Archive for the ‘Travel’ Category

Sail On

April 21, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Catfish Blues

March 23, 2019

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

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

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

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

Enough chit-chat—let’s get to it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Blues. I’m looking for the blues.”

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

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

The man nodded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dong Xi

March 17, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A New Orleans glitterati struts his stuff on Frenchmen Street.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Maybe for second wife,” I say.

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

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

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

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

I will be back.

As they say in Turkey, Yabadabadoo!

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

Go Jack

January 26, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

Sukarno and Suharto, the two strongmen of Indonesia.

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

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

We stopped.

We spoke.

We pulled into traffic, scattering Go-Jak bikes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rock romantis!

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

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

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

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

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

The Law of Averages

January 20, 2019

I stopped off in London a couple of days ago and felt as if I’d landed on a lost planet. I only muttered the ‘B’ word briefly, but the echoes were clear—people are fed up, confused, and mostly numbed to the political mayhem.

As I traveled east, the picture changed from a Europe troubled by the rise of populism to nations where freedom of expression—and therefore of choice—varies from limited to radically curtailed. As the plane flew over the Mid-East, and then on to Southeast Asia, the dawn brought me a little clarity.

The rise of populism in the EU is inevitable, as it is (and was) in the US and UK. The reason became obvious as I wandered around London and observed ordinary working people—it crystallized when an English lady opened a restroom door for me in an airport lounge two days ago. She was one of two englishwomen who stood in the access corridor providing these services—the lady was charming and worthy of all my respect, and as I exited she once again pulled the door open for me, to my great embarrassment.

In the lounge itself the opulence of the extremely wealthy hid in plain sight, and therein lies the rub. Over the last fifty years, income inequality in the West has mushroomed—and that got me thinking about GDP.

If you want to make absolute comparisons, you use absolutes (duh). China is the most populous nation in the world. France is larger than the Netherlands. Brazil has more head of cattle than Belgium.

But to make relative comparisons, you need to normalize—express your data per unit area, or perhaps as a percentage, or an average—which is exactly what happens with GDP. If you want to rank nations by living standards, per capita GDP is the weapon of choice.

Norway? 71,800 US dollars per annum. Portugal, less than half of that.

That’s all well and good, but are these fair comparisons? The short answer is no. Averages are only appropriate if we’re looking at a bell-shaped curve, but the distribution of income in the West is now much better aligned with what you see in the East, or in South America—fifty years ago, as a rule of thumb income inequality increased as you traveled east and south.

The analysis of income inequality is not new. The work by M.O. Lorenz led to a paper, Methods of measuring the concentration of wealth, published in 1905, and the Lorenz curve is widely used to represent distribution of wealth. The Gini coefficient was published in 1912, and provides a numerical representation of income inequality.

The Gini index on a world map. East and south are still the unfairest places on earth.

Let me pick five numbers out of a hat. The first numbers are similar: one, four, two, three. But the last number is whoppingly different: nine hundred-ninety. By sheer coincidence, these numbers add up to one thousand.

Bell-shaped they most certainly aren’t—four low numbers jumping to a huge one. If we average them, the result is two hundred. Is that a fair representation of 1, 2, 3, 4, 990? Nope. What might be fair is the median, i.e. the middle number: three.

If this were a human population, eighty percent of the people fall into the one to four income bracket, and the remaining twenty percent are of the species Felis crassus—that’s Latin for fat cat.

The Triple Eye Income Inequality Index, as a simple ratio of median/average, for several European countries and the US. Values close to one hundred indicate a well-balanced nation.

My own Triple Eye calculation suggests the developed world falls far short of equality—low values mean that a few wealthy people hold much of the income, which skews the per capita GDP. Values higher than one hundred exist only in Utopia—a nation with a smattering of poverty and an abundance of wealthy folk.

Of course, the Triple Eye in many gated communities, airline lounges, and luxury resorts is at least one hundred—that is, if you exclude the help.

