Friday, October 25, 2013

Visiting Pope Francis with Catholic pilgrims

Pope Francis on Saint Peter's Square
(more photos of Pope Francis here)
This past week i worked as the Tour Leader for fourteen American Catholic Pilgrims through special Catholic sites around Italy. This culminated with a trip to Rome and Vatican City. Our Vatican experience had three parts: 1. celebration of holy mass in the catacombs of Saint Peter's Basilica, lead by the group's own priest who had organized their pilgrimage (this was beautiful and very special for them), 2. a tourist visit to The Vatican Museums and the Sistine Chapel (the group found this to be a frustrating, nearly pointless experience, due to overcrowding); and 3. a visit to Pope Francis' General Audience on Wednesday, October 23rd, 2013.
i have been working in Rome tourism since 2004. i also attended General Audiences under Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI in previous years. i was always impressed how they would draw tens of thousands of spectators almost every Wednesday.

But going to see Pope Francis is a different thing all together.

On the way to pick up the group at their hotel, i passed Saint Peter's Square in a taxi at 6am. i was SHOCKED to find piles and piles of crowds already. The security line to enter the southern side of the Square was already all the way out to via Gregorio VII and a couple hundred yards up that road! The group was scheduled to depart from their hotel at 7am, arriving by 7.30, THREE HOURS before the event's scheduled beginning, and already i was worried we wouldn't even make it onto the square! (It turns out Francis is attracting 10x more people to his audiences than i observed for his predecessors!)

Crowd gathered to see Pope Francis on Saint Peter's Square, Vatican City

We had even acquired tickets for seats at the audience through the North American Bishop's Association. But, they assured us, tens of thousands more tickets were printed than actually existed seats - we found this out the hard way!

When we arrived at about 7.30am, the crowd was already thick around Saint Peter's Square and up via Concilliazione. That was right about the time the authorities opened the Square and began slowly allowing people through the (symbolic) security check. We didn't make it onto the square until about 9am, after an hour and a half of waiting in shockingly aggressive "line," and by that time the seats were long gone. Even the square itself was nearly full. It would eventually fill, and become only a portion of the much larger crowd surrounding it. 

Saint Peter's Square holds 250,000 people when standing-room only. Today the capacity was a little less as seats were added, but then the crowd gushed wide around the Square too, making the total surely well over that quarter-million mark.

For a long time we waited, standing still in relative silence just waiting for something to happen. Feet got sore, backs cramped, but there we stood, waiting for the Pope.

The event began with a Monsignor reading out a list of groups that had registered to have themselves announced at the audience. My little group of 14 Americans had them and their local parish announced as in attendance at the event, the first time i've ever been people that had this honor.
Pope Francis in front of jumbo screen on Saint Peter's Square

Then, interrupting these announcements (which had been going on for more than an hour, in at least 4 different languages so far), Pope Francis silently glided onto the scene. He was in the crowd, riding in his Popemobile, with a camera man accompanying him, broadcasting his actions and whereabouts on the big screens set up for us around Saint Peter's Square. And he continued moving around the crowd, often stopping to shake hands and kiss babies, and at one point even got down out of the car to kiss the cheek of an elderly woman who was way in the back of the crowd.

When the Pope came close, within about 3 meters, i was surprised by what i felt. i was expecting the simple fun of seeing a celebrity in person, as it was when i encountered Pope Benedict or even (the very aged) John Paul II. But there was something more this time - i actually felt emotionally moved. Some deep sensation i cannot put better words to than just "a really good feeling" rushed through me. When i shared this with the Salesian Catholic priest i was attending the audience with he replied, "I think we are in the presence of a future saint," and i did not find it hard to believe.

When Pope Francis eventually made his way to the stage, he ceremoniously gave the sign of the cross, there was a Gospel reading in many different languages, including English, and then the Pope gave a homily (which i have translated into English.). He spoke in Italian, but i have translated that day's homily into English and you can read it here. (The Vatican publishes a transcript of the homily, and gives an English-language summary, but no translation.) Then the Pope welcomed people from all over the world by individual country. And finally he gave the Papal blessing to the crowd, after having it explained that he intended this blessing to also go onto any objects we were carrying and out to anyone that we in the audience were also praying for.

The biggest difference i noticed from previous Popes to Francis, is that the crowd has definitely and obviously transformed from a tourist crowd to a pilgrim one instead. The people's intention was clearly different - they were here for some spiritual experience, to glean some wisdom or sense some grace. i talked to a Roman man in the packed crowd who said (in Italian), "I have lived here my whole life, and this is my first audience."

"You mean this is your first time coming to see Francis?" i said.

"No, I mean this is the first time I have ever come to The Vatican to see the Pope!" he responded.

He made it clear to me that he was not here to see Francis because of his authority, or because he was famous (as also previous Popes had been) but because, this Roman believed, Francis is holy.

It was an easily observable difference in the crowd: during the audiences of John Paul II, people would come early to get close to him, and then more than half the crowd left as be began to speak. i witnessed this several times. When Benedict was Pope, another group of Catholic pilgrims hired me to take them to his Stations of the Cross performance on Good Friday at the Colosseum. They stressed how important this was to them. So i took them there at the appointed hour. Then, when Benedict arrived, he happened to pass near to where our group was, and he even waved in our direction. That group of 51 American Catholics promptly and unanimously informed me they were ready to go home to the hotel, even while the Pope had only just begun his ceremony.

