Monday, October 29, 2007

Football at the Maracana

I recently had this story published in the Christchurch Press, but this time it hasn't made it through to the NZ Stuff website, which no longer seems to be putting all the Fairfax newspapers' travel content online. So I thought I'd post it here. From my time in South America in 2004 and 2005. Photo courtesy of Ian Skipworth.

Viewed from the exit of the nearby metro station, Rio de Janeiro’s famous Maracaná Stadium looks uncannily like Wellington’s 'Cake Tin', writ extremely large. With a circular design ahead of its time, Brazil's national football ground was built for the 1950 World Cup. Originally intended to hold 200,000 people, a conversion to an all-seater format in the 1990s has reduced capacity to around half that number - but it's still one of the largest and most atmospheric sports grounds in world.

A trip to see a football game is the only real reason for tourists to come up to north Rio de Janeiro, where the Maracaná is situated. The flat, grim-looking industrial landscape surrounding the stadium reveals a different side of Rio from the showpiece golden beaches and lush, towering cliffs of Copacabana and Ipanaema on the city’s southern shores.

In the soupy March heat, throngs of people are pouring up the concrete ramp from the metro station and the surrounding streets. .Today’s game is what is known in South America as a “clásico” - a local derby between historic Rio clubs Botafogo and Flamengo. The 67,000 fans won't come close to filling the stadium, but they're enough to leave a handful of backpackers feeling swamped in the fever pitch outside the stadium.

We're rescued by a young Brazilian couple, who invite us to sit with them in the Botafogo section. Though the opposing fans are prudently separated, the vibe is relatively relaxed. There doesn’t seem to be the visceral, tribal rage toward the other side that is associated with football in London, Glasgow or Buenos Aires.

We’re a few seats away from the mandatory percussion section, which, half an hour before the game, is already hammering out rapid samba rhythms. The crowd dances and sways, while vendors stumble between the rows with awkward trays of beer and cigarettes.

Our new Brazilian friend Paolo, decked out in the black and white of Botafogo, sings along vehemently with the songs and chants in incomprehensible football-crowd Portuguese. “I’ve been a Botafogo fan ever since I can remember”, he tells me. “Botafogo is my life”. His grin indicates that he’s only exaggerating slightly.

“I don’t really care either way” confides his girlfriend Maria. “I’m from Sao Paulo”. But she knows all the words to the songs, and sings along heartily as well.

The game starts, to great excitement, and Botafogo make a bright beginning. In the first ten minutes an attack into the Flamengo penalty area produces a shot which cannons off the crossbar. There’s a gasp of disappointment from the Botafogo fans. Then, a Botafogo midfielder steps forward, and from outside the area, curls a left-footed shot into the top right hand corner of the net.

“Gooooooooal!” Our section of the crowd goes delirious. The samba rhythm doubles its speed, and the guys up the back unfurl an enormous black banner which they roll down over the twenty rows in front. We're all supposed to help make it jiggle and flutter, before it's rolled up to the back row again.

A bare-chested guy behind me has been waving a giant Botafogo flag since before the start of the game. Now he swings it in ever-widening circles. With each revolution the crossbar passes so close to my head I have to duck. On one wave I don’t move in time, and it clips my scalp.

Seeming to notice the presence of other spectators for the first time, he apologises profusely, and introduces himself. We exchange pleasantries for a moment. Then he goes back to waving the flag, and I go back to ducking.

There’s a commotion to our left. An overexcited young fan has spilt his beer on the people in front, and is being summarily ejected from the area. “With the way he acts, you’d think he was a Flamengo fan”, someone calls out. The young guy turns and waves his arms apologetically. “No, no, I’m for Botafogo” he insists. “Botafogo forever!”.

Meanwhile, Flamengo have equalized, with a simple goal after an attack down the right. Not only are the scores level, but the spark seems to have gone out of Botafogo’s play, and they look muddled. As halftime draws near, the samba slows and quietens, then eventually peters out altogether.

Things go further downhill in the second half. Fifteen minutes in, Flamengo take the lead. Again, it’s a soft goal, with a cross from the right headed straight in by a Flamengo attacker who has easily lost his marker.

Worse, Botafogo look as though they’ve forgotten how to play football. Players give the ball away, attacks break down in midfield, and passes go inexplicably nowhere.

One guy about two rows in front of us is a little drunk, and has been extremely vocal in the first half. Now he sits down and buries his head in his hands. Every so often, he gets up, walks up towards the top of the stand with his back to the game, shaking his head. Then he returns to his seat and puts his head back in his hands.

“You’re shit!” he laments loudly. “Why are you so shit?”.

