Friday, December 15, 2006

Heaven in the Hot Water

After returning from a recent trip to the United States, I realized what a luxury it is to have a constant supply of instantly hot and practically free water at your disposal from any tap or faucet, any time of day or night. Iceland, an active volcanic island with natural hot springs all over the country, uses this precious resource to an almost exploitative scale, but amazingly, it never runs out.

My mother’s nice house in a wealthy suburb of Washington, DC has two showers among its four bathrooms, but they can’t be used at the same time. In fact, two people wanting to shower in the same hour take the risk of a cold rinse if they don’t space them out enough. And forget about running the washing machine or dishwasher while trying to wash your body; it’s just not going to happen.

So I come back to Iceland, where the shower has two knobs: one to indicate the desired temperature (say, 104 degrees Fahrenheit) and one to control the water pressure. Without fail, every shower is perfect. And if you are not careful, you will burn the skin right off your face. My girlfriend, just the other day, was washing her hands and did not just scald herself, but actually burned the tip of her finger!

The trick is that the water needs no heater. The water is just like that when it comes out of the ground. The water IS the heater. Yes, the fact that it is naturally hot water does mean that it contains a bit of sulphur and the associated odor of old eggs, but you would be amazed at the softening effect that has on your skin. It’s like putting a Brita filter on your showerhead and bathing in purified drinking water.

Think of the money it saves, too. No energy needed to power a water heater, and no energy to heat the house at all, since Iceland’s priceless geothermal resource is pumped through radiators in every room in every house. And there’s more. When it leaves the house, it courses through a network of pipes and tubing placed just below the surface of the sidewalks and roads (at least in the center of town), heating the ground so that snow and ice does not collect. In a country with such an intense winter, that is many falls and broken hips avoided at a cost of next to nothing.

Such efficient use of Iceland’s natural hot springs, which heat a number of swimming pools and hot tubs around town also, by the way, ensures a comfortable winter for those of us unaccustomed to living 66 degrees north of the equator. Don’t worry about me. As hard as my day will ever be, I always have a hot shower to go home to.

Now to get used to the permanent darkness…

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Presidential Pardon?

The celebration of Thanksgiving means a great deal to Americans, and to me specifically, because it is about being thankful for food, and then eating it. No roses or teddy bears, no going to the mall and shopping for hours and hours. Just being together with family, and remembering that what is important has nothing to do with what Hallmark tells us is important.

My favorite part of my favorite holiday is, of course, watching George Bush look like an idiot with a creature that seems at least his intellectual equal, if also his moral superior. On the White House lawn, George gets to talk about being thankful for what makes AMERICA the best place on earth. For five minutes he gets to justify decisions that have killed thousands of innocent people on all sides. For five minutes he gets to grant the gift of life to one lucky turkey in a feeble attempt to divert attention from the thousands of soldiers he has condemned to death by fighting a poorly planned war for all the wrong reasons.

With the nauseating smirk characteristic of the face of our nation, Bush posed for a photo op with the bird. For a minute there it looked as if we might get lucky and the restless bird would use his beak to snatch out one of Bush’s eyeballs, much like Uma Thurman in Kill Bill, but unfortunately the secret service was able to contain the little guy.

Bush was not able to contain himself, apparently, as he said in his speech that BOTH turkeys would be pardoned. Normally, they have two birds: one to eat, one to save. This time, we are led to believe that the White House would go hungry, and both turkeys would go home. Well, in true Dubya form, the second animal was nowhere to be seen, probably because they would not allow cameras in the kitchen preparing the president’s lunch. Maybe that second pardon means sending the bird to Abu Ghraib to be barked at by German Shepherds until it dies of completely “natural causes.”

I, for one, eagerly await the pictures to leak from that scandal...

Friday, November 17, 2006

Al-Jazeera on the air, in English!

Well, it was only a matter of time before the network that commands the eyes of the entire Muslim world decided to branch out into the non-Muslim world. Yesterday, Al-Jazeera launched its English-language channel, bringing its graphic images of dead Iraqi children to the Anglophone world.

Yes, it is propaganda, and yes, it is sensationalist. But anyone who has chanced upon Fox News while surfing to better channels has surely noticed the alarmist footage of “Things that will kill your baby in your own home!” and the like.

The value in Al-Jazeera is that it is sensationalism from another point of view. They are doing the same things as we are, but with the frank criticism of our administration that the American media seem incapable of producing. The idea of news organizations as public watchdogs holding hypocritical government to account is sorely missed in the United States.

Moreover, if we are serious about understanding “how they think” and “why they hate us,” then Al-Jazeera is a way of getting right to the proverbial horse’s mouth. With millions of Arab eyes glued to this Qatar-based news channel every day of the Iraq war, it would be helpful for those of us who actually care to see with our own eyes what they see with theirs.

This is another strength of Al-Jazeera’s new English channel. From my rudimentary understanding of Arabic, my experience watching Al-Jazeera with Moroccan Muslims, and my continuing dialogue with friends in the Maghreb, it seems that the English version, like the original, pulls no punches in its condemnation of the United States’ foreign policy decisions. The coverage is, purposely, as similar as possible to the parent, considering its use of anglophone journalists poached from BBC and CNN, among others.

