Sunday, August 25, 2013

Travels in the Occupied North Pacific

There are remarkable coincidences in life.  I feel like I've been asleep since I was born, and I'm only just starting to wake up.  Reality wasn't entirely wiped from my consciousness -- it was just hidden well enough so that only a fraction of us would notice it was there, and if we did, the drones would kills us and the clones would tell us we're dreaming.

I'm sitting in a plane headed from Tokyo to Guangzhou to Perth.  Someone at China Southern Airlines likes a recent Hollywood release called Oblivion, and I can see why.  There are only a few recent releases to choose from, and it's the first one that comes up when you touch "Sky Movies" on the screen.  (At this point I should say "spoiler alert.")

In the movie, Tom Cruise is a clone, one of thousands, but he doesn't know it.  He knows his memory was wiped since "the war," for necessity's sake, presumably because it was all just too awful to remember.  The truth is, he's serving an alien occupation of Earth.  His job is to fix drones.  The job of the drones is to kill Scavengers ("Scavs") who live in the radioactive wasteland below his airborne home.  The massive alien triangular thing in space he's unwittingly serving is sucking up the oceans, supposedly in order to help the remainder of the human race populate a new planet they've all had to move to, since Earth was destroyed in the war.

The truth is that the remainder of the human race isn't on Titan (the new planet).  Rather, the "Scavs" are what's left of humanity, and they're trying to stop the alien mother ship from sucking up the oceans.  The drones are killing them, and Tom Cruise and all the other Tom Cruise clones are keeping the drones running so they can go about their business.  All the clones know not to go into the "radiation zones," which aren't radioactive in actuality -- it's just that the radiation zones are where the other Tom Cruise clones are operating, and they're not supposed to run into each other because then they'd wake up to the whole thing.  Which of course they do, since it's Hollywood, and they defeat the alien nemesis and are victorious in the end, salvaging what remains of life on Earth.

Seems to me this movie is a pretty good allegory for modern America.  We (Americans, and others) have been raised on a combination of lies and ignorance -- our memories have effectively been wiped.  We are serving a sort of alien occupation which you could call capitalism, empire, or the "point one percent," which, though it's basically not human, has a mind of it's own.  It is sucking up the oceans because there is profit in that, regardless of the fact that in the process we'll all be killed.  It uses us to service its drones, so the drones can kill the Scavs, those humans whose memories are still intact, who are trying to resist this insanity.  The aliens in power make sure we don't go near the "radiation zones" where we might discover the truth, and they make sure we are convinced that it's actually us who are in control, and what we're doing is in our collective, democratic best interests.

There are so many layers to this onion that I get the feeling I've so far only uncovered the first few of them.

The further west you go in the United States, the more military bases there are.  It was a young Chicano in New Mexico who first pointed this out to me a few years ago.  I had been traveling the US constantly for years and I hadn't consciously noticed this fact.  My friend in New Mexico figured this was because the leaders of the country were more worried about their more recent acquisitions, such as what we now call the southwest (which of course the Mexicans used to call the northeast).

If this is true of the southwest (and it is), it is even more true of Hawai'i, which was the first destination of my current four-continent world tour.  (Or three continents and one extremely large island, depending on how you measure Australia.)

The Hawaiian islands were a sovereign nation with a royal family and various foreign embassies, and it was very blatantly and unequivocally stolen at gunpoint by the US Navy one day.  What's immediately obvious to any visitor to Hawaii, even if you don't get any further than the capital city, is that both the US Navy and the Hawaiian natives are still there.  The Navy runs the place, and the natives are, for the most part, it seems, homeless and living on the streets and on the beaches, constantly getting harassed by the authorities for making the tourists uncomfortable, by existing.

My family and I arrived in Honolulu only days after the "not guilty" verdict for Trayvon Martin's racist killer.  Not coincidentally, in Honolulu a trial is ongoing, which will probably end with a similar verdict, for an off-duty law enforcement officer who was in town for a conference one day.  He and his colleagues had been briefed that they should watch out for the restive natives.  So, for good measure, he shot one in a fast food restaurant one night, after a night on the town, drinking.  But his victim was a young nonwhite man who was out late at night hanging out with other young nonwhite men, so he must have been up to something, anyway.

Aside from the occasional beach off-limits because of whatever toxins the US Navy poisoned it with, aside from the outrageously high property values which only the rich can easily afford, aside from the masses of disenfranchised natives, what has become of Hawaii since it was forcibly annexed by "the mainland" (never mind the fact that it's closer to Asia than it is to North America -- the US is "the mainland") is actually pretty cool.  Since the nineteenth century, people have been moving to Hawaii to work (slave, more like) in the fields, to fish, to work as merchants, to escape famine, to live in an island paradise, or some combination thereof, from all over Asia, North America and Europe.  At this point, looking at the beautiful brown bodies covering so many of the beaches around Oahu, the average Hawaiian is some wonderful mixture of Chinese, Filipino, Japanese, Polynesian, and European heritage.  There are those from these various communities, particularly the Japanese, it seems, who eschew the sun, just as they do in their land of origin, and have also avoided quite so much intermarrying as everybody else.  But for the most part, the Hawaiians who are not recent transplants from "the mainland" are a pan-Pacific, sun-worshipping potpourri of humanity.

Reeking with money, with an economy based largely on tourism and military spending, it's not an easy place to be a revolutionary.  The relatively few people you might call "radicals" coalesce around Revolution Books.  On "the mainland" much of the progressive movement shuns those elements many consider to be "the sectarian left," but in Honolulu Revolution Books is an ecumenical hangout for anybody with a brain, despite the large posters advertising Bob Avakian's latest book.  For a musician like me visiting Honolulu, this is the place to play, and was indeed the only venue anybody ever recommended for me to investigate, when I asked residents of Hawaii who I met online about it.

