The earthquake that shook Iran and Pakistan last week has already been overshadowed by fatal tremors in Sichuan, China, a few days ago. Perhaps not surprising given that both places are in seismically active areas, but both of these disasters are repeats of far more deadly earthquakes that occurred in the last decade. In 2008, the Great Sichuan Earthquake killed almost 70,000 people, while a 2003 earthquake in the Balochistan area in Iran killed over 26,000.
That the death toll of such strong earthquakes this year is much lower (188 so far in China and 36 in Balochistan) is partly due to luck and partly due to building changes made in the wake of the last disasters. Iran was lucky that this year’s earthquake struck a less inhabited area, while China was lucky that the magnitude of the earthquake, though great, was still far less than in 2008 (6.6 vs. 7.9 is a huge difference on the logarithmic quake-measuring scale). In Iran, it’s certain that upgrades to buildings would have helped in this year’s disaster. Part of the reason the earthquake in 2003 was so devastating was due to mud brick buildings that didn’t comply with 1989 earthquake building codes. Two years ago when I visited Bam, the city devastated in 2003, almost all of the buildings were girded with steel support beams. It remains to be seen whether Chinese building integrity, which was lacking in 2008’s earthquake, will be to thank for the lower death toll this time around, but it seems likely.
The Iranian earthquake last week was actually almost directly on the border of Iran and Pakistan, in a murky and little-visited area known as Balochistan. Where Iranians and Chinese have enjoyed an immediate and effective response to the crises of the past week, the Pakistanis have not been so lucky. China has literally had to turn away volunteers from Sichuan. And Iran, which in case you’re not paying attention was just hit with its own 7.8 M earthquake, has offered earthquake aid to China. Meanwhile, Balochistan, Pakistan’s largest province is suffering something of a humanitarian crisis.
Few people ever travel to Balochistan. It’s bleak and desolate and basically on the way to nowhere. Even the hippies, self-medicating their way to India along the hippie trail in the ’60s and ’70s, would divert through Afghanistan rather than going through the dusty deserts of Balochistan.
I traveled there in 2011, on my way overland to Southeast Asia. We (a convoy of travelers) were assigned armed guards along the way, who took regular naps as we trundled across the desert. The Baloch people, with their sun-beaten faces and piercing stares, often seemed sinister, but it turned out curiosity was simply mistaken for menace. Few Baloch see any Westerners except on TV, though the elder of them will remember a time pre-Partition when British were still garrisoned in Quetta, Balochistan’s capital.
I’m not naive. Balochistan is a dangerous place. Kidnappings perpetrated by al-Qaeda radicals are not uncommon (though they rarely target foreigners). Sectarian violence is a big problem. And there’s always the chance one might get in the crossfire between the Pakistan military and the stout and very armed advocates of an independent Balochistan.
But the regular Baloch, like everyone else on the planet, is just on his hustle, trying to eke out a living for himself and his family. He is abiding by ancient customs of hospitality in his native land. He is offering tea to the strange foreigner who wandered into his shop dressed in a moose toque and suede shoes in the middle of the desert. He is napping in the passenger seat of some foreigner’s car so they can safely transit his homeland. He is yelling at an idiot foreigner to turn off the bloody radio during the call to prayer, but then smiling to show he wasn’t being hostile or anything. And he is helping said sartorially inept foreigner navigate the hectic markets of Quetta to buy local dress that won’t make him stand out so damn much. So spare a thought for the Baloch and their homeland of Balochistan, a small, unlucky corner of the globe where you will probably never go.
I’ve never thought of surfing as a hyper-competitive sport. For me, it’s more of a lifestyle. I’m not a surfer but I’ve met scores of people over the years that have rearranged their lives to be in proximity to the big breaks. I can understand why surfers might want to compete so they can measure their skills against others but the surfing culture doesn’t exactly lend itself to competition.
It’s more dude-pass-that-joint than let’s-throw-down-I’m-going-to-whip-you, so when I was invited to attend and write about a surf competition/bacchanal called Pitaya Fest in San Juan del Sur, (SJDS) Nicaragua, I leapt at the chance to see what competitive surfing was all about.On a Saturday morning in February, I piled into a stifling hot van outside a backpacker hostel in SJDS with my wife and two little boys and found myself sitting knee-to-knee across from a host of beautifully idealistic young American do-gooders and a pair of German girls wearing royal blue T-shirts that read “Christian Surfers.”
The do-gooders were a delightful group of young people who were taking a year or more off after college to help people in Costa Rica and Nicaragua and they regaled us with stories, including one about a girl they encountered who gave birth at age 9. I got the feeling that they’d learned more in their brief time in Central America than they did in college.
As we struggled to hold our ground on the bench seats as the van breakdanced across a rutted dirt track toward Hermosa Beach, outside SJDS, I wanted to bottle up the group of idealistic Americans and release them the next time someone anywhere in the world tells me that Americans are greedy, selfish people who don’t lift a finger to help anyone else in the world.
