Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The quest for codeine

Isa’s cough wasn’t going away, no matter how much cough syrup we threw at it. By the fourth day of a constant dry cough that wouldn’t let her sleep, we finally got a doctor on the job. We walked out of the clinic with a battery of anti-inflammatories, anti-biotics, and a cough suppressant called Codelasa. Trouble was pharmacies seemed to be just plain fresh out of that last remedy, which I started to suspect was the proverbial good stuff.

The first four letters should have tipped me off. Codelasa is the real deal. The medication that inspired a Beavis and Butthead episode about teenagers using cough medicine to get high.

Codelasa is codeine. And nobody had it.

Isa hadn’t slept in three days and was starting to lose it, increasingly feeling the urge to tear her own throat out.

It wasn’t until we got to the fourth pharmacy that someone explained why we weren’t finding this stuff. The prescription said Codelasa in tablet form, but the tablet form had been discontinued years earlier. The same medication was available in liquid form, but the pharmacy couldn’t sell that one to me. The controls on codeine were such that whatever they dispense had to exactly match the prescription.

Huh?

I did a double take. An exact prescription required in Venezuela?

I spent enough time here to know that this was really weird. Controls on just about anything were trifling and easily overcome. Drunk driving fines can be erased for $100. Airport baggage handlers can renew a passport on a dime for $200. Doctors rewrite medical reports to get things paid for by insurance.

I used to joke around with people that in Caracas you could walk into a pharmacy and ask for valium and they’d hand it to you over the counter. I went in to one to find out if it was true. The attendant glared at me for a couple seconds, and finally said “What? Fifty milligrams or a hundred milligrams?” Turns out it wasn’t a joke. (Never much of a drugstore cowboy, I didn’t actually buy it.)

Maybe it’s a change, or maybe it’s just codeine, but the usual grab bag of Venezuela tricks wasn’t working. We went back to the clinic, got the doctor to change the prescription to say Codelasa in liquid. Another half hour later Isa had the bottle in hand. Hallelujah.

I’m glad to see Venezuela’s taking this stuff a bit more seriously, just lousy luck of the draw that it had to start happening while my wife was suffering the worst coughing fits of her life. You spend long enough in a place like Venezuela and the charm of being in a place with no rules starts to wear off. Once you start to realize that it sucks when nobody stops at stoplights, gets anywhere on time or does anything by the book. You start to see how societies corrode, how lives are compromised, how people die unnecessarily.

I’ll never forget a conversation with my friend Nestor about exactly this. Sure, he said, recognizing my boring North American institutionalist approach to getting things right. “But you have to admit,” he pointed out, “this anarchy is fun.”

His words rang through my head during our four-hour quest for cough suppressant, as I remembered the virtues of a system that does things the wrong way.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Venezuela’s explosive Christmas cheer


Ah, it’s that time of the year again. Exploding ear drums, cracked windows and constantly tripping car alarms. Christmas celebration is never complete in this country without “fireworks” that are often more accurately described as “explosives.” Happy holidays!

Imagine the juvenile obsession with fireworks that grips America in late June and early July, but without any of the rules about what can’t be set off where. It’s that adolescent instinct to find the most dangerous possible way to have fun, without a cranky adult coming along to tell everyone to cut it out and go home. Vendors on just about every corner, with no permit or license, are selling fireworks to adults, kids, teenagers, or anyone that can pay for them. And it’s not like in the United States people want the brightest colors and craziest designs that Chinese fireworks makers can come up. Here it’s just the bang. And it hurts the ear drums. It really does.

My mother-in-law’s neighbor Lenin a few years back into a competition with the guys on the block to see who could set off the loudest firecracker. That cracked the car window of a cousin who was parked on the block. He was pissed, and didn’t come back for a few days. Everyone thought the whole incident was really funny. Just about everyone.

“Eso siempre me ha parecido una diversion medio guevona,” said Isa’s uncle Freddy, commenting on what dumb way that was to have fun.

I remember the first December in Venezuela, 12 years ago, when I came to go backpacking with my brother. We went with some friends to a “patinata” outside of Caracas, where kids rode skateboards down a very steep hill, while sitting down or lying down. And the kids spiced up the event by sprinkling the place really loud firecrackers that had cute names like the matasuegra (mother-in-law-killer) or the tumbarancho (shack destroyer) which after 9/11 was dubbed the bin Laden. We pretty quickly learned to look around us every minute or so to make sure one of those things didn’t go off behind us, because it really did impair the hearing. An hour into the fun some kids decided to put an entire stack of them on top of a nearby transformer. They all went off at the same time, knocking out power on the entire block. We fled the scene of the crime.

“Go to a clinic right now and what you’ll find are kids with burned fingers,” one nurse told me at a party one December. Every year stories of explosions and fires and fireworks warehouses start popping up in the news. Then they go away, and come back again the next December.

A little over a week and the firecrackers get put away until next year. As usual, 2011 will end with a bang.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Goodbye, Rio


