Tick tock

The earth’s orbit is projecting us toward winter.

In the snowy twilight, the curtains are almost drawn on another year.

Our planet travels at over sixty thousand miles per hour, which is three hundred thousand times the speed of sound. Mach 300K. London to New York in literally the blink of an eye.

If you’re in New York, the earth rotates at seven hundred eighty-six mph. In Lisbon it’s a little faster, just over twenty-five miles per hour faster, in fact. So right now we’re being spun around at 800 mph and propelled forward at seventy-five times that speed. It’s a wonder we’re not all falling into each others’ arms, dizzy with the experience. So why aren’t we? Scientists can explain it, but bottom line? We can’t feel that explanation.  It’s as if I was spinning you around on a marble at the end of a long string. It seems like you’d feel dizzy, grabbing on for dear life, limbs akimbo, legs trailing in your wake like Superman’s cape.

I always thought my Rabbit had some Superman quality. My mother was a nuclear physicist, and she was bombarded for decades with high levels of X-rays. Madame Curie died from radiation. My mom was exposed to far higher levels than are admissible nowadays,  and in a Planet Krypton-like phenomenon, radiation had rendered her indestructible. She certainly appeared that way for many years.

The rabbit did her doctorate with a Portuguese professor who was a communist sympathizer. This guy had done his PhD with Madame Curie. During the 1950’s student riots in Lisbon, he was arrested and given twenty-four hours to leave the country. Or else. He went to France. The dictator Salazar kept the country wrapped up tight, courtesy of the secret service, structures loyal to the regime but rival to each other, and a huge network of “bufos”. Bufo in Latin means toad,  and that was the name given to informers in Portugal.

For fifteen years thereafter this small country fought wars in Angola, Mozambique, and Guinea, pitting a whole generation of young men against independence movements backed by the Soviets and the Chinese.  The US had their Vietnam, we had ours. Our Canada was called France, and those that fled conscription went “a salto”, literally jumped, to France. To get to the heart of Europe you have to cross Spain, as the Portuguese knew only too well in the times of The India Road. The Spanish lived under Franco, El Caudillo,  and any draft dodgers who were caught were beaten up and sent home.

Guinea was the worst war theater. As in Vietnam, things got progressively worse for the western power, and I have friends who were forced to do three commissions in Africa, give up twelve years of their lives.  A kind of Portuguese Cultural Revolution.

In those days my mother was increasingly worried as time went by and I approached the age of conscription. Salazar died in 1970, after suffering a stroke in 1968. His grip on the nation was such that after he was replaced in the fall of sixty-eight a special edition of the leading daily paper was printed for him, still placing him in power.

Both inflation and unemployment were low in those times. The money supply was very tightly controlled, and Portugal had substantial gold reserves. Not much was invested in development, the illiteracy rate was high, and it was a low wage economy. Those who wanted more went abroad. Many to the slums of Paris, the so called bidonvilles. The men worked construction, the women worked as maids and cleaners.

Salazar was revered by some, and only the other day I heard an old radio interview with the grave digger at the cemetery where he is buried. The man described the arrangements inside the casket, how the dictator’s body was placed, the materials used. At one point he says: “of course these arrangements are only temporary, I don’t expect someone this important will remain here for the rest of his life.” 

My childhood in that other Portugal makes it easy for me to relate to the struggles of people in other parts of the world nowadays. We trade time for space. It’s also for that reason that I see the current economic crisis in relative terms. Yes, things are tough. But a few of the notes above should be enough to understand they’ve been a lot worse. The Portuguese government is finally doing what should have been done some time ago. Building bridges outside Europe. One of those to Brazil, another to Africa. Both have one common element: China. To Brazil, we’re speaking directly. To Africa, we first speak to China. The PRC already owns the US foreign debt, adding Portugal is like adding a fifty-first state. Not California, Washington is enough. Why can we do this, when the Greeks, Irish or Spanish can’t? Those are the rich pickings of The India Road.

Brazil is emerging from an oppressive regime and the economy is booming. It didn’t feel a thing over the sub-prime crisis period, largely because its economy is closely linked with raw materials, and China is a big customer. Likewise in Africa the Chinese are buying everything up, from land for agriculture to mines of every sort. The Africans like the money, and welcome the Chinese indifference to the small matter of human rights. In that respect, it’s a marriage made in heaven, since both the African nations and the Chinese themselves intensely dislike the missionary zeal with which the West now preaches this new religion.

As we hurtle towards Christmas, at a dizzying speed which leaves us unmoved, these words continue to be read by you. This is only my second post this month, due to an avalanche of work, and yet the site already has over four hundred views this December, the third highest ever. Because it’s Christmas, I’ve been liberally sprinkling links all over this post. I leave you with a photo of a Chinese carol singing event, street fun in London a couple of weeks back.

Gloria in Excelsis Deo - Chinese style, sung on Gerrard Street in the heart of London's Chinatown

I know it’s politically incorrect to say Merry Christmas rather than murmur some vague and euphemistic holiday greeting.

Frankly m’dear? I don’t give a damn.

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