Wednesday, May 30, 2012

One more reason

Today our Spanish teacher told us that one problem in Ecuador is that people steal babies from hospitals.

"Steal?" we repeated.

"It happened to my uncle," she said. "His wife gave birth in the hospital, and she fed the baby for the first time. Then a nurse took the baby away and it disappeared. They looked for it, but it was a newborn and she didn't remember if it had a birthmark or something. They never found it."

"Why do people steal babies?"

"There are women who can't have their own babies who steal other people's. Also, there are North Americans who will pay a lot of money for a baby. So people steal babies for them."

"I knew that happened in Guatemala, but..."

"It happens more in Guatemala, but it happens here too."

I think adoption can be a very good thing in some situations. But this is one more reason why we need reforms.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Ecuador vs. Europe

I keep thinking that it was a bit silly for me to have traveled in Europe in college when Quito has so many of the things I enjoyed there, and for much lower prices. For example, in Copenhagen I ate Danish pastries maybe once a month because I couldn't bear to cough up $4 for a snack. Here I buy fresh pastries every day because they cost 60 cents.

Here's a comparison of my experience of Quito with the European cities I spent time in (Copenhagen, London, Paris, Barcelona, Amsterdam). I understand Buenos Aires is the most "European" city in Latin America, but I've never been there.

Advantage Europe:
less crime
better food for a larger budget
less air pollution
probably better for obviously gay people
no altitude sickness
more and better art

Advantage Quito:
better food for a smaller budget
hiking / birdwatching / rafting / ziplining
landscape (misty Andes, cloud forest nearby)
lower prices on everything
cheaper to fly to (our tickets cost $600 round trip)
I'm practicing a language that's useful in the US (unlike Danish)
plants and animals (ideal climate for orchids, roses, hummingbirds)

Streets with charming old architecture
Sexual harassment (I get shouted at here about as much as in France and Spain, less than in London or Copenhagen)
Lots of old churches
Cute children (somehow foreign children are always cuter)

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Failed night out

Last night, after over a week in Ecuador, Jeff and I ventured out at night for the first time. Destination: an Irish pub we had seen posters for, located in the hip neighborhood a few blocks from our homestay. This was exciting because:

-It was our first time out without sunscreen and hats. With not much air between you and outer space, sunburn is a big deal in the Andes.

-We don't usually live within walking distance of a hip neighborhood.

However, we forgot some key facts:

-Walking distance does not mean walkable: everyone we knew told us to take a cab if we didn't want to get robbed on the way there.

-Said Irish pub was actually a bar, complete with deafening music (and not of the variety played by old men in flat caps.)

- Jeff doesn't drink, and I only like drinking with people I trust. A bar full of strangers speaking a foreign language in a city where two people had already tried to rob us was pretty much the worst place for me to enjoy a beer.

- We're terrible at small talk and meeting people.

- We're cheapskates.

We ended up walking to the bar, pausing at every corner to debate which street was least likely to get us mugged. We spent about two minutes in the bar before agreeing to leave. We got hot chocolate instead at a shop where the waitress locked us out on the patio. Then we walked home, hearts pounding.

Maybe we just need to acknowledge we're not nocturnal creatures. At least not here.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

What's big in Quito

- Polarfleece. Wool used to be big here (this is the land of the alpaca, after all) but now blankets, jackets, pullovers, and hats are almost all polarfleece.

- Theft. This week two different people tried and failed to rob us. Normally wearing your backpack on your front makes you look like a tourist, but here even locals do it to avoid cutpurses and pickpockets.

- Meat. I was expecting more bean-based dishes, but people eat chicken or beef at almost every meal.

- Pantyhose. Most women wear pants, since it's always in the 50s and 60s, but older indigenous women usually wear knee-length skirts with knee socks or pantyhose.

- Stretch velour. Younger indigenous women favor white blouses and ankle-length stretch velour skirts.

- Soup. Every lunch and dinner starts with soup.

- Shoeshines stands. I don't think this is because so many people want their shoes shined, but because it's a low-cost business to operate for people who don't have better options. Likewise people selling candy or oranges on the street.

- Disney Princesses. Vendors who sell reading material on the street invariably have a couple of princess-themed coloring books. Disney On Ice is coming to Quito next month, and my five-year-old host sister is very psyched.

- Blackberries. Blackberry is the favorite flavor for juice and ice cream here, though it tastes different than blackberry at home.

- Nuns. Way more nuns here than in Boston. Or maybe Boston nuns are just less likely to wear habits.

- Breastfeeding in public.

What's not big here:

- Bicycles. For a city with bad traffic and a ton of pedestrians, I was surprised to see so few cyclists.

- Obesity.

- Traffic laws. Buses do at least honk their horns to indicate they're about to run a red light.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

First days in Quito

Jeff and I have arrived in Quito, Ecuador for several weeks of studying Spanish.

