Friday Fiesta: The Real Big Bird, Famous Birthdays, and Beer for Fido

Coming 30 January! CLIFF DIVER: An Emilia Cruz Noveldog in birthday hatAs a fiction and mystery author I love to weave  unique cultural gems into the plot. Most of the time I draw on my own world travels and experiences living in Mexico and Central America.

In these Friday Fiesta posts I highlight cultural stories worth celebrating. The unique, the odd, the thought-provoking. Join the movement and share your own good news stories on Twitter with hashtag #FridayFiesta.

Red Robin

The 1to1media.com website carried this super story about the Red Robin restaurant chain’s official policy of random act of kindness. Red Robin’s signature “Ymmmmm” also means that management and wait staff are empowered to cut customers’ bills, offer on-the-spot specials for customer events and other actions that elicit customer testimonials. We’re not talking just a few comments a sidebar. There are so many comments on the Red Robin website that it is a whole section. Now go get a burger.

Sistine Chapel aged 500 and colder

About three years I was lucky enough to tour the Vatican. I walked through the Sistine Chapel with my head canted back in awe and the rest of me roasting in a herd of tour groups. This amazing space celebrated its 500th anniversary last October and several websites like the Cultural Travel Guide celebrated the occasion with a story or retrospective. But keeping this 500-year-old wonder in good shape is a herculean act of historic preservation: dust, dander and other “bodily debris” from the thousands of tourists who pass through every day dirty it up. The UK’s Guardian quoted the director of the Vatican museums, Antonio Paolucci as saying that the Vatican will install a special carpet and air handling systems to ensure that “visitors who traipse sweat, dust, skin flakes and hair into the 16th-century chapel will be ‘dusted, cleaned and chilled.’” Maybe next time I’ll bring a sweater. One that doesn’t shed, of course.

A Tubular Birthday

London’s subway system, the Tube, is 150 years old this year. Guardian reporter Stephen Moss celebrated with a 52-mile ride on the Central line, including the 6 miles used before 1994. His commentary is consummately British and clever (From Epping I go just one stop – to Theydon Bois. I’ve never been to Theydon Bois, but have always been captivated by the name, which suggests a Victorian actor-manager or a well-meaning but talentless amateur captain of the England cricket team c 1910) and the journey, as well as key moments in Tube history, comes to life in his words. He does mention the price of a go-anywhere ticket, which made me gulp, but it is a ride on a piece of history.

Beer in the Doghouse

According to paste.com, Boneyard Brewery in Bend, Oregon, has created an alcohol-free beer for dogs made of vegetable broth, water and spent grain from the brewery. Paste.com says the beer, which is sold in 16 ounce bottles, can be enjoyed by Fido as a treat by itself or mixed with dry food for the ultimate dinner. Let the party start!

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The Friday Fiesta: An Outdoor Seat, Music, Chocolate, and a Story

As a fiction author I love to weave  unique cultural gems into the plot. Most of the time I draw on my own world travels and experiences living in Mexico and Central America.

In these Friday Fiesta posts I highlight cultural stories worth celebrating. The unique, the odd, the thought-provoking. Enjoy and share to make the world a little smaller today.

Have a Seat

The website theverybestop10.com brings us a montage of park benches around the world that is surprisingly startling and thought-provoking and nearly had me running for my passport. From a bench that looks as if it is part of a giant slingshot by German artist Cornelia Konrads to book-shaped benches in Istanbul and a shark attack bench in Bangkok, these photos and the imagination behind them are a guaranteed smile. Check it out—there might be a bench near you.

The Landfillharmonic

There are a few YouTube videos on the small orchestra created in Cateura, Paraguay, using instruments made from trash from a local landfill. I recommend a quick view of this 3 minute short. The stringed instruments sport odd shapes and labels from the boxes, cans, and other containers cannibalized to make them but the music—and obvious dedication of the music teacher–is worth celebrating. You can check out this Facebook page for more about the orchestra and the documentary about it from an often overlooked part of the world.

