14 April 2009

On Peru

* Peru might be the most beautiful country in the world. Maybe I'm wrong, but you'd certainly have a difficult time proving it. Scientifically speaking, of the roughly 120 categories of topography on earth, about 80 can be found within the borders of Peru. There are snow-capped mountains, rolling valleys, deserts, jungles, glaciers, tropical beaches, volcanoes, rainforests, and everything in between. Some of the tallest of the towering Andes are here, as well as the deepest canyon in the world. The mighty Amazon rises in the eastern part of the country, and to the south is the world's highest navigable lake (Lake Titicaca). Breathtakingly diverse doesn't begin to describe it.

* It was refreshing to visit a place with such a strong indigenous character. In many countries in today's world, native populations have been marginalized or even eliminated, but Peru is shaped by its Indian plurality. 45 percent of Peruvians today are of native origin, descended directly from pre-Columbian societies such as the Inca. Still another 37 percent are mestizo, of mixed indigenous and European lineage. The remaining 18 percent is a blend of European, Asian, and African ethnicities. As a result, Peru can scarcely be called a Latin American country. Rather, it is a multiethnic country dominated by native ancestry, whose primary language just happens to be Spanish.

* Despite the numbers, only recently has there been a rekindling of indigenous pride among Peruvians. From the time of European contact, the customs and culture of the natives wer
e actively quashed by the European elite, the rich culinary traditions of the Andes dismissed as "Indian food." This legacy lasted past colonial times, well into the 20th century. Our parents' generation in particular was taught that it was somehow wrong to embrace native heritage or to speak Quechua (the native tongue of the Inca and the correct name for the ethnicity of the indigenous people), and so they strove to eliminate any traces they could. This extended to what they named their children: we met several people named Washington, and our guide Patricia's brother is named Anderson. Why? "Because they were looking for the furthest thing from Indian they could find," she explained. There has, however, been a resurgence of late. People are beginning to embrace the rich heritage of the great civilizations of the past, helped in part by the attention and tourism from the outside world. They are returning to traditional styles, and Inca cuisine has become haute couture in the cities.

* Quechua is a strong second language in Peru, spoken by almost four million. In the heart of Inca country, centered around the city of Cusco, it is the primary language for many... they only speak Spanish to tourists and for trade. It is, I'm told, an onomatopoeitic language, and a ve
ry sweet-sounding one. However, I came across some stories written in Quechua, and it looked blindingly difficult: every word was an extremely long grab-bag of Qs, Ks, and Us. But perhaps it wouldn't be all that hard: I learned that it is gramatically similar to English. For example, where the Spanish would say "a door blue," Quechua and English give you "a blue door."

* The Christian faith seemed so genuine in Peru, so intrinsic and personal. In the US, it seems, Christianity is political, it's a tussle in the media and a constant war of factions. Some need to Evangelize, some need to create a bubble, some associate only with a small and safe group, some need to put "God Answers Knee Mail" stickers on their cars. In Peru, religion is a different world entirely. People hold silent audience with their Lord, they quietly pray when they need to. There is no need for showmanship; perhaps a cross necklace for that shopkeeper, or a small portrait of The Virgin above that taxi driver's dashboard. These things are to remind themselves, not to prove anything to others. And frankly, there's no need. This being South America, nearly everyone is a self-attesting Roman Catholic. To be anything else is almost unheard of; we felt awkward when we had to explain that we really only observe Easter Sunday and not the whole week, and it seemed an alien concept to those we were telling. In the cities, there are scores of churches around, all Catholic . . . it's necessary to meet the volume. But again, so genuine. I watched as people made the 'cross' gesture just passing a church from the sidewalk, even while holding conversations. Men removed their hats. It was really nice to see.

* Considering the Peruvian ethnic makeup, however, it's Catholicism with a twist. The
pre-Columbian peoples were animists, and extremely devout ones at that. They worshipped pacha mama, or Mother Earth, and revered the sun, the stars, the mountains. Human sacrifices to appease the elements were not unknown. When the Spanish arrived, they had to use native elements to make their monotheism more familiar and appealing to the Inca masses. Furthermore, after conversion, the Quechua people retained many of their old customs and symbols. The legacy of both of these factors is still evident today. For example, the Virgin Mary is almost always depicted with a veil behind her head which fans out to her shoulders, giving her a mountain-like appearance; this keeps with the former Quechua reverence for mountains to represent "the mother." Another example is the post-Renaissance artwork which adorns many of the churches: In the Iglesia de Santo Domingo in Cusco, I saw a painting of the Last Supper in which Jesus and the Apostles were feasting on traditional Andes dishes, such as quinoa, chicha beer and guinea pig. In the same painting--no doubt by a Quechua artist working under Spanish commission--Judas Iscariot is depicted with the face of Francisco Pizarro, the conquistador responsible for the colonization of Peru. On a related note, Paul Theroux notes that in Latin America, Jesus is always depicted in paintings and sculptures as significantly more tortured, more bloodied and bruised, and in more pain, than he is in other countries. He speculates that for the colonial missionaries, it was necessary to show the suffering of Christ as more severe than that of the natives themselves (subjected to countless tortures by the Europeans), in order to convince them of his divinity.

* It was fantastic to be in such a heavily Catholic place during Semana Santa, or the Holy Week leading up to Easter. There were massive nightly processions in which statues of Jesus, Mary and a collection of patron saints were taken from their church cupolas and marched through the streets by candlelight, with bands and flag-bearers and guards and choirs. Sidewalks were lined with vendors selling food, drinks, snacks, and little trinkets. It was a whole event, almost like a fair. I got to walk with one procession through Arequipa, and there were literally hundreds of thousands of people there. Quite a sight to see.

* Arequipa is Peru's second city, behind Lima. Its 1.2 million residents live under a massive volcano called el Misti. It erupts every 500 years, and it erupted 500 years ago. "Shhh!" said Carla, our guide, "he is still sleeping."

