After cancer surgery

Here is a guest blog from Margie Allen.

One Saturday morning after Linda had recovered enough from her double mastectomy surgery to try some outings, she and Matt and I happened on the Nesconset farmer’s market. We ended up in line for the cashier—Matt, me and Linda behind me—all of us holding an armful of the stuff we bought: green beans, golden cherry tomatoes, cantaloupes, a watermelon, six ears of corn, some yellow zucchini.

I turned to say something to Linda, and…well, I couldn’t help but laugh. There she was, the one with the cantaloupes, holding one in each hand right up against her chest where her breasts used to be. She saw me laughing, and then she started laughing. Then Matt turned, wondered for a moment if it was really OK to laugh (??), and he too doubled over. I got out my cell phone and Linda stepped out of line for a photo, her orange hoodie and pink Keens looking great against the background of orange winter squashes. And then all the women in the line and the folks behind the counter started laughing with us and making little comments.

It was a strange and wonderful moment in which the anxiety and pain and grief of surgery and recovery got trumped by the pure joy of being alive in the company of a small community of laughing people on a beautiful late summer day amid the fruits and vegetables. It didn’t matter that all those women were laughing about being “well-endowed.” There was something ancient and lovely about the sense of solidarity: family, women, food, bodies, laughter, loss, abundance. We laughed some more on the ride home. The whole thing felt sweet, a healing thing for all of us. Later, Linda asked me to send her the photo. I said “Really? You want to keep it?” She said, “Yes, that was an important moment.”

The changes that follow great loss are always tough to bear. The memories of how things used to be haunt us. Meanwhile, the people around you are also adjusting, feeling their way around what to say, where to look, how to help. We all have to figure out how to negotiate the taboos connected to certain losses. . . . And it’s not easy to bring up medical problems that involve parts of the human body that we don’t normally talk about openly and are so closely tied to our core identities: prostate, testicles, breast, uterus. The fact is, though, it is often a huge relief to break through the taboo into a conversation about what is really going on. This photo is a taboo-breaker. We, and you, can talk about it. It is OK.

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Equanimity

Equanimity: Balance
During the Buddha’s lifetime, more than 2500 years ago, Hindus prayed that after death they would go to heaven to dwell eternally with Brahma, the universal god. Brahma was understood to be the source of love and in order to dwell with this god, Hindus had to practice the Brahma abodes, or the Four Immeasurable Minds: love, compassion, joy and equanimity. These are the abodes of true love and if one practiced them, it was believed that they would grow in the practitioner until they embraced the whole world. These Four Immeasurable Minds came into Buddhism as well, though not for the purpose of dwelling with god, but as the best way to realize the Buddha’s spirit. I’ve been thinking about each of these and exploring them with you because they have great relevance for our world today. We’ve already looked at compassion. The next one I want to talk about is equanimity. Equanimity – what’s that?

The dictionary says equanimity is “calmness, composure” from the Latin word for even-tempered. Buddhists say it is upeksha, a Sanskrit word that means non-attachment, non-discrimination, letting go. Non-attachment here does not mean indifference; it does not mean emotionless; it does not mean anything goes. True equanimity is neither cold, indifferent, nor mindless. In Sanskrit “Upa means over and iksh means to look. You climb the mountain to be able to look over the whole situation, not just one side or the other.” You can make better judgements when you can see what’s on both sides of the mountain; you become more powerful because you see and understand more. You become more peaceful. I’d like to suggest that equanimity comes from a deep place within. Equanimity is what gives rise to calmness and composure. Equanimity allows one to let go of attachment. It is a steadiness composed of strength, balance, fearlessness and a wide view.
Balance: Equanimity, steadiness, is something I want to cultivate more of. One autumn I watched a swift moving stream and I saw how the water turned to churning foam whenever it encountered rocks. Hanging out over the banks was a slim tree, leaves yellow in the autumn air. A wind came by and blew some of the leaves off their branches and they fluttered gracefully down into the water, where they were snatched up in the tumble. I watched the leaves go under. And after a while I would see them re-surface and float. I wrote this poem about it.
Leaves detach and drop
and land in foaming water
which enfolds them, then
submerges them in rough love.
Look, on the surface, the leaf.

