Monday, February 24, 2014

Dear Miami, I'm Breaking up with You

"Dear Miami, this is tough for me but...I uh, gotta break up with you. Now-now wait a minute...don't get upset. It's not you, it's me....well...really, it's mostly you."

!KA-POW! - to the back of my head and a quick !BITCH-SLAP! to my right cheek.

"I'm sorry, I don't hate you or anything I just can't live with you anymore." 

One more !SLAP! to my other cheek.

"Okay let me explain..."

After living my entire life as a proud Miamian, I have grown to realize how things have obviously changed in this young-girl of a city. Rampant development, a lot of it positive and much needed improvements to what was always just a seasonal destination. Locals in the service industry used to have to wait for "season" to make any real money because the rest of the year it was pretty much dead and summer being the worst time of the year, it would become a veritable ghost town. Season would usually descend upon our playground city as soon as it would cool down and the snowbirds landed, sometime after Halloween and run until about April. Now, "season" has pretty much spread to most of the other parts of the year even the traditional summer drop in business is no longer noticeable.

I refuse to join the ranks of the mass of "Miami-haters" scattered around the globe and that bad-talk Miami for so many reasons but as a Miamian, I have slowly realized that something has changed with our magic city in the process of her being a big girl. 
I wil always be grateful to Miami. She has nurtured me in her bodacious bosom and I've had too many remarkably fun and hedonistic moments that my brain can remember. She has opened my mind with her eccentricities, feeding my addiction to her nightlife. 

When you compare 100 year old (about) Miami with other cities that have centuries more years under their belts, she doesn't compare with the diversity, depth and sophistication of the grande dame cities like San Francisco, New York and Chicago. They hold the allure and inspire as say, a Marilyn Monroe or Brigitte Bardot kind of lady.

Miami is like the girl that just turned 18 and just learned how to wear makeup and walk in heels, showing off her hot new body. The minute she gets into the club with her fake ID, she has a magnetism about her that grabs everyone's attention. All the guys want to sleep with her but that's as far as it goes. That is all she has to offer, for the moment, after all she is only 18.

After years of hearing, "That's so Miami" and wondering what these people really meant, I eventually discovered it wasn't a compliment. The top criticisms of Miami I have collected over the last couple of years (from locals and non-locals) have been: 

"Well, you know Miami people are not that educated and things go slower there." 

"People in Miami don't know how to carry conversation. They only keep it on the surface." 

"If you aren't attractive, you are ignored." 

"That place is super fake and the people are flaky."

"Welcome to Miami, a sunny place with shady people."

"People in Miami are too pretentious for no reason."

"When people from Miami come in to our restaurant in New York, we always seat them in the back because they are loud and obnoxious."

Yeah I know, it hurts to hear it. All this time I thought I was pretty cool to be in such a down to earth city where the world comes to party and the people really tell it like it is. The overly expressive latin mentality gives us permission to be brutally honest, so much so that there a lot of people who are just, well Dicks. 

But aside from that, when you compare Miami to all the other cities, it is the most colorful, esthetically appealing, fun and has the best weather this side of Los Angeles. Yeah, all those things count and that puts her at the top for destination cities, gaining her ranking alongside New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. The problem is not with our city, mother nature made her just right. It is a virtual paradise almost every day of the year, it's a very comfortable life. You can survive with less here than other big cities. The problem is with her "people". 

Miami has evolved into a type of new Havana where the locals with their wits about them and ability to leave, all emigrate out as soon as they can. Why do they leave? They are looking for more affordable housing, better paying jobs, a more progressive, calm lifestyle that isn't as "crazy" or stressful and after your 30's if you aren't partnered up, it can get boring. 

The ones that migrate to Miami are looking for exactly that. They want color, craziness. They want to sow their oats, and sip on the sexy, spicy, latino gazpacho under a beach umbrella with a hot ocean breeze caressing their faces. 

The problem is when a city caters to that type of tourism or residents, it changes the dynamic of the city and the locals are left feeling like the city has turned into a place not of their making. Miami is a city that never slows down and is addicted to hedonism 12 months out of the year. There never seems to be a time to slow down and reflect. Miami doesn't afford time to it's residents for respite. There is always a festival or event to rush to get ready for. 

