Reflecting on Japan

Or, Politeness, Social Lubrication and Zen Peeing


Tokyo Tower as seen from the Mori Tower at Roppongi Hills. Larger version is here. Original pre-tilt shift image is here. Such was the power of the earthquake on March 11 that it bent the tip of the Tokyo Tower. The Tower has stood as a symbol of Japan’s postwar rebirth and regeneration. It was built in 1958.

I’ve been able to travel around and play in lots of different places. This is all due of course to my dear bride. In her job as the CEO of a national association, she travels quite a bit—it used to be as many as 125 days or so on a couple dozen trips per year—though it’s lessening now for a number of reasons. I know I’m lucky.

We’ve traveled a couple of times to Japan. Those trips have been highlights for me as I’ve long been in love with the Japanese aesthetic. The bride was to be the featured guest and speaker at a JBATS conference, the Japanese Baseball Athletic Trainers’ Society. We spent some time preparing for the trip, researching the protocols for giving and receiving business cards, learned some basic phrases and planned what we wanted to see together in the few spare moments she had free.

One of the nice perquisites she receives from traveling so much is access to the airline club. I feel a bit out of place, but it’s a comfortable place to sit before or between flights and she is able to get business stuff done and out of the way while waiting.

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They have gorgeous bathrooms. So while standing and taking care of business an elderly Japanese man shuffles in and stands next to me at the adjacent apparatus. His adult son accompanies him. The distinguished gentleman is small and, by means of unintentional peripheral vision, I sense he is impeccably attired—a dark suit and red tie and perhaps a plaid vest. The son appeared nervous but did not have to use the facilities.

It started as a small noise, almost imperceptible, but increasing in volume; a thrumming, humming sound. It was, in fact, humming. The elegant gentleman was creating a Zen zone of pleasant noise to help him get his business done. The son was almost hopping on one foot in embarrassment, trying to quietly shush his father.

It didn’t bother me in the least. Having just witnessed the week before a six year old in a similar situation stand three feet away from a urinal with a perfectly horizontal stream that any in my situation would envy, I understood what the elderly gentleman was trying to accomplish. But this may not mean much to those who don’t know about trying to pee through a prostate the size of a grapefruit.

I often hum to myself now to help things along.

The son who was nervous just wanted things to be being polite, I think. He didn’t know I didn’t care and was amused, but the Japanese are extraordinarily polite. I was to find it even more evident in Japan.

There exists there the phenomenon of cultural politeness. Some societies seem to value the lubrication needed for people to get along with one another.

While in Tokyo, I was amazed at what I presume is the evolution of a society that has to live within a fairly finite space and in ever burgeoning numbers. In subways, on trains, on the streets and in taxis the evidence of polite society was present everywhere.

When someone on a train receives a call on a cell phone, they move to the back or front of the car to be out of earshot of everyone else. This is an example of social empathy.

As I was walking in the Shinjuku district I saw many people wearing particle masks. You may think, as I did, that they are reacting to industrial pollution. But in fact the majority of people wearing masks in public places do so because they have colds and wish not to spread the germs.


In a city of some 12.3 million people it seems a little communal empathy, or thinking of the other person, represents a thread in the warp and woof of that polite society. It was a delight to be there, to experience something other than the typical red necked social intercourse found around here. It’s crowded in Tokyo—they have found ways to implement the required social lubrication to make it work as well as it does.




But in fact, politeness as a part of the fabric of culture can be overdone too. Traffic jams from downtown Tokyo to Narita airport are notorious. Our host had arranged to pick us up at the Westin Hotel to take us to the airport for our flight back home. We were in Tokyo for ten days and while we are good at traveling light, the trunks on Japanese cars are correspondingly small, so there were two cars to transport us caravan style.

We were predictably stuck; dead stop going nowhere before we were past the Shinjuku district. Our host said we would not be able to make our flight if we stayed on the freeway. A couple of turns on two wheels and a race down an alley with nano clearance on both sides brought us to a back entrance to one of the downtown train stations. Our host’s assistant hopped out of the second car and magically produced two first class train tickets to Narita.

Of course we were happy that we had a much better chance of making our flight, but in a symphony of pre-planned moves, we ended up where our host intended us to be, though he had previously said he would personally take us to the airport. Eve was the guest of honor, and protocol dictated personal service. As it ended, our host was the hero of the day and it appeared he had a strategic backup plan. My guess is that it was planned all along, but he felt it would be inappropriate to tell his guest of honor she was getting dropped off at the train station, thus providing service, saving face and displayed the epitome of polite behavior.

Domo arigato.





