Friday, November 22, 2013

Katmandu II

   Girls abducted, burning bodies, a stoned holy man, semen loss... 
   (For Katmandu I go to the Nov. 12 post:(         

   The other group at risk of contracting AIDS was sex workers, even more difficult to locate than drug users. The Community Health Development Center, another NGO, ran a hostel for prostitutes on the other side of Katmandu; there were, I learned, two girls there, one of them HIV positive.
Both had earlier been taken to Bombay, a common destination for the Nepalese girls committed to prostitution by men promising to marry them or to find them a good job. They now lived in a pleasant house behind one of the major hotels, in a rural setting. There I was introduced to the 18-year-old with the AIDS virus by one of her providers, a woman named Purnima, a devout Methodist.
  "She spent a year and a half in Bombay," Purnima explained, while the girl sat waiting to be interviewed, wearing a plain dress, silver earrings and a scarf, her knotted hair skewered with a ballpoint pen. "She was taken to Bombay by a boy, who left her in a brothel."
The girl had been taught to groom herself for the customers, and to speak Hindi. The madam "was a nice lady," the girl said. She had lived there and entertained middleaged male customers for a year and a half before the brothel was raided by the police and  she ended up in an ashram.
   Eventually the Indian authorities returned her to Nepal. Here she cleaned and worked in the garden; she seemed happy. "For the rest of her life she wants to live here," said Purnima, "and teach others to avoid what happened to her."
Hers was a common experience for as many as 1,000 girls a year who came from rural Nepal, many from villages where prostitution was traditional. But the presence of AIDS was something new; this girl would not be returning to her village, as many did, with enough money to attract a husband.
I returned to Pashupati, intrigued by the juxtaposition of sex and death: 11 stone chaityas, or shrines, each containing a lingam representing Shiva's reproductive organ, just across the narrow Bagmati River from the ghats where the dead were ritually burned. Stone idols of cows, lions and hogs faced the little temple, its intricately carved lintels and angled struts supporting a gilded roof and embellished with male griffin-like creatures with horns, and erections. Other carved figures fondling one another, or in merry coitus, decorated the beams. People stood in the angled shade of the temple and lined the footbridge for a better view of the cremation about to take place.
Logs had been piled on a stone platform, surmounted by a body in a red and white sari, face covered, strewn with incense and straw. Two naked boys played in the river, and just downstream a woman did her laundry, indifferent to the flames licking upward.
   The sun was very bright, but big stratocumulus drifted west from the mountains, lined with gray. Thunder competed with the tolling of the temple bells as acrid smoke began to pour from the pyre, riding a wind in advance of the rain. The blackening hulk of the deceased, gruesome by western standards, took on an odd dignity, flanked by bright saffron robes drying on the balustrade.
Upstream, a dozen children swam in the muddy water amidst rafts of flower petals. It was Saturday, a holy day; the ornate silvery doors of the main temple were open and people moved through the smoke of innumerable incense sticks. A rhesus monkey leapt onto the roof, unremarked by the women selling bananas under a black umbrella and by the sadhus dozing on the steps of the shrines. It was a medieval scene - stone footbridges, shrouded figures of holy men, the smells of sandlewood and burning flesh - for no one questioned the primacy of death and the mingling of the tangible and the spiritual.
I climbed the stone stairs, looking for Yari. I wanted him to take me to the Shivaite holy man living behind the ghats. If anyone could address the question of sex and death so prominently juxtaposed at Pashupati, it would be a devotee of Shiva, the creator but also the destroyer. "Shiva is the supreme... androgyne." a scholar named Sudhir Kapar wrote in Shamans, Mystics and Doctors, a book I had picked up near the hotel. "Both as ardha-narishwara ('half-man, half-woman') and in his iconic representations as the phallic linga that is always accompanied by the yoni, the symbol of the sexual organ of the goddess... His androgyny is praised and satirized in Sanskrit court poetry."
Pilgrims had left graffiti in the moss on the white-washed walls below the Gorakhnath temple, with its towering gilded trident, symbol of Shiva. I descended on the other side and stood before the Guhyeshwari temple, home of Kali, Shiva's consort, or shakti, sexually dominant, to whom male animals are sacrificed. Being a non-Hindu, I was not allowed inside - there is no such thing as conversion to the faith - but inside for the ritual fires, an apparently peaceful scene belying what I knew to be the apocalyptic nature of the goddess, Kali, many-armed, blood-thirsty, said to demand sacrifice and to wear a garland of human skulls.
Guhyeshwari, built by King Pratap Malla in the 17th century, was dedicated to the goddess's vagina. Four gilded snakes supported the roof. According to legend, when Shiva was insulted by his father-in-law, the goddess was so angry she burst into flames, thus giving rise to the custom of suttee - the self-immolation of wives on their husbands' funeral pyres. A distraught Shiva carried her remains about, and here that important part of her came to rest.
  I found Kali represented on the other gate, one that opened onto a square, with a huge ficus and bleachers where men sold cracked coconut and pineapple from rattan stands, and a goat gamboled underfoot. An old woman passed with a basketful of pale yellow chicks. This innocent village life, with rice paddies in the distance, went on under the eyes of the fearful representation, on the gatepost, of a blue Kali with a bloody tongue and impressive male genitalia. Her counterpart on the opposite post was a leering skeleton, similarly endowed.
The monsoon caught me. I could see workers fleeing across emerald green fields, and there were no taxis, and no umbrellas for sale in this idyll. By the time I got back to far side of the hill, I was soaked. The stalls had been covered with clear plastic sheets, and holy men lay on mats under the temple eaves, staring into the rain. Every imaginable kind of flotsam - plastic bags, flower petals, mango juice cartons, watermelon rinds - rode the brown torrent over sidewalks and the tires of stalled rickshaws. During the festival of Dasain, animals were sacrificed to Kali on a grand scale. Then the city gave itself over to the most primal urges, and blood ran in the streets.

