Archive for the ‘Travel’ Category

The Land of the Blind

March 5, 2023

At 3 am, Wednesday, I was boarding a plane in Kigali.

As you approach the airport of the Rwandan capital, a security post blocks the road. Out come the bags, and everyone goes through the metal detector.

My day had started off on the border between Gisenyi, in Western Rwanda, and Goma, the mining capital of the DRC. In that sense, it wasn’t really a normal day… but it got a lot more weird later on.

Both cities—though Goma is huge by comparison, with over two million people—are at the northern end of Lake Kivu, a freshwater body with an area of 2400 km2. The lake is almost 500 m deep, and is a large reservoir of carbon dioxide. CO2 is dangerous if it is released as a gas at the surface—essentially suffocating the people, livestock, and wildlife that live on the lake shore.

But Kivu hides a much darker secret—in its deep waters lie sixty billion cubic meters of methane. Sixty cubic kilometers: a box shape five km long, four km wide, and 3 km high. Kivu is prone to limnic eruptions—one of three lakes that undergo these types of overturns, triggered by volcanic activity.

Overturns, in which the deep water and the gases it retains come to the surface, occur in Kivu once every thousand years. A cloud of gas one hundred meters high will cover the lake and cause a major catastrophe—it will kill everything.

Sitting on the Congolese border. Goma has all the attributes of a mining boomtown: obscene wealth, desperate poverty, a war zone twenty clicks north of the border, regular outbreaks of Ebola, and Sunseeker yachts cavorting in the lake.

But the border between Gisenyi and Goma is a catastrophe zone every day, and people just go about their business. Older people, the mzee, are not visible—presumably they’re all dead or dying. This part of the world has little compassion.

The Zairean dictator Mobutu had a palatial home in Goma—when the city was occupied by the rebels in 1996, the villa was found to contain five brand new Mercedes, two ambulances, and a Land Rover with a podium.

Everything’s a hustle and everything’s a hassle—life on the frontier of the DRC.

After all this excitement and a couple of boat rides on the lake—where the Rwandan government has great plans to increase fish farming—I drove the long and dangerous road back to the capital. Nobody breaks the speed limit, not least because there’s a speed trap every two miles, but overtaking on blind corners is clearly part of local tradition.

Back in Kigali, the road took me past the presidential palace, which goes on for a mile or so—multiple access lanes blocked by concrete barriers, men armed with AK-47s, all reminders that Rwanda has a checkered past.

Later that evening, I was forced to return to Europe for medical treatment, a rather unexpected turn of events—three planes and thirty-six hours later, a retinal tear was fixed with three hundred twenty-one laser shots—things are now on the mend.

Two days before, on my way to Kamembe, opposite the DRC city of Bukavu on the southern side of Lake Kivu, I stopped at a memorial site for the Tutsi and Hutu tragedy.

The town is called Murambi.

The memorial site was a school back then—now the grounds cover the bodies of fifty thousand Tutsis shot and hacked to death by the Hutus. Toward the back, there are rows of rooms with perfectly preserved skeletons, whitened with lime, features still visible. Men and women, children too.

Perhaps my eye clouded over at the sight of such terrible evil.

The French army were at hand to prevent the massacre.

They did nothing.

Actually, that’s not quite true.

They built a volleyball court to hide the dead.

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


January 22, 2023

The Hakluyt Society has been good to me over the years—I discovered it by accident when I began writing about history, and I believe the society is not widely known, even within the United Kingdom.

When I wrote Clear Eyes, I used the translation of the log of Columbus by Clements Markham to plot the course of the Admiral of the Ocean Sea. On a spreadsheet I entered every date and distance indicated in his diary, converting the infamous Italian sea miles that partly account for his navigational errors into today’s nautical miles—he should have used Arab miles in his first assessment of the distance to Cipango.

Imagine my joy when I found a book by G.R. Chrone, dated 1937, entitled ‘The Voyages of Cadamosto and other documents on Western Africa’—The Hakluyt Society does it again.

When I search for obscure tomes, my weapon of choice is Abe Books. The website appeared in 1996 and I used them frequently as I prepared The India Road—just as I finished the book, the company was bought by Amazon.

