Archive for the ‘Travel’ Category

The English Patient

July 21, 2018

Western Europe has settled into holiday mode. The weather decided to do a flip, bringing stunning sunshine to Ireland, the UK, and various other countries in Northern Europe—there are wildfires in Sweden and in the British northeast.

England’s green and pleasant land was certainly not on offer as my plane made the final approach into Luton last week—more like ochre, the kind of landscape I’m used to seeing when landing in Rome or Barcelona.

Predictably, the consequence of this good weather to the north has been a wintry summer in Southwest Europe. Lisbon has hit unheard-of heights in popularity—currently the joke is that Portugal has become so popular that the winter decided to go there for its summer vacation.

The reasons for these inverted weather patterns are not clear, but it’s logical that you can’t have bad weather or good weather in all of Western Europe—it’s the hydrological cycle, you can’t print rain.

So London is hotter than Los Angeles, and barbecue sales are booming in Belgravia. Across the road in Westminster, things are also hotting up, although on the street you don’t hear much talk about brexit—Brits are in ‘keep calm and light the barbecue’ mode, and brexit has become a battleground for newspapers and politicians.

The European Union as a whole never dwelt much on the topic after the initial surprise. It’s more like schadenfreude now, as the French and Germans watch internecine strife in both the major UK political parties.

May, who must surely be the most teetering prime minister in recent British history, has finally become rid of her nemesis, Boris Johnson, but she has too many powerful enemies to stand on her own two feet.

Her conscience goes where the wind blows, and the only reason she hasn’t fallen yet is because no one wants her job. This is a woman who voted to remain in Europe—Brits call them remainers, and brexit Brits call them remoaners—and after Cameron disgracefully resigned, having previously declared publicly he would accept the responsibility of leading a post-referendum Britain, May took on a job opposite to her views.

It’s common sense that after the referendum debacle, the winners should have been left to pick up the pieces—would Mr. Johnson please stand up. Instead, the former mayor of London, along with Michael Gove, Jacob Rees-Mogg, and a coterie of others have engaged in antics worthy of the Eton quad, snipping and sniping at government policy, and undermining and undercutting their PM from both within and without.

Private Eye’s ironic take on the UK hostage held in Iran, featuring the usual suspects.

Of course Johnson refused to step up after the referendum, and he shows no signs of stepping up now. It’s just so much easier to throw muck from the sidelines than to solve problems.

Problem-solving requires three things.

First, an understanding of the problem. If this sounds banal, it isn’t, because every complex issue has ramifications, and all potential solutions have consequences that extend in space and time. Failure to realize this leads to the chaos exemplified by Tinybrain Trump’s ‘easy to win’ trade war—and the powder hasn’t even been packed into the muskets yet.

Second, a capacity to compromise. Solving complex multilateral issues is the art of the possible—consensus rather than unanimity, compromise rather than confrontation. The trade war and immigration (lock up the kids) war (note how they’re always ‘wars’) examples are illustrative.

Finally, recognition of discord. The very same ‘base’ that will support you as you vociferously criticize—and the more vociferous you are the happier they’ll be—will hang you out to dry if they find that your ‘simple’ solution is actually a hoax. By that I don’t mean it won’t work at all—just that like any solution, it will make some people less happy than others.

This third consequence is inevitable, which is why truly populist candidates won’t solve problems—instead they prefer to ascribe blame.

The guys who shout from the pedestal don’t whole the key to our future, in fact they can hardly find the lock—these men aren’t demi-gods, they’re demagogues.

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


American Tune

July 18, 2018

London had an American week. The blimp came and went, as did Trump’s crass comments to The Sun—the man’s a fart—he smells bad but fades quickly.

I entertained the notion that the British PM might simply cancel her meeting with him—it took a steely lady in her late eighties to set me straight. “Of course May should see Trump, because he’s the president of the United States. We Brits don’t have to like him, but we must be polite. Trump,” she said firmly, “is not our problem. He’s the American people’s problem—they voted him in, they’re the ones who have to get him out.”

The guilt of that election is pervasive in practically every American I meet. Unlike most guys, I didn’t spend this Sunday watching sports—I was pretty sure the afternoon would go to the boys in Belgrade, and so it did—Djokovic cleaned up in Wimbeldon, and the Serbs will have been delighted to watch the Croats go home in second place.

Somewhere around that time, sixty-eight year old Bonnie Raitt was certainly not acting her age on the Great Oak stage in Hyde Park—the world is far more accommodating to sinners than saints—I haven’t found a Jekyll Park yet.

Raitt was stomping the stage with her trademark red hair, white patch on top, slide guitar wailing the blues—it was mid-afternoon, and the sun was beating down on the tens of thousands gathered for the feast—and what a feast it turned out to be.

An hour after she was done, the next act came on. It certainly wasn’t a case of age before beauty as seventy-year-old James Taylor appeared, armed with a sky-blue Telecaster. Steamroller was blasting as I did the obligatory rock concert thing and began pushing my way forward—it was going to be a long evening.

Toward the end of the set, Sweet Baby James and Fire and Rain safely under his belt, Taylor took a deep breath and said, “There is a different America than the one represented by that guy.” The crowd roared, it’s anger directed at the baby with the blimp, as the a capella strains of Shed a Little Light mesmerized the audience. As Taylor sang ‘Let us turn our thoughts tonight to Martin Luther King’, the American woman next to me cried freely.