My last act before stepping into the airport check-in line was to hand over my cell phone, which left me suddenly stripped of my connection to the outside world. No more idle Facebook status updates, no more tweeting stray thoughts in efforts of turning them into profound revelations. So I´m back to the old fashioned and forgotten past-time known as blogging.
My last days in Rio were rushed, cluttered with absurd paperwork that I actually managed to turn into a story, and shrouded in cloudy skies, a cold breeze and driving rain. This left me without the time or disposition for nostalgic goodbyes or accumulation of saudades for the place I was about to leave. In the preceding months I had kicked around the idea of a Rio “bucket list” of all the things I never did in the city that I could go ticking off in the waning days and weeks. It just didn’t work out that way. There was too much to do to keep adding last minute adventures.
I did feel a few tugging heart-strings in the final days. I remember in the newsroom seeing out of the corner of my eye one of those panoramic Globo helicopter shots of the entire city, the lagoon flanked by the mountains and Corcovado keeping watch over Guanabara Bay. Am I really leaving this? My next thought was something like Wait, did we have to get the shipment manifest notarized before we take it to the consulate?  And so it went. Between the rain and the stress of moving, we didn’t shed a tear for Rio, as my wife wisely quipped.
Over the last couple days I got a few more of those “What’s wrong weeth you, Steeeemppy?!?!” sort of comments, but at this point I’m shrugging them off. Yes, I’m happy to be going back to Venezuela, no they didn’t twist my arm, and no I’m not clinically insane. If you want to know more, please ask.
A thought I had the other day summed it up for me – O Brasil nao precisa mais ninguem torcendo por ele. This is the famous “hora do Brasil,” the time when Brazil’s finally emerging from so many years of having everything go wrong. Or to put another way, the crowd of multicultural globe-trotters who were as fascinated by the country’s folkloric economic chaos as its music, dance and culture has been eclipsed by bankers, industrial magnates and project developers who want to make money off the place.  Brazil’s got enough fans. It doesn’t need more people rooting for it. The country is living its equivalent of the U.S. post-World War II economic boom. There are a lot of other places on the globe, including my home country, that are in need of the sort of optimism Brazil lives and breathes today.
At the same time, my fascination with distant and exotic places will put Brazil on my radar screen in a way that it wasn’t while I was living there. Yes, I’ll admit it. I spent a good portion of my first months in Rio studying Arabic and reading books about China. Eventually, I figured it out, and started a blog. And toward the end I was finally watching Brazilian football and actually kinda getting it (I didn’t manage to watch last night’s Vasco game, but did see bits and pieces of it from TV screens in corner bars while walking through Copa, and then concluded they had won from the fireworks and celebratory shrieks).
And my good friends EM and AT made me a two-CD set of musica popular brasileira, the all encompassing genre that stretches from early samba and chorinho to bossa of Joao Gilberto and the bizarre rock of Ney Matogrosso. These are all the songs that I heard on the streets, and in clubs in Lapa, our would overhear through the windows when my neighbors were having a Sunday afternoon pagode. Ok, plus several thousand more songs, because this is a set of 3,500 tunes. I didn’t want to leave Brazil without knowing the words to Mais que nada (you know, ooooooooooooooooooooooaaaeeeaaaaaaaaaaaeeeeeoooooo, oaaa oaaa oaaa), but it didn’t work out. So now I’m going to learn it in exile, or diaspora, or in nostalgic ex-pat indulgence. Maybe this is a bit like how I barely dipped my toe into salsa when I lived for a year in Puerto Rico, where most of the world’s salsa comes from (feel free to complain and protest, it’s true), but really learned my way around the legends of salsa in Caracas while listening to the bootleg CDs I bought down the street from Congress.
And I hope I can jump into a few Brazilian circles here and there. I’m already part of a Facebook group for the DC Brazilian and Brazil-enthusiast community. I know there’s a small group of Brazilans in Caracas, maybe they get together and make pao de queijo and watch the brasilerao on some special cable channel, or maybe they hide in their respective circles and keep the saudadistas out.
I put it on Facebook just before I had to surrender my phone – this doesn’t feel like the end. It must mean that its not.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Getting Somewhere


Somewhere is not the sort of movie I would have chosen on my own. And I didn’t even truly appreciate it until I saw the interview with the director afterward, which is probably the first time any of those DVD extras has really done anything for me. It was almost as if I had spent an hour staring at some Jackson Pollock-type modern art painting that meant nothing to me until the artist stepped in to make it clear. And suddenly I got it.

I had expected more from a film that won so many prizes. By “more” I guess I mean more plot, more action, more tension and resolution. The movie chronicles the life of a wealthy and famous movie star who’s bored and unfulfilled. He calmly watches strippers dance for him for ten minutes or so (this is in real time in the film as well), he inhabits non-descript luxury apartments and attends parties he doesn’t seem to have much interest in. Hot women show up at his door for sex. The only thing he really seems to enjoy in life his daughter, who he has to share with an estranged ex-wife.

Sofia Coppola was trying to show the underside of the dazzling movie-stars life. Sometimes it’s quite boring, which I have to say was in many ways reflected in the movie. It literally wasn’t until the directors’ interview that it clicked for me, when she said she wanted the movie to feel something like a poem. At that point I realized that’s what it was.

And it immediately reminded me of  a book I’d once read called Songdogs, which was crafted in such artful prose that’s its general lack of coherent plot and slow-moving pace made it an almost literary counterpoint to Somewhere. My general literary impatience, much like the impatience in the rest of my life, left my friend JB surprised that I was so keen on it. I’ve had such fond memories of the book since I read it four of five years ago, mostly the scenes that the author painted and the constant unspoken tension between the protagonist and other characters including the protagonist’s father. The funny thing is that I could barely even remember much of the book’s plot, and in fact it took me quite some time to even remember the title or author. But there were things that really stuck with me. I remembered that it involved Ireland and San Francisco, and in reading the reviews more recently remembered that his father was photographer and that it also involved Mexico.

It was maybe a bizarre connection to make. Sometimes literature can do that for me. When it’s written in such a way that it feels like poetry, yet more accessible.
A mystery that you’re given some clues to rather than a blank canvas that you’re supposed to fill in with your own mind.

I guess if novels can be poetry, it shouldn’t surprise me that movies can too. I’m glad that in the end, I got Somewhere.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Reaching the end of Midnight's Children


After three years and at least five attempts, I've finally finished Midnight's Children. I think my reaction to it is as convoluted as the book itself.

For historical fiction about the rise of modern India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, there's really nothing like it. The transfer of power from Britain to the newly independent India (the famous optimism bug that I talked about here), the various wars and skirmishes  between India and its neighbors Pakistan and China, the civil war that splits West Pakistan from East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) are all chronicled in Rushdie's inimitably sardonic and luxuriously adorned prose. I also liked the account of Indira Ghandi's emergency powers crackdown, during which the fictional Saleem Sinai sees the government arrest his cohort of children who can communicate telepathically with one another by virtue of all having been born in the first hour after the midnight of India's independence (hence Midnight's Children). One particular segment rang like a literary version of a Ray Bradbury type sci-fi saga, which was the tale of Saleem and two other deserters from the Pakistani civil war end up in a cave of illusions that slowly starts to consume them and drain their will to leave (which in the end they do).

The actual experience of reading the book, however, reminded me a lot of reading Julio Cortazar's Rayuela. I read it in Spanish, mostly to prove how tough I was, at great detriment to my actual comprehension of the already convoluted text. The book is set up such that after each chapter you're told to flip to another non-sequential chapter, which takes you through the book in the non-chronological order the author determined (This Cortazar described as the “masculine” form of reading the book, as opposed to the “feminine” style which involved reading the chapters sequentially. Fortunately much has changed since the book’s publication in 1961). I made this even more interesting by jumping to the wrong chapter at least once. The experience of reading Latin America's version of Ulysses suddenly became a bit more like reading a version of Ulysses with the pages mixed up.

My stop-start approach to Rushdie's cornerstone work led to much the same experience. I could never quite tell if I had read something already, had read it years earlier on a previous attempt, had accidentally bookmarked the wrong spot, or if the story line was simply repeating itself. I couldn't remeber why The Hummingbird was killed. I couldn't remember why Mumtaz slept in a basement with Nadir Khan. I couldn't remember the story of the fire at the godown that destroyed Saleem's father's bicycles, or the related mafia extorsion that was somehow linked to a family of bats living in a church steeple (I think).

