Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Candles and Fireworks: Christmas in Bogota


Día de las Velitas (Day of the Little Candles) is one of Colombia's most observed traditional holidays. It is celebrated on December 7, on the eve of the Immaculate Conception, which is a public holiday. I had never heard of this celebration before coming to Colombia. Apparently it is more Colombian than strictly Catholic. Traditionally this would be the day that the city would turn on its Christmas lights in the parks and on some of the city's main thoroughfares. This year, however, the city lit up on Friday 26 November. The current mayor has come under a lot of fire for botched public works and suspicious contracting. I guess he wanted some pretty lights to distract the people's attention.


On December 7 people put candles and paper lanterns on their windows, balconies, porches, sidewalks, streets, parks and squares, in short, everywhere they can be seen, in honor of the Virgin Mary and the Immaculate Conception.


Visiting the city's parks to see the lights has become a traditional Christmas pastime here. There is an annual competition between neighbourhoods for which one has the best lights display. Taking trips to the different parts of town to see the lights has become a regular family outing. Some popular parks, like El Virrey, get so crowded that it is a complete mob scene.


As well as lights, people will set up elaborate nativity scenes (pesebres), with complete landscapes that will include the town on Bethlehem, fields, real rivers, mountains, lights, moving pieces We used to think the mechanical display in Ogilvy's window in downtown Montreal was special; that was nothing compared to the work and detail of some of these nativity scenes!


Even though José Miguel was rabidly antireligious, he still replicated the Christmas traditions as they brought back fond memories of his childhood. One of the former traditions was to send up hot air balloons made of paper, that were powered by a candle suspended below the mouth of the balloon. Not surprisingly these used to fall onto people's houses and cause a lot of fires, and the municipal government eventually outlawed them. Still, during my early years here I remember one Christmas that we sent up a paper hot air balloon from the park in Sta. Barbara. It was truly beautiful to see the glowing balloon float silently off into the night. I hope it didn't land on someone's house.


Another thing that the city outlawed was fireworks in private hands. Every year around Christmas, little kiosks would pop up all over town selling fireworks… and every night on the news we would get the latest updates on how many children (and adults) had their fingers blown off or lost eyes. The city finally said enough is enough and banned private fireworks. Now it puts on professional fireworks displays that are much better than the cheap little fireworks that people could afford to buy. Still, it has been hard to break the habit. When someone has grown up with a tradition that has positive associations for them, they want to repeat it with their children, even if it means reckless endangerment. Still, nowadays you don't hear as many illegal fireworks being set off as you used to. People have come around to the idea that they are dangerous to handle, expensive, and the city puts on far better shows.


Tonight there will be a big fireworks display in Parque Simon Bolivar. I have a front row seat from my living room window. The city hires professional international pyrotechnics experts. What the Bogota version may lack in artistic interpretation (say, compared with the Montreal International Fireworks Competition), it makes up for with exuberance. Still, the city puts on a show that is not too shabby at all.

7 December: Let the Festivities Begin!

Friday, December 3, 2010

Hay Festival Picks - Cartagena 2011

The Hay Festival is coming up January 27 to 30, 2011 in Cartagena, Colombia. Here are my festival picks.

This year's festival does not have the marquee fiction writers seen in previous years, but it does have an intriguing selection of journalists.

My festival picks:

Thursday 27 January

12:30 - 13:30, ADOLFO MEJÍA THEATRE
Rubén Blades in conversation with Roberto Pombo
This great star of Latin music is also an activist, a composer, actor and a lawyer; to all of this, we have to add his experience as Panama’s Minister of Tourism for 5 years. Rubén
Blades, the inventor of “intellectual salsa”, so-called because of its socially involved lyrics, never rests; he has just finished his Todos Vuelven tour, he has been filming a movie in Mexico and has recently won his ninth Latin Grammy. Today, he will talk to Roberto Pombo about musical innovation, social commitment and about how he combines music with his other projects.

15:30 - 16:30, CASA MAPFRE
Talking about Jane Austen in Baghdad
Bee Rowlatt
Bee Rowlatt, a reporter for the BBC World Service, looked for Iraqis who spoke English in order to find out about life in a Baghdad destroyed by war. That was when she found May Witwit, an English literature teacher who helped her students forget about bullets and bombs with stories about Jane Austen. Communicating by email, they became close friends despite differences in age, religion and culture. This correspondence, which was made into a book, provides a fascinating portrait of Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein, and also describes an ingenious plan for May to escape from Baghdad, bringing her safely back to the United Kingdom.

19:30 - 20:30, CASA MAPFRE
The fascination of conspiracy theories
David Aaronovitch
The respected journalist and Times columnist David Aaronovitch, through his latest book,
Voodoo Histories: The Role of the Conspiracy Theory in Shaping Modern History, introduces us to the world of conspiracy theories and their social role. The cases he analyses are fascinating, ranging from the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the death of Marilyn Monroe and the assassination of President Kennedy, to Princess Diana’s fatal accident and the notion of US involvement in the attack on the twin towers. Today, the author will talk to us about why conspiracy theories arise and why they are so appealing to us.

21:00, PLAZA DE LA ADUANA
Buena Vista Social Club concert
The legendary Havana orchestra offers us a much-awaited concert, spreading joy and
Cuban rhythm with every note.


Friday 28 January

12:30 - 13:30, ADOLFO MEJÍA THEATRE
Philip Glass in conversation with Peter Florence
Philip Glass’s work is some of the must outstanding music written in the second half of the 20th century. This renowned composer and musician, linked to the minimalist and postminimalist tradition, has composed for the soundtracks of films such as Koyaanisqatsi, The Hours and Notes on a Scandal, creating operas and orchestral versions of albums such as David Bowie’s Heroes. He will talk to Peter Florence about experimental, avant-garde music for all.

15:30 - 16:30, SANTA CLARA ROOM (Hotel Sofitel)
Michelle Paver in conversation with Peter Florence
The children’s writer Michelle Paver was recently awarded the Guardian Children's Fiction Prize for her series Chronicles of Ancient Darkness. These chronicles came about through Paver’s passion for animals, anthropology and history; today she will talk about this with Peter Florence and about how her trips to Norway, Lapland, Iceland and the Carpathians have been important sources of inspiration.

19:30, ADOLFO MEJÍA THEATRE
Philip Glass, piano recital
The US musician Philip Glass is a famous composer of classical and minimalist music. He has composed more than twenty operas and eight symphonies, as well as piano, violin and saxophone concertos. Tonight he will delight us with a piano concerto.


Saturday 29 January

10:30 - 11:30, SANTA CLARA ROOM (Hotel Sofitel)
Joumana Haddad in conversation with Juan David Correa
The writer Joumana Haddad is one of the Middle East’s most multi-talented authors. As well as being a poet, translator and journalist, she is one of the organisers of the IPAF literary awards (the Arabic Booker), she is literary editor of the An Nahar journal and editor of the Arabic magazine Jasad, which specialises in literature and bodily arts. Her book I Killed Scheherazade, which has now been translated into six languages, has been described by Mario Vargas Llosa as “a very courageous and illuminating book about women in the Arab world. It opens our eyes, destroys our prejudices and is also very entertaining.”

15:30 - 16:30, SANTA CLARA ROOM (Hotel Sofitel)
Between Communism and Capitalism: Illusions of a happy world
Gary Shteyngart and Ingo Schulze with David Aaronovitch
The European wars of the 20th century were fought between two irreconcilable ways of understanding the common good; now, at the dawn of a new century, this common good continues to be an unfulfilled promise. Talking about this will be: Gary Shteyngart, author of Absurdistan and selected in 2009 by the New Yorker as one of the most outstanding writers under 40; and Ingo Schulze, the German writer whose first novel, 33 Moments of Happiness, won his country’s two most prestigious awards and is considered to be the most representative writer of the unified Germany. The discussion is chaired by the British journalist and writer David Aaronovitch.

17:00-18:00, UNIBAC
Luis Pescetti and his guitar
Luis Pescetti
We invite you to enter the world of this multi-talented artist who, as well as publishing many books, composes songs and has just won the Latin Grammy for the best Latin
Children’s Music Album. Writer, composer, singer and showman, Luis Pescetti is at home on the radio, television and the stage, moving and entertaining both adults and children with his fantasy and sense of humour.

19:30 - 20:30, SANTA CLARA ROOM (Hotel Sofitel)
Shashi Tharoor
Shashi Tharoor is a very prolific author, as well as a journalist and human rights activist. He worked at the United Nations between 1978 and 1996, ultimately leading the team in charge of keeping the peace in the former Yugoslavia. He is currently a member of the Indian parliament. He will talk about the challenges faced by India, an emerging world power.