* Driving in Peru is predictably insane. The prevailing attitude is that the road was paved to be used, and so all parts of it should be, to maximize utilization. Thus cars and motorcycles push between others and drive in the middle of the road, into oncoming traffic, with five cars abreast on three-lane roads. Instead of waiting behind others to turn left or right, they'll swing around the outside of the leading car and turn ahead of them. Add to that the unrestricted wanderings of children, animals, and pedestrians--llamas, dogs, and cows coming out of doorways and walking across the street--and you have a very unpredictable right of way distribution indeed. All of our drivers were expertly skilled: not hitting these surprising obstructions was a science and a wonder. The car horn had to have been invented for this country. That being said, one day we came across an overturned semi truck, and every single other truck on that road stopped to help put it right, direct traffic around it, and return the road to normal. There is no AAA here, and seeing that kind of comeraderie was amazing.

* Peruvians spend a lot of time drinking coca tea and chewing coca leaves. It is their national custom, and they are very proud--and touchy--about it. Numerous people gave
us mini-speeches about how adding alkalines can yield cocaine and how Peru does not endorse that and that very bad people corrupt the name of this wonderful product, one which they have been enjoying since before the Spanish arrived. It IS quite a remarkable herb: it is rich in nutrients, aids metabolism, helps cure altitude sickness and nausea, and most importantly, gives the consumer a very effective energy boost, much like coffee. The cocaine trade means even the innocent tea leaf can't be exported, especially not to the overly-cautious US, which is a shame, because it would be a wonderful thing to drink in the mornings.

* Inca Kola is delicious.

* Peru is a very poor country, desperately so in places. It is a third-world/developing country, and although the situation is not as dire as in many countries in subsaharan Africa and in Far East, there are very real extremes of poverty and hardship here. It's also an interesting case study in that there are throngs of comparatively wealthy tourists everywhere throughout the country. Much of the economic instability is the result of d
ecades of failing governments, which bounced seemingly endlessly between allowing exploitative foreign interests into the fabric of Peruvian commerce, and regimes based on opposite policies of industry nationalization and protectionism. Pair that with rampant administrative corruption and the still-present echoes of colonial pillaging, and the result is that many millions of Peruvians live a precarious, hand-to-mouth existence. It was indeed sobering to travel there and see for myself, but I'm glad I was able to. We passed shanty towns (Peruvians call them "young neighborhoods") of untold squalor, housing scores of people without electricity, without running water or drainage, even many without roofs. But remarkably, the slums outside of Arequipa, for example, are largely populated by people who moved there by choice from the countryside, to improve their chances of economic opportunity in the city. So the situation is indeed dire. I felt so helpless; I wanted to do something, anything to help, but I couldn't imagine what. Going to Peru has rekindled a deep desire within me to try to make a difference. It's an unsettling guilt that comes from awareness, but I wouldn't have it any other way. More people should be aware of the state of the world.

* Seeing the poverty also inspired rage in me, when I thought about many of the turistas I saw, and the people back home who stay wilfully ignorant of the plight of others. How many millions of priviledged Americans and people from the West never even stop to consider that
places like this are real? How many do, but just don't care? A vast majority, by my estimation. I've spoken to people in the US who say "oh yes, I'm thankful for what I've got, but why should I think about poor people? Why should I have to be affected, as long as I'm grateful that I'm not one of them?" Honestly. That was a real moral justification for somebody that I spoke to. Many of the tourists were not much better. To them, the deflated prices of goods and services was a game they were on the winning side of: "what a bargain I got!" It makes me ill. If I had to be near turistas, I sought ones who were not speaking English, so I at least would not be able to understand their conversations.

* The tourism industry has had a unique effect on the nature of poverty in Peru, of course. Many people in most places in Peru eke out a living by vending traditional wares from stalls on the streets, in the plazas, and at scenic rest stops. Because a direct line can be drawn from the customary garments, accessories, toys and trinkets of the native Quechua to today's society (many people still wear traditional dress, particularly in rural areas), the production of alpaca-wool clothes and hats, rugs and blankets with indigenous patterns and colors, little woven finger puppets, and Andean musical instruments, is what many poor Peruvians know best. It is their culture, a
nd they sell it to tourists. I actually overheard an English lady say, "honestly, what is the use of that stuff? Finger puppets and stuff, really? These local people have really got to analyze what we want. I'm going to put that in a drawer, and never take it out, except to tell people I went to Peru once. It's useless." She actually said that. I tried to keep my patience, but she almost got the lecture of a lifetime from me. It's not about whether or not your comfortable living room will be better off for a cultural keepsake, it's about the fact that the meaningless (to you) $0.30 you spent on it might feed that woman's child tonight. I bought a hat from a young lady, a vendor in a makeshift market in the parking lot of a tourist-bus rest stop. I watched as, when she was sure no one was looking, she quietly made the cross gesture and kissed the 10 Soles ($3) that we had paid her. The look on her face... she needed that money. Needed it for her very livelihood. It was a gift from God to keep her going just that little bit longer. Real poverty. I'll take that image with me forever.

* I'm sure many people from the Global North are uncomfortable with the poverty they see in a place like Peru. But I think it's necessary to keep a perspective on it... that is, to separate the notion of poverty from the notion of worth. These are real people with real problems and aspirations, living real lives. No, it's not as nice as your beachfront in Boca. But that doesn't make it Godforsaken. The moment you stop looking at it with paternalistic "developed" eyes, you'll be able to appreciate it as a legitimate place with its own unique worth. Worth is nothing to do with money.

* I get the impression that street vendors in Peru are much more courteous than in many other places. In many countries, you're approached, and if you don't want to buy they follow you, try to convince you, maybe even insult you. In Peru, the vast majority of the time, when you said "no, gracias" they gave a quiet "gracias" and walked away. Even the hustlers, seasoned and streetwise, didn't pressure you excessively. You're also expected to haggle, but I can't really bring myself to do it. Prices are usually below the real value of goods, and any haggling you do gives you the sneaking suspicion that you're taking directly from the poor lady in the stall's pocket. Sometimes the desperate, saddened look they gave you when you named a price showed what was really going on: they just couldn't afford to sell it for that. And they're very proud people; when they do make a sale, they fold your new product to be as nice as possible, taking time to package it just right for you. Even when you say "that's really not necessary..." So personally, I just can't do it, all the haggling and bargaining. And furthermore, I wanted to buy from all of them. I want to go and buy everything in the entire market, just to help. That helpless feeling...

