Monday, December 27, 2010

My friends Scheherazade and Ana-Maria

There are some people you meet in life you just know will be remarkable from the start.  To be part of their lives, though on the periphery, has been a powerful joy and delight for me.   Soon I'll be seeing them again. Would you like to meet them too?  See below...

Ana-Maria was a Dutch volunteer working with the same organization in Ecuador when we met her in the mid '90's.  She was coming down a set of office stairs when I first spotted her and she greeted me with open arms, like she knew we'd be friends for decades.  I was instantly drawn to her take-charge style and boisterous humour.  When Rob and I were struggling in Guayaquil (once referred to as the ugliest and most dangerous city in South America) and about to pack the whole adventure in, she found us an adobe house over a river in what was to become the most beautiful city in the world for me - Cuenca, where she was living.  This move extended our stay for a few more years, and they were by far, the richest.  I cried when we left there.

When we moved back to the Yukon, Ana-Maria came for an extended visit to sort out what was next for her.  She'd been unable to fit in again to her regular life back in Holland.  Like us, it felt like everything had been changed forever.  After two months, she made a declaration from our hammock in the living room (which was our only piece of furniture in Cuenca), "I had to come to the Yukon to find out that my life will be in Guatemala."  And off she went, to quite her job, to sell her house and all her assets, to fund this primal urge.  It must have been the ultimate test to be stranded for a stint at the Amsterdam airport, leaving everything she knew for certain behind, about to launch into a fresh new adventure, on September 11, 2001.  "Didn't you feel like it was a sign to go back? Weren't you afraid to go on?  You were in limbo, there was so much uncertainly!" I asked.  "No, to me it was confirmation that I was doing exactly the right thing."  This sums up Ana-Maria quite well.

I first met Scheherazade/Arlaine in Antigua, on a cobbled stone street.  She was limping mildly and her head was bent in serious concentration.  When she spotted Ana-Maria and I approaching her, her face burst open with stories of her recent fall and her determined ideas about life.  I took notice of her unusual spirit right away.  Arlaine once described herself as a starlet when she was young but the course of her life was altered by the reform school she was sent to.  I'm not exactly sure what a starlet is but I know it involves poise and presence, which is still vibrantly visible.  As was true of Scheherazade, Alaine's stories shaped who she is today.  During my month in Guatemala I watched these two amazing women formulating and creating their new existence there, each with their individual projects in mind, going forward.

Several years later, while recuperating from surgery (on a futon Rob had cobbled together for me out of logs punched out of the guest cabin windows), I got a call from Ana-Maria and Arlaine.  They were on a white beach in Mexico thinking and scheming with me in mind.  Would I be interested in spending a winter in La Paz, running Arlaine's small inn while she concentrated on the building of her project in Guatemala? Well, let me think about that...  A few months later Arlaine picked me up in L.A. and like it was perfectly normal, we drove down the Baja road, fueled on tuna salad and many more stories.

Arlaine's latest update:  
Arlaine's website:


Sunday, December 12, 2010

Philanthropy 101

True confession: I've always wanted to be a philanthropist when I grow up.  It's a laughable idea considering the state of my finances but is it strictly related to money?  "Love of mankind," reads my mini dictionary.  In this way I'd agree that my curiosity of people in general has been approached with love, openness and wonder.  It's an intrigue to be part of peoples lives for a while to discover their secrets to unbridled joy in the midst of so little.  While we seem to suffer under a pile of stuff that remains to be edited, continuing to accumulate mindlessly, so caught up in the constant distractions of our culture.

Recent thoughts on philanthropy brought me to the back of my closet to unearth a custom made sweater from a woman's co-op in Ecuador, that I never wore.  This was the stage in my life, my mid 30's, when Rob and I first got together as a writer/photographer team in South America.  Part of our job for this child sponsorship organization was to visit projects that had been supported by doners in 14 countries from Australia, North America, Japan and Europe.  We were their eyes and hearts for a while, which gave us the honour to be the guests of many villages and to be welcomed to their inner circles.  This particular woman's group was typical in that they gathered regularly to create and keep the operation going while their leader, always a man, was away to work in the states.  In the vast remote mountain area of Bolivar, this group sat perched on a precipice, chatting, laughing at us, and with us, wearing their specific hats identifying their indigenous group and their status within it.  It had seemed to us that the women were responsible for keeping the culture alive with their traditional dress, while the men had to leave in flocks for economic reasons.  These women made the best of it.

As specified, the sweater has trees all over it, purple ones with grey fruit and red falling snow.  I've decided to give it away as part of my personal wealth; it's time to let go and be selective of the stuff I choose to hang on to.  I want to act locally as well as globally.  Though few people in my life would appreciate such a quirky and precious item, so loaded with history, who would also be the right size.  For a week now, I've been packing the bag around waiting to encounter one of my favorite young women at our local cafe.  Here's a funny thing, the recipient of my philanthropy seems to be missing in action.