The Danger Down the Road

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The current controversy over NSA oversight of, well, everything, seems a bit shortsighted. What worries me is not that the government is monitoring everything everyone is writing or saying electronically (still technologically impossible, given available resources) or that they are filtering everything looking for keywords or “patterns” (which they ARE doing), but rather that in the future, when every an individual or organization, say, animal rights activists or labor organizers or tax protesters, falls under government scrutiny, the NSA will have access to everything they have ever said or done on-line or over the cell networks. Talk about your Chilling Effect.

Global Neural Network Online Now

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Last night we attended a lecture at MIT which once again reminded us why we keep returning to Cambridge after 40 years despite the weather. The event featured Wadah Khanfar, until recently head of the Al Jazeera network, and a panel composed of Ethan Zuckerman, director of MIT’s Center for Civic Media, Mohamed Nanabhay, head of online at Al Jazeera English, and Joi Ito, the ubiquitous internet wag and champion of open netways. As advertised, they talked about the Arab Spring a year after the precipitating events in Egypt, but the discussion soon zoomed into the areas of new media, social media, citizen journalism, and how its all changing fast, before our eyes.

We felt lucky to be there. We only found out about the event that day; fortunately, right now we have a cadre of eight Saudi students who are bright, open-minded, and obviously taking advantage of their time in Boston. Thanks for the head’s up, guys.

One part of the discussion got me thinking, which is why we go to these things in the first place. Mr. Kanfar was speaking about the moments during the day of January 25th, 2011, when the world’s attention turned to Tahrir Square, in Cairo, Egypt, and everything changed.

Al Jazeera, he said, was in the middle of a long-planned, meticulously researched, intensively promoted 4-day special series title “The Palestine Papers”. They had a lot of money invested in it. It led their hourly newscasts and was the top story on their popular online sites. They had a few reporters in Tahrir, but as Mr. Kanfar said, there had been a series of protest in that and other public places in Cairo, and they were not expecting anything dramatic. The Egyptian story was fourth or fifth on the website, and drawing hit accordingly.

However, during the afternoon Al Jazeera web traffic monitors (another telling emergent phenomena) noticed something interesting. The hits on the Tahrir Square story were shooting up, and within minutes they had shot past the Palestine Papers. And kept going up.

Al Jazeera, behind Mr. Kanfar, immediately realized they had a major, historic story breaking in their own backyard. They seized the moment and ran with it. Within days the brushfire lit by events in Cairo and across Egypt had spread to a half-dozen countries in the region and every major news organization on the planet was covering it.

But the people who saw it first, all those millions of viewers who clicked through to the story on Al Jazeera’s web site looking for more infomation, how did they find out about it? Two words – Social Media. Twitter and Facebook. Smart phones. Regular, ordinary people had twisted the neck of a major network , shouting, “What’s going on over there?” And the whole world looked.

It has been clear for a while that there is a white-hot spotlight of global media focus that sweeps the planet looking for the three or four stories which occupy the extremely limited planetary attention span for a few days, before fading into the background buzz. Successful stories often feature photogenic famous people, photogenic disasters, or royalty, photogenic or not, and sex, preferably in some combination. But up until now, the focus of the spotlight seems to have been directed by a shadowy cabal of major media groups.

Something new is happening here. Maybe not a revolution, but an accelerated evolution. It seems to us that we are watching the emergence of the first effective Global Neural Network. By that I mean that for the first time, multiple human brains, in fact millions of human brains, can be linked in near instantaneous networks, simultaneously in series and in parallel, so that they are able to process the same information at the same time, voice, video or text, and cogitate over the same questions. No one can say to what extent they will arrive at the same answers.

This is not a completely new phenomena. A spectral precursor to the global neural network has existed as long as humans have been using language. For millennia humans myriad individual consciousnesses were linked by the structure of the languages they spoke and the oral histories they wove and repeated down through their generations. But interlinking of networks depended on physical travel by one of the nodes, a human brain, and this was a difficult and dangerous endeavor until quite recently.

With the popularization of the printed world, the neural network took a great leap forward. Suddenly ideas, memes, modes of inquiry, could reach across the furthest distances, stand the tests of time, form a base to be built upon and allow for collective decision making on a far larger scale. But the transmission of ideas was agonizingly slow, at least from a modern viewpoint, like playing a game of chess via transatlantic schooner. Hard to imagine a global consciousness arising form such glacial cognition.

But now, just in the past five years, it has become possible for ideas, words, pictures and moving images to pass from one mind to another in seconds. From when one isolated consciousness views something in his or her immediate reality, it can be transferred to a million other minds in two or three seconds. Less time than is needed to explain it to someone standing next to you. All you need is a smartphone, which is standard equipment for almost half of the human population right now.

It was a fortuitous combination of hardware, software and wetware. Smartphones provide the neural network hardware , Twitter and Facebook provide the software, and we provide the wetware. If Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckenberg hadn’t done it someone else would have; it was a change waiting to happen and we were waiting for it to happen to us.

We must confess, we are a fan of neither Facebook nor Twitter. Facebook violates our deep instinct for anonymity and we only joined because we had agreed to address a big conference on Using Social Media in the Classroom. Now we are constantly denying friend requests from ex-students. Our history with Twittter is even worse. We got the Twitter pitch back at the Berkman Bloggers Group before it was even in beta, and my dismissive comment at the time was, “Most of my favorite sentences have more than 140 characters”. We forgot the fact that even the most complex mosaic is composed of disparate bits. Which can be crowd-sourced.

It is hard to imagine how the global neural network can get much more immediate until, inevitable, we all get cerebral implants to facilitate direct brain-to-brain transmission of ideas. There will be incremental improvements, for sure. The recently announced Google Glasses heads up display, for example. Envision a citizen journalist in the next Tahrir Square who can transmit exactly what they are seeing from their eyes directly into the eyes of millions of Glasses-wearing viewers around the globe. With the surround-sound earphones on, it would be like the whole world was there.

Beware. Be aware. Everything is changing. We will see it in our lifetimes. Stay tuned.

CHIQUITO Y SUS ANECDOTAS

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Chiqui Feldman 1996-2012

CHIQUITO Y SUS ANECDOTAS

by Guest Blogger Norma Yvonne Moreira de Feldman

Nuestro amado y querido Chiquito Feldman Moreira falleció rodeado del cariño y atención de su padre, mientras su madre estaba en Nueva YorK visitando a sus tios y hermano. En edad humana Chiquito vivió más de 70 años. Fue un gato consentido, mimado, amado, cuidado y considerado como un miembro más de la familia, tal es asi que en su medalla de identificación y en su tarjeta médica consta con el apellido Feldman.

Chiquito o Chiqui –como cariñosamente lo llamábamos- llegó a nuestro hogar en el otoño del año 1996. Recién habíamos llegado de Ecuador y Michael se había reintegrado a su trabajo, después de dos años de ausencia. Un dia estando en su oficina escuchó el maullar de un gato y preguntó si era que había uno cerca, y asi era. Una de sus colegas que había estado en la autopista lo vio cuando el gatito trataba de cruzarla, ella actuó con ligereza, disminuyó la marcha de su auto, frenó un poco, abrió la puerta y lo agarró salvandole la vida. Lo llevó a su oficina esperando que apareciera alguien que pudiera adoptarlo.

Michael lo trajo a casa en el bolsillo de su terno, al sacarlo me dijo “te traje un gato, míralo que es chiquito”….desde entonces Chiquito se quedó con nosotros y fue bautizado con ese nombre en alusion a su tamaño, el cual mas tarde dejó de tener relación porque se convirtió en un gato grande, hermoso, alegre, robusto y saludable.

Fue mi primer gato como mascota, él se propuso conquistarme y yo permití que lo hiciera. Le llegué a prodigar todos los cuidados maternos que podía desarrollar; recuerdo que le dabamos de beber leche en un biberon miniatura porque aún era muy pequeñito para poder tomarla solo, además le permitimos que durmiera en nuestra cama hasta que él decidió buscar su propio refugio, pero siempre retornaba a ella especialmente en los dias frios.

Tan pronto el clima iba mejorando, todas las mañanas a las diez de la mañana lo bajaba al patio trasero del apartamento que en ese entonces viviamos para que tomara su baño de sol. El correteaba y saltaba feliz en el pasto, daba voltaretas, caminaba, se subía a algún árbol, corría detrás de alguna ardilla errante y por supuesto algunas veces se enfrascó en pelea con algún gato vecino, al que seguramente consideraba su rival, o que no había respetado su territorio ya delimitiado. También me pasaba cabeza escabulléndose hacia los patios aledaños, No le importaba cuántas veces lo llamara se hacía el necio y no aparecía hasta que le diera su regalada gana.

Por las noches él se bajaba los dos pisos del apartamento por el porche trasero y cruzaba la calle donde se reunía con su grupo de amigos –los otros gatos del vecindario que compartían sus mismos intereses- pero estaba siempre alerta y tan pronto reconocía el sonido del carro de Michael se acercaba a saludarlo enrrollándose en las piernas en espera de de una palabra cortés y una palmadita por parte de su papi; después de este rito regresaba de inmediato a seguir de juerga con su pandilla.

