Archive for the ‘Travel’ Category


September 21, 2019

The origins of the name Taiwan are uncertain, and may derive in part from a medley of the original Portuguese and Dutch terms for the island. Wan means bay in Putonghua—common speech, or Mandarin—so we could look for the composite phrase tai wan, which might mean platform bay, but we’d be chasing a red herring.

Chinese, like German, is built on composite words, but in this case each word matches a character. As an example, dian hua means electric speech, or telephone, and dian nao means electric brain, or computer. My favorite is da huo ji, or beat fire machine, which is of course a cigarette lighter.

Wan usually means bay. An example is Hau Hoi Wan, or Deep Bay, near Shenzhen (not to be confused with Schengen.) In the foreground, the mandatory marine cultivation—oysters, in this case.

Portuguese mariners apparently sighted the island of Taiwan in 1542, and christened it Ilha Formosa, or Beautiful Island—the Western world used the term for almost four centuries.

The first European to reach China by sea was a nephew of the Vice-Roy of India Afonso de Albuquerque, named Jorge Álvares. The Portuguese conquered Malacca in 1511, only thirteen years after Vasco da Gama first arrived in Calicut; given that a return voyage from Lisbon took about one year and a half, it’s astonishing how quickly the exploration moved east—two thousand nautical miles separate Calicut (Kozhikode today) from Malacca.

Álvares got to Lintin, an island in the Pearl River delta, in 1514, a further sixteen hundred miles from Malacca.

When I wrote Clear Eyes, I calculated the distances sailed by Columbus in his bizarre western quest to find Cipango. The numbers shown are the real distances, rather than the fake ones he logged to deceive his crew.

If we consider a (convenient) average of thirty-three leagues per day, or one hundred nautical miles, Álvares would have sailed for about two weeks, assuming he knew where he was headed.

Daily distance traveled by Columbus on his way across the Atlantic from Palos de la Frontera, Spain, to Guanahani. Note the central part of the image, when the fleet was becalmed in the Sargasso Sea, also known as the horse latitudes.

Taiwan is opposite Xiamen, in Fujian province, only three days sailing eastward from the Zhu Jiang, or Pearl River. I suspect the Portuguese got to Taiwan well before 1542—a twenty-eight year gap is a long time, and there were good reasons to keep discoveries secret.

Since the days when the island was named Formosa, it suffered many other occupations. First came the Dutch in the XVIIth century, profiting from the decline of the Portuguese empire following the Spanish occupation of 1580—they set up the typically unimaginative Fort Zeelandia.

Taiwan was ceded to Japan by the Chinese in 1895, and regained in 1945 by the Chinese Nationalists. After they lost the civil war to Mao’s communists, Chiang Kai-shek moved his capital to Taipei—ever since then, the separation of the two Chinas has been a thorn in the side of the PRC.

In the late XXth century, Hong-Kong and Macau were handed back to China, but with a proviso—Deng Xiaoping’s one country, two systems. As an etymological parenthesis, xiao ping means little bottle.

The full text of the proviso is fascinating in its inclusion of Taiwan.

In recent weeks, the world has witnessed the mayhem in Hong Kong—if the chaos lasts long enough, China is sure to intervene. But far more interesting than that? Maybe the Trump trade talks will have a couple of secret clauses, such as reduced support for Taiwan from the US.

It’s well known that the orange man is totally hands-off when it comes to ‘internal business’ of other nations, from human rights to the annexation of Crimea, as long as it suits his self-serving goals.

It’s also well known that Xi Jin Ping (is that a bottle of gin?) wants to leave as his legacy the reunification of China.

Wouldn’t it be a thing if successful trade talks were followed a few years later by the annexation of Taiwan by the PRC, while America looks on, just as it is presently doing with Iran?

There is an apocryphal tale that comes to mind.

Deng was once asked, “What are the main consequences of the French revolution?”

He replied, “Too early to tell.”

The India Road, Atmos Fear, Clear Eyes, and Folk Tales For Future Dreamers. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

Baked Alaska

August 5, 2019

If you’re familiar with UK cuisine—now there’s an oxymoron—you might know this as a type of ‘pudding.’ Bear in mind that puddings can be savory, as in steak and kidney pud, but in British vernacular, “Will you have pudding?” means will you eat dessert.

Brits have some bizarre names for their dishes—my favorite epithets include toad in the hole and spotted dick.

Baked Alaska is yet another one. However, given my penchant for puns, today’s title was driven by the picture below, which scared the crap out of me.

The European satellite Sentinel 3 shows the continent burning up, in some cases quite literally, on July 25th 2019.

The extreme west (Portugal) and Eastern Europe have dodged the bullet, but eastern Spain, the northern part of France, the Benelux countries, and the southern UK were a veritable frying pan on that day.

Little did I know that the English newspaper, The Guardian, had headed an article on July 3rd with exactly the same title—the topic is more confined, but the emphasis is the same—after years of political dodgems, the planet has finally hit us on the head with a giant frying pan.

At the present time, raging wildfires are lighting up the north—in latitudes where the Northern Lights are a wintertime event.

From Siberia to Alaska, the Arctic is ablaze. Most people don’t realize that different parts of the planet are warming at different rates—changes in the boreal regions are swift. The article in the Washington Post is from the Climate Weather Gang—at first I thought this had to be Trump & Acolytes, but no, these guys are worth listening to.

