Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Brilliant!

Laura is very right, as usual. I want one, too!

Monday, July 28, 2008

Appalling. Sickening.

Came across this transcript of Bill Moyers' interview with Jane Mayer.

There are plenty of disgusting bits, but here are some lowlights:

JANE MAYER: Well, I think they knew they were being asked about torture. I mean, they danced around the question. They've redefined the term "torture" so that what was torture before 9/11 they say has not been torture since.

BILL MOYERS: Why?

JANE MAYER: Because they wanted to interrogate people in completely brutal ways. And they wanted to avoid being accused of war crimes. So one of the witnesses there, Doug Feith in particular, who was the number three in the Pentagon, argued right after 9/11 that the Geneva Convention should no longer apply to anybody that was picked up in the war on terror, that was a terrorist suspect. And so they took away the rules of war, which were the Geneva Conventions, which America really pioneered in many ways. And they also said that the criminal laws didn't apply to the same suspects. So they were left with kind of a legal limbo. And they made up the laws as they went along on it.
Yup. Making up the rules as they go along, and obfuscating their tracks. Sounds about right.

And what happens when you start trying to make excuses and exceptions?
JANE MAYER: Well, there are a couple of things I want to say about this. One is to say that there's a special exception here: We won't torture except when we will torture, is a legal problem. The convention against torture, which the United States Senate ratified, has no exceptions. It's a major felony. There's no excuse for doing it for war. There's no excuse for national security. It doesn't have exceptions. So this is a serious legal problem.
But it's not just the legality, it's also what it does to the moral fiber of the society:

BILL MOYERS: Torture can become an accepted way of life for a society. I mean, you can get used to it. Or you can know it's going on and realizing that it doesn't affect you, so it doesn't matter to you. Do you is there a possibility that that's happening here?

JANE MAYER: Well, you know, there's a great book out called, "Torture and Democracy," by Darius Rejali, which is about how torture has worked over the years. And one of the things he writes about is that it has a very corrupting effect on a society and also on military discipline, on anybody involved in it. There's this tendency to get rougher and rougher. You don't get the answer you want? You up the level of aggression. It also has a horrific effect on the outlook of the people who were involved in this program there and I do describe how one of the interrogators in particular who did waterboarding with the CIA is wracked by nightmares now according to one of his friends. He - you can't go to that dark place without it affecting you.

I've said it many times before (and I'm tired of it, but it's important): torture is wrong. It's always wrong. And every justification given for it inevitably reflects the corruption that such mistreatment engenders.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Having Fun While Dying

Randy Pausch died today. Cancer claims another victim, and as usual, one much too young. This one hits very close to home for me, as he was almost exactly my age. And that is, by definition, much too young to die.

By now, probably everybody on the Internet has seen Randy's last lecture or one of its derivatives. It was a wonderful performance, and one that I hope will be meaningful to its intended audience, his children. But I know it touched a lot of people, including me.

One of the many nuggets I retained from his lecture was his notion about having fun every day, even while dying (and after all, we are all of us dying, every day, in some respect). It's a lesson we should all remember.

Take care of yourselves and your loved ones, and live strong.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Energy Independence

OK, time to write something that isn't about vacation!

Forgive me if I ramble a bit. I see that Al Gore has thrown down the gauntlet on energy independence, or at least on the electricity front. His proposal to stop using fossil fuels (other than "clean coal") to generate electricity has merit on a lot of levels. It would free fossil fuels for potentially better uses, or at least ones that are harder to substitute.

I assume he intentionally timed his challenge to coincide with the anniversary of Jimmy Carter's famous address on energy independence (hat tip to Jonathan Schwartz for pointing that out). Jimmy made some amazing statements at the time:
Point one: I am tonight setting a clear goal for the energy policy of the United States. Beginning this moment, this nation will never use more foreign oil than we did in 1977 -- never. From now on, every new addition to our demand for energy will be met from our own production and our own conservation.
Yeah, that worked out real well.

