Archive for the ‘Travel’ Category

The Vote

November 4, 2017

It’s the vote, stupid!

This paraphrase of the 1992 Clinton quote will become the classic of present-day politics. The original was invented by James Carville, a scrappy democratic strategist from Louisiana, and used to great effect in the debate against Bush forty-one.

My version also speaks to the masses. Ever since the vote became a weapon, politicians have fought over arms limitation, because the vote is potentially the most effective weapon of mass destruction.

Voting is a way for everyone to make a choice, but is often also a vehicle for protest, prejudice, or procrastination.

Because the collective vote has such far-reaching consequences on politics, politicians, business, businessmen, wars and the military, freedom, and society, it’s a weapon that begs control.

Some systems try to do this by perverting the concept of one-man-one-vote. I’m using the generic expression, but of course I mean one-person-one-vote. Nevertheless, a time-honored means of control was to prevent women from voting.

Taking a leaf from the Islamic playbook, which seems hell-bent, if you excuse the pun, on preventing women from doing things, many countries resisted giving women the vote—’liberal’ and open-minded Switzerland is the wahabi sect of this group—women were only given the vote in 1971, and in one particularly progressive jurisdiction, women were finally allowed to vote on local issues in 1991. This canton is Appenzell Innerrhoden, and I suspect it’s twinned with Riyadh.

But the main one-man-one-vote perversion, which is juiced with Anglo-Saxon perfidy, is to allow everyone to vote and then count votes differently. This is a subtle modification of the Stalin approach, which highlighted that ‘what matters is not who votes, but who counts the votes.’

Subtle because the cheating has been built into the system upfront, rather than rear-ended. You hear international observers, be it in Kenya or elsewhere, proclaiming an election was ‘free and fair’; however when it comes to US or UK polling, elections are free but the system has been front-loaded, and it is intrinsically unfair—the arguments are heated, but proportional representation it ain’t.

The results can work in various ways: in the US, Trump won despite a majority defeat, whereas in the UK, Brexit triumphed only because any referendum truly does reflect the voice of the people—those that vote, that is.

And there lies the rub.

Twenty-two countries in the world have a compulsory voting system. They include Egypt, Mexico, Australia, and Greece. After the Portuguese revolution of 1974, a number of political parties pushed for a mandatory vote. The only party that opposed it was the communist party—their cadres knew that every communist would vote.

The lack of audience participation, so to speak, has given us (chronologically) the joys of Brexit, Trump, and Catalonia. Predictably, after the catastrophe comes the whingeing. This is the societal equivalent of ‘you never miss your water till your well runs dry.’

The Washington Post heads with the slogan ‘Democracy Dies in Darkness.’ Fair enough, when it comes to communication, but the terrible truth is ‘Democracy Dies in Indifference.’

The forthcoming Catalan elections on December 21 will be an interesting example of civic duty.

Catalan autonomy since 1980. The good, the bad, and the ugly.

I worked up the graph from a Spanish site which hurls a slew of data at you in the vague hope you might convert it into information. The three curves are percentages at various time points when elections were held for the autonomous government.

I shouldn’t have joined the points, but there you go—you get some idea of trends. The blue line is the one that gets airtime—results for eleven elections, of which the first ten were won by a coalition called CIU, Convergència i Unió (the Catalans have even more bizarre accents than other Mediterranean languages). The last election was won by a broader coalition, Junts pel Sí, which excludes a bunch of vowels but includes a bunch of fringe parties—twenty-three parties offer themselves to the electorate, which means Catalunya is either a vibrant democracy or a bit of a zoo, depending on your perspective.

If you look beyond the results, you see the red line, Catalan abstention. Whether it was a good day at the beach, or perhaps FC Barcelona played a big match, I don’t know—what I do know is that average abstention for the thirty-five year period is thirty-eight percent.

From the voting universe, the green line is calculated: it shows the actual proportion of the population that is represented by the government, and at no time does it reach one-third of the registered voters.

I imagine that, much like the supporters of the Portuguese communists, the Catalan independence groups are more assiduous at the ballot box—the graph is inconclusive, but certainly the 2003 and 2006 elections show a drop in the independence vote when abstention is higher.

December 21st is going to be fun. It’s day before El Gordo, the obscenely obese Spanish Christmas lottery—that lottery will make a few Spaniards very rich. The previous day’s lottery will determine whether the population of Catalunya has learned a healthy lesson in democracy.

To paraphrase Churchill, take your vote by the hand, or it will surely seize you by the throat.

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

 

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Vlad

October 22, 2017

Car-hire companies have a clear worldview on the limits of the civilized world. Buried in the small print is a list of eligible nations—Serbia and Montenegro aren’t on it, and neither is Bosnia-Herzegovina.

So it was with minor trepidation that I offered my passport at the Bosnian border, hoping no one was going to fuss about small matters such as rental agreements—I’d neglected to share my final destination with the car-hire people.

I had come at it the long way—an eight-hour drive down the Adriatic coast that took me from Italy to Slovenia, then on to Croatia, and after a brief Bosnian interlude, back into Croatia—Dubrovnik is an enclave.

One of my best friends, recently deceased, had been here in 1982, and spoke of a beautiful city and a magic phrase—nema problema. Surprisingly, the Croatian word for ‘no problem’ isn’t steeped in consonants—from Slovenia onward the whole place felt like a remake of King Ottokar’s Sceptre, complete with Dalmatian costumes.

Dubrovnik has fallen prey to the Game of Thrones, and the old city is a mishmash of King’s Landing walking tours, mysterious GPS coordinates, and the Walk of Shame—although the naked actress who performed the walk was photoshopped due to pregnancy.

