Friday, March 28, 2008

New Country for Old Man

So, I'm in Podgorica. For those who haven't kept up with Europe's continued breaking into smaller and smaller bits, Podgorica is the capital of Montenegro, and therefore arguably Europe's newest capital (that honour could go to Pristina, but I'm still not sure if Kosovo is a real country or not.)

I only arrived a couple of hours ago, and I'm off to do a workshop at the coast in a few minutes, so I'll give my potted thoughts.

1. Podgorica used to be called Titograd, which is a marvelously evocative name, redolent of tractor factories, concrete apartment buildings and smog. So while I kind of regret that it's not still called Titograd, it doesn't really look like a Titograd. It's surrounded by snowcapped mountains and is a very small town (it seems), and (as communist towns go) it seems pretty attractive really.

2. It has a spanking new and modern looking new airport, all shiny buildings and cleanliness and chrome and everything. But it seems like there are no planes or passengers served by it. I arrived on one of those propeller engined little things from Vienna, which when we got there was the only plane in town. As you might imagine we didn't really provide the airport with a vast amount of business before the staff all went back to filing their nails or whatever else they do in the hours between customers.

3. Two surprising facts (to me at least). (a) The currency is the Euro; (b) Everything seems to be written in Roman script rather than cyrillic, which I was kind of expecting.

That's it for now. Not sure how to say good night in Montenegran (I wonder if that's what they call it, like Serbo Croat split into three more or less the same languages (Croatian, Bosnian and Serbian) and now there's a new one? I'll have to ask). My guess is it will be something like Dobre Utra. So a possible Dobre Utra for now.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

East of Easter

So, it's Maundy Thursday. No idea what that means, but it's the day before Good Friday. At least it is the day before Good Friday for some people. (In Hungarian it's "Big Friday" by the way). Obviously for people outside the christian world, it's not, and also for many people within the christian world it's not either. This is because the orthodox church in the various countries that have one has easter at a different time. It's a sort of strange weekend in Csikszereda and around, then, because while it's easter for "us", it's not easter for most of the country. As far as I can tell Orthodoxers (? - Orthodoxicals? Orthodontists?) refer to the easter that's coming up as "Catholic Easter", on the basis that all christians who are unorthodox are catholic or something. I'm not convinced everyone in Northern Ireland would be totally OK with that distinction.

Last year the easters coincided (though I spent easter in Pakistan, where it wasn't really much of a big deal), but this year the two easters are over a month apart, so while Monday will be pretty much a public holiday in this part of the country, the rest of Romania won't take the day off until sometime at the end of April. Though I read today that a large number of people and most schoolkids in Bucharest will be off for three days at the beginning of April for this NATO summit thing. No idea why. Are they expected to line the streets cheering the arrival of Gordon Brown or something?

We'll be off up to Marosvasarhely for the traditional easter Sunday family dinner, before braving the traditional easter Monday dangerous drive home. Dangerous because the tradition on easter monday is for men to go round visiting all the women they know, read a poem, sprinkle them with scented water, and receive a glass of palinka for their trouble. Thus negotiating the villages in a car on the Monday afternoon with dangerously legless blokes staggering from house to house is always a challenge.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Faux Cough (and die)

Over the past week I have been afflicted by the cough from hell. I have no idea whence it came, but I really wish it would fu-cough back there. My throat feels like it has been cut to ribbons by the constant sharp wracking coughs which convulse my body every few minutes. Indeed by Sunday, so sore was my throat that I discovered it is no longer possible to drink orange juice as the acid stings too much. I honestly felt that sooner or later one of my coughs would actually break through the red raw lining of my throat and start me bleeding. It hasn't happened, but it still feels like it might. I think since Sunday (the low point pain-wise) what has happened is the my throat has just become numb. The side effect of this vicious ailment is that I have barely slept in a week - the cough intervals at the tail end of last week were averaging out at around 2 minutes, which obviously doesn't give you the chance to get much shut-eye. The cough's frequency has slackened off since then, and is now down to about 10 minutes , so there is more possibility of sleep, but it's not exactly simple. Indeed the overwhelming symptom I have now, surpassing the cheese grater ground glass coughing, is exhaustion. I'm also about to lose my voice.

