The importance of water and the state of my apartment complex is such that I keep at least one 2.5-gallon of water in my laundry room for just such emergencies as I find myself in right now. When I flushed the toilet and didn’t hear the familiar sound of rushing water to refill the tank. A sound that my conscious mind ignores or rather dismisses as “background noise,” where I only acknowledge its absence rather than its presence.
Seeking a second opinion, I quickly turned on the bathroom faucet only to hear the gasping, dying breaths of plumbing that brings forth no water. On route to the laundry room to retrieve the stored water, I paused for a futile moment to check the kitchen sink, knowing before I turn the handle that dry faucet breath, rather than water, will spew.
I retrieved the stored water, carried it to the kitchen sink and washed my hands, followed by washing my dishes. About 40 minutes after my discovery of temporary water loss, the Ozarka natural spring water truck arrived to deliver one of my neighbor’s two large containers of water. How convenient! The delivery guy’s arms were ripped with well-defined muscles. My former Tanzanian students could teach him how to carry it on his head.
Was it just 72 hours ago I’d preached about the importance of water? Less than 24 hours ago I’d shared an excerpt about my Peace Corps experience, which ended with my dilemma that there was no running water. Life is imitating art. Reality means a trip to the grocery store to buy another 2.5-gallon of water. I’ve still not learned to carry it on my head.
The importance of water and the state of my apartment complex is such that I keep at least one 2.5-gallon of water in my laundry room for just such emergencies as I find myself in right now. When I flushed the toilet and didn’t hear the familiar sound of rushing water to refill the tank. A sound that my conscious mind ignores or rather dismisses as “background noise,” where I only acknowledge its absence rather than its presence.
This Saturday, I attended my hottest poetry event yet…started off as 90 degrees when I arrived and swelled to 95 by the time I left.
Nonetheless at the base of Philosopher’s Rock and the entrance of Barton Springs…that 68-degree natural waters would’ve actually felt refreshing if I didn’t have another reading afterwards.
4.6 billion years ago
As swirling sultry gas
Her fiery nature cooled
Morphing into a hot rock
Icy asteroids collided
With their watery mark
Mother Earth developed
A geochemical cycle
After a billion years
A biogeochemical cycle
One cycle’s products
Along come the upstart humans
Newborn babes in the wilderness
Huge frontal lobe full of potential
Toolmakers, empire builders
Tasked to be good stewards
Command the flora and fauna
Our nearly unchecked progress
Created fantastic human endeavors
And spurred demise
Now we arrogantly seek
To save the planet?
And her asteroid waters
Mother Earth will continue
Long after we destroy ourselves
We don’t gather to save her
We gather to save ourselves
From our own self-destructive ways
Our greedy five-planet consumption
As if we have four other planets
When we poison the waters
We poison ourselves
Everything we do
Good and bad
Has an impact
Mother Earth and her waters
Have existed long before us
The only question that remains
Will our sense of
Self preservation kick in
Soon enough to
Safeguard our natural resources
And save ourselves?
One of my favorite moments, came when the “Cool Water” quartet, who sang about water as if it were a whiskey song. As I watched, I kept thinking, “I hope I don’t have to follow them.” Of course, I jinxed myself. Luckily I’d thought about what I wanted to talk about the second time around: my preoccupation with clean water when I was a Peace Corps Volunteer.
Before I left, I listened to a band that played many environmental songs. The usual lead singer, wearing an orange shirt, referred to me as a “modern, cross dressing, samurai.” I quickly unsheathed my sword and roared, “I’m a woman!” I stabbed him after they finished their set.
I made the leisurely drive down the street to the second poetry venue. As soon as I walked in, still discombobulated from the sweltering poetry by the pool, a group of people added to my confusion by telling me, “Your troupe just went that way.” Considering the fact that I’d arrived much earlier than I’d told any of my poets to be there, I was quite sure “my troupe” hadn’t entered the building yet. When I went to the bathroom to freshen up, that’s when I discovered the futuristic hair and clothing models. After freshening up, I posed with their sign.
When she got to one artist, she kept stumbling over his name and he kept repeating it with a super-jazzed up Spanish accent. I finally told her that he just loved having a woman say his name repeatedly.
Here’s what I shared with the audience:
When I recently conducted an Internet search, I typed in the words “how to make a bomb” and got 170 million hits in half a second, but the words “how to make war” received 763 million hits in a third of a second. The words “how to make peace” resulted in an optimistic 796 million hits in nearly a minute.
So it takes a little longer to come up with 33 million more peace-making ideas than war-making ideas. If the mind is like an Internet search, you’ll think of bad ideas faster during a conflict, but have much better ideas if you think just a little longer before you act. Counting to ten should be the first peace-making idea.
And if you’re really good, you’ll write down your negative, angry thoughts. Even better, you’ll research the conflict. After all if it’s worth your anger, then it’s worth learning more about. Then, one of the best things you can do is share your results with others. It starts with you. You are the person to make the difference, if only to sleep better at night and make better choices the next day.
Fortunately there are places where people who are passionate about life can share their words. They’re called…poetry events. In and around this Awesmic City, there are weekly, monthly and annual poetry events.
