due torre
27 March 2007
San Juan Chamula
posted by mike d
Catch up on the trip with my earlier post. This is the second half of the story:

The following morning, waking up in San Cristóbal de las Casas, we headed out to check out a nearby village. The guidebook points out this little town, 8 kilometers outside of San Cristóbal, as having a "unique religious life", and tries to describe it a little bit as a syncretization of Christianity and Mayan traditions. But the description doesn't do it justice. The whole experience was like watching the Apocalypse at a county fair. I doubt this description will do it justice, either, but it's worth a shot...

The first thing you notice on your way into San Juan Chamula is the sign out front telling gringos not to take photos inside the church, or of any religious rituals (a warning seconded by Lonely Planet). Adding to the odd feel, just beyond that the road into town blocked off by dump truck, and we got out of our taxi and walked into town, stopping at the tourist office to get tickets that allow gringos in the church.

The center of town is a big market in town square selling food, clothing, machetes - the usual random stuff that gets sold in Latin American squares... the one odd thing is the dress most of the guys are wearing- either a white or dark mohair (I think) sleeveless tunic, gathered at the waist, and worn over regular street clothes- jeans and a button down shirt, typically. A few of the guys in the dark tunics also have a white headwrap - almost like a turban - with red tassels hanging down the back. The guidebook identifies these guys as "cargo holders", that is, people with religiously significant positions in the community.

Like most Latin American towns, the central square is focused on the town church, which here has a courtyard. People are streaming into the San Juan Baptista church courtyard, and the church itself. We walk through the courtyard, and a guy with "cargo" (so he wears black mohair cassock and white headwrap) takes our ticket to go into the church.

As we're walking in, out front of the church door is an older guy wearing "festival gear" (bright, multicolored clothing - almost like a jester - with a matching conical hat) and sunglasses is dancing - shuffling, really - to an accordion and singing something that isn't Spanish. He's dancing around stylized bulls that look to be carried or worn, that have a wire "cage" built around them. Maybe he's blessing them or something? Some people are watching him, but more are going inside the church. So we go inside.

Inside the church... beyond altars lining the walls, and a couple in the middle of the floor, there's no furniture at all, except for what must be altar-carriers pushed to one side. The altars are shoulder-to-shoulder, covering every saint you can think of, and are just hectic- one had some sort of lamp with a cutout of the Virgin of Guadalupe on it, playing Christmas carols. Streamers or banners hang from the center beam to the side walls. But what you notice is that the place is packed, more than 3/4ths full of people, standing, kneeling, walking around, talking. Further adding to the overwhelming almost-claustrophobia is that the air is clouded - thick - with incense, pine needles carpet the ground, and candles are everywhere.

People are doing all sorts of stuff in the church. Right inside the door, off to the right, there is a crowd in front of the baptismal font or holy water font, which is behind a wooden cage. Many of these people are holding babies, I guess to be blessed. While there's some milling around, i never saw any definite activity.

People are crowded around a makeshift altar in the middle of the floor, about a third of the way down the hall, where a Catholic priest is holding Mass in Spanish - this is a big source of incense. I can't tell if he's striving against the insanity around him, or has surrendered to it - I think the latter.

But the most impressive - and, frankly, unnerving - is that people are kneeling on the ground, praying. Not just counting the rosary, mind you. This involves an elaborate set up of thin candles on the ground in front of you - a row of two dozen tall white ones, another row of two dozen medium white ones, and then a squad of short ones in all sorts of colors. This is all headed by four or five big votive candles, and all these candles are lit at the same time. A bottle of soda (or sometimes water, I think) is left as an offering. One woman looked on the verge of tears praying (not in Spanish). The pine needles make the sitting more comfortable, although I think they have a religious purpose. Either way, the needles and all the candles, the place must be a fire-trap.

Oddly, a lot of people were socializing. One guy who I watched setting up his candles interrupted himself to say hi and shake hands with an amigo that walked by. Lots of guys were just loitering around, chatting it up.

