Friday, April 25, 2008

Somewhere outside the Realm of Stupid

Turned on CNN last night for a few minutes. Not sure what happened to Anderson Cooper but his replacement was conducting a contest in stupid. They had a 3-person panel discussing Rev. Wright (again) because apparently he gave an interview or something.

I'd just like to point out 3 things:

1. Obama wasn't there when Wright said "G*d Damn America" and has since rejected the remarks.

2. John McCain actively sought out the endorsement of Rev. Hagee, a bigoted evangelical who called Katrina God's punishment for New Orleans' sin and reiterated those remarks just days ago yet there has been hardly a peep out of the media over that.

3. Wright was and is right. There are two Americas. We have yet to achieve equality and there is much work to be done. The only controversial thing in this statement is the "God Damn" part:

"The government gives them the drugs, builds bigger prisons, passes a three-strike law and then wants us to sing 'God Bless America.' No, no, no, God damn America, that's in the Bible for killing innocent people"


"God damn America for treating our citizens as less than human. God damn America for as long as she acts like she is God and she is supreme."

He should of course be ashamed for using the Lord's name in vain since as a preacher he should, you know, believe in the bible and stuff. But his argument has the ring of truth. We locked up hundreds in Guantanamo Bay, denied them of their fundamental human rights, and tortured them to boot. Our prisons are full of black men and women and instead of rethinking the dynamic that created that situation, we rush to build more. Our cities are decaying from within because of poverty and drugs and instead of looking for creative solutions, we continue a "war on drugs" that accomplishes nothing, costs billions, and incarcerates hundreds of thousands on relatively minor offenses. And that doesn't even begin to address the plight of inner city education, the hopelessness and despair that envelops communities that are forgotten and have little or no hope, or the increasing disparity between the haves and haves-not.

But no, we don't want to talk about that. Instead, we just want to say, "He said 'God Damn America'! He must hate America! He's unpatriotic! And, hint, hint, he knows Barack Obama! Can't let those uppity blacks take over the nation! Look what they believe!" Etc. And CNN, ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox and everyone else are willing players in that game. For shame.

But even beyond our domestic troubles, what is controversial about this statement:

"We bombed Hiroshima, we bombed Nagasaki, and we nuked far more than the thousands in New York and the Pentagon, and we never batted an eye...We have supported state terrorism against the Palestinians and black South Africans, and now we are indignant because the stuff we have done overseas is now brought right back to our own front yards. America's chickens are coming home to roost,"

These things are true. We did bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki, not because we needed to, but as a warning to the Soviets. We did support the apartheid state of South Africa and we do unquestioningly support Israel even while they expand settlements into Palestinian areas, create virtual apartheid, and refuse to honestly negotiate. And we have done more and worse here in South America and across the globe either out of our own arrogance or stupidity and then we are surprised that someone comes after us? Perhaps we, as a culture, don't want to hear the ugly truth about the bloody work we've done across the globe in the last 70 years. But denying something doesn't mean it doesn't exist and frankly, I find it heartening that at least some community somewhere in the Realm of Stupid is acknowledging our role in 9/11, in fostering inhumane conditions around the world, and ultimately, in withering the American Empire prematurely.

So we shall diminish for our politics lead us down the road of arrogance, ignorance, and deceit. Much like every empire before us, we castigate truthsayers, reward the fable tellers, and march on oblivious to our own impending doom. It will be a harsh blow to White America's sense of exceptionalism. But the blow will be struck, sooner now than many think for we have squandered the chance to cement the American example as different, as better than history. Instead, we have written yet another chapter in the long history of failed empires and uninspired ideas.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Hillary and the Truth

Holy carp. I can't believe I missed this article back in January. Did anyone realize that in 1995, when she met Sir Edmund Hillary, the famous explorer who scaled Everest, she actually told him that she was named after him? Which would have been ever so cute except that Hillary they Explorer became famous 6 years after Hill came to this earth. What kind of maniacal liar do you have to be to just make shat up like that on the spot?

