Saturday, May 31, 2008

The View From Above

Here's a panoramic view of Cuzco, Peru, seen from the yard of the hostel I'm staying in. It's a great place to take a nap in during the day, but it's bitterly cold at night. (It's winter down here!) Pictured are Carlos, from Spain, and Yury, the hostel's jack of all trades. (Click on photo for more detail; forgive crappy Photoshop skills.)

Friday, May 30, 2008

Thank God for Less-Strict Pharmacy Laws

Something got seriously out of wack in my back after my misadventure in Lima, and I've been down for the count for the last two days, unable to even tie my shoes (if I had shoelaces, that is). So it was with great relief--both mental and physical--that I found an adequately powerful muscle relaxant available from my local pharmacy. They aren't cheap, though, so I'm considering putting a donation button on this blog, as I get the most webpage hits after I blog about the events in which I received the most body hits. (What's up with that, folks? Negative reinforcement?) After all, I'm taking all this abuse for your reading pleasure--nothing else.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

One Tough Dick

I've just finished the Library of America's Raymond Chandler: Later Novels and Other Writings. It's a bleak read, punctuated at times with bitter humor, but guided from start to finish by a cynicism and loneliness that's staggering in intensity. Chandler's antihero, Philip Marlowe, is a shopworn P.I. who, against his better judgment, involves himself in case after case that lay open the callousness of L.A. society. The Lady in the Lake, the first novel in the collection, is a meditation on loneliness and loss, with the male characters in the story portrayed as empty shells after betrayals by women, or after betraying themselves. Typically for Chandler, the women are conniving, brutal, and far more intelligent than the men, always a step ahead in the arabesque-like plot, until Marlowe, of course, exposes the devious intrigue. The Little Sister is a scathing indictment of Hollywood's promiscuity and self-regard. Here, Chandler's villain is a young woman who not only blackmails her own movie-star sister, but is willing to kill her own brother to further her nefarious agenda. Add dope-peddling physicians and one hard-drinking private eye, and Chandler's nihilistic recipe is complete. Even the somewhat sympathetic characters, in this case a Mexican (or is she?) fledgling starlet--and man eater--meets a poetic fate:
When they cracked open the door he was sitting on the couch holding her pressed against his heart. His eyes were blind and there was bloody foam on his lips. He had bitten through his tongue.

Under her left breast and tight against the flame-colored shirt lay the silver handle of the knife I had seen before. The handle was in the shape of a naked woman. The eyes of Miss Dolores Gonzales were half open and on her lips there was the dim ghost of a provocative smile.

"The Hippocrates smile," the ambulance intern said, and sighed. "On her it looks good."

He glanced across at Dr. Lagardie who saw nothing and heard nothing, if you could judge by his face.

"I guess somebody lost a dream," the intern said. He bent over and closed her eyes.

In The Long Goodbye, Chandler explores the themes of love and friendship, but, being Chandler, only sorrow and loneliness result for Marlowe. From a distance, Marlowe follows the seeming dissipation and death of his alcoholic friend, Terry Lenox. But what seems isn't so, and Marlowe once again is betrayed, finally figuring out in the end, as he always does, what the true story is. And the story is never pretty.

Finally, Playback, the last Philip Marlowe book, is a more straightforward detective tale. In it, Chandler questions conventional notions of morality, and Marlowe discards his business ethics at times to pursue his own agenda--mostly involving bedding the beautiful object of his investigation. Throughout the novel, questions are raised about the nature of God and evil in the world, the first of which Marlowe is unqualified to answer, the second of which he has much experience with. An unusual passage follows, in which an elderly man questions Marlowe as to the nature of the world and the existence of God:

Very small things amuse a man my age. A hummingbird, the extraordinary way a strellitzia bloom opens. Why at a certain point in its growth does the bud turn at right angles? Why does the bud split so gradually and why do the flowers emerge always in a certain exact order, so that the sharp unopened end of the bud looks like a bird's beak and the blue and orange petals make a bird of paradise? What strange deity made such a complicated world when presumably he could have made a simple one? Is he omnipotent? How could he be? There's so much suffering and almost always by the innocent. Why will a mother rabbit trapped in a burrow by a ferret put her babies behind her and allow her throat to be torn out? Why? In two weeks she would not be able to recognize them . . . .