For the past week, a high pressure system has blocked the roaring forties, the high latitude westerlies that bring Atlantic storm systems to Europe—Bergen, Norway, a city known for its wet and generally chilly weather, sported ninety-one degrees.

Scientists were publishing research papers on the slowing or even reversal of the Gulf Stream well over a decade ago—the inference was that it would trigger more extreme temperatures. Citizens of Western Europe take the North Atlantic Drift for granted—twenty-three years ago I was on a beach in Qingdao, northeast China, watching the snow fall in December, marveling at some insane locals stripping down to their underwear and diving in.

Qingdao is at 36o N, the same latitude as Ceuta, a Spanish enclave in northern Morocco, but has far more extreme weather—now we’re getting it here. As the land surface temperature rises, the flashpoint for forest fires is triggered, and the planet is hit with a double whammy—more fires mean more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and an increase in the greenhouse effect, but they also mean less trees, and less capacity to remove carbon dioxide from the air.

A rise in temperature massively increases evaporation of ocean water, which means more cloud, higher humidity, more heat-trapping, and ultimately more warming—positive feedbacks we could very much do without.

Baked Alaska, Fried Siberia, Poached Scandinavia… But that ain’t all. Marine plants are having a bit of fun as well—the star of the summer is a brown seaweed called Sargassum. The weed gives its name to the Sargasso Sea, and, for a seaweed, it has one very unusual characteristic—it floats.

The Chinese green tides are caused by the green seaweed Ulva, which loosely attaches to the bottom, but can also survive as it floats in the ocean—giant blooms are documented annually since the 2008 Olympics.

But Sargassum only floats, and now it’s escaped the confines that becalmed Columbus and gave their name to the Horse Latitudes. Scientists estimate there are twenty million metric tons of this species in the ocean, and have termed the event Great Sargasssum Atlantic Belt. I would have called it GASP, replacing Belt with Phenomenon, Proliferation, Problem, Peak…

I’ve worked with brown seaweeds like Sargassum, and it wouldn’t be unusual to have ten pounds in a square meter. Doing the math, the weed plague might occupy 4,000 km2, which is downright scary.

Mind you, if you like stats, Siberian wildfires this summer occupy an area the size of Belgium.

Why has this seaweed suddenly been able to spread all the way from the Cape Verde islands to the beaches of the Caribbean? And more to the point, is this a one-off or a trend?

Tourist destinations in Florida, Mexico, and the Caribbean islands are pretty concerned—humans have a very flaky relationship with nature—it’s okay to lard fertilizer onto crops, or to produce five hundred million chickens in the Chesapeake Bay, and thereby generate 500,000 metric tons of chicken shit.

All this adds nitrogen and phosphorus to the ocean—too much of that, mixed in with shifting patterns of global circulation, and we have a perfect storm.

Like the Chinese blooms, but on a grand scale, scientists have detected the Sargassum flare-ups since 2011. Every year except 2013.

We live too preoccupied with the latest Instagram post, and with extended navel-gazing, to see what hides in plain sight.

Citizens of the West, the chickens have come home to roost.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, Clear Eyes, and Folk Tales For Future Dreamers. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

Fake Views

July 14, 2019

Picture a summer idyll in tropical waters. Now here’s something that fires the imagination, azure, transparent… I feel a song coming on.

Maybe it’s the colors, so impossibly turquoise as the water shimmers in the sunlight. Or the way you can see into the deep, stare into the soul of the ocean.

This is the stuff of dreams. Where exactly are we going?

Aaah, Siberia.

Wait a minute! Where?


Er… Siberia, comrades. Welcome to Novosibirsk.

I’m not sure why Millennials are obsessed with unicorns, but I’m sure they’re on fleek. The struggle to get instagrammed at Lake Whatsitsname, preferably avec unicorn, is most definitely real.

The plastic unicorn may not bask for long, given the toxicity of this earthly paradise…

In case you’re not familiar with Novosibirsk, here’s a quick primer. The first port of call is Wikipedia, which ‘informs’ us:

Travellers coming from countries with mild climates may find Novosibirsk’s winter tough, but it may not be extraordinary for those from northern countries. At times, bitter cold may hold for some days, but temperatures of −40 °C (−40 °F) and lower do not occur every year.

Apart from the bizarre Celsius to Fahrenheit conversion, which I suspect is fake news, the city’s mean January temperature is 2.3 °F (-16.7 °C)—tropical it ain’t.

Far more emblematic than tropical lakes were the Gulags that dotted Siberia—the area around Novosibirsk sported its fair share.

Novosibirsk, in SW Siberia, was the administrative home of three Gulags: Kamenlag, Novosibirsklag, and Siblag.

But we’re on a trip to the Saldives, right? So let’s not have a bad trip, man. We’ve done our research, so here we go. Get your DTP and Hep A shots, and you’re all set.

Now is a great time to travel. But should you prefer winter, my favorite travel site tells all.

Climate Siberian Maldives january

On average, it is maximum -11° in january in Siberian Maldives and at least around -22° degrees. In january there are 1 day of rainfall with a total of 14 mm. The it will be dry 13 days this month in Siberian Maldives and on average, it snows 17 days in january.

Suitable month for: winter sports

I love the ‘at least’, and I’m not entirely sure what ‘the it’ actually is, but given the snowfall predictions, I suspect you may struggle to kitesurf.