Nunca supimos a qué hora de la madrugada volvía a casa porque preveyendo que su parranda nocturna duraría muchas horas dejábamos entreabierta una ventana por la que el entraba al apartamento, y al siguiente dia se levantaba hambriento con cara de inocente.

Una ocasión mientras merendábamos decidió caminar sobre las barandas del porche, de repente perdió el equilibrio y se cayó, todos los vimos como en cámara lenta y corrimos a asomarnos para darnos cuenta que él ya se había levantado y siguió caminando bien horondamente. Queriendo demostrar sus habilidades acrobáticas del mismo porche se cayó otras veces, pero nunca se quebró ni un huesito.

Chiquito nos hizo pasar un gran susto cuando creimos que había muerto congelado. Nunca olvidaré aquel uno de abril de 1997. Esa manaña (día de los inocentes acá) despertamos aletargados después de una de las más tremendas tormentas de nieve que me ha tocado presenciar. Las reseñas en los diarios de la época calificaron a las 25.4 pulgadas, que cayeron en Boston, como la tempestad de nieve más grande de la historia de la ciudad, convirtiéndolo en el abril más nevoso.

Al levantarme y no ver a Chiquito por ningún lado llegué a pensar que se había escabullido la noche anterior cuando los chicos salieron a mirar la nevada; empecé a gritar histéricamente y a buscarlo sin éxito, era casi seguro que la nieve lo habia enterrado en el porche. Tan pronto los chicos pudieron palearon la mayoria de la nieve pero Chiquito no apareció en la superficie y el misterio continuaba….agotados todos nuestros esfuerzos nos fuimos a descansar con la convicción de que se habia caido y habia muerto congelado sin haber sido ayudado. Más tarde, cuando ya estábamos casi resignados, Gabe bajó al sótano a lavar su ropa, al regresar Chiquito subió detrás de él bien horondo dándonos una mirada remilgona cuando en coro gritamos su nombre, a viva voz y llenos de alegria. Nunca supimos donde se metió poque la búsqueda también cubrió esa parte de la casa, lo que si nos quedó claro fue que Chiquito nos hizo una buena pasada y nos jugó una gran inocentada!

Quizás sea verdad que los gatos tienen 9 vidas por eso sobrevivió toda clase de golpes y porrazos y hasta el ataque de una gata intrusa que lo mordió tan ferozmente que casi le causa la muerte. Eso ocurrió mientras Michael estaba en Ecuador, Gabe en Atlanta y en casa estábamos él yo y Joey. La noche del 31 de agosto de 1997 mientras miraba en la tele las imágenes del trágico accidente de la prima Lady Di, mi bello Chiqui casi se muere a causa de una gran infección que le habia provocado aquella mordida la cual yo no habia descubierto porque él optó por comportarse de manera escurridiza, como poco lo veia por los alrededores, no había tenido oportunidad de chequearlo ya que pasaba escondido.

Asumo que se sintió traicionado por su papi al aceptar tener en casa a aquella malvada gata por hacerle un favor a su no mala dueña que luego no quiso aceptar ningna responsabilidad.

Recuerdo que aquella noche con sus últimas fuerzas trataba de subirse a la cama, en el momento que lo agarré para ayudarlo noté que volaba en fiebre, casi sin aliento, como si fuera su último suspiro simuló un maullido; fue entonces cuando comprendí la magnitud de asunto y desesperada empecé a buscar alguna solución.

Me costó convencer a Joey para que me ayude, después de tanto ruego e insistencia llamó a Donna (en aquel entonces amiga de ellos y conocida mia) ella contactó a su veterinario y éste aceptó atenderlo a pesar de lo tarde que era. A las once de la noche tomamos un taxi y llegamos donde el amable, cortés y sabio veterinario que decidió operarlo de inmediato (casi media noche) porque si no lo hacía Chiquito no amanecía. El quedó hospitalizado por una semana; mientras se recuperaba fui a visitarlo cada dia y luego que dejó la clínica lo llevaba para que le curaran la herida, algunas veces en comapañia de Gabe y otras de su papi. Nuestra querida amiga Donna no sólo le salvo la vida sino que junto a su esposo David le prodigaron cariño, atención y cuidado durante los cinco meses que pasamos en Ecuador. Chiquito compartió con ellos parte de los que fueron sus últimos meses de buena vida.

A Chiquito le encantaba dormir en lugares oscuros, buscaba el lugar perfecto hasta encontarlo, siendo asi encontró un hueco en el piso de uno de los dormitorios (que ninguno de nosotros habiamos divisado) y dado el misterio de su desaparicion nos toco hacerle la guardia hasta darnos cuenta de donde salia, Todos los dias se metía en él hasta que sentía hambre y salía a buscar comida, o hacer sus necesidades, y luego volvia a su escondite secreto.

Más tarde nos tocó mudarnos de apartamento y dada la escaséz nos decidimos por uno no tan cómodo ni bonito que ni a él ni a mi nos gustó. Cuando se dio cuenta de la mudanza se rehusó a dejarse agarrar, tal es asi que tuvimos que dejarlo en el antiguo apartamento porque saltó por la ventana tratando de escapar, decidimos recogerlo cuando ya hubiéramos sacado todos los trastos, asi le dábamos un poco de seguridad y tranquilidad. Mas tarde cuando regresamos a recogerlo nos costó mucho trabajo atraparlo, salí con grandes y profundos rasguños y el fue llorando el corto trayecto entre el viejo y el nuevo apartamento. Al llegar desapareció de inmediato y por un par de dias no sabíamos dónde estaba, hasta que accidentalmente lo descubrí metido dentro de una maleta llena de ropa a la cual se le habia roto el cierre por eso le fue fácil introducirse en ella. Su encierro duró casi un mes y unicamente salía por las noches mientras nosotros dormíamos.

En otra ocasión, en otro de los apartamento que vivimos, logró sacar la rejilla que proteje el orificio que permite la salida de la calefacción; no notamos su desaparición hasta que empezamos a escuchar sus maullidos sin saber de dónde provenían. Dado tanto misterio nos tocó llamar al dueño de la casa para que revisara el sótano (nosotros no teníamos acceso) lo revisó minuciosamente sin encontrarlo. Lo cómico es que tan pronto él se iba nuevamente comenzábamos a escuchar sus aullidos, entonces decidí pegar la oreja en el piso hasta que descubrí que venían del ducto que conduce la calefaccion hacia la rejilla.

El dueño fue y vino 3 veces porque a Chiquito se le ocurrió jugar al ratón y al gato con él. Cuando sentía su presencia dejaba de maullar y cuando se iba nuevamente lo hacía. Lo cierto es que aunque le pedía que abriera el ducto no quería hacerlo porque no se convencía de que el gato estuviera ahi, aducía que el espacio era demasiado pequeño; finalmente a tanta insitencia -y creo que ya estaba cansado de ir y venir- lo hizo, y efectivamente ahi estaba atrapado el inquieto y curioso Chiquito.

Chiquito gozó de las características de un gato tabby (también llamado gato barcino en España, y en Hispanoamérica como gato atigrado) tuvo el distintivo pelaje de rayas y puntos de color anaranjado y ojos verdes muy expresivos, fue un gato guapo muy guapo, quienes lo veían, ya fuera a tavés de la ventana o personalmente expresaban su admiración por su belleza, él lo sabía y lo presumía, por eso se me ocurrió concederle el título de el gato mas guapo de Massachusetts, llamándolo con orgullo de esta manera cada vez que alguien lo alababa.

Su primer novia oficial fue Winter una gatita hermosa cuya ama es Carol, una colega de Michael y amiga mía. Con Carol y Winter, Chiquito pasó sus primeras vacaciones al nosotros viajar a Ecuador durante la navidad del 2007. Curiosamente Winter se le adelantó y falleció hace pocos meses. Nunca mas volvieron a verse pero estamos seguros que ya se reencontraron.

Le gustaba mucho tener privacidad por eso no quería ser visto hacia donde se dirigía cuando iba a tomar sus siestas; además en cada uno de los apartamentos que hemos vivido él se apropiaba de varios lugares específicos y de siesta en siesta los rotaba en uso, yo le decía que se creía magnate inmobiliario. A lo mejor fue la reencarnacion de alguno de ellos.

En su niñez fue huraño, receloso y tímido corría a esconderse debajo de la cama cuando escuchaba voces extrañas pero poco a poco su comportamiento y personalidad cambiaron, empezó a confiar más en la gente y en su juventud se hizo más sociable, vivaz y simpático. Vivió su adultez de manera independiente y reposada, aunque con el paso del tiempo fueron notándosele los años y el deterioro en su salud. Sufrió de diabetes la misma que le provocó una insuficiencia renal y otras complicaciones relacionadas con esa enfermedad.

Nuestro bello y amado Chiqui -como todo gato- fue inquieto, travieso, curioso, también fue temeroso, reservado y afectuoso, aveces sumiso y otras rebelde, orgulloso y pretencioso, y cuando le convenía era encantador y amistoso. Muy inteligente y capáz de entender instrucciones en español e inglés.

Compartió casi toda su vida con nuestra no menos querida y amada Honey -su hermana de crianza- aunque no congeniaban mucho se cuidaban y se hacían compañia el uno con la otra. Ambos han recibido nuestro amor, cuidado y cariño, asi como el de las personas que los han cuidado durante nuestras ausencias relacionadas con nuestros viajes. A parte de las ya mencionadas le estaremos eternamente agradecidos a: Mila, Jean, Carmen, Juanita, Melissa, Marcela y su familia política. Y quizás otras más que se me pueden escapar.

