19 July 2006

What Iran is Really About

I want to call your attention to an execution that occurred in Mashad, Iran, a year ago today. Two young men, Ayaz Marhoni and Mahmoud Asgari, aged 18 and 17, were hanged in a public square, allegedly for the sole reason of being lovers. A few days later, the Iranian government claimed that they were being executed for sexually assaulting a minor, but most western observers believe the charges were trumped up ex post facto, as the Iranian media made no mention of them when the two men were executed.

[I complain about the injustices I face as a contributing homosexual member of a western society, yet I am cognizant of the fact that I am not due for the gallows now or, likely, ever (unless Fred Phelp's Westboro Baptist Church ends up running the country).]

Barbaric actions like this abound in Iran. The Islamic Republic thinks nothing of stoning adulterers, hanging young homosexuals, and persecuting religious minorities. Meanwhile, they are busily importing their ideologies and fomenting a civil war in Iraq, and transferring cruise missiles to paramilitaries in Lebanon. Afghanistan's Taliban went on a similarly psychotic rampage, destroying ancient relics, demolishing walls atop convicted homosexuals, murdering adulterers and unwed mothers, and ultimately hurling their country back to the dark ages.

What chills me to the bone is that these actions are the logical and expected outcomes of Islamic theocracy. How do you think a country like the Islamic Republic would act when armed with a nuclear arsenal? Especially when unemployment is rampant and a young population is faced with a deep and abiding hopelessness? Is it reasonable to think that appeasement and containment (which seems to be the "least-bad" short term strategic solution) will work in the long run? On the anniversary of a barbaric and senseless murder of two young men, it may be worth our while to wonder if "America is the Great Satan" and "Death to Israel" are empty slogans, or more?

By the way...

Yesterday, proponents of the gay marriage amendment failed to muster 2/3rds of the U.S. House of Representatives to approve the amendment. Georgia Representative Phil Gingrey administered the floor debate yesterday. After the amendment failed, he spoke of the symbolic value of supporting a marriage amendment regardless of its chances of success, saying, "This is probably the best message we can give to the Middle East in regards to the trouble we are having over there right now." That's just great! Raising the spectre of homosexual rights to appease Islamists. In light of the picture and of what I said above, that's pretty ironic.

18 July 2006

Yeah - What He Said

My friend Henry Briscoe from Graz, Austria responded to my post below, on Israel's war against Hezbollah and Hamas. His response was left as a comment to the post, but I think it's worthy of promotion. He is a much better writer than I and he provides some much needed context. Read on...

One must ask why is Hezbollah doing this now. It seems to me that after their high in 2000 after the Israeli withdrawal, their popularity has massivly diminished. Many Lebanese (both Christian and Muslim) see Hezbollah as a major obstacle to peace and economic development. On top of which the Lebanese now refuse to be Syria's (or indeed Iran's) pawn - as witnessed by the waning of Syrian influence following the assasination of a major Lebanese politician.

Hezbollah were counting on massive Israeli retaliation (and the inevitable emotive images of dead civilians) to bolster their domestic support. However I think this is all about Iran's domestic politics and regional aspirations. Who is the big winner from this? Iran. Their efforts to forge a militant pan-regional Shia coalition under their command is suceeding. Their president promised massive development and raised standards of living, promises that he cannot deliver. So, by provoking the West into placing economic sanctions against Iran - through WMD development, tinkering in Iraq, supporting Hezbollah - he can then say to his population, "I couldn't deliver what I promised because of the Great Satan. Sorry." The worst thing is that his policy is working. Sanctions are inevitable, war with Iran possible. The youth of Iran, once upon a time drifting Westward have now been radicalised.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. He's the voice of Iran's discontent and her mouthpiece to the world. The real power, however, resides in the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, and the clerics who support him. Thus the dangers of a theocracy.

Why is Beirut being bombed? Beirut is one of the most sectarian cities anywhere in the world. The north is broadly Christian and untouched by Israel, however the south of the city is very much a Hezbollah stronghold - supported by an army of poor urban Shia.

What should Israel do? There's little they can do. Catch 22. If they let their soldiers be kidnapped without retaliation it will make their enemies bolder - they'll correctly see it as a sign of weakness. If they launch an all-out invasion they'll be doing exactly what Hezbollah wants them to do. I believe their current action is the least bad option.

What should the West do? A multi-national (including Muslim) force should patrol southern Lebanon and get medievel on Hezbollah's arse. This will never happen though - we're not about to do Israel's dirty work and put our already overstretched militaries in further danger.

What should Hezbollah do? Bugger off.

17 July 2006

A Return to War

The story of the week at least in the United States is the low-grade war Israel has undertaken against Hamas and Hezbollah and, by extension, Palestine and Lebanon.

I haven't followed the conflict as well as I probably should have, but my first reaction was supportive of Israel. Given how high the stakes are in the region (notably an ebullient Iran sowing dissention in Iraq, playing diplomatic poker regarding its nuclear abitions, and continuing to support Hamas and Hezbollah, militant groups with political representation in Palestine and Lebanon, respectively), I can understand and sympathize with Israel's fury over the abduction of her soldiers.

Israel seems much more comfortable defending itself after the withdrawal, which has allowed the country to fortify along borders that are accepted by most international authorities. We now know that a withdrawal did not portend peace in the region. Nonetheless, Israel's grievance seems legitimate: although both Hamas and Hezbollah are active players in the Palestian Authority's and Lebanon's democratically-elected government (with Hamas winning a stunning mandate in Palestinian legislative elections in January 2006), they have maintained their paramilitary actions, with Hezbollah in particular enjoying materiel support from Syria and Iran.

In January, foreign policy wonks were debating whether or not Hamas would be forced to cease its terrorist operations now that they were now responsible for the mundanities of government: making the payroll, providing clean water, and removing garbage from the streets of Palestinian cities. That question seems to be answered, which is why Israel attacked.

I can understand their frustration. Quite simply, if a militant group wishes to be a player in democratic politics, then it must disarm. Now I know this is a pipe dream, especially in Lebanon. There, Hezbollah seems to run southern Lebanon as its feif and has threatened a reprisal of the nation's suicidal civil war if it is forced to disarm. But then - why the pretense of democratic action? Why must they force the Palestinian President and the Lebanese Prime Minister to utter sad little claims of plausible deniability for their governments' actions against Israel?

With the abduction of a handful of soldiers, I can understand why Isreal struck back as hard as they did. I don't see the effectiveness of a political solution solving the conflict between Isreal and these two political movements who behave like political parties but who also continue terrorist operations against Israel. And so there we are, in a state of war.

