1+1=4? Latin America Confronts a Pandemic Education Crisis.

SOACHA, Colombia — Already, two of Gloria Vásquez’s children had dropped out of school during the pandemic, including her 8-year-old, Ximena, who had fallen so far behind that she struggled with the most basic arithmetic.

“One plus one?” Ms. Vásquez quizzed her daughter one afternoon.

“Four?” the little girl guessed helplessly.

Now, Ms. Vásquez, a 33-year-old single mother and motel housekeeper who had never made it past the fifth grade, told herself she couldn’t let a third child leave school.

“Where’s Maicol?” she asked her children, calling home one night during another long shift scrubbing floors. “Is he studying?”

have returned to the classroom, 100 million children in Latin America are still in full or partial distance learning — or, as in Maicol’s case, some distant approximation of it.

The consequences are alarming, officials and education experts say: With economies in the region pummeled by the pandemic and connections to the classroom so badly frayed, children in primary and secondary school are dropping out in large numbers, sometimes to work wherever they can.

1.8 million children and young people abandoned their educations this school year because of the pandemic or economic hardship, according to the national statistics agency.

Ecuador lost an estimated 90,000 primary and secondary school students. Peru says it lost 170,000. And officials worry that the real losses are far higher because countless children, like Maicol, are technically still enrolled but struggling to hang on. More than five million children in Brazil have had no access to education during the pandemic, a level not seen in more than 20 years, Unicef says.

Increased access to education was one of the great accomplishments of the last half century in Latin America, with enrollment soaring for girls, poor students and members of ethnic and racial minorities, lifting many toward the middle class. Now, an onslaught of dropouts threatens to peel back years of hard-won progress, sharpening inequality and possibly shaping the region for decades to come.

some of the world’s worst outbreaks, yet several South American nations are now experiencing their highest daily death tolls of the crisis, even after more than a year of relentless loss. For some governments, there is little end in sight.

But unless lockdowns end and students get back into the classroom soon, “many children may never return,” the World Bank warns. And “those who do go back to school will have lost months or even years of education.” Some analysts fear the region could be facing a generation of lost children, not unlike places that suffer years of war.

Even before the pandemic, graduating from high school in Ms. Vásquez’s neighborhood was no small feat.

She and her children live at the end of a dirt road, just beyond Bogotá, Colombia’s sprawling, mountain-flanked capital, a deeply unequal city in one of the most unequal regions in the world. Violence and crime are as common here as the ice cream cart that circles the block each afternoon. For some children, the pandemic has been yet another trauma in a seemingly endless succession.

Many parents in the neighborhood make their living as recyclers, traversing the city with wooden wheelbarrows hitched to their backs. And many of their children don’t have computers, internet or family members who can help with class work. Often there is one cellphone for the family, leaving students scrambling for any connection to school.

Ms. Vásquez dropped out at 14 to help raise her siblings, and it has been her greatest regret. The motel she cleans is far from home, sometimes forcing her to leave her children for more than a day — 24 hours for her shift, with at least four hours of commuting. Even so, she rarely makes the country’s monthly minimum wage.

She had hoped her children — Ximena, 8, Emanuel, 12, Maicol, 13, and Karen, 15 — whom she calls “the motor of my life,” would leave the neighborhood, if only they could get through this never-ending pandemic with their schooling intact.

“I’ve always said that we have been dealt a difficult hand,” but “they have a lot of desire to learn,” she said.

Before the virus arrived, her children attended public schools nearby, wearing the colorful uniforms typical for Colombian pupils. Karen wanted to be a doctor. Maicol, a performer. Emanuel, a police officer. Ximena was still deciding.

By late May, the two boys were still officially enrolled in school, but barely keeping up, trying to fill out the work sheets their teachers sent via WhatsApp each week. They have no computer, and it costs Ms. Vásquez 15 cents a page to print the assignments, some of which are dozens of pages long. Sometimes, she has the money. Sometimes not.

Both girls had dropped out altogether. Ximena lost her spot at school just before the pandemic last year because she had missed classes, a not-so uncommon occurrence in Colombia’s overburdened schools. Then, with administrators working from home, Ms. Vásquez said she couldn’t figure out how to get her daughter back in.

Karen said she had lost contact with her instructors when the country went into lockdown in March 2020. Now, she wanted to return, but her family had accidentally broken a tablet lent to her by the school. She was terrified that if she tried to re-enroll, she would be hit with a fine her mother had no money to pay.

The family was already reeling because Ms. Vásquez’s hours at the motel had been cut during the crisis. Now they were four months behind on rent.

Ms. Vásquez was particularly worried about Maicol, who struggled to make sense of work sheets about periodic tables and literary devices, each day more frustrating than the last.

Lately, when he wasn’t recycling, he’d go looking for scrap metal to sell. To him, the nights out with his uncle were a welcome reprieve, like a pirate’s adventure: meeting new people, searching for treasure — toys, shoes, food, money.