With time running out, Botafogo rouse themselves for one last attack. Improbably stringing some passes together, they set up a shot, but it’s blocked. The ball pinballs around the penalty area. It hits the post, then is cleared off the line by a Flamengo defender. Just when it seems that the opportunity is lost, a Botafogo player threads a shot through the mass of bodies and into the back of the net.

Two-all! The sombre, dejected fans explode into life and surge out of their seats, and the percussion section instantly starts up the insistent samba beat again.

Flamengo kick off, but within thirty seconds, the referee blows for full time. Elation spills through the crowd. With a feeling of having got out of jail, the Botafogo fans are laughing and singing once more. The draw means that, for now, Botafogo retain their lead in the Campeonato Carioca - the Rio de Janeiro championship - and stay ahead of Flamengo in the Brazilian league

As the fans make their way patiently through the intense heat of the exit tunnel under the stadium, they’re chanting “Flamengo’s in the favela!” (the grim, chaotic shantytowns that ring Rio); “Flamengo’s in the favela!

They throng out of the ground and disperse down the ramp into the metro station or out into the streets, where the late evening sunlight is sending long shadows over the bleak landscape surrounding the stadium.

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Thursday, October 18, 2007

More Minion

A new 'spotlight' section added to the Daily Minion front page.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

The Meaning of Buffy

My first experience of Buffy the Vampire Slayer was when I caught the end of Season 3 in the United States in 1999, and then some of Season 4 when I was back there in 2000. I liked it, but never managed to fully catch up with the plot and characters, and when I came back to New Zealand I wasn't motivated enough to stay in touch with the show as it made its delayed appearance here.

That's all changed, thanks to the DVD collection of my Joss Whedon-fanatic flatmate Noam. After getting Simon and I hooked with the 14 espiodes of the excellent, cruelly cancelled sci-fi/western Firefly, Noam convinced us to dip our toes in the Buffyverse, starting with Season 1, episode 1.

Seven seasons and 145 episodes later, I'm a confirmed Buffy fan and addict, teetering on the border of geekdom. Here's my take on the ups and downs of the series.

After setting the tone with Season 1's breezy, amateurish first twelve episodes, Buffy reached its peak in the classic second and third seasons. If these represent High Buffy, Season 4 is a baroque but enjoyable, and in my view underrated, follow through. Season 5 has one of the strongest narrative arcs of any season, and an extraordinary climax that would have made a fitting end to the series had it been discontinued, as thought possible at the time.

Then to the 'difficult' season six -- which has its passionate defenders, but which I found often slow and painful. Season 7 started out like a return to the lighter spirit of Season 1, but lost its way in mid season and wrapped things up too quickly in the last few episodes. By then I was becoming occasionally frustrated at what I saw as poor decisions and a loss of concentration by the writers -- a sure sign that geekdom is at hand.

This is my ranking of the seven seasons:

1. Season Three
2. Season Two
3. Season Five
4. Season Four
5. Season One
6. season Seven
7. Season Six

So to the long-winded ruminations on theme. Buffy is best known for making a literal conceit out of the idea that 'school is hell' and at the most obvious level is a meditation on growing up.

It's an understatement to say there's a lot more going on. Coming along at just the right time for the Cultural Studies crowd, few TV shows have inspired as much attention from academics. At least six or seven Buffy-inspired books have been published, ranging in genre from philosophy to self-help. There are academic conferences, and even a periodical run by serious scholars, Slayage: the Online Journal of Buffy Studies.

Along with the obvious messages about female empowerment, Whedon and his co-creators send nods and winks in the direction of Marx, Nietzsche, Freud and Jung, and there's enough intertextuality to keep a literary theorist happy for a lifetime. The show can be interpreted as rampantly pagan or profoundly Christian and has been claimed by just about every point on the political spectrum.

A lot of this is just gleeful pastiche by the writing team. The intertextual references derive mainly from Whedon's own geekish fandom towards popular culture.

But there is a serious core that runs through the series. For me, Buffy is at root about the ongoing struggle to create a moral self out of unreliable raw material. It's portayals of selfhood, morality and freedom are sophisticated, challenging, and at time provocative.

What sets Buffy apart is its subversion of the normal expectations about narrative and character. Most fiction -- especially on TV -- is carried along by stable personalities making largely predictable choices. In the Buffyverse, things are a lot more complicated. For one thing, the Greek version of Fate is an active force . It cannot be changed, although its meaning is not always what it seems.

More interesting, though, is the show's unflinching engagement with postmodern and post-scientific deconstructions of the individual into a vehicle for competing biological and cultural agendas.

