Friday, November 22, 2013

Ruminations on Vivid

"South America holds a minimum of charm for this buckeroo." 
"I suppose. The death squads, the poverty, the corruption, the destruction of nature." 
"Hmm, well, yes, there's that." ... "And then there's the fact that it's just too goddamn vivid."

                                      Tom Robbins, Fierce Invalids Home From Hot Climates

As I was going through my pictures of Central America, this kept coming back to me. It's so vivid, all too goddamn vivid. After having been there I understood it now. Inside of it I could see myself living there as easily as I live in South Korea. There was something about it that was just familiar. 

But the familiar is being an expat. That is what makes it work for me. It has nothing to do with what it is, or how it is, it's that when I am there I exist on the fringe, just outside of the inside and that is a space where I am very comfortable existing. Maybe that is something that happens when you expat too long. It's not going native, as i have nothing in common with the natives, I haven't embraced the language and I'm not so immersed in the culture that I can't imagine life without. No, I've gone American abroad. I am more Chicago when I am away from it, more present in who I am. There is a definition that comes with being in another place that one doesn't get when the place is never left. 

Vivid though. There was something about the lushness of everything in Guatemala that made the place so much more real, and because it was so real, so much more overwhelming. On the second night there I edged into a nervous breakdown, staved off only by too much wine and a late night free call to home to steady my nerves. My nerves have been on edge for a while. The call helped, but not enough to make things any less pressingly real. And that was what bothered me about it: it was all so pressingly real. 

There was an almost hallucinogenic reality near the equator. Maybe it was the location on the globe, maybe the heat, or maybe the fact that no matter what you did you could not escape that life was just piling on and happening at you. I only glimpsed the outside surface of the expat scene there, but I suspected it held similarities and differences with the ones I had ventured into in other far lands. 

The lush was so lush, the green so green, the birds so bright and vibrant, it all still spins my head around. Just how REAL everything was. Germany didn't feel this bright and edgey, either. Maybe it was the lack of seasons, being always between 18 and 30 must have that kind of effect on a place. To be so warm all the time, to be so full of energy, capable of springing and growing and being bright. 

Goddamn vivid. 

I'm glad I went. I didn't know I was ready for life to be so goddamn vivid for a few moments. But there it was. It was vivid, sensory-pounding vivid. The kind of vivid I didn't expect to see for awhile, but then at the same time, I knew how goddamn vivid the Midwest could be in the winter. And I knew how goddamn vivid Korea could be on a steamy post-monsoon rainy night. Perhaps it was just the moment that was vivid. Or we brought our vivid with us, making it that much more real. 

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Sex bomb out of Sepulchre

I took many pictures at Pasa de los Museos:

Of gardens.

Of birds.

Of arches. 

Of  fountains.

Of bones. 

Of stairs.

And of course, of me.

And for someone who is climbing out of a crypt, this picture just looks far too enticing. 

The next two days were a blur of presentations and being mildly sick to my stomach the whole time. On Wednesday I recovered my possessions and flew back to Chicago, landing safely late at night into a soft, cold, yet somehow comforting city that is home.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Shopping and Roadtripping

The market we went to was not too far away from the restaurant. Our driver (who was a contract chauffeur with the school) managed to maneuver gracefully through crowded streets and around dogs that wondered about here and there.

“We don’t kill our dogs here in Guatemala,” Esmeralda supplied. One of the guest had very recently been to Nicaragua, where it was remarked that there were many dogs to be found dead in the streets and it bothered her that there seemed to be so little concern for the animals.

“Oh no, not here. Now, this market, this is a good market; we will go inside you can find everything inside.”

The outside of the market was very familiar to me, even though I had not been before. This reminded me so much of Seomuen Sijang, my favorite market in Daegu and a place where I happily lost many hours of my life on the weekends, going back and forth from a variety of different shops looking for fabric and baubles and all sorts of other things that I either did or did not need. Much like that far-away market, this had an odd assortment of T-shirts, packaged goods, blankets, table runners and other odd trappings that were always so interesting and attractive to tourists. The outdoor seemed to have a more general market feel, aside from the trappings of tourism; there were also everyday items and the types of household goods a person might want to pick up.

There were also several places with armed guards sporting guns, perched just at the door.

A reality.