One of the most memorable things about Alvise da Ca’ da Mosto is the fact that he wrote—hardly any explorers did. Either they did not have a literary bent, or they perished before they could put quill to parchment. Although Cadamosto died in 1488, aged fifty-six, he nevertheless found time to write his memoirs, and the book survives to this day in the Biblioteca Marciana in Venice, which I visited in 2016 in search of an old Italian map drawn by Andrea Bianco in 1436.

What I was looking for then was a reference to the ‘Mar da Baga’, or Sargasso Sea, which suggested the Portuguese mariners had sailed considerably further west than the Azores, possibly reaching the Caribbean Sea or the coast of America.

The diary of Columbus, translated into English and printed by the Hakluyt Society in MDCCCXCIII (1893).

Getting into the Marciana is almost as hard as traveling to Mars itself, and I treasure my reader’s card—perhaps I’ll find myself in Venice one of these days and look up the Cadamosto original.

Chrone provides invaluable notes on the exploration of West Africa from the fourteenth century onward. The key reasons for this urge to go south are twofold: fighting the Moors in northwest Africa and… gold.

Alouise da Ca da Mosto, was the first that of the noble city of Venesia was moved to sail the ocean sea beyond the strait of Zibeltera towards the south in the land of the blacks of lower Ethiopia.

In 1454, Alvise set sail from Venice for Flanders. His ship encountered contrary winds near Cape St. Vincent, the tip of southwestern Portugal, and he paid a visit to the village of Raposeira, near what is now Vila do Bispo. There he had the good fortune to meet the greatest explorer of his day—Prince Henry the Navigator, then sixty years of age.

The prince turned the young man’s head, and twenty-two year old Luis, as he was known to the Portuguese, directed his attention south.

By then, the Portuguese had conquered the legendary Cabo Nam, or Cape No, so called because those who went beyond it did not return. In his book Navigazione, Cadamosto wrote, “Quem o passa tornará ou não“.

His journeys took him to Porto Santo, Madeira, the Canaries, the Cape Verde islands, and the African mainland.

The house of Cadamosto on the Grand Canal in Venice.

His accounts have the keen eye of the merchant—Venetian to the core. In Madeira, he speaks of the wonderful wine, made of the Malvasia grape, which the British call Malmsey. His report of the island’s colonization is remarkable. The island was thickly forested when the Portuguese arrived.

In order to make space for the colonists and allow agriculture to develop, the new arrivals set fire to the island. Cadamosto tells the story of Zuangonzales—aka the Portuguese captain João Gonçalves Zarco—who had to spend several days up to his neck in water, along with all the men, women, and children, without food or drink, until the flames subsided.

One of most fascinating descriptions is the silent trade, which took place south of Timbuktu on the inland delta of the River Niger. Here, groups of black men would arrive and place piles of salt on the ground. They then vanish, and a second group appears. These men place piles of gold opposite each salt pile. The gold men then disappear and the salt men return—if they consider the payment is sufficient, they take the gold.

If not, more gold is added until the deal is done.

And mum’s the word.

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

Universal Exports

January 15, 2023

The island of São Vincente is a place of culture—music, dance, gastronomy—the performing arts.

The locals quickly tell you that St. Vincent is the soul of the ten-island archipelago, and I suspect they’re right. The influence of the legendary singer Cesária Évora is pervasive—a huge wall near the harbor projects her image to the nation—and to the sailors that abound in the bars and restaurants dotted on the seafront.

Any country that projects a singer as its emblem, rather than the face of some erstwhile dictator, is clearly on the right track.

Despite her international projection, Cesária Évora always spent a couple of months each year in Mindelo. One of her favorite activities was cooking for her island friends and visitors who showed up at her house.

And yet, this is a nation that fights the odds—not just here in St. Vincent but on all the islands.

The approach from the northwest contemplates a lunar landscape, with the island of Santo Antão to our lee. Whitecaps are so fierce they turn the ocean into a reticle—we’re coming in from the barlavento. Here and there, little towns are shoe-horned into the cliff faces, surrounded by brown peaks thrown up by the angry crust of the earth.

I look at the whitecaps and picture the Phoenician and Roman galleys attempting to return home, swirling in the wild seas, and sinking without a trace.

It fell to the Portuguese to discover how to return home—this was the torna viagem, a long sail west until the northeast trades waned, and then north to the Azores to catch the (hard) westerlies home—os ventos duros do oeste. In between the two are the infamous horse latitudes.

