Archive for the ‘Travel’ Category

Donkey Shot

June 5, 2022

The locals call it No Nova Scotia, due to its resistance to change, and I must say I found things pretty much as I left them four years ago.

With a couple of exceptions—Halifax has grown vertically, clearly trying to emulate its bigger sisters in the US and Canada. The two- or three-story buildings remain and then suddenly there’s ten more glass and steel floors above them, which makes the downtown rather dark.

The other change, which certainly makes up for the darkness, is the proliferation of a new construction material—grass. Surfing the wave of legalization, Halifax has embraced cannabis culture with a vengeance—everyone walks around with a big smile.

A classic from the late Winston Hubert McIntosh (who knew)

I marveled at the way the weed stores are set up, advertising products such as Skosha Lemon Dory, Good Supply Jean Guy, and Back 40 Wedding Pie. Only Durban Poison rang a bell from the old days—the Halifax stores are squeaky clean, with brightly lit displays and bright-eyed attendants, very much the wholesome image of the Maritimes.

Just like any other pharmacy, a Cannabis dispensary in central Halifax promotes its wares to eager tokers.

Later on in my journey, I saw dope stores in Toronto’s Chinatown that were considerably more seedy, if you excuse the pun—very much in line with what’s on offer in the alleys around Amsterdam’s Dam Square.

Down Spring Garden Road you see a procession of homeless people—many of them young—then as as you cross the park into the Dalhousie neighborhood you see properties—and not on big lots—selling for over one million Canadian, which brings home the universality of haves and have nots.

Canada is dear to my heart—I rented a guitar in Halifax for three dollars a day, and when the store guy offered me insurance I had to keep a perfectly straight face—it cost four bucks. Now, you might be thinking that’s fair since it was obviously a worthless instrument, but no—the axe had a sticker price of two hundred bucks, so what this attests to is on the one hand the volume of rentals and on the other the minuscule crime rate.

The hop from Halifax to Montreal may be trivial in miles—certainly by Canadian standards—but the two burghs are worlds apart. Sin City, as it was known in prohibition times, makes a point of being froggier than the most ambitious anurans.

There is a certain irony to this, because French-Canadians are despised by the French, who make fun of their language, accent, and the general audacity they have in attempting to be French without actually being French. In that sense, Montreal could be twinned with Mons, since the hapless Belgians share the same predicament.

But like any minority, the Québécois (or Quebeckers in English, which is less romantique) are besotted with their nationality (Je me souviens) and they defend it to the hilt—even the traffic signs say ‘Arret’ instead of ‘Stop’. France, on the other hand, doesn’t have to worry about that—Paris doesn’t have any stop signs.

Montreal seems to live very well with itself—it’s a fun, confident city, and although more raffinée (it’s definitely a lady) than the Scots-Irish Halifax or St. John, I didn’t feel any snobbery whether I spoke English or French to the people I met. Some were distinctly happier to speak French, but only because that was obviously their first language, and no one snubbed me, as has often happened in Paris.

In short, the people of mount royal seem to shrug off this slight from their faraway homeland like ice off a moose’s back.

One of the most beautiful sights in the world—a boat decorating a church.

Whenever I’m in Montreal, I walk east to the church of Notre Dame du Bon Secours and light a few candles for those who are now in a higher place. The church is amazing—partly because it is the church of Our Lady of the Harbour (with a u, blame Canada), indelibly stamped in my brain by one of Leonard Cohen’s classic tunes.

The other remarkable thing about the church is that its strongest feature is at the rear. The statue of Our Lady of the Harbour looks onto the St. Lawrence, as if the architect was conflicted about worshipers coming in city-side and tried to show the maritime mysticism to travelers on the other side.

In my mind, the woods south of the St.Lawrence and the waters winding from Lake Ontario remain full of the war cries of the Iroquois—called Maquas by the Dutch and Mingo by the Delaware Indians. It was here that the colonial part of the Seven Years War was fought, culminating in the defeat and death of France’s Marquis de Montcalm, in a battle that also claimed the life of his British opponent, General Wolfe.

My time in Canada was punctuated by a number of machine gun massacres in the US—Buffalo, which is just across Niagara on the Ontario side, set the scene, shortly followed by the shooting of nineteen kids at a Texas elementary school, followed in turn by yet another set of murders in Tulsa, Oklahoma. In the middle of all this, the NRA held its brilliantly spoofed annual convention in Houston, Texas, no less.

Meanwhile, on my last day in Toronto, Canada fought back with its own unique brand of gun violence—at two schools, pellet guns were used by students on classmates—no life-threatening injuries were recorded. Along with the NRA thoughts and prayers, I too offer a solution to the scourge of semi-automatic weapons in the United States.

Peter Tosh’s M16 electric guitar—a musician’s answer to all your thoughts and prayers.

You might be wondering what on earth the title of this piece has to do with its content.

The answer is nothing whatsoever. It’s just a terrible Spanish pun I fell in love with.

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

One, Two, Skip a Few

May 7, 2022

They got me as I stepped off the plane.

An officious woman in a yellow safety vest demanded to see my passport. She thumbed it suspiciously then handed it back. I proceeded towards immigration and an officer went through my documents again.

I lingered past the booth and watched a young man approach the same officer and hand him a document. “Speak English,” the cop said. No reply. “Well, if you can’t speak English go sit over there. The translator will come soon.”

I watched this happen to four other people—all were herded into a corner bench airside—courtesy was certainly not the policeman’s forte.

I’ve come into Ireland dozens of times, and this was the most aggressive border control I’ve ever seen—I blame Brexit. The border between Ireland and Northern Ireland is one of the most contentious issues between the EU and UK.

I drove across it twice last week, and in both cases you only notice you’ve changed country because the road signs change color and up north they do miles. England’s greatest paranoia is immigrants using Ireland as an entry point to reach the UK mainland and—horror of horrors—get a job!