Former ambassador and military officer Ann Wright, who resigned in protest against Bush's invasion of Iraq, is based in Honolulu, and she was at the gig.  Jeff Paterson now lives in California, but when he was in the military he was based in Hawaii, and it was on a military airfield in Hawaii where he sat down and refused to board a plane bound for Iraq during the build-up to what they call "the first" Gulf War.  (The US and other western powers had been at war many, many times in the Gulf long before 1991, but these memories have largely been wiped clean.)

If there's a place in the world that is a sort of "compromise" between the US and Japan, culturally speaking at least, it would have to be Hawaii.  About one-third of the population is of Japanese descent, and the Japanese language can be heard all over Honolulu, along with restaurant chains you won't see outside of Japan and Hawaii, and sometimes occasionally parts of California, staffed with real Japanese people.  The Japanese population is accustomed to US military bases -- they're all over Japan, as well.  But it is an uncomfortable fact that one of the biggest tourist destinations is Pearl Harbor, where the history books tell us World War 2 began for the USA, after Japan's Air Force attacked it.

History is written by the victors, and the narrative always begins wherever it's most convenient for the narrative to begin.  So the history of Japan-US relations began with that massive "sneak attack."  The US embargo of Japan that preceded it -- widely acknowledged as an act of war, though undeclared, as usual -- never happened.  Neither did the US Navy's merciless bombardment of Tokyo, previously called Edo, at the end of what became known as the Edo Era, in 1856.  In our history textbooks it's very briefly referred to as the "Opening of Japan."  Japan's 250 years of peace became Japan's era of "isolation" -- never mind the fact that they carried on robust trade relations with their neighbors, Korea and China, as well as the Netherlands, in the largely Christian port city of Nagasaki.

Admiral Perry's unprovoked attack 157 years ago destabilized Japan, leading to a revolution in that country -- a revolution largely motivated by a desire to regain the sense of national security that they once thought they had, not wanting to become the opium-addicted colony which much of China had become by that time.  And so Japan embarked on the fastest industrialization process the world had ever seen, becoming a major industrial and military power virtually overnight, becoming the first non-European nation to defeat a European empire in a conventional war (the war with Russia in 1905).

But the nineteenth-century British-US-French-Russian war to "open" China -- the Opium War, in which the western powers got together to force the Chinese emperor to allow the importation of an addictive drug, in the process killing tens of thousands of people and burning entire cities to the ground -- has been wiped clean of our collective memories, along with the Naval bombardment of Japan that followed, way back when.  This is an inconvenient place to begin your narrative.

No, rather, the fact that most of the US Navy was half-way across the Pacific, in Hawaii, so close to the shores of Japan, in 1941, while war raged in Europe, was some kind of coincidence.  And the fact that most of the US Navy is now once again half-way across the Pacific is because of a fear of "Chinese aggression."  Never mind the fact that nobody can tell you when was the last time China committed any actual acts of aggression against another country aside from Tibet.  (A notable exception, no doubt, but not exactly what the US is on about when stirring up fears of Chinese aggression.)  And the Korean War is even called "the Forgotten War" by the US media on the rare occasions it's mentioned.  Even more forgotten are the half-million Chinese soldiers killed by the US military, who went to defend the popular, revolutionary government of Korea from the US invaders.  Still more forgotten is the fact that the puppet government the US was trying to keep in power was itself put into power by the Japanese occupiers, who were asked to stay on by the US temporarily, lest the far more popular communists take the country back.  (The history textbooks never mention the fact that the US always, always prefers fascists over communists.  Democratic governments are tolerated, but only when they're "business friendly.")

We flew from Honolulu to Fukuoka at the end of July, to visit my wife's family and friends in the city of Ube, in the province of Yamaguchi, home to many of the Samurai revolutionaries who brought the Edo Era to an end, abolished their own class, and ushered in the disastrous era of the Japanese Empire that followed.  And also a beautiful place, full of mountains and very community-oriented communities -- very far from Tokyo in so many ways.

Reiko's parents organized my first gig in Japan, at the Nishigaoka Community Center -- one of the many community centers in Ube and other towns and cities in Japan.  It's a wooden building whose front yard is a playground with fun stuff for kids to climb on, and a dirt parking lot.  Little kids from the neighborhood spontaneously gather there to climb and run in the playground or play cards on the porch, oblivious to the 100-degree (34 Celsius) heat.  Adult members of the community rent the place out very cheaply for different purposes -- morning exercises, concerts, rehearsals, dance classes, English classes, community festivals, etc.

Recently when the community center needed repairs, every household in the community volunteered to contribute the equivalent of $700 (over the course of three years) for these expenses.  Not a single household turned down the request for funds, though it was entirely optional, and in many bigger cities of Japan, these community centers are a thing of the past.  Not in Nishigaoka.

In some instances, people in the neighborhood have to deal with the contradictions of wanting to fit in to their neighborhood, and wanting to fit in to their broader Japanese community.  For example, the man they keep on reelecting as their representative in the prefectural legislature is a member of the JCP, the Japanese Communist Party.  Very few of the local community members would call themselves communists, but they constantly reelect Fujimoto-san.  This way they can remain loyal to their overall concept of what it means to be Japanese -- which does not involve being a communist -- but they can also be loyal to their community, which means voting JCP.

