Archive for the 'South America' Category

From the Eruption Zone

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Boy, have we ever gotten behind in our postings. But, thats what vacations are for, we guess. Currently in Baños, Ecuador, nested in the skirts of Mt. Tunguragua, an active vocano which is currently acting up; booming and smoking and spraying mile-high plumes of smoke into the air. We have been told that if we hear sirens, its time to evacuate. My, it seems the explosions are getting closer and closer together. Theres one every few minutes now.

Almost 8 pm on New Years Eve. Weve managed to upload a few pictures from the eruption zone. Enjoy the party. Happy New Year everyone.

Baños photo album

Sending Colombians to Afghanistan – Brilliant!

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According to the New York Times, the US is trying to turn Afghanistan into another Colombia – that is, convert a warlord based, heavily armed narco-insurgency into a warlord-based, heavily armed narco-democracy. They have even imported Colombian troops and advisers into Kabul to show them how it’s done. From the front page of the Times….

opiumKABUL, Afghanistan — In a walled compound outside Kabul, two members of Colombia’s counternarcotics police force are trying to teach raw Afghan recruits how to wage close-quarters combat.

It is a measure of this country’s virulent opium trade, which has helped revive the Taliban while corroding the credibility of the Afghan government, that American officials hope that Afghanistan’s drug problem will someday be only as bad as that of Colombia.

While the Latin American nation remains the world’s cocaine capital and is still plagued by drug-related violence, American officials argue that decades of American counter-narcotics efforts there have at least helped stabilize the country.

“I wanted the Colombians to come here to give the Afghans something to aspire to,” Mr. Balbo said. “To instill the fact that they have been doing this for years, and it has worked.”

Apparently we want them to aspire to government-sanctioned and sometimes even organized terror, trafficking, subversion of democracy, gross violations of human rights, death squads and mass murder. From page six of the front section of the same paper, under the wonderfully alliterative headline “Death Squad Scandal Circles Closer to Colombian President“:

cokeCALI, Colombia, May 15 — President Álvaro Uribe, the Bush administration’s closest ally in Latin America, faces an intensifying scandal after a jailed former commander of paramilitary death squads testified Tuesday that Mr. Uribe’s defense minister had tried to plot with the outlawed private militias to upset the rule of a former president.

Mr. Mancuso also said that Vice President Francisco Santos had met with paramilitary leaders in 1997 to discuss taking their operations to the capital, Bogotá.

The paramilitaries, which are largely demobilized but regrouping in some areas, committed some of the worst atrocities in a long internal war. Prosecutors ordered the arrest on Monday of five legislators for entering into a secret pact with the paramilitaries in 2001, bringing to 14 the total number of legislators implicated in such ties.

We guess the attitude of the US Government is that since we gotta get our drugs from somewhere, we might as well get them from a right-wing, death-squad democracy rather than from a left-wing death-squad insurgency. This fits neatly into the present US compulsion to support athoritarian, conservative, business-dominated regiemes and combat left-leaning, anti-government insurgencies, wherever they may be found.

It’s like a police informer who figures it’s OK to be an addict because he’s getting his drugs from the cops.

Paradoxically, both drug users and law and order fans across the country should be celebrating this initiative. If we can convert Afghanistan into a stable narco-Democracy, or rather crypto-Democracy, with some sort of passable pretense of free elections, the United States will be assured of a uninterrupted and reasonably priced supply of heroin and other opiates for decades to come. And a right-wing, military/paramilitary government in geographically crucial Afghanistan will insure us of a staunch ally in the war on terror and extremism.

Of course, the tourist industry tends to take a hit when hand grenades are more common than pineapples and carbines than canapes, but who wants to go to Afghanistan as a tourist anyway? (Actually, the Dowbrigade would love to visit if we could be assured that the danger level was no higher than that in, say, Washington, D.C…)

All kidding aside, the lesson of Colombia is that helping the government get a handle on drug trafficking hasn’t eliminated or even reduced the supply of coke on the streets of America, which according to reports is as robust and cheap as ever. It just puts the trade into the hands of the type of guys our guys consider to be more reliable in their dealings and more reasonable in their investment of the proceeds.