Belfast was pullulating with posters, one week before local elections. We’re on the island of Ireland, so the candidates had names like O’Toole, and a few were of the ginger persuasion. I walked past Queens in the early morning sunshine and wondered how the Northern Ireland political landscape might shift, given that this nation voted against Brexit and that the uncertainty about the border and the Northern Ireland Protocol remains.

The British government—whose odious minister for immigration (herself the child of immigrants) is as desperate to reduce the entry rate of foreigners to English soil as British businesses are to employ those who make it—can only check folks who cross north from Ireland at the Irish port of entry.

The land of Céad míle fáilte appeared a thousand times less welcoming than when I last visited—and it’s sad to see the Irish do the dirty work of the English.

The week got too busy for me to write my usual piece here, but I did collate all the articles ever written in these pages—they amount to half a million words—one thousand five hundred pages, or around five books. I’m uncomfortable with all that material sitting on a cloud I don’t control, so from time to time I need to collate and store. But it turns out the wait was fruitful, because today we know how Northern Ireland voted, and boy was it a doozy!

Queens on a rare cloudless morning—a classic old-school university, the pride of Belfast.

The change has been long in coming, but come it will.

It’s been a nightmare week for Boris ‘Party’ Johnson, who saw his conservative party get flogged across England—begorrah! They lost Westminster, for cryin’ out loud. Is there no end to the pain?

It’s likely that the Tories will pull out the long knives—they’re fully cognizant Boris is a numpty, but as long as he can win elections they’ll hold their nose and back him. And of course local elections work like the mid-terms in the US—it’s punishment season, but the Boris bus lost four hundred council seats—so it might be time to unhinge the nose clip.

But all that’s just a drop in the bucket compared to Northern Ireland. Siin Féin (pronounced ‘shin fayn’) has won an historic victory, leading it to power in Stormont, the seat of government in Belfast.

Britain has a history of exporting citizens to particular areas and then calling a popular vote, whereby the majority express their wish to remain allied to the crown. This, along with the decimation of the local population through violence, famine, and emigration, has been a significant part of Ireland’s history. In Northern Ireland, Scottish immigrants were used to create a non-Irish majority. Much like the Afrikaners in South Africa, generations of these families are an integral part of Ireland, and rightly see themselves as Irish.

Nevertheless, the original split between Catholics and Protestants remains, and has been used to explain what the Irish euphemistically call ‘The Troubles’. ‘Tis a fact that Catholics breed faster than protestants—but Sinn Féin is still at twenty-seven as I write, with two seats open—the Alliance seems to have stolen votes from the hardline DUP. Then again, Sinn Féin started life as the political arm of the Irish Republican Army.

The upshot of all this is that the new ruling party, whose agenda includes the unification of the island of Ireland, will push hard for a referendum on unification. I’m not sure they can win it, but mayhem is to be expected.

So, another Big Brexit Bonus, to roll with the Boris Alliteration Discourse. Or in a nutshell…

Triple B for BAD.

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


April 16, 2022

Vasco da Gama and his fleet arrived at Mombasa, on the coast of (what is now) Kenya, on April 8th, 1498.

It is an ode to serendipity that on the very same day, five hundred and twenty four years later, I was walking the ramparts of Fort Jesus—the bastion that guards the approach to Mombasa.

The sailors of The India Road were made welcome by the sultan but did not disembark. Gradually, Gama realized a trap was being set—the journey up the east African coast was fraught with political difficulties—just as the way down west Africa had been a massive navigational challenge.

Arab progress south from the horn of Africa stopped short of Mozambique—the Arabian Sea widens into the Indian Ocean along a parallel between Somalia and Ceylon, and south of that the Arab dhows were anything but seaworthy.

The spy Pero da Covilhã described the ‘indifferent construction’ of the Arab dhow, which did not allow it to negotiate rough seas.

The limitations of the dhow were twofold: the planking was bound with hemp rather than nailed, giving the hull less structural rigidity—by the time you get to Mombasa, the tidal range is identical to Lisbon—I measured it myself last Friday.

With a ten foot tide, strong winds, and the fast flowing Agulhas current, the hull takes a hammering, if you excuse the pun.

And then there’s the deck—dhows don’t have one, so as the Arabian Sea broadens into an ocean the waves that break over the ship fill it with water rather than sloughing off.

My companion postulated that perhaps the construction was not improved because no one ever survived to tell the tale.

The great plateaus that make up central and western Kenya mean that pleasant temperatures are the norm, even on the equator. Nairobi is five thousand nine hundred feet (1,795 m) above sea level, and Kisumu, on the shores of Lake Victoria, is at an altitude of three thousand seven hundred feet (1,131 m).

Not so Mombasa and Malindi—both ports are on the ocean and on the equator, so they are hot. When I arrived there was not a breath of wind and the temperature was a cool one-oh-five (forty Celsius).

Ramadan was in full swing, and like Gama five and a quarter centuries earlier, I was struck by the prevalence of Islam. Forty-one percent of the population of Mombasa is Muslim, and signs, schools, and mosques make this plain across the city.

Kenya is a watershed nation in Africa—just as the Balkans are in Europe—where ancient wars between Christian and Muslim linger. The country is eighty percent Christian—a legacy from centuries of Portuguese and British rule.

At the institutional level, the Christian dominance is clear, which causes unrest between the two religious groups—Kenya is the only Christian nation I’ve ever visited where government meetings begin and end with a prayer.

A rockin’ band I was lucky enough to see in Nairobi, all part of the Kenya vibe. The guitarist on the right is a southpaw, and like Albert King, plays his axe upside down. Hendrix occasionally did that also.

The history of Mombasa and Malindi is one of religious conflict. Above the outer gate of Fort Jesus there is a Portuguese inscription.