Then came the long wait as I pushed forward once more for the last act, until I was just two rows from the front. By then tempers were fraught—I guess the Brits aren’t used to the sun. I remained relatively unscathed, but around me people were exchanging threats and insults—one woman was about to fall on a girl who sat defiantly cross-legged in front of her. “I’m being pushed from behind, I’m going to fall on you.” The girl shrugged. “If you fall, you fall. They’ll get you a stretcher.”

As it happened, much later on in the show, the poor woman felt unwell, and was carried off by the ambulance people—I hope the unspeakably rude girl who made the remark feels now like the shit she is—you can’t polish a turd.

At times, the people around me seemed more like a Trump rally crowd than a celebration of song—I couldn’t help thinking of a recent comment from a friend. “Not sure if this is a cause or effect of Brexit.”

The reason I flew into town made his way onto the stage at eight o’clock in the evening. The crowd erupted as a small man with black chinos and a red t-shirt walked on from the north side of the stage. He was wearing sunglasses, fighting off the sun setting to the west.

Paul Simon was born in nineteen forty-one, and at the ripe age of seventy-six was the last of the baby boomers to pick up his axe last Sunday. Not only that, but the man who gave us Homeward Bound is retiring—it’s his last tour, and I guess his very last night playing London was an emotional time—Simon lived there during a seminal period of his career. ‘Time is a jet plane, it moves too fast’ as another of my favorite singers wrote, and it’s almost impossible to believe that Simon and Garfunkel began in 1956.

An ordinary player in the key of C, and sixty-thousand (maybe more) in the naked light.

Around me, the aggression settled down. The sun set over the trees, and Paul Simon finally took off his shades and hooked them on the red t-shirt. When Bridge Over Troubled Water began, the old guy next to me, who looked as if his face was carved from wood, suddenly began crying. Perhaps some long-forgotten memory started it, maybe a final farewell. I never liked the song much, and Paul Simon’s rambling intro to it suggests he’s pretty ambivalent also.

When the final chord struck and the guy finally stopped crying, I turned to him. “That’s what good rock n’roll does to you—it makes you laugh and it makes you cry.”

On Sunday night, the set didn’t last ninety minutes—by the time all was said and done, it was truly late in the evening, past eleven o’clock. Mostly Paul played Martin guitars, often his trademark black dreadnought.

It was with that guitar, and no one else from the fifteen-piece band on stage, that he finished the evening—I think it must have been extraordinarily difficult for him to stop playing—he must have kept thinking this is it, this is my last time.

He too, had a strong message for his audiences. Before one song, he spoke briefly about E.O. Wilson, a Harvard entomologist that few in his audience will have heard of, and recommended a recent book by the great man called Half-Earth.

Simon told us that the book provides a recipe for a wonderful planet in the twenty-second century—he fluffed his lines to start with, and called it the twenty-first. Perhaps like me, a little voice was telling him that most of us in that park would be organic material by 2100, making those London parks just a little greener.

But the political message came as he idly picked a chord at capo three—this is a man who was described himself ‘as an ordinary singer in the key of C.’ Paul Simon looked out into the night—all he could see by then was an ocean of phones fading into the black horizon.

He simply said, “These times won’t last forever, you know.” The audience exploded in applause—an applause fired by the rage of seeing a pathological liar, a man who sees Western Europe as a foe, comparable in evil to Russia and China, at the helm of the greatest country on earth.

The guitar licks restarted, teasing, probing, like a wanton lover. I already knew what the song was—I’ve played them all for decades.

Many’s the time I’ve been mistaken
And many times confused
Yes and I’ve often felt forsaken
And certainly misused

It’s a song of sadness that turns into hope, as Simon writes of what truly makes America great. It speaks of resistance in adversity, and of the inner strength possessed by the good people of America. That’s why it’s called American Tune.

This is the song that makes me cry—both when Paul Simon starts singing, and as I finish writing.

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

Pot Luck

June 16, 2018

The plane’s tires squealed onto the runway at London’s Heathrow airport, leaving a trail of vaporized rubber, and I made a dash for the rental desk.

On paper, I only had a two hour drive ahead, but traffic on the M25 can easily double that—in the words of the immortal Yogi Berra, ‘in theory, theory is like practice, in practice, it isn’t.’ Or perhaps another Berra quote would be more appropriate: ‘When you get to a fork in the road, take it!’

After getting the hang of the brand-new BMW, I switched the radio onto LBC. I used to think the ‘L’ stood for London, and I speculated about the B & C, but the station self-promotes as ‘Leading Britain’s Conversation’—talk radio at a suitably silly level, with guest hosts like Salmond and Farage stirring the random bigotry of callers—just the sort of thing to while away a traditional Monday afternoon Brit traffic jam.

On my walk through the concourse I picked up the obligatory copy of Private Eye and lingered long enough to see that all the tabloid newspapers sported an identical cover, exhorting British members of parliament to be true to the people—a key brexit vote was underway.

LBC was split between the parliamentary story and a human interest piece on cannabis oil—the mother of an epileptic child was bringing back medical marijuana from Canada in the form of THC oil. The move was designed as a publicity stunt to promote the legal use of medical cannabis in the UK.

Her twelve-year-old was caught up in the middle of this, which seems a little unfair—epileptic fits are bad enough without extra publicity and invasion of privacy.

But the UK attitude to drugs has historically been extremely negative, even though drug use is widespread, so her majesty’s customs officers dutifully apprehended the hash oil, and a press conference followed, in which the mother dutifully explained she would simply return to Canada to buy more.

