The price of the never-ending federal shutdown

The Thinker by Rodin

Before we left for our vacation in Ecuador, I was wondering if two weeks later there would be anyone left around to let us back in. I was not particularly prescient in believing that the government would still be shut down. Still, our trip home from Quito connecting in Miami was nervous. Would TSA and Customs be on the job? Would we be able to catch our connecting flight on time?

It worked out for us, only because some gods decided to put us on TSA PreCheck. We were scanned leaving Quito but that’s not good enough for the TSA; if you are an international arrival, you have to go through TSA’s scanning. So when we finally got to TSA screening in Miami, it took less than five minutes, while the queue in the regular line was 15-20 minutes. So we made our connecting flight to Boston, but just barely, practically running the whole way to our gate (not easy when my wife has a bad knee).

On these international flights coming into the U.S. you must also go through Customs. There things were a bit alarming. It’s not that we had to wait a long time to get through Customs. It was just the opposite. Everyone was being hustled through at warp speed. You make your declarations at machines now. When we finally got to a customs’ agent, he never bothered to ask us a single question, just glanced at our passport and waived us through. It was just as alarming after we claimed our luggage. Yes, you have to claim them and check them again on your domestic flight. You drag your luggage past a few CBP agents who may ask to check your baggage. But they couldn’t be bothered. We had just come from Ecuador. We could have easily smuggled many kilos of cocaine in our suitcase. Perhaps dogs were sniffing the luggage before we picked it up, but the CBP agents looked like they didn’t give a damn. No one’s luggage was being pulled aside. I was left with the impression that our unpaid TSA and CBP agents were present in body, but not in spirit.

I also suspect that things are going to get worse. At some point this house of cards is going to collapse. There are already signs of it. Over the holiday weekend, 10% of TSA agents did not show up for work. Certain airports, like Atlanta (the world’s busiest airport), are already experiencing moderate to severe delays due to insufficient TSA staffing. Federal employees are not allowed to strike, but you can only test their patience so long when they are not getting paid. If this government shutdown goes on long enough, it may be rebellious federal employees figuring they have little to lose who gunk up the machinery of government that manage to break the logjam.

It’s clear that the shutdown is just going to drag on and get worse. It’s also clear that in particular Republicans really don’t care who they hurt. Some of them see government dysfunction as a good thing. If federal employees go homeless or people starve because they don’t get their food stamps, hey, it’s no skin off their backs. So it will probably take some major government lapse to move things, but even so there’s no guarantee. If hundreds get sick from E. coli infections because food inspectors are furloughed, or airplanes start crashing because federal authorities haven’t inspected them, maybe some action will happen. This shutdown shows every likelihood of continuing for months.

Action may finally happen when sufficient numbers of businesses petition Congress to end it. Republicans do listen to business. The airline industry is already suffering, and they give lots of money principally to Republicans in Congress. Delta Airlines figures the shutdown has cost them $25M so far in January. Threaten to stop giving these politicians money and they may find the courage to do what is necessary. Or certain segments of federal workers forced to work without pay may find the courage to strike. How are you supposed to get to work if you can’t afford bus fare?

If TSA and CBP agents en masse stopped showing up for work, that would ratchet up the level of this crisis. The shutdown’s continuation depends of the patience and suffering of people who can’t exist in this state forever. If they strike then perhaps Trump, like Reagan with air traffic controllers, would decide to fire them all. Perhaps he’d send in the military to do their job. TSA agents though don’t have that much to lose. Most are paid around $30K a year, a pittance for a federal employee, plus they have to work at inconvenient times and at weird shifts.

I just don’t see how this ends. There is simply the absence of leadership to end it. Moreover we have a tone-deaf president that cannot see past six feet in front of him. Vladimir Putin must be ecstatic watching our great nation crumble into dysfunction.

Touring the Galapagos Islands

The Thinker by Rodin

If you are going to come all the way to the Galapagos Islands, you had better like nature. And hiking. And climbing over fields of lava rock. And sea lions, iguana, sea turtles and tortoises. And weird and interesting landscapes. You should not come here if you are looking for the amenities of civilization, like lots of fancy ethnic eating, dance clubs, Starbucks and skyscrapers.

They do try to cater to our tastes but it’s not the same. I ordered pizza for dinner the other night. The sausage was unspiced, the pepperoni uninspiring, the sauce nothing to brag about. There is “Tex-Mex” food which is pretty good. Just don’t expect much in the way of other types of cuisine. You can get sushi, but most other ethnic food except for Ecuadorian food is not available.

If you know anything about the Galapagos Islands, you will know that it is largely uninhabited. This is by design but it’s also something of a necessity, as it doesn’t make a great place for human habitation. Just 35,000 people live here in the Galapagos in three “port” cities, the biggest of which we are in at the moment: Puerto Ayora, on the south side of Isle Santa Cruz. Santa Cruz is roughly equivalent to Oahu without of many of its amenities, except for palm trees and volcanos. Puerto Ayora has 12,000 of the islands’ 35,000 people. This makes it roughly as big as the village I live in (Florence, Massachusetts), and the population of the entire Galapagos Islands roughly the size of the city of Northampton, Massachusetts in which my village resides.

Puerto Ayora tries its best to compensate. It has a beautiful marina, and the streets are lined with tourist related businesses. There are many shops selling day trips to the islands. There are also a decent number of restaurants. Without the tourist trade, it would be economically devastated. It’s mostly Americanos who come here, but many from mainland Ecuador come here too, as it is their primary place of escape.

It’s pretty easy to transact commerce even without knowing a word of Spanish. The merchants at least know just enough to get by, and since it usually involves dickering over price, they will often use a calculator to show their asking price. You might as well dicker over the price. It is generally expected, except at restaurants. There are some bars and nightclubs here too, but not too many as not too many are needed. You got to get away from the marina to find things like grocery stores and pharmacies.