The folks who organize my gig included a bunch of people in addition to Reiko's parents, and the people who came to the show -- over 70 of them -- were just regular members of the community, of all ages.  Not raving leftists or anything, but they enjoyed the gig just fine, as far as I could tell.  They certainly bought lots of CDs -- and they could even tell what the songs were about, since Reiko spent many long hours setting up a Powerpoint slide show with translated lyrics, one verse at a time, to project on a screen next to me.

Which of course was where almost everybody in the room was looking.  This always takes a bit of getting used to for a performer, who is naturally accustomed to being the center of attention, both for the ears as well as the eyes of the audience.  Half of Reiko's friends seem to be English teachers, but even they were looking at the screen.  The exception to this were the Gaijin -- the foreigners.  Including my daughter and me, there were five white people in the room that night, which may be more than there have ever been at one time in the Nishigaoka Community Center.

Japanese culture -- like most cultures around the world aside from the "rugged individualist" Anglo countries and some others -- is very community-oriented.  The group is considered to be more important than the individual, generally.  But of course there are different ways to be loyal to that group, and different definitions of what the group is.

For Doro-Chiba, a radical (that is, sensible), small labor union, loyalty is to the working class -- not only the working class of Japan, but the international working class.  These were the folks who paid for Reiko, Leila and I to take the bullet train from Yamaguchi to Hiroshima to spend two days and nights commemorating the day that the name "Hiroshima" become synonymous with the term, "apocalypse."

In 2007 Reiko and I were in Hiroshima for the annual commemorative events, but that time we were involved with the bigger events, organized by the bigger anti-war coalition, led by the JCP.  I like the JCP, but sometimes their orientation involves an umbrella which is a little too big.  I like the "big umbrella" approach generally, but when your umbrella covers anybody who claims to be against nuclear weapons, even if they're basically just against nuclear weapons because they don't have one yet, and they're otherwise representatives of nasty dictatorial governments, then I have a problem.  Such was the case in 2007, where I sang in between speeches delivered by folks like the foreign ministers of countries like Malaysia, and Mubarak's Egypt.

Doro-Chiba's events don't involve people like that.  Rather, their events and protests embrace the commonality of the movement against nuclear weapons and the movement against nuclear power, and the speakers included not only survivors of the atomic bombings in Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and the nuclear tests in Micronesia, but survivors of the Fukushima disaster as well.

Everyone involved with the events of those days seemed to unanimously agree about what was the most notable moment of the whole thing.

There were maybe a thousand of us marching from the Atom Dome, past the place where Prime Minister Abe was giving a typically messed up speech, decrying the use of nuclear weapons, and embracing the future of nuclear power, while his government stockpiles massive amounts of weapons-grade plutonium.

Japanese chanting during political rallies has a martial feel to it -- someone chants a rhythmic phrase, and then everybody else repeats it, and maybe raises their fists in unison.  So this was happening as we were going along, and the person leading the chants was using a wireless microphone.  Other people were carrying bullhorn-style speakers on their shoulders, for the sound to come out of.  The police were "escorting" the march with big trucks, and each truck had big loudspeakers on top.

Normally what's coming out of the police truck's speakers is a continuously-playing announcement by someone with a very polite-sounding female voice, advising nearby drivers and pedestrians that there's a march coming through, and apologizing for the inconvenience.  Suddenly, for the first time that anybody can remember, the chants from the person with the wireless microphone started coming through the speakers mounted on the police trucks, but about fifty times louder than they were through out little mobile bullhorn things, complete with feedback.

At first everybody was confused as to what exactly was going on -- it was so ear-piercingly loud it was disorienting.  I was worried about my daughter's ears -- we were near the front of the march, right in front of the police and their trucks.  And I was wondering if one of the Doro-Chiba folks who was good with computers might have hacked into the police's system somehow.  But it turned out that their sound system just randomly happened to pick up the frequency that the wireless mike was broadcasting on.  One of the cops went into the truck and did something, and it stopped happening.  What we could be certain of was that the Prime Minister might not have heard our march passing by otherwise, but with the help of the police he sure heard it that day.

Leila saw a playground soon after that incident and we left the march.  Sitting on a bench in the park was a hibakusha, a survivor of the atomic bombing on that day in 1945.  He said he didn't like crowds, so he didn't go join the marches and such, but that he liked to come and sit nearby the epicenter on this day each year.  He told us he lived four kilometers away at the time, and was going to school, in first grade.  He mentioned that one of his classmates was an American boy, though he didn't know what that kid or his family was doing living in Japan during the war.  He said there was a bright flash of light and tremendous heat, and suddenly all that was left of his classroom were the pillars.  He and his classmates wanted to head home, but home for most of them was closer to the city center, and they figured that was a bad idea, so they just stayed there where they were.  After a while, horribly burnt people started walking like zombies past them, walking away from the city, holding their arms out in front of them so their hanging skin wouldn't fall off.

The extreme right activists were there in Hiroshima on the day, as usual, in small numbers, as usual, with their war-time flags.  And as usual, they were surrounded by riot police who were in turn surrounded by progressives of various sorts who were shouting them down and not letting them create much of a scene.  These were the sights and sounds that greeted us initially on the morning of August 6th, when we took a taxi from our hotel room to the Atom Dome, where these events are generally centered.  Very notably, and movingly, at the moment just after 8 am, the moment just after the bomb exploded in 1945, everybody was silent for a minute -- the rightwingers and leftwingers stopped yelling at each other, the speakers stopped speaking, the singers stopped singing, the Buddhists stopped chanting.  Only the cicadas didn't care.