I‘ve been the proud organizer of one such event, The Austin Writers Roulette, a monthly, adult, theme-based spoken word and poetry group for the past three years. I had never organized something like this before. Originally, I started the roulette as a guaranteed way to have an event where I could read and sell my first book, Tribe of One.
The first lesson I learned was people didn’t attend or participate in an event just because I wanted to make money. As a matter of fact, for the first season, I essentially paid people to show up!
Determined not to be a failure, I changed event locations twice, changed my attitude numerous times and focused more on inviting passionate people, whether they self-identified with being a “writer” or an “artist,” to participate in the roulette. I stopped charging admission and starting asking for donations.
One of the most beautiful things I have discovered is the world is full of interesting, stimulating people. Imagine how I was humbled when I discovered that the secret of the roulette’s success was not how talented of a writer I was, but how well I could organize and attract other talented people to join me on the show.
There is power in collaboration. I’m empowered when my voice is heard. I’m empowered when I hear other authentic voices. I may not agree with all I’ve heard, but I’m enriched for having listened.
Some believe that the first person to resort to violence has run out of things to say. Those who suffer in silence are afraid to speak. There’s a vulnerability to reading or performing one’s work in front of others. I invite all voices for the small price, in return, of being respectful to other voices. Within the differences of opinion and the expansion of a conversation, collaboration occurs. We can change the narrative of reality through our participation.
With the energy and hopefulness of a beauty pageant contestant who wishes for world peace, I actively promote the creative collaboration among passionate people. The Austin Writers Roulette meets every second Sunday at Stompin’ Grounds on S. Congress. Our next show is tomorrow from 4 to 6 and the theme is “Survival Stories.”
Joining me on stage today are just a few of the artists who regularly perform in the roulette.
When I introduced the last poet, I told the audience, “If you’ve never done drugs before, you’ll experience it with this next poet.” He stage whispered that he didn’t write about that since it was a kid-friendly venue. I then told the audience that I no longer knew how to introduce him! He did manage to pepper his spoken word with a little cursing and one F-bomb. I’m sure he didn’t even notice. Wasn’t a problem since no kids were present.
I’d offered to join the futurist hair and clothes models, but instead, I sat back and enjoyed their creativity. I was impressed that they were part of the education and artist collaboration.
For a change of pace, I limped to a downtown blues place that hosted a music competition. I arrived early enough to order a burger that was half the size of my head, but I was so hungry, I ate it all before thinking, “Hmm, I should have taken a picture of it!” Adding to my pre-show joy, the waitress. When I asked her for a sample of the two Malbecs they served, homegirl gave me a half of glass of both to sample. Not one to waste delicious wine, I passed both samples to a friend to try, then combined the two “samples” and ordered the better of the two later on. After eating, I propped up my ankle. When the waitress saw it, she brought over the caution sign so no one would bump into the chair. Talk about service!
The second band was also a trio of guys. By this time, I noticed that most of the crowd was in the back where the tequila-tasting had snared them. I generally drink tequila for medicinal purposes, so I gave it a pass. Besides, who needs tequila when there’s Malbec?
I was the first woman to dash into the women’s bathroom after the second band. That’s where I heard another woman yell, “Make it quick!” I came out and met the lead singer of the third band. I didn’t bother to ask her if she was from Austin. I just gave her my card and told her about the Austin Writers Roulette.
For some reason, the fourth band inspired everyone at my table, including me, to give them nicknames: Danny DeVito on harmonica, The traveling gnome on lead vocals and guitar, Gene Simmons on drums and Javier Bardem on bass.
Finally, the fifth band came on. They were all brothers. Their parents sat at the adjacent table. All those guys looked just like their dad, who claimed he couldn’t sing nor play an instrument. I’d guessed who was the oldest, middle and youngest child and got it completely wrong!
I’m so glad I wasn’t one of the judges. I would’ve had a difficult time deciding which three bands advanced to the finals. Fortunately, I got to kick back, sip wine, and enjoy the blues. As happy as that event made me, can I truthfully say that I enjoyed “the blues”?
Whenever an event starts off with two goblet-sized wine glasses, I’d say I’m off to a wonderful start! The one made of glass had a delicious Californian blend, the other made of ceramics, was the creative challenge.
Although you cannot tell from this picture, I spent an extraordinary amount of time sketching out my design before painting it on the goblet. I designed an “Adventures of Infinity and Negativa” logo, which turned out looking pretty bad…as long as I can drink from it, it’ll be OK.
I was the first one out of five women to finish; so I had a great time, finishing my wine, promoting the Austin Writers Roulette and polishing off some delicious pizza. At some point, I’m going to receive word that my goblet has been fired by the ceramics expert who hosted this event. It’ll be my first book-inspired wine glass. At least the wine won’t be aware of its container!
I arrived to the meeting room for the AISD superintendent search a few minutes early and found the room empty. Puzzling. Just the day before, when I’d mistakenly gone to the Carver Museum, then the Carver library, I’d checked the meeting room calendar to confirm the actual date and time.
By 11:25 am, five minutes before the meeting start time, I went to the front desk and asked if the meeting had been cancelled. They checked their copy of the calendar and confirmed that the it was due to take place in meeting room 2 at 11:30. The guy even told me that I was early! I expressed concern that I’d sat alone in the room, which showed no evidence that anyone had come to set up the place for a meeting. After a quick trip to the bathroom, I returned to meeting room 2.