If for some reason you want to move here, that’s virtually impossible. Even mainland Ecuadorians can’t move here. They want to keep the islands as natural as possible and really these islands would have a hard time supporting much more of a population. Your only hope is to marry a native Galapagos Islands resident. And then you would have to be temperamentally disposed to live around here without most of the amenities you may be used to. Moreover, prices are often high here. A pair of Levi jeans will cost you more than $100, a bottle of sunscreen more than $25. So a lot of residents wait for trips to the mainland or to the United States to stock up on these essentials, bringing back with them much more than they left with. The only bargain I found here so far was a local laundry service, found behind a small gate along a cinder block lined pathway. Total cost to clean nine days of sweaty clothes: $7.90.

So enjoy your time in the Galapagos Islands, just remember it will be short lived. There are always other islands to visit and hike, but many are far away and hard to get to. So instead take advantage of the nature close at hand, which includes a lot of sea lions. It’s hard not to find them as they will often be lounging on wharfs, beaches and rocks along the coast. They are certainly cute to look at with their tiny ears and big eyes, even if they are often in your way when you want to go somewhere.


The Thinker by Rodin

Mark Twain once wrote that travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness. This may explain our problem in the United States where sometimes even traveling to another state is considered exotic. 64% of Americans have never left the United States, and 10% of us have never left our state. It seems to me that those who most need to travel outside the country are the ones least able to afford to do so, which exacerbates our narrow mindedness. Happily, that is not our problem. If Americans do go to a foreign country, it is probably Canada, which I discovered in 2017 is largely the same but with roads that are well maintained. Europe is probably the main destination for Americans traveling internationally for pleasure. It’s much less likely that Americans will travel to more exotic destinations like Africa, South America or Asia.

A year ago this month my wife and I took a 16-day cruise, largely our chance to experience Central America from a comfy cruise ship and cruise-line sponsored tours. It helped expand our horizons, but this trip to Ecuador is a better experience. We’re in Quito, the capital of Ecuador, which also happens to be about 10,000 feet above sea level and about twenty miles from the equator.

In the United States, you tend to think of the Americas as the U.S. and maybe Canada. This first real trip to South America though proves it is something else entirely: the Americas are mostly Hispanic. There is far more Spanish spoken in the Americas than English. The only other major language spoken in the Americas is Portuguese in Brazil. It has 200 million people, so there are more English speakers than Portuguese speakers in the Americas, but probably not for too much longer.

Happily English remains something of a universal language, but that doesn’t mean that most people speak it. It does mean that if someone has learned a second language, it is likely to be English. On this tour of Ecuador, we have a nice personal tour guide/translator provided by the touring company. My Spanish is more than forty years old and I haven’t had much need to practice it. I can stumble through the basics but I can’t hold a meaningful conversation in Spanish. In the past this was a big barrier to travel, but today it is less so. You can carry the Google Translate app around on your cell phone and if necessary you can use it to broker a conversation with someone in a foreign tongue. You can even point it at signs and it will translate them, at least a lot of the time.

Having spent a couple of days in Ecuador though I am feeling my mind broadening and my prejudices narrowing. If you think of South and Central American the way Donald Trump does, presumably as with mostly shithole countries, you would be largely wrong. We have seen some pretty impoverished countries like Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic, but no one would characterize Ecuador that way, at least not once you have actually been here. A closer match is Costa Rica and I suspect Argentina and Chile that I have yet to explore.

You could perhap call Ecuador second-world, but it feels more first-world than second-world. Quito, its capital, is thoroughly modern while its old city (a UNESCO heritage site) is charming. You see mostly new cars on the road, and actually fewer junkers than you see in the United States. You also see car models and brands not in the United States, lots of nice looking but probably cheap cars from places like China and the Czech Republic. None of the worst stretches I’ve seen here quite compare to the poverty you will find in many places in Appalachia. While there appear to be fewer rich people here, there also appear to be a lot fewer poor people, at least as a percent of the population. Wealth inequality feels less of an issue here than in the United States.

Things do take some getting used to, of course. For one, Ecuador is on the equator. Days are always twelve hours long, within fifteen minutes or so anyhow and the sun is usually overhead, casting little in the way of shadows but plenty in the way of ultraviolet radiation. There are a lot more diesel cars on the roads, in part because the state subsidizes diesel fuel. It’s ridiculously cheap, like about $1/gallon. These subsidies may be coming to an end. It may explain the protestors we heard chanting next to the Presidential Palace, just a few blocks from our hotel.

The Americas look a lot like Donald Trump’s worst fear: brown people, with some black people thrown in, who are mostly descendents of people we largely exterminated in North America: the natives. Many people here can trace some ancestry from Europe, but the general population evolved from the Aztec, Inca, Mayan and other races that predated colonization. How many of us in the United States aside from Elizabeth Warren can claim any Native American blood?

But really these are terrific people: religious, hard working, courteous and respectful for the most part. That’s not to say they are better or worse than the rest of us; they are just the same with a darker skin hue than some of us are comfortable with. They succeed when they form governments that lift them up and fail when they don’t. Ecuador, like many South American countries, is getting an influx of refugees from Venezuela, which is collapsing. Ecuador though has always had some things working in its favor. Its wealth is largely a product of its oil revenues and previously its plentiful plantations and gold. Its government is not without corruption, but it’s a lot less corrupt than most and its leader generally work for the people, while sometimes lining their own pockets. It’s a mosaic of different geographical regions, from the Amazon, to Pacific beaches, to a cloud forest, to the Andes Mountains. This is my first experience with the Andes and they impress: tall, incredibly steep and full of volcanoes, some active. San Francisco’s hills have got nothing on Quito’s. I’ve never seen steeper roads or mountains with more severe slopes.