Adding to that, the plotlines were as difficult to follow and remember as the thematic and metaphorical undertones they evoked. Ok, let me see if I can get this straight. Saleem is the son of General Aziz and his wife Amina Sinai (formerly known as Mumtaz), only he is switched at birth from the hands of his actual parents, a poor British street entertainer named Wee Willy Winkie and his servant wife. Nanny Mary Pereira (married of a man named Joseph -- metaphorical maybe?) takes baby Saleem out of his poor-family crib into the lap of wealth, condemning the true son Shiva, who will turn out to be Saleem's arch-rival, to a life of poverty. However, Saleem, it turns out, is not his father's son, because his servant mother had been sleeping with the wealthy British landlord known as Lord Methwold.

Again, let me see if I can get all these metaphors straight. The bastard Muslim son of India, born to a cuckolded father who is not his father, is switched at birth by conniving Christians who steal the birthright of Hindu boy? I can't even remember how many times I had to flip back and reread that saga.

I will hand it to Rushdie, he really can write like nobody else. At the same time I will admit on several occasions feeling like I was going to shout out loud "OK, Mr. Rushdie, lovely writing, but can we get ON with it PLEASE!!!"

Reading my first Stieg Larsson book earlier this year made me understand why the average person doesn't read books like Midnight's Children. I read all of The Girl with the Dragoon Tattoo at the same time as I fumbled through about 25 pages of the Rushdie classic. I've got thick literary teeth, as my brother likes to say.

Midnight’s Children was one I really had to fight my way through. It reminded me of other books that I enjoyed but had to battle my way through, unlike the seductive and almost narcotic pull of Larson's detective fiction (the inevitable deus-ex-machinas felt a bit cheap, but still, I get the appeal. I remember pushing my way through Mario Vargas Llosa's La Fiesta del Chivo, the novelistic take on the fall of Dominican dictator Trujillo, while sitting in my hot living room in Puerto Rico, finishing the last pages with an almost breathless urgency of wanting be done with this epic (I did like it, in fact). Or plowing through the end of Ghost Wars, Steve Coll's authoritative and unparalleled journalistic account of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the ensuing civil war and rise of the Taliban, while on a plane from Caracas to San Francisco. You fight through books and you remember them.

Midnight's Children still does not top for what I consider the be the most readable of Rushdie -- The Ground Beneath her Feet, the tale of a rock star Indian couple that take a ten-year vow of celibacy. I also read, around the same time, a Rushdie book called Shame which was about Pakistan. I definitely did not get much of what was being said there. I do remember a character named the Virgin Ironpants, who years later I learned was Benazir Bhutto (might have helped to know that).

I spied a copy of The Moor's Last Sigh on my dad's bookshelf when - was at his house last month. I decided to leave that for some future endeavor, while I read something else -- and continue to figure out what I thought of Midnight's Children.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Riocha Cardosa

It was our last day of real vacation travel, with half of it taken up by the trip back to São Luis. It ended up being a relaxed river tubing excursion down the Riocha Cardosa river. It took about an hour of driving through the largely unpopulated cerrado forest to reach a place were we could begin floating down the river on inner tubes. We were joined by a crowd of mostly female senior citizens who were chatty and friendly.
No pictures unfortunately because our camera isn´s water proof. We stopped at the house of a local family that made us tapioca and coffee. I also for the first time ate cashew nuts that had been roasted by a human being, sold to me by a cute five year old girl.They were toasted unevenly, meaning each one tasted slightly
different.

The trip also took as past a bizarre bridge to nowhere put up about 15 miles from the nearest paved road. I took a fleeting picture of it  from the truck. It looked like it was made from poured concrete (did they drive concrete mixers for an hour across the sand road?) supported by 10 pillars. It does not connect to the sand road on either side, but does have a rickety hand-made wooden ladder leaned up against one side in case anyone wants to climb up and look around. The truck we were in did fine driving across what appeared to be a small wooden pedestrian bridge that went across the small gully that this Sara Palin-inspired work of civil engineering was attempting to span. Fortunately someone had taken advantage of the structure to set up a
small bar with a pool table underneath it. At least it was providing shade.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Lencois Maranhenses

The Lencois Maranhenses were probably the biggest draw for this trip.  They did not disappoint. They were just the postcard idyll I imagined from looking at pictures online of the blue-green lagoons in the  middle of sand dunes. They form during the rainy season as the rain fills up the spaces between dunes, and then most of them totally dry up between October and December as the rains stop. And they migrate.  Each year the wind blows the dunes to one side or another, meaning that the rainfall fills up the craters in a different place each time.


Our guide picked us up at the resort and drove around 20 minutes on a sand road and parked the pickup alongside several others that had already brought tourists to the area. We walked less than five minutes
when we were already at the first lagoon. The turqoise freshwater is  really breathtaking. They lagoons got bigger as we walked further in,each one beautiful than the next. I made a routine at each lagoon of
swimming across it, then climbing up the dune and charging back down into the water.

The pictures really are worth a thousand words (see them on my Facebook page). Our guide took us to a nearby house where the woman who lived there cooked us an amazing fish lunch. The charming little farm house had a refreshing breeze and great views of the open cerrado wildnerness and  the dunes in the distance. We chowed on cashew fruit picked from the trees outside. I´ve eaten cashew nuts all my life but really never
came across the fruit until I got to Brazil – I never once saw it in Venezuela. You can get it at juice bars in Rio, though its often from concentrate.

We drove back to the hotel along the sand track. The sun beat down on  the leaves and the shrubs, the scent reminded me of the smell that hot northern California sun creates when it beats down on eucalyptus and
pine in the summer.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Barreirinhas

The next stretch of the trip takes us by boat along the Rio Preguicas to Barreirinhas, the main jump-off point for seeing the Lencois Maranhenses. We were picked by our third guide of a trip, and older man by the name of Xico, who piled all suitcases into the back of a launch and took us more or less across the river to a nearby town called Mandacaru that hosts an old lighthouse and a sleepy naval base. Cabure made me feel like I was in a hostile desert environment largely cut off from the convienences of modern life. Mandacaru made me realize I was basically across the river from them.

The latter is relatively isolated but still has power connected to the national grid and a wide range of  commerce including small grocery stores and artisan shops. Cattle roam the area, cashew trees dot the sand. We entered the town via a small dock next to an outdoor bar boasting its cashew-fruit caipirinhas. Eight-thirty a.m. was a bit on the early side for that sort of thing, at least for me. I got to chatting with a guy who called himself Enoc, who said the growth of tourism had for years been creating new employment opportunities in an area traditionally dominated by fishing. Even more recently, oil and gas discoveries by Petrobras and start-up oil company OGX had created new transportation routes and new demand for labor. A geological
prospecting service that used small aircraft for surveying had started carrying passengers from remote areas of Maranhao that previously relied on slow and unreliable bus transport. This sort of thing seemed
to be happening all over Brazil. I remember one of my earliest experiences in Rio was becoming a regular at one of the increasingly common juice bars in Copacabana. A particular chain called BigB was started by a man from Ceara, the state that´s home to Jericoacoara, and he mostly hired workers who had migrated from there to Rio. One of  the staff there named Olivio said he used to take a bus for five days  to get back to see his family for a month. Now he flies, not only  because its faster – it´s cheaper. A changing nation.