Saving Chocolate

The cultureist.com online magazine—one of my favorite feel-good online locations—carried this interesting story about cocoa farmers in the impoverished Democratic Republic of the Congo. Candy maker Theo is producing two new organic, fair trade certified chocolate bars: Pili Pili Chili, “an intensely warming blend of cocoa, vanilla, and spicy peppers; and Vanilla Nib, a scrumptious mix of cocoa, creamy vanilla, and crunchy cocoa nibs.” The website reports that Theo says the “fast-growing, high-yield crop requires minimal re-planting, prevents deforestation, commands solid global prices, and is a major source of income.” Theo chocolate is sold online and at Whole Foods Market stores.

Story Sees the Light of Day

“The Tallow Candle,” a handwritten early story by Danish storyteller Hans Christian Anderson—author of “The Little Mermaid” and other famous tales–was recently unearthed in a box of miscellany by local historian Esben Brage in the National Archive in Odense, Andersen’s home town. Published in English by Danish media outlet politiken.dk after validation by experts including Ejnar Stig Askgaard of the Odense City Museum, Bruno Svindborg of the Royal Library and Professor Johan de Myliu, you can read it here. As the UK’s guardian.co.uk reported, “The story tells of a little candle, dirtied by life and misunderstood, which eventually finds happiness after a tinder box sees the good at its heart and lights it.” Given the news lately, this discovery is pretty timely. We all need a little more light in our lives.

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A Nicaragua Christmas: Shopping at Mama Delfina’s

Managua, Nicaragua, is full of surprises including the beautiful art and antique store, Mama Delfina’s.  Housed in a large white Spanish colonial building with an open courtyard and beautiful old brickwork, the place is a treasure trove of handmade holiday gifts and decorations, carefully curated to offer a collection of best locally-produced items.

While the original Delfina, whose picture is above the cash register, looked on with stiff-necked amusement, the staff graciously let me roam around and take pictures. I hope you enjoy the experience as much as I did!

Mama Delfina entrance

An old picture of Delfina and a painting of the store hang above the antique blue counter


artwork at Mama Delfina

The store features beautiful displays of painted boxes, frames, wooden angels and handmade paper goods


Silver frames

Some of the frames are of intricately punched metal, a technique that in Mexico is called repujado


Christmas ornaments

All the Christmas ornaments at Mama Delfina’s are one-of-a-kind


Boxes

Each painted box was a mini-masterpiece of abstract art. Loved the wonderful tablescapes throughout the store.


desk

The store is arranged as a series of vignettes showcasing art and antiques.


textile bags on display

The store carries a line of bags made from a loomed woven fabric that was prohibited during the Samoza regime but is now being reproduced in Nicaragua


archways of art

A beautiful vignette of art, holiday items, and antiques


art on wall

The store chooses and displays art with a practiced eye

The Friday Fiesta: Safari, Snow, Scotland and Surprising Films

world holiday ornamentAs a fiction author I love to weave  unique cultural gems into the plot. Most of the time I draw on my own world travels and experiences living in Mexico and Central America.

In these Friday Fiesta posts I highlight cultural stories worth celebrating. The unique, the odd, the thought-provoking. Enjoy and share to make the world a little smaller today.

Join the Virtual Safari

National Geographic’s Andrew Evans is on the move again, this time on safari in Tanzania. He is documenting his trip with a series of blog posts, photographs and short videos, as well as tweeting his way through some tense moments with skittish wildlife. Evans is a great communicator, managing to keep us on the edge as he tweets his adventures. His longer blog posts provide more thought-provoking reports on conservation and the beauties of Africa. Follow him @WheresAndrew.

Let it snow

Images of the winter wonderland that is Zurich, Switzerland were featured on Anisha Shah’s website this week. The photos are beautiful, showing gentle blankets of snow tucked around iconic European motifs. The result is a Christmas feast for the eyes, a gentle, dreamy fairytale digital experience. Everybody who is looking forward to a snow-less holiday season, like me here in the tropics, should spend a moment savoring these images. I especially loved the swan amid the snowflakes.