Sexy cap in Shibuya

Meiji torii

Torii gate at the Meiji Shrine

Meiji shrine saki

Saki barrels at Meiji Shrine

Meiji shrine grounds

Lanterns at Meiji Shirne

tea seller

Selling green tea at the Meiji Shrine

Meiji shrine roof lines

Meiji Shrine roof lines

Meiji shrine prayers

Meiji Shrine prayers

Meiji shrine wedding

Meiji Shrine wedding

Meiji shrine wedding

Meiji Shrine wedding

Harajuku hug

Me getting a free hug at Harajuku. He seems a bit disinterested and is maybe looking away in the hopes of finding a prettier client.

Harajuku girl

Harajuku girl—Harajuku is a favorite site for cosplay participants.

Harajuku girl

Harajuku girl

Harajuku girls

Harajuku girls

Roppongi doors

Roppongi doors—I thought this guy looked a bit like a decorated Tommy Lee Jones, but now I’m not so sure. He’s not quite wrinkley enough.

Roppongi Dali spider

Roppongi Dali-esque Spider. The piece which has copies in several cities around the world is by Louise Bourgeois and is titled “Mama.” Thanks to Alysa Salzberg for the reminder on the provenance.

Ryogoku Sumo Stadium

Ryogoku Sumo Stadium

Ryogoku Sumo Stadium

The address

I love the pose of the referee here

Ryogoku Sumo Stadium

Tsukiji Fish Market

Tsukiji Fish Market Auction—5:00 a.m.

Tsukiji Fish Market

Tsukiji Fish Market—$10,000 tuna. A recent single tuna sold for 9.63 million yen—that’s $118,603! They’re going to have to slice that sashimi awfully thin.

Tsukiji Fish Market

Samurai slicing

Tsukiji Fish Market

Demonstrating the quality of the tuna for the auction

Imperial district pigeon

Imperial district pigeon

Imperial district toddler

Imperial district toddler

Her Imperial Majesty the Empress Michiko of Japan

Her Imperial Majesty the Empress Michiko of Japan—waving at me.

Thanks for coming along with me. I intended this as a reflection on the beautiful things found in Japan. Because we were on business excursions when traveling to Japan, travel to the rural areas wasn’t practical. I did take some time out on one trip to take the Shinkansen (the bullet train) down to Kyoto to spend the day walking among the beautiful sacred shrines and temples. I didn’t take photos on that excursion, it felt more like a personal spiritual journey and wanted to concentrate without thinking about taking and using all the photo gear. It was well worth it.

A collection of my images from the Portland Japanese Garden set to music.

all images © 2007, 2008 barry b. doyle all rights reserved. 

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I Still ♥ New York

This was written some years ago, now reprised—another year has gone by and I continue to think about my experience at Ground Zero. These are just my own musings from shortly after the horrific events. I certainly don’t own the story, but we still share it and we share what we all went through wherever we were on September 11, 2001. 

It was a rare experience for us as a nation to come together regardless of our politics, regardless of anything else that makes us unique. People drove on the highways more politely, a form of empathy. Strangers talked to each other in the grocery store, a form of empathy. There are countless examples. We were bound, E Pluribus Unum

We have descended now into political and faith-based camps more rigidly defined than ever. From politicizing the constructions of mosques in our country as un-American to the xenophobic demonizing of others not like ourselves to the degradation of what our constitutional freedoms and obligations should mean—we are not now what we were as a people soon after September 11, 2001.

As you will see if you read a bit further, I was shocked and heartbroken at what I saw. I was more deeply moved than any other time in my life. I was angered at a seemingly incongruous disconnect at the twin tower ruins. I restrained myself, and retreated into considering what the event and aftermath meant to me.

I hope we can all take a few moments, or longer, this week to remember those we lost, what we gained, and what we’ve lost again as a nation. I don’t mean to minimize the murderous horror of fourteen years past, I’d just like to see a bit more national comity, including from me.

Thoughts from October, 2001

I normally put a photo of mine to lead my posts. I don’t have a photograph to show you. I’ll tell you why in a bit.

I don’t own this story, I was just passing through. We all were. We continue down a path that others have laid out. We can shape our destiny in the choices we make for ourselves—we can make our path our own. But it is all about the choices we make along the way, and the leaders we elect to make those choices for us.

As with most Americans, indeed as it was with most people across the world, we were united for a time in grief and solidarity.

Nous sommes tous des Américains indeed.


My wife and I were scheduled to go to Buenos Aires in the fall of 2001 for one of her business meetings. She was on the board of directors of ASAE, a national association based in Washington DC that serves the needs of association executives.

We were excited. Though we’ve traveled extensively, this would be the first time either of us ventured southward from Central America. We even upgraded to Business Class using some of her million mile travel award points, since the eleven hours on the plane wears hard on the sturdiest of lumbar structures. It was going to be great—and at the time we had a tremendous advantage in the currency exchange with Argentina.

I was in my kids’ school on September 11. I volunteered a lot. I forget what I was doing or why I was there on that day. I heard something from the library and went to investigate.