Xico drove us along the river to Barreirinhas, stopping at a dune-centric tourist stop called Vassouras that offered sodas, coconut  juice, snack, and arts and crafts. It also proudly displayed a set of domesticated monkeys that did tricks like hanging from rafters or walking across tight-ropes in exchange for bits of apple or coconut. I actually found the dunes more interesting, in part because monkeys are pretty common in Rio (once you spend a bit of time around them you start to realize that they´re generally a bunch of bastards). Xico dropped us off at the business end of Barreirinhas, where most of the restaurants and commerce were, a bit of a hike from the swanky resort we would check into.

We were picked up in a taxi by a man who identified himself as Ue, originally from São Paulo. He came four
years ago, following his brother who had set up a business a decade back. That´s when the tourism to the Lencois really took off, he said. Now Ue has two boats and a couple cars to work the tourism circuit.
You can leave your car open, you can walk around at night by yourself, it´s not like São Paulo. Barreirinhas is a good place to live. The real game changer for the Lencois was the road linking Barreirinhas to São Luis. Previously it was only the most determined traveller that would make the eight hour journey across the unpaved road to see the world´s most spectacular lagoons (pardon my editorializing). Today it takes about three hours – and the journey is still a complicated one, as these posts have pointed out. It´s the sort of thing you see all over Brazil. It´s a country bursting at the seams, its growth constrained by airports that are overcrowded to the point of chaos, ports that are in disastrous overuse, railroad lines without capacity to carry goods. It´s well-known – almost to the point of cliche – that trucking grain from the center-west of the country to the coast can  cost as much as half the value of the grain. It makes me wonder what Barreirinhas would look like if the remaining difficulties in making this journey – particularly for foreigners – were somehow straightened out. Brazil´s expensive for a lot of reasons, one of them is that fact that it´s just not easy to get
around.

We spent the remainder of the day lounging in the Porto Preguicas Resort, an upscale tourist haven with suburbanesque identical red-roofed cabins and manicured lawns. My instinct to pass it off as the usual tourism industry fare turned out to be entirely wrong. Along with the expected amenities like a pool, sauna, game room and river kayaks, the place had some unusual extras including an orchard that provided a considerable part of the kitchen´s food. It grew everything from mangoes and bananas to parsely and cilantro, and composted used coffee grounds along with spent charcoal. Left-over food scraps from the restaurant didn´t go into the trash, they were fed to a gaggle of chickens and goats. The restaurant´s menu included “galinha caipira,” Brazil´s way of saying chicken that´s not factory farmed (Brazil is now one of the world´s largest producers of factor farmed poultry).

The chickens in the coop in the back scrapped over a piece of lettuce that looked a lot like the one Isa and I had left on our plates the day before. They provided eggs that were also used in the kitchen. The garden hand, Jefferson, has been on the job for three months, formerly working as a painter. He knew how to tend a garden because he had one at home. The resort also houses a pottery production center with two pottery wheels being used by two teenage guests under the eye of a local resident who works there. The entire resort is filled with vases and pots that are made on site and fired in a wood-burning kiln. Next to that is a wood shop where other Barreirinhas residents make furniture used in the resort. I have to admit I was pleasantly
suprised.

Isa and I enjoyed a meal of slow-cooked chicken, possibly one of the ones we had seen earlier. I think this was my first locavore meal ever. Isa joked that eating recently killed chicken with our hands while drinking beer under a chandeliered wood-decorated dining area made it feel like we were in the Middle Ages. She hummed Holy Grail-esque flute sounding medieval tunes as we ate.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Cabure

We stayed the night in Parnaiba, and then the next morning drove two hours through thick vegetation known as cerrado until we reached the  town of Tutoia. Winding through some of the back trails in town we were
back on the sand dunes, and we headed west along the beach another half hour. The scrub grass struggled to grow through the sand, making the whole thing look like a lawn with a covering or snow on it. A group of
fisherman's huts made from palm fronds dotted the beachline next to a tall  antennae-like pole being used to test the area for wind generation.The beach was dotted with blackened stumps that poked out of the sand
as if they´d been buried. This is in fact what happened. Ten years ago  this was a mangrove swamp, but the wind slowly covered it with sand and left the mangroves strangled. Constant flux.

We arrived at the town of Cabure, which is in fact simply a group of  three different pousadas set back from the beach. There´s only power available half the day, provided by a diesel generator. The Rio Preguicas sits on the other side of the pousadas, and is the usual mode of transport for most people and goods and that come in and out.

Our pousada is a set of cabins set behind a large dune to shelter them from the wind, but the breeze is still so strong that it feels as if the rooms have fans blowing air through them all the time. Isa and  spent the afternoon on the beach, not swimming much because of the bizarre wave patterns and weird currents that make you feel as if something is sucking your legs out to sea. So we lay in the tidepools that form just back from where the waves break, skipping shells and chatting about nothing. I could barely feel the sunshine because of the wind blowing off the ocean.

The pools vary in depth from about an inch to about a foot, which gives them a variation in color. I really
only noticed this because I tripped and nearly twisted my ankle on one of them. A buzzard sits watching us from the remains of some abandoned structure. Beauty and hostility all rolled into one. Life´s not easy here, says the manager of the pousada, Irai. The spectactular beauty of the place keeps people coming back, to watch the sunsets of the Rio Preguicas, to see the stars at night, to fall  asleep to the sound of the wind and the waves. I love the sand and I love the water. But there´s so much to do that I often don´t get out there. And people come here complaining about all sorts of things.They say there´s so much sand, it´s too windy, they want air conditioning.

We took an afternoon tour to watch the sun set over the  river and watched the bright pink guara birds play overhead. We went back to our room and read until the lights went out. It´s been a while since I put down a book on account of lights out rules.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Parnaiba River Delta

We left Jericoacoara with a tour guide in a pick-up truck headed west toward the Delta of the Parnaiba River. This trip is a complicated one to do in part because much of the most fabulous parts of it involve driving across sand dunes or taking river boats for stretches of a couple hours at a time. You can´t do the same sort of trip by renting a car yourself, because parts of it are over sand roads that would require a four-by-four and a fair amount of experience in driving offroad. You also have to know the cycle of the tides to get out along
the beaches.

This trip is also tough to do for someone who´s not already in Brazil. The start and end points are Fortaleza and Sao Luis, neither of which have any serious volume of international air traffic. The best a person could do would be to fly through Manaus, which would require a layover in Belem to get to Sao Luis. Add in the absurd cost of doing anything in Brazil, I´m guessing it will be some time before there this route becomes a tourist destination like Cancun or Aruba. During the trip we were passed from one guide to another. In a perverse analogy, it struck me as a bit like kidnapping victims that are passed from one band of gang-bangers to another, though in our case were high-end tourists. It´s just what popped into our head.

