How many shades of grey?

The University of Wisconsin released the results of a free speech survey. The survey was years in the making, as the first iteration was so clearly biased (it was funded by the Menard family) that students wouldn’t answer its leading questions. The survey was conducted on 13 campuses, with a 12.5% response rate.

An article about the results (in The Cap Times) says a majority of students reported self-censorship, choosing not to express views in class. Is this troublesome? Or is it a reflection of maturity? If it chills the free exchange of ideas, that could be troublesome. If it means that students are demonstrating functional frontal lobes, that could be a good thing. We all have some thoughts that are better not spoken aloud.

The Cap Times further reports that “students aren’t that likely to consider viewpoints they disagree with”. I overheard a discussion of the study in which the participants thought that being “not at all likely” to “consider divergent viewpoints” about abortion was a good thing. They saw two viewpoints: “pro-choice” and “pro-life” (to put them in the terms favored by those who express those positions, not that I consider “pro-life” to be an accurate term if one only supports forced birth and not quality pre-natal and child care, or if one also supports the death penalty and war). They saw no reason to consider the opposite viewpoint once they’d made up their mind.

At a quick glance, I came up with several potential viewpoints on the issue:

  • one could support a woman’s right to choose in all cases
  • one could support a right to choose with a requirement to justify a decision at a particular time point (such as fetal viability)
  • one could support a right to choose only in the case of threat to the mother’s health or life
  • one could support a right to choose in the case of sexual assault
  • one could support a right to choose in the case of fetal anomaly (which entails a range from defects that will be fatal to eugenics, so another path to go down)
  • one could oppose abortion, meaning that, abstractly/hypothetically, you would not choose an abortion for yourself; while still supporting the rights of others
  • one could think that abortion is killing but, as in other circumstances recognized in law, justifiable under particular conditions
  • one could consider abortion to be illegal and punishable by a civil forfeiture, like a traffic ticket
  • one could consider abortion to be illegal and punishable as a crime (misdemeanor or felony)
  • one could consider abortion to be murder and punishable by death (or life in prison if one were “pro-life”) for the woman and/or the doctor
  • [In another interesting take on the issue of the fetus, or “pre-born”, today’s paper notes a lawyer in Florida (is he the infamous “Florida Man“?) has filed a Writ of Habeas Corpus claiming that a fetus is being unlawfully detained. Said fetus is in the womb of a woman awaiting trial for murder. The article does not make clear if he is arguing for the release of the mother or just the fetus, nor does it address the argument if the mother were a convicted murder and not merely under indictment].

So, if there are more possible viewpoints than either/or, do we have an obligation to consider those viewpoints? Is it possible that we might revisit an issue over time and think differently?

When I worked in Nicaragua, most in my group were opposed to war in most cases. That ranged from opposing imperialist wars to opposing all wars. I suspect most of us opposed the US invasion of Southeast Asia. (I hesitate to call it “The war in Viet Nam”, since we know the US attacked Laos and Cambodia as well.)

When it came to the Nicaraguan war of liberation from the multi-generational Somoza dictatorship, we had more widely-varying opinions. When it came to the Nicaraguan defense against the CIA-instigated Contra war, they varied again.

We were once asked to help a nearby town with its defense preparations. A local Sandinista military officer came to our camp and explained the situation, then stepped back and said, “Let the polemic begin.” The project included building a bomb shelter and digging a defense trench around the perimeter of the town. The trench was to include spots from which the town’s militia could return fire on invaders. Some in the group were whole-hearted supporters of this weekend volunteer effort. Others were willing to build a bomb shelter but have nothing to do with defense trenches, as they saw that as a war effort. Still others chose to stay in camp on their day off, not wanting to participate in any way in what they saw as a war effort. Our organization’s motto was “Help build, not destroy, in Nicaragua.” They saw any effort that was not building houses as participating in destruction.

Life is easy when it is all black and white, good and bad. Nuance is confusing. Thinking is hard.

[Since I was told not to make any decisions today, or drive, or work – having been sedated for a procedure – this seemed like a good day to hit “publish” on a post that has been sitting in my drafts for a while.]