But the real Dubrovnik is much more than the site of another irrelevant quasi-medieval-scifi nonsense epic—it’s a beautiful, sunny, truffle-rich peninsula, with excellent victuals and very drinkable wine—the Malvasija grape for dry whites, and a number of local varietals such as Plavac for reds.

Dubrovnik is also deep in the Austro-Hungarian empire—Sarajevo, where the assassination of Franz Ferdinand triggered the First World War, is just up the road. Back in Tito’s time, all this was Yugoslavia, and Serbo-Croat was the lingua franca—before WWI, Croatia and Hungary were a single country, but where I found the Hungarians to be unspeakably dour, Croatians were friendly, communicative, and fun.

A simple hvala earned a ready smile, and vrlo dobro triggered a beaming volley of consonants.

Signs for Belgrade, Split, and Ljubljana compete for your attention as you drive south, and UN KFOR convoys still linger after the Bosnian war, like olive scars on this troubled area.

Head east for Bosnia, deep in the heart of the Balkan troubles.

In the Balkans, evidence of the struggle of centuries between Christians and Turks is never far away, and there is no better example of the insanity of the warring parties than the story of Vlad III.

This is associated with Transylvania, to the east, and it’s a wonderfully gory tale—a medieval primer for the barbary that took place in Croatia in the 1990s, and the subsequent Bosnian war. But in all fairness, Vlad wreaked havoc in Hungary and Bosnia as well.

Vlad Dracul, to give him his full name, inspired the movie hero played by Bela Lugosi, but the XVth century prince of Vallachia was far more frightening—a hint is provided by his sobriquet—Vlad the Impaler.

Impalement is a curious technique, consisting in the insertion of a circular stake through the human rectum or vagina, and subsequent careful manoeuvering of the long pole to avoid destruction of internal organs. When properly performed, this operation results in the exit of the stake through the esophagus and buccal cavity—the impaled victim is fully able to breathe, and is thus displayed upright and vertically skewered.

It appears the deranged Balkan ruler learned the technique from the Turks, when he was imprisoned as a youth—certainly, Vlad Dracul performed his magic on both humans and animals—after he had impaled two monks, he proceeded to impale their donkey for braying.

Vlad experimented with a range of tortures, including boiling humans alive in large copper cauldrons—these had wooden lids with holes through which the victims’ heads protruded, so screams and tears could be witnessed by their tormentors.

In 1459, he performed yet another astonishing act—three Turkish diplomats arrived at his court to pay their respects. They refused to remove their turbans before him, following their custom—after commending them on their faith, Dracul ordered their turbans to be nailed to their heads with three spikes, to ensure the diplomats’ hats would be forever secure.

In his many wars with the Ottoman empire, he became a legendary barrier to the spread of Islam into Europe. In 1462, he wrote a darkly humorous letter to the sultan.

I have killed peasants, men and women, old and young, who lived at Oblucitza and Novoselo, where the Danube flows into the sea … We killed 23,884 Turks, without counting those whom we burned in homes or the Turks whose heads were cut by our soldiers …Thus, your highness, you must know that I have broken the peace

Sultan Mehmed II was swift to respond—he sent an army of one hundred fifty thousand men to invade Vallachia and replace its ruler. Vlad was severely outnumbered, and after a failed attempt to murder the sultan in a nocturnal raid, he retreated to the town of Târgoviște. By the time Mehmed’s forces arrived, the town was deserted.

The Turks were greeted by a ‘forest of the impaled’. Twenty thousand people, including women and babies, had been impaled on stakes, and the Ottoman army was dumbfounded—the Sultan decided prudence was the better option, and withdrew his forces.

Vlad Dracul was killed in battle at the end of 1476—the Turks cut his corpse into pieces and sent his head to the sultan, in the best medieval tradition, but the violence lives on. War in Croatia raged from 1991 to 1995, over five hundred years after Dracul’s death, and recently exploded again in Bosnia—massacres didn’t extend to Vlad’s exalted heights, but they showed that the boundary between human civilization and savage cruelty is a very fine line indeed.

When you see the happy, smiling folks of Dubrovnik, hear the music and the laughter, it’s hard to imagine how much suffering this nation endured.

Small-minded, sadistic wars for nation-statehood were the daily fare of the Balkans since human history exists—maybe we can be smart enough to write the next chapter in a different way.

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

Red House

October 7, 2017

I drove up the east coast of Ireland, sheets of rain driving in from the west. I learned after it was the tail end of Maria, making its way across Europe.

Now there’s a trip! All the way across the Atlantic from the Cape Verde islands, celebrated in The India Road, mayhem in the Caribbean, north to Boston and then across with the roaring forties toward the Emerald Isle.

Columbus did a tighter loop, west at the Canaries, back east via the Azores, but it was the same idea. Maria did considerable damage in the Caribbean, but the cast of Clear Eyes did much more.

As the rain poured down over Carlingford Lough, the old saw about why hurricanes are named after women came to me. When they arrive they’re wet n’wild, when they leave they take your house and your car.

Hurricanes have guys’ names too now, but hey, it’s a rainbow world, so why not LGBT weather?

On the way back, I got to talking to this Dublin guy about the drive, and what would happen if brexit brought the border back. By then the weather was nice, but not in Belfast.

“They’re all protestants up there, that’s why.” He sounded perfectly serious.

“Oh, it’s god’s fault,” I said.

“I suppose you’re going to ask me if I like the EU. Well I’ll tell you, I don’t!”

I wasn’t, but when you see a guy with a spade digging himself into a hole, you don’t offer a ladder.

“Have you ever heard of the Red House?”

I had, and still reeling from Tom Petty’s untimely death at sixty-six, I went through a few breaks of the classic Hendrix blues in my head.

“No”. Somehow I didn’t believe he was thinking of Jimi.

