The Rise, Fall and Resurrection of the Queen of the Highway

Although not a big country, Ecuador features sizable sections of the three main ecosystems found in South America: the dry coastal plain, the towering Andes mountains, and the vast Amazon jungle.  The roads connecting these environments are among the most spectacular and challenging in the world. Often amazing feats of engineering featuring stunning views and landscapes, they are also poorly maintained and policed.

Last month, in the early morning hours of Christmas Eve, December 24, bus #57 belonging to the cooperative Reina del Camino (Queen of the Highway), on a regular route down from the highlands capital of Quito (9,200 feet above sea level) to San Isidro near the coast, went over a precipice near La Crespa in Manabi Province.  It plummeted 150 meters (480 feet) rolled over several times and came to rest at the bottom of a deep ravine. 40 passengers were killed, most instantly, although several lingered in local hospitals for a few days. 11 of the dead were children.

In the days following the accident various damning details came to light. The brakes of the bus were found to be defective, and the vehicle itself had not been inspected in over a year.  The driver of record was at home in his apartment in Quito, and the driver in fact was carrying two separate sets of identity papers, neither of which belonged to him. The driver, also killed in the crash, had had his own license suspended twice, and a subsequent investigation revealed that the transportation cooperative “Reina del Camino” was not only aware of the fact, but had facilitated his obtaining the false ID and license.

Furthermore, the deadly toll of 40 dead and 43 injured stood in stark violation of the listed legal capacity for the vehicle, which was 44 passengers.  This is a widespread practice in Ecuador, where busses are the main mode of transportation for poor and middle class families without private cars or money to pay airfares, even when flights exist. The busses, older models often purchased cheap from Greyhound and other foreign companies when they are retired from service in the first world, leave the terminals full of seated passengers who have paid full price for a paper ticket in the bus line’s office at the bus station.  The money for these tickets stays in the office, and goes into the company coffers.

But the underpaid drivers and loaders also feel entitled to a piece of the pie, and so as soon as the bus clears the area around the terminal they start picking up additional roadside passengers who pay a reduced rate to stand in the aisles or crouch on the roofs hidden under tarps. The one time we were actually kidnapped, riding north on the Panamerican Highway in coastal Peru, by the Movimento Revolucionario Tuopac Amaru, we were driven off the road and into the desert where armed thugs started strip searching all of the passengers. Lying face down in the sand with our hand behind our heads, we were surprised to hear stifled cries coming from the baggage compartments under the bus we had been riding on for 14 hours.  The gunmen had discovered an entire family of 7 riding behind the suitcases and trunks.

The money from these “informal” passengers goes directly into the pockets of the driver and his assistant.  The practice is tolerated because it supposedly holds down ticket prices (one can pay approximately 50% extra for “Executive Service” busses which don’t stop between stations to pick up extra passengers), but it results in uncomfortable and dangerous crowding of regular units like bus #57.

Finally, for frosting on the cake, the drivers themselves are seriously abused, overworked and quite often inebriated.  It is not unusual for a driver, who sometimes but not always is also the owner of the vehicle, to finish an 8 to 10 hour run from the coast up to the mountains by polishing off 3 or 4 big beers while they empty and reload his bus, and then climbing aboard to drive it back to its point of origin, where one of his families anxiously awaits. Bus drivers in Ecuador are almost exclusively male and famous for separately maintaining 2 or 3 women and their respective progeny.

The drinking used to bother me the most.  Back in my wild youth as an anthropologist and adventurer of the region, riding these rickety rockets up and down the spine of the Andes, we would make an effort to personally interview the drivers of these long-haul, overnight death traps before boarding.  We were primarily performing field sobriety tests, and on more than one occasion, deterred by the stink of cheap liquor or an unfocused gaze, we would opt for a later departure.  We tended to favor busses with priests or nuns aboard, on the theory that the drivers would at least be reminded of eternal consequences of losing their grip.

As tragic as the accident itself was, the resulting scandal was a paragon of the inimitable combination of high drama and farce so typical of Latin American politics. The President of the Republic, never one to pass up a chance to garner good press, made an immediate visit to the hospital where the majority of the injured were interred, promising remuneration and retribution.  The remuneration took the form of an immediate payout by the insurance company that carried the Reina’s policy, for the kingly sum of $4,850 for each fatality, and lesser sums for the injured.  The retribution became apparent the following week when the Minister of Transportation, citing the unlicensed driver, false documentation, gross overloading and lack of vehicle inspection, closed down the Reina, cancelling their license to operate and ordering all 130 of their busses off the road.

This was a major blow, not just to the 2,000 employees of the company (drivers, loaders, mechanics, station workers, officials) and their families, but also to the citizenry of Manabi, one of Ecuador’s largest provinces.  For many smaller towns and roadside knots of humanity, the Reina was the only game in town, the only way to get students to school, patients to hospitals, goods to market or lovers to assignations.

The company had been formed almost 50 years ago by a small group of mechanics in the agricultural center of Chone, my wife’s hometown.  Her uncle came up with the name.  They started with a half–dozen “chivas”, which are a sort of home made bus, basically wooden benches with a roof built on the platform of old flatbed trucks.  They plied the dusty, muddy, rocky unpaved roads of Manabi, uniting cow towns and haciendas, fruit farms and regional markets, forgotten, isolated hamlets and growing regional centers.

