The Incas

I am still a little sad that I missed out on my work’s study abroad trip to Peru last summer. They went to Macchu Pichu and saw the Nazca lines and all I did was try to get a job. Going to Ecuador this past summer was a bit of a consolation, but I really feel that I missed out on the true “Inca Experience”.


I mention this because I am currently reading a book called The Incas, which is a work of historical fiction by Daniel Peters. I picked it up last February at my local Friends of the Library book sale. It is enormous and I had never heard of it or the author before, but it was only 1 dollar, so I took it home with me and have been slowly plowing through it. I’m currently on page 610 with about a third of the book to go, so this clearly isn’t for the faint of heart. However, it isn’t exactly an anthropological treatise either – it is as much fiction as historical. I would say that this book is really about the characters and their experiences, with the historical Inca empire as the backdrop, permeating the entire story with its ambiance.

By ambiance, I mean all that stuff I missed out on when my colleagues went to Peru last summer. Most of the action so far in the book has taken place in what is now Peru, which is logical, since the capital of the Inca empire was Cuzco. I felt a little soothed out of my sadness, reading this book, because the author really imbues the story with details about ancient Peru. Not the same as being there, but still pretty awesome.

The book starts off very personal, focusing on a few families and their everyday lives in the Inca empire. But the first major historical event in the book is the Inca war/conquest of the Quitus, which happened around 1512 AD. If the tribe name sounds familiar, it’s because this is the group that was living around present-day Quito Ecuador – so they got around to a place I had visited after all! The Inca empire actually stretched into parts of modern Colombia and Chile, but the conquest of the Quitus was especially important because of their location.

The Inca civilization held Lake Titicaca (in the south of Peru) to be holy, as it was thought to be where the first Incas came from. Cuzco of course was very important as the empire’s capital. But Quito was also an important site – so important that it was considered a second capital of the empire. At first I thought this might have been so that the Inca ruling class could have a base from which to control the northern parts of the empire. This might have been the result, but the Incas had a sacred reason for conquering Quito.



Yep, the Equator! The Incas (and the Quitus, for that matter) were advanced scientists and astronomers, and they knew that there was something geographically special about the Equator – the place where the sun rose and set at exactly 6 every day. It was important for the Incas to hold this spot, so a-conquering they went. The Quitus didn’t put up a lot of resistance, so the city was taken mostly unscathed, but the Incas didn’t hold it for long. This wasn’t due to a rebellion, but rather the arrival of the Spanish. So when you go to Quito, you don’t see a lot of Inca influence.  But if you’d like to get a feel for this ancient civilization, I would recommend this book. I haven’t finished it yet (although I know how it ends), but it’s an interesting and engaging read.


Everything grows

After a brief summer hiatus for the past week or two, I’m back with a meditation on the interconnectedness of the world, especially in the realm of trade. In the process, I’ll be recommending 2 books: A Splendid Exchange which deals with the history of trade, and Beneath the United States which examines US-Latin American relations throughout history. They are both excellent books in their entirety – in fact, I used to read sections of Beneath the United States for fun, until I lent it to a student who never returned it. But for this post I am going to focus on their discussion of the history and use of the Panama Canal, mostly because this tiny isthmus is in the news right now, causing effects far beyond its borders.


First, some history from Beneath the United States. Building a canal across the Isthmus of Panama was a concern of the US as early as 1787 (Beneath the United States, 6). Several presidential administrations had investigated canal routes through Central America, with Panama being the first choice due to its narrowness and therefore ease of construction. Running a close second was a route through Nicaragua, which had the benefit of having a navigable river and lake bisecting most of the country already (152-153). Still, several treaties to purchase land from either Central American country and begin building a canal had been proposed and rejected (153).

It wasn’t until 1879 that a land grant to begin construction on a canal in Panama was given to a French naval officer, who sold the concession to a French company – the same company that had recently built the crucially important Suez Canal in the Middle East (91). The grant was given by Colombia, since Panama was a province of that country. Digging began to much fanfare, and then the company went bankrupt in 1889 (159). After financial ruin and a lawsuit by former investors, the Panama Canal Company tried to recover its losses by lobbying the US government to purchase what was left of their assets: “a partially dug canal, the Panama railway, some rusting machinery, and, most important, a concession from the Colombian government” (159). The sale finally occurred in 1902 (162), but Colombia dug in their heels on the transfer of the commission to the United States. What to do? The US had everything they needed except for permission to continue digging, so they turned to those who would give them that permission, and with American help, Panama declared independence from Colombia at the end of 1904 (167). Construction began again the following year (170).