Since I’d come prepared with a spiral notebook, a pen and sat in meeting room 2 alone, I wrote down some thoughts, thinking of how this experience was indicative of why things don’t improve faster for public education. If this had been a meeting concerning an educator molesting students, then parents would be here. Representatives from AISD, perhaps with their legal staff, would be here. Yet to discuss the hiring of one of the key employees of the district, no one besides me shows up. I know I’m not the only one who cares. At other meetings of concerned citizens gathered to make a difference in the pursuit of the best public education of kids, we all somehow feel like pockets of educational activists.
After 10 minutes of journaling, I whipped out my smartphone. I brought up the AISD website with the intention of getting a phone number and letting someone know exactly what I thought of their community meeting. I saw a link for “Superintendent Search.” Clicking on that, I saw another link for a schedule of meetings. I discovered that all meetings from noon to 1:30 would take place at an AISD building for all three days. The Carver Library wasn’t even listed. Fortunately, I was only 12 minutes away to the next location, according to GPS.
I arrived to the meeting location site, where several other meetings/workshops were taking place. After an Easter egg hunt with an AISD board member, we located the room. I was hot. Not the, “Woo-wee, we’re in Texas in the summertime” hot. I was angry black woman hot. Someone offered me a small bottle of water. I said the politest thing I could think of. “That is not the drink I’m in the mood for.”
As I signed in, I vented my frustration about the meeting room mix up. A woman in the know, whipped out her master schedule of all 15 superintendent community forums and assured me that the meeting was at noon at the Carver library–30 minutes later than either the library or I knew about. Much after the fact, I learned the facilitators for the Carver Library meeting had been 10 minutes late due to traffic. No one from the community had shown up. I had been the community member.
Instead, I was one of 12 people, including the school board member, a headhunter consultant and a couple of AISD central office people. The meeting was positive, even the constructive criticism never entered the angry zone I’d been so accustomed to when attended by mostly teachers and parents–those of us on the frontline of interacting with students. Those of us who could put faces to the data that drives the illogical strategies, which may work well for business, but not for the business of educating kids.
The most positive contributions I could make were 1) the district needed a superintendent who collaborated and 2) had improvement strategies for special education and English Language Learners.
Nonetheless, the meeting was beautifully conducted and the conversation flowed like warm, spiced wine with only 12 questions:
1. What do you consider as the significant strengths of the school district? (Most praised the improved attendance and graduation rates. I kept quiet since I no longer trust educational statistics because I understand math, especially math corrupted by political gain. Too much temptation to cheat or play jazz with the numbers. Improvisation is wonderful in music, acting, poetry and other forms of art, but not crunching educational data.)
2. What do you feel are the positives of the community? (We praised things like no state tax; thriving business and arts communities; diversity of culture; oasis in the middle of TX)
3. What are the issues and challenges specific to AISD? (As a group, we came up with lack of money, growing population of students, special education, and English Language Learners.)
4. What words or phrases would you use to describe the qualities you would like to see in a new superintendent? (I drove home the word “collaborative.”)
5. What is the leadership style you would like to see implemented by the new superintendent? (I stated we didn’t need a superintendent to pull the evil stepparent act of talking down to the community and trying to change everything on his/her own.)
6. Given the changing dynamics of public education, what are the critical issues the new superintendent will face? (We all agreed everything ultimately rested upon the shrinking budget.)
7. What are the necessary changes that need to be made for AISD to be more successful in student achievement? (One woman repeated the superintendent needed o get the money back for education!)
8. Are you satisfied with the direction of the district? (Why or why not?) (Can’t remember what the others said, but I voiced concern about the extreme top-down management.)
9. If you could help develop the new superintendent’s first 100 day entry plan, what would that include? (I wrote that the super’s first question at any meeting should be, “How may I best serve you?”)
10. Is there any other information you would like to share concerning the community, school or superintendent position that would impact the search process? (Several were concerned about the $300,000 salary offered and whether the super would see his/her role as long term, at least 10 years.)
11. Do you have questions regarding the search process? (At this point, I waved a piece of paper with the steps of the process outlined and asked, “Isn’t this it?” We agreed that it was clear cut.)
12. If you have any names of candidates you would like to recommend us after the meeting please…(I stopped listening after that.)
In the 14th painting, the twins have entered the quantum matrix of choices. Sometimes, abstract things are harder to depict. Having the freedom to show something any way I want to means that it’s challenging for me to narrow down the choices. Within the chapter, I talk about the “pathways.” I knew I’d depict those pathways as unpainted lines.
The hardest part was deciding what the rest of the painting would look like. I thought a matrix should be primordially simple. But not like a black hole, sucking things in. More like a place full of energy and possibility. Didn’t take too much time to come up with a vagina. And since it should be full of light, the twins must be silhouettes. As a matter of fact, painting the twins all in black made creating number 14 the quickest one I’ve completed since I didn’t have to get the fine details of body parts “correct.” As soon as I learn how to apply that lesson to future paintings, without making them all silhouettes, that’s going to put me at the next plateau.