One thing that seems counter-intuitive to me is the concentration of Israel's wrath upon Beirut, Lebanon's capital. The south of Lebanon is Hezbollah's stronghold, and as a result of two decades of civil war, they have few friends in Beirut. Indeed, the strikes on Beirut seem may alienate the very people that Israel most needs now: an urban population of Muslims and Christians who fought hard for a Lebanese democracy (remember how they threw out the Syrian military and intelligence thugs a year ago?) that now seems to hang by a thread.

Anyway, those are some of my thoughts. I wish I understood this sad return to war better. Feel free to leave comments or thoughts of your own (I'm especially interested in what you have to say, Henry).

Photo credits: Reuters (top) and the New York Times (bottom).

15 July 2006

Granola Week

I had a bit of an epiphany this week. It actually started last Saturday when I ran my car out of gas in downtown Salt Lake. As I was walking to a nearby gas station, I was contemplating the ever-escalating cost of gasoline and how energy costs were beginning to take a notably-larger chunk out of my financial resources. It looked grim - my driving patterns are such that I spend $80 to $100 a month on gasoline (which is probably less than average) and I was trying to figure out a way to cut it down. Do I ride the bus more? Should I trade in the car for a hybrid?

It also just so happened that my gymnasium, the legendary (infamous) University of Utah Field House, has gotten impossible to deal with. It's summer hours are bad, and there's no air conditioning. I usually go to the gym at 5 o'clock, after work gets out. And walking into an un-air-conditioned gymnasium at 5 o'clock on a July day when the temperature is peaking at or near 100 degrees is like walking into a gigantic used gym sock. In other words: cruel and unusual punishment. I think that gymnasiums are boring, repetitive, and barbaric on a good day, so you can only imagine how anxious I am to work out under these conditions. And yet - I need the exercise. Anyone who works a sedentary job needs the exercise.

The Einar Nielsen Field House at the University of Utah. Beautiful building, and not a bad place to work out in the winter. But in the summer? Ehhhhh - not so much!

I decided to kill two birds with one stone: that Saturday, I promised myself that I would ride a bicycle to work every day this last week. I tested it out that afternoon. I rode up my street into downtown, where I put the bike on the train that goes up to the University (the hill to the University is huge and I would be in no condition to report to my office after riding up it). I then rode it back home, since it was downhill or flat, most of the way. According to MapQuest, it's roughly a 10-mile round trip.

Technically, I didn't meet my goal because I had to run an errand on Friday which required use of my car, but I still think I passed the overall objective because I rode my bike every day this week - whether to work, to visit my grandmother, or to attend a meeting. By thursday, after riding all week and stopping at the locally-owned Emigration Market to pick up organic fennel and artesanal cheese and receiving a $0.05 discount because I threw the groceries into my back pack instead of using one of their plastic bags, I must confess I felt a wee bit smug. See how wonderful I am? Working out, supporting local business, and sparing the world more carbon monoxide? I was only smug for a moment before another thought entered my mind: Dear god! I'm turning into a granola! I could just see my father through my mind's eye, wagging his long finger at me and chiding me for becoming a "limousine liberal."

Emigration Market, at 1300 South and 1700 East, is a wonderful little locally-owned supermarket. What this store lacks in a Supercenter's selection it makes up for in style and character. I blew away all the cost-savings on gasoline this week by shopping here after work. This photo is courtesy of Beth Adams, a Salt Lake native who writes a charming blog called Crazy Us.

Oh well. The food was excellent. Having done so much cardiovascular exercise, I felt like a new man, and I saved money on gas. By these measures, my granola week was a smashing success.

10 July 2006

Vincerò! Vincerò!

Yeah it was just a soccer game, and I didn't even watch it. But I love the Italians, and being part-Italian myself, I couldn't help but enjoy the victory, even if I really didn't give a damn. about the game.

Considering that Italy is a nation of people who love, dress, and eat well, Puccini sums it up best. So this is for all my Francophone friends:

No one sleeps!... No one sleeps!...
Nor do you, o princess
in your cold room
Look the stars that tremble
with love and hope!
But my mystery
it is locked in me,
my name no one will know!
No, no, only on your mouth I will reveal it,
when dawn's light will shine!
My kiss will break the silence
and make you mine!

His name no one will know...
And we shall have, alas, to die, to die...!

Disperse, o night! Set, you stars!
Set, you stars! With the dawn I will win!
I'll win! I'll win!

- Nessun Dorma - "Turandot" by Puccini

05 July 2006

The Statue of Liberty, Born Again

Photo Credit: Rollin Riggs for The New York Times

Can you believe that? What you see above is the Statue of Liberation through Christ, a $250,000 reimagining of the Statue of Liberty in front of a Memphis Mega-Church. She holds a cross aloft in one arm, and in the other the Ten Commandments. Her crown has the word "Jehovah" inscribed in it, and she is shedding a tear.

When I was talking about how Evangelical Christians have aggressively attempted to incorporate their theologies into our nation's traditions and symbols, I did not imagine that a congregation would literally attempt such an endeavor. But there's the result, which is amusing and shocking to me. The more I think about it, the more I feel that a national symbol is being desecrated. The Statue of Liberty is a symbol of emancipation, political freedom, and American prosperity. To reform Lady Liberty as a Christian symbol, I fear, forecloses its moral and social impact to anyone who is not a Christian, and that's plain wrong.

Another blogger says it better than I can:
To a very real extent, the Statue of Liberty (despite being the product of the French) has come to symbolize America -- and America does not stand for theocracy. The Statue stood over New York Harbor where it welcomed immigrants of all faiths and no faith. The only belief America has ever demanded of its citizens, native-born and naturalized, is belief in America itself, belief in the idea that freedom and diversity were inherently good. To show the Statue holding a cross is a desecration.

- Post by Lizard, The Journal of Applied Misanthropology

But among America's highest virtues is our freedom of expression. Americans are free to reinterpret our national symbols, even to the point of desecration. That applies to our flag, too.

Courtesy Andrew Sullivan. The original article was in today's New York Times.

02 July 2006

The Perú Travelogue

The Travelogue is posted, in several chapters, below. It took me a long time to compile, and it's basically a transcription of my diary, which I wrote on the trip.

I'll be adding pictures to it soon. I won't do it tonight, because I'm tired of looking at my monitor.

Just to prove to you I was there, here's one photo of me, perched precariously on the walls of Machu Picchu.

Getting There is Half the Fun!


I just took a short nap on this pleasant flight. I practiced some digital photography. I am very tired – stress from a perfect storm of work and life issues. But I am sure I will be fine. We are due to arrive in Kansas City soon. I am very excited about this trip, and nervous about many things as well.

