Hummingbird continues… (the story of why I quit the legal profession to become a world-wandering stone mason instead).
Escaping the Bubble
So, here I am, sitting in a small cafe in Bogota, Columbia in December of 1992. I am attempting to read a local newspaper with the help of my Spanish/English dictionary… Holy smokes. If I understand this article correctly, there was bombing last night in Cucuta. I was in Cucuta just four days ago. Some of the pictures accompanying the article look rather gruesome. Did the FARC do that or some paramilitary group? On another page there is a photo of Pablo Escobar riding a horse through the central square of a town. He is surrounded by what seems to be a cheering crowd. I wonder if the authorities caught him yet… As I flip through my dictionary to figure out some words in the first paragraph, I hear a voice. “Hello Mister. Where you from? Can I practice English with you?” I look up from my newspaper and see a very beautiful young lady. “Sure thing,” I say, “have a seat. My name is Patrick.” She pulls out a chair and sits. “My name Angela,” she says, “nice to meet you.”
Perception management. Manufacturing Consent. Brain washing. Propaganda. Reality control. Why do we believe what the media teaches us? Is it even possible to get beyond the illusion? Where does truth end and illusion begin? Here in the US that question is especially perplexing because over 90% of all media outlets (television, movies, newspapers, magazines) are owned by one of the same five corporations. And all five of those corporations are heavily invested in (intertwined with) the military industrial complex. If you live inside the US, it is very hard to escape the bubble. No doubt the different outlets provide thematic variations and they sometimes seem in complete opposition to each other on superficial topics like “politics” (Fox News vs. MSNBC) but the underlying dominant narrative of them all is the same and that narrative is American Exceptionalism… which is a slight modification of the concept of manifest destiny. The story goes like this: USA is the leader of the “free world.” We are the “good guys”. We are spreading the goodness of democracy and freedom and economic development to all other countries who are suffering under various types of dictatorships and bad economic systems. All other countries and people should look up to us and admire us. They all want and need to have governments and economic systems that work as well as ours. Most people on the planet earth really just want to leave their miserable undeveloped countries and move to the USA where they can live free in a developed modern democracy. But we can’t realistically take everyone into the USA so instead we use various types of aid (military and financial) to help other nations develop strong free market democracies for themselves…
When I began my very first journey to Central and South America in 1992, I didn’t speak any Spanish. I had taken a couple of Spanish classes in college but that was in the mid 1980s and barely a word had stuck in my brain. (Me llamo Patrick. Donde esta el bano?). But as I made my way South through foreign territory, I made a significant effort to learn the language. The method I employed to learn Spanish was fairly simple and straightforward. Every single day, wherever I was, I bought a local newspaper and did my best to translate it using my Spanish/English dictionary. I must say that my technique worked fairly well. Immersed in a Spanish speaking world all day long and slowly building my vocabulary with my daily lessons, by the end of my seven month journey, I could speak and understand a fair amount of the language. I certainly wasn’t fluent, but I could have real conversations and make myself be understood.
In addition to helping build vocabulary, my daily habit of trying to read a local newspaper every day while I traveled through Central and South America also had several unexpected side benefits. First of all, it was an incredibly effective way to meet local people. I did most of my daily translations while sitting in cafe’s, restaurants and bars. At least a dozen times (if not many more), my translation sessions were interrupted by a friendly local who wanted to “practice their English” and help me learn Spanish. As a matter of fact, this technique for meeting locals worked so well it was amazing. I would strongly recommend it to anyone who is out there world-wandering and trying to learn a language except for the fact that local newspapers are a dying resource. Computers, phones and iPads, don’t do the trick. Staring at technology seems to create a barrier or shell that separates people from the outside inter-active world. Nobody wants to bother you. In my more recent years of world-wandering with my own personal screen to stare at, I’ve never been interrupted by a “nosy local” who wanted to practice English. I guess there are probably ways that technology makes communicating with locals easier (translation programs). But there is no doubt in my mind that screen technology inhibits real communication and connection between people a lot more than it helps it.