How does all this relate to populism? If a hundred percent of families can vote, and eighty percent of them are poor, it’s only a matter of time before they vote to disenfranchise the twenty percent that tower above them financially.

Which leaves only two paths.

The first is China, whose Triple Eye score is 14.2%, lower than any of the results graphed above. In an unequal system where votes don’t count, there’s little threat to the status quo.

If the China model is not your bag, then there’s only way democracy can beat populism—fair play.

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

Lost Nations

January 12, 2019

At the start of 2019, the world continues to be an absolute disgrace.

The refugee population from the six biggest crisis-countries totals over eighteen million people, more than the entire population of the Netherlands. The nations in question are the usual suspects: Syria, Congo, Afghanistan, South Sudan, Myanmar, and Somalia. An order of magnitude separates Syria (6.3 million) from Somalia, which has ‘only’ nine hundred and ninety thousand refugees.

‘Informal’ housing in the Congo, a nation where 4.5 million are internally displaced and seven hundred thousand are refugees in other countries.

Worldwide, UNHCR, the UN High Commission for Refugees, estimates the number to be almost sixty-eight million—the population of the United Kingdom. The worse thing about those refugee numbers is the way they’ve grown in the last ten years. What we are witnessing in 2019 is a doubling of the displaced human population.

If numbers are your thing, that’s an APR of 8.7%, so right now the refugee crisis is growing faster than the Chinese economy.

The Congo is an extraordinary example of the African curse. The country was massacred by King Leopold II’s occupation in the late XIXth century—the Belgians, a most unlikely nation of conquerors, stayed until 1960. Since then, independence has brought nothing but suffering to the folks of this fabulously rich nation, on which the world depends to keep its cellphones running. Oh, and then there’s the diamonds and gold—none of this wealth filters down to the poor souls who live in the Democratic People’s Republic of the Congo.

Right now, the country is in post-electoral trauma, with hotly disputed results. After Mobutu and a couple of Kabilas, elections were finally held—a major stakeholder is the Congolese ‘Église de Christ’, the protestant Church of Christ. If you want to practice your French a little more, or just enjoy the retro animated gifs, praise the lord!

Change in refugees worldwide between 2008 and 2016.

The Congo provinces of North-Kivu and Ituri are Ebola hotspots—a report released one month ago counted five hundred cases, of which 452 were confirmed and 48 probable. 289 of these have died—241 are confirmed Ebola cases.  The health issue made voting in the provinces a challenge, and the election results reflect this omission.

Hemorrhagic fever, or Ebola, in full swing in the Congo. How long will it take to care enough?

But perhaps the most famous crisis you never heard of is Venezuela. I’m kidding, in a terrible sort of way—of course you’ve heard of it, but we don’t hear much. Occasionally there are shots of Nicolas Maduro, a man who cares more for his mustache than for his people, and the odd Trump rant, but that’s it.

Meanwhile, the IMF predicts a ten million percent inflation rate in 2019. When an economy collapses at that scale, we’re into chaos theory. It’s an extraordinary example of non-linearity, showcasing just how quickly a wealthy nation—Venezuela has the largest oil reserves in the world—descends from riches to rags, plunging a whole generation into despair. It’s an indictment of the command economy, and a dire warning of the consequences of saloon-door politics, where wild swings from left to right only ever benefit the opportunists.

In perspective, Europe, and even the United States, seem only mildly insane.

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

Presidential Alert

October 6, 2018

At exactly seventeen minutes past eleven my cell put out a loud honk. I was in a store and my phone was set to silence, which made the noise even more surprising. All around, a similar braying was heard from customers in various aisles.

The US reaches out to all its citizens. How long will it be before this channel begins its tenure as government spam?

A message popped up to calm the good folks of the homeland—we were not yet at war with the bad hombres du jour. I wasn’t particularly calm about being so trivially easy to locate, but I suppose that growing up in a dictatorship left me with a big brother bias.

The few days I spent in the States left me with the same impression as always—nice people, eager to help. And yet the chasm between haves and have-nots is inescapable. On a broad level, it’s what you see in Asia or in Europe—not to mention Africa—so the US is certainly not exceptional.

