4.30.2006

aguas calientes, day three

We´re back from our second visit to Machu Picchu, killing time until we take the train back to Cuzco. We´ll be in Cuzco only overnight, then head south to Lake Titicaca.

After posting yesterday, we had something to eat (why is the best food in Aguas Caliente pizza?) and hung out a bit in this tiny town. It was Saturday night, and the residents had reclaimed their plaza from las turistas. El Gran Bingo was starting up - outdoors on the plaza - and the little church on the square had its doors open for Mass.

This is one area where traditional societies have it all over modern life. One time in southern Italy, we thought there was a parade, until we realized it was just the town taking its nightly walk after dinner, the passagimiento. In Oaxaca, Mexico, a band was playing in the plaza, not because it was a holiday, just because it was a beautiful evening. Adults were kibbitzing, teenagers were checking each other out, kids were running around, just because that´s what you do in the evening. It was the same last night in Aguas Calientes. So nice to see.

You know what else is nice? Sleep is nice. At this altitude, we are both sleeping soundly, and were doing just that by 9:00 p.m.

This morning we rose before dawn and caught the first bus to Machu Picchu, seeing day break over the mountains. Having seen all the major features of the site the day before, we wandered aimlessly, looking at details like the still-working aqueduct system, communing with the 12 llamas who live on the site and admiring the incredible view from every possible angle. In both days combined, we finished six rolls of film and probably shot about 100 photos with the digital.

Have I mentioned the Incas built Machu Picchu - and all their cities - without the benefit of metal tools? Never mind modern machinery, they were using stone tools. You may wonder how a wall could be a object of beauty or admiration, but these walls are positively awesome. Imagine a wall: perfectly level, perfectly straight, the stones separated by perfectly perpendicular and parallel lines. The stones blocks are enormous. It looks as though there had been a solid block of stone that someone drew lines on. The wall is about 550 years old. It was built by hand, and it´s the most perfect wall you´ve ever seen.

Machu Picchu is on the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites, and like most ancient places, it´s under pressure from tourism and encroaching development. UNESCO says that Machu Picchu cannot support more than 200-500 people per day without being damaged. In the high season, it is now drawing about 2,500 visitors a day.

There is talk of closing off the site altogether and building viewing platforms from which visitors could see it through binoculars. It´s unthinkable to me. I would much rather see the number of visitors per day limited, and a waiting list years long, than have traveled all this way to see it only from a distance, but not have walked within it.

I was fortunate to be at Stonehenge before it was roped off, and again after, and although I´m very grateful I saw it earlier, both times were wonderful. But you can walk around all of Stonehenge and see it very well. It´s small and contained. Whereas it would be impossible to appreciate Machu Picchu unless you could walk in and around it.

We leave in a few hours. I´m looking forward to the joys and beauty ahead, but I´m not looking forward to more altitude sickness. Here´s hoping we´re more acclimated now. The eight-hour train trip between Cuzco and Puno, and Lake Titcaca, are supposed to be magnificent.

cody: the interview

Wondering how Cody the Dog is doing without us? Check out the latest installment of they´ve gone to peru!

4.29.2006

more from aguas caliente

I´m writing the Peruvian portion of we move to canada exactly as if it were my travel journal: I´m writing it for myself, for the things I want to remember. So before I forget, I must immortalize the kind Peru Rail employee who tended to my injured finger.

As we were running around our hotel room in Cuzco, throwing clothes in our suitcases and dashing around like maniacs, I reached into our bathroom-toiletry organizer bag and, thinking I was grabbing my eyeglass cleaner, I grabbed Allan´s razor. Pinched it hard between two fingers. It wasn´t especially painful, but it was deep and bloody.

I then discovered we had neglected to bring Band-Aids. (We forgot several things on this trip. We usually pack much more carefully.) I wrapped my finger in toilet paper and consulted my phrase book for "Do you have a Band-Aid?" While we were hustling into the taxi - holding up traffic on the narrow one-way street - a hotel employee got me una curitas, which was soaked through with blood by the time we boarded the train.

I had to ask a Peru Rail person if she had a Band-Aid, thinking there might be a first-aid kit on the train. Band-aid? She turned into a nurse. This woman, in her official blue uniform, dabbed the cut with alcohol as tenderly as my mother might have, gently applied stypic powder, wrapped my finger in gauze, and told me to come back in a little while so she could change the bandage. It was so much more than I asked for or expected, and I was so touched by her kindness.

That´s all. I like to remember these moments that happen when you travel, either of great kindness or its opposite, wherever I find them.

* * * *

Some other random thoughts and observations.

How do the locals here feel about the tourists? Do they have mixed feelings, the way New Yorkers do (like N´Orleansians used to), liking the money they bring in but hating the crowds? Do they only appreciate the business - as tourism is the economy here? Do they secretly hate us? I´m just wondering. There´s no way to know.

The tourists here in Aguas Calientes (also known as Machu Picchu Pueblo) seem polite and well-behaved. We have seen no evidence of the Ugly American, or the Ugly Japanese or German, for that matter. We hear many languages spoken, but everyone seems to be treading lightly and politely. Is it because it´s not yet high season and the Uglies haven´t arrived yet? Is it the nature of the place itself? Is it just a coincidence, too small a sample size for a generalization?

The serious begging and street-selling that became so annoying (although understandable) in Cuzco is not present here. We don´t know if the town prohibits it, or if the local economy is so much better that begging isn´t necessary. I will say the children here look clean, well fed and happy, running around screaming like kids are supposed to do, and their mothers, rounding them up for the evening, look like working women everywhere.

These kids are so beautiful. It´s their hair - blacker-than-black, thick, perfectly straight, and as shiny as satin. The girls wear it in long braids down their backs, or pulled back in loose ponytails. I´m sure they don´t know how gorgeous they are, and many of them (the ones with TV, anyway) probably wish they were blonde.

On the walk to our hotel, we pass through a tiny alley, lined with women and big sacks of produce. They aren´t selling anything. They appear to be doing food prep, maybe for the many restaurants in town - peeling potatoes, husking corn, cleaning peppers. They sit on boxes or crates, shoehorned in this narrow lane. It doesn´t look easy, and they work all day long with chapped hands, but I think, at least they have this community, doing this work together, rather than standing in hot restaurant kitchens.

This makes me think of all the jobs tourism provides here, some of them obvious, like the men who drive buses to Machu Picchu, but many of them hidden, like the hotel cooks and laundries. A man like our guide, Armando, is more employable because he speaks English and has learned his history. In this town, old women are not begging to have their pictures taken. I hope it´s because no one needs to do that here. Maybe?

aguas calientes, day two

Now you´ll all find out what a great writer I´m not. Machu Picchu defies my power of description. All I can tell you is how I felt being there. It is one of the most spectacular, beautiful, powerful and truly awesome things I have ever seen in my life. Awesome is an overused word, but I mean it in the true meaning of the word: I was in awe.

I´ll back up.

After I left you yesterday, we had dinner at our hostal, in the tree house, and man, was that a surprise. One of the owners is a professional chef from Lima, and this dinner would get high ratings in New York or Toronto. Here´s something a little weird: he made sushi for an appetizer. Noting my surprise that they could serve sushi at 2,020 meters, our hosts explained that trucha (trout) is farmed and served all over the area. There was plantain soup and amazing chicken and potatoes, a great meal, too much food, and we high-tailed it back to the room.

Up at dawn, we met our guide Armando at the bus to the Machu Picchu. Buses start leaving Aguas Calientes for the site at 5:45 a.m., and continue filling up and leaving all day, shuttling back and forth from the site to the town. The ride is 25 minutes, up steep switchbacks. The views of the green peaks and gorges are amazing, and as you approach Machu Picchu, you can catch a glimpse of the site here and there. We were both really excited.

And then you´re there. And it´s bigger, and more beautiful, and more incredible, and more remote, and more... more... more than you can imagine. Armando took us on a circuit, pointing out the major components of the site (agricultural, industrial, residential), special places where stones aligned for solstice, amazing architectural details, and such. I won´t try to reproduce it here, because I couldn´t do it any justice.

Armando had to keep waiting for us because we couldn´t stop taking pictures. He also purposely took us on a reverse circuit, away from the other groups, timing the tour for a perfect photo of the Incan city with its giant mountain backdrop - the one you see in all the pictures - when the morning mist had cleared.

Machu Picchu was built by Armando´s ancestors, and he was very proud to tell us about their architectural, engineering and social genius, which are all undeniable. He also explained why this site is so special to us today: because the Spanish never found it, they never destroyed it. Cuzco was the Inca capital, and far more important than Machu Picchu, but the Spanish destroyed it and built their own churches over the Incan temples. Not so here. No Catholic Church here, he said, only the Inca´s own holy places.

When you look at pictures of Machu Picchu, think about this. This place was not a plateau. It was a sharp Andes peak like the peaks surrounding it. The Incans levelled it, terraced it, brought in soil (using their llamas), farmed it, and transformed it into a city.

After about an hour and a half, Armando pointed out other walks we could take and areas we could see, and we parted, fretting whether or not we had tipped him adequately. There´s no food allowed on the site, and there are no facilities of any kind (thank goodness), so your ticket is good for the whole day, and you can leave and come back. There´s a small picnic-table area and washrooms where the bus drops you off, and we went back out and in a few times.

We wanted to see the main areas before the hordes of day-trippers arrived from Cuzco (first train gets in at 10:15), and decided we´d follow the same plan tomorrow. It was worth the effort to explore the whole site with only scattered handfuls of people around. We hiked quite a bit past my tolerance, but had started so early that we were thoroughly hot, dusty and tired before it was even noon! After sitting on the bus again, just long enough to stiffen up, it was no small job climbing the stone steps back to our hotel.

