Monday, June 30, 2008

Is My Baby Cute? Why, Of Course!

The other night, on a rare occasion on which I was watching the national nightly news, there was a segment in which a reporter tried to determine whether or not his baby was cute. We won’t discuss here what this means for the quality of a half hour news broadcast when this is considered newsworthy. However, I did find it entertaining.

Katie Couric held the man’s baby. In my opinion, the baby was not very cute. He was an average baby who didn’t evince much personality.

So, this reporter goes on the street and shows people a photograph of his baby. Everyone coos, oh how cute! Then he doctors the photo, making the mouth wide, significantly uglifying the baby. The reactions remained the same – cute baby. He then added a brown spot to the baby’s chin and pointed out to people that the baby had a hairy mole. Still, no one said it was ugly.

He took the ugly picture to a priest, who also said only positive things. The reporter asked when it was sinful to say false things about a baby. The priest said only good things could be said about babies, because they are sweet and innocent.

So, in search for an honest opinion, the reporter took the undoctored baby photo to a representative of Wilhemina Models, Kids division. She also began with the platitudes – very nice baby.

“C’mon, be honest,” the reporter said.

“OK.” It didn’t take her long to budge, being a professional judge of baby beauty. “This is a very average baby,” she said. There he had it. Not that there is anything wrong with that. His baby might grow up to be intelligent, kind, gifted or many more important things. Or he might grow up to be a very hot man.

I have also been in the situation of being shown pictures of babies I found distinctly unattractive. However, the parent always thinks their child is cute. And if there is one thing a person cannot say, even in our free society, it’s to tell a parent that their baby is ugly.

How wonderful, I think, that hormones bind a woman so strongly to her child that she finds it beautiful no matter what. What it is that causes the father’s belief in his child’s beauty? Is it the fact that they child may resemble him and he doesn’t want to say boy, those are some ugly features? Or is it the miraculous process of seeing a life formed that causes him to consider it beautiful no matter what it really looks like? Or it is the intense involvement with the child’s life and development, allowing him to judge the beauty of the personality over the appearance?

I admit, there are brief moments in which I think to myself that my child is average looking. They occur when he puts on particular facial expressions or is in certain poses. Even when I have a flash of he-might-be-average thoughts, I still think he’s above average overall (ie. The Prairie Companion).

Most of the time though, I think he’s remarkably cute. My husband is in full agreement. The fact that he’s a smiley, happy baby certainly helps as does the fact that at six months old, he’s already posing for the camera. We can’t imagine that our baby might really be average or, gasp, ugly.

So, in order to be put in our place, we sent a couple of photos to the same modeling agency that the reporter visited. There are two potential outcomes. Either they respond with interest and we are confirmed in our belief in his innate beauty. Or, more likely, they don’t respond. In which case, I’m sure we’ll believe they just failed to recognize his incredible cuteness.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Visit to the Farm

This evening my visit to the farm was a smorgasboard. I filled a bag with arugula, salad mix, a pound of the spindly but fresh broccoli. There was a sign near the broccoli saying that they had cabbage worms. They farm had tried to wash them off, but warned people to be careful when washing. Moving on to the next table, I picked up a bunch of turnips, two of the delicious beets, rainbow swiss chard with bright yellow stems, a head each of escarole and lettuce.

Then it was on to the pick-your-own options, the first time I was able to do that. I got to pick one box full of fresh peas and 10 stalks of black-eyed susan flowers. I walked amidst the rows of peas, immersed in the wild growth of the plants, the little white flowers and the long, green peas that occasionally appeared like a half moon in the evening sky. I snacked as I walked, enjoying the crunchy sweetness of vegetables right off the vine as I breathed in the scent of compost and thick vegetation.

Then I strolled alongside the patch of black eyed susans. Some of them opened with confidence, like suns with a black fireball at the center. Others still had their petals wrapped up, hesitantly beginning the process of unfolding. I gathered a bunch to place on the table at home, bringing the colors of sun into our house even after it has set.

