Wednesday, July 23, 2008

'Real World' Red Hook?

First the Ikea, now this? Looks like I fled the borough at the right time.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Mexican Border, Violence and Death

From Deborah Bonello, at the LA Times's La Plaza blog, a description of the border between the U.S. and Mexico at Tijuana. A huge drug war is being played out right now, with hundreds of bodies truning up along the border, from Tijuana to Ciudad Juarez. At the same time, thousands of illegal immigrants still cross the border, most of them making it to the States, but others being intercepted by the Border Patrol, and others not making it alive. Crosses are strung along the border fence in memoriam:

Luciano Limon Sanchez from Sinaloa. Onesino Salazar Cruz from Oaxaca. Maria Isabel de la Cruz. Some simply said "inidentificado." Unidentified.

I think it's important to remember, no matter your position on the immigration problem from Mexico, that real lives are affected--or destroyed--because of our ambivalent relationship with our neighbor to the south. Throughout my many years in the restaurant industry in New York City, I've know many illegals who made the journey every year. I wonder if they still make it, and whether one of their names will ever be etched onto a cross on that wall.

Scenes From the Border, From the City

This is how we roll in Puno, Peru.

Bus station (really just an intersection) in Desaguadero, Bolivia, at the border with Peru.
(I'm trying to figure out if the term "cholita" is pejorative or not; anyone have any ideas?)

First day in La Paz, I stumbled across the presidential residence. The guards made me walk across the street, but were OK with me taking a picture of Evo's house. Being an estadounidense--whom Bolivians are naturally wary of, due to the drug war--I was surprised that they were so laid back.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Lake Titicaca

The Peruvian altiplano, a dry and dusty region high up in the Andes that borders Bolivia, is a harsh and cold landscape. At 12,500 feet above sea level, the air is thin and the sunlight fierce. Days can be comfortable if there is no cloud cover, but at night temperatures drop nearly to freezing. There the port city of Puno sits on the shores of Lake Titicaca, the highest commercially navigable lake in the world, and also the largest lake in South America (by volume). Because of its proximity to Bolivia, Puno is a frequent stop for travelers who are pushing further into the interior of South America. It is also a jumping-off point for trips to Lake Titicaca’s more than 42 islands. (Which include the manmade Floating Islands. During the reign of the Incas, before the Spanish arrived, the Uros Indians constructed elaborate islands made of the buoyant totora reed, which grows in the shallows of the lake. Rather than submit to the Incas, the Uros retreated to their islands, which could be moved if threats from hostile tribes arose.)

North of central Puno, on the lake’s shore where sheep graze while lambs frolic with one another, masses of wild guinea pigs (and regular old pigs, too) swarm in the scrubby vegetation, and blue-billed ducks bob in the wakes of passing boats, the Yavari sits at port. Originally commissioned in 1861 by the Peruvian navy, it was built by the James Watt Co. and the Thames Ironworks and Shipbuilding Co. in London. Because of the long and arduous journey to the altiplano, the Yavari was built in over 2,000 pieces, each weighing no more than 400 pounds, so that when it finally rounded Cape Horn and arrived on the coast of Peru mules and men could carry it the remaining distance over the Andes (there was no railroad or highway back then). The journey from ocean to lakeshore took six years, and the Yavari was launched on Christmas Day 1870. While it was intended for use as a naval ship, the Yavari never saw combat, as its intended cannons were instead used on the Pacific Ocean during Peru and Boliva's’s War of the Pacific against Chile from 1879 to 1883. (It's also called the Saltpeter War, because it was fought in part over rich seagull-guano deposits used to produce gunpowder. The war was a disaster for Bolivia, which lost its remaining shoreline to Chile--it's now landlocked.)

The ship was used for commercial duties instead, with a 38-man crew. Its llama-dung-burning engine was replaced in 1914 by a Swedish four-cylinder diesel engine (a Bolinder). It fell into disuse in the late middle century and was beached until the 1990s, when an Englishwoman, Meriel Larken, bought it for 4,000 pounds and started its restoration. It’s in remarkable condition, considering that it’s nearly 150 years old. But because of the altitude, thin air, and the fresh water of the lake, there isn’t much rust on the old boat.

