Diary and Commentary
Here in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, all is humid, tropical and impoverished---much more impoverished than Peru (if you can believe that). At the steps leading into the cathedral sit all manner of the crippled, the diseased, the blind, the limbless, the mutilated, the deaf, the paralytic---all of the myriad evils of life except the Clintons are on display as one walks into the house of God. How can one cure them all? Easy answer: one cannot. All will be rectified in Eternity. But good God, in the meantime!
Tomorrow I search for transport into the Paraguayan Chaco. Nothing here to detain. A nation-wide strike begins tomorrow. Already the guns are out---some dead, some fled. Bolivia has suffered a decline in its GDP for 20 years. There is less and less for more and more. Something has to break. Time to go.
Oh...Bolivia and France have some things in common. Both nations go on strike often. Both nations lose all their wars. (The people of Bolivia look a bit cleaner than the French, however, and their women shave their legs.)
There are two roads that lead from the Bolivian border to Filadelfia in the Paraguayan Chaco. My bus will take the newest one, though from all accounts it has nothing much to add to the old one. The difficulties concerning travel through the Chaco are isolation, heat and weather. After a rain this road becomes impassable, in which case all traffic must simply halt until the sun emerges to dry out the road. The bus company Yacyretá advises all passengers to take sufficient supplies of water on board. Temperatures along this trans-Chaco road at times exceed 45 degrees centigrade, and there is little shade. There are also many animals along the way, though they are mostly birds---I despise all birds except the saintly pollo frito de Kentucky (saintly because it feeds the hand that bites it)---and road kill.
The population density of the Paraguayan Chaco is less than one person per square mile; it is over 1000 per square mile in New Jersey by way of comparison. Empty it is.
This will be fun.
Meanwhile...way back in Cuzco I got a fine surprise: Two ex-students of mine from Lincoln School were there as well. They were attending a conference the subject of which I do not pretend to understand. The young lady on the left is Miss Paula Avellaneda, on the right is Miss Giulia Rolandi. Both were members of my backpacking club at Lincoln School. Both are some of the finest kids I have ever met. They are now seniors, and when they leave the school it will be a lesser place because of it.
A man came into the hotel lobby with a bag in which he said was the skin of a cat. He took it out of the bag and there it was: the skin of a cat sure enough. A big cat. With stripes and claws and teeth---lots of them. He was selling it. Truth be told, it was beautiful. I did not ask how the creature met his demise. A pity, really. I have imagined a cat rather like this one tracking me in some jungle in Honduras---and myself tracking him. Not to kill (at least on my part) but just to see. Wild. Up close and personal. Alive. With all the savage vitality that nature put in it, not as some adornment before a fireplace. A damn shame.
NB: Tonight at 8 PM I get on the trans-Chaco bus. Thus there is little doubt but that I will not be able to make entries onto my web site. There is e-mail in the Chaco I understand. As always, please stay tuned.
Something I remembered about serious traveling and backpacking was something I had forgot: It takes a lot of time---on buses, in hotels, cleaning clothes, arranging transport, taking taxis, seeking out medicines, getting lost (this always happens), eating, drinking, shopping, finding internet access, writing, reading, researching and just generally recuperating until the next expedition. I knew all of this when I had my last long-term adventure 1986-87. But it all faded away only to be re-learned now. One thing that only increases the "down time" between expeditions is the vast distances involved in South America. I will be in Central America sometime in December, where everything is on a smaller scale---except the difficulties involved in what I plan. I would not have it---and it could not be---any other way.
Who wrote this?
It is worth stating the obvious, so momentous is it: For the first time in
almost half a century, Iraq has no executions, no political prisoners,
no torture and no limits on freedom of expression. Having a satellite dish no longer means
going to jail or being executed. There are over 167 newspapers and magazines that need
no police permit and suffer no censorship, over 70 political parties and dozens of NGOs.
Old professional associations have held elections and new associations have sprung up.
People can demonstrate freely, and do.
The US military? The Bush administration? Some political hack? Well...no. It appeared in a Arab newspaper in Beirut, The Lebanon Star.
