Monday, June 28, 2010

Live fast, buy hats

Absolutely jet lagged, they had to drag me out of the house kicking and screaming.

Ok, no where near that dramatic, and I had previously agreed to go to that concert, but I had not anticipated that I would be so f*up by the jet lag, nor did I anticipate that Spain would be playing a qualifying game. I would have given anything to stay in the comfort of my own home, my own sofa, and supporting my team.

I’d only heard of Vinicio once before, when my hubby was trying to sell me the gig. He played a few tunes which I hated, then moved to something else which was more my cuppa tea, so I agreed to go.

We had been to this venue a few times before, and today it was not particularly full, I even managed to get a chair, and much to my party’s amusement, I placed it right in the middle of the dance floor.

I sat with my coke, in what felt like a futile effort to stay awake.

And then a magician came out. All dressed up in red velvet, with a tall hat with feathers and all, like in the good old days, or at least the good old movies. And then the magic act smoothly melted into the first song, and the musicians appeared, and they were all wearing large black hats of all shapes and sizes, beards like pirates, and beautiful instruments like a double bass.

And then Vinicio came on stage, and the fun begun.

The concert can only be described as a rough voice that reminded you of Paolo Conte (and to quit smoking); lyrics akin to Bob Dylan; as many wardrobe changes as Madonna, but in a style more in line with Jack Sparrow’s; the sense of ridicule of Rob Smith singing “boys don’t cry” in a full teddy bear outfit, meets acid.

He started off with a song about going down to hell, with clear allusions to the fact that Italy had just managed to disqualify itself from the Worldcup, even before the quarter finals. The crowd was nearly 100% Italian, he knew that, he also knew we did not care.

For the next tune, a tiny red child size piano came out, and he sat there in his tiny stool singing a melancholic tune about lost socks and wondering about the fate of the one left behind, (not a football sock he clarified).

And then it just kept getting weirder and odder, and the music was good, but it was just in sane. This late forties full bearded man would just as easily come out in an ice age caveman suit or with a shiny silver mermaid tail. The hats would change with the tune: cowboy hat, large (as in twice the size of his head) Russian fur hat, evil goat mask.

The music was good, so good that even I was forced to leave the comfort of my chair to dance. But the joy, the fun, the humour and the theatrics just brought it to an entirely different level. Those concerts that make you want to go home and learn to play an instrument, pick up old hobbies, take life less seriously and love more seriously.

The magician would reappear to play tricks for the crowd, colorful confetti flied every time, and he would do his tricks without missing a beat. A rather large “TA DA” tattoo across his chest was used as a pun to a song, a “THE END” tattoo just above his ass was shown when he attempted to tell us the gig was over. We were having none of it. I mean, for gods sake, we were still trying to work out what the hell pirate man was doing moving his hands around in mid air and where the hell the music he was playing was coming out of.

After an almost heavy metal stint (and I HATE heavy metal), he had us begging for more: dressed with a cow boy hat, a Mexican skeleton, and Mr magician man running on stilts through the audience trying to get out of a straight jacket to the beat of a song about a piñata.

I hadn’t been this awake or this a live in a very long time. And left with the firm resolution that -if nothing else- I *must* buy a hat.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

On Traveling with babies (excerpt from my book)

(book excerpt)

(…)The first challenge was actually moving from the US to Phnom Penh with a two month old (...)

Those of you with no children must be thinking that such a small thing surely does not exceed authorized hand luggage regulations, and what’s the big deal. Those of you with three or more children are probably thinking just the same. But a baby for a first time mother is equivalent to some sort of extremely sophisticated radioactive explosive, which must be handled with utmost care. It must be kept at the right temperature, and delicately positioned according to a series of formulas that change throughout the day in mysterious ways. A move too rough or a sudden change in temperature could trigger “the alarm”, otherwise known as crying, and we honestly believe could actually kill the little creature.

Babies grow on an hourly basis, and all potential situations must be catered for, which explains the average luggage requirements for every new parent:

- 2 oversized bags (per child)

- 1 buggy

- 1 cot

- max carry-on allowance

- one change of clothes for each parent (in the suitcase, although I soon learned that carrying a change of clothes with you is best, as you are just as likely to end up covered in pee, poop or vomit)

Add to the above ‘basic’ toys, blankets, formula and snacks, and you are likely to be tilting the airplane.

