People

Fear of Flying

This morning, Wyatt told us that human beings come into the world with just two fears: the fear of falling and the fear of loud noises. The rest we learn along the way. This afternoon, my mother has decided to face her fears, beginning with the beginning. It's a noble pursuit, for sure, but as we walk to the zipline tower in Miraval’s desert challenge course, I can’t decide if she’s propelled by courage or peer pressure. Her smile is a little shaky as we introduce ourselves to the other 6 women who will take the plunge with us less than an hour from now. Talking and laughing with the group, she seems to relax for a bit, but by the time our guide Connor is showing us how to fasten our harnesses, she’s back to looking terrified.

Meanwhile, I’m totally cool. Although its true I acquired a moderate fear of heights after bungee jumping in New Zealand several years ago, I’m careful not to mention this fact or to show any signs of uncertainty. I’m the one who got us into this.

It occurs to me that my mom has already remembered my bungee-jumping experience when she volunteers us to be the second of the 4 couples to jump. Rather than risk watching another jumper have a panic attack, she opts to go after the self-proclaimed thrill-seekers from San Francisco, but before the women from Georgia and Alabama who are as terrified as she is. Most importantly, she doesn't want to be behind Eileen, who tells us she fell victim to the Quantum Leap challenge yesterday and had to climb back down the 25 foot pole in tears.

With our jump order set, our guide snaps himself “on belay” and skims quickly up the 45 foot pole. It looks deceptively easy. Watching the risk-takers make equally fast time, I add insecurity to my growing anxiety. I’ve been known to get a little freaky on a 10 foot ladder, but today that will be the easy part.

In just minutes, its my turn. I climb the ladder quickly and then hoist myself onto the pole using the first of many 4 inch steel rods, which are spaced about 3 feet apart all the way up the 45 foot pole. “Hand, foot, hand, foot”, I tell myself. “Don’t look down.” I climb quickly despite a growing fear with each step that my running shoes will slide off the rod. When I'm finally I’m up, I say to team risk-taker, “Wow, that was scarier than I thought it would be!” For the first time, I’m seriously worried for my mom.

My worry is short lived. Within minutes, my mother is up the pole and standing next to me on the podium. No muss, no fuss, no drama whatsoever. I’m shocked. Although she assures me she was trembling with each step, I’m not sure I believe her.

For the next 10 minutes or so, we congratulate ourselves as each woman joins us on the podium. When Eileen makes it, we cheer loudly and take pictures and promise to meet up in the bar later for prickly pear margaritas. We regret not bringing tequila with us. When all 8 of us are up, our guide’s new instructions are a grim reminder that we must now get down, and that the 1,000 foot zipline is our only escape.

A new, deeper anxiety sets in. After some brief instructions, team risk-taker is snapped to the zipline and planning their 3-count. Naturally, “one-two-three-and-then-go” is the winner. (Isn’t it always? ) Standing in position on the edge of the platform, Cindy declares on the count of one, “I’m sorry, I just don’t think I can do this. I’m really, really sorry” she tells her friend. ” Mom’s eyes are like saucers.

Then suddenly over my right shoulder I hear my mom say “We’ll go.” Not only am I shocked, but I instantly start to panic. I know why she’s doing this. Standing on that bridge in New Zealand all those years ago, I remember finally finding the strength to fling myself of the platform, knowing it was the only escape for the feeling of sheer terror that had consumed me.  Here in the Sonoran desert, my mother is doing the same thing. Before I know what to make of it, we’re both snapped onto the zipline and my mother is counting. “Holy shit,” I say on the count of one. As I release the words, I see a change wash over my mother’s face. In just those tiny fragments of seconds between the one and the two, I see the terror that had been pushing her forward more quickly than either of us could believe instantly fade away. All that remains is confident, cool, determination. I may have gotten us into this, but she’s getting us out.

And that was that. On “go”, we both step off the platform. Unlike bungee jumping, on the zipline the feeling of falling quickly turns into a smooth, easy glide. We are flying. Holding onto my harness I look ahead and see my mom with her arms spread open wide, a huge smile on her face. I follow her lead, and my arms spread wide as we fly across the desert sky at 35 mph.

Cowboy Therapy

We all have our issues. Mine is balance.

But I’m not sure I really understood it, until a horse showed me how.

There are 8 of us sitting together in a circle of chairs in the warm desert sun, as Wyatt Webb tells us a little of what he knows of horses and life and why men aren’t wired to ask for directions. He has a big warm smile and a folksy, matter-of-fact way as he explains how a little horse sense can go a long way towards better living. With his cowboy hat, full white beard and round belly, he looks like a Western Santa..