But it’s odd to witness such affluence and then repeatedly come across folks who are not only homeless, but clearly mentally ill—a society without a safety net.

“Motherfucker!” the woman screamed at some poor fellow trying to cross the street. She repeatedly hurled abuse at the man until he managed to get over the crosswalk. Then she took her two battered suitcases, walked twenty yards with them, and parked them outside a bank. Still cursing at the top of her voice, living out the film inside her head, she went into a convenience store, stole a cart and made off back down the sidewalk. A prowler drove slowly down the street, the cops hardly glancing at her.

As I walked, more down and outs appeared, each with their particular foible. It was four in the afternoon.

This was LA, and I’m not talking about South Central. The homeless people I saw were either black or Latino, but there are plenty of whites going down that road. When Trump was asked to define ‘white trash’, he allegedly replied:

They’re people just like me, only they’re poor.

And although trash is an unacceptable epithet, the orange tariffs are sure to generate more poverty in the US. The recent taxes applied to aluminum are a case in point. The US imports eighty-five percent of the raw aluminum it uses, preferring to focus on value-added products.

The Trump administration (an oxymoron at best) was at loggerheads about the tariffs, with Commerce secretary Wilbur Ross and adviser Peter Navarro defending the tax on raw material, and Cohn and Mnuchin violently opposed—policy disagreements on trade issues eventually led to Cohn’s resignation, as Bob Woodward explains in Fear.

In a meeting in DC in June 2017, key players in the aluminum industry eagerly gathered to listen to the administration’s plans—Trump was about to make good on his promise to hurt China. Their joy was short-lived—instead of focusing on aluminum products, the Trump tariffs were aimed at raw materials.

The main beneficiary was a mid-size company based in Chicago called Century Aluminum, but the emblematic smelter held up to the scrutiny of the Trumpian base is located in Hawesville, Kentucky. Oh, and there’s one other thing—the company is owned by Glencore, a mining giant ‘based‘ in Switzerland.

Half a million tons of aluminum stashed at Braithwaite, SE of New Orleans by Castleton Commodities International LLC—hedge funds jump on the Trump tariff train.

Trump used a little-known law to impose tariffs and avoid congressional approval: the law emphasizes national security. Secretary of defense Jim ‘Mad Dog’ Mathis informed Trump that military requirements amounted to only three percent of US production—exactly the kind of statistic Trump was keen to ignore.

As usual, the traders were feathering their own nest. In particular, the London Metal Exchange and Chicago Mercantile Exchange, which warehoused vast quantities of aluminum, sitting on it to push up prices, moved their stash to private stockpiles—when Commerce personnel looked at data from the exchanges, only 120,000 tonnes were in the books, but in reality US reserves were far higher—about two million tonnes.

The players who stashed aluminum in the States have patiently waited it out. As soon as tariffs were imposed, their stocks, already in the US, suddenly jumped in value. Even more juicy, China retaliated to the move by setting tariffs on aluminum scrap. The perverse outcome is that the US began to import or keep more scrap, undercutting domestic raw production.

The winners of this game are hedge funds, together with companies such as Glencore—the losers are always the same—poor people with great expectations.

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

South of the Border

September 30, 2018

At eight in the morning, U.S. eastern time, I handed my passport to the CBP officer. He was a large black man, and he’d been on duty all night. This time, my port of entry into North America wasn’t the United States, but Canada—so I needed to fill in the paperwork.

I expected the border to be a challenge in these Trumpian times, but the only real downer were the pictures of the first family hanging on the wall of the immigration office. My experience with Canadian immigration has always been good, but I can’t say the same for the States—airport queues are endless, and the officials can charitably be described as impolite—I have never been told I was welcome to America.

At Montreal’s Trudeau Airport I was presented with a robot interface which took two minutes to process me, and was then asked a couple of trivial questions by a human before going on my way.