When we arrive, we’ll be treated, if you excuse the pun, to a Saldivian landscape of azurity—please note this is from the Wibaux travel blog, rather than any legitimate source.

In the Maldives, as in other areas of tropical ocean, a warm water layer overlies the cooler (but still extremely pleasant) deeper layer. Energy supplied by the sun creates permanent thermal stratification, so the two water masses never mix.

For the aquatic ecosystem, this means that the nutrients required for plankton to grow are unavailable—solar energy by itself will not suffice, so the upper layers of the Indian Ocean, the Caribbean Sea, or the Australian Great Barrier Reef are not productive—devoid of suspended particles, the water is completely transparent, and enough light reaches the bottom to allow corals to thrive. The lower-energy red wavelengths are quickly absorbed by the ocean, leaving the greens and blues to penetrate and scatter, and turning the water that beautiful turquoise color.

Saldivian Azurity (the term has grown on me), however, is derived from chemical reactions. The man-made lake is a dump for coal ash and coal waste from a large power station, which supplies most of the energy to the city’s 1.6 million inhabitants.

The pollutants in the Saldivian lake include heavy metals such as mercury, lead, chromium, and arsenic—just a short list of the nastier ones.

The multiple internet reports of this new Millennial paradise have two things in common: first, all the ‘articles’ are simply plagiarized from the original—stolen without acknowledgement; second, nowhere (except here) is there any attempt to go beyond the original—my source was the Guardian’s Moscow correspondent, Andrew Roth.

How bad is the metal pollution? An average home uses 3.3 MWh every year—if this particular power station supplies seventy-five percent of the households in Novosibirsk, we’re at 300,000 homes, so the coal plant would be rated at about 200 MWh.

I’m assuming this coal-fired extravaganza is not the zenith of environmental stewardship, in which case we can consider a load of 0.6 g of mercury per kWh, and 44.9 g of lead per kWh—A little math gives us an annual load of one hundred twenty kilograms of mercury discharged into the Saldives. For lead, those numbers jump to 9000 kilograms—nine metric tons!

Your dream destination. If you plan to frolic with plastic unicorns, do make sure you select durable plastics, of the kind found all over the ocean, otherwise they may not survive the dip.

I won’t roll this out to the other metals, but these two are enough—they both cause severe disorders of the nervous system—Alice In Wonderland’s Mad Hatter was poisoned by mercurous nitrate used in the felt.

Instagrammers of the world, beware!

The India Road, Atmos Fear, Clear Eyes, and Folk Tales For Future Dreamers. QR links for smartphones and tablets.


June 22, 2019

Central Africa is the forgotten world. In the Congo, as I write these words, war and pestilence rage on.

The very terms war and pestilence would strike fear into the heart of any medieval European—nowadays they are occasionally newsworthy, although pestilence is a word you seldom hear.

A tour-de-force of improvisation—a wooden bike hewed to assist a refugee with his meager possessions.

The province of Kivu has been at war in one form or another for years—the main reason is mineral wealth. A website that seems as fossilized as the Belgian Congo describes Kivu’s geology.

– Bengo-Biri: wolfram deposit enclosing crystals of ferberite and pseudomorphoses in anthoinite.

– Kobokobo: beryl and columbite pegmatite of which a zone is mineralized in uranium. The latter presents a particular association of uranium and aluminium phosphates rich in new species. They are quoted under the heading dedicated to type species preserved in the Royal Museum of Central Africa, in Tervuren.

– Lueshe: carbonatite characterized by an abundance of pyrochlores, and type locality of lueshite in octahedral crystals.

– Maya-Moto: this deposit contains a rich association of bismuth minerals: native bismuth, bismutite, bismuthinite and bismite.

– Mwenga: auriferous district of the river Mobale which has yielded voluminous nuggets.

– Messaraba-Munkuku: deposit of crystallized cassiterite, which is one of the localities of varlamoffite, yellow and powdery hydrated oxide of tin.

– Volcanos: the volcanic region straddling on the border with Rwanda contains lavas from which several new species have been described: andremeyerite, combeite, götzenite, delhayelite and trikalsilite.

The remaining provinces of Congo do not contain such spectacular associations, with the exception of the rich diamantiferous deposits exploited in the kimberlites, the eluviums and alluviums of the region of Mbuji-Maji (mainly industrial diamonds) and the gold mines of the Upper Congo (Kilo-Moto).

The text above mentions King Leopold’s museum in Tervuren—not a place the Belgians boast of—a tribute to the barbaric occupation of the Congo. I’ve written on the museum before, and mentioned that at one point it boasted a sinister collection of photographs of tribesmen with their hands and feet cut off for not collecting rubber.

Clearly the Congo didn’t get the best of starts—and not much has improved since independence.

Butembo, in North Kivu, is the current epicenter of Ebola. The city has a population of 670,000 and is a stone’s throw from the Ugandan border. It takes nine hours to travel the 300 miles from Kampala, and five to fly in from Kinshasa.

The WHO, Doctors Without Borders, and the local medical community are experimenting with  a new Ebola vaccine—the relationship between the medics and the local tribe is complex, since many people believe the disease was introduced by the aid workers.

The coincidence in the arrival of virus and doctors is not easily explained to the Nande tribesmen, and aid workers have been killed as a consequence.

