Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Sadness in Rio Verde

I continue to read of Moritz Thomsen's misadventures as a Peace Corps volunteer in Ecuador with frequent shocks of recognition. But I have found living among the poor to be a more expansive and inclusive experience. There are innumerable little things that have to be lived with - the heat, the insects, the ubiquitous crowing roosters, the scrawny, miserable dogs, and small screaming children everywhere - not to mention all the things that you must learn to live without. But I have learned that you not only have to learn to live with them, eventually you have to find some way to embrace them. The following is excerpted from Part Three of Living Poor: A Peace Corps Chronicle.

I had signed up to extend my time in Rio Verde another two years, and one day the enormity of the obligation hit me. For the first time I felt frightened; it seemed that in the first two years I had accomplished nothing, that it had all been por gusto. I thought of sad Rio Verde, lost and forgotten on this forgotten stretch of beach. It was just as screwed up now as it had been a year and a half earlier when I arrived. I woke up early one morning and lay there wide awake, impaled on those terrible 3am horrors, sinking deeper and deeper into depression.

Ramón came by the house in the morning to discover me drinking coffee, but speechless with feelings of self-pity and futility. He began to study me nervously.

"What's wrong, Martín?" he asked me. "Are you sick?"

"No, I'm not sick, just sad. Boy, I'm really sad."

"But why? What's wrong?"

I told him that it was a sadness without reason and he gave me a puzzled look of incomprehension. We drank coffee, and Ramón kept studying me. He was seeing something new in me that frightened him. He tried to make jokes; he turned up the radio and danced lewd dances for me. Nothing worked.

In the afternoon, still feeling completely withdrawn, I walked up the beach with Ramón. We sat down finally on a balsa log, and he began to talk about sadness. He told me about a three-month period in his life when he was twenty years old and living in Guayaquil.

"I was in love with Ester, but she lived in Machala. On weekends I used to take the night boat down to see her. About two weeks before we got married I went down to Machala one Friday night. Well, you know the boat and how you sleep in hammocks on the deck. I woke up in Machala and my wallet was gone - all my money, about fifteen dollars, and all my papers. I had just quit my job with the electrical company because they hadn't paid me in two months. I figured on finding a job in Machala near Ester, but I couldn't without my papers.

"'I've lost everything,' I told Ester, and without a word she gave me ten dollars. That was when I decided to marry her, because of the nice way she loaned me the money. Monday we went back to Guayaquil, and that same week the company paid me my back wages, almost a hundred dollars. I decided to go into business and invest my money; I had this friend with a motor canoe and we went down the coast to Peru, as contrabandistas, and bought matches, but the sea was very rough. I got back with ninety dollars' worth of wet matches, everything completely ruined. This was the week after I was married and I didn't have the money to feed my wife. I had bought some dresses and gifts for ester in Peru, and we sold them to eat.

"'I've got to go to Quevedo and get a job in the bananas,' I told her. In Ecuador that is what you do as a final act of desperation when you can't find work in the city; you take up a machete and go back and clean the weeds in the banana plantings. Oh, how I cried. She wanted to come with me, but I said no.

"There was no work in Quevedo, or in Daule. I joined up with a gang of men all looking for work. We heard about a hacienda back near Machala where they paid thirty sucres a day, a dollar and a half a day, for clearing trees to plant pasture. This was very good wages, almost unbelievable, and we went down in a group to work on this new hacienda. It was all a lie. The owner didn't pay by the day but by the number of tree trunks you could hack out of the ground with an iron bar. He paid thirty sucres for seventy trees, and if you really worked hard in a day you could maybe hack out seven. He gave us each a pound of rice a day, a platano, and a package of brown sugar. We lived out under the trees like animals. After the first day my hands were so bloody that I had to sleep with my hands wrapped in banana skins. By the sixth day I couldn't hold the bar; the skin had split here between my thumb and first finger, my hands were getting infected, and my wrists had swollen up to twice their size.

