14 May 2009
I departed for my recent South American excursion saying in this forum that there was much yet to think about in regard to the ideas I had recently stumbled upon, especially in relation to Romero’s distinction between doctrinaire and inorganic democracy. I am happy to report that this excursion gave my much to think about in addition to what was already on my mind. I often have the unrealistic hope that I will have time to write during a vacation, but the stimulus of new experiences almost always overwhelms whatever ideas I happened to be working with upon my departure, thus giving a taste of the intellectual sublime.
To be overwhelmed by ideas is a pleasant circumstance for anyone who enjoys thinking. Nietzsche once wrote, in a draft of a preface for a book he never completed and never published, that it would be for those, “for whom thinking is a delight.” If you have experienced this, you know what I mean. If you haven’t experienced it, I can’t explain it. In any case, I preserved a portion of this flood of ideas in the notebook I kept with me, and some of this material I used in the posts I made from the road. The haciendas I visited — Zuleta and San Agustin de Callo — would be truly wonderful places to settle down and write, but my stay was much too short for the leisure necessary to composition of more than notes, sketches, and posts.
I am also typically overly ambitious in the reading material that I bring along on vacation, but this time I at least skimmed the books I brought along, and this is an important way to contribute to keeping the mind active. This is the way I read at home anyway — lots of short bites of lots of books, simply pillaging them for whatever ideas can be taken, without much concern for the edifice carefully constructed by the author. The experience of travel is frequently overwhelming for the senses, and it would be relatively easy to lose oneself entirely to this sort of purely sensory stimulation. It is thus important to stay in touch with the world of mind and ideas by reading, if only a paragraph of two, from a thoughtful book in order actively think one’s way through the day. And this is how one makes intellectual progress: thinking through each and every day, not as a matter of drudgery, but for the intrinsic excitement afforded by engagement with serious ideas.
One book that I took with me, recently purchased from Powell’s, was a rather obscure and not well known essay on the philosophy of history: Shapes of Philosophical History by Frank E. Manuel. The authored surveyed a number of philosophies of history he believed to be still relevant in his time (the book was based on the Harry Camp Lectures at Stanford University in 1964), and in a final chapter made an interesting speculative summary of his survey. Manuel maintained that, whatever the diversity evident among the philosophers and philosophers he considered — Augustine, Joachim, the renaissance, Kant, Perfectibilism during the Enlightenment, Hegel and Marx — that one can find in common that all of them, “are agreed that the next stage either must or is likely to entail a spiritualization of mankind and a movement away from the present absorption with power and instinctual existence.” (p. 159) Moreover, “The contemporary civilization of gigantism, sensation, and technics has exhausted its creative capabilities and a new ideational, mystical, or religious form is about to be born somewhere.” (p. 160)
After making this grandiose (if not histrionic) claim, Manuel cited the usual catalog of twentieth century horrors and his own skepticism against his hopeful summary, but then went on to say that, “I am reluctant to receive the witness of the heralds of the new spirit, and yet it is pouring in upon me from so many diverse sources and directions that I am on the point of surrendering my belief in the ordinary evidence of the senses.” (p. 162)
For my part, I think Manuel should rather have retained his reluctance and not have surrendered his belief in the ordinary evidence of the senses. While many do, in fact, surrender their skepticism as well as their belief in their senses, the credulous and unempirical conclusions that follow are not such as to inspire intellectual confidence.
In an early draft of my Variations on the Theme of Life, I included a remark that I cut out of the final version:
The reactionary elements of a community — be that community social, political, scientific, philosophical, or otherwise — view the first loosening of tradition that announces progress in thinking with such horror that these initial stirrings of change are declared to be an extreme which will soon be tempered with time. They believe themselves to be the serious men who have seen it all before, and they know that this youthful folly cannot last. But they are wrong. Worse and more of it is to come.
At present I cannot recall why I cut this out, perhaps there was simply no appropriate place for the remark in the completed text, but it still very much expresses my point of view. In the present context, in relation to Manuel’s Shapes of Philosophical History, it seems especially appropriate. Many, many people — simple men and philosophers alike — have looked to the crass materialism and vulgar commercialism of industrialized society and they have proclaimed vehemently that “This cannot last!”
