Monday, June 25, 2018

Protest, Propaganda, and Politics: Welcome to the World Cup

Since June 14th, when Russia beat Saudi Arabia 5-0, more than 3 billion people have tuned in to the FIFA World Cup. Germany was upset by the feisty Mexicans. England has demonstrated uncommon good form. And the once mighty Argentines are floundering.  The globe is ball and everyone is watching it.
                But it’s not all about football. Nor has it ever been.
                As it stands, two players and a coach could possibly be suspended over gestures made during the Swiss victory over Serbia.  At issue is the “double eagle” displayed by both Granit Xhaka and Xherdan Shaqiri following their respective goals. Players celebrate in many creative ways—some suck their thumbs, some remove their shirts, some make heart symbols with their hands, and others use the universal “simmer down” motion. Ronaldo recently rubbed his chin to tell the world that he is “the goat.”
                But the double eagle has ignited a controversy.
                At the heart of this hullabaloo, is FIFA rule number 54:  Provoking the general public.  The rule is simple, leaving a gaping hole into which pundits and fans can throw any number of infractions, both real and imagined.  It reads, “Anyone who provokes the general public during a match will be suspended for two matches and sanctioned with a minimum fine of CHF 5,000.”
                So, what’s wrong with the double eagle? Well, Xhaka and Shaqiri, while Swiss, are also Kosovars with ethnic Albanian roots. As such, their gesture—which refers to the Albanian flag—has been interpreted by some as the goading of their Serbian opponents and the fans in the stadium.
                Kosovo, unilaterally declared independence from Serbia in 2008, and though its independence is recognized by more than 113 member states of the UN, Serbia is not one of them.  This has unearthed the decades-old Kosovo War where Serbian troops were responsible for the ethnic cleansing (terrible euphemism) of more than 10 000 Kosovars. Reciprocal atrocities were also committed, displacing 200 000 Serbs and Romani.
                But enough of history. At issue is the politics of the gesture and its intent. 
                I can’t help but draw comparisons the the recent storm around the NFL’s Colin Kaepernick and “knee-taking” during the American anthem.  Many say that politics has no place sport. Others argue freedom of expression.

                So, should Xhaka and Shaqiri be suspended, potentially affecting the outcome of the group stage of the World Cup?
                Ultimately, I say no. Just think about the nature of the World Cup for a moment. It pits nation against nation. The spectators drape themselves in flags, paint their faces and bodies in national colours.  Iceland fans wear the Viking helmets of old.  Brazilian fans wear…well, almost nothing.
                In this kind of atmosphere, how can you keep the World Cup free of politics?
                Serb captain, Aleksandar Kolarov, lifted three fingers in the “Serb salute” after he scored a goal against Costa Rica. Should he be suspended for what some consider to be a “nationalist” gesture?
                Forcing players to “behave” in this way is simply reinforcing a wilful ignorance of the issues facing the world—a kind of self-induced coma. FIFA wishes and hopes for this sort momentary amnesia, not for the sake of the “beautiful game,” but because it is part and parcel of ignoring the issues raised by the very selection of such countries as Russia and Qatar to host the games. Countries whose records of human rights abuses should arguably not be rewarded with the World Cup prize to begin with.
                If the gestures of Xhaka and Shaqiri—or even those of Kolarov—spark debate and discussion, this can only be a good thing. In fact, most of the 3 billion viewers probably had no idea what the “double eagle” meant before the Swiss players used it. And maybe that was the intent. Or, maybe the intent was simply one of solidarity following years of hardship.
                In the end, as long as the intent and impact did not purposefully engender hatred or prejudice (such as paramilitary insignia and flags in the crowd!), then play on.
                Serbia, and impartial aficionados of the game, have a much more legitimate complaint with the officiating of that match than they do with any gestures used. The Serbs deserved a penalty shot, and VAR review should and would have proven what the referee inexplicably “missed.”
                Let’s not pretend that politics don’t exist.  Embrace them. Discuss them. And get on with the game.