"I was sitting on the ground one morning with my hands over my eyes. My God, I was twenty years old, young, strong, anxious to work, and look where I was ending up. I was crying, and the tears were running down my hands and into my wounds; it really burned. I was thinking of my destiny, of Ester waiting for me in Guayaquil without money.

"The owner of the hacienda rode up on a great white horse and stopped before me. 'What's wrong, countryman?' he asked me.

"I put my hands out and showed him the blood; I showed him my wrists. I got up; my clothes were in rags, torn and filthy from working in that damned jungle. 'I'm thinking of my destiny,' I told him. 'I'm thinking of my life and of how it's going to be. The truth is I can't hold the bar any more; my fingers won't close on the bar any more.' I looked into his face and he had turned pale; his lips were trembling. 'Look at my friends, look at those poor men, cooking underneath a tree. Wouldn't we all be better off dead?'

"I talked without looking at him, and then I looked at him again and he was staring at my hands, and the tears were pouring down his cheeks.

"'I swear before the Holy Virgin,' he cried, 'I haven't got any money nor will I have any before Saturday. I am doing all this with the bank.' He was crying like a child. He gave me ten sucres, that's what I earned that week, and he rode away weeping, and I didn't even say good-by but began to walk toward Guayaquil. My clothes were in rags, the shoes rotting off my feet. It took me six days, I walked six days and begged food along the road to stay alive.

"I was twenty years old, married less than a month, and I was dying. I knew that I was dying. I can't remember those days very well now, just a blackness in my mind with everything running together like a great madness, a delirium of fear and hopelessness.

"Now I was walking in the street in Guayaquil, and I met my aunt. This was before I went home to Ester. I think I did not plan to go home to Ester. My aunt saw me walking in the street and she began to scream and weep. 'Oh, my God, my God, what's happened to you?' She took me by the hand and led me to her house and fed me, and I slept. She was also very poor, but she bought me clothes and took me to another aunt who wept when she saw me and bought me shoes.

"I went back and stayed some days with Ester. I looked again for work in Guayaquil and then hopped on a banana truck and went north again. I had some luck; I met a man near Daule who had a savanna of mangoes. 'Look,' he said. 'I can't find anyone to pick my mangoes. I haven't any money, but if you want to pick mangoes I;ll give you half the money and also the trucking into Guayaquil.'

"I picked mangoes for ten days in his savanna, first fifty boxes for him and then forty-seven boxes for me. He was an honest man, and he paid the trucking. I sold my share for sixteen hundred sucres in Guayaquil. Ay, but I was a king. I took the money home to Ester and piled it in front of her on the bed, a mountain of money. 'Look,' I said, 'over fifty dollars; our troubles are over.'

"'Ramón,' Ester said, 'my grandmother is dying; my parents can't afford to take care of her any more, and I want her to come and stay with us.'

"'Yes,' I said. 'This is something that you must do.'

"We hired a taxi and brought the grandmother to our room. She stayed with us for six weeks. Every day we paid five sucres for a taxi to take her to the clinic and another five sucres to bring her back. And we bought all the medicine that the doctor wrote down on a piece of paper. One of us was with her always; we cooked very special things for her. We even bought meat.

"And you know, that old dying woman never liked me. She kept telling Ester that she had married badly, that she had married beneath her. But I think what is important is how you feel about someone, not how they feel about you, don't you think that's true? I had a great deal of respect for that old woman; she died with a great deal of dignity.

"Finally, when the money was almost gone we took the grandmother back to Rio Verde to die in the country where she had lived; that's how I came back to Rio Verde by accident, but I'm not sorry, because when I walked in the streets of Guayaquil, I walked in a sort of terror of life. Well, that's the story of my sadness. I've never told you before, but I think now that I want you to know everything, even the worst things that have happened to me. And I want to understand your sadness too. But it is a great problem to understand this sadness that arrives in the night without a reason."

