Thursday, November 25, 2010

Respite for The Weary Teacher, and Guerilla Fighter?

Respite for the Weary Teacher, and Guerilla Fighter?

November is a good month to be a school teacher in Panama. Nov. 2 is the traditional Day of the Dead celebration so no school that day. Nov. 3 celebrates Panama’s separation from Colombia, followed by Flag Day on Nov. 4. Then came Friday, Nov. 5 which isn’t a holiday, but school was cancelled anyway. Nov. 10 celebrates some uprising, followed by Panama’s version of July 4th on Nov. 28. No problem if teachers and students still feel run down after all the festivities—summer vacation starts in mid- December.

Jaque is a peaceful little town but gets lots of unfavorable publicity due to its proximity to the Colombian border. An older version of the popular “Lonely Planet” travel guide had this to say about the village, “Unless you’re here to surf out front of town or explore the Rio Jaque, there’s really no good reason to come here.” The latest version has no mention of Jaque.

A 2004 article in “Outside” magazine about Panama’s Darien Gap mentioned the author’s visit to “Jaque, a village of a few thousand where the guerrillas buy groceries and get their cavities filled.” (he forgot to mention them taking surfing lessons). Then there’s that billboard sponsored by the Colombian government a block from our house calling on the guerillas to turn themselves in for an amnesty program (see attached photo). With an image like this no wonder tourists never visit Jaque, which suits me just fine.

REVOLUTIONS: The Journey (part 2); Graduate Studies at Hitchhikers University

The first ride was liberating, the adventure door flung wide open-- free transportation, new people and places, and unfiltered exposure to human nature . Remarkable freedom, crashing anyplace I landed: the side of the road, under bridges, in the woods, in people’s yards.
The hitchhiking culture of the 1970s provided the opportunity; a hobo by choice. I had a book, “Hitchhikers Bible,” with all kinds of advice. One trip I traveled with a banjo getting rides even faster, no matter that I was just learning to play.
For many the hitchhiking journey was a rite of passage. My two best friends in high school also hitched west. We read and were fascinated by Jack Kerouac’s “On The Road.”
But times have changed; the age of homeland security and perpetual war has arrived. Signs warn against picking up hitchhikers near prisons, as prisons expand like wildfire.
The legacy of the hobo now lies mainly with those traveling out of necessity-- migrant workers. For house repairs I once hired a man from Mexico who was missing half of one foot due to an injury from hopping a freight train. He’s now picking grapes in California, and paying for his daughter’s college education.
The hitchhiking journey may no longer be popular, but certainly not extinct. Chris McCandless, traveling as Alexander Supertramp, did his trip in 1990-92, finding people just as generous as I did fifteen years earlier. Stories like “Into The Wild” show that accepting a ride from a stranger, or picking up a stranger, isn’t just another risk to be avoided, but a potentially life changing experience.
I haven’t completely retired. Several years ago the bus I was riding broke down in Mexico, where hitchhiking is common, so I decided to hitch instead of waiting. I was relieved to discover that after thirty years my thumb still had the magic touch.

“I have walked 25,000 miles as a penniless pilgrim…. without ever asking for anything, I have been supplied with everything needed for my journey, which shows you how good people really are.” Peace Pilgrim (born Mildred Lisette Norman, 1908-1981)

The best teacher is experience and not through someone's distorted point of view." from "On The Road." by Jack Kerouac (1922-1969)

