lunes, 5 de noviembre de 2012

Ce n'est pas une Belle Vue

18 April

Dawn. Less than a mile south of Highway 90 on Route 632, the small country road divests Allemands Elementary of its sports fields. We have a few hours before the threat of screaming children compromise our camping spot. From my roost on white bleachers I look on as the sun peeks through the trees at the arena’s fringe and pushes through the blue obscurity, divulging emerald fields. Inchoate rays pass through backstop fencing forming a latticed penumbra on the walls of our small dome tent, where Wiley remains sleeping. I make tea with my coleman beside me and my book in my lap. By the time Wiley finally emerges, stooped shouldered and hair wild, the tent is basked in sunlight; it’s the heat that’s probably awakened him. I’ve already packed and done laundry (a practice Wiley considers anal retentive, I carry two pairs of socks rotated and washed daily; they will set on my back rack to dry; or in the case of rain, a hand dryer at a fast food restaurant will do the trick) and I signal to Wiley that a breakfast of oats and raisins is waiting for him on the bleachers. I look over my notes while he eats and gets ready.
On the four laned behemoth of highway 90 there is little shelter from the sun and the heat radiates from above and beneath our pedaling feet. A promise of refuge up ahead appears in a sign, white with hand-scripted red lettering promoting fresh boiled seafood. For Wiley, who is a recent California transplant, crawfish remains a novelty. It’s the only thing he’s wanted to eat since the season opened earlier this Spring. We’ve hardly been biking two hours, but as we approach and then pass the small side-of-the-road seafood shack, Wiley catches up with me and gives me a look that needs no verbal articulation. We double back, park our bikes and slip inside the small cinderblock construction.
The building, a former gas station with a time-frozen sign, circa $1.08 a gallon, is set off from the highway by a cul de sac, the grass of which, is littered with a dinghy, truck and trailer. A banner spans the building’s stark white facade and reads in signature red lettering, LES CRABES SEAFOOD LLC. Once inside, the smell of boiled crawfish is arresting. A counter cuts the room in two, leaving but a small standing space for customers. Other than a couple of small paintings on wooden panel of the usual oceanside motif, the decor is spartan.The only natural light filters through a sliding glass that has since replaced one of two roll-up garage doors. A large wooden desk is set before it and working the phones is a stout and scallop-complected man with a halo of oyster-gray hairs encircling a stone-smooth scalp; his booming voice fills the room with the rigamarole of seafood busy-ness. Without pausing he welcomes us with large smiling eyes, a Barataria blue. While proprietor Tommy Vanacor worked the phones, his partner Jennifer loaded our plate with piping hot seafood. It was only after devouring four pounds of fresh crawfish and fixins served with homemade remoulade by the soft-spoken and sweet-as-pie proprietes that Wiley and I introduced ourselves and asked the couple for an interview.
Tommy was born and raised in the fishing community of Des Allemands and he can trace his lineage to the original German immigrants for which this settlement was named in the early 18th century. When Tommy and Jennifer purchased the building that houses Les Crabes Seafood together with their adjoining home, they had initially rented the commercial space to a seafood outfit, which had tried and failed. Tommy and Jennifer figured they had a better chance for success than their predecessors. For one they owned the building. Most importantly they had generations of experience and relations still trapping and trolling throughout Southern Louisiana. Tommy's people are crabbers and Jennifer’s are shrimpers - together they had their bases covered and they went for it. The necessary equipment was purchased and the building was renovated; but alas, the grand opening at the start of the May shrimp season was upset by the BP Oil Spill.  It was a huge financial loss. Not only were they unable to open their business, but their safety net had been compromised.
Tommy and Jennifer’s livelihoods were at stake. They were denied BP assistance. Their fledgling business didn’t qualify for the BP Compensation Fund’s requirement of one year’s receipts from which to judge a financial loss. Luckily, one of Jennifer's brothers, who ran a fairly large shrimping enterprise, was able to provide them with work on a boat retrofitted with booms for the cleanup effort. Tommy and Jennifer worked for three months skimming oil in the Gulf of Mexico. The work was a lifeline that saw them through the remainder of the year; until the fishing industry made a small recovery, enough for them to open the doors to their new business. As of today Les Crabes Seafood has been in operation for 7 months, but the future remains uncertain. Tommy becomes visibly agitated when asked to speak about the BP Oil Spill. He is particularly incensed at BP's decision to use the chemical dispersant Corexit. It appears to have affected the crab and oyster populations exceptionally bad and their numbers keep dwindling. “There's no telling what the long term effects will be - we'll just have to wait and see,” Tommy states resignedly. The phones begin to ring and Tommy excuses himself.
Wiley and I turn our attention to Jennifer who, with a smile, obliges our request for her story. Jennifer was born into a large family of 15 in Jimmy Bay of Barataria. Her daddy was strict and her stepmom was outright mean. Along with seven of her siblings she was pulled out of school to work at the family’s fishing camp. It was the kids’ job to build the crab traps.
“Looking back I have fond memories,” she says, “but at the time it seemed like drudgery.”
Jennifer was especially chagrined by her lack of formal education. “I got no education,” she says.
"But you are plenty educated in the fishing industry," I submit.
"That's what I'm telling her all the time," Tommy pipes in, placing the phone’s receiver to his chest.
Jennifer has a grown daughter living in Los Angeles, married to a navy man. When the conversation turns to her granddaughter she becomes animated.
“She calls me 'mamman'” Jennifer beams. "And when anyone asks her, she says ‘I'm a cajun’. But she's so well educated, living all over the place in a navy family. She doesn't talk like us; she doesn't have our accent; she speaks proper.”
Tommy, now off the phone, chimes in about his own daughter – the pride of parenthood, their children and their cultural heritage – “she's living in Texas now and she complains, ‘Daddy, I'm losing my coonass-ness’” Tommy says with a chuckle that emanates from the bottom of his gut and fills the room with mirthe.  

jueves, 20 de septiembre de 2012

Danger Pipeline!

