13 August 2006

Bangkok - Home for Real

I got up at 7:15…the first night I’ve slept all the way through to the alarm. I’ve definitely got a cold. I was hoping I’d get home before it got bad but it doesn’t look like I’m going to make it. I’m trying to conserve my decongestants for takeoffs and landings and the few cough drops I have so they’ll last. My head and sinuses are slightly congested, my throat is scratchy and I have a headache. I took Sudafed and ibuprofen at breakfast but it didn’t really help until I got some caffeine at lunch.

We had free breakfast vouchers at the hotel. Mine had “Western style” circled when I got it but when I was seated, I asked if I could get the “Japanese style” instead. “When in Rome” and all that... The guy acted like that was highly irregular or I didn’t know what I was saying but went along with it. It turns out they weren’t so different. Dave (western style) had Texas toast where I had sticky rice and I had miso soup where he had something we later figured out was creamy corn soup. In common we had slightly runny scrambled eggs, 2 chicken sausages, a shredded lettuce salad, fish (herring?), a fruit cocktail sort of thing and tea/coffee. Other than the eggs/sausage, it really wasn’t very breakfast-like…at least by American standards.

The shuttle to the airport left around 11. We got in one United line only to find out we needed to be in the ticketing line because we wanted an American flight. We had spent a lot of time on the phone at the hotel trying to get that nailed down. First, United had us on the Honolulu flight but we finally got someone who told us there were seats available on American, direct from Tokyo to Chicago, so we got our Honolulu flights changed. United took care of that but wouldn’t have offered us the American flight if we hadn’t dug into it ourselves. We’ll get the same flight schedule from Chicago to Des Moines that we should have been on, only a day later.

Once we got all that sorted out, we went to get lunch at a Japanese restaurant. I had sushi and sobe noodle soup. Yum! Then we wandered around shopping. I got my caffeine and a few trinkets; Dave got some stuff for his kids.

When we gave up on all that, we went to the gate to wait the 2 hours remaining before our flight.

I ended up with a bulkhead seat on the aisle, next to a rather large young lady who kept spilling over the armrest into my seat. But I had plenty of leg room! It was a very long, mummifying flight but uneventful…just the way they’re supposed to be. In Chicago we collected our bags and checked them at United for the flight to Des Moines. We had a couple hours to wait then a skinny-hour flight home.We arrived in Des Moines but our bags didn’t. You just had to know that was going to happen…

12 August 2006

Bangkok - Homeward Bound

Homeward bound! I woke up at 2am and lay in bed until 2:30 when I got up and showered.

I gathered up my stuff and went down to check out. Dave arrived around 3:25 and we took our airport shuttle to the airport. We left around 3:40 and arrived at the airport around 4 (not much traffic at that time of day!)

Checking in wasn’t too bad. With all the added security, later in the day it’s going to be a mess, though.

We went looking for breakfast and nothing that served real food was open. We bought water, dried fruit and a can of honey-sesame cashews. We had to drink the water before going through security to the gate. At the gate, every passenger was patted down and bags opened and searched. Boarding started not too long after we got there.

The flight was basically uneventful (just the way they’re supposed to be!) until near Tokyo. Thunderstorms had us in a holding pattern and eventually we were diverted to another airport for refueling.

All of those amulets in my bag and it looks like none of them were for lucky travel... We got to Tokyo and there were no more flight to Chicago. The people going to San Francisco or LA I think got flights but the rest of us (hundreds of us) were SOL. We stood in the immigration line for over an hour. Hundreds of people unexpectedly have to stay in Tokyo overnight and they have 4 agents to deal with them all. Then we had to collect our baggage and go through customs. Then we spent a couple hours standing around trying to find someone who could tell us what the hotel and transportation arrangements were. Finally, around 10:30 or 11 by my watch, we got to the rooms. We’d been traveling since 3:30am.

The room was very small and efficient and reeked of smoke. There was a cigarette machine in the lobby….something I haven’t seen in decades in the US. The lobby was very grand and new-looking. The rooms we have are old and worn and full of cigarette burns.

The discussion everywhere is flights…when can you get what to where. Dave called and talked to someone. We’ve maybe got seats on a flight to Honolulu late Sunday with a long day in Honolulu then an overnight to Chicago arriving home sometime on Monday. Bleah…

11 August 2006

Bangkok - Grand Palace

At 3am, as I stumbled toward the bathroom, I saw the front-page headline of the Bangkok Post tucked under my door…”World Airline Chaos.” NOT a headline I wanted to see… I decided to just go back to bed and deal with it in the morning.

Apparently, a number of bombs were discovered destined for transatlantic flights to the US from London. The plan was to assemble and detonate them midair. It was thwarted but airline security has gone to 9/11 days and lots of flights (mostly out of Heathrow) have been canceled. We’ll have to gauge the situation when we get to the office…

We went to the office, checked mail and worked with the students for the morning then went to lunch with everyone plus Karen Oerter. We went to a restaurant in a huge mall near Chatuchak Park.

It was an interesting sort of restaurant. When you enter, you’re give a card with a barcode on it that is ‘charged’ with 1,000 Baht ($25 or so).There are all kinds of food stations, mostly organized by nationality…Vietnamese, Chinese, Thai, Italian, etc. When you see something you want, you tell them and give them the card. They read your card and debit the amount of whatever you’ve selected. You go station to station until you have all you want then take the food to your table. When you leave, you hand them the card and pay for what you’ve debited along the way. Quite an experience… Jeab says her kids love it and she’s there almost every weekend.

After lunch, some stayed to shop at the mall, Ashraf and Sajid headed off to the airport and the rest of us went back to the office. Dave and I finalized shipping our PCs back to the states since we’d heard that laptops wouldn’t be allowed as carryon. We said our goodbyes to the office people then went to the hotel to drop stuff off and headed out to see the Grand Palace.

The last time we tried this, we took the subway to Sukhumvit station, then got on the sky train and changed trains to one that took us right to the river. This time, we decided to take the subway all the way to the end of the line, then walk the few blocks to the river. We thought it might be quicker because we’d start the river journey part further upstream and wouldn’t have to make the 2 changes from sub to train and train to train. I don’t know if it actually worked that way but we got to walk through some interesting streets of Bangkok so it was a win as far as we were concerned.

We found the Marine Department Pier and got a river taxi upstream to the palace. It was 3:15 and they stop letting people in at 3:30 but you can stay and wander the Grand Palace grounds after that.

We saw the Emerald Buddha (made of jade) and some of the grand halls. Mostly we just walked the grounds.

After that, we went looking for the amulet market that Dave had read about…across from the Wat Maharat. I hit an ATM for 2,000 Baht since I was down to almost none and Dave had to buy my 250 Baht admission to the palace. I returned the favor by paying for a batch of amulets from one of the vendors. He got matching “luck” amulets for his team. I got several for various people. 30 Baht each. At another vendor I got some more for 20 Baht each.

By the time we got done with that, it was approaching dusk and we decided to head to the Siam shopping district to look for the government sponsored shops that support the hill tribes and rural people. We got a river taxi to the Central Pier then took the sky train to Siam station. It was near quitting time so the river taxi was packed with people (right), including monks who have a special place reserved for them on the boat (left). We walked around quite a while in the chaos trying to get our bearings with the map. Eventually it got full dark and we finally found the place. I bought some temple bells and incense (690 Baht) and a set of cotton placemats and napkins for my dining room (285 Bahts).

The shops closed at 8 and kicked us out so we got back on the train a stop or 2 from where we got off and headed back to the hotel.

I called and made a massage appointment through the health club…figuring I could really use it before the long, long plane ride home. I opted for the “traditional Thai massage” which is a lot of deep pressure-point work and static stretches. Then I packed up and went to bed at 11pm, setting both alarms for 2:45am with a 3:00 wake up call from the front desk.

10 August 2006

Bangkok - Graduation Day

I don’t think any trials made it to PK during the night. A conversion factor that I think was there yesterday now isn’t. This wasn’t quite so successful a day. People could practice reporting, but not with their own trial data.

Prasert gave everyone in class an electric blue shirt with “AP PRISM Training, Bangkok 2006” embroidered on one sleeve, the Pioneer logo over the left breast and “Technology that Yields” on the other sleeve. We posed for a group picture in the office lobby wearing the shirts.

