Archive for the ‘Travel’ Category

Where Are You Now?

October 30, 2022

The bunker is dank, the cement walls harsh and forbidding. The entrance is down a flight of steps that doesn’t seem deep enough to protect us from the MK82 and M117 bombs dropped by the B-52, aka BUFF—Big Ugly Fat Fuckers.

“Forty people can take shelter here,” the lady says—I’ve wangled a private tour of the bunker where Joan Baez hid on Christmas Eve, 1972, as the bombers flew overhead. In a small room, my guide turns on a tape—sirens moan and children cry, a piano tinkles in the background. A Vietnamese voice tells everyone to put on their helmets.

“…that the most sacred of Christmas prayers was shattered by the bombs,” Baez recites, before breaking into song. Where Are You Now My Son? she asks, singing of a Vietnamese woman whose boy lies buried beneath the rubble.

The setting is the famous Hotel Metropole in Hà Nội—Vietnamese is a tonal language, like Cantonese and Thai, but like Bahasa it uses the Roman alphabet. That means the tonal vowels are represented by diacritical marks—a single vowel can have two different accents, one related to the vowel itself, which counts as a different letter, and one for the tone.

The hotel hosted the likes of Somerset Maugham and Graham Greene—I reread The Quiet American, a much more powerful experience in Vietnam—more recently, the Metropole hosted the 2019 summit between micronuke and the orangutan.

I remember the Vietnam War surprisingly well—partly because I listened to shortwave broadcasts from Radio Hanoi—but the Vietnam War Remnants Museum quickly showed me how little I knew.

A massive Chinook graces the courtyard of the museum. My first thought was how well kept the chopper is, despite the tropical weather—a tribute to Boeing manufacturing.

The courtyard is full of American hardware—a Huey, an F-4 Phantom, a Skyraider, and the enormous Chinook. There’s a conspicuous absence of Vietcong materiel, although they had Russian MiGs and SAMs aplenty. I didn’t realize the US was dragged into the war by the French, first as arms suppliers and advisers, and then as actual troops.

Air force general Curtis Lemay, who I’d read about in the biography of Joseph ‘Vinegar Joe’ Stillwell, had some choice words to say about the enemy.

They’ve got to draw in their horns and stop their aggression, or we’re going to bomb them back into the Stone Age.

The war museum omits any mention of Vietcong atrocities—truth is the first casualty of war. But it shows some impressive images, and equally impressive numbers—the US dropped five million tonnes of bombs during World War II, but almost triple that in Vietnam—over fourteen million, living up to Lemay’s dictum. The cost of the war was six hundred and eighty billion dollars, double the second world war, and had about one third of the casualties, but only an eight of the deaths—this attests to the fact that it was an air war.

One of the key weapons of the North Vietnamese was art. Many posters, some of which rich in both humor and irony, told the story of American invasion.

Air wars are convenient but unwinnable, as was found by the Luftwaffe in England, the Americans in Vietnam and Afghanistan, and now the Russians in the Ukraine. Inevitably, there are boots laid on the ground, and that’s when the body bags pile up.

One of the most interesting aspects of the war were the correspondents—many died, the most famous perhaps being Robert Capa, but the one that impressed me most was the Englishman Larry Burrows, who photographed for Life Magazine.

And while we’re on the subject, here’s a tribute to The Killer, one of the fathers of Rock n’ Roll—I bet Great Balls of Fire was heard often in ‘Nam. That said, I found no evidence, but I did spot this.

Burrows left behind the most courageous quote of the war.

“I will do what is required to show what is happening. I have a sense of the ultimate-death. And sometimes I must say, ‘To hell with that.'”

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

Arabs and Harrods

October 25, 2022

I’m sitting at a departure gate in Qatar at two in the morning. Around me are a multitude of Vietnamese, yakking excitedly.

Whenever I go through Doha, it’s always the middle of the night, but the airport is a gigantic, pulsing, sleepless place.

Like most of the Gulf states, the engine that moves Qatar is immigration—this is where the poor of Asia come to work, whether it’s building football stadiums or checking boarding passes.

The lines above were written just before I got on a plane—one week ago—and I’m picking up again in Saigon.

Every fishing village has a temple to protect the men who go out to sea—across the water it’s called the Nan Hai, or South China Sea, but you’d get into a lot of trouble calling it that here.

