In the Air Again: Expectations and Complications of Global Travel

I was not ready for more travel, though I had to go to L.A. for a doctor’s appointment a couple of days ago. An airline ticket was actually cheaper than a half-hour telephone consultation, which insurance does not cover. Not that I don’t like traveling; I do. But it is, after all, part of that middle-class and above, often excessive, “lifestyle” subsidized by debt, both personal and national.

As I have said before, somewhere, I don’t like the term, “lifestyle.” It seems to convey a sense that one’s life is merely a fashion statement. It implies that we are all free to choose whatever “style” of life we want. It also assumes that “lifestyle” choices entail no costs beyond the credit card. Only our economic success limits our ability to “choose our own lifestyle.” Culturally, it has become a matter of “consumer rights.” After all, with the inevitable march of “progress” as endless economic growth, we will all be middle class or even super-rich someday, right? Well, not so much, if you are a realist, however hopeful.

Old World and New

In Europe and other ‘older’ societies, families have lived in the same place for centuries. Who of us can say that? Most Americans move at least once every ten years. If you are a Euro-American and living in Santa Fe, NM, for over ten years, many transplants from California, New York, or Texas, will consider you a virtual native. Yet Native Americans or the heirs to Spanish conquistadors of four hundred years ago, would disagree. But that’s another story.

Commercial aviation is becoming a complicated affair in the twenty-first century. Yet it remains affordable for many among the shrinking middle class. Plans for expansion

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Popular Airliner ~ source: cnn.com

abound. The executive elite of the increasingly infamous one percent travels bi-coastally and internationally on a regular basis. The rest of us travel occasionally, relying on credit cards that many rarely pay off. All this is possible because of heavy public subsidies of companies like Boeing and Airbus. We all pay for the aviation infrastructure that makes the FAA’s Air Traffic Control system and National Weather Service work so well. Who would fly if it were all rolled into the price of a ticket from L.A. to Paris?

Externality and Ecological Costs

Like so many other industries, aviation “externalizes” the social and ecological costs of its operations to the people and the planet in the form of disease and climate chaos. As a general aviation pilot, I find it difficult to face the fact that aviation is generally an ecological disaster. At least aviation does not have the biggest industrial carbon footprint. No matter the relatively small ecological damage from small planes versus big jets, the total carbon emissions from the industry are huge. Yet, the status of “frequent flyer” is widely subsidized.

On the other hand, I calculated that my little 180 horsepower airplane consumes about the same amount of fuel per mile traveled as a standard American automobile. I don’t fly it all that many hours per year, so I can rationalize my hobby as having a relatively small carbon footprint. But then, American cars get terrible gas mileage compared to cars driven in Europe. I don’t have aggregate numbers, but the anecdotal evidence is consistent. Last time we were in France, we rented a little diesel Mercedes mini SUV, drove it all over, and rarely needed fuel. That car is not available in the U.S. However, the only viable future for the automobile industry is electric.

Airline flying for business or pleasure has a huge carbon footprint when considered as a whole. Yet the middle and upper-class American public considers it virtually a civil right to fly around the nation or planet at will. How can this conflict between species survival and the consumer culture of personal privilege be resolved? The increasing chaos of the living Earth systems will resolve it for us, in a very bad way, if we do not change our ways. As we move through the new era of the Anthropocene, we must harmonize with the ecosystems upon which we depend for our lives, or our lives will be lost in the consequent chaos.

On the Road Again: Snow Birds and Crocodiles

I was talking with someone the other day about my trip to the West Coast of Mexico, just to the east of the tip of the Baja peninsula. I praised the wonders of consistent sunny 80 degree beach weather in January and February. And swimming with my dog most afternoons in the little pool at the house we rented was great fun.

Commenting on my happy discourse he referred to me as a “snowbird.” I was taken aback. I had never thought of my little adventure as the mere seasonal migration of a snowbird. I had always thought of snowbirds as those people who live in “recreational vehicles” (RVs) and stay in various RV parks around the country, moving south in the winter, north in the summer. But it got me thinking.

