Monday, December 16, 2013

Homeland Season Three Finale

Nicholas Brody was an amateur adrift in a world of professionals who act like amateurs. As a convert to Islam, he was some way from being an American everyman, but he was at least a freelance dodgy decision-maker, and thus his ethical contortions have tended to carry more dramatic weight than those of the characters working within organisations. Carrie has her vulnerabilities, but remains a career spook. If there is a deeper meaning behind this thriller format, it is that the beliefs we hold about the world lead us into startling moral compromises. Without Brody, Homeland may struggle to recreate the immediacy of this moral jeopardy when the key protagonists are all under orders.

Peter Quinn, that other long-range marksman with existential issues has therefore offered both parallels and contrasts with the former Marine sniper. Saul's function has been to be the man on the fence, essentially decent, but capable of suddenly slipping off either side of the ethical divide given the circumstances.

Yet perhaps the showmakers were right to think Brody had been exhausted dramatically, that the story could either end here or continue without him. They seemed to be experimenting with viewer interest levels in a Brodie-less Homeland when the first few episodes of season three excluded him - though not without his soap opera family, perhaps another reason why they thought the programme might be better off without him...and Dana!

And the sexual/romantic chemistry between Brody and Carrie has been a big gaping absence in the show from the start. There's clearly more going on under the radar between Carrie and Quinn.

Anyway, the opening credits appear to have been subtly tweaked to suggest that this is Carrie's story, with Brody and the whole Middle Eastern mess now merely subordinate.

Going forward, there are loose ends everywhere, many of which could be worked up into new story directions.

While one has to presume that the scriptwriters have long given up on the idea of holding Carrie to account for her role in the death of the Vice President, season one teased us with the possibility of a mole in the CIA. The conclusion of season two and commentary by Majid Javardi in season three then further alluded to inside collusion in the Langley bombing. So perhaps now a new antagonist will emerge for Carrie to fixate on?

The trouble is that the second season ended with very few speaking characters alive at Langley other than Saul and Carrie, so the double-agent may have to be a relative newcomer and therefore, frankly, a dramatic risk.

Saul's masterplan looks a lot less masterful under close examination. If the Iranians knew that Brody played no part in the car bomb attack, they would have had reasons to be suspicious, and even more so when he suddenly decided to kill the general. The would surely have asked themselves if this was anything more than a random act of violence. Meanwhile, after the assassination was announced by major western news networks, the CIA would surely have had some explaining to do. We were never given a chance to see what kind of coverage - and more to the point, redemption - came Brody's way after he completed his mission.

It was a little cheeky of the show's writers to tie back Saul's stratagem to the recent deal with Iran, especially as real-life events as one stage seemed set to overtake them rather awkwardly.

The part I really couldn't buy however was the way that Saul, as director of the agency, had no direct line to the President. Indeed, he seemed almost cut adrift from all the politicians except the man who was after his job. One call to the Oval Office elaborating on how Lockhart had turned traitor, passing classified info on the CIA Director's laptop to Mossad, would have removed him from the picture permanently, with no concomitant public exposé of Saul's wife's infidelity. 

A few more things we learned in this season of Homeland...

  • Majid Javardi might have done in his wife using a broken bottle, yet somehow Andrew Lockhart remains more deserving of an icky end 
  • But of course it is still Dana that we'd have liked to have seen swinging from that crane in the main square of Tehran. 
  • Bonkers Carrie has been explored to the limit now...please.
  • The CIA are not allowed to conduct operations on American soil, yet when seem able to do so more competently there than abroad
  • Caracas looks fun. 

Sunday, August 18, 2013


The production and consumption system depicted here in the movie Samsara emerges out of a much broader range of societal and ethical dispositions than most of us are perhaps prepared to acknowledge. I certainly doubt whether our food choices alone could foster a world like this. 

It used to be jarring to rub up against dogmatic vegetarians or vegans working in the consumer marketing industry. It didn't seem to have occurred to most of them that their unilateral opt-out at the supermarket might not actually be helping all that much, or indeed that their professional activities might actually be making things worse. Yet one could even say that just by living in a big, modern mega-city one tolerates, and to some extent promotes, this sort of food production. 