In 1635, Fransisco de Seixas de Cabriene, aged twenty-seven years, was made for four years Captain of this Fort, which he had reconstructed and to which he added his guardroom. He subjected to His Majesty the people of the coast who, under their tyrant king, had been in a state of rebellion. He made the Kings of Otondo, Manda, Luziwa and Jaca tributary to His Majesty. He inflicted, in person, punishment on Pate and Siyu, which was unexpected in India, extending to the destruction of their town walls. He punished the Musungulos and chastised Pemba, where in his own responsibility he had the rebel governors and all the leading citizens executed.

You get the picture…

In 1635, the King of Portugal was Philip III of Spain—there were five years left of Spanish occupation prior to the defenestration of the Spanish regent from a second floor window in Lisbon’s Black Horse Square and the subsequent expulsion of the Spanish from Portugal—today, they’re all back for the Easter weekend, but instead of muskets they bring euros.

Fort Jesus, and the city it defends (several government offices still cluster around the fort) were conflict zones for centuries. Portugal built the fort one hundred years after Gama’s first voyage to provide the Lusitanian naus, or carracks, with a support base on their return from India and prevent attacks by the Moors.

  • 1593: Fort Jesus is built by the Portuguese—Portugal has been under Spanish occupation since 1580
  • 1661: Mombasa leaders travel to Oman to seek military assistance to oust the invaders
  • 1696: The Omani Imam Said lays siege to the fort
  • 1698: The Omanis capture the fort after a siege of two years and nine months
  • 1824: Suliman bin Ali Al-Mazrui, Wali of Mombasa, asks the British Royal Navy for protection
The Portuguese crown and the letter ‘P’ clearly stamped on one of the cannons defending the harbor entrance. The date is 18th February 1627.

All history makes its mark. In the Kiswahili language, there is a word called Ureno.

It is an adaptation of the Portuguese word O Reino—The Kingdom.

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

Endless War

April 2, 2022

It is impossible to contextualize the war in the Ukraine without understanding the country’s history.

Or, for that matter, to see these seismic events solely through Western eyes. I asked some African friends for their analysis and found them unsympathetic to the Ukrainian plight. Why? Because images of black students being pulled to one side and refused travel while Ukrainian refugees were welcomed in other European nations rammed home the quintessential horrors of racism.

In African eyes, the whole issue turned into a ‘first world problem’—the immediate reaction was why the West didn’t express similar concerns about malaria—although in fairness, a lot of effort has gone into development of a malarial vaccine, distribution of mosquito nets to remote villages, and social awareness and education.

A further issue was the enormous sympathy Ukrainian refugees were generating in Western Europe when compared to the intake of African refugees crossing the Mediterranean by way of Libya and Ceuta—here too, there is a counterargument because the Ukrainians vehemently declare their wish to return home when the war ends, and cannot therefore be classified as economic migrants.

One of many derelict properties along the Alexandria corniche—what was once an emblematic coastal promenade is now a cacophony of chaos.

These discussions took place in Cairo and Alexandria—Egypt is a proud ambassador of Arab culture and tradition, but I was stunned by how little it cares for its people. Perhaps due to its remarkable history—my heart longed to spot Pero da Covilhã, the handsome spy from The India Road—I expected Alexandria to reflect past glory, or at least to curate it, but I found nothing of the sort.

Instead, Alexandria manages to resemble Beirut, despite never having been bombed. The corniche, wending its way along the waterfront, is a melee of carts, trucks, and bikes engaged in a contest to out-honk and out-pong each other.

The taxi ‘fleet’ largely consists of yellow and black Ladas that pre-date the fall of the Berlin Wall, and I saw cars limping their way through the streets that transported me to another era—Peugeot 504, Fiat 127, the boxy Mirafiori clones, Simca, and dozens of VW pop-tops, tail flap open to help cool the little four-cylinder engine.

Arabs are as a rule extremely prejudiced against kuffar, particularly against the black peoples of sub-Saharan Africa, and Egypt is a supremely macho society—it was egregious to hear street vendors addressing female black tourists with a rude “Hey, brown sugar,” followed by a lewd grin.

All in all, I found many reasons not to be in Egypt, and none at all to return—the country seems hell-bent on making itself unattractive. When you see the lack of basic living conditions in Cairo or Alexandria, the whole Arab Spring revolution becomes immediately obvious, and the trappings of a police state ruled with an iron fist are everywhere.

An armored car machine gun post at the highway toll station between Cairo and Alexandria.

Egypt is the world’s largest importer of wheat—thirteen million metric tonnes—and has therefore been crucified by the war in Ukraine. The whole food issue related to the Ukrainian conflict is remarkable, and it affects both direct human consumption and animal feeds—in the aquaculture sector, which now produces around eighty million tonnes of fish per year, feed prices are soaring—wheat is used as a binding agent for pelleted feed.

The history of war in the Ukraine is also the history of food. In Anne Applebaum’s superb book, Red Famine, she takes the reader through the history of Little Russia—as the Russians patronizingly called Ukraine—with a particular focus on the heady days of the Russian revolution, when Lenin, Molotov, and the other champions of Bolshevism raped the Ukraine of grain, and on the follow-on war led by Stalin.

As in the present day, the Ukrainians didn’t give anything up without a fight—in 1919 Kyiv changed hands twelve times. The Kremlin understood that without food the proletariat would not be on its side.

In 1921, when an American relief mission was negotiating to enter the Soviet Union, one of its representatives told the Soviet negotiator Maksim Litvinov that ‘we do not come to fight Russia, we come to feed.’ Litvinov responded very succintly, in English: ‘Yes, but food is a veppon…’

There is an old military adage that an army marches on its stomach—Lenin took this to heart, understanding that the only path to a successful revolution in Russia was to obtain food from the world’s breadbasket through the use of extreme violence. After Lenin, Stalin, and after him Putin.

