Friday, November 23, 2012

Cycling in the Andes Round 2: I don't know where I'ma gonna go when the volcano blow.

Been meaning to get to this one for a while, now. Back in early August I had the crazy idea that since there was a volcano nearby, I would like to ride a bike on it. Linked up with a cicloturismo outfit in Quito called Biking Dutchman that leads single or multiple-day bike tours throughout the country. Of course, I would have loved to head out for several days and ride around the Amazon or something, but the petty cash I had budgeted for the trip was getting low by that point and so I opted for a single-day excursion to Parque Nacional Cotopaxi. That's Ecuadorian for Cotopaxi National Park, by the way. The Park, as its name suggests, surrounds Cotopaxi, Ecuador's second largest mountain peak AND an active volcano. The 'Pedia has more here.   

Notably, the peak is part of the Pacific Ring of Fire.

That's right, I said active volcano. It hasn't erupted for something on the order of 150 years, but more on that later. After leaving work and heading over to the Mariscal to pay for my spot, I then went and dropped way too much money on a pair of hiking pants from the Quito North Face. Unlike my good buddy Jonathan, I had not expected to need any outdoorsy clothes walking around the city and was caught in a dilemma of spend more money or try to ride a mountain bike in jeans. Needless to say, convenience won out over frugality, and so it was that on the morning of Diez de Agosto (something akin to the 4th of July and thus a free day off) me and my hiking pants trundled on down to a coffee shop popular with tourists and backpackers and met up with a group of other internationals and our Ecuadorian driver/guide/cultural expert for the hour-and-a-half trip to our starting point. 

My companions included an Italian engineer helping to design Quito's subway system, a lovely young Kiwi couple on a trip lasting several months, and a semi-nomadic Dutch woman named Pascala who planned to hike up Cotopaxi's glacier the night after the ride. Bonding over our shared love of travel, the outdoors, lack of mountain biking experience, and a few cups of coca-leaf tea at a stall in the foothills, we hoped the somewhat cloudy morning would break and allow us some of the spectacular views the park advertises. Though the clouds never totally went away and we had to contend with the wind pretty much the whole time, our enthusiasm never flagged. 

From our jumping off point just below the glacier that blankets Cotopaxi's peak...

...down the dusty slopes...


...across the undulating badlands...

The saddle adjustment will not save the dude on the right from 
face-planting soon after this photo was taken (he was fine.)

...through a gorgeous area cut by streams and pools where we stopped for a delicious lunch...   

Ginger tea, pasta and brownies, what WHAT!
...past wild horses...
They got out of Dodge pretty quick once we rolled by,
so I was lucky to get this.
...out the access road and to the end of the ride...
Welcoming committee!

You guys remember Cotopaxi the llama, right?
Yeah, I'ma guess this is probably him.
...we all made some great memories from this rare, incredible experience. So thanks to all the other riders, and to Biking Dutchman for offering restless gringos a chance to explore the outdoors a little more after learning about Ecuador's biodiversity for several weeks. Our guide (Juan? Probably Juan) mentioned on the ride up that the government is planning to pave many of the dirt and crushed-gravel roads around the Park which, while undoubtedly improving the overall experience for the majority of visitors, is going to wreck a significant portion of what makes the mountain biking fun. 

That might not be the biggest worry, however. As I mentioned, Cotopaxi is technically an active volcano, although it hasn't been live in like a century and a half. The thing is, the historical eruption schedule is just about every 150 years, so the seismologists are pretty sure things are due to jump off sometime soon. If and when that happens, not only will much of the park land and infrastructure be wiped out, but the weakest part of the rock faces southern Quito, basically turning the volcano into a 19,347 foot artillery gun just waiting to launch a pyroclastic shell that would more or less wipe out half the city. Of course, the southern part of Quito is where the poorest folks live, so even if the government could take measures to reduce the danger it's by no means clear that  they would. 

I'm not sure what a volcano-evasion plan would even look like, maybe we should ask former mayor and veteran volcano-panic manager Roque Sevilla. Amanda, Jonathan, Faye, Nobu, any of you guys get his number?


Thursday, November 8, 2012

A Socialist Soliloquy

Look, soliloquies are long, OK? So if you're not in a reading mood, here's a video of a wildebeest getting all "Terry Tate, Office Linebacker" on a cyclist. 

Wha-BAP! Feel free to come back to that if you get bored mid-post.

Now that the post-election hangover is starting to wear off, with the aid of copious amounts of pumpkin spice coffee, a Sons of Anarchy marathon or two, and the prediction of some real nice riding weather this weekend, it's interesting to shut off the news outlets and hear what real, actual people whom I know personally think of the outcome of this year's voting. 

Yesterday I read a very well-done post on a blog written by Amber, an old friend and the daughter of the best professor I studied (and traveled!) with during college. I'll throw in a link if she says that's all right, because I think she speaks to an important perspective, but I also know how quickly internet political debates can turn nasty and I'm not about throwing nasty stuff people's way. Basically, Amber was calling for a more respectful and civilized political discourse surrounding the presidency. That included expressing some frustration and confusion over the dismissal, animosity, or outright vilification of Mitt Romney by democratic voters, as well as the choice made by some to vote primarily based on a few key social issues, primarily same-sex marriage, women's rights, and of course the weed, while there were other pressing concerns to be addressed, such as the economy. So in that same spirit of dialogue, I present my musings on the subject, from the perspective of the center-left camp and a generally democratic voter. I could have just done this in a comment on her blog, but it would have been longer than the post itself and that just seemed rude.