The first ever registered Ebola outbreak hails back to 1976—in forty years, the Congo has had ten outbreaks of the deadly hemorrhagic virus.

This twenty-seven year old soldier was photographed by the Guardian in 2018, and is now presumed dead. He had a major intestinal wound and weighed four pounds shy of five stone. If the virus spares you, the war may not.

As the West moves placidly into summer, people you never heard of, in a country that merits one minute of news once in a blue moon, are dying from a disease which is as obscure as it is terrifying.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, Clear Eyes, and Folk Tales For Future Dreamers. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

The Rogues

June 20, 2019

After spending a whole week in Ireland and England, during which both the weather and politics were disgraceful, I concluded that the U.K. is having a miserable June.

I flew out of a cold and wet Belfast, and by the time I got to Paddington the rain was coming down in sheets. Even the Ubers were begging off—it took three attempts before a Romanian in a silver Mercedes made it to the pick-up point.

The other two drivers who pulled out were also foreign, as was the waiter who brought me dinner, all the receptionists at the hotel, and most of the staff in the office block where my meetings took place.

Later in the day, when Bojo, as Private Eye calls him, took a significant lead in the hustings to become leader of the Tory Party, and therefore prime minister of the U.K., I heard Boris senior on the BBC. Stanley is an avid attention-seeker, and he was more than happy to comment on Bojo to Auntie Beeb.

‘Have you spoken with your son yet, Mr. Johnson?’

‘No, but he sent a message using something called WhatsApp. It’s a new thing, have you heard of it?’ he asked the interviewer (who replied ‘No’).

The Boris team is keeping the Beano-like character under wraps because the man has two things in common with Trump—crazy hair and a natural bent for shooting himself in the foot.

In Private Eye, Boris and his acolytes are often displayed as a set of Beano characters.

With such a significant lead (114 votes, to 43 for his closest contender, Jeremy Hunt), the best thing for Bojo is to keep his mouth shut to avoid clangers.

After the Conservative Party received the trouncing of a lifetime at the hands of Farage’s Brexit Party—the irony that it happened in the vote for the European elections, which the UK should by then not have been a part of, was missed by no one—many feel that stonewalling Brexit will be the end of the Tories.

As I dealt with both business and pleasure in London, it again and again became apparent that the transport and hospitality industry will collapse without foreigners. I recurrently heard Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, as well as the languages of Eastern Europe—you’ll hear them in many key sectors of British society, of which the NHS is the most important.

Nevertheless, the people have spoken, so leave England must, dragging with it the whole of the UK—of the other three, only Wales (pop. 3 million) voted to leave.

The EU set a limit date for Halloween (who says Brussels doesn’t have a sense of humor), and all the Tories running (of which there are really only three or four in the running) strenuously emphasize that Britain will leave—the degree of stridency about leaving without a deal is what sets them apart.

How easy is it to leave without a deal?

To analyze the question, let’s first look at the opposite—leaving with a deal. Theresa May failed miserably in her attempts to do so, Brussels has repeatedly stated there will be no further negotiation, and Boris is intensely disliked by the European Union.

Some of the other contenders for the Tory leadership have been involved in the Brexit negotiations—they all know exactly what’s achievable, i.e. nothing. In their hearts, the British also know this.

The House of Commons will not support the current deal. But will also not support a no-deal exit. One of the ironies of this process is that many Labour constituencies who voted leave have a ‘remain’ member of parliament. Those MPs, who sit in Westminster, are stuck between a rock and a hard place—they are fully aware that their constituents will crucify them.

If those MPs back a no-deal, the consequences for livelihoods of their voting base will be considerable—the voters will blame them and throw them out. If the MPs do the opposite, their voters will react with fury—betrayed by their representative, who will be thrown out.

Unfortunately, for the conservatives, much the same is coming. If parliament finally approves the same deal (since no other deal is likely), hard-line Brexiteers will be incensed. If it doesn’t, and Johnson forces a hard Brexit, a general election is almost inevitable.

To force a hard brexit against the will of the politicians, the only option is to prorogue parliament—effectively suspending it over the limit date so MPs cannot block the withdrawal. The main (pro)rogue, Dominic Raab, is out of the race, but there are still a few rogues left.

The debates have been appalling, without a glimmer of an idea. Today, only four candidates are left, and by tomorrow we’ll be down to Bojo and Hunt. Of course, it may be that the usual Tory skulduggery steps in and chucks the current second, replacing him with Gove or even Sajid Javid—Rory Stewart was apparently only carried through so Tories could hear him debate.

Historically, as both Thatcher and Major discovered when they beat the front runner, the top dog doesn’t win—maybe when the vote goes out to the Conservative Associations the  curse will rise again.

Whoever wins, the exchange rate of the pound will flutter on the wings of the forthcoming discussions, reflecting ebb and flood. The coming months are short—July means vacation time in northern Europe, August is the same in the south—before we know it, there’ll be trick-or-treat.

One or the other, but not both. Five days after Halloween is Guy Fawkes night—maybe this time the houses of parliament really will blow up.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, Clear Eyes, and Folk Tales For Future Dreamers. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

No Nation

June 1, 2019

I crossed the border just south of Aachen—the French name is Aix-La-Chapelle. I’d been driving east for ninety minutes, after escaping the evening traffic in Brussels.

I was hopping over to Germany to look at a car, marveling at how easy it is to trade across countries in the EU. Two things make it extremely simple to buy a vehicle in any European country and transport it within the union.