Freedom. Its great---for every human on this planet. It is truly the greatest revolutionary movement in History. Not only is it infectious, it creates fear in the hearts of tyrants. It is part of our inheritance from God. Leaders who deny their citizens this---Castro, Kim Jong-Il---put themselves against God. But He has a long memory and He keeps score.
Should I remind the reader yet again which nation and people and leader gave the Iraqis back their rights? Which foreigners have bled---and continue to bleed---in the sands of Iraq to bring freedom to its people?
But they have bled before and for the same cause. And they will bleed again. No conqueror in history has ever acted as Americans act.
Who said this?
In spite of the fact that your face already is marked with wrinkles, Fidel,
your soul remains clean because you never betrayed the interests of your people. . . .
Thank you, Fidel, thank you because you continue to exist.
It was said by Lula da Silva, the president of Brazil.
About the cleanliness of Castro's soul, neither Lula nor I am competent to say. I will leave that to the Maker of Castro's soul.
Ne Plus Ultra
I am in Rio, having just spent two weeks in the Paraguayan Chaco. That place is really the end of the earth, "from here nothing beyond." From the Bolivian border to the first real town in the Chaco the road is merely a crude track cut into the ground. Dust covered everything---every plant, every tree, every person on my bus. It was carried on the wind and breathed with the air. The heat was extraordinary, at times 45 degrees. The sweat it caused immediately mixed with the dust causing all of us to appear as if we were wearing cheap and badly applied makeup.
Filadelfia is the first town of consequence in the Chaco as one leaves Bolivia. It is one of several Mennonite colonies in the Chaco, all of which are havens of civilization in that benighted place. The story of these Mennonites---of their flight from Germany and the Soviet Union in the 1930s, of their settling in the Paraguayan wilderness with little more than their Bibles, of their making a life and bringing light to such an astoundingly inhospitable land---is a stirring one. The Jewish immigration to British Palestine, the Mormon exodus to Utah and the American settlement of the West all have their echoes in what the Mennonites have created, almost ex nihilo, in Paraguay.
It is hard to get transport to the Chaco's (even more) nether regions. I finally found a Mennonite who agreed to take me to his estancia five hours and 300 kilometers away. We drove on a road that can only be described as entertaining. I asked him if this track were passable in the wet. He said no. I then asked what would happen if he were at his estancia and it rained. He said he would be trapped there until the track dried. Had this ever happened? Yes. How long was he stuck? Well, his parents were once trapped three months when everything had flooded and turned to mud. How had they survived? He told me they had hunted wild pigs and deer. Were there still wild pigs there? "Oh yes, so many that they travel in packs on one hundred."
He dropped me with my backpack in the jungle about 50 kilometers from the Rio Paraguay. He would not let me go until I agreed to carry with me a shotgun and a pistol. I took them and he promised to return to get me in some days. He kept his word, a good thing. In my time alone there I had the previously unknown experience of traversing a jungle with more than my machete and luck. Now I was armed and lethal. I could kill---and would have killed---any animal that mistook me for lunch.
Soon I will be in the northern Guatemalan jungles. They are as inhospitable and as empty as the Paraguayan Chaco. I will miss that shotgun.
I cannot imagine traveling without books---lots of them. Literacy is one of the things upon which Civilization is based. To be bookless is to be an animal---or, as any traveler will tell you, to be bookless while stuck in some foreign country is to be bored, adrift, waiting for...what?
While in Filadelfia trying to get transport I read four books, all by ancient authors---every one a dead white male. All fascinate and intrigue---and teach, if we listen. The History of Alexander is instructive. It is by Arrian, a Roman who lived 400 years after the death of his subject. He wrote of Alexander as so many have: hagiography masquerading as biography, with an admiration scarcely concealed. And what does Arrian admire? (Indeed, what does every schoolboy admire about Alexander?) Well, he was the supreme captain of his age. He fought battle after battle and won them all. He destroyed the Persian Empire. He thought he was---maybe he in fact became---a god. He served as an example for so many who followed.
An example of what exactly?
Of unparalleled slaughter. Of endless marches, sieges, massacres, campaigns. Of military glory as an end in itself. Of terrifying and incalculable cruelty. Of the awful power of one human mind whose ego could force itself upon the world, upon History.
