Faux News Breaking News: Internet Companies Announce New Policies To Fight On Line Abuse

Major internet providers tomorrow are expected to  announce a new policy that is intended to put an end to all email and online scams and Russian interference in U.S. elections. Starting on February 1, 2020 all passwords used on the internet must meet the following requirements:

  • The password must contain at least 20 characters but not more than 100.
  • One discreet password per account is allowed with no duplicates.
  • The password must contain at least two capital letters, eight small case letters, seven numbers, and three symbols.
  • No password will be allowed which contains any of the letters or numbers or symbols used in any previous password used by the user. If no such options exist, the user must apply for a waiver and pay a fine of $37.22
  • Whenever the number “9” appears, it must be followed by two additional numbers which added together equals the day of the month that the user was born. In the case of a single digit day, the preceding number should be the letter “O,” not a zero.
  • It should not be possible for any of the letters used to form an actual word in any language.
  • If the user’s middle name begins with a vowel, the numbers must add up to an even number. If it begins with a consonant, they must add up to an odd number.
  • All passwords must be changed monthly.

The consortium of email and internet providers emphasized that there will be no exceptions to this policy except as noted above. Kept under top secret, lock and key for months, the new policies will be announced formally at a news conference tomorrow. Some digital experts have stated they expect pushback from internet users but generally agree that these new policies when implemented will reduce internet abuse.

The Truth About Portland, ME

We visited our daughter’s family over the Christmas holidays in Portland ME where we were joined by our son’s family and the families of our niece and nephew along with a Pit Bull, a Golden Doodle, a neighbor’s Cairn Terrier, a large snake which fortunately slept all the time, and the coup de grace, a tiny, orange tabby kitten only a few weeks old. The arrival of Ringo, the kitty, would not have been such a big deal except that the very idea of the arrival of a tiny, strange animal, which could possibly be a cat, drove Betsy, the Pit Bull, and Gimli, the Golden Doodle, crazy; and there were several times when one or both of the two dogs came perilously close to snapping off the poor kitten’s head.

The week in Portland, however, gave me sufficient exposure to the coastal Maine culture so that I now consider myself an expert regarding this unique brand of Yankee.

Let me set the record straight. What you hear about Maine is not necessarily accurate.  Here is the truth about the coastal Maine Yankee: all the people do not wear LL Bean lumberjack shirts, LL Bean boots, LL Bean down jackets, LL Bean hats, and LL Bean hiking boots all the time. Just most of the time. Nor is everyone thin and disgustingly fit though most certainly look like they are. And it is not true that all men over 30 have bushy beards and hair down to their shoulders, but a lot sure do. It is also not true that you can’t go outside without seeing someone walking a dog, often two dogs, but most of the time you can. Nor is it true that you can visit any of the several dog friendly beeches without counting at least a hundred four-legged creatures, the vast majority Golden Retrievers and Black Labs, bounding and frolicking all over the place. But you can sure count a lot of them.

It is not true that all these Yankees drive all-wheel-drive SUVs all the time with kayaks and skis on top. There are not that many skis on the top during the summer. It is also not true that there are no people of color though you have to look hard to disprove that, and with recent immigration of Africans, that is changing.

 It is not true that the place is drop-dead beautiful with rocky beeches, majestic islands surrounding the town along with ancient lighthouses and sparkling blue waters everywhere with lobster boats heading home after a long day on the water with scores of gulls following behind and ferries scurrying people from the islands to the town and back. But that description comes pretty close. It is also probably not true that Portland has some of the best restaurants around and the most for any city its size, but it could be true. The restaurants we went to were all pretty good, one exceptional. All these Yankees do not own wood stoves or spend most of their waking hours chopping wood when they are off work. Just some do including Peter, my son-in-law.

So be careful when you hear people talking about how great Portland is; and if anyone tells you it is cheap and affordable, be doubly careful. When Embry and I departed from the airport we had an hour to kill before boarding our plane back to DC. At the airport diner we ordered two small bowls of lobster soup and one small bowl of coleslaw along with two beers. It took over 45 minutes for the order to arrive; and when it did, we had to gulp it down and then run to get to the gate on time.  Total tab excluding tip: $75.17. We made the mistake of agreeing to have lobster in the soup. We were told by the waitress that it actually was not soup but “bisque,” and if you  wanted lobster in it, you had to pay more. We don’t drink “bisque” where I come from. We drink soup. I wondered what a cup of clam chowder would taste like without clams or a crab soup without crabs. I will be more careful next time.

So now you know.  Portland is not necessarily all it is cut out to be, but for a misplaced Southerner living in DC most of my life, I will have to admit I understand why my daughter and son-in-law, who used to live only a few miles from us, headed north with their teenage kids in tow to get out of Dodge. They chose a pretty nice spot.

Hello 2020: What Do You Have In Store For Us?

The turn of a year is always a good time for reflection. Here is my shot:

First, I would like to say thanks to 2019 for what on a personal level was a very good year for me and Embry. Embry and I did a lot of travel, which if you have been following the blog, you know all about. We continue to be in good health for people our age and are still squeezing drops out of the lemon. Theoretically retired from the Urban Institute–Embry still goes in to work occasionally– she has reinvented herself as an international consultant, specializing in evaluating US AID programs in developing nations. Mali was her first engagement in this new line of work, and she spent a week there in 2019 training villagers on how to do focus groups. No telling what will be next.

My volunteer work in 2019 on several nonprofit housing boards was especially rewarding, and I feel valued and appreciated.  Our two children and four grandchildren are doing fine. I value and cherish my relationships with close friends. We are enjoying apartment living in DC and are secure financially. I am still racing our sailboat, Second Wind, along with a great crew, and we even won a trophy in one of the series. And Embry and I were also able to get in some long cruises on the Chesapeake Bay with friends. At my Davidson 55th reunion in the spring I received a “Distinguished Alumni Award,” for which I am especially grateful and—I will admit it—proud.  Life was good for us in 2019.  I feel blessed.