Have fun, will travel

Martha wrote about travel today, wishing for a transporter like on Star Trek so she wouldn’t have to travel, just be somewhere. It got me thinking.

“Have Gun, Will Travel” was a favorite childhood TV show. Paladin was a good guy who dressed in black – “A knight without armor in a savage land.” He traveled all over the west, outsmarting bad guys, shooting them if he had to; a mercenary, and I mean that in the best way. He had a wry sense of humor. The word paladin comes from the knights of Charlemagne and one definition is “defender of a noble cause”. He had a brass knight (chess piece) on his holster. His calling card had a knight, his name, and his slogan.

Paladin’s calling card

When I used to travel more, I made a distinction between “travelers” and “tourists.” Tourists were those who got off a plane, went to a resort for a few days, and got back on the plane. Or they disembarked from the cruise ship for a few hours of shopping. Travelers went overland and stayed places.

When I was in Cartagena, Colombia, cruise ships came to call. Kids would swim out to the ships and the tourists tossed coins into the water. The kids scrambled to retrieve coins, stuffing them into their mouths to keep their hands free to gather more coins. All prices in town went up when the ships arrived.

I took a bus to Cancún, switched to a cab, rode to the ferry departure point for Isla Mujeres. I chatted with the driver on the way. The cabbie was shocked that I was from the US, saying that US tourists didn’t speak Spanish so I must be European. Plus, US tourists didn’t take cabs from the bus depot and leave town. For that matter, they didn’t leave the resorts except to take a cab to the airport.

In Mérida I noticed that the hotel rooms had hammock hooks as well as beds. Figuring there might be a good reason for that, I found a hammock-maker at the edge of town. That woven cotton string hammock still comes on all camping trips more than 40 years later.

Also in Mérida, I fell in love with a shirt. I was headed to Chichen Itzá for the equinox. It was the weekend so I had no way to get cash. If I bought the shirt I would have no money left after buying my bus ticket. At least I had a hotel room waiting. I did it anyway. On the bus I met a traveler on the way with no place to stay. We agreed to share my room and he agreed to pay me cash for his half. I was suddenly fixed for the weekend. I could eat.

A professor from a nearby university set up a portable PA at the ruins to explain the history and what would happen on the equinox. I knew what; I just didn’t know when. I spent all day exploring and awaiting that brief, late afternoon moment when the sun hit the spot. At that moment, the shadows cast by the corner of the pyramid form a series of equilateral triangles that end at a carved serpent head at the foot of the stairs. This forms the body of a serpent slithering down the stairs. Online photos don’t seem to do it justice. Rumor has it you are no longer allowed to climb those stairs.

In Colombia I met a couple who had been traveling the world for years. Each traveled alone until they met each other. They financed their travels by buying local and selling foreign. In Colombia they were buying old stone beads and artifacts – going easy on the stone since they had to carry it. They were selling silk and glass beads from Venice. They gave me a primer on “pre-Colombian” beads – how to tell truly ancient beads from new beads and artificially-aged beads. Glad they knew, but I didn’t want beads. In one town I discovered that a neighbor was the younger brother of a dear friend of mine. It’s a small world, after all.

I bought textiles all through Ecuador; not to sell, but for gifts and things for myself. This was a bad choice from a travel viewpoint, as it made for a bulky load. I bought a burlap sack and some twine in a market and carried all of my purchases in that. When it came time for US customs declaration, I had a written list and it was all in that one bag. I had bought yarn and carefully washed it, removing all twigs and other plant matter, thinking it would be confiscated if not clean. They didn’t care and waved me through. Carrying that big burlap bag for weeks made the travel memorable.

I arrived in Otavalo in advance of their big weekly market, and watched the town slowly fill up in the days ahead. On market day I couldn’t sleep. I was up at 3 AM and wandered through town, watching a steady stream of buses making their way down from tiny mountain villages with folks arriving to sell their goods. The market opened at dawn.