Glasgow transformed

My perceptions of Glasgow, Scotland, have been shaped a little too firmly by Ian Rankin’s novels, which are set in the seemingly much-preferred Edinburgh, so I was intrigued by artist Claire Biddles’ article in the online edition of UK’s Guardian talking about the transformation of the city into a “culture city.” According to Biddles, “The role that artist-run spaces have had in Glasgow’s reinvention as a creative city cannot be underestimated, and as long as the artistic community continues to develop, this image will be sustained – attracting artists and art lovers alike to the city.” The article describes several of the art spaces in Glasgow, painting a picture (pun intended) of a vibrant and effective effort to enrich the city “culturally and economically.” Tourists and travelers take note; there’s more to Glasgow than ever before.

Films to Inspire

Roman Coppola, son of legendary director Francis Ford Coppola, teamed with W Hotels to offer a film competition: screenwriters had to submit screenplays with two ingredients: location is a W Hotel and there’s an Intel Ultrabook somewhere in it. The winners produced four short films which were recently featured on the Gadling website. The films take place at W Hotels in Doha, Qatar; Mexico City, Mexico; Washington, DC; and the Maldives. The website said, “The results are quirky, touching, and sometimes eerie, but most of all great ways to inspire travel and help emerging talent get their feet off the ground.” I agree. With the help of sponsors like W Hotels and Intel, this is a great way to showcase locations, open doors to a new culture, and give wanna-be filmmakers a chance to do what they love!

Crafting a Christmas at the Mercado

This is the year my Christmas won’t be Made in China. Instead of the usual commercial shiny things we all know and love, I’m aiming for a simpler reminder of what the holiday is all about. Decorations, cards, and gifts will reflect skill, art, and natural materials instead of glossy plastic and machined perfection.  My sources will be local craftsman, a few boutique stores, and several charities.

A stroll through the mercado de artesanias in Masaya, Nicaragua last weekend was the starting point.

typical market scene

Just a typical aisle in the market which is located in an old colonial building with plenty of light and a restaurant on one side.


woven textiles

Most of the textiles in the mercado are from Guatemala. We saw scarves, table runners, and placemats but only a few larger pieces.


The terracotta pots on top look like smiling faces. Or maybe the Kool-Aid jug guy.
I had a sizzling pollo a la plancha after a day of hard shopping and it was delicious. Washed it down with a local beer and was ready to spend a little more!
Pottery plate

This beautiful plate is typical of the colors and motifs found in Nicaraguan pottery.

If you are having Christmas in Mexico this year, check out my post on favorite markets in Mexico City and have a wonderful time!

The Friday Fiesta: An Odyssey, An Artist, Manners, and the Radio

dog and globeAs a fiction author I love to weave  unique cultural gems into the plot. Most of the time I draw on my own world travels and experiences living in Mexico and Central America.

In these Friday Fiesta posts I highlight cultural stories worth celebrating. The unique, the odd, the thought-provoking. Enjoy and share to make the world a little smaller today.

His Odyssey Expedition

Daily Telegraph reporter Graham Hughes started 1 January 2009 on a trip that would take him around the world without any airplane travel. After 1,426 days on the road and more than 200 countries across six continents, Hughes wrote this fabulous wrap-up in which he said: “I undertook this challenge for many reasons: to set a Guinness World Record, to raise money for the charity WaterAid, to have great stories to tell the grandchildren. But the main reason was that I wanted to prove it was possible: to show that all the great travel adventures have not already been done; to show that the world isn’t the terrible scary place so often portrayed in the media; to show that, yes, with a British passport, a fistful of dollars and the right amount of tenacity, grit and patience you can – if you really want to – go anywhere.” Hughes’ determination, accomplishment and the resulting article are all terrific.

