Updates from February, 2008 Toggle Comment Threads | Keyboard Shortcuts

  • hardie karges 10:57 pm on February 29, 2008 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , Customs, Panama   

    Nickels and Dimes 

    The Casco Viejo, the old town in Panama City, was no better.  That was right after Customs strip-searched me GETTING ON the plane, so I was still a little fragile.  First thing, some guy in Panama lunges for my bag.  I pulled away quickly; I’m not THAT fragile.  The next day I looked out my window and saw a Panamanian woman holding on to the strap of her bag that had just been slashed, and crying.  I flagged a taxi and boogied.  Mexico wasn’t so bad, except for Oaxaca, though I’ve heard Mexico City is now one of the worst in the world.  Most of my problem in Oaxaca was with parking my truck on the street.  I think it got hit every time.  I don’t think it ever got hit in Mexico City.   Yes, I used to drive in Mexico City.  I even drove in Taxco once, up and up and up, all the way until I found a way to come back down.  But the worst place for larceny was Colombia.  After I got set up on the little drug farce, nothing happened again to me, but it did to many that I met, some under the influence of perfume.  In Colombia, rumor was that they had a school for pickpockets.  They were good.  Mostly I smoked dope there, anywhere and everywhere, hanging with the homies.  I‘ve never been mugged anywhere, or physically assaulted for any reason.

  • hardie karges 3:59 am on February 27, 2008 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: Alan Garcia, ,   

    South American Disease 

    Peru used to be the larceny capital in the world, after Colombia, of course.  I used to walk down the streets of Lima zigzag, just so that if I saw someone else doing the same, I’d know something’s wrong.  I’d walk with a fistful of coins in my hand, just in case I had to take a swing at someone, there’d be some weight behind my punch.  As if it weren’t bad enough that a hundred bucks would be a bag-full of those god-forsaken intis that passed for currency during the first Garcia regime, then you’d have to walk through a den of thieves with them.  Garcia told the Gringos to fuck off, so why shouldn’t everyone else?  While standing at the edge of a crowd in the Plaza San Martin, a thief riddled through my shoulder-bag so fast that if you’d stopped the video at the point I realized I’d been hit, I probably wouldn’t have been able to pick the guy out of the crowd.  He went for the main compartment and settled for a side one all in the space of a few seconds, without getting anything.  That leather bag seemed to attract them.  I could just feel eyes casing it out constantly, or was I just imagining things?  So I decided to leave the bag in my room.  The next day a Peruvian I’d never met asked me, “Where’s your bag?”  I could’ve died right then and there, convinced that the world was an evil place.  The first time I’d been to Lima, it was just an overgrown village really, naïve and sympathetic.  This was a far cry from that.  The last time I was there, six weeks ago, it had almost reverted to its former innocence, pollos a la broaster and all that.

  • hardie karges 9:46 pm on February 22, 2008 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , Fidel Castro   

    Fiel y Castro 

    Cuba’s good ol’ Faithful Reliable is looking a little beleaguered behind the whiskers these days, but what’s an old Communist to do?  Get capitalism after all these years?  Set up maquiladoras along the Florida Straits?  Vietnamese, except for Uncle Ho, were no-names.  East Germany, Romania, the Slav countries, even Russia itself, hardly a hero in the lot.  Castro is a NAME.  Cuba will probably have to await his funeral to make any political changes.  I’ll get there sooner or later.

  • hardie karges 1:14 am on February 21, 2008 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: Dominican Republic, Haiti   

    Haitian Roulette 

    Haiti even has prices in a currency that doesn’t exist, the ‘Haitian dollar’, dating back to the era when the gourde, the local currency, was fixed at five to the US dollar, five gourdes being a Haitian dollar.  Well, the currency has long since devalued, but the Haitian dollar remains, requiring long division for anything other than market produce, all this in the poorest, most uneducated, country in the hemisphere.  I stayed forty-two hours.  I’m sure Club Med is slick and all, but I almost got caught in a Kafkaesque nightmare.  Coming overland from the Dominican Republic, I queued up at the border to stamp in to Haiti.  The scene was a bit chaotic, and the lady naturally assumed I’d know neither French nor Spanish, since I looked neither black nor tan, so simply asked “Santo Domingo?”  I nodded in the affirmative, since I had just come from there.  She stamped my passport and I got back on the bus.  Half an hour later, I realized she probably meant to ask me if I was going to Santo Domingo.  I opened my passport and sure enough, there’s the exit stamp.  I’m illegal in a country I don’t know with a language I know only poorly.  Uh-oh.