Practicing my photography as we swing back over the Salt Lake City International Airport

Many people who travel across or above the Great Plains describe them as monotonous or boring. I think they are magnificent. As I look out the window, I see these beautiful, symmetric bright green fields of crops, cut by rolling hills, streams, and arroyos. Superimposed on this vista that stretches forever is a grid of roads, each one perfectly straight, stretching north and south, and east and west.

7 MAY -1:00 pm

KANSAS CITY. Our flight to Atlanta is delayed, and I will likely just miss my connecting flight to Lima. If this is the case, I will have to find a place to stay and hope for the connection tomorrow night. Is Terry in Atlanta? Will I make my connection? If not, what about my flight from Lima to Cusco tomorrow morning? So many questions in this little drama, and only time will tell.

7 MAY – 2:30 pm

SOMEWHERE OVER MISSOURI. This flight will probably arrive at 4:40 pm in Atlanta; it is unlikely that I will make the Lima connection. I spoke to Cathy and we agreed that she will go without me. I am hoping that I can route through Miami to catch a flight that arrives in Lima at 4:30 tomorrow morning. If not, I’ll stay in Atlanta and visit the aquarium tomorrow morning.

I indulged in a decent barbeque pork sandwich and a glass of stout – all for $18 – at the Kansas City Airport. A little bit of overpriced tranquility to begin a trip that in the planning stages has been fraught with anxiety, beginning with a hellish project at work, a tire blow out, the loss of Sonia because of an injury she suffered, and various other issues. Oh well – this will make the destination all the more exciting. Also – it is healthy to let go and let things happen as they will.

An Unexpected Side Trip

7 MAY – 8:20 pm

ATLANTA – I missed my flight by 8 minutes! I was in the airport talking to Cathy as I was running like hell from Concourse A to Concourse E. By the time I arrived at the gate, the plane left with Cathy on board! Amazingly, they would not wait although they verified through my sister that I was in the airport. Re-routing did not work; there were no guarantees that American Airlines would honor my ticket although Delta would gladly get me to Miami if I really wanted to go (memo to me: don’t buy a bulk ticket in the future. Yes, they are cheap, but your options are extremely limited if you run into trouble). I’m stuck in Atlanta, but Sonia has re-arranged our flights to Cusco. I’m not sure what has happened, but she assures me that all will be well and that her family will meet Cathy in Lima later tonight.

I’m staying at the Country Inn and Suites, a boring and overused airport hotel in College Park, Georgia. Delta provided me with a discount voucher, although they did not need to because it was weather, and not a mechanical failure, that caused me to miss the connection. In keeping with the weirdness that has been ,my life as of late, a self-proclaimed voucher scalper offered to buy my ticket and take me in an unmarked minivan to a Best Western. I was tempted for a moment, because I just wanted a bed at that point, but I politely declined. After settling in at the hotel and ordering a pizza, I walked to the nearby Kwik-E-Mart to buy a bottle of wine (Pizza and wine are what I indulge in whenever I’m feeling sorry for my self – those are my pity party supplies). Unfortunately, the county blue laws meant that the liquor refrigerators were locked. I was however offered some bootleg outside the store. I declined that as well.

The pizza was excellent! I ate the entire 12” pie! As I write this, I’m watching Desperate Housewives and soon I’ll go to bed. It’s been a wonderful day despite it all. Tomorrow I’m going to wake up early, go to town, and check out the Georgia State Capitol and the High Museum. The Georgia Aquarium, though by all accounts the largest and most fabulous fish tank in America, is also very expensive, and I want to save my money for the real deal: Peru.


ON MARTA – I’m tired. I’m heading back to the airport to finally catch my Lima flight. Unfortunately, the High Museum was closed today, but I enjoyed myself anyway.

Atlanta at 10 am on a Monday - a sleepy metropolis.

I am seeing the strangest things today. Just now, a black man in a baseball cap was dancing on the train. Maybe dancing isn’t the right word: he was standing absolutely still while nodding his head rapidly to and fro as he listened to his CD Walkman. Everyone in the car was stunned into silence, as we were witnessing an apparent feat of human bone structure. He moved like a bobble head. Needless to say, as he exited the train, bobbing away as he walked, we all erupted in laughter.

Earlier this morning, I saw something just as unusual. A man boarded the train, and he was jangling three or four Eisenhower Dollar coins in his open palm. He would stop, put the coins in his back pocket, gesture, shift his weight around cockily, and take his coins out and jangle them again. He was met with bemused stares, annoyed glances, and shaking heads from the passengers. The poor guy reeked of alcohol.

The beautiful gold dome of the Georgia State Capitol.

Anyway, I had a pretty good day in Atlanta. I went to the Georgia State Capitol and joined a tour of young school kids. I enjoyed tramping through the Governor’s office and sitting in the House Chamber as they debated a bill extending a school recess, the Governor, played by their teacher, threatened a veto unless the kid-legislature added an extra fifteen minutes to the school day. The bill passed the House, but failed narrowly in the Senate.

Schoolkids voting on the recess bill.

Nice streetside dining near Georgia State University.

A Day Later, On the Way

8 MAY – 5:45 pm

EN ROUTE TO LIMA – FINALLY! – In six hours I step foot for the first time in Latin America. I can’t wait to see it. Months of planning and weeks of anxiety, and only now does it seem real to me. My nervousness is impeding on the warm feelings of anticipation I normally feel on a vacation, so I hope to spend the next few hours meditating on how good life is – and it is good!

A happy sight: backing away from the gate.

Initially, I was seated in the center aisle right behind the bulkhead. Across from me was a lovely Peruvian lady named Estela. She was fussing with a bottle of water, which I opened for her, and we struck up a conversation. She is returning to Peru to deposit her recently-deceased brother’s ashes in the family’s columbarium somewhere in northern Peru. I have promised to be her luggage lackey when we arrive in Lima.

There was a great piece of art at our gate in Atlanta, and I should have taken a picture of it. Oh well; I’ll describe it instead. It was a huge mural composed of business cards. Brightly colored cards were arranged on a field of white ones to form the phrase “Let each man pass his days in that endeavor in which his gift is greatest – Propertius.” The cards were fun to read and the quote was apt.

Frankly, I’m glad to be out of Atlanta. It’s hard to describe but it didn’t seem like a happy place to me. The city has an edge to it – a mood – that I find hard to grasp. I was surprised at the decrepitude of the neighborhoods I passed through on MARTA, and the decay in some parts of downtown. It also seemed highly ghettoized. Many of the shops downtown seemed prosperous, and many served the black community. There is a nice neighborhood surrounding Georgia State University, where I had delicious kofteh for lunch.

