Thursday, July 26, 2007

Keeping the river grand

If we don't watch out, there might not be a Rio Grande to be so concerned about. It could dry up, or be stolen? There is such a crazy idea out there -- bouncing off the wall -- pardon the pun.

Bouncing off the future water shortage wall

Note: I hope anyone reading this would only take it as a tongue-in-cheek-style look at a growing problem. Don't try this at home!


We would have to make it look good.
Lip-sealed, very quiet, well-coordinated, neatly planned engineering would wash away Laredo’s second water source issue.
More water in the Rio Grande, the city’s first – and still only – source would make the issue mute in an overnight commando-type raid on the Colorado and Nueces rivers at their southernmost bends to link them as one into essentially a new river, flowing into the Rio Grande somewhere north of Del Rio. Sending the water in that least populated way looks like it would skirt much of the attention that a direct flow to Laredo would cause and avoid angry pointing fingers and screams from Corpus Christi and cities along the former course of the Colorado and Nueces between the San Antonio-area and coastal plains.
Egypt’s great Nile River used to flow through what is now North Africa’s famous, storied, very hot Sahara Desert, but – according to scientists on the National Geographic Channel and all over the Web – it changed its course because of natural and atmospheric reasons. That overnight rivers-changing raid, quietly rechanneling them short of any big cities over ranches and farms would have to be coordinated within 24 hours of some great earthquake, tsunami, or other natural disaster that could serve as the blame, but it can be done.
Those sweeping Nile changes have been linked to natural events as far away as Iceland – well up in the North Atlantic – so having some convincing meteorologists, scientists and other media-quoted experts on our side and ready is essential, too.
“It was just a natural event,” they could collectively say, smiling and shrugging their shoulders. “It is an act of nature.”
And naturally, local elected officials would have to be brought into the inner-circle of those saying, “Wow. We got lucky didn’t we? Perhaps we should share some of our water with those who lost theirs?”
Some water would be lost to aquifers and local water companies between those two suddenly engineered turns south with the Colorado entering the Nueces shortly before it turns abruptly south eventually joining the Rio Grande – so very innocently north of Laredo – and some livestock would be endangered and a handful of homes would be effected. Another crew of specially prepared engineers and strong-armed manual laborers would have to be ready to escort that first rush of water south to avoid any dangerous flash floods, but that would figure into the costs – well worth it to have a viable, long-term water source.
Before you call here to find out where to sign up as a river reroute volunteer, please keep in mind that this all written in fun – as of June 2007 – but, if water source planning doesn’t find vastly visible results by June 2017 there might not be any fun to it.
Much like the current problems caused by shortages and weakened access to oil sources, people seem geared toward intense, possibly bloody short-term solutions, and too many learned voices have repeated said our most important coming battles would be over water.
Details and politics around whether oil is replaced by synthetics, or water shortages are relieved through oceanic desalination, or discoveries finding water from grass and shrub cuttings isn’t near as important as answering these needs. It’s time for effective long-term thinking and resolution – as soon as possible.
Or do we need to have that first clandestine river-rerouting meeting? That project reads like fiction, or a bad TV movie now, but it won’t in a few years.

Border fence battle knows many faces

Note: You can also read a story very similar to this in the July 2007 edition of LareDOS in Laredo, Texas and more online at