Egyptians are huge consumers of wheat products—bread is sold everywhere, from street hawkers to swank hotels.

The difference this time is that Russia is paying too high a cost. Its oligarchs have watched their assets—their whole way of life—disappear overnight. And the military-intelligence complex, known as the siloviki—names like Bortnikov and Patrushev—is supremely unhappy.

As the days go by, it is increasingly likely that Putin will have an ‘accident.’ In 1921, Lenin set up a research lab called the ‘Special Office’—the USSR had created a laboratory to develop and manufacture poisons, a favorite means of dealing with enemies from the days of the ancient Greeks to the Borgias of the Italian renaissance.

In recent years, Russian poisons have been used on the Skripals in the UK, Navalny in Russia, and most recently in an alleged incident involving Abramovich and Ukrainian negotiators in Kyiv. Some time before, ex-FSB agent Litvinenko was turned into agent orange in a London hotel when polonium was added to his tea, along with the cream and sugar.

The oligarchs are straining at the leash—they don’t see a way out of this without removing the Russian president. They may not have the means, but the siloviki certainly do.

And Novichok means recently arrived.

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

Kwasa Kwasa

February 19, 2022

Michela Wrong’s book ‘It’s Our Turn To Eat’ provides a great narrative of the ups and downs of Kenyan politics and the toxic relationship that the country had, and probably retains, with ‘donors’.

Above all, it helps us understand the very complex history of sub-Saharan Africa—because although the specificities differ, there are a number of broad strokes painted across the entire landscape.

XVIth century Portuguese soldier in the Congo—figurine in the Quai Branly Museum, Paris

When the Portuguese of The India Road first arrived in West Africa—and these bearded white men who docked at São Jorge da Mina, with their breastplates and crossbows, were the first foreigners the local tribesmen had ever seen—the European love affair with Africa began.

Unrequited love, that is, because the new arrivals spelled nothing but trouble. After the Portuguese came the Dutch, English, French—even the Belgians, who managed to kill more people in under a century than any of the other white tribes.

The Arabs too had made East Africa their own—the derogatory South African word kaffir comes from the Arabic for unbeliever, and the Portuguese used an adaptation of the word—cafre. But the Arab exploration of southern Africa was hamstrung by the dhow, a boat with no deck—suitable for the Red Sea and the Gulf, perhaps, but once the Indian Ocean widened and the storms of the Agulhas struck, the glorified rowing boats shipped water and sank. As a result, Islam never made it south of King Solomon’s mines.

After the world wars, independence wars, and all the other wars, African nations emerged scarred, confused, and divided. Different administrative structures had been left by the colonists, including a plethora of religions, education systems, and common and Roman law.

The locals were poorly educated and ill-equipped to deal with institutional models that were not their own, were highly complex, and organized their society along Western guidelines.

In addition, the European conquerors fractured communities, imposing arbitrary boundaries with complete disrespect for tribal heartlands, and defined national borders with set square and ruler. As an example, the Luo people, from whom President Obama hails, are distributed all around Lake Victoria, including Uganda, western Kenya, and northern Tanzania.

Distribution of ethnic groups (a polite way of saying ‘tribes’) in Kenya (map courtesy of the BBC).

As the newly independent African nations split along tribal lines, western businesses expanded in a formulaic manner by bribing officials, taking advantage of abundant natural resources and cheap labor, and repatriating vast profits to Europe, North America, or offshore jurisdictions.

In parallel, the World Bank, IMF, and many well-intentioned charities—collectively termed ‘donors’—poured money into teetering African economies. In her book, In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz, Michela Wrong tells the astonishing tale of the Congo under Mobutu.

Until cancer got him, Mobutu was the quintessential African dictator—charismatic, ruthless, kleptocratic, and eternal. His capacity to out-ruse the West, as well as his political enemies, was remarkable.

The Congolese are experts in the art of se débrouiller—take matters into your own hands, or more colloquially, get by on a wing and a prayer. The concept is consigned in a (fake) constitutional article—the message was “Vous êtes chez vous, débrouillez vous.”

They are also legendary for music and dance, and have spread this very Congolese art form to neighboring countries, Europe, and North America. Quoi ça quoi ça has been bastardized into Kwasa Kwasa, and is one of many musical genres invented in Zaire, DRC, or whatever flavor du jour the Congo is called tomorrow.

Congolese rumba, soukous, and ndombola are related genres made famous by artists like the late Papa Wemba.

In the DRC and elsewhere, the donor money continues to enrich the well-heeled, and the aim of self-sufficiency remains elusive. When things go wrong, debts are forgotten and the slate is wiped clean—foreign policy is a long game and memories only last until today’s World Bank official is replaced.

As the XXIst century goes into its own roaring twenties, complete with pandemic and now with an imminent European war, Africa continues to be a playground for power grabs and predators, and poverty and suffering are the fare of ordinary folk.

The latest arrivals come from the east rather than the west and their presence is ubiquitous and inescapable.

They bring moneys too. To lend, not give. And they bring people—not to make the locals work, as the previous colonials did, but to take their jobs instead.

When the Perfect Prince came to Africa, Portugal had 1.2 million people.

The continent’s new friends have 1.4 billion.

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

Too Long In Exile

February 12, 2022

It’s early morning in Copenhagen, and the government has abolished Covid. I walked right through the airport a few days ago without a hint of vax pass or PCR blah. Mind you, it was pushing midnight, and all well-behaved Danes are in slumberland.

It’s been so weird to suddenly be unmasked, to see women smile at me again, to not even worry about peepee (sorry, I meant PPE). And yet, in about one day, it became normality and I re-adjusted. Totally. Humans are such social animals, I half-expect to see them all grooming at breakfast.