Monday, April 16, 2018

Language and the Art of Travel

The Sacred Valley, Peru

Photography by Caroline Begeron

We met Eduardo straight off the plane in Cusco. Our B&B had sent him to pick us up. He was sixty-years-old and had been driving taxi in the city most of his adult life. He did not speak English. Eduardo was Quechan, so we met halfway and struck up a conversation in Spanish on our way across the city.  He was funny and gregarious and he knew just about everything about Cusco. I asked him how much it would cost to hire his taxi for an entire day.  We had come to climb Machu Picchu, but we hoped to visit the Sacred Valley, too.

Cusco Peru
We struck a deal (for less than half the price of a bus tour—for one). On the day prescribed, Eduardo picked us up at 5 in the morning.  We set out into the hills north of the city, whisking past several different Incan ruins in quick succession—Q'enko, Tambomachay, Puca Puchara. On any given day, one of these stops would have been enough. Peru is an embarrassment of riches. We immediately began to make plans with Eduardo for yet another day upon our return from Machu Picchu.

Sacred Valley Cusco Peru
He asked if we would like to see llamas, and then promptly took us to a small weaving coop just off the main road.  Women in colourful traditional dress worked at ponchos and shawls on hand looms. 

He took us to Pisac—the ruins and the market--then he chose us a cheap place to eat near Urubamba. 

Ollantaytambo, our next stop, was beyond words. Impressive in its sheer scale and impossible crafted stonework. We stayed too long, enthralled by it all. We simply didn’t want to leave. 

And all along the way Eduardo told us stories, answered our questions. He joked with us and told us what to watch out for, what to avoid. He was the consummate host.

Inca Valley Peru

It was so late as we left Ollantaytambo that we figured we must forgo our final stop at Chinchero.  As we passed up higher into the mountains, the sun was disappearing behind the distant peaks, lighting the snow-capped chain behind us.  Eduardo pulled over so Caroline could catch the display on camera. After, we thanked him and bid him return to Cusco. We understood the lateness of the day. No tour could have packed in the itinerary the way we had. Nothing would have been as personal.  But Eduardo would have none of it.

Inca Valley Peru

Inca Valley Peru

It was dark as we pulled into the Adobe Church in Chinchero. Women were still spaced out around the plaza weaving colourful blankets as the lights in the church came on. The experience was visually surreal. We felt lucky. We felt privileged. We couldn’t thank (or pay) Eduardo enough.

Adobe Church Peru

However, several hours later, once we were safely tucked into our beds at the Second Home Cusco, I remember thinking that I owed it all—the experience, our burgeoning friendship with Eduardo—all of it, to language.

Of all the things I have learned in life, be they from schools and universities or the experience of living and working in the world, nothing has been more rewarding or defining than language.

By technical definition, I suppose that I am a polyglot. I speak three languages with fluency (English, French, Spanish), and I have working knowledge of a fourth (Portuguese). Through travel, study, and simple interest, I have managed to pick up smatterings of German, Italian, and Russian, as well—though I pull the latter out in case of emergency only, or perhaps as party tricks under the right “influence.”

I did not set out to make this so. Language was not part of a master plan enacted years ago under misguided notions of world domination. In fact, beyond my native English, French is the only language that I have studied at school and university for any length of time.  Spanish came organically through travel, necessity, and personal effort; Portuguese has been a recent experiment.

But no matter how it occurred, nothing I have ever learned has brought me more satisfaction, presented more opportunities, or allowed me to live more fully than language. On a personal level, it has changed the course of my life. My wife (a francophone), my children (bilingual, both), my career (as a teacher of English, French, and Spanish), have all been defined and shaped by language.

However, I also believe that language is the common ground upon which the world can build understanding. No small claim, I know. But I empathise with why a sovereignist from Quebec longs for separation--even if I don't agree. When I hear the first few lines of "Nicaragua, Nicaraguita" I feel a pang of homesickness. And I'm not Nicaraguan.

