Monday, August 28, 2006

Sierra Escape - California Style

August 25, 2006 - 2:15 pm

Breezing along California Highway 4 almost to Angles Camp, approaching Copperopolis – Elevation: 971’, population 2,623. “Get with IT!” says Marina, about what I do not recall. She’s just as excited as I am to be out of the city, a city, any city - heading up to God’s country. We blow through Murphy’s and then pickup the canoe in Arnold and head on up towards Bear Valley to the little clandestine lake that has kept me coming back and back for almost ten years.

I check my watch and the pressure is dropping as we hit 1,578’ in elevation. The first signs of California pine trees. Another rise in the road puts us at 1,700’ and climbing. We roll into Angels Camp and pull over to check on the canoe on Steele’s Range Rover 4.6 HSE. “It’s fine,” Steele says in that authoritative but somewhat doubting and slightly unsure but still confident way. “I think the straps stretched a little back on the freeway,” he confirms loudly over the din of cars cruising by us. Outside air temperature is 93º with the barometric pressure at 28.27 inches of mercury but is unconfirmed as to its accuracy.

We pass the Angles Theater, Orphan Annie’s Thrift Emporium and the Calaveras County jumping frog out in front of the local volunteer fire department. This is Mark Twain country, no wait John Steinbeck… wait, what’s that one authors name that wrote about this part of California, about the jumping frogs of Calaveras County? A home made sign on the side of the road advertises Square Dancing lessons every Tuesday.

Murphys – 2,171’ elv. and its clear that my watch is off compared to the officially marked elevation signs. Maybe it has a hard time calibrating itself from a moving vehicle, not sure. There’s the Highway Café & Deli right next to Murphy’s Village Market. Bret Harte, that’s the authors name, not nearly as well known as those other two. As we roll out of Muryphys the highway sign says Big Trees 14 miles, Bear Valley 36 – almost there. Oaks, pines, manzinita, black berry bushes, grapes and an occasional aspen grace the terrain on both sides of us as we continue to climb.

We cruise through Hathaway Pines at 3,415' with a population of seven hundred and something and enter into the Stanislaus National Forrest. As we continue our ascent into the mountains, the oaks start to dissipate, giving way to more and more pine trees. Arnold is just another 4 miles up the road where we hit SNAC (1) to get our canoe. There are those classic, kitschy and somewhat commonplace for these parts, chain-sawed bears carved out of pine logs, some standing as tall as a tall man, for sale on the side of the road. We’ve got the iTunes hooked into the car stereo. This road trip soundtrack consists of, amongst others – The Kills, Elliot Smith, White Stripes, Gillian Welsh, Simon & Garfunkel, Scissor Sisters, Metric, The Magnetic Fields, and Seu Jorge from the soundtrack to ‘The Life Aquatic’ where he does those simple acoustic David Bowie covers.

Big trees and big, big rocks whiz by on both sides of the highway as we sail through Camp Connell, Doyle and then Dorrington, climbing up through 5,000’. Every once in awhile there are a few young and beautiful redwood trees towering over us on both sides of the highway. Finally we catch a glimpse of a view through the trees and across Bear Valley basin towards the top of the Sierras to the East. A solid blue California summer sky stretches overhead for miles and miles with not even so much as one single cloud to be seen. There’s Big Meadow campground, not a bad option for those not in the know, those that want easier access to the Sierras, the less adventurous – the common folk. But we continue onward, up into the high country, finally turning off of Hwy. 4 (at an undisclosed turnoff - undisclosed for a reason which is to keep this secret and somewhat sacred spot) for another nine miles on a winding mountain road, down to the Stanislaus river and back up again to the lake. This is the most scenic part of the entire trip as we roll up to the canoe launch. [TBC]

1 - SNAC is the Sierra Nevada Adventure Company where Sean and his friendly staff help mountain-goers with all of their Sierra adventure needs.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Goyo Goes Gonzo in El Congreso

“Con la plata, baile el mono” (1)

And suddenly with little preplanning and a simple invite from one of the press liaisons for an ‘official’ Argentine elected official, from Mendoza, there I was - sitting in an old balcony booth draped with aging red curtains and tiny red seats, imagining that this was the same type of booth that perhaps former U.S. President Abraham Lincoln was shot in, or was it John Wilkes Booth who was actually in the booth… or both? (2) Below me looks like some kind of set from a movie, maybe some movie I’ve never even seen before, or maybe I’m thinking of C-SPAN, but its impressive - the Argentine Camera de Diputadas – or the equivalent of the U.S. House of [non] Representatives.

