Thursday, June 30, 2011

Stephen Colbert is now a Super PAC. Making a better tomorrow, tomorrow

"I am a Super PAC, and so can you" says Colbert, whose application was approved by the FEC.

"Making a better tomorrow, tomorrow" :)  .... only in the USA!!!

We like theirs. While they like ours?

Walking around in Quito and Otavalo, and driving while being on the tours, and taking in the sights reminded me of the colors in the built environment that we lack in the US.  It is the same case when I am in India.  I suppose it will be the situation in most countries in South America, Asia and Africa.

Buildings like the one here were not uncommon at all.  And was a pleasure for my eyes especially after months of nothing but gray brought on by the overcast and rainy conditions at home. 

Speaking of colors, only now do I notice a rather dull pattern in the couple of photos that I have of myself from this trip--I am wearing only black t-shirts and long-sleeve versions.  A colorful personality I am not, literally!

Not difficult to understand then why my father finds it rather annoying when day after day all I mostly wear are grey and black when I am in India, while the rest of Chennai and its peoples are clothed in all possible colors of the rainbow!

Whether it is in India or Ecuador, as I walk around absorbing the differences, and the riotous and vibrant colors and sounds, I do wonder whether most of them are tired of what they have and would prefer the relative sobriety of the North American urban landscape.

I am reminded of a conversation when on a train ride in Italy back in 1998.  I struck up a conversation with the Italiano in the adjacent seat.  He was a management consultant and was fluent in English. 

I shared with him my excitement about the scenic Italian cities, and asked him if he had ever been to the US.

I remember his comments even after all these years.  He said the place he loved the most was Los Angeles.  Why?  "Because everything is new. I love the freeways there."

A day or so later, we went to small town  outside of Florence, for which we had to take a taxi from the train station.  I, of course, tried to chat with the driver. Told him how beautiful it all was.

He was curious about America, and was excited when I told him that we were visiting from California.

The driver was ecstatic.  "I love California. Very beautiful. Good scenery."

The way he said that, I was convinced he had visited California and asked him about that.

"Saw on TV. Like to go there."

I suppose many of us are fascinated with the beauty that we perceive to be somewhere else.  Only that can explain why in the charming small town of Otavalo, people construct buildings like this one that stand out oddly amidst more traditional architectural styles.

Perhaps people in Quito and Ecuador might find the structures and colors of North America to be more appealing then?

That certainly seemed to be the case as I looked down at the valley from the hills of the Bellavista neighborhood in Quito, where Museo Guayasamin is located. 

Across was a McMansion with its own tennis court, which could easily be a replica of a rich estate somewhere in the exclusive neighborhood of Montecito near Santa Barbara.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

If we are what we wear, then what about me?

Even as a kid, I didn't care much for fancy clothes.  And now, life in the US and more so in academe has spoilt me even more.  While traveling, all I seem to pack are a whole lot of underwear, undershirts, t-shirts, shorts, socks and, perhaps a light sweater.  Not even jeans anymore--they are too damn heavy!

In other words, the typical American tourist I am!

It seemed as though I could spot fellow American tourists even from a mile away while I was in Ecuador.  The Saint Michael College student I chatted with for a few minutes was obviously an American for simply the way he was attired, though his college t-shirt also helped.

I am not referring to the senior-citizen American travelers--somehow they end up wearing a lot more presentable clothes.  It is the typical 18-55 age group population that travels with this "I don't care about my clothes" attitude.

You can then imagine how fascinated I was whenever I spotted a tourist whose clothes were not shabby.  One of those sightings was at Plaza Grande.

I was seated on a bench at Plaza Grande watching people, most of whom were locals.  And, of the Quitenos who were also idling their time away, it was almost often senior citizens.  The younger Quitenos seemed to be there only to participate in some demonstration or the other.

 One of the older men walked up to me and asked where I was from.  I gave him my standard reply of the US and India.

"I have been to Bombay" he said.  "I can give you a guided tour of Quito.  For cheap."

"No, thanks."

"You want genuine Panama Hat?  For cheap"

"No, gracias."

He walked away.

I continued with my people-watching undisturbed.

And then I spotted two women who were not at all shabbily dressed.  Nor were they the local office-going women, who rushed around in their high, high heels.  These two looked like mother/daughter tourists.  And, it seemed that they were being led around by a local guide.

I was positive they could not be American tourists, only because of how proper they were!  I stealthily took my camera out, zoomed the lens as much as I could, and ... click. I was done. 

From what seemed as Asian features, I wondered if they might be from Peru and related to the Fujimoris there.  If so, then they would be talking in Spanish, I hypothesized.

I had to figure this out.  And the only way was to walk up to them, and kind of listen in.  If the guide was talking in English, then the Peru angle was off.

I wore my hat, picked up my backpack, and casually strolled by them.  The guide was explaining in English.

As I continued walking, away from the Plaza, I was reminded of an incident from a couple of years ago.

I was in India and I convinced a high school buddy, Venu, to go with me to visit with another classmate of ours at his parents' home in Bangalore.  It was a pleasant train ride, during which Venu and I caught up with each other's lives since high school.  As the train neared Bangalore, Venu headed to the bathroom and came back a changed man--he was now smartly attired in trousers and a fresh polo t-shirt.  I was wearing the same old crumpled clothes.

"What's the deal?" I asked him.  "Don't expect me to change out of this"

"You are ok" Venu said. "You are coming from America, and are a college professor as well.  You can wear whatever crap you want and people here will be ok with that."

God bless America, at least for this reason!

Wind turbines could blow earth off its orbit. Obama's energy policy?

Why are such scoops always only from America's Finest News Source?

In The Know: Coal Lobby Warns Wind Farms May Blow Earth Off Orbit

Meanwhile, a soon-to-be-released blockbuster in the making "describes a small town being poisoned with wind":

Ok, that was all from the Onion.

But, seriously, the carbon in the coal?  Not to worry:

So, what does President Obama have to say about our energy policy?

From Masapán to Bizcochos. Rolling in the dough

We had barely past the northern edges of Quito, which is one long north-south city thanks to mountains that restrict its east-west dimensions, when I could feel Oscar beginning to slow the vehicle down.

