Stumbling to Guantánamo

In case you missed my debut on national public radio, you can still give a listen, thanks to the magic of the internet.

And by the way, HAPPY HALLOWEEN!


South Florida Flava

A brief photoessay on what's happening in Miami-Dade. I'm here for the weekend promoting my book.

Huge crowds lined up to hear me read from Walking to Guantánamo. Well, not actually. Florida has early voting, and these folks are waiting to exercise their democratic rights. The Lemon City Branch Library polling place is in the Haitian 'hood, in the sixties blocks, just west of Biscayne Boulevard. More kreyol is spoken on the streets here than English or Spanish, and after all the shenanigans eight years ago these voices will not be suppressed this time. Waits have reportedly been 2, 3 and 4 hours, but nobody gives up and goes home, and the name of their candidate is Barack Obama.

Many, many tropically landscaped homes are for sale, and many have already been lost by their once-proud owners and put on the block by the banks. Some have the windows boarded, and the gates padlocked, with Sheriff's warning signs. "Avoid Foreclosure" offers are posted everywhere, but for thousands it is too late.

Don't forget to vote, whatever state you live in.

In other South Florida news, John Hood's piece about my walk across Cuba came out today.

In national news I was on Public Radio International and BBC's "The World" discussing the book, also today. I'll post a link to the audio stream soon, but for now, check out the Walking to Guantánamo photo gallery on the front page at theworld.org

UPDATE: Check the radio interview HERE.


The youtubular election: UPDATED

I'm trying to remember the last time I bought a newspaper. I don't own a television. Friends invited me over to dinner to watch the final Obama / McCain debate, but the internet has essentially become my only source of news. This is dangerous because it is so easy to create and live in a bubble of agreement and reinforcement. For instance, nobody has sent me any pro-McCain youtube videos. Is that because there aren't any?

I like to think so, and that may be one reason why McCain is going to lose. Every election since the rise of the internet has brought hosts of pundits describing some new and radical innovation in the funding and branding of a particular candidate, the galvanizing of an otherwise overlooked constituency. Harold Dean, we learned, would never even have existed without the internet.

The story of this election so far is the viral wildfire of home-produced campaign propaganda via the 'net. Youtube is one of the hot winds blowing these uncontrollable messages across the nation. Campaign advertisements unrecognizable as such, of which no candidate would approve, are broadcast for millions. I find it fascinating, entertaining, and effective. The vampiric Sarah Palin poster I mentioned a few posts ago has already been plastered onto abandoned buildings, walls and fences across the nation. The Shepard Fairey HOPE poster it is based on is beyond ubiquitous; another piece of guerrilla art, it has effectively been embraced as the official Obama poster of this election.

Remixes abound; deejay culture takes over branding.

[UPDATE: Boing-boing linked to this page, with dozens of "parodies" or versions, of the Hope Poster.]

The Obama campaign is quite savvy at this crowdsourcing. Why pay an advertising agency millions to create a spot for you when you can hold a competition and get hundreds of spots produced at no cost? Advertising is turning out to be just another obsolete career. Like journalism and photography, making commercials is now something everyone can do for themselves. The best book out that I've seen on the imminent and ongoing radical societal transformation occurring because of the internet is Clay Shirky's Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations

Meanwhile, here is yet another piece of viral pro-Obama genius:


We take a break from our regularly scheduled election coverage...

to bring you the self-aggrandizing news that Andrea Gollin, writing in Sunday's Miami Herald, calls Walking to Guantánamo "a fascinating, wry, vividly detailed and elegantly written account of a trip that no one else is likely to take."


At least we are talking about a STYLISH rabid vampire...

In other associated Palin news, the Republican National Committee has spent in the neighborhood of $150,000 on frocks, lingerie, cosmetics and haberdashery for their "average joe" "salt of the earth" "mainstream American" vice-presidential candidate. That's $2,500 per day since her nomination. The LA times points out that the average US citizen's total annual clothing budget, according to the US department of labor, is "only" $1871.00, and you know we didn't get into the current credit crisis by keeping our Mastercards in our wallets when we go to the mall. Looking at Palin one has to wonder if the money couldn't have been better spent.

Photo shamelessly hooped from sabeth 718's flicker stream.

