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On the Bus to My Horizon

August 9, 2010

Waiting for a bus in Pena Blanca

When your bus stops at a village in the Honduran hills and passengers enter and exit at the front, fruit, drink, and food sellers often step into the aisle with their baskets over their heads, shouting “ ‘Fresca, fresca, fresca,” or “pappas, pappas ricas” rapidly. For moments at these stops and between them the bus is like a state fair on wheels, carnival barkers bellowing the opportunities you have to miss if you let them slip off the bus at Ceibita without buying a chicken burrito.  Passengers, in general, seem happy to have their moveable feast and take advantage of the varied and cheap options. The transaction (from what I’ve seen, which is admittedly less than it could be) is economic; a need, want, or hunger is filled in exchange for money. But as in the pure, rational market of economics mythology, sometimes feelings complicate things.

A man of medium height and a stocky build stepped on my bus somewhere roughly an hour southwest of San Pedro Sula. His left arm was in a sling; pinned to the sling were brightly colored cloth bracelets. In his right hand he carried a rack of bracelets, pens, mini-flashlights, and other trinkets. He climbed the stairs slowly and stood at the front of the bus for some time without saying anything, without yelling the titles or usages of his wares.

As the bus pulled away from the stop, he struggled to shout above the roar of the engine and the wind rushing through a bus full of open windows. He was not talking about his trinkets.  I did not catch much, at first, because of the noise and because my Spanish is quite rough even in ideal conditions, but he used the phrase “by the grace of God,” more than once. Honduras is a religious country, I thought, perhaps he is using this, TV-preacher style, to sweeten his sales a little bit (you don’t need a deity to sell Coca Cola, because it is 95 F outside and everyone wants a cold drink anyway; an inch-long, bright pink flashlight on a keychain with a detachable set of tweezers can use all the help it can get).  And he seemed to stick to my thesis for a while, as I heard “Dios,” come up every now and again and as raised his voice and pointed a finger resolutely into the air. The student in the seat next to me was not impressed and continued working on her homework. Most of the rest of the passengers reacted similarly – barely acknowledging him, glancing occasionally, staring out the window, listening because they were trapped and there was nothing else to do.

After a few minutes of shouting and gesticulating, the man did a strange thing. With his good arm, he struggled to pull his shirt up over his large belly. Failing, he asked a woman sitting nearby to lift his shirt for him. She was middle-aged, probably, and had a child with her – not a stranger-disrobing demographic. But she gamely pulled the bottom of his shirt almost up to his nipples. As she did this, the man turned his back to us and showed three clear, pink scars: bullet holes. Still shouting, he pointed to a gash in the back of his head, at a scar on his neck, and then back to the arm in a sling. He was passionate, angry, speaking with a missionary zeal. He had the passengers’ attention now. His shirt stayed high on his chest as he spoke, held up tight above his big belly. I hope he was speaking about social change and cultures of violence and forgiving your fellow human, but I could hear very little of what he said over the roar of the open bus windows. Whatever the subject matter, when he finished, he walked up and down the aisle, making intense eye contact with passengers. Many bought the trinkets and  fiddled with them for a moment, looking up at the man uneasily and back at the goods. The man finished his trip down the aisle and back, stood grandly at the front of the bus, and got off at the next stop.

This was, of course, strange – otherwise I would not be writing about it – or at least strange to me. But then what had I seen on buses just this week? I saw a river rise, rushing through the middle of adobe houses, families screaming and running to save pets, farm animals, and whatever else they could from their homes. Half a road washed into the river while I ate Doritos and took photographs of the chaos. I saw a large, happy tan dog wander confusedly from behind a semi and into the path of a pickup, which slammed into it at around fifty miles per hour, crumbling the dog with a crunch and a yip and driving on. An old, toothless man in a cowboy hat chuckling to himself as he watched the dog die – the rest of the bus interested with an academic dispassion. I saw a young man dressed as a clown, or perhaps dressed as an insane person dressed as a clown, telling baudy jokes to riders for tips – insulting individual passengers, flirting with others – all in a New York Giants Jersey and horror movie face paint, and an ancient, filthy red wig. I saw schoolchildren chat happily in clean uniforms as Bohemian Rhapsody, Spanish Praise music, intensely sexual Reggaeton, American hip-hop, and Kenny Rogers, always Kenny Rogers, played. Buses are full of chaos and weirdness and beauty because they are filled with people and that’s what people look like.