8 MAY – 7:30 pm

SOMEWHERE OVER THE CARIBBEAN – The captain has informed us that we have crossed the Tropic of Cancer – 23 degrees north of the equator. This plane ride has been magnificent. Estela had me fill out her immigration and customs declarations forms. She lives in Chicago and works for Old Navy. She is so friendly, sweet, and unprepossessing. I will give her my business card if she ever comes to Salt Lake. It is really too soon to tell from just an airplane ride, but Peruvians seem to be friendly, outgoing, and very up front. While waiting for the lavatory, the woman ahead of me in line just stared at me and smiled. Americans mustn’t do that, because initially I felt uncomfortable. However, I realized she was just saying “hi,” so I stared and smiled back.

I went to the lavatory to brush, floss, and freshen up , and while I was there another woman started to tap on the door, gently and politely, but insistently; I wonder how many Americans would sit and sulk through their discomfort, or would shout through the door?

An awesome and humbling sunset over the Caribbean.

These experiences remind me of why I travel: travel is indeed an indulgence, an escape, a fantasy. But to open one’s eyes to the grandeur, diversity, and vastness of God’s creation is ultimately what fulfills and sustains me. Tonight, the sunset over the Caribbean was majestically, terrifyingly beautiful – more sublime than any great work of art. Earlier I wrote about meditating. Through God’s grace and some beautiful cloud forms, I was given the object of my contemplation. To witness the sun dip below the horizon in a final, dazzling show of color, light, and shadow, was to pray.

9 MAY – 3:45 am

LIMA – Yes, it’s a quarter to four, but I am in Lima.

Our guardian angels: Victor, Margarita, and Rosa (who is proudly displaying a bottle of my pulm jam)

Our hosts took us to eat chicken soup at midnight. From left to right: me (looking tired and ugly), Margarita, Cathy, and Rosa. Victor took the photo after quizzing me about two of Peru's hottest topics: sports and globalization.

As we waited between my arrival at 10:30 and our departure to Cusco at 6 am the following morning, there was not a whole lot to do. Everyone else was sleeping, even the workers.

9 MAY – 6:35 AM

EN ROUTE TO CUSCO – This morning we boarded a StarPeru flight to Cusco. We broke through the Lima murk and into a spectacular sunrise over the Andes. The Cordillera made for an impressive sight – the jagged peaks cutting through rays of sunlight and casting looming shadows over mountain valleys shrouded in cloud. The mountains are stunningly huge – a much more impressive sight than flying over the Alps.

We were flying over and through the Cordillera. To give you a sense of how tall these mountains are, we were flying at over 30,000 feet when Cathy took the picture immediately above.

I met a lovely Irish woman seated next to me who purchased one Claritin pill here in peru for the cost of three such pills in the United States. She was in a battle of wills against her allergies, convinced that she needed to save the pill for something really serious. I spared her the agony and gave her a pill from my stash.

My earlier diary entry was interrupted by a quest to find coffee – the Lima Airport boasts a Dunkin’ Donuts and a Papa John’s! Globalization is a strange thing, indeed.

These layovers are awkward. Thank god for the welcoming committee. Sonia’s ex sister in law, Rosa, her friend Margarita, and Margarita’s boyfriend Victor all met me as I emerged from customs. Cathy was there too. But for this Lima contingent, this was their second night picking up a strange American at the airport. All the same, they met me like I was royalty, and I was given more hugs and kisses than I’d been given in what seems like forever. I gave Rosa a jar of my homemade plum jam, which she promptly declared as her favorite variety. Victor took us all to a restaurant that served a magnificent chicken soup, a simple broth infused with lime and served with spaghetti, a hard boiled egg, yellow potatoes, and accompanied with more lime, chili sauce, and green onions. The dish was served with an unintelligible gelatin-like dessert. After our midnight dinner, Victor drove us to the various neighborhoods of Lima. The city is busy with people working, even early in the morning. Many jobs here exist for those willing to do menial labor. There was one man who went around the airport terminal shaking out rugs all night long.

Anyway, we’re about to land in Cusco, after a beautiful morning flight. Much as I’d like to write, I would rather stare out the window.

9 MAY – 7:10 AM

EN ROUTE TO AREQUIPA – Yes, Arequipa. We were waved off from Cusco at the last minute due to visibility. We were below the ridgeline, descending into the clouds, when the engines roared, and we soared upwards. Cathy and I quickly read up on Arequipa, as we don’t know if we’ll be stuck there or not. The captain hasn’t given us an indication one way or another. Meanwhile, we feel badly for Miguel who is waiting for us at this moment at the Cusco airport. We’ll see what happens next.
\The diversion to Arequipa took the wind out of our sails, after being up all night the day before.

in Cusco


CUSCO – We made it. StarPeru held the flight in Arequipa for about an hour while the weather cleared. We finally made it at around 9:30. We were met with more hugs and kisses from Miguel Miranda Acuña, Sonia’s brother in law. Miguel speaks no English, and we speak no Spanish, but we got along anyway. He took us to his lovely home just outside the city center, where his Señora, Evita, had prepared for us coca tea and thick mango juice.

After breakfast, we went upstairs to our room to freshen up and shower. While Cathy was showering, I was gazing out the window at a house across the street. A boy was outside, burning something in a large barrel. I couldn’t figure out what he was doing.

A boy stokes a fire in a barrel as an old man looks on.

Residential construction in Peru is quite terrible. I think it boils down to a scarcity of good but affordable materials. Our room upstairs has no insulation, single-paned glass, and corrugated steel for a roof. That said, the bed was extremely comfortable and the blankets were very ample. We will no doubt be plenty warm tonight.

View outside from the upstairs landing of Miguel and Deishy's house.

The shower head was another story. There is no hot water plumbed into the house, so the water is heated by an element in the showerhead, powered by an exposed wire coming from the wall. It’s OK though – as long as you don’t touch the metal part of the faucet head, you won’t get electrocuted. Cathy stayed last night with Sonia’s father Alejandro and she tells me that his showerhead is even scarier.

Shower heads of the damned! This is Alejandro's shower head. You had to flip the breaker to turn it on after turning on the tap. Whatever you do, don't fiddle with the tap once the electricity was on. Residential showers in Peru were an exercise of courage and character.

After we showered and changed (the air is very brisk at this altitude – nearly 11,000 feet elevation), Miguel took us into town to visit Deishy who runs a pre-school, and to set us up with a tour. (As I am writing, a man outside my window is walking down the street selling produce. He’s shouting “papayas!” through his bullhorn).