    Like Moroccans, Haitians like to hire themselves out as ‘guides’ (read ‘guards’) for visiting tourists.  If you can agree on a reasonable price, and the guy seems nice, this is not a bad idea, as it puts the others at bay and ends the silly game right there.  The silly game is more fun with Thai girls, I hear, and why settle for a mere buffer when you can get a bumper?  Anyway, I spent the night up in Port-au-Prince’s upscale suburb Petionville in probably the most expensive room I’d ever stayed at the time, certainly the most in the Third World.  Only $50, but hey, that was a decade ago, I’m frugal, and this is the poorest country in the hemisphere.  The next day I went down to the city and found out why.  There’s no services, no hotels, no restaurants, nothing.  Finally I found a $20 room in a shit-bag, and set off to the old market.  There I met some malcontent intent on accusing me, as an American, of causing half the world’s problems (this was right after UN troops left in 1996 post-Duvalier).  Well, he may have a point, but what can I do?  He followed me up and down the street trying to get others to join in the harangue, but fortunately to no avail.  I tried to lose him, but there he was again.  He even followed me into my hotel, but I had him stopped at the desk.  All fine, but now I’m a prisoner.  What do I do if he’s waiting for me outside the next time I go out?  Fortunately, there’s a restaurant in my hotel, since there were hardly any outside anyway.  I whiled the night away listening to voodoo drumming outside my window, imagining what images might fit those strange exotic sounds.


    I was not a happy camper.  I was not impressed with what I’d seen of Haiti.  I hadn’t seen another white face; that’s for sure.  In the morning I decided I’d catch the bus back to Santo Domingo.  But first, since the Immigration Office is close by, I’ll go make sure there’s no problem with my passport.  Big mistake.  I walk past the guy at the entrance and he shuttles me over to a side room.  There the nice man asks me if I’d like a Dominican Republic visa, only $200.  But this is not a Dominican consulate, or is it?  But I just came from the Dominican Republic and there’s no visa required for US citizens anyway.  I tried to explain about my passport, but he keeps trying to sell me a visa.  He shows me all the US passports in his drawer.  Where’d he get those?  I insist on my passport back, explaining it’s necessary for me to cash checks, assuring him I’ll be back shortly.  I start to walk out the door I came in, but the nice man there stops me.  “Door number seven,” he says, pointing toward the back.  “No, no, you don’t understand.  I came in to ask a question, and now I’m leaving,” I explain.  “Door number seven,” he insists.  Uh-oh.  I ask the nice lady there if she speaks English.  Spanish, maybe?  “I speak French… and Creole.”  Oh, boy.  She examines my passport, page by page.  Fortunately my passport was only two years old at the time, because I tend to add more pages frequently, and they start looking like telephone books.  Fortunately I had Communist Vietnamese and Lao stamps in there which we both agreed were “tres interesant”, not the average GI Joe anyway, a fact I tried to play up in this fledgling post-Duvalier state.  She let me go, and that I did, kissing the earth and skipping my way past souls prostrate in churches, speaking in tongues, back to my hotel and on to the bus terminal.  There’s only one problem: my passport’s still not right.  That was no problem at the border as they simply gave me the correct stamps, both in and out.  The Dominican guys gave me a little Miami Vice routine, as if I were some amateur drug dealer who’d freak at the slightest interrogation, but that’s all.  On to the beach, older but wiser.          