I optimistically booked a seafood restaurant downtown, but by the time I got to the hotel my head was spinning with exhaustion—I’d been awake for the best part of twenty-two hours. The next morning, I took a stroll through beautiful downtown Montreal—a walk through Leonard Cohen land.

Last month, yet another person dear to my heart decided to take his leave—making it a hat-trick within a year—I headed to Our Lady of the Harbour, where there was a candle waiting to be lit. The statue is mentioned in ‘Suzanne’, one of the many songs Cohen wrote about his women—I’ve always thought he displayed exemplary timing by dying the day before Trump was elected.

I approached the church from the Rue du Bonsecours—Montreal is a bit froggy—but the statue is at the back of the church, appropriately facing the St. Lawrence river. The front of the church had the obligatory archway and two red doors.

Only in Montreal would you see a bottle of wine sitting patiently outside a church door on a Sunday morning before mass, waiting for Louis to show up.

The devout filed into the church. The not-so-devout slipped in behind them, made his way into a side pew, put his head in his hands, and thought for a while about the slipstream of life. He was admonished by an usher, but only after he had secured the photograph he wanted.

It was a sunny Sunday morning but my soul was dark. I walked down to the river, where the sun aptly poured down like honey on Our Lady of the Harbour, marveled at the stillness, the lovers walking hand in hand, children screaming and playing, watched by indulgent grandparents.

I looked east to the cantilever bridge and imagined the ships of Wolfe making their way up the river, and the tales of my childhood about the battle against Montcalm (both generals died) and the conquest of the city.

For me, eastern Canada is Fenimore Cooper, and the stories of wars fought by French, English, and Indians. I paid more attention this time to the number of Indian names that exist in Canada—and in the northeast US—it struck me as ironic that the western conquerors decimated the first nations and perversely celebrated by naming towns, rivers, and lakes after the peoples they destroyed.

Downtown Montreal is full of little shops—some are tourist traps, but some are just off the wall, reflecting the eclectic nature of the city itself. I found a couple of things to stuff in my suitcase—in particular, there’s a store near Notre Dame which sells only Christmas goods, and walking through it, I grew wistful thinking of the coming December—one less seat at the table. This is the best Christmas store I’ve ever seen, and I indulged my pain, buying happy trinkets to cheer up the tree.

I didn’t linger in Montreal, but flew east to Nova Scotia. Eastern Canada is just starting to cool down, but the hardcore weather is still perhaps a month away. As I drove south towards Maine the red fall colors slowly vanished from the leaves, the trees a bellwether for latitudinal shifts.

As I write, night has fallen in Western Europe—in a couple of hours I’ll be in LA. In my first day in the United States, I looked for signs of change—the anger and bitterness reflected in the Kavanaugh confirmation, the hate and loathing Trump projects to his base, the tectonic chasm between Democrats and Republicans—I see none of it.

At the Maine border, I joked around with the CBP guy, and it was the first time I was admitted into the US without having to declare that I’m not a member of the communist party (whichever one is at hand), and that I do not intend to perform acts of terrorism. I crossed the border in a hippy van, but no one was in the least interested in inspecting it—if there were dogs, they must have been napping. The whole thing cost me six bucks, and even so the CBP guy was sheepish about charging me.

I landed in Chicago and expected a change of scene—like New York, the windy city has a reputation for abrasive, short-tempered citizens, and airports usually draw the cream of the crop. But no, all I got was polite, open-armed courtesy—if the conflict and hatred lives here, it’s well concealed.

I see the Kavanaugh thing is getting worse, and that Trump was forced into ordering an FBI investigation—having just finished Bob Woodward’s book ‘Fear’, I can imagine how much the boat rocked at the White House.

Maybe LA will reveal itself as a den of fracture, and I will witness Americans hurlin’ abuse at each other—but judging by how calm my flight is, and how congenial the passengers are, striking up conversations at the drop of a baseball cap, I don’t think so.