There are police visible here, more heavily armed than in the US, but they seem to take a more casual role. The first day we saw a police officer in serious body armor patrolling a playground, crouching at the bottom of a big slide and urging children to slide down it. Yesterday at the botanical garden we saw a gaggle of smiling cops gathered around a booth at the plant sale, buying cacti. (I assume the cacti were purchased out of horticultural interest, not for some interrogation technique.)

Abortion is illegal here. Luckily, this sign lets you know you can procure "safe abortions" by calling the number! Great to know the black market has folks covered when it comes to medical procedures!

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Something to do

Having finished grad school, I suddenly went from a lot of goal-focused behavior to hardly any. Drifting around the house, I thought about the ways each of us in the household focus our behavior. Rick is the founder of two small businesses and spends probably 80 hours a week working at them. He does do things for fun, but they are deliberately subtracted from work time, not the other way around. Alice is in a long-distance relationship, which I remember as a state of killing time: everything you do has a feeling of “until”, waiting for those weekends that light up the rest of your life. Suzie works part-time as a midwife, and in the rest of her time she does the small things she enjoys: watching costume dramas, maintaining the house, knitting a pair of Christmas socks for everyone in the extended family.

I'm reading Yann Martel's The Life of Pi, in which a zookeeper's son reflects that captive animals are not unhappy like people think:

Being denied “freedom” too long, the animal becomes a shadow of itself, its spirit broken. So some people imagine.

This is not the way it is.

Animals in the wild live lives of compulsion and necessity within an unforgiving social hierarchy in an environment where the supply of fear is high and the supply of food low.... One might even argue that if an animal could choose with intelligence, it would opt for living in a zoo, since the major difference between a zoo and the wild is the absence of parasites and enemies and the abundance of food in the first, and their respective abundance and scarcity in the second. Think about it for yourself. Would you rather be put up at the Ritz with free room service and unlimited access to a doctor or be homeless without a soul to take care of you?

This doesn't jibe with my understanding of animal psychology. I have relatives who have reached a kind of peace with their golden retriever by realizing that dogs, especially urban dogs kept indoors most of the time, want purposeful activity. They're born to be in relationship with other pack members (whether other dogs or humans) but also to hunt or herd or fetch. It's why collies herd basketballs, why well-fed terriers go crazy over squirrels. It's why this family's golden retriever doesn't destroy things so often now that they hide objects for him to find. Given a challenge, he's a more satisfied creature.

And what are we born to do?

It's clear that desperate goal-driven activity is not fun. Feeling you must work every moment to keep your business afloat, or to put food on the table, or to avoid predators is not a good feeling. And yet a life with no goals makes us bored and frustrated. I've greatly enjoyed my last two weeks of unemployment, but when I first moved to Boston and had been job-hunting for months, I ran out of puttering that I wanted to do. I asked Rick and Suzie to stop cooking dinner so much so that I could have some task to look forward to.

Grad school was too much activity. I'm looking forward to having a job, along with other things to do, that strike the right balance of purpose and relaxation.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Project: vest

Sea-green velveteen: check.
Free afternoon: check.

Temporary unemployment is pretty great.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Thoughts on children and population

So you know I've been thinking about kids. As usual, I'm also thinking about ethics. Some considerations:

- All morality aside, I would prefer to have about two children.

- I used to be unsure about whether most people's lives were worth living. I now think it's pretty likely that they are. Reading the recent World Happiness Report reinforced this belief. Americans are doing pretty well in terms of happiness (though not as well as Danes or Canadians.)

- I expect being born would be better for my potential children than not being born.

- Creating new humans is the worst thing I personally could do for the global environment. All our concerns about paper vs. plastic just vanish in comparison to making a new person. Especially if we live in countries with high consumption/pollution rates.

- The US birth rate is right around replacement rate. But I expect US population to grow due to immigration and a higher birthrate among Latinos. So I'm not worried about a population crash here.

- I realize that parenting ≠ making a baby. After years of considering adopting from foster care, Jeff and I don't think it's for us (at least not with our first child). Those kids have been through the wringer, and I'm not prepared to deal with that 24/7. We haven't seriously looked at international adoption because of the high cost.

- Having kids will not impact the amount of money Jeff and I give away, because Jeff has set aside a portion of his income that can't be given away. On that budget, we can either have a quite comfortable life for two of us or a financially tighter life with kids. There's nothing I would rather spend that money on than kids.

- It kind of boils down to the tragedy of the commons. Adding another person is good for that person, but a little bit bad for everyone else. (With most of the ill effect going to people who already drew the short straw and live near a mud-slide zone in Bangladesh.) The question is, will my kids get more enjoyment out of life than they will take away from other people?

So, some thoughts on what Jeff and I are like and what our kids might be like:

- I estimate our environmental impact to be substantially lower than most Americans' because we live in small spaces, use cars and planes rarely, buy most things used, and don't eat much meat.