Ivan turned around from his shotgun seat in order to face me and the Canadian, who was seated in the rear.  "This is the municipality of Calderon.  It is famous for dolls and other art objects made from bread dough."

The nerd that I am, I quickly grabbed the guide book from my backpack.  "Calderon is a famous center of unique Ecuadorian folk art; the people make bread-dough decorations, ranging from small statuettes to colorful Christmas tree ornaments."  I jumped to the sentence after these. "These decorative figures are inedible."

We stopped in front of a small store.  Ivan and Oscar shook hands and hugged and kissed the people there.  A regular spot they bring the tourists to, I thought to myself.

"Masapán" The board made it clear that it was bread dough.  As we walked to the back of the store, three women were working at a table as if they were preparing cookies for a party.

"We have been doing this from when we were kids" Ivan translated their words for us.

As I watched them, I wondered why they hadn't automated a few things over the years. Like the mixing of the dough. And the flattening of it. And, definitely, a more efficient way instead of the cookie-cutter.

I suppose it is not easy to get rid of the engineering and economics background within me!

It is the same way I used to feel back in the days when we visited Pattamadai, where grandmother lived.  Pattamadai was, and still is, known for its exquisite mats made from "korai" grass.  Some of the mats are so soft they can even be folded as if they are from cloth.  Why not make it more efficient, I would think, on noticing that enormous labor was being spent on activities that do not add a whole lot of value.

I walked around in the store.  I rarely buy mementos, and definitely rarely anything like this for myself.  No surprise then that I didn't purchase anything from this unique masapán folk art store. (BTW, the store board did say Masapán and not Mazapán.)

As we got into the van, Ivan commented that the time spent in the store is almost always very short whenever there are only male tourists.  "With women, we have to keep reminding them that it is time" he added.

The urban landscape disappeared completely as we drove.  It was now nothing but hills, which Ivan said would soon turn brown as the rainy months had ended.  And then, as if he heard my stomach's growls, Ivan said, "we will take a break where you can eat the famous bizcochos of Cayambe.  You will also have a restroom there, if you need to use."

Despite his descriptions of bizccochos, I had a tough time imagining what they might look like. "You will soon see it" Ivan said with a smile.  I figured it was time for me to shut up from asking more about bizcochos.

When we pulled to a stop, the huge graphic on the wall made it abundantly clear.

Ivan placed the order for bizcochos, and turned towards us.  "The tour will pay for the bizcochos. Anything else, you pay."

If it were in the US, I would have ordered myself a cappuccino.  But, here, I noticed that it was one of those automatic vending machines that would spew out a mix of milk and coffee.

"A hot chocolate, please." I knew it would come from that same vending machine.  Why automate this, and not the masapan doll-making, I wondered.

A few minutes later, the waiter brought us the bizcochos and the drinks.  Ivan and Oscar explained that the bizcochos are eaten with a salty cheese or with dulce de leche--a rich and soft caramel.  I didn't like it with the cheese.

With the dulce de leche it was awesome.  It was like dipping something softer than a shortbread cookie into caramel fudge and gobbling it up. Who in their right minds would not like that!

I looked around at the few customers at the cafe.  The Canadian and I were the only tourists.  The rest were locals, from a kid who looked to be barely five, to people much older than me. But, despite all the bizcochos and dulce de leche nobody was obese.  Yet another reminder that I was not in the USA!

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

There is nothing as bad as war. Everybody hates this war.

"There is nothing as bad as war. ... When people realize how bad it is they cannot do anything to stop it because they go crazy.  There are some people who never realize. There are people who are afraid of their officers. It is with them the war is made"

"I know it is bad but we must finish it."

"It doesn't finish.  There is no finish to a war."

"Yes there is."

Passini shook his head.

"War is not won by victory. ... We think. We read. We are not peasants.  We are mechanics.  But even the peasants know better than to believe in a war.  Everybody hates this war."

"There is a class that controls a country that is stupid and does not realize anything and never can. That is why we have this war."

"Also they make money out of it."

Sounds very contemporary, doesn't it?

It is from Ernest Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms.

First published in 1929.
Eighty-two years have gone by and, yet, echoes today's world.

Perhaps another piece of evidence that the more things change, the more they look the same :(

PS: A couple of pages after this, Passini is killed in a mortar attack when they are eating cheese and macaroni in the trenches :(

Andean and Indian women are keepers of traditions. Men?

Even in the active city areas of Quito, it was quite common to see women--young and old--in traditional outfits.  I was awfully tempted to take photos of them, and almost always better sense prevailed.  A couple of times, particularly in Otavalo, I clicked in a hurry, pretending to be looking at something else, and while using to the maximum the zoom feature in my simple camera.

I could have easily filled up the camera memory card with photos of women and girls in different traditional, indigenous attires.  The clothes and the women were lovely sights to behold.  But, all I have are a couple of photos that I hastily took with an enormous sense of guilt as if I were peddling illegal drugs in dark alleyways!

It was even more heart-warmingly pleasant a sight when young schoolgirls were chatting and giggling away in their outfits.  But, I was never too far away from them to hurriedly snap them up.  As I was walking back towards the van, I spotted a few schoolgirls; but, darn, they were not in the old-style outfits, but in this:

So, I did the only thing possible: I stopped outside a clothes store, and took a photo of the displayed outfits.

I rarely ever spotted a man wearing comparably traditional clothes.  Even poncho-wearing men were not as common a sight as I had initially assumed would be the case.  A few men with long hair, yes. And some bunched up or even braided. But, that was the extent to which men outwardly displayed anything traditional.

I suppose this is no different from the case in India. Even going back to my grandparents’ generation.

The one grandfather who lived long enough to play with his grandkids got rid of his traditional brahminical tuft by the time he was off to college.  There are photos of grandfather as a college student--back in the early 1930s--and he is in shorts and trousers.  On the other hand, his wife--my grandmother--continued to wear the traditional nine-yard sari and the works.