Instead, the safety check on the plane made me think of the classic SNL sketch roasting Aer Lingus—and, as I head west to the land of silicone valley, I can’t help smiling at the antics of Stormy Daniels, and particularly at a column in this week’s Private Eye magazine.

In it, a troubled Donald Trump is tweeting at 3 am about Hurricane Florence. The orange man labors under the mistaken belief that she is a colleague of Stormy, and reassures his base that he never slept with Hurricane Florence. Two minutes later he admits he did sleep with her, but no money changed hands. Subsequent tweets admit to payment but deny Russian involvement, until the president finally comes clean, if you excuse the pun.

I’m enjoying my first day here—it’s still the America I know, a country with a big heart and a hearty embrace. Trump? This too shall pass.

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

Boiled Chicken

September 15, 2018

In February 2017 the Northern Ireland Executive fell. Since then, the tiny tip of Ireland has been without a government.

Northern Ireland joins several European nations, including Belgium and Spain, in the club of chaos—but where Belgium is plagued by the wars of Charles V and the Dutch protestants, Northern Ireland is plagued, er… by chickens.

The story developed over the last five years or so. It began with an initiative designed to reduce use of fossil fuels in the United Kingdom. In Northern Ireland, the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme was championed by DETI, the Department of Energy, Trade, and Investment.

To add a little spice, the then minister in charge of DETI was one Arlene Foster—she is currently the head of the DUP, or Democratic Unionist Party, which bailed out prime minister Theresa May after her ruinous attempt to consolidate power in the lead-up to Brexit.

The RHI was designed to stimulate small businesses and individual citizens to use renewables—wood shavings, pellets, and other non-fossil fuels would be promoted as heat sources.

The program was well supported in England, with an effective management and verification structure—in Northern Ireland, the management team was a little less effective—human resources to the tune of three.

The subsidy arrangement approved by the government effectively allowed participants to make a twenty percent profit on the scheme—in plain English, for every pound you put in, you made a profit of twenty pence.

Twenty-five million pounds ($33,000,000) were initially allocated—by 2015, only ten million had been spent. Then, that glint in the Irish eye came forth—in the fall of 2015 almost one thousand concerned citizens filed applications—the green fields of Ireland were about to become significantly greener.

There was only one hiccup—because you could make twenty points on your investment, the sale of boilers rocketed, and a good proportion of the beneficiaries began heating empty barns and chicken sheds that had previously never been heated at all.

Stormont

The runaway boiler scheme as viewed by the Belfast Telegraph.

Arlene did such a good job she was promoted to minister of finance. The lack of financial controls meant the scheme ballooned from the original twenty-five million quid to four-hundred and ninety, a cool six hundred and forty million dollars.

Her successor, Jonathan Bell, closed the scheme in early 2016, after her majesty’s treasury had made serious noises about paying the bill. By then, Ms. Foster had become first minister—she was now in charge of the DUP and head of the uneasy arrangement with Sinn Féin responsible for ruling Northern Ireland.

Subsequent theatrics developed—the late Martin McGuinness was deputy first minister under the power sharing agreement. Since Arlene Foster neither resigned nor was ousted from her position, during a period when accusations flew and dirt was enthusiastically dished, the IRA’s former commander resigned. By doing so, he brought down the executive—the nation has been without a government since.

Of course that didn’t stop Arlene entering into another power sharing arrangement, this time with Theresa May—Foster traded ten DUP members of parliament for one billion pounds in cash—that offsets a few chicken boilers. The deal, called a ‘confidence and supply’ agreement, values DUP MPs at a hundred grand a crack.

Speaking of which… Ireland, be it north or south, is a treasure trove of craic—over a drink, a local helped me understand the consequences of age. “When you’re young, your dreams are wet and your farts are dry…”

In any other country, these would be sobering thoughts.

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

 

The Train

September 8, 2018

The little boy knew war. It’s not that he was experienced in it, but he’d never known anything else.

It was a mechanical war, a technological war—the first of its kind. The bayonet wars were over,  gone were the ditches, trenches, and sappers—the new tools of war were planes, boats, automobiles—and trains.

