To be clear from the outset, I don’t like Christmas. Even if a vestigial spiritual aspect remained I’d be unmoved. In common with Norwich I have no religion, not even Jedi. However, I’ll agree that when mornings are dark and days short we all need to be cheered up and if rituals involving eating and drinking, socialising, singing, quaffing pretend blood and melting wax effigies do the trick that’s just dandy – it’s a mostly a free country.
That said, the proliferation of Christmas presents should be banned, or at least controlled in the same way as nuclear weapons. It’s true there are some inherent flaws in this policy. Americans and Russians would still have shed-loads of presents, the Chinese too – even though they don’t believe in Santa. Indians would claim they invented presents, Pakistanis would sell some of theirs to the North Koreans, Israelis would just get angry and say nothing, and the Brits and French would go off in a huff, each with one small present from last year, wondering why nobody loved them anymore.
Anyhow, to this end I suggested to my wife that we simplify our lives, and those of others, by limiting Christmas giving to a pot of marmalade and a fake tattoo – I’m still working on the marmalade. As ever, the guilt-driven ritual of tat for tat exchange that fuels Britain’s annual festival of shopping obscures the origins of this ages-old midwinter rite. The significance of Santa’s crucifixion is lost for many in an atmosphere heavy with forced conviviality preceding the consumerist storm.
In fluorescent-decked halls across the land superstore muzak is cranked up to 11 in readiness for the December trolley dash… And they’re off… credit cards at the ready, easy payment facilities available (subject to status, terms and conditions apply) and Wanka.com for the rest. To the victors… the feral sweetness of ‘celebrity’ perfume, shiny smartphone conduits for incontinent electronic dribbles, and for those fashionably smug, flat Chinese computers made from ground up babies’ bones…
Merry Christmas one and all.
In this week’s news from the net…
Christmas is a time for sharing… Shoplifting on the increase reports the BBC http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-20765838
Kurdish/Rebel clashes add yet another facet to Syria’s war http://www.worldpoliticsreview.com/articles/12565/kurdish-rebel-clashes-raise-specter-of-interethnic-war-in-syria
Iraqi President in a coma after stroke http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-20766435
First round of Egyptian referendum sees 57% approve new constitution http://uk.reuters.com/article/2012/12/18/uk-egypt-politics-idUKBRE8BH0LU20121218
‘Plague ship’ docks in Southampton – lovely aggregator of woe from the Yorkshire Post – http://www.yorkshirepost.co.uk/news/at-a-glance/main-section/passengers-tell-of-virus-hell-as-plague-ship-cruise-ends-1-5228405
Look, I stand by what I said about religion, but here’s Rev Stanley’s take on life’s legacy… http://ramblingrector.wordpress.com/2012/12/01/how-do-you-want-to-be-remembered/
Gerard Depardieu shrugs, quits France, and sends his passport to Prime Minster Ayrault – http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/france/9750510/France-warms-to-Gerard-Depardieu-the-heroic-exile.html
‘After the revolution we thought all the young people will have jobs. But it’s just the same.’ exhaled Walid. We walked on through the dunes, Walid barefoot, wearily leading the camels, our happy band of trekkers following. 100km across a sandy finger of the Sahara’s Grand Erg Oriental lay our destination, the fort and oasis of Ksar Ghilaine – a popular tourist route for dilettante desert explorers.
Tunisia’s 2011 ‘Jasmine Revolution’, the first popular uprising of the ‘Arab Spring’, saw a coalition led by the previously banned Ennahda (Renaissance Party) take power. However, for many educated young Tunisians the new Islamic government has yet to deliver. ‘What is happening in Tunis now, it’s just the Islamic who find jobs, mostly in the government,’ continued Walid. As in other Arab countries the secular youth, those best educated, most connected and a primary catalyst for change appear to feel sidelined. ‘My mother, my father, they pray. Not me. I do believe, but it’s in the background,’ Walid sucked in air through his teeth, looking at me questioningly. ‘OK, so not fight, not kill but people should be able to do what they want, that’s freedom,’ he concluded.
Tunisia’s economy is not all dates, pottery and tourism. Petroleum, hi-tech computer components, parts for Airbus aircraft and vehicle manufacturing, all contribute to a varied GDP. However, in a global downturn jobs are hard to find. ‘I graduated in IT four years ago,’ says Walid in disbelief. ‘Mostly I’m worried that if I keep doing this,’ tossing a look over his shoulder at the camels, ‘I’ll forget my job. Things will have moved on.’
