Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Things To Do In Mali On Mondays

So what do you do with a spare day on your hands in Mali? Luckily for me the question wasn't really in any doubt as I woke up early yesterday to catch the first bus to Djenne. During the glory days of the Malian Empire Djenne grew rich with trade and became a great centre for Islamic scholarship but declined with growing regional instability 400 years ago.

The town is built on an island within the delta region and a series of causeways and a ferry link it terra firma. Because of its relativly hard to reach location and the limited amount of space the town has retained a lot of its original mud-brick architecture. In fact the Grand Mosque is the largest mud-brick structure in the world and looms over the central square, watching everyone and making sure they behave themselves. The mosque itself is out of bounds to non-Muslims after an incident involving an Italian fashion photographer, a horde of models, some bikinis and not much else. I did, however, manage to blag my way in to have a quick look inside, and despite its huge size the mosque feels quite narrow and close on the inside because of the forest of thick pillars that hold up the roof.

Monday is a particularly interesting day to visit as it is the day of the weekly market when the usually sedate town takes a line of speed and invites everyone over for a party. The large central square is taken up by traders from all over the surrounding all sorts of goods, although foodstuffs of all varieties seem to predominate: fish, bananas, tomatoes, peppers, small local onions, peanuts, watermelons, kola nuts, oranges, carrots and goats all jostle for space. I particularly liked the fetish market where you can buy local remedies which seem to invariably consist of dried, shrunken heads of various different animals. I indicated to one of the stallholders that my voice was going (those of you who know me are probably cursing their luck that I'm losing my voice here and not while I'm with them so that they can fully take advantage of it) and what I should take for it. He scratched his wizened chin for a bit, mumbled a few words and then rummaged around his cephalic collection before presenting me with a cute lizard head. I'm not quite sure what he expected me to do with it - dunk it in my tea? wear it round my neck? or grind it up and snort it up my nose? Anyway I thanked him and moved quickly on before he actually would show me and I might regret it. I think I'll stick to cough syrup, honey and some rest.

Sunday, December 28, 2008


As you head further north in Mali the vegetation gets sparser and the trees smaller as the Sudan gives way to the Sahel. The main town in the region, Mopti, has been dubbed, rather optimistically in my opinion, the "Venice of Mali" by the national tourist authority. If, by that, they mean that it's built on a stinking swamp and is overcrowded then they're probably right, but if they're trying to allude to a romantic town, with stunning architecture, marvellous works of art and an illustrious history then they're well off the mark. It's interesting to note, however, how big a cachet the Venice brand has by the number of times it's used in descriptions of other towns - the decidedly unromantic cities of Nantes, Birmingham, Basra and Fort Lauderdale have respectively been dubbed the Venices of the West, England, East and America. At least Mopti is in good company!

No, Mopti's history is certainly no match for Venice, having been built, pretty much from scratch, 150 years ago by the French as a trading centre due to its strategic location near the confluence of the Niger and Bani rivers. And it is in this respect that Mopti most closely resembles its older, Italian cousin. The heart of the town is the bustling port. There's as much jostling for position on the water amongst the pirogues and pinasses as there is on the quayside between the stallholders, hawkers, stevedores, pushing and pulling their variously laden carts, buyers, dazed tourists, general chaotic scooter traffic, and, on Sundays (as if all the above wasn't enough), regular convoys of marriage parties who happen to believe that the most congested part of town requires a few more cars continuously blaring their horns. This is where people from all over Mali and further afield come to sell their wares: slabs of salt from the middle of the Sahara; myriad varieties of dried, ugly fish from the delta (I was just thankful for once that I had a bunged up nose); cereals and textiles from Bamako and Segou; fruits and calabashes from the south; all sorts of exotic nuts and spices; as well as your usual assortment of cheap tat from China (the most surprising thing I found on sale was a huge pile of beenies and woolly hats). And it's not just goods that converge on Mopti but people too. In one short day I've talked to people from almost every one of Mali's major ethnic groups: Fulani, Bozo, Dogon, Bambara and Touareg. There are also people from all the countries of West Africa: I've met Burkinabés, Ivorians, Guineans, Nigerians and Senegalese, Togolese and Nigerois, as well as the ubiquitous French tourists who seem to have a soft spot for their ex-colonies and outnumber all the other toubabs by about 4 to 1. As one Ivorian lady told me: "le Mali c'est un pays d'acceuil."

Apart from getting a sensory overload at the port the only other reason to come to Mopti is to get out onto the river, either as a short excursion or as a means of travelling downstream. I will be doing the latter and have booked my passage on a cargo pinasse heading up to the fabled city of Timbuktu on Tuesday. I can't wait.

Friday, December 26, 2008

It Makes The World Go Around

I didn't last long in Bamako. On the flight from Casablanca I was disconcerted by the number of people coughing profusely. Half a day in Bamako made it crystal clear, unlike the air, which is laden with the noxious fumes of hundreds of thousands of 2-stroke scooters and old, decrepit cars and vans. The city is expanding at breakneck speed and I think it's finding it hard to cope - of the roads that aren't paved (most of them) they're half made of dirt whilst the other half is flattened plastic bottles. It is not a particularly historic town and my main place of interest was the sprawling market, which mostly consisted of motorbike repair shops, ancient electrical goods stores, tatty stationers and the ubiquitous mobile phone shops selling the very latest models. Not really what I was looking for. Instead I wanted a watch repair shop to get a new strap for my trusty, dirt-cheap Casio that I bought on the first day of my last trip. Unfortunately time is not a very important thing for Malians - very few of them wear watches, and if they do then 'bling' is always an important factor - and so I wandered the back streets in vain.

From Bamako I headed east to Segou, on the banks of the mighty Niger river, the lifeblood of Mali, which winds 1700km through the country on its way to the Atlantic. At this point it is over 500m wide and the last bridge in the country was back in Bamako. The landscape that you pass on the road is quite uniform: flat, red earth covered in dry, impenetrable scrub. Every now and again a dirt track emerges from between the bushes and leads to god-knows-where. The villages are made up of boxy, cinderblock houses with rudimentary, wooden lean-tos serving as little boutiques selling all sorts of things no-one really needs. Segou, or at least the village of Segou-Koro, some 15km distant, used to be the capital of the Malian Bambara empire that ruled the area for 150 years some 300 years ago.

And whilst you can get lost in the smog of Bamako, there's nothing here in Segou to hide the unsuspecting toubab (generic term for white person) from the touts. Here the tactic isn't so much the suffocation that one may find in parts of southeast Asia and India, but instead a subtle guilt trip. For example yesterday I was asking around about bicycle and scooter hire prices because I wanted to see the fabled Segou-Koro (despite it being on the main road to Bamako thre is no public transport) but finally decided this morning to try it out on foot (I will explain the reasons below) and see what would happen. After a few shared scooter rides, a hitch on the back of a donkey cart, and quite a lot of walking, I finally arrived and was given the grand tour. A couple of hours later one of the people from my hostel arrives on his scooter saying that he was worried about me (despite me telling the hostel that I was walking). All very touching, I agree, but when I said thank you and I was OK and wanted to spend a little more time by the river he replied that he was off, oh, and could I give him 1000 CFA (about 1.5 euros) for the effort and petrol. Now maybe it's a cultural thing and it would have been good to give him something, but the cost of the petrol would have been far less than that and I had talked with him at great length the day before and mentioned several times that I was travelling on a budget. But let that, and the Bamako cough, not let you think that I'm not enjoying myself. The Malians are generally a very open and smiling people with whom it is easy to just sit down and have a chat, even if you are complete strangers (fat chance of that happening on the Northern Line). Last night I started talking to a local at a small, out-of-the-way restaurant. Mohammed is a driver for 2 doctors (1 a toubab) and spent 4 years working in France doing odd jobs here and there. He came back to Mali when his brother died and he had to look after his mother (who, incidentally, didn't want to move to France, despite having the possibility - which just goes to show that they're not all beating on our doors). We talked about the politics of the region, cultural issues, his time in Europe, his current job (where, just so that we get an idea of local means, earns a little over 50 euros for a 66 hours week).

