Wednesday, June 30, 2010

One of the worst things about group travel, too many shopping expeditions: The Peru Diaries, Part V

This trip saved the best for last: Machu Picchu and then the magical town of Cusco. This is by far the most beautiful town I have seen in Latin America. It reminded me of the way Quito looked in 1972—before Quito became a big city with high-rises obscuring the view of the mountains. In Cusco wherever we went, the mountains were a powerful presence.

Since we were in a city, we could break way from the group and move at our own (very slow) pace. We stayed with the tour for the half day city tour. It’s always good to get an over view before branching out on your own.

The first stop was the Dominican monastery— built on the foundations of an Inca Temple. A 1950 earthquake revealed the Inca Temple and the rich heritage the Dominicans had tried so hard to suppress. If we had been on our own we would have spent the entire morning there. Rick and I move slowly through museums, but there’s no leisurely lingering with a tour group and we were on to the next stop.

After the city tour, we decided to break away from the group and spend our last day and a half in Cusco seeing the town our way, at our pace. It meant missing a bus tour that included the famous Inca fortress of Sacsayhuaman, but if we had gone on the scheduled tour, we would have been captives on the tour bus and would have had to spend the rest of the day on the shopping trips arranged by the tour company.

I’m not much of a shopper and these shopping expeditions seem to be incorporated into most group tours. Rick and I could easily pass on the silver factory and the vicuna factory, but the tour company knows its customers, and most were very happy to have these shopping opportunities.

To be fair, one shopping trip, to the workshop of Seminario, a well-known ceramicist, was really worth it, and we bought a beautiful ceramic clock for our kitchen—we actually needed a new kitchen clock, as ours died right before we left for Peru. But this tour was too heavy on the shopping and too light on cultural / historical attractions.

So instead of shopping we saw some of the major sites of Cusco—including the cathedral which is actually a complex of churches and a treasure trove of colonial art. When we asked our guide why such a major cultural site was not included as part of the group tour, he said it used to be included but when the cathedral raised the price of admission, the tour company decided to drop the cathedral. Huh?

So, bottom line: we’re not going on any more group tours. If we can’t go some place on our own, then we just won’t go there. I’ve accepted the fact that there are many places I will never see, and that’s okay. My husband and I did a lot of traveling during our working years, so I don’t have all these pent-up travel desires. I wish I had done more adventure travel when I was younger, but you can’t do it all, can’t have it all.

Rick and I learned something about ourselves as travelers, or perhaps it's more accurate to say the trip confirmed what we always suspected: we are just not meant for group travel. But despite all my complaints, I’m really happy to have seen Machu Picchu and Cusco. If I were younger, I’d plan a return trip for some future date, but at this stage of life, travel opportunities narrow. One trip to Machu Picchu in a lifetime will have to do.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

My new volunteer project: The Pennsylvania State Democratic Committee

One of the great joys of retirement is being able to devote serious time and energy to volunteer projects. Recent research claiming to demonstrate a link between happiness and political activism just may be on to something.

I recently ran for and won election to the Pennsylvania State Democratic Committee—something I’ve wanted to do for some time but couldn’t manage during my working years. I was already struggling to juggle my job teaching at Community College of Philadelphia with serving as a local Democratic committeeperson and as president of Philadelphia. NOW. There was no way I could take on another project—especially one that involved travel. But last February, I decided that, as a retiree, I could handle it and I trudged about the neighborhood in the ice and snow getting 100+ signatures to get on the ballot.

Many of my neighbors wondered why in the world I wanted to do this. I’ve been a committee person in Philly’s liberal independent 9th ward for 26 years. I don’t think I could have lasted in any other ward. The committee people in our ward are thoughtful, independent-minded folks and it’s been a lot of fun. We do not automatically endorse party-endorsed candidates (e.g., we endorsed Sestak over Specter in last May’s Democratic primary). Individual committee people often endorse candidates not endorsed by the ward and within the ward's 17 divisions there are often conflicting endorsements. The voters in my division are used to getting a letter that says: “Karen endorses candidate x; Hertis endorses candidate y.” This approach fits well with the independent spirit of the voters in our neighborhood.

I've been curious about how the Democratic Party works outside of the liberal oasis of Philadelphia's 9th ward. This past week-end was my first State Committee meeting. It may turn out to be one of those “careful what you wish for" experiences.

First, the good news: there is a group planning to form a progressive caucus. It’s going to be a challenge for this diverse group to come together on priority issues. My guess is there is agreement on issues but not on priorities. I’m sure everyone in the group is pro-choice, pro-LGBT rights, for example, but not everyone would place abortion rights or same sex marriage at the top of their list. Also the degree of disenchantment with the Democratic Party varies considerably.

However, it became clear over the course of the weekend that we all have an interest in a transparent process and should be able to come together fairly easily on process issues. I had an experience which put a crusade for clear Party rules and a transparent process at the top of my list.