Deishy at the Jardin.

The kids were practicing their dance steps for a Mother's Day Pageant they were to throw at the end of the week.

Miguel set us up for lunch at the Restorante Don Antonio, which served a beautiful buffet. With wine, the meal totaled $15 per person. They like their meat well done here. I had a wonderful dessert called a tomate de arbor, which was very sweet and tart. We shopped and strolled around the Plaza de Armas. There is shop after shop in Cusco selling anything from schlock to exquisite merchandise. There is also no shortage of itinerant street vendors, including women dressed in the native costume, their child in hand and a baby llama on their backs. They can be insistent. I was given a guilt trip in perfect English by a child who wanted to shine my shoes.

Cusco City Hall. In this region of Peru, they favor the Inca standard over the Peruvian national flag. Cathy and I referred to the banner as the Inca Pride Flag.

Cusco is stunning – ringed by bare mountains, the center of town is colonial in character, with magnificent churches serving as the city’s principal landmarks. It is generally very clean and well cared for.

The Jesuit compania on the Plaza de Armas.

Cusco is a city of improbable streets.

Cathy and I visited two churches, the Compania and the Catedral, both on the plaza. In truth, the Catedral complex consists of two churches on either side of the main church. The churches were enormous and the art was magnificent, rivaling anything I have seen in Europe. If anything, these churches seem better tended. The sacredness of the space is jealously guarded and photography is not allowed.

The Plaza de Armas is lined with pretty shops and touristy restaurants.

Stunningly, the baldacchino in the Cathedral was plated in silver. The art and architecture beautifully merged Spanish colonial motifs with Inca forms. For example, a painting of the Last Supper in the Catedral shows Christ and the Apostles eating guinea pig and drinking beer from Incan mugs. They did not paint on the walls or on plaster, as they do in some European Churches. Here, they painted on huge canvases built to fit the walls of the church.

The Catedral is a beautiful, imposing, Spanish Church. It is flanked by churches on either side. Photography was not permitted inside the churches in Cusco but - take my word for it - they were spectacular.

We had a wonderful guide in the Catedral who loved to talk about The Da Vinci Code. He speculated that the effeminate man seated next to Jesus in the Last Supper painting was actually Mary Magdalene.

After our visit to the churches, Cathy and I enjoyed a cup of coffee and a dulce de leche pastry at a charming old café on the Plaza next to the Catedral.

At the cafe. It was so yummy we went twice. While their pastries were exquisite, the coffee here and elsewhere in Peru was not the best, which is surprising given that coffee is one of Peru's leading export commodities. We then learned that all the good coffee is sold abroad. A few days into the trip, we learned to skip the coffee, instead drinking their delicious coca tea.

Detail of the Triunfo Church, which shares a wall with the Catedral. Note the life-size statue of the saint in the sconce above the window.

The Compania is in my opinion the most beautiful church in Cusco, and one of the most beautiful in the world.

Part of the city is built atop Inca walls. Inca construction was magnificent and elegant. They used no mortar, yet notice how solid these rocks look - each cut in clean squares and honed to give them the look of pillows.

Jungles and Highlands

11 MAY

EN ROUTE TO MACHU PICCHU – I’m using this train ride to get caught up on my diary. On our first night in Cusco, we strolled the plaza, enjoying it come to life at night. It’s a stunning and dramatic public place that is lit exquisitely at night. We came home and fell asleep by 8 pm.

Cusco at night is a very dramatic place.

Catedral at Night

Compania at Night

Yesterday was another great day. I’m usually not one to buy things on vacation, but Miguel deposited us at the Artisan’s Market. I bought an alpaca blanket, a sweater, and a scarf. Cathy bought a whole suitcase full of folk couture and décor, including a devil mask.

I forgot to mention that the night prior we bought several inexpensive but beautiful religious paintings – rude replicas of the Cusco school masterpieces – in a shop near the City Hall. For around $160 Cathy and I purchased ten paintings.

Anyway, after our market sojourn, and not knowing where we were exactly, we hailed a cab to take us to the train station to purchase our tickets for the ride to Machu Picchu. The taxi drove us around the corner and down the block a couple hundred feet. The taxi driver was smiling and laughing as we got out. Good thing the taxis here charge a flat rate of 2 nuevo soles (about $0.70).

We strolled back toward the city center, walking the Avenida del Sol, where all the Cusqueños shop. The city seems relatively prosperous, thanks mainly to the tourist trade. We made our way to the plaza facing the San Francisco Convent. Vendors set up shop hawking toys, comic books, and snacks to the school boys milling around on their lunch break. Cathy and I bought a bag of popcorn for the equivalent of $0.03.

Miguel picked us up at the Catedral and drove us thirty minutes outside Cusco to a Cuyería – an adobe oven and a handful of dusty tables under a shelter – where we were treated to a feast of gigantic corn kernels, handmade linguine, yellow potatoes, a chili stuffed with fresh veggies, and an entire roasted guinea pig. The only way to eat it was to remove its head and dismember it limb by limb.

We ate and drank among the farm animals and a couple wild dogs, and a beautiful girl who stood silently with us; and we washed our hands with laundry detergent in the community sink.

Miguel invented a new drink, combining delicious Cuzqueña Beer and Coca Cola. Cathy called it a Cusco Libre – memorable because it was her first bilingual Spanish-English joke. Everyone laughed, and our inhibitions were loosened enough that we joked all the way back home. The jokes remained with us through the day. By the end of the day, we had taken to calling Miguel “Inca” after the great indigenous leaders whose title eventually became the name of the greatest pre-Columbian culture in America – a regnal name for which he was entitled.

After lunch, Cathy and I visted San Cristobal, perched high on a hill overlooking the Plaza de Armas. Despite our heavy lunch and the altitude, we didn’t have any trouble surmounting the hill. Maybe growing up in Salt Lake at 4,500 feet elevation had something to do with it. The Inca walls were impressive and the views of Cusco were out of this world.

We had coffee at the Monasterio, a magnificent hotel in the heart of Cusco run by the Orient Express. There we rested and enjoyed the fireplace. Near the Monasterio was a beautiful shop where Cathy purchased a crucifix of Jesus as a campesino. The vertical segment of the cross is a shovel; the horizontal a machete. Exquisitely carved and painted, and quite profound.

We returned to the café we visited the day before and bought those dulce de leche pastries for Inca Miguel, Deishy, Evita, Deishita, and Alegría. They all loved them.

We met some wonderful people yesterday. At the market, we met Roma and Robin, two jaded and relatively cantankerous friends traveling together. Robin dismissed Machu Picchu and Roma dismissed the folk painting that we liked so much. Who cares? They were friendly, funny, and very kind to us. They expressed a desire to keep in touch. I took their photos and I have their e-mail address.

