Sunday, December 31, 2006

Ways of Life

The woman in the chicken stall grasped the whole plucked bird by the neck and deftly chopped it into sections. Whack! Off with the head. Thwack! Thwack! Thwack! And we had legs, thighs and breast, just like in the supermarket packets. A few more deft flourishes, and the liver, stomach and feet (minus nails and outer skin) were put in separate bags to use for soup.

After a kilo of eggs, two large wheels of fresh cheese, 500 grams of fresh olives, two kilos of potatoes, a couple of packets of sausage and patty meat, and a sheep's stomach thrown in for good measure, Hugo and I had spent 48 soles (around $16 USD). Lizbeth and the kids were picking up the vegetables; we'd already stocked up on peaches, mangoes, papaya, grapes and pacay from a roadside stall.

We were in one of the slightly pricier of Arequipa's produce markets, which for its premium was clean, orderly, and offered supermarket-style trolleys. According to Lizbeth and Hugo, it costs about 100 soles for the required provisions to feed what is, with the revolving cast of home help, friends and guests, a family of four or five. Adding in things bought during the week such as bread, coffee, takeaways, and other bits and pieces, Lizbeth estimated that they would spend 200 soles a week ($65 USD).

Obviously incomes are a lot lower here. But I couldn't help comparing that favourably with the $12 NZD or so it costs me to buy the ingredients for one meal and some leftovers for the next day - just for one person.

Though the tourist business is precarious, Hugo and Lizbeth also don't have to pay rent, as the rambling house on the Avda. Gutemberg is shared in a complicated way among the family. I'm not really cut out for economics-type stuff, but if someone was to work out a ratio of work required for provision of basics, they might compare favourably with a New Zealand middle class family, even amidst the core struggle of life in Peru.

When I first experienced domestic Peruvian life, I found it hard to deal with the lack of hot running water. Now, Hugo and Lizbeth's part of the house boasts a functioning electric shower head. Though it has unreliable pressure, and seems to battle with the kitchen light for power, with a little patience it produces a perfectly reasonable hot shower.

Either electric head or gas-heated showers are extremely common in Latin America. For the price of a small wait before your water heats, you don't have to pay to keep a large tank constantly heated, and, I would imagine, make a much smaller dent on the national electricity grid.

Dishwashing is also a lower-energy endeavour. Here, it's standard practice to use a cold water with a scrubbing pad and a hard, cold-water soap. Again, I'll give way in the facts to the epidemiologists and environmental engineers, but I would guess that hygiene is maintained just as well, and the overall environmental impact is much smaller, than using hot water and sudsy detergent.

In my gringo ignorance, I also used to silently chortle a little at the house's washing machine, with it's clunky controls, and its single flimsy discharge hose. The machine used to be indoors, and the idea was that the dirty water would be discharged into a drainage hole in the floor. This didn't seem to work well, and a load of washing often ended up flooding the kitchen floor. On one occasion, after some studious work with a stick and a plunger, I improved the flow down the drain by extracting some bundles of lint and a dead mouse.

Now, the washing machine sits outside on the patio. The normal technique is to fill the machine to the level required with the garden hose, run the wash or rinse cycle (less than 5 minutes for each is plenty), then empty the water into one of the large plastic washing tubs and from there into the traditional laundry fixture at the back of the patio.

I now see the practicality of the machine - it's designed for the rambling, informally developed houses of Latin America that don't have comprehensive plumbing. Doing the washing is a nice little 15-minute ritual after breakfast; by the time you've put the clothes through the machine's separate (and very efficient) spin compartment, they only require and hour or two in the sun to fully dry.

For about 9 months of the year, Arequipa's nightime temperatures drop below 10 degrees celcius, but heating is not really necessary. Almost all buildings are made of thick stone, brick or concrete, which soak up the sun and retain warmth to such an extent that a single sheet is all that's needed for most of the night's sleep.

What's my point here? Simply that there's not just two ways to live: modernity, meaning mile-a minute pace, ever-increasing work hours, isolation from fellow citizens, and burgeoning consumption of energy and other rsources; or backwardness, meaning poverty, ignorance, and lack of technology. With simpler, practical versions of existing technologies suited to a region's geography, and more attention to the value of time, it's possible to have the comforts of the modern world without driving ourselves and the environment into the ground.