My second gripe, if gripe it is - I think it's more of an observation - is that Mali is very expensive. The country produces very little and high import taxes make goods very pricey. I was looking for some Strepsils for my cough, but when I saw the price tag weighing in at 5950 CFA (9 euros - or two thirds of my daily budget) I thought I'd rather grin and bear it (I have, in the meantime, found something cheaper). Even simple services are dear, especially considering the quality. I had initially decided to hire a bike to cycle to Segou-Koro, accepting the fact that I would have to pay 6 euros for the privilege (more than I've paid for a bike than anywhere else), but quickly changed my mind when I saw the bikes: rusty chains, gear cables trailing on the ground, wobbly saddles and brakes that didn't even work. And that really shouldn't be, as maintaining a bike is quick, simple and cheap - the culture of striving to provide a high quality of service seems to be lacking. Currently I'm sleeping on the roof of the hostel, which is effectively a construction site, with only a mattress provided, and paying 2500 CFA (almost 4 euros for the priviledge). And quite frankly I'm surprised I got it so low. Sure, I can actually afford this - I'm nowhere near the poor backpacker I was a few years back, however I can see how this can form a vicious circle: such high prices stifle spending and the flow of money, which in turn acts as a break on government revenue and overall improvement in living standards. Where the answer is I don't know, but I don't think it's the solution. Anyway, that's enough about money, it's not a polite topic of conversation so I will stop right there.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Back On The Road Again

True to form I left home in a disorganised, last-minute hurry. The evening before we had our family Xmas dinner and gift-unwrapping - a good thing too as I received several presents from Santa that I had ordered for the trip. Although it did lead to me staying up past 2am putting music on my new mp3 player (a luxury I didn't have on my last trip).

So once I managed to crawl out of bed I started throwing my stuff together and then into the rucksack (once I found it that is - which, in itself, was a mini crisis). Things weren't helped much by having the electrician round. The full ramifications of his presence weren't clear to me until the electricity was cut off meaning the shower wouldn't work (personally I'm not too fussed about that sort of thing, but I felt sorry for my neighbours on the plane). In the rush I'm sure I've forgotten something, I just hope it's not too vital, although, to be fair, even when I'm not rushing I forget stuff. Actually I was quite impressed with myself when I arrived at the checkout and found that my rucksack only weighed 12.5kg, and that includes my tent and sleeping bag.

For me the most stressful part of travelling is the first bus ride to the airport - I keep worrying about getting there on time and have visions of the trip being over before it even begins. Once on the road (metaphorically speaking in the case of planes, trains and boats) however, all concerns melt away and are replaced by the excitement of diving into the unknown. My first taste of the aforementioned came quickly as we arrived in Casablanca and I awaited my connecting flight to Bamako. The architects of the newly extended airport had been inspired by the film Field of Dreams: "if you build it, they will come". The departure hall is easily large enough for a jumbo to land in and you feel lonely as you wander from one departure gate to another, footsteps echoing in the ether. Our plane was packed with Malians returning from the Haj, swathed in flowing robes amd clutching various souvenirs from their first ever trip abroad by plane: Arab keffiyehs, kitsch memorabilia and, most of all, bottles of Zam Zam water. Unfortunately for those unused to flying the plane was considered like a bus with wings, to be piled high with any and all junk immaginable. Many were told to leave behind excess hand luggage (which did not go down very well) and so the gangway to the plane was littered with all manner of pilgrims' flotsam and jetsam.

We did, however, finally manage to take off for Bamako. I had the very good fortune to start talking with an English student who was returning home for Xmas (his parents are missionaries in Mali) and so offered me a lift to their place and let me kip until the morning when they took me into town. I was indeed lucky as 4am is never a good time to be wandering around a town and country you don't know. Anyway, more on Bamako and my first impressions of Mali in the next post.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

December Blues

December has turned out to be quite a busy month with travel preparations (including the dreaded vaccine jabs), Xmas shopping, various Xmas get-togethers and a disproportionately high number of birthdays (including my own earlier this week) - I wonder if there's something particularly fertile about March that leads to more December births, or whether it's just coincidence that I just happen to know more December people. Anyway, a fun time flowing with mulled wine and Winter Pimms, two warm arguments that almost make the cold weather worthwhile.

Before I move onto my rant below (I haven't had one for some time now and I wanted to revisit some old themes in light of a couple of recent news stories) I wanted to add a little bit of information that I had meant to post in my previous post but had forgotten. During my trip I kept a reasonably detailed diary, especially with regards to my daily expenditure, although I hadn't bothered to do a final tally until about a month ago when I was doing a little presentation at work. Apparently, for my entire 3 year odyssey I only spent a grand total of £11,000 (or almost exactly £10 a day). That includes all travel, insurance, accommodation, food and pretty much everything else during my trip (with the exception of the digital cameras I bought). When I finally arrived at the figure I was very surprised, and not to mention more than a little pleased, at how low it was, especially when I consider that over half of that was spent in the first year alone. It just goes to show that you don't necessarily have to break the bank to travel.

It's been a while since my last rant so I thought I'd comment on a recent news story from the UK that demonstrates an opinion that I'd voiced on a couple of occasions previously how I believe that we are, on this world, as we know it, fundamentally screwed. Earlier this week the people of Manchester voted on plans to implement a congestion charging scheme in the city that would have people paying to drive into and out of the city during rush hours. Before the charging were to commence the city would have seen £3 billion of spending on public transport infrastructure. The plan, although not perfect, would have seen jobs created, congestion reduced, quality of life improved and also reduced carbon emissions. Given that an overwhelming majority of Brits routinely place the environment at the top of their priorities when asked about problems facing the world one would have thought that the scheme would have been a shoe-in in such a vote. Instead Manchester voted by an overwhelming majority of 4 to 1 to reject the scheme.

This beautifully illustrates that even when people are educated and given all the facts showing a compelling argument for changing behaviour, with an associated cost and sacrifice, to avert a far greater cost and danger in the future they are unable to see past the short-term hit to their wallet. Such short-termism is the way we, and all animals, have evolved: nature rewards those that think in the present and take as much as they can. Which is why no country is willing to make the sacrifices and investments necessary without others doing the same because the immediate cost would be great, even more so if they are taken alone. Our democratic system doesn't help the situation either as political parties only look as far as the next general elections, their sole raison d'etre being to gain (elected) power, and once acquired to maintain it. All considerations have a timeline of no more than 5 years. This is why when the financial markets went into sudden meltdown it was relatively easy to find hundreds of billions of pounds to bail them out. Amazing when you think that, fundamentally, nothing had changed: there was no loss of life, disease, natural disaster or act of destruction. It was simply that the price people were willing to pay for things (more often than not imaginary, virtual, financial constructs that didn't represent anything tangible in the real world) dropped. Nothing more than that. And yet because its effects were so sudden and hit people in their wallets (where it hurts most) the political will to act was easily mustered. Unfortunately the problems we face are long-term and their effects, if, or when, they come, will move with the speed and power of glaciers, and so we will not notice their coming, but when they hit their effects will be brutal and irrevocable. It's perhaps quite apt that this week also saw the watering down of the EU's objectives to reduce carbon emissions by 2020.

If idealist, socialist, green, responsible, caring, advanced and prosperous Europe can't find the means within itself to do the very minimum required to tackle the most serious of problems just because we're having a few budget problems now then, quite frankly, I hold out very little hope of us not fucking up the world as we know it beyond recognition.

Ho-hum, sorry for being so pessimistic and banging on about green issues. It's the festive season and I will soon be travelling, so that's the last negative post for some time. I promise.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

26 Albums Later

Digital cameras are fantastic things: they allow you to take as many pictures as you want without using up precious film; you can immediately see the results and can therefore tell if you're pictures have come out OK; you can touch them up on your computer to touch them up and remove blemishes; and they are a fantastic way of breaking the ice that forms language and cultural barriers. The only drawback with digital photography is that once the pictures have been taken and you return home they get downloaded to the computer ... and that's where they stay, gathering virtual dust. I was determined that that wouldn't happen to my travel pics and so as soon as I returned home last year I set about sorting through them, selecting my favourites (about 30%), polishing them up, getting them printed, individually annotated and stuck in albums. It has taken a little over a year but I have finally finished, 26 albums and some 5000 pictures later (the pic below shows all the albums stacked together).

Now I have the perfect torture tool: "why don't you come round and I'll show you my travel pics...".

Well, I won't torture you, my dear readers, too much, but I thought I'd show you a selection of pictures that I'm most proud of (it's a game of numbers: if you take enough pictures you're bound to get a few decent ones).

A gathering of Tibetan monks at Labrang monastery in Xiahe.

The post-apocalyptic landscape of the shipbreaking yards at Chittagong.

A shaft of light in a yakhchal close to Yazd.

Stopping for lunch and midday prayers in Wadi Rum.

A rather lonely parasol on the Red Sea on a cold, Winter's day in Aqaba.

Ancient Christian defacement of an even more ancient, pagan temple in Upper Egypt at Philae.

