Thursday, March 27, 2014

On the Border

Sometimes it is a muddy stream running between two identical shores.  At others it resembles a prison, with a thirty-foot high razor wired fence patrolled by armed guards.  I’m talking about the four hundred miles of border between Mexico and the United States from El Paso to the Big Bend.  It’s a dry, brown, thinly populated land, no country for old men. And the current political climate has turned it into a battle zone that pits illegal immigrants against the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency.  On a recent trip to the border we found ourselves near combatants from both sides, some more visible than others.

El Paso, once a thriving trans-national city, looks dystopian, its downtown filled with abandoned buildings and feral cats.  Motor traffic, mostly sixteen-wheeled trucks, backs up for miles on the U.S. side of the international bridge.  Pedestrians crossing into Mexico have dwindled to a trickle, deterred by the high level of violence now endemic in Juarez and the requirement that U.S. citizens present a valid passport to reenter their country. Diminution of the counter flow has withered El Paso’s historic business district.

In March, before the annual rains, the Rio Grande ceases to exist in El Paso.  The border there becomes the midpoint of a concrete channel running northwest to southeast.  East of the border lie the four lanes of IH10, the rails of Union Pacific, a patrol road and the wire fence.  Even if an intrepid visitor were to cross the Interstate, the tracks and the patrol road, uniformed agents would turn them back before they reached the fence.  Photographs are also discouraged.
South of El Paso the fence ends and, fed by the Rio San Carlos and the Rio Conchos, the river resumes.  From a high vantage near the highway we saw canoers and kayakers launching from the United States and paddling downstream with varying success.  We also encountered a scientist involved in a geological survey who explained that despite popular opinion, the Rio Grande, while polluted, is far from dead.  In fact several species of fish and their food sources ply the river year around.

The Customs and Border Protection agency keeps a pretty high profile in the area.  Their vehicles, at least the new ones, are adorned with a green stripe on their white body paint.  I needed some help in appreciating the “border” symbolism of the color combination.  Driving through the region, we encountered rolling road blocks where agents looked into our vehicle and asked “U.S. citizens?”  Our looks and our accents got us through without incident.

The Big Bend refers to the curve that the Rio Grande makes diverting its bed northward before resuming its predominantly south eastern flow.  The National Park preserves some spectacular country, filled with wildlife and remarkably empty of people.  My wife and I traveled with friends who are keen birders, people who sometimes talk of “life birds” and the neck feathers of ladder- backed woodpeckers.  Even though March is early for the prime migration season, the park lies at the northern edge of many birds’ natural range which makes it a birding paradise.  Our friends’ enthusiasm was infectious, by the way, and even though we remained satisfied with our rudimentary skills, we’ve come to appreciate the value of a spotting scope and dropped some pretty serious change on binoculars.

After a week in Big Bend we returned to El Paso and our flights home.  We all hoped that the border would return to a more tranquil state of affairs, but we’re probably too old to see that day.

Monday, September 23, 2013


 In most of Latin America mapping is directly linked to national security. While cartography itself has come a long way from two dimensional representations of boundaries, land forms and transportation infrastructure essential to defense, its production and distribution remain firmly in the grasp of the military and its civilian attendants. Those seeking geographical information must thread the needle between the charybdis of military secrecy and the scylla of bureaucratic red tape. Consider the following account, with identities scrubbed for obvious reasons.

 8:00 Early on a Friday morning I left my hotel in a taxi that dropped me at a military security checkpoint.  Here a noncom packing a pistol and an attitude exchanged my passport for a visitor's badge and offered directions by pointing his nose to my right. Further up the road lay a sea green, three story building that houses my destination, the Instituto Geografico Militar.

Inside, a series of glassed-in cubicles and a long table fill the only space open to the public.  The table holds a series of publications: price lists of available products, samples of maps in various scales and formats and a guide to the recently-published national map, at 1:50,000 scale. This is what I had come for. The entire set consists of more than five hundred sheets, divided into quadrants set to satellite images.  I had brought along a wad of dollars and a duffle bag large enough to haul the maps away. The noncom had allowed me to take the duffle past the checkpoint; he did not look in my pocket.

