Notes on the Extinctions at the Top of the World

 | 

Between bouts of ducking and covering under my second-grade desk in case the Russians dropped an atom bomb on our classroom, I spent a lot of time studying geography. Not because my teacher emphasized matters geographical, but because she had a thing about homework. And not in a good way.

On the first day of class she handed out the first assignment and I did the obvious thing. I forgot about it. She didn’t forget, though, and the next morning, while the other kids were enjoying recess, I got invited to sit at my desk and complete the work. I passed the time staring at islands on the big world map next to the blackboard. On the third day I owed two homeworks, both of which would have to be turned in before I could head out to recess. Come April, I owed a hundred-and-some homeworks and all possibility of recess had forever receded below the horizon. If my family hadn’t moved to another city, I’d still be in second grade, puzzling over the Rorschach shapes of faraway islands.

Svalbard has the most polar bears of anywhere in the world — more even than Churchill, Manitoba, where bears sashay down Main Street eating people’s dogs.

There are a lot of islands in the world, and I came out of that experience with a geographical bucket list of almost bottomless capacity. It was, looking back, a list based on shape and remoteness instead of anything particular my seven-year-old self knew about any of the islands. Which is how my seven-year-old self wound up sending me to Svalbard more than half a century later, still thinking the place should be called Spitzbergen, the way it used to be.

The two things that I knew about Svalbard were that it is very far north, farther north, even, than Siberia, as far north as the northernmost reaches of Greenland; and that Svalbard had the most polar bears of anywhere in the world — more even than Churchill, Manitoba, where bears sashay down Main Street eating people’s dogs. Also, my seven-year-old self wanted to be there in the winter for the true Svalbard experience, and to see the Northern lights.

Longyearbyen, the capital of Svalbard, is the former silver medalist for the title of northernmost civilian place on the planet. In the ’90s it got defaulted up to northernmost when the model Soviet city 50 miles west and a dozen or so closer to the pole was disqualified on account of going out of business. My wife and I lodged in a room in Longyearbyen, in barracks that housed coal miners before the miners rioted over their poor living conditions. Longyearbyen seemed an apt enough name for somewhere to be stuck on a yearlong contract digging coal. No wonder the miners rioted. It took a while for me to find out that the town was named after John Munro Longyear, the Michigan timber baron who began the mining operations in 1906.

It looked like a rundown middle-school gym, if middle-school gyms came plastered with posters of heroic Red Army soldiers from the Great Patriotic War, tarted up with gold CCCP’s on red backgrounds.

People who didn’t riot were the inhabitants of the Soviet model city. According to the young Russian who showed us around, it had been a very desirable place to be, Soviet-Unionwise. It’s called Pyramiden and people waited years to be assigned there. Like Longyearbyen, Pyramiden was a coal-mining town. We boated over one day to check it out.

There was a big, brass, snow-blown bust of Lenin welcoming us to the Sports Palace. The Palace had a basketball court and a tawdry little music room and an even tawdrier niche fitted out with shelves that some wag had designated as a library. It looked like a rundown middle-school gym in a community that had experienced a property-tax revolt, if middle-school gyms came plastered with posters of heroic Red Army soldiers from the Great Patriotic War, tarted up with gold CCCP’s on red backgrounds. There was also a sinister sounding building called the Tulip Hotel, which, since we weren’t Soviet royalty off on a junket, we weren’t allowed inside of. “Everything here was free,” beamed the Russian who showed us around. He was too young to know better.

Free included a bleak apartment in the men’s building, if you were a guy. In the ladies’, if you weren’t. There were rumors of a secret tunnel connecting the two which were hard to credit since both buildings were constructed several feet off the ground because of permafrost. Still, if you could manage to hook up with a coal miner of the opposite sex you hit the jackpot because married people got upgraded to a couple’s apartment. There must have been a limited number of those apartments, though, or people would have been allowed to meet out in the open rather than having to sneak around in tunnels.

Free also, of course, included all the labor those miners put in. And the food, the food was free, too. Evidence about what kind of food you can get for free lurks in the abandoned institutional kitchen. Mostly it seemed to have been canned peas stirred in huge electric-powered tubs that reminded me of the first-generation washing machines you see in photographs from the Depression. Free industrial peas at the end of working all day in the mines — no wonder the vodka was free, too. The vodka is still there. You can purchase a shot at the northernmost bar in the world. One taste, and you realize why it hasn’t migrated to a more competitive locale. And why it had to be free.

“Everything here was free,” beamed the Russian who showed us around. He was too young to know better.

High class people. Doctors. Lawyers. Folks with political pull pulled strings to get sent to a place farther north than Siberia so they could work in mines all day and eat cafeteria peas at night and hook up in tunnels like horny junior-high kids and shoot down vodka that would have etched the chrome off the fancy ZiL limousines the nomenklatura were chauffeured around in back home. A few miles away, Norwegian miners were rioting because they didn’t like the rooms they were given, but these poor schnooks thought they were living in paradise. There may have been Northern lights somewhere, but I wouldn’t know. It turns out the Northern lights are easier to see when it isn’t snowing all the time.

Also, I should have given a bit more thought to that business about seeing polar bears. Even my seven-year-old brain could have put it together. Bears. Winter. Hibernation. But I wasn’t any more analytical when I planned the trip than I’d been about not turning in my homework.

Or the bear thing may have had something to do with the fact that polar bears are dying out. All the right people say so. The pack ice is melting and bears all over the Arctic are falling into the water and starving to death, so if you live in Churchill, keep a close eye on your pets. There are a lot of hungry bears wading ashore. But people in Svalbard didn’t seem to be worried about polar bears dying out. They were worried about being eaten by bears. On Svalbard, you’re required by law to carry a high-powered rifle when you step outside of town.

Longyearbyen has a university, the Harvard of the Arctic, according to the Toronto Star, where you can study oceanography, but I wouldn’t. Studying oceanography involves SCUBA diving, and there are plenty of fine programs at places more equatorial than the Barents Sea. They have a nice museum at the university, though, a museum that focuses on geology and, this being Svalbard, the glaciers that sit on top of the geology. It was while I was reading about those glaciers that I came across this:

For the past four to five thousand years the Earth has been subject to a marked cooling, which gradually has created better conditions for the growth of glaciers and permafrost. Five thousand years ago the average temperature in Svalbard was around 4 degrees warmer than today. Then, one would probably have had to climb 200-400m up in the mountains in order to find permafrost, and many of today’s glaciers would not then have existed. The largest glaciers would have existed in a much reduced size. Many of Svalbard’s glaciers, therefore, are less than three to four thousand years old.

They were worried about being eaten by bears. On Svalbard, you’re required by law to carry a high-powered rifle when you step outside of town.

Svalbard has gotten a lot of attention over the past few months for being the ground zero of global warming. Maybe, even, a bit above zero, sometimes. Degrees on Svalbard have shot up quicker than degrees anywhere else on earth, which got me to wondering about those polar bears. Polar bears have been floating around in the Arctic for something like 200,000 years. Even if Svalbard is warming up today, what were they floating on 5,000 years ago? The sign didn’t say, so I had to look it up on my own. And discovered that there are two schools of thought on the bear situation.

The first is the one you’ve already heard. The other is that the bear population has exploded in recent years, mainly because of an international ban on polar bear hunting. When I tried to look up the exact numbers, I found some in the articles that thought there were more bears than ever. Twenty-five thousand, and climbing. Thirty-thousand, with populations of bears well established in dozens of locations throughout the polar region. The articles that thought the bears were dying out talked about pack ice. Less pack ice than ever. You can drive to the North Pole in your bass boat, if you want to.

Now I’m not a polar bear scientist and I’m not qualified to judge the quality of those articles, but it did seem to me that one side was willing to commit to real numbers and the other, well, the other weaseled out of addressing the question.




Share This


Temporization Fugit

 | 

As speculated in a June 7 feature here, President Trump today (June 16) announced, before a packed Miami crowd, a big change in US-Cuba policy. Though tourism to the island by American-based visitors has been technically banned by the embargo for quite some time, the 2014 Obama thaw fudged the issue in a variety of ways. President Trump has just dumped the fudge.

Pre-Obama’s thaw, regulations allowed Americans to visit Cuba under a variety of categories, including a people-to-people category — once their itinerary had been vetted by the Treasury Department. Under that category, only organized tour groups with a detailed itinerary were allowed to visit, with the intent of American folks and Cuban folks getting to know each other.

Compliance with the travel regulations in all categories will be strictly enforced.

On December 2014, President Obama eliminated the vetting process and allowed visitors to vet themselves on an honor system. At the same time, visitors returning from the island weren’t scrutinized, only questioned perfunctorily or not at all, about their compliance with US government regulations.

According to CNBC, “President Trump's policy restricts this form of travel to Cuba for individuals. Americans pursuing this type of travel would have to go in groups.” And their compliance with the travel regulations in all categories will be strictly enforced.

But the ultimate aim of the new policy is to restrict American tourist dollars going to businesses owned by the Cuban military's holding company, GAESA. "The profits from investment and tourism flow directly to the military. The regime takes the money and owns the industry. The outcome of the last administration's executive action has only been more repression and a move to crush the peaceful, democratic movement," Trump said in Miami on Friday.

The ultimate aim of the new policy is to restrict American tourist dollars going to businesses owned by the Cuban military's holding company.

According to Fox News, The policy calls on Americans traveling to Cuba to use "private businesses and services provided by the Cuban people, rather than businesses and services provided by GAESA." In effect, government hotels and resorts are out. US-based visitors must use private B&Bs and restaurants otherwise known as casas particulares and paladares.

The new policy does not go into effect until the new regulations are issued. We await the Cuban government’s reaction . . .




Share This


Talk Tough but Temporize

 | 

During the 2016 presidential campaign Donald Trump criticized President Obama’s Cuba policy and promised to reverse it. However, after Trump’s win, during the transition, “he and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson privately expressed support for Obama’s Cuba policy,” according to a June 2 ABC News report.

In typical Trump fashion, the candidate talked tough but the president is keeping his options open as he educates himself on the issues. And in typical government fashion, a “policy review” under the auspices of the National Security Council was set up to study the issues. It was supposed to report its recommendations on May 20, the 115th anniversary of Cuban independence, but the issues turned out to be more complex than originally envisioned, and Saudi Arabia — President Trump’s location on that hallowed day — didn’t seem like an appropriate venue to berate Cuba on its human rights record.

Yes, that’s right: in a Wilsonian-Carterian flourish, Trump’s Cuba policy “will have important differences with respect to that of Barack Obama, especially with a ‘major emphasis’ on human rights,” according to Francisco Palmieri, Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Latin America.

Saudi Arabia — President Trump’s location on the appointed day — didn’t seem like an appropriate venue to berate Cuba on its human rights record.

It seems — to a cynic who might ignore the president’s ostensible, stated reason — that Trump’s thrust is based on two objectives. One is the aim, originating in a gut reaction, to reverse anything Obama did; the other is more nakedly political: according to the Associated Press, the Trump administration wants to maintain good relations with Marco Rubio, who sits on the Senate committee investigating Trump’s relations with Russia, and Mario Diaz-Balart, a member of the powerful House Appropriations Committee — both Cuban-Americans, and the latter a not-too-distant relative of the Castros.

Meanwhile, in a Trumpian flourish just before leaving office, Obama restricted Cuban immigration by rescinding the so-called “Wet foot, Dry foot” policy whereby a Cuban caught on the waters between Cuba and the United States ("wet feet") would summarily be sent home or to a third country. One who makes it to shore ("dry feet") can remain in the United States, and would later qualify for expedited legal permanent resident status in accordance with the 1966 Cuban Adjustment Act, and eventually US citizenship.

The Trump administration’s ambivalence toward Obama’s Cuba policy proceeds from the fact that its favorable aspects conflict with its unfavorable consequences. While the reduced restrictions on Americans traveling to Cuba that President Obama signed as an executive order in 2014 have tripled leisure travel to nearly 300,000 last year, much of the tourist money is spent at all-inclusive resorts run by Cuban military conglomerates that fuel the state security (repressive) apparatus. Organized tours, especially in the “people-to-people” and “educational” categories are little better, spending all their time under direct government control, visiting such exciting venues as printing workshops, organic farmers’ cooperative markets, and other government-organized venues, while traveling in government tour buses with government guides.

Those dollars strengthen the security organs. According to ABC News, arrests and detentions climbed from 8,899 in 2014 to 9,940 in 2016.

Much of the tourist money is spent at all-inclusive resorts run by Cuban military conglomerates that fuel the repressive state security apparatus.

On the other hand, continues the ABC report, a significant proportion of travelers eschewed organized tours, opting instead to explore Cuba on their own and thereby “injecting hundreds of millions in US spending into privately owned businesses on the island,” businesses made possible by the 201 private enterprises (especially B&Bs and restaurants) legalized by the regime since 2010, and “supercharging the growth of an entrepreneurial middle-class.”

Still, the hype has blinded what ought to be sober players into overreach. President Obama did not change the requirements for US travelers to Cuba; he only put compliance with them on the honor system, a system that still requires registering with the US Treasury Dept. The same ABC News report I quote here incorrectly states that “Obama eliminated that requirement.”

And it’s not just ABC News. Airlines such as JetBlue, American, Silver Airways, and Frontier, anticipating tens of thousands of travelers to book their own, independent trips to Cuba, have had to cut back considerably. Silver and Frontier have both canceled all their flights, citing "costs in Havana to turn an aircraft significantly exceeded our initial assumptions." In other words, the costs involved with unloading bags, cleaning the aircraft, customs procedures, etc. were higher than expected, doubtless because of the Cuban government milking the airlines. Earlier this year, JetBlue announced it would use smaller planes for its Cuba flights, and American Airlines cut its daily flights to Cuba by 25%.

The Obama changes did increase US travel to Cuba, just not as much as some expected. NBC News reports that “according to the state-run site CubaDebate, the number of Americans traveling to Cuba spiked in January of this year at 43,200. CubaDebate said that's a 125% increase from January of last year.” In addition, it reported 31,000 Cuban-Americans traveled to the island in January.

The costs involved with unloading bags, cleaning the aircraft, customs procedures, etc. were higher than expected, doubtless because of the Cuban government milking the airlines.

Those Cuban-Americans recently became a political football for cruise lines, which also dove into the liberalized US-Cuba travel market. The Cuban government does not recognize naturalized US citizenship by any Cuban-born individual: in their eyes such people are still Cuban citizens. Many of these expatriates, although allowed to visit relatives in Cuba under one of the allowed US categories of travelers, refused to set foot on the island for any prolonged length of time, declining to give even one dollar to the regime. But the promise of a cruise with all the amenities provided by a US ship and onshore visits a matter of only hours on terra firma suddenly attracted many.

But it was not to be.

The Cuban government declared that Cuban-born Cuban-Americans would not be allowed on shore from any visiting US cruise ship, referring to an earlier Cuban law that prohibited any Cuban-born person returning from to the island by sea. This was probably meant to place a fig leaf over the prosecution of any foreign-based infiltrators.

So, initially, Carnival Corporation refused to sell tickets to Cuban-born Americans. Two lawsuits put paid to that. They were filed in federal court in Miami: a class-action suit and a civil suit, by Cuban-born Americans who attempted to book and were denied tickets on Fathom Cruise Lines, a subsidiary of Carnival. According to the Miami Herald, “the lawsuits alleged that the cruise line was violating the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by following a policy that discriminates against a class of Americans on a place of public accommodation for transient guests — a cruise ship.”

Carnival then decided to sell tickets to Cuban-Americans but delayed its cruises until Cuba changed its policy — which it did, effective April 26, 2016. The first cruise sailed on May 1, 2016.

Cuba has not adapted well to the increase in visits. Forget booking a hotel room in Havana during the peak season of November-April on your own; rely instead on a package tour. And good luck finding a B&B, called in Cuba a casa particular. Under the Obama initiatives, both governments have struck agreements to cooperate on issues ranging from human trafficking to oil spills, and even increased internet access — a pledge extracted out of Raul Castro by President Obama. The Cuban government has “opened nearly 400 public Wi-Fi access points across the country,” according to the AP. But that reality is much less than meets expectations. The outlets are mostly in parks and plazas and only provide email connections. Full internet access, while more available than before, is beyond most Cubans’ budgets and remains frustratingly slow.

Cuba owes about $8 billion for confiscations and expropriations to US citizens. At that rate, repayment would take about 400 years.

The challenge for the Trump administration’s policy reset is to keep the good bits — full diplomatic relations, some relative freedom of travel, the benefits to Cuba’s private sector, etc. — while limiting Americans from doing business with the Cuban security organs, “according to a Trump administration official and a person involved in the ongoing policy review” (ABC report). Additionally, what with President Trump’s emphasis on jobs, Engage Cuba, a pro-détente group, released a study this May asserting “that a complete rollback of Obama’s Cuba policy would cost airlines and cruise lines $3.5 billion over the next four years and lead to the loss of 10,154 travel jobs.” (Wow, really? Such incredible specificity!)

One novel proposal that might be included in the Cuba policy reset — to ensure the support of the Cuban-Americans — is to impose a 2% export tax on US agricultural products sent to the island. “It is a politically creative, financially plausible measure and may possibly be a first step toward a comprehensive settlement of compensation to those who hold certified claims,” said Richard Feinberg, a former assistant to President Clinton and author of a Brookings Institution study on Cuban claims published in 2015. Of course, whether that 2%, factored into the price of the exports, would come out of the exporters’ profits or out of the Cuban government’s pockets is up for negotiation — if the proposal is implemented. Cuba owes about $8 billion for confiscations and expropriations to US citizens. At that rate, repayment would take about 400 years, though the majority of small claims could be settled with dispatch.