Now I'd like to know what the bill is for Palin's tutoring, or cramming, since that term better describes my vision of the process, Palin sitting there like a hapless goose while a factory's worth of advisers stuff her with "facts" and "policy." ("There are seven continents; Iran is not our friend; Don't worry, we'll take some time to go back to Neiman-Marcus after lunch.")


Just dangle a head of garlic in front of it...

The Gowanus Lounge says these are up all over Williamsburg. I'm almost tempted to drive up to that dreaded corner of the borough and archive one of these beauties, except it turns out you don't need to. Just print out your own, drive a stake through it, and plant it in your front yard!


This pretty much says it all...

Yesterday, in the water, underway just off the tip of a Wall Street engulfed in the flames of greed, I spied this Hunter 41, sporting a custom-made Kevlar McCain/Palin promotional sail that must have cost upwards of $40,000, and was presumably a rush order, once McCain's thoughtful and inspiring choice of a vice-president had been announced. What obliviousness to the world's realities must it take to commission, pay for, and then proudly raise this repugnant, ostentatious frivolity of a mainsail? The only good thing we can say about this is that the extraordinary arrogance of it is guaranteed to repulse, driving yet more voters into the Obama camp. I'm sensing an Obama landslide, after which this sail will be nothing more than an embarrassing, amusing historical curio, available on eBay.

I much prefer this Red Hook waterfront expression of political support, which cost nothing more than some sweat equity and a couple of cans of paint, and is visible to all the traffic in New York harbor.


The reason this blog exists...

The New York Premiere of our blog's raison d'être is tomorrow night! Those with longish memories may still be aware that antarcticiana was created to report back on the four and half long months I spent in Antarctica with Anne Aghion, helping to make Ice People (the movie).

You can see this beautiful documentary, at its New York premiere, at the Walter Reade Theater, tomorrow night, Thursday, October 16th, at 6:30. It will likely be one of the rare opportunities to watch such spectacular footage on a screen this size.
Buy tickets here.

Thanks for the memories!


Richard Hussein Fleming

No disrespect to my late grandfather, who gave me my middle initial, but until at least the election (I'll see how I like it, and then decide whether to make the change permanent) I'm changing my name to Richard Hussein Fleming. Please show some respect, by referring to me this way in all official correspondence.


The Great Masak Flood of '08

On the weekend of my departure from Haiti I headed out to the beach at Kabik, forty minutes drive east along the hurricane-challenged coast road, for a day of rest and relaxation. The beaches were still piled high with rubble and debris washed down from the hills by the season's storms, but the road was fine.

After a glorious afternoon of grilled lobster and lounging in the Caribbean surf, and a night spent dozing beside the lapping waves, I awoke to a breakfast sky full of ominous black clouds pushing down out of the mountains. By midday, they had burst, drenching the lawn, the beach and the sea in moments. It was one of those dense, wall-like monsoons that seem only to happen in the tropics. The grass underneath the coconut palms was quickly soaked to capacity, so that the runoff flowed out of the yard and through the gate onto the beach, as if it were a creek.

I didn't fear for the road back to Jacmel, and from there onward to Port au Prince and the airport, until we piled in the truck and headed west. On either side of the road were the modest stucco one-room houses of Haiti, standing in puddles, some with the water reaching well up their front doors. The pavement was awash with water. After only a few kilometers we reached the village of Masak, only to find that the repairs made since the recent alphabetical barrage of hurricanes had been most temporary. The berm of hard-packed earth, and the insufficient culvert installed below it, had entirely disappeared. There we were, on the wrong side of a raging river that bisected the road. Across the torrent was a similar clump of sodden travelers, hoping to change places with us.

The former road, at Masak

Near the high tide line, below the road, the river was raging in its urgency to dump Haiti's topsoil into the sea, but it was possible to cross.

Some said that after all the hurricanes the land was just too soaked with water; there was no way it could absorb any more, and so even a comparatively minor rain wreaked havoc. Others said Haiti's devastated environment had finally reached its tipping point.

No football today.

Sylver carried my luggage while I ineptly staggered through the torrent, trying to keep my flip flops from being ripped off my tender feet. (Author and his tender feet not pictured).

Once across, we hired a tap-tap, the garishly painted miniature pickup trucks that serve as public transportation throughout Haiti. I said au revoir to Sylver and he recrossed the river to secure our truck, which we had been forced to abandon on the other side. Crammed into the cab of the tap-tap, with Andrew Bigsinski all but wrapped around the stick-shift, we drove cautiously down the still-gurgling road toward Jacmel, passing dozens of flooded thatch-roofed homes on either side. It is difficult to imagine what the scene would have been like during an actual hurricane.