Chiquito siempre se identificó más con su papi que con su mami, yo le decía que me quería por interés porque solo me buscaba cuando quería comida o cepillada. Cuando la enfermedad que lo afectó comenzó hacerle estragos llegó a despertarme tres o cuatro veces en la medianoche, y aunque viera a su papi despierto no le pedía comida a él sino a mí, solía llamarlo cargoso porque se deleitaba interrumpiéndome el sueño dándome suaves rascaditas con sus uñitas delanteras para no lastimarme. Bromeando su papi decía que le gustaba mas mi sazón que la de él. En el fondo yo creo que tenían un pacto secreto.
Por las mañanas siempre esperaba a que el papi se levantara a preparar su café para ganársele el puesto en la cama.

Cuando el papi regresaba de la oficina él estaba atento y lo seguía hasta que le prestara atención, luego se subía a la cama y lo esperaba para que lo rascara.
Por las noches sentado en las piernas del papi, mientras éste trabajaba en la computadora, casi siempre conversaban de cosas masculinas, tal es asi que llegaron a formar un club sólo para hombres donde ellos dos eran los únicos socios, no permitiendo que ni Honicita ni yo participaramos en sus conversaciones o actividades.

Chiquito fue enterrado en el jardin de nuestra actual morada, desde alli nos verá cada vez que entremos o salgamos además cuidará de nosotros de su ñaña y del apartamento donde vivió sus últimos dias. Estamos seguros que él sabe que aunque lo hayamos enterrado en ese lugar especial, nunca enterraremos los gratos recuerdos que nos ha dejado y los bellos momentos que compartimos.

Gracias querido y bello Chiquito por habernos acompañado por casi 15 años, te llevaremos siempre en nuestro corazón y tu presencia la veremos manifestada en tu ausencia temporal porque algún día nos recibirás con alegría y gozo en aquel infinito e indescifrable lugar donde ahora estás.

Descanza en paz querido hijo!

Chiqui Gone But Not Forgotten

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Chiqui Feldman
A Prince Among Pussies, a King Among Cats

According to several of the world’s great religions, and backed by abundant empirical data, life as we know it consists largely of pain and suffering, salted with moments of enlightened inspiration and temporary alleviation of the burdens we all carry.

Consequently, most of life’s most essential activities, from art to athletics, from drug addiction to religion, can be seen as coping mechanisms designed to create mental and emotional bulwarks against the cold hostility and random cruelties of daily life. Having recently lost a close daily companion of 15 years has me thinking on the role of pets in our human lives as reflected in the life and times of one particular pet, the inestimable Chiqui Feldman.

Sometimes it seems like there is a chasm between “pet people” and those who feel the proper place for animals is back on the farm or out in the woods, but not in our homes. Any position can be taken to extremes and we’ve all seen stories of people much more invested emotionally and financially in their pets than in their human progeny, to the point of tailored clothes and spa visits.

But this is the exception, surely. Without anthropomorphizing our pets, and perhaps only so, we can still be amazed at the qualities of companionship offered by a committed non-human consciousness. A long-term relationship between a human and genetically modified companion species is complex and life-changing expedience. The thousands of hours spent together, often otherwise alone, leads to shared life experiences, including those signature signposts we share: infancy, learning and childhood,  parenthood, maturity and old age. 

For the past 15 years, my life has been entwined with the life of an inspired orange tabby cat named Chiqui. Last night at around 7:30 he passed on to a better place, and in the retrospective mourning that followed his departure, I realized that with my kids grown up and living on their own, aside from my wonderful wife,  I have spent more time with Chiqui than anyone else in the whole wide world.  Clearly, in terms of contributions to the quality of my life,  he comes in a clear second place, trailing Norma of course, but miles ahead of anyone else. Getting through thousands of hard nights and troublesome days, in sickness and under stress, in rich times and in poor, Chiqui improved my mood and lent  me strength by his mere presence. He can never be forgotten or replaced. But before eulogizing him, lets take a look back to the beginning.

Chiqui was a University cat from the get go. I first heard his “meow” in an office of the old Boston University Center for English Language and Orientation Programs, when it was located upstairs from a Radio Shack on Commonwealth Avenue.  I followed the sound and discovered a tiny ball of orange fur, so impossibly small it seemed doubtful it would survive more than a few hours without its mother or other serious support.  Where had he come from?

Turned out that Assistant Director Carol Allen had found him wandering in the breakdown lane of Interstate 95 that morning while stuck in a multi-mile traffic tie-up on her commute fromher Northern Massachusetts home to the office. She said she literally opened her car door and scooped him off the pavement, and that it was a miracle he hadn’t already been squashed by an inattentive commuter.

We later hypothesized that his mother must have given birth in some nearby woods but that he had wandered off from the litter while Mom was stuck with her humans or otherwise delayed, and that Carol had done the right thing since without her intervention he was clearly doomed. I immediately offered to take him  home. Carol said it seemed preordained and that was that.

We put him in an empty Hammermill  cardboard box with an old brown sweater bunched up in the bottom. The poor little feller was obviously terrified, disoriented and in acute need of his mother, who he would unfortunately never see again.  He was so small he fit easily in the palm of my hand, and he was obviously somewhere near the crucial age in which he could not survive without maternal care.  Survive he did, although it was touch and go for 10 days or so, and he was left with a lifelong fear of abandonment and a stubborn streak of distrust and paranoia.

The situation at home was fluid. At that time, the status of soulmate Norma Yvonne was unofficial fiancée. We were seeing how she fit into a new culture, country and language, living in the Northeast US with a single dad and his two teenage sons. It was a tough adjustment at first, and Norma was struggling with multiple physical and emotional issues.  Somehow, I thought having a pet cat would help.

Trouble was, Norma had never really liked animals in the house: she seemed firmly in the “animals are fine – where they belong, on the farm or in a zoo” camp. She seemed utterly unfamiliar with the minutiae of  pet care and behavior. That first day, shortly after being shown how the baby kitten liked being scratched behind the ears, she almost dropped him as she ran back into the bedroom, panicked, to report “I think the cat’s broken!  It’s making this really strange noise!” Chiqui was purring.

One of Chiqui’s greatest accomplishments, achieved on his first day of living with us, was starting the process of converting Norma into the Doctora Dolittle of Ecuador, helping animals in need from pigeons to penguins to opkapis. Animals in a dozen countries on three continents thank him.

Chiqui turned out to be a lover not a fighter; he showed neither interest nor aptitude for either fighting other cats or hunting other species.  He was athletic enough to get into and out of our second floor Harvard Square apartment by climbing up and down the outside of the balcony, but the only time we’ve known him to get in a fight with a neighborhood bully he came home with a hole in his neck which required surgery and 3 weeks in one of those no-scratch megaphone collars.  Despite the claims of the Animal Planet cable TV channel, which demonstrated in its World’s Deadliest Cats countdown that the deadliest feline of all, above the panther, lion and bengal tiger, was the common house cat, due to the staggering number of species they are know to hunt, Chiqui’s attitude towards hunting was akin to Muhammad Ali’s view of the Viet Cong -  as in “What did they ever do to me?”

He was a gentle soul, but very English in his emotional reserve and his stiff upper whiskers. Rather than crass displays of emotion Chiqui showed his displeasure through aloof disdain.  When we would return after abandoning him for varying lengths of time while off traveling, always with loving friends or foster parents, he would refuse to acknowledge our presence for several days, keeping his nose in the air as if we were beneath his notice. When we moved him from the refined grace of Harvard Square to the mean streets of Inman Square he burrowed into a packed suitcase in a back closet and wouldn’t come out for five full days.  We thought he had died.  He never warmed to that apartment and by the time the lease was up we all agreed with him and moved to Everett.

Although like his human partner he enjoyed relaxing with his herb of choice, catnip in this case, Chiqui was never much of one for games or toys. He was more of a serious reader: a reader of dust motes, bird calls, patterns of light as they moved across the floor. His speculations were not idle, for they allowed him to divine the optimal places to sit, the warmest corners for naps and the precise moment to move from window to chair to counter top. Always thinking, that Chiqui.

How I will miss the long afternoons reading in the sunlight together, the extended conversations about work, love and the great mystery of life, women.  Most of all I will miss our visits to the Kit Kat Club.  This ultra-exclusive, members-only club was located under the covers of our Queen-sized bed, meeting mostly during the long cold winter nights in New England. Membership was, of course, exclusively male; although we did take up several resolutions in later years to expand membership to include Chiqui’s putative sister Honey, they were never approved. Meetings usually consisted of reading of the minutes, ammendments to the bylaws, and endless elections for Club officials.  Chiqui was usually elected President and I had to content myself with being vice-president, except for a brief period following 9/11 when I was elected President-by-default because Chiqui preferred to be Master of Arms.

Finally, a confession. During Chiqui’s last days, as I tried to ease his discomfort and contemplate life without him, and wondered why his impending departure was affecting me so strongly, I realized that during over 50 years as a pet person who almost always had a dog or cat as a member of our household, I had never lived with a single pet as long as the 15 years I spent with Chiqui, cradle to grave. I had always been moving, traveling, transitioning between continents. My pets were always eventually given away to family members, adopted by housemates, lost inadvertently or died prematurely in tragic accidents or cruel crimes.  It was the first time I had to help a loved one die.

