March 23, 2005

Mexico: Sun Weary

Wednesday morning, March 9th in a small hostel in the very beautiful city of San Cristobal de las Casas, I woke up and did not feel it right away but once I sat up I realized that my neck, arms, legs and face were a little itchy. After a shower and some thorough self examination I found that I had small hives everywhere my skin had been exposed to the sun. At first I though it was just a bad case of prickly heat and it would go away with a good wash, but soon it became evident that it was not going to be the case, I had some sort of allergic reaction.

I ran around the city looking for calamine lotion to relieve the itch. The next morning the rash had intensified and for the first time on this trip I decided that I was sick enough that it warranted a visit to a doctor.
Unfortunately the dermatologist was only in San Cristobal Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. So I went to see a GP, who really reminded me of a Doctor straight out of a Pee Wee Herman episode. He spent more time playing with his toys: Electro Cardiogram, Ultrasound, Microphone, Blood Pressure Monitor, etc... than looking at my skin. Evidently he uses these fancy technological items to wow and awe most of his campesino patients. All I learned was that I had an allergic reaction and I should take antihistamines (which I already knew). He prescribed me an injectable antihistamine and a pill antihistamine and an SPF 80 sunblock which I think makes me loose pigmentation in my skin.

The itch was so bad that I was driven to try the drugs he had given me. So with my courage in hand, along with a sterile syringe that I had carried since the begining of my trip, I spent 20 minutes trying and finally succeding in injecting myself with the antihistamine in my right bum cheek.

Friday, still very itchy and almost feeling worse we decided to take the bus to Tuxla Gutierrez, the capital of Chiapas, to find the Dermatologist. After a confusing half hour trying to figure out that "poniente" is the opposite of "oriente" in Spanish and means west, we managed to find the doctor's office.

This time there was no fancy quackery. Instead the dermatologist went on a detective reconstruction of my diet leading up to the reaction. The first suspect was antibiotics which frequently can cause sun sensitivity, but I had not taken any. Then he identified a few other suspects, garlic and Ibuprophen. Both have been documented to increace sun sensitivity in certain people. I apparently may have something in comon with vampires lately, garlic and sunlight is not too pleasent.

It is the worst kind of prescription for a cycle tourist, but my dermatologist prescribed me to stay in the shade, rest and moisturize my rash and eventually it will go away. We waited two days and then I decided that I would rather cycle in long sleeves and pants than go stirr crazy in the 35 degree heat.

Monday March 14th nice and early in the morning we were back on the road.
Since that return to the road with almost no part of my body exposed to the sun I have been slowly recovering. Now the rash is gone and I am almost totally better. However the fear of the sun is still with me, and I don't plan to cycle in short sleeves again for a while. I am happy however to find that it is possible to cycle all dressed up. I don't have the sticky sunscreen mixed with sweat, dust and dirt on me at the end of the day. I am also starting to see the wisdom in the local indegenous and traditional dress which is strategically designed not to expose much to the sun at all.

Posted by gwendal at 01:52 PM | Comments (4)

March 12, 2005

Mexico: King Corn: a side tangent looking at our dependencies on ZEA MAYS.

We find ourselves in the land of corn; inescapable and so far welcome. We see it everywhere, we eat it in tacos, quesadillas, chips, raw, but i never guessed how much more an impact this crop actually has. I've mainly unearthed information about the always excessive and exaggerated society to our current north, the USA.

Corn fields covers 80 million acres (32 million hectares) of US soil. Like the tulip, apple and potato, zea mays (botanical name for all types of corn) has evolved over the 10,000 years as humans cajole its domestification. Zea Mays produces plentifully in exchange for more habitat, the spread of its genes all over the world and changes to the land to best accomodate it (cutting down forests, plowing, protection from corn enemy).

Christopher Columbus noticed the tasty plant and started its spread from the New World to Europe and beyond.

It's now the most widely planted cereal crop in the world.

Humans have helped the corn crop out so much (mostly in North America) it has become part of the landscape, food system and federal budget!