The British Home Office, in an effort to reduce the noise, dutifully released the offending dope to the offended parental later that day—by which time the traffic was flowing along quite nicely up the M40. By surrendering the oil, the story shifted to a non-story, and devolved to a background hum on legalization—political savvy, by contrast to the mayhem in the House of Commons.

It seems pretty clear that cannabis oil has medical benefits for some central nervous system disorders, of which epilepsy is the foremost candidate. In the UK, weed is a class B drug, which means a potential five-year imprisonment period and an unlimited fine—and as in every other country where such draconian measures exist, the punishment is in no way a deterrent.

Gone to pot? Trends in cannabis consumption in the UK.

The decreasing trend in dope-smoking appeared to halt in 2010, when the labour government bumped weed back into class B, i.e. making possession a crime punishable with imprisonment. The then-home secretary ignored the advice of her own senior scientific adviser, a professor with the delightful name of David Nutt.

The politician in question later resigned when it emerged she had filed an expense claim to pay for her husband’s adult films, and subsequently lost her parliamentary seat.

Medical marijuana is all the rage, partly because the word medical is increasingly optional, as various US states finally make it legal to smoke dope. The debate around oils, which are really just a chemical technique to concentrate the active substance, revolves around THC.

The alternative is CBD, the molecular sister of THC that doesn’t get you high. Cannabidiol, or CBD oil, is legal in many countries, and you can buy it online from UK suppliers—of course, in the Netherlands, you can also easily buy the THC variety.

Although the UK makes it very difficult for medicines containing THC oil to be sold, it is the largest producer and exporter of hash oil in the world. One of the LBC callers phoned in with this fun fact, and was quickly checked correct.

Various callers were quick to point out the irony and fumed at the double standard. I was a little perplexed, since Britain manufactures and exports all kinds of weapons, from armed personnel carriers to surface-to-air missiles—including the Bond-like Thunderbird—but you can’t buy them in Boots.

For many countries, it’s a case of ‘do as I say and not as I do’, a landmark parental strategy. But GW Pharmaceuticals produces ninety-five tonnes of ‘legal cannabis’ per year, according to the Daily Telegraph, almost half of the world supply. The word ‘legal’ just confuses things—GW, which lists on the NASDAQ as GWPH, markets Sativex, which contains THC, is prohibitively expensive, and not recognized by the UK National Health Service as cost-effective. In the Telegraph article, the aptly named Steve Rolles calls the paradox ‘profoundly unethical’—he’s right, but the double standard runs very deep, through weapons, alcohol, child labor, and other examples—and is by no means a British exclusive.

While the hash oil debate fizzled out, the Westminster vote also became a storm in a teacup. Theresa May survived yet another mutiny, and by the next afternoon, on my drive south, the nation’s preoccupation was all about exam stress—mothers complained bitterly that their kids were traumatized by the severity of Britain’s high school exams.

UK exams were always tough, but back in the day, a couple of medicinal tokes certainly eased the head—no exam question ever seemed threatening after being read out by Mr. C.

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


Ciao Bella

May 26, 2018

The government arrived the day I left. I bought a newspaper, but most of it was used to keep the fish frozen.

I felt a twinge of guilt about this barefaced insult to the Italian press, so I kept eight pages to read on the vaporetto—I found nothing of interest, so they also got stuffed into the fish bag—insulation.

The cabbie in Piazzale Roma was speedier than his Fiat—you couldn’t shut him up. He went through the various taxi favorites: job loss, which inevitably led to Ubers, which are forbidden in Italy; the euro and the economic damage in Southern Europe; and immigration, always immigration: Gaddafi, negroes, France—the usual quota of random bigotry.

All the while, he eyed me through the rear-view mirror—since he wasn’t cross-eyed, that definitely impaired his forward vision. Except on sharp turns, he crossed his arms and used the steering wheel as a ledge for emphasis—it was a fun ride.

From gondolas to ambulances, life in Venice is always on the water. Lurking in the background are a bunch of gondolier boaters.

The new prime minister is a lawyer, whose claim to fame is that he is a ‘defender of the Italian people’. Given his background, I’m guessing he’ll make a balls-up of the whole thing pretty soon—never mind, one thing the cabbie and I agreed on is that Italy does fine without a government.

The Veneto region’s GDP is on a par with Greece, so Southern European comparisons are only relative—Venice is today a very affluent city, as it always has been. Nowadays the big play is no longer trade with the Orient, gone since the days of the Portuguese navigators—it’s tourism.

I was lucky to stay in Dorsoduro, far from the insanity of St. Mark’s Square—the city has a population of sixty thousand, and currently receives thirty million tourists every year—fifty-seven a minute.

The place is crazy—Americans, Chinese, Russians, Arabs, and the usual dusting of Europeans—crowding the narrow alleys, spilling out of cafés and bars, and cluttering the vaporettos.

Dorsoduro is calmer, stores are cheaper, and you do occasionally spot a Venetian or two. If the average tourist is in town for four days, then the ‘resident’ tourist population of Venice works out to over three hundred thousand—that’s five tourists to every local. The faces change, the numbers don’t.

It comes as no surprise that on occasion the odd visitor is taken to the cleaners—earlier this year, four Japanese were charged a thousand three hundred bucks for a meal of steak, grilled fish, and—wait for it—mineral water.

Amazingly enough, they paid up, and they only filed a complaint when they returned to Bologna!