At its best, a pet can be so much more than a plaything or a mascot. They say we are born alone and die alone, but in between we can be kept company by comforting presences both human and non-human. Wise men and women have known since prehistoric times that humans can not only communicate with animal species, we have animal spirits inside us, coded into our DNA and our behavior through thousands of generations of interaction, cohabitation and making mutual cause with and against the vicissitudes of Fate. Getting in touch with one’s animal animus,  finding your animal totem, is a window into another kind of consciousness.  Like speaking a second language, it allows us to experience, understand and take advantage of completely different, in this case non-human points of view, or other ways of passing through life. The great secret of Pets is that although they require effort to maintain, that effort is always paid back in many multiples more.

I know Chiqui will always be a part of me, and that I must try to remember the lessons I learned from him over the years. While he was fading away, after he couldn’t stand up or move anymore, I would rub him and tell him stat soon he would be somewhere where he would be able to run and jump and climb like he could when he was young and free.  I am not sure I really believe this, mostly because I am not sure what I really believe about the afterlife.

On the days when I believe in reincarnation, I see Chiqui being reincarnated as a human being. I even know what he will look like, because unlike any other pet I ever had, I would see him frequently in my dreams, especially when we were separated, sometimes as a cat, but sometimes as a human being.  When he appears like that, he is a big, laughing, reddish-blond joker who teaches me not to take anything too seriously. Maybe, if Chiqui comes back as a human, I can come back as his pet next time.  That wouldn’t be too shabby, tabby.

But on the days I believe in a beneficent Almighty and an allegorical afterlife, which, God save me is most of the time, I like to think of the belief, held by several sects and major world religions dating back at least to the ancient Egyptians,  that upon passing into the great beyond we are met, not by Saint Peter and some pearly gates, not not the Archangel Gabriel and his celestial horn section, not by a personalized cadre of our previously departed nearest and dearest to help us across that final divide, but by an eager line of loving eyes and wagging tails, of every pet we’ve ever loved, and who loved us back, waiting patiently to paw and purr and playfully escort us into Paradise forever. I’ll see you on the other side, Chiqui.

Once Upon a Time in China

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BEIJING — In a bizarre move, China’s television censors have issued new guidelines that all but ban TV dramas featuring time travel.

In a statement (available here in Chinese) dated March 31, the State Administration for Radio, Film & Television said that TV dramas that involve characters traveling back in time “lack positive thoughts and meaning.” The guidelines discouraging this type of show said that some “casually make up myths, have monstrous and weird plots, use absurd tactics, and even promote feudalism, superstition, fatalism and reincarnation.”

from the New York Times in April

 

 

How could we have missed this at the time? Oh, yeah, we were out of the loop in small-town Ecuador, the closest thing to time travel we have experienced yet. One can even choose which epoch to travel back to: The capital is part of the global elite circuit (according to Sunday’s New York Times there is a new hotel there charging $545 per night, well above the monthly per capita income for the country) but about 10 years behind cutting edge capitals like Tokyo or London, while small cities are quaintly 20 or 30 years behind (more family restaurants than chains and bootleg DVD’s on sale on every corner). Go into a small town crossroads on the coastal plain or up in the Andes, and you travel back about a hundred years, before highways, ATMs and the internet, while in the jungle and the higher, more isolated mountain valleys there are plenty of people living the way their ancestors did 3,000 years ago.

Anyway, any true scifi fan or reader knows that the way around the time travel ban is simple: alternate universes. Also referred to as the multiverse, meta-verse, alternate dimensions, etc. the basic idea is that at any instant infinite new universes are being spawned covering all of the possible combinations of quantum motion.  As Cosmologist Max Tegmark put it, “A generic prediction of chaotic inflation is an infinite ergodic universe, which, being infinite, must contain Hubble volumes realizing all initial conditions.” (Wikipedia) Under that bloviated blanket a content creator can take his characters anywhere or when and just call it an alternative quantum reality.

Unless some future Chinese time traveler has already voyaged back to now and fixed the problem without our knowing it.  Time will tell.

London Burning

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LONDON — The rioting and looting that convulsed poorer sections of London over the weekend spread Monday to at least eight new districts in the metropolitan area and broke out for the first time in Britain’s second-largest city, Birmingham, in what was developing into the worst outbreak of social unrest in Britain in 25 years.

Despite going its own way 234 years ago, in some ways the brash young outsized scion that is the United States continues to follow in the footsteps, down the same garden path, of its aging progenitor, the United Kingdom.

Specifically, since before the financial collapse of 2008, England has been dealing with the basic fiscal problem at the root of the current global convolutions – spending more than you’ve got coming in, followed by visits to some sort of street financing, payday loans, followed by organized thugs dedicated to illicit enrichment who take vows of silence and colorful names like The Cheese Man or Fannie Mae.

Even before the outbreak of violence, the police have been deeply demoralized by the government’s plan to cut about 9,000 of about 35,000 officers and by allegations that it badly mishandled protests against the government’s austerity program last winter and failed to properly investigate the phone-hacking scandal that has dominated the headlines here for much of the summer.

Britain was ahead of the curve in getting tough in government spending,slashing its budget in many of the areas about to be snipped across the Atlantic; education, social services, jobs programs, local government. Today, across this weary and worn world financial capital, the smoking ruins of working class neighborhoods stand in eloquent testimony to the effects of depriving angry adolescents of purchasing power now or even the hope of things getting better in the future. The police are being outmanned and outmanuevered, and if this thing continues to spread a military intervention may be inevitable.

Despite an additional build-up in the number of riot police officers, many of them rushed to London from areas around the country, gangs of hooded young people appeared to be outmaneuvering the police for the third successive night. Communicating via BlackBerry instant-message technology that the police have struggled to monitor, as well as by social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter, they repeatedly signaled fresh target areas to those caught up in the mayhem.

They coupled their grasp of digital technology with the ability to race through London’s clogged traffic on bicycles and mopeds, creating what amounted to flying squads that switched from one scene to another in the London districts of Hackney, Lewisham, Clapham, Peckham, Croydon, Woolwich and Enfield, among others — and even, late on Monday night, at least minor outbreaks in the mainly upscale neighborhoods of Notting Hill and Camden.

Wild, out of control youths, with nothing to lose, running rampant through the streets of London. Not really protesting anything, just pissed off and full of hormones and in the grip of a desperate, liberating mania, a spasm of destruction and acquisition. They are not out to make a political point, or to confront the police in a macho mano-a-mano. The are into old-fashioned smash and grab, as much for the smash as for the grab, but the first shops looted were cell phone and electronic stores. Of course, eventually they took out whole blocks, stripping stores and torching the scene of the crimes.

Sitting in his swanky flat in Chelsea, the Dowbrigades briefly debates visiting the scenes of some of last night’s rioting. From curiosity, as a citizen journalist, for old times sakes. But we aren’t quite as spry as when we were on the other side of the barricades, and we promised the wife to try to snag half-priced tickets to Billy Elliot in Leichester Square after class. We only have another week before the U calls us back to Boston for the fall semester.

Will the rioting continue? Will this same miasma of want and need spread to the States, fueled as here by the stark contrast between the obscene opulence of store windows and almost everyone featured on TV and the grinding hopeless struggle of everyday life in immigrant and minority neighborhoods? Will the United States follow her emminent predecessor into eccentric and doddering decline as the ex-richest and most powerful Empire in the world? A once-was, last millenium museum of freaks and performers, isn’t-it-a-shame Celebrity Rebab candidate, a la ex-heavyweights Rome, Egypt and Greece, or Babylonia (aka Iraq)?

Hardly slept last night, watching shops and cars burn across London and financial markets fall across the globe. These are the news days we live for. Fiction can’t compete. Stay tuned……..

article extracts from the New York Times

Riot Redux

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RICHARD SENNETT and SASKIA SASSEN from the New York Times say it much better than I did:

 America is in many ways different from Britain, but the two countries today are alike in their extremes of inequality, and in the desire of many politicians to solve economic and social ills by reducing the power of the state.

The term repeated here over and over again is “mindless thuggery”. If that describes a potent mix of electronics envy, unemployment, lack of appearant exits and the sheer thrill of breaking glass, I guess it covers it. The true test will come the next time the police shoot an unarmed protester or passerby. Have we reached the point where any protest gathering will turn into a raging mob? And what’s up with the word “Yob”? Where did that come from?

article extracts from the New York Times

 


Authentic Ecuadorian Viche

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A typical viche from Manabi

This is the true, original recipe for shrimp “Viche”, a superlative seafood soup found only in the Ecuadorian province of Manabi, on the Pacific coast of South America. Although this version uses fresh shrimp, it is also made with crab, fish and mixed seafood. The ingredients are all easily obtainable in most supermarkets, except for the peanut paste. I have been told that unsweetened, organic peanut butter makes a decent substitute, and will undoubtably give it a try when I run out of the packages of paste I brought back from Ecuador run out.

I have been carrying this recipe around in the leather jacket of my Nook ebook reader since I wrote it down, while observing minutely my sister-in-law prepare a full family shrimp viche for 20 on Mother’s Day, 2011. We were in my mother-in-law’s house in Chone, a dusty river-run agricultural city in Manabi, and the place was full of siblings and cousins and significant others. In the morning a gang of us went to the local Sunday open market for the shrimp and fresh vegetables. At about 11 we started to cook.

This shot of the market was taken with my iPod camera.

Since then the recipe, scrawled on an unlined sheet of spiral notebook paper, somehow still unstained, traveled tucked into the Nook, up the coast to Guayaquil, back to Boston for a two-week family emergency, then back to Ecuador for a tour of the provincial beaches, back again to Guayaquil and then Boston, and finally across the Atlantic to London, where I have finally fished it out of its leather-bound nook and set about transcribing it below, for posterity.

Somewhere on this hard drive are the photos I took that day, of the family and the preparation of the viche. Hopefully bu the time anyone reads this, they will be below. Enjoy.

Here are the carrots, corn, lima beans and green beans

Ingredients (20 servings)

1 medium carrot

1 cup lima beans

2 ears sweet corn

1 cup green beans

4 large stalks green onions

1.5 cups achocha (a cucumber-like veggie, “stuffing cucumber” in England-foto below)

1.5 cups sweet potato (cubed)

1.5 cups white cabbage

2 cups yucca (peeled and boiled)

2 platanos (mature – i.e. yellow – cooking bananas)

4 platanos (immature -i.e. green – cooking bananas) (pre-boil 20 minutes)

4 packets peanut paste (can substitute unsweetened peanut butter)

1 head garlic

2 lbs fresh shrimp (or crab, fish, clams, etc.)

1 large head purple onion

1 green pepper

black pepper to taste

achoite paste  

(Achote paste is a derivative of the achiote trees of tropical regions of the Americas, used to produce a yellow to orange food coloring and also as a flavoring. Its scent is described as “slightly peppery with a hint ofnutmeg” and flavor as “slightly nutty, sweet and peppery”)

Two lovely nieces filled out the kitchen crew

Preparation:

1) Boil a large pot of water (the only one we have big enough was a lobster pot). As it heats add the green pepper, purple and green onions, and the garlic, from a garlic press.

Sold in small packets, use organic, unsweetened peanut butter as a substitute

2) Mix the boiled green platano with 2 packets of the peanut paste (about 8 tablespoons if using peanut butter) and mush them together by hand. Make round balls about the size of big marbles. Set aside.

 

3. Add the corn to the pot, cutting each ear into four or five pieces or pucks with kernels attached.

 

4. Clean and de-vein the shrimp while the pot boils (20 minutes)

5. Scoop the green onions OUT of the pot and discard. Leave the other vegetables in

This is the cabbage, sweet potato and achocha

6. Add the achocha (zucchini as a possible substitute), the sweet potato, and the cabbage

 

7. Withdraw and set aside 1.5 cups of the broth to mix later with the rest of the peanut paste

8. After another 20 minutes on a low boil, add the mature platano cut in disks, and the yucca, cut in 3 or 4 inch pieces, like fat french fries

 

9. In a blender, mix the rest of the peanut paste (2-3 packets or 8-12 tablespoons of peanut butter) with the 1.5 cups of broth you separated earlier. Blend until smooth.

Mushing up the platano and peanut paste

10. When pot returns to a boil after step 8, add the balls of green platano you made in step 2, and the shrimp

 

11. When the pot returns to a boil after step 10, add the rest of the

This show the size and number of platano/peanut balls

peanut sauce and broth from the blender

12. Bring to a final full boil for one minute.

13. Season with parsley of cilantro, serve. Enjoy.

Manta Diary 3: Why are we here?

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Ah, Manta. A jewel by the sea, combining (almost) all that I love about modern South America: an alternative reality to the Northern half of the continent, retaining that unique American robust and irreverent forward motion yet somehow sedate, private, moving at its own rate and rhythm, and forever painted in the icy pastels of the Inca decendants and the sandy sons of the Mantas and Valdivians, and the teeming textures of the Amazonian Shuar.

Of course, as a beach town, it carries most the heritage of the early coastal civilizations, which survived on the bounty of the sea. Near here emerged the proto-civilization, the first of the great native American cultures, the Valdivia (1000 BC). And right here where I am writing these lines, a couple of hundred meters from the Pacific coastline practically smack dab (less than one degree south) on the equator, for 2000 years, from 500 BC to 1500 AD, the Manta culture and its huge capital city, featured, according to Pizarro, wide avenues, majestic temples, grand plazas and monumental statues. They were fishing these waters and turning their catch into cebiche before Christ recruited the fishermen of Galilee.

The “almost” in the first line refers to the limited influence here of the other major group of cultures that emerged in South America – in one of the most spectacular and otherworldly environments on the planet, the Andes Mountains. I did most of my admittedly unconsumated “academic” research in that challenging and rarified ecosystem. Whole human civilizations evolved and thrived at over 3 miles above sea level. Even at those altitudes it is a rich and varied ecosystem at these equatorial latitudes, much more so than the cold, austere Himalayas, the only higher mountains in the world, due to the Andes straddling the planets bulging midriff where there’s more oxygen at 16,000 feet than in the northern latitudes. There is agriculture, hunting and grazing at altitudes where Tibet is a frozen wasteland.

But if I miss the Andean wonderland, I can get on a bus and in 4 hours be within sight of active, snow-capped volcanoes.

About the third great South American ecosystem – the Amazon river basin – we can only say it’s a nice place to visit, but a green hell to live in, although we have never actually done so. We never quite got past the humidity and the bugs, so we don’t miss it much.

Manta itself is a bustling, diverse and growing urban area,. In fact, according to the latest census it is the fastest growing city in Ecuador. Current population about 300,000, it is centered around one of the best deep-water ports on the Pacific coast of South America. Its economy is built on three pillars: shipping, fishing and tourism. The fishing fleet consists of everything from small trolling launches and sport fishing boats to large vessels that stay at sea weeks at a time and include refrigeration and processing capacity. Manta is known (according to the bright metal monument featuring the humongous 30-foot, shiny blue and green fish located in the middle of a traffic roundabout in front of the Yacht Club) as the “Tuna Capital”. It doesn’t say capital of what; province, country, continent or world.

The shipping running in and out of Manta port consists of imports from North America (west coast ports), Asia (principally China), and Brazil (shipped through the Panama Canal, since even today, 160 years after the transcontinental railroad transformed North America, there is no way to get cargo across South America by land). The exports are mostly based on the fishing industry (canned tuna, fishmeal, frozen filets) or the large agricultural sector of the local Manabi province economy (platano, coffee, cacao, peanuts, pineapples, yucca, citrus and cattle).

The port is big business, and may someday provide direct access to the Pacific markets for the abundant produce of the Amazon, that dream is decades away and right now it is suffering from an excellent example of the inbred inefficiencies that keep capitalism from flexing its velvet deathgrip around the throat of local life down here. The harbor itself is optimal, deep, clear and calm. But the infrastructure built around it, mechanized wharfs, high volume loaders, cranes, power grid components, are somewhat less than state-of-the-art and often in need of attention.

A few years ago a big Japanese multinational which specializes, among other things, in upgrading and operating world-class ports was on the verge of signing a long-term contract to invest in and administer the Port of Manta. The whole process had taken the better part of a decade to develop, between initial studies, impact statements, community outreach, the final proposal, financing negotiations, political maneuvering, amendments and back-room “bargaining” (payoffs). At the last minute there was a political (always political) blowup that blocked the signing. Two competing power groups which both had to sign on to the agreement, and who had agreed to set aside their differences, had experienced a renewal of hostilities, the theories of the cause of which were many and varied, my favorite being an insult at a “Quinceanero” (Sweet 15) party. The Japanese, aghast at their complete lack of control over or even understanding of the cultural complexities underlying financial operations (and everything else) in Ecuador, politely withdrew.

And now the Manta port is losing contracts to arch-rival Guayaquil (think Boston – New York, about the same distance down a coast a lot further south and on the other side of the continent). The older, recalcitrant machinery in Manta takes longer to load and unload a big cargo ship, and in that business time, especially time in port, is money. Guayaquil, at 3 million the biggest city in Ecuador, is more efficient.

Tourism is the most recent revenue stream to hit the big time. It has gotten really active during the last 15 years or so, both with upwardly mobile Ecuadorians and foreigners, mostly from North America and Europe, due to it’s great location on the coast, year-round temperatures of between 72-84 and ample supply of hotels and restaurants at the high, mid and low end of the tourist spectrum.

Increasingly, Manta as well as Ecuador in general, is becoming a popular location for ex-patriot retirement. I shouldn’t carp, belonging to the demographic myself, but I am a bit embarrassed by the increasing hordes of horny elderly white guys gimping around town escorting younger-looking Latina women. A popular web site, International Living, has been touting Ecuador as a retirement destination due to its high standard and low cost of living (“Live well on half your social security payment”), but a lot of these geeks showing up are utterly unprepared for real life South America, no Spanish, never lived outside of Nebraska, and I don’t know if I fear more for them or their effect on the local scene. Certainly, nothing good can come of it.