* * *

Oh, yes . . . and what about those extra 1,041 arrests and detentions in 2016? ABC News reports, “Cuban officials say many of those arrests are deliberately provoked by dissidents who are funded and backed by anti-Castro groups with the deliberate objective of driving up detention statistics.”

No doubt those officials saw the May issue of the Cuban American National Foundation’s Boletín Informativo, displaying a photograph of a protester racing in front of Havana’s May Day parade waving an American flag in the air and wearing a Cuban flag on his chest. Daniel Llorente Miranda’s action took the security organs by surprise. After a few seconds’ chase, they threw him to the tarmac and brutally beat him.




Share This


Volo, Veni, Velo, Vidi

 | 

Cosa ni pensi di Trump? (What do you think of Trump?)

It was a question my wife Tina and I were asked our very first day in Sicily and nearly every other day on our 30-day bicycle circumnavigation of the island this February. The question was usually prefaced by apologies, either verbal or physical, as if it were a too-personal intrusion (unusual for Europeans, who generally disdain small talk — unless it’s banter — in favor of meatier fare). It was always asked in earnest, never in a challenging manner.

One Dutch couple in the little town of Taormina combined both approaches. On finding out we were Americans, they kiddingly asked if we’d be able to return home. Trump had just issued his ill-conceived travel ban and we were unaware of it, news being an unnecessary intrusion when I travel. We joined in their kidding about America’s new president until I reminded them of Geert Wilders, the Netherlands’ version of the Donald, at which point they sheepishly concurred and demurred. Ditto for a Polish couple whose criticism of Trump was more earnest until I reminded them of the Kaczynski brothers’ populist policies. They said Poland was a new democracy, subject to mistakes, while they expected more from the US, a mature democracy. I replied that I was glad we were still, at least, young at heart.

The Italians, however, were transparently curious. They didn’t trust their media and wanted an eyewitness opinion. One averred that he’d heard Trump was another Hitler. I told him Trump wasn’t as bad as Mussolini or Berlusconi, with only a pussycat’s handful of “bunga, bunga.”

Taormina is a small, picturesque, ancient town atop an impossibly steep hill. It boasts the best preserved (outside of Greece) 3rd-century BC Greek theater. We were about two-thirds done with our counterclockwise bike tour of the island when we were taken aback by Italian soldiers in full deployment eyeing us at Taormina’s medieval gates. Curious, I approached one and politely asked the way to Corso Umberto I, the location of our lodging. He smiled and said we were on it.

At our B&B I asked our host why the town was occupied by the army. “Trump-Putin summit,” he answered.

Incredulous, I gesticulated, “Today? Two or three days . . . soon?”

When Tina and I had circumbiked Iceland, we’d visited the house where the Reagan-Gorbachev summit was held. We’d lingered long, savoring the very spot where the Cold War had ended. Would Taormina rise to the occasion?

Not a chance, according to The Economist. One anti-Trump acquaintance observed that it was fitting that Trump — a man of business who wants respect — and Putin, a gangster, should meet in the birthplace of the Mafia.

“No, no,” our host answered, “Maggio (May).”

The following morning we headed to the Greek theater. Next door, the Grand Hotel Timeo, an historic old hotel, was closed for renovations. The Timeo counted among its guests Goethe, Kaiser Wilhelm II, Edward VII, D.H. Lawrence, Truman Capote, and now, we assumed, either Trump, Putin, or both. Adjacent, the street was being dug up by workmen upgrading the communications infrastructure — with soldiers overlooking. Yet Italy never ceases to amaze. Between midnight and 6 AM, all the soldiers disappear. Go figure.

Our Thing

Today, according to one source, the Mafia lies dormant in Sicily, having moved what operations it still retains to Calabria, Italy’s boot toe. Many of the business establishments we passed sported a window sticker declaring that they’d joined Addiopizzo, an organization of businesses that refuse to pay protection money and that rally around one another when fingered. Tourist curio shops sell Sono il padrino (I am the godfather) T-shirts and coffee cups, many with your name custom printed. Marlon Brando’s Don Corleone character pictures are everywhere. There is even an anti-Mafia museum, the home of CIDMA (Centro Internazionale di Documentazione sulla Mafia e Movimento Antimafia), in the town of Corleone, 60 km south of Palermo.

Up until the mid-1990s the La Societa Onorata, or Cosa Nostra, was no joke. But then, in 1982, Tommaso Buscetta, a “man of honor,” turned rat when he was arrested. After four years of interrogation under magistrate Giovanni Falcone, 584 Mafiosi were put on trial — the maxiprocesso or supertrial — in a specially constructed bunker in Palermo, Sicily’s capital. The trial took two years and sometimes descended into farce with loud and disruptive behavior, some defendants acting as their own lawyers flamboyantly spouting nonsense, indulging in non sequiturs and endless sophistry, another one literally stapling his mouth shut to signify his commitment to omerta, the code of silence, and another feigning madness with outbursts so disruptive he had to be put into a straitjacket. The trial resulted in 347 convictions, of which 19 were life imprisonments.

It would surprise no libertarian that the Mafia’s roots lie in government failure, specifically a law enforcement failure.

The men of honor struck back, as they had every time in the past. In 1988 they murdered a Palermo judge and his son, then an anti-Mafia prosecutor, and finally, in 1992 Falcone and Paolo Borsellino, another courageous anti-Mafia magistrate. But this time they’d gone too far. In January 1993, the authorities arrested the capo di tutti capi, or boss of all bosses, Salvatore (Toto) Riina, the most wanted man in Europe. He was charged with a host of murders, including those of magistrates Falcone and Borsellino, and sentenced to life imprisonment, effectively decapitating the organization (which might turn out to be a Hydra).

It would surprise no libertarian that the Mafia’s roots lie in government failure, specifically a law enforcement failure. Sicilians had always sought independence and only reluctantly joined Italy in 1861 after Garibaldi promised them autonomy. Between 1200 and Italian unification, Sicily was ruled — usually at a distance and often as an afterthought — by Germany, France, Aragon, Spain, Savoy, Austria, Naples, and England, mostly in that order. Not strong enough to guard their independence, Sicilians would invite an outsider to help them rid themselves of the occupier du jour. The new bosses liked the island, refused to leave, and ruled desultorily, leading to revolt and a repetition of the cycle. It was a prime environment for the nurturing of brigands and private militias specializing in protection.

The word mafia was first used in 1863 to describe that special combination of thievery, extortion, and protection by organized groups. Serious anti-Mafia campaigns began in 1925 with Benito Mussolini, who promised to make government work. It didn’t work, at least permanently. The “men of honor” fought back, joining an unexpected ally: the US government.

Anticipating the Allies’ invasion of Europe through Sicily in 1943, the US wanted to ensure that the landings, launched from North Africa, would be greeted with respect. In 1936 Charles “Lucky” Luciano, capo di tutti capi of Mafia operations in America, had begun serving a 30 to 50 year sentence in federal prison, having been convicted of 62 counts of compulsory prostitution. In 1942 the US Office of Naval Intelligence approached Luciano, who was still running his operation from inside prison, seeking help with the Sicily landings.

Lucky and the Navy struck a secret deal: (1) East coast dockworkers, controlled by the mob, would not go on strike for the duration of the war and would actively resist any attempts at sabotage; and (2) the Sicilian Mafia would grease the skids for the Allies’ invasion through espionage, sabotage, and prepping of the local population. In return, Luciano’s sentence would be commuted and he would be deported to Sicily after the war.

It is worth pointing out here, for context and perspective, that this controversial but successful Mafia-US Government cooperation on national security set the precedent for (and reduced the absurdity of) the CIA’s 18-year-later Castro assassination attempt collaboration.

In 1968, the Italian government again went after the Mafia, following a protracted inter-Mafia killing spree that caught many innocents in its crossfire. However, out of 2,000 arrests only 117 Mafiosi were put on trial and most were acquitted or received light sentences. It was this First Mafia War, its subsequent acquittals — attributed to crooked politicians and policemen — and a Second Mafia War in the early 1980s that galvanized public opinion against the Mafia and invigorated magistrates Falcone’s and Borsellino’s prosecution.

Africans, Greeks, Romans, and Vikings

Sicily is indirectly one of my ancestral homelands. The Vikings, later known as Normans, invaded the island in 1061, only five years before their invasion of Britain. Gerhard, my original progenitor (on my mother’s side, as far back as I can trace) was one of those northern Germanic-Norse warriors who sacked and occupied Rome in the 8th century. His lineage, during Italy’s Norman invasion, became Gherardini and later, during Britain’s Norman invasion, Gerald. Soon thereafter, taking on the Welsh “son of” prefix, it became Fitzgerald, my mother’s maiden name.

The Greek city-states had no formal organization among them; they shared only a language and culture.

Sicily is at the crossroads of the Mediterranean. Its indigenous people — about which little is known — were displaced and incorporated by invading Sicels, Elymians, and Phoenicians, who later became known as Carthaginians (in present-day Tunisia, only 96 miles away from Sicily, with a stepping-stone island in between). By 800 BC, Greek merchants had established trading posts that soon developed into colonies that later became independent, with Syracuse (the home of Archimedes), Himera, and Akragas (today’s Agrigento) becoming some of the world’s largest cities at the time. In all, there were seventeen major Greek cities on Sicily, entangled in ever-changing alliances and wars with one another, with cities in Greece proper, and with cities in the broader Greek world and even outside it.

It’s important to note the political structure of these entities. Unlike Rome, a unified, centrally administered empire, Greece consisted of independent city-states not only in the area of present-day Greece but extending from the Black Sea all the way to Spain, North Africa, France, and Italy. They had no formal organization among them; they shared only a language and culture.

Enter Rome. Between 264 and 146 BC, Rome fought Carthage (Tunisia) for control of the Mediterranean in the three so-called Punic Wars, eventually prevailing and, to prevent any resurgence, sacking and burning the city of Carthage, condemning 50,000 survivors to slavery. The victors took control of Sicily in 241 BC and turned it into Rome’s first province. Tragically, Archimedes became a casualtyof the conflict between Rome and Carthage.

During the disintegration of the Roman Empire, Sicily came under the rule of German and Norse tribes, first the Vandals and then the Ostrogoths. But as the Roman Empire reorganized itself in Constantinople, Byzantine Greeks returned to Sicily, turning it, for a short time, into the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire at Syracuse in 663.

And then came the Arabs. After defeating the Byzantine Greeks in 827, immigrants from all over the Muslim world settled and intermarried with the Sicilians. Palermo became the second-largest city in the world after Constantinople.

The Norman Conquest, begun in 1061, took ten years, but resulted in a golden age for the island under Kings Roger I and Roger II, until about 1200 when the female heir to the throne married a Hohenstaufen and the island came under the control of the Holy Roman Emperor. Under the Normans, Christians, Muslims, Byzantines, and everyone else got along splendidly, imparting to the island its unique Arab-Norman-Byzantine architectural style.

You’d think that with such a mixture of peoples Sicilians might resemble Polynesians. They don’t. They range from white to swarthy (with a few black Africans — recent arrivals — mostly from Nigeria and Ghana), with blonde, red, brown, and black hair. The only physical trait they all seem to share is a so-called Roman nose — large, protruding and sometimes sporting a hump a third of the way down the bridge.

Around Sicily in Low Gear

Sicily is at the same latitude as Salt Lake City. Tina and I chose February for our trip because we’re cheap, hate crowds, and love to bike in the cold and rain. In Milazzo we paid €40 per night for a fully furnished apartment, smack dab in the center of town. We took advantage of the deal and spent two nights there. But not just for that.

Milazzo, a city on a spectacular peninsula on the northeast of the island, is charming, clean, and delightful, with a lively passeggiata, or evening promenade, where seemingly the entire town dresses up and walks the sidewalks, streets, and waterfront, visiting, tippling, eating gelato, marzipan, biscotti, cannoli, and any of the dozens of sweets and pastries that Sicilians love. This pre-Lenten time being Carnevale, the children were outfitted in elaborate costumes.

Inhabited since prehistoric times, the town is dominated by a massive hilltop fortress built, in successive enlargements, by the Normans, Swabians, Aragonese, and Spanish. We were the only visitors to the fort. At one time it had held captured prisoners in its Spanish enclave. Inside, to our complete incredulity, there hung the purported skeleton of an English soldier inside “the coffin,” one of the most prevalent torture and execution methods, often seen invarious movies set in medieval Europe.The victimswerestripped naked andplaced inside a metal cage, roughly made in the shape of the human body.The cage wasthenhung from a tree, gallows,or city walls until the victim died of dehydration, starvation, or hypothermia. Birds and bugs ate the bones clean. No ropes or barriers separated this grisly exhibition from the fort’s visitors. Tina shook the Englishman’s phalanges reverently, not believing she could do so and thereby reach into the past, perhaps even into the poor man’s soul, so easily, spontaneously, and without a mediative ritual.

Was it real? The interpretive sign implied so. The bones were real enough, though the teeth and ribs were reconstructions, with the rib cage ligaments being some sort of plastic; the skeleton was held together with metal clips, as real skeletons usually are. Was it the Englishman’s actual bones, or a skeleton donated for the purpose of illustrating what had happened? Who knows?

 

Nino, the only person we met there, stopped to engage us. An elderly, scholarly gentleman with a wide Van Dyke sans mustache, he introduced himself as the resident historian. When I told him I was an American archaeologist, he invited us into his offices and collection of goodies: theater masks from the Arab period, erasable wax writing tablets from the Roman occupation, authentically-made replicas of trinacrias throughout the ages. The trinacria is the 3-legged symbol of Sicily, with a Gorgon’s head at the center. It graces the center of the Sicilian flag. Go ahead and Google it. Irrespective of what you’ll find there, Nino convincingly demonstrated its Celtic and Indian roots.

Daytime temperatures hovered in the low 50s; rain was not infrequent, though never torrential. We were aiming for 50 kilometers per day, average, including rest and tourist days, for the entire 1,123 km circumference. Traveling across or around a country by bike is to experience the country mano a mano, so to speak, with all its smells, sounds, and sights in slow motion — not to mention the many personal interactions that are inevitable in low gear.

The island is mountainous; we trained hard for two months before the trip, and it paid off, though the roads we chose — secondary, mostly — were expertly engineered for grade. Our objective was to hug the coast all the way around, counterclockwise. At one point, a landslide had obliterated a portion of the via nazionale upon which we were riding. The detour took us up into the mountains on a tertiary road. It was so steep that Tina and I had to push each loaded bike up with both of us pushing the handlebars. On the other hand, the freeways were engineering and construction marvels. One expressway girdles the island, cutting across peninsulas and corners, sometimes receding quite some distance from the coast. It is almost perfectly flat, achieving this miracle with long tunnels and impressively long and tall bridges.

Our biggest concerns were traffic and the problem of booking our lodgings, usually B&Bs or apartments. Many places were closed for the season; those that weren’t almost always presented a language problem. We preferred apartments. Sicilian restaurants don’t open until 8 pm and seldom serve before 9 pm — an impossible eating schedule for all-day bikers accustomed to eating dinner between 5 and 6 pm and getting an early start the next day. But we still sampled some of Sicily’s unique dishes. Here are two of them (don’t say Liberty has never published recipes):

Gnocchi

  • Potato and rice flour marbles
  • Crumbled Italian sausage
  • Chopped almonds
  • Pistachio paté — finely ground pistachios in extra virgin olive oil (pistachio butter?)
  • Garlic
  • Dry white wine
  • Garnish with halved cherry tomatoes and fresh mint

Linguine

  • Ground lamb and ground pork in equal proportions
  • Chopped pistachios
  • Almond paté — finely ground almonds in extra virgin olive oil (almond butter? sans sugar!)
  • Garlic
  • Dry white wine
  • Diced red bell peppers or pimentos
  • Serve with Sicilian Nero d’Avola wine (or blood-red orange juice)

Keep Calm and Pedal On

At Marsala, the town that invented its eponymous sweet wine, we gawked in wonder at the narrow medieval streets paved in marble. Feeling a bit lost, I asked a traffic carabinieri for directions.

Italian traffic cops are very friendly. They’re armed with ridiculous ping-pong paddles with a red circle in the middle, which are holstered in their boot cuffs when not deployed as badges of authority. They do not inspire or command respect. Whenever they wave that silly paddle I’m reminded of the Black Knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail insisting he’s still effective in spite of his missing arms and legs. These cops are seldom seen except at accident sites and infrequent radar speed traps.

We’d been warned about Italian traffic being a heavy-metal roller derby without rules. In truth, Sicilian traffic was complete anarchy, with cars breaking every traffic rule imaginable, from speeding and running stop signs and traffic lights to double and triple (and even sidewalk) parking to driving backwards down one-way streets and up and down pedestrian-only venues — anything to get an advantage. Most drivers were talking on the phone, texting, eating, gesticulating, and even drinking. Many gas stations included bars! Some drivers drove with their heads out the window while smoking so as not to smoke up the car.

Italian traffic cops are very friendly. They do not inspire or command respect.

But the anarchy, to no libertarian’s surprise, works. Without adherence to rules, every driver is 100% aware of his environment and expects the unexpected at any time. Drivers are also very polite and have quick reaction responses. It’s as if every Sicilian driver had graduated from the Bob Bondurant School of high performance driving. It’s no exaggeration to say that we saw more driving schools in Sicily than we’ve seen anywhere else — by far.