I don´t know what to say about Machu Picchu. I feel quite powerless to tell you about it. Go Google some pictures. Go plan your trip.

I´m going to post this right now, then I´m coming back with some random notes and observations.

Photos from both days at Machu Picchu here.

4.28.2006

aguas caliente

In an internet cafe, Aguas Caliente, outside Machu Picchu
temperature: 20 C / 70 F
elevation: 2,020 m / 6,627 f

It turns out I have another day to wait to see Machu Picchu, but I´ve waited this long...

Last night it was Allan´s turn to get the serious altitude sickness, his complete with fever and chills. Insomnia is still running rampant, but we managed to doze off before sunrise. You can imagine the scene when I looked at the clock and saw 5:10 - and our cab was coming at 5:30. A little mayhem, packing and flying into the cab (and of course I cut my finger and was bleeding all over the place, just because we were in a rush), then more mayhem at the train station, where every taxi is met by a throng of sellers hawking water, batteries, postcards.

For this trip, we opted for a higher-priced ticket, in order to ride the "Vistadome", a more scenic train with a set of upper windows. Leaving Cuzco, the way is so steep that the rails are a series of switchbacks - the train goes forward up one, then backwards up the next. Next to the tracks there are sprawling barrios, hovels jammed one upon the next, strewn with trash and chickens and dogs, tin rooves, graffiti. Further away you can see nice little adobe houses, and the whole Cuzco valley a blanket of red tile rooves, surrounded by dramatic green mountains.

Slightly further out, the sprawl finally gives way to farm land. Cows, sheep and the occasional burro are tethered to stakes as they graze near the train tracks. Dogs are everywhere, relaxing in the sun and watching the train go by, or trotting on their morning rounds. Groups of kids in uniforms are making their way to school, people are riding their bicycles to work.

As the train makes its way northwest, alongside a river, the surrounding moutains grow steeper and more dramatic, until the train is chugging through a canyon. It was breathtaking - even with all the other tourists leaning all over each other to take pictures. The front of the train was a Spanish-speaking group, the back was a group from Italy. The guide for the Spanish-speaking group was an Andean man with that perfect Inca face. (Can you tell I like these faces?)

The train went past a few smaller Inca sites, and you can see (approximately) the entrance to the Inca Trail, the famous four-day trek that ends at Machu Picchu. The trip is a little under four hours, alternating between just plain beautiful and spectacular.

Between the train station and the town, arriving tourists run a gauntlet of stalls. There´s an unbelievable number of people selling an unbelievable amount of crap. Here, at least, it really is mostly crap with Peruvian designs. I don´t know how they all manage to make a living. Maybe they don´t.

Looking for our hotel, wheeling our suitcases behind us, we walked off the main drag, following a security guard´s directions, down an alley, up a hill, down another alley, up some steep stone steps, until we finally saw the sign for Rupa Wasi.

It didn´t seem that it could be worth the climb to get to this room. Allan waited halfway up, and I went ahead to check on our reservation. The owner sent a kid down to help Allan with the bags, but it still seemed insane. Until I saw the room.

The "Eco Lodge," as they call themselves, is like a series of cabanas or bungalows, built right into the mountain. The office and the dining area look like log cabins. When I made the reservation online, the person asked me if we´d like a regular double room, or, for twice as much, one with an "awesome view". Allan said, Take the view. I was skeptical, but hey, it´s the most expensive room of the trip, and it still comes in at only $60 US (though twice as much as its nearest competition, in Lima). But while I was climbing the uneven, steep stone steps, I thought, this had better be a good view.

Oh. My. God. The room itself feels like a treehouse, perched in the woods, surrounded by jungle plants. There´s a little balcony, and it looks right out onto an enormous green mountain, without a single obstruction. It´s terrific.

Tired and hungry, we were rapidly realizing that we shouldn´t go to Machu Picchu today. Our guide picks us up tomorrow at 5:30 - to catch the sunrise at the site - and damn, we need a day in the middle. So we had a little lunch at the lodge, then climbed down into town to get some money, buy a few postcards, make a call and such.

The town of Aguas Calientes exists only as a jumping off point for Machu Picchu. It´s a jumble of hotels, restaurants, souvenir stands, internet cafes and international calling centres. There´s a grade-school in the centre of town, and the area residents actually look out of place among the tourists. Weird.

This afternoon we´re going to drink cervezas, or anything else we can find cold from a bottle, on our balcony, then have dinner at the lodge, which they make just for the guests. I´m hoping to fall asleep right after dinner and be ready for our guide before dawn.

* * * *

I called my sister to see how she´s recovering. Poor thing, it´s very hard. She told me our brother called her from Ecuador. It´s the Kaminker South American tour!

A few photos of Aguas Caliente here.

4.27.2006

cuzco, day two

After blogging yesterday, the altitude sickness hit me full force. I had every symptom in the book, including the very rare loss of appetite and the sadly not rare insomnia. The fumes on the street were making me sick, which makes sense if you´re not getting enough oxygen. Walking uphill to our room, after watching Allan eat dinner, was rough.

Yet, after a completely sleepless night, I somehow felt much better in the morning - not 100% but vastly improved. We had a very full day today, and tomorrow we´re off for Machu Picchu, so I want to get this all down tonight.

This morning we had a full healthy breakfast at the hotel, and that was the last thing I wanted to eat for the whole day. (Can I get this altitude sickness stuff to go?) After discussing how to arrange our travel for the next few days, we opted, at the spur of the moment, to pop into one of the many travel agencies lining the Plaza de Armas. These days we´re often falling somewhere between doing everything in advance before the trip, and doing everything the cheapest but most time-consuming way ourselves. So now the transportation for the next few days - taxis, trains, buses - and admission tickets are all arranged, and the agency threw in a tour guide for one day at Machu Picchu (apparently they all do that).

Next we visited La Catedral, which is really three churches, on the main plaza. By now the hordes of sellers and beggars are very annoying. Restaurants have hawkers on the sidewalk, kids are approaching you constantly with postcards, watercolour paintings and shoe shines, and saddest of all, elderly women in full Andean costume, with a baby wrapped in a shawl on their backs, are trying to get you to take their picture.

The cathedral is dark and filled with even darker oil paintings. Andean children, orphaned during the Spanish invasion, were sent to Spain (as slaves? I´m not sure), where many of them learned European painting techniques, then brought them back to Peru, painting in Spanish with an Andean accent. The paintings and the church are more interesting than beautiful, although we did again (as in Lima) see people doing restoration work. The goldwork and the carvings are extremely ornate, without any of the grace of, say, the Italian Renaissance. The Cathedral was built on top of an Incan palace, with stones pilfered from another nearby Incan temple. (There are four Incan sites within striking distance of Cuzco. You can take a bus or hire a taxi to see all four in a day, but we decided not to push it with our energy levels so suspect.)

On our way to find some Incan walls, we found an artisan´s market and I bought some jewelry for myself and a gift - sterling silver with turquoise, lapis, mother of pearl and other colourful stones. Eventually we hunted down the Incan stones, which form the foundation of many Cuzco walls. They are enormous stones, fit together with incredibly exacting precision, with no mortar between them. They have survived earthquakes without moving a centimetre, while the European-built upper walls have crumbled repeatedly.

There are a few very famous Incan stones, with complicated polyagonal shapes, all fit together with the same precision. The most famous in Cuzco is a twelve-sided stone, weighing 6 tons. It´s astounding workmanship, although I´ve read it pales in comparison to some we´ll see in Machu Picchu. On the narrow street where the 12-sided stone is found, groups of kids and elderly women gather to try to give you a history lesson in return for some change.

There are several museums in Cuzco which didn´t appeal to us, including Museo Del Inquisicion. Cuzco was the centre of The Inquisition in the New World. I´ll pass. We went to the Museo del Inka, which houses artifacts from all the pre-Incan Peruvian cultures - some of which we´ll see more of later on this trip - and some that I had never heard of, even in my Ancient Civs research. After the early exhibits, there are Incan artifacts of all types, then the story of the Invasion, to the present day. It´s a nice museum, although we would have enjoyed it more with an English guide or English written material.

After this we were exhausted, although from altitude, hill-climbing or advanced age, I don´t know. We had some te con miel et lima and yogurt and fruit, which I could barely eat. Fruit that requires peeling - as opposed to washing - is safe to eat, and gives us a rare opportunity to eat something other than meat and potatoes. So papaya, pineapple, tangerines and bananas are making us happy, and I can ask for no apples or strawberries and be understood.

After our tea we were still exhausted, but we also had one more thing on our list to see, a church the guidebook said had amazing woodwork. Allan found it for us, and I must say he has really stepped up as planner while I´m reeling from altitude sickness. So we wanted to see the Iglesia San Blas, but it was uphill - way, way uphill and we couldn´t cope. Solution: taxis. Every vehicle on Cuzco´s streets is either a taxi or a colectivo van, and I am not exaggerating; people here obviously do not own cars, and all the tourists take taxis. You walk onto the sidewalk, stick out your arm, and a taxi pulls over (much like the car services in our old NYC neighbourhood!). The drivers are all Andean men. You ask how much in advance, and they ask for so little I would never dream of bargaining. We took a cab to the church, a cab back to the Plaza de Armas, where we picked up our train tickets, then a cab back to the room (nearby but uphill); all three trips combined cost less than $3.00 US.