The TV was on. I saw the second plane crash into the World Trade Center. The world crashed. I really had a hard time processing what I was seeing. I don’t remember now what I was thinking then. I remember feeling drained and hollow though.

Planes.jpgIt wasn’t more than a few weeks later that the board of directors meeting scheduled for Buenos Aires in October was rescheduled to take place in NYC. We flew into La Guardia and checked into our hotel—one of the nicest I’ve been in—the Waldorf-Astoria. My bride’s time was filled with board meetings, but I was free during the day. I only had to dress up and stand next to her in the evenings at the scheduled soirees—including a dinner at Gracie Mansion where we listened to Mayor Guiliani thank the ASAE for supporting the city. He gave us NYFD ball caps with FD pins attached. I count it as an honor to have that cap.

I had mixed feelings about taking the subway down to Wall Street. I had to check my own heart and soul—my own motives for visiting the site. I did not want to make it a personal hajj to Mecca—nor to make it about me and what I was feeling. I think I did get to that respectful place by vowing to honor those lost and to honor the bravery of the police and firefighters who gave their lives trying to save those in peril.

The Blue and Red lines only went down to Canal Street Station which was about three stops before Wall Street. Even before arriving at Canal Street the odor seeped into the subway car. You couldn’t escape it. It became pervasive, nearly overpowering. Everything smelled of burnt. It was the first indication of horror, and not the last.

I got up to the street and started walking south. As you might imagine, I was overcome with emotions. I never before felt such a connection to the police and firefighters and found myself touching my forehead in an imitation of a salute—a silent thank you to some stranger in uniform—an acknowledgment of their service, bravery and loss.

St. Paul’s Chapel is a tiny 240-year-old church at Broadway and Fulton and hard up against ground zero. From just after the tragedy it became and remains a destination for pilgrims coming to honor the dead. For eight months after the World Trade Center towers fell it was also where hundreds of volunteers labored in 12-hour shifts, 24 hours a day tending to the physical, emotional and spiritual needs of the rescue, construction and security workers on the site.

When I arrived at the historic chapel I was stunned by what I saw. The entire wrought iron fence surround the church grounds was covered with stuffed toys and hand-made posters. I broke down and wept. I thought I was prepared, but I wasn’t nearly ready to see this outpouring of love and affection.

I made my way down Broadway to Albany or Carlisle Street, then west to the site. It was on one of these narrow streets that I put away my camera. There were workers in the streets, just below the surface, repairing the infrastructure and utilities. The workers had made and displayed a series of signs, mostly written out on cardboard. They were all a variation on a theme. “Please don’t take photos.” I’m convinced that what they were saying was that we needed to honor the dead in a way that did not turn the site into a tourist destination. My mixed emotions about visiting returned. I vowed to honor the requests, in spite of the many vendors across Manhattan that were selling trinkets and images. They could do that, and I’m sure for a variety of reasons—some good, some venal. I decided I would honor the requests of the workers.

Immediately after reaffirming that decision I turned the corner to Washington Street and started walking to the site. I didn’t get far. I could see the smoking hazy scene from two blocks away, the torn jagged aluminum siding from the Trade Center angling skyward.

In front of this scene was a man with a camera. His family—his wife and two daughters standing in front of that horrific carnage—were smiling for the camera. My first reaction was to get in the face of this guy and ask him if he’d seen the signs. I quickly stopped myself. It was not my place to confront or judge anyone else there. I could only decide for myself how I would handle things. I turned around and left, retracing my steps back to St. Paul’s. I lingered for some time absorbing the scene at the church and just watched the people. I must have stayed for a couple of hours, but had to get back to the hotel. I’m not one to be overly talkative, but the day’s journey to the site of terror served to make me even less communicative. It was a weight that in some ways still remains.

I know my thoughts and feelings can’t compare to those directly affected. This post does indeed sound like it’s all about me. For my friends here who know something about me, I know you will recognize my heart in this. I will not go on to now preach about the solidarity so soon lost. The last 14 years are what they are. We can all only continue to go on, but hold fast some simple ideas that helps shape our personal and collective choices: love, honor, duty, sacrifice, coming together as a nation and remembering the fallen.


Peace, سلام


Beaten with a Hammer

Spider Lilies, Lycoris radiata, in our back yard—volunteers that appear every year and last just a few days—a startling metaphor for lives cut short and all too brief.

I sat out on the back deck this morning. I was finally able to sit out on the deck for a few moments in this too slow to go dread Dallas summer delivered from the bowels of Hades.