Two orthodox Jews watching the sunset at Yad Vashem (Holocaust memorial) in Jerusalem.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Vive La Recession

Unless you've been living in a cave you will surely have heard plenty about the meltdown of the housing market and the subsequent collapse in the world's financial institutions (by the way, if you have been living in a cave then well done on your sound financial acumen in avoiding the housing bubble). I'm lucky in that I am not overly affected by the financial maelstrom: I don't have a mortgage (and there are no house-buying plans on the horizon), I have a job that is relatively safe (famous last words...) and I my outgoings are meagre. I can therefore look at things in a somewhat disinterested light.

Much has been made of the irresponsibility of the banks - how they were lending money to anyone like it was going out of fashion, without checking their means of repayment, and then repackaging those "toxic" loans into complicated investment vehicles to be shunted through the banking system. Now their profligacy has come back to haunt them and they expect to be bailed out by the long-suffering taxpayer. All this has already been aired ad nauseum and I have nothing new to add. However, as the famous saying goes, "it takes two to tango".

The bankers were not lending out money to fictitious people they had made up (at least not most of the time) - they were lending to us consumers. As a demographic consumers are pretty much everyone, and collectively we had agreed to become intoxicated by the dream of being able to have it all, and to be able to get it now on credit. We lapped up endless TV programmes about moving house, getting on the housing ladder, upsizing to a larger home in a more well-to-do area, investing in a second holiday home in France, etc, etc. Never mind the fact that we were taking out ridiculously large mortgages often in excess of 6x our gross annual incomes. It didn't matter as credit was cheap and we didn't think it would be otherwise. We were enticed by super mortgages with low introductory rates, uncaring that the rates would change after two years. We could only just cover the repayments with no thought of contingencies should things take a turn for the worse.

Yes, the bankers had a part to play in the whole sorry story, but for consumers common sense seemed to take a holiday and we revelled in our gluttony. Our interminable keeping-up-with-the-Jones's made us blind to the most elementary principles, not just of economics, but of life generally: don't buy what you can't pay for. Owning your own home isn't a god-given right, it's a luxury you have to work hard for and earn, so I find it hard to muster much sympathy for people who over-extended themselves because they watched too many episodes of Location, Location, Location and became obsessed with Kirstie Allsopp.

In that sense the current financial crisis is probably a necessary evil as we seem to be unable to live within our means then this may force us to learn some frugality and good old-fashioned thriftiness (which, back in Scotland, is among the highest compliments you can bestow upon your fellow man). People keep complaining about, for example, the price of gas to heat their homes, but they have only to put on an extra jumper to drastically reduce their consumption (I wasn't heating at all well into October and probably wouldn't be still if my mother hadn't returned - admittedly as we get older we do feel the cold more and those in need ought to be helped). So vive la recession I say, because it looks like it's the only way we'll learn some common sense.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

And The (Abridged) Adventure Begins Anew

I've been talking about it for a long time - ever since I got back really - that I want to travel again. I have, however, been spoiled by my travels so that I can't go off for a simple 2 week holiday as I don't feel I'd be able to properly get to see, and in a small way understand, a country in such a short space of time. So I have decided to blow my entire annual holiday allowance in one go on a big, 6-week trip (going abroad only once a year also reduces my carbon footprint, although that's just an added bonus for my conscience). December and January are the slowest months of the year at work so at least I don't feel as guilty for taking so much time at once (plus I can add the statutory Christmas and New Year holidays to stretch my trip out for as long as possible), and to top it all I can escape the dour British winter weather.

My wishlist of places I would like to visit, despite all my efforts, just keeps getting longer and longer, so it was difficult deciding on where to go. But in the end I decided on Mali as I have not seen much of Africa and it is a country with a long and illustrious history of which we hear very little (if anything at all). The name Timbuktu still has the power to evoke exotic images of remote, esoteric cultures and traditions and as far from Western civilisation as it is possible to get, despite the fact that most people wouldn't be able to place it on a map (or maybe because of it).

Anyway, I've been talking about it for so long now that I can't back out and so on Saturday I headed down to Kingston to find some info on flights to Bamako (the Malian capital). Once I had explained to the travel agents where Bamako was, I was shocked by the dearth of flights. I realised that it would be high season, but I didn't expect to only be able to find flights with Ethiopian Airways via Addis Ababa for over £600 one way. Luckily, after quite a bit of searching I was able to winkle out a cheaper ticket via Casablanca on the 23rd of December that would get me into Bamako at 2:30 am on Christmas Eve and so now I find myself, for once in my life, hoping that my flight will be delayed. Now I'll have to start doing some research and reading so that I can get the most out of my time as it is the one luxury I don't have any more. Now I'm just full of nervous excitement now that I know that I will be packing my bag and hitting the road again (if only for a few weeks).

Sunday, September 14, 2008


Around the world the changing of the seasons is distinguished in many different ways. And so too here in Britain; but no sudden onset of monsoon rains; dulcet, velvety snowfall; full moons or gophers checking their silhouettes for us. No, here the seasons cannot be distinguished by something so simple as meteorology, we're far too subtle for that (plus we have no weather to speak of - although that has never stopped the English from doing exactly that; incessantly). Instead one has to look at something far more reliable than the British weather: the British traffic. Anxious mothers in their unsuitably large Chelsea tractors, carrying their precious progeny, now vie with work commuters for the limited road space and ensure that nobody gets anywhere on time.

Whilst writing this post I've also realised that a year has gone full circle since I returned. A lot, and yet also very little, has happened since then. As always time is adept at playing tricks with your mind: looking forward a year seems endlessly long, and yet in hindsight is as fleeting and ephemeral as the life of a mayfly.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

The Dangers Of A Comfortable Life

There is certainly something to be said for the life on the road: seeing new places, meeting new people, learning about different cultures and history, tasting new foods an the general, constant adrenaline rush of the unexpected. It wouldn't, however, be generally seen as a particularly safe way of life. In hindsight my 3 years on the road contained many incidents and adventures that, in the cold light of day, sound like I was just asking for trouble: being caught and interrogated by secret police in Karabagh, being detained by police for a couple of days in Djibouti, riding on the roofs of buses and trucks along some very hair-raising roads, hitching in strange places (talking of which, it's very sad for me to see that the Swat valley, one of the nicest places in Pakistan, has descended into sectarian violence recently) and living off food of questionable provenance and prepared under conditions of dubious hygiene. And yet, notwithstanding all these potential risks, everything seemed to fall conveniently into place, problems were resolved or opened up new, unexpected and exciting opportunities. Even when I did get ill (invariably a case of the runs) it generally wasn't too bad and didn't last more than a day or so (only three times was I ill for more than a couple of days) and not once did I have an injury (though I did try and make up with blisters and stiff muscles after overdoing it whilst hiking).

Now, in the year that I have been back I have been out of action due to injury and illness more often than on the entire trip. My latest incident was the most embarrassing of all. I managed to badly jar my foot just kicking a football, and so this past week I've been hobbling round the house alternately wincing in pain and cursing my clumsiness. But all's well that ends well and I am now back in the saddle (literally) and will resume my cycling to work from next week.

On a totally unrelated note, and only tenuously linked to the preceding paragraph, things aren't going well in Georgia - it's been hard seeing such a beautiful place being inexorably torn apart by a conflict which, in theory is extremely local, but is in fact part of a larger global power-play. Unfortunately it is a situation that has looked inevitable for some time, especially since the Kosovan independence (see my previous post) that set a dangerous precedent coupled with the rising assertiveness of Russia. It'll be interesting to see how things pan out, standing up to a powerful Russia will take a lot more balls and nous than beating up weak international pariahs like Iraq and Serbia. Of course it's easy to criticise from the sidelines, but I think that the West ought to put a lot more effort into resolving so-called "Frozen Conflicts" - where opposing sides are not fighting, but the status quo of separation, hate and mistrust deepens daily - before they turn round and bite us in the ass when we least expect it. Because in today's interconnected world every conflict affects us, though often in ways we fail to realise at the time, and a resolution which reinforces the primacy of force is a huge step backwards for everyone.

Sunday, August 03, 2008


Hi everyone. I apologise for being useless at keeping up my blog. My only excuse (and it's a poor one at that) is that with a routine life you get somewhat stuck in a rut need to force yourself so much more to get out of it. My jolt that brought me back to my blog was the news, earlier this week, that my cousin's partner, who I had met for the first time exactly a year ago at our family reunion in Prague (fourth from left in this picture), died in a freak accident falling down the stairs at home at the tragic age of 38 (the details are still a bit unclear, but it goes to show that the "little known fact" that more people are killed by stairs than shark attacks is quite true). I can't claim to have known Nancy well, but in the short time I spent with her she came across as a warm, curious person in the prime of her life. I was also very much hoping on visiting her and my cousin (who I have still not met in person yet) sometime soon as they had just recently moved closer to us (upstate New York, as opposed to Hawaii where they had been previously). I suppose, along with the feelings of shock and grief there is a great feeling of unjustness - that this shouldn't have happened. I can easily see how people, when faced with such events, that make no sense and seem cosmically unfair, find solace in explaining them away with notions of fate, kismet or some higher power with some ineffable, but ultimately rewarding and benign, plan. But for me it just shows the arbitrary nature of life and our existence. There is no meaning. There is no purpose (only that which you decide to give yourself). And, as the hackneyed saying goes, life is unfair.