Ten days or so later, stranded at a Narita Airport hotel after being denied entry to New Zealand, I was listening to a BBC report about the Japanese far right yelling at Koreans in an immigrant neighborhood in Tokyo.  Apparently there were several hundred of these rightwingers behaving in very un-Japanese ways, screaming at the immigrants.  What I didn't hear about until later, from folks I ended up staying with in the city, was that soon after the rightwingers started up with these shenanigans, five times as many people turned out to protest against them.  If BBC covered that, I missed it.

Perhaps it's not considered newsworthy that there are at least five times as many vocal antifascists as there are fascists.  Perhaps it's just considered the norm that that would be the case, and therefore not "news."  But I wish that kind of thing would get more coverage, because otherwise some people might be left with very wrong impressions about Japanese society.  One might get the impression the society is full of clones who just go along with the status quo, which of course is true to a large extent, but not nearly as much as either Japanese nationalists or American propaganda would have us believe.  In reality, there's a rich current of rebellion in Japan, today and historically, as with everywhere else on the planet -- from the rebel Samurai who overthrew Japanese feudalism after the first US invasion, to the rebels against the Empire like Chiune Sugihara, to those protesting the xenophobes in the immigrant neighborhood last week.

My last night in Japan, before boarding this plane, was spent at a veritable hive of leftwing activity, a place called Cafe Lavanderia (so named because it used to be a laundromat).  Red and black flags and posters everywhere from the Zapatistas and the Spanish Civil War, they even serve their banana smoothies with red and black straws.  In the cafe I met a friend of my dear friend Brad Will, who met him in Oaxaca only days before he was killed there.  There was a trumpet player who had just come there from the weekly Friday protests against Tepco and the Japanese government's inadequate response to the ongoing nuclear disaster not far to the north of Tokyo.  There were a couple of folks who invited me to visit Terminal 2 at Narita Airport the following day (I didn't have time), where there is a small house and community garden in the middle of the airport, a remnant of the militant struggle led by local farmers there that delayed the construction of this huge international airport for nine years.

The clones and drones are everywhere doing the bidding of the capitalists, but the Scavs are everywhere, too, in the occupied North Pacific.  Next stop:  Australia.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

One Life, Under Surveillance

Note:  Comments on your travel experiences, whether similar or dissimilar, welcome!  Links below are to songs related to the subject highlighted.

Ever since Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras interviewed Edward Snowden, government surveillance has been in the news.  Then there was a lengthy article in the New York Times in which Poitras' experience with flying, particularly with arriving into the US, was documented.  Then Jacob Appelbaum recounted similar experiences on Democracy Now!.  And Greenwald's partner was detained at Heathrow for just under nine hours, all his digital devices were confiscated by the authorities there, the Guardian's offices in London were raided, and the authorities forced people there to erase computer hard drives.  In something I read about David Miranda's detention at Heathrow, it was noted that 3 in 10,000 people who enter the UK are detained for questioning, and when detained, the detentions generally last under an hour.  When Poitras was detained in one instance, she developed a rapport with the official who was questioning her, who helpfully informed her that the US government had a system for scoring people for their security risk, and that her score was 400 out of 400.  Various people noted the Kafka-esque nature of all this stuff -- how the officials rarely tell you why things are happening to you, and you're generally left not knowing if you were part of a random sample or whether you were being targeted for some unknown reason.

All of these folks have experienced far more intense levels of scrutiny than I have, and generally they're all people who are involved with disseminating massive amounts of government secrets provided to them by organizations like Wikileaks and (heroic) people like Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden.  But for being a topical songwriter with a more or less nonexistent criminal record (a few misdemeanors, all of which resulted in charges being dropped, all of them over 20 years ago), as I was listening to these various interviews, there were many instances where I thought, oh yeah, that happened to me, too.  And I'm just starting to develop the impression that, perhaps, the things that happen to me aren't quite random.  Recent experiences have led me to the pretty solid conclusion that although I'm definitely not scoring 400, I've got some kind of rating, and the experiences I've had with surveillance and government harassment of one kind or another over the past 13 years aren't random, and aren't normal.  I mostly tended to think, well, I travel a heck of a lot more than most people, so maybe my experiences are par for the course as a frequent flier.  I don't think that anymore.  I'm curious what other frequent travelers' experiences are like.  I thought I'd recount some of mine, for the sake of comparison.

Sometime after the WTO protests in Seattle, but well before 9/11, I was heading up to Quebec City with a German activist to participate in the protests against the Free Trade Area of the Americas talks that were taking place there.  Prior to that border-crossing experience, my experiences with crossing the Canadian border was usually one of being waved through after a quick ID check.  Until around that time, US citizens didn't even need to show a passport.  This time we were directed to go inside the Customs and Immigration building.  Our vehicle was thoroughly searched, and we were questioned separately for about two hours.  During the time we were being questioned, a number of other people were being sent back home, after they had gotten tired of answering the same questions over and over again.  We were also being asked the same questions repeatedly, but we kept on answering them, knowing that if we stopped answering their questions, this would be grounds for turning us back.  Eventually, they let us cross.

I have probably crossed the Canadian border a hundred times since then, either to visit friends or lovers, or to do gigs, sometimes gigs that required a work permit, other times gigs that didn't require one.  I have been waved through after showing my passport maybe once or twice, early on, but the rest of the time, crossing the Canadian border has involved a thorough search of my vehicle and some combination of waiting around and being questioned for between a half hour and two hours.  On one occasion the agents took my laptop and copied the hard drive, and they took a notebook and photocopied it.  They took these items into another room, but the door was open, and they were fairly open about what they were doing.  They forgot to give me my notebook back, and very helpfully mailed it to my PO Box a couple weeks later.