Americans often write vignettes about New York or DC’s subways, the salt and spice of the earth and the crowds and the metaphors one can pull from this sample of humanity. In buses rumbling through Central America, with the windows open, the workers coming home after a long day sweating in the fields, entire families huddled in one seat, and a constant panorama of hills and huts and Texacos, it is the subway with context. When a father gets off, sometimes you get to watch him walk up to his home and hug his children. Riders see friends on the street and wave. Dead dogs, cute girls, traffic jams, a bus too tired to make the hill; riders interact with all of this and, through it, with each other.

When I left Honduras, I did not take the bus. A North American video team drove me through the switchbacks and steep rises, through the pine forests and shaded coffee plantations, to San Pedro Sula. Air conditioning and quiet conversation and pleasant smells added additional comfort to the quickness of the trip (just over an hour instead of the nearly three that it takes on a bus). The team dropped me at San Pedro Sula’s enormous bus station, where I quickly caught a cab to the airport. The driver did not speak to me much, passed me a Spanish language Honduran newspaper, and turned on an English-language radio station. As we turned out of San Pedro Sula toward the airport, the driver excitedly turned the radio up to consciousness-filling blast: Rhinestone Cowboy, by Glenn Campbell had come on. We both sang along, quietly, about the star-spangled rodeo. The song ended, we arrived at the airport, the driver conveniently did not have enough change, and got himself a tip for the memory.

Trainride

July 6, 2010

By Keiko Andress

An overweight Chinese woman with her lacquered black-curls pinned carefully atop her heavily made up face was chatting animatedly in Mandarin to the quiet little man on the bottom bunk across from her and directly below mine. And then a thin, brown, tired-looking woman carrying two bags and a large suitcase stumbled into our train compartment on car five. I offered to help lift her luggage onto the overhead storage shelf but she shook her head, “I will fit it under the bunk; it’s very very heavy (berry berry heh-bee) -two sacks of rice and many cereals.” I immediately recognized her accent as a Filipina accent.

The train hadn’t begun yet and though I had half a dozen books to read, I was beginning to dread the coming 24 long hours from Beijing to Hung Hom, Hong Kong. Happy to find an English-speaker I asked, “Is the rice much cheaper in Beijing?” She said, “Not much. But they have a different kind from the ones in Hong Kong and my employers like it, and they tell me to get it when they send me to Beijing. ”

“You went to Beijing just to get rice?”

“No, no. My employers, they are artists. And they have parents in Beijing who are painters too. So they tell me to work there with their parents too sometimes. And then to get rice.” She showed me the muscles in her arms. She said her nickname was Lot; I can’t remember her real name. Lot settled into the middle bunk across from me. She noticed my incessant cough and offered me some pills from her purse. And then she offered me some of her walnuts which she carried with her in a plastic bag in her purse along with a tiny metal pick to crack the shells open. She gave me some sort of sticky nut-candy bar from her purse too.

A uniformed train attendant girl came by pushing a cart loaded with overpriced snacks, tiny bottles of water, and cans of sugary tea and San Miguel beer. I bought a box of “Pineapple Honey Crackers” and a warm can of beer. Lot pointed out that the box of “Pineapple Honey Crackers” had a picture of durian on it instead of pineapple and that my beer was from her homeland. I asked her if she wanted a beer too but she insisted her employers would be not let her drink. They were on the train too in another car; probably in one of the nicer cars. She accepted some of the crackers though and we agreed they weren’t very good and didn’t taste like pineapple or honey.

We slouched in our bunks across from each other eating walnuts and crackers, unable to sit up straight without bumping our heads on the bunks above us. I stretched out my legs and rested my bare feet on her bunk and she did the same, placing her feet on my bunk. She showed me a small picture of her with her husband who she had married four years ago at the age of 27. They hadn’t seen each other in the two years since he had thrown a big going away party for her the night before she left home. Everyone stayed up that night drinking and playing games and singing until the sun came up, she said.