 In the Tradition of Art Saving Wildlife

Following in the tradition of the Audobon Society and the World Wildlife Fund, both rooted in work by noted wildlife artists, California artist David Tomb has started a conservation effort called Jeepney Projects Worldwide to save endangered birds including the great Philippine eagle. A Huffpost article quoted him as saying: “Making artwork of the birds is a way to connect and personalize my experience of seeing the birds . . . The ultimate goal is to have people think: ‘That animal is incredible.'” Tomb’s artwork, included in the article, is also incredible and worth a look, if for no other reason that the Philippine eagle, weighing in around 18 lbs., is an arresting and unique creature.

 Asian Etiquette

Did you know that religious views play a role in good manners in Asia? The website backyardtravel.com, devoted to Asian travel, writes “The sole of the foot is considered such a dirty thing that it is even seen as an aggressive, rude gesture in Thailand to show someone the sole of the foot – similar to ‘flipping the bird’ in the USA, or ‘putting two fingers up’ in the UK. Continuing the theme on feet, shoes must also be removed when entering someone’s house in Asia, and in Thailand never, ever stand on anything with an image of the King on, like money or postage stamps for example.” This short and useful article gives other good tips for showing good manners when travelling in Asia. Related to this is my Rude in Any Culture post, with a similar foot warning.

Salaryless Radio Host in Peru Still Going Strong

Peruvian radio host Maruja Venegas has been on the air for 68 years, making her the longest-running radio host ever, according to Guinness World Records. Venegas is 97 and her fans are still listening to her show “Radio Club Infantil” which airs Sundays at 6-6:30 pm on Santa Rosa, a religion-oriented station. The show, which started in 1944 as a broadcast for sick children, has expanded and contracted over the years—impacted by Peru’s political and economic circumstances. Venegas, who has never been paid for the show, is her own producer and has got her formula down; the show now always includes a story, music, advice and commentary. The story is a salute to tenacity and for doing something you love and think is important enough to do, regardless of the reward.

The Friday Fiesta: Turkish Delight, Brit Food, Art and Drink

As a fiction author I love to weave  unique cultural gems into the plot. Most of the time I draw on my own world travels and experiences living in Mexico and Central America.

In these Friday Fiesta posts I highlight cultural stories worth celebrating. The unique, the odd, the thought-provoking. Enjoy and share to make the world a little smaller today.

Not Everybody’s Eating This Turkish Delight

Muhtesem Yuzyil, or Magnificent Century, is either a blasphemous mess or a cultural revolution, depending which side of the television the viewer is on. Magnificent Century is a primetime soap opera about Suleiman the Magnificent and Hurrem, the slave who became his powerful wife, set in the mid 1500’s with the same production values and historical punch of the BBC’s Henry VII series The Tudors. The show debuted in January 2011 and immediately elicited 70,000 (!!) complaints, including from Turkey’s prime minister, according to the online edition of The Guardian newspaper.

WeBlogtheWorld.com picked up the story this week, noting that the show sparks both controversy and huge audiences (a recent episode was watched by 85 million viewers in 45 countries including half of all Muslim women over the age of 15)  because “the show presents women as equal to men. There are scenes of kissing, drinking and sex that are formerly unheard of on Middle Eastern television, and, in the case of Magnificent Century, a Muslim leader famous for his religious tolerance and ability to work with people of other faiths.” Popularity and controversy = cultural change? Yikes. Stay tuned.

Surprising British Food

I’ve spent a lot of time in London and generally avoided restaurants with traditional Brit fare (except for Fortnum and Mason, of course) because Brit food is doughy, tasteless, and unchanged since the Battle of Trafalgar.

But matadornights.com is convincing me I’m wrong with a great story entitled “Why British food isn’t as bad as you think.” The post lists the best Brit food, including fish and chips, bangers and mash, chicken tikka masala, Yorkshire pudding AND tells you where the best can be found. With pictures! That actually look good!