We had rain last night that meant more than our cat Popper being pissed she was getting squishy mud between her delicate pink pads as she checked the peepholes in our fence for near trespassers. What it really meant was that many of the horde of firefighters across much of Texas could get a break from trying to put out the hell-spawned infernos that have been incinerating desiccated prairies, crops, trees, homes and people. It’s been a hell of a year indeed.

no rain

Fuel for the fires—no rain and no money for irrigation water. West of Hondo, Texas on State Highway 90

It also meant I had a few quiet moments for thought. I’m haunted, still, by something recently seen.

It’s humid from the rain. I try to decide whether to switch off the AC in the house. I hear it click on as the outside compressor fan comes to life. I hate humidity too, as much as her evil twin the heat so I let it run knowing it won’t stay on long. I see our neighbors roof above the top of our tall fence. Squirrels are having fun finally, chasing each other before they get down to business planting acorns and somehow imprinting the locations in their little memories. Maybe they can smell those fermented nuts months from now, or maybe it’s like a photograph triangulating micro benchmarks for later retrieval.

It’s all beautiful for a change, and I’m still haunted.

What is it drives men to violence and hatred? It’s more than big pickups and tiny dicks, though those are common enough indicators. Men have been on a killing spree from either Cain or some unnamed missing link—take your pick. I wish “someone else’s turn” would really happen.

Three women, Ellen Sirleaf, Leymah Gbowee and Tawakkul Karman, shared this year’s Nobel Peace Prize. I read some of the celebratory comments in different online fora and a common thread spanned all the ones I saw—that maybe it’s time for the women to be in charge of everything on the planet. Oh, to be sure, there will always be Margaret Thatchers, Phyllis Schlaflys and Sarah Palins aplenty. But for every one of those there will be a multitude more who are peaceful and progressive, sheltering and nurturing and true to the essence. I think the odds are in favor of a better job being done.


My friends Joe and Julie Delio were off on a short trip to see the Albuquerque Ballon Festival. On their way back they would take a long southern detour to stop at the Davis Mountains State Park to spend a couple of nights at the Civilian Conservation Corps 1930s-built Indian Lodge, so named for its imitative design of the Pueblo communities of the Southwest. I decided to drive down and join them in the interruption of their journey home.

Dawn at Davis Mountains State Park

and then she came

Indian Lodge just after dawn

Indian Lodge

A progression of dawn shots. It is an achingly beautiful place to spend some time. That Joe and Julie shared it made it all the more wonderful.

Beauty abounds in the spare, sere reaches of the west Texas high country. I love the big sky and big geology of it. What meager talents I have in the transcription of photography, I feel my best work is often done in open spaces such as found in the Big Bend area.

(I say “meager” deliberately, without a need for any contradiction, knowing my place on the spectrum of ability + artistry and always seeing the beauty in what others produce. I’m rarely envious and usually take such beauty as instructive and illuminating which I think is a sustaining approach both to life and photography.)

Lonely road

I love lonely roads—there’s never a worry in going slow or stopping to get out and think on the very nature of beauty. Highway 118 west of Fort Davis. A larger version is here.

Lonely roads are for bikes too.

And I returned, of course, to a favorite personal icon of beauty. It encompasses the paradox and dialectic of the beauty and profane for me. The artists of this non-commercial-functioning art installation intended (I think—I don’t really know) for it to be a social commentary pitting two elements against each other: the things we need versus the things we want.

Midday at the Prada Marfa

It was a beautiful day, the clouds were amazing and a gift for composition. Larger version is here.

Prada Marfa

A larger version is here.

Of course I don’t own the Prada Marfa store—its art or presence. It’s a personal hajj for me to view it again and again because of my affection for it. I only claim the images I’ve made of it as my own, which are really only a veneer of its substance, and yet I’m happy to place myself inside the store for a moment, if only by reflection, and transform the space it occupies showing clouds within and without. (If you click on the image itself to take you to the Flickr hosting page, you’ll see a comment left by my photographer son—a false contretemps comment as he knows what it means to me.)

And yet we see that profane dialectic I referenced above in the following image. Whether it’s mere vandalism or a contributive statement is for you to decide. I know what it means for me, and I know there are other ways as well.

Prada Marfa

I focused on the recent bullet embedded in the bullet-proof Lexan of the storefront—an attempt on my part in composing some semblance of beauty in spite of the efforts of others. I imagine the assault as a drive by shooting betraying some physical or emotional impotence. Again, I choose the words carefully—”assault” for what it portends in the rest of this story, though there is no real comparison.

Come sit a spell with me and grab a Nehi beverage from the cooler—before we get to the bad part of this story. We’ll grab a seat near the barber shop and think and talk, maybe solve some minor problems and decide what we ought to do. I don’t really think either of us will have any answer to what we’re about to see though, but it might help to take our time getting there.