Moreover, every parent is convinced that their kid cries at several decibels higher than any other man made machine, and of course, any other baby. Parents’ nervous systems, and in particular the mother’s, are genetically designed to react to this sound.

This is good for evolution, not always so good for the mother.

But we all react differently. In my case, I sweat profusely and can actually see energy exiting my body, in search of a quieter place no doubt, while I can feel all eyes on me. In this case of the plane but the same applies to all spaces where your child might cry; like shopping malls or stadiums.

A mother quickly develops the gift of mind reading, as I distinctly perceive how each and every person on the plane –even those that are sleeping- thinks:

“tska tska… baaad mother”

Word to the wise, avoid all western airlines when travelling with babies, unless you want to have some 12 year old stewardess give you advice along the lines of:

-“could you try to get the baby to stop crying?”

hmm, hadn’t thought of that! or better yet,

-“maybe she’s hungry” or “she looks tired”

I’ve lived with this thing day in and day out (quite literally) since it was born, but you have managed to crack “the code” in two hours… right

Unhealthy thoughts will haunt you as they sit by the door filing their nails, or rolling their eyes because they cannot leave the plane until you do, and of course, it is going to take you a while to collect all your belongings, which had left point of origin in a quasi military order, but are now scattered throughout the plane and you must retrieve on all fours.

This triggers “the alarm,” and they continue to file away as you squeeze yourself between seats, over all sorts of left over food –NOT from this flight- with sweat trickling down your body.

Finally you exit the plane carrying two bags on each arm, a backpack and front pack (the baby) only to discover half way to the immigration line that you forgot to button up your shirt after the last feeding.

Which brings us to another myth of motherhood.

Unlike the models in the magazines will have you believe, it is NOT trendy, it is NOT glamorous, and it is NOT sexy, (unless the smell of sour milk puke turns you on).

Saturday, June 12, 2010

What’s in a name?

"What's in a name? That which we call a rose
by any other name would smell as sweet.” W. Shakespeare

Nicknames are a very South American tradition. In my home of four siblings, none of us grew up referred to by our names, but rather by nicknames that were mostly a result of not being able to pronunciate each other’s name properly. And so Lucia became Shia, Francis became Chachi, Isolina became soli. Me? That was a bit more complicated. My siblings were older so they could pronounce my name. They were also old enough to find it funny when my mother, according to tradition and for my own benefit, shaved my hair in the hope that it would grow out healthier and stronger. I looked like a coconut, and so I became Cocoy.

These nicknames stuck, so much so that one of my sisters had to use hers on the wedding invitations, or else no one would have known who was getting married. The other tried unsuccessfully to revert back to her original name several times. My brother, very much like the artist formerly known as prince, changed from one nickname to another after his divorce. And me? Well, by the time I got to college my nickname already had a nickname of its own, even my last name had acquired one, I was kuki viksvaporub. Now I just sign off as K (pronounced Kâ).

And then came the time to name our children. My brother went for exotic Russian ones. My sister for classic Spanish, selected with a preconceived nickname in mind (which of course did not stick, you can’t assign nicknames). The other sis, after years of fighting (and loosing to) her nickname, has strict household rules where no one gets called anything but their full name.


Well, we were certain we wanted short, two syllable names that would be pronounced the same in all household languages (Spanish, Italian and English, in case you were wondering). You would have thought that after putting in that much effort the names would have stuck, but we begun using nicknames already in-utero. My daughter was “La Cloti” from Clotilde, an imaginary name we gave her after playing what’s-the-ugliest-name-you-can-think-of. Then she was born, and from week three she could climb up a tree (ok, I’m exaggerating, but she did walk at 8.5 months, and play ball at 10 months, and….) so we call her monkey.

Then came number two, (from Dr Seuss’ thing one and thing two), and his in-utero name was “chopito”, which is a very small squid usually eaten deep fried, (very much what he resembled in-utero). Then he was born and long story short, we now call him “trouble”. He has golden curls and the smile of an angel, but god gave him those looks so that he would survive childhood, cause it’s hard to get too mad at anyone that looks like he just floated down for a quick visit, even if he just drew with black marker over the eighteenth century Chinese cabinet.