That process, to me, is the balance of equanimity. You go along and then suddenly something changes and it affects you, sometimes by choice, sometimes not, and you’re in what feels like a whirlwind. You’re pulled under by forces that are stronger than you are. You seem not in control. And then, somehow, you resurface, like the leaf, and float. Equanimity.

And then we have to do it all over again because things are always changing. We are always called to respond to something new and different, often before we’re fully prepared to do so. We long for peace and quiet. Maybe we’d like to hang out on that branch, safe and sound, for the rest of our lives. But autumn comes and we fall off. That’s the nature of life. If we’re going to survive and maybe even thrive after those falls, we need to cultivate equanimity. Ralph Waldo Emerson said “People wish to be settled. Only as far as they are unsettled is there any hope for them.”
There’s a move in contra dancing called balancing. You hold your partner’s hand, face him/her, take one step toward each other and one step back. It’s a static step because it goes no where and requires another move to get the dance along. Balance, per se, is static. We don’t, we can’t, stay in a perpetual state of balance because our world is always moving. When gymnasts work a balance beam they don’t get on it and then stand still, in perfect balance. No, they keep moving, challenging the balance, losing it and re-finding it over and over. We live on a balance beam. We have to go forward or backward on it, and by the very act of moving, we are challenged to upset and re-find our balance. The very act of re-finding our balance prompts us to move again. To re-define our purpose, to create further meaning. Balance and imbalance work together.

Balance is about making a fresh start, over and over again. We’re in balance, life throws us a curve, we fall out of balance, we find a new balance. A critical time is when we have fallen out of balance but not yet found our new balance point. When we’re at a stone wall and haven’t yet found the way over, or through, or under, or around. When we’re out of balance and frozen there. When have you been frozen – unable to move forward or backward? When have you felt as if you had a brick wall in front of you that you could not penetrate? In a work situation? A personal relationship? In the face of your own creativity? In the midst of important life changes? How did you find a way to go on? Where was your new balance point?

Equanimity is being able to get through the times of imbalance with enough trust and confidence to know that another time of balance will emerge. It takes courage to be present to our imbalances and climb back onto the beam when we’ve fallen off it.

Courage: Creating a new balance in order to know equanimity requires us to push at the edges of our fear. We’re human and we feel afraid sometimes. This is befuddling, but it’s okay. Mark Twain said that “Courage is mastery of fear; not absence of fear.” Meeting and greeting our fears often provides a look at our interiors. “Our fears are a treasure house of self-knowledge if we explore them.” (Marilyn Ferguson)

I was talking to my supervisor the other day about my fear of needles, especially of IV’s and drawing blood and the like. She asked me how I manage at the dentist. Surprisingly, I do okay at the dentist, at least in terms of fear. I kind of trust the dentist. She asked me what that was about. As I thought about it, I realized what scares me is having people doing things to my body that hurt when I have no control over what they are doing. I mind the dentist less because I can see what she/he is doing and somehow that feels a little more in control. I realized that I have a fear of helplessness in the face of physical pain. It’s less a fear of needles themselves than what they represent. That’s how our fears give us information about ourselves. When we understand the root of the fear, a way to mitigate it often appears. If I’m afraid of pain and helplessness, would it serve me to find ways not to feel so helpless? It would. It does. I find that my fear lessens if I control my breathing, make it slow and steady. If I’m really afraid I’ll breathe through my mouth and count my breaths, up to ten, and then start over again. I breathe my way through the imbalanced place that pain and fear send me and I come out the other side, in a different state of balance. I push at my fear and breathe my way to at least a bit of equanimity.

Equanimity is about cultivating fearlessness. Part of that requires us to find our creativity, find our courage by trusting that we have the resources to unfreeze ourselves. Paralysis by fear is a sign of scarcity mind. Here I am and I can’t do anything. I’m not smart enough, strong enough to get out of this. I’m powerless and without any choices. Cultivating fearlessness is a sign of abundant mind. I am enough. I can do this. I know where to get help. I know how to help myself. I have choices and my choices empower me. I’m thinking of Nelson Mandela these days. He is, for me, an example of equanimity. How did he take care of himself for twenty seven years in prison and come out reconciled to his captors? How did he let go of his rage, his fear? His presence of equanimity and his choice of forgiveness went a long way to avoiding a blood bath in South Africa when apartheid ended. Courage, balance, wisdom. Equanimity.

Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “Do not be too timid and squeamish about your actions. All life is an experiment. The more experiments you make the better. What if you do fail, and get fairly rolled in the dirt once or twice? Up again you shall never be so afraid of a tumble.” Why be open to what we’re afraid of? Because accessing our courage gives us strength and power. Because you never know what situations you will be called upon to walk into. And personally, I want to be of use, if at all possible, in any situation I’m in. To do that I need to take care of my fears and I need to know how to regain my balance in order to move forward with equanimity.

Wisdom: This is when the quality of equanimity that is non-attachment and letting go comes in. To a certain extent we let go of our fear and our need for things to turn out a certain way as we find the new balance that allows us to regain our movement . This is when our equanimity guides us up the mountain in order to see over the whole valley. Equanimity is a radical non-attachment, a big, wide open to see what’s there with as few pre-conceived notions as we can manage. It’s also called thinking outside the box. That way we can be surprised. We can be creative. We can use imagination. We can see, really see. We can understand, really understand, what’s going on. In order to gain the wisdom of a new perspective, we need to let go of the idea that our way is the best way, or the only way, even when we really, really think it is. Even we fear what will happen if we don’t get our way. We need to trust that other people have wisdom and understanding. As we see a bigger picture we can question whether there is only one possible, correct answer, one possible, correct action, all the time. Will the world come to an end if things don’t go our way? Sometimes we fear that it will.

Equanimity is a letting go of attachment to our own ideas. It is a letting go of attachment to things unfolding the way we think they should, or wish they would. Equanimity is seeing a bigger and broader picture because seeing a bigger and broader picture will lead to a better outcome. Because the bigger and broader picture will allow us to see more of the parts, more of the possible consequences, more of the varying needs and wants, more of the factors at play. Oh, we want what we want, yes we do, of course we do. But it’s helpful to remember that the world is bigger than us and it doesn’t revolve around us and it probably wouldn’t be too cool if it did. We learn that, while on one level we take things personally, on another level they aren’t really personal at all. Equanimity is cultivating wisdom. Standing on the top of the mountain we see how everything is connected more readily than we see the separations.

To put ourselves on the path of equanimity is to take a certain approach to living. It’s an inter-connected approach, that wants to glean the wisdom of the big picture. It’s a steadiness that results from a confidence in our ability to find our balance again when we have lost it. Not for the sake of balance itself but for the sake of moving out of the state of being frozen, or stuck in imbalance. It’s a courage that arises from a mind of abundance and enables us to make choices even when the way forward is unclear. Equanimity shows itself as outward calmness and composure, but it is an ongoing process of letting go, of doing somersaults on the balance beam and either landing on our feet on the beam, or falling off and getting back on again. In either case we prepare for the next moves.

May we do so with a sense of strength. May we do so with a sense of trust in our own abilities, as well as an empowering sense of humility about those abilities. Life offers us both darkness and light. May we ever meet them with equanimity. May it be so.

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Adventures on the Ferry

Adventures on the ferry

Venturing beyond the Port Jefferson ferry, I drove to Orient Point to take that crossing of the sound. I figured it would break up my driving time and I love the North Fork. So here I am on a boat that holds a maximum of 80 people, on a rainy day and forced inside. The crew won’t let any of us stay in our cars, which does not bode well for the calmness of the sound. And, the coup de grace — I have to back my car off of this boat in New London! I hope I get out of it with no vomiting, no dents in my car, no dents made by me in anybody else’s car. It’s an adventure. I survived.

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Things Silver

— I have apparently reached the age and/or appearance when people give their seats to me on the NY subway. A mixed blessing.

— We have peonies this year! This is a silver lining thing from the hurricane. We lost a tree in the front yard and its absence gives more light to the peony bushes, which bloomed for the first, glorious time. Usually they just go moldy.

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Peruvian arts – Alpaca

Peru is known for Alpaca — sweaters, hats, scarves. Baby alpaca is most soft, softer than soft. We learned that the places to find beautiful Peruvian work were often in small villages where the people wove and knit themselves. High end stores also had alpaca, albeit expensive.

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Hats and Hair

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Hats have a symbolic function in that they tell you about the person wearing them. A hat will tell you, for instance, whether a man is married or single. A woman’s braids communicate the same. In some areas women wear fedoras, a European influence. Other hats are regional indicators.