Prior to the G8 meetings in Alberta in 2002 I intended to cross the border north of Missoula, Montana.  The Canadian immigration agent was a nice guy, a fellow musician, and we talked for 15 minutes or so about music, Martin guitars, and musicians we both liked.  He was a fan of Martin Sexton.  I mentioned that I heard Martin Sexton playing on the streets of Boston back when he was a young street performer.  He said I was going to be able to cross, after they searched my vehicle.  But after they searched the vehicle, the agent looked very nervous, because he had just been handed a piece of paper that had come out of their computer system.

I'm pretty sure he wasn't supposed to show it to me, but he did.  I was pretty sure I wasn't supposed to photocopy it, and I didn't ask if I could, which I regret.  But what it said was that I was an activist with ill intent, and that they should basically throw the book at me and try to find a good reason to turn me away.  It didn't say I should be turned away for no reason, but that a reason should be found.  I don't know if the information about me on the paper originated in the US or in Canada.

The agent was visibly shaken by this piece of paper, and he told me very directly that he wanted to let me in, but he was afraid if he did, he could lose his job.  I was given an 8-day ban on entering Canada -- the length of the G8 meetings.  I was told there would be an all-points warning put out on me, and that if I attempted to cross the border anywhere else, I would be detained for 8 days.  After that time, he said, I would be free to cross the border.

On another occasion several years later, I had a gig that required a work permit, but I hadn't lined one up that time, so I made the mistake of saying I was just crossing the border to visit friends.  The agent at the crossing south of Vancouver looked online and found that I had a gig in a music club, and she turned me back and banned me from entering Canada for one year.

Even if I actually was just going to visit friends, having a guitar with me has always caused me to be treated as a suspicious character that needs to be questioned and searched.  At least I assume the guitar is a contributing factor.  I don't know, since I never travel without one.  On one occasion I was not allowed to enter Canada with the guitar, but they said I could enter the country without my guitar, so I left it on the US side of the border inside my vehicle, and got someone to pick me up at the border.

For two years or so, most of the time I flew within the US or from the US to somewhere else, my flight ticket would have "SSSS" printed on it, which means the person with that ticket needs to be thoroughly searched.  (This also happened to Laura Poitras for a couple years around the same time, according to the New York Times article.)  For some reason that stopped as suddenly as it had started.

On one plane, I had sat down in my seat, when a flight attendant sat down next to me, and told me I could change my (political) t-shirt or get off the plane.  I didn't want to argue, and I changed my shirt, because I had a gig to get to.  On a prior occasion, before I boarded a plane, an airline employee asked me if I wouldn't mind changing my (political) t-shirt because another customer had complained about it.  I responded that I had a strong belief in free speech and would rather not change my shirt.  She went away and came back with an offer for me to take a later flight and get $300 in credit for a future ticket fo rmy trouble.  (That worked out well!)

For a number of years, most of the time I flew a plane in the US or leaving the US, I had an empty seat next to me.  While this is not unusual on planes that aren't full, it very regularly was the case that the empty seat next to me was one of the only empty seats on the plane.  Too often, I suspect, for this to be random, but it's very hard to say for sure.

There have been a number of occasions during protests, such as the G20 protests in Pittsburgh, that me and some of my friends and fellow protesters at the event had very strange things happening with our cell phones.  Regardless of how much we rebooted our phones, a number of us experienced things like the phone could make outgoing calls but couldn't accept incoming calls, or vice versa.  When we did connect, there would be a very pronounced echo, and lots of clicking noises.  Sometimes it seemed certain key words would set off the clicking, such as the word, "explosive."

And then most recently, last week, I had six gigs booked in New Zealand, for which I had not lined up a work permit in advance, and I received a phone call on an airline worker's cell phone at Narita Airport in Tokyo from an immigration agent in Auckland who informed me that she had read my blog, made it clear that she knew all about my troubles crossing the Canadian border and the fact that I had been strip-searched on (false) suspicion of drug-smuggling at an airport in Norway, and that I would not be welcome to board the flight to New Zealand, even if I canceled all my gigs there.  A few days later I was denied a tourist visa to Australia, although after that I was granted a temporary work visa to Australia, as I had been three times in past years.

These experiences with crossing or attempting to cross borders in Canada, New Zealand and Australia make me think that I am on a list that generally indicates that border agents should consider it their responsibility to look for an excuse to turn me away -- like it said in black and white on the paper the immigration agent showed me on the Alberta border in 2002.  Of course the surreal part is I can't prove that, and it is my fault for not lining up the right paperwork on every occasion when attempting to enter Canada or another country to do one or a few gigs.  Did I get on the international radar in all the Anglo countries for political reasons or for purely bureaucratic reasons?  I don't know, and can't know.  But if the paper the agent showed me in 2002 is not just a one-off thing, it's political.  Do other people have these kinds of problems?  Especially for those of you out there who travel internationally on a regular basis for work or leisure, I'd be curious to hear if you have or haven't had similar experiences to those I've outlined here.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Update on my efforts to go Down Under

My previous blog post described my conversation with an Immigration New Zealand official from Auckland who called me when I was about to board a flight to Auckland from Tokyo. I'm still at a hotel next to Narita Airport, working on figuring out what to do next. Though I wish I had been more circumspect in getting a work visa lined up in advance, this situation is really over the top, with INZ people reading my blog way in advance of my arrival, particularly when I'm from a country that does not require a visa to visit New Zealand. Anyway, for the details up til now you can check out my previous blog entry, but there are some new details that seemed worth mentioning.