With its crippling poverty, pollution and poor infrastructure, Peru might not seem like it has much to teach the western world. But as it slowly drags itself into the next stage of development, I hope it pursues its own idiosyncratic path and retains some of the things which are working just fine now, mixing and matching to suit and not abandoning the Latin obsessions of family, community and quality of life.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

South America Bidsta

So here I find myself in South America again. In Santiago de Chile, actually. The jet lag is seriously messing with me for now, so I can't write much.

Suffice it to say that I'm overnighting here and catching my connection to Lima tomorrow. There it looks like I'll meet up with my friend Hugo, who is on a quixotic mission to acquire a visa from the Spanish embassy. Then it should be on to Arequipa, "la ciudada blanca", under whose mountains it seems a part of my heart is permanently ensconced.

I have a wedding to attend on the 6th of January, and after that it's pretty free and loose - perhaps another trip to the jungle, maybe the coast, hopefully material to be gathered for some more stories.

In the meantime, for those who have anything close to my level of fascination for the Latin American world (especially those who managed to get through any of my ruminations on Peruvian politics last year), here's an article worth reading. From the London Review of Books, a reflection on how Chile has changed - and how it hasn't - in the years since Salvador Allende and the Pinochet coup. Warning - contains strong personal and political slant.

For me it's a useful counter balance to the "Chile is doing just wonderfully and is an example to the world" line we see a lot these days. On the other hand, the description of Chile's continuing dark undercurrents could probably be applied to a number of other outwrdly progressiv countries - including New Zealand.

Monday, December 25, 2006

Back from Nature

At Lauder in Central Otago, less a town than the scattering of buildings around the old sheep station homestead, you can now get a pretty fine flat white coffee from a roadside trailer in the form of a locomotive engine. The coffee stand has been recently established by a cheerful local woman, and on days with less inhospitable weather than when we stopped, apparently does steady business.

At around 350 metres above sea level, Lauder is one of the landmarks on the Central Otago Rail Trail, a bike and walking track which runs along the route of the old railway line from Dunedin to Clyde. It's an example of a style of tourism in which New Zealand is a world leader - for want of better description, let's call it "bourgeois adventurism".

This combines two Kiwi traits. The wilderness-braving pioneer ruggedness that we once relied on and love to mythologise. And the recently-acquired obsession with the finer things in life that typifies our now highly urbanised consumer society. New Zealand's smallness and unique geography lends itself to this combination. Within minutes of slogging through a genuinely harsh and wild landscape, you can be served by someone with a cultured apprecation of how to treat a fine roast bean.

When I agreed to go on the trip, it was because I thought it would tend more to the bourgeois end. A rail trail, with lots of interesting plaques describing colonial history; it sounded distinctly gentle and middle-aged. Potentially, if you follow the advice, of the guide book to cycle the trail in "3 to 5 days", that's how it is.

Due to time constraints, however, we had to do it in two days. My two sisters are cycling enthusiasts; I hadn't been on a bicycle for about 2 years. So you can imagine what 180 km, off-road, within 48 hours, ended up doing to various parts of my anatomy.

Then there was the weather. Global warming or no, ever-fickle New Zealand is on track for its coldest ever December. In a region where in the last two summers temperatures have flirted with the 40 degree mark, for much of our ride it was in single figures - with a howling southerly to boot.

As we climbed from Alexandra into the high country, sheep shivered as grey woolly clouds slid down hills covered in snow. It looked and felt more like an October cold snap than a week out from New Year.

But on day two, after a brisk morning climb to the high point of the journey at 618 metres, and gradual progress through rocky river gorges into the Maniatoto Valley, we arrived at the settlement of Hyde.

There, we could warm up, apply moisturiser, text message, and enjoy muffins and more coffee, while we contemplated the relief map which seemed to show a gentle downhill 25km to the finish of the trail in Middlemarch.

We'd reckoned without the screaming wind. Along bumpy farm tracks, we crawled along at 10 km/h, no downhill incline perceptible. When we finally got to Middlemarch, it wasn't even the end; we'd planned to cycle another 20 km to meet up with the Taieri Gorge excursion train from Dunedin. Assuming that this would be tarseal all the way, we found that the last 12 km was off-road again, a series of rises and dips, and then a steep, curving uphill into a windswept badlands of eroded rock.

