Category Archives: geography

The End of the World

By Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins

CÓRDOBA, Argentina — Running and walking are terrific ways to get to know a place. The ground-level approach allows for the assimilation of sights and sounds into one’s impression of a city or region. I’ve had a few unique running-based experiences these past few weeks that stood out and I thought I’d share two of them.

Tucumán, Argentina. Tucumán, located in northwestern Argentina, is one of the country’s more forlorn provinces. Sure, the statistics will tell you as much — per capita GDP, unemployment, blah, blah, blah. But so does an experience I had while running the perimeter of the central park of the province’s eponymous capital.

Runners, at least the ones I know, are renowned for peeing in public places — after all, nature is not a call one lets go unanswered. To their credit, however, they generally take pride in discreetness. But the runners from Tucumán, or at least one runner from Tucumán, are in an entirely different league when it comes to audacity for public urination.

One evening a guy running in front of me abruptly stopped, directed himself towards a tree adjacent the sidewalk, dropped trou, lost some water weight, and returned to his workout without so much a glance at the passing rush-hour traffic on one of the heaviest used thoroughfares in Argentina’s fifth biggest city. From the reaction, or lack thereof, of perambulating passers-by, using public parks as a very public toilet is just as normal as the odor that wafts from Tucumán’s public waterways (perhaps not unrelated), the litter on the street, or the countless poor who traverse the city in horse-drawn carts scavenging for recyclables.

Fiambalá, Argentina. Fiambalá is ground zero for organizing this little mountain-measuring excursion into the mountains. It’s a modest pueblito at “the end of the world,” as its residents like to say. It feels the part. Surrounded by desert and near-constantly assailed by howling, sand-laden winds, Fiambalá nonetheless manages to take advantage of its location.

There are two attractions: hot springs and the Andean cordillera. I was there for the latter, but one night I ventured on a run to the former. After departing just a few kilometers beyond the town limits I was stopped in my tracks by the visually arresting clarity of the night sky. When in this part of the world last (two years ago) I made a similar observation in my journal — it is rather hard not to notice. Neither has this escaped the attention of the international astronomical community, which has sited the highest density of high-performance telescopes in the world in the Chilean-Argentinean altiplano region which Fiambalá abuts.

Looking into the sky, I practically felt my own eyes were telescopes. It was all there. The celestial dust of galaxy smeared from horizon to horizon in one shimmering longitudinal stripe, a fallow-yellow crescent moon, and a twinkling firmament stars everywhere else. When the night sky is this clear, this unadulterated, it’s the best show there is.

As fortune had it, the night sky was not the only entertainment on the evening. After reaching the hot springs I took a break to enjoy the lesser twinkling cluster of lights of Fiambalá in the valley below, and of course the greater twinkling mass of lights above. That’s when the guardrails on the side of the road started rattling. Earthquake!

Aftershocks still echo in this part of the Andes from the catastrophic 8.8 Chilean earthquake of late February. Whether this comparatively quaint 5.3 was an aftershock I am unsure, but it was a fun ride and an impressive second act to the sublime display of natural beauty and power to which I was fortunate to bear witness. Fiambalá may seem to be the end of the human world, but it one of the final, increasingly scarce frontiers to the truly natural world as well.


Leave a comment

Filed under culture, environment, geography, Latin America, Overseas Bureau

Municipal Discord: East Jerusalem settlements and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.

By Diana Saverin

JERUSALEM-Around the world, the phenomenon of settlements captures headlines. Before coming to Israel, such headlines for me provoked images of Haredi families living in caravans in the middle of the dessert or old-fashioned couples in Oregon trail-esque wagons settling beyond the “green” frontier. My understanding of the situation was an oversimplification of the reality; I thought of a narrative of the greedy, Israeli, extreme right-wingers who wanted to take away any possibility of a Palestinian state. In some cases, especially in the West Bank, this narrative holds, but living here has shown me that, like with most of the conflict, it isn’t always so simple. So far from simple, in fact, that on Friday I found myself amid a crowd of extremely well armed police and protesters screaming “1, 2, 3, 4, occupation no more!” and other various Arabic and Hebrew chants, debating whether the two bangs I just heard down the road were gunshots fired at protesters.