In addition to that, I’ll have to get more serious with the manuscript. I think I know what needs to be done: edit more than a few sections daily. I need to discipline myself to read at least two chapters at once. That way I can tighten up the story.
She squared her shoulders
Defiance in her eyes
Dared him to touch her one more time
It wasn’t a threat
But a promise he didn’t want fulfilled
She’d marched too far to be denied a place
Not the best place
Not his place
But a place
A place she knew she had the right to be
So, touch her one more time
The first shove came as a shock
The second because she’d resisted
But, she warned, a third time would be his ass
Shove her out of his way?
She moved when she was ready
Not away from him
Nor because of him
But toward greater opportunity
When the time was right for higher ground
She moved swiftly
Like a huntress tracking game
With the gracefulness of a dancer
The skills of a warrior
Each athletic move well-practiced
For nothing did she possess
Had she not earned
She heard him treading heavily behind her
Life of privilege had not prepared him for this
On his own
Couldn’t touch her now if he’d tried
He who had been given everything
Ill-prepared against those who struggled for anything
Privilege won’t help him now
No one’s above an ass whupping
Whether life beats him down
Or she does
The only thing separating him from one by her hand
Is her sense of civility
Push her one more time
And that option
His safety barrier
Is off the table
On the summer solstice 2014, four other Texas women, or cotravellers, and I started our journey to Peru. When I arrived at the Austin airport, I ate at an organic, locally-sourced bar, served by a spoken word poet.
Two flights later, I took a “sleeping selfie” at the airport in Lima. Although my overnight layover was long enough for a nap, PA announcements and airline workers banging on the glass wall to have the door opened by a coworker prevented that.
In another chapter of my life, I’d lived in Denver, but the Mile High City did not prepare me for how mountainous or altitudinous Cuzco was at 11,200ft.
I could’ve kissed the ground when I arrived at the hotel in Cuzco, especially since I was on time for the continental breakfast. However, the receptionist politely told me that complimentary service began the next morning.
Since we couldn’t check in for a few hours, our trip CEO, Chief Experience Officer, took us on a walk in search of breakfast. She explained the ubiquitous rainbow-like flags did not symbolize gay pride, but the indigenous Quechua culture.
Apparently, our weeklong visit coincided with several celebrations: the summer solstice, St. John’s Day on June 24th, and another celebration, which I can’t recall. For most of our vacation, we saw people in a variety of parade costumes.
After returning from breakfast, we discovered one cotraveller’s luggage had been burned by an outlet short-circuit.
Perhaps that was the risk the nearby electrical sign had warned about.
I was thrilled to check in, but the novelty of my new surroundings distracted me. Such as the negative first floor button, which inspired many creative musings every time I was on the elevator. I never pushed it since I didn’t want reality to disappoint me.
Even my room number amused me since it was the educational accommodations code for students with disabilities, which I certainly needed to help with the combined effects of sleep deprivation and high attitude.
Later in the day, our CEO walked us to the Plaza de Armas where the Iglesia Compania de Jesus lined one side of the plaza.
La Catedral lined another side.
In the center stood the Inca, Pachacutec.
Down an alley branching off the Plaza de Armas, we came upon a series of parade floats. I especially liked this one for incorporating a soccer theme since the World Cup invaded everybody’s mind.
Since Cuzco was a major tourist destination, I gave a few soles to take a picture of a grandmother with her grandkids and a goat. Throughout the rest of my vacation, I could truthfully tell all others who tried to solicit money from me for that shot, that I’d already taken one!
Nearly every public space had a thick gathering of people, whether they were watching a parade, listening to a speaker or just being together with extended family.
For our first dinner, I ordered alpaca brichra mediterranea, which was served with a berry sauce, sliced figs and cream pasta. Tasted like deer, but with less cholesterol than beef.
Afterwards, I was initially delighted to see the bathroom at that restaurant was stylishly covered in straw. Then my mind drifted to how could they possibly keep that sanitary? I chose not to over-think it.
Months before this trip, I’d attended a slideshow presentation, where I first saw the famous 12-sided rock of Cuzco. It‘s a prime example of Incan ingenuity since the wall was a sturdy construction despite its irregular-shaped rocks that fit together perfectly.
Travelers unused to high altitudes are cautioned not to drink alcohol for the first two days. Well, mama needed her medicine. We split a delicious bottle of Intipalka, a Peruvian Malbec! Most of the world only knows Argentine and Chilean malbecs. While sipping wine and eating a piece of chocolate cake, we watched the US play Portugal.
For the second time in just two hours, I took another picture of a bathroom. These so-called bathroom rules start off as legit since, in Peru, one tossed used toilet paper in the trashcan rather than flush it.
By the time we took our city tour on Monday, I thought we were already on Tuesday. The details of tour were fuzzy, but I remember that this was a baby alpaca. I’d just eaten one of its cousins last night.
Speaking of eating mammal cousins, we got a preview of how guinea pigs were prepared as part of our city tour.
On a rooftop of one of the houses were bulls, which symbolized Catholicism.
On another rooftop was the southern cross, which symbolized Andean religion.
As we took in the ambience of rooftop religious symbols and guinea pig preparation, a parade marched by.