I also understand that for others this was not the case. My best friend lost his wife, and we lost several other friends as well. Funerals are a lot more frequent nowadays than weddings. At our age this is what you expect. Other friends are struggling with health issues, some with memory issues. Anyone my age (soon to be 78) understands that we are running our last lap. That is the way life is on the planet Earth for us homo sapiens, in fact for all life.

But while I can say that for me 2019 life was a good year, when I look at the bigger picture, well, I am not so sure.

Actually, the year was not all bad. In an op ed essay in the Sunday, December 29, New York Times, Nicholas Kristof points out that 2019 was the best year ever in terms of reduced, world-wide poverty, improved health, reduced infant mortality, empowerment for women, and better educational opportunities. We are making progress on many fronts. The U.S. economy has been strong, and we have averted any major, new wars or huge catastrophes. (For now anyway. Note the developments with Iran and North Korea.) Good news too rarely finds its way into newspapers or newscasts.

But still….

The year 2019 saw continued gun violence, the opioid crisis, an increase in hate crimes, increasing income disparities, attacks on Obamacare and the social safety net, widening divisions in our country, and more fires, devastating storms, and flooding due to climate change. And, of course, there was Trump.

For anyone paying attention, it is hard to miss the storm clouds gathering on the horizon. The major question that will be answered in 2020 will be, do we get another four years of Trump. If he is reelected, this would assure at least one more right wing, Supreme Court justice and probably the end of Roe v. Wade, continued denial of climate change, widening social divisions in the U.S. population, a diminished role for the U.S. in world leadership, less trust in government, more hostility to immigrants, cutbacks to help for the poor, an increase in hate crimes and vigilante groups, increased attacks on the free press, and God only knows what else. I am not sure that our institutions could survive another four years of Trump. I am not sure the country as we know it could.

Now as much as I detest Trump for the kind of person he is, for what he stands for, and for what he is doing, I also have to admit that he is as much a symptom as a cause. The major culprit, I believe, is globalism. The world is changing very fast due to the ease of travel, technology, and world trade. Much of this is good. It is a major factor in improving the standard of living for people all over the world as documented in the Kristof essay. But it has created major upheavals and produced winners and losers. In the U.S. the losers include many in the white working class, mainly men, who have seen their jobs shipped overseas, their incomes reduced, and lifestyles and values threatened. They see more people of color or who speak English with an accent taking jobs they believe rightfully belong to themselves, not to immigrants. They are fighting back. They see Trump as “their guy,” who will stand up against the “coastal elites” and others on whose watch globalism accelerated. “The enemy of my enemy is my friend” is their mantra. They constitute a large share of Trump’s intractable “base,” and have gone all in. Many are also Evangelicals, who I believe have crossed over to what I call “the Dark Side” for many of the same reasons.

All the blame, however, should not be placed on the uprooted, white working class. You can understand where they are coming from and the reasons for their discontent. They have been aided and abetted by a Republican Party that I believe has sold out to Trump in order to hold on to power regardless of the cost to what used to be Republican values of small government, personal responsibility, balanced budgets, human rights,  and ethical behavior. A lot of Trump’s support also comes from “one percenters,” who believe that Trump is their best bet for lower taxes, deregulation, and laissez faire economics. The tools that they are using are gerrymandering, voter restrictions, and targeted social media, all threats to our democracy.

The alienation caused by globalism is not just a U.S. problem. It is a worldwide phenomenon and is responsible in part for Brexit and for the authoritarian governments in former, fairly robust democracies like Turkey, Hungary, Poland, Egypt, and Brazil, and for the neo Nazi parties and hate groups forming throughout Europe. The big questions are how far this nativist populism will go and is our democracy inching toward authoritarianism. I believe that what happens in the presidential election in 2020 will determine the direction we are headed. The stakes have never been higher.

So 2020 could  be a pivotal year. Hanging over all of us humans on the planet, of course, is the threat of unmitigated disaster caused by global warming. The clock is ticking on this one. If we–all the counties on the planet–do not take major action now on reducing the amount of carbon we generate, much greater action than anything contemplated so far, scientists tell us we are doomed. We do not have another four years to waste before we can move decisively on combatting global warming. With Trump in charge, that will be the case.

What will 2020 have in store for us? It could be, as the saying goes, a game changer. Tighten your seat belts and get to work—for Democrats!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Meaning of Christmas

On Christmas Eve of 2019 the Howell clan assembled at our daughter’s home in Portland ME: our two children with spouses, our four grandchildren ages 10 to 14,  our niece and nephew with spouses, and our two teenage grandnieces. Quite a houseful!  Embry and I are truly blessed.

 A week before our daughter, Jessica, asked if I would lead a small, family religious service on Christmas Eve. I readily and enthusiastically agreed, realizing that I would be addressing a gathering of the “unchurched”–two Buddhists, two self identified atheists, and the balance, for the  most part, “nones.”  Sort of typical for our time and era. 

The service consisted of a short introduction, a reading of Luke’s gospel of the Christmas story by the grandchildren and grandnieces, a “sermon,” by me,  a Christmas prayer, Christmas music lead by our nephew, a professional jazz guitarist, and to my pleasant surprise, an impromptu discussion regarding my Christmas message, which is shown below: “The Meaning of Christmas.”

 

Christmas is the day that Christians set aside to celebrate the birth of Jesus. This happened over 2000 years ago and is a major feast day for over 2 billion people on the planet Earth who are Christians, more people than in any other religion. We are honoring the occasion tonight in a small, family gathering where for a few moments we think about what is the meaning of Christmas, the religious meaning of Christmas.

It occurs to me that some here might ask the question, do you have to be a Christian or a member of a Christian church to understand, appreciate, or participate in the meaning of Christmas from a spiritual or religious perspective. 

My answer is no. Now you know that Embry and I do go to church regularly and in fact Embry is on the governing board of All Souls Episcopal Church in Washington. You may even recall that I went to Union Theological Seminary in NYC and studied to become an Episcopal priest. So you can say that we probably have paid our dues. That maybe we are in a better position to understand the meaning of Christmas more than someone who doesn’t attend church.