Jeab made another pitch for the Siam cultural show. Dave and I signed up. Yaobang and Rulik were initially interested but backed out when they found out the price (1,350 Baht, abut $35…that’s with a 10% discount for paying with a Visa card, which we found in other places as well…I don’t know how/why Visa has such an “in” with Thailand.). It includes a buffet dinner, entrance to a “Living History Farms” type display of Thai culture and history as well as a spectacular theater performance.

At the end of the day, we had ‘graduation’ and handed out the dream-catchers. People seemed to really like them.

Dave and I stopped by the hotel to drop off his PC then got back on the sub 1 stop to the Thai Cultural Center station where we met our shuttle to the show with 2 other people. When we got there, they didn’t find our reservation but got us tickets anyway.

The villages were interesting. There were demos of things like pounding rice with a teeter-totter device, processing silk from feeding worms to unwinding the cocoons, playing native instruments, trying food samples, etc. There was free stuff everywhere. At one display where a woman was making fish or cranes or grasshoppers on a stick out of bamboo, visitors could help themselves. Several places cooked up samples of traditional foods for you to try. One place had mini, traditional Thai massage. I got a bamboo grasshopper and would have liked a massage but the line was too long to wait for.

We went to the show and found our seats. The 2000-seat theatre was practically empty…maybe only ¼ full, if that. But the show was spectacular.

If it’s not the largest stage in the world, it’s in the top few. The cast of 150 plus 2 elephants and several goats/chickens did a great job. There was a channel at the front of the stage that was filled with water at one point and used to float boats and things across the stage. One guy jumped in to swim at one spot…got to be a deep spot there as the rest of it was all pretty shallow before the water filled it in. During the ‘thunderstorm’ part of the show, water cascaded from the ceiling several stories up into the ‘lake.’ There were a couple of audience participation bits where people were picked out of the audience. I thought they kind of detracted from the rest of the story but the show overall was definitely a spectacular.

After the show, a shuttle took us back to the subway and we were back at the hotel a little after 10.I did some preliminary packing to see how I was going to get stuff in…to be finished on Friday.

09 August 2006

Bangkok - 3rd Training Day

At the office, I checked mail for answers to thing I asked the day before. The students were on time again, class went well. After an overview of PTM and a demo of entering a trial, they spent most of the day entering trial data. Some system problems kept the total number of trials entered lower than I liked but everyone got something in.

The fruit plates today contained a new delicacy…mangosteen. I’d read about these so I was glad to try them. Yum! They’re my new favorite Thai fruit. The Thais call them the queen of fruits (because of the ‘crown’ at the stem end) and I agree, based on taste! I also tried a dessert at lunch with sticky rice, coconut milk and durian fruit. The dessert was ok. I can see where Philip got the “garbagy onion smell” part. They do taste better than they smell but it was not one of my favorites.

We left the office around 6 or 6:15. Most of them went right to the night market. Dave and I went to the hotel then to a market we hadn’t been to, near the Sukhumvit station.

It turned out to be not what we expected… Or we didn’t know what to expect. We took a left off the station and there were some street vendors but nothing much. It looked like a “locals” street. We went around the block and it got more and more “native.” Then we came to the entrance of a neon alley. Neon lights flooded the alley and it was wall-to-wall clubs of the sort Bangkok nightlife is famous for…Jungle Jim’s, Rawhide, Apache, stuff in Thai we couldn’t read but obviously advertised delights of the feminine sort.

Dave said later that he found a reference to the alley in one of his city guides and that it was called Soi Cowboy (Cowboy Alley) and was, indeed, one of the famous/infamous sex show/club streets of Bangkok…300 meters containing about 40 clubs and bars. When we walked out the other end we were only 20 yards or so from the sub station. Had we turned right instead of left leaving the station, it would have been the first thing we came to.

We got back on the subway and returned to the Suan Lum night market at the Lumphini station. We got off and immediately ran into Tom (from Philippines) waiting for the others. We chatted a while then we went our way while he waited for the others to collect and decide where they wanted to eat supper.

We tried to hit a different section of the market than we’d seen on our previous trip. Mostly we just wandered. Dave was still on a tablecloth mission. He ended up with silk boxers for his son. I got 2 pair of ‘beach pants’…one deep red with gold dragons down the legs and one in a black/white native pattern (450 Baht total, a little less than $12).

We found our way to the beer garden and sat down. Dave got a Tiger beer (in a HUGE bottle) and I got a bottle of water (100 Baht, about $2.50). The ‘garden’ space is huge…like half a football field…and lined all around the outside with food and drink establishments. Each place has its own “girls” to serve you. If you get a Tiger girl, that’s the beer you drink. Don’t select from all of them.

The band stopped/broke not long after we sat down then a bunch of people in fancy dress got on stage and we all stood for the national anthem. After that, the big screens played soccer video.
Dave finished his beer, I my water, then we left. It was after 10 by then.

I must have been adjusting to the time change…I wasn’t ready for bed when we got back so I looked through the stack of Bangkok Post (English language) newspapers that had been tucked under my door daily and I hadn’t looked at. I didn’t really read anything but the Sunday comics section. I went to sleep and only woke up once in the night then slept until the alarm.Tomorrow is ‘graduation day’…we brought dream-catchers to give all the students and I tatted some hearts for Jeab and the other assistant who helped us so much.

08 August 2006

Bangkok - 2nd Training Day

This first day of class went well. Dave and I got to the office around 7:45 to set up and check on things. Students arrived on time and were ready to roll at 8:30. I think it was a pretty grueling day for them but everyone seemed to be getting it. ‘Course all the set up, config, and background stuff doesn’t really mean anything to them yet because they don’t really see how it all fits together.

Dave and I talked a bit on the way to the office about class structure and if there’s a better way to put it together. I hope he’ll have some suggestions after he’s seen the whole thing.
We had lunch at the cafeteria. Pong said it was on floor 2 and an elevator load of us trouped off to floor 2 only to find more offices and no one who could tell us (in English) where the cafeteria was…and no one in our group who could speak Thai. We went down to the lobby and tried to ask at the front desk but they didn’t speak English either. Finally, I just mimed eating at him and he pointed to the building next door.

We got there but it wasn’t obvious if/where there was a cafeteria. About that time, Prasert caught up with us and led us around the other side and up the stairs to the café.

We had our choice of many Thai foods. I picked a couple, having no clue what they were. It was all good, but mostly way more hot spicy than I like to eat. Dave, Philip and Yaobang took some stuff that looked kind of like pork fried rice without the rice. Apparently, it was very hot. Yaobang (from China) couldn’t eat it at all. Dave ate it sweating and nose running. Philip, (world traveler and adventurous eater) said it was the hottest thing he’d ever tasted.

Jeab brings snacks into class at regular intervals…plates of cashews, rambutans, guava, oranges or other fruit. Longon…not to be confused with the longans already mentioned…are similar to longans except they’re less round, more pear-shaped and the fruit grows stuck directly to a branch (like Brussels sprouts) instead of in a cluster (like grapes). The flesh is similar in taste and texture to longans but comes in sections, like an orange, instead of one solid fruit like the longans. Sometimes there’s a seed in one or more of the fruit sections; sometimes there’s none. The longons have a little more flavor than the longans…they’re both sweet and juicy but the longon flavor is a little more complex.

After class, everyone pretty much went their own way. Philip and some others went straight to an electronics/IT mall, 2 stops past the hotel. Dave and I dropped off stuff at the hotel, changed clothes and went to the Suan Lum night market.

It was like Chatuchak, only for tourists so the aisles were wider, it was well-lit, clean, airy and smelled a lot better. Quality of goods was generally higher as were prices. Still, bargains could be had if you looked.

I saw stone rubbings like I bought at Wat Pho for 400 Baht going for 100 here. They weren’t the exact same images though…the ones I got, I’ve only seen at Wat Pho.

I didn’t buy anything. Dave got a pashmina shawl for his wife and a wooden vase thing.
There was a huge Ferris wheel there. We’d seen it the previous day from the sky train but didn’t know it was part of the market. It makes a handy marker for finding the subway entrance though. There was also a huge beer garden with a band playing and we found some ATMs and a currency exchange. It definitely caters more to tourists than locals.

