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Monday, July 9, 2018

Russell



It is Sunday night 8 pm. The doorbell rings and Joanna and I both are running down the stairs to see who it is. Our hearts feel like they want to jump out of our chests, our minds are rushing; the thoughts are chasing each other with the speed of light inside our skulls. We do not look at each other, we do not stop on our way down, yet we both know that we both think it must be Russell. Who else would ring the bell on Sunday at 8 pm, unannounced. The feeling is eerie, just as the empty porch is, as we stumble down to open the door. It cannot be Russell, Russell is dead. We received the news barely 24 hours ago.

I met Russell about 10 years ago. We were at a party and I was followed by this strange looking funnily dressed man all night, at least it felt like it. He popped up from seemingly nowhere every time I wanted to pour myself a glass of grapefruit juice. He grabbed the jar out of my hand and poured the liquid into my glass himself. WTF? Am I drinking too much of the precious juice? Does he think I will spill it on the carpet? It is not even his house! Then we were all ushered out to the balcony, about 20-25 of us. The funny little guy was outside on the other side of the parking lot downstairs, camera in hand barking us instructions: move to the right, to the left, squat down, look left, stop talking, stop breathing… And 5 minutes later we were allowed to talk and breathe. And days later I received a picture of the highest quality, everybody’s face showing, smiling, making everybody looking better than in real life. Years later I asked Russell, what was the deal with the grapefruit juice. He just smiled mysteriously shaking his head never revealing a thing.

Friday night dinners:







Then it all started. We met for dinner every Friday night for ten years. Russell and his friends, who in turn became my friends as well. The weekend was unimaginable without this. Our American born friend, the soul of our party gathered us together; a loud, sometimes obnoxious group of people from all around the world to have ethnic food.  In the beginning we ate at different restaurants of which he had tested during the previous week. Later we ate more often at our house. He was the decider, sometimes stubbornly overruling our requests for the type of food we wanted. He was the one who picked up the food sometimes spending hours in line waiting for it but never complaining. He delivered the food.  And if he was late, we were pissed and we complained, knowing perfectly well that he was doing his best. Did we ever thank him enough?

Shaking hands:


Russell enters a room full of people. He goes to everybody and shakes hands, man or woman – he was not the hugging type, but he never missed a hand. There is one exception: he greets the dogs first. Sits down on the floor and plays with them for a minute or two. Gets down to their levels literally and figuratively. He loved dogs and people as much as he loved life itself. But he also shook hands with the people who served us at the restaurants, the waiters, the owners, the busboys. He sought out the cooks. He thanked them for what they did. He just felt that it should be done, to show appreciation and respect. The night before he died we were out having dinner at Baladi’s. We all enjoyed ourselves and after paying we set out to leave. Not Russell, he walked up to the owner, shook his hand and chatted with him for a while. He praised the food and the dessert. In other words, he was Russell.

Culturally insensitive:


Our inside joke about Russell. Yes Russell you were culturally insensitive. For people who knew him it was really funny, because he was anything but insensitive. He cared and felt for people. He studied and read about different cultures, religions and political views in order to understand them. But he asked questions that nobody dared to ask. Yet he listened to the answer! How many times did we hear him saying: “I am listening.” Through him we got to know each other much better. During dinner out of the blue he asked, so how was your typical day when you were 16 in Leningrad, (St. Petersburg), Russia? How was your childhood in Finland? What did you do as a child in Colombia? And indeed, isn’t it important to get to know a person well? And isn’t it important to know how one grew up what one’s dreams and circumstances were early in life?

And for us he sometimes was annoying because he was able to like people who had totally the opposite view of life, of politics, of religion than ours. He wanted to listen to them. He saw the good in them. I am not sure how he did it but he did. He could never be angry with anybody or with anything or at least it seemed. We waited at a restaurant for 90 (ninety) minutes for our order to learn that they did not have what we ordered. Russell did not raise an eyebrow. He was just as patient and kind as ever. It annoyed me, in fact it pissed me off. I guess I should have learnt from him. He knew how to be happy and how to make others happy. No, he was not insensitive culturally or otherwise.

Mensch:


The computer broke. Call Russell.

Need a ride at the wee hours of the morning or a pick-up at the airport at midnight? Call Russell.