There may be some truth to this, but on a deeper level, I think that you do not have to go to church or even have to call yourself a believer to “get it” when it comes to what Christmas is all about and what the meaning of Christmas is. But you do have to pay attention.

My understanding of God and the spiritual aspect of human life expands beyond any one church or any one religion. I believe there is a spiritual and holy dimension to the life all us humans live and experience. This is evident when we ask the question why we are here on this small, obscure planet. When we ask what the meaning and purpose of life is, why are things the way they are, and why aren’t they better. Why does evil exist? Why do we have to die? And what happens after we die? I venture to say that these questions are asked at one time or another by virtually every person. It is our nature. It is the way our brains work. It is what makes us human.

In my thinking and experience, “God” is the word we use to refer to a spiritual force and reality that is by definition beyond  human understanding and our ability to describe in language. But I believe it is real.

“Religion” is the word we use to describe our effort as humans to connect to this reality.  There is  a  lot about life that we can’t  understand. We live on one small, blue planet which circles around a run-of–the-mill star we call our sun. This star is one of more than 250 billion stars that are in our Milky Way galaxy. This small galaxy is part of more than two trillion galaxies in what we call the universe. But this universe may be only one in what some scientists speculate is actually  a multiverse where there are an infinite number of universes.  Is there anyone who can say that they figure this out, that they know what it all means?

We do know some things. Scientists tell us we now know that the universe all started with the Big Bang 14 billion years ago and is expanding. But they don’t tell us why.  We don’t know the answer to why or what or what it all means. We never will.

But what does this have to do with Christmas?  While science can tell us a lot about what, it cannot answer the question why nor does it try to. This is where religion comes in. Having faith and belief that it all makes sense somehow is what religion is all about. Now there are many different religions on the planet earth and about a half dozen or so “major religions,” Christianity being the largest of all, just a tad larger than Islam. However, I am not one to say that Christianity has all the answers or that it is the only way to make sense out of the world as to the meaning of life or, even more important, about our ability to experience on a deeper level what this meaning is, to experience the Divine. I look at the search for meaning as one destination with many pathways. Christianity is one pathway.

And what is that pathway? For me Christmas day is all about a small child being born in humble conditions. A small, innocent child—every child, I believe–represents hope for the future. It is a miracle when you think about it—that life continues and goes on. A new human being has entered the world! The birth of any child I think has a profound religious meaning.

And in the case of Christianity, this child became special because of the life he lived, which many people—those who call themselves Christian—believe provides a roadmap for us humans to follow, and a glimpse of the Divine . This roadmap can be boiled down to one phrase: love your neighbor. That love is the connection between humans and the divine, between humans and God. That is good enough for me, and I think,  good news about life on our fragile planet, Earth.

 What we do about it and how we live our own lives, of course, is another matter. We know we often fail. But this person we call Jesus also said that God loves us and that there is meaning and purpose in life even if we do not and cannot live up to a life of loving our neighbor. That there is hope.  That we are forgiven.

So the story of the birth of Jesus tells us that you do not have to count all the stars in the universe to find meaning and purpose and know that while it is all beyond our understanding, in the end our life on this planet does make sense. In the end it is good.

This is why Christians rejoice at Christmas. But I say it is not just for people who call themselves Christians or believers. It is a message for all humankind, and for that we all can rejoice.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Southern Exposure: Final Chapter

As we were dragging ourselves off the plane at Dulles Airport, I had to bite my tongue to keep from asking Embry, “Is this our last big trip? You promised. Please?”

I will have to give Embry credit. She has been the motivating force behind all of our travels; and if it were left to me, I would probably spend my days in front of the TV watching Joe Scarborough on MSNBC bash Trump. Well, maybe not exactly, but I am grateful to her for her energy, determination and will power, all driven by an unquenchable wanderlust. 

We have had some extraordinary journeys. Before this trip, together we had visited India and much of Southeast Asia, Russia, most of Europe, Japan, Egypt, Tanzania, Kenya, South Africa, Canada, Mexico, Honduras, Mongolia, China, Australia, and New Zealand. My contributions have been sailing in the Caribbean, the Mediterranean, the South  Pacific (Tahiti), and the Aegean. And, of course, there was our famous trip around the world without flying in 2015 and the Road Trip out West in 2016. All totaled they add up to more than 50 countries we have visited. As far as travel goes, we have had more than our share of opportunities. I am deeply grateful for this.

I suspect that the South American odyssey will in fact be out last big trip, and it was a good one to conclude with. My only question is why did it take us so long to get there. After all it is a lot closer than Asia or Australia, and the time zones are pretty close to ours reducing the jet lag. For some reason we from the U.S. (not “we Americans,” please) tend to downplay South America as a second rate part of the world. The image many have is that of a backwoods part of the world notable for failed governments, military juntas, crime cartels, street violence, poverty and ignorance. So why bother?

Well, if you have been following the blog, you know that the image is wrong. The vast continent is home to 14 countries and over 400 million people. It is among the most diverse areas in the world in terms of climate and terrain. It is the primary oxygen supplier to the planet Earth with the world’s largest rain forest. Its deserts are among the driest and its mountains among the tallest. It has the world’s biggest river, arguably the most beautiful waterfall, and stunning fiords that compare with those in Norway. It is rich in natural resources, a major world producer of gold and silver, along with agricultural products like bananas, coffee, and beef.  Though there are serious issues that affect the continent, it is by no means a “Third World” backwater.

It is also has a diverse population. Unlike what happened in the U.S., the invading European  conquistadors and adventures mixed with the indigenous population leaving behind a legacy of “mestizos,” a mixed race people with light tan skin, who comprise a large share of the population in many South American countries. Add to that mix the introduction of millions of slaves from Africa in the 18th and 19th Centuries and you have one of the most diverse populations in terms of race and skin color on the planet. Racism still exists in South America with a hierarchy that favors those of European descent, but it is different and seems more subtle than in the U.S. There is also a lot of difference between the countries. Indigenous peoples are more strongly represented in Peru and Ecuador and the West Coast, and those of African descent in Brazil. Argentina remains the lightest in skin color and feels the most European.