There are grave difficulties about the afterlife. I don't think I should really enjoy a heaven in which I shared lodgings with a Congo pygmy or a Chinese coolie or a Levantine rug peddler or even a Hollywood producer. I'm a snob, I suppose, and the remark is in bad taste. Nor can I imagine a heaven presided over by a benevolent character in a long white beard locally known as God. These are foolish conceptions of very immature minds. But you may not question a man's religious beliefs however idiotic they may be. Of course I have no right to assume that I shall go to heaven. Sounds rather dull, as a matter of fact. On the other hand how can I imagine a hell in which a baby that died before baptism occupies the same degraded position as a hired killer or a Nazi death-camp commandant or a member of the Politburo? How strange it is that man's finest aspirations, dirty little animal that he is, his finest actions also, his great and unselfish heroism, his constant daily courage in a harsh world-how strange that these things should be so much finer than his fate on this earth. That has to be made somehow reasonable. Don't tell me that honor is merely a chemical reaction or that a man who deliberately gives his life for another is merely following a behavior pattern. Is God happy with the poisoned cat dying alone in convulsions behind the billboard? Is God happy that life is cruel and only the fittest survive? The fittest of what? Oh no, far from it. If God were omnipotent and omniscient in any literal sense, he wouldn't have bothered to make the universe at all. There is no success where there is no possibility of failure, no art without the resistance of the medium. Is it blasphemy to suggest that God has his bad days when nothing goes right, and that God's days are very, very long?

But in the end of this, Marlowe's last recorded adventure (although his spirit certainly lives on today in the movies and in print), even our intrepid P.I. is accorded a measure of hope. The phone rings, and it's his acknowledged love, introduced back in The Long Goodbye, who beseeches him to fly to Paris to marry her. Marlowe, of course, refuses. But there remains a possibility that they might unite.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Mysterious Parade of Food

I'm here in Cuzco, once the capital of the mighty Incan empire. How things change ....

I ran into a parade yesterday, full of colorful costumes, music, and dancing. I'm not sure what they were celebrating, but here is a short video and some pictures of the festivities.

There were 50 to a hundred different groups of people, each group dressed in its own costume ranging from traditional Andean dress (bowler hats on the women, with colorful round dresses) to the bizarre (there was a group dressed as hobos, with fake gray beards; pictured to the right).

At the head of each group in the parade were signs displaying that group's affiliation. Comite de Huevos, Comite de Jugos (Egg Committee, Juice Committee)--perhaps they were proud of their food. I don't know. I asked a passerby what it was all about, but his Spanish was too fast, and he didn't stick around to repeat what he said.

Nearby was an outdoor food court, where one could watch the cooks roast up cuy (guinea pig) over a hot fire. I opted to hit the supermarket and buy groceries--rice and beans for me, no rodents, please. I think I'll form the Comite de Frijoles y Arroz.

Beaten but Unbowed, and Really Achey

One can't truly claim to be on an adventure until adversity strikes, and strike adversity did the other night in Lima, Peru. I had arrived there early on Thursday morning, having taken a 14-hour, 1,000-kilometer bus ride down the coast from Piura, a city in the extreme north of the country. I only had a half-hour nap that day, after sleeping very fitfully on the bus due to a screaming brat that kept everyone awake through at least half the trip (I've never fantasized so vividly about hurting a child; video below is from the bus ride, some audio of the kid is there from before his hours-long fit).

So perhaps I can claim that exhaustion dulled my facility for sensing danger later that night. Or perhaps the alcohol I had drank earlier, with an Irishman (of course) at a local pub, did the dulling.

Nevertheless, after stopping for a quick nibble at a chicken shack, I was walking toward the neighborhood of Barranca, what the Lonely Planet guidebook dubs the hip place to grab a cheap drink. Unfortunately, I've been relying on found guidebooks throughout my trip, being the cheapie that I am and not wanting to invest $30 in a new guide. Therefore I didn't have the handy map that comes with the book, as the previous owner had ripped it out for easy access without having to trundle around the entire 1,000-plus-page book. So I was navigating by word-of-mouth from passersby and traffic cops, which I have found to work perfectly well in the past. This night, however, I fatuously decided after 45 minutes of walking that I knew the city better than the kind folks who had so far pointed out the way, and I proceeded to chart a course through a residential area that I knew, with my infallible sense of direction, was the only thing that stood between me and a drinker's paradise of block after block of imbibing establishments created by God especially for me.