While i'm not absolutely sure when the disconnect that exists today first occurred or what changed the air here but I do have a theory. It happened some time between the release of Will Smith's cheesy "Welcome to Miami" video and when someone dropped a hot, steamy dump inside the fitting room of the Kardashian's Dash store on their equally shitty show; The Kardashians Take Miami. It was those two events that sealed our fate and when the subterranean, asshole magnet was turned on. 

From that point on, the "asswhole invasion" began. Douchebags from around the world started to come in droves driving their douchey sport cars, yachts and private jets and with their trophy wives or mistresses in tow.

Developers started building overpriced, high-rise condos that no local salary could afford and baptizing them with egomaniacal names like; Quantum, Icon or Epic that could easily double as names for a condom brand. 

As a result of this "asshole invasion" the people that weren't assholes ended up acting like them so they wouldn't feel left out of this apparent, new normal. This is what I like to call "AAD" or Asshole Affective Disorder. As a result, of the mass AAD epidemic with South Beach at it's epicenter, the rest of Miami has seen it's good people turn into zombies walking around as if they were on a never ending fashion show catwalk with their blue-steel gazes and nonchalant, poker faces acting as if their milk shake is better than anyone else's. 

If you attempt to break rank and connect eyes or dare to greet one of these zombies with what is normal in other cities, with a simple "Hi", you will be guaranteed a quick roll of the eyes or a turn away as if you were a paparazzi trying to take their picture. 

I know it sounds like an exaggeration but the next time you are in Miami, give it a try. 

Is Miami really the coolest place to live as it's sold to be? The only way to answer is to go to other cities and really look at how people treat each other and what the vibe of a place is. 

After feeling like my home was no longer home, and no longer blaming myself for the alienation I was feeling, I decided to believe the old adage; when things no longer go right, it's time to go left. I made the painful decision to break with my hometown to shift gears, exchanging the partying life of molly for an earthy-crunchy, granola, zen existence on the "other coast" in the more gracefully matured city of San Francisco. 

After all, it is in my genes to migrate to find a better place. My parents emigrated to Miami escaping Cuban communism to get a piece of the American pie. I am blessed with a less painful option to emigrate and try another city inside this diverse and still beautiful country. We enjoy the freedom to explore other cities, to burst out of one bubble and plug into another. Sometimes home isn't where you are born but where best suits you at any given time.

"Now Miami, I ain't hating, i'm just telling you, if you're gonna play with the big boys, you're gonna have to be able to take some constructive criticism to be a real, big city one day. Don't hate me for this but it's adios for now, I hope you'll miss me when i'm gone. 

I'll probably fall back in love with you and chase you down one day, after you get over this weird, growing phase thing. For now, I am fulfilled with the eyes of kinder, warmer strangers greeting me with good mornings and hello's. Instead of an eternal tan, I enjoy basking in a softer sun and the crispy-cool pacific breeze of "fog city". 

My only hope is that in your rush to get noticed and become a big girl, you don't forget what makes a city great is not only it's great clubs, buildings or infrastructure but it's charm, sense of peace and humanity. 

Without that, you'll just keep attracting the wrong kind of people into your life."

*Tips on how to avoid and clear infection from Miami's AAD.

*A recent New Times profile of Miami's socially conscious change makers. They are the finest examples of the resistance to the invasion. It's people like these that just might save her.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Interview with Egypt's Zahi Hawass - The Once and Future Egypt

The Egypt of today is a surreal dichotomy.  It’s once profoundly rich and powerful civilization led by virile pharaohs contrasts mightily with the economic and political- breakdown of the leaderless Egypt of today.  

Today, Egypt’s unemployment is at over 13% (locals say it’s much higher) and where much of the population live at 3rd world poverty level, save for tiny pockets of lux havens for the elite few in Cairo, Alexandria, Hurghada and Sharm El Sheikh. Income inequality and corruption is equal, if not worse than in most other third world countries across the globe.

On our way to visit the pyramids at Giza, kids suddenly surround the taxi driving us down the old Pyramids Road no more than 13 years of age, tapping on the car’s windows in an attempt to get money or “baksheesh” from us. Our driver exclaims apologetically, “They are starving!” in a spurt of honesty that was so heart felt, it rang in my ears, creating an instant empathy for their condition. Being Cuban and having visited my country several times, parallels were instantly drawn in my mind of how far a failed government can drag down it’s own people, forcing them to be capable of anything in an effort to survive.