I fucked up breakfast. Just as the oatmeal was ready, the coleman toppled over, scattering sustenance to the ants. There are thousands of them. Ants in day like Mosquitos at night. What more, Wiley’s stressing about money; he’s got something like $10 in his pocket and that’s it for the entire trip. Cheap breakfast and free internet, we spent a better part of the day at McDonald’s working on our kickstarter campaign. It’s there that we made our first contact, or so we thought.
Christine is in her late thirties but looks older. She wore her damaged piebald hair in a ponytail, cascading down and around her McDonald’s visor like a fez. She is thin and wiry and her mouth seemed to run away from her face when she talked; and man does she talk. As soon as she gets off work, she promised to take us to Mom’s house on the bayou for a real Cajun meal of shrimp and okra gumbo, followed by interviews with her fishermen relatives. We were planning on hanging round here till about that time anyhow.
Christine stole time from her cleaning duties to chat us up. When Christine was 19 years old she killed a man - shot him in the face. Although she was acquitted on self defense, people round here never got over thinking her crazy. Her story is cut short. Enter a middle aged man with a sinewy face; his eyes obscured by a red baseball cap worn low. Christine gets his attention. "Hey you, when you going to pay me that $40 dollars you owe me". He’s caught off guard; takes a moment to regroup and he's all smiles. He pushes up his hat to reveal darting blue eyes. He hugs on Christine. "Oh so you ain't going to pay me?" she says with a simper. He takes it in stride, like a good joke between friends. "I've already forgotten about it" he replies. His voice is raspy, like someone who’s been smoking since infancy. "That's OK, cause one of these days when you find something you own worth $40 or more broke, you'll know I got mine and I too will have forgotten about it". More smiles and laughter. He scampers off. Christine turns to us and exclaims very matter-of-factly, "he's a crackhead". "You can't lend money to a crackhead and expect it back" I can’t help but kibitz. "They're all crackheads,” she says. “They're my friends. I was a crackhead too, but I stopped all that. I'm in therapy now. Been off it 2 months now."
As it turns out, Christine’s cousin, the fisherman, the one that she wanted to introduce us to, he's also a crackhead. Her offer to invite us to dinner and introduce us to her people, was somehow less appealing. "Man, we got a long way to go. How far away do you live again? 5 miles. That means 5 miles there and 5 miles back. 10 miles is a long way on a bicycle. We better push off. Got to get to Raceland tonight. Hey thanks so much for the hospitality. Have a great one y'hear. It was swell meeting you. Bye"

We followed Old Spanish Trail until it drops off into the bayou and comes out something else, something new. I’m sure it must continue again someplace, where it’s been preserved, restored, or resuscitated for nostalgia's sake, the old transcontinental. It did however pick a good place to die. Twin bridges span Bayou Des Allemands, one newly large and the other antiquely puny. We traversed them both several times, I on one, Wiley on the other, trying for the perfect shot of a cyclist coming upon this quaint little hamlet to the backdrop of an orange sky. At an eclectic dockside fishing camp, decorated in all manners of Cajunesque bric-a-brac, we stopped to watch that last spark of gold fizzle on an aqueous horizon. Joining us from the house across the way, Wayne Yupe, x-oilman raconteur; he saw us role up to his dock and came to welcome us to this little corner of the world.
Between contracts with the petroleum industry, it’s here that Wayne entertains tourists at his fishing camp and front porch – if you buy the gas and the seafood, he’ll take you on a boat ride tour of Cajun Country. Wayne refused the camera, but spoke languidly about all things but oil. Wayne is 52 and he's mostly retired from drilling these days. Ask him about the Oil Spill and Wayne will tell you that BP is not to blame. Around here, oil spills happen all the time, but they aren’t the main the issue; according to Wayne, the levy system is. Wayne grew up on this bayou; he lives right next door to the house in which he was raised. His parents were fishermen and ran a small seafood shack. Sure enough, the remains of a tin hovel sits careened and half submerged in the bayou - the vestiges of Wayne’s family’s business and an augury for those that remain. The only thing Wayne fishes for these days is oil, and the occasional tourist of course. "See those pipes sticking out from the dock - all that says is that I'm an oilman,” Wayne proudly extols, referring to the dock’s jagged pilings, evidently salvaged from some abandoned rig. Wayne points a finger down the bayou; all manners of pipes can be seen jutting from the water like leadened swamp grass. “Those pipes are over 30 years old. That was all land when I was a kid. This whole bayou was just a channel then, no bigger than my front yard. It's at least a quarter of a mile now,” he reminisces. Wayne is particularly incensed about coastal erosion, of which he reiterates that oil is not the culprit. But even Wayne has to admit that the oil industry has taken advantage of people. The installation of the pipelines of which Wayne is so pleased, have butchered the wetlands to the orts and ends. Anyone who's been through this section of Louisiana can see that oil is as important to economy and culture as fishing once was, and for some, still is. But when the fishing industry fell prey to a foreign seafood market, it was the oil industry that has given these people their livelihood. A life without oil is a life of poverty, according to Wayne, who choses to lay the blame for coastal erosion on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Surely the president’s moratorium must have had a grave impact? "I know of no one who lost their job, but I sure know a lot people who quit their job,” Wayne retorts, alluding to a fraud-ladened BP compensation fund. "People don't realize, but BP’s gonna get their money back and we’ll be the one’s paying for it in the end.” And it’s with that warm and fuzzy thought that we rode our bikes into the darkness, back across the bridge over Bayou Des Allemands, to the high school football field, where we cooked up a couple of filets, got drunk and passed out to the mechanized hum of a million mosquitos.