The doctor, who I saw last week, assured me I didn't have an infection, but that my throat was "a bit red". No shit.

[/Moan moan moan self indulgent bullshit moan whine whinge]

Friday, March 14, 2008


All of Romania was this week in thrall to Costel Busuioc, the "Pavarotti of the Banat" who won some kind of talent contest on Spanish TV caled Hijos de Babel. Every news programme on TV led with the story, and all managed to get an interview with Mr Basil himself (Busuioc means basil - the herb, I mean)

It is a pretty heartwarming story though - he works on a construction site in Spain (as do hundreds of thousands of other Romanians) and his wife and kids live back here in Romania in a village somewhere near Timisoara. Anyway, his boss heard him singing while he was doing the plastering or something and told him he had a good voice and should enter this competition. He did so (I think with the support of what sounds like an extremely understanding boss), and immediately was successful. he then had to learn how to sing "properly" or something, as well as taking some language lessons to help him with the singing. In the end on Wednesday night he was crowned champion after singing Nessum Dorma - mostly through getting top marks from the public phone in vote. (And since the Romanian community is not exactly widely loved in Spain, this is really positive on many levels). I saw him interviewed and he seemed like a really humble down-to-earth bloke. He once tried to enter a singing competition in Lugos (the closest town to his village) but he was turned down for not having the right qualifications. I presume he didn't finish school or something. Not quite sure how big a show Hijos de Babel is in Spain, but anyway.

I've been meaning to post for a while on the two oddest/most ridiculous programmes on Romanian TV, so since we've started on the TV theme, I will do so now. The first of these is this programme in which a camera follows around the young (model?) bride of this fairly old but very wealthy bloke (well late middle age at best). Her name is Monica Columbeanu and the programme seems spectacularly boring. Take someone who has quite possibly the most boring life imaginable (albeit in very high-class surroundings), and make a show about her life. I have no idea if anyone actually watches it. I recently discovered that Mr Columbeanu actually owns the channel on which the programme airs, so this possibly explains the existence of this show.

The second, which I suspect is not actually an original Romanian idea, is called "Test de Fidelitate", in which a suspicious wife gets the TV station in to set up a situation in which her husband is left alone with a woman (in a place with a hidden camera) who attempts to seduce him. When he falls for it, the wife rushes in and clouts him about the head with her handbag (metaphorically, at least). It's baffling. I mean to an extent it's a brilliant TV idea, it's got all the elements of a successful show - sex, betrayal, anger, the opportunity to gawp at others' misfortunes, etc. But why would anyone decide to go on this programme?

Thursday, March 13, 2008

About a Toy

I feel like my last few posts have gone a bit much down the nationalism/anti-nationalism path so I thought for a bit of light relief I'd recount the stories of three toys/children's playthings that have caught my attention recently.

The first of these is a toy that Bogi owns which is one of those plastic boards with holes in in which you can make pictures with different coloured pegs. I presume those things have a name, but I don't know what it is. Anyway this one is Chinese and the box is covered in various pieces of "information" in English, which is obviously somewhat offbeat. Nothing particularly new there, obviously, but one of the important selling points of this particular item is that it "Grows in interest and creativity the sex". (I wanted to take a photo of it but my camera is crap at that kind of close-up work). Now, Bogi is 8. I don't want her to grow in interest and creativity the sex. Well, I hope she does one day, but not for a good few years yet. What is this slogan saying about us as a people? I don't know, you can buy vibrating cock rings in my local Merkur supermarket these days too (true). What next? [After, a great deal of pondering I have come to the conclusion that the original phrase thus butchered probably meant something more along the lines of "This is a good toy for both girls and boys"]

The second is one which I haven't seen in the flesh (or in the synthetic polymer, I guess), but it is advertised quite often on one of the cartoon channels that we have. This is "wethead". Basically it is a plastic helmet with lots of rods sticking out of it. You fill it with water, put it on, and then spin it around. You (or your friends) then remove one of the rods, which may or may not cause you to be drenched with water. It is, with very few modifications, a way of teaching children about the joys of Russian Roulette. Is there a teenage version where you "just" break an arm if you are unlucky, or does one have to go straight from wethead to The Deerhunter?