I was later seated in the Yak and Yeti with a young American who had lived for many years in Katmandu, a student of Tantric Buddhism and of Hinduism, eating momos - dumplings - and drinking tea. I'll call him Tom. He didn't want to be identified either with his views on the arcane sexuality of the place or with his own past experiences, which include a long affair with a priestess.
At the moment Tom was talking about semen loss. "There is a paranoia about it that makes men here prone to resent women. Fulfillment of desire means being robbed of your vitality... Folk culture includes the idea of succubi that can tap into your life force."
Semen loss must be avoided at all costs. Ayruvedic medicine recognizes a link between it, blood, bone marrow and other fluids which theoretically can be tonified and used to promote health and provide energy. Also, "an etheric shield is created by semen." The real downside of that theory, of course, is the mistaken notion of invincibility: "Some Nepalese men think that if they have sex without orgasm, they cannot get a disease." Worse, some think that sex with a virgin will cure one of it.
Tom pointed out that in the Tantric tradition, young girls are considered emanations of the goddess and sometimes taken to temples where they are turned into consorts for men for religious purposes. "There is the tradition of female yoginis initiating young men into Tantric life," he says. "Sometimes the priests become corrupt, and the girls are sold off... So some women today work as whores without guilt or inhibitions."
Some of the consorting is authentic religious striving, however. "The basic instincts are transformed into something higher." Tom's own experiences were "transformative... Tantric techniques prolong intercourse without ejaculation, but AIDS is a new idea. It is difficult to integrate."
At last I found Yari near the main temple at Pashupati. He took me to see the Hindu holy man living in a den behind the ghats, with an iron gate and, inside, a kind of altar decorated with tridents, symbol of Shiva, tomtoms, a mortar and pestle, and a human skull. The "baba" wore ashes on his forehead, and dreadnoughts, and his eyes were wild, but he graciously invited us in, first instructing us to leave our shoes on the doorstep. Now, I thought, I will get an official version of the link between sex and death, an association most  similar, I had decided, to that in the west between Eros and Thanatos. 
We sat on the pallet, with Yari serving as interpreter; he asked the baba to expound on this aspect of the belief espoused by so many Nepalese. "The sex life is no good life," the baba began. "Why do we throw out energy? Our body is our self, but our heart is god's."
That didn't explain much but was more coherent than what followed, heart-felt words that began to draw a crowd. Men came in and squatted on the dirt floor; the baba lit up a cigarette that contained not tobacco, but ganja. "There are 84 million kinds reincarnation," he continued, wreathed in pungent smoke, "The truly holy person goes directly to heaven." He talked about the sun and the moon, about boys and girls, and concluded, "Sex can kill you, but so what?"
To reinforce this grim acceptance, he picked up the skull and did a little bump and grind, more King Lear than Bhagavad Gita. He dipped some bright orange teka paste from the skull and smeared it on my forehead, marking me as a pilgrim. I flinched, and the assembly burst out laughing.