The elected State Committee delegates within each Senatorial district were charged with meeting to elect a district caucus chair. My ward leader encouraged me to run for this low-level post and I decided to run, primarily to learn a little more about the inner workings of the State Committee. Win or lose, it would be a learning experience. And so it was.

The vote was a 3-3 tie. A Party functionary came by and said that when one of the candidates in a tie vote is an incumbent, the incumbent automatically wins. If neither candidate is an incumbent, there would be a coin toss. In this case, since my opponent was an incumbent, he was declared the winner.

I asked if this rule was on the party website. The Party functionary did not answer my question, focusing instead on the fact that I was new to the State Committee and didn’t know the ropes. When he finally acknowledged there were no Party rules on the website, I asked if the rule existed anywhere in writing; again he did not give me a direct answer and kept hammering on his point that I was just a newbie who didn’t know the rules. My guess is that he was used to silencing new people by telling them they just didn’t know how the game was played. One advantage of being in your sixties is that you're not likely to be intimidated by somebody telling you to shut up because you’re new!

He clearly did not appreciate my point that it was highly unusual not to have a written rule for dealing with a tie vote. Finally, he said we don’t have formal rules to deal with tied elections. It took a really long time just to get an admission that the rule did not exist in written form.

I had expected when I raised the question, that I would be referred to some handbook which contained this rule. If that had occurred, it would have been the end of that conversation.

I might at a later point have raised the issue of whether such a pro-incumbent bias was in the interest of building a strong party. Changing this would be an uphill struggle given the historic pro-incumbent bias in the Democratic Party. But it certainly would be easier to challenge this if I could point to an actual written rule that needs to be rethought. It was also unclear whether the Philadelphia Democratic Party had jurisdiction (since we were vying for chair of a caucus within the Philadelphia portion of the 4th senatorial district) or whether the Pennsylvania State Democratic Party had jurisdiction (since we were members of the Democratic Party).

Granted, this is a very minor office, but questions surrounding the procedures to be applied in tied elections have larger implications.

If I were still teaching and something like this had happened, I wouldn’t have taken the time and effort to raise the issue. I wouldn’t have had the energy. But now that I have the time, I’m beginning to see a role for myself here—-working to develop a more transparent, open process. This assumes that there will be a progressive caucus to support such efforts.

I grant that there are times when there are real tensions between an open process and presenting a strong united front in a tough election year. A case in point: what we thought would be a contest for party chair and vice-chair was in Congressman Bob Brady’s memorable words “taken care of.” Before the members could vote, several candidates dropped out and a consensus team emerged.

I would like to have heard their competing visions for future of the Democratic Party and their strategies for November, but it looks like that kind of debate doesn’t take place in open meetings.

Pennsylvania State Democratic Committee sure doesn’t operate like the 9th ward! My hope is that a strong progressive caucus will emerge and there will be change. We’ll see.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Is the future of feminism Meg Whitman, Carly Fiorina and Sarah Palin ? Or is it Hilda Solis, Mary Kay Henry, and the Coalition of Labor Union Women?

Last week I read article after article about the rise of Republican women, sometimes framed as a triumph for feminism. According to this storyline, the feminist message is now so mainstream that even Republican women embrace women’s empowerment.

I had an experience last week, the annual awards event of the Philadelphia chapter of the Coalition of Labor Union Women (CLUW), which convinced me that the future of feminism lies in a very different direction.

I was honored to receive an award (for my service as past president of Philadelphia NOW) in the company of women who have done so much to improve the lives of women who have not been the primary beneficiaries of the feminist movement, working-class and low-income women, who are disproportionately women of color.

The extraordinary successes of the feminist movement have not been shared equally. Women with economic/educational advantages have advanced in the professions, business, and politics. Of course there is still a glass ceiling in American life, but as Hillary Clinton famously said, “there are now 18,000,000 cracks in the glass ceiling.”

The cultural change has been so pervasive that many affluent white men have been willing to make room for their daughters--the same men who have fought economic policies which would provide opportunities and a robust safety net for the majority of women.

And it’s not just the men of corporate America who block measures that would improve the lives of the majority of women and who demonize low-income women. Whatever you want to call their brand of female power, Republican women like Whitman, Fiorina and Palin clearly do not embrace the feminist goal of equality for all women. From Joan Walsh’s recent Salon article:

I was disgusted by a horrific Whitman anti-welfare ad that was straight out of Ronald Reagan's 1966 campaign. It was demagoguery: She promised to make welfare recipients seek and take jobs – as though California never passed its own historic welfare reform legislation, doing just that, way back in 1986. It was repellent to listen to her demonize welfare recipients, the vast majority of whom are women and children, at a time when California is already slashing services.

This is sure not my kind of feminism! The definition of feminism has always been contested terrain, and now that even Sarah Palin calls herself a feminist, confusion reigns.

Right wing feminists have argued that however society is structured, women should be equally represented in positions of power. A much more inclusive definition of the feminist project demands equal opportunity for all women and a robust safety net available to all women. We’re not going to get that with Republican women at the helm.