In my home nicknames sprout like wild mushrooms. And to make matters worse, and although they all have a source or explanation, I find it hard not to assign them indiscriminately. So then I find myself in peculiar situations, like when my daughter corrected me

- “momma he’s the tadpole, I’m the midget!”

Who knew, I just thought they were both little people.

This post isn’t really leading anywhere. I’d been thinking about it since I read @l8enough’s frustration with not having a good nickname, and just read @aspiringmama’s blog where she –again- refers to her daughter simply as “buttercup”, and it got me thinking: were do all these names come from?

Some people believe that if you are not given the name you are meant to have at birth you will find it along the way. Some cultures rename their children after a few years, to a more appropriate name that suits the personality better. In Cambodia, where I effectively morphed from previous-me to mommy-me, the locals have the habit of calling each other by their last syllable (given that our staff’s names were Ming’na and Sina it put me in the awkward position of having to call them both “Na”), and it got me thinking that according to that tradition I would be “Ca” (or K in Spanish pronounced Kâ) ….which is my nickname! Et voilá, full circle.

Do you or your kids’ nicknames have stories? I’d love to hear them.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

a photographer's biggest nightmare: impromptu wedding

Recently I attended the wedding of a dear long time friend of ours. He is a charming and funny Irishman well known for being disorganized and unpredictable. Needless to say he loves this about himself, if anything because it gives him license to get away with almost anything.

The wedding was to take place in Scotland where the bride is from. We were very curious to meet her, and as my parents had offered to stay behind with the kids, very keen on having a good time.

The night before the other shoe dropped: the photographer had been in a car accident, could I possibly take the pictures?

As some of you already know, I DON'T DO WEDDINGS. I love weddings, and wedding photos are probably my favorite of all. I just can't face the possibility of fucking it up, but under the circumstances, how could I say no?

As a "tourist" attendee I had brought with me only ONE lens and ONE memory stick. I'm sure my fellow photographers are sweating just from reading this.

For starters, I haven't set foot in a church, with the exception of weddings, since my teens, so I didn't feel too comfortable to begin with. It didn't help that after the first five minutes, and not aware that I was now the "official photographer" the priest actually stopped to ask me to get off the altar and take pictures later, (so on top of everything, I am probably going to hell for disrespecting the podium, or altar, or whatever it is they call it.)

Fortunately at this point I had spontaneous competition. A young man from the crowd was moving around swiftly, and attracting no attention from the priest, (whose speech was rather sexist, so I don't think it was a coincidence). I tried to joke with the man

"Between the both of us I guess we'll manage something"

But he did not reply. A disdainful look was all I got. I guess this was no joking matter. No kidding.

Outside the church feeling more in my element I snapped away, but my spontaneous competitor did not seem to appreciate this. He'd had the priest on his side, and now he had convention too: he was wearing sock, shoes, pants, shirt and jacket, all I had was a silk dress (and boots, there was no way I was going to walk around in the snow in tiny heels).

Then came time for a one on one with the bride and groom, and I was invited into the wedding car. The look on the other guys face totally made up for at least some of the pain and suffering.

Finally I was in my element, this is what I do, portraits.

Long story short, I spent most of the wedding taking pictures of wedding groups under the military supervision of the bride (a skill she'll need to keep my friend in check). Ditto during the dinner, where as dictated by English tradition speeches followed more speeches. But once we got to the dance floor, the lights dimmed and everyone let their hair down... by then I was dead and exhausted and just wanted to go home.

So much for my night out in the town without the kids.

So now you know why I don't do weddings, and also why I'll never do a wedding again.

Friday, June 4, 2010

On Why you shouldn’t hate mother’s day

I read a blog not too long about why someone didn’t hate mothers day.

It went through an organized rationalization on why many of the assumptions around celebrating such a day were misguided, unfair or inappropriate, but not offensive. The gist of it was: why do people insist on treating mothers like something special, and why do people keep going on about this unconditional mother love, like it was something that non-mothers could not experience.