I dreamed one night that I was back home; that I had flown home for some event and was flying back the next day. It seemed very real. When I awoke I realized that was absurd, as the airfare cost more than living for a month in Ecuador. There was no way I was flying home until I had to. The dream became a recurring one and it bothered/intrigued me until I decided I had to do something about it. I was at a party in the dream. I told the person I was talking with that this wasn’t real – that they weren’t real – that I was actually in Ecuador and only dreaming this conversation and therefore dreaming them into existence. I immediately woke up. I never had the dream again. I wanted to, as I wanted to find out what happened in that room when I suddenly disappeared, transported in an instant back to my bed in Ecuador.

I thought about travel vs being somewhere. I wanted to tell Martha that the journey was more than half the fun; but the memories weren’t supporting that. I recalled dusty bus lots in Ecuador with dozens of colorfully-decorated school buses, each with a shrine by the driver, each with its sign saying “En caso de mareo, solicite una funda.” I didn’t know a couple of those words and imagined them saying something about asking for a blessing, since they were right next to the shrine. Finally I was able to look it up and found that it meant “In case of motion sickness, ask for a bag.” I realized that even the locals could throw up on those twisty mountain roads. Sometimes the sounds from the back of the bus almost made me join them. I kept the window open.

I learned that the buses didn’t have set schedules. If you got on an empty bus, you’d have a long wait. If you got on a full bus, you’d leave soon, but you’d sit in the back, where that bag might be needed. I learned to check out the buses and find one with decent tires. I chatted up the drivers and conductors and picked ones I liked. I chose buses that were more than half but less than ¾ full, so they’d hit the road relatively soon but I wouldn’t be bouncing and swaying in the back.

I never suffered a breakdown or a crash. The worst was a bus through the mountains to the edge of the rainforest. The rain was constant and the road washed out regularly. A Caterpillar was parked in the middle of the road where a landslide obliterated the way. When enough traffic backed up, the driver would push the debris up against the cliff face and hold it while we passed. Then he’d back up and the road would disappear again. Sisyphus in real life.

I learned that borders, while imaginary lines, are real. Colombia seemed tense all the time. The tension on the bus from Colombia to Ecuador was thick. When we crossed the border, the relief was palpable. I later realized part of that was the hidden contraband (ketchup, as I recall). But also, everything felt different across that imaginary line.

I learned some things aren’t funny. Our bus in Northern Mexico was boarded by federal agents. As they made their way through the bus, one poked my duffle bag in the overhead bin (with the barrel of his carbine) and asked, in Spanish, if it were mine. When I confirmed this, he asked, in English and with a grin, “Got any machine guns in there?” I knew it was not a joke and solemnly said, “No sir.” He moved on. (Okay, now it’s funny.)

In Mexico, I traveled slowly from the DF (Mexico City) to Guatemala. I stayed as long as I could everywhere I went. I made notes of things I wanted to buy instead of carrying them. On the return trip to the DF, I took night buses. I would ride all night, sleeping on the bus, then spend the day in a town before jumping on a bus again that night. Huehuetenango to Tuxtla Gutiérrez to San Cristóbal de las Casas to the DF. Three nights sleeping on buses. Trips that took longer than the miles would hint at due to the mountainous terrain. I always sat near the front on the right side of the bus so I could see the road. These were first class buses with advance tickets and assigned seats.

In Oaxaca, I stopped at the hotel I had stayed at during a previous week or weeks in town. I asked the owner if I could drop my bags for the day and he happily obliged. When I returned in the evening he invited me into his apartment at the back to watch TV for a while, then offered me use of a room for a shower and a nap before I got on my last bus. It was great to lie flat for a while.

So was the journey better than the destination? No way. The hours on buses and the waits in dusty fields to catch the next bus made for stories but not for the sort of thing I would recommend to the average person.

