Archive for the ‘Travel’ Category

Big Sur

August 19, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Salt adornments for the Virgin Mary, Sanlucar-style.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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





June 25, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Smart Kids

June 18, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Do you program?”

“Yes.” A shy voice.

“What languages?”

“Java. Python.”

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

The parent procrastinated, as one does.

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

I hid a grin.

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

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


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

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

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

“Unusual firewood…”

“Leftover from the house.”

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

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

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

C’est Chaud, Y’all

June 12, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I told him how impressed I was with his knife.

“Keep it.”

So I did.

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


May 29, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



May 6, 2017

Belgium is a small and fractious country, which bears evident scars of the joys of nationalism and religious strife. The nation has brought the world some unlikely gifts, including the European Commission, the best beers in the world, and ‘Bande Dessinée.’

BD, as it has become known, also extends to France, but my childhood memories of it are from Belgian artists, particularly Hergé, Uderzo, Morris, and Edgar P. Jacobs—although I must include Frenchman René Goscinny, who wrote the texts for both Asterix and Lucky Luke.

The Anglo-Saxon world never really had an equivalent of the Franco-Belgian ‘strip’, although Superman, Spiderman, and other superhero comics were in a similar vein.

Strip is far closer to Manga than to the US model, and the most emblematic series, Tintin and Asterix, were simultaneously delightful and instructive.

Both Tintin and Asterix traveled widely, and both taught me a lot of history and geography—although I think Tintin provided more of the latter, whereas Asterix ran the gamut from the Greeks to the Romans, Egyptians, Ancient Britons, Visigoths, Vandals, and of course Gauls.

Both heroes had idiosyncratic  companions—Asterix had the gigantic Obelix, possessed of supernatural strength because of a childhood fall into a vat of magic potion, and the village bard, whose musical talents were severely underappreciated.

Tintin’s most loved companions only appear as the books evolve—they are Professor Calculus, an archetypal absent-minded genius, and the fantastically named Captain Haddock.

And it was Haddock who introduced me to guano, in a superb book called the Temple of the Sun.

The book also introduced me to llamas, Incas, and Peru. Guano, or bird shit, was widely used as a raw material for fertilizer, but it was only a decade after I saw a bird poop on Captain Haddock that I realized oceanography was the reason so much guano existed.

The good captain being shadowed by an Inca in the Temple of the Sun.

In a classic ecological cascade, coastal upwelling caused by the southeasterly trade winds brings nutrients to the surface, which in turn generates high primary production. The microscopic phytoplankton supplies the base of the food chain, and drives the biggest fishery in the world—the Peruvian anchoveta, which in recent years ‘only’ yields between five and ten million metric tons annually, due to overfishing.

Seabirds prey on the fish, and out comes guano, a heady cocktail of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium—the word wanu is Quechua, the ancestral Inca language, still spoken today by 13% of Peruvians.

Cormorants, boobies, and pelicans are the king-shitters, and the production of fine guano also requires an extremely dry climate, which promotes volatilization of ammonia; although the main production was centered in Peru, Namibia and Baja California were both important guano-producing regions—they all share a common oceanographic feature: eastern boundary currents, that push away from the shore due to a combination of prevailing winds and the earth’s rotation, leading to rich surface waters for birds.

Peru is famous for its many hundreds of varieties of papa, or potato, for ceviche, pisco, and of course the coca leaf. But guano was one of the precursors of industrial agriculture in the XIXth century, and although its importance declined after the development of the Haber-Bosch process in 1909, it has now found a new niche in organic agriculture.

Any commodity attracts human greed, and with greed comes conflict. Guano was the reason behind two wars, the first in 1864 between Spain and a Peru-Chile alliance, followed by the War of the Pacific, in 1879. This was a bloody, four year war for territory, with Peru and Bolivia allied against Chile, and like many wars, began over a squabble—in this case, a tax imposed by Bolivia on a Chilean saltpeter mining company.