I was hanging out with Scandinavians, and one night we were out a trifle late—by the time we were done, the boats had finished. That meant a twenty minute walk to the hotel, an ideal post-prandial digression—Venetian food is both rich and copious. We hadn’t been walking for three minutes when one of my partners in crime sped off towards the water and loudly hailed a passing speedboat, its starboard light dimly visible in the pitch-black night.

The boat did a U-turn and coasted into the jetty. “Come here, come here, speak to him! Tell him where we want to go!” My Norwegian friend was beckoning me with great enthusiasm, matched only by his linguistic shortcomings. After a brief investigation, it transpired that the good mariner would take us in his water taxi for the trivial sum of eighty-five bucks—a five minute ride.

The Norwegian took three seconds to accept the offer. No amount of argument could change his mind. By now the boat guy was smiling from ear to ear. I thought of this princely sum in vinic terms: what a splendid bottle of Amarone, or a brace of delicious Taurasi, this fare might purchase.

But off we went. And at some point in the journey, when we entered a narrow canal, the Norwegian raised his arms in joy and loudly proclaimed “I am the king of Venecia! For tonight. Only for tonight!”

When we docked, his friend thanked him warmly. “When you lose your job for presenting that receipt, you can come and work for me.” I bid the Scandies good night, and wished them well in their hunt for a nightcap—one thing I’ve learned at my cost: never try to outdrink Norwegians.

You see, I had an early start next morning—I was on a fish mission. The storage of this particular consignment had been a challenge—one hotel didn’t have a suitable freezer, the other was concerned with HACCP. So we negotiated with a restaurant and stashed it in their congelatore.

Sometime after nine in the morning, I found myself attempting to communicate with a large, white-coated Italian lady.

“I’m here,” I explained, “for the fish.”

She looked at me sternly. “No,” she said to the insane foreigner who had invaded her empty dining room. I repeated what I wanted. She put down her mop and wagged her finger at me. Despite her age, I felt this fishy business might come to a sticky end. I tried lesser known varieties of the Italian language—her eye sharpened. Finally, we woke up the owner.

I watched as the fish—a couple of beautiful Norwegian steelhead, some halibut, and a few other goodies, trundled safely into the airplane hold. Outbound, I had delivered a few bottles of late bottled vintage, in a remake of the medieval Hanseatic League. Replacing them, in my other case, a superb bottle of twelve-year-old Taurasi.

It won’t make it to teenage.

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



The Old Man and the Sea

May 20, 2018

A few days before Christmas 2014, I wrote an article about cod—the dried product known as stockfisch, and particularly klippfisch, which is dried and salted. It is this fish, a staple of poor people’s diet in the Middle Ages, that the Portuguese call bacalhau.

You find bacalhau dishes throughout Southern Europe, readily identified in Spain as bacalao, and in Italy as baccalá—one of my favourite recipes for cod is the Venetian mantecato.

These days, despite the fact that global warming is fake news, the access to the Barents Sea and Arctic Ocean has provoked a huge run on cod—the Barents is now severely overfished, and the ice melt is very bad news for Arctic cod, and with it for seals and polar bears.

Cod from Iceland on display in downtown Lisbon. Bacalhau hasn’t been fished by the Portuguese for decades.

But after the Second World War, the mother lode was the North Atlantic, the waters of Greenland and the Grand Banks of Newfoundland. Ships from all over Europe came to fish cod—from Soviet to Spanish vessels, but only one nation caught the cod with hook and line.

Portugal was deep in the grip of Salazar’s fascist regime—a country where life was good for the wealthy. If you had money and didn’t worry about politics, you were onto a good thing.

“Cerejeira blessed the ships,” the old man told me. “You couldn’t talk about it, but they said he got a ‘quintal’ from the catch on every ship.”

The quintal is a medieval unit of weight—in the US and UK, its equivalent is the hundredweight (cwt), but that leads us into short tons and imperial units. The quintal used on the cod vessels was the metric variety—one hundred kilograms, or two-hundred twenty pounds.

I wanted to tell the old man a joke about Cerejeira, the cardinal of Lisbon—dictatorships always produce jokes. During the Stalinist period, political prisoners joked that the Lubyanka prison was the tallest building in Moscow, since you could see Siberia from the basement cells.

In my father’s joke, Salazar ends up in hell, and the devil has made it particularly noxious by immersing all the tenants in shit—only their noses appear above the ordure. Salazar, however, is only waist-high. When asked for his secret, he raises a  finger to his lips and whispers: “ssshhh—the cardinal is giving me a piggy-back.”

We’re eating chocos in a little restaurant south of the Tagus—it reminds me of the cuttlefish on the grill in The India Road. There is a quick dalliance with wine colors, and we immediately conclude that tinto is required. A bottle from Palmela, called Dona Ermelinda arrives—you wouldn’t easily find it outside the country.

The fisherman is short and broad. His eyes are bloodshot below the pupils, but that doesn’t take away the easy twinkle. Much of what he says is directed at his twenty-two-year-old grandson, although it’s also meant for me—the old man spent the morning collecting his thoughts, wondering who was this strange fellow who wanted to meet him, to hear tales of sixty years ago.

“My ship was the Elizabeth,” he said. “I started in 1957, to get out of military service, after two years in the Escola de Pesca.”

Unloading cod from the dories to the mother ship in Newfoundland.

The fisherman sipped his red wine. “Lots of guys did that. We had men from all over Portugal. Fishermen from the Algarve, guys from the North, Ílhavo, Caxinas…” He went through the names of the main fishing villages.