After weeks of seeing the Israeli flags in Arab neighborhoods, hearing from Palestinians and left and right wing settlers (and everything in between), I remained unclear about the nature of settlements in East Jerusalem. Last weekend, though, I spent a day touring these neighborhoods with a human rights organization, Ir Amim. Throughout the internationally unrecognized conquered land beyond the green lines, settlements have continually grown and developed.

Contrary to my image of them, there’s quite a wide range. There is Gilo, which is beyond the Green Line, but home to 30,000 Jerusalemites and looks identical to West Jerusalem, if not even spiffier. Stone complexes are surrounded with ample parking, sidewalks, overflowing gardens, and more. The area boasts the addresses of many left-wingers, including people I know. Many don’t realize it’s technically a Palestinian settlement; they live there because it’s cheaper, not for ideological reasons. More than half of Jews live in neighborhoods beyond the green lines.

View from the settlement of Gilo (Saverin/TYG)

Moving closer to the headline narrative, enter: clear-cut Palestinian neighborhoods in East Jerusalem where Israelis have bought “outposts.” On face value, these unofficial Israeli settlements appear obnoxious. They wave huge Israeli flags, post menorahs the size of houses in their backyards, and offer absurd amounts of money to buy out current Palestinian residents (unless they take over the land illegally). One resident in the Palestinian neighborhood of Silwan told me about dozens of times settlers have offered up to $7 million for his father’s small plot of land.  Those who sell, though, often face violence if they stick around: a Palestinian who sold his house to a settler on top of the Mount of Olives was found butchered in the back of a car a few years back. Beyond the obvious appearance of invasion, though, the government differential treatment of the two demographic groups becomes stark in such neighborhoods.

A settlement on the Mount of Olives, whose seller was brutally murdered (Saverin/TYG)

A settlement in the Arab neighborhood, Sheikh Jarrah, where Israelis and Palestinians protest together every Friday (Saverin/TYG)

In the Palestinian area, 1,200 schools are missing.  Roads in Arab neighborhoods haven’t been repaved since an American project in 1966 and disallow two cars from comfortably passing each other. They are marked by an absence of sidewalks, and are lined with run-down shops and political graffiti for Hamas, Fatah, and Popular Front.

Most Arab-Israelis refuse to vote because they do not recognize Israel’s occupation of the area, and this leads to little representation in the government. Without representation, trash doesn’t get picked up, schools don’t get built, permits are not given, and the systematic racism perpetuates, but this happens largely within Israeli law. Palestinians are only allowed to be permanent residents, not citizens. Only Jews, spouses of Jews, or citizens can own land.

75% of children in East Jerusalem live in poverty, and seeing such poverty in any context is disturbing. The moment the area becomes a settlement, though, the road becomes perfectly paved with multiple lanes, the previously nonexistent sidewalks arise with perfectly striped red and white paint, and the view is filled with stones and flowers. The suddenness of this change is not something any headline could depict. The difference between this and typical juxtaposition with wealth and poverty is that it is based on systematic racial differences, and thus begets the question: can Israel continue to stake a claim to shared values of liberal democracy and a Jewish state? I had just heard the Deputy Mayor of Jerusalem speak a few days back defending the demolitions because the houses are dangerous and illegal. Perhaps this is true, but it is the system based on racial inequities that is causing this.

The poverty and lack of infrastructure that characterizes many East Jerusalem neighborhoods (Saverin/TYG)

The tour ended in a Jewish settlement, which faces the Shuafat refugee camp across the wall. Since it was a Friday afternoon, Muslim sermons filled the air. The amplified Arabic rang off the divisive barrier, and even though all sermons must be approved by the Israeli government to prevent incitement, I felt incited.

Shuafat refugee camp (Saverin/TYG)

The injustices I had just witnessed felt reactionary, and I was compelled to do something. That afternoon, I stumbled upon a friend attending a protest against demolitions in Silwan, and joined. Every Friday, the same group marches to Sheik Jarrah, as reported in Peter Beinart’s explosive article about American Jews and Israel, but this time Silwan residents requested the group’s presence to shed light on the 22 demolitions that were just approved by the local municipality, to move onto more committees for approval.