What was the point of it all? There was no point except to glorify and deify Alexander. And the price of this glory? One million human beings were killed by Alexander's Macedonian thugs and hired mercenaries to purchase it.
Alexander died young at 32, a good thing as he was already contemplating doing to Western Europe---to Rome, to the Etruscans, to Carthage, to the Iberians---what he had done to Asia.
If Alexander was a god, that god surely was Moloch.
Here I am back in the USA---Portland, Oregon to be precise. My last few days before coming here were lived in Rio, a city that enjoys certainly the most visually stunning setting in the world.
It is difficult to believe that I just spent the last four months of my life backpacking alone through much of South America. Was it a dream? Some odd fantasy from which I will awake one day into the normal, the humdrum, the common? No. My body says as much. It is time to recuperate and to re-think the upcoming six months I will spend in the jungles of Central America. There is much yet to do, and (as always) miles to go before I sleep. I am not ready to return to the real world. Maybe in June---but God knows when.
A group of liberal democrats (sorry for the redundancy) is outraged that General William Boykin called the US a Christian nation. The general had also termed the war against Islamo-fascism as a war against the real God (He of the Bible) and a false god (he of the Koran), which of course sent the Democrats into a deeper frenzy. But Islam---like Christianity, like Hinduism, like any religion---is either true or false. If it is false, then those who love the truth would welcome its demise. If it is true then no words from any general can make it otherwise.
Bush proclaimed yet again that Islam was "a religion of peace" after which he celebrated Ramadan in the White House. Meanwhile the Egyptian government arrested 22 Egyptian Christians, some of whom were converts from Islam. Some were beaten and some were raped to bring them back to the "religion of peace." No word yet on their success.
C.S. Lewis said that "horrible religions make horrible nations." Well, some related questions then: Given the choice, would any Moslem chose to serve ten years of prison time in an Islamic nation rather than serve them in any US prison? Given the choice, would any Moslem chose to undergo heart surgery in an Islamic nation rather than in the US? Given the choice between becoming a suicide bomber or getting a US green card, which would most members of the "religion of peace" choose?
Since I brought it up...here is a description of a prison in a nation where almost all are members of the "religion of peace":
... the prisoners had their hands tied behind their backs with cuffs...they were then
hoisted by a rope attached to a hook in the ceiling so they dangled above the ground,
the tendons in their shoulders tearing under the strain. The ball and socket in the shoulders
of some prisoners completely rotated. The prisoners were lashed with cables. Clips were attached
to their earlobes, nipples and genitals, and they were administered electric shocks.
When they passed out, as they almost invariably did, they were dragged back to the corridor
and cuffed again to the radiator...
Kharqani and two other inmates were forced to watch three other prisoners killed with acid.
When the torture ended, the prisoners were bundled into one of a number of fetid basement cells
so crowded that prisoners created their own rotation for lying down, sitting and standing. ...
The cells were about 9 foot-by-6-foot and each held between 35 and 40 prisoners.
Many lived in such cells for more than 20 years.
Imagine two consulates side by side. One is a consulate from any Islamic nation. The other is a US consulate. One day both consulates put out signs that say "Special today! Free permanent residency permits!" Which consulate would have the most people waiting in line?
(Oops! I almost ended these Random Thoughts without trashing the Gauls! Sorry! I must be tired.)
The French still want a say in the running of Iraq. Leaving aside French success in running its colonial empire---stop laughing please---can you think of any French foreign policy success in the last 150 years or so? Take your time.
There is much talk about the war between Western Civilization and Islamo-fascism being a war or 'clash' of civilizations. (The phrase is from Samuel Huntington.) The Islamic terrorists speak of this constantly. They at least know what sort of struggle they are in, and they believe they can win it. If you would like to imagine what sort of world we would live in if the Islamicists win, take a look at Saudi Arabia. But these terrorists should take note: History shows that at the end of all wars between civilizations the losing societies were wiped out. Where are the Aztecs? The Carthaginians? The Assyrians? The Inca? If these Moslem terrorists lose---and they will lose---what will be left of Islam? What is left of it now?
