Roadblock.

My Old Man had been on the bum during the Depression: rode the rails; picked fruit in the Imperial Valley; logged in Montana; worked on the Grand Coulee dam; assistant manager of a theater in Portland, Oregon (told Alan Ladd where to find a speak-easy); worked on a government survey ship in the Gulf of Alaska.  Jailed briefly once or twice.  Later, he went to Guadalcanal and Bougainville (“Bo-gun-vill” as he—and many others–pronounced it), then was a ski-bum in Sun Valley.  Drove a cab in the red-light district of Anchorage.  Before and after he settled down.  Knocked all the front teeth out of a tug-boat captain who had disrespected my Mom.  (You could tell because there was a gap in the subsequent bite marks on his left bicep.)

Then there was wormy-me.  Skinny with thick glasses, not athletic, shy beyond belief, and wrapped really tight.  Got tired of that “me” and decided to change it.  One part of that change came in my senior year of college.  My room-mate and I decided to drive from Seattle to Mexico for Christmas Break.  Drive down to San Diego, cross at Tijuana, go down the Baja to Cabo San Lucas, take the ferry to Puerta Vallarta.  Basically, I said “Yes” instead of my lifetime default-setting of “No.”

Was a great trip, too, but not necessarily in the ways you would think.  I was also chasing a girl, so we stopped in LA.  To no avail.[1]  Then we bunked-in at somebody’s house in San Diego.  I bought the Sunday morning paper and sat in a park to read it when the earth began to shake.  I was reading a story about how Mexican narcs were killing gringo tourists.  Crossed the border in a scene very different from “Sicario.”  More like “The Getaway.”  Already memorable or repressible experiences.

Anyway, we drove down the Baja.  Pulled off the road to sleep.  Picked a bad spot.  (Come on, it was dark.)  Next morning we got stuck in the sand.  Took hours, and the help of some passing Mexicans, to get unstuck.

Later on, we needed to gas up.  Stopped in this little village in the middle of nowhere.  Put some oil in as well, but the people seemed intent on closing up in a hurry.  Didn’t bother to get the funnel back.  Gave us full cash change, not part of it in Chiclets.  Too busy putting up the shutters.  So we drove on south out of town.  “Strange Lands and Friendly People.”

Come around the first bend out of town and there’s a road-block.  “Oh, that explains it,” I later thought.  Bunch of Mexican soldiers and a big guy in a tan suit with cowboy boots and a straw cowboy hat.  My friend is driving and I’m in the passenger seat.  “Choo got any marijuana?” he asks.  We assured him that we did not.  As the conversation continued, I glanced out the side window.  Mexican soldier standing there pointing an M-16 at my head.  Muzzle is about 6 inches from my face.  Thing is, it didn’t look like the entrance to a tunnel and he didn’t look like an agate-eyed killer.  Which only made me more edgy because accidents can happen.  Also, I’d just read that story about narcs killing gringos.  And here we were in the middle of nowhere.  So, that’s why everyone back at the gas station had been so eager to see our heels.  Huh, live and learn.  I bit down hard.  OK, my eyes probably got real wide as well.

Anyway, after a while, he let us go.  We drove slowly until around the next bend.  Once out of sight, we floored it.

[1] Later, we had a brief passage and I wanted to marry her.  She had more sense than that.  She died of ovarian cancer on the same day that my Mom passed in 2011.

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S— My President Says.

The following is excerpted word for word from a Lonely Planet guidebook.

US currency is used for all transactions over a few dollars. The official currency, the Liberian dollar, only used for small items costing less than US$5

Pavement is generally uneven or nonexistent.

Stay at upmarket hotels if you require a lift or reliable electricity.

Homosexual acts in Liberia are punishable by one year in jail, and the government has floated the idea of making a same-sex relationship a felony crime (punishable with a 10-year prison sentence). LGBT campaigners in the country have also been targets of violence. Needless to say, gay travellers need to be extremely cautious travelling here.