Chile made substantial territorial gains upon its victory, and genuine hatred between Peru and Chile endures to this day. In fact, Chile seems to be the most disliked nation in Latin America, although Argentina is perhaps considered the most arrogant—this is not just an exercise in random bigotry, it illustrates how historical perspective can help in formulating policy.

One final historical nugget on this excursion through ornithoexcrement is that the saltpeter extracted from the mines of Latin America’s Pacific coastline played an important role in the manufacture of explosives—and a substantial part of the mining was performed by one hundred thousand indentured workers from China.

Of course, the Haber process was also used by Germany for manufacturing explosives, after the allies imposed an embargo on saltpeter imports during World War I. But although the process doesn’t just produce ammonia for industrial agriculture, it nevertheless accounts for the food supply to one third of the world’s population—clearly, organic agriculture is a rich man’s indulgence.

Thus you see how an article entirely devoted to bird shit can be far more fulfilling than the bullshit produced by Marine Le Pen in last Wednesday’s debate.

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

The Unraveling

April 8, 2017

Friday brought a slew of news, including the delivery of 82.6 million bucks’ worth of Tomahawks to a Syrian airbase. Mid-afternoon in Europe saw the fifth lone wolf terror attack using a vehicle, after France, Israel, Germany, and Britain—all this within nine months, the human gestation period.

The US missile strike raises an immediate question, because it reverses policy trumpeted (pun intended) only a week ago. It remains to be seen whether the new administration suddenly grew up, or whether this was merely a ballistic tweet.

I hope you come here because you like ideas, but also because you enjoy words—I want to thank you by sharing a curious text on Trumpspeak.

And yet, what moved me most this week was a story from sub-Saharan Africa about Gulu, a town in Northern Uganda. These tales never make it into the mainstream news, but they illustrate how far apart we are from the tragedy that passes for life in many parts of the world.

Gulu is about the size of Stamford, Connecticut, and is in the poorer (!) part of Uganda. It has a soccer stadium, built by the British in 1959—it used to boast power and water, but both have long disappeared. Transportation went the same way—the only railway line was out of use for twenty years, until 2013, when trains began operating again.

The town appears to boast several hotels, and their websites use standard westspeak such as ’boutique’ and ‘wifi’, but occasionally odd things crop up—my favorite is the word ‘leopard’ underneath the list of rental cars of the Golden Peace hotel—not hotlinked, sadly, but when you hover over it the tantalizing hint ‘leopards in Botswana’ appears.

One guy supplied the following comment on his experience in another hotel.

When I arrived, I was put on ground floor room, next to a Ugandan government official so there were security men outside his room 24/7. They were very friendly and offered to “protect” me too, whatever that means, but I could hear them talking in the halls 24/7, flirting with the housekeeper…

What got me to Gulu was a story about the municipal abattoir, which has a capacity to slaughter thirty animals daily. It was set up in 1959, apparently by Indians and Nubians—you don’t hear much about Nubians these days. If, like me, your memories of them are all from Ancient Egypt, which they ruled in the VIIIth century BC, then you’ll be pleased to hear that Kenya is now home to about a hundred thousand Nubians.

In 1960, a German vet made improvements to the building, and, much like the football stadium, there the story ends. The consequences of this are first explained in a description about a local entrepreneur (euse?)…

Filth from the Gulu main abattoir continues to flood into Harriet Achen’s restaurant as she collects her grimy cooking utensils – some filled with maggots – from her workplace, shortly after a heavy downpour. Clad in a floral dress, with a bandana wrapped around her head, Achen uses an empty can and a plastic bag as gloves to scoop out the animal waste.

“If it continues to rain like this, I don’t know how I will survive. I won’t work for days because I have to clean my [work] place. More so, I need to pay up my bank loan and also fend for my children,” says the 34-year-old single mother of four.

I couldn’t find Harriet’s restaurant among the various offerings in Gulu, including one called ‘The Iron Donkey’, perhaps a local name for the train, much like Native Americans used ‘Iron Horse’.

The effluent from the abattoir blocks the sewage system, because the lipid fractions aren’t adequately separated and disposed of, and the general (un)sanitary conditions of the facility, whose incinerator broke down two years ago, contribute with an added stench of burning hooves and horns. The reporter informs us that these issues “have become daily inconveniences that repel potential customers.”