The first is the four freedoms, which were established by the Treaty of Rome in 1957 and subsequently reinforced, culminating in the Treaty of Lisbon, fifty years later. This is one of the brexit blocks, and part of the great nationalist groan —businesses and citizens alike will only realize how convenient the freedoms are when they’re gone. Young people who have no idea what a border really is will clamor to roll back.

The second is the internet, which acts to reduce market stickiness, letting you visualize, price, and compare a vast range of products and countries.

As I drove past the historic city of Liège, overtaking trucks from Poland, Hungary, Portugal, and Romania, I was focused on spotting the sign with the gold stars separating Belgium from Germany—perhaps it was hidden by a truck, but I  never saw it.

Observant fellow that I am, I noticed I was in a different country because of the highway signs and the quality of the road—the autobahn was a couple of notches above Belgian freeways. The speed limits on my GPS disappeared, I saw the wonderful white sign, and I put my foot in the tank—the big Volvo surged forward, and I wondered why we don’t take a leaf from the German playbook.

According to Eurostat, the five most dangerous traffic areas in Europe are in Bulgaria (two), Portugal, Luxembourg, and Greece.

The most dangerous roads in Europe. Germany doesn’t feature.

Luxembourg? Hmmm… I’d never guess, but the rest are easy. When it comes to freeways, many countries don’t release data—but for those that do, there’s no evidence that inexistence of speed limits is dangerous. Calculated per billion km driven (about 600,000,000 miles), highway driving in Germany is pretty safe, even though 35% of drivers exceed 130 km h-1. In fact, counterintuitively, the US has the lowest speed limits but the most fatalities.

International Deaths per billion km driven
Country All roads Highways
Austria 6.88 1.73
Belgium 7.67 2.07
Czech Republic 15.73 2.85
Denmark 3.40 0.72
Finland 4.70 1.94
France 1.70
Germany 5.00 1.74
Slovenia 7.77 3.17
Switzerland 5.60 2.90
United Kingdom 3.56 1.16
United States 7.02 3.38

Across Europe, nationalists had voted with enthusiasm—none more so than the Brexit party supporters, who (as expected) trounced the Tories. But France also showed a preference for Marine Le Pen’s hard right, and in Belgium the ultra-right Flemish party Vlaams Belang did well.

I went to a working city in North-Rhine Westphalia and amused myself people-watching. This is the land of beer and sausage, and I sat in a bar with ordinary folk as I worked through a plate of pig’s knuckle and sauerkraut.

I felt right at home, as I do in any European country. Around me were people eating and drinking victuals that were quite different from the fare in Southern Europe, the piped music was German, and some young guys were playing cards around a large table.

Germany continues to have an extended number of national rules—they’re very fond of rules—and I didn’t see signs of a European ‘culture’ forced on them. The last time I’d been in this area, I bought my very first turntable, made by a company called Dual. It was the early nineteen seventies, only a handful of countries were in the EU, and my family smuggled it back home—as I recall, any family trip involved smuggling to some degree.

This is not because we were criminal masterminds—pretty much everything that went across borders paid duty, either because it was too valuable, too cheap, or too something else—everyone smuggled.

I remember the trip very well—my first time in Germany, and I was beginning to get a taste for beer–I only knew a couple of words, and one of them was Schallplate. What I don’t see, almost fifty years on, is a dilution of German identity—a common accusation by nationalists.

Graffiti on the restroom door in a Rhineland supermarket. Since German Nationalists wouldn’t write in English, I expect Farage ducked in for a piss.

I don’t see it in Britain either—if anything, Britain has become prouder of all things British—beer still comes in pints and is still flat and warm—no one makes any effort to speak a foreign language, and the xenophobia I experienced when I lived there in the seventies and eighties is still prevalent.

It is exactly because of the gap between country and (European) community that nationalists are wrong. Countries that have produced their own independent legislation have the same limitations as the EU, but few of the benefits.

In the quest for my car, I prepared a list the evening before, told the salesman to leave me alone, and went through it methodically point by point.

As it happens, the product didn’t tick enough boxes, but that’s okay. I  see it as a dry run, an opportunity to establish personal relationships—which despite the internet continue to be paramount—and to learn about the process. Documentation in Germany is different from France, Italy, or Spain, and there are a couple of European requirements you need to know about, so I certainly don’t consider it time wasted.

The art of the deal is knowing when to walk away.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, Clear Eyes, and Folk Tales For Future Dreamers. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

Sail On

April 21, 2019

In the year 1505, a young sea captain called Lourenço de Almeida sailed south along the west coast of India, attempting to round the huge sub-continent, much as Bartolomeu Dias had rounded Southern Africa’s Cape of Good Hope in 1488.

Given the huge distance that separates Western Europe from Southeast Asia, it’s remarkable that after only seventeen years, the Portuguese fleets were ready to enter the eastern side of the Indian Ocean, on their way to the ever-more mysterious East—Malaysia, Indonesia, and finally the Middle Kingdom.

Further still, lay the shores of Zipangu, Marco Polo’s Land of Rising Sun, that so teased Columbus—the man who went the wrong way and found Haiti instead.

Lourenço, or Lawrence, discovered the tiny Maldives, but he also made port at a large island off southeastern India, which the Portuguese named Taprobana.

