Saturday, May 30, 2015

In Lisbon -- Echoes of World War II

            There are corners of Lisbon where you can breathe the air of the time of Tango War, the years when turmoil around World War II cut through Latin countries on both sides of the Atlantic. The café where poet Fernando Pessoa wrote every day is still open just off one side of the Rossio Square, and on the other side, tables are full at the Pasteleria Suicá where spies with a variety of allegiances met over dark espressos and egg custard tarts. 
Jewelry stores still offer gold, the bottom-line investment of those days, and pocket shops dispense shots of cherry ginjinha liquor. 
Towering over the square stands a pedestal topped by the figure of Peter IV, King of Portugal, who became Pedro I, Emperor of Brazil. 
Linked to Brazil especially by history, culture and language, and to Argentina and the rest of the South American continent by the politics of Catholicism, in the 1930s and 1940s neutral Portugal served as safe haven and funnel for spies, refugees and war criminals, many of whom found their way to the Americas.
     Along with Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, Portuguese dictator António de Oliveira Salazar (Prime Minister 1933-1968) supported Franco and the Fascists in the Civil War in neighboring Spain. He supplied precious resources, such as wolframite, to the Wehrmacht, and saw the Reich as a bulwark against democracy and communism. Yet Salazar was not racist – he wrote a book criticizing the 1935 Nuremburg Laws that codified Nazi race theory and anti-Semitism.  Salazar reverted to a treaty with the English from the time of the Crusades to insist that Portugal could not align itself with the Axis during the war. 

Railroad Station
Thus Lisbon, the elegant city on the Tagus River Estuary that flows into the Atlantic, a city of trolleys climbing its hills and exquisite tiles facing old buildings, became a haven for the grateful escaping repression, and worse. And for the fortunate with money from both sides, securing their wealth or risking it at card tables and roulette wheels – stories abound of Reich officers gambling side by side with Jewish businessmen and Middle Eastern oil potentates at the Casino above the sands of Estoril beach at Lisbon’s edge. And, a haven for the nefarious, plotting, plotting amid the blooming purple jacaranda trees.
Window today of Bertrand's, World's Oldest Bookstore (1732)










Tango War, the book, is coming.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Archbishop Romero's Beatification: Watching from Afar, Feeling Near

Surrounded by photos of some of the 75,000 persons who died in the war.

Images of the crowd of faithful in San Salvador come across my computer screen where I watch from half a world away, in Europe. White hats against the sun, home-made signs, umbrellas in bright colors for a little shade.  I am sad not to be present in El Salvador, where I spent many years, but join in the alegria, the joy.  I am part of the global crowd participating virtually in churches, schools and like here, hotel rooms, wanting to connect with the event that recognizes the man who stood up for justice, and was murdered for giving his voice to the voiceless.
House wall. Cinquera. The legend reads: "Sooner or later the voice of justice of our people will overcome."

It disgusts me to know members of the hierarchy who have blocked justice in the case of Mons. Romero's murder are present in their clerical robes. But no glory rubs off on them in honoring the martyr. (See my Los Angeles Times story from last year when the beatification was announced: Sainthood Isn't Enough for Archbishop Oscar Romero http://www.latimes.com/opinion/op-ed/la-oe-0905-mcconahay-archbishop-romero-killers-20140905-story.html)

Girl at commemoration of the 30th anniversary of the killing.
More important is to see the glowing, intent faces of ordinary-looking Salvadorans who may feel, justifiably, that they and their suffering are honored too, in the church event.  Of course, the people have canonized Mons. Romero long ago.  As often happens, the official Church takes time to catch up with the faithful.
San Salvador. Central Market. 2011.

As I watch and listen, I dig out some photos from the files on this same computer, and realize they tell me as much or more about Mons. Romero than any ceremony, about how he is carried in the hearts of people who may or may not be able to reach the front of the crowd today.


Shop. Perquin

The Archbishop's Human Rights Legal Aid Office risked investigating massacres like the one at El Mozote, where  800 died at the hands of the government army.  Wall painting. Canton La Joya

Five of this man's children were killed fighting on the side of revolutionaries during the war.
"If they kill me, I will rise again in the Salvadoran people."---Mons. Romero

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Corinto Unmined

During he first reporting trip I made to Nicaragua, in 1983, the United States had mined this harbor, on the small, beautiful bay of Corinto. The revolutionary Sandinista government went on a war footing.  In the capital, Managua, I saw neighbors  digging trenches and practicing drills, armed with sticks, to fight back the Yankee invader who was expected to appear.  Heroes like Carlos Fonseca, founder of the Sandinista Front, and German Pomares, nicknamed Danto, the tapir, were invoked to bring spirit to a justifiably frightened population. In the end, the Yankees did not invade but Pres. Ronald Reagan ordered the CIA to arm the contras forces. They wreaked havoc on the country, with the loss of many lives.  
Today entering Corinto a soft breeze blows as the ship passes a white lighthouse and a statue of Ruben Dario, the renowned Nicaraguan poet who wrote one of his beloved poems on a visit here, Al Margarita del Valle.




