Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Coffee vs. Tequila

UNESCO; the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization; is having the annual meeting of it’s World Heritage committee this week, and, as always there will be a heated private debate to decided which tourist traps will be designated “World Heritage Sites.”

These “inscriptions” have been called the “Oscars of the Environment,” mainly because a good number of the nearly one thousand sites are natural wonders, such as Ayer’s Rock in Australia and The Grand Canyon in Arizona. The Committee also designates important architectural and archeological sites, such as Stonehenge in Great Britain and the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor.

These are more controversial; for example, the Gibraltar defenses, carved out of the famous rock in the 18th century and submitted in 1996, were never “inscribed” primarily because of Spanish opposition. Spain has considered the British occupation an open sore for over 300 years, and the designation would be a slap in the face, and so, it remains on the tentative list for the time.

Size isn’t a consideration, these things range from a single small building, in the case of Independence Hall in Philadelphia, to a huge swath of land in subarctic Alaska and the Yukon comprising three large mountain ranges.

Then there are just some that are inexplicable. Take Tequila for example: Now the noxious beverage has it’s fans, I know, but do the blue Agave fields from which the ingredients are grown and the distilleries in the area really deserve the designation they got five years ago?

NO! Now this little travesty has spawned other attempts to “sanctify” one of their country’s major products. Colombia’s attempting to designate its Coffee plantations this year, and so is Jamaica. Now whether or not Jamaica or Colombia grows better coffee than the other is neither here nor there, but France has never had the gall to submit the vineyards of Bordeaux or Champagne for World Heritage Status, and Kazakstan hasn’t tried to get it for the fruit forest in the Zailijskei Alatau mountains (where apples and walnuts, among other things, evolved).

If coffee does indeed get two World Heritage designations, what then? Germany recently tried to get an ethereal “List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity” listing for the 1516 Beer Purity Law, and while French cooking and the Tango have made the list, I don’t think a law that was repealed ages ago belongs. Maybe an ancient brewery, like the one in Budweis, Czech Republic, might do.

While Colombian coffee or Tequila might be intangible cultural treasures, the places where their ingredients are grown aren’t really worthy.

Thursday, June 09, 2011

Libya before the war: part one

Sometime last October I got an email from a company I've never heard of called Bestway Tours. I had met them at a trade fair and had complained that the Libyan government was discriminating against American tourists since we had reestablished relations in 2003.

Well, after seven years, the State Department had finally gotten the then supreme leader Colonel Mommar Gaddafi to issue visas to American tourists and Bestway was going to be one of the first to send a group over there... Would I like to go?

Of course I would! One thing on my bucket list was to circumnavigate the Mediterranean, and you can't do that without going through Libya. Besides, the lure of the forbidden called to me. This trip was going to be really expensive, but dammit, it might be my only chance. Looking back, it very well might have been for a long time to come.

So I took it.

From the start, there were problems. First there was the visa. On a number of occasions in previous years, Libya had announced that they were going to start issuing visas and then reneged at the last minute. It was even more troubling when I was told that we wouldn't know whether or not we would get them until three days before we were due to take off. This spooked quite a few of the group. The large number of people who originally expressed interest began to drop out. I didn't know how many until I got there.

I got the visa over the Internet. It wasn't like those you usually get from other countries that was pasted or stamped on your passport. No, it was a large document in closely spaced Arabic (they provided a translation), that I had to show again and again to various airline people to prove I actually was going to get into the country legally.

After a stopover that was just short enough that I couldn't get out of the airport, I finally got to the Libyan capital of Tripoli. I flattered myself into thinking I was going to be the first American tourist to get in after seven years. Nope. Two people were ahead of me on line. I got through customs with little trouble, and met my guide, an elderly gentleman named Mohammed. Then I found out how big my tour group was.

There was me and this other guy. That was it. Of the 15 people who were going to go, 13 chickened out. Fortunately, they didn't charge me extra for the single supplement.

So there were four of us: Me, Mohammed, the other guy, Bobby, and our driver. It was going to be a surreal experience.

