The luxury of height

28 04 2015

As an average sized guy I relish the opportunity to look over people. Feeling dwarfed pretty much whatever European country I travel to, including feeling like an ant in The Netherlands! Actually people are freakishly tall in Holland. Like they were fed a steady diet of Human Growth Hormone and stretched on a Medieval torture rack tall. My 5’8″/175cm is challenged by their insane height.

Yet when visiting the sprawling and deprived metropolis of Manila in the Philippines, height takes on a different meaning. Height abstracts you from the heat and dirt, unpleasant smells and removes you from those sights such as people sleeping under cardboard.

Height gives a feeling of luxury. Cast almost Godlike, these hotels of glass and steel tower above the middern. Five star luxury in a land of zero star poverty. Sipping my beer in the open air bar, listening to the cacophony of noise…it’s worlds apart,

My last visit to Manila gave me a clear view of the ‘Have’s’ and ‘Have Not’s’. Roughly one year later I would like to annouce that change is rapid and prevalent. Sadly that is not the case. Accosted by pimps and prostitutes, eyed up by thieves and with deperate looking children.begging for money – I dare not venture out of my luxury prison at night alone, although I would love to see the underbelly of this city.

Words jumped into my head during breakfast. A poetic moment of clarity.

Gazing out from the 21st floor, I thought :-  From great heights the poverty of mankind appears invisible

Never a truer word spoken.


Dystopian Distress

31 10 2014

Why are dystopian stories just so appealing to us? Why does the end of the world and society as we know it make for such appealing material?

From a tender age my reading thirst has been quenched by such classics as ‘1984’, ‘Fahrenheit 451’ and ‘Brave New World’. Marvelling in the post-apocalyptic depression and administered happiness that is painted by these stories, my world was shaped into one of suspicion and paranoia. For example what is the real motivation behind a government’s action? Take for example the recent Hungarian governments move to tax the Internet. A blatant attempt to supress the freedom of speech via a worldwide medium. It did not end well and hopefully will result in changes to the neo tyrannical leadership there.

Perhaps all of this is an effect of growing up in cold war Britian? Having leaflets pushed through the post box talking about ‘Protect and Survive‘ will affect an eight year old somewhat. Incidentally Protect and Survive was a UK civil defence leaflet that gave information on how to survive after a nuclear strike. Even now in the (recently) not so rosy post cold war glow. There is something very disturbing about an eight year old understanding how a house should be prepared and defended against an impending nuclear strike. Those memories tend to stick with you.

So back to my opening paragraph. Why is dystopia so appealing? Perhaps it’s reassurance that we have a good situation. I guess that depends upon your current location though. Perhaps dystopia reminds us about the fragility of society? Remember that we are ‘nine meals away from anarchy‘. That’s three days. Imagine you or your family not eating for three days? What would you do to secure food – beg, steal even kill?

Dystopia may be depressing but do we love it. Hell, watch ‘The Road’ but keeping any sharp objects away from your person. However I think that a dystopian awareness is extremely necessary in our society. When an author has envisioned (for example) monitoring of a populace gone too far by a right wing government…we need the memories of ‘1984’ to remind us of our freedom and rights.

“But you can’t make people listen. They have to come round in their own time, wondering what happened and why the world blew up around them. It can’t last.”
Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451

“Until they became conscious they will never rebel, and until after they have rebelled they cannot become conscious.”
George Orwell, 1984

The Have’s & Have Not’s – Changzhou, China

6 07 2014

The final and potentially most exhausting leg of our Asian odyssey takes place in Changzhou, close to Shanghai (relatively speaking). We landed in Shanghai Pudong International Airport. Greeted by the usual sour faced Immigration officials, I stood nervously in line awaiting my turn. There were two people either side of me who didn’t seem to have applied for an entry visa, thinking one was not needed. They were met with the appropriate level of officialness and disdain from the officials. As one of them was frogmarched off to a side office, I stepped towards my fate with a gulp and a lump in my stomach. Luckily my entry into the People’s Republic of China was much easier than my neighbours. Collecting our bags, we prepared to run the gauntlet of illegal taxi drivers before we found our driver.