Border fence concerns to spark political blasts from pro- and anti-barrier factions, walling out attention on the immediately affected Rio Grande ecology.
Disagreement over the fence’s need and implementation has many eyes and ears with fewer and fewer voices remaining silent.
Washington, D.C.-based ecological organizations Defenders of Wildlife and the Center for Biodiversity both fear the government project will visibly upset the Texas-Mexico border’s fragile ecosystems.
Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff told reporters, including CNN -- which carried his comments live, that South Texas ranchers and mayors don’t want the fence, but they’re going to get it anyway. Congressman Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, doubts that Chertoff meant anything bad by his remarks, but the June 28 defeat of the immigration bill in the Senate cut off any immediate chance to halt, or alter construction of the Secure Border Initiative, which is scheduled to include walling intended to stop and slow vehicles and people where sensor towers are not seen as sufficient.
Silver City, N.M.-based Michael Robinson – a spokesman and field representative for Biodiversity – believes there are better ways to protect the border and that a 10 foot fence would only serve to stop wildlife – not humans.
Robinson said his organization hasn’t hired legal help to stop the government, but is monitoring the situation. Robinson added that taking legal action is tougher in this case because of strong powers handed Chertoff by the White House, which allow him to proceed with very little, if any, interference from environmental concerns, or laws.
“We are very specifically concerned about the ocelot,” Robinson said by telephone, describing the area around the Rio Grande as a biodiversity wonderland. “To separate the ocelot population would be catastrophic.
“The ocelot in the north will be marooned in its breeding and that doesn’t help any animals. There are a lot of birds, but we see so much and think that animals are plentiful and that they will have no trouble getting through, but we will see.”
Robinson said Biodiversity is also monitoring the rare Mexican long-tailed bat, which is more common to the Rio Grande Valley. Robinson said a lot of animals use the stars to navigate, so there remains a great deal of the unknown because details about the border fence are unknown. Robinson said Biodiversity doesn’t know if Boeing’s government Secure Border Initiative Network (SBINet) will use large bright lights, what effects the various radio and electronic signals and waves will have on borderland wildlife.
Noah Kahn, speaking for the Defenders of Wildlife from Washington, D.C., hopes all concerned will see the need for common sense.
Kahn believes local DHS and Border Patrol people should have the authority to decide whether they need any physical barriers, designed to stop vehicles and slow down pedestrians, but Washington, D.C. has ordered 700 miles of the solid two-layered fence be constructed, denying local foresight and knowledge.
Cuellar credits the language of that law to the previous Republican majority in Congress, which also specified where along the Texas border the physical barriers would be placed. Cuellar recently battled for and gained government assurance that local input must be received, despite efforts in the capital to kick it aside.
Cuellar also believes more flexibility will work into the project.
Kahn is also concerned about the ocelot, but believes more emotion might still explode from the Rio Grande Valley where cities have profited from their river land-based environments through eco-tourism.
Kahn said ocelots and jaguarundi both swim the river to mate and his organization believes a fence would ruin the environment.
Kahn noted that many come to see the river’s unique bird species, but South Texas eco-tourism is growing.
“There’s an increasing array of people coming from all over the world,” Kahn said. “They eat at the local restaurants, buy souvenirs, stay in motels.
“Texas Parks and Wildlife spent a lot of money on Bentsen State Park. The cities of McAllen, Mission and Brownsville have all spent money on their environments -- Weslaco, too. It has become an international destination and the wall is a direct threat to those communities.”
DHS spokesman Brad Benson, in the Border Protection division said, generally, physical barriers designed to stop vehicle traffic and slow down pedestrians will be in urban areas while the electronic-based virtual fence will cover the rural Rio Grande.
A tentative map, made in March, from Benson’s Washington, D.C. office shows concentrations of physical barriers around Laredo, San Ygnacio, El Paso, Presidio in the Big Bend National Park-area, and southward in the Rio Grande Valley from Roma to Brownsville.
DHS is aiming its SBINet plans on Project 28, which is 28 miles of virtual fence in the Arizona desert where nine sensor towers are spread out to assist a command center and mobile Border Patrol agents.
Project 28 experienced some delays, postponing an expected June 13 start, but Cuellar says he has been told it should be up and running soon and he and the media should get a look sometime in the near future.
Benson said BP hopes to use the new system to intercept them before they can cut out illegal aliens’ abilities to blend into populated environments. The government also knows that pedestrian barriers don’t stop people, but they can slow them down long enough to allow BP vehicles to catch them. Benson noted that vehicular barriers would likely be found where smugglers could simply drive across the river – much as they might near Presidio.
Benson believes the urban use of physical barriers will take quite a bit away from the fear of it destroying Rio Grande wildlife.
Frequent Rio Grande traveler, author and journalist Nat Stone believes anyone concerned about the river’s ecology and how barriers can affect a city should look to El Paso.
“You can walk across it,” El Paso native and Laredo attorney Forrest Cooke said. “Through most of town it’s a concrete channel.”
Stone noted numerous walls and fences down through history that didn’t work to completely keep people in, or out, but the numerous obstructions already in El Paso intended to stop, or reroute dashing illegal aliens don’t do much for the quality of life.
Stone and Cooke both noted the effect fences and treaties with Mexico have had on El Paso’s appearances and water flow, which helped lead to severe flooding problems in recent months.
“It’s its own case study of what building a fence looks like. It looks like a police state,” Stone said from his home in New Mexico. “There’s no such thing as fishing at the river. It looks like an apartheid state.”