But Ms. Vásquez, who had forbidden these jaunts, grew incensed when she heard he was working. The more time Maicol spent with the recycling cart, she feared, the smaller his world would become.

She respected the people who gathered trash for a living. She’d done it when she was pregnant with Emanuel. But she didn’t want Maicol to be satisfied with that life. During her shifts at the motel, cleaning bathrooms, she imagined her children in the future, sitting behind computers, running businesses.

“‘Look,’ people would say, ‘those are Gloria’s kids,’” she said. “They don’t have to bear the same destiny as their mother.”

Over the last year, school began in earnest only after she came home from work. One afternoon, she pulled out a study guide from Emanuel’s teacher, and began dictating a spelling and grammar exercise.

“Once upon a time,” she read.

“Once upon a time,” wrote Emanuel, 12.

“There was a white and gray duck —”

“Gray?” he asked.

When it came to Maicol’s more advanced lessons, Ms. Vásquez was often lost herself. She didn’t know how to use email, much less calculate the area of a square or teach her son about planetary rotations.

“I try to help them with what I understand,” she said. “It’s not enough.”

Lately, she’d become consumed by the question of how her children would catch up when — or if? — they ever returned to class.

The full educational toll of the pandemic will not be known until governments bring children back to school, experts warn. Ms. Di Gropello, of the World Bank, said she feared that many more children, especially poorer ones without computers or internet connections, would abandon their educations once they realize how far behind they’ve fallen.

By mid-June, Colombia’s education ministry announced that all schools would return to in-person courses after a July vacation. Though the country is enduring a record number of daily deaths from the virus, officials have determined that the cost of staying closed is too great.

But as school principals scramble to prepare for the return, some wonder how many students and teachers will show up. At Carlos Albán Holguín, one of the schools in Ms. Vásquez’s neighborhood, the principal said some instructors were so afraid of infection that they had refused to come to the school to pick up the completed assignments their pupils had dropped off.

One recent morning, Karen woke before dawn, as she often does, to help her mother get ready for her shift at the motel. Since leaving school last year, Karen had increasingly taken on the role of parent, cooking and cleaning for the family, and trying to protect her siblings while their mother was at work.

At one point, the responsibility got to be so much that Karen ran away. Her flight lasted just a few hours, until Ms. Vásquez found her.

“I told my mother that she had to support me more,” Karen said. “That she couldn’t leave me alone, that I was an adolescent and I needed her help.”

In their shared bedroom, while Ms. Vásquez applied makeup, Karen packed her mother’s blue backpack, slipping in pink Crocs, a fanny pack, headphones and a change of clothes.

Ms. Vásquez had gone out to march one day, too, blowing a plastic horn in the crowd and calling on the authorities to guarantee what she called a “dignified education.”

But she hadn’t returned to the streets. If something happened to her at the marches, who would support her children?

“Do you want me to braid your hair?” Karen asked her mother.

At the door, she kissed Ms. Vásquez goodbye.

Then, after months of hardship, came a victory.

Ms. Vásquez received messages from Maicol’s and Emanuel’s teachers: Both schools would bring students back, in person, in just a few weeks. And she finally found a spot for Ximena, who had been out of school entirely for more than a year.

“A new start,” Ms. Vásquez said, giddy with excitement.

Karen’s future was less certain. She had worked up the courage to return the broken tablet. Administrators did not fine her — and she applied to a new school.

Now, she was waiting to hear if there was space for her, trying to push away the worry that her education was over.

“I’ve been told that education is everything, and without education there is nothing,” she said. “And, well, it’s true — I’ve seen it with my own eyes.”

Reporting was contributed by Sofía Villamil in Bogotá and Soacha, Colombia; José María León Cabrera in Quito, Ecuador; Miriam Castillo in Mexico City; Mitra Taj in Lima, Peru; and Ana Ionova in Rio de Janeiro.

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Bouncy Castles and Grenades: Gangs Erode Maduro’s Grip on Caracas

CARACAS, Venezuela — From within his presidential palace, President Nicolás Maduro regularly commandeers the airwaves, delivering speeches intended to project stability to his crumbling nation.

But as the Venezuelan state disintegrates under the weight of Mr. Maduro’s corrupt leadership and American sanctions, his government is losing control of segments of the country, even within his stronghold: the capital, Caracas.

Nowhere is his weakening grip on territory more evident than in Cota 905, a shantytown that clings to a steep mountainside overlooking the gilded halls from which Mr. Maduro addresses the nation.

policing, road maintenance, health care and public utilities, to pour dwindling resources into Caracas, home of the political, business and military elites who form his support base.

Hunkered down in his fortified Caracas residences, Mr. Maduro crushed the opposition, purged the security forces of dissent and enriched his cronies in an effort to eliminate challenges to his authoritarian rule.

In remote areas, swathes of national territory fell to criminals and insurgents. But gang control of Cota 905 and the surrounding shantytowns, which lie just two miles from the presidential palace, is evidence that his government is losing its grip even on the center of the capital.

Across the city, other armed groups have also asserted territorial control over working-class neighborhoods.