Have a drink

come sit a spell

I returned to this beautiful sparsely populated corner of Texas even though I had recently visited. I don’t mind that it takes 11 or 12 hours or more to get there in my choice of how I travel—staying off the Interstates and opting instead for the beauty of blue highways. I’m not really sure how long it takes to get from Dallas to Big Bend, I’ve never kept track. It’s a long drive. Except for the freeways of Los Angeles, and not counting Alaska, Texas is the only state where you can drive for more than 15 hours and still be in the same state. One benefit of these long photo road trips is the modern hermitage—a solo driver encased in metal and glass—contemplating the fittingness once again of the song Hejira at about 85 decibels and 58 miles an hour and no one caring or even hearing when I miss the high notes. Joni Mitchell’s 1976 album is still beautiful and apt today moving forward to me and backward in time to Muhammad’s hijira from Mecca to Medina in the 7th century. I don’t know how this song gets so outside of time.

However, it was another of her songs that turned out to be prescient for me on this trip. Her Magdalene Laundries has often struck me hard over the years. It’s not just that my connections to Ireland are so recent, my parents immigrating from that beautiful and troubled island, the song speaks of the corruption of power that one gender holds, one that was evident in ways in our own family. Here it is again, with the addition of her explaining before the song what it was that inspired it.


I think it’s amazing, unconscionable, that the last Magdelene laundry only closed in 1996.


Joe wanted to stop by the Marfa Lights Viewing Center on the off chance that some aliens might happen by. We stopped in Marfa for an unremarkable dinner and headed out in the gathering darkness to the viewing center east on Highway 90. As expected, we didn’t see anything that couldn’t be terrestrially explained, but at least we could say we were there just in case. There were quite a few people gathered and a couple of them were cowboys.

Cowboy and Marfa Lights

It’s a bit dark, I know, but this is shot with my Nikon D3S at ISO 16,000 (normal ISO is usually in the range of 100-200). I couldn’t see the cowboy with my naked eyes and had to manually focus since the cam doesn’t have a light assist focus. It’s a bit grainy, but hell—ISO 16,000? Also, it was shot at 1/13 sec at f/1.4 handheld—so, not too bad.

It was blowing hard and cold at the viewing area, so we decided to pack it in and cap the evening off by counterbalancing the blasé dinner with a trip to the local Dairy Queen on the other side of Marfa for dessert.

We drove by the haunting place, Julie was the first to see it, but we were eager for ice cream so we vowed to come back and look at what caught our attention.


In what looked like an old fashioned service station, but was now according to the signs the Big Bend Coffee Roaster, we saw an enigma. It might just have been a simple art installation and it took a little while to figure out the horror stories it represented.

Random bits of white things floating in an otherwise empty and lit place.

The shapes of the suspended forms, hung by a single red thread, were beginning to make sense.

Red hand-written script on anatomical shaped plaster hearts.

In the larger version, here, you see this inscription: Carmen Patricia Ramirez Sanchez 34, 2005, Shot To Death

Every heart, every heart suspended by a single red thread, represents the death or trauma of a woman from domestic violence. Every heart had the words written out: the name, age, date and method of death or damage.

What we saw was an installation by Marfa artist Bettina Landgrebe.

The following is from Bettina’s website, and describes the installation in much better and starker terms than I could ever present.

A constellation of objects suspended in mid-air creates an impression of a gathering cloud. Approaching the work more closely, what appears as a cloud dissolves into individual human hearts; a common denominator of our humanity: a symbol of love, hope, and life. On further inspection, each heart is inscribed with answers to the following questions: Name, Age, Date and Method of Death.

While reading/listening to the systemic tone of a female voice reciting the fate of these human hearts, a terrifying emotion shutters through the room.

The body of these hearts is absent. The corporal silhouette that housed these vital organs is invisible; this body, we find out, was prematurely and unnaturally taken from these hearts.


But it is not only the body that was violated. The body of their relationships with their family, their community, and their culture was also disrupted. These hearts belonged to females of varying ages and backgrounds: to a girl, a daughter, a mother, a grandmother, a sister, a wife, a cousin, a niece, a godmother, a friend, a lover. 

However, we must remember that the death of these women will not be primarily remembered by the heinous transgressions that took their life. The life of these females goes well beyond this exhibition. They were and remain richer and more colorful than this installation or anyone could ever try to capture. But what this exhibition strives to do is to cast a stark and unflinching eye at a common red thread that is shared by these human hearts; that is, collected in this room, a system of violence emerges. 

A war is being waged on the culture of women and civil society along the border city of Juarez, Mexico. 476 hearts are testimony to this war. A war that is waged against empathy, civility, love, hope, family, community, and towards the “softer”, fragile side of life, which the war of terror and totalitarian domination views as a threat to the complete command and control of society.

It is not a war contained amongst warriors, but it is a war that devours life and replaces it with human greed and the vanity of power. The physical and psychological warfare perpetrated against women is a testament to this naked disregard for life after war. There will be no life.

copyright 2011 Bettina Landgrebe, used with permission.