When Carter delivered that speech in July of 1979, I had just graduated from high school, and during my senior year, as a member of the debate team we had debated the question of how the U.S. could increase its energy independence.

Interestingly, my partner and I spent the first half of the year advocating increased use of nuclear power, claiming it was far cleaner and safer than fossil fuels when you consider the entire fuel cycle. Then came the exciting convergence of Three Mile Island and the movie, The China Syndrome. Suddenly advocating nukes wasn't quite as palatable. So we turned 180 degrees and argued for banning and decommissioning all the nukes and replacing them with thermal energy generation retrofits on existing hydroelectric facilities. That was a bit esoteric, and probably not truly feasible on a national scale, but it was a lot of fun to debate.

Ultimately, the case I found most convincing (and hardest to defeat) that year was advocacy for energy conservation. There are very few good arguments against being more efficient in our use of existing energy sources.

And by far the most fascinating part of the energy debate to me was the argument over energy use and its effect on global climate. My research on the topic ultimately led me to major in Environmental Science and pursue (briefly) a career in public policy and government.

And now, nearly 30 years later, climate change is a common topic of conversation. Go figure.

What's amazing to me is how badly we've slid backward on energy. When Carter made his speech, he wanted to cut oil imports by half, "a saving of over 4-1/2 million barrels of imported oil per day." So imports were on the order of 9 million barrels per day. The CIA reported in 2004 that imports were running around 13.15 million barrels per day, and the U.S. Energy Information Agency now says that in 2006, net imports ran to 12,390,000 barrels per day.

Now, those aren't all equivalent numbers. The U.S. exports around a million barrels of oil a day, too, so the CIA and DOE numbers are pretty close. In any case, we're now importing on the order of 50% more, not the 50% less that Carter set as the goal.

Heck of a job, guys.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Footnote to Yucatan Trip

Back home safely. Can't say I was terribly impressed with Mexicana Airlines or their budget domestic buddy, Click. But they got me home, and that's what counts.

While we were staying at Xamach Dos near Tulum and the Sian Ka'an biosphere preserve, we heard news about PROFEPA, sort of the Mexican version of the U.S. EPA, seizing and closing a bunch of local hotels for reasons that were not entirely clear. Speculation ran to all sorts of possibilities ranging from actual environmental degradation to land grab.

I found some local discussion today, so thought I would link to it. Sounds like the locals don't know much, either. We had met some nice folks who were staying at the Diamante K earlier in the week, and I hope they were gone before the place got closed down.

Exciting times, but I gather this is one of the ongoing issues when foreign people "buy" property in Mexico.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Festivities and Shopping

Free advice: If you stay at the Hotel Dolores Alba in Merida, don't eat the 50 peso breakfast buffet. 'Nuff said.

We set out last night in the rain to get dinner. Found a recommended restaurant called Pancho's, with sort of a Pancho Villa theme. Although it seemed to cater largely to Americans (and what business here doesn't?), it had quite authentic flavors, and the food was universally excellent. We tried their tuna ceviche, beef quesadilla, pepper steak, and chimichangas, and all were delicious.

By the time we left, the rain had stopped, and there was some outdoor activity, but nothing to the degree that would be normal. Some clowns on the zocalo gave my daughter a fancy balloon animal, but that was about the extent of things last night.

This morning we went out in search of hammocks. The recommended stores are closed on Sunday, so we looked at a few other places. We eventually bought a huge blue one made of silk. It's quite lovely, and easily holds the whole family. The negotiation process was interesting, but that is something my wife is very good at. She thinks we could have gotten an even better deal if we'd had more time, but I needed to get to the airport.

So here I am, sitting in the departure lounge with an hour to spare, trying to figure out the wifi system where all the pages seem to be in Spanish. I was hoping to do a little research on the web while I wait, but perhaps I'll just get started on my reading (and this writing, of course).

