Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Dubai the by

So in a miracle of rapid reorganisation, my Afghanistan trip has been placed in Dubai. That means that not only do I have a new destination, but so do a bunch of Afghans, Iranians and Kyrgyzstanis. Within 3 days of the bomb going off (and I mean that literally) more or less everything bar a few last minute visa hitches had been put in place for the new venue.

Hence I sit here in the Emirates lounge at Munich airport, bound for the highly peculiar city of Dubai. (I was actually the first person in this lounge so I got the run of the place including the TV remote, meaning I am sitting here sipping a very nice "Schneider Weisse" beer, watching Tunisia vs Senegal on a big screen TV and pootling about on my computer. It's all very civilised. To begin with I was outnumbered 10-1 by staff, but now others have arrived to disturb my center-of-attention status. None of them have ventured into my zone though, finding themselves uninterested in African football - which is sad for them as it is a cracking match.)

I had been hoping for a spectacular temperature differential between Csikszereda and Dubai so I could flaunt my destination in people's faces and tell them I'd be on the beach while they shivered in sub -30 icy chills, but in a curious turn of fate, on Monday this week it reached 11 degrees in Szereda (that's PLUS eleven) while the temp in Dubai was a mere 18 (and even dipped as low as 9 at night). So, my heartless gloating was put on hold. This morning was much better though as we drove through a raging blizzard to get to the airport (much better from a "ha ha I'm going to Dubai" perspective, rather than a safe driving perspective).

Last weekend we went up to the local ski resort, amid the slowly melting snows in the unseasonal thaw. You may not be aware but in your house you have an almost perfect sledge. Slick, glossy, plastic, slightly cambered for minimum friction. Know what it is yet? Well, I'll tell you. It's a toilet seat. We found one on the mountain (presumably used by someone else for the same purpose - at least that's what I'm telling myself), and zipped down the snow in our virtually frictionless way (note to any scientifically minded pedants whose fingers are as we speak hovered over the keyboard angrily composing a response - yes I know it's not frictionless or even close to being so, but it's poetic licence. If you'd flown down the side of a mountain on a toilet seat you'd use the same level of hyperbole. Honest). More sedately, I went cross country skiing for the first time in bloody yonks, and remembered how much I like it. In Dubai apparently there is a shopping mall with a ski resort in it (that's Dubai for you). I wonder if they have any cross-country sections?

Wednesday, January 16, 2008


This time next week I was due to be in Dubai, pootling around that odd city back and forth to the Afghanistan Consulate to get a visa ready to fly there on the 24th (on that well know airline "United Nations Humanitarian Air Services" - anyone know whether they offer free beer or peanuts?)

Sadly however, I will not now be doing that. I was to be in Kabul doing a 5 day workshop in the fancy Serena Hotel, while staying in the same place. If that name rings a kind of recent bell in your mind it is because the Serena Hotel made the news on Monday when it was attacked by the Taliban.

Now when I was first told that the next stage of this project would take me to Kabul, my first reaction was slightly nervous, but after I had assured myself that it was safe and would actually be pretty interesting, I was looking forward to it. I'd read up as much as it was possible to read up (since tourism isn't especially big, and anyway the situation has been fairly, let's call it fluid, ever since the Soviet invasion), and was beginning to really feel enthusiastic. Over the course of various jobs and travels I have been lucky enough to meet a number of Afghans and, without exception, the ones I have met have been wonderful people.

Anyway, the news is obviously much more terrible than the small fact that it has meant my trip has been cancelled. Is there any country that has suffered more in the last 30 years? I suppose most places that have been at the centre of what is euphemistically called "Global politicking" (which as we all know actually means "Creation of human suffering"). Palestine I guess would be up there.

Still, I won't be in Kabul next week, thanks to those lovely people in the Taliban, and I have no idea where I will be. Almost certainly Csikszereda at a guess, but there are other faint possibilities of a plan B for the Kabul workshop. We'll see.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Two legs better

There's a famous story, or parable I suppose, which I'm quite sure you've heard before, but I'll repeat it anyway, because I've obviously got too much time on my hands.

So there's this rich successful retired businessman wandering along the beach in some tropical paradise one afternoon. He sees a young man lying in a hammock and goes over to talk to him. I'll tell it in dialogue since it makes slightly more sense that way:

Rich bloke: "How come you're lying around in this hammock and not working?"
Local layabout: "What for? I went out this morning, caught some fish for my family and others in the village, and now I'm relaxing"
RB:"But you could go out and catch more fish"
LL: "Why would I do that?"
RB: "You could sell it"
LL: "Why?"

