Sunday, October 08, 2006
Just got back from the lowest point on Earth, the Dead Sea. I think it is also one of the most beautiful places on Earth. From Jerusalem it is a constant drop in altitude as you cruise west into the heart of the West Bank. You see the large and fast-growing Jewish town/settlement of Maale Adumim, on your right, with its reddish-orange tiled roof tops characteristic of the more permanent Jewish settlements. Then the road into the Palestinian controlled city of Jericho appears on your left. This city is of great importance in the Old Testament and was the scene of much Jew and Arab violence this year. My ears popped constantly during the drive through the barren Judean Desert. The only visible sights in this extraterrestrial landscape are the Bedouin cattle herders and their tin shacks. Rain doesn’t fall here. They use natural desert springs for all their hydration needs. Wadis, Arabic for dry riverbeds, are the only places where vegetation is visible. The desert is barren.
At first sight of the Salt Sea you feel duped. You first think how nice and refreshing it would be to jump in headfirst, especially when your car’s air conditioning doesn’t work in the desert. But having no AC in the blue bullet (pictured below) is often the least of my problems. The great thing about owning a piece of shit car is that you are always pleasantly surprised whenever you arrive anywhere. I went in the water and I decided to go for a long distance swim. I spotted a strip of land jutting out into the Sea, and I reached it about a half hour later. Freestyle is really fun in the Dead Sea because your body is on a higher plane in the water and your feet can’t even be submerged into the water, so there’s no point kicking. I reached the land and tried to climb a salty hill for a great view of Jordan. I ended up scraping my leg really badly and started bleeding. I jumped back in the water and it burned for a few minutes but then felt like it was healing really quickly.
I got back to shore and I noticed there were lifeguards positioned there. I wondered what kind of moron would drown in the Dead Sea, where it is impossible not to float. Apparently, there are 1 to 2 rescues a month for people who either panic and somehow end up face down in the water and an equal number of rescues a month of people who stay in the water for a while and get dehydrated and pass out. The lifeguard seemed thrilled to be talking to me, or anyone for that matter, to spare him from what must be one of the most boring jobs in the world. He said that one-hour swims are not recommended in the Dead Sea, and that I should do my long distance swims in the Mediterranean next time.
I then went hiking through a wadi and up a few desert hills. The views were spectacular.
For Yom Kippur I went to the Kotel, or Western Wall. It was an intense religious and cultural experience. I interacted with lots of Jews and a surprising number of Christians who were there in solidarity. One Colombian Catholic did a 15-minute interpretive love dance for the Jewish people. Others were fasting to show their “love” for the Jews. There was a worshipper wearing only fake leopard skins, with a giant shofar, or ram's horn, strapped to his back. A group of Korean tourists marveled at a 5 year-old blond haired-blue eyed Hasidic girl in a stroller. Some of them instinctively reached for their cameras, only to remember the prohibition on photography at the Kotel on holy days. The Muslim call to prayer at the Al-Aqsa Mosque was heard by all through loudspeakers, drowning out the wailing noises coming from the wall just below.
I took a beautiful nap on a staircase in the old city. When I woke I witnessed a group of young Jewish boys, about 8 or 9 years old, on the rooftop of their synagogue, throwing apple cores and empty plastic bottles on three separate groups of innocent Arab pedestrians that happened to walk on the cobblestone path beneath the house of worship. I wondered if their fathers were pleading with the Lord for forgiveness in that very temple at the very moment their kids were harassing the Arabs. I wondered furthermore if these Jews would consider their kids’ actions a “sin” or whether they would be commended for it. Back at the wall, as the pious cried out in prayer their sins of the past year, two black cats fought relentlessly. I learned a lesson watching them fighting and the aftermath of the fight. Seconds after the fight they seemed to have forgotten about it completely. They didn’t carry with them the negative emotions of anger or humiliation. If only humans had such short memories. Night suddenly crept into the old city walls. The Shofar shrieked. The Day of Atonement was over. I exited the Western Wall plaza, walked past the metal detectors, grateful that I made it through one heck of a year, and excited for the next one.
Friday, July 21, 2006
Hundreds of journalists have gone to Northern Israel to report on the situation there. They usually go to the scene of some attack that already occurred, hoping to shed light on what happened during the attack. I was hoping to do the same thing. I was going to go to Haifa, film the scene of where a rocket fell, maybe visit some local bomb shelters, interview Jews and Arabs on the streets, and then go back to the “safe zone” of Tel Aviv.
I checked my email just before leaving and I received an abnormal number of emails telling me to “be careful” or “stay safe.” Even my producer at Current wrote me a nervous email questioning how safe it was up there and to at least bring my flak jacket and helmet along. But the decision had been made. I brought my good buddy Garret along to film me in the car on the way up so that I could describe the situation to Current TV viewers. We left Raanana (northern Tel Aviv suburb) at about 10 in the morning. We took the old coastal highway up, passing the seaside Kibbutz of Maagan Michael and the neighboring Arab village of Jizr ez Zarqa. The fresh ocean air was a welcome change from the smog of Tel Aviv. We arrived in Haifa an hour later to see that almost every single store was closed. The vibrancy of this beautiful coastal city seemed to be sucked out of it. It actually felt like lots of rundown areas in America. Buses passed by empty bus stops, a random car whizzed by, a single pedestrian scurried past a Buy 2 Get 1 free promotion outside a closed shoe store.
Instincts told me to start the day at the Haifa train depot on Tuesday morning. More people died in this single attack than in any other. Eight train repairmen died were killed after a Katyusha rocket fired from Lebanon struck the center of the depot three days before. We drove around for an hour looking for this train depot. We went to a closed train station, ended up halfway to Akko, and finally asked a policeman for good directions. We made it there finally, and the Russian security guards at first would not let us in. I showed them my Press ID, told them I came all the way from America to do this one story, and that I was not leaving until I could speak to their supervisor. This is the only way to get things done in Israel. The supervisor, Yitzhak Fried, was firm at first, but as soon as I told him I work for Al Gore’s network, he not only agreed to let me in but also offered to do an on-camera tour of the scene.