The Middle Eastern Art Scene

Abu Dhabi leads the arts and cultural preservation scene in the Middle East and thenational.com does a great job of tracking developments. The website recently ran journalist Jessica Holland’s guide to buying Middle Eastern art. Holland advises collectors to look for a story related to the artwork and understand how the value will be impacted by the country the artist is from. Trending now: art by Syrian and Egyptian artists. Nice to know there’s more going on in the region besides what’s on CNN.

Drinking Advent

I love advent calendars. Remember the bit from the BBC show The Vicar of Dibley with Dawn French?

Geraldine: How many chocolate advent calendars should a greedy person have?

Alice: I don’t know. I should think about 30.

But societeperrier.com’s Cocktail Culture has something even better than chocolate. The ultimate in advent calendars is the Whiskey Advent Calendar! A dram of single malt for each day. One season, two religious experiences.

© 2016 Carmen Amato.

Hello

I’m author Carmen Amato. I write romantic thrillers and the Detective Emilia Cruz mystery series set in Acapulco. Expect risk, power, corruption. And relationships with heat.  More

The Friday Fiesta: Travel, Time and Not Enough Sparkly Wine

As a fiction author I love to weave  unique cultural gems into the plot. Most of the time I draw on my own world travels and experiences living in Mexico and Central America.

In these Friday Fiesta posts I highlight cultural stories worth celebrating.The unique, the odd, the thought-provoking. Enjoy and share to make the world a little smaller today.

Are You This Kind of Traveler?

The online Sydney Morning Herald reported on a Skyscanner survey of flight attendants that revealed the top 10 most annoying things that air travelers do. Snapping fingers at flight attendants is number 1, not a big surprise. Trying to get out of the plane before the light goes off and stuffing too much into the overhead bin are numbers 2 and 3.

I read the list with great smugness until I came to number 7: leaving trash in the seat pocket. Er, um, yes, the used tissues, empty sugar packets, and crumpled newspaper from seat 7B were gifts from me.

For more tips on how to be a bad traveler read my list of 25 Ways to Be the Worst Traveler in the World.

Not All Time is Equal

I’m often struck by cultural differences in time management. For example, in one country the gardener wanted to come every 15 days, rather than every other Wednesday (but mostly he never showed up at all) while in another place the cable TV bill was not always for the same duration, making each a surprise. The website yourlanguageplace.com had a thought-provoking article entitled “How Language Can Shape the Perception of Time” that is worth a read. It is an excellent discussion of how different cultures have different perceptions of time and how language feeds into that. This issue is a small but meaningful part of interacting with people from different cultures on a daily basis. Related to this is my post on cultural differences regarding money.

Changes in Latitude

The codesign website brings us a gallery of photos from 70 degrees north latitude. I clicked through the photos, riveted by the simple images that represent a photographic line through the United States. From N 40° 00’ 00” W 97° 00’ 00” Hollenberg, Kansas, 2007, to N 40° 00’ 00” W 109° 00’ 00” Rangely, Colorado, 2000 and so many other locations, this imagery collection is a significant achievement in terms of research, photography, and curation.  What I didn’t expect to find but did: a view into the culture of rural America. Added cool thing: website scrolling is horizontal, mimicking the concept of latitude. Check it out. Just lovely.

The Coming Champagne Crisis

The Huffingpost Post reports that hail storms and fungus due to overly wet weather will reduce France’s champagne grape harvest by 40%. Champagne takes at least 15 months to ferment, meaning that champagne prices for the summer of 2014 could be higher despite a reserve built up by lowered demand in previous years due to recession in the US and Europe. But demand is on the rebound at least in the US. So what’s a discriminating consumer to think?  Spoiler alert for weddings, graduation parties and book launch events.

The Friday Fiesta: A Ride, A Book, Olives and Remembrance

Party tootsAs a fiction author I love to weave unique cultural gems into the plot. Most of the time I draw on my own world travels and experiences living in Mexico and Central America.

