Take me back to Theroux’s plain of snakes

Theroux book 2I’d read half of Paul Theroux’s new book, “On the Plain of Snakes,” when I went to hear the author speak Wednesday night, Oct. 16, 2019, at Seattle’s Town Hall. That was probably a mistake.

The night before, I had heard Tim Egan speak on his new book, “A Pilgrimage to Eternity.” Since it was published on that very day, I had obviously not read it.

So Egan’s speech was an introduction to the book. Theroux’s talk was probably an effective intro to his book, but for me, I wanted an expansion on what he had written and I had read.

What was behind President Clinton’s Operation Gatekeeper in 1994 that changed the U.S.-Mexico border from a simple line that Mexicans crossed every day to work, shop and visit to a place of “fences, patrol cars, security technology and massive deportations”?

Why was President Obama’s Fast and Furious program to sell high-caliber guns across the border so that they could be traced when cartel members committed crimes with them, such a failure?

Tell me more about Trump’s insults to Mexicans, the effects of NAFTA on Mexico’s poor and why Mexico’s government is so corrupt that Mexicans have little time to complain about the corruption in Trump’s administration.

More about the violence in Mexico and how the police and drug cartels are often the same.

Theroux 1But he did expand on some things he had written in the book, like his reaction to what he calls “the fence.” In the book, he wrote:

“An ugly steel fence you might associate with a prison perimeter, twenty-five feet high, like nothing I had seen in any other country. A Texas congressman had called it ‘an inefficient fourteenth-century solution to a twenty-first century problem,’ which was accurate because, like a medieval wall, it was merely a symbol of exclusion rather than anything practical, and easily climbed over or tunneled under. In an age of aerial surveillance and high-security technology, it was a blacksmith’s barrier of antiquated ironmongery: old rusty ramparts running for miles, a visible example of national paranoia.”

Theroux has written more than 50 books, many of them from his travels around the world. He says the southern border is the oddest one in the world, like a Christo environmental art project. He describes walking through the door in the fence at the end of a Nogales street as an Alice in Wonderland rabbit hole experience. “Open the door, and suddenly you are in Mexico.”

Despite this oddness, the border is a back-and-forth flow, with most of it nowadays going north. Mexicans still come across, although now they have to stand in long lines with their legal documents to get to their jobs, etc.

One surprise for Theroux was the large number of what U.S. officials call “Special Interest Aliens,” people caught trying to cross the border from India, China, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria and from African nations, mostly from Nigeria. In some Southwest U.S. detention facilities, fewer than half are from Mexico.

So why do they leave, Theroux asked. They are at home surrounded with their culture, family, religion and places they know. But they pay a coyote thousands of dollars to take them to the border and maybe across it. They have everything except that “they ain’t got no dinero.” Annual income for people living in the southern Mexico states of Chiapas or Oaxaca is similar to those in rural Kenya or Bangladesh: $3,400. People living in Eritrea fought for years to win independence and freedom from Ethiopia and are now the top group trying to get into Europe. After fighting like that, why would you leave?

“On the Plain of Snakes” tells the stories of some of these people. It’s not a travel book that will “tell you where the best tacos are in Merida,” but a book that will “see things as they are,” Theroux’s stock in trade.

The other reason I like this book is because it covers a place and a way of travel that I did with my friend Jeff in 1974 and 1975, traveling in the back of trucks that stopped for hitch hikers, in second-class buses and crowded train cars. Not sure if we saw things as they are, but we had a lot of fun traveling through Saltillo, Torreon, Durango, Mazatlan and Tepic, with a few “near death experiences” that Theroux calls the essence of travel books. And Theroux is 78-years-old; it’s not too late to do it again.

Jeff

John

 

Can Trump change the human species? If not impeached

While living in Oxford, England, in 2015 to attend the Rugby World Cup, we did more than attend rugby games. We also took advantage of cultural events in that university city. Museums, art exhibits, musical events and lectures, including the best Kathy and I have heard on Shakespeare. The question that came up then was: “Why don’t we do this at home?”