The driver was obviously a ‘Crazy Taxi’ fan. Making his Passat drive at light speed in and out of trucks, in blinding rain I dared not look forward. Aggressively using the horn to declare his presence, signal his disdain or maybe just because he liked using it? When i dared to look forward, I really wished that I didn’t. What was really scary, our driver was driving the same as everyone else. Yet calm as a Hindu cow, I accepted my fate and fell asleep. 

Arriving into Changzhou, I was reminded of a featureless industrial estate. Large apartment blocks everywhere, wide roads with equally crazy drivers and very little else. Not to mention the monsoon type rain that battered down upon us. The hotel was grand and very 5 star. The draft of aircon and money greeting me, I was soon resting in my rather disappointing room.

Why do hotel owners put so much effort into the Reception/Lobby area of a hotel? Only to find that the rooms have been left identical for 100 years. Dusty and stinking of cigarette smoke, I tried to console myself with Facebook and catching up on work. I believe that the hotel’s Internet link consisted of a 56kb modem, because the speed was infuriating. That’s even before I mention the ‘Golden fireWall‘ of China. State control at it’s best, complete suppression of social media. Plus we had been told that the ship was two days late, not great news.

So the two days consisted of eating, drinking and sleeping within the same walls. Some interesting Chinglish descriptions though! Not stepping foot outside once, it began to feel like a luxury prison. Especially when the standard of spoken English amongst the staff was extremely poor at beat. There was literally nothing around us, except apartment blocks, an empty stadium and a dodgy looking KTV bar…no thanks.

Finally we were able to get out and work. The skies had cleared a little, but still overcast and grey. The light cast upon the land made it look flat and featureless. The equally crazy driver took us towards the ship, weaving around slow motorcycles and strange tractor trikes. There were some very luxury cars driving past (at speed). Many BMW’s, Mercedes, Jaguar’s and Porsche’s again.

The difference between those with and without money here was aeons apart. Those without  were selling watermelons, or a few dirty clothes on a rail at the roadside. Emancipated people working in rice paddies for a few Yuan each day, as luxury cars drove past them. Perhaps I have become sensitive to the gap between the have’s and have not’s following Manila, but the gap is incredibly huge. Plus it grows bigger each day. Even the industrial and financial powerhouse that China is, people are struggling to pay their way in this modern communist/communist world. What will their quality of life be in 10 years time, when China has moved on?

That to one side, the last evening on board we had an amazing Chinese ‘Hotpot’ meal with the crew. A large bowl consisting of thin soup, diners take turns to cook meat, seafood or vegetables and serve it to the group. Accompanied by an all too frequent frequent cry of ‘Gambei’, glasses were drained and refilled. It was a wonderfully social way to round off the trip and some very hard work.

Writing this at a dismal hotel in Shanghai Pudong Airport, with dirty walls and sticky carpets, not to mention a round bed (!) I am quite reflective upon the last 17 days. I have seen equal amounts of sheer luxury and desperate poverty. As I have said in previous blogs we are happy to moan about our lives, but live one day on the streets of Manila, the back streets of Hong Kong or the subsistence farming in China…then tell me your life is bad.

My thoughts now turn towards a 15 hour flight, and those that I love waiting for me.

I am a very lucky man.

The Have’s & Have Not’s – Hong Kong

6 07 2014

The second leg of our grand Asian tour was the mighty city of Hong Kong. A former British colony, fought over between the Brit’s and Chinese over tea and opiates. Now handed back to the Chinese mainland after 100 years of lease. An intensely populated group of islands with a very interesting history.

This was my first visit to Hong Kong, and a long awaited one. Surprising really as I have visited most of the surrounding area. Struck by the natural beauty of the place, lush green forest everywhere juxtaposed by skyscrapers and apartment blocks clinging to the hillside. As a Brit, it felt almost natural. Driving on the left side, British style number plates everywhere. Yet somewhat alien to me. The home comforts transported to a foreign faraway land.