Thursday, August 08, 2013

Real Guatemala?

I've been musing about Rudy's assertion that Ciudad Vieja and Jocotenango belong within the boundaries of real Guatemala, whereas La Antigua, most definitely lies outside of it. He has promised to expound further on this geography of artifice in a future post, but I suspect it will be hard to pen without lapsing into a form of inverted snobbery. 

If one buys into the Guatemala as 'land of contrasts' paradigm, then a town full of lower-middle class tradesmen, homogenised both in terms of socio-economics and ethnicity, is hardly the nation in microcosm. 

I could point out that here in San Pedro El Panorama by contrast we run the full Guatemalan social gamut, from ostentatious oligarchs to families living in highly provisional wood and lamina huts. But then we don't actually have a functioning indigenous community, or indeed a Garifuna village (though one mustn't forget the good folk down the road at the Pelícano Dorado!) 

But, you might counter, surely La Antigua is not the real Guatemala in much the same way that Cancún and Playa del Carmen are not the real Yucatán? Well yes, and no. Cancún and Playa were small, comparatively insignificant townships which hypertrophied the moment they connected with the global economy. La Antigua experienced a similar encounter with an essentially alien tipping point, but the subsequent metastasis was circumscribed thanks to the colonial city's peculiar history as abandoned capital and latterly protected monument - so that the unreal or at least non-aboriginal aspects of life here have been superimposed on the autochthonous ones, and have not entirely displaced them. 

It was perhaps an exaggeration on Rudy's part to suggest that all the original locals have fled to the burbs, priced out by greedy gringos and capitalinos in search of a comfy weekend pad. Over the years I have got to know many Antigueños, of varied social backgrounds, who continue to live within the casco histórico and will readily claim that many generations of their families have done the same. A number have surrendered the fronts of their properties (shops, restaurants) in order to continue to reside in the space behind. La Antigua is a conservative town in much the same way that Cancún isn't. 

It is also apparent to me that many of the skilled craftsmen and small business owners residing in colonias like Jocotenango are migrants from other parts of the country that have apparently recognised this city for the node within the wider global network that it has palpably become. 

What we do most obviously have here are two parallel economic systems, with a virtual dollar pricing system tossed like a shroud over the more parochial one. Rudy himself markets his photographic images to this half-in, half-out clientele, at foreign currency rates, which only such 'unreal' individuals would contemplate paying. 

This dichotomy in Latin American living is reflected in the Macondo vs McOndo polarity within modern Latin American literature. The question about authentic experience in Spanish-speaking America is very much alive and well. 

Back in Britain we distinguish between multi-ethnic, multicultural London - a community that would seem to have 9000 years of history and inward migration behind it - and 'Middle England', the locus of country pubs, cricket on village greens and 'native' (i.e. white) English people. Which is the more real? I think that's one blog post I will postpone writing for now! 

PS: On a separate note, it is intriguing to me how the four-letter word REAL comes with an entirely different payload of associations in English and Spanish. How many homes (and hotels) have been been pretentiously dubbed 'Real' here in La Antigua? One could even posit that the more REAL a place is in Castellano, the less REAL it is in English! 

Friday, August 02, 2013

The Good, The Bad and El Che

Of necessity the materialist rejects what he or she sees as the religious notion that actions have fixed and lasting moral properties. For how could this be so in the universe thus conceived? 

This explains in part the conundrum we often face with the example set by Che Guevara. 

It would not be difficult to characterise el Che as a 'good' man, one who dedicated his life to pursuit of justice and one who would have understood his own inclinations as towards the side of the 'good'. And yet even the Comandante's most ardent apologist would surely have to admit that, in the name of political expediency, he often committed (or permitted) actions that anyone guided by a traditional Christian theodicy, would almost immediately recognise as bad, if not properly evil.  

El Che was brought up a Catholic and migrated to Marxism. Adherents of the latter creed, at least when they have thought things through properly, have a materialistic view of the cosmos and a dialectical take on history and politics. This leads to a kind of hyper-relativism when it comes to the moral nature of men's deeds, specifically the potential for evil in their own actions.  