Literally 5 minutes into the interview with Mr. Fried, we heard a rocket detonate relatively far away. He gave me a serious look I will never forget; suggesting that this was something real and maybe we should go the shelter. It took us about 10 seconds to walk briskly to the shelter when suddenly, as were looking out the window for where the last one fell…BOOM. But it wasn’t just BOOM. The sound waves lasted for at least a couple seconds. It was more like, BOOOOooooommmmm. I could feel the vibration of the rocket and knew that it must have detonated nearby. My camera was rolling the entire time and even though I was filming out the window, you can almost feel the impact as my body’s natural defense mechanism retreated backwards away from the exposed window.
It turned out that the rocket fell less than 20 feet away from where we had been standing 15 seconds earlier. Had that first rocket not existed…Had we not heard it for whatever reason (falling in the ocean, or not detonating)…Had we heard it and not reacted immediately…Had Hizbollah fired the second one first…et cetera. The possibilities are endless.
I woke up that morning intending to make a different movie that would not have been nearly as powerful. Now in the film that you can see on www.current.tv you can feel a little bit of what I went through that day. Humbled, I walked out of the train depot thinking that our human intentions can only take us so far in life.
As a war-victim for the first time in my life, I can only now understand what it is like. You are not that scared as it is happening, but afterwards you are different. Just after the attack, Garret said something that really freaked me out. He said that the rocket was in the air flying directly towards us while we were doing the interview. It had our names on it. It was going to hit us, until we moved. Now even in my daily life, I wonder what other threats are flying towards me that I don’t know about. Cars, suicide bombs, choking on an apple. I have become morbid and frightened.
As I was driving back to my Tel Aviv apartment from Raanana, they foiled a suicide bomb plot coming from militants in the West Bank. Due to this I was stuck in a roadblock for 4 hours. We waited patiently.
Finally back in Tel Aviv, Garret and I purchased a 175 gram pink Frisbee and tossed it around for a while before jumping into the cool, green Mediterranean Sea. In the sea I feel safe. There are no shark attacks or hurricanes here like there are in Florida. The water is familiar. I am alive.
Friday, July 14, 2006
Sunday, July 02, 2006
On my official World Cup team list, it says Serbia and Montenegro, but if you’ve been following global events recently, you will know that Serbia and Montenegro are now two different countries. Based on the results of a referendum held on May 21, 2006, Montenegro declared independence on June 3, 2006. Montenegro was recognised as an independent nation by Serbia on June 15 and on June 28, it became the 192nd member state of the United Nations.
I caught up with some Serbians and asked them whether Montenegro was in the World Cup, and they said that the only starter on the team from Montenegro is the goalkeeper, who happened to let in 6 goals against Argentina. Hmmm. Great Argentine football or international sabotage, I wondered? Now that Serbia and Montenegro* is out of the tournament, the Serbian fans boldly asserted that the tiny country of Montenegro will have no chance at qualifying for another World Cup without Big Brother Serbia. They might be right. With only 600,000 people to choose from, the Montenegro national team will have a difficult time competing for a spot in South Africa 2010. Perhaps because they were too busy celebrating their independence from Serbia, I was hard pressed to find even one fan who made the trip from Montenegro to the World Cup to support Serbia and/or the Montenegro goalkeeper.
The dream ended too quickly. After many great spiels (matches) featuring many great mannschafts (teams) and many brosts (cheers) over delicious Bavarian biers, my time at the Weltmeister Shaft (World Cup) 2006 in Deuschland is now over. I already extended my trip by a week and while I would have loved to stay until the finals, but responsibility beckoned. I was supposed to be back in the real world already, but I just didn’t think I had seen enough great live football. I watched only the pitiful US-Czech match and a dismal Iran-Angola match, so I extended my trip by a week. So just 10 hours before my flight, I decided to go watch Brasil take on Ghana. To survive the coming 4 year impasse, I needed to exit the tournament on a high. For those of you familiar with my 7-step method of getting into sold out sporting events, this was perhaps my most difficult challenge ever. There were two perimeters and inflexible German security guards to get past, which made things very complicated, but the 7-step method has never failed me.
I was in Europe a total of 3 weeks. Most of my time was spent in Germany although I did leave the country on two occasions. First I visited the Greenstein Mind and Body Spa in Den Haag, Holland for a couple days of R and R. Then I was treated to a lovely tour of the sunny-side of Brussels where I learned of the world’s shortest, but most effective fireman, Mannequin Pis. But it was hard for me to stay out of Germany, the epicenter of global motion for a month in 2006.
During the moments that I was not thinking about or watching football, I was observing the efficiency of German society. The only discernible difference between East and West Berlin today are the electronic crossing signals. In West Berlin, they are normal, run of the mill stick figures. But in East Berlin, they have a chubby physique, wear Soviet-style hats, and on the green signal turn to the side and appear to be in middle of a long gait. But the point of this story is that in all of Germany, and I hear especially in Bavaria, these signals are sacrosanct. I never once saw a jaywalker. Even when the coast was clear for miles in the middle of the night in East Berlin, I saw people waiting for the green fat guy to escort them along.
When Germany won their World Cup match against Sweden, the party went on all night, but the next day I walked through Berlin all day and didn’t see one impromptu celebration or any hint that Germany might have won a World Cup match the day before. It was as if the time for celebration was over, and it was time to return to the regularly scheduled program. I found the Germans generally to be very stiff and melancholic in their facades, but once you poke through the exterior you get an appreciation of their depth. They are philosophic in their thinking, intelligent, and refreshingly idealistic.
Out of the 50 sum odd trains, subways, and buses I rode in Germany, every single one departed and arrived exactly on time. And I mean exactly on time. One time I was delayed by exactly 23 minutes on a train and I was expecting a lot of pissed off people who would be late to their destinations. But in an uncanny and unpredictable turn of events, the delay actually put everyone is a great mood. I really was amazed by change in the atmosphere in the train. When the conductor announced jovially that there would be a delay, the announcement cut through the social anxiety like a knife though hot butter. The Germans began talking to perfect strangers, laughing about things I couldn’t discern, while others smiled at their misfortune. It was as if the people were suddenly liberated from the timetable of life, which I know from Shabbat, feels really nice. The old woman next to me suddenly seemed approachable as she turned from stoic to giddy. I asked her why she was so happy and she said, “I don’t know. Now I am very late for my doctor’s appointment.” Ha!