I’m really going to have to ramp up my consumption of salads this week. I’ve been eating one a day, but it looks like I’ll have to go to two. I’ll also have to decide what to do with the broccoli and the swiss chard. I’m considered a chicken and swiss chard enchilada recipe I came across. And maybe some broccoli soup or chicken broccoli stirfry.

The Vegetable Season Begins

Coming back from Panama, I found the following vegetables received from our farm share:

Collard greens
Swiss chard

What fun. Some of them – such as turnips, collard greens and swiss chard, I’d never prepared before. I gave the radishes away. The turnips were boiled and mashed with cumin and given to River for a couple of meals. He also ate some beets and some beet greens.

On my first day back, I made a recipe with collard greens, turkey and black-eyed peas. Before adding the cayenne pepper, I took out a portion for River, blended it, and gave it to him for a meal. He loved it.

I had a salad made with the fresh lettuce and steamed the thin, misshapen, but tasty broccoli, topped with melted cheese, salt and pepper, for dinner.

It’s so much fun to have a variety of fresh ingredients to play with each week. It’s even better to be able to cook things for myself and feed the same fresh, organic, healthy food to my baby. I’m loving the contact with the farm.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Godsends When Traveling with Children

The first are cultures that value and care for children. Panama would be a good example. There, you can rest assured that the staff will do whatever is in their power to make the trip easier on the younger ones. They don’t blame parents for a child being upset, but try to find out the cause and help as they can.

The second are other mothers. Only they know what it’s like to have to deal with the demands of travels, one’s own needs, and the needs of another. They seem to know exactly what another mother needs. One woman in the Atlanta airport offered to help me put on my baby carrier, then she offered to watch my bags while I went to get something to eat so I wouldn’t have to carry them. Later, she told me she has a two-year old.

Thank you to all those out there who instead of rolling their eyes at the crying infant or child in the airport/plane/bus/terminal/train, reach out and offer a hand.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Comfortable Travel with Baby

There are only two main streets in the town of Boquete, so it doesn’t take long to figure out the lay of the land or two explore it. My days began to take on a routine this week, as I rejected the many tourist trip packages on offer and instead enjoyed the life on offer here. I’d study in the morning, do a bit of work, go home to feed baby and spend a little time with him, find a new place to have lunch, and spend my afternoons with a combination of working and observing my environment.

Each day I notice something new. The brilliant green that surrounds me is the same – from the green grass along the sidewalks to the forested mountains spread out in every direction. But the view changes with the weather – the fog, the mist, the sun, the rain – changing the background and shading.

Every day I notice a new bird or flower – the dark purple and violet bougainvilleas, the lilies, the numerous tropical flowers that have names unknown to me, but call out with bright orange, pink, red, yellow petals. I spend an afternoon on the covered patio of a strawberry cafĂ©, where the owner carefully painted the tables and all the walls with vines of ripe strawberries atop a cheery yellow background. I see a young girl turning herself into circles until she’s so dizzy she almost falls over.

I hail a public bus, which is a school bus with the same green vinyl seats of memory. But this time I’m sitting next to nuns, the driver has put a black and white check pattern over his steering wheel, and a bright green boa surrounds the rearview mirror. I can take my baby to Havana Blues, showing at the school, and walk back home with him asleep in his backpack. I feel safe here, the people are kind, and the pleasant feeling is only reinforced by the color and life of the nature that surrounds us.

Por Los Ninos

After a Spanish lesson in the morning during my stay in Boquete, Panama, I decided to visit Hogar Triskar, a local orphanage, as part of the Por Los Ninos volunteer program. Volunteers, mostly expatriates who live here, come to the orphanage twice a week to spend quality individual time with the children.

It was clear they needed it. They call the foreign volunteers tia or auntie. And an entire crowd of outstretched arms greets them – wanting to be hugged, to be picked up, to be recognized as special.