Speaking of a clash of civilizations, here is Time magazine (May 14, 1945) on WW II:
This war was a revolution against the moral basis of civilization. It was conceived
by the Nazis in conscious contempt for the life, dignity and freedom of individual man
and deliberately prosecuted by means of slavery, starvation and the mass destruction
of noncombatants' lives. It was a revolution against the human soul.
Substitute 'Islamo-fascism' for 'the Nazis.' That, in a nutshell, is why we fight.
Recall all those scenes of Saddam greeting his adoring subjects. Now remove from these scenes all things that came from the West but leave all that came from Islam. What have you left? Just some pudgy naked guy screaming at a bunch of sweaty and broke naked people. No oil, no weapons, no electricity, no cameras---sort of like a desert version of Gilligan's Island: "No phone! No lights! No motor cars! Not a single luxury!"
Watch out for Catholic high school girls. They are mad as Hell and they are not going to take it anymore:
A man described by authorities as a known sexual predator
was chased through the streets of South Philadelphia by an angry crowd of
Catholic high school girls, who kicked and punched him
after he was tackled by neighbors, police said Friday.
"The girls came and started kicking him and punching him,
so I wasn't going to stop them," neighbor Robert Lemons
told The Philadelphia Inquirer.
"The [St. Maria] Goretti girls were very courageous and they obviously weren't afraid
to mix it up with this guy," police spokesman William Colarulo told the paper.
You go girls! (And here is another link with more detail than CNN. Here is an interview with two of the girls.)
The nine Democratic candidates for US president want Bush to place control of Iraq in the hands of the UN. Now that those brave souls at the UN have abandoned the killing field of Iraq for their Manhattan apartments and Chardonnay lunches, with whom do these presidential wannabes wish to leave control of Iraq? Maybe those tough guys at the UN should take some lessons in courage from Catholic high school girls.
If any foreigner wishes to understand Americans, he could do no better than to see the movie High Noon. It stars Gary Cooper and was made in 1952. Then see the 1953 Shane starring Alan Ladd. Foreigners---especially those brave French---castigate Bush for being a "cowboy." They really do not get it. To an American, a cowboy is tough, moral, respectful, chivalrous, individualistic and fast on the draw. In short, a cowboy is one cool dude. Almost as cool as Catholic high school girls. Oh...there are no cowboys at the UN---or in France.
I am sitting on a whole bunch of new books I ordered from Amazon. Most are by the classical historians: Sallust, Plutarch, Anna Comnena, Michael Psellus and so on. I have two by Saint Augustine, City of God and Confessions, as well as the story of Jason and the Argonauts by Apllonius of Rhodes. When these are done I will have read much of the classical literature.
I have also read some trashy historical novels of the ancient world, one example being The Gates of Rome. (They were all I could find while waiting at the airport in Rio, and I refuse to be bookless anywhere at any time.) So far the best has been The Ten Thousand by Michael Curtis Ford. This retells the story of Xenophon's march to the sea (401 BC) after being on the wrong side of a Persian civil war. It is OK, but cannot compare to Gates of Fire by Stephen Pressfield, which covers the battle of Thermopylae (480 BC). Historical novels cannot tamper much with the actual history of their era, and neither Pressfield nor Curtis does. Anyone conversant with the ancient world would be happy with these authors. The best picture of the ancient world, however, comes from Colleen McCullough's The First Man in Rome series. Anyone who reads even one of them will have a fine understanding of ancient Roman politics and culture. Her portrayals of the famous and infamous Romans---Sulla, Caesar, Antony, Cicero---bring these men to life and show why so few of us moderns can compare to the Romans. (On second thought, perhaps we should be thankful that such no longer walk the earth.)
I have also read the latest by Victor Davis Hanson, Ripples of Battle. Here he details three battles---Okinawa (1945), Shiloh (1862) and Delium (424 BC). Hanson makes the point how seemingly (at the time) small happenings during a battle can have earth shaking import. It was the kamikaze pilots at Okinawa, for example, that convinced the American high command that only the atomic bomb would end the war against Imperial Japan. Hanson sees that the 'suicide bombers' making the headlines today are nothing new or terrifying to American war planners. Indeed, they have dealt with such things before---successfully.