Andean men, too, seem to have easily walked away from their traditions.  I am not sure how much the women continue with the traditions out of choice, and how much the continuation is because of the relatively un-free and restrictive conditions for women.  I would hypothesize that if girls and women had as much freedom that men--in India and the Andes--have, then they would echo Annie Oakley's "Anything you can do I can do better; I can do anything better than you."

There was one photo of a woman that I took after asking for her permission.  At the market in Otavalo, I bought a couple of small items at a stall run by a woman.  After paying for the goods, I asked her, "photo, ok?" 

She smiled and gave me a thumbs-up. 

Without guilt, but still in haste, I clicked.

Monday, June 27, 2011

From papa to aaloo. Locro for me.

"After we spend time at the market, we will have lunch in Otavalo before we go to Peguche" the tour guide, Ivan, outlined the plan. "You can have some of the typical Ecuadorian food."

After having grown up in a strictly vegetarian home, and even though by now I have spent more years in the US than in India, I continue to be mostly a vegetarian, with a few inroads into the animal world as food.  And, when I travel, am all the more ready to stick to the vegetarian food because my nose and tongue can't quite feel comfortable even with the familiar chicken meat that is cooked very differently from how I am used to in the US.

So, there was really only one Ecuadorian food I was keen on: locro.

There are many variations of locro, of which the one I was after was locro con queso and with avocado.  A basic potato soup with fresh cheese and avocado.

The previous day, Mario had talked to me about this soup. Actually, the conversation began with his question "there is something from Ecuador that is used a lot even in India. Do you know what I am referring to?"

I had no idea what Mario had in mind.

"Potatoes!  Potatoes are from here" Mario proclaimed.

"Not true. Potatoes are from Peru" I replied. "But, Andean, we might agree."

"Peru claims potato came from there, but we believe it is from Ecuador" was Mario's comeback.  And then he went on to describe locro as a basic food item anywhere in Ecuador.  A national dish, of sorts.

So, there was no doubt in my mind that it was locro that I was going to have for lunch.  And not that other Ecuadorian claim to fame--guinea pig.  Yes, guinea pig meat was an item in the restaurant menu.  In fact, it was even available at casual stalls all over.

I ordered the locro and a fruit juice, while Ivan and Oscar had the day's special. The only other tourist, the Chinese-Canadian, decided to try out a regional pork specialty.

While we waited for the food, the Canadian asked Ivan and Oscar, "a lot of South American women win Miss World and Miss Universe contests.  Do you also think that the most beautiful women are from the countries here?"

Oscar, who was not texting at the table, hedged--his mother is Colombian.  Ivan, as a typical tourist guide, was not too keen on providing responses that could be unfavorable to the customer.  I am a useless bloke at these topics because I think pretty girls are everywhere!  The topic died out.

Meanwhile, in the background, a local musician was playing an acoustic guitar and a pan-flute (not at the same time.)  But, he was playing to the audience--tourists--and spent some time on his version of Simon and Garfunkel's Bridge over Troubled Water.  I wished he played local melodies instead.

When the food came, I looked at Ivan and whined like a five-year old, "where is my avocado?"   Ivan translated that to the waitress and in a couple of minutes came a plate with beautifully sliced avaocado.

I added the hot sauce that every Ecuadorian restaurant has and had my first ever locro.  It was delicious.  The fruit juice was delicioso. The Canadian was having a great time with the pork and beer.  And Oscar and Ivan went after their meals with vigor.  Good times were had!

A few days after this, on my way to the airport at 4:30 in the morning, the cab driver asked me about Ecuador.

Buena vistas I replied.

"Guinea pig?" he asked.

I said no.

"But ... " and ...

I searched in my head for the few Spanish words that I know ... "Locro mucho gusto"

The cab driver gave me a wide smile.

If it is not "war" in Libya, then ...

In an op-ed piece in the NY Times, though not about the Libya war itself, a University of Chicago law professor and "a longtime supporter and colleague of Barack Obama at the University of Chicago, as well as an informal adviser to his 2008 campaign" writes about his disappointment with the candidate who promised transparency who then has morphed into "our untransparent president":
The record of the Obama administration on this fundamental issue of American democracy has surely fallen short of expectations. This is a lesson in “trust us.” Those in power are always certain that they themselves will act reasonably, and they resist limits on their own discretion. The problem is, “trust us” is no way to run a self-governing society.

I was a mad hatter in Ecuador. But, no Panama Hat though.

Up until my Ecuador trip became real, which is when I started doing my homework about that country, I had no idea that the Panama Hat has its origins in Ecuador. A Panama Hat is really an Ecuadorian Hat.  Things, profound and mundane, that we find out every day!

As tempting it was, I didn't buy myself one of those Panama Hats. They simply do not mesh with the person that I think I am. Furthermore, most movie portrayals of characters with Panama Hats are of sleazy men :)

I did get a hat though. I was waiting at Mitad del Mundo for the tour to Pululahua, the volcanic crater, and walked in and out the stores there.  In one was a young woman, who seemed to have a lot more indigenous blood in her, though perhaps not entirely indigenous.  Her economic well being depends on tourists like me spending money, I thought to myself.

She offered me a Panama Hat to try on and I smiled my negation. She then pointed to a stack of felt hats.

"Mucho calor" I said, hoping my Spanish was correct.  Plus, I already have a felt hat at home that I don't use because, well, it just doesn't fit my persona.

She showed me another set, and said "you can roll this and pack into your bag."

I liked that one--not because it could be rolled up, but because I could see myself wearing that even in Eugene during the summer.

"How much?"

She flashed thrice the five fingers on one hand to mean fifteen dollars. I knew I was expected to bargain and pay a lower price.  At the same time, I knew that any additional dollar or two would mean a lot more to her than to me.  But, then, when in Rome, do as Romans do!  So, I showed my ten fingers and then three more. She agreed.

I had a new hat.

I have another summer hat at home. But, my favorite of all is a hat that I no longer have.  In 1994, when visiting the Amish areas in Pennsylvania, I fell in love with those Amish hats and bought one for myself. There practically wasn't a day that I did not wear that in Bakersfield, where the Sun was merciless.  I would have had it for a lot longer if not for that fateful day when my daughter rushed into the car and jumped on to the car seat.  The seat on which I had temporarily rested my Amish hat. I heard the hat being crushed.