The third is not exactly a toy, but a book. This is the very small children's version of that popular Disney classic "The Little Mermaid" (yes, I know). Anyway, this book, finely crafted from the finest thick cardboard to thwart attempts to destroy it by illiterate toddlers or exasperated parents, is not very long so I will recount the story in its entirety to you here.

Ariel is a mermaid. She has many friends in the sea. (picture of mermaid, crab (I think), fish, and seagull) Flounder is Ariel's best friend (picture of cartoon fish). Sebastian loves music (crab, or feasibly lobster). Scuttle likes to joke around (seagull holding fork, for unknown reason). Ariel chooses to live on land with Prince Eric. (kiss)

Wow. What a brutal ending. Very brave of the authors to go with the "no plot" approach. Obviously there is some in depth character development, but suddenly we reach the traumatic denouement of what passes for the story. What brought on this abrupt lifestyle change? What of her so-called friends, so cruelly abandoned? We will never know. One is left with a sense of alienation, of tragedy, and of the desperation of the migrant experience. In the end, the reader is asked all the right questions relating to the very contemporary theme of assimilation and what it means for identity. In the end we realise that the author's minimalist approach to plot and storytelling is a device intended to ensure that we are not distracted by extraneous information. He or she has taken Hans Christan Anderson's timeless classic and re-imagined it for the 21st century. The crux of the matter is presented in sharp detail, and the reader is invited to make up his or her own mind. I don't know if it was in the shortlist for the Booker Prize in whatever year it was published, but it really ought to have won.

Monday, March 10, 2008

A different perspective on CFR

Actually this has nothing to with my previous post on CFR.

Every now and again I feel compelled by some strange force of habit/cultural upbringing/personal interest to make a post about football. This is one of them (though it does have a bit of politics thrown in), so if you are football-averse or even football-uninterested, feel free to stop reading now and go and do something more productive with your time.

This season's Romanian football championship has become a vector for nationalist sentiment thanks, in the main, to the patron of Steaua - arch scumbag Gigi Becali. This is because the league is being led by CFR Cluj who threaten to take the title away from Bucharest for the first time in 14 years and away from Wallachia for the first time in about 40 years. You can read some of the background to this story in this pdf file of an article in the February edition of When Saturday Comes magazine (you may recognise the writing style of the author of that piece)

Anyway, the nationalist rhetoric I mentioned there has not abated, with Becali and his odious kin ( a couple of cousins are also involved with football in various shady-ish ways) carrying on about stopping the Dirty Hungarians from winning the title. These would be the dirty Hungarians of CFR Cluj, a squad made up of (at the current time) 5 Argentinians, 2 Brazilians, 1 Canadian, 1 Frenchman, 1 Nigerian, 7 Portuguese, 7 Romanians (all of whom are ethnically Romanian), and 2 Swedes. Though maybe a club calling themselves CFR 1907 Cluj (which is the full name) is subtly (perhaps) highlighting the fact that they weren't born in Romania. It's a bit of a stretch though.

Anyway, at the start of the season I didn't have much of an opinion about who I wanted to win the league (other than knowing I didn't want Steaua to win it purely because of Becali, who is quite possibly the vilest, most repulsive man in Romania, and having a soft spot for Unirea Urziceni because they are coached by former Sheffield Wedenesday player Dan Petrescu). Now, after the waves of anti-Hungarian rehtoric launched by Becali and co, I am firmly behind CFR and hope they win the title by a street (and that Steaua don't even finish second and get a Champions League spot).