Sunday, April 18, 2010

The Last Whale

The award-winning documentary, The Cove, is a quite cleverly made peek at the secretive harvest in Japan of dolphins for their meat - a practice that has been carried out for centuries but is quite hard for Americans to watch, which explains most of the film's success. Of course, the large-scale slaughter of any land animal is just as unpleasant to witness, and documentaries of abattoirs, like Georges Franju's Les Sang des Bêtes (1949) are powerful examples of how completely removed we are from the consequences of our appetites. Roger Ebert called The Cove "heartbreaking."(1)

But Americans have what might be called a cultural taboo regarding the eating of certain animals like horses or dogs. And the '60s television series, Flipper, effectively domesticated the dolphin in people's minds almost into a domesticated pet. So the thought of eating an animal that has a name, just like Flicka or Lassie, is very disturbing to Americans.

The Cove uses narrative effects that are not usually found in documentaries, effects formerly reserved for thrillers and suspense films, to give the imagery - which is gory enough without all the flummery - a dramatic punch. The film explains that great care had to be taken to obtain the footage of the dolphin slaughter, that special cameras were used and the resulting "forbidden footage" smuggled out of the country. But The Cove raises a question that does not do the film or its makers much credit.

Why is the dolphin culling carried out in a "secret" cove? To hide it from the Japanese or from prying movie cameras from Europe and America? It is not illegal and, we are told, a time-honored tradition in Japan. Are the Japanese themselves getting squeamish about eating dolphin meat? Because the harvesting of whales for their meat has become so contentious, and therefore highly expensive, the consumption of dolphin meat has been advanced as a replacement in Japanese diets, rather as Alaska Pollock is used as imitation crab meat. Except for the health risk presented by its high mercury content, dolphin meat is lean and tastes, its consumers inform us, like venison or beef.

When a Japanese film distribution company announced their intention to release The Cove in Japan, a group of - you guessed it - right-wing protesters gathered outside the building in which the distributor's office was located. They were protesting against the release of the film because they viewed it as an insult to the Japanese people and Japanese culture. One protester brandished a can labelled whale meat for the reporters' camera, and Caucasian reporters were accosted and ordered by police to leave the area, supposedly to avoid possible violence. When the distribution company sent representatives outside to meet with the protesters, they were shouted at by the crowd for their lack of national loyalty.

Why shouldn't the Japanese eat dolphin meat, or whale meat for that matter, since they eat just about everything else that swims? A ban was recently sought by the US and the EU on Atlantic bluefin tuna fishing, but the Japanese fought the ban, and won, because the fish is a sushi mainstay. When a sushi house in California was found to be serving whale meat to customers last month, it was swiftly shut down. I have not the slightest doubt that, given their propensity for culinary adventurism, when the last whale is killed somewhere in the world's oceans, its meat will turn up on some connoisseur's plate in Japan, its price placed at an absolute premium because it would be the last time it would be tasted - ever.

During the 2002 FIFA World Cup in Seoul, Korean culinary enthusiasts attempted - unsuccessfully - to introduce other cultures who were present at the tournament to the Korean custom of eating dog meat. It was the cause of some cultural embarrassment, but did not turn any Koreans away from eating canines.(2) What if I were to go to South Korea and make a documentary called The Kennel?

(1) Ebert's review.
(2) Despite being illegal since 1984, the use of dog meat for food is still popular. "In March 2009, an article in the Korea Times reported that some 9,000 tons are being served at about 6,500 establishments across the country annually." (Wikipedia)

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Paul in Athens

In an interview with José Bergamín I read long ago, he asked, "If the Greeks had met the Prophets, what would they have had to exchange, other than insults?" We do not have an account of such a meeting from the Greek perspective, but we have, in The Acts of the Apostles, an account of Paul's visit to Athens, which took place some time around 50 A.D. Only one thing is clear from the account: neither thought much of the other.