Modern day Argentine politics, despite what most Argentines would rather not admit, was actually modeled after the U.S. political system including the original version of Argentina’s Constitution, first ratified after several draft attempts and a civil war, in 1852. Still in effect today (although its been modified several times, mostly recently in 1994) even after several military juntas or interim military dictatorships (the most recent was the one between 1973-1984 where up to 30,000 dissidents or leftists were systematically tortured, slaughter and disappeared, a verb that doesn’t even exist in English) completely bypassed it and the entire political system altogether (obvio) (3). The constitution created the executive office of the President, the Legislative Congress, consisting of an ‘upper’ Senate (73 seats) voted in to serve four year terms and a ‘lower’ Chamber of Deputies (257 seats) which is proportionally based on population within the given provinces throughout Argentina, and an independent judiciary Supreme Court.

The semi-circular arc below is filled with rows and rows of dark mahogany desks, all with individually built-in copper ashtrays, identical microphones encased in yet more mahogany and that little red light that indicates when, where and who is speaking at any given time. Each desk is also accompanied by dark leather swiveling and reclining chairs and a high-tech fingerprint recognition voting system that lets the deputies digitally sign in at any of the desks and vote yeah or nay on whatever the current issue at hand may be.

Today is Wednesday, which is the one-day per week that both the Senate and the Deputies normally gather to meet, talk and vote. It’s very interesting to watch at least but even though I’ve just recently passed level four Spanish at the UBA and can pick up most of what’s being said, I haven’t the faintest idea on the context or what’s being talked about or voted on. Whatever it is, it passes overwhelmingly as illustrated on the oversized TV monitor bank that is the only thing besides the fingerprint voting system that even resembles anything remotely new in this very old-world Congress building.

But what really amazes me is the behind the scenes scene, upstairs and down the hall from the Deputies and the Senate floors, around the paint-chipped-and-peeling- corner and down another unlit hallway and behind closed doors. This is where the real action takes place and this is where I sit for almost six hours; listening, lurking, leering and learning that what goes on behind the scenes in Argentine politics STAYS behind the scenes. Visions of mafia bosses and money laundering schemes fill my head and it’s like I’m in a Woody Allen film that never got made due to speculative lack of acceptance by the American viewing public when initially pitched to financial backers.

There are two woman sitting at opposing desks; one in her late thirties and almost my height (read: very, very tall), sexy and super skinny that the other refers to as flaca and one that is thirty, cute and bit chubby (especially by Argentine standards) that the flaca does NOT refer to as gordi, which means gorda or ‘fatty’ and is actually a common term of endearment here and not an insult like it would be perceived in the States.

The flaca has her high heels on her desk as she chain smokes Marlboro Reds in her pin-stripped suit, sipping on yerba mate while gordi answers her desk phone and moto-razor cell simultaneously while typing on an ancient computer and reading her emails back to someone on one of the lines she’s holding. The phones keep ringing and flaca keeps screaming, in this passionate Latina-type way sounding and appearing upset even though I was later told that she was happy and just a bit excited.

Trapped but enthralled, without an official escort back to my awaiting and expired California drivers license that I left with security at the side entrance to the Congress, I hammer away on my laptop until the battery dies and gordi finishes her meeting with an unnamed Senator regarding President Kirchner’s upcoming visit to Mendoza this week. They are trying to bring the more extreme leftist factions in Mendoza together to the barely-left-of-center Kirchner point of view (4) along with others in his ever-growing and strong political block. We finally leave at close to 11PM and hit the cold and freshly rained-upon streets. Thanks gordi for everything – Dios Mio!

1 - “With money, the monkey dances” which is a popular saying here that I just learned recently from a local cab driver. Basically, with money… anything’s possible. And not in terms of the American dream crap; rather like you could hire anyone to do anything here, or kill twenty people for example, and not have to go to jail. Or rob the country blind and sell off all the national assets to foreign interests and not go to jail because there is no ‘proof’, like ex-president and current Senator Carlos Menem allegedly did.

2 – Actually, Lincoln was in the booth when Booth came in and shot him in that very same both. Wikipedia gives a detailed explanation of the entire Lincoln assassination at Ford’s Theatre in Washington D.C. on April 14, 1865.

