Category Archives: Torture

Belize Bound

When I was poor, many years ago, it used to really piss me off when people said things like, “Why don’t you just move to a better neighborhood?” when I told them I’d been burglarized and mugged in one week, that my neighbors kept me up all night with loud parties, and that I had found a used condom and needles in my front yard.

“I can’t afford to move,” I’d say, gritting my teeth so I wouldn’t launch into a rant about how clueless and insensitive they were.  And these were always liberals—I think liberals are often more out of touch with reality than conservatives.

I’m telling you this because some of you may not have the luxury of being able to buy plane tickets on a regular basis.  Your job may not allow you to work remotely or even offer paid holidays.  You may not own a condo you can rent out while you’re away.  I hope I don’t come off as clueless when I write about travel.  I’ve never claimed any of my adventures have been easy or cheap.  I hope some of my stories may inspire you to plan for something when you can afford it, or try something on a small scale if you can’t afford to do it in a big way.

I was driving down scenic Summit Avenue yesterday in my beloved Mini; spring was in the air and I was listening to Vivaldi.  I felt utter joy.

“Life is beautiful!” I exclaimed in my head.

That’s not a thought I ever had when I was in my 20s or 30s.  It’s not a thought many people in Syria are having right now.  It doesn’t do anyone any good for me to intentionally kill my joy because others are suffering, but it remembering them certainly intensifies my feelings of gratitude for how far I have come.

Back to January in Minnesota.  The holidays are over.  There will be nothing by three months of cold, dreary, short days without a holiday until the end of May.

And so I went to Belize.  It makes a difference, getting away somewhere warm, even if only a long weekend.

This would be an all-inclusive group trip operated by Wilderness Inquiry, a Minnesota-based nonprofit.  Their thing is “inclusive outdoor adventure travel.”  I totally missed that because I Googled “tours of Belize” and went straight to that trip page.  I looked at the color photos, glanced through the itinerary, checked the price, and booked it.

This was back in December, and I didn’t give it much thought until I got a call from the trip leader, Mark, in January.  I have been on group tours before, and it’s good practice to have a meeting ahead of time—if everyone is local—or to at least talk to someone to learn the expectations and ask questions.

Mark informed me about the Wilderness Inquiry mission of inclusion.  “I lead a lot of trips to the boundary waters, and this will be my first international trip,” he said, excitement in his voice.

“You mean, your first international trip ever?” I asked, a little alarmed.

“No, I went to Uruguay last year with my girlfriend.  Her family is from there.  So I’m ready.”

I wasn’t so sure about that.  The Gross Domestic Product of Uruguay is four times that of Belize. But the tour and my plane ticket were paid for, so it was too late to back out and he seemed very confident.  Everything would be fine, right?

The night before I left, I had dinner with Vince and met his girlfriend, Heather.  I liked her a lot, especially since she gave me a beautifully boxed birthday present—a sweater and Moleskin notebooks and pretty pens, which I used to take notes on the trip.  I looked forward to watching their relationship develop.

My birthday.  Vince picked me up at 5:00 am and took me to the airport.  He’s a morning person like me, but 5:00 was even a bit early for him, so it was a very nice effort on his part.  And it’s nice to hug a loved one good-bye, just in case something fatal happens.

Strangers, All

This is a series of posts about Italy, Malta, and Spain that starts here.

The trolley ride was worth the agro of finding the tickets and figuring out how to get on the damn thing.  As I’ve written, many of the streets of Granada are no wider than one lane.  The trolley was narrow, but it came within inches of grinding against the stone walls on either side.  Granada is also very hilly.  At one point we were going downhill and it felt like the brakes weren’t engaging.  Everyone cried out in alarm.  I think there may have been an old woman with a basket of kittens crossing in front of us.  At the last minute the trolley lurched to a stop and we all laughed nervously in relief.