It’s the rainy season, and last night the skies opened, as if Buddha himself drew the curtains to let the bolts of lightning strike. I sat in a restaurant on the Mekong, watching the water hyacinth drift by in clumps and mounds as thunder crashed all around. The ceiling above was corrugated zinc and I wondered just how good a lightning conductor separated me from a charcoal grill.

Vietnam is very different from its neighbors—people here are very focused and it took me just a day to understand why so many products are Made in Vietnam—yesterday I went into an office at midday and found it completely empty, only to discover the place was almost full but the workers were snatching a post-lunch snooze under their desks.

Although the official name is Ho Chi Minh city, everyone sees it as Saì Gòn. As soon as you get into town, you know you’re somewhere special.

Scooters have a dedicated lane where they ride six abreast, but occasionally the cement walls part and a swarm of Vespa clones descends on you from a cross-street.

A few tunes from Vietnam’s Bob Dylan, Trinh Cong Son. Unlike his erstwhile namesake, this Bob Son does not have ‘a voice like sand and glue.’

Saigon has a well-deserved fun-town reputation going right back to the French days and it certainly catered to US servicemen during the Vietnam War—when the GIs weren’t migrating to Bangkok R&R in Soi Cowboy.

I was told by a friend that the Vietnamese were unassuming, friendly people, small in stature and big in heart. But it is worth remembering they defeated both the Chinese and the Americans.

“And don’t forget the French,” I said.

She smiled. “Oh, even the English managed that!”

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

Snake Eyes

October 9, 2022

In 1977, a Polish immigrant called Zbigniew Brzezinski became President Carter’s National Security Adviser.

Zbig, as he was known in the US, was a diplomat’s son—Thadeusz Brzeziński was posted to Germany in 1931, and three year old Zbig spent the next four years in a country that was undergoing intense nazification.

But the actions of Stalin’s Soviet Union and its ruthless occupation of Eastern Europe were the formative drivers of Brzezinski’s ideology—the boy grew into a man possessed of a deep hatred of communism.

When Brzezinski joined the US government, he set out on a mission to dismember the USSR. His first move was to set up the Nationalities Working Group, dedicated to inflaming ethnic tensions, particularly in Islamic nations—the Soviet Union had six such ‘stans’: Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kirghyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.

Along the way, he added one more ‘stan’—a nation that is synonymous with violence, oppression, and terror.

In the late seventies, Afghanistan was doing well—it was self-sufficient in food and showed promise politically—the troubled nation was heading for democracy. Enter Brzezinski. The Polish russophobe convinced the peanut farmer turned president to pile weapons into Afghanistan, destabilizing the USSR’s southern border.

Zbig was busy laying a trap—if he could get the Russians to fight in Afghanistan, his aim was to mire them in an endless war. As the Soviet Union saw increasing evidence of threats to their territorial stability, Brezhnev ordered the Red Army to invade.

Let me know if anything sounds familiar.

Not a weapon from the Afghan war, but a vintage vibrator from 1908 used to cure depression in ladies—the tool, if you excuse the pun, is on display at a Venetian restaurant east of the Piazza San Marco—this picture honors a promise made in an earlier article, Diletto‘.

On Christmas Day 1979, the USSR invaded its southern neighbor—the Russians stayed for a decade, during which the US and Saudi Arabia systematically increased their aid to the mujahiddin.

Perhaps the major game changer was the shoulder-fired Stinger missile—the toll it took on the Soviet MI-24 ‘Hind’ helicopter gunships is one of the legends of the war.

The effect of the Afghan war on the Soviet economy was earth-shattering.

The war ended in February 1989, and by early November the Berlin Wall had fallen.

Two years later the Soviet Union imploded.

Zbigniew Brzezinski’s trap was complete, although the man in charge back home was now Ronald Reagan.

Fast forward to early 2022—once again, Russia feels compelled to attack one of its neighbors, but this time it cannot conquer the country. Instead, the war becomes an orgy of sophisticated weaponry, and the Ukrainians bite the bear’s ankles and calves—now they’re dangerously close to the thighs.

Although I tend to take conspiracy theories—and especially conspiracy theorists—with an extremely large pinch of salt, I can’t help wondering if we’re watching a re-run of the same movie, and if we are…

Who wrote the script?

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

Venezia la Serenissima

October 2, 2022

I arrived in Venice and the rain poured down. The night was black, the canal was choppy, and there were dark mutterings of acqua alta as I clambered aboard the vaporetto.