Between 1975-1977, after graduating from high school, I made three trips to the western U.S. Following are excerpts from my travel journal (summarized and recreated in large part after losing much of the original), starting off with a couple of prior formative experiences.
South Fork New River, Blue Ridge Mtns. N.C.- summer 1972—Did a float trip on the New River in a cheap inflatable rubber raft; the first day with my Father and then alone. The third day I stopped near Jefferson at an old farm house to ask for matches, and ended up staying several days with the Lyalls family, who were quite poor with no car or indoor plumbing but incredibly hospitable. After that break floated downriver four more days finishing in Virginia, where I saw a deer swim across the river just before taking out. Called my Father to come get me— he was on the verge of calling the sheriff’s department since he hadn’t heard from me in a week.
Elkin, N.C.—1973. Hopped a freight train today. All the box cars were closed so a friend and I climbed on top of one. Only complication was my friend’s aunt and uncle spotting us from their back yard by the tracks—we innocently waved. When the train made a stop railroad employees came for us. They were real friendly letting us ride in the engine to the end of the line at North Wilkesboro, and then told us what time to meet them for the trip back to Elkin.
Idaho, summer 1975Working with the U.S. Forest Service on backcountry patrols in the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness Area. Before Idaho I hitched to Yellowstone and Olympic National Parks to visit friends working there. Hitchhiking has been a breeze. Only one bad experience when some drunken men in Washington State found out I was from N.C. and responded, “Out here we kill Tarheels!” I didn’t take them seriously but their driving terrified me and I pleaded to be let out.
Banner Elk, N.C.—Winter 1976. Today I worked my first and last day as a ski-lift operator at Beech Mtn. Resort, which involved standing in an unheated booth all day. Had to shut down the lift down at one point, but never got the return call to restart, so watched helpless skiers swinging on the cold metal seats with artificial snow blowing all over them, for close to an hour. I was lucky I didn’t get fired on the spot, as I had accidentally left the phone off the hook preventing return calls. I’m hitchhiking south tomorrow to Florida and warmer climates. They can keep my wages.
Key West, FL Hitchhiked straight here from N.C. in only a couple of days, getting long rides, one all night. Last night myself and another traveler were offered a place to stay by this hustler at a bar. His pad turned out to be sleeping under a truck trailer near some discarded fish parts, the three of us lying side by side wedged between the tires.
Belle Glade, FL-- Had my backpack stolen, with my money foolishly stored inside it, by a man who took off when I got out for a bathroom break. An elderly couple at the rest stop gave me a sandwich and ten bucks. I hitched into Belle Glade, the closest town, acquired a blanket, and am sleeping behind a fallen tree beside a convenience store. Bought a cup of coffee at the store with remaining pocket change and chatted with a black youth whose Mother works there. Later he came out to my tree to give me some bags of chips and cookies. The second night here night a rare cold snap hit south Florida, with temperatures in the upper 40s. Couldn’t sleep so walked the streets to stay warm, and was questioned by police. Then disaster hit-- in the darkness I walked right into some sort of sludge pit. Crawled out in shock, covered up to my chest with a coat of wet slime. My salvation turned out to be some motel’s flood lights which I huddled around for warmth and to dry my clothes. A day later I went down to the town center at 5 a.m. where hundreds of mostly Jamaicans and Haitians assembled to take buses to the fields. Got on a bus taking African-Americans to pick green beans. I was so pitiful at this task that my fellow workers threw handfuls of beans into my basket to help fill it. At the lunch break I pulled out my peanut butter sandwich which was covered with ants. I asked the guy sitting sitting next to me if he thought it’d still be ok to eat it. He replied “If you’re hungry enough, you’ll eat anything,” so I did. Finally bit the bullet and called my Father to wire me some cash, then heading to the Southwest.
El Paso, TXSpent the night at the Salvation Army, my first night in a bed in weeks. Before supper we all had to attend a short chapel service which some slept through. Told there’s work building a bridge in Yuma. Met a drunken hobo by the train tracks who I asked about trains going west but he just rambled on about being a Mason and how the Masons would take care of him wherever he was. Gave up and decided to hitchhike.
Tucson, AZ--Rode into Tucson with a fugitive, returning to turn himself after a drug bust a year ago. We spent the night at his brother’s house, where they threw a big welcome home party. As I was leaving the next morning I asked if he was still going to turn himself in, and he replied, “I don’t know, I’m having too good a time.”
Yuma, AZ.—In downtown Tucson a man who had obviously been drinking approached and offered me a ride if I would drive him towards Las Vegas. He rode in the back seat drinking whiskey and boasting about his skills as a short-change artist. At one stop he tried unsuccessfully to convince a store clerk he had given her a twenty dollar bill instead of the ten. When he passed out cold I decided to drive myself on to Yuma. He woke up just as we arrived, so I pulled over and hopped out before he realized where we were . A man in an old car with “Junior” painted on the side offered me a ride to where I could stay for free, which was the home of an African-American woman named Dorothy, who is Yuma’s saint for the down and out. She lets everyone stay in several travel trailers in her backyard. I’m sharing a little trailer with a guy named Utah who just got out of jail. No luck on the bridge job; weren’t hiring.
Oklahoma, summer 1977 Got stuck for most of the day in a horrible location for hitching. In the heat my frustration boiled over and I started yelling at passing cars; no cussing or words at all, just a loud primal yell. Finally a car pulled over—the man told me after hearing my desperate yelling he had doubled back to pick me up.
Tuba City, AZ.-- Hitchhiked across the Navajo and Hopi reservations with a young Navajo, Robert, who invited me to visit his home. Hitching is real easy here as many locals depend on it. We stayed at his grandparents’ place, who spoke little English. I slept on the ground in a traditional hogan behind the house.
Gallup, N.M .-- Walked into a little roadside carnival where a carny called me over for a free turn at a ring toss game. After several throws I was convinced it was a sure bet to win several hundred dollars if I just kept playing. When it finally struck me that the game was rigged it was too late. I stared into my wallet which led him to point to a sign stating “Don’t Overspend.” I had blown $125 and had $15 left for the trip back to N.C. My luck improved after that—a friendly young couple with a cooler full of food took me all the way to Oklahoma.
Memphis, TN, Aug. 18, 1977-- As my ride approached Memphis traffic suddenly began backing up for miles, it wasn’t rush hour so I asked the driver if he had any idea what happened. He responded, “They’re going to Elvis Presley’s funeral.” It was also the last day of my final cross-country hitchhiking trip.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Hollywood's Marlin; Revolutions: Supertramp, Burro Lady, and Ben Linder

On the dark blue sea a boat suddenly approached carrying two men holding weapons, one staring menacingly through a black ski mask. The entire front of the boat displayed the image of a shark with its mouth wide open as if to swallow us up. Just a routine police check as we approached the Tropic Star Lodge, Panama’s most famous fishing resort.