lunes, 10 de septiembre de 2012

The River Galactica

The blazing sun was nearly at its zenith by the time we made it to the Canal street ferry. Both Wiley and I had made a last minute and half-hazard attempt at packing, throwing preparedness mostly to the wind (regretfully so after our first blowout not 10 miles out of New Orleans and without a spare tube). For some reason or another the ferry terminal in Algiers had become inundated with water and was temporarily out of service. As the announcement made its way up the line of motorized vehicles, cars sidled from their spots, slated for the Crescent City Connection’s elusive motorist-only bridge. As cyclists are concerned, there is little recourse other than hitching a ride with a truck with an open bed. However, there were no takers and we were left alone on the pier nonplussed twiddling our thumbs, trying to decide if we should start biking in the direction of the next ferry, some 30 miles out of the way. We still hadn’t reached any kind of consensus when the ferry gates unexpectedly bleep-bleeped in their customary signal of entry. Apparently the issue had been resolved and by two o’clock we were crossing the great Mississippi at its most expansive and profound bend, watching the receding steeple of St Louis Cathedral, as our journey to the Louisiana bayous began.
From the ferry landing at Algiers Point begins a bike path coronating the Mississippi River Levee that can be traversed intermittently for at least as far as the city of Luling, 28 miles upriver. The vantage point from the levee’s perch affords a panorama of both the River and its ancient floodplain. It is however no Acadian tableau of serenity and mirth, but rather a major artery of commerce – a hyperlane – bustling day and night with barges and their containers in tow, amassed and concatenated in aqueous caravans, no doubt servicing the myriad of industry that line the river like malevolent drones of a Galactic Empire.  
This section of river is afterall Louisiana’s infamous “Industrial Corridor”, dubbed “Cancer Alley”by its detractors. The 85-mile extent of sinuous river between New Orleans and Baton Rouge is dominated by some 130 petrochemical plants, producing 7% of the nation’s chemicals and 15% of its volatile waste. It is uncertain whether industry or poverty is to blame for the region’s disproportionate cancer rates; notwithstanding, a host of pedantic works have alleged “environmental racism” regarding the socioeconomic factors in the locating of this particular industry. It is nevertheless an aesthetic amalgam that is both Gone with the Wind and Star Wars: Greek-revival antebellum homes with their canopied avenues of antiquated oaks, break up the homogeneous subdivisions of working-class suburbs that frame those futuresque cityscape-factories: stacks spewing fire and billowing smoke; men in coveralls and neon-colored hard hats operating the machines’ multifarious external moving parts; mechanized tentacle-like elevators span both River Road and river bank, as raw material is extracted and then finished product expelled to and from the River’s profusion of amphibious vessels. At night the factories are a scintillating opulence of yellow lights, an otherworldly fabrication that is a testament to private industry – the black block infrastructure that enables our quality of life.
At Luling we veered away from the River’s industrial expanse and ducked into verdure-ensconced Old Spanish Trail, that transcontinental highway of yore, which has, since the advent of the Interstate, receded into relative obscurity, but remains one of Americas great byways, once connecting Cajun country’s self-proclaimed “catfish capital of the universe”, côte des Allemands, to at least a national market. With the last vestiges of daylight we bought a couple of those famed filets in the old town of Paradis; and in darkness, alongside Petit Bayou, we found an old cemetery in which to pitch our tent. With the extending shadows of a receding sun, materialized a scourge of mosquitos and futilely armored in layers of clothing, I hovered over a coleman and hastily made our supper before finally collapsing in the refuge of our a tent after our first day on the road.

sábado, 18 de agosto de 2012

14 April: Crawfish Kickoff

What better way to kick off this project then with a crawfish boil - a quintessential of Louisiana food culture! My friend Trish Kelly offered to host the event at her house in the Bywater neighborhood of downtown New Orleans. Artist and North Shore native, Tommy Hebert, agreed to man the boil. The soiree that would serve as the inauguration to our film took place just one week before anniversary day, on a fortuitously warm and sunny Saturday afternoon. While our friends were busy sucking heads and downing beers we set up a filming station on the back porch of Trish’s old Creole cottage and, one by one, we pulled our friends aside and asked them to relate their experiences living through the BP Oil Spill. The following is just a selection of what a couple of them had to say.

Carrie Crockett, writer and Humane Society Volunteer, recalls that she was with a boyfriend enjoying a warm spring day at a Biloxi beach when she overheard some beach-goers talking about an explosion in the gulf. By the time she returned to her home in New Orleans, it had become evident that what had transpired in the Gulf was to be a disaster of epic proportion. Carrie felt an urgency that compelled her to return to the beach for a final adieu before oil desecrated Gulf shores.  As she waded into Perdido Bay, Carrie was horrified to see a noxious slick in the foam and spray of the tide at her feet and hasn’t set foot in the Gulf since. “I get a sore throat everytime I go and I know it’s not safe... I don’t eat the fish when I’m there and I don’t go in the water anymore. I don’t think I’ll be comfortable for the rest of my life in the Gulf of Mexico”.