There were even rockets that took the parabolic arc of the catapults of Troy to a new, terrible dimension. No more the clash of swords, the galloped charge, and the severed limbs. The new era laid to waste whole buildings, destroyed communities, and, in time, would obliterate an entire city with a nuclear flash.

These things the little boy did not know. But his reality was no less bleak—the pangs of hunger, the cold hand of fear, and the smell of death, as he counted out days in a country led by a madman who started a war he couldn’t win. The proud capital city, once the aspirant to an empire, was now facing destruction, with daily bombings shaking it to the core. A day’s march to the east of its gates, Stalin’s army lay waiting—the Russian bear patiently stalking the black eagle of the Prussians.

The apartment had little food—some black bread, ersatz coffee from acorns, some suspect-looking wurst. Some days, the little boy’s father salvaged a cabbage or two from the allotments off the bombed-out streets, and mother would make watery soup, with just a couple of rounds of sausage.

The little boy kept quiet, mostly living inside his head. In the back room, he dreamed of a different universe, one where peace and order reigned. He carefully placed his model train on the track, and reversed it slowly to hook the tender. Behind the tender, the freight cars stood at ready.

There was something about that train which calmed his soul—maybe it was the way everything coupled together, the rails and junctions on the complex oval track he’d built—or maybe it was the little station, and the houses with the model figures, smiling and waving at the engineer.

For the little boy, the Märklin train set was a life in itself. Even when the aroma of the sausage and cabbage soup wafted in, and his stomach clenched with hunger, he turned the transformer to speed his engine a little more. Tonight, the route was via the eastern junction—there were goods to be delivered at the shipyard.

A host of bits and bobs were arranged on the flatbed cars. Although to you they might look like a lady’s thimble and cotton bobbins, or a few bolts and nails taken from father’s toolbox, they were nothing of the sort—the signal changed, and the black steam engine hauled the train into the yard, slowing as it approached the platform, until all the cars were perfectly lined up.

All around, men scurried to unload the goods: coils of steel cable, sheet metal to be used for the battleship, and yes, an entire diesel powerplant for a tugboat recently commissioned by the harbor.

“Max, zum Tisch!” his mother called again.

The little boy’s stomach cramped some more, as his synapses fired messages where the delicious scent of the Kohlwurst soup mingled with… could it be? YES, dumplings!

He felt his mouth watering, took one last look at his beloved railway and sprinted down the corridor. Max’s father was already at his seat in the kitchen, and as the little boy pulled back his chair, Father coughed  pointedly.

“Sorry!” the boy said. He perched up to the sink and washed his hands.

“Good.” The father smiled. The family held hands around the kitchen table for a moment, and then Max’s mother served the soup; a slice of Schwarzbrot lay beside each plate.

His father raised a glass of water for a toast. “Zum Wohl!”

The family had barely tasted the first spoonful when the air raid sirens started.

At first they shrugged it off. There had been hundreds of air raids over the past years, and well over a million people had been evacuated. There were huge shelters at the Zoo, Kleitspark, Anhalt, and other locations, enough to protect sixty-five thousand Berliners.

In the first years of the war, the Allies struck the U-boat ports, and the industrial valley of the Ruhr—but as Germany itself came under threat, the heavy Lancaster bombers increasingly hit Berlin.

The little boy’s family ignored the sirens for a minute or so, gulping the soup down hungrily. Just then, a massive explosion shook the building.

“Go! Go down NOW! That was way too close.” Father jumped up and ran to the window. “The enemy is right above us.”

Max was petrified. For a moment, he didn’t know which way to turn, then he made up his mind. He scooped up the bread, dashed to his little room, and grabbed the black locomotive.

As he clutched his mother’s hand tight, the bombers’ roar to the east as they banked for yet another pass, he watched women and children hurrying down into the basement. Most of the little girls clutched a favorite doll, and the boys, too, had a keepsake or a toy to keep them company.