Now the two could only communicate on Sundays, her day off, when she would go to an internet café to video chat with him after attending mass at some cathedral in Hong Kong. She showed me pictures on her phone of her church and of her employers and some of her employers’ artwork. And then she showed me a worn photograph of her with her husband that she kept in her wallet. The woman in the photograph with the girlish smile looked at least half a dozen years younger than the woman sitting on the bunk across from me.

“I used to be an elementary school teacher in the Philippines,” she said. “Now I am here as an amah (domestic helper) because I wanted to work outside of my country. But I am not happy here. I am too sensitive. I used to cry every night because it was my first time to leave my family and my employers do not treat me kind. It is not good for me here because I don’t have anyone here and my work is hard and my employers are always shouting to me, ‘Quickly, quickly’ and ‘What are you doing? Is that what you are supposed to be doing?’ and they teach their daughter to say those things too. You know, I am a Catholic so sometimes I just say, ‘Forgive them because they don’t know what they are doing.'”

Then she wanted to know about me. I told her I was a law student and she asked me how much it cost to go to school. I said, “A lot. I already owe the government money and I’ll be in debt for a long time.” She was surprised my parents were not paying for my schooling. I told her there was no way in the world they could afford to pay for me to go to grad school and that a lot of students take out loans in the U.S. I told her I no longer depended on my parents and that my plan was to work hard as a lawyer if I made it through school and then to travel the world after I had paid off my loans. I guess my plans probably didn’t make much sense.

“Maybe I will go to the U.S. someday too,” she said. “I am not happy here. I am here because of the value of the money. I am not one to put down my country but the value of the peso is not so good. But no one can stay with my employer. The other worker left recently and I will be leaving in four months if I can get my visa to work in Canada–I have a sister in Toronto. My husband wants me to come home to Manila, and I want children, but I want to work too. My husband asks me why did I marry him if I am going to leave home? I miss my husband but I want to travel and make money and see the world. Once I go home, it will be difficult to leave again.”

When the train attendant came by in the evening pushing a cart filled with boxed meat and rice dinners, I didn’t buy any because I am vegetarian. Lot bought a dinner of rice and pork and some vegetables. She insisted on separating the her carrots and cabbage from the meat to give to me along with half her rice. “How about the chicken? You eat chicken? I brought chicken with me that I bought in McDonald’s yesterday on my day off.” I said I didn’t eat chicken either. She told me to help myself if I changed my mind.

The Chinese couple on the bunk under us were eating Peking duck. When they were finished, they left the bird’s sad little uneaten decapitated head in a clear plastic bag on the little table fitted between their bunks.

Lot went to sleep early and slept in late the next morning. When she woke up she shared one of her bread rolls with me and then generously offered me some instant coffee and grapes. Her employers had given her this food; she wanted me to have some please? I had been planning to buy her breakfast since she had shared her dinner with me but the food cart didn’t come by in the morning and all I had in my backpack was an apple and a Chinese pear.

She refused to eat my fruit explaining, “No I’m full. I cannot eat a lot these days. You see?” she pulled at the baggy waist of her jeans, “These used to be tight but I cannot eat much any more because I am so worried. My husband tells me not to worry because it is in God’s hands, but I am still so worried. I cannot help but to worry. Anyway, I don’t like to use the toilets on these trains so I better not eat much.”

After breakfast she fell asleep again explaining she wanted to get as much rest as she could before she returned to her employers. When she awoke an hour away from Kowloon, she smiled and said we should take some pictures together but she wanted to comb her hair first and put on some red lipstick – which she rubbed off immediately after the photo-session: “my employers don’t want me to wear makeup or tight pants. That’s why I am wearing these baggy ones,” she said scowling at her jeans and oversized polo shirt.

And then it was time for her to wander through the line of cars to find her employers before our train reached Hong Kong. She gave me a hug and the bag of walnuts, waved goodbye to the Chinese couple who had been sleeping under our bunks, and disappeared down the aisle.

