Monday, November 24, 2008

Update: Eid, Divali, Diversity and Life

It strikes me that we have not commented to this blog in some time, partly at least due to Bonnie’s camera being non-functional. I rather like the pictorial accompaniment, but perhaps I can download relevant photos. We have enjoyed several holidays covering our three major religions (Hindu, Christian, Islam) and a bit of paganism as well. We had a nice Divali. I went to the UWI celebration, which featured singing, dancing, pretty girls in saris, and a skit of Rama and Hanuman rescuing Sita. On Divali itself our Hindu neighbors put out lots of lights, both the official oil candles and electric. The electric lights have stayed up as we approach Christmas, and Santa Claus, sleighs and reindeer are now occupying rooftops. Another recent holiday was Eid, the end of Ramadan. I went to the campus celebration, which also had a skit. This one was about a student whose lax fasting practices served a bad example to his little brother. Happily, he repented of his lax behaviour and all ended well. The celebration also included music and singing (shouldn’t they all?), a slideshow about Ramadan for non-Muslims, and a keynote lecture about the universality of Islam. This lecture was well presented and refreshing to hear, since the American and European media are always going on about bad things respecting Islam. The fact is that a billion Muslims find significant value in their faith.

The new American kids in our neighbourhood announced that Halloween would be celebrated so we would need candy. We obliged, and they decorated and there were lots of properly costumed guests who came for the festivities. Halloween is not a T & T holiday, but Carnival costumes are well understood! Superheroes, witches, and princesses dominated as usual. The hostess dressed as Obama girl. As Bonnie has reported, our neighbours of all nationalities are Obama supporters, and chants of O-ba-ma have been coming from kids irrespective of citizenship. The Obama festivities of course culminated in Election Day. I tried to watch the returns on the TV but couldn’t deal with them, so I followed the internet until giving that up when it was already after bedtime. When one gets up at 5 AM bedtime is early. The results were manifested when there was much rejoicing about 11 PM or thereabouts. Bonnie and I were very surprised to find that our absentee votes mattered! Salt Lake, after the absentee ballots were counted, had a majority for Obama. Cheerily, Bozeman also went Obama. My voting decision was less clearcut than Bonnie’s. At heart, I felt that I should vote for my Party, and go Green and vote for Cynthia. Or I should vote for Ralph, the man who has supported my values for decades. The Utah ballot even gave me a Socialist option. However, I ended up joining my peers in the solid ex-pat Obama block.

Rainy season continues. On the bright side, that means slightly lower temperatures. Not a lot, since that means lows of about 75 F and highs of 91 F, but it is noticeable and a great relief for me. I still ride in the early morning so as to get back before traffic becomes intolerable, and now the days have shortened enough to need a headlight. As a tropical area, we still have roughly 12 hours of light even this time of year. The evenings have been pleasant over the last month. At about 5:30 PM the sun goes down, and promptly the mosquito- eating birds swoop about (go birds!). They are followed by the bats (go bats!), after which the fireflies come out. By 6:15 or 6:30 the show ends with the fireflies rising to the top of the trees. They look like green meteors as the light shoots briefly overhead. The other aspect of rainy season, which just started again as evidenced by the sound of the tin roof, is of course rain, and T & T has experienced some significant flooding. Over the last week my riding has been primarily on the highways, due to said floods. Last week the Tacarigua River overflowed in the Caura Valley, where I often ride, and deposited considerable mud and rocks on the road. The upper valley had water still flowing across the road, deeper than the tires on my single speed mountain bike. So I decided to skip Caura to give the river time to return to its banks and the fine CEPEP workers (CEPEP are hired by the government to do cleanup and other environment /civil work, and we routinely exchange greetings as I ride by) time to clean up the road. Too bad, because Caura is quite pretty. The trees in the mountain rain forest are very green, the river sparkles and there are lots of flowers. The pomerac trees have been particularly nice. The blossoms are a very deep pink and the roads have been adorned with pinkness. This morning I finally rode Caura again and was cheerily surprised at what good shape the road was in. Lots of work from CEPEP, no doubt. Thanks!