It was at Shiloh where Sherman got his reputation that enabled him to make his descent into the bowels of the Confederacy that ended the war---his famous "March to the Sea." It also effectively curtailed the military career of Lew Wallace, who went on to write Ben-Hur, the most successful historical novel of all time. It also cemented for all time (at least in the South) of the 'myth of the lost opportunity.' This myth was based on the death of Albert Sidney Johnston. Many believed---and believe---that Johnston's death was the reason the South lost the US Civil War, not slavery or losses in combat or Sherman or Grant or any military and political incompetence. Shiloh also created the legend of Nathan Bedford Forest, the brilliant guerrilla commander and later founder of the Ku Klux Klan---with portentous results.
Finally at Delium, Hanson engages in some 'counter-factual' analysis: Socrates fought there. Had he been killed---very possible, as Delium was an embarrassing defeat for Athens and a resounding success for Thebes---then Western philosophy as we know it would not have come to be. There would be no Platonic Dialogues, for one thing. And it was at Delium where the first foundation of Western battle tactics were laid, tactics that the victorious Thebans would use to destroy Sparta at Leuctra (371 BC) and Mantinea (362 BC). These tactics passed to Philip II of Macedon (384-336 BC), and thence to his son Alexander. The rest you surely already know---or you should know.
And I have finally found a small and lightweight Catholic Bible in paperback. It fits well into my backpack and will go with me to the jungles of Central America. To be bookless is awful, but to be without the Word of God would to be really alone---alone and terrifying.
Why America Wins Its Wars
Stories you will not see on CBS, NBC, ABC, CNN, NPR, or read in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the LA Times and the rest of that silly and trivial and arrogant and condescending lot.
WASHINGTON, Oct. 31, 2003 — Nearly everyone has experienced
it at one time or another: an airport bogged down by bad
weather, delayed and cancelled flights, and cranky,
overtired travelers wanting nothing more than to get to
That's exactly what Will Ross, an administrative judge for
the Defense Department's Office of Hearings and Appeals in
Los Angeles, encountered Oct. 27 at Baltimore/Washington
But what he witnessed that day, he said, "made me proud to
be an American, and also told me why we will win this war
Like many of his fellow passengers, Ross had been forced to
spend the night in Baltimore. His outbound flight,
scheduled for the night before, had been cancelled due to
the California wildfires. They had forced the Los Angeles
International Airport to close, and the ripple effect drove
domestic travel nationwide into a tailspin.
When Ross reported to the United Airlines counter the
following morning for the next scheduled flight to Los
Angeles, bad weather and aircraft mechanical problems made
the prospect of a timely trip even more grim.
As he waited in the terminal, Ross noticed many soldiers in
their desert camouflage uniforms, newly arrived from
Southwest Asia. All, like Ross and the other passengers at
the airport, were awaiting connecting flights — but in the
soldiers' case, it was to begin two weeks of rest and
Flight delays continued and the airport had become, in
Ross's words, "a zoo." By the afternoon, one flight to
Denver had been delayed several hours. United Airlines
agents kept asking for volunteers to give up their seats
and take another flight, but Ross said they weren't getting
Finally, Ross said a United Airlines spokeswoman got on the
public address system and made a desperate plea. "Folks, as
you can see, there are a lot of soldiers in the waiting
area," the agent said. "They only have 14 days of leave and
we're trying to get them where they need to go without
spending any more time in an airport than they have to.
"We sold them all tickets knowing we would oversell the
flight. If we can, we want to get them all on this flight.
We want all the soldiers to know … we respect what you're
doing, we are here for you and we love you," the agent
"The entire terminal of cranky, tired, travel-weary people
-- a cross-section of America -- broke into sustained and
heartfelt applause," Ross said. "We're talking about
several hundred people applauding, a whole terminal.
"The soldiers looked surprised and very modest," he
continued. "Most of them just looked at their boots." Many
of the travelers in the terminal wiped away tears.
"And, yes," Ross said, "people lined up to take the later
flight and all the soldiers went to Denver on that flight."
Ross said he figured that 30 or 40 people had suddenly
jumped at the change to offer their seats to U.S. soldiers.