Right of way is not determined by rules (though they do exist) but rather on a first-come basis. It takes nerve as a pedestrian, biker, or even car to gingerly nose out into traffic without the right of way. In the US, cars would honk, drivers flip the finger, and accidents ensue. In Sicily, traffic politely accommodates you.

Essential to this driving environment is the Italian car horn. Mastering its grammar is nearly as difficult as mastering tones in Mandarin. There are special toots and combinations of toots for nearly any situation, but almost none of them aggressive or panicky. When approaching from behind, vehicles would warn us — at a discreet distance — of their approach with a distinctive honk, never varying and never startling. It was different from a greeting honk, which also varied according to whether the greeted person was in a vehicle or on foot, a man or a woman. There were distinctive tootles for dogs, either as warnings or greetings. The claxon language of Sicily is so well developed and intuitive that we identified one honk as a question, “What are you going to do?”, with the anticipated accompaniment of a hand gesture. Traffic jams were not advertised by blasts and blares; they were considered unavoidable aspects of driving in congested conditions.

We couldn’t believe Italian bikers, all dressed identically in the latest biking gear, packed tightly together like a school of minnows, taking up an entire lane, oblivious to vehicles and racing at top speed on wheels skinny as dental floss. They all waved at us and shouted ciao! Even biking pairs would ride side by side taking up an entire lane, ignoring traffic. We never quite adopted that custom, nearly always riding in single file. But traffic would always treat bikes as full-fledged vehicles, passing only when appropriate and seldom crowding them.

One large group stopped to engage us. We’d noticed that no biking group ever included a female, so I asked, “Don’t Italian women ride bikes?” One fellow piped up that the women were home cooking. Everyone laughed.

Greeks, Fascists, Old and New Gods

Sicily’s most impressive ruins are its Greek temples and theaters. The one in Agrigento is where Aeschylus directed and presented his tragedies. It and the one in Taormina are still used annually for Greek play festivals. Most are well preserved and protected yet totally accessible to the public, unlike Stonehenge, which, understandably, is now cordoned off. The Temple of Concordia (440 BC) in the Valle dei Templi is the largest and best-preserved Doric temple in Sicily, and one of the best-preserved Greek temples anywhere.It was converted into a Christian basilica in the 6th century and dedicated to the apostles Peter and Paul by the bishop of Agrigento.

Roman ruins are fewer. Their surviving mosaics are protected and cordoned off. Many Arab mosques, on the other hand, were converted into Christian churches, yet retained much of their Moslem flavor.

But it was the Fascist and German pillboxes along the south coast and edging up the west and east coasts that really struck a nerve. There were many, without signs or fences; they were simply abandoned, ignored, and often graffitied. One, outside of Messina, had been incorporated within the waterfront promenade and painted colorfully. The pillboxes recalled for us Tina’s uncle Bernie, who had participated in the US invasion of North Africa and then in the invasion of Sicily. Its south coast is invasion-friendly, with sandy beaches and a level hinterland. Approaching Gela, an old Greek city with a large, decommissioned petroleum refinery on its outskirts, we tried to put ourselves in Bernie’s boots. It was the first Sicilian city liberated by the Allies.

We pedaled across to Syracusa, looking forward to another rest and tourist day in Ortygia, Syracusa’s peninsular core and the nexus of its ancient Greek settlement. Right downtown, in the center, stand the remains of a temple to Apollo. The old gods still rule! Some of the narrow medieval streets can’t accommodate a classic Fiat 500, a smart car or, much less, a Mini.

Wending our way up the east coast, we were distracted by a road closure and detour that set us riding in circles. Finally — as in the old saying about “when in . . . do as . . .” — we cut through the closure, rode against traffic, and found a quiet spot for lunch. Suddenly, faintly visible in the distance but nearly taking up the entire horizon and the hazy sky above, loomed Mt. Aetna. At nearly 11,000 feet, rising right out of the water, it is an overwhelming sight, covered in snow and spewing smoke. Our plans to climb it came to naught: this winter’s snowpack had been exceptionally heavy, and all the approach roads were still blocked.

Just as well — soon after, Vulcan vented, spitting hot ash and lava onto the snowpack and causing spectacular explosions. Part of Aetna’s ski resort was destroyed. This is nothing new: 22 seismic stations monitor volcanic activity to defend Catania, the city at the mountain’s foot, and the surrounding towns. Signs along the road prohibit bikes, pedestrians, and motorbikes during eruptions.

Soon we hit the Riviera dei Ciclopi, where towering hunks of lava rise out of the sea. According to legend, these were thrown by the blinded Cyclops, Polyphemus, in a desperate attempt to stop Odysseus from escaping. One of the bigger blobs, La Rocca di Aci Castello, emerges from an underwater fissure and upholds a 13th-century black Norman castle built on an earlier Arab fortification. Inside, a small museum displays a bizarre collection of prehistoric skulls. From here on up and all across the north shore of Sicily, Norman lookout towers dotted high coastal salients, medieval parodies of the WWII pillboxes along the south coast.

Two days after Taormina we spotted the Calabrian coast, Italy’s boot toe. At the city of Messina, the Straits of Messina are only 1.9 miles wide at their narrowest, but plans for a cross-strait bridge have been put on hold in consideration of the prevalence of earthquakes and the strong currents. Appropriately, a huge and impressive statue of Neptune fronts city hall.

Turning the bird beak’s northeast corner of the island, we entered the mountainous north coast, where we were blessed by a constant tail wind. Cefalù, where we laid over for two days, is a compact medieval fishing town, nestling below the 1,000-foot La Rocca, a sheer-sided limestone mountain upon which previous embodiments of the town were built. Only one line of weakness provides an approach to the top — the endless steps that lead to the old fortifications. Imagine a fully kitted-up medieval soldier, laboring under a barrage of rocks, arrows, and hot oil, scaling his way up the then-stairless acclivity that today (with steps) takes a good half hour to negotiate.

The Moslems conquered the town from the Byzantines in 858, after a long siege. After another long siege, the Normans, under King Roger I, captured the city in 1063. To celebrate his victory, Roger commissioned what is regarded as Sicily’s finest mosaic, Christ Pantocrator, in the apsis of the cupola.

Heading back to Palermo we stopped at the old Greek city of Himera, supposedly one of Hercules’ (or Herakles’) early haunts. Little remains of the once-important and sprawling city-state. For nearly a century Carthage tried to capture the place, and to fend off the attackers — initially 300,000 strong, it is said — Himera had to cede its independence to Gelon, ruler of Syracuse. In 409 BC, Hannibal finally conquered it and razed it.

As we approached Palermo we were torn by conflicting emotions. On the one hand, we were energized by our sense of accomplishment and anticipation of celebration. On the other, we dreaded navigating Palermo’s choked and complicated streets — both good reasons to spend a day playing tourist. But bike travel in congested medieval cities is ideal. Not having to negotiate one-way, six-foot wide streets in a car or find parking is a tremendous advantage.

Palermo holds many treasures. Palazzi of past nobility illustrated the fact that, In spite of the long roster of foreign rulers, it was only through the indigenous aristocracy — which, being Sicilian, commanded more allegiance than the actual rulers — that each conqueror was able to exert any control over the island. The Spanish, first as Aragonese and then as subjects of a unified Spain, ruled Sicily for about 500 years, deeply influencing the Sicilian dialect — a boon to my lack of Italian and knowledge of Spanish. But they also brought the hated Inquisition, which targeted the landed gentry, the rich, and the educated in order to try to break their informal control of the island.

Our tour guide (required) through the dungeons of the Inquisition preserved an extraordinary chronicle that required interpretation: the prisoners’ graffiti. Some were simple groupings of four vertical lines with a diagonal slash — tallies of days. Others were elaborate paintings, hiding subtle anti-Spanish messages. One was a depiction of Christ’s crucifixion with the Roman soldiers outfitted as Spaniards. Another was the Nicene Creed in English.

Interrogation, always under torture, was called “a conversation with God.” No prisoner was ever released except for forced labor. All were executed, most of them burnt at the stake. One prisoner managed to kill an Inquisitor, a unique event that ended our tour on a righteously vengeful note. The prisoner’s revenge, for all the outrage it caused, actually prolonged the poor man’s life; the only punishment the prelates could muster was to delay his death and prolong his torture. But demands that the Inquisitor be canonized came to naught.

Sicily has subsequently managed to separate church and state, for the most part, although an actual, physical bridge still exists. Palermo’s cathedral and parliament are connected by two arches. Vaguely reminiscent of the Palace of Westminster, the buildings are a striking example of the Norman-Arab-Byzantine style. Inside the cathedral we visited the tombs of the Norman kings, still revered as having presided over a Sicilian golden age.

Walking along the waterfront on our last evening in Sicily, we stood at the seaside railing and gazed out over the Mediterranean, reflecting on a wonderful trip. A woman across the street behind us, cleaning her house, was taken by the sight and snapped our picture with her phone, out the open window. As we walked away she motioned us over. She showed us the photo and indicated that she wanted to send it to us, explaining in Italian that she was “a romantic” and the sight of us touched a chord.

Arrivederci!




Share This


Bound for Destruction on the Queen Mary

 | 

During the last weekend in April I attended the second annual meeting of StokerCon.

Before you ask what StokerCon may be, I have to confess that I didn’t “attend” in the sense of “pay to attend” or “sit through any of the sessions.” I attended only as a person who suddenly discovered that StokerCon was going on all around him.

It began when my friend and I checked into our cabin on the liner Queen Mary — the Queen Mary that has, since 1967, been tied to a dock in Long Beach, California. It’s a fascinating vessel, and the idea that you can rent a room on it is marvelous in itself. But my subject is not the QM. It’s the mob of people in black t-shirts and black and red badges that we encountered in the ship’s lobbies and corridors, a crowd that was growing when we arrived on Thursday, swarmed on Friday, and did not depart until late Sunday afternoon.

Contemplating the convention’s logo, I looked at my friend with a wild surmise.

You don’t pay much to attend a StokerCon — you can get by with as little as $99 for (early) registration and, I think, $119 a night for your room — and you evidently get your money’s worth. There are lectures, receptions, product displays, and constant opportunities to meet and mingle with like-minded people. The whole ship was involved in the life of the group.

But what, you insist on asking, is StokerCon?

My friend and I had various ideas about that. Was there a railway union that still called itself the Stokers, just as the Teamsters still call themselves the Teamsters? Was this a convention designed not for people who prepare food but for people who stoke up on it? (A lot of the attendees were, indeed, very hefty.) Or were we meeting the constant players of some videogame we’d never heard of?

At last came the light. Contemplating the convention’s logo — a stylized, perhaps intentionally spooky, version of a house or castle — I looked at my friend with a wild surmise. The Con got its name from a man named Stoker — Bram Stoker, author of Dracula. The Con was about horror fiction.

I was right. According to itself (and I have no reason to disagree) “StokerCon is the annual convention of The Horror Writers Association (HWA), the premier organization of writers and publishers of horror and dark fantasy.”

In addition to sessions on such topics as “The Nuts and Bolts of Publishing Your Own Comic,” “Unraveling the Dark, Mysterious, Twisted World of Online Marketing,” and ”How to Write Awesome Dialog,” StokerCon offered parties, book sales even larger than those at libertarian conventions, and readings by a ton of authors (none of them known to my friend or me). All about the production of Horror. And all proof that Adam Smith was right about the division of labor.

One thing we did not learn was how many students have figured out how to make money from their education in fright.

The crowd was evenly split, male-female, with all ethnicities represented; and there were fair numbers of black women, though for some reason no black men (as far as we could see). Plenty of tattoos and strange millennial hair, but a good representation of retired people and folks who looked like librarians. In fact, there was a strong emphasis on libraries and librarians throughout. A few Stokers came dressed as stock horror characters — Death with a Scythe was my favorite — but I don’t think they kept it up during the entire event; even Death took a holiday. Looking for some common feature of the group, my friend said “strident voices,” and it was true that many, including librarians, had never mastered the indoor range of decibels. But that’s how we learned a lot, without paying any cash.

One thing we learned is that “universities” throughout the English-speaking world are cashing in on the evidently widespread desire to write horror fiction. If you want to do that, you will have no trouble finding classes, evening classes, summer classes, and online classes in the art of scaring people. One thing we did not learn was how many students have figured out how to make money from their education in fright. Clearly, few of the people who shipped on the Queen Mary that weekend were burdened with extra funds; I’d put the average annual income at $55K, and the median income from literary sources at a straight $55. And from one point of view, that’s a good thing, because the vast majority of genre fiction — detective, romance, western, horror, whatever — is and always has been junk. As a matter of fact, most fiction has always been junk. The more Stokers there are — the more writers there are — the more junk is going to be produced.

But here’s the thing. The feature of this group that was even more common than strident voices — the feature that was, indeed, universal — turned out to be happiness. Moods ranged from smiling contentment to shrieking hilarity, but there were no unhappy ghouls or goblins.

A good time was had by all, except people like my friend and me, who were always getting trapped in some public space with mobs of intrusively cheerful people. Yet when Sunday night rolled around, and we were sitting in the bar by ourselves, we sort of missed the Stokers. They didn’t leave us desolate, but they left us with a little less to talk about. A little less to have fun with. They were . . . something. They were not nothing. As much as I dislike the fact that everyone in America now describes himself as a member of some “community,” these people had actually created a community for themselves, and they were enjoying it, and they were doing no damage to other people (beyond the occasional shattered eardrum). And if that isn’t good for America, I don’t know what is.




Share This


Turkish Savagery

 | 

For centuries, Europeans viewed the Turk as the most feared, yet least familiar enemy. Twice, the Ottoman hordes threatened Vienna, practically next door to Paris. For hundreds of years French Mediterranean towns and monasteries fortified themselves against Turkish pirates (who mostly never showed up). Algerian pirates, who were thought of generically as “Turks,” occasionally plundered the Irish coast. Once, a bunch of them even raided Iceland! Following his naval debacle at the Bay of Abukir, Napoleon brought Mamelukes, Turkish mercenary troops from Egypt, back to Europe. He used them as a weapon of terror against the insurgent Spaniards, a fact memorialized by Goya in his Tres de Mayo. In this atrocity painting, only the Spanish victims, who seem to be appealing to the viewer, have human faces. The Mameluke execution squad is shown from the rear, like a many-backed beast.

Twenty years later, the European aristocracy reveled in taking the side of Greek independence fighters against Turkish tyranny. (Lord Byron, the celebrated English poet indirectly died of it.) Ottoman power responded to the Greek insurrection with several well-publicized massacres. The most famous, the Massacre at Chios, depicted by my namesake Delacroix (Eugene), remains one of the great masterpieces of war propaganda. The painting displays in one tight space mass slaughter, including that of babies; rape; rapine; and the haughty indifference of the cruel Turk. In a perverse turn of mind, the artist made the central figure, an Ottoman horseman with saber in hand, disturbingly handsome. (I have to resist the temptation to see the painting as an early instance of soft-core porn, catering to a sadistic streak.)

Naturally, until recently, I did not know much that was favorable about Turkish society, or Turks, except that they had kept a silent, humble, and effective guard on the soft southern flank of Europe during the long years of the Cold War. Now, a disclaimer: in this story, I deliberately avoid any mention of the two massacres of Armenians, in the late 1800s, and an even worse one, in 1915–1916, because I am convinced that ordinary contemporary Turks know nothing of these events, or don’t quite grasp them. Similarly, I circumvent the on-going Kurdish rebellion in eastern Turkey and its often severe repression, because I wish to write only about the things I have seen, heard, or touched myself. My circumspection in these matters does not imply denial or affirmation.

The European aristocracy reveled in taking the side of Greek independence fighters against Turkish tyranny. Lord Byron indirectly died of it.

In the early 2000s, my wife and I took the night ferry across the Aegean from Piraeus, Greece, to Turkey. My first sighting of the blood-red Turkish national flag in the early morning somehow gave me a surge of adrenalin, a pleasant one. After the persnicketiness, the somberness, and the surliness we had experienced for two days in Athens, the Turks’ smiling warmth was more than welcome. (Why do I think Greeks hold the world’s per capita record, ahead of Argentina, for burning American flags?) But in spite of these good feelings, I was on my guard. I was born and reared in Europe. After all, I did not know how many of my great-aunts and great-grand-aunts their great-grandfathers had kidnapped to serve the obscene pleasures of the Turks’ harems.

We traveled along the Mediterranean coast in comfortable air-conditioned buses, stopping where fancy dictated, armed with our American Express card, like a new breed of aging but prosperous hippies. At every stop, as I stepped off the bus, older men, fellow-passengers, would compete for the privilege of lighting my cigarette with their invariably gold-plated lighters. Many smiles were exchanged, but conversations remained rudimentary, because the brevity of the stops made it difficult to overcome the fact that we did not have even half a language in common.

One morning stop seemed to last abnormally long, much beyond the necessities of bodily evacuation and two cups of strong muddy coffee, with cigarettes, for the driver. Previously, I had exchanged a few sentences with a 20-year-old girl who seemed eager to practice her English. She was a slight, skinny young woman with a pretty face. She wore a light cotton dress of sober color. Soon she became highly agitated, making loud and shrill pronouncements in Turkish that I did not understand, of course. I did not think she was exactly crazy, since we had had a placid and courteous conversation moments before, while the bus was still running. Nevertheless, she acted like a mad person. The other passengers were smiling patiently, while the driver seemed to be taking half a catnap.

In a perverse turn of mind, the artist made the central figure, an Ottoman horseman with saber in hand, disturbingly handsome.