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So Many Ways to Get Sick – alas

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Food: We were advised not to drink water, or anything not from a bottle, not to eat raw vegetables,especially lettuce, not to eat fruit unless it has a peel you can throw away.
Sorojchi: altitude sickness. This is for real. Fatigue, shortness of breath, vivid dreams, trouble sleeping, nosebleeds, loss of appetite, headache, dizziness. I had each and every symptom.
Medicine: specifically what you take to ward off altitude sickness. Nauseated me. As did the typhoid oral vaccine. Worse than that is malarone, the malaria preventative. The symptoms are severe and include persistent vomiting. Malaria seems preferable.
Peru is not for the faint of heart.

Compassion

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During the Buddha’s lifetime, more than 2500 years ago, Hindus prayed that after death they would go to heaven to dwell eternally with Brahma, the universal god. Brahma was understood to be the source of love and in order to dwell with this god, Hindus had to practice the Brahma abodes, or the Four Immeasurable Minds: love, compassion, joy and equanimity. These are the abodes of true love and if one practiced them, it was believed that they would grow in the practitioner until they embraced the whole world. These Four Immeasurable Minds came into Buddhism as well, though not for the purpose of dwelling with god, but as the best way to realize the Buddha’s spirit. I’ve been thinking about each of these and I want to explore them with you because they have great relevance for our world today.
The second of the four immeasurable minds is compassion. It’s a word much in use but not so clearly defined. What do you think it means? Forgiveness? Understanding? Loving? Mercy? Pity? Kisa Gotami, a young woman, married a man who loved her very much. In time, she gave birth to a son. She and her husband were exquisitely joyful and lived together quite happily. Sadly, two years after their son was born, the child became quite ill and died very quickly. Kisa Gotami was devastated; her heart was broken. She was so stricken with grief that she refused to admit that her son had died. She carried his small corpse around, asking everyone she met for medicine to make her boy well again. Kisa Gotami went to the Buddha and asked him if he could please cure her son. The Buddha looked at Kisa Gotami with deep love. He said, ‘Yes, I will help you, but first I need a handful of mustard seed.’ When the mother in her joy promised to collect the seed immediately, the Buddha added, ‘But the mustard seed must be taken from a house in which no one has lost a child, husband, wife, parent or friend. Each seed must come from a house that has not known death.’
Kisa Gotami went from house to house asking for the mustard seed, and always the response was the same: ‘Yes, we will gladly give you some mustard seed. But alas, the living are few and the dead are many.’ Each had lost a father or mother, husband or wife, son or daughter. She visited one home after another, and every home told the same story. By the time she got to the end of the village, her eyes were opened, and she saw the universality of sorrow, Everyone had experienced some great loss, each had felt tremendous grief. Kisa Gotami realized she was not alone in her suffering; her sorrow had given birth to a compassion for the larger human family. Thus, Kisa Gotami was finally able to grieve the death of her son and bury him, and she returned to the Buddha to thank him and receive his teachings.
Compassion isn’t sympathy and compassion isn’t empathy. Although all three words stem from the same Greek root, pathos, which means one’s experience, particularly what one has suffered, their different prefixes give them different meanings. Empathy has the prefix en, which means in, so combined with pathos empathy means to have an inner state of emotion, to suffer within. Empathy is knowing another’s suffering inside yourself, maybe because you’ve been there before. Empathy both validates and understands our suffering. This is one reason why specialized support groups are so effective. There’s often something healing in being with people who were, or are, in the same boat. A person who has mourned the loss of a love can usually understand our broken heart and offer empathy. A cancer survivor can offer empathetic courage to one newly diagnosed. Those who have shared painful circumstances know about these circumstances in a way that an “outsider” never can. That shared knowledge and feeling makes empathy possible. Its understanding of the pain is so powerful.
Sympathy is the prefix sun, which means along with, in company with. Symphony, for instance, is the coming together of sound. Sympathy is coming together, standing beside someone in their suffering. Not necessarily sharing it, but coming together because of it. We offer people our sympathy. It’s a way of saying I’m sorry you’re in pain. Let my caring about you comfort you. Sympathy is healing because when others reach out to us we don’t feel so alone in our sorrow. We may not always feel empathy because our life experiences differ. We may, though, extend our sympathy even if we haven’t a clue about what it feels like in another person’s shoes. Sympathy recognizes suffering with kindness. It recognizes it, acknowledges it, and offers goodwill. That is powerful.