Nicaragua is the second poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, next to Haiti, and it’s impossible for anyone with a conscience to visit the country and not feel motivated to help the legions of poor people who live in improvised, ramshackle dwellings alongside almost every major road in the country. Plenty of tourists come to Nicaragua for the beaches and the prospect of a cheap holiday, but are motivated to stay on as volunteers after they arrive.
Playa Hermosa is a lovely, huge, crescent-shaped beach where some scenes from Survivor Nicaragua were shot in 2010. I was told that the abysmal road leading to the beach was even worse before Jeff Probst and company rolled into town. Before we made it into the event, we passed by a security checkpoint manned by a guy with a bulletproof vest brandishing what looked like an old AK-47. In the last few years, a few tourists have been robbed in around Playa Hermosa, so they now have security to protect what is one of the country’s few privately owned beaches.
The surfing competition was already a few hours into its second day when we arrived and the first competitors we saw must have been part of a beginners’ heat, because they appeared to have no idea what they were doing. In fact, none managed to remain upright on their boards for more than ten seconds at a time.
The event appeared to be co-sponsored by the Christian Surfers group (Quicksilver was the primary sponsor) but the DJ’s choice in music wasn’t very Christian. One of the first songs we heard went something like this:
(Unintelligible) Mumble, mumble, mumble Shake that ass girl (Unintelligible) Mumble, mumble, mumble, Shake that ass girl
Later in the day, my wife saw the Christian Surfer group sitting in a circle on the beach, holding hands, eyes closed in prayer. Perhaps they were praying for everyone’s sins.
The sizable crowd was a fair sampling of the gringos who wash up in SJDS as visitors or expats. Backpackers in need of a shower and some clean laundry. White guys in dreadlocks with their tattooed, wasted-looking girlfriends and poorly groomed dogs. Middle-aged North American snowbirds, missionaries and assorted cheapskates looking for a cut-rate version of Costa Rica. Alcoholics attracted by Nicaragua’s cheap rum. Miscellaneous mid-life crisis and I’m here to change-my-life or maybe catch-something-that-I-might-be-ashamed-of types. The aforementioned do-gooders. Surfers, wannabe surfers and their dogs, some of them with coffee colored skin and incongruous orange-colored hair.
Aspiring North American coffee-shop revolutionaries in Panama hats and Che Guevara T-shirts who like totally aspire to stop the military industrial complex, global warming and the genocide in Darfur and various other places they know nothing about. Unemployable Latin American studies majors who aspire to start NGOs with vague goals involving “sustainability” and “empowerment.” Nicaraguans with substantial coolers sitting on uncomfortable white plastic chairs or lying on hammocks plus assorted riff-raff and ne-er-do-wells like me.
The surfing and the music got better. Much better. And the people mentioned above got more drunk and more stoned. At noon, I smelled my first whiff of ganja and wondered whether the surf announcer, who tried to sound like the beachside equivalent of Andres Cantor, the Latino soccer announcer famous for his GOOOOOOOOOOOAL! calls, would ever shut up.
Surfing isn’t much of a spectator sport but surfers make damn good company and they know how to party. I made a few lame attempts to understand what was going on, but it’s hard to stay engaged with a competition that has 56 different divisions and drags on for hours or days on end. From what I gathered, the surfers had 15 minutes in each heat to ride as many waves as they could, but only their two best rides counted towards their overall score.
Set back from the beach, there was a stage and a lineup of bands, plus a host of booths offering everything from $1.50 rum and cokes, chocolate cookies to pulled pork sandwiches.
I met a 40-something expat volunteering at a BBQ pit who told me that he moved to SJDS in 2009 to “do something different.” He said that that the town’s real estate market mirrored that of the U.S. There was a boom from 2004-7, followed by a bust and a sputter that lingers to this day.
“A piece of land that was 25K in 2007 was going for about 15k by 2009,” he said.
My children made friends with some gringo expat kids whose parents moved to SJDS from Lesotho (seriously!) and I met a host of interesting people as well. I was struck by how open and friendly people were and how easy it is to become part of this community in a place that I would assume is as transient as they come. I met more interesting people in six hours on the beach than I would in six months in Chicago. And I found out that the event was a fundraiser for local charities, which inspired me to have a few more rum and cokes, in order to support the good cause.
At 2 p.m., the surf competition DJ, operating under a tent on the beach, wisely shifted from the angry gansta rap to Bob Marley’s “Legend” compilation. What’s a surf gathering without some Bob Marley, right? Fifteen minutes later, a band took the stage and launched into Marley’s “So Much Trouble in the World” as the DJ played “Stir It Up” simultaneously. Competing Bob Marley tunes was still better than the gangsta rap (see video below).
Shortly thereafter, a small Nicaraguan guy in a faded tank top began puking just yards behind my little patch of shade underneath a tree behind the surf tents.
He was serenaded by a group of inebriated hippies who were mashing it up to Marley’s “Buffalo Soldier.”
Fighting on the Rye-ver, Fighting for Survival Wye-yo-yo, Wye-yo-yo-yo, Wye-yo-yo-yo-yo!
Soon, a succession of drinkers followed, one-by-one, to piss in my general vicinity and I decided to move from what was becoming a de-facto toilet.