There are so many wonderful things about this German efficiency, especially with respect to the environment. In my three weeks here, I didn’t once use a private vehicle, only public transport, which is brilliantly organized and runs 24 hours a day. You never see just one garbage can in Germany. It is always a set of 4 garbage cans, 1 for plastic, 1 for glass, 1 for paper, and 1 for general waste. Also, many bottles are returnable for a not-so-miniscule reward of 50 cents (Euro). Outside of every match or in the specially designated fan areas, I would watch as the poor people of the city would stalk the surrounds looking for plastic and glass bottles to pick up and to return to the stores for their reward. Creating an economic incentive to recycle is the ultimate in efficiency, and I really got a kick out of watching these bottles getting picked up off the floor by needy citizens. They would carry large heavy-duty trash bags, filling them up within minutes. I bet they made a killing after an England match. Speaking of boozing, every time I went to a bar and returned my empty bottle of beer, I would get 50 cents off my next one. Considering the amount of beer consumed in this World Cup, this simple step probably saved an enormous amount of waste. Concern for the environment seems to be on everyone’s conscious mind in Germany, which made me feel good. Riding on a subway in Berlin, I read a quote that really stuck with me. It said, “Man needs nature to survive. Nature doesn’t need man to survive.” How true.
This was probably the best-organized World Cup ever, and South Africa will have its work cut out for her in 2010. Berlin built a beautiful new “hauptbanhof” or central station in time for the tournament. There were city volunteers scattered thoughout the host cities, and I swear they always freakin’ appeared at exactly the right moment. One day I was walking around Leipzig looking for the stadium when suddenly, a red-shirted city volunteer appeared out of nowhere. She was uber-helpful and gave me more maps than I knew what to do with. I needed to go to the toilet before the match so she directed me to the nearest city toilet. This was also an experience. You pay 1 Euro and this dome-shaped structure absorbs you through automatic sliding steel doors. I felt like I was going into a ride at Disney World, but the thing didn’t lift off like a space ship as expected. As I entered the lights went on automatically. Fortunately for me, it was a number one, and I was out rather quickly, because I read afterwards that the doors open automatically after 20 minutes and then, here’s the best part, the toilet cleans itself. Gotta love German efficiency!
I could not leave Berlin before visiting the Jewish Museum. I went there on my last Friday in Germany. It was fascinating and touching in so many ways. The building is the work of architect Daniel Libeskind. While walking through its very linear corridors, I felt very trapped and uncomfortable. I’d never before appreciated how the shape of a building can affect your psychological state. I spent 4 hours learning about the rich and tragic history of German Jews. There was also a special exhibit on Sigmund Freud, which I enjoyed. But my most powerful experience in the museum was entering into the Holocaust Tower. It is an awkwardly shaped pentagonal room, about 30 feet below street level. There is an attendant outside the room, who opened the heavy steel door and then closed it behind me. I entered the room alone. Inside, I heard the muffled sounds of the street above but I got the feeling they wouldn’t hear me, even if I screamed. The room is pitch black except for a small opening where a shaft of light enters the room and beams to the floor. I stayed in the center of the room where I suddenly became drained of energy and needed to sit on the floor. Finally, I regained enough strength to walk towards the single beam of light. I basked in the light for a minute and felt invigorated. I knocked on the door, indicating to the attendant that I was ready to leave the room. She let me out and I smiled at her. That night I went to Shabbat services and dinner in Berlin with the thriving Jewish community here. The dinner felt like a meaningful way to end the trip.
Berlin is an energetic, dynamic, and interesting city which I hope to revisit when the world cup is not happening so that I can I can see and do more things. I only had time for one other museum while in Berlin, the film museum, which I highly recommend for filmmakers and film buffs. Despite the many liters of Weizen and Pilseners I consumed, this was a truly unforgettable trip. Since I have been lucky enough to know a handful of locals in Berlin, I was treated to a side of the city that not many tourists get to see. Believe it or not, I even played beach volleyball one day in Berlin! Many thanks to Isi, Michael, Kristin, and the Soccer Elvii for showing me an awesome time and I look forward to seeing you all again soon. Also, I would like to invite you to South Africa in 2010. It will be a homecoming of sorts for me and yes I have begun counting down the days.
Elated after watching Brazil defeat Ghana in Dortmund
Monday, June 19, 2006
As I walked along the Rhine tonight at 3 in the morning on a cool summer evening in Dusseldorf, I was thinking, “Where else in the world could I have conversations with Argentines, Angolans, Mexicans, Swedes, Brits, Scots, and Serbians in a two hour outing?” I literally did this the other night. I bought an Alt Beer typical of the Rhineland and joined the never-ending street party. The setting is always the same. Only the characters, or in this case countries, fluctuate, depending on who’s playing in the stadia of Cologne or Gelsenkirchen. It truly seems like a global village. Set against a drab post-modern German exterior is a very colorful atmosphere. Flags and national team jerseys drape people’s backs. Hues of brown skin parade proudly alongside their pasty fare-skinned brethren.
I’m beginning to appreciate the World Cup as a satire on cultural symbols, stereotypes, and psyches. Mexicans wear giant sombreros. Americans impersonate Elvis. Even the Scots, who didn’t qualify for the tournament but would never miss a good party, were seen out wearing kilts. Yet, more than anything, the World Cup is an international meeting of the [drunken] minds. A reminder that people actually live and breathe and eat in Ghana. An opportunity to meet representatives from 31 other countries who have pride in their countries or love for the game of soccer, or both. A place where it is ok for men to put their arms around perfect strangers in a display of empathy for a painful loss. For one month every four years, racist and xenophobic thoughts are replaced by thoughts of a round ball.
So here’s my grand thought of the day. Instead of the often ineffective and toothless UN, we should have a World Cup themed international body to make and enforce world decisions. They will meet for one very intensive month every four years in a different country. Adidas will sponsor it. Ronaldhino will be the Secretary General. The number of votes will be decided by penalty shootouts. The more people that come from their country and make a penalty kick with the world’s fattest man goaltending, the more votes that country has. Headquarters will move from New York City to Copacabana beach in Rio de Janeiro. Everyone will be forced to drink a pint of German Ale before making a decision on anything. Sorry Budweiser. And ready for the best part? All those hooligans that are forbidden from attending the real World Cup will be deployed on any UN Peacekeeping missions. To all my friends who are lawyers, let’s make this happen.