This was not Korea. The number of well-armed security guards I had seen was starting to filter into the foreground and I recalled that Guatemala was not someplace I would be willy-nily traveling by myself, as if I were in Shanghai or Seoul. Here there was an actual danger. I had done my appropriate travelers' homework for Guatemala, reading up on the embassy website and also going through expat blogs. As with most things when traveling to a foreign country, common sense in most situations was advised. It went a little further here though, with how to deal with yourself when you were being robbed, how not to attract attention to yourself as a tourist, how to blend in and be safe, when to stop being out alone, when to stop drinking and go home. Much more cautionary in some ways than other countries I had been in. Since my primary business was working, I wasn’t worried about having too much time to get into any mischief, but I was quite aware of the fact that this was not Asia. The armed guards in front of all the well-trafficked shops only brought that point home with so much more clarity.

We slipped inside a wall and it was a night-and-day change; from the ramshackle dusty scattering of the outdoor mall, the indoor mall was a clean and neat well-kept tourist space. Indoor being a relative term as, like the restaurant, the mall was open to the air with only an overhanging roof to keep out the rain. Otherwise the only thing that made this indoor was the fact that it was surrounded on all sides by wall and there were armed guards you passed by in order to get in.

The stalls were piled high with all kinds of knickknacks and I could not figure out what I wanted, if I wanted anything; it was just a big jumbly pile of mess. However, my fellow travelers dove right in, asking quickly in Spanish how much this or that was and negotiating with the señoras who were unwilling to let anything go for less than a specific price, but really, were much like ajjumas, willing to bargain all the way down.

 I found that since I was surrounded with so much Spanish I was able to keep up, but I kept confusing my ciento with cinco and my cuantno estas with comprar muchos and eolmayos, making me a hot mess of linguistic fail. Fortunately my hosts took some pity on me and helped with the basic translations so I could figure out what was going on, and eventually I ended up getting some pretty shot glasses, a dozen or so beaded dangles to give out as gifts, and a magnetwhich apparently did not survive the trip back to the Chicago.

Shopping was completed in short time, and we endured some intermittent rain as we wandered about the shops. Finally the hosts called it time to be done and we all piled back into the van for the hour and a bit drive back to Guatemala City. On the way we spotted a bright rainbow in the sky, although it was rather elusive to photograph. Like all the other colors in Guatemala, it was so real. There was something about the colors that made the place almost too real. There was such a sense of vibrant urgency in all the colors in Central America. I could see why it had inspired so many writers and claimed so many more artists, writers, poets, and lovers. It was full of that kind of enchantment.

I parted ways with the hosts at the hotel, dropped things in my room and napped for a bit, finally having dinner in the large and open dining room downstairs, watching the stars sparkle over the pool. After some wine and some thinking, eventually I slept, working myself up for the events of the next two days.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Lunch Life of Expats


In order to understand the word fully, you had to be an expat. Fortunately, having been an expat for a very long time, I understood completely what it meant to be an expat. 

In expat situations eating was one of those things that became a special treat. A way to get out of the local culture, a vacation, a way to go to someplace exotic. A tourist, on the other hand, often wants to try to find some way to experience the local food as a way of exploring the local culture. 

In this situation, I was a tourist. 

In this situation, my hosts were expats. 

So I was amused when it was asked if I would be all right with Italian food. I smiled and assured that I would be fine with Italian food, and so we ended up in a beautiful restaurant in Antigua that would serve Italian food. I realized as I walked in that the restaurant was not only pretty but in many places open to the weather. There were several porches and the entire thing was an outside space.

I had the passing thought that this must be a seasonal restaurant, with so much space open to the outside. Then it finally hit me that I was in Central America. While the evenings were certainly a touch cool, that was about as cold as it was going to get in Guatemala this year. I started to understand what it meant to be in a country that was so seasonable so much of the time. You could build restaurants and houses with entire interiors that were for the most part open to the sky, with coverings here and to filter out the rain. Otherwise life was on the outside. In some strange way it reminded me of the patios on temples in Korea, large flat open spaces that were basically prettily decorated porches open to the world. In the summer the ajjumas, and ahjussis and children would all lay about on them socializing and chatting, much as I imagine people took advantage of all the pretty couches and porches here.

It was lovely.

Our table was toward the back of the restaurant, next to a small bath-like pool, overhung by the fronds of palm, and other big, leafy green trees. We were joined shortly by two more teachers with the school that was hosting the convention, and one more guest from a school in Costa Rica. There were more hellos and eventually we were all settled all around.

“You must try the Thai stir-fry, that is what I am having, SA-ra, you should try it,” Esmeralda directed this at me first, but now she had any number of people to direct statements at. Before long she had advised everyone at the table that the Thai stir-fry was what they must get. It amused me that not only did everyone get the Thai stir-fry, but so many people had ordered it that the kitchen ran out of bowls to serve it in. I went against the grain and had calamari with vegetables and thought it was quite good. The Thai stir-fry, as it turned out, was a yellow Thai curry, which I made a distinction about in my brain, maybe because I had been so long in Asia.