The first declaration of the Minister of Transportation after the accident was the temporary cancellation of the Reina’s license, until all of the 130 vehicles were inspected, the drivers took a special course in bus driving technology and passed vision, health and psychological tests, and the owner of each vehicle posted a special $1,000 bond as surety against future mishaps.  Of course, the universal opinion in Manabi was that this was a $130,000 bonus for the Minister of Transportation whose term in office, like that of all government ministers in Ecuador, was limited by graft, scandal and political expediency.

A week later, however, the Minister was trumped by the President, who announced with redolent indignation that the closure would be permanent, and that he would shortly begin the process of “redistributing” the routes formerly served by the Reina to other cooperatives. Clearly, a process itself assured to generate another hefty and continuing stream of off-the-books revenue. The candidates for the routes started lining up immediately.

But the officials and investors behind the Reina were not about to take this lying down.  They had resources of their own, and 50 years of entrenchment in the establishment of the province.  Think of a league of small-town Latin-style teamsters from Texas.  They immediately availed themselves of a time-honored tradition of Ecuadorian justice – judge shopping.  When a power bloc like this needs relief from executive persecution, they start going from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, looking to find or motivate a sympathetic judge to issue an injunction.

The fact that the one they found was an unknown woman recently appointed to the Children’s and Family Court surprised and shocked no one except possibly me.  Her only possible apparent connection to the case seemed to be that 11 of the fatalities were children, but in these parts a court order is a court order, and her order was to let the Reina loose again.

A classic confrontation of constitution powers, Ecuadorian style!  The executive branch orders the busses off the roads, and the judicial overrules.  Money was moving between private bank accounts and campaign funds like a high-stakes three card Monte at an agricultural state fair.  The federal police threatened to stop the busses and arrest the drivers.  The provincial patrols vowed to enforce the judge’s order, and escort the busses if necessary.

Of course, like 99% of the confrontations in this South American theme park of a country, it was all show.  No shots were fired, but the posturing was world-class and the rhetoric stirring.  The current compromise has 80 of the 130 busses back in circulation while the back-room bartering and bribing continues.  Stay tuned for updates, and choose “executive service” if it’s an option.

Posted in Ecuador, Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Manta Diary post 2

This morning it was still dark outside when I awoke to the sound of a downpour on a tin roof next door, and the smell of a fresh rain rinsing off the dry dust that habitually covers this sunny resort on the Pacific coast of South America. My surprise was mingled with disappointment – no tennis today!

It almost never rains in Manta. Honestly; in what must now be a cumulative year in this bustling port city, this is only the second time I can remember it really raining. Some fortuitous combination of coastline and wind patterns insures that, even in the rainy season, even when farmers in nearby towns like Portoviejo, Jipijapa (pronounced “Hippy-hoppa” to my continuing delight) or Chone are dancing with delight under a tropical deluge, Manta normally remains dry and sunny.

Actually, it was rather nice to see a real rain for a change, in part to contrast it with the repeated blunt blows from a vengeful Mother Nature currently flaying New England. Rain is romantic, and as I could clearly see on an early morning drive to get the papers, the trees and plants were happy. But I had a date to play doubles at the tennis club with the usual suspects plus a US Navy SeaBee stationed on a cruiser, the USNRV “Swift”, anchored in Manta Bay while its engineering battalion assists in the construction of an elementary school in a poor neighborhood on the outskirts of town.

So stuck at home for a while (local experts predict a cessation of the showers by 10 am) let me describe a couple of moral and karmic dilemmas we had to face yesterday, as an example of the magical thinking which makes the Southern half of America different from the North, and may help explain why we feel so at home here.

Yesterday, Thursday, I was on my own, as Norma was off to Portoviejo to visit Mariana, the eldest of her 8 brothers and sisters, leaving shortly after I returned from the tennis club around 9. Although she said she might be back by lunchtime I knew it would be closer to dinnertime; when these siblings get together it’s a non-stop gabfest for days at a time.  Unfortunately, Norma is the only one of her sibs who is currently on speaking terms with absolutely everyone else in the family, and since our arrival last week the apartment has been the site of a series of family summits as the sisters, cousins, aunts and more distant connections stop by singly or in groups, for Latin-style family schmoozing.  At least for one day, the coffee klatch would be held in Portoviejo rather than in our living room.

So, unencumbered by social or familial responsibilities, I decided to take a walk, maybe check out this new Chinese restaurant people were talking about, since Norma didn’t like Chifa, which is what South Americans call Chinese food. First stop – our “wall safe”, which consists of a slim linen document bag hanging from a nail in the wall underneath a mounted poster of Albert Einstein and containing our passports and cash stash.  Hopefully, the local “pillos” (thieves) don’t read my blog

But, surprise, surprise, the cupboard was bare.  The stash of fresh US ATM twenties was exhausted after about two weeks in country, more or less as expected, and so the next stop had to be the local Banco Pacifico ATM, conveniently located on the way to the Chifa.

Keys, wallet, cellphone, battered Elmore Lenard paperback (I love my new Nook so much I have determined to read it only in the comfort and safety of the apartment, never risking it out on the Latin street), check, check, check. Out the door and left at the corner, heading uphill towards the local “Strip” of bars, restaurants, clubs and trendy shops, rather than downhill to the beach.

I had walked less than two blocks when I heard and saw a singular thing. As a well-dressed young man walking in the opposite direction, down the hill, passed me by I heard  a distinct ‘thok’ sound of something falling to the ground.  I turned, and there in the street, perched on the rim of a pothole, maybe ten feet from where I stood, was a dull bronzed dollar coin.