In short, Ecuador is pretty neat, at least what we’ve seen of it so far. We went into the cloud forest yesterday (which means you drop down to a lower elevation where clouds are usually at) to a town called Mindo, did some walking, took a chocolate tour, enjoyed a good lunch at a nice restaurant and noted the many potholes when you get off the main roads. Mindo is just 22 miles from our hotel, but it took two hours to get there along the impossibly twisting roads you have to take.

I suspect if I had to live somewhere in South America, Ecuador would be a logical place. It’s pretty modern, pretty to look at, more affordable than most places in the U.S. and the people seem to be doing pretty well overall. Yes, there is poverty in places. You see lots of entrepreneurs walking amidst the often stalled traffic selling bags of fruit, bottles of water and windshield cleanings. You see sporadic homeless dogs and poor people in the plazas, a site that looks familiar to every place I’ve lived in America too. You also see some delicacies that would turn off most Americans, like deep fried guinea pigs on a stick. (I haven’t found the courage to try them, but I doubt they taste bad, given their popularity.) In fact, there are expat communities of U.S. citizens here, mostly along the coast, and there are gated communities aplenty in Quito’s suburbs you can probably buy into at a great cost savings compared to U.S. real estate prices. You would have to learn Spanish, but it’s not that hard to pick up. You can often figure out the signage. Ecuador also has some conveniences that Americans would like. Gas is sold in gallons, their currency is the U.S. dollar and there are plenty of fresh vegetables and fruit from the many stands close at hand. Also, you won’t need to change appliances. Current is 120 volts and the plugs are the same as in the USA. You just have to like mostly brown and predominantly Catholic people.

So there are plenty of good reasons to visit Ecuador although few Americans do. It’s not that far away. Our flight from Miami took about three and a half hours. You might find yourself charmed and decide that maybe the good old USA isn’t nearly as great as you and Donald Trump have been led to believe.

A short visit to Minneapolis-St. Paul

The Thinker by Rodin

Life can be busy when you are retired. For me it’s been busy in a good way, meaning I took a mini vacation last week. This had the effect of keeping me from blogging. It meant a 4-day trip to Minneapolis-St. Paul to attend a reunion related to my last job.

Our hotel turned out to be a mile away from the Mall of America (MoA), so when we weren’t doing tours or attending a banquet we were often at the mall for dinner and to gawk at its immensity, its indoor amusement park and its four levels of shopping. It’s so big that there are two or three stores for some retail brands in the Mall. I guess they want to make sure they have you coming or going.

The MoA is definitely worth a visit, even if you are not into malls or shopping in particular. If it’s available for retail, it’s probably somewhere in the MoA, if you can find it. Thinking of our tiny Hampshire Mall, I’m guessing you could fit a hundred of those in the MoA and still have a floor or two to spare.

The trip was a good change of pace. Minneapolis-St. Paul is a beautify area, at least near the end of summer: prosperous and clean where the run down houses are few and the streets look regularly swept. If life were longer I might want to move there. It has it all: two major cities close to each other, light rail connecting cities with the burbs, three major rivers including the mighty Mississippi, bluffs along the rivers, major arts, sports and events venues and 10,000 glacial lakes to choose from within the state.

It’s also got history of sorts. St. Paul was a big gangster haven during and after Prohibition. We took a Gangsta Tour that included a tour guide who was also an actress. She stayed in character the whole time as we looked at a speakeasy built into some sandstone cliffs and saw houses where various mobsters and gangsters hung out. She played the sister of a woman married to the mob and provided colorful insights into the mobsters of the time. St. Paul was known back then as a safe city, not meaning it was a particularly safe community but that gangsters could hang out there with impunity as long as the police got their payola and you refrained from open violence.

Today the biggest scandal is probably Garrison Keillor’s (“A Prairie Home Companion”) alleged sexual harassment. He did well enough though to buy a fine home in St. Paul’s most exclusive neighborhood: Summit Street, which we drove down. He shares this street with previous luminaries like F. Scott Fitzgerald and Sinclair Lewis.

With Hurricane Florence wreaking havoc on the Mid-Atlantic States, I was a bit anxious about flight delays. Thankfully we had direct flights between here that were on time, making our air travel relatively painless for a change. Florence did eventually catch up with us here in Florence, Massachusetts. It resulted in three inches of rain yesterday and the report of one missing woman who was stupidly swimming in the local Mill River. They are looking for her body on the river.

Back to more germane topics in the days ahead.

Report from some so-called “shithole” countries

The Thinker by Rodin

Seeing Central America has been on my bucket list of a long time. Curiously Central America is largely not visited by cruise ships, but that’s changing. This Holland America 15-day cruise we’re on is mostly about getting up close and personal with Central America, or as close as you can get given that you will see it generally through shore excursions provided by Holland America.

I have been to so-called “shithole” countries before. Nothing I’ve seen so far quite compares with what I saw in the Philippines in 1987, when I was sent there on a business trip. It’s been thirty years and fortunately I’ve heard that tremendous progress has occurred there since then. I was quite appalled by the trip, even though I knew what to expect. A “shithole” country should almost by definition lack modern sewage systems. That was true of the Philippines back then, with some exceptions in Manila. Waste was generally dumped into the street and sewage for the most part into the rivers and tributaries, and most of the shacks that compromised housing lined these water sources. Cars had no emissions system so the atmosphere too was simply a toxic dumping ground, making areas in Manila in particular toxic to the lungs. The most appalling part was the lack of public education. It was a privilege available only to those who could afford it for their kids and most could not. So kids mostly grew up in the street, and were tempted into the abundant trade of services for the American seamen that I encountered. If you wanted to have sex with someone underage, it was not a problem. It was a grinding poverty where kids often smoked in the streets and worked hard to part us Americans from our money.