A longtime volunteer of the Humane Society, Carrie was one of its first responders to survey the damage to the Gulf Shore ecosystem. Upon arriving to Grand Isle with the intention of rescuing contaminated wildlife, Carrie was frustrated with the amount of red tape she encountered: “They would not let us help. The human society, that’s what we do.” Officials already on the ground had the entire area quarantined and only BP-contracted professionals with previous HAZMAT certification were allowed access; although Carrie concedes, “They did allow us to survey the area in a boat.” The situation was dire, but what she most laments is the inadequacy of the supposed clean-up effort: “There was supposed to be all these people cleaning up. We circled around 3 hours and we saw one boat. BP was not letting people help. A lot of people came to help and all I could do was organize a prayer service. No one was cleaning, no one was doing anything. The beach was quarantined and if you crossed the restricted area you would be arrested.” Finally, after much doggedness, The Humane Society was  allowed a staging area for civilians to deliver birds and other contaminated wildlife, before transport to a designated cleaning facility coordinated by BP and its affiliates.
Now two years later, Carrie scorns the short-term memory of a public that has already forgotten the Spill. “I think it left the news and public consciousness so quickly because the Gulf Coast and particularly Florida wanted it to. The tourism industry wanted it to.” In contrast, Carrie insists that we are reminded daily of Hurricane Katrina. Carrie, a long-time advocate for the rights and welfare of animals, is prostrate at a value-system, in which other species hold such low ranking.

Dan Favre, a conservationist with the Gulf Restoration Network (GRN), provided us with a brief history of coastal erosion and how the Oil Spill affected this already crippled ecosystem. We asked him his initial reaction to this great tragedy. “I don’t remember exactly the moment I learned that the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded... but I do remember wanting to deny the importance of the thing. I’m an environmentalist. I’ve worked for a lot of years to protect and restore the Gulf of Mexico. And so, it took a little while for the idea that one of the biggest assaults to this ecosystem is happening right now.”

At the time of the Oil Spill, Dan was in the midst of putting together a door-to-door campaign to raise awareness about the dangers of an ever receding coastline. He emphasises the point that coastal erosion is the most pressing issue, trumping even oil contamination in terms of primacy. “We lose a football field's worth of wetlands every hour due to coastal erosion,” Dan interjects in a discourse on the mechanics of the region’s delicate ecosystem. Here’s an adumbrated version of what Dan had to say: The Mississippi River carries with it an enormous amount of sediment, which, in its annual overflow, is what built the delta, including the ground on which our cities and towns have been built. In order to prevent the consequent deluge of these inhabited areas, as well as to ensure that commercial trade can run unabated, the river has been corralled off by a system of levees and dams. However, without the river’s regenerative deposits, the land is sinking. Moreover, the oil and gas industry has contributed to the destruction of surrounding wetlands by dredging canals, in which to lay pipeline. Tens of thousands of miles of artificial canals have subsequently led to saltwater intrusion and increased wave action. The result is that the wetlands and barrier islands, which provide inhabited areas with a buffer-zone from Gulf-spawned hurricanes, are rapidly disappearing. Without this buffer, our cities and towns become increasingly more vulnerable to storms, such as the likes of Katrina. “It’s really caused this catastrophic loss; this is the fastest disappearing landmass on earth,” Dan remonstrates. And now, the oil spill has added a new level of urgency, threatening a unique habitat that not only protects our cities from storms, but literally feeds us -- the Gulf Coast provides for roughly one third of the entire domestic seafood industry.
The GRN ultimately decided to shift the focus of their campaign. Dan recalls the meeting when this conversion took place. Just days after the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon, The GRN hired a plane in order to survey and document the disaster. Dan was shocked by what he saw. Perhaps more shocking than the raw impact of so much oil was the fact that no one was doing anything: “There was an oil slick for as far as the eye could see. There were like two boats that are working to skim or do something, you’re not really sure. You got BP and the coastguard meanwhile are saying, ‘we’re mobilizing all sorts of resources - we’ll take care of this. Don’t worry. Nothing to see here - talking about the dozens of boats and all of these planes that are doing all this work, but when you go out and actually look to see it - that just wasn’t actually happening.” It was the discrepancy between official reports and what was actually happening on the ground that spurred the GRN into action. Dan is part of the team that continues to prove instrumental in monitoring both the effects of the Oil Spill and the recovery effort, as well as lobbying the government for effective legislation.
Now two years later, Dan insists that the struggle is far from over. The GRN remains hard at work and much of their resources are focused on congress, who have yet to pass a single piece of legislation to address the BP Oil Spill and restoration resources. “We’ve already had this huge wetlands loss issue and there’s a lot of ideas about how to fix that. We can put the Mississippi River back to work, build these diversions that put dirt and water out into the wetlands areas, go fill in some of those canals that were dredged in the past -- it takes a lot of resources, it takes political will. Unfortunately those resources have been short in coming, but all of sudden here is this opportunity.” Dan is referring to the Clean Water Act , underwhich BP is going to have to pay between 5 and 20 billion dollars in fines. Under the current legislation however, that money will go directly into the coffers of the U.S. treasury. The GRN is working hard on pressuring Congress to pass legislation, which would ensure that a sizable portion of that money is earmarked for Gulf restoration.
Since the time of this interview, Congress has effectively passed the RESTORE Act, which will dedicate a significant portion of BP’s Clean Water Act fines to Gulf restoration. This has been possible thanks to groups like the GRN and an enormous amount of community support. Dan and the GRN will continue to work to watchdog the process and ensure that the money is spent responsibly and efficiently. Given the inherent corruption that is unfortunately an intrinsic part of our political system, the general public must remain proactive to ensure that funds are used properly. Please log on to to see how you can help.

sábado, 21 de abril de 2012

Bike Sketch: "Two Years Too Late" The Movie, Part 1

Two Years Too Late: A tour of Southern Louisiana on the 2nd Anniversary of the BP Oil Spill