The students disembarked into a foreign world where the wealthy fish for the prized black and blue marlin. John Wayne and Lee Marvin spent time here, as have presidents. Our group of students arrived during the off season, so no jet set to mingle with.

The last field trip to the Tropic Star two years ago was an unforgettable ordeal since some students refused to depart Jaque through the “boca” or mouth of the river, so we had to hike over a mountain in a terrible downpour. Coming back we almost had to spend the night outdoors in the rain with two umbrellas and no food. A police boat rescued us as darkness fell.

Running the boca requires skill and nerve. Weekly cargo boats use an experienced local man to pilot them in and out. Smaller boats come and go regularly, relying on perfect timing to avoid breaking waves, but during rough seas traffic shuts down as the boca becomes treacherous.

This time due to good weather and gung-ho students we went for it. It was a thrilling ride on a maritime roller coaster, students whooping and hollering as we bounced over the waves.

Two men who volunteered to drive the boat that day and one of the students in the group were survivors of the terrible tragedy at sea in March, 2009, that claimed the lives of 12 youth. Two of the victims were students from the school. Two students traveling with us lost family members. The trip was an encouraging sign that the grip of grief and trauma has lessened.

On another note a new crop of baby sea turtles is being released from the hatchery. Before the project most turtle eggs were eaten. Now several people patrol the beach, collect the eggs, and then are paid for delivering them to the project.

Revolutions: The Journey (part 1)

“The rebel and the revolutionary find it easier to obey the demands of religious life, because this obedience is revolutionary—one has to rebel against oneself in order to achieve it.” Ernesto Cardenal, “Vida Perdida”

Currently reading “War and Peace” by Leo Tolstoy. Earlier this year I saw an excellent movie about him, “The Last Station,” with Christopher Plummer as Tolstoy and Helen Mirren as his wife, Sophie Behrs. After the movie I checked out some Tolstoy short stories out of the library and sampled his brilliance for the first time.

Tolstoy, who died in 1910, was a great inspiration to one of the 20th century’s most redeeming figures, Mahatma Gandhi, who called Tolstoy “the greatest apostle of non-violence that the present age has produced.” The two men had a regular correspondence in the last year of Tolstoy’s life. Gandhi named his ashram in South Africa “Tolstoy Farm.”

“The Last Station” culminates in Tolstoy leaving home to escape his unhappy marriage and his wife’s obsession with preserving family wealth, a decision which tormented him for decades. When the moment finally came he was 82 and in poor health. Tolstoy died at a train stop not far from his home.

I took note years ago that “War and Peace” was one of the favorite books of Chris McCandless, whose life was chronicled in one of my favorite books, “Into The Wild” by Jon Krakauer. At 22 McCandless made his break giving away his entire savings, burning the remaining cash in his wallet, and assuming a new identity-- Alexander Supertramp.

After two years on the road, during which time he had no contact with family or friends, McCandless arrived at his ultimate destination -- the Alaskan wilderness. Shortly after hiking in with a 10 lb. bag of rice and a hunting rifle McCandless wrote, “Ultimate freedom. An extremist. An aesthetic voyager whose home is the road. Escaped from Atlanta. Thou shalt not return, cause “the West is the best.”And now after two rambling years comes the final and greatest adventure. The climatic battle to kill the false being within and victoriously conclude the spiritual pilgrimage. Ten days and nights of freight trains and hitchhiking bring him to the Great White North. No longer to be poisoned by civilization he flees, and walks alone upon the land to become lost in the wild.”

After a couple of months surviving off the land, McCandless tried to return to civilization but a swollen river prolonged his stay. During his last month he became ill and severely under nourished, but the exact cause of death is unclear. He knew the end was imminent and made a final self-portrait showing his emaciated yet smiling figure holding a note, “I have had a happy life and thank the Lord. Goodbye and may God bless all!”

Some have hammered McCandless as a foolish and reckless youth, while others are attracted like a powerful magnet, admiring his independence and freedom, rejection of comfort, fearlessness in taking risks, and his quest for truth and meaning.

When I lived in West Texas I often saw a woman riding a donkey along rural roads. She was known as the “burro lady” and slept on blankets on the ground, covering herself with a tarp in inclement weather. I had a short conversation with her once at a truck stop--she was friendly enough, but not very talkative, never accepting charity and never discussing her past.

She died in the winter of 2007 after which newspaper articles revealed her name as Judy Ann Magers, 65 years-old. A store owner said she would always buy a sour apple lollipop for her beloved donkey “Merle” every time she came in. A restaurant owner told how she would come by for a hamburger but would leave when it got too crowded, always leaving a tip for local musicians who entertained.

Magers had five grown children who were contacted to attend her funeral in Terlingua, TX. They had no knowledge of her whereabouts during the twenty years she traveled Texas’s Big Bend at a donkey’s pace.

Magers seemed perfectly content with her lifestyle, but her inner thoughts remain a mystery. McCandless however kept a journal recording his often ecstatic reactions to the things he experienced. His poignant final note and photo from death’s doorstep, a time of profound regret for many, is practically a celebration.