Non-cyclist that I am, I was at breaking point as I pumped the pedals in the lowest possible gear. Blood sugar levels collapsing and legs refusing, I dragged my bike up one last rise, desperately hoping we were finally at the train station.

There was a small wooden station house huddled on the plateau under some macrocapas, looking like a Rita Angus painting. We'd arrived just five minutes before the train.

Back in chilly Dunedin, we found a warm upstairs pizzeria with polished hardwood and a vaulted ceiling. A chatty girl from Northern England served us menus written in Italian while at the next table four anemic-looking French students discussed something intellectual or drole.

Scoffing my pizza and drinking Scicilian wine, I felt the swathes of sunburn on my legs, my windburnt face and chapped lips, and looked around sceptically at the comfort-loving townies. For a brief moment, I savoured being a rugged Southern man.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Free to Comment

Here's a couple of recommended picks from the Guardian's Comment is Free section. A while back I was a bit despairing about what appeared to be the lost potential of blogs as a vehicle for intelligent debate. Even on what you'd expect to be a place for measured discussion, every comment thread, almost regardless of the topic, seemed to degenerate within ten posts into a vicious circle of name calling: "Right wing neocon!". "Saddam-loving surrender monkey!". And so on, ad infinitum.

But happily, the standard seems to have improved, at least in some of the threads. There's lots of interesting ones there. As a matter of taste, these two particularly appeal to my brand of geekiness.

If you're a follower of the British gallery of pundits and columnists, this one is like a star-studded grudge match for a sports fan. Rising star Zoe Williams goes into bat for the much maligned Polly Toynbee, who's been pilloried by the big names across the right wing spectrum - libertarian (Boris Johnson), frothing neocon (Melanie Phillips) and grumpy paleocon (Peter Hitchens) - on charges of hypocrisy and chardonnay socialism.

The comments thread turns out to be excellent - a searching examination of the issues at hand: can you really advocate for the poor when you yourself are wealthy; and is sending your children to a private school hypocritical when you argue for more support for public education? The involvement of the various personalities adds colour. But more importantly, the debate remains polite and articulate for the most part.

This one is even more punchy. Muslim academic Ziauddin Sardar attacks Martin Amis, Ian McEwan and Salman Rushdie for pushing a "neoconservative" agenda in their punditry and (less plausibly) their novels. About 80 percent of the comments disagree, but almost all are politely worded enough, and many add something distinct to the discussion. I came away from both enlightened and with a more nuanced personal view.

Is all this just hot air that make no difference? Middle class guardianista intellectuals sipping tea and splitting hairs, while outside the world continues to rage? Perhaps. But the way I see it, you can have some intelligent debate, or no intelligent debate at all. Given that there are a range of different views expressed here, by people from what appear to be at least be a few diverse backgrounds, it's not just blabbing amongst the converted.

Yes, they're mostly educated and middle class, but educated middle class people have also been known to blow things up. Even the best blogs won't save the world, but they do show that civilized disagreement is still possible.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Adventure in Andagua....

OK. I'm trekked out. Done with adventuring. Through with the Andes. In addition to the cracked lips, burnt skin, dust-ravaged sinuses, mosquito bites and blisters, I'm suffering from advanced desert-mountain-canyon fatigue. I think my next trip will be to Peru's north coast. I want seafood and cold beer, soft, humid air, palm trees swaying in the moonlight, modern vehicles roaring along long, straight highways. If I want to get in shape I'm going to the gym. If I've a hankering for spectacular landscape I'll take a scenic train trip or something.

Which is not to say that the Cabanaconde-Andagua trek was not a mind-blowing, unforgettable experience. It flirted with my physical limits, and took me across an entire piece of geography, from subtropical valley, canyon riverbed and terraced hillside to high-altitude desert, mountain basin, mineral-rich peaks and high passes, eventually arriving in an arid valley full of exctinct volcanoes. We visited improbably remote villages and stumbled across a rich variety of plant, animal and bird life without even looking for it. This trek should be mouth-watering for the botanist, anthropologist, historian, geologist, volcanologist and bird-watcher. Forget the Inca Trail - this ought to be one of Peru's, and perhaps the world's, great walks.