I guess that explains why she seems to think that she's leading in the popular vote count. But then again, in Hill's little world, no vote for Obama counts and every vote for her counts twice. Somebody slap me with a salmon fish. America has gone from dumb to dumber.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

More information about Bolivia

On May 4th, there will be a referendum in Bolivia which will decide two issues. The first measure limits the maximum size of an estate to either 10,000 hectares or 5,000 hectares. The second measure is the approval of a new constitution which, controversially, states that the government should have exclusive ownership of all natural resources.

This referendum has produced a political crisis in the land-locked nation that threatens to divide the country into two. The wealthy provinces and traditional power holders are situated to the East while the poorer and ethnically indigenous populations are to the West. For obvious reasons, the wealthy territories have no desire to give up land or resource rights that they have “earned” from previous administrations and it remains to be seen what actions they would take if President Morales wins this resolution. It should be noted that Morales has pledged that there will be no violence or militarization, although that statement was based on his “confidence” on the opposition to accept vast reduction in their personal wealth.

As I previously mentioned, getting reliable, English language news about Bolivia is not an easy proposition. So the story that I told above may very well have some inaccuracies. I have not the time at the moment to search through Spanish language sources to confirm it. Case in point, Forbes is reporting that the May 4th constitution vote has been delayed “indefinitely”. I presume that the vote on estate size will go forward.

At any rate, one issue that does seem clear is that the US government is intimately involved in the proceedings. Morales is an anti-US leftist who has closely aligned himself with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. And he has accused the CIA of trying to bring him down. Normally I would suggest that such talk is just that…talk. But then comes this bit from the Washington Note:

In a little covered speech at the UN earlier this week, Morales denounced the rich in his country for trying to stop his social programs and foreign companies which put their products before people's lives. So why is the CIA so interested in what happens in Bolivia on May 4th? Why are there so many American agents scurring around La Paz these days? (Bold Mine)

Given the long history of US CIA led involvement in controlling leftist politics and promoting the right, no matter how brutal and unwise such a move might be combined with a minimal level of confirmation from a legitimate foreign policy player in DC, I’d say this rumor has legs. Is the Bush administration playing Peter Piper again? Are they trying to stick their fingers in the eye of a legitimate political process which might actually be in the best interest of the country involved?

There can, obviously, be no clear answer to those questions. But given US history, this president, and the way American “interests” are so narrowly defined, I’d suggest that it’s likely the US is using all of its covert might to block and/or forestall any vote on the new constitution. After all, anything that threatens US business is a de facto threat to our national security these days, isn’t it?


Thursday, April 17, 2008

Scuba Training

Apparently, last night’s debate was an unmitigated disaster for ABC. But really, did you expect anything different from Charles Gibson? The man is a serial distorter of facts (see his view that $200,000 is a solid middle class annual income in America), exhibit 1A in everything that is wrong with American television “journalism”, and should have been fired long ago. Sometimes it’s good to not get the necessary television channel.

Anyway, rather than rehash second hand information about how craptacular last night’s debate was, I thought I’d talk about Scuba Diving today. We’ve been taking the PADI Open Water Diver course this month. It’s 5 classroom sessions and 3 pool dives, followed by qualification dives in Cartagena. The classroom work gives you a basic understanding of what’s happening (scientifically) during a dive, proper safety procedures, equipment handling, underwater communication, etc. It’s all very interesting and relevant. And it’s not at all difficult to learn or understand (even in Spanish).

The pool dives, though, are where you get your first taste of what scuba diving really means. And you do a lot of practice type activities including: taking your mask off and putting it back on under water, under water flotation, how to handle emergency situations, how to swim underwater, etc. It’s very cool and I can’t wait to actually get in the ocean and have my first, “Krikey! Did you see that!” Steve Irwin moment.

What I would say, however, is that pool diving is a fairly disgusting thing. Swimming pools are, without a doubt, extremely dirty, germ infested, habitats. We just don’t see it. But when you get in the pool, with the mask, you see the dirty truth. And, to make things worse, wearing the mask, things look bigger than they actually are. So when you see that collection of pubic hair floating ever so gently, your first reaction is, “Holy Sh*t! Someone’s pubes got ripped out!” This does not make for pleasant dinner time conversation.

At any rate, diving takes some getting used to and the pool is a necessary evil. And we’ve finished that part of the course, so I don’t have to get back in that pool ever again. In fact, we just have to take our “final exam” and then do our qualification dives at the end of the month. So I’m quite hyped up by that.