Trucking animals for slaughter, Ugandan-style. But that’s okay, at least they have Coke.

The use of the term ‘inconvenience’ speaks volumes about sub-Saharan Africa, as does the offhand reference to the ‘single mother of four’, a quintessential African problem.

But this is far more than an inconvenience, it’s a major health hazard for zoonotic diseases—and it’s not just sewage contamination within the abattoir—the hapless goats are already sitting in waste.

As a consequence, one hundred thirteen cases of brucellosis were registered since November of last year, forty-four in February alone—the sanitary authorities advise the population not to eat meat from the Gulu slaughterhouse, when the real option is obviously to close down the establishment.

The key point here is that the abattoir is only a symptom, and the whole infrastructure of Gulu unravels as we inspect services such as education and healthcare.

The Lacor Hospital was founded in 1959—what is it about that year?—by Comboni missionaries, which once again is the story of all Africa. A husband and wife team, made up of Italian pediatrician Piero Corti and his Canadian wife Lucille, started the hospital, which now treats a quarter of a million patients every year.

But this is no ordinary hospital, it replaces all kinds of social safety nets. As an example, it also trains masons, carpenters, and electricians, pointing out that disease and poverty are an intimate couple—not only does poverty breed disease, but the opposite is also true. AIDS, which is rarely talked about in the West these days, is still a major concern—surgeon Lucille Teasdale Corti died from it in 1996—the hospital says it was ‘professionally acquired’.

Lacor also served as a refugee camp—during the war that ravaged the region between 1996 and 2006, between 3,000 and 10,000 women and children sought nightly refuge in the hospital grounds to escape rebel attacks.

To place that in context, UNICEF estimates that thirty thousand children between the ages of seven and fourteen were abducted over that decade and forced to become guerillas (child soldiers), or sold into slavery.

Like a cable-knit sweater that starts unraveling, you only need to pull one thread to watch the whole fabric of society fall apart—the story I’ve told you, of fatherless kids, deadly pathogens, environmental hazards, and the collapse of basic infrastructure in not a Gulu exclusive.

Africa is one thousand, or one hundred thousand Gulus, dealing with challenges that Europe and North America eliminated long ago, problems for which simple solutions exist.

Uganda suffers this fate despite being unusually well endowed in natural resources—apart from valuable minerals, including the ever-sinister coltan, its soils are so rich that it could potentially feed all of Africa.

The Lacor hospital is going bankrupt—not from the war, but because of peace. Since the war ended in 2006, international aid has moved on to other war zones, so the poverty resulting from the conflict can no longer find solace.

When you witness tragedy on this scale, three little words come to mind.

Cruelty. Waste. Sadness.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, and Clear Eyes. QR links for smartphones and tablets.


No Bother

April 1, 2017

Over the last fifteen years, Galway turned into a big small town. It wasn’t like that in the early nineties, when Ireland boasted only two highways, inexplicably called the M1 and M50—for decades, the nation puzzled over the other forty-eight.

Back then, the road was an endless succession of tractors and villages, but now Galway chokes well before the city limit because the town expanded but the road system didn’t.

But despite the US tech companies, the industrial parks, and the massive influx of tourists, the town remains easy to love, and it’s not hard to find refuge from the Twitter and Trip Advisor brigade—twice I drove out to Moran’s on the weir to eat the native oyster, a rarity in my part of the world.

Although Brexit made some headlines in Ireland, since the Irish are the last man standing between the EU and Britain, the main news was characteristic of the Emerald Isle. As I drove up from Dublin, I was delighted to learn that the Gardai, or Irish constabulary, had become the butt of protests, political mayhem, and of course good craic.

On my outbound flight, I’d continued to read Robert Fisk’s Great War for Civilisation, a lengthy and horrific tale of the suffering humans impose upon each other. In particular, I am navigating the section on Algeria and the GIA, where horrendous crimes were perpetrated by both the Islamists and the police.