Well, what at first looked like a perfectly respectable neighborhood quickly devolved into a sinister array of single-story adobe shacks, brown and sloppy-looking under the few lampposts that cast more shadows on the unpaved streets than they lit anything up. The few businesses that operated there were in the process of closing; the proprietors were slamming their shutters down as I walked by, giving me a piteous look as if they were thinking, "This gringo shouldn't be here at this time." At the same time, as I noticed the increasing numbers of shifty young men milling around on the street, I voiced the exact same sentence in my head. I thought to myself that it would be a good time to turn around and walk directly back to the busy, well-lit thoroughfare that I had left behind about five blocks ago, but I didn't want any of the young men who were now studying me with such interest to perceive any weakness I might have. So, in a very casual manner, I crooked my neck to glance behind me, to study any possible avenue of escape if things turned sour.

Things were already sour. Instead of glancing up the street behind me, I instead found three young men in midair about to land squarely on top of me. In the kind of time distortion that only happens during car crashes (which I've witnessed) and battle (which I haven't), it seemed about 30 seconds passed by while the young men flew through the air on top of me. During this entire time, I was preoccupied with trying to switch my cigarette from my right hand to my left. It seemed important at the time. So much for my fight instincts. I should have just slammed it into the nearest guy's face. But the point was moot in the end, as when they finally landed on me--more or less all at the same time; it was beautifully choreographed--we all went crashing to the ground, me on bottom, them on top.

What happened next is a bit unclear, but I do remember thinking to myself that I had two options: I could give up, hand them my money, and hope they wouldn't hurt me. Or I could fight back, hope they had no weapons, and that none of the other young men gathered around would try to get in on the action. (Looking back, it seemed to be a bit similar to a Marlan Perkins Mutual of Omaha show, with Marlon intoning, "Looks like that wildebeest is fighting back! But oh no! Here come some other members of the lion pack .... One of them just ripped out the poor animal's hamstring--looks like the fight's over now!) I also remember thinking that I had both my passport and my ATM card on me. If they were to get either of them, I'd be seriously screwed.

So I did fight back, but not effectively as I might have. Instead of regaining my footing, where I would have a tremendous advantage, being 6-foot-2 in a land of relative pygmies, I grabbed as much of their clothing as I could and tried .... Well, I don't know what the hell I was trying. Maybe to smother them, to immobilize them, to hug them, make them feel embarrassed? Whatever it was, it must have worked, because although at one point one of them did manage to grasp my large black-leather notebook that was hanging out of my back pocket (it must have looked like a gigantic wallet, I think)--which I then knocked out of his hand and managed to reclaim, in another kind of stereotypical movie scene where the villain and the hero both see the gun at the same time and lunge for it, except this was a notebook, for Christ's sake, and a stupid, lost gringo and three teenage kids--once they realized that I was not going to give in, they tried to run off. Only at this point, I was hanging on to them, screaming maniacally at the top of my lungs in English, "Come on, motherfuckers! You want a piece of it?!" (I'm not making this up.) Finally, one of them extracted himself and ran away. Then, hanging on to the other two, I tried to clamber up on my feet, which turned into a summersault of sorts when I was yanked off balance by one of them, who also ran away. In mid-flop, I lost my grip on the third, and he, perhaps not wanted to look entirely like a coward, slowly strolled away. Slowly, that is, until I finally got to my feet and started running after him, all the time repeating my mantra, "Come on, motherfucker! You want a piece?!" (I kind of blanked on saying anything more insulting, or even anything in Spanish. I suppose the foreign-lunatic behavior helped as much as my (questionable) physical prowess.) He then melted into the crowd, and I realized I was still in the woods as far as this situation was concerned. I stood huffing and puffing and looked into as many eyes in the crowd as was possible, thinking that if they thought I was a mad dog they'd be less likely to attack me. Apparently that worked, because as I retraced my steps back to the busy thoroughfare, they parted like the waters before Moses, and I was soon back in a relatively safe area. I then decided that it might be smarter to follow the instructions that were given to me earlier as how to find the neighborhood I was looking for. After only about 10 minutes, I was in a packed nightclub district with police lining the streets, safe to one and all. There, I celebrated my victory (nothing was taken from me; I only lost a little change that flew out of of pocket when we went sprawling on the ground) with several rounds of beer and a couple of shots of rum to anesthetize my shoulder, which was progressively growing very sore.