Ecuador, as you may or may not realize, after repeated devaluations and hyperinflation, caused by a chronic inability to lay off the inorganic generation of boatloads of banknotes, had abandoned its national currency, the Sucre, and adopted good ole American greenbacks as their only money.  The big bronze dollar coins which people in the States seem so reluctant to adopt, have become ubiquitous in Ecuador, leading me to suspect that as one of the reasons they are so hard to find up North.

Anyway, it was obvious that the teenager had dropped the dollar, and I started doing the mental gymnastics necessary to determine my best course of action.  How much did he need the money? He looked well dressed, but maybe he was on his way to a low-paying job.  I had zero cash myself, but I was on my way to extract dinero from the international financial web. Did finders, keepers apply in a situation like this?

My mental acuity must be slowing down, because before I could run down the ramifications the kid was around a corner and out of sight. So I picked up the dollar and continued my ruminations as I walked. Upon reflection, I decided that a dollar found was not a dollar earned, and that the potential negative karmic effect of appropriating the funds far outweighed the brief feeling of “lucky me” one experiences on finding loose money on the street.

So, I decided, on my way back to the apartment, after my Chinese luncheon, I would carefully place the dollar back where I found it. Although the chances it would return to the teenager who dropped it were miniscule, someone else who hadn’t had the chance to identify it rightful owner would find it and potentially benefit from the “found money” juju.

By this time (I think slowly these days) I was nearly at the bank.  The equatorial sun was beating down like a photonic bludgeon as I slipped into the tiny, air-conditioned ATM vestibule. Fed my card into the machine. The screen announced “Su tarjeta no puede ser leido” (Can’t read this card).  Three times, same result. No money, no chance, no recourse.  Except, of course, to walk across the plaza to the Banco de Producto ATM inside the Super-Maxi supermarket.

This time the machine managed to read my card, and accepted my PIN, but when I asked it for $200 it reported “No se puede efectuar este transacion” (Can’t complete the transaction). Tried it again, same result.

By now, I was freaking out. What if the card has gotten demagnetized somehow, how will I get a replacement, and what will I live on in the meantime? What if somebody at one of the other places down here I’ve used the card, had stolen the password and cleaned out my account? We began rifling through the nefarious possibilities.

Almost instantly, I figured out what was going on, and what I needed to do about it.  It was the bad mojo negative karma o  the illicit dollar, burning a hole in my pocket! I touched it nervously with my figures, moved it from my right front pocket (positive energy) to my left (negative) and made a beeline for the street where I had collected it.

On the way I held the offending coin tightly in my left hand and tried to focus all of the negative energy in my body into it.  Arriving back on the corner in question I located the pothole and, after glancing around to insure I was not in anyone’s sights, lay the dollar back where I had picked it up, near as I could figure.

Straightening up, I didn’t feet anything special, but headed to the last remaining ATM in the neighborhood, between the Velboni market on the corner of the Strip and “Velvet Gourmet”, a cake and sweets shop next door.  Normally we eschew this machine, as it is outdoors and frequently out of order, but at that point I was desperate and broke.  Any port in a storm.

Of course, our karmic conscience cleansed, it worked like a charm, first time, read the card and spit out the cash, just like an ATM is supposed to do. Heaving a sigh of relief we reset our sights for the restaurant, which proved to be decent but unspectacular.  South American Chinese seemingly haven’t gotten the hang of Hot’n Sour Soup yet. The Won Tons were decent, though.

On the way home we were confronted with another confusing set of circumstances. At the supermarket where we stopped for flowers, cheese and fresh-squeezed orange juice, we made two discoveries. We still aren’t sure which was the good news, good luck, and which was the bad.

The first was the discovery that Supermaxi now stocked Hagen Das ice cream, specifically “Dulce de Leche” flavor, to which we had become seriously addicted back in Watertown where it was available cheap at the local Target within walking distance of our place. Actually, we had been rather glad that distance had reduced that craving to a fond memory, but now here it was, staring us in the face, and at an inflated price almost twice what it cost back home.  Good news or bad? We’ll figure that out later, we thought as we tossed one in the shopping chart.

The second discovery, upon returning home, eating a third of the pint and sticking the rest in the tiny freezer area of our glorified dorm-room refrigerator, was that the poor machine didn’t generate enough coldness to keep ice cream in a solid state.  I discovered this through a sticky coating of sweet liquid caramel which had flowed down from the erstwhile “feezer” to cover everything in the front half of the refrigerator and the floor below.  Good luck or bad? We’re still trying to figure that one out.

Such are the trials and travails of life on the beach in Manta, Ecuador. Moral conundrums, karmic puzzles, idle speculation. Stay tuned.

Posted in Ecuador, Uncategorized | Comments Off on Manta Diary post 2

Dowbrigade South Online Again

After a week on the road, we are setting up shop in a lovely little apartment, three blocks from the beach in the midsized city (pop. 200,000) of Manta, Ecuador. We should be reachable here for the next 5 months, before returning to Boston for the summer and fall semesters, back at work. Meanwhile, we have been disconnected from the internet, both by choice and necessity, as we wound our way down here.