Suddenly, the thin girl stepped forward and shoved the burly, middle-aged driver out of his seat. She met with no resistance and no protest. She sat in his place and pounded the loud road-horn as hard as she could. Presently we all saw, across the parking lot, a tall young man scurrying toward our bus. He was clutching a small plastic shopping bag to his chest. The girl leaped out the door like a mountain goat and ran toward the young man. She grabbed him brutally and frog-marched him to the bus on the double. When they were both inside, she managed to close the bus door by herself. I was alarmed, but the other passengers and the driver were still smiling.

The young man was athletic-looking and two heads taller than the girl. He looked to me like a deeply embarrassed 18-year-old. Shouting at the top of her lungs, the girl began to strike him across the face with all her strength. Back and forth she went, bitch-slapping him in front of everyone. Although I am a burly, strong man with a fondness for blood sports, the sound of her hand on his face made me wince. Had I been at home, I would have surely intervened to protect the boy against her fury. But the other passengers were still smiling, although by now a little fixedly.

She pummeled him for half an eternity, all the while ranting and raging as loudly as I have ever heard a woman scream. (And believe me, without boasting, I have a lot of experience with angry women.) The victim made no move to defend, or even to protect, himself. After a little while, as she was still beating him, her voice began to change; it became less loud and her tone turned softer. (Remember that I understood not a word of what she was shouting.) Soon, she was whimpering on his chest and stroking the cheeks she had been battering seconds before. She pulled him down into their seats and cradled his head in her arms while whispering what were obviously sweet nothings into his ear. The engine started, the bus rolled out of the parking lot, the passengers resumed their conversations. The two young people were soon napping cheek to cheek.

 Suddenly, the thin girl stepped forward and shoved the burly, middle-aged driver out of his seat.

Later, she apologized to us in English for her outburst, and she explained: the tall young man was her adored little brother. They were traveling together from an inland city to their uncle’s home in a pretty coastal town (where my wife and I were heading, ourselves). The brother had asked her for permission to go buy a bathing suit in a shop adjoining the bus stop. He took too long because he could not find his size, so he wandered away, with all their money. She had panicked, fearful that the bus would abandon him in the unknown town. Hence her delayed wrath when she became sure that the worst was not going to happen.

The most striking part of the episode was the seemingly perfect equanimity of the other passengers. It told me of their tolerance for lateness and of their confidence that the matter would have a happy denouement. The young woman chatted some more with my wife and me. She was trustful, insatiably curious, and charming as a songbird. We would have adopted her on the spot if it had been possible.

Soon, we reached our destination, a perfectly lovable sea town, like St. Tropez must have been 50 years ago. The blue Aegean was dotted with gaily painted little boats, as in the postcards; fresh fish were frying in all the restaurants, and not a luxury store anywhere. You could not even have bought a latte for its weight in gold, thank God!

The next day was market day. If you are a serious traveler, you never miss open-air markets. They are invariably pleasurable as well as educational. All the women there, in that Turkish market, were from the interior of the country, and all were wearing broad, long, flowing, so-called “harem pants.” An older lady crossed our path wearing such pants, silky ones, with a black on gray subtle motif my wife immediately liked. You know what to do, I told my wife. (A long time earlier, I had demonstrated to her that it was possible to buy a woman’s clothes from her ten minutes after meeting her.) But at first, she demurred.

Older Turkish men are terrific liars. Men obviously in their early sixties would announce on their fingers: I am 83. I am 86. I will be 92 next year.

I saluted the gray-haired lady and expressed to her with gestures that my wife admired her pants. She took us to a stall that sold an inferior version of the same item. No, I insisted with a smile, she wants yours. To tell all, I was a little concerned that she might misunderstand me to be proposing to her that the three of us perform exotic acts together. But what we wanted soon seemed to dawn on her. I guessed she was a bit shocked but also intrigued. Soon, several other market women joined us, and a little girl who had a bit of school English. When the female passel disappeared behind a truck, I discreetly stepped away.

I walked around; to waste time, I bought a brass pepper grinder. I guessed that my wife understood men well enough to find me, eventually. I made my way to the tea stall in the middle of the market. Soon, several wide-eyed boys surrounded me. Then, one at a time, older men joined me on the benches that were set out in the open. Each one of them offered me a cigarette, and each tried to buy me a glass of tea. Seeing no toilet anywhere, I declined the tea each time with a big smile and a hand on my heart.

Are you married? One asked. How many children? Do you have pictures? Here are mine. And, finally: how old are you? I told the truth, as usual. One by one, they felt my biceps, then my thighs. I asked each politely, one by one, how old he was. As it happens, older Turkish men are terrific liars. Men obviously in their early sixties would announce on their fingers: I am 83. I am 86. I will be 92 next year. Then they took turns blustering about how good they looked for their age. It took all my willpower to refrain from challenging each and every one of the old bastards to an arm-wrestling match, just to teach them a little humility.

Subsequently, every mature Turkish man I met who was not trying to sell me a rug displayed precisely the same kind of loud vanity. I am guessing it keeps them young. It certainly beats the despicable Western custom of old geezers casually competing with one another about who has the worse health problems. Give me a braggart every time over a whiner!

No American visitors in Turkey this summer, they said. Tell the Americans to come back. We love them. Not like the fucking Europeans.

At that point, we got into the meat of things: American, yes? Yes, I confirmed. Bush? The oldest man asked with a raised eyebrow. I lifted my conservative thumb. He replied immediately: Bush, good! Saddam . . . He drew his hand across his throat. Exactly! I confirmed eagerly. (The American intervention in Iraq was about three months old then. Hussein was hiding in a dirt hole.) There were smiles all around. The fact is that I was sitting in the middle of a cluster of Muslims while my liberal academic colleagues were prudently visiting Paris, or Florence, or London. That is, the ones who had the gonads to travel overseas at all, that warlike summer.

Then, a young man who knew some English was drafted by one of the old guys. He told me the men wanted to know my opinion of the probability that Turkey would eventually be admitted into the European Union. Turkey, I answered sincerely, might just as well apply right away to the North American Free Trade Association (NAFTA). They were interested. One thing led to another. After a while, finding me so well informed, they somehow made the assumption that I must be a man of some influence in the US. No American visitors in Turkey this summer, they said. Tell the Americans to come back. We love them. Not like the fucking Europeans: they come here with one hundred euros and they think they are kings. (Don’t ask me how I know they used the expletive. I just know. It sounds the same in every tongue, anyway.)

An hour had passed and I was vaguely and only very slightly worried about my wife. I did not think there was any danger, but it was not like her to stay away, because she is the kind of person who gets lost between our house, where we have lived for ten years, and the corner grocery store. I called over a couple of 12-year-olds (who may have been 25, according to Turkish males’ general apprehension of reality), and I borrowed a gold-plated fountain pen from one of the old men. On a paper bag, I drew a chesty female silhouette and pounded my own (flat) chest. Wife of mine, I said. My wife is from India. Hindi! I added. Everyone commented favorably on my artistic talent (I guessed).

One of many wonders of globalization is that all around the less-developed world many people know and love Bollywood movies. “Hindi” struck a chord. I gave the boys one million liras each and sent them searching, paper bag drawing in hand. (What with inflation, a million liras does not buy nearly as much as it used to!) I wished them well in my heart, hoping they would not get into trouble inspecting too closely the bosoms of all and every woman at the market.

I located my wife, eventually. She had traded the old lady’s beautiful used harem pants against two new ones, plus one for each of three other women present at the negotiation, plus a whole outfit for the little girl who had acted as an interpreter. But the pants she had acquired were truly magnificent! (My wife has many wonderful qualities and enormous talent, but a wily bargainer, she is not.)

One of many wonders of globalization is that all around the less-developed world many people know and love Bollywood movies.

The transaction completed at last, she had failed to find me, she said. This, although I was in the middle of the market, surrounded by a small but noisy crowd. Instead, guided by some obscure female atavism, against all precedents, she had decided to walk back to the hotel by herself. She was in her fifties at the time. Tall and thin, but curvy, with the gray and black, silky harem pants streaming around her long legs and her narrow hips, she must have cut a striking figure in the eyes of dozens of appreciative Turkish male spectators on the way. If this was her last huzzah, she could not have chosen a better venue; bless her heart!

Later that evening, we walked the promenade on the seafront. We bumped into the young woman from the bus and her tall little brother. She embraced my wife and kissed her on both cheeks. Then she did the same with me. She pushed her brother forward and he kissed both of us too. We invited them for ice-cream. They sat with us but would not let us pay, because the sweets kiosk belonged to their uncle who would never, not ever, forgive them if we touched the check.

I don’t mean to deny centuries of European perception, or any part of history. Yet, I have to report my own experience. This, then, was my own personal encounter with Turkish savagery.




Share This


World Government, or Smaller Countries?

 | 

Some believe that we are rapidly moving towards a world government. The European Union was one of the most visible expressions of this motion. NAFTA, ASEAN, and other trading blocks were seen as small moves in the same direction. The UN was the dream of the mushy-headed, those living on intellectual welfare with no real-life experience of how wealth is created.

A world government would be unsustainable if it ever came to pass, for the kind of people who work in governments always take pride at backstabbing one another, as well as their competitors in other governments. People’s lives have changed tremendously, given easy travel and high technology, but the structure of governments has not changed.

The world is becoming increasingly complex, but the institution of the state has remained mostly unchanged, making large governments very brittle.

Duty-free shopping exists in every country, for each of these governments competes to benefit itself by helping travelers avoid paying taxes to other governments. The US, the world's self-appointed chief policeman, is among the worst (or best) in this respect. While governments in the Caribbean islands and many smaller nations — mostly termed tax havens — get bad reputations for secrecy (and hence, my own respect), Miami, New York, and London are probably the world's capitals for secrecy and tax avoidance as long as you are not the milk-cow of the US or England.

One might even ask how is it that such a large number of properties are bought by Chinese, Ukrainians, and Russians in the US, Canada, Australia, and the UK. If these Western governments ensured that unaccounted money did not come from abroad, their hot property markets would crash.

The US makes almost no attempt to locate safety deposit lockers filled with US-dollar cash in jurisdictions outside the US. The government likes the convenience of interest-free loans in perpetuity from the cash holders. Using FACTA and all kinds of obnoxious enforcements on no other basis than American exceptionalism and its bullying power, the US gets the information it wants from other governments, but none dares to ask the US to reciprocate.

So far from world government being likely to happen, the future belongs to smaller states. But this will happen after a lot of turmoil.

Most banks comply with US bullying, although the cost of compliance is horrendous for financial institutions around the world. One day a breaking point will come and they will stop. Perhaps an alternative international currency will trigger this.

The US won’t be there forever

With every generation, glamour moves to a different jurisdiction. When I was growing up, it was France for fashion and snobbery, England for style, and Japan for the work ethic. A generation later, with all others having receded to the background, it became the US.

It is worth talking with today's teenagers in Asia. They follow Korean fashion, pop music, and soap operas. In sub-Saharan Africa, it is Indian music and movies. What the world looks up to will increasingly be Asia, while America recedes into the background.

If you find a Chinese girl with spectacles and no lenses in them amusing, you haven’t kept up with the fashion trends that originated in Korea or Japan. In Seoul, you will meet visiting teenagers from Malaysia who sing in Korean, and you can bet that they watch K-pop at home.

If you see girls wearing shorts that are a millimeter below the danger zone, but with the waist-band that does not end at the waist but much above the navel, you know where that fashion came from: from girls who worry about possibly having short legs. If you find men wearing tight pants, you know that the fashion is not from the West.

The bigger states will break

Before the world starts ignoring the diktats of the United States, America will become increasingly heavy-handed. Anything it doesn’t like will be considered "terrorism." For Americans, privacy will cease to exist. This is not based on prophecy, but on the history of how human civilizations have evolved and gone out of existence. The Roman Empire disappeared. So did the English and the French empires.

In other large countries — India, Brazil, France, the UK, etc. — the institution of government will come under huge amounts of stress, as heightened expectations of a populations hugely influenced by the modern-day welfare system can no longer be met. The world is becoming increasingly complex, with new technologies and cheap traveling, but the institution of the state has remained mostly unchanged, making large governments very brittle.

While all conventional religions are tribal in nature, they at least have elements of compassion, honesty, and other virtues. But statism thrives on hatred for other people.

To me the “Arab Spring” was the first visible sign of this. So was the democratic movement in Hong Kong. Behind the facade of higher vision and increased nationalism is indoctrination of a populace that is incapable of critical thinking, the kind of populace that in earlier generations would have stayed out of having an opinion on public policy. They have come to see democracy as a magic wand that delivers whatever one aspires for, merely through the vote. Nationalism is the emotional crutch for their failure to be self-dependent and their lack of self-confidence. None of these fake, irrational values can keep big nation-states glued together when the crunch time comes.

The result will be the possible breakup of many of the larger states. Would the US also break up? The irrational tribal slogan — “we are the biggest and the best” — can keep the US together for only so long. So far from world government being likely to happen, the future belongs to smaller states. But this will happen after a lot of turmoil, ironically made worse by the fact that in general, today’s populace is likely more statist and patriotic than the previous generations.

Central America: case studies on small countries

I have been very impressed with how well Hong Kong and Singapore are organized. In fact, I have become enamored with small countries.

I recently spent two months travelling in Central America, trying to understand its economy and people. I spent a fair amount of time in Boquete, Panama, a place where a large number of American expatriates live. When I was there, a girl with a flirtatious look (and from what I understood, based on my talks with the locals, her only competence) was elected as the local political representative. Alcohol was banned during the election days, but that did not stop restaurants from serving it, in coffee mugs.

The populace in Central America is not necessarily more awakened than that of the United States — perhaps much less. But does that matter? Mostly people are ambivalent about the existence of expatriates, if not grateful for their contribution to the economy. The state is alive and well there, but I hardly care about the state anymore. What I care about is how it affects me.

These small states recognize the economic importance of expatriates and mostly let them get on with their lives. Protecting property rights is their core competence. Nicaragua, for example, has become an attractive place for property investment, offering the cheapest options for those who can navigate this emerging country. In terms of expense, Panama is in between Costa Rica and Nicaragua.

Panama offers quality at a reasonable price. It also uses the US dollar, which is not the best way to run a monetary policy, for it is still dependent on a fiat currency, but this ensures that Panamanians cannot run their own printing press. Of course, they have no central bank of their own, and hence no cartel that comes with it.

Why is a place such as this, relatively conflict-free and wth enormous natural resources, not very rich?

Not only Americans and Canadians but also those from Ecuador, Venezuela, and other countries are finding safety in Panama. As a rule of thumb, small countries offer asset protection that big counties don't, for if these small countries stop respecting property rights, expatriates will fly away with their money.

Neither Costa Rica nor Panama has a military. This not only saves what would have been about 5% of the GDP in wastage but it sets a certain way of thinking among the citizenry. War is the health of the state, and statism is the worst religion. While all conventional religions are tribal in nature, they at least have elements of compassion, honesty, and other virtues. But statism thrives on hatred for other people. When you have the military solely for defence, narrowly defined (as is the case with Singapore and Switzerland) or have no military at all (as in Panama and Costa Rica), the social mindset is not about hatred for people who are different.

The repercussions are far-reaching. Less hatred also means fewer social conflicts within such societies, and hence a lack of civil wars within these countries. One must still be cautious about isolated crimes.

Incidentally, Central America is a unique place for nature lovers. This small piece of land separates two major oceans, the Pacific and the Atlantic, and hence is a channel for equalizing weather differences between the two oceans. I cannot think of another place where the forests change within minutes of walking, as you move from the area influenced by one kind of weather system to another, just on the other side of the ridge.

When traveling around in Costa Rica and Panama one must wonder — as I did — why a place that has been relatively conflict-free and has enormous natural resources is not a very rich place. Businesses tend to hire expatriates as much as they can. Locals are not known for their work ethic. Why this is the case, I am not sure. But that is why I travel, for it forces me to think about issues that would otherwise not occur to me. It hones my understanding of cultures, politics, and economics. Again, as an individualist, what I care about most is what affects me; and I doubt that the realm of One World Government would stimulate me much.




Share This


The Year in Review

 | 

As 2013 comes to a close, we're looking back on the year that was by revisiting the best pieces by some of our favorite writers here at Liberty:

  • Steve Murphy got the year rolling with "Fatal Mistakes," a look at how the massive ongoing failures of the state normalizes incompetence;
  • Lori Heine wrote of the end result of such a process: "The Mediocre Inherit the Earth";
  • World traveler Jayant Bhandari wrote of visits to North Korea in "A Mirror unto Myself,"  as well as back to his hometown, site of the world's largest industrial accident and an equally large governmental malfeasance, in "Bhopal, 1984";
  • Liberty's adventure correspondent Robert H. Miller detailed hiking and gun-smuggling across the Canadian wilderness, as well as the staggering beauty and overwhelming friendliness encountered while biking the Taiwanese coast.
  • Meanwhile, Liberty's entertainment editor Jo Ann Skousen fulfilled a lifelong dream visiting Easter Island, detailed in "The Land Where the Statues Walked" —while also keeping up top-notch film reviews, such as on the Drug War film Snitch, and the difficult but indispensable 12 Years a Slave;
  • Robert Watts Lamon provided a great review of a collection by a titan of the written word, today nearly forgotten: Wolcott Gibbs—as well as an article on how little the self-appointed American Ruling Class cares about anything but its own power;
  • Jon Harrison continued his excellent coverage of matters domestic—such as "The Zimmerman Verdict"—and foreign: see his "Imperium Sinarum Delendum Est" on the growing challenge of an imperial China;
  • S.H. Chambers kept our homepage lively with cartoons skewering our political and economic overseers;
  • In "The Hypocrisy of High Office," Gary Jason reported on the moral character of our esteemed president;
  • And finally, a trio from our editor, Stephen Cox: "O Tempora! O Bama!" dissected our president's "soaring" rhetoric ; "Detroit" reflected on the decline of that great city; and "Words on Trial" joined the keen insight of Word Watch to the delirious fun of the year's great entertainment: the Jodi Arias murder trial.