“Maduro is often seen as a traditional strongman controlling every aspect of Venezuelans’ lives,” said Rebecca Hanson, a sociologist at the University of Florida who studies violence in Venezuela. “In reality, the state has become very fragmented, very chaotic and in many areas very weak.”

As the government’s reach in Caracas’s shantytowns withered, organized crime grew, forcing Mr. Maduro’s officials to negotiate with the largest gangs to limit violence and maintain political control, according to interviews with a dozen residents, as well as police officers, officials and academics studying violence.

In the process, the most organized gangs began supplanting the state in their communities, taking over policing, social services and even the enforcement of pandemic measures.

Police officers say the gang that controls Cota 905 now has around 400 men armed with the proceeds from drug trafficking, kidnapping and extortion, and that it exerts complete control over at least eight square miles in the heart of the capital.

Gang members with automatic weapons openly patrol the shantytown’s streets and those of the surrounding communities, and guard entry points from rooftop watchtowers. The first checkpoint appears just a few minutes’ drive from the headquarters of Mr. Maduro’s secret police.

As the Venezuelan economy went into a tailspin, the Cota gang began offering financial support to the community, supplanting Mr. Maduro’s bankrupt social programs, which once offered free food, housing and school supplies for the poor.

After monopolizing the local drug trade, the Cota 905 gang imposed strict rules on the residents in return for stopping the once endemic violence and petty crime. And many residents welcome its hard line on crime.

“Before, the thugs robbed,” said Mr. Ojeda, a Cota 905 resident who, like others in the community, asked that his full name not be published for fear of crossing the gangsters. “Now, they are the ones who come to you, without fail, with anything that goes missing.”

During his tenure, Mr. Maduro has veered from brutal suppression of organized crime groups to accommodation in an attempt to check rising crime.

In 2013, he withdrew security forces from about a dozen troubled spots, including Cota 905, naming them “Peace Zones,” as he tried to placate the gangs. Two years later, when the policy failed to check crime, he unleashed a wave of brutal police assaults on the shantytowns.

The police operations resulted in thousands of extrajudicial killings, according to the United Nations, earning Mr. Maduro charges of committing crimes against humanity and the hatred of many shantytown residents. Faced with the onslaught, the gangs closed ranks, creating ever larger and more complex organizations, according to Ms. Hanson and her colleague, the researcher Verónica Zubillaga.

Unable to defeat the Cota gang, Mr. Maduro’s government returned to negotiations with its leaders, according to a police commander and two government officials who held talks with the gang and worked to put the agreements in place.

Security forces are once again banned from entering the community, according to the police commander, who is not authorized to discuss state policy and did so on condition of anonymity.

Under the deal with the government, the Cota gang has reduced kidnappings and murders, and began carrying out some state policies. During the pandemic, gang members strictly enforced lockdown rules and mask wearing, local residents said. And the gang is working with the government to distribute the scant remaining food and school supplies to the residents, residents and the two officials said.

“The gang is focused on the community,” said Antonio Garcia, a shantytown resident. “They make sure we get our bag of food.”

Mr. Ojeda said he received $300 from the gang the last Carnival season to buy toys and sweets for his family, a fortune in a country where the minimum monthly wage has collapsed to about $2. Residents said young people in the community are offered jobs as lookouts or safe house guards for between $50 and $100 a week, more than most doctors and engineers make in Venezuela.

Taking these jobs is easier than leaving them. Soon after the oldest son of Ms. Ramírez — who did not want to give her full name out of fear of the gang — began serving as a lookout in Cota 905, he discovered that his life now belonged to the gang.

“He had new clothes, new shoes, but he couldn’t stop crying,” Ms. Ramírez said. “He wanted to go back and couldn’t.”

Anti-government protests are banned in the shantytown, and gang members summon residents to the polling stations on elections, said the residents.

The members “tell us that if the government is toppled, we would be affected too, because the police would return,” said Ana Castro, a Cota resident. “The ‘Peace Zone’ would end, and we would all suffer.”

In private, some government officials defend the nonaggression pacts with the biggest gangs, saying the policy has drastically reduced violence.

Violent deaths in Caracas shantytowns have halved since the mid-2010s, when the Venezuelan capital was one of the world’s deadliest cities, according to figures from a local nonprofit, Mi Convive.

But academics and analysts studying crime in the city say the drop in homicides points to the growing power of Caracas’s gangs against an increasingly weak government. The imbalance, experts said, puts the government and the population in an increasingly dangerous and vulnerable position.

The power shift was evident in April, when the Cota gang shot up a police patrol car and took over a section of highway running through Caracas. The area was a five-minute drive from the presidential palace, and the blockade paralyzed the capital for several hours.

But the government stayed silent through it all. The security forces never came to retake the highway. Once the gang left, officers quietly cleared out the blasted patrol car.

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How the Coming Population Bust Will Transform the World

All over the world, countries are confronting population stagnation and a fertility bust, a dizzying reversal unmatched in recorded history that will make first-birthday parties a rarer sight than funerals, and empty homes a common eyesore.