Compassion is the Latin prefix cum plus pathos. Cum also means, like sun, in company with, but contains a shade of difference. A companion, is one who shares bread with you, cum plus panos, bread. Compassion is to share suffering. What would it mean to share suffering? Think of yourself carrying a heavy load. You arms ache, your legs ache, you think you cannot go another step. The person feeling sympathy will feel sorry that you are struggling so. The one who feels empathy will know what it feels like to struggle. The person who feels compassion will step forward and shoulder a part of the burden. In bearing some weight, they make it easier for you, even though you still carry the larger part. Compassion, the second of the four immeasurable minds, is the intention and the capacity to relieve and transform suffering. Compassion is the intention and the capacity to relieve suffering, and in the relieving, transform it. It does this by sharing suffering. Sharing suffering means to lighten its load. When we care about one another’s suffering and take steps to lessen it, we are doing the work of peace and justice. Compassion is far more than simply feeling good. When we help to carry one another’s burdens, we get to understand them and our view widens. Such understanding, coupled with caring and generosity of spirit, motivates us to an ethic of justice.
Many of us have known suffering. We’ve had hard lives or we have experienced tragedy, loss, betrayal, violence. Perhaps we’ve participated in these also. The tragedies of our lives help to define us, both who we are now and who we were then. Even tragedy that affects whole groups serves to define those groups. Most of us can remember where we were on September 11, 2001. We know the effect of that tragedy on our self-identity as a people and our subsequent behavior in the world. Personal tragedy marks our lives the way a bookmark holds the page of a book. When I was five years old my mother contracted tuberculosis and went away to live in a sanitarium for eighteen months or more. I was five and I didn’t understand where she was going, or why. Or if she’d ever come back. I was in kindergarten when my mother left and finishing second grade when she returned. A defining time of suffering in my life? Absolutely. In a painful way tragedies touch our deepest parts and we are forever changed.
So when we talk about compassion as an intention and a capacity to relieve and transform suffering we have to recognize that it can be very hard to want to let go of our suffering because on an important level, our suffering is our individuality, or so we think. It’s ours. Who would we be without it? What would it mean for me to want to let go of that childhood tragedy of losing a mother for almost two years? Who would I be without it? Letting go of that suffering does not mean I forget it. It does not mean I pretend it didn’t affect me. An intention to relieve and transform my own suffering means, for me, that I don’t want to live in the grip of it. I don’t want to remain caught up in those painful feelings. Maybe most important, I don’t want to think of myself as a victim of my mother’s tuberculosis. I don’t want to present myself to others as a victim, but rather as a strong and resilient person who came through a difficult time. It will always be a part of my history but I want to know, and to show, the fear, sorrow and helplessness of that little five year old has transformed into courage and competence. The intention to relieve suffering means we have to intend to let go of it and view our own stories through a different lens.
Compassion, though, is not only the intention but also the capacity to relieve suffering. We may very well think it good to lessen the amount of suffering in the world, but can we do it? What would it take? How do we relieve another’s troubles? How do we relieve our own? In three main ways. The three building blocks of compassion: acceptance, empathy, understanding.
We relieve suffering by accepting one another exactly where we are. Your friend, your spouse, your child, your parent comes to you afraid, worried, angry, down. You let them know that you accept them where they are. You say something like, “I see that you’re feeling really bad right now.” No saying, “What are you so upset about that for?” No saying, “What! You should be over this by now.” No pretending it isn’t there. No saying, “It’s your own fault.” Just acceptance and recognition, without judgment. And for those of us who, out of the goodness of our hearts, want to fix the problem, give advice, make the person feel better, simply accepting him/her is very very hard to do. But we also know that we don’t hear advice we’re not ready to take and we can’t feel better on cue because someone else tells us to and we are not broken and so need no fixing. Once my wallet was stolen out of my backpack. That was upsetting and I felt a little violated. I went home and told someone in my family about it and she said, “Well, why do you go around with your wallet in a backpack? You should put it in your pocket instead.” Great advice, but I wasn’t ready to hear it and it did not relieve my suffering. Actually, it added to it because now I also felt like an idiot. I needed to get past my initial feelings of upset before I could recognize the sensibility of moving my wallet out of the backpack. Maybe if she had said, “yeah, that is upsetting” it would have helped me. Just experiencing someone accepting us wherever we are in the moment can be the impetus for finding our own ways out.