What does this have to do with current affairs? I think a lot of people (and I know I was one of them before I read A Splendid Exchange) tend to think of trade by ship as something from Columbus’ time, sending spices and cloth and exotic foods from Asia to Europe and between the Old and New Worlds. I guess I thought – we’ve moved past ocean transport! We have airplanes, for crying out loud! But despite all our technological advances, seaborne commerce is still the most effective way to transport goods – especially oil (A Splendid Exchange, 367). And among the seven maritime “chokepoints” in the world – where ships and therefore goods pass through very narrow passages which are crucial to control to ensure smooth transport – is, you guessed it, the Panama Canal (368). Interestingly enough, the Panama Canal is a man-made chokepoint, and the only other one in existence is the Suez Canal, built by the original designers of the Panama Canal. 400,000 barrels of oil pass through the Panama Canal every DAY (368), so it’s important that the Canal continue functioning, and functioning well, which includes keeping up with current maritime technology. Which includes expanding the Canal to accommodate larger ships.


The drive towards larger and larger ships began in the 1950s and was spurred by the advent of machine loading/unloading of ships. Since machines can move larger containers than humans can, you need larger ships to carry these larger containers (Progress and Pollution, A471). 16% of the world’s container fleet is now too large to pass through the Panama Canal, so Panama is building a third set of locks that can accommodate larger ships, to be completed by 2015 (A471). West Coast ports think this is awesome, since most already have 50-foot deep harbors in which these large ships can dock, but ports to the east of the Panama Canal don’t, so there is a scramble to enlarge East Coast ports so that they too can benefit from expanded trade (A471).

It isn’t just the ports either. Once these large containers get on land, they have to go somewhere. I don’t gas up my car at a port, after all. So we’re talking railroads that can carry double-stacked containers, for example (Expanded Panama Canal, 36). We’re talking improving and widening roads (37). Effects that go far beyond Panama itself. It just fascinates me that a tiny little waterway built over 100 years ago can still create so much change and growth in the world.


Anyway. Very good books, if you are interested in trade and history, especially as it relates to Latin America. Citations below. Comments welcome!


Bernstein, William J. A Splendid Exchange: How Trade Shaped the World. Atlantic Monthly Press, 2008.
Hricko, Andrea. “PROGRESS & POLLUTION PORT CITIES PREPARE For The PANAMA CANAL EXPANSION.” Environmental Health Perspectives 120.12 (2012): A 470-A 473.Academic Search Complete. Web. 21 July 2013.
Krizner, Ken. “Expanded Panama Canal Puts Northeast Ports In Line For New Business.” World Trade: WT100 25.4 (2012): 34. MasterFILE Complete. Web. 21 July 2013.
Schoultz, Lars. Beneath the United States: A History of US Policy Toward Latin America. Harvard University Press, 1998.

What’s so special about Ecuador?

So, I guess I should talk about Edward Snowden, huh?

Ok, so I’m only tangentially going to talk about Edward Snowden. What I really want to talk about is, why Ecuador? Snowden makes the second person, after Julian Assange, that has sought refuge in Ecuador after leaking classified information to the press. What is there about Ecuador that makes it attractive to those seeking asylum? And what is there about Ecuador that makes them so eager to accept those seeking asylum?

I think the reason this question is so important is because we really don’t hear much about Ecuador in the news here in the US (well, until now). Typically there is a lot of news about Mexico, being our neighbor, or Venezuela, being so vehemently anti-American, or Spain, being in crisis. But you really have to dig to find news and information on Ecuador in the US press. The reality is quite interesting, although not sensational.


Ecuador has historically been an unstable country. A quick glance at a list of Ecuador’s presidents tells the story pretty clearly. Ecuador also suffers a slight crisis of identity. Ecuador has formed part of the Inca Empire, the Spanish Empire, and the independent nation of Gran Colombia before becoming its own country. It has lost territory to Peru and lost its own currency to dollarization in 2000.