As to diving in general, I definitely recommend it to those who want to have a totally awesome nature experience that doesn’t involve climbing great heights or traipsing about steamy tropical jungles. The marketing materials suggest that on one dive you will see more natural species than you would in anywhere else in the world, doing anything else. Plus, when you’re down there, you can get ideas about what to have for lunch.

I should also add that diving isn’t a particularly taxing activity physically (if you do it right). Obviously you have to have some level of physical stamina or ability, but with weight belts and big ass fins and inflatable vests and whatnot, you don’t actually have to do much to move about and see the good stuff. At this point, I highly recommend the activity. A full report will follow our qualification dives, of course.


Wednesday, April 16, 2008

I’m a lazy blogger

Well, I could make excuses and say I had nothing to write about but instead, I’ll just fess up. I’m the worst kind of blogger. I write when I feel like it. And that makes for unreliability.

Anyway, to explain my thought process, I had it in mind to write about the whole “bitter” dustup. But then I remembered that American politics has been reduced to the absurdly stupid. When people seriously think there is a scandal about a man saying that poor people might be bitter about their circumstances, then we have really reached the bottom. So I discarded that figuring that if anyone was really interested to read or hear about that, they could tune in to any number of blogs or non-qualified TV personalities who think they are experts on everything when they’re really experts on nothing.

After that, I thought about writing about the events in the Candelaria of late. You’ll remember that it’s the part of Bogota in which I work. Of late, it’s routinely smelled like foul armpit odor (and I mean blocks and blocks of it), although, to be fair, the city has dispatched some cleaning crews to square things away. But I discarded that as well since I didn’t want to offend the oversensitive high schooler who reads any criticism of Colombia as an indict on the country, the culture, and everything that it has to offer.

So then I turned to other machinations of my brain. There was a hint of an idea somewhere but then I lost it so I’m guessing it must not have been that good.

So finally, I decided I would put up a complaint about my Ipod. Now, I have one of those super-mini Ipods that holds 1 gig and is about 1 inch by 1 inch in size. My wife got it free when she changed her pension company so any complaint I make here really has to be taken with a grain of salt. Anyway, I’ll start by saying that the Ipod randomizer is the least randomizing randomizer ever. I changed about 30% of my library the other day and expected that I would start hearing some of those new songs. Over the course of 2.5 hours of listening (bus rides and the gym), I heard 1 new song. In the same period, I heard 3 or 4 songs at least 3 times. Somebody get Steve Jobs on the phone.

Really though, my bigger question has to do with the earphones. I don’t know if I have abnormally shaped earlobes or if the Ipod is just not well designed but for some reason, I can’t maintain the “right” earplug in my right ear. It falls out. Yet, I don’t have that problem when I put it in my left ear. And, on top of that, the right earphone emits sound louder than the left. Any ideas on why that is? It’s not just my earplugs either. My wife, after seeing how useful an Ipod can be, bought one for herself and her’s are exactly the same. So any Ipod aficionados out there with answers to these critically important questions please chime in. Let me know if it’s just me or if there is some Ipod support group I can join.

Finally, I’ll conclude this missive by stating the obvious: I’m hungry, bored, and without a point. Somebody get me a burrito.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Comment Moderation On

So any wanker high schoolers who get 5 minutes of internet time during remedial study hall shouldn't be able to post barely literate scribes about how much I hate Colombia.

Monday, April 07, 2008

Peru Wrapup

A combination of laziness and busyness have combined to drag on this whole "talk about Peru" thing on forever. So I'm going to try to wrap it up here.

Our last leg of the trip was a quick journey to Paracas. It's about 4 hours south of Lima by bus (and the bus is very nice by the way - sorta like what flying used to be only add Bingo and desert scenery) and on the coast. This part of Peru is basically one giant desert. Not much to see aside from the coastline (which is beautiful at times), some farms (sorta Star Wars-esque), and lots of sand. Also, Paracas was pretty much leveled in last year's earthquake, so there is basically no place to stay there. The hotel we would have stayed at is currently 1 floor. I have no idea how many floors it used to be, but I know it was more than one.