I hope this hat will survive a lot longer than the few months that Amish hat did.

As I walked around with this new sunscreen on my head, I was watching people and listening to their conversations if they were in English. I heard one woman say "there are so many cultures all around." To which a man replied, "imagine how multicultural all of us will be as more and more people marry across cultures in America."

I couldn't resist the temptation.  "Where in America are you folks from?"  It looked like a husband and wife with their three children, the oldest looking like a pre-teen.

"From Pennsylvania. Lancaster. Amish country, you know."

"Oh, I love that part of the country. I was there many years ago, and bought myself an Amish hat.  I am from Oregon."

"We drove up to Crater Lake. Every summer we take our kids all over."

I looked at the eldest and said "hey, you owe your parents big time."

The dad jabbed his son and said "see, you owe us when you get older."

"Can you adopt me into your family and take me on your trips as well?" I joked with them.

While the parents laughed, the kids looked at me, perhaps wondering what to make of this brown-skinned guy with a local hat, but talking American, and yet with a strange accent.  Or maybe they thought this is how people from Oregon are!

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Columbus discovered America. Confusing all of us Indians.

Almost six years ago, I spent a couple of days at Sengottai with my uncle and aunt, whose home is across from grandma's home, which was sold a few years after grandma died.

My cousin, who lived a couple of hours away, had also come over with her two children.  Her son, who might have been about eight or nine years old, hesitantly walked up to me and asked, in English, "you live in America?"

"Yes. I have been there for a long, long time now."

The kid was now feeling a tad more confident.  "We learnt in school that Columbus discovered America."

I could not let go off the teacher within me.  "Oh, really!  Terrific!"  And then I added, "so, Columbus discovered America?"

"Yes. That is what the teacher told us."

"So, before Columbus discovered America, there were no people there?  He was the first person to go to America?"

"No.  Our teacher said there were people there."

"So, if there were people there already, then it means that somebody discovered America before Columbus did, right?"

The kid was stunned.  He hadn't thought about it.  His teacher hadn't told him that somebody else had known about America before Columbus.

Thanks to Columbus, who originally set sail to India, we have ended up referring to as Indians a whole bunch of different peoples with different cultures and traditions in an entirely different part of the world!  I joke with students that "I am an Indian from India, and not an Indian from here" whenever I want to highlight this insane historical accident.

In a matter of a few years after Columbus, the lives of the original peoples of the Americas changed. Forever. Dramatically. For the worse.

Observing the Andeans, even the mestizos, I was always left to wonder how chaotic the disruptions would have been when the Spaniards came into their lives.

It seemed as if this older woman at Plaza Grande carried in her, and in her face, all those old stories.  One wrinkle was about Columbus. Another was about Pizarro. A lot of lines, recalling a whole lot of people who messed them all up.

Even what she was selling at the plaza made it easy for me to relate to her and her culture: plantain chips, along with a spiced up mix of onions, tomatoes, chilies and lime and beans.  Reminded me of a similar concoction that is a hot favorite in India, especially at beaches and carnivals.

As I sat watching her, I wondered about the stories that might have been handed to her down the generations.  Or, was she, too, taught at school that Columbus discovered America?

My final day in Quito, I went to Museo Guayasamin.  I admit to being clueless about art. It is always a humbling and educational experience whenever I go to an art museum, especially in foreign lands.  A wonderful reminder about how little I know and how much I don't even know that I don't know!

I walked slowly by the exhibits. I was the only one in the museum, and was in no hurry. Some of the pieces reminded me of the village gods back in Pattamadai and Sengottai--the "maadans" who are not in the spectrum of the Hindu deities.  Perhaps the Indians, on either side of the planet, were praying to the same gods.

 I sat outside in the courtyard for a little while.  It was yet another lovely day in Quito, with a blue sky, and scattered white clouds. Ample Sun and a light breeze.

It was in such a paradise that the peoples lived until "Columbus discovered America."

Doonesbury explains what college is for. Hint: not for learning!

My students know all too well that I emphasize understanding and analysis in my classes, and none of the assignments or exams is a test of their ability to memorize facts.  And, thus, they know how much I hate the bubbling-in-answers scantron approach to education, particularly at the undergraduate level.  I even allow them to use laptops and smartphones in the class--I try my best to push them beyond a simple and simplistic access to information, and get them to think about the information.

Towards the end of the last term, one student, "K," raised her her hand as we regrouped after a ten-minute break.

"Do all professors teach the way you do, or did we luck out taking your class?"

I gave her a dull boring answer because I had to ensure that I did not use the class time to critique colleagues, not only at my college but in higher education, who, even in this new world of Google and iPhone apps, think that undergraduate education is all about access to facts and testing students about those facts.

What I would have liked to tell "K" and the rest of the class, with a big grin on my face: "thanks for the compliments."

In this cartoon here, Trudeau conveys the same idea, and also the explanation that Bill Gates gave some time ago on why we have colleges anymore:
'Place-based colleges' are good for parties, but are becoming less crucial for learning thanks to the Internet

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Simon Bolivar and I, in Venezuela and Ecuador

It was in the summer of 1988 that I went to Venezuela.  In a technological time frame, the big thing then was a laptop computer, which was terribly expensive, had very low battery life, and was way beyond the reach of all of us who were starving graduate students.  It was also the days of roll-film cameras.  I could not afford anything more than a simple and inexpensive automatic camera, and had also decided on a budget of the number of rolls that I would use.

One of the fellow-graduate students in that trip was another student from India, Shivsharan Someshwar.  Shiv, who was a couple of years older than me, and a lot more experienced about the world, described the need to get out into the open in the early hours of the day for the best photographs.  In Maracaibo, which is where we spent most of the three weeks, many mornings did I walk about and rationed my camera shots--from mango trees, young boys playing soccer, the weekend trip a few f us took to the beach, cityscapes.  

These photos were my prized possession, along with a poster of Carlos Andres Perez, who was a candidate for the presidency and later won the elections.  Even though I had very few possessions as a graduate student, and even though the few photos from the Venezuela trip were immensely valuable to me, they are now lost--thanks to the number of moves from one apartment to another, and then from one city to another. 