Stone sees little convincing reason for the fence. He believes that the U.S. could be dodging a case of national bigotry by not addressing plans to fence the Canadian border, too. He noted the military industrial complex’s appearance in the project – Boeing has been a major military contractor for decades.
“The stock market seems to be doing well, so it smacks of race,” Stone said of the overall fence project.
Stone traveled the river in phases from its headwaters in the Rockies to its frequently lifeless mouth at the Gulf of Mexico. He said he plans to write a book about the river and is putting together a documentary. Stone is author of “On The Water: A circumnavigation of the eastern United States.”
Stone had to load his kayak on a truck in several parts of the river because it isn’t flowing much south of El Paso – most notably as far as 80 miles south at the site of the Ft. Quitman ghost town.
Stone sees a shallow current of conviction on the part of several pro-barrier voices and believes more people in Washington would understand the border better if they spoke Spanish.
“The political situation makes it hard for some to believe that it’s a beautiful river,” Stone said.
Stone said the Rio Grande, or Rio Bravo as it’s called on the south bank, is a working river for many Mexicans and saw much more life on that side in his journey.
“With a few exceptions, in some 1,200 miles I saw less than 20 people on the Texas side. There used to be a much better Texan presence,” he said. “As long as drug laws are in place, we’ll have this need to control the border.”
Stone believes more information should be available and forthcoming on any ulterior motives for the fence. Someone might be getting rich off this project.
“There is a huge amount of money involved. We should follow the money trail,” Stone said.
Laredo-area rancher Joe Hein agrees with Stone, whom he’s never met, that more information would be seriously helpful.
“I think they are trying to take into account what local people want and maybe that’s why they are dragging their heels,” Hein, who does not favor the fence, said. “There are a lot of people like myself with questions, or they not telling us, and maybe we’d agree and go along with them, but they’re not telling.”
Hein believes whatever detailed information might be lacking public scrutiny could serve to empower citizens to make good, solid decisions.
Hein compares his concerns over the fence situation to a personal observation that the Bush administration made a serious mistake by rushing into the Iraq War – not stopping to properly analyze the situation.
Hein sees the fence as something that could lead to some of the very same dangers it is intended to stop, too.
“It could be a false sense of security and that could be very bad,” he said. “I think we really need to be informed, but if it’s just politics and whoever’s getting it gets a lot of money, and that would be wrong and be making the same mistake again.”
Foreign Policy In Focus online columnist Frida Berrigan is one of those who will be watching.
“In Iraq, military contractors wasted billions of dollars of reconstruction aid. Boeing, meanwhile, is no stranger to corruption scandals: its chief financial officer went to jail in 2005 for wrongdoing in securing Pentagon contracts. To put military contractors, particularly Boeing, in charge of building SBI is a recipe for disaster,” she wrote in an April 12 story. “The issue of militarizing the border goes beyond questions of accountability. In order to craft truly effective, humane and ‘comprehensive’ immigration reform, the president is going to have to do a lot more than show up in his shirtsleeves once in a while. He has to learn that the border is not a war zone, Mexicans are not combatants, and military contractors are not the solution.”
Further research doesn’t paint a better picture, either for South Texas.
Dallas-Fort Worth CBS affiliate KTVT reported on its Web site in an Associated Press story headlined “Border Fence To Be Built On Wildlife Refuges” that “The U.S. Border Patrol informed officials with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that refuges in Starr, Hidalgo, and Cameron counties are on the fast track for the fence because they are on federally-owned lands.”
Valley conservationist and Rio Grande Delta Audubon Society officer Lee Zieger believes that big government doesn’t always learn from the past, either.
“Back in the 40s here we kept a gun for fear of banditos, but that didn’t happen, and now, too,” Zieger said by phone. “Drugs go through here and without the drug war we wouldn’t have no problem. We just not have won it. “
Local bank president Dennis Nixon said in a recent position paper that, generally, all law enforcement-anchored border sealings fail, but someone, or some thing, needs to wake up the government to the lingering inequality, which threatens more than the Rio Grande ecology.
Nixon noted that the need for labor – addressed, but lost for now through the guest worker program in the failed immigration bill in the Senate -- is a key economic factor in all of the U.S., and the situation shows signs of crisis, but the government is showing a very bad side by its attention on the southern border.
“Congress is so focused on the immigration problem on the southern border they are ignoring the gaping holes on the northern border that pose the largest security threat to this country since 9/11. The fact is Mexicans and Canadians are not treated equally and neither are their borders. Not from an immigration standpoint, nor a security standpoint,” Nixon wrote. “To give you more perspective on the disparity of border enforcement, there are 1,000 border patrol agents that guard the 4,000 mile Canadian border. Compare that to the 10,000 agents that guard the 2,000 mile Mexican border. If this truly is about terrorism and security, then why aren’t we treating both borders equally?”
Both of Texas’ Republican senators Kay Bailey Hutchison and John Cornyn voted against the immigration bill, which failed, with 46 for and 53 against.
Hutchison, a former television reporter, responded to LareDOS’ question, noting the environment while squeezing in other concerns, too.
“I believe our natural heritage is irreplaceable and should be preserved for the enjoyment and education of future generations. However, we must seek a balance between maintaining the integrity of our natural resources and encouraging economic growth, which will shape America's future,” Hutchinson said by e-mail. “I am convinced of the need for closer scrutiny of environmental regulations and of the imperative for legislation, which will allow businesses across this country to flourish. These are mutually achievable goals, and they are the principles with which I will judge any legislation concerning the environment.”
There are many minds to please in the fence issue, but one environment.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Flowers for your border woes