But despite overpowering crowds and no seats to sit in, this massive audience of Pope Francis remained all the way to his final word on stage. i was very impressed. And a little awed. :-)
Pope Francis on Saint Peter's Square, in Vatican City
(more photos of Pope Francis here)

All photos by the author.

Photos: Pope Francis on Saint Peter's Square, General Audience

Pope Francis, Saint Peter's Square, Vatican City
PaxRyan photos of Pope Francis in Vatican City, on Saint Peter's Square, during his General Audience of Wednesday, October 23, 2013. Enjoy!

Also, you can read about my experience in the Audience here and read my translation of Pope Francis' homily here.

Pope Francis, Saint Peter's Square, Vatican City
Pope Francis, Saint Peter's Square, Vatican City
Pope Francis, Saint Peter's Square, Vatican City
Trying to glimpse Pope Francis, on Saint Peter's Square, Vatican City 
Little boy praying to Pope Francis, Saint Peter's Square, Vatican City 
Pope Francis, Saint Peter's Square, Vatican City
Pope Francis, climbing the stairs of Saint Peter's Basilica during his General Audience
Pope Francis climbing the steps of Saint Peter's Basilica during his General Audience, 23 October 2013
American flag hat in the crowd to see Pope Francis, Saint Peter's Square, Vatican City
The crowd listening to Pope Francis, Saint Peter's Square, Vatican City
Pope Francis, Saint Peter's Square, Vatican City
All photos by the author.

Translation: Pope Francis' Homily, from Wednesday Audience, 10/23/13, Vatican City

Translators notes:

- This is a translation of the homily of Pope Francis' General Audience on Saint Peter's Square, in Vatican City, on October 23, 2013. i was present to hear this homily in person, but i think translated it from The Vatican's published transcript in Italian. From what i can tell, The Vatican offers no translation of these homilies into English. Instead, for this audience at least, the offers only a very brief summary in English. As far as i know a translation of this homily to English does not exist anywhere else on the internet.

- i have left all capitalization and italics the way The Vatican put them in their Italian transcript. For reasons of clarity, i have added some punctuation to bring the translation closer to English rules and sense. i have left the paragraph structures the same as the Italian.

- i have taken the liberty of adding bold-faced highlighting to indicate my favorite parts of the text. It is these parts that inspired me to translate this homily first for my clients, and now for you, my PaxRyan Blog readers. :-) You can see my photos of Pope Francis here and read about my experience there.

Pope Francis on Saint Peter's Square
General Audience, Wednesday, Oct. 2013
"Pope Francis
General Audience
Saint Peter's Square
Wednesday, 23 October 2013

'Dear brothers and sisters, good morning!

Continuing the teaching on the Church, today I would like to look at Mary as image and model of the Church. I take her as an expression of The Second Vatican Council. The Constitution, Lumen Gentium, says, "As Saint Ambrogio taught, Mary the Mother of God is the figure of the Church in the order of faith, of charity, and of perfect union with Christ." (Lumen Gentium, 63)

1. Let's begin with the first aspect, Mary as model of faith. In what sense does Mary represent a model for faith in the Church? Let's think about who Mary was: a Jewish girl, that was expecting with all of her heart the redemption of her people. But in the heart of that young daughter of Israel, there was a secret that not even she herself knew yet: in the loving plans of God, she was destined to become the Mother of the Savior. In the Annunciation, the Messenger of God called her "full of grace," and revealed this plan. Mary responded "Yes," and from that moment of faith, Mary receives a new light: she centers herself on Jesus, the Son of God that took flesh from her, and this completes promise of all history, of salvation. The faith of Mary is the fulfillment of the faith of Israel. All of the path, all of the road of that people that had been waiting for redemption is centered in her. And in this sense she is the model of the faith of the Church, that has Christ as its center, the incarnation of infinite love of God.

How did Mary live this faith? She lived it in the simplicity of the thousands of occupations and worries of every mother in daily life, such as how to take care of the food, the clothes, the care of the house... Precisely this normal existence of the Madonna was the terrain that would reveal her singular relationship and dialogue between her and God, between her and her Son. The "Yes" of Mary, already perfect from the beginning, grew until the hour of the Cross. There her maternity spread wide, hugging each of us, our life, to guide her Son. Mary lived always immersed in the mystery of God turned to man, as his first and perfect disciple, meditating to the Holy Spirit every thing in her heart, to understand and put into practice the will of God.

Let's ask ourselves a question: shall we light ourselves up with the faith of Mary, that is our mother? Or should we think of her as too far from us, too different from us? In the difficult moments of trial, of darkness, do we look to her as model of faith in God, who is it that wants us always and only for us to be well? Think about it, maybe it would do us well to re-find Mary as the model and figure of the Church, in this faith she had.

2. Let's come to the second aspect: Mary as model of charity. In what way was Mary the example of living love for the Church? Let's think about her availability towards the family of Elizabeth. Visiting her, the Virgin Mary didn't bring her just material help. This also. But she brought Jesus, that was already in her womb. To bring Jesus to that house meant to bring joy, full joy. Elizabeth and Zecharia were happy for the pregnancy that seemed impossible at their age, but it is the young Mary that brings to them full joy, that that comes from Jesus and from the Holy Spirit and that expresses itself in free charity, in sharing, in helping, and in understanding.