Sunday 30 January

10:30 - 11:30, CFCE – SANTO DOMINGO SQUARE (courtyard)
Gary Shteyngart in conversation with Peter Florence
Shteyngart was selected in 2007 by the literary magazine Granta as one of the best young US novelists. His stories and essays have appeared in prestigious publications like The New Yorker, Granta, Esquire and The New York Times Magazine. Peter Florence, the festival director, will talk to him about his recently published novel, Super Sad True Love Story.

12:30 - 13:30, SANTA CLARA ROOM (Hotel Sofitel)
Humour in writing
Luis Pescetti in conversation with Daniel Samper Pizano
The Argentinean Luis Pescetti is author of many children’s books with a sharp and provocative sense of humour, an activity that he came to through his career as a music therapist and educationalist. In the 1990s, with the backing of Unicef, he designed a number of publications for teachers regarding the educational use of humour and music.
Today he will talk about the role of humour in literature with writer and journalist Daniel Samper, who has written a range of critical, and comical, books.

I am also really looking forward to the British Council Meet the Author sessions, courtesy of going with a friend who is a school administrator. These were wonderfully intimate encounters with the authors, mainly geared toward young people.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Quidam - Cirque du Soleil


Quidam - Cirque du Soleil
Bogotá, 7 November 2010

The narrative is not especially compelling, but then it is just the pretext for the spectacle. “Quidam: a nameless passer-by, a solitary figure lingering on a street corner, a person rushing past. It could be anyone, anybody. Someone coming, going, living in our anonymous society.” He drops his hat, which is picked up by a girl who puts it on and is transported to a magical world were she observes all sorts of strange and impressive performances. Underlying the theme of the anonymity of society, this parallel world is populated with people in white the “hazmat” suits. I can see the symbolic loss of identity, but this costuming choice detracts from the richness that characterizes Cirque's productions. There are other characters in this world too, but they are incidental, straying on stage more than appearing. The narrative that is supposed to hold the production together is a bit anticlimactic.


What the Cirque du Soleil does best is capitalize on human talent, and Quidam is no exception, in that it has some tremendous performances. Best acts: The opening act of the German wheel. It is extraordinary how the performer moves in, through, over, and around the hoop. Statue-La Vision: two performers display incredible strength and flexibility to hold poses that defy gravity and belief. The most fun: The Skipping Ropes. This is a brilliant, fast paced and intricate choreography; no one missed a beat or a step. Just beautiful. The Banquine acrobats/tumblers. The skills, timing, and technique had the audience gasping in amazement.


Cirque takes the technique and the athleticism of gymnastics and transforms these into choreography. It shifts the scale, from that of the individual performer to create an ensemble that is visually richer and technically much more complex than the sum of its parts. In the best scenes, the individual is almost lost and the choreography takes on a life of its own, in which each person is a part of the synchronization and coordination to form a single organic whole, displaying technical proficiency that transcends mere mortal capability. That is Cirque's magic. To take what is mortal and make it superhuman.


This was the first time I had seen the Cirque du Soleil live. Comparing Quidam to footage of some of their other performances, I would have to say that this is one of their lesser shows. Would I go see the Cirque du Soleil again? Yes. Would I go see this show again? No.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

In a Sunburned Country

In a Sunburned CountryIn a Sunburned Country by Bill Bryson

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


Off to a really slow start (but it gets better)



The first 40% of the book is made up of lame non-adventures (he hikes through endless suburbia, is chased by dogs in a park, goes on and an meandering search for drinking establishments), in places that he himself describes as dull, with vain attempts to spice up the non-action with descriptions of all the terribly dangerous things that could kill you in Australia (none of which he encounters). His writing is amusing for the first 20 pages or so but then the oh-so-clever and precious style begins to get tedious. It is all a bit too forced. It would be a better book if he took it down a notch. The parts about Australia were interesting but there was too much Bill Bryon on the subject of Bill Bryson.

Could he possibly have been bored in Australia? Let's hear Bryson's own words:

On Sydney: "The frappuccino heaven that is modern Sydney…" "We set off on foot to the Museum of Sydney, a sleek and stylish new institution, which manages to look interesting and instructive without actually being either."

On Canberra: "Even the lake, which winds a serpentine way between the commercial and parliamentary halves of the city, has a curiously dull, artificial feel." "many people believe the Parliamentary Zone has an empty and unfinished character,… I’ll say. It was like walking around the site of a very large world’s fair that had never quite gotten off the ground."

On Tanuda: I liked Tanunda [wine country] and had a very pleasant evening there, but there was absolutely nothing exceptional or eventful in the experience,

Adelaide: "The real problem with Adelaide these days, I suspect, is that it has just stopped being interesting."

In his defense, Bryson is a superb researcher and editor. He is excellent at culling information from a variety of sources and presenting it in a compelling manner. He did this superbly in the other books of his that I have read, A Short History of Nearly Everything, and The Mother Tongue. This book is no exception; the bibliography attached to In a Sunburned Country is impressive. You can see that he has done his homework.

But even the Australian people are described as being pretty grim: "They don’t have that happiness in their faces anymore. I don’t think anybody does." "They are an extraordinarily self-critical people. You encounter it constantly in newspapers and on television and radio—a nagging conviction that no matter how good things are in Australia, they are bound to be better elsewhere."

Then he hits Melbourne and heads out to explore some of Australia's most impressive natural sites. The book changes, it comes to life. Bryson finds the joy and élan he was missing, and suddenly Australia goes from being a place that you might have been relieved not to have visited, to being somewhere that you are dying to go and see.

He still make judicious and effective use of all kinds of interesting factoids, but they are placed in context and made relevant to his experience, as he appreciates the beauty and wonder of the land, and ponders its complex and challenging history.

Despite the cultural wasteland of the Ned Kelly tribute in Glenrowan, friends Alan and Carmel take him to Powers Lookout, and there we are given our first glimpse of the magnificence of Australia's natural features. From there it just keeps getting better and better.

"What he had for us the next day was a place called Alpine National Park, and in fact it was even better. Covering 2,500 square miles of eastern Victoria, it was lofty, grand, cool, and green. If ever there was a portion of Australia remote from all the clichéd images of red soil and baking sun, this was it."

The Great Barrier Reef: "Well, it was wonderful. No matter how much you read about the special nature of the Barrier Reef nothing really prepares you for the sight of it… I was captivated beyond description."

"Daintree National Park. The road wound up and through a mountainous and intensely beautiful rain forest. We had at last made it into the wet tropics, and I couldn’t have been more pleased."

The Gibson Desert: "Even on a smoothly paved highway, in the comfort of air-conditioning, you are not entirely robbed of the sense of what the explorers must have gone through. The discomforts can’t be fully imagined, but the scale can, and it was awesome."

The uncanny sight of the Devil's Marbles and the mystique of Uluru (Ayer's Rock): "In every other way more arresting than you could ever have supposed. I have discussed this since with many other people, nearly all of whom agreed that they approached Uluru with a kind of fatigue, and were left agog in a way they could not adequately explain."

This is travel writing at its best: Just the right balance between historical, scientific, and contextual information, and the beauty and the wonder of just being open to the experience and letting it unfold. That is what tells the reader that something special is out there and that there is an urgent need to see it before time has taken its toll.

Bryson puts his finger on the crux of the matter and wryly notes, "Perhaps it’s my natural pessimism, but it seems that an awfully large part of travel these days is to see things while you still can." And there is a lot in Australia that is worth seeing.



View all my reviews

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Liberating the Truth from History


How do you tell the story of a country? Tell it as the story of a person. The main character and narrator of Midnight's Children, Saleem Sinia, is born (or at least someone is born, because there is a bit of a muddle) at the stroke of midnight, on August 15, 1947, the day that India gained its independence from British colonial rule. Narrating his own story, Saleem tells his country's story, and that of the other 1,001 children who were born that day, and blessed with special powers because of their special place in history --not that it helped with their survival in many cases, but then nation-building is fraught with risks.

Salman Rushdie, also fortuitously born in 1947, took to heart the classic advice to budding authors: write what you know. The result is beyond history, beyond testimony; it is art. He identifies the truth in the storytelling, or as he puts it: he liberates the truth from history.

The book is tightly interwoven although at times it seems loose and meandering. Saleem's faithful companion Padma speaks for the reader and urges Saleem to get back on track. My favorite aspect of the writing was the sensual quality: it is tremendously atmospheric, and permeated with considerable wry humor. The imagery is rich and resonating. Nothing is gratuitous. Every detail, every description, has either symbolic or historical relevance. This is what sets Salman Rushdie apart from writers who can spin a good yarn and keep the reader engaged, but who have no sense of literary construction, not to mention history.

History is the main theme of the book; personal history, the nation's history, and the need to create one's own history. History has cracks, it comes together and disintegrates, memory is faulty. But overall, history is always invented and it depends on who is doing the telling.

"Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans"
One aspect that several people at book club mentioned as being difficult was the fact that this is the kind of book that must be read while paying close attention; you can't skim through it or else you will miss key information. Often Rushdie will offhandedly toss out a fact, or mention an event, and then 20 pages later (not just one or two pages) it will be revealed that the aforementioned detail was a key turning point in the life of a character or the country.

Rushdie plays freely with the supernatural (ghosts, but are they?), oral storytelling, voices, prophecies, Christian, Muslim, and Hindu religious conventions, melding them into a unified, if surreal, whole. The priests are instructed to tell their Indian Christian converts who might be concerned about whether they will be accepted into Heaven if their skin is darks: Tell them that Jesus is blue as the "Hindu love-god, Krishna, is always depicted with blue skin. Tell them blue; it will be a sort of bridge between the faiths." This is a Solomonic solution rife with absurdity. Upon being told that Jesus is blue, Saleem's nurse Mary Pereira is indignant, "You should write to Holy Father Pope in Rome, he will surely put you straight; but one does not have to be Pope to know that the mens are not ever blue!"

The multiplicity of voices was another aspect that was problematic for some readers. Events unfold simultaneously. We get to hear different voices speaking at the same time, just as Saleem hears the voices of the midnight's children in his head. This is the literary convention that Rushdie uses to express what the main character is experiencing, as well as representing the conflicting forces in the country.

Midnight's Children is a book that is epic heroic, historic, and yet completely human and accessible, because for all its scope and grandeur, it is a story about life, as it unfolds and is told from the perspective of a fictitious narrator who reveals his world as he sees it, with his inconsistencies, frustrations, and memory lapses, but with the honesty of an inhabitant of the world he describes. He is no stranger to this land. And even though the readers of this book may come from widely divergent cultural backgrounds, the underlying humanity of the story is universal.

This is one of the great novels of the 20th century, and the Man Booker Prize committee agrees: in 1993 Salman Rushdie was awarded the Man Booker Prize as the best book selected in the past 25 years. It is also one of my favorite books.

I was fortunate to be able to hear Salman Rushdie speaking in Bogota in February 2009, following his appearance at the Hay Literary Festival in Cartagena. This is an excerpt of my review of Rushdie's conference.

Forthcoming, affable, with a sharp sense of humor, Rushdie spoke about his books, elements from his life that have influenced his writing, and the novel as an expression of popular culture.

Interviewer and Hay Festival Director Peter Florence began the interview by noting that Salman Rushdie has often been compared to Gabriel Garcia Marquez for his use of magical and supernatural elements in his writing. Rushdie acknowledged the similarity in the sense that both he and Garcia Marquez write about characters whose world view is colored by a sense of a world of wonder and magic that surrounds them and that this magic has become part of their everyday existence. "I'll take the comparison," Rushdie said, playing to the crowd. But there the similarity ends, for whereas Garcia is an eminently rural author, Rushdie's works are rooted in the in the hustle and bustle of the cities of India, color by his experience of growing up in Bombay (Mumbai), and nuanced with his experience of living in the cities of London and New York.

His first successful novel, Midnight's Children (1981), tells the story of a boy and other children, who were born on August 15, 1947, the day that India became independent of British colonial rule. The personal stories are interwoven into the fabric of history and, as Rushdie notes, his purpose is to liberate the truth from history. He also wanted to write a book to give voice to the vernacular to the Indian people. Until this point, the only authors who had written about India were British, such as E.M. Forrester's Passage to India, written in an English that was cool, classical, distant, and reserved. Rushdie wanted to capture the feeling of life in India, in all of its hot, vulgar, smelly, noisy, spiritual, surrealist glory. He joked with the audience that Latin America has nothing on India when it comes to squalor and passion.

Rushdie commented that for him the novel must always be something new, something different. Just as the character explores a new concept identity, Rushdie allows himself to explore in the novel form. He stressed that the novel is inherently an irreverent form in which nothing is sacred, and that as an author he has the right to question as he sees fit. It is his voice, his unique voice, he stated, and nobody owns him. He referred to the novel as a vulgar form, meaning of the common people. He commented on the validity of the different expressions of music, film, and popular culture as reflecting the sensibilities of the times. Rushdie noted that people tend to like or dislike his books for exactly the same reason, often citing their cinematographic quality.

I came away from the interview with a newfound respect for Salman Rushdie, an author of creativity, artistic integrity, humor, and gritty sensuality.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Eat, Pray, Love, the movie

Ah the film version of the ultimate chic-lit book. I don't mean to be disparaging here, I loved Gilbert's book because it resonated with me. It addressed my own experience and put into words things that I had been feeling, which is exactly what poetry does. It transcends the particular to become representative of the human experience.

I found the book more emotionally stark and vulnerable. The film version lacked intensity in the soul-searching, to the point that the main character seemed a bit spoilt and self-indulgent. I guess that is mainly because of the lack of inner dialogue in the film. It is too easy to judge someone else's life from the outside. Who knows what is really going on in someone else's relationship?

What I enjoyed most about the film:
The food, wine, and gesturing in Italy. Italy was the country of pervasive, overt carnality. It reinforced the physical reality, mortality, and sensuality of this life.
India: A country of desperate chaos and poverty can also be a sanctuary for spirituality. Richard's transition from abrasive to honest was handled well.
Bali: Its languid balminess reminded me of the Wood Between the Worlds in the Magician's Nephew, the place where you have to go as a transition, but if you stay there you will eventually fall into a stupor.

You know who I would have loved to have seen play Elizabeth Gilbert in the film? Elizabeth Mitchell (Lost, The Santa Clause); she's a close match for Gilbert.

Read the book, saw the movie, bought almond and chocolate ice cream. God? What do I know? Love? Like Gilbert. I'm afraid that when it gets close I won't know enough to fight for it and I'll let it slip away.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

People of the Book

People of the Book
By Geraldine Brooks

People of the Book uses the storytelling device of tracing pieces of forensic evidence (an insect's wing, the book's missing clasps, a wine stain, salt crystals, and a white hair) as the pretence to go back in time and recreate the story of the Sarajevo haggadah, a seder text that is remarkable for its lavish illustrations, which are extremely rare, given the Jewish prohibition against idolatry.

Author Geraldine Brooks's fortes are her ability to weave an engaging story that invents the path that the haggadah might have followed as it changed hands over time, and her handling of the historical context in which each of the characters lived. Brooks creates vivid and engaging history with a fine eye for the details that bring a story to life without weighing it down with over-description.

In contrast, the parallel contemporary story is weak. It explores Hanna's melodramatic relationship with her unsympathetic mother. Her jet-setting lifestyle in which she flits around the globe to drop in on her friends and professional colleagues who are renowned as the best in their respective fields, as she is, natch. And by the way, for an academic who claims to eschew slang, she sure uses a lot of it. A romance based on a brief fling with a Muslim librarian whose actions will destroy Hanna's professional credibility (How's that for the foundation for a relationship?). At least Brooks knows that she is stooping to sheer silliness when she makes reference to Mission Impossible II as she introduces the final section of the book, which deals with the plan to return the haggadah to its rightful place.

This is a really good book, mixed together with a mediocre one.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Fashioning Himself a Hero: Death of Another Salesman

Revolutionary Road
By Richard Yates

The Laurel Players is an amateur theater group with high hopes of establishing a loftier cultural standard in their Connecticut suburb, but their short-lived attempt to put on a play is an utter failure. This sets the tone for the rest of the book, and the author's exploration of the themes of social aspirations, the desire the project oneself, and role-playing to meet or consciously balk social expectations.

Like the Laurel Players, everyone in the story knows that they are merely putting on a performance. They resent the trappings of middleclass life. Frank and April Wheeler get together with friends Shep and Milly Campbell to drink and put on a veneer of sophisticated and jaded ennui as they rail at the failure of the American dream and its lack of "authenticity." So long as they can scoff at society and speak of it with derision, they can remain above it and be untouched by it. But no one really remains untouched or unaffected.

The story is told from Frank's perspective and he is the master of play-acting and self-image. Yates adeptly uses imagery to convey this. One of the prevalent images is that of mirrors. Frank is constantly checking his reflection in the mirror and adjusting his expression so that it reflects what he wants to project. The book also contains extensive descriptions of Frank's clothes and how he feels in them. Apparently, in this case, the clothes DO make the man. Frank literally fashions himself into the image he wants to project, always conscious that his projection in insincere. He feels that his scorn is heroic, that he can see things to which others are blind, he can understand things that are beyond their comprehension. His understanding, however, is limited to the extent to which he can control his world.

