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August 28, 2004

Deer, donkeys, and asses

(Note: this entry posted by Bob Harris)

The trip continues. As always, I've squeezed in more to do and see (except sleep and actually write anything) than any sane person would, resulting in a million notes and little analysis, even more so than on the round-the-world thing. Still, some stuff I gotta share, even if completely out of context, just for coolness and I hope your vicarious enjoyment. Top of the head...

Coolest thing to do on a lark: head up to Olympia, find the original stone starting line, and sprint 200 meters in 95-degree heat in street clothes with nobody around, giggling like a little kid. Also a stupid thing to do, in retrospect. But fun... still, if I start acting like I'm having insights here, remember, it could just be the fried brain cells talking.

I'm writing this from the island of Rhodes, now a part of , located just off the Turkish coast in the southeastern end of the Aegean. That's Rhodes as in The Colossus Of, which used to be about 200 yards from where I'm sitting, at the entrance to the harbor.

Backstory: Alexander the Great's conquering army eventually got tired, sick, and partly dead while walking home from India (and really, have you ever walked home from India?), and even Ali G. himself died in Babylon. Soon, his successors had a big hassle over who got which piece of the known world.

The folks in Rhodes sided with Ptolemy. This made one of his rivals, Antigonus, severely antagonized. So he sent an army to invade Rhodes and kill everybody here, but the plucky Rhodians survived long enough for Ptolemy to send in the cavalry (sort of -- actually, it was a naval fleet, this being an island and all).

Thrilled to be not dead, the Rhodians decided to build a statue to Helios, the sun god and their main guy, using leftover war crap conveniently left behind by the retreating army. This is my favorite bit of recycling in history.

So up went Helios, probably wearing a spiked crown and holding a torch, and about the same size as our modern Statue of Liberty. So mentally stick one of those here, and you've got most of the picture.

(Common portrayals of Helios standing astride the harbor, with ships suggestively passing just under his groin, are fun to look at but thoroughly insane, by the way. Standing right here, you can see that construction would have blocked the harbor -- and thus the island's entire economy -- for years. The Rhodians were ancient, not stupid. No, most historians agree that the statue was just pretty much the standard Greek guy-standing-there deal, albeit a really big one.)

The Colossus stood for 56 years, then fell in an earthquake, leaving pieces of Helios strewn about in the water -- shinbone here, thumb sticking out over there -- for the next thousand years. (This is a good time to mentally reference Charlton Heston at the end of Planet Of The Apes.)

Finally, some Arab invaders grabbed the metal for scrap. More recycling.

Which means this particular wonder was fascinating trash about 20 times longer than it was anything useful. This seems the standard life cycle for products of hubris.

The spot is now marked with twin pedestals bearing not-so-colossal deer, which are the modern emblem of the island. As a lifelong fan of various relatively tiny adorable ungulates, this makes me extremely happy.

Nearby, you find the walled city built by the Knights of St. John, an order of monastic warriors who ruled this joint for a while, in between various bursts of Persians, Greeks, Arabs, and assorted Turks. (Incidentally, the order's modern version has reportedly counted among its members, if memory serves, William Casey, Allen Dulles, and Augusto Pinochet. I mention this for no reason other than it's fun to have in your head, and you might just grow a tinfoil hat.)

Inside the walled city, you find the Mosque of Suleiman the Magnificent, medieval architecture in unparalleled condition, and maybe a hundred kiosks selling modern disposable tourist crap of the first order.

There's also a cool vertical rectangle that took me a full minute to study before I finally realized it was a sundial with Arabic markings. Neat.

What to make of all this, other than glee?

It's one thing to read it all in books, but being here I'm getting a much more profound sense of just how many grand civilizations before our own have thrived briefly, fallen, and been completely forgotten, even though they were completely certain that their gods were real, their customs were the highest evolution of human development, and their future was necessary for the very destiny of life on earth.

Now we barely even remember their names.

Of course, this time it's different...

We've got a whole planet in serious trouble from global warming, well-armed religious fanaticism, WMD proliferation into countries which, unlike Iraq, actually have them, and a dozen other things of unprecedented scale. And every great civilization which didn't actively address its problems has fallen as surely as Helios.

I turned on CNN in my hotel today, the first time I've seen it on the trip. They said absolutely nothing of any importance, really urgently, for about ten minutes.