A sub ride home (28 Baht if you buy a token, 24 if you use the card), then bed.I slept a little better. I woke up around 1:30 again and repeatedly after that but managed to go right back to sleep pretty easily. I had a nasty sinus headache at one point so I took some decongestants and acetaminophen, which helped.

07 August 2006

Bangkok - 1st Training Day

After waking up around 1:30 and then every 45 minutes or so after that until around 5 when I never went back to sleep, I finally just got up at 6. Good thing. I’d set both my travel alarm and the room alarm for 6:30 but had forgotten to actually turn either of them on.

Speaking of which, the alarm in the room is part of a “master panel” on the nightstand. All the lights in the room are controlled by this panel which also contains a clock. The clock is set from some master timer somewhere and you can’t change it. You can set the alarm time, though. It also controls the AC level (high, medium or low) but you set the actual temperature with the thermostat on the wall.

The room lights were a bit of a puzzle to figure out when I first got the room. I walked in and hit light switches but nothing came on…the room stayed completely dark. I’d been in a hotel in France once where they had to do something in the office to enable the lights in the room…probably to keep you from checking out and leaving all the lights on or something. I started to head for the front desk (since, in the dark, I couldn’t even find the phone) but remembered that someone would be bringing my bag up soon and figured I’d just wait for that.

Meanwhile, I happened to notice a small box on the wall just inside the door that looked like a key card holder so I stuck my room card in the slot and Voila! The lights came on, along with the AC. And they stay on as long as the card is in the slot.

I had breakfast in the “coffee shop” again (free, with the room) and on the way out met Rulik, Tom and Rachel coming in to eat with Philip.

The whole gang met in the lobby at 8:30 with Pong and Prasert to shepherd us through the subway to the office, since none of us had ever been there before.

Dave and I had bought subway passes the day before so we waited off to the side while the rest of the people bought cards. You pay a 50 Baht deposit and then add however much money you want. It works kind of like a phone card…you can add more money to it whenever you need to and whenever you use it, the amount gets debited from whatever your balance is. When you’re done with the card, you turn it back in and get whatever money you have left on it plus your deposit back.

It’s very convenient. Whenever you use the subway, you just swipe the card instead of buying tokens. And you pay less (about 10%) for what you use. For example, if you buy a token to get to the office from the hotel, it’s 18 Baht. If you use the card, it’s 16. Whenever you swipe your card at the turnstile, the display tells you how much that trip was and how much you have left. It’s definitely easier than tokens. You don’t have to wait in line to buy a token or have the right change.

At the office, Philip set up for the agronomy meeting while Dave and I set up in a couple of offices. We caught up on mail and made copies of handouts. We had just finished the copies about the time lunch arrived…pizza, garlic bread, chicken wings and bacon twists. There was seafood pizza and veggie for the Indians and Pakistanis.

When the meeting started again, Dave and I left to head for the river. Jeab said the best way to get there was take the subway to sky train station then the sky train all the way to the end then get a river taxi to go upriver to the Grand Palace. She said a taxi would take an hour and a half (because of traffic) but it would be 20 minutes the other way.

We stopped by the hotel to drop off stuff then back to the subway. It was pretty easy to find our way to the stations and make the connections. At the end of the line, we got off and headed to the river…mostly, right below the station.

We found a boat headed toward the palace. It turned out to be a tourist boat as opposed to a regular taxi. The difference being there was a ‘guide’ pointing out landmarks along the way and it cost more. The tourist boat up the river cost 18 Baht…coming back on a regular boat costs 13.
By the time we got to the palace, it was too close to closing time so we didn’t go in but we did check out Wat Pho while we were in the area. The wat closes at 6 but they started closing the buildings around 4. We could continue to wander the grounds until 6, just not enter the temples where the Buddhas were.

We left Wat Pho and took a ferry across the river (3 Baht…about 7 cents) to Wat Arun (temple of the dawn). There are no buildings to go inside but the chedis (pagodas) were all covered in colorful tile pieces. Not exactly like a mosaic…the pieces were shaped and very 3-D.
We ferried back across the river and caught a boat back to the sky train pier. By then, it must have been quitting time as all the boats were packed with people. The sky train too. Sometimes there were too many people for the train and some had to wait for the next one.

We got on a sky train and, as the door was closing, realized we were heading the wrong way. So we got out at the next stop and went down to the other tracks to go the right way.

We got back to the hotel around 7:15 to find notes under our room doors saying the gang was meeting at 6:30 to go to a nearby seafood restaurant. Oops! We ended up eating at the hotel “coffee shop” again. I had the pad thai in an egg-pillow that Philip had the night before. It looked good, and it was. Just a bit hotter than I really enjoy eating…even though I’d ordered it “mild.” I also had a custard/flan sort of thing for dessert. It was ok.After that, shower, review of the class material for the next day, then bed. I slept great until about 1am then it was the same ol’ wake every 45 minutes or so until I finally never went back to sleep and got up at 5.

06 August 2006


I had my alarm set for 6:30 but woke up at 6 and wasn’t going to go back to sleep so I got up, showered, dressed and went to breakfast at the hotel “coffee shop.” I say “coffee shop” because that’s what they called it but it was way too fancy to be a mere coffee shop. The breakfast buffet was HUGE…one very large service island and 4 or 5 slightly smaller ones. There were your traditional breakfast foods (cereal, fruit, cheese, bread, yogurt and 6 kinds of juices, including watermelon) plus regular meal type foods of the Thai, Chinese, Japanese, American, Hawaiian, etc. persuasions. I had some egg casserole stuff, lots of fruit, some cheese and OJ.

Before going down for breakfast, I looked for an iron in the room so I could press my class clothes…they really needed it. But there wasn’t one in the room so I put everything that needed it in a laundry bag for the hotel staff to press. I had 3 shirts, 1 pair pants, 1 dress and 2 skirts ironed for 835.67 Baht (about $22…includes 10% service charge and 7% VAT). They were hanging, neatly pressed in my closet when I got back. They did a really good job.

I met up with Philip, Dave, Max (former Pioneer agronomist) and Pong (woman from the office who will be in my training) in the lobby to head out for our day of sightseeing. We headed to Ayutthaya, the former capital city of Thailand. On the way, we stopped at a convenience store to get some bottled water. Dave and I got a 12-pack of bottles for 75 Baht (about $2) and a couple of chilled bottles for the road for 9 Baht each (about 20 cents). Gas costs about 27 to 30 Baht per liter (a squidge less than $4/gal). They also sell ethanol, only there it’s made from cassava instead of corn.

The day started out cloudy, which we didn’t really appreciate until we got out of the car and it got sunny occasionally. When the sun came out it got really hot in a hurry.

In Ayutthaya, we stopped to get wat (temple) guides then went to the elephant palace. For 20 Baht you could buy a small basket of sugar cane chunks and pellet packs to feed the elephants. We fed a baby elephant and watched it do some tricks then went on to ride the big ones for 200 Baht (~$5). You climb up a little tower that gets you even with the elephant’s back then you step onto its back and sit in the howdah (padded bench you sit on under a sun umbrella). Your mahout (elephant handler/driver) then takes you out along a small waterway, past some temple ruins, across a street and out to a body of water with some more temples nearby. It’s not a long ride but it is scenic.

The mahouts definitely get the best ride. They’re sitting on the elephant’s head/neck and hardly move around at all. But sitting in the howdah on the elephant’s back you roll from side to side with each step. Pretty much all the pictures I took from the back of a moving elephant came out blurry or of something I wasn’t really trying to aim at because it was so hard to hold the camera still.

When we got off the elephants we were plied with photos taken of us and then the exit through the gift shop. I succumbed to a small black elephant-with-baby carving and a couple of notebooks made of “100% elephant dung.” (450 Baht total)

We saw the ruins of several wats after that. Admission for farang (foreigners) was 30 Baht. Admission for locals is 10 Baht.

Ayutthaya was the original capital of Thailand, until about 400 years ago. While still the capital, the Burmese invaded in 1765 and pretty much burned it to the ground, destroying a large part of the city and all the temples. The wats we saw were all more or less destroyed by the Burmese during that time. They occupied Thailand for 40 years or so until the Thais kicked them out again. After that, the capital was moved to Bangkok in 1782.