  • hardie karges 2:31 pm on February 20, 2008 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , Colombia, , ,   


    Peru had its own Marxist tendencies for a long time, but that seems to have subsided now.  Not unlike the Shans in Burma and the FARC in Colombia, it’s sometimes hard to tell whether they’re revolutionaries or drug dealers.  The Shan claim they no longer deal drugs but that’s probably only because heroin is not ‘in’ like the 1990’s grunge era and the Afghanis are back in business, also, after being shut down by the Taliban.  Score one for capitalism.  Peru is one of the few countries in the world that’s had a leftist military coup.  Usually the army is in bed up to their necks with the rich and powerful.  Peru, like Thailand and Haiti among others, is one of those countries where logic falls short of explaining events, and sexuality plays a larger than average role, like gold during a currency crisis. 

  • hardie karges 6:48 am on February 19, 2008 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , ,   

    World Crafts 

    The party’s over for world handicrafts, not for lack of skill or quality, but for lack of interest, or marketability at least.  The crafts that are a product of hundreds of years of cultural development can be run through the Western consumer-culture meat-grinder and spit out within a matter of a few years, if not months.  The best products might have a life span of ten years or so, but more than that is very rare and at a very reduced level of activity.  Ironically, while tourism can dilute traditional cultures, it can stimulate crafts production.  Little by little, the product is adapted to the tourists’ tastes to the point where it actually becomes a viable product in foreign markets.  Unfortunately it can seldom keep up with the demand for novelty required in Western markets and a once vital industry can dissipate to virtually nothing.  Hopefully there’s still something of a local and tourist market left.  Of course, by then the product has changed beyond recognition so indigenous use is out of the question.  After exposure to the whole process of tourism and mass production, their tastes may have changed beyond recognition anyway.  In some cases they may have jumped to a new level in society.  In others, they may simply have lost touch with their indigenous culture.  In still others, they might continue making knockoffs to order, generic ethnic product from the lowest bidder.  It’s no accident that some of the nicest products come from the politically most hideous countries.  Hopefully something is gained positively and permanently from free enterprise to more than compensate for whatever might be lost.

  • hardie karges 10:06 am on February 18, 2008 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , La Paz   


    I miss Teodora.  In all my history working as a handicraft producer/importer/exporter, working with Teodora was the most fun.  She’s a chola, a partially acculturated citified Aymara Indian.  She’s way cool, wearing the little traditional bowler perched on top of her head, just like the pictures.  She lives in El Alto, a suburb of La Paz, Bolivia, not more than about a long stone’s throw from the international airport.  The altitude there’s about 13,000 feet, and there are peaks all around over 20,000.  The sun beats down unmercifully, but it’s not hot at that altitude, just bright.  The clouds look like you could just reach out and grab a handful.  That’s where Teodora runs her sweater business.  It was hopping a decade ago back when I still had a US-based business.  I made a video of her and her crew going through all their phases of production, a dozen or so friends and family working it all out by hand.  I went back last year for the first time since then.  It’s pretty quiet now, the crafts business being what it is.  If indigenous people get better incomes now doing other things, then more power to them.  I would’ve made more money doing other things, too.  Others made lots, but I didn’t.  Many more than that made nothing and went on to one job after the other, selling real estate, insurance, whatever.  It may not be much, but I’ve given some people some work, and I’ve allowed some people to maintain a traditional lifestyle with a decent income rather than live in the shantytown of a city without much of anything.  For an indigenous person with traditional lifestyle, even poverty in the countryside has more dignity than anonymity in the city. 

  • hardie karges 10:13 am on February 17, 2008 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , ,   