The other great side-benefit of my newspaper reading habit as I traveled through Central and South America was that it introduced me to political perspectives outside the US mass media bubble. Honestly, I was so naive and brainwashed before my first trip that it seems incredible in retrospect. But really, if you grow up inside the US and are immersed in the mass media bubble and are “educated” in the schools here, it is almost impossible to escape the dominant narrative. It is not as if I learned the narrative and chose to accept it as truth. But rather, the narrative was/is such a part of day to day existence that it had become my de-facto reality. Don’t misunderstand. I wasn’t stupid. I was a very educated young man. I graduated magna cum laud from university with a degree in Literature and Philosophy. I also graduated near the top of my class from a top 20 law school and I was a voracious reader of literature, philosophy, politics and economic theory. I had even read the Chomsky-Herman masterwork on the power of propaganda (Manufacturing Consent). I understood intellectually how mass media corporations used image and messaging to sway and manipulate the general public into supporting government policies. But I always believed that my extensive reading put me above and beyond the sheep of the American public. I understood and still understand the US legal system better than the 99%. Nevertheless, my understanding was so polluted by the background dominant narrative that my overall world view was hopelessly distorted and fundamentally naive. Until, of course, my world travels cracked the bubble of the dominant narrative…
After the young lady sat down at my table that morning at the cafe’ in Bogota, we proceeded to have a fascinating conversation by passing the dictionary back and forth. In truth, her English was a little better than my Spanish but I had been in Latin America at this point for almost four months so my Spanish had improved significantly. I could even, on occasion, string enough words together to form a complete sentence. We exchanged info about families, home towns and plans for the future. She was from a smaller city on the coast but had moved to Bogota to study nursing at the university. She was surprised to learn that I was from the US because she had guessed I was Dutch or German. She was also surprised to learn I was a lawyer because I didn’t look like one (no aparace como un abogado). What is a lawyer supposed to look like? Perhaps I was in need of a haircut. Most importantly, she wanted to know why I was in Columbia. I tried to explain that I was on vacation but she seemed to doubt me. “Americanos no go on vacation to Columbia,” she said, “they only come here on business. Drug business or government business.” I insisted that I wasn’t there on business and tried to explain with broken Spanish that I was on a journey of self discovery… A quest. I was making my way to the southern tip of the Americas and I was just passing through Columbia. But still, she didn’t seem to believe me or understand me and I wondered why. Was I using the wrong Spanish words? Finally, she came right out and stated her concern out loud. “I think maybe you are CIA or DEA,” she said. I was totally flabbergasted by her suggestion. “Oh my God no,” I said in English, “I am definitely not a US government agent.”
Ultimately, she must have believed me because she invited me to join her and a group of friends on a picnic in a park on the outskirts of the city the following day. Actually, it was probably my inability to speak Spanish coherently that convinced her I was telling the truth. The US government would not realistically send an agent to a country where he couldn’t speak the language. Unless, of course, I was only pretending to not speak Spanish as part of my cover. I remember being a little bit paranoid that evening when I returned to my room at the Hotel Italia… Maybe Angela didn’t believe me? Maybe she still thinks I’m CIA or DEA? Maybe she’s a secret member of FARC or some drug gang and tomorrow’s outing is a ploy to kidnap me… In the end, my curiosity about local culture overcame my paranoia about kidnapping and I decided to go on the picnic. Besides, Angela was super sexy and that fact helped me overcome my paranoia too.
The next morning, I went to meet Angela at the same restaurant where we had our initial conversation. She was there with two friends from the university (one young man and one young woman). After introductions, we proceeded to a nearby bus stop where we hopped on a bus that took us across town. We changed buses twice and were on the road for almost an hour before we arrived at a very nice state park. I have no idea the name of the park because it was more than 25 years ago but it was somewhere in the vicinity of Bogota. There was a small lake in the park and walking trails through a forested area. There were some wide open expanses of grass and a couple of pavilions as well. I specifically remember some giant boulders near the lake that we had lots of fun climbing over. It was a very popular park for families from Bogota. Lots of people were having picnics. Kids were running all over and parents were chasing them. In many respects, it was idyllic and peaceful and tranquil, like from a Hallmark card or a Norman Rockwell painting. It almost didn’t seem real because it was nothing at all like the image I had in my mind of crazy, violent Columbia.
