“What I’m hearing, which is sort of scary, is they all want to stay in Texas. Everyone is so overwhelmed by the hospitality. . And so many of the people in the arena here, you know, were underprivileged anyway, so this is working very well for them.”

— Former first lady Barbara Bush about Katrina evacuees housed in the Houston Astrodome (hear the quote)

I recently received the following email from a friend in the States;

Been wondering what you’ve heard about New Orleans. Does the media where you are talk about it all? It’s really outrageous, Nathan. It’s appalling how irresponsible and incompetant our government is. It’s really depressing–the last shred of trust I had in our government has been completely obliterated. It’s pretty clear now that I can’t depend on them for the bare minimum. Yesterday Jessica and I listened to This American Life. Ira Glass was interviewing a woman who had been in the convention center. He almost started to cry, listening to this woman tell about the horrific conditions inside. I certainly cried.

If this doesn’t change the attitude in our country towards George Bush, I really don’t know what will. If the aftermath of Katrina doesn’t make this country realize that extreme poverty and racism still exists in the United States, I don’t know what will.

How does this news meet you?

Today, as well, is September 11th. My oh my.

The answer is that for news on South America I have my news page I set up on my website. I mostly just check that so I didn’t even know about the hurricane till I received an email from a family friend on September 1:

Dear Nathan, I don’t know how much you are hearing or seeing about New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, but it is truly horrible. We were in Santa Cruz without a TV so we didn’t see the pictures until yesterday. People are dying because of lack of medical care. Apparently, there is no communication system. The hospitals are closing because they have no electricity or supplies and our president played golf last Monday. Yesterday he thought he would look at the damage from the air for the first time. They can’t even seem to get water to the people who are walking out of the city on their own. We are very angry. It is a disgrace. I have a friend in one of the hardest hit towns and I cannot reach her.

It was actually confusing to get this email. I was in a small town in Bolivia and I had no idea what she was talking about. I don’t know the spìn in the states but the a Guardian Unlimited article didn’t seem to agree with Mrs. Bush. But this stuff is big news in the foreign press as proved yesterday when I asked about the price of a Harry Potter book at a bookstand and I was approached by a 13 year old Argentinean kid who told me that my president is racist and doesn’t care if black people die. A 13 year old in a book store told me this. I asked him why he thought that and he told me that he thought it because of the hurricane. I told him that it was very sad to go to another country and have to hear that about my president (especially from children). He was very polite about it.



6 replies
  1. dylan
    dylan says:

    Very nice blog and travel writing, Nathan.

    There are a lot of us here in the US who agree with that 13 year old.

    Take care,


  2. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    just wondering… with your travels in S. America and all… how do you think the “disaster relief” would have gone down THERE?

  3. nathan
    nathan says:

    That’s a good question. I haven’t really travelled in too many countries here, and they are all very different. Also I know little or nothing about engineering and such. But I can answer a little for Peru and Bolivia. In South America they don’t have a lot of money or resources. Also many people in Bolivia live daily in conditions that are worse than in American disaster areas. But there we call it culture as in ‘Bolivian Culture’. On a daily level you don’t have AAA to call when your car breaks down. Insurance companies are more likely to simply declare bankruptcy at the most convenient/inconvenient time. On the other hand if you ask for help you receive it. If there’s a car stopped on the highway everyone will stop to ask why, taking the time to help fix the car. When there’s a disaster in the USA there are always heroic stories of neighbours helping neighbours (which is actually one of Bush’s slogans… ironic, no?) but these are everyday occurrences in rural Peru and Bolivia simply because there is often no fire department to call. Even if there were it would take hours to travel from village to village on the terrible roads even in the best of weather. In the rainy season people are often just cut off.

    In Peru and Bolivia there simply aren’t the resources, money or infrastructure to deal with high magnitude disasters. They must rely on international NGOs or international government organizations like the Peace Corps. Yoyo Manrique and I were having a conversation about how everyone believes the Peace Corps, knowingly or unknowingly, work for the CIA. He is an architect and told me of an earthquake that devastated the north of Peru. He and some Peace Corps workers were sent to help out. He was amazed at the ingenuity of one volunteer who figured out how to make a house of PVC pipes and plastic bags that would serve as a shelter for one family. The shelter could be created in 10 minutes. This is just a boring anecdote. I have no idea what they’d do in the case of the hurricane.

    To me the most interesting part of the differing responses to crises is not as much how they are handled (which I really know little about) but the public response to how they are handled. I remember that New York went without electricity for a day. There was a major uproar. It was on the cover of every magazine. At a similar time Baghdad had been without electricity, water, and basic sanitation for about a month. But this was “a small price to pay for their freedom” I was told by some of my students.

    I do not know what the Iraqis felt about the destruction of their most basic infrastructure but I have noticed a difference between the reactions of those who have infrastructure and those who don’t. Those who have infrastructure tend to rightfully expect results from it and blame it if it fails. Those who don’t have infrastructure tend to take accept hardship more readily: there is no easy way, just the hard way. I remember leaving Jarden and Lucy in Pucallpa. Jarden and I were peeing in the open hole of a public urinal in the Pulcallpa plaza (Pucallpa has probably the only plaza in Peru expressly equipped for homeless people). He leaned over to me and asked me if I could possibly loan him 60 cents for the taxi home. I asked him how he was planning on eating that night. “When you have nothing to eat, you don’t eat anything” he replied. He did not have to live this way but he had chosen it so he could fulfil his dream of travelling across his country with his sweetheart. I will never forget his unshrinking acceptance of hardship.

    Americans pay a lot of money to their government and in a time when we have spent a budgeted amount of $280 billion for one year (who knows how much it’s actually going to cost) I could see how people might rightfully ask questions about where the administration’s priorities lie.

    The sickening part about Barbara Bush’s statement is that she might be right and her callousness (or you might say “lack of hospitality”) towards those less fortunate than she is evident in her family’s domestic policy across the board.

    My point with posting about Katrina was that, being abroad during this time, I am surprised that anyone cares at all about what happens in the United States. I certainly know nothing about the natural tragedies that occur every week in the world in which thousands are killed. But many people here know all about it, even the names of the heads of FIMA, etc.

    Thank you for your excellent question and I will try to ask people here what they think would happen here and see if they give me any answers.

  4. nathan
    nathan says:

    and Dylan, thanks for posting!

    Isn’t it freaky? I mean I’d like to say I can’t imagine living in a country where those kind of issues come up but it’s sort of outrageous that my own president, the President of the United States could think that way…


  5. sandra
    sandra says:

    hey nathan, soy sandra de cajamarca-peru. Estuve paseando por tu blog y lei sobre el huracan. Me dio tristeza, en Peru ya no se comenta nada sobre el tema, y lo poco que sé, lo vi en fotos en el internet. Sabes que me dio colera…el hecho de que nosotros, los paises “pobres y subdesarrollados”, actuemos del mismo modo en el que lo hace el gobierno de estados unidos. Esa indeferencia aun, ante las desgracias de otras personas. A lo unico que deberiamos ser indiferentes es a la nacionalidad. espero que entiendas lo que dije aca. Muchos saludos, y suerte en tu viaje. abrazos

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