The thing is, I didn’t plan on becoming a mother. I’ve always liked kids. I can even say that I am good with kids. I’m the one that charms them in the first five minutes and then spends the rest of the afternoon trying to get them off my back because, for me, those five minutes were enough. I respected motherhood and its sacrifices, but thought that given the current social rules I really wasn’t up for it. I mean it is a badly paid job, with no social security, no pension, no holidays, no recognition, no possibility for promotion and no healthcare. You can’t even call in sick for gods sake.

Babies may be cute, but it wasn’t for me.

Then I got pregnant. It was an accident. And then I lost that baby. But a very strong almost physical urge stayed with me. It wasn’t rational. I hadn’t changed my mind, I just didn't care for the rationalisation anymore. I wanted a baby. Period.

It’s also true that as much as I loved my life at the time -DINKS (double income no kids) living in the east village New York,  a cool job at the UN, travelling and eating out as much and as often as we wanted... like I said, as much as I loved where I was, I kind of felt that life had a sell by date. I felt that five years down the road I no longer wanted reports and meetings to be the center of my world.

But I am digressing.

When my daughter was born, I didn’t fall in love with her at first sight like many people said I would. It took time for me to get there. In spite of all this and the fact that I am a trained psychologist, I think that biology plays a huge part. I think biology is at the root of why a mother’s love is different: because the bottom line is survival of the species depends on it.

Try having someone –anyone, no matter how much you love them- wake you up every 2 hours day and night, crying screaming, demanding... I’ve always said my daughter is the worst boss I’ve ever had. I mean really, most people let you finish a cup of coffee. Not here.

REM sleep deprivation is a form of torture. Seriously.

I digress again.

Motherhood, for me, came with a whole load of surprises. Some were good, some were bad, some were really bad, and some were out-of-this-world-downright-awesome. I still remember the shock of realising that, although all my life I'd adored my mother,  it turned out that she loved me so much more, and that no matter what,  I would never be able to love her as much as she loved me. I told her this and she nodded in acknowledgement.  We both understood I would never be able to love her back the way she loved me, the way I loved my daughter.

Mothers should not be celebrated because they are better, but it is a darn hard job and it should be acknowledged.

For over a decade now I’ve been a “do gooder”, working in developing countries, in conflict countries, rough circumstances of all sorts, but hey, I got paid, I got holidays, I got recognition. With motherhood the recognition factor is mostly just face talk.

As much as I love my job, I would never put myself in harms way for it, not intentionally. For my child I would, any day of the week. Which brings us back to biology. It’s not about being a better human being, it’s a strong biological urge that developed over thousands of years to ensure a baby will be looked after until it is able to survive on it’s own. Even the father (and I know this statement will be polemic), but even the father does not fully understand. He’s got other duties in the mix.

Our need to look after them, and hold them and kiss them is as irrational, basic and unstoppable as the desire to have sex after foreplay.

You don’t love your lover or partner or spouse unconditionally. You shouldn’t. It’s a partnership with certain rules like honesty, loyalty and fidelity which should not be broken, but if they are, then the bond is broken. And so it should be.

Mothers love doesn’t make us better people, it does make us lucky people. Lucky to know a love so strong it knows no reason. That sometimes fills your chest so much it hurts. A love different from the rest.

It just is.

And why should we be treated as something special? Cause we keep the world -humanity- going. It is our children that will run the world -from the white house to the school buses and restaurants- when the current cohort retires. 

That simple.

PS post dedicated to my mom, and her mom

PPS to read a bit about the history behind the mother's day celebrations go here

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

The Embera Indians of Colombia

On my last blog post I told you a bit about my recent visit to the Risaralda National Reserve in Colombia, were the Embera Indians live. Here are some more photographs from that trip.

It was a five hour drive from the nearest town through tropical jungle and pretty tough roads. The four-wheel drive could not make it to the top because of the roads and the mud, and it's the dry season, or as they like to refer to it "summer"

Here they are lining up for their ration of food. Women and children first. They were kind enough to offer me some, which was delicious actually, although I prayed that I would not end up with parasites -again-

I did not, but I was late getting back to the assembly after lunch, so they democratically chose a penalty for me, and made me dance to the beat of their drums (no pictures of that sorry, I was busy keeping the rhythm)

This baby cried every time I tried to get anywhere near her. Apparently I was the first non-Colombian to visit, so to her I must have looked very odd indeed.

I will keep posting pictures as I find time to edit them. You can see some more at