Many of these pronouncements, from figures as diverse as Baudelaire and Marx, come from the nineteenth century. We now know, and know definitively, how much worse and more of it there was to come after the nineteenth century. We have the entire experience of the twentieth century as testimony to that fact. Now I will say to those who continue to say that capitalism, materialism, and crass commercialism cannot last, that a new age of the spirit must surely dawn soon (that is to say, the unmistakable proclamation of the Christian Millennium), and that history must soon unfold a great panorama of mind and idea before us, that, on the contrary, the intellectual consequences of industrialized society are not only here to stay, but that we should expect them to become even more prevalent, ever more widespread, and always more persistent in its blandishments.
I do not maintain that these snowballing consequences of industrialization constitute the “progress in thinking” to which I referred in the above quoted aphorism, but hopefully the reader will see the connection between what I said there and what I am now saying here, so that I don’t have to spell it all out.
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12 May 2009
Quito is one of those unique places on the earth where one experiences with a personal immediacy the stratigraphy of time. A few days ago I was staying at the Hacienda San Agustin de Callo. This is another place with layer upon layer of history on display, a miniature stratigraphy of time. Cuzco also has this character, as do several European cities. I have not yet had the privilege of visiting the oldest regions of human habitation in east Asia, but I understand that the stratigraphy of time in some of these places goes back much further. Ultimately, we come to the Olduvai Gorge, where we have our origin as a species, and here time must weigh heavily, but these are not places of continuous (or near-continuous) human habitation. There are many, many old places in the world, but I have a special attraction to those that have been (in contemporary urban planning jargon) “re-purposed”, or, as I wold prefer to say, exapted.
Quito is an old city, an ancient city, in a very special sense. It is old in the sense of just being old, worn, lived in, and battered by time. Although the entire core of the old city has been declared a UNESCO monument, it does not feel like a monument. I saw very few other tourists in the old city today, far fewer than I expected. The old center of Quito is still a local city were people live, work, play, and worship. Every block has many unbelievably tiny shops, some of them merely a shallow storefront, while others penetrate deep into the block so that one feels that one is entering a labyrinth when one walks inside. Here Quiteños of all varieties do their daily business as though this city was not a world treasure. This makes Quito very much alive, a living city, and, moreover, an ancient yet living city.
I always derive a great deal of inspiration from a good museum collection, and the museum of the Banco Central Del Ecuador is a personal favorite of mine (and I mean the one in Quito, as there are other museums in other Ecuadorian cities). The collection is wonderful and well-displayed, and the texts describing the collection (in both Spanish and English) are intelligently and sensitively written. There are several items here I vividly recall from my first visit to the museum in 2001, and I made a point to return to these. Unfortunately, for this visit the gold exhibition was closed for restoration.
The museum has an amazing collection of ceramics in the archaeological room. There is very little in the way of abstract geometrical design here; most of the designs seem to be zoomorphic or anthropomorphic, though primarily the latter. The anthropocentric theme is pursued with such endless creativity and inventiveness one might even refer to them as “endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful,” as Darwin concluded the Origin of Species. But these species are species of handiwork. I was struck in looking at them that they represent (or celebrate) an utterly alien society. There is, on the one hand, an immediate identification with the human element, which is central to these anthropomorphic designs, while on the other hand there is an equally immediate and profound recognition of difference.
In an unnumbered case labeled “Bahia” and “Guangala,” stands a large (maybe 40 cm tall, again an estimate by eye) ceramic figure identified as “Guerrero” and “ceramica ceremonial” — I especially remember this from my previous visit to the museum. Both cultural periodizations listed on the case are identified as coastal cultures, with Bahia beginning as early as 500 BC and Guangala ending as late as 800 AD. This figure, for me, both wonderful and horrific, sums up the profound chasm between our world and theirs. Nevertheless, we need not stop at incomprehension, but can seek understanding even where understanding seems unobtainable.