The trade winds blow hard most of the year, and the schooners, ketches, and catamarans follow the wind to the Caribbean Sea. It was from Cabo Verde that Vasco da Gama began his foray into the unknown, and it was from here that Cabral reached Brazil.

In summer, the wind drops—this is the chosen season to sail east from the Americas to these parts. Some of the catamarans stay longer than planned—cocaine from Colombia and Brazil is regularly apprehended, the confiscated boats provide a much-needed boost to local infrastructure, and the crew spend time on the island as guests of the government.

Cape Verde is a land of evaporation—fresh water is scant. Energy is very expensive and little has been made of the huge solar and wind potential—each island could be a gigantic wind turbine embedded in a solar cell. The volcanic soil is fertile, but water scarcity and the sloping landscape make agriculture a challenge.

Despite this, there is delicious market produce—maize, plantain, papaya, and all the greens. Here and there, goats and chickens appear, but this nation’s love affair is with the sea. And Portugal has left a legacy of calm, good food, and… wine.

I never got a chance to taste the local red—it comes from an island called Fogo, or ‘Fire’, so it might be a pyroblend, to coin a phrase. But Portuguese wines are wall-to-wall in convenience stores—and I was told more than once that white wine isn’t a proper drink, just a refreshment—a very traditional Iberian postulate.

Hard liquor is based on the axiom: if you can grow it, ferment it. The weapon of choice here is sugar cane, just like in the Caribbean nations, but in Cape Verde the potion is called ‘grogue‘. The etymology of grog is rooted in cloth—coarse cloth, to be precise, or ‘gros grain’ in French.

Admiral Edward Vernon (1684-1757) of the Royal Navy was the first to administer rum to his sailors, to the tune of a pint a day—rather a lot in today’s alcohol unit straight jacket. The admiral, known as ‘Old Grog’ due to his grogram cloak, gave his name to the drink.

Mindelo is a town where folks smile, where there are no bars on ground floor windows, and where there are windswept ground floor bars.

Made for each other, Portuguese Fado and Cabo Verde Morna intertwine in this swinging, sexual lilt of love.

This land has two universal exports: hurricanes and music. The hurricanes form as tropical storms in this evaporation nation and, like the carracks of the Perfect Prince, catch the trades and make their way west, gathering energy along the way. By the time they get to the Caribbean and turn north to hurl themselves at the American coast, they are powerhouses of destruction.

The United States met office names them after women, which begs the old—and thoroughly incorrect—joke: when they arrive they’re wet ‘n wild, when they leave they take your house and your car.

The music has traveled with the people—Cape Verde is a land of diaspora. A land with music is a land with identity, and the people of these islands are spread over Europe and America, taking with them their lilting siren songs.

At the back of the fish market in Mindelo, a tower pays homage to the Torre de Belém in Lisbon, from which the Portuguese ships left to explore the great oceans.

At a local shrimp farm, smitten with the hardships of water shortage and energy costs, the owner introduced himself with an apology. “I’m a singer,” he told me, “and right now my voice is hoarse.”

Later, he took my arm and confided, as we looked at the blue sky and the infinite sea.

“I’ve lived for one hundred and fifty years. But I intend to live another fifty.”

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

Southbound Again

January 8, 2023

The Mare Clausum of the Perfect Prince was closed by a line drawn through the 37th parallel, or the Fortunate Islands.

Any ship—be it Spanish, French, or Italian—found south of that line would be sunk and its crew drowned, by order of the king of Portugal.

This determination followed the Treaty of Alcáçovas, signed by the two Iberian rulers in 1479. Castile kept the Canaries, then known as Las Islas Afortunadas, and all points south belonged to Portugal—by then, that already included Elmina, in what is now Ghana.

It also included the Cape Verde archipelago—it will take me a few hours to get there today, but in the late XVth century, the caravels of Vasco da Gama took about two weeks from Lisbon to the island of Santiago.

Cape Verde was uninhabited before the Europeans found the islands—it is generally accepted that the Venetian Alvise Cadamosto first discovered part of the archipelago in 1456, although there are claims of an earlier landing by Antonio de Noli, a Genoese. Both men sailed on behalf of Prince Henry the Navigator, and in 1462, after the great man’s death, the Portuguese explorer Diogo Gomes discovered a further five islands.