That said, I acknowledge that having women like Whitman and Fiorina in positions of power does normalize the idea of women holding top jobs-–in that sense, it’s a positive.

Much has been made of the fact that two women, Barbara Boxer and Carly Fiorina, will be competing against each other to be senator from California. Something potentially far more significant got very little attention: two women, Mary Kay Henry and Anna Burger, were the contenders for the presidency if one of the countries largest labor unions, Service Employees international Union (SEIU).

Mary Kay Henry, Newly Elected President of Service Employees International Union

This is not your father’s labor movement. SEIU represents the fastest growing sector of the labor movement and its members are increasingly women, particularly women of color.

Also, we now have a real friend of working women, Hilda Solis, heading the Department of labor:

Granted, the labor movement is far from perfect and I certainly had my problems with the teachers’ union which represented me, but the rise of women in the labor movement may have far more significance for the lives of most American women than the political victories of Republican women like Whitman and Fiorina.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Machu Picchu exceeded even my high expectations: The Peru Diaries, Part IV

Finally we got to Machu Picchu and it exceeded even my high expectations—more beautiful, more awe-inspiring than I expected and certainly the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen.

By luck (rather than design) we were visiting at the very best time of the year; mid April is the end of the rainy season (or the very beginning of the dry season.) At this time of the year, there’s a good chance of sunshine, and Machu Picchu is covered with lush, gloriously green vegetation. If we had gone in March, as originally scheduled, we would have had the lushness but it would have been gray and drizzling. If we had gone in the summer, we would have been virtually guaranteed sunshine but the landscape would be brown.

On our first day we had brilliant sunshine. Rick was still having problems with altitude and vertigo so he wasn’t able to do the 3-hour tour of Machu Picchu. He insisted I go without him. He wandered around on the lower level and took in the spectacular site and glorious weather.

I managed the tour but was in excruciating pain the whole time. Because I’m not used to doing so much walking, and also because of the lingering effects of a really bad accident decades ago, I developed seriously painful corns and calluses on my left foot. I was determined not to let this get in the way of seeing Machu Picchu.

There seems to be something about major archaeological sites which (for me) brings on an attack of corns. Years ago Rick and I were at Pompeii and I had equally horrendous corms on my left foot—-the foot that was smashed when I was hit by a motorcyclist in 1984.

I was enthralled by Pompeii and determined to see everything despite the fact that my left foot felt like it was on fire. Somehow I managed to do it. Both Machu Picchu and Pompeii were worth the suffering!

The next day was rainy and foggy and we passed up the hike in the rain and hung out at Machu Picchu Sanctuary Lodge while most of the other people in the group went hiking. Rick was still having an altitude reaction and I really needed to give my flaming foot a rest. I enjoyed seeing Machu Picchu enshrouded in mist—-a very different kind of beauty than that of the previous day.

The rest of the day was spent on the trek back to Cusco. I observed a fascinating change in the behavior of my fellow tourists. On the way to Machu Picchu, the tourists were stunned by the beauty of the region. Those unfortunate enough to have seats on the wrong side of the train were standing in the aisles straining to get a glimpse of the astonishingly vertical mountains--unlike anything else I’d ever seen. They reminded me of the mountain scenes I’ve seen on Chinese scrolls.

On the way back—-just one day later--the tourists’ responses were very different. No one was looking out the window. They were chatting, reading, writing postcards, napping. How quickly we adjust; the magnificent scenery had become a backdrop.

To appreciate the architectural and engineering genius of the Incas you need to see more than the marvels of Machu Picchu. What astonished us was how the system of roads, fortresses, and agricultural terraces covered such an extensive area. The Incas terraced an entire region—-managing to turn inhospitable mountain terrain into rich agricultural land.

The bottom line on tours to Machu Picchu: although it would have been difficult to make the arrangements on our own, we could have done it. And there are all kinds of 2-3 day trips which can be booked in Cusco. It’s not necessary to book a whole Peru trip just to get help with arrangements to Machu Picchu. In retrospect, it’s what I wish we had done.

And if you are getting a hotel package, do some research on the hotel and get a guarantee that the hotel advertised is the hotel the group will actually use. Hotels are a challenge at Aguas Calientes, the hideously ugly town where tourists stay unless they can afford the $800.00 a night accommodation at Machu Picchu Sanctuary Lodge.

Our tour company changed the hotel they had originally said they were going to book. I suspect the reason was that hotels are now charging more to make up some of what they lost when Machu Picchu was closed. Rather than eat into their profit margin, the tour company decided to downscale significantly, and put us into the hotel from hell. Given that the company advertises that its hotels are all 4 star, this was an inexcusable bait and switch. The tiny rooms were big enough for 2 small beds and nothing else. Rick and I were among the lucky ones—-our third floor walk-up had a window. Several members of our group had rooms without windows, no hot water, shower doors that did not open, shower doors which fell off. There was no excuse for a hotel like this.

So by all means go to Machu Picchu; but if possible don’t wait until you’re 65, and do careful research if you’re thinking about group tours.