McCandless’s life reminded me of Ben Linder, who was killed by the U.S.-backed Contras in Nicaragua in 1987 at age of 27. His journey was made as an engineer bringing electricity to rural villages and thrilling kids as a juggling clown on a unicycle. His story is told in the excellent book, “The Death of Ben Linder” by Joan Kruckewitt.

Linder worked closely with the Nicaraguan government knowing that the Contras routinely murdered anyone associated with the revolution, even if they only voiced support. Ironically the day Linder died in a Contra ambush, April 28, was also the date Chris McCandless hiked into the wilds of Alaska five years later.

During my time in Nicaragua I visited the site where Linder died with two Nicaraguan coworkers, where they were building a small scale hydroelectric project (it was eventually completed). A community solidarity center in Managua is named after him, Casa Ben Linder.

The year Benjamin Ernest Linder was born, 1959, was also the year Ernesto “Che” Guevara and his guerilla force overthrew the Batista dictatorship in Cuba. Seven years earlier Guevara, then 23, set out on his journey of self discovery wonderfully portrayed in the film, “Motorcycle Diaries,” which shows the beginning of the young man’s transformation from an aristocratic youth to the legendary revolutionary.

Guevara kept a journal during his travels and wrote aboard a ship in the Pacific Ocean: “At night after the exhausting games of canasta, we would look out over the immense sea, full of white-flecked and green reflections, the two of us leaning side by side on the railing, each of us far away, flying his own aircraft to the stratospheric regions of his own dreams. There we understood that our vocation, our true vocation, was to move for eternity along the roads and seas of the world. Always curious, looking into everything that came before our eyes, sniffing out each corner but only very faintly—not setting down roots in any land or staying long enough to see the substratum of things; the outer limits would suffice.

To Be Continued

Attached Photos: Trip to the Tropic Star Lodge

Link to article about Judy Lee Magers and photo:

Link to short video tribute to Chris McCandless:

Link to the song "Fragile" by Sting, written for Ben Linder:

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Snapshots from Panama: Descent to Emptiness

plastic Buddha found washed up on the beach

September 2010

Descent to Emptiness

As the plane flew into the rainstorm I began to fidget in my seat. Only moments ago the rugged coastline of Panama’s Darien Gap had been visible on final approach to Jaque. I nervously pondered landing in zero visibility.

The copilot was a young woman who looked like a teenager—the cushion she sat on still didn’t elevate her forehead above the control panel. I had snapped photos of her earlier to show the students.

I always make a point not to drink much before these flights, but was beginning to regret the sole cup of coffee I had that morning. I was the only passenger on the plane but still would have been self-conscious using a plastic bag for an emergency pee break—a tactic I resorted to once during a long bus trip as a Peace Corps volunteer.

However my personal drama quickly ended as we dipped below the clouds and were safely deposited on the ground. There was no welcoming committee as family and friends never heard the plane land in the rain. It’s best to start out here with disappointment. High expectations can lead to a quick downfall.

One of my favorite endings to a book comes in Peter Matthiessen’s “The Snow Leopard.” After spending several months on an expedition with a group of Sherpa guides, he arranges to meet up with one of them named Tukten upon returning to Katmandu. A devout Buddhist, Tukten was also a scoundrel at times, getting into fights and trying to steal from others.

In Matthiessens’s eyes Tukten seems to redeem himself and their friendship strengthens. He decides to help Tukten find a job as a head trekking guide back in Katmandu despite others’ objections that he is too unreliable. Matthiessen arrives at the appointed meeting place on the outskirts of Katmandu but Tukten is nowhere in sight. Near a Buddhist temple where Tukten said he stayed with a relative no one has ever heard of him. The book’s final line, “Under the Bodhi Eye, I get on my bicycle again and return along gray December roads to Katmandu.”

Once I helped a former student who had moved to Panama City get a small scholarship from a foundation to finish high school there. He was an excellent student and seemed destined to go places. However after a few months he quit collecting the scholarship money. No one has heard from him since.

The High Seas of the Classroom

The original group of older students we began working with two years ago are gone, the first to finish high school in Jaque. Now I sorely miss them and struggle with the current student body of adolescents. There is one particular tenth grader who is always attentive and helpful, a life preserver in the stormy seas.

For my first class this year about half the students showed up and half of them tried to walk out shortly after. They hesitated at the door waiting to see how I would react. I asked if there was a problem which drew no response and they finally returned to their seats.

Last week several of the 10th grade boys tried out the school’s inflatable kayaks in the ocean. Two boys headed out too far, got swamped by a big wave, and were so shaken up by the experience they wouldn’t go back out. Then a large wave slammed into my kayak shoving my paddle into my lower lip causing a bloody mess. The next kayak clinic will be on the river.

For the third year we watched a documentary at the school about the life of Chilean singer-songwriter Victor Jara on the anniversary of his assassination in Chile on Sept. 16, 1973. The students grew restless about halfway through so I decided to switch to another movie and show the rest of the Jara documentary the following day.

I had shown “Sleep Dealer,” (a remarkable film—a kind of Blade Runner on the U.S.-MX border) to inmates at the Mexican prison where I help facilitate Alternatives to Violence workshops. One inmate, Pedro, an AVP regular, asked me to loan him the DVD which he returned it at the annual graduation ceremony last June.