A common escape path favoured by disillusioned young people the world over is to marry a foreigner. However, for Walid this is a step too far. ‘You know there are more than one million Tunisians in France. It’s difficult to go legally. Maybe marry a French woman, but I have 25-years and only the older ones are interested… I have a friend who has done this. When he visits with his wife I say to him in Arabic, “Why are you with this woman?” He says he loves her. Come on… It’s not for me. Maybe later. Who knows?’
Almost exactly 70 years ago Winston Churchill described the first Allied victory in North Africa as ‘not the end… not even the beginning of the end but… perhaps the end of the beginning.’ Maybe in time history will look upon Tunisia’s revolution and those others in the Arab world in a similar light.
This week’s eye-catching links, in no particular order:-
- If you’re intrigued by a desert experience, Exodus’s Sahara Desert Trek is to be recommended. You’ll need to be reasonably fit, not too attached to such tissued fripperies as soft beds and personal hygiene, and not allergic to sand or camels. A penchant for couscous, though not essential, is an advantage. Here’s the link – http://www.exodus.co.uk/holidays/tmu/overview
- Railsavers (http://www.railsavers.com) is offering motorail services from Den Bosch, close to the Dutch/Belgium border, to Koper, Slovenia (not far from Trieste, in Italy) next summer. If you can be flexible on dates there are some real bargains on this new route, as well as on existing services to Alessandria and Livorno in Italy.
- Red line – Choppy seas ahead as China makes enhanced claims for national territorial waters… Not satisfied by re-writing the history books China seems determined to redraw the maps - http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-pacific-13748349
- I left Haiti 6th December 2009 having researched a magazine and newspaper travel commission. The 12th January earthquake tossed those stories onto a spike, whilst in Haiti any aspirations for a tourism renaissance were lost amongst the dust and rubble. Three years on Paul Clammer’s new guidebook provides an up-to-date vision of a Haiti, a destination that whilst challenging, is again one of the Caribbean’s most rewarding for adventurous travellers. Here are some extracts from Haiti http://www.bradtguides.com/extracts-haiti.html
I was invited to dinner the other day by some folks not long moved up from Buckinghamshire. It’s happened before. A neatly turned out Sasha or Duncan meets my wife alone, presumably decides she sounds quite jodhpurs, ponies and private schools and is charmed by a false sense of shared values. Sight unseen they extend a bony finger of social largesse to include me, which is where things start to unravel.
Even as we crossed their threshold, bottle of Sainsbury’s Cava and Costco mints in hand, I detected disappointment that my vowels fell into the NQWWW category – Not Quite What We Want. I’m hardened to this. My own speech has never fitted in, from Secondary Modern in the North West which I endured whilst being ‘rite posh’, to nine years in London as a token ‘northern git’.
Hanging up coats, we took seats in the lounge. It transpired the Sashcans still had their house in High Wycombe, hinting to me at expatriate impermanence, as though they’d be ready on the tarmac with bags packed ready to board the last flight out when the inevitable UN evacuation was ordered.
Over an array of nibbles we discussed public transport in Northumberland, or rather the lack of it. I cited recent homework asking my daughter to describe a journey to St James’ Park by bus and train. Being ‘in travel’ I’d decided to assist, discovering that the twenty mile odyssey took 15 and a half hours, comprising a three and a half mile walk to the bus stop and in a cruel twist an occasional obligatory overnight next to the Metro at Callerton Parkway’s Premier Inn. I mentioned little old ladies, isolated and lonely, too doddery to drive even if they could afford to, marooned in villages where they’d lived for decades. Perhaps rashly I made the case for public transport providing a service rather than earning a profit, a suggestion obviously akin to wearing a flat cap, eating a chip butty and lighting up a ‘tab’ whilst clog dancing The Internationale. ‘Why should we pay for your transport?’, came the astonished response from Duncan’s visiting sister. The pros and cons could have been argued but the subtext was plain – Why should we who are comfortably enclosed in the fat of the Home Counties care a jot for anyone else, particularly those for whom bath, path and laugh are a bridge too far?
I felt suddenly tired. My glass was refilled but even meltingly-ripe Camembert and five types of cream cracker couldn’t resuscitate the evening. Time to head home, after all, the whippet would need a walk before bed.