Which were your favorites? What would you add to the list? We look forward to bringing you much more great material in 2014 and beyond—thanks for reading, and have the best of new years!



Share This


R.O.C. On!

 | 

We were nearly out of money.

Taiwan, a small country, controls its foreign exchange. Not for nefarious purposes (think Venezuela and Zimbabwe), but because — when it comes to monetary policy — size has consequences. Though fiscally and economically sound, Taiwan is vulnerable to currency manipulation from a multitude of sources.

Our guidebooks recommended changing money at the airport kiosks. But George, our Taiwanese contact in Taipei, told us not to fret — ATMs were everywhere and banks exchanged currency at will without a commission. Since we’d arrived at midnight, were thoroughly jet-lagged, and still faced an hour’s ride into Taipei, we followed George’s advice.

The following day, with George translating and easing the procedure at his bank, we changed only a portion of our funds — mostly because of my innate conservatism and the ease of the transaction. However, we weren’t run-of-the-mill tourists or business visitors to Formosa, as the Taiwanese still proudly, and often, refer to their country.

Tina, my wife, and I were planning to bicycle Taiwan’s perimeter — about 850 miles — eating at street stalls and night markets, and sleeping in modest lodgings such as B&Bs. But what we hadn’t foreseen caught up with us. Taiwan’s banks stick to the big cities and, while ATMs are everywhere, they rejected our US cards like an organ transplant gone bad. Moreover, only big hotels and fancy restaurants accepted credit cards.

Riding through Neipu, two-thirds through the trip, I spotted a bank and yelled to Tina to pull over. We carved out a parking space between the road and the wall-to-wall buildings, among the throng of cars, scooters, bikes, pedestrians, and dogs milling about or settled. It was the kind of place that in the US usually contains official parking spaces, a sidewalk, driveways, and front set-backs in the form of lawns, patios, porches, or business foyers, but in Taiwan is a chaotic jumble of all of the above, along a narrow strip — with the addition of street vendors and wall-less, brick-and-mortar businesses fully exposed to the hubbub. It was 3:30 in the afternoon, the bank closed at 4:00, and we were still 20 kilometers from Pingtung, our day’s destination. So we had plenty of time.

The bank’s door guard welcomed me and asked my business.

Now, Mandarin is so radically different from the Indo-European languages that the Taiwanese compensate for the difficulties with acutely tuned inferential antennae and artfully adept sign language. It’s not that Chinese has a difficult grammar (like German); it has none that seems like grammar to us. Simply string words together and you can make sense. It’s the tones, four in most instances, that to someone who is tone-deaf are impossible. And the pronunciation of some of the consonants. The differences betweent’s and d’s; b’s and p’s; ch’s, zh’s, q’s, s’s, ts’s, x’s,and jh’s, plus others — in Roman pronunciation transcriptions — are so subtle that it was like trying to speak French with a mouthful of pebbles.

On the island, Chinese culture continued uninterruptedly — more or less — while on the mainland, much of it was brutally obliterated by Mao’s insistence on reconfiguring human nature.

If I want to ask a question in an unfamiliar language when traveling abroad, I’ll enunciate the key word with a rising tone to indicate a question. That’s nearly impossible in China. Once the tone of a word is fiddled with, the meaning changes unpredictably. In China, one must use a complete phrase so that, if one’s tone isn’t just right, the listener can infer the gist of one’s query from its context.

I hesitate to try to explain written Chinese with its 8,000 or so characters. Memorizing the key characters in important words such as “men” and “women” — for going #1 and #2 — or “hotel” on a sign — for going #3 — was a distraction that we turned into a game. It’s a very unpretentious language, almost prosaic, with — mostly — descriptions instead of actual names. “China” in Chinese literally means “Middle Country”, a reference to its central location between India and Japan, and Russia and the Malay Archipelago. The character for “middle” is a rectangle with a vertical line through its middle. Months don’t have “names”; their “names” are “First Month”, “Second Month”, etc.

So I asked George how my name, Bob Miller, would be rendered in script. “Bob”becomes bo, or ‘knowledgeable’; “Mi”is ‘rice’; and “ller” becomes lo, meaning ‘joy’ — a propitious rendering, according to my friends.

Everyone in the bank turned to look at the westerner with the biking helmet. In response to the door guard’s inquiry, I pulled out a US $100 bill to indicate I wanted to change currency. The entire staff rolled their eyes and threw up their arms — not in an off-putting manner, but rather in an inclusive “we’re-all-going-to-share-a-root-canal-at-closing-time-and-we’re-going-to-pull-together-and-actually-have-fun.”

A teller ushered me to a seat, placed a cup of tea in my hands, and indicated that I should wait. Two minutes later the manager brought me a snack and tried to engage me. Placing my fists close to each other, I rotated them to duplicate the motion of pedaling a bike, uttered “Taiwan”, and signed an oval in the air to say that I was biking around Taiwan. The staff erupted in smiles, hung haos(very good), and thumbs up. More tea, more snacks, more encouraging glances, more waiting.

Twenty minutes later, only the foreign exchange teller was engaged — with what looked like an Indonesian lady. When she stood up, he motioned me over. I handed him my passport and counted out $400 US in $50 and $100 bills. He scrutinized the passport, including the tourist visa stamped in the back, and then the US money, first separating the denominations, then collating the bills. He rejected three $50 bills: two that were well-worn and one that was brand new, saying in English, “too old.” So I gave him one more $100 bill, which he accepted. He counted the money — twice — wrote down the amount, and asked for my confirmation. Then he stood up and approached the vault.

I got the impression that this bank branch had little experience with US money and had never seen a US $50 bill. While waiting for his return, various tellers brought more tea, more snacks, and more friendly attempts to communicate. One snack consisted of dry, pickled prunes, the pits of which I needed to spit out. The attractive teller who’d offered them to me was well aware that she might be pushing the limits of a westerner’s tastes, and so was expectantly attentive to my reaction. She pulled a handkerchief from her purse, put it on her palm and indicated that I should spit the pit onto it. Apprehensive that spitting into her hand might cross some sort of intimacy line, I hesitated. She understood perfectly well and reassured me by repeating “is OK, OK.”

The foreign exchange teller’s cubicle had a small poster touting remittances to Vietnam and Indonesia, thus serving two populations — along with Filipinos — that regularly seek work in Taiwan. Another laminated, placemat-sized poster portrayed various denominations of Renmimbi, the currency of the mainland (People’s Republic of China, or PRC; as opposed to ROC, Republic of China, or Taiwan), with highlights and closeups showcasing what to look for in counterfeit Yuan (Renmimbi notes).

In 2008 President Ma Ying-jeou (reelected in 2012) negotiated a liberalized trade deal with the PRC that included an easing of travel restrictions for mainlanders, the first time since the Communist victory that they would be allowed to travel to Taiwan. The island was seeking an economic boost, while China was hoping that contact between travelers and locals would help lead to eventual political unification with Taiwan, which Beijing considers a renegade province. Mainlanders refer to Taiwan as “Treasure Island”: for its fabled beauty (as did the Portuguese: Formosa means “beautiful”); its trove of historical treasures brought over by Chiang Kai-shek in 1949; its democracy; and, most importantly, its shopping.

Anti-Communist demonstrations, often spear-headed by the Falun Gong, nearly always greet the mainlander tour buses at their scheduled stops.

The demand is overwhelming. If every mainlander who wanted to visit Taiwan were allowed in, the island would sink. So the numbers are strictly controlled and relegated to organized tour groups. In many respects Taiwan is considered more Chinese than China. On the island, Chinese culture continued uninterruptedly — more or less — while on the mainland, much of it was brutally obliterated by Mao’s insistence on reconfiguring human nature.

And there are other restrictions, lately further liberalized in 2011 (such as allowing a small number of mainlanders to travel by themselves). Though the mainlanders are indeed an economic boost, the social disruption they cause would be catastrophic, were they given free range. We were advised to visit popular tourist sites early in the morning, before mainlanders’ tour buses arrived. Taiwanese scuttlebutt is that they’re uncouth slobs who litter, spit and urinate willy-nilly; foul the bathrooms; are rude and unwilling to queue; and dress inappropriately — either like hillbillies or like ne’er-do-wells. So they’re limited to two-week visits. Roadside rest stops for their tour buses have temporary, purpose-placed bathrooms (Taiwanese bathrooms, both public and private, are spotless). Anti-Communist demonstrations, often spear-headed by the Falun Gong (a religious sect outlawed on the mainland), nearly always greet the tour buses at their scheduled stops. Most Taiwanese doubt the efficacy of the placard exhibits and displays in making conversions; but the mainlanders never fail to gaze in wonder at the mere fact that such demonstrations occur at all.

At 4 PM the door guard closed the bank. No one got up to leave. My teller returned with my passport, two photocopies of it, and a form to fill out. He was stumped by my name. In Chinese, the first name is the family name; the following two, hyphenated, names are given names. So I wrote out “Chiang Kai-shek” and “Miller Robert Howard” and drew arrows between the equivalents. He smiled, and then asked for my phone number by pointing to his cell phone. I responded bushi dianhua (no phone).

The whole staff turned to look at me, amazed and incredulous. Taiwan is the Silicon Valley of Asia. The Taiwanese can no more conceive of an individual without a cell phone than they can imagine a meal without rice. My teller grimaced and looked lost. I started to sense that the lack of a phone could be a dealbreaker. Then I remembered that Tina had one, loaned to us by Jorie, George’s wife. It had proved useless, however, because all the displays were in Chinese script. I motioned the teller to wait and went to fetch Tina outside where she’d been babysitting the bikes.

Her wait hadn’t been boring. The next-door juice stand had refused payment for the smoothie she’d ordered. A nearby resident had let his house-broken pet piglet out for a pee, after which the pig nuzzled the man’s ankle with overwhelming affection, which the man returned with scratches to its head as they both ambled back inside. Passers-by stopped to ask her about us and our trip. Tina dug out the cell phone, brought it inside, and handed it to the teller, who quickly retrieved its number. Another teller brought her a cup of tea and snacks while the door guard indicated that he’d keep an eye on the bikes.

Passing the snake restaurant, where delicacies included snake semen and blood dishes, Tina and I demurred.

My teller then began writing the serial numbers from each of the US bills on the form. When he was finished, he asked me to check his work and initial it. I did, and he wrote down the exchange rate for me: NT$28.60=$1.00 US (later confirmed independently). My 2011 Lonely Planet guidebook reported an exchange rate of NT$32.20 to the US dollar and stated that rates were very stable, because of Taiwan’s fiscal probity. Nonetheless, this was either an 11% devaluation of the US dollar or an equivalent appreciation of the Taiwan dollar, in one year. Guess which one.

He went back to the vault and came back quickly with my New Taiwan Dollars (NT$), placed them in a bill counter, and then hand counted them twice. Finally, he wrote their serial numbers on the form and placed the wad in front of me without counting it, along with a copy of the completed form. He looked at me, awaiting my counter-count of the NT$s. It was 4:30 PM.

I picked up the wad, waved my other palm in front of me, and said in English, “I trust you.” The whole staff broke out laughing; my teller smiled — broadly. The reasons for the laughter were both ironic and post-ironic.

The Taiwanese are honest to a degree that beggars credulity. Bikes are parked outside without locks; street vendors leave their stalls out overnight, fully stocked, with only a blue tarp to keep rain off. We saw two separate instances of million (US) dollar jewelry displayed in regular glass cases without added security or guards; one instance of a lost Malaysian’s wallet full of cash returned whole; and two instances of returned tips, one from a woman who was both cook and waitress. She was so proud of her dish and our appreciation of it that she insistently pressed the gratuity back into my hands. In Beipu, Tina got into a gesture argument with a street vendor, which soon drew a crowd of adjacent vendors. Apparently, she’d inadvertently paid too much for her purchase and the vendor was attempting to return her overpayment. Tina adamantly refused. The vendor won. To top it off, we saw no beggars or homeless people; no graffiti or evidence of vandalism; and we were never warned away from any neighborhood, anywhere on the island.

After 20 days of uniformly guileless and transparent interactions and transactions, I instinctively trusted the teller. The irony is that his superiors took a formalprecautionary approach — doubtless necessary to the banking business — that required an assumption of no trust. My teller had to perform tasks associated with my transaction that — other than running a grease pen across a bill — we usually find unnecessary in the US. I understood why they laughed.

It was nearly 4:45 PM when we mounted our bikes and headed for Pingtung. The bank’s staff wrapped things up, gathered at the door to wish us a good trip, waved us goodbye, and headed home.

Taiwhat?!

The Taiwan Tourism Board’s ad in The Economist had caught my eye because ittouted the island’s biking opportunities. Biking in Taiwan? That overcrowded and industrial corner of Asia that not long ago inherited Japan’s post-war reputation for mass-producing cheap and tacky stuff? I read on: “gorgeous scenery . . . dense forests . . . 22 National Parks & Scenic Areas . . . hundreds of kilometers of bike trails . . . more than 500 species of birds . . . a food-lover’s paradise . . .” Further research revealed that the heaviest population density is concentrated along the flat plains of the west coast, with the rest of the country resembling Vancouver Island, but with even taller peaks.

As to biking, with Taiwan manufacturing the world’s share of decent-end bicycles — Giant, Merida, Surly, Schwinn, Cannondale, et alia — a biking craze had grabbed the country about seven years ago and never let go. In cities, bike rental and loaner kiosks are ubiquitous. Nearly every road hosts a bike lane, and politicians run on campaigns to build even more bike paths. Some sections of the highway along the precipitous east coast offer more bike paths than car lanes. On days off, entire families from two-year-olds to grannies in coolie hats, take to their bikes. Police stations provide bikers with air, water, tools, flat-repair kits, and free camping (an indication that Taiwan is as crime-free as it gets). There are even plans to build a dedicated, circum-Taiwan bike trail.

I’d always wanted to visit Asia, where the real 99% live. However, Japan is too expensive, mainland China is a health hazard, the Philippines are crime-ridden, and Indochina is too third world. Taiwan, fully first world yet affordable, seemed perfect, especially for the sort of adventure tourism my wife and I have become addicted to: crossing or circling a country by human power alone, either biking, walking or paddling a boat. These methods provide for an intensive immersion into the country, people, and culture. Still, communication in a strange, tonal language with an ideographic written form seemed an insuperable obstacle. Until I remembered George Yen.

Our acquaintance replied that anyone could camp out anywhere and wouldn’t be troubled. Hard to imagine the “Don’t Tread on Me” bumper sticker resonating in Taiwan.

George, one of my dormmates in college, was Taiwanese. Though he’d only been an acquaintance and at that, 45 years ago, I decided to look him up in a not-so-old alumni directory. There he was with a Taipei address and a “.tw” email postfix. I wrote him hoping he remembered me, and asked for his thoughts on biking around Taiwan.

Not only did he answer that, yes, he remembered me, but that he was an avid biker, would put us up, lend us a cellphone for on-the-spot translation, and even ride a few days with us to ease our transition into the Taiwanese milieu.

In the 45 years since I’d seen him last, George had done well. He is President of Toastmasters International — what he calls his real passion — and has done the “Taiwanese Big Four”: climbed Mt. Yushan, at 12,966 ft, Taiwan’s highest peak; circled the island on a bike; swum across Sun Moon Lake; and climbed Taipei 101, the world’s third tallest building. But his day job is Chairman of the Board of Great Sequoia Corporation, an international trading company based in Taipei, and he’s managed three international joint ventures. He speaks four languages and holds an MA ininternational relationsfrom the Wharton School, along with having spent a night in a Texas jail during the ’70s (but that’s another story).

George and his wife Jorie threw out the plushest red carpet I’d ever curled my toes in. He owns the nine-story building where he lives, in one of Taipei’s nicest districts. Two stories are underground parking, accessed by a rotating car elevator. The first ground floor is his mother’s home (at 91, she still works); the second floor he rents out; the third floor is their Filipino housemaid’s digs; and he and Jorie inhabit the fifth and sixth floors (there is no fourth floor for reasons similar to Americans’ not having a thirteenth floor). The seventh floor is the family shrine and the family pug’s hangout. The eighth is a patio. Tina and I got the fifth floor.

Our first day of biking was a warmup along the Tamsui River and its tributaries’ (and distributaries’) many bike paths through Taipei to its old downtown. To rephrase the old saw, we were hippies in a head shop. Our first rest stop was next to an imposing standing stone inscribed with careful red calligraphy in a small manicured garden. When we asked its meaning, George took a Platonic approach, giving us hints about the characters in hopes we’d infer the full meaning. We could recognize the script for “two,” and he pointed out the script for “water”. While Tina and I were thinking along profound and contemplative lines, George smiled and said it was the sign for the Taipei Water District’s second water pump. We all had a good laugh.

The next stop was Taipei’s night market — not quite as bustling during the day. We were looking for lunch. Passing the snake restaurant, where delicacies included snake semen and blood dishes, Tina and I demurred, opting instead for fresh coconut water and deep-fried, ground pork dumplings at another stall.

On the way back we stopped at a large Taoist temple, the first of many temples and shrines we would pass, whose contrast with Christian churches in the west was almost too much to absorb, much less digest on a first encounter. While the baroque architectural elaboration — including gargoyles — riot of color, intricate carving and painting, main and subsidiary altars, candles and incense, icons and statues of cathedrals all had analogues — albeit radically different — it was the gestalt of the place that was striking.