At the end of the week I felt better but was no closer to understanding the reality of AIDS in Nepal, or any other reality, for that matter. The official number of HIV carriers was still 202. The crown prince was still gracing state functions in The Rising Nepal and the haunting woman's voice still adrift on the airwaves. LALS was still distributing needles, and some less reputable NGOs serving as a kind of black market for foreign capital.
Before I left Katmandu I met with a French doctor who had been working in Asia for years. He explained things, first making clear that he did not want to be quoted since he had to live - and compete - amidst the over-lapping medical and entrepreneurial allegiances, in a land of confounding, if fascinating, beliefs. 
"The demands of the donor agencies," he confided, referring to all the outside organizations - including WHO, AIDSCAP, Save the Children, the American Foundation for AIDS Research, sponsored by Elizabeth Taylor, and many others - "are driving the epidemiology. The focus changes every couple of years. First it was the casual drug users, then IDUs, then AIDS and prostitutes. Now the emphasis is shifting to child laborers in the carpet factories.
"There isn't really an AIDS epidemic in Nepal, or a pandemic, but a case of spill-over from various groups in society... There's relatively little infection among IDUs, and gay groups are unknown as such," he said. "Most of the infection is from heterosexual contact, not with prostitutes but by workers moving around Asia, and by professionals separated for a time from their families in other countries, who bring the infection home."
So Nepal was not the victim of its own traditions but, like any mountain fastness, in any age, vulnerable to inroads from a world little understood, full of danger.

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Monday, November 18, 2013

The 100-point scale, encore

(This piece was published in the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat.)                                                                        

Conaway performs last rites on Parker’s ‘point system’

     By Doug Ernst 

      James Conaway, the author who took on powerful wine interests in “Napa: The Story of an American Eden” and “The Far Side of Eden,” has now taken on perhaps the most powerful – wine critic Robert Parker – in an article declaring the “point system” is dying.
      His premise – that too much power over a $35 billion industry in the U.S. alone, along with its related industries of tourism and agriculture, is concentrated with too few critics like Parker – could give comfort and encouragement to other critics, many of them online.
      Worth magazine, in publishing the article titled “The War Over Wine,” poses the question, “who will capture the growing world of wine drinkers?”
      Conaway doesn’t answer the question directly, but says now is the time for other critics to step forward to fill the “point system” void. He says the timing is right due to “a confused and rapidly evolving marketplace in which neither sellers nor consumers know exactly where they stand.”
     Conaway points to last December, when Parker announced he had sold a ‘substantial interest’ in the Wine Advocate to a trio of Singapore investors and got into a legal dispute with an Advocate writer who defected to start an online wine publication.
     With Parker’s followers “demoralized,” the Wine Spectator emerged as the “ne plus ultra” of wine rankers, Conaway writes.
     But Conaway then makes the point that the Parker void is being filled not only by the Spectator, but more significantly, by more and more critics and commentators, many of them found on the internet. For example, Conaway touts:
     - Joe Roberts, the blogger behind the site 1 Wine Dude.
     - Paul Mabray, of VinTank.
     - Eric Asimov, wine critic for the New York Times, who told Conaway wine drinkers want more than a point system from critics. “They’re more interested in writing that presents wine in thoughtful, even inspirational ways and includes such things as place, history and heritage,” Asimov is quoted as saying.
     - Jon Bonne, wine editor for the San Francisco Chronicle, who told Conaway “younger wine drinkers insist on having real context in wine reviews, and standards beyond words like ‘delicious.’”
     - Stephen Tanzer of International Wine Cellar.
     - Alder Yarrow of Vinography.
     - Tom Wark of Fermentation.
     - Dave McIntyre of WineLine.
     - Alice Feiring and Jancis Robinson.
     “Critics are emerging, for good reason,” Conaway said in an interview this week. “I’ve always thought the 100-scale a phony concoction devised to sell increasingly expensive wine to people who knew little about it. And because of the tastes of both Parker and the Spectator Americans got hooked on fruity, alcoholic wines unsuited to food – in general, a disaster. Those who made classically-structured wines were essentially penalized for making better wine in a different style, an intolerable situation.”
     Conaway said the response to his article so far has been “overwhelmingly positive.”
      (See also

Friday, November 15, 2013

Katmandu I: Sickness is insight

(The editor said, "Want to go to Nepal?" I said "Yes," and had reason to regret it.) 