So, we stayed in a small town about 45 minutes inland called Ica. This would be a pretty nothing town except that it's astride a desert oasis - yeah, the kind you think about in Lawrence of Arabia or something. We were only there for a very short period of time (less than 12 hours total) but it was very cool. My wife even climbed up a huge sand dune and rolled back down. She loved the sand.

At any rate, the sole reason to travel to Paracas is to go to Islas Ballestas which is a rock island about 40 minutes off the coast that has penguins and sea lions. Early on Easter Sunday, we hopped into a boat with about 30 other people, and jetted out to the island. On the way you can see a giant Incan "drawing" on a rocky coast that is called the "Candlestick". They really have no idea where it came from or what it's function was and there is no organic matter there so they can't even carbon date it. Very cool.

Anyway, Islas Ballestas is, like I said, a giant island of rock that holds an uncountable number of birds in addition to pengiuns and sea lions. The birds produce such an enormous quantity of guano that they actually harvest it and sell it as fertilizer. So if you ever see fertilizer with the words "made in Peru" or "imported from Peru", that's where it came from. I wasn't terribly interested in the guano (no matter how many times our tour guide proudly declared its importance) or even the birds for that matter. It was the penguins and sea lions that got my gander up.

I can confirm that, in the wild, penguins do stand around doing nothing. They are awfully cute and it's easy to understand why penguins are so personified in animation. You can just imagine them with glasses and a bow tie giving a lecture on particle physics. As far as appearances go, penguins come across as distinguished and clever.

The sea lions stole the show, however. Our first encounter was with a female sea lion teaching a baby how to swim. She was somewhat aggrieved by our passage but probably more concerned with her baby than anything. Either way, she chatted us up a bit fiercely all the while encouraging her little one to keep at it. We found at least one other mother teaching her cub to swim.

And then we found the men. When the women are doing all the work, what are the men doing? Lazing on the beach while having a talk-about. I imagine they were debating England's World Cup chances or something given how loudly and boisterousy they were arguing, although I did not see a bar anywhere. The male sea lions were also rather fat compared to the females which I guess makes sense. If you sit around all day going on about the merits of English football versus Peruvian football instead of actually doing some of the work around the house, you'll fatten up quick.

After our excursion to the island, we had about 5 hours to relax in Paracas before our bus back to Lima. We essentially did nothing but walk around, have lunch, and sleep a bit. It was very nice.

On the last night I was in Lima, my wife and I stayed at the conference hotel which is a lovely 5-star joint in San Isidro called "Las Delfines" or "The Dolphins". I only mention it because it has a large tank that contain two Dolphins that swim about and do tricks. They were apparenty injured in the wild and now can not be returned to their natural habitat. In the basement of the hotel is a bar which is partially under the tank. We had a drink there and watched as one of the dolphins swam about. He was very graceful. The other one was a bit of a sluggard though. At first we thought he was dead but then we realized he was sleeping. Either way, it's pretty cool drinking a pisco sour in the middle of a dolphin tank. I think I should build a hotel and call it "The Sharks" or "The Hammerhead" or something and then equip it accordingly.

In conclusion, Peru was a very nice trip, albeit a short one. I heartily recommend it. As I said before though, minimize your time in Cusco and plan more days. Cusco just isn't worth it and you really need more than a week in Peru. Instead of Cusco, visit Ollantaytambo which is the site of some Incan ruins relatively near Macchu Pichu or just hike the Incan trail. We missed out on the Nazca lines as well which I gather is a must see kind of deal. With more time, you can visit Paracas then go to Nasca before returning to Lima or possibly continuing south to Arequipa and then on to Cusco/Macchu Pichu (completing a circle). There are various options. Finally, the question of when to go comes up frequently. I recommend end of March, beginning of April. Any later than that and you're going to run into some serious crowds and it will prove more expensive. And if you're gonna book a trip the week before Easter, book in advance. A lot of people travel in Peru that week and you don't want to get screwed out of hotels and/or buses.


Friday, April 04, 2008

An Interlude

I have one more post to go on Peru but I wanted to briefly comment on developments in one of Latin America's poorest countries - Bolivia. I know very little about Bolivia. I know it's poor, it's landlocked, and it has a left of center president, but that's about it. I've never been there, I have no plans to visit, and any knowledge I have is from watching the news.