I’d spent four hours behind the wheel, including a pit stop in Bologna where I got soaked buying wine—in northern Italy, there is some contempt for the offerings of the south—after all, these are the lands of Sangiovese, Chianti, Amarone, and of course Barolo.

The new prime minister may be a neo-fascist cantaloupe with a name that rhymes with minestrone, but honestly? No one here gives a shit. Unsurprising, since this is the seventieth government since WWII, or World War Eye Eye, as a friend of mine is fond of saying.

I’m sitting in an airline lounge and the Venetians are mobbing the drinks counter—as I write, I hear a litany of requests for espresso, Aperol, Prosecco, and an endless refrain of prego. This lust for libations is contagious—all around, Germans, Brits, and Iberians join the fun.

I haven’t been here in five years, during which the city shut down, gagged by the mascherina—only Italians could turn a pandemic into a fashion statement.

Even in good weather, getting into Venice is a royal pain in the ass—but the most serene republic has a way of taking you in her arms—in five minutes you’re in awe of… everything.

How can you resist the combo of anti-Mafia banner and lagoon police as you stroll over the Rialto bridge?

Today’s Venice is once again full of tourists—thirty million was the annual intake before COVID. Germans, Americans, and a smattering of other folks from Western Europe.

Conspicuous by their absence are the Chinese, still smitten by the Xi Jinping pandemic policy, and the Russians, enslaved to a latter-day psychopath—so at least there’s only the Italian Mafia to worry about, though the Prada and Gucci stores are aching for the oligarch gold.

The stop-start queue between Rialto and San Marco is governed by Google Maps, but at least no one gets poked in the eye by Chinese selfie-sticks.

The food is as good as ever, and the locals are cheery and friendly—tourism is the life-blood of the city, although the Venetians mainly commute on the vaporetto from Mestre and the surrounding suburbs—there’s no way they can afford the cost of living in this town!

As I trudge through the rainy alleys, duly equipped with an Indian-sold umbrella, in search of a bit of pesce and a glass or two of Ripasso, I chance upon a jazz bar—inside, I hear an indifferent version of Johnny B. Goode—someone thought it sounded good with a swing beat.

A classic Chuck Berry line comes into my head.

I got no kick against modern jazz, unless they try to play it too darn fast. I lose the beauty of the melody, until it sounds just like a symphony…

So here’s a masterclass from the best guitarist you never heard of.

She only did three tours with the late Michael Jackson.

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

Mount Kenya

August 14, 2022

The Western news this summer oscillates between the suffocating heat in Europe and the political heat in America, with occasional forays into the military heat of the Ukraine.

Elsewhere, though, things are happening.

Last Tuesday, August 9th, Kenya voted—a general election in Africa is always a momentous occasion, since it invariably reflects tribal rivalries—far more than it portrays policy or promotes peace.

In some nations, such as the former Portuguese colonies of Angola and Mozambique, the incumbent party is so rooted to the power structure that change is as unlikely as uprooting a baobab with your bare hands.

The mighty baobab, called imbondeiro in Mozambique. The photo from early 2020, just before the pandemic paralyzed the planet, makes me dream of the vastness and peace of African big skies.

But Kenya is not a dictatorship and the tribal balance is different—it’s now the weekend, and they’re still counting votes.

In an article published earlier this year, I described my journey to Kisumu—the town is flagged as a spelling error in WordPress—home to the people of the lake.

The Luo, to which Obama belongs, are the ‘almost there’ tribe. Raila Odinga—the man who almost won the 2007 election—is of course a Luo, given away by the first letter of his surname. I couldn’t find the meaning of the name, but that didn’t stop me having a merry old time with Obonyo (born during locust infestation), Odek (born when the mother had picked up traditional vegetables from farm), and Okongo (born during celebration especially where alcohol brew is plenty).

In 2007, Odinga’s defeat by the Kikuyu incumbent Mwai Kibaki led to a de facto civil war—Odinga had been declared the winner until a Trumpian dream occurred—elections were held on December 27th, Odinga called victory on the 29th, and the next day two hundred and thirty thousand votes magically appeared, tipping the scales back to the Kikuyu candidate.

Like the Indian rain dance—it works because it only stops when the rain starts—it’s possible that in Kenya the vote count only stops when the Kikuyu candidate wins.

However, this time round, there is no Kikuyu running.

The man opposing the veteran Luo is called William Ruto, and he’s a Kalenjin.

The funny thing about Ruto is that he backed Odinga in 2007, while Uhuru Kenyatta backed Kibaki.