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Ruin and Rain

Last night we stayed over at the Hotel Dolores Alba in Chichen Itza. This evening I find myself writing at the Hotel Dolores Alba in Mérida, the capital of the state of Yucatan. We headed here, rather than staying at Chichen Itza another night, since Margo at Xamach Dos raved about how great the Saturday night fiesta in Merida is. Sounded good to us, so here we are. Just as we arrived at the hotel, having found our way through Mérida, it started to rain. And rain. And rain. With some lightning and thunder thrown in for good measure.

It has largely let up now, but the streets are wet, wet, wet, and we're uncertain whether we want to brave that. Looks like we'll head out for some dinner first, then decide. I suppose it is worth noting that this is the first significant rain we have encountered. Lots of little, brief squalls, especially at night, while we were in Sian Ka'an, but this was quite heavy and prolonged.

But back to Chichen Itza, as promised. We went back to the park this morning, fully intending to wander around without a guide. Having done two other Mayan archeology sites yesterday, read the guide book on Chichen Itza, and gone to the evening light show, we had the notion we could see what we wanted, then hit the road.

The first guide to hit us up for business really rubbed us wrong, so we moved on, paid for our tickets, and entered the gates. Then another guide asked if we wanted one, but we declined again. He said fine, but if we were hungry later, to go to his wife's restaurant in nearby Piste, and gave us her card. He was very nice, and eventually we decided to hire him. Good choice.

Javier turned out to be a fine guide, and rather than regurgitating all we'd heard at the other sites and read in the book, he took us around relatively quickly, showing us nuances we might miss otherwise, such as places where there are interesting echoes or remnants of original paint. He emphasized the Mayan aspects of Chichen Itza and downplayed the Toltec aspects (perhaps because he's Mayan himself). As he finished our tour he made suggestions for how we might want to proceed to see other parts of the site he hadn't taken us to. As a result, we had a really good visit to the site, and feel we got a lot out of it.

I have to say, at the end of a week of touring, that I have immense respect for these guys who do tours in English here in Mexico. Many of them have relatively little formal instruction in English, but do a great job presenting their practiced pieces as well as answering questions. Nearly all of our experiences this trip have been very positive.

Leaving Chichen Itza park, we still had to checkout of our hotel, then rushed over to Balankanche Cave for the 1:00 pm tour in English. The cave is quite nice, but there was a big crowd, most of whom spoke Spanish, and therefore ignored the recorded story in English. This (along with marginal recording quality) made it pretty difficult to hear what was going on. As near as I could make out, it was a dramatization of a Mayan father taking his son down into the cave for the first time to see the offerings that others had made, and explaining the history and traditions behind it all. Might have been pretty interesting, but as I say, it was largely unintelligible.

The cave itself is spacious and easy to get through. Nothing uncomfortable or claustrophobic. Some of the limestone formations are quite lovely, and there are plenty of cute little bats flying and hanging. The various offerings are somewhat interesting, though again, I couldn't make out much of the explanations. All that said, I've been in better caves, and it gets very hot and muggy down inside this one. I wouldn't put it at the top of my list of things to do here.

As a footnote, we did, in fact, head over to Javier's wife's restaurant before leaving for Mérida. It's kind of at the far end of Piste, away from the tourist hotels, and seems to be more of a place for locals (or at least Mexicans) than American tourists. But we introduced ourselves, said that Javier had told us to come by, and we had a very nice, tasty, inexpensive meal. If you're in the neighborhood of Chichen Itza, you could definitely do worse than dining at the Loncheria Fabiola. It's on the main highway, opposite a big restaurant called the Atrio.

Tomorrow I have to head home. The rest of the family is staying to see some more ruins and things on this end of the Yucatan. But I need to get home to do some work.

Friday, July 11, 2008

My Day in Ruins

Hit the road early this morning, because we had a lot to cover. First stop, the archaeological site at Tulum, which is just back up to the main road, so 32 km from Xamach Dos. So after a quick breakfast and a good-bye to Margo, we embarked.

The Tulum park opens at 8:00 am, and we got there just after that. Before, it turns out, any English-speaking guides had shown up. But shortly after we started walking on our own, they sent Santiago after us, and he was worth waiting for. Tulum was an important Mayan trading center, right on the coast. It was one of the first Mayan cities spotted by the Spanish, in fact, because the walled city was clearly visible from the water.