As we ate lunch, the clouds that had been overlooking us all day finally decided it was time, and so aside from passing conversation, the sound of gently falling rains also accompanied us as we ate. It was rather musical and lovely. I could see how one could fall in love with this part of the world and never want to leave.

We had a dessert on top of lunch and it was decided that the final act of the afternoon would be some shopping at a local market to pick up the touristy knickknacks and presents that people felt obligated to get while visiting another country. I was fine with the plan, as I knew this would most likely be my only day of freedom, the rest being taken up by the conference.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Paseo de los Museos, at Casa Santo Domingo

The destination was Paseo de los Museos, at Casa Santo Domingo, Hotel y Museo. The story of the structure was that it was once a monastery, established sometime in the 16th/17th century and built up over time. It had been converted at some point into what it was now: a popular resort/hotel where people came for lunch and weddings on the weekends. The entrance was crowded and we had to push past some señors selling tourist wares, beaded necklaces, small boxes, and bits of silver here and there. It was about the same kind of push I would expect to go through more in China outside any tourist spot. Oddly, the same type of pushy selling has been reduced over time in Korea so that usually the ajjumas were set up in a more orderly fashion around with tables. They still hawked wares, but it was not the same kind of pushy hard sell.

One of señors selling wooden flutes came straight for me, but a hand took mine and with a tug forward we went through the adobe arch and onto the cobblestone walkway that lead into the museum. At the first entrance was a small art gallery, where a local artist worked with executing floating fabrics in oil, which gave each work a somewhat more solemn feel of Marguerite without being Marguerite, but still very pretty to look at. Our Esmeralda commented “I know her and her work; before it was nothing but copies of masters. She was very good, don’t get me wrong, but nothing but copies. And I told her, you have to do something else you can’t just copy, and this is what she is doing, and it’s not so bad, it’s better than just copies, copies are misleading. What do you think SA-ra!?”

I smiled again. She had this habit of seriously emphasizing the first syllable of my name so that evey time it was a very distinct as the second syllable just sort of disappeared into the ether. I didn’t mind at all.

“It’s very difficult work she’s doing. This is hard to execute, getting the light right to create the perspective of depth; it’s not easy. It’s interesting.” Like I said, no Marguerite, but pretty. I’m not much of an art snob; however, the story was failing to tell itself to me in the execution of 20 pieces that were all plays on the same theme. Clearly it meant something to the artist, captured her imagination for a bit; however, we could not all be captured by the whispering allusiveness of fabric falling through wisps of air. It was trying too hard to be abstract while ending up being too literal. It was still pretty and interesting.

“That’s a good way to describe it. SA-ra. What do you want to see? We should go out into the gardens.” So it was that I was dragged forward once again through the busier restaurant and into the gardens of Paseo de los Museos.

The first thing that struck me in the garden was (again) that green. Green, green green, shades of green that would stick to your soul if given half a chance. The air was fresh and crisp and although there were people wandering about, the gardens felt lush and huge and empty compared to the compact, dark space on the outer walls of the monastery that was filled with a café and restaurant. Where the space we had just passed through felt like a commercial space, this felt more like a place of reverence.

We passed under long green trellises and hanging plants and into the stony walk of the gardens. I was taken in by the pretty macaws sitting up on their perches and crunching away happily on something they had to crack in their jaws. Signs were posted about, warning us not to feed the birds and commenting on how dangerous it could be to upset them.

We dipped further into the monastery-turned-museum and came out in the middle of a beautiful courtyard with a withered old stone fountain in the center of it. I asked someone to take my picture, feeling very touristy indeed.

“They like to come here for weddings. It’s very expensive, but people love to get married here. Now so many people come to Guatemala to get married. Go and look around SA-ra; I want to have some time to talk and maybe have some coffee. I never get to relax here, I’m always so busy, I think I just want to sit, but you go, you go.” Esmeralda pointed me off and I said that was fine. I heard my name being called and one of my other companions waved tickets and explained that he would be my guide through the museum.

The museum, aside from the paintings at the entrance and the pretty gardens, was composed of a series of underground displays. The displays including sepulchers and cellars set down at the bottom of winding stairs.

“I love stairs!” I proclaimed. It seemed silly, but I did. I loved the stylized stairs in older buildings that brought you in and out of strange and unusual places. I loved the dark hidey-holes that you could disappear under, feeling secret and hidden and taken away from the rest of the world. The first set of stairs were deep granite and clung to the outside of the cavern that we descended into the cellar. At the bottom was the glow of metal.

