A Visit To A Bolivian Medicine Woman

yatiriI’d never heard of a shaman until my first class on my first day of college. I’d signed up for “Magic, Witchcraft, & Religion” as an elective on a whim. It turned out to be one of my favorite undergrad classes and has been highly inspirational to my work as a travel writer.

The instructor was a short, plump woman of a certain age. She’d lived on a Hopi reservation while working on her doctoral thesis. She looked so exotic, always bedecked with ropes of beads, silver and turquoise necklaces and rings, and dangly earrings. She wore colorful indigenous skirts and told incredible stories, some of them involving the words “peyote” and “ayuhuasca.” She’d traveled all over the world. I wanted to be her.

So, it’s no surprise that I developed a fascination for indigenous cultures. Perhaps one of the reasons I find them so absorbing is because I don’t subscribe to any religion myself, so I find the concepts of animism, polytheism and shamanism particularly interesting. I’m spiritually bankrupt myself, although I studied holistic massage in the ’90s (big mistake), and through that developed a respect for certain alternative modalities of medicine.

But fortune-telling? Soul cleansing? Killing endangered species and then ingesting their body parts in foul-tasting teas? Um, no thank you. I find this stuff interesting, but I don’t believe in it, nor do I endorse anything that involves sacrificial offerings in the name of fortune, fertility or romance.

I once had my palm read on a press trip in Hong Kong. The fortune-teller, a wizened old man, examined my hand (at the time cracked and callused from my part-time jobs as a farmers market vendor and waitress), and asked my translator, “Why no marry? If no marry by 40, never marry. Health good, feet not so good.” Still single at 44, that asshole may well have sealed my fate, but on the other hand, my feet are in good shape.

%Gallery-186949%yatiri Still, despite my non-existent belief system, I was determined to visit a shaman while in Ecuador four years ago, simply because I was curious about the process, as well as what he’d have to say about my psyche. Unfortunately, my session proved impossible to organize on short notice, so when I went to Bolivia last month, I set about finding a contact pre-trip who could hook me up with a reliable medicine man or woman.

Throughout South America, there are variations on the type of people who perform services that, to our Western minds, are mystical, if not demonic. Depending upon the country or indigenous culture, this person might be male or female, and they can variously be considered a medicine… person, shaman, or witch. The most important fact is that rarely are these people practicing what we would consider the occult.

The function of most South American “medicine men/women” and their ilk is to provide spiritual guidance or assist with medical or emotional problems. Whether this involves medicinal herbs, potions, casting spells or purifying rituals is besides the point. For many people, particularly those from indigenous cultures, regular visits to these specialists is a way of life.

Amongst the Aymara people of Bolivia, such a person is referred to as a yatiri, and they may be male or female. While plenty of yatiris can be found in La Paz’s Mercado de Hecheria, or witch’s market, I discovered that the real-deal yatiris (i.e. ones that don’t cater to tourists) are located up in El Alto, a separate city that’s sprung up in the hills above La Paz. This mostly indigenous community is a sprawling cacophony of markets, ramshackle houses, shops, traffic snarls and street vendors, but it’s also an excellent representation of daily life for urban Aymaras.

It was here that my fixer/translator, a British woman who’s been living in Bolivia for 22 years and works as the office manager of a mountain biking company, found Dona Vicentá. A practicing yatiri for 10 years (she says she felt a calling), her services are requested across the continent, including by some prominent government officials.
la paz
Dña. Vicentá agreed to see me thanks to a personal reference from a Bolivian friend of my fixer. She doesn’t usually take on gringos as clients, but for whatever reason she agreed to see me, as well as allow me to document my session. I was given a price range for a fortune telling and soul-cleansing session (the price depended upon just how much scrubbing my soul was in need of, so I steeled myself for the full fare, which was about $60).

My fixer and I took a cab up to El Alto, and there we met Dña. Vicentá in front of a community building. She was an adorable, sweet-natured Aymara woman with remarkably youthful skin, dressed in full cholita (highlands woman) attire. We walked to her “office” along a busy street. We came upon a row of squat, corrugated buildings, most of which had small fires burning in metal pans in front of each doorway. I learned that these were the workplaces of other yatiris. This area is popular with them, because of its prime location overlooking La Paz (above).