Charletans and Shamen

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LIMA, Peru (Reuters) – Peru’s government
warned people to be wary of fake medicine men offering cure-all miracle
herb potions on Tuesday, after a bogus brew killed a man hoping to
shake off a spell of bad luck.

Alternative medicine is popular throughout the Andean nation, where newspapers
are full of colorful ads from self-proclaimed "shamans" offering
to improve anything from customers’ luck to their ability to attract
a mate.

"Avoid consuming brews made with herbs of questionable origin or
hallucinogenic plants prepared by so-called Shamans," the country’s
Health Ministry said in a statement.

The Dowbrigade spent over ten years in Peru pursuing brews
made with herbs of questionable origin or hallucinogenic plants prepared
by so-called Shamans. One of the reasons we have always loved
Peru is that the entire country from the Selva, over the Andes and
down to the Pacific, is rife with Shamen, curanderos, herbalists, charming
charlatans, blind hueseros, faith healers and magicians. Sprinkled
amongst the tricksters, drunks and fakes are a few real repositories
of arcane powers and wielders of secret knowledge.

The ministry said that genuine Shamans from the country’s north sometimes
consumed natural hallucinogens such as the San Pedro cactus in their
rituals, but did not administer them to patients.

from Reuters

This we know to be untrue. We have seen San Pedro
administered as a diagnostic as well as a treatment, orally and nasally.

Still, San Pedro (one old San Pedro cactus can contain as much
mescaline as several hundred
peyote buttons) and
other
serious
psychedelics
should not be consumed from a cart on a street-corner like some psychedelic
smoothie. It requires cleansing, preparation and trust in the Shaman
involved.

Ah, but when it’s done right, it is the closest thing to walking with
the gods available in a reliable round-trip.

Charletans and Shamen

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LIMA, Peru (Reuters) – Peru’s government
warned people to be wary of fake medicine men offering cure-all miracle
herb potions on Tuesday, after a bogus brew killed a man hoping to
shake off a spell of bad luck.

Alternative medicine is popular throughout the Andean nation, where newspapers
are full of colorful ads from self-proclaimed "shamans" offering
to improve anything from customers’ luck to their ability to attract
a mate.

"Avoid consuming brews made with herbs of questionable origin or
hallucinogenic plants prepared by so-called Shamans," the country’s
Health Ministry said in a statement.

The Dowbrigade spent over ten years in Peru pursuing brews
made with herbs of questionable origin or hallucinogenic plants prepared
by so-called Shamans. One of the reasons we have always loved
Peru is that the entire country from the Selva, over the Andes and
down to the Pacific, is rife with Shamen, curanderos, herbalists, charming
charlatans, blind hueseros, faith healers and magicians. Sprinkled
amongst the tricksters, drunks and fakes are a few real repositories
of arcane powers and wielders of secret knowledge.

The ministry said that genuine Shamans from the country’s north sometimes
consumed natural hallucinogens such as the San Pedro cactus in their
rituals, but did not administer them to patients.

from Reuters

This we know to be untrue. We have seen San Pedro
administered as a diagnostic as well as a treatment, orally and nasally.

Still, San Pedro (one old San Pedro cactus can contain as much
mescaline as several hundred
peyote buttons) and
other
serious
psychedelics
should not be consumed from a cart on a street-corner like some psychedelic
smoothie. It requires cleansing, preparation and trust in the Shaman
involved.

But when it’s done right, it is the closest thing to walking with
the gods available in a reliable round-trip.

The Outer Limits of Globalization

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Sitting in the Plaza de Armas of Carhuaz, a small town of some 3,000
inhabitants, almost all Native Americans, one is struck by the contrasts
of cultures and world-views.  It is not quite a Clash of Civilizations,
except as the last echoing aftermath of the Indian wars of the previous
500 years. But it is one of the interfaces between emerging, all
encompassing Global Economy and Culture, and something much older, more
mature, and as different as living on another planet.