And they that conducted Paul brought him unto Athens. . . . Now while Paul waited for them at Athens, his spirit was stirred in him, when he saw the city wholly given to idolatry. therefore disputed he in the synagogue with the Jews, and with the devout persons, and in the market daily with them that met with him. Then certain philosophers of the Epicureans, and of the Stoicks, encountered him. And some said, What will this babbler say? other some He seemeth to be a setter forth of strange gods: because he preached unto them Jesus, and the resurrection. And they took him, and brought him unto Areopagus, saying, May we know what this new doctrine, whereof thou speakest, is? For thou bringest certain strange things to our ears: we would know therefore what these things mean. (For all the Athenians and strangers which were there spent their time in nothing else, but either to tell, or to hear some new thing.) Then Paul stood in the midst of Mars' hill, and said, Ye men of Athens, I perceive that in all things ye are too superstitious. For as I passed by, and beheld your devotions, I found an altar with this inscription, TO THE UNKNOWN GOD. Whom therefore ye ignorantly worship, him declare I unto you. . . . And when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked: and others said, We will hear thee again of this matter. So Paul departed from among them. (ACTS 17-15-33)

Monday, April 12, 2010

Virtue and Virtuosity

Of all the "gentlemanly" sports (cricket, polo, tennis), the one that is the most objectionably snobbish must certainly be golf. It costs more for an individual to play a round of golf than probably any other sporting activity short of car racing. It lays waste enormous stretches of land that are made useless for any other purpose. Until very recently, the sport was the private preserve of white upper class males who have since reluctantly permitted non-Whites and women to play. It is a spectator sport for fellow golfers. Otherwise it is about as spectacular as watching grass die.

The supposedly unwanted (not to mention unwarranted) attention that Tiger Woods is getting over his erratic* behavior off the green, which his entrepreneurial girlfriends have made public, is the best thing to happen to golf since rain, and will only make Woods even richer than Croesus.

I dislike sports for the very same reason why most people seem to love it so much: its facility. It is all right there on the surface. It has no depths. It cannot seem - it merely is. It does not tell a story. It has nothing to say. And it is exactly such mindlessness that the mass audience desires most. "Make me forget myself," they cry out, "and I will reward you so far beyond your merit that it will make a mockery of all reward and of all merit.

Occasionally people need to be reminded that Tiger Woods is extravagantly wealthy because he can knock a little white ball over great distances with a crooked metal or wooden rod into a little hole in fewer knocks than anyone else in the world. That is his sole contribution to humanity. It is, in fact, too easy to dislike golf. But just because it is too easy to do, like saying that George W. Bush is stupid, it does not make it inaccurate or even unnecessary.

*Woods was behaving erratically, for a superstar, not when he fooled around but when he committed himself to one woman.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

The Swimmer part three

There is about the swimmer a sentimentality, or self-pity, which disgusts him even as he finds himself thinking that surely he ought to have earned a reprieve. All that close attentiveness to the sea over the years, to this ever-yielding, stony-hearted medium which has him in it embrace - it cannot have been wasted. there must be something he has learned from it, some subliminal message from his ancestral home, instructions for survival. The idea is fatuous but persistent.

He is beginning to tire. Not of staying afloat, since this is effortless, but of trudging the water to stand higher, of spinning to keep every horizon constantly in view. More and more he allows his face to hang in the water. Through the glass panel of his mask his vision lengthens past the rope's end twenty feet below his ankle. He no longer sees the prismatic chips of phytoplankton, the blazing motes and jellies as they drift past his face. Now he believes he glimpses shapes far beneath, not predators but bulks of deeper purple as though . . .Why not? This archipelago is full of hidden reefs, its contorted seabed thrusts up unexpected pinnacles to within feet of the surface in the middle of nowhere. There could easily be a coralline peak, a ledge, even a plateau over in that direction away from the sun where the water does seem to deepen its color as if a little farther down there lay a solidity. . . .