I made it to the airport at 3 in the morning for a 5:30 a.m. flight to Cuzco, a little buzzed (OK, a lot), and feeling good. Checking into the hotel later that morning though, my body ached in every joint, and I couldn't use my left arm at all. Turns out that I'm getting a little old for such horseplay. It's now two days later and my back is seriously out of whack, I've stretched all the muscles in my arms and my legs to the point where I can barely walk, and I have bruises up and down my arms, in addition to a hyper-extended shoulder that is, for all intents and purposes, dead weight. (Although it is getting a little better now.) There was no pain when the melee was happening, but now I am debilitated. Maybe next time I'll just give them my money--it might be worth it.

(Turkey pictures are just for the hell of it.)

Wednesday, May 21, 2008


The Brooklynite on Ice has done it again, with a great write-up of My Colombian War, by Silvana Paternostro. It's a memoir by a Colombian-American who returns to the country of her youth to write an article for the New York Times Sunday Magazine. She runs into the realities of the over-100-year-long series of violent clashes that have shaken Colombia--from the Liberal-vs.-Conservative civil war following independence from Spain, to La Violencia in the 40s and 50s, and up to today, where the narco-economics of a relatively prosperous nation, combined with the age-old problem of distribution of wealth, have created a miasma that defies solution. I haven't read it, but I'm putting it on my birthday wish list (hint hint!).

It's serendipitous that Mr. Flan chose to review this book at this time, because I recently completed my first tour of Colombia. It was a quick journey, in which I flew from Panama City (another city that has a strong cocaine and military history that meshes with U.S. imperialism and drug demand) to the mid-sized city of Pereira--about a hundred kilometers north of Cali--and then took several slow bus trips through the lush northern beginnings of the Andes mountain range.

I can't pretend that I had any sort of complete introduction to Colombia. I'm merely a northerner who struck out blindly south, determined to ignore the naysayers and pessimists who repeatedly warned me not to go through Colombia--that it is too dangerous, the rebels are out of control, I'll never come back. Obviously, that was not the case, but in hindsight I think that my naïveté both served me well, and could have potentially done me in. I was surprised to see that Colombia is a well-developed and seemingly resource-rice country. Flying in from Panama, our airplane made a stop in Medellin to process the passengers through customs. Colombia is located at the northern end of the Andes, where the mountain range is composed of cultivated land tracts over peaks that I would guess are a little larger than the
Adirondacks, but much more green and cloud-covered. Medellín sits in a large valley between peaks, and the buildings are uniformly reddish-brown. There is an enormous cluster of large skyscrapers in the center, making it as modern of a city as I've ever seen. It was very pretty, very impressive. I though to myself, "This doesn't look like the civil-war-stricken country I've heard about. What gives?"

Well, of course the details of that conflict cannot be noticed by an overflight, but after spending much time in Central America, where it is relatively peaceful today after many years of internal strife, and seeing the resultant waste, ruin, and poverty that these conflicts have left behind, Colombian society is surprisingly smooth and advanced (from a distance, at least). Even when finally landing in Pereira and entering the city center, I was struck at how modern Colombia is. From the news reports, I would have guessed that business would be at a standstill, that residents would be cowering inside their homes, that here and there and odd balaclava-wearing FARC combatant would peer around the corner and pop off a few rounds at the local police. Nothing of the sort.

To be sure, there were plenty of armed soldiers wherever I went, but life in general (in the cities, at least) goes on much as it does in the U.S. In Pereira, there is a vibrant central business district ringing around the main plaza, where coffee venders sell cups of the country's sweet café con leche to people lazing around. There's an enormous statue of Simon Bolívar, South America's liberator, naked on a horse, under which babies play while their mothers socialize.