We passed by some trinket and fruit vendor stalls and there was not a single fruit I recognized. We tried pamelo, which looks like an enormous, green, slightly pear-shaped grapefruit. The rind is pithier and falls off the fruit better than a grapefruit. The fruit looks a lot like white grapefruit. It wasn’t particularly juicy for all that and it had a vaguely citrus-y taste…neither as tart as a grapefruit nor as sweet as an orange. It was actually rather bland.

There was a pile of durian …larger than the pamelos with a hard, cone-spiked exterior. You have to handle them with gloves. The vendor cut one open while we were there with a small machete. There’s a lot of inedible, fibrous pith inside the spikes that contain 4 or 5 edible sections. They’re a yellowish-cream color and shaped like squat bananas. In the car on the way here, Philip was talking about them and described them as smelling like “garbage-y onion” but said they tasted a lot better than they smelled. The spiky outside of the fruit didn’t have much of a smell and I didn’t get close enough to the actual edible part to say one way or the other.

Pong bought a kilo of longan which she shared with us. Longans look like small, round white potatoes only they grow in clusters like grapes from a tree. To eat them, you put your thumbnails together against the skin and pry it apart. The skin pops right off leaving a smooth, clearish fruit that you pop in your mouth right from the skin. There’s a smooth, shiny, black pip near the stem end that you spit out. It’s sweet and juicy and very tasty!

We also had some rambutan …among ourselves, called “that hairy fruit.” The fruits are sort of egg shaped and sized. The peel is mostly red with a lot of ¾ inch tendril-like ‘hairs’ covering it. The hairs start out red near the base but are a pale yellow-green near the tips. You eat them in the same way you do longans…pry apart the skin with your thumbnails and the fruit pops right out. It’s the same sort of clear-white color as the longan and is similarly juicy and sweet. However, the pit in the rambutan is more almond shaped and clings to the fruit. You don’t want to get too vigorous about chewing off the fruit as there is a thin, fibrous skin over the pit that is kind of astringent if you get into it.

At this vendor stop, I bought a fish mobile made from ti leaves and intricately painted. I haggled the vendor down to 200 Baht for it. Pong said they hang these over baby cribs to entertain the wee ones. I thought I’d hang it in my atrium to swim in the breezes there…if I can get it home without crushing it. It’s a fairly large fish with 3 strands of smaller fish hanging down from it…all in deep red and metallic gold.

Around noon Pong and Max took us to a restaurant along the Lopburi River. Lucky for us, the menus consisted mostly of pictures of dishes so that it wasn’t so critical that we be able to read Thai or understand the English translations of the dish names (if you don’t know what it means, ”tom yam kai” doesn’t make any more sense than the Thai characters for it). Nonetheless, we let Pong order for all of us. We had tom-yam soup with shrimp (tom-YUM!), roasted prawns (the biggest I think I’ve ever seen…complete with head, legs, long skinny pincer arms and eyestalks), some sort of green leafy vegetable with mushrooms in a light brown sauce, and some fish cake-like things. It was all very tasty, even if I have no idea what most of it was.

While we ate, we watched the boats on the river. Mostly they were ‘long-tail’ boats (long, narrow, wooden boats with a car engine mounted toward the back and a long straight drive shaft extending into the water to drive the propeller) but also some dinner-cruise type tourist boats and multi-part barges loaded with sand headed to the city.

When the barge first started past the restaurant, we wondered how it was going to negotiate the turn without hitting the bank on the far side of the turn. Then the back of the barge came into sight and we figured it out. The barges had tugboats at both ends. The front tug would pull the barge chain downstream and the back tug would come into play when the barge needed to negotiate a turn. It would pull upstream on the caboose end to keep it from slamming into the outside bank of the turn. It works. As twisty as the river is, that back tug is kept very busy!
After lunch, we headed back to Bangkok and dropped stuff off at the hotel before heading to the weekend market at Chatuchak by subway.

The Chatuchak market is like the local farmers market only on atomic steroids. It’s in a park that covers 190 rais (35 acres) and the more than 8,000 vendor booths are packed in under a huge roof or spilling out into outdoor aisles. This is where a lot of the locals shop, in addition to tourists, so it has everything you could possibly want from staple home items like toilet paper or detergent to exotic (and endangered) animals (alive or dead for the pot or pets).

At times, it was very claustrophobic inside…the chaos, the press of people, the heat, the lack of air moving, not being able to see much past the next booth. I’m not claustrophobic to begin with but there were moments...

Philip was looking for silk for his wife. Dave was looking for whatever. I ended up with a couple of pillowcases (200 Baht), a placemats/chopsticks set (200 Baht), a scarf (100 Baht) and some incense (100 Baht).

Dave and I had planned to come here on our own before Pong and Max offered to take us out for the day. I was really glad we had them with us. They shepherded us through the subway system (very clean, new-looking and easy to use once we got started) and helped us negotiate the maze of the market. They also warned us several times about the dangers of pickpockets and staying past 6:00 when the main shops close.

The hotel itself is very high end. At least compared to places I’ve stayed before. There is staff everywhere. There’s a guy whose job it is to stand by the elevators and push the call button for you. All the rooms have doorbells outside so that no one has to knock. There’s an orchid on my pillow every night and a small fruit basket on the table with rambutans and some jujubes (look like small granny smith apples…different texture and not so much flavor). The room has a safe, robes and slippers, a fridge with water and beer in it and a number of bottles of alcohol and basket of snacks in the wet bar. The water in the fridge is complimentary…which I didn’t find out until after I’d checked out.

My room has 2 beds…full-sized, maybe smaller…a desk, a couple of sitting chairs and is half of a suite. The bathroom has a separate tub and glass-walled shower stall. The view out the window is of city as far as you can see. Up close, I look down (from the 22nd floor) on the rooftops of what must be homes…parking lots, open lots and a main street.

I was pretty well dead by the time we got back to the hotel. It’d been a really long trip getting there and I only had about 5 hours sleep that night. However, after dropping off my purchases to my room, I met Dave and Philip in the lobby for dinner at the hotel. I was a little hungry but mostly just very tired.

I wasn’t really interested in anything on the menu but ordered something and ate about half of it. The best part of the meal was the water! After sweating so much at the market, I was really thirsty and it was cold and wet! I’d ordered a ginger ale with the meal and drank that but it had a funny smell/taste…faintly like mothballs. Dunno why, but I stuck to water after that.
After supper I got some of the bottles of water Dave and I bought earlier then headed to my room. En route, Philip and I met Ashraf and Sajid, the students from Pakistan, in the hallway. Philip introduced us then they headed down to dinner and I went to my room to shower and crash.

04 August 2006

Travel to Bangkok

Yesterday, I’d gotten a mail message from United about checking in on-line so I did that and printed my boarding pass. At home, I was all packed and ready to sleep in a little the following morning so was knitting at past 10 when the phone rang. It was Dave asking if I’d gotten a call about our canceled flight. I hadn’t. Turns out our flight to Chicago had been canceled around 8pm and United had booked us on an American flight leaving 2 hours earlier.

Good thing he called! I thought I was all set to go and wouldn’t have known any different until I showed up 2 hours late for my flight. We rearranged our meeting time and I toddled off to bed after changing my alarm to get me up earlier.

We met at work, where I left my car for the week, then headed to the airport. Because of the cancellation, we had to go to the United counter to get a voucher for the American flight and then to the American counter to get boarding passes and check Dave’s bag.

At the United counter, they told us I didn’t have a seat assignment for the Chicago-Tokyo flight. No one could say why…my itinerary and printed-yesterday boarding pass all said I did. The agent helping us was a trainee and didn’t really know what he was doing so a supervisor was called. Much confusion ensued. We finally got our vouchers and went to the American counter where they told us they had to have a ‘coupon’ from United that wasn’t in the paperwork they gave us. So we trouped back to the United counter to get the coupon then back to the American counter to finalize everything.

Eventually we got to the security gate and because of the cancellation/reschedule changes; it looked like we had purchased last-minute tickets which automatically flags you for a personal security screening. That took longer for me because I had my luggage with me instead of checking a bag. When I got to the gate, the flight was already boarding so I got right on.
In Chicago, as we were getting off the plane, I suddenly remembered that I forgot to order the coffee before I left the office. Even connecting to the network with my laptop wouldn’t help because the file was on the hard drive of my office PC.