In these Friday Fiesta posts I highlight cultural stories worth celebrating. The unique, the odd, the thought-provoking. Enjoy and share to make the world a little smaller today.

Would You Ride?

The world’s longest and highest cable car service will reopen early next year in Merida, Venezuela, according to a BBC report. The cable system is more than 7 miles long, rising to more than 15,330 feet above sea level at the summit of Pico Espejo — one of the highest peaks in Venezuela’s Andean mountains. Originally built in 1960, the trip of around 2 hours takes intrepid travelers from Merida to the magnificent scenery of the Andes. From the report: “On a clear day, the craggy outcrop of Pico Espejo — where the resident Virgin Mary statue is sometimes covered in ice — provides panoramic views of the surrounding range, as well as a bird’s-eye view of Merida in the distant valley below.” Equal parts amazing and scary.

War and Remembrance

TheWorldisWaiting.com blog gave us a unique take on war museums this week, including some little known museums that capture events and places that are all too easily forgotten. I’ve been to three museums on the list: the Imperial War Museum and the HMS Belfast, both in the UK, and the Checkpoint Charlie Museum in Berlin and recommend them all. But of special note is the JEATH Museum, Kachanburi, Thailand. “JEATH stands for Japan, England, America, Australia, Thailand and Holland, which represent the nationalities of the prisoners of war forced to work on the construction of the famous Bridge on the River Kwai.” It wasn’t just a movie.

In the same vein, here’s my blog post on resistance museums.

The Olive Harvest

Did you know how olives are gathered to make olive oil? Check out the blog post by @ItalianNotes for beautiful photographs and a video on how “In our part of Puglia the old contardini swears by the scopetta. With an old organic broom they sweep a circle around every single olive tree making the red earth hard, smooth and clean, so that olives can easily be gathered, when they are ripe and ready to fall off the tree.” The post is lovely—a simple snapshot of a an industry that reminds us of the value of tradition and the calm that comes from living close to the earth.

The First Book and it’s Not the Bible. 

John Wainwright, a computer specialist, ordered the first book from amazon.com in 1995. Do you remember amazon’s radio ads from that time? They were in an interview format, with the interviewee claiming amazon had enough books to fill an aircraft carrier and other huge spaces.But I digress.

According to The Atlantic online magazine, which has a photo of the book and the original packing slip, the book Wainwright ordered was Douglas Hofstadter’s Fluid Concepts And Creative Analogies: Computer Models Of The Fundamental Mechanisms Of Thought. A bit of light reading. But that first book illustrates that amazon has been so successful (the website sells my books so of course it is successful!) because it carries something for every interest.

Book cover The Hidden Light of Mexico City“Romantic and suspenseful! A great mix!”

Get THE HIDDEN LIGHT OF MEXICO CITY on amazon.com today.

What McDonald’s Taught Me And It’s Not About The Food

What McDonald’s Taught Me And It’s Not About The Food

In my quest to find connections across cultures I’ve been thinking about how different cultures influence what we eat (salsa, anyone?) But if we turn that around to look at how a food influenced different cultures we come to one inescapable word: McDonald’s

Yep. The fast food giant has had its share of cultural impact.

After all, the Soviet Union was formally dissolved less than 2 years after McDonald’s opened in Moscow in early 1990. Maybe it was just a coincidence but maybe not . . .

So not to be outdone by the end of the Cold War, here are my top culture-meets-McDonald’s moments:

Vienna

In the weeks after Romanian Communist dictator Nikolai Ceausescu was overthrown, Romanians came by the busload to Vienna, the closest big Western city, to see how the rest of the world lived. They all looked as if they’d suddenly got out of prison. Their clothes were drab, they were all thin, and they looked fearful and excited at the same time.

My husband and I were in Vienna’s two-story McDonald’s. We each tucked into a substantial fast food meal; Big Macs, fries, the works. A Romanian couple our age was in the booth across the aisle, sharing the equivalent of a hamburger Happy Meal. They each took small bites, savoring the strange food, still in their coats as if they expected to be chased out at any moment.