12 MAY

AGUAS CALIENTES – Yesterday and today, we visited Machu Picchu. Whatever I can say about it will not capture the awe I felt at seeing it for the first time. It is a magnificent ruin in a spectacular setting. Cathy took the lead and guided me through the ruins as though she were a professional. She studied the ruins and was able to answer every question I threw at her. It was like having my own personal tour guide.

The site was massive, and it took two days to absorb it all. Architecturally, Machu Picchu is genius. The ruins sit on a ledge that juts out over a canyon surrounded by tall peaks with extraordinary relief – the peaks were thousands of feet above us, and the canyon floor thousands of feet below. Rooflines, terraces, and sculpted rocks were designed to echo the mountains that surround it. The condor, an assemblage of boulders, is a masterful piece of abstract art. I could go on and on, and perhaps I will later. But for now, I’m out of superlatives.

14 MAY

CUSCO - LIMA– I like Lima more than I thought I would. Sure it’s dirty, noisy, polluted, and out of control. But it also has a nice life to it. Alejandro Venero lives in a working class neighborhood near the Panamericana highway. Despite the fact that he’s 78 years old and barely knows us, Alejandro has opened his home and heart to us.

We started today in Cusco. Last night, Miguel picked us up from the train station after a very odd train ride from Aguas Calientes. It took us three hours to get from Aguas Calientes to the outskirts of Cusco, and another forty-five minutes to descend into the valley floor, with the train switching back and forth over manual switches. It seemed like it would never end. We were treated with a spectacular view of La Victoria, a massive Andean peak, and a full moon.

Anyway, we recuperated while Miguel made his appearance on Deportivo Vision, Cusco’s weekly sports commentary TV program. The man is crazy for football.

Deishy and Miguel made us a magnificent dinner of potatoes, cheese, toasted corn, ceviche, and chicken in soy sauce. Miguel and I drank an entire bottle of wine, and with each glass, understood each other better. He declared that my Spanish had improved, and I could have sworn that his English improved as well.

This morning, we collected our tickets on LANPeru from a nice travel agent in town. We then met Miguel and Deishy at the preschool where we observed a presentation the kids were giving for Mother’s Day. As much as I regret not getting to see the Sacred Valley or some of Cusco’s art museums, seeing the kids dance and sing was priceless.

And then we said good bye. Miguel drove us to the airport, and when I hugged him I wanted to cry. I felt like I had experienced and seen so much – at once I knew I would miss him, but I also wanted to go home and enjoy a real bed and a decent shower. Alas, a few more days on the trip! As we waited for our plane to Lima (delayed four hours, with an itinerary that one point included a stop in Arequipa, and whose departure was moved from gate 3 to gate 2 and back again to gate 3) I reflected on how emotionally exhausted I was. This trip was a series of exciting and profound experiences, and I am verging on sensory overload. God bless Cathy, though. She’s been a wonderful traveling companion and why she hasn’t shoved me off a cliff yet – I don’t know.

Taxicabs for the Damned

We flew into Lima at night. Rosa met us at the airport and had a taxi waiting for us. The ride was a nightmare. The car had no seatbelts and the tires were bald. He traveled at ungodly speeds while Cathy and I trembled in awe and fear while Rosa laughed it all off. I have never been so frightened in my life, and I haven’t been carsick in 25 years…

Enough of that monster of a cab driver! Rosa, Cathy, and I went to dinner at a most wonderful restaurant: Huanca Pucllana in Miraflores. This is apparently where chic Limeños and members of the diplomatic corps eat. The scenery was second to none: it had a million-dollar view of a large pre-Inca ruin that was illuminated in the foggy night. The lomo saltado was simply to die for. Although the site was officially closed, a guide offered to give us a tour of the site, which we had to ourselves. It was eerie but wonderful to be walking through a pre-Columbian religious site while hearing U2’s “How to Build an Atomic Bomb” blaring from Huanca Pucllana’s bar. We bought Rosa’s dinner, despite her protestations, for all the trouble she went through due to my late arrival in Lima.

We wanted to go to Pachacamac today, but the foggy weather was not conducive to the visit, according to Alejandro. Instead, we visited the Museo Rafael Larco Herrera, an unbelievable collection of pre-Columbian pottery, weaving, and metalwork. Also noteworthy is the erotic art gallery, which displayed pottery (mainly from the Moche culture) depicting sexual tableaux in three distinct contexts: humorous, educational, and religious. Cathy and I wondered where the homoerotic art was – and if and how homosexuality was expressed in pre-Columbian civilizations.

The Larco was beautiful, in an old villa with a large garden boasting incredible bougainvilleas. Cathy treated me to a pair of cufflinks, replicas of some gold Inca frogs with jade eyes that I admired in the museum. The Larco is linked via a blue line painted in the sidewalk to the Museo Nacional de Antropología, Arqueología e Historia. We started to walk, but Alejandro grew tired about halfway there so we hailed a cab for the remainder of the journey. The Museo is a tired and dusty facility, though beautiful. It had impressive displays of Peru’s various cultures, including stunning art, and beautiful dolls intricately dressed in period costumes.

After our visit to the museum, cut short due to Alejandro’s increasing exhaustion, we went home, where Nelita prepared us more lomo saltado, served with this horrible soda that tasted like bubble gum (it wasn’t Inca Kola, but it tasted like it). I took the opportunity for the downtime to call mom, Noni, and Rob’s mother for Mother’s Day. As I was talking to them, I sat out on Alejandro’s porch overlooking his rose garden and watching pigeons feed on the leftover rice and corn from lunch. After lunch, we watched Alejandro play with his pet parrot, who cawed and sang at us for an hour. We then took him to Plaza Vea – Peru’s answer to Wal-Mart – and bought some groceries for him. We decided to spend the evening resting, for tomorrow we’d be taking the bus to Nazca – the last big event on our crazy journey. The prospect of the bus ride scares us a little. Maybe we’re gun-shy from the death taxi last night.

To the Lines and the Cemetery

Nelita assured us everything would be OK. She was kind enough to escort us to the Panamericana at the crack of dawn this morning to catch our bus to Ica, from where we would catch another bus to Nazca. It seems a little odd to be sitting on the edge of a four lane highway and wait for a bus to come along. The Lonely Planet guide warned us about some of the busses so I hoped for one that at least looked like a real bus, and not a rickety jalopy that tends to ply the highways in Peru. Sure enough, a real bus came along, with a guy leaning out the door yelling “ICAICAICAICAAAAA” Everyone sitting or standing on the concrete barricades by the side of the highway stood up and trundled aboard.