Things started changing when the current president, Rafael Correa, was elected in 2007. His campaign was based on the idea of “la Patria” (the homeland), an idea which resonated with the Ecuadorean people, as he has now been elected 3 times, most recently in 2013. He has also made anti-imperialism a central tenet of his presidency, which involves harsh criticism of the United States. Despite what I am about to relate, Correa is ENORMOUSLY popular in Ecuador. My host family was very pro-Correa. Posters around Quito proclaimed “Finally we have a president. We have Correa!” and graffiti throughout the country promoted messages equating anti-Correa forces with terrorists.

There is a whole other blog post percolating that discusses why these things always seem to go hand in hand, but. Although Ecuador has an enormously popular president who has accomplished a lot in his two (now 3) terms . . . personal and especially press freedoms have been restricted in the country since his election. Interestingly enough, the most recent display of these restrictions is a law that could make WikiLeaks cables illegal to publish in the very country harboring their leaker. All is not sunshine and roses in the Republic of Ecuador, is what I’m trying to say.

So, to answer: why is Ecuador the mecca for leakers like Snowden and Assange? The answer is not because Ecuador is such a champion of press freedom, but merely because Ecuador is willing to take them in. And why is Ecuador so willing to take in leakers, despite their restrictive press laws? Mostly as a way to say “Up yours” to the US, to be honest. A bit hypocritical? Perhaps. But if you think of it as an illustration of the Ecuadorean government’s priorities it’s telling, yes?


The current state of affairs, as we know, is in limbo. Snowden is still in Russia, and Ecuador seemed to be eager to accept him as a refugee, as they were with Julian Assange. However, there has been some internal confusion, which the Wall Street Journal uncovered last week. It seems that although Ecuador wants to take this opportunity to give the US a metaphorical poke in the eye, they don’t want to go whole hog and do so against international law. Internally, many in the Ecuadorean government feel that Julian Assange is far too involved in this process. It remains to be seen how it will all shake out. Personally I think Snowden faces the same fate as Assange – safe in an Ecuadorean embassy somewhere, probably in Russia, but not actually in Ecuador.

El transporte

My coworker had invited me over to her parents’ house for lunch, and I was excited to meet her siblings and speak in Spanish all afternoon. I took the bus to her hometown and she picked me up at the station in her car. Her younger brother was in the passenger seat, and after introductions, we began chatting about – what else – life in Spain versus life in America. “Do you have a car at home, Sarah?” he asked me. “Yes,” I responded, “right now my parents are taking care of it.” “What kind of car is it? How big is it?” he asked. “Well, just average size I guess . . . about the size of this car, actually.” He turned around in his seat to stare at me, shocked. “What??? That’s all???” Confused, I qualified my statement, “Yeah, well, I’m single and I don’t have any kids, or pets, or any expansive hobbies . . . I don’t need a big car. Why are you staring at me like that?” I finished defensively. “I thought everyone in America had big cars, and they drove them everywhere, even across the street to the store, because gas prices there are so cheap that they don’t have to worry about having a car with good gas mileage.”


Foreign countries can be full of surprises. Even though you’re expecting it to be completely different, it’s always a revelation to discover that something that you took for granted as a universal occurrence – Driver’s Ed at 15 or 16 years of age, getting a car for your birthday or scrimping and saving to buy your first ever car, the thrill of independence when you can drive to school for the first time as a senior – turned out to be an experience particular to your time and location. Basic transportation, getting to and fro, is a whole different kettle of fish in most other countries.

In Mexico, buses were the most common way to get from here to there. When I was there (in 2005), a city bus trip was about 30 cents, which you gave to the bus driver as you got on. There were no bus stops – people just congregated on the sidewalk to flag down the bus as it passed by, and when you wanted to get off, you pushed the stop button or just shouted at the driver. Destinations were posted on the windshield. If there were set routes or times, I didn’t know them. Longer distances were also covered by bus, but by a much more sophisticated fleet of buses. These were Greyhound-type charter buses with bathrooms and air conditioning. They had fixed schedules and were more expensive (to the tune of $10, mind). You got an assigned seat, a place to put your luggage, and even juice and a snack as you boarded. In a country as small as Mexico, flying was reserved for international travel.