Ah, the electric liberation of being off the grid. No phone, no internet, no TV – just life, raw and real and unmitigated by digital diffusion, LCD screens or cybernetic connections. The eyes open wider, the symphony of sounds unblocked by earbuds or surround-sound, the hours stretch and multiply without the distraction of hundreds of channels of cable nothingness or the endlessly fascinating time sink offered by the Internet. Time to savor the sights, sounds, smells, tastes and touches of raw reality.

After a week of this au natural existence we found ourselves bored to tears, and venturing forth from our new nest above the Bat Beach (Playa Muracielgo) yesterday we unlocked and reregistered our trusty Blackberry, installed a telephone landline into the apartment, bought a big flatscreen TV, leeched a Cable TV signal from some out-of-town neighbors, and borrowed a USB dongle putting the MacBook back onto the information superhighway. We’re baaack! New digits to follow.

There are drawbacks to our current situation, but I can’t think of what they are. I’m sure with the passage of time they will rear their ugly little heads; Manta is not Paradise. But, as I always say, yeah, I wouldn’t mind going to Paradise, but I’m not dying to get in.

Today I got up at 6, as usual. It’s been a long time since I could sleep past 7; generally when the sun comes up, so do I. Most mornings in Manta I get picked up about 10 minutes later to go play tennis at the Umiña Tennis Club, 5 minutes from our apartment.

The gang I usually play with, including Miguel Camino, architect and ex-husband of one of Norma’s cousin, our host and landlord and good buddy, Jorge Zambrano, the Mayor, actually ex-mayor after 12 years now retired to fun the family agricultural supply business and develop scads of prime real estate he somehow acquired during his time in office, Medrano Mora the Rector of the big local university and other early risers. They like to get to the club at dawn both because it’s the coolest time of day, which at 1 degree south latitude is important, and because they want to shower and get to their offices by nine. The level of tennis is off the charts – there are so many great players at this club that sometimes I despair of being able to hang on the courts. They usually give me to the strongest player as a partner, as a sort of handicap. But playing above one’s level is the best way to improve at anything. I know it sounds exhausting, but actually two hours of tennis in the morning imparts energy that lasts all day long. Of course, that’s easy for me to say – I usually head for home after tennis for a nap.

Actually, this trip I’ve discovered another gang who show up a bit later – Byron the lawyer, Don Nelson, who works in the Port Authority, Pedro “The Tower” (6’1” is considered tall down here) and several others, a little older, about my age, and either retired or otherwise freed from the necessity of showing up at an office at any specific time. Today I played an exhausting singles match with Byron, who ended up winning 9-7, then I swan laps in the new pool for half an hour, and finished with a relaxing set of doubles with the whole gang.

The fact that this gang doesn’t show up until 7:30 or 8 (they still like to get their tennis in before the sun gets too high in the sky) means that on a day like today I got to read the New York Times and the Boston Globe early over a liquid breakfast of my favorite coffee (Flor de Manabi, from Loja), orange juice and a local liquid multivitamin.

After tennis, on the way back to the apartment, I stopped at the SuperMaxi supermarket for a copy of “El Universo”, the dean of Ecuadorian journalism, a pretty decent rag out of Guayaquil, the motor of the national economy about three hours south of here, and a liter of fresh-squeezed orange juice. They have a humongous squeezing machine in back of the deli counter – they feed in baskets of local oranges cut in half and fill the bottles by hand. I am drinking at least a liter a day; Norma claims my urine is going to start crystallizing from ascorbic acid, but I probably won’t catch cold.

Back home by a little after ten, I tried to make a few calls to the states on the free setup I have working on my laptop – combining Google voice (my number is 617-800-9948) with Cisco’s Virtual Private Network software to fool the internet into thinking I am on the Boston University campus. However, the call quality, which last night was quite acceptable (I spoke to my Mom and Gabe and a few others) was considerably worse in the morning, so I gave up on that and started writing this message. I will have to experiment with calling at different times of day to see when the quality is best. Also, I hope to have a faster, DSL connection to the internet up and running next week, so I can get away from this damn dongle. Hopefully this will be a bit faster as well.

In a couple of hours, Norma and I are planning to wander down to the Bat Beach, and walk down the Malecon to the Manta Yacht Club, where there is supposed to be some sort of a Gastronomic Championship, sponsored by the Ecuadorian-American Chamber of Commerce, featuring representatives of the ten best restaurants in Manta as well as the Gastronomy department at the local university in some kind of Criolla Cookoff. We don’t hang much at the Yacht Club, most of its members are ex-Navy or scions of upper-upper-crust Latifundista families. Not my kind of people, generally, but the cookoff offers an opportunity to avoid the big question of most days in Manta, which is in which of the dozens of excellent nearby restaurants to have lunch, traditionally the biggest meal in the Latinamerican day. Seafood or barbeque? Salad and fruit juice or fried shrimp and beer? Decisions, decisions.

Then tonight I am looking forward to seeing the Jets and Colts on my new TV. It’s on ESPN down here, a little grainy but definitely watchable. Not sure who to root for, I guess the Colts cause if they win we get the worst team in the playoffs next week, although it would be enjoyable to see the Pats destroy the Jets again.

No, Manta is not paradise. There are problems and inconveniences and ornery people and incompetent officials, just like everywhere else. Sometimes the electricity goes out. All of the restaurants on Bat Beach signed some sort of blood oath, in return for free Pepsi refrigerated servers, not so sell Coca-cola. Norma has diarrhea from eating a cebiche in Tarqui, the “bad” part of town (the Lonely Planet guide book notes that Tarqui features the cheapest hotels in town, but if you stay in one better take a taxi home after dark) – in fact, street snatch and grabs are common enough that we remove all rings, watches and other jewelry before going out, carry a minimum of cash and never flash laptops or iPods on the street. But given these precautions I feel pretty safe and in fact have yet to be a victim of this kind of crime in Ecuador, unlike in the USA.