Man, if there's one thing I'm learning: human beings are really good at simply "solving" their problems by killing each other with complete certainty that it's the will of God, using us in a divine struggle to project our own egos onto the world, against all evidence in the whole of human experience.

It's actually funny, the whole pageant, when you look at it on a time line. What a bunch of maroons we are.

Which is a lot more fun than I'm making it sound. Honest.

One other thing I've learned:

If you get to the island of Hydra, when the old woman standing at the dock offers you a donkey, don't say no. Give her some money, finally figure out how to ride a donkey about halfway up the hill, and enjoy the view.

Headed to Turkey next. I'm gonna have to start writing books about all this stuff I'm seeing. Didn't even touch my notes, which are huge, and the pictures are beyond wild. Gotta find a publisher one of these days...

Site notes

Apparently some of you missed this when I mentioned it last week, but yes, it is true, many parts of the site are currently inaccessible. Had some trouble with bandwidth leeching this month. That problem has been resolved, but I needed to keep bandwidth down. Will try to find time to get everything back up and running once we're into September.

Stolen honor

An anti-Kerry journalist apparently once let the Moonies vet his work. Details here.

Dogs and ponies

Forget the journalists. Bloggers can best be compared to what I once heard Garry Trudeau refer to as "opinionists"--a category which encompasses everyone from Trudeau (and myself) to Robert Novak. And opinionsts of every stripe can be found at the conventions of either party. No one denies Novak a credential to the Democratic convention because he is a right winger. And if I didn't have some family stuff keeping me close to home next week, I could most likely have scrounged up some credentials for the Republican convention (though as an "opinionist"--not as a blogger). Lord knows Trudeau could, easily.

When bloggers can get credentialed for either convention, or any other damn thing, regardless of their personal ideologies, then blogging will have grown up. Until then, getting credentialed as a blogger is about as impressive as getting credentialed for the Weekly Reader.

* * *

(A small note: Though I do have obligations next week which mostly preclude any blogging from New York, I have some interesting stuff lined up the week after. Stay tuned.)

--------------------

August 23, 2004

Aristophanes, Beach Volleyball, and a brief evening of Kiwiness

(Note: this entry posted by Bob Harris)

Your Olympic update for Monday morning...

I could write volumes about what I'm seeing. Athens, by itself, has inspired much of the collected wisdom of humankind. And then staple on the Olympics, where people from all over the world gather to celebrate a) the human spirit b) beer and c) each other... and this is one hell of a fascinating trip.

Most interesting at the moment, shared with fellow liberals who read this thing, just in case it's of personal use:

I've written before of the relative boorishness of Americans abroad, which has been a sadly frequent experience whenever I've traveled -- so much so that I've genuinely wondered if I've let my dislike of jingoism and reactionary politics, intensified by seeing it from my countrymen, cause a deep-seated prejudice, even an anti-Americanism welling inside me. And maybe I've only been seeing what I expected to see.

As a lefty, you get accused of these things often enough that you start to wonder.

Interesting, then, that I've had such a different experience here. In fact, almost every American I've met has been lovely. Whether it was Jessie, the triathlete I met at the Temple of Zeus, or Richard, the baseball fanatic who helped me find Heinrich Schliemann's grave (long story for another time), or a dozen others... I've been pleased as hell with these people. Proud to share a flag with them, honest to God.

Which is good news and bad. Bad, because it also means that what I've seen before wasn't just what I wanted to see, or I couldn't see what I'm seeing now. And good, since it does remind me of my love for America, because damn if meeting people I'm proud of didn't make my heart swell.

Of course, that doesn't mean we're all showing a good face to the world here.

Yesterday I wore a T-shirt from New Zealand. I like it because it's black, and so I look a little less round in it. Now, only an idiot would bring a black shirt into 95-degree weather. Unless that idiot was also rather vain. So, the shirt's here. Yesterday I wore it. And it says, sure enough, "New Zealand."

Last night, I had my first chance to visit the main Olympic Center, where maybe half of the events are held in a complex of about half a dozen major venues. Incidentally, while the facilities are all working, the landscaping simply doesn't exist yet. In the daylight, the place has the dusty feel of a new housing tract 90 minutes north of L.A. I kept expecting to be shown a model home. Although rest assured, it should all be really beautiful when the Games start in 2005.