The name was immortalized by the great poet Camões, whose primary work, the Lusíadas, written in the style of Virgil and Homer, tells the epic story of Vasco da Gama and his men.

Taprobana, an island twice the size of the US state of Maryland, became known as Ceilão to the Portuguese, and later morphed into Ceylon—today it’s called Sri Lanka.

Lawrence died in 1508 at Chaul, a stone’s throw from Mumbai, doing battle with the Muslims—an endless story that brings us to the tragedy of Easter Sunday, 2019.

The five shields and seven castles of Portugal, still visible today in the ruins of Chaul, India. Catholic saints on either side offer protection, and the Cross of Christ stands guard above the ensemble.

Throughout the morning, most radio and TV stations went about their usual programming—CNN consumed by the Mueller report, the BBC following its regular schedule—it took over a dozen hours for the major news stations to cover the Sri Lanka massacres in earnest.

Shortly after the tragedy began, a listener calling into the the UK’s LBC pointed out that had this happened in Germany, Britain, or France, the news would be rolling non-stop for a week.

When Notre Dame burned down, I wondered if there hadn’t been a helping hand from Islam—the whole thing happened suspiciously close to Easter. I’m very happy there wasn’t, but the Christian places of worship are a favorite target of terrorists.

After the 2016 attack in Lahore, Pakistan, I was moved to write The Swing. If you haven’t read it, today would be a good time. Easter week, and Easter Sunday in particular, seems to be a popular time for terror, and the notion of attacking places of worship, havens of peace, is unconscionable.

Shame, shame, SHAME! Every religion has a hell, and those who committed this crime will burn in theirs. May there be peace to the two hundred or so dead, and their inconsolable families—for them, Easter will never be the same.

The only way to celebrate their memory is to extol diversity, promote the things that make us good. In the words of Churchill, “Do your worst, and we will do our best.”

Sri Lanka was colonized by the Portuguese, and later by the Dutch. The Dutch didn’t leave much in the way of culture, or in the way of genes. The Lusitanians built families, left music, food, and language.

The catholics who died today will largely be part of the seven percent of the population descended from converts. Their details will be released at some point, and will undoubtedly include family names such as Pereira, Dias, Silva, and Fonseca.

Should there be any doubt, I invite you to consult the Sri Lanka white pages. Type in Almeida, for the explorer that reached the island in 1505, and there are nineteen pages of listings. Fonseka, the local spelling of the Portuguese name, has two hundred. But try ‘Dias’, and surf through a mere one thousand and twenty-five pages–that’s a whole lotta love.

Two of the people on TV on Easter Sunday, one of them the telecommunications, digital infrastructure, and (bizarrely) foreign employment minister, were called Fernando—there are two thousand four-hundred sixteen pages of those!

For comparison, (de) Vries, the most common name in the Netherlands, has one entry—I tried Jaap, in case I was being unkind, and got Fernando J A A P. Now, that´s funny!

A Creole language remains on the island, full of Portuguese words. Just like Bahasa Indonesia, which has an astonishing three or four hundred Portuguese words, including keju for cheese—the Dutch couldn’t even get that one.

The Portuguese community in Sri Lanka are described as burghers, from the Dutch word, and kaffirs, the Islamic term for infidel or unbeliever.

This year, I leave you with this Easter song—the best way to fight the dark beings who lurk in the sewers of society is to confront them with their impotence. Monsters like you will never win, because no problem is ever solved by inflicting pain.

Bailar means to dance, and the songs to which the local people are dancing contain numerous Portuguese words. Over five centuries since a young Portuguese captain set foot in Taprobana, the happy faces of these Sri Lankan Catholics show the victory of love over hatred.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, Clear Eyes, and Folk Tales For Future Dreamers. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

Catfish Blues

March 23, 2019

If you’re a blues fanatic, Sun Studios is easily the best thing in Memphis.

Apart from the music, the Peabody is unmissable—stroll through Lansky’s, where Elvis bought his clothes, and marvel at the price tags.

And for dinner, the Majestic Grille is a wonderful venue—old movie theaters get torn down, but this one kept its screen, shows old black & white films, and serves great food.

If you want a quiet drink (a Memphis rarity), grab a sundowner at the terrace bar in the River Inn, just north of where the I-40 cantilever bridge goes across to Arkansas, and watch Ol’ Man River slowly sashay down to Louisiana.

Enough chit-chat—let’s get to it.

The ‘Killer’, Jerry Lee Lewis, came through Sun Studios like a tornado. There’s a classic photo of Lewis, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, and Elvis Presley (Presley’s girlfriend was cut out of the picture) taken in 1956 by Sam Phillips, during a jam session that became legendary.

That’s alright mama, but I was there for the blues. The guy who showed me round the studio was a musician himself—you rarely find someone in Memphis who’s not a musician—it’s a very hard life, and mostly folks have a second job.

The guide talked about The Killer—Lewis had a stroke recently, and we wished him well. He’d been in the studio a few months back. Someone walked in behind Jerry Lee—a bodyguard, no doubt—turns out it was Mick Jagger.

It was only at tipping time that I got down to it—you don’t get far in the States without a spot of tipping. Where, I asked, would I go for the real thing?

DKDC was his first suggestion. “Don’t Know Don’t Care? What do they play?”

“All kinds of stuff. Some nights it’s soul or blues, others it’s punk rock.”

