Wednesday, August 27, 2014

How The Critical Mom Made the No-Fly List

It wasn't my politics, which veer to the left of the Green party.  No, it was my poop.  
On our last night in Lima, Peru, I consumed the sprig of cilantro decorating my tamale.  Also the ice cubes in my drink.  The very next day I woke with fever, chills, and Atahualpa's revenge, and got through our plane ride with coke, Ibuprofen and Imodium.  The fever dropped the day after we got home, but I still felt incredibly weak, and thought I should go to the doctor.  My husband thought I should stay in bed--I should have trusted him:  he grew up in the shadow of German bureaucracy--but I staggered off to the doctor, where I was handed a plastic container and asked to deposit a sample of a substance that I found all too easy to produce.
Now, that sprig of cilantro is the cause of all our history . . . . the next thing I knew, I woke up fine the morning after the stool test to the tune of an anxious phone call from the doctor.  I had a communicable disease, you see, and there was so much campylobacteria in my sample that they had to tell the ministry of health, which now wants another stool sample. . . and another . . . . one doesn't get the all clear until one has produced two containers of samples that test negative.  And no, you can't just bring in two containers produced fresh that day.  You have to wait a whole week before bringing in the next one.  During which time you are on the no-fly list.  Hope I'm not invited to any weddings or funerals next week.
So they just cleared my first negative sample, "but theoretically, something could happen, and didn't I want a written excuse to get out of work?"  Most folks jump at the chance, and it seems to have occasioned suspicion that I did not.
Now, government health agencies make it their business to assume that someone like me--with an entirely run-of-the-mill case of traveler's diarrhea, now completely cured, thank God--is not a person of normal habits who bathes and washes her hands before cooking and after using the facilities but rather a lunatic who enjoys sharing her bodily substances with any available surface or person.  But folks, I am not Patient Zero and this is not Contagion.
So I am rather perturbed by the very formal letter from the local Gesundheitsamt entitled Meldung von Krankeitserregern und übertragbaren Krankeiten gemäß Infektionsschutz, which asks reassurance that I have not infected anyone and wants to know where I got this illness.
I just got home on the tram from picking up my kid at school (yes, little old quarantined me) and there on the tram platform screens news flashes informed the public of a case of Ebola virus in Hamburg.  Wouldn't the local health ministry's resources be put to better use taking care of that rather than insisting on yet another stool sample from a healthy, conscientiously clean, hand-washing lady who consumes garlic and ginger and fresh vegetables with gusto?

Sunday, August 17, 2014

The Critical Mom and the Ugly American

We enjoyed a glorious day at Machu Picchu climbing the ruins of the sacred city and hearing spicy comments from our guide about conquerors ("You all--Egyptians, Romans, English, Americans, write about killing to make civilization.  You have to kill to create civilization.  But Incas don't write about it.  For Inca, is personal information!"  Here he brought his fist to his chest in a heartfelt way, and the academics from the Decolonization conference laughed in relief.)  But on the train ride from Machu Picchu to Ollantaytambo, we encountered a well known-type:  the Ugly American.  He strode into the car opening windows and slung himself into his seat, just as my husband began to request that he change his seat from aisle to window so that we could talk with our friend.
"This here's my seat!" he bellowed in a Texas accent.
Our friend, crushed at the window seat by his imposing thigh and sitting across from his terrified-looking wife and daughter, looked alarmed.
"You got a problem with that?" the Texan yelled at my husband, who answered, "A gentleman would allow a lady to change seats."
"Well, I'm gonna get the conductor now, 'cause I might get violent.  A gentleman would let me sit in my seat."
At this point my eldest son announced, in German, "Everyone burn your American passports!  We're going around the world as Germans from now on!" 
"Are you talking' 'bout me in a foreign language?" asked the Texan loudly, squinting at us.  He fetched the conductor, who began to talk to my husband in Spanish, advising him to calm the man down. 
Meanwhile the man leered at our friend, saying, "por favor, darlin'" and she then explained in her perfect Spanish to the conductor that of course the man could have his seat and there was no problem.   The man looked murderous and stuck his other leg out into the aisle, claiming as much space as it was humanly possible to do.
I've encountered this type so frequently that I sometimes tell people I'm Canadian and was grateful when one of the Indio vendors on the street in front of our Cusco hotel asked me if I were Argentinian.  At the National Library in Ireland, years ago, hordes of Americans lined up to find their ancestors, and had no patience with the relaxed attitude of the Irish, who never got angry when red-faced, huge Americans banged the bell repeatedly, expecting instant service. 
We sat through the ride to Ollantaytambo wishing we could do something for our friend other than pass her Kleenex--she wept throughout, being a sensitive sort, and after the ordeal was over imagined the man as a character in a Quentin Tarantino movie who gets murdered at the end.  "And his daughter runs away!"
The daughter was the one for whom I felt the most.  The mother seemed catatonic, the daughter eager to defend her father.  When she overheard me telling my younger son, who asked why the man acted that way, that he was drunk, she shrilled, "He is not drunk!" as if she desperately wanted to convince herself of the fact.
Our friend later reported that he spent the ride making racist remarks about mestizos and abusing his wife and daughter, ordering drinks for them and then drinking them himself, and I urged my husband not to remonstrate, because I knew that the man was capable of punching someone out or much worse.
When I went to the bathroom, I explained to the conductor that I was worried the man might try to injure my husband, and could he please just be around as we exited the train.  He did so, and I was most grateful to him.
But I longed to take aside the daughter, who was about seventeen, and apparently on a pre-college trip with her parents, and tell her: "Listen:  you don't have to stay in your family.  You can leave them behind and make your own life.  I had a father like yours--a man who got drunk and made scenes in public and insulted people.  I had a mother who ignored his bad behavior and like your mother showed her fear of him all the time.  And it took me a while, but I left them behind and made my own life, and you can too."  I thought about my situation  at seventeen with a father like that--the original Ugly American--and I felt extremely grateful for my husband and my three children and how we can laugh together and enjoy a ride on a train even with a drunken yahoo across the aisle, because we can leave him behind.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