The Madonna wants to bring also to us, to all of us, the great gift that is Jesus; and with him he brings his love, his peace, and his joy. In this way the Church is like Mary: The Church is not a shop, it is not an humanitarian agency, the Church is not an NGO, the Church is sent to bring Christ to everyone, and his Gospel; not to bring itself. If small, if big, if strong, if weak, the Church brings Jesus and must be like Mary when she went to visit Elizabeth. What did Mary bring? Jesus. The Church brings Jesus: this is the center of the Church, to bring Jesus! If, hypothetically, some time the Church does not bring Jesus, that would be a dead Church! The Church must bring the charity of Jesus, the love of Jesus, the charity of Jesus.

We have spoken of Mary, of Jesus. And us? We that are the Church? Which love do we bring to others? Is it the love of Jesus, that shares, that forgives, that accompanies, or is it a watered-down love, like wine watered-down to make it last longer? Is it a strong love, or a fairly weak love that follows sympathies, that tries to barter, a self-interested love? Another question: does Jesus like a self-interested love? No, he does not like it, because love must be free, like his. How are the relations between our parishes, in our communities? Do we treat each other as brothers and sisters? Or do we judge each other, do we speak poorly of others, do we each take care of our own gardens, or instead do we take care of each other? These are questions of charity!

3. And let's briefly look at another aspect: Mary as model of union with Christ. The life of the Holy Virgin was a life of a woman of the people. Mary prayed, worked, and went to synagogue... But every action was completed always in perfect union with Christ. This union reached its culmination on Calvary: Here Mary united with her Son in the martyrdom of the heart, and in the offer of life to the Father for the salvation of humanity. The Madonna actually took the pain of her son and accepted with him the will of the Father, in that obedience that brings fruit, that gives true victory over evil and death.

It is very beautiful, this reality that Mary teaches us: to be always united with Jesus. Let us ask ourselves: do we remember Jesus only when something goes bad and we are in need, or is our relationship constant, a deep friendship, also when speaking of his path toward the cross?

We ask the Lord to give us his grace, his strength, until in our lives and in the lives of every ecclesiastical community reflects the life of Mary, mother of the Church. So it shall be.'"

Photo and translation by author.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

An American visiting Marrakesh, Morocco

Back in June, i had a few days with no work scheduled, so i decided to get away from Rome and see some place new. The cheapest air flight to an exotic place i could find was to Marrakesh, Morocco. i would have preferred to return to Egypt, but all the budget airlines had discontinued flights there, and EgyptAir flights started at about 300euros. So, Marrakesh it was, and 111euros later (about $150) i was on my EasyJet flight to Morocco!

Moroccan farm land, from plane landing in Marrakesh
As we descended into Marrakesh, the Captain came over the intercom to say we should all stay in our seats and the crew should buckle down for landing. Then a steward came running up from the back of the plane shouting in French and waving his arms frantically. i looked forward and saw a brown-skinned young man up out of his seat, moving through the aisle with a face that showed urgency and fear. And he was not obeying the steward's direction. "Holy shit," i thought, "this is real, we're being hijacked, we're going to have to 'Let's roll,' his ass!!" And when that eons-long-moment had passed, i realized what was going on:

The guy's little brother, maybe 7years old, had unbuckled his seat belt and bolted for the bathroom. Knowing we weren't allowed out of our seat, the big brother was going to bring him back, freaking out the steward. Embarrassed by my inner panic, this is how my Morocco experience began.

But then, landed, everything got brighter and easier. The Marrakesh airport is very nice, clean and modern, with a very calm, easy system to get a taxi into the city. There was a flat rate prepaid at a desk, no haggling with the taxi driver, which i really appreciate. As he loaded my backpack into the trunk, the driver asked me, "Where from?"

"The United States," i said.

"Ahh, Obamaland! Welcome in Morocco!" And that turned out to be about the extent of his English.

Anti-American sentiment, Marrakesh, Morocco.
i stayed at Riad Dar Atta, a cheap Marrakesh riad/hotel which had a perfect position, just five minutes' walk from Jamaa el-Fna Place, or Mosque Courtyard Square, one of the coolest piazzas (squares) i have visited. It is always crowded, always full of music,, street performers, pickpockets, snake charmers (literally), henna tattoo-artists, etc. And it is surrounded by markets and restaurants. It is the main part of the city. i had to pass through it to get to or from pretty much anywhere, and i almost always ran into this guy wearing his American-flag denim jacket, clearly a local guy who worked among the vendors.

You can get pretty much anything you want on the Place. Souvenir stands and fresh orange-juice stands were abundant, people were hawking bottles of water, shops were sporting handicrafts and kitsch, a few young guys quietly asked me if i wanted hashish (i didn't), one man asked me if i was a tourist, and then asked me if wanted a blow job. "No, thank you," i said. 

"I am gay," he replied.

Variety of women's style, in market place, Marrakesh, Morocco
"Enjoy that," i told him.

"I do." He smiled and walked away, looking for some other foreigner to make some easy cash and fun from.