The archipelago of Cape Verde, shown on a map from 1598—ten islands that span three degrees of longitude.

Since the Canaries were out of bounds, Cape Verde was the perfect way station for fleets headed to Africa and later India and Brazil. The archipelago is shaped like an arrow, with the top row termed ‘barlavento’ (windward) and the bottom row ‘sotavento’, or leeward. At a latitude of fifteen degrees, three degrees of longitude span one hundred seventy-four nautical miles, or about three hundred and twenty km.

Since before the late XVIIth century there was no accurate way to measure longitude due to the lack of accurate ship-borne chronometers, an archipelago spanning such a vast distance—wider than Portugal itself—was hard to miss.

Cape Verde gradually became a platform for the slave trade between Europe and the Americas, and this formed a major part of its commerce until slavery was sequentially abolished in the Western World. The decline of these sinister economic opportunities led to a diaspora—there are far more ‘Cabo-Verdianos’ abroad than at home.

Just as in Brazil, India, Mozambique, and all nations that were once Portuguese colonies, the black and white melting pot led to a population of mixed race—Cape Verde is probably the most racially integrated nation on the planet.

It also gave rise to a spectacular culture of music, which reflect the fusion between Africa and Portugal. The most emblematic genre is the Morna, which can be loosely translated as ‘warm’.

The Morna is structured as a circle of fifths—if you have an interest in music theory, or math. If you don’t, but love music, perhaps I can just share that a standard blues tune is based on one-four-five, meaning that if it’s a blues in E (the first or root note of the scale), it will only contain two other notes or chords—the fourth, which is an A, and the fifth, which is a B.

The Morna has given rise to a dance—if music be the food of love and all that—called the Coladera. Loosely, the term translates as ‘stuck together’—as the name implies, it is an intimate dance.

A lilting Morna lures me to shore, while out at sea the mermaids lure the sailors with plaintive cries.

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

Mare Clausum

January 2, 2023

In my first article this year, I’m sailing south into the closed sea of the Romans. I have no idea where I’ll end up—the only thing I’m sure of right now is the music that will accompany my text.

The Roman galleys, with their square sails and captive oarsmen, sailed west past the pillars of Gibraltar—they reached the port of Gades, named Agadir by the Phoenicians in 1100 B.C.

This is where my train of thought mimics life itself—the path is festooned with byways—hardly the ‘chartered course‘ of Paul Anka.

There is a classic quiz question about the first year of the century—any century.

It’s a double trick question: the year always precedes the century (e.g. the 19th century was the eighteen hundreds) and the answer always ends in ‘1’, i.e. 1801, 1901, 2001… because the very first century A.D. started on year 1.

Europe didn’t know about the zero until the Middle Ages—the zero was an Indian invention exported to Arabia, known to the Jews and Arabs of Iberia, and exploited by the magicians of The India Road in their conquest of the Mare Clausum and the maritime route to India.

In a way, the Portuguese closed the circle and returned the zero to Calicut.

It seems odd that the West understood 10, 20, 100, or 1000, but not zero—such is life. As a consequence of this arithnesia (first new word of the year, contracting arithmetic amnesia), the year before Year 1 AD was… Year 1 BC. There is no year zero. A further consequence was that there was no ‘zeroeth’ century, making the first century years 1-100, the second 101-200, and so on.

And here we are in the XX1st century, tentatively stepping into 2023—a species with a recorded history of six thousand years, still potty-training its way around a toxic mix of wars, pandemics, and artificial intelligence. Around us, our earth mother, exhausted by our antics, has decided it’s time for a little tough love.

The Phoenicians, Greeks, and Romans reached Gades—modern-day Cadiz—and sailed on to the Algarve, then north to Lisbon, which the Greeks named Ulyssippo. There is a suggestion in the toponym that the great Ulysses of Homer’s Odyssey may be at the heart of the name, which the Romans later changed to Olisipo.

But the Romans never sailed south. The northeast trade winds blew them offshore, where they were as helpless as a child on a moonless night. Without the lateen sails of the Arabs, the galleys could not tack. Strictly speaking, the ancient navigators of the Mediterranean did sail south, they just couldn’t sail home again.

It took the Lusitanians to do that.

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

The Sticks

December 26, 2022

To all the children we once were…

Pammy liked to eat.

She liked the taste of food and the way some things were sweet and others salty, some were chompy and some just melted in your mouth.