The façade of toughness hides the fact that he has a basic need. What Frank seeks most of all, from his father, from his wife, from society, is affirmation of his manhood. April is aware of this and when she suggests her plan make it possible to move to Paris so that he can realize his dream of the artistic, intellectual life he has always claimed to want, she appeals to the logic that means the most to Frank: "It's your very essence that's being stifled here. It's what you are that's being denied and denied and denied in this kind of life… You're the most valuable and wonderful thing in the world. You're a man." He accepts this argument and is buoyed by it, feeling that "Never before had elation welled more powerfully inside him; never had beauty grown more purely out of truth; never in taking his wife had he triumphed more completely over time and space… He had taken command of the universe because he was a man."

Frank's elation, however, is short-lived. Although he had always purported to want to move to France to pursue the dream of the intellectual and cultured life, in fact he is horrified because actually trying to succeed would leave him vulnerable to failure. April unwittingly comes to his rescue again, when it turns out that she is pregnant. Frank now has the excuse he needs not to go ahead with the plan. April is devastated, and the events that unfold as she tries to keep their dream alive spiral into tragedy.

Richard Yates's writing style is rich in images and character contrasts. Revolutionary Road explores a lot of the same themes as Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman: the sham of the middleclass dream, the ordinary man as hero (at least in his own mind), infidelity, entitlement, social convention and morality, rejection of and by family, a lack of affect. The difference is that whereas Willy Loman embraces the American Dream, Frank Wheeler attempts to disavow it, even as he is being sucked into it. Both eventually end up being destroyed by it. This is the sort of future that one could foresee for Willy Loman's sons. In fact the timing would be about perfect, with Death of a Salesman being written in 1947 and Revolutionary Road coming out in 1959.

Even a lot of the imagery that Yates uses is a tactic nod to Miller's original. Both works contain symbolic references to: seeds (DOAS), plants (RR); diamonds (DOAS), golden (RR), the rubber hose (DOAS), the rubber syringe (RR).

For all that is borrows from Miller's masterpiece, Revolutionary Road stands up on its own as an independent piece that is still relevant today. The book's Revolutionary Road leads to the suburbs, and there is no escape.

****

"He's a man"

In a conversation with a couple I know, she is black and he is white, she was telling me that some of her friends had asked her what it is like to have a white man as a partner. She answered them with a shrug and a languid, offhand, "He's a man." Her answer, although blatantly obvious, caught me off guard in the way that it succinctly encapsulated so many clear social expectations, while also being a tactful way of saying MYOB. I guess I was mostly surprised because it would never have occurred to me to describe a guy by saying, "he's a man." I had always thought of those members of the opposite sex as people. Maybe I should start thinking about them as men.

"No revolution, maybe someone somewhere else…"

Sunday, September 26, 2010

El amor, otro damnificado de la violencia

Me da pesar el dolor de Juan Lecompte, esposo de Ingrid Betancourt, a quien la revelación de que su esposa ya no querría volver con él después de su liberación le golpeó muy duro.

Perdió su norte, su amor, su razón por vivir. Mientras que creía que sus mensajes estaban dando fuerzas para animar a su esposa hacia la supervivencia, ella tuvo un giro en su corazón y ya no sentía lo mismo por él. Bajo circunstancias normales, la cosa decente es informar a la pareja que los sentimientos ya no son recíprocos. Pero en este caso la comunicación entre los dos estaba cortada por razones de fuerza mayor.

Me da pesar por él. También da lástima y una sensación de desgusto. Lamento que exhibe públicamente su duelo sobre un asunto netamente personal. Lamento que busca compensación por lo que el corazón de la otra no siente.

Puede ser que Ingrid fue la mas inmamable de todos los secuestrados. Nunca ví a su secuestro como un acto de heroísmo. Se metió en este lío por su propia terquedad (claro que el asunto era mucho más gordo de lo que ella esperaba). Desde su pretensión de buscar compensación al gobierno colombiano, me cae bastante gorda. Pero no la culpo por sus sentimientos. Tiene derecho a su propia intimidad y sus propios sentimientos. Es imposible que una experiencia como el cautiverio no deja huellas en el alma.

Mas bien me sorprendo por las relaciones que se mantuvieron firmes a pesar del tiempo y la separación del secuestro como Alan Jara y Claudia Rugeles.

Juan Carlos Lecompte debería tomar una lección de Jorge Gechem y Fernando Araujo quienes recuperaron su libertad pero no sus amores de antes, y manejaron sus situaciones con dignidad. Entendieron que la vida transcurrió en su ausencia.

El corazón siente lo que siente. No hay caso buscar culpas, y menos compensación.

El amor es otro damnificado de la violencia.

En respuesta a http://byjagheterjulian.blogspot.com/2010_09_22_archive.html

***

28 de Septiembre

Respeto a los últimos comentarios de Ingrid en Univisión, que su matrimonio se acabó porque Lecompte no le demostró suficiente cariño al momento de su liberación: Acaso ella no se acuerda que este momento fue presenciado por millones de personas, una tras otra vez, en la televisión? El contraste entra la forma como ella abrazó a su mamá y cordialmente saludó a su esposo fue impactante. Repito que no la culpo por lo que siente, o no siente. Pero tiene huevo en echar la culpa a Lecompte por su supuesta falta de afecto.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Peace or justice?


On 16 September 2010 the Bogota High Court issued a 26-page ruling in which it considers that the crimes committed by the M-19 guerrillas during the November 1985 occupation of the Supreme Court building constitute crimes against humanity, on the grounds that the occupation was an attack on defenseless civilians. As a crime against humanity, there is no statute of limitations for prosecution.

The M-19 was pardoned in the late 1980s as part of the group's demobilization. It became a left-leaning political party that was influential in Colombian politics, although a number of its high profile members were subsequently threatened or murdered. The party is now effectively defunct, although some of its former members remain active in Colombia's political scene.

The issue at the surface of this recent court ruling is one of justice versus peace. Amnesties and pardons do not serve the interests of justice and preventing impunity, but they do serve to ensure peace, which is sometimes the overriding concern of a society, particularly if those being pardoned have made full confessions of their crimes. In that case the interest of truth will be served, even if justice is not done.

The underlying issue here, and the one that is most disturbing in the current political context, is that of legal security or juridical security, which refers to whether a law or decree that has passed will remain stable or whether it can be overturned. In this case the government had to pass legislation to grant the M-19 guerrilla group pardon or amnesty.

The same debate has been raised concerning the validity and effectiveness of the justice and peace law through which paramilitary leaders have received reduced sentences for committing their crimes, as part of the demobilization process. A similar legal mechanism has been proposed to enable guerrilla groups like the FARC and the ELN to demobilize. How is the government going to encourage these groups to demobilize if there is no guarantee that the deals that the groups make to avoid prosecution or serve reduced sentences will not be upheld in court?

Effectively fighting the illegal armed groups in Colombia requires a carrot and stick approach. The Uribe government was very effective in unrelentingly combating the guerrillas and restoring public security in much of the country. At the same time it offered incentives to rank and file guerrillas to desert and demobilize, and thereby qualify for relocation, education, and aid. It appeared that the Santos government intended to continue to implement this policy.

The court's ruling throws a monkey wrench into the works. Who would be willing to confess crimes and demobilize, knowing that the deal for pardon could be overturned?

The fact that investigations have revealed that a number of the deaths attributed to the M-19 during the occupation of the Supreme Court were actually the result of the military operation to retake control of the courthouse is another issue that also merits further examination.

The Bogota High Court's decision goes against the interests of peace in Colombia, and peace should be the country's prevailing priority. For legal security and for peace in Colombia, the pardon should stand.


Pictures of individuals who went missing during the operation to retake control of the courthouse.

Monday, September 13, 2010

MSO Concert for Haiti

The Thursday before I left Montreal, I went to the outdoor concert that the MSO was hosting as a fund-raiser for Haiti. I arrived early with a book and a snack and was able to stake out an excellent spot on the grass, near the large screen on the right.

I had serious misgiving about going because the evening was threatening rain. A friend called from Ottawa and told me that it was pouring there, but it was a balmy summer night in Montreal; just right for an outdoor concert, although we did get a couple of brief showers during the performance.

Kent Nagano was conducting, Luck Mervil was the MC, and the concert program was:
STRAUSS, R. Don Juan
STRAVINSKI, Firebird featuring Cirque Éloize
ADAMS, Lollapaloosa
GERSHWIN, Summertime; Marie-Josée Lord, soprano
BARBER, Adagio with a narration by Dany Laferrière
LUCK MERVIL, Mézanmi (My Friends)

Although the sound was less than optimal, I loved the Strauss piece. The appeal was as much about the visuals as the music. Cameras were set up in different places on the stage, and the large screen projected a series of shots from different angles. Most of the time the camera focused on conductor Nagano. This was a perspective that I had never seen before at a live concert. It was fascinating to watch Nagano cueing the musicians. Each movement, each gesture was fantastically subtle and intimate; en eyebrow here, a slight nod or inclination of the head there; sweeping movements to encompass the entire orchestra, or single cues to individuals. He embodied the music in the fullest sense of the word. As he stood there the music seems to be emanating from his very being. I was utterly entranced.