To the church, we drove up impossibly steep hills, on impossibly narrow streets, some so narrow we thought they were pedestrian-only. The Church of San Blas is a small, simple adobe building with an ornate gold altar and the most elaborately carved pulpit you can possibly imagine. Ornate and detailed really doesn´t begin to describe it. I can´t say I found it beautiful, but I did find it amazing. The church also has a crucifix with a very dark-skinned Jesus, and some dark-skinned saints.

So, tomorrow I will see Machu Picchu, which I have wanted to see for about 30 years. No matter how high my expectations, I know I will not be disappointed. In my experience, nothing ever compares to being there. Our train leaves at 6:00 a.m., so hasta luega!

* * * *

A note to the commenter who asked about "without ice". Your vocabulary is correct, but this is an idiom. Iced coffee = cafe helado, iced tea = te helado, ice water = agua helado, so water without ice is agua sin helado.

We got email from Ellen The Dogsitter this morning - she and Cody are doing fine. We miss Cody!

Cuzco photos here.

4.26.2006

cuzco

Internet station near Hotel Los NiƱos, Cuzco
current temperature: 13 C / 55 F
elevation: 3,248 m / 10,656 ft

This morning in Lima we had breakfast at our hotel with two older Dutch women, hardy travelers, one of them sharing my lifelong desire to see Machu Picchu. It was the first time we´ve said we´re from Canada! The hotel in Lima and the one in Cuzco are both run by Dutch people, by coincidence (I think). Breakfast was a good ¨continental¨ affair (although we´re on a different continent), but Peru is, surprisingly (to me) not a coffee-drinking country. Coffee is often a jar of instant, so we´re both drinking tea. They have lots of strong black tea - te puro - as well as herbal.

Another wild cab ride to the airport, then security confiscated my nail file, small scissors, corkscrew, and a knife more suited to spreading peanut butter than attacking anyone. I always travel with a nail file. It felt a bit like robbery.

The flight to Cuzco is an hour and ten minutes, over immense, stark mountains with winding rivers and no visible roads. Closer to Cuzco, the mountains are more green, and you can see tiny villages nestled in valleys. They must be so remote.

Immediately upon leaving the plane I was dizzy and lightheaded from the altitude. A friendly taxi driver pointed out sights on the way to the hotel, including a huge mountainside monument to the first Inca, Manco Capac, and a statue of a great Incan king, Pachacuti. At the hotel, we learned that our room had just been painted and smelled bad, and would we mind going to their second hotel? So back in a cab, accompanied by a young person who works at the hotel. The streets are cobblestone, steep and very narrow - one car wide - and the sidewalks are one-person wide. Sitting in a cab you feel like you take up the whole street.

The hotel where we´re staying was founded by a Dutch woman who, after visiting Peru, wanted to do something to help the many children she saw begging and selling things on the street. She rented a room and gave two children a place to live with her. From there, her involvement grew and she ended up adopting a dozen children. She thought starting a hotel would provide a steady source of income, plus a way to teach children some skills. Most of the hotel employees are former street kids, plus profits suport a foundation that cares for 500 children - food, medical and dental care, education and a sports team. Along with her two biological children and 12 adopted children, she and her husband support another 23 children living with Peruvian foster parents. Pretty neat, eh? This link has information about the hotel and her foundation.

The hotel is lovely - the colonial courtyard and balcony, brightly painted, flowers everywhere. Checking in, I told the host I was having trouble with the altitude, and she made us cups of coca de mate, a hot drink made of coca leaves, which Andean people believes lessens that. I don´t know if it´s true, but the drink is nice. Although it doesn´t get you high. In the room I had an uncontrollable laughing fit, as the air itself is getting me high. Unfortunately the rest of the symptoms weren´t as much fun - pounding headache, shortness of breath, tightness in the chest, gasping for air while walking up Cuzoco´s steep streets.

We walked to the main plaza, a beautiful square full of flowers and perfectly maintained plantings, lined with the cathedral, another large Spanish church and dozens of hotels and tourist shops. It´s also full of kids and teenagers begging and selling postcards and souvenirs, or trying to shine your shoes, in spite of everyone wearing sneakers. The kids are bold and determined and not easily put off. They ask where you´re from, and when we said Canada, they replied, "Capital is Ottawa!" Engaging any of them brings othes over in a small swarm.

While we were looking at the cathedral (just outside so far), a very small, bold and dirty child became our tour guide. He pointed out (accurately) Inca stones in the walls, a craft market, a mural, a store we might need, and seemingly would not detach from us. I was struggling to converse with him and then translate for Allan, wondering how we would get him to leave, when I took his picture and gave him some coins - then felt like an idiot for not realizing I could have done that sooner. I also felt bad for using so much of his time, but hopefully I compensated him alright.

We did see large groups of children in uniforms, who must have been coming home for lunch - but that is obviously not universal. If your family doesn´t have money for school uniforms, or can´t spare the income you bring in, you don´t go to school. It´s very sad.

We walked around some more, on narrow, steep streets, many pedestrian-only, full of steps, often with amazing views of the town´s red roofs and the surrounding mountains. Also children and elderly women begging and selling things, some dogs, dozens of tourist shops, but also the life of the city itself.

There are many people here who look exactly like the faces of Incan statues. (I saw this in Lima, too, although obviously more here in the Andes.) They are short, with jet-black hair, and large features, especially a very prominent and distinctively-shaped nose. I find it amazing that people in the world today have retained such a strong genetic imprint of their ancient ancestors. I love it. I also think that if I were them I would hate the Spanish and their descendant ruling class. Perhaps I wouldn´t, but I think I would.

We climbed some very steep streets to find a quinta, a type of family restaurant that serves Andean food. This week is probably our only opporunity to eat food specifically from this region, and lunch is the main meal of the day.

Here I´m going to squick more than a few readers, and one friend and reader in Waterloo may feel especially horrified thinking of a family pet. I wanted to try cuy, a local specialty - roast guinea pig. It´s considered a delicacy and expensive by Peruvian standards.

The quinta was open-air - we sat under an umbrella to avoid the blazing sun - and very friendly. Both our meals came on a plate full of potatoes, rocoto relleno (a pepper stuffed with ground meat and vegetables, topped with cheese), corn meal cooked in a banana leaf and some other side dishes. But the cuy! It was the whole animal - head, ears, eyes, claws, tail - roasted in its crispy skin. A little disconcerting! But also honest. There´s no pretending you´re doing anything but eating an animal.

It was alright, not delicious, a little difficult to eat because it was very bony, not fleshy, so there wasn´t much meat in any one part. I don´t think I need to eat it again, but of course I´m glad I tried it. After the meal we drank more mate de coca, to no noticeable effect, but it´s a nice thing to do.

On the way home, accosted by more young salespeople, I bought a little bag-pouch thingy in amazingly vibrant Andean colours from a little girl who was then hot to sell me another one - and a good salesperson, too. We stumbled on a row of market stalls, all selling the same things, and bought a piece of fabric made from incredibly vibrant colours. Everything is crazy cheap here, although Cuzco is the most expensive Peruvian city. It´s sad how little people are charging, and how many of them there are, and how hungry they are for our measly tourist dollars.

Today I called my mom from an international calling store, got her machine, and I know she´ll be so disappointed to have missed us. I also called my sister, who had surgery on Monday and is in horrendous pain.

Back at the hotel, we washed up and changed, then drank lukewarm cervezas by a fireplace, as it was raining into the open courtyard. Now we´re at one of the many internet places lining the narrow streets, charging 80 centimes per hour, about $0.25. It´s weird to feel rich. I feel myself throwing money around, tipping taxi drivers, telling people to keep the change. I guess there are worse things I could do here then overpay.

Late addition! The flag of this region of Peru is the rainbow flag. Yes, there is a rainbow flag flying high over Cuzco!! And we think Canada is gay-friendly!

4.25.2006

lima

Hostal Mami Panchita, in the San Miguel district of Lima, Peru
current temperature: 23 C / 74 F
elevation: 12 m / 39 f

Monday afternoon, after disappointing the extremely excited and expectant Cody, we drove to Buffalo. Our JetBlue flight was delayed, so instead of having several hours of waiting time in JFK, it was only 90 minutes or so. I couldn´t sleep at all on the plane. I can never sleep unless I´m lying in a bed, at night, in the dark. This time I thought I´d be prepared with Ambien, but even after 10 mgs (I usually only take 5) and several glasses of wine, I did little more than dose. I was extremely uncomfortable in the middle seat. But oh well, two minutes after you land, it´s all forgotten.

After exchanging some Canadian dollars for Nuevo Soles in the airport, we found our hotel taxi, as promised, with a sign from the hotel with my name on it. Also as promised, dozens of taxis, some not exactly reputable, hawking for your business.

It was a pleasant 15-minute drive from the airport to the San Miguel district. I forced myself to try some Spanish right away, knowing that the longer I waited the harder it would get. The driver understood my meaning, and politely repeated my thoughts in more correct form. Good!

San Miguel is right near the ocean, not far from the nightlife of the Miraflores and Barranca districts, but quieter. The hostal - which just means a hotel without a restaurant - is a beautiful colonial building with an open courtyard, a bar and lounge, free internet service, and a street front overflowing with flowers. We have a large, clean room with a private bath for the equivalent of $30 a night.

Upon arrival, I checked email, and Ellen The Dogsitter had already written to say they are doing great. (Yay!) I also emailed my sister, who will relay to our mom that I am safely here. We showered, changed and asked our host about getting to Lima Centro, the downtown area.

He cautioned us about safety, as do all the guidebooks. Lima, with a huge population of poor and unemployed, and an equally huge influx of tourists, is known to be a centre of theft and pickpocketing. We are pretty savvy travelers, and naturally safe with money (and water!), but anything can happen to anyone, no one is crime-proof, and the guidebooks stress theft so much it sounds practically inevitable (which of course is not the case).