That being said, Bolivia may very well fragment into two or more countries in the coming months. I know, haven't heard anything about it in the US, right? Well that's because the US news media is more of a giant tabloid than an informative source of information. Down here, we get "international news" that is more than just 30 seconds on Iraq. RCN, Caracol, and CM&I all have extensive international coverage which, objectively speaking, it about 1 quadrillion times better than what you find on the nightly news in the US.

At any rate, the Bolivians, as I understand it, have been negotiating a new constitution of late and this has created a lot of controversy - for what sounds like similar reasons to what we find in Iraq. Namely, about half the country is "rich" and the other half, not so much. From what I gather, the "rich" states (departments) are threatening to succeed from the union. I don't have a particularly good read on this as the english language coverage is, shall we say, lacking and the coverage that does exist is extremely confusing and lacking in necessary context for uninformed readers (like me). One thing that is clear from watching the news down here, however, is that this crisis is worth watching. For one, if Bolivia does have a succession, it will likely be bloody. The army has already issued omnious warnings. But on the other hand, if they do peaceably resolve the crisis and create a stronger Bolivia, their methods and solutions could be illustrative of a way forward in Iraq.

Update: I should clarify that when I say "rich" and allude to Iraq, I'm speaking of natural resources. One issue of contention is the idea that the national government has "domain" over natural resources - i.e. its state property. For obvious reasons, the wealthy class isn't so hot on that idea.


Thursday, April 03, 2008

Cusco, Aguas Calientes, Macchu Pichu

Cusco, the city from which you must embark to get to Macchu Pichu, is one giant crap fest. As my wife said in the ultimate backhand compliment, “It looks better at night”. We arrived on a Wednesday after taking an early flight from Lima. The first thing you notice is that the entire city seems to be constructed from gray clay bricks. It’s kinda like seeing the colors of the rainbow except the exact opposite.

In Cusco, we took the “city tour”. I put that in quotes because Cusco has a huge tourism industry (wildly varying statistics about how big it is depending on your tour guide) and all of the companies offer the exact same tour. You see some cathedrals, some old Incan buildings, an Incan fort, some crap we skipped because it was freezing ass cold, and last, an overpriced market.

Now, I’m not generally big on tours. I’ve always preferred to explore on my own. Even if you miss a little here and there, you see a little more and what you want to see. That being said, the “city tour” was craptacular because our guide spoke rough, hard to understand English (we took the English language tour for my mother’s sake), it’s long, it’s cold as a brick when you finish up (elevation: 11,000 feet or so), and you end up getting rushed through the interesting stuff so that you can do more. My advice, skip it and/or dress more warmly.

At any rate, the Incan stuff is all very cool and interesting. The Spanish cathedrals, not so much. (Let’s just say, a cathedral every now and then is interesting and all, but not terribly unique.) The tour does make it easier to get to the Incan fort (outside of the city) and two other sites (only one of which we got off the bus and visited), but I’m willing to guess that hiring a taxi is both easy and economical. (I should note – Cusco is about 3 times more expensive than Lima. Never buy anything in Cusco because you can get the exact same product in Lima for a lot less.)

We did eat well in Cusco, however, and I won’t spit on that. I had Lomo Saltado which is a “national dish” (or so they say) of cubed steak sautéed with red onions and tomatoes in a soy based sauce. It’s good although I think it’s lacking something. I actually cooked it last week when I got home and found that it’s easy to make. I spruced up the sauce a bit and I like my improvements although I used lower quality meat. Either way, the food got the thumbs up, again.

The following morning we took the first train from Cusco to Aguas Calientes. This is the only way to get to Macchu Picchu from what we were told. There is no road that goes all the way to Aguas Calientes and this is a source of regular protests from cabbies and bus drivers (who block the tracks and things like that). While I agree with their position (the train IS a monopoly), I would be mighty pissed were I to lose out on seeing Macchu Pichu, THE reason for visiting Peru, due to some protest that was only tangentially related to me about a cause which I could literally do nothing about. Fortunately, we were protest free.

The train zig-zags up the hill around Cusco until finally it crosses over it and heads down into a valley. Macchu Picchu is about 3000 feet lower than Cusco (about the same elevation as Bogota) and it takes about 3:45 minutes to go from Cusco to Aguas Calientes. I’ve always been somewhat of a train aficionado. I love the way a train ride reveals the landscape around mountain bends and tunnels. So even if there were other options, I would likely take the train. This part of Peru is very similar to what one would see in Colombia driving through the Andes except the mountain peaks are snow-capped in Peru. That is to say – it’s utterly gorgeous.