Most important to keep in mind is that you can only get the whole story by listening to all sides. For once, we have an authentic Muslim voice to listen to in this new era of history where the Middle East and Islam are making news right on our doorsteps.

The next step is for Al-Manar (Hizbullah’s News station) and Al-Arabiya (the relatively moderate one based in Dubai, UAE) to follow suit. So call your cable/satellite provider, or just download RealPlayer and watch it streaming off of the website. It is well worth it to see things from the other side...

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Gorbachev on Gorbachev

On Thursday, I was lucky enough to attend a lecture by the former leader of the non-free world to hear his perspective on the current state of world affairs.

I must admit, my expectations were high. This was, after all, Mikhail Gorbachev, Mr. Glasnost, the birthmark himself. This man presided over the reconciliation of two giants living a Clash of Civilizations that threatened the destruction of the whole world. An architect of the non-proliferation movement that prioritized disarmament as a fundamental protection of global security. A leader who successfully chose diplomacy on a grand scale to avoid war and save countless lives. Yes, my expectations were high.

Perhaps that was my first mistake, because the reality was quite sobering. An old man speaking rather awkwardly in the third person (“They try to stop Gorbachev, but Gorbachev won in the end”), he proved himself quite out of touch with the realities of geopolitics in the twenty-first century.

Taking the opportunity to promote his new book, Gorbachev spoke of his philosophy of “New Thinking,” one that I could succinctly describe as “old thinking.” The core idea, that rational dialogue can solve all conflicts, may have worked when dealing with a rational counterpart like Ronald Reagan, but considering the present context of terrorism and Al-Qaeda, it just looks naive.

Unfortunately, things today are more complex. Terrorist cells working independently of a central leader, warring factions within fundamentalist movements, and pseudo-political organizations like Hamas and Hizbullah that cannot control their own militants make for a radically different set of rules. I am not saying that diplomacy is no longer an option, but when you don’t even know who to sit down and negotiate with, and if that person is not even able to deliver the results of such negotiation, then these efforts are merely a smokescreen that allows violence to continue undeterred.

Talks with North Korea did nothing to prevent Kim Jong-Il from developing a nuclear bomb. Talks with Iran have done nothing to deter Ahmadinejad’s pursuit of the same goal. This old thinking is just not working.

So what is the solution? If diplomacy fails, is conflict the only option? George Bush may operate on that principle, but experience has shown that it is not sustainable. Just like a popular bumper sticker I have seen says, “Why do we kill people who kill people to show that killing people is wrong?” I think there is room for a third option, as unrealistic as it may be, that leaders (states AND heads of state) hold THEMSELVES accountable for irresponsible foreign policy.

Instead of waiting for your opponent to recognize Israel, for example, YOU can end your occupation and unilaterally withdraw from a deteriorating time bomb. Sure, Palestinians continue to fire rockets, but it is only a matter of time before they are forced to look at themselves and find a solution to their inability to govern themselves.

Now, the risks of just running away and leaving nations to solve their own problems are high, and with the amount of oil-rich states to influence how those problems are solved, they are potentially very dangerous. But those risks must in part be passed on to the populations of these crisis areas so that Western countries are not providing such easy targets to fundamentalize at.

The problems of the world are spiraling out of control, and despite what anyone says, nothing has really worked. I was hoping that Gorbachev would have some new insight. Turns out he has nothing but hindsight.

My alternate, published account of Mikhail Gorbachev’s visit to Iceland can be found online at:

Friday, July 7, 2006

So Much Sunshine

I saw the midnight sun and it freaked me out. See, there is no way to know what it is like to spend 24 hours in daylight for weeks on end until you do it. I consider myself a pretty adaptable person. And, having put myself in some really weird situations, I must say I have always come out with my wits about me, more or less. Whether or not my wits are currently with me is debatable. I am in Iceland with a mind to stay a while, looking for a job and going apartment hunting. Some might say that of course, I’m crazy. Those people have obviously never been to Iceland. I’m in love.

The last time I was here, in the dead of winter, there was no sun whatsoever, and now, the sun never leaves. It has turned my sense of time completely upside down. On the one hand, you stay up all “night” and go to sleep at 6 in the morning, but you know you won’t sleep through the whole “day” because it will still be light whenever you happen to wake up. On the other hand, you forget to eat dinner because you are waiting all day for it to get dark. Ten o’clock rolls around and you are wondering why you are so hungry.

The main thing I miss is the starry night. A black sky, full of stars, is a marvelous, natural work of art. When I was in Peru, I was amazed that sometimes I could read a book at 2 in the morning under the light of a full moon. Here, as you can see in the above picture, I can read a book by the light of the sun at 2:30 am.