Cirque Éloize (which performed in Bogota during this year's Festival de Teatro Iberoamericano), is an acrobatic circus group in the style of Cirque du Soleil. It performed a choreographic interpretation of Stravinski's Firebird. I saw critiques that did not like the performance on the grounds that it did not stick to the narrative of the original ballet. I liked the loose interpretation. The circus techniques, involving trapeze, fabric, and posts on which the performers balanced and spun around, demanded great strength and technical virtuosity, and at times the performing did get in the way of the dance. At the same time the use of these elements enabled the performers to move in ways that are impossible for dancers, allowing them to transcend the gravity to which we mere mortals are subjected. They moved through space and air as if it were a solid medium where they could float without being pulled to the ground. To carry off that illusion takes a lot of skill. The choreography conveyed the themes of vitality, passion, and vulnerability, again very apropos in a performance for Haiti. I thought this was an interesting complement to the MSO's playing.

Lollapaloosa by John Adams is a catchy, rhythmic contemporary piece with which I was not familiar. I thought it would have been great for choreography too.

Haitian-Canadian soprano Marie-Josée Lord sang Summertime by George Gershwin. Her performance was tight and controlled. Each note seemed to build slowly inside before she would let it escape into the air. The effect was one of tension, which I didn't really like in this piece. It was an over the top delivery of a piece that should be more down to earth and folksy. Plus, Summertime is indelibly linking in my mind with my friend Ariel singing in her steamy kitchen. Toward the end of the concert Lord gave an encore with Amazing Grace, delivered in the same tightly controlled operative style. I guess that opera is really just not my thing.

Haitian-Canadian writer Dany Laferrière had just arrived in Port-au-Prince a few days before the earthquake, and he gave a suitably moving account in French of the tragedy, the devastation, and the desperation and vitality of the Haitian people.

Haitian-Canadian actor and singer Luck Mervil performed a couple of upbeat Haitian songs. Again, I saw critiques by people who thought that this was a poor use of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra but I feel that it was fitting for the context, after all this was more than the MSO's season opener, it was an event to raise funds for the rebuilding of Haiti, and what more fitting way than to feature Canadian Haitian personalities in the event and the music of the island?

Overall I really enjoyed the concert and felt that it was well worth having made the trek into town from the suburbs. Afterward I met up with an old friend Paul K. who used to be a classical and tango pianist. It had been years since we had seen each other but he is one of those people that you can pick up where you left off without missing a beat.

I had a wonderful summer in Montreal. Last year I felt estranged from the city. This year I spent more time walking around downtown, reconnecting with old friends and making some new ones, and I felt really good. The city is lovely and I felt welcomed home.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Sumptuous London


Courtauld Gallery courtyard

London was sumptuous. The city has invested a lot of budget and effort into restoring its buildings. The patina of soot that still blanketed the city when I last visited (about 25 years ago) and that had been there since the industrial revolution, has been stripped off to reveal the former Victorian splendour.


Newly cleaned façades.

People keep asking us what we liked best about the city. Matt was most impressed by the city itself. He had expected something vaguely similar to Montreal, with an old city and a slightly dated modern center. What we found was an extensive central area where the overall style dates mainly from Victorian times, and a modern city that is on the cutting edge of contemporary aesthetics. Both convey enormous affluence. Paris is bustling and old but a little run down, New York is vibrant and at the same time it seethes with seediness and nouveau riche superficiality, Montreal is pleasant but let's face it, we are a bunch of peasants from the colony. Bogota is frankly Third World. Outside the British Museum we saw a man sitting on the ground with a couple of bags nearby, typing something on a laptop. From that moment our standing joke became that even the homeless in London have laptops.


The Globe Theatre and the Tate Modern, seen from the top of St. Paul's Cathedral.

William's choice was the Tate Modern. We went twice. His favourite sections were cubism, modernism, and surrealism. He also enjoyed Camden Market and the glimpse of "punk" culture, although to be honest there were more tourists in evidence at the market than punks.


Assyrian temple art at the British Museum.

My highlight in London was the British Museum. I had not gone on my two previous trips to the city, and I was completely blown away by the breadth and depth of the collection. Those empire builders were certainly busy little collectors of historical and cultural artefacts. The temple carvings from Assyria and the Persian city of Nineveh are unequalled. Every room held treasures beyond belief, from the Rosetta Stone that unlocked the key to hieroglyphic writing, to the intricate mechanics and elaborate decoration of early clockwork. The British Museum is huge and even though we went twice, we only saw a few sections.


The Great Hall of the British Museum.

What impressed me most was not the size of the collection, but the quality. The museum displays the best examples of its genre. I can understand why many countries are protesting in an effort to get their national treasures back. While I don't condone keeping world heritage in foreign custody, at the same time I acknowledge that the British Museum has done a service in collecting and conserving artefacts that would otherwise have ended up in the hands of private collectors and lost to the world or, worse yet, melted down and recast in the case of precious metals (the fate of most of the pre-Columbian gold that was shipped to Spain to be transformed into pieces of eight). The underlying debates here refer to ownership, the legality of the acquisition process, care and custody of the items in question, both in the past and the present. Should the treasures be returned to their countries of origin? Who "owns" them? Who has the right to keep them? It is a complex issue. My ideal solution: If the British would be willing to renounce ownership without giving up possession and declare the museum a repository for the cultural heritage of humanity, administered by the United Nations.

Another place that we visited was the British Library. It was my first visit to the library and I was completely overwhelmed by the exhibit of rare books. From the Beowulf manuscript (the oldest known work written in the language considered to be Old English), manuscripts by John Donne and Philip Sidney, the original manuscript of Alice's Adventures Underground (better known by its subsequent title Alice in Wonderland) and Charles Dodgson's diary in which he comments about meeting the charming Liddell girls, manuscripts by Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, and Virginia Woolf (whose house in Tavistock square was not far from our hotel), handwritten lyrics the Beatles' songs Michelle, Yesterday, and Help jotted down on scrap paper and the backs of envelopes, early printings of Shakespeare's plays, and the pièce de resistance: a Gutenberg bible.

We also enjoyed a small exhibit called the Britain at War Experience, which is a look at what life was like in Britain during the Second World War. The museum is interactive and very family friendly. We sat in a bomb shelter and listened to the chatter of "our neighbors" talking about how the war was going and expressing their concerns about the bombings. As an island, ensuring the food supply for the population was an enormous concern for the government and this was reflected in the campaigns urging people to grow as much food as possible in the Victory Gardens and the distribution of recipe books for meatless meals. The boys tried on uniforms from the period. Matt, almost 16, looked pretty credible as a young man in uniform. I could easily picture how boys like him would turn up at the recruiting office and claim to be 18. William was less convincing!


Matt and William dressed for war.

Things we missed because there just wasn't time: Greenwich (I've stood with one foot on each side of the equator; I wanted to visit zero longitude too!) The Hampton Court Palace in Surrey; and Kensington Palace. There just wasn't time for all of these state visits. The rebuilt Globe Theatre: I really wanted to see the theatre but it is not open to the public when there is a performance under way, and we were not able get tickets to a performance either.

Don't go to London without a: One-week Transit Pass. It was really nice to meet up with my friend Sally from book club. She was staying at her family's apartment, around the corner from our hotel. We were able to pop out to the pub a couple of times, which was nice because I would not have gone by myself.

What we saw, in summary:
Picadilly Circus
Westminster Cathedral (Wed, 4 Aug)
Parliament, Big Ben
Imperial Museum of War (Thurs 5 Aug)
The play We Will Rock You at the Dominion Theatre
Tower of London (Fri 6 Aug)
Tower Bridge
Britain at War Experience
Tate Modern Museum
Windsor Castle (Sat 7 Aug)
Victoria and Albert Museum
Harrods Food Court, a museum off food!
Buckingham Palace (Sun 8 Aug)
10 Downing Street (sort of, it is blocked off to the public)
British Museum
British Library
Courtauld Gallery
Camden Market
St. Paul's Cathedral (Mon 9 Aug)
The Monument
The London Bridge Experience
British Museum (again)
Thames River Cruise


Thames River Cruise

Monday, August 2, 2010

Ciudad Perdida

From July 20 to 25 I hiked the trail to the Lost City (Ciudad Perdida) in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. Archeologists refer to this site as Buritaca 200. This is Colombia’s equivalent of Machu Picchu, okay maybe not as big and certainly not as famous, but mainly it remains off the beaten track (literally) because it is more remote (it is a fairly demanding five to six-day roundtrip hike to get there and back) and for many years the region had serious security problems. The situation has improved considerably and now I felt confident that if I were to go on this trip I would be coming back (and not spending the next couple of years of my life in FARC captivity while my family negotiates a ransom). The boys were with their father for the month of July, so this was my opportunity to travel.