After returning from Ecuador, a couple of days ago I remembered to ask my father whether he has any of the copies I had sent my parents.  "I don't remember seeing any of those photos" he said.

But then in 1988, my parents too were in transition.  Dad was in the last few months of his contract as a consulting engineer at a project in Orissa.  They returned to Madras after that project ended.  I suppose my Venezuela photos were meant to be lost, forever!

Oh well! 

In Venezuela, wherever I went there was some reference to Simon Bolivar--the cinematic Venezuelan hero who fought for independent rule, and had dreams of unifying many of the newly independent countries into a political unit that would be without any Spanish influence. 

After 23 years, Simon Bolivar once again featured in my Ecuador experiences.  For starters, the hotel where I stayed in Quito is on a street named, yes, Bolivar!

I walked a lot in the old town, Centro Historico, where my hotel was located, and more--even beyond the park where the new town begins.  At this transition is is a huge statue honoring Simon Bolivar--riding a horse and leading the charge.

I have memories of taking photos of Bolivar portraits and statues when I was in Venezuela. If only I can track them down.  But, it is not as if I have lost nothing else in life!  I suppose in life we gain some, and lose some.

Bolivar himself can never be lost in the shuffling around in history though.  After all, one of the countries that he led to its liberation is named after him--Bolivia.  I hope this does not mean that my next trip to South America will be to Bolivia.  I have nothing against that country; I would rather get to Argentina first.

Was going to Ecuador an Andean or a Mediterranean vacation? Or both?

The northernmost I have been to on this "third rock from the Sun" was during the trip to Alaska, when a bush plane took us from Fairbanks to an Inuit village a mile north of the Arctic Circle.  The southernmost point I have been to is Melbourne, Australia, where my brother lives.  But, not often have I crossed the Equator--most of my life has been only in the northern hemisphere.

Going to Ecuador meant that, for all purposes, I was just about walking along the equator all those six days.

La Mitad del Mundo (The Middle of the World) is, of course, the most well known monument that marks the equator.  But there is a lot more to the equator in Ecuador, and this predates the French astronomers' scientific expeditions in the 18th century.

As tour guides and museum exhibits repeatedly reminded me, the more archeological activities are carried out, the more the world is finding out about the peoples who lived in this part of the Andes, and how much they had understood the world while living at the earth's equatorial bulge.

On the way to Otavalo, we stopped at yet another marker for the zero degree latitude--at Cayambe.  Apparently the equatorial line at this spot has been determined to be within millimeters of accuracy.  While this determination itself is a modern one, studies by anthropologists and archeologists are apparently providing new insights into how the hills nearby were sites where in the past the indigenous Andean groups held celebrations marking the equinoxes and the solstices.

In other words, the people in the past knew they were high up on the equator.  The real "mediterranean" people, in contrast to those Europeans who incorrectly named the sea by their lands to be the middle of the earth.

It was a scenic spot where this marker lies.  But then, which place in Ecuador that I went to wasn't scenic!

Every one of these markers for the equator comes with stories--some of which might be exaggerations, of course--of the Andean peoples' knowledge of the equator. There was one point that the guide here said that made sense.  On a world map, as you trace a path along the equator, you notice that a lot of that is the rain-forests.  These places, naturally, did not lend themselves into understanding the sky, which was how we developed an understanding of the earth, its round shape.  If you lived amidst the jungles of the Amazon or the Congo, you had a very limited view of the sky.

The Ecuadorean northern highlands are a wonderful contrast to the forests--the open skies gave the indigenous groups, more so in the old days before electricity, one of the most expansive views of the sky ever possible on the planet.  They noticed the Sun moving around, and systematically.  The Sun went and came back.  The figured that there was a limit to which the Sun moved--the limits that we recognize today as the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn.

The guide there was obviously passionate about the cultural heritage, and the urgency to preserve the sites with archeological significance.  I asked her, "when you think about it, don't you get upset that the Spaniards wiped out your peoples and their histories?"

I get charged up thinking about this.  It is horrendous.

"Yes. It upsets me even more that the ancient sites are being destroyed. All the mining is blowing up the historic sites" she replied.

I was beginning to feel the pain she walked around with.

"Even the churches at Quito were all built on sites that were of importance to our people.  They destroyed them."

There is simply no way to compensate for the injustice, I thought to myself. Here was this beautiful young woman struggling to deal with her own identity, her cultural heritage, and has to do that with fragmented stories from the past even while fighting to protect whatever remains from being destroyed.

"I am surprised that you are able to smile even as you say all these" I told her.

"It is all in the past. There is nothing we can do."

I asked for her permission to take a photograph, and she said "sure."

"You speak very good English.  Where did you pick it up"

"Mostly from talking to tourists" she said.

I wished her well, and dropped an additional dollar bill as my contribution to ensuring that the ancient sites will not be dynamited away.

It is difficult not to think about the Andean peoples.  I feel one with them.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Can we ever understand our queer universe?

Richard Dawkins asks:
If the universe is queerer than we can suppose, is it just because we've been naturally selected to suppose only what we needed to suppose in order to survive in the Pleistocene of Africa? Or are our brains so versatile and expandable that we can train ourselves to break out of the box of our evolution? Or, finally, are there some things in the universe so queer that no philosophy of beings, however godlike, could dream them?
What a tragedy if it turns out that we cannot ever figure this out! The latest issue of the Scientific American raises a question on its cover: "Can we get any smarter?"  I really, really, hope we do, though the article itself argues that we may be limited by the physics of the brain.  Even if there are such severe limitations related to mass, miniaturization within the brain, and energy, I hope the collective intelligence of humans will one day crack the mystery of it all.  When after my life ends might this happen? A few hundred years?  A geologic era?

BTW, the "queer" in Dawkins' talk has nothing to do with homosexuality.  Dawkins is working off a JBS Haldane quote:
[My] own suspicion is that the universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose. I suspect that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of, or can be dreamed of, in any philosophy.