Our tour guide Marzinho drove us out along the sand dunes on one side and the crystal waters of the Atlantic on the other. The route carries us across several rivers, the first one by raft. Ten years ago there was no way to get by car Jericoacoara to the nearby towns fishing towns of Guiru, Tatajuba and Mangue Seco. Now you pull your car onto a wooden raft and three guys row you across with long wooden branches. Some folks still fish along the banks across from Guriu, but a good number of them like Gustavo just work as rafters.

It´s better than fishing, Gustavo says. Fisherman don´t sleep. They wake up at midnight, or one in the morning. I get here at eight. I´m 27 and I´ve been doing this since I was 13. The first rafts could only
carry small cars, and you spent the whole time worrying that the raft would sink before it made it across. Then other people saw it was good business, and competition started, and the rafts got better, now you can carry pick-ups like this one. A lot of people leave little towns like this. The guys I first started working with, they left ten years ago, went to Riberao Preto in Sao Paulo, they made some money and came back. The city´s not always that great. You can make a living here, it´s not a bad life.


We get to the other side without sinking or worrying about it. Then Marzinho drove us up to the top of a huge dune with a spectacular view of the surroundings, where I finally got a chance to try my hand at duneboarding. OK, it was sitting down, like sledding, but it was amazing. I probably would have done it three or four more times if it hadn't involved hiking back up the dune. Another half hour´s drive and we were at a lake made by a dammed up river, where hammocks and deck chairs sit out on the water that has been driven up by a rising tide. Then we got onto a paved road that took us out to the Delta of the Parnaiba River. Like a hand with five fingers, the Parnaiba breaks into five main branches that take you out to the Atlantic. Parnaiba was once the capital of palm wax, which boomed in the 19th century but later collapsed with the rise of synthetic petroleum based waxes. The city of Parnaiba still has a series of elegant buildings and warehouses built in 19th century style and surprisingly well maintained, testaments to the wax boom much like the Manaus opera
house is a living icon of the rubber boom.

There´s still a market for it, and these days wax palms are the main form of agriculture along the delta. But the state of Piaui is generally a pretty overlooked place. It for years sought to promote itself with the motto “Piaui exists.” The delta reminds me a bit of Venezuela´s Orinoco Delta, though the latter is much more jungle-like, poorer and still heavily influenced by indigenous groups. What´s most fascinating about the Parnaiba River delta is that its lush and verdant mangrove forests lead into barren white-sand dunes. We took a boat tour through the Delta for almost two hours. At high tide the ocean links straight to the river, at low tide the two are separated by sand bars. We got there at low tide, so we cold only get within about 300 yards of the dunes. We walked for 10 minutes along a wet muddy river bed. Then we crossed a line where we literally went from gooey brown mud to white desert dunes.

Our guide told me and Isa he was going to stay behind to watch the boat. We walked up to the dunes, which rise up and suddenly fall like cliffs into craters below that are the size of car or a small house. During the rainy season, those craters fill up with water and form spectacular lakes between the dunes. The scene is just as cool when they are empty, this bizarre moonscape of dunes pocked with huge holes, the bottoms of which are carved out like dried river beds.

Another ten minute walk and we were at the beach. An incredible, isolated white sand beach called Bahia do Feijao Bravo, with nobody on it for kilometers, no stands selling coconut juice, no vendors hocking Cokes or hot dogs, not a soul in sight. Isa stripped down to her bikini for a dip, but I wasn´t having any of it. I´m sorry honey, we did not come 1,000 miles to an isolated beach so we could take a swim with our trunks on. I tied up my trunks to a branch to keep them from blowing away. Isa held her bikini top and bottom in her hands and we ran into the water in our birthday suits. I honestly did want to take a picture of it but didn´t. Not that I was fearing a Scarlett Johansson type phone-hacking scandal, but rather because our camera that day had filled up with sand and refused to take any pictures (this is frequent in Jericoacoara) We stayed pretty close to the shoreline because the waves seemed to move in strange patterns. The sand vibrated under our feet as we stood in the water, a strange feeling as if sci-fi creatures were waiting below to much on our toes. The entire environment is in constant flux. As we walked back, it occurred to me that the guide was probably less interested in guarding the boat than in giving us a chance for a skinny dip.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Jericoacoara

Sept 30

This is a place that makes me want to put pen to paper.

The approach is across a white sand beach with almost nothing except the stray windsurfer and, a beach so windswept that trees lie down and set down roots along the sand. The wind whips in gusts that fills you mouth with sand and whips sand against your skin, giving the place an almost hostile feel. A five minute drive to the sheltered side of the beach and the same scene feels like something totally different. The wind sways the palm trees, the sun reflects on the water across the majestic dunes.

The lodge we're at is at a quiet edge of the sometimes noisy party beach town of Jericoacoara. The buildings are made out of either red brick or palm fronds. Our room is a thatch hut that sits on stilts and overlooks the water and a group of horses seeking shade under a nearby tree.

This is the vacation I haven't taken in three years, a real vacation which is not the same as going home to see my mom and dad or going to my mother-in-law's for New Year's. It's a package deal in which everything was figured out for us upfront. I feel a little guilty for doing it that way instead of the old-school shoestring style I would have done ten years ago. But I'm glad we did it this way. Improvised vacations (which are great) involve constantly making decisions about where to stay, how long to stay, what to see. After a couple of months of making some major life decisions, I wanted this trip to be a vacation from decisions as well. So we made all the decisions up front, and here we are in Jericoacoara. It's time to relax and unwind.

***
It´s a daily pilgrimage that starts around 4 30 to the big sand dune next to town, where the crowds go to watch one of the finest sunsets around. The dune drops off sosharply that it feels like being at the edge of cliff.
I sit with my back to the wind, and i can still feel it bouncing off my chin and my forehead. One straggling windsurfer carves a clumsy jibe and falls over. The dune drops off like a cliff, kids duneboard down it and then walk back up. Don´t sit down, I realize, it gets more sand in your eyes. Sand sticks to my sunscreened face. We stand at the edge of the dune, and watch the show almost until it ends. The sunset creates an amazing canvas in the minutes just after the sun goes down, in which the blue sky almost appears to radiate like rays to the backdrop of the crimson sunset. I suppose you´d have to see it to make sense of it,  I'll hope to post some soon.