Sometimes, we drifted away from his narrative. I told him about the cod wars between Britain and Iceland, and why I thought all the statistics about how much fish is eaten in Portugal are just plain wrong.

But very soon, his eyes would re-focus. “As I was telling you,” he said, “we stopped for bait in St. John’s. Mackerel. Herring. And capelin, they loved capelin.”

It was all as I’d read, but this time I got the inside story. The crew, seventy or eighty men, would be up at daybreak to get into the one-man dories. “My wife made the sail. Waxed it, so it wouldn’t rot.” At his side, the old lady nodded. She didn’t say much, just ate her  cuttlefish strips and picked at the french fries—the restaurant was old school, and a half-portion would have done three Dutchmen for lunch.

The Grand Banks are famous for fog, the kiss between the cold Labrador current and the warm Gulf Stream to its south. The dories are put in the water just after dawn, and the men collect their bait to take aboard—frozen blocks of capelin or mackerel.

The hooks are baited, long lines go down thirty fathoms or more. The lines will be down for an hour, and the fishermen are jigging, catching cod while they wait. Up comes the line—it’s a good haul.

The fog comes down. The Elizabeth sounds its horn almost constantly so the dorymen won’t get lost. Slowly they come in, armed only with a small compass and a whistle.

The men fish until sunset. The fish are offloaded, and it’s time for a petisco—a snack, aka supper. The staple food is dried meat from Argentina. The old man wrinkles his face ever so slightly—clearly the cuttlefish are a good deal better. Out on the estuary the tide is pushing in—the banks lightly dusted with seaweed are no longer visible.

“Then, it’s back to work, processing the fish.” Another sip of wine. Gutting, removing and storing tongues and faces, which are considered delicacies, even to this day. The livers go into a boiler at the prow, for cod liver oil.

Some sailors take it, my new friend does not. One quintal of fish reduces to sixty kilos as the fish loses water. As soon as a barrel is emptied, it’s used to store fish. Water is scarce, as on any ship—this isn’t so different from life on the caravels, and in some ways it’s worse.

Every night, the men get a mug of water to wash with. They use the precious liquid first to wash the face, then they salvage it for their hands. Most everything else is washed in seawater.

Work stops at midnight, if you’re lucky. Four hours sleep, and you’re back on the water. March through August. If you’re on watch, you don’t sleep at all.

Many men chose different paths to escape the draft—some jumped the border to work construction in France, some fished for cod. The video above hammers the message ‘Angola é nossa’—Angola is ours, a mantra from Salazar’s day extolling the African wars.

The risk of death is always present—rowing or sailing a small boat laden with cod back to mother is no mean feat. The cod are stored anywhere and everywhere, and the water laps at the gunwales.

One freak wave and you’re gone. Sometimes the line hooks a halibut—the alabote weighs a hundred and fifty pounds or more. At home, it’s unknown, but in Northern Europe it’s a delicacy. The captain keeps them, they’re not part of the men’s catch—the old man is uncertain where they end up, but he knows one thing: to land an alabote, the doryman must use his weight to tilt the boat, first toward the fish, and then right over to tip it into the boat—it’s a dangerous game.

In 1957, the season lasts from March to August—some years before, it lasted well past September. Each man gets fifty liters of wine, his quota for the period. That’s about three gallons a month—I anxiously reach for my glass of tinto.

It’s getting late, and the bottle’s gone. “Two thousand quintais, that would be a regular haul,” he says. I agree—two hundred metric tons of cod sounds respectable to me, especially since the crew will have caught about three hundred to make that number.

My new friend fights me for the check, and we solve it the old fashioned way. “You can pay next time.”

I watch the old man walk away, upright, barrel-chested, a living hero. As we part, I ask about the others. “It was a tough life,” he says softly. “There’s no one left.” He shrugs. “They’re all dead.”

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






May 5, 2018

One of the first strongholds of the Portuguese fifteenth century explorations was São Jorge da Mina, on Africa’s west coast. From 1468 onward, the Lusitanian push down the African coast intensified, driven by the concession of a monopoly for trade in the Gulf of Guinea to the merchant Fernão Gomes.

King Afonso V of Portugal (Afonso the African) granted Gomes his business on the following terms: an annual rent of 200,000 Portuguese reais, and the exploration of one hundred leagues of new African coast per year.

The castle at São Jorge da Mina (Elmina), built in 1482. It later became an infamous emblem of the slave trade.

How much would 200k reais have been worth then? One of my first stops was the historical currency converter, but it only goes back to the Portuguese escudo in 1800.

A scientific paper explains the Lusitanian monetary system, but it also provides additional gems: between 1480 and 1520, Portugal received about 700 kg, or over 1500 pounds, of gold from Africa every year, worth thirty million dollars at today’s prices—much of that will have come through Elmina.

In my quest, I browsed some interesting sites, and marveled at how rich the digital world is now; how I can do all this research on a sunny Saturday morning without leaving my home, while the birds celebrate what looks like the first day of spring—but to find what I wanted I had to delve into other languages—the linguistic dark web, if you will.

One escudo, the pre-euro coin, was worth a thousand reais, which means that the king’s rent was… one euro. Inflation-adjusted, in 1470 ten reais were worth one euro, so Afonso granted the monopoly for an annual income of twenty thousand euros.

