Thursday, May 25, 2006

The atrium and related thoughts

The atrium of the Renaissance Resort Hotel in Orlando has an imposing presence. It is the central space of the hotel building; the hallways of the ten odd stories of the hotel face the atrium. White-painted metal columns rise from its sparkling floor to the mostly glass ceiling; they end in a series of crisscrossing beams. The glass ceiling allows the sunlight to cast a bright glow on the main space of the atrium, and the conditioned air gives no hint of the humidity outside. There are decorative palms, tall and short, throughout the atrium; there is a waterfall too at one end, and the pleasing sound of water splashing on rocks can be heard from far.

At the center of the atrium is a large birdhouse with glass windows along its sides so that the birds – exotic, with long beaks and unique feathers – incarcerated within can be viewed. The birds are perched on the thin, bare branches of a dramatic-looking tree; they are mostly still but flutter occasionally. Along the circumference of the domed top of the birdhouse are small statues of bearded men, conquistadors possibly, dressed elaborately and holding spears and weapons; the statues alternate with models of ships full of unfurled sails.

The birds, the palm trees, and the waterfall: there is an irony in this attempt to create the impression of a tropical setting. Hotels like the Renaissance Resort are part of entrepreneurial initiatives driven by theme parks and the convention industry of Central Florida; they are part of the effort to recast the landscape and subjugate it to achieve economic ends. But the landscape always manages to make a comeback for we are always enamored of it; we return to it again and again, though in a superficial manner, as in the atrium; we return to it once all conveniences have been established. All that is pristine is desirable but all that is pristine also has to be sanitized.

In the suburban communities of the Phoenix, it is not uncommon to see a saguaro – the tall cactus that in the popular imagination sums up the Arizona terrain – in the front yard of a home. But the solitary saguaro is merely symbolic. For in the ever expanding 26-city Phoenix metropolitan area, where a drive from one end to the other is nearly 100 miles long, where there is talk already of combining Phoenix with the smaller city of Tucson, 90 miles to the south, into one single megapolitan area; in this ever expanding region the desert is constantly being swallowed by new development, the earthmovers are always raking up saguaros, mesquites, palo verdes, and replacing them with smooth pavements and roads, turquoise swimming pools and spacious homes, which in turn spawn their own strip malls and shopping conveniences. And in the midst of all this, the desert plants make their ornamental appearance, along with lush green, heavily watered lawns and golf courses: as incongruous a sight as any.

Monday, May 15, 2006

This Summer on PBS

A Frontline four-part series on AIDS. The preview calls it "The most important scientific and political story of our time". With 70 million infected and 22 million already dead – these are staggering numbers – there can hardly be any doubt. The series (240 minutes in all) examines all aspects of the disease: political, scientific and human.

Unrelated to this, I also found on the Frontline website a documentary, Bolivia: On the Road with Evo, that tries to understand Bolivia’s new leader Evo Morales –the country's first indigenous president – and his left-leaning policies. The 24 minute film is part of Frontline World's Stories from a Small Planet series.

Saturday, May 06, 2006

From Minneapolis to Fargo

Minnesota is known as the land of 10,000 lakes. Only today, as the plane I was in approached Minneapolis, did I actually believe it: the expanse below was wooded in parts and dotted, overwhelmingly, with lakes. It was a surprise for me, understandably, for in Phoenix lakes are either created by dams, or forcibly built in suburbs – complete with ducks, boats, and palm trees along the circumference – to maintain in a water-starved region the illusion of paradise.

On from Minneapolis to Fargo, on to the northern Great Plains region, to flatter- than-flat land apportioned, with some geometrical precision, into massive square tracts of intensively irrigated farms. And in the corner of each square, a home – the farm residence one presumes – well ensconced in a stand of trees.

But the northern Great Plains – they bring to my mind something else: the Plains Tribes, whose fierce warrior dances I had seen and enjoyed at Native American dance events that are better known as powwows.