(Sidenote: Drat, more mosquitoes biting me. I have repellent on, but it sweats off too fast. Yes, even sitting at the computer, I regret to say. The fan (without which life is unpleasant) helps blow the damnable things away from my legs, but only helps. Long clothes add to the heat problem. We have not worked out an acceptable solution to the heat/mosquito issue. When we get too frustrated we hide under the bed net, but I’m a little too hyper to stay there all day.)
Back to riding. I have been going of late on the Churchill Highway, and on the way outbound before sunrise there are flocks of white egrets flying across the green canefields and the building rain-clouds are nicely tinted (and encourage a brisk pace). The return is less pleasant, as the noise, tension and pollution levels soar from the commuter traffic. On Sunday mornings more people sleep in (or don’t drive, in any case) and the highways are nicer. Yesterday I quick ate a bowl of rice and went to 6 AM Mass, so I could get out while the getting was fair and get back hopefully before the rains. The plan was to ride south to Chaguanas, about 40 km round trip. I got there after the market was open, so Chaguanas Main was full of street stalls, shoppers and merchandise . I walked down Main and goggled at the hub-bub, but it was too uproarious for me to lock up my bike and shop. Besides, it was Sunday. As I rode out of town to the east, I was surprised to see a group of jersey-clad cyclists heading my way, splitting the lanes between dead stopped motor traffic in classic Critical Mass mode. I think I have commented before on how useful urban cycling skills are here in T&T. Anyways, I naturally spun around and joined them, riding at speed in between the cars, and turning onto the Solomon Hochoy highway south. I enjoyed riding with the group, but after about 10 km succumbed again from the singlespeed effect. This effect only occurs when riding on the flats with a group of roadies. I can usually keep up on climbs, as long as they aren’t terribly steep, and coast along on downs. With a 2X1 gear, I can spin along easily at about 25 or 30 kph but around maybe 35 kph I am spun out and there can be no further increase in velocity. So once again there came a point where the group increased speed and I could not follow. Several other riders came off shortly afterwards and I almost made it up to them before we topped a rise, but alas not and I was on my own. This is a familiar situation for me. As typically, I continued following the group, because if we came to a proper hill or someone flatted I could well catch on again, but it was not to be. I kept going anyway and turned around at San Fernando, 50 km away from home and rather further than I’d intended. So by the time I arrived home the heat of the day was well advanced, I was well hot and dry, and I much appreciated the cold Caribs in the refrigerator. Our water was even on, so I could get a shower!
Today is going well. I got a nice ride this morning, and as I said the road in Caura was much improved, and though I threw my chain by going through a big bump while pedaling fast I got it back on without difficulty. It is raining merrily so I don’t need to water the plants, but we haven’t lost electricity. I picked up a Bodi bake, for lunch, at a stand on the way back (fry bread with green beans inside, much better than it may sound) because I had to be home for the plumber. He does not make appointments, so during our frequent plumbing problems I have to sit here and wait for him to eventually come. The latest failure came last week in the floods. The water was cut off, as happens pretty much every week, but came back with such force that I could hear the air hissing as it blew out the seal in the back tap. Umm. So that has been running for days, wasting water and making noise since it couldn’t be turned off, but the tap is now replaced and mercifully silent. Hooray!
Saturday did not go as well. We loaded up the kayak and went to Williams Bay, and as usual being in Bonnie’s car made me very uptight. We made it there without incident, except for my uptight behaviour, off-loaded the boat, and Bonnie practiced stern paddling while I continued being uptight. I was antsy to get going before the winds picked up, so we got into our regular position (me stern, Bonnie bow) and paddled to 5 Islands. There we had very much the high point of the day, coinciding with high tide. As we have for the last several Saturday activities, we strapped the kayak to a tree, made sure our gear was well attached to the kayak, and went snorkeling. We had a great snorkel. It was early enough so we had good visibility, and we saw lots of fish and snorkeled until our lips hurt. We watched pelicans dive bombing fish while paddling the 2 miles back, had a cheery chat with the secretary of the kayak club, strapped the kayak onto the roofrack and headed for home in plenty of time for Bonnie to make it to her review at UWI. Yes, it was Saturday. University professorship is a lifestyle, after all. But anyway, all sounds good, right, until as we drove down the highway there came the loud sound of the roof rack ripping off and launching backwards onto the road, with our kayak attached. So that put rather a damper on the day. Fortunately, people here are used to cars coming to a sudden screeching halt right in front of them and no one hit us or were hit by our suddenly airborne kayak and chunks of rack. The so-called rack disintegrated in action. Poor design meant that the metal struts were attached to the roof with plastic brackets, which broke. So we put the poor kayak in the median while Bonnie moved the car off the road and I picked up various pieces. We strapped the kayak to the roof and went home. Our sad kayak has lots of scrapes and gouges, the bow carry handle and and stern tie-down were torn off, but it looks like the hull is intact. We hope so.

Ok, back to work. The eccentric bottom bracket on my bike is slipping, so the chain comes loose. Not something easily fixed in T&T, so I may to disassemble it and get some parts when we are next overseas. Global trade, right?

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Views of the US Election from Afar

I'm living in Trinidad and Tobago, a small island nation that is 1600 miles south east of Miami, Florida, the nearest city in The States, and only 7 miles from Venezuela. Since I moved here last December, I’ve been making a concerted effort to learn about the history and culture of this place. Sadly, slavery, oppression, imperialism and racial discrimination are central parts of that history and in many ways people here are still struggling to overcome that terrible legacy. Virtually every person in this country can trace their ancestry to either slaves or indentured laborers. White people, like me, make up less than one percent of the population so I have been learning a bit of what it is like to be a member of a tiny but highly visible minority.

