The Little Gaucho

Driving through the Argentine pampas it is not uncommon to come upon a collection of tattered red flags flapping beside a grove of shrubs on a remote stretch of road. Heralding a miniature building, like a brick doghouse painted bright red, I imagined the first one I saw to be a roadside memorial of the sort commonly found throughout latin america wherever a loved one has perished in an automobile accident. After I saw two or three, however, all flying flags and crimson red in every particular, I knew greater forces must be at work. I'm a sucker for all that voodoo business, so I pulled the car over, a reluctant churchgoer looking over my shoulder up the highway to see who might be driving up behind.

The red shrines are in honor of a home-grown deity or fetish named Gauchito Gil, or, to be more specific, Gauchito A. Gil, for Gauchito Antonio. As at santeria shrines and many catholic holy sites, the faithful post their thank-yous for the joys, successes and worldly goods bestowed upon them. "Thanks for protecting us, and for completing our wishes," reads one. "Thank you, Gauchito!," reads another "since it is because you went before God as an intermediary that I have my son."

Gauchito is typically represented by a small ceramic figurine, not on a crucifix, but standing in front of one. He is moustached, and his long black hair is held in place by a red headband. Wikipedia has one version with the specifics of his legend but the important thing is that Gauchito is a guy we can all talk to, have a drink with and get down to business with in the here and now. God is so very far away, so remote and so abstract, whereas Gauchito is right there, beside the very road we are travelling on. Gauchito means "little gaucho," so his persona includes the very essence of Argentine beef-herding identity, further underlining that he is a local representative of the divine.

What appeals to me about these roadside altars is that they are a collaborative folk art project, each visitor adding to the aura and mystery with a dollop of candle wax, a hubcap or a stretch of ribbon, a disused coke-bottle filled with perfume. Over time they become complex authorless installations representing the aspirations and desires of countless travellers. Jumbled together in this miniature red world are a crucifix welded out of rebar, plaques engraved by village snake-oil salesman, a hasty graffiti-like thank you scrawled on a shard of tile, a pot full of flowers and countless other windblown artifacts signifying secret personal promises and covenants. Despite its dangers, faith is a beautiful thing to see.


Reading: Shackleton's Boat Journey by Frank Worsley

Pulling away from the Andes as we head out through the Beagle Channel

After twenty-two hours at sea we are well into the Drake passage, the notorious, brutal seas dividing Cape Horn from the spur of Antarctica. According to those who have been to the bridge and read the latest fax, there is horrible weather to the west, foaming its way towards us, but at the moment the seas are comparatively calm. Essentially we are in a race to see if we can reach the more sheltered waters of the island system surrounding the Antarctic peninsula before the storm barrels down upon us. The Alexey Maryshev, our luxuriously appointed former fishing trawler, already has a good roll going, but the weather is glorious. A bit of white chop dusts the tops of the rollers in the surroundings seas, like confectioner's sugar, but the sun is shining through a patchwork of expansive puffy clouds. Black-browed (2788) and Wandering Albatross have accompanied us throughout the day as we power southwards at a steady eleven knots. All of us are wearing seasickness patches, which time-release the former truth-serum drug scopalomine into our necks, but the seas so far seem hardly to merit it. The problem with seasickness remedies, like all prophylactics, is that one only knows if they are not working.

When Sir Ernest Shackleton and Frank Worsley, the captain of the Endurance, set out in a twenty-two foot open boat in the opposite direction, heading from the islands of the Antarctic peninsula towards South Georgia, it is unlikely that any of the rowers had these miraculous flesh-colored round dime-sized band-aids affixed behind their ears. Seasickness was the least of their worries. Worsley's commission, the Shackleton expedition's ship, had been crushed to splinters in the sea ice some two hundred nautical miles to the east of the peninsula, leaving the entire crew stranded amidst an endless vista of pack-ice just as their camp was melting and fracturing. As watery channels began to open up like wrinkles on an octogenarian, the twenty-eight intrepid explorers launched what had been the Endurance's lifeboats, aiming for Elephant Island, just to the north of the annual freeze-zone. From here Shackleton proposed to take the most able-bodied of the group and continue on to the nearest inhabited land at South Georgia, hundreds of nautical miles to the north-east, where they knew of an active but seasonal whale-flensing station.

