No, I do not go around looking for trouble. The trip that took me through Beijing was part of a trip that had been planned for a long time. I had been living in Oslo, Norway for three years, and wanted to return to Vancouver by traveling by rail from Oslo to Stockholm, by ferry from Stockholm to Helsinki, by rail from Helsinki to Hong Kong, then flying from Hong Kong to Vancouver. I had already booked and paid for most of this trip through a travel agency in Stockholm a month or two before the massacre happened. This agency had canceled some trips scheduled for June, my my trip was still on. At that time, visas for travel in the Soviet Union were very specific; the dates of each visit to each city, and the hotel that you stayed in, were spelled out in the visa, and it was impossible to change anything. And yes, there were agents of Intourist who checked on you to make sure you stuck to the schedule.
Virginia Intermont College in Bristol, VA held its final graduation ceremony on May 4, 2014. The school had been in financial trouble for a while. The beginning of the end came in 2013, when the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) terminated the school's accreditation. Although nobody ever confused VI with Harvard, this action was not taken because of academic standards. Instead, the problem was that VI had an unsustainable economic model. What this meant was, most of the school's revenue was coming from student tuition, and not from endowments and donations.
The SACS decision became a self-fulfilling prophecy. The prospect of the loss of accreditation scared away prospective students, reducing the school's revenue, and making it inviable financially. VI's administration attempted to solve the accreditation problem by merging with another institution, but a prospective merger fell through.
Public courts are rare in Mexico. Mexico has a lot of private clubs, where guests are usually welcome. These clubs don't do much in the way of publicizing their existence, so you'll have to do some asking around.
“Deportivos” (sports clubs) are more accessible. Usually, you pay a day fee of 100 to 150 pesos at the entrance. This fee covers all the club's facilities, so bring your bathing suit. The “Club Britania”'s found in many Mexican cities are actually deportivos.
Ball boys are commonplace wherever tennis is played. This is something easy to get used to; they speed up the game considerably. You're expected to tip them; the going rate is ten or 15 pesos per player per set.
If you're going to a high-altitude place such as Mexico City, Oaxaca de Juarez, or San Miguel de Allende, don't bother to bring balls with you. Only pressureless (“sin presión”) balls are legal in these areas. The most common brand is Tre-nis (sold as Tretorn in the US and Canada), but pressureless balls are easy to spot on store shelves; they're sold in cardboard boxes instead of cans.
There are clay courts (“canchas de arcilla”) in Mexico, but they're gradually going the way of the dinosaur, due to maintenance costs. Hard courts are called “canchas duras”. You may come across synthetic turf courts; I suggest trying to avoid them.
Daniel Ortega, who holds the office of President of Nicaragua in defiance of Nicaragua's Constitution, is championing a mega-project; a canal across the eastern part of Nicaragua that would provide an alternative to the Panama Canal. The estimated cost is $40 billion.
My initial reaction, when I heard about this is, Nicaragua's GDP is only $10.5 billion, and no foreign investor would be foolish enough to put up this kind of money to finance it.
I was wrong. Chinese billionaire Wang Jing is putting up the money, through the HKND Group, based in Hong Kong, and registered in the Cayman Islands. Jing and other Chinese see this project as reducing the time (and thus the cost) required to ship oil from Venezuela to China, and Chinese goods to the eastern United States. The HKND Group has contracted the China Railway Construction Corporation (CRCC) to do a feasibility study. CRCC is owned by the Chinese government, and was responsible for part of the Three Gorges Dam project.
Why do I say that this is a bad idea? Although there are several possible routes across Nicaragua, all of them go through Lake Nicaragua, which is a large body of fresh water, and environmentally sensitive. Connecting Lake Nicaragua to two different oceans will not only introduce salt water to the lake; it will introduce exotic species. The canal would also introduce large container ships, which will inevitably spill oil, sewage, and other chemicals.
I made my first trip to Peru in 1986. During this trip, must of the Peruanos that I came in contact with who were capable of speaking English had some very unkind things to say about a Gringa visitor a few weeks earlier, Shirley MacLaine. MacLaine went to Peru to make the film “Out on a Limb”, and she went there with the firm conviction that Machu Pichu and other Andean archaeological sites were constructed, not by back-breaking and rock-breaking labour by the ancestors of the present-day Quechua people that I talked to, but by space aliens.