“This is the silver museum.”

Yes, it was. There was the light polish of gleaming silver in the dim light that illuminated all the pageantry of a 16th century monastery. There were crowns and plate guards, scepters and sensors. All manner of the trappings of religious life where the life was transparent dietization of normal people. I’m sure there was a Catholic monk or two somewhere that still thought about those times as the good old days.

From there we went back up the stairs and down into a few sepulchers, taking in the placement of the bodies and old bone casings. I explained to my Guatemalan guide that the heads were traditionally placed to meet the rising suna custom also used in Europe and one that was quite steeped in the traditions of several cultures that used similar ritual practices for encasing the dead.

In all it was dark and lovely, mysterious and Gothic and I rather enjoyed myself jumping up and down and in and out of burial places. We finished up the ancient museum part with a tour of a small collection of art pieces carved in wood and then laminated in paint. One thing, which I don’t think I had ever seen before, were some excellently realistic carvings of the lost souls of purgatory. The use of fire to envelope the lower half of the body and the subtle way in which tears were carved running down the cheeks was quite fantastic.

From there we went over to a more modern part of the museum where there were more abstract paintings by a local artist. This artist had an entirely different relationship with color and idea, making the abstract powerful. The art was very inspired by Rothko, with a touch of Pollock, but quite lovely in how it was portrayed on the canvas. I looked through a few different pieces for sale before heading into the last gallery.

This gallery was one of the most interesting, as it included ancient Mayan art pieces juxtaposed with modern interpretations. I didn’t get it at first, looking and seeing these glass pieces and thinking they seemed out of place, but then realizing that was the purpose. The ancient Mayan pieces had been sent around the globe to a variety of countries, and from there the pieces were reinterpreted and experienced by the receiving artist into interesting glass pieces. I found this a very profound exchange of art, culture, and tradition; a unique experiment with creating a sense of global community.

From there I tripped lightly back into the museum, and my guide called the rest of the party for us to meet up and head toward lunch.  

Sunday, November 10, 2013

The Very Green Hills of Guatemala

There was much gossiping and talking in the car, and I did what I usually do when people tried to get details about my life: I talked about nothing but work, avoided my entire existence before September 1995 as if it had never happened, explained that like Athena, I was birthed out of the head of Mayor Daley in 1995 in Chicago, that I was a teaching addict, and that I knew way too much about way too many things. The latter is the thing that always seems to stick with people, just how much information I have crammed in this head of mine. I’m quite good at not going on, but when you are with a group that would be just as happy to find out about your family as anything else, it’s handy to distract with obscure knowledge.

I let one half of my brain deal with the conquistidoras and let the other half of my brain wander over the countryside we were driving through. The mountains were up and down and up and down and I realized that we must be driving along the edge of a mountain not too far down; clearly we were perched high up, as I kept getting glimpses of the other mountaintops with valleys falling fall down below.

The words “verdant green” kept coming to mind, but that was problematic because those words did not do much to really describe the color of the greens we were seeing. There was a lush living vibrancy to the greens here that choked out everything else. This wasn’t just green, this was like what green would be like if it walked the earth still in the mantle of the goddess and converted everything it could see. It was an appealing, attractive green that you wanted to run your hands through and bond with. It was beautiful and powerful and appealing. Having never been to Central America before, all I could think about was a desire to go back. There was such beauty here.

We passed gorgeous furniture made of wood on the edges of the forests; a variety of sellers peddling their wares could be found at the odd pull-offs that existed in the forests roads, not quite the rain forest but definitely the jungle. Little towns and villages clung to the sides of the roads, pushing up onto the near edges of the mountain that surrounded the road we passed through. Glimpses of people with an ancient heritage, short with distinctive dark skin, deeply set eyes, and wide nosesa look that would not be out of place on an ancient Mayan carving.

The van moved on and we ended up on choppy cobbled streets where it was explained to me that traffic could be fierce where we were going as many people came to visit and participate in tourism in Antigua. The traffic could get so bad that many opted to walk the few blocks to work. I smiled, thinking that it wasn’t too unusual to walk a few blocks to work, but apparently it was more of a thing here. There were cars everywhere and I saw few bikes, although the weather (a balmy and beautiful 23 degrees) would be prefect for biking almost every day of the year.

After some rocking and shaking about we finally arrived at our destination and piled out of the van and into the museo.