Away from the sun? The swimmer jerks his head up, gasping and squinting painfully at the blazing disc overhead Is it not past its zenith now? Has it not begun to sink? May this illusion of a darker bulk be nothing but his own shadow, cast as he has so often seen it in late afternoon? No; ridiculous. It is not late afternoon, merely maybe a few minutes past midday. He looks downward again and in a while his eyes adjust from the dazzle and once more he thinks he can pick out an area of deeper tone. So convinced is he that he begins swimming toward it, slowly, so as not to give the impression of having finally picked a direction or of expecting very much. Now and again he glances around to tell his invisible boat where he is going. It seems to him that all will be well if it turns out to be a lonely reef he is heading for. However small, it will convert the ocean at that point into a shallow sea. He would then, as if by magic, be in his depth in twenty feet of water. Or at least, hovering as if in air above the unknown but familiar city, he would be close enough to feel its dwellers might intercede for him, present his case for survival as some court of marine jurisprudence. . . . As an idea it is better than nothing; even a glimpse of a reef would sustain him. Besides, reefs were mysterious and deceptive places whose greater being remained hidden. If one kept one's eyes on a reef under water and followed its avenues, it had a habit of turning into a shore. The swimmer had experienced it a thousand times. Might not this one, despite an apparently yawning horizon, somehow work the same friendly trick?

-Seven-Tenths: Sea and Its Thresholds, James Hamilton-Paterson

Friday, April 9, 2010

The Once and Future Queen

A report on Imelda Marcos was aired on the BBC on March 26 which honestly assessed her continuing role, at the age of 80, in the politics of her husband Ferdinand's far northern Philippine province of Ilocos Norte. Though she showed plenty of public contrition at the death of Ferdinand's nemesis, Cory Aquino, from cancer last year, she has since returned to her old unapologetic self.

She is running, if that is the word, for a seat in the lower Philippine Congress, vacated by her son, Ferdinand Jr., who is running for an upper house Senate seat. Typical of such provincial politics, one family has been in power for forty years. Imelda's daughter is running for governor of the province only because Imelda was not as prodigious a baby-maker as her poor Filipina sisters.

When they filmed the body of Ferdinand, now lying, like Lenin, Mao, and Ho Chih Minh, in an air-tight, climate-controlled glass case, Imelda could not restrain herself from planting a gooey kiss on the glass next to the dead man's face. It was the closest she will get, this side of perdition, to her martyred spouse. She then muttered, "this is one of our major injustices," leaving it to the observer to guess exactly what the "injustice" was. The glass case? Marcos himself? His death from multiple organ failure in Hawaii?

But Imelda's presence on the political scene proves how power is passed around by the ruling elite like a private toy, and how a powerful family may endure public disgrace for a short time* but are never very far from a position of power.

In the BBC report, a Filipino trike driver was asked for his thoughts on the Marcos's chances in the May election. With a scarcely concealed smirk, he said that it might be "good for the people" if all of them won. Of course, he did not say whom he was for, even if he knows too well the election is practically an unnecessary formality. Like everything else in his life, everything seems to have been decided upon before he was born, and long before he even heard of such things as elections or having a vote or more arcane conceptions like freedom or free will.

Some things never change, and more than twenty-three years after the People Power genie was let out of his bottle, and just as quickly put back in, some Filipinos might have been surprised by the prevailing tone of the piece, which was derisive - the view that most foreign observers take of a system that only serves a tiny minority. Before coming to the Philippines, nearly everyone would respond to the question: who committed plunder? with pirates. After coming here, they would have to include former president Joseph Estrada, who was convicted of that very charge, which is a capital offense, and summarily pardoned by the sitting president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. Apparently unperturbed by his conviction, Joseph Estrada is running for president again, and is currently running third in the polls.