The installation runs through November 19.


The name of the installation, Beaten with a Hammer, is from one of the hearts, one of the invisible silhouettes—Tomasa Chavarria Rangel, aged 54—and the method used in her murder in 2005.

I can’t really do this justice, but I can bring it to you and let you think about it. Maybe it will haunt you too.

Update: I want to personally thank Bettina Landgrebe, with whom I’ve corresponded via email, for her kind permission to allow me to use the text from her website. It’s my hope that bringing some attention to the installation will also bring attention to the horrific plight of the victims—that with more attention that there will be changes. I know what I’ve done here is just a small measure of what needs to happen. I hope also, that with this blog and with others writing about Bettina’s art in all it’s terrible beauty, that the installation will find a home at other venues across the Southwest. It just takes a spark for that to happen. If I helped in that spark, then I’m gratified to have that small part. 

You can also hear Bettina with host Tom Michael of Marfa Public Radio 93.5 talk about the installation at this link. It’s an enormously interesting interview. 

all photos copyright © 2011 by barry b. doyle · all rights reserved

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The Amalgam of Need

Ag Sn Cu Zn Hg

Relleno y Amor: A Memoir

making friends in Chajul


Look closely at the image above. Does that little girl look like an animal to you? Not in the metaphysical sense—we are all animals after all. But the customs agent at the La Aurora International Airport in Guatemala City had something else in mind.

We were aliens descending.

The plane descends. A steep banking base line turn reveals a runway swaybacked like an ancient horse. Gravity works. We land hard between gray green military planes and seem to speed up a little as we roll downhill. The uphill climb then checks our progress.

About 20 men shepherd the carts and dollies piled high with boxes and gear into a too small room in the customs area. A ranking officer approached us. I was appointed to speak since on this trip I was the only one with passable skills in Spanish.

“¿Qué haces? ¿Qué es todo esto?”

“We’re bringing in medical supplies and equipment for a dental clinic in San Gaspar Chajul.” Keep it simple I thought to myself, there’s no need to talk about building homes for widows, besides, this is about as complicated as I can get in Spanish. Tell the truth, but don’t offer anything more than what is asked.

“¿Por qué quieres hacer eso?

“We’re working for a charity medical group.”

“No, no, quiero decir. ¿Por qué quieres hacer eso para los animales? Ni siquiera son humanos.” [I’ll translate this bit—”No, no, I mean…why would you want to do that for those animals? They’re not even human.”]

I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t say anything. The officer’s face was red. I knew what he said and what he meant, I instinctively acted like I didn’t understand.

“Lo siento…mi español es muy pobre…” I trailed off. He slammed the customs papers on his desk and signed his name with a flourish.


We were free to go. We gathered our stuff—duffle bags, boxes of medicines and supplies, a reclining dental chair, a water cooled diamond tipped high speed drill, knock-down cabinets I had made in my Dallas shop packed flat for the journey and countless other things. We made our way out to a waiting Canadian-built Bluebird school bus for the short trip to a posada for the night.


Our country has an ignoble history in its dealings with Guatemala. From arranging a CIA coup to overthrow the popularly elected president Jacobo Arbenz in the late 50s to supplying the machines of war to the military dictatorships in the 80s, we have a lot to regret as a nation. The training and matériel we supplied were used in a scorched earth policy in a war the government had with its own people.

Guatemala has two major populations. The Ladinos hold most of the wealth and property. The indigenous Mayans, scattered and separated by geography and dialects comprise an equal number in population, but are desperately poor, then and now—currently most Mayan males earn less than a dollar a day.

Our support of the right-wing military governments—ostensibly to prevent Guatemala from becoming a socialist democracy—resulted in the death of 200,000 in less than 10 years with another 50,000 “disappeared.”

It’s a terrible legacy.

One tragic and cascading result was a sea of widows and orphans. Our group traveled under the auspices of The Summer Institute of Linguistics, which was doing general translation work in the dialects and translating various books of the Old and New Testaments. Our work was not evangelical per se—we built homes for widows and built a dental and medical clinic. It’s true that the work we did buttressed the work of SIL as it provided the needed component of social responsibility. The men on the trip generally didn’t care as we went to do the work and demonstrate kindness in spite of borders or cultural differences.

We Were Aliens.

In a bit of irony, we were indeed across-the-border aliens, though we might just as well have been from another planet. It wasn’t just the language that separated us, as impenetrable as Ixil was with its clicks and glottal stops. We were mostly pasty white oddly dressed aliens. (The one black man on the first trip was a curiosity to the highland Ixil—and embodied the bogey man stories that mothers told their kids when they misbehaved. Children ran screaming and giggling from him wherever he went.) The people in Chajul seemed taken with me though. While the rest of our crew was off building modest homes for widows, I was stuck in town putting together the clinics. I had lots of volunteer children for helpers. I spoke Spanish which many of the younger ones could as well, and I’m naturally tanned—so I seemed a bit less of a threat I guess. The children quickly gave me a nickname since there was no transliteration for Barry. I was known as Fresa, the word for strawberry.