Friday protest of the 22 Silwan demolitions (Saverin/TYG)

This situation is complex, and deserves no oversimplification, but for Israel to hold the party line that it is legal ignores the flaws in the current system. It is unsustainable. Following the protest, Israel’s blatantly false coverage of the event reveals its unwillingness to face the current situation in Israel and its territories. Before change or peace can be brought about, there must be truth, and mutual understanding. How can two viable states coexist, when their representations of one city differs so dramatically? There is the Israeli settler Hebron, and the Palestinian Hebron where Israel is mysteriously missing from the map.

I would like to disagree with Foreign Minister Liberman and believe that peace is possible soon, but the settlements reveal to me what stands in the way. Extremists on both sides block peace.  However, I don’t think they’ll have enough power to deter it if the majority of both populations commit themselves to a solution.

The settlements clearly provide a physical barrier to peace as their scattered nature makes dividing the city in the case of a two state system nearly impossible. They reveal a larger wedge between the two groups, though: the unwillingness to acknowledge the truth, whether it is Israel writing off settlers as extremists that have nothing to do with the state and pretending Jerusalem is a united and equal city, or Hamas and other groups holding onto hope that Israel will evaporate from the Middle East. To get to a point where peace is possible, there must be open dialogue at every level from the entire spectrum on both sides.

1 Comment

Filed under conflict, controversy, geography, Middle East, Uncategorized, war

I (Try To) Measure Mountains

By Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins

This is the “who am I, what am I doing, and where am I doing it” post. I’ll attack it sequentially. Firstly, I’m a rising junior in Branford who enjoys studying public policy. But that doesn’t mean I’m without “avocational academic interests.” In fact, this summer is all about avocational academic interests — specifically, a field of geophysics called geodesy (study of measurement of the earth), and more specifically, a field of geodesy called hypsometry (study of altitude).

In general, hypsometry is an antiquated field of study, if one can even call it a field of study in the first place. Remote sensing has done to altitude-measuring mountaineering expeditions what video did to the radio star. But there are exceptions here and there. Mountains that indicate tectonic change, for instance, are of particular interest to geologists, and mountains that represent superlatives, such as Everest, capture the public’s attention. Both require a degree of precision that remote sensing cannot offer.

The summer project that brings me to South America falls more into the latter category; I am working with a mountain of superlatives. Ojos del Salado is the second highest mountain in the world outside the Central Asia cordillera and the highest volcano in the world. It is also in an extremely remote region of the world — the northern Argentine-Chilean border — and has been climbed by very few people and been measured by even fewer. I am in South America to try to measure it.

There is a primary and secondary goal. Primary: Ojos del Salado has two summits of approximately equal altitude and no one knows which is taller. So, using rather precise GPS units (precision<1 cm) that are worth about as much as I am, myself and my climbing partner will try to get to the top of both of Ojos’ summits and record data that can definitively determine the “true”summit.

Secondary: Using altitude data from Ojos’ “true” summit, we’ll compare and corroborate it with data from Aconcagua and Monte Pissis, ostensibly the highest and third highest mountains on the continent, respectively. Through the twentieth century and up until the advent of the GPS, there was a protracted kerfuffle among mountaineers and geodesists concerning the order of the three highest peaks of South America. While that debate has effectively been settled (the accepted order, from first to third, is Aconcagua, Ojos del Salado, and Monte Pissis) it doesn’t hurt to throw additional data of nearly incontrovertible quality at the matter.

Obviously, though, there are a lot of things that can go wrong with this whole endeavor (for one, the weather’s awful — it’s winter in the Southern Hemisphere). And in fact, something already has gone quite wrong: a major bureaucratic obstacle from the Argentine Federal Police that has set everything back four weeks. So if you see my posts from locations that are not northwestern Argentina, it’s because I’m piddling around, killing time, and visiting friends before getting back to work. Fortunately, there are worse parts of the world to be “stuck” in!

Leave a comment

Filed under environment, geography, Latin America, Overseas Bureau

Culture and the Cup, Dispatch 2: Buenos Aires

By Ramon Gonzalez

BUENOS AIRES — It began as a World Cup, has become South America’s, and the hope here is that it will end as Argentina’s. With confident play so far and brief glimpses of brilliance, the national squad has grounded the faith here in reason, and to see a well-coiffed Diego Maradona patrolling the sidelines in a suit makes one believe in the providential workings of the Hand of God.