I was right, yer man told me to google red house, strasburg, 1944. Turns out today’s European Union is nothing more than a massive German conspiracy to continue the Third Reich after losing World War II.

My first hit about the Maison Rouge was the UK Daily Mail. The paper is a strong supporter of brexit, and in Thatcher’s day we used to joke it’s ‘read by the wives of the people who rule the country.’  I was on a British Airways flight to London some years ago, and the elderly American lady in the middle seat asked the hostess for a newspaper for her husband.

She was given the Daily Mail (BA loves it), passed it across, and after a couple of minutes handed it back to the hostess.

“My husband doesn’t want it—he says it’s a scandal rag.”

“Madam, we have far worse than that,” the stewardess said in a supercilious tone.

Strasbourg is the Alsatian capital, a meld of German and French, which adds nicely to the conspiracy theory, and the Daily Mail goes at it hammer and tongs. I won’t link the article, because it’s a typical blend of fact and fiction, particularly when it comes to interpretation—and the guy who wrote it is the author of a novel on the subject.

But I will link the transcript of the core document, sourced from US military intelligence.

The concept is typical of conspiracy theories. There is a potential basis in fact, always subject to distortion, and then imagination takes flight and builds a huge construct—the moon landing and twin towers are similar exercises.

These plots are all anchored on simple but disruptive ideas (the EU is a Nazi plot, the US blew up the World Trade Center…), the implementation of which is not at all simple—and must always be part of a cabal by the ruling elite to fool the masses.

The recent Russian maskirovka of the islamization of Texas is a great example, and a nice follow-up to their Berlin rape antics.

The true points of the Rotes Haus meeting, based on available evidence, are as follows.

There is no independent evidence it took place. All we have is a translation of a report filed by an agent of the French Deuxieme Bureau. We don’t know his name, and trawling through French-language resources does not bring up the original—it merely brings up one or two French conspiracy websites.

The gist is that SS officers and directors of the huge German military-industrial complex, including Messerschmidt, Volkswagen, and others, met to prepare a sinister post-war plot. An abridged list of attendants is provided by the French spy.

Dr. Scheid, who presided, holding the rank of S.S.Obergruppenfuhrer and Director of the Heche (Hermandorff & Schonburg) Company
Dr. Kaspar, representing Krupp
Dr. Tolle, representing Rochling
Dr. Sinderen, representing Messerschmitt
Drs. Kopp, Vier and Beerwanger, representing Rheinmetall
Captain Haberkorn and Dr. Ruhe, representing Bussing
Drs. Ellenmayer and Kardos, representing Volkswagenwerk
Engineers Drose, Yanchew and Koppshem, representing various factories in Posen, Poland (Drose, Yanchew and Co., Brown-Boveri, Herkuleswerke, Buschwerke, and Stadtwerke)
Captain Dornbuach, head of the Industrial Inspection Section at Posen
Dr. Meyer, an official of the German Naval Ministry in Paris
Dr. Strossner, of the Ministry of Armament, Paris.

If they were all there, it was certainly a motley crew. Never mind that Brown-Boveri is actually Swiss rather than German, those are mere details.

The grand plan is simply to inform the industrialists that Germany is about to lose the war, and propose a series of steps which might be considered eminently sensible at that stage.

These included the relocation of capital in other countries, the protection of German industrial interests through alliances and other mechanisms, and the promotion of trade to allow the fatherland to be rebuilt. As a little extra spice, the business conglomerates will set up discreet smaller facilities for weapons research.

BMW was allegedly involved in all the slave labor abuses during WWII, so maybe that’s the secret plot for the Mini factory in Oxford—their website is silent on this topic—if they’re now using a bot that can detect irony fifty percent of the time, I may get sued.

Nothing in the supposed red House ‘closely-typed’ report goes beyond the obvious. This is well stated in one of the conclusions from another website that discusses the Red House.

I would recommend reading simplistic comments for the populist market by the ill informed that claim The EU is a ‘Nazi’ plot delve a little deeper into the facts rather than the theories of such conspiracies!

The ‘simplistic comments’ in this case are statements and statistics about how the big German industrial companies used prisoners, how the CEOs of these companies served short jail sentences, and how allied military authorities issued pardons in a suspicious manner.

The post-war recovery of Germany is offered as evidence of the conspiracy, with not a mention of the Marshall Plan.

And the notion that the top German industrialists had failed to observe they were losing the war as they gazed out from their executive boardrooms onto their bombed-out factories is er… a little bizarre.

The voluntary (not conspiratorial) adhesion of so many other nations to this project leads to only one conclusion. If the Germans had a change of heart and conspired to make Europe a better place, regardless of the preceding tragedies, the ideas certainly held, and hold, appeal on a EU-wide basis.

Small countries such as Ireland, Portugal, Belgium, or Croatia, whose history is one of constant strife, were quick to see the benefits—they still do.

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

 

Under the Weather

September 9, 2017

One of the heroines of my new book, Clear Eyes, is a fourteen-year-old Taino girl called Anda. She only appears at the start of Book 2—the novel is divided into three books: the outbound voyage, Columbus in the ‘Indies’, and the fractious return home.

It’s not unusual in the voyages of discovery that the journey home is particularly hideous. It happened to Vasco da Gama, who lost one third of his men in the homeward bound crossing of the Indian Ocean, to Columbus on his first voyage, and to Magellan, albeit somewhat earlier—but equally in a more radical fashion, since he lost his life in the Philippines.

Anda’s grandfather is a shaman, and rather fond of the hallucinogenic powder made from the beans of Piptadenia peregrina, the yopo tree. In the Caribbean, the tree can reach a height of sixty feet or more, and I imagine a few have been flattened over the past week.