   The long reach of water-born microbes extended even to the salad served aboard the Nepalese airliner returning to Katmandu from Delhi. By the time I checked into the Yak and Yeti Hotel I was unusually pensive, and an hour later I was lying on my back. How appropriate to be sick in Katmandu, I thought: sickness is insight.
   My mission was to look into the link between culture and disease, between some of the world's most ancient beliefs - over-lapping Hinduism and Buddhism - and its lethal disorder, Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome. According to the Nepalese government, 202 of its citizens were HIV positive. The World Health Organization put the number of cases at about 5,000 then, still a relatively small number in a population of 18.5 million. AIDS was reportedly rampant in India and Thailand but seemed remote from this tiny, isolated country floating above Asia's generally daunting statistics.
   Being afflicted with a stomach ailment in a good hotel has its advantages. Yogurt and toast brought by men in brocade waistcoats are among them, but most important was the working telephone.
   I began by trying to reach authorities in the Ministry of Health, the Ministry of Home Affairs, then the Social Welfare Council, without success. I did learn of an AIDS clinic, in a hospital for infectious diseases on the other side of the city, and eventually took a motorized rickshaw back through the pandemonium of the two-stroke engine that is Katmandu.
   The monsoon had transformed the ambient atmosphere of the world's highest city from merely congestive to miasmic, blotting from view the world's highest mountains. The potent blend of incense, woodsmoke, and carbon monoxide, the carvings of copulating deities on street corners, heaped refuse and everywhere, courtesy of the transistor radio, the haunting nasal voice of a woman singing in a language I could not understand, all suggested that western perceptions might not work here, that my search would lead through cultural thickets without counterparts in the industrial sectors of the planet. 
   I entered a red brick building at the end of a rutted lane and joined a clot of patients holding rags over noses and mouths. Vague directions from the receptionist led me to another building, where the process was repeated. Eventually I found myself in a stairwell with a bicycle, wondering what went through the minds of those with lethal infections as they climbed stairs toward a landing where a woman slept in an old stuffed chair without armrests, outside a screen door.
   In an office containing a bare desk and a filing cabinet sat a pleasant Nepalese man in an open-necked shirt, one of three doctors in the National Center for AIDS and STD Control. He graciously explained the situation as he saw it: AIDS entered Nepal through the vector of migrant labor, primarily "sex workers" - the euphemism of choice in the world health community for prostitutes - returning from India.
   The center had tested 150,000 people, many of them living in villages where prostitution was generational, and had come up with the official figure of 202 testing positive for HIV. But he accepted the WHO's estimate of 5,000, and expected 10,000 cases by the end of the century: "We are trying to convince the policy-makers that this is going to be a major trait in Nepal."
   One of the problems was communication. Information about AIDS and its symptoms had not reached most of the population, with its literacy rate of only 40 percent, and possibly as low as 15 percent. Television was not generally available. There were no identifiable red light districts in which to distribute leaflets and condoms and to do research, and no discreet gay community. Talking about sex was not acceptable on any level of Nepal's social hierarchy. The most common symptom of AIDS in Nepal was tuberculosis, a fairly common ailment, and everyone who had TB could not be tested.
   And then there was the problem of Nepal's traditional allopathic medicine, known as Ayurveda, which prescribed remedies to counteract symptoms of disease, rather than the causes. "Allopathy doesn't recognize the difference between white cells and T cells." He added, with a smile, "Science has some basis, and you must follow it. That is our feeling." But it was not necessarily the feeling of the large sector of the population going to Ayurvedic doctors.           
   Ayurveda means "sands of time" in Sanskrit, the classical Indic language equally bound up in the rituals of Hindu and Buddhist. An Ayurvedic practitioner in Katmandu claimed to have a cure for AIDS, a riveting possibility anywhere today, in any guise, and one that led me into the howling byways behind Durbar Square.