Unable to withdraw any local currency from the ATM’s in the airport, I relied upon my friend to make our journey happen. The taxi driver gave the impression that we were inconveniencing him somewhat by our presence. Unable to understand very clear English, he made me enter the destination into my mobile. Extremely aware of roaming costs, I gingerly put the hotel’s address into the phone. Unable to understand he switched to Google Navigation. With a squeal of horror I snatched the phone away from him! Why he needed my mobile I have no idea. I counted no less than eight mobiles around the confines of his cab. Everything from old Nokia to Samsung 3G tablets surrounded him. He must have been cooking from the inside out based upon the radiation!

What I noticed first was the opulence of the city. Huge adverts adorned the side of buildings, showing Prada, Gucci and other such over priced names. Very large Mercedes (what is the plural of Mercedes), BMW and a regular Porsche appearance drove alongside us. This was a city of money and excess. The hotel was modern, swish and more importantly air conditioned as the temperature outside was approaching 35C!

As we had a half day vacation we headed over to Kowloon. Taking the old ferry across the bay, it was wonderful to look back at the soaring skyline of Hong Kong island. The ancient ferry began to dock and I remarked upon the condition of the mooring rope to my friends, as it was being wound around the capstan. An old hemp rope, it was knackered and ready to be retired. I joked that we should move back, in case the rope snaps – someone might lose their head. Yet again my Spider Sense proved correct, and with a huge CRACK the rope snapped. Luckily no-one was injured. The second we stepped off the ferry in Kowloon, every few meters someone of either Arabic or Indian descent asked if we wanted a fake Rolex. It was annoying at first and became tedious quickly.

We walked up towards Nathan Street and the infamous Temple Street market. Land of the fake and cheap. This really felt like China compared to Hong Kong island. There was very little opulence here, people searching through garbage bins for food. The overpowering smell of sweat and old food mingling with the hot air. This was a different country completely. Fake goods refused (ahem) we returned via the cool and efficient MRT to our hotel.

The next day was the big meeting. Standing in the office, looking out at (again) the soaring skyscrapers, I noticed a very different street. Almost forgotten amongst the modern, this was a 1950’s apartment block that had not seen paint in a century at least. Iron bars across the windows, grimy smears of dirt everywhere. The occasional individual looking disheveled coming out of the doors. This was Hong Kong island, not Kowloon. I was really struck yet again by the huge difference between those who have even a reasonable income in Hong Kong, and those who aren’t working or simply don’t earn enough. It was not a small gap between the two, it was a Grand Canyon sized gap. How do these two alien species get along together?

Hong Kong has a very uncertain future. The day that we left there was a huge democracy rally against the Chinese government. HK inhabitants have a fierce independence that they wish to protect. I only wonder about those unlucky enough to not live in a nice air conditioned apart, how does their future look?

The Have’s & Have Not’s – Manila

2 07 2014

Three meetings/tasks, three Asian countries. Sounds easy when you let it roll off your tongue doesn’t it? However, three very diverse Asian countries. Each in very differing states of development and economic make up. Each with a very different political system. Each with their own unique issues and humanitarian problems.

The first destination on the agenda was Manila, the city of many millions. Squeezed into some of the most densely populated areas of the world and bathed by almost equatorial sun. This city of 12 million rub shoulders against each other. Massive amounts of vehicles belching noxious fumes into the hot and fetid air, challenge each other for millimeters of space on the small roads. All driven with equal impunity and an average speed of 1km per hour, as the rules of the road only matter when a cop is present. Then there are the ‘Jeepney’s’ – the public transport backbone of the Philippines. These aged leviathans of a far gone age, grumble along the packed streets stopping indiscriminately to let passengers on and off. They resemble a prison van, except for a major difference. Each Jeepney is customized by the owner. Typically adorned with religious phrases, and normally chromed metal or rust/yellow they provide a colourful backdrop against the drab concrete.

The hotel ‘Diamond Manila’ overlooking Manila Bay was our refuge for the week. A delightfully opulent retreat, once the security guards have swept the underside of the car for bombs. Once you have got past the bomb sniffing dog. Once you have gone through the metal detector, it’s truly a delight. Amazing food and wonderful service made this a wonderful experience. Yet each time my eyes fall outside the window, past the jungle effect swimming pool and pool attendants a desperate scene awaits.