Day 1
The chiva bus picked me up at the gas station at Mamatoco, the crossroads of the routes to different areas of the region. As I waited a couple with knapsacks got out of a taxi. I watched them with interest. They were wearing sandals, so I figured that they were heading for Tayrona Park, not Ciudad Perdida, but when the chiva arrived I discovered that they were part of our expedition after all. The nine of us were packed into the two back rows of seats, along with flats of beer and pop, and crates of food. The driver and two guides sat up front. After an hour on the highway heading toward La Guajira, we turned off onto a deeply rutted dirt track. That would explain the muddied shovel I had noticed lashed to the back of the vehicle. Despite the wild pitching of the ride, we did not overturn, and the vehicle only got stuck in the mud once. We arrived in the hamlet of Machete Pelao. As we waited in the sweltering heat, we observed the groups of hikers who had just returned from the trip. They looked exhausted and defeated.

We eyed them nervously as we munched our ham and cheese sandwiches. As we waited for our hike to begin, we made our introductions. The couple who got on the chiva with me at Mamatoco was Maria and Camilo, a pair of teachers, about 26, from international schools in Bogotá. There was Julie, about 35, who was taking a year off from her job in Edmonton, Canada and who had been traveling in Thailand, trekking in Nepal and the Inca Trail in Peru. May, 36, was a second grade teacher and yoga instructor from San Francisco. George, late forties, and his son Felix, 19, were Australian. Felix had been traveling and was teaching English in Bogota. George had met up with him for this trip. Sarah, about 50, was a British woman now living in Belgium. She writes for a magazine and was also an experienced trekker, with trips like Nepal, Katmandu, and Kilimanjaro under her belt. Jimmy, 19, was also from San Francisco. He was a bit of a mess. The previous day he had been walking on the beach and flirting with a woman. He was so caught up in the moment that he failed to notice that he was getting seriously sunburned. Jimmy's burns looked painful and he had large blisters on his feet. He did not look like he was in any condition to be hiking. Our guides were Marrón (José Francisco Aguilar Oliveiro) and William.

Jimmy was adamant that he was going to make the trip, so it was agreed that he would go on one of the mules that carry the supplies. I had been told that it is worth the extra fee to have the mule take my pack, so I had brought a daypack, and put all the non-essentials in the big pack to be carried by the mule. The hike began on a uphill slope. The heat was draining. We did not stop at the swimming hole, mainly because of a language shortcoming as some members of our group did not understand the guide's answer when he told them that they could bathe (bañar en ducha) at the camp, but that there would not be another swimming opportunity that day. It was about a four-hour hike, predominantly uphill, to get to the camp. At one of our rest stops outside a local farmer's shack, an enormous sow came out to greet us and have its belly rubbed. George and the sow hit it off immediately and I sensed a certain connection between them. It was just starting to rain. I was thinking that the heavy red clay would make for difficult walking in a downpour.


The camp was well organized. There was a freestanding open structure, with a roof under which all the hammocks were hung. Another open structure with tables and benches serves as the eating area. And there was a large cooking area. The layout varied, but this would prove to be true of all the camps. We were assigned our hammocks in the section closest to the bathrooms. Sanitary conditions were a bit precarious, but that was to be expected. The kitchen was already bustling as we arrived. The guides are responsible for the cooking and each tour company has its own menu. Dinner that night was fried whole fish, rice, fried plantain disks (patacones), and salad, all washed done with river water treated with chlorine tablets and flavored with instant drink mix, which George promptly dubbed "Harry Potter juice."

After dinner our guide Marrón got out his maps and documents and explained the history of armed violence in Colombia, the rise of the FARC, the drug trade, and how this situation affected the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta in particular. He started with the 1948 assassination of presidential candidate Jorge Eliecer Gaitán, and the bloody violence that ensued between the Liberals and the Conservatives, giving rise to the FARC and causing massive displacement from the Colombian countryside; how the communities were forced to create self-defense groups to protect themselves from the guerrillas because state troops did not have the manpower to control the situation; how these self-defense groups began to operate with the complicity of the military, segueing into what became known as the paramilitaries; how drug trafficking began to spread as a crop that was much more profitable for peasant farmers, and how clashes between the growers and those on the business end of the trade led to further waves of violence; and how the Uribe government cracked down on the narcotic crops and negotiated the demobilization of the paramilitary groups. Marrón did an excellent job of providing a comprehensive overview of the history. He spoke no English. Camilo, María and I would translate at intervals for those not fluent in Spanish.

After story time, I went straight to bed. A hammock can be surprisingly comfortable when you are completely exhausted. Mercifully it did not swing much. The occupant of the hammock next to mine snored loudly for the first couple of hours and then found a more comfortable position.

Day 2
It rained during the night, but the sky had cleared by morning. Most of the groups that were staying in the shelter headed off on a side trip to see the "coca laboratory." I declined. Apparently it has been set up as an educational exhibit on how cocaine is processed. I have done enough illustrated translations on the subject that I did not feel the need to go see. I took advantage of the fact that the camp had cleared out to move my wet clothes to a dry spot in the sun.

At any given camp there were usually around 40 people, four groups. About 90% of the people making this trek were foreigners. This is not really surprising. I would doubt that more than 10% of the people trekking up Mt. Kilimanjaro are Tanzanian (aside from the guides).

When the groups came back we has a breakfast of papaya, pineapple, banana and yogurt. It was good, but not exactly what I would consider a sustaining meal. We set off around 10:00. We were the last group to leave the camp. The hot sun beating down made the going heavy, but it had dried out the paths somewhat. We had two breaks for fruit en route, watermelon and pineapple. At the second break we had a dip in the river. This time no one declined to go in.


On our way we passed a Kogi village used for ceremonial occasions which are held every two or three months. The Kogi don't live in this village; they live on their farms scattered throughout the region.

We arrived at the second night's shelter. This one had a structure that was closed on the sides and open on one side, containing bunk beds. Another structure held hammocks. Several groups were coming down and there were about 50 people in the camp, plus assorted native people and campesinos who wandered through. The hiking groups prepare large amounts of food. Because our group had more women than most groups, we always had leftovers. I noticed that a lot of these other people were receiving plates of hot food so that nothing would go to waste. Lunch was a vegetable stew with white potatoes, yellow potatoes, yucca, carrots, pasta, and some sort of tuber that I could not identify. After lunch the heavens opened up and it poured. It was not boding well for tomorrow. I had a top bunk and the roof was slightly leaky. I solved that by laying a plastic bag on top of my sleeping bag and putting my super absorbent towel on top. Not everyone had brought their own sleeping bag and there was a certain amount of grumbling about the condition and scent of the blankets provided, and there were not enough blankets to go around. I was grateful to have had my sleeping bag with me.

Dinner was stir-fried chicken and vegetables, rice, and salad, plus Harry Potter juice, of course. After dinner Marrón gave us some information about the Kogi people. The Kogi families are dispersed throughout the hills. Sometimes you know that you are near a Kogi farm because you will see banana trees or pigs. Each local region has a leader, the mamo, who attends the cabildo, where political and social matters are decided. The mamo is not the same as the chamán, who is responsible for spiritual matters. The latest census, seven years ago, puts the Kogi population in the Sierra Nevada at 5,700. Now it is estimated to be around 10,000. Fertility is very important to the Kogis and a Kogi woman will normally have 10 to 15 children in her lifetime. About half of the young people choose to emigrate to the cities. Kogi girls are considered to be of marriageable age once they have reached puberty, but they will not marry right away. A young Kogi man who is interested in marrying a Kogi woman must first prove that he cares for her and is able to provide for her by working for the girl's father for two years. Once he has proven himself, then the couple is allowed to marry. The young couple will immediately establish their own household. The Kogi is an agricultural culture and the cultivation of the coca leaf holds special traditional and spiritual importance. The men chew coca all day long, mixing it with a bit of alkaline that is needed to release the active ingredient. The alkaline is derived from seashells, collected at the shore and crushed into a fine powder that every man carries in the poporo that he receives when he comes of age. Periodic trips down from the mountain to the sea, to make offerings, trade agriculture products for salt and fish, and to collect shells, is a traditional part of the culture. The women will work on the farm, and will also spend part of the day harvesting coca leaves, which are placed in a tightly woven mochila pouch worn slung across the body. When the pouch is full of coca leaves, a stone is heated on the fire and placed in the pouch where the heat and weight of the stone will dry and crush the coca leaves.