Pedro spoke at the ceremony and stated that “one must always use transforming power in every situation, all the time.” Transforming power is the AVP concept which simply means trying to act in a way that will turn a negative situation into a more positive one. Pedro’s was the best speech of the day and I’ve thought of it often.

So I pull “Sleep Dealer” out of the case and pop it in to show the students. Then an entirely different movie begins playing, some blurry pirated film I’d never seen. I had not opened the case since Pedro returned it. I ejected the unknown movie and put it back in the box.

Snapshots from the Isthmus

Many of the local indigenous people make me think of the Sherpa culture I’ve read about in the Himalayas —always doing every task with great enthusiasm and a sense of humor. Roberto lives in a village upriver and seems to be doing something for the benefit of the entire community all the time. You usually find Abelares “rozando” or cutting the grass around town with a machete—a human lawn mower. His incredibly muscular body has led to the nickname, “el gigante” (the giant) though he is of short stature.

One of my favorite students, 25-year-old Jhon, didn’t return to school this year for his last semester and no one had news of him. Jhon was always the first to volunteer for any task at hand. Out of the blue I got a call from him. He’s working in Panama City and doing fine. Last year he was often flat broke with two young kids to feed. The last time I saw Jhon was on a field trip last Jan. to the Smithsonian marine museum. Many of the photos taken that day show him proudly displaying the 20 dollar bill given as a travel stipend.

Our grandmother graduate, Olga, is doing well and continues her little tortilla business. She’s planning to start raising chickens for extra cash.

It’s now been three years since the death of one of Jaque’s most unforgettable people, Tito, who had Down Syndrome but was extremely intelligent and performed political speeches with exaggerated hand motions making unintelligible noises the whole time. The act was hilarious and reminded me of Cantinflas satirizing politicians. When not performing, Tito pushed a heavy metal cart around town collecting aluminum cans with a group of kids in tow.

Felipe is mentally challenged and spends the day walking around town with a radio around his neck. He can sing along with all the popular songs and is an incredible dancer. He has performed at our kids’ birthday parties. A few years ago some locals decided his talent was so unique he should perform in Panama City. However when the big moment came Felipe refused to walk out on stage.

Every year brings a different twist on the local security situation sponsored by the Panamanian and U.S. governments. The biggest news lately was two Panamanian police losing limbs to land mines on a remote beach closer to the Colombian border. Most think they stepped on their own mines.

While the Colombian refugee population that came in mass in 1999 is still allowed to stay in Jaque, most still don’t have permanent status. However new refugees that arrive are deported immediately, regardless of the danger they face back in Colombia.


I recently read that Ann Frank’s beloved tree had blown down—the tree she observed from the secret annex and that gave her much pleasure for the two years she was in hiding with her family. In her diary, she wrote extensively about her love of nature; “It’s a better medicine than either Valerian or bromine. Mother Nature makes me humble and prepared to face every blow courageously.”

Was great to hear about my friend Dan Millis’s littering conviction being overturned by a court of appeals. Dan’s “littering” was putting out water bottles for migrants crossing the desert, part of his work with the Tucson group No More Deaths. Two days prior to his “crime” Dan found the body of 14-year-old girl from El Salvador who had died in the crossing, which was chronicled in a book, “The Death of Josseline,” by Margaret Regan.

Link to view the great documentary “El Derecho de Vivir En Paz” about the life of Victor Jara: 

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Emily's Thirsty Pixels; Google's CIA Friends

The Dispatch Extra-- Aug. 2010

The Dispatch's Outside The Box Feature.
You have been drawing. What does it mean to lose your eye?

An Inspiring Interview from Democracy Now Emily-h

DN!: EXCLUSIVE...Emily Henochowicz Speaks Out: Art Student Who Lost Her Eye After Being Shot by Israeli Tear Gas Canister in West Bank Protest Discusses Her Life, Her Art, and Why She Plans to Return

Today, a Democracy Now! global broadcast exclusive interview with Emily Henochowicz. She’s the twenty-one-year-old American art student who lost her eye in May after being shot in the face by an Israeli tear gas canister at a protest against Israel’s attack on the Gaza flotilla that left nine people dead. "I’m not ashamed of the fact that I lost my eye. I’m proud of who I am. I believed in the cause, and that’s why I came to that demonstration on that day," Henochowicz says. "I’m not going to be the same person that I was before this happened." [includes rush transcript]
To read, listen to, or watch the whole story:

Check out Emily's blog, art and more at her Blog :


Also From Democracy Now:

"Google Teams Up with CIA to Fund "Recorded Future" Startup Monitoring Websites, Blogs & Twitter Accounts"

To read or view the full story, go to:

"Verizon & Google Enter Reported Deal for Tiered Internet Use, Is Net Neutrality in Jeopardy?"

for the full scoop:

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Hobo Dispatch: Call of the Wild Lite; Bogota's Makeover; SB1070

The Dispatch--Tarheel Edition Aug. 2010

In July I survived 10 days alone in New Mexico’s Gila wilderness dodging poisonous snakes and wild bears. Opening line #2: In July I enjoyed 10 days of solitude in the Gila wilderness with modern camping gear, good food, a cell phone, and someone knew my entire itinerary. Rattlesnakes are easy to avoid and the bears are so skiddish in the Gila they quickly run away when approached. At least the cell phone never worked so there was some adventure involved.