Saturday, November 09, 2013

Driving and Lunch Decisions

The group picked me up and shuttled me outside where we were soon to meet the rest of the party. The matriarch (and person responsible for me being in Guatemala) very much reminded me of my aunt from New Jersey, with a blend of my favorite Korean coordinator from Ministry of Ed days. She also looked like the mother of Samantha from Bewitched, and for no reason that I can really put my finger on (or perhaps because of the way she looked) I just couldn't help thinking of her as Esmeralda. (Yes I am aware that name is not the name of Samantha’s mother from Bewitched, but I always thought it should have been.)¿

“Hi, Sara! ¿Como estas? How was the flight? It’s so good to see you. Si, si, si, si, no…” She had this habit of starting a conversation and then suddenly taking a phone call in the middle of this.

“You get it, right?” asked the Guatemalan I knew, who recommended me for the conference.

“I lived in Asia for twelve years, I get it.”

The plan was that we were all meeting and going to go to lunch.

“We are going to Antigua for lunch, Sara, it’s lovely you will love it, it’s where everyone goes, great food…” She continued on, really talking more to herself than to anyone else. We all piled into the van driven by the same chauffeur who had picked me up at the airport, who smiled as he remembered me, and we were off for my first real drive through Guatemala. On the first day the trip was actually rather short, as the hotel was only about ten minutes from the airport. Having not left the hotel, I had not seen much of anything, so this would be my first chance to do so.

Guatemala City reminded me of older cities in Korea, where things had not really started going yet, a bit run down and all on top of itself with people walking to and fro. As we drove through the city tidbits were often tossed my way but in no reasonable order and with little rhyme or reason, making it hard to keep up with what I was learning and how it applied.

The few things I picked up were that we were driving through the country and it was about an hour to our destination.

We were going to have lunch.

Antigua was an older city, popular now as a place for shopping and eating.

If I liked museums we could see a museum. I said I was very happy to see whatever I could see.

That seemed to settle it and it was settled: we would first stop by a museum and then after that go to the park and then to lunch. Of course, there were also a lot of clouds, so there was discussion of the possibility that the park might be cancelled, but we would make an effort.

Either way, the first stop would be a museum.

Thursday, November 07, 2013

In the Wilds of Guatemala, A Korean Voice

On the second leg of the flight I passed out for about thirty minutes, which was mostly what I needed to get me from the airport to the hotel. Having mostly been experienced going through customs and immigration in either Asia or Europe, this was an entirely new experience for me. The immigration bit seemed pretty much the same, but after getting my lone bag (that I didn’t really have to check, but had checked just to make it easier to sprint as necessary to the gate), I ended up in a rather packed line.

I was surrounded on all sides by well-meaning Christian missionaries, who were all discussing their missions in Guatemala. I enjoyed listening to the missionaries and checking out the younger ones, wondering which one of them would grow up to turn into depraved, eccentric, empowered bisexual sexpots. Having had the pleasure of datingand still being madly in love withsuch a one, it seemed to me that the odds were good that at least one of these pretty bright face boys or girls of God might eventually go astray. The thought amused me.

The backup was caused by bag check. Unlike everywhere else I’ve traveled, it was not assumed that I had correctly taken my bag. Instead there was someone there to match the bag with the sticker I had been given in Chicago. It took me a second to realize that it was less a belief that I was too stupid to get my own bag and more likely a theft-prevention method. I was fine with that; however, it took forever when you were stacked up behind missionaries with five to ten suitcases apiece.

Eventually, though we broke through. I went out the gate and looked for a person holding a sign with my name.

I love the person-holding-a sign-with-my-name thing. And sure enough, after a few seconds of scoping out the crowd, I saw a hopeful ahujussi with my name, waved to him, nodded, and met him at the other end of the line. He grabbed my bag and said “Buenos tardes.” I smiled and nodded.

It sort of struck me then that I knew Spanish. I also knew he wasn’t an ahujussi, but a señor  but for some reason my mind could not make that connection. Then we walked silently to the car. I was able to follow along with him fairly well. I rehearsed all kinds of things to say to him in Spanish while we were in the car.

I sat there silently for the drive to the hotel.

When he dropped me off he said “Si, bueno?” to which I just stood there looking like a complete idiot. He smiled, shook his head, called me senorita and indicated I should follow him. I was stupefied as I tried to figure out if I should tip him, if I should say thank you, and tried to work out how good his Korean was.

He dropped me off at the reception line, smiled again, backed away slowly, and left me there. I figured I knew how to check into a hotel, so this would be no problem.

Buenos tardes, senorita,” the receptionist started and he went on. I just kind of stood there staring at him. I knew all those words, I knew what he was asking, having enough contextual awareness to know what was happening, and yet I was absolutely dumbfounded.

Nay, yes, si,” I managed to stutter out.