While researching central Mexico for our first road trip “south of the border,” I had perused a Web site called “On the Road in Mexico.” We were having a hard time finding

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On the Road to Chihuahua

hotels in Chihuahua, Torreon, and Durango that would accept pets. When we had driven down the Baja peninsula a previous winter, we had easily found “pet friendly” motels along the highway to La Paz. Of course, Baja is heavily traveled by tourists from the western states of the U.S. Many travel in RVs with their dogs, some even with cats. As it turns out, pet friendly hotels are much more common in the western United States than in the eastern states. I don’t know why.

The “On the road in Mexico” Face Book page is a site where people exchange information and advice on traveling in Mexico. Much of the talk is about Baja, since probably the majority of road trips by U.S. nationals is to the various tourist destinations in Baja. Little is said about central Mexico. Very few “snowbirds” travel down the well maintained toll roads between Juarez and Durango or beyond. Chihuahua, Torreon, and Durango are all major Mexican industrial/commercial cities, not “tourist destinations.” It is striking to see, on driving through these cities, how they seem so similar in texture and tone to mid-size and large U.S. cities.

San Blas is a coastal city by a river about 3 hours’ drive north of Puerto Vallarta. The large estuary at the mouth of the river just south of town is teeming with all manner of wildlife. It is said that this area of the Mexican coast has more bird species than all the rest of the North American continent combined. We drove to San Blas one day and hired

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Smiling Croc. ~ San Blas, Mx.

a guide and his “panga,” a large outboard-motor boat that can seat up to 8 or ten people. Slowly cruising along the narrow waterways, we found more birds than we could capture on camera. Crocodiles also laze long the shore. We even saw a baby crocodile sunning on a tree branch just above the water. Had we gone out in the early morning, we would have seen much more.

San Blas was a major outpost of the Spanish empire on the west coast of what is now Mexico; today it remains a major fishing town. Its beautiful estuary seems so remote from the life of the industrial economies of the U.S., central Mexico, and the rest that threaten most species of the world in the Sixth Great Mass Extinction now underway. It is hard to imagine these crocodiles and birds being in danger. But they are. Those of us who are so lucky can go about our middle-class consumer lives for a little longer, but big changes are on the horizon… Snowbirds are, after all, totally dependent on fossil fuel, unlike the wily crocodile

Messy Democracy vs. Painful Plutocracy

Wake up call for federal employees: In the era of Trumpery, life is really lived on the edge of insolvency and pain. Forty percent of the American people cannot cover a single $1,000- emergency. Most federal employees, though slightly better paid than their counterparts in private industry, live maybe a couple of paychecks ahead. The cost of living is much higher than the bogus government calculation of low inflation. Like most Americans, they have little savings to tide them over during a government shutdown.

No Respect

FAA air traffic Controllers are some of the most competent and dedicated professionals I have ever met. They operate in a high-stress environment where the “clearances” they issue to pilots in the national airspace routinely carry life and death implications. Especially during high traffic periods and under rapidly changing weather conditions, their prowess in skillfully coordinating the flight paths and altitudes of multiple high-speed jet airliners and slower small planes is amazing.

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Near Miss. Photo: JetlineMarvel.net

As a long time pilot, I understand the “mission critical” character of the everyday work of these federal employees. I remember distinctly when Ronald Reagan busted their union resulting in the loss of some of the best most experienced controllers then operating. I noticed immediately thereafter, an unmistakable drop in the quality of air traffic control operations. I felt I had to be extra careful to maintain a reasonable level of safety in the air.

Many other federal employees live with far less daily stress on the job. I have envied the National Park Rangers for the serene environment of their work out there in the beautiful National Forests that the plutocrats would privatize for oil and mineral extraction. Most people take federal workers for granted or just dismiss them as “bureaucrats,” especially if things don’t go well when they interact with overworked IRS agents or Social Security workers processing their paperwork.

Yet, the work of these diverse employees of the nation is important to one or another element of the everyday operation of the society itself. That importance becomes ever clearer when an arbitrary demand by the president forces a government shutdown because the Congress will not roll over to the bully who’s pretensions to power cannot grasp the basic concept of the separation of powers between the legislative and executive branches of government.

Moreover, these folks have been arbitrarily made victims of the “government shutdown” that Trump forced by demanding the Congress pay for his ill-conceived and poorly defined wall along the Mexican border. It is especially disconcerting when we find out that the “border wall” meme originated as a mnemonic device conjured by his campaign staff to help him remember to talk about immigration to better pander to his xenophobic base.