The presence of magic is the key means by which these sub-personal forces are explored. Under the influence of spells, charms and curses, characters' behaviour becomes unpredictable and transgressive. Beliefs, desires, abilities, sexual attraction, self-control and even sanity are up for grabs, and no character is spared from committing acts that leave them with shame or remorse.

Yet while these transformations are largely beyond the conscious control of individual characters, the experiences are remembered and become part of their personal histories (unlike, say, in Shakespearean comedy). Bumbling Xander's magical conversion into an elite soldier in an early episode leaves him with partly-controllable abilities that return to him in moments of crisis. Willow's encounter with her vampire doppelganger in Season 2 prefigures some of the latent elements of her character that will emerge later in the series. A crucial moment is during Season 3 when 'good vampire' Angel perfectly imitates his 'soulless' alter ego Angelus in order to set a trap for rogue slayer Faith. His ability to be so convincing forces Buffy into the discomforting recognition that Angel and Angelus are in some way part of the same being, not two entirely separate entities inhabiting the same body.

The show is also daring in its recognition of the importance of physical bodies, and other people's response to them, as determinants of character and identity. Spike's long road to redemption is an internal, personal one, but unthinkable without the chip placed in his head by the Initiative that physically prevents him from causing harm to humans. In a rather disturbing scene in Season 6, Dawn snuggles up with the lifeless, battery-powered Buffybot, drawing comfort from its resemblance to her (at that point) dead sister.

There's a monumental episode in Season 4, when Buffy and Faith swap bodies and Faith's attempt to 'own' Buffy's body by mimicking her speech and actions leads her to actually become more like Buffy. One of my favourite scenes in the whole series sees Faith, who has just taken over Buffy's body, standing in front of a mirror, making pious faces and practising saying: 'Because it's wrong'. At the climax of the episode, when she abandons her getaway to rescue a group of people trapped by vampires in a church, she utters the same phrase with a straight face.

So, Buffy is unusally radical in its recognition of the fragility of the self, the compromised nature of free will, and the non-moral bases of morality. Yet it makes clear that holding oneself together remains the fundamental human task. Moral freedom lies in the ability to evaluate one's strengths, weaknesses, and flaws, and decide what to make of them.

By this rationale, others are not be judged by whether their 'nature' is benign or monstruous, or even what they might have done, but whether there is hope that they might do other than evil (for most of Seasons 4, 5 and 6, the characters grudgingly suffer the presence of Spike because, however soulless, with his chip implanted he is harmless).

For most of its course, the show is pretty clear that you can't expect to definitively win the struggle -- those vampires always keep rising. But you can, as Buffy does, keep fighting the 'demons and the forces of darkness', day in, day out. And hopefully maintain some dignity and decency along the way.

Dark and disturbing as it often is, Buffy ultimately has a humanistic, and optimistic message. Although there will always be times when people will fail to keep a lid on their darker sides, this doesn't undermine the possibility of making things better. And as many have commented, the real glue that holds people's souls together is friendship (romantic love is at best an ambivalent force).

In another one of my favourite scenes, a monk who has been beaten to near-death by the hell-god Glory explains to Buffy that her younger sister Dawn is actually the Key, a ball of magical energy turned into human form and sent to Buffy to protect (the memories of Buffy, her family and friends have been magically altered). Buffy says to the dying monk "She's not my sister?" The monk replies: "She is...innocent". It's not what you are or where you've come from that matters -- but who you can become.

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Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Babies or Bombs?

The peace movement of the 60s and 70s had a slogan: 'Won't it be a great day when schools have all the money they need, and the air force has to run a cake stall to buy a bomber'.

These days, wits like to suggest that such a situation has come to pass in New Zealand -- except maybe for the bit about schools having the money they need.

Elsewhere, not a lot has changed. Slate's military writer Fred Kaplan discusses the budget requested by the Pentagon for the US military, a budget which for the 2008 financial year totals $500 billion, not including funding for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Allowing for inflation, this is larger than at any time since the Korean War, and is more than all other countries' defense budgets combined. And when you do throw in the wars, US military expenditure is more than the entire GDP of Australia.

Kaplan describes how consideration of the Defense Bill by Congress has been characterised by a lack of interest in cost-effectiveness, or even any sense of priorities. He explains that the near-identical amounts earmarked for the different services ($130.1 billion for the Army, $130.8 billion for the Navy/Marines and $ 136.6 billion for the Air Force) are not coincidental. Service budgets have been calibrated since the 1960s, in order to avoid internecine rivalries.

A conservative on the lookout for the self-serving bureaucratic empires of 'big government' might like to start here. If ever there were an example of Milton Friedman's dictum that agencies of the state will inevitably act in their self-interest, this looks like it.

