and most rectangular stones for their temples. No mortar in the joints. They built a temple to the sun that accurately predicted both the winter and summer solstices, with small windows which at dawn on those days threw light directly on special markings on interior walls.

They built an amazingly accurate sun dial near the city’s center. The tip of the sun dial was broken off when a giant boom, carrying a camera, fell on it recently during the making of a beer commercial. God help us as we try to care for our world’s ancient irreplaceable gifts. A beer commercial.

The next finest structures, stones fitting together so tightly they again needed no mortar, were the living quarters of the rulers and upper class. The more common men and women lived in the houses with the rougher, less uniform stones that required mortar made of mud and limestone. But they lived together, there on the mountain top, dependent on one another in community. Bodies in caves from Machu Picchu reveal life spans which may have averaged over 50 years, some fifteen years longer than Europeans of that time. They lived well it would seem. Good diets. People of the Americas, long before the Europeans came, living large, oblivious to the fate that awaited them.

So smart, those ancient people, and so advanced. Yet we dismissed them, and continue to dismiss them, as primitive cultures. Since I turned around in Ecuador short of Peru in 1976 I’ve visited, all in connection with I Care tips, numerous Mayan ruins: Chichen Itza, Palenque, and Tulum in Mexico, Tikal in Guatemala, Copan in Honduras, . All those ancient people working, living, studying the world, discovering the wonder of human life. But never have I seen such a complete view of entire ancient site, one that gave me such an immediate sense of community, as Machu Picchu. Some ancient person imagined a city there, and found both the will and the means to build it. 1,500 years later I was able to share his vision. Sometimes life amazes me.

As the morning wore on clouds moved in as predicted, blocking the view of the city from above. It began to rain. Ponchos of many colors came out on the tourists. People clung to their fancy rubber tipped walking sticks as they made their way down the slick old stone stairs. I left the site and bought a terrifically over priced turkey sandwich (pavo in Spanish) at the outside food stand run by the aforementioned evil hotel. It was delicious. I rode the bus back down the mountain. Machu Picchu, behind me, never to be seen by these eyes again. Or might I be wrong?

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Hung Up in Ecuador in 1976

A blog reader posed this question: “What did you mean when you said you got hung up in Ecuador in 1976? I thought you did anything you wanted on those trips. What kept you from going to Peru and Machu Picchu?”

The answers to some questions are so long I don’t even know where to start.

Those trips he referred to, to Europe and Africa in 1974, and Central and South America in 1976, were indeed free form and open ended. I made them up on the fly; no reservations, no route, no itinerary, just the barest of plans. The idea was to see as much of the world as possible. I did grow up on a dairy farm after all, and until I was eighteen rarely slept anywhere else but in our farmhouse. When you live on a dairy farm you can go anywhere you want as long as you are home by 5:00 to milk the cows. My family and I lived on a pretty short string.

I went to Europe intending to go back, didn’t, worked to save money, took my one year’s cash out of teacher’s retirement, adopted a radically cheap lifestyle, and stretched a 56 day tour of Europe into a seventeen month trek across Europe and North Africa.
While between jobs in Aberdeen Scotland, hanging out at the public library I studied their big World Atlas and planned a general route. When spring came I would head back to Morocco, follow the Mediterranean coast east to Cairo, Egypt, head down the Nile River through Sudan to Kenya, and get a freighter in Mombasa to India. I’d have to work along the way. With any luck I could be in Goa for Christmas. In Cairo I would visit the pyramids. That was the plan.

I did about half that. I went back to Morocco in March, stayed three months, headed across North Africa, settled into a cheap hotel in Cairo, and made my way one day to Giza, which held the Sphinx and the Great Pyramids. There were very few tourists. I stayed all day, repeatedly refusing camel rides and soaking up the ancient feel of the desert plain and the amazing structures built there. In the largest of the pyramids I found a small and dark angled shaft, with a wooden ladder that took me up through the blocks of stone into a royal chamber. Suddenly I was standing inside a large and completely bare stone room. Just me. It was lit by a single light bulb. It smelled like urine. Evidently, travelers before me needed to relieve themselves and did before making their descent back to daylight. All the way from Danvers Illinois, I thought, to this room. I stayed there for a while and went back down the ladder.