After a lengthy pause in my personal narrative, during which I climbed above the bridge to the observation deck, and swayed back and forth while looking for the pelagic ornithological specialities of the Drake passage, we are now some thirty hours into our journey. The storm still threatens from the west, and it is dark once more. There is no view of the horizon from my porthole to keep one grounded in the midst of the inexorable swaying and rocking of the stateroom. The Alexey Maryshev is some two hundred and sixteen feet long, built of steel in Finland. We've just enjoyed a gourmet three-course meal of brie-en-croute, fresh mixed salad, and breaded boneless lamb over couscous, served with copious measures of fine Argentine tinto, making it hard to imagine the deprivations suffered by Shackleton's men in the same waters. The ship is rocking more than ever, but the scopalomine patch seems to be doing the trick, and at the moment I fear hangover more than seasickness. To each side of the ship, hanging in the davits, are spacious, fully enclosed, virtually submersible plastic lifeboats, looking like orange versions of the cartoon yellow submarine. They have curved roofs and locking hatches, so that were we to be shipwrecked we could bob about in them on almost any seas, making satellite phone calls and eating the high-calorie rations packed within. Yesterday afternoon, during the fire drill, we made great sport of clambering in and out of them in our life-preservers, laughing at the unlikelihood of their ever seeing use.

We all live in a Yellow Submarine...

How do you say "Zulu" in Russian?

It was Professor Alan Ashworth, my friend and camp-mate in the Dry Valleys of Antarctic, who told me that in my mania for Antarctic literature I must absolutely be sure and read Worsley's book, unimaginatively titled Shackleton's Boat Journey. "It's a quick read," Ashworth said, "but I think it might be my favorite of all the books of the greats of Antarctic exploration." This was about the time that "Douglas, don't eat me," had become the battle cry, or at least the in-joke amongst our slowly-frying crew. Although we were camped far from the rest of humanity in the Friis Hills, I duly noted the title and ordered a copy as soon as I was back at McMurdo in reach of a computer.

There are many things to like about this book, beyond, in the context of numerous contemporaneous six-hundred page epics, its merciful brevity. Worsley is honest, virtually ego-less, and far more willing to tell a ribald tale than the rest of his stodgy, self-censoring, Victorian peers. (Were we to believe, prior to Worsley, that countless parties of polar explorers, Norwegian, British, Australian, all male, spent years away from home parked in close quarters on the ice without making a single tits or ass joke?) He writes simply and directly for paragraph after paragraph and is a master of a sort of final and often sarcastic summary sentence that drives the narrative forward.

At seven on the morning after our second night on board I clambered up to the pitching observation deck, where I spent most of yesterday observing prions, petrels and albatrosses under sunny skies. This morning could not be more different. In the night we have crossed the Antarctic convergence, and here the water is several degrees colder. All around the ship the cobalt black ocean lies churning and pounding beneath an impenetrable and infinite blanket of dense fog. Yesterday's pleasant breeze is gone, and with it the whitecaps, but the swell has thickened, and the Maryshev is feverishly rolling like a baker on a deadline. To try to walk to the rail is to find oneself running full-speed downhill on the damp steel deck; just as you fear your momentum will carry you over the edge, the ship rolls back up and you find yourself clambering up a mountainside reaching for an elusive handhold.

Thankfully the controls on the Alexey Maryshev are completely intuitive, so that should the Russian crew become incapacitated I should have no problem taking over and "flying the plane."

I did not sleep well this night, despite the crisp Egyptian cotton duvet in my stateroom. I slid up and down the length of the bed so often I am surprised that I am not covered with friction burns like an extended-stay hospital patient. I lay awake, measuring the extent of the pitch and roll by various noises in my suite. On a mild surge the curtain hooks above my head would slide down the rail; a more severe one rattled the bottles in the wine rack and unlatched the bathroom cabinet door. The worst lifted the toilet seat up to slam against the bathroom wall.

According to my hand-held GPS, Elephant Island lies some 150 nautical miles to the east of our present position. It was to that forbidding lump of rock that Shackleton and Worsley rowed the Endurance's lifeboats from their precarious camp on the pack ice. Worsley begins his account with this miserable excursion, a remarkable thing in itself; as captain of the Endurance he had just suffered the defeat of watching her destroyed and sunk. Most explorer accounts of the era would have started this story with several hundred pages chronicling every trial and tribulation of the expedition, from the provisioning of the Endurance and the hiring of the ship's carpenter right through to the sad sight of her last splinter being blown across the ice-sheet. Instead Worsley dispenses with the Endurance in the first two terse paragraphs of his book and plunges into the far more horrifying adventure of her crew, marooned in the uninhabited deepest south.