At the next stop, we visited a burial site where Incan VIPs had been mummified and buried with libations for the afterlife. There weren’t any displayed mummies, but I got to experience the coolness of the limestone altar where mummies had been prepared.
From the mountaintop perspective, I appreciated the neat layout of Cuzco where all streets radiated out from the Plaza de Armas.
No Cuzco city tour would be complete without visiting Saqsaywaman (pronounced similar to “Sexy Woman”). With retaining walls to prevent mudslides during the rainy season, Saqsaywaman was the site where the Inca would celebrate mother earth by drinking chicha, fermented maize. On August first, a young girl, who had not yet menstruated, was given chicha and coca leaves and buried alive to appease mother earth to prevent natural disasters. The temporary bleachers shown here had been brought in for people who could afford to celebrate St. John’s Day in style.
I didn’t know that Cuzco had a Cristo Blanco nor that the largest one resided in Bolivia instead of Brazil.
Our last city tour stop was the Convento de Santo Domingo, which was a Dominican convent built on top of an Incan temple. The Incan foundation had the usual trapezoidal construction that made it earthquake proof.
Of all the exotic or questionable things I ate, it was the carrot and pumpkin soup for dinner that did me in. The first two middle-of-the-night trips to the bathroom were just due to diarrhea, but that third time, I leapt out of bed, tied back my dreads and heaved a sulfur and pisco sour flavored vomit. Next time I travel to a developing country, I will buy a small bottle of tequila or whiskey for such medicinal purposes.
I slept like a charm after that. In the morning, I boasted at breakfast about how my body could eject pathogens without further intervention, which was fortunate since I felt well enough to witness the re-enactment of the Inca celebrating the summer solstice.
We continued to the San Isidro market, where the fresh fruits, vegetables, juices, spices and slaughtered animals were sold.
One pleasant surprise was the lack of flies, thanks to the high altitude.
Another surprise was the availability of “potion” ingredients. My upbringing calls it “voodoo”. My mother would call it “working roots”. Whatever you name it, it was available for purchase.
Our CEO purchased a bag of coca leaves for us to try. We’d all drank coca tea, which was supposed to help with altitude sickness. I found the leaves slightly bitter and it had no noticeable effect.
For lunch, traditionally the biggest meal of the day, I ordered lamb stew that came with a huge chunk of lamb that I’d normally eat in a week.
Our CEO recommended we split a fried guinea pig since most tourists don’t like it. It had very little meat, a membranous texture, and a gamey taste most similar to duck. On my first bite, I’d forked what I thought was white meat, but the texture was very soft. The CEO told me that I’d just eaten part of the brain!
At this point, my camera needed recharging. I plugged in my surge protector and heard a loud popping sound. The receptionist reset the circuit breaker. Turns out the camera’s AC adapter worked like a charm without it. Yeah, technology!
Later, we visited a silver jewelry store that had its own on-site jewelry-making room. After seeing how the silver was smelted and the raw stones cut, we were released to shop.
I bought two pairs of earrings to remind me of Peru. One pair was in shape of a kantu flower and the other symbolized the solar calendar.
After walking around Cuzco a couple of days, I finally found my namesake. Of course, I had to take a picture with the little plaza sign.
I was delighted to discover Cuzco had a chocolate museum, where an employee passed out samples of dark, milk and white chocolate without vanilla and other added stuff normally found in chocolate bought in the States. I sampled tea made from cacao leaves and bought two dark chocolate bars, one with cardamom, the other with aji chili. I liked the cardamom best.
I split a Peruvian malbec and merlot blend at an upscale restaurant to have with the chocolate. Since I wanted a light dinner, I ordered a salad and discovered Peru has the creamiest avocados on earth!
Not only that, but I loved the food philosophy of this restaurant.
On the way back to the hotel, I stopped into this liquor store for a 2.5L bottle of water. I could not resist taking a picture of the Peruvian fertility god sitting among the alcohol.
One afternoon, I had a little downtime to sit in the Plaza de Armas. Some local women told me that the propped up tree, named Queuna, couldn’t be cut down because it had been there since the time of the Incas.
Later, we took a private bus to the House of the People of the Sun to volunteer with some kids. Due to large potholes in the dirt road, we had to walk uphill with our donations.
The director greeted us and explained the different programs offered: jewelry-making, leather crafts, homework help, especially math, music, and psychological counseling.
In the past, there had been programs to raise awareness about recycling, composting, and promoting the use of native languages such as Quechua, native cultures, and educating rural people about labor and sexual exploitation.
I was alarmed to see that the house, dedicated to helping children at risk economically and/or intellectually, was across the street from a women’s penitentiary.
All the kids had assigned duties.
I was eager to them with their math homework, but the one student who had finished his, packed up his notebook and wouldn’t let me check over it.
Most of us chose to paint the mural, which had been sketched out in pencil. The theme appeared to be an ecological message about how everyone was responsible for maintaining the well-being of the environment.
After painting, I visited the music room. My presence caused the kids to be giddy. Finally, the teacher got them to play a traditional song.
As soon as the bus dropped us off from volunteering a half-day, we went to a nearby little bar to take a medicinal tequila shot, Followed by two helpings of a local mint Bailey’s imitation on the rocks. This became our place for a couple of nights.