You know those movies where are our fugitive or stranded heroes have to walk out of the wilderness to safety/civilisation? We see them marching along looking determined, taking a break by a mountain stream, then cut to a high pass where they're trudging through snow drifts with exhausted looks on their faces, only to arrive at the glorious vista of a fertile valley below. Well, this trek was like that, only without the cinematic cuts.

There's a lot to tell, so I'm going to serialize it more or less in chronological order.

Day One - Murder of the Feet:
After the mandatory sleepless overnight bus ride from Arequipa, we enjoyed Karina's famous banana pancakes at the Valle de Fuego hostel in Cabanaconde and met the guide and donkey acquired for us by Lizbeth's father. From Cabanaconde it's a good 9 hours walk to the village of Choco - and there's no half measures, since there's literally no water on the way. Our guide Toño, a native of Cabanaconde, estimated that it's a distance of 35km. While he sometimes varied and corrected himself on his altitude estimates, his facts and figures were generally trustworthy, and I'll give him this one. Which makes it almost the entire Inca Trail in one day.

After passing through the deceptive green of the irrigated agricultural terraces around Cabanaconde we headed south-west, following the course of a road that's being built to (theoretically) link Cabanaconde with Choco. We cut across the many serpentines of the road, plodding downhill as the vegetation disappeared and the sun beat down with unrelenting fury. The track was through and across scree of shattered rock; this is the hardest surface of all to go downhill on, and only sand is harder uphill. After the first three hours my feet were already burning inside my boots.

By the time we reached the "corte" or where the road ends in a heap of shattered rock above the Colca river the landscape was resembling, if not quite the infierno, then definitely the Land of Nod to the East of Eden. Cecilia is fond of describing her work as "the rockpile", in an oblique reference to the myth of Sisyphus (or is it Prometheus? tell me someone??). You could hardly find a workplace where this more closely approximates a literal description than the tail end of the in-progress Cabanconde-Choco road. Down towards the river, the whole hillside is a rockpile of sharp, chunky scree. The workers are engaged in clearing a path wide enough for a vehicle through this rubble and piling up the rocks to form retaining walls which will theoretically prevent the road from being re-devoured by the mountainside.

Given the penchant of the Andes to unleash huaycos, or large landslides which obliterate everything in their path, and the notoriously uncertain nature of publicly-funded projects in Peru, there's more than a suggestion of the Sisyphean about the rock-piling process. But given that their only company was clouds of choking dust, the road workers we passed seemed inordinately cheerful. "Going to Andagua?" they called, guessing correctly the destination of the two gringos with guide and donkey. We nodded. "Looong way" they laughed. Well, at least they have a job.

I suspect there's also something of a pipe dream about the road. Leaving the corte and heading along the trail towards Choco, I couldn't see where a road could possibly go. Later in Arequipa, several people who knew the area smiled sadly and shared my assessment. We worked our away across a blasted heap of scree to join an excruciatingly narrow trail clinging to the canyon wall above the river, passing a small cross and memorial to two local children who had tragically tumbled off the edge.

Below, on the other side of the river appeared a small, startlingly green oasis of alfalfa plots and fruit trees. To me, with a dry throat relieved only occasionally by my rationed water, it seemed impossibly beautiful; I wanted to fly over there and bury my head in the cool green. In a landscape of such harsh contrast and drama, it's impossible not to think in mythic or Biblical terms, of Gardens, Promised Lands and Wildernesses. Good-fertile, Evil-arid makes perfect sense to a dehydrated brain.

Adding flashes of colour to the cliffs along the trail were huanarpo, small bushes of deadwood-seeming branches terminating in bright scarlet flowers. Apparently tea made from its bark is a powerful aphrodisiac - or so I interpret from Toño's comment that "men shouldn't take too much of it - it makes them very excited"

Another hour and the trail finally dropped to the river and the swing bridge to the other side. This stretch of the canyon is not the deepest - there's not the towering 5,600-metre peaks which face Cabanaconde - but it is one of the steepest. By the bridge, however, there was a cleft with a more gradual gradient and natural irrigation from above. In a wash of green, tuna cactuses, apple trees and palms tumbled down the canyon wall to the river. Toño said he had some land in these parts where he cultivated maize and fruits. Apart from guiding, which he does whenever he can, he's a "professional agriculturalist" At the age of 37 he has his work cut out supporting his six kids - one of whom is now studying systems engineering at an institute in Arequipa.