The fact that the Danes and Swedes declared the pandemic over kind of freaks me out—they didn’t do it UK-style, to divert attention from the worzel‘s lockdown parties, attended by mediocre people fueled on mediocre booze—they did all the sciency bit and made a law.

I was going to compare this declaration to the arrogance of the (Danish) King Canute, sitting at the water’s edge in southern England and commanding the tide to recede, but apparently I had it ass-over-tit—Canute enjoyed being drenched to make the point that kings are not omnipotent—who knew that Viking kings were caring, sensitive, and politically correct?

Anyhow, pretty soon Putin will also declare the pandemic extinct, along with the Ukraine, and we’ll all be fine. I’m just worried that, in the words of Samuel Clemens, Miss Covid (for it is she) may waltz onto the world stage again, singing “rumors of my death have been greatly exaggerated” to the tune of I get around.

Covid is now endemic in Scandinavia, so that’s okay—the issue becomes what Africans call a first-world problem—it doesn’t come with a death sentence.

I made the mistake of telling a Danish friend that the hippo was the animal that killed most people in Africa—she immediately fired back, “Number two. First one is the mosquito.”

Near Kisumu, malaria capital of Kenya and home of the Luo people, the mozzies await their bounty.

She’s dead right, if you excuse the pun. Hippos take about five hundred lives every year, malaria kills five hundred thousand. And folks everywhere adjust. A stone’s throw from Lake Victoria, I sit outside on a balmy evening, at an esplanade restaurant packed with locals. As I eat my Nile perch and munch on a very Kenyan new-found delight—turbo nan, stuffed with chili peppers—I watch the mosquitoes doing their deadly dance next to a cooler full of Tusker beer, and marvel at human resilience.

Heading west on C27 out of Kisumu, folks keep jumping out on to the road and bowing low, arms held high in the air. Every time we go through a village, the cattle and chickens grazing by the roadside, sometimes watched by a placid baboon, the same thing happens.

There must be something about our black SUV and the tinted windows that triggers this adoration—is it homage to Japanese engineering? Early morning calisthenics? Suicidal jaywalking? Oh no, much simpler than that—it’s politics.

In Kenya, a general election is coming—in August, but people are getting oh so ready. Western Kenya is Luo country—the people of the lake. Here, male surnames start with an ‘O’, as in Obonyo, Odoyo, and… Obama—his father was born in a village one hour’s drive from Kisumu.

The names have meanings, as they should—these three examples mean ‘born during a locust plague’, ‘born during weeding’, and ‘twisting’—I’m sure the Breitbart brigade would have a field day with that one.

The Luo are the liberal arts tribe: the doctors, academics, lawyers. They’re cerebral, and the joke in-country is that it’s easier for a Luo to be elected president of the United States than to do so in Kenya—this harks back (at least) to the terrible violence in 2007 that followed the Kibaki versus Odinga election.

On the shores of Lake Victoria, Sindo fishers bring in omena, a small freshwater sardine that is dried as staple protein in the great lake regions.

The other major tribes, out of a total of forty-two (+), are the Kikuyu, Luhya, and Kalenjin. The Kikuyu number about eight million, slightly less that twenty percent of the population, and are renowned for their business skills—they’re the folks who do the commerce, the negotiations—smart as a whip.

I had my ear out for a distinctive vocal trait—like the Chinese, many Kikuyu trade ‘R’ for ‘L’ when they speak English. “This load is so busy in the lush hour,” I was told, as we left JKIA in the early morning. I smiled happily and felt right at home.

The cab driver was a mzee—an old man. Kenyans will tell you that Swahili, which has a lot of Arab words, is a very easy language because you speak exactly as you write. For the most part, that’s true, but mzee is pronounced mzé, an in ‘elephant’.

Africa lives and dies young, so I was curious.

“When do you become a mzee?”

“At forty-five.” Joseph was peremptory.

“We slaughter a goat to celebrate,” he added.

Kikuyu are born negotiators, so I was sure I could trade that up to fifty, but in any case my non-mzee days were done. Oh well, youth is wasted on the young—and I’m owed a goat.

Three things struck me about the Kenyan people—genuinely nice, easy to talk to, and a great sense of humor. Highly educated—even in the beach communities where the samaki is artisanally farmed, the knowledge was stunning—the potential is everywhere for a great future. And vibrant—Kenya moves!

Already in the airport precinct, I poked my nose into a bar landside to score a couple of Tuskers for an old friend. He grew up in Kenya, and the prospect of nipe Tusker baridi might well warm his heart.

“Bottles, not cans.”

The two youngsters behind the bar insisted I could not take bottles with me. They pushed cans at the stubborn mzee.

“Only cans, there’s a deposit on the bottles. Only to drink here.”

“I need the bottles. It’s special,” I said. “Eight hundred for the beer, right?”

The boys nodded.

“Okay, here’s a thousand. The change is yours.”

The boys looked at each other and half-smiled.

I smiled back.

There I was, in a holding pattern with two young kikuyu negotiators.

“Tell you what.” I peeled another two hundred bill from my pocket.

Asante sana, I have a plane to catch.”

The soon-to-be-mzees (only twenty-five years to go, kids) grinned at each other, shrugged, and pushed the bottles across the bar. There goes another crazy mzungu.

A prominent sign lays down the law as you enter the airport perimeter. Good to know.

My heart was heavy as I took off, peering out the little window at the feverish activity below, the airport road vendors pushing peanuts and PPE at the jammed-up vehicles, even the Marabou storks choking on diesel.

Zebras on one side, airplanes on the other, Tuskers in the hold… my kind of chaos.

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


January 15, 2022

As the world enters its third year of pandemic, it’s plain to see human nature remains unchanged, when compared to a century ago.

