The old country

Several of you have written to express your concern for my family in the wake of the terror attacks in Brussels. I’d like to thank you all for your thoughts, fortunately nobody in our family was directly affected but it’s a terrible situation for everyone involved and Belgium in general.

To many who have emailed I’ve responded roughly “Europe is in trouble and it’s going to get worse before it gets better”. I wanted to reflect for a few days before adding some thoughts here.

In terms of motivation for these terrorist attacks I believe you have to be more nuanced than the “Muslim extremist” storyline that’s readily peddled everywhere. Although Islam and Christianity have a long complicated history, from the crusades to the Armenian genocide to 9/11, our wars in the Middle East and now Brussels, it’s simply not true that Muslims or Christians have some kind of intrinsic hate or motivation to blow each other up. Two of the tenets of both Islam and Christianity are that the material world is a distraction from the spiritual life and that life in this world is just precursor to a heavenly afterlife for true believers. Even though those concepts are easily exploited by those promoting violence, it’s important to recognize most any ideology can be used in that sense. In the 1970s and 80s terrorism in Europe was largely inspired by communism vs capitalism, now it’s Islam vs Christianity.

There are 2 triggers beside the ideology:

1) The social and economic circumstances of the suicide bombers: financially secure and emotionally satisfied people don’t blow themselves up in a train station. However if you look around many predominantly immigrant neighborhoods in large European cities you’ll find a lot of rough areas, crime, poverty, you name it. In those neighborhoods there are plenty of disillusioned people who feel excluded or done wrong by society and culture.

2) Geopolitical factors: the Middle East is known for its proxy wars and many European immigrants come from areas with repressive or authoritarian regimes and internal power struggles. The people behind the violence are simply carrying over their proxy wars to Europe or deciding a way to hurt their enemies at home is to hurt the countries and cultures around the world who support their enemies.

I hope additional security measures prevent more violence in the short term but in the long run I’m not optimistic about the social and cultural issues in Europe, to the point where it affects my thought process about what we may do long term.

I can’t think of any massive migration in history that didn’t come with significant social or economic consequences. Europe lost control of that long ago. Many liberal European leaders have long accepted all the migrants and refugees in a kind of charitable manner, like, “we well to do white people have to at least give these poor people from those bad countries a safe home”. As long as the migrants largely settled together in inner city neighborhoods and sent their kids to bad public schools instead of good private (Catholic) schools, white leaders in Belgium felt good about their charitable act of welcoming migrants but society never fully included or accepted them as equals in daily life.

European leaders also misunderstand the motivation behind the migration. Going back 60+ years, most of the migrants to Europe are not abject poor or refugees from conflict, rather they are working or middle class who are looking for a better opportunity. Lately perhaps they’ve heard that Angela Merkel gives them a free house and 3,000 Euros a month but when they actually get to Europe and start a new life, the gap between the migrant community and “old Europe” has to be painfully obvious to the new Europeans. Meanwhile the “old Europeans” are befuddled as to why the migrants aren’t happy, don’t they have it so much better here than back home, and if not, why don’t they go back home? There is a huge gap in understanding between the cultures, especially in places like Belgium or France which have strong traditional cultures – Belgian people are not known as being the most worldly.

At the end of the day you have a significant minority who feels excluded or wronged by society and culture, easily exploited by those who promote violence for their own geopolitical objectives. Demographics are only going to make this situation more urgent down the road. You’d be naive not to think there will be areas of Europe where no woman will be allowed to walk without covering her face a hundred years from now. The Muslim community will remember the laws that were made “back in the day” preventing their daughters from wearing religious attire to school or at work in public places.

Unfortunately I don’t have much hope that either the geopolitical factors or social/economic issues behind the terror attacks are going to improve any time soon. Sadly the distrust between Islam and Christianity will become more matter of fact with every terrorist attack or drone strike. People in Europe tell me now, they can’t help but look who’s around them while they’re out in public. Sure I understand that but I’m also sure people in Yemen or Pakistan can’t help but look for the nearest ditch or shelter when they hear an airplane or drone overhead.