   The hooded eyes painted on the little "stupa" - another Sanskrit word for the tower-like Buddhist shrines - overlooked brass scales for weighing grain set up on brick worn to powder by foot traffic, and narrow alleys lined with jewelry, hardware and shoe stalls, jammed with motorcycles. Beneath all the haggling lay an unbroken rhythm of drum and cymbal and that hypnotic woman's voice, vaulting between Walkman knock-offs. The low archway led to an inner courtyard, and next to dispensary for Ayurvedic herbal remedies was the office of Dr. Mana Bajra Bajracharya.
   A thin, middleaged man in sandals sat behind a dusty showcase full of pamphlets offering cures for asthma, hepatitis, diabetes, herpes, even cancer. "People have been dying of AIDS for centuries," a Dr. Mana told me, dismissing the claim that AIDS was a new threat. "Technology has just recently made identification of the virus possible."
   His treatment, he said, increased immunity through the use of natural substances and thereby counteracted the virus. He claimed to have helped AIDS patients in various parts of the world. I asked why the cure had not been broadly adopted, if it was effective. "Everybody asks this question," he said wearily. "This is not western medicine."
   His procedure cost $300. The herpes treatment was even cheaper, $60. Under the heading "The Ayurvedic Concept of Herpes," in the pamphlet he had written, "Ayurveda points out that the herpes genitalia is concerned with a poisonous moss which is allergic... The powder of it is used to rub on the penis to increase the bulk of it ... Anyone who uses it can have herpes." His prescription involved "medicine for cleaning the lymphatic duct system and blood cleansing medicine," the components of which "maintain the alkaline reaction of blood, neutralize the toxic agents and promote to excrete the bodily dirt e.g. bile, uric acid, et cetera. Gradually western medicine has come here," Mana said. "But 90 percent of the people still take Ayruvedic."
   The "cures" seemed preposterous but not necessarily harmful. There was no doubt comfort for many in the ancient tradition, and quite possibly a lethal distraction when it came to AIDS. I had found that the body drove the mind here, that the notion of Ayruvedic medicine in the strange and tantalizing cacophony of Katmandu gave rise to irrational hopes. So before leaving I asked if he had a cure for diarrhea.
   Westerners do tend to under-estimate the complexity of so-called third world countries. The problem, it seemed, was the layer of technology over native fatalism. A person casual about putting oil into a motor-scooter on which his livelihood depended was not easily induced to wear a condom; a country reluctant to embrace the septic system was unlikely to heed the tolling bell of even a pandemic. During the ten years it would normally take a Nepalese to succumb to AIDS he might well already be dead of one of a number of common water- and air-born diseases unrelated to the virus.
   Meanwhile the government functioned, if that is the word, to maintain Nepal's strict social hierarchy. Everyday the official English language newspaper, The Rising Nepal, ran a front page column devoted to the doings of His Royal Highness Crown Prince Dipendra Bir Bikram Shah Dev. "Crown Prince Graces Luncheon" was a typical headline; that issue also contained an editorial besieging Katmanduites "not to throw garbage outside their houses for a few days in the wake of continuous rains," and an article about drug abuse in which the Home Minister estimated that 30,000 teenagers in Nepal were involved. But not a word about AIDS.
   Non-government organizations (NGOs) existed by the thousands, dealing with problems the bureaucracy was incapable of addressing, or unwilling to. Many NGOs were purely entrepreneurial reactions to awards made by outside agencies for research of all kinds, springing up to absorb foreign money and provide jobs for the university-educated upper class, then disappearing when the grants were exhausted. Some, however, were said to be effective, and one of these, LALS (the Lifesaving and Lifegiving Society) had contact with those Nepalese who, other than prostitutes, were most at risk - intravenous drug-users.
   I found LALS offices on the Dillibazaar, in a little villa with motorbikes parked in the foyer. A sign on the wall advised, in English, "Be Here for the Cure." An American named Aaron explained that the clinic provided services for about 650 injecting drug addicts, about three per cent of whom were HIV positive. Since society was managed by caste, and there was no caste for IUDs - or for garbage collectors - LALS was performing a necessary function.
   I joined in a taxi three of the clinic's outreach staff, including a pretty university graduate, Shobha, who spoke English and was bound for Pashupatinath, the religious center on the outskirts of the city. Shobha carried a bag full of clean needles and bleach, and a plastic bucket for syringe disposal - the kit of the contemporary community activist in most any city in the world today.