I was trying to figure out what the heck I was going to do about it…I knew it was a fairly substantial order that I couldn’t just get from “stock” when the shipment arrived but I had no idea what it consisted of. I was thinking it was the weekend but Dave (Bless him!) reminded me that it was Friday and people were still in the office. Ann or someone could log onto my PC as administrator and get the file for me.

Once we got to the gate (hours before our flight, there was no one there, of course), Dave went to get something to eat and I called the office. I caught Doug and told him what was up. He said he’d take care of it (Bless him!). Then I called the travel service to see what they could tell me about my seat on the Tokyo flight. The agent I talked to called United and both of them agreed that there was no problem with my ticket, nothing had changed and I did, indeed, have a seat assignment. Go figure.

There still wasn’t anyone at the gate so I wandered down to the United Customer Service desk to see what they’d say. They agreed with Des Moines…I didn’t have a seat; I’d have to get it at the gate. Which I wouldn’t have cared so much about but everyone (except the travel service) said there were only middle seats available.

I went back to the gate and there was someone there so I went through it all again to get my seat. She said I’d have to wait until my name was called. It wasn’t long after that she called the 14 names (including mine) and I finally got my seat. As she handed me my ticket she told me it was an aisle. (Bless her!)

After that, it was board, take off and fly. By the time we’d been served a bag of snack-y stuff then lunch, I’d finished my book and we were only somewhere over the Dakotas. It was going to be a long, loooooong flight… All my other books were in the overhead bin…not impossible to get to but not convenient. I had tatting and word puzzles…

The bright spot at that point was that I had an outside aisle seat with no one in the window seat beside me so I could at least spread out and shift some. That was the highlight of the entire day and flight!

As we came in for a landing in Tokyo, it wasn’t at all what I expected. The airport must be outside the city. I never saw any city on the way in, only neat, precise little rectangles of green fields. They looked like they’d been laid out by engineers with a straight-edge. It looked sort of like landing in the Midwest except that the parcels were smaller and not square. Also, whereas in the US, houses/farmsteads tend to be spread out across the grid, here they were all clustered together in corners. It was the same with what looked like parking lots…clusters of cars parked around rectangle intersections. I don’t know why there were all those cars clustered together where there weren’t any buildings.

We wandered the Tokyo airport waiting for our next flight. Anything to not sit more! We found a duty-free shop with traditional Japanese things. Dave got Ts for his kids and I got a couple of silk hankies with traditional prints on them. Also a small green-tea container. It’s metal with a little lid but the outside is covered in a silk brocade. It has some tea in it but it was the container I thought was cool. Total, 1,500 yen.

On the flight to Bangkok, I had a window seat. It’s dark out so I couldn’t see anything except for a ¾ full moon. I was in the 2nd row back from the bulkhead and surrounded by infants and small children. They were very well-behaved, though, so it wasn’t too bad. I was way too tired to be able to concentrate enough to read so I just had to muddle through the remaining hours of the flight. Then it was going to be the tough decision…bed or shower first??

It was around midnight before I got to my room but I opted for shower first.

27 January 2006

Companeros - Day 8

Walter needed to be at CIS by 8:30 or so and Kathy wasn’t flying back with us so they rode to San Salvador with Bob earlier than we needed to leave. We said our goodbyes to them then had breakfast, loaded up the van and said our goodbyes to the Pastoral Team then headed to the airport.

On the way, Alej called to me (sitting directly behind him in the van) to point out where his house was. I waved to it (Muevo a tu casa!). He also pointed out a maximum security prison he’d told me about in one of our previous discussions. The prison is Zacatecaluca (or something like that) but they call it Zacatraz after the US’ Alcatraz. And he asked me to write down my home address. All week, I’d been bugging him about a photo of his family. He’d promised me that on Friday (today) he’d have it but apparently didn’t. He wanted to mail it to me.

We arrived at the airport a little before 10:00 and it wasn’t open yet (!?!?) so we waited outside until they let us in. We checked bags, got tickets, paid the exit fee (up to $32 from $27.35 as in the past) and headed up to the gate to wait. And wait. Our plane wasn’t due to leave until 1:20 giving us LOTS of time to wander up and down the terminal, looking in the duty-free shops, reading, etc. We could tell when time was getting closer as the smell of Camperos chicken started to build.

The flight back to the US was without incident. The movie on the way back was even worse than the one on the way down…Roller Bounce or some such. I watched about 5 minutes of it and decided to read instead. The meal was every bit as awful as the movie seemed to be. The choice was beef burrito or chicken sandwich. I decided to try the burrito. Marcia, sitting next to me, had chicken. Neither of us ate much of either. The rest of the meal was a small Greek salad, bag of potato chips and packet of Oreos. The salad was good. I’m not normally much of a potato chip- or Oreo-eater but I ate these because there wasn’t anything else.

In Houston, we had the quickest processing I’ve EVER had. The lines were non-existent at Immigration, our bags came up right away on the carousel, and there weren’t any lines at Customs, either. I did get stopped a couple times (just before Customs and again just after) by people asking me if I had all my bags…apparently it looks a little odd to be coming from an international flight with only one duffle and a day pack. Everyone else checked the bags they needed to and we trammed to our next gate.

About the time we got to the domestic terminal, Blair realized that he was missing the bag of stuff he’d bought at the airport in San Salvador…a book on the national parks of El Sal and a bottle of some type of alcohol. We figured it must have been mislaid at the security checkpoint back at the other terminal. He came to the gate with us and left his carry-on then went back to see if he could find his bag. He couldn’t. But that was the only glitch to the trip home.

26 January 2006

Companeros - Day 7

It wasn’t. When the psychologist arrived this morning she showed me the problem with the printer. Unfortunately, about that time they were calling ‘all aboard’ for another round of canton and house visits so I had to leave. But I told her (Yolbeth) that I’d work on it later that day, now that I understood the problem.

We were supposed to visit a couple houses this morning then a couple more cantones and La Quisera (the massacre site on the edge of the Berlin municipality that is a fairly recent discovery and excavation) in the afternoon. But last night Milagro suggested that was probably a bit too ambitious and that we should think about skipping La Quisera. We all agreed!

I put on sunscreen today. I’ll probably be black with dust sticking to it, but hey, that’s even better sun protection, right?

First we went to María Elena’s house. Her mom was such fun…very animated and joyous. Bob was in a hammock and she started rocking him and singing him a lullaby in Spanish. He snored theatrically.

Then we went to Otilia’s house. She lives pretty far out on the edge of town. Her mom wanted us to see the church on the corner so we walked down there and she opened it up for us. For a small barrio church, it had an impressive altar…all glass and icons and carved wood. And bats…lots of bats flitting about the alcove.

We went back to the Casa for a bit before lunch. I spent it mostly working on Bob’s PC or the Yolbeth’s printer. I fixed the latter but Bob’s PC is still not working right.
We had lunch then loaded up the pickup for the trip to El Corazol (Ankeny Presbyterian’s community – Marcia), the farthest canton in Berlin. This was also one of the hardest hit by the flooding, as it has the river as one of its borders. I think the entire community turned out to meet with us. They were quite excited to see Marcia again.

On the way back, we stopped in Casa de Zinc (Trinity’s community – Blair), a casarillo of San Isidro. They have a very impressive water tank and collection system. While Blair was meeting with the people and taking pictures of each family group, I picked up some reddish, puce-colored seeds from the ground under the big, gnarled tree by the tank. I asked Alejandro what they were and he didn’t know. He showed them to Cecilia who didn’t know either but showed them to a woman from the community. That woman pointed to a tree on the other side of the tank grounds that had long pods hanging from the branches. Cecilia and Otilia got very excited and led me over there. They said that the pods are used to make a fruity sort of drink and they started looking for long sticks to knock some down. At first I thought they were just doing that because I’d asked about them and I didn’t want them to go to all that trouble. But they wanted several to take back to the Casa.

The pods are probably 2 feet long and as big around as a half-dollar. They’re really hard, too…it took bashing them with one rock on another rock to break them open. Once open, Cecilia showed me how the seeds are packed in there surrounded by a clear, hard, red substance that reminded me of the melted sugar of stained glass cookies. That is, apparently, the part used to make the drink. Cecilia plucked the creamy-pale seeds (Cecilia said they change color as they dry) from their red-encased homes and gave them to me then picked some of the red stuff out and put it in her mouth. The rest of the pods they’d knocked down, they gathered up to take with them.