But by far, the coolest thing about summer this close to the top of the world is the sunset. Perhaps “sunset” is not the right word. After all, it never really drops below the horizon. But it does get low enough to cast its fading light on the clouds hanging in the sky, sending hues of pink and blue across the sky. And, as it sweeps in a gentle arc *near* the horizon, it stays that way for HOURS. Imagine a dramatic setting sun for three hours. Where I come from, once the colors get good, the sun drops so fast that you miss it if you look the other way. But no, not here. Those five minutes of dramatic, divine beauty are stretched out for hours, providing a feast that you are free to enjoy at your leisure.

THIS is Iceland.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

The Proust Questionnaire

On this, the occasion of my 26th birthday, I decided to take a rudimentary personality test. The Proust Questionnaire, a series of questions that, if you really think about them, may produce some surprising answers, seemed like a logical way to feed this part of my “Quarter Life Crisis” (I hate that term). So hey, take it yourself. No big deal. You may just learn something.


1. What is your idea of perfect happiness?
Seeing the entire world and learning something new every day.
2. What is your greatest fear?
Not living up to my potential.
3. Which living person do you most admire?
My mom. The more I think about it, the more impressed I am.
4. What is the trait you most deplore in yourself?
I talk too much.
5. What is the trait you most deplore in others?
6. What is your greatest extravagance?
7. What do you consider the most overrated virtue?
“Telling it like it is”
8. Which living person do you most despise?
George W. Bush
9. What is your greatest regret?
I move around too much to have a dog.
10. When and where were you happiest?
Cuddling all morning with my girl in my arms.
11. Which talent would you most like to have?
To play a musical instrument – any instrument.
12. What is your current state of mind?
Relaxed and happy, with a healthy dose of anxiety over how to earn enough money to eventually have kids.
13. What do you consider your greatest achievement?
Figuring out who I am.
14. If you could choose what to come back as, what would it be?
Any oppressed person, to know what it takes to fight back.
15. What is your most treasured possession?
My journal. By far.
16. What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?
Making a mistake so grave that you can’t even see how to learn from it.
17. What is your favorite occupation?
Professional bike racer.
18. What is your most marked characteristic?
I am a chameleon – I can be happy in so many situations.
19. What is the quality you most like in a man?
20. What is the quality you most admire in a woman?
21. What do you most value in your friends?
Low-maintenance and independent.
22. How would you like to die?
Old and in love.

Sunday, April 9, 2006

New York Votes Lourdes!

OK, first of all, I never expected a country like Peru, even with its mandatory voting law, to have any system set up for absentee voting. That being said, I am sure that the hundreds of votes cast by expat Peruvians that lined up in Midtown Manhattan to cast their votes for President today will never be counted. Go figure, they all voted for Lourdes.

To give a little background for those who are new to Peruvian politics, Alejandro Toledo, a *relatively* honest politician who doubled foreign investment, doubled Peru’s exports, and brought macroeconomic stability (growing an average of 5% a year since 2001) to a country with a history of severe hyperinflation, is ending his term as president with a lowly 8% approval rating. [All figures from the New York Times]

For a long time, the main challengers for 2006 were Alan Garcia, the former president who single-handedly caused the hyperinflation crisis of the 1980s, Alberto Fujimori, the Japanese man whose violation of human rights during Peru’s fight against terrorism efforts is only overshadowed by the blatant robbery and corruption of his administration, and Lourdes Flores, a woman whose pro-globalization mentality puts her in the increasingly unpopular position of receiving support from the Bush government.

In the vacuum caused by Peruvians’ sexist apprehension about electing a woman to their highest political office, much less one who is in bed with W, a new frontrunner has emerged: Ollanta Humala. Mounting his little horse and talking all sorts of anti-US trash, Ollanta has motivated the nationalist emotions of poor Peruvians, blaming free trade and global capitalism for all of Peru’s shortcomings.

Ollanta says he does not want any US military officers on Peruvian soil. Given the chance, he will surely extend that eviction notice to Peace Corps Volunteers currently spending years of their precious, precious lives hanging out with poor people all over Peru. He says he does not want any trade deals with the United States, and probably thinks that Hugo Chavez will be the Spanish-speaking sugar daddy that Peru so desperately wants. Maybe he is right, maybe it is all a show that will change if he gets elected, and maybe he will commit Peru to four years of real recession.

With 31% of this first round of votes, Ollanta leads the race going into the run-off. What is amazing, though, is that we have no idea WHO he will face. Tied for second place, with around 24% each, are Alan Garcia and Lourdes Flores. Garcia singlehandedly ran the country into the ground, putting Peru in its most acute economic crisis in memory. By any rational standards, he would never have gotten onto the ballot.

Lourdes is a woman, and as popular as she may be among the Peruvian New Yorkers going to the polls, she is a woman. Peruvians are not at all ready for her. Sad, but, apparently true.

So whoever wins second place will determine where the election goes. If it is Garcia, it is hard to imagine Lourdes’ votes passing to Ollanta. In that case, Peru is taking a huge gamble with the worst manager the economy has had in decades. If Lourdes faces Ollanta, it is not hard to see where that will go. Lourdes will not win.

We will see where it all ends up in a few weeks, but it looks like Ollanta. I just hope my fellow Peace Corps Volunteers are ready for him...