I have lived most of my life in the western United States, in communities that were overwhelmingly white. Although I was taught by my parents from my youngest days to respect people of all races, my contact with people of African descent has been very limited. In the mid-1960’s when I was 3 years old my family moved from Utah to rural Pennsylvania. This was 1965, the year of Bloody Sunday in Alabama and race riots in Watts but I knew nothing of such things until I was much older. When we went to Philadelphia and saw black people on the streets (probably for the first time in my life), I remember my mother telling me that even though they looked different they were just regular people like us and we should be nice to them. I remember her giving us similar instructions a few years later when one of my Father’s black colleagues came to stay in our home.

In my Utah high school class of over 800, there were only 2 black students, one of whom, Linda Edwards, was a good friend. Sadly, I’ve completely lost touch with her over the years. In 9th grade, Linda and I were chosen to represent our school in a regional speech competition on the theme “My obligation to perpetuate freedom”. My parents attended the awards program for the regional competition where Linda placed first and I took second. We both gave our speeches as part of the program and I remember my father commenting on how moving it was to hear a black person talk about freedom.

Still, my contact with black people before I moved to Trinidad was very limited; they were anomalies in the communities in which I lived. I believe I can count the black people who I knew well during the first 45 years of my life on my fingers. In the 16 years I taught engineering in the US, I can remember only 1 black student who was in my classes. Through my church, which had an official policy of discrimination until 1978, I had only known a handful of blacks.

And so this past 10 months being immersed in the West Indian culture which has been molded by African, South Asian as well as European peoples has been an interesting personal voyage of exploration. As I interact daily with people whose ancestors come from every corner of the earth, I have been forced to recognize and repent of some deeply buried racial prejudices I never knew I held. I’ve been forced to deal with being continually and easily recognized as a foreigner and outsider because of the color of my skin and hair. Through this experience and my studies, I have gained a much greater insight into how deeply and broadly the lives of many people of color continue to be influenced by the crimes of the past 400 years.

In this context, I have followed the US Presidential election with a new perspective. I have anxiously read commentaries from the US on racial issues. Obama’s autobiography, which explores racial issues he faced as a child and young man, related very directly to the experiences I was having. I began to see connections I hadn’t seen before, in particular connections between the part of the world where I’m now living and black communities and racial problems in the US.

But even more than that, as I’ve lived in a truly international environment and associated daily with people from every continent in the world it has been increasingly evident to me how badly the US image in the world has been degraded over the past 7 years. When Obama secured the Democratic nomination last spring, there was an opinion piece printed in the local newspaper. The writer noted that there are two sides to America, a beautiful side that affirmed the ideals of human rights, equality and opportunity and an ugly side of imperialist aggression, racism, exploitation and hypocrisy. The writer noted that during recent years it had been difficult to remember anything but the ugly side; however, the nomination of Barack Obama stood as a reminder of America’s better virtues. Obama’s success was evidence that the American Dream was not dead, that a poor black child who started life with little more than a loving mother and devoted grandparents could indeed rise above those beginnings and aspire to the highest office. This Trinidadian columnist found in Barack Obama’s candidacy hope that America could rise above her recent problems and in that, he saw hope for the world at large.

I live in a neighborhood filled with professors and lecturers who teach at the University. It’s a very cosmopolitan neighborhood with people from Africa, India, Europe and the Americas. Two doors down there is a family from the D.C. area, the Mom teaches in Communications, the Dad is doing business consulting and they have a son who is 7 and a daughter who is 4. They are black.

Since the states switched off daylight time, we are one hour later here than the East Coast of the USA. So when I returned from teaching my night class last night shortly after 9 pm local, election results were just starting to come in. The first results were from hardcore Republican strongholds and our stomachs began to tighten as we remembered the disappointments of the last two Presidential election cycles. We turned off the TV and went to bed thinking the election would not likely be decided before our usual rising time of 5 am.

But two doors down, our neighbors were filled with hope and glued to the news. As we tossed in our bed worrying, we would periodically hear cheers from down the street. Shortly after midnight, the party erupted out on to the streets. Mixed with the voices of the adults was that of the 7 year old boy who I’d helped rescue a frog a few days back. He was singing out at the top of his lungs “President Obama”, “President Obama”.

And in that moment, I understood, in a way I would not have fully understood last year, exactly what this moment meant to African Americans and all those who have been down trodden, oppressed and disenfranchised. And in that moment I remembered “America the Beautiful”, built by patriots who dared not only to dream of a better future but also to work to make it a reality. And in that moment for the first time in years, I was proud of my country.

And while I am no longer naive enough to believe that this election will somehow erase all the horrid legacy of slavery and the disease of racism that still plagues segments of American society, it is proof that progress has been made, proof we can change; that we can improve and that our dreams of an America of alabaster cities undimmed by human tears can be realized. It awakes in me the hope that the day will come when “this nation (and the world) will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: 'We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal” and where all people “will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”

And I hope that no matter what your political persuasion, that you will be able to see beyond the partisan issues and appreciate the progress we have made as a people and a nation in my lifetime and join with me in feeling proud of America, at least for today.