I was informed by some of the U.S. Navy people I worked with that as bad as the Philippines was, nearby Thailand was worse. Lots of people died there from completely preventable diseases. Things like netting to keep the mosquitoes off their bodies at night was unaffordable. People literally starved in the streets. Everyone was too inured to it all to care about it. I never saw any bloated bellies in the Philippines, except from many a pregnant teen, some of who I suspect were pregnant due to the presence of frequently visiting U.S. sailors.

On this cruise we have visited Colombia, Panama, Costa Rica, Guatemala and Mexico. The closest country here to what I witnessed in the Philippines thirty years ago was Nicaragua. But Nicaragua was still an improvement. They have a public education system, not a stellar one, but it exists. They also have universal health care, again not great health care, but it’s there and can be used by anyone though with some delays and perhaps some issues with the quality of health care. In that sense Nicaragua is ahead of the United States. There are still people in our country that cannot get health insurance, and if Republicans get their way the uninsured rate is likely to soar again. In that sense some reverse migration may be in order.

Nicaragua is the largest and most populous country in Central America. You can see in the local markets sanitation standards that would be unacceptable in the States. You can see stray dogs in the street and sometimes malnourished horses along the sides of the road. For most, housing consists of a shack or shanty with a corrugated metal roof, often with cinder block walls but often less. But unlike other countries I’ve visited, there are plenty of reasonably maintained highways and there are lots of cars, buses and trucks running around. Unlike the Dominican Republic that we visited four years ago, most of the roads are paved. If the potholes aren’t fixed they aren’t too bad and you can drive around them.

Guatemala is not that much better than Nicaragua, at least if you look at their statistics. We saw security guards in most establishments. But the roads are quite good and well marked and it’s clear there is a significant middle class, who often drive to the coast on the weekend to enjoy the beaches there. They cause traffic jams too, and we were caught up in one on Sunday. There are plenty of first-world establishments along the sides of the roads too, and we stopped for lunch at one classy place (Pueblo Real) along the Pan American highway. Few can afford new cars, but plenty of people have after-market automobiles that were crashed in the United States and restored and look new. A car is something of a status symbol and plenty of families have them. Obviously it’s beyond the reach of many, so these depend on private bus systems instead. They are everywhere but unlike the jitneys I witnessed in the Philippines, these are essentially blinged school buses that are well maintained and presumably quite affordable. There was some air pollution, but it was mostly due to burning the sugar cane so it can be harvested. The automobiles all seemed to come with their emissions control systems intact.

As I mentioned in a previous post, Costa Rica is the jewel of Central America, such as it is. If Central Americans aspire to live somewhere in the area, Costa Rica is probably it. Costa Rica would still be seen as somewhat rough by most American standards. But the curious fact is that if anyone’s standards are slipping, it’s the United States’. Our educational standards are beginning to resemble Nicaragua’s more than Costa Rica’s. This is symptomatic of our refusal to invest adequately in our own human capital and infrastructure. And Donald Trump’s disdain for “shithole” countries has the effect of making us more like one of these countries every day.

As I have noted in many other posts, immigrants both legal and illegal have allowed Americans to maintain much of their standard of living. To the extent the Trump Administration succeeds in its war on immigrants, expect it to drag our economy down. Immigrants keep our productivity booming and inflation away. In any event, it’s unlikely Trump has visited some of these countries that I’ve visited on this cruise. He would probably refer to them as “shithole” countries, but I wouldn’t. I wouldn’t characterize the people there as lazy either. What they mostly lack is fertile educational soil to reach their potential, which is generally denied to them by the landed aristocracy that is essentially in charge in most of these countries. Some countries like Costa Rica have made huge strides, but most seem mired in slow progress at best. The real obscenity is that systematic forces by people like Donald Trump are keeping them from realizing their full worth.

As for Trump, his ignorance is appalling but not the least bit surprising. He and his fellow Republicans though are exacerbating their problems, not helping to solve them.

Costa Rica vs. Nicaragua

The Thinker by Rodin

Costa Rica is supposed to be the jewel of Central America. Disembarking at Puertarenas on Friday, it didn’t give that impression. Puertarenas is on the west coast of the country. Its black sand beaches made it look sort of dirty. A recent tropical storm has left a lot of deadwood along its beaches too. The black sand comes courtesy of the many volcanoes in the country, a couple of which are usually glowing on any given night. A drive on our tour bus showed a city that looked at best second world. After completing a short train excursion along a track lined with shanties, the Costa Rica we saw gave more of an impression of Haiti than Central America’s shining jewel.

It’s likely true that had we disembarked at the ritzier and more touristy areas a bit north and west of where we were docked our experience would have been more positive. As our train also wended its way through melon fields and coffee plantations, our tour guide explained why things were not quite what they seemed. The shanties we saw were overwhelmingly put up by Nicaraguans, citizens of Costa Rica’s country to its north. Just as in the United States it is beneath most Americans to do farm work, so it is today for most Costa Ricans to engage in that kind of labor. Some of these guest workers were here legally. Many more were not. In any event, Costa Rican law allows for squatters to at least try to construct homes on available plots of land. If after ten years the property owner doesn’t throw them off it and they can prove they have lived there that long, they can claim ownership of the land. Given that you could be thrown out at any moment, there’s not much point in overdoing your house. In any event, many of these Nicaraguans worked the nearby fields. Without their presence and the willingness to work for wages that can’t be paid to a citizen, like migrant workers in the United States, the melon fields we saw would not get harvested and probably not planted.