On the way up the stairs to breakfast, I came across a little boy, chasing after a lemon-sized yellow ball. Unfortunately, he and two other boys were playing soccer in the dining area. I have an on-going irritation with parents who allow their kids to play in undesignated areas, especially restaurants. I joined two cotravellers at their table, but was preoccupied by the boys. Finally, one cotraveller got the ball. I pocketed it since I was comfortable with being the bad guy. I explained to one boy in my broken Spanish that we were in a restaurant and I wanted to eat in peace. I told him I’d give the ball back when I finished eating. Of course, the parents and grandmother were all there, thought the situation was funny, but apparently agreed with me keeping the ball. One cotraveller returned the ball when she saw they were leaving.
For our second day of volunteering with the kids, we stayed the whole day. Some cotravellers helped with preparing lunch.
I managed to help a few kids with their math, algebra problems and one geometry-based algebra problem. One girl made posters out of the problems. I was so happy to understand and explain the problems in Spanish.
The jewelry-making teacher showed me the basics of making silver earrings.
That was a steep learning curve, but I eeked out a pair of earrings after a while. I have a newfound respect for jewelry designers.
Then I went into the leather craft room to make a bookmark. The design was already engraved on the bookmark. So I painted it. As usual it took longer than I thought it would.
As soon as I finished, I went outside to thaw out. Next thing I know, I had a paintbrush in my hand and I started to paint the grass part of the wall mural. The painter in me just had to make the grass have more depth.
We ate lunch with the kids, which consisted of sopa de viernes or chupe, a carrot and tomato salad, a veggie fritter and half a boiled potato.
After lunch, I found a quiet spot and whipped out my ever-present journal. I wasn’t alone for long. The boys were fascinated by both my cursive handwriting and how quickly I wrote. They couldn’t read my writing until I printed—just like my students in the States.
The next morning, I sprang from bed at five thirty-three—thirty-three minutes AFTER my wake up call was supposed to ring. Eleven minutes later, I joined my tour group on the bus to Ollantaytambo. Despite the breakneck speed around curvaceous roads, I saw snow-capped and cloud-covered mountains.
We arrived at the train station with just enough time to use bathroom…
and to hear our daily dose of Simon and Garfunkel’s “Sound of Silence” on pan flute.
We took a comfortable, clean train with sunroof windows and complimentary snack and beverage service to Aguas Caliente, the city just outside of Machu Picchu.
The CEO had told me earlier in the week that the puma represented the present world; the condor represented the future; and the snake represented the past.
For the first time on my trip, I saw a Peruvian hairless dog. Apparently this one was a Batman fan.
We hiked along the Urubamba river up to the base of Machu Picchu. I stood on the pedestrian bridge where hardcore hikers ascended. The next day, I’d take the bridge to my right for the brave who traveled up by bus.
This is one thing that happens when six women travel together: time to break out with the hand sanitizer before eating!
Half of us made a short trek to the hot springs after lunch. It was a bust since they wouldn’t allow us to soak our feet in the pools because we didn’t have bathing suits. Yet, I made use of the toilet since our hotel temporarily had no running water. We chilled the bar area, overlooking the pools and rushing river water while listening to Bob Marley and Pink Floyd. A Chinese film crew showed up to document the hot springs.
On our way back from changing money, we went to a restaurant to watch Italy vs Uruguay because as one cotraveller said, “I’ve never seen an ugly soccer player.” I watched more sports on TV in the past few days than I’d watched all last year.
For the second early morning in a row, we stood in line for a Machu Picchu shuttle. Some tourists speculated about the safety of the infamous shuttles. I shared the same sentiments as one cotraveller: “I’ve walked too much this week to roll off a bus!”
Once we arrived safely at the entrance, most of us got off the bus in a civilized manner, but this impatient European shoved me in the back twice saying, “Go, go! Go, go!” when I paused to allow people across the aisle to get off the bus first. I turned around, put my finger in his face and threatened, “Push me one more time!” He repeated “Go, go!” softer, but didn’t touch me again.
And just look at the line that he’d rushed to wait in. Our CEO told us that many tourists have the delusion that they’ll be the first at the gate.
My visit to Machu Picchu was amazing even though it was the only time while in Peru I was immersed among other tourists, some of whom were absolutely rude when it came to taking their pictures at prime spots then moving on.
A tour guide explained that Machu Picchu had three parts: Agriculture, Urban (homes), and spiritual. East-facing doorways signified residences. All other facing doorways were either storage spaces or temples.
We came upon a bright green coca bush. Our guide explained that cocoa leaves needed chemical processing with sulfuric acid to make cocaine, which eats away at one’s flesh. He stated that all countries should legalize marijuana like Uruguay did since it’s a safer drug. Our CEO concluded, “If you can’t beat them, joint them!”
The Incan canal system below ground still collected more than enough drinking water through rainwater harvest to supply the estimated ancient population. During the wet season grounds became saturated. This temple was falling apart because of water damage.
In one part of Machu Picchu condor wings and the body of a condor were etched in stone.
For some inexplicable reason, I thought it would be a good idea to take a 45-min hike to the Sun Gate. I’d already walked too much on my recovering broken ankle. The best part about the steepness of the trail going down was my knees hurt so much, I didn’t even feel any ankle pain!