Day 3
It rained heavily during night, but by morning it was clear again. Breakfast was scrambled eggs with mushrooms, a grilled cheese sandwich, and toast and jam. Marching rations. Jimmy had come this far on the mule, but after this point the track narrows and hugs the mountainside along the river. It is impassable for the mules. It was clear that Jimmy would have to remain at this camp. We felt badly about leaving him, but at least it was not like an Everest expedition, where he would freeze to death and none of the other groups would be able to spare food for him. As we started out it was pleasantly cool and we also had to ford the Buritaca River immediately. This is the deepest crossing on the hike. I was determined not to get my shoes wet. So when it came to fording the river I would diligently take them off and store them in my pack, putting on my water shoes. Some people just ploughed right through the river in their hiking boots. I would have been very uncomfortable hiking for five days in wet boots. Above the crossing there was a cable car traverse set up, for when the river is too deep to ford. At that place the water was chest height on me. Every day we had to cross the river a number of times when the vegetation on one side became too dense to continue, or else we ran up against a waterfall or a sheer rock face.


Despite the relative morning freshness and the chance to cool off in the river, it soon got hotter. As this point we were in automatic marching mode. The group spread out and we hiked at our own pace, knowing that we could rest to catch out breath or drink water when we liked, and that there would be at least one break for fruit at some point. Some people hiked faster than others, but no one lagged behind. We made good time to the next camp. Despite the fact that it had rained every day, this afternoon looked clear. Marrón said that he had been to see the chamán to arrange this. Ahaa. We had a light lunch of ham and cheese sandwiches and Harry Potter juice, and then were ready to make our assault on the summit.


On this leg of the hike you have to ford the river five times but the river is shallow and relatively easy to cross. After the final crossing we started the steep climb up, up, up. There were 1285 steps to the top, but the river washed away about 50 steps on the lower part after a landslide had blocked the river upstream and had to be cleared. Ciudad Perdida is estimated to have been built between 600 and 800 AD, making it older than Machu Picchu. This can be seen in the fact that the construction is much more primitive, using rough hewn stones that contrast with the finely tooled and chiseled work of Incan stonemasonry. Nonetheless the stone that make up the foundation for the structures of the Lost City are deliberately and solidly placed. There has been speculation that the stones were not quarried, but rather were molded from a sort of rock amalgam.


Whereas Machu Picchu looks like it was highly organized, Ciudad Perdida appears more organic, and gives a sense of the mystical with its graceful, curving lines. All of the buildings were round, contrasted with the straight angles and quadrangular layout of the other more famous site. Covering 2.2 square kilometers, Ciudad Perdida is an extensive site. It remoteness also adds to the sense of mystique. Our group of nine was the only one on the site at the time. It is believed to have been a permanent settlement. It was abandoned around 1600 AD as the Tayrona culture was devastated by the diseases that the Spanish brought to the new world. Those who fled into the bush and survived are the Kogi, believed to be the direct descendents of the disappeared Tayrona culture whose once magnificent city fell into ruin.

Above the site the National Police have a post to ensure security. They are discretely tucked away in the mountain above, and at first were not visible in their camouflage togs.

We hiked back down to the camp and had a bathe in the river. This was the only afternoon on the trip that it did not rain heavily. A few drops dampened our clothes but not our spirits as May led us through a series of yoga exercises which felt wonderful after three days of constant exertion. While dinner was being prepared (rice, lentils, a stew made of dried beef, salad; again I was very impressed with the freshness and the variety of the food we ate), Julie taught us a really fun card game called "Shithead" that can be played with incomplete packs of cards, of which there were several lying around. It distracted us from our rumbling stomachs, which in Julie's case was translated into a particular longing for ice cream.

Day 4
After a night on the hard beds we had a relaxed breakfast of cheese and tuna empanadas. I sat down with George, Julie, Sarah, and May to share tips and recommendations for things to do, see, eat, and buy in Colombia.

The day was slightly overcast was we began the return trip. Hiking the path, crossing the river, and climbing up and down the mountainside, sometime in the shelter of the jungle canopy, sometimes out in the open sun, we reached the resting point where we had a snack of bananas. An excellent choice, both to replace the potassium that we lost while sweating buckets, and for those who were suffering from "delicate tummy." Two little Kogi girls were there by the path. They were looking at María and pointing at her St. Joseph medallion. María pointed at the medallion and then pointed at the Kogi girl's bead necklace. The girl nodded and they traded. The other girl then traded her bead necklace for the silver heart that María was wearing as a pendant on one of her hoop earrings. All three of them were thrilled with their trades.

The clouds were getting thicker, and then the heavens opened up and it started to pour. I pulled out my Disney World Mickey Mouse rain cape and draped that over myself to keep my bag dry. I didn't mind getting wet, but I knew that I didn't want to sleep in wet clothes that night, and keep my camera dry was a priority. The path quickly grew slipperier and became hard going as clumps of mud stuck to our shoes. By the time we reached the final river crossing we were soaked to the skin, with or without raincapes. I looked at the swollen river and eyed the cable traverse longingly, but only one person can get across at a time and our guides wanted to move us across as quickly as possible, so since we were already soaked, into the river we went, hiking boots and all... after having been so diligent about keeping my boots dry to that point! The current was now ridiculously strong. As the shortest person in the group, the water was chest high on me. Crossing, slowly and deliberately with the help of the guide William, we each made it across.


From there it was not far to the camp. Once there a showered, hung up my wet clothes to dry as best they could (not very likely considering that it was still raining) and was pleased to see that my clothes inside my bag were still dry, or at least only slightly damp. Lunch was rice, beans, chorizo sausage, and salad. Over dinner Camilo was coaching Felix in some choice phrases to improve his Spanish like, "La Ciudad Perdida es una putería!" Roughly translated: The Lost City is fucking awesome!

Looking at the other groups that we had seen each day, I knew that I would not have wanted to belong to any other group. I absolutely had the BEST group. We were a mixed bunch, but considering our age range and differing backgrounds, our pace and stamina was pretty even. The other groups were predominantly male ca. age 25. Glad I wasn't assigned to one of those packs of alpha wolves. Bet they are glad they didn't get stuck with me too.

Day 5
We were up at 06:00 and ready to make an early start. Today we would have to cover the same two sections that we had hiked on the first two days of our journey. Even with two pairs of dry socks, my boots sloshed as I put them on, but cold and wet soon warmed up to warm and wet, which was at least a bit more comfortable. The sun was burning through the clouds quickly. It was going to be a hot day. I slathered on a good layer of sunscreen and filled my water bottle, adding a chlorine tablet and a packet of Harry Potter juice mix to cover the chlorine taste. I always had water being treated in liter bottle, and then would transfer it to my smaller stainless steel bottle for drinking. Having over a liter of water would prove to be necessary today.

The first part of the walk was on flat terrain through the woods. It was lovely and peaceful. If the whole hike had been like that, it would have been a walk in the park or "like pissing in your hand " as George would say. The path soon got steeper and muddier. That was more like it! The group began to spread out. My boots were actually drying as I went along. When I got to the river crossing I decided to go a bit further upstream and cross on the rocks in order to keep my feet dry. I was bit further behind the group at that point but I wasn't worried because I can make up time while walking. I caught up to Sarah, who was a bit flustered because she had taken a wrong turn and had followed another path along the river before coming to a dead-end and realizing her mistake.


Today we passed a lot of Kogi on the trail; many more than we had seen on any other day. I arrived at the Kogi's ceremonial village. What had been empty on the way up was now teeming with life. The Kogi leaders (mamos) and their families were there for a cabildo. These are only held every two or three months so it was a coup to see them. All of the Kogi keep a distance from the foreigners. The men are fairly unapproachable but the women and children would return greeting and wave. I asked permission and was allowed to take some pictures. Many of the women were busy harvesting coca leaves from the bushes.


Continuing on the trail, it was getting progressively hotter and drier. I caught up with our guide Marrón who had been following behind us, which surprised me because I hadn't seen him pass me on the trail. He, in turn, was worried that he hadn't seen Sarah or me. I explained how I had left the trail to go upriver and that Sarah had made an unintentional detour but that she was back on the trail and following not far behind. Marrón was visibly relieved! I continued and Marrón waited for Sarah.

I arrived at what had been camp number two, hot and tired. I had finished all of the water I was carrying. I filled up my water bottle and began the treatment process again. I had also partly gone over on my ankle and it was a bit sore. George had a bottle of some magic Asian remedy which he applied. It burned like heck at first but did provide some relief. His son Felix was the last to arrive at the camp. Felix had taken a fall and had cut his wrist badly, looking like a failed suicide attempt. He was not bleeding and the cuts were not deep but there were a lot of them and they looked painful. We had our snack of oranges, pineapple, Gol bars (our favorite), and readied ourselves for the final segment of the hike.

The sun was now beating down mercilessly. The section began with a sustained climb. On our way in, we had done this section in the morning; now it was brutal. María was suffering because of her knees. Her blood sugar was also running low. She asked if I had anything sweet and I gave her the Oreo cookies that I had saved from dinner last night. She was relieved to have them. We rested for the same place where we had stopped on the way up and George renewed his relationship with the sow. The feelings between them appear to be mutual, although I don't know how she would get on at his place in Melbourne.