The cab ride to Centro was fast and wild - and that´s how they drive here. There are few traffic lights or street signs, no one appears to use directionals, no one stays in any given lane, if indeed there are lanes, no one allows another driver or pedestrian one inch of leeway. It was an amusing ride.

Even at a slightly inflated price, the long cab ride from San Miguel to Centro was 12 soles, the equivlant of about $3.50.

We tumbled out of the cab at Plaza de Armas, a well-kept plaza with greenery, statuary and benches, surrounded by grand colonial architecture. La Catedral is on one said. Lima was founded by the Spanish (the Inca capital was Cuzco) so the original cathedral was built in 1555, then destroyed and rebuilt after a succession of fires and earthquakes. It´s fairly stark, not highly ornate except for a few chappels and a huge carved choir. The big draw is a mosaic-covered chapel that houses the tomb of Francisco Pizarro, who destroyed the Incas. Hard to work up much feeling for his grave.

We wandered about a bit. It was still early, and the downtown was just coming to life - shops full of tourist souvenirs just opening, things not quite bustling yet. We looked in a few other churches, but opted not to pay more admission fees, as we had at La Catedral.

We had had a breakfast of sorts on the plane, but goddess knows what time that was, and we were already hungry again. It was too late for desanyumo and too early for el menu, the price-fixed lunch specials that are supposed to be the way to eat all over Peru. After passing on a few pricey but touristy-looking places, we found a little spot that reminded me of every Latin American neighbourhood I´ve ever eaten in, from Jackson Heights, Queens to the Mission in San Francisco to anywhere in Mexico. I managed to ask the host what she had that we could eat at that hour, recognized the ¨pescadora frita (fried fish) and ordered us two. A thin, crispy piece of fried fish (no idea what kind of fish, and who cares), roasted potatoes and a mug of tea. Total price, both meals, 7 Soles. That is, about $2.75. And this is in the capital city.

After eating, we wandered around downtown more, now very noisy and crowded. Wild traffic, crowded sidewalks, many street vendors and open-fronted bakeries and cafes, men approaching tourists offering tours, a few street dogs relaxing on a sunny sidewalk, old women selling slices of pineapples, men with huge sings reading ¨Compro Oro¨(I Buy Gold), crowds of uniformed kids on their way to school, horns honking - a serious urban scene. There´s virtually no litter in the Centro area. And, on a bright, sunny day, if your money is securely hidden in a deep pocket and you´re aware of your surroundings, no great threats, either.

We poked around a converted train station that´s now a learning and literacy centre, and Allan found for us (in the guidebook) a gorgeous historic church, San Pedro, built by Jesuits in 1638. It´s a brightly coloured Spanish baroque, filled with light and tilework (which I love). It´s being painstakingly cleaned right now - you can watch the artisans patiently cleaning 350 years of grime with Q-tips and cleaning solvent, and see the impressive before and after results. An incredible amount of gold is jammed into every nook and corner. I can´t help but think of what a bit of that gold could do in a country where so many are so poor, and everything the Church has done to keep them that way. But I also see undeniably beauty, and a celebration of what humans can create, and I always recognize both at the same time.

Allan and I were both fighting waves of fatigue at this point. We stood in front of La Biblioteca Nacional and watched dozens of buses and colectivo vans load up and depart, wave after wave of buses, men waving signs to direct potential passengers, people jumping on and off at the last minute, buses pulling up and departing in a seemingly endless stream. We decided that although a long bus ride to San Miguel would probably be memorable - we´ve had a few on our travels - today was not the day for that adventure. So we found a cab that (a) would go that far and (b) wasn´t overcharging. As in many cities, taxis in Lima don´t have meters, and you agree on a price in advance.

This was yet another wild ride, and the driver worked so hard to find our address - consulting our map several times, asking other drivers and driving all the hell over San Miguel - that we paid more than he had asked for and were glad to do it.

Back at Mami Panchita, the sun was blazing and the neighbourhood looked charming and quiet, especially in comparison to Centro. We walked a few blocks to the local market, a rabbit warren of tiny stalls selling everything under the sun. Including those fresh-killed chickens and ducks, hanging unrefrigerated under that sun, too. I adore markets, they´re one of my favourite things to do in any city, and this was a really nice local surprise.

We picked up some more cash, as we´re using ATMs here and traveling cash-only. The ATMS here will dispense US dollars, and all the hotels, restaurants and shops will accept them, something Allan and I both find vaguely disgusting. I got to use more of my awful Spanish at the bank and while hunting for a Peruvian form of Lactaid, which we forgot to pack for the lactose-intolerant Redsock. This was amusing, but helpful female pharmacists came through. Important phrase of the day: Mas despacio, por favor? I can comprendo quite a lot, if it´s said slowly enough.

We had another menu meal, this one an appetizer, main course and fruit drink for 5 Soles (about $1.75). I had something called ocopo, a cold boiled potato in a green sauce, then delicious pollo in sauce with white arroz. They love potatoes here, so I am happy. I never met a potato I didn´t like. We also tried Inka Kola, a ubiquitous ginger-coloured soda that takes nothing like cola. We can only drink things sin helado (without ice) because of water safety, so lukewarm is the order of the day.

This neighbourhood is really lovely, with quiet streets, lush plantings, fat healthy dogs and glimpses of colonial courtyards through iron grates. Right now Allan is snoring and I can´t be far behind. We might have to save Miraflores for the end of the trip, and do nothing but sleep tonight.

* * * *

A note about my typing. I can´t spellcheck in English on this computer. I´m struggling to correct my typing (the keyboard is also slightly unfamiliar) as I go along, but I´m sure to miss many typos. I ask your understanding until I get back and clean everything up.

And another note. For weeks I told everyone how amazing it is that Peru, on the Pacific coast, is in the same time zone as New York and Toronto. Everyone was surprised, not only geographically-challenged Americans. And it would be amazing, if it were true. But on the flight down here we learned that there´s a one-hour time difference between New York and Lima. Peru is the equivalent of Central Time, not Eastern Time - although it appears to be in the same longitude as New York. Go figure.

A few photos of Lima here.

4.24.2006

departure

This morning I have a few last-minute errands, and I have to go out for breakfast because there's no food in the house. Then I'll wake up Allan (he worked til 1:00 a.m. last night), and we'll pack and drive to Buffalo.

As soon as we take out the suitcases, Cody will know we're leaving. She'll be monitoring us closely to see if she's coming or not - then she'll have a small fit when we leave. It's one of the few emotional displays she'll ever make. In NYC, she would run out of our apartment into the hall, and plant herself by the elevator! She'd sit up real straight, staring at us expectantly. If I'm out here, they have to take me, right? It's a killer. But she'll only be alone for a couple of hours, until Ellen arrives, and then all will be well.

We fly from Buffalo to JFK, wait a few hours in the airport, then fly overnight to Lima. Someone from the hotel in Lima is meeting us at the airport, which apparently is pretty common there.

We'll spend Tuesday in Lima, probably just walking around and seeing what the city looks like, and stay at this hotel. (We'll also be in Lima for two days at the end of the trip.) On Wednesday morning we fly to Cuzco.

Because Cuzco and Aguas Calientes (the town outside Machu Picchu) are the most heavily visited spots in Peru - in all of South America - I've already booked rooms in both places. This means we have reservations for the first five nights of the trip, unusual for us. For the rest of the time, we'll just find a room when we get into a town.

I'm really excited. It's our first major vacation since 2002, our first time out of North America since 2001, and our first time to the Southern Hemisphere altogether. This is not to say my life has lacked for excitement. I mean, I'm here, right? But I crave travel. I am never so in my element as when I'm exploring a place I've never been to before. Allan and I are perfect travel partners; we always have a great time.

As I mentioned, I'll post my travel journal whenever I have the opportunity, at least every few days, but sometimes daily. No photos, but maybe it will be fun to read anyway.

I hope you all have a good three weeks. And don't forget to RSVP!

4.23.2006

toon night

Did anyone see The Simpsons tonight? Marge and the kids are Puritans fleeing England for the New World. As Homer pilots the Mayflower through a storm, he cries, "I'll see you fundamentalist Christians live to take over all of America by the 21st century!"

Nothing like a new Simpsons episode to start your vacation off right. Time to pour myself another glass of wine and settle in for Family Guy and the return of American Dad.

fog of war

How much are the wars in (and occupations of) Afghanistan and Iraq costing US taxpayers? Wrap your mind around $10 billion a month.
With the expected passage this spring of the largest emergency spending bill in history, annual war expenditures in Iraq will have nearly doubled since the U.S. invasion, as the military confronts the rapidly escalating cost of repairing, rebuilding and replacing equipment chewed up by three years of combat.

The cost of the war in U.S. fatalities has declined this year, but the cost in treasure continues to rise, from $48 billion in 2003 to $59 billion in 2004 to $81 billion in 2005 to an anticipated $94 billion in 2006, according to the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. The U.S. government is now spending nearly $10 billion a month in Iraq and Afghanistan, up from $8.2 billion a year ago, a new Congressional Research Service report found.

Annual war costs in Iraq are easily outpacing the $61 billion a year that the United States spent in Vietnam between 1964 and 1972, in today's dollars. The invasion's "shock and awe" of high-tech laser-guided bombs, cruise missiles and stealth aircraft has long faded, but the costs of even those early months are just coming into view as the military confronts equipment repair and rebuilding costs it has avoided and procurement costs it never expected.
This makes sense. Spend $10 billion a month so a handful of rich people can get richer. After all, the US is a perfect society, all its citizens' needs are met, and it has nothing else to spend tax money on. Plus, the war is really helping the Iraqis, and ushering in a lasting Middle East peace. Right?