Hillary Clinton channels George W. Bush

Not too long ago, President Bush notoriously famously asserted:
You're either with us or against us in the fight against terror
Oh, those were the days the anti-war patriots were incensed, and feebly fought back that opposing crazy wars ... oh well, you remember all those days, don't you?

Years passed.  The US was deep in two wars. Then, the president got term-limited. (If we didn't have the constitutional amendment, would Bush have won a third term, too?)

A new president came into office promising hope and change.

The change was that instead of a surge in Iraq, we now had a surge in Afghanistan. And then to compensate for the winding down of activities in Iraq ... President Obama took the fighting to the shores of Tripoli.

Congressional authorization for war be damned, this new president declared, thereby confirming that Bush had won a third term after all..

The current Secretary of State, who was lauded for her testicular fortitude during the primaries, now eerily echoes (ht) President Bush:
the bottom line is, whose side are you on? Are you on Qadhafi’s side or are you on the side of the aspirations of the Libyan people and the international coalition that has been created to support them? For the Obama Administration, the answer to that question is very easy.
I suppose we need to remind ourselves the immortal words of the previous vice president, as a statement on behalf of the Bush/Obama/Cheney/Clinton composites to us, the anti-war people, as well:
go f--- yourself

Cartoon of the day: US government

Why Peguche in Ecuador felt familiar. It is Courtallam in the Andes

Ivan, the tour guide, and Oscar, the driver, made quite a team.  They seemed to be of the same age, about 25, and were part-time students at a local university in Quito.  Ivan was chatty, while Oscar was mostly quiet.  And, whenever he was not driving, Oscar seemed to be more interested in texting than in anything else.

"Is it a girlfriend you are always texting with?" I asked Oscar. I can't help but chat with drivers and tour-guides; in addition to my innate curiosities, it helps me understand the country and its peoples that much more.

"No, I don't have a girlfriend. No time for that. I am texting my primos--I don't know the English word."

"Help me out, amigo. Can you explain what primos means?"

Oscar laughed and after a lot of ers and ums, said "uncle's sons"

"Oh, cousins!"

We had stopped at a place from which we had to walk for ten minutes to get to the waterfalls that Ivan said was a gorgeous sight.  It was a few miles off the main highway between Quito and Otavalo.  There was no other vehicle where we stopped.  A couple of old men were chatting. Ivan pointed to the wall and the arch and started walking.

A typical hacienda style, I thought to myself, as I looked at the wall and the arch.

At the same time, the arch--along with the pleasant temperature and a light breeze--reminded me of the arch at Sengottai.  Not a Spanish hacienda arch, but not that different either.

We started walking. A few feet on the other side of the arch was the board that explained to tourists where we were:

Ivan was talking with the only other tour participant that day--a Chinese-Canadian, who is a theoretical physicist at the University of Toronto.  Oscar, of course, was busy texting and walking.  We paused for a brief while at the interpretation center, where Ivan translated for us that there would be big time celebrations near the falls to mark the summer solstice. 

A few kids passed us playing improvised games that kids are so capable of inventing. Otherwise, it was only us on the cobblestone-path.

And then I heard it. The sound of water rushing. As much as I am a mountain man, I love the flowing water too. More so when it is a waterfall. It is not Oregon's cascades that have spoilt me thus, but those warm and wonderful waterfalls at Courtallam.  Going to the falls was practically an annual event during my childhood days when we regularly visited Sengottai, which is less than five miles away from Courtallam.

I was excited.  The sound of cascading water got louder and louder with every step. And then, there it was.

  Bueno! Magnifico!

It is amazing how much a waterfall can make the heart feel so happy and content. Yet again, I had to remind myself that this was not Oregon, and not Courtallam, but Ecuador. "I am in Ecuador!"

A young couple, obviously in love, walked hand-in-hand towards us and the falls. Oh to be in love when young!

A middle-aged local materialized out of nowhere all of a sudden. I then realized that there was a path among the vegetation. He started speaking to me in Spanish.  My brown skin and appearance meant that most people assumed that I am a Spanish-speaker.  This was my experience in Venezuela a couple of decades earlier, as was the case in Ecuador.  He too, like others, sported a confused expression when I said "no comprendo. no espanol."  He continued to talk to me pointing his hand at the path from where he emerged. I shrugged my shoulder and repeated "no comprendo."

I noticed an observation deck a little higher up from the bridge.  Though Oscar was standing next to me, there was no point asking him as he was texting his primos. So, I turned to Ivan. "Is it safe to walk up there?"

"Of course. But be careful."

It was a little slippery and steep at times. But, was well worth it.  I paused for the love-birds to come down to earth, but quietly took a photo before they could notice me coming up. The young couple in love and the waterfalls together more than doubled the pleasure.

I could have spent an entire day there, walking around and watching the falls. But, to paraphrase Robert Frost, we have to get going in life!  And so we did.

Courtallam in the Andes started fading away in the distance, and soon there was no sight or sound of it.

We were back at the arch, on the way to the van. The comforting thought was that we were off to yet another beautiful place.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Difficult to let go of the baggage!

Claudia, the office manager for Hotel Real Audencia, told me when I came back from exploring Quito that both the day trips were confirmed--one to Otavalo, and then to Cotopaxi the day after.  "Be ready by 8:00.  They will pick you up from here."

It was close to 6:30 when I woke up the following morning.  Only after 7:00 would the free breakfast be available.  "Free" as in it was a part of the room charges.  So, I spent some time organizing my backpack, and straightening out the bed.

The dining area was on the top floor of the hotel, with a fantastic view of Plaza Santo Domingo and the Virgin on the hill.  I walked up the stairs a few minutes after 7:00, and two, in their early twenties--graduate students, perhaps--were already half-way into their breakfast.

I had made a habit of sitting at a different table every morning, in order to get a new perspective each time.  I walked up to get myself a cup of tea (as the guide-book had warned, regular coffee was no good.  The book's explanation was that all the good coffee was for export.)  By then, another woman, in her early thirties, had come in as well, and she was getting hot water and milk for tea. 