I got to know some Egyptian men fairly well who worked the feluccas, the distinctive sail boats that make their way up and down the Nile. From them I learned it was highly unlikely I would find work anywhere along the route I described. That and a visa were required to enter the Sudan. I had visited the Sudanese embassy, presented my passport and a new photo to a gracious man in flowing white robes, and sensed he was not eager to grant me a visa. I may have looked a little rough. He kept asking me how much money I had at my disposal for the journey. I told them I could draw money from an account at home at any time with no problem. He may have sensed that was not true. Nothing happened. When I visited the embassy in subsequent days I was told that the man who interviewed me was not available and that approval of my visa was being reviewed at another level.

Discretion being the better part of valor I gave up. I had met travelers stranded without money in out of the way places and it was not pretty. It seemed smarter to head north. I abandoned my plans of travel to Sub Sahara Africa and the Indian continent and hopped a plane to Greece. There I worked at a hostel in Athens and finally made my way back to Amsterdam and home. I have never been to the Sudan, Kenya, or India. That’s just the way it worked out. But I made it to the pyramids.

I went back to America intending to leave again as soon as I could. Nine months later I said good bye to friends in the Smoky Mountains just off the Appalachian Trail and headed to Florida. I visited a grade school buddy there who was in the Air Force. From there I hitchhiked to New Orleans, already stretching my money by asking my ride to drop me off outside the city so I could sleep in my tube tent and avoid the cost of a hotel. The ground was so soft and shaky I could feel it move when the semi trucks went by on the Interstate. I made my way hitchhiking through Texas, crossed the border at Laredo, and moved quickly through Northern Mexico to the Pacific Coast, Santa Cruz. There, sleeping alone on a beach, completely conked out in my sleeping bag, my backpack used as a pillow, a man tried to rob me. I stood up, yelled, and scared him away. Putting my contact lenses in so I could see I sat awake the rest of the night. Around sunup two figures strolled down the beach with back packs. Australians. I was very glad to see them.

We spent time together off and on as we made our way through Central America. I caught up with them in Popayan Columbia where we rented a casita in the mountains. One of the Australians had been joined by his Swedish girlfriend for a short time. Life in the little cabin was cheap and exotic. We enjoyed Columbia and what it had to offer to the fullest.

Together we imagined the ultimate. Living absolutely free on a beach by the equator, maybe building our own shelter. We consulted maps again, and thought the spot might be somewhere south of Esmeraldas, Ecuador. We split up in Pasto, Columbia. I met them again in Atacamas, Ecuador.

We were right. That stretch of coast was green and lush. It was banana and papaya country. Fish were plentiful. We stayed in a cheap hotel and began to scout the coast. Land belonging perhaps to an American fruit company, perhaps not seemed available. We walked the coast south of Sua and discovered a spot where the coastline was indented, where fresh water flowed into the sea, and where we could scale the stone and clay face of the cliff. We bought tools, cookware, and mosquito nets, built a crude shack there atop the cliff, and moved from the cheap hotel to that Pacific coast spot. It was as close to perfect as I could imagine.

However nothing lasts forever and tranquility is not for everyone. I spent my days capturing stone crabs to cook with the rice, soaking in the tide pools, writing, and gazing out from the cliff. The sky was pure blue on a greenish blue sea. Pelicans rode the thermal currents morning and evening, black wedges, wings never flapping, silently sliding by overhead. We went back into town every four days or so for supplies. I was prepared to stay for, I don’t know, a very long time.

The first to leave was my Australian friend with the Swedish girlfriend. They were anxious to explore their relationship further and she scheduled a return flight to Quito. He packed up and said his farewells. His friend, who had been his travelling companion for over a year (Australians take very long trips) seemed itchy move. He packed up for Guayaquil and points south. I stayed on alone. I felt at home there.