 8:30 An attendant emerged from one of the cubicles to show me the ropes.  "Use this form to list the name and number of each of the sheets you want to purchase," he said, handing me a lined sheet of paper with the Institute's letterhead.  I set pencil to paper, filled the sheet and returned to the attendant for another.  He frowned. "The information must be written in ink, blue ink," he explained, supplying a pen and two additional forms. An hour later, I was back, completed forms in hand. Apparently I telegraphed my next words since before I could pronounce them, my attendant/antagonist interrupted, "no more than fifty requests per day."  That ended my vision of walking out of the building with everything rolled up into a big tube, but not my encounter with regulations.

 9:30 Now another man, an auditor perhaps, emerged from his office to review my work. With his pen, red ink, he marked each of my selections, "yes" or "no" as he mumbled a running commentary, "mining area," "out of print," "restricted" to justify his rejections.  The auditor whittled my request from fifty to thirty-eight sheets; still worth the trouble, I thought. 

My next stop was with a secretary who typed, at ten words a minute, the name and number of the thirty-eight available maps on official looking stationery and calculated the cost, $170.  She also had me declare why I wanted the maps and then pointed me in the direction of a cashier who took a copy of the typed form and the three bills that I offered in payment.  Without uttering a word, he swiveled his chair and pointed  to a sign on the wall that read "NO CURRENCY LARGER THAN $20 ACCEPTED."

 11:00 The office would close at noon for the weekend, and there was no way for me to get seven twenty dollar bills in an hour.  The cashier listened to my explanation of how far I had come and how valuable the maps would be to researchers.  He responded with a single word, "NEXT." My only route lay in going above his head.  Searching the room for a higher authority, I spied a likely suspect, a man dressed in a suit reading a newspaper. I explained my predicament, waiving my order and my money.  He listened sympathetically, smiled and took the documentation and the bills through a door marked "Employees Only." For a moment it seemed that I would leave with neither maps nor money. But no, back he came following an elegantly-dressed woman, his boss.

After introducing herself, she listened as I recounted my situation.  She asked to see the bills and pulled a jeweler's loupe out of a drawer. Now that's interesting, I thought.  Do you suppose a loupe is standard office equipment, like scissors or a stapler?  "We have to be very careful with large bills," she explained, "foreign counterfeiters are active in my country." After inspecting the engraving through the loupe and swabbing the ink with alcohol, she declared the bills genuine and instructed the man in the suit to accompany me to the cashier who grudgingly accepted my money and stamped the receipts as paid.

Turning around I noticed the secretary hailing me with a paper in her hand.  "Since you are not a citizen, you must complete this form to petition the commanding general to release the maps; come back in two weeks."  This was the time to offer a bribe, but I'm not very good at that, and since I was the last customer in the office, all eyes seemed fixed on us.  So rather than money, I offered a last-ditch suggestion. "What if I ask a citizen to pick up the maps?"  "Well, sure, you could do that," she said, and we all went to lunch.

Independence Day

September 16th, the day in 1810 when Father Hidalgo called for Mexico's independence from Spain, is now celebrated throughout the republic.  Although Hidalgo's revolt would be brutally suppressed and a decade would pass before Spanish forces were finally expelled, the priest's public pronouncement, the "grito," is recognized as the declaration of Mexican independence.  To commemorate the event, the president, from a balcony on the National Palace, waves the flag and shouts Hidalgo's grito, "Viva Mexico." September 16th, 2013, will surely be remembered as an Independence Day like no other.

The national poll of July 1, 2012, elected Enrique Peña Nieto to the Presidency and returned the PRI political party to the executive after a twelve-year absence.  This made 2013 the year of Pena's first grito, and though his six-year term will include another five, the first observance is often seen as a harbinger of things to come.  Based on the week's events, Mr. Pena may well be wishing he were in another line of work.