When we arrived at the park, we were greeted by seven or eight of Angela’s other friends from the university (a mix of young men and women). Our total group for the picnic was more than ten people. I can’t remember any of their names now but I do remember that one of the young women was nicknamed “Gringa” by all her friends because she spoke very fluent English. Indeed, it was the presence of Gringa on the outing that made the whole experience so memorable. She served as the translator thereby making it possible for me to communicate clearly with everyone in the group. It’s amazing how much you can learn about a country by spending a day (or week) with a group of college students. A couple of the guys brought kites for flying and someone else brought a frisbee. We walked the trail through the forest and hopped across the big rocks by the lake. No one went swimming in the water because high altitude central Columbia was fairly cool in temperature. But we did sit on big rocks lakeside and dangle our bare feet in the cool water. There was a cooler full of beer and someone had a small bottle of aguardiente (sugar cane liquor) but we didn’t get drunk. The alcohol was merely with us to accompany the incredible barbecue lunch we (they) prepared in one of the pavilions. I was hoping someone would have marijuana and offer me some. But no one mentioned it and I was afraid to ask.
The incident I remember that helped pop the proverbial bubble occurred while we were eating lunch. I sat at a picnic table with Angela, Gringa and a few of the guys. I looked out over the expanse of grass and watched dozens of families enjoying a sunny afternoon in a beautiful park. There were frisbees, kites and lots of little kids running around laughing and chasing each other as smiling happy parents looked on with approval…
“I can’t believe this is Columbia,” I said out loud, “it doesn’t even seem real.”
“Of course it’s Columbia,” said Gringa, “what did you expect?”
“Oh, I don’t know,” I replied, “more guns, drugs and violence. Isn’t there supposed to be a civil war going on here? And a drug war too?”
“But you are from the United States,” said Gringa, “the most violent country in the whole world. Don’t you have parks where people enjoy themselves? Why would Columbia be any different?”
“The US isn’t a violent country,” I said somewhat defensively, “we haven’t had a war there since the 1860s.”
In response to my comment, Gringa actually laughed. And then, to make matters worse, she translated my comment to everyone at the table and everyone at the table laughed. They then proceeded to all talk simultaneously in Spanish so fast that I couldn’t understand a word anyone was saying except for the names of several countries where the US military had recently been involved in conflicts. “Panama, Grenada, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Kuwait, Iraq.”
“I don’t understand what you guys are all saying,” I responded, “but what I meant was, the US hasn’t had any internal wars since the 19th century. The conflicts you are talking about are all external ones.”
“Si’, se vende guerra afuera y no tiene guerra al dentro. Que mierda.” (Yes, you sell war to the outside but don’t have war within. What shit!). Said one of the guys at the table in a rather hostile tone.
There was no need for Gringa to translate the statement exactly because I understood it rather clearly just from the tone in his voice. I had an uncomfortable sensation at the center of my being. I felt a little nauseous. “Some American companies may sell war but I don’t,” I answered sheepishly, “and neither does the US government.”
“Tu pais quieres controlar todo del mundo,” said one of the other guys.
“Mucho violencia aqui en Columbia es la falta primera de los Estados Unidos,” said one of the young ladies.
“What?” I said. “I don’t understand.”
Gringa translated, “your country wants to control the whole world. And most of the violence here in Columbia is caused by the United States.”
“That’s crazy,” I said defensively, “The US believes in democracy, free markets and the self-determination of independent nations. We are definitely not trying to conquer the world. I don’t really know much about the specifics of the conflict here in Columbia but I do know that my government is not trying to control it or win it. We just provide military and financial aid to governments or opposition parties that have the same ideals as us. Some administrations or individuals within administrations may use illegal techniques to promote American ideals, but the legitimate government of the American people certainly doesn’t. Blaming Columbian violence on the US is just insane. We give you guys so much financial aid it’s ridiculous. We are trying to help you develop a strong free market democracy. You should thank us for our generosity not blame us for your problems. You should take responsibility for your own violence.”
After my rather lengthy discourse, Gringa translated it for the group. Then she herself responded to my statement in a very matter of fact tone. “Your country only gives military aid to Columbia,” she said, “no aid for education or health or anything else. They only give us guns. And those guns kill lots of people.”