Mexico City

It was my housekeeper’s anniversary and I took her to the big mall in Santa Fe to pick out a king sized bed for her and her husband. After arranging to have it delivered to their house, we went to the food court. She said she wanted to eat at McDonald’s but would not say what she wanted to order.

After a strange and frustrating exchange about the menu she finally said she’d have whatever I had. It turned out that she’d never eaten at a McDonald’s before.

She was 28.

Wellington

New Zealand’s capital is a bit more lively these days but when I was there 20 years ago it was a sleepy town, especially on the weekend. There was shopping and a city tour on Saturday but most things were closed on Sunday. Except the one McDonald’s a couple of miles from my hotel. I walked there for lunch, then went to the movies, then walked back to McDonald’s for dinner.

Without McD’s I would have starved. Or had the hotel’s cold mutton buffet for all 3 meals.

Athens

The Olympic stadium in Athens housed the biggest McDonald’s we’d ever seen and my kids were as fascinated by the restaurant as by the Olympic events. No mix-and-match fast food here, you could only order from a short list of preset meals, including the first salad any of us had ever eaten at a McD’s. We sat in the middle of the huge space listening to the babble of  languages and watching the array of national costumes.

My kids got it then–the fact that not everybody is like them. Meeting people who aren’t is exciting. The Frenchman in the skinny white capri pants and Puma flats is still remembered fondly.

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CARMEN AMATO

Mystery and thriller author. Retired Central Intelligence Agency intel officer. Dog mom to Hazel and Dutch. Recovering Italian handbag addict.

 

Like Glass in the Belly

Like Glass in the Belly

Whenever I’ve landed in a new place, I’ve tried to understand the local culture as if it was a system. Mexico was one of my first experiences and there I learned that a cultural system is underpinned by a network of stories and narratives—Bruce Chatwin’s songlines–that run through cultural cornerstones such as language, food, architecture, and the feast day of the Virgin of Guadalupe. But last Sunday, in an interview with CNN’s Fareed Zakharia, author Salman Rushdie sent my thoughts in a different direction when he referred to a “culture of insecurity.”

Rushdie posited that the “rage machine” we’ve seen reacting to a cheap independent film trailer and cartoons unflattering to the prophet Mohammad—which most of those in the Arab street have probably never seen–is easily cranked up in cultures that are built on insecurity. A culture secure in its identity can dismiss criticism and stupid films.

But if the songlines of a particular culture are defined by what is lacking and resentment toward what others have, then there can be little cultural confidence and emotional security.

To define one’s culture only in terms of what it lacks is a large and disturbing concept. Is a culture built on negativity and rage sustainable?

Well, rage is cheap. Cheaper than fast food, nice cars, sports franchises and higher education. Cheaper than running water and reliable electricity. If rage stems from what a culture is thought not to have—and alternative ideas are weak and no one moves to tamper the rage—it probably can be sustained through several generations, especially if education rates stay low.

But rage on a cultural scale is a huge loss in terms of productivity, economic growth, educational development—the list is endless. Unless someone is profiting by it, common sense would say that profound efforts would be made to reverse the culture of insecurity.

So who profits from a culture of insecurity and the rage it can promote?

Unfortunately this isn’t a hard question to answer and Rushdie noted that the deliberate use of rage is a “political act.” Throughout history we’ve seen people attain and retain power by manipulating populations with negative messages of external threats. Iran. North Korea. East Europe during the Cold War.

I didn’t realize this was ultimately what I was writing about in this conversation about a presidential candidate from THE HIDDEN LIGHT OF MEXICO CITY:

“This country’s entire social system is predicated on the majority of the people being tolerant. Educated people find things out and aren’t quite so tolerant after that . . . “

Luz blinked at him, struck by the intellect behind his words. “So how do we change that? Make the country . . . healthy.”

“Reform is hard.” He seemed about to say something else, but stopped.