This week’s links…
Kelvin McKenzie’s piece in The Telegraph in which he bemoans subsidising folk from the rest of the country… http://www.telegraph.co.uk/comment/9717537/Kelvin-MacKenzie-overtaxed-South-needs-its-own-party.html#
It occurs to me that you have to be of a certain age to appreciate this Goodies clip – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TJxGi8bizEg
A fascinating TED talk by Susan Cain that seems to suggest that sales, PR and mob-think may have gone too far… http://www.ted.com/talks/susan_cain_the_power_of_introverts.html
Tony Hawks on Radio 4′s I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue attempts to keep up with Psy’s Gangnam Style – http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p011txtf
Carole Cadwalladr suggests a new name for the world’s least favourite airline in this Guardian piece – http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/dec/02/ryanair-needs-a-new-rude-name
Down the lane, after a week off-limits the track around Kirkharle’s lake has reopened following ‘baring off the sward’. It’s a process that sounds intriguingly pagan, certainly a phrase to file away, but it involves a few dozen sheep nibbling till narcotised on grass they’d normally only dream of – if they dream at all. Anyhow, the lakeshore’s munched to the quick and the sheep have departed leaving only their spoor. The ‘durg’ (a Geordie dog) is able to roam free, the red mist of woolly pursuit averted. Sitting in the sunshine on a thoughtfully provided bench I feel a tad underemployed. There’s a lot of it about apparently. The ‘durg’ seems deliriously happy just widdling its way around the lake. Lacking the same level of urinary control I’m unable to explore a similar path to fulfilment. From across the water drift reports of ruddy-faced chaps in mustard cords giving the pheasant population a proper pasting. Though as gunfire grows more intense it strikes me that semi-automatic assault rifles are not best suited as sporting weapons and instead it’s the army practicing to defend our liberties at Otterburn Ranges.
Time to get back to my inbox…
In the meantime, in no particular order, here’s an aggregator of items that recently caught my eye:-
- Undiscovered Destinations – New tours for 2013 – Somaliland, Niger, South Sudan, Turkmenistan and Burma – http://www.undiscovered-destinations.com/travel-news-offers/news.html
- Celia Topping’s South Sudan piece in The Independent – http://www.independent.co.uk/travel/news-and-advice/south-sudan-the-wildest-frontier-8227095.html and a link to her gallery of images - http://www.celiatopping.com/galleries/south-sudan/
- Video highlights of Travel Blog Camp – Matthew Teller ‘PR is corrosive’, Jeremy Head ‘Great content isn’t something that should be ordained by Google.’ http://www.travelblogcamp.co.uk/highlights/
- The General’s Son author Miko Peled – a partial history of Palestine and Israel – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TOaxAckFCuQ
- Wild Frontiers’ Pakistan video report – http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=AvPoyS2oBQI
- Breakthrough in new jet/rocket engine design by British scientists – http://www.telegraph.co.uk/science/science-news/9709041/Britain-to-Australia-in-four-hours-with-new-engine.html
- Atheists and Islam: ‘No God, not even Allah’ from The Economist – http://www.economist.com/news/international/21567059-ex-muslim-atheists-are-becoming-more-outspoken-tolerance-still-rare-no-god-not
- Mikey Leung’s TEDx Dhaka ‘Be the Change’ talk on sustainable tourism in Bangladesh http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SvgPxOoLdgU&feature=player_embedded
- Video of AidConvoy2Syria.com convoy from London to Turkish/Syrian border… – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9wqyGoRhuS0&list=UUo96BOMHLr0qhAhatidV_Lg&index=9&feature=plcp
I must admit to feeling thoroughly depressed at the violence accompanying protests across Libya, Egypt and Yemen. Watching video previously posted by murdered Ambassador Chris Stevens describing his enduring relationship with the Arab world only serves to emphasise the nihilistic aspect of his death.
Certainly the US lacks the moral high ground in the Middle East, a fact that many in the West need to be reminded of, but a reality of common currency amongst the region’s populous for decades. To be clear, from an Arab perspective US foreign policy is synonymous with perpetuating despots and arming a belligerent Israel, either in the cause of economic self-interest, strategic advantage or domestic political expediency.