On top of the tourists arriving by land, Manta is one of the obligatory stops for several big cruise lines. These mega liners, with a couple of thousand pasty skinned retirees aboard, take advantage of the deep-water port, inexpensive prices and gringo-friendly natives to spend 12-16 hours in town, during which most of the passengers disembark and go to the Bat Beach, eat at one of the 16 seafood restaurants thereon, hit the Supermarket for snacks and liquor they can’t get on board, hit the Fybeca Pharmacy for diarrhea or constipation pills, or pharmaceuticals available by prescription only at home, zoom out to Monticristi, home of the “real” original Panama hats a few kilometers down the road, hang at the local bars and try to pick up local girls or guys, but what can you do if you’re 80 and your ship leaves in 3 hours? Then they head back to their cabins and weigh anchor for Callao, Peru or Easter Island.

When the cruise ships are in town a battalion of Oltavolan Indians come down from their mountain redoubt and set up an extensive native market in the Manta Civic Plaza, an open-air event space where the modest Manta downtown runs up against the beach. The Oltavolans are the Israelites of the Native American tribes, wandering Jews dedicated to commerce and textiles. They are innate capitalists and have constructed a world-wide tribal network distributing all varieties of Andean folk artifacts. They fell into this role due to their mastery of modern textile production techniques and their successful modification of same to traditional Andean weaving and embroidering techniques. This is what originally brought me to Oltavolo, studying the textile industry, 38 years ago, just when they started to realize that there’s a big market out there. Today you see the Oltavolans in their typical white pajama pants and bright blue ponchos everywhere: New York, LA, New Orleans, Paris, London, Tokyo, Tel Aviv, wherever. They, and their fellow travelers the Andean flute bands, managed by a similar Native American mafia, are ubiquitous, now an element of the transnational zeitgeist.

They arrive, synchronized with the cruise ships, in the backs of 3 or 4 heavy trucks, 50 to 60 Indians and a Macy’s worth of wool sweaters, cotton embroidered shirts, wood and stone and tagua vegetable ivory carvings, woven ponchos, belts, shawls, hammocks, jewelry of all sorts, from silver and semiprecious stones, seashell, coral, Monicristi Panama hats, pornographic peace pipes, oil paintings and watercolors, blankets and rugs, coffee from the Galapogos Islands, mittens and scarves (here on the 80F beach), bags, purses and wallets, wool and alpaca pillows, guitar straps, hats, T-shirts, keychains, and fake original archeological relics.

Their trucks usually pull in at 4 am and by 7 the native market is open for business. The cruise passengers cycle through all day – there isn’t room in the Plaza for them to come all at once. I’m sure the Oltavolans have determined the exact optimal flow of tourists to maximize overall sales. At sunset, they load what’s left into the trucks, climb in back to sleep atop the soft bales of fine fabrics, and head back up into the mountains.

In the four months from January to April, high cruise season, this year Manta will receive 12 ships with a total of 16,900 passengers. Every time one arrives, they drop over $200,000 during their 8-hour visits to the city. Taxi drivers, restaurant owners, beer sellers, dance partners, everyone benefits. To insure their safety, when the ships come to town the police cancel normal leaves and flood the designated tourist areas with patrols.

Personally, I like Manta, and have chosen it as a provisional retirement destination for a number of reasons. First and foremost, it is a real, modern city, and I am pretty much a city guy. Sure, I love nature, and some of my most vivid memories are of mountaintops and waterfalls. But after a few days in the deep country I get bored silly, and start longing for lattes, exhaust fumes and increased dietary options. After a week I’m ready to hitchhike 80 miles to the nearest honky-tonk or store with a radio and a cold beer.

Manta, on the other hand, has a population of about 300,000, and all the things that make a city livable for me: modern shopping malls, many fine restaurants, major league sports teams (OK, only soccer, but I like soccer), a tennis club which deigns to have me as a member, a multiplex movie theater, an Apple Store, two newspapers and several universities, book stores and stationary shops, the best of which is the Universidad Laica Eloy Alfaro of Manta (ULEAM). Eloy Alfaro was a Manabita native who led a revolution, served as President twice in the 19th century, and was eventually arrested and executed after a subsequent revolution.

But more important than the infrastructure are the people; friendly, open, hard-working but knowing how to relax and enjoy life. And they actually like Americans, as individuals at least although they aren’t particular fans of our government lately. They all seemingly have been to the States, have a relative living in the States, or are planning on going to the States soon.

Me, I’m glad to be here. Everything I used to miss from home when I was first traveling through South America 30 years ago can be found now. My computer has the New York Times and the Boston Globe hours before my delivered copy used to show up on the doorstep. My Nook has a bookstore full of books all of which are on my “must read” list. My cell phone can reach anyone I may want to talk to anywhere. The local SuperMaxi supermarket has Hunts Spaghetti Sauce, low-fat, lactose free milk, and Haagen Daaz Dulce de Leche ice cream, plus fresh-squeezed OJ and real fruits and vegetables, as opposed to the ersatz replacements modern agro-industry foist off on the gringos these days.

Plus, Manta is the ultimate service economy. If you’ve got a bit of gelt and patience, just about everything comes to you. On the beach you rent a recliner in the shade for a dollar all day, and ambulatory vendors come by with beer, coconut water, ice cream, stewed chicken, single cigarettes, candy, pastries and reading material. A farmer’s market comes to your door several times a day as ambition agriculturists hire big trucks filled to the beams with bunches of green platanos and yellow bananas, mountains of pineapples, coconuts, oranges and ears of corn. As previously described, an entire Andean market comes to town every time a cruise ship pulls in.

It is a magical moment in Manta these days; the city is poised for a major expansion. Every time I go to the supermarket, even when there are no cruise ships in town, there seem to be more white haired retirees in Bermuda shorts and grungy surfers in designer shades. The Canadian real estate company Remax has just started turning over the first houses in their 1200 lot development down the coast on a stretch of virgin beach. There is a zest in the air, the scent of fresh money and ambition, sure to lead to less than completely relaxing results. Our hope is that the size and varied economic backbone of the city and province will partially inure them to the crass commercialism that generally accompanies such robust growth.

But enough. Norma is calling me to make the toughest decision of the day – where to have lunch. Williams apparently has cheese noodle soup and chicken breast with lentils as the special (+ salad, flan and passion fruit juice for $3.50), and we haven’t been there for a while. More later

The Rise, Fall and Resurrection of the Queen of the Highway

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Although not a big country, Ecuador features sizable sections of the three main ecosystems found in South America: the dry coastal plain, the towering Andes mountains, and the vast Amazon jungle.  The roads connecting these environments are among the most spectacular and challenging in the world. Often amazing feats of engineering featuring stunning views and landscapes, they are also poorly maintained and policed.

Last month, in the early morning hours of Christmas Eve, December 24, bus #57 belonging to the cooperative Reina del Camino (Queen of the Highway), on a regular route down from the highlands capital of Quito (9,200 feet above sea level) to San Isidro near the coast, went over a precipice near La Crespa in Manabi Province.  It plummeted 150 meters (480 feet) rolled over several times and came to rest at the bottom of a deep ravine. 40 passengers were killed, most instantly, although several lingered in local hospitals for a few days. 11 of the dead were children.

In the days following the accident various damning details came to light. The brakes of the bus were found to be defective, and the vehicle itself had not been inspected in over a year.  The driver of record was at home in his apartment in Quito, and the driver in fact was carrying two separate sets of identity papers, neither of which belonged to him. The driver, also killed in the crash, had had his own license suspended twice, and a subsequent investigation revealed that the transportation cooperative “Reina del Camino” was not only aware of the fact, but had facilitated his obtaining the false ID and license.

Furthermore, the deadly toll of 40 dead and 43 injured stood in stark violation of the listed legal capacity for the vehicle, which was 44 passengers.  This is a widespread practice in Ecuador, where busses are the main mode of transportation for poor and middle class families without private cars or money to pay airfares, even when flights exist. The busses, older models often purchased cheap from Greyhound and other foreign companies when they are retired from service in the first world, leave the terminals full of seated passengers who have paid full price for a paper ticket in the bus line’s office at the bus station.  The money for these tickets stays in the office, and goes into the company coffers.

But the underpaid drivers and loaders also feel entitled to a piece of the pie, and so as soon as the bus clears the area around the terminal they start picking up additional roadside passengers who pay a reduced rate to stand in the aisles or crouch on the roofs hidden under tarps. The one time we were actually kidnapped, riding north on the Panamerican Highway in coastal Peru, by the Movimento Revolucionario Tuopac Amaru, we were driven off the road and into the desert where armed thugs started strip searching all of the passengers. Lying face down in the sand with our hand behind our heads, we were surprised to hear stifled cries coming from the baggage compartments under the bus we had been riding on for 14 hours.  The gunmen had discovered an entire family of 7 riding behind the suitcases and trunks.

The money from these “informal” passengers goes directly into the pockets of the driver and his assistant.  The practice is tolerated because it supposedly holds down ticket prices (one can pay approximately 50% extra for “Executive Service” busses which don’t stop between stations to pick up extra passengers), but it results in uncomfortable and dangerous crowding of regular units like bus #57.

Finally, for frosting on the cake, the drivers themselves are seriously abused, overworked and quite often inebriated.  It is not unusual for a driver, who sometimes but not always is also the owner of the vehicle, to finish an 8 to 10 hour run from the coast up to the mountains by polishing off 3 or 4 big beers while they empty and reload his bus, and then climbing aboard to drive it back to its point of origin, where one of his families anxiously awaits. Bus drivers in Ecuador are almost exclusively male and famous for separately maintaining 2 or 3 women and their respective progeny.