Display case no. 9 in the archaeological collection has eight zoomorphic feline (presumably jaguar) mortars ranging from 1 cm by 1 cm by 2 cm up to about 15 cm by 15 cm by 30 cm (these are my estimates by eye; the label gave no measurements). All have square bodies, and all are made longer than they are wide or high by the addition of a grinning feline head at one end and a spiral coiled tail at the other end. These are attributed to the Valdivia culture, whose dates range from 3,500 to 1,500 BC — in other words, as old or older than the pyramids of Egypt. The display states that these feline mortars were intended to prepare hallucinogenic substances for shamanic rituals.
I imagine that early man, while exercising a certain prudent caution, tried to eat just about everything in his environment that appeared to be edible. Self-preservation instincts, on the one hand, would urge caution, but if hungry self-preservation instincts could just as well, on the other hand, drive creative attempts to find new and unexpected sources of food. In this pursuit of food, early man would have discovered both poisons and hallucinogens in his environment. Once identified as a hallucinogen, a plant or substance would have been given a special status — edible, i.e., not poison (at least, not deadly in small amounts), but not primarily to be used for sustenance; in other words, hallucinogens would have been ingested only under certain circumstances.
What would be conceived as the appropriate uses by early man for hallucinogenic substances? How would the controlled limits of its use have been established? When early man began to take hallucinogens (perhaps on a controlled and systematic basis, especially as uncontrolled use could result in death), what would his visions have looked like? One would expect that it would have looked not unlike a distorted representation of his familiar world — something not unlike the fantastic visions concretely realized in the ceramics surrounding the feline mortars in the same room of the museum.
One cannot but wonder if the more bizarre works in ceramic displayed here were the products of drug-induced visions — clearly, ceramics were a product of the “creative class” (to borrow a term from contemporary sociology), and the so-called creative class has long had a penchant for drug use.
(The museum did not allow photographs, and did not have any postcards of other reproductions of the exhibits that I have mentioned here, so I am unable to show them to you. If you want to see them, the best thing to do is to go to Quito and view them with your own eyes, which would be better than a photograph anyway.)
more to follow as time permits …
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10 May 2009
The Hacienda San Agustin de Callo is quite close to the entrance of the Cotopaxi National Park. In fact, the road to the park can be reached by dirt and gravel back roads between the Hacienda and the park entrance, obviating the need to use the highway. Avoiding the highway is no small consideration, as it is busy and dangerous, and the custom for crossing oncoming traffic in Ecuador is to pull over on the right shoulder, wait for both lanes to be completely clear, and then turn across both lanes. This does not feel like a safe procedure, but it is necessitated by the continual passing on the highway. If you attempted to stop in the road and wait for an opening in oncoming traffic, it would almost certainly cause a wreck, not least because it would defy local expectations.
Cotopaxi is the second highest peak in Ecuador at 19,347 feet, one of the highest active volcanoes in the world, and has one of the world’s few equatorial glaciers. You approach Cotopaxi across a dry, wind-swept plain. There were many wildflowers in bloom, which gave some color to the otherwise stark scene, and quite a few (presumably) wild horses. The day began overcast, but as we approached Cotopaxi, the sky began to clear in spots. The peak was revealed for less than a minute, and was again occluded by clouds before we could take pictures. But the clouds cleared again, and the views of the volcano were better than I had expected.
There is a long dirt and gravel road that rises from the plain and eventually ends at a parking lot, the elevation of which is given as 4,500 meters (14,764 feet). Up the slope of the volcano, a structure is visible. This is the refugio José Ribas, and its elevation is given as 4,800 meters (15,748 feet). Thus the climb from the parking lot to the refugio is just less than 1,000 feet. It does not look like a difficult climb; in fact, it looks easy, though it is not.
It was evident within the first few steps that the climb would be strenuous. It was. It took 40 minutes to make it up that 1,000 feet, including frequent rest stops. We had heard estimates of 30 minutes to make the climb, and when I first looked up the slope I was skeptical that it could take than long.