With the recent and (here) delightful collapse of the French team, the struggles of Old Europe, the bizarre and card-happy referring which makes even NBA referees appear competent, the charming American exuberance, and the sincere concerns for the North Korean’s coach’s return home, the travails of Argentina’s qualifying campaign have largely faded from mind. I believe, however, that they do deserve a brief nod. Argentina suffered through a 6-1 thrashing from Bolivia (the second to worst team in the continent). It spent many long nights and days discussing why Lionel Messi — Argentina’s star and the world’s best player — could not replicate the form that graced his club play for Barcelona, risked seeing Coach Diego Maradona — the best player in Argentina’s history and among the best ever — suffer the indignity of helming this tragic failure, squeezed into the last automatic qualifying slot from South America, and sat through verbal volleys in the press from players, coaches, and administrators that mucked through the lewd to make their points. So Argentina can be forgiven her present excitement.

Besides offering irregular soccer commentary, in Buenos Aires I am working at the Argentina Council for International Relations where you’ll find my writing on the G20 Finance Ministers’ Meeting, Obama’s National Security Strategy, forecasts about European financial trouble, and a preview of the upcoming G20 conference in Toronto (sorry, but Spanish only). To whet your appetite and in case your favorite team books an earlier than expected flight home from South Africa, I’ll soon be covering (provided Argentina (or the US or Spain – I’m working the odds here) doesn’t do too well) the consequences of Juan Manuel Santos’ victory in the second round of the Columbian Presidential elections and Argentine debt and trade disputes. Please pace your reading so you don’t overload the servers all at once.

Let’s return to the game. Or rather, the game surrounding the game, as there is little of much interest to say about Argentina’s productive and solid victories against rather outmatched competition. As most of the matches fall here during normal working hours, many employers have taken to setting up televisions in the office for everyone to gather around, a clear-eyed concession to the reality that when the national team plays, everything stops. For those caught walking on the streets, a symphony of car horns keeps all abreast of an Argentine goal, and inside the slap of hands and shouts of joy match the sound. On television Argentina games merit hours of commentary and dissection with strategic considerations and player decisions receiving the full CNN election treatment of touch finger screens and images dragged in all directions.

In reading about the Cup I’ve comes across a quote from CLR James, a Trinidadian historian of repute, that I particularly enjoy. Motivating his famous autobiography which discusses cricket, Beyond a Boundary, was the question, “What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?” From the inescapably charged discussion surrounding the use of vuvuzelas to the oftentimes enjoyable awkwardness and bad feeling when countries play their former colonial powers (and frequently win), the nasty commentary at some French players after the team’s poor showing to the wincing at a white American’s overdone enthusiasm for the African teams: when the camera cuts to the mugs of politicians and royalty watching their teams play, it’s a reminder that there are not just 22 men on the pitch.

Four geopolitical storylines involving Argentina deserve mention, one already in progress and three to play out. First, the poor showing by European and African squads and the dominance by the Americas, and in particular South America, whose five teams have not yet suffered a loss, seems likely to ignite pressure for reform of the qualifying system and FIFA rankings. Using the grass leaves from the pitch as clues to some larger commentary on national strength is as hackneyed as it often is wrong, but European failures can’t be welcome by politicians back home desperate for some good news during a brutal series of months on the economic front. Second, the emergence of Brazil as a world power and leader in South America has occasioned a noticeable inferiority in Argentina, another reminder of its past economic superiority and the accumulated toll of years of anemic growth. An Argentine victory in the Cup would be enjoyed, but a victory over Brazil particularly so. Third, Argentina and Uruguay have a longstanding dispute over a pulp mill on the Uruguay River. Though less present in the national consciousness, a game against Uruguay would invite reflexive flexing of nationalist muscles in some quarters. Finally, with Presidential elections a year away a fairly strong anti-Kirchner (referring to both the current President Cristina Fernandez and her husband, the former President Nestor Kirchner) mood has taken hold. At a gathering of diplomatic types I was told that some opposed to the pair are privately hoping for an early Argentine defeat to prevent soccer success from propelling the duo back into the Casa Rosada, the seat of the Argentine presidency, amidst a general national mood of good feelings. Though you have to imagine those doing so are not the most devoted of soccer fans.