* * * *

I wish Canada would leave the US to it in Afghanistan. What on earth is being accomplished there? I mean, besides Canadians coming home in boxes.

I keep reading we're supposed to be proud of the job the Canadian armed forces are doing over there, but I don't know why. It looks less and less like peacekeeping and more like forcing democracy at the point of a gun, and propping up the US war machine.

On top of that, it's a political hot potato to suggest Canada might step back from this increasingly militaristic effort. Everyone has to fall all over themselves with praise and support for the troops, how brave they are, what a great job they're doing. It's even been suggested that demanding a full assessment of the mission is unpatriotic. We all know that tune.

The Globe and Mail recently criticized Stephen Harper for trying to "muzzle" Rick Hillier.
Plain-spoken and persuasive, General Rick Hillier has always been upfront about his concern for his troops and his passionate belief in his mission. So it is disconcerting that the Chief of the Defence Staff has apparently now joined the lengthening list of those who must clear remarks with the Prime Minister's Office. In his zeal to control the news, Prime Minister Stephen Harper is in danger of squashing his most popular advocate for the Canadian mission in Afghanistan. And that would be a blunder.
Has everyone forgotten that Hillier is a General? By all accounts, he's a highly qualified man who is doing an excellent job, brought respect to the Canadian military, blah blah blah. But he's supposed to carry out the mission the government sets, not make policy! The media goes around quoting Hillier like he's the Minister of Defence. The CBC, supposedly a Liberal lap dog, wants a quote about Canada's glorious mission in Afghanistan, they go to Hillier. Well, of course, he's going to say they're needed and doing a great job, what do you expect?

Conservative Canadians say this opposition to the mission (war?) in Afghanistan is just Conservative-bashing. Progressive Americans say that Canada is becoming more militarized under Harper. Excuse me, but wasn't Canada in Afghanistan under a Liberal government? The Liberals won't touch this issue any more than Harper will.

I hope the "NDP should join the Liberals" choir remembers this tune before they start singing.

urbanity

There's a good story in the Toronto Star today about how great cities are designed, and how Toronto might become one.

It's part of a series in which various people - Toronto Mayor David Miller, critic Christopher Hume, community activists - weigh in on how to improve Toronto. The Star also asked readers to send ideas. Links to those stories are here.

Today's story points out that great cities are often made either by dictatorial fiat - always the case in ancient times - or after a major disaster. Wars, bombings, earthquakes and fire create an opportunity for planned rebuilding. So the writer asks, absent these two factors (we hope), how will Toronto develop its own great style?
For Larry Richards, a professor of architecture at the University of Toronto, that's why all of the new cultural projects need to be a resounding success, as "proofs of excellence."

Will that be enough? Maybe.

"Toronto has to come out of its pessimism and just be more confident and believe that things are possible," says Richards. "If you start believing, then people want to make things happen."

But great cities also have more than a strutting confidence: They combine that with a keen, almost visceral sense of themselves.

"(The writer) Jane Jacobs uses the word `style' in an interesting way," says Richards. "A city and people, no matter what kind of socio-economic status, need to have this identity by way of style.

"What's the Toronto style, the same way you might say Amsterdam has a style or Barcelona has a style? I think we're getting close to knowing that we have that."

Richards — and he's not alone — now finds himself keenly awaiting a movie called The Sentinel, just opening in theatres around the world, and starring Michael Douglas and Kiefer Sutherland.

Like countless other movies, it was filmed in Hollywood North — but with one, portentous difference:

Instead of playing cinematic stand-in for New York, Chicago or London, Toronto will finally be playing itself.
You can send your Toronto ideas to the Star at whatif@thestar.ca.

4.22.2006

taxes, canadian edition

Last week we tackled the U.S. tax forms; this week we did the Canadian returns.

Despite what we had heard, they were not appreciably easier. The language of Canada Revenue may be somewhat clearer than that of the IRS, but other than that, there's not much difference. There are still multiple forms to fill out, arcane formulas to follow, and instructions that refer to other instructions ad infinitum.

Because we earned very little money in Canada last year - having landed on August 30 and then living off previous earnings for a while - we're getting a small refund. That's always welcome, and we'll be sure to put it right back into the economy. However, it might be the economy of Peru.

revulsion

Paul Krugman's latest column seems to be all over the blogosphere. It's pay-per-view at the New York Times, but free to wmtc readers.
The Great Revulsion
By Paul Krugman

"I have a vision — maybe just a hope — of a great revulsion: a moment in which the American people look at what is happening, realize how their good will and patriotism have been abused, and put a stop to this drive to destroy much of what is best in our country."

I wrote those words three years ago in the introduction to my column collection, "The Great Unraveling." It seemed a remote prospect at the time: Baghdad had just fallen to U.S. troops, and President Bush had a 70 percent approval rating.

Now the great revulsion has arrived. The latest Fox News poll puts Mr. Bush's approval at only 33 percent. According to the polling firm Survey USA, there are only four states in which significantly more people approve of Mr. Bush's performance than disapprove: Utah, Idaho, Wyoming and Nebraska. If we define red states as states where the public supports Mr. Bush, Red America now has a smaller population than New York City.

The proximate causes of Mr. Bush's plunge in the polls are familiar: the heck of a job he did responding to Katrina, the prescription drug debacle and, above all, the quagmire in Iraq.

But focusing too much on these proximate causes makes Mr. Bush's political fall from grace seem like an accident, or the result of specific missteps. That gets things backward. In fact, Mr. Bush's temporarily sky-high approval ratings were the aberration; the public never supported his real policy agenda.

Remember, in 2000 Mr. Bush got within hanging-chad and felon-purge distance of the White House only by pretending to be a moderate. In 2004 he ran on fear and smear, plus the pretense that victory in Iraq was just around the corner. (I've always thought that the turning point of the 2004 campaign was the September 2004 visit of the Iraqi prime minister, Ayad Allawi, a figurehead appointed by the Bush administration who rewarded his sponsors by presenting a falsely optimistic picture of the situation in Iraq.)

The real test of the conservative agenda came after the 2004 election, when Mr. Bush tried to sell the partial privatization of Social Security.

Social Security was for economic conservatives what Iraq was for the neocons, a soft target that they thought would pave the way for bigger conquests. And there couldn't have been a more favorable moment for privatization than the winter of 2004-2005: Mr. Bush loved to assert that he had a "mandate" from the election; Republicans held solid, disciplined majorities in both houses of Congress; and many prominent political pundits were in favor of private accounts.

Yet Mr. Bush's drive on Social Security ran into a solid wall of public opposition, and collapsed within a few months. And if Social Security couldn't be partly privatized under those conditions, the conservative dream of dismantling the welfare state is nothing but a fantasy.

So what's left of the conservative agenda? Not much.

That's not a prediction for the midterm elections. The Democrats will almost surely make gains, but the electoral system is rigged against them. The fewer than eight million residents of what's left of Red America are represented by eight U.S. senators; the more than eight million residents of New York City have to share two senators with the rest of New York State.

Meanwhile, a combination of accident and design has left likely Democratic voters bunched together — I'm tempted to say ghettoized — in a minority of Congressional districts, while likely Republican voters are more widely spread out. As a result, Democrats would need a landslide in the popular vote — something like an advantage of 8 to 10 percentage points over Republicans — to take control of the House of Representatives. That's a real possibility, given the current polls, but by no means a certainty.

And there is also, of course, the real prospect that Mr. Bush will change the subject by bombing Iran.

Still, in the long run it may not matter that much. If the Democrats do gain control of either house of Congress, and with it the ability to issue subpoenas, a succession of scandals will be revealed in the final years of the Bush administration. But even if the Republicans hang on to their ability to stonewall, it's hard to see how they can resurrect their agenda.

In retrospect, then, the 2004 election looks like the high-water mark of a conservative tide that is now receding.
Fingers crossed, for what it's worth.

voip

Why don't more Canadians use VoIP?

VoIP - voice over internet protocol - is an easy and very inexpensive way to get excellent phone service. Through Vonage, Canadians can get unlimited local and long-distance calling for a flat rate of $39.99 per month. I brought my US Vonage service with me, so I'm only paying $24.95 (US) per month. But even in Canadian dollars, this is a bargain.

One flat rate, unlimited local and long distance, anywhere in Canada or the US, plus lots of little extras. All services like voice mail, call forwarding, call waiting, caller ID and such are all free, and you can enable or disable them as you choose. Those services are usually free in the US, but apparently not in Canada, so it's even more of a bargain.

You can pick up your voice mail on the internet. You can add on phone numbers in other area codes. For example, if your mom in Montreal calls you in Vancouver every week, for an additional $5.00 a month, you can give her a Montreal phone number, so she can reach you through a local call. We kept our 212 number - highly valuable phone real estate in New York - and added on a 905 number for an extra $4.95 a month. Vonage also has the best international rates, period.

All you need is high-speed internet service. You get a router, you use any phone, set it up, and forget it.

extra innings

The NHL playoffs have started, and who can blame hockey fans for being excited about the first playoffs in nearly two years. With four Canadian teams in the quarterfinals, I guess everyone is happy except Leaf fans and Vancouverites.

It always seems to me that too many teams make the playoffs in hockey, but nobody asked me. Is anyone here heavily invested in the playoffs? Who are we rooting for? I have no hockey team, I might as well be on board for a friend.

While those games were getting underway, I was watching the Red Sox locked in mortal combat with the Blue Jays. What started out as a Red Sox team in cruise control ended up going 12 innings, until the Red Sox ran out of decent pitching and were forced to turn to Rudy Seanez. Sox fans knew that the game was over as soon as he started warming up.