This brief experience of climbing at over 14,000 feet reduced me to a state of near total idiocy within the space of five minutes. I found myself focusing exclusively on the rasping sound of my breath and where I would put my foot next. The whole climb came to seem so impossible that I looked only to the next rock that was large enough to serve as a place to rest. Climbing even this short distance was like a personal odyssey, as though I was utterly trapped within the private confines of my skull, where the sound of my breath inside my head was the most prominent feature of my experience, while the sound of the wind outside my head blocked out all contact with the rest of the world. In these conditions, language functions like an incantation, suddenly breaking the hermetic seal of subjectivity, which vanishes in a puff of smoke as soon as one speaks.
But speaking takes a measure of strength above and beyond the effort already required by the climb. Though language creates a bridge to the outside world, under such conditions one tries to ration every breath, and thus to ration every spoken word, for speaking is an effort, an added burden. Each word becomes carefully premeditated, and each sentence is reduced to its barest essentials, measured to be spoken in one or two or three syllables per exhaled breath. A complete and coherent sentence might take several breaths.
The refugio has a small and very basic restaurant, as well as facilities upstairs for a significant number of climbers to bunk. While we were eating our hot soup and crackers, there was an animated group of French climbers, who had presumably ascended to the top earlier in the day, and seemed to be in high spirits from their recent achievement. There was much talk. It was highly amusing to hear Spanish spoken with French accent, but mostly the local guides spoke French also, which suggests that a sufficient number of French climbers come here that the local guides have learned the language.
It took less than half the time to descend to the parking lot that it took to walk up. On the way down the clouds came in and it rained and hailed a little, but this weather was confined to the peak. Driving back down the volcano, the weather was pleasant again (although windy), though the peak was now completely shrouded in clouds. Coming down from the refugio, it seems, we had been quite literally walking in the clouds. I felt this climb not in my legs, but in my lungs. Later, my legs were neither sore nor tired, but I could feel the effort my lungs made for hours after the fact. It was nice the return to the Hacienda San Agustin de Callo for a hot bath and a good meal.
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8 May 2009
First of all, I am not a horseman. I have ridden horses previously — several of them — but prior to my current stay at the Hacienda Zuleta I had not been on a horse since 1987, and during that last horse ride (in Hell’s Canyon, between Oregon and Idaho) I was thrown clear of the saddle and landed on the ground with my head a few feet away from a large rock. While being thrown was unpleasant, I immediately realized how fortunate I was in this instance; it could have been much worse for me.
Fortunately, my equestrian experience at the Hacienda Zuleta has not involved any incident of comparable danger. Perhaps the greatest danger I have had to face is the equatorial sun at high altitude. Despite using a significant amount of strong sunblock, my neck got very red today. (Earlier in the trip I missed a spot when applying sunscreen and I now have one small sunburned patch on my right elbow.)
Since I am not a regular rider of horses, and not an enthusiast of horse riding (and therefore woefully ignorant of the entire process), it is essentially a new experience for me, and that is a good thing, because there is much to be learned from new experiences. For example, I learned something about my own anatomy. Apparently, there is a strap of muscle on both sides, left and right, and goes directly under the pelvic bone. When you ride a horse, this muscle is pinched between the pelvic bone and the saddle. In order to ride with a minimum of comfort, this muscle must be kept tight. The problem is, ordinary activity in industrialized society does not exercise this muscle, and trying to keep an out of shape muscle tight for an extended period of time leads to soreness. But if a person were to ride every day for a couple of weeks, I have no doubt that the appropriate muscles would tighten up and one would be fine. For the time being, I can walk a horse passably, but anything more (trot, canter, gallop, etc.) is uncomfortable.
But I learned much more than this from my horseback riding experience. Riding a horse puts one in direct touch with history, as the greater part of human history was made on horseback. To ride is to understand the conditions of life of our ancestors. George Washington and Simon Bolivar, for example, were both admired for their ability to spend extended periods of time in the saddle. Horseback riding is like re-enacting history on a small scale. One is better able to identify with episodes in the past if one has a personal experience of how those episodes took place.