By three o’clock, I felt like I was in the Twilight Zone as a “Grease” cover band called Bario La Planeta launched into their set. Only in Nicaragua can you wash up at a beach and find yourself singing “Go Grease Lightning” in the company of of junkies, flunkies, do-gooders and gringos with baffled looking Nicaraguans looking on in puzzlement (see video).
Late in the afternoon, guys and gals who actually knew how to surf – and how to surf well – got into the act but I still had no idea what the hell was going on and I’m pretty sure that most in attendance didn’t gave a damn who won. I’m told the party raged until 3 a.m. and Agusto Chamorro won the men’s open competition. In the world of competitive, but not exactly cutthroat surfing, I’m betting that none of the “losers” left the beach broken hearted.
Who doesn’t want to roll around England‘s countryside in a VW van, stopping to read and set up camp between lush rolling hills? Sometimes the idea of living by way of van, by way of the road, seems too far-fetched to travel-loving dreamers out there. I’m here to tell you… it is not far-fetched! Buy a van! Move into it! Drive! Explore! Use exclamation marks as often as possible; it will show people precisely how happy you are to be traveling this way!
This shot was taken by photographer/Flickr user, Samuel Bradley in Cumbria, England. I love it because it does seem to embody the spirit of traveling via road tripping. I’ve spent much of my time on the road and I suppose one of the reasons this photo excited me is because I’m about to start living on the road again starting at the end of October. I can’t wait to re-embrace the living-in-the-van lifestyle. It’s not for everyone, granted, but it is positively for me.
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In something that sounds like it came right out of a South Park episode, a local group of hippies is complaining that a recently installed WiFi mesh network in the UK village of Glastonbury is causing all kinds of health problems.
To combat the signals from the Wi-Fi hotspots, the hippies have placed orgone generators around the antennae, but so far without any success.
This might have to do with the fact that orgone generators look like they are just bundt pans with some tin foil pieces.
Speaking of tin foil, despite 100’s of research studies, nobody has ever found any links between WiFi signals and health issues, and the village of Glastonbury has been blanketed in mobile phone signals since the late 80’s without anyone feeling ill from the “radiation”.
Even though the town of Woodstock in the Hudson Valley region of New York balked at letting the mega concert happen within its domain—and even though all of Ulster County didn’t want the concert there, Woodstock the town is a groovy, upscale (and a little downscale) arts haven that is definitely worth heading to for a day of wandering, particularly if you like to shop for lovely, interesting items. It is one of my favorite towns to head, particularly because the people who live here make sure it remains true to who they are and not what corporate giants would like them to be.
There are tree-lined streets and small historic buildings. The arts focus started here back in 1902 which helps make it eye candy for shopping. Plus, even though the concert didn’t happen here, hippies are welcome and mixed in with the upscale, there is an edgy grit.
I head here every summer to look for wedding, baby and birthday gifts, plus a new pair of shoes. The shoes are for me. Sometimes it’s a quick trip, mostly for the shoes, but once in awhile there’s that wonderful summer day where no where else really matters. Here is my Woodstock guide–mostly shopping. Everything I’ve listed, I have done.
Some shopping stops that are my favorites:
If you wander along Tinker Street where each of these are located, you’ll also come across shops selling all sorts of specialty items from kitchen supplies to books to clothing to greeting cards. Some shops are the up-scale variety and others center around tie dye and incense.
Clouds Gallery: Located on the right-hand side of Tinker Street if you are driving up through town. The specialty is hand blown contemporary glass, fine American crafts and jewelry. My daughter has a collection of blown glass hearts– one for each birthday, from this store. The hearts are gifts from my mother who is my companion on these jaunts. Tell Robert, the owner, I said hi.
Pegasus Footwear: This is where I always find an interesting pair of shoes. The types they sell are perfect for travelers’ feet. They also last.
Timbuktu: An eclectic mix of folk art, pottery, jewelry and fusion type fare from different countries. Whoever is the buyer knows his or her stuff. Presents I’ve bought here: salad servers with beaded work from Kenya, a hand painted clock with a sun’s face on it, and ceramics to name a few.
Tinker Street Toys of Woodstock: Right next door to Clouds. This is a child’s dream store (and adults). I’ve played in here many a time and pick up stocking stuffers for the real kids in my life–and my husband.
Our favorite place is The Little Bear, an upscale Chinese restaurant two miles out of town. Eat in the sun room type addition. It overlooks a stream and you may even see deer. I’ve been here with kids and the staff has always been amenable–even when my son was only a year and a half.
Anywhere I’ve wandered in for a bite, I’ve found the food good, but you can’t go wrong at The Little Bear.
What to do at night:
The Tinker Street Cinema movie theater, housed in a former church–, the old wooden, white kind, is a one-screen kind of place. Popcorn always tastes better in movie theaters like this one. The last movie I saw here was 21 Grams.
There are other things to do at night, but since I’m mostly visiting family and friends in Kingston, I’m not here much after dinner. Folks, who have, please offer suggestions. I do know there are always concerts, talks and art events going on somewhere. This is a happening place.
Other places to head:
Where Woodstock, the concert happened. It takes a 43 mile drive.