Comments posted following editorial on the protests don’t bode well. The usual zealots splutter, up to their necks in a rising tide of bile, yelling from opposing shores of a sea of ignorance. Then, perhaps more worryingly, there are the ideologues, trenchant, calm and annoyingly confident. Why? Because God is on their side you silly… And finally, liberal voices from Christian and Muslim intelligentsia, preaching understanding, trying to build bridges across the religious divide – though it’s impossible not to ask yourself who is responsible for the divide in the first place?
Certainly the provenance of the straight-to-video film, ‘The Innocence of Muslims’, cited as a catalyst for the embassy protests is far from clear. The ‘producer’, one ‘Sam Bacile’ (too close to ‘imbecile’ to be true) doesn’t exist. ‘Jimmy Israel’ and ‘Steve Klein’ are also quoted as being involved, at this rate it won’t be long before ‘Donald Duck’ and ‘Mickey Mouse’ are credited as Associate Directors. In common with most of those involved in the protests, I haven’t seen the trailer or the film, if it even exists – the actual insults it contains, whether scripted or dubbed have transcended news to become unassailable articles of faith.
The angry reaction by the young men of the Arab Street is as frightening and tedious as it is predictable, but mobs are never pretty. ‘Death to Obama!’ – really guys, given the Republican alternative, be careful what you wish for.
Who benefits from this polarisation? Revolutionary change in North Africa came not as the result of radical Islamic epiphany. Though the incomplete nature of some ‘revolutions’ is rightly questioned, in the first instance it was Arab youth, energised by information and secular idealism that kicked out long-entrenched bogey men. However, years of repression have stifled the growth of democratic political structures, and post-revolution the mosque and the military are left as the only functional national organisations, the latter weakened by association with the ancien regime. In 1979 the Iranian middle classes didn’t help oust their corrupt and dictatorial Shah in order to become subject to an equally corrupt and humourless religious cabal – but it happened, and too easily democracy can become theocracy.
I’m reminded of an encounter I had in May 2011, in a suburb of Benghazi known as Ras Abaydah. Sipping coffee in a ‘neighbourhood watch’ tent I spoke to local teacher Abu Farris. ‘None of the Arab leaders know the meaning of freedom,’ he declared, ‘None of the Arab leaders know what ‘people’ mean. None of the Arab leaders know what a President is, they just read it, they have no respect at all for this word “freedom”, everybody feel it.’ Though his delivery already verged on the polemic he was just getting started… My cup was topped up, Abu Farris left his untouched, ‘You know, I believe that the West planted this… this creature (Gaddafi) in Libya in 1969. All Arabs believe that these leaders were planted by the West. This is why Al Qaida, Bin Laden or somebody the same makes a lot of trouble. Not because we hate the West, but because we know that the West planted these leaders. It is now their duty to throw these leaders away. Just let us get rid of them, once we get rid of them, then the West will be forgiven by the Arabs.’
I hope he was right.
A few weeks ago I was at Newcastle Airport, sitting at the gate ready to board a Jet2 flight to Heraklion, surveying the wealth of tattoos, false eyelashes and celebrity hairstyles, and suddenly feeling all of my 46 years.
Unlike most other low-costs Jet2 should be congratulated for assigning seats during check-in in an effort to avoid the boarding scrum, a phenomenon revealing the true contempt in which some airlines hold their passengers. That said, gate staff still must engage stealth mode close to boarding time lest sudden movement cause a stampede of eager passengers and result in the death of someone disadvantaged by being polite.
On this particular day the game was up, a plane load of punters smelt fear and rushed forward as one, only to then stand shuffling pointlessly in line, fiddling with their self-printed boarding passes – proof that CSE origami was worthwhile after all…
These days getting on a bus is more civilised than taking a low-cost flight and it’s not all the result of exploding underwear fetishists, and the legion dangerous idiots with guns, knives and nail clippers.
As regional airports go, Newcastle is one of the best yet surely there are ways that don’t cost the earth for airlines and airports to make flying economy a pleasanter experience. BAA is being forced to sell Stansted by the Competition Commission and Ryanair has expressed interest – don’t all clap at once. Surely a case of being careful what you wish for…
If anyone has bright, ideas feel free to comment – I’ll post suggestions here.
Have a good week.
