Friday, April 27, 2007

A short but harrowing tale

A small story with a happy ending (followed by a bit of liberal hand-wringing and analysis - well you didn't think I'd skip an opportunity to be self-absorbed did you?)

On Saturday 14th April, I arrived at London Gatwick Airport, after a 10-ish hour flight from Karachi via Dubai. I was, as the vernacular would have it, buggered. My luggage arrived, I loaded it all onto the trolley and headed off to the Gatwick railway station from where I would be heading to my parents' house near Cambridge. I had one massive and very heavy suitcase (since I was on a 4 week trip all told), a couple of small bags courtesy of duty free and a Pakistani carpet neatly wrapped into a hessian holdall, and my laptop, which I hung on that little hook on the back of the cart. When I arrived at the station, via the formerly cutting-edge little monorail thing that connects the two termini at Gatwick, the next train for London was due to leave in three minutes. I hurriedly bought a ticket, grabbed my bags off the trolley, went down the escalator to the platform and jumped (or lumbered) onto the train, breathing a sigh of relief. I deposited the big suitcase in the relevant place and sat down with the rest. Within seconds we had pulled away from the station and I could sit back and relax for half an hour until pulling into Victoria.

After a couple of minutes, having recovered from my exertions, I decided to retrieve my book from my laptop bag. It was then that I discovered the awful truth. I had omitted to pick that bag up from the back of the trolley when I had left it at the top of the stairs. I think I actually said the words "Oh, FUCK" out loud, as I buried my head in my hands (I had thought burying ones head in ones hands was a figure of speech, but I have now discovered that it isn't).

With the Gatwick Express being a non-stop hermetically sealed service, I had 30 minutes to come up with a plan - there was no way of jumping off at the next stop and heading back down with a vague hope in my mind. I first called ahead to my folks, and asked if they could call the station, just on the off chance. Then I set about convincing myself that (a) it would be handed in; and (b) even if it wasn't the world would still turn and I would survive somehow - I could buy a new laptop, and while I'd have lost a certain amount of valuable data, I could probably piece it together somehow. For (a) I worked out a complex percentages system (this mental activity being preferable to self flagellation or just outright despair). 95% of people upon finding a laptop would hand it in, I convinced myself. This didn't of course mean that there was a 95% chance of it being handed in, because while the 5% who would see it as an opportunity would probably be on the look out for such an opportunity or would certainly pick it up if they noticed it, the 95% would consist mainly of people who wouldn't notice the bag, or if they did would figure that they didn't have time to find someone to report it to, and possibly be forced to fill out a form. 20% of those 95% would actually notice it, pick it up and hand it in, I reasoned, without the slightest shred of scientific or even anecdotal evidence to back up this statistic. This still left me looking at a better than 70% chance of getting my bag back. (Thankfully, I hadn't at this point factored in the fact that at airports especially, rogue bags tend to be blown up in controlled explosions just in case)

The upshot of all this desperate mental arithmetic was that by the time I arrived at Victoria station I was feeling quite sanguine about the whole thing, despite the fact that by now I had talked to my mum and heard that it being a Saturday night, all the offices at the station had proven to be closed. It was then, just as I was detraining (or whatever the new word would be), that I realised that not only was my laptop in that bag, but also my money, my tickets and more or less everything I needed for the next week or so excepting my passport. Once again, I was more or less physically winded by the realisation, actually stopping in my tracks as I walked down the platform. Could I have been any more cack-handed?

I located the lost property office, and (without much hope) asked if I could fill out a form. This entailed a lot of explanation as the guy tried to insist that I needed to report it to the Gatwick Express company, while I kept telling him that I had lost it at the station, not on the train, and thus it would be to his office that I should report it (The privatisation of the railways in Britain has pretty much been an unmitigated disaster, and this lack of coordination between different private companies is just one very small part of the wider chaos). Eventually he relented and let me have one of his precious forms to fill in, which I was doing when my phone rang. It was my mum to tell me that they'd got a call from a security bloke at Gatwick who'd come into possession of my bag and had found their phone number in it. I called him straight away, my voice possibly cracking with emotion, as he told me he had my bag and had looked through it with a colleague and found the money and stuff, and would I like to come back and pick it up.