On September 13 Federal Police, supported by helicopters, tear gas and water cannons, forced protesters from the Zócalo, Mexico City's historic center and the site of the National Palace.  The eviction assured that Peña's grito would not have to directly compete with the demonstrators for attention.  However, a subsequent encampment at the nearby Plaza de la Revolución kept the demonstrators and their demands solidly in background. And meteorological events, beyond Peña's control but reflecting on his competence, would soon enter front and center.

As the President braved a downpour to review the troops from the National Palace, and I arrived at the airport, Hurricane Ingrid and tropical storm Manuel simultaneously struck the Gulf and Pacific coasts.  High winds, heavy rain and collateral flooding destroyed property, stranded coastal settlements and thousands of tourists in Acapulco, and called into question the effectiveness of Mexico's storm warning system. Fingers pointed; talk radio erupted.  Peña and members of his cabinet immediately scrambled to the coasts, but heavy damage to transport infrastructure hampered delivery of supplies, and enraged tourists occupied runways at the Acapulco airport.

Later in the week key elements of Peña's economic program came under fire, notably the proposal to open Mexico's national petroleum monopoly, Pemex, to foreign ownership.  On September 18th, Jornada, Mexico City's respected daily newspaper, published the text of Cuauthemoc Cardenas' recent speech, a withering summary of the events leading to his father's nationalization of the Mexican oil industry in 1938 and Pemex's recent failures to attract foreign investment.  Other dignitaries would soon share Cardenas' critique.

On September 20th the skies cleared, the protesters abandoned their encampment at the Plaza de la Revolución and the tourists left Acapulco.  As I leave, I try to remember the observation that a friend offered as we arranged for a pick up of my purchases.  I urged him to meet me early the next morning based on my experience dealing with rush hour traffic congestion and unpredictable protest marches in the central city.  "I'll come at 5:00 this afternoon," he reassured me. "This is Mexico."

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Mount Hood

They say its visible from downtown Portland, but you couldnt prove it by us. Even a drive to the high hills overlooking the airport failed to gain us a glimpse.  But Mt. Hood, named for a British aristocrat who never saw it either, is very much a feature of Oregon's landscape, as my wife and I discovered on vacation early this month.

Early in April we started planning our escape from the inferno that Texans charitably call summer. Finding Canadian Pacific Railway tours booked solid and other possibilities out of reach, we settled on the Pacific Northwest.  Neither of us had been to Oregon before; the coast and mountains offered the prospect of cool weather, and the price was right. So in the middle of June, just as Austin temperatures reached the century mark, off we flew to Portland.
Mt. Hood has long been accessible to the major population centers of central Oregon.  Railroads built to exploit the region's timber reached the base of the mountain late in the 19th century, and a paved road connected Portland with Mt. Hood in the 1920s.  In 1937   Franklin Roosevelt followed that route to inaugurate the Timberline Lodge, a WPA project that provided employment in a region hard hit by the Depression and has offered food and shelter to millions of visitors since.

We reached Mt. Hood after touring the Columbia River gorges, driving Oregon State Highway 35, that climbs nearly 6,000 feet in 57 miles.  The rapid ascent quickly disoriented my senses.  After a while, I could not always appreciate the road's gradient.  Were we climbing or descending?   And as one curve followed another, I began to wonder when, or if, the mountain would come into view.  But as we rounded a bend about 25 miles into the climb, an enormous, white mass spread across the windshield. On this sunny day Mt. Hood was luminous-- snow against the blue sky, convection currents rising from the snow, a brim-shaped cloud at the summit.  For the next 30 miles, variations
on that vision came in and out of sight. Peggy kept us from going over the cliff more than once, as the beauty of the mountain distracted my attention.

We had secured a reservation at the Timberline Lodge, a great stroke of luck we thought until we learned that rooms are often available during the week.  Our luck with the weather was prodigious, though, as the skies cleared for our arrival after a week of showers.  The lodge preserves much of the architecture and furnishings of its original construction, including the monumental timber superstructure and hand crafted ironwork that adorns interior spaces.  Some latter-day enhancements-- central heat, private bathrooms and a bar among them-- address modern expectations.