Even though Egypt’s people are in dire need, the country is very safe to visit. Tourists are always treated with kindness and appreciation. It’s an unspoken rule to treat tourist’s well but every now and then you will get a character that won’t take “no, thank you” for an answer and a “baksheesh” of about 10 Egyptian pounds ($1.44 US) usually satisfies them. Egypt’s economy is heavily reliant on tourism and the revolution has taken a toll on the tourism industry, which has slowed down since 2011 to a complete halt.

However, since the revolution erupted in 2011, tourism has come to a virtual standstill, and it would not be an exaggeration to say that at many of the sites we visited, we were the only American tourists around. Whenever we were asked the mandatory question: “Where are you from?” our response was always greeted with “Ah, America…good people!” Thankfully, Tourism Minister Hisham Zaazou, announced on Oct 2, that 13 countries have now lifted travel bans to Egypt. The latest two countries, Austria and Ireland, lifted bans to holiday destinations in the Red Sea and South Sinai more recently.

I am visiting Egypt to interview the recently removed Dr. Zahi Hawass from his beloved post as Secretary General of the SCA (Supreme Council of Antiquities). Mr. Hawass agreed to the interview since the request came from his longtime friend and trusted gal-pal, Mary Lomando, whom he met in Cairo over 20 years ago while she was completing her degree as an Egyptologist in Cairo. Mary is a seasoned tour leader and owner of Pacha Terra Travel. Zahi has learned to be discerning with regards to whom he will grant interviews these days, and for good reason. He has grown weary of being maligned by the media and his fellow countrymen due to his past cabinet ministry appointment by deposed President, Hosni Mubarak.

The people of Egypt found Zahi an easy target, and he inevitably became a scapegoat for their frustration with anything to do with Mubarak’s regime. Even though all the trumped up charges of corruption against Hawass have since been dropped due to lack of evidence to support the claims, some still try to malign his good work. Love him, or hate him, Dr. Hawass has done more for restoring the sites of Egypt, preserving its antiquities and announcing new discoveries than any other archaeologist in recent history.

In Zahi’s words, “If anyone were to ask what my religion was, I would answer my religion is to train other archaeologists to be better archaeologists than I was!” He has written or co-written over 60 books on Egyptian archaeology, chock full of new insights and discoveries recently documented. These books have been published worldwide, and his wish of training archaeologists to be better than him has already come to fruition. Many people don’t even know he started off as a teacher. Before he became an inspector for the SCA, Mr. Hawass taught Egyptian archaeology, history and culture at the American University in Cairo and the University of California, Los Angeles in 1988. Through his books and his public speaking events, he has educated and informed armies of closet archaeologists and archaeologists in training alike to appreciate humanity’s fascinating past, reinforcing the notion that it is not about the gold but more the treasure of the information gleaned from these artifacts that tell the “story of us”.

Zahi’s top projects completed during his tenure as Minister:

*Starting 24 new museums across the country. Of the 24, six have been completed. The rest are still under construction.
*The complete restoration of the Serapeum and reinforcing the Step pyramid at Saqqara.
*SETI I tomb- tunnel excavation.
*Renovation of the conservation lab at the Egyptian Museum.
*Stabilization of the stepped pyramid at Saqqara.
*Luxor Museum extension.
*Restoration of the Sphinx and enclosure.

The Archaeological sites of Egypt are unbelievably empty of tourists where they were almost always full with rows of buses. These monuments that symbolize the patrimony of humanity’s greatest achievements are barely guarded and in some sites, no guards at all. They are in a shamefully neglected condition, littered with animal dung, graffiti and trash. In contrast, the ancient sites at Luxor are all still well maintained. It seems as if there is more national pride for these sites there. The wave of Islamic extremist incidents throughout the country, fueled by the Muslim Brotherhood haven’t helped matters either. There have even been recent threats by one cleric to dismantle the Pyramids and ancient temples as Islamic fundamentalism isn’t friendly at all to secular archaeology, which highlights the accomplishments of another belief system, even though it is no longer worshipped by Egyptians today. The current Minister of the SCA- Mohamed Abdel Fattah, was appointed by recently ousted President Morsi, so it remains to be seen if he will protect and restore Egypt’s heritage as fervently as Dr. Hawass.