The playroom had small stuffed animals hanging by threads from the ceiling. I picked up one child and lifted her high enough to touch one of the animals. She loved it. Then another wanted to do the same thing, and another, and another. Then the first wanted to go again. The same thing happened when I gave them horsey back rides. It’s so hard to say no to them, but it’s also not realistic to continually lift about ten kids time and time again. I knew their lives were full of taking turns and of hearing no, so I did my best, but I felt it wasn’t good enough.

My Spanish teacher Margarita had told me that people brought their children there when they were unable to care for them. My host mother Lorena said no, it was crazy women who didn’t want their children any more and gave them up, even when they were still tiny.

I found few small babies there. The youngest was six months old. There were 52 children living there at the moment, but that number seems to fluctuate. The saddest sight was two young girls, 12 and 14 years old, caring for their babies. They had been rejected by their families upon becoming pregnant, so both they and their offspring are being raised in the orphanage.

My 27-year-old host sister, Magdalena, told me that teenage pregnancy is very common. Her own brother had a baby with a 17 year old girl. Abortion is illegal and Magdalena said the social system doesn’t prepare girls. “They don’t receive any sex education,” she said. I could only imagine what their boyfriends or their abusers told them and how easily it would probably be believed. For them to subsequently have no remedy, when they are just children who were probably taken advantage of, I find really horrible.

Compared with other orphanages I’ve visited, the material conditions here were pretty good. The beds looked neat and clean, they had a variety of toys, effort had gone into decorating the room. They wore decent clothing.

But it was clear that some had suffered abuse, like the little boy who stood off to the side. I approached him gingerly, pick him up, paid some attention to him. He smiled, but hesitantly, as though afraid this nice moment would suddenly turn bad. And there was the 10-month old girl, who seemed to look out at the world with a dull stare.

Most of them just lacked the love and security provided by parents, the ability to feel unique and special in the eyes of another. It was clear the foreign residents had done a lot to help. My host father Francisco said the residents of Valle Escondido, one of the exclusive developments, were paying the salaries of some local staff to work full-time at the orphanage. And these volunteers came to try to meet the children’s need for attention, if only partially.

This evening, River lay in my lap, swaddled like a green bean, drinking milk from my breast. As I sang him one of his favorite songs in the cool evening breeze, he looked up and smiled, happy, before going back to his milk. He fell asleep tight, secure and loved. I believe that every child deserves to go to bed that way each night, not to climb into bed next to 20 others, but to feel the comfort of an adult’s arms and the peace of a song sung especially for them.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Mom hikes the cloudforest

Yesterday I took a long hike through the cloudforest, a 12-kilometer mostly uphill trek between Boquete and Cerro Punta. The Sendero de los Quetzales, or Quetzal Trail, was the first trail made by the indigenous inhabitants of this region and was used to facilitate trade between these two towns. It runs along one side of the Baru volcano (the only active volcano out of 64 in Panama – one of its three craters is active). It’s also supposed to be a place where one has a good chance of seeing the quetzal bird. According to our guide Alvaro, this bird is one of the most beautiful in the world.

The area was beautiful, with all kinds of mushrooms, ferns, plants and flowers growing alongside the trail. The thick forest surrounded us with vines, ferns and trees, some new growth, others remants from the primal forest. As we walked, the sound of various bird calls rang through the silence and we breathed in the scent of decomposition and fresh moss.

I’m sure the forest contained all kinds of treasures. Most unfortunately, our guide didn’t seem to be familiar with them at all. He clearly wasn’t an avid birder and didn’t even know how to use the binoculars someone lent him. So while he pointed out a few things to us, I know we passed by a lot of the forest’s secrets. And we didn’t see a quetzal, though we heard their calls.

The trail was fairly difficult. Much of it was uphill. And while there were stairs in some places, they weren’t in very good conditions. Some had rotted out, requiring large steps upward. That, plus the gain in elevation, eventually became very tiring. Just as we reached the halfway point, at 2200 meters, I began to wheeze.