Maternity wards are already shutting down in Italy. Ghost cities are appearing in northeastern China. Universities in South Korea can’t find enough students, and in Germany, hundreds of thousands of properties have been razed, with the land turned into parks.

Like an avalanche, the demographic forces — pushing toward more deaths than births — seem to be expanding and accelerating. Though some countries continue to see their populations grow, especially in Africa, fertility rates are falling nearly everywhere else. Demographers now predict that by the latter half of the century or possibly earlier, the global population will enter a sustained decline for the first time.

A planet with fewer people could ease pressure on resources, slow the destructive impact of climate change and reduce household burdens for women. But the census announcements this month from China and the United States, which showed the slowest rates of population growth in decades for both countries, also point to hard-to-fathom adjustments.

spirals exponentially. With fewer births, fewer girls grow up to have children, and if they have smaller families than their parents did — which is happening in dozens of countries — the drop starts to look like a rock thrown off a cliff.

“It becomes a cyclical mechanism,” said Stuart Gietel Basten, an expert on Asian demographics and a professor of social science and public policy at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. “It’s demographic momentum.”

Some countries, like the United States, Australia and Canada, where birthrates hover between 1.5 and 2, have blunted the impact with immigrants. But in Eastern Europe, migration out of the region has compounded depopulation, and in large parts of Asia, the “demographic time bomb” that first became a subject of debate a few decades ago has finally gone off.

South Korea’s fertility rate dropped to a record low of 0.92 in 2019 — less than one child per woman, the lowest rate in the developed world. Every month for the past 59 months, the total number of babies born in the country has dropped to a record depth.

schools shut and abandoned, their playgrounds overgrown with weeds, because there are not enough children.

even iPhones.

To goose the birthrate, the government has handed out baby bonuses. It increased child allowances and medical subsidies for fertility treatments and pregnancy. Health officials have showered newborns with gifts of beef, baby clothes and toys. The government is also building kindergartens and day care centers by the hundreds. In Seoul, every bus and subway car has pink seats reserved for pregnant women.

But this month, Deputy Prime Minister Hong Nam-ki admitted that the government — which has spent more than $178 billion over the past 15 years encouraging women to have more babies — was not making enough progress. In many families, the shift feels cultural and permanent.

projections by an international team of scientists published last year in The Lancet, 183 countries and territories — out of 195 — will have fertility rates below replacement level by 2100.

municipalities have been consolidated as towns age and shrink. In Sweden, some cities have shifted resources from schools to elder care. And almost everywhere, older people are being asked to keep working. Germany, which previously raised its retirement age to 67, is now considering a bump to 69.

Going further than many other nations, Germany has also worked through a program of urban contraction: Demolitions have removed around 330,000 units from the housing stock since 2002.

recently increased to 1.54, up from 1.3 in 2006. Leipzig, which once was shrinking, is now growing again after reducing its housing stock and making itself more attractive with its smaller scale.

“Growth is a challenge, as is decline,” said Mr. Swiaczny, who is now a senior research fellow at the Federal Institute for Population Research in Germany.

Demographers warn against seeing population decline as simply a cause for alarm. Many women are having fewer children because that’s what they want. Smaller populations could lead to higher wages, more equal societies, lower carbon emissions and a higher quality of life for the smaller numbers of children who are born.

But, said Professor Gietel Basten, quoting Casanova: “There is no such thing as destiny. We ourselves shape our lives.”

The challenges ahead are still a cul-de-sac — no country with a serious slowdown in population growth has managed to increase its fertility rate much beyond the minor uptick that Germany accomplished. There is little sign of wage growth in shrinking countries, and there is no guarantee that a smaller population means less stress on the environment.

Many demographers argue that the current moment may look to future historians like a period of transition or gestation, when humans either did or did not figure out how to make the world more hospitable — enough for people to build the families that they want.

Surveys in many countries show that young people would like to be having more children, but face too many obstacles.

Anna Parolini tells a common story. She left her small hometown in northern Italy to find better job opportunities. Now 37, she lives with her boyfriend in Milan and has put her desire to have children on hold.

She is afraid her salary of less than 2,000 euros a month would not be enough for a family, and her parents still live where she grew up.

“I don’t have anyone here who could help me,” she said. “Thinking of having a child now would make me gasp.”

Elsie Chen, Christopher Schuetze and Benjamin Novak contributed reporting.

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Not Your Pre-Pandemic Las Vegas

A decade ago, after a rained-out Thanksgiving desert camping trip with our five kids, my wife, Kristin, and I headed to the nearest available lodging, the now-shuttered Hard Rock Casino in Las Vegas. Watching our brood eat their Thanksgiving meal as cigarette smoke and slot-machine clamor wafted over their cheeseburgers, Kristin and I locked eyes with an unspoken message: We ar­­e the world’s worst parents.