* With some exceptions, touristic strangers from the New World are friendlier (read as: more reliable for a hearty nod or a jolly tip of the hat while passing on a hike) than those from the Old World.

* I did not see one McDonald's, apart from at Lima airport on the way home. Not one. It's worth a trip for that alone.

* The Gator Nation is everywhere, even Peru. Hello to that Linguistics/English 2008 grad that I met between Arequipa and Lima.

* Travel is still classy in Peru. None of this "you may purchase an ice cube, only credit cards accepted" on the aircraft. Planes and trains are smart and professional. The train back from Machu Picchu had sophisticated earthenware cups and plates, cotton napkins, a wine list (it
also had a fashion show of alpaca garments, courtesy of the train attendants). It felt like that old fashioned romance of going from A to B was not totally lost.

* The Inca were just remarkable. They came to dominance as the result of gradually taking over smaller Andean societies, and painstakingly adopting the best advances in science and technology from each one. As a result, their civilization had complex systems of irrigation, terraced agriculture (many of the Inca terraces are still there and still in use, draped across the rolling countryside), astronomy, and architecture. The architecture is a story in itself. When the Spanish arrived, particularly in places such as the Inca capital of Cusco, they destroyed many of the existing structures and built their own colonial buildings on the original foundations. Well, Peru is a hotbed of seismic activity (the major fault line running through the country created the Andes) and in the last 500 years, scores of major earthquakes have occurred. A lot of the Spanish stuff fell down, revealing the Inca lower levels, still completely intact half a millennium later. This is because the Inca built advanced earthquake-proofing into their structures, demonstrating a deep understanding of interlocking stones, buttressed stress-bearing walls, and symmetrical niches for vibration absorption. The result? In Peru, in 2009, the Inca walls are still there.

* As mentioned previously, native South Americans comprise the largest ethnic division in modern Peru, and there has been a cultural resurgence in recent years. Fascinatingly, ther
e is still resentment against the Spanish conquistadors, over 500 years later. Tales of the Spanish torturing, killing, raping, enslaving and exploiting their ancestors have clearly been preserved and passed down through the generations, and modern Peruvians still feel the sting. But it's a strange dynamic, because Peru is also a nation with a major Iberian legacy: the Spanish brought their language and the Catholic religion Peruvians hold so dear. Also, the large mestizo population all have Spanish ancestry. So there is a conflicted nature to the Peruvian attitude towards their erstwhile oppressors. In any case, we were discussing with Raul, our guide in Machu Picchu, the habit llamas have of spitting to express their displeasure, to which he ribbed, "ahh yes, this is true, but here llamas only spit at the Spanish, no?"

* To brush your teeth using only bottled water is to fight decades of impulse and muscle memory.

* The Andes form a natural wall, trapping precipitation on the east side of the range and preventing almost all of it from getting to the west. The result is that the Pacific coast is almost uniformly arid and dry, and from the eastern foothills on there is lush tropical rainforest and jungle. In fact, Peru has among the greatest area of rainforest in the world. It was astounding, even on the 1.5 hour train ride from Cusco to Aguascalientes, how quickly mountainous terrain gave way to thick jungle, leading to the appearance of exotic flora and fauna: long-tailed tropical birds, unique (and large) insects and lizards, and thick equatorial vegatation. And this was just the furthest boundary of the Amazon. Peruvians should be proud, because in the last few decades, government has enacted sweeping motions to protect many of Peru's natural resources, particularly the oft-exploited rainforest. The department of Madre de Dios is almost entirely jungle, protected by law in the young Manu National Park. Thanks to legislation such as this, the rainforest may continue to live on, and Peru can now count itself as a nation at the vanguard of the protection of environmental treasures.

* Another treasure hidden in the depths of the rainforest is the presence of an estimated fifteen small tribes, as yet uncontacted by anyone from the outside world. Ever. Researchers confirmed the existence of one in the last few years using aerial imagery. I can't even get my head around this. These people have no concept of the societies that surround them. As far as they're concerned, European contact never happened. Scientists suppose that if we were to try now it would be fatal for them, because of course they don't have immunity to our pathogens (many of which we don't even think about anymore). But it's certainly a mind-blowing testament to just how dense the rainforest is, still holding its own secrets, defying a species that has been both to the moon and to leagues below the sea. Think about it. There are places, in Peru, that no modern man has ever visited. Astounding.

* Vicuna fiber is softer than silk, and more precious. The vicuna is an endangered species, and an individual can only be sheared once every three years, making its wool near-priceless. I felt some fabric, and it was indeed luxurious.

* Let the word go forth: the South American camelids (llama, alpaca, guanaco and vicuna) were here first. They originated near present-day Canada and migrated west and south. Modern Middle Eastern camels, such as those found in North Africa and the Arabian peninsula, were descended from the American camelids.

* Possibly the most classic guidebook line ever: "Don't confuse the rainbow flag of Cusco for a gay-friendly place. In Peru, gay men are derisively referred to as "mariposa" (butterfly), and lesbian women are barely heard of at all."

* America has no excuse. I saw recycle bins everywhere in Peru. Also seperate bins for organic and inorganic waste. If a country with so much to overcome can devote resources to being environmentally conscious (and they no doubt also realize that doing so helps them) then I don't want to see Bill and Marge throwing their plastic Mountain Dew bottles in the trash. (Addendum: as we took our train along the Urubamba River to Poroy, we noticed that miles of riverbank were cluttered with heaps of glass, plastic, newspaper... Obviously somebody had paid somebody to take the recycling somewhere, and the Urubamba is where it ended up. An atrocity on the part of the litterers, but still, it's the original thought that counts, I suppose).