Current standings (22 games played out of 34)
CFR Cluj 52 points
Rapid Bucharest 44
Steaua 44
Poli Timisoara 42
Unirea Urziceni 41
Dinamo Bucharest 39

Haide CFR! (By which I mean the team, not the railway, though I would like that to improve too)

Saturday, March 08, 2008

A bit of China that is forever Austro-Hungarian

This morning (well, it was before lunch, but probably not technically morning), we went to an exhibition at the castle here in town of stereographic photos from the late 19th early 20th century (you know those 3d pictures that you have to look at through glasses one lens of which is red and one green). Anyway, some of the pictures were pretty fun, and in some cases the depth from the 3d effect worked really well (one of the Alhambra in Granada and one of the Danube in Budapest stood out - hoho). There were a couple from Transylvania - one or two in Brasov and a few in Cluj, but the others were from all over the place. Anyway, one really caught my eye, not because it was a particularly great shot, but because it purported to show the "Austro Hungarian Colony at Tien Shin, China". "Hold on", I thought to myself, and subsequently said to Erika, "there was an Austro Hungarian colony in China?"

On my return home I spent some time looking this up. This was tricky because the way the name of the Chinese town had been rendered was unhelpful, and because there is no wikipedia article on this colony (imagine! something that doesn't have a wikipedia entry). Some concentrated searching however, led me to conclude that the town's name is more often rendered as Tianjin, and that there was, in fact, a small bit (less than 1km²) of that city which was (for 16 short years) ruled from Vienna. Weird huh? This was all part of the fallout from supression of the Boxer Rebellion, apparently, in which 8 powers helped out, and all ended up with a bit of Tianjin to call their own. You can read about it here.

I'm now intrigued to imagine this city with it's small corner of Habsburgian architecture which that article assures me is there.

Anyway, just thought I'd share.

Friday, March 07, 2008

Life as a blogger

Every now and then for my pains I get a tirade of abuse from some rabid nationalist psycho. This can appear in the form of a comment on the blog, an email to me, or in some occasions a post on another blog which I have to discover by accident. These come from both Romanian nationalists and Hungarian nationalists, which to my mind means I'm getting it just about right (I recognise that this is not a very scientific way of deciding that, but it'll do).

A couple of months ago, for example, I received the following email from someone called "Radu B". I did try to engage Domnul B in debate but he didn't respond, so I feel that it's OK to taunt him here. The italicised bits are Radu, and the non-italicised bits are my sneering response. In the interests of fairness I have quoted the entire email just so you know not I'm not taking any of this out of context.

Dear Mr. Andy H, while I have no idea about your ethnic(I'm assuming you're British), social or professional background (and quite frankly I don't care about either), I have stumbled upon your blog. I appreciate you have chosen my country to work in and I do hope you are having a good time there.

This is a fair enough opening. I don't really care much about Radu's background either. Not quite sure why he needed to say this however. But there you go. Interesting use of the word "there" which implies that while he is obviously Romanian, he's not actually living here. This is somewhat interesting given what comes later.

However, I do know that Mc. Ciuc is a Romanian city, in a Romanian county, in a Romanian province, and guess what! The official language of Romania, regardless of the ethnic make-up of the area in which you find yourself is - you guessed it!- Romanian.

He's clever, is that Radu. Again I'm not sure why he is quoting undisputed facts at me, but once again, who can ever really know the mind of another.

For that reason, I find the URL of your blog (szekely) and the fact that you keep calling the city by its equivalent name in Hungarian and the fact that you chose to learn Hungarian first and then Romanian, highly offensive.

Highly offensive! It is highly offensive to actually use the word "Szekely"! Not quite sure how Radu would like to proceed with this ethnic group - deny their existence totally? Now I do recognise that it bothers some people that I call this town Csikszereda more frequently than I call it Miercurea Ciuc, and while I think they're being a bit over sensitive, I at least see where they're coming from (and I hope that in turn they understand why I choose one over the other for the most part). It's also highly offensive that I chose, on arrival in Romania (yes Radu, I know I am in Romania) to attempt to learn the language of my wife and (especially) step daughter first. Very odd. (In fact I kind of wish I had had the opportunity to learn Romanian first since it seems so much easier than Hungarian, but I think my reasons for choosing the option I did are clear - and in fact 100% correct)

You are not only offending some Transylvanian (myself) through your actions, but also our forefathers and the sacrifices made to liberate the province from Hungarian occupation.

We'll gloss over the whole "Hungarian occcupation" thing since we're never going to resolve that here. As for offending someone, well whatever I do I will offend someone. So, I think I can live with myself on that one too.