There was relatively few tourists around, compared to the European destinations where i spend more time, but there was constant trickle of scantily-clad backpackers and other travellers. Among the locals, the men were dressed mostly in Western, casual style, usually slacks and a collared shirt and sandals, with a relatively small percentage in the Muslim-style kameez coverall. The women though sported a whole range of styles - some wore completely normal Western clothing like i would see in Tampa or Paris, some wore head-scarfs, just a few were in the full-covering burqas. What surprised me is how you would see a range of these styles even within family-groups or friend-groups strolling around.

i saw one guy walking with a Muslim woman (in head scarf, not burqa) wearing a tshirt that shocked me. i walked way thinking how remarkable and cool it was. Then i realized the opportunity, ran back through the crowd to catch this poor stranger minding his own business, and explained that i was American, that i liked his tshirt, and asking if could get a photo of it. They discussed a bit in Arabic between them, then she took the camera and lined us up for the photo. Check it out, a big pic of the President with the words, "OBAMA IS MY HOMEBOY" written on it!! 
Obama is my homeboy, in Marrakesh, Morocco
One morning i got up relatively early and found a little tea room/bar for breakfast. i had a (lousy) chocolate croissant, (terrible) espresso, and an (excellent) fresh avocado juice with milk. There was a kid probably in his early 20s working there by himself, but i was the only customer. When it came time to pay, he didn't have change, he said, to break the bill i was trying to pay with. "Come with me, we'll find change," he said, and off we went down the road. i think his name was Abdul. At first i thought he was wearing eye liner, imagining him at some rave the night before. i later found out that this was a type of charcoal, and that Bedouin (desert nomad) culture uses it to help with the problems of sand in the eyes, or something like that.

The Arab Awakening: Islam
and the New Middle East,
by Tariq Ramadan
He stopped at a couple of other shops and asked for change, with no luck, so we continued on. We were chatting as we walked. i had been interested in the Arab Spring, and in fact was reading Professor Tariq Ramadan's book, The Arab Awakening: Islam and the New Middle East, as i traveled. From the book, i knew that the Arab Spring revolution had not touched Morocco (and also that Prof. Ramadan claimed it had not managed to grow into an actual revolution anywhere, but that whatever it was it never manifested in Morocco), apparently because when the people had clamored for reform, the royal family of Morocco was not as stubborn or violent as other North African leaders had been in recent years. i asked Abdul what he thought of Mohammed VI, the King of Morocco.
"He is a good man," Abdul said.

"So you like the government?" i asked.

"No, the government is bad. But the King is good," he said.
Abdul, the friendly gatherer. That's my 50dirham
note in his hand, that we were trying to get change for!
Right about then a guy wearing a white keffiyeh desert hat zipped by on a scooter. Abdul yelled something in Arabic. The guy on the scooter yelled back. Then, casually, Abdul began telling me about how i was so lucky that some particular market was open that day which was only open once a month and wouldn't i like to see a shop and blah blah blah. Knowing i didn't want to buy anything, but wanting to be friendly, i was noncommittal in my response. All of a sudden then, though, we arrived at a doorway where Abdul was "sure they have change here."

Coca-Cola in Arabic (no corn syrup in the ingredients,
made with real sugar!)
Inside i recognized the guy from the scooter with the keffiyeh, and that's when i realized i'd been "gathered," as we call it when we do it in Rome - i'd been brought to a shop, where the person bringing me, the "gatherer" was hoping for a commission. But, he was at least right about finding change for my bill there, which was good. And since the guy from the scooter, who turned out to be the manager of the shop, was both friendly and interesting, i consented to sitting through a presentation on of their cactus-leather rugs and blankets, though i promised not to buy anything. "Then have tea, for free, on me!" said Scooter Man. "We do not pressure. Not like Bush: 'YOU MUST HAVE FREEDOM!'" he bellowed, wagging a finger at me, and then roared with laughter, which i shared with him.

Scooter Man was a good presenter and the rugs and stories really were impressive and cool. i even considered buying one by the end of the presentation, until i found out that the cheapest one cost three times more than my hotel room and i had no actual use for the carpets or blankets. True to his word, he did not pressure me, which was a shock. He handed me the change from Abdul's bill, asked if i'd enjoyed the tea (i really had), lead me to the cheap-stuff part of his shop and wished me well. A moment later i was back on the sidewalk, looking for some new adventure.

Scooter rental in Marrakesh, Morocco.
i had picked a up flyer the day before for scooter-rental. i love driving scooters, the best way to get around Rome. So i went to get some wheels there in Morocco, and for the equivalent of about $30 i had 100cc all to myself for the day. i originally paid for a larger scooter though, of 150cc. i had the receipt in my hand and the helmet on my head when the owner noticed that that machine's insurance had expired the week before. "That's no good," he said, refunded me part of my money and gave me a smaller, cheaper, insured bike instead. i was impressed - i do not expect such honesty in my business dealings in and around Rome. 
And off into the desert i went. Or so i thought. Turns out that suburbs sprawl much further than i
thought. By the time i was finally on a highway surrounded by what i thought desert should look like, i was tired and sunburnt and ready to go home. But, adding Africa to my list, i have now driven scooters on four continents (Florida in North America, Italy and Greece in Europe, India in Asia, and Morocco in Africa! :-) )

Dinner on Jamaa el-Fna Place.
i was very impressed with the food and drink in Morocco. There were juice stands all around the old town, and every restaurant had an excellent selection of fresh juices. And in their food they have the awesome habit of mixing sweet and salty. In one meal (pictured here), over looking Jamaa el-Fna Place, i had a fantastic pastarelle, which turned out to be a chicken curry pot pie with super tasty spices inside, that was covered with sugar and cinnamon on top! My taste buds did a happy dance - i've rarely tasted anything so complex and pleasurable! To drink i had the house-speciality orange-carrot-flower water juice. It was all delicious and cost the equivalent of about $7!