Only later was I able to gather information about the conflict, and as all good information does, what I gathered came from a bartender. One night I found a mellow, quiet bar in the center of town, and I went in and ordered a aguardiente, a rough, unprocessed rum-like liquor that is popular in Colombia. I started talking to the bartender, and I asked him why I hadn't seen any gringos or foreign tourists. "Well," he replied, "they are afraid." The FARC? I asked. He nodded his head. (The FARC is Colombia's main rebel group, operating in the countryside and jungle, which has never disarmed following La Violencia. Depending on whom you ask, either the FARC is an insane Maoist organization, or it was prodded into further guerrilla war after right-wing paramilitary groups refused to respect peace treaties it was a party to. Read Alma Guillermoprieto's reportage for further information, and an introduction to Colombia's president Uribe and his paramilitary--and societal--support.) When I asked him if Colombia is dangerous for foreigners, he nodded again, but said that unlike other countries, Colombia is dangerous in the countryside and relatively safe in the cities. The FARC doesn't operate in urban zones. When I asked if the FARC had any public sympathy, he laughed, and said that everybody hates them. But how about Uribe? I pressed. That answer was more ambiguous. "Well, some people like him, but most of him think he's a little bit of a fascist."

The next day, I took another bus further south, eventually making my way to Ecuador, careful now to only take buses during the day, as I was told the FARC is more active at night. Colombia, with its hustle and bustle, vibrant city life, and gorgeous mountain vistas will be well worth returning to. But I left with the feeling that I had barely scratched the surface of the country's character, that I barely grasped its rich history and glimpsed the ugly underbelly that dwelled just outside of my outsider's field of vision. (Last picture taken in Popoyan, Colombia.)

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Don't Go to Managua

Managua, Nicaragua's landscape is a uniform brown, as if God wiped his ass all over the city. It's a fitting color, because it's a squalid, ugly town. Last week, after disembarking in its "center"--which is a residential series of blocks composed of nothing more than shacks built of plywood and tin roofs, open-air cinder-block-walled restaurants, and crumbling dirt-and-asphalt roads--I was mobbed by a pack of voracious youths/thugs who tried desperately to lure me to destinations like Hotel La Pulga (via their uncles' cab company, Taxi Matate). They poked my head with their fingers as I tried to get some fresh air after the 12-hour bus trip from San Salvador (which is exactly the opposite of Managua--filled with music and markets and pretty people having a good time), trying to gain my attention, grabbing my bags and not letting up until I ran back into the bus station to find relief from the swarm. But there, too, I was accosted, this time by a blind woman who beseeched each passing shadow in her vision to go to her decrepit hotel (or, more likely, kidney and cornea farm) that she ran with her husband/son/genetic deadend, who smiled and drooled alluringly beside her. It was hardly a compelling invitation, and I declined.

There was a young Canadian man who arrived with me on the bus, and we decided to join forces and seek out a hotel together; it's better in numbers to deflect all the unwanted attentions of the wolf pack outside. It worked, insofar as there was only one alcohol-ravaged tout who followed us more than a block from the bus station, through the trash-strewn streets. He molested us all the way, insisting he was the hotel's representative (the Canadian, alas, told him where we were going), and demanding to be paid up front before we reached the hotel.

Finally, after walking in the oppresive heat and under the baleful stares of the locals that lined our approach in various states of undress--revealing physiques that were proud testaments to the efficacy of fried foods and suger in producing enormous volumes of body fat--we reached the hotel. Grand in design compared to the other buildings that surrounded it, in any other country it would be condemned before the ink of its blueprints dried. Its mixed architectural style showed influences of eighth-century cow-dung fabrication and 21st-century criminal neglect (perhaps Managua is where NYC building inspectors train). Everyone who worked there--if by "work" one means sitting in front of the fully-turned-up television in the lobby, waiting for death and ignoring potential customers while simmering in one's own body fluids--was fat, with nary a smile or head nod as we walked in. There was no bell to ring for service, but the sob that issued forth from my mouth sufficed, and a giant woman glanced over, struggled to stand on her mighty oaks of legs, and shuffled over. The room she showed us was dim and dirty, with a solitary fluorescent bulb and a stale, sweaty smell. But it was just for the night, and besides, we didn't dare face the crowds outside again. We claimed the room as our own.

Unlike other Latin American capitals, Managua doesn't have any street life to speak of. Although the hotel was allegedly in the center of town, there was no "center." (Later, I found out that the old city was abandoned after a powerful earthquake and the discovery that it sat exactly on top of a very unstable fault line, hence Managua's sprawling, non-centered topography.) There was no hustle and bustle, no busy street street markets, no people milling around, hardly a bar in sight, and when we saw one, there were hardly any drinkers inside to speak of. There were just precarious shacks, block after block of them, some leaning into others, lashed together with plastic twine, bricks weighing down the corrugated-steel roofs to keep from blowing off from a particularly strong gust. Some sold greasy car parts, which were strewn around in front in a kind of ugly product display. Some sold various forms of unidentifiable meat. Others--the more entreprenuerial, anyway--looked like they sold both, so greasy were the products inside one couldn't tell if it were a comestible or a combustible.