Note: You can read almost an exact copy of this story in July's LareDOS in Laredo, Texas, USA, or catch it, and a lot more, online at


If your border fence misery needs company there’s now a place to look and something to look for – flower pots.
Flower pots could be used in the tight knit community formed by Derby Line, Vermont and Stansted, Quebec, Canada. Sure, fences are being discussed, too, but they’re already old as far as talk down here goes.
Those starch-shirt and always-in-a-suit guys from Washington, D.C. and Ottawa, Canada are conspiring through their surrogates to split the intertwined, intermarried, and interesting conjoined towns of Derby Line and Stansted, Quebec.
There is no river there to offer any kind of natural separation and some people are not sure exactly which country they technically live in. They even have an international boundary line running through their shared library and opera house.
This situation could be more emotional than the separations along the U.S.-Mexican border, but we won’t know if we don’t keep an eye on them, too.
“This border has a long history of neighborliness, peace, and calm. The community is an example of the way that international relations should be,” writes Rosemarie Jackowski in an online editorial in the MWC news. “It is also an example of the way family relations should be. No one cared that Aunt Jenny’s is across an international border, which up until now has been just an invisible line in the snow.” said the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee considered a 3,000-mile long wall for the Canadian border, but that idea was dropped.
“It’s clear to me that those who want to build an enormously costly barrier across it haven’t a clue about the character, the history and the day-to-day commercial importance of the northern border,” Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, said. “It’s best to stop this foolish idea before the government starts shoveling taxpayers’ dollars at it.”
Sound familiar? said local officials have narrowed their problem down to three side streets used as shortcuts by the locals. Law officers from both countries met with about 100 from both sides in the shared library and opera hall in late June, noting a heavy increase in illegal crossings through the little joined community.
Royal Canadian Mounted Police officer Gregory Bishop said police made eight interceptions in 2005 involving 27 people, jumping to 15 interceptions with 44 people last year. So far this year, 10 interceptions with 32 people have been documented.
It was also Bishop who suggested placing large planters with flowers on the road to block vehicular access on those three streets used by smugglers.
Jackowski says the flower pot plan sounds too much like the duct tape plan of a few years ago when it was suggested that the tape and plastic could seal windows in case of attack.
“To old timers this makes about as much sense as the ‘duck and cover’ days when hiding under a desk was supposed to prevent injuries from an atomic bomb attack,” she wrote.
Maybe we could answer the northern border’s flower pot idea by simply gluing together that riverside carrizo the Border Patrol likes to cut down and moving it to low places where they might actually want a barrier – after painting flowers and happy faces on it?