Luckily, some rest, some juice, and the guide slowing down the pace helped. I felt a light pounding in my head, which I associate with altitude, but it wasn’t too bad and felt better during the rest of the way. I did stop then to pump – my first time pumping in a cloudforest.

A beautiful view greeted us at the end – bushes flush with white flowers with purple-shaded centers, which Alvaro said were called novios (or couples). Their scent perfumed the air. Up upon a hill stood a statue of a virgin. And we could look out over the agricultural valley and down into the town of Cerro Punta.

The start of the hike wasn’t too far from Boquete. And we only hiked 12 kilometers. So both the other woman on the tour and I were surprised when the return trip was well over an hour, through the town of David. Apparently, because of the national park, there is no direct road. The need for the trail to facilitate trade became much more apparent.

Coming down from the mountain, we passed a bunch of stands selling strawberries, which grow here year round. I bought a dish of strawberries with cream (a very sweet sticky cream) for a dollars, as well as strawberry bread, homemade granola, and from a neighboring vegetable stand, plump orange carrots and top-like magenta beets. They were also selling a variety of fresh honey and jams made from the various local fruits, including tomatoes.

I was so exhausted in the evening, both from the hike and from the fact that River has been waking up repeatedly at night that I didn’t do much besides care for River, go to bed, then get up throughout the night to feed him. The family took care of him while I was gone. When I returned, he was grinning and they were enchanted with him. They are babysitting today as well, for the first time giving me the chance to get some work done and stroll through the town.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Baby attends a Panamanian political rally

We’ve arrived in Boquete, Panama and so far it seems to be as wonderful as it seemed to be from my research. Yesterday was a long day. Our scheduled flight had maintenance problems, so we had to wait another five hours until they could bring another plane. That basically meant spending the entire day at the airport, which was hard on poor River, and hard for me too since I had to occupy all my time caring for him.

The airport at David was tiny and entry easy. We purchased tourist cards right there for $5 each. Behind the immigration officials hung a poster with a man jumping off of a train. A sign nearby said “Border 10 kms.” A man in a wheelchair, missing both of his lower legs, was pictured in the bottom right. The poster said that it’s not worth it, the cost can be higher than one expects.

The school where I am studying in Boquete, Habla Ya, arranged for a taxi to meet us at the airport and it was there as scheduled. He took us right to our host family’s home. It was already dark, so I couldn’t see much during the 45 minute drive. I did notice however the excellent condition of the roads, the $4.40 per gallon price of gas, and the presence of many American businesses in David, including Blockbuster Video, TGI Fridays, McDonalds and Pizza Hut.

It was almost 8 p.m. when we arrived at the home of Lorena and Ronaldo, but they welcomed us in warmly. River made the same impression he’s made on everyone here. They call him a doll and frequently ask to hold him. People will stop on the street and comment on how cute he is, sales staff will congregate around us, and the staff at our hotel in San Jose took turns – first the cook took him for a walk, then the receptionists continued their work while holding River.

Lorena introduced me to her son Ronaldo and her grandson Ronaldo. That makes it easy to remember. Her daughter Magdalena lives and works in David. She’ll be on vacation this week and will be coming here tomorrow.

The house is neat and comfortable. There are little houses hanging on the wall in the hallway, butterflies hanging on the walls around the dining area, and little plastic flowers safety pinned to the sheer curtain in our bedroom. Our bed faces a cabinet stuffed to the brim with stuffed animals. It’s a one story house with a TV room, a living room, a kitchen and a dining area, going from front to back. Doors along the sides lead to one bathroom and four bedrooms.

It seemed hot to me when we arrived and at first I worried about the lack of a fan. But the night air soon cooled and we slept with a blanket.