The bus ride was pleasant enough, and it cost us about $8 for the five hour journey along the coastal desert to Ica. We were treated to Escape from Alcatraz, dubbed in Spanish. At various locations along the way, merchants would board and walk the aisles, hawking food. I treated myself to a yummy confection that tasted like pineapple upside-down cake (they love their sweets!) and left a sticky residue on my fingers that was nearly impossible to get off. We also brought with us some bread, cheese, and cactus fruit yogurt. The ride was pretty – the desert and coast is spectacular.

Ica is a crazy city of adobe buildings and dusty streets, and three-wheeled Honda taxicabs. With huge sand dunes looming over the city, it looks like something out of an Indiana Jones movie. I asked for the location of the bus station to Nazca, and I was pointed down the street and around the block. Indeed, all I needed to do was to listen for the “NAZCANAZCANAZCANAZCAAAAA.” I heard it, and we boarded that bus. The Nazca ride was another two hours, on an older bus. We were held hostage by two preachers, one Christian and one new age, bellowing their babble as we lumbered through the desert. As we went further south, I noticed the towns getting poorer and more hard-scrabble. The desert grew more severe and hotter. This bus driver was a little more reckless, but fortunately there was a Madonna hanging in the back of the bus to protect us all from a rollover.

Nazca was another rough-and-tumble, dusty city, with even more impressive sand dunes. Topographically, it reminded me of Las Vegas. The moment we left the bus station, we were pestered by a man who was trying to sell us a hotel room, and our guide told us under no circumstances were we to buy a hotel room from a street vendor. We kept saying no, but he was insistent. Finally we ignored him and he sulked away. We elected to stay at the Hotel Alegría, which was in plain sight of the train station on the main drag. For $27 a night, we had a beautiful room and, for the second time on our trip, a decent shower! We made sure to take long, comfortable showers. We had lunch at Patrón, seemingly the only decent restaurant in Nazca. The food was spectacular, as we’ve come to expect on this trip. I had a Peruvian paella, with mussels and calamari, and Cathy had ceviche. We saw the most beautiful cat, obviously well-fed because of her shiny black coat. She owned the place, strutting from table to table exacting tribute from the restaurant guests. We believed she was the proprietress of the restaurant.

After lunch, we arranged our tickets to fly over the lines of Nazca. The tickets were incredibly cheap – only $50 per person including all taxes and an airport transfer for a 30 minute flight over the lines. We met a lovely German woman named Juliana who would be flying with us tomorrow. We got our tickets on AeroCondor, a reputable airline whose offices were across from the hotel. We then walked around Nazca, observing the town. The attitude of the people here is much different than in Cusco and Lima. Life is harder here; I could sense it, and the people were much less solicitous. I asked a man who was sitting on the sidewalk in the shade how he was doing and he smiled at me and said. “Mal. Muy maaaal!”

We visited the Museo Antognini on the outskirts of Nazca, a place devoted to the Nazca culture. We were tired and worn out from the oppressive dry heat, but the museum was a beautiful, if small, place. It included a garden with a replica of the Naca peoples’ ingenious aqueduct systems, which are still in use today.

That night, we attended a show at the Marie Reiche Planetarium in the Nazca Lines Hotel. The Nazca lines are fascinating formations on a desert plain just outside of town. Amazingly, they have remained undisturbed for around 1,400 years. There are various animal forms, lines, and radials drawn into the desert sand by carefully moving dark rocks away from the light colored sand underneath. Much mystery and speculation surrounds the formation of the lines, but the conventional wisdom is that they were designed as sites of religious significance, to appease the gods that observed the formations from above. In fact, the guides tended to bristle at the suggestion that some sort of paranormal or extraterrestrial activity was involved; it was the ingenuity of the Nazca people that made the lines possible.

Today we had breakfast at the Nazca Lines Hotel – a beautiful buffet – before hopping in a rickety Toyota van for the short drive to the airport. We met a cute English couple, Andrew and Catherine, and reconnected with Juliana. The plane left with just the five of us aboard for the short flight over the lines. The pilot was a virtuoso. He deftly maneuvered the airplane so that passengers on both sides had time to take pictures. Still – there was no use focusing the camera. I just pointed the camera and took as many pictures of the lines as I could. Halfway through the flight, Juliana got sick, so I made sure to take the pictures for her as well. After the plane landed, Andrew, Catherine, Cathy and I remained to make sure Juliana was well and eventually we escorted Juliana back into town. We had some time to kill before catching the bus back to Lima, so we arranged another tour – to an ancient cemetery.

The cemetery tour was among the strangest things I’d ever seen. For only $10 a person, we were driven out there by our guide Hilda. She showed us around a desert plain that was littered with bleached human bones – the remains of ancient Nazca people unearthed and stripped by grave robbers. A handful of gravesites remained, and were delicately unearthed by archaeologists. On our drive back to the hotel, Hilda pointed out a new village built of reed and adobe by the side of the road. The previous one had been destroyed by earthquake.

Our tour included stops at a ceramic shop and a metallurgist to observe indigenous techniques in pottery and mining. Both the potter and the metallurgist hammed it up for my camera.

We caught another bus home, operated by another company. This bus rolled down the main drag, and a man was perched outside the door, bellowing “ICAICAICAICAAAAA” so we knew that was the right one to take. This bus company, though they charged the same rate as Flores, wasn’t nearly as good. On the ride to Lima, I saw two things that stood out. One was a campaign sign for Alan García, which simply said: “Agua Para Todos!” Water for all. It’s amazing to me that, in a valley that is only 60 miles from the glacial peaks of the Andes, these people struggle without running water. To accentuate this point, I saw an elderly couple, naked, sitting in a tub outside their home, bathing each other.

We decided to find the Flores bus to Lima when we arrived in Ica. Our bus ride to Lima was slow and uneventful – if anything it seemed a lot longer than the right down. Instead of a film, we were regaled with an 80’s best hits album. We were grateful to find Nelita waiting for us when we arrived at the side of the road in Surco. Bless her, she did all our laundry while we were away.

Another Day in Lima

It’s our last day in Peru. We are ready to go home, in truth. It’s been an exceptional and challenging and exhausting trip. This morning, Rosa, Alejandro, Cathy and I went to the Museo de la Nacion, Peru’s flagship museum. Alejandro had us take the bus from Surco to the museum. The bus was an old Chinese wreck, but the ride was a lot of fun. It was nice to see Lima at decent speeds. It was a beautiful day – sunny and clear.