It’s imposible to remain immune to the testimony of a young woman who is receiving psychiatric treatment because she only enjoys going to horror movies—she needs to see blood. Her apprenticeship began in an Algiers police station, watching hundreds of prisoners being systematically tortured and killed, and now she can’t think of anything else—Dalilah is thirty years old.

Just as you can’t play ostrich, as the UN report chaired by ex-president of Portugal Soares did in 1999, when it claimed that Algerian massacres in the last decade of the twentieth century were a product of  terrorism—whitewashing the crimes committed by the military.

In all fairness, Fisk cautions the reader before the start that he’s in for a rough ride. So it lightens the spirit to hear of the woes of the Irish police commissioner, as she makes a pathetic effort to explain how her officers managed to fake just under one million breathalyzer reports over a period of five years.

Her assistant tells a press conference in Dublin: “The numbers don’t add up—that’s a fact.” A masterly understatement, since the ‘Pulse’ system used by the Gardai recorded 1,996,365 alcohol tests between October 2011 and December 2016, but the Medical Bureau of Road Safety claims only 1,058,157 were performed.

I’m with the medics on this one, based on the number of disposable mouthpieces ordered—almost a million fake tests were logged into ‘Pulse’. Assistant Commissioner Finn goes on to state: “As time went on the importance of recording that data was lost to us, or we didn’t appreciate it…” He’s referring to the log of who ‘carried out’ the test, and how many tests the breath analyzer actually registered.

The Irish spirit warms your heart, from the 119.5 seconds required to pour the perfect pint of Guinness to the offhand dismissal by a latecomer that he was referring to ‘Irish Time.’

Decades ago, I bought a small Spanish guitar in an equally small music shop in Galway—Spanish in style only, because it was made in Hong-Kong. That instrument holds wonderful memories for me, and I wandered into the main drag in search of a couple of tuners, and a nut—that’s the bit at the top the strings go through.

The town center is ‘organized’ around a couple of streets with the excellent names of Shop Street and High Street, rich in pubs, buskers, and young Irish girls carousing in sleeveless tops and short skirts—oblivious to the Connemara weather, which lives up to the tourist description of the Wild Atlantic Way.

At the lower end of the High Street is the Spanish Arch, built in 1584, four years after the Spanish paid a courtesy call to Lisbon which lasted sixty years. There are only two remaining arches in the front wall of Galway, both partially destroyed over two hundred and sixty years ago—and what caused the damage? None other than the Lisbon earthquake of 1755, which generated a ten foot tsunami wave on the west coast of Ireland.

Lisbon wakes up to the horror of All Saints Day in 1755.

Under a smaller arch on the High Street, a sign directed me to a music store, along with a tattoo parlor.


As I walked up the narrow stairs, there was still no separation between church and state. I wondered whether I would enter a dark den where musicians vied with epidermal etchers for my custom—I rolled down my sleeves in anticipation.

Thankfully, at the last minute the waters parted—clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right. The luthier patiently examined my pathetic display of guitar archeology, and dived into the bowels of his tuner treasure trove to retrieve the needed bits and bobs.

For half an hour, life became a timeless journey through my past and his, and a discussion of the merits of the instruments displayed in his small, first floor store—you could have been in medieval Galway, as he showed me the tools I would need to rebuild the small guitar, the music wafting up from outside, a Gaelic mixture of tin whistles, guitars, and fiddles.

Along the rack on the southeast wall, a whole row of guitars made in Braga, a Galway-sized city in the northwest of Portugal. Beautiful instruments, starting at under two hundred bucks, that filled my heart with joy—if Portugal is exporting guitars to Ireland, all is well with the world.

Still no clarity on what lies behind that door…

It’s getting late, my ears are popping, and my flask is almost finished. The airline prohibits alcoholic beverages, unless they’re purchased from them directly—moral protest is therefore required, which I implement by means of a bottle of Ribena.

Ribena, for those who didn’t endure a British upbringing, is a blackcurrant drink of a vile nature which is used in combination with Marmite to turn small children into Brexiteers. But the bottle has a singular advantage—it’s completely opaque, bearing splendid designs of blue skies with mildly wafting clouds, punctuated by a bizarre necklace of blackcurrants.