Friday, July 13, 2007

But pesos would be worse

It looks so much like an old Mexican village, but this one is on the grounds of Tabernas, Spain’s Fort Bravo, Texas Hollywood Western movies set and you will need Euros to see it. A fistful of dollars won’t do you any good. I know. I tried.

A Fistful of Dollars won't go very far anymore

Note: Almost this same story appears in the July 2007 edition of LareDOS in Laredo, Texas. Read more online at


ALMERIA, Spain – A fistful of dollars used to be a beautiful sight, but that big load of cash won’t make anyone smile in some places.
A trip to Spain after an absence of five years taught me my money isn’t good enough, anymore.
I got bushwhacked, pistol-whipped by the Euro and could have been hung, learning the stark reality and depth of today’s weaker American dollar, traveling to the movie sites which gave us Clint Eastwood spaghetti Westerns like A Fistful of Dollars and For a Few Dollars More.
Any idea of taking a fistful of dollars or spending a few more there needs serious rethinking these days. Things have changed dramatically since some 35 and 40 years ago when those movies were made.
Get dollars out of your mind and don’t bother putting much in your pocket if going to Europe.
The old reliable, once strong, and mighty dollar has become an almost useless wimp in exchange and acceptance here where the Euro replaced the peseta five years ago and dwarfed the dollar ever since. That’s the bad news.
The good news is that the newfound situation puts travelers here on the American Plan, which is great for losing weight and we have all heard and read how this fat country needs to slim down for health’s sake. Spain, with its old tapas tradition has bar, or bar/restaurant customers eating usually main course and side items in a dish-for-dish fashion, taking the eater right up to feeling filled.
No more food is usually needed, or desired when you have to watch every Euro, too. No one wants to look at dollars in Spain, anyway.
I didn’t want to look at dollars, either, after coming to realize that I was carrying around a large amount of unwanted, seemingly useless money, losing an entire day and part of the next one in the discovery process between tiny Tabernas where only three banks can be found and numerous outlets some 20 miles away in the provincial capital of Almeria, down south on the Costa del Sol.
I had avoided Costa del Sol in all 11 previous trips to Spain, fearing it would be too expensive. It wasn’t – at worst, comparing slightly to Seattle-type prices for some items, but it was very educational.
It’s a good thing I exchanged for several hundred Euros at the bank in Laredo – now owned by Banco Bilbao Vizcaya Argentaria – before flying out. Staying in some nice hotels in Mojacar Playa gave me beautiful sunrises, new faces, and familiarization with the area’s motorcycle racetrack, but served to shield me from the horror of trying to exchange the U.S. dollar. Tabernas, separated by a little bit of highway and dusty roads from the western sets of Mini-Hollywood, Western Leone and Fort Bravo, Texas Hollywood, was waiting for me.
Without trying to slip into a western frame of mind, I discovered a bit before high noon on a Thursday that I was down to some 17 Euros and knew that wouldn’t take me through the weekend and the banks close at 2 p.m.
Unicaja seemed to want to exchange money, but showed me that their computer wasn’t accessing their company’s exchange page. The very busy two-person crew at Banco de Valencia started to process my request, but the cashier suddenly – on orders from the officer – tore up a machine copy of my passport inside page, telling me no American dollars are accepted. The nervous young man cashier at Cajamar told me they couldn’t exchange money because I didn’t have an account there.
Hey, I wasn’t unshaven, wearing a serape, straight-brimmed hat or smoking a short cigar like Clint might have just down the road several years ago, but I was beginning to look at banks with a different face.
Seriously alarmed after hearing three different stories, denying me a usually easy process in past years in smaller towns in Spain’s northern provinces, it was time to take given advice and grab a cab for Almeria.
No one at the airport there was exchanging money, but there was a cash machine – a sign of things to come – as half of the Jimenez taxi company with her husband, Sra. Jimenez, suggested trying various banks in Almeria, and plenty could be found close together.
Banco de Andalucia at the bus station told me they would exchange U.S. dollars, but not 100s. Unfortunately, what I had of some smaller bills was back in my room in Tabernas, so we zipped from bank to bank -- skipping the three Almeria affiliates of those already tried in Tabernas -- and hopes were high entering the BBVA office, but telling the apologetic cashier that I was with BBVA in the U.S. only prompted more shoulder shrugging and a suggestion that I try a travel agency near the port where the ferry boats disembark.
A couple of port offices and a policeman -- with Sra. Jimenez stepping in to ask more questions, led us to that sought after travel agency office near the port main gate – at the instant they closed their door for siesta.
Exhausted, quiet and in disbelief as we headed back toward Tabernas, a moment of mental clarity pushed past my elevated blood pressure, telling me to catch the next day’s 9 a.m. bus to Almeria, grab a cab for that same travel agency, exchange $200 and return on the 11 a.m. bus back to Tabernas. On that same Thursday evening I took a chance on my VISA debit card in the Unicaja cash machine in Tabernas and it worked for 30 euros. The debit card continued to be the main lifeline throughout the rest of the trip, yanking out bigger amounts as the need for cash grew.
The owner and his wife at the hotel I stayed in a few days later in Mojacar Pueblo didn’t like looking at either of my credit cards, frowning before politely asking if I had cash for a lamb supper, or cordero, and eventually for the room.
Personal vacation preferences often have me taking to the back roads, small towns and off the beaten trail for more quiet and more rest than the big cities offer. A helpful regional bank officer for Banco de Valencia, sitting next to me and our mutual acquaintance Tony in Tabernas’ Gran Café, explained that it is a loss nowadays for banks to exchange U.S. dollars unless there are many others there exchanging the same currency and this is not the case in much of Spain with American tourists usually sticking to the big cities. The banker told me that if I want to travel nowadays that I have to go with plastic – as he showed me four credit cards of his own.
That Friday’s quick trip to Almeria got me cash for the $200 before visiting Western movie sites around Tabernas and ruins of the town’s old Arab Castle, which millions have seen but few recognize. Tabernas’ Castillo Arabe had a modern moment in the sun when acting as a backdrop for Patton near Kasserine Pass in North Africa during that movie’s opening credits seen directly after actor George C. Scott’s famous speech in front of the giant U.S. flag.
Almeria is a relatively large city of about 170,000, but British tourists are usually the first to speak English here. Many movies about the American West were made around Almeria, but Americans have yet to discover the area in any recognizable numbers.
Lawrence of Arabia and Conan the Barbarian were among the numerous other movies also filmed partly in the area when an earlier Spanish economy meant plenty of budget-friendly cheap labor and supplies.
Some Americans in uniform visited the area in 1964 when the U.S. Air Force temporarily lost some nuclear bombs just off nearby Palomares. The British are buying up land and condos on those beaches there where Peter O’Toole, as Lawrence, dealt with his Arab Revolt’s victory at Aqqaba and where U.S. military personnel looked for the bombs. At least they had nice scenery surrounding their search with sea, mountains, sun and clouds casting eye-holding vistas all around Almeria province.
Exchange shock proved to be the only downside of two good weeks in this attractive area, but there was still shock in change.
It used to be so easy and often affordable to take commuter flights out of Madrid to regional capitals, or to fly on them before the flight home. I was too late on the way in, missing the flight to Almeria, forcing me to take a seven-hour bus ride south shortly after arrival.
On the way home, hoping for a night in Madrid, I wanted to take a flight there from Almeria, which I thought should have been easy, too, but I still had more to learn.
Changing the $34 U.S. currency I had at Banco de Andalucia at Almeria’s bus station for cab money to the airport gave me 21 Euros cash after the 3-Euro fee. Ironically, I spent 23 Euros in round trip cab fair after learning that it now cost some 280 Euros, almost $400, for a same day flight to, or from Madrid.
Back at the bus station I bought my 23.16-Euro bus ticket for that seven-hour ride back to Madrid. At least I was correct in seeking a cheaper a room in Barajas near the airport, saving money over earlier ideas of going downtown to Puerto del Sol and nice restaurants near Plaza Mayor. I was still on the American Plan.
Laredo-based BBVA officer Miguel de la Hoz deals with the dollar-to-Euro problem on a personal level, being paid in dollars but trips home to the Basque provinces require Euros. De la Hoz advises taking plenty of Euro cash if heading into rural Spain these days, and he echoes the Banco de Valencia officer’s advice to have plastic available.
“For one to two weeks, 1,500 or 2,000 Euros should be enough, but for restaurants and shops I recommend a card,” De la Hoz said. “In the small towns and cities you need cash, but in Madrid it is no problem.
“There is a problem with the conversion rate for the U.S. dollar.”
De la Hoz also believes the Euro is likely to rise in value against the dollar before it goes down.
At least, now, you have been warned, and is anyone out there still placing the dollar above all else in their life?

El Circuito de Almeria

Engines roar and gasoline runs quickly not far from where many movies were made in the desert of Almeria province in Spain's Costa del Sol. But whatever you call it, motorcycling on the fast track races the heart.