I remind you once more that you are living in Romania, not Hungary.

Thanks Radu. I have to confess I keep forgetting which country I live in. That's why I wrote "A small town in the Ciuc Depression, Romania" at the top of this blog just in case it escapes my attention and I suddenly imagine myself living in Hungary.

I'm convinced your ethnic Hungarian friends are absolutely extatic about your choices,

What choices? The one to live here? I hope some of them are vaguely happy about it, yes. I like to think my wife is very happy, and even possibly ecstatic, but I don't think most people really care that much what I call my blog, to be honest.

and that they add fuel to their erotic dreams regarding autonomy for that part of Romania,

Those dreams are erotic? Wow, no wonder people like them. I'm not sure if I want an erotic dream involving Marko Bela though.

but if you like their language and culture so much, I cordially invite you to cross the border and immerse yourself in the culture Attila's heirs have created in the Pannonic Plains.

And so it closes, with the traditional "Why don't you fuck off to Hungary" line (and let's not be distracted by the "cordial invitation", we all know what that means). I assume Radu is "inviting " me to Hungary anyway - he seems to be somewhat confused by who the Hungarians actually are - the Magyars are not thought to be directly connected to the Huns (and thence Attila), by the way Radu.

Sometimes I think I ought to write a manifesto for this blog so I can just direct people like Radu to read that, but at other times I think that that would probably be a bit over-the-top and self-important. So, at least for now, I won't bother.

So, anyway, thanks Radu for the laugh, and for the material for this blog post. I realise this was somewhat gratuitous, but you know, I think ridicule is all that nationalism and bigotry deserves.

I, at least, feel better for writing that, even if it hasn't improved the lives of any of my readers one iota. Sorry all. I'll post something a little less obnoxious next time.

The Great Romanian Restaurant Scandal

I was going to write something about some US food critic called Anthony Bourdain and how he's managed to upset Romania with his less than positive review of the country. But fortunately Dumneazu has done the job for me admirably. If you've time on your hands you can also plough through the 1350 comments (and counting) on Bourdain's blog. From what I can gather the main problem here is that he (or his producer) chose to hire some Russian bloke who knew nothing at all about Romania as his guide (presumably on some "Let's pretend this is all still the Warsaw Pact" concept), a fault they exacerbated by proceeding to do the whole Dracula tour thing. I think if they had managed to cram Nadia Comaneci into the thing they could have really made the cliche complete.

Mind you, the service in restaurants here is, for the most part, appalling. And Romanian food is not exactly exciting. I think if you use the word "spice" here, people think you mean salt. This is not to say that Romanian food is bad, just homely and not the kind of taste sensation that is going to take the world by storm a la Thai, for example.

Later edit: OK, I've now watched the whole show (on YouTube) , and really can't see the problem. I mean the Dracula stuff is really unnecessary (and someone really should have told him that Dracula was, in fact, a fictional character), and why they chose a Russian guide is a bit baffling, but he doesn't slag off Romania, and obviously actually enjoys his trip to Maramures. Not sure why so many people are up in arms about it. Just because this Zamir took him to two awful "theme" restaurants? He does point out that one of them is full of tourists from Nevada. I find Bourdain's personality a bit grating, but I can't understand why people are so bothered by the programme.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008


(I tried to cram some kind of "Du as you would be done bai" pun into the title here, but just couldn't make it work, even by the low standards I have set for myself on this blog)

It's been a while since I got back from the place, but it is so bloody weird that it does deserve a post. I ought to begin by mentioning that I actually lived in the UAE some time ago (and by some time, I mean a lot of time - the "Gulf War" that was ongoing at that time was the one between Iran and Iraq, to give some sense of the blood that has passed under the bridge since then). I wasn't living in Dubai but in Abu Dhabi, which at the time was kind of an equal rival to Dubai (richer as it still is, because that's where the oil mostly is, but less thrusting internationally).

Anyway, I had occasion to go to Dubai a few times, and it is interesting to see the changes. To give an example, when I was there 19 years ago, Dubai airport was in the middle of the desert, surrounded by some roads and a lot of empty scrubland. Now, Dubai airport is basically in the middle of the city, surrounded by hotels and other manifestations of the rampant urban sprawl that seems to characterise the place. They're actually building a new airport out in the desert again so they can free up the space from the one they currently use. Presumably the plan goes that in 20 years time the new one will have been swallowed up again, and they'll have to start building a third one further out. (For anyone familiar with Dubai now, I spent a day at the "Academic City" out in the middle of nowhere - that's what the airport used to look like).

I read somewhere that such is the scale of the construction that one quarter of all the world's cranes are in Dubai. I find that impossible to believe frankly (isn't the entirety of China also undergoing some kind of similar boom?), but anyway I found a link for you, so as to prove that I didn't just make it up. Outside my hotel room (just across the street in fact) the world's tallest building was under construction (it's already the world's tallest building, even though it's not finished yet). Here's the wikipedia page about it. I couldn't actually see all of it from my room, obviously, I needed to stand outside on the balcony to do that, but I can assure you that it is big. The hotel, by the way, was the most ludicrously ugly one I think I have ever stayed in - it was extremely well appointed and fancy on the inside, but the architect had gone for a kind of Kubla Khan meets Disneyworld look on the outside. It looked terrible. [Photos 6 and 7 in this slideshow if you really want to see it]

You'd think in such a modern city, with all the money at the disposal of the planners and so on that some thought would have gone into its growth and expansion, but apparently none has. They've only just realised, for example, that some form of public transport infrastructure is desirable, and have therefore started putting a metro system in. Now obviously would have looked a bit silly building a metro from nowhere to nowhere 25 years ago, but they might have considered putting one in the city that existed at that point and then been able to extend it as the sprawl sprawled. This lack of forethought pales, however, beside a story I heard of a new residential district that was built - new homes for hundreds of people, with roads, garages, etc etc. Except that they forgot to put any sewage system in, and so all the new residents of this nice new neuighbourhood were forced to put up with a year of digging while the streets were dug up again and a sewage system was put in place, while a kind of cess-tanker sat at the end of the road into which the residents' sewage was temporarily pumped.

I went to a shopping mall (this, judging by the literature left lying around the hotel, is the chief tourist attraction of Dubai) which contained a ski-slope. A real one, with snow and all that. Contained within some kind of glassed in winter-world, but possible to be viewed from the shopping area and traditional globally-available appalling "food court". It was dead strange - especially the small sledging slope down the bottom in which children were obviously forced to wear helmets. It was a long way from the steep hills around here which children careen down wildly on plastic bags or toilet seats. When I got home and told people of this story, I was asked a few times if I had tried it out and gone skiing. I had to confess that given my trip was in January I didn't feel the need to seek out a ski-slope while in Dubai, especially since I live where I do. Overall, the impression given by Dubai is of a place that's trying really hard to be all things to all people. Maybe one day it will get there, but at the moment it all seems a bit desperate.

But is this how all cities will look in the future? Walking round the mall, for example, while not exactly my favourite leisure activity, was at the very least a full on multicultural experience. More so even than places like London and New York. That side of Dubai is pretty appealing, even though the hierarchies based on nationality within the system are obviously very present and not especially hidden. But at least in places like the food court of a shopping centre, those strata are buried in the varied hues and clashing languages of a reasonable cross section of humanity. It was (momentarily) uplifting, actually. Obviously the other side to the "mall-world-as-future" thing is that we will all be expected to spend all our free time shopping, which is a significantly less rosy view of the world-to-come to my mind, but that seems to be mostly just me.

Obviously you've heard about some of the other stuff (the artificial island neighbourhood shaped like a palm tree, the other artificial island neighbourhood shaped like a map of the world, the world's only 7 star hotel - how do they know? what is a 7 star hotel? did they just define themselves as such? - and so on and so forth.), so I won't go into it. The best bit of Dubai though, is what passes for an older area of the city (you know 30 years-ish) down by the creek (and in fact involving the chaotic and fun shuttle boats across that creek). Partly because it reminds me vaguely of what it used to look like, and partly because it seems more real and less like you're walking through an artist's impression.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Please note: Bucharest to be closed

At the beginning of April I need to fly to the UK. In these days of cheap flights in Europe and various options, this should be no problem (well, once I've driven at least 3 hours to my nearest airport). However at the beginning of April Bucharest is hosting a NATO summit, and in a spectacularly over the top and disruptive move the government has decided to close both of Bucharest's airports for the 3 days of the summit. How utterly ridiculous is that? What a complete waste of time. I've read that they are expecting to redirect flights to Constanta and Timisoara. Now as it goes Constanta is not that far from Bucharest in Romanian terms, but Timisoara is something like a 12 hour train journey. I've never heard of another country doing something so short-sighted and ludicrous as this. (Of course the airlines are not stupid and flying out of other Romanian airports at that time is correspondingly expensive).

Still, it'll be good for the environment I suppose. Wonder when the person responsible for this will start using that as an excuse?

Monday, March 03, 2008


Over the course of the last year I've travelled to some fairly messed up places. From countries with murderous dictators (Uzbekistan) to countries undergoing severe political turmoil (Bangladesh, Pakistan), to places on the front line of the supposed ideological battle between "Western" values and fundamentalist Islam (Pakistan, and on some level, Dubai). I've also failed to travel somewhere (Afghanistan) because my hotel got bombed two weeks before I was due to be in it. All of these trips were bookended by two separate trips to Nepal. Of all of the countries mentioned above (with the possible exception of Afghanistan) none is more messed up than Nepal.

Since Nepal rarely makes the international news, the current situation there may have escaped your attention. For about ten years, the country had to deal with a fairly intense Maoist insurgency in the west of the country. A couple of years ago a deal was struck, bringing the Maoists into a national unity government. Subsequently the king was stripped of most of his powers, and the country changed from an absolute monarchy to a more figurehead based one. When I was there last year, the process for national elections had just begun, scheduled for October. A friend of mine, Paula, had just arrived to join the UN mission helping oversee and support the elections. At that time there were severe shortages of many things (including petrol and diesel) and regular 6 hour rolling blackouts (called "load shedding" in Nepali English).

A year on and things have not improved. In fact they have got significantly worse. The elections were postponed and are now due to take place in April, though few imagine that they actually will. In the meantime a new political crisis has taken hold - The south lowland part of the country, known as the Tarai, has started agitating for more autonomy and political power. Since the region forms part of the only accessible border - the one with India - factions in this autonomy movement have been able to lay virtual siege to the rest of the country, stopping the transportation of petrol, diesel, kerosene, cooking gas, etc. What seemed like pretty terrible hardship for people last year now looks miniscule in comparison. Many of the streets of Kathmandu are lined with parked vehicles - trucks, buses, taxis, cars - all queuing for petrol (though the word queueing is somewhat misleading since that implies a vaguely active process. These queues involves waiting for up to three days to buy a limited amount of petrol. There is little to no cooking fuel available - gas or kerosene. Load shedding is now an 8-hour daily event. Couple all this with the fact that Nepal is already one of the poorest countries in the world and you don't really have a pretty picture. The city anyway looks in places like an open sewer, and the roads are a disaster. Then bear in mind that Nepal is an extremely centralised country - so if this is the situation in Kathmandu, it must be many times worse elsewhere.

It's a very beautiful and spectacular country, with fascinating sights and wonderful and caring people. I could tell story after story about some of the people I have met there – from the teacher in Kathmandu who every summer gets donations from his colleagues, buys a bunch of dictionaries, which he packs into a rucksack and then sets off on a long trek through the mountains, donating a dictionary to every remote village that he comes to, to the participant in our workshop who apologises for not being online very often because he has to walk 24 hours to reach the road, and thus have access to an Internet cafe, and many more tales in a similar vein.

But by christ it's a mess.


On the day that I turned 42, Russia elected a president who is also 42. I grew up in a world in which the Russian (then Soviet) presidents were basically the oldest men in the world. Anyone remember Konstantin Chernenko for example? A man who seemed so old that he could barely appear on TV, and who proved to be just as frail by expiring soon after ascending to the role of leader. With these memories, being as old as the president of Russia is a little bit sobering. I think I'm going back to bed.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

The answer

to the question of life, the universe, and everything.