Lynn and I wanted to find a fast, cheap lunch place.  We came upon a hole-in-the-wall Syrian restaurant that didn’t serve alcohol but that was okay.  The place was maybe 12 by 12 feet, had four tables, and was decorated with rugs depicting scenes from Syria, presumably. It was run by a man and wife; she was the cook and he ran the front of the house, such as it was.  He spoke some English and was able to tell us he had come from Syria two years before.

The door opened and a little girl waltzed in, as little kids do, twirling and fidgeting and humming.  Her father gave her a very long hug; I wondered if that was his usual style or if he fiercely appreciated being safe in Spain with his family.  Was this all of his family?  He went in back and came out with a giant present for her—a puppet set.  She sat near us and I spoke Spanish with her.  She was five years old and no, it wasn’t her birthday; the present was from her aunt and uncle who lived far away.

Our host brought our food.  After my two-week trip to the Middle East the year before, I had sworn I would never eat hummus again.  But it was great to have something different—hummus, falafel, baba ganoush, a simple salad with vinegar, and olives and pita bread.

Other customers filtered in and I heard an American accent.  It turned out that one of the guys at the table next to ours was a Syrian-American from Chicago visiting cousins in Granada.

I asked where the toilet was, and the owner pointed behind me.  What?  I stood up and turned around, then parted two rugs hanging from the ceiling to reveal a dilapidated door that didn’t lock.  Now, “toilet” in Spain and most other places in the world means what most Americans call the “bathroom.”  The bath “room” was smaller than a broom closet and the actual toilet was not bolted to the floor so it made a loud thunking noise when I sat down.  It was awkward, and I just had to do what I had to do even though probably everyone in the restaurant could hear it.  Where was the loud music when you needed it?

Lynn and I went our separate ways for the afternoon.  I visited the Musuem of the Sephardi aka the torture museum, which I wrote about as soon as I returned.

As I write this, the headline on the front page of the Sunday Minneapolis Star Tribune newspaper is, “Twin Cities Jewish Community Shaken by Rising Anti-Semitism.”  So while the exhibit was historical, it really wasn’t.

Meanwhile, Lynn had found the tourist office and had asked about the Flamenco shows.  To my relief, she had decided she didn’t need to see one.

We tried another hole-in-the-wall restaurant for dinner.  We ordered a pizza and it was clearly a frozen one that had been microwaved.  So what?  We wolfed it down, and their cheap house red wine was fantastic.

We were the only ones in the place besides a young woman who we guessed was Chinese.  She was frantically trying to get her mobile to work.  I wondered if she was homesick.  We would have been happy to keep her company her if she had ever looked up from her phone.

The End of America

This is a series of posts about Italy, Malta, and Spain that starts here.

Before I move on to Spain, I’m inserting a few real-time updates.

It’s weird to be writing about the November election almost three months later. I recall my sense of unreality.  Unfortunately, that hasn’t changed. I can’t believe we are now using the words “President” and “Trump” together.  I am still in a state of denial, maybe because I haven’t figured out what to do, or how to live, in this new world.

I went on the women’s march in St. Paul with 100,000 other like-minded men, women, and children to protest the new administration’s policies and tone.  It was the first day in months I felt optimistic, but also, sadly, the last.

Conservatives think that liberals hate America.  That’s unfair.  We criticize our country when it acts wrongly.  That doesn’t mean we hate America.  It means we hold it to high standards.  For instance, one thing that has always made me proud of America is all the refugees we take in.  It’s not as many as 100 years ago.  It’s not as many as Germany.  Still, we were on track to accept 110,000 refugees in 2017, with about 10,000 slots designated for Syrians.  That’s one of the things that makes America great.  Oops, made.

All that is on hold for four months.  If and when it restarts, the number of refugees will be cut in half.  Syrians will be banned, along with people from other Muslim-majority countries except the ones Trump want to make deals with, like Saudi Arabia, the main producers of terrorists, including 15 of the 19 9/11 hijackers.