We met Eduardo two more times after our tour of the Sacred Valley. On the second last day of our trip, he took us to Sacsayhuaman and several other Incan sites encircling the city. And on our final full day, he took us to the Mantay Home for Adolescent Mothers, where we dropped off donations and spent the afternoon with the women and children staying there. They showed us how they were making fair trade crafts and receiving an education for themselves and their children. Once again, it was the ability to connect through language that made the day so memorable and complete.

It was difficult, after only a few hours, to say goodbye to the mothers at Mantay. And it was difficult, after only a few days, to say goodbye to Eduardo the next morning at the airport.

These are good things. They are the measure of an experience's impact.

Language opens doors to rooms we didn't even know existed. All we have to do after is walk through.

Monday, April 9, 2018

Off the Beaten Track: The Mouth of Hell

Masaya, Nicaragua

Photography by Caroline Bergeron

"In the case of expulsions of rocks, protect yourself under the car." This was the first sentence to catch my eye on the pamphlet the guard gave us upon entering the Parque Nacional Volcan Masaya. If this weren’t ominous enough, then the sign at the top of the volcano was. "Park your car facing exit, in case of emergency."

Of course, my first question was, if such an emergency were to arise, which action should I perform first? 

Masaya, Nicaragua

Nicaragua has nine active volcanoes running up the centre of the country like a volatile spine. The Volcan Masaya is the most accessible and, by extension, the most popular. It is also a rare form of basalt volcano, which attracts scientists from around the world in addition to the steady flow of tourists. It erupted for the first time in 4550 BC, and to date, it is one of the largest eruptions on historical record.

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On the day we arrived in a rattling, aging mini-bus, the volcano was smoking profusely – emitting noxious sulfuric fumes that stung our eyes and nose. Despite the haze, however, we were suitably stunned as we approached the gaping yawn of the Santiago crater. The drop to the crater floor is vertiginous. The stark grey windswept landscape gave us the impression a mischievous god shoveled out the centre of mountain with an ice cream scoop. My stomach convulsed. My feet hurt. The wind whipping in, out, and over the toothless maw didn’t help. I felt as though at any minute I could be plucked from the safety of my perch and tossed insignificantly into the mountain’s belly. It was awesome.

Masaya, Nicaragua

When the Spanish arrived on scene in 1524, the vent was a bubbling lake of molten lava. The crater remained that way until 1979, when the lava retreated. The cross that stands watch over the site to this day, was first erected by those same conquistadors, who gave the mountain its nickname, boca de infierno – the mouth of hell. The cross was meant to stop the devil from surfacing. Its effectiveness, however, is still in question, given the great eruption of 1772. In fact, the stairway to the cross is currently inaccessible due to a minor eruption six years ago. Workmen were toiling away at it in the incandescent sun on the day of our visit.

Masaya, Nicaragua

The indigenous tribes who predated the Spanish were more efficient. They simply tossed appeasing sacrifices over the edge every once in a while. 

We were hoping to catch a glimpse of the famed chocoyos del crater – the florescent green parrots that make their nests in the crags and caves of the cliffsides, mystifying scientists – but, alas, we were not so lucky. The volcano, which is one of the world’s largest natural producers of dioxides, also expels bioxides which when combined with saliva form sulfuric acid. Other than the arcane chocoyos no other life exists for miles around the vent. Needless to say, visitors are encouraged to limit their stays.

Masaya, Nicaragua

Trails, maintained by park staff, circle the bleak and rocky moonscape, offering the intrepid traveller the opportunity to explore the fields of volcanic ash and stone, which look the forlorn and twisted sculptures of a modern art museum. As we discovered, however, these trails can come to abrupt ends as they near the crater’s edge and become unstable. Simple wooden signs appear without warning, forcing the hiker to retire, or to continue at his own risk.

Masaya, Nicaragua

The Sandero de los Coyotes, if you can get past the name, is the longest and most interesting of the trails, taking several hours to complete. But even if you have only a short while, the volcano is worth a detour. You will never see anything else like it on earth.

Originally published on Hackwriters: The International Writers' Magazine