When personally acquainted with the difficulties of riding a horse, reflecting upon horsemanship in war gives one a new degree of appreciation of the training and conditioning, as well as the knowledge and expertise, of going to battle on horseback. It is difficult for me to imagine being on a horse at a full run, covered in about a hundred pounds of armor, carrying a lance, and attempting to spear someone similarly outfitted headed straight for you and attempting to kill you by similar means. It would take a lifetime of training to become proficient at this, and with this highly trained and specialized military asset, no mob of untrained peasants in an uprising could hope to stand against such force. When we read in a history book that a peasant rebellion was put down “brutally” (a term not infrequently employed), one must keep in mind the image of farm workers, only accustomed to the plow, going up against men who spent their life training to fight under conditions of great difficulty. History becomes more comprehensible in this way.
One of my favorite passages in Husserl, and one to which I find myself returning time and again, is from section 28 of Ideas I: “The arithmetical world is there for me only if, and as long as, I am in the arithmetical attitude.” In later editions Husserl’s marginalia extended this substantially: “The arithmetical world is there for me only when I have studied arithmetic, when I have systematically formed arithmetical ideas, when I have looked into it and thereby acquired something permanent with a universal horizon.” What is powerful in this idea is that it is true not only for mathematics, or not only for the formal sciences or absract theoretical constructions, but for any world whatever. I could just a well say that, “The equestrian world is there for me only if, and as long as, I am in the equestrian attitude.” Or, “The equestian world is there for me only when I have studied horemanship, and I have systematically practiced equestrian sports, when I have extended my equestrian experience and acquired something of permanence.”
New experiences open up new worlds for us. This is as true of horsemanship or learning a new language (the examples on my mind from today’s experiences) as for mathematics (Husserl’s example from Ideas I). The turning toward a given phenomenon, and especially its cultivation, opens new worlds of experience to one so turned toward some aspect of the world — especially some novel aspect of the world, and its pursuit through cultivation, eventually converging on familiarity. My brief re-acquaintance with horseback riding, as well as having my guide, Antonio, teach me some phrases in Quechua, drove this point home to me in a personal way. Without that turning toward a given aspect of the world, we remain blind to it.
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6 May 2009
The expansion of a civilization from its initial point of origin to non-native geographical regions occurs in a moment of vitality and represents the strength and triumph of that tradition of civilization, but the process of expansion is at the same time a setback for that civilization, for in putting itself in a geographical region in which its institutions did not organically emerge from the landscape and the climate it immediately puts itself at a disadvantage. The civilization thrusting outward in expansion must rapidly expend its resources – both spiritual and material – and it must, at some point, stall in its expansion and take time to recover from the self-inflicted blow to its institutions, as well as from the sense of exhaustion that comes from such an effort.
The moment of conquest or expansion must be followed by an extended period of assimilation, in which both the expanding civilization and the civilization impacted by that expansion become acclimated to each other. During this period of assimilation, the new acquisition is changed and the expanding civilization is changed by the change undergone by the acquisition. If the change on the part of both assimilator and assimilated is sufficiently profound and dramatic, a new civilization arises from the process of assimilation.
South America saw this process of civilizations colliding on a grand scale. Some months ago, upon the death of Samuel Huntington, I wrote a little about his influential book, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. But the clash of civilizations is only the beginning of a process that works out over the course of centuries. After the initial clash, there comes assimilation, and after assimilation there eventually can come the emergence of a new civilization.
In Huntington’s book he doesn’t have much to say about South America, though after his book on the clash of civilizations he wrote a controversial book about the failure of Hispanic immigrants in the US to assimilate (Who Are We? The Challenges to America’s National Identity). But it isn’t so much that they don’t assimilate, as that the process of assimilation is very different from the assimilation of earlier ethnic groups who came to the US. But in the case of Hispanic immigration into the US, we have the extraordinary spectacle of two former colonial regions, carrying on a modified tradition of civilization inherited from a colonial power, and in each case this is the European tradition of civilization.
South America has a unique civilization that is the synthesis of Spanish European civilization and the civilizations of the native peoples of South America. While the Europeans arrived in exploration and conquest, annihilating the particular political regimes that ruled South America prior to their arrival, they did not extinguish the traditions of native civilizations – civilizations, moreover, that emerged organically from the landscape and the climate of the continent.