Malaria is endemic and prophylactics are recommended. Typhoid is also relatively common, so get vaccinated and always take care to wash your hands before eating. You will need a valid yellow-fever vaccination certificate in order to enter Liberia. Other vaccinations to look into include hepatitis A, hepatitis B, meningococcal meningitis and boosters for tetanus, diphtheria and measles.

The tap water in Liberia is not safe to drink. Buy bottled water and use it for everything including brushing your teeth.

Take: Insect repellent; Water filter;

Wear lightweight, breathable clothing, in particular clothing that covers arms and legs to the ankles.

The security situation is somewhat stable, although it’s wise not to walk in Monrovia after dark and be vigilant about staying in secure lodging.

Electric shocks are common in badly wired buildings; wear shoes before plugging in appliances.

Public toilets range from standard toilets (often with a bucket to flush) and squat toilets to holes in the ground, with the latter being more common in rural areas. Always carry toilet paper. Upmarket hotels and restaurants will have Western-style toilets where you may or may not be allowed to flush the paper.

In Monrovia, adequate hospitals are available, but in rural areas you may need to travel for at least a day to the nearest doctor.

Be sure to obtain reliable travel insurance before arrival, including insurance that covers emergency evacuation.

Among the recommended attractions is Monkey Island.  This small archipelago is home to chimpanzees that were evacuated from a hepatitis research lab during the war.

To Europe by land and sea.

Lots of people in Sub-Saharan Africa want to go to Europe.  As of late June 2017, 72,000 immigrants have completed the journey this year.  For the most part, they are fleeing poverty above all else.  Population growth dramatically exceeds economic growth in these countries.[1]  The poverty is particularly serious in rural areas.  “We have no machinery to cultivate the land [and] no rain,” one person told a New York Times reporter.[2]  However, “fleeing poverty” has a larger meaning here.  In the absence of any social security system or local pathway to an adequate income, sons are expected to support their parents.  Often this means leaving home in search of work elsewhere.  Many are pulled to the capital city of Dakar, where there is more opportunity and lower poverty levels.  Other go to Gabon or Congo to work in mines.

Best of all is to reach Europe.  Sons who have made it to Europe and found work send home part of their earnings.  Even a share of the meager earnings of those working in Europe pay for “luxuries” in West Africa: concrete block houses instead of mud huts; iPhones and satellite dishes (and the electricity to power them); sometimes a car instead of a bicycle.[3]  Parents or spouses often encourage men with small future prospects to migrate in search of work.

For those living in West Africa, the route generally takes them east along Route 5 of the Trans-Africa Highway system.[4]  That route passes from Dakar (Senegal) through Bamako (Mali), Ouagadougou (Burkina Faso), Niamey (Niger), and Kano (Nigeria), to N’Djamene (Chad).  In its longest extent, this is a journey of about 2,700 miles.  That’s like driving from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to Reno, Nevada.  Without the Rockies, but also without much in the way of paved roads.  From there they join Highway 3 as it runs north across the Sahara to Tripoli (Libya).  From Tripoli and other Libyan ports, they “take ship” for Italy.

Almost every leg of the journey is dangerous.  Human traffickers organize much of the migration in order to prey upon the migrants.  Travelers can find themselves extorted for further payments or abandoned en route.  Africa’s transportation infrastructure is in poor condition.  It’s one thing if you’re a rich Westerner (but I repeat myself).  Airlines connect European capitals with important cities endowed with comfortable hotels.  For ordinary people, travel is more difficult.  Some roads are unpaved dirt tracks.  Many paved roads haven’t been maintained for a long time.  The few railroads mostly haul freight, with infrequent or no passenger service.  There aren’t enough vehicles of any kind, so overloading is common-place.  So are vehicle break-downs.  The vast distances pose another challenge.

The sea passage is worst of all.  Most of the deaths come in the crossing from Libya to Italy.  Vessels starting the sea-crossing are over-loaded, under-powered, and badly crewed/captained.  In the first half of 2017, an estimated 2,100 migrants have drowned in ship-wrecks on the Mediterranean.  In April 2015, one terrible disaster killed more than 800 migrants.