Namely, a wonderful immigration lawyer in Christchurch who has been trying to help me out of this situation emailed me today, recounting a conversation he had with the private secretary of a top INZ official. Here's the pertinent bit of the email he wrote to me:

"When I described your situation he aggressively advised me of the rules and said that you couldn’t expect to put them to one side at your choice. When I sensed I was getting nowhere I advised him there could be some political implications for the government and to my surprise he stated he was aware of you as he had read an article you had written on a Marxist blog where you detailed your situation with INZ. When I advised him that I had not mentioned who I was talking about he advised me that he knew it was you. Big Brother is watching you!!!! So the Minister had obviously been alerted to your situation..."

On another note, most of the NZ gigs are still happening without me, so if you're a kiwi, please go check out the gigs! Those who were to be opening acts are now the main acts, and they're great performers. For the Nelson and Wellington gigs I'll be making appearances via Skype, too!

Moving on to Australia, where I'm hoping to go next, whether or not I get into New Zealand (which of course looks increasingly unlikely)...

In the past two tours of Australia I've done, I have entered on a tourist visa and then, before the first gig happened, an agent I've worked with has gotten me a work visa. This is totally legal and happens all the time. For citizens of the US, Canada and a few other countries, getting a tourist visa to Australia is almost automatic. You go to a government website, pay $20, and within seconds you're issued a tourist visa. This is how it's been for me in the past. However, today, applying for the initial tourist visa, I got the following message:

"This system performs checks required by the Australian Government. In a small number of cases, we cannot immediately issue an ETA [Electronic Travel Authority]. Your application is one of these cases. It has been referred to the Australian immigration authorities for further assessment."

So we'll see what happens next with that. Thanks to all of you who have been so supportive, morally and financially, of me in the past couple days. It's helped immensely, and made what could have been a financially and emotionally ruinous experience far more bearable.

New development (a few hours later)...  I just checked the status of my Australian visa application online, as you can do, and received this message:

"Your application has been reviewed by the Australian immigration authorities. It has not been successful."

My agent in Australia will be appealing this.  There's still 12 days before my first gig there, which under normal circumstances, certainly from past experience, should be plenty of time to sort out a temporary work visa.  Guess we'll just see what happens.  Maybe I'll be denied entry into the USA next...?

Latest development:  temporary work visa to Australia has been granted!  Tour of Australia will be going ahead as planned.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

“You are not welcome in New Zealand”

Note:  If you get tired of reading this sad tale of a tour gone bad, please skip to the last paragraph, which is arguably the most important bit at this very moment...

When I got paged over the intercom to the All Nippon Airways desk I was nervous, but figured it was something about a seat assignment on the flight from Narita to Auckland that I was about to board.  When the woman from ANA handed me a cell phone and said that someone from New Zealand Immigration in Auckland wanted to talk to me, I was suddenly feeling fatalistic.

“Mr. Rovics, why are you coming to New Zealand?”

The immigration agent sounded like a miserable person who liked her job way too much.  It was obvious why she wanted to know – because she already knew I was coming to play a few small gigs, and it wouldn't do for me to say I was just going to enjoy the winter weather, though in fact that was one of the main things I was looking forward to.

“I'm playing six small gigs.”

She already knew this, but she wanted to hear it from me.  I learned from my problems entering Canada that lying is the thing they dislike the most.

“Will you be paid anything for these engagements?”

“Yes, I hope to make a little money while in New Zealand, though it's all very marginal,” I replied.

Which sure is the truth.  In a country as remote from the rest of the world as New Zealand, people there tend to be very excited when anybody from the outside world shows up – and for good reason.  It's extremely expensive to get there from anywhere other than Australia, and the whole country has only two urban areas that might remotely qualify as “cities” where a performer like me might stand to draw a decent audience.

Nobody tours New Zealand to make money, as far as I know.  The people there who make the laws issuing work permits seem to know this – a work permit for New Zealand is free.  The only charge involved is the permission you need to get from the musician's union.  Which, last time I got one, was also free – they waived it since they heard I was singing at a labor rally in Dunedin.

“Do you have a work permit?”

She obviously also knew the answer to this question – she's an immigration agent, for Pete's sake.

“No,” I replied, “I was hoping I could get one when I arrived.  I was under the impression it was a formality that could easily be taken care of when I got there.”

Which is true.  Although I sure was wishing I had taken care of this formality a long time before.  Which is what I had done before my three previous tours of Aotearoa, aka New Zealand.  The problem is, unless you live near a city with a New Zealand consulate in it, which I don't, you have to mail your passport in to their embassy in Washington, DC, and be without a passport for several weeks, which is a logistical challenge for someone who tours as much as me.  One I vainly hoped I could avoid, and one I've managed to avoid in Australia, where I have successfully gotten work visas after arriving on Australian soil twice before.  (Which costs $895.  Which is a hell of a lot of money, when you're paying thousands just to get there, and thousands more to traverse the vast distances in that massive, barely-populated continent.  Another place where it's almost impossible to make any money touring, but I keep doing it anyway, for some reason.)

“Mr. Rovics, can you tell me what happened to you recently at the airport in Trondheim, Norway?”

I just wanted to tell her to get to the point, but I knew that I had to answer all of her questions if I wanted to have any chance of getting in to her lovely, stolen country of rolling hills, sheep, and imprisoned natives.

“I was strip-searched on suspicion of drug smuggling.  But I wasn't smuggling drugs, I made that part up.”

Which I did make up, of course.  Artistic license, as I said.  Who would be stupid enough to blog about smuggling drugs?  Who would be stupid enough to believe it if someone did that?  Well, her, apparently, but it seemed like a moot point.  Especially since I was already obviously stupid enough to be blogging about lots of things I shouldn't have been.

Why do I say I'm stupid?  Because although most of my blog posts are only read by a few hundred people, some of those few hundred people are apparently working for the government of New Zealand.

“What happened to you in Canada?”

