Monday, March 26, 2007

Up close and personal in the third world

The thing about travel to somewhere you’ve never been is that your preconceptions get smashed. Until I went there last week, I had a mental picture of Costa Rica as this well-ordered resort area that probably looked something like a cross between Puerto Vallarta and Miami Beach. In my mind, it was predominantly English-speaking and prosperous.

So imagine my surprise when I saw the concertina wire on top of fences surrounding most houses in San Jose, and the capital’s smoggy, diesel-clogged air. We came down out of the mountains in a jam-packed minibus driven by a macho maniac who more than once came close to knocking off a gaggle of schoolkids coming around a curve too fast. The roads quickly deteriorated to little more than rutted tracks of mud and rocks by the time I got to my destination on the Caribbean coast. I also found my pathetic college Spanish needed to be called into action, and decided it would be wise to be on constant lookout for scorpions on the bathroom floor.

The first night after my five hour bus ride (replete with Latino rap songs on a tinny sound system) neighbors nearby started partying with similar music, and kept it up well past dawn. My friend refers to said neighbors as “the crack whores,” and I surprised myself by staggering through the jungle and showing up at their front door demanding peace and quiet. When one of them became aggressive and pushed me away, I ran back to my “compound” and scrambled up the vines next to the locked gate.

We spent the next few days hanging out with a series of American and European expatriates who have made their home on this pleasant coast over the last couple of decades. It was harder, but not impossible, to meet the Costa Ricans themselves. When I did, they were sweet and open and helpful. Their lives seemed appealing, but it’s clear that a precarious balance is being threatened by the rapid and unsettling development.

One day we went to a little river landing at the end of a gravel road, where a man in a dugout canoe would take you across to a dusty little strip mall in Panama. There some Palestinians own stores and sell everything from digital cameras to Gucci knockoffs. I bought some underwear and smuggled it across, just to say I did.

I came home stimulated, confused, amused, educated and enfused with of a sense of adventure. I also came home tired as hell.


Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Going offline

Here I am, sitting in a hotel lobby in Austin, doing my best to wrap up all my online chores like email and bill paying before taking off for a week in Costa Rica in a couple of hours. I’ve been here at the South by Southwest Interactive Festival for the last few days. My brain hurts from all the trends, innovations and opportunities I learned about at the event. (And also, it hurts from a little too much partying four evenings in a row. Austin’s bars and music venues are the scene of parties staged by everyone from Google to Blogger to Adobe. The booze flows freely, and the patios are jammed shoulder to shoulder with the technorati. The conversations are so compelling, I end up getting back to the hotel way too late.)

Before I process all that took place here in an effort to get some new killer books into the pipeline, I'm taking a week off in a place where Internet connectivity is sketchy if available at all. I’ll post when I return and share some of what I discover in Central America.


Monday, March 05, 2007

Soldiers with cameras

Like most Americans, I know I have only a shadowy impression of what the war in Iraq is really like. You don’t see much footage on the TV newscasts because they’re more concerned with Anna Nicole Smith or the astronaut who wore the diaper. “But it’s OK not to know what’s going on there,” I tell myself; “I don’t support the war so the details are irrelevant.” So much for ignorant bliss; now I can no longer ignore what’s taking place in my name.

On Saturday night I attended a showing of The War Tapes as part of our local Big Muddy Film Festival. This isn’t mainstream media’s take on the war. It is the first war movie ever made by soldiers filming all the war footage themselves. An unvarnished picture, you might say.

One of the most striking themes of this movie is the Americans’ contempt for the Iraqi people. One memorable scene shows a tanker truck filled with urine and feces being emptied by spraying the waste into a ditch along the side of a busy road. There are scenes of humvees barreling down city streets at 60 miles an hour, escorting convoys of Halliburton trucks. Caution: I’m going to give away a “climactic” scene in the next sentence. When one of those speeding humvees runs over a little girl who tries to dash across the highway in front of it, all the carnage and confusion is captured on videotape. The soldiers more or less scrape her severed body parts over to the side of the road while they search for her head. Iraqis come and shovel the parts into a body bag.

This is what’s being done in our name. If you want to see for yourself, buy this movie (only $19.95) and ask your friends and family to watch it.