Wednesday, June 14, 2006
I intentionally boycotted Germany during my 1998 trip through Western Europe. Eighteen years old then, I could not understand how a country could commit a crime such as the Holocaust. By visiting Germany, I felt as if I was somehow validating the Nazi crimes. Now twenty six, I still can’t comprehend the Holocaust. But two World Cups later, I realize that coming to Germany doesn’t validate the Holocaust any more than visiting the US validates the slaughtering of the Native Americans. As great a moral blunder the Holocaust and the Native American genocide were, it is also a moral blunder to harbor ill will towards a child for the sins of the father.
As soon as it was announced that Germany would be hosting the 2006 World Cup, I have been slowly coming to grips with the fact that I would be visiting Germany. Should I visit the camps? This is the question that has been racking my brain for a while now. My fanatical obsession with soccer has forced me to come to Germany before I was ready to visit its darkest regions, not so far away from the World Cup circuit. Every so often while flipping through my Lonely Planet guidebook I accidentally turn to the page of a concentration camp. I keep flipping because I’ve realized I’m not ready; emotionally, spiritually, conceptually to visit these horrific places. In this past year I have visited the Pakistani earthquake region where I saw mass grave upon mass grave. Yet, I could come to grips with this because it was God, or Mother Nature, or supernatural forces, who was ultimately responsible. Why is it so much more difficult to accept a crime perpetrated by humanity? Or is humanity simply an extension of God by virtue of being created by God?
Another reason I am not visiting the camps on this trip is an egocentric one. I want to show Germany that I do not judge the Germans of today because of where they were born. Let’s face it, only a small percentage of Germans today were around during the Holocaust. While the culture and camps remain, the minds, bodies, and souls are totally different. How can I hold a grudge? Today’s Germany is one of the most tolerant and truly free places on the planet.
I spend most of my time here thinking about things I would normally think about. Yet every so often the most inane, trivial things remind me of the Holocaust and where I am in the world. I think about it every time I get on a train here. Once the air conditioning on a train didn’t work and I stood up to quickly make sure the window opened. Yesterday, the trains did a marvelously efficient job of taking people to the stadium but were not nearly as efficient on the way back. Hmmm. Today I went to eat at Subway and I had to eat stale bread because the ovens were broken. “If only that could have happened to the ovens 60 years ago” is the absurdly comical thought that came to my mind.
Besides for these obvious psychological triggers, most of my moments in Germany are spent very much in the present. I went to the World Cup match between the US and Czech Republic with two Elvis impersonators from the US for a piece I did for Current. Walking around filming these Soccer Elvi, as they’re known in plural, I couldn’t help but wonder what would have happened to these bizarre creatures in the Holocaust. “Would Hitler have killed Soccer Elvis?” As we were riding in the car, our Arian taxi driver smiled all the way to the game. He began talking politics without me even prodding him. He remarked that Germany’s president today, Horst Koehler, is different from any German president of the past. As part of his ceremonial duties, Koehler was in attendance for Germany’s World Cup opener against Costa Rica. He also visited Israel’s Holocaust Memorial Yad Vashem last year. The cab driver said that for the first time since the war, the German president is telling the German people to hold their heads up and be proud to be Germans. That just because you are proud to be German doesn’t mean you are a Nazi anymore.
Soccer Elvis, Captain America, Indian Soccer Elvis, and Evil Kneivel
Indian Elvis and Policeman
Soccer Elvis doing coochy coochy coo
Me in Gelsenkirchen just before kick off
Tuesday, May 30, 2006
Like trying to pronounce Ousseinoh Diouf.
Like looking for the country of Togo on the map.
Like finding out that the song I've been humming all day is actually the Ecuadorean national anthem.
Most major landmarks of my life occur during World Cups. I graduated from college in 2002 Korea/Japan, finished high school in 1998 France, and in 1994 US I was beginning high school. I’ll never forget that World Cup, the first one I ever attended live. Holland defeated Ireland in the Round of 16 in Orlando, Florida and the Irish fans did not stop chanting and cursing the referee the entire match. And then my dad treated me to a sweet Romania-Sweden Quarterfinal in Pasadena that went to penalty kicks. When Sweden knocked in the game winner, I suddenly remembered where I was and who I was. Coming down from my first soccer high, I vowed never to miss a World Cup match. The next World Cup, as an 18 year old High School graduate, I crossed the Atlantic with the singular goal of sneaking into the France-Croatia semifinal. I succeeded, using an overweight Frenchman as a visual obstruction, and got to watch France beat Croatia 2-1 on two goals by defender Lillian Thuran. That night while walking down the Champs Elysses, I was higher than I've ever been on life.
The next World Cup in Korea/Japan was a near catastrophe. It coincided with Final Exams during my last semester at University. Would I tell my professors that I was going to a soccer tournament or should I kill off another already deceased, somewhat fictitious relative? Money was also a factor. Despite the fact that I was working at the number one volume sales Domino’s in the world in Gainesville Florida, my job as a “Pizza Delivery Expert” at Domino’s, just wasn’t cutting it. I masochitically redeemed myself by watching every single match, live. Reminder: This was Japan/South Korea Live (as in the other side of the globe). The games were televised at either 2:30, 5:30, or 7:30, AM. I literally went 39 nights without sleep. When the US stunned Portugal, my friend and I went out into the streets of Gainesville with two giant American flags wrapped around us and tried to start a rally at 7:20 AM on a Wednesday. It didn’t exactly work out as planned, but we did get some people to honk their horns. Except for the fact that the refereeing at that World Cup was atrocious, I won my World Cup Pool by picking Brasil to win, and so I won a thousand dollars.
I have been suffering from soccer-related delusions of grandeur ever since I was a kid. I am starting to come to grips with the fact that my dream of playing in the World Cup is not likely to materialize, although I haven't ruled out training for South Africa 2010. But I'm getting ahead of myself. I must now focus on the next Cup that is just days away in Germany. I have this dreadful feeling in the pit of my stomach, knowing that this month of pure bliss will come to an abrupt end, and I will have to once again begin counting down the 1400 plus days till the next one. But again Im getting ahead of myself. To maximize enjoyment of the World Cup, and probably also in life, one must simply follow the old cliché spoken so many times by so many wise athletes in post-game interviews. Starting with Germany-Croatia on June 9th, my plan is to savor this World Cup one game at a time.