As we reached the lodge, Peggy noticed several RVs bearing parabolic antennas and decals of Fox News and NBC.  We would learn later that a hiker had gone missing two days before.  Rescue operations were in full swing, with helicopters launching from the parking lot and ski patrol teams coming and going, day and night. We read later in the trip that the hiker, a 59-year old dentist who
had climbed in the area for decades, died falling into a crevasse as he trained for a trip to Nepal.

Mt. Hood is one of the few locations in the United States to provide year-around skiing, though by late June only one of the lifts was operating. During our stay employees "groomed" the slopes early each morning, using tracked vehicles with front mounted, revolving blades.  After a short hiatus, the parking lot filled with the sound of skiers walking with a distinctive clop, clop, made the heel-toe gait of their rigid boots.  The rest of the costume is very gansta'.  Baggy pants or shorts, enormous, shapeless tee shirts, and balaclavas all are de rigueur.  We made an acquaintance with a small crew of filmers who had come to cover a snowboard competition that was to take place on the weekend.

We went on to see the mountain from the hiking trails, a reflecting pond and our room. As we drove down the mountain on our way to the Pacific coast it started to rain. We knew we had been very lucky.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Fear of Flying

Air travel in the twenty-first century has joined thumb screws and the rack as instruments of exquisite discomfort. Long lines, full body scans, luggage inspections, identity checks and a multitude of additional, minor indignities precede every departure. And full cabins, smaller seats, and travelers' increased use of carryon luggage-- to avoid baggage charges-- adds cramping and claustrophobia to the experience. I'll show you what I mean with an account of my trip to what shall be an unnamed island in the Caribbean.

I am blessed by living near Houston which has come to rival Miami as a gateway to Latin America. The recent merger of United and Continental airlines, despite inevitable growing pains, has enhanced Houston's south bound service. Now many travelers from Los Angeles visit the Caribbean via Houston. But given the fear and loathing that Latin America currently inspires in the US security community, anyone traveling to the region will likely endure special scrutiny. On this trip I passed three separate identity checks, at the airline counter, the TSA desk, and the gate. There was also a final, surprise check, conducted by a uniformed customs agent and a contraband-sniffing dog, in the tight space between the gate and the jetway. While the agent asked me a series of questions about my travel, his canine companion sniffed a little too close to my back pocket. Did they think I was carrying controlled substances OUT of the country? Both my ends passed inspection, apparently.

The plane, a 737, was completely full, of course, and I had drawn the middle seat. A note on personal anatomy: I am 6'2," all in the femurs, which makes sitting in a coach seat a feat of contortion in the best of circumstances, and these were not the best. To my right sat Lucio, a Brazilian history graduate student at UCLA. To my left was a 70-something, retired nurse, returning to her island birth place for the first time in 17 years. Lucio had somehow managed to come aboard with two very large carryons, one of which he positioned between his legs like a saddle. That bag, a backpack, actually, held his computer and research notes for a paper he was giving (turns out Lucio and I were headed for the same conference). The notes, the backpack and the computer were in perpetual motion as their owner put some finishing touches on his text. After discovering our mutual destination, Lucio explained the importance of his research on information transfer and paused briefly to ask what I do. "I work on information transfer, too; I'm a librarian," I offered. "Oh," he said. Librarians get that a lot.

The retired nurse, I never caught her name, turned out to be quite a talker. She was naturally excited about seeing her relatives after such a long separation, and she persistently released long streams of words that described memories of her youth and her long residence in the Eagle Rock suburb of Los Angeles. Her carryon, only one, was filled with food. How had the dog missed this? I was offered fruit and baked goods before I learned something else about my aisle seat mate. She was incontinent, and the fear of a discharge mandated hourly trips to the lavatory. I took advantage of her second departure to cut off our conversation with ear buds-- those things really send a message. We reached our destination in five hours, twenty minutes, an almost manageable duration. Now I was on Caribbean soil, but not home free. Between me and sleep lay customs.