An Ecuadorean from a village miles inland from the shack showed me how to harvest oysters at low tide. I bought some crude tackle and caught fish. I stretched my trips to town to every seven days. I grew lonely, then joyful, in fits and starts. I felt I was there for the long haul. Life seemed perfect, except for one aggravating detail.

Determined to travel light, I began my trip with one pair of shoes, sturdy Wolverine brogans bought in Ottawa just before I left. I was back at the hotel in Atacames, invited to a party by the locals, and sleeping in a hammock between palm trees on the beach. I left my shoes under the hammock. Either the tide was unusually high or they were stolen, but I woke up to the awful reality of having no shoes. I went immediately to the general store in town. They had shoes but none my size. 11 ½ is a rarity in the world of Ecuadorean feet. I made my way to Esmeraldas with the same result. A cobbler wanted to make me a pair of shoes for $100, which was out of the question. Instead I bought plastic sandals, which quickly wore out and broke. I took to wearing no shoes, like most of the people in my seaside community. My feet got tough, thick with calluses. I actually forgot about it, until I realized my Ecuadorean visa, 120 days at issue, was soon to run out. That would mean a trip to Quito without shoes. That could be bad.

At 9,350 feet, Quito is the highest national capital in the world. I went there by night bus, making the slow trip up the mountain switchbacks in a converted school bus, from Esmeraldas at sea level to the rare air of Quito. During the night I began to feel sick. The higher I went the sicker I got. By the time we unloaded in Quito, just before daybreak, I was in big pain. Everything ached. I threw up. I felt feverish, then chilled. My fellow travelers assured me it was only altitude sickness, and that it would pass. That helped little.

I made my way from the bus station to a Catholic church. They were always open. I lay on a pew inside. I wore a thermal tee shirt, a wool poncho called a ruana, a felt hat from an Indian market, khakis that were stained and too big, and thick gray wool socks. No shoes. A tiny bag of belongings. When the sun came up I went outside on a park bench to take some sun and warm up. As I sat on the bench a well dressed Ecuadorean man stopped, looked at me, and reaching into his pocket, handed me money.

“It’s not necessary,” I said in Spanish.

“I insist,” he replied in perfect English. He tucked put the bills inside mi ruana and walked off.

So it’s come to this, I thought.

I recovered some and made my way to an English bookstore. I was crazy for something to read beside Newsweek. While I was there I talked to the proprietor about extending my visa.

“Frankly” he said “you’re not a good candidate for a visa extension. Are you working? Do you have an address in country?”

“I’m living on a beach and writing.”

That doesn’t count much to them. Besides that you don’t look good. You look thin, your clothes are shabby, and you have way too much hair. Haven’t you noticed how well dressed and meticulous Ecuadorean businessmen appear? That’s what they’re looking for. People like them. They just don’t trust hippies anymore.”

“You think I look like a hippy?”

“Yes I do. And I’m afraid the authorities will share my opinion. I’ve got some used books in the back. You’ll need them on your trip. Where are you headed next?”

“Peru. I’m going to Machu Picchu.”

“That’s a long haul, but worth it. It’s a beautiful place. Good luck. I hope you make it.”

Hoped I made it? Why shouldn’t I?

He was right. I was given but a ten day extension to leave the country. Stumbling over my address didn’t help, nor did my relative lack of money. I had bought fairly snappy looking brown vinyl bedroom slippers but I don’t believe they impressed the official interviewing me. I left feeling sad that I would soon be saying good bye to my shack and my spot on the Pacific. The thought of moving on made me tired.

On a Quito street I spotted a coin operated scale which registered in pounds. I put my coin in the slot, stepped on, and found I weighed 158 pounds. I hadn’t weighed that little since I was a sophomore in high school. I went to a Chinese restaurant and had an order of chicken fried rice, followed immediately by another.