I told her what she already knew.  I was banned from Canada for a year, because I tried to get in as a tourist when really I was planning to do a gig at the Railway Club in Vancouver, which I hadn't gotten a work permit for.  I lied to Immigration Canada about it.  I knew better than to do that this time, but it didn't help.

“How much money do you have to spend in New Zealand?”

“A thousand dollars in terms of what's available in the bank.”

“One thousand US dollars?  You have to have three thousand dollars in order to enter New Zealand.”

“I could have three thousand dollars if I took cash advances on credit cards,” I replied, hopefully.

“Well, that would only be if you were coming in on a tourist visa.”

So why did she ask the question about how much money I had then?  Who knows.

Then the shoe finally dropped.

“You can't board that flight tonight, and you can't come to New Zealand until you get a work permit.”

“Can I cancel all my gigs and come in on a tourist visa?  If I don't fly to Auckland then I can't fly from there to Perth, or from Brisbane to Hong Kong, etc.”

It's a bit of a cascading, chain reaction clusterfuck sort of situation.  Buying a new plane ticket to anywhere I need to go will cost thousands of dollars.

“You can't board that flight.  You're not welcome in New Zealand.”

“I know it's none of my business,” I said, “but is it normal for immigration agents to read the blogs of people traveling to New Zealand?”

“I've read your blog,” was her answer to that question.

“Did someone tell you about my blog?  Is there a reason you read my blog in particular?”

“I've read your blog,” she repeated.  “Thank you,” she said, indicating she was done talking to me, and I handed the phone back to the ANA agent.

After the ANA agent got off the phone, she and all the rest of them looked shocked.  Nothing like this had ever happened to them, it seemed.  This guy is stuck in the airport, he can't board this flight to Auckland.

A nice man from Hong Kong who worked for ANA took me back through Japan Immigration.  No problems getting back into Japan.  (Technically I suppose I had left Japan when I went through Immigration earlier in the day at the airport, and they stamped my passport and all that, but in any case, it wasn't an issue.)  The man said that in the three years he had been taking care of people on this flight from Narita to Auckland, this had never happened.  He wasn't entirely sure what the procedure was at this point.

He helped me collect my luggage.  He shared some of his own minor travel horror stories – he recently went hiking in Siberia, where the fact that he is fluent in Chinese, Japanese and English was of absolutely no use in trying to navigate Siberian society, which led to some travel complications for him.

He took me to the hotel reservation desk.  They said all the hotels were full.  He said I should try calling one in particular, the Narita Airport Rest House.  He left and said he had to talk to his boss about my situation.  He said I should wait there for him, and he'd be back in 15 or 20 minutes.  An hour and a half later, he never came back.

The hotel had a free room, thankfully.  Getting to this room, I felt like I was living in a travel anxiety dream, the kind of dream I have at least once every few nights.  Except it was all very real.  Still feeling that way.  I called a friend who is a lawyer in Christchurch.  Maybe she knows another lawyer who can help.  Maybe.  Seems unlikely at this point.

I think I'll be able to get a work permit before I land in Australia, anyway, so the rest of the tour should be OK.  If I can figure out how to get to Australia without using the ticket that goes there via Auckland, which is the one I already bought.

Not sure what my next move is, but I know it's going to be costing me many thousands of dollars, whatever it is.  And if I max out all of my credit cards completely, I guess I've got the money.

If you've got any to spare for a stupid musician who didn't get a work visa to do 6 lousy gigs in a country that has 3 million people and 60 million sheep and is located in the middle of nowhere, your donations are very, very, very welcome.  Donations (just click on the "donate" link there) or subscriptions both put money directly in my bank account, and are both very, very welcome at this moment.  If you live in Tokyo and have a guest room, that could also be very helpful.  Now I'm going to get some sleep, and see if tomorrow is any better than today was.

Epilogue:  Thanks to all of you who sent me messages of encouragement, and despite my idiocy in not lining up a work visa in advance, sent me financial support as well.  It helped immensely, to offset my losses.  Many of you said I'd get a song out of this, so I thought I'd better write one.  Here it is:  "The Spies Are Reading My Blog"

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Children’s Animal Farm

This tale is based on a true story told to me by Thomas and Annisette Koppel one afternoon in a park near the Children’s Animal Farm in Copenhagen, Denmark.  It's intended to be a children's story, but grownups might like it, too.  Oh, here's audio of me reading the story.  You might like my children's music as well.

There was some land on the outskirts of Copenhagen with lots of trees and grass on it. Nobody knew who it belonged to, but an old man named Black Ina lived on it, and he had been there a long time.

Black Ina lived on the land there on the edge of the city, along with all of his animals. He had dozens and dozens of animals. Dogs, cats, sheep, rabbits, chickens, cows, horses, all kinds of animals.

Some of the grownups thought Black Ina was strange to be living in the city with so many animals. The children liked him, though, and he liked them, too.

But more than anything, the children liked the animals. Every day after school, and on the weekends, too, kids from the neighborhood would come to Black Ina’s land. They would feed the animals, brush their fur, take them for walks, ride the horses, play games and hang out.

The animals belonged to Black Ina, but nobody thought of it that way. There were different animals that different children took care of every day, and for each kid, there were certain animals that they were responsible for.

Billie was a little girl who lived not far away. Every day Billie came to Black Ina’s place. She took care of a big brown horse named Sven.

Every day she would clean out Sven’s stall, brush his hair, and take him for a ride. In the evening she’d go home, where she lived with her mom and dad, Thomas and Annisette. Sometimes she’d take some eggs with her from Black Ina’s chickens, or some milk from the cows, and they’d use them in that night’s dinner, or the next morning for breakfast.