I try to spend 7-10 days in the Gila every summer, sort of a yearly retreat. In Peter Matthiessen's great book “The Snow Leopard” (about his three month expedition/pilgrimage in Nepal) he mentions that "too much possibility leads to the madhouse." Trying to live and work in three countries for several years has come awfully close at times to getting admitted, or others having me committed.

The Gila is the largest wilderness area in New Mexico/Arizona and one of most unused. The first seven days I saw more bears (2) than people (0). Wildlife is abundant with a large elk population and wolves have now moved in. On top of the Mogollon mountains I heard the beautiful howl of a wolf one morning.

Adjoining the wilderness is the old mining town of Silver City where I always stop to buy supplies and spend some time in my favorite coffee shop, Javelinas. Silver City is full of rat race refugees from other areas of the country. While drinking coffee I heard a familiar voice and called out “hey Bill, remember me; you were my mechanic in Tucson.” Bill-“Yea I disappeared and now live here off the grid.”

Another guy would just hang out in Javelinas (never saw him buy anything) and sing along to Eagles and Jimmy Buffet songs on the radio. As I was pouring cream into my coffee he approached me: “You FBI,?” he asked. Me-“I hope not. I try to stay away from those guys.” Him-“You better stay away from me.”

In a past Dispatch I mentioned meeting Doug who hadn't ridden in a car for six years and spends weeks at a time foraging for food in the Gila wilderness along with his loyal entourage of three donkeys. I saw a flyer on the street where he was giving a course in finding wild foods and "communicating with plants."

Silver City had their July 4th parade while I was there and parade organizers wanted to make sure everyone was holding a flag. I’m not too keen on waving the flag so I would act distracted when the flag bearers tried to shove a flag my way. Now in addition to being a suspected FBI agent I was also on the watch list for unpatriotic behavior. There was a float about the Iwo Jima flag raising and one car carried a survivor of the Bataan Death March; both events I'm sure happened on July 4th.

From Mayberry to Bogota

Back here in North Carolina's Mayberry with Andy, Barney, and Aunt Bee and not far from the Land of Oz. Actually the Land of Oz theme park on Beech Mt. has been closed since 1980 but I got to visit it as a kid. The park was reclaimed by nature but the weeds have been hacked back so tourists can once again walk down the yellow brick road one weekend a year.

I dropped in on the Amish community near my hometown and talked at length with one young Amish man who recently came from Ontario, Canada and another couple who came from Maryland. They were having a big community gathering when I arrived with men and women in Amish dress playing volleyball.

The 30+ families settled on this rural crossroad originally came from Kentucky. They're New Order Amish so use electricity, tractors, and other modern conveniences but use bikes and the horse and buggy for personal transportation. They will ride in cars but don't drive. They have many cottage industries like jams and other canned goods, furniture, hydroponic tomatoes, and shed construction.

I had hoped to visit my wife's family in Bogota, Colombia this summer but had to cancel so they'll continue to joke about me as the "virtual" husband. Aug. 13 was the anniversary of the assassination of the beloved Colombian journalist, peace activist, and political satirist Jaime Garzon, who was murdered by paramilitaries in 1999. A huge march was held after his death. He was one of the first to publicize the connection between the brutal paramilitary forces and the government.
Here's some great footage of Garzon as the shoeshiner talking politics:

A few months ago I saw a wonderful documentary on the Sundance channel about some of the great changes that happened in Colombia's capital, Bogota during the administrations of two progressive mayors. Bogota was once known as "the worst city in the world". I've seen the wonderful public transit system there along with nice public parks, childrens museums, bike lanes, fewer cars, reduced crime, and other improvements. Here's the link to see the documentary "Bogota Change" :

SB1070 Gets Off to a Rocky Start
and Singing on the Hudson

In July a federal judge puts into effect a temporary injunction against most parts of
SB1070, Arizona's new anti-immigrant law and the judge received many threats. There
were mass protests and dozens arrested in non-violent civil disobedience
in Phoenix and Tucson as the new law went into effect. Check out this
great photo gallery of the protests.

Finally see the attached photo of Pete Seeger at the annual Clearwater Festival on the Hudson River
in N.Y. Ted Warmbrand sent me this picture from this year's festival. Seeger and his organization
take folks on a sailing sloop they built to raise awareness about the river. The river has gotten much cleaner
so they came up with a plan to put big cages into the river that are used used as swimming pools. At the end
of any event or festival, Seeger is usually seen picking up garbage or folding chairs.

photos below--Gila Wilderness, Silver City 4th of July parade, Tucson SB1070 protest, Pete Seeger at the Clearwater festival

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Snapshots from MX (part 2): Visit To A Forbidden City

From the Current Travel Warning to Mexico—U.S. Dept. of State (the reality check part)

“Millions of U.S. citizens safely visit Mexico each year. This includes tens of thousands who cross the border every day for study, tourism or business and at least one million U.S. citizens who live in Mexico. The Mexican government makes a considerable effort to protect U.S. citizens and other visitors to major tourist destinations.”

