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Tuesday, September 23, 2003

Diver in the dark.

PLAYA DEL CARMEN, QUINTANA ROO, MEXICO -- I just returned here from Cozumel, after spending the evening doing two night dives.

You might wonder what point there is in diving at night, when it's dark outside, and you therefore can't see anything.

In reality, however, night is a great time for scuba diving, because, contrary to one's likely intuition, you can see more than you can during the daytime.

During the day, you have to rely on light from the sun. Sunlight is okay, but the water filters sunlight, and the deeper you go, the fewer colors you can see, until finally, at the greatest depths, you can see only dark blue.

At night, however, you use an underwater flashlight. With the light source so close to what you're looking at, you lose none of that color, and see things you never knew were there.

In addition, you see things that were not, in fact, there during the day. Coral looks stony and non-living during the day. At night, it becomes "fuzzy" as its tiny mouths open up for it to feed, and you can see that it is indeed a living creature.

While the fish from the daytime are still present (though many are asleep--giving you a great opportunity to see them up close), other nocturnal creatures emerge as well. For example, on these dives, I saw five octopuses in 50 minutes, in addition to squid, sting rays, spotted eels, and even great barracuda on the hunt.

I had a flashlight on my morning dives today, too, because they were in underwater caves. It's breathtaking to observe the formations from floor to ceiling, which have grown at a rate of 1 centimeter per 100 years.

A cenote I dove today is called Dos Ojos, and it is connected to the second largest cave system in the world.

What makes some people nervous about this kind of diving is that once you are down in the cave, there is no opportunity to come up for air until the end, come what may. My fellow divers and I had some relief from this condition, though, because we were able to rise above the surface in one of the cave's rooms--to observe the bats hanging and flying throughout it, inches above our heads.

If you know anyone who suffers from claustrophobia, lygophobia, fear of diving, and fear of bats, by all means, send them down at once to be cured.

- posted by
J. H. Huebert at 1:32 AM

Saturday, September 20, 2003

Don't you love living in the future?

MEXICO CITY, D.F. -- I've found internet access in some pretty remote places, and while the airport in Mexico City hardly qualifies for that description, I am particularly impressed by the super-fast internet terminals that are everywhere in here, and accept ordinary phone cards at the very reasonable rate of US $0.15 per minute. Do we even have these anywhere in the US?

I'm going to go watch a
Strong Bad e-mail now. Why? Because I can!

- posted by J. H. Huebert at 3:18 PM

Thursday, September 18, 2003

Support free trade, oppose the WTO.

SAN CRISTOBAL DE LAS CASAS, CHIAPAS, MEXICO -- Given my recent presence in, and impending return to, Cancun, I thought I might write something about the recent WTO farce performed there, which did little more than most such junkets allow, and that is give world leaders from rich and poor nations alike an excuse to use taxpayers' money to get an all-expenses-paid trip to yet another spot on the map that they would be unlikely to visit on their own nickel.

Lew Rockwell has beat me to it, though, with this
excellent analysis, a must-read.

- posted by J. H. Huebert at 10:01 PM

"The ugly American" isn't alone.

SAN CRISTOBAL DE LAS CASAS, CHIAPAS, MEXICO -- Perhaps I was a bit too hard on my fellow Americans in describing my desire to get away from them as quickly as possible upon entering Mexico (see "Escape from Cancun!", August 30).

So let me now be fair and say: People from the rest of the world can be, and often are, idiots as well. They just fool us into thinking that they're somehow more sophisticated than the rest of us with their foreign accents.

Today's idiot was a teenage Israeli girl, who decided to wear the shortest shorts ever to Chiapa de Corzo, the former capital of Chiapas, which is located near Cañon del Sumidero (more on that later). I have trouble believing that this item of clothing was even intended by its creator to be worn as shorts--as a bathing suit, maybe, as underwear, sure. Nowhere in the world, however, would these be appropriate streetwear, especially not here in the home of machismo, where the local men and women do not wear shorts at all, despite the heat.

It wasn't long before she was surrounded by local young men, with an annoyed look on her face, as if she could not understand what the fuss was about. Later I saw one of her party, a guy, being taken away by the municipal police for reasons unknown to me, as the crowd of locals looked on.

(I did not take any photos of the young lady, so I am sorry to report that I cannot satisfy your strictly academic interest in that respect.)

Yesterday, I had the "pleasure" of traveling with some Italians, who complained from the start about being crowded in the van we took to the Maya ruins at Palenque, and delayed us by more than 30 minutes by not returning to the van at the appointed time. They were noisy and rude throughout the rest of the trip, with no apology for inconveniencing everyone else.

I don't mean to single out Israelis or Italians, of course.

The point is, Americans can be obnoxious in their way -- but you can rest assured that a great many foreigners aren't much better.

- posted by
J. H. Huebert at 6:58 PM

Monday, September 15, 2003

Glorifying genocidal regimes: just a matter of timing?