River was in rough shape from the long trip and for the first time I wondered whether I was harming him by exposing him to so much travel and activity. I tried to eat the meal Lorena left for me – chicken, mashed potatoes and a beef soup, but River became anxious at the sight of food. When I offered him a bite of the soup he smiled and slurped down quite a bit more.

In the morning, after breakfast, Lorena took me in their silver SUV to visit the director of the school. I confirmed when my classes would be and learned about the various activities offered. We continued on to a neighboring town up the hill, called Las Naranjas or “the oranges.” There we paid a short visit to her parents. The 74-year-old mother and 90-year-old father had raised four children in the same house where they now live.

The town is beautiful. Just outside the door of our house is a gorgeous panorama of dense, green, tropical forested mountains. There are many rivers and creeks running through the landscape. There seems to be a nice selection of shops and places to eat, as well as gardens and coffee plantations. I hope I’ll have time to explore it all. But to be honest, there seems to be so much to do and so little time. I’d imagined having time to relax and to get some work done, but I doubt I’ll be able to resist all the temptations to explore.

In the late afternoon we drove with Lorena, Ronaldo and Lorena’s mother back to David, where we were going to watch their daughter Magdalena perform in a folklore dance group. Magdalena danced as a child, but took it up again only this past October.

The performance started at 3, so I thought we’d leave around two. But instead we departed at 10:45. We first went to Magdalena’s house, a small but pleasant house that belonged to her grandmother. Magdalena was still at work, but her parents had keys and let themselves in.

It’s amazing the difference that a 45 minute drive can make. While Boquete is cool and comfortable, the sun emitting a pleasant warmth, the lower altitude David is swelteringly hot year round. It was the type of heat that makes you feel naked because your clothes stick to you as though they were just another layer of skin. Poor River was suffering. Even though they put two fans in the room where he would take a nap, it took me most of our time there to put him down.

Magdalena came home from work and she looked like the photos Lorena displays on her table – a pretty woman in her 20s with heavy makeup, a bright smile and a long, narrow nose. Her attention to appearance makes her look a bit like a doll, which is funny because so many people refer to River as a doll and she’ll be helping to care for him.

From her house, we went to someone else’s house where the group was preparing. Today they were wearing one of their more basic costumes, not the “deluxe” one, but it still seemed pretty elaborate to me. The girls attached long braids to their hair, they all wore heavy makeup and white ornamental pieces on either side of their hair. They wore white shirts and each woman had a long, colorful skirt. When they held their arms out to either side the skirt rose, looking like a fan. The men wore black pants and matching button, down shirts.

This house had a tree in front, which made it much cooler and more comfortable than Magdalena’s. We sat on the patio and watched them practice. When we’d arrived, the musicians in the group were practicing their music, imbuing the air with a festive spirit

I didn’t realize until we got there that the performance was going to be at a political rally, but that made it all the more interesting. The rally was for candidate Juan Carlos Navarro. The elections aren’t until 2009, but the contest is apparently already underway. Lorena told me there are a lot of candidates. She said she thinks this one is the best though and thinks he has a good chance.

I asked what she liked about him and she said he was well prepared because had studied at Harvard. I asked what he believed in, what he proposed to do. She wasn’t very precise, but said that he would continue the policies of the current President, who had helped the poor people with housing.

At the rally, quite a few people wore red, white and blue shirts. A group of youth waved matching flags and posters were hung along the faces. A promoter with a big white smile kept things going. When a woman pictured on the poster with Navarro (she wants to be the representative from this region) appeared and a video camera taped, the promoter indicated (out of sight of the video camera) for everyone to stand up and clap.

They started out with two teenage boys and one girl, dressed in jeans and t-shirts, doing very mediocre pop dances. Someone handed out free juice drink boxes to the people in the audience, who were seated under an awning to escape the drizzle. Then the folkloric group came on and they did a good job. But a young man with jeans falling down below his underwear stole the attention of much of the audience by dancing while he waved the Navarro flag.