Location is, as they say, everything, and for yatiris, the double-whammy of having the soaring peaks of Huayna Potosi to the left, and Illimani to the right has significant cultural and spiritual meaning. It’s also where La Paz’s radio towers are located. This, explained Dña. Vicentá without a trace of irony, makes for excellent communication with spirits and helps her to better receive feedback on her clients. For the record, I believe she was utterly sincere, and for the sake of journalistic and personal integrity, I’d promised myself I’d submit to this adventure with a completely open mind.

My session began with Dña. Vicentá asking me a few general questions, but nothing personally revealing. She asked me for a 10 boliviano note, which she added to a pile of coca leaves on a table. She then began picking up handfuls of the coca leaves, and divined their meaning based upon the way they fell. This lasted approximately 15 minutes.

I’m not going to tell you what she said, because it’s personal, but I can say that she was eerily accurate. Not just good-at-reading-people accurate – she literally nailed certain things that only a long-term therapist, if I had one, or my closest friends could possibly know. It didn’t freak me out so much as astound me, and after that, I began to pay closer attention.

Unfortunately, this is the part where my fixer and I learned that a visit to a yatiri is a two-part process (at the very least). Dña. Vicentá told me she had a client with a serious family matter waiting outside, and asked when I could return for my soul cleansing. Apparently, the process requires the yatiri to seek guidance from higher powers, in order that he or she might procure and prepare the correct offerings. In order for me to have a certain “blockage” removed that was prohibiting me from achieving certain things, Dña. Vicentá would need time to prepare (much of this was lost in translation, but I do know that a dried llama fetus was required).
yatiri
We explained to her that I was flying out of La Paz at 6 a.m. the following morning, and had no plans to return to Bolivia anytime soon. I actually felt a little distraught. Dña. Vicentá mulled things over and decided to perform a sort of mini-cleanse in order to help me in the interim, but only with the understanding that I would return to Bolivia for the full deal at some point (this I promised, as I do get to South America about once a year).

After about 15 minutes, Dña. Vicentá was ready for my ceremony. A small, incense-fueled fire was burning in front of the office. I was told to kneel on a blanket overlooking the city. She requested my wallet, so that my money would be blessed. She then used a smudge stick to purify me (above), chanting in Spanish and Aymara the entire time. It took about five minutes and when it was over, I felt strangely relieved – like I’d acquired some karmic insurance to tide me over. I thanked her profusely and we exchanged traditional cheek kisses in farewell.

So, now I’m back home and I have to say, it seems some of Dña. Vicentá’s predictions appear to be coming true. Of course, this may well have happened without her, and I prefer to continue to believe we make our own luck, or lack thereof, most of the time. As for the long-term outcome of certain things she told me, that remains to be seen. I do know I’ve given a lot of thought to a few things she pointed out about my nature (which, for the record, she deemed as fundamentally good), and I’m working on trying to change a few detrimental habits.

Do I now believe in witchcraft, shamans and spirits? No. But I’m willing to accept that perhaps there are certain people out there who are blessed with a type of insight that goes beyond what the human mind can readily comprehend. Or maybe Dña. Vicentá has just read some of my writing.

[Photo credits: Laurel Miller/Jill Benton]

The Knee Defender Stops Airline Seats From Reclining, But Is it Ethical?

knee defenderLast week, I heard about a product called the Knee Defender, which, when attached to the tray table of an airline seat, restricts how far the person in front of you can recline, on an episode of NPR’s “This American Life.” Apparently, this product has been available for more than nine years, but this was the first I’d heard of it. In the intro to the episode, host Ira Glass talks to Ken Hegan, a 6’2″ travel writer who uses the Knee Defender on flights, about the etiquette of using this unique little product.

As a frequent flier who often feels cramped in coach, I was intrigued, but wondered if it was ethical to limit another traveler’s ability to recline. So I contacted Ira Goldman, the inventor, to ask him how it works and whether it’s kosher to keep fellow passengers erect, or semi-erect in their seats.