Violence, Fear of Violence, and the Violence of Fear

Mexico hasn’t gotten many breaks over the past year. The most recent blow was the Mexican soccer team’s elimination from the World Cup, in a match where the refs allowed a blatantly offside goal by Argentina to stand.

Tourism has plummeted in the country. Last year it was due to the hysteria over swine flu. Now the fear of violence seems to be the catalyst: step across the border and your life is in danger. Well I’ve been living in Mexico for most of the past seven years and haven’t lost any sleep any personal safety issues. In fact I’ve enjoyed living here.

It was great to see a high school group from Colorado spend their spring break in Sonora building composting toilets. Too many schools and universities won’t allow student trips south of the border these days.

Return to a Forbidden City; Fond Memories of Nuclear Waste

There are a few places in Mexico I would think twice about visiting. Ciudad Juarez, considered one of the most dangerous cities in the world, would be on that list. However I wanted to see an old friend there, so I decided it was time to return to my old stomping grounds.

The opportunity presented itself in June when I traveled to El Paso, TX for a temporary job assignment. I lived in El Paso from 1993-2000 when I worked for a bi-national environmental coalition, spending much of that time in Juarez, a sprawling city of roughly 1.5 million residents. There were murders between rival drug gangs back then, but the city felt safe. There was a thriving nightlife.

My co-worker in Juarez was Felix Leonardo Perez and we quickly became good friends. Through him I became immersed in the environmental, cultural, and social movement activities in Juarez. Felix was also a part-time actor performing in theater groups.

One of our most memorable environmental struggles was over the State of Texas’s plans to build a nuclear waste dump on the border in Sierra Blanca, downriver from Juarez. One march in Juarez against the dump had over a thousand people. A few weeks before dump opponents prevailed in 1998, several thousand public school students from Juarez blocked four international bridges for a couple of hours.

In Oct. 2006 I returned to Juarez for the Border Social Forum, held in conjunction with the World Social Forum movement. It was an exciting time with folks from all over the Americas, but it also turned out to be one of the last events of its kind held in the city.

By 2008 the violence had exploded. Mexico’s President Calderon, who had launched a crackdown on organized crime, sent thousands of Army troops to patrol the streets of Juarez, but many accused the soldiers of human rights abuses. Then U.S. military aid began pouring in to support Mexico’s Drug War. Things have not improved.

Bad Timing for Bad News

The day before my visit I watched the Juarez evening news. The day’s murders dominated the newscast. At one point the anchor stated, “Hopefully this will be all we have to report for today.” Two more killings were reported before the broadcast ended.

Also mentioned was the case of two thirteen-year old girls who were missing, especially disturbing news in a city where hundreds of young women and girls have been disappeared and murdered going back to the 1990s. The girls were found by the police the following day playing in a park; their teenage rebelliousness apparently unaffected by the violence.

On the morning of June 24 I drove to the Santa Fe international bridge. Being a little uneasy about what to expect I asked the attendant at the border parking lot how things were in Juarez. “As long as you stay on the main streets, you’ll be fine. Avoid side streets,” he said. I noticed it only cost three bucks to park for the day as compared to four a decade ago.

Relaxing at the “Beach”; Life Goes On Amidst The Violence

I walked down the main tourist avenue lined with bars, pharmacies, dental offices, and restaurants—the change from a few years ago was striking. There were no tourists and relatively few Mexican pedestrians. Several soldiers stood guard and truckloads of federal police would occasionally ride by.

Felix was much more relaxed than the last time I saw him, when the city was first overwhelmed by the spike in violence. He had obtained a scholarship to pursue doctoral studies. “Life goes on,” he commented, "I've never personally witnessed any of the violence here, nothing. But I know people who have."

We both knew Josefina Reyes who was killed a few months ago in the Juarez Valley. She and her entire family helped in the campaign against the nuclear waste dump. I hadn’t seen her since those days but she later became known for her political and human rights activism.

I used to love visiting the semi-rural Juarez Valley to escape the bustle of Juarez, but now it’s one of the most affected areas by the violence and many residents are fleeing. The mayor of one of the small towns there was gunned down on June 19. Here’s an article mentioning Reyes’s murder and the plight of the Valley:

Felix could see rays of light in the darkness that had enveloped his city. “ I like to sit in the main plaza by the cathedral and watch the people and families there enjoying themselves,” he stated; “I see this as a form of resistance. People are refusing to let fear and violence completely disrupt their lives. I also recently came across a youth dance group rehearsing in the street. That was wonderful to see.”

We moved on to discuss other things: books we’ve read, and updates on family and friends. The friendly waiter joined in the conversation at times. He must have refilled our cups of coffee a half dozen times, as if he didn’t want us to leave. We were enjoying ourselves.

As we stepped outside on the sidewalk I commented on the cool breeze blowing that day. Felix joked, “Yes, we’re by the beach you know.” Then after a handshake and a hug we departed.