By all accounts (guidebooks, word from the desk clerk, the one rare cab driver who talked with us without demanding we take a ride), we were in an extremely dangerous neighborhood, which precluded any exploration of the surrounding urban landscape. It's something I usually like to do when I hit a new city, even if there are scattered warnings about rough neighborhoods. But I've never run into unanimous warnings about murderers, thugs, and just plain evil people, so the night was spent at the hotel. Victuals were supplied by a cave-like restaurant next door that had chicken cooked from last week and kept warm continuously since then under a grease-spattered lightbulb. Thankfully, cold beer was available from a bodega around the corner--only 15 seconds or so of sheer terror spent sprinting over there and back.

I woke at 5 the next morning for the next bus out of there. Managua looked as ugly in the light of dawn as it looked at night. Don't ever bother going there.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008


Volcanoes surround Guatemala’s second-largest city, Quetzaltenango, providing fertile soil that produces some of the best coffee in the world. In the late 1800s, the Guatemalan government actively courted German technicians and businessmen, easing immigration rules and bequeathing new arrivals vast tracts of mountain lands. In addition, labor laws—which in the U.S. and Europe are generally crafted to protect workers—instead were an outgrowth of the Spanish colonial encomienda system, which compelled native villagers to provide up to a third of the male population to the Spanish invader for forced labor. By the early 20th century, however, this evolved to debt peonage, in which the majority population of Guatemala, the indigenous descendents of the pre-conquest Mayans, were indebted to German-immigrant patrons, who, virtually and in fact, held them captive to outstanding debt. (Finca owners had the legal right to imprison debtors in private prisons for real—and often fictitious—debts.) In 1944, a general labor strike led to the collapse of the government and a takeover by leftist military officers, and in the following election a populist president, Juan José Arévalo, was elected. Arévalo allowed unions to proliferate, and a degree of autonomy was granted to the people, resulting in the later election of Jacobo Arbenz, who passed agrarian-reform laws that distributed uncultivated lands to landless peasants. Insensitive to the cries of foul from the American-run United Fruit Company, which demanded more money for its unused lands than it had assessed them itself on government tax forms, Arbenz fell victim to a U.S.-sponsored coup in 1954. (For a thorough and thoroughly depressing account this shameful history, read Bitter Fruit; you can buy it by clicking on link to the left in the Bookshelf section of this blog.)

Then a new chapter started in the nightmare history of the Guatemalan working class, one in which a 35-year civil war would see hundreds of villages razed, torture become a de facto instrument of the government and government-sponsored paramilitary groups to quell unrest and weed out supposed enemies of the state. (An offhand comment overheard at the bar or membership in the wrong union would earn yourself a kidnapping followed by a night in a water tank filled just below nose level, with bloated corpses of earlier victims floating around to complete the grisly tableau; or, worse, watching your captors rip the fingernails off your two-year-old child in order to make you talk, if first slicing open your face and chopping off both of your hands didn’t work. In both cases, a merciful shot in the back of the head would be the best outcome to hope for, if you weren’t allowed to finally succumb to exhaustion and join the company of the floaters, or bleed out slowly next to your dying child.)

Such were the hidden costs of Cold War–era “free market” capitalism, in which we Americans fervently believe in the immaculate conception of the system (“Let the market do the work!”; “The invisible hand”) yet ignore the bloody raped corpse that gestated it (countless coups d’état and “democracy-promoting” invasions, up to our current imbroglio in the Middle East). Socialism, it seems, is only a dirty word in the U.S. when it is used to uplift the impoverished, to help those who truly want for material comfort; but when funding wars against these same people for the material benefit of the landed and wealthy classes, no government expenditure is to great to ensure their continued dominance over the unclean non-whites who just don’t know their place in the scheme of things.