In fact, things in general were so cheap that for three full days in Marrakesh, i spent less than $300, including flights, hotels, taxis, scooter rental, food, souvenirs, everything! :-)

All photos by author.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Ayahuasca and Electricity: Useful Mysteries (Save the Rainforest!)

"But how does it work?" they wanted to know.
Image from

The Native American shamans from the Shipibo tribe from Peru had never been out of the jungle before. And they did not understand how electricity works.

Virginia, their host and organizer of their European ceremony tour, could demonstrate easily enough how the light switch works. But the Shipibos wanted to know, if you touch the button on the wall, how does the light get to the bulb on the ceiling? What makes it come on, how does it work?

These shamans were world-class masters of their trade and had been brought all the way to Europe just to help and heal people with their traditional plant medicines. But they could not understand the simple reality of electricity. 

A ten-year old boy overhearing all this interjected, "I know how it works! My momma pays the bill, so the lights come on!"

It's a perfectly good explanation for those of us who grew up with Western technology. But it meant nothing to the shamans. And they were afraid to use the light switch. They thought maybe they could do it wrong and bring on bad, unintended consequences. And although their European hosts earnestly and patiently tried to explain it to them, the concept was just too foreign. They had no vocabulary, neither in their native language nor in their adopted Spanish, to understand things like electrical current, wiring, or utility bills. Only with the greatest hesitation would they take advantage of this technology that we all know to be safe and helpful to the point of seeming necessary, despite its incredible power. In fact, to us its near-magical powers and capabilities have become mundane and unremarkable.
The Power of Your Subconscious Mind,
by Dr. Joseph Murphy.
"A woman asked Thomas Edison, the electrical wizard, 'Mr. Edison, what is electricity?' 
He replied, 'Madame, electricity is. Use it.' 
Electricity is a name we give an invisible power which we do not fully comprehend, but we learn all we can about the principle of electricity and its uses." (The Power of Your Subconscious Mind, by Dr. Joseph Murphy, p. 237.)
And in the same way we struggle to understand the technology of the shamans. Their ayahuasca, their icaros, and their diets are all safe and useful and powerful, but we have no vocabulary, no background with which to understand them before we try them and learn to use and appreciate them.

Virginia told us this story, i think, to make clear the parallel between us and them not understanding the other's technology.

(Just as you wouldn't stick your finger into an electrical socket while standing in a pool of water, so we have to be careful to use ayahuasca safely, under the right circumstances and with the right supervision, but the situation is the same - there is a bit of a leap of faith needed in order employ these technologies from the shaman culture. To find that supervision in Europe, check out the web site for Traditional Plant Medicine or look up the Santo Daime Church.)

And of course ayahuasca is not the only plant medicine that benefits us, and the shamans do not (and do not claim to) have a monopoly on this technology:

While on a retreat at an eco-friendly resort on a rural hill top in Austria, i made friends with a man from Slovakia. He told me that he had been stung by a wasp the day before and that he is severely allergic to them. He said that whenever this has happened before, the sting swells up enormously and painfully. But when he went to the resort's staff to ask for help with the problem, an anciently old Austrian lady who spoke no English lead him back outside to the lawn, where she searched around for some particular green leaves right there in the grass. Finding the right leaves she put them over the man's wasp sting and wrapped them in fabric. Within a couple of hours, all irritation had gone away and it never got swollen. We should not ignore, but instead should learn about, the natural cures all around us.

The Cosmic Serpent: DNA and
the Origins of Knowledge, by Jeremy Narby
And the use of these natural plant medicines are not rare, isolated or only anecdotal. "Pharmaceutical companies have a history of going to the Amazon to sample indigenous plant remedies and then of returning to their laboratories to synthesize and patent the active ingredients.." (The Cosmic Serpent: DNA and the Origins of Knowledge, by Jeremy Narby, p. 39.) The most famous example of this is a medicine we call curare. Natives from the western part of Amazonia (where the Shipibo, among other tribes, come from) developed this medicine to help them hunting monkeys for food. Applied to the tips of blow darts, it numbs the muscles of the monkeys, causing them to follow out of the tree rather than holding on and dying on the branches. "In the 1940s, scientists realized that curare could greatly facilitate surgery of the torso and of the vital organs, because it interrupts nerve impulses and relaxes all muscles, including breathing muscles." (Narby, p.39) "Curare has been used in modern medicine since the early 40's. It has a muscle relaxing effect and easy to control so doctors don't have to use as much anaesthesia in surgery, especially open heart surgery." (, by Richard Fowler.) 