Within, half a bottle of red wine, purchased at the airport deli and subsequently decanted, can be splendidly camouflaged. As I reach for the last sip, noting the tight cap has compressed the bottle, another sure sign the air pressure is increasing, my heart is full of concern—not for the stewardesses who walk past calling for empties, no doubt thinking I’ve reached my second youth as I swig my jungle juice—but for the two dozen native oysters I’m smuggling in my suitcase, nestled in a bed of kelp.

The good people at Moran’s parted with them, and the (not so) little beauties spent the night in the hotel fridge. As I handed them to the night manager, I warned him that I expected to find the full complement when I asked for them next morning.

He grinned and explained he didn’t like oysters at all. “Now,” he says, “my girlfriend loves them.”

“Well then,” I said. “There’s some things you just can’t tell your girlfriend.”

“No bother,” he said.

Good craic.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, and Clear Eyes. QR links for smartphones and tablets.


March 11, 2017

I have a plane to catch, but the museum only opens at 10 am. Not just on Saturdays, but every weekday. This strikes me as incredibly un-Dutch. I expected families to be queuing up for 8 am sharp, complete with bicycles and broodjes.

So the airborne museum goes onto (into?) my bucket list, but there were two great reasons for wanting to visit today—space and time.

The spatial context is Arnhem, site of a massive airborne landing in 1944, when the allies tried to build a bridgehead on the northern bank of the Rhine. Not only that, but I was at the very spot where the German surrender was signed by Blaskowitz on the Nazi side, and Canadian general Charles Foulkes on behalf of the allies, ending the war in the Netherlands.

This historical site is marked by a huge shell (of the military persuasion) with a flame burning merrily at the top. For a moment I thought it was some gigantic mammary gland, albeit of the elongated variety, the sort of thing you see in back issues of National Geographic that feature ‘ethnic’ articles.

I was always amused that in the 1960s and 70s the magazine, whose style may be described as ‘US prude’, was happy to show rows of topless women, provided they belonged to some tribe from the Amazon or Papua New Guinea—native boobery was exempt from censorship.

But my speculation on the sexual nature of the giant cannon shell was not entirely driven by libido—that afternoon, I had been taken on an unrequested tour of the Het Depot museum—an exhibition of sculpture. The whole shebang was set up by a wealthy patron of the arts, and there is no admission fee, which would certainly be an attraction for Dutch visitors.

The sculptures, and there were many, distributed through four levels, focused entirely on the human body, with a disturbing emphasis on genitalia.

I think after my third dick and pussy, in as many rooms, I began to get the general drift of the artform on display—it seemed to me this particular millionaire was er… a tad obsessive. My companions seemed oblivious to this point—we perused many a penis, and viewed many a vulva, before we finally made our escape.

The temporal context for my visit to the Hartenstein Airborne Museum at Oosterbeck is of course the Dutch general election next Wednesday. This is the next test of Europe, in a year fraught with challenges to the European Union.

The Netherlands is an easygoing sort of place, and above all a tolerant one, as its history attests—In the XVth and XVIth centuries, the country received a large influx of Jewish refugees fleeing the torches of Torquemada, and Amsterdam boasts a Portuguese synagogue. So it’s bizarre that the party leading the field runs on a platform built on nationalism and racism—apparently, these days populism is in greater demand than good skunk.

Let me explain just how relaxed this place is. Since 2015, the Dutch prison system is in crisis—not, as  in the US, the UK, and every nation in the developing world, due to overcrowding, but because the good burghers of the Low Countries aren’t committing enough crimes.

This has led to social upheaval across the judicial system, and much trade union activity. Prison guards, policemen, and even magistrates are concerned this worrying lack of criminality is putting their jobs at risk.