Sometimes it can be incredibly impressive to see how many of the accoutrements
of the Global culture are available in this tiny town on the absolute
periphery of Globalization. For example, we are posting this from a cybercafe
right on the colonial plaza. Within a few blocks one can purchase Brittany
Spears CDs, knockoff VCD’s.of recent Hollywood blockbusters not even out
on DVD yet in the states, newspapers, lottery tickets, Purina dog food,
barbed wire, wine, whiskey and beer, Ramen noodles, bicycles, disposable
diapers, disposable
razors,
Duracell
batteries, a dozen brands of cigarettes, imitation Bic lighters, ketchup,
Nikes, Coca-Cola, automatic drip coffee machines, and telephone calling
cards.

You can find all of the major medications; antibiotics, analgesics,
tranquilizers, antipyretics, ointments, syrups and salves.  You
can get your hair cut, dyed and permed, call or send a package anywhere
in the world. It is really a tiny miniature node of western civilization.
None of these products or services or habits are available to the Indians
living in villages or isolated groups of farms further up the mountains.

But this same ubiquity of fashion, this deep penetration of concepts,
memes and paradigms, can at times seem depressing, even deadly. As the
local population is sucked into the sights and sounds and sensations
of the Global Culture, mesmerized by cheap knockoffs and flashing Christmas
tree lights, we can’t help but feel that something important, even essential
and irreplaceable, is being lost in the process.

People are in danger of forgetting that life is possible, even in some
ways advantageous, without capitalism, consumerism and a hyper-stimulated
sensationalist culture.

We keep seeing a re-run of the same New World-Old World story that has
been playing out on this continent for the past 500 years.  The
actors change, and the scenery and staging, but the story line is repeated
over and over. Is it the inevitable march of Progress, or are we watching
the terminal phases of an insidious virus that has finally managed to infect
the furthest reaches of the collective consciousness of the human race.

Time will tell…

Planes, Toyotas and Moto-taxis

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One of the reasons that we love the city of Carhuaz, high in the Peruvian
Andes, is that is has changed so little over the years. The people look,
talk, dress and act just the same. The same stores sell the same products,
and although the prices seem to go up thanks to the ubiquitous Latin inflation,
we suspect that measuered in work-units, it is pretty much the same.

What new buildings are erected look exactly like those they replace,
since all of the construction, farming, and cooking methods are unchanged
for hundreds of years. The social system and cultural events have
likewise not changed in hunderds of years, although they are ostensibly
quite different from those that existed around here before the Spaniards
arrived.

But one thing that has changed, radically, since we first started coming
here 30 years ago, is transportation. In the 1970′s pretty much the only
vehicles we saw up here were pickup trucks and land rovers. The roads were
in rougher shape, few were paved, and during the rainy season driving a
vehicle without 4-wheel drive involved a lot of pulling and pushing.

There were two buses a day down to the coast, old retired Greyhound
diesels, repainted and renamed, but with the faded profiles of the racing
dogs still on the sides. On the paved highway that ran down the bottom
of the valley, along and above the Rio Santa, one could catch a "Combi"
– an old VW bus that runs day and night up and down the valley, uniting
Caraz, Yungay, Carhuaz and the provincial capital of Huaraz, from where
there were buses to Lima on the hour.

A few years ago we began noticing a proliferation of private cars, sedans,
station wagaons and Asian automotive mashups of all kinds. The roads
were better, and people had more money, or so it seemed. There were even
taxi’s, and all of them looked the same.  They still do,  and
depending on his mood it eather makes the Dowbrigade feel right at home,
or creepily paranoid. For virtually all of the taxis, not only here in
Carhuaz but all up and down the Callejon, and especially in Huaraz (see
photo), are the same make and model; 1994 white Toyota Camry wagons – which
just happens to be the make model and color the Dowbrigade drives back
in the US of A.

Imagine – a whole fleet of White Whales.  Thousands of them were
imported during the early years of the Fujimori regieme, the Peruvian Nisei,
who was going to save the economy by attracting a flood of Japanese investment
(which never materialized) and who is now incarcerated in Chile with
dreams of returning to power after being deposed by the military and living
in exile in Japan.