So millions of people have benefited around the world from these native, natural plant medicines. We take and use their technology, but then we do not admit the wisdom and usefulness of their source. 
"Most of the time scientists balk at recognizing that 'Stone Age Indians' could have developed anything. According to the usual theory, Indians stumbled on nature's useful molecules by chance experimentation. In the case of curare, this explenation seems improbable. There are forty types of curares in the Amazon, made from seventy plant species... To produce it, it is necessary to combine several plants and boil them for at least seventy-two hours, while avoiding the fragrant but mortal vapors emitted by the broth. The final product is a paste that is inactive unless injected under the skin. If swallowed it has no effect. it is difficult to see how anybody could have stumbled on this recipe by chance experimentation." (Narby, p. 40.)
And if you ask a shaman how they made these incredibly useful discoveries, they often say "The plants told me," or "The creator gave it to us." Which is hard for us western-know-it-alls to believe; but not so hard to believe that we won't synthesize their discoveries and help ourselves to their medical benefits. 
"An extract of the Pilocarpus jaborandi bush used by the Kayapo and the Guajajara had recently been turned into glaucoma remedy by Merck, the multinational pharmaceutical company, which was also devising a new anti-coagulant based on the tikiuba plant of the Uru-eu-Wau-Wau. The fruit of the Couroupita guienensis used by the Achuar to treat fungal infections, and the leaves of the Aristolochia vine brewed into a tea by the Tirio for the relief of stomache, also attracted interest, along with many other unidentified plants that indigenous Amazonians use to cure skin lesions, diarrhea, snakebite, and so on." (Narby, p. 41.)
Image from
We know already that the Amazon is truly a pharmacy full of useful stuff that we definitely need. Still, "One of the most important reasons for protecting the Amazon Rain Forest is for all the medicine we don't even know about yet. There's so much to learn and discover." (Fowler)

To learn more about to help save the rainforests, check out and raise money for it without actually spending any of your own, simply by using for your web searches. It is simply a portal to Yahoo!, but donations are made to the World Land Trust for every search made through them - easy, painless, and helpful :-) 

Monday, August 12, 2013

Terrorists are like sharks: Avoid drunk driving. Irrational fears decrease safety.

Taxidermed shark, in The Oceanographic Museum of Monaco
Fear cows. Graphic by

On a recent tour through southern France, i brought a group of American high school students, their teachers and families, to Monaco, where i recommended they all visit The Oceanographic Museum.

There we found an extensive set of exhibits on sharks. The exhibits, meant to highlight the concern of the Museum, and of the Royal family of Monaco, that shark finning is highly detrimental to our own health and safety in the long term. It emphasized how drastic reduction in shark population is causing larger problems, including a great increase in the population of jellyfish. Sharks might be yummy, but jellyfish are statistically much more deadly. We have, i began realizing, an irrational fear of sharks that lead us to turn a blind/ignorant eye towards their destruction.

i apologize for my poor photography skills here, but check out this commentary from the exhibit:
"Where is the real danger? Sharks are burdened with the awful reputation of a man-eating species, a reputation that is regularly publicized in the western world by movie directors and hype-mad media. In reality, only a few specimens of this very diverse species...are truly dangerous for Man. The majority is really much less harmful than other more discrete animals. 
Information placard from The Oceanographic Museum of Monaco
And yet, sharks are dubbed 'public enemies,' and as such are under constant attack from Man in his hunger and greed to conquer the marine environment, threatening many shark species with extinction. This incessant plundering threatens the balance of marine ecosystems, driven by Man's appetite for shark fins that is the real justification for these unscrupulous massacres." 
When i later learned from the exhibit both that jellyfish kill many more people than sharks, and that killing sharks increases the population of jellyfish, it became clear to me that a fear of sharks is irrational. i also began to realize how this irrational fear parallels our (American, especially) irrational fear of terrorists and terrorism.

Jellyfish, according to the statistics of The Oceanographic Museum of Monaco, are five times as deadly as sharks. And as we kill sharks, the population of jellyfish grows. Therefore killing sharks actually makes us less safe.

Most dangerous animal in the world. Graphic by
Similarly, killing terrorists and the people near them with drone missile strikes increases the number of people that would support violence and even terrorism. With the United States having used drones to  kill as many Pakistanis as there were Americans killed by terrorists in 2001, according to The Guardian newspaper, "a hydra global insurgency from a plethora of extremist groups in Pakistan has emerged that have links to al-Qaida led extremism and are willing to die to avenge the death of their leaders." To form the analogy, by killing the sharks (terrorists), we create more jellyfish, which are actually even more deadly than what we fear.

Information panel in The Oceanographic Museum of Monaco

Now, on the animal side of this analogy, we ignore the fact that mosquitos kill more than half million people per year, according to the World Health Organization). This global problem though effects the United States very little. The most dangerous animal i could find in America is the white-tailed deer. That's right, according to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration as quoted by USA Today, car collisions with deer cause 200 deaths per year in America, more than twenty times more than sharks cause in the whole world.

Also on the public affairs side of the analogy also, we find many mundane things more deadly than the boogey man of terrorism. The one i choose to highlight here is drunk driving. Never has there been a year, not even 2001 with the events of September 11, when terrorism killed even 1/3 the number of Americans as drunk driving. Attacks took just less than 3,000 lives that daydrunk driving takes 10,000-15,000 per year in America.