“Oh, you speak English.”

“Oh, thank the merry gods, yes, sorry, I just, I know what you're saying, I’ve just, I’ve been in Asia for twelve years and my brain is a little confused.”

“I see, I see, and where were you in Asia?” he politely asked as he continued to check me in.


“Oh, really? “Annyeonghaseyo!” The annyeonghaseyo broke a torrent in my brain and suddenly what flooded out of my mouth was a very good approximation of my frustration in pretty decent Korean.

“Uh, I studied Korean, but I don’t really know much more than that.”

“Right, yes, it’s okay.”

He was very nice about finishing the check-in, explaining in vague terms how things would work, and gave me the key to my room. I got in, put things down, and looked around, feeling very tired and very hungry all at the same time. I realized I had had nothing to eat since a piece of turkey on the flight, and that I was going to pass out from hunger. Figured it was time to find food and other kinds of trouble.

The downstairs buffet was passable and I ended up back in my room for a short nap, which turned into a three-hour nap. I woke up, had dinner, and went back to bed as that was about all I was good for after that much traveling.

Cafe Negro

Early the next morning I woke up, showered, and ventured out to have breakfast.

People kept speaking to me in Spanish. I kept hearing the Spanish. I kept knowing how to respond. I kept just staring at them mutely. This was both embarrassing and understandable. I knew exactly what was happening from a language-learning point of view, but I had no idea how to rectify it.

So I just kept staring blindly at people and wishing that I could get the words in my head to come out of my mouth. Breakfast included a lot of cheese (as I desperately tried to stick to my diet) and I enjoyed the coffee. I went back up to my room to do work before the meeting I was supposed to have at eleven.

At some point around nine I decided I needed more coffee and this was going to require going back downstairs.

I prepared myself for the concierge.

Donde estas café? Neccisisto café por favor?”

Si, estas la vista restaurante aqui.” He pointed to the restaurant.

That was where my Spanish failed me.

“Uh, um…”

He smiled.

“You can speak English.”

“I just…I already had breakfast. I really just want coffee.”

“Well, you can pay for coffee over there, or you can just go in and tell them you are going to drink coffee and drink coffee for free.”

“That works. Kamsahamnida.” Shit.

Si. Annyeonghaseyo.”

I’m an idiot.

I walked back to the café and explained in English that I was only going to drink coffee. They were find with that.

I got a cup of coffee. “Senorita, con leche?” they asked me.

Aniyo.” Shit.

At least I was talking, but now all my answers were coming out in Korean. So now I looked stupid and confused. Awesome.

I went back to doing my work and sort of hoped the day would end eventually; however, it had not yet begun as my fellow presenters were arriving a half hour early and they were happy to see me.

Wednesday, November 06, 2013

Well-Laid Plans

In the height of losing my mind about leaving Koreawhich really hasn’t been entirely addressed as parts of my mind are still lost (however I am getting closer to trying to resolved), I was invited to participate in a conference in Guatemala in November. The offer was basically an all-expense paid trip with some money tossed on top of it and a chance to go to Central America. I said yes, put it in my calendar, and promptly managed to completely and continuously drop the ball on it.

Somehow with my utter last-minuting (which is how I am) I managed to get all the information to the people hosting me, managed to get the tickets, and managed to continuously forget I was going. I tried scheduling things for that weekend constantly with the Bard being the one to point out over and over “Sara you are going to be in Guatemala that weekend.”

Right, leaving the country again.

An entirely different direction of leaving the country actually, since most of my trips had always taken me to the far east via a flight west. I had not yet flown in a northerly or southerly direction, so it seemed like the time to get that well and good and over with.

Part of me was quite upset it was not a flight to Korea.

That part stayed up late getting weepy drunk with the Electrician, who somehow managed to put up with weepy drunk pretty well, and I promptly feel asleep on the couch, or rather, fell asleep promptly about three hours after I should have gone to sleep.

My flightwhich I of course confirmed at the last minutewas scheduled to take off at 7:20 a.m Chicago time, a painful, painful hour of the morning would be required in order to wake up, get to the airport, check-in, get through security, and get on the plane in time. Like three to four a.m. early. Being well practiced at traveling drunk, I dutifully set three alarms of increasing volume and annoyance to go off and get me out of bed, with a “Get-your-ass-out-the-door alarm” set for 5:30.

The trip, being that it was out of country but not to Korea, was at the same time exhilarating, alluring, and terrifyinghence the drunken randomness of the night before. Those feelings, combined with my general ennui and the other events of turbulence in my life, had all conspired to keep me from sleeping. When I less-than-promptly passed out I did not foresee being up way to early being a problem. When my alarm went off I was actually resting quite peacefully and figured I’d had a good nap. In my half waking I turned off my alarm, thinking to wait for the next one, but opened my eyes enough to check the time.