When the shaman is tripping on DMT, he speaks with his ancestors from the mouth of the Orinoco—the Taino people came up to the Bahamas from Venezuela, fighting the Carib tribes along the way—the Caribs are responsible for the region’s name, but after five hundred years of colonial enthusiasm, they’re about as rare as the yeti.

As he smoked, the shaman told stories of the cemis, the Taino gods. There were several that looked after the cassava crop, including Baibrama, who cured people of the plant’s poisonous juice, and Guabancex, the goddess of juracan —the hurricane goddess had two assistants, Guatauba who created the winds, and Coatrisquie who made the floods.

The old man is smoking tabaco, which became a planetary hit after it was introduced to Europe. It is the last week of September, 1492, almost exactly five hundred and twenty-five years ago, at the very end of the pre-Columbian era in the New World.

The tender mercies of the Spanish conquistadors. Illustration from Theodor de Bry (1528–1598) inspired by the book Brevísima relación de la destrucción de las Indias by Friar Bartolomé de Las Casas.

Guabancex has been on a roll this year—rather than the Islamic Haj, there’s been a spot of hij—Harvey, Irma, and Jose (nice to see that Latino touch in there). Her two assistants, Guatauba and Coatrisquie, obviously ran out of ritalin and have run amok with winds and floods.

The fact that the juracan had not one but three gods, suggests the locals were well-acquainted with the mayhem and destruction of these weather systems. The great debate now is whether climate change has increased the frequency of extreme events, of which hurricanes are an example.

Just as with earthquakes, science has no predictive capacity for hurricanes until they form. The key difference is in the speed of propagation—an earthquake happens very fast and we can forewarn only at the scale of a minute or so.

Hurricanes, on the other hand, can be tracked—since the ones that hit the Caribbean form off West Africa, there’s plenty of time for the US TV stations to wet their panties before the rain actually dampens anything.

CNN seemed completely impervious, if you excuse the pun, to the terrible destruction happening elsewhere, running Harvey like a Netflix serial-binger; testimony of tragedy was rife, with anchors waxing lyrical about mothers being separated from their babies, almost claiming this was a unique experience for mankind.

No one makes light of what happened in the southern US, but far worse violence to families is done regularly in Syria, Afghanistan, and elsewhere—on a daily basis. The destruction by Irma of ninety-five percent of Barbuda also puts things in perspective—downtown Houston is still standing, and so will downtown Miami after Irma does her bit.

And speaking of impervious, much of the natural ‘soft’ engineering that nature provides, including buffer zones of mangrove, permeable land, and forest cover has been destroyed by man. A good deal of the Houston flooding occurred in low-lying areas (duh) where good planning wouldn’t have allowed urban development. The destruction of Phuket by a tsunami in 2004 is another example of nature’s capacity to correct planning errors.

After typhoon Hato hit South China in late August, thousands of people were displaced—high winds, floods, and deaths, just like Harvey. Very little of this made the Western media, although the UK gave it some airtime because of Hong-Kong.

Macao was battered, although some of the gambling addicts probably only looked up once. A friend of mine in Guangzhou was six days without email because of destroyed infrastructure.

Since the Tainos and Caribs kept no written records, and there is certainly no oral tradition because the Spanish killed them all, not much is known about Atlantic hurricanes pre-1492. Even after that, there are only records when towns were badly hit, or occasionally if a vessel survived—in the big ones, I suspect no ships did.

On his second trip in 1494, Columbus witnessed his first hurricane on Hispaniola in late September. The following year in late October, Hispaniola was hit by another one—it whirled three galleons about their anchors, snapped the cables, and sank the lot, complete with crews.

Some evidence of earlier hurricanes is based on paleotempestology—I looked it up online, and even Google can’t think of an ad to associate with this mouthful—Oh Joy!

Sediment cores provide altered geological records during hurricane events, which can be dated. Cores from different Caribbean areas should provide a reasonable approach to reconstituting juracan tracks, and there must be other science tricks that would help. I doubt this is accurate to less than one year, and it may well be that the record ‘compresses’ multiple events.

Bottom-line, we go back to 1330 BC, and there are hurricanes identified as Cat 4-5, which will have caused major damage in their day.

One advantage the US has over Caribbean nations is strong federal support through FEMA and other agencies. Fareed Zacaria—every time I see his name I think of the Portuguese name Zacarias, and wonder if there’s a context pursuant to The India Road—wrote a nice op-ed this week in the Post, which highlights the nine words Reagan was most afraid off.

Zacaria tells us that these days, the words anyone from Texas or Florida will most want to hear are “I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.

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

 

A Hearty Breakfast

August 28, 2017

Let me qualify that. A hearty Scottish breakfast.

Like many other countries in the developed world, the United Kingdom has a weight problem.

I’m riding on the first plane out of Edinburgh, at an ungodly hour of the morning—about half the passengers, and all the stewardesses, are grossly overweight.

The same or worse was in evidence every morning in my hotel, where the breakfast menu emphasized the word hearty—there’s a little irony here, since Scotland is the UK champion of heart disease.

Glasgow, in fact, has the worst life expectancy in Britain: only seventy-five percent of boys born in the city will make it to sixty-five—girls fare a little better. The rate of premature death from cardio-vascular disease is 144 out of every one hundred thousand people, whereas in the aptly-named town of Hart, in the southern English county of Hampshire, only forty people succumb.

A well-chosen name for clothing supplies in Scotland.

The country sets the tone. I had a chat with a young Thai girl who grew up in Scotland from a very early age. At the time, I was busy doctoring an almost inedible burger with tabasco, and I asked her if she liked spicy food. She shook her head emphatically.

We were in an unbelievably named spot called the kilted kangaroo, which advertised on the door ‘the best food in town!’ Clearly fake news, and the imagery of Aussie-Scots fusion is very possibly the height of poor taste.