Why is Trump fixated on Syrians?  I don’t believe there have been any terrorist attacks perpetrated, anywhere, by Syrians.  In my opinion, Syrians are victims of war and terrorism.  But there are a lot of Syrian refugees, and they are in the news frequently, so maybe they’re just an easy target.  Most Americans haven’t heard of Tunisia, which actually produces a lot of terrorists.

The mood where I work, the Center for Victims of Torture, is dark.  Our clients in the US are afraid they’ll be deported, or that their families will never be allowed to join them.  We wonder if we will lose our government funding, and thus our jobs.  We worry this administration will return to the use of torture, which is illegal under US and international law.

There’s so much going down.  One final item: Donald Trump managed to talk about Holocaust Remembrance Day without mentioning Jews or antisemitism.  Was it intentional?  Ignorance?  As a Jew, I think it’s ominous. The Holocaust didn’t start with gas chambers, it started with nationalist words and laws against certain groups and bullying of the media and control of the messaging coming out of government agencies.

Thanks for reading this.  You probably already knew most of it.  Now you know why I write about travel and not politics most of the time.

My son and I went on a small adventure recently.  He had asked if I wanted to see John Cleese in person on a certain date, and I said, “sure!”  John Cleese is an English comedian and actor best known for the Monty Python movies and Fawlty Towers TV series.

What I didn’t realize until after Vince bought the tickets was that the show was on a Monday night, five hours away in Green Bay, Wisconsin.  So I took two days off work, got a room at EconoLodge, and we went on a road trip.

It was really fun.  We joked about the cheap hotel and the terrible steak dinner we had at Texas Roadhouse.  We visited Lambeau Field, home of the Green Bay Packers football team, which fits nicely into the neighborhood unlike our own new US Bank Stadium that looks like the Death Star.

We watched Monty Python and the Holy Grail, then listened to John Cleese tell stories for an hour.  Did you know Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin financed the making of the Holy Grail, and that George Harrison paid for the Life of Brian, which he considers the troupe’s best film?  Cleese is almost 80, and still full of piss and vinegar. It was good to Just Laugh.


Don’t Read This Post

Do not read this post or look at the photos if you think you will irreversibly upset by torture techniques.

This is a supplement to my last post, in which I described a museum exhibit about torture.  Interestingly, the museum—the Casa Sephardi in Granada, Spain—offered no spin on the exhibit.  It wasn’t a “human rights” museum, it made no call to action at the end. It also did not make light of torture.  It was just straight-out torture, torture, and more torture, leaving interpretation and follow up to the visitor.

There were creepy masks people were forced to wear to be humiliated (as in women who had allegedly been unfaithful to their husbands).

mask-of-shame pigmask-2

The pig mask was, of course, specifically designed to humiliate Jews, who don’t eat pork.  These masks may look kind of funny (as in humorous), but they weren’t.  As you can read in the paragraph in the first photo, they often also had spikes in strategic places, cut into victims’ necks, and the wearers typically died of starvation.

This confirms another lesson about torture that is relevant today:  Torture is rarely used to get security information from terrorists to prevent attacks.  It’s almost always used to punish people and to intimidate others not to rebel.  It puts a chill on entire communities, who stop speaking out and being politically active. It’s the favorite tool of dictators.

To reinforce my point, here’s a photo of a set of branding irons.  The “crimes” for which people were branded included “slave”, “blasphemer”, and “rogue.”  Really—Rogue?  I can think of a dozen friends of mine who would have been branded by now.  I could have been branded as a blasphemer a hundred times over.


The exhibit proceeded to get worse and worse.

It included the iron maiden (not the rock band), thumb screws, chastity belts (for men and women; with and without spikes), the saw (victim hung upside down and sawed down the middle starting from the crotch), the iron bull (victim forced inside a hollow iron statue of a bull under which a fire was slowly built), the rack—with a without spikes—which pulled the victim’s spine and other joints apart one by one; the cage, in which victims were locked and suspended from a bridge where they were exposed to the elements and starved to death.