The drinking used to bother me the most.  Back in my wild youth as an anthropologist and adventurer of the region, riding these rickety rockets up and down the spine of the Andes, we would make an effort to personally interview the drivers of these long-haul, overnight death traps before boarding.  We were primarily performing field sobriety tests, and on more than one occasion, deterred by the stink of cheap liquor or an unfocused gaze, we would opt for a later departure.  We tended to favor busses with priests or nuns aboard, on the theory that the drivers would at least be reminded of eternal consequences of losing their grip.

As tragic as the accident itself was, the resulting scandal was a paragon of the inimitable combination of high drama and farce so typical of Latin American politics. The President of the Republic, never one to pass up a chance to garner good press, made an immediate visit to the hospital where the majority of the injured were interred, promising remuneration and retribution.  The remuneration took the form of an immediate payout by the insurance company that carried the Reina’s policy, for the kingly sum of $4,850 for each fatality, and lesser sums for the injured.  The retribution became apparent the following week when the Minister of Transportation, citing the unlicensed driver, false documentation, gross overloading and lack of vehicle inspection, closed down the Reina, cancelling their license to operate and ordering all 130 of their busses off the road.

This was a major blow, not just to the 2,000 employees of the company (drivers, loaders, mechanics, station workers, officials) and their families, but also to the citizenry of Manabi, one of Ecuador’s largest provinces.  For many smaller towns and roadside knots of humanity, the Reina was the only game in town, the only way to get students to school, patients to hospitals, goods to market or lovers to assignations.

The company had been formed almost 50 years ago by a small group of mechanics in the agricultural center of Chone, my wife’s hometown.  Her uncle came up with the name.  They started with a half–dozen “chivas”, which are a sort of home made bus, basically wooden benches with a roof built on the platform of old flatbed trucks.  They plied the dusty, muddy, rocky unpaved roads of Manabi, uniting cow towns and haciendas, fruit farms and regional markets, forgotten, isolated hamlets and growing regional centers.

The first declaration of the Minister of Transportation after the accident was the temporary cancellation of the Reina’s license, until all of the 130 vehicles were inspected, the drivers took a special course in bus driving technology and passed vision, health and psychological tests, and the owner of each vehicle posted a special $1,000 bond as surety against future mishaps.  Of course, the universal opinion in Manabi was that this was a $130,000 bonus for the Minister of Transportation whose term in office, like that of all government ministers in Ecuador, was limited by graft, scandal and political expediency.

A week later, however, the Minister was trumped by the President, who announced with redolent indignation that the closure would be permanent, and that he would shortly begin the process of “redistributing” the routes formerly served by the Reina to other cooperatives. Clearly, a process itself assured to generate another hefty and continuing stream of off-the-books revenue. The candidates for the routes started lining up immediately.

But the officials and investors behind the Reina were not about to take this lying down.  They had resources of their own, and 50 years of entrenchment in the establishment of the province.  Think of a league of small-town Latin-style teamsters from Texas.  They immediately availed themselves of a time-honored tradition of Ecuadorian justice – judge shopping.  When a power bloc like this needs relief from executive persecution, they start going from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, looking to find or motivate a sympathetic judge to issue an injunction.

The fact that the one they found was an unknown woman recently appointed to the Children’s and Family Court surprised and shocked no one except possibly me.  Her only possible apparent connection to the case seemed to be that 11 of the fatalities were children, but in these parts a court order is a court order, and her order was to let the Reina loose again.

A classic confrontation of constitution powers, Ecuadorian style!  The executive branch orders the busses off the roads, and the judicial overrules.  Money was moving between private bank accounts and campaign funds like a high-stakes three card Monte at an agricultural state fair.  The federal police threatened to stop the busses and arrest the drivers.  The provincial patrols vowed to enforce the judge’s order, and escort the busses if necessary.

Of course, like 99% of the confrontations in this South American theme park of a country, it was all show.  No shots were fired, but the posturing was world-class and the rhetoric stirring.  The current compromise has 80 of the 130 busses back in circulation while the back-room bartering and bribing continues.  Stay tuned for updates, and choose “executive service” if it’s an option.

Manta Diary post 2

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This morning it was still dark outside when I awoke to the sound of a downpour on a tin roof next door, and the smell of a fresh rain rinsing off the dry dust that habitually covers this sunny resort on the Pacific coast of South America. My surprise was mingled with disappointment – no tennis today!

It almost never rains in Manta. Honestly; in what must now be a cumulative year in this bustling port city, this is only the second time I can remember it really raining. Some fortuitous combination of coastline and wind patterns insures that, even in the rainy season, even when farmers in nearby towns like Portoviejo, Jipijapa (pronounced “Hippy-hoppa” to my continuing delight) or Chone are dancing with delight under a tropical deluge, Manta normally remains dry and sunny.

Actually, it was rather nice to see a real rain for a change, in part to contrast it with the repeated blunt blows from a vengeful Mother Nature currently flaying New England. Rain is romantic, and as I could clearly see on an early morning drive to get the papers, the trees and plants were happy. But I had a date to play doubles at the tennis club with the usual suspects plus a US Navy SeaBee stationed on a cruiser, the USNRV “Swift”, anchored in Manta Bay while its engineering battalion assists in the construction of an elementary school in a poor neighborhood on the outskirts of town.

So stuck at home for a while (local experts predict a cessation of the showers by 10 am) let me describe a couple of moral and karmic dilemmas we had to face yesterday, as an example of the magical thinking which makes the Southern half of America different from the North, and may help explain why we feel so at home here.

Yesterday, Thursday, I was on my own, as Norma was off to Portoviejo to visit Mariana, the eldest of her 8 brothers and sisters, leaving shortly after I returned from the tennis club around 9. Although she said she might be back by lunchtime I knew it would be closer to dinnertime; when these siblings get together it’s a non-stop gabfest for days at a time.  Unfortunately, Norma is the only one of her sibs who is currently on speaking terms with absolutely everyone else in the family, and since our arrival last week the apartment has been the site of a series of family summits as the sisters, cousins, aunts and more distant connections stop by singly or in groups, for Latin-style family schmoozing.  At least for one day, the coffee klatch would be held in Portoviejo rather than in our living room.

So, unencumbered by social or familial responsibilities, I decided to take a walk, maybe check out this new Chinese restaurant people were talking about, since Norma didn’t like Chifa, which is what South Americans call Chinese food. First stop – our “wall safe”, which consists of a slim linen document bag hanging from a nail in the wall underneath a mounted poster of Albert Einstein and containing our passports and cash stash.  Hopefully, the local “pillos” (thieves) don’t read my blog

But, surprise, surprise, the cupboard was bare.  The stash of fresh US ATM twenties was exhausted after about two weeks in country, more or less as expected, and so the next stop had to be the local Banco Pacifico ATM, conveniently located on the way to the Chifa.

Keys, wallet, cellphone, battered Elmore Lenard paperback (I love my new Nook so much I have determined to read it only in the comfort and safety of the apartment, never risking it out on the Latin street), check, check, check. Out the door and left at the corner, heading uphill towards the local “Strip” of bars, restaurants, clubs and trendy shops, rather than downhill to the beach.

I had walked less than two blocks when I heard and saw a singular thing. As a well-dressed young man walking in the opposite direction, down the hill, passed me by I heard  a distinct ‘thok’ sound of something falling to the ground.  I turned, and there in the street, perched on the rim of a pothole, maybe ten feet from where I stood, was a dull bronzed dollar coin.

Ecuador, as you may or may not realize, after repeated devaluations and hyperinflation, caused by a chronic inability to lay off the inorganic generation of boatloads of banknotes, had abandoned its national currency, the Sucre, and adopted good ole American greenbacks as their only money.  The big bronze dollar coins which people in the States seem so reluctant to adopt, have become ubiquitous in Ecuador, leading me to suspect that as one of the reasons they are so hard to find up North.

Anyway, it was obvious that the teenager had dropped the dollar, and I started doing the mental gymnastics necessary to determine my best course of action.  How much did he need the money? He looked well dressed, but maybe he was on his way to a low-paying job.  I had zero cash myself, but I was on my way to extract dinero from the international financial web. Did finders, keepers apply in a situation like this?

My mental acuity must be slowing down, because before I could run down the ramifications the kid was around a corner and out of sight. So I picked up the dollar and continued my ruminations as I walked. Upon reflection, I decided that a dollar found was not a dollar earned, and that the potential negative karmic effect of appropriating the funds far outweighed the brief feeling of “lucky me” one experiences on finding loose money on the street.

So, I decided, on my way back to the apartment, after my Chinese luncheon, I would carefully place the dollar back where I found it. Although the chances it would return to the teenager who dropped it were miniscule, someone else who hadn’t had the chance to identify it rightful owner would find it and potentially benefit from the “found money” juju.

By this time (I think slowly these days) I was nearly at the bank.  The equatorial sun was beating down like a photonic bludgeon as I slipped into the tiny, air-conditioned ATM vestibule. Fed my card into the machine. The screen announced “Su tarjeta no puede ser leido” (Can’t read this card).  Three times, same result. No money, no chance, no recourse.  Except, of course, to walk across the plaza to the Banco de Producto ATM inside the Super-Maxi supermarket.