The Red Sox are right down the street and Allan has to work all weekend. That just seems wrong. It happened in New York, too, of course, but in this case, he's working literally blocks away from Sky Dome, and tickets are very available. Ah well, that's what the internet is for, and we'll see games when we get back from Peru.

In other news, another sign that this is truly my home: I got my first credit card offer in the mail.

more demos

People rallied at Queens Park in Toronto yesterday, in support of undocumented immigrants who are facing deportation. Another rally is planned for today.

The immigrants are all working people, supporting themselves and their families. For some, deportation is a true nightmare: their family will be split up, as their countries of origins are not the same.

The rally was organized by the Universal Workers Union, Local 183, which represents construction workers, among others. The union is calling on the federal government to amend its immigration process so these hard-working, average folks can continue to live in Canada and contribute to society.

A construction workers' union rallying in support of undocumented workers? That's not something you'll see in the US.

Among the speakers at the rally was Hazel McCallion, mayor of Mississauga, formerly mayor of our own Port Credit, and my pick for coolest mayor ever.

4.21.2006

do over

I visited the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) for the first time today. While it's disorienting to visit a museum that's undergoing a dramatic transformation, I'm glad to have been in it once before the change is complete.

The Frank Gehry exhibit is really good. It's a little thin for the $12 price tag - while general admission to the AGO is free right now, there's a charge for this special exhibit - but if you're into architecture, it's worth seeing. For each building or complex in the show, there's one or more of Gehry's elaborate models, plus sketches, enlarged colour photographs, blueprints, information on the design concept, and a video, either of Gehry talking about the design, or people reacting to it, or some other background.

One video is a clip of a "Simpsons" episode where Marge proposes contracting Gehry to build the Springfield Symphony Hall. (He accepts.) There's also a good CBC programme of the Canadian-born architect talking about working in his home city. Imagine being asked to re-design the museum where you first discovered art.

The best part of the exhibit is the models. Gehry's studio builds exacting models, both interior and exterior, and they allow you to see a level of detail that photographs can't express. Note to self: If we ever get back to Chicago, see Gehry's Millennium Park. On our 1999 Midwest Rust Belt Baseball Trip, it wasn't built yet.

I think it's very exciting that Toronto is undergoing a huge architectural transformation right now, including new buildings by some of the world's foremost architects. I love Daniel Libeskind's design for the Royal Ontario Museum. (It will look like this. Right now it looks kind of like this.) The Gehry AGO is sure to be a knock-out. I wasn't sure how I felt about the Sharpe Centre for Design, until I walked around it today. I don't love it, but I appreciate how original and distinct it is.

In my humble opinion, that's what the Toronto landscape needs most - bold, distinct designs, to cut through the drab, to wake it up.

math

A propos of our discussion yesterday, Jeffrey Simpson writes about Harper's so-called day care policy in today's Globe And Mail. He might not say anything you haven't thought of before, but he sums up the situation nicely.
Call it many things, but not a 'child-care' policy

Like the other famous five promises of the Conservative government, the wrongly called "child-care" policy is good politics but lousy policy.

The Conservatives, you might recall, pledged to give all families $1,200 per child under 6. They called it the Choice in Child Care Allowance. The money, according to their campaign platform, "will let parents choose the child-care option that best suits their family's needs."

It will do nothing of the kind. Simple math shows why. The $1,200 is supposed to go to the lowest-income earner. Say that person earns $40,000. For simplicity's sake, suppose he or she pays tax such that of the $1,200, a $1,000 per child is left.

That would mean about $4 per day, per child. Now, you tell me: Where can anybody get child care for $4 per day? Statistics Canada recently reported that 54 per cent of children aged six months to five years were in some form of care in 2002-03. Government help of $4 a day won't do much for the majority.

How about people who care for children at home -- the ones the Conservatives are counting on the family- and faith-based social conservative groups to mobilize behind their plan? Even if the child is cared for at home, $4 a day is enough for milk, fruit and a sandwich for lunch. That's not child care by any commonly understood definition of the phrase.

Try another example. Suppose the income-earner is better-off and so pays at a higher marginal tax rate that drops the $1,200 per child to, say, $700 per child. Now you're talking about $2.80 a day.

It could be worse, too. The Conservatives' platform says the $1,200 will be "in addition to" existing child-care tax benefits. If the $1,200 is added to existing benefits, and then all are taxed, some people could really get hammered.

The excellent Caledon Institute reckons that a two-earner couple earning $36,000 -- just above the poverty line -- would see only $420 of the $1,200 because the couple would lose other social benefits.

That would work out to about $1.60 a day.

The mathematical details don't matter. They'll vary from family to family. The bottom line is that whatever the family size or income, this Conservative policy isn't a child-care policy -- either for those who care for children at home, or send them outside the home. The money is a joke either way.

Even worse, the money goes to upper-income people who don't need it. Yes, they'll pay tax at the marginal rate, but they'll be getting a cheque. So will the cleaning lady.

What we have in this Choice in Child Care Allowance is a modern equivalent in concept to the old, long-abandoned family allowances. These monthly cheques were sent by Ottawa to mothers -- the money went to the woman in the family -- and they proved politically very popular.

Who doesn't like to receive a cheque from government? Ralph Klein figured that out with his $400 "prosperity cheques" to Albertans.

The cheques were great politics, but lousy policy.

The Conservatives have figured out that jigging around with tax policy doesn't win votes, unless people can finger the money. Change tax brackets. Who understands that? Alter corporate tax rates. Who likes corporations anyway?

But give people a cheque. Now there's something they can put in their hands and spend. Cut the GST. That's something people will notice when they make purchases.

So this ballyhooed Choice in Child Care Allowance is part of a wider plan to produce tax changes that people will recognize, and for which they will subsequently be politically grateful.

You can argue either way what a child-care policy should be.

You can put extra money into constructing and providing state-subsidized places, as the Liberals had proposed and as the child-care lobby wants.

Or you can give individuals money and offer incentives for the construction of new spaces, trying to deal with both the supply and demand challenges, as the Conservatives propose.

But you cannot claim that $1.50-to-$4-a-day per child is a plan, or even part of a plan for something called child care. You can call it a smokescreen. You can dress it up, as Republicans would in the United States, as a gesture toward "family values." You can make the ideological case that it at least avoids state control.

You just can't call it serious child-care policy.
I think it would be just grand if this government fell on the day care issue. Of course, the Liberals don't have a leader yet. Not sure how that would work.

* * * *

I'm off to the AGO today, for a peek at the Frank Gehry exhibit, and coffee with a friend. I had dinner with a friend in Toronto last night. Such socializing gives me the odd impression I live here and have friends here! Go figure. More later.

4.20.2006

buffalo

The Soulpepper production of American Buffalo is very good. I imagine you'd have to like David Mamet to enjoy this darkly funny play, with its grim view of the world, but I do, a lot.

The program notes referred to (I paraphrase) Death Of A Salesman as sounding the death of the American dream and American Buffalo as driving the nail in its coffin; also that you can view Buffalo and Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross as bookends, blue collar and white collar underbellies of American working life. True, both.

That's also a cool comparison because Dustin Hoffman starred in the movie version of Buffalo, and later, brought down the house on Broadway as Willy Loman, something I was lucky enough to see in my theatre days in New York.

Many people dislike Mamet's stylized dialogue, his almost exclusively male world, all the cursing. I think he's great. Allan and I both love his intricate, wildly confusing movies House of Games and The Spanish Prisoner, both about con artists and elaborate cons, with you, the audience, as the mark. State And Main is very good, too - a comedy, and a departure for Mamet.

Yesterday was also our first time in the Distillery District during the day. (Nothing will make you feel young like a weekday matinee!). It was a gorgeous sunny day, we had lunch outside, and poked in a few galleries and studios. I can see there'll be plenty to keep us occupied for the whole seven-play subscription.

If I get enough pre-vacation errands done today, I'm hoping to catch the Frank Gehry exhibit at the AGO tomorrow. It closes while we're away, and I don't want to miss it. Fingers crossed that the mall cooperates.

4.19.2006

checking in

I think it's time for another classic wmtc discussion.

Lately I've heard from many Americans who are in the middle of the application process to emigrate to Canada. This is the wave of people who started downloading forms immediately after the 2004 "election," and are now in various stages of planning and waiting.

I recall how, in early November, various mainstream media were asking, Are people really moving? Is there really an exodus to Canada? Many didn't even bother to do enough homework to learn that disaffected Americans couldn't just pick up and move to Canada. Here we are, almost mid-year in 2006, and that exodus, no matter how large or small, is still waiting for the green light.

Among the people who have recently contacted me was a family who has concerns about how Stephen Harper and the Conservative Party may be changing Canada. They are leaving a community in which they have deep roots, and they want to feel more sure about what they're getting in return. They want to know, to use an easy shorthand, Is Canada becoming more like the US?

Of course, that question can't be fully answered until we see how this minority government fares, how inclined the Bloc will be to prop up a government that seems (to me) not very popular.

But even beyond that, I'm still not worried. I dislike Stephen Harper and most of what he stands for, but I wasn't panicked after the election, and I'm still not. I admit that could be my own ignorance, or a blind spot, wanting to see my choices affirmed. (Which they are, by the way - every day.) But I think my eyes are wide open when I say it's hard for me to get overly concerned.