* I can say this: the Peruvians are eating well. Firstly, they're very proud of their own native dishes, especially among the Quechua. Analysis of the agricultural zone of Machu Picchu confirms that the Inca experimented with scores of crops from varied topographies. As a result, they've been cooking with diverse grains (such as corn, quinoa, sweet potatoes), fruits and vegetables (such as maca, tomatoes,rocoto peppers) and other foods for centuries. Secondly, they also have a flair for non-native cuisines. I had some of the best Italian food ever while in Peru, and heard similar reports about their Asian, European, even seafood. And anyone who thinks that it's funny that they eat guinea pig is an idiot. It's a delicacy that they enjoy on very rare occasions (maybe a birthday once a year) and it's no more strange than eating lobster. And I can say this as a non-participant on both counts. So there.

* Of course, there is so much more to tell. So many experiences and lessons learned. No country can be summed up by a bundle of loosely organized thoughts on a page. This is not a journal, these are merely snapshots. So I want to tell you that the people of Peru might be the best people there are, and the kindest. Perhaps it's wrong to generalize. But I've had the pleasure of knowing a choice few Peruvians in the US, and the collective impression I always had was that they were just genuinely nice people. Traveling to their country of origin did nothing to dispel that belief. It's not an outgoing, over-the-top kindness as in the US ("how are y'all doing today!"), but a more basic, authentic quality of a caring people, friendly and polite and always willing to go the extra mile for others. Yes, Peru has many problems. Its governments are rife with corruption, its people are poor, with many struggling to make the most basic of ends meet. The dramatic landscape is both a blessing and a curse, as it provides abundant natural resources, but is also a constant risk of earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, droughts, and floods. But it is a country of rich heritage and cultural diversity. It's a land of endless fascination for those interested in history. Its people are beautiful and proud, and will continue to endure. To quote the message carved on the mountainside above Cusco, "Viva el Peru glorioso."

18 March 2009

The Battle of Hayes Pond

The Lumbee were at the edge of their patience. Though recognized as an Indian tribe by the state of North Carolina (they had been since 1885, in fact), they had struggled for decades in Washington, where lawmakers repeatedly refused them federal recognition. Nevertheless, by the time Congress allowed a half-measure (it acknowledged indigenous lineage for the tribe, but would not officially recognize it), the Lumbee were facing an uglier problem entirely: Catfish Cole.

James W. "Catfish" Cole lived across the border in South Carolina, where he proudly wore the title of Ku Klux Klan "Grand Dragon". Having previously used his oratory talents as a carnival barker, Cole was an outspoken bigot indeed. By the mid-1950s, he had designs on becoming the dominant white supremacist in the Carolinas: he aimed to make the two sister states his kingdom. To this end, he began making inroads into the as-yet unconquered Tar Heel State. It would be a spectacular, Napoleonic failure.

Cole's first mistake was to target a black doctor in Union County named Albert Perry. Perry funded the local chapter of the NAACP, whose president was Robert F Williams, the yin to Martin Luther King's y
ang in the Civil Rights Movement. Williams believed in armed resistance, in protecting his race and his loved ones using whatever forceful means necessary. Needless to say, when he got wind of Cole's plan against Dr Perry, he was not pleased. When Cole brought his motorcade of Klansmen to Perry's house in Monroe, NC, he couldn't have expected a force of 60 armed black men standing sentry in rotating shifts behind makeshift bunker reinforcements. Williams' homespun militia immediately fired upon Cole's motorcade, which promptly fled.

The citizens of Monroe were disgusted by the Klan's incitement of race violence in their area (the Monroe Journal called it an "uncivilized incident"), and the next day an emergency ordinance was passed banning Klan demonstrations countywide. As a result, Cole retreated to Robeson County.

Lumbee country.

The Lumbee mu
st have seemed an acceptable consolation target for Cole. He considered them "mongrels" and was outspokenly disgusted by their presence in his region. The Federal Government's 1957 Lumbee Act--which acknowledged the tribe's native ancestry--insensed Cole, inspiring him to target what he saw as a scourge on his utopian vision for the Carolinas. To Cole, the Lumbee represented something threatening to the established order of the Jim Crow South: a bridge between white and black.

One of Cole's favorite talking points was the protection of Southern white womanhood. He saw it as a Southern man's duty to keep inferior races from seducing the delicate flower that was the Southern white woman. Interracial sex was the worst sin imaginable: it was "mongrelization."

In the opening weeks of 1958, Cole began his campaign of terror in Robeson County. He instructed his Klansmen to burn crosses outside Lumbee residences, and made speeches about the inferiority of the Lumbee race and the lack of morality among the women. Finally, he planned to hold a massive rally to show minorities in eastern North Carolina that they were subjects in his territory and should "remember their place" in white America. Fliers were distributed, and Cole blusteringly predicted that upwards of 500 armed Klansmen would be in attendance.

The Lumbee had had enough.

Robeson sheriff Malcolm McLeod certainly sensed it. He drove down to South Carolina to warn Cole that he would be putting himself in danger if he persisted with his plans. Undaunted, Cole set the date of the rally for the night of January 18th by Hayes Pond, near the small town of Maxton, NC.

Cole's attendance prediction was delusional: only about 50 Klansmen, some having brought their families, were present for the beginning of the rally, which was lit by a single lightbulb hanging from a pole. A Klan banner and a cross (for burning) were erected, and Cole began to test the address system he had rigged up on the bed of his truck. Before he could begin speaking, however, an anonymous gunshot rang out, shattering the one light. Plunged into darkness, the Klansmen then heard the shrill whoop of screaming Lumbee from all directions: they had been encircled. They had been ambushed.

Cole and his cohort were unaware that 500 Lumbee men, armed with rifles and shotguns and tired of the unchecked bigotry waged against them, had amassed just over the highway from the rally site. There they gathered, waiting for the signal; the atmosphere among them was described as "tense" and "excited". Upon hearing Cole's voice, they surged across the road and surrounded the Klan, opening fire int
o the sky.