The Critical Mom Goes To Peru

We landed in Lima late last night and discovered that in Peru you have to put all your suitcases and bags through the security machines in order to exit the airport.  Our driver, Pablo, had not minded waiting and was right there at two in the morning when we finally emerged from baggage claim.  On the drive in from the airport the sight of a truckload of live chickens attracted my children, who wondered where they were going, and I had to explain that they were on their way to a restaurant.
Our hotel has hot showers and we are very careful not to open our mouths under the shower head.  Which, once upon a time, one of my cousins did, and found the resulting diarrhea so discomfiting that at the local train station--where one had to pay for toilet paper by the square-- he barely made it to a toilet.  We are brushing our teeth with bottled water from the plane.  On the inside of the bathroom door, a list of rules includes the following:  "The hotel reserves the right of admission and of requesting the guest removal in case he/she carries out or promotes acts against public order and morals."  The following rule reads:  "Animals are not accepted in our accomodations."  I don't think they are worried about lap dogs. 
Our hotel has the best coffee I have ever had--yes, even better than Paris and Monaco.  The eggs were delicious and the employees very friendly.  When we wandered out to find a laundromat, we happened upon tiny cafés serving ceviche, big bottles of beer, and rice with frijoles for the equivalent of three to ten euros.  Many free tasting dishes appeared:  delightfully flavored boiled potatoes decked with something like Hollandaise sauce and decorated with slices of boiled egg; a substance that looked like black beans, tasted something like liver, and was accompanied by tiny shrimp and spicy, pickled red onions.  Rarely have I longed so much to shout, "YOU OUGHT TO CHARGE MORE!" at a waitress.  Everyone seemed to understand, despite my inability to communicate in Spanish, that I was running laps between the laundromat and my meal, that my husband would settle the bill, that one of us had to remain with the clothes and the dryer while the other accompanied our ten-year-old daughter.  A wandering minstrel strolled through playing a guitar and singing in an incredibly good voice and I thought, as I finished my beer, Hollywood, where are you?  Plus, we've discovered Pisco Sours, the national drink, and here's the rule for consuming them:

One is good
Two better
Three enough
Four floor.

I can tell you that my second was a mistake.  One is plenty!  Two made my head spin and I knew I had to stay vertical in order not to lose my dinner.  But maybe it's too bad that I can't tolerate more than one, because today I have a touch of Atahualpa's revenge.  I just had a Greek yoghurt from the local supermarket; if I can stomach a Pisco sour I'll have one later.  I didn't let a drop of local water down my throat but I did eat some ceviche that tasted old.  But today I went to the Indian market and bought a wonderful soft red poncho which is, I am told, and it feels like, baby alpaca, for 110 soles or about 35 euros.  Now that was a deal.  My daughter got a lovely dark blue alpaca shawl for 40 soles, that is, around 14 euros.  And a pair of soft alpaca slippers for the same.
Tune in next week for more on our upcoming trip to Macchu Picchu and the jungle. 

P.S.  Well, I am sorry to report that the usual remedies--banana, dark chocolate, and pisto--did not work, and a trip to the local Botica proved necessary.  There, one has to describe one's symptoms (in my case with sounds and gestures) and then one is handed Cipro, probiotics, digestive enzymes, and a sympathetic attitude.  I'm in my hotel bed, coke and saltines by my side, having spent the morning doing laundry and buying the most beautiful tablecloth in the world, blue with Inca designs, for only 70 soles or about $25.

That's part of the cure, too.