Yet people—those who go and those who urge them to go—rarely understand the dangers involved.  “We only heard success stories” said the mother of two sons drowned at sea.  Death lists are sometimes published in Europe, then reported by those who made it to relatives at home.  Yet still the migrants come.

[1] According to the World Bank, almost half (47 percent) of Senegalese live in poverty.

[2] Dionne Searcy and Jaime Yaya Barry, “Leaving Home, One by One, Along “Deadliest Route” to Europe,” NYT, 23 June 2017.

[3] But not more farmland or tractors?  Well, perhaps.  Some of the emigrants sell their land to raise the money for the trip.  So, someone is buying.

[4] See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trans-African_Highway_network

Boxing Day 2004.

Thailand is a developing country in Southeast Asia.  Most of its economy depends on agriculture (rice); then on manufacturing (look at the labels of whatever you bought at Walmart); and then on tourism (15-20 percent of the economy).  Tourists come to Thailand for many reasons.  The climate is tropical, it has beautiful beaches, and it has amazing cultural sites.[1]  One of the best places is Phuket (Foo-ket, not something else that might occur to you), an island off the west coast of Thailand in the Andaman Sea.  It has some gorgeous beaches (or so I’m told) and the cost of living is very low.  There’s an airport that handles almost 3 million travelers a year.  There are many luxury hotels, but they aren’t allowed to mess with the beaches.  As a result, it’s full of foreign tourists and European expat retirees.

Just before 1:00 AM on 26 December 2004, the Indian tectonic plate slid over the Burmese plate somewhere between the island of Simeulue and the west coast of Sumatra a hundred odd miles away.  This natural process caused a violent undersea earthquake in the eastern Indian Ocean.  All along the fault, one plate moved upward suddenly.[2]  The shock sent off waves called tsunamis.  The waves headed in all directions, but most importantly to the west and to the east.[3]   It is possible to create tsunami warning systems.  However, the sensor systems themselves are expensive; then there is the complicated issue of how to warn people ashore once a tsunami has been detected; and then there is the problem of what to do in a coastal plain when you have been warned that a tsunami is sweeping down on you.[4]  The poor countries surrounding the Indian Ocean didn’t have a warning system.  In any event, the waves reached northern Sumatra in 15 minutes.

In deep water, the waves move very fast, but don’t have any great height.  When they hit the shallows close to shore, they slow down and achieve great height.[5]  On a long stretch of the west coast of Sumatra and Indonesia, the waves were 8o feet high when they came ashore and travelled inland for as much as a mile.

The waves hit different parts of the Indian Ocean littoral at different times.  Indonesia and Thailand are “developing countries.”  One result of their state of economic development is that there is a shortage of “hard” structures made out of reinforced concrete, a shortage of roads, shortage of landline and cell-phone communications, and a shortage of emergency services.  The waves killed between 185,000 and 230,000 people, and laid waste the towns of northern Indonesia and western Thailand.

One last thing.  Tilly Smith was vacationing at Phuket, Thailand, with her parents.  She saw the sea receding from the shore and bubbles all over the surface.  She had just finished a geography lesson in school about tsunamis.  She told her parents; her parents—who were smart enough to have a kid like Tilly—warned people at the beach; and, amazingly, all the other Brits on the beach “scarpered” before the wave arrived.  Nobody got killed.  Tilly was 10 years old.[6]

[1] It also has a lot of poverty-stricken, but beautiful young people.  As a result, sad to say, international sex-tourism is a major revenue source.

[2] When the 300-pound William Howard Taft was President of the United States, his Secret Service bodyguards warned off other swimmers at Cape May, saying that “the president is using the ocean.”

[3] There is a GIF of the shock waves at https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/4/47/2004_Indonesia_Tsunami_Complete.gif  Must have made for great surfing off Mozambique.  OK, that’s callous.

[4] Bend over and kiss your ass good-bye?

[5] See: Stephen Crane, “The Open Boat.”  http://public.wsu.edu/~campbelld/crane/open.htm

[6] But go ahead, keeping checking your cell-phones while I’m talking.  See: Charles Darwin.