 A 737, even one filled to capacity, holds no more than 150 souls. There were eight officers reviewing documents, and yet it took nearly 90 minutes for the last passenger to clear. That's over 12 minutes each. My experience was typical. The officer carefully reviewed the manifest I handed her, perusing the 8-digit passport number, the flight information and my "on business" selection as the reason for my visit. "What kind of business?" she wanted to know. Then we moved on to an item not on the form, an assurance that I would be leaving the island. The agent wanted a ticket but settled for a copy of my itinerary and copied the departure time, airline and flight number onto the margin of my declaration. One last item remained, my in-country contact. "I'm staying in a hotel, the Hilton," I offered up with a smile. But the form asked for a personal contact, and the agent seemed determined to have one. We were at an impasse, two English-speaking people, silently staring at each other through a pane of safety glass. Finally, she blinked, and with a grumbled "I'll just fill in Hilton," she stamped my passport and signaled me through to baggage claim.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

By the Sea

Lima's western suburbs peer over steep cliffs that mark the division between terra firme and the Pacific Ocean. Miraflores, the most populous of a string of coastal settlements, that also includes Barranco, Magdalena and San Miguel, styles itself the go-to place for upscale eateries and night life. The pioneering Peruvian chef, Gaston Acurio, opened his first restaurant here. Miraflores was once the preferred residence for English expatriates. That community has now largely disappeared, its existence documented only by a few street names and the interdenominational Church of the Good Shepard at the boundary of Miraflores and San Isidro.

In 1975 my wife and I got a taste of ex-pat life at Pension Miramar on the Malecon Cisneros. The place was British to the core-- a pub with Guinness on tap and a dart board on the wall, manicured gardens with a parrot or two, and a no nonsense land lady who wasn't above throwing back a drink or a dart or two with her guests. Many of the other pensioners were regulars. I remember a Lancaster merchant, there for the annual cotton harvest and a group of civilian contractors teaching the Peruvian Navy how to use the advanced weapons it had purchased. Forty years on, I went in search of Pension Miramar and learned that it fell to the wrecking ball sometime in the mid 1990s when a plague of condominiums swept the Malecon. A gentrification has its upside, though, and in this case it is a reclaiming of public property in the neighborhood.

The twenty meters of land between the Malecon and the cliffs, once an illegal but unsanctioned waste dump inhabited by squatters, has been transformed into a ribbon of parks and running trails. One of these oases, christened Parque de los Amantes, is accessorized by a colossal statue of two figures entwined in an impossible embrace and, nearby, a red windsock. The statue inspires the lovers; the windsock marks a hang glider runway. For 150 soles, $55.72 by today's exchange, anyone with a desire to float with the thermals can do so-- irresistible, I thought, until I looked down.

"Are you sure you want to do this?" my pilot asked. My reply, something along the lines of "too old to crash, too young to die," drew nervous laughs from everyone in earshot. But I had come too far for anything approaching a dignified retreat. So over the cliff it was.

Full disclosure here. My parasail was the equivalent of a bicycle with training wheels. All I had to do was sit in a nylon sling and occasionally adjust my weight in response to the pilot's commands. The route traced a series of figure-eights, sailing out to sea and tacking back toward the cliffs. Negligible turbulence, nothing like my years of riding twenty-seaters in and out of Ithaca, New York, and the profound silence of flying at low speed without an engine are my clearest memories of the ten minute descent to the beach.

Now where is that Grand Canyon, again?

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Bolivian Tweets

Anyone who reads this blog, if such a person exists, will recognize Bolivia as one of its recurring themes. This post documents a recent trip in six vignettes, all written during October/November of 2011.

The acronym of Territorio Indigena Parque Nacional Isiboro Secure has become something of a cause celebre in the struggle for indigenous rights. To fortify their demands that a proposed highway not cross what had been declared a protected zone ten years ago, an alliance of native organizations made a 700 kilometer march from the Amazonian rainforest to the high Andes to meet with President Evo Morales. Along the way the marchers were disparaged by many politicians and roughed up by police, but once in La Paz, they received a Presidential audience and an executive order deflecting the highway away from the park. TIPNIS proved to be a no-win proposition for Morales. Much of the President's credibility comes from his representation of Bolivia's native majority. The marchers exploited Morales' standing as an Indian President to force him to choose between indigenous rights and a development project with broad national and international support. TIPNIS is only one of a number of issues with similar implications, and the march suggests that groups with a sympathetic cause and the willingness to take dramatic action can exert tremendous pressure on the political system. The genie is out of the bottle.