What about fish? Cod and haddock. Oh, salmon also. Great. What about shrimp? Prawns? How about little fish? She shook her head emphatically again. I told her she was the very first Thai I’d ever met who didn’t like seafood or spices.

How about pizza? Her eyes lit up.

So there you have it in a nutshell, the old Darwinian debate on nature and nurture—when it boils down to food, if you’ll excuse the eminently justifiable Scottish pun, nurture wins hands down.

The Scots seem to take perverse pleasure in poor eating, diluting the grease with copious volumes of lager—it puts an entirely new spin on the word hearty, and compresses their chests on a regular basis.

Flying at first light is always hardship duty, and I start the day (or technically the night) feeling sorry for myself, but I soon get over it when I think of all the people who need to be up earlier than me so I can fly.

It’s the menial jobs in particular that must be soul-destroying—the guys loading bags on planes, the shuttle drivers and cleaners, and… woe is me, the ground staff who process the cattle onto low cost flights.

And yet, as I watched the harassed helpers herding the hordes (sorry, it’s a bit hearly), I had a vision of this same sea of humankind being loaded onto cattle trains to Auschwitz. The same blank looks and shuffling feet, but a very different destination.

It took me a while to get into low costs, and some experiences are unrepeatable—Frontier Airlines was my worst plane trip ever, barring a crash—in which case you’ll have to speculate, because I won’t be writing about it. But overall, I find some low cost features attractive, mainly because flag carriers have become so hideously unattractive.

Private Eye gives us the real story on British Airways.

After the British Airways meltdown on the final Saturday of May 2017, I had to fight tooth and nail to get my fares reimbursed. BA now advertises its unique relationship with Marks & Spencer, but frankly, who gives a shit about M&S? The few foreigners who know the chain think it sells trousers.

The idea that flogging the customers indifferent M&S snacks is better than giving them indifferent BA snacks could only be pushed by a Brit. Easyjet may be sleazyjet, but what you see is what you get—or to really scrape the bottom of the barrel, what you sleaze is what you jet.

Speedy boarding is speedy—first class access without first class prices, and although you buy your food on board, you can have something hot, and even a couple of choices of wine—and the flights run on time.

These early flights from Scotland to the Costa del Vino draw a certain type of traveler—you recognize them because they’re drinking multiple pints of lager at the Wetherspoon pub in departures, and it’s barely five a.m.

When you’re pouring beer down your throat, and scarfing a hearty Scottish breakfast while examining your partner’s tattoos, you definitely qualify as an escapee from an Austin Powers movie.

In the more extreme situations, passengers need to check their duty-free and retrieve it on arrival—this follows a memorable piss-up on Ryan Air which forced a plane diversion from Ibiza to Bordeaux. The lads had consumed their airport-purchased beverages—they were so drunk when they landed they were unaware of the diversion, and promptly got into fights with the French police.

My fellow passengers are no doubt looking forward to a week in the sun—they don’t realize they’ve really come for a seven-day detox.

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

Big Sur

August 19, 2017

Back when Felipe Gonzalez, a Sevillano, was the Spanish prime minister, a joke did the rounds about Morocco’s claim to Ceuta and Melilla. The North African nation could have them back, the prime minister said, if they took Andalucia as well.

Andalucia, the former caliphate of Al Andalus, and the bottom layer of the cake.

The Spanish autonomous regions are arranged like a wedding cake—Andalucia and little Murcia at the base. In the map, Portugal has disappeared, and the Spanish province of Extremadura has suddenly grown a coastline.

Andalucia is almost as large as Castile, and when you overlay the watershed of the Guadalquivir on the map, you realize the river defines the region. The Wadi al Kebir, as the Moors called it, is literally the great river, flowing west from the region of Granada until it turns south somewhere above Seville and flows into the Atlantic at Sanlucar de Barrameda.

It’s about sixty miles from the Guadalquivir estuary to Seville, and on the right bank of the river is the huge national park of Doñana, one of the largest bird overwintering areas in Europe.

Along the coast, to the west of the river, is the city of Huelva, but to travel there from Cadiz, the ancient Phoenician city of Gades, you need to go via Seville, at the apex of the triangle, because between the estuary and Seville there isn’t one single bridge.

Down in Sanlucar, the locals understand the need for a connection, and plans for a bridge at the southern tip of the river go back to 1947. Changing political agendas, government priorities, and economic issues mean that seventy years on there’s still no bridge, and no plan.

It also means that Sanlucar is isolated and remains little-known, except to the Spanish themselves. I was astonished to drive and walk the streets, eat and drink in the restaurants and bars, and never see a foreigner—remember this is mid-August, and tourism in Iberia is booming because of the terrorism concerns in Egypt, Tunisia, Turkey, and elsewhere.

So I hesitated before sharing with you a jewel of this quality—a place where you don’t see an English newspaper on sale, no one gives a shit about trip advisor, and you hear nothing but the machine-gun staccato of Andalucia.

But my trust in your good taste is boundless, so here we are. After you see Chef Jose Andres describe it, all will be clear—except I had another couple of hot leads, from a Sevillian friend who makes the most beautiful lamps in the region.

Casa Balbino is great, but there are other secret places where the little tortillita de camaron is even better.

I expected Sanlucar to be more dangerous—I’ve written before in these pages about its links to the Moroccan hash trade. But there was no threatening vibe, and I calmly walked the alleys late at night—and I didn’t once smell dope or see anyone having a toke.

On the evening of the Assumption Day fiesta, mounds of earth were heaped in the streets, about thirty yards apart. Next to these brown hills, parents and children—every kid carried a beach bucket and spade,  and most of them banged on the buckets—a back beat for the scene that followed.

Near the castle, the mounds were white, and the kiddies had been let loose—they filled their buckets and poured the contents on the ground, while grown-ups with rakes spread the mixture evenly, until the whole road was white.