But Pammy only ate nice food when she visited with Felisha—otherwise she was stuck with Uncle Stickman and his protein bars.

“Now Pammy,” Ronald would say. “Little children aren’t supposed to like food!”

“They most certainly are not!” Ronald’s mother repeated. “Pammy, food is just energy. It doesn’t matter what it tastes like. Ronald, give the child an energy bar.”

Pammy fought back a tear. “But other children get proper food,” she complained. “They get toast, and butter, and eggs and yummy chocolate, and and…” Her voice vanished as she saw her uncle and her grandmother frowning down at her.

Mr. Stickman was very tall, and thin as a rake. Pammy looked down at the black shoes, black socks, black trousers, and white shirt. As she looked up the shirt buttons, she could see the black suspenders on either side.  Above the starched white collar was a long horse face with ears that stuck out like magnets. A stringy black mustache was glued over the top lip and the narrow nose wound up to the black eyebrows. Above that, the forehead slid back into a dome circled by wispy black hair.

“Silly, silly silly girl,” Grandma Stickma said—she was also stick-thin, so everyone called her Stickma. Pammy looked at her knobbly knees and bumpy elbows, her thin lips and brown hair bun, her pointy tongue sticking out as she spoke.

“Butter makes you fat, eggs make you oily, and chocolate makes you sick,” Stickma crowed. In the corner, the black magpie squawked, making Pammy jump. “Now then, Ronald, go and change and let’s get our energy needs over and done with. Then we can all do something really fun.”

“Yes mother.” Ronald shuffled off and returned five minutes later, turned out in a black dressing gown and black slippers. The left slipper had a hole in the front and his big toe poked through. On his head was a black sleeping cap—it had greyish rabbit fur lining and a dirty white tassel on top.

The family sat in a line in front of the television, Pammy with her protein bar and power drink, and the two grown-ups with cold macaroni dumped out of a tin.

“No point heating it up, Ronald.”

“No, mother.”

“Waste of gas, mother,” he added.

“Yes, throwing good money out the window. Energy, you know—that’s all we need.” She spooned the macaroni mechanically into her mouth and masticated—Pammy thought she looked just like a macaroni eating machine.

“Look, mother, there’s a really good show about earthquakes.”

“Oh, what fun! Put it on, Ronnie, put it on.” Grandma Stickma shrieked with excitement.

In the corner, the magpie shrieked loudly.

“Now, child, eat that protein and fuel up. Sit up straight and learn about earthquakes. You lucky, lucky girl!”

Pammy nodded nicely, but in her head she thought, ‘You yucky, yucky show!

Only last century, the giant earthquake of Atlambistan leveled the entire town of Mehland,’ the narrator droned. ‘A tera-tremor, surpassed only by the Poljak eruption, which hurled a megaton of cinnabar into the upper atmosphere, flattening everything in its wake.’ On the screen, endless mountains appeared, accompanied by deep and sinister rumblings.

Pammy closed her eyes as she finished the energy bar. She gulped her pea extract and pumpkin seed shake—it tasted super-yucky, so she had to get it down fast—and pray it didn’t come back up.

She leaned forward like she was thrilled by the TV, and with her eyes screwed shut, she felt she was outside in the warm spring evening, going over the road to see her best friend Felisha.

Pammy loved to wander into the kitchen, where Felisha’s mom was always cooking something.

“Hello, Felisha Delisha!” Pammy giggled at the made-up name.

“Now, where did you get that from, girlfriend?” Felisha had both hands on her hips, imitating her mother. All she needed was the apron with flour stains and the rolling pin.

Pammy skipped inside the hall and saw Felisha’s dad Fowler watching baseball in the lounge. “Hi, Mr. Fowler.”

“Hey Pammy, want a cookie?”

“Yes please!” Pammy grabbed the brownie and followed her nose to the kitchen.

Sitting on a high stool was Felisha’s little brother. He stuck his finger in some yellow goo, then sucked and grinned. “Is it sweet, Felix?”

The little boy grinned at Pammy and nodded. “Mmm hmm.” He was about to dip again when Mama wagged a big finger at him. “Uh, uh, greedy grabs. You just wait ‘til it’s ready.”

“What are you making, Mrs. Friendly?”