Chaos ensued. The Klan scattered in all directions, ran for the woods and for their cars, abandoning the paraphernalia and firearms. They feared for their lives, though only four were actually hurt in the melee. Victorious, the Lumbee allowed the whites to escape. Sheriff McLeod and the county police moved in shortly after the gunfire began, but order was already established. They helped the Lumbee find various Klansmen hiding in bushes and in the woods, and promptly directed them out of Robeson County. Only one arrest was made: a Klan member, for public drunkenness.

The best part of the story is the spectacular hypocrisy of the Klan. Many abandoned their families as they escaped. Catfish Cole himself, the self-appointed guardian of white womanhood, abandoned his wife, Carolyn, as he fled into the forest. Panicking and left in danger by her husband, she tried to escape in the car, but promptly drove it into a ditch. Eventually, several Lumbee men helped her push it out.

The Lumbee took the opportunity to celebrate their victory: they marched a parade through the streets to Pembroke, where they lit a bonfire, burned the abandoned Klan materials (and an effigy of Catfish Cole), mockingly draped themselves in the hated white robes, and sang and danced into the night.

Afterward, Cole was caught and sentenced to two years' imprisonment for inciting a riot. The Klan abandoned all activities in Robeson County, and the Lumbee were hailed as victors in the national press. A picture of chief Lumbee organizer Simeon Oxendine holding the seized KKK banner appeared in Life magazine, and (particularly in terms of national public opinion) a major blow was dealt to the crumbling foundation of Jim Crow.

That January night, the Lumbee did more than just break up a rally. They took arms against a seemingly insurmountable social order, and did it without resorting to any actual violence. They showed the Klan what it felt like to be on the receiving end of their despicable terrorism, and they rid their area of a bully who had rashly overstepped his boundaries. Finally, in taking matters into their own hands, in standing up for their rights, and in setting an example for social warriors everywhere, the Lumbee paved one more stone in the road to equality.

They won.

07 March 2009

Sugar, Spice and Everything Ice

Iceland lays low for the most part. Living in a small community on an island in the frigid North Atlantic, Icelanders quietly enjoy one of the highest standards of living in the world. So why would they make waves on the worldwide scene?
However, the normally unassuming country has made headlines twice in recent months. It became the first nation to elect an openly gay head of state, which was certainly a great step forward for worldwide civil rights. The entire country also went bankrupt.
Those in large countries might find that second tidbit to be a little much to take. The entire country? But let us not forget that the whole population of Iceland is just over 300,000. That's slightly less than the number of residents of Omaha, Nebraska. Considering that 112,000 Americans declared bankruptcy in February alone, the Iceland statistic becomes more believable.
But let's set the economy doom and gloom aside and look at the country itself. What must it be like to live in such a small sovereign nation?
Well for a start, everyone knows everyone else, or is at least a degree of separation away. This does not bode well for those in the service industry. One of the airlines I worked with closely was Icelandair, and almost everybody wanted 'special favors' simply because of some so-called mutual friend. ("Do you know Johanna? I know Johanna. Got any free upgrades?") The aircraft also reeked of fish. Fish is daily bread for Iceland, and accounts for the majority of its export. They have fish for lunch, fish for dinner; they send fish to their relatives in other countries as gifts. One of the main reasons they have yet to join the European Union is because of loss of control over fishing limits. This is a country serious about its fish.
When they're not enjoying fish, they're partying. Reykjavik, the capital city and home to about two-thirds of the country's inhabitants, has a reputation for being a major nightlife center. We're talking about everybody--all 200,000--getting out of work on Friday, going home to start drinking (any money saved by pre-partying will be significant, because food and drink are obscenely expensive in Iceland. As is, for that matter, everything else), then hitting the town. And not finishing until it's time to go back to the office on Monday. It's a nightlife scene to rival any in the world. This is no doubt aided by the northerly latitude: in the summer months, the sun never sets. It merely approaches the horizon and then begins to rise again. In the winter, of course, just the opposite is true: there is very little daylight for six months. Either way, it's a condition condusive to a vibrant party atmosphere.

But that's just the tip of the cultural iceberg. Iceland has a rich history and an active artistic and literary scene. The writing is, of course, in Icelandic. The Icelandic language is a fascinating study in the retention of linguistic purity across generations. It has changed so little that most Icelanders are able to read the country's medieval epics--written a millennium ago--almost as if reading a modern book. (By contrast, most English speakers have some difficulty with Shakespeare, written 400 years ago, and consider Chaucer's Middle English--650 years past--a different language entirely).
There are no family names in Iceland. Instead, your surname is your father's first name, along with whether you are his son or daughter. So Britain's Prince Harry would be called Harry Charlesson and Bob Geldof's first child would be Fifi Trixibelle Bobdottir. Except they wouldn't, because all first names must come from an approved list.
It's interesting to think about living in a land with no history of indigenous predecessors. Iceland, isolated from both Europe and North America for eons, and with few trees and relatively infertile soil, appears to have been completely untouched by humanity until its settlement by Scandinavian colonists in the 8th century AD.
The land itself is a living example of nature's power. It is relatively young by geological standards, and lies on a huge tectonic fault, which means the landmass is a breathtaking melee of tundra, glaciers, active geysers (the English word 'geyser' is actually borrowed from Icelandic), volcanoes, mountain ranges, hot springs, and violent waterways. This explains why most of the vast interior is uninhabited and why the population centers lie mostly along the southwestern coastal fjords.
This geothermal activity, however, makes Iceland one of the most environmentally friendly places on the planet. Most of their electricity and energy is generated by directly harnessing the heat below the surface. The remaining percentage comes hydrologically from waterfalls, rapids and reservoirs. Iceland is truly at the vanguard of successful reliance on renewable resources, and makes active policy of working towards carbon-neutrality. The one drawback: many places smell pungently sulfurous, sulfur being one of the main elements underground that makes it all possible.