The priest blessed the crowd around him and left, the Mass over. Guys started handing out crosses from the altar for people to carry, and many started out the door with them. The crosses were green, had pine branches tied to them, and had peoples' names on them. The people at the altar weren't sad or momentous about it- some seemed to think it was almost a happy chore. I never really saw what they were doing with them after they carried them outside.

Back outside, we wandered around. Guys with a synth and a guitar were jamming in the same not-Spanish at full blast, right next to the church with these huge, concert-quality speakers. We grabbed a coke and some churros and sat at a plastic table outside the church courtyard, taking it all in.

A parade forms behind us: some guys in the "cargo" gear, half a dozen guys under the "bulls" I'd seen earlier in front of the church, which were now armed with fireworks on the "cage". Kids in masks were swarming between them- some of the masks were quite modern: the "Scream" movie mask, Vicente Fox, Dubya, Fidel, Saddam even. At the end of the parade was a 20-person or so marching band.

The parade started off. As the parade marches around the market, a guy at the head of the parade sets off a rocket every 30 feet or so, and we can follow the parades progress around the town square. Some of the rockets explode in the air, some fall back to Earth as misfires. While the parade is marching, M-80s are being set off in the church courtyard, scaring the bejeezus out of me, at first.

The parade gets back to the church and after a while, the fuse on one of the "bulls" is lit, and a guy in the festival gear tries to lasso it while it runs around. The bull is armed with roman candles and M-80s. You wonder how many fingers/eyes are lost in all this. The band arranged itself in the gazebo in the church courtyard, and lamely tried to compete with the dudes with the speakers next to the church. The kids are now chasing the bulls, trying to put out the fireworks with palm fronds they have.

Finally we ask the guy selling sodas (wearing a dark tunic) whether this is normal. Turns out we were there for the day before the Fiesta de Santa Rosa, and this was all getting ready for that. "Queman castillos esta noche," he said, which I took to mean they were planning some serious bonfires that night. We decided not to come back for that, as much as we'd been warned against traveling the hills at night as that I can't imagine how spooky the place must be at night.

After that experience, the afternoon spent looking at churches in San Cristóbal kind of pales by comparison.
21 March 2007
What Is John Bolton Up To?
posted by mike d
Everyone's favorite ex-recess-appointed-UN-Ambassador has been on a media push this week, showing up on the Daily Show last night and on the BBC's Newsnight tonight. He certainly fields the questions better in the former than in the latter appearance (when looking at the video - skip to 31:45 to get to Bolton), and Paxman's questions certainly show the lack of credence that the Bush administration has worldwide.

But the real question is: Why? Why is Bolton doing this? He's not pushing a book - Al Kamen (I think) mentioned in a column a couple of months back that Bolton's memoirs will be published this coming December, a short year after he left Turtle Bay. And its not like there's a 90-day waiting period between leaving the administration and going on the talk-show tour (I'm not sure George Stephanopulous waited 90 days from leaving the Clinton administration to join This Week).

The only guess I can come up with is that he (or his publisher) hired him a publicist, who is looking to soften up the media with an eye towards pushing the book this fall. But that's pure speculation.

Bolton comes across as a curmudgeon on TV, but we all know TV can be deceiving, in real life people are different, etc, etc. I once had drinks with someone who worked for Bolton and described him as "as much an asshole as he looks like on TV" (I may be paraphrasing, there). Also, I almost -literally- ran into him at LaGuardia once, as he was coming off a plane at full steam, with a secret service guy (I assume) hustling to keep up. He looked as pissed off from taking the Delta shuttle as he does doign everything else, it seems.
19 March 2007
posted by mike d
(Where's the keystroke combination for "Lightning Bolt"?)

A couple of people have been talking about this story on Atlantic City in the NYT today. Messr. Yglesias' money quote:

The hope is that they'll be able to take AC upscale and make it more like a miniature version of Las Vegas. In principle, it seems like a good idea. Las Vegas is 270 miles from LA, which is about the distance between Boston and Atlantic City -- New York, Philadelphia, and Washington are all much closer. In principle, it could be a place people go a lot. But it's just awful -- really, profoundly unappealing.