The upshot, obviously, is that I went back down to Gatwick (for free as he spoke to the ticket collector on my behalf), got my bag, gave him a hefty tip (which was as a drop in the ocean compared to what I had been on the verge of losing), and once again resumed my journey - even more tired, but now oddly, extremely awake. I didn't get "home" until getting on for 1am, but after that I really didn't care.

Upon relating this story here, I have been told by everyone that it would be absolutely impossible to imagine that I'd ever have got it back in Romania. And, despite myself, I have to concur with that opinion. I know the chances that I'd ever have seen it again would have been practically nil here. So why is that? (I asked myself). After all, I sincerely don't believe that Romanians are any more or less honest/dishonest than Brits.

Here are a number of possible explanations: (1) Romanians are an awful lot poorer than Brits (on average) - the temptation to see what monetary advantage could be gleaned would be much greater; (2) Romanians tend to assume that most people in positions of authority are corrupt (for fairly good reason) - in such circumstances, handing in a found laptop would not likely guarantee that it would get back to its owner, more that it would be siphoned off by the person who received it; (3)Years of privation and hardship (in the 80s particularly) have left many people very conscious of opportunity and seizing the moment. I mean I don't regard the number of apartments which have balconies that have been enclosed using stolen train carriage windows as being indicative of a general national propensity to thievery - more of a general national intense poverty and desperation which existed here in those spectacularly lean years. I reckon that's a hard habit to break. And finally (4), I realised that I wasn't mentally comparing like with like. I couldn't reasonably compare what would happen at Gatwick Airport station to what would happen at Gara de Nord in Bucharest. Aside from having railway platforms, there's very little that the two places have in common. In fact there are no Romanian railway stations that would be a fair comparison in the possible-light-fingered stakes to Gatwick, at which station, the only people getting on and off are people who have been to the airport, which tends to be relatively well off demographic. Thinking about it, I realised that the closest comparison in terms of wealth and general well-being of potential finders within Romania, would be if I had left it at Otopeni Airport in the departure lounge. And if I had done that (and it hadn't been treated as a suspicious package and detonated), I reckon I'd have got it back.

I'm not about to test this theory out though. Not if I can help it.

Why not, prey?

The sky over Karachi is thick with birds. There’s nothing so odd about that, obviously, since many cities have flocks of starlings or sparrows or pigeons or what have you looping about the skyline. In Karachi, however, they are kites (Or maybe eagles - opinion seemed divided). Large birds of prey circling, hovering, and swooping round the city – in whichever direction you look you can see them there. A picture, not taken by me, of what I'm talking about.

At first I was a bit taken aback by this – after all it is something I don’t recall seeing before – but later when I thought about it, I realised that it wasn’t actually that odd. A city must be a great place to hang out as a bird of prey, since it plays host to a vast quantity of rats and mice. What’s odd, I realised, is that it is unusual. Why is it that other cities are not so similarly blessed with an airborne rodent control system? Have the birds just not sussed out that cities are a rich source of scuttling mammal-food? Or have they been dissuaded from hovering over the cities by some other factor?

Carrion and rubbish eaters you often see in towns – crows, seagulls, marabou storks (if you’ve never seen a marabou stork, you have missed nothing. They are quite the most repulsive bird on the planet – a fact not helped by their reliance on garbage as a food source), but rarely out and out predators. Foxes have apparently colonised London, and closer to home, bears are often found in Brasov and Tusnad (though again I think they rely on rooting through rubbish), but why are there not more eagles, hawks and other birds of prey in cities? There must be a reason.

Meanwhile, here for your visual pleasure is a picture of a gorgeous looking marabou stork, looking uncannily like Tony Greig (Possibly only people who have recently been exposed to Indian TV cricket coverage will get this comparison, but trust me)

Thursday, April 26, 2007

East and West Pakistan

Taking off from Dhaka and subsequently landing in Karachi is a study in contrasts – you rise above this incredibly wet and green world, crisscrossed with rivers, lush and verdant, and then 3 hours later you begin descending across this brown arid wasteland, crisscrossed with dry wadis and the occasional rock strewn escarpment. The two places couldn’t be more different.