Need to go shopping and need a ride because you don’t have a car or because you just don’t feel like driving? Call Russell.

Need advice about car repair? Call Russell.

Are you moving to a nearby town and need somebody to drive a U-Haul? Call Russell.

And yes, Russell would come, fix your computer, drive you to the end of the world or pick you up from hell, fix your car or move all your stuff. And never, but never asked or expected anything in return. He was the true embodiment of altruism. And we took advantage of him. I think most of us did, I know I did. Did I thank him enough? I doubt it.  But even if I did, he would have just smiled and shrugged. Because I am convinced that his life was to help others. He did it because that is what he loved. And that is why we loved him so much. I am a grown-up man and I have tears in my eyes as I type this. He was what we call a MENSCH!

And we, the ungrateful friends, were mad at him when he did not answer the phone.  Which happened often. But maybe, just maybe, he did not answer because he was busy helping somebody else. Or was talking to somebody and felt it would be rude to interrupt his conversation by answering the phone. He was for years planning to write a book titled the Rules of Conversation. If he had written it maybe we would know the answer.

We were annoyed ( but at the same time giggled) when he made us all cram into a 2x2 space pretending it was some kind of a transportation device he was inventing in order to save energy and make the world better.

One of us got really mad at him when he did not show up in time to take her to her naturalization interview. He forgot because he ran into two previously unknown Guatemalans who needed help. Could we really be mad at him? Or was it just fun for us to complain about him when deep down we knew how lucky we were to have met him, to call him our friend.

How can we go on without him, was one of the first thoughts we all had. Some of us just thought that, some of us voiced it loud. Was it really selfish? Perhaps, but it is true. None of us knows how we can go on, or rather all of us know that the world will never be the same without him.  Our lives will never be the same. We took him for granted.

Russell lived in the present, his laugh was heartfelt and contagious. He sometimes was so amused that he clapped like a child. That is why he was so endearing. He had the naiveté, the innocence of a child. Yet he probably was smarter and a deeper thinker than most of us.



The silliness of Russell was contagious

 







Russell lived in the present.  He never considered himself or his own future. He was stubborn, he ignored his own health. And he managed to make us mad even in his death. We all ask why he could not take care of himself? And we all know the answer, because everybody else was more important. We all feel guilty, why could not we take care of him???

We will go on, we will have our Friday dinners. I hope that we learnt a tiny bit from him, how to pay attention to each other, how to listen, how to help others, how to be better human beings. I know I can never be like him.  Not sure anybody can. But maybe a touch better. I know he left the world a better place.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

COLOMBIA PART 3




 Another year and another trip to Colombia. By now I would have thought I know something about the country, but I guess we are still only just scratching the surface. It is a large country offering tremendous variety of cultures and endless beauty in landscapes from high mountains to rain forests and tropical beaches. I will try to describe our trip for those of you who are interested, but mostly for myself so I could relive again the fantastic times we were gifted by Emilia, Julia and Hernando and his family.
Transportation in Colombia:
You can fly, you can drive – not that I advise that - you can have somebody local drive you, you can take a cab, a bike, ride a horse or a motor bike, or take the bus. Taking boats – not so much.
We flew to Bogotá arriving around 11 pm. Took a cab, with the comforting knowledge that Emilia knows the ropes and we will not be ripped off. Well, she was so excited to see us that she forgot to check if the driver turned on the meter – in Bogotá they actually have meters in the taxis. In a couple of minutes into our trip she realized her lack of vigilance and asked the driver how much the ride would be. He jovially told us a price that was about double of the normal fare. That was the point where my almost nonexistent Spanish knowledge proved to be useless on the one hand and on the other; totally unnecessary. From the rising volume of the conversation I gathered that a serious argument was unfolding in which the word “police” was frequently mentioned.


Driver: Tranquila, this is the fare because I picked you up at the international terminal. (He had a point, it was about 10 feet further than the domestic!)
Emilia: It makes no difference, I have taken cabs from the airport a million times and the fare was about half of this. I am not paying this are you taking me for a gringo?
Driver: Tranquila Señora, I will not call the police!
Emilia: But I will!!!
 
We did end up paying a bit more than the normal fare, but she did win a major battle.  Day one lesson, do not get in the cab without checking the meter or negotiating the price first.
 