It wasn’t always this was for Costa Ricans. In the 1940s after a civil war started within the army, two things happened. First, the populace was so upset by the civil war that they abolished their army, the only country to do so in the Americas. Second, they elected a progressive who introduced social security and universal health care. Nine percent of a Costa Rican’s wages go into this system. Employers pay twenty percent of an employee’s wages into it. The money not spent on the military was channeled into education instead. A middle class that was virtually nonexistent in the 1940s emerged, took root and now consists of most of the population. Like the Scots, Costa Ricans learned that investing in education pays long term dividends. Basically these progressive policies totally transformed the country.

Costa Rica is thus a country that hovers somewhere between second world and first world status. Our first impressions were definitely wrong. Even the most modest shanties have satellite antennas on the roofs and Internet access. So what we saw was actually a country on the rise with a high cost of living but where most were upwardly mobile, and expecting things to remain that way. It’s also a country blessed by a peace that seems to elude the rest of Central America. This plus its tropical climate, rich soil made possible from its many volcanoes and its abundant rainfall makes it the place to be in Central America. And in truth, if you’ve traversed places like Detroit or rural parts of Alabama and Mississippi, the United States looks just as bad, if not worse. So we’ll be back to explore more of Costa Rica.

Nicaragua on the other hand is Central America’s poorest and largest country. If so if doesn’t look it. Its shanties looked comparable to Costa Rica’s, but were perhaps more numerous. Most roads were paved. The port city of Corinta where we docked seemed busy, in spite of its fifty percent unemployment rate. You can find a stray dog or two in the streets or a wild horse along the sides of the road, but also plenty of cars, trucks and motorcycles, as well as people on bikes.

What you might expect to find in such a poor country but won’t is much of a crime problem. Nicaragua has the lowest crime rate in Central America, in spite of its poverty. There is no drug trade here because (as our guide told us) no one can afford drugs anyhow. If people have a vice, it’s alcohol, not cigarettes. It does have plenty of corruption. The most profitable profession is not businessman or lawyer, but politician. The corruption seems endemic. Daniel Ortega, a former Sandinista, is now in his sixteenth year of rule, having originally led the communist Sandinistas to overthrow the country’s long-reigning Somoza regime. Ortega is now largely not seen, as he has Lupus which makes him avoid daylight. His wife was elevated to Vice President and is effectively running the country. In short today there is little difference between the right-wing Somoza regime and life under Ortega and the Sandinistas, except a lot less repression of dissent. There is a public health service and a free public school education is available to all. But the public schools are poor and under funded. Their health care system while universal also suffers from issues, mainly timely access to services. It’s perhaps not surprising then that the influence of the Catholic Church is waning and evangelical churches are moving in. Approximately sixty percent of Nicaraguans are now Catholic.

You would think then that Nicaragua should be avoided, but its tourism business is booming. If you are looking for a cheap place to retire, Nicaragua should be on your list. Real estate is dirt cheap, prices are low, crime in low, gangs that inhabit nearby countries like El Salvador and Honduras don’t exist and you get a drier climate than in Costa Rica, at least along its west coast. I can’t see retiring there, but I can see why Americans who like tropical climates and need to stretch their retirement dollars might want to find a gated community in the country and call it home instead. You might say that Nicaragua is something of a bargain if you can deal with the general poverty and corruption. It’s quite a pretty country too.

Transit of Panama

The Thinker by Rodin

Circuiting the Panama Canal is pretty awesome, but probably more awesome if you are an engineer, since it’s easier to appreciate the feat accomplishment. These days we tend to take engineering for granted. But having traversed the Panama Canal Wednesday for my first and likely last time, it was still impressive. Opened in 1914 it suddenly made getting between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans much faster and less hassle. The transit is hardly free. It cost our cruise ship about $120,000 to make the journey just one way. You can’t charge it to your business AmEx card. You can’t wire Panama the money either. It must be paid in cash in Panama using an agent.

Considering we went through the same locks the first ship used more than 100 years ago and with little in the way of obvious improvements, my immediate reason for being impressed is that it has been working reliably for more than a century. That in itself is stellar engineering. Even the Brooklyn Bridge has undergone major maintenance that shut it down from time to time. Our cruise ship, the MS Westerdam is more than 800 feet long and about 140 feet wide. It fit snugly but completely inside the locks. Turned over to Panama in 2000, the American presence is still obvious during your transit. The locks were built to accommodate 1000 foot ships and you can still see along the locks distances measured in feet along the side of the locks. There is some new stuff, though. Just two years ago, in 2016, a new set of locks was opened for even longer and wider ships.

We have a historian on board who gave us an abridged history of its history and construction. It was standing room only at the Main Stage of our cruise ship for the lecture, but it was still impressive to go through the locks in person. As you sail in through its Caribbean entrance at Colon, what you mostly notice is the vertical distance covered by each lock. It takes three locks to ascend the eighty or so feet to reach Gatun Lake, a lake created as part of engineering the canal. The original intent was simply to not use any locks. That turned out to not be viable because of Panama’s consistent rain and the continuous erosion issue that introduced. Speaking of rain, it rained when we went through, but only briefly. It rains pretty much every day in Panama, so it’s not usually a question of whether it will rain, but how much. How much is usually a lot.

They have the equivalent of a cog railroad along the side of the locks to tow vessels through the canal with no worry that the ships will hit the sides of the locks. It’s old tech but pretty impressive nonetheless to watch. It was hard from our ship to see the lock fill with water due to its girth. But you can still feel the effect as you move a significant vertical distance over about eight minutes. Eventually you end up on Gatun Lake and for a while transit becomes serene and predictable. There are two more sets of locks to transit before you hit the Pacific Ocean.

You would think that you would head east to west coming from the Caribbean Sea, but in fact you go north to south due to the shape of the isthmus. Panama, like Colombia that we visited briefly the day before, is very much a tropical rainforest.