Mama Friendly flashed her big, happy smile. “I’m just making my Felisha some flapjacks. How about you, Pammy, do you want a cinnamon jack?”

“Jack?  I don’t know what that is, but it sounds yummy! And if Felisha—”

“Jacks? Honey, they’re delisha!”

Pammy mouthed ‘Felisha Delisha’ at her friend and giggled.

“Baby girl”—Mrs. Friendly looked at her daughter—“You get Pammy a nice glass of milk and tell her all about flapjacks.”

As the two girls went off to the refrigerator, Mrs. Friendly tutted under her breath. ‘That mean old Grandma Stickma, she don’t deserve the little girl she has at home.’  

Pammy finished her flapjacks just as the earthquakes stopped crashing on TV. She peeked out at the Stick family and hoped they wouldn’t ask her any questions about the show. She smiled, thinking of Mrs. Friendly and her Friendly family who loved delicious food.

“What did you think of this marvelous show, Pamela?” Stickma enquired. She liked to use an important tone when she discussed such important events.

“I thought it was absolutely marvelous, Grandma,” Pammy mimicked—she could hardly remember a thing, she’d been in that wonderful kitchen across the street munching on delicious treats.

“Splendid. You see, Ronald, no time wasted on such stupidities as food, so much better to feed the soul with maaarvelous culture.”

“Yes, mother. Splendid meal for the mind.”

“Uncle Stick,” Pammy said brightly. “Which bit did you like the best?”

Mr. Stickman was rather caught out, since he’d fallen asleep half-way through the Richter rumblings. “Oh, oh, I thoroughly enjoyed it all. I-I never knew tremors could have such a profound effect,” he mumbled. “on-on er…  the earth. Yes, er… that’s right.”

“Very clever, dear,” Stickma said acidly. “And what about you, young lady?” What did you learn?”

“Oh,” Pammy said. “I learned so much! I worked up the biggest appetite! First, I wanted the lambistan, but my favorite was the cinnabar flatjak.”

Stick and Stickma turned to her with a puzzled expression, but Pammy was already running off to bed.

The next day, Stickma would go for her health check-up at the obesity clinic—she was worried she might be getting fat—and Pammy would go to  Felisha’s house straight after school.

Yummy, yummy,’ she thought, as she tucked under the blankets. ‘Tomorrow’s going to be delisha!”   

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


December 18, 2022

I am sitting in the gardens next to the beach at a hotel in Mombasa. There is a consistent northeast monsoon—exactly the wind Vasco da Gama wanted when he came back from Calicut.

It’s early December, and all around the scenery is constantly shifting.

Next to me, a guy is half-way up a coconut palm. He holds a machete and his feet are bound together with rope so he can climb the tree without exertion; when he reaches the lower fronds he slashes furiously and the fruit hit the grass like mortar rounds.

As I sip the coconut water, I watch a camel sauntering across the sand, then hordes of little children splashing and shouting in the surf. A dhow sails in and drops anchor.

The dhow owned the Indian Ocean before Vasco da Gama’s fleet arrived. Because of its design limitations, Arab exploration stopped well short of the southern part of Africa.

The unfailing NE monsoon, powerful without being overwhelming, continues as steady as ever. I close my eyes and see Gama’s three ships come in—the São Rafael, São Gabriel, and the smaller Bérrio. They anchor beyond the reef, and from the flagship Vasco da Gama and his bearded adventurers contemplate the turquoise waters of the Indian Ocean and a never-ending strip of palm-fringed sand.

By this time it was early spring, and the monsoon winds were reversed, blowing steadily from the southwest—it was as if Africa was pushing the fleet of the Perfect Prince across the ocean to fulfil the dream of the late king, who had died two years earlier, poisoned at the age of forty by his English wife.

Gama’s instructions were clear—he was to take on a pilot to guide the fleet across the ocean. The Portuguese sailed north until they came to the town of Malindi. Here, after avoiding a treacherous attempt by the local sultan to run the ships aground, the captain-general contracted a Gujarati pilot who guided the fleet to Calicut.

The pillar built by Vasco da Gama to commemorate his arrival in Malindi.

It was the start of Portugal’s eastern adventure—an epic period of about one hundred and fifty years that took the small nation to the very edge of the world, while Spain was busy discovering Japan.

The return winds that bring a ship back to the African shores from the Indies only start in November—before that the wind is weak and variable—as the sinister Álvaro would say, ‘like an old man’s piss.’