Website of the Week – This piece of radio is from 2010, and you may have heard it already. However, there’s little to touch an Irishman when he’s inspired, so listen and enjoy the Republic’s President Michael Higgins as he exhorts Tea Party ‘shock jock’ Michael Graham to ‘be proud to be a decent American rather than just being a wanker whipping up fear…’ http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B5OWRRJh-PI
Until recently Bulgaria was pushing hard to embrace all aspects of the European Union, including adoption of the common currency, the Euro. That was then. The Euro zone crisis has forced a reassessment. As with many former Eastern Block states the post Communist honeymoon has long been overtaken by the harsh daily reality of free market economics. Newly critical perspectives on both past and present are sometimes cynical, one-sided and solely supported by hearsay, but nonetheless they are common currency. Earlier this year I had the opportunity to travel again through Bulgaria. The following text recalls two encounters with local residents that together offer a snapshot of contemporary life.
Arriving at the ski resort of Borovets in the Rila Mountains, I check into my hotel before taking a turn around the town. Flurries of white flakes swirl in the icy breeze and it’s difficult to stand on the compacted snow. It’s 17 below, unseasonably cold even for a Bulgarian winter, but despite this the lower slopes are busy with skiers.
Borovets’ planned development started with a few state-owned hotels during the Communist period, and ended with the advent of capitalism, when the gaps in between were filled by a hodgepodge of log cabin emporia. Many of these are bedecked by strings of flashing lights and non-too-subtle advertising promising ‘All Day Breakfast’, ‘Kiddie Karaoke Corner’ and ‘Exotic Show’ – though, it has to be said, not all in the same hut.
Numbed by cold I search out some warmth, mounting the steps to a cabin remarkable for its plain exterior. Inside the waiter is dressed formally in a waistcoat, white shirt and black trousers. A radio plays, and of the other tables only one is occupied by chatting Bulgarian girls. A fireplace glows comfortingly with a mountain of wood embers, and nursing a generously frothy Zagorka beer, I start to thaw out pleasantly.
A heavily built Bulgarian man enters and perhaps because he’s also alone, sits close by, soon engaging me in conversation. I ask him about life in Bulgaria. He hesitates and pulls a face, as though he’s chewed something bitter. ‘We have a big problem with gypsies, that nobody wants to talk about.’
‘You’re telling me’ I think, and brace myself for a sustained salvo of bar room polemic.
‘It was the Socialists’ fault,’ he says. ‘Gypsies travelled during the Ottoman time, there was a bridge between Europe and Asia and it was safe to do so. The Socialists made it so no one could travel, even between neighbouring states. The gypsies didn’t know what to do. And now the government just gives them money and welfare. They’re fucking like rabbits, having seven, eight kids – it’s a business.’
‘A business?’ I ask.
‘Their weddings are not official so the women are paid by the government as single mothers, whilst there are very poor Bulgarians, working and paying tax that supports these gypsies.’
‘So does everyone feel the same about them?’ I query, looking for some balance.
‘Look, for sure at every Bulgarian wedding there will be gypsy musicians. No one wishes gypsies harm. But no one likes them.’
I sip my beer – it’s starting to taste a bit flat. Then, the lights flicker and the radio dies. The waiter lights candles. The chatting girls continue chatting. Outside, a dog limps by in the snow.
Further south in Sandanski, close to the Greek border, there’s no snow or ice. The area’s sheltered position fosters a renowned microclimate and its bubbling mineral waters have for years drawn those in search of cures.
Amongst modern décor, stylish furniture and fashionably uniformed attendants I meet Dr Lilia Bakalova at one of the town’s swish new spas. Built to pamper those who’ve prospered in the new Bulgaria, it’s a far cry fry from facilities once prescribed to Bulgaria’s proletariat.
‘What’s it’s like to be a doctor here?’ I enquire.
‘Before 1989 you had to be a member of the Communist Party to advance your career.’ She says. ‘I was lucky. I travelled abroad to promote the benefits of our mineral waters. I saw life elsewhere and wondered why it was so different.’ She leans forward tossing me an incredulous stare.
‘Aren’t the hospitals better now?’ I ask.
‘Sick people are sick people, all over the world,’ she says. ‘Certainly, we have new machines and drugs. However, it’s my opinion that the mental health of the population is poorer now, because of stress. Before everything was secure. We had enough. Now it’s a struggle.’
‘And the future?’ I venture.
‘Professional people are not well paid,’ says Dr Bakalova. ‘Since we joined the EU they have all moved abroad. But my life is here, and as you see I work extra hours at the spa. And you know, Greece is only 20 kilometres away. I was there yesterday. Since the crisis they’re having lots of good sales…’