Secondly, we relieve suffering with empathy. In other words we try to gauge what it feels like to walk in the other person’s shoes. Maybe we don’t know what it’s like to have a wallet stolen, but we might know the feelings involved with losing something valuable. Empathy begins with careful listening, taking note of what is said and focusing upon the other person. No outdoing one another in troubles. “You think you had a heart attack? I had a heart attack and required bypass surgery. Want to see my scar?” “Your dog died? Well, my dog got this rare disease and . . . ” You know how someone ostensibly wants to comfort you and ends up dominating the conversation with his/her own troubles? Can you think of a time when you sensed that another person really understood what you were going through? When I have experienced that kind of empathy I have felt my own load lightened, my burden eased.
Finally, we relieve suffering with understanding. We don’t have to agree in order to understand. We don’t have to approve. But if we can see where the other person might be coming from and offer them some indication that we “get” them, it makes a difference. The night before I got married my mother and I had a huge fight. It seemed as if she was criticizing every choice I had made. Right in front of the whole family. Very unusual for us. We were just going around and around and then suddenly I thought I understood what was really going on. I’m an only child and I thought my mother was afraid she was losing me. So I said to her, or yelled really, “I’m not abandoning you. I’ll always be your daughter.” And that was the end of the fight. I had understood and she had no more need to criticize me.
Why does compassion relieve suffering? Because, as you probably know yourself, when we give each other the gift of acceptance, we start to feel better. Things don’t seem quite so out of control. When we give each other the gift of empathy, we feel that we have been truly heard and seen. We can release feelings and thoughts and it is okay. When we give each other the gift of understanding, we don’t feel quite so alone. We start to calm down. Compassion breaks our isolation, soothes our pain, provides support, and in doing all of that it gives help. Acceptance, empathy and understanding, offered by another to us helps us to to better accept ourselves with empathy and to better understand ourselves. It’s the beginning and it opens up something in us, enabling us to figure out the next steps, to unstick ourselves. How amazing the world is when people want to relieve one another’s suffering and have the skills and the capacity to do so.
Remember though, compassion is the intention and the capacity to relieve suffering. Not to end suffering, but to lessen it. We can accept, we can listen with empathy, we can understand; our very presence in that way is healing. But we can’t take it away. We learn not to expect that we will make suffering go away. Not the suffering of anyone else, not our own. We learn not to expect that we will fix it once and for all, or make it better. If we think we can eliminate our own suffering forever, we’re only fooling ourselves. Life contains suffering. I don’t know why it is so, but it is. If we think that our role is to take responsibility for everyone else’s suffering, we will undermine our compassion and find failure and frustration over and over again because we cannot fix one another’s pain. We can help to make it less but we cannot take it away. Relieving suffering means helping to carry the load, not shouldering the whole thing ourselves. This is a hard lesson – to care without being tied to a good outcome. Compassion means to be with suffering, not to expect that we can make it disappear. Can we do that?
Willingness to let go of our suffering. Acceptance, empathy, understanding — the building blocks of compassion. They are powerful. Their presence moves us to do what we need to do. It frees us to make choices. Compassion is a practice that flows back and forth, within the self and beyond the self. Understanding, empathy, acceptance are what we can give to ourselves and to others, and they are enough. Compassion is a way of being not easily achieved, but worth the attempts we make at it. Like Kisa Gotami, when bad things happen we do not want to experience them. But when we come to learn that others also feel grief, or anger, or sadness the way we do; when we can allow ourselves to acknowledge our suffering; when we can begin to gain some kind of insight into ourselves and our experiences, then compassion grows inside and compassion grows outside. May compassion fill our lives. May it be so.

Markets and Vendors

Vendors and markets are everywhere. Markets for tourists and full of colorful delectables. Markets for locals are full of food and goods. The vendors are quite persistent and followed us around. Unemployment is 39% here, which may be part of the reason. In Cuzco the vendors took names like Kevin Costner and Rudolph Valentino so we would remember them. Other people took pictures of us at the airport in Lima and showed up everywhere we went trying to sell them to us. How did they know where we would be?

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