“But if nothing changes,” Luz said, thinking about the dwindling opportunities for Juan Pablo. There would be even less for Martina and Sophia. “What will happen?”

Eddo shrugged. “The leftovers will remember Lorena’s catchphrases. That’s all she wants them to do.”

He was saying such hard things. Luz leaned forward. “Do you mean to tell me Lorena is happy to cry for the pain of the people if it means they’ll stay uneducated enough to vote for her?”

And as for those trapped in a culture of insecurity, to paraphrase a poem by the late Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes; the children in the street will eat glass if there is nothing else to fill their empty bellies.

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CARMEN AMATO

Mystery and thriller author. Retired Central Intelligence Agency intel officer. Dog mom to Hazel and Dutch. Recovering Italian handbag addict.

 

About the Time I was Absolutely and Terrifyingly Lost in Panama

About the Time I was Absolutely and Terrifyingly Lost in Panama

A year ago I was Lost.

No-cell-phone-service Lost. The-road-is-a-gravel-track-through-cane-fields Lost.

Set Sail One Day

Five girlfriends had set out from Panama City to go to El Valle, about two hours away. We’d go to the Sunday crafts market there and have lunch at a boutique hotel afterwards.

A quick stop for cheese empanadas and gas and we were on the road. The miles sped by as we talked and laughed and it was well over an hour before we started to look for the turnoff to El Valle. There wasn’t a sign, but the intersection was the one with the pink shrine to Our Lady of Guadalupe.

More talk. More laughter. More miles. Eventually we turned on the GPS and it signaled a turn. Not the road with the shrine, but it was the right direction.

At Road’s End

About half a mile down the new road, tarmac gave way to gravel. With deep ruts. Then worse ruts. We passed a small village and asked if that was the right road to El Valle. Yes, we were assured. One person said El Valle was just 10 minutes. Another said 30 minutes. The GPS seemed to split the difference.

Bad ruts turned into a dry stream bed weaving through Panama’s low mountains. The doughty SUV slid downhill, the tires unable to grip the loose stones. We jolted in the car like peanuts in a tin can. A dashboard light turned on—overheated transmission. We stopped on a rocky plateau and scouted ahead only to find that the gravel track narrowed ahead. The five of us were quite alone in the hot rustling jungle.

The SUV cooled and we started off again, now having discovered that we were all Catholic and that two of us carried rosaries. The jungle gave way to cane fields. Hard green stalks as high as the car roof rattled against the windows.

Two Hours Later . . .

After two hours off-road we broke through the cane field and clambered onto tarmac again. We were on the eastern edge of El Valle. Never were five women more ready to buy souvenirs.

I learned a few things that day.

About being lost. And knowing when to turn at the shrine.

  1. Don’t be so distracted by peripherals—entertainment, Twitter, mooning over the wrong guy—that you forget to look for the shrine that points the way to where you really want to go.
  2. If you’re lost, keep going. Take a break to rethink the situation, take care of problems, or give yourself a pep talk, but don’t confuse “taking a break” with “breaking down.” Cheerlead as you go—you’re handling the uncertainty well, you’re learning about yourself and wherever this “lost” place is—even if it is inside you.
  3. The shrine doesn’t have to be the pink altar on the side of the road. A shrine can be any pointer that helps you travel where you want to go. A shrine can be the project you handled well—you can use it as inspiration for managing a bigger one. A shrine can be a passing grade in a tough subject—you know you can master the next class, too. A shrine can be a hard decision, a recovery from an illness, the day you stood up for yourself, the time when you were scared but did it anyway.
  4. Maybe today’s the day you build a shrine. The day you make a decision and carry it out. The day that you see new possibilities. Believe an inspirational quote and translate it into action. Once you build the shrine, it’s yours forever, ready to inspire if you get lost.

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CARMEN AMATO

Mystery and thriller author. Retired Central Intelligence Agency intel officer. Dog mom to Hazel and Dutch. Recovering Italian handbag addict.

 

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