It is also clear that COVID-19 will be with us this year, and that the trajectory it follows is very similar, if not identical, to the Spanish Flu. Sources differ in their estimate of the duration of the 1918 pandemic, but the consensus is two to three years.

Based on the science, it is reasonable to expect Covid to last about three years—variants are less virulent, infection is becoming more widespread, and vaccination is in general protecting people from hospitalization and death.

In the US, the death rate for vaccinated people is almost zero per hundred thousand, whereas unvaxed folks are at 3 to 4 per 100,000.

The Cleveland Clinic review lists the measures used a century ago to prevent spread.

Isolation, or staying away from crowds of people. This included closing places like schools and gyms.

Washing your hands completely and often.

Wearing protection like masks and gloves.

Not touching outside items like library books.

Not spitting in public.

The first three actions are part of our day-to-day, and gloves aren’t such a bad idea. Library books are not a good example in these digital days, but cellphones are Covid heaven—contaminated hand to mouth and very possibly foot.

Thankfully, hawking is no longer commonplace in the West, but by god you see the stuff flying around in Asia.

The key differences between then and now are all driven by science and technology—exactly the things that anti-vaxers claim to be fake. Covid has killed as many people in the United States as the Spanish Flu did, although percentually today’s numbers are significantly less because the US population is much higher.

So the vaccine is key to strongly reduce hospitalization and mortality, which in turn converts the pandemic into an endemic disease. It’s worth taking a minute to define terms—in particular to distinguish among pandemic, epidemic, endemic, and outbreak. An epidemic e.g. of measles affects a country or region, whereas a pandemic is a world event. An endemic disease such as malaria, cholera, or yellow fever is present in a region—in some cases there’s no vaccine, in others there is.

An outbreak is a one-off event in a country where the disease is not normally present—for instance a series of cases of malaria in the US or Western Europe would qualify as an outbreak.

Epidemics are often the curse of developing countries—think Ebola—and as such merit little airtime on Western media. The blunt truth is that if it doesn’t affect you, you don’t care.

But Covid is responsible not just for deaths, but for a host of other casualties. The Australian debacle features the Australian government, eager to win the upcoming election, the state of Victoria, Tennis Australia, and Djokovic, eager to win the upcoming tournament—and a man whose stance on vaccination has done him no favors and sets the worst possible example.

The orangutan too was a virus vanquished victim—largely through his own actions, and lack of them—to quote an old saw, denial is a river in Africa. Just goes to show there is a god, even if she’s Chinese.

The next one to tumble may well be Eton’s answer to Worzel Gummidge, the ineffable Boris Johnson.

The disregard shown by Downing Street towards the rules the government made and enforced is a blatant example of the entitlement and snobbery of the British ruling class. Wine-Time Friday is the latest episode in a soap that is a national embarrassment, but is totally predictable from a man who epitomizes buffoonery.

As we learn to live with Covid—and the conversation will remain with us at least during 2022, and probably 2023—we have discovered the concept of variants. Of course, anyone who takes the flu vaccine knows there is a new one every year. This is not a booster, but a tailored potion designed to target a variant.

I believe that the booster approach will become scientifically questionable, since the same vaccine is being delivered, from the moment the virus mutation begins to differ significantly from the original target—that may well already be the case. The flu-vax paradigm seems a much better way to go.

When the variants started being named sequentially like hurricanes, folks lost touch with the evolution of the virus—the only exception might be the Greeks, since their alphabet is used—if you want to sound sciency, thrown in a Greek letter or five.

Delta is the fourth letter in the Greek alphabet, equivalent to our letter ‘D’. Omicron is way down the line, equivalent to the letter ‘O’.

There are ten Greek letters between the two.

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

Green Blood

January 8, 2022

I’ve flown over the Congo many times, but I’ve never been tempted to land.

Ever since Belgium’s King Leopold and his acolytes raped and pillaged the country, the Congo has a tragic history of misdeeds.

Sixteen years ago, the blockbuster movie Blood Diamond painted a dark picture of the international gem trade, using Sierra Leone—Lion Mountain—to cast light on a heady mix of diamonds, weapons, and war.

The story of valuable commodities, the weapons they buy, and the wars that result from them are an African paradigm—the richer the country, the poorer its people. The Democratic Republic of Congo—I’m always suspicious when the D word is part of the country’s name—has a per capita GDP of 560 US dollars; Greece, the lamest duck in the EU, has almost eighteen grand—double Turkey and half of Italy.

Like any country where governance is just a long word, the DRC has a huge swathe of folks—eighty percent of the poor—working informal jobs.

Out of the population of ninety million, eighty percent are poor, which means that around fifty-seven percent work outside the tax circuit—well over half the Congolese are off the grid.

The wealth of the Congo lies in minerals, be they diamonds, gold, copper, cobalt, or coltan. The last two ‘C’s are the icing on the cake—coltan for extracting tantalum, used to build capacitors for cellphones, laptops, and car electronics, and cobalt for lithium-ion batteries, the darlings of the green revolution.

The worst possible scenario for electric vehicles, where the battery is made in China (i.e. a large carbon footprint) and the car is driven in Poland, where electricity is produced in outdated coal-fired plants. If the best case is considered, where both battery manufacture and driving takes place across the Baltic in Sweden, electric cars emit 80% less carbon dioxide than their hydrocarbon brethren.

Historically, mining has been the province of Western companies—sixty percent of miners are quoted on the Canadian stock exchanges, either Vancouver or Toronto—but over the last two decades, the Chinese have come to town.

China is well ahead of the US when it comes to sourcing cobalt—both Obama and the Orange Man missed the boat on this one. Companies such as China Molybdenum own vast assets in the DRC, such as the Tenke Fungurume mine. A mine worker makes under four dollars a day and the cobalt is used for batteries that power Tesla, VW, Volvo, Renault, and Mercedes cars.