That moment, he said, reinforced his patriotism and his
heartfelt belief that the United States will prevail in the
war on terror.
"I think people realized that this fight is going to be
long and drawn-out, and these kids are in the thick of it,"
he said. "It was heartwarming to see their outpouring of
We know we support our
Our sons. Our daughters. Our wives. Our husbands.
I wish the mainstream media knew it. Scratch that.
I wish they would report it; they already know.
No cute comments by me are needed, except: Can you imagine this happening in any other country?
Tarzan Meets REI: A Primer on Jungle Backpacking
I have traversed jungles and mountains and plains and deserts and canyons and grasslands and valleys. I have used a huge variety of equipment---tents, sleeping bags, boots, clothing, backpacks. I have never felt---alas!---that what I was using at one particular time was the best gear for the terrain. Something was always amiss. The tent was too small, or it was cold, or it did not allow cooking during storms, or it was too heavy; the pack was too small or too large or too heavy or simply just uncomfortable; the boots were too hot or too cold or did not stop water from entering; the sleeping bag was too hot or not warm enough or too heavy. Complaints, complaints. I head for the jungle in a few weeks. What sort of gear will I take? Have I found the 'sweet setup'? Maybe.
Problems encountered while backpacking jungles are many and surely are a challenge not only for the backpacker, but for his gear. There is terrific heat and humidity during the day, cooler weather at night, myriad insects at all times---all of which see you as prey---a variety of unpleasant creatures and the occasional terrifying thunderstorm. To start with. what tent would be the best in these conditions? That is, what tent could be called 'the perfect jungle tent'? There was not one until the MSR Ventana shown below. Why is it different from my other tents, and why would it suit the jungles of Central America?
To start, without the rainfly it offers 180 degrees of viewing pleasure. All that mosquito netting also means lots of air coming in and all the bugs---some of whose bites cause particularly loathsome diseases---staying out. The rainfly has a vestibule of more than 20 square feet, which means that if I am---when I am---trapped in some tropical storm for days on end there is room in the vestibule to cook. The door of the rainfly, even when opened---a true necessity in humid jungle conditions---will not allow the water to enter. And this tent is only five pounds. (By way of comparison, a full scale mountain tent weighs in at nine pounds.) I have the Ventana set up right now in the living room, and it is roomy and strong. It is far superior to my other jungle tents, each of which had at least one flaw. Here is a review of the Ventana by Outside magazine.
How about the backpack? My other packs would serve, but not too well. The difficulty is that you sweat in the jungle---a lot. The sweat pours down your face, stings your eyes and drips from your nose, soaks your clothes and leaves salt crystals in hair and clothing at the end of the day. Internal frame packs are all the rage now (most packs you see today have internal frames) but external frame packs once ruled. One reason is that they are cooler, as they allow air to flow between the back of the pack and your own back. An internal frame hugs your back and becomes laden and dripping with sweat at the end of a hard day in the jungle. So my choice for Central America is the Kelty 50th Anniversary Pack, a true work of the backpacker's art.
How about boots? Normal hiking boots will not do: They are too hot, too low and impossible in the wet and mud. (Try walking in them for hours down a jungle river and you will see what I mean.) The solution? The US military has fought in jungles for...well, a long time. Here is what it uses:
High top to give greater protection against snakes than mere hiking boots. A sole that cannot be penetrated by the ever-present sharp bamboo shoots that stick up from the ground. Small holes on the side to let water out. Mainly canvas uppers which dry quickly. No cushion or insulation to hold in the heat and water and so encourage fungus. Do not travel far into the jungle wilderness without these boots. Period.
Alas! What I will miss, the Remington 870. Properly fitted she will bring down any land animal in the world.
A hat is quite necessary as it keeps sun and insects and sundry creatures off your head. Once while in the Costa Rican jungles a yellow and black mama scorpion the size of my hand landed on my hat and then fell to the ground. Perhaps a dozen baby scorpions then scattered from mama's back. Had I had no hat they would have scattered about on my head---with momentous results.
Take your pick. Do not venture into the bush without one of these babies. If you do, you are a fool. Practice using it first or you might chop into your leg. Bring suture material just in case.
At Panama-Colombia border, 1987
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