5:30 a.m.


Leaped off the couch, walked naked into the bathroom.


Stood in front of the shower.


Nope, back naked into the living room, into pants, grabbed and tossed all my assorted and strewn belongings. Computer, check, phone, check, bags, check, vibrator, where did it get to? check, right, zip, out.

I was in my pants and out the door in under three minutes. I raced to the sidewalk with my bag slapping my legs as I was too rushed to roll it. The merry goddess of barely awake, half-drunken travelers provided me with the most beautiful taxis I had ever seen and it was most assuredly not full of people and stopped right in front of me.

The friendly driver grabbed my bag. I said the airport and fast as I had overslept and he got right on it. The cab drove away at 5:40. We managed to get from Rogers Park to the airport in close to 15 minutes.

From there I jumped out, got my bag checked in (as I already had a boarding pass) and then ran to security where a very nice security guard said good morning.

Apparently the look I gave back to him said my morning was anything but good.

“Not so good?”

“I overslept.”


“My flight is boarding in 20 minutes.”

“You’ve got plenty of time,” he assured me. It never felt that way when you were staring down the security line at O’Hare, but sure, I was going to do my best to have hope.

Turned out, the hope was worthwhile as I managed to make it through security and down the terminal to my gate in twelve minutes, giving me exactly enough time to suck down a venti-sized coffee, go to the bathroom, and get in line to get on board.

From there it was a hope, skip, and adrenaline come down til I landed in Atlanta for my layover, and then into Guatemala City for my conference.

Sunday, November 03, 2013

The Graceful Art of Hubbard

I had first been introduced to Hubbard Street when I was working as a teacher in Chicago in early 2000. One of the teachers I worked with had season tickets and she wasn’t going to be able to go, so she asked me if I wanted to the tickets. I said sure, found a friend to go with me, and went to watch a show that was composed of four different sequences called La Petite Morte, which of course worked for me on a number of levels. The final piece of that set was five dances set to the songs of Frank Sinatra, and was absolutely one of the most astounding things I had ever seen. I laughed, I cried, I left that theater and swore to myself when I had finally “made it” I was going to buy season tickets to the Hubbard Street Ballet.

Then I moved to Asia for twelve years.

Having moved back, I decided it was imperative that I get season tickets, so I looked them up, assured myself that Hubbard Street was still active, and picked up two season tickets, Not the most expensive, but I didn’t need the most expensive, I just wanted to have nice tickets and I wanted to have at least two of them because I didn’t want to go to the dance alone.

After my experience trying to gate a date for Mark Lanegan, one would think I would give it up, but I found it much easier to have a date for the ballet than for Mark Lanegan, in that one long-ago-Shimer person was free that night and expressed a desire to go with me. That worked out just fine, and so I invited her along as my date. We talked off and on up until the event and eventually decided we would meet at the venue, as her commute wouldn’t allow her to get to Chicago sooner to catch me for dinner. The evening started with my waving goodbye to the Bard and the Electrician, who were finally managing to escape the city for a long-awaited honeymoon. I waited for the Electrician because I was wearing my favoriterecently acquired in Koreaextra-tiny dress.

“It’s a tiny dress!” I said, spinning outside of the car door as the Bard tossed her bags in the back.

“I can see that.” The Electrician laughed and smiled. I smiled back and took my quickly chilling tiny-skirted bottom for a walk into the city to find dinner.

Had I been a thinking woman, I would have realized that I should not assume I could walk into any restaurant in Chicago on a Friday night at six o’clock and hope to get a table; at least, not in any reasonably decent restaurant. I ended up at the Tavern at the Park, where they had exactly one bar stool, and I had a couple of glasses of wine and an appetizer for dinner before walking over to the theater.

A text was sent to my date to meet me on the second floor in what looked like a warehouse. I sat on a metal bench that looked like it was re-purposed from warehouse siding and began to anticipate.

It had been nearly thirteen years since I had been to see the Hubbard Street Ballet. At some point over that last thirteen years they had dropped the ballet in favor of just dance, which is a better description, because it was not the ballet, really; it was a dance. It was all about the dance, and it was the most beautiful kind of dance. I didn’t know until I had seen Hubbard Street the first time that I loved the ballet. (Or, perhaps I had forgotten how much I loved the ballet.) I had seen Swan Lake on PBS when I was young, and I loved watching the perennial favorite The Nutcracker every holiday season as a child. One of my first girlhood crushes (after Debbie Harry, who was quite literally the first person I ever had a crush on at the tender age of 7) was Baryshnikov; how I did love to watch that man spin and throw women around.