Voting based on social issues has always struck me as a very interesting thing in this country. It is by no means a new phenomenon- like most people probably remember "values voters" being credited (or blamed) with George W. Bush winning a second term in office back in '04. I'll come back to the issue of "values" in a moment.

I think that, in many ways, this election turned out not to be nearly as much of a "referendum on the economy" as pundits and experts predicted it would. So for anyone who's been frustrated by our economic performance under President Obama, I can definitely understand a feeling of smacking one's head against a wall trying to figure out why we'd vote someone back into the White House who hasn't run a business and has little in the way of clear economy-helming qualifications. But I would submit that inheriting a fiscal crisis along with your desk in the Oval Office 4 years ago and helping to turn a job-hemorrhaging economy into 32 months of sustained job growth is a pretty effective crash course in how to wrangle the drunken cave bear that has been the global economic system over the past several years.

Actually, a drunken cave bear would probably just fall over and hibernate, so let's forget that metaphor.

In the interest of full disclosure I should point out that I'm a government employee who was very turned off by years of GOP rhetoric casting all government workers as overpaid layabouts leeching off the system, and couldn't imagine MY economic prospects getting better under a Romney White House. But I also detected a measure of hypocrisy in the criticism of Obama. Why were Governor Romney and Congressman Ryan able to insist that Obama was wrong for the country because he's not good at building the economy, and then turn around and argue that government (and therefore the president) should have pretty much no role in building it in the first place?  You can't have it both ways, bros. And don't come at me with this idea that government's role IS to stay out of the way, that's a facile and cynical argument that ignores the complexities of the modern political economy.

But yes, Social Issues! I think it's fair to say they were pretty determinant of the election results. Maine (represent!) and Maryland same-sex marriage, marijuana in Washington and Colorado, you get the idea. The more I think about it, the more convinced I am that it's not even about the issue itself, but about who gets to decide. There are many Americans who believe, por ejemplo, that marriage should be between one man and one woman, and that is perfectly valid if we're talking about THEIR marriage. The issue arises with that word "should." It implies a sense of universality to a belief system that, to put it bluntly, is not universal anymore. In fact, it's highly contested. And that's great [!] because American society is inherently pluralist, so opposing belief systems can and do coexist. But the death of universality and homogeneity also marks the birth of unequal power relationships. And when the group who believes that something like marriage "should" stay traditionally defined for all attempts to operationalize that belief through laws/amendments/whatever, that limits the freedom of those who wish to change it for themselves, and that I can't get behind. 

Which brings us back to values. "Traditional American values" was a term something the Romney/Ryan ticket loved to invoke, and it's used more or less as a code phrase for a nebulous set of quasi-religious beliefs that would supposedly point the way back to prosperity if we'd only start adhering to them again. Values like self-reliance, responsibility, and unlimited potential through hard work, I suppose. Unfortunately, there is a darker underside, and things like "heterosexual marriage only and only religious marriages count," and "stark, immutable gender roles for men and women" tend to get thrown in there, and people who don't share those values are perceived as a threat. What people value in life is entirely up to them. Want to be a stay at home mom (or dad?) Great, we need people like you. Want to put the family thing off and concentrate on your professional career? Godspeed, we need people like you. Want to have kids never and spend your life and money on travel? I hope you love it. We. Need. People. Like. You. We haven't all got to agree on what's the best way to go. But start, as a political candidate, to spin a narrative where the people who don't wanna do it like you wanna do it are less American, or worse, a threat to what makes us American, well then brother you're going to have some pretty visceral reactions coming your way. 

And I think that's behind a lot of the really terrible talk you hear coming from one camp and aimed at the other, and why social issues came to the fore in such a big way for many Obama supporters, and partially eclipsed the economic dimension and practically everything else.    

As the president likes to preface, "...let me be clear." I don't think Mr. Romney is a bad guy, or even that he would have been a terrible president. He, or at least the party ideology he represents, simply  have a view of government's role that doesn't jive with my own. I can't quite wrap my head around why government should stay out of providing services like health care or levying taxes to pay for social programs, but it can be the arbitrator of personal morality by putting roadblocks up for things like abortion, gay marriage, etc. I've got plenty of bones to pick with the Obama administration, mostly in the foreign policy/defense/national security arena. But I also trust him not to support social policies that I consider regressive in their backstopping of social inequity and legalized dominance by the standard-bearers of "traditional" values over those who choose not to adhere to them. By no means does that give my fellow liberals carte blanche to yell "Romney sucks! That guy is a ("creative" swear word)! I hope he falls on a rock and dies," any more than it did a small country store in Maine to start a pool on when Obama would be assassinated back in '09. Unfortunately, the loudest and nastiest folks on the fringe always manage to deviously make themselves seem like the base.

So thanks, Amber, for reminding us of our collective responsibility to (politely) shout them back down and promote a civil exchange of views that helps us work towards a better nation and world. That's where I'm "HOPE"ing that we move "FORWARD" to in the next 4 years and remind ourselves why it is that we "BELIEVE IN AMERICA." Yeah. See how I did that? Think about it.