Back in my little town on the coast, before I went down the beach to the shack, I checked the post office and discovered six letters. I’d been waiting for general delivery mail since we decided to build the shack and I knew I’d be staying for a while. One was from my Mom and Dad and the other five from the woman I had taken up with before I left. Lovely letters. I read them over and over in the town square.

Knowing the tide was going out and I had time to safely walk the beach beside the cliffs to the shack I stopped into a barber shop. It was a barber shop without electricity. Just scissors, razors, a thick leather strop, and bottles of colored after shave. I asked for a short haircut and a shave. The barber was enthusiastic. He used hot towels from a pan warmed by an alcohol burner to soften up my beard. Shaved me with a straight razor. When my whiskers were gone he poured a liberal amount of some blue liquid into his hands and spread it over my face. My face felt like it was on fire. He picked up a big woven palm fan and quickly fanned my face dry. I looked in the mirror and surprised myself. I hadn’t been without a beard since Rome more than two years earlier.

At the shack I packed to leave. I carefully counted my remaining money. Not as much as I hoped. I sold the pot, pan and kettle; the machete and the hatchet to the man who taught me how to harvest oysters. I left the shack as it was, the macramé with seashells made by the Brazilian woman hanging in the front window, the mosquito netting, the crude backgammon board made from driftwood. I simply walked away. It was afternoon. I’ve never been back.

I went to the bus station in Esmeraldas. Quietly, with little regret or soul searching, I bought a ticket north to a place where I could easily get to the Pan American highway. I knew it was time to go home. It felt right. I just did it.

In Panama, in the U.S. zone, I bought cheap foam tennis shoes that fit. It was hot and I wore them without socks. It felt strange wearing shoes after so long without them. My calluses began to soften, my feet began to sweat, and within days those shoes took on a powerful stink.

I hitchhiked to Nogales, made it to Tucson, sold my blood at a blood bank there I (extra money for plasma) and made it to Alamogordo New Mexico where my brother, an officer in the Air Force, lived with his family. At night my sister in law put my shoes on the patio. He put me up for a few days, and I was reunited with my Danvers friend I had started the trip with in Florida, now stationed at my brother’s base. He wanted to know about my trip. We talked long into the night.

My brother dropped me at the edge of town, hugged me, and I began to hitchhike back to the farm. In Oklahoma a big Cadillac Coupe Deville pulled over to give me ride, an aqua blue two door with the long heavy doors. As I ran to the passenger side an older man, tall in a black cowboy hat was spraying Lysol on the white leather upholstery covering the passenger seat. I pretended not to notice.

He was a hell of a nice guy, as are most people who pick up hitchhikers. He was going a long way and it turned out to be a great ride. As he learned more about my trip he asked this question:

“So what made you decide to come back?”

“I don’t know. It just seemed like time. Besides that I was running out of money.”

“You didn’t have money,” he said. “You had rope. If you had real money you’d still be out there.”

“I don’t know what you mean.”

“Yeah, well you’re young. Here’s the thing. If you had real money, as in a pile of money that makes you money, you would still be out there. You had a dwindling supply of money that was certain to run out. It was just a matter of time, and you had to decide the time. Next time, try putting together some real money and stay as long as you like.”

Smart guy. I nearly hitchhiked all the way to the farmhouse but I got to the Purple Martin station in Bloomington in the middle of the night and couldn’t get a ride West on Route 9 to Danvers. I was dog tired. I called my older brother Darwin. When he got to the station I was asleep in a chair. After he dropped me off at the farm I woke my parents and went up to bed. In the morning Mom explained that Dad was taking me to Farm and Fleet to buy me some shoes.

“Where are my tennis shoes?” I asked.

“We burned them with the trash.”

That’s how I got hung up in Ecuador in 1976 and never made it to Machu Picchu.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Pachacamac, Peru

As travel days go, it was not by far the worst. We met up in Morris at 10:30 a.m., packed the equipment in a trailer, headed to the airport, and checked in with no problem. Avianca, the Central American airline we prefer to fly, was accommodating and welcoming. Our flight left at 4:00 p.m., landing first in San Salvador where we changed planes and took off for Lima. We went by bus straight from the airport to the small inland town of Pachacamac, following the foggy Pacific coast until we turned inland, and up, into the Lurin Valley. The roads grew narrower, bumpier, and the going was slow.