Back to the Casa for the rest of our last day in Berlin. I took a shower…scrubbing this time, with a bandana I’d brought from home (one of the items I never travel without!). We had supper then took photos of the Pastoral Team with Compañeros. We gave Alejandro and Walter their propinas (tips) and I gave them each a tatted heart I’d made on the trip.
We packed up and got ready to leave for the airport in the morning

25 January 2006

Companeros - Day 6

Today was a canton (small dirt-floor community) visit day. Our first stop was San Francisco, to Miguel’s brand new house with his wife and 9-month old son. 6 months ago, when I was there last, they were living in a very small room in his parents’ house. Now they have a place of their own. Since San Francisco is Westminster’s sister canton, I spent a lot of time talking with him about the solar project and the community and how things were going. The solar project is still short about $6,000 from the Self Development for People grant money. About half the homes now have the transformers that will allow them to plug in regular AC appliances. And some people have discovered problems with the panel installation…they were installed in a prime location for the sun at the time of installation but didn’t take into account how the sun moves to a different part of the sky the other half of the year. Most of them don’t have enough cable to be able to move the panel to a better location so some people are not making much use of the power part of the year until they can get the cable work done. And there are some homes that don’t have panels at all…those who decided not to participate in the original project or, as in Miguel’s case, new houses that have been built since the project was completed.

From San Francisco, we went to Heartland’s new community, a casarillo (a subset of a canton) of El Tablon (Kathy), then Virginia (Dallas Center’s community – Nancy) and Las Delicias (Wakonda Christian’s community – Randy).

Virginia is having some internal issues. The community is somewhat divided on what sort of projects should be done and who should be doing what.

Las Delicias (where we had lunch in one of the homes) has a great water project going. They had some issues with the tank cracking during the deluge last fall and Randy spent a bit of time discussing causes and options with the community leaders that met with us.

After that, it was back to the Casa. It had been a very long, hot, dusty day riding in the back of the pickup. We’re all pretty exhausted. I’m sunburned. Everybody makes a beeline to the nearest shower. I decide it’s the best opportunity I’m going to get to take the tubes of thread to Sonia at the prison so Walter and I head that way. He talks through the gate to the guards and they let us in. Then someone goes to get Sonia who gets searched in a room just off of where we wait for her. She shows me what she completed since I left the day before and gives me back the bracelet I left with her as a model. I give her the tubes of thread and thank her profusely with a hug. The hug was spontaneous but I thought afterward that I probably shouldn’t have done that. As cool and reserved as she was, I’m guessing she’s probably not a hugger. She said she’d make a bunch of bracelets from the thread I gave her and get them to the Pastoral Team to give to me.

Walter and I walked back to the Casa and found that the meeting with the Pastoral Team was scheduled for about 10 minutes. I’m the only one who hasn’t showered yet and I feel incredibly grubby after a day in the cantones. I went up to the women’s room and said I was going to take a shower but everyone said I didn’t have time. I said I was going to MAKE time. As soon as Nancy got out of the shower I was in for the quickest shower of my life. I felt infinitely better and was not the last person to arrive for the meeting. However, after the meeting, when I went back to the room, I discovered that I really hadn’t done all that good a job of showering as the white towel I’d used and then hung at the foot of my bed looked positively filthy. But hey, it was the best I could do in the time I had and without a washcloth to scrub with.

After the meeting, the Pastoral Team took us to a restaurant in Alegría, a slightly-larger than Berlin community just up the mountain, for supper. I had camarones (shrimp)…huge ones, grilled with onions and green pepper. Everyone had sides of rice/beans, a type of pico de gallo, spicy grilled veggies and ensalada (salad) with a piece of queso fresco (fresh cheese) on top. It was seriously good, even though the head, eyes, antennae and legs on the shrimp Kathy and I had creeped out a couple of our group.

Back at the Casa, Bob talked to us a bit about the relief efforts after all the flooding with the hurricanes last fall. On our canton visits, he’d pointed out some of the places where the roads to the cantones had washed out or where “end of the line” was when they were trying to deliver emergency food packets to those who lost pretty much everything. Even having been to the cantones, knowing how they live and hearing Bob talk about it, I’m sure we still don’t really have an idea of what it was like to live through that.

Earlier, Milagro had asked me to take a look at the psychologist’s printer…it wasn’t working, she said…so I took a look at it. I booted everything up and created a document in Word that printed fine so I told Milagro that it looked like it was working ok.

24 January 2006

Companeros - Day 5

I waited too long to write this day down. I don’t have much in the way of detail. I do know that we visited a number of the Pastoral Team members’ homes and the women’s prison. We also heard that Shafik Handal (FMLN presidential candidate during the last election) had died. At first, Bob thought he’d been killed and was really nervous about those of us who were out wandering around town but then we found that he’d died of a heart attack, not been assassinated, which changed things completely.

Ever since I’d arrived, I’d been asking around, trying to find someone who knew how to make the nylon bracelets I always buy when I’m there. Blanca was my best bet but she didn’t know. She wanted to, though. When we were at the prison looking at all the crochet and embroidery that the women there do, it occurred to me that maybe one of them would know how to make the bracelets. I discussed it with Milagro, because I didn’t want to ask if there wouldn’t be any time to do anything about it or if she thought it wasn’t a good idea for any reason. She said it was ok so I talked to Walter and explained to him what I was after. He got everyone’s attention then held up my braceleted wrist to ask if anyone knew how to make them. Quite a few of the women shouted out, “Sonia!!” so Sonia came forward to check it out and we discussed it as I took off the bracelet so she could get a better look at how it was made. She said she hadn’t actually made one like it but thought she could figure it out. So then I went back to Milagro to try to figure out when I could have Sonia teach me. Milagro went to talk to the prison director then came back with the word that we could do it right then (and only then) on the conditions that 1) I stay alone (the rest of the delegation, the Pastoral Team and Walter all leave), 2) I get a maximum of one hour, and 3) I’m on my own, responsibility-wise. I asked Milagro if she thought all that was ok and she reassured me that it was. So everyone left and I stayed in communal area with all the prisoners while Sonia and another woman named Jaclin and I worked with the threads.

I had a few moments of nerves as I watched everyone else leave and I was left alone with the women in the concrete and iron-bar “yard.” One or two of them didn’t look more than 14. One very quiet and slight girl looked more like she should be walking a middle-school hallway, hugging a notebook to her chest with a cascade of hair hiding her face and trying not to be noticed. The rest were probably in their late teens or early 20s. The majority of them had gang tattoos…from the more subtle trio of tiny dots between the eyebrows or a tiny black teardrop at the outer corner of one eye to a blocky “18” covering the whole chin or “Eighteen” (yes, in English) flowing in big, fancy script all the way across the upper chest or covering the arms. Except for the “18” gang tattoos and what they mean, they mostly looked like regular young women in regular clothes and makeup who should be working in a shop or going to school or doing almost anything other than time in prison.

There were just a couple of them that looked like really tough characters…burly, cold, hard and old beyond their years. Sonia was one of these.

She was a barrel of a woman…not quite my height, maybe 5’-6” or 5’-7” but stocky. She had a blue and white stocking cap pulled down to just below her eyebrows and covering all her hair, the turned-up cuff spelling out ‘EIGHTEEN’ in blocky capitals circling the hat. Her eyes were shaded and hiding in a closed-off face that didn’t look like it smiled much.

I introduced myself and helped her prepare the lengths of thread she wanted to start working on the bracelet. My vocabulary in Spanish was pretty pitiful for discussing the task at hand, but luckily it was easy to use the “demonstrate and practice” technique. Sonia got it going after a few false starts and re-dos then turned the threads over to me to repeat what she’d just done. We’d gotten successfully through one section and were puzzling over how to make the turn for the next section when a guard came to tell me time was up. I told Sonia I’d be back the next day with more thread for her, said goodbye, walked out of the prison and back to the Casa.

At the Casa, I discovered that the rest of the group hadn’t done the hike to La Cruz…a large cross that is perched on the peak above town. They’d spent the time relaxing or walking around town as they chose. I had a shower before supper and then we started our evening.