La Paz, Wireless City
Bolivia is increasingly connected to the rest of the planet through the Internet. La Paz now provides a large slice of wireless access at hotels, restaurants and cafes. Most of the WiFi zones require passwords, available with purchase of services, but I never encountered a solicitation for fees from a service provider. And thus far, available bandwidth has kept up with demand, making connections fast and smooth. The World Wide Web forces aside the heavy curtain of isolation that has been so much a part of Bolivian life. I once found myself surfing for weather news at Alexander Coffee, a local chain providing passwordless access to anyone in range of its routers, when I noticed a woman dressed in the emblematic chola costume, wide skirts and bowler hat, scrolling through the New York Times. "Que bueno que lee ingles," I tried as a conversation starter. "Ay señor, no lo leo, solo veo las fotos." She's only looking now, but I bet she'll be reading before long.

Camera Obscura
Even as digital technology takes hold in Bolivia, vestiges of the past hide in plain sight. In Santa Cruz's Plaza 24 de Septiembre, where sloths climb deliberately across the forest canopy, a photographer practiced his trade using camera obscura. The whole process, sitting to delivery, took place in a wooden box fitted with a point-and-shoot lens. The photographer seated me on a park bench, aligned his instrument, and removed its lens cap. Exposure completed, he replaced the lens cap and went to work inside the box which was equipped with an elbow-length sleeve to provide light-proof access for one hand. A few minutes later he extracted a 2x3 inch piece of photographic paper and washed it in a small bucket of water that had up to that point served as a bird bath. This was the negative, printed on paper. For a finished product, the photographer placed the paper negative on a tablet positioned a foot or so in front of the lens and removed the cap for a second time. This exposure, the negative of a negative, produced a positive print. I cherish it as a relic.

A Scam Frustrated
Laboring up one of La Paz's many steep streets, I heard a "plop" at my feet and noticed a man hurry by to my right. Soon another man tapped my shoulder and displayed a tightly wrapped package, the source of the "plop," that revealed a roll of bills bills through its translucent, plastic covering. He claimed that he wanted to divide the windfall and invited me to accompany him into a nearby arcade. I would have none of it, insisting that Pachamama had smiled on him, alone, and he was under no obligation to share his good fortune with an anonymous gringo. I'm sure that was his point, that I was an anonymous gringo and probably an easy mark for a get-rich-quick opportunity. But this time he chanced upon an exception to the rule. [Full disclosure; I only figured this out after walking away from it.]

Public Works
Even if it leaves no other legacy to Bolivia, the Evo Morales administration will be remembered for its infrastructural improvements. La Paz's major food markets, Camacho and Lanza, now reside in well designed, covered, concrete complexes. Some of the city's worst traffic bottlenecks have been relieved by tunnels and overpasses. Several city streets have been resurfaced, and at least one, Calle Sagarnaga from its mouth beside the San Francisco church to Calle Linares, the famous "witch's market," is getting a new sewer and roadbed. These works are done as folk art, for the people by the people. The Sagarnaga construction site employs only one machine, a hand cranked cement mixer. The rest of the equipment is picks, shovels, and muscle power, a recipe for maximum employment in an economy where full-time jobs are scarce.

A Tale of Two Statues
In 1973 Bolivia installed its monument to the unknown soldier at the east end of La Paz's principal thoroughfare. A colossal bronze statue depicted the tragedy of the Chaco War with a shirtless combatant draped lifelessly across a length of barbed wire. Apparently, this fallen image was unacceptable to the military regimes that ruled the country for the next fifteen years, for as plaques on the site document, another statue, this one a fully equipped soldier charging, bayonet-first, toward some unknown adversary, was erected on the site in 1979. But while it disappeared from public view, the original statue remained intact, and in 2006, with democracy again established in Bolivia, it was reinstalled and the charging soldier carted away, one hopes, forever.