The Museo de la Nacion was interesting and well-thought out, but we were a little confused and disappointed at how abruptly the museum ended, with the Inca. There was nothing in the way of the modern Peruvian experience, other than an interesting folk art exhibit in a separate wing. One of the most interesting paintings, reflecting a theme in the Cusco artwork, was of an angel dressed in Spanish renaissance garb, wielding a harquebus. Afterward, Rosa and Alejandro returned home and we took a taxi into town, stopping at a beautiful park. Lima has some beautiful architecture, but we were saddened to see so much of it run-down as we walked from the park to the city center. We walked through a noisy protest across the street from Peru’s taxation agency. The place was bristling with armed guards, who were resting on their shields, watching the crowd bang their drums from across the street, simply waiting for the word to act if it got out of hand.

We decided to have lunch at a highly-recommended French restaurant called L’eau Vive, across the street from Palacio Torre Tagle, the home of Peru’s foreign ministry. The restaurant was run by an order of nuns who donated all the profits to their charitable operations. The food was excellent, which pleased me since it was the last main meal we were to have in Peru.

We spent some of the afternoon browsing the cheap trinket stores looking for something suitable to give as a birthday present to my friend Shawn…unfortunately, central Lima had little in the way of decent shopping. But the Cathedral, a relatively modern and sedate edifice by Peruvian standards, was magnificent. Of note in the Cathedral was a chapel devoted to Francisco Pizzaro, the man who vanquished the Incas and claimed Peru for the Spanish Crown. He is buried in a place of honor in the sanctuary. Attached to the cathedral was an incredible museum of religious art and folklore – it was huge and well organized, with beautiful works of art. It was obvious to me that incredible sums of money were poured into keeping up the Cathedral and the surrounding buildings on Lima’s huge Plaza de Armas. Incidentally, the Plaza is also heavily armed. Several armored police vehicles, including one with a water cannon, were parked around the corner from the Presidential Palace.

Our last stop of the night was to visit the San Francisco monastery, a much older church and sanctuary. The tour included visit to a library with an incredible collection of old Spanish and Latin manuscripts, and of the catacombs, where many early Limeños were buried. It has recently been unearthed and restored, and the bones have been sorted and arranged in strange concentric circles. I asked the guide if there was a cultural significance to the bone and skull designs, and she said no: “we did it because it would look nice for the tourists.”

We took a taxi back to Surco, enjoyed a few hours of Mexican soap operas with Nelita and Alejandro, snacking on avocado and bread, and then Rosa came to pick us up to take us to the airport. The taxicab she hired was appropriately frightening, a suitable ending to a wonderful trip. Again, saying goodbye made me want to cry. But by this time, I was exhausted, out of tears, out of things to say, and looking forward to my bed at home. The flight departed at midnight, and before the flight left, I finally found something suitable for Shawn, a beautiful tray made of wood, a piece of tapestry under a glass sheet, and trimmed in silver. I felt badly that I purchased it at the airport instead of in some atmospheric, exotic market. But I am sure he will like it.

I just finished transcribing and re-typing my Peru itinerary. Looking back, I came home a slightly changed person. My trip to Peru affirmed what it meant to be a human being, for never have I seen such love and generosity. We were treated with the utmost respect from our hosts, and I decided that I could learn a thing or two about being a friend and showing devotion to someone. The country is amazing, blessed with untold resources and a noble history, and challenged with mounting problems. I was told on a couple of occasions, “thank you for being interested enough to visit.” It was an honor. Never have I experienced a trip like the one to Peru. I learned so much, grew to love my sister even more, and came to appreciate a fundamental truth about my life as an American: that the American dream, as it figures in a global economy, is a zero sum game. Peru gives the United States and other countries cheap minerals, cheap labor, and cheap food. In many respects my prosperity rests on the backs of Peruvians, and of others, who live hard, rude lives. Yet they showed me a level of generosity and warmth that I have never seen anywhere else. I cannot wait to return.

Detainees and the American Way

Independence Day has always been one of my favorite holidays. I have always associated it with cool summer nights, good times with family and friends, fireworks, and good food. It has always been a highlight of summer. This year's will be fairly low-key. Rob and I are having some friends over for a barbeque.

Ever since I started studying government and American history, the Fourth of July has become even more meaningful to me. It is a celebration of a unique country, and a unique political project. The United States was really the first country where ethnicity and citizenship were divorced: no matter who you are, or where you came from (in theory), you had a chance to make a life here and enjoy the fruits of American citizenship. Thus, we are a nation of immigrants. What unites us as Americans is not where we come from, or what god we worship, or even what cultural we participate in - rather, what unites us is a commitment to liberty and equality which our founders believed existed prior to law. Our nation is held together not by blood, or by creed but by a simple idea - "that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness."

Our Declaration of Independence and, later, the Constitution provide the philosophical framework that holds our nation together, and that allows it to prosper. I've harped on how some Christians are attempting to refigure American democracy in a stridently-Christian context, and how President Bush has taken to himself unprecedented and inappropriate political powers. Don't take this to mean I despair my country! Sure I despair the political climate, but I believe that the pendulum will swing around. If only more Americans knew about their constitution and the political philosophies that underwrite our nation - then and only then would we have better politicians.

Last week, the Supreme Court curtailed the President's ability to subject detainees to ad hoc military trials. The president claimed that his inherent executive powers allow him to try detainees outside traditional military or civilian courts. Essentially, the Court in a 5-3 decision ruled that the President would have to get permission from Congress to continue the practice of referring the detainees - or "unlawful combatants" to the military tribunals. This is in keeping with a long precedent that argues that the president cannot simply act on implicit or inherent powers even in wartime. Our constitution sets up a system where Congress makes the laws, and the president acts on them. The laws should be explicit, and the scope of presidential authority should be made clear. This precedent seems to apply in the case of stark national emergencies, such as our Civil War, as well as our current situation, where we are fighting a war whose end is unforeseen.

The Supreme Court essentially affirmed a prior ruling, where it argued that Congress' authorizationfor use of military force after September 11, 2001, was not a "blank check" for the President. Thank God for that. For all of the areas where I fault President Bush, it is his callous disregard for congressional intent and of the rule of law in prosecuting enemies of the state that galls me the most. Our nation is held together by an idea - and nothing else - and if we fail to uphold the idea, we will surely lose our integrity and legitimacy in the world. I honestly don't care if a new process of trying detainees is slow and cumbersome. It is a relatively small price to pay in order to be able to proudly say, as a nation, that despite their hatred of us, we treat them with the dignity that is granted to them as human beings.

The Fourth of July, 1916 - Childe Hassam