In retrospect I can hardly believe my former brainwashed self but I almost responded to her by repeating that idiotic American cliche… guns don’t kill people, people kill people… (Thank god I didn’t or I would be embarrassed for all eternity). Instead, I said something more nuanced and intellectual but just as foolish. “That’s not true,” I said. “The US government doesn’t even manufacture guns; independent corporations do. The US government gives the Columbian government financial aid… money… lots of it. It is your government here that decides to spend that money on weapons instead of education or healthcare. You can’t blame the US for the choices and decisions of your own government. I agree that weapons manufacturers are bad businesses. I agree that Columbia should spend their aid money on something else. But that is just the way a free market economy works. Corporations manufacture products and try to sell them. It is up to buyers to decide what to spend their money on.”
“Escucho amigo,” (listen friend) said the guy who sounded hostile before but now sounded conciliatory. “Todo esta bien. Tu gobierno es loco y nuestro gobierno es loco. Pero, no es la falta de tuyo o nosotros.” (It’s all good. Your government is crazy and our government is crazy, but it’s not your fault or our fault). He then reached across the picnic table and handed me the bottle of aguardiente he was drinking from. “Tomas,” (drink) he said as I took the bottle, “tomas a amistad.” (Drink to friendship).
“Yes,” said Gringa, “drink to friendship, unless you are CIA. Then it is your fault.”
Everybody at the table laughed as I took a nice big swig from the bottle.
Of course, the above described conversation is not “true” in the literal sense. It happened more than 25 years ago and my memory is vague and addled. But I think it more or less happened that way. And really, the snippet of words here recorded was only the very beginning of an extended discourse that I had with this group of college students. By the end of the picnic, they all made it very clear that I was not only welcome in Columbia generally but I was welcome in their group of amigos. When the sun set on the beautiful park, most of the group adjourned to a bar in the University area and I went with them. I proceeded to get smashed out of my gourd on aguardiente and have ongoing half intelligible conversations in a mix of broken Spanish and English long into the night. They piled me into a cab when the bar closed and I made it back to the Hotel Italia shortly before dawn. Wow. That was some picnic.
The following evening I met several members of the group (including Angela and Gringa) to watch a live theatrical performance in a theatre near the University. The play was in Spanish and I couldn’t understand it at all but we went to a cafe afterwards for more conversation. The night after that I went with my new amigos to a party at someone’s house near the campus. On two other nights we all met at music venues to watch live music. The small Jazz club was especially impressive. A smaller group also took me on an excursion in the cable car that went up the small mountain to the tourist attraction church. Some of the others even came to the neighborhood near my hotel to meet me for drinks in local bars. In total, I stayed in Bogota for ten nights when I originally only planned on staying for two. I didn’t have any romantic luck with Angela, Gringa, or anyone else but I sure was lucky with the complete social immersion. I could not possibly have been more thoroughly included in the local college “scene.”
This was not the first time in my travels that I came across significant animosity directed at my government or home country (and certainly not the last). I think the first time was in Guatemala when the guest house I was staying at advised myself and the other Americans that we should leave our passports with them in the safe when we took the mini-bus to Tikal. Apparently, criminal/revolutionaries had a habit of stopping buses and robbing only the Americans. I also spent a couple evenings with some friendly Sandinistas in Nicaragua where I learned in graphic detail about US sponsored death squads during the contra war. In Panama, I received an earful from some locals about the very recent US invasion to oust Noriega that killed over 3000 locals. And then there was also some serious anti-Americanism expressed by locals when I was caught in the “revolution” in Venezuela. But the Columbia experience was more significant because it lasted longer and the critique came from friends. They welcomed me personally into their group and always treated me with kindness and incredible generosity. But they informed me in great detail about how my government was “waging war” on their country and how my tax money was responsible for so much of the violence their country suffered.
I will never forget the day I finally left Bogota and headed by bus to the tourist town of San Augustin. The military and police checkpoints seemed endless and I kept looking at all the big guns carried around by the cops and the military and wondering if they were, “made in the USA.” Then, while I rode the bus, I watched the on board entertainment videos on the screen above the driver. It was another selection of American movies with sub-titles in Spanish. This time it was a Clint Eastwood movie marathon. Bang bang went Dirty Harry on the screen above me and the great big bubble clouding my naive and innocent brain went pop!
To be continued…
And don’t forget to buy my new book about my backpacking adventure in, “The Middle East.” You can get the e-book here: A Journey to the Middle of the East
backpacking adventure in “The Middle East.”