Life rejuvinated by chance

Note: A very similar version of this story can also be found in the July 2007 edition of LareDOS, in Laredo, Texas, and online at


TABERNAS, Spain – Chance meetings still lead to beautiful moments.
Two missed rides led to a much wilder and more engaging series of rides when this first venture into El Costa del Sol – a part of Spain carefully avoided for years because of its more-bark-than-bite expensive reputation. Missing a plane from the U.S. and then a bus from the provincial capital of Almeria brought a group of British motorcycle racer riders and myself together.
Blame that April 25 killer storm for the missed flight and my own jet-lagging foggy-headed determination to write down all my fresh notes from a resulting unplanned side trip to New York City, which included some testy moments at Newark’s Liberty International Airport.
Ten died on the border in and near Eagle Pass in that storm, but the storm moved east, foiling many flights and plans as it went. The storm made miss my plane by several hours, but my note writing had me miss my intended first bus out of Almeria to the small town of Tabernas by nine minutes, so I opted for Mojacar.
This occasion it was the storm before a short-lived calm preceding the roar of big, racing motorcycles against the backdrop of Europe’s only desert, breaking the normal mountain-surrounded daytime quiet encircled by the ever-changing nature-created paintings of brown, green, white, blue and tan as clouds moved slowly across mountain faces.
That sight, or the deep, intriguing pursuit by which amateur motorcycle racers engage in their hobby would have escaped me had I not missed those two rides and later decided that I was hungry, despite the pleasing and relaxing vistas of my beachfront hotel room.
Photographing wind skiers on the Mojacar beach gave me a sunburn and forced me to eat late – walking toward the only nearby open restaurant when these motorcycle racers from south and middle England happened along at the same time, going the same direction.
Lads Together was the closest group co-leader Greg Cox, from the little English town of Tring, could come up with for a name. The 12 that I found myself with needed a photographer and I was traveling with three cameras, including a brand new digital eager to prove to me its superiority to the two older film users. I had traveled on my own enough to know that’s not always the most exciting way to go, too, so having lived in England a few years ago we had plenty to talk about.
After supper with some wine and some good lagers we had more to talk about, too – what men always discuss – women, and all being far from home we didn’t have to worry about someone looking over our shoulders, or exercising any political correctness. All good vacations should carry such freedom.
Stuffing yourself into a small rented van with a dozen others is not traveling in any sort of free manner, but it was worth it going to El Circuito de Almeria, the go cart track, club entrances where door guards wore leather jackets and spoke in Russian accents, and some pretty good beachside restaurants. I would certainly missed some, or much, of that if not for Lads Together needing a photographer.
We only cruised past the hanging, cliffside houses of the little town of Sorbas between Mojacar beach and the track, which might have been the only main sight in the area that we didn’t thoroughly investigate when not speeding around El Circuito.
El Circuito de Almeria is one of Spain’s major motorcycle tracks. Jerez’s track gets considerably more attention with its frequent, highly competitive, sometimes televised races, but this facility some 12 kilometers east of the town of Tabernas and its trio of western movie set villages, is on many the map of many European racers. Riders on 1,000cc and 750cc bikes hit speeds close to 160 miles per hour on this track.
An occasional small motorcycle of 150cc might be tested on the Almeria track, but this space is generally reserved for serious riders, whether they are professionals, or simply serious in this expensive hobby.
Riders frequently use electric warmers for their tires when not out on the track. J.J. explained that the warmers help the often bald tires gain traction they have lost. Tires for these high-standard racers, in England, cost a few hundred pounds – equaling some $400, or $500 in U.S. currency.
Pooling dining and going out money with the biker dozen helped save some of my spending Euros, which also staved off the inevitable lesson I was to learn soon about how weak the U.S. dollar has become. One hundred dollars only gets you 68 Euros and banks, generally, don’t want to exchange dollars, too. That debit card, with VISA or Master Card logo, will save you as Euro after Euro is yanked from cash machines, however.
Money was not a serious concern in the safety of the group, as was good eating in the often democratic restaurant selection process. There was some good fish found and a friendly western American barbecue-styled restaurant was among those picked out by the hungry, rambling biker’s dozen one night back from the track along the string of restaurants and beachside establishments at Mojacar.
These guys could afford to ship their motorcycles down from England, but know how to spend wisely, saving a little here or there for that motorized love of their life. Some have more than one, too.
Keith Hawtree, the other co-leader with Cox, asked me something about paying for the photos, but simply riding with the Lads Together was pay enough. I never got everyone’s names, but it didn’t seem to matter – all minds seemed to be concentrating on the relaxing, non-work endeavor of racing big motorcycles around this Santa’s elf shoe-shaped track.
“We’re just out here for fun. No serious stuff at all,” Cox said once.
Many years ago I was privileged to frequent the pit during many motorcycle races in a small town in another part of the country and came to feel that I knew the motorcycle world quite well. At least, as well as a pre-teen boy could.
Not long ago someone told me that I should give motorcycles more attention because they are considered cool now.
I wanted to say that motorcycles have always been cool, but it goes much deeper than that. Motorcycles and their owners can be almost as close as any two family members might be. Motorcycles take their owners to places non-riders can’t see too easily – out of the house and office to freer places on the road. To places of a clearer mind and engaging mechanical thinking that sparks smiles and lifts spirits.
Motorcycles mean freedom, despite their noisy engines, and it was nice to be a party to that world again.