In just a few minutes I crossed over the “beach” on the nearly dry river below and was back in El Paso; leaving behind a city with one of the world’s highest murder rates. El Paso has a very low crime rate; the spillover effect of violence from Mexico is a fallacy.

Reports say tens of thousands of people have fled the violence in Juarez. Would I have the courage to live there? Even if I tried to I could exercise the “beam me up Scotty” option at any time. But most in Juarez don’t have that luxury. Besides, people have reasons to be there: family, community, jobs, and even some fond memories. I hope I don’t wait too long before going back.

Recommended Reading/Viewing (from Democracy Now):

John Ross--Haven’t read his new book on Mexico (or any of his books for that matter but plan to), but found his interview delightful. Ross, who has lived in Mexico for decades, clearly loves Mexico and its people and focuses on positive aspects as well as the negative.

Grace Lee Boggs--This is a wonderful and inspiring interview with 95-year old Boggs, an activist in multiple social movements for decades, who participated in the recent US Social Forum held in her city of Detroit. A must view or read for anyone wishing to effect change in this country.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Snapshots from Mexico (part 1)

Snapshots from Mexico (part 1); Drinking songs and bad timing
June 2010

Survival Tips Where the Minimum Wage is Five Bucks (A Day)

Early one May morning I was driving through Sonora, Mexico heading for Nogales, AZ. I picked up a couple of men hitchhiking in the town of Imuris. They hopped in, one carrying a sack of vegetables to sell. They both got out in Nogales, Sonora and I headed for the dreaded line to cross the border.

A few minutes later I happened to glance into the rear view mirror and noticed movement in the camper of the truck. I pulled over and out climbed three more guys from the back, two of them with sacks of vegetables. They had climbed in when I pulled over to pick up the other two men and I never noticed. I just smiled as they got out and one attempted his best English to thank me, “Thank you for the rap.”

One of the first two men hitchhikes from his home every day in Imuris to an OXXO store (like a 7-11) near Nogales to sell burritos his wife makes fresh every day. He told me he makes about 1,800 pesos a week ($150 U.S.)—far better than the 500 pesos a week he could earn in a maquiladora. Plus he’s usually sold out by 1 p.m. and headed home where he tries to pick up odd jobs to further supplement his income.

One man I’ve gotten to know from the long waits crossing the border is an elderly gentleman named Victoriano. He hobbles around on a crutch selling chicles (gum). He told me how years ago a car hit him at a gas station and left him in the shape he’s in. He get's a disability payment of 800 pesos a month of which 600 goes towards rent. He's an inspiring figure, never complaining, radiating kindness---a Buddha like figure to me. The last time I saw him he told me with gladness his son had been able to start college.

One friend of ours, Olga, is from the old Pajarero culture, which is a combination of indigenous and gypsy cultures. She grew up living out of a horse drawn cart, camping in villages with her family throughout northern Sonora. She stills travels constantly with her son in an old truck to collect medicinal plants that she sells at different festivals. They also set up their booth “Tiro Sport” where you pay 10 pesos to shoot at little ceramic figures with a pellet gun.

One bit of recent news which ties in with the centennial anniversary of the Mexican Revolution: the miners of Cananea, Sonora (a site of historical significance to the start of the Revolution) who had been on strike for a couple of years and were occupying the mine, were removed by Mexican security forces using tear gas so now the mine may be reopened without the union.

Tocar y Luchar, and don't forget the marshmellows

In June we had our annual camp-out with about 20 kids at the Casa Elizabeth orphanage in Imuris. The recipe—set up a few tents, start a campfire and roast some marshmallows. The kids provided entertainment through songs and jokes. A ghost story or two and a great time was had by all. Ana Maria through Bridges Across Borders has done volunteer work at Casa Elizabeth for years with a violin and music program. Two of the girls are now pursuing university studies and supplementing their income by giving violin lessons.

In Venezuela a remarkable government sponsored program (started decades ago) teaches classical music to poor kids in communities and orphanages throughout the country. I once saw a documentary about this “Tocar y Luchar” (To Play and to Fight), and it blew my mind. To check out the trailer to this go to: can also watch the entire documentary on youtube.

A few days later we held our annual graduation at the prison for the inmates who had completed workshops in the Alternatives to Violence Project
( ). It was an enjoyable time in the Big House as we took in food and beverages and lined up some cultural activities. The Director of the local Casa de la Cultura had promised to bring in some entertainment but it looked up he wasn’t going to show up.

Then as we about lost all hope we looked around and there he was with a group of youth from Casa Elizabeth! It was their choir group of about eight girls accompanied by a boy on guitar. One of the girls, 15 year-old Alicia, gave an amazing little speech about how she had lost her Mother so she and her four siblings had ended up in the orphanage, but still she had been able to evolve and progress in life. “If I can do it, you can too,” she told the guys.

Another man came along to play traditional Mexican music on his guitar. The first song was about drinking and drunks. The Director asked him to avoid songs about drinking which cracked everyone up (the prison was observing the 75th anniversary of Alcoholics Anonymous with special activities that week). He had to think hard about what song he would be able to play.