When it’s time to meet the horses, I’m surprised to learn we won’t actually be riding them. Instead, we'll spend the next 2 hours learning to see the world from their perspective and trying to communicate with them without words or sounds.

As it turns out, horses are exceptionally sensitive creatures who respond to body language and energy. In order to get a horse to raise his foot so you can clean his shoe, you must approach from here, and squeeze his foreleg there and grab the underside of his foot like so. If you don’t project intention with each step, he simply won’t budge.

In fact, it turns out horses are best led from behind. Instead of pulling them from out in front, the its better to lead a horse from behind – pushing him forward using just your body language and energy. Turn your energy up from your core and walk towards the back of the horse and he walks forward with you. Turn that energy up a notch and he’ll speed up to a trot. Dial the energy down and he’ll slow down. Send mix signals and he’ll stop, or turn, or do pretty much anything except what you want him to.

Sitting on a bench in the outdoor arena watching Caitlin demonstrate how this works, I was skeptical.  Not only is this horse well-trained, but surely he’s used to having people chase him around in a circle. He just knows what to do, right?

Actually, no. To my surprise, each of us succeeded or failed at the task in our own unique and personal way. One woman gave mixed signals, another quit too soon, another got tired after putting way more energy into the exercise than the horse did. When it was my turn, I dialed up my energy and started to push the horse forward, almost immediately sending him into a full-on trot. Each time I slowed down, the horse came to a stop. Maybe it should have been obvious, but I was a little startled when Caitlin walked up and asked me quietly, “It seems like your energy is either way up or its almost non-existent. Do you find that to be true, that you’re either all in or your all out?” I laughed. It took 2 more circles around the arena before I finally found the right balance to keep the horse walking at a steady pace.

It's one thing to know your issues. It’s another altogether to see a horse holding up the mirror.

Mona's House

When we arrive at Mona's house this morning, it's been almost 48 hours since Janis or I have seen another white person. In the heart if the city, in the rural areas, in the remote mountain village of Fond Verette, we've seen thousands of Haitians and one Spanish aid worker who stopped to chat while we were stranded, waiting for our tire to be fixed. But we have seen no white faces, and certainly none of the fresh-faced missionaries like those in the matching t-shirts that filled up our flight from Miami. It's a remarkable thing to realize, but it takes on a special meaning when we walk into Mona's courtyard this morning. As Janis and I step over the threshold into the courtyard full of a hundred or so children, one small boy literally runs out of his sneaker in terror at the sight of us. The other children roar with laughter at the boy, who we suddenly realize has never seen a white person before.

A half an hour later, his father will carry the boy -- who's a little shy of 3 years old, I'm guessing -- over to us as the child shreeks and buries his face in his father's shoulder. I hold out my hand and his father touches his hand to mine to show the boy it's okay. He is not convinced. After repeated attempts, I try a new tactic. I take the boy's picture and show him the image on my camera's LCD screen. Finally, I get a smile. A few pictures later, when he thinks no one is looking, the child finally finds the courage to poke my arm with his tiny index finger. Soon I have a new friend.

Before we leave three hours later, I have dozens of new friends, all seduced by my camera at first, then huddled around me like a mob of fans for a teenage boy band, all smiling and talking to me in Creole, touching my skin and hair with absolute fascination. I speak the few words I know in French, which the children repeat in chorus. "Bonjour!", "Mademoiselle!", "Monsieur!", and so on. When I finally tell Janis I don't know anymore French, they shout back in perfect unison, "I don't know anymore French!", although most, if not all, of them don't know what the words mean. So I count to them in English, then in Spanish, and they shout it all back to me with delightful enthusiasm. They even teach me to count to 30 in Creole and don't seem to notice how much I struggle with the phonetics. It's a simple but fun game for all of us. Although we can't really speak to each other, we have connected.

This entire scene plays out in Mona's small courtyard, just before the children line up for their one meal of the day. To back up a bit, Mona is an attorney who took 50 or so children in last Fall, when an old priest running a small orphanage near her home died, leaving no one else to care for them. Mona had been involved with the orphanage before, and stepped in during the moment of crisis, expecting to use her contacts in local government to help find new homes for  the kids. But when the earthquake came on January 12, that plan fell apart. In the months since then, families from around the town have brought new orphans to Mona. She is educated and already has so many, they don't know what else to do. Today, Mona has almost 400 children in her care.

Like most others here who have been left homeless, the children live in makeshift camps, set up on vacant lots near Mona's home. Neighborhood women volunteer to help with daily care and supervision, and men from the neighborhood stand guard over the camps by night. Eddie and Ralph provide supplies, and enough food for each child to have one meal each day. Their goal is to build a school on some nearby land, donated just a few days before we arrived, and to find permanent homes or an orphanage where the children can live.