University dons and students don’t go around in black academic robes as in Oxford, but Seattle is no intellectual desert. But it seems we’re “too busy” to find our way to those events that would exercise our minds here at home. We have season theater tickets, attend an opera here and there, once in a while a symphony and visit museums when friends and family come to visit.

Kathy takes advantage of classes and lectures put on by Osher Lifelong Learning Institute. John? Rarely.

Well, that’s changing. Spurred by the memory of all we did in Oxford, we have loaded up on season tickets to plays, lectures, photo exhibits and book readings. By spring, we may start wearing black robes.

That means, as it did four years ago, the rugby reporter may get interrupted by off-field activities; scrums, rucks and mauls interspersed with things like:

Fenner

“Stories of Human Migrations,” an hour-long talk given by David Fenner from the University of Washington’s Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies. Sponsored by the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at the UW and held at the University House in Issaquah, WA, the talk was one of many lectures and classes for those of us over 50. Kathy and I are well qualified.

Fenner’s talk made me realize that Trump is trying to change the human species. (Ed. notes: Fenner never mentioned Trump. I’m to blame for the spin here. Fenner supplied facts, and if they are wrong in this piece, it is because of my faulty note taking and should not reflect on Fenner, an excellent lecturer.)

Trump is going against the tide of humanity, which started migrating some 150,000 to 200,000 years ago from the Great Rift Valley in Africa – and it has never stopped no matter how many walls, borders and prejudices it ran up against. About 50,000 years ago, homo sapiens reached Northern Europe, where they found another species, the Neanderthal, which they interbred with (Did Fenner say that’s what accounts for rugby players?). About 12,000 to 15,000 years ago humans reached the Americas. Not until 1,500 years ago did they get to New Zealand, the last of the Rift Valley migration.

But it didn’t stop there. The Jewish Diaspora spread the Hebrew people across Africa, Asia and Europe, and the height of the Arab Wars took conquering Muslims from Spain to India in the years from 660 to 750 A.D. Four hundred years ago, slavery emptied 12.5 million souls from Africa and sent them to the Americas with two million of them dying along the way. Of eight million people in Ireland in the 1840s, two million of them left during the Potato Famine. One million of the six million who stayed behind died.

The Indian Removal Act of 1830 moved those who first got to what would become the United States farther West and further along the newcomers’ genocidal path.

Others came to the United States on their own, attracted by self-governing and democracy spelled out in the Declaration of Independence in 1776. And they were welcomed:

“The bosom of America is open to receive not only the opulent & respectable Stranger, but the oppressed & persecuted of all Nations & Religions; whom we shall wellcome to a participation of all our rights & previleges, if by decency & propriety of conduct they appear to merit the enjoyment.” — George Washington in letter to Joshua Holmes, 2 December 1783.

With the world’s population now at seven billion, one billion of them are migrants – 250 million trying to move from one country to another and 750 million “internal” migrants moving to better circumstances within their nations.

It’s what the human species does; moving to where the grass is greener. The International Conference on Global Trends predicts an increase in human migration over the next 25 years, no matter what Trump says or does. Some will pick up on their own, like the 250 million (three-fourths of the population of the U.S.) on the road in China, once considered “economic” migrants but now also “climate” migrants as desertification affects parts of that nation.

Others will be forced. United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees reports that in 2018, there were 70.8 million forcibly displaced, mostly from Syria, Afghanistan and Sudan. Closer to home, those coming north from Central America are being “kept in a pressure cooker” by U.S. actions that will only make the situation there get worse with more people fleeing unstable governments, gang violence and poverty. I take that to mean: Increasing aid there, helping those nations keep their people. Trump’s idea is to keep asylum seekers there among those who have threatened them with harm. One more incentive to start north and take your chances at the U.S. border.

The International Organization on Migration holds that migration is inevitable and desirable – if well-governed. That is not the case in the United States, and getting an immigration policy that goes beyond the wall seems impossible with who’s in the White House and this Congress. Right now, Fenner says, we are a long way from that George Washington quote.

We’re all refugees from the Rift Valley, and we have “moving” stories to tell about how we got here. That’s the story of the human species, and we should be telling them to remind ourselves that we are a nation of immigrants and that our species probably won’t change before Trump is gone.

Fenner books

Fenner agencies 2