Stay tuned for more updates

Posted in Ecuador, Uncategorized | 1 Comment

The Boot Knows No Bounds


Published: August 26, 2010 in the New York Times

LONDON — With his canary yellow Ferrari at rest in the forecourt of one of the most expensive hotels in London’s upscale West End, its eight-cylinder, race-bred engine burbling, a young Arab man who gave his name as Khalefa spoke with whimsical regret about the array of even faster, more expensive super cars parked nearby that belonged to other young men like himself from the Persian Gulf oil states.

“Me, I only have the Ferrari,” he said. “I am a poor man.”

The Dowbrigade is by no means a car fanatic, but we are Male, and American, so yes, we have the Car Gene.  When we saw a version of this article in the London Evening Standard back in July, we decided to check it out. The rumors were undeniably, spectacularly true – parked illegally on the street, outside a couple of exclusive coffee and pastry shops built into the back of Harrods Department Store in Knightsbridge, were a collection of automobiles, some of which we had never heard of and some we had, but never imagined seeing face to face.

The results of that little expedition can be seen in the Picasa album linked below.

On our honor, all of the cars shot therein were spotted in a single afternoon walk around Herrods Department Store on the evening of July 22.  The story is that this summer the kids and cousins of the Omani royal family, which just bought the store from Dodi al Fayed, who never got a chance to be princess Di’s father-in-law.  They had their hot car collection transported en masse to London for the summer, and we’re sure they were SHOCKED when they came out of the cafe after sucking on a hooka for an hour or so, that their rides were not only ticketed, but had GOTTEN THE BOOT!

This summer we found London awash in robed women.  Most of the Arab men wear European clothing, only a very few go around in the long white nightgown, but the head-to-toe Burka babes are all over.  They are desperately trying to save the Western economies by buying as much of our shit as possible, but its getting harder all the time.  They were keeping ahead of the curve until the price of oil tripled in the past few years, and so now they have been forced to re-triple their efforts to spend enough to keep us afloat.

According to the article, the rich Arabs are all in London because they “Don’t feel comfortable” in New York after 9/11.  Go figure.

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Duuuh Scientific Study of the Day

Excess weight gain during pregnancy linked to bigger babies

Mothers who gain more weight than recommended during their pregnancies tend to have babies with higher birth weights than normal. But medical researchers haven’t known whether it’s the expectant mother’s weight gain or perhaps her genes that influence how much her baby will weigh.

From “White Coat Notes” in the Boston Globe Aug.6

Well, duuh. If you ingest enough calories to gain 50 pounds, your baby is going to get his or her share of them. You’re connected, remember? What really blows the mind is that the Dowbrigade spent much of one career (we have had several) doing research into birthweights in various environments within the developing world, all places where LOW birthweights were the blight to be obliterated and the whole concept that birthweights could be too HIGH was non-sensical. Even here in the US, when we were little, back somewhere in the past century, people bragged about how much their babies weighed. Fat babies were GOOD. Future NFLers. How times have changed.

Posted in Humor, Technology, Uncategorized, Weird Science | 4 Comments

High in the Andes, Time Stops

When one returns to a city after 33 years, one expects some changes and surprises. When the Dowbrigade pulled into scenic Cuenca, Ecuador after a spectacular 3-hour van ride up into the Andes Mountains from Guayaquil, the biggest surprise was that it looked and felt absolutely the same as it had on our last visit here, in 1977.

That visit was admittedly a little rushed. It was during our brief, spectacularly unsuccessful career as an import-export magnate between college and graduate school, trying to turn our nascent anthropological expertise into a profitable business venture.

We had glommed onto the intensely handcrafted Panama Hats of Cuenca as our ticket to magnate status.  Contrary to popular belief, the authentic Panama Hats come from Ecuador, not Panama, many of them from the sprawling fabrica of Humberto Ortega y Hijos in Cuenca.

We had somehow convinced Señor Ortega that despite our hippy accouterments and bastard Spanish we were capable of representing his line in the United States, and got him to sign an actual contract declaring the Dowbrigade as his exclusive North American distributor for a period of two years.

The hats were magnificent. Woven underwater so that the straw strands were flexible and firm, the tightened when dried into a smooth, fabric-like softness. With wire brims, a variety of colors and crowns, and styles for both men a women, they couldn’t miss.  The most expensive models came rolled up in their own sliding-lid balsa wood boxes.

With the backing of a gullible Harvard Buildings and Grounds employee who invested most of his savings, we booked a booth at the big deal New York Gift Fair the week before Christmas, where the buyers for all of the chains and deparment stores commit to stock for their summer sales lines.
We ordered a dozen each of the 15 styles we thought would be the most popular, and printed up stationary and order forms for the expected flood of orders.

A week before the big show in NYC the samples still hadn’t come. In a panic we called the factory in Cuenca. Yes, the hats were there, ready to be shipped. Why hadn’t they shipped them already? One of the Ortega sons had just gotten married, and they shut down the factory for a week.

“Don’t send them now,” we screamed into the phone, “we’ll come get them!” And so we bought a quick roundtrip ticket from New York to Ecuador, arriving back in New York the morning of the opening of the gift show.