  "Pashupati" was the most important Hindu site in Nepal and one of the most important on the continent. The road down to the Bagmati River wound past stalls selling mallas, cheap knives, block prints of Hindu gods, mango juice. A huge statue of the bull, Nandi, the vehicle of the supreme god, Shiva, guarded the entrance to Pashupati. Shiva was also, in one of the many transmogrifications of Nepalese belief, the mythical dancer, Nataraja, who gave the universe a good shaking out and thereby created the earth. But Shiva had a dark side, one that began to reveal itself that morning.

   In front of the Ram temple we met a 19-year-old I will call Yari, glassy-eyed but pleasant, wearing a malla around his neck and a kind of sari; he was a sadhu, one of the thousands of aspiring holy men in Katmandu. On Yari's forehead was the red mark of the pilgrim.
   We talked while Shobha passed out needles to a younger addict, one with a quarter-gram habit that cost him 250 rupees a day. Yari told me he had been using drugs since he was 14, first alcohol, then ganja (marijuana) and finally "brown sugar," or heroin from India, Pakistan or Afghanistan. He had been off hard drugs for a month and a half.
   Ganja was another matter. The drug was seen as an aid to meditation by the sadhus and allowed in small quantities by the authorities. Even as Yari discussed the advantages of abstinence he excused himself for a moment to join a group of sadhus and take a decided hit from their bong, the pipe with a rag wrapped around the mouthpiece, used for smoking ganja.
   I asked Shobha if Yari or his friend were HIV positive. "Not yet," she said.           
(Next: Katmandu's bodies and gods)
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Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Bet you didn't know the palate has a chakra

     Yoga: The Art of Transformation, at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in Washington, DC, is the world’s first assemblage of yogic art ever and something anyone within striking distance should see. Practicing yoga (I admit to occasional yogic recidivism) or even caring about it isn’t a necessity, since this is a rare cultural experience and a glimpse into the origins of Indian religions that have had a profound impact on the western world.
      Something for everyone here: ancient sculpture and painting, myth and reality, including Thomas Edison’s 1906 movie, the first ever made about India, Hindoo Fakir. Even determined enophiles will be interested in the painting of the “subtle” Shunya, as opposed to the quite frightening “cosmic” one, which shows the location of the sixth chakra, associated with the palate (the blue spot on the chin in the photo).
      The early renditions of evolving Hindu gods and goddesses with their girdles of skulls reminded me not of downward dog or overripe cabernet sauvignon but of a difficult, fascinating trip I once took to India and Nepal on assignment for a magazine interested in the spread of AIDS. The investigation took me to, among other places, the charnel grounds outside Katmandu where bodies were burned.
     I’ll run the piece in two parts, starting Friday.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Letter from Nantucket