And while these civilizations of South America were deeply traumatized by the impact of European colonialization, the Europeans who came to the new world were not unchanged by the impact of their arrival into the midst of a distinct tradition of civilization. Within one generation a class of creoles was created, and the creoles identified with the land of their birth, and were rejected by the peninsular Spaniards as not authentically Spanish.
The Creole identity was a mixture of Spanish European civilization and ways of life draw from native South American civilizations, adopted out of the necessity of living in a new an unfamiliar land. The creoles were more Spanish than American, while the natives who were drawn into Spanish European civilization were more American than Spanish, but in time every possible species of identify falling between peninsular Spanish and native American was realized and fact, and each degree of identity on this continuum contributed both its uniqueness and its ambiguity to the civilization that emerged, and is still emerging, in South America.
What is true of civilizations is also true of species. Horses, like human beings, are social animals. It is meaningful to speak of equine knowledge and equine experience. An experienced trail horse will know much more about the lay of a familiar piece of land, and how best to traverse it, than most riders. It is a rare thing to get lost when riding a horse, because if you lose your way the horse mostly likely knows the way back.
Horses have their areas of knowledge and expertise, and human beings have their own areas of knowledge and expertise. Horses also have individual temperament and character. Everyone knows that each individual horse has its unique characteristics, and an effort is often made to match the right horse to the right rider. Size and stature play a role in this fit, but the match between horse and rider is as much emotional and intellectual as it is physical.
When horses and human beings are brought together, it is, in a certain sense, a collision of cultures, an inter-species clash of “civilizations.” The social milieu of horses produces a distinctly equine culture just a certainly as the social milieu of human beings produces a distinctly human culture, and these two cultures – human and equine – are distinct.
The synthesis of two cultures (like the synthesis of two civilizations) always produces novel conditions, and it is easy to predict that these changed conditions will favor some individuals (of each species) while disfavoring others. In the particular case of horses and human beings, some horses with readily adapt as if born to domestication, some will stubbornly resist any kind of domestication, while most will simply accept it as a condition with no alternative. Similarly, some men seem born to the saddle, some are hopeless with horses, while most men will simply get by as best they can.
Before industrialization, almost everyone needed to be able to ride a horse. Some did so rather well, some were dismal at it, while most just got by. Riding a horse was a necessary skill, but that does not mean that everyone was an expert even when expertise made difference in daily life. Similarly, in industrialized society, almost everyone needs to be able to drive a car. Some do so quite well, others are a danger to themselves and to everyone else, while most just get by as best they can.
Optimality is elusive. Most of the time we muddle our way through life. Ways of life – civilized or otherwise – depend on certain skills. Having a “knack” for a skill can be valuable if that skill is necessary to the civilization or pre-civilized society in which one lives. There may be individuals born today that would have been, under other circumstances, “naturals” at chipping flint to make arrowhead and spear points. However, this is not a skill that is highly valued in industrialized civilization. Riding a horse is not quite a skill on the order to chipping arrowheads from flint. In same places in the world, riding a horse remains an all but necessary skill.
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5 May 2009
It was a beautifully sunny morning in Quito. We ate breakfast outside in the inner courtyard of the Hostal La Cartuja. The main event for the day was later to find the Hacienda Zuleta, but we took a walk into the historic part of Quito first. The whole of the old city core of Quito is a UNESCO cultural monument. It is a place of vivid historical significance. Quito also had great political graffiti.
The recent May Day holiday was apparently celebrated in quiteño communists with cans of spray paint. All over the old town were spray-painted slogans celebrating the proletariat, celebrating the 1st of May, and denouncing capitalism and the loss of liberty.
We climbed up the tower of the Basílica del Voto Nacional, which gives visitors a surprisingly free run of the interior of the cathedral. The views from the top are great.
After various adventures in the acquisition of a rental vehicle and driving through the crowded and clogged streets of the capital, we were finally headed out of Quito in the early afternoon, headed northeast on the Panamericana, which at this point is Road 35. I couldn’t help but wonder if one reason the roads were so slow close in to Quito was the throng of vendors who walk among the traffic selling everything from brooms to oranges.