Now it’s a museum, another attraction that draws in visitors to the Puno region. It has two sister ships moored nearby, one of which is used as a restaurant. The other, a massive freighter, is currently being renovated.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Power to the People

To protest the rising costs of petroleum and food, a nationwide transit strike was imposed this past Wednesday throughout Peru. Unlike in the United States (where the 2005 New York City transit strike was portrayed as a terrorist threat), strikes here--in Cuzco, at least--aren't viewed as an affront to civil order. Rather, there are marches in the town center, and a relaxed, almost holiday-like atmosphere in the outer neighborhoods. (There were arrests in Lima, where poverty is more widespread and workers are more militant; and in Puerto Maldonado, in the Amazon basin (were poverty can be extreme), governmental offices were lit on fire.)
Kids man the roadblock on Avenida de la Cultura, a main thoroughfare that stretches from the historic center of Cuzco to the suburbs to the east. Private cars were allowed through, albeit with plenty of whistling and yelling at the drivers.

The road was transformed into a large soccer field.

In Lima, Mario Huamán, the secretary general of the General Confederation of Peruvian Workers, which organized the work stoppage, called out to the increasingly unpopular president of Peru, "Listen, Alan García, the kitchen pot is empty. The pot is empty because of you!" García is accused of selling out his socialist roots in order to enrich the oligarchy of Peru. (Today, Bloomberg announced that Peru's central bank is raising the benchmark rate in an effort to control inflation, which was at 5.71% last month; the bank has already raised the rate four times previously this year.)

Although Peru has had a healthy economic growth rate in the past few years (9% in 2007), the gains have mostly been in the coastal areas and the south. The Andean highlands and the Amazon region still see a large amount of poverty, and prices for gas and food have seen a dramatic increase lately.

Taking over the public space for a bit of family fun--volleyball!

Cuzco is a prosperous city, though, with a huge tourist industry that pumps in much money. Avenida de la Cultura (along which these pictures were taken) traverses a fairly eclectic group of neighborhoods, from the wealthy central district, with its Incan and Spanish colonial architecture, and Wanchaq, where medical and dental students mill about in the afternoon sun; to San Sebastian, where paved streets turn to red dusty dirt, and Larapa (my neighborhood), which is an upper-middle-class enclave nestled against the surrounding mountains in between small farms.

All in all, the strike was a low-key affair. With the sun in the late afternoon providing warmth, most Cusqueños I ran into seemed to be enjoying a midweek day off with their friends and family. There was no violence that I witnessed, even when cars ran through the roadblocks. Kids would just gather up more rubble after the cars drove through, in an attempt to stop the next vehicle that might be tempted to drive through.

Postscript: Predictably, García cast partial blame for the strike on Venezuela's and Bolivia's respective presidents, Hugo Chavez and Evo Morales, alluding to them in his statement, "They say we should be an Andean, Aymaran, Bolivarian republic, and some want to do this by force."

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Smart Dissent

If, like me, you've been a little worried about Obama's support for the FISA telecom-immunity bill, his pledged support of Bush's "faith-based initiatives" program, and his other seemingly rightward-tacking positions, I recommend that you read Al Giordano's "Smart Dissent" post on The Field.

Its summary:

… the highest calling of patriotism is not dissent. It is smart dissent, that based not on self-indulgence or the blurting of one's frustration's out in ways that seek to share the panic or the misery, but based on - even sometimes against great odds - building the objective conditions by which we will win the important battles worth fighting. We don't need any candidate's permission or endorsement of our issue or position to do that, and we sure don't have to wait for any politician to begin organizing the people to set him straight once in power. Ironically, we, the people have more leverage - if we organize - after a candidate becomes an official, than we do during the heat of an electoral campaign when he or she is so singularly focused on the goal of getting elected. And if we can use his own campaign as the basis through which to become organized, that much stronger will be our ability to move mountains when and if that campaign is victorious.

I've still got a lot of problems with Obama, but as the above quote from Giordano illustrates, politics is a game, a game that unfortunately demands of its players a willingness to conveniently forget ideology in exchange for political expediency. That's the game we're stuck with for now. So my disappointment with Obama runs deep, but we've got to face the facts. And the facts are that he's the best-positioned person to win who shares even an inkling of my political and moral philosophy. It's not a good fit, but it's the only fit--for now. Let's get him into office, and then hold his feet to the fire.