We have avoided Las Vegas with the kids since then, but an aborted drive to slushy Aspen this April with three of our heirs caused us to pause in Vegas. At the time, the city was just awakening from its Covid slumber, with mandatory masks and limited capacity in most indoor spaces, traffic so light that cars were drag-racing down the normally packed Strip, and a lingering, troubling question over the whole place: Will this reopening really be safe?

But extraordinary things have been happening during this slumber, and while we were only going to spend one night there, we had so much fun that we ended up staying four. At first we spent most of our time in the relative safety of the outdoors, but then we started to relax along with the rest of the city, drowning our hands beneath the ubiquitous liquid sanitizer dispensers, masking up and heading indoors.

I knew things had shifted in Sin City when, while maneuvering the minivan through some seemingly dicey neighborhood between Downtown and the Strip, I noted on the back alley wall of a hair salon a striking mural depicting the cult outsider artist Henry Darger’s seven Vivian Girl warriors in their trademark yellow dresses. What were the Vivian Girls doing here?

Makers & Finders — and wandered along Spring Mountain Road, the hub of the city’s Chinatown, rapidly expanding westward. In the midcentury mecca of East Fremont Street, a $350 million investment by the tech titan Tony Hsieh, who died last year, has produced a boulevard of fantastical art installations, restored buildings and a sculptural playground surrounded by stacked shipping containers converted to boutiques and cafes, all guarded by a giant, fire-spewing, steel praying mantis.

“Vegas is going through a cultural renaissance,” a former member of the city’s Arts Commission, Brian “Paco” Alvarez, told me in a recent telephone interview. “A lot of the local culture that comes out of a city with two million unusually creative people didn’t stop during the pandemic.”

Area15, which opened in February in a mysterious, airport-hanger-size, windowless building two miles west of the Strip. Imagine an urban Burning Man mall (indeed, many of the sculptures and installations came from the annual arts festival held in northern Nevada), with some dozen tenants providing everything from virtual reality trips to nonvirtual ax throwing, accompanied by Day-Glo color schemes, electronic music, giant interactive art installations and guests flying overhead on seats attached to ceiling rails. Face masks are currently only mandatory in Area15 for self-identified unvaccinated people, though some of the attractions within still require face masks for everyone. Everywhere, we encountered the constant presence of cleaning attendants spraying and wiping surfaces.

Blue Man Group, who was bringing his creative magic to Area15 in the form of a “Psychedelic Art House Meets Carnival Funhouse” called Wink World (adult tickets start at $18). Wink World is centered around six rooms with infinity mirror boxes reflecting Slinkys, plasma balls, fan spinners, Hoberman Spheres and ribbons dancing to an ethereal soundtrack of electronic music, rhythmic chanting and heavy breathing.

“I worked on these installations for six years in my living room in New York,” Mr. Wink told me. “I was trying to evoke psychedelic experiences without medicine.”

My unmedicated children were transfixed, as if these familiar toys frolicking into eternity were totems to their own personal nirvanas. I’ve never seen them stand so still in front of an art exhibit.

Omega Mart (adult admissions start at $45, face mask and temperature check mandatory), the biggest attraction in the complex, lines one side of the complex’s atrium and seemed — at first — to provide a banal respite from Area15’s sensory overload. Along the sale aisles I found Nut Free Salted Peanuts, Gut Monkey Ginger Ale and cans of Camels Implied Chicken Sop.

Meow Wolf (the name derived from pulling two random words from a hat during their first meeting), Omega Mart is an amalgamation of some 325 artists’ creations tied together by disparate overlapping story lines which one can follow — or not.

For a short time, I tracked the story of the takeover of Omega Mart’s corporate headquarters by a hilariously manipulative New Agey daughter, and then got sidelined into the tale of a teen herbalist leading a rebellion to something else. I have no idea what I experienced other than that Brian Eno composed the music to one of the installations. None of my kids could explain what they experienced either, other than something mind-expanding. If it wasn’t for dinner, we might still be in there.

Raku. Step behind an understated white backlit sign and you enter an aged wood interior of an intimate restaurant that you might find off a Kyoto alley. We slid into the family-style tables behind the main dining room and commenced to feast. There’s a $100 tasting menu if you are feeling adult, but my tribe ordered cream-like tofu with dried fish, foie gras skewers and a dozen other items.

Chinatown became our go-to-spot for snacks and boba tea between adventures. A favorite spot became Pho 90, a low-key Vietnamese cafe with outstanding noodle dishes and exquisitely layered banh mi sandwiches for picnics in the wild.

Red Rock Canyon, 17 miles west of the Strip, is like walking into a Road Runner cartoon with a Technicolor ballet of clashing tectonic formations. We grabbed our admittedly reluctant brood on a 2.4-mile, round-trip hike on the Keystone Thrust Trail through a series of gullies until we emerged above epic white limestone cliffs jutting through the ocher-colored mountains. Here we had our Vietnamese picnic overlooking the monolithic casinos in the distance.

Rail Explorers has set up rail bike tours on the abandoned tracks leading to the Hoover Dam construction site. We booked a sunset tour (from $85 to $150 for a tandem quad bike). After some quick instruction, we, along with three dozen other visitors, climbed into an 800-pound, four-person Korean-made bike rig and, giving the group ahead of us a three-minute head start for some space, started peddling.