In Guatemala, city buses were very similar in terms of price and functioning, but city-to-city travel was often accomplished via “chicken bus”. Chicken buses are old American school buses which have gone to Central America to die. Some of them still have the lettering on the side stating to which county they used to belong; in Guatemala City I saw a bus from James City, Virginia, not far from where I lived at the time. Like local city buses, chicken buses that go from city to city are cheap and have no set schedule or route. You congregate on the side of the road and flag down a bus. Some chicken buses have destinations posted on the front windshield, and some are just painted a certain color to indicate the destination. Occasionally this painting will be in the pattern of the traditional clothing from the area where the bus is going. This makes it easy to tell a buses’ destination if you cannot read. Chicken buses also have the advantage of luggage storage – on the top of the bus. A porter puts your stuff up there, and when you advise the driver that you want to get off, the porter climbs out the window and onto the top of the bus while it is motion to find your bag. The bus stops, you get off, and the porter throws down your belongings, and off they go again. Flying again is reserved for international travel.

In Spain, city buses were much more tightly scheduled, often with stops and times available on the Internet. They were also more expensive, similar to city bus fares in America, so anywhere from 1 to 2 euros. Many bigger cities also had subways or light rails. Long distance buses similar to those used in Mexico were very popular, as were short-distance trains. There’s even a high speed line that goes from west to east, taking you from Sevilla to Barcelona in no time. Although the country is actually smaller than Mexico, cheap flights a la RyanAir were common to get from the south to the north, for example. And although, as my opening anecdote suggests, cars in Spain tended to be smaller, it was much more common for people to have cars, although I met many adults who had never even taken a driver’s ed course.

In Ecuador, especially in Quito, transportation is a problem. There are so many people in such a small space that if everyone had and drove cars, like in Spain, no one would be able to get anywhere. So Quito has come up with 2 very interesting solutions – pico y placa, and the bus lines. Pico y Placa is the name of a program that regulates who can drive when. “Pico” is short for “la hora pico”, which is rush hour. “Placa” is your license plate. So, depending on your license plate number, you are assigned a day of the week in which you cannot drive your car during rush hours. The idea is to cut down on the number of cars on the road. There are of course a lot of city buses in Quito, but they also have 3 bus lines that have dedicated lanes in the middle of the principal avenues. For example, the Ecovía line runs down the middle of the Avenida 6 de Diciembre, and no other cars or buses can drive in those lanes, which are separated from the rest of the road by curbs. There are little islands in the middle of the lanes at each stop, which you access by putting a quarter into the turnstile. City to city buses follow the Mexico/Spain model, and flights are used for international travel or to get to the Galapagos.


I can’t decide whether I prefer the transportation culture here in the US or that of Spain or Ecuador. It was certainly nice to spend an entire year not filling my car up with gas while I bused my way around the Iberian Peninsula. But I also like the freedom of my car. Thoughts?


La Torre del Tweet

I like to think of myself as a connoisseur of monuments and historic places. I’ve been to quite a few of them after all, being somewhat of a history buff. But I recently became fascinated by the ways in which historic sites and monuments can tell us some startling truths about the identity and culture of a people in our current times. Even though we as tourists go to a monument to “look at history”, the place we are visiting is never exactly like the original site, even taking into account the normal process of decay. We don’t like to admit this fact – visitors tend to think of historic places as frozen in time somewhat. That is, this place that we are visiting, it is exactly what and how the original builders meant it to be, and any restorations are in the spirit of the original construction. When we encounter evidence to the contrary it’s a bit jarring; for example, my sister came to visit me in my town here in the US and during our tour of the historic district, we learned that many of the houses and buildings had been moved from their original sites, which left us with a vague sense of disappointment. We wanted to see THE early American town, after all, not a reconstructed replica. Visitors to other historical sites are no different. When you visit Guernica, in the Basque Country of Spain, you want to see the actual, original Tree of Guernica, which no longer exists, by the way. The original tree is long since dead, and the second tree is a trunk sitting in a little gazebo. The third and current tree which is planted behind the house of government is genetically related to the Tree of Guernica . . . but it is a modern version by necessity. When you visit Toledo, you want to see the original Cristo de la Luz Mosque, although the name alone should tell you that the site did not remain in stasis. The building is still there, but the site was quickly appropriated for use as a church after the Reconquest.