The train cuts through the mountain chains and follows along a river most of the way before finally depositing a horde of tourists in Aguas Calientes. This is a small town that only exists because of Macchu Pichu. As soon as you leave the train station (and meet your guide – who I would recommend heartily for visiting Macchu Pichu) you cross through a makeshift craft market and meet your bus. The bus whisks you away up the side of a mountain. It’s a harrowing journey across hard packed dirt roads with dizzying drop-offs. When you near the top, you get your first view of Macchu Pichu, a view which, as my wife said, “looks fake” and “can’t be real”. This, in fact, was the perfect description. Macchu Pichu indeed is almost unbelievable. It’s unbelievable that the Incans could build it just so and it’s unbelievable that it was never found by the Spaniards and destroyed.

The bus drops you off in front of the only hotel “in” Macchu Pichu. It’s something like $1000/night so needless to say, we didn’t stay there. The entrance to the city is just up a flight of stairs and from there, the city stretches out before you. Instead of entering the city directly, however, the path leads up the mountain to (essentially) the end of the Incan Trail where you can overlook the ruins below you. I have not the words to accurately describe the awesome feeling that overcomes you when you behold the city from such a vantage point. Instead, I will say the following. Prior to arriving at the city, I wondered why the Incans would want to build a city atop a mountain given the difficulties involved. It seemed pointless. That question was instantly answered. That whole area is surrounded by the Andes and in the middle are two or three mango shaped “rocks” that look as if they were plunged into the earth by God’s hand. Atop one of those “rocks”, the Incans found a place where they could literally feel closer to God. It is without a doubt the most beautiful and impressive scene I have ever witnessed.

At any rate, eventually we climbed down to the city proper and went about a tour. The heights weren’t terrible although I admit to not being entirely comfortable. Some people, however, just threw caution to the wind. Tourists were walking all about the tiered farming areas one of whom I thought must have had a death wish. Fortunately, there were no incidents. (Although that hasn’t always been the case. A number of people have died in Macchu Pichu and there is a risk to be managed there. As a UNESCO world heritage site and “new wonder of the world” Peru is prohibited from altering the site in any way which means there are no safety ropes of any kind anywhere.)

We left the city feeling replete and hungry. There was more to see but we were tired and hot. Fortunately, the weather was absolutely perfect but it does make for thirsty work climbing about the lost city. For future travelers, I would recommend using lots of sunscreen, carrying water with you, and bringing rain gear (you never know in March/April). Also, disregard any and all information that says you can’t bring X, Y, and Z into the city. It’s all nonsense. Peru should be policing the site more carefully, but the truth is, they’re not. Feel free to bring in your bottled water and walking stick but please, take care not to pollute or damage the site in any way.

We lunched in the very expensive hotel. They have a buffet that is something like $30 per person that our travel agency had booked for us. It was good. I remember the suckling pig and roast beef as the standouts. Not worth $30 a head, but I wasn’t complaining at the time. And that was that. We didn’t return to the city instead opting for Aguas Calientes and rest. We were tired and rain was threatening so it seemed like a good decision. Now, I wish we had had more time. Perhaps someday I shall return.

We ate well in Aguas Calientes. I had Alpaca which is more or less a llama. It was great. It’s like white steak and allegedly has zero cholesterol (I say allegedly because it seems that every tour guide has their list of “facts” which more often than not contradict other tour guides). We also did some shopping and exploring. The next day, just after lunch, we got back on the train and said goodbye to the town and the lost city of the Incans. I, for one, was entirely satisfied with that experience, even if it left me wanting for more.

The conclusion: I have only visited one place in the world (including Europe, Japan, Korea, Hong Kong, North America, Colombia) that I would consider a "do not miss in your lifetime" place and that is Macchu Pichu. It's an amazing place for it's geography alone but seeing a basically 100% preserved Incan city is like stepping into the past in a most real and authentic way (minus human sacrifices). If you have the chance, take it. The city (or access to it) won't be there forever.


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