3 – Obvio means ‘obviously’ in Spanish and, as was explained to me in Level Four Spanish by my professor, is slightly more ironic than claro, which means ‘of course’ or ‘clearly’ (lit.).

4 - Kirchner's current leanings are against former President Menem's 'strictly aligned with the U.S.' and is very left-of-center in terms of U.S. politics. Led by Venezualan President Hugo Chavez, the anit-American MercoSur is a group of South American countries that are trying to move away from what they deem as American Imperialist tendencies and to exist largely on their own without the traditional influence of the American government or military... more on MercoSur later, but needless to say, Paraguay is a token member despite of the influx of U.S. monetary aid and military presecence under the guise of 'joint military exercises.'

Argentina Photo Galleries

You've asked - Goyo answers. Some of the photos in these galleries have been viewed by some of you in one form or another; including on Fotoninja's rarely-updated daily photoblog as well as in print and online in various forms. Enjoy.

Random photos from Buenos Aires, Cordoba and beyond and yet more random photos from Buenos Aires, Argentina taken on my second trip to to this vast land in August and September of 2005.

Photo Above is from a shoot called 'Gaucho Carto-traficantes' and is part of my ongoing series about Cartoneros, Fashion and Buenos Aires. Photo taken by Tommy Abad

Sunday, August 13, 2006

California or Bust

The infamous 'Hotel California' conjures up many things to many people in its many variations and widely debated interpretations. Probably the most famous or popular reference is from the Eagles 1976 international hit song 'Hotel California' (On a dark desert highway, cool wind in my hair. Warm smell of colitas, rising up through the air...) about some sequestered hotel south of the border, presumably in Baja California, Mexico.

According to Mark Bowden, author of Black Hawk Down and Killing Pablo, 'Hotel California ' (nicknamed by the CIA) is the place where Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the notorious terrorist and mastermind behind both attacks on the World Trade Center (the failed attack in 1993 and 9/11/01), captured in Pakistan in March 2003, was flown to - 'presumably a facility in another cooperative nation, or perhaps a specially designed prison aboard an aircraft carrier.' (1)

For me, the Hotel California has a few different personal connotations. First, there is a residential hotel near my old flat in West Oakland called the California Hotel on San Pablo Avenue just down the street from The Oaks card room which I could see from my back deck, standing there as an anomoly right next to the 580 Freeway - inhabited by the poor, outcast, drug-addicted, and mentally insane. Second, there is the Hotel California pictured above in Ciudad del Este, Paraguay - near the Gran Casino Paraná situated on the banks of the Rio Paraná, bordering Paraguay and Brazil. And finally, there's the mythological Hotel California that represents some kind of fantastical Shangri La or El Dorado-like reprieve; like R&R after being in the shitstorm of war - a break from the daily ins and outs of life, for example, like living here in sometimes surreal Buenos Aires. This Atlantis or fool-like paradise vision is much different than that of the place where Kahalid Mohammed is currently being detained, I imagine.

On August 23 I am fortuned and thankful to have been granted a slight repreive from my life here in BA and am heading back home to California - land of dreams and gold - for a short but glorious two weeks; not to a specific hotel but rather to my motherland, back to see friends and family, back to experience first hand the wonders of the Sierra Nevada del Norte and back to reignite that internal flame of inspiration from that small slice of heaven that I call my home away from home.

1 - From Jon Ronson's latest novel: The Men Who Stare at Goats

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Che Guevara Alive In Lebanon?

Having my brain overloaded with Level 4 'intensive' Spanish for the past three weeks at the University of Buenos Aires, this our fourth and final week, I finally realize that I am not going to make up for all the years and years of not studying language, not since failing Level 2 back in college, twice. The professor actually told me today that my spoken Spanish is fluid, but the writing part ain’t so hot. “You’re going to have to start to read a lot, in Spanish,” she added.

Actually, one of our exercises a week ago was to choose an article in a local newspaper and write our opinions about it, forcing us to use the heinous subjunctive forms of the verbs in their many complicated and rule-bound conjugations. Never short on opinions, this was homework I could handle, so I thought. The first article I saw online in La Nacion was titled “Nasrallah is the Che of the Arab World.” Hmm… that’s interesting; a comparison between the dead Argentine revolutionary icon, reportedly assassinated in Bolivia at the hands of the CIA and the current, living leader of Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah in Lebanon. The second was on Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez’s recent visit to Iran where he compared current Israeli military operations in Lebanon with those of Adolph Hitler against the Jews in the Second World War. I stuck with the first one.