Do you see why this is a problem? If not, here's an anecdote, from my last day in Peru on this trip. I went to the ruins at Pachacamac, south of Lima. It's more than just a well-restored set of ruins; it's suspected of having archaeoastronomical value. I was joined on the tour of the place by a middle-aged woman from the US and her son.
As soon as we started out, the woman started insisting that we make a stop at the Temple of the Sun, because she wanted to “feel the energy there”. The guide had already said that Temple of the Sun was one of the stops on the tour, and he reassured her that we would be stopping there. That wasn't good enough. She started talking to him in pidgin, even though he could speak conversational-quality English. The told him that she was a “medium”, and spelled it out: “M-E-D-I-U-M”.
Even though I had nothing whatsoever to do this this woman, I found myself embarrassed by her behavior, solely because my skin is the same colour. At one of the stops, while she was off “feeling the energy”, I uttered “Dos Gringos locos”, and explained to the guide, “that woman believes that she can talk to dead people.” He laughed and said, “Well, if you want to talk to dead people, this is a good place to do it.”
This anecdote was brought to mind by a gathering of 7,000 New Agers that took place at the Tikal ruins in Guatemala on December 21, 2012. They had ceremonies with elaborate costumes and “shamans” speaking gibberish, with the overall idea of being at the Mayan ground zero when the end of the world takes place. While they were doing this, the genuine Mayans, who have lived in southern Mexico, Guatemala, and Honduras for 5,000 years, were wondering, “What's with these crazy Gringos?”, fully aware that their culture made no such end of the world prediction.
In the aftermath of mass murders in Newtown, CT, Aurora, CO, and Clackamas County, OR, several sensible ideas have become topics of public discussion: banning the sale of assualt weapons, banning the sale and ownership of clips that hold more than five bullets, and banning sales of guns to purchasers who have not had a background check.
It's the last of these ideas that I'm writing about here. It's about what's commonly referred to as the "gun show loophole". Although background checks are required for retail sales of guns, they are not required at gun shows.
This obviously makes it easy for convicted felons and mentally ill people to purchase guns. However, another class of people that takes advantage of this are Mexico's narco-terrorists. They simply hire people to purchase assault weapons at these guns shows (usually in Texas and Arizona) for them, then transport them into Mexico.
According to a report issued by the US General Accounting Office in 2009, "While it is impossible to know how many firearms are illegally smuggled into Mexico in a given year, about 87 percent of firearms seized by Mexican authorities and traced in the last 5 years originated in the United States, according to data from Department of Justice’s Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF). According to U.S. and Mexican government officials, these firearms have been increasingly more powerful and lethal in recent years. Many of these firearms come from gun shops and gun shows in Southwest border states."
Current TV aired an expose on this, the Vanguard documentary Arming the Mexican Cartels by Christof Putzel.
For the mostly peaceful people of Mexico, this is a tragedy. The number of deaths from the civil war that has been going on in Mexico over the past six years has been at least 57,500, and estimates run as high as 100,000. The parents, children, brothers, sisters, and friends of the people who have been killed are just as unhappy about it as the parents, brothers, sisters, and friends of the of the children killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
The high-paid employees and the Board of Directors of the National Rifle Association have blood on their hands. Put a stop to unlicensed gun sales in the US, and Mexicans will benefit, too.
I knew before I went to Mexico that smart phones would work there, but there wasn't much information on specifics. So, here's my story.
First, you're not going to get much help from sales people. They make money by selling phones and recharges.
Yes, your phone will work if you swap the SIM chip, but you have to unlock the phone before you do this. This isn't as big a deal as it sounds. I went to http://www.foneszone.co.uk/ and paid them ten euros. The unlocking code arrived a couple of days later, with some easy-to-follow instructions on how to do the unlocking. This worked with no problems.
The next step was buying a SIM chip, from Movistar. A lot of internet cafes sell SIM chips, and I went to one of them because the people who work there are more tech-savvy than the sales people you find in stores like Coppel and Elektra. The chip cost 120 pesos, and the phone connected to Movistar, and gave me a phone number, as soon as the chip was plugged in. Of course, this is useless unless the phone has time on it, so a bought 60 pesos worth of time. A day or two later, I set up an account on Movistar's web site, and used a credit card to purchase more time. When I did this, Movistar gave me some free minutes, and ½ GB of free data transfer.
I learned later on that you can mail-order Telcel, Iusacell, and Movistar SIM chips from www.mexicosimcard.com.