(from this point onwards the story becomes a bit repetitive so bear with me. There is a punchline. Honest. Do parables have "punchlines"?)

RB: "So you could buy a better net"
LL: "But the net I have is good enough to catch all the fish I need"
RB: "With a better net you could catch more fish, and when you've caught and sold enough you could buy a bigger boat"
LL: "I don't need a bigger boat"
RB: "With a bigger boat you could go further out, catch more and bigger fish and make even more money. Eventually you'd be able to buy a second boat, and employ someone to work for you catching even more fish"
LL: "Yes, yes, get to the point will you? Why would I be bothered with all this? Why would I go to all this trouble?"

(In the original parable he doesn't actually say all that, but I am already desperate for RB to get to the point and allow me to therefore get to mine - which, I'll warn you now, is probably not worth it)

RB: "Well, after you've made enough money, hired enough people to keep your business running successfully for you, you'll be able to retire"
LL: "And what would I do then?"
RB: "Well you could spend your days lying around on the beach"

I'm sure I could have told that better, but you get the general idea.

Anyway, he says, finally reaching the long overdue point of this blog post, I was reminded of this story on our recent trip to the UK. On December 30th we, along with my parents, my brother and his family went along to "Wimpole Home Farm" which is kind of a touristy attraction type thing near my parents' house. Specifically it is a working farm in which various animals are kept and can be viewed/touched/groomed/fed etc, as children tend to like that kind of thing. It was all very nice, and we got to have fun, and eat a nice lunch, and be with the family and all that kind of thing - as well as see some piglets born that day, some goats, sheep, donkeys, horses etc etc. Paula, for whom animals are incredibly exciting and wonderful, was particularly happy.

But it occurred to me that the whole concept was kind of peculiar, and that anyone from a Transylvanian village (for example) would find it laughable that people in England would pay money (and we did pay money in not-to-be-sniffed-at quantities) to wander round a farm looking at animals. Since this is precisely what normal life offers for free here. [Another example comes from the time that Erika and I first met, which was in the town of Brattleboro, Vermont, USA. She happened to be there - where I worked - attending a course which took place during the weekend when Brattleboro offered up its annual "strolling of the heifers" festival - the local tongue-in-cheek response to Pamplona's "running of the bulls". When offered the chance to go downtown and watch a bunch of cows walk through the streets she laughed disbelievingly saying she could do that any day of the week here. And she was right.]

So is economic development like the parable of the rich industrialist on the beach? You slowly get rid of all your small scale agriculture, swallowed up and sold off to agribusiness so that vast warehouses full of battery chickens, concentration camps full of pigs, and factory farmed cows hyped up on steroids and antibiotics can supply your food needs cheaply and efficiently, and in this way your country/region becomes more and more "developed", until such time as you have enough money that you can set aside smallholdings where you can revive the lost art of animal husbandry and charge tourists large sums to come and groom a donkey or collect eggs from real live free range chickens? Your fresh food tastes like rubbish and is full of chemicals and hormones, but at least you've entered the 21st century.

Saturday, January 05, 2008


When one arrives at Luton airport to take the plane to Cluj, there is no mention of the city to which the plane flies - the departure boards and the check in lines all read "Transylvania" - I am struggling to think of any other place one could fly to in which the city is not mentioned. Malta is one, but then Malta is a small island which is (to all intents and purposes) one city with lots of bits. Transylvania is very large, and, well, you could be landing anywhere from Oradea to Brasov, two cities that must be getting on for 500 kms apart.

Anyway, it turned out to be a very good thing that we were flying back to Transylvania on Thursday, since, if we'd tried to fly to Bucharest we'd have been up shit creek without a paddle, as it appears the entire south of Romania was blanketed in a blizzard of epic proportions that day, and both of Bucharest's airports were shut for hours (and hours) . So, hurrah for Transylvania, in which the roads were clear, the sky was blue (though it was - and still is- colder than a witch's tit) and the parking was miraculously free at the airport (and the car started first time despite sitting outside in sub -10 degree temperatures for a week).

The upshot of this is that I am now back home and will resume blogging in a 2008 stylee very shortly.