In Santa Marta, Colombia, I met a guy who bragged about how cheap his accommodations were. I found that was a point of pride for “professional” travelers. He crowed that he was only paying 50 cents/night (granted, this was about 40 years ago). He took me to see his place. It was a dirt-floored concrete room with a high ceiling and windows near the ceiling to allow the entry of a bit of dim light. During the day it was just enough to not trip over sleeping bags, if you let your eyes get used to the darkness before you walked in. There was no electricity. I didn’t ask about the bathroom. Each traveler had enough space to roll out a sleeping bag and pile a bit of stuff next to it. There was no ventilation. In contrast, I was paying a whopping $2/night for a private room with bath and ceiling fan (essential to keep mosquitos at bay). At 7 AM there was a discreet knock at my door and a demitasse cup of fresh coffee (with saucer) was handed to me. I think I had the better deal despite paying four times as much.

Travel in Nicaragua was via pick-up truck. There was a superstructure in the bed for lashing on lumber. When we traveled we stood in the back of the truck holding onto the superstructure. We didn’t travel much – we were there to work. We lived in tents until I realized that partially-constructed houses made great places to hang hammocks, so I slept in a hammock and used the tent to store my clothes.

We did travel in that truck out to the woods every morning to work. In the morning, when Segundo had been on guard duty all night, he got into the truck bed, removed the magazine from his AK-47, ejected the shell from the chamber, checked the chamber, placed the cartridge in the magazine, applied the safety, and re-inserted the magazine. I knew I was safe – both because I had an armed escort and because I knew the rifle would not discharge on the primitive road we had just cut the day before. No word was ever spoken, but we both understood the depth of the communication which had just occurred.

I won’t talk about travel by bike today, you’ve had enough of that from me.

So, if I had the choice, would I travel by teleportation, or is the journey the destination in itself? Damned if I know.

Lost in Translation

I used to tell people my specialty was English-to-English translation. We have so much trouble understanding each other even when two native speakers of the same language talk. Expectations and what we want to hear often get in the way. Wanting to be heard (instead of wanting to hear) and planning your response before the other person speaks get in the way. I would hear two people talking past each other and quickly rephrase for each of them and they would come to an understanding.

This is not to say that I don’t have the same problem with some people. It is though we speak two different languages which contain the same words.

In my work I spend a lot of time translating medical into English. Doctors tend to forget that normal people have no clue what most medical terms mean. People don’t want to seem dumb so they smile and nod. When the doctor leaves, I’ll ask what they understood of that. Frequently the answer is “nothing”, so I translate.

This was prompted by someone else’s post about actual language and cultural differences, which prompted this memory [cue harp music for a flashback].

I was in Nicaragua and our regular interpreter was unavailable. One of our group leaders offered to translate. Someone asked a local farmer how life had changed since the revolution. She said it was harder to get food now. The interpreter said something completely different, vaguely and rhetorically in support of the revolution. Two of us called her on it. She tried to say that the woman didn’t really understand the question. We argued that she clearly did understand the question but the answer was not the one you wanted to hear. After a bit more discussion, with the interpreter and the farmer (who made it clear she understood the question) in Spanish, then the group in English, we agreed to continue, with the translator knowing that she couldn’t get away with that degree of “interpreting” another’s thoughts and statements.

This also led to thoughts about language, fluency, and on-line translators. On-line translators are handy if you know both languages and are uncertain of the nuances of a particular word choice. They do not work if you think you can get the gist of a large work from an algorithm. If in doubt, listen to this:

“Let it Go” run through Google Translate through multiple languages and back to English. If you want the original English lyrics, they’re here.

I used to get asked if I were fluent in Spanish. Usually I just said no. Sometimes I answered that I wasn’t sure I was fluent in English. Other times I thought about what fluency meant.

After five weeks of language school I took a week off to travel and try to incorporate what I’d learned. Standing on a train, I started chatting with a local school teacher. After we’d talked for a while, he went to get a bottle of pop and asked if I wanted one. While he was gone I checked my watch and realized we’d been talking for two hours; a wide-ranging discussion that made me realize that: 1) I was thinking in Spanish and conversing naturally; 2) I had just fulfilled the goal I’d set five years earlier in Ecuador when the owner of the hotel where I was staying tried to initiate a similar conversation and I was unable to carry out my half.