That very same day dealt one of those karmic coincidences that people love to interpret on some higher level. I received a card from a friend of mine in France informing me of the birth of her (first) baby boy. It is certainly poetic and shows how all tragedies are personal and are occuring everywhere and yet the world just keeps on going regardless, no matter what those of us who are affected may think.

But, apart from that, what have I been doing over this past month (more actually) that I have neglected my blogging. Well, not a great deal, at least not a great deal that I would deem newsworthy of my blog (when it's not work then it generally involves going down the pub with friends or playing football with colleagues from work, which I have just started doing), but here's the lowdown. After your deluge of interest (thanks for asking Rook) I am pleased to say that my abscess has gone and the only trace of its passing is a slight little dimple in the back of my neck (at least I no longer look as if I had just escaped the Matrix). I've also said goodbye to a couple of friends (John and Emma) whom I met whilst travelling in South America (as did they) and who are now off on an eight-month round-the-world jaunt of their own starting with Beijing and the Olympics and taking in a dozen or so countries. Otherwise Summer is still undecided as to whether it wants to show itself here in London - not that I mind that much as people often spend 9 months out of the year complaining about how cold it is and then when Summer finally does come they switch to moaning about the heat and humidity - and I have begun planning my next trip. Not a big one mind you, although I do hope to be able to take all my holiday entitlement in one go so that I can hopefully see something of the countries I want to visit.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Football, Pus And Treaties (An Ordinary Week Then)

This past week hasn't been particularly great with bad news accumulating wherever I seem to look. First off were the Irish who rejected the EU Lisbon treaty. As a committed Europhile I was naturally disappointed, but also very surprised. I would have understood it if the British (had they been given the chance to vote) had rejected the treaty as they are notoriously jingoistic and stubbornly cling to silly notions of sovereignty that have no basis in reality. The Irish, on the other hand, have been the great beneficiaries of the EU. From being an economic and social basket case from its foundation well into the 70s it now has the second-highest GDP per capita in the world (as a measure of PPP) thanks, in no small part, to access to European markets and EU subsidies. One would therefore expect that the Irish would be huge fans of the EU. Obviously not. Which is a shame as the treaty was supposed to deal with many of the criticisms that detractors levelled at it, such as being unwieldy and nothing but a talking shop. Obviously the EU has an image problem and perhaps needs to spend a bit of money on PR to launch a charm offensive.

The second piece of bad news was slightly more painful, at least for me personally, as I developed an abscess in the muscle at the back of my neck. All last week I had a slight discomfort and then on Friday, all of a sudden, it got really painful. In the end I had to go to A&E to get it lanced which was not a particularly pleasant experience to say the least. In fact I was amazed that so much pus came out of me. So it was on the antibiotics for me this past week with regular trips to the nurse to squeeze out more yellow goo. Better out than in as they say, despite the pain, although it has been hard to get the pus out at home due to its location and so I've had to enlist the help of my mother and brother, although they're not that much help as they can't bear to be ruthless enough to push out the gunk as I'm writhing in agony. But that's enough of those gory details (I'll spare you the photo).

And finally there's the football. Not only have the Czech Republic crashed out in embarrassing circumstances at the last minute, but it also seems that every other team that I support gets beaten. Possibly a handy skill I suppose - if you're planning a little flutter on a game just ask me who I'll be rooting for and then bet on the opposition. Ah well, let's see what this week'll bring.

Friday, May 30, 2008


Earlier this week I was awoken from my sleep by the sound of the falling rain. Before fully surfacing into consciousness my instinctive reaction was to feel around me to ensure that my possessions weren't touching the walls of the tent and thereby letting the water in. Then I realised that I was in my bed, in my home and not in a tent in a random field trying to look unobtrusive. It was a startling reminder of how my trip has changed me.

Now that I have been back a few months I can see the ways in which I am different and act differently than before. Of course it's difficult to evaluate such things from such an up-close standpoint, but I hope I'm being honest with myself. Firstly I feel I am far more phlegmatic, at least towards other people and external factors out of my control. I am far less likely to let things bother me - a delayed train, torn clothes, annoying kids, shit weather, flat tyre and other minor mishaps I take in my stride. Similarly I think I am less judgemental than I used to be, having on numerous occasions had to change my views of people and places once I had gotten to know them better (this really infuriates my dad who feels he can't get a single opinion out of me as I evade his questions with caveats and conditions).

I also find myself more open towards people and more willing to go to them to try and help them out. Before I wouldn't hesitate to help someone if they came up to me and asked for it, but now I will actively offer if I see someone who I think is in need of help. Not that I am trying to make out that I am some sort of saint, but so often have I been given a helping hand when I least expected it, with no questions asked and nothing expected in return, that I know what a positive effect that can have on a persons day, regardless of how small the act is. The world can certainly do with more random acts of kindness (such as the one at the start of this post).

During my trip I was lucky enough to see first hand some amazing natural landscapes as well as the damage and degradation being done to it. I therefore feel far more responsible towards the environment in my actions and decisions I take (although I'm far from being perfect). I've also become evangelical in trying to persuade people to be more environmentally aware in their everyday lives by, for example, reusing plastic bags, switching off appliances, trying to recycle and so on. However it's difficult to be forceful with people you don't know that well and so my attentions are often focused on my brother who, I feel, doesn't understand the urgency of the situation, which leads to stalemated arguments where I accuse him of being uncaring and selfish and he retaliates by saying I'm not practical and far too idealistic. And this is where I feel very pessimistic about the future, because if people as intelligent and well educated as my brother, who have been educated about the various environmental problems that beset our planet from an early age and have the means to make lifestyle changes still do not do enough, then there is little hope for people who have not been educated, and struggle just to survive, to make those changes. And I am not holding up my brother as some evil or callous person, quite the opposite is true, but he is symbolic of the apathy and dislocation that are far too common in our society. In western Europe especially, we are far removed from either hardship or nature in a pure, unadulterated form. It's a shame because, despite being an atheist (and proud of it), I had several moments that are best described in English as religious experiences. All occurred when alone in the middle of some expanse of wilderness with the only sign of humanity the thin, indistinct trail leading off in front and behind me. It is impossible to fully describe the feeling of awe, and respect, and warmth, but the (natural) world becomes more precious to you (not that this means I will become a hermit and live in a cave somewhere). And since we rarely have the opportunities to make these connections ourselves our view of the world is only half of what it should/could be.

Not that I have an answer or anything - you can't just ask everyone to walk off into the wilderness so that they may find your epiphany. Now if you'll just excuse me, I'm off to be morose in the corner.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Older, But Not Necessarily Wiser

The reunion turned out to be quite a success. In all over twenty of us came down for the weekend, some even bringing friends and partners. Like all good French soirées this one started with an apéro replete with wine, beer and songs. And even though when we were in school we were divided along cliqueish lines (like all schools there was the cool clique, the slacker clique, the basketballers, etc.) when we got together now we got on really well and had much more in common than before. After a good deal of carousing in a park bandstand (the classic meeting point from our days at school) the evening moved to a restaurant, then a bar, and then another. Well suffice to say that the entire evening was great fun and that I wasn't feeling particularly bouncy the next morning.

Apart from the changes in people, the town itself had been given a bit of a makeover with the centre receiving a glitzy refurbishment with lots more pedestrian areas and a bright, new central plaza. In fact, pretty much the only thing that hadn't changed was my French. My friends pointed out to me that me that my slang was rooted in the late 90's and was so "has been". (It took me a while to understand what they were saying as they were pronouncing it 'asbiiin and I wasn't expecting an anglicism to slip into the notoriously chauvinistic French language.) Apparently there's a whole new lexicon (especially internet related) that has come out in the past decade of which I am completely unaware.

Anyway, it was great to renew those old friendships and connections as school days are a special time and there are very few people you can share those memories with.

Friday, May 09, 2008

Auld Acquaintance

Last year, whilst on the home leg of my trip (I think it was in Albania), I was watching the film Grosse Point Blank. In a nutshell it's about a contract killer returning to his home town for his 10-year high school reunion. This got me thinking about my own high school days and how next year (i.e. this year) it would be 10 years since I had left school.