And the actual traffic: It’s like nobody cares about his or her own life or for anybody else’s for that matter. 
Cars won’t stop for each other, whoever is pushing the hardest will win. Cars won’t stop for pedestrians, neither will the pedestrians for the cars.  Cars expect the pedestrians to jump out of the way the pedestrians expect the cars to stop. And the miracle, nobody gets hurt.
There are motorbikes and cabs everywhere. 




Buses in all colors, all sizes. They come all the time!

Flag them down,ask them to stop wherever you want to get off!

 



Buses come in all sizes and colors. Plus the chivas! 
And horses and donkeys. That is in a nutshell.
 
                                                 
Chiva in real life at Julia’s finka. 



and the chiva we did not see




We tried this one-man-cab last time, and I felt bad all the time while the poor man had to peddle and pull the weight of my slender body!
































Ah the motos! Scary and scary! Did I say scary? Well they are! And fearless. Once I saw five people riding on one tiny moto. They think they own the road!













Horses were everywhere in Solento!


























 And now the trip:

Bogotá and the hotel was kind of a coming home for us. Emilia took on the impossible task of trying to teach us Spanish. It was a lot of fun - not so sure if we gave her any feeling of accomplishment though. But in truth it did help us to navigate around tremendously! So with the little we picked up we got out of Dodge and found our way to Medellin!
I have known for a long time that you can learn about and get to know a country and enjoy your stay there a million times more if you have locals to show you around. And we did have fantastic guides and hosts, a "transplant",  Emilia and a native, Julia and her family.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 Our first meal in Medellin with Julia's parents at a restaurant! Only a native can find a place like this. It was beautiful, rustic and the food was fantastic. Only the company was better.
 

The plate mat at the restaurant.
Those of you who speak Spanish can enjoy a joke with the words on top. (I wont even attempt to translate), but the rest roughly reads:
 
The man who eats a lot must be a good person because in order to eat a lot a good digestion system is needed, and good digestion depends on having a good consciousness.





 We stayed with a wonderful family that took us in like we belonged to them!
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
We went and stayed at their finka! And we have a real feel for the beauty of the mountains that surround Medellin. Or rather that covers most of the terrain of the country!
 


This is what you see when you walk around the finka or when you drive around in Colombia!

 
 Of course these are only IPhone pictures and it is only a poor teaser of the real beauty and tranquility of the countryside that surrounds you for miles and miles.
Except when you see a large potato field in the middle of the forests on the hillside. A soar to the eye. Then you find out, that it used to be the hiding place of the paramilitary and there was no other way to smoke them out of there than actually destroying the woods in which they were hiding.
And the hardships of the people that had to be endured  is unthinkable! And it is always the poor who suffers the most!


On our way back to Medellin we enjoyed the view!
We stopped for the best Limonade de Coco. Well, come to think of it, the Limonade was on our way to the finka, but who cares.

 Then came the feared bus ride. I guess for people under 5'2" or so is impossible to understand the harsh life of tall people blessed by long legs. The shorties can curl up in the smallest little niche in the wall and feel comfortable. I, on the other hand, suffer three times; first the fear of having to spend my time in the pallets, then spending my time in the pallets and keeping quite, for nobody likes a whiner, then for the third time when I am actually let out of my confinement and try to unfold my crushed limbs and restart my blood circulation. In any case we booked our tickets on buses that were more comfortable than planes, had air conditioning, reclining chairs and some unavoidable horror movies on display with uncontrolled sound effects coupled with the constant low volume of music coming from a centralized source and occasionally from some unruly passengers' phones. So, in other words it was fun and typical of the country. On some other occasions, on local buses, we have entertainers jumping on for a couple of stops along with vendors selling goodies or fellow traveler having  carton boxes on their laps with holes cut out for the chickens to stick out their heads to enjoy the view.
The trip to Solento took us about 7 hours instead of the scheduled 5 and a half, but we arrived in one piece and happy.

Our hostel is shown on the left, the room had two twin beds and a bunk bed. It was great fun, clean and quite after 10:30, no earplug necessary to sleep. And they rented boots, even had a European size 45! And we needed those as you will see! 
and the streets of Solento

We were to go up the mountains in the morning donning our boots, that were not up to snuff, I mean not up Nokia standards, but I could not care less, they were boots that fit! We were supposed to take a jeep to the foot of the mountains, and of course they were trying to cram as many of us in one of the jeeps as they could. Again, tall people's misery! Well, I opted to stand on the back of the jeep, risking my life for the first but not for the last time of that day.
 