Wednesday, May 17, 2006
I am now in Cuba. I came here to be alone with my thoughts for a couple weeks, but I came to the wrong place. Every time I go somewhere, whether it´s a restaurant, at the beach, or in the bathroom, the Cubans refuse to leave me alone. Their cumulative charm has forced me to relinquish my quest for solitude. I truly believe these people are the warmest, most gregarious humans on the planet. Seriously. Yesterday I met some people at a restaurant where I was sitting alone. We began talking and then spent the day together, a Cuban guy and two Dutch women. It is borderline illegal for Cubans to hang out with foreigners. My Cuban friend bet me a mojito that he would get stopped at least once that day and asked for ID. Literally two minutes after leaving the restaurant he was stopped. We went to watch a Cuban baseball game between arch rivals Industriales and Habana del Campo, both from Havana. Instead of peanuts and cracker jacks, there were caramelos and jamon y queso. Instead of ballboys there were ballmen. And instead of paying 50 dollars for a ticket, I paid 5 cents for the best seat in the house. Everywhere I go I pretend I’m Cuban because there is a double economy here, one for tourists and one for locals. If they think I’m Cuban I get to pay for things in Moneda Nacional (pesos cubanos), which has roughly the same value as Monopoly money. If they think I’m a foreigner I have to pay in pesos convertibles which have the same value as dollars. I also got a financial kick in the ass today. I spent all my Canadian dollars and had to change my US dollars into pesos convertibles and there is a 10 percent surcharge on US dollar exchanges. Fidel´s sweet revenge against the embargo. (There is another more logical reason behind the tax that I learned later from a guy known as “Your Man in Havana,” who seems to have his finger on Cuba’s pulse. The Cuban government historically maintained dollar accounts in various Swiss banks. Once the US government became privy to this information, they boycotted these banks on the grounds that they were handling “dirty dollars” from Cuba. These banks then stopped allowing dollars from Cuba, which prompted Fidel to then remove dollars from the Cuban economy.
I had one of the weirdest Passover Seders of my life. The first night I went to a Chabad-run Seder. In my travels I have come to realize that there are two universal things in this world. 1. Coca Cola 2. Chabad. While North Korea has neither, Iraq has number only 1, Cuba has both. I had to explain the entire Passover Seder to this Cuban woman who wasn´t Jewish but was writing her undergraduate thesis on Cuba’s Jewish community. She in turn explained to me the vices and virtues of the Castro regime. It was interesting. There was an old poor man sitting next to me who multiplied the four cups of wine we traditionally drink by ten and might have broken the Guiness World Record for “most matzah consumed in a single sitting.” The poor guy was obviously hungry and also had a few screws loose. However, every so often he would surprise me by muttering the blessing with a typical Ashkenazi accent. The next night I went to another synagogue called “El Patronato.” It rocked. Ive never seen a Seder so full of life.
This country is so vibrant. Walking down the streets I am constantly hearing this up-tempo cha cha cha song that everyone seems to groove to. The place has a rhythm and color scheme all of its own. It also seems like everyone I talk to is a musician or an artist. I am flabbergasted at the way these Cubans move their bodies. I went to a Salsa club tonight and they made it look so easy that I figured I’d try to step in and learn it on the fly. Bad move. I was horrible and nearly crushed my poor partner on multiple occasions.
I now feel like I have a better understanding of the Cuban mindset. I spent last night and most of the day with a 30-year old man depressed by his economic state. His father left to Miami when he was young, and he says the “Libreta,” or ration-card, given to him by the government is not sufficient. I am so frustrated here because I came here to film a documentary for Current, and I am getting some good stuff, but the truth really comes out once the cameras are off. And the truth as I see it is that people here are suffering, yet many of them still support the Revolution. I’ve observed an uncanny capriciousness amongst Cubans with regards to their situation. They can’t decide if the Revolution was good or bad. Yet their opinions must be footnoted with a large asterisk. How much freedom of thought do they have? If their situation was bad, how would they know it? They can’t travel or see anything else. All media is state controlled. So they say they support Castro and his Revolution. “Fidel es mi papa”, they say. I think this is the truest of Cuban sayings. You may not agree with everything your father tells you or makes you do, but you’ve only got one….There is just so much to take in here and the situation is so complicated that I am now exhausted and I’m going to sleep. I switched casas and I’m now in a great place. The senora gave me a fresh-squeezed orange juice when I walked in the door sweaty and exhausted. She also has delicious omelettes for breakfast every morning.
Today was a great day. I don’t know why. It just was. I ate Cuban ice cream, had great interviews, made new friends, and gained some new insight into the Cuban character. They are an amazingly resilient and unified people, and US policy plays right into the hands of Fidel, who has a bad guy to always point the finger at. The propaganda here is nothing short of brilliant. One sign directly opposite the Office of US Interests in Cuba has George Bush and Luis Carriles Posada, both with devil eyes and fangs for teeth, starring in a Hollywood action movie called “El Asesino.” If you don’t know who Posada is, you should. He is a terrorist in the truest sense of the word, responsible for blowing up a Cuban airliner, killing 73 civilians. Yet due to a double standard, he is a free man in Miami. For some people in Miami, he’s a hero.
Anyhow back to my day. There is such a positive energy about this place. It has made me question the nature of freedom. While these people are not free to criticize the government or leave the country, there is a feeling of personal freedom that I have not seen anywhere else in the world. People seem free to be themselves here. There is no judgement on what you wear, who you hang out with, what you do for a living. Its so refreshing how approachable people are here. They will never shun you or give you a weird look for initiating conversation. On the contrary, they welcome you. Conversations are never shorter than they need to be. In a week I feel like I have made a new friend every single day. They are always outside their homes. They know their neighbors. There is a sense of a common destiny. Through good times and bad times, they will stick it out together.