But blood doesn’t wash up as easily as a money trail, and even the U.S. government was forced to confront the Guatemalan government's reign of terror in the early 90s, particularly after an American (of course) woman married to a Guatemalan rebel leader made much noise about his disappearance (and presumed murder) at the hands of Guatemalan paramilitaries with alleged CIA help. Burdened with pariah-nation status, a peace accord was quickly ironed out, with the main rebel umbrella group receiving representation in the government. (Even Clinton-haters like me have to appreciate his repudiation of Reagan’s barbarous policies in Central America, which turned that narrow strip of land into a human abattoir that is still trying to pull itself up from the nightmare muck of the 80s.)

Even with peace, though, prosperity is far from reaching anywhere outside of the rich enclaves of Guatemala, where the economic elite have constructed walls around their neighborhoods that are patrolled by shotgun-wielding armed guards to keep the slum dwellers at bay. If one steps away from these archipelagos of wealth in the capital and the better sections of Quetzaltenango, the disparity of wealth is shocking. Slum after slum rings the cities, with litter ruining the otherwise beautiful vistas that compose the country’s landscape. The richest sector that contributes to Guatemala’s GNP is through remittances from the nationals who have packed up and left—because of the war, the continuing violence, or the dire economic situation—and relocated to the United States. The people whom I talked to were all equally relieved that the dirty war was finally over, but there was a deeply ingrained pessimism about the economy, exacerbated by the U.S.’s own economic woes. Guatemalans know that if the U.S. country falters, as it apparently is doing, and if popular discontent in the U.S. with illegal immigrants continues, as it has, an important monetary stream to Guatemala could be choked or strangled shut.

But there are some hopeful signs, too. Last week I completed a week-long stay at
La Escuela de la Montaña, a Spanish-language school about an hour and a half outside of Quetzaltenango in a rich coffee-growing region. Two towns abut the school, Nuevo San José and Fátima. Both towns are dirt poor. San José has paved roads, but Fátima does not. Most homes are constructed of cinder blocks with corrugated steel rooftops. Chickens and ducks roam freely through the houses.
The chickens perform the important task of cleaning all organic waste from the floors and yards, only depositing a small amount of feces in return. With minimal care they provide eggs—an important source of protein for people who are too poor to buy meat more than a couple of times a month—and then they can be slaughtered for meat and their bones can be used for the all-important chicken stock that is a staple in Guatemalan cooking. Not to mention that they’re free-range and organic.

Fátima was founded approximately 15 years ago after the workers at a coffee finca
were not paid wages for over a year (not an uncommon experience). According to the leader of the finca’s labor union—which the workers formed during the dispute—some children starved to death, and other families abandoned

the finca to go live in the slums of large cities and try their fortunes there. (Most families stayed, because Guatemalan law states that if a worker abandons his or her job, he abandons any claims to back pay.) Although there are government agencies that are supposed to resolve workers’ disputes, judges can be bribed and the slow machinery of the bureaucracy can be slowed even more by wealthy finca owners. Only after picketing the finca owner’s home in the capital, and making threats of violence against his finca administrators (complete with machetes and clubs), did the workers finally receive their back pay.

But the worrkers had to abandon the finca now that worker-owner relations had devolved so much. The workers pooled their money and bought a parcel of land where Fátima stands today. For several years they had no buildings, only tents made of
plastic sheeting. Slowly, though, they built up actual homes, a water system, and a rudimentary road. The land was held collectively, so that no family could sell any parcel larger than that on which sat their homes. (It’s a common tactic of land-hungry agricultural barons to purchase lands piecemeal from peasant families or individuals—some of whom need the money desperately for medical bills or other emergencies—until the communities and surrounding farms are so riddled through that they become untenable.) Additionally, La Escuela de la Montaña provides a much-
needed economic boost by providing limited employment in the community. Students also eat three meals a day with families, for which the families are paid. (And, while I was attending, the students threw a fundraiser for a much-needed water-system rehabilitation; it quickly turned into a drinking game where students bet money on who could drink the most raisin wine—don’t ask, it’s terrible. All told, over $300 was raised, not a paltry sum for such an impoverished place.)

But lately things have changed in Fátima, what the union leader (and now town elder) Abelino calls an influx of “individualism.” The town folk lobbied successfully for the breaking up of the collective parcel of land a few years back, and some people are considering selling off their plots of land. There’s alson a competitiveness between Fátima and Nuevo San José, with both towns having their own Catholic church, evangelical church, and elementary school. (There are no more than 250 people

in both towns combined, so there is no need to have so many competing facilities; Fátima cannot even afford to employ a schoolteacher, so its brand-new school, while handsome, sits empty and unused.)