“It’s the guidance system plant, that’s what they’re after,” said his father, as he pushed his way forward and through the shelter door. Max watched as his dad waved goodbye. The boy made his way down the cellar steps—this was a local shelter, organized by the building’s residents.

The cellar was dank and dark, lit only with paraffin lamps. All around him, kids sat in silence as the ground above shook. Some mothers said a silent prayer for their husbands, left at the mercy of the ordnance raining from the skies.

Time ticked by as the earth shook with each new pounding—Max stole into his pocket and extracted his last bite of bread. From the Tiergarten Flakturm, the Bund Deutscher Mädel girls aimed the 128 mm guns at the sky—there was no one else left to defend the city.

An eerie quiet took hold of the basement after the Lancasters had spewed their venom into the street above. The basement door was made of heavy steel, and the concrete walls held firm.  The bombers had returned home. “They’re gone,” one woman said. She cursed the invaders, turned the lock, and pushed the door.

Nothing.

“Maybe it’s locked,” someone else offered. Various ladies juggled with the key. They locked and unlocked the door, turned the handle, pushed and shoved. The door remained as still as a sarcophagus.

Children looked at each other in fright. One little girl hugged her dolly tight and began to cry. Soon, more kids were in tears. They might spend hours trapped in this dark hole.

One of the paraffin lamps flickered once, then twice, then abruptly died.

Hours? Perhaps days. Hardly any water. Or food. The women in the shelter had all realized their predicament. A slow death from hunger and thirst, the air gradually getting heavier as the oxygen was replaced by carbon dioxide. They were isolated, completely alone. The infants were crying in earnest. The older kids looked pale and haunted, as fear clutched their hearts, numbed their brains and made it impossible to think.

But not Max. His heart felt steady. He wasn’t a large child, but there was something special about him—a self-reliance that helped him to solve challenges—the first step was analytical, decomposing a problem into its component parts. He knew very well the door was not locked. He held his metal locomotive in his small hands and thought. Around him, panic was setting in.

“We’ll shout,” an older lady said. “We’ll organize a chorus, someone will hear us from above.”

“What about the air?”

“We have to take the risk. Shout, wait. Shout, wait.”

Max’s father paced around the mountain of rubble that was once his home. The apartment block had collapsed, completely smothering the cellar entrance, the ground piled high with concrete blocks, the armature sculpted into bizarre shapes; girders were strewn across the terrain, as if tossed from a playful giant’s hand.  Around him, a couple of dozen other men stood. They were covered in dust and they all looked dazed. The Lancasters had made multiple passes, dropping their bombs along the flight axis to the factory, and then extending beyond it.

The British raid was a resounding success—the industrial plant was razed to the ground. And as usual, there was collateral damage—most of the housing for half a mile either side of the factory had been hit, a good part of it leveled as the planes dropped their incendiary one-thousand pounders along the target line.

The men staring at the rubble shared one common thought—my family is gone. For hours they labored, moving rocks and steel. It was slow work, without machines. Men used pickaxes and crowbars, wheelbarrows and their bare hands, trying desperately to defeat time. Somewhere below the huge piles of debris were sixty women and children, their own flesh and blood.

Had the building collapsed entirely, destroying the basement? Were their loved ones interred under piles of rock? As the time passed, their efforts became increasingly frantic. Every so often the whole group would stop and listen, hoping for one single solitary sound.

Nothing. More digging. Nothing. Fatigue set in, then despair.

A grey dawn was already breaking when the little boy’s father heard a faint metallic sound from below.

Inside the basement, where most everyone had already resigned to their fate, the little boy stood stubbornly at the steel door. In his hand he clutched his black Märklin locomotive. Holding it by the wheels, he struck the door. The metal clanged once more. Although he alternated between left and right, his arms grew very tired, but he never gave up. The strike of the two objects made a metallic sound which conducted right through the door. He bashed the door with fury, crying as his beloved engine slowly came apart.

If I hit hard enough, and often, my father will hear my cry.

He was still striking the steel door when it finally swung open.

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

 


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