So they’ve done what the Dutch are best at—trade. Yes, it may come as a shock to you that Holland has no diamond mines, and neither do they particularly appreciate shells (of the aquatic persuasion)—and yet, Antwerp (yes, yes, it’s in Belgium, but what’s in a name), Rotterdam, and Amsterdam are major centers for the international diamond trade, and down in Zeeland (yes, yes, as in New Zealand) there is a small, unpronounceable town called Yerseke (you need a serious case of strep throat to do it linguistic justice)—it’s the center of shellfish trade for Europe.

In a deal reminiscent of Hanseatic times, the Dutch prison service has made its jails available to Norwegian inmates, because there are too many naughty Norwegians—but only because the correctional system in Norway is nicer than most US business class lounges. In Brazil all the convicts would fit comfortably in one cell—food optional.

“It’s a very cushy prison, a pleasant prison,” Kenneth Vimme, who is serving a 17-year sentence for murder and who volunteered for a transfer, told Norwegian public television NRK. But he complained that inmates transferring would get fewer TV channels, and was dismayed that not all prisoners were going of their own free will, which he feared could cause tensions.

I rest my case.

A Norwegian prison cell. It closely resembles my Dutch hotel room.

Holland has 57 inmates for every 100,000 people, compared to 148 in the UK, and crime has fallen by 50% in the last ten years—the Dutch are also selling prison space to Belgium. Dutch inmates are now suing the government, in protest at being relocated to less luxurious correctional facilities.

Frans Carbo, the prison guards’ representative from the FNV union, says his members are “angry and a little bit depressed”. Young people don’t want to join the prison service he adds “because there is no future in it any more – you never know when your prison will be closed”.

But the majority of this placid nation supports Geert Wilders, the leader of the populist PVV,  who is campaigning on an anti-Islamic ticket. His party stands to win 25 seats out of 150, which means there is no risk of an EU exit, or even a hint of withdrawal from the euro. The problem is that the other parties must cobble together a coalition government, and this appears to be less than straightforward.

What a different nation Holland now is, compared to the ruined country that emerged from German occupation in 1945. The older people remember—when Germans ask for directions, it’s not unusual to direct them to the border. But yesterday evening, a white haired gentleman told me that when he recently showed an Amsterdam cabbie photos of bombed-out buildings in the city, the man merely shrugged—“I don’t care, I’m a taxi driver.”

And yet the Netherlands are a case study in suffering, of the religious divide in Europe, from medieval times to the modern day. The Rhine, where the allies planned their bridgehead, is a barrier: Protestants to the north, Catholics to the south—but the great river flows on regardless.

History shows that bigotry, violence, and yes, holocaust, are predicated on nationalism, indifference, and precedent—the Armenian massacres by the Turks were carefully studied by Hitler, and a number of their techniques were faithfully reproduced in the ‘final solution’. In one case it was the mass murder of Christians, the next in line were the Jews.

We’re all People of the Book—they’re just different books.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, and Clear Eyes. QR links for smartphones and tablets.


February 25, 2017

The airport road is irregular, lined with ugly, communist-era buildings, and billboards advertising products from bygone years.

One of the ads shows the face of an obscure French girl with bangs—she’ll be giving a live performance in Budapest on March 17th. I watch a succession of identical boards in amazement, because the woman’s name is Mireille Mathieu, and she is seventy years old.

I’ve driven in from the southeast, a stone’s throw from the Romanian border at Vărșand—they’re big on accents in Hungary also, piling three or four on top of a single word. I’m stuck in a mental mire of childhood, somewhere between Radio Moscow and Tintin.

My history was essentially learned from Tintin books—when the young reporter is in the fascist country of Borduria the diacritical mark is a set of whiskers—and this trip is like a journey through the past.

Toward Romania, the roads are narrow and dangerous, and the locals overtake the endless lines of trucks with suicidal abandon. And no one smiles. Not when I get the car, not in restaurants, hotels, TV, not anywhere.

Radio stations reveal the soul of a country. On the road, only one station is barely tuneable, providing endless monotonic discussions. No one laughs. There’s no music. Finally, they play a track—a cross between heavy metal and the Eurovision song contest.

