WEBlog 1: A Michael Heads to the Andes
Growing up with a name like Michael can, at times, be frustrating. In elementary school there was bound to be at least one other Michael in my class and usually two others. This meant that either we’d each have to take on a derivative of the name as our own – one of us Michael, another Mike, and the third, least fortunate of us, Mikey – or, even worse we’d have to use the initial system and I’d end up being Michael K. for the whole year. The frustrations of the initial system came to an ultimate low in fourth grade during a trip to the water fountain. It was probably after gym class or recess and I along with a small group of classmates, was waiting on line. It was during this time – I think I had actually just finished my turn at the water fountain – that Roshini came up to me with some sort of important news: “Michael K., did you hear about such and such?!” Now granted, Roshini, we can’t all be blessed with such a distinct and uncommon name like yours, but for fuck’s sake, I’m the only Michael around right now! Is the “K” really necessary? It’s not that I didn’t like my name – quite the opposite, I think it’s a great one – I just wished there weren’t so many of us.
Well, in the small town of Antuyo, situated deep within the Andes Mountains, I at last got to experience the thrills and popularity that come with being the only Michael. The town consists of approximately 17 families and about 100 people, none of them named Michael. There are no stores – to buy anything meant walking forty-five minutes down the mountain to the Plaza of Ahuac. The people work in agriculture, but a limited water supply means that they have to save all of the food from a single harvest in May to hold them over for the whole year. There are no bathrooms in Antuyo, just holes in the ground. No showers – each house has a small outdoor sink which is used to bathe, to wash dishes, to prepare food and to provide drinking water for both the people and their animals. Most of the houses – though not all – have electricity and they have television sets that seem straight out of Mad Men. Indeed, family television time is a favorite activity after dinner, when it’s too dark to leave the house (not that there’s really any place to leave to). There are a few soap operas that they watch in addition to soccer games, but the families I lived with seemed to favor old spaghetti westerns – watching together as a family, the mother muttering comments about who the bad guys were while the kids looked on in amazement. Bed time is usually between 8:00 and 9:00 and everyone rises between 4 and 5 to get a jump start on the morning’s work – feeding and tending to the animals. In addition to the television, the radio is a preferred form of entertainment in Antuyo – music is always playing. All of the songs sound very similar, a form of Andean music called Santiago, played by a large horn orchestra and a female singer, who sings in a high-pitched and shrieky voice – can’t say I share their musical tastes. To be clear, when I say that music is always playing, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s playing in the house in which one is sitting (though it usually is), but even when it’s not, the radio of one of the other 16 families is bound to be reverberating off the mountains and so, music can always be heard. A few times, to ensure good sound in my film, I had to ask that the radio be turned off. This request was usually met with frustration if not outright anger.
There was a rather hilarious fascination with my name, “Michael.” My name seemed to have a certain ring to it that the people there enjoyed. They liked just saying it. “Michael,” would be uttered in the middle of a silence at dinner. “Mi-chael? Mi-chael? Mi-chael?” Roy, the five-year old whose family I stayed with, would repeat as we walked up the hill to his house after school. I can’t take credit for being the very first Michael known to Antuyo, however. The legend of Michael Jackson had preceded me. An exchange in which I introduced myself usually went like this: “What’s your name?” “Michael.” A smile and a laugh: “Michael Jackson?” No, not Michael Jackson, Michael Kleiman; I’d have to tell them that Michael Jackson had died and this was indeed, bad news. The school’s lone teacher – the class has ten kids in it ranging from 5 years old to 13 – added to the glory of my name by titling me, Mr. Michael. This title gave my name a tremendous allure as for most people in the town, “Mister” became the first English word they knew. “Mr. Michael!!!!!” I’d hear echoing off the mountain as kids called out to me as I hiked back to one of the homes. It was nice, but it became a bit of a problem during filming. I’m dreading the editing process as I’m sure over half of my footage in the school is contaminated by the sound of kids in the background screaming out, “Mr. Michael!”