There was no overarching atmosphere of awe and human insignificance, no hushed solemnity. Real or ritualized forms of abasement such as silence, a dress code, the donning or removing of head coverings or shoes, or “donations” were not required, and cameras were not prohibited. Functionaries such as monks or nuns — when present — didn’t stand out; nor did they exude an air of authority or officious sanctimoniousness so much as recede into the background like lowly maintenance staff. Individualism ruled: while some visitors performed obeisance, knelt quietly in prayer, left offerings on tables, or threw divining blocks, others conducted business, visited with acquaintances, ambled aimlessly, photographed, or just hung out. Some laughed, some sobbed, and some were inscrutable.

Taiwanese temples are not only spiritual centers; they’re community centers, marketplaces, recreation centers, parks, and museums. There are over 15,000 registered temples in Taiwan, or about one for every 1,500 people, not counting unregistered temples and roadside shrines. And the number is growing. Mosques, synagogues, and Christian churches, on the other hand, serve less than 5% of the population, with the latter catering mostly to aboriginal tribes along the east coast and up in the mountains.

Cash My-check

We headed out on our rideabout on a clear, warm day along the Tansui River bike path toward the northwest coast. George had arranged to have his cousin, Dr. Yang, a family practice M.D. and an avid biker, accompany us on the first day. Dr. Yang gave us a map of Taiwan labeled in English and Chinese script: in case we needed to ask directions, it would be legible to a local. In Tansui town we lunched on tuna hot dogs, BBQ’d squid, and sugar cane juice. An hour later George stopped at a convenience store, saying this was the last likely bathroom stop for a stretch, since we’d be heading into a more rural area. Recalling the American custom of declaring that “restrooms are for customers only,” I asked him if it was alright to use a business’s facilities without patronizing it. He answered that Taiwanese can’t conceive of refusing a bathroom to someone who needs it; in fact, we later experienced that all businesses’ bathrooms are hospitably available to anyone.

The Taiwanese are strong free marketers and proponents of private property, but they’re neither defensive nor insecure about it. In a recent poll by The Economist, people from various countries were asked whether they agreed with the statement, “Capitalism is a system that works well and should be preserved”. Only 13% of French respondents agreed, and only 52% of Americans. While 65% of mainland Chinese agreed, no separate figures for Taiwan were reported. Given the mainlanders’ responses, Taiwanese figures were doubtlessly much higher.

We saw no “No Trespassing” signs. When we were asked whether we were camping out during our ride, we answered no, because there were few campgrounds on the island, and decent lodging, in many cases, was actually cheaper than Canadian campgrounds. Our acquaintance replied — rather glibly, I thought, but echoing attitudes about bathrooms — that anyone could camp out anywhere and wouldn’t be troubled. Hard to imagine the “Don’t Tread on Me” bumper sticker resonating in Taiwan.

Our first night’s lodging was at the Chinshan Youth Activity Center, an over-the-top, towering, Fascist-architecture edifice built on splendid grounds in 1960. The accommodations were Japanese style: impeccable and tasteful, with shoji screens demarcating space, an elevated bedroom floor supplied with tatami mats, hard pillows and a comforter. Not accustomed to sleeping on the floor, Tina piled as many mats as the cupboard supplied to make us a bed.

Taiwan was ruled by the Japanese from 1895 to 1945 as an integral part of Japan. Though forcibly imposed, the occupation wasn’t brutal, except towards those who resisted — in particular the aboriginal tribes, who held out against the Imperial Army for seven years to retain their independence. The Japanese built roads and railways, modernized the bureaucracy, developed an industrial base, and treated the rest of the population as fellow citizens. Though many Taiwanese were drafted into a losing cause during WWII, today perceptions of the occupation remain mixed, with many Japanese customs surviving.

The Youth Activity Center was built by Chiang Ching-kuo (brother of Chiang Wei-kuo, and Chiang Kai-shek’s elder son) when he ran the Youth Activity Corps, long before he followed his father as president of Taiwan. Chiang pere had a yin-yang relationship with his two sons: Ching-kuo was to be taught; Wei-kuo — the adopted one — was to be loved. The Chiangs were Machiavellian, stubborn but practical, misunderstood and polarizing — while being polarized among themselves — and, ultimately, survivors all at the same time: a bit like China itself.

Until 1911, China had endured centuries of more-or-less stable, dynastic Imperial rule, the preceding 40 years or so under the Empress Dowager Cixi, a vain but cultivated woman. She was an obstinate reactionary and murderous despot who amassed a fortune in Swiss banks. History had dealt her a bad hand, which she tried to make the best of; but in the end, her malfeasance provoked insurrection.

The inspiration and intellectual catalyst for the upheaval was Sun Yat Sen, an American-educated medical doctor. Dogged, but impractically idealistic and politically naïve, Dr. Sun failed a dozen times to ignite the spark of revolution before the blaze finally caught in 1911 — ironically while he was in exile.

Back in China, he tried to guide unfolding events by founding the Nationalist Party, or Kuomintang, in 1912. But he was thwarted by remnants of the old order, provincial sectarianism, and internal factionalism. He rolled with the punches. When he sought help from abroad but was rebuffed by the democracies’ noninterventionist policies, the newly established Soviet Union came to the rescue, sending money, advisors and materiel. This aid and Sun’s declared belief in “government ownership of the means of production” fired up his leftwing base, composed of students and peasants who, with some professional help, founded the Chinese Communist Party in 1923, but alienated landlords and business, who hadn’t yet organized themselves. Enter Chiang Kai-shek.

Chiang had studied military science in Japan — which he admired — and in the Soviet Union — which he didn’t, except for its strongarm methods. After once risking his neck to save Dr. Sun’s life, he first became the doctor’s right-hand man, then leader of the Kuomintang upon Sun’s death in 1925.

Chiang covered his cards well. Not only did he manage to raise funds from opposing interests (he would acquire the nickname “Cash My-check”) — internationally from Stalin, the US, and Hitler, and internally from the moneyed classes (including China’s mafias) — but he artfully turned up the heat on the Communist frog, boiling it out of the Kuomintang in two years’ time. Afterward he embarked on a 22-year effort to annihilate the Reds, preferring to muster his resources against Mao Zedong while appeasing Japanese aggression in the belief that the Japanese would overstretch themselves in the immensity of China and finally collapse. Moreover, to Chiang the “rebels were a disease of China’s vitals, the barbarians an affliction only of the limbs.”

Disenchanted with (or perhaps not understanding) his father’s policies, Chiang Ching-kuo, left revolutionary China in 1925 to study in Moscow, a move his father did not approve, but accepted. One of his classmates there was Deng Xiaoping, the future Chinese Communist Party leader. Both would, much later, reform each of their Chinas.

Chiang Ching-kuo had the unfortunate but transformative experience of becoming a Trotskyist just before Trotsky was purged, and being in Stalin’s grasp during his father’s purge of the Chinese Communists. Nonetheless, he was allowed to marry a Russian and remained in the USSR for 12 years. Some speculate that Stalin kept him as a hostage. However, Chiang Kai-shek had absolutely no intention of stopping the war against the Communists, declaring, "I would rather have no offspring than sacrifice our nation's interests."

Meanwhile, Chiang Kai-shek sent his other son, Chiang Wei-Kuo, to study at the Munich Military Academy. There he distinguished himself and rose to the rank of lieutenant in the Wehrmacht. He commanded a Panzer unit during the Austrian Anschluss in 1938 but was recalled to China just before Hitler’s invasion of Poland.

After WWII Taiwan was returned to China. On the mainland, the balance of the civil war between the Nationalists and Communists was tilting towards the Reds. The increasingly beleaguered Nationalist government, acting like a jealous husband, treated the island like a violated woman who had “enjoyed” the experience of Japan’s occupation, by unleashing a bloody crackdown that took at least 28,000 lives and initiated 40 years of martial law known as the “White Terror.” With massive aid from the Soviet Union, Mao finally defeated Chiang Kai-shek in 1949 and drove the remnants of the Kuomintang army and anti-Communist refugees — two million in all — across the Formosa Strait to refuge in Taiwan.

Years ago, a correspondent for The Economist traveled the countryside. His starkest observation was the conspicuous absence of bugs and birds — free food obviously.

In 1978, following Chiang Kai-shek’s death in 1975, Chiang Ching-kuo assumed the presidency of the ROC at the ripe age of 68. His character having been forged in a cauldron of extremes, Ching-kuo’s wisdom had reached Confucian and Taoist proportions. In power, he undertook a series of radical changes, including lifting martial law and tolerating opposition, reforming land tenure, and — most importantly — laying the groundwork for the Taiwan Miracle with free market policies. His hand-picked successor and vice-president, Lee Teng-hui, fully democratized Taiwan during his 1988-2000 tenure.

Chiang Wei-kuo, on the other hand, commanded a tank battalion against the Japanese and Chinese Communists during WWII and the Chinese Civil War. In Taiwan, he continued to hold senior positions in the R.O.C. Armed Forces. He was promoted to Major General in 1975, and served as president of the Armed Forces University. In 1980, he became joint logistics commander in chief; then in 1986, he retired from the army, and became National Security Council secretary-General.

Christmas in Kenting

We rose at 6 AM and breakfasted on a buffet of steamed buns, scrambled eggs with corn, pork and noodle soup, salad, hard tea-boiled eggs, cabbage with extra-fatty bacon, rice gruel, green beans, and fried rice — with sesame oil, vinegar, scallions, peanuts, chili paste, and dried pork shavings for toppings (no soy sauce). The Chinese don’t care for salty food: neither salt nor soy sauce was available as a condiment; this was a bit problematic during hard, sweat-inducing exercise. Rice is consumed at every meal, though the portions are tiny. Chicken and fish are seldom boned or skinned, while meats are served with their full complement of untrimmed fat and gristle.

With its fish heads, chicken feet, whole miniature crabs, snake semen, scorpions, and countless other gag-inducing (to a westerner) ingredients, Chinese cuisine is a consequence of centuries of poverty and famine. During times of want everything remotely edible was tried and consumed. Years ago, after the People’s Republic cracked open the door to foreigners, a correspondent for The Economist traveled the countryside. His starkest observation was the conspicuous absence of bugs and birds — free food obviously. But like the trend in utilitarian clothing fashions, survival food moved upmarket, becoming — like bird’s nest soup and hundred-year-old eggs — expensive delicacies of the elite. It is all, however, impeccably prepared.

We rounded the top of the island in two days, once stopping to visit the preserved Kinkaseki forced-labor prisoner-of-war camp, where British and American servicemen mined copper for the Japanese. Before us lay the wild and precipitous east coast, home to Taiwan’s 14 aboriginal tribes, and traversed by a narrow and tunnel-studded road subject to landslides. One of them had occurred just a few days previously, closing a 15 km section. Luckily, it had not affected the railroad, which at that point ran through a long tunnel. Before leaving us, George gave instruction on using the train, and a pep talk reassuring us that we’d be all right without him. It didn’t bode well that winter’s winds and rains had returned in force and that we got lost on our first day without him.

On our fifth day we reached Taroko National Park, Taiwan’s crowning natural beauty and most visited park. In the Taroko Gorge the Liwu River has cut an extremely deep, narrow fissure through the limestone bedrock. Most of the road that traverses it has been bored through sheer rock faces like a tunnel but with one side missing, making for a spectacular ride. Picturesque shrines, waterfalls, and hanging gardens dot the wide spots and tributaries. High up in the mountains, the Taroko aboriginal tribe runs top-notch lodgings modeled on its traditional villages and serves traditional Taroko food. No way were we going to pass that up.

The ranger at the National Park information desk referred us to another ranger whose English was better. After answering our questions, she befriended us, engaging us in discussing just about everything imaginable. After an hour of conversation, she gave us gifts — DVDs, books, and souvenirs — finally hugging us and thanking us for visiting and letting her be of service to us. She was about to invite us to lunch but hesitated — I sensed — so as not to make us feel obliged.

She wasn’t unique. The rangers at Kenting National Park and the Maolin National Recreation Area were cut from the same mold, with the ranger at Maolin even bidding us goodbye with a kiss — all this from a people otherwise reputed to be shy in the display of physical affection. Can you imagine that at Yosemite?

Taiwan, as its branding logo says, had already “touched our heart.” We found somewhat wanting the otherwise misanthropic WWII US Military Attaché “Vinegar” Joe Stilwell’s description of the Chinese as “the smartest, in many ways the most civilized, in general the most charming, and certainly on the average, the best looking people in the world,” and his assistant David Barnett’s dittos to their “innate dignity and self-respect, humor, stamina, quickness of mind, and lovely women with exquisite figures.” To that list we’d add ”generosity, forbearance, patience, tolerance, hospitality, and industriousness.”

These traits are not limited to the adult population. Teenagers, sometimes edgy in the best of places, are not just polite in Taiwan; they’re warm and deferential, as well as industrious. We were mobbed by high schoolers on a field trip who wanted to practice their English. Convenience store staff — all teens and twenty-somethings — greet customers, microwave purchases, constantly scrub the floors and the use-surfaces, provide free cups, and bend over backwards to ensure a pleasant experience. In one instance they even requested a photo with us. One attendant, who’d worked at a hotel in Canada, praised his Canadian coworkers’ personalities but bemoaned their slacker work ethic.

The run down to Kenting at the southern tip of the island was relaxed, lightly populated, and brushed by Pacific winds. Near the end we were again blocked by a landslide. But this time, an alternate and very comely single-lane road, crossing over Taiwan’s central mountains through aboriginal villages, provided a welcome change of pace.

Halfway through the trip and with Christmas the following day, we took three days off to rest and see the sights in Kenting. No problem finding lodging: an enterprising B&B owner on a scooter led us to her nicely apportioned digs — only $20 per night. On Christmas day we toured the National Park with Beatriz, a 29-year-old soccer and swimming coach from Galicia. With Spanish unemployment at record levels, she’d moved to Shanghai, where wages were adequate, to work as a teacher. She was on a short holiday break, had had a bellyful of the mainland, and was hungry to speak Spanish.

Up the backside

Our strategy for the return ride up the west side of the island was to avoid the densely populated and industrial western plains by hugging the foothills of the central massif. Though the riding would be a tiring, up-and-down, rollercoaster ride across high ridges and deep river valleys, it would meander through quiet villages, medium-sized towns, tidy agricultural areas, and forest preserves — and minimize traffic.

Not that traffic was much of a problem. Stilwell’s observations applied equally to Taiwanese drivers. On the face of it, Taiwan traffic is congested and anarchic — a bicyclist’s nightmare — with vehicles sometimes going up on sidewalks or even going against the designated flow. But look deeper, and another pattern emerges. Traffic conventions are followed as rules-of-thumb, not immutable laws. In general, only speeding and turning-on-red-light violations are enforced. Accidents are usually negotiated on-the-spot, without police. Traffic is aggressive yet polite and very sensitive, giving way once you nose or step out into it. Drivers don’t honk petulantly but gently, often adding a thumbs up and a hen hao (very good). Most amazing of all was that bicyclists are not only respected but actually liked!

Weddings and funeral services — for those who can’t afford to rent a purpose-built venue — appropriate a portion of the road under elaborately tented blue tarps. In consideration of traffic, most are held on weekends. But it was the garbage collection system that really touched our hearts. Garbage trucks make their rounds in the evening, announcing their approach with a distinctive ice cream van tune. Folks hand over their bags to the collector, exchanging a few pleasantries; or he picks them up off the curb.

After restocking our wallets in Neipu we headed up into the mountains. Riding through the Maolin National Recreation Area and aboriginal preserve on a particularly long, cold, hard, rainy day we decided to rest the following day in Jia-xian. A picturesque provincial village nestled in a high river valley, Jia-xian proclaims itself the taro capital of Taiwan. Taro is a root starch one eats sautéed, fried, and even as ice cream.

We got in late, shivering and wet, and approached a group of ladies. Tina performed her where-can-we-sleep pantomime by joining her hands as if in prayer at the side of her head and angling both. One old lady motioned us to follow her. Two blocks and one turn later we arrived at a nondescript building. Tina checked out the $18 rooms but — never picking the first option — decided to look for others. The old lady who’d led us there suddenly looked disappointed and agitated. Thinking, we soon realized, that an $18 room was too expensive for us, she invited us to stay at her home — a kind offer we turned down, unable to explain.

Word soon got around of our presence at the other hotel, and we were joined for breakfast by our innkeeper’s niece, Ma Jo-shan, a local artist married to Josh, an American. They’d moved to Jia-xian to live with her elderly parents above the small grocery store they owned and ran, so her parents could share the joy of raising their grandkids. Jo invited us to tour the temples and mountaintops with her.

Mazu is my beacon, I shall not shipwreck . . .

Jia-xian’s old temple is dedicated to Mazu, Taiwan’s patroness, saint, or deity, depending on one’s outlook. While Christianity has traditionally been organized from the top down, with an authority (such as the pope) declaring who is beatified, sanctified or deified (from a non-believer’s point of view), most Eastern religions are ground-up, based on “ancestor worship,” animist traditions, and the teachings of Buddha, Lao Tzu, and Confucius (the three sages dating from about 500 BC). With no central planning, many strains of thought evolved, and are still evolving, ranging from the highly superstitious (non-empirical) to the merely respectful; and from schools of “pure tradition” to custom-built, individualized beliefs.