US president Bush in 2002, signed the farm bill for $190 billion over 10 years. This bill saw farmers paid $4 billion a year to grow more corn even though a bushel (56lbs. or 25kilos) sells for $2 yet costs around $3 to grow. Congress' subsidy by the bushel, insures corn has dominion over its 320,000 square kilometer American habitat and that it go unchallenged.

Sounding like a simple handout for the trapped farmers, this is actually welfare for the plant itself and the economic interests that PROFIT from it's overproduction. Zea Mays is not only indispensable for the farmers (whom it is swiftly and surely bankrupting) but also for the processors, factory farms, soft drinks and snack makers such as the Archer Daniels Midlands, Tysons and Coca-Colas of the world.

Foodsystems "cornification" has been going on unoticed. Unlike Latin Americans, who have had a century old diet revolving around corn, the US's transition to a corn-heavy diet is much newer. In North America, the corn is an invisible part of the consumption, due to the heavily processing or having passed through food animals before it reaches our plates. In the case of cattle, they evolved to eat grass and are fed antibiotics to stave off illness caused by the new unatural diet. Corn is even being made tolerated by farmed salmon! Why? It's the cheapest feed around (federal subsidies). Profit margin? Profit for whom/what?

More than half of all 10million bushels anually are being fed to animals, and with the collosal surpluses, companies like A.D.M., Cargill and ConAgra are ingeniously creating methods to use it up. Corn is being turned into ethanol, Vitamin C, and biodegradable plastics. But the most exhaustive initiative to keep corn in big business, is the development of high-fructose corn syrop. Apparently all but substituting sugar in our diet. Most soft-drink and snack companies are using corn sweetners instead of sugar. Estimates of 10% of all calories eaten by US adults are from the infamous Zea Mays, up to 20% for children. Between all the indirect corn in our diet (via animals), regular corn as corn (chips, sweet corn etc...) and sweetners in junk food, we are witnessing one of nature's greatest success stories, turning us (and the other unwitting species) into an expanding race of corn eaters.

Should we begrudge this phenomenal corn success? Isn't this domestication at its best?

With corn, we are sacrificing our bodies and the environment by eating and growing so much of it. Only now are we starting to understand all the health effects of our super-cornified diet. Some people suggest it is no coincidence that the wholesale switch to corn sweetners in the 1980's marked the beginnning of the epidemic of obesity, and type two diabetes in the US. Instead of lowering their prices, soft-drink makers "super-sized" their portions and marketing budgets. New snacks were plentiful as were soaring fructose levels.

Some preliminary research shows fructose is differently metabolized by humans than other sugars, making it potentially more hazardous. Little is still known about the health effects of eating corn-fed animals, but in the case of cattle, researchers have found that this beef is higher in saturated fats than grass-fed beef.

Environmental health is more objective: serious and lasting damage. Modern corn hybrids are the greediest of plants, needing more nitrogen fertilizers than any other crop. It requires more pesticides than any other food crop. All these chemicals translates to being carried off as runoff or ending up in the groundwater. In the midwest corn-belt, the Mississippi River has decimated marine life in a 30,000 square kilometer area in the Gulf of Mexico. Irrigated Oklahoma corn keeps its stomata wide open, transpiring so much water vapor that the virtual temperature fluctuations create significant turbulence as you fly across a boundary between native prairie grass and hybrid corn.

Oil and Natural gas are used to produce the chemicals we applied to the corn fields. Nitrogen fertilizer is made from natural gas and pesticides from oil. A US corn crop is more than producing food, it is also a huge inefficient, polluting machine that guzzles fossil fuels - 2 Liters for every bushel.

So it seems corn has become king. Americans have given it more land than any other plant - over twice the size of New York state! To keep it happy and fed and safe from predators, chemical are doused and they poison the water and further deepen the soceity's dependence on oil. Corn is so plentiful, it is eaten as fast as possible in as many ways as technologically can be made - turning the fat of the land into, well fat! One has to wonder whether corn hasn't at last succeeded in domesticating us.


Credit for this article to one of my new favourite scientist/researcher and author, Micheal Pollan

Posted by armel at 05:26 PM | Comments (0)