Three cotravellers and I made the Sun Gate trek.
Before leaving Machu Picchu, I put a decorative stamp in my passport.
I was so exhausted when I hopped on the shuttle bus, I didn’t care that it barreled down the narrow winding trail.
Once again, my hotel room number in Cuzco was prophetic. I certainly needed to clean up after hiking Machu Picchu, then spending hours traveling.
Since this was my last day, I took a picture of the Cuzco street dogs. They were so sophisticated in that they knew how to cross the street and otherwise interact with humans. I’d heard that none of them were strays although they freely roamed the streets.
After the city tour a few days ago, many shoeshine guys had approached me. I purposely waited until my last day to have them shined up. He gave my shoes the best shine since they were bought. Charged only two and half dollars, but I ended up giving more than that.
A cotraveller and I returned to the chocolate museum. After a few sips of Mayan hot chocolate mixed with red pepper (aji), honey and hot milk, I proclaimed, “All black people should smell like chocolate.” The cotraveller said, “All white people should smell like vanilla, then there’d be no racism.”
At the Cuzco airport, security and a group of passengers huddled around a flatscreen TV. I didn’t have to remove my newly shined shoes nor throw away my opened bottle of water because of a tight game between Costa Rica and Greece. The crowd roared when Costa Rica won. Then magically, the airport announcements resumed.
My last supper in Peru was the most expensive, courtesy of the Lima airport. I bit the bullet and ordered Malbec with fettuccine and shrimp. I bought a $3 bottle of water afterwards to counterbalance the saltiness of the sauce.
Before we boarded, about six airline workers donned disposable rubber gloves and hand searched all carry-ons. As soon as I saw them confiscating all beverages, I chugged my expensive bottled water, which had resided in the front pocket of my backpack.
The DFW airport has a new thing: cue up for an electronic kiosk that scans your passport, takes an unattractive picture, and asks for the same information as the paper immigration form, which I’d already filled out, but no one ever asked for.
Yet throughout my travel, I was a big fan of the old school technology: pen and paper for my notes, edits and long-division money exchange calculations! Make no mistake, I’m happy to return to the land of time-saving devices, even though I’m not sure where all the saved time goes.
I’ll admit it: I struggle with arrogance. After all, I’m only a perfect nine. I know I have flaws. Yet I make the most of what I have.
When revising my bucket list, I was initially stumped. Consider this: I’ve traveled around the world, driven cross-country, been published, happy, in love, thinner, younger, in good health and as far as rich is concerned, money’s what I make of it and as long as I’m making enough to pursue happiness, I’m rich.
So what drives me to write, paint, read and wake up in the morning with a sense of purpose? Since I’ve resigned from teaching, my quest is to make all of my social interactions and art teachable moments.
Given the sorry state of the world, I have a myriad of things from which to choose. The aspect I love the most about teaching is research. Whichever objectives I want to know more about, I research and transform that information into an engaging lesson. That elevates the act of teaching to the art of teaching. Unfortunately art was one of the first things sacrificed to the high-stakes testing moneymaking monster.
Yet now I’m free to teach whatever I please. To follow my passions and shed light on the darkness of misinformation and misogyny, so I’ll NEVER run out of material or motivation. Just watching twenty minutes of the news can send me into an intellectual frenzy. I do some of my best improvisational spoken word, addressing the latest stupid utterance by a republican politician, or so-called Texan educational reformist, or restrictions to women’s healthcare, or latest mass killings where apparently it was the person doing the killing, not the weapon.
Regardless of the rant, I feel obligated to come across as an educated, empowered voice. Y’know the saying about how we should know history so we won’t be doomed to repeat the past? Well, history pisses me off! History tells me that minority women have been and continue to be beasts of burden, suffering in silence. Whichever misogynistic acts are unleashed against women, at least double it for minority women.
The only way I can think to help balance out the universe is to produce a different narrative, a counter narrative, my own narrative. Through fictional characters in my novels or first person spoken word. The situation’s only going to improve if I help it along.
This isn’t some Miss America beauty pageant contestant’s fondest wish of ending world hunger. Nor is it the airing of a litany of gripes about how someone should do something about my complaints. My irritation is an accurate indicator that I need to do something with integrity about the situation.
When I resigned from teaching on Friday, March 29th, 2014, I’d already finished teaching the entire Physics curriculum, I’d paid off all debt and I’d saved up some money. The icing on the cake was that I’d resigned on the eve of the administration of the most egregious standardized test to date: a 5-hour combined reading and writing test where students would receive a cold sack lunch delivered to their testing classroom to wolf down for 20 minutes then resume taking the test. No longer would I be obligated to assist the state of Texas in its institutionalized educational version of child abuse.
The following Monday and Tuesday, two different TV reporters interviewed me over my resignation in what they called my protest against standardized testing. I hadn’t thought of it as a protest, but I certainly do not disagree.
I told the reporters how creative teachers like me wanted to do more than use the scripted lessons and limited teaching techniques to educate students. Yet teachers who dare to be innovative get heavily biased negative evaluations, put on growth plans and then threatened to lose their jobs unless they slavishly follow the teaching-to-the test strategies.