The thought of Iceland draws slightly unfair assumptions about its climate from most Westerners, probably because the name translates as...well, "Iceland." Make no mistake, this is certainly not Antigua. But it lies at the end of the North Atlantic Drift, a fast and powerful ocean current which constantly feeds it with moderating, temperate conditions. A gift-wrapped present from neighbors to the south, perhaps. So granted, Iceland is chilly, but it is more of a never-warm place than a too-cold place. And compared to other lands straddling the Arctic Circle, its consistently 30-degree weather makes it seem like an oasis of warmth.

All in all, Iceland figures to be one of the best places on earth. It has among the highest standards in the world for literacy and education. It enjoys first class health care, and its people have the second-highest life expectancy on the planet. Crime is virtually non-existent. It is a liberal, egalitarian community governed by a progressive parliament. It boasts culture, nightlife, and stunning natural beauty. Its overall standard of living rivals any nation in the world.

And yes, Iceland's banks are in trouble. But it's a virtual certainty that the Icelandic people will persevere, recover from the crisis, and have a damn good time while doing it.

28 February 2009

Man On Wire: Tightropes and Slippery Slopes

I recently had the pleasure of watching Man On Wire, the Oscar-winning documentary about French tightrope performer Philippe Petit and his 1974 walk between the two World Trade Center towers. What a remarkable story.

What is remarkable, however, is not the walk itself--though I imagine if I suddenly found myself on a rope above a 1400 foot canyon I would have more reverence for the act--but the logistics involved in making it happen. In a past life, Philippe Petit could have been a classic bank robber, evading authorities like Bonnie and Clyde.

Previously, I had only been vaguely aware of Petit's feat. Knowing virtually nothing of the facts, I naively assumed that all the appropriate forms had been filled out and all the insurance paid up. Nothing of the sort. This was, simply put, a heist. And an ingenious one at that. After its opening in 1972, Petit and his friends spent countless guileful hours at the World Trade Center, observing comings and goings, studying blueprints, developing passable alternate identities, and collecting a small posse of unlikely accomplices to abet their wonderfully devious cause.

The film works so well because it plays to the strengths of the story: it is a movie about scheme and subterfuge, rather than a tightrope walk. It is a real-world Italian Job, and is presented as such. There is no dryness here, no uninspired narration, just suspense and fun throughout.

Perhaps predictably, the day of the event (August 7th 1974) was about overcoming unforeseen obstacles. The morning weather was less than perfect. The group had spent the night trying to haul the equipment to the two roofs, but Petit's sortie had the misfortune of ending up on a deserted floor with a security guard who had decided to stay there for the night. Petit lay concealed under a tarp, completely still, for hours.

One of the story's most amazing aspects is the ingenious way the team got the high wire across the void. It was achieved by--and this is just fantastic--a bow and arrow, tied to a fishing wire. After stringing the line across, they tied a slightly heavier line to that, and then a small rope, and then a heavier rope, and so on, until the weight of the steel cable could be supported. A complex problem, an elegantly simple solution.

The crossing itself was not so much a tightrope walk as a performance. Petit balanced on one foot, on one knee, he layed flat on the wire; he crossed eight times. The film has already shown us his charismatic personality, and so we are not surprised by his showmanship. He speaks poetically about the crossing; to him it is stage. He is a performer: "My objective was to venture through the negative space offered by the two towers and discover what kind of ephemeral, improvised theater I could write in the sky. Why did I cross eight times? . . . I was called by the towers, by the void, by my instinct to perform one more crossing . . . and one more . . . and one more . . ."

After forty-five minutes conquering physics, he steps onto the south tower, and is of course arrested. He would later be 'sentenced' to perform for the children of New York (which he does, in Central Park).

Upon his release, instead of finding his friends--who had traveled from all over the world and helped him overcome seemingly insurmountable odds--and his girlfriend Annie--who had supported him since their teens and had given up most of her dreams for the realization of his--he ended up sexually engaged with a random admirer who had offered to 'celebrate' with him. Annie and the others tried to call him, to contact him, but he pretended he had press conferences that were keeping him busy. The film does not preach on the ills of celebrity, but the result of his actions are implicitly clear. His friends were hurt--to this day they bear the scars and are seen to get emotional thinking of the incident in the interviews--but it did not matter to Petit, who had just walked on air at the top of the world. Such is, I suppose, the price of instant fame.

Finally, the movie excels at reminding us of the majesty of the towers, but does so while avoiding poignancy or descending into unnecessary tributes. Rightfully so: there is no homage here. There is simply no need. Instead, we are treated to dramatic views from 120 stories above Manhattan. Photographs show Phillippe and his friends atop the roof on their many reconnaissance missions. They are fooling around, sitting on the edge, precariously balancing above an unfathomable precipice. These still frames almost enticed me to shout at the screen. Get away from the edge! What kind of a person is this? How can he be so fearless (or is it foolhardy?). It really takes some stepping back and considering: it's one thing to watch a documentary about this feat, to maintain an interested detachment in something so astounding as to be intangible, but imagine actually doing it. Imagine that first step.

And of course, imagine the size of those buildings.

Let's be frank: 1 and 2 World Trade Center were not the prettiest buildings in the world. They were what can only be described as 1960s Utilitarian Chic, and when they were built, many in the public considered them downright ugly. But in spite of this, they were royalty. They ruled the skyline and represented continuing advancement in engineering and Western technology. The name World Trade Center--now synonymous with terrorism and conflict--then affirmed New York as a city seated on the throne of global commerce and integration.

And Philippe Petit gave us a view from the top.

23 February 2009

How To Bankrupt Your Country And Influence People - A Beginner's Guide

I am a registered Layperson. I am not an economist. And I was, for a long time, shamefully ignorant of the complex workings of Modern Money. I still have a lot to learn, but I've been doing a little bit of research into the mess we're collectively in, and I've been trying to frame it in a way that my fellow Laypeople and I can understand. And so, I give you:

How To Bankrupt Your Country And Influence People - A Beginner's Guide

You too can use housing as a convenient means to send rich and poor alike scrambling to George Bailey's Building & Loan! Just follow these 25 easy steps!