So much of the magic of the Panama Canal has to do with how they solved the basic issue of its hydraulics: create artificial lakes and make huge, indestructible locks. One of the biggest engineering challenges was cutting through what remains of the continental divide when it goes through Panama: the Culebra Cut. It took a lot of dynamite, a lot of hauling away rocks with a portable railway of sorts, and a lot of lives lost. About 5000 people, mostly from the Caribbean, died constructing the American attempt to build the canal. Many more died in an earlier attempt by the French But its completion signaled a new age in history: the end of an age dominated by Europe and one dominated by the United States. With the completion of the canal, the U.S. proved it had the right stuff.

When you’ve completed passage perhaps the most impressive part is looking out at the vista of the Pacific Ocean: seemingly limitless and in our case sunny and under fair seas. Considering that twelve hours earlier you were in the Caribbean Sea, it’s an impressive transition. It’s not hard to understand why the Panama Canal is seen as one of the ten wonders of the modern world. So scratch that off my bucket list. In addition, this is my first excursion by ship on the Pacific Ocean.

We had a brief stop in Cartagena, Columbia, so brief that we elected not to take a tour and didn’t make it past the cruise terminal. It is a thoroughly modern city, just thoroughly tropical. For our ship to make its date with the Pamana Canal, we had to leave shortly after noon.

Our next stop is Puntarenas, Costa Rica and some exciting tours there. We won’t arrive in San Diego until January 20. You might think we could get there a lot sooner, but there are 5000 miles or so of coastline to traverse with plenty of port stops in between.

Storms, sea and salty air

The Thinker by Rodin

If you want to escape winter this year, it’s not easy. We were one of the lucky ones to escape on one of the few flights allowed out of Bradley International Airport (Hartford CT) Thursday morning. I’ve done a lot of traveling but I can’t recall a flight quite like this one. A Nor’easter was moving up the east coast bringing a ton of snow and high winds. Our original flight Thursday got canceled. We were agile enough to quickly book another Southwest flight that left around 7 AM. To improve our chances, we booked a room at the airport’s Sheraton the night before.

For once luck was with us. Only two commercial flights made it out of Bradley after ours on Thursday. While blizzard conditions mounted outside, a deicing truck gave our aircraft a quick shower. While we left the gate the storm worsened and it became hard to see out the window. When the aircraft made it airborne, the passengers spontaneously applauded. With 4500 flights canceled due to the storm, we were lucky indeed. We even made it into our gate at Tampa International five minutes early. Our connecting flight to Fort Lauderdale was uneventful as well.

You would think that in Florida you might be able to escape winter, but snow had made it as far south as Tallahassee. Tampa was in the forties on our arrival, and Fort Lauderdale was breezy and a bit warmer in the low fifties. This was likely as cold as it was going to get in south Florida all year, but at least there was no snow. There was the occasional report of falling iguanas, who like to inhabit the trees and were literally stunned by the cold weather. Floridians donned their rarely used coats to go outside. Holed up at my sister and brother in law’s house in nearby Hollywood, we too found reason to stay indoors, eat Thai and play endless games of hearts.

Winter proved hard to escape. The cool temperatures and stiff winds continued on Friday but at least it was better than at home where ten inches of new snow hand fallen. Negative temperatures were also in the forecast there, so by comparison the weather seemed balmy. By mid afternoon when we had boarded the MS Westerdam (of the Holland America cruiseline) at the Port Everglades Cruise Terminal, winds had dropped somewhat and temperatures hovered in the mid 60s. Leaving port brought back memories of a similar cruise four years ago from the same port. Aside from the ship (then the Noordam) little had changed.

Back home airports like JFK are still recovering from the storm, as are we. The Nor’easter had effects both north and south. On our overnight trip to the Bahamas it meant eight foot seas and quickly acquiring sea legs. We spent Saturday at Holland America’s private island in the Bahamas, Half Moon Cay. It had changed so little in four years that it didn’t take me long to walk the island and reboard the tender back to the ship. One surprise was to find I had Internet access. We didn’t intend to pay Holland America’s usury rates for its Internet.

The effects of the Nor’easter though just got worse. Moving south Saturday we pushed through the front, which made Friday night’s seas look relatively mild. We were rocking and rolling all night long. Normally I don’t use seasick medicine, but Sunday morning I popped a Bonine just to be proactive. Swells appeared to max out around twelve feet. With our cabin far forward, we could feel the keel bottom against the sea occasionally, making a huge noise. There were also other strange noises that may have been doors on the Promenade shutting from the wind or deck chairs skittering across the deck. By mid morning Sunday the worst of the waves had ebbed as we cut our way through tropical gloom and rain between Haiti and Cuba.

Today (Monday as I write this) feels like the first proper day of our cruise. We are heading south at fifteen knots toward a brief visit at Cartegena, Colombia before going through the Panama Canal on Wednesday. The skies are mostly sunny, the air moist and the feeling is definitely tropical. You can walk around the Promenade and feel like you actually are in the tropics again. We are settling into a cruising routine at last on this lengthy 15-day voyage. On January 20 we should arrive at San Diego where we will finally disembark.

This is our sixth cruise and the first in four years. It is both similar and new. The Westerdam is not much different than the Noordam we were on four years ago. Most cruise ships are similar in both style and layout, so much so that you can usually find your way around without a map. Main stage is forward, Decks 2-4. Dining is way aft, Decks 2-3. The Promenade is on Deck 3, and there is always a Lido deck on Deck 9 with pools, hot tubs, bars serving tropical drinks and an enormous food court open day and night.

It’s impossible to lose weight on a cruise, so the challenge is not to gain weight. Mainly you avoid the food court on the Lido deck as much as possible and eat meals in the Dining Room. Weather permitting you make regular circuits of the Promenade. I’ve walked two miles on the Promenade already today and plan to do two miles more later.