Ironically, cobalt is used to stop batteries igniting but its stock price is on fire—in the five years before 2016, one metric ton cost less that $35,000, right now it sets you back almost ninety grand.

Since you can find cobalt anywhere in parts of the DRC, one of the key sources is artisanal mining, performed by ordinary people who have no training in mineral extraction—they are ‘creuseurs‘, who hard-scrabble the chocolate-brown powder out of the ground.

One guy in Kolwezi, a southern Congolese city near Angola, was digging a latrine inside his home in 2014 when eight feet down he struck… chocolate. What he found was a rock called heterogenite—I suppose the name means a mixed bag—that can be refined into cobalt.

He proceeded to create a mini-mine inside his house—rented house, that is, and you thought putting up pictures was evil—and started a profitable business selling cobalt. When his vertical seam ran out, he expanded his subterranean gilt goose sideways and tunneled below the neighbors—by the time the landlord caught up with him, his tenant had flown the coop, or in this case the mine, and was by Congolese standards a very wealthy man.

The president of the DRC, Félix Antoine Tshisekedi Tshilombo, meeting with the CEO of CMOC, Sun Ruiwen, plus brainy-hotty interpreter, two days before Christmas 2021—and a Merry Xmas to all.

Although not always this creative (home is where the shaft is), artisanal miners, like bitcoin enthusiasts, are beavering away as we speak, to bring us the chocolate we so badly need.

Right now, climate change is taking us into yet another (un)virtuous cycle of “exploitation, greed, and gamesmanship“, much like the discoveries of the XVth century.

The building blocks of the oil economy are the hydrocarbons in the Mid-East, where vast Western conglomerates still have much to say.

For our new toys, we need nickel, lithium, copper, and cobalt. In the case of cobalt, over sixty percent comes from the DRC and (go figure) an equivalent proportion is processed in the Middle Kingdom.

The Western World is building a new green economy around resources it no longer controls.

China won’t make the same mistake.

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

The China Syndrome

December 11, 2021

To Westerners, most things that happen in Asia are eminently forgettable—the continent is just too far away, the culture too difficult to relate to—the recent exception is China, because of the COVID pandemic.

Sri Lanka is the most beautiful place you never heard of—an Indian Ocean pearl with a troubled history. South Asia contains six countries: Nepal, Bangladesh, Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka, and Bhutan. Of these, Sri Lanka scores highest on the Human Development Index and second highest in per capita income—at an average of $2,500-$5,000, we could go for a mid-point of $3,600 to make the math easy, and settle at three hundred bucks a month.

There’s a warning about touting at Bandaranaike airport that trades six months imprisonment against 25,000 rupees—that’s 124 dollars, so a month in jail is worth twenty bucks, not three hundred—clearly a low-wage economy.

Different cultures open your mind—when I came out of the airport immigration area, I was confronted with a duty-free store where a large motorbike was on sale. A number of small shops to the right sold washing machines, tightly wrapped in plastic—I’m still perplexed about how you can buy duty-free when entering a country. When I left Sri Lanka, I half-expected to see washing machines finding their way onto departing flights—when you’re poor, anything is fair game.

Like my ancestors, I came in search of spices—black pepper and cinnamon. In my quest, I ended up in a market in central Colombo. There was little to be found, and I knew how Columbus must have felt in his search for the treasures of the Indies.

I (anti)gravitated upstairs past a sign that admonished “SPITTIN IS PROHIBITED” and arrived at the fish counters—who says wet markets are out of fashion?

The stall guys soon realized I wasn’t a buyer. “Looking, looking!” they shouted down the hall, wagging their heads. The boss man was a tall, burly fellow—mid-fities, massive head shaved close.

We got talking. Portugal came up, and the inevitable reference to Cristiano Ronaldo. I showed him some pictures of Atlantic fish just like the ones in the right-hand bin and explained that in Madeira they have a black variety—peixe espada preto.

He reminded me that the Portuguese had been in town five hundred years ago—I placed my hands together in the eastern greeting and apologized. “No, no!” he said, half-miming half-shouting.

He wagged his head violently. “We were better off then.”

My new friend stuffed his left hand repeatedly into his pocket, illustrating the universal trick of disappearing cash. Politician Magician.

A tuk-tuk took (sorry) me across town—precision driving at its best, with the jalopy sometimes perpendicular to road traffic and missing oncoming vehicles by inches—the driver would be a champion video gamer.

The landscape changed from wide palm-lined avenues lining the bay to narrow, crowded streets—boys hauling handcarts battled tuk-tuks, art deco buses bullied everyone out of the way, pedestrians and cars dodged each other on street and pavement… I sat back and smiled, watching my driver navigate by the app, an Uber-tuk in 2021. Ah, Asia…

And suddenly, there they were—the spices we’d come so far to seek. Ginger at thirty cents a pound—I felt the thrill of the old explorers, as the bearded navigators stuffed the carrack hold with spice. At Walmart, the price is four bucks a pound, so the magic markup is still there.

Black pepper, turmeric, fat rolls of cinnamon bound in elastic, chili peppers—not native to the island but introduced by the Portuguese from West Africa—and delicious miniature garlic cloves the size of a nutmeg. All this in Pettah, the historic outdoor market—the monsoon rain pouring down in sheets, the air warmer than body temperature, not another white face in sight. Take a deep breath of the pungent air—”Unchanged, all through the ages, the legions of disenfranchised people of Asia.

As in Africa, South America, and other parts of Asia, China has taken over from the US when it comes to foreign aid. In Sri Lanka, one of the recurrent themes is the port of Hambatota, which is currently leased to China for ninety-nine years.