This is the sad state of an Egypt stuck in the grips of a slow-boil revolution. The reports of looting have leaked out from independent sources but there isn’t much actual data or an official account yet of what has gone missing. Egypt’s National Museum in Malawi, was looted and vandalized in August of this year by local Muslim extremists and many artifacts, even wooden sarcophagi were hacked to pieces with axes. A public auction of 126 recently looted antiquities was stopped in Jerusalem, so there is evidence that many antiquities are being smuggled out through Egypt’s porous borders.

 Mary and I visited Saqqara and the Abu Sir pyramids area the day before meeting with Dr. Hawass and reported to him that the replica, full-size statue of King Djoser sitting inside his serdab enclosure was moved out of line in a failed looting attempt. Most looters are not educated enough to know it is a replica. The representation for the ancient king now sits in wait, no longer aligned and blocked from his line of sight to the stars.


Sarah Parcak, a space archaeologist has used satellite imagery to calculate the extent of the looting epidemic since the revolution and she estimates it has increased 500%.

* Has the situation with looting since the revolution, been secured?

Zahi - “The current situation is a disaster for Egypt and particularly in Abu Sir there are illegal excavations everywhere!” The holes that Sarah Parcak is talking about are what looters leave behind and are not always accurate indicators of looting. These looters dig hundreds of exploratory holes and are mostly failed attempts. They dig for two things; gold and the myth of the healing red mercury that supposedly exists in the throats of the mummies, which sometimes fetch high prices on the medicinal black market. There is no such liquid. I have never seen it. It doesn’t exist!”

Zahi is one of the few things about Egypt that wasn’t broken. Since he was removed from his enamored post, the country has revolted again and removed another leader deemed useless to improve the country’s paralysis. Zahi sees himself not as a media personality but as a guardian of Egypt’s rich heritage. So much so, his older, original website was At the start of the revolution in January 2011, Zahi took a big risk by forming a human chain with other Egyptians in the streets in front of the Egyptian Museum in Cairo to prevent protesters from storming the museum. This brave act was not reported by any media source.

While in his post he was responsible for the repatriation of over 5000 artifacts from museums all over the world. The New York Metropolitan Museum cooperated with Zahi in returning 19 artifacts from King Tut’s tomb. His controversial move to block France from digging at Saqqara for the first time in history until the Louvre returned the five fragments of the Tetiky frescoes stolen from the West Bank in Luxor was his boldest move. “A bomb dropped at the Louvre when I stopped the French from digging at Saqqara,” His bravado worked and all the frescoes were returned.

* We watched a documentary on our flight here on an Air France plane and it was reporting on your successful negotiations for the return of the Tetiky frescoes and the Ramses mummy. Is there any progress or updates to your efforts to have Egyptian artifacts returned to their homeland, such as the famed bust of Nefertiti or the Dendera zodiac?

Zahi – “There is no progress after years of stalled negotiations and the new Minister of the SCA has sadly and unbelievably publicly declared he does not want Nefertiti returned to Egypt!”

* What are the top most important artifacts you feel should be returned to their home in Egypt?

·      Statue of Ramses II in Turin, Italy.
·      Statue of the architect, Hemiunu of the Great Pyramid at the Hildesheim's Pelizaeus Museum.
·      Bust of Prince Ankhhaf at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.
·      Dendera Zodiac from the Louvre.
·      Rosetta stone from the British Museum.
·      Bust of Nefertiti in the Berlin Neues Museum.

*What is the status of the accusations and charges on your contracts with National Geographic and Discovery Channel?

Zahi - “All the charges have been dropped from lack of evidence of wrongdoing. I negotiated those projects based on what best offer of help they would provide for the benefit of Egypt. The National Geographic video was very successful for them and in return, the Egyptian Museum in Cairo received a 3 million dollar CT scan machine that is in use to this day and bringing to light many more insights and discoveries about the Pharaohs and their families. All the funds paid by the Discovery Channel went straight to the Egyptian antiquities department. The Tut exhibit earned 125 million dollars for a new room inside the Grand Egyptian Museum in Giza, now under construction. These contracts were all approved beforehand by the Mubarak regime and were totally transparent.”