Later today, we will return to the airport  to pick up Eddie's friend Char who has brought waterproof tents and medical supplies from Michigan. Tomorrow, we will replace some of the camp's existing tents --- made crudely of sticks and bed sheets, with the larger, sturdier new ones. It will be good to get some real work done.

Entourage

When we arrive in Port Au Prince,  Janis and I are the last to deplane. Eddie waits for us at the entrance to customs and give us instructions on how to proceed. ¨Have $5 ready, but don't let anyone see you with your money. Wait for me right there. DO NOT go into the baggage area.¨ It will be like this for the next 5 days, Eddie leading us around like ducks.

After a short wait, we’re the last to enter the hot, crowded, chaotic hanger to claim our baggage. Immediately, a large, intimidating man greets Eddie with a friendly, rowdy bear hug. At Eddie’s cue, we hand the man our claim tickets and he turns and disappears into the dense crowd. Within minutes he emerges with our bags and we all head outside, where Eddie's business partner Ralph is waiting for us.

On the short walk along the crowded street outside the airport, men hustle to help with luggage, trying to make a buck. Others line the gated wall at the edge of the exits, looking worn and sullen, their hands loosely gripping the iron bars.

At the car, a handful of men and teenage boys greet Eddie and Ralph with much glad-handing and happy shouting. As I'll witness countless times on this trip, money changes hands discretely.

On cue,  Janis and I hand our $5 bills to the man who carried our luggage and climb into Ralph's SUV. Ralph and Eddie are in front. Two other men, who we will come to know as Kents and Fatahl, pile in behind Janice and me and politely say hello. This will be our entourage for the next 5 days.

Who's Eddie?

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After a CARE meeting early this month, Janis glances over between sips of coffee and nonchalantly asks, “Would you like to go to Haiti with me and my friend Eddie on April 21?”

“Sure.” I say.

“Great.” she says after her next sip.

¨Who´s Eddie?¨, I ask a few days later, trying to be as nonchalant as she earlier, not wanting to let on that I´m nervous about what I´ve signed up for.

Eddie is Edwidge Armand, a former pro soccer player turned dad, soccer coach and CEO of Tropical Salt Corp, his family’s salt mining business. Eddie was born in Haiti and runs a private foundation doing humanitarian projects there. He’s been especially busy since the 7.0 magnitude earthquake hit the island 2 months ago, turning Port Au Prince into rubble.

But Janis tells me none of this at the time.

“He's a friend”, she says. ¨He exports salt an runs some schools in Haiti. We´re going to see how we can help.”

Ökay, ¨I say.

And that was that. Within a week, I'm sitting at the dining table of Eddie´s southwest Atlanta home, talking to his kids and cooly working through the list of questions my mother has prepped me with to assess the risk of kidnapping, murder and infectious disease.

"It will be fine", Eddie and Janis both say. I don't know it yet, but they're right.

Ten Things

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Its Saturday and Amanda and I are wrapping ourselves in jeans, sweaters, boots and scarves, knowing the cool, crisp air will be downright cold once we head out for a day on bikes. Amanda’s mom, Missy (who arrived from Tallahassee yesterday), digs through a suitcase full of bathing suits, colorful tops, capris and sandals until she finds the one, lone sweater in her suitcase. If she’s irritated by the optimistic weather report she got just four days ago, she graciously hides it. After all, it’s a gorgeous and sunny weekend, nevermind the fact that its downright cold outside. So much for my endless Mediterranean summer. The weekend is a blast. In fact, it gets me even more excited about my own mother’s visit, which is coming up in just 3 days!! A big thanks to Missy for reminding me of some important tips when traveling with mom:

1)   A perfect fried egg makes a great breakfast.

2)    Sometimes shopping is more fun than a museum.

3)    In answer to the question How’d you sleep?, “I was in and out” is mom for “Like crap”.

4)    Letting someone else make decisions is part of the fun of vacation.

5)    Some destinations are better reached by metro than by bike. Taxis are also good.

6)    Pictures are more fun with people in them.

7)    Long walks are fun, as long as you’re not trying to get somewhere.

8)    Even red wine spills don’t have to be fatal.

9)    Sometimes, southern charm really can melt the heart of a cranky European. (Sometimes, but not all the time.)

10) Moms care more about seeing their daughters than the Top Ten Things on the inside flap of a guidebook.

Thanks again, Missy. I hope the rest of your trip is fantastic! Please eat a Double Texas for me, and don't forget -- It ain't over 'til its over!!