This is another part of the world where AFP (American Foreign Policy), namely the embargo, is logically and sociologically counterintuitive. Fidel Castro should thank his lucky stars for the embargo, for he probably would not be in power otherwise. America’s most powerful weapon today are its powerful multinational corporations, which have the potential to affect mass cultural change. This weapon has been unleashed on every single country in the world, except for Cuba. Why did Bin Laden wage war on America? Through American multinational corporations, American values threaten the Islamic values he cherishes. So how does America deal with Cuba? It decides not to trade with Castro, sparing the island from America’s capitalist consumer culture, its values and ideas, which allows Castro to maintain total thought control over the populace. The embargo ensures that the competition of ideas is always won by Castro’s socialism, since the US has withdrawn itself unilaterally from competition. This policy is not only unethical and punitive, but it is counterintuitive in achieving its desired goal, which presumably is regime change in Cuba.
It is equally counterintuitive from a sociological perspective. Group suffering forges group bonding. If an American leader could simply look at some of the propaganda here, he/she would realize that the embargo provides a perfect Post-Revolution scapegoat, allowing Fidel Castro to blame financial problems on arch enemy #1, rather than his backwards economic policies. Castro, the good communist, never misses the opportunity to capitalize off of this policy blunder. As such, it is the subject of much propaganda here. “No Al Bloqueo” (No to the Blockade) the signs read. It is on the front page of the newspapers here. And it ranks number one in sore subjects amongst Cubans. While Fidel puts up signs that say “Vamos Bien,” (We’re going well), a cab driver told me that only he (Fidel) is going well. In short, there is counter-revolutionary sentiment, although it will never fester as long as the blame is divided between Castro and the US. I am learning that this Revolution did not just happen in 1959, but in the minds of Cuban believers, is still happening. The irony is that the embargo might just be the Revolutionary fuel.
I appreciate that I can criticize my government freely and without fear of reprisal.
Today was spectacular. I scuba dived in Punta Perdiz in the Bay of Pigs. Totally amazing. Even my giant kindergarten crayon box with 500 colors didn’t have so many hues of blue and green as the inviting water. The coral was completely undamaged and the black and yellow sergeant majors were so unafraid that they would swim in and out of my hand. I guess the fish are friendlier in Communist countries.
As a result of my 25-peso dive I probably will have to camp out the last night because I had budgeted exactly enough money to pay for necessities for the rest of my trip. American bank cards don’t work because of the embargo. I was even wired 300 dollars the other day through Western Union, which is the maximum any single individual can receive in Cuba for a 3-month period. I now starting to feel like a real Cuban.
Hitchhiked from Playa Giron to Cienfuegos today. I was picked up by a nice Italian couple on their honeymoon. We spent the time talking politics, which I realize is something I tend to do.
Cienfuegos is a blur. I was looking for an internet café that was in the guide book. When I got to the address I realized it wasn’t there, so I asked someone what happened to it. She shrugged and pantomimed a man with a long beard, “La Barbita,” she said. (The bearded one).
The same Italian honeymooning couple took me to Trinidad, an ornate little town tucked between verdant hills and the Caribbean. I again found myself in the company of honeymooners, this time from Slovenia. I was eating there in a paladar when they invited me to join them as they were having a laugh with a “jinitero,” a Cuban hustler, trying to convince them to use his taxi service the next day. I helped translate and ate a piece of fish that tasted like a combination of steak, salt, and rubber. I suddenly realized I was running out of money.
Being broke in Cuba isn’t so bad because pretty much everyone is. I needed to make a move and get to Jaguey Grande to write a story on Rafi Eitan’s Citrus Venture there. I would hitchhike so I needed to set out early, because, without money, time is all I had. So I got to the place everyone hitchhikes from at 9 AM. At around midday, I grew impatient and hot and went to the bus station and bribed my way onto a fancy tourist bus for peanuts. The black market in Cuba is more common in Cuba than the regular market to the point that they coined a phrase for it, “a la izquierda” (to the left) means you got something on the black market, which is how most people survive here. So I got to Jaguey, and the first guy that came up to me was in a tie dyed shirt and American gangster-style baggy shorts. I knew this would be my guy. I explained to him that I was running low on dough and he said, “same as us.” I said “I need an interview with someone at the citrus factory, a tour of the facility, and a place to sleep, for 15 dollars.” He said no problem and took me to his sister’s house, who has a Casa Particular, where I dumped my bags. A bici-taxi driver took us around and complained about his plight. He makes 4 dollars a day.
The next day after my interviews I gave my tie-dyed friend a pair of shorts that he said he liked. He took me to the hitchhiking outpost and I waited for an hour, before jumping into the back of a giant rig with 15 Cubans in the back headed to Havana. Hitchhiking is the way most people travel in Cuba. There are official hitchhiking outposts where state vehicles are required by law to stop, but rarely do. Most prefer to pick people up at unofficial places, where they can then charge them money. At this point I joined the Cuban economy, changing my remaining pesos convertibles into moneda nacional. Moneda Nacional is the currency Cubans use to buy foodstuffs and transport. It is limited to Cubans and things are much cheaper. Riding on the back of this rig for 10 cents, next to a guy transporting illegal guavas to Havana to sell “a la izquierda” I felt like a Cuban for the first time.
A short footnote to the story: Halfway through the trip, the national revolutionary police boarded the rig and looked through everyone’s bags looking for contraband, which in Cuba includes anything being sold extra-legally and can include seemingly benign items such as guavas. The man lied to the police and told them he wasn’t selling the green and pink stuff when he obviously was. The police confiscated them.
IN THE TRUCK
the illegal guava vendor
Each Cuban neighborhood is divided into CDR's. CDR stands for Comite de Defensa de la Revolution. They put up these posters define the roles of the "good communists" of the neighborhood.
I stayed in Casas Particulares for all of my time here. This phenomenon began in 1997 after the “periodo especial,” which was the darkest period in post-revolutionary Cuban history. They are homes with rooms to spare which function as quasi-capitalistic businesses. They rent out rooms to foreign tourists for around 25 pesos (30 dollars) a night and have to pay the government 11 pesos per room per night regardless of occupancy. Whatever’s left over they keep. Casas particulares and other privately run businesses that have emerged since the late 90’s are contributing to the burgeoning sense of inequality that exists here.