Illusions of Border Security

In various places along the border, walls already exist because federal agencies deemed them effective, particularly around urban ports of entry. The Congress voted to fund them as part of prior border security legislation. It is widely known that most trafficking of drugs, about which Trump feigns such concern, cross into the U.S. through the busiest border crossings in passenger vehicles or trucks. Is a wall going to have any effect on that? Of course not.

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Trump’s Border Wall could waste Billions. Photo: New York Times

Never mind the fact that illegal crossings from Mexico have steadily decreased for decades. Never mind that Trump violates the federal laws that allow applications for asylum by the victims of ruthless gangs and bloodthirsty dictators that U.S. foreign policies have caused or supported. However, let us not ignore the vicious persecution of children and their families that the obsessive xenophobia and demagoguery of a rogue president and an unhinged federal agency called ICE have caused.

Some say Trumplandia is the natural progression of the growing plutocracy in the U.S. since Reagan. True enough. But plutocrats abhor the messiness of democracy and care little about the pain they inflict on the people. When narcissistic sociopathic politicians have pretensions of authoritarian rule, as does Trump, the pain inflicted upon the people within and at the border becomes intolerable.

On the Road Again: Huanacaxtle and Martín

(continued from January 11, 2019 post)

After a few days and a couple of back-and-forths with Seff Ramirez, locating a source of Huanacaxtle near La Peñita didn’t work out, so I tried another tack. I’d seen what appeared to be a tiny carpinteria in Los Ayalas, a small nearby beach town dominated by hotels and condos. I went to the carpinteria on a back street and asked to buy some wood. “No, no tenemos ninguno para vender; debe hablar con Martín en La Peñita.” He described the location of Martín’s Carpenteria y Maderaria (carpentry shop and lumber yard). I got the general area, but graphics always beat language for me.

“Tiene una mapa?” I asked. He drew me one on a scrap of wood. It was accurate to less than a half city block. What I saw there when I found Martín’s shop, the uninformed might consider a wood junkyard – they would have been oh so wrong.

I think that Martín the carpintero, has something, maybe a lot of things, to teach us post-modern corporatized professionals and entrepreneurial elitists in a world gone industrially mad. For now, I’ll just scratch the surface.

Despite my marginal Spanish conversation skills, Martín and I talked for over an hour as he showed me his dirt-floored shop, minimal machinery, and the wood he had stacked everywhere. We discussed wood and life at length.

I lusted for some exquisite 2-inch thick planks of Huanacaxtle more than two feet wide and maybe 15 feet long – absolutely beautiful. But I had no way to transport such a long

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My Huanacaxtle

piece – woodworker’s rule of thumb: never cut a piece of wood unless you need to for what you are making. So I looked for pieces I could fit into the bed of my pickup truck. I picked out a couple of boards that had exceptionally interesting grain patterns. They were a bit longer than my six-foot truck bed, but we were able to fit them in diagonally. I later packed all our stuff on top of those boards for the trip home to Santa Fe.

Martín has a passion for his work like I cannot remember seeing in anyone else. “Madera es mi vida!” he smiled. He had been to many cities in the U.S. earlier in his life, but for the past 50 years, he had been working with wood in his home town, making beautiful furniture, windows, doors, and cabinets from Huanacaxtle and other tropical woods. Martín has definitely “followed his bliss” in La Peñita. He will die one day a contented man. How many of us can say that?

I have a hunch that if we of the industrial-consumer culture had been able to find our bliss, and then follow it, we would not be in the disastrous position we find ourselves in today. Instead, we have followed the ideology of everlasting economic growth, personal acquisitiveness, and national empire building, all at the expense of our humanity. It was a great ride in some ways, for some, while it lasted – and a heavy burden for many more. But it is nearly over now, except for the kicking and screaming.

Now we must figure out how to unwind the industrial leviathan and live at human scale again. This time we have the advantage, if we take it, of immense technical and scientific knowledge. We can even use some of that knowledge to develop new ways to live in harmony with the natural world we may again recognize ourselves as part of. We must construct a new human culture, extending the benefits of the old ways, in order to reintegrate with the living Earth System that once sustained us. To get it right we need to learn from those who still understand the old ways. To achieve that would not be unlike Martín’s life, at least in some very important ways.

Liberal? Conservative? Really?