As the Portuguese sailed east in the Gulf of Guinea they reached Accra, and twenty-five nautical miles further, the estuary of the Volta river. It had never stuck me that the river was named by the Portuguese, but volta means ‘return’, or ‘turnaround’, and it was there that the caravels tacked and headed for home.

To the north, the great river leads into Burkina Faso, which was called Alto Volta, or ‘high Volta’, when I studied geography—I suspect that too was named by the Portuguese, who no doubt sailed upriver in their explorations.

The castle at São Jorge da Mina was superbly sited, with a navigable inlet to its north where numerous fishing boats are visible on the satellite image. The fort was thus almost impregnable, with sea defenses to the south and east. One of the Portuguese caravels that explored the area in the late XVth century brought along a foreigner who in the next decade would sail for Castile—a young man by all accounts rather inept at ‘weighing the sun‘, who went by the name of Christopher Columbus.

The link between Ghana and gold had been known for centuries—the country’s name may be a corruption of the Arabic word  Ghinaa, meaning golden, although there are alternative theories—particularly that the name originates from ‘warrior king’ in a local dialect. It’s a tricky one, because by the tenth century the whole region was known as bilad-as-sudan, or ‘lands of the blacks’, and the Arabs were undoubtedly aware of the goldmines—despite nationalist objections, I side with the Arab origin.

Ghana suffered colonial abuse in a systematic manner. First by the Portuguese, who stayed for one hundred and fifty years, then the Dutch, then an avalanche of others: Swedes, Danes and Norwegians, and finally the British. Nowadays, Ghana has everything to thrive and develop—it is Africa’s second-largest gold producer, and has the fifth largest oil reserves. It has diamonds in abundance, as well as many other resources—predictably, this has aroused the interest of the Middle Kingdom, to the extent that the Chinese yuan is now hard currency.

A couple of examples of a proper Ghanaian sendoff.

And it has one other fascinating singularity—funerals. Every country, region, or tribe has its own way of dealing with death, expressing grief, and bidding farewell, but Ghana has an astonishing penchant for elaborate coffins.  We’re talking of first-rate African art, as part of a ritual that has an average cost of fifteen to twenty thousand dollars, ten times Ghanaian per capita GDP, and includes giant street billboards.

The tradition is that the deceased is buried in an allegory—a receptacle that reflects his profession or predilection. A shoemaker may be interred in a gigantic sneaker, and someone with a hankering for sodas may go to ground inside a coke bottle.

As for me, lay me down inside a good bottle of Douro red.

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


April 7, 2018

Bhāṣā means ‘spoken language’ in a number of Southeast Asian countries. The word comes from Sanskrit, and different spellings are used to denote language in Myanmar, Malaysia, parts of India, Thailand, and Indonesia—to name a few of Asia’s mystical places.

Language is a kind of verbal gene pool—you see it in Latin idioms, and it helps you understand the linkages across communities and countries. Along with space-based connections, language also shows you how countries diverged over time, as words took on different meanings and spellings and accents changed.

Dutch and Afrikaner, French and Québécois, Portuguese and Brazilian, and of course English and American—all examples of the plasticity of language.

Bahasa (Indonesia) is no exception—sepatu means ‘shoe’, and the equivalent Portuguese word is sapato. The pronunciation is practically identical, and given the tendency of the locals to wear little or nothing on their feet, it makes perfect sense that both the word and the object itself were imported on Portuguese ships. When it comes to timing, my best guess is the first half of the XVIth century.

Indonesian has many loanwords from the Dutch, who were there for 2-3 centuries; but given how short a period the Portuguese explorers spent in those waters, perhaps no more than three generations, I was amazed at their linguistic legacy—as usual, it is simply explained: blood is thicker than water.

Terigo (trigo) is wheat, garpu (garfo) is fork, bendera (bandeira) means flag, and mentega (manteiga) is butter.

And of course, there are a few false friends—the word ‘bunda’ means mother, whereas in Brazilian the meaning is entirely different.

In both Indonesia and Thailand, many people connect to the history of five hundred years ago, when the Portuguese sailed the Strait of Malacca, and navigated east to the Moluccas—the crazy islands, so-called because of the way the magnetic fields drove the Genovese needle wild.

From Europe, it’s very difficult to gain perspective on Indonesia.

We could start by stating that it produces over fifteen million metric tons of aquaculture products every year, making it the second largest producer in the world, with over five times European production.

Or that its population of 238 million is expected to reach 305 million by 2035.

Or that, based on 2005 numbers, the income of the middle class starts at three hundred dollars a month.

What this gives you is a country where there is great poverty, but which overflows with kindness—a nation of gentle souls, where courtesy reigns—people struggling to get by, and doing their very best to share what little they have.

One of many variations on jokes about Scandinavian weather.

In my quest for word matches in Bahasa, I came across opinions on a number of other countries. One of them highlighted five reasons not to live in Denmark: language, climate, social norms, food, and xenophobia—you could use those same reasons for several other nations in northern Europe.

There’s no doubt in my mind that countries like Indonesia and Thailand have a totally different perspective, which is one of the reasons that endeared them to the Portugis explorers in the heady days of discovery.

These are warm climates, with warm people. There’s bound to be some pushback on the farang, particularly if you are overbearing—as many foreigners are—but xenophobia is really not displayed.

As for the language, it doesn’t take more than a couple of words in Bahasa or Thai to elicit the ever-ready smile.

And in desperation, you could always try sepatu.

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

Big Data

March 26, 2018

I’ve written many a blog on airplanes, but this is the first time I’m doing one online.