We found the people to be warm and friendly almost everywhere. Though there is plenty of poverty, we were never harassed at any time by a panhandler or someone trying to sell us something we did not want. In both Rio and Buenos Aires there were homeless people but fewer than you would see in DC. And unlike our trip around the world, I did not get pick pocketed or have my cellphone stolen.

If you were counting, we visited one country in the Caribbean (Aruba), one in Central America (Panama) and six in South America: Peru, Ecuador, Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, and Brazil plus the Falkland Islands—a total of nine countries in all. They were all interesting in their own way. My favorite city was Buenos Aires, a world class city in every respect, comparing favorably to our best cities in the U.S. Rio is a close second for its extraordinary natural beauty. The in-your-face poverty and preponderance of favelas in Rio, however, is hard to ignore. The Chilean fiords win out as the most beautiful and dramatic part of the trip and should be on everyone’s bucket list  as should be Iguassu Falls. Uruguay  wins out as the most progressive, which may not be saying a whole lot but is impressive just the same.

There were several recurring themes that persisted during the trip. The first was what is now being called the great income disparity. While the equality issue is a world-wide phenomenon, it is even more apparent in the countries we visited than in the U.S. In Chile it was the focus of mass protests. The second theme was the fragility of the governments. Every country we visited in South America in its past has had brutal dictatorships, many multiple times. Chile, Argentina, Brazil, and Peru have all had terrible, oppressive governments where the free press was curtailed and innocent people locked up or killed. Many people we talked to fear that this could happen again. It is happening now in Venezuela. It appears to be happening in Brazil and in  Chile and could happen in Argentina. Argentina also is staring financial collapse in the face.  Harder times could lie ahead.

At the same time you can’t help coming away with admiration and respect for the  people of South America, for their resilience, and their optimism despite staggering odds. You get the impression they will get through this.

So you may be thinking, all this travel you have taken over the years, what did you learn from it and did it make you any wiser. Did it make you a better person? Those, I have to say, are very good questions. If you are asking if I personally feel wise and smart because of the travels, the answer is no. I do not feel wise or smart. I also cannot say that his has made me a “better person.”

 On the other hand, I also have to admit that there is something to this travel. The result is not so much being wiser or smarter but rather the opposite—being more humble. When you travel you understand that there are a lot of different ways of doing things and that the way you do things is certainly not the only way and may not be the best way. You also not only realize but internalize that while we humans may speak different languages, have different skin colors and different customs, we are all basically cut from the same cloth. We are homo sapiens living life the best we can on the Planet Earth, playing the cards we have been dealt to the best of our ability. Sure, there are bad people in every culture and every country. Of course, we all mistakes and do dumb things, but what you come to realize when you think about the countries that you have been to and the people you have met is that, damn it, we basically are fundamentally the same. Coming to realize this in a personal way is the wisdom that comes from traveling a lot of places. 

Southern Exposure 21: Back to Buenos Aires

The biggest disadvantage of any large group tour–and especially  cruises–is that you never spend very much time in one place, you are usually herded along with a group of other clueless tourists like yourself, and you do not get much of a chance to explore on your own. To state the obvious: Spending only one day in Buenos Aires was absurdly inadequate. So we backtracked there via airplane to give us three more days, this time staying at an Airbnb.

I confess that I was a bit skittish about Airbnbs after our Baltic trip. The first apartment (in Lithuania) was a windowless dungeon with dangerous rickety stairs. The second had the key location (for the guest to pick up the door key) placed above the doorsill, which made the door key beyond reach for anyone under seven feet tall. When we complained to the owner and found another alternative, she basically chewed us out; and we then had to fight to get a partial refund. Embry had also booked an Airbnb in Rio, but when I told that to someone who had recently visited there, I was warned that the chances of getting robbed if we happened to be in the wrong neighborhood were close to one hundred percent. That is when I told Embry I was drawing the line and booked a hotel as an alternative. (Now I confess that I overreacted. We probably would have been fine.)

Well, in Buenos Aires the Airbnb was great. It was located in Recoleta, a New York, Upper East Side-type neighborhood, within walking distance of parks, museums and the waterfront. The lobby of the apartment building was a bid drab and sparse with a worn carpet and no art or pictures on the dark paneled walls, but the location could not have been better. While the apartment was quite small, it was fine for us.

 Even though it was  after nine pm when we arrived, the owner—a bearded young man probably in his mid-thirties– met us and took us up on the tiny elevator to his Airbnb  apartment on the eighth floor, provided us a  map, and made suggestions as to what to see. Following the orientation Embry and I walked to the next block to have dinner at one of the many bustling restaurants. Even though it was already after ten, people were just starting to gather for dinner; and when we left after 11:30, people were still arriving for dinner. (Naturally we ordered Argentine steaks, which were delicious, but not all that different from steaks you get in the U.S. at good steak houses as far as I could tell.)

In a word, Buenos Aires is fabulous! If I had not known where I was, I would have sworn I was in Paris. We spent the entire first day walking the Recoleta neighborhood and environs, strolling through numerous parks with  the purple blossoming jacaranda  tress, and along wide boulevards with fancy high rise apartments. The weather was perfect with temperatures in the low seventies, blue skies and low humidity.  We visited a huge arts and crafts show and spent an hour in the Malda museum, the new modern art museum featuring Latin American artists. We also visited the famous cemetery with the elaborate mausoleums and finally the popular Japanese Gardens. My trusted fitness app showed us logging almost seven miles before we stumbled into the apartment after five, exhausted, followed by another late dinner.

The second day was much the same but at a slower pace. For lunch Andrew had connected us with Ana, an old friend from his days in Russia, who is now a well-known, performing classical pianist and who also runs a music school in Buenos Aires. We spent over two hours with her over brunch learning more about the country from an insider’s perspective. I would argue that two hours with Ana was worth two days with a typical tour guide in trying to  understand what was going on in the country, maybe more.