One of his early initiatives was making new Toyotas available to taxidrivers
on extremely favorable terms, both for them and for Fujimori’s personal
friends who received the contract to facilitate the importation and sale.
Almost all of those vehicles are still on the road, and most of them
are taxis.

But after a ten-year reign as the lords of the backroads and the only
way for most people to get home, other than walking or burros (once everywhere,
now rarely seen), the Toyotas are being challenged by a new and lower-tech
alternative – mototaxis.  There are common all over Asia – we saw
our first one in Thailand a dozen years ago, where they were called Tuk-tuks.
A simple canvas-covered passenger compartment attached to the front of
a motorcycle in a sort of tricycle arrangement.

Obviously cheaper to operate, the mototaxi from the Plaza down in Carhuaz
to the Villa Maria costs 2 soles (62 cents) as opposed to 4 soles in
the Toyota. So some things do change.

Breathless in the Andes

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A scary episode night before last. Up here at almost
10,000 feet, at the very edge of access to Western medicine, we suddenly found we couldn’t
breath.

It woke us up in the middle of the night, the feeling that we couldn’t
fill our lungs up, that we were underwater, that we were suffocating.
After a few moments of panic we turned on the naked bulb hanging from
the ceiling of our simple adobe cottage by twisting it in its socket.
Sitting up in bed, we could breath fine, but every time we tried to lie
belly down, our customary sleeping position, we just couldn’t fill our
lungs, and felt that suffocating feeling and accompanying panic, coming
over us again.

Soroche, or altitude sickness, is common at this altitude, although
not usually severe. It is marked by lightheadedness and headaches.  However,
it usually comes on as soon as someone reaches these altitudes, and diminished
in a few days. We have been up at this height for a week now, and never
suffered from acute soroche in the past, although we have been up to
5,200 meters, about 17.000 feet.

But we were spooked. Not being able to breath, especially so far from
the nearest medical auxiliary, is no laughing matter. We found we felt
fine sitting up, standing and walking, and even laying flat on our back,
we could breath fine.  But once we flipped over onto our stomach,
or even side, into an acceptable sleeping position, we couldn’t breath.

Shitting upright at 3:30 in the morning in a tiny Indian crossroads
two miles up the side of a snow-capped volcano, we began to have wild,
panicked
fears. Maybe we have pneumonia, and our lungs are slowly filling with
liquid so that soon we wouldn’t be able to breath in ANY position! Where
is the nearest place to get a chest x-ray, and how can we get there,
and what time do they open and how much will it cost? Should we borrow
our son’s cell phone to place a long-distance international call to Cambridge
Family Health in Inman Square? In order to get our of this valley, one
has to go UP, back over the Olympic pass
at over
13,000 feet. Would we make it, with or without oxygen. There is an airport
in the valley, but no regular flights – charter’s only.  How much
would a medical evacuation cost?

Now, a day later, all this seems ridiculous, but as any asthmatic will
tell you, not being able to breath is one of the most terrifying sensations
in the world.  At the time, we merely endeavored to pass the hours
until the rest of the people woke up.  We finished last Sunday’s
New York Times Magazine we had been carrying all over two continents.
We watched the second half of "Slingblade" on our laptop. Why do so many
of the greatest actors of our generation (Hoffman, DiCaprio, DiNero)
get off on playing retarded guys? Aren’t there any retarded actors to
play those parts? What about Tom Cruise?) Finally morning came and after
a hot shower, a hot cafe con leche and a cold glass of fresh-squeezed
orange juice, we felt absolutely normal, although a little bushed from
the short night of sleep.

Our current thinking on this disturbing nocturnal episode is that it
was related to something that happened while we were asleep. Within the
belief-system of the people and the place where we are now, there was
something, or someone, waiting for us in the dreamworld, intending to
do us harm. A malevolent spirit, or a shaman contracted by an enemy,
waiting to attack us in our dreams, so our wiser self refused to let
fall back into the dreamworld.

A more scientific interpretation of the same theory would say we were
having a bad dream so our body resorted to a self-defense mechanism which
did not allow us to assume a comfortable sleeping position. That same
afternoon we were able to take a nap, and last night we slept like a
baby.