The seed had been sown and soon after returning I decided to set about trying to organise my own class reunion (an entire high school reunion would have been crazy as each year group had over 500 pupils and I didn't know many of them). There were two immediate problems to the exercise: I was now living in London and yet I went to school in the south west of France, so finding and contacting my old classmates would be more difficult, and secondly the whole concept of school reunions isn't very common in France. Nevertheless I started by contacting my high school friends that I'm still in touch with to get their opinions on the idea. Initial feedback was positive and so I went ahead with the task of finding the rest of my classmates, mainly by trawling through the internet. Once I had found a few people it snowballed from there and in the end I managed to find 35 of the 38 former pupils.

Despite my happy memories of Pau it seems that people were itching to leave, with only 5 still living in the area, and some having moved as far afield as Ireland and Norway to get away; but now, this weekend, we are returning again to our old stomping grounds, some of us for the first time in several years. Personally I am curious to see how much we have changed and what we have become in the intervening 10 years (although I don't expect any of my former classmates to be assassins I'm sure there will be plenty of interesting stories). And with that I'll leave you with our class photo from 1997 (see if you can spot me).

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Getting To The Root Of The Problem

There are distinct advantages of living at your parents' house: cheap rent is one, and cheap rent is another (I know that technically this is just one point, but it's such a big one that I thought I'd mention it twice). Now that I'm "home alone", as it were, I have had several responsibilities thrust upon me, the most onerous of which is tending the garden.

When my father left last month he left instructions that I should dig out a pernicious patch of brambles at the back of the garden "with the roots" so that they wouldn't grow back. What he failed to tell me was that bramble roots can extend to over half a metre underground. So there I was heaving and ho-ing for the best part of Monday trying to get the buggers out and although I got most of them I'm sure there are a few blighters left that will survive to reclaim their patch of the garden and I will be, once again, forced to do battle with them. Not something I'm particularly relishing as the battle against nature is a race against the Red Queen and not one you can win.

Despite having often waxed lyrical about the beauty of the great outdoors and unspoilt wilderness I'll also be the first to admit that I am an urbanite at heart (I'm too pragmatic to be able to overlook the advantages of public transport, readily accessible amenities and cultural establishments) and am lacking the gardening passion which seems to grip the rest of the country. It might possibly have something to do with my aversion to trying to tame nature, preferring to let it be; or perhaps my general laziness and aversion to doing any work unless it's strictly necessary.

Monday, April 28, 2008

The Enemy Of My Enemy?

America's so-called War On Terror, to the disinterested bystander, is a rather nebulous affair. Many disparate geopolitical problems, some related and others not, are seemingly plucked at random and woven together into the miasma that we find presently ourselves in. Because of the vagueness of this crusade many situations are conflated together to produce even more confusion. One perennial misconception is to lump Al Qaeda's brand of terrorism/insurgency with the problem the US is having with Iran (here are two articles, from the Washington Post and Daily Telegraph, that do just that), the general line of reasoning being: "they're both Muslims and they both hate us ergo they're the same." Nothing could be further from the truth as was demonstrated by a news article last week which, if it weren't for the subject matter, would have been rather funny. Iran's president Ahmadinejad, running off at the mouth as per usual, accused a secret Zionist-American conspiracy for the 9/11 attacks (the rumour was supposedly started by Hezbollah). A popular move amongst the Islamic extremist audience one might think, but not so. Al Qaeda's no. 2 immediately made a statement denouncing the Iranians for wanting to discredit al Qaeda and their successes in attacking America. He then went on to claim that Iran was in league with America in the latter's invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. (It reminds me of when I was a kid and I saw a news report where the IRA claimed responsibility for a bombing. To my naive and innocent mind I couldn't understand why anyone would want to claim responsibility for doing such a bad thing.) In fact the Shi'ite theocracy in Iran gives the USA a good run for its money for the top of al Qaeda's hate list. It just goes to show that the political dynamics in the region are far more complex than "with us or against us" soundbites.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Manic Monday

Monday was quite an exciting day for me, although, to be honest, I would have rather it had been a boring one. It started off quite normally, with lovely blue skies as I got on my bike to cycle to work, as is my wont. However, less than a kilometre from work, a woman in her car turned onto the road. Not something I would have a problem with under normal circumstances, unfortunately I was occupying the particular stretch of road that she had her eye on, and although I have put on a few extra kilos of late I was still unable to outmuscle her car and so was sent sprawling. Luckily it was more of a glancing blow and I managed to swerve away somewhat before impact, but nevertheless I still fell flat on my face and got to taste the tarmac.

Naturally I was none too pleased and so I started swearing, which is my standard fall-back response to most things. The woman had, by this time, stopped and helped me groggily get to my feet and off the road where I could pat myself down and check for broken bones. I was thankful that apart from my lip, which was swelling to impressive proportions, and some general scrapes and bruises everything seemed to be OK, as I really didn't want to go to hospital if I could at all help it (last time I was in A&E I had to wait for a painful 3 hours with a torn ligament at the end of which I was given a Tubigrip bandage, some paracetamol and crutches and told to bugger off). In a much worse state were my glasses which were badly scratched. My assailant, feeling particularly remorseful (as she should, as I had right of way), gave me a lift to work; and it wasn't until I arrived that the shock of what had happened hit me. I thought that I would be able to cope with such an event effortlessly (not least because I came away from it more surprised than anything else), but instead I was dazed and confused and certainly not with it and so I took my leave and returned home (by bus).

The next day, although my mind had cleared, my body felt as if it had been passed through the wringer with most of my muscles refusing to do anything but the bare minimum. My fat lip (see below) also made eating rather uncomfortable. My main task for the day was to order new glasses (because, being the well-organised and forward-thinking person I am I only have one pair of specs and not even any back-up contact lenses), and looking back on it I am partly thankful that they got scratched and will therefore (I hope) be paid for by the insurance claim, because they certainly weren't cheap.

Anyway, the swelling in my lip has gone down a fair bit now so I can eat more or less normally. Here's hoping that the rest of the week is more boring than Monday.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Corporate Conspiracies

As I've already mentioned I am now working in the oil industry; to be more precise for a management consultancy that works for big oil firms.

P.S. Completely off topic, here's a little picture taken from my bedroom on the weekend. Although it's April there was a sudden snowstorm in the morning which delivered more snow than we'd had during the entire Winter, but by that afternoon it had all disappeared as suddenly as it had come.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Tibet, History And Pointless Arguments

Continuing with my commentary of world affairs, now that I've become something of a "backseat traveller", today I'm going to talk about the news item that has hogged the international headlines for the past fortnight: Tibet. I don't particularly want to weigh in on any one side of the Free Tibet debate as I think it's far more complicated than we give it credit for, but instead want to talk about perceptions of Tibet. You see I'm lucky enough to have a Chinese colleague (and by that I mean that he is both Han Chinese and also brought up there) and so I was able to discuss the situation with him. Well, when I say discuss I mean argue (those of you who know me well know that I love to play Devil's Advocate).

My friend took particular umbrage at what he saw as the Western media's bias towards the Tibetan cause and portraying the Chinese as the evil party in the whole affair. Although I would agree with him up to a point, in that Western sympathies generally lie with the Tibetans and that this probably skews the reporting somewhat, there was in fact a healthy proportion of reports showing Tibetan mobs beating up innocent Chinese civilians. This certainly compares very favourably with the Chinese state-run media which is blatantly one-sided. His argument does make an interesting point though: we see the Tibetans, their culture, their religion and their history through rose-tinted glasses. It has become very fashionable to be Buddhist (or at least have Buddhist leanings) and therefore idolise the Dalai Lama. (This in itself is a rather blinkered view as the Tibetan form of Buddhism embodied by the Dalai Lama (the Yellow Hat school) is just one form of Tibetan Buddhism, all of which are heavily influenced by the indigenous Bon religion, and which doesn't actually bear that much resemblance to original Buddhism. Of the many forms of the religion the Sri Lankan/Thai Theravada type is the one most similar to the original.) Also the Western view of Tibet is heavily tinged by legends of Shangri-La and a romantic, Victorian image of them as "noble savages" living in a utopian society until they were brought under the yoke of the perfidious Chinese. The truth, however, upon prompting from my colleague (I refuse to take what people say at face value and will stubbornly investigate any facts that people throw into an argument), turns out to be very different: Tibet had a very feudal society with a few rich landowners (often the monasteries) and the rest of the population as impoverished serfs. Hardly the idyll portrayed in the media over here.