The big issue right now is the economy. Argentina got in trouble financially in the early 2000s, primarily by spending beyond its means resulting in high profile defaults and devaluation of the currency. They were able to claw their way back to financial health, however, and for the next 15 years enjoyed relative prosperity with low unemployment and a fairly stable currency. The last two years, however, have been a kind of déjà vu-all-over-again. The culprit appears to be the same old/same old—running up big national debts due to massive deficits. This has resulted in staggering inflation, which dropped the value of the Argentine peso by over 50% last year with values continuing to fall precipitously.  Not that long ago the peso traded at the same value as the dollar. At the time of our lunch with Ana it was 73 pesos to the dollar. If you are able convert pesos to dollars, you are doing it. This has resulted in a major run on the dollar. This past week basically the country ran out of dollars requiring the shipment of over $8 billion in cash to Argentina to keep the government and the banks afloat. The reason there are no dollars left in the banks according to an article we read in the Wall Street Journal is that people are so fearful of banks failing that the dollars they are pulling out are ending up under their mattresses. As a practical matter, I was not able to find an ATM or a bank that had any dollars available for my own use. I am not sure I understand the whole picture or exactly what is happening, but what I can understand is that the country already appears to be in crisis with catastrophe lurking just beneath the surface.

What makes the situation more fragile is problem of increasing income disparities, the same rich/poor divide that is affecting most of Latin America and the world. During good times, much was done in Argentina to address the concerns of the poor and working class by providing better access to social services, education and health care. All education including college and graduate school is now free in Argentina. So is virtually all of health care. Government employment practices were softened to provide more job opportunities and job security to poor people. These have been popular and enjoy strong support, especially from labor unions, which are much stronger in Argentina than in the U.S.

The problem is that to combat the financial crisis if the government imposes austerity measures or cuts back on the generous benefits, Ana and many others believe there might be a revolt. Everyone we talked to recalls the dark ages of the 1970s and early 1980s when the military junta was in charge, and they fear a military or even a radical populist takeover could happen again. Everyone also remembers even more vividly the meltdown of the early 2000s, and no one wants to go through anything like that again either. Both outcomes are possible if not probable.

Yet by observing the activity on the streets– the full restaurants, the many families gathered in the parks over the weekend, the relaxed mood on the  street– and which seemed upbeat to me– you would not guess that that there was anything wrong. What would impress you the most is just how beautiful and refined this city is, at least a lot of it. The favela neighborhoods (called “villas” in Argentina) also exist here just as they do in Rio, just not as prominent.

The evening of the second day was probably the highlight of the stay in Buenos Aires for me. We had dinner and watched a show at one of the most famous Tango establishments in Buenos Aires. It came recommended by an Argentine Tango dancer, who is also the friend of our friend and Tango musician herself, Joan Singer. The restaurant was decorated like a palace, no understated elegance here. The food and service were terrific and the dancing extraordinary. I counted some sixteen different performers, all fabulous—six tango dancers, six in the orchestra, and three singers.  I would put the experience at the top of my all-time list of dinner/show experiences though admittedly I am not a dinner/show person. Bottom line: if you ever get to Buenos Aires, you have got to see a Tango show.

The other thing you have got to do if you have the time is get out into the country to gaucho land, Argentina’s brand of cowboys and the wild West. On our third day we took our tour of gaucho country along with seven other tourists leaving around nine in the morning and returning at six and led by a very capable and enthusiastic guide. That excursion took us through the rolling hills and pastures, through one of the small ranching towns and to a large ranch where we ate great Argentine beef, fresh off the grill, and folk danced with the gaucho singers and dancers. Well, Embry danced. I took photos. 

When we returned at six, we retrieved our bags, flagged a cab to the airport and boarded a United Flight to Houston at ten in the evening. We then took  a  flight to Dulles and returned to home sweet home on Tuesday, November 26. Our South American adventure had officially come to an end.

One more post tomorrow before putting this adventure to bed—some final thoughts about this magical continent and why everyone who can should visit South America.

And if you are reading this this means you are following (at least to a degree) the adventure. Thanks! To know there are folks out there who are actually reading some or even all of this means a lot.

Southern Exposure 20: Iguassu Falls

Embry’s mother, Louise Martin, loved to travel. When she was a little older than Embry is now, she made one of her last excursions to Rio and then to Iguassu Falls, the massive waterfall several hundred miles south of Rio. Unlike our experience in Rio, the weather there for her was perfect. The falls, however, were totally fogged in, which it turns out is not all that unusual since they are located in the rainforest, where Brazil, Argentina, and Paraguay all come together. In any event in honor of her mother, Embry was determined to visit these famous falls, which her  mother could only hear and not see. They are listed among the seven or eight  natural wonders of the world. So she had put it on our itinerary and had booked us into the national park hotel on the Brazilian side of the falls.

Now if you have been following my blog you will recall that Embry was brought up a Presbyterian and I, an Episcopalian. There is a big difference between the values, life styles, and world views of the members of the two denominations. Presbyterians always go for the cheapest option or the best deal even though they can afford much more. Episcopalians always go first class even though we can’t afford it. That is why I assumed that the national park hotel Embry had booked must be like one of our modest, rustic, national park hotels in the U.S.  No problem for me, however, since I have made the necessary adjustments in expectations when Embry books a hotel or an Airbnb.  I was resigned to toughing  it out and figured if the falls were half as impressive as Embry thought they must be, it would be worth suffering through meager accommodations.

The tip off for me should have been Embry’s off handed comment, “Oh, by the way, you are paying for this one.”