After supper, Randy and I spent a LOT of time on Bob’s PC. I gave up in the evening sometime to leave him to it and came back to the house where the rest of the gang was laughing like crazy people in the dining room. I sat down and joined the “strange pet/animal tales” conversation that ranged from the merely odd (a ‘family plot’ of pet cremains kept in the dining room china hutch) to the strange (bats flying in through the doggie door flap) to downright bizarre (unless everyone poses the kids with their dead pet rat for a photo before storing it in the freezer) and back again…all of which, in the time-honored tradition of “location jokes” (i.e. “You had to be there.”), just don’t carry on paper. We were all laughing and giggling to the point that we had tears streaming down our faces. About the time we’d think the Pastoral Team in the next room must think we’re completely insane, we’d try to stifle it down a bit. This, of course, only made us laugh all the harder.Randy missed out on pretty much all of the hilarity. He kept plugging away on Bob’s PC. And for the rest of the trip, whenever one of us would say something about “frozen rat” or something “on a stick” and then start giggling, he couldn’t do anything but look at us as if were a bit “tetched” in the head.

23 January 2006

Companeros - Day 4

Today was coffee day. After breakfast we went to Cerro Verde, the finca (coffee farm/plantation) where the Don Justo – Coffee with Dignity coffee is grown and processed. There was nobody there and nothing really going on as the harvest is over for the year. There was one guy spreading coffee-pulp compost around some of the coffee plants (organic fertilizer). They collect the pulp off the coffee ‘cherries’ when they’re harvested and the pulp composts in a ground silo to be spread in the off season.

On the way back to Berlin, we stopped just past Alegría to take pictures of the valley. It was slightly hazy but still much clearer than I’d ever seen it before. You could actually see the Rio Lempa and volcanoes across the valley.

Back in Berlin, Bob took his car to the mechanic and Randy/me to the place where he got his cell phone purse that Randy and I both admired a great deal. We had been commenting on his because it was so compact, yet easy to use and it keeps the phone from flipping open all the time…which annoys me no end with the cell phone holder I currently have. They didn’t have one to fit Randy’s phone but I got one just like Bob’s that I thought should work with mine fine.
We met up with the other gringos in the street and all walked together from there so that Kathy and Marcia could get notebooks.

Back at the Casa we had a coffee meeting with the Pastoral Team. We had a version of a contract that no one was sure was ever actually used but we thought it would be a good place to start in finalizing one with Stella (the woman from the finca). We decided it needed modification and translation into Spanish so we broke off into a smaller group to make those changes…Kathy and me for Compañeros, Blanca for the Team and Walter to translate. It was basically lunch time when we finished the larger group meeting and Stella was coming at 2:30 so it was a bit of a rush to get through lunch and finish the contract before she got there. And, in an extremely un-Salvadoran-like manner, she arrived early.

She came with 2 of her sons…Justo (30, maybe? His wife is just weeks away from delivering their baby.) and Emilio (15, we guessed). We started to go through the contract but Stella kept bringing up money owed for this, getting more for her coffee, etc. We tabled the financial stuff to talk about between her and the Pastoral Team, to try to keep the focus on the contract.

Eventually, we got through it and took a 20-minute break so they could meet amongst themselves, the Pastoral Team could meet to talk over their situation and Compañeros met in a third location to discuss our role in all this. We decided all we had to do was support what the Pastoral Team decides. I did some quick Googling on the internet to confirm some information about Fair Trade standards and current prices, which I passed on to Blanca.

When Stella and sons returned, we started the small group meeting with just them, the Pastoral Team and Kathy/me. Walter sat between Kathy and me to let us know what was going on, but we were not there to be part of the negotiations…just represent Compañeros and support the Team. Gauntlets were dropped on both sides and it got kind of tense. They decided to take another break to have sidebar discussions again. Negotiations would continue later in the week.
The Pastoral Team is tough…

22 January 2006

Companeros - Day 3

Pack up and load out to Berlin day. Walter (our interpreter) joined us shortly after breakfast and then we were off to Ilobosco, the pottery community.

We started out at the pottery shop Bob likes to frequent. They have unique stuff and also help ex-gang members learn a trade and find a way to make a living outside the gang. The pottery everywhere tends to be terra cotta but they do something to it at this shop that blackens it. It’s the only shop that has it. Most of the other shops have ceramics that must come from a mold…you see the exact same designs in most of the shops, only with different painting. This shop has hand-made designs that you won’t see in any of the other shops. I absolutely loved some…I don’t know for sure what they were, vases, maybe?...things they had that were basically large cylinders made of the dark pottery with leaf or branch impressions in the surface. I’m not sure if they were actual impressions or hand made designs that just looked like it but there were a couple that really, really wanted to come home with me. I just couldn’t see how I’d get them home all in one piece, though. So I left them there. I got a couple pair of earrings and another Mayan flask sort of thing to go with the two I’d bought in La Palma ($6).

In another shop, I got a trio of tiny, vase-shaped pots that fit the color scheme of my living room (another $6).

We loaded up in the van again and headed for Berlin. It took a good long while to get the van unloaded once we arrived at the Casa Pastoral where we’d be staying as everyone had to hug and greet everyone else. The women of the delegation moved into the room above the chapel and the men into the room across from the office, inside the house. Walter got the room adjacent to Bob’s house.

Randy and I spent most of the rest of the evening working on Bob’s PC. He’d been having internet woes and was also unable to log into his bank’s web site. We didn’t really get very far, other than to determine that they really were 2 separate problems.

21 January 2006

Companeros - Day 2

Up, and a breakfast of cereal, fruit and juice then off to La Palma in the northernmost state of Chalatenango. Just outside of San Salvador, we got stopped at a police checkpoint. It was just a random stop to check the driver for a valid license and the vehicle to make sure it wasn’t stolen.
In La Palma, we split into 2 shopping groups. Marcia, Randy and I were in charge of finding cross necklaces, ojo de venado (deer’s eye…a type of seed that is kind of like a very small, slightly flattened, oval-shaped buckeye. It’s considered lucky.) earrings and bracelets (if we found any we liked). Nancy, Kathy and Blair were looking for painted wooden things…boxes, nativities, crosses. We went store-to-store buying the various things and trying to spread out the purchases over all the shops in the little area where we were. We also picked up a Salvadoran flag that we thought would be good to have in our booth when we sell this stuff and the various festivals. Along the way I (personally, not for the group) got some of the nylon bracelets I like. They were $1 pretty much everywhere but no one had more than a few of them. I also got a couple of flask-shaped pottery things with Mayan images on them in bas relief and a hammock.
We loaded up in the van to leave and I realized that my seat buddy, Blair, wasn’t there. Alej was rolling, almost to the gate when I finally figured out how to say in Spanish that someone was missing. We backed up and Bob/Alej went looking for Blair. By the time we were all together again, we’d decided to eat at the restaurant in the little place where we’d shopped. All 8 of us had a nice lunch for $14.

I finished eating and wanted to walk for a bit. Bob was engrossed in a conversation and I didn’t want to interrupt so I asked Alejandro if it would be ok if I went for a little walk…5 minutes. I went up the street to try to get some street scenes, then back. Alej was at the gate looking for me but I was less than half a block away.

Back at Daniela’s, we had an hour or two to chill before heading to El Puerto del Diablo (Door of the Devil). We had pop/beer and sorted through all the tub-o-stuff goodies we bought in La Palma; repacking it more compactly for getting home. During this time we practiced a Wicked Spanish phrase that we decided to all learn and then use appropriately whenever Bob took off his shoes or something. The phrase being: ¿Acaso huelo una enchilada vieja? (Do I smell an old enchilada?)

Back in the van, we headed toward Door of the Devil. Bob left in his car to go home; we’d meet up with him there later for supper. And speaking of supper, on the way out of town, we detoured through a Camperos chicken place to pick up supper for Bob and Alejandro…who were not excited about the pupusas (the quintessential Salvadoran food…something like a quesadilla except that the filling is put inside the dough before the tortilla is cooked) that were on the menu for the rest of us.

Camperos is the McDonalds of El Salvador. It’s a chicken place…much like a KFC here in the US, except that they’re everywhere. And where you don’t see a Camperos, you see their delivery drivers. You can’t miss them. They’re the guys on small motorcycles with blaze-orange helmets, zipping insanely in and out of traffic. Of course, it also helps that there’s a large, plastic chicken-in-a-hat waving jauntily from atop an insulated box on the back of the bike.