Libya has had a surprisingly large tourist industry. Once you're there it's not hard to see why. The southern coast of the Mediterranean was the nicest place in the Roman world, and the Greeks and Phoenicians before them had done a humongous amount of building before the great tsunami of 365 AD turned everything to rubble.

Then the Vandals came, then the Byzantines took it, and finally, the Arabs. The tribal Berbers gave up on civilization, and no one really cared about the ruins enough to use them as a quarry. So you have some of the best-preserved Roman cities there in Libya. Gadaffi's sons had decided that luxury tourism can be profitable and gives the country a good image. So except for Americans, rich archeology fans were welcomed with open arms. Ports were built nearby so that cruise ships could dock and dump lots of money on the Gaddafi family, which would trickle down to the locals.

Bobby and I would take the standard, authorized tour of the archeological sites, most of which were approved by UNESCO as official World Heritage Properties. Who knew that the timing would be so perfect?

Notes on the Newark Piece summit

The Newark Peace Education Summit was a three-day conference focusing on peacemaking practices from around the world. It featured three Nobel Peace Prize winners, and was, for the most part a total failure.

Now there's a reason for that, there was really no agreed definition of what peace was. Is it a mere lack of war, is it spiritual enlightenment, or personal or domestic tranquility? Is it a separated part of a lemon meringue pie? The only thing that was agreed upon is that it was not the last of these, and as such it was an amorphous discussion of conflict resolution that for the most part had nothing to do with anything, especially personal relationships.

This would have been one of those touchy-feely things that would have gone completely unnoticed by the outside world had not a certain Lhamo Dondrub, also known as the Dalai Lama, been the main attraction. He is the de facto Buddhist Pope, and as such gets lots and lots of attention. He also get's Secret Service protection, which made the entrance to the New Jersey Performing Arts Center and the hotel across the street a pain in the ass.

But there we are, a mega celebrity, and a bunch of lefties, new agers and local politicians trying to sell their wares to an audience who was more then willing to buy. This included two other Nobel Peace Laureates, Jody Williams and Shirin Ebadi, the former of which was actually entertaining and may have actually deserved the thing, and the latter, a humorless ideologue (and former junior member of the Shah's regime) who was given it to give the Iranian regime a black eye.

There were Six panel discussions, four of which were presided over by the Dali Lama (did you know that he was on the CIA payroll for years?), and for the most part they had little to do with what they were advertised about. The first was about "inner peace" and although I missed much of it, what I did see had absolutely nothing to do with personal tranquility. Rabbi Michael Lerner spent an inordinate amount of time promoting a massive wealth transfer to the third world, and Dennis Kuchinich's sick joke of a constitutional amendment, H.Res.156, which would force all businesses to become nonprofit charities. This got applause.

The second panel was even worse. This was supposed to be about "peace in the home" and while one or two of the panelists had a tiny bit to say about the subject, most did not. For the vast majority, who ran NGOs and charities that had to do with halfway houses for prisoners and the homeless. The Dalai Lama said he had no idea what to say because he had no experience! It was worse than useless! Yeesh!

Dr. James R Doty MD practices neurosurgery in Mountain View, California and Stanford, California. He has the unique distinction of being the only graduate of Tulane University Medical School who never managed to get his bachelor's degree first. While googling his name shows that he's a genuine surgeon, much of what he said about his biography didn't make much sense (getting into medical school without a degree, giving his vast fortune away just after he went broke, etc.), he led a major "workshop" on "peace through compassion," which frankly was total BS. I don't remember most of it, because he was so smooth and charming. Another workshop was about interfaith dialogue, but no one sad anything germain to the topic.

The next two grand panels, on education, and within communities, were more germane to what was supposed to be discussed, although like the term "peace" they acted as if they had no idea what the term meant, after all, going around saying "the whole world is a community" really just doesn't cut it. Peace in schools is actually easy to talk about, as tweens and teenagers are for the most part barbarians and conflict is part of the general experience. They didn't give any decent answers to that question either.
The panel on World Peace the next day (the DL had left and the security was gone) was a bash the US session, which showed that they could solve nothing. I didn't attend ecology panel, so I cannot comment.

The main thing I learned is that winning the Nobel Peace Prize doesn't give you moral authority, it just means that you are annoying to tyrants. That might be enough.