I will leave it to your imagination to figure out how the spike was used:


I didn’t take photos of most of it; it was just too horrible to share.

If you have read this post, you are either very brave or a weirdo.  Or you are one of the over 50% of Americans who think that torture is okay.  If, like me, you don’t agree, please go to the Center for Victims of Torture website and sign the Reject Torture declaration.  Thanks, and I promise that the next post will be about Italian food or art or something more uplifting!

Back in the Homeland

15 museums

8 flights

7 hotels

6 palaces and villas

5 train rides

4 countries, if you count the Vatican

3 weeks

2 friends who are miraculously still good friends

1 drained bank account, but totally worth it

Zero muggings, rip offs, illnesses, or other crises.

Uncountable numbers of churches, nameless restaurants and cafes, glasses of wine, paintings of the Virgin Mary, and taxi rides to and from bus stations and airports.

I’m on a plane back home after 3 weeks of traveling around Italy, Malta, and Spain.  I’ve got nine hours ahead of me on the way to Atlanta, then another flight to Minneapolis/St. Paul before I land at 6:40pm.  They guy sitting next to me, Ryan, is from Atlanta.  He told me he was traveling on business and I immediately assumed he would be a conservative Republican who sells B2B online storage solutions or something but it turns out he works for a progressive Baptist international nongovernmental organization.  We chatted about what our respective organizations do, about how different countries examine their pasts, and then touched briefly on the election results before he put in his headphones to watch a movie and I flipped open my laptop.  He said half his organization’s employees are African American, and the day after the election their regular check-in meeting was just dead silence.

When I checked in with a colleague where I work (the Center for Victims of Torture), the day after the election, she said the office was like a morgue.  We had been running a two-month anti-torture campaign to educate people about how torture is illegal.  Now we may have to kick it into high gear to push back against US use of torture.

I’ll have a lot more to write about this trip, but speaking of torture, I visited a museum in Granada, Spain that advertised a special exhibition about torture.  Lynn rolled her eyes when I asked if she wanted to go. It was about the only time we didn’t do something together.

What I didn’t realize was that the museum’s name was Casa Sephardi, Sephardi being the term for Jews who used to live in Spain and Portugal.

The exhibit started off easy, with displays of artifacts like menorahs, prayer shawls, and wedding costumes.  Then came the Spanish Inquisition.  Jews had done well in Spain for the most part, sometimes prospering even more under Muslim protection than under Christian rule.  But, as has happened over and over throughout history, Jews became a victim of their own successes.  There were religious differences, for sure, but economics was a prime motivator to get rid of the Jews so their property could be confiscated.  In 1391, 4,000 Jews were massacred in Seville.  This was followed by mass forced conversion to Christianity.  Judaism provides a “get out” clause that allows us to convert if our life is at stake.  We’re practical like that.  So most Jews “converted” but continued to practice Judaism covertly.

The Inquisition imprisoned and tortured the Jews who had converted, sincerely or not, and their property was sold off to cover their expenses—which I guess would have included bread and water and manacles.  Their families were turned out into the streets.

Surprise!  They were all found guilty and executed.  In 1492, all the remaining Jews were expelled from Spain.  About a hundred years later, Muslims were also subjected to forced conversions, Inquisition and expulsion.

Lastly, there was the “special” exhibit about torture.  It was awful, truly awful, and I am someone who works for a torture rehabilitation center.  I’ll write about it more in a separate post, and stop reading here if you know you could be upset by disturbing images.

Here’s my take away: the displays, which appeared to be decades old, confirmed two themes in CVT’s anti-torture campaign:

Waterboarding is torture, and a medieval technique at that:


Torture is not effective in obtaining accurate information.


This is one of the reasons travel is important, especially for us Americans, especially now: so we can learn from history (Spanish history is our history), learn from other cultures, learn the truth, and come back prepared to fight for our values.

Happy Thanksgiving to my American readers!  May we somehow find some harmony during the holiday season and in the year to come.