Our plane landed at a one-horse airport that was  at the edge of the rainforest. We were easily able to get a cab, which took us along a two-lane road for maybe five miles through the sweltering tropics, past a few junky-looking hotels and tourist shops and deposited us at the gate to the national park. Not knowing what to do next, we wandered over to the small office where we were greeted warmly by the attendant, who said something like, “Oh, you are the Howells. The van is already here and will take you to the hotel.” We piled in with five or six other passengers and began our half-hour ride through the three-level rain forest on a straight, two-lane road with few signs that humans had ever ventured here.

Well….

 The forest suddenly opened up to the grounds of the hotel. Perched alongside a steep bluff providing breathtaking views of what certainly must  be the widest water fall in the world, the pink,  Colonial-style, Belmond des Cataratas Hotel was about as far removed from a rustic national or state park lodge as you can get. It was as if someone had picked up the Greenbrier or the Homestead resort hotel, shrunk it a bit, and dropped it down in the middle of a vast three-layer rain forest, next to one of the most impressive natural wonders on the planet.

The hotel was built in the 1950s though with its colonial style it seemed much older; and it was every bit as elegant and tasteful as the Greenbrier or Homestead. There was no golf course, but everything else was there—the understated elegance, the manicured grounds, the large pool, the fitness center, tennis and volleyball courts, billiard room, stunning dining venues, paneled bar room, verandas providing glimpses of the falls, and , of course, the gracious and attentive service. It was the only hotel that I have ever stayed in where the attendant at the check-in desk insists on giving you a personal tour of the hotel before escorting you to your room. I handed her my credit card, and being the Episcopalian that I am, never once looked at the bill. I have no idea what our 24 hours there actually cost. Whatever it was, it was worth it.

Now you may think that describing the hotel before describing Iguassu Falls is putting the cart before the horse. You are correct except you must understand that it is impossible to do the falls justice either in writing or photography. The falls are not as high as Niagara Falls but much wider, so wide that it is not possible to see the entire falls at one time. Mist rises up from the bottom, and rainbows appear and disappear depending on how much mist is rising and the angle of the sun. About a mile downstream below the falls there is a large Sheraton Resort Hotel on the Argentine side; but other than that, there is no visible sign of human habitation, a far cry from the commercialism around Niagara Falls, most of it hideous. Since the only place to stay in the park on the Brazilian side is the Cataratas Hotel (which though it appears much larger has only about 200 rooms), it is like you have these falls to yourself.  Buses, however, do bring in other visitors, who are staying at the mostly junky hotels outside the entrance to the park. The afternoon of our arrival when we viewed the falls from the main viewing areas outside the hotel, there were no more than 20 or 30 people around; and the next morning when we got up around seven and made the two-mile, round-trip hike to the base of the falls, we saw only two people going down and three coming back up.

So, yes, Iguassu  Falls gets my vote as one of the top wonders of the world and deserves its place. The hotel is certainly among the top five I have ever stayed in. Maybe not Shangri-La but close to it. It was certainly worth the diversion en route to Buenos Aires, our final stop before heading home.

Southern Exposure 19: Rio

If Rio is not located in the most beautiful setting in the world, I do not know what is. You  probably have seen the photos of the harbor, Sugar Loaf Mountain, the huge statue of Christ the Redeemer atop another mountain, and the long, wide Copa Cabana Beach. You may have seen  video clips showing Rio’s famous Carnival, which happens every year  before Lent. There is simply no city like it, in fact nothing that comes close.

But do not let the natural beauty of the steep, luxuriant mountains and sheer cliffs, rising about white sandy beaches and luxury apartments and pricey hotels fool you. All is not perfect in Paradise. It never has been.

The day we arrived we took a cab from the port to our hotel—about a 40-minute ride. The hotel was  located on the beach in Ipanema, a beautiful beach about two miles long just south of  the famous Copa Cabana Beach on the other side of a steep hill, which separates the two beaches. Ipanema is a fairly large, upscale neighborhood with lots of restaurants, fancy shops, bars and cafes. Most high rise apartments and residential buildings are surrounded by gated fences, some with barbed wire. Our hotel, the Sol Ipanema, was small and intimate (only 90 rooms), very European, sleek and minimalist. 

To get to the hotel from the port, our driver took us through a  whole bunch of neighborhoods which were anything but upscale—trash on the streets, graffiti covering the street-level walls of most buildings, many depilated. It was our  introduction to a city which is a showcase for the vast disparities between the haves and the have-nots, the rich and the poor, those with and those  without.

The highlight of our three days in Rio was a half day tour of one of the favelas. That is the word Brazilians  use to describe what  in the U.S. we call slums. Our guide was Chiago, a 38-year old, very sharp guy with a bachelor’s in finance and an MBA, whose pervious job was representing Brazilian companies in China. Two years ago the Brazilian economy  went into decline, and here he is now doing tours of favelas. He took us and nine other tourists to two favelas. The first  was   the largest and oldest of the more than one thousand communities like this in the city.  Over one million people live in these communities. The first favela  was started in the early Twentieth Century and  has an estimated population now of over 120,000. The second was much smaller, around 2,500 people, and somewhat poorer but was getting more attention from the government. Both communities were located on steep hills and within a stone’s throw of very wealthy, gated communities. The difference between the upscale communities and the favelas could not have been starker. Adjacent to the clean streets of the upscale neighborhoods, in the favelas you find trash in the streets, graffiti, jury-rigged electrical wiring around utility poles, and make-shift housing with units stacked on top of each other. 

I had two conflicting reactions.  The first was the obvious: Why is the world this way and what is wrong with this picture. The second, however, was more positive. Embry and I have been to “informal settlements” like these in Peru, India, and Africa, which I recall being more squalid and desperate. I found myself actually being quite impressed with the vitality and the human spirit of the people who live here. And there has been progress. Now most favelas have water and sewer and electricity. The first favela now has public transportation and at least limited police protection. These are relatively new and happened just before the Olympic Games. Most adults according to our guide have jobs, albeit low paying ones and commerce has flourished inside many favelas. We saw all kinds of shops, bars and  cafes, even a bank. Crime and violence remain problems, however, and Chiago admitted that most favelas remain off limits to tourists for safety reasons.  The Rio favelas we visited  represent the tenacity of the human spirit and the human will to survive.