Chajul kids

At the door to the dental clinic as we were getting started turning it from an empty room to something that was unlike anything else within 150 miles.

As mentioned, the indigenous peoples are separated by language dialects and terrain. Neighboring towns often have trouble communicating with one another. Even within the Ixil Triangle, where we were headed, the three towns that made up the points on the triangle had some trouble with language. San Gaspar Chajul, San Juan Cotzal and Santa Maria Nebaj all spoke Ixil, but with syntactical differences. A man from Chajul might say that a dog bit a man but one from Cotzal would hear it as the dog ate the man.

We were mostly professional men—doctors, lawyers, real estate agents, CPAs and the like—that descended into that place and time outside our own. Well, then there was me too. I was the anomaly—a stay at home dad by choice at a time in Dallas when those pursuing the mandate of greed couldn’t understand that choice.

We eventually landed, our alien horde, in the remote highland village of Chajul, the apex point on the Ixil Triangle. It was easy enough to fly south across the Gulf of Mexico. The journey from Guatemala City to Chajul belies what seemed easy on the map. In fact it took fifteen hours in that recalibrated Canadian-built Bluebird school bus to travel the same distance as if going from Dallas to Waco.


Los autobuses Trinitaria

A word to the wise—don’t sit in the back of the bus in third world countries with bad roads. The last row of seats, to which I was assigned by default as the last one on the bus, is not optimal. I wasn’t really levitating, it just seemed like there was constant daylight between my ass and the inadequately cushioned green naugahyde. One of the dentists sat across from me, arriving late with me to the bus. I don’t know how he managed to fall asleep in a sitting mode. He looked for all the world like a bobble headed doll. We were a few hours into the journey when we hit that massive pothole. I think I pulled a muscle in my back. Buddy, the dentist, hit his forehead on the railing of the seat back in front of him. He was a budding unicorn for most of the rest of the week. I’ve never seen a goose egg as big as that.

a friend

Buddy, prior to the goose egg



You can see one of the reasons the trip took so long in the image above and the ones below. We had to cross the Cordillera de los Cuchumatañes, a mountain range that separates the lowlands of Antigua and the capital with the indigenous highlands. Many of the turns on the often one-lane roads required a three-point turn on the switchbacks. Sometimes the drivers cut it too close and needed some help to extricate. A larger version of the photo above, which I love, can be found here.

la puente y lavandaria

Another delay—the bridge over the Xalbal River in Sacapulas, about half way into our journey, was a trestle bridge—with missing sections of concrete that gave us a birds eye view of the water below. The overhead trestle structure was low, so we had to unload all our gear from the top of the buses, walk it across, and then reload. You can see one of the supports for the bridge on the right above.

la puente quebrada

The current bridge, sad as it was, replaced the previous one washed away. You can see the foundation on one side of the lost bridge.

Eventually, we got to a point where we could see our destination. It was a long and bumpy road, we were anxious to get off the bus and get to work.

the view to Chajul

A view to San Gaspar Chajul. A larger view is here.

main street

Main Steet in Chajul (It doesn’t really have that name—it’s known as Highway 3 on maps.) The road ends for practical purposes at the church, though there are some rough paths beyond. You can see what looks like a buttress on the side of the church, (larger version is here) which was built in the 16th century, as the roof had partially collapsed and the walls needed the roof or a buttress to remain standing.

A photo from the following year without the buttress as the roof had been repaired

Centro de Alfabetizacion

We stayed in the SIL compound above during our time in Chajul. The sign reads Centro de Alfabetizacion Ixil Chajul Instituto Linguistico de Verano.

Arrangements were made to take over a small room near the local bodega and install the dental clinic there. It took us about 3 days to get it cleaned up, the electrical done, and for me to put together the cabinets that American Airlines allowed us to take with us on the plane for free. We had about 1000 pounds of extra gear that they donated the freight costs for us. Times have changed, but we were so thankful for their generous spirit.

We were just about done, shown below. Word got out. People were lining up after walking for miles to Chajul.

After getting the clinic done and operational, we only had two full days left to see patients. There were other dentists scheduled to visit Chajul on medical trips, and we planned on returning the next year as well.

Since I was the one that had some Spanish, I was elected to be the dentist’s assistant. I had to translate, and run the evacuation tube. I put my normal queasiness aside—although I’m not sure how—and helped as best I could. One problem was that many of the patients, and all of the older patients couldn’t speak Spanish. The girl pictured next to me below was my translator. Buddy the dentist told me what he wanted to do, I told Maria, the local girl, in Spanish and she translated that into Ixil.

the clinic

You can see the connection made here—across language, across borders, across cultures, time, age and space. I’m holding the patient’s hand, talking in a calm voice to ease the fear she has of these large and terrible aliens. The narrative in Ixil was constant in the background as well.