It was once a bulding. Overtaken by primary jungle, guarded by killer chickens was a ‘camp’. A group of people lived there, walking around in flip flops and dirty clothing. Thinner than concentration camp survivors they were cooking over a wood fire and sorting through rubbish. This was the 1850’s in the 2000’s. Viewed through my microscope it was an awful reminder of the massive poverty issue that was so evident here, even in my guilded cage. Yet it wasn’t just in my goldfish bowl view, it was everywhere you looked. Everywhere you walked or drove extremely thin and malnourished people were sleeping over cardboard on the street. I recall one guy leading a child across the busy street. Sunken eyes looked at me in the taxi. I recognized the look emanating from him – the look of death. Even my colleague remarked upon this poor guy, he didn’t have long before he shuffled off this mortal coil.

Another thing I noticed was the weapons everywhere. Surly looking guards with pistols on their hips in shopping centres. Equally surly looking guards outside banks holding pump action shotguns. More scary than the guns were the guards. I have done some shooting and I really doubt that these guys would know how to shoot, assuming that the guns are loaded. If they start shooting, I run towards the bad guys. It’s probably safer compared to taking shelter near the Filipino Storm Troopers!

Manila was a strange place indeed. I had been warned about the crime, poverty and risk of kidnapping. However the reality was this is a megapolis with real issues. Filled with hard working people who try their best to improve their situation. Yet they do it with a smile and make it work. I had to admire their spirit, working in a  crowded and dirty environment.

I felt like an white alien in this offworld landscape. Even though I had some great times with colleagues there, it’s not a place I will be rushing back to see.

A case of mistaken identity – Part Two – Novi Sad Nightlife

25 12 2013

Novi Sad, Serbia. In English it seems like a pretty strange name for a town. Almost like a tropical medical condition. I can imagine a Doctor coming into the surgery, eyebrows furrowed deep whilst studying the clipboard in front of him. ‘Mr Jones brace yourself, we have the test results back. I can confirm that you have Novi Sad. It’s a terminal condition. I’m sorry!‘.

After somewhat of a strange diversion in my mind, Marko took us from Belgrade to Novi Sad. The road in darkness, cars and trucks zipping past at speed. Part of the route took us through the mountainous ‘Fruska Gora National Park‘. In darkness it caused my spidey senses to become more than alive. Hairpin bends greeted us, whilst we jostled for position with cars and trucks. However Marko deftly weaved us safely through the traffic. We drove through the Serbian wine country, which frankly I was surprised to find out existed. There were some very impressive wineries that we passed, but alas they were closed.

Arriving into the families apartment in Petrovaradin, Marko’s wife Marija greeted me. Rakija was placed on the table (family recipe) along with some excellent food. Maria had made some cheese and mushroom savory pastries. The mushroom ones in particular were fantastic. I was genuinely made to feel part of the family. After talking for about an hour, Mirjana said…’Now we go party‘!

So each nations version of partying is slightly different. Actually that might be a bit of an understatement, completely different. Actually, I would like you to comment underneath this blog on what a typical party in your country entails?

Marko & Mirjana described the destination as a traditional bar/cafe called ‘Biblioteka‘. I sauntered alongside my host family, arriving at a huge anonymous looking wooden door with two bouncers outside. There is no way that I would have expected what was inside. Imagine the contents of several double decker buses had arrived into this small place at once. Literally squeezing my way though the crowd, we made our way to the bar. I have never experienced a wall of people like this before, and it was a little intimidating to say the least. Music was being played at maximum volume, with a definite Slavic feel to the lyrics.

Reaching the bar, drinks were ordered. We met up with a couple of Marko’s ex naval colleagues. Chinking glasses together, we proudly said ‘Živeli’ to each other, looking into the eyes. If you don’t look at each other in the eyes whilst proclaiming this, you will never have sex again. That seems like a fate worse then death!

The bar was thick with smoke which is something that I am not used to. It’s intensity was cloying and suffocating. Girls were dancing and men were drinking, all with approximately 2mm of personal space. However I did not detect any anger between the patrons at all. They seemed to be having a great time. It became apparent that I appeared to be one of the smallest people in the bar! I am 1.75m tall, however I was tiny compared to the Slavic giants surrounding me (male & female).