And violence still plagues the land. Young women will not walk the streets past sunset, and early one morning a fellow student from the school was attacked by three men in masks who were toting pistols. They badly beat her with the guns and tried to drag her off into the hills before she was able to run away back to the school. (Kudos to the Quetzaltenango police, who dispatched detectives immediately once they were informed; unfortunately, such a rapid response would be unlikely if it weren't a tourist who was attacked.) And reports came in from the city that a tourist couple were attacked at night in a park near the center of town. After taking their money, the assailants tried to stuff the woman in a car, but the man had the foresight to toss money in the other direction, which the attackers chased after, allowing the woman to escape.

Although I am not a sociologist, it occurs to to me that years of extreme violence combined with the current economic situation—along with the inviting targets of young people from the United States who obviously have a relatively great amount of wealth—makes the violence more or less inevitable. And it doesn't stop with foreigners:40 percent of Guatemalan women have reported being a victim of spousal abuse. War abets violence, naturally. (Perhaps we should be looking for a similar pattern in Iraq in the coming years.)

Nevertheless, the Guatemalan people were very nice, especially in the small villages, where if you are a 6-foot-2 skinny gringo, people instantly remember your name and call after every day. There is something attractive about such a simple life, too, although that perceived simplicity hides the bitter truth of a tough, poverty-stricken life, and memories that might be too horrific to dwell on.

(All pictures, save the first and last, were taken my first day in Nuevo San José. The children were literally running after me asking to have their pictures taken. The first picture was taken on a walk near the two villages. The last, of a puppy with a baby shoe on its neck, was taken in a small village called Las Marias; no, I don't know why the baby shoe is there.)

Friday, May 9, 2008

Bolivia Again

Sorry for no original posts, folks, but I've been busing through Central America for the past three days, chasing women in the lovely and lively San Salvador and creeping around corners in the decrepit and depressing Managua (a truly vile city). I'm in Quepos, Costa Rica, right now, and I plan on spending a few days swinging in a hammock and drinking several beers--nothing else!--so you'll have to wait for any more stories.

But if you feel like learning a bit more about the situation in Bolivia, check out this Times profile of Ronald Larsen, an American who owns vast tracks of lands in that country. He's beloved by the Santa Cruz Province seccessionist movement, and he's even got an American-educated son who is a former Mr. Bolivia beauty pagent queen king (I shit you not).


Monday, May 5, 2008

I'm Back; Bolivia Boils Over

It's been a busy week in the mountains of Guatemala, but I'm now able to conjugate the present tense of caminar. (I think I'm fluent enough in Spanish now to move on.) For those hundreds of readers waiting with baited breath on what happened in the hills (Don Flan), you'll have to hold on for a few more hours for my epic magnum opus on Guatemalan history, politics, labor movements, pistol-whippings, and machete-wielding crazy-eyed gringos.

For the moment, though, let's move further south, to Bolivia, where the economic elite, perhaps a little miffed that an indigenous man had the nerve to assume the presidency of that country (long controlled by a tiny economic elite of European descent, to the detriment of its indigenous majority) in 2005, have attempted an illegal quasi-secession of the Santa Cruz province, which is a gas-rich economic powerhouse of the country. The president, Evo Morales, has had the temerity to suggest that the distribution of wealth in that country might be fairer, especially for poor indigenous folk who've borne the brunt of labor since the Spanish conquest. But the rich white folks who control a third of Bolivia's economy feel different:

"We in this region are positive about the conquest," said Luis Nunez, the [Santa Cruz Civic Committee]'s vice president. "We do not in any way resent what that history meant for us. It reflects who we are now."
A sentiment worthy of David Duke. Yesterday's vote (which was boycotted by 40 percent of eligible voters) seems to be a victory for the secessionists, but it remains to be seen whether a) the central government will allow autonomy for the province, and b) whether Bolivia's trade partners in Brazil and Argentina will conduct business with the rogue province. Both countries are governed by heads of state who sympathize ideologically with Morales, and are unlikely to cut Bolivia's central government out of any trade deals. Also waiting in the wings are three other provinces that are eying the success of Santa Cruz's autonomy movement, with possible referendums of their own in the coming weeks.

Sounds like a good time to head down south!