Prevent a tragedy, Drive Sober.
Graphic by Zazzle.
Click here to buy that graphic as a bumper sticker.
Drunk driving is like the mosquitoes or deer on the animal side of the analogy - they are actually, statistically deadly. Unlike the animal simile, we can actually do something about this danger, we can avoid it.

Our irrational fear of terrorists and terrorism tend to only increase violence, increase worry, and increase the number of terrorists - it decreases safety.

To increase safety, instead, we should focus on sober driving. If we avoid driving intoxicated and avoid traveling with others that do so, we increase everyone's safety. When we teach children to fear terrorism, we make no one safer and our children more scared - but if we teach them that it is socially despicable to ride with an intoxicated driver, we actually make them safer.

This is the message i conveyed to those American students as a round up from our trip to Monaco. And, as always, this blog is an open letter to myself. And i truly hope to worry less about terrorism and actually avoid all drunk driving, driving only sober, and thus make everyone around me both safer and happier. :-)

Pulitzer Prize-winner Walt Handelsman's cartoon on drunk drivers, as cited by Arial83's Glog.

Friday, August 9, 2013

I am the walrus: Wisdom inspired by Oceanographic Museum of Monaco

"I am the walrus."
"...I am the walrus."
"I am still the walrus."
"III aaaaammmm ttthhhee wwwaaaalllrruuuuus."
"i am the walrus"
All photos by the author. All photos, except that last one, were taken in the Oceanographic Museum of Monaco. Thank you to them for bringing the wise phrase of The Beatles and Maharishi Mahesh Yogi to my mind.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

"Why won't the French speak English??" Americans should understand.

Emotions in Nice, France.

i think it is a well known reputation of the French that they refuse to speak English, even though they can, just out of spite. In fact, there's a joke that's well traveled among those of us working in European tourism that, though the French are maybe not meant to be the main butt of it, depicts this reputation well:

If you go to Germany and ask someone, "Do you speak English?," they will say, "Yes," and then they will speak to you in English.
If you go to France and ask someone, "Do you speak English?," they will say, "No," and then they will speak to you in English
If you go to Italy and ask someone, "Do you speak English?," they will say, "Yes, yes, no problem," but they will not understand a word you are saying.

And my experience is that all three parts are actually accurate, to some extent at least.

But my work brings me to France quite often and i have found there is more to this French resistance than first meets the ear.

For the most part, in the major touristy areas where i work most often (Paris and the French Riviera), most service providers speak English well enough to make both vacation and working there comfortable. As in most European countries, i find though that some people, and some groups of people (namely private bus drivers), often don't speak any English at all. And that is fine and somewhat understandable. But then this happened:

Arriving to a Paris hotel with a group of Americans, i found the Reception staff was able to tell me all the information i needed (room numbers, how to put the little key-card into the slot to keep the electricity working, bar hours, etc.) and answer all of my questions (time of dinner and breakfast, where ATMs are, etc.). Then, to have some chat, i asked one of the guys working there something like, "How's the season been going this year?" He asked me to repeat myself and i did. Then he said, "I'm sorry, I don't speak English."

At first i thought, "Oh my god, this proves it! i know he DOES speak English, but he is refusing to!!!"

Then, on calmer reflection, i realized the legitimate possibility that what i'd heard from so far may be all the English he knows. Someone who interests themselves in basic competency at their job would, i think, learn how to say the always-used-phrases of their job in the most-common language of their clients.

This brought to mind both the joke here above and the angry thoughts that accompany the reputation that the French can speak English but refuse to. And then, from way back in my college days came the following memory:
Michel Rocard, former Prime Minister of France.
Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Former Prime Minister of France Michel Rocard was speaking at my alma mater, The American University, in Washington, D.C. He was there to speak about the importance of limiting the availability of small arms in the world. The crowd was mostly Ambassadors and professors. At a certain point in his speech he made a long pause, and we watched as he thumbed through his several pages of notes. Then, eyes down on his notes, he said, "Some people say the French are arrogant....." and then he kept going through his papers without looking up for a beat. Then he made a big smile and, head down, turned his eyes up towards up, and the crowd erupted with laughter.

It was a great deadpan delivery of a truth that was hilarious to hear purely because of who it was coming from. And now in my mind it was reflecting on that Paris reception worker - he was too arrogant to speak a language poorly, as many of us would be, and so said, "I don't speak English," fully believing it.

He was, and they are, i realized, embarrassed to not speak English better. And so they avoid that legitimately uncomfortable situation by saying, "I'm sorry, I don't speak English."

This was later confirmed in Nice at another hotel when when of my teen aged, American clients went to reception and said, in TV-induced valley girl speed-read accent, "Can I have another towel because they room doesn't have enough and we want more." Now, i thought it would have been reasonable for even a pre-internet age adult from her own country to not be able to understand that verbal explosion. The French receptionist blushed hard and shook her head. So the American repeated herself and the receptionist, red as a granny apple said, "I'm sorry, I don't understand." And i heard and understood real embarrassment in her voice as she spoke. And i began to understand:

This nice little French receptionist had been studying English, and had in fact reached professional competence in that language, just as the one in Paris had. And now this sitcom-like American girl was asking her a question she didn't understand at all, and she was embarrassed.

So i blame the French reputation for refusing to speak English on a bad combination of gaining professional competence (unlike the Italians) without the Germanic-language ease of the Germans, plus their own particular brand of high-self-expectations or arrogance.