Your bog standard relativist considers that the same action might be judged differently in different circumstances. The Marxist-Leninist on the other hand tends to believe that two superficially identical actions are not the same action, if the political context is different. Trotsky was very clear about this when he wrote of the necessity of slaughtering innocent children in the interests of the proletariat; specifically the Tsar's children. And so it would have been with Che Guevara and his firing squads. 

Saturday, July 13, 2013

People's: Prolier -than-thou

The latest entrant into the Calzada's crowded fried chicken scene…and one that goes straight to the back of the prole pile. Greasy yet odourless, People's chicken pieces taste like especially unsavoury cardboard. Even our dogs spat out the morsels we offered them. 

The whole bird in the pic above looked like it had been run over by a chicken bus. 

V's theory is that People's is so bad that it may be some sort of rebound-enticement subterfuge operated by Pollo Campero! 

Pinulito still the best though.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013


Ever since I first came to El Panorama this street has been patrolled by a solitary male street dog, who has in turn been looked after by the majority of the residents. Say hello to the current incumbent: Trompas. 

He might sport a name suggestive of a less-than-sunny disposition, yet Trompas is one of the friendliest dogs I have ever come across  an expert networker adored by the people living behind the gates outside which he reclines, and both jaunty and jovial in his initial approach to any other passing pooch. 

Unlike some of his predecessors Trompas was born on this street. His nominal owners were a pair of quarrelsome boozers who were looking after a bare plot. When they moved out a month ago Trompas initially went with them, but a week later reappeared, having thus clearly opted for collective over private ownership. And one shouldn't really blame him because he had always depended on the community to provide both sustenance and sentiment.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Disarray legitimises dictatorship

Two of the arguments most commonly deployed in defence of the late Baroness Thatcher over the past week have been 1) What a god awful mess the lefties had made of the country before she came in and sorted it all out and 2) that in spite of the short-term pain felt in certain segments of society, the imposition of liberal economic policies and values was ultimately in everyone's best interests. 

That neither can be sufficient for truly getting to grips with Thatcher's legacy on a personal or political level, is evidenced by the fact that both arguments can just as easily be used as apologia for her old friend General Augusto Pinochet. 

Further comparisons would of course take us into the realms of the absurdly overstretched. 

Thatcher, for example, did not have the nation's leading literary light extinguished (probably), and then send a bunch of jackbooted thugs to ransack his house and burn all 8000 books in his library. Etc. 

Yet we all know that even Hitler can chalk up VWs and dangerous roads in his plus column. 

The fact is that strong, manipulative and ultimately abusive government tends to emerge out of periods of disfunction. Look back through the last few hundred years of history and when you find an authoritarian you can nearly always find the clusterfuck that immediately preceded them. Disarray legitimises dictatorship. 

Historians are often tempted to characterise the emergent leader as a sort of aberrant opportunist (right place, right moment etc.), but perhaps there is nothing more natural than a system finding a way to unclog itself after it has become a bit bunged up under a previous configuration.

Tuesday, April 09, 2013

Maggie, Maggie, Maggie...

There are politicians (Cameron is one of them, yet so too were many of the left wing politicians who opposed Thatcher) whose platform is essentially the notion that if you let them run society in the interests of people just like themselves, it will all work out for the greater good in the end. 

Thatcher was not really one of this ilk. That she didn't appear to have hatched from either the aristocratic of technocratic (both essentially male) spawning pools of traditional conservatism made her, and still makes her, especially scary and repellent to many people that grew up in 'ordinary' British communities, because she seemed on some levels to be one of them. 

She was not a politician like Reagan, who adopted a set of ideas that were 'out there'; her ideology was in fact almost impossible to separate from her personality. (I think Blair came to power with a massive majority in 1997 in part because the electorate mistook him for an everyman who would transcend the old problem, only to later discover that he was also driven by peculiar, somewhat over-robust inner convictions.) 