Apparently, Salvadorans have an incredible attachment to Camperos chicken. Every time I’ve returned to the US from El Salvador, the plane has been filled with Salvadorans carrying large shopping-size bags overflowing with boxes of Camperos chicken. I don’t know whether they’re trying to lay in a “taste of home” to last them for a good long while or if they’re bringing it to homesick friends and family in the States, where Camperos doesn’t exist. Either way, a flight out of El Salvador inevitably smells (sometimes quite heavily) of fried chicken and fixin’s.
Since Bob wasn’t with us on this leg of the trip, I took escopeta (shotgun seat) and rode up front with Alejandro. He’s very patient with my Spanish and it was good practice for me. Besides, he’s a lot of fun to talk to. He’s got a great sense of humor and joyous spirit.

At Door of the Devil, Marcia and Nancy didn’t want to do the hike up the escarpment so they stayed down below. Kathy was pretty nervous about the height and precarious trail, but went anyway. Alejandro and I kept her between us for moral support.

It was much clearer than the last time I was there. We could actually see the lake (Lago de Ilopango, the largest lake in El Salvador), all the volcano peaks (including the one that holds Berlin) and the little village of Panchimalca nestled down in the valley below…home to the oldest structure in Central America; a 400+ year-old church. It was very windy at the top and I took care not to stray too close to the edge. It was hard enough to hold a camera steady enough for pictures. I wasn’t going to take the chance of a gust of wind knocking me off balance and over the edge. Kathy spent a lot the time at the top squatting close to the rock.

We climbed back down then went to the Door itself. I, of course, climbed on all the boulders and the little shelf at the back of the cave that makes up the Door. The views are fantastic but the history of the place is disturbing. It’s called Door of the Devil because, during the war, the army and death squads would bring people here to ‘dispose’ of them by dropping them over the steep and jagged precipices…maybe they were already dead, maybe they weren’t. The actual number of people who died there will never be known.

After the Door, we stopped at the pupseria to get pupusas for those in the group who didn’t get chicken. I had opted for chicken just because I’d never had Camperos before and wanted to see what all the fuss was about. Then I saw that the pupuseria also had arroz (rice) pupusas so I decided to try one of those. Alejandro and I went up to place the order then walked around back to the other window to pick it up when it was ready. We wandered around the gardens below the restaurant terrace. There were cages with peacocks, pheasants, and ducks; a small, concrete pond without fish in it; lots of beautiful flowers and plants and a nicely laid-out path. We went back up to the terrace to check on our order and it wasn’t ready. Alejandro went to the bathroom and came back and it wasn’t ready. We stood around chatting about his wife and 3 kids, 9 dogs (all boxers), and several milk cows and it still wasn’t ready. Finally! The food was ready and we headed back to the van where Blair was heading toward us to see what was keeping us.

Bob’s place is way off the main road, up and down some very steep hills. His place is a palace!! He’s very proud of the garden and green space behind his house, too, but we couldn’t really appreciate that in the dark. It’s still a bit sparsely appointed, as he just moved in December, but it’s fantastic. We ate on his veranda then talked and lounged in hammocks until Alej said he needed to go. It had been a really long day for him and he lives outside the city so he not only had to take us back to Daniela’s but get home to his. And we also found out that no matter how long his day is, he gets paid $20/day whenever he drives.

Back at Daniela’s, some of us took showers in shifts around/between games of “5,000” until all were ready for bed.

20 January 2006

Companeros - day 1

Up and at the airport by 6 a.m. I was the first to arrive but Kathy was right behind me. The rest (Marcia, Nancy, Randy, and Blair) arrived shortly and we all checked in and began our wait at the gate without incident. The plane to Houston was a smaller jet…one of those where the announcement to board “1st class passengers and those traveling with small children” is followed almost immediately with “boarding all rows.” I had a window seat next to Randy. I was feeling really, really tired and pretty much spent the first half of the trip dozing/resting…I don’t know that I actually went to sleep. Somewhere over Texas, I started feeling more alert and began tatting a green heart. I was about 4 picots, a 6-knot chain and the final tie-off from finishing it when they called for all seats and tray tables to be stowed. I kept going until I finished then complied.

In Houston, we deplaned then headed to our gate to wait. And wait. And wait through our 6-hour layover. Randy, Kathy and I took a stroll around the terminal from one end to the other and back again. I stopped on the way back for lunch at a pizza place then picked up dessert at a Coca Moca, a chocolaterie (mmmm…turtles) and tried to make a few phone calls from my cell.
Back at the gate, Marcia, Kathy and I played Yahtzee and “5,000” (a dice game I’d just learned from a friend) on the floor while Nancy watched and Randy and Blair snoozed sitting up (we have photos to prove it…). Somewhere along the way we decided that if we were going to have our committee pow-wow before we got to El Salvador, we should probably get to it so we put away the dice and started talking about the things we wanted to make sure to discuss with the Pastoral Team when we got there. We got that mostly done before they called boarding for our flight to San Salvador.

Somewhere in there, Kathy pulled out a copy of Wicked Spanish…a diabolical little book filled with the sorts of Spanish phrases you will never learn in school. Such useful taxi-ride gems as “Yo no sabía que la tela metálica tenía tantos usos.” (I never knew chicken wire had so many uses.) or “Por favor dénos cascos.” (Please give us helmets.). And, ever-useful in dealing with policemen, “Tienen que estar tan apretadas las esposas?” (Do the handcuffs have to be so tight? …As a cultural sidebar, note that the Spanish term for ‘handcuffs’ is esposas, meaning ‘wives’ and, parenthetically, an endearment for ‘the little woman’ meaning a wife or girlfriend is bruja, which is the word for ‘witch’). All of this had us laughing hysterically and we decided to start our own list of phrases that we would have our translator render into Spanish. We didn’t get much past, “The flashlight is very cold in my bra.” (don’t ask…) which, I don’t think anyone ever actually got around to asking Walter to translate for us.

The San Sal leg of our flight was uneventful. The movie, contrary to what we read in the in-flight magazine, was NOT Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. It was, instead, The Man starring Samuel L Jackson as a hardened and jaded cop and some other guy I’d never heard of as a small town salesman-type guy just in town to give a speech at a convention who got sucked into a high-stakes, covert gun-running deal. It was not a particularly good movie. The movie contained an incredible amount of swearing…even one of the characters in it commented on the amount of swearing. The most diverting part of the whole movie was some of the inventive dubbing used to cover up the swear words…to hear things like “bull sweat!” coming out of the tough guy’s mouth added an unintentionally comic tone to the movie. There was one obvious dub-over, but I couldn’t figure out WHAT it was dubbing out. We even talked about it later, as some of the others in the group noticed it, too. None of us knew what the dub was replacing…something crude and scatological rather than common swearing is all we could figure. I could rent the movie some day to find out but it’s just not worth it.

Dinner was airline food. That’s already giving it more notice than it deserved.

Bob met us at the airport and we had to wait a bit for Alejandro to pick us up with the van. We loaded up then Bob went to get his car from the parking lot while we waited for him. Kathy tried to talk Alejandro into giving her the keys but Alej very nervously resisted until we remembered the word for “joke” in Spanish is chiste so that he understood Kathy didn’t really intend to drive, only to freak out Bob a little. So Kathy got in the driver seat and Alej on the passenger side and we waited for Bob to come by. And waited. And waited. Finally, he came by and waved to the van and we all waved back. Then he jerked to a stop in the middle of the intersection as it registered that Kathy was in the driver seat. He started moving again to get out of traffic but pulled over just ahead of us as Kathy and Alej traded placed. We pulled up beside him as he was getting out of his car, clutching his chest and saying (in Spanish) “I thought, ‘Alejandro is crazy!’”
We rode the rest of the way to Daniela’s House without incident. We settled in then walked to the Super Selectos grocery store for cervezas (beer…for most of the rest of the gang) and pop (for me and Marcia). I also got a couple packets of powdered milk. We all chatted for a bit then Bob left and we went to bed.

Kathy, Marcia and I had the large room that Daniela and the kids had when they lived there. We had our own shower (cold, no pressure), an anteroom, and bathroom whereas the rest of the crew shared a bathroom.