Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Maps And Figures

It probably won't come as a surprise to people that I love maps. From an early age I pored over them, and on our biannual family drives from Scotland to Czechoslovakia I would study our route and navigate for my dad. As I grew older I understood how maps could display so much more information than simple topography and place names: climate, industry, agriculture, ethnography, linguistics, politics - all are made clearer and more immediate with the help of a good map. I'm particularly fascinated by historical maps, with their imprecise coastlines, challenging handwriting, and flights of fancy (here be dragons). But especially because they show a reality that once existed and which isn't necessarily acknowledged today. Sure, London and Paris have been around for over 1000 years, but if you go back 2000 years then they disappear, only to be replaced by Londinium and Lutetia. Borders, which, today, feel immutable and permanent, ebb and flow, disappearing and reappearing with metronomic regularity. Names and national identities, for which people go to war and innocents die, are in fact ephemeral and subjective. Belarus epitomises this (un)reality perfectly. Attempts to find (the name) Belarus in old maps will more than likely come up blank; and if you do find it, it won't be where it is today.
Maps have a strange power. This map of China, from 1735, was recently given as a present from German chancellor Angela Merkel to China's president Xi Jinping on a state visit. A nice present you would think. However it caused huge waves on the Chinese blogosphere because it doesn't show Tibet, Xinjiang, Taiwan or Inner Mongolia as being Chinese, despite the Chinese official narrative of these being immutable parts of China since "ancient times". [For a more detailed analysis see this article.]

Friday, October 24, 2014

A Desperate Despot?

For the "last dictatorship in Europe" I was surprised that I could arrive in the heart of the country without having my passport checked. It's funny how that sobriquet, bequeathed during George W. Bush's presidency, has come to stick to any and every mention of Belarus and its leader Alexander Lukashenko (not that they get many mentions in the world's media). After spending just a few days in Minsk talking politics with almost everyone I met (locals are far more world-savvy and open with their views than one would imagine), I realised that it's an over-simplification that obscures looking at the country realistically (for an idea of the sort of journalistic hatchet-jobs out there you can read this recent article in GQ). Sure, there's no denying Lukashenko has a tight grip on power, political dissent is only permitted within narrow limits (as attested to by the number of people behind bars for their contrary political views), and there is more than a little corruption to be found; nevertheless these truths need to be tempered with others that don't sell as many newspapers.

"Just wait a sec, I haven't told you the punchline yet." Belarus's notorious president Lukashenko sporting his trademark moustache. [Source:]

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Old Town, New Town

My "holiday" started at 11:00 on Sunday as soon as breakfast was over in the Saint Petersburg hotel and I had said goodbye to my charges. It started snowing at 11:30. This was not a great start. Although there are several daily, direct, trains from Saint Petersburg to Minsk, that would have been too easy. Instead I decided to stop at Novgorod along the way. Located some 150km south of Saint Petersburg it is the oldest city in Russia, which is somewhat ironic, given that its name translates as "New Town".

A footbridge over the Volkhov river in Novgorod. The city based its wealth on controlling this important crossing.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

It's Work Jim, But Not As We Know It

Hello dear reader(s)! You may have surmised from my writing hiatus that my travels are over and that I have returned to the world of the working. And you would be right ... to a degree. It is true that I now have a job, with a pay-cheque and everything, however the travelling has not abated as much as I had envisaged upon my return to the UK.

Upon my return to the UK I decided to do a little tourism somewhat closer to home. Despite having worked a mere 15mins walk from the Tower of London for over 1.5 years I had never actually visited the iconic monument - a lacuna I quickly set to rights.

Thursday, January 02, 2014

North America In 20 Photos

Here are a collection of 20 of my favourite photos from my travels through North America that didn't make it into the blog for whatever reason. I hope you like them.

The variegated leaves of undergrowth shrubs in the cloud forest of Panama.

Family off on a cycle trip in Nicaragua. A very efficient use of limited resources.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Back For Breakfast

My last days in America heralded the coming of winter, with heavy snowfalls and freezing temperatures. On the one hand I was glad, as low temperatures mean more layers of clothing, which in turn leads to a lighter backpack. However that does not help balance out the discomfort of colder and shorter days. Plus I had reached the end of the road on the American continent. The only way was back to Europe. It was time to go home. Not that this was a decision that had pounced on me suddenly out of the blue. In fact I had already decided a year before that I would be home for Christmas 2013, and was sticking to my plans.