After a long break, leaks and other depressing fare

April 11, 2010

This last week a video of a US helicopter ripping through two Reuters reporters with machine guns while the pilots bantered like 13-year olds playing Halo was released. In honor of bad news, I’ve posted a couple interesting stories mostly related to the leaking of information (either about the helicopter attack, the organization that leaked the video, or the revelation that the Bush administration knew that most Guantanamo detainees were innocent) and the virtual training that our armed services use, and the ramifications of this training.

Collateral Murder: Here is the video, from the information source/whistleblower/paranoid revolutionary site Wikileaks. NSFW or children. Definitely not safe for children. It’s long, but watch the whole video. It is important for the American public to realize what regime change, surges, and cleaning up insurgents can look like.

The War on Wikileaks and Why it Matters by Glenn Greenwald (Salon): This article would be fascinating even if it wasn’t directly related to the above-linked video of Reuters reporters being shot by an American helicopter. Julian Assange, Wikileaks editor, is an original character (I would not be surprised if there is a movie about this eventually). Beyond an interesting profile and a few odd stories of intelligence agencies trying to stop Wikileaks, this article is important because it points to state and corporate secrecy that has allowed Guantanamo Bay, the financial collapse of Iceland, and all manner of other tragedies and muck-ups to slip by the voting, stockholding, buying public. A question which is not asked, but perhaps should have been: Whether or not we can trust our governments or businesses to tell us what we need to know, can we trust an unelected, rogue individual and his website to determine what should and shouldn’t be classified information?

Meet the Sims…And Shoot Them by P.W. Singer (Foreign Policy): There are a lot of video games involved in training our (and other countries’) soldiers. You should probably know about this.

George W. Bush ‘Knew Guantanamo Prisoners were Innocent’ by Tim Reid (Times Online): According to information given Lawrence Wilkerson, a top aid to Colin Powell when he was Secretary of State, and published  in the Times “George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld covered up that hundreds of innocent men were sent to the Guantánamo Bay prison camp because they feared that releasing them would harm the push for war in Iraq and the broader War on Terror.” Oops. Wilkerson “signed the declaration in support of Adel Hassan Hamad, a Sudanese man who was held at Guantánamo Bay from March 2003 until December 2007. Mr Hamad claims that he was tortured by US agents while in custody and yesterday filed a damages action against a list of American officials.” Go get em, Lawrence.

Michael Jackson in Saudi Arabia: Ok, I lied, not everything is depressing today. Watch this three times, and get in a tickle fight with your roommate. Everything will be ok.

Vegetarian for Lent

March 3, 2010

Here is an article I wrote for the Adventist Spectrum Blog about abstaining from meat for Lent. If you think relating Lent and environmentalism without using overtly religious concepts is odd, imagine also linking them to a denomination which does not traditionally celebrate Lent. Read the article, and let me know which of my logical jumps you like best (in all seriousness, this Lent series is a great, fascinating project – thanks Jeff Boyd at Adventist Activism for inviting me to write).

Richard Reid, Adultery and Tats, and Filipinos Stabbed singing “My Way”

February 12, 2010

A survey of some good articles and video suggesting that Newt Gingrich does not know the difference between an American and a Brit:

The Tea Party Last Time by Robert Zaretsky (NY Times). In this Op-Ed, Zaretsky discusses similarities between rabid Tea Party protesters and the French, specifically members of the Poujadist movement, a group of angry populists angry about the urbanization of France in the 1950s (And the Americans. And the Jews). Zaretsky’s article is a good discussion of the limits, historically, of a political philosophy based primarily on yelling.

Chambliss: Repealing DADT Would Open Door to ‘Adultery’ and ‘Body Art’ in the Military by Jillian Rayfield (TPM). I went to high school in GA, and heard the name Saxby Chambliss once in a while. The Republican Senator only became important to me, however, on November 4, 2008, when the Obama headquarters in Benton Harbor, Michigan gathered together to watch the returns and see the man who accused Max Cleland, his previous Democratic opponent and triple-amputee Vietnam veteran, of failing to uphold the Constitution as a senator (and inferred his lack of patriotism). We went nearly as far as praying Chambliss would lose. God is funnier than that, though, and Chambliss won in 2008, but his god-given purpose seems to be to play the ignorant gas-bag and make gays in the military seem like a damn patriotic idea (it is).