The turbulence is causing a stir as we hit the south coast of Turkey. In a few minutes we’ll be flying over northern Syria, and I’m keeping a close eye on the map.

Wifi in the sky is just another example of global comms—it’s a satellite feed, of course, and large email attachments go the way of Malaysian Flight 370, but for a wee blog it works just fine.

Night has fallen over the eastern Med, and I spare a thought for the poor people below, caught up in a proxy world war, while Trump fends off claims by porn actresses and Playboy centerfolds.

But today’s article is on Big Data, capitals and all. First off, full disclosure—I’m a social media dinosaur. I speak out against Facebook many a time, and Peter Wibaux would never hold an account—in any case, the platform lost its mojo when it became a shadow site for parents to track their kids.

I find it all pathetic, as kids swiftly shifted to Instagram, and parents share lonely, pathetic photos of their latest dinner party banalities, and pretend they lead an interesting life. So I welcomed a few suggestions on alternatives to F-Book.

Apart from the trivia aspect, my fundamental gripe is lack of privacy—I suppose growing up under the iron fist of the Portuguese dictator Salazar left me with a fundamental and permanent dislike for data theft, particularly on a grand scale—I’m pretty sure people who suffered the Stasi or the Savak feel the same way.

Somewheres East of Suez once more. Afrin, where the Turks recently pounded the Kurds, is just south of here.

Of course, the fact that I’m not on FaceBook doesn’t mean I’m not on FaceBook—and the same stilted logic applies to GMail, which I also take a pass on. Truth is, as long as you correspond with anyone on these platforms, or have your picture taken in their company, you’re trapped.

Practically the entire US electorate found out about this last week, when Cambridge Analytica turned turtle after a whistle blower decided to tell the world what they did for the Trump campaign.

The key to it all was the colossal FaceBook database, and the way in was through a personality evaluation app aimed at the insecure FB neurotics, which assessed their OCEAN score.

What’s OCEAN? Openness, Conscientiousness, Extroversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism. Who makes this shit up? Maybe it should be: Only Cretins Ever Auto-evaluate Neurosis. Because Neuroticism isn’t even a word!

The story of Cambridge Analytica beats any conspiracy theory. Robert Mercer, a US right-wing hedge fund billionaire, provided the seed capital to spawn the UK company—Mercer is a major contributor to Breitbart News, and created the ‘Make America Nº1’ PAC to elect Trump.

His daughter Rebekah (gotta love that ‘h’) sat on the company’s board, and Analytica’s vice-president was none other that Saturday Night Live’s grim reaper, Steve Bannon.

The company has now re-invented itself as Emerdata, with Mercer money again doing the rounds, and all the usual suspects back on the bus—given Analytica’s track record, lots of UK citizens are reaching beyond the Trump election and wondering what went on with Brexit.

The thing about Big Data? You can drop FaceBook right now but you can never shake your shadow.

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


Alpha Males

March 18, 2018

I’ve often compared California to Portugal, based on relative geography. Both are on the western edge of large continents, and are subject to wind systems that drive oceanic gyres, cause coastal upwelling, and result in large, cold-water fisheries for schooling species such as sardine and anchovy.

Both areas have been occupied by the Spanish in past centuries, but whereas in Portugal the ingress is now seasonal and driven by economics—a large invasion is currently forecast over the Spanish ‘Semana Santa’, or Easter week—in California there is a more permanent character to the Hispanic settlers.

It’s unquestionable that Spain was a major driver for Portuguese maritime exploration, simply because Castile shut off all land alternatives to trading. A similar case can be made for the Vikings, the Dutch, and the English—driven either by hostile neighbors or hostile geography.

If the global ocean discoveries had begun in San Francisco instead of Lisbon, here’s what would have happened: the Californians would have built their caravels out of oak and redwood—a quick foray into the naval-architecture arcana of sequoia suggests it would have done planking very nicely.

The sailors would have understood the dynamics of the south-flowing California Current, much as the Phoenicians once conquered the Canaries current and headed south. These American Argonauts would have sailed past Baja down to Mexico and Guatemala.

Once there, two things would have occurred. Much like the Portuguese did in the Congo, the Americans would have explored the land mass—they would quickly discover, just as the Spanish did when headed in the opposite direction, that Central America is as slim as the neck of a beautiful señorita, and spotted another ocean to explore.

Natives would have been indentured, ships built, and the Atlantic Ocean would have opened for business. The Californians would, within ten years, have sailed all the way north to New Brunswick, and within twenty, traveled the Gulf Stream to Europe—their trip would use the route of Columbus—sailing east to the Azores, and then on to Lisbon.

The routes of the Californian argonauts, circa 1500 a.d.

The second branch of this great adventure would take the Franciscans and Angelenos down the coast of Peru and Chile. Like the Portuguese, they would have lost ships and men battling the north-flowing winds and currents—the Peru Current, responsible for the greatest fishery in the world, an annual take of fifteen million tonnes of anchovies, and the southeast trades.

In their attempt to round Cape Horn, the equivalent of the Cape of Good Hope, they would have tried the tricks described in The India Road, the clever ruses of Abraham the Astronomer. Somewhere down Mexico way, the Calgonauts would have changed the course, on a 270 degree bearing, sailing the parallel on the North Equatorial Current.

They would know the route well, because it was the Californian equivalent of the Portuguese ‘torna-viagem’, the road home from West Africa—westward until the trades softened, then north to the Azores, and a downwind run to Lisbon on the roaring forties.