Even the existence of the sites themselves reveal a modern bias and show what is currently important to a country and a culture. The things we save are the things we think are important enough TO save, after all. What we do with photographs and scrapbooks in our personal lives, countries do with their monuments, showcasing the important events of their histories. To take up the Guernica/Toledo example again, in Guernica my tourist map showed me which buildings were original and thus had survived the Civil War bombing, and which were reconstructed. It also highlighted the Basque government offices and a museum of Basque history. Toledo’s map, apart from being full of museums, pointed out the current or previous location of every synagogue and mosque within the old city walls. Now, are there mosques in the Basque Country? Definitely. Synagogues? Yes, although on the French side. Did Toledo suffer damage in the Civil War? Yup. But the focal point of each area’s history, the central identity of each town, is reflected in the sites that Guernica and Toledo found historically important.

The point is, although most tourists go to a site to learn about what is past, historic sites are not static and they refuse to remain in the past – instead they show the march of time as well as highlight current concerns and opinions at least as much as they showcase an area’s history. This has often been controversial – after all, how long has it taken to construct the Sagrada Familia? But I find it fascinating that sites that are quite old have so much to say about current cultural identity.


These thoughts have been rattling around in my head ever since I read a fascinating article called ¿Publicidad en la Alhambra? (no English version, sorry). The Alhambra is the Moorish palace in Granada, Spain, and seriously, if you have never been there, you need to go. Anyway, recently Granada was host to the first ever Twitter conference, which took place June 20-21, 2013. Apart from being surprised that this was the first ever Twitter conference, I was also a little confused as to why Granada was chosen as the location for the inaugural event. After all, when most people think about Granada, they think of . . . the Alhambra. (Seriously, just go visit already). Not exactly part of the Twitter Generation.

Since Granada is a city so steeped in the past, it’s not too surprising that some eyebrows were raised at the projection of the Twitter logo onto the Torre de la Vela for the duration of the 48 hour conference. But I assumed that the eyebrows were due to the clash of old and new and the use of a historic monument for promoting, well, anything. I thought that the controversy stemmed from the view that historical monuments should be representations of a static past, the same issue that has plagued restorations and gift shops around the world.

Not so. The Alhambra has been host to numerous modern messages throughout the years, with the Torre de la Vela proudly displaying posters protesting the widespread eviction problem in Spain, calling people to a general strike, and even publicly disagreeing with administrative changes in a local art gallery. The real issue here is using the side of the Torre de la Vela to show ADVERTISING, to specifically disseminate a message intended to influence people to use a particular good or service. It seems that the intent of the message matters when it comes to putting it on a UNESCO World Heritage site.

The issue is not that the Alhambra must always remain the same as it was when Ferdinand and Isabella stormed the city in 1492. The issue is using a symbol of Moorish history and therefore Andalucian culture (very important) as a commercial for Twitter (not important), although it may be used to highlight other important causes, like worker’s rights and economic suffering. And I think this says something a bit deeper about the nature of the Alhambra’s importance, something that goes beyond “the history of Spain”. The Alhambra and its history belong to the people of Spain in the way popular movements do and the global economy does not. The debate over advertising on the Torre de la Vela throws into relief the importance of the Alhambra to Spanish culture, not because it is a thing that was built in the past, not because it was historically important, but because it represents a current, modern collective identity. Although it is a historic site, it allows for modern usage within certain boundaries, and those boundaries can deepen our understanding of Spanish culture today.

Transmitting a spark

I’ve written in this blog before about how I never planned on becoming a teacher, and I know I complain a lot about workload, but overwhelmingly I feel so excited and grateful that I get to do what I do every day, for as long as I want. I remember one day in my first semester of adjuncting when I was driving from one university to another, having already taught 2 classes and preparing to teach 3 more, which probably should have been an overwhelming or possibly depressing experience. But what I really remember from that drive is joy. I think it’s because my students’ enthusiasm reminds me of the first time I learned whatever it was – for me, teaching is a way to continually relive the best moments of my past. Probably my favorite lectures to give deal with culture because I get to use my own work and experiences to relate the excitement of being in another country and culture.