While I am typically eager to chat with strangers, particularly in foreign lands, I suppose I am a tad hesitant these days because of my self-consciousness over my status as a single guy.  In the past, in the company of  wife or daughter, or both, I was always confident that my intentions would not be mistaken.  But, now, there is always the possibility that I could be viewed as a cliché.

Finally, it didn't matter.  "Where are you from?" I asked her.

"Germany. How about you?"

This simple question dogged me throughout my trip.  Whether it was the taxi driver or a fellow tourist, when they asked me where I was from, I was always tempted to stop with "the US."  But then, I knew that they knew that I am from somewhere other than the US.  So, at a little after seven in the morning, when a young and attractive German woman asks where I was from, well, I am sure it is not difficult for anyone to imagine me trying to figure this question out.

"From the US. Have lived there for a long time after I moved from India."  I was happy with this answer and decided to use the same anytime people asked me this question during the rest of the trip.

As we walked back to our respective tables, I sensed some kind of an anxiety in her.  I sat across after asking for her permission to join at her table.  She could easily be from the US, I thought to myself.  And, like most Western Europeans, she spoke English very well, and her accent had very little of a German sound in it, unlike mine that is heavily loaded with an Indian tone.

"Where in the US are you from?"

"From Oregon. It is north of California."

Turned out that she was a dentist from a small town near Munich, and she was on her way to Cuenca for a five-week dental camp for the not-so-well-off.

"But, how did you figure out from Germany some place in Ecuador for this camp?"

"I am with Dentists without Limits."

"Oh, like Doctors without Borders?"


As we talked, I found out the reason for her anxiety. Her flight from Germany was via Venezuela, and her bag didn't make it to Quito after Caracas.  And her flight to Cuenca was only hours away. 

"I am so sorry.  I am sure it is terrible" I said.

"All the donations for the dental camp are in that bag.  And, I have no clothes other than what I am wearing now."

The tip of her nose was getting red, like how my daughter's used to when she was a teenager.  It was always a sign that my daughter was ready to explode into tears.  I looked at the clock-tower at the Plaza--it was already past 7:30.

In a way, it is awful that we have very little time to sit with and console a fellow human.  I decided to skip my shower and instead chat with this woman and encourage her as much as I could.

"Well, let us hope that your bag will come through.  The best I can offer is you are my clean t-shirts.  I have lots of chocolate that I can give you though."

"Thanks  That's ok.  I put all the food items from my fridge into my carry-on bag, and so have chocolate and cheese and cookies for now.  What do you say in English, "keep your hands together""

"Yes, keep the fingers crossed"

"Ja. Fingers crossed" she said.

"Look at it this way" I told her, "you will have some interesting stories to tell your friends after you return."

"I don't think I will tell them.  Because they will immediately say "I told you not to go anywhere in South America" ... all these countries have too much crime and violence and my friends didn't want me to come here."

"True. Anywhere in South America is awfully unsafe these days" I replied. 

It was almost 7:45. I told her I had to get going, because of the tour starting at 8:00.

"Where are you going today?

"To Otavalo, and stops along the way."  ... "I am sure your bag will come through."

"I hope so. It is not the money value, you know. There are items there--not costly--but items from my trips to Bali and other places.  Those cannot be replaced. And, of course, the dental donations."

"But, you have to go, right?  Enjoy your trip to Otavalo."

As I stood up to leave, I felt terrible that I could not spare any more time to help her out. There was nothing I could do--I don't know the language, for starters.  But, if only to chat with her.

"Hey,  good luck. Nice chatting with you. Bye."

I rushed to my room. Was glad that I had already organized my backpack. Brushed my teeth and got out of my pajamas. Deodorant, in place of a hot shower. Jeans and a t-shirt. Socks. Shoes.

The phone rang as I was getting my backpack. "Your tour guide is here."

"I will be down in a minute. Thanks."

Two flights of stairs later, I was at the desk and Ivan introduced himself as the guide.

We started walking to the van that was parked by the Plaza Santa Domingo.  Only now, as I type this, do I realize that it didn't occur to me to look at the window above and wave out to the lonely German woman who was visibly discombobulated over her lost luggage!

Dawning of a new day in an old world of Quito

“Are you going to a garage sale?” asked the teller at the local bank when I asked her to provide the money that I was withdrawing in ones, fives, and tens.  “It looks like there are a whole lot of garage sales this week” she added.

“No, I want smaller bills because I am traveling” I replied.  For some reason I didn’t want to volunteer any additional information on my plans.

But, the teller was curious, I guess.  “Where you going?”

“To South America. To Ecuador.” 

“Oh, in that case you want me to give you newer bills?  Because in foreign countries they don’t like bills if there is any small tear, right?”

By now I decided that there was no point holding back with the young woman, who, for some reason, reminded me of my daughter, and was genuinely interested in the satisfaction of this customer.  “No, that won’t be a problem at all. Ecuador uses American dollars.  They don’t have their own currency.”

She got visibly excited with this piece of information that was entirely new to her.  “Really?”

I thought about my student, "R," commenting that travel is easier when there is no need for funny money, and we can simply use the dollar bills instead.

“Yes, there are a couple of countries that operate this way.  Which is why I want the smaller bills while down there, which I can then use for expenses like food and taxi.”

“Wow. Something new every day.”

Transaction ended and she wished me bon voyage.  I had to check myself from automatically saying "you too."

The next day, I was off to Quito.

I didn’t have any plans on how I was going to spend the six days in Ecuador.  Of late, this has become my approach to traveling.  I did the homework though by reading the Lonely Planet guide and a bunch of websites, and had in the back of my mind the key things that I would watch out for once there.  But, the plans will be worked out after landing in Ecuador.  

All I had was a hotel reservation in Quito.  Everything else was to be ad hoc.

I didn’t even have to worry about the transportation from the airport to the hotel—I had pre-arranged for a ride, through the hotel. The confirmation email from the hotel noted:
Our representative, Trans Rabbit, will meet you at the airport the day of your arrival, when flight of AMERICAN AIRLINES 967 reaches Mariscal Sucre airport at 22h00.   It will be very easy to find him as he will hold a blue sign with your name (Mr. Khe) on it.
He held a black-and-white sign, not in blue.