Nearly two years ago, on the 20th of April, an explosion rocked the Deepwater Horizon oil rig, killing 11 and resulting in the largest marine oil spill in the history of the petroleum industry. As the gusher flowed unabated for three months, my friends and I, safely in New Orleans, some 130 miles from ground zero, looked on in horror and with a feeling of utter helplessness, as some 5 million barrels of oil spilled into the Gulf of Mexico. Like a dilating blob out of a sci-fi flick, it spread with a melanizing effervescence, threatening to devour everything within its path - the "dead zone" encompassed an area more than 80 square miles. The science that had enabled the oil industry to drill 5,000 ft below the sea and an additional 18,000 ft below its surface, had proved a pandora's box - tantamount clean up technology has of yet to be developed. Instead, they shot at BP's shadowy monster with likewise monstrous chemical dispersants, over 200,000 gallons of it, causing tentacles of crude oil to moleculize into a scattering of noxious particles that rode the crests of waves toward our shores. Out of sight out of mind seemed to be their intention. However, the well was still leaking and large plumes of crude oil that had escaped the dispersants were discovered far below the ocean's surface. The combined efforts of the coast guard, local parishes and BP to protect our coastlines, employing containment booms, anchor barriers and sand-filled barricades, was nonetheless far too little too late for the enormity of this spill. Our wetland grasses, estuaries, and fishing grounds were left vulnerable. As the tally of poisoned coastline grew, the tourist and fishing industry came to a standstill with no immediate end in sight. The new year came and went and the amount quarantined coast continued to grow despite the supposed capping and drainage of the well. In October, news sources reported that the corpses of dolphins and whales were still washing up on our shores in record numbers. And here we are now, approaching the 2nd anniversary of the BP Oil Spill and everywhere is silence. New Orleans has much returned to "normal". Nobody's talking about it. Everyone's eating seafood from the gulf without the slightest concern. Has the biodiverse ecosystem of Southern Louisiana really recovered or has everyone already forgotten?

We can't remain silent! Last summer I was in Japan working on an illustrated blog about the Nuclear blowout there. My friend Wiley had likewise returned to New Orleans with a newfound passion for making movies. We decided to combine efforts. We would ride our bikes to Southern Louisiana for the second anniversary of the BP Oil Spill. He would make a movie. I'd make my illustrated blog. Together, we'd make sure that no one in our network would forget that the oil spill happened and that above all, it's not over!

Tokyo Goodbye

Coming Soon...

Hiroshima, where past and present converge

Coming soon...


Coming soon...

A Voice in the Wilderness - Conversations with Dr. Koide

Osaka. I crawled out of my sleeping bag and peered over the wall overlooking the castle moat and park, relieved that the sun had risen at last, putting an end to this long chilled night. Picturesque as it may be, it was a mistake camping here on the castle’s ramparts so late in October, unprotected from the weather. Castle Park, which I mentioned in my last post, was the epicenter of Japan's überorganized homeless movement of the 90’s; today however the park appears vacant. A public park is meant to cultivate community, but this one has been left fallow. After all, what is a park without its homeless stewards to make it feel lived-in and not just looked at? What’s left is the kaishain (salarymen) and other somnambulants, shuffling along the demarcated walking paths the way a train follows its tracks. Or perhaps I’m just here at the wrong time. Osaka is one of Japan’s major cultural centers and I’ll have to return to this city one day when I have more time to make a just exploration. Surely behind the polished facade of the urban center there remain pockets of the malcontent. My VISA however is running out and I’ve still got 500 km to Hiroshima.
Today’s destination was the Kyoto University Research Reactor Institute (KURRY), which is nestled some 30 km south of Osaka City in the working-class suburbs of Kumatori. It’s here that I hoped to procure an interview with professor Dr. Hiroaki Koide, Japan’s most outspoken critic on the nation’s addiction to nuclear-power. I rode through mostly congested suburbs arriving at the fortified university entrance around lunchtime, vaguely hungry and indubitably intimidated. The campus is vigilantly immured and sentries man the barricaded entrance. Of course I’d failed to contact Dr. Koide ahead of time and I dismayed the improbability that such an important figure would grant an interview sans appointment.
The guards who blocked my entry may have been ignorant of the English language, but the word ‘appointment’ they confidently hurled at me with an interrogative pitch that tripped me up something bad. All I could do was flutter my eyelashes and feign confusion. As the guards phoned the professor, a group of students came to my aid, obviously intrigued by the incongruence of my appearance, a shabby-looking bike tourist in an immaculate institute of nuclear research.  The guards miraculously acquiesced and the students ushered me in past the barricades. We walked up a small and slightly inclined drive that was primed by manicured lawns and hedges that opened into a cluster of low buildings, where they deposited me at the professor’s office door with a ganbatte kudasai, good luck.
Dr. Koide appeared in the open doorway with eyes wrinkled in perplexity. He wore a grey blazer with matching pants and his graying hair stood in various directions of confusion.
Nihongo?” He asked.
“No. English,” I responded.
“I never received your request for an interview.”
“That’s because I never made one, sir”
Dr. Koide’s mouth formed a thin white line and he began to shake his head as he retreated into the darker recesses of his office, behind stacks of books into a nook where his desk sat littered with papers. He hadn’t yet sat down and I was afraid he was going to ask me to leave. In a panic, my mouth unloaded a fusilade of apologies and excuses about bicycle tourism and the righteousness of investigative journalism.
Something I said vindicated me and a sudden change came across the Dr.’s face.
“Did you say you arrived by bicycle?” He asked.
Dr. Koide promptly sat down and offered me the empty seat across from his. As it turns out, the good doctor is an avid cyclist!