Back in the day the Incas sacrificed a few kids to the Inca Gods every year for the rains to come. It never failed, the rains came again every year. Surely the average inhabitant of Tawantinsuyo had to believe in the power of the sacrifices. Don’t become one of them: next time you hear about Muslim extremists, a war on terror or an international coalition remember it will rain again in Cusco next year between December and April.

Forget the spin, ask your leaders what they’re doing about all the proxy wars around the world, ask them what deals they’ve made around the world that prioritize business and strategic objectives over the value of ordinary lives. Challenge leaders in “old Europe” as well as the “new Europeans” to deal with the social and economic issues in the immigrant neighborhoods. Challenge everyone to leave their comfort zone, you’ll probably find the other person is a lot like you, only from a different culture.

Raqchi Ruins

We took a trip to the Raqchi archaeological site a while back. The site is about a 2 hour drive from Cusco, tour buses which take you on an excursion from Cusco to Lake Titicaca or Arequipa sometimes stop in Raqchi but overall it’s a pretty quiet site. Much of the ruins appear to be reconstructed but I like going to places like this because it gives you a glimpse of what life in the Inca empire could have been like. By the way, a good part of what you see in Machu Picchu today is also restored, as you can tell by the pictures from the Hiram Bingham expedition.


Mamacita Linda went to work in Paucartambo for a couple of weeks recently. Unfortunately I didn’t get the opportunity to join her because I had baby-sitting duty at home. Mamacita says Paucartambo is very nice, quiet, clean, the kind of place where I would live if Mamacita let me. Unfortunately that won’t ever happen because schools in those small towns in Peru aren’t very good at all.

Paucartambo is located near the East edge of the Andes mountains, very close to the Amazon jungle. If you ever have the chance, make a trip from the Andes mountains to the jungle below, it’s one of the most stunning changes in environment you can ever make in a short period of time. Where the Andes meets the jungle is a beautiful place but also a place of significant environmental and social challenges nowadays.

Paucartambo is known for its annual festival of the Virgen del Carmen which takes place in mid July. However, while Mamacita Linda was there, a procession took place in honor of the 30th anniversary of Pope John Paul visiting Paucartambo. Here are some pictures of Paucartambo and the procession:

Totally unrelated. I was thinking the other day, the farmhouse my dad grew up in didn’t have central heat (and it gets cold in Oostakker). Nowadays my dog sleeps on an orthopedic bed. I know it’s apples and oranges but the point is we have come a long way, I want to be thankful more often and fuss less than I do.

The worldly Belgian

They say it’s hard to be a Saint in the City but I say it’s even harder to be a Belgian in Peru. Or to be a Belgian anywhere outside of Belgium for that matter, because old habits die hard. Take the Belgian idea of politely offering a cup of coffee to a visitor in your home:

HOST: “Would you like a cup of coffee?”
GUEST: “No thank you.”

HOST: “Are you sure? I can make a fresh pot.”
GUEST: “No thanks, I’m actually in a hurry to get to blablablah.”

HOST: “I’m going to make a pot of coffee because so-and-so is coming over in a bit.”
GUEST: “You don’t have to do that I was just leaving anyway.”

HOST: “Here’s some cookies, you sure you don’t want a cup of coffee with that?”
GUEST: “Well if you’re having a cup, I’ll have a cup with you.”

The Belgian guest will politely say “no” at least 2 or 3 times before accepting and the host will keep offering until the guest accepts. The idea is that the guest can’t accept the first time the host offers because it would indicate that he or she came hungry/thirsty to the guest’s house. A similar weirdness takes place when you’re passing that plate of cookies around the coffee table and everyone will refuse to take the last cookie until the plate with that lone last cookie has gone around the table 2 or 3 times, then someone will finally cave and eat the last cookie. The idea is that you don’t want to leave the host without anything, so nobody takes the last of anything until the host has insisted on passing plate around 2 or 3 times.

One of the things I like best about being in Peru is that we eat very well. Unlike the so called developed world, we eat real and fresh foods, not food-like industrial products. For example, we buy fresh bread twice a day, we don’t get bread that lasts 10 days in a plastic bag from a factory 3 states away. We make fresh juice for breakfast most days and I’m the self-proclaimed king of the Philips blender: mangos, papayas, pineapple, bananas, it’s all fair game.