How does the Knee Defender work?

It’s like a paper clip. You put it on the arms of the tray table. The tray table arms and the seat rotate on the same axis, so when the tray table arms come back and the seat’s not reclined, it’s like the blades of scissors. If you put something between the blades of scissors when they’re open, you can’t close them. That’s the dynamic of the Knee Defender.

According to your site, the Knee Defender isn’t FAA approved, but they also haven’t outlawed it, correct?

Correct. They only approve the things they have jurisdiction over and they’ve judged that they don’t have jurisdiction over this, so they have no problem with it as long as you aren’t using it during takeoff, landing or taxiing, but that’s when you need to have your tray table up anyways, so you couldn’t use it then even if you wanted to.

Have any airlines banned it?

The FAA has said it’s fine, my customers who are using it say it’s fine and as far as I know, it’s fine. That’s the bottom line.

But is this ethical? Doesn’t the passenger in front of you have a right to recline his seat?

When I fly, my knees touch the seatback in front of me. I’m only 6’3″, and I would even take the magazines out so in other words, that person isn’t reclining, because my knees will stop them, with or without the Knee Defender. All the Knee Defender does is, instead of my knees stopping the seat, the Knee Defender stops the seat. So the ethical challenge is not really there as you pose it, because it’s not as if they’d otherwise be able to recline.

Every Knee Defender that’s ever been sold says, ‘Don’t hog space.’ You should only use it to the extent that you need it. A number of customers, for example, use it with their laptops. If someone reclines, you can’t use it on your tray table, and it can also catch onto the little lip of the seatback. It can break your laptop.

The Knee Defender is adjustable. You can adjust it so they can recline not really at all or some amount, so this is marketed to stop people from being hit in the knees by seatbacks.

If I’m in my seat, trying to recline and I can’t, I would probably hail a stewardess. If she notices the Knee Defender, how would the situation unfold?

On the Knee Defender tag it says, ‘always listen to the flight attendant.’ Customers tell me that sometimes the flight attendant will say ‘don’t do that’ and they’ll have to take it off, and other times, they’ll realize there’s no leg room, so it’s not going to make a difference, so the flight attendant shrugs to the passenger who complains.

So it’s up to the flight attendant?

Yes, and frankly if there is room for the person to recline without hitting the person who bought my product, then when someone wants to recline, they should remove it (the Knee Defender). The Knee Defender isn’t called the I-want-more-space defender or the anti-claustrophobia-defender. It’s there to stop people from actually being hit.

If someone is using it just because they want a little more space, that’s not what it’s for. And if the flight attendant says you can’t do it, you can’t do it.

In the story on “This American Life,” the passenger who used your product handed the person in front of them a card warning them that they wouldn’t be able to recline their seat more than 2 inches. Does the product come with those cards?

There are two cards on our website. One if you don’t want to buy our product. It’s a note you can hand to the person in front of you that says, ‘By the way, I’ve got long legs, and if you recline, you’re going to bang into me.’ And then one that comes with the product that says the same thing but also says, ‘I’m using the Knee Defender, and if you want to recline, I’ll see if I can adjust it so we can both be happy.’

So what is the best etiquette? To notify the person in front of you that you’re using a Knee Defender or not?

On our site, we have a page about airplane etiquette. It may be wrong, but that’s my point of view. When you go to the restroom, do you knock on the door first, or do you just walk in? It’s up to each person.

Do you recline your seat when you fly?

No.

Even on a trans-Atlantic flight?

No. I get a window seat and lean against the wall.

Is it uncomfortable for a tall person to recline or you think it’s rude?

I don’t think it’s rude if you know what you’re reclining into. It’s like pulling out of your driveway. You look and then you pull out. If someone is coming, you don’t pull out.

So if the person behind you is using a laptop, eating, or is just tall or large, you shouldn’t recline?

I think so, but at the end of the day, there is no physical space for some people to recline into. My knees often hit the seat in front of me, in a normal situation. There are also lap babies. You can be sitting there bouncing a baby on your lap and the person in front of you reclines, and the baby gets smacked in the head.