I received an e-mail this morning from
Roger Ebert, replying to my comments (see "Media grudgingly pays devil her due," below) on his disparate treatment of Leni Riefenstahl, whom he rightly criticizes for her association with Hitler, and Soviet filmmakers, whom he unreservedly praises.

He writes: "The circumstances and timing of the two films [Triumph of the Will and Battleship Potemkin] are rather different."

As a law student, I understand that circumstances alter cases.

But is Mr. Ebert suggesting that it would be inoffensive to cite Triumph of the Will as a stirring, inspirational film if only it had been made at an earlier point in Hitler's career? Would it be entirely proper to cite Mein Kampf as a well-written, stirring book (if it were either of those things), since it was written before Hitler rose to power, and hadn't yet committed genocide?

Acts and advocacy of violence against individuals who have initiated no acts of force or fraud is not morally acceptable anywhere that civilization has a name.

Why can't those individuals who naively admired the Soviet Union in its time come clean, and admit that it was as vile, destructive, and despicable a regime as has ever existed on Earth?

If they refuse to do so, shouldn't we hold them accountable, just as Leni Riefenstahl was held accountable to her dying day and beyond?

- posted by J. H. Huebert at 1:01 PM

Sunday, September 14, 2003

America's medical mess--government isn't helping.

The New York Times
reports that seniors in Florida are literally lining up outside of doctors' offices to get all of the services they possibly can with their Medicare benefits, putting a serious strain on the medical system.

A closing comment from a doctor quoted in the article delivers a nice bit of economics, in one lesson: "I'm not being a mean ogre, but when you give something away for free, there is nothing to keep utilization down."

There is more to it than that, though. As the article notes, the patients don't even seem to be receiving any meaningful health benefits from their publicly funded treatment for all that they believe ails them.

For want of anything better to do, the seniors think of new treatments and medicines they can try, and then go for it, sort of as a social activity. As William Shatner might say, "Get a life!"

Of course, the way these people have lived their lives thus far is a large part of the problem. Not only have they failed to develop worthwhile interests to keep themselves occupied in their old age, they have also abused their bodies through poor diets, lack of exercise, and the like. As a result, we have to pay for their genuine ills as well, and they at least partially escape the consequences of their own actions and omissions.

There are still other factors at work, too, including, as Milton Friedman noted nearly half a century ago in Capitalism and Freedom, medical licensure laws, which force you to pay doctor prices for work a nurse or other lesser-trained professional might be able to do just as well.

It's all a big mess. That some people want the state to jump in and create more bad incentives and allocation problems by taking over the whole thing is even more incredible.

- posted by J. H. Huebert at 5:28 PM

Saturday, September 13, 2003

Iron Maiden, Celia Cruz, and the accordion rock on in Mexico.

SAN CRISTOBAL DE LAS CASAS, CHIAPAS, MEXICO -- Browsing the markets and shops here, I find people selling CD's, generally priced at 20 to 30 pesos (two to three US dollars). Every one of them is a bootleg, of course. I don't think I could buy a legitimate CD here if I wanted to.

Most of the music is of Mexican origin, the sort of accordion- and marimba-heavy stuff you can't believe anyone listens to anywhere, let alone young people in North America.

While some CD's have the performers on the cover (my favorite may be "Los Flamers," all smiling, clad in yellow suits), many have American cartoon or comic book characters on them, too. I recently spotted a Celia Cruz album with the Incredible Hulk stuck next to her on the cover, apparently part of an effort to capture what I would expect to be two entirely different demographic groups. A lot of dance music discs have fully exposed naked women on their covers, which I would imagine is worth 20 pesos in itself, to some people.

Most curious of all, however, is the limited amount of American music that one has to choose from.

Some of it, you would expect: Eminem is ubiquitous, and Madonna and Metallica's latest can usually be found. A few classic acts like the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Aerosmith, and Pink Floyd are seen here and there. Britney and Christina are surprisingly scarce.

Even more surprising is how easily one can find discs from heavy metal acts that peaked 10 or 15 years ago, and were never even all that popular in the U.S. to begin with. Again and again, I see stuff from the likes of Iron Maiden and King Diamond. Iron Maiden t-shirts, bookbags, and the like can be seen in local shops as well. Am I in Mexico or back in middle school?

Why ancient heavy metal remains popular in these parts, I'm not sure. My guess is that these acts' ostensibly satanic imagery is well suited to rebellious teens in such a highly Catholic culture.

A funny thing, sometimes, globalization.

- posted by
J. H. Huebert at 12:54 PM

Media grudgingly pays devil her due.

The headline for the Chicago Sun-Times
obituary of Leni Riefenstahl, by Roger Ebert, is typical: Riefenstahl dead at 101; tainted by link to Hitler.

In itself, such a headline is hardly outrageous: a person should by tainted by a personal friendship with a tyrannical mass-murderer, maybe even 60 years after the fact.