Finally we got to the last river crossing and went for a well-deserved swim. I swear that our combined body temperatures nearly made the water boil. I left my walking stick leaning up against the rocks by the side of the trail. This was where I had picked it up on the way up. From there it was only about half an hour more to the hamlet of Machete Pelao. That cold beer in Machete Pelao was one of the best I have ever tasted.


In Machete Pelao there is an Army post. At the top, above Ciudad Perdida itself, there is also an Army post. I asked our guide if the Army was only present at the start and end of the hike. He said that they have posts all the up the route, but that these are located further back from the trail, where they see us but we don't see them. That gave me something to think about as I considered the number of the times I had dropped my pants to pee in the bushes along the way. So long as I don't see any full moon shots of me on the Internet, we'll just chalk that one up as a treat for the boys who were there for our protection.

More than once during this trip I thought about my friend Julian who spent a year and a half in FARC captivity. I thought about the other people who had been kidnapped and held hostage by the FARC, and the endless forced marches to which they were subjected as they moved from camp to camp in order to stay ahead of the authorities. We were doing this voluntarily, as an adventure, and knowing that we would be back to clean sheets and bathrooms within a few days. Their situation, the uncertainty about when it would end, would be an entirely different experience. No wonder Julian says that he cannot stand being in a hot climate anymore.

It was an extraordinary trip. It is beautiful, authentic, but hugely physically demanding. I don't know if I would do it again. More than a vacation, this trip was an accomplishment. The people undertaking this expedition were by large seasoned travelers, who had already been on treks in places like Nepal and Kilimanjaro. Ciudad Perdida is a world-class trekking destination.

Thinking about going? Take into account the following:

Accessibility: 1/10. The trek is enormously physically demanding, and the sanitary conditions are pretty precarious.

Enjoyment: 8/10. It was not always enjoyable. At least one hour everyday was tough uphill climbing, with a full pack on your back, in extreme heat, while beating off the ravenous tropical insects. The insects continued to be ravenous while resting in the shade or camps. Then there was the disgust factor vis-à-vis the state of the bathrooms and camp showers. Plus everyone, without exception, suffered from some tummy twinges. But after adding up all the unpleasantness, it only came to about seven hours out of 120, or about 6% of the time.

Authenticity: 10/10. The Lost City or Buritaca 200, stands as it did from the time it was abandoned after its inhabitants were decimated in the early 1600s by the diseases carried by the Spanish. The site itself has been restored but not rebuilt. The glimpse at Kogi culture was also fascinating. Very few places in the world offer such an authentic look into the past, including the lives of the Kogi, who tolerate the presence of the trekkers on their trails, as they go about their lives as they have for hundreds of years. As one of the four tribes that descended from the Tayrona and that inhabit the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, the Kogi are responsible for caring for the earth. They fulfill this role with great respect and humility for the beauty and bounty of nature. I felt privileged to have been allowed this glimpse of their universe.

A number of travel agencies in Santa Marta, such as Expotur and Turcol, offer these trips. Expect to pay around Col 450,000 pesos (about US $250) for a five-day trip, which includes transport from Santa Marta to the park and back, food, lodging, guides, and park fees.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Colombia, 200 años

Colombia cumple 200 años. Para celebrar voy mucho más atrás, a la tierra del olvido.
Colombia is celebrating 200 years of independence. My own celebration will take me much farther back in time.

Feliz cumpleaños a mi país adoptivo! Congratulations to my adoptive country!


Monday, July 12, 2010

Adventures with Online Reservation Systems

The Internet has made it easier than ever before to made travel arrangements online and from the comfort of one's own home, or has it?

I booked a trip for my two sons and myself this summer. This should have been an easy and straightforward enough process, but with both the airline and the hotel reservation it was necessary to call the customer service line.

All the different travel search engines indicated that Continental had the best prices for our destinations, but some of the routing was ridiculous, taking longer than 24 hours for a simply transatlantic flight. I went straight to the Continental website and found flights that make reasonable connections at a very good price. Plus by search alternative days I discovered that we would save $500 by leaving on Tuesday instead of Saturday, Sunday, or Monday. One of the flights had only four seats remaining at that price. Perfect. Book it!

Easier said than done. I signed in with my OnePass number and the system recognized me, saving me from having to fill out most of the personal information. As to travelers 2 and 3, my sons, the prompt told me to Select Travelers from the dropdown menu. The dropdown menu gave me the choice of myself (again) or New Traveler. I selected New Traveler and then proceeded to fill out all of the required information. I pressed Buy, and the system responded with the message: "One or more of the new travelers matches profiles that are already registered under your account. Please return to Select Travelers and select these profiles from the dropdown menu." I returned to the Select Traveler section, pressed the dropdown menu, and was again presented with the choice of myself or New Traveler. I tried selecting myself again. The system immediately informed me that I could not book three seats for myself on the same flight (what if I wanted to stretch out?). Again I selected New Traveler and filled out all of the information. I got the same message instructing me to go back and select the corresponding profiles from the dropdown menu.

Realizing at this point, that any further efforts were likely to be futile, I called the customer assistance line and got a nice young man on the line. I explained the difficulty to him. He suggested trying different things, but none of them worked. Because we were not making any headway, he said that he would book the tickets for me and would waive the telephone booking fee ($60/pp) because this appeared to be a system problem. Great, said I. Then he was not able to find the same fares that I held selected. His fares were more expensive. I asked if he could search my OnePass number to see what fares and flights I had reserved. Yes, he could do that. With the OnePass number he was able to find the flights. I had to cancel my transaction. He was then able to reserve the flights for the three of us under my OnePass number (I had to give him all of the boys' information again), and then I was able to go back into the system, enter my OnePass number, look at my reservations, and complete the transaction by paying for it. Total time on the phone with the Continental customer service representative: 1 hour and 20 minutes.


The hotel websites were equally challenging. Each of these websites offers a different selection of hotels, and when they have the same hotels, sometimes the prices are different. I knew approximately what I wanted: a decent hotel in the Bloomsbury section of London, with breakfast included. I was willing to spend a bit more (having saved on the flights) if the hotel warranted the investment. The peer review of customer comments is an invaluable resource. Better than pictures and a hotel description, these candid reviews are far more telling. Some hotels I had been considering I discarded after reading the reviews.

Three people is a difficult number to book. Without fail, if I entered one adult and two children into the search format, the results would indicate that there were no hotels available. Searching for a room for two adults and one child produced some results. All the hotels would available when searching for a room for two adults, no children. Searching the latter option to get a more global idea of what was available and the prices, I came across the Bloomsbury Holiday Inn, which offered some of the best value for its location. The room pictures show two double beds or a double and a single bed. There is no reason why this hotel would not be able to accommodate three people in one room. But the search engine indicated that no rooms were available for our travel dates. I wondered if perhaps they might have room available for some of our dates.

The Holiday Inn website gives the front desk phone number for the hotel. I have Skype minutes, so I called them up and spoke to Gregory, explaining what I needed. Gregory looked up the dates and confirmed that yes indeed, the hotel did have rooms with a double bed and a pullout double hideabed available. I mentioned the good price I had seen online. He offered me the same deal. But for 6 pounds less: a room booked for two adults, one child, including breakfast AND dinner for two, plus children eat for free at the Holiday Inn. Right location, right price: Book it! We did, and Gregory sent me the reservation confirmation right away by email. When I let my friend Sally know that we had booked our hotel, she was very pleased because she had gone out on a tour of the neighborhood and this was one of the hotels that she was going to recommend to us.

Conclusions: The travel search engine services are good for getting an idea of what is available, and relative costs. You need to invest the time and search alternative dates for the best prices for flights. Search online for information, but sometimes you need to talk to a real person to make the booking.

Airlines
When one airline consistently has the best prices, go straight to the airline's website for a better selection of flights (if you want to spend less than 24 hours getting to your destination.)

Print a copy of the flight numbers and the fares you have selected and have this ready when talking to the customer service representative, their system might not come up with the same price that you found. A bit of firm but polite insisting can make all the difference.

Hotels
Again, do the homework. Read the travelers' reviews. People who have been there might have some serious caveats about a hotel that sounded nice in its description. Be forewarned before you book! Conversely, hotels that have positive comments from satisfied customers are a good indication that your stay will be more enjoyable.

Although the search engine websites offer "incredible deals only for booking online," sometimes you will get an even better price when you go right to the source. If you have any special needs, like a room to accommodate three people, you will definitely need to talk to a real person.

Skype minutes to call landlines are a boon when it comes to making long distance calls.

A final note on the rational use of time: I spent a lot of time searching the different hotel websites. In the long run I might have been better off to have booked a more expensive hotel the first day and then spent an extra five or six hours doing translations. It would have worked out about the same in terms of time-cost investment with a guaranteed agreeable payoff.