Sinatra Song Often Strikes Deadly Chord by Norimitsu Onishi (NY Times). When in Rome, do as the Romans do. When in the Phillipines, don’t sing “My Way,” or you might get stabbed.

Newt Gingrich Wrong: Says British Shoe Bomber ‘Richard Reid was an American Citizen” (Huffington Post). Newt Gingrich went on the Daily Show, and predicated his whole “Obama is a radical” argument on Richard Reid being American, as opposed to the X-mas Bomber (both of whom had their Miranda rights read). Video and short article can be found on this HuffPo link.

Reuters Photographer says Reborn After Freed by US (Reuters). The US snatched an Iraqi journalist, Ibrahim Jassam Mohammed, from his home in the middle of the night, held him for a year and a half – never bringing charges – and then freed him. Why?

Extremely Unsustainable and Incredibly Cruel: Jonathan Safran Foer vs. the Meat Industry

February 3, 2010

Goat. To be enjoyed, not eaten.

Eating Animals is Jonathan Safran Foer’s third full-length book, his first non-fiction, and the first major ideological risk he has taken.  Foer’s purpose is not simply to describe the meat industry in all its nastiness (as has been done well by Eric Schlosser in Fast Food Nation and Michael Pollan in The Omnivore’s Dilemma) – rather, Foer’s purpose is to convince the reader that vegetarianism is the only practical and philosophically satisfying means to influence the cruel, environmentally catastrophic industries of factory meat and dairy, and large-scale fishing. This is risky because only 3.2% of American adults are vegetarian, and even if a bigger percentage of Americans are ambivalent about eating meat, for many it would be uncomfortable to be told that they need to make the step to completely stop eating meat.

Foer does not allow for much intellectual relief without full conversion. Unlike a book on pollution that encourages readers to use less energy, or an article challenging readers to give more money to AIDs relief in Africa, Eating Animals calls for complete action – one cannot read it and be simply be satisfied that he will eat less meat, because Foer does not ask his readers to do more of something positive, he asks them to completely stop doing something negative. And so for omnivores and “flex-itarians”, Eating Animals is a provocation.

Eating Animals, though, was marketed as more than a niche read, and despite (because of?) its provocative nature made it to 20th on the New York Times Non-Fiction Bestseller list for Nov 27, 2009. Without going into what an argument for vegetarianism’s sales success means, it remains a gutsy move for Foer to follow Everything is Illuminated and the 9/11 novel Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close with a condemning work that should offend or intellectually bother anyone who isn’t already vegetarian.

On to the book itself: where Jonathan Safran Foer is strongest is in showing the disconnect Americans make between our companion animals and the just-as-intelligent, just-as-feeling animals we kill for food. Our rationalizations for eating meat while finding cruelty to companion animals wrong (and even illegal) are weak, and are buoyed by a mental disconnect between what we eat and the life the animal lived (and, indeed, what it is we are actually eating – that is, chemicals, e coli, and a lot of added waste-water). Foer makes a strong philosophical case for vegetarianism, but buffers this with a much more coldly compelling rationale: the meat and dairy industries are the single biggest contributors to global warming worldwide. This, unlike many of the chemicals needed for production and transportation, such as gasoline, is quite unnecessary pollution. In the United States, this is pollution produced so that Americans can get cheap meat in large quantities – amounts consumed per person far above what Americans consumed fifty or one-hundred years ago. So on both philosophical and realistic environmental counts (add to global warming the disastrous ecological consequences of trawling for sea life such as shrimp), Foer puts forward strong, clear arguments that the current factory farming system is profoundly unsustainable.