We made it inside the walls of a hotel compound that would be our home for the next four nights. It was 4:30 in the morning. Eighteen hours and 4,000 miles had passed between our departure in the Northern hemisphere and our arrival in the South, leaving an early Illinois spring to enter Peru’s newly arrived fall. There were strange figures kneeling, everywhere it seemed, on the hotel grounds. Spooky. Scores of hollow manufactured fiberglass statues would be revealed in daylight. Young people in tee shirts gave us room keys attached to wooden tags by leather thongs. Paper tabs bearing our names were stapled on them. The polite young hotel workers helped us find our quarters and we collapsed into bed. As I went to sleep I heard a rooster crow.

Because we traveled through the night many of us got a lot of sleep on the plane. We assembled as a group for lunch, the California volunteers who had arrived before us, the Illinois contingent which included optometry students from University of Missouri St. Louis, others from across the country. Nearly forty of us. Many were on their first mission. I think the Peru trip was my 25th. We introduced ourselves, some of us meeting for the first time. The group that would work and live so closely together was already beginning to gel.

Mercifully, we were not scheduled to see patients that day, having wisely given ourselves a day to regroup and set up clinic. After lunch we boarded a bus, the same bus we would ride every day, named “Ronaldo.” It was a converted school bus owned and operated I think, by a guy who took great pride in it. It was meticulously painted in red, green, and white. The driver washed Ronaldo’s many wheels every morning. It was not immediately clear if the driver was also named Ronaldo. But the identity of the bus was unmistakable.

Getting to this point took nearly a year. The germ of the idea for a trip to Peru, I Care International’s first to that country, was born late one night after dinner and beers at a beachfront restaurant in Trujillo, Honduras more than a year earlier. The mission in Honduras was over. We immediately set our sights on next year.

“Dena (an I Care member) has family in Lima. She’s already talked to them and they would be interested in helping.” That was Stephan talking, retired student activity coordinator at a central coast college in California. He would later emerge as the mission leader.

“We could combine a clinic with a trip to Machu Picchu.”

Machu Picchu had been my goal, my pilgrimage destination, when I set out from the Smoky Mountains to travel Central and South America in 1976. I got hung up in Ecuador and never made it. I thought about it for maybe a second.

“I’d be up for that trip.”

Of course it wasn’t a trip yet. Much thought and work goes into planning before a trip is declared a go. Who are our contacts in country? Who are they connected with? Can they help us with the bureaucracy that controls customs, are they respected and trusted enough in the community to produce a turnout of people for the clinic? Is the site safe? Is lodging available and workable? There is nothing worse than asking volunteers to spend their own time and resources on international travel, and putting together a stock of 6,000-8,000 used eyeglasses, only to have a disappointing number of people make use of the resource. It’s always a risk. And the first mission to any new country is an even bigger risk.

We hedged our bets by taking up the generous offer of an I Care board member who volunteered to act as a scout. Trish from California traveled to Peru in the summer of 2014 to meet our hosts, see for herself the worksite, gauge the strength of their connection to the community, visit the hotel, and make an overall assessment of the trip’s viability. Everything seemed positive. We began talking to volunteers about the possibility.

In order for a trip to be viable you must have eye doctors. Except for one exceptional trip, when we took a chance and operated a four day clinic with only one experienced optometrists and eight students, having plenty of experienced eye docs is an absolute necessity. We attracted interest from four experienced optometrists currently practicing. With the help of our four third year student docs, we were set.

If needed, all the other positions can be filled by volunteers equipped only with on the job training. That wasn’t necessary. We had an experienced optician, people who knew how to operate the sophisticated equipment we pack, plenty of Spanish speakers. It was a good crew.