All the cruiselines serve terrific food. One thing I like about Holland America is they serve reasonable portions. In addition, the food arrives so slowly that you partially digest one part of the meal before the second part arrives. Allow two hours or more for dinner in the dining room.

The Westerdam was built in 2004 but is already showing signs of age. You can find rust spots in places, spots they try to hide with coats of paint. Somehow the rust still leaches through the paint. The crew is always busy doing something, but standards may have slipped a bit. I am seeing things I haven’t seen on other cruises, things that amount to annoyances more than complaints, like finding no soap in the soap dispensers in certain public restrooms. Like other cruiselines, there is a lot of surreal happiness from the crew, who of course have orders to always bend over backward to be friendly and helpful.

Still, there is more than a little overt class division among the crew. I have carefully surveyed the dining and cabin crews. They are all Indonesian. Considering they never get a day off and must work at least twelve hours a day, it’s perhaps understandable that Indonesians have these jobs. Then there are the “white” jobs. You probably won’t see an Indonesian behind the desk at Guest Services. Positions like these seem reserved for whites. Speaking of whites, we passengers are overwhelmingly white and overwhelmingly senior. At 60, I am still probably well below the mean passenger age.

It’s a great life while the cruise lasts. Holland American cruises have innovated by adding Lincoln Center Stage, where you can indulge your love of classical music three times a day if you want. The entertainment is a bit less fancy than on other cruise lines, but only snobs will care. Their ships are smaller than most these days, which I find nice because it feels more intimate. Still, there is always something to do here, although the most popular activities tend to be the most passive and involve sitting on deck chairs on the Lido deck in front the pool and ordering tropical drinks.

At least it is far, far away from the bitter cold and snow back in New England. Exotic ports of call await.

Oh Canada! (Part Two)

The Thinker by Rodin

Last Thursday we passed over the Rainbow Bridge and into Canada, our first trip to Ontario since 2004. Some things have changed since our last visit, but it’s not Canada. It’s the United States. Passing into Niagara Falls, Ontario I realized I actually felt better. For one night at least I was back in a sane country.

I was wondering whether they might not let us in, even though we were just passing through southern Ontario. I was particularly worried when my wife started complaining about our president with the Canadian customs official. But he was cool and had some complaining of his own about Justin Trudeau, their prime minister. “At least your president is transparent. Our guy is really crafty.” Yes, well you have an intelligent prime minister. We have a narcissist Cheeto for our president. Chances are that if Trump decides to launch a nuclear war any missiles wouldn’t be lobbed at Canada. And that’s because Canada in a sane country.

Canadians don’t subscribe to President Reagan’s claim that government is the problem. Rather, Canadians subscribe to the old fashioned idea (for Americans) that government should work for the betterment of its people, all of them. Nowhere was this more obvious to me than simply driving across Ontario. Ontario’s roads are so well maintained that it feels surreal. On the return trip on Sunday, we left our hotel in Cambridge, Ontario. Until we crossed the Lewiston-Queenston Bridge into the USA, my shock absorbers did not have to work at all.

That’s right: the roads (or at least the ones I was on, which includes Queen Elizabeth’s Way and Routes 405, 403 and 8) were bump free. There were zero potholes anywhere. Maybe they use some sort of super concrete. The roads were in excellent condition, in spite of the harsh winters they get around there from lake-effect snow. It wasn’t just the roads. It was also the bridges. The bridge overpasses looked new; no rusting girders and pockets of fallen concrete. The traffic flowed smoothly. Of course the moment we passed over into the USA we were back on America’s crappy roads. This meant bumps, potholes, miles of torn up pavement waiting a new coat of asphalt, many more miles of highway cones moving you to temporary lanes, etc. The American Society of Civil Engineers gives America’s overall infrastructure a D+ grade. Way to go, supposedly greatest country on Earth!

A visit to Canada though proves that a country doesn’t have to have a crappy infrastructure. In fairness, I did see some highway construction. A part of the QEW was being repaired near Niagara Falls. Large stretches of routes 403 near Woodstock and London in Ontario were being widened as well which meant some lane shifting. On Sunday we got off the major highways to get to Stratford, Ontario where we saw a musical. These back roads were in excellent shape as well: not a pothole in the more than thirty miles we rode on them.

It’s pretty clear what the general problem is here in the United States, at least with our roads. We refuse to pay the cost of maintenance. This is largely due to Congress’s refusal to increase the gas tax, or at least index it to inflation. It is currently 18.4 cents per gallon and hasn’t been increased since 1993. It wasn’t enough in 1993 to keep our infrastructure from degrading and it’s worth a lot less now due to inflation. So our roads and bridges keep getting crappier and crappier, resulting in occasional major incidents like the 2007 I-35 bridge collapse in Minneapolis. It’s easy to predict things won’t change if Congress won’t address the issue; in fact it will just get worse. On the plus side American cars are replacing plenty of shock absorbers, as our roads give them a real workout. I guess that part is good for the economy.

Spending two nights in southern Ontario though (one coming and going to Michigan, where we visited an aunt) brought out other wistful feelings. Today America feels very much like a dog-eat-dog country. People may act nice, but very often they are just snippy or mean. At our performance of Guys & Dolls at the Festival Theater in Stratford, Ontario we sat next to an elderly man. At intermission he stumbled trying to get out of his seat. Almost instantly there were a half dozen people helping him get up again. An usher came by, noted the problem and told the man that their 6’4” usher would be there after the show to help him exit the theater. The concern for this stranger from the people around him was natural and authentic. It was heartwarming.