I perhaps knew somewhere deep down that I loved the ballet, but it came to life watching Hubbard Street. I had that warm, growing-excited feeling that had nothing to do with the wine I was drinking and everything to do with the fact that I was about to make the dance real. My date caught up with me on my floor and we walked down to the ground level, where one of the docents had pointed me in the right direction after looking at my tickets.

“I spent hours trying to figure out what to wear; I had no idea.”

“I wore a tiny dress.”

“It’s not that tiny.”

“I feel absolutely scandalous.”

We laughed and got a bit more wine, taking in the sights and trying to find a program for the evening.

Then, feeling all rather together, we gathered our things and headed toward the seats. I had not been to the Harris Theater before, but it was a hell of a venue. I didn't think there was a bad seat in that place. It sloped back beautifully from the stage, with the balcony and upper deck overhanging it just so. We were positioned about five rows back from the man stage and on the left. Perfect seats.

“At this point I think we could get hit with sweat coming off the dancers,” I laughed.

“I have no idea what to expect,” said my date.

“It’s really hard to explain. You are just going to have to experience it.”

We looked through the program and saw we were going to see about five different pieces. All of the pieces were an examination of how people were connected. The first, "Fluency," incorporated elements of technocratic connection, where it was followed by "Cloudless," which captured more of the endless dreaming of almost, but not quite, being able to connect somehow. This was followed by a beautiful love story-type duet between two women who were trying to come together in some real way. The second act would include another duet, between a man and a women this time, which incorporated more classical music, including Greensleeves (which amused me) and the final piece was taken up by the complications of domestic life.

(That was a mouthful.)

However, this description of five dances does not do justice to what happened when we were sitting in the theater, so close to the stage as the dancers first emerged. So close to the stage I could hear their feet drop on the floor. So close to the stage I could see the their well-formed muscles flex and bend clearly, watching with fascination the athletic pitch these performers had worked their body to. This was not traditional ballet, the women on stage were not the scrawny, small, take-flight dancers. These women were built, they were the kind of women you imagine running around a forest like great powerful Amazons. Their muscles supremely controlled, their body perfectly pitched, and finally formed.

The men, too, did not have the overly thick stumpy muscular legs customary among male ballet dancers, but instead were perfectly toned with a sinewy grace that belied the power with which they could toss a bodymale or femaleand catch it, allowing it to slide down their body with such ease that their partners could have been nothing more than a light sheet being tossed out and then folded.

There was such grace that it became overwhelming and you, the audience, could only sit there on the edge of tears, joy, anger, fear, and madness, so wrapped into the story would you become. The story was not read, nor explained, but merely existed and you saw it imprinted on your synapses and you felt it with ever fiber of yourself.

With "Fluency" you felt that jarring fleeting connection, in the frantic motion of the dancers as they moved from graceful turn one moment and staggering, staccato shaking the next. That shaking, that sudden and abruptalmost uglyjarring revelation was such a perfect description of being both near and far. I felt it. I understood it. I gripped my lovely date's hand and we both allowed ourselves to get swept away in the moment.

During the intermission she tried to describe it. “Something just happened to me. I don’t even know what, but it’s like, I can feel it.”

“Yes, it’s like that.”

“This is amazing.”

I got caught between a set and had to stand in the back for the piece constructed around Greensleeves. This was not bad, as I got to see the stage from a different vantage, which made me appreciate the quality of my seats all the more; however, even from the back of the theater it was still breathtakingly beautiful.

When I got back to my seat she turned to me, “Okay, I think I have it,” she started.

“I caught it from the back but they wouldn’t let me sit down.”

“Oh, thank goodness, because I was working really hard to figure out how to try to put that into words and I think I mostly had it, but I don’t think it’s possible to describe it. It’s just…”

The last piece began more literally than all the other dances. At first it seemed clear that this is going to be about the banality of domesticity; however, it evolved until it moved from boredom, to pain, to triumph and the silliness of pairing until finally you were left at the end of it wondering if it was ever possible to make a connection in a relationship, or if it was impossible to escape the utter isolation of what it meant to be essentially human. It was perfect.

I walked my date up to her ride and allowed myself to get swept into the madness that is the city late at night on a Friday evening in perfect, late-summer weather. The sparkling lights and electric thrum of Chicago was all I really connected with; the rest of it rolled off me, until finally I found my couch, my glass of wine, my dreams full of flight and grace, and a deeper questing for something more.