Here’s the stations: registration, health (blood sugar and blood pressure assessment for those as risk), acuity (eye charts), auto refractors (measures the eye and provides a read out), eye exam by the docs, dispensing (selecting the closest match from the stock of used lenses, giving people their glasses and fitting them.) Sounds simple doesn’t it? It’s not. It’s a process. We make sure everyone goes through every step, no matter how well they see. Any eye doc looks at and in every eye that comes through the door. Depending on the size of the crowd it can take four hours or more to get a patient through the stations. And sometimes, fearing they won’t be seen, patients line up at the door up to four hours before the clinic opens to make sure they get inside.

Is health care in demand for the developing world? Yes. Glasses and eye exams cost as much or more there then here and most people earn no more than 20% of what we earn. Food and shelter comes first. Eyesight, along with other health concerns, is secondary. Americans take so much for granted. I ask every patient I see in dispensing, as I unwrap their glasses from inside their registration form, if they have ever worn glasses. The most common answer by far? Be they 6 years old, sixteen, 36, or 66 they typically respond

“Nunca.” (Never.)

In three and a half days we served nearly 1400 people in our free eye clinic in Pachacamac. 90% of them received glasses. 40 of them were diagnosed with serious eye conditions and referred for further service: glaucoma, cataracts, retina problems, a condition commonly found in the tropics called Pterygium, a tissue growth on the outside of the eyeball.

This clinic was aided by a significant donation from a Rotary Club in California. We were given $1500 to augment our normal services, to spend as we saw fit. We chose to buy sturdy new readers and sunglasses, and to establish a fund to make glasses for those whom we could not provide a suitable match from our stock of used glasses. These tend to be more difficult prescriptions. That donation was matched in part by the assurance from a large lens grinder in California that they would grind the lenses at cost, and put them into frames donated by yet another donor. I Care has made glasses on a limited basis before, perhaps up to ten times per clinic, but never had we been given the opportunity to do so on this scale. We are making 64 pairs of brand new glasses, many for young kids, and transporting them back to their community this summer. Because of how it fell together we were able to stretch that donation to cover so many needs. Let me give you an idea how it helped.

A middle aged electrician, his own businessman, came to my dispensing chair needing help seeing close up. He explained in Spanish that he was having trouble stripping wire, getting the right diameters without cutting the copper inside, and fitting them into the wire nuts. In addition he was unable to read his newspaper any longer at night. I gave him two sturdy pairs +1.75’s readers, one for his tool box and one for the house. When he put them on and I handed him a page of newsprint he immediately smiled. He asked if I was sure I had enough glasses to give him two pair. I assured him I did. It’s great having resources.

We look closely at the occupations of the people we serve. A number of men and women worked in the fields raising vegetable in that area. Nearly all of that work is done by hand. I saw very few tractors or even mules or burros in the fields. It was rows of people with hand tools. When they came through the clinic, regardless of their visual acuity, we gave them a pair of our new dark wraparound sunglasses, which will not only shield them from the tropical sun but also keep the dust out of their eyes. We gave away a lot of sunglasses. It’s such a pleasure to be able to do so.

Every mission trip is special. What made this one so? In addition to the donation of added resources, we worked in a single big room. It was hot, we brought fans each day from our hotel which had no air conditioning, in order to make it bearable, but we all worked together in one space. We’ve worked everywhere in all kinds of conditions during the life of I Care as an organization. We’ve worked totally outdoors. We’ve worked in places where every station was in a different structure. Best is to be in a big room, volunteers, patients, everyone.

Communication was excellent. When the docs had a special case they could walk over to dispensing and explain what they needed. If the auto refractor reading seemed askew you could walk a patient over there for a retest. The people choosing the glasses for a particular individual could look at the size of the head they were choosing glasses for to find something appropriate. When we were running short of glasses in the stock of a particular type we could have the docs over to explain our plight and help us brainstorm ways around it. It was an optimal clinic site. Hot but so very functional.