But Vasco da Gama had no choice—it was either that or death at the hands of the Arabs, who’d recognized the Portuguese armada for what it was—a trading mission at the point of a musket.

Gama sailed and spent three months adrift in the becalmed sea until the monsoon finally came.

By the time they made landfall in Malindi, half the crew was dead from scurvy.

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

The Demo Variant

December 4, 2022

In 2010, the Rockefeller Foundation published a report called ‘Scenarios for future of technology and international development.’

It explored four scenarios, including one called LOCK STEP: A world of tighter top-down government control and more authoritarian leadership, with limited innovation and growing citizen pushback.

The description begins like this.

In 2012, the pandemic that the world had been anticipating for years finally hit.

…even the most pandemic-prepared nations were quickly overwhelmed when the virus streaked around the world, infecting nearly 20% of the world’s population and killing eight million in just seven months, the majority of them healthy young adults.

The report became a conspiracy theorist’s dream—a world where governments curtail the rights of citizens by using a pandemic pretext.

Of course, the conspiracy monkeys suck the marrow, casting aside bone, meat, and veg. Never mind that these are scenarios, that there are four of them, and that 20% of the world’s population (a mere 1.6 billion today) is about half of the number infected, according to CIDRAP.

Or that the death toll is half of the lock step scenario.

In the West, government strategy has been prudent but not authoritarian. Faced with a critical public health emergency, many governments did the best they could. With the exception of the orangeman, Boris the scarecrow, and Brazil’s tropical trump, all now busy marching around their little back gardens rather than playing dicktator, the game plan was simple.

Keep folks away from each other to stop them dying, make sure people got vaccinated as soon as possible, ease up on lockdowns and masks as hospitals recovered and death tolls subsided. Many mistakes were made along the way because, as more than one pol put it, ‘we’re flying the plane as we build it.’

And then governments began to abolish Covid—I first saw it in Denmark last February.

Travel is booming and all the world accepts that Covid will remain with us—folks are vaccinated, many have caught the disease twice and three times without major consequences, and herd immunity is a now a reality.

All the world…

Except China.

The great leader set the policy, predicated on zero Covid—a kind of viral five-year plan—featuring massive lockdowns, testing, and infection control.

While the rest of the world caught Covid, China did not—but while you can control the ideology and the internet, viral infection is a little more difficult.

The Middle Kingdom has 5229 reported Covid deaths, resulting from a reported 1.5 million infections out of a population of 1.4 billion. The infection rate is one per thousand inhabitants, and the death rate is 3 per million.

Elsewhere, in the UK ninety percent of the population has had Covid at least once and the death rate is 2400 per million.

The issue here is the law of large numbers—in the UK, that means one hundred thousand fatalities, but in China the equivalent is three million dead. Because the US followed (poorly) the Western approach, one million died—large numbers are a killer.

So, China kept its fatality rate low, but after a successful nationwide vax plan, it should be able to release its citizens back into the wild, as epidemiologists say, and expect widespread contagion and minimal death—the recipe for opening up.

Instead, it mandated isolation without explanation, as only a dictatorship can do—perhaps because in a communist country, central planning is by definition entrenched, but also maybe due to the lower efficacy of the Chinese vaccines in preventing death.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the US Covid Czar, is on record that Sinovac and other offerings based on the inactivated virus are considerably less effective than Western mRNA vaccines.

At the same time, Xi Jin Ping declared that zero Covid was China’s containment policy and that it would save the Chinese from the predicament that befell the USA. In doing so, he turned a public health policy into a political paradox of the highest order, worthy of the conundrums facing a chess grand master.

  • If there is no Covid (zero) people won’t take the vaccine;
  • If people are unvaccinated in substantial numbers they will die;
  • If lockdowns end and vaccinated people die, the vaccine is no good;
  • If China accepts Western vax it tacitly admits its product is crap.

The Chinese government made serious mistakes, both in politics and public health, and from blank sheets of paper to massive unrest, China is pushing back.

Free speech. Elections. Choice.

These simple things that the West takes for granted, forfeiting the vote for a day at the beach, are more precious than life itself—they are the lifeblood of a successful society.

Wouldn’t it be nice if after inventing the Coronavirus, China invented the democracy virus?

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

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.

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