Now lately mamacita linda’s been in a rush to get to work in the morning and she might skip breakfast at home, like this:

Me: “Mamacita, do you want a glass of juice before you go?”
Mamacita Linda: “No papi thanks”.

Me: “Sure you don’t want some of my world famous mango juice?”
Mamacita Linda: “No papi I already told you I don’t have time”.

Me: “Hmmmmmmmmm this is the best juice ever, do you want some before you go?”
Mamacita Linda: “NO PAPI!!!! How many times do I have to tell you the same thing??? I don’t have time!!!! I don’t want juice!!! I don’t want breakfast!!!! Quit asking me the same thing over and over!!!”

Oops. Then I realize I’m no longer in Belgium and there is no such thing as a worldly Belgian.

Merry Christmas!!!

This is what your 4-star hotel in Cusco is built on top of

Have you heard about the latest archaeological “discoveries” at the Plaza de Armas in Cusco? Road work has been going on between Av. Sol and the Plaza de Armas, in the heart of historic downtown Cusco. As the old road was excavated, a number of historic Inca Walls have been “discovered” below the surface. Cusco has been abuzz about the new discoveries for the past few days, take a look:

Inca walls discovered in Cusco

Inca walls discovered during roadwork near the Plaza de Armas in Cusco

Inca walls below Plaza de Armas Cusco

Ongoing work/excavation between the Plaza de Armas and Av. Sol in Cusco

While it’s great these historic walls are being exposed, the word “discovery” seems to be a bit of a stretch being that 50-year old underground utility pipes appear to have been routed in and around these historic walls. “Discovery” in this case implies not something we recently found but “creating buzz to attract tourist $ that will help us clean up the archaeological treasures we covered up 50 years ago”. Or something like that.

It’s hard to tell from the pictures (taken over construction barriers) how much of the walls is original, quite a bit appears to be later work built on top of Inca ruins but some of the walls are clearly original Inca structures in very good condition. You can easily tell the difference because the original Inca walls are of exceptional quality, the form and fit of the rocks is nearly perfect, as are the angles and dimensions. Also, the Incas used no cement or filler of any kind between the rocks. In the pictures, the stairway and adjacent parts are clearly original Inca architecture. Later walls that were built by the Spanish Conquistadores or restored in later times aren’t of the same quality as the original Inca walls.

I don’t know what the plan is for this site going forward, now that it has been laid bare again I hope the site gets a full restoration. It’s sad to see such a piece of history strung full of sewer pipes. Of course any archaeologist, historian or architect worth his salt could tell you that the entire historic downtown area of Cusco must be sitting on top of similar Inca structures. When the Spanish Conquistadores first brought “their” God and King to the New World, they built churches on top of the existing Inca temples, to show the superiority of “their” God and King. Here in Cusco you can still see some original Inca structures but sadly most of the original Inca architecture in the historic downtown has been covered up with buildings from the Spanish Colonial era and beyond.



Isabella when she was maybe 8 or 9

I was rocking our baby to sleep the other night, listening to some music, when a song reminded me of a girl I used to know. Isabella isn’t her real name but when she was about 8 years old she’d say she wanted to change her name to Isabella. So I’ll call her Isabella here.

My baby had just fallen asleep on my shoulder and my thoughts drifted away to Isabella. I knew Isabella when she was a kid, she’s a young lady and a mom now. The song I was listening to reminded me of Isabella because of her grandfather, Joe – whom Isabella never knew. I never had the pleasure to meet Isabella’s grandfather either, he passed away young, but I knew Isabella’s mom well. This is how I know Joe.

Isabella’s mom is Sicilian, grew up in Buffalo NY. She always said Joe was in the Buffalo mafia, she wasn’t boasting or proud, in fact Isabella’s mom was embarrassed about that but it was just the way of life if you were born into the family like Joe was. Joe wasn’t a bad guy, he was just part of the family. Joe was a musician, Isabella’s mom always said her father had the greatest voice, a voice like Frank Sinatra. I think Joe played piano and drums, he would play in the Italian restaurants in Buffalo, in the restaurants of the family. Italian restaurants were always a favorite means for the mob to launder their money.