- Jeff and I give a good fraction of our income to high-impact charities. I think our contributions in this way (and through being nice people to have around) definitely outweighs our negative impacts.

- Jeff and I are outliers in terms of giving and environmental impact. Our kids will probably regress toward the mean, but I'd be surprised if they make it all the way there. Through a combination of genetics and upbringing, I expect our kids to be somewhere between average and us.

- Average US giving is about 2% of gross income. We do about 30%. I bet we can bump our kids up to maybe 6%. Based on our income, our kids are likely to make somewhere around $70K. That comes out to giving about $4K a year, which would save two lives a year at current rates. I'm hoping current cheap problems like malaria will be solved by the time my kids are grown, but there may be new ones.

- Our kids will probably not come out exactly like my estimate, but I can act in good faith based on what I think is most likely.

What do you think? Are there things I forgot?

Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Project: hula hoops for grownups

A few months ago I saw an amateur circus troupe in Davis Square. There was a woman dancing with a hula hoop, a bigger one than kids use. She let me try it, and it was a lot easier to use than the kid-sized ones. It was heavier, too. She told me you could make them from plastic tubing, and yesterday that's what I did.

Following these instructions, I used 3/4 inc irrigation tubing and connectors. I guess they make special pipe clippers, but I used a hacksaw. I made a fabric tube, which you have to put on before sealing up the ends. I poured about a cup of water in for extra weight. I soaked the ends of the pipe in hot water for about 30 seconds before jamming them onto the connector piece.

It's not as easy to use as I remember hers being. Mine comes up to mid-chest level on me, and I think hers might have been bigger. I have plenty more tubing, so maybe next time I'll try a bigger hoop.

Then Jeff came home and tried using one while standing on the kitchen table, which he will not be doing again.

Monday, May 07, 2012

Why do we love British songs?

Maple Morris gathered in Boston this weekend. Which meant a lot of dancing and a lot of singing. One staple of a Maple weekend is always a jaunty version of “Cornish Lads”:

Cornish lads are fishermen
And Cornish lads are miners too
But when the fish and tin are gone
What are the Cornish boys to do?

Another favorite is “Torn Screen Door”, about the loss of small farms:

They worked their fingers to the bone 
Nothing left they can call their own 
Packed it in under leaden skies 
With just the wheat waving them goodbye

Had a life that they tried to save 
But the banks took it all away 
Hung a sign on a torn screen door:
'Nobody lives here no more.'

It always strikes me as odd that a bunch of young urban Americans and Canadians, nearly all with degrees from expensive colleges, should get together to sing these particular songs. What makes a law student or a business consultant stay up all night singing about the poor economy in Cornwall or rural Ontario?

Sometimes I think it doesn't matter what the songs are about, and we would sing anything as long as it had a chorus with room for a couple of harmony parts. Morris is a hedonistic experience, with hard physical exertion all day and drinking and singing late into the night. There's a lot of hugging, a lot of enjoyment in being around people we love that we don't see often. Harmony singing is the sound of community. And some of it is just really excellent music (seriously, follow that link to “Torn Screen Door”).

But I also think it's because our real lives don't allow for much sentiment. Young urban people embrace irony. It's not cool to take anything too seriously. There is no song about our real lives, about the high cost of apartments in Boston or having to grade biology exams all weekend. The closest I can think of are parodies like White Collar Holler.

But the difficulties of rural life a century earlier, preferably on another continent? Those we can sing about, arms draped around each other.

Of course, the US has a genre about rural life, and about the love of friends and home: country music. When Stephan sang a country ode to

A little bit of chicken fried 
Cold beer on a Friday night

we listened with laughter, despite the fact that it was indeed sung on a Friday night, cold beer in hand. The real hilarity started with the last verse, apparently mandatory in country songs, thanking God for the Stars and Stripes. (To be fair, it was a really terrible verse, especially the line indicating that veterans must die to defend our right to fried foods.) And yet we can sing “Rule Britannia” with something approaching a straight face. Nobody really thinks we love the British navy, but a song that people in our own country take seriously has to be distanced with laughter.

I don't mind the irony, though, if it's a way we can get close to each other.

Thursday, May 03, 2012

Project: clothespin bag

I am done with grad school! Which means I get to spend the next week watching movies and making stuff. Like this clothespin bag.

I made the frame from a coathanger. It's a circle with a rectangle sticking out, and then the rectangle bent double over the back of a chair so it hooks over a clothesline, like so. Except I forgot that clotheslines are pretty high, so this bag hangs too high to comfortably reach into.

If I were doing it over, I would have extended the rectangle by at least a foot so the bag hangs well down below the line. This might have needed a bigger coathanger, or maybe two coathangers.

The bag is basically a cylinder: one rectangle of cloth sewn into a tube, and then a circle of cloth at the bottom. Then I sewed the upper edge of the cylinder to the wire hoop.