Our route was along four miles of desert track gently sloping into a narrowing canyon pass. As we effortlessly peddled at 10 miles per hour, we noticed that the spikes holding down the railroad ties were often crooked or missing. “I bet these were all driven in by hand,” my teenage son, Cody, a history buff, noted.

In the enveloping dusk, we glimpsed shadows moving along the sagebrush: bighorn sheep, goats and other critters emerging for their nocturnal wanderings. But the most surreal sight was at the end of the ride, where a giant backlit sign for a truck stop casino appeared over a desert butte — Vegas was beckoning us back, but now we welcomed the summons. Here we were, peddling into the sunset, feeling more athletic, cool and (gasp!) enlightened than when we first rolled into Vegas four days ago. Oh what good parents we were!

“The moniker of ‘Sin City’ is totally wrong,” Mr. Alvarez told me, “if you know where to look.”

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Glimpses of a Deserted Soviet Mining Town, Preserved in the High Arctic

Sergei Chernikov, my guide, had a bolt-action rifle slung over his shoulder — in case we came across any polar bears, he said, or in case they came across us.

We were standing at the rudimentary dock in Pyramiden, a ghost town on the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard, in the High Arctic. I’d heard that in 1998 the Russian government had tricked the town’s 1,000 residents into taking a holiday on the mainland, only to close the mine and forbid them from returning. According to the rumor, it had been abandoned ever since, frozen in time at the top of the world. Was it true? I asked.

Sergei shook his head before I’d even finished my question.

Barentsburg, which is still functional, and Pyramiden, long since empty — are Russian settlements.

The presence of Russian settlements stems from the fact that the Svalbard Treaty granted signatories — including Russia — rights to Svalbard’s natural resources. Eventually, Trust Arktikugol, a Russian state-owned coal company, took ownership of both Pyramiden and Barentsburg.

Pyramiden would go on to outlast the Soviet Union, finally shuttering its doors over a series of months in 1998. In truth, the place had been in pretty steep decline for years. Accidents in the mine, financial turmoil in Russia and a 1996 charter plane crash that killed 141 people combined to seal its fate.

At over 78 degrees north, Pyramiden is a place of records and extremes. When the sun disappears below the horizon each fall in late October, it isn’t seen again until mid February of the following year. Conversely, in summer, the sunlight is unyielding for more than three months.

And yet, walking around with Sergei, I couldn’t help but sense that things had moved quickly in the end. Manuals sat open, bottles of vodka were left on windowsills. There were scattered journals, photographs of men with impressive mustaches, a typewriter — even an old basketball, burst at the seams.

Perhaps most poignant were the children’s toys, scattered among what was once a schoolhouse.

In its heyday, Pyramiden provided its 1,000 residents with urban facilities and a high standard of living. The town’s offerings included a school, a library, an ice hockey rink, a sports hall, dance and music studios, a radio station, a cinema that doubled as a theater and a cemetery for cats.

If something exists in Pyramiden, then it is very probably the northernmost example in the world. (The settlement is around 500 miles farther north than Utqiargvik, Alaska, the northernmost community in the United States.)

The old cultural center houses what’s likely the northernmost grand piano and gymnasium. Nearby, Sergei and I walked around inside the long-emptied swimming pool — once heated, and the envy of the residents of Longyearbyen, the much larger Norwegian settlement to the south.

On a plinth outside that remarkable building stands an enormous statue of Lenin, his cold head sternly surveying the town, the sole remaining witness to the emptying of Pyramiden.

There’s real beauty here, too: the shimmering fur of a family of arctic foxes living under the hotel; sapphire blues laser-beaming out of the nearby Nordenskiold Glacier; low sun catching cracked windows in the canteen, kaleidoscopic light dancing on the floor; sunrise and sunset washing that extraordinary mountaintop in pinks and golds.

While much of the town now lies dormant, very slowly decaying, the Pyramiden Hotel — likely the northernmost in the world, of course — and the cultural center have been revived in recent years.

These are the only buildings in town that are still regularly used. While shifting permafrost has warped some of the wooden buildings, their sturdy structures stand firm.

It’s in the hotel that a small community of Russians and Ukrainians live and work, welcoming day trippers and adventurous travelers looking to spend the night.

During my visit, Dina Balkarova worked the bar. “Normally I live in Barentsburg,” she said. “But in Russia I don’t work in bars — I’m really an opera singer.” She told me that when she had time to herself, she’d ask one of the armed residents (no one can be without a gun this deep in polar bear country) to accompany her down to old oil drums by the dock. There, she’d test out her voice against the rusting metal.

This was the sort of eccentricity I’d hoped to find when, cruising around Svalbard earlier that summer, I’d first heard about Pyramiden. If anything, though, the place was less strange than I had imagined — the people were warm and proud of the town’s history, as they might be anywhere else in the world.