The other thing one notices about the flight is how long it is. It takes something like four hours to go from Bangladesh to Pakistan. And this is in a modern 21st century aeroplane. God knows what it would have taken in 1947. It's during this long flight that I began to realise what a doomed and faintly ridiculous idea it was to create this one country with so much (sporadically hostile) territory between its seperate bits. Who thought it might be a good idea? It's amazing that it actually lasted for 24 years before imploding. For anyone wishing to read about the mess that was East and West Pakistan, and the resultant civil war/war of independence/brutal response to Bangladeshi uprsising, this Wikipedia article is worth a read. I had read before about the atrocities and the brutality that Bengalis suffered in that war of liberation (mostly in John Pilger's "Heroes"), but I had forgotten just how brutal and atrocious it really was.

On other historical matters, while I was in Karachi, I had a long and involved conversation with a (semi-famous?) writer on the subject of the founding of Pakistan and the role and philosophy of Muhammed Iqbal. To be honest, I hadn't heard of Iqbal before, though he was obviously crucial in the creation of the "idea" of Pakistan, and is still seen as the grandfather of the nation (with Jinnah as its father). I opined that founding a state on religious grounds (or ethno-religious grounds) was something I couldn't quite get my head around. The only two such states that I know of are Pakistan and Israel, and while I understand the rationale behind the formation of both, the "dream" on which they were founded seems to have run aground in both cases. My interlocutor said that he saw Pakistan as being founded upon an idea, rather like the US was, which I am not terribly sure I buy, but I suspect that's because he was coming from the literary perspective of the study of Iqbal. We were agreed, however, that whatever the ideal of Pakistan was, the reality was nowhere close.

Pakistan in general is more and more seen as the centre of the world - at least in a Huntington-esque clash of civilisations world. Military dictatorship vs Islamic fundamentalism vs secular / islamic-with-a-small-i democracy. The British government have realised this, it seems, and are devoting lots of resources to education there. Maybe they've got the message that education is more likely to win hearts and minds than bombing the fuck out of people, and then torturing those who are left alive. (Surprisingly the latter approach seems not to be terribly effective).

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Side effects of the smoking ban

I spent last week in Aberdeen, which, being in Scotland, has a full on smoking ban in pubs, restaurants, etc. (England & Wales don't yet, but Scotland does). Walking into a genuine UK style pub, and finding nobody smoking is somewhat strange at first. I've been in countries and states that have smoking bans before, but pubs are different - I mean I grew up passively (and, at times, actively) smoking in pubs, and having one without the all pervasive smell of smoke is almost as weird as being in one that doesn't serve beer or sell crisps.

The hotel I was staying in, for example, had a cellar pub bit in which there were at least 10 TV screens showing football from various different locations simultaneously. The night I walked in it was packed with men - many of whom I took to be oil-workers, as they seem to make up much of the transient population of the city ("Aberdeen: Oil Capital of Europe" signs proclaimed, though I'm figuring there must be somewhere in Norway that has at least as good a claim on that title) . A bar full of burly looking blokes watching football and not a whiff of smoke. Very peculiar and somehow unsettling (much more unusual than the lack of women, for example)

But then it was that I began to realise the downside of the smoking ban. That is that the benefit of cigarette smoke is that it is extremely effective at masking any other odours hanging around. And in this bar, I soon realised, there was very definitely an odour. And it was fairly pervasive, almost to a post-match-changing-room level of acridity. Funny, they never mention B.O. when discussing the pros and cons of the ban, do they? Mind you, as unpleasant as the smell of poorly-deoderised sweat may be (and it is, believe me, very unpleasant), at least your clothes don't stink of other people when you get home.

Not just BO, apparently

Catching Up

Got back home on Monday evening, with much relief. A week is hard enough to be away, whereas I was gone for nearly 4. In my absence, Paula has stopped climbing on everything (or rather she's no longer obsessively climbing on everything), and is now veryinto walking around on tiptoes. She is also calling everyone bigger than herself "Anyu" or "Anyuka", which is a bit disconcerting. (For non-Hungarian speakers, these are roughly equivalent to "mum" and "mummy", but its unusual even here for babies to skip over the interim "mama" step before going straight to the more commonly used version). Bogi on the other hand has come down with chicken pox (every year I go to to the same conference in the UK in April, and every year while I'm there, Bogi picks up some childhood ailment - last year mumps, this year chicken pox). Fortunately it's a mild case and she isn't itching, she just looks dead spotty.