And then i realized this is more understandable to us Americans than we probably realized.

i was recently looking through my Facebook wall when i found this:

American flag and French flag together, Normandy, France.

My friend Devon, who is quite a world traveller and actually speaks passable French, was venting about Spanish in way resembling the French attitude! And i found out it's not just him with this very same thought, there's a little Facebook group complaining about having to push 1.  And plenty of other bloggers and writers have made the same complaint.

And that's when i realize: The French are just like us (Americans), except that they actually tend to learn some other languages when they work with foreigners. :-)

All photos by author unless otherwise noted.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Italian View on America and Death Penalty: Translation of Jovanotti's book "Il Grande Boh!"

Jovanotti flashing peace sign! Photo from
Wikimedia Commons.
As an American living in Italy, people (friends, family, travel clients, etc., especially Americans, of course) often ask me what Italian people think of America. It is a complicated question to answer because, just as the USA has many contradictions, so do Italians' feelings about the USA.

Generally speaking, Italians love America. i mean, they walk around with hard-ons for most things American. But then of course there are strong feelings against American political policies, especially on things like war, espionage and capital punishment.

Here, in a book by Lorenzo Cherubini, the Italian rock star and traveller who performs under the name Jovanotti, i have found one of the best representations of this mix of feelings. Much of his style and career celebrate Americana, both directly and indirectly. But in this section, titled "The Horror," of his 1998 book, "Il Grande Boh!" he talks about following one piece of Americana that disgusts him - the death penalty.

i could not find any English language-translation of this passage, or any other part of the book, on the internet. So i have taken the liberty of translating it for you, my dear English-speaking audience. None of the content is mine, it all belongs to Jovanotti, i have tried simply to bring it to light in English-language. Here it is:

" 'The Horror'  February 4, 1998.  
"Il Grande Boh!", book by Jovanotti.
As if New Year's, following the countdown of the TV that brings on midnight, at midnight exactly, in a prison in Texas, mythical land of cowboys and Indians, of cactus and desert, a woman will be executed by means of lethal injection. Live on TV the voice of a journalist over the phone, when midnight arrives and the face of the clock changes the date, tells us that the injection has happened and it sounds like he can see the needle that enters into the arm with the surgical sterility of a hospital procedure, everything clean, everything silent, like they want to give an air of civility to the most barbarous of actions. No, the machete is much better actually, stoning is better, decapitating with a hatchet is better, the amputated head rolling into a basket among screams of a ferocious piazza/people that this precision silences, much better to cut the body to pieces and feed them to the dogs, and to those that applaud the death penalty, or to them themselves, to them themselves is best. While through the needle the poison mixes with the blood of that woman, I was meditating on the horror, the horror that Kurtz spoke of at the end of Apocolypse Now, the horror that traces the continuous line of all human history and that reveals its most terrible face when it is accompanied by the law, the speeches of the powerful, the electoral campaigns, the blue suits and white shirts, the desks decorated with ironed flags that have never seen the wind. 
Reading "Il Grande Boh!," a fascinating book by Jovanotti
One thing is for sure, the death penalty is what renders man the most worthless of creation, I am ashamed of being human when these laws are applied in any part of the world, and in particular when they are applied in the United States I feel a great pain and I feel hatred towards rock, towards Fonzie, towards Coca-Cola, towards Robert de Niro, towards Mickey Mouse, towards Indiana Jones, towards Star Wars and all the American things I have in my veins. Even in my veins I have a bit of poison that tonight entered into the veins of that woman that was killed. I feel like vomiting, America is disgusting to me, with its fucking prairies and its empty skyscrapers, its cursed films and its bloody dollars, it's doll women and its eroticism without sensuality. Many countries have the death penalty but only the United States does it with such cruelty, with such complacency, with a sterilized needle that enters the body. And then the United States makes a big impression on us because, willingly or not, you grow up thinking that they are a model of organization to be imitated, with their beautiful and moving Declaration of Independence. There the death penalty is applied in a scientific manner, with the minimum possible pain. And that sterility, that absence of microbes that show the absolute horror of what is happening, as if canceling the context, as if death were isolated and its face rendered visible. It is the death that arrives with its scythe but a sterilized scythe that leaves no sign and leaves no drop of blood, it's a death without noise, without anger, without screaming, a death accompanied only by a signature on a sheet of paper, it is death elected to represent a nation, a whole nation that becomes homicide nation, that believes to be God and instead puts horror on the scene, and that discredits all humankind in front of the Universe."                (from pp. 104-105, Il Grande Boh!, by Jovanotti, ISBN 978-88-07-88036-0. Translated from the Italian by PaxRyan.)
This testimony of this artist, of this man, that even as an Italian he has America and American stuff in his blood, is powerful.  i think it is a fascinating point, all the more so made by a foreigner though still just as valid, that it is precisely the greatness and powerful influence of America that give it greater responsibility. And that when it fails in that responsibility by leading by depraved, backwards and/or inhumane example, we all suffer for it that much more.

i also agree with him that hiding barbarity in any way, whether it be by making it sterile or by not translating texts that criticize it, helps no one and hurts us all. i believe that with awareness we can fix any inhumanity - even the American death penalty.
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