That is me hanging on to dear life and trying to take a selfie at the same time while the crazy driver is negotiating a curva peligrosa and I am saying a kurva anyád to the driver under my breath. (I let you all find the translations from Spanish and/or from Hungarian). 
And if that had not been enough, my climbing mates gentle pushing made me agree to saddle up and go up to the mountain on the back of a horse. Mind you, I have never been on a horse before. No helmets, no instructions, no nothing. But they took our passport numbers! I guess they needed them in case they need to send back the corpses to the US. And for sure no mentioning of the steep and narrow passages, the crossing of wild mountain streams with rushing water up to the horses belly.
through the streams

in the saddle

on the way
 
Off we came from the horses, all without a scratch. And then we had to cross another stream!
We are now up to god knows how high and somebody sucked out all the oxygen from the air. At least from the air I was trying to breath in! I think it was only the air around me that lacked the necessary amount of oxygen because nobody else seemed to have a problem. Grasping for air I made it up to the hummingbirds sanctuary. All colors and shapes they flew around or just helicoptered in the air!
And more to go up! I had to stop just about every minute - I could have blamed the view, that it was so fantastic that I just had to stop, but in reality I could not see anything except the steep path I had to climb. But it was all worth it a thousand times. We got to see the valley of the giant palms! Majestic.
on top of the mountain

It's me holding the tree saving it from falling

On the way back Joanna took the ride on the back of the jeep. She had an even crazier driver who enjoyed speeding up at the curvas while Emilia displayed her unending repertoire of swearing in various languages. But one thing is for sure, it is good to be tall when you travel standing up on the back of the jeep and if you are short, you should just take the seat they offer you inside!
 
We got back to Medellin to enjoy a pizza before taking off to Santa Marta next day.
Here are a couple maps for reference. Of course the time is under google ideal conditions. Yet it worked between Santa Marta - Barranquilla and Cartagena.

Santa Marta is hot. Well maybe not as hot as Cartagena, but it is hot. But it has the highest mountain that is immediately rises next to any see. And on top of it there are coffee plantations. The regular way up there is on motocabs, which I admit looks fun but I refused to take. So we took a jeep ride up to the plantation that uses 150 year old equipment to process coffee beans. It is amazing what they need to do with those beans before they can sell them and make those undrinkable bitter black beverages. You may have guessed; I do not like coffee. I love the smell of it though!
It was another amazing mountain to marvel about. The vegetation and the natural pools in which you could swim! Joanna took a motocab, while Emilia and I braved the elements and walked through a "stream" and stony roads barefooted.
 
This is what we saw on our way:
 
 
 
 
 
Emilia and I swam in that!
 

 
And the Beach called Los Angeles. To me it is the road to paradise:






 We found out that there is a street dance in Barranquilla called Rueda de Cumbia jus on the eve of my birthday, a nice welcome to the traveler, so we cut our Santa Marta stay a day short and made it to Barranquilla. What a treat!!!And we enjoyed this with Hernando!!!
 


 I have no idea how to attach a video :(

Next day was family day, we finally met Hernando's family, and enjoyed a good homemade meal while some of us watched soccer.

 We visited Hernando's old neighborhood and got mangos from the tree at their house!
And then we rushed off to Cartagena. A totally new experience, an old colonial Spanish city, a bit of a time capsule and a tourist trap at the same time. Nevertheless, it is part of the wonders of Colombia. We enjoyed cocktails not at poolside, but inside the pool, have an unbelievable seafood dinner and night walk inside the old city walls. Unfortunately Hernando had to go back to work, so only the three of us remained to explore the old city during the day.
arriving to the new part of Cartagena
 

a glass of wine at the hotel
 
 Walk in the city peeking into courtyards!





 
 
 The amazing trees that grow around the buildings.
 



 


and the coffee as they served it in Cartagena
while I was sipping two orders of Limonade de Coco
 If you actually get this far then you must have a lot of time on your hand.  Thanks for reading my blog.