Freedom of Speech is life and death

Note: Something very near verbatim of the following two articles appeared in a special summer '07 edition of LareDOS in Laredo, Texas after some copies of the publication were temporarily removed from public buildings. Read more online at


Freedom of speech, or freedom of the press, to journalists in many parts of the world is a matter of life and death.
A journalist well inside America’s interior might be able to take that freedom for granted, but not those working along the border with Mexico and familiar with that government’s system of controlling the amount of printing paper a newspaper might receive. The Mexican dilemma is mild compared to some other parts of the world where journalists are targeted for death because they dare to print, or broadcast, the truth, or something someone in some sort of power might disagree with or dislike.
Some journalists have been killed in Mexico with the drug situation heightening danger and violence across the border, but others are more frequently dying elsewhere simply because they want to tell the truth.
Hotspots like the Middle East and Africa are and continue to be a danger zone for journalists.
Beirut, Lebanon-based CNN journalist Anthony Mills said that country appears to be the freest in the Middle East, but it’s a deceiving appearance.
Mills has lived in Lebanon for some six years and is seen occasionally on televised reports from Beirut. He said it’s what you don’t see in the fight for freedom to express thoughts or to run a story that the public should know more about.
“Over the last two years or so two journalists have been killed here, and one had part of her arm and part of her leg blown off,” Mills said by e-mail. “Why? Because they refused to bow to threats of violence and intimidation.
“The Middle East as a whole has a pretty poor record of press freedom.”
Mills said journalists exhibiting any courage in Lebanon are in grave danger. Mills, a native of Luxembourg, knew one of the two murdered journalists, Gebran Tueni, personally.
“I’d interviewed him a couple of times in the last five months before he was blown up,” Mills said. “He knew he was on an assassination list. I asked him if he was afraid of dying and his response was defiance in the face of threat.
“That’s courage and it underscores the importance these guys attached to press freedom.”
Mills also noted May Chidiac who lived, despite a car bomb blast. Chidiac spent a year in a Paris hospital, but she returned to Beirut to continue broadcasting.
“That, too, is courage, but the other two voices have been silenced forever, and debate in Lebanon is the poorer for their departure,” Mills said.
Washington, D.C.-based Arabic news analyst Natasha Tynes, originally from Jordan, worked for a paper and Web site in Amman before meeting future husband Jeff and moving to the U.S., but still carries part of the Middle East with her.
Including the fear.
“Due to the lack of freedom of speech in the Middle East, journalists also face self censorship. Their coverage lacks any edge because they are always worried about crossing the red lines and challenging taboos,” she said by e-mail. “As a journalist from the Middle East, I find myself censoring my work on a daily basis. Fear is my worst enemy.”
Yemen television journalist Akram Al Hindi gives the right to free speech a 10 on a scale of one to 10.
“Freedom of speech in today's world is one of the basic human rights,” Al Hindi said by e-mail. “No one in this accelerating world can ignore this fact. The principle of freedom of speech is one of the most important rights any person, not just journalists, should fight for. This right to speak and express your ideas and thoughts had helped a lot of nations to achieve a lot and to change a number of negative things whether in society, government, or even in countries.”
Al Hindi pointed to the example of Martin Luther King who accomplished much in the Civil Rights Movement through his “I Have a Dream” speech.
“This dream today is a reality and this shows how well educated people, who are equipped with the right to speak, have achieved their dreams,” he said.
French La Montagne reporter Bertrand Yvernault, based in Clermont-Ferrand, said the relationship between reporters and politicians there is too close, which serves to block some information – in some cases.
“We journalists are very close with representatives, mayors and all kinds of elected people,” Yvernault said by e-mail. “They provide us with us with some very interesting information and hide others. It’s not really censorship -- more of the wrong side of being too friendly with politicians.”
Yvernault noted that this relationship cuts two ways. Quarreling with one office holder might be a mistake, but it might be worth the fight with another.
“Some nasty ones go straight to the newspaper’s owner or director to complain that they have been ‘ill-treated’ by a journalist,” he said. “It could lead to self-censorship.”
Yvernault believes self-censorship could be worse than that imposed by a government.
Jack Zeller, New York-based president of Kulanu, a global Jewish organization, sees the press, basic rights, and governments from a unique – almost hidden - perspective.
Many things we see, Zeller is able to see in other ways through reports to the organization Web site and his personal observations around the world.
“Many African countries that have democratically elected governments do not have freedom of press or speech,” he said by e-mail. “Historically there has been a dissociation. Americans assume that democracy brings human rights, minority rights, freedom of expression, property rights and so on. It is not true.”
Zeller noted that Hitler won a fair election in Germany in 1932 and put together a coalition government, which included critical support from the Catholic Church. He also said nowadays the U.S. press rarely covers human rights violations in Russia because it is lazy and pre-occupied with entertainment news.
“My own immediate experience is with African countries. Self censorship is the rule if you want to stay alive,” Zeller said. “It is also a good rule if you want to stay in business and not annoy the florid corruption of the non-government organization that operates there. There is a wide spectrum of censorship short of killing journalists.”
Solana Larsen, a New York-based editor for London-headquartered, said numerous intimidators and authorities that would act against free speech could be found closer than we would like, too.
“Even people who profess to be for freedom of speech will quickly
forget it when it isn't convenient for them,” Larsen said in an e-mail. “In America we come down hard on foreign governments who limit freedom of speech, but sometimes fail to respond to it when it happens right in front of our noses. You don't have to put someone in jail to stop them from communicating.”
London-based journalist and New York native Norm Guthartz wasn’t too happy to learn of recent actions here in which copies of LareDOS were yanked from the airport and other public buildings. Papers being pulled is the sort of incident that frequently precedes other harsher censorship and violent actions in much less freer countries.
Guthartz has worked in the U.S., Israel, and Europe and places the highest priority on the freedoms of speech and of the press.
“It is the one freedom which Americans are supposed to be absolutely sure of. It’s the one that U.S. governments keep pushing as the prime benefit of having democracy foisted on them,” Guthartz said by e-mail on June 13. “Sure, there’s the old saw, ‘Freedom of the press belongs to those who own one,’ But here is a case of government blocking what people can read, trying to control their access to information, telling them how to think, requiring that they abrogate their responsibility as citizens to be willfully unaware of the functioning of their government.”
Guthartz advised making sure that would-be readers at the airport get their next copy of LareDOS.
“Send out staffers and volunteers to stand at the entrance to the airport and hand out free copies of the magazine to every carload of people entering (or leaving, for that matter),” he said. “Promote the free flow of ideas.”