Although many people don’t watch the 5 or 6 o’clock news or listen to news radio in the morning, my fellow teachers had heard about my actions. My former colleagues and my friends who taught at different schools all reported about the buzz I’d caused at their school. Many thought perhaps now something would change.
A month later, a third TV reporter contacted me. Again, the request was to interview me about the negative consequences of high-stakes testing. I told her that my resignation was old news. She agreed, but quickly added that I was the only teacher who would go on camera to talk about it. I declined that interview since I had nothing new to add, but I gave her a tip about another education protest scheduled for that day.
I don’t blame any of the inspired teachers who will not come forward. After all, teaching is challenging enough without the added retaliation they’d surely receive from school administrators if they spoke up. At the same time, imagine what would happen if the general public knew teachers’ narratives. Would parents allow their students to participate in those high-stakes tests? How many parents know that those high-stakes tests are NOT part of No Child Left Behind? How many parents know that this is a Texas initiative?
On April 14th, 2014 I sat in on the Texas senate committee meeting on education. I witnessed our Texas senators grilling the test makers over the length of the infamous 5-hour reading/writing test. One senator pointed out that giving high school students a 5-hour exam was the equivalent of an academic and physical test. Another senator questioned why the test was five hours just to graduate from high school when students who wanted to go to college only took a 3-hour test.
The last expert on this panel was an education professor from Dallas who had monitored three high schools. She testified that the teachers who administered the test witnessed students losing stamina after three hours and bubbling in answers in the fifth hour without reading anything.
The results of this flawed test will reflect on the student, his/her teacher and the school. And for what? The generation of data? To close the poverty gap? To close the minority achievement gap? That data will be used against students, teachers and schools. Any school that has major academic needs will be punished for it. Can you imagine going to a hospital emergency room and not receiving medical help because you’re not already healthy?
So now that I’m no longer in the trenches, no longer financially dependent upon remaining silent out of fear of retaliation, I plan to write a fictionalized account about teaching within the toxic consequences of high-stakes testing or “the machine” as I like to call it. I’ve already started doing a little research and have conducted some interviews. Yet, I need to finish my current novel before I can give this one the time and energy it deserves.
In the meantime, class is in session. There’s a life-altering lesson waiting to be learned.
For this year’s rendition of Mattie Gilmore, I went to a costume shop in north Austin and tried on a stylish maid’s outfit. Much finer than the clothes that I had strolled in with! The cherry on top was the maid’s hat. The woman at the costume shop originally suggested that I bobby-pin the hat onto my hair. I tossed my dreaded head back as I laughed, assuring her that no bobby-pins were going through my hair. Ingeniously, I threaded a dreadlock through each loop, which secured the hat well.
One of the best things about playing Mattie Gilmore again was being already familiar with the 8-line narrative. A few people asked me follow up questions, but I politely told them I did not know more about her. I referred some to the four Juneteenth summary panels, conveniently located in the same room where I was stationed.
A few of the older visitors wished more young people learned this history and had been in attendance. One woman, who had picked cotton as a child, sent her grandkids with some food one day to do the same. They and their food didn’t last but a few hours. She teased them about how both were supposed to last from sunup to sundown. She wished all kids these days, especially those who don’t like to study, could get a taste of the same.
Another group of visitors were an older couple who were visiting their adult son from Algeria. They did not understand enough English to follow my narrative, but I looked them in the eyes as I emoted my lines singularly, allowing their son time to translate into French. His mother really enjoyed what few lines I uttered and broke into an interesting conversation about how similar slavery in the States was to slavery in Algeria. I gave the son a break by letting him know I could understand the gist of what she said since I’d studied French for 6 years. This allowed him a bit of a break on two-way translation. Once again, I wished more of my French remained in my brain. As much as I struggle with foreign languages, I know this is just a fantasy. I was pleased to hear that the word for slave, “esclavo,” was the same in both French and Spanish.
At the end of our interpretation time, we took a group picture, and dashed away. The other woman and I were more than happy to change into our regular, cooler clothes, then eat a delicious barbecue lunch provided for volunteers. While eating, I caught up with one of the movers and shakers in Austin, who actively works to keep the historical black areas renovated and well-known. And, for the second time this week, I got an offer to teach a creative-writing course, this time with an emphasis on genealogy narrative.
All in all, I had a fantastic time reenacting a newly freed slave, thanking God I didn’t have to live through the real thing.
A few days later, on the actual day of Juneteenth, I finally had the satisfaction of seeing “Infinity & Negativa Rejoice” on the wall for the “100% ” fundraiser at the Carver Museum. This fundraiser is so named because 100% of the silent auction proceeds goes to the Carver’s education program. The 12 x 12 canvases were donated by a local art store and all the artist participants worked on and submitted their completed canvases. The silent auction will last for a month.
After getting a thrill of seeing the twins on the wall, I went into the theatre for a screening of the documentary, “Freedom Summer” about how a thousand white northerners came down to Mississippi to help educate and encourage blacks to register to vote. This year is the 50th anniversary of that event. Although it was a hard thing to watch, I felt a renewed sense of purpose for the mission of writing bits of my narrative through spoken word and novels. I’ve got a theory that I’m going to explore further. People will read/listen to my works if it’s entertaining enough.