Things went along like this in the neighborhood, until one day Black Ina died. This happens to everybody eventually, especially when they get very old, and that day it happened to Black Ina.

Friends of Black Ina’s, who lived far away, came to the city and started taking Black Ina’s things, including his animals.

The children were very sad. They started talking to each other, and they were all thinking the same thing. “We've been taking care of these animals for a long time, and they should stay here with us.”

The children started taking their animals home with them.

Billie took her big horse to her family’s house. Billie and her parents lived in a very small house, and the horse didn't fit inside the house very easily.

And even when he was in the house for a very short time, he could make a very big mess.

So Sven lived in the backyard. But the backyard was also very small, and Sven barely had room there to turn around.

Billie’s parents didn't mind Sven being in the backyard, but some of the neighbors started complaining. Thomas and Annisette said that something had to be done with Sven, and they didn't have enough money to pay for a stable out in the countryside. They didn't know what to do.

One day Billie made up her mind. “I’m going back to Black Ina's land,” she said.

When she got there, she took Sven to the stables where all the horses used to live. But the stables were all locked up! A policeman was guarding Sven’s stable. Billie asked the policeman, “Can I please keep my horse in the stable? There’s no room in my backyard for him.”

“No,” said the policeman. “This land is going to be sold now that Black Ina is gone. Someone’s going to build a big house on it.”

Billie didn't like this answer. Sell the land? A big house? No more animals, no more place for the kids to play? Billie stood her ground. She looked the policeman in the eye. “Please can Sven stay in his stable?”

The policeman had kids too. He knew he was supposed to do his job and not let anyone use the stables, but he felt bad for Billie, and he couldn't take it any longer. He broke open the lock that was on the stable.

“OK, you can keep the horse here, but only for a little while,” he said.

By the next day word was spreading around. “Billie is keeping her horse at the stable,” everyone was saying.

Other kids had brought their animals home, too. There were roosters crowing at the break of dawn, waking up their neighbors in the crowded city. There were cows mooing, sheep braying, and horses neighing at all hours of the night, and the grownups weren’t getting as much sleep as they used to.

So very quickly, all the other kids in the neighborhood started bringing their animals back to Black Ina's land. With Black Ina gone, the children decided together that his old place would now be known as The Children's Animal Farm.

Soon it was all back the way it used to be, except without Black Ina. It was just like it was before, but now the children were running everything themselves. Kids were getting up really early so they could go milk the cows and feed all the animals before they went to school.

After school they came back, rode the horses and cleaned out the stables.

Some well-meaning grownups tried to help the children. They thought surely children could not run a farm all by themselves. But that’s exactly what they were doing, and the children said they didn’t need any help. And furthermore, they said this place was just for kids – run by kids, for kids. And animals, of course.

Then one day the police came back. This time it wasn’t just one cop, it was a whole bunch of them. They were very stern with the kids. They said, “OK, kids, you’ve had your fun. Now you have to stop this and take your animals somewhere else. The City of Copenhagen has plans for this land. They’re going to build a big house here.”

Before they left, the police said, “You have one week to leave or we’re going to come and evict you.” And then they left.

Some of the kids were scared. They were afraid the police might hurt them. Others were sad. They thought there was nothing they could do, and their dream would be over by next week.

Others were mad. Billie was one of them. At a meeting of all the kids, she made a speech.

“We kids have to stand up for ourselves. The grownups have lots of places all over the city to do all kinds of things. But this is the only farm in the city run by kids, and we should keep it. We have taken good care of these animals, and they also need a home. So for the kids and the animals, we should stay. They can build their big house somewhere else.”

“But what about the police coming to evict us next week?”, some practical-minded boy asked.

“We've got to have a demonstration and show them we’re serious,” someone else said.

And so that day they called up all the TV stations, all the radio stations, and all the newspapers. They told them all: “We have started The Children’s Animal Farm and we aren't going away. It's a place for children and animals now. Tomorrow we’re having a demonstration at City Hall.”

Some well-meaning grownups who had organized protests before offered to help, but the kids said they could do it themselves.

The people from the TV and radio and newspapers were all intrigued by this unusual news, and they all showed up the next day at City Hall to see what was going to happen.

Then, from around the block, they heard the sound of horses neighing, and the clompety-clomp of horses’ feet hitting the cobblestones.

And then, coming towards the City Hall, there were twenty children riding twenty horses! It was quite a sight. They rode up the steps of City Hall.

One of the smallest kids, riding the smallest pony, cleared her throat. All the reporters pointed their cameras and microphones at her. Then she spoke. She already knew what she wanted to say, and she had practiced her speech while they were all riding to City Hall.

“We represent the children and animals of the Children’s Animal Farm. It’s a place for children and for animals, and we think it should stay that way. We think the City can build their big house somewhere else, and we’re not leaving.”

With that, the children rode the horses back down the stairs and tromped through town back to the stables at the Children’s Animal Farm.

Over the next few days, the children went about their lives running the farm, riding the horses, and playing with each other, but they were worried. What was going to happen when the police came back the next week?

The next week, all the TV crews and the radio people and the reporters for the newspapers were at the farm with the children, wondering the same thing.

But the deadline came and passed, and the police never showed up.

The people at City Hall had been very impressed by the kids and the horses and all the TV crews. They were worried that they would look very bad if they were seen on TV making the children leave the farm, and they decided the best thing they could do was to do nothing at all.

Maybe they hoped the kids would lose steam, get bored and abandon the farm. But they never did. And still today, if you go to the outskirts of Copenhagen, you will find it there, still filled with trees, bushes, animals, and children. The Children’s Animal Farm.