La Mercè: Part 2

IMG_0418As I’ve mentioned in early posts, the lack of separation between work and life is striking here. Colleagues relating as friends, without the pretense and awareness of roles and professional boundaries is, for me, utterly profound. My boss, Eva, invites me out on Thursday, offering to serve as my tour guide for the first day of the festival. It’s sort of last minute (Wednesday afternoon, in fact) and I’m a little anxious knowing I’ve already made plans with Amanda; my neighbor, Regina; two new interns, Justin and Anna; and a guy from Arizona called “Sony”, who we met at a café last night. I explain this to Eva and she assures me of her modus operandi: the more the merrier.

At noon on Thursday, we meet up with Eva at La Colmena, which appears to be one of Barcelona’s landmark patisseries. Eva quickly introduces Marta, who it turns out was a key player in the evolution of La Mercè in the early 1970s, after Franco was overthrown. Marta, a self-described housewife at the time, was instrumental in introducing a host of Catalan cultural events into the festival, marking a milestone for La Mercè – and for Barcelona – in reclaiming its Catalan heritage after years of suppression/oppression by the dictator. It’s almost two hours later when I realize Marta is Eva’s mother.

Again, with the dumb luck. We simply couldn’t have asked for two better hostesses. Eva and Marta lead us through the packed streets of Ciutat Vella, "the old city", deftly guiding us to the most important events of the day. Marta uses her long-established connections at City Hall to escort the group behind-the-scenes to a catered, terrace view of the festival’s most coveted event: the Castellers ("human towers"). In the midst of thousands of Barcelonans and European tourists, its almost embarrassing.

From the Castellers to the Cathedral de Santa Maria de la Mar, to the Roman ruins beneath the city to the convent marred with bullet holes which pay homage to the cruelty of a firing squad set there during the Spanish Civil War, we see the festival and enjoy a fascinating history lesson at the same time. We eat lunch, then tour Barceloneta, a quaint barrio near the ocean, its apartments so small that families set up make-shift living rooms on the sidewalks, where they spend much of their time.

By the time the day ends, following mojitos at a beach-side café and a jazz concert in the park, Eva has generously devoted 10 hours to me and my friends. We have talked a bit of politics and history, seen pictures of her kids, heard stories of her recent divorce and a recent Survivor-esque vacation in the mountains of Vermont. She has paid for everything, despite our protests. I have little doubt this is not a business expense.

Thank you to Eva and Marta for your gracious hospitality. May I soon have the opportunity to pay it forward.

Authenticity

MicheladaAmanda left Wednesday for Mallorca, so I’m left to my own devices for the next 10 days. After spending my first night alone getting a bit more settled and rearranging things in my apartment, by Thursday night I'm ready to go out. As it turns out, I have a new American friend in my building. When I first began looking for an apartment in Barcelona, I made contact with an attorney from Austin named Regina who had posted her information with a local house sitting website. After some email correspondence about the possibility of being roommates, we ultimately decided to both get our own singles, though in the end they turned out to be in the same building (!Perfecto!). Last night, Regina and I took a quick trip to La Boqueria Mercat for some groceries, had drinks at a bar off La Ramblas and then ventured out to explore our neighborhood, in search of a restaurant Lonely Planet named the best Mexican in Barcelona. When Regina first suggests it, I'm particularly excited, although it completely escapes me why I think Spanish-made Mexican food would somehow be more authentic than American-made Mexican food. Perhaps that’s the thing about Europe: everything just feels more authentic. Being from Texas, Regina is cautiously optimistic.

Our neighborhood’s vibe is a hybrid of swank and bohemian and on a Thursday night it’s absolutely teeming with hipsters. Block after block, the sidewalks and intermittent plazas are full of people and the air feels alive in a way I’m not sure I’ve experienced before. I decide on the walk that learning every inch of my neighborhood is my new #1 priority.

We make it to the restaurant by 9:30 and are happy to find the wait is only 15 minutes. We order drinks and watch the bartender bustling behind the bar making a large tray of micheladas, which Regina explains is a popular drink of cerveza, limonada and salsa picante in a salted glass. We opt instead for white wine sangria, which we take to our table a few minutes later. By 11:00, we have gorged ourselves on guacamole, tacos and a dish Regina has ordered which is unidentifiably submerged in what must surely be the most decadent cream sauce ever served in a Mexican restaurant.

Mojitos, micheladas, margaritas and white wine sangria all contain significantly more sugar than a dirty martini. In that respect, Barcelona is a hangover waiting to happen. Effective this morning, my wait is over.