The naysayers accuse the government of handing over the port to China—the current expression, popularized by Mike Pence, is debt-trap diplomacy. The orangutan’s former veep maintained that the Chinese modus operandi is to finance development projects in poor economies through loans—when the country defaults on the loan, the Chinese lender (i.e. the government) recovers the asset.

Hambatota is a case in point. The Sri Lankan opposition argues that a 99-year lease is tantamount to ownership—the government strongly contests that view.

The fact is that the Hambatota process is hardly cut and dried. The Canadians funded a feasibility study in 2003—the new port was financially viable. Sri Lankan politics slow-walked the process, but President Mahinda Rajapaksa pushed the work forward. In 2006, a Danish consultant, Ramboll, agreed with the Canadians. Ramboll sugested a first-stage bulk cargo port to drive income—this would be used to fund the second-stage expansion into a container port.

Sri Lanka approached India and the US for funding but were rejected. Enter China Eximbank, who agreed to put up the capital—China Harbor (which I bet you never heard of) would build the port.

Which they did, on time and on budget. The twenty-five-year war with the Tamil tigers finally ended in 2009, and the president rushed into phase 2 without building up revenue. By 2012, the Sri Lankan government borrowed another 757 million bucks from Eximbank, bringing the loan up to over a billion dollars. Modestly, the president named the port after himself.

In 2015, Rajapaska lost a snap election and the Sri Lankan economy began to unravel. With outstanding loan repayments to Japan, the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank, and China, the big squeeze was on. In 2017, Sri Lanka paid 1.4 billion dollars in debt service—Hambatota was only five percent of that.

Colombo secured an IMF loan to avoid default, and closed a deal with China Merchants for the ninety-nine year lease. Did Sri Lanka use the lease payment of $1.12 billion to pay back China Eximbank?

Nope, they used it to boost their foreign exchange reserves. Whether ninety-nine years is a lease or a repossession is a moot point—given the back and forth, this doesn’t seem to be a China debt-trap—just a lot of mismanagement.

An old Sri Lankan aphorism states that ‘a well-told lie is worth a thousand facts.’

Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to be a Sri Lankan exclusive.

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

Under Siege

December 5, 2021

It is the Year of Our Lord 1506, only eight years after Vasco da Gama’s discovery of the maritime route to India. Following the landing at Calicut—now called Kozhikode—the Portuguese fleets began working their way south.

The bearded explorers from a small corner of Western Europe were searching for a tree—Cinnamomum verum, or true cinnamon—an obscure species, whose inner bark has an unique fragrance. And they were looking for pimenta das Índias—black peppercorns to spice up the drudgery of XVIth century victuals.

When the twenty-five year old captain Dom Lourenço de Almeida sailed east after rounding the southern tip of India, the Portuguese found what they were looking for—the mythical island of Ταπροβανᾶ, named by the Ancient Greeks.

Taprobana, renamed Ceilão by the Lusitanian explorers, was an island paradise—but the Portuguese soon found that the locals were in no mood to be colonized. In line with tradition, the sea captains found a suitable bay to shelter the caravels, made landfall, and built a fort. This construction, named Santa Cruz da Galé—Holy Cross of the Galley (the ship, not the kitchen)—stands today as one of the emblematic locations in Sri Lanka.

After its foundation, the Portuguese went on to found Colombo, still the capital today with its original name. As usual, the explorers established feitorias—coastal trading posts—from which they traded with the locals. In West Africa, slaves were the main ‘commodity’, but out east, it was all about spices.

By 1640, the Galle Fort (now pronounced Gaul) ruled over 282 villages—collectively, these covered the most fertile area for the precious tree bark. During the preceding century, the priests and missionaries had converted many to Catholicism, resulting in an abundance of Fernando, Silva, Perera, and Fonseca. You never see anyone called de Vries or Smith.

A local Sri Lankan song that explains that the Portuguese are very clever—they come over and steal all your stuff. Aptly, if you know any Lusitanian curses, the tune is called pruthugeesi karaya.

As usual, family units were quickly formed, and the language spread widely. The Portuguese left behind hundred of loanwords—my Sinhalese improved rapidly after I discovered that. Shoe is sappatuva, anger is raivaya, and wheel is rodaya. Plum is amesi, baila is dance, and my favorite—rude—is asnu. If you are a cunning linguist, you can knock yourself out here.

Just don’t hold your breath if you’re searching for Dutch or English loanwords. After centuries in country, the Dutch left seven words and the English five. Among the celebrated Dutch contribution is kakkus (kakhuis)—hooray for toilets.

During the XVIth century, the Portuguese became embroiled in a war with the kingdom of Kandy, in the central part of the island. In 1580, as the century drew to a close, Lusitania was conquered by Castille, which had a major impact on Portuguese possessions abroad—the navy was destroyed during the disastrous foray of the Spanish Invincible Armada, led by the violently seasick, ocean-hating Duke of Medina-Sidonia.

The Dutch took advantage of the situation to attack Lusitanian colonies in far-flung outposts, from northern Brazil (Surinam), to the treasures of the East. In particular, they lusted after the lands of Ceylon and the Ilhas Malucas, or crazy islands—navigation in the Moluccas is challenged by a compass anomaly—and the delights of cinnamon and nutmeg.

In 1640, the same year as the Portuguese defenestrated the Spanish regent in Lisbon’s Black Horse Square (shown in the video) and kicked out the Castillians, the Dutch laid siege to Galle. They were supported by a large army from the Kingdom of Kandy, whose ruler had ambitions to conquer the southern part of the island.

The Dutch bombarded the fort for four days and then stormed it. When the fort was finally taken, there were one hundred and seventy Portuguese casualties—estimates of total European dead range from 450 to 1350, so the Dutch left many corpses on the ground.

The memory lingers—it resulted in a Dutch aphorism that reflects the cost of the siege.

Gold in Malacca, lead in Galle.

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

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