Meanwhile, President Bush has vetoed a bill that has comfortable support in the House and Senate to extend the State Childrens Health Insurance Programme (S-CHIP) to 4 million more children of low-income families. This would cost approximately $7 billion per year. Bush objects on the grounds of cost and because such an extension could be a slippery slope to 'socialized medicine'.

Of course, socializing the costs of military hardware with no apparent purpose is still ok. So it'll be the same people running the cake stalls for a while yet.

The Inca and the Alpaca

In a small side room off the hot factory floor, women in blue smocks are intently picking apart bundles of brown fleece. Despite the cramped conditions it is, according to Incalpaca administator Adrian Corso, one of the preferred tasks for factory workers. The women are selecting the finest fibres from the coat of the vicuña, rare and beautiful animal that lives above 3,800 metres on the dramatic Peruvian altiplano.

Highly prized by the Incan nobility, the vicuña's wool is now worth about $500 USD per kilogram -- more valuable by weight than silver. Most of the best-quality fleece is concentrated in a small triangle on the animal's chest, which is shorn once every two years.

In the shop out front of Incalpaca's factory in Arequipa, a shawl made of the silkily fine vicuña fleece is housed in a glass case, like a precious jewel.

But if the vicuña brings the glamour, it's the chubbier, domesticated alpaca that provides most of the substance. Adrian takes us through the production process, as piles of alpaca wool are fed through Italian-made industrial machinery to be washed, heated, cooled and dried before being spun into fabric. From there it's turned into the coats, sweaters, scarfs, shawls and rugs that form the factory's output.

In the Peruvian sierra, zone of awe-inspiring scenery but also persistent poverty, Incalpaca is an economic success story. The South American camelids -- which include the llama and wild guanaco as well as the vicuña and alpaca -- have been interwoven with the Andes' human history for at least two thousand years, and still provide the main economic sustenance for many peasant communities living in the high mountains. Traditional Peruvian weaving in alpaca wool is renowned for its skill, colour and flair.

The outside world has also long recognised the value of the remarkably strong, warm and soft alpaca fibre. Cloth from alpaca was first successfully manufactured in the English town of Bradford in the 1830s, the wool having made its way from Spain via Germany and France. In the 1950s, Incalpaca's parent company Grupo Inca and its main rival in Arequipa, Michell, began the local processing of the raw wool. But it's only in the last 25 years that export-quality garments and rugs have been produced on an industrial scale in Peru.

Now, Incalpaca's Arequipa factory employs 1200, and sends 90 percent of its products to the United States, Europe and Japan. It's one of the industries likely to benefit most from the free trade agreement with the United States set to be ratified by the US congress by the end of October. Between 2001 and 2005, the value of Peru's textile exports doubled, to more than $1 billion USD. Incalpaca and Michell together contribute about $50 million to this total. Incalpaca's general manager Germán Freyre has estimated that a trade agreement with the US could boost sales by 15 percent.

Critics of the trade agreement have raised concerns about its potential to cause environmental damage and exploitation of labour. But compared to mining, which still dominates Peru's exports, the alpaca industry gets a pass on both counts. While the factory floor is hot, it's clean, and numerous colourful warning signs place a premium on safety. The workers, who are paid production bonuses in addition to the basic wage, are certainly better off than their unemployed compatriots who have to eke out a living driving taxis or selling in the street.

And as animals adapted to the harsh conditions of the altiplano, alpacas have an inherently low environmental impact. Incalpaca still sources some of its wool from the small communities that raise alpacas in the remote highlands. It also has its own animals in open ranches near Arequipa's airport and on the Pampas Cañahuas plateau at 4,000 metres, where tourists come to watch the vicuñas. Alpacas are sensitive animals that need plenty of care and attention, and 40 more staff are employed to look after them.

Pass through the international airports in Lima or Santiago in Chile, and Incalpaca's 'Alpaca 111' shops stand out, with their shelves full of fine fleeces in earthy colours. While the garments make a fine advertisment for the Peruvian heartland, most are in very classic, conservative styles. You can't help wondering what opportunities there are for integrating the alpaca's qualities and image with more youth-oriented fashion or sportswear. Young designers in Arequipa agree, and talk eagerly about developing their own more cutting-edge lines, something that will become easier as the country's trade links are strengthened.

In the 16th century, indigenous Peruvians led the world in textile design and production. Today, Peru is gradually carving out a high value economic niche based on rediscovery of its unique crafts, traditions, and environment. Its one industry that could help the country thrive in the global economy on its own terms.

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