*Andal Ampatuan, the patriarch and governor of Maguindanao province, was recently cleared of charges of "rebellion" brought by the Philippine government for his involvement in the November massacre of 57 men, women, and journalists.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Effortlessly Green

It was amusing to see earth-friendly Filipino celebs on national TV encouraging residents of Manila, who suffered weeks of rolling blackouts earlier in March, to voluntarily turn off their lights for one hour in observance of Earth Hour on March 27.

I think they could have sold the idea better by suggesting that, if Filipinos were to go without power anyway, they might just as well do it for a worthy cause. It was an act of faith for them to expect the power to be there when they switched their lights on again.

Not surprisingly, then, the Philippines became the world nation with the most cities, towns, and municipalities participating in the event, for the second year running. But it would have been far braver of Filipinos to simply tell the organizers of the event, "led by WWF, the Department of Energy, Green Army Network Foundation and SWITCH Movement," to mind their own business.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Marrakech 1938

After a tubercular hemorrhage put him in hospital for much of the Spring and Summer of 1938, George Orwell travelled to Morocco to convalesce. The following year, he wrote the beautiful essay, "Marrakech," which was first published in the Christmas issue of New Writing. He was no stranger to strange places and cultures, and in his characteristic fashion he wrote about what he saw in Morocco - the dirt, poverty, and the injustice of a people whose country was being run by someone else.

One of the most interesting things that he saw was the living conditions of Sephardic Jews who were subject to cultural restrictions imposed on them for centuries in North Africa by Muslim rule. I wonder how a Palestinian living in Israel would react to Orwell's description. In the last sentence of the following passage from "Marrakech," Orwell seems to foretell the fate that European Jews were to meet only a few years later.

When you go through the Jewish quarters you gather some idea of what the medieval ghettoes were probably like. Under their Moorish rulers the Jews were only allowed to own land in certain restricted areas, and after centuries of this kind of treatment they have ceased to bother about overcrowding. Many of the streets are a good deal less than six feet wide, the houses are completely windowless, and sore-eyed children cluster everywhere in unbelievable numbers, like clouds of flies. Down the centre of the street there is generally running a little river of urine.

In the bazaar huge families of Jews, all dressed in the long black robe and little black skull-cap, are working in dark fly-infested booths that look like caves. A carpenter sits cross-legged at a prehistoric lathe, turning chair-legs at lightning speed. He works the lathe with a bow in his right hand and guides the chisel with his left foot, and thanks to a lifetime of sitting in this position his left leg is warped out of shape. At his side his grandson, aged six, is already starting on the simpler parts of the job.

I was just passing the coppersmiths' booths when somebody noticed that I was lighting a cigarette. Instantly, from the dark holes all round, there was a frenzied rush of Jews, many of them old grandfathers with flowing grey beards, all clamouring for a cigarette. Even a blind man somewhere at the back of one of the booths heard a rumour of cigarettes and came crawling out, groping in the air with his hand. In about a minute I had used up the whole packet. None of these people, I suppose, works less than twelve hours a day, and every one of them looks on a cigarette as a more or less impossible luxury.

As the Jews live in self-contained communities they follow the same trades as the Arabs, except for agriculture. Fruit-sellers, potters, silversmiths, blacksmiths, butchers, leather-workers, tailors, water-carriers, beggars, porters--whichever way you look you see nothing but Jews. As a matter of fact there are thirteen thousand of them, all living in the space of a few acres. A good job Hitler isn't here. Perhaps he is on his way, however. You hear the usual dark rumours about the Jews, not only from the Arabs but from the poorer Europeans.

"Yes, MON VIEUX, they took my job away from me and gave it to a Jew. The Jews! They're the real rulers of this country, you know. They've got all the money. They control the banks, finance--everything."

"But," I said, "isn't it a fact that the average Jew is a labourer working for about a penny an hour?"

"Ah, that's only for show! They're all money-lenders really. They're cunning, the Jews."

In just the same way, a couple of hundred years ago, poor old women used to be burned for witchcraft when they could not even work enough magic to get themselves a square meal.