It was past eleven in the night when I got into the room.  A spacious room with an old model television set that distorted the colors at its edges, and with quite a large sized bathroom.

A little after 6:30 the following morning I stepped out of the hotel for a quick stroll before breakfast.  I had barely walked a few steps when I realized how close the hotel was to one of the main plazas in the historic old town area—Plaza Santo Domingo.  I knew this from the homework readings, but still was quite a revelation.  A simple example of the textbook knowledge versus experiencing things firsthand.

My excitement levels quickly shot up when I turned the corner and caught a glimpse of the statue of the Virgin, up on a hill.  I walked a few more blocks until I got a good view of the statue.  I knew I was no longer in the good ol' US of A.   “Maybe I made the right call, after all” I told myself.

It was not even seven in the morning, and there was not much of any activity.  Furthermore, it was a Sunday morning, which was another reason for people not to hurry up.   

After circling a few more blocks, I walked up to the top floor of the hotel for breakfast.  I carefully separated out the ham from the scrambled eggs--I am yet to develop a taste for most animal products--and hoped that the refreshing guava juice would calm down my anxieties about visiting alone a new place with a foreign tongue as well.

And thus began my first day in Ecuador.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Do Apple's iPhones add to the US trade deficit with China?

Add to, or subtract from?  That is a two-billion dollar question, isn't it?  This WSJ report says:

The value-added approach, in fact, shows that sales of the iPhone are adding to the U.S. economy—rather than subtracting from it, as the traditional approach would imply.
Based on U.S. sales of 11.3 million iPhones in 2009, the researchers estimate Chinese iPhone exports at $2.02 billion. After deducting $121.5 million in Chinese imports for parts produced by U.S. firms such as chip maker Broadcom Corp., they arrive at the figure of the $1.9 billion Chinese trade surplus—and U.S. trade deficit—in iPhones.
If China was credited with producing only its portion of the value of an iPhone, its exports to the U.S. for the same amount of iPhones would be a U.S. trade surplus of $48.1 million, after accounting for the parts U.S. firms contribute.
 Am sure trade economists will duke it out on this one.  But, it does seem like we might have to redefine how to measure trade data and deficits and surpluses

From the Neyveli "hill" to Cotopaxi. The mountain man, I am

With the exception of the ten weeks that I lived in Calcutta, and the few months in Madras, for the rest of my life I have always lived close to mountains.  And, in Ecuador, I enjoyed the Buena vistas of the peaks and hills even more than I have anywhere else.

In Neyveli, where I spent the first 17 years of my life, it was not mountains that resulted from millennia of geological activity though.  Instead, the sandy hills were the overburden cleared in order to get to the lignite buried under the surface.   

But, to a kid that I was, it didn’t make any difference how old those “hills” were.  All I had to do was to walk up a little and spot the light brown hills.   And be transfixed at the sight of huge machines spreading the overburden and the hills gaining height.  It almost felt as if those hills down the road and I grew up together.  Of course, as an older person, and a tide wiser, I worry about the tremendous impacts on the environment such a strip mining caused, and continues to have.

Almost every summer during those school days in Neyveli, we went to visit with the grandmas, whose respective villages were about forty miles apart.  While Pattamadai had unimpressive hills far away in the horizon, Sengottai had the lovely hills of the Western Ghats.  From the rooftop of grandma’s home, the hills were always inviting.   

As a kid, I always hoped that our train journey would extend beyond Sengottai because of the tunnels through which the train passed on its way to Trivandrum.  

The undergraduate years were at Coimbatore, where too hills were always visible from the campus and the dorm.  It was only a couple of hours of a bus ride to go up those Nilgiris with tea estates and verdant trees and shrubs, and end up in Ooty and Coonoor.  

In Los Angeles, whenever the rains cleared up the smog, it was an amazing treat to look at the San Gabriel Mountains and immediately understand the powerful dynamics that draw hundreds of thousands to Southern California every year, many of them settling down for good in the region.  After a few years there, and past the Grapevine, I lived and worked in Bakersfield which was at the southern end of a valley with mountains ringing around on all sides but the north.  What a pleasure it was to see the snow dusted Tehachapi Hills from the bedroom window!

It has been almost nine years in Oregon and hills and mountain ranges are a daily aspect of my life.  A few days ago, I had driven to the massive Fern Ridge Reservoir lake just a few miles from home, and it was one of those fantastically clear skies where it seemed like one could see forever into the distance.  And, all of a sudden, I spotted the Sisters—as much as I am ignorant about details on the physical geography and the flora and fauna here, I am confident it was those peaks that I saw.  I parked the car, and stood there for a long time, and gained a new insight into why people all over the world worshiped mountain peaks.

Against, such a background of mountains in my life, I thought I had died and gone to heaven in Ecuador.  The city of Quito itself is all ups and downs, and buildings dominate the hillsides by the valley.  Mountains all around.  And many of them volcanic peaks.

When I went to the monument that marks the equator, La Mitad del Mundo (the middle of the world) it only seemed that the mountains made the monument that much more beautiful.   

And from there, I went with a five other tourists for a short hike around the crater rim of Pululahua.   During the short, and sometimes steep climb, I paused to take a look around.  The valley of Quito was off at a distance, and various hills were strung around like a necklace to celebrate the equator.

It was a sheer 300-meter drop into the lush green crater down below and a part of me worried that I would slip and fall.  But the better part of me prevailed and enjoyed the scenery, and was humbled by the powerful forces of nature that carved out the landscape, and continues to reshape this beautiful pale blue dot.

The guide book pointed out the need to schedule this trip early in the day, because otherwise the clouds roll in.  And what a sight it was to watch the clouds literally roll in through the gap, as if somebody was pumping in dry ice from the other side.

I stood mesmerized looking at “Taita”  (daddy) Imbabura and “Mama” Cotacahi.  Imbabura from across the waters of San Pablo.  And later the snow capped summit of Cotopaxi.

As the vacation drew to an end, and as the plane started its descent into Portland, I saw Mount Hood through the window.  It was so reassuring to look at this familiar peak, and I wondered whether it was Taita or Mama!

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