Many of the ruins within the wall have been restored or at least uncovered, and you can kind of get a feel for what the layout of the city was like and why it mattered. Santiago told us a lot about Mayan culture and social structure that would reverberate later in the day. Highlights of the tour included great views of the big ruins, the view out over the Caribbean Sea, and several tie-ins with things we'd learned from the Mayan guides from Community Tours earlier in the week.

Then back on the bus for a couple of quick errands in the town of Tulum before heading out to Coba.

Coba wasn't on our original itinerary, but after a friend strongly urged that we should go there, even over some of the other, more famous sites, we added it in today. Great decision (and thanks, Steve!). Coba is a neat site, and unlike some of the others, they haven't cleared the jungle out, so among other things, there is some shade that keeps things cooler. Also, they let you climb to the top of the second-highest Mayan pyramid (the highest being at Tikal in Guatemala) anywhere, and you get a spectacular view over the jungle canopy. Very cool, and well worth the climb.

We also got to rent bikes to ride around between some of the more far-flung ruins, which is definitely more fun than walking in the midday heat. We got a pretty good look at a couple of ball fields, where they used to play the ritual Mayan ballgames. We had seen the demonstration at Xcaret earlier, but this gave a better sense of the context of the games within Mayan society.

After a quick bite of lunch, we climbed back aboard the van and headed for Chichen Itza, by far the most famous Mayan site, at least in Mexico.

First stop was our hotel, where we immediately hopped into the pool for a dip and then luxuriated in the showers for a bit. (For all its beauty, Xamach Dos was very rustic, and the showers were a bit weak.) After a week, it felt good to have a strong shower again! Then a very quick bite of dinner, then off to Chichen Itza park, where they do a light and sound show. It was spectacular, of course. The ruins are very beautiful and well restored, and the grounds are lovely and well kept, so the bright colored lights make for quite a show. I didn't really learn anything that I hadn't already read in the guidebook, but I now have a good feel for what to see tomorrow when we go back in the daylight.

We went for the “simultaneous translation” option, which was OK when it worked, but very direction-sensitive and a bit fussy. Add to this that some of the family stopped to watch at a spot that turned out to be an ant hill, and you have some hilarity. My wife moved from the ant hill to stand on a log, and found herself being surrounded by flying bats (very cool!).

After the show, my daughter found a trail of leafcutter ants, and we tracked them for a ways with a little penlight. Those are some hard-working little dudes!

So it was a very busy day, with three major sites and a lot of transit, but it was fun and worthwhile. We got some insights into Mayan class structure (hint: it's good to be the king!) and history.

More on Chichen Itza after tomorrow's visit.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Farewell to Xamach Dos

Today, my daughter and I are both feeling under the weather, so we're staying home while the rest of the gang goes off to tour Punta Allen, farther down into the Sian Ka'an reserve. They've gone with the same Community Tours Sian Ka'an group that we went with to Muyil earlier in the week. The agenda involves snorkeling on the reef, walking through (or perhaps near to) a bird nesting area, more cenotes, and some discussion of the hydrological system of the Yucatan (and perhaps how it affects the local manatees). That last I would particularly have enjoyed, but my sinuses are in full revolt, so reading in a hammock and tending to my ailing daughter are about my limit.

On the plus side, this being our last day and night here at Xamach Dos, we got a reprise of everyone's favorite breakfast (banana pancakes with fresh shaved coconut and maple syrup). (And yes, I know that maple syrup is not indigenous to this area. But it's so good on that meal!) And for dinner tonight, we revisit the lobsters, which were so tasty the other night. So no complaints.

I suppose I should try to summarize my reactions to Xamach Dos. In short, I enjoyed it a lot. It's not fancy, and it's quite remote. There are many, many hammocks, plus lots of beach chairs. Coconut palms, nice clean beach (with land crabs), friendly puppy (Sally) and cat (Meow-Meow). Margo and her staff are quite accommodating, adapting to meal preferences and schedules.