Oct 1
Walking anywhere in the environs of Jericoacoara is a reminder of the hostile beauty of these environs. The town is sheltered from the wind by a large hill, with most the restaurants and hotels and pousadas
hidden from the constant gusts. Here behind the mountain the scene is divine, the sun sines over the water and heats everything to a tropical baking point while the breeze cools everything back down. The rustling of the palms compliments the sound of the waves breaking on the shore. We took a one hour hike out to the Pedra Furada, a scenic arch-liked rock formation just down the winding coastline. Five minutes out and you start to feel it. The wind pushes air into your mouth, it blows sand into your eyes. The sand whips against your skin
hard enough to hurt. It makes you envious of the sailboarders out on the water who have figured out how to enjoy the wind without being pelted by the sand.

I was going to try my hand at sandboarding, but couldn’t  find anyone around to rent me a board. Probably better, since sandboarding is not far from snowboarding, which is a bit like skiing,  which I suck at. Instead I decided to run up on the big dune and the charge down the edge. The jog starts out easy but gets harder as you get more exposed to the wind. The gusts created a bizarre echo in my  ears that almost seemed to harmonize with my breathing. My feet sank into the sand at first, but eventually I figured out that you can get
a bit more grip by landing on the darker parts of the sand, the lower parts of those rippled dunes that appear in those Middle-East evoking desert movies. The view from the top is astonishing. To the right a sheer drop off to the Atlantic, with kit surfers whipping back and forth through the choppy water. To the left another striking dune that gave the place an almost Sahara like feel, and a line of shaking palm trees. I charged back down the steep edge, my feet plunging in almost a foot with each step. At the bottom I was again jogging on the flat sand, but this time with the wind in my face, ready to blow my hat off  my head. This is not an easy place to get to and, I would guess with winds like this, is not always a very easy place to live.
***
The outdoor lounge at the Villa Kilongo lodge was possibly one of the things I´ll miss most about this place. It´s a wide area with a palm-thatched roof and curtains along the side that has chairs, couches, an some amazingly comfortable chaise-lounge type things made out of palm fiber. There´s a pool table, WiFi, and an assorted collection of trashy fashion magazines that my wife enjoys reading. The place is a good five degrees colder than the outdoors during the heat of mid-day, and there´s hardly anyone in it. Sitting there for a
few hours, I thought to myself, am I really going to leave this place?  Am I insane? That´s when you know you´ve picked the right spot for a vacation.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Fortaleza

Sept 29

Fortaleza is a modern city that's somewhat non-descript in its urban beachiness. I've been a bit disappointed that the Portuguese sounds a lot more carioca than the typical Lula-style northeast accent I was expecting. We didn't have much time so we only got to see a few things. The Dragao do Mar cultural center was quite a cool concept that linked old houses turned into bars with a modern complex housing an outoodr theater, an area of art exhibitions, and an open plaza-like space. We took a quick stroll along the Praia Meirelles after arriving. I enjoyed the sight of a couple wind turbines along the beach, taking advantage of the state's fabulous wind conditions. I'd forgotten how nice it can be just to sit on the beach with the breeze blowing across my face as I sip coconut juice. Yes, I live in Rio and have the beach a quick Metro ride away, but it's easy to get out of the habit, believe me.

We took a walk along the main boulevard on the beach, which is alive with joggers and in-line skaters much like Copacabaca on a warm night. The place is also booming with ads for comedy shows -- guys on bikes, guys in cars, cranking out promos for a night of jokes. One featured something called the Penis Dialogues, likely a take off from the Vagina Monologues 10 years ago. I wished we'd had a bit more time to look around.

Brazil's northeast, the world's best vacation

I'm back from the most amazing vacation of my life. I chronicled this one more intensely than any other, perhaps because I perceived its eminence from the outset, or possibly because the trip was so logistically complex that it warranted documentation. Our trip took us to the spectacular beach of Jericoacoara, the amazing Delta of the Parnaiba River, and the brethtaking fresh-water sand dune lakes known as the Lencois Maranhenses. The trip started with a flight to the city of Fortaleza and ended with a flight back to Rio from the city of Sao Luis. I intentionally avoided bringing a laptop on this trip, which I'm glad of. And I also decided to avoid spending too much time typing on my Blackberry since I've already suffered enough bouts of carpal tunnel. Which means that the first take on all of this came by -- gasp! -- pen and paper.  I enjoyed having a notebook on hand to jot down whatever I was thinking or seeing and hope it will become a habit for me on future trips.  This means I've had to retype all of this to get it onto my blog. I'll be posting chronicles of each day of the vacation, starting today. There's a lot here.

We hope to have pictures ready pretty soon, but some are the old school non-digital kind (our camera clogged up with sand in Jericoacoara so we picked up a point and shoot to replace it). So they may take some time. I won't be offended if people skip the text saga and go straight for the pictures. I hope it might build interest in doing this trip. It's not cheap and its complicated in some ways, but its not lightly that I say this was the most memorable vacation of my life. And I'd like to thank our dear friend Tatiana for making the arrangements that allowed all this to happen.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Digital media navel-gazing at its most profound


For a while I’ve been bouncing between different writing projects including this blog, Twitter and, well, my job. I’m still in the metaphysical tweeting-about-tweeting phase, much like the nascent blogosphere of the early 00’s was filled with navel-gazing posts about what it meant to be a blogger and the future of journalism. And for a while I’ve been trying to be freer in the things that I put on my blog, to avoid writing essays every time I post. So here we go: instead of Tweeting about Tweeting, I’m blogging about Tweeting.

I initially had this idea of Tweeting about the process of meditation. So I tried it out on Twitter, and it seemed kinda cool. Just the sheer 21st century absurdity of it seemed so appealing to me, the marriage of absolutely irreconcilable opposites. And it reinforced the idea that, yes, Tweeting really can be a cool repository for stray thoughts I don’t have much else to do with. Maybe someone else will appreciate them.

And then there’s the idea of creating your digital space, which bloggers have pretty well figured out. Back in the day (I mean way back, when the famous Talking Points Memo was one guy in DC coding HTML and reading wire stories) blogs were for the most either glorified journals or hyper-political commentary forums. It didn’t take long before people found their niche, such that now you can find blogs out there on just about any subject, country, dispute or cause a person could think of. The nice thing is this is actually much more valuable than everybody repeating the same things over and over again.

My point. I’m getting there.

When I started trying to take Tweeting seriously, I saw this space for a guy who could tweet about how meditation is this truly practical, functional thing people can improve their mood, get more done, be more focused and enjoy things more. And of course the very forum of Twitter makes it logical to do this live. AND – there’s nobody else out there doing this. As far as I can tell. Most of the meditation related tweets I find are people repeating passages by spiritual gurus ranging from Sai Baba to Buddha, or heartfelt messages about discovering inner peace (in 140 characters). And there’s actually quite a bit of Bhudda and spirituality linked commerce that enters the picture, but I won’t get into that.