In terms of legacy, much will depend on how the deconstruction of the local manufacturing bases in certain western nations is ultimately viewed by historians. The latter will tend to be more dispassionate/callous about the victims of structural changes that can ultimately be scored as positive, especially as the temporal distance increases. 

Yet similar policies undertaken by Reagan and Bush senior are already coming under closer scrutiny for the long-term weakness and decline they may have helped set up, in spite of the short-term turnarounds they undoubtedly achieved. 

Thatcher's economic reforms also fostered greater income inequality, but had to do so within the context of the sacred safety net of the British welfare state and the NHS. 

I also suspect that historians may come to realise that Europe missed an opportunity to evolve into a different kind of entity in the eighties and early nineties, and that should in part be put down to the way she poisoned the atmosphere during her terms as Prime Minister.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013


This has been a week of scandalous social media overshares in Guatemala. 

First there was 'shu-majestad' Jessica Duque (above), who achieved instant national meme-dom after daring to suggest that Ricardo Arjona had only gone and lowered the drawbridge of the sacred citadel of Cayalá, thus permitting the barbarian hordes to pile in and generally sack the place. 

Then there was this shamefully shumungous behaviour from some sentimental ossifers of the PNC. 

One suspects they will have trouble deploying Jkita's official excuse - that it was some other random racista that 'wogged' her mobile phone and used it to post those deleterious comments all over her profile!

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

The Cayalá Phenomenon

Guatemala might not have dual currencies like Cuba, but one doesn't have to look far to see the signs of a two-tier economic system here – there are businesses charging in Quetzales and businesses that are either explicitly or implicitly charging in US Dollars. And the thing that concerns me most is that many of the latter are doing so even when their staff costs and other overheads are effectively priced in Quetzales. 

Now I am no economics licenciado, but I really don't think this can be a good thing for the country in terms of its development both economically and politically, and were I ever in a position of unassailable power in a land such as this, I would tweak the fiscal system in order to seriously dis-incentivise this practice. 

Perhaps the greatest concentration of evidence of its deleterious effects can be witnessed here in Antigua with its mass of empty, overpriced restaurants. 

Yet for me, the poster-boys of what I shall call the Cayalá phenomenon (after Guatemala's brand new walled garden of dollar consumerism, Z16's Paseo de Cayalá) have always been the foreign-owned – and generally less empty – fast food chains. Domino's for example, almost certainly pays no rent in this city as they own the freehold of their site, surely pays its employees at local rates, and buys its tomatoes, as we do, from a local finca at around Q1 a pound, and yet expects the end consumer to pay developed world prices for their pizzas. 

Mark, of the fondly-remembered GuateLiving blog, once suggested to me that these prices reflect the additional risks of doing business here. Perhaps so, but from the outside it looks more like a nice-little-earner rather than a reckless gamble, and there's really nothing to stop companies in Guatemala from putting their own price on this sense of risk, charging according to what they think affluent, dollar-earners can pay, and in a manner that is only loosely connected to things like demand and supply and their cost base. 

It seems to work for the fast food giants, but one can't help thinking that many businesses in Antigua would be better off lowering their prices a bit in order to increase the number of actual sales as well as appealing to a wider customer base. (I'm surprised that more don't at least use flexible prices to bring in more customers on otherwise slow days.)

Anyway, this post is not so much about improving business performance in the retail and restaurant sectors, it's about the affordability gap that exists between the quetzal and dollar-based economies. In Cuba one notes that while the average state salary works out at around $20 a month, the lighter-skinned population are much more likely to benefit from both better-rewarded positions and from remittances sent over from the 'exile' community in the USA. The end result, an economic chasm with some rather insidious racial connotations. There may well be ethnic repercussions of a more recondite nature here in Guatemala, but it is the economic defile that looks the most damaging to me, because it has to be holding up the development of the middle class, for there will be individuals pursuing white-collar careers in this country, earning less than their US equivalents, and yet expected to pay US prices for many of the goods their peers up north habitually consume. 