River watched, especially entranced by the colorful skirts of the folkloric dancers. He and I were the only gringos in the audience. Our strange appearance probably augmented in oddity when I breastfed him. But it was an interesting slice of local life that I was grateful to witness. And it inspired me to look up what’s going on in Panamanian politics.

Friday, June 13, 2008

People love babies in San Jose

The hotel staff at the Adventure Inn in San Jose, Costa Rica continue on with their work while holding River.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Costa Rica with Baby

I spent today seeing some of Costa Rica by bus. Not my favorite way to travel, but it was better than the other option I was considering – hanging out in the hotel for the day.

The tour bus picked us up at our hotel, took us around and returned us back to the hotel. With one exception, most of the meals and the opportunities to buy things were at large developments, owned by people who already have a lot of money. Only the final stop, a small shop at the end of a boat ride, was owned by locals. I bought my water there. We’ll be leaving for Panama tomorrow and never walked outside of our hotel (not much reason to, it’s just a freeway outside) or changed any money. Dollars are accepted easily here.

We traveled with a group of about 20 tourists, all of whom were picked up from their hotels on the outskirts of the city. Several were attending an epidemiological conference. Quite a few were taking several of these day trips. Despite having quite a bit of time in country, they preferred to see things from the comfort of a bus, then return to a comfortable hotel in San Jose than to spend more time in other areas of the country. I suppose one can see more that way, but I think the level of understanding is less. I wished for the opportunity to talk to the local residents and thought if I had more time, I’d head right for a small town.

We saw a nice variety of things – a coffee estate, a wildlife and waterfall garden, the Poas volcano crater and a boat ride down the Sarapiqui river. My favorite part was the volcano. The crater was one mile wide, with a lagoon within it and white smoke emerging from fumaroles. It was raining when we arrived and we had to walk ten minutes in the rain to arrive. I was carrying River in a front carrier and using an umbrella. I couldn’t believe how well he held up, even laughing when we arrived.

The La Paz Waterfall Garden is a man-man tourism center, constructed by its very wealthy owner. It is well designed though and offers visitors the opportunity to see many birds, butterflies, snakes, monkeys and frogs at very close range. It’s a very good place for families to visit.

They told us when we entered that we should remove any earrings. One woman in our group didn’t listen though and a bird grabbed her earring right out of her ear, then returned to its post to eat it. Even River, at six months old, seemed to enjoy the indoor butterfly sanctuary, with the colorful creatures flying in front of him, and the area where the hummingbirds gathered at feeders, darting around us like little high-powered bees.

The series of waterfalls are of courser natural. The owner purchased the land and made it into a private reserve. He also constructed a series of walkways and stairs (1600 of them, mostly heading downhill) that make it easy to descend the series of waterfalls and get very close to the powerful sprays.

The river trip was short, but relaxing and full of wildlife, In and near the olive-colored water we saw an iguana in a treetop, monkeys, a caiman, an aninga bird, and long nosed bats, small bats that look like butterflies or moths and perch upon wood and rocks on the river’s edge.

River was amazingly well behaved and captured the hearts of many on the bus. They couldn’t believe how happy and content he was and seemed amazed when I said he was usually like that. I said we lucked out that he was born that way; But a woman from Spain, upon seeing me changing him on a stone table and River laying calmly on the hard surface, thought the way the parents acted had some effect. “A lot of people wouldn’t even come on a trip like this,” she said, “because they think they need so much stuff or that their child must eat or sleep at certain times. You seem to have gotten him used to adapting.” Maybe, or maybe he was just born a great traveler. In any case, I’m proud of him and grateful to have a companion.

We didn’t bring a stroller on this trip, since I could only carry so much on my own. Without a stroller, swing, jumper or bouncy seat, I’m holding or carrying him the vast majority of the day. That can get tiring, however, the Ergo baby carrier is working very well.. River is content in there and it’s quite comfortable for me and leaves me with two hands free.