It’s even better now that I have significant travel experience because I get to share my own photos, tours, and stories about missing the bus and walking across the Mexican countryside. The textbook that we use at my school, apart from being pretty darn good, also just happens to feature the countries I have already visited right in the first 4 chapters, so when we do cultural lectures I get to go to town.

It’s so interesting to me how the act of telling someone else about an experience makes me feel more connected to the event. I find that even though I am ostensibly teaching other people about Guatemala or Spain, I end the lecture feeling more excited and passionate about the concepts I’m teaching than my students. Granted, the teacher usually has much more passion for their subject matter than the student, but the act of teaching seems to be a manner of remembering and reminiscing.  It also serves the purpose of organizing and laying out themes and ideas, almost like when I research and outline. It becomes much easier to see recurring topics when you are going through 500 pictures post-trip.

This clarity only really comes with time. I only just got back from Ecuador and I don’t really feel like I understand how to present it to my students. I don’t yet feel the flow and structure of this country in which I spent 2 weeks. I don’t know that I’m even going to begin to put together an Ecuador lecture yet, although I know I can’t delay that forever since I will be presenting to the college community sometime this fall. But right now I don’t feel that spark, so I don’t feel confident that I can pass it on to others.

But once I get that lecture going, man, Ecuador is going to be THE BEST TRIP I HAVE EVER TAKEN. I guarantee it.

How to go abroad

I’m attempting to bring some sort of discipline to my blogging. The problem is, I always, always, want to present something, if not perfect, then at least pretty dang close. But the truth is, if I never write, not only do I never write, I never get better at writing because I am not practicing. Thinking of these attempts as practice makes me more likely to actually post, so here goes.

After 2 semesters of hiatus, where I stayed not only in the same country, but in the same state within that country, I headed off for my first trip to South America. I got back from Ecuador about 2 weeks ago, which was a great experience. But I’d like to talk a little bit about what came just before we left. The trip was 5 students and one other faculty member and among our group were several people who had never traveled abroad before. This comes with its own brand of hilarity – one student brought a fancy skirt, and another brought a blowdryer and flat iron. Now, I honestly don’t remember how I packed when I went to Mexico, or Guatemala and Honduras, and when I went to Spain I was going to live, so the packing was different. I’m sure I packed some ridiculous stuff myself.

So I tried to approach packing for Ecuador as methodically as possible.

  • Step 1: I went out and bought 13 pairs of socks and 13 pairs of underwear. Boring, I know, but I really, really didn’t want to have to do laundry while abroad. I knew I wasn’t going to have either the time or the inclination.
  • Step 2: I assessed my toiletries and what I like to call my “portable pharmacy”. This is something you should do way more often than I do, because most of the medications I found were expired. Into the trashcan with them, and off to Target to pick up more Pepto Bismol, hydrocortizone cream, and toothpaste. I also bought Ziploc bags because I learned once that pressure changes do not just dissipate and you can end up with an entire bottle of body spray all over your clothes before you even get to your first hotel.
  • Step 3: I started thinking of all the things that could possibly go wrong. This sounds slightly doomsday, but I like to think of something my aunt once said, which I have quoted in this blog before: “If you forget anything, this is America, you can just buy another one.” Overseas, it is not America, so you’d better bring it all. I bought: a cheap poncho, extra toilet paper, heavy duty bug spray, and granola bars.
  • Step 4: I packed! Amazingly, it all fit into my frame backpack the first time. I also filled up a tote bag that I got from a coworker on the Guatemala/Honduras trip. She is a librarian so the bag says “Libraries! Champions of Democracy!” but more importantly, it zips closed.

We got one free checked bag to go internationally, with a weight limit of 50 pounds. Our heaviest bag belonged to the student who packed all the gifts for the school we volunteered at – she clocked in right at 50 pounds. The lightest bag belonged to – me! 24.5 pounds, thank you very much. I did bring some things I didn’t use (like my flip flops and a pair of shorts), but overall I think I’m getting a handle on this travel thing.