Eastern spiritual thought is hard to grasp from Western reports. Having first been described to the west by Christians, in often patronizing — even derogatory — terms that ignore translation difficulties and missed the depths and subtleties and the complex relationships between philosophy and religion; dogma and opinion; or worship and reverence, it’s understandable. It helps, as Lao Tzu in the Tao advised (and I paraphrase), “to have no dog in the fight.” Unlike Middle Eastern religions, which are often intolerant of one another, Eastern believers are not only tolerant of others; they also respect and even admire them, resulting in much syncretism. China has fought many wars, but they have very seldom had a religious tendency.

The garbage collection system really touched our hearts. Garbage trucks make their rounds in the evening, announcing their approach with a distinctive ice cream van tune.

Even the term “ancestor worship” is too glibly bestowed as it is not a religion but rather a practice, one that is a part of nearly all religious traditions. A better term is “ancestor veneration,” a more accurate description of what practitioners actually do, which is to cultivate kinship values such as filial piety, family loyalty, and family continuity, with rituals such as visiting graves, offering flowers and grave decorations, burning candles or incense, reciting genealogies, or simply displaying photographs in special locations. Prayer, actual worship, belief in the transformation of dead relatives into deities, or communication with them may or may not be present.

Likewise, animism is commonly misunderstood. The word literally refers to a belief thateverything — living or inanimate — has an essence: a soul, or anima, if you will; that soul need not be a spirit or ghost-like being with a potentially independent existence. Animism usually regards human beings as on a roughly equal footing with other animals, plants, natural forces and even objects — all deserving respect. Humans are considered a part of nature, not superior or separate from it. However, it is not a type of religion in itself but rather a constituent belief or virtue — analogous to polytheism, monotheism, or even filial piety — that is found in many belief systems.It is Aristotle’s elaborated version of animism that according to some scholars was appropriated by the early Christian church into the modern “soul” most of us are familiar with.

Taoism and Confucianism are often mentioned in the same breath as if they were complementary beliefs, while in reality their philosophical differences are as marked as Plato’s and Aristotle’s. Living at a time in China when Neolithic egalitarian tribes were evolving into hierarchical kingdoms, Lao Tzu and Confucius were exposed to dynamic change, the pace of which varied considerably geographically. Lao Tzu (the older of the two) came from a rural, conservative area. Confucius, on the other hand, was swept up in the new order. While Lao Tzu’s philosophy centered on preserving the old ways, Confucius embraced change. His philosophy stressed acceptance and adaptation to changing times through universal education in science and the classics. Lao Tzu advocated passivity; Confucius advocated wise action — Lao Tzu’s Ned Ludd to Confucius’ John Dewey.

Of the two, Lao Tzu was the more esoteric and metaphysical. In contrast, Confucius, fearing he might be deified after his death, ordered his disciples to burn his writings. They reluctantly did so, but then compiled what they remembered in The Analects. Today Taoism in Taiwan is a very big tent, incorporating many sages, saints, gods; beliefs, practices and ceremonies. On the other hand, Taipei’s Confucian Temple is a memorial to a man and his thought, with ceremonies held to commemorate him, not worship him or anyone.

Taiwanese Buddhism is not as ascetic, martial, or world rejecting as its Indian, Tibetan and Mongolian antecedents. It is personified by the “Happy Buddha”, a fat, smiling and goodie-laden effigy popular on vehicle dashboards and family shrines. Known as Tzu Chi or Renjian Fojiao (this-worldly) Buddhism, it encourages socially active involvement, stress reduction, and even fun. With its de-emphasis on ritual and superstition, the strain took off in the 1960’s and is now the religion of choice for middle-class urbanites and professionals. Taiwan's Buddhist population grew from 800,000 in 1983 to 4.9 million in 1995, a 600 percent increase and still growing.

As Taiwan’s patroness, Mazu is the closest thing to a pan-Taiwanese deity and gets the lioness’ share of festivals and celebrations. She is loosely lumped into the Taoist or Folk Religion pantheons, and is widely worshiped on the mainland and in Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore and the Chinese diaspora. It’s interesting to compare and contrast her life and legend with one of the west’s preeminent deities, Jesus Christ.

Born Lin Mo-niang in 960 in Fujian province, she died at the young age of 28 (JC at 33) — in one version — while attempting to save fishermen, including her father and brothers, from shipwreck after a typhoon (JC died attempting to save mankind from original sin — an alleged transgression by our legendary ancestors). Many stories, and later miracles, of seafaring rescues are attributed to her. Of exceptional intelligence, she was a sponge for knowledge, mastering Taoist and Buddhist texts at an early age and gaining repute as a female priest (though little is known about Jesus’ education, he sought what I would summarize as enlightenment through fasting and isolation in the desert for 40 days — a transcendent approach — in contrast to Mazu’s world-immersion education). She never claimed to be divine, as Jesus did. Nonetheless, she is — mostly — worshiped as the Goddess of the Sea and Empress of Heaven; in addition to being the patroness of childbirth, because she didn’t cry at birth (Jesus was, reputedly, virginally conceived).

Today she’s even become a political soccer ball, with the PRC getting her inscribed on UNESCO’s intangible heritage list in order to win hearts in the ROC.

Closing the circle

North of Jia-xian we passed through soursop and wax apple orchards; coconut groves, pineapple fields, and rice paddies; shrimp farms, and kowtowed papaya trees bent short to ease picking and to allow the entire grove to be covered by protective netting. A couple of days from Taipei a young biker caught up to us. Taking a break between high school and college, she was on the first day of a solo ride around the island, and was bursting at the seams with enthusiasm tinged with just a touch of apprehension. Feeding the former, we allayed the latter.

Taiwan’s school system is hard to fathom, and I still haven’t quite worked out its incentives. Generally, the better performing kids go to public schools, while the remainder attend private ones. Huh? Yes, public schools are free, but there’s a catch — they have high admission and retention standards. Private schools accept all comers, but they charge. Individual tutors — outside the formal education system — are ubiquitous, affordable or not.

Riding into Taipei, we were again joined by a lone biker, this time a fit elderly gentleman, who, spotting our kit, assumed we were circumnavigating the island. We confirmed his suspicion. To celebrate, he invited us out to dinner, an invitation that took us by surprise but that Tina immediately accepted. He was 73, just retired (opining that Asians work too much), and had just graduated his youngest from college. Free at last from parental obligations, he was ready to bike the world and wanted to plumb our experience. Kung Gung-ho, besides his good English, spoke French: he had his eyes on the Atlantic coast of France. He’d already rounded Taiwan. His dream was to do one big bike trip a year for the next five years.

Over dessert, it was my turn to pick his brain. I asked him about Taiwan’s health care system. Surprised at my interest in something so mundane, he accommodatingly switched gears.

Taiwan has a compulsory, government-run, single-payer National Health Insurance scheme established in 1995, modeled — according to Dr. Michael Chen, CFO of the NHI — on America’s Medicare system. Public and private providers coexist, and the system covers traditional Chinese medicine. At 2%, the NHI has the lowest administrative costs in the world. Private insurance is available alongside the NHI for greater freedom of choice. There is a 70% patient satisfaction rate. Nevertheless, the NHI is unsustainable and going broke.

The government is not taking in enough money to cover the services it provides, so it is borrowing money from banks. Because the revenue base is capped, the plan does not keep pace with the increase in national income, or increased costs. Premiums are regulated by politicianswho are afraid to raise premiums because of the voters. Price controls are beginning to rear their ugly heads.

Office visits are as low as $5 US. Gung-ho (literally, work together) blamed his own age group for abusing the system. Believing they’ve paid up front for a service, the elderly set out with a vengeance to get their money’s worth by visiting doctors regularly and often, and getting prescriptions they didn’t intend to use.

Gung-ho ordered a round of green tea ice cream, paid the bill, and parted with this “ancestor worship” blessing:

Around me I wear an invisible coat of many colors, fabrics and texture. It is made of friends and family, here and no longer here, far and not so far. They are all part of my coat which keeps me warm wherever I go. It is a coat that is always in style and never wears out. You are now part of my coat.

George and Jorie welcomed us back in typical Taiwanese fashion: by taking us out to a traditional banquet. Over one too many sakes, Tina and I embarrassed ourselves with superlatives: about the dinner, the trip, our hosts, the country, the people, their religious and philosophical views, the infrastructure, even EVA Airlines our carrier — you name it.

So I asked them what the overall Taiwanese tax burden was. After a little reflection, doubtlessly influenced by the conviviality, George answered, “25%”, adding a rant about the cost and red tape of doing business in New York. If true, a light bulb flashed in my head.

Reflecting back to countless times when my leftwing friends had threatened to emigrate to Canada (or France, or wherever) if such-or-such rightwing politician got elected president of the United States, I realized that my rightwing friends had no such prospective refuge. Well, I can now offer them one: Taiwan — a destination that ought to be equally attractive to my other friends as well.




Share This


The Land where the Statues Walked

 | 

Early on Easter morning, 1722, Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen spied land in the distance and set his sails for the tiny island. His men grew puzzled and anxious as they neared the coast, for they could see giants lining the shore. But as they drew nearer they realized that these sentries were not moving; the giants were stone statues. Roggeveen and his men were probably the first Europeans ever to see the stunning monoliths. They called the place Easter Island. The residents call it Rapa Nui. It is a tiny dot in the ocean, barely fourteen miles long and seven miles wide, over 2,000 miles from the coast of Chile and 1,300 miles from Pitcairn Island, its nearest neighbor. Pitcairn Island is sometimes regarded as the remotest place on earth.

Since that day nearly 300 years ago, the mystique of Easter Island has increased. Why were the statues with the elongated heads and comical expressions carved? How were they transported as many as six miles from a volcanic quarry to their seaside platforms? Who toppled them during the 19th century, and why?

In 1956 Norwegian anthropologist Thor Heyerdahl sailed to the island on the raft “Kon-Tiki” and encouraged the island’s governor to raise one of the 80-ton statues back to its standing position. Heyerdahl’s book and lectures created a new awareness of the mysterious stone heads, and they began appearing in works as diverse as National Geographic and Bugs Bunny cartoons. It was in this atmosphere that my own lifelong fascination with ancient artifacts began.

Love among the ruins

All my life I have longed to see the mysterious statues on Easter Island. When I was 8 years old, my father was going to college and majoring in history. One day I stayed home from school with a stomach ache, and he couldn’t miss class, so he took me with him. The course was about ancient civilizations. The professor showed pictures of Stonehenge, Machu Picchu, and the giant statues, called moai, of Easter Island. I was hooked for life. I asked more questions than anyone else in the class that day, and afterward the professor told my father that I was a prodigy. I didn’t know what that meant, but I could tell it was something good.

Since then I have had the opportunity to visit the ruins of ancient temples in Greece, Rome, and Central America. I have stood in the theaters where Paul taught the Ephesians and Corinthians and where Oedipus Rex was first performed. I visited Stonehenge when people were still allowed to touch the stones. I’ve been to Machu Picchu and Tikal and Chichén Itzá and the Great Pyramids of Egypt. But Easter Island eluded me. Three times I came as close as Santiago, Chile, but flights to the island were so infrequent that I was never able to travel the final 2,300 miles and make it to the island.

Until now. When my daughter Hayley’s tour with Disney on Ice ended up in Chile with a week off between shows, she decided to visit Easter Island. No way was she going to get there before I did! So thanks to my adventuresome daughter, I finally visited the moai of Rapa Nui.

What an indescribable thrill! It was, as Hayley said several times, the best vacation ever. We knew we would see statues; we had no idea that we would explore caves, swim in tide pools, watch gigantic ice-blue waves crash against the rocks, climb mountains of lava, or ride four-wheelers around the entire island. It was magical. Simply magical. Even sacred in a way. Every hour we said, “If this was all we did, it would be enough.” And then we did more.

It was drizzling rain when we landed at Rapa Nui. The season was winter, after all, so I had prepared for the Antarctic winds that, as the guide books said, often flow through. But our weather app was predicting temps in the high 60s or even low 70s. Could we be so fortunate?

We found our lodgings through airbnb.com, an organization that matches travelers with local residents who are willing to sublet their homes to short-term visitors. My family has used this site to rent houses and apartments all over the world, always with satisfactory results. We have stayed in a rustic log cabin in North Carolina, a sleek modern apartment in Madrid, and a modest but quaint home in Dublin, to name a few.

Alvaro, our host, gave us a quick tour around the town before taking us to our hotel, a small bungalow-style facility right in the middle of Main Street. The center courtyard was surrounded by palm trees and hibiscus bushes, and Alvaro spread his map on the table there to show us where he would be taking us. We shared a kitchenette with other residents and met in the courtyard for breakfast. It was a very relaxed, cozy place to stay.

The town is beyond rustic — the road in front of the tiny government house isn't even paved! We never saw a large shopping center, or even a grocery store that was larger than a 7-11. They don't have a movie theater on the island. But the restaurants were outstanding. After a quick lunch of freshly made empanadas at a restaurant half a block away from Alvaro's place (it was hard to call it a "hotel"), we joined a small tour of seven people, including four Disney on Ice skaters. Alvaro recognized our venturesome spirit and took us to many of his favorite family beaches and caves, off the beaten path (not that there are many beaten paths on Rapa Nui). He also arranged our schedule so that we avoided the early-morning bus tours.

Alvaro grew up on Rapa Nui and is a direct descendant of King Jean I, who invaded the island in the 19th century and made himself king. His grandfather was the mayor of Rapa Nui when Heyerdahl arrived in the mid-1950s; he oversaw the raising of the first moai in modern times. Alvaro knows his history and loves the island. We loved his enthusiastic hospitality.

Off the beaten path

Since it was drizzling that day, Alvaro first took us to visit some caves. The island was created by a volcanic eruption, and it is a veritable Swiss cheese of lava tubes, many of them extending more than a mile. It was not unusual for people to live in these caves. Alvaro told us that his grandmother hid in a cave for two months when she was young because she didn’t want to consummate her arranged marriage. Eventually she went back to her husband, but he understood that she did not love him. Later she fell in love with Alvaro’s grandfather and lived with him the rest of her life (Catholics don’t divorce, so they lived in sin . . .)

We knew we would see statues; we had no idea that we would explore caves, swim in tide pools, watch gigantic ice-blue waves crash against the rocks, climb mountains of lava, or ride four-wheelers around the entire island.

Alvaro had discovered one such cave just a week or so earlier, when he noticed the top of a tree at ground level and realized that the trunk had to be growing out of a cave. He was anxious to explore it further, and we were just the group to accompany him. We climbed down to the entrance and ducked inside. There we followed the tunnel as far as we could, grateful for the helmets and flashlights Alvaro provided. We explored a side tunnel as far as it led us, crouching down as it became more and more shallow. It dropped off at the end, so several of us shinnied down to see what was there, using a thick tree root as a rope to ease ourselves down and pull ourselves back up. Then we went back to a larger cave near the road, where a few other tourists were milling around at the entrance, getting ready to leave. Once again we explored to the very end of the tunnel, and had to climb out through a hole in the ceiling! What an adventure — and we hadn’t even visited the moai yet.

The moai average 40 feet in height and 80 tons in weight. Earth and sand have built up over the years, making it appear that they are merely heads. But most of them have torsos that extend to the thighs, and a few of them are full bodied. Their arms hang at their sides, with their hands held neatly over their abdomens. The bodies are carved from the yellowish stone of Rana Raraku, located at the bulbous northern tip of the island.

Most of the statues wear cylindrical topknots of contrasting red lava. These hats, called "pukau," weigh as much as 12 tons each, so it was quite a feat to move them to the statues and lift them to the top of the heads. Alvaro told us that they represent the bun that many Rapa Nui men still wear high on their heads (although I had to wonder which came first, the stone hat or the men's hair bun). These pukau were made at Puna Pau, a red-lava quarry in the center of the island, 12 kilometers from the sulphur-rich quarry where the bodies of the statues were made. Several top knots dot the hillside at Puna Pau, and dozens of statues are found lying in transit across the island, indicating that something dramatic happened to end the statue-making suddenly. No one knows exactly what it was.

Near Puna Pau is Ahu Akivi, the site of the seven moai that face the sea. All others face inward, standing on burial platforms called ahu. The statues represented the deceased leaders of tribal families — so much for my theory that they were supposed to scare away intruders by appearing to be giant soldiers. Alvaro told us that these sea-facing statues at Ahu Akivi, known as the Seven Explorers, represent the seven original men to arrive on Rapa Nui from Polynesia. Another feature that sets this group apart from the rest of the moai is the absence of skeletons found under the ahu, indicating that this is a memorial, not a mausoleum. The third and most remarkable feature of this ahu is that it marks the summer solstice, December 21, when the statues face the sunset straight on instead of at an angle.

Back in town we watched the sun set, and then had dinner at Te Moana, where the meals were so beautifully presented that we took pictures. Banana leaves lined the plates, and exotic flowers decorated them. The food was delicious and elegant, the best teriyaki chicken and grilled pineapple we’ve ever eaten. This quality of food was an unexpected delight on a rustic island, where we didn’t even have hot water for our showers.

We were in bed and asleep by 10 pm, so thrilled to be on this enchanting island and so delighted by the day’s surprises. It was sort of like camping out, as there was no heat in the room, and no hot water, despite the fact that it was probably 40 degrees outside. We shivered under our single blankets. I got up during the night to put on a long sleeved shirt and spread my ski jacket over my bed. Roosters woke us at 5:30 am, but it was so dark that I didn’t get up until almost 9. Then I hurried to shower. The tepid water made me shiver, but the air was so much colder that I didn’t want to leave the shower once I got wet. As I put on my watch I realized that I was two hours early — my phone hadn’t adjusted to the new time zone. We all laughed about it. It was part of the adventure. And it gave us more time for exploring the shoreline before going on the tour.