Once out of the capital, the roads cleared out except for some very slow moving trucks, which suicidal drivers sought to pass on blind curves on winding mountain roads. One climbs up out of Quito, then down the other side, then up again. There is a reason that the central portion of Ecuador is sometimes called the Avenue of the Volcanoes: there is one after another.
After Cayambe we left the main road. Fortunately, the Hacienda Zuleta had furnished us with maps. They did try valiantly to dissuade us from making the drive ourselves on account of the difficulty of finding the place and the condition of the roads, but having driven extensively in South America, I am accustomed to typical road conditions, and the trip to the Hacienda Zuleta wasn’t that bad. However, the wonderfully clear morning gave way to a certain amount of rain, and the gravel road of the last few miles was running in rivulets of water. Still, it wasn’t too bad. As I recall, for example, the road to Ingapirca, the largest Inca structure remaining in Ecuador, was rather worse.
The Hacienda Zuleta is an enormous (about 5,000 acre) working ranch far off the beaten path. It is breathtakingly beautiful. And it is very quiet. The Hacienda Zuleta is the perfect expression of the rustic elegance that is to be found in South America.
During my travels here I wrote much in my notebooks of more than touristic interest, but I have allowed myself to give the touristic version of my journey so far. Hopefully the leisure of my stay in rural Ecuador will give me ample opportunity to work on more substantial posts to this forum.
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4 May 2009
As transcontinental travel goes, northern South America is perhaps the easiest step into a different world when starting from the northwest coast of North America. If you go across the Pacific to Asia, you cross the dateline and arrive at the country of your destination the afternoon of the following day. If you go to Europe or Africa, you have to hop to the east coast first (in most cases), and then go further on, so you arrive the morning of the next day, if not later. If you go the southern South America, you will usually arrive early in the morning of the next day.
The Jet Age journey to northern South America, however, can be accomplished in the space of a single day. I woke up in Portland, flew from Portland to Houston in three hours, and then in less than five hours flew from Houston to Quito. I met my sister at the Quito airport, and we were in the hotel by 11:30 pm — time enough to get to bed and get a good sleep so as to be rested for the day tomorrow. That means one day lost to travel, but one day lost to travel followed by a good sleep is far, far better than two days lost to travel and attempting to sleep in an airplane seat.
I must say the Continental Airlines made a very bad impression. I arrived at the Portland airport, and upon checking in I was offered an upgrade to first class for a mere $200.00. This seemed like a good deal to me, so I took it. But when I got on the flight from Portland to Houston, they didn’t have a first class seat for me. I made inquiries with the staff, and they told me that the plane was completely full and that they couldn’t change my seat. One flight attendant was genuinely apologetic, but only one. All the other Continental Airlines staff with whom I spoke were utterly indifferent to my experience.
Everyone who has flown recently knows how bad airline service has become, so it isn’t just Continental. Somewhere Nietzsche wrote, “Always keep a little more than you promise.” There are words to live by, but the airline industry has made a business model of always keeping a little less (sometimes a lot less) than they promise. Some years ago I heard a speaker say that the airline industry had suspended the laws of capitalism: they can sell you a ticket but are not obligated to honor it. Now this has happened to me personally. It does not give a good impression.
Is it any wonder that such an industry is in trouble? When perennial economic principles are abrogated by a government or by an industry, the attempt is manifestly unsustainable and one can predict with confidence (if also sadness) that any who participate in such a regime will inevitably be punished by the market. When the customer service of the airlines has fallen to the point that someone holding a first class ticket is treated with indifference (if not hostility), then the airlines have ceased to be businesses in any authentic sense. We know they are too big to be allowed to fail. And we know that we need the international air transportation network. And so we have it — with Soviet-style service that reflects the Soviet-style management of the industry.
My disappointment with Continental Airlines, however, won’t spoil my vacation. It is deeply satisfying to once again set foot on the soil of another continent. Why? It is difficult to say. The air is the same, the water is the same, the earth is the same, the sun is the same, the night is the same, and the day is the same. And yet, everything is different. That the differences are subtle does not alter the fact that together these differences constitute a unique and distinct experience. And it is the difference that intrigues me, piques my interest, ultimately fascinates me and keeps me coming back.
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