The few Russians and Ukrainians who have returned in recent years don’t dream of reviving Pyramiden as a functioning town. Instead, they told me, they’re hoping to preserve its heritage, which had so nearly been lost.

The buildings, they say, may be cold and lifeless, but at least they aren’t entirely abandoned.

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Biden’s Afghanistan Dilemma

Is America’s longest war finally coming to an end?

That’s the question President Biden is confronting before a May 1 deadline to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan, where they have been deployed since shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. I spoke to my colleagues Helene Cooper and T.M. Gibbons-Neff about Biden’s three basic options, and the potential risks.

1. Withdraw now. Biden’s history suggests he might personally favor a quick drawdown, Helene, who covers the Pentagon, says. As vice president, Biden argued for a smaller U.S. presence in Afghanistan than Barack Obama’s military advisers wanted. (He lost that argument.)

Now that Biden is in a position to decide, his outlook seems to have shifted. He has said that bringing the roughly 3,500 U.S. soldiers home by May — a deadline Biden inherited from Donald Trump — would be logistically difficult. “Think about how you move into an apartment and you live there for a year, how much it takes to move out,” T.M., who is based in the Afghan capital, Kabul, says. “Imagine going to war for two decades.”

A hasty departure could also have consequences for Afghanistan. The Trump administration agreed to withdraw as part of a deal it struck last year with the Taliban, the repressive militant group that ruled much of the country before the U.S. invaded. The Taliban are already supporting targeted killings against Afghan civilians and soldiers. If American forces leave, some Afghans and U.S. officials fear the Taliban will attempt a military takeover.

women’s education and democracy the country has made since 2001.

think they have the upper hand.

testimony from a teenage store clerk who described the moments before George Floyd’s death, and watched police body-camera footage of the arrest. Here are more takeaways from Day 3 of the trial.

  • Four people, including a child, are dead after a shooting at an office building in Southern California, the third mass shooting in the U.S. in the past 16 days. The authorities are expected to release more details this morning.

  • New York State legalized the use of recreational marijuana. And the state’s prisons will end long-term solitary confinement.

  • After staying silent last week, Delta and Coca-Cola, two of Georgia’s largest companies, expressed “crystal clear” opposition to the state’s new law to restrict voting access.

  • A Hong Kong court found prominent pro-democracy activists guilty of unauthorized assembly. It’s part of a Beijing-led campaign to quash opposition.

  • Aleksei Navalny, the imprisoned Russian opposition leader, declared a hunger strike, demanding better medical treatment.

  • The musician Paul Simon sold his songwriting catalog to Sony. Several other noted songwriters have struck big deals recently.

  • After about 10 minutes of grocery shopping, a New Mexico man returned to his car to find 15,000 bees in the back seat.

  • Woof: Would you buy your dog a charcuterie board?

    Lives Lived: The white minority government in Rhodesia imprisoned Janice McLaughlin, an American nun, for exposing atrocities against Black citizens. Years later, when Rhodesia became Zimbabwe, she returned to help establish an educational system. McLaughlin died at 79.

    Forbes reported that he made nearly $30 million last year.

    The children’s section of YouTube is lucrative: Half of the 10 most popular videos on the platform are for children, and the catchy kids’ song “Baby Shark” is its most-viewed video. But as Bloomberg Businessweek reports, Kaji’s success goes far beyond the ad money from his videos. Like the Olsen twins and JoJo Siwa before him, he has an empire built on merchandising.

    Kaji’s parents have made deals with Walmart and Target for toys and clothes, as well as TV deals with Amazon and Nickelodeon. A footwear line with Skechers is in the works. The bulk of Kaji’s revenue now comes from the licensing side.

    Other children’s YouTube channels are also cashing in: Cocomelon, which has more than 100 million subscribers, has a line of toys. Pinkfong, the educational brand behind “Baby Shark,” has merchandise and a Nickelodeon series.

    For more on Kaji, read the rest of Bloomberg’s story.

    play online.

    Here’s today’s Mini Crossword, and a clue: Steal (five letters).

    If you’re in the mood to play more, find all our games here.


    Thanks for spending part of your morning with The Times. See you tomorrow. — Ian

    P.S. Our colleague Sarah Lyall is writing about burnout and motivation, as more workers contemplate a return to the office. Tell her how you’re coping.

    You can see today’s print front page here.

    Today’s episode of “The Daily” is about the Amazon union vote in Alabama. On “Sway,” Cathy Park Hong discusses anti-Asian racism.

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    Myanmar Protesters Return After Security Forces Kill 90 People

    SINGAPORE—Protesters returned to the streets of Myanmar after soldiers and police gunned down at least 90 people across the country in the bloodiest day since the military began its violent campaign to crush opposition to last month’s coup.

    Among those killed on Saturday were six children between the ages of 10 and 16 as security forces opened fire in residential areas and into homes, said the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, a nonprofit that monitors arrests and fatalities. At an 11-year-old girl’s funeral on Sunday, her body lay surrounded by toys, a box of crayons and a hand-drawn sketch of Hello Kitty, photographs in local media showed.

