Monthly Archives: January 2012

‘Mo Versus The Volcano

Traveling in a country where you don't speak the language means experiencing all the spontaneity and clarity of functional illiteracy.

In Pucon, Chile, I saw a sign that said 'Volcano Tours' and I signed up.

There was a brochure and a sign with all kinds of words on them, but I figured 'how much info do I really need? It's a tour!'

We'll drive there in a van, take a chairlift up, snap some photos and be back by lunch.

Even when issued a helmet, pickaxe and backpack, I still thought they were just for safety regulations and photo ops.

Chairlift! That outta do it.

'This is the last civilization you will see for the next 8 hours,' our guide said at the top of the lift.

'We will climb to the top step by step,' he said. 'It takes about five hours to get up, and two to get down.'

In spite of this explicit instruction, I retained the thought that this was all some sort of misunderstanding. Where's the next chairlift?

Notice the crampons. Shit just got real.

'Has anyone ever died up here?' I asked the guide at one point.

'Yes, 20,' he said.

'You mean 20 percent, right? Like, someone sprained their ankle, or ...?'

'20 people have died here,' he said. 'The wind is very strong, and there are deep crevices in the glacier.'

'So ... I guess some of the information in the Volcano Tour brochure was kinda crucial, huh?' I said. 'Si,' he said.

I was smearing sunscreen every hour the whole way up, but I forgot my ears. The next three days I looked permanently embarrassed.

'I think we're almost there!' I told some Argentinian girls who were having a rough time.

Only to find we weren't even halfway. 'The gringo lies,' one told the other.

This was the point where I realized there probably wouldn't be anywhere along our route to buy lunch.

Apparently this volcano erupted in 1971 and 1984.

It still spits up smoke and ash most days. The air raid siren in Pucon warns you when it's about to belch.

That rock down there is where we stopped for lunch. I ate snow and pondered whether sunscreen was chemically similar to mayonnaise.

'That volcano is twice as tall as this one,' our guide said at the top, proving the international truth that nothing makes you feel proud of an achievement like pointing out the greater one nearby.

The crater smelled almost as bad as we did.

We all peered in, wondering when it would erupt again.

'Now what?' we asked. 'Put on all the clothes in your backpack and slide back down on your ass.'

'After the snow gives way, take the same path the lava did in '71 and '84.'

So we did, and got back down so fast I almost wondered why it took us so long to get up.

For the rest of the week, I looked at the horizon from Pucon and saw something I climbed and descended.

It turns out we spoke the same language after all.

 

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The Accidental Tourist

The nice thing about visiting someone in their exotic home country is that you see lots of things you wouldn't otherwise.

This always ends up a bit surreal, however, since you outsource the planning to someone who knows what they're doing.

You see their best places, but since you didn't do any research or logistics to get there, you don't know what you're looking at.

This is basically how I ended up in Valparaiso, Chile.

My Chilean friend put me in the car, drove, parked and told me to get out.

'We're here,' she said.

'Where?' I said.

We wandered around, the native leading the interloper.

People stopped us and told us to put our cameras away.

'Chileans will steal them!' they said.

'Damn,' I told my friend. 'Chileans are hella racist against Chileans.'

She started introducing me as 'this gringo', possibly as punishment for this remark.

Neither of us knew anything about the city, so we recklessly speculated about all the buildings. This is where Spanish colonialists watched professional wrestling, we decided.

The rest of these buildings are all former locker rooms, obviously.

This is where they fed Christians to lions. That was the Spanish that did that, right?

'How come the power lines are all over the place like East Baltimore?' I asked my friend.

'So Chileans can charge all the electronics they steal from gringos,' she replied.

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‘My brother is a worst-case scenario’

This is the best personal essay I’ve read in ages. It starts like this

I received an email from a Department of Corrections social worker about four years ago. She had a message for me from my older brother Michael. He wanted contact with his family after fifteen years in a prison psychiatric treatment facility, to which he had been sentenced after trying unsuccessfully to murder my mother, father, and younger brother in an arson attempt at our home in suburban Tidewater, Virginia.

and concludes

I wish I could offer some kind of easy prescription here—something to do with politics and policy, with therapeutic philosophies or biochemical treatment protocols. But the mystery of mental anguish, of the mind on the outs with itself, of a version of hell made manifest in a suburban living room, is the one thing in my life that has brought me to the point where my only option seemed to be to pray. 

We hear stories of personal tragedy or disaster and we try to process them through a frame of ‘What can politicians do?’ or, perhaps more relevantly, ‘What can I do?’ I sometimes wonder if, faced with a situation you are utterly powerless to comprehend, it’s better to just shut up and listen.

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The World’s Ugliest Hotel

Though it's nice to know that if the Flintstones are ever in Reñaca, Chile, they will feel at home.

 

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We Are All Texas Oil Millionaires

I’m reading Bryan Burrough’s The Big Rich: The Rise and Fall of The Greatest Texas Oil Fortunes. Burrough quotes a 1962 Nation article about Texas oil millionaires meddling in politics:

He believes his riches were in no way the result of luck but of his own foresight, courage, and initiative–all made possible by the American Way of Life. [...]

Although he may never have got as far as high school, he is an authority on textbooks, the tariff and winning football formations, the Constitution, geophysics, currency inflation, and how to get rid of warts.

He is fond of writing letters to office-holders and potential office-holders advising and/or threatening them about the course they should follow. Given half a chance, he will, out of his accumulated wisdom, drop homilies, maxims, aphorisms, texts, proverbs and parables for the benefit of his fellowman, whom he professes to love dearly. 