“Blues. I’m looking for the blues.”

The guy looked at me. “Man, you don’t want Memphis. You want Clarksdale, Mississippi. Hour’s drive down 61.”

Highway 61? As in ‘God said to Abraham, kill me a son?'”

The man nodded.

Highway 61, also known as the Blues Highway, rollin’ southbound as the sun sets. It doesn’t get much better than this.

It took me three milliseconds to make up my mind. The more I looked into it, the better it got. Clarksdale is home to the Devil’s Crossroads, the junction of Highway 61 and Highway 49. Any blues fan knows that’s where Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil so he could play guitar.

The place to go is the Shack Up Inn, on the site of an old cotton gin. From the outside, it’s deliberately rundown. There was no music at the inn that evening, but I was given two tips (there’s that word again).

The Shack Up Inn, which describes itself as the world’s best B&B (Bed and Beer).

The first was a club owned by Morgan Freeman, called Ground Zero. The second was a place called Red’s Lounge.

“Red sits by the TV, watching with the sound off. But if someone starts actin’ up, you’ll notice him right away.”

That’s all I needed to know. If you want to eat in Clarksdale, go to Levon’s. A couple of tables away was the largest black guy I ever saw, and the grits and boudin balls were the best I’ve ever had—even the tinto was good.

Red limps, so he carries a large walking stick. Writ large in the restroom, the message is don’t mess with Red.

Red’s only had a couple of people in when I got there, and one guy wearing a tea cosy and playing a Fender Squier, backed by a drummer. There were bits of Hendrix in there, when he got the wah-wah going, and also pure pure blues. He went through all my favorites: Sweet Home Chicago, Catfish Blues, Mannish Boy, Evil (Is Going On), Stormy Monday…

And then, out of nowhere, the man got me up there to sing a tune. We did three verses of Before You Accuse Me, an old Bo Diddley number made famous by Eric Clapton.

I wasn’t drinking, so I know it was true—I’ll remember that night on the blues highway until the day I die.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, Clear Eyes, and Folk Tales For Future Dreamers. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

Dong Xi

March 17, 2019

In Mandarin, the phrase means ‘stuff’, but the two words mean East West. It always makes me think of a Chinese lady shopping to the hilt, waving her index finger at the cardinal points as she spots the latest Gucci fakes.

Those two points accurately describe my wanderings over the last two weeks—west to Memphis and New Orleans and then half-way across the world to Turkey.

I hate skipping a post, but last weekend I was blitzed by jet lag as I crisscrossed the planet—I’ll try to make it up to you as I fly west from Istanbul.

It’s hard to find a greater contrast, wrapped in similarity, than N’Olens, as the locals call it, and old Constantinople.

After charbroiled oysters at Drago’s (the old one, at Fat City, Metairie), an aptly named Nissan Cube took me to Frenchmen Street, where Zydeco music rules. It’s hard to make money in the Big Easy if you’re a musician—every corner of the French Quarter oozes talent.

After the gig, and a couple of bourbons to the good, I ended up in an Uber piloted by a young black lady of substantial proportions—a sharp contrast to Turkish girth. Sandy was very surprised I was a New Orleans virgin—she gave me the lowdown in no uncertain terms.

“Honey, we gon’ do three thaings fo’ you.”

In the purest virgin tradition, my heart beat a little faster.

“We gon’ feed you up, we gon’ love you up, and we gon’ intoxicate y’all!”

After the delights of the French Quarter, I felt no pain as the big bird flew east. In truth, I was protected by a range of products from the Reverend Zombie’s House of Voodoo on St. Peter Street—what could possibly go wrong?

A New Orleans glitterati struts his stuff on Frenchmen Street.

In a suspect restaurant in the port city of Bodrum, I was about to find out.

Turkey is locked up tighter than a vestal’s treasures—Erdogan is everywhere, smiling in vast outdoor posters, hand over heart, berating the Americans on TV. Nevertheless, the taksi guy was at pains to point out that ‘Turkey is a democracy, we can say what we like!’

Bodrum is a stone’s throw from the Greek island of Kos, where the Zodiacs arrived stuffed to the gills with Suriya refugees searching for Merkel’s European paradise.

The restaurant had a two-piece band—a large baritone who picked bass notes on an acoustic guitar, and the Turkish equivalent of Andy Capp, plucking a Bouzouki. I sat disturbingly close to the star act, sipping one of the most disgraceful ‘tintos’ to have (dis)graced my cup in recent years.

All around, my Turkish hosts initiated hostilities—traditional dancing, fueled by large tumblers of Raki, invaded the tiny space next to my seat. I beat a hasty retreat to the furthest end of the table, but by then I’d switched to white wine—a marginally better choice.

During one of the more lamenting Turkish dirges, I had an epiphany—the well-tested lyric yabadabadoo scanned perfectly to the phrasing of the baritone singer. As the evening wore on, my spirits surged as I gained command of the language, and I shared my passion with the locals—by then, many of them felt very little pain.

Elvis on Bouzouki took on a different twist—Colonel Parker could never have imagined the duo’s rendition of ‘Hound Dog’, complete with an entirely new set of Turkish lyrics, but so it was.

It’s impossible to do justice to Istanbul in one day—or in one week—but I tried. The Galata bridge to Sultanahmet sets the tone—on either side, fishermen smoke cigarettes, munch simit, and wait patiently for fish to bite. Below, the train rumbles and, when passengers emerge, they’re offered buckets of grey mullet—a fish that thrives in low oxygen and eats all kinds of organic waste.