Most of us, it seems, define our political orientation as liberal or conservative, often with a “moderate” caveat. But what do we mean by that, really? I am afraid that these labels have taken a real beating in recent decades, with the result that they have lost most of their meaning, if not all.

Wither Liberalism?

Let’s start with “liberal.” For a good while now, the word “liberal” has taken on the aura of an almost dirty word.  Do you listen to talk radio or Fox News (which I prefer to call “Fixed News,” or “Fake News,” since it so heavily indulges not just in a particular political bias but also in falsehoods, innuendo, and ignoring facts, just like the president who follows it so closely)? There you will hear “liberal” used only scornfully. But, who are liberals, really?

proudliberalChris Hedges, in his 2010 book, Death of the Liberal Class, argues forcefully that the liberal class has abandoned its traditional political values, retaining only the name and rhetoric. The Democratic Party was once the bastion of liberal policies. However, through the latter half of the 20th Century, business interests controlled more and more of electoral politics as well as legislation itself.

Corporate interests and money-have long since taken control of the Democratic Party. Democratic politicians continued to spout liberal slogans. But they actually represented the corporate and investor classes as measured by most of their voting in both the House and Senate. Actual liberal citizens repeatedly came away frustrated by the party’s failure to implement liberal values touted in electoral campaigns. Thus, it is not surprising that while the views of a majority of Americans are generally liberal, the voting turnout in the U.S. is among the lowest of the industrialized nations.

Wither Conservatism?

So, similarly, what do we mean by the term, “conservative”? Well, here we have a different conundrum. “Conservative” has not taken on the negative connotations of “liberal.” However, the force of corporatized politics in the U.S. has similarly damaged it.

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Proud Conservative

Most of us have some conservative values and some liberal values as well. We value stability and responsibility in our fellow citizens and try to represent them in our own behavior. We don’t always succeed, but we try. The political buzzword, “law and order” has exploited our conservative character by instilling the fear that criminals and others of questionable repute threaten the stability and security of our lives.

You might think that the conservative and liberal labels reflect directions of political, economic, and social policy favored by citizens who identify with those labels. You might also think that politicians who identify themselves by those labels attempt to implement policies that reflect those values. But, you would be wrong. Labels are often cover stories used by politicians to justify their actions, which may have entirely other sources.

The politicians gain their campaign contributions and other largess from mostly corporate lobbyists. Of course, the lobbyists advocate for political interests that benefit from the policy choices they persuade (bribe) senators and representatives to make. And, where do liberal or conservative values fit into this picture? Well, they don’t, really.

Rise of the Corporate State

In an extremely important, though not widely known study, Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page found that over many years, legislation favored the interests of corporate and business groups that lobbied politicians. The expressed interests of ordinary citizens and citizen groups representing the public interest rarely found expression in legislation. Their report, “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens,” Perspectives on Politics 12:3 (September 2014):564-581, provides strong empirical evidence that “economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence.”

In this context, it is difficult to surmise that the conservative and liberal ideas have any role in politics other than as cover stories to curry the favor of voters who identify with those labels. They certainly do not predict more than superficially the voting behavior of most politicians who use them.

On the Road Again: Hasta La Vista, La Peñita

La Peñita, I shall return! Well, I would not equate myself with that eccentric WWII general, but I do plan to come back to La Peñita next winter – how could I not? To return to that vibrant little village by the sea has too many reasons to list – most of them too complicated to try to explain here. But I would do it in any case, if only to see Martín again.

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Downtown La Peñita

That reason is complicated too. What an interesting character. Martín is a carpintero (a carpenter/woodworker, builder of windows, doors, cabinets, and furniture of all kinds) in his small shop La Peñita. Some would consider him an anachronism or maybe an inefficient economic actor in a worldwide industrial system that has passed him by. When I met the old man – well, I’m not sure if he’s older or younger than I am – three years ago, I felt an immediate affinity. That little old man with rotting teeth, standing in his flip-flops on the dirt floor of his woodshop, just glowed with serenity. He seemed completely comfortable in his carpintería on a side street a few blocks from the center of town. Martín had worked in the U.S. for awhile many years ago, remembering only a few words in English. We talked about wood and the world for an hour, despite my broken Spanish.