Salt adornments for the Virgin Mary, Sanlucar-style.

But early next morning, it had all turned into a magic display of color—and the heaps of the previous night weren’t earth at all, but salt—good sea salt from the mouth of the Guadalquivir, dyed blue, yellow, and red.

The blue of the ocean, and the yellow and red of Spain—always representing the blood of conquest, and eldorado, the gold that it brought.

And although Sanlucar now mainly boasts shrimp boats and hashish gomas, this remarkably understated spot bears the gravitas of history—in May 1498, Columbus departed from here on his third trip to the Americas, from which he returned in shackles.

As the ‘admiral of the ocean sea’ sailed west on another vain quest for Cipango, Vasco da Gama crossed the Indian Ocean to Calicut on the summer monsoon, and reached the real indies.

But Sanlucar was also the departure of another Portuguese sailor, called Fernão de Magalhães. Magellan, as he’s known to the world, left Sanlucar in 1419, sailing for the Spanish crown, and his expedition completed the first circumnavigation of the globe.

None of these events are celebrated locally, and there is no museum or historical residence which boasts of the town’s pride in these voyages and explorers.

But there is one famous palace, which now boasts one of the best private archives in Europe—the Dukes of Medina-Sidonia, the first Spanish dukedom, appointed in 1445, and a legend of Spanish nobility, have their ancestral home a few hundred yards south of the castle.

And in one of the rooms hangs a portrait of the seventh duke—a small picture, which shows a man punished by the sands of time. The man is Don Alonso de Gusmán El Bueno, who commanded the Invincible Armada.

It sailed from La Coruña in 1588, led by a man who hated the ocean and suffered terribly from seasickness—its ships were scattered and sunk by a combination of traditional British weather and the good offices of Francis Drake.

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

 

 

 

Yum

June 25, 2017

The helicopter blades whirred, there was one jolt, and the little machine was underway—a mechanical insect under a perfect blue sky.

My destination was a small island in northern Biscay, ten nautical miles from the French mainland. There’s a ferry, but it runs infrequently. Squeezed into the chopper were a few other disciples—we were all searching for the holy grail: Food.

Islands, no matter what the size, always reflect a different mindset—this is true for Islay, Ireland, or tiny little Sark, a microdot in the English Channel.

This particular island has two defining characteristics: bikes and jalopies. As soon as the little helicopter settled on the big H and we extricated ourselves from the cabin, I understood that my jacket and tie would be nothing but dead weight on this trip.

There’s an endless supply of rented bicycles, and like escapees from the age of Henry Ford’s Model T, they’re all black. We used them to go to the beach, to the place where we assembled to discuss good food, and for dinner expeditions.

Last weekend there was a gibbous moon, and as the nights got progressively darker, the return rides between pitch-black hedgerows became increasingly perilous—only some bikes had lights, and our party was amply fueled by the local wine.

The woman who guided us on our returns had the navigation and night vision skills of Seal Team Six—I told her so in my dedication note after I left her house.

Every derelict vehicle seems to have hopped over from the mainland—the port boasted a collection of clapped-out Clios, clangy ‘quattrelles’, and other escapees from the golden age of French motoring.

Lest you disparage French engineering, consider this side-mounted barbecue.

Along with the rickety Renaults, innovation was at hand, by way of a vertically mounted barbecue for roasting an entire sheep. Never in my travels have I come across such a device, which allows wood and coal to be fired, flames licking skyward, while  the animal calmly rotates next to, rather than above, the heat.

Good food was the theme that brought us together, and what a motley crew we were: Chefs, company CEOs, scientists, venture capitalists, even a previous member of the Obama administration.

Legend has it George W. Bush once stated that ‘the trouble with the French is they don’t have a word for entrepreneur.’ Not so this group, young people fired with ideas on using insect meal to feed farm animals, radically changing the manufacture of spirits, or growing your own produce in the back room of your salad bar.

The common denominator was originality, and the understanding that millennials are revolutionizing food. The focus is no longer on big ag, but instead on the things that matter to Generation Y.

By 2020, the discretionary purchasing power of millennials will replace baby boomers, and Gen Y priorities are vastly different: sustainability, animal welfare, traceability, well being, and local urban agriculture.

These are areas where big ag is clueless, since their entire business model is based on the exact opposite of these concepts.

A hand at stage left underscores this critical new look at our planet.

We talked about regenerative agriculture, and about the powers of wild flowers and mushrooms to feed and heal. We consumed the products of this vast and exciting revolution, strange green concoctions of herbs that regenerate your liver cells after a night’s drinking, and other potions which reminded me of the brews prepared by the druids of old.

I spent a good deal of my time open-mouthed, even when I wasn’t eating. There was just so much going on, so many new ideas, and everyone had plenty to say.

Riding alongside me on his bike, my new friend George explained how he used wild plants to cure the horses of the Aga Khan. “I can repair a fatigue fracture in record time.” He told me that well before the appointed time, one horse was straining at the paddock, desperate to race again—the vet could find nothing wrong with his bones, and the stallion came in second.

George gave me one of his books to read, and wrote a page-long dedication to l’Homme Poisson. I’m half-way through it, struggling with French words I haven’t seen for years.

There’s a world of wonder and brilliance out there.

And you know what? Maybe god really is a mushroom.

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

Smart Kids

June 18, 2017

Sixteen months ago, in Las Vegas, it was easy to find Trump supporters. This time around, they’re harder to spot.

I did my usual straw poll, but any mention of the current president usually brought a heartfelt sigh, as if a rogue uncle had just wet himself in public.

‘This too shall pass’ seems to be the prevalent mood, but of course I missed out Middle America, where much of the support lies. I did canvas Uber drivers, oyster farmers, waitresses, Iraq and Afghan veterans—and heard not one kind word.