I think it’s safe to say Isabella’s mom had a complicated relationship with her father. I think she admired Joe as an artist, in fact Isabella’s mom was a drummer in her high school band before she got unceremoniously kicked out of high school at the age of 16. Isabella’s mom would go out to party but Joe would find her wherever she was out partying and would drag her out of the bars, drag her home. Joe died of a heart attack when Isabella’s mom was 18.

In a way I feel like I know Joe well, even though we never met. Not only through Isabella’s mom but also through the environment. I grew up in an industrial town in Europe and I know the old industrial towns in the US – like Buffalo – quite well, from the time I used to fly air cargo. We’d fly auto parts for manufacturers to places like Buffalo NY, Flint MI and of course down to the border with Mexico for all the outsourcing there. Peruvians who visit the US probably know no Italian restaurants other than a suburban Olive Garden or Carraba’s but I’ve been to a lot of old, authentic Italian restaurants. Heck, I’ve been to Italy. My best friend friend Bert and I used to hang out at an old-style piano bar when I lived in Florida, the type of place where you could imagine Joe play. As a side note, Bert knew the Italian mob well. He used to work with the US government and he’d always say when the FBI moved offices in New York, the mafia’s moving companies did the move. During Cold War detente when Bert did business with Amtorg, it was via a freight forwarding company owned by the New York mob. He knew the mob well.

There isn’t a point to all of this, in case you were wondering, just me reminiscing about a kid who’s now all grown up. It all seems so long ago now. Not that my experiences in life are any more interesting than anyone else’s but I’ve lived a more unconventional life than most, I’ve been very fortunate to meet some extraordinary people. In a country like Peru, where the median age is 27 and half of the population barely has living memory of the 20th century, some of my experiences seem downright surreal.

I haven’t seen Isabella in many moons. I hope to see her someday, perhaps we can meet in an Italian restaurant.

When was this map ordered and by whom?

Check out this map at Adam Isacson’s LatAm blog, showing the hometowns of the unaccompanied children the U.S. Customs and Border Protection has apprehended between January 1 and May 14, 2014.

The very first comment by “teapartyimmigrationcoalition”:

“When was this map ordered and by whom?”

So just to be clear, the problem is not that there are thousands of children who decide to leave their home, alone, to escape violence or abject poverty and search for a better future. No no no. The problem is that somebody made a map about it.

Look you Tea Party nuts, no matter how hard you try, you will never ever be able to make a reasonable argument that the immigrants of your great-grandparents’ era and before were “good immigrants” and today’s immigrants are “bad immigrants”. Don’t take my word for it, ask a Native Indian.

On a side note, last week marked the 60th anniversary of the 1954 Guatemalan Coup. Didn’t hear much about that on Fox News I take it? Without a shadow of a doubt, US intervention in Guatemala and other parts of LatAm has influenced life in LatAm as we know it today. But the right wing nuts don’t see that as an issue now, no no no, the problem is that somebody made a map of it.


Capulí ñawi Cusqueñita

Capulí ñawi Cusqueñita
capulí ñawi Cusqueñita
tus ojos tienen la culpa
para padecer tanto,
tus ojos tienen la culpa
para padecer tanto
Cuando me miran tus ojitos,
cuando me miran tus ojitos
parece que me alumbrarán
las estrellas del cielo
parece que me alumbrarán
las estrellas del cielo
sutiquitari cuncaymanchu
sutiquitari cuncaymanchu
ese nombre tan bonito
con que me engañaste

* * *

You’re welcome 🙂

Brianna’s weekend homework is to practice a different song with her papis each week. I am devoid of talent so Youtube is my best friend on weekends.

Cha`ska Ñawi Niñucha

Our goose has been singing this song for weeks now, she sang it with a choir from her kindergarten the week before Christmas. Brianna’s choir was all 4 and 5 year olds, not quite Mozart yet but I found this version on Youtube, I like it a lot. There are actually 9 people who “disliked” it. Do they not have a life?

Here’s a picture of our goose in her choir. In case you can’t pick her out, she’s the one with her hands to her face yelling at the public 🙂


That’s my girl!

* * *

PS: how not to talk Spanglish

“Brianna, come rapido. Tu comida se va resfriar!”