I still see the current government as a brief time-out while the Liberals regroup. Canada remains more secular than the US, less invested in military intervention (an understatement), and more committed to the welfare of its citizens and residents. It is, and I believe will remain, a more open society, less restrictive of individual choices, more committed to personal liberty and diversity - and to the responsibilities of individuals to make that possible. At the same time, Canadians' deep-rooted concerns about their country being swallowed up by the 800-pound gorilla to the south help keep it on the right track.

What do you think?

cody day

It's Cody Day, the anniversary of the day we adopted her, in 1999. Sweet Cody Brown, quiet, quirky, low-key, loves all people, intimidated by but curious about most other dogs. Never makes a sound, barely affectionate, likes to be alone, don't do that to me!, but ok you can pet my head, can I have your food? no? goodbye. Cody the survivor, from the streets of Jackson Heights, Queens, briefly slave to our little Clyde, then master of tough-boy Buster, now a strangely silent presence, enjoying her backyard.

Here's classic Cody of the Sad Brown Eyes.

cody_sad_eyes

Yesterday Ellen came over, the person who'll stay at the house and take care of Cody while we're in Peru. Ellen's looking forward to the change, and to spring in beautiful Port Credit, and Cody will have a blast.

This is the first time in many years that I'll go away without worrying. Several people took care of Buster during his lifetime, but between his copious medical issues and his aggression towards other dogs, I never fully relaxed about it. I always worried. But Cody will do great, and barely notice our absence.

* * * *

Also today, in the middle of pre-vacation busy-ness, we have the next play in our Soulpepper subscription, American Buffalo. I'm looking forward to it.

4.18.2006

movies

I've seen three good movies lately, two that you've probably already seen and one that you might have missed.

"Capote" is as good as I had heard, as was Philip Seymour Hoffman's astounding performance. There's not much that I can say about this movie that hasn't been written already.

One thing that struck me is how rare it is to see a movie with a main character who is so unlikeable, and who becomes less and less sympathetic as the story progresses. At the same time, the character for whom we have the most sympathy is a murderer. It's rare writing and directing that can pull that off. It's really a brilliant movie, one for the ages. We've been watching Hoffman since he snuck into seemingly every independent film in the past decade. His transformation into Truman Capote rates him as one of the greats.

"The Constant Gardener" is also very good, a political thriller with the added attractions of Ralph Fiennes' and Rachel Weisz's beautiful smiles, and the starkly beautiful landscape of Kenya. Amazingly, this movie was not filmed in Canada, but actually filmed on location in Kenya and London. One of the deleted scenes on the DVD was filmed in Canada, but it was actually supposed to be Canada. How odd.

"Capote," of course, was shot in Manitoba, standing in for Kansas. "Brokeback Mountain," next on our Zip.ca queue, was filmed in Alberta, substituting for Wyoming.

"Thumbsucker," based on Walter Kirn's novel of the same name, is a misfit coming-of-age story, and a good one. Tilda Swinton and Vincent D'Onofrio play the parents, newcomer Lou Pucci is terrific in the title role. A nice movie - sweet, sad, and poignant, nothing groundbreaking, but worth your time. Takes place in Oregon, and filmed there, too.

reprint

Some months back, a publisher contacted me about reprinting my Roe v. Wade essay. I just got a copy of the book in the mail, and I'm so pleased.

The piece is being used in a series called "Issues On Trial"; this edition is on Reproductive Rights. I believe they're mainly used in public and school libraries.

The main headings are: Upholding Involutary Sterilization Laws - Buck v. Bell (1927); Legalizing Contraception - Griswold v. Connecticut (1965); Legalizing Abortion - Roe v. Wade (1973); Disputing the Fate of Frozen Embryos - A.Z. v. B.Z. (2000). For each, there's an overview of the Supreme Court case and decision, then between four and seven opinion pieces.

It's just a wee bit strange to see my name in the brief table of contents, alongside Oliver Wendell Holmes, Harry Blackmun and Stephen Jay Gould! I have no idea why the editor chose my piece, but it was a nice bit of luck. Something every writer can use once a decade or so.

4.17.2006

today

Today's a special day for Red Sox fans. It's Patriots Day in Massachusetts, and the Red Sox play an early day-game at Fenway, a tradition that dates back more than 100 years.

Patriots Day commemorates the battles of Lexington and Concord, the beginning of the American Revolutionary War. It's also the day of the Boston Marathon, being run this year for the 110th time.

I love the Boston Marathon because it was the first major city marathon to admit wheelchair racers as official participants (though not willingly at first). The wheelchair designer and former racer Bobby Hall fought the heart of this battle. I interviewed Hall many times in connection with the bitter, protracted battle to admit wheelchair racers into the New York City Marathon.

The great Jean Driscoll, who I've written about extensively, has won the Boston Marathon an eye-popping eight times, the only athlete in any division to do so. Driscoll's seven consecutive wins helped catapult the visibility of the wheelchair division.

First pitch 11:05 a.m., wheelchair division start 11:25.

voice of experience

In yesterday's New York Times, Richard Clarke, former national coordinator for security and counterterrorism, and Steven Simon, former senior director for counterterrorism at the National Security Council, give a recent historical perspective on the brewing US-Iranian crisis.
White House spokesmen have played down press reports that the Pentagon has accelerated planning to bomb Iran. We would like to believe that the administration is not intent on starting another war, because a conflict with Iran could be even more damaging to our interests than the current struggle in Iraq has been. A brief look at history shows why.

Reports by the journalist Seymour Hersh and others suggest that the United States is contemplating bombing a dozen or more nuclear sites, many of them buried, around Iran. In the event, scores of air bases, radar installations and land missiles would also be hit to suppress air defenses. Navy bases and coastal missile sites would be struck to prevent Iranian retaliation against the American fleet and Persian Gulf shipping. Iran's long-range missile installations could also be targets of the initial American air campaign.

These contingencies seem familiar to us because we faced a similar situation as National Security Council staff members in the mid-1990's. American frustrations with Iran were growing, and in early 1996 the House speaker, Newt Gingrich, publicly called for the overthrow of the Iranian government. He and the C.I.A. put together an $18 million package to undertake it.

The Iranian legislature responded with a $20 million initiative for its intelligence organizations to counter American influence in the region. Iranian agents began casing American embassies and other targets around the world. In June 1996, the Qods Force, the covert-action arm of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, arranged the bombing of an apartment building used by our Air Force in Khobar, Saudi Arabia, killing 19 Americans.

At that point, the Clinton administration and the Pentagon considered a bombing campaign. But after long debate, the highest levels of the military could not forecast a way in which things would end favorably for the United States.

While the full scope of what America did do remains classified, published reports suggest that the United States responded with a chilling threat to the Tehran government and conducted a global operation that immobilized Iran's intelligence service. Iranian terrorism against the United States ceased.

In essence, both sides looked down the road of conflict and chose to avoid further hostilities. And then the election of the reformist Mohammad Khatami as president of Iran in 1997 gave Washington and Tehran the cover they needed to walk back from the precipice.
You can read their Op-Ed here on Common Dreams.

4.16.2006

swamp

Greetings from the Great Port Credit Swamp, otherwise known as my backyard. We have a very large backyard - huge by new-home standards - and through most of this winter, it was either a pond, a swamp or a series of giant mud puddles. A disappointment, for sure, as it was usually too wet for Cody to play in - and very ugly.

Every time it rains even a little, large puddles form, because there's clearly no place else for the water to go. Whatever's not under water is squishy.

In addition, the front half of the backyard - the area closest to the house - looks like a miniature lunar landscape, a series of tiny hills and valleys. And mostly dirt.

We spoke to our landlord, and to a Friendly Lawn Care Guy. The problems seem to be caused by a combination of: the previous tenant never picking up the leaves in autumn, so the grass died; which in turn caused soil to erode during this winter's torrential rains; which in turn drew more animals to our backyard in search of yummy grubs; and conditions like low-lying land relative to the neighbours' yards and very little sun, thanks to lovely old shade trees. It's the perfect storm of ugly yard.

In fact, when I met with Friendly Lawn Care Guy, I discovered that some of the green haze that I thought was grass is in fact moss. Our backyard is covered in moss. Yeesh.

It's definitely time to start working on this mess, but we're about to go on vacation. And shortly after we get back, we're having a party, and I'd rather everyone not stand in a big square of dirt. So we've hired FLCG to do some work.

Next weekend his crew will do a thorough "spring clean-up," then while we're gone, they'll put down soil and over-seed the worst section of yard. When I told our landlord, he offered to split the cost of the seeding.

I got a good feeling about FLCG. He wasn't pushy, wasn't trying to sell me on anything. He told us what we could do ourselves, and he even squeezed us in early so we might have some grass growing by party time.

About the lunar landscape, he mentioned we could rent a lawn roller (Hi Marnie!) from Home Depot, but in the time it would take to get, use it and return it, we could save ourselves time and money by putting on boots and stamping down the soil ourselves. So yesterday we marched around the backyard for a while. An interesting way to spend an afternoon. More purposeful stepping today.

4.15.2006

itmfa

Here's an acronym for ya!

Thanks to Redsock, as usual. The boy finds great links.

iran

Sign the petition.

Let it not be said we didn't try.

living with war

Another Canadian for impeachment: Neil Young's upcoming album, called "Living With War," will feature a track called "Impeach the President". The song reportedly features an edited-together Bush rap set to a 100-voice chorus chanting "flip"/"flop."

Young's own website describes the new album as "a power trio with trumpet and 100 voices - a metal version of Phil Ochs and Bob Dylan - metal protest folk". Oh my god, does that ever sound good to me. According to that website, lyrics will be released on the ticker.

Thanks to the folks at the Impeach Bush Coalition for the tip.

while i'm gone

We're leaving for Peru a week from Monday. I'm thinking I'll use wmtc as a travel journal while I'm gone. Anyone who's interested can follow along with our adventures.