My only possessions (apart from my backpack) to have survived the entire, 45 month circumnavigation: my sleeping bag, my sleeping bag liner, a base layer shirt, my Czech passport, comb, razor and my toothbrush.

Sunday, December 08, 2013

Not The Home Of The Braves

From Montreal it was due south to New York, my last stop, not just in America, but of the entire trip. It was strange for me to be thinking about being back home after so long on the road, so I decided not to think about it and instead concentrate on exploring New York. For many New York is America. Its dominance, both economical and cultural, is unparallelled. Its locales made famous from innumerable Hollywood films: Times Square, Wall Street, the Brooklyn Bridge, the Statue of Liberty, Fifth Avenue, the brownstones of Greenwich Village, the Empire State Building, and Central Park are as well known to people from Panama to Peshawar as much as they are to the populace of Pensacola. I had, actually, been there before, way back in 2001, as a young student on my summer holidays (ah, how innocence fades) and was interested to see how I would see it with more jaded eyes.

Manhattan's exclusive 5th Avenue looking uncharacteristically empty on a Sunday morning.

Monday, December 02, 2013

The Real Melting Pot

America is famous for being a melting pot of ethnicities and cultures. And it is true that it is a nation of immigrants from all corners of the earth who have come, throughout the past few hundred years to escape persecution, gain an education, live in peace, and work towards a better life for themselves. Americans will regale you with details of their ethnic stock (one sixteenth Sioux, another English, one quarter Irish, one quarter Polak, and three eighths Chinese) and proudly proclaim that they are African-, German-, Chinese-, Italian- or Irish-American despite a complete lack of connection to this urheimat except for dressing in green once a year during Saint Patrick's Day, a penchant for sweet and sour stir fry, or a little more rhythm than your average citizen. Canada must be just the same, right?

"I am Canadian!" Canadians are quick to distinguish themselves from their southern neighbours. This beer add humourously captures these differences in a proud ode to Canadia. (Just a shame the beer itself is so bad.)

Saturday, November 23, 2013


That America is the richest country in the world is well known. It manifests itself in towering skyscrapers, the car culture, its gargantuan military, its army of labour-saving devices, the dominance of Wall Street and American corporations throughout the globe, and, of course, the American Dream. Convenience is king, and, if you have a decent job, life is comfortable and easy. This big, bold brashness is evident in Chicago, the Windy City, and acknowledged capital of the Midwest. Lazily sprawling westwards from the shores of lake Michigan, the skyscrapers of the Loop (the central business district). Indeed, although may think of New York and Manhattan when talking of skyscrapers, it actually Chicago that is the spiritual home and birthplace of the skyscraper. The first steel-framed skyscrapers were built there; the revolutionary tubular design that allowed even taller, more efficient towers was developed there; and of course it is also home to the Sears (aka Willis) Tower, which, up until recently, was the tallest building in the Americas.

The lakefront skyline of Chicago with its huddle of skyscrapers.

Saturday, November 16, 2013


Countries often have deep, internal divisions that cleave the society in two. Often the divide is between a poor, religiously conservative rural population, and an urban, middle-class, educated, liberal one. I found this particularly apparent in countries such as Iran, Turkey and China, which are still undergoing transitions towards more industrial economies. In America the transition has occurred but the division still exists to a large degree, and somehow the rural poor have been duped into voting for rich corporate interests. But taking pot-shots at American political dysfunctionality and woeful health provision is too easy and instead I want to look at the quirkier paradoxes and polarisations that exist within the US.

For poorer Americans access to fresh fruit and vegetables is not only severely restricted, but food education is of a very low standard. Whilst wandering the African-American museum in Chicago I stumbled across this educational play aimed at younger children about the benefits of fresh fruit and veg using hip-hop and gospel music. Here the hero (a broccoli) is being led astray by a couple of rashers of bacon. (Though it seemed to me that the bad foods had the best tunes.)