This formed one of the two planks of my friend's arguments (i.e. that the Chinese have liberated ordinary Tibetans from serfdom and improved their lot) as to why China is in the right with regards to Tibet. The other is that Tibet is, and has been for a very long time, an integral part of China and therefore has no right to secede. As far as the first point goes I would broadly agree with it, but would raise the question whether such improvements would not have taken place anyway without China's intervention, and whether that should give China any claim on Tibet anyway. One must not forget that in the first half of the last century many other societies were also following a less-emancipated social system and have now become more just, and that secondly although the British empire brought with it many benefits to its colonies we do not say that the Empire was just.

Alongside this social argument was the historic argument: Tibet is and always has been a part of China. The date most Chinese set for the incorporation of Tibet into the rest of China is around 1250 during the Yuan dynasty. Most outside historians would disagree because, although they were both under the same rule, they were both actually part of the Mongol empire and separately administered. Tibet didn't fall under Chinese sway until 500 years later, and even then it was more of a vassal state paying tribute and allegiance, though with its own laws and rulers. Indeed when one sees maps from the era Tibet is never shown as being part of China. But either way that itself does not seem to me to be a compelling argument because even if a people are ruled by another they do not necessarily feel as if they belong to that country. Much of the history of the past 150 years has been that of the struggle for self-determination and emancipation from colonial rule and China's struggles with its restive minorities is just a continuation of that. In some respects China is the last, classic colonial power and it is just as loathe to give up its colonies as Britain and France were.

Not that the Tibetans are even demanding independence, just more freedom and autonomy - a solution which would save face on both sides but which the Chinese authorities are refusing to even contemplate, believing too strongly in their own version of history which states their inalienable right to Tibet. In its essence that is what I believe that this, and several other conflicts boil down to: cultivating a one-sided view of history as a justification for actions, and then repeating that history so often that it becomes an indoctrined, religious, unquestionable dogma. Turks and Armenians, Indians and Pakistanis, Kosovars and Serbs, Israelis and Palestinians, all have their version of events and refuse to listen to the other side dismissing them automatically as lies, fabrications and ploys to deprive them of their birthright (it was George Orwell who said that "he who controls the past controls the present"). Reason, objectivity and fairness are left at the door and are replaced by claims, counter-claims, recriminations and "scientific evidence" that proves the other side to be cheaters, liars and treacherous interlopers. And like all good dogmas no argument on earth, no matter how well crafted or how much supporting evidence is gathered, will be able to budge the adherent from their righteous viewpoint and so you end up having to agree to disagree before you exasperate each other. The best thing to do, before such an argument develops, is to ask your opponent whether they would be willing to change their point of view if presented with sufficient information, and if not then just to refuse discussing it further.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

A Mad World, My Masters

There hasn't been much of note happening in my life lately: getting up, going to work, coming back, seeing friends on the weekend, the usual. However I thought I'd talk about a few news articles that I have noticed this past week and that have, generally, exasperated me and made me think that perhaps people really are that stupid and selfish.

The first one is rather comic: the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) has been refused accession talks with NATO because of a veto by Greece which rejects to the application on the grounds of their name. Some of you may remember when I was in Greece I wrote about the best way of annoying a Greek was to call FYROM Macedonia. Yep, those Greeks sure can bear a grudge and take it all the way. One would have thought (or should I say hoped) that politics is about being rational, taking the long term view and being pragmatic, but in fact it's all about emotions and touchstone issues. More than in any other walk of life, more even than little boys fighting in the playground, politicians can't seem to admit fault or let a trivial issue pass.

Except, that is, for our illustrious ex-leader Tony Blair, who announced on Friday during his visit to Japan that rich nations should slash greenhouse gas emissions. Now, I may be a bit cynical, but shouldn't he have done something during the 10 years that he was in power and had the perfect opportunity of actually doing something concrete, instead of dithering and, now that he's on the sidelines, criticising and getting on his moral high horse.

But the saddest piece of news comes from Iraq as it prepares to "celebrate" the fifth anniversary of its "liberation". The Chaldean archbishop of Mosul was kidnapped and killed (though possibly he died of other causes in captivity, it's unclear) this week. This in itself is a sad event, as is any loss of life, but it's poignantly so because it's a rare newsworthy article of one of the disasters of the Iraq debacle. The media concentrates on the 3 dominant groups within Iraq - the Kurds, the Shi'ites and the Sunnis - but ignores the many other minorities that live(d) there and that are being targeted by the other 3 three. The Armenians, Assyrians, Qawliya, Mandaeans*, Yezidis, Yarsans and Shabaks (and to a lesser extent the Turkmen) are undergoing what could be termed as a genocide as the stronger groups seek to carve out more power for themselves and as religious intolerance increases to fever pitch. The last 4 practice pre-Christian religions that originated in Mesopotamia and are an important relic of cultural history of the region, but without proper protection they will be wiped out. Unfortunately the Americans don't seem to want to rock the boat with the big three and are turning a blind eye. A truly sad development for what used to be the most ethnically diverse country in the Middle East.

*The Mandaeans are particularly interesting because they follow an ancient gnostic religion that has incorporated elements from Abrahamic religions, where they revere some of their saints and prophets such as Adam, Noah and John the Baptist who they particularly like. Abraham, Jesus and Mohammed, however, are seen as false prophets, which is probably why they kept their teachings very much to themselves and didn't publicise them!

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Food And The City

Last weekend I went down to The City with an old friend of mine I hadn't seen in a very long time (although, to be fair, I haven't see a lot of people in a very long time). The City is, paradoxically, the historical heart of London as well as the financial centre. This makes the area feel rather schizophrenic: small, windy medieval streets and alleyways are home to modern office blocks that try to cope with the haphazard street layout, swanky boutiques and chic bistros. Then tucked in between these large, corporate buildings are small churches with colourful names that betray the Anglo-Saxon origins of the city: St Olave, St Botolph, St Ethelreda - not your everyday names nowadays. Yet despite the fact that this square mile of the country is by far the richest and produces a significant proportion of the UK's GDP, if you go there on a Sunday it feels like the day after Judgement Day - the streets are deserted and people are conspicuously thin on the ground. If a tumbleweed were to tumble across your path it would look like the most natural thing in the world. It may seem strange, but in my three years that I lived here as a student I never actually ventured into this part of the city, confining myself to the north and west.

My friend, Lisbeth, is Mexican and I was telling her how the previous day I had been to a "Mexican" restaurant and had a chimichanga. "A what?" she asked. So I had to explain to her that a chimichanga is basically a deep-fried burrito. In fact most of the menu at the restaurant would have been alien to most Mexicans. She has lived in London for over 7 years and she told me that there is, in fact, only one real Mexican restaurant in the whole city and all the rest are actually Texan. That made me think about how many different ethnic restaurants there are in London alone and yet how many of them bare only a fleeting resemblance to what they are supposed to represent. Not only will you not find chicken tikka masala in India, but you're unlikely to even find chicken in a restaurant that isn't geared towards tourists (the vast majority of eating establishments are vegetarian); I couldn't find a Peshwari nan in Peshawar; and I didn't even catch a glimpse of sweet and sour sauce in my 3 months in China (the cuisine that we generally consider Chinese is Cantonese - the food in the northern heartland is plainer and stodgier, but very tasty nevertheless). It's a shame that even our culinary experiences of other countries are so far removed from reality - especially as the real local food is generally much tastier than our ersatz fare.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Some Of My Least Favourite Things

My more regular readers (both of you) know that there are certain things that really get me angry. The most common (because it happens so often - see my last post for instance) is political double-standards, hypocrisy and just plain lying. An example of which came up on Thursday after the British government admitted, after strenuously denying it for some two years, that American secret rendition flights had passed through British territory. I partly blame our government for not being more forceful in demanding this information from our supposed allies, but most of my ire is reserved for the renditions themselves and the extra-judicial nature of the war on terror. Apparently the bare-faced lie coming out of the administration to explain this lack of communication when they broke international as well as British law was due to an "administrative error". And that is, apparently, meant to suffice. Unfortunately that seems to be the case as, what should have turned into a huge diplomatic falling out has just been swept under the carpet. I may have said this before, but I feel so strongly about it that I will mention it again, the ends do not justify the means in a democracy that purports to uphold the rule of law. Because the end is to live by, and defend, the rule of law. By carrying out such practices you are destroying what you are fighting for. George Bush himself said that "these people hate the very things we stand for" (I might be paraphrasing here). But by locking people up without due process and recourse to lawyers or the ability to dispute the reasons for their detention for 6 years (and counting) then the moral credit the Americans once had has dropped way into the red.