1) Remember that investors are always looking for The Perfect Investment.
2) Remember that sex sells.
3) Have your Federal Reserve lower interest rates on safe government bonds and whatnot, effectively discouraging people from putting their money there. It's just not sexy enough.
4) Combine steps 1 - 3. Investors will stumble upon the city upon a hill, the whited sepulchre: housing. Housing is wonderful because everyone wants a house, and no one has the money to just BUY one, so they have to get loans. Furthermore, these banking types won't be able to remember a time when housing prices weren't going up. Right? Well, can YOU? I'm pretty sure it's always been increasing. Ask the secretary.
5) Refer to step 2. Chunks of mortgage interest are much sexier than Boring Old Bonds.
6) Banks will issue mortgages to people. Investment firms will buy lots of them from said banks. Presto! Safe and long term streams of income from people paying for their lovely homes every month. Chop this nice bundle up and sell it as shares to investors.
7) Even better, if people CAN'T pay their bills, the banks will have beautiful homes on their hands which will be worth more than gold, because the housing market never falters. We agreed on that, right?
8) It's a miracle drug! Demand will be insatiable! And a fun bit of serendipity: lawnmower sales will go through the roof!
9) Investors will want to buy more, and firms will need to come up with the goods, which means more mortgages will need to be given out. Hmmm. Bit of a puzzler this one.

. . . Ahh yes! I have it!

10) Give more people more loans. Begin to slowly lower your standards. It doesn't matter if people have fewer and fewer qualifications for them because . . .
a) This won't be like the old days. You won't really be dealing with this guy's mortgage for 25 years, because mortgages are being bought and sold like common stock. Transience = less responsibility. Loan away.
b) Other companies are going to approve that guy you just laughed out of the building. Are you really going to give up a sale to them? Where did you go to business school? The Carrboro Co-op? This is the real world! MAKE THAT SALE!
c) The mortgage brokers will get their money based on the loans they give, not on the payments the homeowners make, so their incentive will not hinge on being realistic. Don't even ask that client how much he makes . . . you'll only be disappointed. Ahh yes, much better. $500,000 sounds about right to me, too.
11) Standby for the teachers' pets to come out of the woodwork and question all of this. Have your rebuttals ready:
a) "The credit raters are saying these piles of mortgages are AS SAFE as that lame-o bond you bought from the Feds! Credit doesn't lie!"
b) "Damn the torpedoes! Everyone's doing it, so there must be something to it!"
12) Meanwhile, in another part of town, the actual people in the houses will be ancillary to all this trading and fun. No one will pay attention to them. Anyway, owning your very own home is the American Dream, when last I checked. They won't make a peep.
13) A catch, however: these people were never going to be able to pay up. So they won't.
14) People will start to get kicked out of the lovely houses. There will be a slight problem with this, as having all these gorgeous pieces of The Dream on the market sure do drive prices down. But wait . . . prices going down? Something doesn't add up. Did the secretary lie to us?
15) People facing foreclosure will start to take out loans they can't pay back, from companies with fun names like WaMu, to pay for the mortgages they can't pay.
16) Reality will start to set in. Now you're cooking with Crisco!
17) Somebody in a very tall building on Wall Street will decide the best plan is to stop giving loans to the unworthy.
18) The smaller banks, (in smaller buildings, not on Wall Street. More likely on Your Street), will have lots of mortgages from people that didn't deserve them and ain't payin'. Oh dear! They were going to sell them to the big credit and investment fellows on Wall Street who, as we learned in step 17, suddenly ain't buyin'.
19) The brokers and small banks will fall on their own swords and go under.
20) The large firms with the fun names will also be stuck. Not the least because they've been loaning people money to pay off loans they couldn't pay on houses they won't be able to keep. Soon, it will seem as though the money everyone had been having a grand ol' time with just does not exist.
21) The downtrodden masses will seek to renegotiate their loans. Unfortunately their leases are diluted by having too many proverbial cooks in the kitchen, and lots of cooks = too many to get any flexibility.
22) In an interesting twist of fate, the remaining companies will be 'once bitten twice shy' and now won't lend to anybody, under any circumstances, ever. Bad news for those who would have qualified in the old days. And for businesses who depend on loans to run. And for car manufacturers, who can't get people to buy anymore because they don't have the money. And for the service industry, which has fewer people to serve. And for all of the infrastructure and labor that makes all of the above possible, which suddenly has fewer people to supply. And for purveyors of
pretty much any 'luxury' item that isn't food. It's a chain reaction, you see.
23) Remember the good old days?
24) Those low-interest bonds are looking mighty good right now, eh?
25) And . . . you're destitute! National crisis seems imminent. Enter the federal government, hopefully to save the day. They can fix this, right? Ask the secretary.

Congratulations! If you've followed this 25-step guide very closely, then you've successfully driven your economy into the ground. Try it at home and impress your friends!

21 February 2009

Of Mice And Mayberry

Just when you start to think that America is four thousand miles of homogeny, a dish of vanilla ice cream topped with Walmart and Wendy's, something comes along to surprise you, to prove you wrong. Such was my thought yesterday, when I found myself in Mount Airy, North Carolina.

Mount Airy was the inspiration for
The Andy Griffith Show's Mayberry, and this small Southern community makes no secret of it. There's Opie's Candy Shop, Barney's Cafe, Aunt Bea's Restaurant. There on the left is Floyd's Barber Shop, across from the Mayberry Five & Dime. It is, needless to say, themed.

It's a gimmick, I thought, as I drove in on the Andy Griffith Parkway. It'll be contrived, a mini-Disney World cashing in on its vague connection to a fictional American idyll. I would later feel guilty for my skepticism.