We remember walking the streets of midtown Manhattan the day the flight left.  It was Christmas week, there was no snow on the ground but you could smell it in the air, the store windows were surreal winter wonderlands and people rushed by burdened by packages and trailed by scarves and small children.

18 hours later we were high in the Andes, waiting in a tiny two-table coffee shop for the Ortega offices to open so we could grab our hats and rush back to Manhattan. It was a surreal juxtaposition, the kind of cultural dissonance that we lived for, an unmoored state of being when expectations are upset, the unusual becomes normal, and consciousness gets a chance to rise above and between the ley lines of world views.

We got the same feeling yesterday, as we walked among the tiny storefronts and churches and plazas of the aged center of this Colonial city (a UN Patrimony of Humanity site). Perhaps not as strongly, and hopefully leading to a more productive conslusion, for although we arrived at the gift fair 33 years ago with our hats intact, we sold not a single one at the show.

For all of our expertise, we discovered in ourself an absolute lack of salesmanship or business sense. After a year in the business the only hats we had sold were a few we hawked sitting on the street in Harvard Square the following summer trying to raise enough cash for lunch and a beer. We would arrive at about ten and set a museum-worthy Andean weaving on the sidewalk in front of the long defunct Harvard Trust bank, arranging the sombreros in neat piles in anticipation of having to quickly relocate at the whim of the Cambridge Police Department. Most days we met our quota of 2 or 3 hats well before noon, giving us plenty of time to select a watering hole for the rest of the day. That fall we decided to move on and go to grad school. So much for entrepreneurship.

But now, 33 years later, here we were back in Cuenca. We were hit by a wave of the same cultural dissonance – yesterday morning, we thought, we were in Manhattan, and in a blink of the eye, a different world.

Some things never change, and it appears that Cuenca is one of them.  Upon checking into the Hotel Macondo (Wi-fi and breakfast included, $18) we were handed a xeroxed sheet titled, in English and Spanish “For your security” and reading, in part:

‘A New Form of Robbery

In general, in the City Center and the Plaza Calderon (in front of the Cathedral) we have been experiencing a new form of robbery. Thieves bump into tourists, spilling mustard or mayonnaise or any liquid on them.  Then, feigning embarrassment, they try to help the tourist clean their clothes.  Instead, they pick their pockets and run.”

What new form of robbery? We’d be willing to bet our passport that this method of robbery has been common since the ancient Greek Agora three thousand years ago. We were relieved of our passport and billfold by just this technique 25 years ago in Chimbote, Peru.

Forewarned and forearmed we wandered the steets of this historic old city. The sense of familiararity was overwhelming. Not only did it seem familiar, we felt completely at home. The city blocks were dense and busy, but the individual stores, packed 20 to a block, were completely different than what one would find in a typical American city. A tiny TV-electronics repair shop crammed with old CRTs and lose curcuit boards, not a flatscreen in sight, and the elderly technician seated on a wooden stool peering through retro magnifying goggles as he soldered a piece into place. A dingy two-chair barber shop with a yellowing poster in the window displaying 12 head shots of the most popular cuts of the day, the day being, as far as we could tell, frozen somewhere in the 1960’s. A six-foot purple dinosaur – yes it was Barney – standing guard outside a store that sells party supplies and piñatas and rents costumes for childrens birthdays. Cuenca, we thought, where old Barney costumes go to die.

The stores themselves are tiny and cave-like, no more than 15-20 feet wide and the same deep. However, one of the things we love about Andean urban architecture is the mystery of what goes on in the middle of each city block, since these shallow stores only ring the circumference leaving the hidden heart of each a riddle.  Some of the stores, an occasional residence, or a hotel like the Macondo feature back passages that open into mazes of corridors and storerooms, beautiful gardens and patios, entire other covert enterprises or luxurious family mansions.

Eventually, we wandered into the infamous Plaza Calderon and Cuenca’s main tourist attraction, the Catedral Metropolitana de la Inmaculada Concepción. We have been repeatedly told that upon its completion, in the 1880s, it was the largest cathedral in South America, and although we kind of doubt that, it is undeniably huge. According to Wikipedia:

“Its towers are truncated due to a calculation error of the architect. If they had been raised to their planned height, the foundation of this church to the Immaculate Concepcion, would not have been able to bear the weight. In spite of the architect’s immense mistake, the New Cathedral of Cuenca is a monumental work of faith that began to be built in 1880. It is in Neo-Gothic style, and its blue and white domes have become a symbol for the city. Its facade is made of alabaster and local marble, while the floor is covered with pink marble, brought from Carrara (Italy).When the Cathedral was first constructed 9,000 out of Cuenca’s 10,000 inhabitants could fit.”

No more. Cuenca is now a city of almost half a million. When we wandered into the Cathedral yesterday, the several hundred worshipers were swallowed up in the vast vaulted spaces and numerous nooks, alcoves and secondary shrines. The magnificant gilded altar gleamed in the distance, a couple of football fields away down the axis of the enourmous central area. Between the door and the altar, itself at least 60 or 70 feet high of twisted golden columns there are six separate worship areas on each side of the central hall, each the side of a normal American church, and each with its own shrines, pews, confessionals religious art and iconography and votive candle stands.

It was late afternoon; crespular light filtered through the
stained glass and round windows around the bases of the three huge blue domes that formed the poles of the roof. There was a smell of insence, votive
candles, flowers and floor wax the components of which varied with intensity
from alcove to alcove.

