01/27/2012 01:58 pm ET Updated Mar 28, 2012

Dispatch From a High-Temperature Republic

It's a Banana Republic like no other. Fly into its capital from abroad and you'll catch a whiff of over-ripeness, even decay.

The baggage carousel clunks and squeaks. The road to your hotel is missing signs and it is a maze of crevices and holes. Soon you are lost in a universe of strip malls: some are flourishing, others empty and dark.

Although its elite are among the world's most privileged, the gap between the Republic's rich and others here is now a chasm. Incomes of the well-off have soared in recent decades, but the tax rates they face have actually gone down.

The wealthy wall themselves off from signs of decline. Gated communities and exurbs provide a cloistered life that feels secure.

But take a drive into rural regions of the Republic or its urban core. You're in a different country. Downtown stores are gone. Citizens depend on giant emporiums for products made overseas: cut-price goods that shave the idea of savings right down to its edge.

Prices may be low, but the Republic's economy is slow and there are hundreds of thousands who can't keep up. "Jobs exist," insist local experts. "But our workforce isn't trained." In fact, many high school graduates here have a hard time reading and doing basic math.

On the Republic's bottom rungs, people exist on quick-fried snacks and look for work in the restaurants where these are cooked. Young men, especially, seem stuck in place, not marrying or moving out of childhood homes.

Almost weekly there is news of an attack. Not by foreigners, but by citizens bearing a grudge or with an urge for revenge. There are more prisoners in the Republic than there are prisons to hold them. Unlike in much of the world, a criminal here can be condemned to death.

These days, soldiers in their hot-weather gear are a constant presence in the Republic. In airports many bystanders clap as they stroll by. Others bitterly despise any sign of national unity or design.

Localized anti-government groups stock up on armaments while practicing paramilitary moves. A growing movement camps in parks and shouts its hostility to a range of companies and institutions.

Nobody's really worried. And yet... Tempers are fraying more than anyone can remember. And the Republic, after all, has a history of revolution.

The ceiling fans of the Republic whirr and spin. The crates of bitter fruit are stacked. Private citizens oil their guns. Protestors shout.

Those who know the Republic well are nervous. Especially those of us who live here: in its 50 states.

We watch, we peel our bananas.

And we wait.

Peter Mandel is an essayist, travel writer, and an author of picture books for kids including his newest about a guy who runs a jackhammer and uses his belly on the job: Jackhammer Sam (Macmillan/Roaring Brook).