But that is not really what prompted today's post. The trigger was, instead, the film Kingdom of Heaven, which I saw on TV on Wednesday. The film takes place during the Crusades and centres on a young, noble (in the moral sense of the word) knight who goes to the Holy Land to help the Crusade and ends up discovering that the Christian rulers there are worse than the Muslims they are fighting. I was vaguely aware of the film when it came out (I was already on my trip) but it didn't interest me then, but now, having travelled through the Holy Land where the film is set, and knowing more of the history, I was curious to see how it would be portrayed and whether it would live up to my pedantic standards. The general historical events and background are true enough - the Crusades, Saladin, the battles and so on. I don't even mind that the hero is very different from the real life personage (I accept artistic licence) as the real history is very complicated and full of double-crossings, intrigues, marriages, divorces and shady deals (far too much for your average American moviegoer to comprehend in a single sitting). Anyway, none of the historical accounts can be 100% relied upon. No, what really annoyed me was the blatant disregard of geography. The film shows Orlando Bloom's noble toiling in the desert on his lands at Ibelin, completely oblivious to the fact that Ibelin is situated in rather green, lush countryside less than 10km from the Mediterranean. Similarly the castle of Kerak is shown as rising up on a low mound surrounded by flat desert on all sides, when in fact its on a spur with canyons on three sides and a dense little town below it. And Jerusalem? what a joke. In the film the hero goes to Golgotha to be alone with god, and proceeds to climb a small, secluded hill off in the countryside. In fact Golgotha would have been within Jerusalem's city walls at that time and there had been a giant cathedral on the site since the 4th century. I could go on, but you get the picture. I find it exasperating that they would put so much effort into recreating the clothes, weapons and other paraphernalia of the time and yet they couldn't be bothered to actually go out to the places they were supposedly filming to get a feel for the landscape and topography (maybe special effects computers can't deal with hills?). It just killed the film for me (not that it was any good to begin with).

If there are any aspiring film-makers out there I hope you read this and take note and do some proper research when you shoot your films.

P.S. Just to show you what an anal pedant I am I've trawled the net to find pictures of Kerak castle from the film and the real life castle. See if you can tell the difference.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Thoughts On Independence

Western Europe and the States are the cradle of modern democracy and the rule (and respect) of law and so I find it particularly shameful that I am having to agree with the Russian government (experts in corruption, extortion, bullying, blackmail and oppression) when it comes to its stance on what looks like the newest country in the world: Kosovo. On Sunday the Kosovar parliament, minus its Serb deputies, unilaterally declared its independence from Serbia - a move which has already been recognised by America, rejected by Russia and on which the EU is dithering as always. That doesn't mean that I am against self-determination of peoples, but the ham-fisted and myopic way in which this was handled by the NATO powers (i.e. America with the UK in tow) causes far more problems than it solves and displays the hypocrisy that is rampant among our political rulers in matters of foreign policy.

From the very start of the West's involvement in this sorry saga (which is by no means the start of the dispute, and is indeed akin to turning up at a football match at the 85th minute) sides were taken that reflected the political situation at the time: not only was Slobodan Milosevic the man the West loved to hate in ex-Yugoslavia, but the Serbs had also temporarily gained the ascendancy in the province. NATO were then duly sent in to help save the plucky Kosovars (most ethnic Albanians of Kosovo prefer to be called Kosovars rather than Albanian to distinguish themselves from their western cousins, who they often feel aren't as cultured as they are). And it is true that the help was indeed needed as the Serb paramilitaries, as well as, to a lesser extent, official Serb forces, were carrying out atrocities against the Kosovar population in response to KLA guerrilla attacks, with the mass killings of civilians, desecration of mosques and Catholic churches (some Kosovars are Catholic whereas Serbs are almost exclusively Orthodox) and rape occurring throughout the region. Such violence seems to characterise the periods of transition when ascendancy in Kosovo switches from one group to the other (during the Tito years the Kosovars were in control). It also seems ironic to me that the Serb authorities were calling the KLA a terrorist orgnisation, a moniker which didn't catch on at the time, although had the events unfolded post 9/11 I'm sure that the Western reponse would have been more firmly behind the Serbs.

Obviously something needed to be done to stop the violence that had led to an exodus of around 800,000 Kosovars to neighbouring countries, but the aerial bombing campaign adopted by NATO was the worst possible response. Instead of getting "boots on the ground" the risk-averse bombing strategy only made matters worse: massacres increased after the bombing started as enraged Serbs took their frustrations out on Kosovar civilians; there was a good deal of "collateral damage" affecting civilians as the NATO forces quickly ran out of military targets and started bombing civilian structures instead (with lethal cluster bombs no less), such as TV stations, electricity stations and ordinary bridges in Vojvodina province some 500km away from Kosovo. When the Serbian forces finally withdrew and NATO forces finally arrived they just stood by as the Kosovar retaliatory attacks escalated (although you didn't need to be a genius military tactician to see that reprisals were a certainty NATO forces had no plans in place on how to deal with them) and forced 164,000 Serbs to flee. Demographics, as any expert in international conflicts will tell you, is a vital plank in territorial claims. The Serbs have been losing that battle for quite some time now: immediately prior to the breakup of Yugoslavia they constituted 10% of Kosovo's population, post WWII they formed 25%, and at the end of the 19th century there was parity between the Serb and Kosovar populations. Prior to the Turkish conquest of the Balkans Kosovo was not only exclusively Serb but also the heart of their empire, and that is one of the main sticking points in the dispute and why Serbs are so loathe to give up Kosovo (so what is the statute of limitations when considering such cases?). Entwined with the historical aspect is the cultural one - the most important work in classical Serb literature is a series of epic poems known as the Kosovo Cycle, it's stories and heroes a part of the national psyche and an indivisible part of Serb culture. To lose Kosovo would be, for the Serbs, like depriving the French of wine or the Greeks of the Parthenon.

But the thing that worries me most about the situation is the precedent that is being set whereby international law is being trampled in the dust. When NATO intervened in 1999 it was to protect a minority from the violence whipped up by a dictator going far too far in responding to a separatist movement. A laudable goal in anyone's book. But because of the West's antipathy to Milosevic they became fixated with the idea of independence for Kosovo, even after Milosevic was ousted. This emboldened the Kosovars to hold out for independence and precluded any possibility of a negotiated settlement. And so, after 9 years of not putting much effort into negotiations and understandably not coming up with an agreement from both sides, we now have this unilateral declaration of independence which goes against the tenets of international law which require a consensus agreement to the drawing of new borders. First of all 9 years is a pitifully short time in which to hold up your hands and say "we tried as hard as we could but it just didn't work". There have been border disputes and sovereignty arguments that have been going on for many decades, and though they may seem intractable that has not caused one side to unilaterally declare independence. Secondly this sets a very dodgy precedent whereby any crackpot secessionist movement can now be justified in claiming its independence. And trust me, there are over 250 such separatist movements (more than one for every official country) ranging from the borderline loonies to the well-organised regimes that run de facto states such as Northern Cyprus, Somaliland, the Tamil Tigers, Nagorno Karabakh, Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Kurdistan, Transnistria and Taiwan (the latter being so state-like that most people don't realise that it isn't one). Apologists claim that Kosovo is a unique case, but I cannot see how it is more deserving than Tibet, East Turkestan, Kurdistan, Somaliland, Khalistan or a host of other worthy causes. Indeed in most cases the policy of the Western powers is to call for the maintenance of the status quo and the sovereign rights of nations. The only difference is that Kosovo was close, small, and controlled by a relatively weak power that would be easy to beat (as a friend of mine put it, "they had probably made too many bombs and needed to get rid of them"), so that "liberating" it would be quick, easy and relatively painless. And it is this hypocrisy which is unbearable to me. If NATO cared about the humanitarian aspect and the suffering of minorities why do they not invade China to help the poor Uighurs, or Israel to protect the Palestinians, or India to help the Nagas, or Russia to help the Chechens? As always politics has been dressed up in the language of altruism to disguise its baseness and lack of scruples and ordinary people ultimately suffer. In the end this can very easily come back and haunt us as it will embolden the separatists in places where unrest will have much more widespread consequences.