My first casa particular on the third floor
My first place was great. Right in the heart of Old Havana, clean, and nice people. The second place was not so great. I had to practically beg for coffee this morning and when I asked for a plate for my morning matzah I began to realize how poor these people are. “Lo que me sobra son platos”, (What I have extra are plates), the señora said, implying a lack of the things that go on plates, namely food. Its in a crumbling building that must be at least 50 years old. I´m the only foreigner in the casa, and it is always dark and dreary. Its only redeeming quality is that it’s a block from the Malecon, Havana´s famous waterfront promenade. The third casa I stayed in the people were so well off that they fly every year to Holland for 2000 dollars to visit their son there.
Reflections on two weeks here:
I do not want to leave this place. Broke as a joke, I find myself eager to come back here with more money, more medicine, and more understanding of the Cuban predicament. I’ve come to realize this is the land of oxymorons:
It is communist, yet its people have an amazing capacity for making money.
People are poor, yet no one dies of hunger.
America is the land of Yankee imperialists responsible for the evil embargo, yet Yankee hats are the most popular on the street.
There is a surplus of doctors but no medicine.
They love Fidel, yet they hate Fidel.
Sunday, April 30, 2006
but it let everyone down.
Now this world is gonna hurt,
You better turn it around.”
-Jack Johnson “Cookie Jar”
I am here at a major documentary film festival in Toronto. I am overwhelmed by the amount of people in the world with similar goals to me, to realize the educational potential of film and television. There are over 1700 industry delegates/potential shmoozing opportunities here. It's unbelievable.
The ironic thing is I generally don’t watch TV. It is often mind-numbing and mind deteriorating, mostly because TV executives have sold their collective souls to advertisers who desire more sex and violence to sell their products to society’s lowest common denominators. This has perpetuated a vicious cycle that effectively keeps people as shallow as the programs they watch. I typically only watch documentaries, sports, and news. At a certain point a few years ago, I stopped watching the “News” as well. And I was not surprised to find that since then I have become much more attuned to reality. Many networks have turned into sensationalist spin machine for the powers that be, biased not only in their delivery but more importantly in their selection of what the news is. It is not in their interest to tell stories that may disturb the general public from its sleep. It is not in their interest to show us the starving Sudanese refugees or reactions to US foreign policy in the Muslim world. The bias is often not in the news they televise, but in the news they don’t televise. Another problem I had with traditional network news lies in their approach. Why does it have to be so boring? News has become solely information-based, without asking the essential journalistic question of “why”? Asking this “why” provides an understanding that facts cannot convey. As ABC anchor Ted Koppel said himself, “We have substituted facts for knowledge.”
Yet it doesn’t have to be that way. There is amazing potential in this medium to educate, uplift, and wake up the general public. I believe in television’s potential to stimulate minds, strengthen values, and raise consciousness. I believe in the power of images. My goal is to point my camera where the traditional news media will never dare point theirs. There are stories out there that need to be told and are being ignored; stories of injustice, genocide, and love. Stories that will change the way you see the world and will be a prism into your own soul. That, to me, is good TV. The facts are important, but its what’s behind the facts that make it interesting. Learning, understanding, and getting closer to that universal truth are all values that are important to me as an individual My goal is to transmit these values through my subjects and stories. I believe it is slowly becoming safer to turn your TV back around. I believe that the magic of TV may not be in the past, but in the future.
Friday, January 27, 2006
Getting into Iraq was much easier than I thought. You don’t need a visa or a letter from your embassy or even a reason for going there. Anyone can go, and it’s beautiful this time of year !! We drove into Iraq from Southern Turkey. We crossed the border at a place called Salopi, got an Iraqi stamp on our passports, and we were in. Adrian and I decided to split up in order to get the broadest possible coverage of the election. When we got the Kurdish city of Erbil, he took off for Baghdad and was embedded with the US Army. (Check out our reports on www.current.tv) I stayed in Kurdistan and met up with another journalist, Matt Gutman, who writes for the Jerusalem Post and USA today. It was Matt’s fifth tour of the region, and he quickly got me up to speed on all matters related to Kurds, Iraq, and the election.
The Kurdish Autonomous Region is a relatively safe place to be these days, and has been since 1991’s Gulf War, when the US-backed Kurdish militias known as peshmergas (lit: those who face death) took control on the ground and the US Air Force took control of the skies by creating a “No-Fly Zone.” It has been a semi-autonomous region since 1991 and today is a shining example for the new, “democratic” Iraq. It really feels like a separate country, which made me wonder if maybe it should be. I reckon that now would be a great time to correct the mistakes of imperialists of the past. The main reason it isn't even being considered is that neighboring countries with large Kurdish populations do not want to see Kurdish upsrisings in their own states. Turkey and Iran surely do not want to see an independent Kurdistan which might embolden their Kurds. Short anecdote: I was in Turkey after the trip explaining to my mom over the phone that I spent most of my time in Kurdistan, not Iraq, which was my way of deflecting her guilt trip for putting my life in danger. Anyhow, some random Turkish guy almost beat me up for saying Kurdistan. He furiously pointed out, "there is no such place as Kurdistan." To which I replied, "Yeah but let me just tell my mom that." He repeated, "there is no such thing. You can not say that word here." So I fended him off for a minute, hung up with my mom, and then acquiesced to the fact that there is no such thing as Kurdistan. Sorry mom.
Nevertheless, I found the Kurds to be among the most hospitable, warmest people on Earth, possibly because many of them consider Americans to be their saviors. The Kurds are the largest ethnic group in the world without a state. There are about 25 million Kurds chiefly in Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Turkey. There are about 6 million in Iraq out of a total population of 26 million. Under the Baathists and especially under Saddam, the Kurdish areas were culturally and politically repressed, ethnically cleansed, and killed in numbers that constitute genocide. The most famous incident was on March 16, 1988, when Saddam’s henchman, Chemical Ali, bombed the Kurdish city of Halabja with conventional bombs, artillery fire, and chemical weapons in the form of mustard gas and nerve agents. Five thousand people were killed in one day and many more were left with chronic illnesses and deformities. We interviewed a man who lost 21 relatives that day, and his uncle died from a chemical-related cancer the day we got there. We interviewed him just after the funeral, and I will never forget his grisly account. He said that minutes before the chemical attack, the Iraqis fighter planes dropped leaflets from the sky to gauge the direction of the wind. Then when the chemical weapons were dropped everyone thought the weapons were duds because they didn’t make a sound. We went to the memorial, the cemetery, and the museum, which had some nightmarish photos on display.