It’s because Canada is a country that cares about its people because the people feel vested in their country. Obviously Canada is not a perfect country and has its political struggles too, just not on the scale that we have in the USA. I have been told that Montreal has deteriorating bridges and roads, perhaps a result of Quebec choosing to allocate less money toward infrastructure. The sense of unity and common purpose while in Canada though was heartwarming. It made me nostalgic for a time when it was the same way here in the United States. Today, America is polarized to a degree that I have not seen in my sixty years. In addition we have Republicans with a lock on Congress trying to make the situation worse and a president likely to go down as our worst.

I loved my short time in Canada and I felt sad to leave it. When I saw the large Canadian flags flying along the highway, I felt a lump in my throat. It’s a country that has its stuff together, and is generally happy, peaceful and prosperous.

I hope before I die that I’ll see American that way again. Right now it looks like a pipedream.

What’s up doc? (or playing with my FlightAware app)

The Thinker by Rodin

I remember when Google Maps first came out. It was pretty amazing for the time. You just dragged the screen with your mouse and content around it filled in! It seems pedestrian now but at the time it was mind blowing in its usefulness and simplicity.

Something like Google Maps for our air traffic has arrived. Yes, I’m aware there are lots of sites out there that track flights, and plenty of apps too. And most weren’t particularly interesting to me because they only gave basic information like “Is my flight on time?” and “If I can’t make my flight what else is available?”

What I wanted was to see all the flights that were going on in real time on a map. Where are they now? Where are they going? Where did they come from? Did they leave on time? Did they take off on time? How long is the flight? What is flying now at 40,000 feet above me right now? You might wonder, “Why do you want to know this stuff?” I really don’t know. Curiosity I guess. Thankfully the FlightAware app installed on my iPad scratches this itch perfectly on easy to use maps. (There is a FlightAware website, but the app is much more usable.)

FlightAware app
FlightAware app

This is a great way to kill time. It turns out though that the more time you spend just surfing this sort of Google Maps of the sky the more you learn about our aviation system. It’s neat and scary and more than a little awesome to see how congested our skies actually are. And doubtless there are flights that don’t appear on the app, although sometimes the app will surprise me. I live in Northampton, Massachusetts. We have a small little airport not big enough for even a Lear jet. But sometimes even a private pilot in a two-seat biplane just buzzing around the Holyoke range shows up.

Last night I was looking at Sydney, Australia. Amidst all the regular jet traffic, it was also tracking a helicopter flight, obvious from both the helicopter icon and its weird flight pattern.

Air traffic near Sydney. Can you find the helicopter?
Air traffic near Sydney. Can you find the helicopter?

To get this level of insight half a world away in near real time is fascinating. Doubtless there is a huge infrastructure of networked servers behind all this magic that FlightAware is tapping into. I just didn’t expect it to be global in scope. I can see Air China flights from Beijing to Moscow. I watch Aeroflot flights between cities in Russia I’ve never heard of. I see some crazy flight paths, like one from New York to Delhi that works goes way out of its way to avoid dangerous airspaces.

Curious to learn more I often press the icon associated with the flight. In a sidebar I see details of the flight and then a map comes up showing the flight path. Here is the flight path of a flight from JFK in New York to Warsaw, Poland that was close by last night:

JFK to Warsaw flight path
JFK to Warsaw flight path

Some of the things I have discovered on my FlightAware app include:

  • There is a huge amount of international air traffic, even here in the United States. Much of it goes over my head, although I am largely unaware of it. Naturally JFK and Newark send lots of planes out to Europe and Asia, but so do Philadelphia, Atlanta, Washington and much of it flies over my head. The outbound flights unsurprisingly are mostly in the evening. Inbound flights tend to arrive in the middle of the afternoon. Essentially there is a huge air train of passenger and cargo flights arching out to the north-northeast in the evenings, mostly passing over Newfoundland but sometimes Labrador.
  • There are some amazingly long flights. I stumbled on one of the longest: Los Angeles to Jeddah with a total flight time of nearly seventeen hours. It’s pretty easy to guess the international flights. The icons on the screen show large airplanes and they tend to move north-northeast in the evenings.
  • At the same time it’s amazing how quickly jets actually move us. Mexico City is less than four hours flight time from most of the United States. You can fly between pretty much any two points of the continental United States in five hours or less.
  • At night you see a lot of cargo jets going to Memphis, where Fedex has a transfer point. A lot are also going to Covington, Kentucky too, which is basically Cincinnati. I believe it is a UPS hub. And many of these are long haul cargo flights from Europe and Asia.
  • The United States gets a lot of serious weather. It’s obvious comparing the USA to other countries with all the storms I see, mostly in the south and Midwest. Sometimes flights will go out of their way to avoid these storms. In Europe I rarely see weather like this.
  • Airspace can get pretty congested. It’s amazing that they can manage the chaos of all the planes descending and taking off, particularly around New York. Watching Atlanta’s airspace is fascinating because two runways get most of the traffic and jets tend to line up neatly behind one another to land in a sort of delicate ballet.

Some things I particularly like about the FlightAware app:

  • It’s easy to get details on flights by just clicking on them on the map
  • There are various map layers you can hide and expose as interested but the default works fine most of the time as you don’t need the detail
  • When you click on a flight, it’s easy to see how long the duration of the flight is and how much of the flight has happened
  • The size of the airplane icon is indicative of the size of the jet, making it easy to spot the larger airplanes in flight.
  • You can save searches of favorite flights, airports or cities and get to them easily
  • You can search for a flight and see exactly where it is and how long until it reaches its destination, along with delay information
  • It stores about a week of flight history. After my recent flight back from Europe I was able to find it in the history and trace our flight path over Labrador.
  • You can create flight notifications and save them your favorites

In general I find it just fascinating. The vast size and scope of our aviation system is rendered apparent in the app, along with its constantly fluid nature. No wonder I have a hard time putting it down!