Egypt’s mega-project of its new Grand Egyptian Museum in Giza promises to be Egypt’s crown jewel just a mile away from the pyramids. Giza’s skyline is dotted with so many cranes; it looks as if they were constructing a new pyramid. A large sign with red LED numbers in front of the site show a countdown of 622 days. This is a running joke for locals who claim the countdown is in years, not days.

*Do you have any information or updates on the new Cairo museum that was supposed to be completed within the next two years (625 days)?

Zahi – “Construction work is ongoing but very slow, as they need about 700 million dollars to complete the construction of this massive museum. With the current instability, who knows when that will be completed.”

Zahi’s dream to do the work that still needs to be done to complete his vision for the antiquities department has been blocked but that won’t stop him from making new discoveries and continuing to be an Egyptologist. He is resigned to fill his days organizing speaking tours in the US and book signings in Geneva, Poland and London beginning November 5th, to promote his latest book, Discovering Tutankhamen: From Howard Carter to DNA. He is also currently completing another book on the DNA research findings with the royal mummies at the Cairo museum.

*If it were offered to you again, would you want your old job back?

Zahi - “No! Not in the current state Egypt is in. If there is no stability and Egypt is not brought back to a normal working condition, I would be useless and unable to perform my job well!”

Zahi’s passion seems to rest not in carrying a title but in being able to effect change and fulfill his personal mission as a guardian of Egypt’s heritage.

*What are the discoveries you'd like to make or witness on your bucket list? Has the departure from your post diminished your desire to uncover more history changing discoveries?

He replies, without missing a beat, rattling off all the discoveries he would like to still make.

Zahi - “The tomb of Nefertiti, the tomb of the great Imhotep and finally find the answer to what is behind Gantenbrink’s door inside the Great Pyramid. I believe Imhotep may be buried in an unexcavated area on the west side of the Step Pyramid at Saqqara. They have already found a 2nd dynasty tomb underneath the Step Pyramid. Senenmut, the architect of Queen Hatshepsut at Deir el-Bahari was buried near her mortuary temple there. This leads me to believe that Imhotep mirrored this same act of reverence near King Djoser’s Step Pyramid at Saqqara since he was architect of that pyramid.”

* Any updates on the search for Cleopatra in Alexandria?

Zahi – “Dr. Kathleen Martinez unearthed a marble bust of Cleopatra and 22 coins with her image at a small cemetery inside the Ptolemaic temple at Taposiris Magna in Alexandria, some time ago. Unfortunately, that mystery still remains unsolved after more than 5 years of digging and the excavations at the site are ongoing with Dr. Martinez.”

* Are you opposed to using new technologies to make new discoveries easier? (LIDAR satellite imaging, Ground penetrating radar, etc).

“These technologies are all wonderful but first of all, Egypt is filled with ancient sites, there are sites everywhere! The problem is these new technologies are incompatible with the current state of Egypt today. You find a site and it is reported but then who can we assign to protect it from looting and excavate it properly? There aren’t enough resources for the discovery of so many sites when the existing ones haven’t been properly secured and restored yet. You need a good and stable government for that!”

* Zahi sympathizes with the condition of his country and when asked who he would like to see as next president he replied,

Zahi - “Whoever the people elect, that leader must be very strong and determined to make changes quickly. There are so many people that haven’t worked in three years. The situation is terrible!”

In a country where a smaller-than-America’s-1% are successful and nothing works, Zahi’s effectiveness and public persona was an obvious, yet ironic target for criticism. He essentially gained too much notoriety for doing too much and being too good at his job. Such is the revolutionary mob mentality in a country where so few have and the vast majority has not. If the income inequality gap in America continues to widen at the pace it has since the recession, we might not be too far behind the Egyptian example.

The statue of King Djoser’s sight to the stars being blocked by looters is a sobering metaphor for the people of Egypt who also seem to be currently blocked from seeing their way out of their current predicament. No one we have talked to even knows when the next election will take place. Some say possibly next summer, and others fear a third revolution if it doesn’t happen soon. The potential for peace and a new Egypt is within the country’s grasp, the Egyptians just don’t know how to do it without an effective leader strong enough to right all the wrongs of the past. These are a people that haven’t had a democratically elected president for 5000 years. The process will take time. If they can achieve this is anyone’s guess. In the meantime, the Sphinx and her three brothers stand as timeless sentinels waiting for Egypt’s glory to return.

The published post of this blog can be viewed here on AnthroJournal site