Funnily, this article has been emailed to me by a friend who's bachelor party we'll be celebrating this weekend in -wait for it- Atlantic City. I'm going, even though I agree with the assessment of Atlantic City as "just awful". The only other time I've visited, the three of us who went -on a spur-of-the-moment long-weekend- came away feeling that the city was really seedy. The boardwalk had a feel that (I'm hoping) was aimed for "charmingly nostalgic" but was more "run down". The following weeks, I got as much mileage out of using the line "the ratio of sweat-pants to regular pants was dangerously high" (it sounds better when it's delivered as being spontaneous, and three beers into the evening) to describe the clientele. So I'm headed back with hipster tongue planted firmly in cheek.

But the other thing damning AC is that it's soo hard to get to. Las Vegas is 270 miles across a desert from LA, where everyone owns at least two cars. Moving up to Gotham a couple of months ago, I sold my car, as who in their right mind wants to park in the city? My counterparts from downtown Boston, Philly, and DC feel the same way.

And getting around from one of those cities to another is easy. If you want to head to DC or Boston on the cheap (which is the only way to go, if you're going to AC), after ten minutes online, you know to take your twenty-dollar bill in hand and head for certain corners in darkest Chinatown any hour on the hour. The train is just as easy (if 2.5x the price).

But, when I look for transportation for a weekend in AC, it doesn't exist. Or rather, it does, but it's impossible to find and -dangerously- they don't put prices or schedules online. More annoyingly, 95% of what I can find online is same-day return service, for those old grannies looking to hit the one-armed bandits and be back in time for Matlock. The a lá carte choices given you to every other city on the eastern seaboard (Richmond?) don't exist.

If the Borgata wants to differentiate itself from Trump, it'll lay down the $1000 a weekend to reel in a busload of gamblers guests.

...and a train down to the city that gave us the Reading Railroad takes almost four hours and changes in Philly.

This idea is about four years past it's expiration date, but it would have been great to see a satire mash-up of the Sopranos and the OC called "the AC". Or maybe the execution would never live up to the possibilities.
16 March 2007
Managing Expectations
posted by mike d
Sez Kaus:
U.S. military deaths in Iraq have apparently declined by about 20% since the "surge" began.

This is based, as near as I can tell, on comparing end-of-2006 numbers with the most recent news from Iraq.

Sez the American DeTocqueville, on the same comparison:
It would not be too tough to believe that US military commanders (and the adminstration, for that matter), who just launched a controversial "surge" of some 30,000 troops, are hoping to set the bar as low as possible for the end of 2006 (conveniently in the "pre-surge" timeframe). Then, with even the remotest calming in Iraq, or the most modest calming of the situation during the first part of 2007, look for subsequent reports to point to improved conditions.
14 March 2007
Ego Unstroked
posted by mike d
A blogging coup - a link from a real A-lister. I should be ecstatic. But like all the insecure, I attempt to fill the hole deep inside me with the pretense that the hit-count déluge is a sign that they like me, they really like me.

But Lucy keeps pulling away the football. My coup coincides with the complete collapse of the Sitemeter server. As a result, my hit-count chart for the day flat-lines:

Maybe my hopes of bringing this back from the dead were premature...
13 March 2007
Killer Oops
posted by mike d
So the New York Times broke down and made their super-secret Times Select content available free to anyone with a .edu address. While this is obviously an attempt to get college students hooked on a national newspaper, I think the unintended result will be that college grads like me to start giving the $40/year to their alumni association. I'll get a couple of decent lectures, a couple of mediocre advertisements, a free .edu email address, and a Times Select subscription to boot.

Subscribers to the paper edition of the Times already get Times Select access with their breakfast reading. If you assume that a large majority of NYT readers outside New York are college grads (a fair assumption), then the fact that a surprising number of colleges offer .edu addresses to their alumni could be another nail in the coffin of the much-criticized Times Select.