Basic services in Massachusetts, California, and elsewhere, are still in the hands of migrants, and Los Angeles FM radio is at least forty percent Spanish.

On the West Coast, I drove up 405, listening to Frank Zappa’s ‘I’m The Slime’, truer today than when it was first written.

Partly, this is because TV has morphed into an internet hydra, with multiple ‘channels’ that numb the brain—a collective digital lobotomy. As usual, I’ve been on planes—lots of them. That too, is mind-numbing, and right now, as I hide in a corner of Logan airport after a red-eye from LAX, and try to stay awake to type a few words,  I’m besieged by endless musak and relentless aircon—it’s the American way.

If you walk down any airplane aisle, just about everyone is watching soaps or playing games—hardly anyone reads, and when they do, it’s the in-flight magazine. And yet, I was privileged to meet two sets of kids, both preteen, and they impressed the hell out of me.

To be honest, I prefer to chat with kids, especially smart ones, than with grown-ups. And these children were super-smart—the great societal anesthetic has not yet struck.

One of them was fond of computers—most kids are, but the thrill stops at games and social media—but this one liked to build them. I’m sure you know that you don’t build laptops or tablets, that’s throwaway consumer junk.

This boy liked to scavenge parts and build machines from scratch, populating a motherboard with all sorts of weird and wonderful things. In The Hourglass, one of the heroes is a youngster by the name of Tommy (it may yet change), and he does exactly that, as he sidesteps the ‘New Society’ of President David A. Klomp—no prizes for guessing what the ‘A’ stands for.

“Do you program?”

“Yes.” A shy voice.

“What languages?”

“Java. Python.”

Wow! I asked a couple of questions. This kid really did know his stuff. As he devoured pizza like any other eleven-year-old, he began discussing the details of a cloud-hosted database with his father.

The parent procrastinated, as one does.

“Dad, you’re always saying that, but we need to do it.”

I hid a grin.

On the other side of the continent, up in the Santa Barbara mountains, I found another one. A twelve-year-old girl who wrote fiction.

Once again, all she needed was a little encouragement. I asked whether her characters sometimes grew all by themselves, in ways she never imagined. “Yes, definitely!” She reeled off her favorite authors, told me she read several books at once.

“Digital?”

“No, I like to turn the pages. And I like the smell of a book.” More enthusiasm.

Once you dig a little deeper, all the imagination and creativity that makes the US a great country comes to the fore. The girl’s father toured with the Red Hot Chili Peppers and the Foo Fighters a couple of decades ago—he mainly produces music now, and designs and manufactures his own brand of electric guitar.

We sat around the fire pit as the night air cooled, and I watched him put a block of Douglas fir on the embers.

“Unusual firewood…”

“Leftover from the house.”

He explained how he’d designed and rebuilt parts of his home, and then showed me some pictures. Before committing to the final design, he’d built a scale model out of styrofoam, and then placed his iPhone inside it and taken photos so the family could see the views, and how the shadows fell at sunset.

I met lots of smart people in the States. And they outweigh the dummies on the news.

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

C’est Chaud, Y’all

June 12, 2017

It’s been described as the land of the pines, but North Carolina is much more than that—although I’ve seen enough pine trees to last me a while.

This is agricultural countryside, and hog country at that, so there’s a good amount of pollution hitting the rivers and making its way to the coast. North Carolina used to boast more pigs than people, and it’s still close—8.7 million hogs, 10 million humans—these days, the pigs are raised in closed facilities, to minimize effluents, smell, and general upset.

It’s vacation time, and the small coastal town where I stayed practically triples in population—in the state, tourism is a twenty billion dollar business.

I brought the rain with me, and found myself stuck on the tarmac in Charlotte for over an hour on arrival. The airport was a zoo, with the board displaying delays from top to bottom, and I drove a rental east toward the coast—it was the smallest vehicle I’ve ever rented in North America, and it had the acceleration of a pregnant armadillo.

It rained all night, rained in the morning, rained all week. Mid-week I was out on an oyster farm, and everyone got soaked. The industry here is pretty small—overall it’s worth about five million dollars a year—and farmers grow their animals in small leases, around two to three acres.

I don’t know if it’s hogs or condos, but the coastal areas of the state have a real problem with water quality—now, water quality is a broad church, and the particular denomination (and there’s nothing like the States for cult denominations) at issue here is microbiology—pollution by bacteria and viruses.

Oysters are particularly good at filtering, and they accumulate these little beasties quite handily. I found myself discussing this with a local man, who started off by telling me about people from the north who come to Carolina.

“There’s Yankees, and there’s Damn Yankees,” he drawled. “The Yankees are the ones who visit, the Damn Yankees are the ones who stay”. And despite the political correctness issues, you certainly see confederate flags, particularly on redneck pick-ups.

The Venus Flytrap is native to North Carolina, and this little beauty is poised to eat the mosquitoes that were attacking me at sunset.

We ordered Philly cheese steak, an American classic. When the food came, my friend said, “I’ll just say a little grace, and we’ll get right to it.” Took me straight back to my schooldays—I bowed my head for the amen. I drank a lot of water in North Carolina, and occasionally some atrocious wine, but I managed to stay clear of the iced tea.

Some years back, when oyster leases became available on the shoreline, they were quickly snapped up by developers. These good ole boys built condos on the landward side of the leases, and then discharged waste into the water. They got a free sewage plant and a sea view, and they did the bare minimum on the leases to avoid losing them.

There’s no requirement here for impact assessment when you develop a large condominium, and as a result of this and other sins, many of the coastal waterways are unfit for raising oysters—well, that’s not strictly true—you can grow them to a certain size, but then the animals have to relayed elsewhere, to a clean environment where they can get rid of bacteria.