The first clue that something here was different came when I stepped into a small consignment and souvenir shop. I needed to buy a Mayberry mug and send it home immediately. This was my shallow tourist mission, and I was fixed on my goal. Upon opening the door, I was hit with a wave of stale nicotine-laden air, and a twangy--but very genuine-sounding--
word of welcome by the shopkeeper. I selected an appropriate vessel, and approached the register, where there was a small crowd lined up to pay--or so I thought.

"I'll ring'y'up, honey," she said, beckoning me to skip the people ahead. Reality slowly set in.
These people aren't in line at all . . . They made a trip to this consignment shop to socialize. They all know each other. What kind of a place is this?

I decided to get a bite to eat; Barney's Cafe looked suitable. Compared to the sleepy main street, this diner seemed positively bustling. Photographs of Don Knotts and artistic charcoal sketches of a young Ron Howard adorned the walls. I could feel eyes following me through the room as I found a seat; I was not from around here.

People would look over and smile at me. I could hear snippets of conversation. The waitress said to one gentleman, "later than usual, Jack! We thought you weren't going to come in today!" This was The Routine for these people. This was Mayberry.

I didn't fit in here, as much as I would have wanted to. I stared intently at my plate, and made it halfway through the meal before I heard a gentle voice from two tables away: "Where are you from, young man?"

This serene, grey-haired man wore a blue healthcare volunteer vest, proudly adorned with various patches from local organizations. He sat at a table alone, sipping on coffee from a Mayberry mug. He had gone to Wake Forest when it was
in Wake Forest, he told me. That was a long time ago. We talked about Florida, about North Carolina, about the four seasons and the coast. I had to go to Ocracoke, he insisted. "Take the ferry over from Hatteras." I told him I would.

When he had finished his coffee, he rose from his chair, tucked his newspaper under his arm, and made his way to the back of the restaurant. I watched as he worked his way forward, systematically saying goodbye to everyone in the room. They responded in kind; these were all friends bidding adieu to friends. When he reached me, he warmly said, "it was nice talking to you. It's good to have you here." He meant it.

When I was finished I made my way to the till, credit card in hand. It was met with an apologetic look. Surely, I thought, there can't still be places untouched by the tentacles of the Visa network? But there are, and here I was, standing in a diner forty years back in time. I scrambled to produce any bills I had. It wasn't enough.

"Don't worry about it, sweetie," said the waitress. This was preposterous. I was $0.70 short of the cost of the meal, let alone leaving a tip. It didn't matter to her at all. She insisted that it wasn't a problem in the slightest, as if people came in here and ate for free all the time.

Riddled with guilt, I ran back to my car (behind the Mayberry Soda Fountain: Homemade Shakes and Malts) and scrounged enough quarters to cover my sins. Running back into Barney's, the waitress shook her head at me.

"I really wish you hadn't done that, honey. It's far too cold out there for you to be running back and forth."

As I merged back onto Andy Griffith Parkway, heading out of town, I reflected. Here was a place where there was no reason not to smoke in your shop: your customers are all your friends. A place where it didn't really matter if you paid for your meal, as long as you kept yourself warm. There was no gimmick here, no manufactured charm. Mount Airy wasn't emulating Mayberry. Mount Airy WAS Mayberry. And I bet there are hundreds of Mayberrys scattered over the map, places where you can talk to anybody, you're welcome anywhere, where you can get a malt from the Soda Fountain before catching a movie on one of the two screens downtown.

I suppose you've got to peel back the layers of big box stores and cookie-cutter chains. Those places don't define America, not completely. In many cases, just below the surface, you'll find unadulterated character.
The Andy Griffith Show aired forty years ago, and while it was fictional, it was based on a reality that is still captured in time, if you know where to look. We in the cities and suburbs tend to forget that.

Now if you'll excuse me, I have a souvenir mug to put in the mail.

20 February 2009

The Obligatory Statement of Purpose

This text exists in a vacuum. It is public, available, free. But I fully expect that it will never be read by any other person Of Woman Born, save a few accidental clicks by people who have lost their way.

It is a tree falling in an empty forest: anonymous, and bordering on theoretical.

And in that way, it's just like the vast majority of all the blogs that exist.

Since the beginning, man has been an opinionated creature, and more importantly, has harbored a deep need to share his opinions with others. After all, what's the point of an opinion if it never leaves the mind that formed it? Again, trees in the forest. Whether or not the opinions are well-constructed or rash, thoughtful or crude, progressive or bigoted, there is a vague sense that other people are interested in them.

The problem: no one is interested in them, no one wants to hear it. They've got their own, thank you very much. Actually, it's not that simple. Everyone has a circle of friends, loved ones, family, that will gladly exchange views and have healthy debates. But outside that friendly cluster, it's just drops in an ocean.

Which brings us to the internet.

The internet is a remarkable development; it allows anyone to be connected with anyone else. Many words have been written about how great that is, so I don't need to elaborate. BUT, the internet has more or less given everyone a universal forum to publish their opinions, whether anyone asked for them or not. "Vlogs" are even worse . . . it's mostly people staring at the camera saying "today they gave me the curly fries. I really think that the shoestring kind are better. Yeah . . . I wish they'd have given me the shoestring instead of the curly." And then someone with a very basic grasp on spelling will call them a VERY offensive and vulgar name in the comments box underneath.

There's a lot of hot air on the internet, in other words. Media figures on CNN trying to be trendy and saying "let's check the blogosphere!" doesn't help.

It was this very reality that kept me from writing a blog for years. I'd been incubating the idea for some time, because I enjoy writing and venting (sometimes) and it seemed like a good outlet. But I realize that I'm just another very opinionated person whose two cents nobody needs. In public and with people I care about, I've tried to curb giving my opinions, because they're unneeded. But I shall express them here, and I shall try not to be pretentious doing it. This is not a journal. I don't need to write about curly fries. I want to write about things that are interesting, things that matter, things that are constructive or have some cause to help or to enrich. Blogs that strive for that are great: an inexpensive means of expressing and connecting.

So these are my thoughts, take them or leave them. I know almost everyone will choose "leave them." And that's fine. But this blog will hopefully be about worthwhile things.

And that makes all the difference.