Friday, December 5, 2014

Adios, Mom

Joanna B. Block (11/13/1920-7/8/2014)

Joanna B. Block died July 8, 2014, with the same grace that she lived her ninety-three years. 

Joanna was born in Herrin, Illinois, the youngest daughter of Dr. John Curtis Black and Maude Oliver Black of Corning, Arkansas. Her father practiced medicine in hospitals operated by the United Mine Workers in southern Illinois until declining health forced him to retire with his family to Bradenton, Florida.

Joanna graduated from Bradenton High School in 1938, and, after a year at Shorter College, entered the University of Arkansas.  Here she excelled in her studies, joined the Pi Beta Phi sorority, and met a charming young man from Wynne, Arkansas, who would become her husband in 1944. As the wife of a Navy officer, Joanna moved first to Greenwich, Rhode Island, and then to San Francisco and San Diego.  Then with World War II won and her husband mustered out of the service, Joanna and David Block Jr. along with their six-week-old son, returned to Wynne.

Here the Blocks added to their family with the birth of Ann Oliver in 1948 and Paula Mary four years later.  Joanna and David raised their children and lived their lives in an arrangement typical of the times; husband as breadwinner, wife as everything else. Joanna thrived as mother, homemaker, volunteer par excellence, and part of a circle of friends that partied, traveled, and enjoyed life together.

With her husband's death in 1993, Joanna bravely left behind the comfortable routines of half a century.  She moved, first to Denver, Colorado, and then to Los Angeles where, with the loving care of her Angelina daughters, she lived the last eleven years of her life.

Joanna Block made good use of her time on earth.  She was firm in her beliefs, true to her friends, and generous with her resources. As long as we live, she will live.

The Earth Quakes

Ecuador sits uneasily on a tectonic fault line.  A catastrophic quake leveled the provincial city of Ambato in 1949.  But the temblors of August 13th and 14th in the Quito suburbs are rare occurrences.  The last instrumentally-recorded event there was in 1990, and to go beyond that one would have to consult documents from the 19th century.  With so little experience to rely on, Quiteños were at a loss to explain  these seismic events.

I went directly to an unimpeachable source, cab drivers.  Riding to dinner on the 13th, I learned that quakes are correlated with the weather.  “It’s the humidity,” one driver assured me.  The next day more sinister attributions came my way.  “In your country they predict earthquakes, don’t they?”  My negative response produced only disbelief and suspicion.  In an attempt to disengage, I thought of other topics, like the Ebola outbreak.  “You know how to predict that, too, don’t you?” I asked the driver to drop me at the next corner.  Walking half a mile to my destination seemed a small price to pay.

Newspaper accounts on the morning of the 14th pictured enormous dust clouds, the most prominent feature visible from the city center.  From closer up came accounts of landslides, highway closures and the tragic death of a six-year-old, crushed by a fifty kilogram sack of rice that fell from a shelf in the family bodega.  That afternoon the government dialed up a fierce charm offensive.  President Correa and several functionaries made television appearances to laud disaster response and to point out how their preparedness had saved lives.  They made no mention of the six-year-old.

Then on the 14th at 11PM another quake-- or perhaps an aftershock, accounts varied-- shook the city.  I was fast asleep but awoke long enough to look for my shoes in case the hotel ordered an evacuation.  Two consecutive days of temblors clearly worried people.  “I’m not afraid” one bystander confided, ”but I’m wondering.”

I have lived and traveled in the Andes continuously since 1968, and this was my first experience with a seismic event.  Quake and temblor, the expressions most often used to describe the phenomenon, now seem to me misapplied. Rather than trembling or quaking, the buildings I was in gently swayed, back and forth.  Nothing fell from the shelves, no one ran into the streets, no sirens wailed.  But movement was palpable, 5.1 on the Richter scale.

On the 15th terra firma returned.  I left town that night with a group of tourists fresh from the Galapagos Islands.  They hadn’t heard a thing.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

At the Fair

In May of 2014, Bogotá held its 27th International Book Fair.  Unlike the grand  emporiums of Frankfurt and Madrid, where selling rights is more important than selling books, filbo is all about the merchandise.

In the early 1960s forward-looking government officials acquired a large piece of real estate south west of what was then the heart of the capital.  This property, recognized by its iconic metal arch and built to host commercial expositions of all sizes, became corferias Bogotá, a public/private partnership that has endured for half a century.  The book fair, filbo, has grown steadily over its quarter century and now fills all six of corferias’ pavilions, providing over 1,600 separate venues for publishers and book sellers to show their wares.  While Colombian editorial houses predominate the event, publishers from other Latin American countries send representatives as well. 

Each year the fair bestows the title of guest of honor to a country in the Luso-Hispanic world.  In 2014 Peru received the designation and gave a very good account of itself.  The Peruvian pavilion featured a display of photographic images taken by a well-known anthropologist, a carefully-chosen display of ceramic and textile handicrafts, and an inner room of books produced by a variety of scholarly and popular publishers.   How the books were chosen was something of a mystery—visitors received no explanation—but they seemed to sell briskly.

For the past five years corferias has provided subventions to professions that offset their airfare to visit Bogota during filbo.  Librarians from most major Latin American Collections in the United States, South America and Mexico have received these grants, some as recidivists.  This year corferias also sponsored a breakfast that mixed publishers and librarians over coffee and eggs as a way of kicking things off.

The local press often laments that despite having produced a number of distinguished writers, Colombia is not a nation of readers.  I wonder, given the global onslaught of digital media, if Colombian journalists doth protest too much, or if not too much, too soon.  Librarians, booksellers and authors across the planet fret that reading has become a diversion exclusive to the senior set.

A week before the fair opened, Colombia’s most famous writer, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, died in Mexico City.  The sure-footed organizers reacted quickly and filled the venue with tributes to “Gabo,” including a monumental screen print of the novelist fronted by a bouquet of yellow roses.  Several books, including a recent translation of Gerald Martin’s biography, were on display.  I suspect that many others will appear before the year is out, chronicles of a death foretold.

Peru’s Nobel laureate, Mario Vargas Llosa came to the fair as part of the Peruvian delegation.  He and Garcia Marquez famously have not spoken for years.  So it is an irony worthy of a novel that the two would share center state in Bogota.  Vargas Llosa presented the keynote address, and tickets were as scarce as hen’s teeth. I did not get one, and I have not seen the speech in print.   But I cannot help wondering how Gabo fared.

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 Highway 85, the rails of Union Pacific, a patrol road and the wire fence.  Even if an intrepid visitor were to cross the highway, 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. Not everyone is so entitled.

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.