In town, signs advertise help with U.S. visas.





Maria Elena Sanchez, municipal delegate for the Ministry of Education, praises Rosario Murillo, head of government communications and wife of Pres. Daniel Ortega, as a "model for women," who has pushed up the percentage of women in government positions to the highest they have ever been.


Teachers at the local school recounted their memories of those awful days in the 1980s, when the small boats they call piranhas came in at night with their mines.  They recall walking the 20 kilometers to find shelter and military trucks arriving to take out those who could not walk, as aircraft bombed the gasoline storage tanks at the harbor.  They recall going to the countryside to teach literacy.





Today Nicaragua enjoys a democratically elected government headed by the Sandinista party, and with Costa Rica, can boast the lowest crime rates in Central America. Health care is available for those who need it, and youngsters can read and write.

It's a tragedy so many lives were lost at one time, but a visit to Corinto today makes the visitor feel the country lives in hope for the future .

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Shrouds on Shore and At Sea

            The fish market in Manta, Ecuador, is busy on the morning of Good Friday.  Most customers browse and buy among the open tables where every type of edible sea animal is laid out, most I could not name, their colors a range from black to steel gray to a peach the hue of human skin. Farther down by the waves on Playita Mia, as it is called (“My little beach”) a father and son stand on the beach with a scale attached to a stick to measure certain specimens as they come in for buyers who walk across the sand. “How much did that one weigh?” I ask about a shiny dark blue monster being tossed into the back of a pick-up that has driven across the strand to collect it.  “Fifty pounds,” he said.  
           

 Near the market more fishing boats are being built, huge, some just ribs of the wood called guayacán, others almost finished with fiberglass.







The Good Friday procession of about fifty people is wending its way around streets near the church called Dolores, named for Our Lady of Sorrows. I hear the sound of wooden clacks meant to mime the sound of a whip on the flesh of the Christ who carries the cross. At a corner, when the women protest the punishment, the soldiers beat them back.  It’s theatre, but it’s disturbing to watch. A young priest wearing a black baseball cap, processing before a statue, is the most benign figure of all.  An hour later, when the procession returns to the front of the church for the crucifixion (with ropes), the crowd has swelled to hundreds. Roman soldiers with whips and women with covered heads meant to be grieving, a Herod and a Simon of Cyrene, the pious faithful, young acolytes carrying a square red cloth into which bystanders toss a few coins and bills.


            Daniel, the taxi driver who is a native of Manta, said twenty years ago a cargo plane full of flowers crashed into the church and incinerated all the buildings for an entire square block.  It had been evening, so few were inside the church, but of course people occupied the houses and shops, and many died.  Daniel pointed to a rooftop. From there a man had tossed down a nine-month old girl, who was caught and saved although the man – her father – did not.  The neighborhood pharmacist always sat on a little bench outside his shop at that hour and later was found there where he could always be found in life, carbonized in place.  Only the old bells and a stone Madonna, now looking down from a campanile, survived from the church.  How could that happen?  Daniel looks up at Madonna in the bell tower. “It’s a miracle,” he said.
            We shove off from shore about five p.m., and later, , a padre and some passengers conduct a service of meditations on the Stations of the Cross before about fifty persons in the small theatre.  Scenes from a Mel Gibson movie about the Passion of Christ appeared on screens on either side of a makeshift altar.  The year before, said the couple next to me, they were on the ship at Easter on a sea day when the padre celebrated Mass on the aft deck with the ocean as a backdrop, and the memory to them – you could tell – was beautiful.

            Inside the Dolores church in Manta the crucifix and saints had been covered with dark  purple cloths, as the custom goes, to be lifted on Easter Sunday.  I rise on Holy Saturday at 4 a.m. somewhere off Panama, to take the elevator to the twelfth deck where, midships, the astronomer and nine other passengers have gathered to watch the  lunar eclipse.  (“You don’t have to be crazy to be here,” whispers the man next to me, “but it helps.”)  The sky is completely socked in, although early arrivals said they had seen Orion briefly.  Now, no Orion, no moon.  The celestial bodies too, like the figures in the church, were hidden behind a dark shroud. Eventually, I get a cup of coffee and go down a few decks where I can watch the sun not exactly rise, but gradually pink the clouds in a lightening sky.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

36 Hours in Lima--The Idiosyncratic Version



9:00 a.m. Stand atop the highest hill overlooking the city, spreading brown beyond its river to the sea.  Lima has been the wealthy capital of Peru since the Spanish arrived in the mid-16th century. The urban area boomed in population in the 1980s, often with the very poor, when the radical group Sendero Luminoso terrorized the countryside. The country is peaceful today. Often, I’m told, the view from this height is foggy, but today you can almost see the breakers on the Pacific shore, miles away.