Some would say that if you’re too tall or large, you should just buy a business class ticket, right?

That’s a question of space. I’m not talking about space; I’m talking about not being hit in the knees. If you have short legs, and you aren’t using a laptop, or have a lap baby, don’t buy our product.

I’m only 5’11″ and I thought about buying one. Does that make me a bad person?

There’s nothing to keep us from promoting this as ‘more legroom.’ But that’s just not me. I don’t have to say in the instructions how to use it appropriately, but we do.

Author’s Comment: I generally don’t mind people in front of me reclining, and if there was a situation where I didn’t want them to recline, I wouldn’t hesitate to communicate directly with that person. But I can see where some people are too shy to do that, and in that case, the Knee Defender might come in handy. Still, the airlines make seats that recline, so I suppose that means that people have a right to do it, even if you have long legs or happen to be eating, using a laptop, or holding a baby. What do you think?

[Photo credit: Photo courtesy of Ira Goldman]

Galley Gossip: Giving Thanks To Military Men And Women This Memorial Day

Near the end of a flight from New York to Dallas, a little girl, 9 years old, handed me a piece of paper that read: “Everyone on this plane that works on this plane is very kind and welcoming, comforting and makes me feel safe, happy and comfy, so thank you to everyone. Love, Fallyn.” She made what would have been an ordinary day extra special. For that, I thank her.

Receiving thanks in the air travel industry is rare so when it happens it’s always appreciated. In fact, sometimes it’s so appreciated it feels kind of weird, like do I really deserve this? Did I really do something that deserves so much kindness? Usually, the answer is no. I’m just doing my job, what I’ve been hired to do – assist passengers and provide safety and comfort in flight. Then I’ll blush from the embarrassment of being acknowledged and either quickly refill an empty cup or ask if there’s anything else I can do to make the flight more enjoyable.

Those who do deserve a special thank you for just doing their job are our military men and women. Long ago, my grandpa confessed that not one person thanked him for fighting in WWII. My father experienced the same thing while he was in the navy. This is why I make it a point to say thank you to those who protect us. Once I offered my cellphone to a soldier I spotted putting money into a pay phone at an airport. A couple of times I offered to buy lunch for those I’ve seen in uniform waiting in line at food courts located at airport terminals. It’s the least I can do. They always decline with a blush and then they thank me for thinking of them.

One passenger who went out of his way to thank a serviceman on board an airplane is my friend Will. Here, in his words, is what happened on a recent flight from Dallas to Oklahoma City.

Last evening while standing by the gate and waiting for boarding to commence, I noticed a military serviceman in uniform approach the line, look at his boarding pass and walk to the back of the waiting area – nothing I haven’t seen before. As I sat there on the corner of the room speaking with my kids on the cellphone, pre-boarding was announced for all customers with disabilities or special needs as well as any military personnel in uniform. A few folks boarded but not the soldier.

As a perk for flying a “few thousand” miles a year with American Airlines, I’d been upgraded from coach to first with its wider seats, more legroom, free drinks and more. Sitting in 3E, thoughts about my wife and children ran through my head. As I remembered our recent phone call my heart tightened. It had been only four days since I’d seen my family but it seemed like a month. Just a few more hours… it didn’t seem like much longer.

Boarding continued for another twenty minutes when suddenly I observed the same serviceman from earlier. He was the last one on. Holding his backpack slightly crooked over his right shoulder and a boarding pass on the left hand he quickly went by me towards his seat in coach.

That’s when it clicked.

I stood up, took a couple of steps back towards the soldier, and gently tapped his left shoulder. As he turned around I simply requested his boarding pass. To my surprise he promptly handed it over. A simple gesture of appreciation: the palm of my left hand showing him the direction to my seat. Shocked, he cracked a smile and politely declined the offer by stating I would not enjoy his seat. It was “the worse seat in the plane” – he said.

After insisting a bit, he accepted my offer and took his new seat but not before his smile stretched across his face like a child on a Christmas morning. As I went towards seat 18F (a middle seat) the pride and satisfaction of being able to sincerely thank a man, whom along with thousands of other brave and dedicated soldiers choose to sacrifice their lives so that my children may sleep safely every night, was indescribable.