Grey mullet and goby on offer by fishermen on the Galata bridge. In the distance, multiple Erdogans keep a watchful eye.

The poor of Istanbul are like those everywhere—anything to turn a buck. On a street in Karakoy, a shoeshine casually drops his brush for tourists to pick up. As the mark obligingly returns the offending object, the con is on—nineteen Turkish lira will do the trick.

But nothing spells business like the bazaar. The heady smell of spices takes me to The India Road, as a Moroccan offers saffron from Afghanistan and Iran. A short distance away, I become engaged in the virtues of cashmere scarves.

“What is your best price for your best friend, my friend?”

“Very good price.” The salesman smiles. Not your average tourist, this one. The fun is on.

We navigate, jostle, and laugh. The expensive product is compared with a lowly offering.

“Maybe for second wife,” I say.

“No, for mother-in-law,” the seller says. “Special price for you. First customer of the day.”

“I bet you say that to all the girls.”

A couple of scarves later, together with an evil eye to ward off the voodoo curse, it’s goodbye to the market, and one last crossing of the Galata bridge—the ferries are at full tilt now, the dinghy at the stern offering little reassurance for passengers that all will be well.

One last mad dash across the road and it’s goodbye to Istanbul.

I will be back.

As they say in Turkey, Yabadabadoo!

The India Road, Atmos Fear, Clear Eyes, and Folk Tales For Future Dreamers. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

Go Jack

January 26, 2019

The big bird is flying over Romanian airspace, headed for the land of Brexit. I’ll only stay a few hours, enough to read the papers and discover the flavor du jour. When I was on the other side of the world, someone whispered that the Northern Irish unionist party had been won over by May—apparently the pound was up a couple of points, but unless the hard-line brexiteers give way, I can’t see the present deal going anywhere.

The two or three Brits I talked with in Indonesia shared my confusion at the United Kingdom’s lost compass—my body clock tells me it’s already dusk, even though dawn is barely peeking through the 787’s porthole, and in the half-light my fingers perversely type the anagram ‘Untied.’

The East is a great leveler, and in gigantic cities like Jakarta the poverty tears your heart apart. Beggars are not in evidence here—but the millions scrabbling to live, the little kids pushing their noses against the car window at the endless traffic lights, who can remain inured to that?

Uber was pushed out of Southeast Asia by the likes of Grab and Go-Jak. The former started life in a dingy room in Kuala Lumpur before being snapped up and turned into a megabiz by the Singaporeans.

Everything about Grab is better adapted to the teeming Asian way than Uber or Lyft. The app is streets better, if you excuse the pun, tempting you with a polite ‘Good afternoon’ before getting to the good stuff.

Sukarno and Suharto, the two strongmen of Indonesia.

Yesterday morning, my driver smiled constantly until he suddenly began muttering, voice rising exponentially as he failed to convey a critical message to his passengers—Jakarta has an alternate number plate rule to reduce traffic jams, and he would not be able to get us to our destination.

Cash solves many problems in this part of the world, so bills were profered. Tidak, and a vehement shake of the head. The rainy season is in full swing, and the skies parted. As we crawled along surrounded by motorbikes, like tuna through a school of sardines, hapless cops stood drenched in the pouring rain, frantic with their batons and whistles. Other spurious traffic directors were clad only in a plastic cape or T-Shirt, water running down them in sheets.

We stopped.

We spoke.

We pulled into traffic, scattering Go-Jak bikes.

We stopped again. Discussed. Started. Stopped, extraordinarily, on the forecourt of an Aston Martin dealer, the poverty of the city reflected in the streaming plate glass windows, the shiny cars winking at us from inside.

Cellphones were produced, examined, thumbed… Google Maps squawked mindlessly in Bahasa.

Bluebird! The only cab company in town—licensed taxis can circulate in the forbidden city!

My driver leapt out and spent five frantic minutes hailing Bluebirds. No dice. A tuk-tuk was offered and rejected. Tukman shrugged and drove off—Asia at its best—no harsh words, just resignation, and the prayer for another chance, Inchallah!

At some point, the Aston Martin doorman was summoned by the driver, by now soaked to the bone. At length another Grab was grabbed—it had the same problem, but a different solution.

We took a longer road, circumventing the center of town, hypnotized by bizarre nodding toys stuck to the dash. A soft-rock station played indifferent American music.

Rock romantis!

The driver laughed—the Indonesians are a truly gentle people, far readier with a smile than their Thai neighbors. The romantic rock became a thing. Rock romantis! The four-lane road shrank into a narrow lane, the rain pouring down, pipes streaming into a fetid black canal to the incongruous twang of the pedal steel guitar.

The rainy season floods Jakarta in a merciless and persistent downpour.

As I write, the plane follows the Syrian refugee trail—names like Sopron, Eisenstadt and Klosterneuburg appear on my map. As we fly northwest along the course of the Danube, Amsterdam and Paris tease us on the horizon—Fortress Europe, an impossible dream for the Jakarta Grab driver who charges eight thousand rupees for a fifteen-minute ride.

Fifty cents—a scream of inequity and a sincere smile of gratitude.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, Clear Eyes, and Folk Tales For Future Dreamers. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

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