Searching for Huanacaxtle

I had been looking for a source of Huanacaxtle, a tropical hardwood sort of like mahogany, but with beautiful complex grain patterns. It is found throughout Central America and goes by several different names. I had seen some beautiful tables and other furniture made of Huanacaxtle in a gallery in Mazatlán, when we stopped over there, near the end of our first road trip to La Peñita. The grain, color, and figure of this wood are amazingly varied, rich, and muy bonito. After seeing finished pieces in that gallery, I seriously wanted to buy some to take home and make something with it.

Martín is a rare find in this world today, even in Mexico. He’s been working with wood for over a half-century. I might not have found Martin had I not asked a rather unlikely source if he knew anyone in the area who cut or milled Huanacaxtle. Seff Ramirez runs a typical roadside fruit stand on the highway a few km north of La Peñita. He operates a rather nice nursery there too. The man knows how to use a machete. We had stopped to get some of those delicious mini-bananas that are so prolific in the area. I had decided to ask anyone I met if they knew of a carpintería where I could buy some Huanacaxtle.

The Road to Martín

I always try to speak Spanish in Mexico; too many Norte Americanos expect everyone to speak English. That seems presumptuous to me, despite the surprising number of expats and tourists living or traveling in throughout Mexico. Seff surprised me when he answered my question in California English. I asked about that; turns out my guess was right, he’d lived in California for many years. Anyway, when I asked about Huanacaxtle, he said he knew a guy in the local pueblo up the road aways who occasionally cut planks to make furniture for himself or his neighbors.

I asked Seff if he could contact the wood-cutter to see if he had some to sell. It was getting close to our time to depart La Peñita and drive north through the central highlands and deserts to cross the border at Juarez. I wanted to buy a few pieces that would fit in the bed of my pickup truck amid all the other stuff we took with us on a three-month trip through Mexico. I wanted to make something of that beautiful wood in my home woodshop. That did not work out at first. (More, in the next installment of the “On the Road Again” series.)

Not On the Road Again: Missing the Run to La Peñita

Having grown up in Southern California, the Pacific coast of Mexico has a familiar comfort for me – and it’s warm in the winter. You can actually get out in the surf in January in La Peñita, a small fishing village of about 20,000 people halfway between Mazatlán and Puerto Vallarta. I spent the summer of my junior year at the University of California, Santa Barbara traveling throughout Mexico – by VW van or course. I lived with a family in Guadalajara for two months that summer. In those eight weeks, I learned far more Spanish than in all the classes I’d taken at the university. That is when I first could really speak Spanish. I’ve been re-learning it ever since.

Traveling can provide a perspective not otherwise easily obtained. Of course, if you go from one major hotel-chain location to another, or stay in one “all-inclusive” resort, it would be like stopping at a different Burger King joint in any city in the U.S. – the anti-quality of sameness.

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Overlooking La Peñita

That is one of the reasons we chose La Peñita. It is a real Mexican town, even though quite a few Canadians spend the Winter there. Another is that it’s a small fishing village. We had fresh garlic and herb Dorado that Cynde baked for dinner our second night there on our last trip – caught that morning, bought in the afternoon, cooked in the evening – not shipped from anywhere, not “previously frozen” at Whole Foods, not processed in any way other than being cleaned and filleted, once carried from the boat to the Tienda de Pescado. Mmmmm!

Sometimes, in the midst of life in the swirl of the growing dangers of the climate crisis and post-electoral madness of Trumplandia, a little change in perspective can do wonders, just like a fresh-caught fish dinner. The drive down through Juarez, Chihuahua, Torreón, and Durango, with a slight detour to Mazatlan, was itself an education, each time we’ve made it. So many welcoming and friendly people. Same urban dirt and dense traffic in these cities as you will find in any medium to large city in the world.

But I wonder whether the Mexican violence meme may be overstated. I must look up the comparative crime rates with, say, Albuquerque, which reputedly had the greatest rate of citizens killed by police in the U.S. one recent year, before the Justice Department put the ABQ police department in receivership. The non-stop evening news stories of shootings, drunk driving crashes, domestic violence, and drug arrests reflect a certain U.S. social disorder.

My best perspective on Mexico so far, I obtained by engaging with regular folks in the stores and streets of that little town, La Penita, getting the lay of the land and feeling the pace of life. I will miss the long weeks hanging out there this year; medical issues always seem to complicate life.