Four more nights up at altitude and we are back down to sea level, first
a bus to Lima and then an internal flight to Tumbes, a rather funky little
smugglers city near the border between Peru and Ecuador. The plan is
to cross the border overland and arrive in Guayaquil on Thursday. Friday
to Manta, and the beach and the tennis court, and the mystery of the
missing mercenaries.

Dowbrigade, Newshound

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Although we are ostensibly on vacation, the mind never takes a vacation,
or rather the mind takes its vacations when distracted by sex or powerful
psychotropic substances, from whence it sends back no post cards. But
up here at altitude, we have always found that the mind operates with
remarkable
clarity. Perhaps a combination of the clean air, physical exercise and
cool temperatures. In fact, when we go back down to sea level, as we inevitably
do, we feel ourselves being enfolded in layers of mental guaze, as if
part of our mind is going back to sleep.

At any rate, in our conversations with people down here we have become
aware of two stories which, were we a real journalists, and not on vacation,
we would dearly love to investigate and document. As it is, we will make
a typically slapdash bloggers effort to see firsthand, get some photos
or video, and some first-hand commentary. As a card carrying member of
the Pajamahadin, we can do no less.

The first story has to do with global warming, not that we would presume
to tackle such a transcendant topic in a comprehensive manner.  But
here near the visible line between earth and ice, there is clear physical
evidence that the environment is changing.

22 years ago the Dowbrigade visited the Pastorrouri Glacier, a 4-hour
trip overland from Carhuaz, our current location.  We went in a
pickup truck, which we parked in a frigid recreation area with a few
sorry soda pop stands and Indian women selling knitted hats, mittens
and scarves.  From
there it was an easy 15 minute walk to the snowline.

We climbed up on the glacer, and threw snowballs at each other. We slid
down an icy incline on green plastic garnage bags. Our son Joey, who
was 4 at the time, almost fell through a tiny crack in the glacier, ending
up wedged in and supported by his outstretched elbows. We got him out post
haste and retreated into the most incredible ice caverns we have seen
in our life – translucent, ethereal, magical – a natural fortress of solitude.

Joey is now 25 and owns the hotel where we are staying.  He tells
us that the ice caverns are all gone now, melted away, and that it is
too dangerous to let tourists just wander on the ice; too many holes, crevices
and soft spots.  The glacier has receeded so much that it now takes
an hour to walk from the parking place to the snowline. We are trying to
figure out how to get up there in the four days we have left, and if we
do, we will post our report.

The other story has to do with the war in Iraq.  Isn’t it icredible
how the most momentous news stories have repercussions on the local level
almost
everywhere in the world? It is a developing story we first reported almost
a year ago, involving allegedly CIA-affiliated private companies recruiting
Colombian gunmen to act as mercenary muscle in Iraq.

Since the initial reports there has been continuing confirmation in
the local press in Colombia and Ecuador, where the operation is supposedly
being coordinated at the Manta Airbase US Military Forward Operating Location.
"Rented" on a 99-year lease from the Ecuadorian government, this airbase
has basically taken over the logistics, surveilance and electronics roles
of the US Souther Command after they were kicked out of Panama with the
transfer of the canal.  Reports from Ecuador suggested that thousands
of young males, many with military experience but also some ex-guerillas
and drug cartel enforcers, were being signed up and shipped out.

Now, in Peru we are hearing the same stories. Young men from many backgrounds
but who know how to handle weapons, are being offered $2,000 a month
to work security details in the Middle East. $2,000 is more than a doctor
or a lawyer makes down here,  There are plenty of takers.

What happens to these people after they fall into the maw of the American
war machine? What do they actually do over there? So far, we have seen
no first-hand reports or interviews.  This recruiting has been going
on for over a year, at least in Colombia, but as far as we know none of
them have come home again to tell the tale. What exactly is going on here?

Next week, the Dowbrigade is heading to the scene of the crime, so to
speak, Manta, Ecuador, the center of the conspiracy. We’ll see if we can
get any of the troops at the FOL to go on record, or even just gossip,
about
the
Secret
Legions
of Latin Fighters in Iraq.