As I wrote for the Fourth, this was not my first national birthday spent abroad. I ended up musing on the status of my home and it may be of little to no interest to you. If, as you read, you decide this is the case, you can skip down to the big, bold, red “Here” which is a funny bit with pictures.
This was the 5th time I’ve spent the 4th of July on foreign soil but the first where I’ve thought maybe it was not such a bad idea. From a distance, we’re not exactly looking our best at the moment. I’m not specifically talking about the president, who the world sees as unstable and unserious, but the fact that we have a country that many seek to emulate if they can’t simply move in, a country with an average standard of living that staggers the imagination of most in the world and a country that dominates the world stage as few others have in human history and, yet, we’re all sort of cranky and bitchy with each other and most of us are insisting that things are terrible. We simultaneously insist, rather arrogantly, that we’re the greatest country on earth and, neurotically, that we’re going to hell in a hand-basket. This leaves many people looking at us from the outside confused and bewildered.
Hey, I tell them, if you think it’s confusing from the outside, you should try to being on the inside. The one thing that most Americans have agreed upon since well before there was any evidence for it is that we are the greatest nation on earth. Ever. Full stop. No debate allowed. But there the agreement ends as there are are approximately one million different reasons put forward as to why we’re the greatest and you can find a sizable minority that will insist that any particular reason put forward is, in fact, evidence that we’re not nearly as great as we think.
Which is, itself, one of the big reasons I put us forward as among the greatest (hey, shoot me, I’ve traveled a bit and read a bit and there are some fantastic countries out there, right now, much less throughout human history) is the way we have dealt with large scale diversity. I’m not arguing we have exactly handled diversity well, we clearly haven’t. And you may well deduce from my writing that that I am a white man. But we’ve handled large diversity better than most. Humans, in my experience, don’t instinctively like diversity in anything. We generally are most comfortable with people like us whether that be in race, gender, creed, or thought. When placed in a heterogeneous group we seek out those most like us. This preference for conformity is so strong that even if you put us in what seems like a completely homogeneous bunch, we’ll poke and prod until differences are uncovered and then, if we’re not careful, we’ll start killing each other over them. It’s not a particularly attractive human trait but it’s hard to deny.
However much the United States has failed its ideals – and that is a lot – we at least have those ideals and have generally striven to achieve them. Or at least make the country better aligned with them than we found it.
Looking in from the outside, I also think we’re confusing because we’re not totally sure who we are anymore. National identity changes periodically – it’s hard to argue that the United States that existed from 1776-1861 bears much resemblance to the country that we are today, for example – and I think we’re at a junction. Where we go from here will take some time to sort out, if we’re allowed it. Or, if a major crisis appears, we could be forced one direction or the other. There is, in fact, dispute among us as to whether 9/11, which took place over 16 years ago, was such a crisis. I’m speaking in vague generalities because I obviously can’t see the future. But it appears that the post war United States is now well and truly gone. In some ways that may be a good thing for us and the world. In other ways, it may well be disastrous. The United States, for good or ill, has been a source of international stability for 75 years. Many of our people cling to that world order and many others are pushing hard to change it. A whole lot of other people clearly want to cherry pick the past. What that split eventually means for us is a political process that should, rightfully, take some time to play out. The worrisome thing to me is that our political attention span is so short that we aren’t really debating big issues. Much of our politics, too much, is dealt with on twitter and facebook and we tend to post before we think and seldom listen to cooler heads. Even our greatest political thinkers, Jefferson, Hamilton, Madison, Lincoln, etc. needed more than 140 characters to lay out their genius.
It doesn’t help that our political leadership seems much more focused on staying in power than leading us anywhere but, really, that isn’t exactly new and is, perhaps, the one unifying thing throughout our entire history and something that ties us to other democracies around the world. So, today, we sort of sit and stew. Sooner or later, we’ll get up and go somewhere. Let us all hope and pray that the path we choose is a good one.
I do think there is a unifying reason that even the most enthusiastic Clinton supporter would agree with the wildest Trump supporter on why the United States is the greatest country on earth: It is home. It is where those we love and who love us are. It is where we learned to be who we are and achieve whatever it is we will achieve. It’s where we can find a delicious meal cooked by people who know our name without any conscious thought. I’ve learned on this trip that home is a powerful force and one that is hard to overcome with statistics or words on paper. Of course, we rarely cite this reason because it is shared by people all over the world. I would expect a Swede to prefer Sweden or a Chilean Chile for the same reason. One of the saddest things I’ve ever experienced, and it is far too common, is talking to people who have had to flee their country; even when it is crystal clear that their country is not great and may, in fact, be trying to kill them. No matter the current state at home, it is their home and a big part of their soul still leans toward and reveres that home. To not feel safe at home may be the worst curse possible.