I was fortunate to have reached Dr. Koide on his lunch break and I am indebted to him that he so generously agreed to spend his precious free time speaking with the likes of me. Dr. Koide has held a tenure as assistant professor at KURRY since 1974 and he has to his credit an impressive array of books and articles dedicated to the abolition of nuclear power. Since the Daichi debacle, Japan has begun to take Dr. Koide’s prognostications quite seriously; previously, his was, as one reporter put it, “a voice in the wilderness in a nation committed to nuclear power”. In a highly publicized event, in those critical days following the Earthquake, Dr. Koide was one of four expert guests invited by the Government Oversight Committee of the House of Councilors to address the members of the Diet. Today, people flock to his lectures in numbers that evoke pop star status. His most recent book, “The Lies of Nuclear Power”, has became a near instant bestseller and his blog continues to be the most popular and trusted source for information related to Fukushima.
Dr. Koide’s story begins in 1968, when he was a freshman at Sendai’s Tohoku University, studying to be a nuclear engineer. Koide was a diligent student and began his university career very much committed to the nuclear optimism of his day. Some might think it ironic that a country, which suffered so much destruction at the hands of two nuclear bombs, would embrace so readily an energy of the same source. However, the splitting of the atom was a scientific breakthrough that was cause for enormous excitement and the 1950s saw a nuclear weltanschauung that dreamed a future in which nuclear power would fuel everything from medicine to automobiles. Furthermore, Eisenhower’s dubious “Atoms for Peace” campaign had a Cold War motive that spawned an arms race and obscured other promising energy technologies of the day, such as solar.
It was in Koide’s Freshmen year that he found his abolitionist calling, when a nuclear facility was to be erected in a nearby community of Onagawa and not in the city of Sendai, for which it was intended to serve. The Onagawa residents who protested its implementation were soon joined by Sendai’s Tohoku student movement, of which Koide was a member. Koide took to interrogating his professors about the true costs of nuclear power and it became evident to him that nuclear power was not as safe as its adherents claimed. Koide was particularly incensed by the socio-geographical choice for the location of the power plant, of which poor and marginal communities pay the biggest price. In short, the conclusion that Koide reached, which has become the leitmotif of his career, is that the risks of nuclear power far outweighed its benefits.
I asked Dr. Koide to break it down for me: the perceived benefits of nuclear power vs. its inherent risks. 
“To begin with it is a myth that nuclear power is a finite energy source or that it has a longer future than other nonrenewable energy sources. The power reserves of commercially exploitable coal alone can provide 60 to 70 years worth of global energy demand. If we could use the total reserve of coal, it would provide 800 years worth of world demand. Next to that, we have reserves of natural gas, oil and other sources that we are not really using right now, such as shale and tar sands. I had thought that these fossil fuels would someday be exhausted and nuclear energy was the future; but in fact, the world’s reserve of uranium is only a fraction of that of oil, and a small percentage of that of coal. Uranium is actually a very scarce resource”.
As for the risks, we are all too well acquainted. But what if we were to compare these risks to the likes of a nuclear bomb, such as Hiroshima?
The bomb consisted of 800 grams of uranium, which exploded annihilating the city. Nuclear power however, requires one ton of uranium for one year - an enormous amount of radioactive material! A nuclear plant is a machine. It is expected that machines go wrong and cause accidents. It is we humans who operate the machines. Humans are not bad. It is only natural that humans make mistakes. No matter how we wish that no accidents occur, there is always the possibility of catastrophe. So what measures did the nuclear power policy makers take to deal with the possibility of accidents? They just assumed catastrophic accidents seldom occur. So they decided to ignore the possibility by labelling it as an ‘inappropriate assumption;. Here’s how they denied the possibility of catastrophic accidents. I took the following illustration from the website of Chubu Electric Power [At which point, Dr. Koide turned to his computer, pulled up the Chubu website and read me the following quote from the Energy Company’s media outlet] ‘There is absolutely no possibility of the containment vessel, the final barrier to contain radioactivity, being breached. A radioactive leak would be impossible. Therefore nuclear power plants are safe under any circumstances whatsoever and any assumption is an ‘inappropriate assumption’’. But a catastrophic accident has occurred and is still going on. Tragic events are underway in Fukushima, as you know. And the government’s responses to the ongoing accident have in my view, been highly inappropriate.”
What was the government’s response in the days following the Daiichi disaster and how was their response received by the Japanese people?
“The government hid information and delayed evacuation. The government has underestimated the risks and made optimistic assumptions. They delayed appropriate labeling of the accident, raising it from 4 to 5 and then at the last moment to 7. Evacuation first at 3km as ‘a precautionary measure’, then 10km ‘Just in case’, then 20km ‘preparing for the worse’. I believe disclosing accurate information is the only way to avoid panic. That way people would trust the administration of the government. The government has made plant workers and local residents sacrifice. They have raised radiation dose limit for the workers at Daiichi. They have also raised dose limits for residents. If Japanese law were applied strictly, an area the entire size of the entire prefecture of Fukushima would have to be abandoned and the havoc it would reek would be catastrophic. It is doubtful the country could afford to pay for it financially.
What do you believe is the current situation on the ground in Daiichi?
“I believe the reactor pressure vessel has a large hole, not the small hole that TEPCO says. There is no definite data as to whether there is any water in the containment vessel. Considering the reactor building basement is flooded with water, I think it is possible that it melted had already damaged the containment vessel. We’re in the unchartered territory that we enter for the first time ever since the human race started to use nuclear energy.
As to whether the radioactive material are going to be released into the atmosphere [from the meltdown and breach of the Reactor Pressure Vessel (RPV) and containment vessel], I don’t think it is likely as of now. The concrete foundation of the reactor building may have sustained some damage, but as a whole, I don’t think it is completely broken. I cannot properly assess the possibility of the corium melting through the concrete foundation and reaching the water table. If that should happen, the radioactive materials will flow in the groundwater and contaminate the ocean even more.
The thing to worry about is how far down the concrete the corium will go. The water circulation system using water in the building proposed by TEPCO is tantamount to admitting that the containment vessel is broken. It is a much more serious situation than I envisioned and there’s no other way to cool [the corium] other than the one proposed by TEPCO. However, if the corium goes into the concrete, no point in talking about circulating water to cool. There will be nothing you can do. The only way may be to entomb the whole building in a concrete coffin
How does the severity of this nuclear disaster compare with that which occurred at  Chernobyl?
Fukushima is still ongoing. There is a possibility of further hydrogen explosions and it is still possible that Fukushima exceeds Chernobyl in terms of magnitude of the disaster.”
Dr. Koide, having to return to his work, walked me out to my bicycle; but not before proudly showing me his own two-wheeler, which was parked just outside the building to his office, unlocked of course. Dr. Koide is a man who lives by example. He exhorts that the Japanese people must learn to live a lifestyle that consumes less energy and he himself, often rides his bike to work. With one final piece of wisdom, Koide sends me off with a quote of Mahatma Gandhi, which was noless inscribed on his memorial and of which Koide adapts to the precepts of nuclear abolition:
“The 7 sins of Nuclear Power: 1. Politics without principle; 2. Wealth without work; 3. Pleasure without conscience; 4. Knowledge without character; 5. Commerce without morality; 6. Science without humanity; 7. Worship without sacrifice.”