The Meaning

Here is where we get to the meaning of the title and subtitle of this retelling. Nearly everyone who came in had serious problems. Oral hygiene was an unknown concept for many in the remote highlands. We did instruct, we gave out toothbrushes and explained cause and effect to the best of our abilities.

They all came in wanting rellenos—fillings. They couldn’t have them though. We did do a few, but in most cases, the teeth had to be extracted and the gums stitched closed. It was not easy to see, but the need was greater than my discomfort. There was nothing more important, in the things I’ve done in Guatemala, than to demonstrate love—love turned into something real—with a touch of the hand and a calm voice.

Buddy had the materials for fillings but they were mostly unused.

Ag Sn Cu Zn Hg is the formula for an amalgam, the common filling used before we’ve changed in this country to something better, more attractive and less toxic. Ag is silver, Sn is tin, Cu is copper, Zn is zinc and Hg is mercury. That’s what I have in my mouth, I’m glad my kids do not.

The metals represent what those in Chajul wanted. It’s not what they got. Instead of the metals, they got some short-lived pain and discomfort. They had to get used to a mouth with fewer teeth. But what they got instead was a filling of love from all of those who participated in these medical and humanitarian trips.

It was not safe for us to be there. We saw burned out shells of buses on the journey up to Chajul, left charred by RPGs. There was an army base about a mile from where we slept. An army made up of Ladinos. I never saw an indigenous Mayan in a Guatemalan army uniform. One night the army decided to let us know what they thought about what we were doing. Long after we had gone to bed in our triple deck bunk beds, we heard the unmistakable thump and shriek of 105mm howitzers being fired over our compound, exploding beyond on the surrounding mountains. The story the next day was that they were targeting some rebels that were thought to be in the area, but everyone knew what the army was really saying.


I know it sounds as if this post is all about me, but forgive me for saying that would indicate a superficial reading. The themes and undercurrents to this story are easy to see. I don’t think there’s a more important lesson than to go to a place of abject poverty to realize what it is we take for granted—to see the frailty and vanity of objects and possessions and put them in their proper place. I will forever be grateful for the trips I made to the Ixil Triangle. It was a delight to hear the children who remembered, in our returns in subsequent years, that when the Trinitaria bus rolled into town, there were little chirps of recognition. “¡Fresa! ¡Fresa! ¡Fresa esta aqui!”

I’ll leave this story now with a couple of uplifting images.

One of the most important holidays for the year is Mother’s Day. There were no presents bought, there was no industry to provide a thing to purchase. The children went into the countryside and picked flowers. There was a parade with painfully tuned instruments. Everyone was happy, especially the moms.

coats of many colors

Patagonia, the outdoor clothing and gear company, had a program in the early 90s, that if you were going to a third world country, and you promised to distribute them for free, they would send you a few boxes filled with synchilla jackets that were made from remnants of their regular retail jackets. They called it the Coat of Many Colors program. I was able to take 70 or so over several years to Guatemala. I don’t know i f they’re still doing it. It’s why I still buy Patagonia stuff if I have a choice. I didn’t actually distribute the jackets. We were careful not to give things away as individuals. We gave the jackets, and other donated items, to a consortium of local pastors. They were best able to determine the neediest recipients.

Thanks so much for spending your time with me on this post. I appreciate your friendship—treasure would be a better word. Thanks.

A note on the images: this is one of the gifts from my oldest son this past Christmas—he took it upon himself to scan some negatives I had laying around. I have a lot of projects that are in various stages of thought and preparation, I’m grateful that he found meaning in this and am thankful I have such a thoughtful and giving son. He didn’t need to go out and buy something for me. He gave me his time and his love.

I was still using a film camera during my trips to Guatemala. I noticed something right away in putting this together. Many images were not recorded, except what was imprinted in my now faulty memory. Film was time and money. Digital cameras are time and pixels. I rely less on my memory with digital, but I still miss film, even though I take many, many more shots with digital to increase the chances of a lucky shot.

Images taken on a Minolta SRT101 35mm SLR with a 50mm 1.4 lens. The film was Kodak Gold 100, and as you can see, the negatives show the effects of time rattling around in a shoebox.

Update: My son, the one I mentioned above who scanned the negatives, just sent me an e-mail:

Great post, great writing, great photos, great story. it’s nice to finally fill in some blanks between your annual departure and subsequent return as a tanned, bearded, and generally unrecognizable man knocking at the front door.

all content and images copyright © 1990, 1991 and 2010 by barry b. doyle

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