The Calgonauts would sail a course for Hawaii, and somewhere along the parallel, change heading to NW, or even NNW, as the winds and currents allowed, until they hit the North Pacific Current—this is the Pacific Ocean cousin of the Gulf Stream, a lazy, warm, easterly current that would drop them back in Frisco.

Our California stalwarts would have needed this knowledge, together with the astronomical knowledge the Portuguese acquired, to enable them to sail at night, far from coastal line-of-sight, and return home from their southern adventure.

In so doing, the Calgonauts would have taken a leaf from the books of Vasco da Gama and Pedro Álvares Cabral, and sailed a little further west along the North Equatorial. At some point, two things would have happened. The first would be the discovery of the great circle route, which would include some navigation on a 180 degree bearing to cross the equator and catch the East Australia Current, the Pacific equivalent of the Brazil Current.

This would take our intrepid argonauts into Antarctic waters, where the east-flowing Antarctic Circumpolar Current would carry them into the Atlantic Ocean, south of the evil dangers of Cape Horn. I hesitate a little on this particular theory, because although the Portuguese had little choice when they explored the maritime route to the Indies, the Californians would easily have established a naval base in Central America—the isthmus is so narrow that it begot the Panama Canal—which incidentally also begot my favorite palindrome: A man, a plan, a canal, Panama!

Furthermore, if they were keen on exploring the east coast of South America, it would have been far easier to sail south from the eastern side of the isthmus.

The second, ‘Brazil’ option, is far more plausible. The Californian caravels would have progressed a little further west along the Pacific and hit the NE coast of Australia, along with Java and Sumatra, and a little further north, none other than the ‘Indies’ of Columbus—zhong guo, the Middle Kingdom, and of course Cipango.

How cool would it be if they’d come across the Portuguese heading the other way?

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

Uisce Beatha

February 3, 2018

I had last been to Helsinki on midsummer’s day—this time it was pretty close to the winter solstice. It was dark when I landed, it was dark when I left, and dark pretty much all the time I was there. The app said the UV index was low.

It was minus fourteen centigrade (about 7oF) when I got into town, but with the wind chill you could knock a few more degrees off that. Finland is very efficient, even slightly robotic—people go about their business with no fuss, and no one talks much.

In fact, nobody showed any measure of excitement about anything—until I mentioned the word sauna. At that point, previously phlegmatic Finns began jabbering about the merits of this and that spot, from the Kultuuri sauna to my final choice, Löyly.

Thar she blows! Not Moby Dick, but the Kultuuri sauna in Helsinki.

Finnish is as impenetrable as North Korea, but the locals clearly have a fetish for serial vowels. If they hooked up with the Welsh, who are devoted to consecutive consonants, their offspring might produce some fairly reasonable words. It would be great to drive into the local countryside and see a sign saying:

Welcome to


twinned with



Oh joy. Like driving into the small French town of Condom, or to use it’s full name, Condom-en-Armagnac. Speaking of which, although I am in possession of a box of whisky-flavored condoms, foolishly purchased in a Scottish pub, a condom in Armagnac is surely aimed (sorry) at a more refined partner? Ooh la la! But do resist the flambé option.

Believe it or not, the tourism blurb lists ‘fluvial activity’ as one of the attractions of Condom. Oh, and there’s a road called Bell End in the British Midlands. And…

I digress.

I headed for the sauna. The cab driver helpfully informed me that the building was right on the coast—on the website it’s billed as an urban oasis. One explained that bathing in sub-zero temperatures was entirely out of the question.

If you want to see a smiling Finn, go to the sauna. The place was a hive of activity—a pastiche of pale bodies steaming, talking, and of course drinking. Young and old couples, a girls’ night here and there, the lads out for a good time… It’s good clean fun, gender-friendly, and no birthday suits, thank heaven.

I investigated the perilous path to the bay—the blurb calls it a ‘stretch of beautiful Helsinki waterfront’, and tells you how nice it is ‘on a beautiful summer’s day’. No mention of what it’s like when it’s pitch black and fucking freezing, and you’re standing there with your bare feet in the snow, clad only in the latest Finnish swimwear fashion accessory—around you, ageing Helsinkians, clearly suffering from sub-zero Alzheimer’s, are queuing up for one-stop hypothermia.

It’s all about water here, in solid, liquid, or vapor form. The few times I walked longer stretches, I was struck by two thoughts. The first was how people survived in this country back in the days of the Vikings, under such bitter conditions—and how animals survive it today. The second was Russia. It may seem like a random thought, but if you consider similar weather in the Russian heartland, where the heating and amenities are probably closer to the Viking era, the West definitely has cause to worry.

I can definitely see how the Russian winter, with its biting cold and endless nights, destroyed the armies of Napoleon and Hitler. This isn’t a country you can conquer—it’s not even a country you’d want to conquer. Whether ice or snow, or flooded gorges, the water will get you.

All the while, across the other side of the world, Cape Town is drying up. Nothing now comes out of your faucet, and citizens have to ‘go to the well’, as it were, and queue at collection points for a quota of just under seven US gallons per day. Those twenty-five liters were announced on CNN this morning—it could be fake news, since the City of Cape Town website refers twice that volume.

Water of life—the flip-side

Whatever the story, it’s getting worse. Forget FBI memos, political posturing, and all the other trivial nonsense that storms our heads on a daily basis.

Celebrate the water of life, every minute of every day.

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


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