The decision which must be made at this point, though, is usually whether more ethical ways to produce meat, such as family farms, are a good alternative to vegetarianism. Foodies such as Michael Pollan somewhat poetically view the end of meat as some further tragedy, almost as bad as the cruel factory farming they would like to end. And perhaps highly regulated, small organic farms producing expensive meat could take away some market share from factory farming (especially if they were incentivized by the government). But expensive meat will not affect the majority of consumers if they have the option to eat cheap meat, and unless omnivores are willing to only eat small-farm, organic meat (a very dubious proposition if one ever wants to eat meat at a restaurant), they are part of the problem, not the solution.  Why, then, does Foer spend so much space talking to small farmers, organic farmers, ethical farmers? He critiques them even as he says he supports what they are doing; this is a difficult position to be in, as the environmental eaters – small farm, the ethical treatment of animals, and vegetarian crowds –  are not huge and splintering the group is not in anyone’s (well, except the meat industry’s) interest. Still, Foer is essentially saying “these farmers are doing their best to change things, but you shouldn’t buy their products.”

One characteristic of Eating Animals which may put off some, but which kept my happily adolescent mind engaged, is Foer’s language (a not-entirely-unrepresentative passage: “To take a step back: shit itself isn’t  bad. Shit has long been the farmer’s friend, fertilizer for his fields, from which he grows food for his animals, whose meat goes to people and whose shit goes back to the fields. Shit became a problem only when Americans decided we wanted to eat more meat than any other culture in history and pay historically little for it.” pg 176-177). Some may hold that this language is not befitting a book as serious as Eating Animals; I would tend to argue that for younger (20s and 30s) readers – probably Foer’s prime audience for his previous books – the language, as well as some unorthodox formatting (five pages of the words “Speechlessness/Influence” repeated continuously, one letter for each of the average 21,000 animals each American eats in a lifetime) may be demographic appropriate.

The gist of the book, not surprisingly, is that eating meat is unethical and unsustainable. And Foer, to my mind, convinces. The excuses for eating factory produced meat are almost entirely disconnected from need. No one needs to eat meat. A vegetarian diet is often healthier, and – despite how cheap meat has become – still less expensive. And it isn’t cruel. And it isn’t contributing to global warming. And it isn’t making us fat. A vegetarian diet is, however, inconvenient. Like other inconvenient environmental truths, the unsustainability of factory meat needs to discussed and acted upon. Devour Eating Animals as soon as you can.

Bill Clinton, Diamonds, and the Supreme Court plays football

January 17, 2010

In Bill Clinton’s interview with Esquire, he mentions Paul Farmer and his organization Partners in Health. Partners in Health is on the ground in Haiti and doing good work. You can donate here.

And now, the articles:

Inside Bill Clinton’s New Plan for Haiti: Exclusive Q&A interviewed by Mark Warren (Esquire). If it wasn’t for the earthquake just outside of Port Au Prince, we might have forgotten that former President Bill Clinton is the United Nations Special Envoy to Haiti. Good long-term perspective by someone who has a stake in Haiti’s future.

Country Without  a Net by Tracy Kidder (New York Times). Kidder wrote Mountains Beyond Mountains, a (great) biography of Paul Farmer, founder and president of Partners in Health. In this Op-Ed he discusses the history of Haiti, specifically how it has been kept poor and underdeveloped – and especially susceptible to natural disasters due to lack of planning and infrastructure.

They Are So Not Ready for Some Football by Josh Levin and Dahlia Lithwick (Slate). This is not (thankfully) not depressing. Unless you equate knowledge of football with patriotism or the ability to be an effective Supreme Court justice, in which case this would be a very depressing article indeed.

The Terrorist Mind: An Update by Sarah Kershaw (New York Times). Now: back to depressing (but fascinating) articles. Psychologists are finding similarities between the thought processes of people attracted to terrorism.

Objects of Desire: Israeli Diamonds are Forever…on Your Conscience by Sean Clinton (Ad-Busters Blog). At this point, it might be worth it to discuss recognizing diamonds as exorbitantly priced, useless except-for-cutting-things rocks that they are and move on to something useful. Like food (coming soon to Notes from the Fault – a review of Eating Animals by Jonathon Safran Foer).