    The nonprofit group recorded gunfire and violence against protesters in 40 locations across the country on Saturday, including the two largest cities Yangon and Mandalay, and said the death toll was likely higher than the 90 fatalities it had confirmed. Soldiers dragged some of the bodies off the streets and didn’t return them to the families of the deceased, and the injured who were hauled away later died in detention, the nonprofit group said.

    For weeks, security forces have terrorized civilians by shooting protesters and sometimes bystanders in the streets. The displays of force are intended to strike fear and suppress resistance to the Feb. 1 coup, which ended Myanmar’s decadelong shift toward democracy and returned the country to absolute military rule. Aung San Suu Kyi, the ousted civilian leader, has been under detention in her home since her government was deposed, as have dozens of other officials from her political party.

    Their absence and the military’s violence hasn’t stopped citizens from mobilizing. The generals face daily demonstrations, a sprawling civil disobedience movement that has paralyzed large parts of Myanmar’s economy and sanctions by the U.S., U.K. and the European Union. But Saturday’s bloodshed showed the armed forces, who have a long history of repression against citizens, have no intention of changing course, raising fears of more loss of life and prolonged chaos turning Myanmar into a failed state.

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    ‘A Very Big Problem.’ Giant Ship in the Suez Remains Stuck.

    MANSHIYET RUGOLA, Egypt — The gargantuan container ship that has blocked world trade by getting stuck aslant the Suez Canal has towered over Umm Gaafar’s dusty brick house for four days now, humming its deep mechanical hum.

    She looked up from where she sat in the bumpy dirt lane and considered what the vessel, the Ever Given, might be carrying in all those containers. Flat-screen TVs? Full-sized refrigerators, washing machines or ceiling fans? Neither she nor her neighbors in the hamlet of Manshiyet Rugola, population 5,000-ish, had any of those at home.

    “Why don’t they pull out one of those containers?” joked Umm Gaafar, 65. “There could be something good in there. Maybe it could feed the town.”

    The Japanese-owned Ever Given and the nearly 300 cargo ships now waiting to traverse the Suez Canal, one of the world’s most critical shipping arteries, could supply Manshiyet Rugola many, many times over.

    ran aground on Tuesday, blocking all shipping traffic through the canal, global supply chains churned closer to a full-blown crisis.

    Already, shipping analysts estimated, the colossal traffic jam was holding up nearly $10 billion in trade every day.

    “All global retail trade moves in containers, or 90 percent of it,” said Alan Murphy, the founder of Sea-Intelligence, a maritime data and analysis firm. “So everything is impacted. Name any brand name, and they will be stuck on one of those vessels.”

    take the long way around the southern tip of Africa, a journey that could add weeks to the journey and cost more than $26,000 per extra day in fuel costs.

    In Manshiyet Rugola, whose name translates to “Little Village of Manhood,” traffic jams of any kind would be difficult to imagine in usual times.

    Donkey carts piled high with clover bumped down semi-paved lanes between low brick houses and green fields lined with palm trees, trash and animal dung. A teenager hawked ice cream from his motorcycle. Roosters offered profane competition to the noontime call to prayer. Until the Ever Given showed up, the minarets of the unimposing mosques were the tallest structures around.

    “Do you want to see the ship?” a young boy asked a pair of visiting journalists, bobbing in excitement under the window of their car. Ever since the earthquake-like rumble of the ship running aground jolted many awake around 7 a.m. Tuesday, the Ever Given had been the only topic in town.

    “The whole village was out there watching,” said Youssef Ghareeb, 19, a factory worker. “We’ve gotten so used to having her around, because we’ve been living on our rooftops just watching the ship for four days.”

    It was universally agreed that the view was even better at night, when the ship glowed with light: a skyscraper right out of a big-city skyline, lying on its side.

    “When it lights up at night, it’s like the Titanic,” said Nadia, who, like her neighbor Umm Gaafar, declined to give her full name because of the security forces in the area. “All it’s missing is the necklace from the movie.”

    Umm Gaafar had asked to go by her nickname so as not to run afoul of the government security personnel who had passed through, warning residents not to take photos of the canal and generally spreading unease. Nadia said she was too intimidated to take pictures of the ship at night, though she badly wanted to.

    Villagers and shipping analysts had the same question about the Ever Given, if rooted in different expertise. The ship’s operators have insisted that the ship ran aground because of the high winds of a sandstorm, with the stacked containers acting like a giant sail, yet other ships in the same convoy passed through without incident. So had previous ships in previous storms, the villagers pointed out.

    “We’ve seen worse winds,” said Ahmad al-Sayed, 19, a security guard, “but nothing like that ever happened before.”

    Shipping experts said the wind might well have been the major factor, exacerbating other physical forces, but suggested that human error may also have come into play.

    “I am highly questioning, why was it the only one that went aground?” Captain Foran said. “But they can talk about all that later. Right now, they just have to get that beast out of the canal.”

    Nada Rashwan contributed reporting.

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