Fifty years later, it’s still true about businessmen, and an increasingly accurate description of politicians themselves.

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Foreign Countries Have The Greatest English Books

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Things You Can Tell About Chile Just By Looking At It

The best thing about traveling to another country is waking up before everyone there

and jogging through it while it's getting dressed for the day.

In developing countries, this is an incredibly efficient way to get gawked at.

My first day in Santiago, I ran to the top of a hill at 7 am

The road was so deserted I thought I'd missed an air raid siren.

Even the squirrels looked suspicious.

I was on my way down before I saw any other people. Dozens of joggers on their way up.

They nodded and hola'd, admiring my fortitude.

I yelled 'America!' loud enough for them to hear through their earbuds.

Based on the number of joggers, plus the rate of earbuds-per-jogger, I concluded midway through my run that Chile is less developingey than I thought it would be.

It looks more like the US from overtop than Mexico.

Aside from the language and the abstinence, you could mistake it for LA.

At the top of the hill the Virgin Mary congratulates you on making the altitude.

For a few minutes, it was just me and her.

Standing still and looking out at what we'd done.

She's been looking longer than I have.

I hope I have her patience to see what's below.

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Construction Work, Perchance to Dream

Valparaiso, Chile

 

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Chilean Food is Disgusting-Slash-Awesome

 

 

I still fucking ate the whole thing though.

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Are We There Yet?

I just finished Francis Fukuyama’s The Origins of Political Order. It’s basically an attempt to construct a narrative of how human beings went from talking chimpanzees to hunter-gatherers to tribesmen to farmers to workers to us.

It’s surprising to me how little thought I’ve thought about this before. Here’s what I learned from the book:

  • The overall arc of human development turns out to be a battle between bureaucratic efficiency and human vice. Humans are driven by our natures to favor our kin, hoard our wealth and protect our security at the expense of others. The most successful early societies, just like the most successful societies now, are the ones that put rules in place to keep people from gaming the system to benefit themselves and their families.
  • The earliest manifestation of this principle is ancient China. Being constantly at war with their neighbors forced each little territory to come up with education and military training based on talent rather than family connections. Like March Madness, the best-organized armies defeated the others, consolidated their territory and challenged larger opponents. After about a thousand years of this, China went from being 10,000 small principalities to one totalitarian empire.
  • This same process was never able to happen in India, Fukuyama says, because it got religion. At just the time when it could have consolidated, Brahmanism took over and introduced the caste system.
  • Since it was basically impossible for people to rise from lower to upper castes, Indian elites  never devised a way to promote people through talent or grit. Under Brahmanism, you only rise or fall in caste after you die and are born again. Not only is it unlawful to reach a higher caste in your lifetime, it’s a sin. India never got efficient bureaucracy because the upper castes only drew talent from their own ranks, and based status on birth, not merit.
  • In Europe, efficient states developed about 1,500 years after China, and only by imitating the administrative structures of the Catholic Church.
  • Priest celibacy, which was only introduced in the 11th century AD, ensured that priests had no children or families to favor with wealth or appointments. So the church had no way of promoting people other than merit. This drove the Catholics to develop sophisticated  structures to administer all their tithe-collecting and heaven-selling.
  • Since the Catholic Church was basically the world’s first international institution, states started imitating its practices as a way of efficiently collecting taxes and ending disputes between citizens.
  • It’s basically an accident that Britain ended up as the first ‘modern’ society, meaning it had a strong state, rule of law and democratic accountability. The parliament was just a leftover institution for the feudal lords to protect their property, but since it was already there, it became a vehicle for the lower gentry and eventually commoners to represent their interests.
  • I especially geeked out over the section about Denmark. Fukuyama says Denmark’s highly efficient state is a result of historical accident too. After the Reformation, Denmark was one of the only countries in which Lutheran priests were given the duty of teaching all the commoners to read and write. Smart little villages became efficient little towns, which became a progressive little country.
  • We like to think of political development as gradual progress toward a goal like peace or wealth or stability, but what really stands out from the book is how many societies reached high levels of sophistication and development, only to squander them by backsliding into their old habits
  • China, for example, after getting all efficient by 200 BC, let nepotism creep back in once the empire was unified and basically sat development out for 1,000 years.
  • In the Middle Ages, the Hungarians apparently had their own Magna Carta (Called ‘The Golden Bull’ whuuut) that made their king accountable to his subjects. Great, right? Well, it turns out it gave so much accountability that king had to convince the nobles and gentry to protect the country against outside invaders, and eventually it was taken over by the Byzantines and then the Ottomans.
  • The level of corruption in early societies is monumental. The French and the Spanish governments in the 1700s basically operated like organized crime families. They literally sold noblemen the right to collect taxes. So each nobleman got an army together and bayoneted whatever taxes he wanted out of the peasants, while completely avoiding paying taxes himself. One of the reason the British Navy was able to dominate Spanish and French was simply because they had a centralized state that collected taxes, rather than a bunch of Pierre Sopranos.

I’ve been reading a lot of this kind of long-term, comparative history lately, and I’m constantly struck by the degree to which every generation thinks that the world as they found it has always been that way. Societies in the Middle Ages died defending status quos that were sometimes just 30 years old. In our own lifetimes, we constantly forget that the entire concept of a nation-state is less than 200 years old, and the borders of most existing countries have been significantly edited just in the last century.

Sometimes, in the midst of a culture obsessed with where we’re going, it’s nice to look back at where we’ve been.

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