This time the machine managed to read my card, and accepted my PIN, but when I asked it for $200 it reported “No se puede efectuar este transacion” (Can’t complete the transaction). Tried it again, same result.

By now, I was freaking out. What if the card has gotten demagnetized somehow, how will I get a replacement, and what will I live on in the meantime? What if somebody at one of the other places down here I’ve used the card, had stolen the password and cleaned out my account? We began rifling through the nefarious possibilities.

Almost instantly, I figured out what was going on, and what I needed to do about it.  It was the bad mojo negative karma o  the illicit dollar, burning a hole in my pocket! I touched it nervously with my figures, moved it from my right front pocket (positive energy) to my left (negative) and made a beeline for the street where I had collected it.

On the way I held the offending coin tightly in my left hand and tried to focus all of the negative energy in my body into it.  Arriving back on the corner in question I located the pothole and, after glancing around to insure I was not in anyone’s sights, lay the dollar back where I had picked it up, near as I could figure.

Straightening up, I didn’t feet anything special, but headed to the last remaining ATM in the neighborhood, between the Velboni market on the corner of the Strip and “Velvet Gourmet”, a cake and sweets shop next door.  Normally we eschew this machine, as it is outdoors and frequently out of order, but at that point I was desperate and broke.  Any port in a storm.

Of course, our karmic conscience cleansed, it worked like a charm, first time, read the card and spit out the cash, just like an ATM is supposed to do. Heaving a sigh of relief we reset our sights for the restaurant, which proved to be decent but unspectacular.  South American Chinese seemingly haven’t gotten the hang of Hot’n Sour Soup yet. The Won Tons were decent, though.

On the way home we were confronted with another confusing set of circumstances. At the supermarket where we stopped for flowers, cheese and fresh-squeezed orange juice, we made two discoveries. We still aren’t sure which was the good news, good luck, and which was the bad.

The first was the discovery that Supermaxi now stocked Hagen Das ice cream, specifically “Dulce de Leche” flavor, to which we had become seriously addicted back in Watertown where it was available cheap at the local Target within walking distance of our place. Actually, we had been rather glad that distance had reduced that craving to a fond memory, but now here it was, staring us in the face, and at an inflated price almost twice what it cost back home.  Good news or bad? We’ll figure that out later, we thought as we tossed one in the shopping chart.

The second discovery, upon returning home, eating a third of the pint and sticking the rest in the tiny freezer area of our glorified dorm-room refrigerator, was that the poor machine didn’t generate enough coldness to keep ice cream in a solid state.  I discovered this through a sticky coating of sweet liquid caramel which had flowed down from the erstwhile “feezer” to cover everything in the front half of the refrigerator and the floor below.  Good luck or bad? We’re still trying to figure that one out.

Such are the trials and travails of life on the beach in Manta, Ecuador. Moral conundrums, karmic puzzles, idle speculation. Stay tuned.

Dowbrigade South Online Again

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After a week on the road, we are setting up shop in a lovely little apartment, three blocks from the beach in the midsized city (pop. 200,000) of Manta, Ecuador. We should be reachable here for the next 5 months, before returning to Boston for the summer and fall semesters, back at work. Meanwhile, we have been disconnected from the internet, both by choice and necessity, as we wound our way down here.

Ah, the electric liberation of being off the grid. No phone, no internet, no TV – just life, raw and real and unmitigated by digital diffusion, LCD screens or cybernetic connections. The eyes open wider, the symphony of sounds unblocked by earbuds or surround-sound, the hours stretch and multiply without the distraction of hundreds of channels of cable nothingness or the endlessly fascinating time sink offered by the Internet. Time to savor the sights, sounds, smells, tastes and touches of raw reality.

After a week of this au natural existence we found ourselves bored to tears, and venturing forth from our new nest above the Bat Beach (Playa Muracielgo) yesterday we unlocked and reregistered our trusty Blackberry, installed a telephone landline into the apartment, bought a big flatscreen TV, leeched a Cable TV signal from some out-of-town neighbors, and borrowed a USB dongle putting the MacBook back onto the information superhighway. We’re baaack! New digits to follow.

There are drawbacks to our current situation, but I can’t think of what they are. I’m sure with the passage of time they will rear their ugly little heads; Manta is not Paradise. But, as I always say, yeah, I wouldn’t mind going to Paradise, but I’m not dying to get in.

Today I got up at 6, as usual. It’s been a long time since I could sleep past 7; generally when the sun comes up, so do I. Most mornings in Manta I get picked up about 10 minutes later to go play tennis at the Umiña Tennis Club, 5 minutes from our apartment.

The gang I usually play with, including Miguel Camino, architect and ex-husband of one of Norma’s cousin, our host and landlord and good buddy, Jorge Zambrano, the Mayor, actually ex-mayor after 12 years now retired to fun the family agricultural supply business and develop scads of prime real estate he somehow acquired during his time in office, Medrano Mora the Rector of the big local university and other early risers. They like to get to the club at dawn both because it’s the coolest time of day, which at 1 degree south latitude is important, and because they want to shower and get to their offices by nine. The level of tennis is off the charts – there are so many great players at this club that sometimes I despair of being able to hang on the courts. They usually give me to the strongest player as a partner, as a sort of handicap. But playing above one’s level is the best way to improve at anything. I know it sounds exhausting, but actually two hours of tennis in the morning imparts energy that lasts all day long. Of course, that’s easy for me to say – I usually head for home after tennis for a nap.

Actually, this trip I’ve discovered another gang who show up a bit later – Byron the lawyer, Don Nelson, who works in the Port Authority, Pedro “The Tower” (6’1” is considered tall down here) and several others, a little older, about my age, and either retired or otherwise freed from the necessity of showing up at an office at any specific time. Today I played an exhausting singles match with Byron, who ended up winning 9-7, then I swan laps in the new pool for half an hour, and finished with a relaxing set of doubles with the whole gang.

The fact that this gang doesn’t show up until 7:30 or 8 (they still like to get their tennis in before the sun gets too high in the sky) means that on a day like today I got to read the New York Times and the Boston Globe early over a liquid breakfast of my favorite coffee (Flor de Manabi, from Loja), orange juice and a local liquid multivitamin.

After tennis, on the way back to the apartment, I stopped at the SuperMaxi supermarket for a copy of “El Universo”, the dean of Ecuadorian journalism, a pretty decent rag out of Guayaquil, the motor of the national economy about three hours south of here, and a liter of fresh-squeezed orange juice. They have a humongous squeezing machine in back of the deli counter – they feed in baskets of local oranges cut in half and fill the bottles by hand. I am drinking at least a liter a day; Norma claims my urine is going to start crystallizing from ascorbic acid, but I probably won’t catch cold.

Back home by a little after ten, I tried to make a few calls to the states on the free setup I have working on my laptop – combining Google voice (my number is 617-800-9948) with Cisco’s Virtual Private Network software to fool the internet into thinking I am on the Boston University campus. However, the call quality, which last night was quite acceptable (I spoke to my Mom and Gabe and a few others) was considerably worse in the morning, so I gave up on that and started writing this message. I will have to experiment with calling at different times of day to see when the quality is best. Also, I hope to have a faster, DSL connection to the internet up and running next week, so I can get away from this damn dongle. Hopefully this will be a bit faster as well.

In a couple of hours, Norma and I are planning to wander down to the Bat Beach, and walk down the Malecon to the Manta Yacht Club, where there is supposed to be some sort of a Gastronomic Championship, sponsored by the Ecuadorian-American Chamber of Commerce, featuring representatives of the ten best restaurants in Manta as well as the Gastronomy department at the local university in some kind of Criolla Cookoff. We don’t hang much at the Yacht Club, most of its members are ex-Navy or scions of upper-upper-crust Latifundista families. Not my kind of people, generally, but the cookoff offers an opportunity to avoid the big question of most days in Manta, which is in which of the dozens of excellent nearby restaurants to have lunch, traditionally the biggest meal in the Latinamerican day. Seafood or barbeque? Salad and fruit juice or fried shrimp and beer? Decisions, decisions.

Then tonight I am looking forward to seeing the Jets and Colts on my new TV. It’s on ESPN down here, a little grainy but definitely watchable. Not sure who to root for, I guess the Colts cause if they win we get the worst team in the playoffs next week, although it would be enjoyable to see the Pats destroy the Jets again.

No, Manta is not paradise. There are problems and inconveniences and ornery people and incompetent officials, just like everywhere else. Sometimes the electricity goes out. All of the restaurants on Bat Beach signed some sort of blood oath, in return for free Pepsi refrigerated servers, not so sell Coca-cola. Norma has diarrhea from eating a cebiche in Tarqui, the “bad” part of town (the Lonely Planet guide book notes that Tarqui features the cheapest hotels in town, but if you stay in one better take a taxi home after dark) – in fact, street snatch and grabs are common enough that we remove all rings, watches and other jewelry before going out, carry a minimum of cash and never flash laptops or iPods on the street. But given these precautions I feel pretty safe and in fact have yet to be a victim of this kind of crime in Ecuador, unlike in the USA.

Stay tuned for more updates