10:00 a.m. Drive down to the center of Lima and find a place to park in a lot marked on its pavement with a giant “S,” a sign for “Security,” one place to run to when the earth begins to shake, a place less in the shadow of tall buildings than other spots. We are, after all, standing on the Ring of Fire that rims the Pacific.
Nearby spreads the historic square with centuries-old buildings marked with graceful arcades, and ornate balconies fretted with wooden screens, a throwback to Arabic architecture, an accommodation for women who might watch the life of the streets without being seen. I nod to the only Peruvian alpaca I will see on this trip, standing stuffed and wearing sunglasses outside a shop. Step into the cool cathedral where Francisco Pizarro, the Spaniard who, like it or not, brought Europe to the Incas, , is buried.  The side chapels are some of the most magnificent I have ever seen, proof of the wealth and artistry of early Lima.

12:00 The brass band has been playing rousing music until this moment, the changing of the guard outside the National Palace!  Dressed in Wilhelmine uniforms, the troop goose-steps around and into place, a reminder of the pre-World War II German roots of much Latin American military training.  Locals gather, tourists lift their smart-phone extenders for the picture, fathers hoist kids on shoulders.  Everyone wants to see. 

2:00  Walk from the center along streets closed to traffic – the mark of a civilization – past the elegant old train station that once brought passengers to the center of the country. In a scene now largely gone from my own country, kiosks offer a dazzling variety of publications, and invariably, readers stand around for free to scan the headlines. Small shops sell a variety of coca candy and coca teas, a way to enjoy the benefits, medicinal at least, of the mother of cocaine without chewing the leaves. In the Church of Saint Francis, marvel at a “half-orange” wooden cupola, another reminder of Arabic Spain, and step into the library, its shelves lined with hand-bound volumes, its air redolent of the spirit of Borges and Ruiz Zafón and the long-ago monks who sat in the window seats to catch the light. A couple of huge liturgical volumes are open, the writing black and red on creamy vellum. I imagine the vellum pages at night, re-constituting themselves into the animals from whose skins they were tanned and pounded, hints of words on their hides but otherwise relaxing as animals will until the dawn comes and they turn into books again.   Down, down into the catacomb where the bones are buried of some 25,000 limeños who died (often of cholera) before burial in churches was outlawed and cemeteries built on the edge of town.  Some 50 years ago archaeologists sifted through the remains.  The scientific mind at work: they piled them by categories, so that the visitor sees well after well of femurs, toe-bones, skulls.  The piling is done with respect, the light low.





5:00 Meet friends who live in Lima in their neighborhood café, like a small Starbucks without the branding.  The coffee is rich without being overwhelmingly strong.  Peruvian coffee – I never knew.

10:00 a.m. next morning  A museum, of course, Larco, the pre-Columbian cultures displayed in all their intricacy and majesty. I could imagine the kings and priests wearing the gold costumes and headdresses, glinting with blinding beams, connecting them to the sun.  So much more familiar am I with the Maya, I am looking for their writing until I realize they had none – the Maya were the only indigenous culture on the continent with a written language.  That does not mean the ancient Peruvians’ pots, weavings and other artifacts do not communicate.  I was sorry to leave.  I could have read them and watched them for hours more.



2:00 Lunch in the gardens, alongside the erotica wing of the museum, where nothing is left to the imagination.  The waitress brings me a foamy pisco sour in which coca leaves have fermented for a month. Tasty.  The storeroom of the museum, which is open to the public, is every bit as fascinating as the rest of Larco, with the curious twist that the clay objects are assembled not by culture or age, but other categories: snoozing men; pots decorated with spiders; spondilus shells; nursing women and monkey masks.  The storeroom seems inspired by the same impulse that moved the archaeologists to separate femurs from skulls from toe bones in the catacombs of St. Francis Church, the impulse to categorize, to impose order where it does not exist.

5:00 At the ship, crew take in the lanyards, the artisans who have camped on the dock for two days pack their wares into huge plastic bags, and wave to passengers waving back from the decks. The horn blows and the ship moves. I climb to the very top deck near the crow’s nest and watch one of the mates take down the standards– the Peruvian flag, the Dutch flag (the ship’s home port is Rotterdam), the blue and white banner of the ship’s company.  We are sailing into the fog.  I can make out eighteen ghostly fishing boats – I counted – with their bows turned toward us, moving on the swell, a goodbye salute.