   Every summer evening the commodore or vice commodore of the Nantucket Yacht Club—you can tell which is in residence by the flag flying over the little house at the end of the pier—strides into the club dining room a minute before sunset and says loudly, "All rise!" Outside, the club cannon is fired, Old Glory is lowered, and everybody sits down again. 
   You have to love this island 30 miles off the coast of Massachusetts, famous for its whaling tradition but most esteemed nowadays for clean beaches and fine old architecture: saltboxes that for centuries have kept the wild North Atlantic storms out of the chowder and trundle beds, proper Quaker three-bay houses with steps flush on streets made of cobbles that once served as ballast in the old sailing vessels, proud Federal residences and red brick Georgians amidst cedar shakes, wood downspouts, and hand-wrought timbers.
   History is palpable. In what other place with a resident population of 12,000—not counting perhaps 200,000 day-trippers a year—would you find two drugstores side by side on Main Street, both in historic buildings? Each has its own devoted clientele and notion of hospitality—one is friendly to all, the other mostly to regulars—and therein lies a lesson: acceptance on this easterly bit of America is subtle, and sometimes difficult.
   You can spend your life on the 14-mile sand spit that is Nantucket and still be considered a "wash-ashore" if you weren't born here. Famous wash-ashores who have found safe haven include Michael Eisner, chief executive officer of Disney; Jack Welsh, retired former head of General Electric; and L. Dennis Kozlowski, head of Tyco International until he was indicted for fraud in 2002. A brassy publication called N (for Nantucket Times) asserted that Kozlowski's "pals from Nantucket—along with a few from off-island—pledged over $30 million in property and other personal assets" should the former ceo need it to meet his sizable bail requirement. The erstwhile tycoon did not have to call in his pals, after all; disposable income is clearly no problem here, at least not for many.
   You can be rich and devote your energies to sailing, or to preserving 18th-century facades and cranberry bogs, and never be invited to join the crusty Yacht or Sankaty Head Golf clubs. There are hundreds of names on the waiting list for a mooring in the lovely little harbor, but money will not buy one of those, either. Money does play a large part in access to some of the island's charms, however—in some cases a very large part: the new Nantucket Golf Club, for instance, accepts members for a mere $325,000 entrance fee. And those old homes in town, as everyone knows, go for millions. 
   McMansions with water views go for more millions. Their owners park their private jets on the crowded tarmac outside town, having already had their suvs brought over on the ferry. The roads are jammed in summer, the cars in curious juxtaposition to historic houses. Many of those interiors have suffered architectural trauma on behalf of powder rooms and dueling kitchen ranges, while others have been altered overall, and a few demolished.
   It could be worse. Nantucket is still beautiful because so many people work hard to keep it that way. Tradition is not just valued, it is imperative: By statute, two percent of the proceeds of every real estate transaction goes into a public fund for preserving open space. There are real if not total restrictions on what can be done to the exteriors of houses, forcing developers and other rehabbers to respect the letter and usually the intent of the law. This restrains some extreme shows of individuality by wealthy clients and thereby slows the developmental forces that have transformed so many of America's chosen places.     
   The allure of the past brings more off-islanders, but affordable housing for those who do the table waiting, carpentry, housekeeping, and teaching has disappeared. Workers often have to live on Cape Cod and commute by ferry, and sometimes by prop plane.
   Nantucket's settlers may have been an egalitarian bunch, but the island's phenomenal early maritime success produced a distinction between property owners and servants, among them slaves. Today the contrast between the pace of preindustrial life, symbolized by the matchless historic structures, and the press of machines, designer wear, and other manifestations of new, privileged "lifestyles" is stark.
   Thumb through the Nantucket telephone directory and you will encounter a daunting array of preservation organizations: the Nantucket Historical Association, the Nantucket Preservation Trust, Preservation Institute, and others. The ad hoc Nantucket Preservation Alliance embraces a dozen such groups whose members regularly meet to discuss preservation on the island.
   African slaves on Nantucket were freed in 1773, a decade before Massachusetts as a whole followed suit. The whaling trade—America's first oil boom—sorely tried the commitment to frugality of Quakers who had fled the Puritans on the mainland, while providing opportunity for black freedmen to excel as sailors, harpooners, and shipwrights. During the 1820s the meetinghouse was built by the African Baptist Society; within two decades, blacks—including African-Americans and Cape Verdeans—made up six percent of the population. Among them was Absalom Boston, who sat on the board of the Baptist Society and was the first black captain to sail from Nantucket with an all-black whaling crew.
   Abolitionist sentiment was strong on Nantucket and shared by many whites, among them Anna Gardner, who taught in the African School, just one of many organizations that made use of the meetinghouse. Another was the Black Anti-Slavery Society. Nantucket served as an early venue for Frederick Douglass, who launched his oratorical career on the island, though not in the meetinghouse. But Douglass almost certainly visited the neighborhood, known first as Newtown and then as New Guinea, and its one-room hub of black community life.