As the floe beneath their tents started to reach the edge of the pack ice and break apart, the party loaded into three open boats on the eve of Antarctic winter. Very shortly they emerged into the open seas of the Drake passage. With the boats in constant danger of swamping, as they had only inches of freeboard, Shackleton camps on a floating berg and determines that they must jettison the best part of their stores if they are to sail any further:

"...we abandoned one week's supply of food. While we pitched the tents and secured the boats, Green raided the abandoned stores. Presently he produced the best and largest meal we had eaten for five months."

After some days of drifting back down towards the dreaded south the trio of rowboats suddenly found they were able to make headway through the treacherous minefield of pack-ice fragments and baby bergs in which the were bobbing. A favorable wind sprung up and they were delivered.

The Maryshev in brash ice

Worsley had, he writes, one hour of sleep out of the hundred it took to reach Elephant Island. The others had scarcely more:

"It had been impossible to sleep in the two open boats [the James Caird, the largest and best of the boats, had been decked over, in situ]. In the Docker we laid our flimsy tent on the ice-clad boxes of stores. Pulling its folds over us, we compressed ourselves into a shivering mass of humanity. We were like those monkeys which, during a cold night in the forest, lock themselves into a ball for mutual warmth. If one gets left out and, pushing in, disturbs the others, a furious row ensues. So it was with us. When some shivering unfortunate on the outside tried to push in, there instantly arose a frightful burst of profanity and dire threats of vengeance from the disturbed men.
Greenstreet and I bore this till some time after midnight. We then crawled out, swung our arms, stamped our feet, punched each other, and occasionally solaced ourselves by smoking. We used four valuable matches.
When daylight came we stood looking for some time at the writhing mass of suffering men clearly outlined under the tent. It shook and heaved up and down. It trembled and wriggled. Ever and again, at some fresh convulsion, it emitted terrible oaths profaning the morning air. Suddenly we could stand it no longer. We burst into such yells of laughter that we roused the crews of the other boats as well as our own. We were possibly a bit overwrought, but even now, years after, I laugh whenever I recall that scene."

Jeff, Maximilian, Kim, Anitra, Kai and Will huddle together for warmth in the Zodiac

As for ourselves, on this, the next morning, we headed out in Zodiacs, twenty foot black rubber inflatable motor launches, to Cuverville Island, home to one of the world's largest Gentoo Penguin colonies. Within seconds of getting into the boats a Leopard Seal rose to the surface and showed us his teeth. Spectacular, gray-blue and white and sleek and fast, the Leopard Seal is the major predator of the region, capable of gobbling penguins like jellybeans. A Minke Whale breached in the distance, and once on shore we tramped amongst hundreds of Gentoos and a few Antarctic Fur Seals in a spectacular and stark landscape of floating blue icebergs and towering black cliffs. Towards the end of our visit to the penguin colony the wind came up, first to fifteen, then to twenty and twenty five knots. Our support staff determined that it was too dangerous to return to the Maryshev where she lay 800 meters away, so we arranged a rendezvous in the sheltered ice-cove behind Cuverville Island. Here a party of Humpback Whales were cavorting, a spectacular sight, but I could not help thinking that Shackleton's open boats were much the same size as our zodiacs, and that in them his sailors had braved sixty miles of unsheltered wind-whipped open ocean, fearful that Orcas would upset their fragile craft and devour them whole.

On Cuverville Island, one-hundred-year-old bleached whale-ribs, the only trash we saw on the entire journey, remnants of the thriving whale-slaughtering industry of the last century.

Gentoo penguins are better equipped for the icy rain than the sound recordist

As impressive and death-defying as the open-boat journey to Elephant Island was, it was only a prelude to the daring and seemingly suicidal crossing from Elephant Island to South Georgia, many hundreds of miles to the north-east. Shackleton, Worsley, Tom Crean and three others determined to make the attempt in the James Caird, the most seaworthy of the three boats. Some years ago, long before it had ever occurred to me that I might one day have the chance to visit Antarctica, when the Shackleton exhibition was touring museums around the country, I went to it, almost by chance. The exhibit which most impressed me was one simulating the conditions under which Worsley would have had to take bearings while on board the Caird. A video screen presented a tilting horizon of savage waves in motion, constantly wandering from the horizontal. The idea was to "shoot the sun" with a sextant. My repeated efforts were all miserable failures that would have had me steering the James Caird into the oblivion of the South Atlantic. Worsley describes his observational tactics:

"The day before I had taken observations of the sun, cuddling the mast with one arm and swinging fore and aft round the mast, sextant and all. This day I found the best way was, sitting on the deck, to jam one foot between the mast and halyards, the other against the shroud, and catch the sun when the boat leaped her highest on the crest of a sea, allowing the 'height of eye' accordingly."

It was a rare day that Worsley was able to see the sun at all; after thirteen days out he notes that "since leaving Elephant Island I had only been able to get the sun four times, two of these being mere snaps or guesses through slight rifts in the clouds." The rest of his navigation was by dead reckoning, the mental averaging of compass direction (and Worsley notes that "at all hours the iron rod of the pump was working up and down within a few inches of the compass") with estimated boat speed, apparent current, and wind-drift, all unmeasurable on the James Caird.

Soaked through to the skin almost from the moment they cleared the lee of Elephant Island, the men soon began to suffer from thirst, for they had come free of the ice so fast on their first day out that, having neglected to collect chunks of it as a water supply they spent much of the remainder of the three-week journey licking their lips and scanning the sea for errant northward-drifting bergs. Worsley is a master at conveying the grotesque unpleasantnesses suffered by the six sailors trying to carry out those most basic of functions, eating and sleeping, in their cramped and soggy circumstances.

"The worst feature of meals," he writes, "was insufficient headroom to sit upright. One has no idea, before making the experiment, how uncomfortable, even distressing, this is. The chest is pressed down on the stomach; one swallows with difficulty, and the food appears to have no room to go down. To ease matters, one leant first on one elbow and then on the other, and tried lying on stones and boxes, imagining one was a Roman emperor reclining luxuriously at an epicurean banquet."

Of sleeping he writes that "we had stowed all stores to the best possible advantage on the ballast. Our sleeping bags were laid in the bows on top of food boxes, whose sharp corners stuck into our bodies in inconvenient and painful fashion. It was a strange cabin, seven feet long, five feet wide at one end, tapering to a point at the other. Barely room to sit up after crawling in through the narrow space between the ballast and stores below and the thwart above. What a crawl! It became a nightmare. The first part on hands and knees over sharp stones--nasty knobbly stones and round stones over which you slipped off and on, the Southern Ocean meantime draining out of your clothes and finneskoe boots. Then came the passage! You braced yourself up--or rather down; crawling and wriggling on chest and stomach, you insinuated yourself between the ballast and the thwart. Halfway through you paused for breath--you became exhausted and doubted if life was worth living, but then came a gentle nudge from the next man's head or shoulder against your after-end, and you again moved reluctantly forward...."

Home, sweet home; not your average twenty-two foot-long wooden tub...

To complete the picture one must now imagine the incessant drenchings and churnings of the twenty-two foot Caird lurching, rising, falling, and slamming her way through the eight, ten, twenty and thirty foot seas of the Southern Ocean. I can easily imagine these horrors, for on board the Alexey Maryshev, a Finnish-built steel research vessel more than two hundred feet long, half of us are green, and the roll-indicator on the bridge frequently grazes the thirty degree mark, sending books, microphones, ipods and hats and gloves skittering across the floor of my stateroom. Cosseted and coddled, served three gourmet meals a day prepared by a chef flown in from New Zealand specifically for this excursion, many of us still manage to be miserable on the seas of the Drake passage. Fresh towels are provided daily. I have my own head, complete with hot shower. How embarrassing.

Will the chambermaids be stopping by shortly to tidy up my quarters?


Good thing I purloined those air-sickness bags from Continental on the way down...

The placid waters of the harbor give no hint of the horrors awaiting us when we emerge into the Drake passage...

We're pulling out. At 16:30 this afternoon we'll diesel our way out of Ushuaia Harbor and east through the Beagle Channel into the southernmost waters of the Atlantic Ocean, for the thousand kilometer journey to the Antarctic peninsula. The first few days we will brave the Drake passage, notorious waters that have the potential to be the foulest in the world. I haven't seen a weather report.

Ushuaia City: a bizarre alpine village, like a cheesy Austrian ski-town, but at sea-level, at the southernmost tip of South America, where the Andes range, that ragged machete scar slicing the full length of this continent, finally gives up and plunges below the surface into the southern oceans.

I am of course tremendously excited to be going back to Antarctica again. And so soon; I left McMurdo December 16th of last year, exactly three months ago. In McMurdo anyone who had the good fortune to have visited Palmer Station and the Antarctic peninsula advertised how spectacular it is, and how different from McMurdo, thousands of kilometers away on the opposite shores of the continent.

Ushuaia and the Beagle Channel, viewed from the top of the ski-lift at the foot of the Martial glacier

It seems likely, however, that from the decks of our converted russian trawler I will be unlikely to wipe your noses in my next fabulous adventure, to "grip you off," as Simon Dooley puts it. You may have to wait until I'm back in South America to be made envious, but who knows? The arm of the internet is long. Wish me luck on not losing my lunch.


Another Day, Another Airport

Sitting on the floor under a gleaming array of unused payphones at the Miami Airport some days ago, I watched two federal air marshals check in for my flight. I wasn't hiding, just taking advantage of the only electrical outlets I could find. There were two of them tucked under there, and two of us, white middle-aged dudes splayed out on the carpet with our laptops plugged into the grid. Our cellphones handy on the rug beside rendered the row of callboxes obsolete, good for nothing more than bumping heads on. The guy next to me on the floor was talking to his girlfriend on his about his chances of getting on the flight as a standby. (Slim to none). At the gateside check-in counter, about twice as far away, the flight attendant was giving away the last bulkhead seat. I want to make it quite clear that I wasn't spying, or even listening in; I was sorting through aerial photographs from Belize and trying not to be distracted by the swirl of conversations going on around me.

There are two prevailing and generally conflicting approaches to a philosophy of computer security systems. One calls for transparency and the other for secrecy. The idea that security could be transparent seems counterintuitive, but proponents of this view argue that transparency drives innovation. It seems self-evident, on the other hand, that it is a good idea to draw the curtains closed so that thieves will not know if you are home or not.

This dichotomy, which is part and parcel of the open-source debate, is a favorite topic of a favorite website, boing-boing. They come firmly down on the side of transparency, arguing, for instance, that anyone in the world who wants it should have access to the source code for the new Windows operating system, to poke and prod and jab at it at will, searching for holes and flaws. The collective brain-power of the world is thereby harnessed and any weaknesses are exposed before they can be exploited by malicious virus-writers wreaking havoc or enslaving your computer as a 'bot. In the open source model democratically selected innovations are suggested and incorporated, improving everyone's experience.

A couple of years ago one of boing-boing's links pointed to some interesting articles by computer scientist Matt Blaze, who applied the logic of open source transparency to old-school, analog locks and safes, dismembering them and then explaining not only how they work, but how to crack them by exploiting the specific design weaknesses he observed. Beyond the inherent fascination of safe-cracking and its Raymond Chandleresque associations, what was most interesting about this was the outrage that his work inspired in the locksmithing fraternity, who apparently still view themselves as a sort of medieval guild of upright and universally virtuous keepers of ancient and mysterious secrets which they have sworn a blood oath never to reveal. To them it was scandalous that Blaze would reveal "trade secrets," and put out into a public forum information that would allow any idiot with a Makita and a good drill bit to bust into one of the more popular makes of safe.

The argument for transparency is made compelling through Blaze's work. If, without recourse to "proprietary information," Professor Blaze manages to demystify locks and explain how the layman can pick his way through them then surely these locks need to be improved upon. For lock and safe companies to assume that only honest locksmiths are privy to the workings of their tumblers is absurd, and an altogether insufficient guarantee of the security I expect when I install a lock on my front door. It is therefore beneficial for the community as a whole to be made aware of weaknesses in security systems, so that they may realistically asses the level of protection they enjoy and take any further measures to enhance their own security and that of others.

Let us now consider this line of inquiry as it applies to airport security. Had anyone seen fit to crow about how easy it was to board an aircraft with a box-cutter before September 11th, 2001, history might have been altered. Similarly one wonders if it occurred to those guarding the airports to announce that a part A part B mixing of liquid chemicals on board a jet might pose a threat. Were they caught by surprise when this was attempted last year? It is difficult to imagine that such threats had never been conceived of by professional security personnel, and it is all to easy to imagine someone raising them in a meeting only to be told to keep quiet, that remedies were too expensive, that the security system seems to be functioning just fine without your alarmism, thank you, so just keep that to yourself. As a result the confiscation of your nail-scissors and shampoo today have the feeling of closing the barn door somewhat after the departure of the cattle.

But not so the hypothetical presence of air marshals, who seem to me to be a legitimate security enhancement. The marshals, we have been told, ride on our flights incognito, ready to leap into action should a threat present itself. We have been told about them because this acts as a deterrent; hijackers and would-be terrorists are unlikely to want to try their luck, armed only with a paperclip or a dessert spoon, against professional law enforcement agents authorized to carry guns on board an aircraft. If, however, the terrorists are able to identify the air marshals ahead of time, the advantages the latter have are greatly lessened, so we are therefore not told who the air marshals are, nor whether there are certain to be any on a given flight. The importance of their remaining hidden is precisely why the dress-code requirement for air marshals was dropped last year.

I am not proposing that transparency in the context of airport security can be directly equated to the computer security model. But one of the best arguments for transparency in computing is the implied invitation to any and all to propose and devise improvements to the system. How different from this is the atmosphere around the long lines waiting to clear security at an airport in the post 9/11 era. In Miami signs inform that "all jokes will be taken seriously" and that it is a "federal offense" essentially to do so much as talk back to a luggage screener. The hundreds of thousands of innocents who pad along in their socks through the endless metal detectors think, I imagine, much what I am thinking as I wait, holding my trousers up with one hand: just give me the patience to get through here without pissing anybody off or drawing any attention to myself. What would the reaction be if, instead of shuffling through the metal detector like a prisoner, one paused and began to examine it, to rub ones hands over its surfaces and peer at its electronics? Or walk around behind the baggage screener to have a good hard look at what the bags reveal when X-rayed? And a parallel level of transparency in the airport environment may not be desirable; we certainly don't want random citizens attempting to bring creative varieties of weapons through the checkpoint only to claim after being caught that they were only testing the system. Nonetheless we must have a mechanism by which the public might propose improvements based on what they have seen in their long bored wait in line.

Why such a lengthy, windy preamble? Why can't I get to the point already? Because I am scared to propose my modest innovation in airport security in today's climate, lest I be perceived as a criminal conspiring to undermine your in-flight safety by highlighting flaws in the system. But trust me on this, people; I only want things to be better and safer, for you and for me, even if I am annoyed by the uniformed rent-a-cops constantly bellowing at me to remove my shoes and place my laptop in a tray.

While looking up briefly from my seat on the carpet in the Miami airport, I saw two clean-cut, thirtyish men approach the check-in desk. One, caucasian, hair cut in the high and tight military style; the other african-american, with mirrored shades giving him the ominous vibe of Wesley Snipes in a vicious role. Almost simultaneously the duo pulled matching small black zippered wallets from the pockets of their smart-casual windbreakers, and thrust them over the counter to the attendant. Half the size of passports, the wallets were of such a size and proportion that they could contain only one form of identification: a badge. Wesley turned his mirrored lenses towards me and I wondered if he wondered what I was wondering. The attendant looked at her computer screen. There came a quick flurry of keystrokes.

"You're just catching a ride up, or...?" asked the attendant. We were flying to New York.

"No, no, we're working the flight," said the guy with the buzz-cut.

They backed away from the desk. No paper of any kind seemed to have been exchanged. I was trying not to stare, so I might have missed something. But if those guys weren't air marshals, then just slap the cuffs on me right now and haul me away to the loony bin. When, in living memory, has a passenger approached the gateside desk without presenting a boarding pass? To ask where the men's room is, or whether lunch will be served? The computer is never consulted for mundane information like this. Without tickets in their hands my two clean-cut undercover dudes might as well have been waving guns and wearing matching t-shirts emblazoned FEDERAL AIR MARSHAL.

I have, of course, no idea how the system works. Perhaps the marshals just circulate amongst the gates looking for suspicious characters before deciding at the last moment which flight to board, and therefore have no tickets. I don't want to blow the budget, but why not issue them reusable paper ticket jackets and generic boarding passes to present to the gate staff, or even air marshal identification cards with the look, dimensions and heft of a US passport? This simple ruse would have fooled me.


Very Small Room with a View

We have been spending a lot of time this week at the ranger station for the Port Honduras Marine Reserve, a sanctuary of reef and cayes off of Punta Gorda, Belize. The lone structure on Abalone Caye, a postage stamp of an island, the station has a crow's nest observatory used to help intercept illegal gill-net fishermen and lobster and conch poachers attempting to fish within the reserve. Scanning the surrounds from up there with a pair of high-power binoculars strikes me as a blissful way to spend an afternoon. Perhaps not in hurricane season.

On the ground floor, the facilities are basic, but sanitary, with fresh ocean breezes just where you want them, and a sea view, at least until you sit down.

from: Great Outhouses of the World


Think before you eat

The extensive reef protecting the Belizean coastline from the surging waters of the Caribbean is, after Australia's Great Barrier Reef, the longest coral reef in the world. In comparison with most of the rest of the reefs of the Caribbean, it is healthy and well preserved. But to anyone who had the privilege of seeing it thirty or forty years ago, it looks like a gray, gloomy and algae-clogged graveyard populated only by a remnant population of small and insignificant fish.

From the deck of our chartered luxury catamaran, bobbing gently on a mooring off of the Silk Cayes, the view of the pristine sea suggests paradise. Tiny islands just big enough to house a handful of coconut palms are scattered in turquoise seas that glint under clear cerulean skies. They are almost a parody of a "deserted island" of the sort that always seems to crop up in New Yorker cartoons, a ring of sparkling white sand encircling a dot of land the size of a suburban backyard, with a few pelicans roosting in the lone, or almost lone, palm tree.

If you were stuck on this why on earth would you want anyone to rescue you?

We are making a "fun show for kids" about how badly we have screwed up the earth which they are going to inherit. Television like this is a rather unique challenge, since gloom and doom must always somehow be counterbalanced with excitement and adventure. If not, our ten-year-old demographic seems unlikely to want to watch, and the message, that they will have to do better than we did, will not be conveyed. This is proving difficult today, as our seventeen and eighteen-year-old hosts interview Richard Foster, a veteran nature photographer and diver who has lived in Belize for almost thirty years.

Note Pelican enjoying his roost in the upper left quadrant of this coconut palm

We head out with Foster in an open boat, leaving the sheltered waters inside the reef on the fifteen-minute ride out to a known Nassau Grouper spawning ground. As soon as we have shot through a gap in the wall of coral-heads we find ourselves in very different seas. There are no white crests on the waves of this much deeper blue water, but the distance between crest and trough of the swells is at least eight to ten feet, enough to assure me of the boat's piddly impotence. From here neither land nor caye is visible. Two of the eco-team are diving with Foster to look for grouper, which used to spawn here, he tells us, by the hundreds of thousands. "Today we will be lucky if we find fifteen," he says. "They have literally been fished right to the very edge of extinction, not just here, but all throughout the Caribbean."

After filming the divers splashing back first into the sea, cameraman Will Edwards and I sit with the boat captain and follow the chains of bubbles where they murmur on the surface. A Hawksbill turtle a good four or five feet long peers at us from the nearby crest of a swell, before diving back down into the depths. The boat goes up, rocks sideways, slides back down into the next trough, rolls the other way, rises gently up again. The horizon is wavy with swell. Proud to have survived the Wollongong pelagic in the notorious waters of the Tasman Sea with my breakfast intact, I am suddenly feeling rather shirty. "Hey Will," I say, gripping the padded rail of the dive boat for some sort of reassurance, "how you feeling?" "Deteriorating," says Will, summing up the seasickness experience in one word. There is nothing to be done but focus on taming the nausea. It is a horrible uncontrollable feeling of sliding into misery, until one wishes for death. Will tells me he once threw up on a sound recordist as he rushed towards the rail to be ill. I ponder our relative positions in hopes this might distract me from my predicament. Perhaps I will manage to upchuck on him first, redeeming the sound recordist brotherhood. But there is no distraction from the dread mal de mer. As all roads lead to Rome so do all thoughts veer quickly back into a single-minded focus on one's churning stomach acids, which threaten to emerge into the freedom of the great wild world at any instant. "Deh some fish back deya waiting fe eat dat," says our captain, encouragingly. I'm glad to hear it won't go to waste. By the time the divers reemerge from their blissful voyage ninety feet below the surface, the two of us are green around the proverbial gills. Their dawdling and unbuckling of weight belts and unslinging of oxygen tanks and removing of flippers and staggered climbing of the swim-ladder seems to take an interminable aeon, while all the while the puke potentiometer needle is flickering ominously in the red zone. Moments later, zipping through the gap, twenty knots of boat speed making a wind in our face, the sea again placid inside the reef, the feeling recedes as quickly as it had come on. Breakfast preserved, but only just.

Snorkeling from our catamaran between takes the glorious vista above the waterline becomes gloomier. The Silk Cayes and the nearby Laughingbird Caye are some of the better-managed and protected reef areas in Belize, and still some eighty-percent of the corals are dead gray sandy lumps. Foster is one of those lucky people who saw these reefs when they were in pristine condition. When he first arrived here, he says, the area was clotted with corals fighting one another for space in one luxuriant and thriving underwater garden after another. Today fish still abound, but all are much smaller than they should be. The reefs have been subjected to a multi-pronged attack. Global warming has bleached and killed all but the heartiest examples of coral. According to Foster this happened in the late 1980s, when rising water temperatures turned almost all the coral here into a lifeless white desert down as far as fifty feet below sea level. Gill net fishing has decimated the reef-fish population. These nets trap fish indiscriminately, based on the size of their aperture. Gill net mesh must be three and half or four inches square in Belizean waters, but nets of this size may still be used legally, although they rip corals from the sand, kill many fish which are unwanted by the market, and unless promptly checked and collected, result in many spoiled catches. The effort to entirely ban gill nets has been stymied by corrupt politicians who trade fishing licenses for portions of the catch. As the supplies of good food fish have declined (our divers saw not one single Nassau Grouper on what once was their massive annual communal spawning ground) fishermen have turned to less tasty species that once were not fished, like parrotfish. But these fish are critical to the reef eco-system because they clean the algae from the coral surfaces, allowing the corals to breathe and thrive. It is, like so many environmental crises, a downward circling spiral. Swimming around Laughingbird Caye I add to my fish list (yes, I have a fish list). I spot two species of butterflyfishes, a variety of parrotfishes, a nurse shark about my size, and many, many, many enormous Barracuda. Although these are "unlikely to attack humans unless provoked," it is most unnerving to snorkle past groups of these fearless and curious omnivores, with their massive tubular bodies and vicious teeth. Some I see are a good four feet long, and the diameter of my thigh.

Will "Pigpen" Edwards wades into snorkle territory to film eco-team member Kai Hinson emerging from the Barracuda-infested depths. This kind of "beauty shot" is filmed "MOS," film slang allegedly derived from the bogus German "mit out sound," or as Will, a brit, says, "mute," meaning that instead of working the shot I am free to stroll on the beach and take absurd candid shots of my co-workers.

The Barracuda, Foster explains, are thriving, one of the few beneficiaries of unsustainable fishing techniques. Because of their power and nasty teeth they are not trapped in the gill nets. When they swim into one they are able to rip their way free of the monofilament, which looks something like a wall made out of volleyball netting. Since the other large predators, primarily various species of sharks, have been fished almost to extinction, this leaves the barracuda the only bullies at the top of the food chain. If anything, they are suffering from overpopulation, to the extent that they are now having a damaging impact on the sportfishing industry. One boat captain, Foster told me, was complaining that when his fishing clients catch a Permit, a prized game fish, they are now lucky to land their trophy without its having been ripped apart by Barracuda as they are reeling it in.

It is hard to be optimistic about this situation. Most tourists are happy with the white sand and the views of the sparkling Caribbean sea visible from the deck of a boat. Many of those who dive overboard do not even recognize that they are looking at a graveyard of coral, as there are now so few places left where any perfect habitat can be observed. All of us have enjoyed delicious fish dishes in the waterfront restaurants here in Punta Gorda. But Foster says he no longer eats fish here. "I can't bring myself to do it," he says. Next time you are in a restaurant considering the fish special consider wondering, at the very least, what country it might have been fished in, and by what means it might have been caught. As Richard Foster said at one point in our filming, "we stopped hunting on land a long time ago, and began farming. Isn't it time we stopped hunting in the sea, as well?"