We crossed the bridge and relaxed for ten glorious minutes in the scant half-shade under the rocks. Toño pointed out a waterfall high up on the canyon side. There, about six hours scrambling climb up from his plots of land, is a pool where condors gather to bathe in the evening.

From the river it was another three hours up and along the pathway etched into the hillside, begging for the sun to drop behind the mountains.

Choco sounds like the Quechua equivalent of Grimsby, but its name doesn't do it justice - after a nine-hour march it seemed like a lost paradise. Tidy terraces following the curves of the opposite hill were the first signs of civilization. Then another curve brought us into a dramatically green valley, hemmed in by improbably steep mountains - think Ash and Anjuli's lost valley in The Far Pavilions. The path ascended through terraces of eagerly sprouting maize, overflowing with fruit trees. At 2,300 metres, Choco has a balmy microclimate, and seems to be blessed with very fertile soil. Here they cultivate avocados, figs, chirimoya, guayaba, apples, peaches, even mangoes!

The promise of unlimited fresh water dragged me up the final twisting path to the village of Choco itself, strategically elevated on a knoll above the river. For an isolated village (contact with the outside world requires the 4-5 hour walk to the corte to catch the kombi to Cabanaconde), it's surprisingly urbane and self-sufficient. They have their own electricity supply, generated by a water-driven turbine upstream and powering the village's streetlights. They also have a small trout farm. There was pure, running water from the tap and an outside toilet in a corral shared with a large white mule. As we crashed in a tidy little room of the village hospedaje the owner practiced the saxophone while his family watched videos next door.

Friday, December 01, 2006


Ok, so one shuffled off this mortal coil, while the other's death was only political. But there was some irony that last week saw the demise of both Milton Friedman and Don Brash.

There was some genuine regret in the passing of Friedman. As this excellent (short) piece in Salon notes, it's always good to have a worthy devil's advocate to sharpen your arguments. And for a social democrat who thinks that there are a number of areas where public (read government) involvement or regulation may be appropriate, running a Friedmanesque critique will knock out any blindspots in your ideas.

I also admired his thoroughgoing libertarianism, particularly his criticism of the war on drugs. But taken as a whole, I believe his philosophy was blinkered, overly simplistic and ultimately harmful.

Such was his pathological mistrust of anything that looked like "big government", that almost any other evil was assumed to be a priori lesser.

For Friedman and his followers "government" is always identified with the state - a monolithic, self-interested institution - rather than the expression of public will about how society should be ordered.

Having ruled out the possibility of a collective striving for fairness and decency, the result is a semi-coherent set of excuses for unadulterated greed.

Friedman wasnt a cultist nutter like Ayn Rand; he didn't think that greed was of itself an inspirational, purifying force. But the cheap wisdom that "government isn't the solution to the problem; government is the problem" leads in a pretty straight line to the excesses of Enron and its cheerleaders.

There may well have had good personal reasons for his deep mistrust of anything that looked like "government". But it's verging on the intellectually dishonest not to acknowledge that power is exploited, accumulated and exploited some more, at all levels, by all kinds of individuals and institutions. The assertion that private entities will be better held accountable by consumers and competitors than public ones are by democratic process just seems like blind faith.

It's hardly controversial that pure economic "freedom" inevitably means more freedom for some than for others. Even if there is a level playing field for all to compete on (and if such a society existed, it wouldn't look much like any historical ones), a completely "free market" will reward cunning and ruthlessness just as much, if not more, than creativity, hard work, integrity and perserverance.

If we care about having a fair society, we need to be serious about lessening the consequences for life's losers.

If Friedman never doubted the rightness and coherence of his ideas, one wonders whether he ever questioned how the Thatchers and Reagans of the world could so happily uplift just the economic bits, without the slightest interest in his more widely libertarian views, and preside over some pretty "big government" in the miltary and criminal justice spheres.