That cautions one against the geopolitical instinct. Sometimes as Americans know well, it is tough enough just to know cricket. Though it’s difficult to resist imagining some friendly side-betting taking place between leaders at the G20 summit this weekend, when politics seems to intrude on soccer I generally prefer to imagine it the other way around, that soccer and sport intrude on politics, or more precisely, on the human lives that make up our politics. The world now is at play. Let’s enjoy it.


Filed under Culture and the Cup, economy, geography, Latin America, partisan politics

New Impressions of an Old and Contested City

by Diana Saverin

JERUSALEM — In order to work for an international media organization that educates the press on Israel, I will be calling this fascinating city my home for the next nine weeks. I have just moved into a loft in Emek Refaim, more commonly called “the Germany colony” because long ago this was where the Germans lived. Our area is nice and full of little bookstores, gardens, restaurants, stores, and coffee shops. There are several old residential “colonies” throughout the city — you can tell where the old German houses are because their doors and shutters are made of wood. No Israelis use wood on their houses; all of the Israeli buildings here have to be made out of the same stone, which makes views of the city from above quite dramatic.

In the center city is the “shuk,” which is the Hebrew word for market. The shuk winds under a tarp with tons of fresh fruit, vegetables, olive oil, bakeries, ice cream, meats, fish, and anything else you would want! I have also made it to the Old City, which is next to center city. The Old City alone has four different quarters — the Muslim quarter, Christian quarter, Jewish quarter, and Armenian quarters — and the Muslim quarter leads to the Western Wall. The Muslim, Christian, and Armenian quarters consist of rows of markets in streets that wind beneath arches, and the stones on the roads have been there for at least 2,000 years.

The Western Wall offers quite a contrast, as it is an open courtyard with the area closest to the wall closed off for prayer. This praying area is divided between men and women, and there is a good deal of controversy surrounding the women praying. Apparently women who have worn the praying shawls that many of the orthodox men wear, women who have prayed too loudly, women who have not been modestly enough dressed, or men and women who have prayed together in the open area have had objects thrown at them or been subject to arrest. There isn’t as much controversy surrounding the fact that the men’s praying side is significantly larger, has more praying tables, and has an eight story tunnel next to the wall that can be used for prayer during rain. It is simply unfair in the same way that many Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox Jewish practices are to women (i.e. women in some synagogues aren’t allowed at the front near the Torah or allowed to touch it or sit with the men).

Yesterday I returned to the Old City with a Jerusalemite who is a tour guide after an afternoon spent overlooking the area in beautiful gardens. It was previously the poorest part of Israel, because it bordered Jordan before the 1967 Six-Day War and was victim to bombs and rockets. Once it became a part of Israel, the poor were kicked out and it became the most expensive place to live, which is another controversy. Despite the controversy, it is a lovely place: there are no cars allowed, and the flowers are incredible. Vines and trees overflow onto the sidewalk, and in between the houses you can eye the walls of the Old City.

It seems that every square foot of land in this city incites debate: just outside of the Old City, there is a new parking lot where about thirty Orthodox Jewish men were protesting, screaming “Saturday” in Hebrew because the cars park there on Saturdays, which violates Shabbat. The parking lot was put there after another parking lot for those going to the old city was installed in an Orthodox neighborhood. This move has left the group equally displeased. Their numbers have dwindled over the past months; my tour guide friend recalled hundreds of them blocking the streets a couple months ago. He brought me through the Jewish quarter, which has some incredible Roman remnants and looks quite different than the alleys of the other three quarters. I walked through the same parts of town as the day before, but had a far richer understanding as my friend used his expertise to carve through the extraordinary layers of the city and dissect the significance of the each areas to the each religions. We ended at the spot where Jesus was put on the cross and buried. In one hour, we saw the most holy spot for Jews, one of the two holiest spots for Christians (the other being Bethlehem), and the third most holy spot for Muslims, and they are all within five minutes walking distance!

Leave a comment

Filed under architecture, geography, Middle East, Overseas Bureau, religion, urban affairs