Needless to say, there was no ethnic group in the world happier about the US invasion of Iraq than the Kurds. Kurdistan is also one of the few places in the world where Americans are celebrated. I felt relieved that I didn’t have to pretend to be Canadian here. I walked down the streets at night in Suleimania with my US passport in my pocket and showed it proudly to everyone who asks me where I’m from. They then take their two index fingers and put them together, exclaiming, “America (pointing to one finger) and Kurds (pointing to the other).” The Kurds celebrated the election every night by pouring into the streets with their Kurdish flags, drums, and horns, blocking traffic for hours on end. One car even had an American flag draped over it. In Iraq, the adage "one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter" rings true.
Kurdish Street Celebrations
One flag that I did not see even once in Kurdistan is the Iraqi flag. When I asked people about that in Halabja, their answer is that they would never display the same flag that was on the war planes that gassed them. The vast majority of Kurds I spoke to voted for one of the two militias turned political parties, the P.U.K. or the K.D.P. Due to Iraq’s viciously sectarian past, most Iraqis vote by ethnicity or tribe. The biggest challenge for Iraq will be whether it can unify its three main ethnic groups under one federal system. Some Kurds are willing to give federalism a try, but most still would prefer a sovereign state. As for the Sunnis, well, some seem willing to cooperate, whereas others are obviously perturbed and angered by the consequences of American invasion and its never-ending occupation. The Shiites are the majority, and lean towards an Islamic Republic like the one that exists next door in Iran.
For election day, we decided to leave the Kurdish bubble for Kirkuk, which may or may not be in Kurdistan which may or may not exist. While it has historically been a Kurdish city with a minority of Arab nomads in its outlying areas, the city has been ethnically cleansed of Kurds by subsequent Baathist regimes. Saddam escalated this cleansing after 91’ when he lost control of Kurdistan proper. The reason Kirkuk is so important is due to its vast supply of oil. It has one of the largest oil reserves in Iraq. So the city of Kirkuk today is a divided city, with a large Kurdish and Sunni Arab population. It tends to erupt in violence every so often, with sporadic car bombs, shootings, and kidnappings.
The truth is I was really scared to go there. I had to ask myself the question: Do the rewards justify the risks? For most people this answer is obviously "no". But for me the answer was "yes". I felt the need to go to Kirkuk, to hear a perspective that I felt was needed in my story. I also had this intuition that everything would be OK. I am not sure where this intuition comes from, but I have learned to trust it unconditionally.
So we left the relative safety of Kurdistan, drove past the oilfields, and got to Kirkuk in a couple hours. We weren’t allowed to take a private vehicle in because all the roads were closed for security reasons on election day. When we got to the last checkpoint before the city, our car was stopped and we were interrogated by Peshmerga. After telling them we were American journalists, the Kurdish Peshmerga chief insisited that we board a private van armed to the teeth with his own personal bodyguards. These guys wanted to protect us at all cost , so we complied with their demand. We really had no choice in the matter. I asked him what would happen if we went to the Arab part of the city without armed guards and he said, “You would be hanged.” Needless to say, I was glad to be riding in a car with 7 gunmen who were protecting me, although we were also more of a target for Arab terrorists/freedom fighters.
My security attache
This peshmerga took my picture. They really took my security seriously and even followed me to the bathroom once.
Thankfully, we got some great material and made it out of Kirkuk alive. Of course it was only once I thought I was completely out of the woods that I learned the invaluable lesson that there is no such thing as being out of the woods. The irony of my trip was that my most dangerous encounter in Iraq was not with an insurgent or freedom fighter, but with a semi-trailer. We were on a two-lane highway when a giant rig traveling in the opposite direction lost control and was heading straight towards us at a very high speed. Our driver, who had been with us the whole trip, Kak Dana, swerved to the right just as I screamed “Holy Shit.” The rig hit us square on the driver side. It happened so fast, in exactly the time it took me to mouth those two lovely words.... Boom! I’ve never felt such force in my life. It was otherworldly. Our car was 20 feet off the road facing the opposite direction. The rig that had lost control careened even farther. I immediately felt my legs to make sure they were ok and thank g-d none of us were seriously injured.. Glass projectiles did hit all of us, cutting our driver and Matt. Twenty Iraqis came on the scene, pouring their precious gasoline over the open wounds. I had glass pieces in my hair, in my pants, and one piece even came out my nose, but somehow walked away without a scratch. If it wasn’t for Kak Dana’s last second swerve, I probably wouldn’t be writing this. I kissed Kak Dana’s bloody mug before leaving him there on the side of the road. There’s no insurance in Iraq, so the poor guy lost his livelihood in that accident. But I think even he realized that we had been saved only by the grace of god.
This is what hit us
My computer, camera, and backpack were all in tatters after the accident. We gave all our remaining cash to Kak Dana. Matt caught a flight out that day but and I had to wait in Erbil for two days for Adrian to get back. There are no ATM machines in Iraq, nor is there one establishment that accepts credit cards. (I felt a little cheated by Visa’s ad campaign, “Everywhere you want to be”) With not one dollar or dinar to my name, I had to made friends really quickly. Adrian managed to get some cash at the US army base, so when he finally arrived I paid off the generous Kurds who let me eat and sleep on credit for two days. But when I went to pick up my backpack from the young street cobbler who promised to be waiting for me on the street corner at 6, he was nowhere in sight. My 80 liter backpack that lugged my crap all over Asia was gone. Physically exhausted and emotionally drained, I left the hotel carrying all my earthly possessions in 5 large black plastic bags. We boarded a jeep and drove overnight back to Turkey. We arrived back in Jerusalem, 5 plastic bags in tow, on the morning of my 26th birthday. That night my spectacularly amazing friends organized a surprise party for me at a friend’s new pub. I really was surprised!! Adrian edited and presented a somewhat embarrassing, but funny video of all the highlights and lowlights from the 10-week long reporting trip and put it on the bar’s big screen. I wore a T-shirt that said “Kiss me, I’m the birthday boy” and even that funny cone shaped birthday hat. It was only through wearing that dunce cap that it sunk in that my trip was over. It felt good to be wearing a new hat, so to speak.
Happy Kurdish Voter
Pleased Kurdish Voters
Young Kurdish Voter