I wanted a narrative about the experience of these things. Because I do come across thoughts during the day related to the practice of meditation that I’d like to be able to publish. Of course I’d love to be able to debate about all manner of things – the US debt crisis, fossil fuels, alternative energy, monetary policy, the future of Brazil – but I just can’t sit here and tell you what I really think about the things that matter. That’s a no-no for reporters in today’s digital culture – just ask Octavia Nasr what a careless Tweet can mean for a career.

But it turns out my career does allow me to talk about meditation. And the whole point of Twitter is that you stir of interactions and create connections and build communities by sending out messages about the things that are important to you. So I had envisioned something of a gym locker room for people trying to get their own brains in order, or to build up their concentration level. A set of meditation mechanics collectively kicking the tires of Mindfulness (or maybe #mindfulness). I haven’t gotten that because I’m not seeing people out there with the same concept.

And, yes, it was harder than I thought. It turns out that Tweeting – surprise! – actually does distract from meditation. I found myself, at times when I wanted to be winding down, thinking of ways of Tweeting without saying the same things over and over again. So, I was breathing and concentrating, and I forgot about other stuff #meditation. Or maybe Wow, it’s really hard to #meditate after work. It was like a reporter trying to keep a dying story alive, trying to turn nothing into news long just long enough for something to happen. And it got to be another *project* of which I already have too many, and even more that were once projects that I’ve walked away from, leaving me unable to focus, which was the point of the exercise to begin with.

And I was getting a few concerned messages from college friends that went something to the effect of “Dude, you OK over there? Not going off the spiritual deep end, are you?” And I can’t really explain this level of detail on my @brianpablo10 account (that’s why we’ve got Off the Wire). The imminently public nature of Twitter makes it very, um, public.

So I crawled away from the idea of being the enlightened BuddhaTweeter, and told 49 followers I wasn’t gonna do it anymore. But I actually feel like I don’t want to give up on it yet. Granted the experiment is only three days old. I’m just holding out that there is some way to dump stray thoughts out into the world in a productive way, that could eventually be useful either for me or for someone else out there. And because unlike kids today I can’t just float right into new technology, dinosaurs like me I need some kind of gimmick to plug ourselves in. I thought this would be the one. We’ll see. And so will my 49 followers, who are waiting with baited breath.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

My meditation redux


 I’ve tried to get more serious about meditation over the last couple weeks, and it’s been an interesting experience. Part of it is because considered doing a 12-day meditation retreat with about 14 hours a day of meditation interrupted only by light meals and some chats about spirituality. It appeals too me. I’d like to figure out where that would take my brain and how it would change my behavior.

Meditation has given me more focus, and helps me clean out some of the junk floating around in my head. But it generally only does so for about 10 or 15 minutes after I’ve finished the session, which I usually try to do for at least 10 minutes every morning. What I’ve come to realize is that many activities in life are chances to do something similar to meditation. Walking from my house to the bus stop is a chance to observe what’s around me instead of listening to the incessant rattling that’s going on my head. Sitting on the bus is a chance to watch what people are wearing and how they carry themselves, or gaze out at the park and the guys playing morning soccer or look at the beautiful old buildings along the side of the road.

Once I’m on the bus on the way home in the evening, my brain is usually so drained that I can’t do much other than let my conscious run around however it wants. I’ve tried to do some meditation after coming home from work and I generally find it’s the absolute most difficult time to do it.

And meditation does have its limits. About a year ago I was so enthralled by its power that I came to think, possibly without realizing, that if practiced with enough depth and consistency it could be the solution to any emotional problem. But I realized there are lots of moments when greater clarity and focus are not by themselves going to solve a problem. Mindfulness does not help you make decisions, even if it can help you understand the process around the decisions or make it clear that you need to make a decision. And it does not force a person to confront things that are difficult for them. It is not a substitute for courage, dedication, or hard work. It can at best illuminate the need for these things.

And meditation digs up a lot of stuff out of your psyche, which is a double-edged sword. It can put your mind into a state of relaxation that lets you enjoy the things you want to do. But it can also dig deep down and pull out that bad mood that was lurking below the surface that you weren’t paying attention to because you were distracted by other things. When you break up the layer of clutter in your consciousness, you’re not always going to be happy with what you find below.

I’ve tried to spend a good chunk of today, a lazy Sunday that I’m spending at home, to really do some serious meditation. Part of this is in preparation for someday being able to do a longer “boot camp” so to speak, because I figure if I’m going to make it 12 days I should be able to make it a couple hours. I worry about whether the experience would simply be isolating. A person all by themselves trying to sort out what goes on in their own brain, with no distractions, no books, no music.

It always surprises me how little training we get in understanding our own minds. Of course this is difficult because each mind is so different – cada cabeza es un mundo, as Venezuelans like to say. But most of my friends and family have jobs that are almost entirely focused on their mind, which makes it strange that we don’t try harder to understand our minds the way athletes get intimately familiar with the functioning of their own bodies. I think meditation offers a window in. But knowledge is only part getting what you want from life. In the end there are no answers, which is simultaneously daunting and liberating.

Blog and be free


More than six months after starting this project, I’m happy to feel like blogging has done what I was hoping it would. I do feel like I’ve restored a sense of freedom in the things that I wrote, and reconnected with the physical sensation that writing used to give me back in the old days. Writing a long post, culling it, editing it, filling in the links, and sending it off, ultimately leaves me with the sensation of having gone for a run or done a workout. There’s something about grabbing the hyperlinks off the web browser and adding them into the text, or taking a link and running it through Bitly before sending to Twitter, that remind of what it was like to edit ambient sound for radio pieces. It’s work keeping up a blog, and there’s lots of days when it doesn’t feel like it’s worth all the hassle. I suppose it wouldn’t be if there were never days like that.

Monday, September 5, 2011

How to escape the bubble economy: build an education economy


Fifteen years ago we had an economy spurred by the dotcom bubble. Ten years ago it was the housing bubble. Today it’s being driven by the free-money-from-central-banks bubble. Unfortunately there’s no one talking about the one thing that would be a serious response to our current economic troubles.

The fact that the debt ceiling song-and-dance was mostly smoke and mirrors was not lost on most Americans. It was not a discussion about how to revive economic activity or create jobs. But most of the other proposed solutions right now – fiscal stimulus, quantitative easing, shovel-ready public works projects – are also ducking around the fact that our principal economic problem revolves around education. America cannot become more competitive without increasing the productivity of its workers, which means ensuring they have a basic education and improving their workplace skills. This simply does not enter into the discussion about our current economic predicament.

I can remember few occasions in which education has become a major issue of national debate on the level counter-terrorism, foreign wars, economic policy or housing prices. With the possible exception of the fracas over school vouchers, debates over education that splash onto the front pages in fact tend to be debates about something else. The early 1990s clash over voluntary national education standards was mostly of a dispute between liberals and conservatives about how to understand American history. The discussion of Ebonics, which I remember take up a huge amount of media bandwidth when I was in college, was so racially charged that the educational component was almost entirely overshadowed. The continuing disputes about teaching intelligent design in public schools are, in my opinion, about our religious beliefs and our understanding of separation of church and state. None of these examples involve a serious debate about the situation of our education system and how to improve it.