The article quotes Michel Awad, a political science professor from the Institute of Social Sciences at the University of Lebanon who says ‘Nasrallah is the new Che Guevara, but in the Arab world. He’s on all the t-shirts, in all the houses and in all the hearts… uniting both Shiites and Sunnis. For Arabs, its now clearly a matter of life and death.'

I hop into bed before midnight and finish reading Jon Ronson’s “The Men Who Stare at Goats” about the U.S. Military’s continued efforts to develop psychic Jedi Warrior-like troops that can, among other things walk through walls and yes, kill goats by actually staring at them. This excellent journalistic trail of cosmic breadcrumbs takes the author on a chilling but true tale of murder, torture and the ongoing ‘war against terror’. Che was a terrorist, among other things.

Still not tired with finals now but two days away, I flip on the TV to relax a bit. Mistake. The Syrian Ambassador to the US in being interviewed on the BBC news program Hard Talk saying, “They [Hezbollah] are a grassroots guerilla movement and are popularly supported by the people of Lebanon… Israel has already invaded Lebanon not once but twice and both times we’re pushed back successfully by Hezbollah. If they want to do this again I think it’s a serious, serious mistake."

Larry King’s guest on CNN is a female reporter from the Washington Post saying that Hezbollah, with two seats in the Lebanese coalition government, shares the support of eighty seven percent of the Lebanese people, which in turn is made of thirty-four different religious groups. That’s more than you can say for Bush’s popularity, that’s for damn sure. Last I heard it was down around thirty percent.

A BBC reporter says, “…while Israel tries to destroy Hezbollah positions…” and I tune out. That’s the point of a guerilla army, as Che professed, can’t beat ‘em.

After the report, they cut to international weather and this wretched-looking weather woman takes us on a meteorological tour throughout Europe, smiling her best TV newscaster smile whenever there’s sunshine but getting more serious, almost frowning when the weather turns south. And south we head into Northern Africa, skip the Middle East and then on over to India where they have already received five meters of rain with severe flooding and says, “more torrential rains to continue.” Her report abrubtly ends and she beams a great big smile. There is a lull as someone in the control room drops the ball before they finally cut back to the studio late, leaving her standing there with that damn smile plastered on her face. But its not sunny in India, why are you smiling?!

They then went to some lighter world news which included a mimicking parrot in Germany that fooled neighbors into calling the police when it loudly screeched over and over “Mama, MAMA!”

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Who You Callin' An Expat?

Just even the sound of that word - Expat, gives me the willies; always has, always will.

“That’s not me nor will it ever be. That term is dated. I’m a traveler, an adventurer, a citizen of this planet… a ‘photographer without borders.’”

Or so I thought. Now I’ve lived here in Buenos Aires for nine or so months with a couple of trips here and there in between. Short for expatriate and technically speaking, I guess I fit one if not two of the noun definitions:

-One who has taken up residence in a foreign country.
-One who has renounced one's native land.

Although my father took up residence from his native land of England long ago moving to California in the late 1950's, he has never renounced his own motherland and still maintains his British citizenship. Now I’m thinking about switching sides. Because of his birthright claim to the Isles of Great Britain I also am entitled to British citizenship. Those are the cards I was dealt and I might as well play ‘em. Plus it’d save me on visa fees entering and exiting Paraguay, freely as I please. (British citizens do not have to pay the $50USD one-time entry fee like Americans do).

But back to Buenos Aires and the point of this post. There’s this expat email list that I first subscribed to fresh off the plane. Now I never even read them but then just the other day Ethan forwarded me an excerpt from one of their recent emails and I felt moved to post it here.

“Expats are vulnerable to a number of changes in
their mental and physical health when adjusting to
life in a new country. Psychological problems that
can arise or resurface include depression, anxiety,
issues regarding existing relationships (or lack
there of), anger and frustration, addictive
behvaiour, body image and eating issues, as well as
loss of identity and direction in life.

Psychotherapy provides a space for you to resolve
and manage these issues; enabling you to live
your life in a full and meaningful way.”

That’s funny... and I thought it was just me. The only thing the blurb from this local gringo-targeting-psychotherapist forgot to mention was the part about not sleeping.