If the interior could hold 9,000 of the faithful is seemed vast and empty with only 2 or 3 percent of that number. The main altar, with the fantasmagorical golden columns reaching for the sky like an angel’s four-poster, was dark and mostly roped off; set aside for holidays or other mass ceremonies. Only two of the 12 side chapels were occupied. In one, a white-robed preist was leading a congregation of a couple of hundred in a series of chants which we assumed were either in Latin or Quechua, the native American language, since we couldn’t decipher a single word.

Not being familiar with the Catholic liturgy in any language, we have no idea what they were doing, but it sounded like a call and response format, and with our eyes closed and the droning voices echoing off the vaulted ceiling and assorted architectural recesses it could almost have been “OOmmmmm padi hummm”.

The cogregants were all of Native American stock, mixed over the centuries with European and Asian imports but easily categorized by dress and behavior and degree of acculturation. The “Town Indians” were mestisized, a word we just invented to verbalize the term “Mestizo”, an individual of mixed Native American and European heritage. They dressed pretty much like city folk around the world: button-down and T-shirts, belted pants, socks and shoes, maybe a sweatshirt or jacket. The “Country Indians” were dressed in their traditional garb; men in blue pants with sewn-in string ties and white shirts covered by ponchos, women in multiple puffy blue ankle-length skirts, frilly white blouses, multiple strings of tiny beads whose color, number and arrangement carry as many messages as gang signs and colors, and peculiar feathered, banded hats which identify their home village, marital status and other secret data beyond the imaginings of this amateur anthropologist.

Another way to tell them apart is their haircuts: the country folk all, men and women, have waist length jet black hair, tied in a single braid and hanging down their backs. The city folk had a healthy variety of modern cuts and do’s, in and out of fashion, kempt or unkempt but all the same black, straight hair.

They were standing and swaying, chanting their hearts out, supplicating and singing praising the Lord. They paid no heed to the Gringo in their midst. Indeed, we seemed to be the only tourist in the entire Cathedral.

The only other niche being used was right next door, the last remaining alcove between the chanters and the darkened main stage. There, a tiny skinny middle-aged Japanese teacher was leading a group of 13 uniformed school-girls into the first two rows of pews facing a life-sized statue of the Virgin Mary.

The teacher spoke to a Nun of similar stature, dressed in a simple gray habit. They could have been sisters.  We imagined the teacher had been a novice in her youth who had abandoned the nunnery to pursue an ill-fated romance with a long-gone Galan, and now dedicated all her energies to her students.

The girls looked to be 12 or 13, and showed none of the coltish exuberance common to groups of girls or boys at that age.  In fact, they were all kneeling in front to a statue of the Virgin Mary, standing in a striking blue silk gown on an alter of her own on the left side of the alcove. The girls were speaking or praying in voices which were swallowed up by the cavernous space before they could reach our ears.

The tiny nun walked off into the shadows in the wings of the main altar, far from the main pulpit and gilded tower. A minute later she was back carrying what appeared to be a two-foot-long test tube of translucent glass shining in the dim light. It appeared to be half-full of some silvery liquid. What, we wondered, is that? Some arcane Papist ritual we have never seen before, or some melding of indigenous superstition and Catholic worship?

As the nun carefully places the glass cylinder on the floor next to the statue of the Virgin, we finally made out that it was a simple glass flower holder. We noticed for the first time, a few meters behind the girls, a slightly older, taller young woman carrying a full bouquet of pink roses.

The students finished their prayers and moved back into the first two rows of pews facing the Virgin.  The teacher took the roses from the tall girl and carefully distributed them, one to each of the 13 students. After the last student had a rose, there was one left over.  The teacher gently handed it back to the tall girl, who refused to take it. The teacher leaned over and spoke softly into the tall girls ear. She shook her head but stood her ground. Her hands were in her pockets. She wouldn’t take the rose. The teacher seemed to sign and turned back to her charges.

One by one, the girls got up, approached the Virgin, knelt, crossed themselves, seemed to say a short prayer, placed her single pink rose in the vase the nun had placed on the floor, and returned to her seat.

The teacher gave the last rose to the first girl, who got to go through the whole routine again, whether as prize or punishment we haven’t a clue. Meanwhile, the chanting in the next alcove over had given way to rousing hymn singing, although again, the 30 or 40 voices were lost in the echoing reaches of the gigantic Cathedral.

After surreptitiously taking a few snapshots we walked out into the Cuenca twilight.  The Plaza Calderon, outside the church, was full of people hurrying home or enjoying the evening. Two doors down we found a classic Ecuadorian high-class restaurant with an Andean air of faded elegance, a small coterie of obvious regulars and a smattering of tourists. We ordered a fried fresh mountain trout, a local specialty, with french fries, rice (always), a salad we stayed away from, a Papaya milkshake (for the stomach) and a cold Club, the local premium beer (very good, German family brewery). The bill – $6.70.

From there, back to the wified Hotel Macondo to catch up on correspondence and the news, and see if we can get out of the Medical Pavilion in Bioshock on the Macbook. Killing time in the most marvelous way while waiting for Norma. Thus ends our first day in the Andes.

See some slides of the Cathedral and the wedding.