The problem may not be as monolithic as I have painted it. For every Domino's there's a Cinépolis –  firms offering an aspirational, middle-class products at prices more in line with local equivalent earnings power. But the gap is still there, and not only is a dollar-based pricing system one of things putting the brakes on Guatemala's economic potential, there are also political consequences, for without a middle class capable of providing a genuine bridge between the extreme ends of wealth and poverty in this country, the state is always likely to be the playground of oligarchs and populists, with enlightened, social-democratic governance only popping up periodically as a commitment which will inevitably flatter to deceive. 

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Hora Chapina, Hora Chapona

Over the past few weeks five times I have made arrangements with locals to meet at my house and on each occasion they have failed to show up. I might add that the assignations in question were generally a good deal more in their interest than in mine. 

Is there ever any attempt to communicate an excuse, an apology etc? No. 

Sometimes the offending party tries to put in an appearance at an alternative time and date of their own choosing, still without warning or cover story. I have now decided never to open the door in such circumstances, not in the vain hope of thereby providing an education in civilised manners, but in rather more punitive determination.  

It is for this reason that one individual in our neighbourhood has become a constant source of wonder. She carries a watch and examines it with the old-fashioned assiduousness of the white rabbit in Wonderland, though without his propensity for punctuality fails. And deep though we are in the dry season, she is also never without her flowery umbrella – signs of a preternatural preparedness quite anomalous in these parts. 

Having offered to produce for us, twice weekly, tortillas of black and yellow corn in the traditional manner, each time she has come to deliver them almost exactly five minutes in advance of the agreed time. And when I emerge, regards me as if I have kept her waiting an eternity. 

It is for this reason we have started to have our doubts as to whether she is Guatemalan at all. She has the slightly off-putting appearance of a steely-eyed, middle-aged man in an elaborate draggy disguise, complete with heavy, oversized, bloke's shoes, and for that reason we long ago gave her the nickname of 'El Chapo'. 

Her skin is almost deathly pale and her accent is hard to place in a Chapin context, though there are rumours that she and her brood hail from Amatitlán or thereabouts. The truth is that she appeared one day out of nowhere, and yet, hoy en día, there is seemingly no-one better informed about behind-closed-doors activities in the district.  

Monday, January 21, 2013

Top Destinations in Central America

In response to Tripadvisor's somewhat unbalanced list of the top 'destinations' in Central America, here is my own, more reasoned selection. I have taken it as red that 'destination' implies a certain number of hotels and restaurants, plus a hub-like location for accessing other nearby sites and activities. 

1) La Antigua Guatemala: Well, of course...

2) Playa del Carmen, Quintana Roo, Mexico: Hippest place in the western hemisphere. 

3) San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico: It is not unheard of for people to prefer this down-to-earth yet lively mountain town over La A

4) Panama City: A larger version of downtown Miami tacked on to a smaller version of Old Havana...with more than a hint of Vegas. What more could you want?

5) Tulum, Quintana Roo, Mexico: Somewhat over-tailored to affluent hippies (i.e. employees of New York magazines), you can't take away from it the best beach for thousands of miles.

6) Campeche, Campeche, Mexico: An under-visited fortified Spanish burgh staring into the beautiful Gulf sunset. A little low on evening activity, but plenty of Mayan interest points beyond the city limits.

7) Granada, Nicaragua: Emerging from neglect, this is Nicaragua's colonial showpiece, with its lovely Calzada leading to the shore of Lake Nicaragua.

8) Lake Atitlán, Guatemala: Panajachel is the Bohemian go-to destination on this most beautiful of lakes, but there are numerous other characterful villages along its shores.

9) Mérida, Yucatán, Mexico: The most elegant of Central America's big cities.

10) San Ignacio (Cayo), Belize: Grubby in itself, but an undoubted hub for perhaps the most rewarding eco-tourism opportunities in the region.

11) Livingston, Izabal, Guatemala: Guatemala's Garifuna enclave, and gateway to the Rio Dulce and Lake Izabal, perhaps the most stunning landscapes the country has to offer.

12) San José, Costa Rica: The most approachable of Central America's capital cities with a central core that can easily be explored on foot. The dining scene is not so bad either.