It was Father Oquendo’s church hall. The Main provider of social services in that valley, that community, is the Catholic Church. The have a small medical clinic staffed by a nurse open every day. Prior to our visit they made announcements of our clinic at masses for weeks. They communicated to neighboring parishes. Father Oquendo, who showed up the first day in a papal collar, ended up the last day in an I Care tee shirt dispensing glasses next to me. The community was into it, and we were into them. They were gracious and thankful people. It was a pleasure to help them.

Several things stood out. We made a point of having an evening debriefing meeting each night at the hotel so we could share concerns, problems, ideas, and successes. Each station reported on the day from their perspective. I think each volunteer gained an appreciation for the clinic as a whole that way. The communication made the experience better for everyone, especially the people we were serving. Each day we improved the service we offered the people.

We served two special populations, a boy’s group home and a girl’s group home operated by the Catholic Church in the region. Their counselors described the boys as “orphans, homeless, delinquent, abused, abandoned.” Evidently child welfare in Peru is little different than child welfare in the rest of the world. Those boys nearly scammed us out of the rest of our sunglasses, but we caught on before they did too much damage. To a boy they had never experienced an eye exam. Several had significant problems. We were glad to be there for them.

The girls were painted with a kinder brush, although I doubt their situations were in reality much different than the boys. The volume was a little higher when the girl’s entered the room, and the drama of encountering various styles of glasses much more intense. They came at the end of the day, and we realized they been brought by our same bus and driver to the clinic. We shared the bus back home. The girls and the staff serving them brought a whole bunch of energy to a tired group of volunteers.

Let me show you a couple of patients for whom we are making glasses. Both are from the group homes I talked about earlier. They were special patients for me because of my own history.

I flunked the eye test in third grade when the public health nurse came to school and had my classmates and I read a simple eye chart. I knew I was flunking it as I was taking it. I was making wild guesses. I couldn’t see the letters.

The nurse gave me a slip of paper to take home to my parents telling them the results of the test and suggesting they take me to an eye doctor for further testing. I didn’t give it to them. I hid it in my baseball cards. I didn’t want to wear glasses. Nobody else wore glasses except Jackie Holfred who crapped his pants in first grade during reading class.

Months later, late at night and consumed by guilt, I turned on the light in my room upstairs at the farmhouse and dug out the piece of paper. It was between Ryne Duren and Sherm Lollar. Crying, I made my way downstairs to my parents’ bedroom and switched on their light, holding the piece of paper in front of me, confessing the cover up through loud sobs.

My parents were shocked. My Dad was on top of my Mom with a sheepish grin. My Mom seemed upset and moved quickly out from under my Dad. I didn’t realize it till years later that I had walked in on them making love.

They were very forgiving about me hiding the truth about my eyes. We went to an eye doctor in Pekin and soon I had charcoal grey plastic frames holding fairly strong lenses for myopia. From the moment they put the glasses on my face I didn’t want to take them off. I could see so clearly. I could see every leaf on the tree. Mom would take them from me at the supper table and wash them in the kitchen sink. I would immediately put them back on. Putting my glasses on was the first thing I did in the morning and taking them off the last thing I did each night. I needed those glasses, and they became my constant companion.

These kids, each from the group homes we served, have similar if not worse eyes.

Like me they were lucky enough to have someone test their eyes at a young age. With the glasses we will make for them, providing the exact prescription they need, they will have years of clear vision during the growing up years when seeing the world for what it is means so much. I’m glad to be a part of helping them, as should everyone in the Pachacamac clinic and those back home who helped make the donations possible that funded the making of those glasses.

That’s what happens at an I Care clinic. You spend time and money, and put forth extraordinary effort, to give eyeglasses to people who have no access to them so they can see the world better. You and I expect and obtain eyeglasses easily as a matter of course. In Pachacamac, Peru and much of the world obtaining eyeglasses is an entirely different matter. At least last week, I Care International made clear vision a reality for 1400 people in a small community in Peru. We did the same thing earlier this year at clinics Mexico and Guatemala. It may not be the answer to the world’s problems but it certainly helps.