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.

El Camino

Even though I did a lot of stuff in Spain, one of my plans that didn’t pan out was walking some of the Camino de Santiago. The Camino is an old pilgrimage route in the north of Spain that leads to the city of Santiago de Compostela in the region of Galicia. The cathedral in Santiago holds the supposed remains of Saint James, who is the supposed evangelizer of Spain. Pilgrims have been walking this route since the Middle Ages. The traditional path begins in France and stays fairly close to the north coast, which earned it the name “El Camino Francés” – The French Route. But there are variations – some that even come from the south of Spain. I went hiking with a hiking group from Cádiz and a member told me he had hiked the Camino several times – once from France, once from Andorra, and once from Seville.

Lots of people hike the Camino for fun, because they want to see the Spanish countryside, because they like hiking, or because of the Camino’s cultural significance. Those were my reasons for wanting to hike it as well. But there are a lot of people who hike the Camino for its original intended purpose – as a pilgrimage route and to atone for sins. You can also make the journey on bike or horseback. To count as having “done” the Camino, you need to have traveled at least the last 100 kilometers into Santiago, and to prove that you have done it, you get a passport which you stamp at each town or albergue (hiker’s inn) you pass.

I didn’t hike any of the Camino, although I did walk on parts of in where it crossed places I visited. Here is the Camino in Bilbao:

Here is some information about the Camino as it goes through Santander:

And here is the path as it passes through Pamplona:

The “image”, so to speak, of the Camino is the seashell, and the indicators that you are on the right track are yellow arrows – which brings me to a slight digression. Before I went to Spain, I read a bunch of books, most of which I found by typing keywords into library search functions. One of the books I read was “Step By Step – A Pedestrian Memoir” by Lawrence Block. It was a little strange to read a memoir by an author whose works I had never read, and most of the book is about his hobby of speedwalking (*ahem*, racewalking, my mistake), and by the third or fourth chapter I had kinda forgotten why I checked the book out, since it had nothing to do with Spain. But right in the middle, there was a long section about him and his wife hiking the Camino de Santiago, which I guess is how I found the book to begin with. It was really very interesting and not cultural at all, but during their hike they got lost a lot. One helpful Spaniard tried to steer them the right way by telling them “flechas amarillas”, which didn’t help at all since neither he nor his wife spoke Spanish. They finally figured it out, but now every time I see a Camino de Santiago sign, I think “flechas amarillas!” Anyway, it’s a pretty interesting book that really has nothing to do with Spain.

If you do want to learn a little about the Camino and Spain, I would recommend the movie The Way, which features the Sheen/Estevez family – Martin Sheen plays the father and Emilio Estevez plays the son, which probably made the movie even more poignant since they are father and son in real life. There are lots of great shots of northern Spain, authentic portrayals of what walking the Camino is like (the passports, the albergues), and if you’ve visited the area, a lot of, “I’ve been there!!!!!!!” moments. There were some good cultural conversations about Roland and the Battle of Roncevalles, the difference between tapas and pinxtos, and of the significance of the cathedral in Santiago. I would have liked to see more stops, as the characters only stopped in Roncevalles, Pamplona, Logroño (I think it was Logroño – I’ve never been), and Burgos, before heading onto Santiago via a montage. I also would have liked to hear more Spanish! But all in all it was a good movie – I recommend it.

Books cost too much!

As the titular Academic of this blog, it shouldn’t be a surprise that I love books. I will read almost anything, and have been doing so since the age of 3 (longer if you count my parents reading to me). One of the best parts of having an affiliation with a university, which I always will thanks to my shiny Master’s degree, is being able to check out almost any book there could possibly be (and for those other books that I can’t find at AU, I also have a Library of Congress card. The picture of me on it is what people in Spain would call fatal). If you take a look at the right-hand side of this blog, you will see a widget that lists some books I have read about Spain, both fiction and non-fiction, and if you click on the book covers, you can see the reviews I have written about the books.


Unfortunately, you also might notice that there are only 5 books in this list. Despite being in Spain for over 4 months now, and being a prolific reader, I haven’t been able to read more than 5 books on Spain that I can share with you all. This is wholly because and in spite of my Kindle. I got the Kindle as a present a few years ago, which I thought was kinda cool, but I knew I would always prefer physical books. I still do prefer physical books, but the Kindle has been indispensable here in Spain for two reasons: It gets the Internet and it connects me to books in English. The library here in Alcalá is great and all, and its selection of books is admirable for such a small center, but it has exactly 3 books in English. One is by Danielle Steele, and one is a John Grisham book I have already read. The particulars of the third book escape my memory right now because I was so depressed at the emptiness of the “Libros en inglés” shelf that I went back to the history section.


So, after a day of speaking in Spanish, reading signs in Spanish, watching TV in Spanish, and thinking in Spanish, I often want to read books that are not in Spanish, so I download some on my Kindle. You would think that I could download books in English ABOUT Spain, and I certainly have (4 of the 5 books in the sidebar are in English), but in a fit of organization, I put all my Spain books in a folder called “Spain” (hello, Captain Obvious), and now I can’t see their titles. When I start up my Kindle, all it says is “Spain (16)”, which is like saying, “Here are 16 books having to do with Spain. Please, try to read them after a whole day of speaking in Spanish, reading signs in Spanish, watching TV in Spanish, and thinking in Spanish”. My mental answer to that is typically “No way, Game of Thrones sounds WAY more entertaining”.


I would promise to try harder, but I know that if I do, it’s going to make reading and writing about Spain and Spanish authors seem even more like homework. Plus, slogging through an endless list of books on Spain that no one else will care about seems fruitless. What I need is focus, so I’ll turn it over to you. Are there any aspects of Spanish history, culture, politics, travel destinations, etc. that you are dying to know about? I am sure I have a book written down on a “to-read” list somewhere which I can read and recommend to you . Conversely, does anyone already know of a book about Spain that they would like to recommend to me?