I thought I had told this story before but, searching through the archives, I can’t find it. It was about January 1977. I was going through a home and roommate-related crisis. I called a friend in Berkeley, who knew the issues and people involved. He suggested the best solution was to join him and a friend (who had just arrived from Australia) on a trip to Colombia and Ecuador. On that trip, I could sort things out, and things here could sort themselves out.The idea had merit. A week later, I met them in Miami and we flew to Barranquilla, Colombia. We stepped off the plane and into customs. Since S & C had met while traveling extensively in Guatemala, I presumed they spoke Spanish pretty well. The customs agent asked C how long she would be in the country. She smiled. He repeated the question. She smiled more sweetly. He turned to S with the same question. He smiled, more broadly and sweetly than C. I realized: 1) they had gotten through Guatemala on friendliness and smiles; 2) they knew not a lick of Spanish; 3) I was now responsible to communicate for three. I told the customs agent that we all wanted 90 day visas, he stamped our passports, and we were on our way.

My Spanish got us through shopping, getting meals, finding our way, renting hotel rooms- all the basics of being a traveler. One rainy day (in Baños, Ecuador), while S & C were in another town, I was sitting in bed reading. The hotel owner stuck his head in the door, said hello, came in, sat down, and struck up a conversation. Within minutes (seconds?) I had my English-Spanish dictionary out. [It was years later that I bought a Spanish dictionary, recognizing that knowing a language meant learning to define words, not translate them.] Within a few more minutes I realized I was over my head. I did not know how to talk to anyone. I could conduct business, but I couldn’t talk. I apologized, he left, I cried. I felt shallow. I vowed that I would learn to speak Spanish and have that conversation some day.

After a week of vacation I went back to school for three more weeks. Was I fluent at that point? How about five years later when I went back for a refresher course and, as my final exam after three weeks, I gave a 45 minute slide presentation (on my work in Nicaragua) to the school in Spanish? Or when I returned to the school for a visit after 3 months working in Nicaragua and someone told me that the secretary said I was back in town and now spoke with a Nicaraguan accent? (I’ll admit I was flattered. For a Mexican to say I sounded Nicaraguan and not North American was one of the best compliments I had ever received.)

I realized that we have word-finding difficulties in any language. If the language is familiar enough, we find a way to talk around the missing word if it doesn’t come to us. There are words that we may not know, but we can discuss the concept in a way that gets the meaning across without the missing word. Ultimately, I discovered that fluency is a continuum, not a point. I’m pretty fluent in English after speaking it for more than 65 years. I’m less fluent in Spanish and considerably less fluent than I was when I was cutting down trees in the forest and miscommunication could mean death from falling tree.

Trash into treasure

My first season building in Nicaragua we made bricks from a mixture of sand and clay (from the nearby riverbank), water (from the same river) and cement (purchased from a local cement factory). We pressed the mixture into bricks using a CINVA ram – a press operated by muscle power (and leverage) to compress the bricks, which were then placed in the sun to dry and cure. The houses we built had a brick half-wall topped by a board and batten upper wall (framed and sided with local timber, selectively culled).

Our machine was a little different and made three bricks at a time, but this gives you the idea.

Sorry, I have no surviving photos of the construction process or of the ram in action (but I have a great image in my head of an old photo from then, if that helps).

This woman in Kenya is going at this from another angle. While we used local materials, she uses plastic waste. So far she is making only brick pavers, but construction materials look like the next stage. The CINVA ram was developed at the Inter-American Housing Center (CINVA is an acronym for the name in Spanish, and the device was developed by Raul Ramirez in Colombia) to provide a low-cost locally-produced product. For what it does, it’s great. Her product is higher tech, with more expensive machinery requiring a more centralized production facility, but looks like a great way to reduce the landfill load of plastic waste (as well as slowing the growth of the floating “islands” of plastic trash in the oceans).

I am not advocating for one over the other – one is a great low-tech building method using local materials, while the other reuses plastic waste. Neither is anything to sneeze at.

We, by the way, changed from brick construction to stone. The stone was more bulletproof (I mean that literally) as well as holding up better during torrential rains.