Our guide went to some lengths to try to explain the favelas, beginning with the legacy of slavery and dominance by Europeans for hundreds  of years. For the past half century he places blame mainly on corrupt politicians, especially the military and right wing dictators who tried and often succeeded in rolling back the reforms made under more progressive governments. Progressives in those days were Leftists and tended to be Socialists. Both of his parents had been jailed during the right wing military junta during the 1960s and 1970s. These governments in his view were controlled by thugs. They also were aided by the U.S. during the Cold War period because they were anti Communist. 

 Chiago believes that the move toward repression  is happening  again. In his view Brazil has a corrupt, right wing, strong man leader who is  fiercely anti immigrant, homophobic, and racist and is hell bent on developing the rain forest. But he has a strong base of support among many in the working class. 

Any of this sound familiar? One could make a  case  that the similarities between the U.S. and Brazil are a lot greater than you might think.

The only disappointment for us in Rio was the foggy weather, which persisted until we departed on Thursday, November 21, keeping us from seeing the tops of the mountains and the soul of Rio—Sugar Loaf and Christ The Redeemer. Fortunately we had gotten a peak on the ship as we entered the harbor. We spent most of our time walking the neighborhoods and the two famous breaches, Copa Cabana and Ipanema, which were packed with people, mainly locals, who were on holiday our last day there. 

We also caught a little of the impeachment  hearings. It now appears that the House will surely impeach but that the Senate will not convict. Learning about  the stories of the dictatorships in Latin America, most of which involved curtailment of the press and free speech and jailing dissenters, I suppose we should feel fortunate that Trump has not done more damage than he already has. If he gets another shot  at being president as appears  possible right now—and perhaps even probable given the support of his base and the lack of a strong Democrat opponent–who knows where we will be headed? I know it is still early with lots of drama still to come, but still I am nervous.

So we are headed south again, first to Iguassu Falls, then back to Buenos Aries, both by plane this time. Then back home the day before Thanksgiving.

Southern Exposure: Brazil

The cruise out of Buenos Aires began on  Saturday, November 14  at 6:00 p.m.  In  early morning, Sunday, November 17, we  arrived at the port city of Santos, Brazil. The two days at sea were stressful as always—having to choose between  so many breakfast and lunch options, which events and activities to attend, the terrible choice between whether to order a cappuccino or latte, or a donut or muffin, Cutty on the rocks or a martini before dinner, and what to say to someone at dinner whom you have never met and will never see again, without mentioning Trump or Brexit. I mean it is tough, but we are slogging through it.

Brazil is the Big Kahuna of the South American Continent. It is slightly larger in land area than the U.S. and has a population of over 200 million and is larger than all the other countries in South America combined. It is also the home of the engine that pumps oxygen into the air we breathe. No nation will be more important than Brazil in determining the future of life on this planet.

Coming into Santos at sunrise was quite a treat with the bright sun casting long shadows and creating a dreamy atmosphere as the Zaandam glided along a narrowing channel leading into one of the largest ports in South America. Santos is only about 70 miles from Sao Paulo, Brazil’s largest city with over 12 million, and is its closest port. The city of Santos has a  population of only around a half million but seems a lot larger. It wraps around the base of several tall, green mountains that experience rain forest conditions during the rainy season, which is happening now. Luxury, high rise apartments and expensive hotels line the longest urban beach in Brazil (considerably longer than Rio’s Copa Cabana or Ipanema). Behind those impressive buildings there are some fancy single family neighborhoods and then on the mountainsides, informal settlements and make-shift neighborhoods decorated by colorful graffiti with streets lined with trash and houses made of decaying wood and tin roofs, stacked on top of one another. 

The excursion for the day was a bit disappointing, I suppose largely because there are few typical tourists attractions and few tourists go there. We saw  an aquarium, a coffee exchange, and the soccer stadium/museum of the Santos futbol team, which Pele played for and is considered one of the consistently best teams in the world. On the way back in the bus, our guide apologized for taking us to the soccer stadium since apparently several in the group had complained but went on to add that while you might not like futbol, you can’t appreciate Brazil or South America without understanding how much futbol means to the culture in this part of the world. She added that times are especially hard right now in Brazil; and while she did not want to get into politics, the politics in her country  now, she feels, are very scary. She was referring to Jair Bolsonaro, the Trump-like president who was elected in 2018 on a populist platform and among other things has encouraged massive development in the rain forest. Like Trump, Bolsonaro is a climate change denier. You could say that Bolsonaro  holds the whole cards on the climate front. So goes the rain forest goes the planet Earth.

Since Brazil became a republic in 1889 due to a military coup against Emperor Pedro II, it has had three dictatorships and three democratic periods. Some are afraid that Brazil is moving toward another dictatorship.

The  Zaandam cast off late afternoon just as the sun was setting and we were treated to the most stunning sunset of the entire cruise. We arose at 4:30 a.m. the next day on Monday, November 18– Embry’s birthday– so we could witness arriving at Rio de Janeiro, considered by Kevin, the tour director on the ship, to be the most dramatic and most beautiful city in the world. As we got our first glimpse at dawn, the silhouette of the city appeared below the towering peaks—Sugar Loaf, the Christ Redeemer statue, Copa Cobana and Ipanema beaches—there it all was in front of us like a dream.

November 18 was important for another reason: This was the last day of the cruise. At 7:30 the Zaandam was tied up, and we passengers departed to go our separate ways. We were told that Brits accounted for almost 35 percent of the passengers, Canadians 30 percent, Americans 25 percent, and the rest from Australia, New Zealand, and other countries but mainly Germans. We found the 30 or 40 people we dined or conversed with to be interesting, engaged and polite. Most had cruised a lot more than we had, and most seemed older than us though it is hard to tell about age. Also there were a whole bunch who appeared to me by the size of their girth  to have eaten their way through too many cruises, but, hey, what do I know?

The odds of seeing any of them again are low.