I really appreciate the fact that all the electrical power comes from solar panels and batteries. Goodness knows they get plenty of sunshine! And the owners have placed a number of little solar lights around the resort to make sure one can find one's way in the darkness.

If I have one complaint, it might be that there isn't very much water. I forgot to ask whether it comes from a well or from some kind of desalination plant, but the flow of water in our cabana, at least, was a little feeble. I'm looking forward to a good strong shower at a hotel this weekend!

Oh, about the name Xamach Dos: xamach is apparently the name of the pan used to cook tortillas, and just south of where we are staying is Punta Xamach. So apparently this is the second tract of land in the area. Or so Margo tells me.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Downtime and Adventure Play


Yesterday we went to a lower-key adventure park called Hidden Worlds. Built around a system of cenotes and related caves and such, they've created a park in which one can snorkel, rappel, ride a zip line (two different ones, actually, including one that ends in a spectacular splashdown in an underground cave), and a “sky cycle” through the jungle. Not only is it much closer to our base camp, but it also does things in a smaller, friendlier atmosphere than Xcaret. The whole setup is run by maybe a couple of dozen people, and since the “crowds” are small, they manage very personalized, hands-on service. Things go at rather a more relaxed pace, but that's OK.

And today, more downtime! Hammocks, dozing, and playing in the water.

But first, we went over to look at the ruins across the road. They're small and not terribly distinguished, but they're interesting and easy to get to. It's amazing how hot and humid it is just a few hundred meters away from the beach.

After lunch, my wife and I borrowed a two-seat sea kayak (my first experience on a kayak) to paddle out to the barrier reef that protects our little bay, where we anchored it and snorkeled around a bit. The reef is not spectacular (there might be spectacular parts, but not where we ended up), but we saw plenty of little fish, interesting corals, and a couple of small lobsters. I spotted a number of the little flamingo-tongue snails that live on gorgonian corals.

All in all, a very pleasant way to spend the day. That's what vacation's all about.

Monday, July 07, 2008

Xcaret and Lobsters

Yesterday's adventure was a trip to Xcaret, which is sort of a theme park built around some Mayan ruins, a cenote (fresh-water spring/cave) and some other items. They've made it into quite a nice place, not at all as tacky as I'd been imagining.

First stop in the morning (after driving two hours to get to Xcaret) was the desk where we could arrange various specific activities for the day. As it turned out, the only one people wanted to do was the dolphin encounter. My wife, our daughter, and my mother-in-law all decided to go swim with the dolphins. Having had some fine, natural close encounters with dolphins on our recent Galapagos trip, I decided to forgo this.

They seemed to enjoy their swim. They certainly got up close and personal with the dolphins, but I had to feel that the animals weren't having much fun. I watched them playing with each other between groups of tourists, and they seemed quite pleased with that. During their human encounters, one definitely had the impression they were much more interested in their fish bribes than in whatever was going on with the visitors.

Xcaret has a number of quite impressive animal exhibits, including a natural bat cave, a manatee lagoon, a tapir, some spider monkeys, and a very nice aquarium that features terrific sea turtles, from very small to very large. And as usual in non-U.S. parks, you get a lot closer to most of the critters, which is nice.

At dinner time, we went to the big production show, covering some of the local Mayan history and culture, the Spanish arrival, and the breadth of the blended Mexican culture. The Mayan portion was quite good, including demonstrations of traditional Mayan ballgames, including one much like field hockey or lacrosse, other than the fact that the ball is aflame. Very cool. They kind of gloss over the details of the Spanish-Mayan "cultural exchanges" that eventually produced modern Mexico, making it all sound very easy and peaceful. But they do paint quite a picture of the rich variety of modern Mexican culture.

Today, downtime. I had to beg and plead to schedule a couple of days where we would not plan side trips and excursions, just rest and enjoy this lovely place where we're staying. This goes against the nature of my wife and her mother, who arranged the trip. But they have grudgingly allowed me a small amount of time to enjoy the hammocks on the beach.