It will be an old-fashioned travel journal, I'm afraid: text only. We'll be taking tons of photos, but I'd rather not deal with sorting them out and posting them in internet cafes. Think of it as an exercise in imagination.

I have a travel journal from every trip I've taken since I first traveled on my own in 1982. (NN, if you're reading, that's us! Circles Over Europe.) About ten years' worth are in notebooks, actual pen and paper, until I started traveling with a laptop.

For this trip, moving around a lot by plane, train and bus, we want to pack as lightly as possible, plus we don't want the added concern of keeping the laptop free from harm. So it's back to pen and paper for me, which would all be sweet and quaint if it weren't for my dodgy hands (arthritis, carpal tunnel, what have you). I really can't write with a pen for any length of time.

What I'll probably do is make notes in a notebook, then flesh things out in more detail online. I understand that in Peru, like a lot of countries where few people have internet access at home, there are internet cafes in every town, and connections are fast and cheap. So this should work out very nicely.

I briefly considered picking up a little folding keyboard for my iPAQ, as Alan With One L has always suggested, and as my brother recently mentioned. But then I still have to think about charging the iPAQ battery, and keeping it safe, both from getting smashed in our suitcase and from theft. So I'll leave my trusty handheld at home and be an anachronism.

4.14.2006

another journey

A new blogger joins our little circle of defectors. Two Moms to Canada is MSEH's blog about her and her family's odyssey from St. Paul, Minnesota to... somewhere north of there. They're ten months into the process, and counting. Canada gets richer every day.

haditha

When I was still living in (and blogging from) the US, a frequent comment I heard from flame-throwing wingnuts was "Canada? Enjoy being taxed to death!" or similar sentiments.

Allan and I never understood it. We always wondered, where do these Americans live, who don't pay taxes? We paid federal income tax, New York State tax, New York City tax, in addition to sales tax on almost every purchase. Many US states don't have sales tax, and a few states don't have income tax, but the picture of the US as some sort of tax haven is awfully strange. Unless, of course, you're a major corporation.

So far, our taxes here in Ontario are lower than what we paid, all taxes combined, living in New York State. I repeat: lower.

For me, the question has always been, What do I get for my money? Universal health insurance seems like an excellent - and a stunningly obvious - use for taxes. Indeed, it's exactly what the purpose of taxes should be.

On the other hand, what do you get for your tax dollars in the US? The Nation editor Katrina vanden Heuvel gives us one view.
As the Los Angeles Times reported on Saturday, this much is known to be true: On November 19, after a roadside bomb killed Lance Cpl. Miguel Terrazas, 15 Iraqi civilians – including seven women and three children – were allegedly shot and killed by a unit of US Marines operating in Haditha, Iraq. Then, this past Friday, a battalion commander and two company commanders from the same unit were relieved of their duties.

We also know that the Marine Corps initially claimed that the 15 Iraqi civilians were killed by a roadside bomb. But in January, after Time magazine presented the military with Iraqi accounts and video proof of the attack's aftermath, officials acknowledged that the civilians were killed by Marines but blamed insurgents nonetheless who had "placed noncombatants in the line of fire."

However, video evidence shows that women and children were shot in their homes while still wearing nightclothes. And while there are no bullet holes outside the houses to support the military's assertion of a firefight with insurgents, "inside the houses…the walls and ceilings are pockmarked with shrapnel and bullet holes as well as the telltale spray of blood."
Her blog entry here.

reverse revolution

From The Nation:
New Orleans has long been pivotal in the struggle for black voting rights. During the Civil War, free blacks there demanded suffrage; their efforts resulted in Lincoln's first public call for voting rights for some blacks in the final speech of his life. Once these rights were won, New Orleans blacks took an active part in politics, leading to the establishment of the South's only integrated public school system. But rights once gained aren't necessarily secure; after Reconstruction, blacks in New Orleans lost the right to vote. As Thomas Wentworth Higginson wrote at the time of the Civil War, "revolutions may go backwards."

This is what we are seeing now, as New Orleans prepares for municipal elections on April 22. These elections are set to take place even though fewer than half the city's 460,000 residents have returned and the vast majority of those displaced outside Louisiana are African-Americans--the result of what Representative Barney Frank calls the Bush Administration's policy of "ethnic cleansing by inaction."

How did this happen? How did New Orleans become the most obvious symbol of the "backwards revolution" in voting rights that's been going on for at least twenty-five years? The answer is a states' rights mentality that pervades not just the Louisiana legislature but also the Bush Administration. As the Rev. Jesse Jackson wrote recently, the Administration "seems intent on suppressing the African-American vote in New Orleans and in Louisiana."

. . .

Despite such overtly discriminatory actions, Democratic Party leaders have offered only listless support of voting rights efforts--Democratic National Committee chair Howard Dean called the Justice Department decision "a disappointing development." There have even been rumors that some Democrats in Washington welcome the dispersal of the African-American voters of New Orleans as a way of building up party strength elsewhere.
Read more here.

passing

William Sloane Coffin, Jr., a progressive activist who used his faith to serve the greater good, died yesterday. He was 81.

Coffin first became well-known when, as the chaplain of Yale University, he was an outspoken opponent of the war in Vietnam. He was jailed several times for his civil rights activities (he was a Freedom Rider), and indicted by the US government in the Benjamin Spock conspiracy trial. Coffin was a former pastor at New York City's famous progressive Riverside Church, and a long-time president of the SANE/FREEZE Campaign for Global Security. He also fought in World War II, worked for the CIA, and inspired a character in Doonesbury. He wrote several inspiring books, among them, The Courage To Love and A Passion for the Possible.

Coffin was a great man and a great leader. Progressive people everywhere can honour his memory by carrying on his work.

AlterNet's obituary features an interview with Coffin from the progressive Jewish magazine Tikkun.

4.13.2006

taxes, u.s. edition

US citizens, no matter where they live, have to file US tax returns. You have to show all your income, no matter in what country it's earned. However, unless you're in a fairly high income bracket, you'll be exempt from US tax.

If you live in a country with a tax treaty with the US - such as Canada - you also receive a credit for taxes you've already paid in that country. So you shouldn't be taxed twice on the same income.

The year you move, however, is tricky. Because we lived in the US and worked for US companies during most of 2005, our income is not yet exempt. In addition, we have to declare whatever we earned in Canada, and get credit for any taxes paid on that.

To complicate things further, my freelance work is for U.S. companies, so I still have some US income, and no taxes are withheld from that in advance.

Each word of every sentence on this post represents a form to fill out and a barely comprehensible instruction book to follow.

We also have to file Canadian tax returns. From what I've heard, these are much more straightforward. (We haven't done them yet; I'll let you know.) Also, this will be the first time we fill out one tax form for both of us. Because we are not legally married, according to U.S. tax law, we're single.

Filling out two sets of tax forms every year, and continuing to grapple with the convoluted US system even if we don't pay US taxes, is incentive enough to try to give up my US citizenship as soon as I'm eligible.

We have to be Permanent Residents of Canada for three years before we can apply for Canadian citizenship, and then - of course - it takes some time to get it. I've heard that it's not so easy to give up citizenship. But I'll tell you, it might be worth the effort.

4.12.2006

equality

A friend sent me this link, my first bit of all-Canadian activism. From Canadians for Equal Marriage:
Stephen Harper has confirmed that the new Conservative government will try to turn back the clock on equality, by holding a vote to re-open the equal marriage debate this fall.

The prime minister avoided the issue in his April 4 Speech from the Throne (meant to outline the government’s agenda for the upcoming session), so Canadians for Equal Marriage held a press conference the following morning. In the media theatre on Parliament Hill, Emily Turk and Cynthia Misener, a lesbian couple hoping to marry later this year, called on Harper to reveal his intentions.

"Nobody should have to plan their wedding under this kind of threat," they said.

Within two hours, Justice Minister Vic Toews responded by confirming the government’s plan to hold a vote on re-opening the equal marriage debate "sooner rather than later". Harper himself said a vote would take place "within the life of this Parliament, probably in the fall."

So, once again, the equality of gay, lesbian, bisexual and trans-identified people is threatened, and the right of all Canadian couples to access civil marriage is hanging in the balance.

Despite polls showing 2/3 of Canadians do not want a Harper government to bring the equal marriage issue back to Parliament, Prime Minister Harper insists there will be a vote on rolling back equality. Buried in his election platform is the following:

"A Conservative government will:
-Hold a truly free vote on the definition of marriage in the next session of Parliament. If the resolution is passed, the government will introduce legislation to restore the traditional definition of marriage while respecting existing same-sex marriages."

What does this mean? It means the Conservative government will ask Parliament to vote on a resolution to re-open the divisive equal marriage debate. This resolution can be put forward, debated and voted on in a single day.

If it passes, then a bill to take away same-sex couples' right to marry will follow. Of course, according to over 100 law professors, that legislation is almost certainly unconstitutional. The law profs say it would be irresponsible to try to pass such legislation, and that doing so would lead to legal confusion for years to come. Click here to see their open letter to Stephen Harper.
Here's how you can help:

- Email your MP and tell her or him where you stand on this issue, and how you want to see him/her vote.

- Sign the Equal Marriage petition. I can't vote, but I can do this.

- Spread the word by sending the link to your own email list.

On the short list of what makes Canada different - and what makes Canada a good country - is a commitment to respect for minorities, and to each of our right to self-determination. Canada's early recognition of same-sex marriage is one expression of that, in sharp contrast to the response just south of here.

Let's not let Stephen Harper turn back the clock.