From an objective point of view, this is actually unsurprising. As, I've argued before, thoroughgoing libertarianism of the kind espoused by Friedman only ever exists in the abstract: university lecture halls, blogs, and Reason magazine. Real political parties often tend to become more authoritarian and socially conservative as they move to the economic right.

Why? I suspect there' s some kind of natural law: unbridled freemarketism inevitably leads to such discomforting inequalities between the winners and losers that it's necessary to scapegoat and punish the losers. Hence the gravitation to heavy-handed social conservatism.

A good example is New Zealand's ACT party, which started out aspiring to be a "classical liberal" party, but whose signature within a couple of years was Muriel Newman bashing single mothers.

Which brings us to Brash, whom, I have to admit, I will not miss on the NZ political scene.

Contra Helen Clark's bitter-tongued accusation, I didn't believe that Brash was truly "corrosive" or "cancerous". He was apparently friends with the father of a friend of mine at university: such a nice man, I can't believe he could have had a corrosive mate.

What I think is that he was a deeply ingenuous politician who had had one important insight early in his life, and after many years as an economics wonk, sheltered from the wider world's nitty-grittiness, went blithely along with some of the nastier elements of the National Party's strategy team.

Brash was the son of Christchurch presbyterian socialists; in a classic act of youthful rejectionism he seems to have siezed on the epiphany that individuals aren't trapped by the class struggle after all - if they work and study hard they can overcome their humble beginnings and get ahead.

In reality, despite the caricature of "leftist" thought, no serious person much beyond Sociology 101 really denies this. Just as few really argue with the truism that historical and cultural factors (class; ethnicity) can hinder certain population groups and mean that, on average, their members are less likely to do well.

The debate between "centre-left" and "centre-right" policy-makers is almost entirely about how much emphasis to place on each of these truths - in most cases about 90 percent an empirical question.

Post epiphany, Brash seems to have spent a long time working in economics departments and banks, and not developing much more nuance to his world view. Come his time in the political sun, he was so sure that the country needed to be saved in one tax-flattening, privatising, deregulating swoop, that he was amenable to silver-tongued whispers in his ear about stirring up the rednecks.

So, we had Brash's Greatest Hits: "Orewa I" (bash the Maoris) and "Orewa II" (bash single mums). Perhaps he was quite uncomfortable with this opportunism. Certainly, people in his own party found it distasteful: as we now know, Bill English wrote to Brash that "you have succumbed to McCullyism - and there is nothing more despicable than that". Brash's own strategist Peter Keenan wrote to another adviser that he "hated the race based privilege line", and thought it "ludicrous when Maori are largely at the bottom of the heap".

But the frightening thing was that, in his own bumbling, recently-trained way, Brash actually seemed to believe in the substance behind the dog-whistling rhetoric.

The nadir was reached when Brash declared, apparently in all sincerity, that if Maori have much higher mortality rates from lung cancer than non-Maori, it must be because each one has taken the personal decision to smoke. In the face of this insouciance, it seemed to be almost missing the point to provide a sophisticated response about population health determinants (or to note that in fact higher incidence rates account for less than half the excess cancer mortality rates or Maori).

By this logic, factors like historical confiscation of land, suppression of language and culture, systematic mariginalisation from the rest of society until at least the 1960s, are irrelevant: a whole population group just makes the perfectly rational choice to die eight years earlier. In his steadfast determination to adhere to 18th-century classical liberalism and declare the world as flat as his textbook, Brash simultaneously channelled Margaret Thatcher and Henry Ford: history is bunk and there is no society.

Here's the analogy at an individual level: imprison a man for twenty years for a crime that he didn't commit. When he gets out, mutter an apology, give him a hundred dollars, and send him on his way, saying: "it's one law for all; you should do fine".

And the real irony is that Brash's naiive extremism actually did rather well to alienate a Maori party that was a potential coalition partner for National: sick of being patronised, and rather amenable to the "we should sort out our own problems" line, just not quite prepared swallow the claim that all their people's problems are a result of their own "choice".

Brash's epitaph looks set to become the disguised compliment that he was a "poor liar". Unfortunate, idealistic man, he was tripped up by those cunning sophisticates in the other parties and the, ahem, liberal media. But let's admit the real problem: outside the wonkish confines of managing inflation, he was a poor thinker.

And I doubt even Milton Friedman would have approved of that.