So it's a lovely day of sitting and/or lying in various hammocks, reading books, walking on the beach. And then the much anticipated dinner: fresh, local lobsters! Absolutely delicious, grilled to perfection, and served with a tasty cheese pasta. Days don't get much better than this.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Working for The Man

Yesterday was tour day within Sian Ka'an. We were picked up by our guide at 7:30 am, which is notable because it takes about an hour to drive down here from Tulum. But these guys are locals. In fact, they live right around here. Alberto said they used to work through travel agents and tour agents, but realized that they were basically working for The Man, giving away a lot of the proceeds to outsiders and not necessarily promoting the environment.

Our tour took us to Muyil, a complex of restored Mayan ruins within the biosphere, and from there on to a freshwater lake, on a float down a canal, and then later floated through a cenote, one of the many freshwater caves cut in the limestone that makes up the Yucatan peninsula.

Alberto was a wealth of cultural information. For example, when I asked him how they made the mortar that holds the stone ruins together, he gave me a detailed description of the process, from how they cut and stack the poisonwood frame to how and when they burn the rock, to how much lime they add. Quite comprehensive.

Lunch consisted of delicious tamales made by a local Mayan woman, part of the community plan to keep the business in the community. And the cook who made the fruit salad and other side dishes is an artist they hired away from the tourist hotels. He carved a watermelon into a gorgeous centerpiece.

Can'Tcun

We flew in to Cancun on our way to Sian Ka'an biosphere preserve, where we're based this week. Just hanging out at the airport waiting for the rest of the family, I was struck by the nature of the place.

I've written about Americanized Mexico from my last trip to Cozumel. Big difference between Cozumel and Cancun is that Cozumel grew fairly organically from a small tourist town that served primarily scuba divers, where Cancun was created out of pretty much nothing in the 1970s, specifically to attract American tourists.

As a result, the ”city” of Cancun consists of resorts. Hotels, condos, bars, restaurants, sure. But there is no town in evidence. As we ate our Haagen Dazs ice cream in the wildly over air-conditioned airport terminal while the techno-disco music blared, I was reminded of a terrific song we like by Jim Hoehn called “Can'Tcun,” about a couple trying to plan a vacation where she wants a luxury hotel, and he wants a simple tropical vacation. Watching the tour groups with their enormous luggage, I had to recall the lines:
They measure their fun by the pesos they spend
Montezuma extracts his financial revenge
Gringo history I refuse to repeat.
And then standing outside the car rental agency, I was struck by the environmental impact of the tourism business here. I saw fleets of tour buses idling in parking lots with their air conditioners running to cool the buses while they waited for their passengers to arrive.

I realize our visit isn't exactly zero impact, but all seven of us are driving in one van, and at times we won't leave the place we're staying. Xamach Dos, where we're staying is quite environmentally friendly, using solar panels to generate electricity, only the natural breeze as air conditioning, and minimizing water use. The manager even told us not to bring plastic water bottles (we were bringing reusable metal ones, anyway), as she doesn't want them around.

Xamach Dos is located inside the Sian Ka'an biosphere preserve, 32 km down a bumpy road from the entry of the park, down the road toward Punta Allen. It's a lovely spot. We have two cabañas for the week (there are a couple more, but one seems to be under construction, and Margo, the manager, is living in the one the call the tree house right now. Accommodations are somewhat spartan, but hey, we're living on the beach in a biosphere preserve. Can't complain at all!

Friday, July 04, 2008

South of the Border

I'm about to upload all the posts I wrote while on vacation (again!) in Mexico. I'll try to keep things in reasonable order, and will tag everything with "Yucatan" so you can find them easily.

Sadly, I wasn't able to locate my camera before departing, so I have little in the way of pictures from this trip. We did have relatives taking some pictures, and bought some taken by professionals at one or two locations, so that will have to do.

Mostly, you'll have to settle for me painting verbal pictures for you. Heh.