Funnily enough, in a nation that now imports ninety-one percent of its seafood products, it’s more difficult to get a license to grow shellfish than to build a string of condos. I guess those billions of tourist dollars can swing a lot of senators.

I wasn’t long on the boat before I struck up a conversation with one of the oyster growers. Turned out that once upon a time, he played guitar with the Allman Brothers—not just a quick jam, two hundred gigs all over the world.

We sat on the bow, opening oysters in the pouring rain. My shucking partner had a special knife, designed by a champion oyster shucker from Louisiana. It had a long curved blade, with a special angle at the end to cut the adductor muscle.

The rain kept falling, the oysters were sweet and salty. “Okay, now, can you taste the butter? Then you’ll taste the iron.” My rock star oyster farming friend was also a marketing wizard.

“Best oysters in the world. Ain’t they? Ain’t they?” I smiled as the boat steered the narrow channels. He grinned at my Santana t-shirt. “Played with him too, down in New Orleans.”

I told him how impressed I was with his knife.

“Keep it.”

So I did.

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

WannaWeep

May 29, 2017

The announcement on the tannoy left everyone in shock. British Airways 501 was delayed indefinitely, due to a total system failure. Pretty soon the message was repeated, and no one had a clue what was going on.

Total system failure? Did the plane fall out the sky? What does that even mean? The BA website looked promising, but as soon as a single link was clicked, the promise ended—like Sarah Palin, the site was a bridge to nowhere. This is what’s known as a DDOS, or distributed denial of service—it’s normally malicious, but this time it was caused by many thousands of frustrated passengers.

Technology began to split its trouser seams and display its nether regions. BA support was down. The BA press line, based on VOIP, was down, and stayed down all day. Passengers with e-boarding cards on their phones were stuck—the system didn’t recognize them and the gates wouldn’t open.

I began thinking in earnest, while my fellow non-travelers wrung their digital hands and peered at their pointless BA apps.

Had the outbound from London arrived? BA was blocked, but FlightAware said it was on the tarmac in Lisbon, landed 09:57. I couldn’t see it from the window, but it was probably hidden away on the apron somewhere, so an irate mob wouldn’t torch it.

Alternatives. Wait. Evaluate. Half-term week in the UK, all the Hooray Henry kiddies released from their boarding schools and booked with the stockbroker and Daily Mail brigade on sun-drenched seaside forays. No way. I made a couple of calls.

Sitting on the floor next to me was a scrawny American woman, desperate to get to the US. Which was also where I was headed, or as I could clearly see, not headed.

Short-haul delayed two hours. Long-haul three hours. The pilot of the plane that couldn’t leave came out and got on the loudspeaker. Catastrophic systems failure in London. The problem affects taxiing and parking on stand. Planes can’t leave so there are no slots.

Going to London, even if I could, seemed to be the worst idea in the world. Like running to Syria to escape from terrorism. I booked for the next morning, different company, different route. Three hours to pay the fare or lose the flight. I discretely approached the gate staff, by now fully harassed, and told them I needed my bag—I didn’t explain the main reason—the four bottles of Late Bottled Vintage inside it.

The loading officer was dragged into the mess—baggage was already sealed on the plane. I felt the joy of action when, after further protracted negotiations, I managed to extricate my cargo from the airport—I did things I could never have done in London. Only two other passengers had taken my option—one was the American woman.

She told me she worked for Fox, and I couldn’t get the phrase fake news out of my head—she never made it, ensnared in the non-EU passport queue. I would have pushed to the front, explained the problem, and made the re-booked flight. Oh well, I’m sure Trump will take care of it.

British Airways didn’t fly Saturday. Not from Heathrow. Not from Gatwick. Nothing landed. I ate some clams by the seaside, drank some wine, and prepared to return to the airport the following day. BA explained they’d had a power outage.

CNN didn’t rush the airports. The BBC only showed the BA news on the ribbon. Sky showed cricket. Something, somewhere, had gone horribly wrong. The media adores the human side of these episodes, and screens are filled with miserable kiddies, missed weddings, lost business, and emergency surgery denied. But not this time. Total shutdown.

Ah, a power outage. There was a story in South Africa some years ago, probably urban legend, that every morning a couple of patients died in the emergency ward at about the same time. Turned out it was the cleaner who unplugged life support to vacuum the floor.

That must be it, then. Some immigrant with a vacuum cleaner brought the UK flag carrier to its knees. I’m sure Brexit will fix it.

On Sunday morning, British Airways casts a very large question mark as it recommends you enjoy your flight.

Which reminds me that the tragic events in Manchester, yet again, were not caused by a Polish or Romanian worker, a Spaniard or a Greek, the ones who will get the push from May. They were probably too busy watching the pope explain to the roving fool why climate change was more important than building walls.

As I stroll by the BA gate on Sunday morning, the sign tells me to enjoy my flight. I will, because it’s not on BA. Normally by that time the gate would already be crowded, but today it’s deserted—no staff, no passengers.

When I get to Boston, I check the news feed: no short hauls in or out of London all day. Good call, Mr. Wibaux. The IT debacle remains completely unexplained.

It’s early morning on America’s eastern seaboard, the land Columbus knew to be Cipango, and Auntie Beeb is still no more informative—power outage.

Whatever brought an entire airline to a standstill for a whole weekend is clearly classified material. Do I suspect wickedness? Most certainly. Ransomware, terrorism, I don’t know. But the story will come out in dribs and drabs, much like the Stuxnet worm, the Russian DNC hack, and whatever the Americans are currently doing to mess with the missiles of Kim the Younger.

One of these days, as we place our faith increasingly in automation, self-driving cars and trucks and planes, a few of them are going to fall out the sky, probably in formation.

Perhaps people will wake up then. But the passengers won’t.

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

 


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