The two backers had at the time been charged by the International Criminal Court (ICC) with crimes against humanity after the 2007 election. In a marriage made in political heaven, Kenyatta and Ruto ran for office in 2013 and won the presidency—but now Kenyatta has served his two terms.

By the time the 2022 race came up, the Uhuru and William bromance was long gone, and now Kenyatta is backing the Luo candidate—who knew…

Right now, it looks like Ruto might make it—the Kalenjin are long distance runners—Daniel arap Moi was president for twenty-four years. But we’ll have to wait until Tuesday to know for certain.

If Odinga wins, he’ll exorcise the old saw that a Luo cannot become president in Kenya—only in the United States. It will be his fifth attempt, at the ripe age of seventy-seven.

From Reuters to the BBC, any mention of tribes is studiously avoided—in Kenya itself, it’s almost taboo, like a dark family secret. Nevertheless, the tribal narrative is key to determine political outcomes.

Kenya is beautiful, dangerous, and troubled.

May its future be as tall as the African skies.

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

Dolce Far Niente

August 8, 2022

The Italians coined the expression almost one hundred years ago, but the concept dates back to the ascent of man—and woman.

The sweetness of doing nothing—what an amazing idea. As I hunt around for thoughts to adorn my page, I come across Psychology Today. One paragraph takes my fancy.

All the noise—the Facebook, the reality TV, the latest and greatest no-one-can-get-in-there-without-calling-a-month-ahead restaurant—it all fades away when we can just do nothing. What surfaces is life—our feelings at the moment (whether it be grace or despair), our ego vanishes and our true self emerges.

For those who do very little, it’s a challenge to get anything done. For others—my world—the difficulty is switching off.

But I’ve taken a few days downtime in southwest Europe—a close friend asked about my blog, and I woke up this morning with an urge to write. It’s nine in the morning on a Monday, so in a way this feels like dolce far niente—I mean, who has the time to string a few idle sentences together on the first day of the week except someone with absolutely nothing to do?

And that’s all I’m doing this morning—drawing a few circles in the sand and hoping to lure you into my world of thoughts and dreams—but maybe I think too much.

Everywhere I turn, folks are working as hard as they can at doing absolutely nothing—on beaches, in bars and restaurants, walking around…

Off the main drag there’s a strip mall—or at least as close as it gets to that in this part of the world. There are a couple of low-budget restaurants—I walked by one on Saturday morning and it was empty and desolate—how can anyone turn a buck here, I wondered. In the early evening it was jam-packed, the tables decorated with dubious-looking pizza, the patrons smiling and laughing.

It’s good to come here and feel this vibe—this is where ordinary, decent, local people take their holidays—the purse strings rule, so the vacation is tightly regimented. Ten miles east, we’re in Plaza del Privilege—this is where the north Europeans come to roost—a land of riches, rosés, and risottos.

And yet, the strip mall is a maze of discovery. Across from the restaurants is an Italian bar, blooming with red, white, and green bunting—I was expecting it to be staffed by fake Italians, but no, this is the real deal.

And along from that is a budget supermarket—and in the early evening it’s brimming with people who suddenly woke up from their idleness and collectively realized it was dinner time. Spanish people gabbling incomprehensibly, bright red Brits emerging with cases of beer, serious-looking Germans contemplating fiscally responsible purchases, and locals scraping for staples—inflation does not sit idly by.

The queue is huge, the tellers look exhausted, and the season’s only half-way in! And no one seems to use the automatic tills—I marvel at this mystery as I ring up my red wine, dodge the crowd, and retreat to idleville.

And then, next to a bar showing a soccer game on a big screen, is… a sex shop—rather out of place, it occurs to me, amid these more prosaic amenities and kids out with the family for an evening stroll.

And whereas the window dressing might provide a hint of the delights within, perhaps with a few pieces of seductive lingerie or a partly camouflaged sex toy, this store goes straight for the gonads, with the most diverse collection of dildos on show for all to peruse.

I pause a moment to wonder what boxes a woman ticks as she makes her choice on such an important item of holiday apparel—but I’ve led far too sheltered a life to arrive at a meaningful conclusion.

It really is a skill of the highest order, the art of doing nothing.

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

Donkey Shot

June 5, 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One, Two, Skip a Few

May 7, 2022

They got me as I stepped off the plane.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Triple B for BAD.

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

Ureno

April 16, 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You get the picture…

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

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

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

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

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

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

Endless War

April 2, 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And Novichok means recently arrived.

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


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