The next generation of Haitian cinéastes...

The short films, or, perhaps more correctly, scenes, I wrote about a few posts ago have been uploaded to youtube by the Sine Lekol Jakmel, via satellite internet, with subtitles.

The original assignment was simple, and open-ended, and intended to suggest a few situations with interesting or difficult location sound possibilities. I told the students to film a conversation in which a couple are going through a breakup, a scene at the beach, and a scene in Jacmel's town square. I gave no other real guidelines, and let the students fend for themselves.

We shot in two teams. Once the films were in the can, we watched the roughly edited footage together as a class, and discussed possible audio additions that might be mixed into the location sound to underline the emotions of the characters, smooth over problems in the dialog recording, or enhance the sense of place. The teams then went out again on their own to collect them.

I'm very impressed!


Grotesquerie of Gargantuan Gargoyles, Part One

The cacophony of Port au Prince begins with the very first steps out of the airport terminal and the onslaught of freelance porters and taximen. Among the touts and eager family members waiting to greet a long-absent diasporan I spotted in the crowd my name, scrawled in black magic marker on a sheet of notebook paper. Minutes later I was in an Isuzu Trooper in the safe hands of Faubert, a driver for the Oloffson Hotel, sent to pick me up and drive me to Jacmel to teach sound at the Sine Lekol Jakmel.

The airport is on the wrong side of the capital for access to Haiti's south and west, and driving to Jacmel requires traversing a throbbing cross-section of Port au Prince quartiers. I immediately asked Faubert to make a stop at the very heart of the maelstrom, at 622 Boulevard Jean Jacques Dessalines, the city's main drag. Even on a Sunday afternoon the boulevard was a logjam of mobylettes weaving through the steaming refuse, and honking, blockaded tap-taps, the lurid, muralled minibuses that serve as public transportation. Diesel fumes and the sizzle of arc-welders and hot dust assaulted the nostrils. This is the auto-repair district, where dozens of unlicensed mechanics ply their trade on the sidewalks, banging and hammering and welding, pulling engine blocks and repairing oil pans and beating out panels and adjusting mufflers right on the sidewalk, as pedestrians struggle to walk by.

It is one of the most chaotic corners of a very chaotic city. There, waiting for me, was Andre Eugene Jean Robert, a leader and founder of the sculptors of la Grand Rue, a group of trash-collecting anarchist artists who have turned a vacant lot here into a kind of Vodouist Watts Tower. A twenty-foot figure of rusted, welded iron, part abandoned bedspring, part truck chassis, sprouting an immense vibrating phallus made from a a length of log fixed into the coil of a big rig's shock absorber, presides over the entrance.

Eugene, standing by the right leg of the Grand Rue watchman, included to show scale

Sproing! Eugene demonstrates the action of the, uh, lower portion of a gigantic torso

The doctor is in! Schedule your next checkup now. Appointments still available for November 1st

Behind are countless sculptures jammed together on this wasted plot of land, so densely packed together that it is impossible to tell where one figure ends and another one begins. The ensemble is a sort of metallic stew incorporating the refuse of modern society, Vodou spirits personified as grinning demons, djab, and hobgoblins, like incarnations of Maurice Sendak's Wild Things made from bent, tangled and mangled bits of metal, lumps of melted plastic and the rest of the bottom of the world's garbage barrel, stuff from the dregs of humanity's trash, which even here finds no other use. Shattered grates from cheap, expired Chinese electric fans, hubcaps, abandoned dolls and clothing, and even human skulls that wash out of the ground of the nearby central cemetery, all find their way into this army of demented creatures, metaphors for a world gone mad.

Bizango, if you don't know.

I only had fifteen minutes to spend with Eugene on the way into Haiti, as we were rushing to reach Jacmel before nightfall, but I promised to stop back for a closer look on my way out....


Who are you calling a sellout?

I don't know if it is because of the spread on the book in the current Paper magazine, or because of all the nice things the gringo in Bolivia said about me, but after only forty-eight hours on sale my book is already sold out at Amazon. Don't worry, you can still order it; they'll get more, and it is also available direct from my publisher.