Now, the next stage in the revolving door family has kicked in, as Erika left this morning for a project meeting in France. We are obviously an international bunch.

Romania made the international news last week twice - once for the political turmoil, with the government suspending the president, pending a referendum on impeachment which he will clearly win -an act that strikes me as being bafflingly time-wasting. But there you go. Secondly because one of the teachers killed at Virginia Tech was a 76 year old holocaust survivor from here.

More to follow, when I have a moment after the kids have crashed.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Och Aye

I am still alive, and have much to blog about, including impressions from Karachi, where I spent last week. This week I am in Aberdeen, where the weather is, let's just say, slightly colder than both Pakistan and Bangladesh. Normal blogging ought to probably resume next week, when I will be back in my Transylvanian castle (or 3 room apartment)

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

More things about Bangladesh

We are based here at the BRAC Centre for Development Management (BCDM),which is an educational retreat centre about an hour and a half outside Dhaka, set up by BRAC. BRAC is the largest NGO in the world (or at least it was when I first heard of it about ten years ago - that Wiki article uses "one of the largest"). It's an incredible organisation doing some really amazing work in the country covering health, education and development.

Bangladesh seems to have something about it as it is also the home of the Grameen Bank, which was founded by Mohammed Younus, winner of this year's Nobel Peace Prize, which is another amazingly successful organisation in helping alleviate poverty. Both articles are well worth a read if you're at all interested.

Monday, April 02, 2007

Brief notes from Bangladesh

Bangladesh is going well. The people are great, the food is fan-bloody-tastic, and the location of this course is a great out of town idyllic retreat-style campus, bougainvillas (is that how you spell it?) and water everywhere.

Some brief notes on Bangladesh:
1. The traffic in Dhaka makes Bucharest seem like a small village with the occasional horse cart by comparison. I didn't see a single bus that wasn't banged up and dented everywhere. The traffic rule is "if you see a gap, take it". That appears to be it.

2. It's really hot and humid. I'm told that Karachi next week will be even worse. The only nice time of day is very early morning. This is a time of day that I often avoid (not actively, but by dint of not getting around to it), but here I have found that I can manage to be around earlyish, most likely because...

3. Everywhere I have so far been is dry. Not dry in the sense of lacking water, since there's an abundance of that, it being basically an entire country situated on the Ganges Delta, but in the sense of being alcohol free. I don't think it's illegal, so it must exist somewhere, but I haven't found it yet.

4. Surprisingly for a fairly traditional Islamic society, the women here seem to have very strong characters and be quite argumentative, while the men seem quite meek and repressed. (Take this comment with the large amount of salt it merits, given that it's a massive generalisation and one which is based upon all of 4 days of casual observation)

5. They have a vegetable here called (something like) Corolla, which is quite possibly the most bitter thing I've ever tasted (even more bitter than Unicum). The first mouthful was quite a shock, but after that I've got used to it, and quite like it. In general the food is really really good - spicy, tasty, interesting, everything you could want from a cuisine. I need to find a Bangla cookbook.

6. Bangladesh are doing well (or at least better than expected) in the cricket world cup and everyone is staying up all night to watch cricket beamed live from the Caribbean. Except that the channel it is on keeps breaking for prayers or news or other unknown (to me) reasons

7. There is something of a political vacuum right now - the election earlier this year was a disaster and ended up in riots and other disturbances. Eventually the army have taken power, which never bodes well, though my participants (who are all teachers and fairly educated and clued in), seem to believe that in general the changes are for the better, and that it's better that there is this period of transition - the army insist they're just there until the new elections can be held, though that will be at least a year, before all the chaos is dealt with - and that the old politicians were all a bunch of corrupt gits anyway. So we'll see.

I'm about to be kicked out of this Internet cafe, so that will have to do for your taste of Bangladesh for the time being