    Peru’s okay, and Bolivia one of my favorite countries of all time, always a poor man’s Nepal, and now a smart one’s also, what with the Marxist insurrection in the Kingdom, not so different from Peru itself circa 1990.  You’ve got to be pretty pathetic to be ‘going Marxist’ in the 21st century, socialist maybe, but not Bolshevik.  Tourists notwithstanding, Nepal is so poor that Nepalese go to India to work.  I was in Kathmandu a week and didn’t see the mountains till the plane took off.  I thought for sure that I’d be going back; maybe I will.  La Paz is already there amongst the peaks.  The plane lets you off at 13,000 feet in El Alto where Teodora lives; then you go down 1500 feet to La Paz, skyscrapers rising up toward you from below.  It can be quite an effort just to breathe sometimes, especially after climbing the steep sidewalks.  But Bolivia’s another world, almost.  There is not a paved road crossing any border into Bolivia, at least not the last time I crossed.  Yet, they have buses more modern than any in North America.  There’s logic there somewhere.  You cruise across the lunar landscape as though there’s nothing more normal than riding a bus at an altitude higher than some airplanes fly.  The local Indians look like leathery-skinned Martians with pointy caps serving as secret transmitters to the mother ship. 


  • hardie karges 6:56 pm on February 16, 2008 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: ,   

    Save the Endangered Peoples 

    Guatemala is one of the most beautiful countries in the world, the quaint rural Mexico that you always wanted, but it changed before you got there.  Guatemala City is nothing much more than a pit stop, but the western highlands are breathtaking.  Long inhabited by the highland Mayas from the ‘City’ west all the way to Chiapas in Mexico, the area is a piece of living history.  Emerging from the mists of history as descendants of the classic Mayas possibly inter-mixed with central Mexicans, they nevertheless maintain their ancient traditions to a degree seldom matched anywhere else in the world.  Numbering dozens of ‘tribes’ (i.e. linguistic groups) and millions of people, these are a proud people who never changed their names to fit Spanish fashion and who only reluctantly give up their own clothing styles to fit Western fashion.  Most Indian women never do, and this becomes a point of identity and pride in their ‘Guatemalanness’.  Though there is increasingly a stratum of ‘generic’ Indians whose females wear non-distinct, though very striking, Mayan garb, traditionally a woman would wear the style of her particular village, and were identifiable as such.  The related Quiche’, Cakchiquel, and Tzutuhil Mayas reside in the central area around Lake Atitlan and Quezaltenango, and are generally relatively prosperous, with tourist income, though a far cry from their former glory.  Increasingly they are fragmented culturally and their languages are mutually unintelligible from one hill to the next, forced to rely on the Guatemalan government and the Spanish language for their unity.  The Ixils and Kekchis to the north and Mams and other related groups to the west are in worse shape, maintaining traditions in a world that increasingly doesn’t care.  You can protect an endangered species from extinction, but what can you do for a culture?  I guess we should print bumper stickers that say: “Save the people!”

  • hardie karges 9:48 am on February 15, 2008 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: ,   

    Maya, Illusion 

    One of the great mysteries of histories is “What happened to the Mayas?”  The quick answer, of course, is nothing.  They’re still there, right where they always were.  Okay, not so much around Tikal and the other classic jungle centers in Peten, but definitely not far from the Yucatan and Guatemalan highland centers where the Spanish found them.  The question then is: “What happened to the Mayan cities and high civilization?”  The cities were probably never cities in the Western sense, but more like ceremonial centers, where people gathered and then dispersed periodically, just as they do now on market and festival days.  Civilization itself seems to go through phases, possibly in some predictable order, but the concept is so new that it’s hard to generalize.  The era of civilization occupies only a very small fraction of man’s total time as a creative, speaking, tool-using animal.  Certainly civilizations don’t just go through an early, classic, and late phase, and then just disappear.  Something else comes along.  Greece, Egypt, and Mesopotamia are still here long after their classic eras.  As for the cause of cataclysmic changes, disease is a good guess.  Cities were a major breakthrough for bacteria.   

    • Guatemalan Maya Health researcher 10:53 pm on February 16, 2008 Permalink | Reply

      You are correct, the Maya are alive and well today. Why did their cities collapse? Good question, one that we will never know. I would wager it is a combination of overpopulation, lack of resources, climate change, and cultural development. What is exciting is that the Maya are beginning again to resuse many of their historic and traditional temples.

    • Lake Atitlan 8:22 pm on March 18, 2008 Permalink | Reply

      You are right that the Maya are alive and well. Some are even prospering around Panajachel.

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