I pass buildings with triple barbed wire fencing. Mounted in the center of a traffic circle is a Mig fighter, climbing at thirty degrees, painted cold-war green. I’ve been embedded in the bowels of a Le Carré novel, and around me I see Jerry Westerby, Toby Esterhase, and of course, Karla.

These are the flat plains of central Europe, the ones you saw on TV with columns of refugees lining the verges. Timisioara is down the road, and from there it’s a straight line to Sofia and Istanbul.

This is the Syrian trail, and I wonder out loud how many of those big rigs are smuggling people, desperate to flee a war they didn’t start.

The House of Terror on Andrássy út holds some clues to the dour disposition of the population. I know this isn’t going to be easy, so I fortify myself at the Regõs tavern in Sofia Street. Hungary is big on sweet white wine, whereas I like mine dry and red—even when I’m eating pike.

A drop of Portuguese villany, Hungarian-style.

A drop of Portuguese villany, Hungarian-style. None of that ‘hints of quince and peach nose’ crap, this one is smooth, easygoing, and charming.

I’m piqued by something that loosely translates as Portuguese villany—perhaps an echo of The India Road, and a couple of glasses later am face-to-face with a genuine Soviet T-54 tank, the most widely produced beast of that ilk. The Soviets manufactured about ninety thousand from 1947 onward, and the tanks became a mainstay of Warsaw Pact armies.

The T54/55 range have fought more battles than any other tank, and you can purchase one for about forty-five thousand bucks from a company called mortar investments—a Czech outfit fully appraised with Soviet ordnance—if you’re wondering, a mortar is a ‘short smooth-bore gun for firing shells (technically called bombs) at high angles’.

Andrássy is one of Budapest’s most emblematic boulevards, taking you west across the chain bridge toward Buda. But east of the Oktogon, Nº 60 has the dubious honor of having been party headquarters of the Hungarian Nazis, and subsequently HQ for the ÁVO, the Communist secret police.

There is no spirit of ‘truth and reconciliation’ here, just some extremely graphic artifacts of suffering. Without any mollycoddling, you watch live footage of bulldozers pushing truckloads of bony corpses, some with missing limbs or heads, into mass graves. The Nazi section is mercifully short, with Arrowcross uniforms and memorabilia, but that’s only because the subsequent Soviet part is huge—after all, the Nazis were there for six years, but the Communists (Soviets from 1956 onward) were there for forty-five years.

The arrowcross of the Hungarian Nazi party, a fearful image during the Second World War. In the 1939 elections, one in three votes from the working class area of Budapest went to the Arrowcross Party. Sound familiar?

The arrowcross of the Hungarian Nazi party, a fearful image during the Second World War. In the 1939 elections, one in three votes from the working class area of Budapest went to the Arrowcross Party. Sound familiar?

I go down and sit inside a basement cell, and think of the Dukes of Ferrara, their prisons in the XVth century, and the abhorrent cruelty of human nature. That was then, this is now, five hundred years on, and nothing has changed.

The Arrowcross came, then the Germans in 1944, then the Communists with their PRO, ÁVO, and ÁVH—identical, bar the name changes, just as the Portuguese PIDE renamed itself DGS a few years before the revolution.

The cells have framed photographs with the birth and death dates of the inmates. The torture chambers are there, including hanging posts, both for torture and execution.

I was delighted to see so many young people at the House of Terror—given the rise of European nationalism, we need to show this horror to as many youngsters as possible. The teenagers wandered around in a daze, staring at the appalling carnage, the sharp tools used to torture, maim, and kill their parents and grandparents.

Bryan Adams has a song called '18 till I die'. Peter was.

Bryan Adams has a song called ’18 till I die’. Péter was.

And for all those kids who can’t be there, who think this can’t happen again, I selected just one photo, out of a collection that now qualifies as the most horrific I own. It is taken in one of the cells, a 6 X 4 foot hole with a low ceiling and a tiny window, barred and blocked.

Péter Mansfeld was a young man, braver than I’ll ever be, who was murdered by the Soviets in 1959, three years after the invasion.

Perhaps it’s why Hungarians don’t smile.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, and Clear Eyes. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, and Clear Eyes. QR links for smartphones and tablets.


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