High winds had blown away the clouds, giving us clear blue skies for our visit to Rapa Nui National Park, the site of the main quarry and the largest number of extant moai. Alvaro recommended that we start our full day tour at 10:30, so we would avoid the tour-bus crowds. Bus tours normally begin at 9, so by the time we reached each spot, they were already gone. The later start gave us time Saturday morning to walk down to the shore, climb around on the rocks, and watch the waves spew foam into the tide pools. We could see surfers in the distance preparing to ride the waves. As we headed back to the hotel for the tour we all agreed: Even if we didn’t have the statues to see, this would still be the best vacation ever.

But we did have statues to see — and I had waited 50 years to see them. Yet this was such a last-minute trip that I was virtually unprepared. I was kicking myself for not at least buying a travel guide. Fifty years to get here, and I had no idea what I wanted or needed to see.

As it turned out, however, that was the perfect way to visit this island. Every moment was unexpected. Every hour brought another surprising discovery. I didn’t have a clear picture in my mind of what I would be seeing, so it was all brand new. And Alvaro was the perfect host. He fed off our enthusiasm and shared aspects of his island as though we were friends, even taking us to his family’s favorite camping and picnicking sites. When he took us to a small cave where his family used to camp out when he was a kid, I asked whether they still go here. He shrugged his shoulders and said they don’t because the privacy is gone. “You never know when a tourist might show up.” He said it matter-of-factly, without any tinge of animosity. This was the attitude we encountered throughout our stay. It was welcoming and refreshing.

The statues represented the deceased leaders of tribal families — so much for my theory that they were supposed to scare away intruders by appearing to be giant soldiers.

As we caught sight of the ocean in the distance, with its deep blue water and massive ice blue waves, one of the Disney skaters asked, “Can we stop and take a picture?” Alvaro was pleased to comply, but I’m sure he was thinking, “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet!” Our first real stop was the Blow Hole, where powerful waves spew a geyser of steam-like water through a fissure in the rocks. Of course, Hayley and her friend Taylor climbed down to the blow hole so I could take pictures as water roiled around them. We could see the remains of broken moai nearby. These remnants cover this island. You see them everywhere, once you know how to spot them.

Further up the coast we visited an ahu where the toppled moai have not been re-erected. Most of the moai were knocked down during tribal wars several centuries ago, and it is very expensive to repair and lift them. It costs about $10 million to restore an ahu, so most of the restorations have been conducted by organizations from other countries, especially universities and archeological teams. The most photographed set of moai was restored by a Japanese crane company in the mid-1990s. What a great advertising gimmick, to show their cranes lifting these 80-ton monoliths! And what a boon for the island to see the moai watching over the islanders again.

But still, I had not yet seen a standing statue from the classical period — not with my own eyes. Alvaro pointed out a large moai face down on the dune several yards from the ahu platform near the beach. He showed us that the eye sockets were incomplete, indicating that this statue had been interrupted in transit. It wasn’t knocked down during the tribal wars; it was never erected. How sad to think that the ancient craftsmen had spent a year carefully carving the statue from the mountainside, and then weeks more, painstakingly moving it from the quarry to the sea, only to have it topple over, a few yards from its ahu. A parade of other unerected moai with unfinished eye sockets told the same tale.

Alvaro took us to another favorite family spot and suggested that we have our lunch there. It was a delightful tide pool with a shallow waterfall created by the waves. Taylor immediately took off climbing, and soon he and Hayley were in the water. Fortunately two of the other skaters told us to bring a lunch, because there was no place to buy food outside the town, and Alvaro failed to mention it to us. We lunched on delicious turkey and cheese sandwiches on rolls baked fresh that morning. Sandwiches always taste better at a picnic, especially after a day of exploring!

Meeting the moai

But finally it was time to see the real thing: we were about to visit the quarry where hundreds of moai still dot the mountain.

As we came around a curve, there it all was, breathtaking — the blue sky, the green grass, and the dark stone faces emerging from the ground. Alvaro pointed out the unfinished statues still in the side of the quarry, waiting all these years to be released. One is the largest known statue on the island, 70 feet tall, like an Egyptian soldier guarding the entrance to a royal pyramid. I was trembling with excitement as we drove up to the national park, where we would finally walk among the statues.

But yes — we were roped off. We had to stay on the path. This was a development I had anticipated. If I had come here 15 years ago, when I first visited Santiago, I would have been able to touch the statues and stand right next to them. Or stand right on them, as many people did back then. But I don’t mind. They need to be protected, and the paths have been strategically placed for effective photo opportunities, with the added benefit that no else is going to be in the pictures. Nice!

We enjoyed a leisurely hike around the statues, pausing to take photos and imagine the history. Alvaro knew that I had the most intense interest in the island, so he loved telling me about every “surprise” around the corner. He never rushed us. His theory is that the statues in the quarry were used as samples. Various craftsmen displayed their work, and local people would then select the style and size they wanted to use as the memorial for a family burial platform, rather like selecting a grave marker today. In fact, an archeologist recently discovered three statues with an artist’s signature, suggesting that each craftsman had a specific part of the quarry from which to work.

This is also the only place where full-bodied statues are found, although the bodies are buried waist deep in the earth (probably to keep them standing up straight). Archeologists have unearthed them to study them, but then they cover them back up to maintain their historic integrity. Consequently, the bodies are in pristine shape and their markings are clear, because they have never been exposed to the wind, sand, and rain erosion that punishes the rest of the statues.

As we left the park I took one last look at the enigmatic heads, so alike and yet with personalities all their own. Hayley and I especially liked the guy whose head was tilted at a rakish angle. I never felt rushed, yet I couldn’t get enough. I want more pictures! I want to go back.

We experienced a few gnarly moments in the mud from the previous days’ rains, but we finally made it to drier ground. And then we were driving right toward those 15 moai raised by the Japanese crane company, all different heights and personalities, with the bright blue sea behind them as a perfect contrast to their dark stone and the green field in front of them. Simply gorgeous. “I’m in heaven!” I blurted to everyone in the van. Alvaro let us out to explore and take pictures on our own. Behind the platform we found a collection of smaller statues, some with bodies and some just heads, almost like babies gathered in a circle. Why were they there? Like so much else on the island, that is a mystery.

Our final stop of the day was a beautiful sandy beach, the only one we saw on the island. Every other shore was protected by foreboding lava rock. This is where Thor Heyerdahl arrived in 1955, and where Alvaro’s grandfather supervised the raising of the first statue in modern times in 1956. Alvaro told us the sad story of the day the statue’s unveiling was celebrated. A group of school children came to the celebration, and the teacher asked Heyerdahl if he could take the students out on the boat. The boat capsized, trapping one girl underneath it, and trapping the teacher under a pile of panicked students, all clinging to him to keep from drowning. The girl and the teacher drowned. She was Alvaro’s 14-year-old aunt, his grandfather’s own daughter. The grandfather was so distraught that he left the island and did not return for over 20 years. Alvaro’s grandmother went with him, leaving Alvaro’s 16-year-old father to take care of his younger siblings. So sad! His grandfather felt responsible for the tragedy. He regretted restoring the statue.

On a happier note, five additional moai were discovered under the sand and are now restored to their platform. The sand protected them from erosion, and they are beautiful, with most of their markings (ears, belts, hands, back decorations) still intact and clearly visible. I took off my shoes and rolled up my pants to walk in the sand. Nearby stands that first statue Alvaro’s grandfather raised, looking like a giant eroded blob compared to these well-preserved statues that had been entombed in the sand for centuries.

Exploring the island off-road

Greatest idea Hayley had all weekend: let's rent scooters. Greatest contribution from Taylor: let's make it four-wheelers instead. What a perfect way to experience Rapa Nui! We could strap our backpacks to the front of the motorbikes, and the sturdy machines could bounce over the potholes with ease. We didn't have to lean to turn, which made it so much safer. And we could stop wherever and whenever we wanted. It was still a little drizzly and gray as we began the morning, but that was the end of our sketchy weather. The clouds blew away, the sun came out, and we had a glorious day of off-road exploring as we retraced our steps from the tour, but took our time to hike, swim, and simply soak in the gorgeous scenery

Most of Easter Island is uninhabited wilderness. In the mid-19th century, Peruvian slave traders kidnapped many of the islanders to work in the mines on the mainland, leaving their European diseases behind as an unfair exchange. As a result, by 1872 only 111 native Rapa Nuians remained. The island was controlled by European sheep ranchers, and led by self-proclaimed King Jean I, who married a local princess (Alvaro’s great-grandmother) to strengthen his authority. The native population was forced to live behind barbed-wire fences on the southeast corner of the island. The government policy of moving all the people to one end of the island, terrible though it was at the time, inadvertently protected the island’s pristine features.

Today, everyone lives in four little towns, located side by side near the airport. There are a few isolated farmhouses and one rustic but high-priced hotel — The Explorer, $1300 a night; David Letterman and his children were there the week before us. Outside of that, it is completely barren and primordial. Horses, cows, dogs, and chickens roam wild across the fields. Broken moai dot the coastline as they have for centuries. Even after the Rapa Nuians gained independence from the Europeans and became Chilean citizens, they remained congregated in the same area; the rest of the island is virtually undeveloped. Fearful of outsiders, they have limited land ownership to native Rapa Nuians, which has prevented commercial development and chain hotels.

The native population was forced to live behind barbed-wire fences on the southeast corner of the island. The government policy of moving all the people to one end of the island, terrible though it was at the time, inadvertently protected the island’s pristine features.

This makes Easter Island an ideal place for off-road exploring, and we took full advantage. Before long we were climbing lava formations and discovering new tide pools, watching the waves, and having a great time. At our first stop I suddenly remembered that we left our helmets and Taylor's backpack on the four-wheelers. But it was fine — unlike the other South American countries we've visited, where crime is rampant, Rapa Nui is safe and virtually crime-free.

We ate our lunch on a lava outcropping above a wild and windy coastline. The waves were so tall that a couple of times we had that rollercoaster sensation of impending disaster. We thought about what it would be like to see a tsunami coming, and almost ran to higher ground a couple of times, even though we were probably 25 feet above the water and at least 100 yards away from it. But it was such a beautiful sight, with the light aqua water in the waves, the white roiling foam, the deep blue ocean against the dark lava. It was so nice to relax and enjoy the view without worrying about time and tour guides.

We stopped near the blow hole to watch surfers in the distance being dropped into the waves by a jet ski. It would be deadly to surf all the way to the shore and get smashed against the rocks, but in the distance they can surf the waves and then drop into the water again behind the next wave. We rode past the ahu with the fallen statues near Alvaro's family cave, and the large abandoned moai, until we finally reached the tide pool. No one was there, so we stripped into our skivvies and swam in the pool until a huge wave flooded it and nearly dashed us against the rocks. Then we continued our ride. If there was a path, we followed it, and found gorgeous views as a result. At one point we ended up high in the hills near cows, cliffs, and a pile of bones that was once a horse. We could see the hoofs and even the hair on its legs — it must have been a fairly recent kill. We don't know how it died, but all the bones were piled in a circle. Some kind of ritualistic sacrifice? Or maybe it simply broke its leg and couldn't go on. We saw so many piles of animal bones on the island that "there's another bag of bones" became a running joke.

We were completely alone for most of the day, except when we stopped again at the 15 moai restored by the Japanese, where we took some fun photos of ourselves jumping in front of the statues and pretending to hold them up. I was happy to get another view of them, and I kept looking back as we left, thinking, "One last look. One last look."

Not a single person joined us. We explored on our own. Everything we saw was a delight.

Storytelling under the stars

After a late dinner we hopped back on our ATVs and headed for Puna Pau in the interior of the island, the place where the red topknots had been quarried. There would be no light pollution so far away from town, and we would be able to see the stars. I was at the back of our little caravan. Every once in a while I would look behind me, and it was pitch dark. I wasn't scared, but I was a little nervous, and I knew that I could work myself up into real fear if I let myself start imagining things. Taylor was also spooked, so when we stopped the bikes we both ended up turning them around, to be ready for a quick getaway . . .

Nevertheless, we put our blankets out on the grass and lay down to gaze at the stars. They were brilliantly bright, of many different sizes — you don’t see that in the places where most people live. And so densely packed! The Milky Way was fully visible, but of course the constellations were completely different from any we see in the northern hemisphere. I told some stories about constellations — the myths of Deer Hunter and White Corn Maiden, Orpheus and Eurydice, and others. We saw shooting stars, including one that was huge — like a dove flying across the sky. We were shivering with the cold, but we warmed up under our blankets. It was peaceful and beautiful, and we all had the sense of seeing something we would never see again.

It was late when we returned to the hotel, but we decided to get up early and explore just a little more before turning the bikes in at 9. So we settled our bill with Alvaro and told him it was worth the cold showers to be able to stay at his B and B. Chagrined by our report, he walked to the back of our cottage and changed the propane tank. Then we enjoyed our first hot showers of the week.

At 7:30 we were up, showered, and on our ATVs, heading north on the east side of town, to see what we had missed. Just outside of town we spied a spectacular set of moai, along with petroglyphs, "mana vai" where the early islanders created rock enclosures to protect their crops from the wind, and the remains of Rapa Nui’s ancient boat-shaped houses. I knew that thousands of people had seen these moai before me, but there was still something extra special about them. I had found them for myself, and no one was there but just we three. Horses came thundering across the field, chased by wild dogs, and one of the horses nearly lost its footing and almost fell into the sea. There was a playfulness in their chase, however; the dogs weren't really trying to catch the horses, and the animals seemed to be enjoying the morning as much as we were.

It was magical. I loved it, loved it, loved it. Although we could see another moai far in the distance, up the coast, we didn't know how to get there, and we were running out of time. So with one last backward look we headed back to town to turn in our mechanical steeds. Then we grabbed some towels and headed back to the cliffs, walking this time. The sun was warm; the wind had died down. Our last experience on the island was relaxing in the ocean’s crystal pool. Then three quick showers, three quick empanadas, and 3,000 pesos (for the taxi), and we were back at the airport, saying goodbye to this enticing island and its enigmatic folklore.

They walked

Why did ancient Polynesian craftsmen create these monolithic statues on this tiny dot in the ocean, but nowhere else? How did they transport the 80-ton sculptures from the quarries to the coastlines? What caused them to stop erecting them so suddenly that many of the statues lie along the paths, abandoned in their tracks? What virtually destroyed the island population?

Many archeologists, environmentalists, and social scientists have used Easter Island as an example of how human folly leads to self-destruction. They suggest that the islanders cut down the forests to transport giant statues to appease their gods. When the resulting deforestation destroyed the natural plant and animal life, they were unable to feed themselves. Hunger led to tribal warfare, and the natives basically killed themselves off, all because of their religion. Nasty humans. We ruin everything.

It was peaceful and beautiful, and we all had the sense of seeing something we would never see again.

But more recent archeologists have discovered a different story. As our friend Alvaro tells us, "It was the rats!" European ships brought rats along with their cargo, and those rats loved the taste of the palm seeds on the island. A close examination of ancient seed shells reveals the scratching of rats' teeth as they gnawed through the shells to get at the sweet pulp of the seeds. No seeds, no trees. Between the rats and germs the Europeans brought to the island, and their enslavement of the native population, which they took away from the island to work in the mines of Peru, it was the European outsiders, not the native people, who destroyed the ecosystem.

Moreover, a recent experiment by a team of archeologists (Terry Hunt, Carl Lipo, Sergio Rapu Haoa, and Patrick Kirch) has pretty much debunked the theory that the statues were moved on their backs along rolling platforms made from the trunks of trees. Local folklore always maintained that the statues "walked" from the quarry to the ahus, and local folklore usually contains a kernel of truth. (That's how Heinrich Schliemann discovered the city of Troy.) Noting that the fallen moai were fatter and had a different center of gravity from the completed moai standing on their final platforms, they came up with a theory that the islanders slung ropes around the eye sockets and shoulders and then used gravity and the statues’ own sloping shape to rock the objects forward, in much the same way that I have tipped a heavy bureau from side to side in order to rock it gently from one part of a room to another. PBS recently aired a documentary of their experiment using a life-sized, 80-ton replica. Watching it finally "walk" down the path was a magical moment for me. (The documentary, "Nova: Mystery of Easter Island," is available at Amazon.com.)

In essence, through modern technology, the statues had come to life. They could speak to us again, and in so doing, they could defend the islanders who had been maligned for centuries. Japanese crane companies and university archeologists lifted them out of the sand. Modern airliners and cruise ships bring a new kind of visitor today — not visitors who want to pillage and plunder, but people with a reverence for things ancient and a willingness to travel thousands of miles on a pilgrimage to consider the past.

Cultures everywhere create monuments and memorials to their dead. Often they turn to these memorials in times of trouble, seeking the help of their departed ancestors. This almost universal tendency indicates a profound belief, or at least a hope, that there is another existence after this one — that the spirits of the ancestors live on. Easter, with its focus on resurrection and new life, is a perfect time to reflect on the mysteries of Easter Island, and to resurrect the wonder and magic of youthful curiosity. I like to think of those Seven Explorers, facing the sea for century after century and patiently waiting for the sun to set at each year’s summer solstice, even as I wait for the sun to rise on Easter morning as a symbol of the Son who also rises.

History. Mythology. Culture. They reveal the dimensions of our humanity. We are drawn to explore what is different, but end up learning what we have in common with other civilizations.




Share This
Syndicate content

© Copyright 2017 Liberty Foundation. All rights reserved.



Opinions expressed in Liberty are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the Liberty Foundation.

All letters to the editor are assumed to be for publication unless otherwise indicated.