Oh, wait.

So after watching two games of women's water polo -- which, incidentally, seems to revolve around kicking other people underwater, and also throwing a ball occasionally as something of a side activity -- I retired to a large open area near the main stadium, where a big jumbotron showed a steady real-time unedited feed of events around the city. From this vantage point I enjoyed the desert sunset, watched the entire facility transform itself into a spectacularly well-designed palace of light, and ate greasy crap in two languages.

Joining me in these noble endeavors were hundreds of people from all over the world, identifiable by their clothing. Imagine the United Nations as outdoor sports bar. To my right, Hungarians. To my left, Frenchmen. Ahead of me, batches of Russians and Germans and Swedes. Behind me, Mexicans and Brits. And this was just in the thirty feet nearby. The area is the size of a football field.

And since I was wearing the only clean shirt I had... I became a New Zealander for the night. Not intentionally, and I didn't mislead anyone. But if I kept my mouth shut, that's what I was.

I should mention that I've heard Americans booed frequently here. Again, I have no idea if that's in the media coverage back home. And it's not constant, or even the most prominent thing you hear -- more a dark humming undertone present during the introductions of Americans, underneath the standard courteous applause. But I'm hearing it for Americans, and I'm hearing it a lot. (Although I am hearing a notably quieter degree of cheering for any Turkish athlete. I suppose 400 years of occupation has that effect.)

So last night, during one of the 100-meter dash semi-finals, two Americans took the lead, then coasted the last few meters, turning and seemingly even talking to each other before the finish.

I don't know how this played back in the States. I do know how it played in the Olympic Center.

I also now know what people from many nations will say in front of someone they presume to be a New Zealander. That little gesture of cockiness from those sprinters set off remarks from more than a few of the people around me, about more than just a race. Nothing loud. Nothing in-your-face. But you can guess the rest.

What was startling, I guess, was how matter of fact it all was. "Of course the Americans are assholes" was very much the gist.

Sigh.

This administration has truly created (or at best exacerbated) a global perception of Americans as bullies and braggarts.

And I say that for exactly one reason: because it is true.

I guess there's a new slogan for Kerry: So The World Will Stop Booing.

Sigh again.

UPDATE: Just got back from tonight's track'n'field dance party. Didn't hear any booing of Americans at all. Matter of fact, the cheer for the 100m sprint champ was full and hearty. Just thought I should add. Still, it was present in the low background at the first two events I attended, the archery team final and women's beach volleyball. But tonight the worst I heard was a remarkable degree of not-much-cheering when the Americans swept an event. The U.S. victory lap received noticeably less enthusiasm than that given to various discus throwers, triple-jumpers, and decathletes all night long.

And then there was the magnificent show of love given to an injured distance runner from Ireland who was lapped by almost the entire field and labored alone for nearly two minutes to finally cross the finish line.

We weren't just cheering. Many of us were standing. And when it was my turn to help cheer her as she struggled along the back stretch, I noticed my eyes had filled with tears. So had Leslie's. And almost everyone else's.

Just for a moment there, it felt like all of humanity had a good and decent soul. We need more moments like that.

Speaking of NBC, my friend Leslie and I were wandering from the stadium to the metro at what would have been moments before 4 pm EST and realized we were walking right toward the NBC set-up. And so if you were watching and thought you saw a vaguely familar face standing among the flag-wavers behind Lester Holt, holding a camera, enjoying the weirdness of filming himself being filmed, and mouthing along the words from Lester's teleprompter over his shoulder, slightly ahead (I think) of Lester... yup. (Actually, I doubt with all my heart and soul that this was visible. But I couldn't resist. Moth. Flame. Whuf.)

One last thing... I'm writing from Syntagma Square in the center of town. It's filled with people, even at 1 am, which it is, and I add: oh crap I need to sleep. But anyhow, a lot of folks are wearing flag-clothes, as described above. And an odd moment just now, coming out of the Metro: I ran into a guy wearing full-on Iraq.

Awkward little surprise. What words would I say to him? What would he say to me? I slowed, debating how best to say hello. But he was busy talking with a German, and about five seconds later Leslie was hit on by a swarthy guy with fancy clothes and an agenda -- either seduction or possibly a time-share condo -- and we were soon walking away before there was any chance to talk.

I'm gonna keep my eyes open, though. Very interested in that conversation.

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