Sitting in that middle seat while the plane took off, I realized that it felt different: it seemed wider; there was more legroom; it was more comfortable. Was it? No… it was the same as always, but the circumstances were different.

After takeoff I succumbed to my usual ritual of lowering the tray table and hunching over for a quick nap. I was tired… it had been a long day. Suddenly, I felt a tap on my left shoulder. To my surprise, it was the soldier. Extending his right hand as if a handshake was imminent. I responded with the same gesture.

“Thank You” – he said – while leaving in the palm of my hands a coin, which read: PRESENTED BY THE CADET COMMAND – COMMAND SERGEANT MAJOR – FOR EXCELLENCE.

As I nodded in acceptance my eyes suddenly drowned in tears of appreciation and pride. He went back to his seat, leaving me speechless and transformed.

It’s unconditional commitment, bravery and immeasurable sacrifices shown by all of our service men and women that makes it possible for each one of us to sleep by our children and loved ones at night.

Most people do not have a first class seat to offer up as a special thank you to those who serve our country, but that doesn’t matter when it comes to simply showing thanks, letting others know you care and that you notice what they do and appreciate their hard work. A thank you costs nothing but time. By just thinking about how grateful we are for what someone has done for us only benefits us. This kind of satisfaction doesn’t last long and does nothing to change the world. By giving thanks we give others a momentary respite from their daily lives and their own journey through life becomes relevant to the lives today. Don’t wait until people are gone to honor and thank them for being a part of our lives when we can tell them personally how we feel. Thank a soldier today.

Babies and first class: why is this an issue?

babies first classEarlier this week, I saw a story about babies and first class air travel posted on Facebook. The Facebook poster asked our own Heather Poole (flight attendant, mother, and new book author!) for her thoughts on the story, and she replied, “I’m fine with babies in first class. Usually they just sleep.” Columnist Brett Snyder is a frequent flier and new dad wondering if he should use miles to upgrade his first flight with the baby. Reading the article and the many comments, I wonder: why is this (or really any story about babies and airplanes) a contentious issue?

Long before I even thought about having children, I thought the same about babies in first class that I thought about anyone in the front of the plane: must be nice for them. Sure, it might be a waste of money to give a premium seat to someone whose legs don’t touch the ground and who can’t enjoy the free Champagne, but it’s the parents’ choice to splurge on the ticket. If the parents are more comfortable, the kid might be happier and thus quiet — a win-win for everyone on the plane. Does the child “deserve” to sit up front? Perhaps not, but airplane seating has never been based on merit. To paraphrase Dr. Seuss, a passenger is a passenger, no matter how small.As the veteran of nearly 20 flights with an infant in Europe, the US and trans-Atlantic, I’ve been fortunate to fly a few times with my daughter in business class. While the roomy seats and meals make a 10 hour flight easier with a baby, more valuable is the ability to skip check-in and security lines, board the plane early, and spend layovers in a spacious lounge with a place to heat baby food or change a diaper. Some of those perks used to be standard for all passengers with small children, but have now gone the way of the hot meal in coach. Some airlines still make travel easier for parents: JetBlue is one of the only US-based airlines to allow you to gate-check a stroller of any size and check your first bag free (checking a bag becomes inevitable with a baby). Gulf Air offers free “Sky Nannies” on long-haul flights for young children, and Lufthansa offers a guide service (for a fee) to escort families traveling through their German hubs. Turkish Airlines (my most frequently-used airline while I live in Istanbul) always offers a “baby meal” and blocks off empty seats when possible to give us more room.