The unexpected boost to alumni subscription (at least among colleges whose alumni are sharp enough to notice this) will be a gift from the NYT to college fundraisers everywhere.

Also worth noting: if you're a HS student, you're SOL with a .us address (if they're allowed any).

UPDATE: Muchissimas gracias to Mickey Kaus for the link. From the commenters who have drifted in, several have said below that they haven't been able to register their alumni accounts, and suspect that the NYT is filtering out alumni. However, as alumni emails are dolled out in different manners (some just redirect the .edu email - but if you have an endowment as big as Hahvahd's, you can have your own @post.harvard.edu server). So to filter out alumni, wouldn't the NYT have to contact every university in the country to figure out how they register their alumni? Signing up for the .edu service sends an email to the address you sign up with - maybe the email is disabled if it's forwarded (can they do that?)

TIME-SELECTIVE UPDATE: The Mongol hordes have crashed the paywall! From the comments:
Apparently they haven't filtered out all alumni addresses. It did take a while to percolate from my alumni address to my current e-mail address,

The NYT just needs to feed the squirrels that power its servers a higher-protein feed-mix.

Soccer Dad (from Bahlmer) in the comments points out that your local library is all you need.
08 March 2007
Notes From the Ride South
posted by mike d
Over the course of a week two summers ago, I joined my parents in a 1700-mile journey south from Mexico City (this was a subset of their massive, 11-day, 3400-mile trek, south from Washington, DC). Before you ask: Yes, I'm the kind of masochist who willingly joins his parents for a car trip ten years after he's escaped such sentencing.

Despite being the first people – since our paleolithic ancestors 14,000 years ago – to sneak themselves south across the North American landmass, we had a good time of it. Our first day of travel was to (a pre-strike) Oaxaca: former capital of the Mixtec Empire.

A lot of the time was – unsurprisingly – spent driving. This was done early, fast and non-stop. We typically would be on the road by 7:30 am, after whatever breakfast our hotels could provide at that hour – the place in Oaxaca was incapable of getting their act together in time – with only stops for gas. The roads were two-lane blacktop for the most part, and in surprisingly good condition. If you've ever driven the back roads across the Blue Ridge Mountains, you'll get a feel for what it was like.

But instead of the hour drive between I-81 and Route 29, we could put in a nine hour day of twisting roads that doubled-back on themselves, and at times were broken up every mile by a home-made tope, or speed bump. In a weighed-down, low-clearance Camry, the grinding sound the undercarriage made scrapping over those things was excruciating. Progress was further slowed by the fact that unlike those runs over the Blue Ridge, this was the main road, so in addition to us, every tractor-trailer was down-shifting through these mountains, slowing progress. And it's best not to think that just about every other one of these semis was a double hauling gasoline to the next Pemex station.

After an uneventful drive (by the above standards), we got in at about 1pm. The afternoon was spent at a leisurely lunch of tacos (and a michelada – a glass of beer with lemonade, Tabasco, and – occasionally – Worcester sauce, rimmed with salt), strolling through a former monastery-turned-museum about the history of the area, and then retiring to the zócalo (central square). At the zócalo, we joined my father – who had wandered off on his own – for another beer and the one thing I'd promised myself I'd try this time: chapulines, or fried grasshoppers. Despite having been told previously that it's "just like eating popcorn," I was disappointed. They were OK, but tasted like dried shrimp, and were very, very salty. Not sure if I'll need to try them again anytime soon, but now I've had 'em. We dined that evening on some Oaxacan cuisine: I had some chicken in mole negro, the 30-odd ingredients of which include half a dozen types of chiles, lard, cinnamon, pecans, almonds, peanuts, and chocolate. Delicious.

I'd been to Oaxaca once before (and this was my folks' fourth trip), and so had already seen the spectacular ruins of Monte Albán and the world's largest (widest?) tree in Tule outside of town. So the following morning my mother and I went further afield, up to Mitla (ruins) and Yangul (more ruins), to check out the remains of a civilization that flourished over a thousand years ago in the valley.