Additional comments too late for initial publication –

Haaruun Hasssan, a native of Somalia, and London resident –
In Mogadishu where I have been, the Somali government has been conducting harassment and detention of journalists and closing down media organisations. These are journalists who have really strife for freedom of speech in a country where there is no law and order.
In March, a journalist was detained by the spokesman of the President [himself a former journalist]. Reason: He was asked questions he did not like. The journalist was released after 46 days in detention without charge.
I must tell say to you, this journalist was very lucky. He could have been killed – as Somalia is a lawless country.
Many journalists dare ask tough questions these days – Somali journalists are working in fear. They value freedom of speech very much.
It is very important for every society to get independent thought and analysis. Especially at this age when info is key to life.
On a scale of 1 – 10, I would rate freedom of speech on 9!

And Jonathan Blundell, a former journalist living in Waxahachie, Texas -- I really think the power of the press comes from freedom of speech and the first amendment and the press could not function without it. But on the other side of the coin, there are times that I think First Amendment rights should be limited as well. I don't have any answers as to how or where or when but when you hear stories about possible terrorist attacks and people using software like Google Earth to plan out their attacks, or newspapers printing information about certain political/war strategies, I have to wonder if that's really in the best interest of the general public.
I feel the best societies are open societies were information is exchanged freely but in this new society that also means that information is just as readily available to those we wish to keep it from the most.

Communication is common sense

The following story is very similar to one that appeared in a special summer 2007 First Amendment edition of LareDOS in Laredo, Texas. More can be read online at


It might have bloodied your nose on the playground, and it could have gotten you into a fight with a sibling that led to dire consequences when dad got home.
If someone has a problem, or a question they need to open their mouth, put pen to paper, jump on a word processor, send off a carrier pigeon, or whatever it takes to get answers. One of the first hard lessons learned by many, many, and many was how bad things could get when problems are left unsolved and questions left unanswered.
But someone gets away with a lie – probably as a shortcut around explaining, or asking to solve or learn something -- somewhere along life’s highways and they seem to think they can unlearn what was learned in blood and pain as a child in those formative lessons. Many people experience how bad it can get when working with someone who leaves problems unsolved, or allow themselves to believe that those problems will just simply go away.
That non-communication leads to nothing but problems, job loss, arguments, fights, physical illness, and a variety of other woes, so why do governments and some top office holders think that suppressing the truth is the right course of action?
Chances are they knew better as a child, but they maintain, or learn a desire to lie, cover up and block the public from the truth if that truth might be temporarily, or permanently disappointing, or disadvantageous to them.
But do the math. The public, and those usually affected by decisions of the rich and powerful, always outnumber the decision makers, but the public too often allows itself to be wrapped up so much in average, daily life that it fails to keep a needed eye on the decision makers.
It doesn’t help matters, too, when the very few that consistently watch the bosses and politicians are too often the same people attending meetings for the same school boards, city councils, county commissions, and planning and zoning committees. Some of those overly consistent politician-watchers are sometimes left to look a bit foolish, standing there by themselves, when your curious question -- that you only once, and very shyly, mumbled to a spouse at home – could have been a very constructive item if the board, or council, had had to consider it.
Apathy rates as low on the human civilization scale as not asking that necessary question, or approaching that nagging personal problem that leads to problems for others around you, too.
Personal experience extends to those playground and backyard lessons learned long ago, but journalism experience continues to point to citywide, statewide, nationwide, and global problems left unsolved due to a lack of input.
There are millions of people in the world and eventually some one person might have to make a decision and the narrower the scope of input that decision maker has, that much narrower are chances for success. Not every single time, but don’t take my word for it. Research it.
Do political hardliners have a reputation for listening to the public anywhere?
Are hardliners anywhere known for being good listeners? There are some exceptions, but most are good at making up their minds very quickly.
On those larger than everyday life scales, are situations where leaders suppress the press, hire minders to hound visiting foreign reporters, and outright shut down the media? Can non-communication get any worse or any larger when an entire nation’s media is shut down, or so closely watched and bullied that it can only say what it is told to say?
Those of us who still remember what we learned on the playground, the look on dad’s face when he took off his belt to teach a very strong lesson, combined with what we’ve learned as much bigger kids about freedom of speech, cringe when any episode of press suppression surfaces. This act of non-communication can’t bring on anything good. We’ve known that since we were kids.
That very insecure leader, or the upper echelon of the government that shut down the press, probably did, too, but forgot somewhere along the way.
Communicate. It has always made sense.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Moving on

In the problem around copies of LareDOS, being pulled from the airport and other public buildings -- as noted below -- the mayor apologized and the paper was allowed back where it had been.