T – 3 days

Just an update to remind everyone that I will be boarding my flight to Spain in exactly 3 days. 3 DAYS. I will be running errands tomorrow and playing bridge with the family on Friday, and then it will be time, after all these months of talking about it, to finally go to Europe. I am not going to lie to you, Internet, I had a minor meltdown yesterday when I gave up my phone in preparation for the trip. Somehow, buying the suitcases, PACKING the suitcases, quitting my job(s), moving back in with my parents, getting my visa, and buying the plane tickets, didn’t seem very final. But when I disconnected my phone, I felt like this move was really happening.


Which reminds me . . . I have a new phone number now, so if you would like to call me (it’s an American number, so it’s a local call), shoot me an email or comment and let me know. If you’re friends with me on Facebook you already have my number. If you’re my Facebook friend and you DIDN’T get my new number . . . well I probably just forgot (probably). Let me know either way.


Other news:

Friday is the last day before I go that the bank can send the DMV the title to my car. If it doesn’t get done before that then I guess my parents will have to do the heavy lifting on that one.



I have been reading El Quijote, but since I am not a Founding Father, it is taking me longer than 19 days. I had only ever read excerpts before, so I guess I never appreciated how funny it is. I hate to say I laughed out loud because everyone will think LOL, but I did in fact audibly chuckle at a few bits.


El Quijote in 19 days

Probably the best thing about the Kindle is the ability to download free books. Sure, there are plenty of books you can buy for the Kindle, and I have several, but I have even more free books from the public domain. The downside (and upside!) of this is that the books have to be pretty old for them to be in the public domain.

Which is why I read “Spain“, by Wentworth Webster this past weekend. So, part of the fun was that it was written in 1882, so you get all kinds of quotes like the following:

“It is only the mixture of pride and laziness and ignorance of the Castillian peasant, his senseless disdain of all improvement, his want of ambition for anything better, that prevent progress in this part of Spain.”

I mean, oh man. This book definitely took me back to grad school, and all my readings on “The Black Legend“, Latin America’s “inferiority“, Leopoldo Zea, and the prejudice between Spain and England. So that was pretty wild.

There was also a lot of good information about Spanish history, which I (somewhat ashamedly) don’t know enough about. There are gaping holes in my knowledge, so the book filled them in, although it was obviously limited since the end year was about 1880 and there are many discoveries we have made more recently that were not available to Mr. Webster.

And there was a lot of extraordinarily detailed information about the geographical layout of Spain. Lots of numbers that I admittedly skimmed over. But the author included them because the main point of his book was that the main obstacle holding Spain back was

“the political separation of Spain and Portugal, so ill-adapted to the geographical conformation of the Peninsula. The great rivers of Spain run westward, but the benefit of these fluvial highways is entirely lost to the country through the intercalation of Portugal into the western sea-board”

I have to say, I never thought of it like that. It’s a little late to be annexing a whole country, regardless of whether anyone wants to or can, but it sure gave me something to think about.

Oh, and the title. I went to Monticello this past weekend and during the tour, the guide told us that Thomas Jefferson taught himself to read Spanish by using the book “Don Quixote” on the voyage from the US to Europe, on his way to France to be the US Ambassador. The trip took 19 days. I didn’t even know you could read El Quijote in 19 days! I’m going to tell my students that, see if it doesn’t motivate them.

Alcalá de los Gazules

After a day of panic, and emailing the Junta de Andalucía, and general freaking out, I got my letter in the mail today. It just came in a regular envelope, but instead of a stamp there was a box that said “Franqueo Pagado” and the logo for the Consejería de Educación de Andalucía. I ripped that sucker open before I even got to my front door . . . and my heart fell when I saw the town, because I had never heard of it before: Alcalá de los Gazules, Cádiz.


It seemed like my computer took a million years to start up, and then the modem was acting weird, so I had to reset my connection, and FINALLY when I got to Google Maps I found that although Alcalá de los Gazules was in the province of Cádiz, it was about an hour and a half away from the provincial capital of Cádiz. It was also nowhere near Sevilla, or Granada, or Córdoba, where I really wanted to go. The satellite view was telling me I could fit the town on a postage stamp, and Wikipedia let me know that the population was somewhere around 5000 people.


I won’t lie to you, I was bummed. How was I going to live in a place out in the middle of nowhere? How would my fantasies of late-night tapas and meeting new friends happen in a town smaller than my graduate school? For one wild moment I considered rejecting the placement.


Fortunately, my sense got the better of me. Alcalá de los Gazules is a traditional town, which means most of the original architecture is still intact. It is one of the “pueblos blancos”, or “white towns”, named because of the white facades of the houses. As a matter of fact, a book on Andalucía I read called “White Wall of Spain” referred to these towns. Why would I want to live in a city that would look the same as a city here in America? I might as well not leave home then.


Also, I found several bus lines (well ok, 2. It is a small town!) that go from Alcalá de los Gazules to some surrounding mid-size and big towns, including one about 15 minutes away: Medina-Sidonia, which is twice as big as Alcalá de los Gazules, and another about 30 minutes away: Arcos de la Frontera (6 times bigger).


So now, I am super excited about going to this town! I’ve spent the past hour or two looking up info on the area and I am really eager to get there!


The only thing I worry about is that I have to return this letter accepting my position, and I have to attach a copy of my passport. Except . . . my passport is at the State Department, getting renewed. So I emailed them to see if they could hurry it up a little, because as it stands I will not be getting it back before I have to send this letter. Ah, bureaucracy . . .