13) Placencia, Belize: Relentlessly gentrified over the past couple of decades, yet the veneer of first world sophistication is refreshingly thin in places. Best beach in Belize.

14) Palenque, Chiapas, Mexico: Access point to one of the greatest of all Mayan sites, plus the waterfalls of Agua Azul and Misol Há.

15) Flores, Petén, Guatemala: Set on an island close to the shore of Lake Petén Itza, this is not just the kick-off point for Tikal, but also a delightful mini-destination in itself with an appealing, almost Mediterranean vibe.

16) Caye Caulker, Belize: An almost unavoidable backpacker destination right on the reef, offering some of the best and cheapest snorkelling and diving opportunities in CA.

17) Cahuita, Costa Rica: Laid-back and at least partially English-speaking, this Caribbean outpost features a protected beach lined by almond trees densely inhabited by capuchin monkeys.

18) Chiapa de Corzo, Chiapas, Mexico: The original state capital, and where one boards the boat to explore the majestic Sumidero canyon.

19) Cobán, Guatemala: A centre for coffee and more recently, stronger stimulants, the city offers a pleasant stop-off before the approach to Lanquin and Semuc Champey.

20) Quetzaltenango, Guatemala: 'Xela', the country's calmer second city; neo-classical architecture and a lively cultural scene.

Plus five other significant spots in the region which I have yet to visit, yet which I suspect might well have made it into the top 25...

  • Villahermosa, Tabasco, Mexico
  • Leon, Nicaragua, 
  • Bocas del Toro, Panama
  • Boquete, Panama
  • The Bay Islands, Honduras

Friday, January 04, 2013

Forbrydelsen/The Killing III Finale

The last ten minutes of the very final episode of Forbrydelsen must have come as a shock, if not a disappointment to many of the show's long-term fans. 

Three of the characters chose to behave in ways that required impromptu and unlikely feats of memory. Kamper, the PM, had to recollect in an instant that he was a politician who puts power above all other personal feelings and interests. Zeuthen had to remember that he was heir to a powerful family-run multinational and set aside all previous capriciousness...and Lund had to somehow forget she was a police office and become, well..Danish Dexter. 

These sudden lurches into ethical compromise (or in this particular instance of Lund's actions, un-compromise!) have become a familiar trope of these Scandinavian series. It's one of the reasons that Forbrydelsen, Borgen, The Bridge etc have fallen just short of the quality of Engrenages (Spiral) in terms of character consistency. The French series wins, because it convincingly bakes the wobbliness of moral accommodation into each and every one of the leads and that makes for a more complex experience. In part it's because much of what occurs in the plotting of The Killing seems to be done for our benefit as the viewer, whereas in Spiral our 'presence' as onlookers is made to seem comparatively nonessential. 

Anyway, considering the choices facing the creators of Sarah Lund, I have found a way of making sense of the one they eventually went for. The obvious alternatives of death-in-the-line of duty and happy-ever-after would surely have seemed equally, if not more incongruous. 

Did Lund put a bullet in Reinhardt's head because he had taunted her that he expected to escape justice? It's not an explanation that makes much sense because Lund had no way to know that Kamper and Zeuthen were re-conforming to type back in Copenhagen, and her evidence about the hotel door code certainly looked promising. 

If some of the vigilante urgency of 'GM' had rubbed off onto Lund, the writers should really have shown us how this came about by appropriately developing the scenes in which the pair interacted. 

Perhaps GM didn't kill five people entirely in order to avenge the daughter he barely knew. He might well have done it in part because he was a smart man who resented that the leaders of the organisation that employed him were utterly unaware of his existence. The rage inside him was that much easier to project onto Zeeland once he had a more concrete grievance. 

And on reaching this conclusion it occurred to me that Lund didn't kill Zeuthen's sidekick because she knew he would wriggle free of her persistence and rigour. She killed him because it was a only way of dodging the nicely resolved life which was awaiting her at the end of the case – with her mother, Mark and his new family and even her long ago jilted boyfriend all keen to move into her self-enforced sanctuary of solitude. That at least, would have been in character.