We said good bye to the two Indonesian young men who had taken such good care of our room. It felt almost like the end of a summer camp experience.

So did it feel good for the cruise to end or were we anxious for more? 

The former, thank you, but I will have to say that I do not think it could have been much better. The downside of a trip like this is that during the days at sea, cabin fever can set in—which if truth be told, is probably the main motivation behind my blog posts. Also the exposure to the different countries is too short and impressionistic. The best you can hope for is a taste and perhaps an insight here and there. But what are the alternatives? At our ages, trying to see this extraordinary continent by car is out of the question. So a small taste is better than no taste. And I seem to have developed an interest in this continent far exceeding anything I anticipated. It has been sitting here right under our noses and has a history so different from ours. How did this happen? Why did this happen? What is going to happen next? These are the questions that I am asking after 35  days at sea, eight countries, and  covering  over eight thousand nautical miles. 

But the adventure is not over. Four days on our own in Rio, two  at Iguazu Falls and then three more in Buenos Aires still to come.

Next post: Rio.

Southern Exposure 17: Argentina, First Stop

The Zaandam docked in the massive container port in Buenos Aries before dawn on  November 14. Since we will be here only a day, we  plan to fly back to Buenos Aries after the cruise is over for a few more days. It is kind of hard to learn everything you need to know about a city in one day with an urban core of over 4 million and a metro area of 14 million. It will take two days, maybe even three. Which, of course, points to the principle dilemma of a tour like this. In a best case situation you are skimming the surface. One who suggests that you can even begin to grasp the significance of a country, any country, in one or two days, of course, is a fool. This personality type is illustrated  in the “Howell Personality Matrix,” which demonstrates that there are really only four personality types: smart and arrogant, dumb and humble, smart and humble and dumb and arrogant. The world traveler that thinks he or she can figure out a country in a day or two is Category Four in spades: dumb and arrogant. Count me in.

But on the other hand I recall an experienced world traveler make this comment when we were touring India a decade ago: “You can spend a day or two in India, maybe a week, and conclude that you have a pretty good idea of what the country is all about. You can spend a month or two in  India and start to have doubts. You can spend a year or two and realize you are on shaky ground, or a decade or two and have no earthly idea what this country they call India is all about.”

Now that you have been forewarned, you can put my first impressions in context: Buenos Aires is world class. As Hank’s comments point out in my last post, the city feels more European than any other city in the Americas, North or South. It boasts the world’s widest boulevard with 24 lanes, many separated by slim, green promenades. Some have estimated it takes the average pedestrian over an hour to get from one side to the other, a bit exaggerated but impressive just the same. The city has its green parks and lush gardens with the blue-blossomed jacaranda trees in full bloom, plazas, its “Obelisk,” which looks like the Washington Monument, monumental government buildings, luxury hotels, ancient, elegant apartment buildings with fancy shops on the ground level, restaurants, cafes, museums, and the bumper-to-bumper traffic you would expect. The sidewalks are packed with pedestrians. Clusters of 50 and 60-story, sparkling skyscrapers now dot the skyline. Energy and vitality are ubiquitous. 

Its mix of old and new remind me a bit of  Melbourne or Sydney or Barcelona.

There is a heavy Italian presence here due to immigration and a passion for the tango and for futbol, the two national pastimes. 

Like all of the other countries in Latin America, Argentina has had its ups and downs. The two eras you hear most about are the Peron Era—especially the importance of  Evita—and the oppressive dictatorship that followed when thousands of artists, journalists, intellectuals, professors, clergy and supporters of the opposition disappeared, never to be seen again. This period—from 1976 to 1983 marked a low point in the country’s rich history.   Financial issues and near bankruptcy doomed the country following that in the early 2000s, but were resolved by 2010. Recent years have been strong by comparison with a fairly robust economy and an expansion of the social safety net. Storm clouds, however, appear to be forming again on the horizon, as inflation is running rampant, and concerns mount as to whether the country can afford to  continue to provide generous social benefits. Issues of income disparities are surfacing here as elsewhere.  International finance experts  probably have Argentina on their Watch List. More will follow when we return to the country in about a week.

The story of the day was the drug deal. Well, it was not really a drug deal, but it sure felt like one. We worked out an arrangement with the owner of the Airbnb where we will be staying when we return for us to leave one big piece of luggage with him now so that we could travel light in Brazil. That meant we had to go through customs with the bag, then flag a cab to take us to the apartment. When we got to the customs area, a workman pointed us to a door to the right, which opened into a huge, dark warehouse area with no one present. So there we were standing alone in a vast, deserted area wondering what to do next. It was exactly the kind of setting where two guys in trench coats, wearing fedoras and dark glasses, and carrying concealed weapons come out of the woodwork with a suitcase full of cash. 

We looked around, spotted an exit sign in the distance and bolted for it before the gangsters could catch up with us. We thought we had made it out until apprehended by the authorities, handcuffed and interrogated in the police department. No, this is fake news, but it sure felt like that could have happened. All that did happen is that the port patrol guys ran our bags through the x-ray machine, smiled and wished us luck.

As they say here in Argentina, no problema.

And speaking of fake news, yes, we are following, when we can, on the ship’s fuzzy television, the live impeachment drama on MSNBC where we know we can get totally unbiased news (also the only network available to us that is carrying it). When you follow Mr. Trump, you can’t help making the comparison to the scores of dictators that have left their mark of tyranny and oppression on every single country on this continent. You ask how could this could have happened?   How could a continent which is so close to the U.S. have had such an unstable, tragic, and different history from our  own? Why have we in the U.S. never had to deal with anything like the dictators and scoundrels that they have had?

 Well, guess what, we may not be so different after all. Trump is made out of the same cloth as these South American despots and if successful could make us part of the club. The Republican Party has caved, having morphed into a personality cult. The big question is whether our Constitution—and our voting public– will prevent  Trump from taking us down the road to disaster that has plagued so many nations to our south. 

Jury out.

Stay tuned. On to Brazil!