I’ve been thinking about this issue lately for a number of reasons. The first is my friend Rachel Levy’s phenomenal blog about education and education policy that I’ve found one of the most worthwhile out there. She’s a former teacher that is increasingly looked to as an informed voice on what’s happening to education today. 

The second was a brilliant piece of reporting last year by Reuters’ Nick Carey looking at how America for the last four decades responded to the stagnation of its manufacturing sector by simply borrowing money – first from the Japanese, now from the Chinese. The result is we did not improve education and workplace training to move workers out of failing industries into new and more competitive ones. For a while we were able to put people to work by building millions of houses that nobody ever planned on living in. That obviously isn’t working any more.

The third is that I’m now reading Diane Ravitch’s book about the state of education in America. It’s been influential in large part because Ravitch was for years a high-profile advocate of using standardized tests to increase accountability and a proponent of using charter schools to create an environment in which neighborhood public schools had to compete for students. She was a major backer of No Child Left Behind, until she realized that the data simply did not confirm it was working. Her book has prompted me to write my first-ever post about education, though I would clarify I do not consider myself an education expert, and what follows is an extremely stripped-down synopsis of exceedingly complex arguments.

Ravitch’s core criticism of the current system is that the country has failed to create a cohesive curriculum that outlines what a students do and don’t need to learn. The only effort to do so was the aforementioned 1990s voluntary standards debacle, in which a group of education professors in California proposed what was probably (from my reading) a left-of-center revision of American history that was quickly attacked by conservative Republicans as indoctrination. Whoever was at fault is less relevant than the end result: after that incident, no local, state or federal official wanted to risk saying what children should be learning.

Then came No Child Left Behind, which requires standardized testing to determine the performance of both the teachers and schools. With so much on the line for both teachers and principals, schools began changing their curriculum to focus on those things that were going to be on the tests – math and reading – with many of them substantially cutting back on social studies, science, art and literature. The result, Ravitch says, is that schools have replaced education with test-taking skills, and in the process have allowed testing companies to determine what kids need to learn. This leaves them making the decisions that politicians and society at large are simply too afraid to make.

She is also highly critical of the way charter schools have evolved over the last decade. Their original purpose, she says, was to find ways to educate those kids that were the least likely to succeed. Instead, she says, they have been magnets for the kids that are most likely to succeed by offering motivated parents a path toward quality education paid for by the state, something that neighborhood schools frequently do not offer. Parent make a bee-line for the charter schools, leaving the neighborhood schools filled with kids that are most likely to have problems, pushing down the quality of those schools. And nobody can blame those parents – who is really going to sacrifice their kids’ education for the sake of improving their local schools? But charter schools simply don’t have capacity to meet demand, meaning families that don’t have the means to pay for private school and don’t win the lottery have to put their kids in a set of steadily declining neighborhood schools. 

I believe that is at the heart of our economic troubles -- and fixing that system is the only real long-term solution. But it is a long-term solution. We are several generations behind the curve when it comes to getting workers the skills and education that they need. I do not believe there is any quick-fix solution to these problems, which is exactly what politicians most want to propose – a new round of injecting money into the economy, more interest rates cuts (this can’t really happen because they’re almost at zero), or some silver bullet that Obama will be expected to produce in his speech this Thursday to make the malaise go away.

This is not to say all Americans need to get the liberal arts college education that I did – I don’t think many of them need to or want to. But I don’t have the slightest doubt that an auto mechanic or a construction worker or a plumber will be a better entrepreneur and more capable of starting their own business if they have a highschool degree. I do believe people are less likely to get in over their heads in dodgy home loans if they have basic math skills. And I don’t believe we can truly strengthen our economy as long as education is treated as a second-tier issue. 

Saturday, September 3, 2011

The world's biggest and most powerful Banana Republic


Last month’s absurd and embarrassing political shoving match over the debt ceiling, befitting of the most backward of Banana Republics, got me thinking – will the United States evolve into a Third World economy?

Looking on the bright side of things, as I’ve been trying to do these days, I realized that I’ve got a fair amount of theoretical and practical experience in that world. Living in an economy with an unstable currency and galloping inflation forced me to invert many of my basic conceptions about money and finance. Maybe the most illuminating example was the story of my mother-in-law buying a house.

She had to scrape together every last penny she had to buy a small place outside of Barquisimeto almost fifteen years ago. Being one of the most hard-working people I’ve ever met, it doesn’t surprise me that she managed to get the down payment together by selling empanadas and working odd jobs. When she moved into the house things weren’t immediately much easier, because she had to keep working dawn to dusk to make the monthly mortgage payments. For her budget it was a heavy burden – a whopping 60,000 bolivars per month.

Today, you’d have a hard time buying lunch with that much money. She and her husband invested to expand the house, putting on a big comfortable back room and a second floor that now serves a lounge. All these years the value of her house has risen along with inflation – which for the last five years has clocked in between 20 and 30 percent – while the value of her mortgage has been steadily eroded. She considered paying off what was left, but decided – why bother? She took that money and made additional improvements to the home. 

She did what most Venezuelans in the middle class have done – she made inflation work for her.

Is this where America is headed? I can think of a number of reasons why it might be. No matter how much the world has gotten comfortable with the dollar as a monetary base, no currency can remain perpetually stronger than its underlying economy. The US is not only in an economic bind right now, it suffers from divisive politics that are preventing it from making a serious dent in the problems that face it. These problems go way beyond the debt and the deficit; they involve much bigger issues such as the decline of public education and the lack of capacity to create jobs. Sooner or later, something may well give.

Which brings me back to houses, in this case mine. I bought an apartment not long ago in Washington (yes, I’m still planning to move there, someday). I made a bigger down payment than I had to, because I have some strand of Depression Era DNA in me that simply abhors borrowing money. Paying interest strikes me as a drain on my savings that wastes away my hard-earned cash. My instinct is to pay down the mortgage as quickly as possible to keep my housing costs as low as possible.

This logic makes sense in the America of yesterday, but I’m not sure if it fits with the America of tomorrow. Even with unemployment staggeringly high and the economy in the doldrums, the country’s inflation rate is 4.6 percent. That is actually higher than the rate of interest I’m paying. Which means it’s more profitable to let my mortgage get eaten up by inflation than to pay it down. Now, what will that look like in five years from now if oil prices skyrocket, Chinese goods start getting more expensive to import and food prices go through the roof?

It’s hard to say what the future will look like, but I’m fairly comfortable thinking it won’t look like the past. I’m guessing I’ve been given an early glimpse of what it might be.