Whittling Palo Santo

Mexican flame vines buttress Robert and Madeline’s verdant enclave from Orlando’s relentless congestion. After chocolate and coffee, we toured their small, one-room workshop where essential oils are blended, poured, packaged, and shipped.  One of their latest offerings is palo santo, from South America.  The “holy wood” was used by the Incas to purify and cleanse spaces of negative energy/spirits.  Robert offered a bag of sticks to take home.

The winter break’s first read was Amy Greene’s Bloodroot, an apropos tale for a cabin Christmas in the Blue Ridge Mountains.  Set in rural Tennessee, a doting grandfather whittles animals for his granddaughter. Inspired by his crafty gifts, and equipped with enough palo santo wood to cleanse an old apartment complex, I set out to try my hand at folk art.

Lloyd showed me how to use a range of tools for deconstructing, repairing, and building ramps and skateboards.  Despite his disdain for the sport’s inherent destruction, throughout the years my grandfather passed along well-worn various and sundry tools, including a small pocket knife.

The cube above was first, then the pyramid.  Pleased with fragrant basics, organic figures followed.  The boy in baggy jeans was originally intended to be a sphere, but symmetry proved illusive.  So the kid slowly revealed himself as a raver from ’97, and the pyramid became a hat.

Red Bougainvillea, Bougainvillea glabra

St Marys, Georgia

Elqui Valley, Chile

This bougainvillea adorned balcony in Santiago’s Barrio Bellavista rests around the corner from “La Chascona,” Pablo Neruda’s home named for his lover and third wife, Matilde Urrutia.  The name means “the uncombed.”

Street art surrounds the curious homes in one of Santiago’s most bohemian enclaves.


In the center of Santiago, some college kids spent an afternoon of their winter break giving away free hugs, or “abrazos gratis.”  In stark contrast to the youthful positivity, the man standing next to his bike was prosthelytizing about brimstone and hellfire, and the second coming of Jesus.

At times it was safer to pull out a handheld recorder, than a bulky camera that could easily get snatched.  Listen to a stroll through the heart of Santiago:


Later, we came across a blind couple and their young daughter singing for change.  The girl sat on the ground between her mother’s legs.  Listen below:

Eucalyptus Tree, Eucalyptus globulus

These photos were taken on the banks of the Rio Magico (Magic River), in Valle del Elqui, Peru.  According to Robert Kirshner, a professor of science at Harvard University, “Chile has as good a claim as any place to be the center of the astronomical universe.”  The Elqui Valley is the center of the earth’s gravitational force, and is said to have healing powers.  I have never seen the night sky so clear.

Mountain Respite

In the summer of 2007 I volunteered at an orphanage in Trujillo, Peru.  One weekend I traveled with the kids to the beautiful mountain town of Simbal.  It’s about 30 minutes northeast of Trujillo.  The much anticipated annual trip provides respite from dreary cloud cover, and the confines of an orphanage.

A one-way glass mirror to the left allows the person inside to see who’s waiting. Five small holes in the steel door also allow a view outside.  Multiple bells sound throughout the orphanage when someone pushes the buzzer.

Each afternoon I took a taxi to the orphanage.  Unlike the other positions, which required volunteers to arrive in the morning, mine were free to explore the city while locals went about their day.

In addition to pulseras (bracelets), John also crafts beautiful change purses.

Jesus wields a plastic bottle cap used to play a game similar to marbles.  He’s a champion who flicks caps accross the room, striking another fifteen feet away.

Juanito, a charismatic soul, holds an intricate pulsera, which sells for 3 soles, or 30 cents.

For three hours in the afternoon, family members visit on Tuesdays and Fridays. These two are fascinated by a bald gringo snapping photos.

The majority are there by court order, taken from parents deemed unfit.  Home is often unsafe.  Prior to being sent to the orphanage, many live on the street hustling, stealing, and addicted to inhalants.

Leo stands out.  He often helps with cooking, and has trouble relating to the majority. Gender roles in Latino society offer little migration.

The wall (usually) keeps the kids in, and outsiders out.

On a slab of concrete, soccer’s called “fublito.”  The goals are smaller, the game much faster, and most play barefoot.  We played almost every day, and I was schooled regularly by kids half my size.  In July, they host a tournament with 18 or so schools from the area. Bet on the home team.

Almost 18, Jose “Lobato” is one of the oldest.  He’ll leave soon.  Some have no family.  My first day, he gave me a bracelet.  I hope he’s well.

Chilcho points to the line leader who hides facial burn scars.

 A British volunteer asked about the funiest thing I saw while in Trujillo. I simply said, “Daniel.” He’s one of the youngest kids at the hojar, and maintains a stream of perma-snot guaranteed to find you.  He scales people like jungle gyms. When reality hit hard, Daniel always made me smile.

Lalo’s the resident DJ, and plays the hits during special events like birthdays (collectively celebrated annually on a single Saturday), and Father’s Day (ironic since few of the boys have fathers they would like to be near). Cumbia and regaetton rule.  Lalo carryies a TV to the bus for movie nights in Simbal.  He enjoys hearing about Lalo Alcatraz, the politically charged Chicano cartoonist.

Jose and Chavarry commandeered the camera for awhile, and these two shots are my favorite. Jose is holds a traditional Peruvian flute, played on the ride up the mountainside.

52 kids crammed into two small busses, with gear strapped to the top.

Willian, the most skilled soccer player at the hogar, has a surgical sense of rhythm.

Roberto’s the kindest kid, and made the most of Simbal’s sunshine playing songs from the rooftop to birds flying overhead.

Jen holds Daniel over the side to relish in a pastime enjoyed by kids the world over, spitting great distances. He and I hocked luggies like best friends above a field of lettuce bordered by plantains almost ready for harvest.

The zip line’s a hit.  Jen clutches Daniel in flight.

too many scars for so few years