That was followed by a nice leisurely afternoon at the house of Mark, a friend of my parents'. He's a really interesting guy- he came down to Oaxaca in the early 70s to play baseball(!) in the Mexican leagues, supposedly, and never left. My parent's age, he settled down in the area, marrying a Oaxacan – more properly, Mixtec – woman, and raising an interesting bicultural family (his eldest had just finished six years in the [US] navy, and is now going to state college in Cali, while his younger kids go to private high school in Oaxaca).

Mark picked us up just after two, and drove us up to his place outside of town with a gorgeous view of one of the three valleys that intersect at Oaxaca. We were headed up for lunch, after stopping in town to get beer & dessert (the necessities, obviously). An appetizer of fresh bread and Oaxacan cheese was followed by BBQ chicken, with squash and corn that were grown on their property, and the obligatory rice & white corn tortillas. All very good, and Mark had some Mezcal -not homemade, as I'd hoped, but a gift from a local distiller- to "help with the digestion". Once again – delicious. The last cool touch was that dessert was served with coffee that was grown on a farm owned by the family of Mark's wife, Delia, in the south of the state.

Afterwards, Mark took us on a tour of his territory- one and a half acres that they grow corn & vegetables on, and that they're thinking of turning into four bungalows to rent out. You get the impression that while Oaxaca has always had a bit of an attraction to gringos of the granola-eating variety, Mexico's stability and (relative) prosperity have increased the area's profile with snowbirds or people looking to retire full-time to some place with less strip malls than Sedona.

We also walked through "town" (San Juan Huayacam - that last is Zapotec for "between two rivers," supposedly) to check out the church (closed) and "center". The whole walk was redolent of this book I've been reading forever, and was hoping to finish on the trip, Under the Volcano, which is about a (British) consul in Cuernavaca, written in the '40s. It's a bleak book, but it's interesting in its depiction of "the big Gringo" in a small little Mexican town- watching Mark in San Juan Huayacam was the closest I'll get in 21st century Mexico, I think.

It was also very interesting to see his interaction with Delia. An obviously intelligent woman (just retired from 30 years of teaching, I think), she is very traditionally Mixtec, even though she's fluent in English (or at least understands fluently- she spoke Spanish with us) and married to a gringo. So she served and cleared dinner, and he spoke of her at times almost like she wasn't there- very odd. But they seemed comfortable with it, so who am I to say?

That night I snuck out of the hotel to catch an evening celebration of Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, author of Don Quijote. We'd seen a sign for this up in front of the Iglesia Santo Domingo right near our hotel the day before. Camera in hand, I loitered in front of the appointed church at the appointed time. The celebration turned out to be a seventeenth century battle of the bands, in which the "Tuna Oaxaqueña" from the big city hosted the "Tuna Provinciana" in parading down the main pedestrian street of the old town. It was a really appealing civic demonstration, and as near as I can tell, was done more for the benefit of Oaxacans than for us tourists.

The following morning we set out for San Cristóbal de las Casas, better known as ground zero of the Zapatista revolution, in Chiapas. The drive was long – 9 hours in the car, leaving Oaxaca before 8am. The scenery was gorgeous, and the roads very windy through the mountains – it was almost like a car commercial, slaloming back and forth along the twists of the road. Rain came down on us the last hour of the trip, and didn't let up that evening. I got drenched getting us into the hotel. Wearing sandals wasn't pleasant, as I had to slog through two inches of running water gushing down the high gutters of a town obviously prepared for downpours. The fact that the temperature dropped about 30 degrees in the last hour of the drive as we scaled the mountains added nothing to matters. The rain gave the town a very ominous feel- you could easily see oppressed indigenous groups flipping out, or the chupacabra coming to get us, or something crazy like that. While I was happy that it let up the following day, it did add to the atmosphere.
posted by mike d
After a two year hiatus, why not, right? I make no promises, but we'll see if I can't get the ball rolling with some old stuff...

...more than anything else, it's time to move some of these other posts down the front page of the blog.

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