But compare Mr. Ebert's review of Sergei Eisenstein's Soviet propaganda film, The Battleship Potemkin, from his "Great Movies" series. No mentions here of the film being "tainted" by its connection with a regime that was even more murderous than the Nazis, as R. J. Rummel has documented in his book, Death by Government.

Instead, the film is compared to Beethoven's Fifth and the 23rd Psalm. It is praised for its "genuine power to move." Ebert even concludes by noting that in re-watching the film, "I got a sense, a stirring, of the buried power it still contains, awaiting a call." Can you imagine anyone saying such a thing about Triumph of the Will and ever writing for a newspaper again?

Despite having reviewed well over 100 "great movies" so far, Ebert has not touched Riefenstahl's film at all, perhaps out of his own sense of political correctness, or perhaps for fear of saying something a little bit too favorable about the film's technical merits that would get him in trouble with the likes of the ADL. So despite acknowledging in his obituary that Triumph is "one of the most important documentaries ever made, and by general consent one of the best," he has passed it over in favor of such apparently important work as Yellow Submarine.

All of this is not to suggest that Riefenstahl and Triumph of the Will deserve the unqualfied adulation endlessly heaped upon Eisenstein and other Soviet filmmakers. But it is unfortunate that many in the media properly condemn the evil of Nazism at every opportunity, yet give the Soviets--whose larger number of victims were just as innocent, suffered just as much, and are just as dead--a pass, with something that almost seems like fondness.

Incidentally, Ebert's obituary also contains a factual error: in describing Riefenstahl's scuba diving at age 91, he mentions that she even carried her own "oxygen tank." Scuba divers do not use oxygen tanks--they use tanks of ordinary air. Pure oxygen would be toxic.

While accuracy in any type of reporting is essential, I can almost understand a mistake regarding this sort of technical detail. Willful or negligent ignorance of the slaughter of millions of innocents, less so.

- posted by J. H. Huebert at 11:54 AM

Saturday, September 06, 2003

In case you were afraid that religion was dead...

SAN CRISTOBAL DE LAS CASAS, CHIAPAS, MEXICO -- I can assure you that old-time religion is alive and well here in Mexico, in the town of Chemula.

From the outside, Chemula's church appears to be like many of the other old iglesias one sees in Latin America. But inside, the scene was more unusual.

There were no pews. Instead, the floor was strewn with dry pine needles. All around the large sanctuary, families made altars before icons of saints. Their first step was to set up and light candles--maybe several, or maybe dozens, depending on the family's wealth--amid the pine needles. Apparently the fire marshall looks the other way, or at least he would if they had a fire marshall.

Then the family prepares its sacrifice. This typically consists of several bottles of a soft drink, such as Fanta orange soda or Sprite; a bottle or two of a local homemade alcoholic beverage called posh; and a live chicken, which is slaughtered, and its blood drained, right then and there on the church floor. (I witnessed this more than once during my brief visit.) The believers then recite their prayers, which are said or sung in long stretches on a single breath.

I'd show you pictures, but cameras are forbidden within the church walls.

So you'll just have to go see it for yourself, or, alternatively, simply thank God that you were born into a culture with a belief system that does not require you to go to such extremes to ask Him for what you need.

- posted by
J. H. Huebert at 10:39 PM

Friday, September 05, 2003

The best of both worlds?

SAN CRISTOBAL DE LAS CASAS, CHIAPAS, MEXICO -- Today I traveled with two other photographers to the remote town of Aguacatenango, here in Chiapas, where foreigners are almost never seen.

Many of the houses there consist of one or two rooms, and have mud walls.

I spent some time in one of them, where the family spends its days spinning wool into yarn, which they then turn into blankets on a loom that el padre made himself. The technology is hardly 21st-century, or even 20th-century--no electricity required.

The women wear the same style garments their ancestors have worn for generations. Pigs and chickens run around everywhere. Few people have phones or cars. Washers, dryers, dishwashers? Unheard of. The women carry heavy loads on their backs; the men carry machetes, which are essential to their daily work.

It's as primitive of an existence as most people could imagine in 2003 North America.

It began to pour rain as we were about to leave town, so my fellow photographers and I took shelter in a small convenience store. It had a dirt floor, and was minded by a boy who appeared to be about 12 years old.

So how did we pass the time in this tiny tienda as the water flowed like a raging river down the road leading out of town? Why, by playing
Dance Dance Revolution on their Sony PlayStation, of course. 10 pesos ($1.00 US) gets you half an hour.

After my companions and I had demonstrated our skills, or lack thereof, for the 10 minutes or so that such a game can be entertaining, the kid running the store took over. American kids dream of getting paid to play video games--this boy, in the most unlikely of surroundings, was living the dream!

The descendants of the ancient Maya apparently have strange priorities. Still, while I might not be content with nothing but a dirt floor and Dance Dance Revolution, they seemed happy enough.

- posted by J. H. Huebert at 12:07 AM

Copyright 2004 J. H. Huebert.