Posted in Ecuador, Uncategorized | 15 Comments

That’s Gotta Hurt


From (Spain)

In our tireless pursuit of sports thrills participatory and vicarious, the Dowbrigade came across this graphic graphic of revered Spanish bullfighter Julio Aparicio getting gored in Madrid.  PETA aside, any athlete who risks this kind of injury on a regular basis can wear any kind of pants he damn well pleases without raising the least question, in the mind of this observer, as to his masculinity.

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DNA Determines Dork Destiny

For Crime, Is Anatomy Destiny?, greed, anger, jealousy, pride, revenge. These are the usual suspects when it comes to discussing the causes of crime. In recent years, however, economists have started to investigate a different explanation for criminal activity: physical attributes.

A small band of economists has been studying how height, weight and beauty affect the likelihood of committing — or being convicted of — a crime. Looking at records from the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries, they have found evidence that shorter men are 20 to 30 percent more likely to end up in prison than their taller counterparts, and that obesity and physical attractiveness are linked to crime.

from the New York Times

OK, so just because of an abnormally high concentration of short, ugly fat guys in prison over the past 200 years, we can conclude that being an unattractive dwarf leads to a life of crime, or at least a propensity to crime, or at the very least a propensity for getting caught, convicted and sent to prison for a crime. No wonder Danny Devito was so convincing as the Penguin.

Actually, the Dowbrigade has been working on a research project of his own over the past several years which would fit into this category of sociological speculation. After rigorous field research and biometric measurement, we have determined that short, overweight and physically unattractive individuals are statistically overrepresented among the MIT student body. The clear conclusion is that these physical traits increase the danger that a given individual will develop into a genius.

Our methodology was impeccable.  In a classic double-blind study, subjects were shown mixed sets of photos of the MIT freshman class and the freshman class at the Barbizon School of Modeling. When asked which photos showed individuals they would like to meet in a mosh pit, subjects overwhelmingly chose the Barbizon students.  However, when asked which photos represented individuals who were also geniuses, the subjects also identified the Barbizon group.

To insure experimental integrity, both the subjects and the questioners were recruited from the Perkins School for the Blind in nearby Watertown, guarenteeing impartiality. Of course, the results should not be construed as supporting biological determinism. Clearly, not all short, chubby pug-uglies end up at MIT. Some, like Quasimodo, feel the call of the cloisters.

Posted in Humor, Weird Science | 3 Comments

Big Jake Bound for NBA?, Wis. — Big Jake might be taller than any other horse in the world, but his owner Jerry Gilbert describes him as a gentle giant.

The 9-year-old Belgian gelding is the Guinness World Record-holder for world’s tallest living horse at one quarter inch short of 6-feet, 11 inches.

That’s 2.75 inches taller than the previous record-holder, a Clydesdale from Texas named Remington.

Gilbert and his family own Smokey Hollow Farm near Poynette, Wisconsin. He usually shows Big Jake as a draft horse in four-or six-horse hitches and he raises money for the Ronald McDonald House.

Gilbert says Big Jake, who weighs about 2,600 pounds, is good with people and even likes to goof off. He says people are astonished when they see just how big he is.

from the AP

Posted in Uncategorized | 18 Comments

Turning your Blog into a Book

Back at BarCamp, another drizzly morning, perfect for brunch in bed or a bracing geek-fest brunch, which consists this morning of complementary Starbucks coffee, Skittles, pretzel sticks and Eden Garden Salty ‘n Sweet Snack Bars.

First session up is a woman named Claudia Gere, telling us that getting a traditional publisher for your book is harder and harder these days.  We feel a pitch for self-publishing coming up.

We may not last as long today at the conference today, but let’s see what surprises the day will bring……

Posted in Blogging, Boston, Technology | 14 Comments

Birth Tourism tourism is the phenomena of babies convincing their mothers to travel to the US pre-partum so that they can be US citizens, as well as take advantage of our swell pay-if-you-want medical system. A recent ABC News article says:

Thousands of legal immigrants, who do not permanently reside in the United States but give birth here, have given their children the gift of citizenship, which the U.S. grants to anyone born on its soil.

The number of U.S. births to non-resident mothers rose 53 percent between 2000 and 2006, according to the most recent data from the National Center for Health Statistics.

What they fail to mention until the 14th paragraph that “[o]f the 4,273,225 live births in the United States in 2006, the most recent data gathered by the National Center for Health Statistics, 7,670 were children born to mothers who said they do not live here,” That works out to 0.17% of all live births in 2006. Big deal.

Actually, we are surprised that the numbers aren’t much higher.  It sounds like a good deal to us.  We may just take out ads in major dailies in megacities like Mumbai and Sao Paulo offering birth tourism tours and services.  Out of 20 million residents there ought to be a few fools gullible enough to think that in a few years a US passport is going to be anything more than a blue badge of cowardice and a neon sign flashing “kidnap me”.

Posted in Humor, Media News, Uncategorized | 7 Comments

Food or Socialism

Afternoon sessions at Barcamp Boston. The turnout this year is impressive. What started as a small 50 geek gathering has turned into a 500 geek stampede.  The Dowbrigade’s personal scorecard at this point looks something like this: Fascinating sessions we understood – 1; Boring session we understood -1; fascinating sessions we understood very little of – 1; sessions where we had absolutely no idea what they were talking about – 2.

Currently trying to decide whether to go to see Connecting the world of cooking with or The Next Big Issues in Social Media, but since the latter has just begun while this is being posted this and the former seems to feature a pretty intuitive web site, we believe we will stay where we are.

Here is the schedule

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