Conversation was pretty much impossible, especially when it turned out that the voice singing was a middle aged lady winging her way through the crowd. Mirjana explained to me that the songs were traditional Serbian songs, albeit with a faster dance beat over the top.  The beats were infectious, combined with the alluring and foreign lyrics that invaded my ears. Again another moment when I felt very far away from Liverpool. It was also strangely affecting my feet too. Rather than looking like a dancing diva, I looked like an epileptic suffering an attack of Grand Mal!

The collective ‘we’ were listening to lyrics that were from traditional songs. Traditional lyrics in a nightclub, rammed with people all probably younger than 40. Each one of them singing their heart out and dancing. With no personal space whatsoever and strong booze being consumed in vast quantities. Regular readers of my blog will know that I always pay attention to national pride. In Serbia it was fierce, and this bar was living proof of that. It was fantastic to observe too. Young and old, united in the traditional songs of their heritage and goddam enjoying them too.

Jeven and Rakija was beginning to affect my head plus my ability to stand. Therefore we beat a hasty retreat back to the apartment in Petrovaradin. Resting my spinning head on the sofa bed, I came to a single conclusion…

Serbian’s really know how to party.

A case of mistaken identity – Part One – Belgrade

20 12 2013

Tell someone that you are visiting Eastern Europe as a tourist. Instantly they will think of Budapest, Prague or Krakow. Fantastic architecture, culture and cheap beer springs to their mind. However take their mind in a more southeasterly direction towards the Balkans and the perception changes. Mention that you are going to Serbia, their expression will change and you are rewarded with ‘Why the hell are you going there‘!

To most westerners Serbia is still a dangerous country. Images of terrible atrocities committed during the Balkans conflict are still fresh in peoples minds. More recently the impression has changed to hardened criminal gangs who will steal your kidneys, then murder you until you are dead. The media certainly hasn’t helped with this perception, only solidifying the preconceptions deeper.

So as mentioned previously, telling my family that I was going to spend five days in Serbia visiting friends was not received well. I was not particularly worried about the journey, but I did check that my travel insurance covered me.

The plan was simple. Fly into Belgrade and meet my friends, then stay in Novi Sad. That was the sum and total of the itinerary. Although I did have one request to my friends ‘show me Serbian life‘. It sounds easier than it actually is.

Belgrade was a typically busy city, but with very nice architecture. I did feel very far away from my roots in Liverpool though. This feeling was exacerbated by the Cyrillic text everywhere. They pointed out a couple of former government buildings that had been bombed by NATO. It is insane to see the extent of the damage caused by the bombs. You could see that the bomb had dropped into the centre of the building, carving through the concrete spine and blowing out every window. However these were the only signs of any conflict.

We visited the Saborna Crkva Sv Arhangela (Holy Archangel Michael Church), with huge fresco’s adorning the walls. This was my first visit to an Orthodox church. Then to a really small but interesting cafe called Kafana Pavle Korcagin celebrating the former Yugoslavian dictator/leader (delete as appropriate) Tito and communist life. Lots of original propaganda posters and artifacts from the communist era adorned the walls whilst people of all ages drunk rakija and beer chatting away. This was a very impressive place, like taking a beer inside a museum. Maybe the best cafe that I have ever visited the world over? My hosts (Marko & Mirjana) and their friends were informative and keen to tell me about how Tito was revered by the people of Yugoslavia. Again a completely different picture was painted by western media of Tito. It made me wonder who was actually correct. Western media with a hidden agenda, or the people living under his leadership?

Onwards to walk around Belgrade’s expensive shopping areas, which felt rather sterile given the vibrant atmosphere on a Saturday evening. Serbian’s certainly know how to party! We visited Belgrade’s oldest cafe, literally called ‘?’. Cafe ? made a very bohemian impression on me. I imagined long discussions between men with beards and small glasses on how Slavic artistic style was influenced by rakija!

The hour was getting late, and Marko still had to drive to Novi Sad from Belgrade. So bidding farewell to Belgrade, it’s amazing cultural secrets and it’s incredibly cold winds…we drove into the night.

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