The Road to Kyoto and a Discourse on Homelessness in Japan

The Road to Kyoto and a Discourse on Homelessness in Japan

Kyoto is some 50 km north of Nara and can be traversed almost entirely by a bike path, which hugs the Katsura and Kizu rivers. At a leisurely pace, I followed the bends of a serene river that ran like a scar on the face of the Kansai flatlands, which are carpeted in tea farms and framed by neat rows of suburban homes. Without warning, materialized the highrises of Kyoto. The skyscape is crisscrossed by elevated rail lines and overpasses. This is a modern city shrouded in history. The former imperial capital of Japan, Kyoto is one of the few Japanese capitals spared complete destruction by WWII and still boasts many pre-war buildings. Boulevards are checkered with fancy department stores and ancient wooden palaces and shrines alike. A search for relics of ancient Kyoto can be a tourist treasure hunt. On my list of notables scattered throughout the city, were traditional handicrafts of wooden combs and fans, an anachronistic yuba (tofu skin) factory, Ukiyo-e galleries, the famous Ipodo Tea House, and a traditional natto (fermented soy bean)  factory. I made a paltry attempt to stop at some of these places on my way out.

My final night in Kyoto the rain let up and I left my hobo sleeping spot from under a mechanic’s shop awning to the more congenial atmosphere of Maruyama Park. Entering the park from the main thoroughfare of Shijo-dori, under the grandiose entrance of Yasaka shrine, the park opens around a small oblong lake, fed by a series of twisted streams. A walking path, embellished by wooden bridges, cuts its way through the aquatic garden. There are plenty of benches beneath gazebos and overhangs that provide refuge from the impending rain; however, I arrived late and much of the prime real estate was already occupied. Unlike the jovial coterie of subversives whom I was well acquainted with in Yoyogi-koen’s Blue Tent City in Tokyo, these displaced individuals, by all appearances, were bereft of home and community alike. In the morning, to see these well groomed persons upright, one would never have guessed they had slept the previous night on that very same bench. I couldn’t help but wonder how these people had arrived at their present condition.

Homelessness in Japan is certainly different from that which I’ve experienced in the United States. A little online research shed some light on the idiosyncrasies of the Japanese experience of this common social ailment. Japan’s homeless problem is a new phenomenon. Sure there have always been vagrants and beggars, but their numbers have, until recently, remained inconsequential. It wasn’t until Japan’s bubble economy burst in the 1990s that a significant number of dispossessed persons emerged and the word “homelessness” entered the Japanese lexicon (albeit Japanese homelessness remains picayune when compared with the United States). An exposé published in the Boston Globe in 2007, entitled “Clothed, clean, and homeless in Japan”, interviewed a former taxi driver, whose healthy disposition and mild lifestyle defies Western stereotypes of the typical park dweller. According to Toshio Mizuuchi, a professor at Osaka City University who studies homelessness, dispossessed persons in Japan are much less likely to be marred by mental problems and drug abuse than their U.S. counterparts  (statistics for the city of Osaka, nearly double the national average, range between 10 and 15%; while U.S. figures closer to 25%) . The article makes no attempt to conjecture on the reasons for such a disparity between cultures, but it’s interesting to note that in Japan, nearly half of all homeless persons receive no government support and many do in fact earn money.
Obviously, Japan has a much different approach to dealing with this important societal affliction.

An article published in the New York Times in 1996, at which time homelessness in Japan was at its zenith,  entitled “Welfare as Japan Knows It: A Family Affair” by Nicholas Kristof, although outdated, explains some of these cultural differences that make homelessness in Japan unique. For one, Japan doesn’t suffer from many of the social ills that epitomize the American experience of homelessness: only 1% of Japanese births are to unwed mothers, compared with more than 30% in the U.S. Illicit drugs are not nearly as prevalent. Furthermore, Japan has a much more egalitarian distribution of wealth. Probably the biggest cultural difference that makes a system like theirs possible in the first place, is the strong emphasis on family obligation and, as Kristof puts it, “an abiding sense of shame that colors almost every aspect of life”. It is this sense of patrimonial honor that is the reason why so many Japanese refuse assistance even when they do qualify; not to mention, the process is anything but a day at the beach, or should we say, a day at the park. Considering the insurmountable preconditions, stringent regulations and intrusive monitoring, one author succinctly writes, "one could say that they prefer to freeze outside than be frozen by officialdom's coldness".