Personally I would have liked to have seen a solution that granted a great deal of autonomy for the region within a Serb federation - a solution that is possible because it already exists in Serbia's northern region of Vojvodina with its large Hungarian minority and 26 separate ethnic groups that manage to live together in peace. Because this solution does not actually resolve the fundamental problem which was the animosity between the two communities, and despite the eloquent statements and grand ideas of equal rights for all ethnic groups in the independence speech, I don't think anything will change. At the moment Serb monuments and churches have to be protected around the clock by international troops, public transport doesn't stop in Serb towns and villages and there is no contact between the communities. This is no basis for a properly functioning state with the trust of all its citizens. I don't blame the Kosovars for the situation as they were just trying to get the most out of situation in which they started off with the weaker hand, but ultimately I believe the blame rests with America and its NATO allies who once again have shown their inability to comprehend the ramifications of their actions on world politics. Now that the genie has been let out of the bottle I don't think it will be possible to "undo" the declaration, but to defuse the situation the West ought to be ready to give one mother of a sweetener to the Serbs to stop the rancour from spreading and also keep a close eye on the Kosovars to ensure that they hold true to their promises of equality. I'm afraid we may not have heard the last of this particular saga.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Train Set

My peacenik, traveller's lifestyle is getting chipped away bit by bit every week nowadays as I am drawn inexorably to become part of the "establishment". This week I got my own personalised business cards. It's a far cry from my travels when I was toying with the idea of getting a card printed for myself then: it would have said "Erik - Travel Bum", and then given my website. Of course it never came to pass as I was always thinking that my trip would be over soon and that anyway, cards were far too pretentious. Now I'm going to join in the oh-so formal ritual of the-exchange-of-cards every time I meet someone for work. In some ways I feel a bit like an intruder in this corporate world - like I don't really belong and that sooner or later someone will find out and set off the alarm.

I used to be quite jealous of my brother and his jet-set job that would send him to far-flung exotic locations (such as Borneo, California, Norway and the unfortunately named Dutch town of Ahs) for work projects and get put up in swanky hotels (although, to be fair, to be classified as a swanky hotel in my book all you need is hot running water). But all that changed this Monday when I got sent on my first business trip. I was sent to Tetbury, where our company has an office, to do some training on some of our computer programmes. As soon as I heard about the opportunity I immediately went for my atlas (or, to be more precise, Google Maps) to find out where exactly Tetbury is. I was a bit disappointed to find that it was a small, rural market town about 100 miles west of London on the edge of the Cotswolds, but you have to start somewhere I suppose. Some things I still cannot bring myself to do, most notably with expenses. So, on the way back to London, instead of getting the taxi to the bus station in the next village I got the last bus to the station and waited an hour until it arrived. The taxi would have been, to my mind, too profligate and wasteful (both financially and environmentally) that I couldn't justify it to myself, despite the discomfort of having to wait. My colleagues tell me it won't last, but I feel that if we, who are better educated about the environment and our impact upon it, can't make the conscious effort to mend our ways then we're doomed to failure.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

On The Piste

Sorry for not writing for a while but last week I went skiing with my brother and my father (it's funny how, even though I snowboard rather than ski, I still find it more natural to say that I went skiing). It was my first time on the pistes in 8 years and I was naturally initially rather apprehensive and worried that I would fall flat on my face and make a fool of myself. I was, however, surprised to discover that I hadn't lost any of my (limited) ability and was not only able to get down the mountain without falling, but also to control my descent and enjoy myself. And no matter how cautious or sedate we may be there is something visceral about speed that gets the adrenaline rushing. And although some things don't change others very clearly do. Now it would be a great stretch of the imagination to say that I am old, but this holiday certainly did make me realise that the arrow of time, unfortunately, goes only one way. I remember the halcyon days of my youth when I didn't understand the point of warming up for exercise as my young body was immune to the painful after-effects of physical exertion. Not so any more as after (not even a full) day on the piste my calves were letting me know that they had earned their keep and then some. As my (elder) brother keeps assuring me, "it's all downhill from here".

We were staying at the (relatively) small Italian resort of Livigno, just over the border from the swanky Swiss resorts of St Moritz and Davos. Though unlike the exclusive clientele attracted by the latter Livigno's duty free status (and subsequent cheap booze and fags) made it a magnet for eastern Europeans: Poles, Czechs, Russians and Ukrainians especially. Although I'm not particularly enthused by apres ski shenanigans I did apperciate the local cocktail called a Bombardino, composed of equal parts of egg liqueur, whiskey and milk, heated up and served with a generous topping of whipped cream. It may sound rather sickly but is in fact the perfect drink for warming you up in the chill winter nights. There was enough snow but no soft powder so beloved of us boarders - just hard-packed groomed pistes. Then, as if to rub our noses in it, the morning of our departure it started to snow heavily, big, fat flakes, soft as eider down. But we couldn't stay as Mark and I had a plane to catch. And this is where Livigno stabbed us in the back. We left early with plenty of time to spare (we Jelinek's are notorious and managing to create delays out of nothing when travelling) and headed for the tunnel that connects the Livigno valley to Switzerland. Because it's quite a remote corner of the country far from the main roads the tunnel linking the countries here has only a single lane, and so cars have to be let through from one side at a time requiring coordination from both sides. Apparently there had been a falling out between the Italians and the Swiss who jointly administer the tunnel and when we were wanting to pass the Swiss let a huge convoy through the tunnel causing traffic on the Italian side to snarl up and come to a complete standstill. In the end it took over 3 hours to inch our way 4km to the other side of the tunnel, by which time our chances of catching our plane were laughable. And so, sure enough, we stumbled into Munich airport forced to buy ourselves new tickets to get back home. I certainly was not amused.

Monday, January 14, 2008

New Year Blues

The post-Christmas period is traditionally a time of depression and gloom caused by accumulated debts racked up from Christmas presents, accumulated kilos from too many mince pies, already-broken resolutions and a distinct lack of sunlight. I was on my way into town after work to meet up with an old friend of mine (Kate's the only person from primary school that I'm still in contact with) when an individual with a particularly acute case of the blues decided to end it all and jumped in front of a tube train. Personally I thought it was very inconsiderate of them to do it during the weekday rush hour, which meant I had to sit in a crowded train - and I didn't even have a paper to read!

I was a bit ill last week, although it did get me a chance to intimately acquaint myself with the u-bend of our lavatory. I have also just found out that, quite aptly perhaps, given the name of my blog, I am a kipper - or a KIPPER to be more precise. Apparently it stands for Kids In Parents' Pockets Eroding Retirement savings. That's me staying at my mum's and getting fed and generally pampered. It has, however, given me a bit more time and space to sort things out (although I'm far from finished). I have finally found not only all my pictures from the trip, but also all my clothes that had been packed away in various boxes and suitcases and squirrelled away in the attic and the garage (I have thereby found out that I have enough T-shirts to last the rest of my life, so please, if anyone is thinking of getting me a gift: no T-shirts please, I have nowhere to put them!). I'm also into month 21 in the sorting of my pictures (just 15 more to go) and I have so far filled 12 albums (if I had known it would be so much work I might not have taken all those photos!).

Sunday, January 06, 2008


CapEx, for those of you not in the know, is the abbreviated term for capital expenditure. These are costs incurred by a business "to buy fixed assets or to add to the value of an existing fixed asset" (source Wikipedia, the fount of all knowledge!). Of the many new terms and ideas I'm coming across at work this is one of the commonest and, luckily, easiest to understand. Having been away for so long I've needed to invest in some CapEx for myself as my own personal infrastructure has suffered from 3 years of underinvestment. This weekend went a long way to rectifying the situation when I finally bought myself a bike for the commute into work so that I can return Mark's (although theoretically he owes me one as my old one was stolen whilst he was using it). I was disappointed to find that I couldn't find the exact type of bike I wanted - an old-school road bike with drop-down handlebars and mudguards (as it does rain on occasion here in London) - as mudguards aren't fashionable these days. So I'll have to resign myself to getting wet legs from time to time. I also had to invest in a half-way presentable pair of shoes now that I've got a real job with an office and everything (talking of which, below is a picture of me in my aforementioned office).

Another expense undergone this week was the purchase of flight tickets to Munich at the end of the month. For three years now my dad has been saying that I should go skiing with him (well, he skis and I snowboard) thinking each year that I would be home for Winter. Now that I am finally home I acquiesced - I just hope I still remember how to stay upright as it has been 7 years since I last hit the pistes. I was rather disappointed when buying the tickets as I really wanted to live up to my green principles and take the train, unfortunately the price was almost twice that of the plane. Now I wouldn't mind paying a little bit more but that was just too much. The problem is that jet fuel isn't at all taxed, which is a ridiculous state of affairs as, in effect, that means that air travel is subsidised and gets an unfair economic advantage over other means of transport, and that's despite the fact that it's the most polluting means of transport out there. That's the problem with politics (as the decision to tax fuel rests firmly with politicians) in the West - the right things are said, be it with regards to an ethical foreign policy, fighting global warming or respecting human rights, but as soon as it gets slightly uncomfortable then all principles are thrown out the window. It's the sheer hypocrisy of politics that disgusts me to the core. I wish we had a leader who would have the balls and the honesty to plainly say that air travel is too cheap for the damage that it is causing the environment and that it ought to be dearer. Maybe I'm also being hypocritical by not putting my money where my mouth is and taking the flight. It's probably also that I'm too weak to spend £260 when there's a £140 option available, although I would be willing to spend the £260 if there wasn't a cheaper option.