Anyway, I’m sorry to have missed the fireworks, hot dogs and baseball. I’ll be there next year. I’ll be there in a couple of weeks.
Anyway – did you stick with me through all that? If so, let me examine a specific point in terms of how we’re viewed by outsiders. If not, you didn’t miss much.
When I wrote last about astronomy I mentioned renting a car. I rented the car, Friday afternoon to Sunday morning, for about $50 USD. It was a Suzuki Alto, which I’ve written about before. It’s the kind of car that you can put in neutral and then push around like a lawn mower. For all I know it’s a car body sitting on a lawn mower. But it’s also fantastically efficient. I rented from Chilean Rent-a-Car which is a reputable budget chain. They have nicer cars on their website including some big SUV type vehicles. I’ve yet to see evidence they actually possess these cars. They also aren’t real fussy about how much gas is in the car when you get it. I think you get however much gas was left by the last guy.
In this case, the car was on “2” out of 10. I was not sure how much gas I would need but I guessed more than 2. I was also told, sternly, that I had to bring the car back on “2” or face a penalty. Okay, sure. I gassed up immediately, putting 18,000 pesos in the tank which rendered the tank nearly full. I then drove to Los Nogales Roan-Jase after loading my astronomy gear in the car. A word about that. I have very little, to my way of thinking, astronomy gear here in Chile. And, yet, I had to leave some stuff behind as it wouldn’t all fit in the car. I bet I looked funny driving this tiny thing (I am a large human).
After my all-nighter on Friday, I drove around El Cajon del Maipo for a few hours. I’ve written about trips to Embalse El Yeso here and here. To get to the reservoir, you have to make a left off of Camino El Volcan a few miles past San Alfonso. Well, this time I didn’t turn left and, instead, drove to the end of Camino El Volcan. Okay, the end of paved Camino El Volcan. Unpaved Camino El Volcan climbs into the Andes and to an illegal border crossing with Argentina and is, at this winter date, buried in about eight feet of snow. The Suzuki Alto was not equal to this challenge. I was not equal to this challenge.
After reaching the end of the road, having stopped to take many pictures, I turned back and then made a left to go to the end of Cajon del Maipo. Back on Camino El Volcan, I made a right and went to the end of the Rio Colorado. That’s right, they have a Colorado River, too. And, like the one in the United States, it is dammed all to hell. I passed three different hydroelectric plants in a 20 mile stretch which generates a lot of Santiago’s electricity. There aren’t many pictures of that.
So, below are the pictures from the drive. Like everywhere else I’ve poked into the Andes, it’s otherworldly beautiful.
But, first, I need to finish the story about the rental. I pulled back into the rental agency a little after noon on Sunday. The gas gauge sat on “7”. I had badly miscalculated how much gas I’d need in such an efficient car. I rationalized it as being worth the money not to have to worry about filling the tank but, really, I was irritated with myself.
And then perhaps the most incredible thing to have happened to me in South America happened: THEY REFUNDED ME 12,000 PESOS FOR HAVING MORE GAS THAN I STARTED WITH. I briefly argued with the poor lady because I had, naturally for an American, interpreted it as them charging me for coming back with more gas. It never occurred to me that they’d give me money. She corrected me and finally I understood. They were giving me money.
If you’ve never rented a car in the United States, that probably simply sounds like a fair deal. But, in the USA, rental agencies insist on you returning with a full tank or, generally, they charge you the price for an entire tank and at their arbitrarily inflated price. Elsewhere in the world you’ll certainly be billed for coming back with less fuel in the tank but they’ll charge you only for the missing gas and at the market price. In other words, rental car companies in the United States are explicitly trying to screw you. How must foreigners react when that happens? I bet that doesn’t endear them to us at all.
I have now rented cars in Chile, Argentina, England, Canada, Iceland and the US Virgin Islands. The experience in the USA, US Virgin Islands and Canada is the same: terrible and you must constantly be on your guard against being cheated. In the other countries, it is a very pleasant and fair experience. So, I hate to report that the United States is clearly not the greatest country in which to rent a car. Maybe we’ll never solve health care but would it be too hard to get a fair deal on a rental?
Okay, pictures from my last – really, I mean it this time – trip in El Cajon del Maipo.
Looking toward the end of Camino El Volcan
The pavement ends just by the red roof on the lower right. An unpaved track continues up the snow capped mountain, switchbacking up to the right between the foreground mountain and more distant.
Everywhere in the pre-Cordillera you find places with a burst of color and streaks of various stone.
The village of El Volcan.
An incredible little slot canyon on the Rio Maipo.
I think I have one more quick trip planned. But it only comes off if I finish my grading which, I’m sorry to say, is considerable. If anyone out there is interested in reading some papers, please let me know.