Japan’s homeless community can draw strength from a long history of community organizing and direct action. In Tokyo, I was struck by the level of self reliance, but also how disparate communities worked together on issues that transcended their situation, namely the anti-nuclear movement. At the time of my visit, Blue Tent City in Yoyogi-koen was under siege by park officials. Theirs was a struggle that homeless communities have faced in other Japanese cities as well. Stories about the Osakan Castle-Park homeless community and their many triumphs against the city provide a model of resistance. Members of the community formed a central homeless people’s association that aided in the distribution of food and health services, as well as plot strategy and intermediary negotiations when faced with forced removal. Members even sued for the ability to register the park as their legal residence (legal residence is a prerequisite for qualifying for welfare). They organized sit-ins and held Karaoke sessions when the city criminalized such outdoor events. And when their tents were finally confiscated, they sued the city for restitution. Under pressures to beautify the city for Japan’s hosting of the Winter Olympics, the Blue Tent City in Castle-Park was ultimately disbanded. Many of its members moved to other parks, but continued to remain active. Their legacy of community organizing and direct action remain an inspiration to other dispossessed and marginalized peoples throughout Japan.

The BBC ran an exposé reporting on the effectiveness of the Osakan homeless people’s association that even operated a volunteer-run farm. Pictures can be seen at the following link.

In the U.S., welfare, which is doled out with more frequency and less restrictions, is also more contended than in Japan. A great article, by Jarvis DeBerry, showcasing the insidious speculations of a public grappling with the questionary role of the state, appeared in a New Orleans' newspaper today. The article concerns a debate that ensued after a photo was published showing a boy in public housing with an iPad, a luxury item that welfare recipients in Japan would not be permitted to own. The article paints supercilious those who are too quick to judge what the disadvantaged should or should not own.

miércoles, 15 de febrero de 2012

The Currency of Bread

The heaviest of my panniers is reserved for books. Some I pass along when I'm finished, others I greedily retain for my collection. Among the later genre is a collection of prose and haiku by Japan's most famous itinerant poet, Basho. Leaving Tokyo in the direction of Kyoto, I followed for some time a route taken by the vagabond poet himself and I am joined for this leg of my journey by a friend, Stacey, who lives in Kamakura and has graced me with her company as far as the city of Ise. After many months of solitary travel, I can empathise with Basho and one particular haiku of his rings relevant. Synchronistically, it was written in homage to a priest from Kamakura who joined him on his journey only as far as Ise.

Together let us eat
Ears of wheat,
Sharing at night
A grass pillow.

I arrived in Nara late morning. Entering at the park side just above the main market, I sailed downhill in search of bread. Having secured a loaf from a nearby bakery, I found a seat under a historic pine in which to have my lunch, just off the path from a five story wooden pagoda and shrine. In the midst of lathering my loaf with peanuts and jam, the voice of an elderly man delivered in well spoken English a greeting of "good day". Looking heavenward from my lowly picnic spot beneath the antiquated pine, was to the aged tree a kin, an octogenarian. Short in stature, he wore his grey and thinning hair combed from one side over a crown that, even through a scant veil, shown white with the effulgence of a midday autumn sun. Rare as it is that Japanese sagacity speak my mother tongue, I shook out my coat and gently lay it upon the grassy floor, beseeching my honoured guest have a seat beside my own.

The old man, whose name I learned to be Okada, accepted my hospitality and upon taking his seat, commenced with a diatribe of Nara's religious establishment. "These priests are such hypocrites, sleeping around the way they do. They are corrupted by money and money, as we know, is the root of all evil." Okada had just come from a lecture on the Vedic scripts given by one of the said priests at a nearby Buddhist temple. He found the lecture too technical, rather dull, and perhaps he was put off by the supercilious manner of its delivery. It seems to me that the Japanese, generally speaking, are not a religious people and this was my first encounter with one that frequents a house of prayer. I offered him some bread, of which he in turn shared with the surrounding deer, which occupy the city of Nara in droves. So revered are the deer in Nara that they have come to believe the divinity in which they've been bestowed and with impunity take such liberties that bespeak an utter disregard for their human neighbours. As such, with Okada's encouragement, an encroaching Bambi army soon had me scrambling over my lunch. Unperturbed, Okada continued with his exegesis, all the while tossing crumbs to a cervine congregation, utterly corrupted by the currency of bread.

Unable to feign interest in such topics, having myself somewhat of an aversion to religion, I changed the subject with questions of Okada's life history and respectfully, Japan's past. Okada was born in 1933, in a remote village on the island of Shikoku, before bridges linked that island with the Honshu main. It was not so removed however to be spared entirely the pangs of war. "It was just like morning,” exclaimed Okada, of the day Imperial Japan unconditionally surrendered to the Allied Powers. Okada, was standing in formation with his classmates, when a teary-eyed faculty made the announcement that, in a single statement, rescinded everything the pupils had hitherto been taught about their nation. "We came to know we had the wrong idea. When new textbooks arrived, we received them quite naturally and without hesitation." Okada explained to me that before the war the Japanese people were taught that Japan was infallibly “God’s Country” and when Japan lost the war, the people felt lied to and betrayed. They accepted their new reality like a people coming out of a fog and they scorned those whom they felt had pulled the wool over their eyes. I recalled reading about many an important dignitary, who in the aftermath of war, were all but reduced to shame enough to drive them to commit harakiri. And what of Japan today? I asked. “This industrial advancement is not giving us happiness” was Okada’s reply. “Superficially everything looks so nice and is going smoothly from outside, but inside we are not so happy. People were happier when life was simpler.”