   The structure sheltered, sometimes concurrently, not just the Baptist congregation, the school, and the abolitionists but also a vaccination dispensary, and open discussions of subjects that included education of black children. Nantucket's public school was desegregated as early as 1847 by a gifted young black woman named Eunice Ross, daughter of a founder of the Baptist Society, with the determined efforts of blacks and some whites.
   The decline of whaling and the allure of the California gold rush in the mid-1800s reduced the island's overall population, including that of its blacks. The meetinghouse was closed in 1911, and deterioration set in. Nantucket's long economic decline lasted until the real estate boom began in the 1960s, with fixing up and restoration spreading from the water's edge to the end of every winding lane.
   This revival didn't reach the African Meeting House. Many natives and most wash-ashores didn't know that the shack at the corner of Pleasant and York streets had once been the focus of a vital black community—or that it was one of the oldest African-American church buildings in the United States. Even after it was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1975, the meetinghouse failed to inspire the same philanthropic enthusiasm showed by residents and summer people for Nantucket's other historical institutions, like the Atheneum (library) and the Nantucket Historical Association. "Breaking even after a fundraiser was something of an accomplishment," recalls Bette Spriggs, one of the relatively few black residents on the island today, of local efforts in the 1980s to raise money to restore the structure. The organizers "would really get excited if they raised $600."
   Checks for as much as half a million dollars for worthy causes were written on-island, but not for the meetinghouse. The Historical Association, which two years ago completed an expensive expansion of its research library and subsequently conducted a successful multimillion-dollar capital campaign, showed little interest in it. Other preservation groups on the island offered advice to its supporters, but no money.
   This general lack of financial support indicated, in the view of Spriggs' husband, Frank, "residual racism." There is some irony in this assessment, considering Nantucket's good record in race relations and Frank Spriggs' own history. When he visited his grandmother on Nantucket as a child, he found "a paradise" of acceptance compared with his home back in Washington, D.C. After retiring from ibm half a century later, having spent summer holidays in the family cottage on the outskirts of town, Spriggs returned to the island full-time in 1995 "to give something back." He and Bette built a modest house next to the cottage, and Frank did volunteer work before running successfully for the island's board of selectmen.
   He is the first African-American ever elected to that governing body and last year was chosen by white counterparts to serve as chairman. His assessment of the difficulties encountered by proponents of the African Meeting House is not a condemnation of Nantucket but an observation about an attitude with deep roots in America—even in a place long credited with religious and ethnic tolerance.
   Some perspective is provided by Nathaniel Philbrick, author of In the Heart of the Sea, the popular book about the whaling ship Essex and a long-time wash-ashore. Nantucket is "a special place—Quakers, abolitionists, all that," he says. "We're proud of the history, but when it comes down to the day-to-day relations between the races, Nantucket is no different from the rest of America." Raising funds today for an obviously august institution is much easier, he points out, than raising funds for "a modest building with an obscure past. … The important thing is that it happened."
   And that is because, in 1988, the African Meeting House attracted the attention of off-islanders, among them Ruth Batson, a civil rights activist and president of the board of the Museum of Afro-American History in Boston. The museum already owned the African Meeting House on Beacon Hill, a National Historic Site, which included the Abiel Smith School next door. Batson urged the museum to purchase the Nantucket property, too, with money donated in part by Henry Hampton, producer of the civil rights documentary series Eyes on the Prize. The next step was locating the owner.
   Florence Higginbotham, an African-American maid who had come to Nantucket with her employers in the summers, had bought the property in 1920, along with the house next door, reportedly built in 1842. Her heir, in California, agreed to sell both structures to the museum in 1988—and with them a trove of historic objects.
   Work to restore the building's exterior was undertaken with a matching grant from the Massachusetts Historical Commission in 1995. Most of the building's foundation and original timbers were sound. The facade had undergone considerable change in the 20th century, when the meetinghouse served as a garage. In 1997 another matching grant was awarded to restore the structure's interior. There, beneath the plaster ceiling, workers discovered wood framing in the shape of an inverted ship hull, not uncommon in New England. Most of the old pews were gone, but their ghostly outlines remained on the walls.The meetinghouse was draped in black tarpaper to prevent further deterioration. A survey by the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities had determined that the building had "a high degree of historic integrity and significance," and in 1993 Boston University conducted an archaeological study of the grounds that went back beyond the first European owners of the property. It turned up thousands of objects but no pipe stems or liquor bottles, suggesting an enduring abstemiousness.
   Copies of the pews were installed, and the walls repainted. "The old floorboards were so stained with oil and gasoline they had to be replaced," says Bette Spriggs, now the site manager. Since the restoration was completed in 1999, there have been weddings, concerts, a children's program for Black History Month, and of course, visits by tourists. "People come who had no idea there were African-Americans on Nantucket," says Bette. "I tell them that this is the same path Frederick Douglass walked, the same steps he would have climbed."

Read more about Nantucket in my book of travel essays: