Friday, March 11, 2016

From ‘Rain in the Mountains. Notes from the Himalayas’ by Ruskin Bond

‘I liked Gandhi,’ says Sir E [Edmund Gibson]. ‘He had a sense of humour. No politician today has a sense of humour. ….But not Gandhi. He took his work seriously, but not himself. When I went to see him in prison, I asked him if he was comfortable, and he smiled and said, “Even if I was, I wouldn’t admit it!”’

I reserve the afternoons for doing nothing. ‘Silence and non-action are the root of all things,’ says Tao. Especially on a drowsy afternoon.

‘I don’t mind being dead, but I shall miss being alive.’

Looking up old books, I was surprised to learn that the potato wasn’t known in India before the nineteenth century, and now its an essential part of our diet in most parts of the country.

‘Will it last?’ asks Kailash. ‘This feeling of love between us?’
This wont last. Not in this way. But if something like it lasts, we should be happy.’

In the evening, I find Prem teaching his wife the alphabet, using the kitchen door as a blackboard. It is covered with chalk marks. Love is teaching your wife to read and write!

There is a protective atmosphere about an English public school; an atmosphere which, although it protects one from the outside world, often exposes one to the hazards within the system.

A Quiet Mind

Lord, give me a quiet mind,
That I might listen;
A gentle tone of voice,
That I might comfort others;
A sound and healthy body,
That I might share
In the joy of walking
And leaping and running;
And a good sense of direction
So I might know just where I’m going!

They cut down last spring
With swift efficient tools,
The sap was rising still.
The trees bled,
To make furniture for fools.

….deodar ….from the Sanskrit deva-daru (divine tree). It is a sacred tree in the Himalayas; not worshipped, nor protected in the way that a peepul is in the plains, but sacred in that its timber has always been used in temples, for doors, windows, walls and even tools. Quite frankly, I would just as soon worship the deodar as worship anything, for in the beauty and majesty it represents Creation in its most noble aspect.
No one who has lived amongst deodar would deny that it is the most godlike of Himalayan trees. It stands erect, dignified …..Where one deodar grows, there will be others. Isolate a young tree and it will often pine away.

‘We are all worms.’ Declared Winston Churchill in 1906. ‘But I do believe that I am a glow-warm.’

‘We shall not spoil what we have by desiring what we have not, but remember that what we have too was the gift of fortune’

‘Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards.’
(Soren Kierkegaard)

…..I passed beneath a canopy of oak leaves. I felt that I was a part of the forest. I put out my hand and touched the bark of an old tree, and as I turned away, its leaves brushed against my face, as if to acknowledge me.
One day, I thought, if we trouble these great creatures too much, and hack away at them and destroy their young they will simply uproot themselves and march away – whole forests on the move – over the next range and the next, far from the haunts of man. I have seen many forests and green places dwindle and disappear.

‘Who goes to the Hills, goes to his Mother.’ So wrote Kipling, and he seldom wrote truer words. For, living in the hills was like living in the bosom of a strong, sometimes proud, but always comforting mother.

When you have received love from people, and the freedom that only the mountains can give, then you have come very near the borders of heaven.

The Fern

The slender maidenhair fern grows firm on a rock
While all around her the water swirls and chatters
And then disappears in a rush
Down to the bottom of the hill.
When I’m surrounded by troubled waters, Lord,
Let me find within a rock to cling to,
And give me the quiet patience of the maidenhair
Who has learned to live with the rock.

At a rough calculation, I must have read over 15,000 books in my lifetime

From ‘Destination India. From London overland and to India’ by Lloyd L Rudolph, Susanne Hoeber Rudolph

….Police still as nice as all the Austrian police we met.

…impressions of Macedonia: this is a wild, avid, hilly land. The scrub on the hillsides barely seems to survive..

…impressions of Yugoslavia: this is a poor country …It is still predominantly rural and unmechanized ….The rural people seemed cheerful, particularly in Serbia. In Croatia, they looked more sullen, waved less. But these are rather swift, visceral reaction. Much of the country is very pretty – the bottomlands along the Autoput with their luscious swamp growth and water birds, the green farmland of Serbia, and even the dry hills of Macedonia where only sunflowers grow in large fields. We were sorry we missed the coast which is said to be the most beautiful. …Shoes are expensive and quite without style. Very, very few people look neat and well dressed in a middle class sense, although the rural people dress neatly and appropriately. We didn’t become aware of how poorly the white collar types looked until we arrived in Greece and saw the men in the cities and some in the villages in their clean, white, freshly pressed open-collar shirts and freshly whitened shoes. (India too, when we arrived there, displayed a more respectable looking petty bourgeoisie than Yugoslavia.) Though we saw exceptions, the overall impression in Yugoslavia was that ironing boards and pure colors didn’t exist – everyone in the cities had a drab, unironed look. This applied to the army as well. The officers often looked snappy, but the quality of enlisted uniforms – of pale green, poor quality cotton – and the way they were maintained was rather amateurish. We saw the army everywhere – every town had an installation of some sort

….we returned to the old technique of boiling laundry to get it white.

People along the road on the Turkish side didn’t look confidence-inspiring, but rather shifty and cheerless.

The ladies on the streets of Istanbul include an extraordinary number of slim, full-bosomed, well-built women, many of them beautiful and quietly sultry.

…impressions of Turkey: these fierce looking little people are very hospitable, much more so than their unshaven faces would indicate, and incredibly curious …we loved the country and found it very beautiful….

The Persians are considerably taller than the Turks, with more open faces and a more refined appearance.

Relations among men from Turkey on seemed much warmer than in the west. There is a great deal of unselfconscious display of physical tenderness between them – holding hands and embracing are common. Perhaps the fact that women are not usually companions here, but keepers of the home and bearers of children who have no knowledge of the outside world makes companionship of men more intense.

The Afghans alone of all the people we met in the Middle East and South Asia, were totally unapologetic about their lack of knowledge of western manners and ways. (Kabul may be an exception.) Elsewhere we had found people apologizing if they couldn’t speak English. Here there was some surprise that we couldn’t speak Pharsee or Pushtoo. An Indian acquaintance who spent time in jail as a nationalist has told us that he is often unintentionally resentful of westerners because “I forget that we are free.” The Afghans have no such colonial memory, and none of the inferiority feelings associated with such a memory. If they are hostile to a westerner, they are hostile because westerners are infidels with doubtful customs and ways of life, not because the recollection of dominion makes westerners both admirable and hateful. The Afghan does not (yet) suffer from the love-hate conflict that seems to bother the peoples of former colonial areas in their relations with the west. His pride is undamaged.

From ‘Playing Cards in Cairo. Mint tea, tarneeb and tales of the city’ by Hugh Miles

In Arab families a girl cannot up and leave home when she is still a teenager; women are not autonomous individuals who can run their own lives independently of the rest of the family. When the family is absent, a boy must be responsible for his sister. She can be flirtaceous and feminine, but its his duty to play the stern loving protector, because if she erred the blemish would stain the whole family. Honour is too fragile for a daughter to be left to handle alone.
Just because the brother and sister fought, it was not a sign that they did not love each other. In fact they loved each other with a deep and blinding love…. While he controlled her physically, her conduct governed his reputation. Loving her meant controlling her; loving him meant submitting to him.

Cairo is the largest Arab city and the biggest city in Africa. It is one of just a handful of world supercapitals and dominates Egypt. …..seventeen million people ….

My local coffee shop ….Nobody else, I noticed, ever read any book besides the Koran, but sometimes I would see men just sitting silent and motionless, prayer beads limp in hands, simply meditating for half an hour or more.

You are almost never alone in Cairo; privacy is a luxury few can afford for any length of time…

Many of the international organisations operating in Cairo are given over to handling refugees, because migration is one African sector that never stops booming. Millions of people flood into Cairo from across Africa, tide upon tide of humanity arriving by bus, by boat or on foot, down the Nile Valley or across the desert. With them they bring dark stories of torture and war. For unknown thousands Cairo is nothing more than a big outdoor waiting room, the biggest metropolitan refugee terminal in the world.

Racism among Egyptians against black Africans is widespread and even the police robbed them.

….the dark undercurrent of religious prejudice that divided the Egyptians themselves…… An invisible line separated the Coptic Christians and the Muslims in the office……tension could be found simmering just below the surface.

Egypt has more Christian Arabs than the rest of the Middle East put together, but exactly how many there are remains the subject of heated debate. Official government statistics minimize the number, while local churches, basing their counts of baptismal records, claim about 10 per cent of the Egyptian population. Christianity in Egypt differs from that found in other North African countries because it is indigenous. When the Muslims first came to Egypt in the seventh century nearly everyone there was a Christian and the Islamic conquerors used ‘Copt’ simply to designate the country’s indigenous inhabitants. This was a corruption of the Greek word aiguptioi, meaning Egyptians, and modern Copts hold that they are the true descendents of the pharaohs.
Relations between Muslims and Christians in Egypt have always been mercurial……

Life for most people in Cairo is hard and the city’s infrastructure is stretched to the limit by the sheer size of the population. Unemployment is rife, chronic overcrowding makes daily life a misery and Cairo competes with Mexico City and Bangkok for the title of most polluted city in the world. The average Egyptian gets by on less than a thousand dollars a year and a quarter of the country lives on less than two dollars a day, below the poverty line. Some 98 per cent of Egypt’s population are squished in to the 35,000-square-kilometre strip running the length of the Nile valley, the densest metropolitan population in Africa, and one of the densest in the world. It is an area not quite twice the size of New Jersey but with over nine times the population.

There are undisputable benefits to wearing the veil, most obviously that you do not need to worry about your hair. It also helps keep in check Egypt’s ubiquitous sexually predatory men ….

Women have always worn veils in the Middle East. Way back in the time of the Persian and early Byzantine empires, before there were any Muslims, the veil was a social fixture.In patriarchal agricultural societies, where men are fathers and fighters and women are mothers and homemakers, it was a symbol of man’s authority and class.

In the Arab countries I had visited women had always been almost totally hidden… They were simply a mystery to me.

Almost a quarter of the Egyptian population is under ten years old and when parents die possessions are divided between all the children, which means farms become too small to be economically viable. In real terms ordinary Egyptians are poorer than they were in the 1950s.

Like many Arab women her complexion was flawlessly youthful, the result of a lifetime spent covering up from the sun.

‘……. Qena…Its in Upper Egypt and its men are famous for being stupid and macho.’

Egyptians come in all shades: they can be light-skinned like Europeans, or dark like the Nubians of Upper Egypt.

Cards originated in China but came to Europe from Egypt…..The suits back then were swords, polo sticks, cups and coins, and being Islamic no figures were depicted. Europeans added the jack, queen and king, but Islam is the reason that packs from Italy, Spain, Germany and Switzerland to this day often do not have queens.

….Arab tourists, who flock to Cairo from the Gulf all year round. In particular they come during the summer months, when the Arabian peninsula is too hot, and during Ramadan, when it is too conservative….tourists from the Gulf enjoying the uncovered women, the cheap prices and the wide availability of alcohol. Cairo’s vastness affords Arab visitors delightful obscurity and respite from the claustrophobia of life in the Gulf, where the religious police patrol and everyone knows your family name… Egyptians by and large are contemptuous of their Gulf visitors, who they regard as uncultured and arrogant. ‘Buffaloes’ they call them, meaning they know nothing.

Cosmetic surgery has been undergoing something of a worldwide boom in recent years and the city has a reputation across the region for quality surgery at affordable prices…..although Islamic clerics frown upon frivolous surgery…..Wives of African diplomats and businessmen regard Cairo’s plastic surgeons as one of the chief perks of the post. ….Cairo’s upper classes have adopted the fashionable Gulf practice of taking second, third and fourth wives, which means more pressure on married women to stay looking good… Divorce …means more women ….turn to surgery to look their best.

‘….he needs to convert so we can marry, otherwise our marriage wont be legal in Egypt. Marriages between Christian men and Muslim women are not recognized under Egyptian law.’

……such racy magazines are not easily available, so women are obliged instead to turn to their friends for answers to life’s most important questions. Besides friends, religion supplies the framework by which most people make their important decisions in life. For many Egyptians, Islam is often the solution. Except, frustratingly, the Koran is not specific enough to provide guidance for every dilemma of modern life because things have moved on since the seventh century, which is why online Islamic chat rooms are filled with questions like, ‘Is it OK to pray wearing nail varnish?’
Many young Muslims expect Islam to supply a complete practical guide to how to live their lives, guidance which if followed closely will provide the key to happiness and success. ….The problem is that Islam is so fragmented no single religious authority can provide such detailed guidance, so Muslims tend to pick the interpretations and individuals that they admire or that fit the situation they find themselves in at any given time.

….in the Arab world there is one universally understood gold standard for moral behavior and by Western standards it is very conservative. Although this standard is rooted in religion it is not exclusively Islamic, because despite their antipathy towards one another in Egypt Copts and Muslims live by a very similar moral code.
Religious recordings and books are a sprawling industry in the Arab world; the Web is littered with Islamic chat rooms and at the Cairo annual book fair I found that over half the publishing houses deal exclusively with Islamic-oriented literature.

….the few Egyptians who do read books usually choose ones they think are useful, which typically means either the Koran or a computer manual. The range of foreign books available in Arabic is pitiful, and if the West ever wanted to make a sincere and significant difference to the average Arab’s world view, a good way to start would be by mass-translating dozens of liberal classics into Arabic and distributing them as freely and widely as the Koran.
The most popular radio station in Egypt is the Holy Koran, with well over half the population tuning in each day……Islamic evangelism ……the cranky old sheikh ….is a thing of the past. Islam today issues from youthful preachers wearing coloured headgear or designer suits.….

Family pressure to conform to impossible rules had turned all the women I knew into polished liars years ago. It was the only way to cope with the massive gulf between their private lives and the face they were obliged to show their families and the rest of society. The girls covered for each other artfully and usually successfully, but if a man’s voice could be heard in the background no amount of explaining would save them from a severe punishment when they got home. ….each went her separate way, always by car so as not to be harassed, flashed at or groped on public transport, as happens almost daily to women travelling alone in Cairo at any time of day or night.

….he smoked….Most Egyptian men I knew did – sometimes it seemed that inertia brought on by smoking hashish all day was the only thing preventing a revolution in Egypt.

…military service. This is compulsory in Egypt and has a notorious reputation as an intensely degrading experience…….Although the Egyptian army is generously subsidized by the United States, most of the cash seems to disappear into certain important people’s pockets or goes to finance elite units. Ordinary soldiers are dismally equipped, routinely going without shoelaces and eating food months or years out of date. Dysentery is a way of life and over the year of conscription everyone experiences drastic weight loss.
Typical training activities include diving from a great height into a trench of raw sewage…..or lining up in the infamous ‘sun queue’, where soldiers stand facing the blazing sun from dawn till dusk, without moving or drinking water, sometimes for several days on end …..Accidental death by heatstroke or during live firing exercises is commonplace. The military regards fewer than one in four men killed in training as an acceptable fatality rate. …..Enduring psychological trauma is normal. Many soldiers also leave with large debts, run up by bribing their poorer comrades to do the really dirty or dangerous jobs for them.
….Naturally the rich and well-connected can normally wriggle out of it …..

Officially Egyptian unemployment is about 9 per cent, but in reality about 25 per cent of young men and as many as 59 per cent of women are without work. No work means no money and no money means young people cannot afford to get married. Since marriage is the only legitimate way to obtain sex that means frustration ……and despite Islam the daily bombardment of erotica has never been more intense. …..most young Egyptians ….live at home with their family and struggle to scratch enough money together to look after themselves, let alone anyone else. There are seven million women over the age of twenty in Egypt who have never been married, half of whom are over the age of thirty-five. There are also eleven million unmarried men ….increasing number of young people are turning to a controversial Islamic practice. ….an urfi marriage …..a special kind of union ….under Sunni Islam …it can take place in private and need not be registered at a government office. …the state is not involved at all….an imam willing to perform the ceremony ….the bride and groom each keep a signed copy as proof…. Entered into …. by young people who want to have sex …..In extreme cases urfi marriages can even be a way for poor families to sell their daughters into prostitution under the guise of marriage. …When the man wants to move on, the pair can easily divorce. ….since Islam sanctions urfi marriages, they cannot easily be outlawed.

…Egyptian prisons have a reputation for deprivation and cruelty….Thousands of Islamists rotate through Egypt’s hellish prison system. Many are never charged with a crime, nor even referred to a court or prosecutors office. ….prison cells …are concrete…without windows or ventilation ….There is no electricity, water or sunlight and to make life as miserable as possible the walls are kept soaked in kerosene, which contaminates the air and eats away at the prisoners’ lungs, causing lifelong respiratory problems.
Torture using electricity ….is common…nowhere to urinate or defecate, except on the floor or into the same plastic bottle in which water is provided …..The ruthless prison system helped drive Islamic Jihad out of Egypt …’s prison system has become an attractive destination for the American military, looking for somewhere suitable to interrogate Arab and Muslim captives taken during their ‘war on terror’.

Conspiracy theories are the bread and butter of the Arab world and you hear them everywhere you go. I had heard stories so outlandish …the number of times people told me no Jews died in the twin towers on 11 September …. No plot is too improbable, no ruse too far-fetched for many Arabs…

‘As many of 20 per cent of all Egyptians suffer from hepatitis C, an untreatable, chronic debilitating liver disease. Most of them contracted it in the 1960s and ‘70s when the government immunization campaign against bilharzia repeatedly reused needles, infecting huge swathes of the population.

Seldom found are Islamists with a background in the liberal arts. Subjects like literature, music and drama lend themselves badly to extremist interpretation. Unfortunately, in much of the Arab world these subjects are viewed as a waste of time.

Each year more than seven hundred thousand new graduates chase an estimated two hundred thousand jobs. Even students from Cairo’s most prestigious colleges struggle to find employment when they graduate. The state is the largest non-agricultural employer in the country, providing about 40 per cent of job opportunities, and the more educated you are, the more likely you are to work for the government. The best most young Egyptians can hope for is a position in an overstaffed and unproductive public sector company, Egypt’s disguised welfare system. The state-owned sugar, textile and steel businesses are some of the biggest employers. So heavily protected are these industries from market forces it is quite normal to find three or four people doing one man’s job. ….Many young unemployed choose to go into further education in an attempt to break the cycle of poverty …..For the lucky few who do manage to get jobs, pay is still torturously low …

… on the streets of the capital sexually harass women at any time of the day or night. Parts of town …even the veil offered no protection …..according to the prevailing national logic sexual harassment is the fault of women since their very presence is regarded as constituting a provocation to men, the real victims, whose self-control melts ….when exposed to a woman. …Women are essentially viewed as either married, virgins or prostitutes….

Doing business in Egypt during Ramadan is a bit like trying to do business in France during August….a long and extremely bad-tempered traffic jam snaking through the city ….the interminable recitation of the Koran on the radio

….the Sixth of October bridge, a river crossing so long and important that if the Israeli air force ever needed to reduce the great country of Egypt to her knees with a single bomb, besides the Aswan High Dam this would probably be the best place to drop it.

… Beirut lovers are free to kiss, canoodle, hold hands. Romance flourishes in Lebanon because history and geography have combined to make it the most liberal Arab country. When you have been through a bloody civil war you come to understand that there are more important things in life than bothering lovers holding hands in the street…

….in Nordic countries …the rudest insults you can hurl at someone pertain to the devil. ….Mediterranean society ….insulting someone’s mother is just about as low as you can go, particularly if you are speaking to a man. …many ways you can insult someone’s mother around the world ….In Spain you can threaten to shit in her breast milk. In China you can call someone’s mother a turtle…

Youth from across the Arab world ….are drawn by Beirut’s heady sensuousness and fragile liberalism – a beautiful city atop a political volcano. The precarious sectarian balance, approximately one third each Sunni, Shia and Christian, makes for infernally complicated domestic politics and an unsteady governmental system that looks set to collapse at any moment.

In Cairo people often seem to regard it as their social or religious duty to interfere in other people’s relationships, usually under the guise of protecting the virtue of a girl..

Being obliged to convert in order to marry sits oddly with the Egyptian constitution, which stipulates the equality of ‘all ….but …as I was growing to understand, a conservative interpretation of Islam reigns…..people in Egypt care a great deal what religion you are ….Many Egyptian Muslims regard it as their personal responsibility to check that other Muslims are observant, not least because it might be jeopardizing their own afterlife if they do not.

Although women are sometimes beaten at home and even in police stations in Cairo, it is shameful for a man to attack a woman in public….

…..bad weather, speeding, poorly maintained roads and a total disregard for both the law and personal safety make Egypt’s roads the most dangerous in Africa..

The president has total immunity from criticism and routinely steamrollers the Supreme Court. The number of death sentences and civilians tried in military courts has spiraled and torture is widespread in police stations across the country.

Conversion to Islam …In most Arab countries conversion brings about substantial social advantages; in some other states, like China, Russia and Myanmar, Muslims are persecuted and the opposite is the case. In the West most people and governments regard belief as a private affair; you can change your religion on a whim and intermarriage between people of different faiths is an everyday occurrence. In Egypt, however, switching religion is a deadly serious business, particularly for Muslims who want to become Christian….

…Egypt….generations of misrule have sapped her spirit until today the air is no longer safe to breathe and the water so polluted even the fish suffer kidney problems. Corruption and stagnant bureaucracy pervade life’s every corner …..

From ‘Looking for transwonderland. Travels in Nigeria’ by Noo Saro-Wiwa

Nigerians like to shout at the tops of our voices, whether we’re telling a joke, praying in church or rocking a baby to sleep ….decades of political corruption have made us deeply suspicious of authority…

We’re constantly wincing at the sight of some of our compatriots, who have committed themselves to presenting us as a nation of ruffians. Their efforts are richly rewarded at airports, where the very nature of such venues ensures that our rowdy reputation enjoys an extensive, global reach.

Nothing ever seemed to change for the better politically or economically in 1980s Nigeria.
I would arrive at an airpot that hadn’t been refurbished in twenty years.

Lagosians will be the first to tell you that their city is a disaster of urban non-planning characterized by overcrowding, aggressive driving, traffic ‘go-shows’, impatience, armed robberies and overflowing sewage, all of it existing alongside pockets of dubiously begotten wealth and splendor. ….Every square metre of the city was scribbled with informal advertising.

Once upon a time, Lagos was a placid cluster of islands and creeks …By the fifteenth century, the area had become a busy slave port. Under British colonial rule it became Nigeria’s economic and political capital.  ….Nobody knows how many people live in Lagos; it could be 10 million, it could be 17 million ….Lagos is a city of the Yoruba, the dominant ethnic group of the south-west.

….I had noticed a contrast between the sluggishness and ineptitude of city workers and the work ethic of traditional village society. City workers operated with a lethargy I often mistook for attitude or laziness.

People were underpaid, I knew, but the extent of their arrears was a revelation…. This culture of late payments – rarely pursued through the slow legal system – bred financial mistrust too. Landlords often demand hefty two-year deposits when renting out property.

Journalism and its pitiful remuneration carries no prestige in Nigeria – telecoms and banking are where the money is.

….the Nigerian propensity for arguing is, in my opinion, one of the finest attributes of our nation.

Lagosians …..perhaps exercising their frustrations in an oppressive society – will participate in any argument on a bus. Rarely do you hear someone interrupting the proceedings with a withering plea to ‘stop arguing’. Everybody takes sides, backing their man or woman, as if they each had a personal stake in the affair. But Lagosian fury dissipates as quickly as it erupts, and beneath the uninhibited displays of anger were ready smiles and a fundamental decency.

Women sold oranges next to ditches filled with evil-looking sewage sludge so black and shiny it was almost beautiful.

Belief, especially self-belief, seems a vital ingredient in helping people get through life in Lagos. There’s no room for equivocation or weakness. People have to compete for what they want in an environment that punishes the unambitious, the sick and the incapacited.

One in five of the barefoot toddlers defecating on the roadsides wont live long enough to start primary school.

Politicians steal ….from Africa …a quarter of the continents GDP – mainly by controlling trade licenses and skimming funds from government contracts. ….every road, school, oil drum, hospital or vaccine shipment is milked for cash. It diminishes the quality and quantity of everything in the country, including our self-esteem.

Until 1960, Nigeria was ruled by the British. They introduced Western education to the south, and also developed it economically, exploiting in ports and oil, but they preserved the north’s pre-colonial emirate systems. The north was divided into several mini-states, each centred around a paramount ruler or emir. This structure made it easy for the British to exercise colonial rule without having to spend money on employing colonial administrators. They interfered little with the emirate system, its sharia law or its traditional Islamic education. Consequently, the north fell behind the south in terms of modern education and economic development.
Because they outnumbered the rest of the country according to the census, northerners were allocated more seats in the Federal Legislature after Nigeria gained independence in 1960. The three main parliamentary parties reflected the dominant ethnic make-up of the century: Muslim Hausas in the north, the Igbos in the south-east and the Yorubas in the south-west. …..By the time Nigeria became a republic in 1963, the tensions caused by ethnic and economic equalities were already surfacing. The less educated northerners feared being dominated in the new, westernized political system. ….during its forty-seven years of independence Nigeria has lurched from one kleptocracy to the next. …..most of these men pocketed billions of the country’s wealth, ruined the infrastructure, devalued the educational system and obliterated Nigerians trust in one another, cultivating a dog-eat-dog attitude in all corners of life. A lack of professionalism characterizes the top echelons of government, and extends down to the ordinary workers …….and nepotism is rife.

…….traffic lights – of which Lagos has only a handful ….

The locals regularly smash holes in the pipes to steal fuel that’s otherwise beyond their purchasing power. Nigeria loses millions of barrels of petroleum every year this way from pipelines around the country. The pipes bleed oil until the professionals can repair them. Carelessly lit cigarettes or paraffin lamps can start such fires.

He was one of the thousands of ethnic Lebanese merchants who came to Nigeria in the early twentieth century, a middle-class stratum that rarely dips its toes in the indigenous gene pool, preferring to marry within itself or fetch partners from the mother country. Their relative wealth and influence, nothing special in absolute terms, shines an embarrassing light on Nigeria’s anaemic economy.

….Ghana was the Gold Coast, further west was the Ivory Coast, while Nigeria was unequivocally titled the Slave Coast.
Slavery underpinned economic life in the Lagos region for centuries, its human cargo crossing Lagos’s harbor almost as frequently as today’s barrels of oil. Badagry, a former slave port forty-five minutes west of Lagos, was the focal point of this human flesh trade …..Between AD 800 and 1900, Muslim empires sought slaves from sub-Saharan Africa and sent them north, to the Middle East and to the Asian subcontinent. Slavery, although a somewhat inaccurate term, was also common among sub-Saharan Africans. Indentured labourers were put to work in the fields, and paid a tribute to their masters. But they usually weren’t the personal property of their masters, and could eventually purchase their freedom

If there’s a country more religious than Nigeria than I haven’t been there. ….years of economic struggle and political corruption seem to have focused Nigerians’ attention on God more strongly than before ….Religion anaesthetizes the pain of bad transport, low wages, stuffed ballot boxes and candlelit nights. ….
Half of Nigeria’s population – concentrated in the north – is Muslim, but among the other half, evangelical Christianity, especially the Pentecostal kind, is thriving. This charismatic, fundamentalist form of Christianity originated in the 1920s. Focusing on a direct relationship with God, its adherents affirm their faith through the baptism of the Holy Spirit and speaking in ‘tongues’, a strange babble understood only by God. Their interpretation of the Bible is a more literal one, with a strong emphasis on abstaining from alcohol, gambling, extramarital sex and other vices.
Charismatic Pentecostalism began to flourish in the 1980s as Nigeria tumbled into an economic abyss.

‘Ninety per cent of literate Nigerians have only ever read the Bible or the Koran,’ my brother told me. Only half of the country is even literate. Most of the books published each year by domestic publishers are religious in some way…..The demand for Christian reading simply obliterates all other genres. …..But for all Nigerian religion’s flaws, I couldn’t imagine Nigerians surviving without it. By following the path of Jesus, people told me, they were paving their way to an afterlife of everlasting peace and happiness. Knowledge of this helps them endure the constant anxiety over financial survival. It makes them very happy…. World Values Survey, …..showed that Nigerians are indeed the most satisfied, contented people on earth; they know that beyond the power cuts and food rationing, bountiful heaven awaits.
Faith in God imbues Nigerians with an optimism that I rarely see anywhere else in the world.

…all this Christian passion still competes with pre-Christian beliefs. Paganism takes time to capitulate completely to Christianity in any society – Americans were still burning ‘witches’ more than 1,000 years after Christianity came to Europe, and Nigerians are unlikely to shake off our paganism only 150 years after the missionaries arrived. While we replaced our benevolent gods with Jesus, we’re still convinced that the traditional, malevolent spirits are out to get us, a part of that universal human obsession with the ‘dark side’. And so Christianity in Nigeria partly supplements our traditional religions; Jesus is often incorporated not as a new belief system but as a potent new force to combat those ancient evil spirits.
Consequently, the lexicon of Nigerian Christianity is highly defensive and combative. Our pastors talk incessantly about ‘satanic agendas’ and ‘war against satanic manipulation’.

Nollywood is still mostly an amateur affair. It barely existed in my childhood. Nigerians watches American films, and they had a curious penchant for Indian Bollywood movies …Bollywood tapped into something they weren’t getting from Hollywood. ….Nollywood had grown into the third largest film industry in the world in terms of output, churning out three movies every day. ….the films are so popular they’re watches across English-speaking Africa. The once-thriving Ghanaian film industry withered in the shadows of Nollywood. Our films play on television screens in Southern Africa and the Caribbean, and Nigerian slang can be heard in the slums of other African cities.
Nollywood is popular despite its startingly shoddy production quality. Convulsive camera work and poor lighting are de rigueur. Tinny, electronic synthesizer music often drowns out the dialogue, recorded without a boom mike. The characters speak with a slightly alien, non-Nigerian vernacular ….The only exceptions to this rule are anger and disdain – Nollywood actors always convey those sentiments convincingly…..The poor standard of these films embarrasses many Nigerians …It is one of Nigeria’s few indigenous, non-oil industries, and it represents a certain independence of mind and spirit….Nigerians will watch Nollywood films, no matter how bad, because everyone likes to see their own culture played back to them.

The Yorubas, Ibadan’s dominant ethnic group, were among the first people to mix with European missionaries, and consequently became the most educated Nigerians.

‘Do Italians like Africans?’ I asked.
‘They hate Nigerians more than anyone else.’ That didn’t surprise me. Nigerians have a special talent for landing in people’s bad books all around the world. We’re louder, brasher, more noticeable than other Africans, who seem mild and timid in comparison. ….
‘Maybe’, I tentatively suggested, ‘the Italians don’t like us because we’ve got a reputation for doing illegal things – like forging immigration documents?’

During the annual week-long Osun Festival in August, Yoruba society throws off its Muslim and Christian top layers and congregates at the shrine to worship the goddess and ask for her blessings.

Abuja was a relatively new metropolis and the cleanest, most orderly one in Nigeria. ….late 1970s, the government anointed it as the new capital city, stripping this status from the incorrigible Yoruba-dominated Lagos, and moving it to a central region not overrun by any of our three biggest ethnic groups. ….local cars’ number plates carry the motto ‘Centre of Unity’,….the city seems to have united Nigerians in the view that it’s the dullest place on earth. … indecently exposed sewage drains …..Islamic, calm, rich, tidy ……populated by transitory government ministers and civil servants, who often prefer to keep their hearts and families in the bedlam of Lagos, where the real partying is done. ….The city is the gateway to the Islamic north of the country ….The Miss World beauty contest, hosted here in 1999, was abandoned after Islamic youths protested violently against the perceived debauchery of the pageant….

….convervative. Most Nigerian parents are. They don’t want you to go into music or sports or anything like that.

…the world’s least corrupt nations tend to have small, homogenous populations in which mutual trust is higher. But Nigeria’s 300-odd ethnic groups were prodded by the British into an arranged marriage to form a ‘unified’ nation state. Thrown into this bonfire were – among others – centralized feudalistic Muslim states, decentralized confederate-style Igbo kingdoms, and cattle-herding nomads, all of whom suddenly became ‘fellow-citizens’ in a political entity represented by an alien coat of arms.
In Europe, the nation state followed ethnic boundaries (established through centuries of war) more closely. But in Nigeria, this nation-state concept has flopped. We haven’t yet dismantled centuries of extended family and ethnic bonds that have served us well through famine and drought.

Nigeria’s cycle of corruption and eroded trust locks the country in a tailspin. Nigerians have become pessimistic about their chances of succeeding through normal channels….

…..the Islamic, northern half of the country….five old Muslim men …..They said I didn’t have to wear a djellaba, but if I respected myself and I wanted respect from others, then I should wear one.

I boarded a Peugoet …bound for Kano, five hours north of Abuja…..Hausa music that jangled from a cassette tape. …The music’s repetitive bassline and percussion were overlain with Hindi-style singing… men ..were all ebony-skinned Muslims, wearing djellabas and kufi hats, and speaking in rapid Hausa filled with Arabic-sounding glottal stops and rolled Rs. Our shared nationality seemed a rather abstract and unreal concept. …Kano is the oldest city in West Africa, a once-glorious ancient city at the crossroads of trans-Saharan trade, established as one of the seven walled city states of the Hausa people more than 1,000 years ago. It became strategically important in the trade route, and established connections with Mali and North Africa. People from these parts and Muslim Fulani herders from the Senegal valley, migrated to Kano, bringing artisanal skills and Islam, which arrived some time between the twelfth and fourteenth centuries. The Fulani integrated with the Hausa people as an educated elite. By the sixteenth century the city had become a centre of Islamic scholarship, and was ringed by a large wall. Kano’s traders travelled as far as the Mediterranean, modern-day Ghana and Gabon ….At the height of its powers in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the city state was sending 300-camel loads of cloth to Timbuktu. By the nineteenth century, Kano was receiving cloth from Manchester in England, silk and sugar from France, clothing from Tunisia and Egypt, and reading glasses from Venice. ….Kano enjoyed high levels of literacy and architectural sophistication…………
By the year 2000, the city was enforcing Islamic sharia law…… prescribing lashings and amputations for thieves and miscreants. Women were temporarily banned from riding okadas (too much spreading of legs) and ordered to sit at the back of buses instead.

Islam, established here long before Christianity arrived, was an older and more languid affair, free of evangelism’s teenage fervor. Christianity confronted you and pummelled, whereas Islam lay under your feet, underpinning every aspect of society in its quietly dictatorial way. Everyone appeared laid-back.

The toilet was thankfully clean (Nigerian hotels never failed in that area), ….

………mightly Lake Chad, on Nigeria’s north-eastern border …One off the world’s most voluminous bodies of freshwater is being sucked dry by irrigation, dwindling rainfall and desertification caused by the felling of trees. The lake, once an expanse of 26,000 square kilometres in the 1960s, now occupies a humbling 1,500 square kilometres.

The weddings, the humour, the music …..were what made Nigeria special….

South-eastern Nigeria is blessed with some of the most biodiverse land on the planet.

I didn’t know giraffes were even edible. There seems to be a place in Nigerian cooking pots for anything that moves.

In many parts of Nigeria, eating a meal without meat was a pointless, flavourless endeavor ….

The Europeans fomented war between African tribes in order to produce prisoners of war who could become slaves.

There were armed highway robberies and museum thefts, certainly, but pettier theft wasn’t as prevalent as I feared. On my travels, I’d had no qualms about leaving my bags unattended in a minibus on intercity journeys. I am my fellow passengers would disembark the vehicle, its windows left open and eat lunch. Nobody stole our things, not even the almajari street kids who swarm around vehicles in northern towns to beg for food and money.

….Lagos is in fact one of Nigeria’s greatest success stories. Its an achievement when 15 million people across 250 ethnic groups can live together relatively harmoniously in an unstructured, dirty metropolis seemingly governed by no one. Lagos is an anthropological case study in how humans interact with one another when confined in tight, ungoverned spaces.….

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

From ‘Blue Skies and Black Olives. A survivor's tale of housebuilding and peacock chasing in Greece’ by John Humphrys and Christopher Humphrys

“I’ll be there at seven tomorrow evening” really meant: ‘I might be there at seven tomorrow. Or eight. Or the day after tomorrow. Then again, I might simply not come at all.’ ….Greeks do not believe in punctuality ….Dinner parties are ridiculous. One reason Greeks don’t mind eating cold food is down to lateness.

….the Acropolis in a setting sun will melt the hardest heart….

….the problem is that every other Greek wants to live in the city and regards it as his inalienable right to ignore whatever planning regulations may or may not exist. So, since the 1950s, the city has spread like a fat man’s bottom on a small chair: ugly neighbourhoods of concrete apartment blocks crammed together with barely a patch of green between them. ….the result of this over-population was some of the most congested roads in Europe and the filthiest air. They call it nefos and on a bad day the air would be so thick with pollution it seemed as though you could take a knife and carve it into slices. Eventually they built a metro to persuade Greeks to leave their cars at home and it worked. The air got gradually cleaner.

…the curious thing about Greece. The country is broke. Its economic wellbeing depends to a very large extent on tourism. Without the cash foreign motorists bring, the government’s accounts would not balance.

….as Clausewitz once put it, no plan survives its first contact with the enemy.

….beware of what you wish for lest it come true….

….this is a country where the simplest bureaucratic task requires the patience of Job and a battalion of lawyers. The alternative is to approach the task with the bank balance of a ship owner and the morals of a Mafia don, in which case things can happen very quickly….

….Greek drivers are patient types who don’t like to drive fast or use their horns or anything….

After the Second World War half the population of Greece decided to move to Athens, and mostly they came from the villages.

It is not unusual for Greek men to show extremes of emotion, even to shed the occasional tear in public.

It seems that when the Greeks tell a man he has horns, it means he has been a fool in matters of the heart. The horns are thought to be deer antlers and the expression comes from the fact that your antlers (or foolishness) can be seen by everyone but yourself.

Botanists say there are no fewer than six thousand species of aromatic plants and wild flowers in Greece. That’s more than anywhere in Europe.

…..every country has its army of bureaucrats, but Greece is in a league off its own. That may be because working for the public sector is just about the only way to guarantee a secure income and a pension or it may be because the only way to defend yourself against the bureaucrats is to become one.

When Greece finally won independence in 1832 the Ottomans began to depart, leaving behind them an awful lot of land which they had seized ….over 400 years of their occupation. The new Greek state ….divided this land up among the Greek people. By 1870 most Greek peasants found themselves the owners of about twenty acres. ….not that the deeds contained precise boundary details ….apart from no detailed maps, there wasn’t even an official land register in the fledgling state of ‘modern’ Greece …..It wasn’t until 1923 that town planning was introduced, at about the time Greeks started moving to Athens from Asia Minor or Smyrna following the disastrous war against the Turks that lasted from 1919 to 1922 and the reprisals that followed it. Overnight the population of Athens nearly doubled to more than 700,000. ….There was another big influx after the Second World War when Greeks started to move to the capital from the islands and the countryside in search of what they thought would be a better life. Many of them had suffered horribly during the war – particularly those who lived in the mountains and continued the resistance. If the Germans didn’t get them, starvation often did. And then, as if they hadn’t suffered enough, the Greeks began fighting each other. The civil war was followed by the military dictatorship, which lasted until 1974.
….modern planning laws on a regional and national level did not really come into effect until the Greek Constitution of 1975 …. Greece still doesn’t have a comprehensive land registry. It also manages to be the only country in Europe apart from Albania that doesn’t even have a registry for its forests.
The European Union gave Greece a lot of money to help it finish the land registry and after patiently waiting the agreed amount of time, asked for it back when the land registry still hadn’t been finished. By which time the money had, of course, conveniently disappeared.

Athens is surrounded by thousands of illegal houses. They are all connected to the national grid. The police drop by once a month for a fakilaki, a little envelope, and everyone is happy ….In Nigeria, he [a seasoned old expat] said, things had been simple. You just bribed everybody, Everything had a set price. In Greece things are more tricky. In some situations a bribe is acceptable but in others it could land you in jail. Knowing the difference is the key.

To survive in Greece, you need your children to become a doctor, a lawyer and ideally someone in the civil service, or at least with plenty of contacts.

Greeks….have no fear of seeming nosy. There is none of the reserve you might find further north in Europe – especially when it comes to personal matters. Once they have established where you work and what you do, the next question may very well be about how much you earn and if its your house you’re talking about, they will want to know how much it cost. I have yet to be asked how often I make love to my partner, but no doubt its only a matter of time.

Peacocks ….can make the most appalling racket ….The writer William Sitwell says a screeching peacock can ‘chill the bones of the devil himself ….and course through the veins like a vicious poison.’ He likened it to ‘a eunuch being strangled on the main stage at Glastonbury, accompanied by a choir of a thousand shrieking car alarms.’

….most old Greeks tend to be a bit suspicious of foreigners like me …..

….the history of olives in Greece is measured in millennia, not centuries. They have been prized and guarded by Greeks since long before the Roman occupation a couple of thousand years ago, Greek history, both ancient and modern, IS the olive tree....It was the olive that gave the Greeks an essential part of their diet as well as lighting, heating, medicine, perfume and ultimately wealth. Sophocles called it ‘The tree that feeds the children.’ ….People often own trees on someone else’s property. You can even go to court to sue for your trees. ….there is an official table relating to the value of every tree according to its age, size and condition. …..a good tree will yield a hundred euros a year or more. Multiply that by a hundred trees (the size of a decent olive grove) and it’s a lot of money to people in rural Greece.

A marble floor in Britain is considered pretty fancy. In Greece it is often the cheapest option ….There’s so much marble in Greece that you can even find kerbstones cut from it. What is really sought after here is wood.

Its very rare to find a Greek driver who will ever admit to an accident being his fault.

….about the Greek language: when Greek men are talking together they almost always seem to be having a fierce argument. I wondered whether it stems from their desire to burnish the macho image they have of themselves – an image that is not borne out by the reality.  ….I discovered fairly quickly that Greek men are actually pretty soppy and liable to burst into tears for no apparent reason. They are far more liable than northern Europeans (especially the British) to pour their hearts out to you even when they are entirely sober and sometimes weep on your shoulder over some sad episode in their lives. It can sometimes be endearing for a buttoned-up Brit to be exposed to this sort of behavior, but mostly it is mildly embarrassing…..when there are a group of Greeks together. It’s a bit like listening to children in a school playground. …Its not just men either   . Christopher complains that when his wife and friends are together, at least three will be speaking at the same time and all of them at full blast.

Greek is a hard language …way harder than any average European language, and not far off the real monsters such as Mandarin and Finnish……a very demanding grammar that is on par with Latin, it lacks any useful roots you can latch on to. Learn a bit of Spanish, Italian and French and you can soon be making educated guesses as to what a word may be. Try that in Greek and unless the word is ‘computer’ you will always be wrong.

….in the years between 800 BC and 300 BC the average size of the Greek household increased five times. …is quite remarkable and historians are not absolutely sure why it happened. Most make the assumption that it was because the region had become so much wealthier…

…Greek boys simply didn’t want to leave home. They still don’t. Why should they? They’re spoiled rotten by their indulgent parents.

Greeks squeeze lemon juice onto everything.

The dowry tradition has died out long since in most of Europe, but its still going strong in Greece – along with God knows how many other traditions you might have expected to have vanished a century or two ago.

If you aren’t lucky enough to have a family property then life is very hard. Yes, rents are low when compared to Britain but the cost of living is as expensive as anywhere else in Europe. This is one reason why Greeks have had a negative birth rate for so long. People cant afford large families.
Greek society is deceptive. On the surface it may look as if it’s the man who is the boss and who heads the family. In reality the mother is all-important and ultimately holds the most power. The men are given long leads and allowed to think that they are in control

The children obey the mother, full stop. Even the most arrogant, obnoxious young Greek man becomes a little lamb when his mother snaps her fingers. The father knows that and will yield to her in much the same way if he wants to keep his family together ….

Why was Jesus Greek?
1. He lived at home till he was thirty
2. He did the same job as his father
3. He thought his mother was a virgin
4. His mother thought he was God.

….the relatively intact extended families with their respect for tradition make for a very pleasant society. ….I live in a central area of Athens that has seen better days, as the strip club at the end of the road and the brothels hidden down a side street will attest, and yet I have never experienced the kind of unpleasant moment while walking down a street lane at night that anybody living in a British city will be familiar with,

Greek superstition is alive and well.

The Evil eye gives a good insight into Greek society. First, it is as old as history. All the ancient Greek writers spoke of it. The blue eye that wards it off was painted on the sides of boats as old as the ancient triremes and can still be seen on the sides of fishing boats today. Many intelligent, educated, well-travelled Greeks have no problem with accommodating such an archaic belief in their modern lives. …Some people inherit the gift of ‘de-eying’ or removing the curse. This is normally passed down through the family from one sex to the other. …..The curse is mainly believed to be a result of envy or jealousy, which is why newborn babies are the most susceptible. So the babies are given a blue protecting eye to be pinned on their clothes or their pram. When admirers – stranger or friend – stop to pay compliments to the mother on her beautiful child they must spit three times. In the past few years (maybe as a concession to modern hygiene) it is deemed sufficient just to make the spitting sound three times ….

Greeks are naturally more tactile than us stiff Northern Europeans…

The British make small talk about the weather; the Greeks make small talk about food. And big talk too. …food is the default conversation in almost any situation …. After asking after my health and that of my children, the most common question from the in-laws is about food. Have I had lunch? What did I have? What am I planning on eating for supper? …… Hours can be spent discussing where to find the best ingredients…….a great mistake to take Greek food lightly. ….if you’re lucky enough to eat in a Greek home you will almost certainly eat very well indeed.

….the local priest. If you spot him sitting in a tavern, then it is a fairly safe bet that you have found the best tavern in town. Unless of course, it is the worst but happens to be owned by the priest’s brother, nephew or uncle.
In my own, rather more limited, experience it is wise to avoid tavernas with menus – especially if they have pictures on them and offer set meals. Any decent, traditional tavern will offer you food that is in season and fresh…..

Detailed maps of Greece simply do not exist. The army have them (or so they say) but it seems it just wouldn’t do to let them fall into the hands of civilians. What if a stray map of the Peloponnese were to be found by a Turk! ….Most archaeological sites in Greece get scarcely any visitors at all, which is unsurprising given how many of them there are and given that you probably wont even know they exist until you stumble on them …I remember going for a stroll …up a dirt road….a rusty old gate ….On the other side of the gate were ancient ruins which, in any other country in Europe, would be regarded as a national treasure ….

…I know every big city claims to have the worst drivers in the world …..but Athens really is nightmarish if you haven’t spent half your life getting used to Greek drivers. The accident figures are bad enough – three times as many deaths proportionately as there are in Britain ….complete lawlessness. Drive as fast as you like. Park anywhere. Use your horn constantly ….

From ‘Chasing a Croatian Girl. A survivor's tale’ by Cody Mcclain Brown

I was unaware that Croatians are very hospitable and out of politeness invite everyone everywhere, especially if they sense that you would like them to say you can come visit them.

In Croatia people give gifts to everyone for every possible reason, and more commonly for no reason at all…..most gifts are never ever even used

In the U.S. it is pretty easy to make friends. We move around so much that we develop the ability to enter into friendships effortlessly…I always had people, soon after moving anywhere, that I could call friends. We weren’t best friends, but we were friends. Usually, it just takes two or more people liking the same kind of stuff….. But then, over more time, you move away to another place…gradually drift away from your friend. Friendship in America is easy come, easy go.
Friendship in Croatia is not as fluid as in America, nor is it as fickle. Its thick. Its lasting. Its work. Its also the opposite to our atomized, individualistic lifestyle in the U.S. I feel like in America we run from being responsible to each other. We avoid any and all social burdens. We split the ticket. We keep everything in a balanced equilibrium. ….Being someone’s friend in Croatia basically means you can never, ever, say no to that person, regardless of what she asks of you……To penetrate into someone’s social circle is not easy, it takes time and several coffees before the bonds of obligation and reciprocity are strengthened enough that someone can or will call you a friend.

In Split [Croatia] ….nine people in a two-bedroom apartment? In the States there would be blood. But here, nope. No one seemed to ever be annoyed. No one fought. No one yelled. No one seemed to longly desire to put four walls and a door between herself and everyone elser. Beneath the surface there seemed to be an infinite well of patience, but it wasn’t because everyone loved each other so much they could never disagree or anything. ….The family just seemed to be more patient with each other. They were more prone to swallowing the annoyances and letting things slide.

In the U.S. we have an expression: Good fences make good neighbors.
And we live by it. Our houses have fences ….For those of us that live in apartments we purposely avoid each other, hurrying to open the door and get inside when we hear our neighbor coming down the hall. Anything to avoid getting stuck in an awkward, hi or hello. There is generally a mutual understanding that my business is none of your business and your business is none of my business. The ever-present nosy neighbor is a nearly extinct specimen, now only found in sitcoms and Hollywood films.
The Croatian version of this proverb is probably something like this: Thin walls, echoey corridors, and open windows, make …neighbors.
The idea of privacy from the neighbors is laughable. ….The shared awareness of each other among the neighbors fosters a stronger sense of community than what I had experienced in my adult life in the U.S. The bond between neighbors extends beyond the proximity of the apartment building and into all other parts of Croatia. The building or street that makes you neighbors is like its own country and the sons and daughters of neighbors, even if they now live in Zagreb, Italy, or Germany are your fellow citizens.

In Split, the neighbors and our doors were open almost at all times of the day. One Christmas Eve, just after I arrived from the States, Vana [wife] and I just came to Split from Zagreb at 11:30 p.m. and Vida [mother-in-law] mentioned that we should go see what the neighbors were up to and wish them…. In Oklahoma it would be very, very unusual to go over to the neighbors house on Christmas Eve at 11:30….with your daughter and son-in-law. Like almost-get-shot kind of unusual. Nevertheless, we walked across the hall and sure enough, the neighbors were up and they of course invited us in. Somehow or another we got into talking about Russia and America, and who has more soul. The Croatians said, clearly the Russians…

The neighbors also look out for each other. While Vana and I were living in Istanbul, Vida was very ill and lay bedridden….During that time, it was the neighbors who took care of her….the doctor upstairs came down with dinner and some company each evening.

…Paula [the neighbor] with all of her loving generosity and concern about everyone’s well-being is a string of curse words that precedes or follows anything she says. These phrases generally involve fornicating with your mother and would make any American grandmother’s hair stand on end….most memorably, when my daughter was born she proclaimed: You are the most beautiful girl in the world! Fuck your mother!
The relationship between neighbors is one of the most valuable things Croatia has going for it. Its crazy, annoying, but also comforting to know that everyone else knows what you are up to, what you need, and who you are. Being integrated into such a community is something uncommon for Americans. It’s something we talk about from the past. And sure, if it weren’t for all the cursing, drinking and dog singing, the neighborhood in Split would be like something from a 1950s television show, but with much, much more color. ….here people still rely on one another, whereas in the U.S., at least in the places I’ve lived as an adult, we are all trying to live on our own little island.

….once you have a baby in Croatia, everyone ….is full of not just advice, but downright demands, orders, commands, dictates. Grandmas, aunts, neighbors, cousins, total and complete strangers will tell you, with little embarrassment or apology, what you are doing wrong. ….The involvement of everyone in Sara’s [child] early months of existence is one my most valued memories about my early life in Croatia.

Since I was coming from Istanbul I was used to removing my shoes before entering the house…. I eventually figured that Croatia must be like Japan and people like to keep the house clean by removing their shoes. ….Prior to arriving in Split I had no idea that being barefoot can cause all kinds of illnesses. I was later to learn that walking around, sometimes even in socks, is a good way to get rheumatism, the flu, the common cold and bladder infections (or so I’m told. And frequently!). The first line of defense in the battle for healthy feet are the papuce or slippers. What made this even more confusing is the fact that what people were wearing as slippers were no really slippers at all. ….In Croatia, a “slipper” is…. more often … a sandal, a pair of flip-flops, any kind of open shoe, even a pair of Crocs (which is ironic because the only time a Croatian would wear Crocs is inside. Period.) ….What is even more confusing is how the one place Americans think we should never go barefoot is the one place Croatians insist we go barefoot: at the sea side……
Thy Grandchild’s feet shall never be bare!

Croatians are terrified of the breeze. More specifically, by any breeze indoors. Outside airflow is moderately safe. Indoor airflow is deadly. …Propuh ….is associated with all sorts of ailments……In order to preclude such maladies it is necessary to:
1. Immediately dry your hair after a shower. Never go outside or go to sleep with wet hair.
2. Never expose the back of your or your child’s neck to the wind during the fall, winter or spring. The back of your neck should always be covered with a hood or scarf.
3. Never go barefoot. Always wear socks and slippers (even during the summer on the coast)
4. Avoid having two or more windows open in the same room, especially if they are on different walls. The cross-breeze is one of the most nefarious forms of propuh.
5. Always cover your midriff and the vital organs contained therein, so that the breeze cant get to them.

….propuh is a force that guides and influences the entire way of life in Croatia…. Its why public transport is stifling. Open a window on a tram and you’d think you opened a window on an airplane flying 10,000 meters above the earth …..Propuh is why I am publicly reprimanded for being a bad father when our with my hatless daughter. …..this wind-phobia exists all through Southeastern Europe.

Croatians are generally a pretty stylish bunch…. What I dont get about Croatia is how the women often dresses like they fell out of the pages of a fashion magazine and the dudes dress like my uncle right after he’s mowed the lawn. And they’ll be TOGETHER.

The attachment people have for the place they are from in Croatia cannot be compared to anything I have felt in the U.S. ….I….have a friend …whose father traced his heritage back 400 years in Slavonia, but to him this explained why he often felt like an outsider because before those 400 years his family had lived in Herzegovina!

….if there is one thing Croatians love that comes close to coffee, its alcohol. This probably explains why Croatians, and well, everyone else all over Southeastern Europe makes booze out of everything….cherries, plums, grapes, walnuts, honey, quince (I don’t even know what that is), ROSES….and grass…. This shouldn’t leave the impression that Croatians are a bunch of drunkards….. I saw that drinking in Croatia is treated with a certain reverence and elegance that is usually lacking in the U.S. ….The respect for drinking is so strong and steeped in such ritualisms that a lot of alcohol is treated with the same care and reverence as if it had incredible medicinal properties, because well …. a lot of people believe it is medicine. ….. Going out and drinking in Croatia is treated with the same lackadaisical, easygoingness that characterizes much of the country. There is never a hurry. .. …The biggest difference between drinking in the U.S and in Croatia is that you can drink in cafes. While in America you usually have to go to the bar. ………I found that most American bars are depressing….dark and dingy….. Cafes, on the other hand, are clean and well-lighted…..Surrounding you is a diverse clientele that demands you behave. Your drinking has to be elegant. Since an older couple is talking over tea next to you……having coffee beside you, there is no place for the sloppy drunk …..

Croatians ….hate to end a good time. Even when this good time turns out to be a birthday party … for a two-year-old, attended by other two-year-olds. ….no one wants to be the “party breaker.” ….The first to leave is the party breaker. Its like the party is in some happy state of equilibrium, and the first to move will alter the stability, creating an exodus of partygoers streaming into the street. So you, and everyone else, are basically held captive by each other….. You just cant leave, even if you wanted to. If you leave, well buddy, YOU, and you alone, will be responsible for ending everyone’s good time ….. this is also ironic because the host might actually want you to leave, but there is no greater sin than for the host to be the party breaker.

…all the things I once associated with Croatia and the Balkans: violence, barbarism, brutality. I began to realize that actually life in Zagreb, and Croatia is generally much more peaceful, harmonious and safer than life in America. ….Why? ….With the country’s high unemployment rate and poverty we would expect everyone to be at each other’s throat, robbing, raping, pillaging and again because, you know, Balkans! …..Serbia has the second highest gun ownership per capita and doesn’t have the same problems as the U.S. ….I interviewed people all over Croatia….To all of the participants, the war seemed like an aberration….It happened….then the calm returned. ….Meanwhile, in the U.S. it appears to be the exact opposite. For whatever the causes, or origins, violence endures…..engrained into the very fabric of our daily lives….

Finding a full-time, steady, permanent job in Croatia is like winning the lottery. ……how do you get a job in Croatia? ….the most common way is through a connection of some sort…..when you look at anyone who has a job, you wonder whether or not they secured that job from merit and expertise, or by exploiting a connection. This breeds a social skepticism about anyone seen as successful…..I began to see the Croatia that most Croatians complained about. ….the Croatia that was suffering a brain drain, the Croatia that people associate with the Balkans: corrupt, nepotistic, and backward. …..In the U.S., rightly or wrongly, we still live under the impression that anyone who works hard enough will one day achieve success …In America wealth is not yet considered a mystery ….In Croatia, however, no such illusion exists….I couldn’t (and cannot) understand how someone in Croatia affords a BMW ….In Croatia…..They are symbols or someone who has defeated an impossible system, used the system, and dominated the system to their advantage …..

Croatian lines are ….symbols of the country’s discriminatory (and often dysfunctional) system. On either side of the glass partition it is US and THEM. Them who have the power, the information, access. ….but this is not how it is in the U.S. …..lines in the U.S. …are temporary affairs ….Service, anywhere, is quick.

…[in] the U.S. …She [the mother-in-law] looked to me and said, with a hint of strange sadness in her voice that no one was outside. It was true. Amid the manicured lawns and driveways there wasn’t a soul to be seen. It was another glimpse of how lonely and isolating America can be. By this time in Croatia, I would have met most of the neighbors. We hadn’t met a single one. I didn’t even know any of my mother’s neighbors names.

………….in Croatia when you go to someone’s house for lunch or dinner, you are always, ALWAYS, asked if you want more, and no matter what you say, no matter how much you refuse, say no, or no thanks, you will always get more ….on your plate.
In the U.S., the host will just ask once, and believe you when you say that you don’t want anymore.

It was near midnight and I left my wife and sleeping daughter outside of the bus station. This would never, ever, happen in the U.S., anywhere. Last time I was at the bus station in Tulsa, I was offered some crack cocaine and another guy was stabbed. But, in Zagreb, …or anywhere in Croatia, you can leave your wife and daughter unmolested at midnight outside of the bus station,

From ‘A time to keep Silence’ by Patrick Leigh Fermor

To every thing there is a season and a
time to every purpose under heaven …
… a time to keep silence and a time to speak.
                        Ecclesiastes: III, 1 & 7

…..the recollectedness and clarity of spirit that accompany the silent monastic life. For, in the seclusion of a cell – an existence whose quietness is only varied by the silent meals, the solemnity of ritual and long solitary walks in the woods – the troubled waters of the mind grow still and clear, and much that is hidden away and all that clouds it floats to the surface and can be skimmed away; and after a time one reaches a state of peace that is unthought of in the ordinary world.

….the ruined abbeys of England that have remained desolate since the Reformation will always be the most moving and tragic…. They emerge in the fields like the peaks of a vanished Atlantis drowned four centuries deep……It is as though some tremendous Gregorian chant has been interrupted hundreds of years ago to hang there petrified at its climax since.

A friend in Paris had told me that St Wandrille was one of the oldest and most beautiful Benedictine Abbeys in France….

The anthem was followed by a long stillness which seemed to be scooped out of the very heart of sound.

‘Certainly, travel is more than the seeing of sights; it is a change that goes on deep and permanent, in the ideas of living.’
-          Miriam Beard

From ‘Off the Rails. 10,000 km by bicycle across Russia, Siberia and Mongolia to China’ by Tim Cope & Chris Hatherly

Find out what you want, find something you really care about. When you know what you want the rest follows. But don’t just drift off into something because it offers security. Security is never worth a damn. We’re meant to live and to live means living dangerously, half on the edge of trouble, half on the edge of achievement.
                        Hammond Innes, The Strode Venturer

Russia and Siberia cover more than twice the mass of Australia.

It intrigued me that the forest the Russians called the taiga stretched almost unbroken from Scandinavia to the Pacific. When considered as one large tract of forest, it is the largest in the world, constituting 22 percent of the world’s forests and covering an aggregate area the size of Australia, it contains some of the greatest tracts of wilderness left on earth today.

I’d met an American man …. Tom Stone, a retired US soldier. He’d been on the road….around the world……His stories of Russia captured me …..
‘It’s a beautiful country, Chris, totally wild and free. The people are so down-to-earth and friendly…..’
He’d been telling me to remember the highlight of his journey: the BAM railway through Northern Siberia, one of the longest and most remote working railway lines in the world.

…..Russia…. It occurred to me that it was the women who were stronger, wiser and older. Many men seemed a little shriveled and devoid of life……

I have always been fascinated by faces and found the Russians to be especially expressive. When they are wrapped up in fur hats and coats all that remains is their large dark eyes and infectious smiles.

….the fabled Ural Mountains. This range, which is a mere wrinkle in the earth’s surface, forms the geographical divide between Europe and Asia……it represented the border separating western Russia from Siberia, which roughly includes all land east of the Urals as far as the Bering Strait, and as far south as the semi-steppe land on the borders of Kazakhstan, Mongolia and China.

….the Soviet Union’s terrible waste management record, heavy-metal pollution and chemically enhanced crops……

Approximately 40,000 Russians a year die off alcohol poisoning, not to mention the huge number of alcohol-related deaths. Outside of Africa, the male mortality rate in Russia in 1999 was worse than any country, except Haiti. This could be attributed mainly to alcohol and tobacco abuse, little exercise and a poor diet. The mortality rate has been increasing ever since 1965, but particularly since perestroika when the old Soviet systems and institutions were thrown into disarray.

….life expectancy for Russian males is just fifty-nine years. This is shorter than men in three quarters of the world’s countries, many of which are much poorer. In fact, against the trend of most countries, the life expectancy for men in Russia has been declining since 1965 when it peaked at sixty-seven.

I don’t have very many bad memories of Russia, but finding a place to eat would have to be one of them. On many occasions we’d traipse up and down streets for hours, searching for a reasonable feed. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union many of the cheap stolovayas had closed. During the devastating economic downturn most people discovered that it was hard enough to survive, let alone eat out. With the rise of a wealthy class, cheap venues were replaced with exclusive restaurants, beyond the reach of the average citizen.
The cheaper places were usually hidden behind faceless doors, tucked away in student dorms, or down sidestreets in the basement of apartment blocks. They were relics of an era when advertising and customer service were almost nonexistent.

…outdoor shop. It was typically Russian. There were genuine Gore-tex jackets going at ludicrously cheap prices, and Chinese junk selling for twice as much. There seemed to be no logic as to how each item was priced or, for that matter, how it all arrived here.

The Russian psyche seemed so open and flexible. Although they are renowned for being overly bureaucratic it seemed that when rules got in the way of commonsense, sanity often prevailed. It gave me such a sense of freedom: anything was possible in this place.
At the same time, everything baffled me. Weaving between traffic, clambering over concrete slabs and down dusty paths, were women in high heels. These devushki – girls – and szhenshini – women – were supreme masters of grace. They held the same elegance whether they were making their way across ice in winter or crossing a potholed street in summer. Most flaunted stylish dresses and were caked in make-up. They contrasted so starkly with their surroundings that they could have been tourists from a world of wealth, as my mother and sister pointed out…..
All day they had been raving about how well dressed the Russians were, but when they came out from the toilets they were horrified. ‘My God!’ my sister…shrieked. ‘Tim, there were no doors or walls, and the toilets were just holes in the floor, and there was poo everywhere!’ Meanwhile the steady flow of women exited the toilets as if they were stepping out of a condominium.
On the one hand appearance and cleanliness meant everything, yet on another it seemed that function was more important. Russians respect beauty, but they also accept that living in a shiny world means masking the truth of human imperfection.

Baikal is a word derived from the Buryatian word bai-kul. It means rich lake and is the world’s largest lake, containing about one fifth of the earth’s fresh water. It stretches 636 kilometres long and reaches 1624 metres at its deepest point. They say that some people get vertigo when swimming in its waters – it is possible to see forty metres down on a still day.

Russia was a blend of cultures ranging from Europe to central Asia and the Far East. This complexity always made it appear that the culture was plagued with contradictions. For example, Russians were caught up in systems and laws similar to that of the Europeans, yet turned to ‘destiny’ and ‘luck’ to show them the way; they could be intensely cold and yet be the most hospitable and open on earth; they were overtly materialistic and yet deep-spirited; they could be incredibly moral, hard working and disciplined and yet be openly lazy and apathetic; they were great ones for following pragmatic plans and yet thrived on spontaneity.
The country escaped definition – it wasn’t Europe, it wasn’t Asia, and it wasn’t even a northern or southern culture.

A Russian almost always first thinks with his heart, and then with his head. That would explain the lack of rationale at times……

….Ulaan Baatar [Mongolia]….In our first hour we saw more bikes than during our entire time in Russia….. we discovered that you could buy 100 puncture repair patches for fifty cents. In Russia we hadn’t been able to find one puncture repair kit in 5000 kilometres.

…the Mongolians were the first people we met who didn’t blink an eyelid at the fact that we rarely washed.

We were in the middle of the desert and it was the first tree we’d seen in 1000 kilometres.

[on crossing into China] Outside of Ulaan Baatar, we’d seen perhaps a few dozen bicycles at most in all of Mongolia, yet here we’d seen a hundred before turning the corner. ….. I glanced randomly into windows and doors and saw more things for sale than it would have been possible to buy in the whole of Russia. Shelves were overflowing with all sorts of tacky electronics. There were windows full of stationery, cookware and bedding…one shop that sold bikes and spare parts …Packed onto the shelves …..were all the things that we had simply not been able to find in the mega-cities of Siberia. … Physically, the whole of Chinese Inner Mongolia looked exactly the same as the flat, dry desert of Southern Mongolia. Culturally – although separated by only a 100 kilometres and a fence – the two places were worlds apart. In Mongolia white gers dotted the horizon and herds of camels and horses ran free. Here the nomads’ homes were replaced by orderly cottages, and the only animals we saw were shaggy goats and sheep, penned behind rows of fences. We had scarcely seen a fence in all of Mongolia, yet here they were everywhere. The wild young men on horseback were now wrinkled farmers, putting along the road on loud, smelly, three-wheeled mini-tractors; the challenge of the endless sandy tracks had disappeared. Many of the people in the two Mongolias were related yet there was no sense of Mongolia’s wild, untamed freedom here. Inner Mongolia felt lifeless and constrained.
The towns, on the other hand, were something different again. Their life and vibrancy was a start contrast to the countryside.

…China…In a country where most of the billion citizens travelled by bicycle, the sudden appearance of our recumbents [bicycles] had been causing even more of a stir then they had in Mongolia and Russia. They were more interested but, at the same time, the Chinese had a different reaction, too. While more people stopped to stare, they stared politely and didn’t try to touch. Mongolian kids, in particular, had been the worst. They had invariably dived for the gear levers – flick-flick-flick…. – and we’d suffered more than a few broken gear cables as a result. Here the crowd was standing at a respectable distance, pointing and chattering curiously…..