I’m also fortunate to have an easy baby who so far (knock on wood) has been very well behaved on every flight. This is in part very good luck, but also due to the fact that I watch her constantly and head off any signs of crying before they start. I’ll hold and feed her as often as it takes, even if it means I rarely rest anymore on a plane. Many of the same people who’ve given me “the look” when boarding with an infant have complimented me after on her behavior. Brett also notes in his article: “Don’t just sit there while your baby screams. Do everything you can to calm him and people will be more understanding.” This is good advice, but does it really need to be said?! I’d never dream of sitting by idly while my child disturbed other people and I’m embarrassed by any other parents who would consider such behavior acceptable. Still, I recognize that even with the most watchful parents, sometimes a cranky baby is unavoidable but I hope that when/if that day comes, my fellow passengers will see how hard I’m trying to make the flight easier for all of us. Better still, if I anticipate a difficult age for my baby to fly, I’ll look into alternative methods of travel (or postpone until an easier time).

If we are going to ban babies from first class, or even segregate them from adults on all flights, why stop there? Why not a separate flight for the armrest-hogs, the obese, the incessant talkers, or the drunk and belligerent? I’d like a plane full of only frequent flyers, who know not to use their cell phone after the door closes, who don’t rush the aisles the minute the wheels touch down, who don’t recline their seats during drink service or bring smelly food (or nail polish) onto the plane. Start flights for only considerate, experienced travelers and you will find me in the front of the plane, with my baby on my lap.

For more about (considerate) travel with a baby, read my past “Knocked Up Abroad” stories here.

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5 airlines with great in-flight services in economy class

in-flight services economy class

Last week, I spent 13 hours desperately trying to fall asleep on a Thai Airways flight from Bangkok to London; my economy class seat didn’t have a personal entertainment system and the cabin monitor was pitch black from my angle. The week before, my sister took a red-eye United Airlines flight from Honolulu to San Francisco without the benefit of a pillow, blanket, or snack.

For many airlines, it looks like in-flight services in economy class are going the way of liquids on board. But thankfully, there are still some airlines that understand that service, entertainment, and even a few extras are a part of the customer experience, even for the peons in coach. These five are leading the pack.

Virgin Atlantic
Not only does Virgin offer one of the best personal entertainment systems I’ve ever experienced, they also offer a uniquely British flight experience on their Heathrow-JFK service. From complimentary English publications like Hello and Tatler in the waiting room, to free toiletry kits with socks and eyeshades, to a high tea service with scones and clotted cream, the attention to detail is there.Singapore Airlines
Rated by Zagat as the best international airline for both premium and economy seating, Singapore Airlines spares no expense with their amenities, offering all passengers luxurious Givenchy socks and toothbrush/toothpaste kits. If you happen to snag a seat on their Airbus A380 (say, through this sweet deal) or Boeing 777-300ER planes, you’ll also be able to read digitized versions of publications like the Wall Street Journal and Elle Magazine on Krisworld, the airline’s award-winning inflight entertainment system.

JetBlue
Though it’s a budget airline, JetBlue’s little extras make the flying experience one of the best in the U.S. Their entertainment systems offer 36 channels of DIRECTV programming, while their complimentary snack selection runs the gamut from Terra Blues chips to animal crackers (who doesn’t love animal crackers?). Plus, their Shut-Eye Service on overnight flights from the West includes free eyeshades and earplugs, plus hot towels and Dunkin’ Donuts coffee upon arrival.

Virgin America
Yup, Virgin again. Their American cousins offer sexy dim cabin lighting, standard and USB plugs at every seat, and the ability to easily offset the carbon emissions from your flight through a credit card swipe donation to Carbonfund.org. Plus, from now until January 15, passengers on flights departing from San Francisco, Dallas-Fort Worth, Boston, Chicago, and New York JFK can enjoy free in-flight WiFi on new Google Chromebooks through the Chrome Zone pilot program.

Emirates Airlines
I first flew Emirates Airlines from Tokyo to Dubai when I was 12 years old, and it still sticks out as one of my favorite travel experiences. At the time, I was blown away by one of the first economy class personal entertainment systems in existence, as well as the extra Swiss chocolates snuck to me by the charming flight attendants. These days, Emirates offers 1,200 channels of programming plus telephone, SMS, and e-mail services on their ice entertainment system; regionally inspired multi-course meals with locally sourced ingredients; and cabin lighting specially designed to ease jet lag. I’m betting those chocolates are still there too.

[Flickr image via Richard Moross]